Diminished: The Expanded Story

grasshopper

© @any1mark66

Sean McNeal adjusted the field intensity setting on his virtual console by another two degrees. “That should do it,” he muttered absent-mindedly.

The thirty-eight year old research physicist had been working in his small home lab for the past week, but the problem he was trying to solve had been plaguing him ever since he was a child and his Dad had shown him that old movie “Fantastic Voyage.” Ever since then, he had been fascinated by the idea of shrinking objects and people down to a tiny size.

The problem was Planck’s constant, which is why people can’t really shrink like Ant-Man. Fortunately, Sean found a way around that pesky dilemma.

“Honey, do you think you can stop what you’re doing and drive me to the airport? My flight for London leaves in just a few hours and it’ll take time for me to get through security.”

“Uh huh, Helen. Just a minute.”

She knew from bitter experience that he hadn’t actually heard her. From his point of view, she might have asked if he wanted a sandwich or if she should have sex with the gardener in lieu of pay. He didn’t care. He never cared.

When they first met, she was the center of his attention, and anything at that center, received the full and complete complement of his intellectual, emotional, and financial resources, the first and the last being considerable. But they’d been married twelve years now, and for the past ten, his shrinking project had taken her place at the eye of his cognitive hurricane.

Sean’s business partner Harold had replaced Sean in her heart and another of her organs that had long been abandoned by her husband (except on rare occasion when raw biology took over). The problem was that Harold was a minor partner with a lot of talent in marketing and administration, but no access to the McNeal fortune and the brain behind the McNeal Corporation’s vast array of patents.

Of course, if something should happen to Sean and Helen inherited, the company would be moot. She, and if she so desired, Harold would be set for life.

But how could she make it look like an accident? If it were a suspicious death, Helen would be the most likely suspect. The spouse always was.

“Here we go.”

He hopped inside a contraption that looked like one of those high-tech computer workstations you sit in and are surrounded by all manner of arcane gadgetry. It was wired to a set of projectors that covered the backyard and would allow him (or anyone sitting in the “chair”) to manifest a holographic image of themselves. The trick was, according to him, in adjusting the size of the projection so the subject experienced themselves at differing sizes, from King Kong to that Ant Guy she saw in that stupid movie Sean made her watch. He’d even demoed the matrix for her in his lab using prototypes of the projectors he’d installed out back.

She heard a hum and then Sean seemed to go to sleep. He wasn’t moving. He was breathing but his eyes were staring straight ahead.

“Sean?” Helen had been standing in the doorway (of course, he hadn’t noticed her) but now she walked in. “Sean, answer me.” He didn’t even give a non-committal grunt.

“Damn it, Sean! Answer me!” She was screaming right in his ear and still not a twitch. Then from the backyard, she heard something.

“Hooray, I did it!”

She ran out of the office, up the stairs to the house’s main level and into the kitchen. She stared out the window at her husband standing in the gravel bed in the backyard. It was Sean, the same Sean she’d left downstairs, but he was only about half his height. He was jumping up and down, screaming and yelling with glee. Helen was glad they lived on an acre. What would she tell the neighbors if they could see him now?

Then a few minutes later he vanished.

Helen ran back downstairs. Maybe this was her chance. She’d have to find out more about how it worked, that is if she should stand the boredom. She had to hurry, though. She could call a cab to get her to the airport, but she hoped she’d have time to solve another problem first.

“Honey?” She sounded sickening sweet which might actually get through to him.

“Yes, dear. What is it?”

“Can you explain to me again how your projector works?”

He turned toward her for the first time that day, grinning ear to ear. She was finally speaking his language.

“Why sure, Helen. I’d be glad to. Come closer.”

She walked over to the apparatus in mock obedience.

“The physics are kind of complicated, but the basic idea is really simple. A subject sits in the projector. Let’s say he or she wants to experience what it’s like to be six inches tall.”

“Or even an inch.”

“Yes, that would work, too. Here. This dial configures the height of the subject. Proportions remain the same and from the subject’s point of view, although they experience what it’s like to be much smaller, since it’s just a projection of light and force fields, Planck’s constant isn’t involved and they feel completely normal.”

“While you project yourself into the backyard, what happens to your body in the chair?”

