« February 2009 | Main | April 2009 »

March 31, 2009


I test the bottle against my wrist, and the white dribble is neither scalding nor tepid. It is just right, perfect for a tender little mouth. I caught hell from the missus the first time I overheated the formula.

I take one long tired blink, and fight the yawns. Jules has nearly kicked his way out of Sharon’s expert wrappings, and his squeals are constant, his struggles furious. He latches on to the rubber teat with relish, and chugs down the white muck like a frat boy. He never liked breast-milk so much, and I think Sharon is quietly relieved that her days of swollen breasts and saturated t-shirts are over.

Jules is thriving on this new diet, and he’s growing by the day. I know there’s been some safety concerns in the past, but we’re told that the formula is perfectly safe these days. “Bottles Bring Better Babies!” says the label on the tin.

I don’t care that people on the picket-lines call us bad parents. I never try to hide the formula under my other groceries, and I don’t bother joining the online forums. Why would I want to be friends with other formula-feeders, the ones who try to keep it secret, who are ashamed of what they’re doing?

I even caught some prick trying to paint a slogan on my house, and frog-marched him out into the street at gun-point. We’ve got a dog now, and cameras. If the vandalism gets any worse, I’ll put in an application for a kill-fence.

It amazes me how judgemental people can get. There’s been a resurgence in natural methods, breast feeding and home births, all that hippie stuff that we thought dead and buried. Whenever we mention that we feed Jules on formula and formula alone, we get everything from silence to accusations. Jules’ food intake is a bone of contention between Sharon and her mum, by which I mean they scream at each other frequently.

I try to imagine the nanobots, invisible little servants suspended in that sweet warm liquid. Even now they’re flooding throughout his little body, and as Jules looks up at me with those trusting little eyes I wonder how much has changed. Are the bots already in there, working away, making his eyesight perfect? Better? His bone-density, just that little bit stronger? His brain, his heart, his muscles...

We’re just like any other parents. Who wouldn’t want to give their child the best start in life?

March 30, 2009

Red New Day

The chariot awaits, but I cannot leave.

As long as my husband lives he will follow me.

The axe is sharp, bright and washed clean of my sister's old blood. This is the weapon she used against her husband, and the one her son used against her in turn. I bade Orestes abandon it when he fled the Furies.

'You will never be free while you carry it.'

I hid it for many years, until I had need. It is heavy in my hands, but I swing it, find my rhythm, feel my muscles hum with effort and recognition; I am, after all, a daughter of Sparta.

Though I look not a day over eighteen, I am old. The blood from my father is a god's, but in my bones I feel old. The years weigh on me.

I heft the axe again, hear the whoosh of it slicing the air, watch the sunlight of the red new day flash against the great double blades. For a moment I am blinded. I think of other battles, other stained weapons.

Memory takes me.

Paris, petulant adolescent, did not like the word 'no'. When Menelaus left his palace and wife unattended, the Trojan boy struck.

I did not consent, no matter what they say. I did not say 'yes'. But I took life and limb from seven of them before I was overwhelmed. They dragged me to their ship covered in the blood of others.

And ten years in a gilded cage, rich with Trojan contempt. Watching as the black ships dotted the shore, watching from the high towers as both sides died, all in my name. Until sly Odysseus came, disguised, past rotting corpses the Trojans no longer had the heart to bury. I sent him away with an idea. When at last Menelaus stood there, unable to kill me even though he blamed me, because that would set me free.

In the bottom of the chariot, the scrolls, my history and Troy’s; how it burned, its children dashed against stones, its women parcelled out. How its men allowed destruction within its walls.

I take my bright axe and walk to where my husband lies in half-slumber. I think of my sister. I think of escape, of dark caves where I might hide, or shadowy cities where I might wander. I think of my future and it holds shadows.

March 27, 2009

The Dancer, the Door, and the Ordinary Stain

The door strains to open with a groan worse than the metal fatigue of countless fathoms pressing on the hull of a submarine down too far, its man-made shell barely restraining the force of the deep.

A silver, ethereal tang mingles with perfumed soap from the bathroom and crisp clean linens. Mara sits on the huge bed, the room service next to her untouched.

She thinks of Christoph from Prague who stayed only as long as the money flowed. His touch, everything about him- his chiseled form, gentlemanly demeanor and beautiful boyish face- was titillating. But the thrill faded minutes after he departed, as she knew it would, leaving her unsatisfied and hollow as ever.

