Room Service by Steven Saus

Jul 22 2012 Published by under The WiFiles

“You ordered pizza on a cruise?”  Mary’s fingers twisted around the sunburned flesh of her hips bulging from her bathing suit.  Harold nodded, chewing the slice of pepperoni slowly to keep his dentures in place.  He sat on the bunk, the laptop sat on his thighs, and the ship sat on the sea.

“Pizza.”  Mary shut the cabin door with its flimsy click and dropped her towel on the bed.  “Please, Harold.  We haven’t had pizza in years.”

Harold’s eyelids twitched.  “That don’t mean it’s bad, Mary.”

Mary raised an eyebrow and snorted.  “Doctor Malone wouldn’t agree with you.”

“As long as his yacht was paid off, you mean.”

She tossed a plastic bag of duty-free goods beside him.  “Pizza is just so… last century, Harold.”

And saying that’s so last decade, he bit back.  He swallowed another bite of pizza to keep the acid down.  “So what, Mar?  So what if pizza was more popular a decade ago?  I don’t need some red-and-white-thirty-minute-or-less mascot to tell me-”

“That was the Noid.  And it was two decades ago.”

Harold waved the slice in her direction.  A dribble of grease landed on the sheets.  “I don’t care.  I still like it.  And sailing on a boat is so two centuries ago.”

Mary’s mouth tightened, stretching the wrinkles under her flushed cheeks and silver hair.  She turned  on her heel to the closet, pulling out her crinkling dress bag.  “We have reservations at the Captain’s Table tonight, Harold.  Put that away and get your tux.”

Harold leaned back.  The thought of his bow tie… the burn of acid slid up his chest.  He popped another bite of crust in his mouth.  “When did that happen?”

“I made the reservation earlier today, Harold.  If you’d simply been on deck with me-”

“I can’t go,” he said through half-chewed dough.  “Working.”

Mary hrrumphed and started to take off the bathing suit.  Harold turned back to the computer, trying to ignore her reflection in the screen.  I’m pretty sure normal people don’t want to see old farts like us get naked, he wrote in his “never twitter” file.  Hell, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to see us naked.  He switched tabs, trying to concentrate on the code filling his screen.

Mary threw the flimsy dress bag onto the bed.  It slid off, and she threw it up beside him, where he casually brushed it to the side.  “Hmph,” she said, sliding her arms through the dress.  “Hrumph,” she said shrugging into the fabric as he didn’t move.  She turned to face him.  “Thirty years married to a woman, and you can’t tell when she needs a dress zipped?”

Harold looked up.  “You’re facing the wrong way.”

Her face crumpled a moment before she did, sitting beside him on the hard bed.  Her body shook silently, her features now hidden in her hands.  Harold ran his fingers back through the thin whiteness of his own hair, looked at his palms, then ran his fingers across his scalp again.  He looked at Mary, then back to his own reflection in the screen.

Harold took a deep breath.  “Fine.  I’ll go with you to dinner.  Gimmie a minute to change.”

He started to set the laptop to the side, but she waved him down.  “Oh, no.  Every time you grudgingly go along with something I want to do, you make everything miserable.”

Harold sighed again and reached for his antacids.  “Oh, argument number three, then?”

“What?”

“Number three.  The Harold’s-screwed-no-matter-what argument.  I never win, not even when I go along with what you want to do.”

“It’s not about winn-”

“Like when I got a sunburn the first day.  At least I wasn’t stupid enough to keep doing it.”  Harold poked her hip.  “So I won’t go.  If I’m screwed no matter what, I might as well do what I want.”  He turned back to the screen.  The hair on the back of his neck prickled.

“You would rather spend time with that computer than with me.”

Harold did not say anything.

“You’re just wasting time with that.”

Harold felt his face go into a tight smile.  “Same old damn thing.”

“You’re right it’s the same damn thing, because I’ll put on suntan lotion tomorrow, but you’ve been stupid enough to waste a decade hunting for aliens.”  She grabbed her purse.  “Just give it up, Harold.  You’ll never find anything.”

Harold’s voice stayed tight as his smile.  “SETI did find things.”

“Fake things.  People.  Reflections of our own noise.  Is that supposed to make this okay, Harold?  That you’d rather spend time hunting for fake things?”

Harold looked at Mary.  “False positives ain’t the same thing as fakes.  Real signals, just reflected from our own satellites.  I think I can filter it-”

“Please, Howard.”  Mary twisted her arms behind herself to fasten a clasp on her dress.  “You’re concentrating on fake things.  Not real things.  Not like this trip, not like our relationship.”  She shook her hair out of her eyes.  “Not real people like me.”

“Look, Mar, you want me to go, or what?”

Mary bit her lower lip.  “No, Harold.  Don’t let me inconvenience you.”  The whole wall shook when she slammed the cabin door.

Howard chewed another antacid, chasing the chalky taste with another slice of pizza.  His fingers flew over the keys for a moment, then characters began to scroll across the screen.  “Another chunk of SETI@Home about to be explained,” he said to himself.  “Or … will it?”  He laughed a little, made sure the program was analyzing the data.  He opened the “never twitter” file.  Someday my algorhythm will separate out signal from noise… but who will hear Mary then?  He chuckled again,  then closed his eyes and bit his lip as well.

He let the program run in the background and flipped through the cached RSS feed of news items.  Conflict in the Middle East:  check.  Extremists all over:  check.  Budget overruns in Congress and each party blaming the other:  check.  New alert for the disease that will kill us all:  check.

And then Harold saw the picture of Allie.  His daughter’s first press conference.

“Yeah, you’ll drop everything for the captain and a trip to Bermuda,” Harold said to the empty room, “but your own daughter?”  He shook his head and read the article.  The government warned travelers about the latest band of pirates.  They’d mugged a food transport off the coast of Africa – third one this month.  Sure, they were in the Caribbean and relatively safe, but still…

The laptop’s system beep caught his attention.  The program had deciphered the suspicious SETI@Home packet rather quickly.  Harold scrolled through the results, eyes narrowing, then widening.  It was plaintext.  Not English, true, but not the digital signal from human probes.  Strange enough an occurrence to get him a mention, maybe.  He ran the signal through a text translation program, just to see what it would spit out.

“It’s a mistake,” he said.  “A sick joke.”

He ran the message through the translator again.  He looked at the cooling pizza beside him, and felt ill.

A horn blew, then the massive shriek and clang of a ship coming alongside.  There should have been more warning, Harold thought, then realized why there hadn’t been.  He chomped another antacid, and heard the first gunshots.  The pirates were on this side of the Atlantic.

“Bermuda,” he chuckled.  “That’s so last century.”

He could hear the shouting from above.  Mary burst into the room.  “Harold, there’s-”

“Pirates.  I know.  The ship that actually made the order will be here soon.”  He put his arm around Mary.  “Let’s go upstairs and meet this flying saucer in the Bermuda Triangle,” he said.

As the cabin door shut behind them, the words still glowed on Harold’s screen:

“To go order:  Extra Large Pizza.  Extra Cheese.  Heavy on the Humans.”

END

 

Steven Saus injects people with radioactivity as his day job, but only to serve the forces of good. His work appears in print in the anthologies Westward Weird, Mages & Magic, Timeshares, and Hungry For Your Love, and in several magazines both online and off, including On Spec, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, the Drabblecast, PseudoPod and the SFWA Bulletin. He also provides publishing services and publishes books such as The Crimson Pact series of dark fantasy anthologies and Don Bingle’s spy thriller Net Impact as Alliteration Ink. You can find him at stevensaus.com and alliterationink.com.

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