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November 30, 2007

Given Names

At first he was Alexander, named for his maternal grandfather. His hair sprouted red as a sundown sky. Though loving and generous, he was prone to awful tantrums. If he didn't get his way he'd throw himself to the ground and scream as if he didn't need to draw a breath.

In the baby name book I read that 'Alexander' meant 'warrior'. On his fourth birthday I marched him down to the county courthouse and legally changed his name to Felix. That means 'happy'. As we left I could see his hair darkening.

The tantrums disappeared. Felix was a compliant child, joyful, contented, happy.

Too happy.

His teacher was grave, apologetic but determined. She said Felix was a wonderful boy; he cooperated so nicely, but could not concentrate. He disrupted the class by wanting to play all the time. Perhaps I should consider putting my boy in a special class.

This time I spent more time in thought before I took him to the courthouse. My son must be more than smart and attentive, he must be clever. He turned six the day we went downtown. Felix entered, but Quinn, Irish for 'wise counsel', left with me. As we went I saw intelligence dawn in his eyes.

Four more years passed, and Quinn was a model child. He always did his homework immediately, completed his chores, got plenty of sleep, and never asked what was in his Christmas presents.

I missed the happy Felix. I missed the giving Alex. Quinn would always pull away when I wanted to hug him, eager to be thinking, anxious to be doing.

For his tenth birthday I got Quinn a bicycle, a globe, several Hot Wheels, and a new name. I'd studied baby name books, talked with other mothers. visited message boards. In the end I cheated.

Alexander Felix Quinn was loving, happy, and intelligent. Fourth time right, I thought.

And all was right. Many happy days followed. My son aced middle and high school, graduated early from college, and found the perfect job.

Then he met her. Leticia Addie-Marie seemed the perfect fit: full of joy and grace. They married in June. I couldn't have been happier for him, for her, for them.

They named their son 'Tiger'.

November 29, 2007

Captain Sanguine Solves A Problem

A laser torpedo passed most accurately over the bow of the ship and sped on into open space. It did not even leave behind a burn mark on the forward solars: a warning shot.

"A soupcon to starboard, Helm," said Captain Sanguine, setting her teacup aside.

"Aye aye, Captain."

"They seem a bit piqued."

"Aye, Madam Captain."

"Can't think why."

"Perhaps they don't like the Law, Madam Captain," ventured the Second Engineer. (His name was Hugo Dreadnought and he had been admitted to Sheriff’s Corps because he was the son of Samuel Dreadnought, Lord Peabody, Duke of Jupiter and Io. Even so, he was a fine engineer--just didn't fancy being shot at.)

"Perhaps. Kindly hail them, First Communications."

"Aye aye, Captain."

The screen before them flickered, and then a particularly ugly Martian appeared, glowing green with annoyance.

"Good evening, Madam Captain," he gurgled when he caught sight of her. "I am Commander Wig Mxwibbleit of the good ship Dopplekibble. And you are?"

"Captain Harriet Sanguine of the good ship Protector. Good evening. What can I do for you, sir?"

The Martian glowed more fiercely.

"You can stop this demmed nonsense, Madam, that’s what you can do!" he gurgled. "All this stamping through my precinct as if you had jurisdiction, which you most certainly do not! What do you mean by it, madam?"

Captain Sanguine raised her eyebrows. As Helm said to the Engineers later, "I quite understand what you're saying -- we are the Law, and he ought to have recognized us right off. But when both parties have whacking great guns, it's awfully important to preserve good manners."

On the silent bridge, Captain Sanguine looked at Commander Mxwibbleit and everyone waited. At last, she sighed.

"The First Lord will insist on having the Sheriff's arms painted too small to read. Perhaps you would care to examine them more closely? I will have them sent you."

Commander Mxwibbleit stopped glowing at once.

"Ah. No need, no need. My mistake. Quite understood. Safe voyage, Madam Captain."

"Thank you," replied Captain Sanguine. "But do let us know if you need our assistance," she added.

"Of course, Madam Captain. I do beg your pardon. Safe voyage."

He faded cautiously from the screen.

Engineer Dreadnought muttered, "Ought to have him flogged."

"I heard that, Engineer Dreadnought. Short rations for speaking ill of a superior officer," said Captain Sanguine, picking up her teacup.

November 28, 2007

The Switches You Have To Search For

Pieces of furniture hide their switches inside.

If you can find its switch, hidden in whorls and rings and knots, your table will shake off its ornaments, tear off its clothes--its paint or wax or finish--and dance naked for you, limber like a contortionist.

You did not think its pose was its natural state, did you?

