Inspired by the Music of Paul Simon
A collection of Science Fiction short stories and novelettes inspired by the music of Paul Simon, specifically from the Graceland album, influential in the author’s formative years.
Looked at from the right direction, these may even all take place in the same universe.
We all have that one album (or two or three or more), discovered in our teenage years that seems to stay with us for life. Graceland is one of a tiny handful for me, a single (“Call Me Al”) heard on the radio leading to an album purchase leading to music that I can still pop in and listen to the whole album 30+ years later.
I’m a Science Fiction (and Fantasy) writer, so when one day, listening to the album, I had an idea for a story that pulled a few phrases from “The Boy in the Bubble”, I scribbled the notes and started drafting. Not the first time I’d been inspired to write by listening to music. But then it happened again six months later with “Graceland” and near the end of the same year with “I Know What I Know”. At that point, I figured I had a trend, and over the next year found something I could call Science Fiction in the basic substance of every song.READ MORE
The idea of putting them together into a collection came later, but not too much later.
I don’t know how many people out there share my love of this album, but I hope you can hear the song in the background as you read each story. I’ve put those stories in the original track order to help with that if you need it, but I’m definitely too close to things to experience them any other way.
To Mr. Simon himself, there’s no way I can ever express how much the album means to me, but maybe this collection can scratch the surface. It would thrill me to learn you’re a Science Fiction fan, but it’s more important to me that I have this small way to say thank you.
Miracles and Wonder
Spurts of dry wind pushed sand through the air in fits and starts. The brilliant blue sky, cloudless and empty of everything but the sun, made a great pale dome over the handful of huts still standing in the village. Only a few years ago, a dozen families shared the space, farming and hunting much as their ancestors had for centuries, even millennia, barely connected to the world by the computers and other electronic devices given to the children at the irregularly attended school an hour’s walk to the south. Those same children ran around and between the huts, laughing and playing as mothers and fathers forged their lives, barely connected to the world but intimate with the land.
When the rains stayed away so long they could no longer get enough water from the ground for their gardens or handful domesticated animals, the families left one by one, walking south past the school, past the dried up river, and on to the distant city in hopes of finding a way of life to replace the one they could no longer keep.
“These are the days of miracle and wonder, yet how much of the world is left behind? To most of us in the so-called developed nations, the world is a place of plenty, science and technology have gone beyond our reach to provide for us, and even our medicine is magic. We are all isolated, sealed away in bubbles, as the magic whirls around us, sculpting our world towards perfection. But what of those for whom even the tiniest of our magics is a miracle beyond comprehension? Once we needed their resources, their oil and steel and gold. No more. The world of plenty has transformed our lives so we live in an age of plenty. We need nothing science cannot give.
“But what do they need? And why do we withhold it?”
A voice reached into Leo’s dream and slowly drew him back to the waking world. He didn’t try to move, not yet, just lay in the recliner listening to the early morning news report. The voice traded back and forth with other voices, cycling through sports and weather, before taking a serious tone and beginning the major headlines for the day.
When Leo heard the name Bob Smith, his expression tried to keep the relaxation of sleep and slip into a frown at the same time. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to move. He could pretend for just a little longer. The voice added a few sentences to the ‘manhunt continues for’ message and Leo wondered why most reporting on big events always seemed to be that there was nothing to report. For Bob Smith, the media had a name, not that it was his real one, and a provided voice sample for comparison. But that was the same as yesterday, and the day before that, and quite a few days before that. Nothing to report.
Leo opened his eyes. “But today I’m going to get you, you bastard.”
“Good morning, Leo.”
Leo grabbed for the coffee mug he’d just bumped with his elbow, stopping it at a precarious angle but before any of the sweet, black nectar escaped. He moved it another six inches away for good measure, putting it almost out of reach. “I wish you’d let me know you’re there, Bob.”
“Did I make you spill your coffee again?” No change in the tone. So level, so reasonable, it reminded him of HAL from 2001.
“No, I caught it this time.” And wasted time doing it. He tapped the ‘Trace’ icon. “Lucky, I guess.”
