Monday, June 14, 2010

"Where Two or Three" by Sheila Finch (Part 1 of 3)

And another story follows from Is Anybody Out There? (Daw Books, June 1), my co-edited anthology with Nick Gevers. If reading these stories has motivated you to purchase a copy of the anthology, please feel free to post a comment and let me know; or, if you've chosen not to purchase a copy of the anthology after reading the four (so far) posted stories, then please comment on that too. By the way, an ebook edition of Is Anybody Out There? is also available in the Kindle format.

I began freelancing for Jacob Weisman's Tachyon Publications in 2002. In the first part of 2003, Jacob contacted me about a new project: Sheila Finch's novel Reading the Bones. The book was an expansion of Sheila's Nebula Award-winning novella of the same name, originally published in the January 1998 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The novella is part of the author's Xenolinguist (aka "lingster") series of stories. The expanded novel -- to snag a few words from the book's PR -- follows xenolinguist Ries Danyo, and sisters Lita and Jilan Patel, to their pivotal role in shaping the future of the alien Frehti.

Reading the Bones was published in September 2003, just in time for Tachyon's eighth anniversary party held at Borderlands Books in San Francisco on September 14. Sheila Finch was on hand to celebrate the publication of her book, as were Tachyon authors Peter S. Beagle, Grania Davis, Richard Lupoff, Pat Murphy, and Michael Swanwick. Other authors included Kage Baker (a future Tachyon author), Mark Budz, and Marina Fitch.

Reading the Bones
At the anniversary party, I had the opportunity to meet Sheila Finch1, and to introduce myself as the person responsible for the editorial work done on Reading the Bones. Fortunately, Sheila was quite pleased with my work on the book, and thus I was able to breathe a sigh of relief, since this was my first major project for Tachyon Publications, and I was hopeful there would be more projects in the future.

And the anthology Is Anybody Out There? again provided me with an opportunity to work with Sheila Finch. With a series of stories dealing with linguistics and alien communication, Sheila, I knew, would add a unique perspective to the Fermi Paradox theme -- and she did not disappoint.

About her story "Where Two or Three," Sheila writes: "I've long thought we're putting the cart before the horse in our search for messages from ET. We haven't solved the difficulty of translating reliably between the languages on Earth, let alone knowing how to communicate with other sentient creatures on our own planet -- cetaceans, for instance. Musicians and music lovers learn to listen to more than one instrument's voice at a time, appreciating that the effect of harmony is more than just the sum of its parts. I initially explored these ideas years ago in 'Sequoia Dreams,'2 and have touched on them frequently in the Guild of Xenolinguists series; this story was a chance to come at them from a different angle. And volunteering in a hospice, I hear some pretty amazing stories!"

Where Two or Three

by Sheila Finch

The charge nurse barely paused in her fast trot down the hospice hallway. "Seventeen needs his water jug refilled. Can you get it?"

"I'll get it." Maddie turned back the way she had come. It was her second day as a volunteer -- What a joke! She hadn't volunteered for anything -- but already she was getting the routine. Here, the charge nurse was boss.

She picked up a full plastic jug of ice water from the kitchen and walked back to room seventeen. Like most of the other rooms, it contained a hospital bed with a white coverlet, a straight-back visitor's chair, a battered chest of drawers that had hosted too many patients' belongings. Unlike the others, the occupant or his family hadn't made an effort to personalize the room with family photos, art work, or flowering plants. They hadn't replaced the old 2-D, which probably didn't work any more, with a newer Tri-D either. The hospice cat, a large orange tabby, jumped off the bed when she came in as if his shift was over once a volunteer showed up.

"Hi," she said. "I'm Maddie. I brought your water."

The skinny old man on the bed didn't open his eyes. "Haven't seen you before."

"Only my second day."

He had the most wrinkled skin she'd ever seen, and his face was blotchy as if he'd had a bad sunburn and skinned recently. He had to be at least a hundred, she thought. There was a smell in the room too, not really bad but odd, sort of baby-powdery and musty at the same time. She picked up the empty jug. She definitely did not want to spend time in here.

