A Ceiling Full of Stars
by Steve Thorn
part 1 of 2
Chris was in the kitchen. It was early evening and the house lighting was subdued, programmed for twilight mode until the night began. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the soft glow of his son Alex approaching.
Chris had set the ambient light optics that ran through nearly every fiber in the house. As Alex moved through the house he was followed by an aura of slowly changing light. A soft bubble of greens and reds emanated from the floor, ceiling, and now, counter top.
“What are you doing, Dad?”
“I was puttering around and thinking I’d make dinner tonight.”
Chris was examining the upper cabinets. With a touch he could trigger the opacity of the front and check its contents. “Nope, no Insta-food tonight.” He finally found the elusive pouch of sauce he knew his wife had put away a very long time ago. “I think we might have spaghetti.”
“Well, okay, Dad.”
Chris saw the dubious look in his son’s face. “What? You don’t think I can cook?”
“I’ve just never seen you cook.” Alex was running his hand along the counter top, watching the optics trigger and fade with the memory of his touch.
Chris could only shrug at the truth of the statement. His ten-year old son had never seen him cook. The Insta foods had taken the place of home cooking. Why sweat over a hot stove when you could code in what you want and have it there instantly just the way you wanted it?
Alex had seen his mother cook dinner a few times because she loved to when she had the time. But she had not had the time in years, and Alex had not even seen his mother for twenty-three months.
Chris could picture the last time she had cooked. Alex had been there running around the counter repetitively asking “Can I help? Can I help?”
“Can I help?” Alex asked again, breaking Chris out of his reverie.
Alex had grown. He stood nearly a foot taller now, and as he asked his father about helping with dinner he was asking it repeatedly to get his attention instead of echoing it merely to be annoying.
“Sure, buddy, you can help.”
Alex watched his father for a moment as he held the sauce pouch, reading its directions.
“You’re acting weird, Dad.”
Chris was going to reply but Alex was already traipsing off to his room, a Christmas glow bouncing off the hallway walls.
Chris started preparing everything he would need for dinner as his thoughts turned to his wife. She had called earlier. It had been a secure transmission that only allowed a short burst of audio. Alexa had blasted a quick, dire message to her husband. At any other time she would have been risking her career, but this had been a one-time burst with a one-time message. It was a message that changed everything.
“I thought I was helping.”
Chris was startled; he hadn’t even seen Alex and his glow approaching this time. “Why don’t you set the table for us? I’ll have the noodles ready in just a minute.” He ignored Alex’s eye rolling as he set the pot of water on the fiber stove top, triggering the identa-handle to boil. Within a minute the water was boiling.
Chris admired the stove’s intelligence settings. The fibers would only heat with an identifying pot or pan in contact with it. If he were to move the pot the fibers would instantly cool removing all the dangers of a nasty burn. The pots were outer-insulated so that he could pick it up without protection or worry of being burnt unless he spilled the contents. Everything was made so safe. Safe enough for fathers, he thought sarcastically.
He sighed and decided right then that he would leave his sarcasm in the kitchen. This was a night to enjoy time with his son, to fully enjoy Alex’s company without any interruptions. He would let his love for his son steer the evening. There would be no work intruding on their time together. He had already shut off all the external stimuli that could interrupt them.
The house had shifted itself into evening mode. The outer perimeter lights were lit, motion sensors armed. The crystal chandelier over the dinner table was sparkling with diamond-light and the lights throughout the house were in motion-mode, lighting only when necessary.
Chris and Alex sat across from each other at the tinted glass dinner table, a large bowl of spaghetti and meatless sauce between them. Chris couldn’t help but smile at his son sitting there with a fork in one hand and a large spoon in the other just waiting for his plate to be filled.
Alex looked around the table and his smile faltered for a second. “No garlic bread?”
Chris sighed. “No, I didn’t have any bread.”
Alex started to get up. “Well, let me insta a loaf of it for the spaghetti.”
“No!” Chris shouted. Alex jumped at his father’s outburst and dropped his spoon on the table. “This is all home cooked, let’s just eat what we have without any insta.”
Chris had recovered, but Alex was slow in returning to his seat and gathering up his lost spoon. Alex didn’t say another word as his father scooped a large heap of spaghetti onto his plate. Chris made a mental note to shut off the insta machine once they finished dinner.
Dinner had become a very quiet affair and Chris silently chastised himself for shouting at Alex. Alex had just taken him off guard. Any other time he could have made an insta of whatever he desired to go with his dinner.
