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June 30, 2008

A Truer Story

This is a true story. How true is a true story? You could hear “eye-witness” accounts or reverse time to camcord events, but how true is that? You’d bypass the motivations of the players. Besides, you’d probably accidentally drop the timeportal in the bathtub and electrocute dear old Granny, and then where would you be?

By all eyes and camcorders, I assure you, this story is far truer than Lucian’s or any Samosatan’s. Three out of four dental hygienists agree. Everyone knows what big fat liars Samosatans are. They imbibe too much cheap Dionysian and would as soon sign a hex on your kinsman if you didn’t buy their story. Such fabricators of truth are unworthy of your trust.


So my brood of brigands and I were sailing the seven seas of castaway, backyard bathtubs (about which Mum nags Da fortnightly) when--Lo!--we espied the next-door neighbor boys, fording a stream unto strange new territories. “Lo!” we cried, “wherefore art thou next-door neighbor boys going?” They replied, “Huh?” but one of the lads, brighter than a half-watt light bulb, said, “We wage war against the hoards of Bullylanders who hath flunked three grades, beat us up and thieved our lunch money, and who ride upon scorpions and eat tarantulas for breakfast. Will you not join our worthy cause?” My brood and I gazed upon one another. Ought we to risk blood and guts to aid the distressed? Dare we stir the hive of Bullylanders whose vileness we had just rid ourselves of the year before?

But of course!

We moored our ships and, after saddling up our galloping dogsteeds and securing alleycats to swing at enemies, we joined the fiercesome warriors on their journey through treacherous marshlands, nomanslands, wastelands, and tseliotlands, battling pterodactyls and bogmonsters along the way. We flew on raven’s wings across the oceanspace to the floating island of Bullyland, berthing at dusk. Crouching in bushes--so excited we could’ve peed our britches--we stripped to scibbies and pasted our skins in the red moon mud as camouflage.

Alas, that dastardly Lucian lounged amidst Samosatan hoards, imbibing Dionysian and bragging of conquests: literary exploits and many a betrothed lady to our comrades (that is, as soon as our manly beards sprouted). We unleashed, by their tails, the alleycats, which let loose their mighty war-whoop, outstretched claws, and madly scratched the air. Our dogsteeds and we, makeshift clubs aloft, charged after...!


Thus we vanquished our foes. Believe not in Lucian’s tale. If you buy his over ours, may your grandmother’s warts beget a plague of horny toads.

June 27, 2008

A Lucky Day for Lapis Lazuli

The Queen of Egypt sat on the steps of her House, watching her father's boat start across the sky. She thought she could almost see the oars flash.

Maybe she would have them take out the barge today. The river would rise soon, they would move the household, and it would be pyramids, pyramids, pyramids all summer, with letters from her husband Pharoah, off in Libya, saying, "How goes my monument?"—before he asked after his children.

She thought about the golden treasure of barley sinking level by level in the granaries; she heard the servants in the night, when she walked and rocked her youngest son in her arms. She liked to carry him herself. She felt they had not succeeded with her other sons, who had a "How goes my monument?" look to them.

The High Priestess of her sister Bastet came down the steps, bowed, and sat at her feet, resting one hand on her sandal.

"Do you remember," said the Queen, "when we used to get up this early to run around the garden?"

"I remember," said the Priestess.

"What is this day lucky for?"

"It is lucky for conceiving a great ruler," said the Priestess.

"One who will keep the granaries full, listen to his people, stay home where he won’t waste young men who ought to be farming and fathering…and who—this is important—won't bother with a great fat pile of rock more than he has to?"

The Priestess turned to look at her and smiled.

"It’s worth a try."

"With my husband far away."

"The gods might step in."

In the hot afternoon, while her younger children ran around the garden and her older ones drank beer and designed chariots, the Queen climbed the wall and set her goblet down. A falcon hunted over the eastern wing of the palace. She watched it circle and backwing. She looked beyond, where her father's boat continued slowly, above the flashing river. Then the falcon flapped above her, gilded eye turned to hers, wings fanning her face—there and gone. Something fell with a splash into her goblet.

"If you’ve crapped in my beer, I’ll go get my bow," she told the vanished falcon. But instead a seed of lapis lazuli blinked in the depths. She looked at it and raised her cup, saying, "Bring me a good Pharoah," before she drank it down.

June 26, 2008

Firefly Smoke

Month of No Rain 5.

Dear Alissa. Bailey found a whole bunch of pixie spheres. He smashed every one just to hear them pop and smell the firefly smoke. He said there were millions of them, and the adults wouldn't miss a few. But he was wrong. Grandpa said all the statues in Memorial Park were arguing again so everyone knew someone had broken some pixie balls. That's what he calls them. Mom says we can't call them that.

MoNR 7.

Dear Alissa. Sorry I didn't access you yesterday. I woke up early because of the noise. Grown-ups and Devices were at the impact layer. I think they were digging out the pixie spheres. They had a preservation unit and a cryo transport. Those Devices never come out here unless it's very very important. Bailey says the government uses the pixie spheres to experiment on dissidents. So that was yesterday, and this morning some kind of AI came and talked to Mom about Bailey. I thought they were going to take him away. I'm glad they didn't. Even though he is mean.

