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January 30, 2009

One Day in Bali

The book was tiny. It had arrived that morning without a return address, in a padded envelope with Thai stamps. I knew of no one who might have sent it. The book itself revealed no author or title; on its cover were delicate interlinked gears, each labeled with both a number and a sigil, connected to a small clasp that held the book closed.

I first tried to turn each gear in numerical order; attempting a reverse order proved equally unsuccessful. As did beginning in the middle and working either up or down. I looked to the runes for a clue on how to proceed, but could discern no pattern. Then it struck me: whoever had sent this book obviously knew who I was, possibly intimately. I rotated the gears clockwise, corresponding to the digits of my birth date and time, two each for the month, day, year, hour, and minute. A low electric hum vibrated through the mechanism, and the clasp popped open.

The title page simply read: The Happiest Day of Your Life. The story within detailed the vacation I'd taken to Bali with my wife six years earlier, accurate down to the clothes we wore, the tourist spots we visited, the locals with whom we interacted, and the food that we were eating the night that I proposed. In light of the years of marriage that had followed -- years full of both laughter and sharp words, love and resentment, deep passion and inadvertent cruelty -- I wondered: had that really been the happiest day? I'd gotten food poisoning the day after, but that evening, we sat in candlelight and moonlight, served Balinese cuisine by waitresses who seemed to float above the floor, entertained by Balinese dancers precise in their movements, and the whole experience had been quite wonderful, possibly transcendent. Would I never live through something so remarkable again?

Finished, I closed the book, and the clasp snapped shut. Attempts to open it again via the gears failed, and so I put the book aside, and joined my wife in bed. The next morning, I could not find it no matter where I looked, and after an hour of searching, realized I never would. The strange gift was, I assumed, on to the next person, and then the next, bringing truth in all its terrible wonder.

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January 29, 2009

The Gun Overheats

It's Friday, and something's gone awry again, preventing you from seeing the cool story Mr. Lundberg has prepared for you. Please bear with us while we attempt to exorcise whatever computerological demons are afflicting us on a weekly basis.

Day 1724

The Gun overheats in the sun. Not fired once and still it overheats.
Beyond the city, the salt plains shimmer.
Maintenance comes and re-wires the coolant systems. Bart pisses himself when the plasma system creaks and they all run screaming. It's been doing that since the third summer of the siege.

Day 1745

“They're not coming,” Bart says.
We do this about once a month. “If They weren't coming, we wouldn't be here,” I say. I go through the motions. There's piss all else to do.

Day 1756

Battery 87 explodes today. I think this is it; it's on at last. I jump into the seat, start the engines. Then we get the stand down order. Just a malfunction. Coolant failure.

Day 1764

Water rations cut again. Bart's pissed. He says we're the military. We should get concessions. I pray They come today, that They end this siege.
But They don't come.

Day 1787

Officer inspection today. Bart gets it for the state of his uniform. I've been warning him for two weeks. Water rations aren't treating him well. It's tough for those with kids in the city. I get that. But we've still got to show we're better than Them.

Day 1796

“They're not coming.”
“If They weren't coming, we wouldn't be here.”
“You're not listening to me!” Bart is close enough for me to smell his breath, sour and thick. “I mean, have you ever even seen Them? All I ever see through this scope is dust, and dirt, and salt. All I ever see is the barrel of this gun pointing at empty ground. I never even targeted a bird. Because They ain't coming!”

Day 1797

Bart's not here today.

Day 1798

I hear in the barracks--Bart's been caught trying to cut the cooling systems. Bart's working for Them, officer's say. Bart's to be shot at noon.
I sit by the Gun and strain my ears. I think I hear the first shots I've heard this whole war.

Day 1799

Bart was right. They're not coming.
It's hot today. I'm overheating. I unbutton my shirt. I look through the scopes. I see the dirt, see the dust, see the salt. And then I see a bird, its wing broken, scuffing on the floor.
I keep the sights on that bird, lying there, waiting to die. I open fire.

January 28, 2009


You are standing at an existential crossroads, a wasteland at your feet and a song on your lips. Overhead, a trio of mechanical vultures have begun circling, and the red dots of their laser-sights are crawling across your bare chest.

To the west runs a dank near-motionless river, and every now and then something thrashes around in the water. The way east is blocked by an endless sense of ennui. South is a burning city, and an ex-wife to whom you owe alimony. To the north stretches an endless desert, with rumours of a herd of undead camels. There is a gleaming muscle-car parked here, but passage to it is blocked by an enormous white bull.

There is a set of tubular bells here, and a three-legged stool. There is a sign on the river bank.

Obvious exits are North, South, and Angst.


It says “Do Not Swim”


Your wife’s divorce lawyer is eyeing you from the city outskirts. Are you sure?


You are carrying:

Divorce Papers
3 Bullets
Your Sense of Self-Respect
Wet Towel
A Mid-Life Crisis
Toasted Cheese Sandwich


The bull paws at the ground and snorts. Are you sure?


I’m sorry, I can’t understand that command.


You hit at the bells. You haven’t been trained in the musical artistry of tubular bells, and the sound seems to anger the bull. You now regret torching the Tubular Bell Academy.


