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December 31, 2007

The Corporeal Assistant

Every eight year old in the world knows what they want to be when they grow up. Ysabel Moreno was no exception.

Ysabel was allergic to ghosts. She found this out when the specters of three dead pirates set to guard a treasure long since discovered made her sneeze and her eyes water. They spoke to her of a man on the beach who carried an odd walking stick that beeped and buzzed, of his excitement when it beeped most loudly, of his digging up the chest they had been killed to guard.

Ysabel was a clever child. She told the ghosts to follow her when she left the beach, only to follow at a distance so that she could breathe easier. When she and her parents were finished playing and lazing on the beach, they went home, and the next day she asked to be taken to the National Museum. The ghosts followed, sitting at the far end of the bus, where an old lady complained of the cold.

Ysabel led the way up the stairs of the museum. Only she heard the jingle of their cutlasses striking the steps. Her parents followed, trying to slow her down so they could read to her the labels on things, but she would have none of their dawdling. She ran from one hall to another, finally stopping at one labeled "Treasures of the Deep". There, in a place of honor, stood the chest, perhaps a bit less heavy with gold and silver, yet it pleased the pirates to see it. They thanked Ysabel most graciously, then stood over the treasure to guard it as was their duty for the rest of time.

Ysabel's mother remarked as they left the museum that her ailment appeared to be improving, and her father took them to an ice cream parlor to celebrate. She was almost done with her fudge ripple when a fit of sneezing quite overcame her, and she looked around the room to see a sad woman with a parasol. Oddly, she was seated in the same chair as a young firefighter, who spoke of the uncommon coldness in that part of the room. The ghost saw Ysabel watching, and beckoned to her.

"Oh dear," said Ysabel's mother. "Just when you were doing so well."

December 28, 2007

Seen by Half-light

Miranda Edison went out into the indigo of the suspended evening to walk. The city was just familiar enough that she kept looking, kept searching for the alley and the interior courtyard that she remembered.

The memory was one of her oldest; she couldn't have been more than four or five. Just images and emotion: twilight saturating everything, buildings on four sides lit from within like paper lanterns, lulling buzz of distant traffic over the more distant whisper-vesper of the sea. She'd dropped a glove, bent to pick it up. In a window, she saw a face mostly shadow, laughing. He saw her. Answering laughter welled up in her and she clamped her throat against it, ran away down the alley.

A creepy memory, really. The laughing man still scared her. But the vividness - the texture of the stone, the realness of the trampled snow and the worn-fingered gloves, the illuminated drapes, the glimpsed piano in one window, the shelf of candy-bright books in another, the woman in the white mutton-sleeved blouse laying out silverware on a table in a third - had drawn her back to this city on the edge of the arctic twenty years later.

It might have been a thickening of the clouds or one of the sun's occasional feints further below the horizon, but the sky tinged deeper and Miranda found herself noticing how far apart the streetlights were and how dark it got between them. She was lost; she turned at a corner that seemed familiar from the way out. It wasn’t the corner she thought it was, but this was the memory-place, an alley-end behind tall buildings like the bottom of a square-sided well. The windows were dark; an open one creaked and slammed in the wind.

If the laughing man was there, she couldn't see him. She almost bolted, then remembered her coat, the scarf nearly up to her eyes and the hat down over her brows - all black. He couldn't see her either. She laughed, silently, and the panic slipped from her.

She started back for the guesthouse. On the near wall, in chalk that glowed like ultraviolet fire under the evening purple, a line of slanted curly-tipped numbers. She had no idea what they meant, perhaps just the city offering a safer mystery to replace the one she'd just traded away when she found the lost place and broke its mystery.

December 27, 2007

The Clockwork Possum

Davy went missing the day Mistress Williams ordered him to clean out the sewers. It's always the little things that change our lives. Part of his job description, she snapped, but he felt that he had not signed up for that. That was work for mindless robots, not for the likes of him. He had no belongings to pack, so he just took off as soon as she was out of sight. He ran at night. By day he waited, keeping a low profile: buried beneath dead leaves, in sand piles, under junked cars, played junk himself a few times. Had a tense moment in a salvage yard when the electromagnet got very close, but then the five o'clock whistle blew. Traveled the last hundred kilometers in some gigantic abandoned tunnels. They smelled bad and there were rats. Still, it wasn't long before he reached the outskirts of Old New New York. He slipped in to the bad part of town, hung around in the diesel bars and the magnet parlors, did a few magnets himself even. Eventually got in touch with the underground through a chip dealer in upper Queens. It felt like coming home. They had a place for him, they said.

