By Larry Hodges

Published in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, Spring, 1990

***Click on image for full-sized version - see my name on the cover!***


Humphrey walked slowly down the dark street, head down, gobs of fat rolling gently from side to side. His weight wore him down even more than normal in this moment of sorrow.


He'd been turned down for the piloting position at Carpet Fliers. Again. The ticket to a good life, gone.


It wasn't that he wasn't qualified. He was experienced. He'd piloted carpets half his life, and had earned the best of marks. When it came to taking carpets in for landings--the trickiest part--none but the best could touch Humphrey. No, that wasn't the problem. It was something else.


He was fat.


It wasn't that the huge commercial carpets couldn't take him up. But it took twice as much flying power to raise a four-hundred pound man as one who weighed two-hundred.


Humphrey had tried dieting, but it just hadn't worked out. He'd stick to the diet for a few days, sometimes even a few weeks. But he could never keep it up. He'd given up on himself.


He was a bum.


Even in his funk, Humphrey detected a sudden motion from a block away. Someone was moving stealthily towards him. You just weren't safe anymore, not with the legalization of laser stones. There just weren't enough policemen to patrol the streets.


"Hey bud!"


Humphrey didn't wait to see what the man wanted. He ducked into the nearest doorway, barely fitting his huge frame through it, and slammed the door shut. He was safe.


"Can I help you?" Humphrey looked up, startled. It was the proprietor of the shop he'd entered. A tiny little man with snow white hair and waves upon waves of wrinkles. "You look rather troubled," the old man continued.


"Someone was after me," Humphrey replied, breathlessly.


"Well, while you are in here, perhaps I can interest you in a few stones?"


Humphrey looked around and noted the shelves and shelves of stones along the walls. Magic stones. There were undoubtedly some he could use, but most seemed outside his price range. Except for a few low-paying menial jobs, he'd been unemployed for years, since his weight had cost him his piloting job. Humphrey sighed.


"You might be interested in this reducing stone," the man said, holding out a bright blue stone in his hand. Humphrey took it. "Guaranteed to take off up to a hundred pounds a week, with no side effects other than baggy clothing. What'd' ya say?"


Humphrey was definitely interested in this one. But he'd never heard of this new item, and he read all the dieting magazines. "How come I never heard of one of these?" he asked.


"It's a new item. Normally, it costs five hundred zewls, but I can let you have it for two hundred." The storekeeper leaned closer, and whispered as if there was someone listening. "I got a special deal last month, but my source won't give me more unless I prove I got a market. So I'm selling it at cost. What'd'ya say?"


"I'll take it," Humphrey decided. He put the stone on the counter and got out his wallet. The shopkeeper opened the cash register. Soon the deal was made. The shopkeeper wrapped the reducing stone in a bag and handed it to Humphrey. Humphrey reached for it hungrily.


But they missed the connection. The shopkeeper let go of the bag before Humphrey had it in his hand. The bag dropped. There was a sickening sound of something shattering. Both men stared. The shopkeeper knelt down and poured out the contents of the bag. The stone was broken into a thousand shards.


"You dropped it, you fat oaf!" the shopkeeper cried, shaking his finger at him. "It was in your hand!"


"You let go too soon!" Humphrey cried in despair. He dropped to the floor and grabbed the shards. "You have another one, don't you?"


"That was my only one! And there won't be any more coming--I'm closing the store and retiring next month."


Humphrey's shoulders slumped as he slowly shuffled to the door, his mind in a daze. Nothing went right for him. If he had been a dog, his tail would have been between his legs. Being a human, he just stared at his feet.


"Hey, look, I'm sorry about what happened," the shopkeeper called out to him. "And about what I called you. Look, I don't have any more reducing stones, but how about if I give you something else in its place?"


When Humphrey didn't answer, the shopkeeper came around the counter and ran after him. "Look, take this. I don't want any unsatisfied customers. This is the least I can do."


"What is it?" Humphrey asked.


"It's a time stone. Guaranteed by the Wizard's council! Guaranteed immunity to the user; It's really worth more than the reducing stone, but I got a good supply of these. I can let one go. What'd'ya say?"


It wasn't what Humphrey wanted, but with the reducing stone destroyed, what could he do? Time stones could be useful. Besides, if he didn't take it, the storekeeper would be insulted.


"I'll take it," he finally said. The storekeeper was all smiles as he handed over the bright green stone.


Humphrey opened the door carefully and peeked outside. It looked clear. Holding the stone in his hand, he stepped out into the night.


"Stop right there and hand over the pretty stone!" A man in a dark cape stepped out of the shadows from where he had been hiding, pressed against the wall. He pointed a red laser stone at Humphrey's stomach. "Hand it over, very slowly."


"Time stop!" Humphrey called out. The stone flashed.


"No!" the caped man shouted. "Fire!" A ray shot out of the man's laser stone, straight at Humphrey.


And stopped, about six inches from his stomach. Humphrey stood still for a good minute, frozen with fright. But the time stone had worked.


Humphrey remained frozen. He tried to move, but was unable to. He wasn't exactly the hero type, but nothing in his life had scared him to absolute immobility.


After many attempts at movement it finally dawned on him. It was the stone! It had stopped all time, with immunity to the owner, as guaranteed. But that meant that everything--everything!--except himself was locked in this one instant of time. Nothing could move, other than himself.


He was trapped in a prison of air molecules, smoothly formed around his body. Each molecule was firmly stuck in place, frozen in time and space. He could squirm his body about, but the air molecules would not give.


It was a situation that should be easy to remedy. All he had to do was say "Time start!" and he would be free. His mouth had been slightly open when time had stopped, and although he couldn't move his mouth much, he could get the words out.


"Time s-" he began, but suddenly his eyes fell to the beam of light that extended from the caped man's laser stone to his stomach. If time started up now, there would be nothing to stop that beam. And he'd almost said the words!


Now he was really trapped. He could start time at any moment he chose to die. Or he could stay in his prison forever, with the laser beam always bearing down on him, ready to strike, always six inches short. What was a man to do?




The caped man leaped out from where he had been hiding, squeezed up against the wall. It'd been a bad week. Five holdups had netted him less than two hundred zewls. People didn't carry money around like they used to! It was enough to drive a crook to drink.


He'd spied a fat man walking down the street and decided to follow. Fat people usually were pretty well off--they had to be, to afford lots of food! And so he'd waited outside the shop for the man to come out. The shiny stone in the palm of the man looked valuable. Perhaps this was his lucky day.


"Stop right there and hand over the pretty stone!" he said as he aimed a laser stone at the man's stomach. "Hand it over very slowly."


The fat man looked at him, eyes wide, then held up the gem; "Time stop!" A second later the gem flashed.


"No!" Then, recovering, the caped man yelled, "Fire!" A beam of light shot out from his laser stone, straight toward the fat man's belly. The caped man watched as the beam was about to strike, ready to see guts ripped apart and seared.


But where the fat man should have been standing, or rather laying in a smoldering mass, a thin man in baggy clothes stood, just off to the side of his laser beam. The caped man rubbed his eyes, not believing what he was seeing. He then tried to turn the beam to get this new person, but he wasn't fast enough. The baggy clothed man knocked the laser stone from his hand.


"Who--what--" the caped man stammered, then backed away, turned, and ran. He wanted none of this.


Humphrey stooped to pick up the laser stone. Perhaps he could sell it sometime, along with the time stone. He really didn't need either. Especially now, with his job prospects so good. He'd re-apply for the carpet pilot position, and he had no doubt he'd be hired, trim as he was.


He'd been trapped for a long time, staring at death just inches away. It'd gone on like that for what seemed like forever. The stone's immunity to the user had kept him alive despite the lack of food, water or breathable air. 


But with no food available, the enforced diet had taken hold, and his size had dramatically diminished. The size of his prison stayed the same and so each day he was able to move about a little more than the day before. When the day came that he was able to squirm out of the way of the laser beam, he'd squeezed to one side, started up time, and watched the beam narrowly miss him. Now he was off to the employment office and that piloting job.


But first he had to get something to eat. He hadn't eaten in ages! He knew a great steak place that had the best steak sauce. And fries and a milk shake! He jogged to the restaurant, admiring how his now thin body moved so well. He pulled up a chair at the bar.


"What'll it be, handsome?" the gorgeous waitress asked.


Humphrey looked around trying to figure out who she was talking to. There was no one else about, so it could only be him. Handsome? Him? Wow!


"I'll have a salad," he said confidently. "No dressing."