She considers calling another young plaything. Maybe the rock and rollers in Bonn. Or the captian of industry in London. She knows they desire her not just for her physical presence and charm, but for her razor mind that answers thier questions and unties the complex knots of thier lives, like no other.

She considers returning to her family and to her many friends. She hears her sister telling her the life she despises and berates as a life so oridinary is really a life fit for a Queen; and that the love she has is a rare thing to be cherished and nourished. And she knows her sister is right.

Mara wonders why she yearns for this chaos. But she has no answer, only the knowing, the gnawing in that hollow that wants to two-step into oblivion, and rub her ordinary life out like a stain.

Beyond the etchings on the floor, past the blood and ritual items of summoning, water slowly drips into the tub. Something about the sound, and the smell of clean reminds her of home and how the embrace of luxary feels. She thinks she will pick up the telephone to call her sister.

Yet she wants the deep water. She wants to feel the pressure on her hull as she is crushed.

The air rumbles and fills with that awful groan. Mara knows when the door opens fully and the thing on the other side says, “shall we dance?”, she will say yes and take his hand as he steps through.

- END-

March 26, 2009

Lulu at the Blue Note

The same guy comes to see Lulu sing every night. She never looks at him. He never looks at anyone else.

She’s been singing here a month when I get stupid. She’d walked in one Wednesday, sung one song and been hired. I'd been playing horn twenty years and I’d never heard anyone sing like that before. Sang like she was scared to stop.

After a week, I asked her, “What are you doing here? I know I've missed my break, but you...?”
She didn't speak. Never did. Only sang. But the next night she looked at me as she crooned, “Some dreams are nightmares, some dreams are for fools. We're never careful what we wish for, and sometimes dreams come true.”

Never speaks a word to me, but I still I get stupid. Normally I only get stupid over blonds. But that voice and that guy. So I hire a PI and a month later I've got an envelope full of photos—Lulu at different bars. And every time the audience is in a photo, I see that guy.

Next night, I catch him at the back door and we go at it, shouting back and forth 'til Lulu appears.
“What's he got you scared for?” I say. I've got my hand on the guy's throat.
She looks at me, and then she starts singing, and it's more beautiful that I've ever heard her sing before, and my heart breaks at the sound.
“Some dreams are nightmares, some dreams are for fools. We're never careful what we wish for, and sometimes dreams come true.”
And suddenly, I don't know why, but part of me gets scared. I'm scared I've got the devil himself by the neck, and I'm scared right down to my soul. The man stares at me, then at Lulu, and I'm trembling like a child.
Then she speaks to me for the first time. “No Steve-o, it's not that,” she says “You got it backwards. All backwards. He's keeping me...” she pauses, “away from temptation.”
The guy shakes me off, puts an arm around Lulu and they walk off. And for a moment, just an instant, I could swear he has wings.

Lulu doesn't come back to the Blue Note after that. But I keep on playing, and my break keeps on not coming. And part of me is glad.

March 25, 2009


It paid better than shouting on corners with newspapers. There was less chance of losing a finger or catching a killing cough than if you worked the bobbins. And it wasn't as risky as pickpocketing -- no matter what the neighborhood, no matter how late, the censer marked you as in the employ of towermen, who were said to know everything, to control everything as far as the fog went, and the fog went everywhere in the city.

That was the part Gabriel Loy liked best, being able to walk wherever and have everyone step aside at his approach. They all looked at him without wanting to look like they were looking -- he liked that too. The only thing he didn’t like was the way he dreamed disordered jumbled dreams crowded with faces, numbers, and hints of terrible knowledge.

He'd made an art of swinging the fog-seeder, looping it out long or spinning it in tight, in far more elaborate figures than what you needed just to the keep the whirligig works in the brass sphere wound up.

Not that it mattered to the towermen. They didn't care who waved their smoking orbs as long as someone did it. Half a crown when you took it smoldering from the cart; another crown when you returned it, cold, at dawn.

But when, in alley where he strutted even thought there was no one to watch him, his foot went through a gap between boards and he fell just as the censer was on the downswing and it went down into the dark and splashed two heartbeats later, he knew they'd care about that.

He had to get it back. Even though it meant scraping his hands and straining his shoulders to wrench all the boards off the top of the well. It meant finding handholds in the loose bricks, and mastering his panic when the bricks gave way to packed clay ten feet down and there was no way down and there didn't seem to be any way back up either. But as he breathed, he learned: the fog had poured deep into the well, so that he was as high above the knowledge-mist as the towermen on their spire-tops and chimney-trestles.