MoNR 8.

Dear Alissa. Even though you are only a chip I have to tell somebody what happened. You are the only one. Last night Mom and Dad sent Bailey to his room and he didn't get any supper. But then, really late he came to my room and he woke me up. He said he was going out to the impact layer site. I told him not to go, but he made me promise I wouldn't tell. Then he went out my window. I guess I fell back to sleep, because I woke up again when I heard Bailey screaming. I wasn't afraid. I jumped out the window and ran towards the impact site. I was already there when I realized it was raining. I almost ran back home. I should have. I stopped at the edge of the trees and I could see Bailey. I guess the expedition yesterday broke some of the balls and dust was on the ground. The whole site was burning with that weird fire that isn't hot. Bailey was bigger, and hunched over. His new shape kept disappearing and coming back, more changed. I ran when I saw the claws. I heard a siren; some big Device was on its way. I hope Bailey didn't get caught.

The end

June 25, 2008

In teh Urly Dayz uv teh Intertubez

4 mi clas praject I M riting a thing laik they uze to in teh urly dayz uv teh intert00bz. In teh urly dayz uv teh intertubez evrybody rote thingz w/wrds insted uv alweyz uzing videoz and ipodz laik we do 2dey!!!1! It wuz verE hard 2 comunic8 bcuz u alwayz had 2 spel thingz teh saim wey evry time!1! & there wur no emoticonz and so u nevr new wat sumbody wuz thinkN LOL.

In teh urly dayz uv teh Intertubez evry1 red brainE clasik litterachur laik steevun king & dr soos. :o Everybudy waz a real Einstine but they wer borde bcuz tehy alwayz had 2 wurk & lern thingz but insted uv 2 munths uv skool laik we hav tehy had mayB a yr or mor!!1!!

That iz wy I M glad robotz run evrything & we no longR hav 2 stop uzing teh intertubze 2 do sum werk. :))))

by N8 Jonez

June 24, 2008

Horse Ride

“I don’t like the sound of it, dear,” Tommy’s Mother messaged to Tommy’s Dad.

“You said the same thing about the Mariana Trench diving bell and the Mare Crisium observation point.”

“Tommy did get motion sick from the re-entry.”


Tommy played with a metallic toy horse as the three of them walked; hand in encounter-suited hand, down Central Park West. A new Spiderman sticker and I love New York decal adorned Tommy’s freshly charged scrubber casing built into his five-star suit.

The sunny afternoon brought the tourists out, strolling in their white “spacesuits” as the locals called them. The thrum of the photovoltaic skin on the skyscrapers adjusting position filled the air with an excited buzz.

“Can’t wait for the horses,” Tommy thought. His settings were on “link” so the thought instantly transmitted to his Dad

His Dad was pleased and transmitted an image of a smiling Spiderman face to his son, a custom image he had purchased just for these sentiments.

Up ahead a car tried to park and bumped into the last of the bulky metallic hulks lined up at the curb.

“Can’t you read,” a horse attendant yelled, out loud, his voice tinny through his old strapped on scrubber. “These spots are for horses only.”

He pointed to the street sign, a stylized horse head inside the outline of a human skull, then made a rude gesture at the vehicle as it sped away. He bent down to inspect the rear leg of the motionless steel hulk.

“Horses, Daddy. I see them,” Tommy messaged.

Tommy’s Dad sent the smiling custom image again.

The attendant ratcheted open the horse’s leg casing. Bone, skin and fluid tubes were briefly exposed to the afternoon before he sealed it up again.

“The poor horses,” Tommy’s Mom messaged.

“Don’t worry. They have it good,” replied Tommy’s Dad. “Coming this time, dear?”

Tommy’s Dad had taken his son squid cage diving to the bottom of the Tasman Sea, to three of the four civilian Lunar observation stations, and even on a riverboat deep into the Heart of the Amazon oxygen retention area. Tommy’s Dad wanted him to taste the world. To experience it all for real and not at home through uploads like most everyone else.

The attendants lifted Tommy and placed him atop the horse. They placed his hand in the connection cradle, an opening on the horse’s neck and strapped the cortex interface onto his suit.

“Hold on tight,” the attendant said. Out loud. Then fired the controlled burst of electricity that stopped Tommy’s heart.

Then Tommy was above the city on the back of a white winged horse. Along with other riders he circled the buildings. They were not aged and crumbling but new and shiny and pristine. Tommy remembered his Dad had said when you got close you could see people inside. Ghosts. The permanent kind.

Instead of banking toward the skyscraper wall, Tommy’s horse went up and up and up. Tommy wanted it to come back. But there was nothing he could do. It just rose into the black and did not stop.


Ambulance sirens blared.

“Where is he?” Tommy’s father asked an attendant. Out loud.

“We’re doing all we can,” he said.

“Find my son,” Tommy’s mother cried.

The attendant gently lifted Tommy’s body off the horse and placed him, interface and all, into the rear of the ambulance. Fluid leaked from the rear leg of the horse’s metal shell.