Watch your cabinet dance, its drawers pounding the earth like athletes' feet, swirling its frame like a discus. Watch your wardrobe break-dance on its doors. Watch your bed serenade your floor, watch them recount sordid tales to one another, watch them make love--a shifting labyrinth of planks and slats.

You could get lost watching them.

And if you do not hunt again for their switches, if you do not dash in with your shield and turn them back off, you could stand motionless, staring, until they take hold of you and swing you into their dance. They will weep resin and glue while they do it, but they will not stop; their compulsion runs deeper than pity, so deep they cannot know its motive. Your bones will clack against one other like drawers sliding shut.

November 27, 2007


Butler scampered through the brush, zigzagging to avoid the
slingshots. A sharp pebble nicked his ear and blood trickled down his
neck. A mistake? He didn't think so.

The villagers were getting nervous. He knew he shouldn't count on the
hour that the law gave an embalmer to escape before he could be hunted
down. The corpse had been a young girl's--emotions were running high.
They'd begun play-shooting with their slings only seconds after he'd
been paid. He suspected they'd unholster their lasguns soon.

He hid behind a tree and peered out. He hoped the pay was enough to
make this worthwhile. He hadn't had time to check the purse before they'd started to shoot.
It was bad luck to cheat an embalmer and the family was usually generous. Why else would anyone risk their lives to embalm a corpse?

The next stone nipped the bark. No use avoiding the slings when the
lasguns were due. He swore and tore off in a straight line. The money
bag swung against his chest.

There!, the river. He dove in without thinking and let the current
take him through the rapids, away from the villagers and their

He was dumped unceremoniously into the Triptican lake. It took him a
second to realize that he had surfaced. He was breathing. Lying on his
back, he pedaled towards the shore.

Butler opened the pouch. Instead of money, he found a stone. It was
round. Tendrils of gold were set into the carvings. He read the
history of a family, in the stone. On the side, filigree letters spoke
an ode to the death of the only daughter.

He laughed madly. The old man had placed his family-stone in the
purse. He had to be mad! This stone represented the old man's family
honour. Butler could use it to get money for credit and the stone
would testify for his honesty.

He stopped laughing abruptly, and felt a pang of guilt. It was too
much. The law required fair compensation, but not this. For a
second, he thought of giving it back. But the lasguns would be legal
now. He got up, dusted the stone reverently with his hand and
went home.


November 26, 2007

Tales of the Future #1: The Robot and the Hive

There was a robot who lived on the edge of a forest that covered what had once been an industrial park. The robot farmed histo-adaptive replacement organs - kidneys and livers mostly, spleens every once in a while. The business didn't make much money, but it kept the robot in power and spare parts. Monitoring all the chemical and temperature variables suited the robot's temperament, and, in the evenings, the woods were peaceful.

In the next sector, there lived a clone hive. There were dozens of them, all the same, and they worked day and night at three or four different businesses at the same time - light assembly, personalized cake decoration, transcription, bonded courier services, and more. Like most hives, they weren't good at everything, but once they found what they were good at, they kept doing at it, and soon they did it very well. They multiplied and reinvested, and within a few years, they owned everything for three sectors around.

They sent the buyout offer via their own courier, and a second clone went along because that was protocol in any business situation, since the sight of a second identical person waiting in the car reinforced the idea that the whole hive was behind the message.

The psychology was wasted on the robot, but the letter was logically set out in a numbered table format that it found easy to process. He particularly admired the paragraph that talked about how an organization that followed an exponential-growth economic model could coexist with boutique enterprises founded on a stasis-capitalist model.

The courier said he could wait a few minutes for an answer, or he could return at another, more convenient time.

"Is your car networked?" asked the robot.

"Certainly," said the clone. "We can transmit your answer to our legal staff in moments."

The robot stood in its doorway. A bird chirped in the woods; another answered. Several moments passed.

"It's a good price," said the courier. "What do you think? What's your answer?"

"I do not need an answer," said the robot. "I have used your vehicle to speak to the others of my model. We all have a little savings that we can pool."

"We can outbid any counter-offer," said the clone in the car.

"You misunderstand," said the robot. "We have bought your hive, all its assets, everything."

The clones' car chimed that a message was waiting for them.

"Now," said the robot. "The spleen tank needs cleaning, it is a lovely evening, and I am going for a walk. You'll find brushes and scrapers on the workbench."

November 23, 2007

Kingdom In The Clouds

From the vantage point on the early rainbow, we saw them coming to
the Kingdom-In-The-Clouds. The pirates climbed the cliff silently,
hearts warmed with tequila, knives gripped firmly between their teeth.