“Very.” Leo heard a tiny click but couldn’t decide if it was someone tapping the communication or his imagination. Probably imagination since he knew everything he did had at least three people watching or listening anyway. No one would need to open a connection.
“What is our CIA-approved topic of conversation this morning, Leo?”
Keep him talking, given the Tracer a chance to prove itself. “Well, it’s Tuesday.”
“Ah, funding then. Am I to assume that they still don’t like my potential explanations that either I am independently wealthy or that I have mysterious benefactors of significant means?”
Leo snorted, thankful he hadn’t been trying to swallow coffee. “Do either of those statements actually mean anything?”
A lifeless chuckle. “Of course not. I have no interest in giving away any information that might lead you to either my sources of income or my identity. That should be obvious, Leo.”
Even to you, Leo. He could have said it. Leo knew the thought was there. In some ways it was even a fair thought. It’s not like he was the most socially graceful guy out there or able to hold a conversation on any kind of non-IT current topic. But it was unfair, too. He had a brain, even if it was a very specialized one, and he knew how to use it. Leo glanced at the screen with the Tracer running. It flipped through maps, grids, and IP diagrams faster than even he could hope to follow. He grinned a bit at that thought.
“I’m not going to blow anything up today.”
“What, out of explosives?”
Bob laughed, an uncomfortable sound. “Very nice, Leo. No, not nearly. I’ve enough explosives in various stockpiles to blow up every building, monument, and public park in Washington.”
Leo snorted again. “Probably a bit of an exaggeration, don’t you think?”
“Perhaps.” He hated the smug voice sometimes, so secure in the righteousness of his path. “But if it is, not by much. Donations have been very good lately. But remember all I said was that I wasn’t going to blow anything up today.”
I’m not going to take the bait. He won’t actually tell me anything, anyway. Leo leaned back in his chair. “Geez, Bob. Did it ever occur to you that you’d probably make more progress by talking to people instead of blowing them up?”
“Ha! You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But I tried, Leo, oh how I tried. I spoke at length for years to the public and governments in the western world. The politicians smiled and nodded and did what they’d planned to all along. The public can’t focus enough to care. It’s an age of plenty, Bob. All the new green energy has seen to that. But what about those who depended on the old energy economy? No one cares about them, do they Leo? The resource states are dying, and the ‘civilized’ world doesn’t give a shit. I’m simply providing a much needed wake up call.”
Two soldiers stood on the corner, dark work dress uniforms hiding the sweat on their backs and under their arms. The mercury pushed higher than most people found even marginally comfortable, but commerce and employment went on at any outside temperature even if the climate control only reached the front door.
Cars hummed along the streets beside crowded sidewalks, both regulated and guided by the all knowing, all seeing traffic computers. Somewhere in the downtown core of the city, the growl of heavy construction machinery betrayed one of the last gasps of fossil fuels still in use.
At a bright intersection, office buildings vomited hundreds of quick-marching bodies eager to find midday sustenance before rushing back to fast-paced, high pressure jobs. Restaurants and shops in the bottoms of those same buildings drew heavy traffic and huge lines selling overpriced, mediocre food to their captive clientele.
A day like any other until a young mother stopped her baby carriage in front of a busy deli. She bent down to adjust a blanket, smiling to herself, and then disappeared in the first instant of a miniature supernova as the carriage sent fire and metal shards in a million directions.
The deli’s window collapsed inward, a cloud of glass needles joining the metal to tear into the lunch crowd. Patrons at the window tables died almost with the woman, roasted in the short-lived furnace even as the tiny missiles shredded their flesh. People further inside were luckier. Only a few would later die of their injuries. The hungry office workers closest to the counter received only a few cuts and bruises and the occasional pinpoint burn where a bit of flaming debris brushed by.
On the street, the damage was less severe but widespread. The two soldiers standing on the corner, waiting for the light to change so they could get back to the recruiting office across the street, both died from wounds received by what later seemed directed shrapnel, but neither of them very quickly. Four other men and two women, all in business attire, received injuries worth days or weeks in the hospital and two dozen more were eventually treated and released at the scene or from the nearest hospital on the same day.
The woman was never identified and, contrary to initial reports, forensics teams never found any evidence of a baby in the carriage.
