His agent, if you could call him an agent, would barely accept his calls any more. Those of his friends who were left avoided him, for fear that he might ask them to read something that he'd written. Even his own mother, rest her soul, had lied to him, telling him that her eyes had become too bad to read.
It wasn't his style that was bad, but rather his imagination that couldn't conjure up a new idea, even on a good day.
Of course, to Sandros, none of that mattered. He knew that he was great, if only his work could reach the right person. So he continued typing more of the same. He certainly had enough time, considering no one would talk to him.
His latest triumph sat completed before him, and he couldn't wait to call his agent. It was called Invasion: Target Earth. He grinned as he pictured the expression on his agent's face, when he read it. It would, he knew, be an overnight success.
Sandros rose and carefully placed a thick rubber band around the manuscript. "Who knows," he murmured aloud, "one day, this original may be worth something."
He placed the document in a thick manila envelope and picked up the phone. His end of the conversation sounded something like this:
"Hey Bernie, it's me...Sandros...Sandros Lefrak, the science fiction writer. I just finished a book that I know is going to...why don't you just wait until you...there's no need to raise your...I am coming over."
Sandros slammed down the receiver, swearing loudly. Once he was famous, he'd get himself a real agent.
As he prepared to leave, Sandros moved about his apartment without really looking around. Truthfully, there was not much to see. An ancient black and white television resting on a snack table. A sofa that had seen better days in the 1970s. A coffee table that had once belonged to a friend, upon which congregated half dozen soda cans, empty or almost so. And nearby on the floor, two piles of clothes, one dirty, the other filthy.
He walked to the dirty pile, grabbed a sweatshirt that even the moths had given up on and left his apartment. During the entire hour trip on a city bus, he daydreamed about what he would do with the advance. Book signings, conventions, the chicks, everything that came with success. He cursed when he broke from his reverie, only to find that he'd missed his stop by five blocks. He climbed off the bus at the next stop and ran all the way to his agent's office. Five minutes later, he was sitting across the desk from Bernie Kaplan.
"This time it's different, Bernie. I can feel it."
Bernie nodded, barely looking up from his newspaper. "That's precisely what you said last time. What was the name of that gem, hmmm? The Day the Earth Blew Up, and if I have to read another manuscript by you, I'll wish it had. How many times do we have to dance this dance? Do you think I like telling you that your work is worthless and that you have no talent, and no imagination? Do you think I like looking at the expression in your eyes, when I tell you that no publisher in his right mind would give you a dime for all of your works put together? Listen to me. There are other jobs, other areas where you might excel, but as a writer, you stink."
Sandros jumped to his feet. "Stink, eh? Well, now, you can just forget it. I'll find someone else to look at my manuscript. When it's number one on the Times best seller list, don't come running to me."
Bernie sighed. "By the time any of your books end up on any list, I will be too old and feeble to run. Now why don't you go play somewhere else. I have work to do."
Sandros snatched the envelope up and stormed from the room, slamming the door on his way out.
It was that evening, walking home, discouraged and angry, that Sandros Lefrak met the man who would change his life. The man was odd looking, to say the least, though at first glance, Sandros couldn't say why.
Then it came to him. No part of the man's body was visible. He wore a hooded sweatshirt, sunglasses, a muffler about his neck and mouth, long sleeves and driving gloves. His faded jeans ended where his black boots began. It was an outfit that a twentieth century invisible man might consider.
The character was leaning against the entrance to his building, humming to himself. Sandros barely paid him any notice, until he spoke. "Hey, you."
His voice was a low rasp.
Sandros turned to him. "I don't have any change."
"I'm not looking for change. You're the writer, right?"
Sandros looked surprised, as much from the fact that someone was interested in him as a writer, as anything else. "Yes, that's right."
The man nodded. "I know all about you. You're a hack. Wouldn't know an original idea if it bit you on the ankle."
Sandros turned to go inside. "I don't have to take this."
The man whispered. "I can get you published."
For a moment, the writer was going to ignore him. It was probably just a gag anyway, but, if there was even a chance, wouldn't he have to hear the man out? He turned. "You have five minutes."
"You've been told before that it's not your writing that's your problem, but your subject matter."
Sandros nodded. "That's true."
"I have something that might interest you then. It's an idea machine."
"What?" asked Sandros, skeptically.
"I can show you. And it won't cost you anything at all, if you don't get published."
"Where is it?" asked the writer, certain that he was being put on.
"Be home tomorrow at noon and I'll bring it."
Without another word the man turned and left, moving away rapidly. Sandros Lefrak stared at him until he disappeared from sight.
Sandros spent a restless night, dreaming dreams of greatness and trying to persuade himself not to get his hopes up. He was not entirely successful.
All morning long, almost since dawn, he kept one eye on the clock. He tried every trick he could think of to kill time. He turned on the TV and spent the best part of an hour trying to adjust the antennae.
Afterwards, on an only slightly wavy screen, he watched a group of young women work out to bad disco. He tried to eat, but there really wasn't anything in the house. He drank three cans of soda, which joined the others on his coffee table. He tried to call everyone he knew, all of whom, it seemed, were unavailable.