Your pistol is unloaded


You try, only to discover that these are chocolate bullets.


Blocking your passage to the muscle-car is an enormous albino bull. This powerful creature towers over you, with blood-stained horns and a piercing gaze that speaks of great intelligence. It is looking at you expectantly, but warily.


It sniffs at your cheese sandwich with disgust.


You pick up the three-legged stool.


You sit down on the stool and rest.


What are you, some kind of wise guy?


The wet towel has soaked everything in your pack! The papers are ruined.


The towel is now dry, and should be safe to put in your pack.


The bull is satisfied with your offering, and leaps into the river to fight with the unseen water-creature. It’s an epic battle of the titans, and will likely go on for hours.


You open the driver’s door and climb in. It smells good.

The muscle-car roars into life, and the fuel gauge leaps to full. “Born to be Wild” is playing on the stereo.

You floor it.

January 27, 2009

The Tungsten Lama’s Weekly Webinar

Good morning! At least, it is morning where I am. We begin. In last week's lesson we learned that the space-time continuum is shaped like a pretzel, and that we are merely the salty bits. This week we shall consider the secret of reincarnation.

It isn't a secret. Indeed, it's pretty banal; and, like all my other lessons, you can learn it right where you are.

So where are you? Are you in this present earthly life: avoiding working, perhaps; or hoping your baby won't wake before you finish today's lesson; or in a café, trying to remember why you ordered green tea and a pretzel; or in the catacombs, reading this in a text message sent by one of your fellow revolutionaries?

Or are you in the afterlife: reading this in the demon-infested examination room for souls that is the Bardo; or hearing this on the breeze as you sit under an apple tree in the Summer Country; or chancing on this in Hell, for I believe—correct me if I am wrong—that Hell has Internet access these days, though very slow; or in a lecture hall on Purgatory Mount; or listening to shabti-servant read this aloud in the Duat as you help Amen-Ra dress for dinner?

In all these places the secret is close at hand. For the secret, my dear students, is:—boredom.

Yes, boredom! For when the day comes that you are sick of apples in the Summer Country, or tired of Amen-Ra’s diva hissy fits, or you decide you're not going to let one more demon roast your privates, on that day you will start searching for the backdoor to the afterlife. You will find it. You will step through that door and go into a womb.

So. If you are in this present earthly life, where you occasionally order the wrong thing, the chances are that you have a soul that thirsts to know more than the taste of paradise or the suffering of hell—a soul that is easily bored.

All the souls around you long for more, too.

So chew on that along with your apple or your Purga-Pretzel (I understand that in Purgatory, all pretzels are rubbery). Let me know what you think, for I too am longing. Thank you for the honor of teaching you, and I hope to see you next week.

January 26, 2009


I don’t sleep well. Breathstealer comes at night when the line between what is and what was is weakest.

At first she came to me as a shadowy black cat, waking me in the night, her jaguar weight on my belly, paws on my shoulders immobilizing me. I thought she was an ancient curse I picked up in the deep of the rainforest; a manifestation of a vengeful spirit brought home from a jungle-covered pyramid on one of my long journeys of “self-discovery”. Surely she was vengeance incarnate, here because of the sins of my youth, my arrogance and ignorance rivaling that of the conquistadors, a trail of emotional destruction left in the lives I touched. I often woke with breathstealer pinning me and I was filled of thoughts of my past transgressions, lovers’ quarrels risen to screaming matches, low-blow words gone devastatingly too far, the seething yet resigned look on my true love’s, my last love’s face as she left me on the side of road in middle of the night. I felt my air, my life, leaving along with all these things.

Later on I thought breathstealer was a blessing, some angelic incarnation here to reward me for all the pain I’ve felt. I often woke to find an ethereal woman, in diaphanous white, hovering near me, misty, gentle hands caressing me with a lover’s grace. Thoughts things long gone, the secret things the little moments I shared with ex-lovers and ex-friends filled me. In the last note my true-love, my last love wrote me she asked, where do all the good things go now, where do I put them? I ask breathstealer this now. She only kisses me and I feel my air, my life, leaving along with all these things.

My doctor told me I will die if I don’t do something. Not enough oxygen when I sleep. A condition called hyper-this and toxic-that. I only know sleep is troubled. Breathstealer comes to me now in a form I know well. I wake in the night to find something that looks just like me sitting next to me on the bed. It touches my forehead with the back of its hand and all the details, go till all that is left are congealed notions of moments, of all the days of all the years; a life boiled down to talking points and topic sentences. I know now breathstealer is not curse nor a blessing, and I was born dying, as was each moment that passes.

I sleep better now, still I know breathstealer comes at night, when the line between what is and what will be is shifting.

January 23, 2009

Partial List of the Saved

This is actually a story by Ken Brady. We're having some technical problems with the site that are keeping Ken from posting under his own name, but with any luck, everything will be sorted out over the weekend.

Standing on the foredeck of the Titanic the first thing we notice is how real the wind feels. We walk unnoticed all the way up to the bow railing and spread our arms as if to fly like that meat actor back in the flat days. The days when it only took a few hundred million dollars and a contrived love story to suspend disbelief.

