Windhover Literary Magazine

Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

Deadline Extended!

The deadline for submissions has been extended to January 17th! Feel free to email your creative work to windhover-editor@ncsu.edu :) Poetry, prose, short stories, music, and artwork are all welcome!

Broadway and Water by Andrew Dodson

Jon Thrower sat alone in a corner booth, underneath the big cursive B in Buckner’s Pub scrawled in green paint across the front glass, swallowing pints of cheap beer and filling a black, plastic ashtray with cigarette butts. From his vantage point Jon could nose through Bukowski and still eye the lazy Mississippi River or the giggly co-ed’s as they bounced down Water Street. Occasionally he’d flip open the marble notebook in front of him to scratch down a lost dog thought or a snippet of dialogue he gleaned from the white noise of bar traffic. Until the sky turned purple as the sun sank behind Buckner’s, Jon complimented the stale air with smoke and stared at the shit brown water of the river through the open floodgates and mostly, just thought of her.

Continue reading…

The Cure by Edward Beroset

“Gunther, I think I have something!
“In their darkened room, Gunther peered at the computer screen intently as the rows of pixels shifted, and then locked into place in some strange but regular pattern.

“Yes, I definitely think you’re getting close, Michael. Can you enhance the contrast on the visualization?”

As Michael typed in commands at the keyboard, the room was silent except for the ever present background noise of the circulation fans used to cool the massive racks of computers.

“There! Look at that! It’s definitely Roswell C!”

Most people, of course, would not know that Roswell C was the third form of writing that had been the subject of study for many years at the Army Air Force base at Roswell, New Mexico, but Gunther and Michael had been involved with the military’s analysis of UFO artifacts for decades. In fact, Gunther had been involved with the program since the 1950s, not long after the war, and had been the director of the program until some years ago.

Gunther had come to the United States from Germany after the war. Even as a boy growing up in his native Germany, he had been bookish and quiet. He had completely and thoroughly immersed himself in his academic studies. Gunther had been too young to participate in the first world war, and on the eve of the second, had been teaching what would now be called language theory at the University of Freiburg. As a relatively new faculty member, teaching was part of his responsibilities, but his real passion was for research and he spent most of his time reading and thinking about languages. He was fascinated by the structure and form of languages and their differences and commonalities. Such was his focus that he did not particularly notice the changing political climate. He was at his desk, reading an interesting paper on a comparison of French and Spanish verb forms when he received word from an administrator that, because of his Jewish ancestry, he had been removed from his position. Stunned by what seemed to him to be a completely irrational and inexplicable action by the university’s rector, he found himself with more than sufficient free time to finally visit a colleague at Princeton where he spent the next decade immersed in research. His colleagues there, many of them also German, were often frustrated and angered by Gunther’s apolitical view. “I leave the politics to the politicians, as they leave language to the linguists,” he would say.

Then the war came and everything changed.

He stopped receiving letters from his family and assumed it was just some kind of problem with the post. It wasn’t until the war had ended that he learned that all of his extended family had perished at Auschwitz. He was sick with disbelief, sick with the pointlessness of it all, and sick of humanity, and sick with awareness of his own inattentiveness and inaction. Germany, and much of Europe, had burned to the ground and not only had he failed to help extinguish the fire, but had even neglected to notice the smell of smoke beforehand. He didn’t think of himself as a Jew or a German or really anything but a scientist, so when the U.S. Government had asked him to help form a xenolinguistic research team to study some interesting artifacts they had found, he was more than happy to withdraw into work at a remote location rather than continue at Princeton.

Michael was a relative newcomer, having only been involved since the 1980s. At that time, Michael had been pursuing an academic field of computational linguistics. From its beginning in the 1950s, computational linguistics was typically involved in statistical modelling of human languages and the automated translation of one language to another. Michael had been approached before by the military, but had, in no uncertain terms, expressed his disinterest in squandering his time working on computer programs to automatically translate Russian scientific papers into English. He considered the Cold War mindset of the early 1980s a hopeless anachronism and had said so directly to his would-be recruiter.

But in 1982, when Gunther spoke with him at a conference where Michael had just presented a paper, the approach was very different, and that was one of the things that had most intrigued Michael from the beginning.

“What impact,” asked Gunther in his characteristic thick German accent, “do you suppose that your paper, ‘On the Computational Semantics of Xenolinguistic Analysis’ will have on the future of humanity?”

