"At My Chamber Door" is copyright © 1991 by Allan Goodall. This version of the story has been slightly revised, due to a couple of small editing errors in the original, and the results of a certain sporting event in the fall of 1992. This version of the story is copyright © 2001 by Allan Goodall.
"At My Chamber Door" was my first professional fiction sale. It was published in the Winter, 1991 issue of On Spec magazine, Canada's premier magazine of science fiction. This issue was their special humour issue.
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door--
Only this and nothing more."
"The Raven," Edgar Allan Poe
I'd like to string the inventor of the subwoofer up by his toenails. Preferably suspended over an alligator pit.
For the guy upstairs, I have other plans. Sinister plans. Nasty plans. Plans involving honey coated genitals and jungle-sized fire ants.
These are not the thoughts of a sane individual as he peacefully awakens from a restful slumber but, then again, I'm not a wholly sane individual, I was not peacefully awakened, nor was my slumber all that restful. Strike three, I'm out.
It's bad enough having to get up at the crack of noon on a work day, but forcing a man out of bed on his day off? That's cruel and inhuman punishment. I mean the sun had hardly poked through the smog layer, for God's sake. And, to top it off, I had a hangover.
A monotonous beat was shaking my bedroom. Thirty hertz, I think. Maybe forty. But loud. I wonder what the resonant frequency of a hangover is? What ever it was, the music from upstairs was close. A new plan formed in my bruised brain, this one involving wooden mallets and twelve inch spikes. And the same honey-coated genitals.
Somehow I managed to crawl into the living room. Either the hangover had left me weakened, or the floor was shaking. Or both. I almost banged my head on the blast wall, which in my condition would have probably led to suicide. Touching the control pad, I opaqued the windows — the last thing I needed was a faint tendril of sunlight to hit me square in the eyeballs. Finally I reached the phone and punched in the number for the guy upstairs. I knew it by heart.
He's a member of one of those thrash/gospel groups, Gregorian Chantz I think, or maybe St. John and the Basilicas. For the last month he was out on tour, or off cutting an album, or something. I guess he got home this morning. That's all I need, an entire summer of being shocked out of bed by the guitar solo from "Onward Christian Soldiers."
It brings new meaning to the term "Jesus wept."
He picked it up on the fifth ring. Either he's got it hooked up to a strobe light or the guy's psychic. His haggard face and unkempt hair filled the viewer. "Hello?" The background noise almost drowned him out.
"It's me. Al, from downstairs! Turn down that damned racket!" Okay, so "damned" was technically incorrect. Sue me.
"What?" he yelled in reply.
"I said, turn down the music!!"
Several minutes of similar conversation ensued, resulting in him eventually dropping the noise below one hundred decibels. I'd really like to do onto him what he's done unto others, but I think he's bought off the board of directors for this residential block. I'm not naming names but the last time I complained, all I got on the trivee was three straight weeks of Rabbi Joseph Roberts and His Holy Crusade. Another week of Judeo-Baptist sermons and I've taken out a fast food joint with a plasma rifle, all in the name of the Lord and good taste. Besides, most of the time he's out of the apartment. Just once, though, I'd like to get even.
The doorbell rang. I stood perfectly still, sweat beading on my forehead. Adrenaline is apparently a good cure for a hangover, as my mind started to clear. Adrenaline or terror, one of the two. The distant drumming receded into the walls. My heartbeat had taken it's place, just as loud and almost as fast.
Please, God, don't let it be the Jehovah's Witnesses.
The doorbell rang again. A woman's voice came over the door speaker. "Albert, dear. It's your mother."
Mother? I had to think fast. Was she due today? What day was it, anyway? I had to think.
"Albert, are you home?"
It sure sounded like Ma, but that was no guarantee. Those Jo-Ho's are a clever bunch. But I couldn't leave her in the hall if it was her. "Yeah, I'm home."
"Oh, good. It's so nice to hear your voice. You never phone any more. Can I come in? This hallway's a mess. Why don't you find a nice girl and move to the suburbs? At least you can breathe the air in the suburbs."
It definitely sounded like her. "Hold on a sec, Ma. You know the drill."