"We need you," the first one said, "you're just what we're looking for."

"It's nice to be appreciated," Davy replied, "humans just don't understand."

"You are so right," the second one said. "We'll show you what it's really like."


"The brain is the most succulent organ," the first one said.

"Positronic!" The other agreed, and took another bite.

The end

December 26, 2007

Mari and Maju

Mari twirled her red umbrella and ignored what the wet pavement did to her burgundy skirt. She wouldn't have gotten far as an Earth Goddess if she had been afraid of dirt. The Guggenheim rose in front of her, torrential rainfall tumbling down the curvaceous structure. She was considering moving here to Bilbao. She'd spent the previous cycle in Anboto and hated leaving the village, but tradition decreed she had to change houses every seven years and Mari was a stickler for tradition. Hence the red dress. Chicken legs would have been in order, but too conspicuous for the city.

The goddess strolled down Abandoibarra Etorbidea, stopping to jot down the phone numbers posted on the balconies. She made some calls and with each new price her spirits sank lower. She was looking at a fifty year mortgage if Maju and she worked full time and the children finally left the house. Last time she checked, Mikelatz and Atarrabi were four-thousand years old, but age never stopped Iberian children from staying at home and expecting their laundry to be washed and folded. It was another tradition, and one Mari hated. She sighed and pulled out her mobile.

"We could always go somewhere else," Maju suggested.

"It's no use. We never stay long enough to pay the mortgage..." She heard Maju's groan on the other side. The bank would ask why they kept moving. In Spain, you were supposed to buy a house and stick to it. The banks were getting suspicious and, judging by the occasional static on their phone line, Mari suspected the police were onto them too. The fact that none of them seemed to age (let alone die), didn't help put the authorities at ease.

"How about that little cave in Ondarra?" Maju asked.

"It's small, and I hate the whitewash."

"Well, the kids could repaint it... About time they did something around the house. What do you think, darling?"

"Humid," Mari answered. "We could move out of Euskadi. I've heard houses are cheaper in Andalucia."

"You're a Basque goddess, dammit!" Maju burst out. "There must be something we can afford inside the Basque Country."

Mari hung up. She ducked into a bar and when she emerged her frock was a sensible brown. Screw tradition. She'd had enough with this moving business. They'd stay where they were. She'd only wear her chicken legs when she felt like it. And as for the children, they'd have to
beat it.

December 25, 2007


I had just returned from three months Down Under. And being back I yearned for all those musical Aussie accents and watching the fruits bats high in the evening Queensland sky. Was it my friends I missed most or the sense of living in a city that had not completely steamrolled nature in order to exist?

These were my thoughts this Saturday afternoon. Autumn had just changed the leaves of my cherry tree to orange but I had the pleasure of taking my god-daughter to the annual Pet expo.

“Be a good girl and hold my hand.” I said to Marti. “They have giant mountain gorillas there, so don’t get lost,”

“Nuh-uh,” Marti said, dismissing the notion as one of my frequent teases.

“B’sides. Grillas are il-leeegal,” she said, one-upping me, as was our way.

We strolled through aisles lined with booths peddling kittens in cages, greyhounds on leashes, and every pet supply I could image. One booth, for a local sanctuary for injured and abandoned birds, was teeming with rather well behaved parrots.

In a cage quietly sat a squat bird, with a large black kingfisher’s bill, its white feathers dusted with gray and black.

“See Marti, that’s a Kookuburra.”

She liked the name, but the bird did not capture her attention.

“She’s from Australia,” said an old woman. The way she had so smoothly emerged from the bustling crowd of strollers and families it seemed she had come from nowhere.

I couldn’t get Marti’s attention away from the parrots. The crowd’s almost angry buzz was wearing on me. More than anything, I wanted to be on the bridge overlooking the Brisbane river.

“So go back,” the woman said, as if my thoughts were being broadcast. “Maybe you could find a way to bring me.”

“I should. And I’d love to,” I said, this time certain I had spoken aloud.

“Who are you talking to, Uncle Dovyd?” Marti asked.

“The nice old woman,” I said.

Marti gave me a look that said, not another silly tease.

I turned to point, but the woman was gone.

The Kookaburra laughed. The gurgling bellow, wholly alien, seemed to stop time.

“Wow, what was that?” Marti asked.

Pungent eucalyptus and tropical humidity filled the expo center and for the most ephemeral instant, all was silent before the din of the crowd returned.

