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Brass Clock


​by Michael D. Burnside

Not to be distributed without express permission from the author.

The bright orange needle behind the glass danced back and forth over a small field of yellow. Then it dipped lower and bounced above the red line a few times. Then it abruptly gave up and just fell into red.

“Engine Overheating.”

The air car’s computer generated voice was calm, soothing even.

Which made it all the more irritating.

I had to get the hell out of the tube. If a car stalls in there, the automated crash avoidance systems of passing air cars should prevent a collision with the immobile vehicle.

It was that “should” which could get you smeared across a full kilometer of clear lexan plastic. Folks could walk under the travel tube, look up and wonder what the funny red smears were amid all the junk that had fallen to the bottom of the tube.

I stabbed at the control panel and was rewarded with the pleasant voice asking me if I’d like to exit. I bit down my instinct to yell “No, you piece of crap, but I haven’t got any choice do I?” The car didn’t understand those kinds of queries, so I just keyed the “yes.” button.

The car exited the tube abruptly, the sudden deceleration throwing me forward in my harness.

Nice. I was getting off at some backwater that hadn’t bothered to tune its exit compensators for a decade or two.

The list of destinations that scrolled on the monitor was bleak. Bleaker still considering the loss of speed meant there was less airflow which made my car’s overheating problem all the worse. I tapped the screen for the nearest public place which was listed as a family restaurant.

The car slowed and turned. Out the window I saw the name of my destination on a big glowing yellow sign.



The car set down.

I keyed my com mic and called in my problem. Andy was manning the troubleshooting desk. Me being me, we had gotten to know one another.

“Finally died on ya, huh? About time. That’s what you get for flying that piece of crap.”

“Thanks for the sympathy. Shut up and send me a service unit,” I snapped.

“Where are you? Jesus, could you break down farther off the grid? It’ll be about thirty minutes.”

“Great.” I keyed off the mic, rubbed my face with both hands, and then sat there for a minute.

Twenty-nine to go.

I decided I might as well get a drink. Even sitting in a place called Petunia’s was better than sitting in a dead air car for a half hour.

I unstrapped my harness, popped the door, and stepped out. My right foot scrapped across the pavement. The actuator wasn’t working right again. I dragged the foot forward, stumbled off to the side, and managed to get the car door closed again.

After I lost my real one, I had been promised I’d get a new foot. Well, I’d been promised a lot of things. I’m sure I made a sad sight as I limped to the front door of the restaurant. I opened the door and staggered in.

The interior of the restaurant was in painted in cheerful pastels. Fabric decorated with colorful flowers covered the chairs and the lights were bright. A happy tune was playing over the speaker system. Something that went “La la la” a lot.

Great. I was in hell.

A family of five that were clustered around a table all stopped eating to look up at me. One of the little ones gave me a big old “you weirdo” stare. A young teen couple glanced at me. The young man appeared to size me up and dismissed me as no threat, which I admit was a fair visual assessment.

I limped over to a booth and sat my ass down on some bright yellow daisies. A waitress came over to me and, somewhat hesitantly, asked what I wanted.

“Car broke down,” I replied. And then realized that didn’t really answer her question. “Um... I’ll just have a root beer.”

She looked at me quizzically.

“This seems like a family oriented establishment. Don’t you have root beer?”

“Sure,” she finally said. She wrote my order down on her little pad.

Five minutes later, I had a bottle of root beer in front of me.

I knew it was exactly five minutes because I have a retinal display. It’s a general GPS unit with a clock. It used to have a targeting reticule, but they took that out when they discharged me. So all I have floating in front of me anymore is my current location and a clock. So I knew I was in the middle of nowhere and I knew I had nineteen minutes left to wait before a repair unit arrived.

That's when the idiot walked in wearing a long coat.

Really? A long coat? For Christ sakes it was summer. The sun had just set but it was still like ninety outside. Why not just wear a sign that says “Hi. I’m here to rob this place.”

I took a drink of root beer.

The idiot pulled out his gun, a gauss model, a nice one too. It was a long barrel version with a holographic sight. Those suckers could pick someone off a mile away but you had to be ten feet from the shooter to hear the hum of the electro-magnets as they propelled the shot down the tube.

Personally, I didn’t like them because there was a one second delay between when you pulled the trigger and when the magnets powered up and sent the shot down range. But I knew some folks that could estimate where a target would be standing ten seconds before the target knew where he was going to be standing. All in all it was a very lethal weapon, though not one very well suited for use in a close up armed robbery.

He probably pilfered it off his dad.

He delivered the standard, “Nobody move!” line. It got the required shriek from the waitress. Someone in the back heard him and dropped some dishes causing the idiot to look quite startled.

