To close off the summer in style, the Albedo 2.0 Fiction Showcase brings you “Black Hole Baby”, a distinctive and punchy tale of SF-humour, penned by the estimable Peter Loftus. Enjoy!
Peter’s stories have appeared in the BSFA’s Focus Magazine, Visionary Tongue, Midnight Street, Alienskin, Byzarium, Reflection’s Edge, Everyday Fiction and Monomyth, among others, and have been longlisted for both the Fish and Aeon Award short fiction competitions. You can check out his short story “Pam” in the July 2013 issue of Jupiter SF.
Peter is also a regular reviewer for Interzone (UK) and Imhotep and Eternal Terror (Nor).
The Core wheezed into the station fifteen minutes late. Greg was gripped in the sudden surge as the commuters rushed towards their respective carriages. The yellow section, the human one, was too far down the platform. He’d never make it.
The maglev glided to a halt, the pink carriage in front of him. He cursed as he saw the shadows of kreel rippling in their silicone solution. Tanks of shimmering viridian rolled forward, and apertures mated with a hiss of expelled air as more of the slimy buggers wriggled onto the train. Why the hell did they keep changing the carriages around?
He glanced right. Blue. Avian. Left was tan, mermites. Great, he thought, rushing for the door. At least he’d get home clean.
The mermites got to work before he’d even sat down. There were other humans in the carriage, and as they settled on the earthen ramparts, metre-long shapes streamed out of their lines of burrows. Each looked something like a terran centipede, only with so many legs; they resembled the head of an elongated yard brush.
Greg took out his personal communication module, absently lifting his arm to allow one of the mermites access to his armpit.
Woman Missing – Vacuum Cleaner Blamed.
The headlines never ceased to amaze him. This one was a doozy. Apparently, a woman on Rib 14 had created a wormhole with her Succuum 3000 and been dragged out of this universe. Investigators had no clue as to where the wormhole had taken the woman. Greg smiled to himself, trying to visualise what her disappearance must have looked like. Still, stranger things had happened.
His module vibrated, and Wanda’s face replaced the news.
“Greggsie, will you pick up some Gel on your way home?”
Greg took a deep breath. “What flavour?”
“Double Nut Pennydew Roast.”
“Ok. See you soon.” Greg sighed, and cut the connection.
* * *
“What?” They’d programmed the client facilitators to be rude after the riots in Pendelby Mall last year. There were only so many times you could be told to ‘Have a nice day,’ before you ripped something’s arm out. The Domestic Security Actuators were still reviewing the footage and coming up with new people to fine.
“Where do you keep the Gel?”
“Up there. On the left.” The purchase facilitator gave Greg a what-kind-of-a-moron-are-you look.
“Do you have Double Nut Pennydew Roast?”
“What do you mean, no?”
The bio-bot sighed theatrically. Greg had probably just won most stupid question of the week. “No. We don’t do Double Nut Pennydew Roast.”
* * *
“What is it Greggsie? I’m watching ‘I’m a Capillarian Get me Out of Here.’”
“They don’t have Double Nut Pennydew Roast.”
“Where are you?”
“In the Super A.”
“Well of course they don’t have it, Greggsie. They don’t do Double Nut Pennydew Roast.” Maybe Wanda was programmed for rudeness, too.
Greg felt a vein beginning to throb in his temple. “So what flavour do you want?”
“No.” Greg knew what was coming.
“For your little Wandie?”
Greg didn’t answer. Sure, he’d get her the Double Nut Pennydew Roast, but he didn’t have to be happy about it.
“They stock it in Kippo’s.”
“The other end of the Mall.” Greg’s tone was flat.
“It’s only five minutes on the walkavator.”
“Ten minutes. Each way.” Sometimes Greg wondered why he bothered. A mother walked past with her child. Both were staring at Greg as if he’d sprouted horns. ‘Fuck You,’ said the kid’s t-shirt.
Fuck you too, thought Greg as he stalked from the shop.
