It’s been a long time since I’ve posted a short story. I hope you enjoy it. Please leave a comment if you do. Here’s what it’s about:
J.K. Moorling was a brilliant 21st century writer. Her books have stolen the hearts and minds of children for generations. When a reporter is gifted with Ms. Moorling’s final interview preceding her death, the author shows not only that this world of the future is devoid of emotion, but that a simple writer using only words can still outsmart technology.
The Phoenix Rises
by Jaimie M. Engle
A.J. Moorling was once a brilliant writer, creating a phenomenon in the early twenty-first century with her Henry Popper series. She’s lived a long life, but at the ripe age of one-hundred and nine and three-quarters, she’s decided it’s her time to travel on.
As I sit with her inside the parlor of her country home—one of a few still in existence, with the popping up of megacities across the globe, and the excessive desertification that followed—I can’t help but notice how young her blue eyes appear, almost childlike.
Bright orbs float into position and shoot on, bathing the room in radiant white light. Eduardo, the technician, is one of the best in the industry. His holoforms are so realistic and detailed that you’d swear they have mass. He adjusts the globes with the fiber optic-glove on his left hand, until the room is set. With a final light scan, freezing the image of Ms. Moorling and her lap dog, Sergeant Popper, the diagnostics are completed.
We are ready to begin.
Surveillance bugs flit throughout the room, sending unique images back to Roy Vargas, the production manager at Studio C, in Tianshi, formerly Los Angeles, California.
“All set,” Roy’s voice booms from my ear pod.
“Go on sound,” Eduardo says.
Ms. Moorling pets her Shi Tzu, who sits like a hideous gargoyle in her lap.
I lean closer. “He’s just lovely.”
“Yes,” Ms. Moorling says, a smile crossing her cracked lips. “He’s been with me through it all, actually inspired the entire Henry Popper series. He’s the one you should be interviewing.”
I laugh, knowing the cameras are rolling. Even though the interview hasn’t started, the mechanical insects hovering all around us already capture every nuance through glowing-red eyes.
“How old is he?” I ask.
“Eighty-six, this spring.”
“In dog years?”
“No, people years. I’d had his DNA frozen in the 20’s for cloning. This is the fourth generation of Sergeant Popper, you see?”
I nod, now grasping the sizeable fortune Ms. Moorling has acquired in her lifetime. The cost to clone an animal is an exorbitant amount, but to have it done four times is unfathomable.
“We’re ready, Cathy.”
I snap back. Eduardo is motioning it’s a go. Makeup artists bounce up for a final powder, and the room falls silent.
With the notoriety of Ms. Moorling, and the fact that this is her final interview, I know the whole world will be watching. Henry Popper has been translated into every known language, including a mathematical adaptation, for any future contact with aliens.
Sweat beads beneath the powder layered on my brow, the lights as hot as the basement of Gnoblers Bank from book three. I am suddenly sticking to my seat. Heart racing, I listen to Eduardo’s countdown: camera one…roll on sound…speed…marker…
Pointing at me, his fingers mark five….
Ms. Moorling strokes her dog’s fur.
Can the entire planet hear my hammering heart?
“Good evening, and welcome to Tianshi Nightly’s exclusive, one-on-one with the distinguished lady herself, A.J. Moorling.”
“You’re too kind,” Ms. Moorling says, turning on her charm.
“Ms. Moorling, I’ll get right to it. I’m told this is to be your final interview.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.” She pets Sergeant Popper, who is now snoring softly in her lap. “It’s just my time, dear. I’ve lived longer than I should have, thanks to modern science, but—I’m tired now.”
I feel my forehead scrunch through the caked powder cemented by sweat. “Are you ill?”
Ms. Moorling laughs. “No, dear. People of my stature can afford the luxury of avoiding sickness.”
“Are you dying?”
“Only by choice. You see, when Henry Popper touched the lives of so many children over seventy years ago, I wanted to live forever, to watch the joy fill the faces of new children each year as they were exposed to Henry Popper’s adventures for the first time.”
The dog’s ears twitch. Mechanical bugs swarm, hanging on her every word. Claustrophobia weighs heavy on my shoulders. I fight myself to remain seated.
“But over time,” she continues, “I’ve seen, to my own sheer heartache, that kids don’t read anymore. Not like they used to. And really, why should they? With holofilms and self-directed gaming…a writer using mere words, such as myself, cannot compete. I get swept beneath the rug of technology.”
“I see,” I say, using my most sympathetic voice. “Why not create a more competitive product using this technology, to reach those children unfamiliar with your stories?”
She laughs. “I’m an old woman, and I still believe in the power of the imagination. It has the strength to create worlds or destroy them, to move mountains or climb them. Technology will never replace imagination. And it’s the only place these bloody bugs have yet to infiltrate.” She points at the surveillance surrounding us.
“Yet,” I reiterate.
She gives me a nasty look, to which I reply with my sweetest smile. That should translate nicely on camera. Ms. Moorling quickly recovers, returning a sugar-coated grin of her own. After all, the whole world is watching.
“So, what’s next for the great A.J. Moorling?” I announce.
She flashes a wry smile. “What else? The-End.”
A fireball erupts from her paisley chair, engulfing Ms. Moorling and Sergeant Popper in a flare of bluish-orange flames.
I jump back, out of my seat.
Eduardo is shouting commands.
The crew is in action, running around the room, looking for water to douse the fire.
Someone yanks me from behind.
The mechanical bugs zoom in and out, catching every second of the mayhem, at every possible angle.
And just like that, it stops.
Ashes fill the paisley chair. From beneath them, the charred corner of a box juts up through the shimmering black dust. I reach for it, surprised to find it isn’t hot. “There’s something inside.”
“Well, open it,” Roy commands in my ear.
I can almost see the lust in his eyes as he drools over the ratings this broadcast will bring him. The fluttering camera-bugs are so close I can feel them brush across my skin, through my hair, embedding into my eardrums to access my thoughts. It’s strange to me, how A.J. Moorling has disappeared, probably forever, and no one seems upset.
Am I even upset?
All these years of suppressing emotions, and keeping my feelings hidden from the constant onslaught of cameras.
Living behind a mask I’ve imagined into existence.
Never knowing which of my actions are caught on camera or who is reviewing the feed.
We’ve become a society devoid of feeling.
A tear trails down my cheek. I can’t stop it, but I don’t care that the whole world is watching. Opening the box, I gasp audibly.
The Phoenix Rises:
the final book in the Henry Popper series
And it hits me.
This was all a scam, a front to launch a new book. A real book, that kids can hold in their hands with pages they can manually turn. And what a way to catch the eyes and ears of the world then by having her final book rise from her ashes.
Facing the cameras, I wipe away my tear. “I don’t know what has become of A.J. Moorling, but I hope she has found peace. Her legacy is here with us in the final installment of her life’s work. The last book she ever wrote, from the first story she ever created.”
The orbs extinguish, taking away the plastic look from the room, revealing the true colors and textures around me. They are flawed in this light. Unnatural, uneven. But they are real, something I have forgotten.
I open the book to the first page, where a handwritten message is scribed: