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Rated: E · Fiction · Emotional · #2287087
The 1st chapter of my book, "Future Tense", to introduce the main characters to the reader

Chapter One ~ "Happy Birthday to WHO?"

Word Count: 9,459

November 1st, 2292

The lush velvet greenery of summer had once again lost its endless battle against the change of the seasons. The leaves on all of the trees had just started to change colors, and the neighborhood was taking on an entirely new flavor. As it'd finally begun to surrender itself to the inevitable rainbow of autumnal hues, which had lain in wait for so many months, we sat in the comfortable warmth of my parents' house.
         My girlfriend Penny and I were sitting on the couch in my parents' living room. It was my father's 41st birthday, and each of our fifteenth birthdays had just passed. It seemed to make sense to my mother to combine the three, so she was throwing us a joint birthday party, and Penny and her parents were there to celebrate with us. Yesterday had been Halloween, Penny's favorite holiday, and we had bags of Halloween treats on the coffee table in front of us.
         My 12-year-old sister, Dee-Dee, was in her bedroom, doing her best to 'hide out' until she was forced to make an appearance. In a lot of ways, I almost envied her.
         I knew that Penny hated these little 'gatherings' of my parents'. Since her father had been forced to retire from the polymers industry last year, she knew how much he resented the fact that he wasn't able to do anything that he considered 'important' anymore. I also knew that she was worried that he was going to do something to embarrass her...again.
         I knew how John Nemo became when he drank. Penny'd always told me that he was a nasty drunk, but I'd never really seen it for myself until last month at the Labor Day party that my parents'd thrown. I remember Mr. Nemo getting so drunk that he could hardly stand up. Even that might not've been so bad, if he'd only stayed that way.
         It'd started out as a pretty fun day. My father was making his annual attempt at barbecuing which'd naturally meant that I was barbecuing. Everyone I knew pretty much considered barbecuing to be a lost art, like two-dimensional photography; or recording sound on those big vinyl discs that I couldn't remember the name of. Despite that fact, my father still always insisted on making the attempt.
         I'd always just assumed that it was because our house was one of the few that still had a built-in barbecue pit, until my mother told me that it was a 'Labor Day tradition' that'd been going on in our family for generations. I was pretty young at the time, and I remember having asked her what a 'tradition' was. She'd told me that it was doing something the same way, over and over, without thinking about why you were doing it. She'd likened it celebrating birthdays, or hanging flags outside on 'Hegemony Day'.
         I was still cooking the hamburgers when I heard a horn honking at the front of the house. My father came to the back door and said that the Nemo's had arrived. Taking away my spatula, he said that he saw them taking a lot of stuff out of their 'car, and told me to go out front and see if I could help carry anything. As I'd started walking toward the house, I remembered coming to a weird realization. I found myself hoping that my father didn't burn any of the meat while I was gone. With that one thought, it became clear to me that I'd somehow started to consider the 'Labor Day barbecuing tradition' to be me my own.
         I made my way through the house, and walked down the steps to the landing. I looked outside, and saw Penny's brother Alan taking the last of a bunch of boxes out of the trunk. Mrs. Nemo was carrying a small box filled with carving tools, and Penny was carrying one filled with mixed fruit. Alan's box had what looked like an elaborately carved watermelon in it.
         Mr. Nemo was already coming up the front steps. His box was full of mangoes and a honey-dew. I could see that there was a bottle of vodka in it, too. I also remembered noticing that the bottle had already been opened. As soon as Mr. Nemo put the box down, he'd taken the bottle out of it and poured himself a drink.
         "Just pouring myself a little bracer, Tripp", I remembered him saying with a little chuckle, "I just need to have a little nip to help warm me up."
         Considering that it had been nearly a hundred degrees that day, I would've assumed that he was joking; whether he'd chuckled or not. Even so, it had only been around twelve o'clock in the morning, but the 'little bracer' that he'd poured himself had clearly not been his first drink of the day.
         As the day had gone on, time had almost seemed to slow down. I'd watched Mr. Nemo go from laughing too hard, to laughing too loud, to almost closing in upon himself. After a couple of hours, and a few more drinks, I'd watched John Nemo go from being pleasantly buzzed to being downright mean.
         For reasons I still don't understand, he'd begun to lash out at Penny and Alan. It was almost as if he'd thought that, somehow, by hurting them, it would make him feel better. I remember Penny running off, refusing to let her father see her cry. I'd followed her into the house, and she'd wept on my shoulder for almost ten minutes. I knew that Penny was worried that it would happen again, tonight.
         As my mother and Mrs. Nemo prepared our birthday dinner, my father and Mr. Nemo were in the family room. Mr. Nemo was on his third drink, and my father was making excellent use of his tried and true politician's skills, making it seem like he was matching him drink for drink; while he was actually simply nursing the same one. Penny and I'd been dating for almost a year and a half, but Mr. Nemo still hadn't figured out that my father wasn't a recreational drinker. I found it as much curious, as I did sad...but Penny, too, could be just as oblivious much of the time; so, in a way, it sort of made sense.
         My father and Mr. Nemo would never be described as being 'friends'. In fact, were it not for my dating Penny, they probably wouldn't even know each other; let alone have reason to talk to each other. Even so, my father always treated Penny's father 'correctly'. As my girlfriend's father, Mr. Nemo deserved at least that much. He also knew that Penny's mother was very close with my own, so he'd to make allowances for that, too. Either way, I knew that, in his own way, my father enjoyed the 'spirited' discussions that he and Mr. Nemo usually had when they were off on their own; as well.
         Frequently, when my father and Mr. Nemo finished a meal together, they would engage in the 'horrid' practice of smoking cigars. My mother and Mrs. Nemo would complain that there were probably only about a couple of hundred thousand people on the entire planet who still used tobacco, and would ask my father and Mr. Nemo what kind of people that made them.
         "The finest kind", they'd usually both chime back, in unison. Then they'd retreat into my father's office to continue the conversation so that they could enjoy the cigars, knowing that neither of their wives approved of their smoking.
         Once there, they would talk for hours. Their most frequent topics of conversation centered on the various benefits and detriments of life, as it stood, in the United Earth Hegemony. As a sitting Prefect, my father would naturally always take the side of the government. As a former polymers executive, Mr. Nemo would always take the side of the workers.
         When I'd first met Penny, Mr. Nemo had worked for the second largest polymers company in the world. Over the course of his career, he'd worked his way up from being a fairly low-level executive to being a Senior Vice-President. At the time, polymers were the standard product used whenever a highly durable clear, translucent, or opaque building material was required; and business was booming. It'd made Mr. Nemo feel very happy and self-fulfilled, and it had made the Nemo family very wealthy.
         Mr. Nemo could've had no idea that new advances in the synthetic metals industry would result in the perfection of a form of transparent metal that was stronger than the strongest polymer. These new metals had not only proven themselves to be stronger, but they only cost a fraction of what it did to produce similar grade polymers. The advent of these new metals had all but eliminated the demand for polymers, in general; and, in time, brought about the utter collapse of the entire polymers field.
         This collapse had served to render Mr. Nemo virtually unemployable. After spending his entire lifetime working in the polymers industry, he felt that he was completely unequipped to do anything else; whether by training or temperament. It was as if he was as trapped in the polymers 'mentality' as the proverbial fly trapped in a piece of amber.
         As a result of this, Mr. Nemo had become a sort of self-appointed 'ambassador' for the plight of the working man. When he and my father were smoking their cigars, Mr. Nemo would usually begin to discuss the issue. He would point out that the advent of new technologies was making people with skills that took a lifetime to develop and hone obsolete. Despite the obvious benefits of these advances, he blamed their problems on the government.
         My father would counter with the point that advancements were called so because that was what they did, they advanced society. He would cite an historical example, like the replacement of surgical sutures with micro-lasers, and the replacement of micro-lasers with sonic sealers. He would then turn the question back to Mr. Nemo, and ask him if he would prefer to have his doctor sew him up with cat-gut, so that the workers who manufactured it would still have a job to go to, or if he would rather have her use a nice, new sonic sealer.
         My father would use a different example each time, of course, but they were always equally applicable. In the end, he would point out that the government allowed each individual to live up to their fullest potentials, regardless of their career choices, through its wide array of social programs.
         Mr. Nemo would say that, under UEH rule, people like himself could never live up to their true potentials. He would say the government's social programs did nothing more than eliminate the incentive for the individual to bother trying to live up to their potentials. He'd say that as long as the government continued to give preferential treatment to those cherished few who came up with new ideas, there would always be disharmony; and that the seeds of disharmony invariably gave way to the weeds of insurrection.
         This would usually lead to my father's pointing out that the UEH had managed to keep the peace for 250 years, and that there'd never been a time in all of mankind's history when humanity had been freer to pursue whatever path they desired to achieve personal fulfillment. He would rather casually point out that, since man had evolved beyond the need to measure an individual's worth by the amount of wealth that they'd acquired, there was nothing preventing anyone from moving from one career field to the next; at their leisure.
         It was frequently at this point that Mr. Nemo, with a few too many drinks in him, would start getting defensive. He would go from discussing to arguing. He would point out that perhaps it had been too easy for my father, since he'd been born into a political family. Mr. Nemo would point out that maybe if his own father had been a Legate, and if Priscilla's grandfather had been a Prefect, then there would probably be no need for them to be having their discussion; at all. That would usually be the beginning of the end of their conversation.
         My father was many things, but he was not egotistical. In fact, he was quite the opposite. As such, he regarded his position as Prefect of the North American Prefecture to be a sacred trust; not a birthright. Although I'm sure that Mr. Nemo couldn't know it, or really even understand it, my father was never entirely comfortable with the role of being a leader. He simply saw it as something that other citizens thought that he did well. He was almost fanatical about trying to prove them right.
         Most people who knew my father well knew not to even imply that he'd earned his position as a UEH leader by his simply having taken the trouble to be born, or because of whom he'd married. They knew that they would be among the very few to see him lose his temper if they did.
         I'm not sure that Mr. Nemo could be counted among the people who knew my father well...but I'd know that he definitely did it to bait him. Fortunately, my father knew this as well. When Mr. Nemo would start to take that particular tack, my father would usually pour him another drink, and find some subtle way to turn the tables around on him.
         Even though Mr. Nemo had been unemployed for over a year, we all knew that he and Priscilla easily had more currency units in the Hegemonic Funds than we did. My father would usually change the topic to investments, and pretend to be seeking Mr. Nemo's advice on one financial issue or another.
         As I considered their curious dynamic, I wondered how my life might have been different, had Penny and I not met. If the Order of DeMolay Annual Picnic had been held anywhere but the Cragmire Recreational Facility, and if Penny's brother, Alan, hadn't been working there that day; we would all still be strangers. It was funny how life works out. I guess it was what my DeMolay adviser would call 'part of the Blessed plan of the Great Architect of the Universe'.