* * *
Wanda was on the sofa when Greg got home. He heard her from the front door, clapping along with the audience of an infomercial. Greg gave her the tube of Gel, and walked through to the kitchen area.
“Did you cook anything?” he asked.
“No Greggsie, you didn’t tell me what you wanted. There’s reconstitute in the fridge.” Reconstitute was whatever muck the apartment’s recycler thought could be used again.
“Mmm, yummy,” muttered Greg.
Wanda, mishearing him, called out from the living room. “No thanks, I had a take away earlier. I was going to keep you some, but Pinky hadn’t eaten.” Pinky. Where was that ten footed leg-humper anyway?
Greg zapped a slice of protein meal and wolfed it down in the kitchen. He wasn’t in the humour for Wanda eyeing up his food as he ate. Besides, he thought, licking the juices off his fingers, it wasn’t as if she needed to eat anything else today. If she kept on the way she was going, they were going to have to widen the doorframes again.
Greg hit the armchair like a rag doll. Wanda was now watching one of her favourites on MtriV, Habitats, where you got to see how the rich and famous live. DJ EZ Riglz was showing off the half eaten remains of his last mate. His clutch of eggs shone with pale luminescence in the background.
Greg didn’t answer. Here we go, he thought. Pinky ambled into the room, gave Greg a bored look and jumped up onto Wanda’s legs.
“Greggsie, are we ever gonna get a place of our own?” Her blue eyes twinkled in the white expanse of her face.
“Why don’t you ask your folks for money?”
“Why do you always go back to that?”
“I don’t always go back to that. I’m working every hour the plant is open, what do you want me to do?” Greg’s voice rose as he spoke.
“Don’t pick a fight Greg.” Her voice was flat.
Greg’s blood ran cold for a second. She’d dropped the cutesy act. Now he was for it.
“I wasn’t picking a fight. I… I’m just a bit tired. I’m sorry honey.”
“Look at the place.”
Greg felt his blood begin to rise. He’s given her the chance to drop it. “I am looking. If you got up off your fat ass and tidied it, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.”
Wanda blinked in outrage. He’d played the fat card. Hot tears formed diamonds in her eyes. “It’s not my fault I’m fat! It’s genetic. If you had a decent job, I’d be able to afford the therapy…”
“We’ve enough in the bank now for me to have your jaws wired shut!”
In the sudden silence that followed, Greg knew he had gone too far. Way too far. With a tiny sob, Wanda turned back to the tri-v. She took a tissue out of her sleeve and dabbed at her eyes.
Her reply came much later, dripping with injury. “And by the way, the apartment is only dirty because the vacuum cleaner is broken. I told you last week, but you were too busy playing with your robots. Mum got the Succuum 3000, and swears by it.”
* * *
The next day in work, Greg did the decent thing. He rang his local Power Plant and ordered a Succuum 3000. It was only $2,599.
* * *
When Greg got home, the sitting room was tidy. He felt his cheeks flush momentarily when he thought about the things he’d said to Wanda the night before. He hated when they fought. That wasn’t the way he wanted it.
“Hi honey,” he called, hanging his jacket beside the door. “How do you like your present?”
“It’s great. I spent all afternoon cleaning. Thanks, sweetie.”
“Did my Sentiron Robot come?” Ever since he’d been a child, Greg had been interested in self-learning robots. Most evenings, if he had the energy, he’d lock himself in their tiny second bedroom, and assemble various automata, from minute wheeled vehicles, to larger, more complicated pieces. At the moment, he was waiting for the Sentiron kit. He’d been badgering Central Package Distribution for days about it, but they swore blind that the kit hadn’t come in yet.
“No.” Wanda flicked the channel on the tri-v. A blue-shorted aqueote was demonstrating his species’ amazing regurgitative prowess.
Greg felt his heart sink. It was always the same when he was waiting for something from CPD. He knew he shouldn’t cling to the letterbox, but sometimes he just couldn’t help it. It gave him hope.
