Sci fi short story - Reincarnation - won ss contest #87
Here's a story I put together for weekly short story contest #87 ('Reincarnation' theme).
Thanks for all your votes to make this the winning story
I put a lot of thought into doing something different in terms of the storyline. I chanced on a catchy idea and the story itself fell into place fairly easily once I realised how I could tell it.
As well as the funny/odd scenario of army babies, I wanted to play more on the comedy side with the idea of the "fish out of water", i.e. the stereotypical hippie put into a situation where he's dealing with the stereotypical macho military guys.
The Terrible Twos
To Josef, the War Room looked like a parody of itself. From the antique wood panelling, the heavily lacquered boardroom table, the overpowering smell of treated leather and the giant hanging maps dotted with giant pins, it seemed more like a film cliché of a Command Centre rather than the real thing. That is, except for all the highchairs.
They were easily the most elaborate highchairs he had ever seen, and clearly custom-made for the room. The ten black leather seats matched the remaining five adult-size chairs, the wooden frames the same deep shade as the central table and the elaborate panelling on the walls and high roof.
As well as five grownups on normal seats, atop of each highchair were ten babies - each no older than two years old - dressed either in military uniforms or tiny suits. There were four chubby European-looking children, the others with Asiatic, African or Indian features. Some were busily working on the feeding trays in front of them, each tray inlaid with a small keyboard and an official nametag secured to the front.
“Ah, ok... so now will you tell me what the hell is going on, soldier man?” Josef whispered, scratching his scraggy beard and turning to the staunch, square-jawed Captain Cooper. The soldier had not talked since they had left Josef’s house and all the questions Josef had posed in the Humvee had been met by stony silence from Cooper as well as the two huge, uniformed thugs they had travelled with. He could barely believe this day was not a dream but he could have sworn he used up the last of his peyote weeks ago.
Cooper leaned in, inches from his face. Josef had allergies to many consumer chemicals, and the smell of cologne and pipe tobacco made his eyes water.
“Believe it or not, I’m the friendliest guy you’ll meet today. So don’t screw around,” Cooper said softly. “Best thing you can do is take it seriously when they ask you a question. Very seriously,” he added ominously.
Josef tried to suppress a giggle. Cooper’s macho act fit in perfectly with the décor, but the melodrama was a bit much in a room full of infants. He was sure he sould have been intimidated but the whole experience was just too surreal.
It had begun as a typical day. Josef had started with a dawn yoga session beside his vegetable garden, followed by updating his Centre for Enlightened Living website with his usual “Golden Aura Essential Smile” blog of the day. He had only a small following, around eighty hits per day, but he always trusted his positive mantra that ‘Great changes start with but small steps on the journey.’
Seated at the dining room table for work, for the first hour he had annotated another reference book for his latest research paper on Ayurvedic samskaras for purifying monkshood. He was in his underwear in the kitchen, slowly steeping a pot of colon cleansing tea, when he heard a loud knock on the patio. Captain Cooper and the gigantic thugs had brushed past him as he opened the screen door, followed by four soldiers wheeling hand trolleys with stacks of empty archive boxes. Cooper read him his rights, quoting some obscure passage of the new ‘Nationwide Security’ provisions and Josef was given five minutes to leave, just enough time to grab a wrinkled Enlightened Living t-shirt, some wrap-around fishermans pants and his trusty sandals, as well as his academic portfolio which Cooper had specifically asked for.
They drove for around an hour and a half before pulling into a dark carpark. Josef was escorted through what looked like a typical government building except for the soldiers with huge automatic weapons at each entrance. And now into this room that looked like a cross between a command centre and a crèche.
Cooper pointed to a high-backed chair at the end of the table, and it was a moment before Josef realised he was meant to sit. As he sank into the plush leather, Cooper dropped a dense folder in front of him, the cover and binding marked in bold letters ‘Project Relife’. Josef laid the manila folder with own papers next to them.