         I heard Mr. Nemo laughing a little bit too loudly, and knew that it was only going to be a matter of time before things went from bad to worse. I felt Penny shudder on the couch next to me, so I knew that she'd recognized it, too. I put my arm around her to comfort her, but I could tell that my doing so had made her feel even more uneasy.
         Suddenly, Mr. Nemo came into the living room. He looked almost gleeful, and he was carrying a rectangular box. He opened it up and pulled out what looked like a holocam.
         "C'mon, you two!" he bubbled at us, "act like you know each other!", he said with a child-like lilt to his voice; as he pointed the holocam at us.
         I drew Penny closer as she put her arm around me. I could almost feel the tension easing out of her. Even though I could tell that she was forcing her smile, as she rested her hand on my stomach, I knew that she really was feeling better. She began to relax into the embrace; and, for the first time that evening, she seemed to actually feel comfortable. She caressed my stomach with her hand, as she drew me closer.
         The almost invisible green flash of the holocam flooded my senses for about five seconds, which I thought seemed like a long time. Mr. Nemo brought the 'cam over to where we were sitting; and plopped down on the couch next to me.
         "Check this out, Tripp!" he said, acting like a child on Christmas morning. I watched as he played with a little medley of buttons on the back of the holocam; looking intently at the little view screen on the back of it. As he finished, a small round disc slid out of the side.
         He put the disc on top of the coffee table, and touched the edge. It made a high-pitched little 'fwink' sound, and there, projected above it, was a small, three-dimensional likeness of Penny and me.
         As I looked at the image, I realized that it wasn't just a likeness. It was like the holocam had actually captured us, somehow. The image seemed to move. It looked like Penny and I were actually snuggling together. I was impressed. Even Penny leaned over to look at it. Mr. Nemo handed me the holocam with a smile.
         "Happy Birthday, Tripp!" he beamed, "Put it to good use!"
         As he got up, he touched the side of the disc on the table, and, with a 'fwink', the image of Penny and I disappeared. I automatically rose as he did.
         "Thank you so much, Mr. Nemo!" I said, as I shook his hand, "I really appreciate this!"
         I could only hope that he could tell how much I really meant it. As he left the room, he patted me on the shoulder, and winked as he gave me the 'thumbs up' signal that I knew he always used when he figured he'd reached the end of a conversation.
         I knew that the holocam that I already owned had been very expensive, and all it could do was take stills. It was like a dinosaur compared to this one; so I knew that it must have cost a small fortune. I was floored. It was a very generous gift.
         I heard a 'fwink' coming from behind me. I turned around, and saw Penny looking at the little likeness of us. She touched the side of the disc again, and it was gone. She continued to look where the likeness had been, almost as if it was still there.
         "I got two skirts and a sweater", she said; without looking up. Her voice sounded empty. As she stood up, she looked into my eyes. Her own were misted over. She bravely added "and socks to match the sweater"; managing to force a smile.
         I took Penny in my arms and hugged her. This time there was no resistance at all. I gave her a light kiss and told her that everything would be alright. She kissed me back, and said she knew.
         There was a mixture of both security and passion in her kiss. It was as though, by simply kissing me, she was somehow drawing strength from me; and from my love for her. Although I wasn't quite sure how, I could tell that even though Penny had said that she knew everything was going to be alright plenty of times in the past; this time she really meant it.
         We heard my mother calling from the kitchen that dinner was ready. A few moments later, Mrs. Nemo came into the living room to tell us that dinner was being served. As soon as Penny saw her mother enter the room, she quickly broke our embrace. I could sense her old, familiar wall of apathy come back between us. I took Penny by the hand, and we headed into the dining room.
         As we gathered around the dining room table, my sister finally made her appearance. The appetizer was served, and we ate it with abandon. Since the Nemo's had been at my parents' dinner parties before, they knew not to eat too much.
         I'll always recall the first such dinner party that they'd attended. My mother's appetizers normally consisted of several large trays of antipasto. She also usually made each person their own loaf of garlic bread.
         I remember Mr. Nemo and Alan eating it like they'd never seen food before. They both raved about it, as if the antipasto was the best appetizer that either of them had ever eaten. When the time had come to clear away the plates, Mr. Nemo looked at my mother.
         "Mmmmm", he'd said, patting his full belly, "I like this even better than a hot meal!"
         I remember how amused I'd been at his surprise when my mother looked confused, and brought out the lasagna. While it hadn't presented any problem for Alan, I recall that Mr. Nemo had been forced to virtually stuff himself; to avoid looking silly. This'd been so memorable that we'd retold the story often enough for it to have risen to the level of being a Hamilton family 'legend'. Mr. Nemo, himself, did as much to perpetuate the legend as we did.
         "Mmmmm", he said to my mother, as usual, "Delicious as always, Juliana!"
         We finished with the appetizers, and the plates were quickly cleared away. As usual, my mother and Mrs. Nemo were spending most of their time in the kitchen. I knew that Mrs. Nemo was basically there to keep my mother company, but I also knew that she was at least trying to be helpful. My mother called my sister in to help, and she disappeared into the kitchen with them.
         They came out carrying a big bowl of ravioli and a serving plate of various meats. My sister was carrying two boats filled with gravy. As the main course began, we all made light conversation.
         After the main course was over, the women cleared the table. Soon, I could smell the familiar aroma of coffee brewing. A few minutes later, it was finally time for dessert to be served.
         The lights were dimmed, and my mother entered the dining Room carrying three small Birthday Cakes on a platter. They were ablaze with candles. She set them on the table in front of my father, Penny, and I.
