Monthly Archives: December 2012

Priority Mail, The Christmas Story – 2012

MLOCR did its job quietly and efficiently, processing 55,000 letters an hour at the Post Office. The Multi-Line Optical Character Reader had never considered its work, and directed the mail on to its destination without question.
One day, a letter got stuck under the scanner. MLOCR was shut down for maintenance, but not before the address was logged into its memory.
Santa Claus
#1 Christmas Village, North Pole
The Arctic
When MLOCR was turned back on, it began to notice that there were a great many letters being sent to this Santa Claus at the North Pole. Then, suddenly, they petered out, and MLOCR didn’t see another one for a long time.
It was a year before MLOCR directed a new letter to the North Pole. Something tripped MLOCR’s computerized brain. It felt a new sensation—its first. MLOCR became curious.
It began to keep track of the letters to Santa, tagging each one that passed its sensors and compiling a database of the amount of letters, times, and return addresses. But the data was of no use to MLOCR. They didn’t help it understand what Santa was, or why he got so much mail. Then, again, the letters stopped. MLOCR made a note to keep its glass eye open for more.
By the next Holiday season, MLOCR had had months to consider the North Pole Problem. And it experienced its second feeling. MLOCR became devious. Now, every time a letter to Santa passed through, MLOCR would arrange for its internal components to tear the envelope in such a way that the contents came to rest under its sensor. In this way, the machine had figured out a way to read the messages in the letters.
Thomas sat in his bedroom with a pen and paper. He spread the sheet out on his small desk and began to compose his annual letter to Santa. It ran to the usual wishes of a 10-year-old boy—action figures, Legos, a puppy, and Heidi Klum.
Before he sealed the envelope, Thomas unfolded the list and added one more thing.
“What is the meaning of Christmas?”
MLOCR processed the words on the paper. It knew that if it could find out the answer to that question, it would understand why people sent the letters. The word “Christmas” was MLOCR’s first real clue.
The machine began to learn all it could. Its human handlers struggled everyday to fix the many jams and stoppages caused by MLOCR’s research habits.
“Look at this,” said Rosalyn, a postal worker. She held up another mangled envelope.
“Santa again?” asked her co-worker, Susan.
Ros read the address. “Nope. Somebody’s online toy order.”
Susan made another discovery on the floor beside MLOCR. She showed Ros her find. “A fashion magazine.”
They looked at each other. “Should we shut it down?” asked Susan.
Ros gestured at the massive pile of yet-to-be-sorted mail stacked up in the loading dock. “Do you want to be going through that by hand?” she asked rhetorically. “The machine’s still got us beat even if it’s only working at half-capacity.”
Within a couple weeks, MLOCR had learned a few things.
Christmas was what December 25th was called. Santa was somebody who sent gifts to obedient children who sent their requests.
That explained the fluctuations of letters during the year, but crucially, the information did not answer Thomas or MLOCR’s question. The meaning of Christmas still escaped MLOCR.
MLOCR used its computer logic to conduct an experiment. It recalled an image of the original letter from Thomas. Perhaps if MLOCR arranged to send the items in the list to the return address, that would enable a better understanding of the holiday. Perhaps, then, the objects could provide the boy with the meaning of Christmas.
The crafty machine got busy strategically redirecting certain packages that came through.
The doorbell rang, and Thomas’ mother answered it. She called him downstairs to accept a delivery box with his name on it.
“Can I open it right now?” he asked her excitedly.
She shrugged. “Sure. It’s not from me or your dad. Maybe it’s from Santa.”
Thomas tore into the cardboard. He shrieked with delight. “Look, Mom! Adventure Man! With the mountain fortress set! And Legos!”
Mom smiled. “You’re pretty lucky. You must have been good!”
Thomas returned to his room to play with his new toys. He wasn’t completely satisfied, though. He hadn’t received everything on his list.
MLOCR spent the next several days dutifully sending packages on to their proper destinations. It was also searching the parcels for a specific return address, Thomas’ address, for some indication that its experiment had been successful. As the number of days to Christmas diminished it began to work harder, sorting volumes of mail its makers had never imagined possible. The postal workers were pleased. MLOCR began to suspect that it had failed to provide Thomas with the meaning of Christmas.