The baby at the head of the table banged a tiny gavel. He was a little blond boy with a doll-sized military uniform complete with tiny ribbons. “I now call this meeting to order,” the baby squeaked. The nametag identified him as ‘General Chuck McTavish’.
“As discussed, we have with us Mr Josef Zimmermann. This meeting is to brief him on our current status and to assess his ongoing status now that he has been .. removed .. from civilian life.” Josef didn’t know a baby could be so ominous.
“Now, Mr Zimmermann,” McTavish fixed Josef with a steady and unweilding, but goddamn cute, glare. “Five years ago you loaded a research paper on your blog, named, ah, ‘Eye of newt and toe of I used to be a frog - the recipe to discover your past lives’.”
“Uh, yes Sir, General Baby Sir, uh, Mr General,” Josef stumbled. This was a thought exercise he wrote about finding where in the world your next reincarnation would be. He had sent it to Homeopathic Holistics Monthly, Wiccan Quarterly and Organic Crystal Healing Weekly but each rejected the draft as “too wacky”. So he ended up just posting it online.
“Sir will be fine” the baby waved impatiently. “And … four and a half years ago you published a paper in ‘Eco Therapies and Naturist Quarterly’ magazine, entitled ‘Temporal Displacement - Using Ley Lines and Crystal Channelling to discover your next life’.
“That’s right, yes.”
“Mr Zimmermann,” McTavish straightened himself in his tiny chair. “You have been under government surveillance for approximately four years now. Your history has been screened and the best assessment teams have profiled your background. We have concluded that you are not a covert threat. You are, shall we say, a statistical example of dumb luck.”
“Excuse me?” Josef said, startled.
“Your theories defy all known scientific explanations but they were... Correct. We have no idea how this happened, other than your own dumb luck, but me sitting here is all the testimony anyone needs. Unfortunately none of your other theories before or since have shown any merit whatsoever.”
“Ok, thanks for the vote of confidence,” he smiled sarcastically but was met with intense glares from around the table.
“The fact is despite your findings being a fluke, we are now in a situation where we need your advice.”
The baby punched in a series of commands on the keyboard in front of him, and the central part of the table flickered, displaying a map of the world with a series of small flashing dots. Ok, Josef thought, maybe this room isn’t so antique after all.
“Mr Zimmermann,” he continued, “Our agencies scan hundreds of thousands of fringe theories and opinions every year, mostly posted on personal blogs. Some of them are flagged for more investigation, such as yours. An isolated population in Northern Mongolia was first chosen for testing your recipe for past life regression...”
“Hold on man,” Josef started, “you don’t mean you actually... TRIED my recipe?”
The baby glared at him. “I don’t know if you are being willfully ignorant or just stupid. That is exactly what I just said.”
“No, but what I mean is... that was just a list of the most potent herbs for regression, not a real.. not an actual recipe! To actually make that stuff would be hugely expensive, and probably poisonous if you drank it.”
“Yes, there were some setbacks before we corrected the concentration to an acceptable level of civilian losses.”
Josef was dizzy, he leaned back in his chair. These crazy babies had hurt people. Civilians.
He shut his eyes but the squeaky baby voice continued. “We found your recipe worked but it was scattershot. We could invoke permanent past life regression in all surviving under five year olds in a population but we didn’t know who we would be bringing back. Believe me it is not a pretty sight when a town full of babies all begin speaking different languages and trying to get in touch with their grandchildren overseas.
“Now. You will have heard about the Embassy bombing two years ago. There were many high-level government casualties.”
Josef nodded. The news guys had said it was probably funded by the Russians, or the Chinese... or Australia, or it could have been the Swedish? He didn’t pay much attention at the time.
He looked around the table again and studied the baby nametags. “Of course... I know your names. You’re all...”
“Dead. Yes, very inconvenient for us. We lost at least six months with that incident and a lot of man hours. But fortunately the incentive from the bombing declassified this project somewhat and opened up enough military funding for us to look at the next stage. We found your technique to pinpoint the location of a person’s next reincarnation was effective within a hundred mile range.”