“Why did you pick me?” He drummed his fingers lightly on the faux wood surface of his desk, staring at the pointer on his screen. His heart rate refused to drop back to something close to normal. He wished he hadn’t had that last energy drink.
Bob tsked. “Now, Leo, isn’t that a Thursday question?”
“So I’ll ask it again on Thursday. Just because it’s in a protocol doesn’t mean I can’t mess with things. I do have some free will, you know.”
Laughter. “I knew there was something I liked about you, Leo.”
Leo sighed, letting the exhalation last long enough that it started to warm the hand lying on the keyboard. “I don’t know why I bother.”
“You’re serving your country, doing as you’re told like a good little cog. I’m sure that talking to me has gotten you a nice new job with a nice new paycheque in a high security building surrounded by the nation’s best and brightest. A much more important cog now, aren’t you?”
The coffee was cold, but Leo downed the rest of the mug anyway, like he needed any more caffeine. Cold coffee versus no coffee was an easy contest, but now he had none left anyway. “I meant I don’t know why I bother talking to you. Someone else could do it just as well. You never answer my questions, never listen to anything I say, never do anything but tell me you’re going to blow something up. Why don’t you find someone else to piss off for your entertainment?”
Bob didn’t say anything right away. In fact, he didn’t say anything for long enough that Leo wondered if he’d disconnected. Stupid, losing his temper like that, but the connection stayed open and his tracer kept working. He waited and tried to enjoy the silence.
The tall man, crinkled brown hair kept from his eyes by a sweatband the same colours as his uniform shorts and tank top, hunched over to protect himself. Both hands wrapped around the ball, his head swivelled and while his eyeballs darted back and forth looking for some kind of opening. Without warning, his legs tensed and he sprang into the air, twisting as he rose up and up and impossibly up.
At the peak of his jump, he pushed the ball toward the basket. It arced through the air from hand to rim, slower with every foot it travelled as the stadium crowd held a collective breath, bounced just a little off the metal, and rose a finger’s width before falling through the net just as the man’s feet touched the polished wooden floor again.
No buzzer sounded, no score registered, and the swish of the game winning basket echoed in the huge stadium.
In the moment before the ball dropped through the net, three small bombs destroyed three transformer stations, together causing a big enough disruption to bring down the power grid for the entire metropolitan area. Across the city, emergency backup generators engaged to ensure essential services, and those who could afford it, had no significant power interruption. But for those unlucky enough to live or work somewhere without access to emergency power, the world would remain dark for several days.
The quick act of sabotage took no lives and caused minimal property damage, but it inconvenienced millions and sent ripples through the nation’s economy.
“I’m sorry, Leo.”
Leo almost fell out of his chair, grabbing the edge of his desk at the last moment to avoid tipping sideways. “What?"
“I said, I’m sorry.” A sigh from wherever the other end of the connection actually was. “I suppose it’s become a game for me, using you as an intermediary to fence with the CI Assholes who try to structure your conversations with me. Sometimes I forget that you didn’t ask for this, that you’re only a go between and don’t really understand the big picture I’m trying to paint.”
“Well, maybe if you’d try explaining a little more rather than just dancing around the questions I’m supposed to ask. Give me something to work with. I may be an IT geek, but I’m still a human being and I’m part of the world even if I’m mostly oblivious to it.” The standard dialogues the Intel guys kept giving him never worked, but they always said he should be willing to talk about whatever Bob felt like talking about. And he was curious, too, damn it.
“You’re right, of course. It’s likely you have a basic grasp of some issues just based on the questions they give you to ask me, but it’s never occurred to me that you might have questions of your own, that you might actually be interested. What would you like to know?”
Leo thought for a minute. What wouldn’t he like to know? He didn’t know how long he could spin out the conversation. They were well off the maximum time Bob had held him to the voice connection in the past, ten minutes at least—Bob had tremendous faith in his scramblers and anti-detection software. If the terrorist mastermind actually felt like having a conversation today, that could only be a good thing for Leo’s upgraded tracker. “Well, I guess you could start with the last thing I asked. Why me?”