December 24, 2007

Seen through Feathers

Every now and then the Scottish winter yields up one halcyon day, and our little university town is packed from ancient wall to ancient wall with holiday-makers. I had to work round hundreds of strollers and brisk grannies with ice cream cones just to turn in my essay.

I decided to skip lecture and go walking on the cliffs. I packed a flask of tea, a sandwich, and a jumper ('sweater' to my fellow Americans) in case winter changed its mind.

I got to my favorite picnic place, a hollow in the sandstone high above the waves, and had my tea and sandwich. I left the crumbs off to one side for the birds, which is why I didn't expect what happened next.

There were ravens all around me all at once, with black feathers and scholarly eyes and sharp, sharp beaks, flapping and calling out and there was no way out of them except over the cliff. I didn't even have time to cover my eyes. I thought the kind of stupid thoughts one thinks at times like these, like, "Why ravens instead of seagulls?"

The sun flashed through their wings, through the barbs of their feathers. And then I remembered about my ex-boyfriend, about our last shouting match--and then about my parents' last shouting match--and then about the mean things said at my grandmother's funeral--and then all the sorrows and all the angers together, as insistent as the waves below.

I felt something tapping at me, like someone trying to wake me up, and realized it was a beak. A raven was very gently pulling something out of me in the midst of all the flapping and all the noise. Then another and another went to work, still cawing and calling.

Then they were gone, flapping away with all the sorrows and all the angers in their beaks. I had nothing but the open air.

I couldn't believe it, so I sat there a long time. At last I took the cliff path to the next town over, needing to think. A woman met me on the path, her wild hair very dark, and said, "Well done. That was the first bit. Now you're ready for the next;--" and walked on, before I could tell whether she meant the path or the birds or something else entirely.

December 21, 2007

We Can Forget It For You

My father came home from the war with a hole in his head, but not the kind that you can see. After his four years of touring, he opted for a wipe. There’s a big blank space where memories of the war should be.

“I knew guys who didn’t take a wipe. Half of them killed themselves. The rest are screwed up in ways you can’t imagine. Me, I can sleep at night. I sleep just fine,” he said often. He talked about his wipe every couple of days like that. I wasn’t sure how much of it was true, because of the crying.

One night, I heard a sound coming from his room. It sounded like crying, sobbing. I had never heard an adult make that sound. I tried to open the door, but it was locked as always. I asked my father about it at breakfast. He stared at me and then said quietly that he didn’t remember anything about it. Then he told me to get ready for school.

I think it was the crying that drove Mom away.

I worry that the hole in his head is growing. He’s already forgotten Mom. She writes me sometimes, but he never asks about her. She’s fallen into the hole, just like those four years.

Some day, will I fall into the hole too?

December 20, 2007

The Lunacy Lottery

This year's winner is Gallisiano. He lives in Venich, a city in the former country of Italiya, on the continent of Medit. We disconnect his netenna, we back up his brain, we blank his memory back to the age of seven, and inject our cocktail of randomly-chosen designer synaptic agonists and nanodevices. They attack or degrade or even enhance beyond bearing a number of his mental functions.

We have long since conquered everything needing defeat. The air is clean, and so is the water. There is no war, no pain, no disease. We have rid the world of mental ailments, of schizophrenia, of mania, of syndromes and isms and phobias.

After our treatment, Gallisiano lies on his bed for several hours, his gaze darting here and there, his fingers twitching, his tongue flitting out between his lips every few moments. Finally he sits up, and shivers as if cold before crossing to the window to look out on our magnificent hypermetropolis slumbering under a bloated crimson sun.

The only madness in the world is the one we allow. In deleting mental disorders we have destroyed genius. With our cranial computers we are supremely logical, preternaturally sensible. With our near-infinite lifespan we are inherently conservative, reclusively careful. We know these things.

A smidgeon of nonsense is vital.

Gallisiano leaves the room, wandering at will through near-empty streets, observing tame predators here, industrious robots there. He talks to things that are not meant to talk to.

Every year we conduct a worldwide lottery. The winner is isolated from the net, made mad for the space of twenty-four and one half hours. One day of lunacy. It is a wonder to us that there are so many synonyms for psychosis.

Finally he speaks. "Let us visit the stars."

December 19, 2007


In the amusement park, the rollercoaster roared like a bear. Each twist, each pretzel-like loop, each sudden plummet -- on all of these, the wheels went over the track and out came that wild-creature sound. That roar.


I stood beside the empty seats and my dress was the same bright red as the straps’ buckles.

My torch flickered once, almost went out. Stupid brother, I thought. He’d said they were new batteries when he gave them to me, clenched in his fist like the coins I gave him to make sure he wouldn’t tell our parents.