“So you found where the birth would be,” Josef asked, “then poisoned everyone in a hundred miles to find them? How many people get poisoned?!”
Another baby, a cherubic Asian girl on the other side of the table, slammed her fist on her tray. Her nametag read “General Roy Standford”.
“Look you little puke,” she piped, “It’s minimal. Less than four percent casualties from drinking the water, ok!” Standford exclaimed. “But your goddamn hippie crystal gazing doesn’t work anymore! I have had eight good men killed in the last four months and we can’t find them! Do you know how much it costs to train a new Navy Seal?!” Her voice cracked and Josef thought she might have been starting to cry. Baby hormones, Josef mused.
“In a nutshell,” McTavish nodded. “It worked for a while but now it is getting less accurate. Our last search was for the retired Secretary of Veterans Affairs - we had to contaminate the Tajik water supply from Duachanbe to Garm.”
Josef nodded, feeling dizzy. He had no idea what they were talking about, apart from the figure ringing in his ears - four percent of the people dead. Through HIS own recipe! He could visualise his own wheel of samsara, his own reincarnation path becoming much, much, much bigger.
Josef set his head on the giant table with a dull ‘thud’. The room was silent for two minutes. Three.
He suddenly looked up, surprising the assorted adults and infants with his wide grin and bright eyes. “That’s it!” he shouted.
“Mr Zimmerman...” McTavish started, but Josef interrupted.
“... I just realised it’s all your fault!”
The room was filled with stunned silence. Josef knew he was supposed to be intimidated in here but not anymore.
“Those soldiers,” he said, turning to Standford, “The baby seals you’re looking for now. They were part of the project, right?”
Another baby shot Standford a warning glance but she waved it off. “Yes,” she replied, “snatch and grab once we could pinpoint where the Secretary was being born.”
“Oooh, that makes perfect sense! It’s Karma!” He looked around, triumphant, but there was no response.
“Karma is a myth,” McTavish retorted.
“And babies don’t talk Mr Man!” Josef laughed. Maybe he did have some of that peyote last night after all? He felt high as a kite.
“My paper was only about finding the reincarnation after a normal life. Normal!” Josef continued. “But you lot have taken the cake. Poisoning innocent people, snatching babies! Wow. The universe has booted you waaay of the map for this! I hope you’ve got good health insurance for this life cause the next hundred times round the only place your soldier teams will find you is the nearest roach motel!”
The room erupted. The speakers on the highchairs screamed with feedback as all the babies started shouting at once. Two even climbed over their trays and it looked like they were trying to jump onto the table in order to reach Josef.
Captain Cooper grabbed him by the scruff of his neck with one hand, pulling Josef’s seat out from under him with the other. Josef felt himself hustled out of the room, a familiar-looking manila folder narrowly missing his head as they left. Cooper hustled Josef back down the corridor and into a small interrogation room, pushing Josef onto a small chair then leaving and locking the door.
It was at least three hours before Cooper returned with a small briefcase, one of his thugs alongside. Cooper placed the briefcase on the table in front of Josef and opened it, revealing five large bundles of hundred dollar bills and a passport.
“You can never go back to your old life. If you can call it a life.” Cooper said bluntly. “But this will set you up wherever you want to go. I suggest as far away as you can go. Your passport and new ID is legitimate, your photo and fingerprints match.”
“But why...?” Josef began.
“Zimmerman,” the thug interrupted in a deep voice, “this military is a lot of things but we are not an oligarchy.”
Cooper closed the briefcase, the latches clicking loudly in the empty room. “My orders were only to bring you here, not to make sure you stay here. I didn’t sign on to serve under hereditary rule and a lot of the men in my unit will agree.” Cooper said, handing him the briefcase as the thug steered Josef out the door. “You’re free to go. But go quickly. I don’t know the loyalties of the other troops in this building.”
As Josef turned he heard the loud clatter as Cooper sent the chair flying to the other side of the interrogation room. “Damn kids” Cooper muttered loudly as Josef gathered himself and followed the thug towards the nearest exit.
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