"Why're you here if you don't like it?"

Maddie jumped. "Would I be here if I didn't?" Lying again, she thought. One of these days she was going to have to break the habit.

He turned his head away from her. The back of his neck was scrawny as a chicken's, and the skin was patchy here too. "Sit and visit."

She sat gracelessly on the edge of the chair by the wall and stared at the old man's neck. "So, what did you used to do?" she asked brightly. Most of the older ones liked to talk about the old days, the younger ones not so much.

"Astronaut," he said.

"Astronaut? You mean, like space and stuff?"

"Space," he said to the wall. "And stuff."

"Have I heard of you?" she asked cautiously.

"Probably not. Name's Sam." He rolled back to face her, surprisingly agile for someone who looked so old. His eyes were a pale, washed-out blue, same color as the jeans she was wearing. "And how did you get sentenced to this place?"

Maddie felt her cheeks grow warm. "I'm a volunteer."

"Crap. Person your age has better things to do than visit old coots like me."

"All right. Here's the truth. I got busted for doing drugs at a party. One rotten joint -- and if I'd been eighteen already like everybody else it would've been legal anyway. So the judge gave me community service."

"Good," Sam said. "I don't have time for lies. What would you rather be doing -- besides being stupid?"

"You really are unpleasant, know that?" she snapped.

He chuckled -- at least she thought that was what he was doing. Maybe he was choking or something. "Didn't they tell you you're supposed to humor me?"

"I'm in high school. I'll be a senior starting next month. I don't get much time to do what I'd rather be doing. But when I do, I play the flute."

"A musician," he said. "Will you play for me?"

"I didn't bring it with me."

"How about next time you come?" He gazed at her with the washed-out eyes. The edges of his lipless old mouth creased up. "Please?"

Why not? The staff encouraged volunteers to entertain the residents any way possible. "Well, maybe when I come back on Friday."

"And maybe I'll tell you about space. And stuff."

Maddie got out of the room before he could say anything else. In the hallway, she passed the charge nurse again.

"Glad to see you spent some time with Mr. Ferenzi. He never gets any visitors." The charge nurse smoothed the pink tunic over her white slacks. "He used to be famous. But something happened to him, and he was never quite right afterwards."

Even if it wasn't true, she thought, it beat spending time with the old biddies here who only wanted her to play cards with them.

# # #

Maddie had been ready to finish her monthly mandated hours at the hospice yesterday, but Mom wanted to take her back-to-school shopping. She would've been happy with the Gap, but Mom insisted on heading down to the OC and taking all day. At least that was better than the virtual house arrest Daddy had put her on. So now she had to make it up by wasting Saturday afternoon at the hospice.

It was a fine late summer day, the sky an almost transparent blue as if she could see through to the other side if she squinted hard. The neighbor's gardener was mowing, filling the air with the sweet green smell of cut grass. At the last minute, she remembered her promise to bring the flute. She slid the flute into its case and stuffed it into the canvas shoulder bag with her house keys and purse, and headed out to grab her bicycle.

Sam Ferenzi looked as if he hadn't moved an inch since the last time she was here. If anything, he looked skinnier than ever, as if he might shrivel up and blow away once the desert Santa Ana started blowing.

She flopped in the visitor's chair. "I brought the flute."

"Play." His voice rasped.

She opened the case, then lifted the flute to her lips. She loved the flute and didn't mind practicing, in contrast to her rebellion against all other forms of homework. When she was younger, she'd thought about becoming a professional musician and playing with the LA Phil. But that would take years at the university and Maddie had had enough of school and no idea what she was going to do with her life. She began to play a section of a flute solo.

"Mozart, Concerto Number Two," Sam said when she stopped. "Fine, but thin."

"Of course it is! It needs an orchestra to make it whole --"

"And meaningful."

"-- but I'm just me."