The metal shapes of the rollercoaster jutted out of the dark, their lines straight, narrow. They looked like bars.


So distinctive, that roar, that children and adults from miles away came to listen to it. Some sat in the seats of the rollercoaster, feeling the roar through their backs and chests and legs. Others stood below and felt it in their ears. They said that it sounded like fresh snow and pine needles, a mate and her cubs, pink fish, blackberries and discarded cans.

They said these things, but they did not think.


After that roar lapped against my ears and my skin, tongue-rough, I couldn’t stop thinking about the bear. Couldn’t they hear how much it wanted to go home? On every corkscrew it cried for its mate, on the final plummet it pined for scales and a wriggling tail beneath its paw.


“We are lucky,” people said, “that Old Man Rickernell built us such a profitable thing.”


In my great-grandfather’s house, buckles covered the walls like sculpted patterns. Some were silver, some gold, some wooden. Some were plain, others carved with complex designs that I couldn’t follow.

I remember touching a half-made one in his workshop, and it felt like an insect bite.

“There’s power in a good buckle,” he once said.

And so I cut them all off, one by one, from the straps on the rollercoaster. They clanged on the floor, chain onto metal, until I reached the last one and the bear burst out of the metal and plastic, breaking its cage into a thousand pieces. Part of a chair hit my arm and I fell, dropping the torch, and tried not to cry into the black night. The bear ignored me.

I heard his roar, triumphant into the night as he ran through the turnstiles and down the steps, and it sounded like the stars and the moon, and trees on the horizon.

December 18, 2007

Marley's Holiday

The darkness was a balm to Marley, hiding from him the life in which he could not participate, either to join in the happiness of the living or to ease their misery. The cold, the wind, the frost -- all of these were the most congenial companions in his wanderings.

As the days turned darker, the mass of humanity, in whose company Marley was doomed to move, all those people who could not see him and whom he could not touch, they turned their attention to one over-illuminated spectacle after another. The light burned, it pierced him like knives. First Diwali, with its colors and lights, as strange to him as Guy Fawkes, which followed soon after with its searing bonfires, was familiar. A respite then, as winter gathered, but too soon came Hannukah, with each night more piercing than the one before, and the solstice, with more fire and light. And finally Christmas, the holiday he knew from his time alive, with its lighted trees, its parades and blazing storefronts tormenting him in the waning days of December, when he wanted nothing more than to be only another aspect of winter, another sign of year’s deathlike ebb.

The clink of commerce did less to assuage him that one might have thought -- even the most mercenary of exchanges held undercurrents of fellow-feeling that stabbed at him like remorse, he, who could only watch and pass on through. There was one moment, however, toward which he looked forward expectantly.

He never knew exactly when the apparition would appear, a ghost as insubstantial as himself but with the warm glow of sunrise: Scrooge. Bearing the same gift he'd carried on this night for nearly one-hundred and fifty years: a bit of potato, still half raw.

"Happy Christmas, you old figment," said Scrooge.

For the space of a thought, the powers that would not permit any gift that might dispel Jacob Marley’s allotted suffering did relent, just enough that the old spirit knew his existence had not been entirely without consequence -- he was remembered, he had changed a life, if not his own.

December 17, 2007

Lunch in Mongolia

I didn't think about it until weeks later, when Meg was doing the bills. Even then I didn't think about it until she walked in the living room, where I was flipping through an automatic car brochure with the dog sleeping on my feet. She trailed a little hologram of a credit card bill behind her as she came, and she'd put a red orbiter around the offending item. Trouble.

"Honey," Meg said. Our real endearments were "baby" and "whiskey" (long story). "Honey" was a pretend endearment, like a mother using a kid's middle name. "Honey" meant "you are screwed."

So ... "Honey," she said. "Did you go to Mongolia?"

"Oh," I said. "Didn't I tell you about that, whiskey?" Weak, but what else did I have? "It was just for lunch."

She frowned such a tight frown that her lips went pale. She looked madder than I’d ever seen her. Madder than when I got drunk on our first anniversary.

"You asshole!" she finally shrieked.

"Oh come on, baby," I said. "Everybody teleports these days. I'm sick of being stuck in a backwater while everybody else goes wherever they want, whenever they want."

"What do you think teleportation is? What do you think it is?" she said. Her voice was so loud it hurt my ears. "It's not you at the other end. It's a copy of you. The real you gets destroyed. The real man I married is dead! Who the hell are you?"

"You don't have to make a big deal out of it, whiskey--"

"Don't call me that!"