“I thought we’d have a take away to celebrate.” Wanda had yet to take her eyes off the tri-v.
To celebrate what? Greg wanted to ask. But he was just in the door. He hadn’t the energy to argue again tonight.
“I got Chinese from the Magma Palace.”
“Oh. Good. What time did you order?” Greg slipped off his shoes.
“Great. It should be here any time.” He liked a nice Chinese.
“Well, no Greggsie, their delivery bots are on strike. I told them you’d be down to pick it up.” She still hadn’t turned from the tri-v.
Greg felt a momentary breathlessness as the abyss of his anger opened beneath him, a feeling akin to vertigo. Swallowing, he pushed it back and got to his feet. “Right. I’ll just go and collect it, shall I?”
“Ok. And can you pick up some food for Pinky?” Pinky pricked up his fronds at this and stared hopefully at Greg.
* * *
Greg stormed out of the Magma Palace with $300 worth of food in his arms. The silly cow had ordered enough for six people. Even worse, she hadn’t bothered to order egg fried rice or chilli beef. Just because chillies gave her wind. He spent all day harvesting gas, then, he had to go home and share a room with the greatest gas bag in the colonies. The irony was not new to him, however, and did little to cheer him.
He slammed the front door behind him with his foot and felt his blood freeze as Wanda’s voice reached him.
“Did you get Pinky’s food?”
He stormed into the sitting room and dumped the stack of silver-sided containers onto the table. “No I didn’t. And before you start, I am not going back out.”
“Well that’s really not fair Greggsie.” Wanda sat up and began to open the containers. “Just because you have your food, doesn’t mean you can ignore Pinky. “
“Just watch me.”
Wanda opened the containers, muttering and shaking her head. Pinky looked at Greg with all the disgust it could muster.
Greg watched Wanda opening the cartons. She always looked so vulnerable when she was eating. It made Greg pity her and love her all at once. But he’d started now, and it was her fault.
“Wanda, why did you order so much food?”
“Don’t try to take out your stress on me. Just because you had a hard day in work.” She was using the flat tone again.
Shit. He’d gone too far already. He usually hectored her for about an hour before she put a stop to it. But tonight she wasn’t standing for it. Greg watched glumly as she laid out the containers. Four of them had prawns in. He was allergic to prawns. He didn’t mean to be such an asshole to her all the time, but… he just found it so hard to be quiet. How could he hold his tongue? Every day he slaved for hours at the plant to come home to… a mess. She never cooked. Never cleaned, except once – today. All she did was make lists of things she wanted. Gel, a Chinese takeaway, a Succuum, a new apartment, a holiday, gene therapy, a new tri-v. He couldn’t keep up.
“But you didn’t get anything I like,” he whined. Whining: the last recourse of the powerless.
“I got you ginger quabble in ring nuts. Now go and get some plates.”
Greg rinsed the plates in the sonic dishwash, and hurried back to the sitting room. Pinky had his front paws on the table, and his head in Greg’s quabble, chomping away with great gusto. Wanda was shovelling in satay jigs like they were going out of fashion, face blue in the light of the tri-v.
When Wanda turned to face him, her eyes were like knives. She took in his dismayed face, then, her hungry pet. “I told you to get him some food, didn’t I? You’re hardly going to blame me for that too, are you?”
Grabbing a carton of noodles, Greg fled for the sanctuary of his robot room. He stayed there until late into the night, taking comfort from his creations. He fine-tuned the programming on one of his wheeled automata, losing himself on the intricacies of code. Eventually, when his blood had slowed to normal and his hands had stopped shaking, he crawled into bed beside his wife and fell asleep.
* * *
Greg dreamt of the Sentrion robot that night. In the Singularity Raiders series, Sentrion sported twin, shoulder mounted antimatter projectors and a quantum singularity generator in his solar plexus. A single bolt from that beauty could warp space, blasting his enemy Gravity Purloiners into the next dimension. Sweet.