Michael immediately bristled. “I don’t expect that everyone will understand or appreciate the paper,” he retorted, “but I think the ideas within it are worthy of impartial and objective analysis to further the better understanding of the whole of linguistics. If you have specific and constructive comments on the work, I would be more than happy to hear and address those.”

Gunther was nonplussed. “I agree that your ideas are both original and valuable,” he said, “but I also agree that not everyone will understand or appreciate them, and that is why I ask my question.”

Michael was immediately disarmed and afterwards, over some drinks at a side table at the conference hotel’s bar, they had had a long and wide ranging talk about work and philosophy, Finally Gunther asked, “If you could continue publishing underappreciated papers or stop publishing and actually test your theories, which would you choose?”

Michael’s answer to that question many years ago had led directly to the last thirty years of work on the Air Force secret project and to the analysis of the data files today. As the press had widely reported, an unusually large meteorite had sped through the atmosphere in the Pacific Northwest and landed somewhere in sparsely populated Montana. What the press had not reported, because they did not know, was that the “meteorite” had actually been an alien spacecraft that had crash landed. As per the usual protocol, the craft had been secretly recovered by the Air Force and transported under the strictest security protocols to Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho which had been the base of UFO study operations since the 1960s when Roswell had attracted too much attention.

The Air Force had recovered a few such wrecks from even before the infamous 1947 “Roswell incident” but hadn’t been able to do much with the wreckage at least in part because of the difficulty of analyzing the technology which was, by very definition, foreign. By the 1980s, Air Force scientists had been able to at least identify, but not decode, four different types of what appeared to be alien language from the various recovered artifacts. Efforts in the 1940s and 1950s had revealed very little because the method of information storage by charge distribution was unknown to Earth science at that time, but since the true nature of what had been thought to be inert panels was discerned in the 1970s, a great deal of time and energy had been expended in attempting to make sense of the magnetic field patterns, which appeared to be somewhat like modern ferromagnetic hard drives. Although the patterns had been identified for some decades, no human had ever been able to understand what they actually meant. Until today.

“Gunther! Look at this!” said Michael excitedly. As the programs had continued to run on this latest sample, a pattern had appeared, but then, as the xenolinguistic algorithms had churned with enough data, meaning began to appear. At first, it appeared to be something like a biology study of human beings, but as the program continued to refine the results, it was apparent that it was more — much more. “A few minutes ago, we had the words `laceration’ and `infection’ but now we have a whole thought which says, `laceration infection recedes with N-4-amino-1-4-amino-1-oxo–”

Gunther interrupted, “I am not a chemist, Michael. What is that?”

“It’s Polymxyin B! An antibiotic!”

“Are you saying that–”

“Yes! Yes! This is not just a biological study of human beings, but a study of diseases and cures! Do you understand how much this will mean to all of humanity? Gunther! This could mean the end of disease in our species!”

Gunther was speechless. He had long promoted the continuation of the program on exactly the basis that it could ultimately produce a significant and meaningful scientific leap that would benefit all of humanity, but to actually witness the beginning of exactly such a reality was astonishing. Indeed, the failure to deliver had been one of the reasons he had been shifted out of his role as director some years before. He had learned that preliminary results and extrapolations, however well intentioned, could be disastrous to one’s career if later analysis failed to hold up.

“We must learn more before we make our report,” said Gunther gravely.

“What? Are you kidding me? We’ve been studying this for half a century and we finally get intelligible results and you say we should sit on it?!”

“No, no. Not sit on it, but let’s just process a little more until we we have something new.”

Both men were acutely aware of the results of the 1995 analysis. An earlier version of the pattern matching algorithm had discovered matches with a number of known facts in the database, and these exciting results had been reported up the chain of command. Rumor was that the President’s cabinet had even considered how to break the news to the public when it was, unfortunately, discovered that the matches were illusory. Given a large enough database of information, {\emph any} sequence of symbols would match some portion of it — it was the inevitable consequence of combinatorial explosion rather than any real decoding of meaning. Making that same mistake again would certainly doom the program to termination. They had to have more proof.

Both because of the nature of their work and the personal habits and preferences of the two scientists, they were frequently in the lab all hours of the day and night. In a windowless underground room, there were no aural or visual cues of the diurnal cycles of the surface world. There were neither the sounds of morning song birds outside the windows, nor indeed any windows at all. So it was only by looking at the large red clock above the door that Gunther noted that their first more or less complete translation of panel A was completed at 4:33 AM. They each read silently and voraciously the strange text on their screens. It was English, but still so strangely foreign such that it was difficult to extract the actual meaning of the text.