Another sigh from Bob. “Ah, Leo, I hope the truth doesn’t hurt too much. I was looking for someone to gloat to and you were the first Defense employee in the directory to answer a blind connection request.”
Leo remembered the day. He’d tapped the connect icon out of reflex, not looking at the incoming ID, or lack of it. There were a bunch of IT folks inside and outside the department who might connect with him on any given day. It never occurred to him to check who might be calling. Who would bother outside his regular contact list? The infamous Bob Smith came as an almost heart attack level surprise.
“You were an essentially random choice.”
Nodding, Leo leaned back and laced his fingers behind his head. “Yeah, I guess I can live with that. The universe is a pretty random place. Why should I be special?”
Bob remained silent for several seconds. “That’s an… interesting reaction, Leo. I respect it even if I didn’t expect it. There’s plenty of time yet before the government tracking programs start to break things down. Is there anything else you’d like to know?”
Leo smiled. He wondered if he’d get any kind of ‘Well done’ for the breakthrough, but wouldn’t hold his breath waiting. “Well, since you’re not going to tell me who you really are or where you are or anything like that, and we’ve already used up Thursday’s main topic, and you don’t want to talk about funding, maybe you can give me a layman’s overview of why you’re blowing people up.”
“It’s not so much the people, Leo, as representations of the resources they used to consume.” Leo prepared himself for a short but intense lecture he’d probably grasp less than half of, but he’d take whatever time he could get.
The tracker flung a pair of small icons up into the right top corner of the monitor. Leo’s heart stopped for a moment, and when it started beating again he might have been running a hundred metre dash. He’d done it. He thought, hoped, prayed the new program would work, but now he’d actually done it. The trace he’d written had found the untraceable terrorist back to his cyber lair. He touched the green checkmark but hesitated over the red ‘X’.
“Leo?” He’d stopped listening at some point and Bob had been waiting for some kind of response.
“I’m sorry. Someone’s trying to find out if I want lunch.” Not his best lie, but it should pass unless Bob had somehow wormed his way into the surveillance system. Everyone was convinced that was impossible, but...
“A little early, no?”
“Have you ever tried to order lunch in DC?” No, he was sure the cameras were on a completely separate, internal system.
“Not for several years, but I do recall.”
Leo blew all of the air out of his lungs, trying to keep it away from the headset mike. He still didn’t touch the second icon. Wait, was that a clue? The CIA listeners would pick up that and add it to whatever else they might have learned from casual conversation over the last couple of months. “What were you saying?”
Why hadn’t he sent the notification yet? It was his job, wasn’t it? The CIA made it his job about an hour after he reported the first conversation to his Section Head at the DOD. He’d put in his time, talked to a psychotic terrorist five days a week for more than three months, asking all the questions they wanted and getting nothing but circular answers and a few arrogant bits of manifesto in return. Why hadn’t he pressed the damned ‘X’ yet?
Because the terrorist broke down and became human today. He was still an arrogant murdering psycho—who else would blow people up to make a point?—but Bob let himself be something more than that today and Leo didn’t want that to end quite yet. He was curious where the conversation might go from here.
But he couldn’t let more people die just because he was curious. That would make him just as bad as Bob. He’d waited too long already, listening to Bob go on about resource usage and fairness and things that were wrong with capitalism and the entire developed world. Things everyone knew and a lot of intelligent people talked about, things that were slowly changing as the ideas percolated through society.
Things that you didn’t need to blow people up to make them understand. He looked at his hand and frowned at his index finger until it jabbed forward to touch the icon. He watched it disappear and wondered how long before someone burst in to congratulate him out loud.
Bob kept talking.
We’ve got him! It took a few seconds for Leo to read the sign Wolneczek held above his monitor. ETA 3 Minutes! The man had a grin so wide it made Leo’s cheeks hurt, but he smiled and stuck up a thumb to make him go away instead of mumbling something about chickens hatching. They couldn’t afford to give Bob even a tiny hint. Leo couldn’t afford it.
Wolneczek ran off and Leo heard several shouts in the corridor. Why hadn’t the man shut the door? Then a hand patted him on the shoulder twice and he glanced up to see Deputy Director Lusitano smiling down at him, grin showing teeth too perfect for a smoker in his late fifties. Leo nodded at his boss and pointed at the headset just in case the man felt like saying something out loud.