Mother — if that's who it was — sighed. "Do we have to go through that silly routine? Really, Albert, living in the city has made you paranoid."
"You know we have to do this, Ma. Now, what's your sister's name."
Another sigh. "Clara."
"And her dog's name?"
This went on for a couple of minutes. All the answers were correct, but there was still something I couldn't quite put my finger on. Maybe she protested too much between questions. Maybe she didn't protest enough between questions. Whatever it was, I had one final test.
"Now can I come in, dear? My feet are sore."
"Just one more question, Ma." I took a deep breath. "What was the first non-American team to win the World Series?"
"Mother" paused. "You've never asked me that before. What's the matter, Albert? Are you in some kind of trouble?"
"Just answer the question, Ma. What was the first non-American team to win the World Series?"
Another pause. "Umm, now let me think now. It was one of those foreign teams, wasn't it. Uh, um, wasn't it the Toronto Blue Jays? Yes, that's who it was."
Cold sweat ran down my back. I turned quickly and vaulted for the blast shield. Of course it was Toronto. They beat the Atlanta Braves (back when there was still an Atlanta) four games to two. Everyone knows it was Toronto. Everyone but my mother. Ma knows squat about baseball.
This one was good. He could sense something was wrong. Maybe it was the yelp of pain I let out as my knee caught the edge of the blast wall. There was a squeal and an implosion of air as the middle of the reinforced door turned red hot and the hinges started to buckle. Another squeal and the hinges gave way just as the centre of the door evaporated in a shower of sparks. Plasma splashed the blast shield and burned holes in the walls and carpet. Building maintenance was going to be pissed.
I grabbed the autogun at my feet and levelled it over the lip of the cooling blast shield, just as a bulky figure entered the apartment. The intruder was encased in layers of body armour. Articulated panels of ceramic composite covered the intruder from head to toe and a visor hid his features. Reactive armour covered the intruder's torso, front and back, adding another layer of protection, while a laser-ablative cloth covered most of the suit. I could tell this one was a pro.
"Good afternoon," said the intruder. "Let me introduce myself." I fired the autogun, cutting him off in mid speech. The high-velocity squash-head rounds hit the ceramic composite helmet and flattened as they bounced off. There was no chance of the slugs actually penetrating but that's okay, they weren't supposed to. Instead, the first two rounds knocked the intruder off balance and the next five sent the heavily protected figure reeling backwards.
One shot hit the reactive armour and triggered a shaped charge. Great against mini-missiles, reactive armour was worse than useless against slugs and added to the intruder's backwards momentum. Sometimes the low tech solution was the best.
I emptied the magazine into the intruder's torso. Finally knocked off his feet, the intruder fell backwards into the wall across from my apartment. The wall must have been weakened by the plasma gun's backblast because the intruder fell through the wall and into my neighbour's bath tub. Unfortunately my neighbour was bathing his mastiff at the time. The result was a wet tangle of dog, neighbour, intruder, plastisteel chunks, plaster dust, and shredded ablative covering.
I dropped the empty gun onto the floor and ran for the fire escape, grabbing a re-breather on the way. I keep a missile carbine by the escape in case of emergencies and this certainly qualified. I slipped the re-breather over my face and, gun in hand, jumped into the drop chute.
The chute accelerated me at 2 gees until I was half way down the building. At that point I began to decelerate. Lucky for me, I hadn't eaten. The last couple of rings in the drop chute must have been shot because I hit the pavement at the bottom at something greater than the prescribed two metres per second. For this I pay maintenance fees.
I rolled my bruised body into a squatting position and for the first time I realized I was still in my pyjamas. Cradling the carbine in my hands, I peered through the murky atmosphere around me. A copbot hovered in front of me.
"Oh, hello!" called the mechanical voice. Somebody in the police psychology department came to the conclusion that Mickey Mouse's voice would be perfect for bringing trust and a calming influence into a heated situation, and thus fitted the copbot fleet accordingly. Little did they know that most people detest the little rat. "Unauthorized use of a drop chute is illegal and punishable by death," stated the bot in that cute little rodent voice. "You have five seconds to record your epitaph."