We have greater requirements. When the only reality we have is a construct, we come to rely on the details. Down to the prim, the pixel, the ray. And here, on the deck of one of the most famous disasters in human history, we will make our stand, take our chances, be saved or fade into obscurity, forever lost.

We have been in the Purgatory Hub for six days now, and our cluster will lose its public funding tomorrow. None of us had enough money in life to buy our way into everlasting life, so here we are, in a final act of desperation.

We know the great ship will strike an iceberg tonight, and we must find new bodies to inhabit before that occurs. We must do or die, as the expression goes. If we don't face death in a body of historical significance, we will simply be deleted. We will not join the other uploads in the Perpetual Cluster, not become part of the global mind, not become part of human history. It will be like each of our two hundred lives never existed.

Choosing another life is difficult. None of us knew in which historical event we would find ourselves, but some of us recall bits of useful data, factoids from history class or pop culture. We are on the upper decks for practical reasons; in first class, we have a better than sixty percent chance to live forever.

We move through the cabins and lounges, each of us choosing a body. We temporarily assume their names and identities, their lives and last hours. Women and children first. The unfortunate among us are left with men. We choose the richest-looking men.

If we are lucky and our assumed names match those on the front page of The New York Times, April 16, 1912, if we are indeed on the partial list of the saved, we will earn a place in history. We will be survivors.

The alternative is not really an alternative at all, but the dark depths of the ocean and the cold embrace of eternity.

History is our only route to the future.

January 22, 2009

I'm Sorry About That Last Letter

I hope you never read that letter I sent before, but if you did I hope your hair grows back and that you get a new dog. It wasn't the direst curse I could've picked, you've gotta see that. There's all kinds of things out there. Anyway, I was just mad because you said all those things, and even if they were pretty true they were mean, and you've got no cause to be mean, but I guess I don't either.

So this one's a blessing, even though I know I can't make up for what I've done and now there can't be no chance at all we'll get back together soon, except you know I still love you even after all both of us've done. OK, what I've done, I guess.

Now, here's your blessing:

May your crops be fruitful (I know you don't have any crops, but I was thinking of that spider plant you keep just barely failing to kill, and anyway this is part of the blessing so I can't take it out), and may wealth make its way to you through secret means, and may your sight be clear (because maybe then you could get rid of those glasses, which make you look stuck-up anyway), and may you always be able to find the one you love.

That scent you smell is the dust I had to buy that goes with the blessing. Everyone out here swears by it, even though I know it smells like dung. It cost me nearly everything I had except the pickup, and you know that piece of crap's gonna fall apart soon anyway. Anyway, it works great and it's going to make sure you get all your blessings.

It was that last item I particularly liked, and I thought maybe sometime after your hair grows back and the blessing's had a while to take hold you might want to find where I am and maybe come back to me. I hope you understand why I can't tell you where I am right now, in case you're mad.

And if all of this is a load of crap like you always said, then you probably have your hair and no harm done, in which case I'm staying with my cousin Jesse, whom you'll remember from that party we had once when he tried to kiss you while he was drunk.


January 21, 2009

Day Street

(From The Knowledge: An A-To-Zed Of That City We Almost Know)

It will probably be dusk by the time you turn onto Day Street. The brick house-fronts will be darkening with approaching evening; between the chimney-stacks, the blue is draining out of the sky. The lawns are converging, with the brickwork and the trees, into a mass of indistinct purplish-gray. Out of that dusk, the legs of lawn furniture gleam fitfully; the white fences holding in the back yards; the curtains in the windows. The pavement, stretching before you down the street and trailing perpendicular paths up to the stoops, luminesces faintly under your feet like a phosphorescent wake.

The air is soft along Day Street. Past your ears float breezes, and the sound of voices talking; not out here, on the sidewalk empty except for one walker, but coming from somewhere very close, just over a white fence, just around the corner.

As you pass the house, a light comes on behind the translucent curtains. There is a movement of shadows in the window; a barely audible clatter of silver, a muted murmur of conversation. Up and down the street, just like in Magritte’s painting The Empire of Lights, the streetlamps are flickering on.

Above the roofline, the chimneys and the satellite dishes have been reduced to silhouettes. Above them, in a band of limpid blue, one bright star is coming out in the west. Very high up, a curve of light has pooled, like a rim of salt along the edge of the world.

A person could stand here for quite some time, looking at the streetlights, the sky. But it is possible that it may be time to lower your eyes, to move on down the street. It is possible that you have someplace you need to be.

The air you move through down Day Street is grey and gentle, cool and faint, suspended between the darkness and day. The pavement is an auroreal glow beneath your feet. In the darkened houses, all down the street, the lights are beginning to come on in the windows. The silver is starting to clink.

In the dew-laden grass, the flowers yawn. The wind is bright and silent: clear, cool, clean-smelling, as the air is just before dawn. Seeping upward from somewhere behind the houses, behind the one bright eastern star, the sky is beginning to turn blue. As you pass beneath them, following the pale line of the madrugal pavement, the long row of streetlamps, one by one, begin to flicker out.

