So when was the last time you were at a garage sale halfway around the world, offered someone a ride home, crash-landed in the middle of Ohio, and learned about some nifty antiques?
Fred first saw Nancy in Caracas, in the Venezuelan Free State, at an antique show featuring 20th-century bric-a-brac. Immediately, his heart was captured. Fred's eyes swept from the top of her spiraling blonde twirl-cut, down along her iridescent monokini (where they lingered in the obvious places), and finally reached her flats, upon which she bounced lightly. Of course, what really caught his attention was her long blue tail, which swished back and forth excitedly, and, thought Fred, excitingly.
For his part, Fred was unremarkable, decked out as he was in his standard, blue-pinstriped skinsuit, all business. He leaned forward hesitantly, partly to start a conversation and partly to get a glimpse at the treasures so amply filling Nancy's monokini. She abruptly straightened, however, with a shiny, flat metal object in her hands.
"Isn't this just divine?" she asked rhetorically. Fred looked about quickly, and decided she must be talking to him. He straightened in an attempt to look dignified.
"Hmm, yes, of course," he said.
Nancy turned to face him, revealing sparkling silver eyes. Fred was captured all over again.
"I've looked everywhere for one of these, and here they've got a set of four," she said. "The last two weeks I've been from one end of the east coast to the other, from Scotia to Atlantahassee to Rio. I thought I'd found one in Carolina, but it turned out to be a fake. I was glad, though, because I never could have gotten it through customs. Have you ever been to Carolina?"
"Sorry, no. But I -- "
"Well, don't go!" she said emphatically. "They're always hurting for hard currency and they'll do anything they can to cheat you out of yours. And all you hear all day long is moaning about tobacco. Tobacco this, tobacco that. Honestly, if they hadn't wanted to be a one product economy, they shouldn't have seceded in the first place! If my message filters hadn't heard about their toaster, I never would have gone."
Fred observed her tail performed an astonishing set of loops and rolls as she spoke. Something she said caught his attention, however, and brought him back into the conversation.
"Toaster?" he said. "What's a toaster?"
Her tail stood straight up in the air, and he wondered if he hadn't asked the wrong question.
"Why, one of these," she said, thrusting the metal object at him. It was shaped roughly like a comm unit, rounded along its upper surface. Two gaping wide openings had been driven into it, which seemed absurdly large for data disks. From one corner dangled a long black cord, which presumably connected the unit to an external power source.
She held it up so he could see better, and he noticed that the sides had been polished to a glassy brightness. "It was used for baking bread," she said. "Back in the 20th century they were amazingly common kitchen items."
"I see," he said, trying hard to be enthusiastic. Not hard enough, he thought, because the light that animated her so brightly had already turned from him. He felt as though the sun had just gone behind a cloud, which in fact it had, Fred noted.
She turned away and motioned for the roboid to give her a price. The roboid was old, which fit the surroundings, and wasn't terribly sophisticated. It haggled a bit, but once it reached its narrowly defined limit, it was finished.
"Six hundred nacus," it droned.
"Oh, please," she said. "I've only got 400 nacus with me, and I need transit fare back to Hio. Would you accept Hio dollars?"
"Six hundred nacus. We are sorry, but we accept North American Currency Units only."
"Look, I'm the only customer here, and I haven't seen anyone else in the last two hours. Surely it would be better to sell something rather than nothing, right? Closing time is coming soon, the dome will go up, and you'll just be stuck with it."
"Six hundred nacus."
Her tail slashed from side to side in obvious anger. It struck Fred lightly, by accident, but the contact was enough to wake him from his complacency.
"Wait," he said, straightening up and resting a hand on her shoulder. The touch sent surges of power through him. "Maybe I can help."
She looked up at him, surprised, but hopeful.
"Yes," he continued, mentally counting his own money. "I could lend you 200 nacus, and give you a ride home."
Her tail went up to half-mast, which he interpreted as hopeful caution.
"I don't know if I should," she said. "I don't even know your name."
