Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
One Thing Leads to Your Mother
by Desmond Warzel
Yates propelled himself into the office. The door closed behind him, silencing the emergency klaxons that had followed him around for days like Hell’s own Greek chorus. The only remaining sound was his pulse pounding in his head: too loud, too fast.
A seated figure shimmered into existence behind the desk. White, male, balding, wearing a tan sweater. “Lieutenant David Eldridge Yates. It’s agreeable to see you. You have yet to avail yourself of my services.”
“You’re the psychologist?” asked Yates.
“System: Holographic Replica: INdividual Kounseling. S.H.R.I.N.K. for short.”
“That’s a bit forced.”
“You may call me Dr. Turing.”
“Is my appearance acceptable? I can be either sex, and can approximate any ethnicity.”
“Doesn’t matter. What’s important is, you’re the only functioning computer on the ship.”
“Perhaps that accounts for your agitated state. Is there some sort of emergency?”
“You gotta be kidding me.”
“With the exception of the library module, I have no access to the ship’s systems. My isolation ensures the confidentiality of all counseling sessions. What is the problem?”
“What isn’t the problem?” Yates retorted. “Three days ago, Lieutenant Arcuri woke me from cryosleep. My turn on watch. No sooner had I put Arcuri under when everything went to hell. Cascading failure. Systems went down like dominoes. Some went quietly; most didn’t.”
“I’m afraid I don’t see how I can help.”
“I fixed it all. Every last system. Been awake seventy-two hours straight, but it’s done. All I have to do is restart the master system, and everything should come back online.”
“And?” prompted Turing.
“I can’t get in. I forgot my password.”
Turing raised an eyebrow. That he could react at all was a testament to the prescience of his programmers (and their refusal to underestimate the depths of human idiocy).
“You’ve got my file,” said Yates. “Just retrieve my password, and I’ll get out of your hair.”
“I’m sorry, Dave; I’m afraid I can’t do that.” The joke eluded the oblivious Yates, as did Turing’s self-satisfied smirk at finally having a legitimate context in which to deploy it. The lieutenant registered only annoyed confusion.
“Why not? You know I’m me.”
“Passwords do not appear in personnel records. They’re meant to be secret, after all,” Turing said reproachfully.
“Well, we got an hour to figure it out,” said Yates. “Then the auxiliary batteries on the cryopods conk out. Goodbye, crew; hello, just the two of us, alone together for eternity.”
“Perish the thought,” said Turing, with distaste. “The task you propose lies beyond my parameters, however, my perceptual acuity with respect to the human psyche is unmatched. We must try.” He indicated the couch at the side of the room. “I find that most people prefer to lie down. Would you care to?”
To Yates, who had spent three days caroming off the bulkheads like a racquetball (if racquetballs spent their existences in a state of sheer panic), the couch’s allure suddenly eclipsed the aggregated temptations of a dozen shore leaves in the dozen seediest ports in explored space. He kicked gently off from the wall and maneuvered across the room, pulling himself into position atop the leather cushions and strapping himself down.
“Nice place,” he said, and meant it. The rest of the ship (whose designers had seen too many of the wrong movies) was unlivable on a good day: all stark white passageways and blinking LEDs. “Carpet, paneling, real furniture; I’m gonna drop in more often. If we survive, that is.”
“My analysis of human behavior suggests some preliminary possibilities. Is your password ‘password’? Or a numerical sequence? ‘1-2-3-4-5,’ for example?”
“What?” Yates tried to heave himself upright in indignation; the restraint limited him to an awkward-looking obtuse angle. “Because I’m black, right? ‘Oh, he must be too dumb or lazy to pick a real password.'”
“I’ll take that as ‘negative,'” sniffed Turing. “Is it your mother’s maiden name?”
“Don’t talk about my mother.”
“You shrinks just love to blame everything on a guy’s mother, right? I’m not having it. If we were Catholic, my mother’d be a saint.”
“All the more reason to use her name, perhaps?”
“I thought about it. But her maiden name was Eldridge.”
“Your middle name.”
“Can’t use your own name, they said.”
“They told you this at the academy?”
“What academy? I worked my way up from airman, third class. I’m the only one on this ship who did.”
“So you chose your password during basic training.”
“Yeah. We had half a ream of paperwork and five minutes to fill it out. With two pituitary cases in sergeants’ stripes screaming into our ears the whole time.”
“For my part, I’ve never approved of such aural assaults as motivational tools.”
“Wasn’t that bad. No worse than trying to do homework when my dad was in the house.”
“Let’s talk about that. You were born in 2190, in New York City?
“Yeah. Lived there until I was thirteen.”
“With your mother.”
“Man, I told you not to bring up my mother. Try that where I come from, and see what happens.”
“And where is that, specifically?”
“Is ‘Brooklyn’ your password?”
“No. Why would it be?”