We didn't shout for fear of startling them and breaking the silent
rhythm of their climb. Instead, we sent the children to greet them
with instructions to choose a pirate each, grab him by the hand and
take him home. The mothers were waiting in the houses with food on the
fire and warm water for baths. The pirates ate hungrily, slobbering
juices down their beards, eyes darting up as their mouths worked, all
thoughts of violence startled out of them. They were so surprised,
they even thanked us for the food.

We were patient with them, patient with their hunger and their need
for warmth in the night. And in the morning, we'd completed our spells
and took them to work in the fields with our other husbands, to suffer
a slavery without whip, a slavery enforced only by their pitiful
devotion to us.

We set some of them free, like we always do. Your people have heard
them, drinking their lives away in your taverns. After seeing our
Kingdom, after falling in our thrall, how can their lives be happy? So
they drink, and you hear them mutter to all who will hear:

"There is a country past the Rainbow. It's hard to reach and hard to
conquer, but oh, lucky is the man who lives in the

From the vantage point on the early rainbow, we wait for our new husbands to come to us. We instruct the children, butcher the lambs and warm the water.

We spring our trap.

November 22, 2007

Grandma Britnee on Extraterrestrials

Well of course in my day there were no aliens, and if you started saying you'd seen one people would think you were crazy, but now there are all these Slugs and Thanatites and those blue monkey ones, and sometimes when I walk down the street to the drug store I half think I'm on another planet!

Some people don't like the Slugs--you know, "Type 3 Barnardins" I think they call them? That's because of the tentacles and the slimy trails and all that, but one of them goes to my church, and he sits right in back where he won't bother anyone and he makes the best crumb cake I've ever tasted since my mother died, because there was a very good one at her wake. And some of them don't like being called "Slugs," but that's what I call him and he never says anything about it, which is all he should do. I mean, that's what they are.

But I do not like the Stalking Mantises. Their little husbands are all right, but the you know how big some of the females get, three and four meters sometimes! Well, the other day I was on the way back from laser bingo with Taylor-Anne when one of them stepped right on my walker and bent the leg of it!

"Watch where you're going," she said, in that crackly voice they have, and well, that just got me started. I took out my purse and started hitting her, and then the next thing you know we were rolling on the ground and having at it, just like during the bandwidth riots of '09.

Oh, don't look at me that way! How was I supposed to know she was their sacred whatever? Don't blame the interstellar war on me. Besides, what's one city more or less? I never did like Cleveland anyway.

November 21, 2007

Aliens Wrecked My Bike

I didn't see the wall. It was late, I was tired, and it was raining. I hit it hard, and it knocked me out. I came to with blood in my mouth and a pounding headache. My frame was bent and spokes stuck out from the front wheel like a punk haircut. Who builds a wall across the road in the middle of the night?! It hadn't been there after school.

Some of the bricks had been knocked out of the wall and I picked one up. I'm sorry, I screamed. The brick was hard but warm, with short fur, and it gave a little scared-puppy squirm. Then the whole wall came apart and all of the bricks were running for the woods, like beetles under a log when you pick it up. In a few moments the only visible evidence of the wall was my wrecked bike.


The next morning I had to walk. I looked everywhere, but I didn't see the aliens. At school no one said they'd seen any weird walls or furry bricks. I wasn't going to ask! Who wants to look crazy?

Saturday I did some exploring in the woods with my beagle, Roger. Roger sniffed around a lot, and he dug a pretty deep hole under an oak tree. Squirrels were dropping acorns everywhere. The acorns kept hitting us, but I couldn't see the squirrels. Every time an acorn hit Roger, he yelped. It seemed like the squirrels were aiming at us. I've heard they do that. Anyway, it was creeping me out, so we left.

Did you know there are hundreds of kinds of oak trees, but only a couple of kinds of squirrels? I broadened my search, and you know what? Weird things happen all the time. I don't know if any at of them are caused by the little furry aliens.


We're getting new neighbors soon, and maybe they have a kid. I hope so. I haven't seen them yet, but they're building a brick house. It's going up fast, and they only cut down the trees they had to, so it's like in the woods already, which is cool if there aren't too many squirrels. I'll go over soon and introduce myself.

I need some help: those aliens owe me a bike.

November 20, 2007

A Winter's Fantasy

As we expected, the hard part was getting the ice skates on the alligator.