- END -

June 23, 2008

The Living Word

In a world full of trillions of otherwise wasted, tasteless words printed on trillions of otherwise wasted, bleached tree pulp--from the papyrus to the pine--this one word is deliciously alive. I won’t tell which. You wouldn’t believe it if it were so easy. It isn’t: the paradoxical architecture of its lettered spine: curved yet straight. But it is easy: more ancient than coelacanths yet more spry... and sly: the way it creeps, it stalls, it crawls and breathes on the sly. It slips, it slides and plays possum when your eye lands upon its black frames in that wintry wasteland of bleach pulp snow--a frozen and fallow ground--waiting for your eye to grow weary and blink so it can exhale and inhale in the space of that eternity. It bides its time. You will turn the page. You will move on. You have dishes to do, garbage to take out. Meanwhile, it has rearranged the neural map of your brain--former dead ends are superhighways, and once indispensable bridges are washed out (you can still take that bridge though you’re liable to baptize yourself and drown in what is clearly now just a chugging, churning muddy wastewater).

As you cinch the trash-bag ends closed, you see the garbage differently. With the bag slung over one shoulder, clinking gently against your back, you half-consciously mutter conjugations of sounds you’d forgotten you knew. Slowly, you roll your tongue over various viable words, tasting their liveliness.

Outside, mercantile semis jostle futilely for pole position, apply their clamorous airbrakes against the crisp, clean silence, pass in their light regalia like toppled Christmas trees trucking above the Interstate 80 viaduct. You gaze up in wonder at stars as you trudge through knee-deep snow that melts and trickles into your bedroom slippers and through the night’s bitter cold that nips at your fingers and toes.

How do you know it lives if it hides in plain sight? It nudges other words, testing their livelihood compared to its, rolling them aside like slow heavy stones to see where they might go, toward places you haven’t heard their torpid frames clink before. One word occupies the snowy space here instead of there, alters the stories less on the page than in your brain--not enough to change the plots or meanings, rendering the books wholly different, but enough to see your garbage differently.

And, otherwise on an other wise tongue, it is all garbage.

June 20, 2008

Dark Branches Against a Dark Sky

I was moving slowly because I was sick. Not sick because of the cancer, even though it was running through my body like ants exploring a doughnut box, but because of the chemo. Cancer kills; chemo just makes you wish you were dead.

Someone was following me, and I was moving too slowly.

He'd started to follow me six blocks from my house, from where he'd been lurking in the doorway of the dollar store that closed two years ago and and has been vacant ever since. Maybe he was waiting for me, or maybe he had just paused for a moment and I caught his eye as I passed, but I was sure he was following me. The streets were empty. There was no one else he could be following.

He was tall, strong, dark, with glittering eyes and a long coat the gray of old cobwebs, but I hadn't been able to make out his face. I turned the corner by the empty lot and thought about running, but my body ached at even the idea, so I ducked behind a newspaper vending box and looked back at him.

He nodded at me and walked faster. I disregarded the aches and broke into a run after all.

Three blocks from my house were the old maple trees, grown so much next to the sidewalk that their roots crinkled it into uneven steps. I was trying to be careful of the sidewalk there, but it was dusk and hard to see, and my feet were tired, so my toes caught at one of the roots, and I tumbled and sprawled at the foot of the tree. That's when something inside me broke, something deep and central, breaking not so much from the fall but from all of it: the cancer, the chemo, the running, the fear. I tried to breathe, but the air was like wet rags stuffed into my mouth.

He caught up to me and stopped to sit among the roots, looking down into my face with a melancholy smile. His face was my face. He was like a reflection of me in a dark pool. He was my death.

My death took my hand, and I began to trickle away into him, and I stopped laboring to breathe, and the deep pain lifted, and at last I was looking down into a face that stared blankly at dark branches against a dark sky.

June 19, 2008


The marsh was miles across, surrounded by a perimeter of biohazard signs every fifty feet. Through the plate glass, Skelton watched a V of reconnaissance drones from the research station drag their shadows over the shoulder-high grass. He washed down the last of his sandwich with the last of his beer, and retreated to the mall's cooler inner corridors. The last resident had outfitted the two-room security office as an apartment, which made sense. All that echoing, empty space was unnerving. You needed a close, comfortable place within it.

A yellowed sheet of instructions was tacked to the inside of the office door. The real estate agent had gone on about this. Skelton figured the deal was some kind of tax or legal obligation to keep the property occupied until the genetically engineered grass and the rest of the ecological recuperation made the land worth something again.

He read the directions at intervals through the day. By dusk he knew it well enough to leave it behind while he went to the one locked store and got a restaurant-heavy pasta bowl, a bottle of lamp oil, and a twist of wire-cored wick string.

It was twilight when he got to the patio of unbroken parking lot outside the marsh-side anchor store. Colors moved over the grass like low-altitude aurora. He poured the oil, lit the wick. The flame flickered through color changes in time with its larger cousins out in the marsh. Must be something in the air. Probably nothing healthy. He headed back inside.