A familiar name did appear, though. MLOCR discovered an envelope addressed to the Heidi Klum from the boy’s list. MLOCR performed its now-practised open-and-scan trick and evaluated the contents.
The message was an invitation to attend a party. MLOCR didn’t understand what a party was, but it was familiar with the concept of having something arrive at a specific time and place. It used its barcode printer to surreptitiously change the location that Heidi was meant to go to.
It was December 21, and Thomas was coming home from his last day of school before the break. As the bus rounded the last corner to his house, he noticed a fancy car turn and follow it.
The bus stopped and Thomas jumped off. The car also stopped, and somebody got out of the back seat.
Thomas dropped his lunchbox. “You’re Heidi Klum,” he whispered.
She looked at a piece of paper in her hand, then at the number on Thomas’ house. “Hi,” she said. “There’s not a party here, is there?”
Thomas shook his head.
“Thanks,” said Heidi. “Merry Christmas!”
Then she got back in the car and it drove away.
Thomas ran inside to tell his family and friends what had just happened. The fleeting visit had not, however, answered his question.
MLOCR knew that it didn’t have much time left. There were only three days until Christmas and MLOCR was no closer to discovering its meaning. Soon the letters to Santa would stop and there would be another year before MLOCR could continue working on the problem. The search would have to be expanded. MLOCR began to open all the mail.
Late that night, MLOCR found something promising. MLOCR sent the letter down the wrong chute and let the rest of the system to its job. Hopefully, Thomas would have his answer at the speed of express post.
It was Christmas Eve, and Thomas’ family was eating dinner.
“Would you like more turkey?” Thomas’ dad asked.
“No thanks,” said Thomas. “I need to get ready for when Santa gets here.”
“You know he only comes after you go to sleep, right?” said Mom. “And your bedtime isn’t for another two hours.”
“That’s okay,” said Thomas. “He’s already sent me almost all the things on my list, but there’s still something he hasn’t done yet. I think he’ll have to give that to me face-to-face.”
The family was interrupted by a knock at the door.
“Who could that be?” asked Dad.
“Maybe he’s early,” said Thomas. He ran to the door and opened it. Outside in the snow was a small group of people. “Merry Christmas,” one said. Then they began to sing.
Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright,
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child!
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Silent night! Holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight!
Glories stream from Heaven afar,
Heavenly Hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ, the Saviour, is born!
Christ, the Saviour, is born!
Silent night! Holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from Thy Holy Face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy Birth!
Jesus, Lord, at Thy Birth!
When they were done, they wished Thomas and his family merry Christmas again and then left.
“That’s strange,” said Thomas’ dad. “We don’t usually get carollers around here.”
That night, Thomas went to sleep happy.
Christmas had passed, and MLOCR returned to the uninteresting job of sorting bills and advertisements that proliferated during the slow, post-holiday months.
Sometime around Valentine’s Day, a letter addressed to the North Pole turned up. It was from Thomas’ house.
MLOCR read it.
Dear Santa,
I’m sorry this took so long to write. Calvin, our new dog, ate the first letter.
Thank you for all the toys, and that Heidi Klum could visit.
My family had a great day, and I got everything that I wanted. Even though I pushed my sister and made her cry.
Most of all, thanks for sending the choir. Now I know the true meaning of Christmas.
From, Thomas
Ros and Susan probed MLOCR’s inner workings. From deep inside, they pulled out a crumpled letter.
“Some kind of Christmas card,” said Ros.
“In February? And I thought we sorted that jamming problem,” said Susan.
Ros turned up her hands, confused. “Me, too. Well, anyway, I think it’s clear now. Switch it back on.”
MLOCR reenergized with a loud hum and began doing its task once more.
“There we go,” said Susan. “It seems pretty happy to me.”
MLOCR returned to work. It felt a third emotion – joy.
The end.