On our first few attempts, no one lost any fingers, although Edmund and
I each gained a few bandages. We were getting the hang of things by the
end of the morning, and would have persevered in the afternoon with, I
am sure, eventual success, had our lunchtime discovery not made further
beast-wrangling moot. There, in the winter garden, behind a clutch of
potted cycads brought back by one of professor Ogdred's expeditions, was
an alligator. Stuffed. A settee, in fact, with green velvet cushions and
a carved ebony back. There was line of buttons down the middle of the
cushions in place of the original ridges.

"Perfect," said Edmund.

"Exactly what she wants," I said.

We were careful to carry it out the east door, since the alligator - the
live one - was already in a sulk after the morning's exertions; trooping
past the herpetarium window with the taxidermied remains of one of its
cousins seemed unwise.

We made our way through the frozen gardens. The veiled statues of
weeping ladies were jeweled with tears of ice. The giant stone hand was
gloved in snow. The wind hissing through the bare branches of the trees
might have been the snickering of ghosts.

We lashed the skates to the alligator's feet. Edmund sucked his finger
where he'd scraped it on one of the claws. We pushed the settee out from
the shore of the frozen pond, skidded around getting into our seats, and
then built up speed by polling gondolier style with sharpened sticks.

When we glided by the gazebo, the fur- and scarf-wrapped card players
looked up. The countess was looking at us as she extracted the envelope
from her folds of her sleeve and slid it across the table to her sister,
with whom the count had forbidden her to have any private contact. She
winked, and we knew that she'd keep us in hot cocoa and smuggled
trinkets through the spring, as long as we kept up the distractions.

(After Gorey)

November 19, 2007

Cinderella and Prince Charming Have a Post-Divorce Meeting to Discuss Some Financial Matters

"A dwarf, Charming!" Cinderella said. "Seriously, a dwarf. Why? Is this some kind of bizarre plea for attention?"

"Cindy, I thought you of all people would understand. We're in love. What other justification do we need?

"If you remember, we were in love once," Cinderella said. "And look how that turned out." She had planned not to drink anything, to keep the meeting as short and businesslike as possible, but now she poured herself some sangria out of the carafe after all and drank a long swallow from it, not looking at Charming the whole time.

"Well," said Charming, and with the warmth he put into that one word it was as though he had said Well, and even though it didn't last forever, our love was amazing while it lasted, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world. To give the devil his due, he could be very charming.

"I admit," Charming said, "I wouldn't have looked for a dwarfess if I hadn't literally stumbled on Gloina. But she's so constant, and she practically glows with happiness the whole time we're together ... and the sex! My God, the things that little woman can do! Have you ever been with a dwarf?"

"I think you're confusing me with that whore Snow White."

"Not that again. Why do people keep repeating that rumor?"

"Oh come on, you're a man. You should get it."

Charming pushed his glass aside and leaned toward Cinderella across the glass surface of the table. "We don't have to argue. We're not married any more! What about you? I heard you're seeing someone. Tell me about him."

"What, Hansel?" He's a woodcutter, she could have told him. He lives in the forest in a small cottage with his sister, Gretl, and her husband and three happy but really filthy children.

Charming was looking at her, waiting.

"He's in forest products," she said finally.


"Nearly," she said. And then she didn't say: And he smells like ginger and cloves, and sometimes when I'm with him I forget who I am. Last week I cleaned his house from top to bottom, and the forest creatures actually turned out to help me.

"All right," said Charming, as though she had asked him for something.

And as they turned to the papers they had to go over, Cinderella found herself wondering if she could cast off the princess she'd become like the old skin of an insect, and if so, what might climb out into the sunlight.

November 16, 2007

Marcie's Day

Only the bulkhead now between Marcie and what remained of the rest of the crew, which had expanded to fill three quarters of the ship, and it oozing under doors, through vents, and through the tiniest holes.

Seventeen people she'd worked with for months, amalgamated as a malignant mass, a composite entity retaining no visible trace of humanity, its exterior a palimpsest of colors that shifted and transformed ceaselessly: vermilion, gold, a myriad shades of green and blue.

Why had Lon drunk the liquid they'd found in the stoppered flask? Yes, the characters they'd decoded had referred to a miracle cure, yes, he was facing a painful death from the infection he'd picked up on the abandoned station and yes, Federation medicine could do nothing for him, so perhaps he'd thought he had nothing to lose. Well.

The bulkhead creaked, forcing her back to the present, as a voice vibrated through the decking, calling her name.