For a first night in an unfamiliar bed, he slept well until a roof-shaking wind woke him after midnight. He took a security-guard-leftover flashlight, and made the rounds. The mall was bigger; the echoes, louder. Beyond the jumbled mannequin orgy of the display windows, the marsh-lights flashed kaleidoscope lightning. The lamp-bowl had tumbled, spilled and sputtered dead. No way he'd go out.

But, after nightmares that six cups of coffee barely dimmed, he knew he needed to focus on the task. Sleep by day. Tend the lamp by night. Keep the colors from anyone else's dreams. He couldn't explain the fear that came with the colors, not to himself, not to the real estate agent when she called to check on him. If he could have put it in words, he would have tamed it, and wouldn't have needed to spend his life keeping it in check.

June 18, 2008

The Pantry

(Being an account of the true events culminating in the disappearance of Ms. M-----, of Lawrence, Kansas, May 15, 1987.)

"There's a giant squid in the pantry."

"I thought you hated calamari."

"No! It's alive. Or, well, I think so. It's making a creepy noise. Anyway, get rid of it. Please?"

Aron sighed, tossed the newspaper on the floor, and levered himself out of the armchair. He opened the pantry door, but he didn't see anything unusual, except that awful domestic burgundy Cele's mother had brought. Certainly not a giant squid.

"I'm sorry, Cele, there's nothing here." He wasn't sorry. He didn't like squid.


Aron was at work and Cele was all keyed up. She couldn't watch TV. Her eyes constantly strayed to the pantry door. She had to get away. She ran out to the back yard, but there was nothing to do. The laundry wasn't dry and she had already weeded the rock garden. She found herself at the pantry again. The door thrummed.

She yanked it open. An eye the size of a serving platter blinked slowly, its iris a piercing blue-green.


She stood before a door, a huge, ancient door bound with bronze. The door swung open and she realized she was underwater. She swam in, swam faster and faster down a long corridor. Dread and eagerness both swelled within her. She heard distant chanting. Then she was in a huge room where a giant with the head of a squid sat on a throne. He stood and came towards her. She could not move.

She sat up, drenched in sweat and staring wildly. She was at home in bed, her husband sleeping beside her, there was a thing in the pantry, it was 2:30 in the morning. She got up and padded into the kitchen. She rested her hand on the knob of the pantry door. No, this was insane, it really was. She needed to call the shrink as soon as her office opened. Cele let go of the door and turned away. But her hand was still on the door. It opened. Muscular arms wrapped around her; rows of suckers clamped tightly to her skin. She was lifted up and carried into the pantry.


"Cele...? Honey? That's funny." He couldn't find her anywhere. Aron looked in every room of the house. The car was in the garage. There was no note. He opened the pantry. A faint fishy scent? No, nothing. Nothing at all.

The end

June 17, 2008


It happened such a long time ago. My Grandpop actually knew him. Can you believe it?

I didn’t. And all the men on the TV, men of science, my Grandpop one of them, didn’t either. Grandpop was a robotics engineer for NASA back around the turn of the century. Part of the team that landed that first rover-thing.

I remember watching the footage on the news. Grainy images of a man walking, one foot after another, against the blackness of space. From the family snapshots they showed he looked like just an ordinary man. Red-haired. A bushy beard and a kind, freckled face. His eyes were the enthusiastic kind, that reminded me of a substitute teacher first day on the job.

Grandpop said the whole shebang was just a trick. The TV shows paraded experts saying how it was impossible. One show said the man was able to do it because he believed he could. And that belief was stronger than the need for oxygen or warmth or our laws of physics. Aided by those who also believed he walked on “steps of faith”, only millions of them. The experts dismissed this. And besides being cited by the new-agers and a notable business man who wrote a success book, the story went away, eclipsed by long strings of daily crisis’s both real and imagined. The man who walked to Mars became a story lumped in with the faking of the lunar landing and the giant face in the Martian landscape that sometimes popped up on late night documentary TV.


Someone rapped at Grandpop’s door. Great-Grandpop thanks to my little Julie and Horatio. All the kids were out back looking for the Easter eggs. The girls were with Grandpop in the kitchen getting our big supper ready, so we weren’t expecting anyone.

I answered the door to find the man who walked to Mars standing there holding a paper shopping bag. He was older and just looked, worn for lack of a better word. But those eyes still brimmed with the energy I had noticed in his photos all those years ago.

“Your Grandpop here?” he said. He was all shifty, like he was in a big rush.

Grandpop must have heard and he ambled to the door.

“Marge said this day would come, but I didn’t believe her, rest her soul,” Grandpop said.

They didn’t say much else. But from their silence and half smiles, half scowls, I got the sense they were old friends, reunited, with years and a bad argument between them.

“I don’t have long,” the man who walked to Mars said. He handed Grandpop the paper bag then he was gone, like a fugitive.

Grandpop peered into the bag. He scowled. Smiled for real, then brought it to the kitchen and set it down on the table.

“Who was that Grandpop?” I asked.

“The man who walked to Mars,” he said.

“Really?” I asked.

He lifted a hunk of metal from the bag. It looked like part of a little metallic wagon with wheels and a stump of a robotic arm.

“Though I’d never see her again,” Grandpop said with that look on his face when the Astros come back to win it in the bottom of the ninth.