Finally, after what seemed like the better part of eternity, there was a knock. Sandros glanced at the clock. It was precisely noon.
The writer opened the door. Outside was the same man he'd seen yesterday, in the same exact outfit. Sandros was no stranger to wearing the same thing more than one day in a row and could sympathize with the man. Then the stranger stepped aside and Sandros saw the thing.
It wasn't a machine, at least not outwardly. It was a gleaming metal box with two holes in it, one about three inches in diameter, one a little larger than the head of a pin. The box sat on a cart, which the man now proceeded to roll into his apartment. Sandros let out a breath, after he realized that he'd been holding it. The man pulled a chair up in front of the box and motioned for the writer to sit. He then pulled an odd- looking earphone from his sweatshirt pocket. The earphone plugged into the smaller of the two holes. He gave the other end to the writer, who gently placed it in his ear.
Sandros considered the machine. "How does it work?"
The man, standing behind him, spoke. "First the arrangement. I get thirty percent of all the money you make from everything you publish, as long as the box is involved. Agreed?"
Sandros smiled. Why not? It wasn't likely to do anything anyway. "Okay, you've got a deal. Now, what do I do?"
The man leaned forward. "Put your eye to the hole and look into it. Keep staring, until you see a swirl of color. It should only take a couple of minutes. Keep following that swirl with your eyes, until it resolves into an image. Then watch. It's that simple."
Sandros sighed. What did he expect? Having nothing to lose, he placed his eye to the hole and stared at the darkness inside. Of course, he saw nothing. He was, he knew, making a fool of himself. He was about to say as much, when movement caught his eye.
It was the slightest wisp of blue floating in the air, as if it were smoke.
As he watched, the blue continued to grow in intensity. Soon white began to swirl within the blue. He realized after a time that he was looking at the sky. He looked downward and below was a city, but like no city he'd ever seen. He watched more closely as some of the denizens of that impossible city came to his attention. Creatures like he'd never imagined, living lives almost beyond belief.
He followed them, and for a time, lived their adventures with them. When he looked up again, the stranger was gone and it was dark outside. Without a moment's hesitation, he dragged the chair to his typewriter and began typing. Three months later, he'd finished his first real novel.
Bernie Kaplan sat in his office, reading the contract before him. When the phone rang, he absently picked it up. He almost hung up, when he recognized the voice at the other end. "Bernie, you got a minute?"
"Not for you, Sandros. I don't want to go through this again."
He was about to hang up when Sandros said, "Listen, you're right. All of what I've written before was dull and repetitive."
Bernie sighed. "Thank you. Now perhaps, you'll take my advice and try something else."
"I've have, Bernie and my new book is brilliant."
"No wait, hear me out. I'll make a deal with you. If you don't like what I have to say in five minutes, you can hang up the phone and I'll never call you again."
The agent sat silently for a time. Certainly that was the best deal he'd been offered all week. "Okay, go."
At first the agent barely listened to the story that was being outlined, but then, as the minutes passed, he became involved. And it was different from anything Sandros Lefrak had ever written. Five minutes became ten, then twenty. Finally, the writer stopped talking.
"And you have this written?"
"All done, and there are more ideas where that came from. Can I come by?"
Bernie shook his head, but surprised himself with the answer. "Is tomorrow at two good for you?"
"I'll be there."
Long after the call ended, Bernie Kaplan stared at the phone.
The story, as it was written, was everything Sandros had said it would be. Bernie Kaplan was impressed. He submitted the story to his friend at one of the larger publishing houses that specialized in science fiction. Within a month, contracts were signed. Sandros Lefrak was a published author.
Bernie Kaplan sat in his office. It had been three years since he had read Sandros' first book. Since that time, the young writer had written and submitted five others, all of which were now in print. Kaplan shook his head in wonder. "To think, I almost talked him out of writing." He chuckled as he thought about it, though he still didn't understand how the change had come about. Many times, he'd asked Sandros how he came up with such great plots.
The answer was always the same. Here and there. Again Bernie shook his head. Whatever had happened, Sandros Lefrak was one of the new rising stars in the science fiction game and his work was very much in demand.
Indeed, Sandros' career was moving along at "warp speed". At least that was how one interviewer had phrased it. He no longer took buses and trains, but instead drove an expensive red Italian sports car. Nor was he alone any more. Often friends would drop by, even women. Sometimes they stayed for the night, though he never got involved. He also never told anyone about the odd box that sat off the side of his living room. Once a year, he'd take a vacation that was altogether too expensive, but if you have the money, why not spend it? In general, the writer's life was good.
It was a cold night in January, five years after his first book was published. Sandros was sitting in his living room, editing his latest work before he called Bernie. There was a knock at the door. He put the manuscript aside and rose. "Who is it?"
The voice that answered him was familiar, though it took him a moment to place it. "I am here for my money."
Sandros thought for a few moments, then cursed. The freak who had given him the machine. Sandros had not seen him since the day he'd brought it over. The writer crossed the room and opened the door. The man entered, without being invited.
"So," he said, turning toward the writer. "How are things?"
"Good," said Sandros, nervously. "With you?"