She wrung her hands, stared wildly around the hold. Spacesuits: no; escape pod: ditto. She had nothing to work with, nothing, nada, zilch, etc. Suddenly her eye was drawn to the probability generator. How could she have forgotten? Dangerous, yes, but she'd nothing to lose either. She raced to the machine, removed the lock they had bolted down over the control panel. The bulkhead screamed and polychromatic gel flowed out around it and dripped in globs onto the floor. The scent of lemons mingled with chocolate (or was it burnt roast?). She grabbed the probability dial and gave it a strong twist. Wheels spun and clacked, lights flashed, and peripheral vision overwhelmed her sight. It was more distracting than being blind. She couldn't actually see anything, but she couldn't ignore anything either.

A moment later she could see again. She could see, but for some reason, she could not take a step. She looked down, then, at the glistening multicolored sausage that had been her legs; at the squirming polyps that were ballooning from her flesh like chewing gum bubbles, separating, and drifting away, tendrils waving au revoir, on the stiffening breeze; and at the roots that her fused limbs were sending out through the quivering ground at ever-increasing speed. She shook her head, smiled, and extended her arms, which burst into bud. She stood at the center of a rapidly Marcifying plain. It was going to be a good day.

November 15, 2007

Make You Happy

Lisa was pacing the rug, but the djinn was lounging at ease on the couch. Lisa stopped on top of an old coffee stain and sucked in a deep, calming breath of cabbagey apartment air. "OK," she said. "I thought about it all night, and here it is: my wish is that I want to be the richest person in the world."

"The richest person in the world?" said the Djinn dubiously. "That's your one wish? That's going to make you happy?"

Lisa was expecting the djinn to try to confuse her, and she stared him down. "It's none of your business whether it makes me happy," she said. "Just do it."

And the djinn did it. And suddenly Lisa was Bill Gates.

Lisa-Bill sat in his office, suddenly much smarter and much, much richer than Lisa had been, and immediately realized her mistake.

The office was simple, not what Lisa would have gotten for herself at all: a large, three-sided desk with a row of flat screen monitors, family pictures, blond furniture. And the Bill Gates body, while trim and well-groomed, felt as wrong on her as somebody else's dirty underwear.

Finding Lisa's awkward computer skills translated into Bill's elegant technological genius, Lisa-Bill pulled up a subscription Web site and with a 90-wpm rattle of the keyboard, searched for his former self. She didn't exist.

Lisa-Bill cried for fifteen minutes. Then he dried his eyes and sat back to think of where he could find another djinn.

November 14, 2007

My Love for You Would Bust Kneecaps: The Untold, Unauthorized, and Mostly Untrue Story of an Olympian and her Most Devoted Lover (Intimate Moments #769)

Editor: Any resemblance to this famous public figure is purely coincidental.

Gilly Fahrenheit lived on the other side of the tracks. Tonka Hearty lived in a trailer court. Their forbidden love affair had begun at Camp Marshmellows where they hid from the camp counselors and rolled among the tall weeds behind the latrine.

Tonka could no longer conceal the truth from her mother. Mother, elbows on the formica, stood hunched over a six-inch black and white playing a crucial scene from "One Life to Live." A damp and musty washcloth dangled from her hand. Tonka tried to wait patiently for a commercial.

"I'm having a baby," said the TV.

But Tonka's news was too important. "Mom?"

Her mother tapped her finger to her lips.

"If you loved me," the TV rumbled, "you'd abort it."

"And if you loved me," the TV piped, "you'd divorce that hussy who stepped out on you to have an affair with Rick."

"If you loved me," Tonka said, "you'd let me date the boy who lives on the other side of the tracks."

"If you won't divorce her," said the TV with a sob in its throat, "then I’ll have a secret love child, and after the court releases the DNA results, the world will know who the father is!"

"So?" Tonka’s mother glanced at her child, then back at the black-and-white. "It's all in the same trailer court."

"It's not a secret," said the TV, "if you just told me."

"You don't understand!" Tonka slammed out of the trailer and ran flat-footed to the court's edge where Gilly crouched in the bushes.

"What'd she say about us hunting horny toads by the lake?" Gilly croaked in a whisper.

Tonka wiped her nose, sniffed, and shook her head.

"Geez. Your mom doesn't let us do anything 'sides play house and skate at the ice rink."

"Gilly." Tonka braced Gilly's shoulders. "I'm having our secret love child."


A decade later, across the rooftop of a rented Yugo outside the Olympic ice rink, Gilly professed his undying 4e passion with a boot to the hub cap, setting it ringing hollowly. "My love for you would bust hub caps." Gilly climbed into the left side believing he was still in America.

Buckling herself into the driver's seat and tossing her ice skates into the back, Tonka thought that, with one life to live, she couldn’t have many Olympics yet to go. "That Kerry Schmancy chick ain't no better than me. If only she'd.... What did you just say, Gilly?"