* * *
The next day, Thursday, Greg arrived home to a shock. Wanda had tidied once again, and today, she’d actually cooked. Lasagne. Sure, it was made from reconstitute, but it was hot and tasty and filled the gap. The only disappointment was that there was still no sign of the Sentrion. But that was small worry. Wanda had cooked! Greg found out the reason why after dinner.
“You know, honey, the place looks great. Thanks for getting me the Succuum 3000.”
Greg was never too quick off the mark after dinner. That was why he didn’t see it coming. All he said was, “Good.”
“Yeah.” Wanda looked fondly around the newly cleaned room. “It really looks great.”
Greg nodded, happy not to be arguing for once.
“What we need now is a new sofa, and the place would be perfect.” She pressed the remote, and a three dimensional picture of a sofa appeared on the tri-v. Smiling, she turned to see Greg’s reaction. “The Olympos 360,” she announced with pride.
Greg kept his face as neutral as possible, but inside, his mind was racing. Was she serious? He’d have to sell a kidney to be able to afford something like that. What planet was she living on? He suddenly felt too hot.
“It’s only $18,999.”
She nodded, like a child who’d just been offered ice cream.
“Well let’s see how the finances work out at the end of the month and we’ll see what we can do.”
Wanda nodded again, not sure if she should be disappointed or grateful. She knew a promise was the best she could get for the moment, but she wasn’t fool enough to think that was worth anything.
* * *
Greg went to bed early that night. It was always towards the end of the week that he felt most tired. Also, he reasoned, he’d want to stay up late tomorrow if the Sentrion kit arrived.
He awoke a little after two. It was obvious from the soft blue light that emanated from the sitting room that Wanda was still up. The noise bafflers cut out most of the sound from the tri-v, but Greg could hear something moving about. It was most likely Pinky, but he decided to get up and check anyway.
Sure enough, Pinky was in the kitchen, chewing the side of one of Greg’s shoes. Greg swung a kick at the creature, but it dodged and fled into the living room. He picked up the shoe. A bite-sized piece was missing from the side.
Wanda had fallen asleep on the sofa. One hand was pushing up the skin on her cheek and she was snoring. Nothing unusual there. As he got closer, Greg noticed something that made the hairs stand up on the back of his neck, something that made him feel both hot and cold at the same time. Wanda’s t-shirt had ridden up, exposing the smooth expanse of her stomach. It rose in an almost perfect hemisphere, white like a fish’s underbelly, unblemished, except for… Greg leaned closer, squinting in the half-light.
There, about two centimetres above her naval on the left, was a tiny dark spot. A beauty spot. But Wanda had no beauty spots. Perhaps a bit of food, squashed into a disc, or a piece of fluff. Intrigued, Greg leaned closer still. He put out a finger to touch it… and recoiled in shock. It had sucked at his finger. Like the mouth of a vacuum cleaner or… a minute black hole. Greg sat down on the floor, his jaw hanging open in shock.
Woman Missing – Vacuum Cleaner Blamed. Greg couldn’t believe it. Scrambling to all fours, he dashed into the second bedroom. He grabbed his portable work light from the worktop.
Even with the light, the hole was still completely dark. Greg screwed up his eyes, trying to make some kind of sense of what he was seeing, and shifted the worklight. The beam, where it hit the hole, bent slightly. His wife had a miniscule black hole spinning on her stomach.
Greg looked around, wild-eyed. He needed something small. Rice! There was still some left over Chinese from the night before in the fridge. He grabbed a carton and sped back into the living room.
Wanda was still asleep, slack lipped and vulnerable. He squatted beside the sofa, a grain of rice pinched between his fingers. Whoosh! There was a brief tug at his fingertips, then, the white oblong shot into the hole. Mmm. He sent another piece after it. Then, a short string of noodle. The dark vortex slurped it in, leaving a trail of sauce on Wanda’s pale belly. Fascinated, Greg fed in a sliver of onion. Floof! Amazing!