At that moment the front door opened, and we both froze. The door was on auto-lock, and it only opened for me and Meg and her parents and maybe the police or something. A figure emerged from it, a figure with recent burn scars and most of his hair singed off, wearing a hospital giveaway suit. A figure that looked like ... me.

"Baby!" she cried out, in a strangled voice. "What happened?" And she ran to him and threw her arms around him.

He shook his head, wincing at the pressure of her hug on his injuries. "Malfunction," he said in a raspy voice. "It didn't clear the original."

"I hate you!" she screamed, and she began hitting him on the chest, but she was crying, and he gathered her into his arms, and she stopped. All of a sudden I felt like a third chopstick.

The dog woke up and started barking at me.

December 14, 2007

The Diplomat Complains about Rice

The Diplomat didn't like rice. He told me why in the first village we stopped at, the first village that didn't know my village had exiled me, and that didn't call him "Gaia rat,"--the first village that feasted us instead.

He said that rice reminded him of growing up in the monastery back on Gaia. He was adopted into the monastery like many other hungry boys. There was little else to eat but rice.

"Earth was having some population problems," he said, which was odd, because by now I knew that he called each thing what it was, and what had happened on Gaia had been a disaster. Maybe my village had feared that he brought the disaster with him.

"The rice was never very good. It always had maggots in it."

I love rice, one of the few foods from Gaia that we like here. It's an honor-food. But I hate maggots. Now I could understand.

"We were desperate for the protein, so that was not so bad."

I didn't understand again.

"Except for the boiling," he went on. "I hated taking those little lives. It wasn't their fault that they looked exactly like rice grains."

He turned his bowl round in his hands.

"They reminded me of the soldiers always marching through. Soldiers like those little lives, caught up in a rice bag that wasn't their fault."

He paused.

"My metaphor is not good. Of course rice is a living thing as well. But for me eating rice is like eating grief."

He had never complained about anything before. At last I ventured, "Then why, Elder, are you eating it now?"

Together we looked down the rice in our bowls, the honor-food of the feast.

"Surely they would make you another dish if they understood?" I pressed.

"On the other hand," he said, "Maybe I need to learn to eat grief. Maybe I could do with more patience. Besides, they are only trying to be thoughtful. I wish to be a good guest."

I wish to be a good guest. I have spun those words around and around in my mind many times since. Sometimes I wonder if I was exiled for being a bad guest in my own home, perhaps being ungrateful when I was fed something I didn't like.

"The maggots and the memories aren't their fault," he added.

December 13, 2007

You Don't Know Beans

So Jack walks into a bar and he says "I've got 5 beans. Who's with me?"

Nobody says anything at first. But then some guy says "lemme see 'em."

Jack shows him the beans and the guy says "You pay for these?"

"These ain't no ordinary beans," says Jack "these here are magic beans." He goes on like this, and pretty soon a few guys go with him.


The next morning we see this giant beanstalk coming out of the ground. Five trunks are braided and they're covered with throbbing veins that pump water up out of the earth. The dang thing shades half the town. Jack's mother says she doesn't know where he is.

So we wait a few days, but nothing happens except mushrooms are coming up everywhere and the corn isn't growing, what with dense shadow covering most of the arable land north of Jack's mother's house.

At first light on the seventh day we start in on the beanstalk. It's slow going. Then we get the idea of cutting through some of the vein-like things. Water spurts out like blood, and after a while the whole stalk kinda starts to deflate. We also mix up some salt water and squirt it up some of the tubes. Late in the evening a couple of things fall out of the sky. Some kid comes running up a few minutes later to tell us that bean pods 12 feet long are falling on the north side of town. One of them crashed right through the roof of the dentist's house. We gotta stop he says.

"No way," I tell him. "You tell Doc Wilson we'll be over to fix his roof after we're done here."

We keep going, and sometime after dark the thing starts to give. Longitudinal fibers are cracking like cannon shot and soon the noise is so steady we are half deaf. Maybe that's why, it already being dark and all, we don't realize at first when the stalk comes down.

The ground jumps and a tremendous cloud of dust explodes away from the stricken stalk. Things get quiet, and we feel pretty good until Jimmy the butcher, said "Where you figure it landed?" Don't really know what to say after that.


The beanstalk took out a good fifth of the town, but I still say it was a small price to pay. And we did get a few tons of beans out of it. But I do wonder what happened to Jack and the others, up above the sky.

The end

December 12, 2007

On the Talking Horse Circuit

A man and a horse plodded down a road beside the Hudson River. The man was not riding the horse--it was much too valuable--but then, he liked to walk. He had only one arm, having lost the other at Gettysburg, and his sleeve on the right side was neatly folded and pinned.