“Oh, well the consciousness, or most of it anyway, has to be projected into the holographic matrix to create the effect so my body goes into a deep sleep, not quite a coma, but as long as the projector is active, I’m pretty much inert.”

Helen bit her tongue to keep herself from making a comment about how inert he’d been as a husband.

“How do you control when you come out of the matrix?”

“Eventually, I want to be able to do it by will power alone, but I haven’t worked out that part of it yet. Right now, I use a simple timer. For this last go round, I set it for three minutes.”

“And if something went wrong with the timer?”

“You mean if it was set for too long or couldn’t reach zero? Well, I suppose I’d be stuck. Of course, it’s not like my Mom’s old egg timer, this one is digital, not mechanical. Once I push in the time and press the “Activate” button, nothing can go wrong.”

“Can you show me?”

“I thought you had to go somewhere. Do you have the time?”

She was impressed that he’d been paying even that much attention.

“I can spare five minutes.”

“You’ve got it. Five minutes it is. What size again?”

She leaned in toward him as he entered the chair. “One inch tall,” she cooed.

“Never tested it at that small a size before, but it should work fine.”

He made some adjustments, presumably the size, set the timer for five minutes and pressed a button. Then his “lights” went out, so to speak. She listened but couldn’t hear his voice from upstairs.

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Helen quickly ran back up and into the kitchen. She stared out the window but couldn’t see him. Then she looked down. There he was. It was Sean, but he was only an inch tall. He also looked like he was in some sort of trouble. The grasshopper he was facing was twice as long as he was high. He froze. He looked worried.

Good.

Helen ran back down stairs and reached the lab. The chair’s timer was just as simple as the one on the microwave but like the “flux capacitor” controls in Doc’s DeLorean, it could be set for seconds, minutes, hours, and days.

“Let’s see, I leave in a little less than three hours and I won’t be back for…” she thought for a moment, “…almost three weeks.” She reset the timer for twenty days. She’d read somewhere that a person could only live maybe a week to ten days without water. What a horrible way to die. She wondered what one-inch tall Sean would feel, then she didn’t care.

Helen reached in her pocket, retrieved her cell, and found the stored number for the cab company. After calling for a taxi, she made sure her bags were by the front door and then walked to the back of the house and into the yard. It had been more than five minutes.

“Sean?”

“Helen. Helen, down here.”

The grasshopper abruptly jumped away at her approach. She crouched down to see and hear him better.

“Helen, something’s gone wrong. The projector should have shut down by now. Can you go look at the timer for me?”

“Why bother? I reset it. You won’t be growing up any time soon, not for almost another three weeks.”

“What? You did that? Why?”

“When I come back from my business trip in three weeks, I’ll discover you were killed in a home lab accident. So tragic for the poor widow, but then I’ll inherit your fortune and your hunky partner Harold and I will live happily ever after, of course once a suitably sufficient mourning period has passed.

“Helen, why? I thought we loved each other. The company, the fortune, I did it all for you.”

“For me? You barely even know I exist. You haven’t paid more than a token amount of attention to me in most of the time we’ve been married. In fact, you ignore me so much you never even noticed me screwing Harold practically under your nose.”

“Screwing? Harold? Him? You’ve got to be kidding.”

“He’s a powerhouse in bed and even if he wasn’t, he takes his time with me. He pays attention. I’m never lonely when I’m with him.”

“I’m sorry, Helen. I never realized. Look. I’ll make it up to you. Why don’t you turn off the timer and we can talk.”

She heard the doorbell.

“That would be my ride to the airport. I’ve got to run, little man. Have a good time with the grasshoppers. See you in three weeks…well, I’ll see your corpse, anyway.”

She laughed and stood up, talking one last look at her tiny, desperate husband. Then Helen turned and walked away, closing and locking the patio door behind her.

“Helen, don’t go. I’m sorry. Please.”

It was no use. She was gone and he was alone, a one-inch tall holographic projection, an image made of light and force fields, at least substantial enough to pick up one of these pebbles. He looked around. He could see the grasshopper in the middle of the lawn regarding him. Did Sean look like lunch?

Now what? The feeling of betrayal, the hurt, the jealousy were almost beside the point. Sean McNeal had always been a problem solver, the harder the puzzle, the happier he was once he started to solve it. So how was he going to solve this one?