“I’m sorry, buddy. I just wanted us to have a little dinner without all the machines doing it for us.”
Alex stared sourly at his plate, stabbing at the strands of pasta. “Then you should have made a fire instead of using the stove.”
Chris stared silently at Alex until the boy’s chuckles broke through his grumpy façade.
Chris also erupted into laughter. “Fire, eh? I’ll show you fire.” He whipped a sauce laden noodle at Alex’s head. The limp noodle smacked him in the forehead and stuck there in a wet figure eight. Alex tried to retaliate but once he peeled the spaghetti off his forehead the quaking from his laughter ruined his aim.
Chris called a truce and told him to leave the mess; they would clean it up later. He signaled for the dinner lights to shut off so they didn’t even have to see the mess they left behind as they meandered into the living room. Using a need for a beer from the chiller as an excuse, Chris went into the kitchen and locked out the insta machine while snagging a frosted bag of beer from the dispenser in the counter top.
He unzipped the seal-top and took a long draw from it. The refreshing zing shot down his throat and cooled his inner fire. He was able to calm himself with the second drink as a soft buzz settled onto his shoulders. He willed his heart into a slower rhythm even though his mind kept reminding him how little time was left.
“Alex,” Chris said as he entered the room. “We’re going to have a special night tonight, buddy.”
The living room was the most elegant room in their house. It was by far the largest room and had shelving that showed off Alexa’s holographic dolphin collection. The shelves were a semi-transparent, smoky glass and the various animated dolphins seemed to jump out of the glass itself as they flipped and dove back into the foggy shelf, some of them were multiple platform versions that could jump from one shelf to disappear into another several feet away.
Alex had already busied himself with the envy of all his friends. In one lone corner of the room was the game-space. A fully submersible holographic system that didn’t even need the motion probes attached like the lesser versions. It looked as though Alex had entered a previously saved game because he was decked out in full armor and wielding a huge sword that had to outweigh him in the real world by twenty pounds. He was stalking along the tread-floor as the projected slime covered bricks of a lower dungeon hallway crept past.
“Alex. How about powering down so we can talk?”
Alex spun at his father and the sword whipped by quickly with a whistle. Chris nodded with a smile at the two halves of the goblin that lay on the floor in front of Alex. Alex smiled back, performed a small gesture with his right hand and the game faded away, armor and sword dissipating like smoke.
“What’s up, Dad?”
Chris set down his nearly empty beer on an end table. “I wanted to show you something. Check this out.” His fingers danced quickly along the edge of the table holding his beer and the room started to darken. Alex turned in a slow circle as the room started to change. He was too amazed to even speak.
The dolphins slowly faded away as the glass shelves started to slide down the wall. The large sofa in the center of the room began to change as the fabric and interior supports were injected with another memory shape. It became a pair of interconnected lounge chairs where the two seats faced each other and connected near the headrests. The ceiling started to bow upwards into a dome as the walls lowered fractionally to accommodate the new shape.
“Have a seat.” Chris motioned for Alex while he sat in one of the lounge chairs. The way they were connected the chairs allowed them to see each other as they sat down parallel to each other. Chris watched the amazement on Alex’s face. He knew that he must have had that same look on his face when it was installed years ago.
When Alexa was first promoted to Corvair, the AeroSpace Force sent out some contractors to install a battle room in their home. It was a classified installation, and even Chris was not supposed to have access to it.
Alexa had shown him the basics of it but she had never let him see anything above the Classified level during the rare times she was home but still commanding forces when necessary. Only in the earlier transmission had Alexa given him the codes to access the room in her stead.
“Dad? What is this?”
Chris smiled at his son. God, how I love him.
“Sorry. This is your mother’s battle room. We’ll be able to see all kinds of things in just a moment. Didn’t I tell you this would be a special night? So, guess what: for this one night you can ask me anything and I will give you as honest of an answer as possible.”
Alex met his father’s eyes while he pondered over what had just been said. “Honest? You mean you’ve lied to me before?”
Chris didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at his son’s insight. He just grinned at him and shook his head. “Your mother and I have always tried to tell you what we could, but sometimes we don’t tell you everything. It’s our way of protecting you.” He could see the logic starting to form in Alex’s eyes and knew he might be facing some tough questions.
“Protect me from what?”
Copyright © 2006 by Steve Thorn