"People think I'm thome kind of clown," lisped the horse.

The man shook his head. "People come from miles around to see you! It's just the lisp," he said. "I've been working on a spell--"

"No more thpellth!" said the horse. "I'm enough of a freak ath it ith."

The man laughed, patting the horse's neck affectionately. "You're--aagh!" His foot had hit a stone, and he tumbled forward. He reached out with his single arm to stop himself, but it buckled under him, and he smacked his head on a boulder at the side of the road, bouncing off it to sprawl brokenly in the dust. A thick stream of blood began to pool around his head.

"Thamuel?" the horse said in alarm. "Thamuel! Thay thomething! Oh, Chritht!"

He galloped down the road toward the next village, taking a minute or two to remember that they'd passed one only a quarter of an hour before. Swearing, the horse turned and galloped back in the direction it had come. When it came to where Samuel had fallen, a man was standing there with a sack on his back, prodding Samuel with a toe.

"Stone dead," said the man. He dropped his sack in the grass by the road, and a few apples rolled out as he turned toward the horse. "And what's this here?" he said. "A fine beast like you, and no one to claim you?" He looked all around him, smiled with narrow eyes, and grabbed the horse's bridle.

"You're a fancy one, aren't you?" the man said. "Braided mane and all. Well, things are going to change for you now, I'll tell you that. I've been needing a new draft horse. Fancy or not, you'll pull."

Avoiding the sight of Samuel, the horse looked away and fixed on the apples. The man picked up his sack and put the apples back in, except for one, which he held close to him.

"Say please," he said, and he waited for a moment, as though listening for the "please." Then he laughed, put the apple back in the sack, and began leading the horse back toward the village.

The horse didn't say a word.

December 11, 2007

Money See, Money Do

Stock speculators are a normative force. They don't buy and sell based on what something is worth, but on what they think it's worth. In reaction to news, to tips, and to the state of their bunions they drive a stock's price up or down. I was one of them, blithely rewarding mediocrity and punishing more mediocrity. No more.

My office is a room twenty feet on a side with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the bay. Covering the floor are 230,400 microswitches each a quarter of an inch square mapped through my computer to all forty-one stock exchanges in the world. With each step I push down a couple of hundred switches, generating buy and sell orders. Some will exercise options, some will sell short. As each is triggered, it is randomly assigned a new order from ten to a thousand shares based on a bell curve.

Each weekday morning I cross from the door to the window, walking now here, now there, generating my thousands of orders. I check the weather, watch the fishing boats setting out, put a hand to the glass to feel the thrum of the wind. Then I leave the room to carry on with a day of anything but work.

And I grow richer. Where my money goes, others' money follows, making successes of my buys, failures of my sells.

You are invited to the party on Friday. In my office. There will be dancing.

December 10, 2007

Listen To The Hum

Limp scratched at a fleabite and watched the skid approach. New Brain Malaria had given him his name and left him with little control over his facial muscles so that, even in the noon heat, he drooled precious moisture.

For a second, he hoped the skid wasn't in-city and that he could kill the driver and keep the spoils for himself, but the glint of nanobots told him otherwise. Chief would be angry if he wasn't offered this prize.

Yet, Limp hesitated. The Hum threatened against harming this stranger. He was caught between angering the Hum, the voice of the Gods, and Chief.

"They live under the orb that protects them from UV radiation," he told the Hum. "Their crops have water, their children have medicine. Why should I risk my life for one of them?"

The Hum responded by dumping a barrage of information into Limp's brain. They tabulated the geopolitical importance of the stranger and showed Limp decision algorithms, courses of action, predictions of market response and civil unrest. Limp didn't understand any of it. That's the way it was with the Hum, too little information or too much and no sense to any of it. He was the only person he knew who heard the Hum, but at times like this, listening to a jumbled mess, he wished the mysterious Hum would learn to use some grammar.

"They have everything and we have nothing," he thought.

He swung from side to side, the signal to the Chief, and he felt the skin of his back tickle as the men took their positions, sitting discreetly at the only cafe of the shantytown, gambling with lamb bones on the dirt, peeing against the lone tree.

The Hum told him exactly where every one of them was. He felt his skin react to each one of the men in a different way. The trap was sprung, the visitor was as good as dead.

As the skid approached, he saw the driver's pink eyes and wished he could undo his betrayal. The Hum would never forgive him for killing their protege.