Three weeks later to the day, Harold’s car pulled up in front of the McNeal house. Helen was a confused mixture of jet lag, happy anticipation, and anxiety. She hadn’t gotten any urgent phone calls from the authorities while she was abroad, so no one had discovered the body.

People at his company, including Harold, were used to Sean’s long absences. When he became engrossed in a project, he disappeared for days or even weeks. His having gone silent while Helen was in Europe was nothing unusual.

“Do you really think I should have been the one to drive you home, Helen? What if Sean suspects something?”

“Dear, Harold. Sean doesn’t suspect a thing. How could he? You know how he is when he’s working.”

“I suppose you’re right, Helen.”

“Why don’t you come inside for a minute. You can say you dropped by to check on his project.”

“Well, I guess so. I mean, if you really think it’s a good idea.”

Harold turned off the engine and they both got out of the car. He popped open the trunk to get her luggage while she fumbled in her handbag for the keys.

She found herself debating whether or not to keep him around once she became an heiress to the McNeal fortune. He was sweet, kind, endlessly attentive, and terrific in bed, but she was getting bored with him. His business acumen was second to none, but outside of the boardroom or the bedroom, and he was starting to sound a bit thick.

“Honey, I’m home.” She called into the house not expecting any answer. She just hoped he didn’t stink too much. Helen wanted Harold there both as a witness and in case she got queasy or faint at seeing Sean’s dead body. Maybe she was becoming superstitious in her old age.

“Where do you want your bags?”

Helen jumped and then realized it was just Harold.

“Put them down in here in the foyer. I’ll…uh, I’ll have Sean take them to the bedroom. Where could he be, anyway?”

“Probably in the lab. I mean, where else would he be?”

“Of course, Harold. That’s right. Let’s go look. You first.”

He seemed a little surprised. After all, this was her house. But whatever. He led the way to the stairs and then downward, not seeing how hesitantly she was walking behind him.

“Sean, you in there?” Harold opened the door to the lab. “What the hell?”

“What is it, Harold? Is something wrong with Sean? Is he dead?” She regretted those last three words the moment she said them, but then again, Harold was kind of thick.

“Funny you should ask that question, dear. Why don’t you and Harold come in. I’d like you to meet the police.”

“Sean?” Helen’s heart seemed to jump into her throat. She slowly walked in behind Harold and then around him. Yes, there was Sean, big as life, that is, both alive and his normal size, grinning from ear to ear with two uniformed officers and another man, probably a plain clothes detective next to him.

“Here, I’ll play the recording back again.”

Sean pressed a button on the virtual console next to the projection chair.

“Sean?”

A three-dimensional picture of the backyard appeared above the control console. It was a scene from three weeks ago. It was her and Sean.

“Helen. Helen, down here.”

In the projection everyone saw the grasshopper abruptly jump away at her approach and then they watched her crouch down next to Sean’s diminutive image.

“Helen, something’s gone wrong. The projector should have shut down by now. Can you go look at the timer for me?”

“Why bother? I reset it. You won’t be growing up any time soon, not for almost another three weeks.”

“What? You did that? Why?”

“When I come back from my business trip in three weeks, I’ll discover you were killed in a home lab accident. So tragic for the poor widow, but then I’ll inherit your fortune and your hunky partner Harold and I will live happily ever after, of course once a suitably sufficient mourning period has passed.”

“Helen, why? I thought we loved each other. The company, the fortune, I did it all for you.”

“For me? You barely even know I exist. You haven’t paid more than a token amount of attention to me in most of the time we’ve been married. In fact, you ignore me so much you never even noticed me screwing Harold practically under your nose.”

“Screwing? Harold? Him? You’ve got to be kidding.”

“He’s a powerhouse in bed and even if he wasn’t, he takes his time with me. He pays attention. I’m never lonely when I’m with him.”

“I’m sorry, Helen. I never realized. Look. I’ll make it up to you. Why don’t you turn off the timer and we can talk.”

They heard the sound of the doorbell from the projection.

“That would be my ride to the airport. I’ve got to run, little man. Have a good time with the grasshoppers. See you in three weeks…well, I’ll see your corpse, anyway.”