"Fred Tannen," he said. He held out a hand to her. She tucked the toaster under one arm and took his hand, which made the previous power surge feel like popguns next to plasma cannons. Two hundred nacus was not too much to pay to stay near that feeling. Not at all.
"Nancy Adams," she said.
"I know I'm being rather forward, but I promise to be a gentleman. I'm a just minor executive with a multinational, and I was only stopping by here to pick up something for my daughter. My lift is out back, and I can surely spare the room."
The tail curled slightly, so he felt like he was making progress.
"Well, OK," she said, "but did you want to pick up something for your wife as well?"
"No, I wouldn't," he said. "I am not currently wedded, or I wouldn't be offering rides to beautiful young women." There, he thought, that was good. Get a compliment in and show her I'm available. Nice work.
"Oh, I'm sorry," she said quickly. "I'd be delighted to accept your help. Once I'm back in Hio, I can get the money to pay you back."
"Fine, under one condition."
"That you have dinner with me tonight."
The tail swished back and forth rapidly, but she smiled.
"Very well," she said.
They boarded his lift at the Caracas spaceport, after Nancy made appropriate complimentary noises about its shine and condition. Fred stored her gear with his in the sleeping compartment aft, except for the bag containing her toasters and his little doohickey he had picked up for his daughter. The roboid had called an "eggbeater."
They settled into the contoured pilot seats. Fred had wondered how Nancy would accommodate her tail, but she seemed content to simply slide it down between her legs and coil it in her lap. His temperature rose several degrees as he surreptitiously watched this maneuver. To cover up his reaction, he leaned over the computer interface and made a great show of concentrating on keying in her destination. After a minor delay, the tower gave them clearance to launch, with only a mild warning about the possibility of bad weather over the Midwest Territories.
The launch shook Nancy up a bit. Fred reflected that she no doubt normally traveled by transit liner, which was a much larger craft and gave a correspondingly smoother ride. He began to apologize for the air buffeting, but she waved him off.
"No, don't worry," she said. "This is fun! I've never ridden in a single family lift before. How long have you owned it?"
"Actually, I don't own it. It's a company vehicle."
"Really? I thought you said you were a minor executive."
Fred squirmed in his seat. "Well, there's minor, and there's minor. My former wife was a pilot for Star Ways, which is where I work, and they gave me this vehicle when she left."
A look of concern came over her face, which turned her eyes from silver to light blue. "Oh, I'm sorry. I had no idea."
"Oh no -- it's not like it sounds. She was given command of the Toreador 10 years ago. You know, the interstellar craft taking all those settlers to Rigel?"
"Well, it's a relativistic trip, so by the time she gets back she'll have aged only four years, but I'll be 172."
"How tragic," she said, resting her hand on his shoulder, which made Fred dizzy. "And leaving you with a daughter to raise all alone like that."
"Um, well, truth to tell, I can't be too upset. We knew this was a possibility when we got married. My wife was born to be an explorer. Besides, she didn't exactly leave me with a daughter."
"No. Shyrra is actually a clone of my wife I'm raising with help from Star Ways. They've been great about the whole thing, both financially and otherwise. I'll tell you, though, it feels awfully weird raising my wife as a child. I'm really not looking forward to puberty."
"Yeah," Fred smiled. "The Freudian implications alone are staggering."
As the ship rose higher into the atmosphere, the thinning air shook them less and less and the sky became progressively darker. Fred and Nancy both gazed out the viewport, waiting for that brief time when they would clear the atmosphere and rotate into a descent angle. During that time they would be able to see the Earth below them, beautiful, blue, and majestic. When it happened, Fred cautiously reached out his hand to Nancy, who took it into her own. They remained like that, silent and connected, until the ship turned in such a way that the sun shone directly into the viewport. The computer automatically darkened it in response, and there was nothing to see until they rotated out of the way again.
"So tell me about yourself," Fred said hesitantly, releasing her hand. He reached over to a nearby, well-worn knob and adjusted it, which filled the cabin with soft music. "What do you do," he said, "and why all the interest in toasters?"