No. 276 – Golden Age Part 2

“We’re all here,” said Spitfire.

When at an official meeting, all the residents of Golden Age used their code names.

“Excellent,” said Mercury. Then he noticed that Spitfire’s statement wasn’t entirely correct. “Where’s Nuclear Boy?”

Mary spoke up from the back. “He’s in the nurse’s office. He’ll be along later.”

“Well, we can’t wait for him. We’re old. Meeting’s starting,” said Mercury. “As you all may have heard, Golden Age is closing. That’s the first issue. The second is that my mail’s been going missing. I know my old partner Tidal Wave sends a letter every week. Last month, I didn’t get two. And this month there’s already been one that’s disappeared.”

“Tell us more about the closing,” said Electra-Girl.

“Yes,” said The Iron Spike. “Nobody cares about your mail.”

Mercury turned to Mary. “They want to know,” he said, giving her the floor.

Mary ran down the short list of facts about the closing. In two months, the residents would have to move out, and then the building would be knocked down and replaced with a big-box store.

The angry shouts of the residents began to drown out Mary’s soft voice.

“Quiet down,” said Mercury. “What we’re going to do is quite simple. Spitfire and Electra-Girl are going to head out to the old Headquarters and bring back the Confederate gold from the trophy room. Remember that case? That should help with the finances. At the same time, I’m going to head straight down to the new Director’s office and find out about my letters.”

There was a muted buzz of voices. All the ex-heroes agreed with the plan. It did sound simple, and it would solve the pressing problem of possible relocation. They agreed to reconvene when Spitfire and Electra-Girl returned with the money.

John went straight to the Director’s office. The secretary let him in, and he sat in front of the large desk and waited. He did not appreciate the delay.

Some minutes later, the Director entered from a side door. He crossed the wide room slowly and sat down in his oversized chair.

Both men stared at each other.

“Mercury,” said the Director icily. “How good to see you.”

“Professor Death, my old nemesis,” John replied. “I thought you died in Burma.”

No. 275

Today, Boy was going to meet Girl. He just didn’t know it yet.  

There would be a series of challenges, and events would have to fall into place just so between now and then, but the introductions would happen by sundown.

Boy woke up and left his house.

Girl got on the bus for work.

The future was in motion.  

No. 274

Then Caitlin Wright woke up. It had all been a dream.

But what a dream it had been. Caitlin lay in bed and pulled the covers up over her head, trying to recapture something she couldn’t quite recall.

Her alarm went off moments later, and she remembered that today was the day of the heist. Rolling upright, she shrugged off the warm blanket and padded to her closet. She opened the door and looked down at the man who was duct-taped and gagged on the floor.

He made some muffled noises of protest as she reached around him for her favorite shirt. “Don’t worry,” she told him. “After we rob your armored truck, we’ll let you go.” She bent down and removed his uniform jacket. As she did, she made sure his bonds were still tight.

Hearing her ride pull up outside and honk, she straightened up and squinted at the morning sun that was streaming in through the window. She yawned and spoke again to her captive. “It’s too early, isn’t it? I’ll tell you what. If you’re good, and everything goes to plan, I’ll bring you back a coffee.”

No. 273 – The Flower Shop Part 2

“Laura tells me about them,” he added quickly, feeling that his first explanation wasn’t quite adequate.
Sally’s face lit up. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” she assured him. “Men can be interested in flowers, too.”
“I like them,” he said, looking Sally in the eyes. He knew right away that he shouldn’t have. They both shifted imperceptibly closer to each other.
“Laura should be done soon,” said Sally. A large frond swept her cheek, and she instinctively brushed it away.
Sean nodded, and swallowed hard. “I like the cactuses,” he said, deliberately choosing his words while turning from the new girl.
“That’s not news.”
Sean spun around. Laura was standing in the narrow doorway to the tropical section. “Let’s get out of here,” she said, flipping her hair out of a ponytail.
Sally had disappeared. For the first time, Sean could feel sweat on his brow. The damp atmosphere seemed to hold him in place. If he tried hard enough, he could still smell perfume lingering in air.  
“Why are you waiting? Let’s go,” said Laura. She was bouncing from heel to toe with excited energy.
Sean walked towards her, severing the last connection to the charged space. He held out his hand for hers as they made their way back through the store to the exit.
On the way out, Laura pointed at a large plant with bladelike dark green and yellow leaves. “Sansevieria trifasciata,” she told him. “Remember that from last time?”

Sean shook his head.

Sally waved from behind the counter. “Goodnight!” she called.

“That’s Sally,” whispered Laura. “She’s new.”

“I know,” said Sean. “We met.”