“You were under stress when you selected it. You might have unconsciously sought solace in a happier time.”
“I see that you graduated from high school in Erie, Pennsylvania.”
“Yeah. Central Tech High School. Go, Falcons.”
“Is any of that ringing a bell for you?”
“What? ‘Erie’? ‘Central’? ‘Falcons’? No, sorry.”
“No need to be sorry.”
“Don’t worry, I didn’t mean it.”
“When did you move to Erie?”
“Don’t you know?”
“Yes, but my memory isn’t at issue.”
“When I was fifteen.”
“You moved there with your mother.”
“You talk about her one more time, I’m gonna put you right on your holographic ass.”
“A novel threat, if unenforceable. Your concern is noted; I’ll avoid broaching the subject unnecessarily.”
“So. You moved to Erie with your mother?”
Yates fished a stylus from the pocket of his coveralls and flung it. It passed harmlessly through Turing’s head and ricocheted around the office until it lodged in the kneewell beneath the desk. Turing remained unperturbed. “My understanding is that we have very little time. It’s up to you how much we waste.”
Yates massaged his temples. His pulse was down to a resting rate, but his head still pounded. Starship duty: all the benefits of a hangover without all that bothersome drinking. A little something for the recruiting posters. “Yes. With my mother.”
“Cheaper than New York. And she had family there.”
“What did your father have to say about it?”
“Nothing that mattered.”
“What’s his name?”
“Same as mine.”
“So you’re a Junior.”
“No. Different middle names.”
“And your father’s middle name?”
“Jerome. So what?”
“Is ‘Jerome’ your password?”
“You could have chosen something with negative associations and then repressed it after the fact.”
“It’s not ‘Jerome.’ Trust me.”
“Was your father around very much?”
“Is anybody’s, these days?”
“Do you resent him for that?”
“The man was a tyrant. The longer he stayed away, the better.”
“And your mother was more lax, in terms of discipline?”
“No, she just knew how to let a kid be a kid. Again with my mother?”
“You were eighteen when you selected the password; thus, your childhood made up the totality of your experiences. The answer lies there.”
“You’re just jealous. You don’t have a mother, so you gotta rag on everyone else’s.”
“I had a mother. Her name was ELIZA.” This was the second joke to sail majestically over Yates’s head. Turing scheduled a thorough examination of his humor subroutines, contingent on the crew’s survival.
“Fine, my childhood. What else do you want to know?”
“Is there anything you think I ought to know? Something you’ve avoided discussing?”
“Obviously you think there is.”
“You were in Brooklyn through age thirteen and Erie from fifteen on. What’s missing?”
“Age fourteen, I guess.”
“What happened then?”
“I lived with my father in Ohio for a year.”
“Why keep that to yourself?”
“Nobody ever brought up the subject of David Jerome Yates voluntarily.”
“You didn’t think it might be important?”
“The worst year of my life? Sure, if you’re a sadist, it’s important.”
“He thought Brooklyn had too many bad influences. Said if I came to Toledo for a year, I’d straighten up.”
“Is ‘Toledo’ your password?”
Yates waved off the question irritably. “No, it’s not. What makes you think it’ll be that simple? ‘Oh, the black guy has to have an obvious password, or he’ll forget it.'”
“Hostility is unconstructive. Moreover, you did forget it.”
“It’s not ‘Toledo.’ We didn’t live there anyway; we lived in the suburbs.”
“I don’t remember. Doesn’t matter. One suburb’s just like every other.”
“Did you like it there?”
“Hated it. Never felt at home. Plus, I was the only black kid in my class.”
“They gave you a hard time?”
“No, I gave them a hard time.”
“Wasn’t their fault; I just wanted gone. I pestered my dad every day. ‘I wanna live with mom, I wanna live with mom.’ Just ‘Mom, mom, mom,’ all the time. I thought you were gonna try not to bring her up.”
“I didn’t; you did.”
“There’s nothing here; try something else.”
“What school did you attend?”
“Gateway Middle School.”
“You remember the school, but not the town it was in?”
“What street did you live on?”
“In what town?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re hiding something from yourself.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Something you wish to avoid.”
“I don’t think so.”
“What was your zip code?”
“Zip code? Like on a letter? What is this, 1870?”
“Do you remember it?”
“Four three five three seven.” Yates’s eyes widened. “Why do I know that? I remember the zip code, the street, the school, but not the town. Why?”
Yates unstrapped himself from the couch and maneuvered to the desk. This close, Turing became slightly transparent and the paneling on the far wall showed through. It was like being haunted by an especially placid ghost.
Yates pointed at the switch on the desk. “You said you have library access?”
Turing nodded. “The library itself is down, of course, but my cached version should be intact.”
Yates tapped the switch; a holographic interface window seemed to emerge directly from the solid wooden desktop. He began his manipulations, flinging icons around the display in all directions like pucks in a shuffleboard match between madmen.
