From the depths of the ocean to the far reaches of space, from the confines of the soul to the shadows in which live our most hideous nightmares, from the distant past to the unimaginably far future -- come seventeen stories that will transport you, assail you and change the way you look at the universe.
The World burns while Raven Sings
The Creth glides on outstretched wings
From the box, the tales unfold
Into visions dark and cold
A Creative Edge: Tales of Speculation -- Learn to think all over again.
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A Creative Edge: Tales of Speculation
A Creative Edge
Sandros Lefrak was a writer. At least, he claimed to be. He certainly spent enough time on it, as he sat before his antiquated typewriter, hour after hour, day after day. One page after another of tripe. The worst kind of tripe. And everyone knew it, except for him.
His agent, if you could call him an agent, would barely accept his calls anymore. What was left of his friends avoided him for fear he might ask them to read something he'd written. Even his own mother, rest her soul, had lied to him, claiming her eyes had become too bad to read. It wasn't his style that was bad, but rather his imagination that couldn't conjure a new idea, even on a good day.
To Sandros, none of that mattered. He knew he was great, if only his work could reach the right person. So he continued typing more of the same. He certainly had enough time, considering no one would talk to him.
His latest triumph sat completed before him and he couldn't wait to call his agent. He grinned as he pictured the expression on his agent's face, when he read it. It would be, he knew, an overnight success.
Sandros rose and carefully placed a thick rubber band around the manuscript. "Who knows," he murmured, "one day, this original may be worth something."
He placed the document in a thick manila envelope and picked up the phone. His end of the conversation sounded like this.
"Hey Bernie, it's me… Sandros… Sandros Lefrak, the science fiction writer. I just finished a book I know is going to… why don't you just wait until you… there's no need to raise your… I'm coming over." Swearing, Sandros slammed down the receiver. Once he was famous, he'd get himself a real agent.
Sandros moved about his apartment without looking around. Truthfully, there wasn't much to see. An ancient black and white television resting on a snack table. A sofa that had seen better days in the seventies. A coffee table that had once belonged to a friend, upon which congregated half dozen soda cans, empty or almost so. And on the floor, two piles of clothes; one dirty, the other filthy.
He walked to the dirty pile, grabbed a sweatshirt even the moths had given up on and left his apartment. During the entire hour trip on a city bus, he daydreamed about what he would do with the advance. Book signings, conventions, the chicks, everything that came with success. He cursed when he broke from his reverie, only to find he'd missed his stop by five blocks. He climbed off the bus at the next stop and ran all the way to his agent's office. Five minutes later, he was sitting across the desk from Bernie Kaplan.
"This time it's different, Bernie. I can feel it."
Bernie nodded, barely looking up from his newspaper. "That's precisely what you said last time. What was the name of that gem, hmm? The Day the Earth Blew Up and if I have to read another manuscript by you, I'll wish it had. How many times do we have to dance this dance? Do you think I like telling you that your work is worthless and that you have no talent, and no imagination? Do you suppose you'd even be sitting here, if I didn't promise your mom I'd look after you? Do you think I enjoy looking at the expression in your eyes, when I tell you no publisher in his right mind would give you a dime for all of your works put together? Listen to me. There are other jobs, other areas where you might excel, but as a writer, you stink."
Sandros jumped to his feet. "Stink, eh? Well, you can just forget it. I'll find someone else to look at my manuscript. When it's number one on the Times best seller list, don't come running to me."
"By the time any of your books end up on any list, I'll be too old and feeble to run. Now why don't you go play somewhere else. I have work to do."
Sandros snatched the envelope and stormed from the room, slamming the door on his way out.
Sandros was still irate over his meeting with Bernie, when he met the man who would change his life. The man was odd looking to say the least, though at first glance, Sandros couldn't say why. Then it came to him. No part of him was visible. He wore a hooded sweatshirt, sunglasses, a muffler about his neck and mouth, long sleeves and driving gloves. His faded jeans ended where his black boots began. It was an outfit a twentieth century invisible man might consider.
Sandros noticed the man leaning against the side of his building, as he climbed the stairs to the front door. He was determined to ignore the oddly dressed stranger, until he spoke. "Hey, you!" His voice was a low rasp.
"I don't have any change."
"I'm not looking for change. You're the writer, right?"
Surprise lit Sandros' eyes. "Yes, that's right."
"I know all about you. You're a hack. Wouldn't know an original idea if it bit you on the ankle."
Sandros turned to go inside. "I don't have to take this."
"I can get you published."
For a moment, the writer was going to ignore him. It was probably just a gag anyway, but, if there was even a chance, wouldn't he have to hear the man out? "How?"
"You've been told before it's not your writing that's your problem, but your subject matter."
"I have something that might interest you then. It's an idea machine."
Sandros rolled his eyes. "A what?"
"I can show you. And it won't cost you anything at all if you don't get published."