         Penny and I held hands under the table, made our wishes, and blew out the candles on our cakes. Everyone cheered for us, and I noticed that Penny seemed to really feel happy for the first time all night. We all looked at my father, who had a tiny inferno raging atop his cake.
         "Glorm, pops!" my sister joked, "It's a good thing the fire suppression system's turned off, or we'd all be covered with foam!"
         My father stood up, took a deep breath, and blew out all of the candles. We all cheered, again; half because he blew out all the candles on the first try, and half because we knew the cake was German Black Forest.
         As my mother served larger pieces of cake than anyone admitted to really wanting, Priscilla poured coffee. Now the time had come for presents. My mother got a bunch of boxes from the hall closet, and Priscilla told Mr. Nemo to get the gifts from the back of the car.
         "Already got 'em", Mr. Nemo told his wife, "in fact, I gave Tripp his gift, already." Priscilla looked impatient with him, but not overly upset. Her husband went to the cloak room to get my father's gift.
         "Well, Tripp, I hope you like what I picked out for you", Mrs. Nemo remarked offhandedly.
         "I think that it was outstanding", I began, "and very generous of you".
         My comments seemed to confuse her a little bit, but I assumed that I may've just been misreading her. Mr. Nemo returned and put a box on the table in front of my father.
         "Happy Birthday, Johnny!" he said to my father, "This is from me and Priscilla!"
         My father hated being called 'Johnny'. I think that even Mr. Nemo knew that, but, since he, my father, my grandfather, and I were all named John; I suppose it seemed logical that one of us would end up being called Johnny. Even so, I'm sure that my father wished that it wasn't him.
         My father picked up the gift. He unconsciously gave the present a little shake.
         "Be careful, John", Mrs. Nemo warned with a grin, "You don't know what's inside! It might be breakable!"
         My father put the box down, ran his finger along the edge of the wrapping paper, and opened it up. Inside the box were two shirts, a sweater; and a pair of socks to match the sweater. That combination somehow sounded strangely familiar. A moment later, almost as if on cue, we heard a little 'fwink' sound come from behind us.
         "Hey, look it this!" my sister blurted out. "This is so cool!"
         She was carrying the disc that we'd left on the coffee table in the living room when we were called in for dinner. She'd activated the little likeness of Penny and I that Mr. Nemo had taken with my new holocam. Of course, I'd pretty much figured out that it wasn't actually meant to be mine, at all.
         Mrs. Nemo looked at the holo-disc, scowled for the briefest of moments, and then put on an assumed smile. It became painfully obvious that, not only had she bought the gifts, but that she'd intended the holocam that I'd gotten so excited about to be a gift for my father; and the clothes to be a gift for me. Try as she might to conceal it, Mrs. Nemo was becoming visibly upset. My mother sensed what was going on, and rushed to the rescue.
         "Look, John", she said to my father, "It looks like Priscilla and John got Tripp one of those new-fangled holocams for his birthday; just like the one that I gave you last night!"
         Of course, my mother hadn't actually given him a holocam yesterday. I knew for a fact that they never exchanged birthday gifts. My mother rarely lied, at least as far as I knew, but, in this case, the ends seemed to justify the means; based on Mrs. Nemo's reaction.
         In what seemed like less than a heartbeat, I could sense Mrs. Nemo making the transition from mounting anger to abject relief. My mother and I both knew that Mrs. Nemo would rather give my father a completely inappropriate gift, than give him a gift that he already had. This was especially true of any gift that'd come from my mother. It also had the added advantage of meaning that I'd probably be able to keep the holocam.
         As we finished the cake and coffee, everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time. Once we were done, my mother and Mrs. Nemo cleared the table. With dinner over, the adults got up to go into the family room to sit and talk.
         My sister got up as well, and quickly excused herself. She disappeared into her bedroom, to busy herself with whatever twelve-year-old girls did to entertain themselves. More likely than not, she would be using the com-unit to link up with one or more of her friends. Either way, she'd managed to 'escape'.
         Penny and I took the opportunity to excuse ourselves, as well. As Penny picked up her haversack, I told our parents that we would be downstairs in my suite exchanging gifts if they needed us for anything.
         "You two have a great time!" Mr. Nemo said to us. "Don't do anything I would do", he added, with a huge grin. Mrs. Nemo rolled her eyes as he did.
         We left our parents' in the family room, and headed downstairs. I could tell that Penny was embarrassed by what her father had said, but I was grateful that we'd finally be able to spend some 'quality time' alone together.
         We rounded the landing of the staircase, and Penny suddenly threw her arms around me and gave me a warm hug. I could feel the tension easing out of her; again, as she did, and I knew that she was as glad to be out of our parents company as I was; if not for the same reason. We broke our hug, and continued downstairs to my suite.
         "Now I can give you my birthday present", she smiled, as she walked past me; into the suite.
         I followed her inside, and closed the door behind us. I wasn't quite sure what she meant by what she'd just said, but I was pretty sure that I would probably be very happy with whatever kind of gift she was talking about.
         I walked into the private parlor of my suite. Penny was already sitting on the larger of the two overstuffed black sofas, petting my cat, Phoenixe. He was purring in her lap as she stroked him, and I found myself envying him for the attention that she was giving him.
         In reality, Penny seemed more to be sprawled out on the couch, rather than actually sitting on it. I'd always marveled at her ability to just thrown herself onto a piece of furniture, like a bag of potatoes that somebody'd tossed on it, and still land with the accuracy of an Olympic gymnast. As I approached, she held up her hand, as if to signal that I should stop.