She laughed and stood up, talking one last look at her tiny, desperate husband. Then Helen turned and walked away, closing and locking the patio door behind her.

“Helen, don’t go. I’m sorry. Please.”

Sean pressed a button and the image vanished. The man in the cheap business suit walked up to Helen. “Mrs. McNeal. I’m Police Detective George Sanderson. I’m placing you under arrest for the attempted murder of your husband Sean McNeal. You have the right to remain silent…”

TTA 27

Cover to Tales to Astonish issue 27 – January 1962

He went through the rest of the speech she’d heard a thousand times before on a thousand different police television shows. Then he showed her the card he’d been reading from, handed it and a pen to her, and she signed it, still feeling numb from the realization that nothing she planned worked out at all.

Big, loveable, dumb Harold backed away from her as if she had grown three heads, all of them rattlesnakes, finally bumping against a wall. “Helen…I had no idea. I mean, you were going to kill my partner, kill Sean?”

He looked back and forth between the two McNeals in disbelief.

“I mean, an affair, you felt lonely, unwanted, I understand that. But I never thought, I mean I always figured someday the two of you…”

Helen almost answered Harold, tried to explain, and then she saw the detective, the two officers. She’d need her attorney. She’d never believe this. Helen hoped she was good in criminal court or knew a colleague who was.

One of the officers gently put handcuffs on her and started to lead her out of the lab. Then she turned.

“I’ve got to know, Sean. I mean…how?”

“How am I alive? It’s not that complicated, Helen. If you’d paid more attention to my work, you’d have seen the flaw in your plan right from the beginning. Two things really. The first is that my hologram wasn’t just insubstantial light but also a set of force fields used as a sort of framework. That would let my projection handle objects. The second was that I installed projectors both in the backyard and…”

She would have slapped her hand against her forehead if she wasn’t cuffed. “Dumb. The prototypes you have here in the lab. You even showed me how your invention worked when you were first constructing it.”

“Exactly, Helen. You see, moving from the backyard to the lab when you are being projected is pretty much like walking from one room to another. All I had to do was move toward the house. Once our of range of the projectors out back, my signal was picked up here in the lab. From there, it was just a matter of climbing up the chair, reaching the timer, and resetting it to zero.”

“Then you woke up. But where did the recording…”

“Again Helen, if you’d paid…”

“Attention, I know. Too bad you never paid attention to me, either. Then we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“Dear, I think you’re the only one in this room in a mess. Anyway, the projectors also act as active video and audio recorders. I designed them that way so I’d always have a record of my experiments. Now they’re evidence against you in a court of law.”

“Sir, is there anything else?”

“No, Detective. You can take her away. I’ll be down to the station a little while to file formal charges.”

“Yes sir.” Detective Sanderson turned to the two uniforms. “Get her upstairs and call for the squad cars. We hid them out back, Ma’am,” answering Helen’s unasked question. “Didn’t want to tip our hand too soon.”

Helen was silent as she was escorted upstairs. Probably shock was setting in.

Speaking of which, Harold was still backed up against the wall. Then he noticed Sean who was still smiling.

“How can you grin like that, dammit? Your wife tried to kill you. She admitted to having an affair with me. This isn’t a joke, Sean. It’s serious business.”

“Yes, that’s true, Harold. I just never solved a murder…well, attempted murder before. Maybe I’ll offer my services to the police as a consultant.”

“Sean, please.”

“Yes, of course.” Sean patted Harold on the shoulder. “Oh, by the way, you’re fired.”

“I’m a partner. You can’t fire me.”

“You are a junior partner. I’ve already contacted the board. I’ll make you an acceptable if not generous offer for your shares. Then you’ll sign an agreement that, once the trial is over of course, guarantees you’ll disappear and I never, ever want to hear from you or about you again.”

“Yes, yes you’re right, Sean. I’ve made a mess of this. But I swear I had no idea Helen was planning anything like…”

“I believe you, Harold. I believe you. Now get the hell out of my house.” Sean was no longer smiling. “You’ll be notified when to show up at the office to conclude our business together.”

“Okay, Sean. Sure.” Harold turned and lumbered up the stairs like a man in a trance. Sean followed him up, walked him out, and then watched him pull away from the drive.