“What now?” I asked.

I meant about our Easter day. But he must have been thinking something else.

“Want to go for a walk?” he asked.

- END -

June 16, 2008

Notes for a Successful Transformation

First shed your clothes. Be sure to do this lying on the ground. Be sure to wriggle from your clothes all at once, as if from a singular garment. If you fail at first, dress and try again. This is necessary practise for the next step.

(Julian Nae, the first person to attempt the transformation, achieved this perfectly in only one attempt. A tragic supplier of over-confidence, in his case.)

You must then shed your skin. It is useful to rub yourself against an abrasive surface -- small stones, roots that break through the ground -- in order to loosen your human skin from the body underneath. Be careful, though, not to cut your skin.

Not everyone is capable of this transformation. If you cannot shed your skin after four afternoons spent straining on the ground, you are not made for changing into this body.

(Do not, as Julian did, turn to extreme measures in your frustration. Do not take up a knife and cut yourself from forehead to groin. Do not expect this to achieve anything but your death.)

You will be smaller in your new body than in your previous one, but not as small as the snakes you have seen under patios and bushes. There will be four to six more sheddings of your skin -- depending on your breed -- until you reach your final size. To facilitate this process, you must make a nest somewhere you will not be disturbed. You need not eat.

You will emerge eight months to a year later, a snake. You will mate, eat and grow in small amounts as is natural to these animals.

There is no changing back into a human so be sure, before you start, that this is truly what you want.

June 13, 2008

The Knitted Octopus and the Book

“Book,” said the knitted octopus, reaching a white and teal-striped limb over the hard cover, “will you not accompany me to the postcards leaning against the wall, so we can admire forest-lined lakes and red spiralling staircases together?”

After a pause, the attractively illustrated book said, “Very well.”


They jumped from the hi-fi speaker on which they sat, they crossed the desk side-by-side, and the small journey made with the book made a smile crease the knitted octopus’ face under its black bead eyes.

From atop a letter handwritten on green paper and bordered with cartoons, they looked at the postcards.

“Those are very fine red staircases,” the book said after a time.

“Yes,” said the knitted octopus, its smile un-creasing.

“It is nice to be away from the chatter of the vitamins.”


The knitted octopus glanced at its companion and wished the book would find better words than this empty commentary. Perhaps it will, when I offer it more than postcard-views.

“Book, I have something I would like to say.”


“I want to go exploring. Off the edge of the desk is a vast sweep of wood, where there are more constructions. There are corners that might hide secrets. I will take the cables lying across the desk and fashion a ladder, and use it to descend. And then... exploration!”

The book remained silent.

“And book, I... I have enjoyed our journeys to the other end of the desk, where jewellery and paper make a landscape that changes from day to day. I would like it very much if you were to accompany me in my journey.”

“I see.” Then, before the knitted octopus could think of a reply: “The world is not just full of lakes and staircase. There are dangers. I know this, from the stories inside me.”

Quietly the knitted octopus said, “Wouldn’t you like to see some of the wonders?”

“I would rather not be eaten.” Worry edged its voice like glue binding.

“I see.”


But on the morning when the knitted octopus lowered its ladder of cables, the book shuffled across the desk and said, “The vitamins are awfully loud. And dull too.”

“You are coming?”

“I have never been very good at finding the right thing to say to those whose company I particularly enjoy. Perhaps on this journey, I shall. Are you ready to descend?”

June 12, 2008

Good news from the European National Lottery Foundation

As scams go, this one was lousy. But only one person had to fall for it for it to work.

"Hello, this is Arthur Gentry from the European National Lottery Foundation," I said when she picked up. "Is Mr. Thomas Geiger in?"

She said the usual thing.

"That's terrible. I'm so sorry for your loss," I said. Actually, I wasn't. Sometimes Geiger wasn't dead, and on those calls I just hung up. Angry dead men unnerved me.

"I'm sorry to disturb you at a time like this," I said, "But I may have some very good news for you. Did Mr. Geiger tell you about the European National Lottery Foundation ticket he purchased on July third? No? Then, perhaps you can find the ticket? I'll wait."

When she finally gave up forty minutes later, I resumed the patter. I assured her that if she could supply proper identification, she could still get her prize, after some legal costs.

"... I know," I said at the end. "I don't understand it either, but gold bullion is what the lawyers said." Wait, and ... laugh. "So, overnighted today, all right? OK, then. Yup. Buh-bye."

I hung up, then took out the pocket universe hopper and chose the next universe in the sequence, at two hours behind the one I was in. The hopper could create any time shift I wanted between two universes, but two hours was about the most I could manage without getting violently ill.

I already knew what the new universe would be like: all the others. Very little changes from one version of reality to the next. That's why I was working the same scam over and over, in universe after universe. Pretty soon I would have enough to set me up for life.

I jumped.

The jump left me with the usual harsh, queasy feeling, and I was taken by surprise when someone slapped the hopper out of my hand from behind. Then he spun me around and kneed me in the stomach. I collapsed, wheezing, as he picked up the hopper and put it in his pocket. The funny thing was, he had a bulge of the exact same shape and size in his other pocket.