"Where is it?" asked Sandros, certain he was being put on.
"Be home tomorrow at noon and I'll bring it."
Without another word the man turned and left, moving away rapidly. Sandros Lefrak stared at him until he disappeared from sight.
Sandros spent a restless night, dreaming dreams of greatness and trying to persuade himself not to get his hopes up. He was not entirely successful. From shortly after dawn, when he'd finally given up on getting any real sleep, he kept one eye on the clock. He tried every trick he could think of to kill time. He turned on the TV and spent the best part of an hour trying to adjust the antennae. Afterwards, on an only slightly wavy screen, he watched a group of young women work out to bad disco. He thought about eating, but there wasn't anything in the house. He drank three cans of soda, which joined the others on his coffee table. When it was late enough, he tried to call everyone he knew, all of whom turned out to be unavailable. Finally, after what seemed like the better part of eternity, there was a knock. Sandros glanced at the clock. It was precisely noon.
The writer opened the door. Outside was the same man he'd seen, in the same exact outfit. Sandros was no stranger to wearing the same thing more than one day in a row and could sympathize. The stranger stepped aside and Sandros saw the thing.
It wasn't a machine at least not outwardly. It looked more like a hamper on wheels, with a telephone receiver attached to the front of it. Sandros let out a breath, after he realized he'd been holding it. The man rolled the machine in and pulled up a chair. He motioned for the writer to sit. He lifted the receiver and held it out.
Sandros considered the machine. "How does it work?"
"First the arrangement. I get thirty percent of all the money you make from everything you publish, as long as the box is involved. Agreed?"
Why not? It wasn't likely to do anything anyway. "Okay, you've got a deal. What do I do?"
The man pressed the receiver into his hand. "Put this to your ear and close your eyes. Soon you'll see a swirl of color. It should only take a couple of minutes. Follow the swirl with your mind, until it resolves into an image. It's that simple."
Sandros lifted the headset to his ear and closed his eyes. Of course, he heard and saw nothing. He was, he knew, making a fool of himself. He was about to say as much, when movement caught his eye.
It was the slightest wisp of blue floating in the air, as if it were smoke. As he watched, the blue continued to grow in intensity. Soon white began to swirl within it. Gradually he came to realize he was looking at a sky. He looked downward and below was a city like no city he'd ever seen. He watched more closely as some of the denizens of that impossible city came to his attention. Creatures like he'd never imagined, living lives almost beyond belief.
He followed them and for a time, lived their adventures. When he looked up again, the room was dark and the stranger was gone. He shook himself, but wasted no time. He dragged the chair to his typewriter and began typing. Three months later, he'd finished his first real novel.
Bernie Kaplan sat in his office, studying a proposal. When the phone rang, he absently picked it up. He almost hung up, when he recognized the voice at the other end.
"Bernie, you got a minute?"
"Not for you, Sandros. I don't want to go through this again."
He was about to hang up, when Sandros said, "Listen, you're right. All of what I've written before was dull and repetitive."
"Thank you. Now perhaps, you'll take my advice and try something else."
"I have, Bernie and my new book is brilliant."
"No, wait! Hear me out. I'll make a deal with you. If you don't like what I have to say in five minutes, you can hang up the phone and I'll never call you again."
The agent sat silently for a time. Certainly that was the best deal he'd been offered all week. "Okay, go."
At first the agent barely listened to the story being outlined, but then, as the minutes passed, he became involved. It was different from anything Sandros Lefrak had ever written. Five minutes became ten, then twenty. Finally, the writer stopped talking.
"And you have this written?"
"All done, and there are more ideas where that came from. Can I come by?"
Bernie shook his head, but surprised himself with the answer. "Is tomorrow at two good for you?"
"I'll be there."
Long after the call ended, Bernie Kaplan stared at the phone.
Sandros sold six books in the next three years. He became a fan favorite at Science Fiction Conventions, which he attended regularly. Whenever a fan or another author asked where he got his ideas, Sandros always had the same answer. "Here and there."
It seemed he could do no wrong. Between novels, Sandros wrote and sold short stories. There could be no doubt about it. Sandros Lefrak was one of the rising stars in the science fiction game. Indeed, Sandros' career was moving along at "warp speed." At least that was how one interviewer had phrased it.
He no longer took buses and trains, but instead drove an expensive red Italian sports car. Nor was he alone any more. Often friends would drop by, even women. Sometimes they stayed the night, though he never got involved. He also never told anyone about the odd box that sat off the side of his living room. Once a year, he'd take a vacation that was altogether too expensive, but if you have the money, why not spend it? In general, the writer's life was good.
On a cold night in January, five years after his first book was published. Sandros sat in his living room, editing his latest work. There was a knock at the door. Annoyed at the interruption, he put the manuscript aside and rose. "Who is it?"
The voice that answered was familiar, though it took him a moment to place it. "I am here for my money."