January 20, 2009

The Lord of the Hills

Alan had told the story himself, scared younger kids in the neighborhood when he was growing up.

Toward the crest of the hill, past the last house, a path in the woods: you had to know where it was, especially in the dark. Not the path up to the bald rock hilltop where the high school kids drank, looked down at the lights of Hartford, and smashed bottles.

A path to where ruined cellar walls marked the site of the house, where an old man had lived in the 1800's, dabbled in witchcraft, and spelled himself not into a single bird, but a whole flock. His mind came back together at night, and then not quite enough. You could almost make out the old warlock talking to himself.

Alan hadn't been in these woods in years. Not since dad died and mom moved away. He found what he thought was the path, a trail of matted leaves between the birches and through the raspberry canes thicket.

They said you'd hear secrets, if you came up alone, stayed very quiet. The crows would come, hundreds of them, and cover the tree. In their squawking you could hear voices. If you had questions, you'd hear answers.

The crows did come. Silhouettes against the snow-illuminated clouds, circling away and back. He listened, and, eventually heard. What the birds had seen; what they'd heard. A city day; crumbs of lives.

But not the answers he wanted. Was the first test wrong, or the second? Would the experimental treatment work? How long if it didn't?

He kept listening, his feet soaked with melted snow. Waiting for some fragment of a sign, something he could tell himself was an answer. Nothing.

Nothing but what some he said to some her, what she did, what he thought, what someone else thought they saw, what happened after that. In the early hours, exhausted, shivering, he lost himself in the fragments; all stars and no constellations.

He half-hoped that it would ground him, give him perspective, make the rest easier. But he still had a prescription bottle in his pocket rattling near empty and a day full of appointments.

He hiked out at dawn.

Part of him stayed behind to join the story told and retold by the Lord of the Hills. This still wasn't an answer, but it would continue, as long as there were crows to fly or trees to roost in.

January 19, 2009


In this kingdom, even beggars can become something better.

It is a promise that has led us all to this long line of supplicants, waiting for a hot meal and the opportunity to be chosen. I stand among the stinking hordes, darkly-hooded, hunched, ignored.

A small man walks the line, making a selection. He reaches me; I straighten, pull the hood back a little; my eyes remain shadowed. He picks up the glimmer of skin, full lips, a finely-boned face.

‘You. Follow.’

And I do, passing those envious unchosen, through bronze doors, into the great hall, empty as a skeleton’s ribcage but for the triple throne. The little man leads me to a small dark door. He ushers me through, does not follow. The door closes with the scratching of a key in the lock, and I am alone in a dimly lit room; alone with the Three.

‘Beggar-maid. Now is your chance to become part of us, something new,’ whispers the male. He is well-made, but his skin is puffy. The women are pale, frayed. Obeying the lore, they have not ventured into the sun for a long time. This is no harem; they control him, this whole spectacle was their idea.

Trying to infect themselves with gluttonous feasting on cattle-blooded peasants; committing pointless murders when the only thing that will make them like me is a bloodline, is evolution. It was false piety, foolish games – they didn’t think the Blood Mother would rise. But their prayers woke me and rise I did, painfully, unwillingly. I came.

‘No,’ I say. ‘But it’s your chance to become something other.’

My cloak falls back and my wings shake loose. The Three see the full glory of my face, luminous as the moon and framed by black hair, with white-as-snow fangs, red-as-blood lips. The face painted on temple walls; they’ve seen it so often they’ve forgotten to fear.

‘Stolen blood will not lengthen your lives.’ My shadow grows, engulfs them.

Their blood is flat, diluted. But it is enough after my centuries of sleep.

The little man enters, later; he heard too many screams. He eyes the finely-dressed husks. He is pragmatic, clever, sees an advantage for himself.

‘There will be but one ruler here,’ I tell him.

He nods. ‘Yes, my Queen.’

‘Then bring them to me and choose carefully.’

January 16, 2009

A Reliable Man

I look at the dead man and try to make up my mind. Callie's still at the entrance to the alleyway telling me to get back there, that it's too cold a night to play boy scout, that I'm gonna get myself mugged. She stamps her feet and the echoes play down the walls.

I didn't drink anything tonight. Callie's pregnant. It's getting uncomfortable for her to drive and I'm doing the gentlemanly thing. So I'm sober. My eyes aren't playing tricks.

But the man has... I mean... The man has wings. He's lying face down, his bloody shirt ripped away from the body. I see where the flesh and muscle bind in his back. I reach down and touch them. Those are real feathers. Those are real wings. Real goddamn wings.

People don't have wings.

I mean, Jesus, that's something you can rely on, right? That people don't have wings. That is a fundamental truth. There's not much you can say, I am certain of this, one hundred percent, but that's one: people don't have wings.

Except this guy.

What if I call Callie to come see? What if I call the press? Even if people see this, even if this is real, they won't believe me. Because people don't have wings. Only the crazies, only the guys rejecting their meds and reality will believe me. I'll be crazy.

I stare at the body and try to make up my mind. Callie is shouting at me. Callie's pregnant. We're going to have a little girl.