He turned and saw Helen’s bags sitting there. In spite of what his wife thought of him, he felt grief and pain choking his chest. Yes, he ignored her, and she had the right to be hurt. He could even understand her having an affair (but Harold? You’ve got to be kidding). But murder was way over the top. There was nothing he wouldn’t have given her. Then he realized that wasn’t true. He gave her everything except time and attention.

“Oh, Helen. What will I do now?”

It was time to go to the police station and confront the next step in this nasty business. It wouldn’t be over for months and it would never completely be over really. Twelve years of marriage. She always joked that his inventions were their children, or rather his children. Now they were the only thing he had left.

Late yesterday, in response to a flash fiction photo challenge, I wrote Diminished based on an image of a grasshopper. However, I had a max word count of 175 to work with and one of my readers suggested that I might be able to resolve the life-threatening situation I left my protagonist in.

And so with this tale, I did. Hope it’s more satisfying.

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4 thoughts on “Diminished: The Expanded Story

  1. OK, this version is more satisfying ultimately, because Justice triumphed. It lost a bit of the suspense of the original version, of course, because it telegraphed early on that the protagonist might be able to do something about his plight, so as not to be merely victimized for his shortcomings (and because the very existence of the expanded version was intended to do so in response to reader curiosity and protest). I suppose a stronger sense of suspense might have been generated by organizing differently the stages by which information was revealed about the technology, and the protagonist’s fears and desperation about how to resolve a seemingly more challenging version of his problem. The story might have followed his thinking as he tried to figure his way through it, though it still could have stopped short of revealing whether he actually succeeded until after the segment describing his wife’s return. Thus the reader could be a bit more invested and could have shared more fully in her own suspense until she entered the lab. In this version it sounded a little too pat as an almost-facile resolution was described. It mightn’t have seemed so if the reader had seen more detail about how it might have been more difficult and dangerous or that it might possibly have failed to save him after all.

    But enough brainstorming about the storytelling process. Thanks for going the extra mile.

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    • You’re welcome, PL. Yes, I suppose I could take the story to the next level, but after all, so many stories, so little time.

      My protagonist is kind of quirky and nerdy, so once the grasshopper moved off, he probably saw the whole thing as a challenge and a great intellectual puzzle rather than focusing on his fears. It was only at the end that he realized with his puzzles solved, he really didn’t have much left.

      I did have to telegraph some of the solution since I really hate stories where the protagonist pulls out an 11th hour save you never saw coming because some of the facts were hidden or the writer never thought of them until he/she needed to save the hero.

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      • Yes, it was a principle that I once read in an introduction to one of Asimov’s anthologies, where he wrote that a scifi writer must “play fair” with his readers, especially where a mystery was concerned; and not pull a trick to say something like: “Well, of course, Watson, you should have realized that my pocket framistat could detect the missing jewel in a trice.” where there had been no prior mention at all of any such device. However, even the quirky genius types can get a bit desperate at times, at least briefly, until they start to see their way at least partly in some promising direction toward a possible solution, however slim the chance it would work. *Then* they can go back to being the kind that gets so absorbed in solving the puzzle that they forget the fear and desperation, and ignore any hint of rationality that might protest that a given crazy solution couldn’t work until it was made to work anyway.

        Now the downturned ending, about the reality of the loses incurred along the way, seems to me to reflect somewhat the once-popular theme of the anti-hero, and the post-modern pessimism that says there are no happy endings, really. Some folks mistake that for a reflection of “reality”, when really it could be described otherwise as a loss of that characteristic which rightly may be called “faith”. Alternatively, there is the outlook which is described by Rav Shaul in Rom.8:28, saying that: “… God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose”. Even the story of Job, which included the loss of virtually his entire family, his fortunes, and his health, and called into question any hope of relying even on close friends, included also a compensatory upward-turning ending. In the case of *this* protagonist, that would likely extend the story just a bit further to allow him a bit of recovery after such a loss.

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      • Sure, I could include details about how this has taught him the value of relationships and not just work and that going forward, McNeal would find a woman with whom he could build a true future with. Even if he had paid more attention to Helen, she must have been a malevolent soul since she was able to engineer a murder with relative ease upon her conscience. So in the end, it did all work out for the good. However, that hardly means a mistake-free or pain-free life.

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