Nancy laughed. "Me? I'm just an analyst working for the Midwest Territorial government. Crop price projections, that sort of thing. I guess all the time I spend studying forecasting grain got me interested in the old ways of using it."
"You mean in bread and stuff like that?"
"Right." She stood up to open the compartment over the viewport and carefully brought down the bag containing the toasters. She took one out and held it carefully. "You know, people used to use these all the time. They put bread in these slots and pushed this little handle, and it gets all hot inside, which bakes the bread. Eventually it would pop back up with the finished product. They called it `toast,' naturally enough."
Fred regarded the little device skeptically. "I don't know," he said. "It looks like the innards would get pretty gamy."
"Not if you clean it, silly," she said. "It's not self-cleaning. You have to take it apart."
She handed him the toaster and leaned over him to point out the various latches and levers. Her proximity suddenly caused Fred to wonder about the efficiency of the air circulation.
"I'd show you how it works, but it needs a power source," she said.
Fred felt she was generating enough power herself, but he didn't think it was proper to say so. An idea struck him, though.
"Computer," he said, sitting up in his seat.
The computer responded with a short beep.
"Can you devise a power coupling for this object?" He placed the toaster in a small opening in the cabin, which served as an interface compartment for computer-manufactured devices. The light in the opening glowed on and off a few times.
The computer said, "Affirmative," and beeped again.
"Then do so -- what's that, Nancy?"
"Your lift can do that?" asked Nancy incredulously.
"Top of the line," replied Fred.
"Please restate request," the computer said.
Nancy tugged at his sleeve. "We've got four of them," she said. "Let's plug them all in!" Sparkles appeared in her eyes, which Fred identified upon closer examination as flecks of gold swimming in the silver.
"Computer," Fred said, staring into Nancy's eyes. "Please generate four functional power couplings for this device."
"Working," said the computer, and it beeped.
Meanwhile, the ship began its descent into the atmosphere. The viewport cleared, but was quickly replaced by another color shift as the computer selectively activated a thin injected fluid layer to prevent overheating. This, combined with careful navigational adjustments, automatic communication with flight control systems, and the power conduit manufacturing process, dramatically reduced available computational resources. An light flashed on Fred's console indicating voice control was no longer available, but he didn't notice. The computer attempted to compensate by turning off the music and, conveniently, lowering the lights.
"Oh, how romantic," Nancy said as the lights dimmed. She leaned against Fred, which provided more than enough distraction to keep him from wondering why the lights went down.
Fred put his arm around Nancy as the computer flashed another warning and tried to correct their course through the atmosphere, which had been turning into a unusually steep descent. Finally, two of the power couplings were finished and dropped unceremoniously into the interface compartment.
The plop sound they made as they fell startled Nancy. "What was that?" she asked.
"A couple of our power couplings are ready! Get out the toasters!"
They removed two toasters from the bag and connected them to the couplings. Nancy depressed the levers on the side and the toasters immediately began to get warm.
The computer searched desperately for systems to off-load, but the primary tasks of heat-shielding, navigation, and life support were all off-limits. The internal synthesis of the remaining power conduits could not be aborted. This left few choices for disconnect, but those available were taken with abandon.
The lights went completely out, along with the circulation fans, the built-in acceleration dampers in the couches, and the waste recycling pumps. This brought the power drain to within safe parameters, so the computer desisted just before power would have been removed from the toasters.
Suddenly, Fred and Nancy were plunged into darkness and silence, and were jostled randomly by the passage of the craft through the atmosphere.
"Oh my!" Nancy said. "What's happening?"
"I don't know," Fred replied, but began using his brain instead of another part of his anatomy for the first time since the trip started. He saw the indicator lights on the pilot's console. "We've lost power," he said. "We've got to shut down all unnecessary systems."
As he was about to contact the computer, the final two power couplings were finished, and plopped into the interface compartment. The lights came back on.
"Whew!" Nancy said. "That was close. Fred? What's the matter?"