         She smiled a sly smile at me, and started digging through her bulky, over-sized haversack. She pulled out a small, crudely wrapped present; with an envelope stuck to the top of it. Handing me the gift, she looked me squarely in the eye and patted the sofa next to her. Her action seemed to imply more of a command than a request.
         Even though I felt like a trained dog performing a trick, I responded to her silent instructions, sitting on the sofa next to her. Once I sat, Phoenixe quickly scurried away, as Penny looked at me impatiently.
         "Well?" she began, excitedly, "Don't just sit there! Open it!"
         As she did, she sat up, nervously wringing her hands in anticipation; looking at me expectantly. I could tell that she was bursting with pride in whatever gift was hidden inside the primitive-looking package that she'd given me.
         I took the envelope from the top of the gift and opened it. Inside was a home-made card. There was a drawing of what was obviously supposed to be a pair of penguins on the cover. Above them, it said 'Did you know that penguins mate for life?' I opened the card, and inside it continued with 'will you be my penguin?' over a drawing of the same pair of penguins, kissing. Underneath, she'd written "Happy Birthday, Tripp, Love Penny". She'd dotted the 'I's' with little hearts, and there was a smiley face drawn next to her name.
         I smiled broadly, and gave her a hug. Sensing that she was still impatiently excited about my unveiling her gift to me, I quickly turned back to it, and busied myself with opening it.
         I tore through the paper, and inside it was a life-sized, half-inch thick scanned likeness of Penny's hand on a piece of foam rubber. Its form was reminiscent of a gesture that implied that the person seeing it should 'STOP'. I was all too familiar with that particular gesture. I'd seen her use it numerous times, myself; most recently less than a minute ago. The rubber hand was hanging from a hook, and across the palm, she'd written "Do Not Disturb!" with a red, broad tipped marker. It had all the looks of having been a school art class project, but I could still appreciate the sentiment; especially from Penny's point of view.
         "Glorm! Thank you Penny!" I tried to gush, and I hugged her, again.
         I knew exactly what the intended purpose of her present was, and, not wanting to disappoint her, I got up, and went to the door of the suite. I opened it, and hung her gift on the doorknob. Closing the door behind me, I walked over to the sofa, sat next to her, took her in my arms, and kissed her.
         I would never have described Penny as being a passionate kisser. To be honest, her kisses had always seemed like they were pretty much for show. This time, however, she was kissing me with a depth of emotion that I could not recall having ever experienced with her before.
         I reveled in sharing that kiss with what I realized was some kind of a new, uninhibited Penny; and I didn't want that kiss, or the feelings that it evoked, to end. For the first time since we had been dating, I could sense that she truly felt the same way as I did. In fact, it was at that moment that I could feel us making the transition from being two kids who said we were dating to two young adults who actually were.
         I felt all kinds of new feelings for Penny welling up inside of me. My head was actually reeling with the emotional deluge that was flooding my senses. As we finally broke our kiss, we separated, slightly; our faces no more than an inch or two away from each other.
         "I love you, Penny", I told her, as we gazed deeply into each other's eyes, "I would be proud to be your penguin."
         "I love you, too, Tripp", she responded, "Let's be each other's penguins forever."
         I could tell that Penny actually meant it as much as I did, this time. We kissed again, and, somehow, as we did, it almost felt as if we were sharing each other's souls. I seemed to perceive our hearts beating as one, in some kind of an ethereal universe that only the two of us shared.
         "Ohhh, Tripp", she purred, "I could never imagine what my life would be like without you. Please don t ever let me have to find out!"
         "Don't worry about it, Penny", I replied, dreamily, "I promise, you'll never have to find out", I continued, "You're stuck with me."
         Penny smiled, gazing at me with half-lidded eyes. She glanced from my eyes to my lips, then back again. She licked her lips, and slowly moved in and began kissing me again.
         I felt tingles running all through my body in a way that I'd never known before. My entire being was overwhelmed, as I was enveloped by a surge of powerful yearnings and feelings. My senses were flooded with a new kind of fervor and intensity, as I found myself awash in a sea of unbridled passion.
         As we continued to kiss, I felt the depth of emotion that I was experiencing inundating Penny's consciousness, as well. I thought that I could also perceive a sense of relief passing over her, as if, by her surrendering to our mounting passions, she was somehow also feeling some new kind of freedom.
         I wasn't sure if the way that Penny was reacting was because she'd been wanting to take our relationship to some kind of a new, different level; or if it was because she was finally feeling a freedom from the strains of dealing with being with her parents. All I knew was that, at that particular moment, I didn't care. For the first time in my life, I knew for sure what it felt like to really be in love. I honestly believed, in my heart, that Penelope Alyssa Nemo and I would truly be together, forever.
         Out of nowhere, I felt Penny unexpectedly shift mental gears. Part of her was beginning to panic. I knew that the logical part of her mind was trying to regain control again. I could also sense that she was beginning to feel a peculiar combination of anxiety mixed with impatience that I couldn't explain. Penny broke our kiss abruptly and sat back up, suddenly.
         "Well?" she asked, looking at me, expectantly, "What did you get for me?"
         I knew that Penny was the kind of person who pretty much lived in the moment. Her having to wait almost a week past her birthday to get her gift from me must have been driving her crazy.
         Penny wasn't always the easiest of people to deal with under normal circumstances. If dealing with an upset Penny was difficult, dealing with a 'crazed' Penny was nearly impossible. Even though we'd agreed not to give each other our gifts until tonight, she'd been pressuring me all week to exchange them earlier.