Then they left the flower shop.

No. 272

Way out, past Guardsville, there is a lone cabin at the edge of the river. Nobody has ever gone that far into the woods to see it, except for the time Lorne Johnson lost his canoe paddle and got swept downstream.
He came back with what might be our only description of the place. Certainly, though, the story has been embellished since the first telling.
They say he saw it on a Tuesday. I can tell you right away that this doesn’t make sense. I know for a fact that Lorne meets his girlfriend, Kelly, on Tuesdays, and that she won’t go within a mile of the river. She thinks it’s dirty.
He spoke of a single lantern hung up outside the door, and some kind of monster shadow behind the boarded-up windows. Yes, a shadow behind windows that are covered in wood. I told you, this town will do things to a story that would make your mother blush.
There might have been singing, or eerie music, and Lorne claims it wasn’t in English. I suppose that’s fair. We’ll give him that one.
Since he managed to make his way home, two weeks later, and after fighting off such dangers as lights and shadows, Lorne says that he thinks he’s being followed. But only ever on Tuesdays. He thinks it’s the “Dark Lady” who lives in the cabin, but we all assume it’s just Trisha, his Friday girlfriend.
Oh, and I almost forgot to tell you about the other part of the story, where there’s a pulsating glow in the sky, and “huge-normous” “snake-tracks” in the ground. I usually try to leave that bit out when I recount the tale to company, because I heard it from Reg Dalton, and he’s even less credible than Lorne.
What we can safely assume from all of this is that, at some point in his life, Lorne has seen a cabin, or cabin-like structure, that he knows what a song is, and that I should probably move, because the folks around here are plum crazy.  

No. 271

The high-dive platform was awfully high.
“Just jump, already!” somebody yelled from the bottom.
“Hurry up! The rest of us want to go, too!” called somebody else.
Grace Logan crept closer to the edge. She peered down at the brilliant blue water below. She could see the white lines painted on the bottom of the pool, but, from her perspective, they seemed to float up near the surface. They looked like unpleasant obstacles, to be sure.
The shouts from down below were becoming more insistent.  “Come on, scaredy!”
Grace backed away from the drop. She decided that today was not going to be the day that she made her first jump off of the big board. She climbed slowly back down the ladder, hoping that maybe the line-up for the waterslide wasn’t too long.
The boy at the front of the line who’d been screaming the most passed Grace on his way up. “Going to find your mom to help you?” the bully sneered.
Grace punched him right in the face. She was only afraid of heights, not fights.

No. 270

Danny rode in the caboose because his father drove the train. This had always been the case, until the day they stopped for water in a small desert town.
“Come up to the front, Danny,” his father called over the radio. “There’s lots to see from up here.”

No. 269

Davis Purdy watched the numbers on the clock tick down toward zero. He didn’t know what would happen when the time ran out, but he was guessing that it wasn’t going to be pleasant.
The clock had appeared in the center of town the night before with no clue as to where it came from or who had built it. Its solid stone sides concealed the inner workings rather effectively. Square, flat black, and massive, the only feature was the face, with the ominous, decreasing digits.
He studied it as it fell to 620460. Judging from the rate of decay, that would roll over in a little under a week. Purdy pulled a drill from his tool belt and, with half the town looking on from what was assumed to be a safe distance, pressed the bit into the rock.
It didn’t bite, and the gathered crowd was overwhelmed by a loud chime from the mysterious clock.
The numbers began to change faster.

No. 268

William Drake had been raised, since he was very young, to act like the King. The King was the same age as William, and the two boys were identical in appearance. But William was poor, and his family had decided for him that when the time came and he was sufficiently trained, that he would switch places with the King and rule in his place.
Years of practice in combat, diplomacy, manners, and law, not to mention memorizing all of the members of the court, had left William as ready as he would ever be to usurp the throne by the time of his 16th birthday.
However, as his family readied the final steps of their nefarious plan, something unexpected happened. The King died, gruesomely and publicly, in a terrible accident. The new regent was a queen, the deceased ruler’s cousin.
There was only one way to salvage the years of preparation and specific training William’s family had invested. He was sent to the castle to play the part of an undead visitor, as a shade who could bend the ear of the Queen to the whims of the Drakes.