Fred stared at the blackness in front of him, then gasped when he looked at the navigational viewscreen. The "possibility" of bad weather over the Hio region had developed into a raging thunderstorm, and the lift was plunging right into its heart.
Lightning arced around the ship, almost blinding them. The computer made adjustments as quickly as possible to handle the swirling air currents, but the ride began to get violent. "Strap in!" Fred shouted, dropping his toaster.
A series of lightning bolts hit the ship and thunder shook her hull. Fred and Nancy clung to each other for dear life. The ship's heat shields were vaporizing. The temperature inside the cabin rose rapidly.
A loud beep from the computer signaled the breakdown. Fred pulled himself away from her and read the displays. "Shield failure!" he shouted. "We've got to get out of here soon, or we'll burn up! Follow me!"
Fred and Nancy scrambled out of their seats and made their way unsteadily aft as the lift pitched and rocked. Lightning flashed, flooding the cabin with bursts of blinding illumination. Nancy used her tail to provide balance and kept them from falling by wrapping it around a passenger seat.
"There's an escape pod at tail," Fred said. "It's got its own shielding -- if we can get to it, we might make it."
"My toasters! They'll burn up with the lift!"
Fred leaned back to grab one, unplugging both of them in the process. "Computer! Transfer power to the escape pod! Prepare for emergency evacuation!" A series of beeps answered him.
When they reached the pod entrance, Fred reached for the handle and immediately pulled his hand away. "It's too hot!" Fred motioned Nancy to the other side of the round door handle as he tore off the top of his skinsuit, wrapping it around the handle. Between them, they twisted the handle until it opened, then jumped inside.
The pod was small, but serviceable. Thick cushions lined all the walls to prevent injury. A wide couch lay in the center of the cabin. Rather than a limited number of individual couches, the designers had chosen to create a single couch capable of holding as many people as possible in an emergency.
Fred tossed the toaster to one side and they scrambled into the couch, which automatically strapped them in. "Computer!" Fred yelled, "release the escape pod!"
The computer replied with a single beep, and dropped the pod. They felt a sickening plummet and almost passed out, then the roar of the pod's thrusters kicked in. Wings unfolded from the sides, and a tail surface rose from the rear. The onboard piloting system engaged and stabilized their flight, spiraling away from the last known course of the lift and scanning for a level surface on the ground below. When it found one, it slowed their descent, lowered the gear, and banked toward it.
"Brace for crash landing," the piloting system intoned, as a deceleration chute was deployed.
The pod thumped hard, bounced twice, and scraped to a halt. The stabilizing thrusters suddenly went silent.
Fred and Nancy opened their eyes. "Are you OK?" Fred asked.
"I think so. How about you?"
"A bit bruised," Fred replied, "but all the parts are working."
Lying together curled on the couch, Nancy quickly became aware that Fred was telling the truth. She turned and smiled at him, and Fred was, once again, completely captured.
"Initiating distress signal," said the pod.
"Don't do that right now."
"Do you wish to override emergency proced -- "
"Yes!" Fred looked deep into Nancy's eyes. "And, computer? Don't disturb us." As nature took its course, Fred was amazed at the interesting uses to which Nancy was able to put her tail. He seriously considered acquiring one of his own.
Later, Nancy started laughing.
"What's so funny?" Fred asked, defensively.
"Oh, not you, darling. You were wonderful," she said, wrapping her tail around him. "But something funny just occurred to me."
"What's that?" he asked.
"I was telling you about toasters, right? Well, we were in the ship, and the walls got hot, and we were ejected, right? Toast!"
Fred laughed. "Still," he said, "bread rises when it's baked, right?"
"Sure, but that's different."
"Not in this case," he replied, and pulled her close again.
"Oh my," she said. "I see what you mean."
Ken Kousen (email@example.com) is a research engineer at United Technologies Research Center in East Hartford, Connecticut. His stories have appeared in Mystic Fiction, Nuthouse, and the anthology The Magic Within.
InterText stories written by Ken Kousen: "Dragon Financing" (v1n2), "Flying Toasters" (v5n2).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 5, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1995 Ken Kousen.