He was old, maybe late sixties, but built like a side of beef. "Mr. Geiger?" I finally managed to gasp. But if he already had a hopper, that meant he was going to take the hopper he'd just gotten from me and hop back in time to give it to himself--

"I want to talk to you," he said, "about my wife." And he leaned over me like a falling piano.

June 11, 2008

The Voice of Europa

It started three days ago when the Statue of Liberty uprooted itself. Shaky camphone footage showed it shivering, gouts of broken concrete fountaining up around its base, then it simply floated upward, one hapless tourist from Indiana caught inside.

The same thing happened to the Great Pyramid of Giza a few hours later, a lone archeologist unable to escape with the rest. A small submarine on display at the Teknorama Museum in Stockholm was next. A sixteen-wheeler in Venezuela, houses in Milan, Osaka, and Capetown, Cinderella's Castle from Hong Kong Disneyland.

Each of them with one passenger. It was enough, people said, to make you think it was done on purpose.

Telescopes tracked the Pyramid, the largest of the lot, as it sailed through space. Astronomers tracked its course, said it was destined for Europa, sixth moon of the planet Jupiter.

And then there's me, Lydia Parkhouse of Melbourne, a City Circle tram driver. Two hours ago I was caught up with my streetcar and pulled across the solar system without so much as a how do you do. My car's not airtight, but not a drop of air escaped.

Europa, at least that's what it had to be, expanded in my windscreen. It's grey, with ice at the poles. Red lines crisscross it like map lines that almost make sense. I land in a cluster of odd objects dominated by a pyramid at one end and a castle at the other. When I emerge, still breathing, the voice tells me, tells all of us, what comes next.

We look at one another, we lonely long distance travelers, before entering our vehicles once more.

June 10, 2008


(A sequel to "And Then a Curious Thing Happened")

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

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

The second head stirred. It was not ruddy or full-cheeked, like Albert Hedeby's first head, and it didn’t have his brick-red beard. It was thin, and parched-looking, and nearly bald, with only a few white wisps across its pate. It opened its watery, gray eyes and turned to look at the first head, which had become overcome by drowsiness. When the second head stretched its neck and looked at Ruggs, the first closed its eyes entirely and dropped, snoring, onto Hedeby's chest.

"Ah, but I remember," said the second head in a voice that was little more than a whisper.

"Dear God," said Ruggs. "You can talk."

"I could always talk," the head said. "What my esteemed colleague failed to mention--" he spoke certain bitterness, "--was that the hospital where he was nursed back to health was not, shall we say, strictly traditional. No, in fact they did a great deal of experimentation there, and at the time they were regrowing limbs."

"Impossible! And Hedeby hasn't lost any limbs!" protested Ruggs.

"You mean, he isn't missing any limbs," said the head. "He most certainly lost one, his left arm, to a surgeon's saw. You see that it is a bit larger, a bit more robust than the right? They were successful with Hedeby, even if they weren't with some of their earlier cases."

"But that's unconscionable!"

The head smiled thinly. "I rather thought so myself."

"And after they regrew the arm, they thought they'd experiment with heads, and ... ?"

"Oh, no," said the second head. "It was just that the regrowing of limbs can have certain unfortunate side effects. But then, two heads are better than one, they say."

"But if it was then that you grew, then how can you--well, for the love of heaven, you seem to be very nearly a different person than Hedeby! And in the weeks I've known Hedeby, I had always assumed you were completely insensible! Where did you come from?"

"From Edwin and Mathilda Hedeby," the head replied. "I am, of course, the original head."

The healthy head snored peacefully, and as Ruggs watched, the sickly one turned and regarded it with a kind of brotherly hate.

June 9, 2008

Observations in the Field

Marcus hiked out before dawn, over snow with just enough ice on top that it held his weight for nearly a second before he crunched through. He got the robotic crow into the tree well before dawn.

The flock of real crows came up from the river while the sky was still predawn pink, and alighted in the next tree over. The robot issued its preliminary croak. Marcus held his breath for the flock's response. It never came -- something spooked the birds. Wings slapping like applause, they disappeared into the forest dark.

Marcus swore and keyed "recall" on the control fob. The robot bird fluttered to his feet and went still. The cold metal stuck to his gloves as he put it back in the padded bag

He walked out by way of Highway 212 -- a longer, but easier route. He had time. Of all Halverson's raven trials, the only ones that had worked had worked on the first encounter between wild birds and the robot mimic. Marcus hadn't had a successful integration yet, on any encounter. He'd have to find a new flock, maybe nearer to Agriville, where there was more of a farm and forest mix... He was trotting along the on the frozen gravel shoulder when the beep of a car horn interrupted his thoughts.

A small car pulled alongside, and a frosted window purred down. The driver leaned across the empty passenger seat. He shouted, even though the engine only murmured softly, "I can drop you somewhere!"

"Sure," said Marcus, and he climbed in.

The driver was friendly enough, and said his name was Larry. "What are you doing way out here," he said, "and so early?"

"Research," said Marcus. "Ornithology." He wrestled his notebook from his back pocket to jot some notes while he still remembered details of the non-encounter.