I keep on staring at the body, ignoring Callie for just a little while. I keep on staring until I can believe the truth again. People don't have wings. And then I walk away.

January 15, 2009

Bed Time

First, you should floss and brush your teeth really well. And wash your face. Here’s your towel. Yes, that looks like the perfect nightgown to wear.

Do your clothes go on the floor? No, I don’t think so; I think they belong in the laundry hamper.

Thank you. Now climb into bed. No bouncing!

Okay, maybe just a little bouncing.

Yes, I like to bounce, too, but I might break the bed.

Okay, I’ll bounce, too, but just a little bit.


I’m sorry about your bed, but isn’t it just as much fun to be in your sleeping bag on the floor? I think so, too.

Stretch out and I’ll pull up the top of it just right. Do your feet go on the pillow? I don’t think so; that’s where your head goes.

Do you want some music like usual? Okay, there you go. Give me a kiss on the cheek, and here’s one for you.

Why yes, the music is very nice. It makes me want to dance.

Let’s dance!

Watch me stomp!


Isn’t our basement nice? It’s a good thing we have all these comfortable boxes down here to land on. Now let’s not bounce any more. Let’s not stomp any more.

It’s time for bed. I’ll turn off the light now.

Wait, did we do everything? Let me think: floss, brush, gown, hamper, bounce, oops, pillow, music, kiss, dance, stomp, oops, light. Yes, I believe we remembered everything.

Of course we remembered everything. Elephants are very good at remembering

Good night, sweetheart.

January 14, 2009

Riding Free at the Bear Lite Bulb

The Zombie Kittenz were playing and Shawana was dying to go. But it was at the BLB, an under-21 show. She couldn't pass any more, not since working as a bud mother. That left two choices, but the one she could afford was hitching a ride in her kid sister's cerebellum.

The worst part was the teen angst. It had been forever since she felt this way. Actually, she had never felt this way. Noemi was a spoiled brat. But the Kittenz were the smog. She had to be there.

At the door they were doing brain scans. Shawana had to mantra. Lucky they didn't notice her; she'd have been evicted on the spot. Inside, Noemi and her age mates formed a teenoma right in front of the stage. Shawana had not expected to be so close. The Kittenz were known for putting on a pretty wild show, but there was nothing she could do about it.

The front band played a lot of AI-synthocrap on flamboyant instruments that were nothing more than glorified MP6 players. Finally, the lights went low. Foreboding music throbbed in her borrowed bowels. The sound quickly rose to a shriek as the Kittenz leapt onto the stage. Their performance went far beyond audiovisual. They were using gravity waves. They were beaming coded sequences directly into the audience. Tygger stopped right in front of Noemi and her friends and leaned so close it was clear her costume was painted on. "No free rides," she snarled. She pointed a REM gun directly at Noemi/Shawana and fired. Everything disappeared.

Don't panic, Shawana thought, and tried to remember the drill. She repeated her emergency mantra, and wondered when Noemi would notice she was gone. She tried to scream, but nothing happened. She desperately sought something, anything she could latch on to. There it was! Somehow, she had found Noemi again. Or, maybe her own body. It didn't matter. She dove for it, slamming into the cerebrum like a ball into a glove. It was such a relief to be corporeal again. She opened her eyes.

She stood, nude, in a transparent fluid-filled cylinder. She'd heard about this room, but never seen it before. She was in a clone body, and at least 20 other body tubes were occupied. Damn! She hoped the show would end soon. And that she could talk her way out of the fine. She slammed her fist against the wall of the tube.

The end

January 12, 2009

Notes for a Film Review

There's still a little behind-the-scenes turbulence here at the cabal in the aftermath of a server migration. (Which would be why you're seeing Alex's story for a second day.) Please bear with us for another day or two while thing settle down.

I’ve heard so many comments about The Glass Flames in past months, all opinion without substance: “so strange, so sexy, you must see it.” But my curiosity eventually sent me to the marketplaces where homemade films are sold on DVDs with purple backs.

The opening scene is of a prostitute lying on her back, wearing only jewellery. The camera is from the viewpoint of the person having sex with her, who must be crouching. This continues long enough for me to notice small, red and orange pieces of glass tied into her black hair. The glass flames of the title? And there is a word tangled in jewels around her throat.

After she has come, the scene changes: a drabby block of flats with the title painted on the side. ‘this is a true story’ appears in small letters under the title. (I love fake true stories.)

More instances of the word. I still can’t read it.

The story unfolds: a break-up, a mutual turn to prostitutes, except it’s always the same one. When the girl visits her, they use a two-way glass dildo with small, smooth-tipped flames sculpted up its sides.

Why this repetition of images? A pretence at heat? Hot and fragile at once?

Halfway through the film, I’m thinking that the quality of the film-work speaks of webcams and cameras fastened to necklaces: low quality visuals, shaky camera movements, poor focus. And the dialogue ranges from brilliant to the banality of everyday life.

“I like fire,” she says during one sex scene, and it must be a trick of light but it looks like there’s a brief flame in her hair.

No wonder so many people watch this film: it’s half sex.