What the fog-mind told them, it told him: he knew where the censer was, how to get it back up, how to keep learning. Plans unfolded like dreams in his head: a balloon! He would fly and breath the top of more fog and he'd be wise, and everyone would look at him without wanting to look like they were looking, even the towermen.

March 24, 2009

Helmut, Deep in the Rock

Even in the middle of a war, Helmut didn't want to lose his job, because he wasn't very smart. If they didn't want him on this asteroid, maybe nobody else would want to hire him either, and then what? Maybe they'd put him in space and laugh at him when he couldn't breathe, like those boys did when they stuck him in the airlock for a long minute when he was little. He didn't want that again.

Still, Helmut barely could make himself go in. He didn't know anything about this kind of work. He'd never done it before. But he did what he was told, which was how he'd always kept a job so far. He got to the end of the rock tunnel, opened the door, and went in.

The room was full of children.

In the distance, some missiles must have been hitting the asteroid, because the whole place shook and boomed. Little showers of dust came down from the ceiling. Some of the children screamed. Helmut wanted to hold his hands over his ears, but he thought the kids might call him scared, so he didn't.

"Where's my dad?" shrieked a boy who was only about as tall as Helmut's knee.

"We're all going to die! Everybody's going to die!" wailed a girl.

The wail echoed off the rock walls. They were hidden in one of the deep storerooms, as far from the surface and from the fighting as they could be. The children looked up at Helmut, waiting.

A little dreadlocked girl came up and tugged at the knee of Helmut's atsuit. "You say, 'nobody's going to die.'"

Helmut didn't understand, so he kept quiet.

"We're not really going to die, right?"

Another explosion shook the room. Helmut kept thinking he could hear atmosphere breach klaxons off in the distance, but it was just imaginary. The children watched him.

"Maybe," Helmut said. "If the air goes out, then we'd probably all die then. I hope it doesn't."

The dreadlocked girl teared up, but she nodded. "I hope so too," she said. Then she latched onto his leg like she was trying to keep from being pulled out into space, and the children all clustered around, wrapping their arms around Helmut and each other.

Another thundering, louder now. The lights went out. But the children were holding onto Helmut, even while most of them were crying.

"This isn't so bad," Helmut said, wonderingly, and the kids clung to him harder.

March 23, 2009

The Bridges of Ramesh

The architect Tir wrote the following footnotes on his submitted designs for the bridges of Ramesh.

1. I appreciate the cost of curtaining the windows of the upper eastern side of the third bridge with woven saffron, but it is essential: this bridge is in honour of those with exquisite tastes. It would be equally diminished if the walkways of cushions were removed. Likewise, the three domed roofs in the centre of the bridge must be constructed (respectively) with silk, gold and the scales of the rarest goldfish.

2. It is critical that the materials used to construct the sixth bridge are not of poor quality. Though the simplicity of the bridge’s design and the crowded dwellings along its length are in honour of (and for use by) the city’s less wealthy people, I do not wish to symbolise a future for them that is bereft of high quality architecture. As Your Highness has indicated, the crushing of our enemy means that the royal and city coffers can be dedicated to the people of the city.

3. The trade bridge will be difficult to build, but it is one of the most important: the flowers and spices, silks and cottons, pottery and jewellery and all the other wares attached to the bamboo lattice of the bridge will remind the people of the city and people from far away what Ramesh offers to the world from its position at the centre of trade.

4. It may be useful to include in the city-wide notices that -- except for the carved sandstone memorial walls -- the second bridge is exactly like the old bridges. Any people who find the new bridges too extraordinary may use the second bridge until they become more accustomed to the new city.

5. Some people will no doubt protest at the construction of the first bridge from the bones of people and animals fallen in the war, but they should be reminded of the price we pay to live on this land, under this sky.

March 20, 2009

Dragging the Frame

The young woman at the bus stop told me she was my daughter. She was attractive, Eurasian, had dark brown hair and blue eyes, but only looked to be ten years younger than me, and I told her so. I couldn't have fathered her at the age of ten, could I?

"Time travel," she said.

"Oh come on." Much as I'd fantasized about time travel, especially to correct the mistakes of my youth, deep down I was a nonbeliever. "Einstein said it was impossible, and Mallett has said travel to the past is extremely limited. You can't go earlier than when the machine is switched on. And I haven't heard anything about a time machine having been successfully invented today."