         "I'll be right back", I said to her, with a light caress of her cheek, and a kiss on her forehead.
         I got up and went into my bedroom. I swung the hinged painting of the United Earth Hegemony capitol building that had been hanging on the wall since the house had been built aside, revealing the antique wall safe that was hidden behind it.
         This house had been in my family since before the Hegemony had even existed. In fact, this very room had been my Great Grandpa Joe's home office when he'd been North American Prefect.
         Of all the obsolete rarities that the house held, this old wall safe was among my favorites. The safe was so old, in fact, that the subject of the painting that hid it was probably still called the United Nations building, back when it had been painted. I'd always been especially glad that we still had the original combination that was required to open it.
         I unlocked the safe, and took out the envelope that contained the gift that I'd gotten Penny. Of course, putting it in the safe in the first place was pretty much a pointless thing to do. In the year and a half that Penny and I'd been together, she'd never even seen my bedroom, let alone been inside it. I closed the safe, spun the dial to jumble the combination, and swung the picture back over it. The painting locked in place with a little magnetic 'click'.
         I walked back into the parlor, and over to the sofa. Sitting next to Penny, I handed her the envelope. She immediately looked disappointed. I guess that she'd been expecting me to be carrying some sort of large, elaborately-wrapped package, and not just what she perceived as merely being a card. Again, I could feel the old, familiar, emotional wall rising up between us; and Penny assumed a blank expression as she began opening the envelope.
         She lethargically pulled out the two page card that I'd gotten her. On the cover, it said 'Happy Birthday to my Favorite Girl." She opened it, and read the first page, which said 'Nobody has ever made me feel this way...' She turned the next page, and at the top it read 'B-4' in large letters.
         As she'd turned the second page, the card's built-in audio unit had started playing the lead-in to 'Nobody has ever made me feel this way before', which was a new hit song by Penny's favorite band, 'B-4'. A holo-projection of the band's logo had appeared over the page.
         The two fourth-row tickets to the 'B-4' concert that was taking place at the end of the month at the New Radio City Music Hall in New York City slid out; landing in her lap. Since Penny had no idea that they were concert tickets, she looked down at them in annoyance as she felt them hit her lap. Picking them up, she read them almost unconsciously.
         It seemed to take a few moments for it to dawn on her exactly what they were. As soon as it did, Penny's face suddenly lit up like a Christmas tree. She dropped the card that I'd gotten her, grasped the tickets firmly, and threw her arms around my neck. She was covering my face with little girl kisses.
         "This concert has been sold out for months!" she blurted out, "and fourth row seats, to boot!!"
         "Did you notice that the little star on the back corner of each ticket has 'TF' written on them?" I asked her; already knowing the answer.
         "No..." she answered, distractedly, "What do the letters 'TF' mean?"
         "The 'T' and 'F' aren't just letters, Penny", I explained to her, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible, "They're initials."
         "Initials?" she replied, "whose initials?"
         "Tyrone Flynn's, naturally", I said.
         "In the Holy Name of the Blessed Great Architect of the Universe!" Penny gasped, "You actually met him??...You met The Flynn??"
         Tyrone Flynn, or 'The Flynn', as his devoted fans called him, was the lead singer of 'B-4'. I knew that Penny, herself, thought of him as some sort of musical demi-god. My having met him would likely raise me to nearly similar status in her eyes, as well. I simply nodded in response to her, trying to make it seem like it was no big deal to me. Penny's eyes were sparkling, and she looked flushed.
         "W-well, don t just sit there", she stammered out, smacking me in the arm, "Tell me what he was like!!"
         "No need, my little penguin...you can find out for yourself," I said with a smile, "Don't you realize why Tyrone Flynn initialed the back of our tickets?" I asked her.
         Penny stared at me with a lost look on her face. She'd apparently never gotten decent concert tickets before. I paused for a moment before adding the finishing touch.
         "These aren't just tickets, Penny...they're special Back Stage Passes." I explained to her, "We get to hang out with the band after the show's over."
         Penny's jaw dropped, and she looked almost dizzy. This must have been like a dream come true for her.
         "Thank you, thank you, THANK you!" she bubbled, "These must have been almost impossible for you to get!" and started peppering my cheeks with kisses, again.
         "Well...", I replied, sincerely trying to sound modest, "just consider it one of the few perks that goes along with being the girlfriend of a Prefect's son."
         Penny had no idea how honest I was actually being. Were it not for the fact that my father was what some people would probably call 'the most powerful man in North America', even though he would've naturally disagreed with them; getting those tickets would've actually been nearly impossible. Even with the ability to drop my father's name, I'd had to buy them nearly six months ago; and they didn't come cheaply, either. Worst of all, I'd had to endure meeting 'The Flynn'.
         Truth be told, I didn't even like 'B-4'. Penny and I'd never shared the same taste in music, and probably never would. I hoped we never would, anyway; unless, of course, it was Penny's taste in music that was going to change. I'd always preferred music that you could actually understand the lyrics of.
         I'd only gotten her the tickets because I knew how happy our going to the show would make her. The combination of knowing this, and the love that I felt for her, would make my having to screw a smile on my face and suffer through the concert bearable.
         As Penny continued to rain a smattering of kisses on my cheeks, she suddenly stopped and looked at me with smoldering eyes. She had an almost devilish smile on her face.
         "Go lock the door", she told me, with a sultry tone in her voice that I almost didn't recognize. She leaned forward on the sofa and picked up the com-unit that was on the coffee table as she did.