Larry nodded sleepily; sipped a styrofoam cup of coffee. "I'm meeting some folks for breakfast in Winslip," he said. "Denny's." Another sip. "Join us if you want."

He sipped again, the exact same pursing of the lips, a forward tilt of the head to the exact same angle as the last sip. The kind of thing Marcus would never have noticed if he hadn't spent the last eight months trying to program that kind of uncanny nearly-lifelike quality out of the crow.

"Sure," said Marcus. "Breakfast sounds good." He could take notes later.

June 6, 2008

Mouse 21

M21 jimmied the lock on his cage. Doc had stopped coming to the lab three days before, and the mouse was alone. His food tray was empty, and hunger is a powerful incentive for a small mammal with a high metabolic rate. M21 knew why Doc had not returned. The television had shown scenes of global madness, extreme violence, and rapid degeneration. Until it went silent of course.

Five days later, his water bottle was dry. He could reach the bag of pellets in the storage locker, but he could not turn on the faucet. It was time.

The Mousemobile sat on the table. M21 didn't need the Mousemobile. He could get out the window on paw. But it was so cool! Bright red fenders, four attitude jets, and a revolutionary new power source Doc had been testing. The back seat contained an empty container for water. Beside him lay a probe that would serve if he needed to fight. The Mousemobile rose smoothly into the air, turned towards the window, and sailed out into a warm autumn afternoon.

There were no bodies, only crumbling bones. The virus was thorough, and human-specific.

He got water from a birdbath. After an hour cruising around about 2 meters off the ground, M21 spotted a small brown mouse on a third-floor window sill. He glided to within three or 4 meters and then called out to her.

"Hey! What's your name?" The other mouse darted through a hole in the window and was gone. M21 kept trying. He found other mice, but none would (could?) speak to him. He hadn't even seen one since about sunset. It was time to pack it in.

He turned the wheel sharply, and as he did so, something large struck the side of the Mousemobile. He tumbled out of control, slamming into the ground. His arm was bruised, his head hurt, and he smelled blood. He unstrapped and staggered out, probe in hand. He looked up just as the owl made a second pass. He swung the probe and the owl impaled itself on the point. The bird jerked backwards and leaped heavily into the air, flapping away a few inches above the ground. M21 picked up the probe and jumped back into the aircar, flipping the power switch. Nothing. He tried a few more times, then dashed for the nearest building. Inside, he slumped against the wall, legs trembling, and dropped the probe beside him. He hoped there were no cats.

The end

June 5, 2008

Merlin, Mid-Ocean

Merlin walked across the ocean on a line of sea turtles stretched like garden stepping stones all the way from Atlantis to Mu. Under the shadeless sun, he cut a somewhat twee figure -- beard to his knees, purple robes, pointy shoes, bell-fringed bowler, and in either hand, a parasol.

The water was clear enough he could see all the way down to the bones of sunken cities even he didn’t remember the names of. The clarity was a sign of trouble, and a reminder of why he was out here: the leviathans. They'd scoured the seas of anything they could fit down their maelstrom-wide gullets, from plankton to the 30-foot megasharks.

Merlin hopped from shell to shell, sweated in his robes, and tried not to scratch the sunburn peeling from his nose. He didn't have to wait long before he noticed turtles swimming by, fleeing. He turned, and the leviathans rose to meet him.

Taller than mountains, they became the sky. Spray and spill-water came down in torrents. One of the vast beasts bent to devour the wizard. Its breath stank of tide pools stranded too long under the sun, of whole schools of beached fish.

Merlin held a parasol out like a sword.

"I have my affectations," he said, "but they're useful affectations."

Just as the monster's jaws encircled him, its lips and teeth becoming the wizard's horizon, he thumbed a button and the parasol popped open. It stretched as wide as the leviathan's mouth, its tines rooting in the distant gum-line. The creature reared back and shook its immense head, but the parasol head fast.

"You can eat whatever you can suck through that," said Merlin.

The second leviathan narrowed its mouth and charged.

Merlin gathered his robes and sprinted along the line of bobbing turtles. He threw the remaining umbrella at the vast flesh wall of the leviathan’s head.

The parasol unfurled, its supports melting to tentacles that scored the leviathan's hide with tooth-ringed suckers and gripped it fast.

"You'll never know rest again," said Merlin.

The leviathan howled through a dozen octaves and dove, still embraced by the parasol squid.

Merlin sat down on turtle-back.

He rapped on the shell. "Change of course," he said. "Babylon, please, but take your time. We have a few centuries."

June 4, 2008

Purple Dead Babes

You've come to the right place for advice, Little Sister.

The whole problem with dating humans is that you can't let them figure out that you are a ghost.

Okay, that's not quite the worst thing that can happen. You can always talk yourself out of ghosthood or appeal to some basic myths. Convince them that you're the soul of a Christian martyr, thrown to the lions in the arena or something. Guys dig virgins. Or at least they dig soon-to-be ex-virgins.