Near the ending. She’s masturbating to a camera (on a shelf?). Someone bangs on the door, over and over, shouts in a foreign language. She looks frightened.

She takes the glass flames from her hair and arranges them in a circle around her bed. They turn into fire. (This bit can’t be real.)

“My name is,” she whispers to the camera, and the repeated word comes into focus when spoken: a strange mess of sounds, ‘cz’ and ‘kh’ and ‘fl’, and I can’t say it properly.

She smiles as the flames burn brighter, higher, consuming her bed. Shouts, “I’m running away!”

The final scene: a fireman enters the room and finds no body, only the glass flames and a glass woman-shape, completely hollow.

During the credits, there are photographs: the flames on sale in a charity shop, the hollow woman-shape on display in a gallery, an orange-winged bird perched on a wall. (The bird, like the glass turned to flame, is a marvellous piece of visual fakery, made to seem more real by the lack of CGI/illusion elsewhere in the film.)

January 9, 2009

We're Sorry

Unfortunately, this story is unavailable. If it were available, my best guess is that it would go something like this:

There would be a main character of some kind, trapped in a box about the size of a dishwasher. There would also be an explanation of how this had happened, and maybe some hope that he would get out--but he wouldn't get out, at least not in the story.

There would be some sort of conversation with a person sitting on the box. The odd thing is that I think the main character would be a close friend of the person sitting on the box, but the person sitting on the box wouldn't let him out. I don't know why. I don't think, in the story, that he would want to be in the box, but I might be wrong.

From there, I'm not sure. It's possible that he's a magician who is supposed to do an escape, but who fails. Or possibly he's being shipped somewhere. Or he might be some kind of yogi, meditating. Actually, I just don't know: really I'm grasping at straws now.

There would be all kinds of lush description, and while there would only be seven lines of dialog, those seven lines would be exquisitely funny. There would be some kind of pun involving a llama, but it would be a good one, not one of the old, tired ones.

And the thing that would be most striking is that by the end of the story, we wouldn't mind that he was in the box, and neither would he. He would be happy. His friend would go away, but that would be all right. And though there would be no one there, the last thing he would say in the story would be


January 8, 2009

Shiny Sky Spirit

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In Winter, a bright light was seen to travel the heavens from west to east. It came to earth near River-Runs-Each-Spring. The People went there and found a tall silvery house in a broad area of blackened ground, surrounded by melting snow.

"What is it?" asked Muskrat, twitching his snout.

"It is the House of a God," Duck answered, and ruffled his feathers. Just then, the House opened and Someone stepped forth.

"And Who is that?" Antelope breathed, her hooves moving softly.

"That is Shiny Sky Spirit," Heron clacked, and so it was.


Duck went to Muskrat. "Shiny Sky Spirit demands tribute."

"What must we give?"

"Ore. Great quantities of ore."

And so the villagers brought ore to the tall House on the plain.

Next, Shiny Sky Spirit demanded that the ore be refined, and the metals separated, one from the other. This, too, was done, after a long and troublesome time. Shiny Sky Spirit, who had taken to striding about, shouting in a deafening voice, finally brought the spring rains. There was great celebration among the People, and thanks were given to Shiny Sky Spirit for his mercy and generosity. After the celebration, the full Moon shone down, bathing the village in Her cool radiance. Shiny Sky Spirit came to Heron where she stood on the bank of the river. Shiny Sky Spirit covered Heron, and afterward returned to His House.

Shiny Sky Spirit caused to be erected around His House a magical palisade, and he remained within it for several weeks. During that time loud and harsh noises were heard from within the palisade. After a time all became quiet. The next night the ground trembled, and a bright light ascended from within the palisade. In the morning, the People approached the palisade gate. They called, but received no answer. Finally, Duck flew up and looked over the top of the palisade. The interior was a flat expanse of black and smoking soil. Shiny Sky Spirit had returned to the sky.

A few weeks later, Heron laid two marvelous eggs. One was as reflective as a clear, still pool. The other swirled with all the colors of Rainbow. The eggs nestled in Heron's nest, and she sat upon them, so they would quicken. The People waited patiently to see what would hatch out.

The end

January 7, 2009

It's the Beer Talking

Here's a quick message from cabal central: we'll be undergoing some site maintenance this weekend, so the site may be down for some or all of the period from Friday to early next week. Thanks for bearing with us.

And now, on to Ken's story.

Johnny knew it was a bad sign when the jukebot switched to country music without his keying in so much as a chit. It rolled past his table, turned a suspicious cam on him for the briefest moment, then cut off its trance-punk-disco mix in the middle of a three-chord flourish. Did he really look that desperate?

He took another swig of beer when a voice whispered in his head that, yes, he looked like he'd slept in his clothes again, like he'd just been dumped by his longtime GF for a multitude of clichés, like he'd lost his job to a young tool just out of college working for half the salary. All this was true, and that made the bot's choice of Vince Gill whining about his lost lover all the more depressing.

The voice said, “Order another beer,” so he did. The waitbot brought a pitcher.