"All right," she said, exasperated. "I did what you asked. Now it's your turn."

He scared her by sitting up so suddenly she was afraid he was going to lose his balance and tumble off the narrow bed. His green pajama sleeves with hideous pink hearts flapped back, revealing skinny arms covered in the same white blotchy patches she could see on his face and neck. He raised an arm and pointed the remote at the small 2-D set perched on the scratched chest of drawers.

The screen brightened, then revealed a lone squiggle of electric-bright color, red shading into purple on a black background. The line looped across the screen slowly, endlessly, hypnotically. A second line, blue-indigo this time, braided itself in and under and over the first one. She waited. Nothing else happened.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

He lowered his arm and the screen went dark. "That's the question, isn't it?"

"Okay." She blew her breath out in a long sigh. "I'm leaving now."

"I'm trying to tell you something."

"Well, you're not doing too good!" She stood up, and put the flute in her shoulder bag.

He lay back against the pillows. "Sorry."

She thought he sounded tired, but also something more -- sad, maybe. As if no matter how hard he tried he just couldn't get something right and was fed up with trying. For a moment, he reminded her of her grandfather who'd died when she was only ten. Even now, she missed him. He must've been something like this tired, lonely old man at the end. She sat down again.

"Your nurse says you did some amazing things once."

"All useless."

"I wouldn't say that!" she protested. "I'm impressed."

"You're a musician. Makes a difference."

It was really difficult to hold a conversation with him. She changed the subject. "Don't you get bored in this room? I could take you outside in a wheelchair."

"Where would we go?"

"The garden's nice."

He shook his head.

"Where then?

"Hat Creek would be good, Northern California. But the desert'll do."

"Oh, right!" Maddie laughed. "I'm sure they'd let me take you to the Mojave! 'Specially this time of year."

"Don't you have a driver's license?"

"Of course I do. But I don't have a car." Actually, she thought, that was another lie -- or at least a near one. Daddy had taken away the keys to the used Tesla her parents had given her for her birthday when she'd got caught with one joint at that stupid party.

Sam was silent so long she was afraid he'd died on her. She stared at the white sheet covering his bony old chest, willing it to rise and fall. It didn't move. What was she supposed to do now? Finally he let some air whistle out from his mouth.

"Why do you want to go to the desert, anyway?" she asked

He didn't answer. She glanced at her watch. Ten more minutes and the aides would be bringing round the dinner trays. If she stayed much longer, they'd put her to work.

She stood up. "I have to go now. I'll see you in a couple of days."

"You ever read the Bible?" he asked suddenly.

"No. My dad's a scientist at JPL. We aren't superstitious."

"Pity. You should try Matthew 18: verse 20."

# # #

[Continued in Part 2]

1 I am fairly certain that Sheila Finch and I have met prior to this anniversary event at Borderlands Books, most likely at a California convention, but where and when I cannot tell you.

2 "Sequoia Dreams" was originally published in Amazing Stories, July 1990, and is currently available in various ebook formats from and other ebook sellers.

Sheila Finch is the author of seven science fiction novels and numerous short stories that have appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Amazing, Asimov's, Fantasy Book, and various anthologies. A collection of her "lingster" stories was recently published as The Guild of Xenolinguists by Golden Gryphon Press. Her work has won several awards, including the Nebula Award for Best Novella, the San Diego Book Award for Juvenile Fiction, and the Compton-Crook Award for Best First Novel. Sheila taught creative writing at El Camino College for thirty years and at workshops around California. She also writes nonfiction about teaching creative writing and about science fiction, and a series of these short essays appear online at the SFWA website. This fall, she will be conducting an All-Day Writers Workshop & Critique Session. Read more about Sheila Finch on her website and her LiveJournal.

Four stories have already been posted in their entirety from Is Anybody Out There? -- Pat Cadigan's "The Taste of Night," Jay Lake's "Permanent Fatal Errors," David Langford's "Graffiti in the Library of Babel," and Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "The Dark Man."

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