Greg looked from the hole to the empty carton in his hands. Where had all that stuff gone? Had it come out in an alternative universe? Was it still shooting through a singularity between worlds? Most importantly, had the hole gotten a little bit larger since Greg had begun feeding it?
Greg slid back on his heels to consider. It reminded him of the children’s riddle. What gets bigger the more you take out? A hole. This was: What gets bigger the more you put in? Greg switched off the tri-v and crept back into bed. No sense waking Wanda until he’d had a chance to think this thing through.
* * *
Greg had grown up on a hydroponics plant out on the Archipelago, and as soon as he drifted off to sleep, his dreams took him there. He had been nine when the cistern burst. It had ruined a full quarter’s crops, and nearly bankrupted his family.
First, on a fresh morning in spring, one of the cistern’s internal supports had given way. Over the next day, one side of the squat cylinder had begun to belly alarmingly. The next morning, the farmers had stood, cap in hand, scratching their heads and examining the huge crack that had appeared during the night.
Water had never really been in short supply out in the Archipelago, so the farmers had decided to call for an engineer. For the moment, they would simply top up the cistern. Greg dreamed he was back at the cistern once again, watching with a gaggle of dirty-kneed children as their parents made the mistake that would ruin their year. The problem was, that the more water they put into the cistern, the wider the crack got. Of course, the wider the crack got, the more water poured out of the cistern.
Even at nine years of age, Greg had known the adults were making a terrible mistake, but who listened to children?
He had almost drowned when the tank finally spilt, stuck to a chicken-wire fence for minutes by the force of the water. Two children had died, a brother and sister. Greg had never been able to remember their names, but their faces had haunted his dreams for the next five years.
* * *
The next morning, as Greg fought his way onto the crowded Core, his dream came back to him with the answer to his riddle. What gets bigger the more you put in? A crack in a cistern.
Wanda had come to bed some time later that night. Greg hadn’t had the courage to check the hole before he left for work. Now that the morning was here, the entire thing seemed ridiculous, and the dream that had followed made the episode even more unrealistic. What would cause a hole to form in Wanda? The Succuum 3000?
Greg watched the ribs of the central line flash past. His thoughts went back to the grain of rice that had flown into Wanda’s stomach. It reminded him of the way she ate. She could never get enough. It seemed to Greg, that the more she ate, the more she wanted… like the Sucuum 3000… like the sofa… every time Greg got something for Wanda, she came out with three more things she ‘needed’. A gravity truss to help lift her stomach(s) when she went out, a retinal information link with price index, a wave massager, Pinky. The list went on forever.
Greg’s mind whirled as the pieces slotted into place. Wanda was the cistern! Her desire had created the crack, and the more stuff he got her the bigger the crack got! It sounded crazy, but Greg knew, intuitively, that he was right. Just then, Greg felt his module vibrate.
“Greg?” Wanda’s face was pallid, and she looked worried. Greg felt his heart begin to race. She must have discovered the hole.
“I don’t feel too good. I think I need a doctor.”
“There’s something on my stomach, and it sucks!” She was close to tears now.
“Oh, don’t worry about that. It’s a parasite you picked up from the takeaway. A few people had it in work.” As the words came out, Greg realised that he had chosen his course of action. Whether he chose it before he spoke, or as the words came out, even he didn’t know. But he knew that he was going to follow this thing to its logical conclusion. And he knew what he was going to do next. “Just make yourself comfortable. I’m going to ask Hector if I can finish work early, so I can look after you.”
“Will you get me a doctor?”
“Shhhh. Of course. I’ll call him straight away. Now you just relax. Go to bed, and I’ll get home as soon as I can. Did my Sentrion robot come?”
“How can you ask that at a time like this? You and your…”
“Ok, ok, I’m sorry. See you soon.” He cut the connection, wincing.
* * *
“Hello, Sofa So Good, how may I help you?”
“Er, yeah, how quick can you deliver an Olympos 360?”
“How will you be paying, Sir?”
“We should be able to deliver it by tomorrow afternoon.”