The other laughed. "Come. You must know why I am here. Thirty percent."
Sandros paled. He really didn't have that much money saved. There were always expenses and now this man wanted...how much was thirty percent of everything he'd made thus far? As he calculated the settlement in his head, he became paler and paler. "Look, I don't have that much. And, after all, I did all the work. I'll tell you what. I'll give you ten percent. That's probably more money than you deserve."
The man shook his head. "The deal was for thirty. I'll accept nothing less."
Sandros bared his teeth. How dare this man walk into his home and demand money from him? "Very well, then you shall have none at all. Now, will you get out?"
Without another word, the stranger turned and left.
During the next weeks, Sandros was apprehensive, wondering if and when the man would return. After a time, when that didn't happen, he relaxed.
Another year passed and two more best sellers were added to his already impressive list of credentials. He'd just finished selling his newest novel and was feeling good. It was time to start another.
He sat before the idea machine, as he had on countless occasions before, and looked into its depths. He had since figured out that the machine was a doorway into other dimensions, and that what he saw was really happening in some other space-time. He wondered what today's adventure would be.
He took a deep breath, placed his eye to the hole and waited. For a time nothing happened. Then, as always, a hint of color, this time, yellow, began to form. It started to grow, then stopped and faded altogether. He waited, but it didn't return.
He took his eye from the machine. That had never happened before.
During the next week, he tried the machine daily, but apparently, it had ceased to function. Another week passed, and Bernie had left countless messages on his machine, which he did not return. What would he tell him, "I'm sorry, but my extra-dimensional viewer is down?" Sandros Lefrak was in a panic and he had no clue as to what to do. He thought furiously on the problem. He even considered trying to get inside the machine to see if something had come loose, but that was risky. He could damage it even further, not knowing anything about its workings. In fact, possibly the only person who might be able to help, was the freak who had given it to him in the first place.
Sandros knew he must find the man. He grabbed his leather flight jacket from the coat hook by the door, and donned it. It did not occur to him that the jacket cost more than his entire wardrobe once did. His mind was on the freak, who really had no reason to help him. He cursed softly and closed the door behind him.
He walked all over the area that day, and the day after. Every night, he came home to more messages from friends, publishers and, of course, Bernie.
Each day he returned to the street. After a week, he was ready to give up. He sat on the stairs in front of his building, head in his hands. He had been on the verge of attaining everything he'd ever wanted. Now, all gone.
A sound directly before him made him raise his head. Above him stood the oddly dressed man, still in the same clothes.
"Ah yes, the writer," said the man, softly.
"The machine stopped working," said Sandros.
The stranger nodded. "Indeed. Why don't you fix it?"
"I don't know how..." he began to yell, and stopped when he noticed he was attracting attention. "I don't know how to fix it," he whispered, harshly.
The man placed a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. "I know how."
For a long moment, the writer looked at him. "Thirty percent. It's yours, if you can repair it."
The odd man shook his head. "Now, I want fifty."
"Fifty percent? That's highway robbery."
The man shrugged. "Okay then..."
He turned to leave, but Sandros grabbed his arm. "All right. Fifty percent, but only if you can get it working."
The odd man looked at him. "You've lied to me once. Why should I trust you now?"
"Because", replied the writer, "I know that I need you now. I may need you again. I can't afford to take that chance. I have to pay. I have no choice."
The stranger looked at him. Indeed, after all this time, Sandros did not even know his name. The writer hoped that he was convincing. He had no intention of paying such an outrageous amount. After a time, the stranger nodded. "Very well. Fifty percent."
Sandros turned away, so that the man would not see the look in his eyes.
Back at the apartment, the stranger motioned for Sandros to sit and look into the machine. The writer complied.
"I want you tell me if you see anything."
For a time, the writer said nothing. Then suddenly, a red mist began to coalesce in the far corner. He focused his attention on that area, and it resolved into sharp relief. "Yes. There is something."
"What is it that you see?" whispered the stranger.
And the writer told him. The world was barren and hot. Lava geysers sprayed into the air from innumerable vents, and horrible beasts roamed the plains - creatures that were so horrible that they would be almost impossible to describe, as if someone had found a way to solidify nightmares. For a time the creatures continued to grow, until Sandros realized that they were not growing, but getting closer. He watched, spellbound, as they drew nearer. He could almost feel the heat of the place. He could smell the stench. He finally suspected the truth only a moment before the large clawed hand reached out and grabbed him.
His scream went unheard, since most of it took place in that other dimension. The creatures of the plane converged on the hapless writer and ripped him asunder.
Not only did Steve win the Preditors and Editors award for best story published on the Internet last year, but this story is what Steve calls "the title track" for his upcoming anthology, A Creative Edge: Tales of Speculation." Watch for this book on both CDROM and in paperback, available through Amazon.com, Borders, and Barnes & Noble. Steve lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife, his 11-year old daughter and more animals than you can shake a stick at. His work has appeared in numerous webzines including Twilight Times, Exodus, The Dragonsclaw Showcase, A Little Read Writing Hood, Titan, Dream Forge, Aphelion and Jackhammer.