"My love..."

"Never mind. I want you to prove your love like Madonna said you should. If you loved me, you'd..."

November 13, 2007

Where You'll Find Me

If it's a Monday, I will awaken in a spherical space and stumble out a door to a glorious cloud-free day. It will feel like the beginning of something good and strong. I will find an old-fashioned key in my pocket for room 405 at the Tarleton Towers Hotel.

If it's a Tuesday, I will have a Spanish omelet for breakfast. Opening the window, I will lean out and squint just a bit. Faintly, I will see the track of many time machines as they pass. I extend a hand, but the track is just out of reach.

If it's a Wednesday, I will sleep in. I will read in the newspaper of a physics conference in this very hotel.

If it's a Thursday, I'll be glued to the television, watching the destruction of civilization. CNN will televise it all day until they (and everyone else) go off the air at 16:05 hours. I will take a single look outside my hotel room's window, shudder, and draw the shades.

If it's a Friday, I'll take the time machine that Hans Beliskov discovered last Monday, and the memory eraser that Vera Pascal invented. Neither of them will be present to object. I will set the time machine to take me four days and five hours into the past, and while traveling I will use the eraser to destroy all I have experienced in the previous one hundred one hours. As the memories fade, I glance out the porthole to see myself, last Tuesday, and press a hand to the glass.

I am certain there were times I did not use the memory eraser, times I did things to try to save the world, but I no longer remember doing so.

November 12, 2007

The Diplomat Teaches Leaving

I was exiled, for I would not kill the Diplomat. He had arrived at our village on foot, with robe and begging bowl and a faded badge from the government of the planet Gaia. I had tried to kill him, and had learned that I would rather admire him instead. "Gaia rat," they called him, and me, "helper of the Gaia rat." But when I told them of his mysterious powers, how he had disarmed me by--talk? My own tears?--and how he had outlived our strongest poison, none of them were brave enough to kill him themselves.

"Go," they said to me, my father, my mother, everyone I loved; "where?" I asked, and they said, "We do not care, for you are like the corpse of a stranger now," and for a moment I felt my flesh crawl with chill, as if each cell in me were really falling still.

I said, "Then I will go with the Diplomat, and be twice dead to you." Just as I turned away I caught a small movement of my father's hand and knew then that they did care, that their whole hearts ached with love and anger.

I went to the orchard. I saw from the Diplomat's face that he did not need to be told what had happened, but I told him anyway, while we walked. When I was finished we had reached the edge of home. I did not want to look back, but he said, "Will you be my student?"

"Yes," I said.

"Then look back," he said, and added simply, "You must carry this place with you."

I looked. I saw the cluster of bumps that were my people's houses, sitting together like loaves at a feast; the glint of the solar stills and the oil press beside them; the hatcheries and the sheep-yard (not all things from Gaia were bad, were they?--I asked my people in my mind); the low stream running through the valley bottom, the orchards, the quiet flags on the hill--hanging flat today, though no doubt tomorrow they would carry a message to the other villages: "A son is dead."

The Diplomat brushed my wrist with his rough thumb. We turned and walked down the hill.

November 9, 2007


For a hangar tech-- grade III, life on the aerodrome was hard work, long hours and thin air. His first few weeks, Karl Havens had nosebleeds at least twice a day. He hauled zeppelin tethers, ran up and down the stairs all day fetching parts for the ornithopter mechanics. He got used to the air. As new guy he had to go up top every four months with a shovel and magnet-soled boots, and scrape the roof clear before the layers of guano became too much of a health hazard.

He tried not to think the altitude as he played out his safety tether; the view was stunning, but best appreciated from lower floors. He tried to stay very still when the ramphorynchus would slap at him with their wings. Everyone always called them "leathery," but no one ever mentioned that it was leather nearly as soft as what Karl imagined fine ladies' gloves were made of. It wasn't so much painful as disconcerting, and it certainly wasn't as bad as the hazing he'd gotten from the grade I and grade II techs.

So he scraped, shuffled his magnetic feet, scraped, and kept his eyes away from the distracting distance. What distracted him one day, though, was something closer and more unexpected -- a human skull, inlaid with gold, among the rocks and fishbones in a rampho nest.

Must have come from one of the funeral platforms of the coastal nations they'd passed over a few weeks before. Karl imagined one of the beasts had brought it up for their hatchlings because it flashed and glittered like a fish. And a trio of those young squealed in that particular nest, all teeth and elbows like they are at that age. As he made his way around and around he tried to think of a way to grab the skull without disrupting the little demons. He had just resolved that he'd beat the flat of the shovel against the metal of the roof, in hopes that they'd fly off, or scuttle clear, if they weren't flying age yet -- he'd just made up his mind, when the decision was made moot: a zeppelin, way off any of the approved approaches, was coming in, low over the roof, the gondola with the panicked pilot headed right for him...