Michael preferred to read from top to bottom, making notes as he went, while Gunther attempted to skim more quickly to try to ascertain the sense of the document as a whole at the expense of detailed understanding of each paragraph. They read on mostly silently when Michael excitedly read part of a passage aloud.

” `Detailed dissection and analysis demonstrates that the unregulated cellular growth and division in the oxygen exchange organs in subject 32577 has been successfuly reversed by compound J-11. Compound J-11 may be extracted by the following means…’ — Do you know what this means, Gunther?” Without waiting for reply, Michael went on, “I think it is a cure for lung cancer! What a boon for all mankind!”

Gunther looked up from his screen at Michael, and Michael could tell immediately that Gunther did not share his enthusiasm.

“My friend,” said Gunther, slowly and deliberately, “I fear that this will be no such thing.”

“What? But this is a cure for–”

“Michael!” Gunther shouted with such force that it somewhat surprised both men into momentary silence. Regathering his composure, Gunther went on in a more even tone, “Did you not notice that subject 32577 is a human being?”

“Well of course! It’s clear from the physiological description.”

“And did it occur to you to wonder if this person was a willing subject of this experiment? We cannot allow this data to be used. It is not right!”

Michael stared at the older man for a moment before replying. “Gunther, look, I know how you lost your family in Auschwitz, but this is completely different.”

Gunther stood up. “It is not! This information, however potentially valuable, was clearly obtained by immoral means. These subjects were not just laboratory mice. They were human beings!”

“But Gunther, to these … aliens, whoever and whatever they are, we could be just like lab mice! It’s not like the Nazis who knew, or should have known, they were doing evil to their fellow human beings. And anyway, think of the potential good to all of humanity that this information could bring!”

“I’ve heard this argument before,” said Gunther flatly.

“Now look, Gunther. Your moral sensibilities are one thing, but neither you nor I have any right to make that kind of decision about what we do with this data. We need to turn over what we have to the director. This kind of decision is above our pay grade.”

With that, Michael started printing selected portions of the text to the printer in the middle of their shared console, while busily selecting more sections to print.

“No, Michael,” said Gunther calmly. “It is our decision. It is the decision of every ethical person.”

Staring intently at the screen, Michael went on, “OK, well, look. I understand what you’re saying, but we need to get this to the director immediately. I’m sure he’ll take your views into account.”

Immediately behind Michael, Gunther, still standing, released the emergency fire extinguisher from the clip holding it to its steel post. “For emergency use only,” Gunther thought as he raised the heavy object over his head. “May God forgive me, but I think this qualifies.”

Knowing Benny by Megan Sharp

Benny loved cars. He was obsessed with them. We would spend hours outside of Lewright’s sitting on the curb eating our chocolate malts, me watching the drops I spilled turn to liquid on the hot pavement and Benny watching each car as they drove up and down Main Street. I don’t know why he liked them so much. If you asked him why, why he like cars so much, he couldn’t really tell you, mostly because he had never learned. I had tried to get him to talk, teach him how to form a word, how to make a sentence, but it never went very far. “Benny,” I’d say. “Benny, why do you like cars so much? How come you like ‘em?” He’d just sit there, rocking back and forth ever so slightly, staring down the street, waiting for another car to pass by. “Benny, say car. Say car Benny. Car.” Nothing. Just his unusually small body rocking back and forth, keeping time to some inaudible internal clock, and his vacant eyes staring down the long empty stretch of black top. So I talked and Benny listened. That’s how it was. That’s how it had always been, ever since the day we became best friends.

Continue reading…

The Face by Sherri Thompson

On a day like any other in a house just about the same as any other, in the playroom on the second floor she could be found. In the same computer chair, before the same television, playing and watching. Day after day. All the same.

What more could she do? What more did she care to do? There was only so much time left. How much she did not know. Nobody quite knew. There had been estimates but none had been accurate yet.

The day was rainy and gray, the room darkened by nature’s sour mood. She liked it that way. On sunny days she had to close the curtains so any possibility of glare on her precious television would be zero. The rain came down in alternating patterns of heavy torrents and lighter, steady drizzles. At the moment she could hear the finger-like pattering on the roof and the dull gurgle of the gutter as the rushing water attempted to squeeze by the dead, rotting leaves lodged in the small tunnel. Honey, her favorite cat, rubbed up against her leg and meowed loudly. She absent-mindedly reached down and felt for her, running her hand a few times along her back to her tail, the fur soft beneath her palm. After a few strokes she always lost interest and waited until the cat did also.

Continue reading…