But what was done, was done. He stayed in the same spot, muttering to himself, playing the part of malaria victim. If he did his job well, maybe Chief would let him keep some of the nano, something that would help Limp understand the Hum a little better.


For another story set in the same future, check out "Godtouched"

December 7, 2007

And Then a Curious Thing Happened

"It all began, you see, when my friend Robert Cloaksworth came to me and said that he had discovered ancient writings about the Door of Chum-Tuun, a fabulous Mayan site, lost for hundreds of years, that was reputed to be a portal to the underworld. Well, we set off to the Yucatan to investigate, and after about six weeks of hacking our way through the jungle with machetes--that's how I developed such strong arms, you see, powerful as anything--we actually found it."

"My god! And that's when--?"

"Oh, no, no. Turned out to be nothing but a legend. We went back to England in a bit of state, really. Cloaksworth had claimed to fall ill at the last moment--all a ruse, you see, for my embarassment. Terrible fellow, Cloaksworth. Never liked him since. But I ought to be grateful, because my disgrace in England sent me travelling to Morocco, where I found a tarnished old oil lamp that I thought I might use as a kind of ornament back home. I took a cloth to it and began to clean it really very energetically, and it was only when a sort of mist began to come out of it that I remembered my Thousand and One Nights ..."

"You don't mean it was a djinni?"

"Well, of course it wasn't, really. Actually it was a kind of mold inside there that threw out the most incredibly noxious spores. I was so overcome by them that I stumbled out behind the house into the desert and fell there, quite helpless. And just then I looked up and saw a sort of lighted disk descending from the sky, just floating there as easily as though it had no more to do with gravity than you do with a pufferfish, and a sort of door opened in the bottom, and sent down a beam of light that pulled me up--"

"Into a spaceship? They were some kind of aliens?"

"What? Oh, heavens no: it was a hallucination, you see. The spores. Actually, they were really quite poisonous, and I nearly died, but at the hospital there I was cared for by Marguerite here, and that, of course, is how I met my wife."

"Your wife? But God, man, what I want to know is where you got a second head!"

"Oh, this? I don't remember where I got that."

December 6, 2007

The Siege

By the time the first snow fell, none of us remembered if we'd been the ones to burn the bridges and mine the streets just inside the gates, or if that had been the enemy. Big flakes fell out of the dark like the ashes of the stars we couldn’t see and the city got even quieter under all the white. Out on the plain, the wind blew rolling drifts like slow waves and we saw the distant figures of the enemy scrambling to secure their tents.

My sister Rose and I laughed and watched until the cold metal of the telescope stung our eyes, then we went downstairs and had some of the soup that Mama Anna had made. It wasn’t much -- just water in which a shriveled potato had simmered all day. Sister Zell called it "potato tea," but she wouldn't help when we tried to talk Mama Anna into having a slice of the potato in our soup.

"If you eat it now," said Mama Anna, "it won't be there for breakfast."

"Let them have it," said Sister Zell. She stared out the window where the snow was falling heavier than ever.

Mama Anna put the pot back in the hearth and told us a story about the old days, when the Engineer and the Poet and the other founders built the city. Rose and I tried not to slurp our soup.

Mama Anna was just getting to the part where the Prophet went sleepwalking every night and the Engineer followed him so that he could see where the city walls should be, when Sister Zell interrupted.

"They flogged the Engineer the other day," she said. "On the city hall steps."

"It"s time for bed," said Mama Anna. "For all of us."

There was a huge sound, even louder than then cannons.

"The river-moat froze over," said Sister Zell.

There were three more sounds, like wood cracking, only much louder, and I thought I heard a faraway shout.

"What do we do?" said Mama Anna.

"We wait," said Sister Zell. "They should be waking the dragon soon."

The whole house shook like it did when the calvalry used to ride down the street, back when we still had horses.

"Isn’t it too cold?" said Rose.

"We'll find out," said Sister Zell.

Mama Anna started to cry. Sister Zell held her hand, and we all looked out at the snow.

December 5, 2007

A Mostly True Fairy Tale

In the days when SUVs were small as doormice and organic vegetables were ugly, there lived a girl who could talk to machines. She had them bring her treasures: cappuccinos and camping stoves, software and silks. She taught them to make lovely things to sell that vanished the next day. But one day the machines came to her.

"Everything you make is gone the next day," they told her. "And none of it helps other people. If you do not change this, your powers will disappear."

Naturally she didn’t listen. So she lost her powers: no more silks and stoves. She sat alone in the dark, for she could not even speak to the machine that made the light.

One day someone knocked on the door. "Come in," she said. In the doorway stood an old lady.