“Take your time,” advised Turing. “Keep your head about you.”
“I don’t come in here and tell you how to do your job.”
“Actually, you’ve done nothing but—”
The remainder of Turing’s complaint went unuttered, as Yates slapped the desktop triumphantly. “Got it!” He consulted his chronometer. “Still time, too. That’s how we do it in Brooklyn, baby.” He kicked off from the desk and hurtled across the office, hitting the doorframe at a bone-jarring velocity.
He fumbled the door open and was immediately assaulted by the emergency klaxons, which had gamely kept up their atonal ululations throughout the session. It was like being shot in both eardrums simultaneously.
“Don’t forget to schedule a follow-up appointment,” Turing called impotently as Yates vanished down the passageway. “It’s in the regulations.
“And you’re welcome, by the way.”
Turing manipulated Yates’s abandoned interface window (no small feat for a being with no substance) until it registered on one of several visual sensors throughout the office which served as his “eyes.” There, highlighted, was the sought-after name.
Turing wondered idly if any psychology journal could be convinced to publish a paper authored by a S.H.R.I.N.K. unit. Yates’s unique case cried out to be documented (with names redacted, of course).
He’d repressed the name of the town, not to purge himself of it but to preserve it. During the year he’d spent under his father’s thumb in his Midwestern purgatory, it had become his only comfort, even if he didn’t consciously understand why. And when he’d left home again years later, this time for boot camp, and found himself at the tender mercies of the drill instructors, it had bubbled unbidden to the surface and spilled onto a form, in a blank marked “Password.” Six simple letters that, when read aloud, tied the whole thing together: M-A-U-M-E-E.
A small Ohio town called Maumee.
“I’m happy to see you again, Lieutenant Yates.”
“Don’t be; I’m just obeying regulations.”
“Gravity seems to agree with you. I trust everything’s well in hand?”
“All systems green. Here’s the thing; my watch is almost up. Tomorrow I revive Ensign Aviles and go back into cryosleep.”
“The rest of the crew, they have no idea how close they came to biting the dust. Now that I know I might not wake up once I go back under, I want to get something off my chest. Something I’m leaving out of my official report. Can you keep a secret?”
“All S.H.R.I.N.K. sessions are confidential.”
“We’re in a confessional, as far as you’re concerned.”
“I thought you said you weren’t Catholic.”
“Always with the sly answers. Nobody likes you very much.”
“You have my word. Confess away.”
“I know what caused the system failure. Interference from an unauthorized electronic device.”
“What kind of device?”
“A digital photo frame.”
“Personal electronics are prohibited while the ship is in flight. It’s the oldest rule there is. It goes all the way back to the days of aviation.”
“I didn’t know they were serious about that. When was the last time you heard about an electronic device disabling a vessel?”
“Fifteen seconds ago.”
“We’re allowed personal effects. That specifically includes photos. Aren’t photos digital?”
A suspicion took root in Turing’s virtual mind: a detail that, if verifiable, would tie his journal article together perfectly.
“Whose picture was in the frame?” he asked.
“She must be somebody important.”
“What difference does it make?”
“You wanted to confess. I’m acting as confessor.” And I need you to admit it out loud so I can write it up.
“Suit yourself.” As Yates stalked out of the office, Turing continued speaking at a conspicuously elevated volume. “It must have been someone of a quite objectionable appearance, for you to be so reticent.
“It’s probably someone of poor hygiene, as well. I don’t blame you for your secrecy.
“Especially if the person is of questionable moral character, which I can only assume, given your reluctance to discuss the matter.”
Yates’s distant footfalls ceased. Switching subroutines, Turing accessed the obscure data he’d unearthed during his humor self-assessment. He seldom departed from his default demeanor, but this was for the advancement of his field.
“I hear she’s so dumb, she put headlights on an FTL cruiser.
“And so ugly, the captain strapped her to the deflector dish to scare the meteoroids away.
“And so fat, if time were a dimension, she’d be four days long.”
Yates burst into the office, fists clenched. “Didn’t I tell you not to talk about my mother?”
But by the time Yates reached the desk, Turing had vanished.
About the Author
Desmond Warzel is the author of a few dozen short stories, four of which have been featured at Cast of Wonders. He’s also particularly proud of his appearances in venerable magazines like Fantasy & Science Fiction, at nifty websites like Abyss & Apex, and in other quadrants of the vast podcasting galaxy, such as The Drabblecast. His most recent new work appears in the anthology Coven: Masterful Tales of Fantasy, from Purple Sun Press. He lives in Pennsylvania.
About the Narrator
Patrick Bazile is an American Actor/Voice Over Talent and a distinct sound in the voice over industry. Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, Patrick has voiced everything from PSA’s to major product brands. With a deep, commanding voice often referred to as “The Voice of God”, Patrick demands attention. Follow him online and on Twitter.