I took another drink of root beer.

“I said nobody move!” he yelled at me.

“Heard ya,” I told him.

Great, I was talking back to a nervous robber. That’s a fine way to get yourself killed. On the upside getting killed would make the job interview I had tomorrow considerably less stressful. I wouldn’t have to worry about how I was suppose to get there with a grounded car either.

“Then, don’t move!”

I didn’t move. There really was no sense in getting killed just because I was in a bad mood. Getting killed in a place named Petunia’s wouldn’t make a very good obituary read either. It would be downright embarrassing actually.

Seeing I was complying made the idiot feel more in control. He eyed the family. They were all huddled around the dad. The waitress was standing as still as a statue in the middle of the room. The boyfriend had his arms around the girlfriend protectively. Long as the idiot didn’t try anything stupid with the girl, the boyfriend probably wouldn’t try anything stupid either.

The cook in the back was probably calling security forces right now. Probably about ten minutes before they got here. It was down to eighteen minutes before the service vehicle arrived.

“Wallets and purses, out!” ordered the robber.

I pulled my billfold out and put it on the table. I took the opportunity to take another drink. The idiot was too busy watching the mom offer up her purse to notice. The youngest kid started to wail.

If you are ever wondering how to make a stressful situation worse, just add a shrieking child to the mix.

“Shut that kid up!”

The mom bounced the distraught youngster in her lap a few times to no effect. On the plus side, I couldn’t hear the crappy music anymore.

The thief decided to get on with the business of robbing. He rummaged through the mom’s purse. He emptied the dad’s wallet. He made his way over to me.

I didn’t look up. He held the long gun awkwardly in one hand and opened my billfold in the other. He ignored the cred cards and just took note of the lack of cash.

“This fucker’s empty!”

I shrugged. “Imagine how upset I am about it. It’s my wallet.”

The idiot dropped my wallet onto the floor and took proper hold of the gun with both hands. He placed the cool metal barrel right against my temple.

“I think you’re hiding some money somewhere.”

“Yeah, the Feds thought that for a while too,” I quipped. “But it turns out I really am just motherfucking poor.”

“I’m going to count to three,” he said in as cool a voice as his quivering body could muster. “And when I get to three, you are going to give me your money or I’m going to blow your head off.”

I started to point out that a headless corpse really wasn’t going to help him, but he interrupted me with his count.


God damn it.


One second delay I reminded myself. Not much time, but enough.

As he started to say “three” I grabbed the barrel with my left hand and pointed it out the window that I was sitting near. I heard the magnets powered up and thanked the designer that the things didn’t generate much heat. As the solid steel shot exited the gun and punched a hole in the window, I grabbed the bottle of root beer with my right hand and smashed it into his head. It shattered. Root beer and blood poured down the idiot’s face.

I hadn’t even got to finish it. But on the bright side, maybe the waitress would forget to charge me for it.

The idiot started to fall backwards. I didn’t dare let go of the gun, so I tried to stand up. My right foot once again failed me, and so I went tumbling down, crashing into the table and ending up on the floor with my left hand still holding the barrel of the gun, and my face staring at the bottom of the idiot’s feet.

The idiot started scrambling to try and get up while desperately tugging on the gun.

Training kicked in and I swung my legs around, kicking his legs out from under him. The extra weight of the fake foot probably helped. He fell back, losing his grip on the gun. I grabbed it now with both hands and quickly reversed it.

Instead of being smart and running… well it turned out I wasn’t thinking of him as an idiot for nothing. He stood up and dove at me. He was younger than me and probably stronger. An extended wrestling match for the gun didn’t seem like a good idea.

A one second delay.

Gravity had him now as he fell towards me, his path was easily predictable, and the path behind him was clear of any unfortunate folks.

I pulled the trigger. One second later, the shot went clear through his chest. I could see through him briefly before a collection of his insides filled in the empty space. He collapsed on top of me covering me with warm blood, bits of skin, and shattered bone. I shoved him off me and struggled to my feet.

Everyone in the restaurant looked at me horror. I’d seen that before.

The kid abruptly stopped wailing. The “La la la” song petered out over the speaker system. A new one came on that went “Oh la la la.”

I resisted the urge to put a round of solid steel shot through each speaker.

I stumbled over to where I had been sitting and with one hand up-righted the table. I put the gun on the table and began to sit down, but then decided I had better not be near the gun when the security forces arrive. I sat down at another table. A minute later, I remembered to grab my wallet off the floor.

Seven minutes till the security forces would arrive. Fifteen minutes till the service vehicle arrived.

All those seconds inside all those minutes.

Why is it that some seconds count for so very much, but most of them don’t matter at all?


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