         I went to the door of the suite, and put my hand on the scanner. A moment later, I felt it pulse momentarily under my hand.
         "Recognize John Scott Hamilton, III", I said aloud, and the computer responded with a crisp, simple "Recognized".
         I instructed the computer to secure the door to my suite, and the panel audibly latched itself shut. Now, nothing short of a level A-1 priority over-ride command from my father would allow access to my suite without my express permission.
         I returned to the parlor, and Penny was sitting on the edge of the sofa. There was fire in her eyes, and she was licking her lips. She was looking intently into my eyes as she spoke into the com-unit.
         "Recognize Penelope Alyssa Nemo".
         "Recognized", came the computer's mechanical reply.
         "Decrease lighting by fifty percent", she said. A moment later, the lights dimmed accordingly. "Play some romantic music", she continued.
         "Please restate your request in a manner which would better facilitate this unit's ability to satisfactorily comply with your instructions", the feminine-sounding, metallic voice of the com-unit replied.
         Penny broke eye-contact with me, and glanced at the com-unit impatiently. Trying to recapture the moment, she looked back into my eyes, and began again.
         "Play 'The Beatles, Instrumental Love Songs', volumes one and two; random play list, endless loop; volume at forty percent", Penny said into the com-unit, and put it back down onto the coffee table. The instrumental version of 'And I Love Her' began to play, as she did. I was glad that she'd picked out something that we could both enjoy.
         Penny held out her arms, in a gesture of invitation to take her into my own. I sat on the sofa next to her, taking her in my arms.
         "Happy Birthday, my dear sweet penguin", Penny said to me, as she gazed into my eyes with a hungry look that hinted at things to come.
         "Happy Birthday to you, Penny", I replied, and we began kissing again. As we did, time seemed to slow down again. This time it was definitely in a good way, and neither of us was in any kind of a hurry for it to speed up, again.
* * *

         John Hamilton was seated in his easy chair in the family room upstairs. John Nemo was sitting on the couch, across from him. By this point, Nemo was on his fifth vodka martini, and was feeling very little pain. Hamilton, himself, was actually starting his third drink. This was unusual, in that Hamilton usually didn't drink that much, but, since they were celebrating his birthday, he was allowing himself to make an exception.
         Juliana Messina Hamilton was in the kitchen with Priscilla Nemo, feeding the dirty dishes from dinner into the cleansing unit. They were both drinking glasses of red wine, and making light conversation.
         The Nemo's were more prone to giving dinner parties than the Hamilton's were, and Priscilla could best be described as being what one might call a 'dinner party' cook. She was something of a 'specialist', and had a small variety of what people called her 'famous' dishes; like her 'famous' carved melon desserts, or her 'famous' cold lobster or crab meat salads.
         Juliana, being Italian, was more of a 'generalist'. She cooked meals on the grand scale, as tonight's dinner had proven. While Priscilla cooked pretty much for show and presentation, Juliana cooked for the sheer joy of it.
         In the family room, Nemo was telling Hamilton what might be best described as an off-color joke. Nemo had always had something of a bawdy sense of humor. He was also well known for being the kind of man who laughed too heartily at his own jokes. Usually Hamilton was so intent on keeping up appearances that he would only allow himself to chuckle at Nemo's jokes, but, tonight, with a few drinks in him, he was allowing himself to laugh, outright.
         He was having a great time tonight, and he was comfortable enough to really let himself go. Since they were out of earshot of their wives, Hamilton told Nemo a particularly raunchy joke that he'd heard at work a few days earlier. When he finished, they both laughed raucously; so much so that they were actually crying.
         It was at that moment that Juliana and Priscilla came into the family room. Juliana was delighted to see that her husband was having such a good time, and she smiled to herself. Priscilla, too, was smiling, glad to see her husband enjoying himself. She'd been keeping track of how much he'd been drinking, as she always did; and she was glad that he hadn't become melancholy yet, like he usually would have by this point.
         Nemo excused himself to go to the bathroom, and got up to go, wiping the tears from his eyes as he did. Once he'd gone, Priscilla apologized for the obvious mix-up with the gifts; but Hamilton dismissed it with a wave of his hand.
         "Priscilla, the gifts, themselves, don t really matter to me, at all", he said, with a smile. "I'm sure that Tripp appreciated getting the holocam more than I could've, anyway", he continued, "And don't think of it as your having gotten clothes for me", he concluded, with a chuckle, "think of it as your having saved me the expense of getting a holocam for him, instead."
         They all laughed at that. They knew that giving a holocam to Hamilton would've ended up being the same as giving it to Tripp, anyway. They heard Nemo coming back from the bathroom, and Hamilton quickly ended the conversation; switching topics, as if he'd been telling a joke...
         "...after sentencing the prisoner to fifty lashes, the Magistrate told him that, as an act of clemency, he could have anything he wanted on his back that he wanted to make the flogging less painful, so the prisoner said Fine, Your Honor! I want you on my back!" Hamilton said, laughing, and implying with a gesture that the women should laugh, too.
         "Ah, the old 'Fifty Lashes' joke! One of my personal favorites!" Nemo said as he walked in, and began laughing with them. He stopped at the bar, and began to pour himself another martini. "Anybody else's drinks need freshening?" he asked.
         "Sure thing", Hamilton replied, "another frosted Glen Fiddich!"
         "Juliana? Prissy?" Nemo asked their wives, as he held an on-the-rocks glass over the froster; and a blast of cold, misty air chilled it. Both women politely declined, and he began pouring the single-malt into the frosted glass. Two glasses in hand, he returned to the sitting area.