“No, no, that’s much too late. I want it this morning. It’s an anniversary surprise, and I want to get it into the house while my wife is out.”
“Ok, let’s see what we can do.”
* * *
Greg rode the empty Core back to his block, marvelling at the difference a few hours made to the amount of seats available. If only he could finish work at this time every day. On the seat beside him was a six-kilo box of chocolates shaped like a love heart, and a bunch of sunset-coloured flowers.
By the time he got back to his apartment, the Olympos 360 had been delivered, and Wanda was stretched out on it, groaning.
“Hi honey, how’s my little girl feeling?”
“Greg, I feel terrible.”
“Didn’t the doctor come?” Greg was surprised at how easily the mock surprise came to his voice. He left the box of chocolates on the table by the door. Pinky dashed past his feet, batting a lump of brightly coloured plastic about with its paws.
“No.” She really did look poorly now.
“Don’t worry, if he’s not here in ten minutes, I’ll call a different one. How’s the sofa?”
“Oh, it’s lovely. I woke up this morning just as the deliverymen were leaving. You shouldn’t have, Greg. We could have waited.”
Greg couldn’t believe his ears. Wanda could have waited for something! Being ill really did suit her. He crossed the room, holding the bunch of flowers out in front of him.
“These are for you.”
“Oh… thanks.” She seemed taken aback by his behaviour. Greg was sure he had seen the tiniest glimmer of a tear in the corner of her eye. He went into the kitchen looking for a vase.
When he returned to the sitting room, Wanda had rolled up her t-shirt and was examining her stomach with dismay.
“Are you sure this is what your friend in work had? It’s awfully big.”
The hole was now of such a size that Greg could have got his arm into it. He nearly boggled when he saw it, but he distracted himself arranging the flowers.
“Yeah, that’s exactly what he had. Doctor gave him a blast of something and he was right as rain. Didn’t even lose a day’s work.” Wanda was looking at him doubtfully. Time for the chocolates. Step by step.
He went to the table and peeled the wrapper off the box. Pinky was at his feet, chewing his new toy. Greg tossed a chocolate into his mouth and spoke around it. “Whatya got there, boy?”
“Your robot arrived today,” Wanda called from the sofa.
Greg looked down between his feet and felt his blood run cold. He snatched the lump of coloured plastic from Pinky’s mouth. It was the Sentrion robot’s head, gnawed almost in half.
Greg looked up. His head swam with so much rage, that he was dizzy. Wanda was on the sofa, still examining the hole in her stomach. Fuck step by step! Fuck following this thing to its logical conclusion. This was going to end now. A nerve in the corner of his eye was twitching like a fish on a hook. He plucked a chocolate from the box. Pinky capered around his feet, eager for a treat.
“Here boy!” Greg waved the chocolate in front of the creature’s nose. It jumped, jaws snapping, but Greg snatched the food out of reach. “Catch!” And he threw the chocolate across the living room in a low arc.
Wanda looked up as the chocolate bounced on the coffee table and right into the middle of the swirling black maelstrom in her stomach. She gathered her breath to scream, her mouth an O of surprise. At the same time, Pinky, his eyes locked on the chocolate, dived over the table and hit her stomach in a tangle of limbs. His head disappeared immediately into the darkness. For a brief moment, his ten legs scrabbled on the tabletop, then, he was sucked noiselessly into the hole.
Wanda did scream then, but the hole was widening, and it swallowed the sound. Jagged edges roiled as the singularity gained critical mass and began to devour its host. The whole of Wanda’s ample bosom stretched downwards and melted into the darkness. Her face, twice its normal length, slid in next, then her lower body. At the last, the jumble of her arms and legs sprouted from the nothingness, then, there was a pop! and they were gone.
Wanda was gone. The hole was gone. Greg stood there until the shaking in his legs had stopped, then, went to the kitchen and fetched a beer. He settled in front of the tri-v, flipped the cap on the beer and smiled. It was the first time he’d had the sofa to himself in years.