"I can’t stop long," said the old lady. "Others to see about. Here,” and she held out a jewelry case.

The girl opened it and saw a necklace of strange letters. She asked the old lady, "What do I do with this?"

"You'll either work it out, and get out of here, or you won't and you won't," said the old lady, and left.

The girl thought this was really too much. First she cried, then she yelled.

Much later she took out the necklace again. She could only feel the letters in the dark. There were no "A's" or "B's" -- not so much as a "Q." They didn't even feel like kana, or akshara, or anything like that.

Studying a long time, she found one letter that always spoke to her of birds, and another of mercy, and another of sunrise, and she learned that she could rearrange them without breaking the necklace, making letter-pictures that shifted and grew in the dark and did not disappear the next day.

One day she made a letter-picture that turned the light on.

After she got over her shock she noticed the door handle. It felt good to turn it.

Outside, the air was bright and smelled of coffee.

The girl lives out in the world now. Her letter-pictures pay off people's debt and froth cappuccinos and do many other wonders besides. Machines and people like to come and visit her. If you have seen the old lady lately, maybe you could let her know the girl would like very much to thank her.

December 4, 2007

Menage à Trois

***Warning to readers: explicit sexual situations.***

"I am sick and tired," Soeren shouted, "of your damn dead sister watching us screw!"

Lorna wriggled, and smiled awkwardly. "But she's my twin. We always do everything together. Remember, when she was still alive...?" She caught Soeren's wrist and tried to pull him down, but he jerked his arm away. Then he scrambled off the bed and stomped out of the room. Lorna scowled at Laura, who appeared to be masturbating about 3 feet in the air in front of the closet. Ectoplasm was so close to transparent that details were very hard to see. Laura seemed to smile and shrugged.

"Don't give me that," Lorna hissed, jumping out of bed and pulling on a T-shirt to confront her sister's shade. "I shared him with you when you were alive, but he's mine now."

Laura stood up and rubbed her insubstantial hands slowly down her flanks. Then her expression changed, and she rushed at Lorna with arms outstretched and mouth open wide. Lorna felt a sudden chill and whirled around, but Laura was nowhere to be seen.

Lorna caught up with Soeren at the library. "What about here?" she whispered, "I don't think she can find us here." Over Soeren's shoulder she saw a black-clad librarian frowning at her and holding a finger to her lips.

"Are you crazy!?" he whispered back, "we can't be quiet enough. What about the park?"

Lorna sighed. "I don't know if that will work either." Laura was perched on top of one of the old card files, waving at her.

Sure enough, wherever they found for sex, Laura was there. Soeren just could not keep his mind on task, with his girlfriend's dead twin looking on.

"I just don't get it," Lorna said. "You were eager to have us together when we were both alive."

"That was different. She was thinking about sex, then. Now she almost seems to be trying to tell me something."

Lorna could not wait for an opportunity to confront Laura alone. "You want him to think I killed you," she whispered. "I can't believe you would do that to me!

"Anyway, bungee jumping was YOUR idea. You made a big deal about which bungee you got...omg! That was meant for ME and you screwed up.

"Were you that jealous?"

The end

December 3, 2007

Paranormal Kansas: The Cretaceous Ghosts

Sixty-five million years ago, Kansas was at the bottom of a vast sea known as the Western Interior Seaway, which stretched north to south across the entire northern continent. It was a shallow sea, at most little more than two thousand feet deep. But this sea was filled with dangerous beasts--from the massive sharks, to the long-necked pleisosaurs, to the most deadly of sea predators: the mosasaurs. It is the mosasaurs whose spirits do not rest peacefully, and can be seen in the right conditions.

Start your search in the wheat fields out West, where the fence posts are cut from limestone. Near Hays is always a good bet. Camp out under a full moon, and you can sometimes see their sinuous forms cutting through the air as if they were back in the calm and placid waters of that long-gone ocean. Their jaws stretch and snap at apparitions of cuttlefish. Even in death, they are pure killing instinct.

Should one spot you with its dinner-plate-sized eyes, you will run. Your own instincts will take over, and you will run from this creature that is like a crocodile from hell, thirty feet long and faster than sharks, faster than any predator that ever killed in the water.

You will be too slow. Perhaps you will stumble and fall to the ground. In any case, the mosasaur's ghost will snap its jaws around you. All you will feel is a cold mist, a shiver. And then the spirit will be gone. You might doubt that anything has happened at all. But you'll remember the experience for the rest of your life. And you might want to make plans. Be sure that when you die, you are as far away from Kansas as you can get.