Inevitably, I came to the conclusion that artificial intelligence is an oxymoron. I fired a missile at the bot's gun arm, shearing it away at the mounting joint.
As the arm clattered to the ground behind it, the copbot spoke again. "Oh, my! Unauthorized destruction of a copbot is illegal and punishable by...." I fired a missile through the bot's brain. It was a good thing this was an older model. Ever since the Niven Statutes were put in place, half the laws on the books are punishable by summary execution — followed by a quick trip to the body bank with the useable remains. The newer bots are a little quicker on the trigger.
I could hear the whine of the drop chute behind me. Guess who? I could try taking him out as he hit the ground but his reactive armour was designed to stop my mini-missiles. Deciding that discretion is most definitely the better part of valour — and ignoring the pain in my legs — I took off around the corner and into an alley.
One of the most amazing things about life in the big city is the speed with which structures can be erected or modified. Take this alley, for instance. A week ago, this was a space between two stratoscrapers wide enough to drive a hovervan through. Today, it's a short cul de sac resulting from the widening of our neighbouring building. Of course, not knowing this, I ran head first into the wall at top speed. Mother always told me to look where I was going, but who ever listens to their mother?
The next thing I noticed, I was lying on my back on the pavement. I must have cracked the re-breather in the impact, as noxious odours were beginning to leak through to my nose. As my eyes refocused I noticed the intruder standing above me. Reflexes took over and I groped for the carbine.
He was standing on it.
As I settled back down, he flipped up his visor. There was precious little left of his ablative coating, most of it having been shredded by the explosions of the reactive armour. Green ceramic framed his face and a smile of putrid satisfaction, barely noticeable beneath his re-breather, spread across it. A scar running from his right eye to the corner of his mouth told me he had done this sort of thing before. He levelled his gun down at me.
"Good afternoon," he said. "Let me introduce myself. My name is Herbert J. Plink, and I represent...."
I was in no mood for this crap. "Look, I know my rights. You got me fair and square. Now cut the crap and get to the heart of the matter. What are you selling?"
A small pout crossed his face like that of a wounded puppy. A real ugly wounded puppy. After all, the spiel was traditional. "These," he said. He pulled out his sample. "Fuller Brushes."
Damned Niven Statutes. If I had reduced him to smouldering slag I'd be safe. But no, not me, I had to turn tail and run. "All right, I'll take one." That hurt look on his face intensified. I started to gag. "Okay, okay, make it two."
The salesman beamed as I stood up. At least he was selling something useful. The last time a salesman came to my door I got stuck with a load of tampons. "I guess you must be just raking in the bucks."
"Naw, not really," he replied, as he sent in my order to the host mainframe. "Oh, it pays the bills, but this is just a sideline. I'm actually an accountant."
This surprised me. I suppose accountants have to find excitement in their life any way they can. "Even so, if they can't blow you away first, the choice is the spiel or certain death. You can't get many refusals."
"You'd be surprised. It was a real bitch selling insurance."
He gave me my receipt and told me when my order would arrive. Of course my bank balance had already been debited. At least my name was flagged on the mainframe. That should keep me safe for a week or two.
The salesman shook my hand, handed me my gun, closed down his visor, and walked away. In spite of his demeanour, he seemed to be a nice guy. Not like those sadistic bastardsthat sell vacuum cleaners — they just love to show off their special attachments.
The salesman stopped and turned back around. "Say, you wouldn't know anyone else that might be interested in buying a brush, would you?"
I couldn't put someone I knew through that terror. I wouldn't be able to live with myself. In these trying times, one must have at least a shred of humanity.
A total stranger, however, was a different matter.
"Try the guy in the apartment above me. Hell, I'll bet he buys five of those things."
"You think so?"
"Sure. He's loaded. In fact he's home right now."
That ugly dog smile spread across his face, again, only this time it was different, almost angelic. "I'll go right up there."
"Be careful, though. The guy's a tough nut to crack."
"Don't worry," he replied, patting a fusion grenade as he walked toward the building, "I'm ready for him."
I sat myself back down on the ground and, for the first time today, a smile spread across my face. "I'm counting on it."