Sandros thought for a few moments, then cursed. The freak who had given him the machine. Sandros had not seen him since the day he'd brought it over. The writer crossed the room and opened the door. The man entered without being invited. "So," he said, turning toward the writer. "How are things?"
"Good," said Sandros, nervously. "With you?"
The other laughed. "Come. You must know why I am here. Thirty percent."
Sandros paled. He didn't have much money saved. There were always expenses and now this man wanted… how much was thirty percent of everything he'd made? As he calculated, he became paler and paler. "Look, I don't have that much, and after all, I did all the work. I'll tell you what. I'll give you ten percent. That's probably more money than you deserve."
"The deal was for thirty. I'll accept nothing less."
Sandros bared his teeth. How dare this man walk into his home and demand money from him? "Very well, then you shall have none at all. Get out!"
Without another word, the stranger turned and left.
During the next weeks, Sandros was apprehensive, wondering if and when the man would return. After a time, when it didn't happen, he relaxed. Another year passed and two more best sellers were added to his already impressive list of credentials. He'd just finished selling his newest novel and was feeling good. It was time to start another.
He sat before the idea machine, as he had on countless occasions and lifted the receiver. He had since figured out that the machine was a doorway into other dimensions and the images that appeared in his mind were really happening in some other space time. He wondered what today's adventure would be.
He took a deep breath and waited. For a time nothing happened. Then, as always, a hint of color, this time yellow, began to form. It started to grow, then stopped and faded altogether. He waited, but it didn't return.
He opened his eyes and stared at the machine. That had never happened before.
During the next week, he tried the machine daily, but apparently it had stopped working. Another week passed. Bernie had left countless messages on his machine. Messages he didn't return. What would he tell him? I'm sorry, but my extra-dimensional viewer is down?
Sandros didn't know what to do. He thought furiously. He even considered trying to get inside the machine to see if something had come loose, but that was risky. He couldn't risk damaging it further. In fact, possibly the only person who might be able to help was the freak who had given it to him in the first place.
Sandros knew he had to find the man. He grabbed his leather flight jacket from the coat hook by the door and pulled it on. It never occurred to him the jacket cost more than his entire wardrobe once did. His mind was on the freak, who really had no reason to help him. He cursed softly and closed the door behind him.
He walked all over the area that day and the day after. Every night, he came home to more messages from friends, publishers and, of course, Bernie. Each day he returned to the street. After a week, he was ready to give up. He sat on the stairs in front of his building, head in his hands. He'd been on the verge of attaining everything he'd ever wanted. Now, all gone. A sound directly before him, made him raise his head. Above him stood the oddly dressed man, still in the same clothes.
"Ah yes, the writer."
Sandros looked up at him. "The machine stopped working."
"Indeed. Why don't you fix it?"
"I don't know how…" he began to yell, and stopped when he noticed he was attracting attention. "I don't know how to fix it."
The man placed a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. "I know how."
"Thirty percent. It's yours, if you can repair it."
"Now, I want fifty."
"Fifty percent? That's highway robbery."
The man turned to leave, but Sandros grabbed his arm. "All right. Fifty percent, but only if you get it working."
"You've lied to me once. Why should I trust you now?"
"Because... I know that I need you now. I may need you again. I can't afford to take that chance. I have to pay. I have no choice."
He studied the stranger, trying to gauge his reaction. After all this time, Sandros did not even know his name. The writer hoped he was convincing. He certainly had no intention of paying such an outrageous amount. After a time, the stranger nodded. "Very well. Fifty percent." Sandros turned away, so that the man would not see the look in his eyes.
Back at the apartment, the stranger motioned for Sandros to sit and take the receiver. The writer complied.
"I want you tell me if you see anything."
Sandros leaned forward and closed his eyes. For a time, he saw nothing. Then, a red mist began to coalesce. He focused his attention on that area and it resolved into sharp relief. "Yes. There is something."
"What is it that you see?"
The writer told him. The world was barren and hot. Lava geysers sprayed into the air from innumerable vents, and horrible beasts roamed the plains; creatures so horrible they would be almost impossible to describe, as if someone had found a way to solidify nightmares. For a time the creatures continued to grow, until Sandros realized that they were not growing, but getting closer. He watched, spellbound, as they drew nearer. He could almost feel the heat of the place. He could smell the stench. Only a moment before the large clawed hand reached out and grabbed him did he finally suspect the truth.
His scream went unheard, since most of it took place in another dimension. The creatures converged on the hapless writer and ripped him asunder.
* * *
I stood and watched for as long as I could, then opened my eyes. The oddly clad stranger was gone. Shaken, I lit a cigarette and walked to the window. I had been a big fan of Sandros Lefrak. Read all of his books. I was sad to learn of his disappearance six months ago. Now I was the only person who knew what fate had claimed him. I turned to regard the strange machine, which had only this day come into my possession. I know only this. When the oddly dressed man returns for his thirty percent, I will give it to him.