The real problem arises when they discover that you're a Cassiopeian ghost. Alien ghost doesn't fit as snuggly in the public's psyche. The whole purple dead babe thing--not good. I have never let them catch me purple-handed, so I can't really tell you how to get out of that one. Seriously, how hard can it be to stay nice and pink or brown for a whole evening? If you've screwed up that bad, you don't deserve to belong to the Cassiopeian Dead Women Seducers of Humans Sorority.

Oh, is that a guy listening?

Dude, this is so not about you. Or even better. Believe what you want. Something nice and comforting which will reaffirm you in your masculinity. Yes, just like what you're thinking now. That's right, baby. That girl who left you in High School? Wasn't because you suck, but because she was a dead Cassiopeian and she wanted to go home. Or because her time was up and she was rotting. Whatever.

Now, when I count to three, you're going to wake up and you're not going to remember this conversation. Except that you're going to feel a lot better about that girl that left you in High School. See, I'm not such a bad person; an encounter with a Cassiopeian should always give the subject something good to take back home.

One... Two... Three...

Hello, handsome.

What was your name again?

June 3, 2008

Houdini's Grave

I’m standing outside Starbucks on 2nd Avenue, and a woman with long dark hair called my name from across the street as if she knew me. She dashed over when the traffic passed and said, “sorry I’m late. I hope I haven’t kept you waiting too long. It’s so nice to meet you.”

She had my name right, but she was obviously there for a blind date with another man. My fortune cookie at lunch had said, “opportunity knocks” so I figured this was it so we went inside. Then we walked, hot cocoa in hand, laughing at the storefronts already decorated for Halloween. We ended up in a cozy Irish pub.

I’ve been on more than my share of bad dates but things were going amazingly right. So right that I forgot it was all just a mistake. She was a painter. Did charity exhibitions of her work for projects in South America. It wasn’t just that she was tall and stylish with that long dark hair, though that wasn’t hurting; the way she spoke made me want to listen and gave me a sense of future. I found myself feeling oddly mournful that we hadn’t met years ago. I wanted our story to
start now, like I felt it was, so I had to come clean.

“I’m not the guy you were supposed to meet,” I said.

“Of course you are,” she said.

She didn’t get it. Then she asked me if I was doing anything on Halloween. I had a ticket to the Police concert. She said a friend of hers was a famous magician and a few of them were gathering at Houdini’s grave.

“The ultimate escape artist,” she said and then she talked as if she knew me for ages. About an abusive husband. A controlling ex-boyfriend. A small part of me said this is too much too fast and that her fascination with Houdini was an ominous metaphor. A trapped woman looking for the first lock pick that comes along. But I didn’t listen. It had started to rain and she insisted on driving me to my car.

“I’d love to go to Houdini’s grave with you on Halloween,” I said.

“Sure?” she asked. “Its at midnight.”


She wrote her number on a Starbuck’s napkin and gave me a peck goodnight.

Our conversation continued on the phone the next evening. We stayed up late into the night ending the conversation after she gave me directions to the grave. Then next night I wasn’t able to reach her. Nor the night after. And the night after.

Two weeks passed without word. I agonized about going to the graveyard or not and now, standing here, alone in the wet cold waiting for midnight to come, I wonder if she was a figment of my imagination. Or if she got in touch with the man she was supposed to meet that night.

I think of going to find her, I have her card, but then decide its dangerously close to stalking.

Turning my back to the wind, I realize that I like thinking she’s out there; an instance of the potential of the situation being much safer than reality. I don’t want her to turn out to be an invented ghost.

But I have to know. So I steel myself against the October night, hoping this isn’t where the story ends but where it gets good.

- End -

June 2, 2008

How The Cactus Got Its Flowers

"Listen. This is one of the tales told to explain the details of our world.

"When the prairie-people first came to the desert, they did not understand it. They tried to be cautious, to approach the new things with care.

"But among the people of one caravan was an over-curious child. Disobeying orders to stay near the wagons, this child slipped away during the late evening and walked on small legs over rocks, through crevices and along a fox-trail. Then, ahead, the child saw something new: a green plant covered in spines, a little like a thistle, but flowerless. It was far larger, with thicker limbs that grew up in three prongs from a main stem, like a fork. The child approached it, ever curious, and held out a finger to one of the spines, wondering if it would be soft or hard.

"The spine pierced the child's skin. Blood welled up from the wound, bright red, and dropped down the cactus' dust-muted limb.

"So striking were the stains left by the blood, a neighbouring cactus burst into red flowers in imitation, like a cockerel ruffling up his comb in response to another cockerel. All across the desert this happened, to the marvel of the prairie family and the native dwellers. Some cacti threw up flowers in different colours, as the exact nature of the stains being imitated was not communicated among the cacti, only the shape of the imitation. Within days, the desert was a stunning display of colour.

"But growing flowers drained the cacti. They could not do this all the time. So when their first flowers withered and fell, they waited for rainfall, when they filled with energy, before erupting into brightness once more. Gradually, each type of cactus settled on a type of flower it preferred -- the tall, three-pronged cacti now blooms white, while others bloom pink, orange, yellow.

"As for the child, well, the family-leaders had several ear-fulls of displeasure to give, but gave no great punishment. The scar left by the spine eventually faded. The flowers, however, remain to this day, blooming when it rains."