"It happened about two hours ago," she said. "You always were a skeptic. And you made my life hell, you know."

The thought of confrontation with a future daughter, which seemed impossible as my wife wasn't even pregnant yet, twisted my insides a bit. Had I slapped down her dreams? Abused her?

"No, but you disapproved of every decision I ever made. We yelled and fought for most of my childhood. Nothing I did was right in your eyes. I left home at 18, and we've hardly spoken since then."

"So, saying for a second that this is true, why are you here?"

She looked over my shoulder and I turned; the 171 was approaching from down the road. My bus.

"I just wanted to tell you to ease up. Trust your daughter's decisions. Have some faith in her. Don't be such a prick."

I exhaled a quiet laugh to myself. It was impossible, it was stupid. This young woman was off her nut. Best just to ignore her. At least it would make an amusing anecdote later. For a brief moment, I'd been afraid she was going to say that she was here to kill me or something.

The bus was only about ten meters away, brakes already hissing, when I said, "You don't have to be a man to be a prick, you know. Best of luck to you back at the asylum."

I felt a hard push from behind and I tumbled into the road as the bus arrived.

Creative Commons License

March 19, 2009

Concerning the T.G. Hueler Archive of Oracular Texts Daily Fortune Book

The T.G. Hueler Archive of Oracular Texts was founded in 1913, when a wave of anti-German sentiment left half the European collection room empty in the library of Snelson University.

Three crows turning in a clouded sky. Misfortune transformed to unexpected fortune.
-- The Wheat Stalk Predictory, Brownville, Nebraska, 1881.

In the 1920's, the archivists began a daily tradition of randomly choosing a prediction from one of the oracles and copying it into a large accounting book.

On a Thursday, a new moon in a cloudless sky betokens a chance meeting with an old acquaintance. On a Friday, it means bad news that has traveled a great distance.
-- Proverbs from the Tchul Archipelago, New Haven, Connecticut, 1932.

By the mid-1950's, the archive’s books of prophecy, fortune-telling, proverbs, and superstitions had taken over most of the basement in south wing.

Sand in one's pockets: a sure sign a steady income will soon be found.
-- Lunenhalt’s Almanac (translated), Basel, Switzerland, 1847.

In the late 1989, a fire razed most of Snelson's old campus, including the library, and only fragments of the collection were sifted from the ashes.

Anvil. Lemon. Whippoorwill.
--The Oracle of the Nouns, place and date of publication unknown.

The staff lounge Daily Fortune Book, however, had grown to three ledgers, and was luckily down in the conservator’s lab in the most fireproof sub-basement, being bound into a single volume.

All in flammes devour'ed. All save one.
--The Wisdome of the Elements, Devonshire, England, 1714.

The conservators included several hundred blank pages for future entries, and the librarians in the new library's rare book room transcribe one of the charred fragments from the old library into it each day.

To run wearing a blue hat brings dreams of snake. Singing in a green scarf induces premonitions of the next day’s weather.
--title, place of publication, and date unknown

A work-study employee in the rare book room calculated there are fragments for three years worth of entries.

If an odd number of grains of rice remain, success. If an even number, failure. If the number is divisible by three, the outcome may be altered by great effort.

This didn't worry anyone until today's entry:

There may be fortunes without days, but not days without fortunes.

The library staff has petitioned the board of trustees for funds to begin acquiring books and reestablish the archive.

March 18, 2009

Send in the Truth Smellers

The two ships hung in the open silence of space as if they were already depicted in a tapestry: the Gaian ship glittering with fretwork and enamel and the perlescent oval of the Free and Independent Peaceful Coalition of Jupiter's Moons. The Negotiators’ Bubble between them emptied; the negotiators had called it a day (because that was easier than calling it a biorhythmic activity episode).

"Here they come," said the Fire Keeper as the Gaian team came up the gangway. "Hope your weird plan worked."

"Me too," said the Senecan Sachem, holding out a glass of water to the Speaker.

"No deal yet," she shrugged, and took a long drink.

"Any complaints about the – additions – to your team?"

"They thought we were weird bringing teenagers with us, but figured it was just a cultural thing."

Behind her the three youngest members of her team traded their ceremonial robes for tattered jeans and buckskin shirts.

"What did you think of the Jupiter people?" said the Speaker, turning to them.