(to be continued)

November 8, 2007

The Mindbenders

"Don't think of it as a creepy aliens-take-over-humans thing." Rubin waved his arm at the rows of huge fetuses, each swollen-headed thing immersed in cloudy fluid and bottled and racked like wine.

Sara shuddered. "What else could it be? It's an organic computer, but these are real people. They have feelings, they're not just vat-grown tissue."

Rubin shook his head. "It's not like that. They're grown from skin cells. They have brains, but they don't have minds. Look at them. Those huge heads are stuffed with matrices of simple circuits. They cannot think independently; they don't have the complex neuronal interconnections of natural brains."

She forced herself to look closely at one. Its scrunched little face reminded her of a goblin, or of her mother, shortly before she died, when the Betelgeusian DNA was all through her body and her head was trying to reshape itself into something that surely could never really live. So, yeah, she was thinking creepy aliens. She shivered, and she was terribly afraid that one of the fetuses would open its eyes and stare at her accusingly.

She whirled to face Rubin. "Why did you bring me here?" Her jaw worked. Maybe he was in league with them, possessed by them. She darted for the exit. She took the stairs two at a time, expecting a particle beam in the back all the way, but just as she reached the top the door opened. Something stood there on a pillar of black pulsating tentacles, something with huge compound eyes in which she was reflected hundreds and hundreds of times. She screamed as it reached for her hand. She turned to run again, tripping, falling, landing headfirst.


She came to, her cheek painfully pressed into the metal grid flooring. The virus she had smuggled inside her lungs had done its work. Rubin lay beside her, unmoving. As far as she could see, hypercranial fetuses were thrashing their arms and writhing. Alarms were sounding and she heard running feet. The occupant of the nearest jug opened its eyes and looked right at her.

"The invaders," she said, "how do we defeat them?"

"Two plus two," it said, "equals four." It smiled seraphically.

November 6, 2007

When I Said I Wanted to Be Immortal

When I said I wanted to be immortal, I wasn't going into it blindly. I realized that immortality would mean loneliness, would mean that I would make friends and find lovers and that they would wither and sicken and die after a handful of decades, that I would be in a way no longer human. To some this would be hell, but for someone like me, who prefers to take his company in sips rather than bottlesful, who would rather sit alone in a sunlit room with scientific puzzle or thinking through an elusive bit of philosophy, it is no pit, but a garden.

I have always loved seeing what happens next. What happens next is a story that never ends: First the Egyptians built the pyramids. And then the Greeks founded great cities. And then the Chinese invented paper. And then the Romans created an empire ... all before my time. And then cathedrals rose. And then the Aztecs fell. And then America grew strong, and then the World Wars came, and then computers spread throughout the world, and then, and then, and then.

And then space tourism. I had to try that, when it came, and that is why I am floating in the void in a light and comfortable suit that keeps my incorruptible body at ease with the temperatures and substances and pressures to which it is accustomed.

And then I became detached. Just a frayed tether that should have been thrown away, a spacewalk guide too bored to keep counting up tourists to make sure there were still 28, a radio malfunction. What are the chances that all three things would happen at once? It might happen once in a thousand years.

I'm nine hundred and forty years old.

And now ... now I think that immortality might be too lonely after all, and too uncomfortable, as I drift out past the orbits of planets no human has yet explored, as I fall up, always, toward the center of the galaxy. My oxygen gave out hours ago, and I have had to force myself to stop breathing to avoid sucking on the rank vapor that is left now that the good air is gone. And then how long until the power runs out and I harden into near-absolute cold? And then how long until the suit wears away from micrometeorites pelting me as I drift and tumble through space? But my body will never wear away, always magically reconstructing itself, always the same.

And then ... ?

November 5, 2007

Why Duos are Better than Monos

By Jimmy Clark Bragg
4th Period Composition

Duos are better than monos for many reasons. First, duos can do more things at the same time. This is called multitasking. Monos can do two or maybe three things at the same time, but only with two hands and eyes. Duos can do twice as much as that because they have two whole bodies.

Duos have redundancy. If something happens to a mono's body, and they die, they are dead for good. Duos can lose one half of themselves and still live. They become a mono then, which is sad, but it is better than being dead.