Halfway through the next beer, she sat down. Retrogal, hair all big and splayed out, just how he liked it. Jeans that looked like they were made from real cotton, so tight they seemed painted on rather than worn. George Jones, long-dead but somehow still relevant, warbled from the bot about Corvettes and two-dollar pistols.

"Hi," she said. The waitbot put a glass in front of her and Johnny filled it. "I just love this beer," she said. "Don't you?"

"Speaks to me," Johnny said. His words were slurred. "Tells me stuff."

She finished half the glass in one go, then nodded like that was the most profound thing anyone had ever said to her. Of course, Johnny reminded himself, this was a bar, and it might well have been.

“Feeling lost,” he said.

“She dumped you, huh?”

“That's not the half of it,” he said. “Wait, how did you...”

“Beer talking,” she said.”

“Oh, yeah,” he said. He tried to say something else, but failed.

"I can help you get it back," she said.

“Get it back?”

“What you lost,” she said.

He thought about that long and hard, as only someone drunk on nano-enhanced beer could do. He thought all the way through Kenny Chesney talking about not knowing what he'd do if he lost it.

She smiled at him and put on some lipstick that glowed like electrified maraschinos.

That settled it. Johnny downed his Nanoweizen, poured another glass from the pitcher, and ordered a round for the house.

Smart beer, dumb retrogal, the promise of redemption. Maybe not a solution, but a damn fine distraction. What the hell.

When “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off” started playing, he knew he'd made the right choice.

He'd take her home, open up a bottle of Patrón, and turn on some rock and roll.

The hangover would be worth it.

January 6, 2009

Haggling in the Wasteland

Sitting in the shade and relative cool of his yurt, the vulture keeper realized he had company. Someone was walking back and forth in the blaze of light and heat outside. The keeper hadn't heard a camel, and anyone crossing the waste on foot--well, they'd be crawling by now, if they were still moving at all. Which left only one possibility.

"If you're here to haunt," said the keeper, "save yourself the aggravation. I've got wards. Ground 'round here's full of quartz, so they'll hold."

"I'm just,” said a voice like a sigh, "here to talk."

"Don't particularly want to talk," said the vulture keeper. He went back to tuning his zither.

"You have something of mine," said the ghost. "Or you will, when your flock returns."

The keeper strummed and made his answer into a little tune. "Whatever they bring back, it's something of mine."

"It's a particularly valuable stone," said the ghost.

The keeper worked a troublesome string. "That's what I deal in: carbuncles (twang), snake stones (twang) -- any brain stone my vultures find (twang) and you wizards will buy." (twa-ng-ng-ng)

"I need you to deliver it to my heir-apprentice," said the ghost, "in the hidden city of Ar-Zellekan."

"I'm semi-retired. Only go as far as the caravanserai. Don't go to cities, even ones I can find." The keeper had tuned the last of the strings. "Give up and move on, little wisp. Like the priests say: rise up as rain and come down again in the Afterworld."

"My enemies will pay the merchants ten times its worth to kill you and take it."

The keeper stopped his strumming. "That seems..." he said, "unnecessarily harsh."

"The stone will bond with you by the time you reach the settlements," said the ghost. "They won't be able to use it with you alive."

"My retirement's getting shorter either way, although...” the keeper reached into his pocket for a zither pick, “this isn't my first retirement.”


The keeper strummed a complicated tune.

"You were a wizard, weren't you?"

"Wizard-king. Nearly wizard-emperor," said the keeper. "Had the skill; lacked the power." He stilled the zither's strings. "Guess that won't be a problem much longer. Just hope your heir knows some good war-spells."

"He's a pacifist," said the ghost, "like all our people. Perhaps I've exaggerated the stone's power."

"A hidden city would make a fine capital," said the keeper.

"The stone's strong, but not that strong," said the ghost. "Nothing special. Nevermind." He blew away with the next breeze.

"Good," said the keeper, and returned to his zithering.

January 5, 2009


"You left your dishes on top of the sonic again, dear heart," Miranda called from the kitchen. The phrase "dear heart" had started as a little joke between them, but after a few months it had turned into a real expression of love, and now … Buckley wasn't sure. She always used a little extra emphasis, now. Was that playful? A tiny bit sarcastic?

"Sorry," he answered, distracted, as she emerged from the kitchen holding the offending plate and cup. His gaze was drawn irresistably back to the message displayed on the entcenter. She read him immediately.

"You got it," she whispered, gripping the dishes.

He nodded, re-reading the screen. ... accepted for the position of Junior Situational Flexcoder on the ninth Alpha Centauri mission. The 9.7-year mission (experiential time) will be paid on the basis of the 31 earth years that pass ...

Buckley looked back at Mir, seeing the tension in her, the whiteness of her face, the wideness of her pale blue eyes, the rigidity of her fingers clamped down on the china. She stared at him fixedly, saying nothing. Somewhere in the room, a fly buzzed.

He brushed toast crumbs off the table remote and hesitated for a fraction of a moment while he pushed his dream job out of his mind. Buckley pressed "I decline" with his forefinger, making sure the table had a chance to verify his print. Before he lifted his finger again, he knew, the automated hiring system would have offered the job to someone else. He looked up at Mir with a weak smile.