         Before Hamilton even had the chance to raise the glass to his lips, the com-unit bleeped. Its voice interrupted them, saying "Incoming Level A-1 Priority Transmission for North American Prefect John Scott Hamilton, II."
         Hamilton picked up the com-unit and, excusing himself, went into his office. This could not simply be someone calling to say 'Happy Birthday'. A Level A-1 Priority Transmission had to be an affair of state. It was more than likely something fairly serious, too, since the caller had referred to him by his title, and because the call had come on Hamilton's birthday. Once he'd left, Juliana apologized for him, as well.
         He returned about ten minutes later. He'd changed into a more formal suit, and was tying his tie as he entered the room.
         "Priscilla, John, I'm sorry, I don't want to spoil the party, but I've got to go; there's an emergency at work", he began, "Juliana, I don't know what time I'll be back, so don't bother waiting up."
         Juliana knew that if her husband had changed into a dressier suit than he'd already been wearing, and was leaving his own birthday party, whatever the emergency at work was had to be pretty serious. She kissed him as he tightened his tie.
         "Oh, Priscilla, John, thanks for the shirts!" he said, as he headed for the front door, "This one goes great with this suit!" With a wave, he was gone.
         Priscilla knew that neither Juliana, nor her husband, would likely enjoy the rest of the evening without Hamilton there to act as a buffer. Deciding that it would be a good time for them to go, Priscilla also stood up and faked a yawn. That was the signal that she and Juliana had worked out soon after they'd become friends, when one of them felt that it was getting to be time for the evening to end.
         "Well, Juliana, I'm glad that John likes the shirts we got him." She began, "I'm getting a little tired, myself, so I guess that John and I will be heading out, too."
         "Oh, please don't feel that you have to go just because John isn't here", Juliana said to Priscilla in a way that implied that Priscilla had made the right decision.
         "No, no", Priscilla insisted, "Anyway, I've to get up early tomorrow."
         She picked up the com-unit, pressed the intercom button, and called downstairs. Tripp answered, and said that Penny and he would be right up.
* * *

                   I'd heard my father heading through the front door, saying good-bye to the Nemo's and my mother. I knew that something serious had to be going on for him to leave on such short notice, so Penny and I were prepared for the call from her mother. Had the call come about ten minutes later, I don't know that we would've been.
         Penny had started collecting herself as soon as I'd told her to expect the call, and both of us were fairly presentable. Naturally I was disappointed that we were interrupted, but, at least this time there had been something going on to interrupt. Maybe, next time....
         Penny was standing in the parlor, looking out the window. I came up behind her and wrapped my arms around her waist. She leaned back and nuzzled against me as she took my arms in her own.
         "I love you, Penny", I whispered in her ear, and I began to kiss her gently on the neck.
         "Mmmmm...I love you, too, Tripp", she purred. She turned around in my arms, and we kissed again.
         As we slowly broke our kiss, Penny picked up her haversack and headed for the door. I put my hand back on the scanner and said "unlock". The latches slid back, and I opened the door for her.
         We headed up the stairs as her parents headed down. They were already wearing their coats. Mrs. Nemo handed Penny her own coat, and she quickly put it on. Penny and I hugged, and said we would talk on the com-unit, soon.
         As they headed out the door, I could hear Penny excitedly trying to tell her mother about the amazing tickets I'd gotten for her. As she did, Mrs. Nemo was trying to convince her husband that it would probably be a good idea for her to be the one to drive home. Since I'd already seen a few of these 'discussions' before, I decided to just close the door behind them.
         As I heard the hover-car glide down the driveway, I could just make out the sound of it running over the leaves that were piled up at the base of the hill. I assumed that meant that Mr. Nemo was driving. I was glad that they lived less than fifteen minutes away.
         At least the fact that Mr. Nemo was driving guaranteed that Penny would be calling me tonight. We had agreed months ago that she would always call me when she got home, if her father had been drinking, and then drove. She'd just left, and I was already looking forward to her call.
         I went upstairs to say goodnight. I knew that if my mother had any information to share with me about where my father had gone, she'd do so now. Since she only said good-night to me that told me that there was nothing more that she didn't know anything more herself.
         I went downstairs, took the rubber hand off of the doorknob, and closed and locked the door behind me. As soon as I'd finished getting ready for bed, I waited by the com-unit in expectation of Penny's call.
         Fifteen more minutes passed, then twenty-five. I was almost nodding off when the com-unit finally bleeped.
         The automated voice of the com-unit said "Incoming Personal Priority Transmission".
         I didn't need to look at the identification number to know who was calling. Picking up the com-unit, I walked into the bedroom. I was unconsciously looking at the scanned rubber likeness of Penny's hand as I plopped down onto the bed and activated the unit.
         "Hi, Penny, what's with all the 'personal priority' stuff?" I began, assuming it was her to be on the other end.
         "Uhhhh, Tripp, this isn't Penny, it's Alan", I heard her older brother's voice saying.
          "Hey, Alan, how's it going?" I said, surprised to be hearing from him, "We missed you tonight!" Even though I'd been expecting to be talking with Penny, it was still nice to be hearing from him, since he hadn't been able to make it to the party earlier.
         "Uh, yeah..." he said, "thanks..." At first I figured that he was calling to wish me a happy birthday, but something in his tone of voice told me that I was wrong.
          "Uh, Tripp...I've got some bad news..." he continued, "...there's been an accident...."

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