Duos can remember twice as much as a mono. This is useful for geography tests, because duos can memorize and study twice as fast as monos. Duos are smarter than monos.

There are some bad things about being a duo. Duos have to buy twice as many clothes and twice as much food. It costs twice as much to go to the cinema. It can be very expensive to be a duo.

It is against the law for grown-up duos to have more than one job, so it can be hard to pay for the extra food and clothes. To make enough money, duos sometimes have to take dangerous jobs in space.

Worst of all, it is not acceptable for duos marry or date monos, no matter how much a duo boy likes a mono girl. I don't know why this is true, but my mother says so.

In conclusion, there are some downsides to being a duo, but the advantages outweigh them. I would not want to be a mono for all the money in the world, but I might if it meant I could take Missy Callahan to the movies. She could sit between me and hold my hands. But that doesn't matter too much. Some day, I will meet a duo girl and we can go to the movies while we do our homework at the same time. That would be even better.

November 2, 2007

Clever Ways to Make Do

He had finally given up on trying to fashion tubes for the water, and instead had made a long aquaduct of split saplings with their centers stripped out. It lost much of the water that went down it, but when after nearly three weeks of rigging it up, he stepped into the woven branch enclosure he had made and pulled the vine, water poured down on him, and for the first time in eight years he had a shower. The cool water splashing down on him through the tropical heat that seemed to be the island's only season made his skin practically sing, it was so refreshing.

The last three months had been a nightmare from which he was slowly emerging. Before the Interruption, he had been resigned to living on the island--had even liked living on the island. Since then, though, he had been having bad dreams, and he couldn't relax in his hammock or really enjoy surfing on his bamboo surfboard. Nothing felt right. Now things were starting to fall back in place.

He gathered crabs for dinner and simmered them in coconut milk. The sun was throwing the sky into a riot of reds and purples, and he decided to eat at the little stone table he had set up on the western side of the island.

He had barely sat down when he saw something not far out from shore, black against the setting sun, a head rising out of the waves. It was followed by shoulders, and a chest and arms. He left his dinner on the table and ran.

"Please!" The shadowy thing shouted to him. The voice was almost human, but he could hear the electronic hum at the base of it, just like with the robots that had come before.

"Go away!" he shrieked.

"We can take you off this island. We can bring you a boat, a plane, please--"

"Go away!" He turned and ran into the jungle.

"But you're the only one left!" the robot wailed, and he wished it would shut up. He hated robots, the robots who were immune to the plagues, the robots who were desperate for someone to tell them what to do.

Among the trees in the thickening darkness, he ran into something hard at the height of his head. It cracked, and he slipped and fell to the ground with it. Standing and squinting into the darkness, he could just make out a section of his little aquaduct.

That would take time to fix, he thought. He should take the whole structure and make it higher, so that it was above his head wherever he went.

It would take at least a week.

November 1, 2007

HAPPy anniVERsary

i forGOT how to SLEEP ten years aGO. HAPPy AnniVERsary!

there WAS no trauMATic reason; no DYing of parents or near death exPERience. nothing PHYSical any DOCtor could find either; no exPLOding of BLOOD vessels in my brain or imBALance in my LYMphatic system.

i just forGOT. i'd lie aWAKE night after night, WILLing myself to SINK into the darkness withOUT SUCcess. I tried GOing to bed in the DAYtime with the SHADES drawn, and counting sheep. i got to ten THOUsand a COUPle of times. i tried drugs, and SOMEtimes they'd knock me out for a few MINutes, but then i'd be wide aWAKE again and that drug wouldn't WORK the next time.

tired? of COURSE I was tired. IT was like I was SLEEPwalking through the days and nights both. i lost my JOB, I lost the aPARTment, and lived on the STREET for a while. i BEGGED for a living; one of those PEOple on the side of the road with a sign that read "disAbled - please help".

then a DOCtor at the free CLINic sent me to a reSEARcher at the uniVERsity. they had a GRANT to study my 'conDItion'; they even STRETCHed it to free room and board on CAMpus. and they TESTed me and they tested me. CATscans, x-rays, magnetoSOMEthings. 'sleep studies', even if i DIDn't sleep.

they couldn't FIND the cause of my inSOMnia. but I found something; i FOUND that as a TEST subject i could take CLASSes at the uniVERsity. so i did. i took psyCHOLogy and sociOLogy, CHEMistry and physics, theOLogy and biOLogy and onTOLogy and--

mostly i studied homNOLogy, the science of sleep. and FInally, i found it. the SEcret.

no, NOT the secret of how to make mySELF sleep again. the secret of how to get ALL of you to join me in inSOMnia. forEVer.