“You’ve been very quiet for a while, Leo. Have I bored you to sleep?”
Jerked back into the conversation, Leo felt his face get hot. “Uh, no. I’m just, uh, digesting. Don’t get offended, okay?”
“Why would I get offended, Leo?”
Because a CIA strike team is probably ninety seconds from your front door. “Because I’m pretty blunt. A lot of what you say makes sense, but I don’t think you’ve told me anything I haven’t heard before on the news, on some documentary, or even in the office. People talk about this stuff all the time. Some people are even starting to do things about it. Why do you have to resort to Resource Terrorism?”
“Resource Terrorism. Hmm. I like that. Has anyone used it before?”
“How should I know? Geez Bob, you kill people almost every day. What the hell?”
“Ah, Leo. I’ve never killed anyone. I merely provide certain people with the materials and equipment required then point them in certain directions. Ideas occur to them at that point and generally produce the results I’m after. Sometimes they get ideas on their own, too, and come to me for materials. Free will is a wonderful thing.”
Ah, there’s the old arrogant asshole. “Sophistry? Is that the right word? You’ve never personally set off the detonator so it’s not your fault? Come on. That’s bullshit, and you know it.” He wished he’d started the trace sooner now even if he’d only wasted a few seconds. Beyond any doubt, the world could only get better with Bob in custody. How long had it been? How much of the three minutes was left? He should have looked at the clock.
“I sleep very well at night, Leo. Do you?”
Leo waited a long time before saying anything. Not because he had any doubt about what he was going to say, but because he wanted to drag things out just that much more. Revenge? Geez, was that what Bob had done to him? No. No, Leo wanted to give the agents closing in just a little more time, that was it. Really. “I’m going to sleep a lot better tonight.”
If anything, Bob took even longer to reply. “Ah, you’re a better programmer than I thought, Leo, or at least a quicker one. Someone just broke down my front door.”
“They’re faster than I thought, then.”
“Of course. I’m not really all that far away, you know. Well done, by the way. It’s a skill to allow someone to underestimate you. Don’t be afraid to make use of it again. It’s too bad, though.” Leo had no idea what Bob looked like, but pictured a generic older man shaking his head with a sad smile. “Aside from the fact that I planned to relocate next week, I enjoyed our conversation today more than I’ve enjoyed anything for quite some time.”
Oddly, Leo could admit that he’d enjoyed it to, even though Bob had done most of the talking. More, he was able to admit it out loud. “They might still let you talk to me.” They’d probably demand it. Hell, Leo would probably have to visit Bob’s cell every damned day now.
“I’m sorry, Leo, but that won’t be possible.”
He thought he heard some thumping at the other side of the connection. A cold feeling swept across him. “What do you mean, Bob?”
“I know I told you I’ve never killed anyone, but I’m afraid that’s about to change. I’ve initiated a thirty second countdown.”
Countdown, meaning bomb. How many agents had Leo just sent to their deaths? How much ‘collateral damage’ would there be. He leaned forward, fingers trying to dig into the surface of his desk. “Bob, don’t do it. Shut it off.” Lusitano’s footsteps ran out the door. He shouted down the hallway, but Leo didn’t hear the words.
“I’m sorry, Leo. I never intended to be taken alive if caught, and being a martyr will help my cause in a very big way. It’s a poor second choice to directing things, but you can trust that the publicity will be amazing, and for several reasons.” Bob paused, obviously waiting for Leo to say something, anything.
“It’s okay, Leo. You’ve proven that you’re very good at your job. I am sorry for my earlier comment, though. I’m afraid you’re not going to sleep very well for quite some time. Ah, gentlemen. Welcome to my humble home. No, no, my hands are up, see? I’ll certainly come peacefu—”
The transmission cut off. No gunfire, no static, nothing. More shouts in the hall, but he couldn’t focus enough to hear them, couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. Somewhere, an alarm began to bleat, and it sounded a lot like the radiation alarm test they’d had last month.
Leo put his head down on the desk and began to cry.