She stared at him with disbelief and disgust. "You idiot," she said, and stomped out of the room.

* * *

Buckley looked back at Mir, seeing the tension in her, the whiteness of her face, the wideness of her pale blue eyes, the rigidity of her fingers clamped down on the china. She stared at him fixedly, but then a fly buzzed past her face and she brushed it away with the irritated expression he knew intimately well.

He brushed toast crumbs off the table remote and hesitated for a fraction of a moment while he banished a life he would now never have. Buckley pressed "I accept" with his forefinger, making sure the table had a chance to verify his print and legally obligate him. He meant to apologize, but he could only look up at her miserably.

Mir stared at him with disbelief and disgust. "You asshole," she said, and stomped out of the room.

January 2, 2009

New Year’s Clouds

New Year’s Eve on Ganymede: we still celebrated it on Earth’s Julian time. Paulie would always make sure the link was good, so we could watch Big Ben, and then the Ball in New York, and the Firepod in San Francisco.

“Pretentious dirtniks,” Paulie would say, sniffing as the Pod burst over the Bay. He still says it. He’s never thought much of anyone who didn’t have the guts to leave Earth’s gravity.

“You smoke Lucky Strikes, though,” Ming pointed out to him on our second New Year’s.

“Yes, they use up too much oxygen. Strains the manufacturing rig,” I added, because it was time someone brought this up.

“Never a big one for small pleasures, our Stefania,” Paulie sniped, and took a long drag on his cigarette; he knew by then his sexist quips wouldn’t draw any anthrax from me. I had been through naut training before the lawsuits. “Anyway, we’re not going to have to worry about that much in a minute, right?”

He was probably right, damn him. We had chosen Hawai’i’s New Year, in honor of our chief scientist, Dr. Hana, even though—actually because—she hadn’t made it through planetfall. Sometimes it takes someone. Maybe like the gods of a new land demand a sacrifice. That’s superstitious, I know. I wondered, just the same, what Ganymede’s gods (if any) would make of what we were about to do.

We had seated the first canister and the master switch by her grave.

“If this works can I turn the manufacturing rig into a barbecue?” asked Paulie, stubbing out his cigarette at 11:06, Hawai’i time.

“If it doesn’t work,” said Ming, taking our suits down from their hooks, “it will turn all of us into barbecue.”

Paulie shrugged and looked at me. Everybody knew I had the final say, by then.

“Sure. But let’s wait a bit, first,” I said.

By 11:45 we were suited and through the doors, having learned from past mistakes to allow plenty of time for them. We felt pretty silly standing by the master switch for a quarter of an hour, but somehow it still seemed right.

At midnight we all laid hands on the switch together.

“For Dr. Hana,” said Paulie, suddenly solemn.

“For Dr. Hana,” repeated Ming and I.

We pressed the switch.

We weren’t barbecue.

After a while, when the sky started to form above us, each canister adding to the atmospheric mix, Paulie said, “You know what I’m looking forward to?”

“Smoking outside?” asked Ming.

“No. Well, yes. But no.”

“What, then?” I asked, when he kept on staring upwards.


“Happy New Year, Paulie,” I said.

January 1, 2009


It had been a night of hard partying for Jeremy, as it always was on new year's eve. He viewed the last night of the year as an opportunity to relive all the best parties of the past 364 days - and there were a lot of them - thrown together with the best of the present. With a little creative blending, his implanted processors could recall his best memories, relive the ups, downs, drunken shedding of clothing, face-plants into the jacuzzi, and stream it all through his shades for a monster party that he would blog about for days.

Only, this morning, head pounding, shades missing, he was at a loss for words. He tried to get out of bed, realized he was on the floor, and climbed shakily to his feet.

He walked around his rented Vegas suite naked and almost totally blind without his shades. Everything was blurry and low-res in reality. He squinted through the sun's glare, and noticed the suite looked like crap without augmentation.

He sat on an exploded bean-bag couch and tried to focus. His shades had been on all night. Except for when Christina wore them while going down, Julie shoved them inside her bra, and some twins from Hong Kong did things with them that made Jeremy wash the lenses in the sink afterward. Oh, and there was that cat. It had been an awesome night.

Sometimes Jeremy wondered if he really needed augmented reality.

Still, he felt lost without his constant media update, and he did need to get some work done at some point today, so he stood and staggered around, calling for his shades. About to give up, he turned into the last room to find the cat sitting on the rotating bed, shades propped on his nose, headphones in his ears.

“My shades!” Jeremy said.

"Yeah, yeah,” said the cat. “I got your augmented reality right here. Shit's dope, man. Do you have any idea what the market is doing this morning?”

"Man, I can't even deal with talking cats right now," said Jeremy. "I mean, I just woke up."

"So happy new year, right?" said the cat. "You work on your hangover, and I'll take care of things. I've got stuff to do."

With that, the cat jumped from the bed and disappeared behind a sofa.

Jeremy sat down on the bed, and promptly fell over. As he drifted off to sleep, he heard the mixed sounds of stock market reports and feline porn drifting through the room.

He resolved to do things exactly as he had been doing them. It was going to be one hell of a year.