"I don't know," said the youngest teenager, and then stood with his mouth open.

The tallest boy shook his head and asked, "Can I say it however?" looking only at the Speaker.

"Just don't swear in front of the grandfathers."

"Okay. Frankly, they were kind of full of it."

The third teenager nodded gravely, carefully restarting each of her seven holotoos.

"They talk like my mom," she said. "You know, like they learned it out of a blog on how to get what you want without ever really asking for it or whatever."

The Sachem looked toward the treaty analysts.

"You have anything for us yet, Hannah? Adsila?"

"The kids are basically right. It looks really nice on the surface, but it’s a load of... things you shouldn't say in front of the grandfathers."

After dinner, in private, the Sachem said to the Fire Keeper, "I was right, wasn't I?"

He got a grunt.

"I got the idea when my youngest grandson got upset about something. Those kids are really on alert any time an adult is hypocritical. It's perfect. They look harmless – at least with the robes on – like what the Speaker said – a Cultural Thing."

"They're so eloquent, too," said the Fire Keeper.

"Oh, shut up. I want to give them some name nobody will bother to translate. What's Onandaga for 'truth smeller?'"

March 17, 2009

From Godmother Python's Bestiary of Wonderful Flowers: Vice Gardens

The Vice Garden, as many gardeners know (and many more do not), is commonly found tucked into the corner of a temple or monastery’s vegetable plot.

Unlike the sections put on show to the inquisitive public, the Vice Garden is reserved strictly for the use of the monastic community. While the species commonly found here (e.g., the fameflower, the beauty bush; loosestrife; rue) may seem out of place in such a setting, the abbots have a purpose for everything.

Consider, for example, the fameflower (genus Talinum, numerous species). These plants bear small, star-shaped blossoms of a pleasant, if unassuming, lavender or pink. Their leaves are thick, fleshy, and, in some species, edible. The various cultivars of the fameflower have long been prized in certain kinds of “social magic,” mainly in spells intended to attract renown or to enhance personal prestige. (Effects that have largely, in the past, been handled through summoning demons; the herbal approach is considered more ecologically friendly, and avoids questions of exploitation.)

As one might expect, the cultivars found in Vice Gardens are of the less potent varieties. Most commonly, according to the closely-guarded gardening books of the Abbots (to which, nonetheless, Godmother Python has her methods of access), their flowers, when picked and eaten in salad, create the mere hallucinatory illusion of being famous and well-known.

The theory of the Abbots is this: once the vivid tactile fantasies -- which include the usual accoutrements of fame, including its opportunities for sexual and chemical overindulgence -- have run their course and worn off, their users will awaken having been reminded why they decided to retire from the world in the first place. The principle, as the informed reader will recognize, is that of aversion via over-indulgence.

There are, of course, some among the cynical who raise questions about the uses to which the fameflower is actually put. On the other hand, in line of defending the monks, one might mention a secondary use of the plant – one with, perhaps, more convincing benefits to a melancholic initiate. This takes the form of a salad composed from the plant’s leaves alone.

When consumed, it invokes no fantasies of overindulgence; no hallucinations tactile or otherwise. Instead, it has the mere and simple property of convincing the eater that -- however isolated one’s cloister may be, on whatever far-flung mountaintop or spumey sea island -- out there in the world, however far away, somebody, somewhere, knows your name.

March 16, 2009

Conjure Woman

Mama made a leaf man the year Daddy ran off. She said a leaf man wouldn't hold up well, but he'd last long enough. I didn't want her to send anything after Daddy. Even though I was glad he was gone, and not just because Tom and I could get real private in his workshop. Mama didn't know about what Daddy did, and she would have been real mad. Madder than she was.

Mama was particular about the leaves. Oak for strength, willow for passion, cane for flexibility, pecan for the mind. It's important, she said, to get the right mix. Otherwise, leaf men won't mind hardly at all. No more than real-life ones.

She didn't let me watch, said I didn't have the conjure spirit. She was right. I could never do some of that stuff you had to do. Hard enough to do what Tom wanted when we were alone together.

When it was done she led the leaf man to Daddy's workshop. The creature wasn't big. It was late in the year and I'd had trouble finding enough good leaves. If you use spoiled leaves the leaf man will be spoiled, she said. He was shaggy, leaves sticking out everyplace, but he moved like he had a purpose and meant to get to it.

Mama whispered in his ear. He leaned to the door like he was getting a scent, then made off down the road. That's when I thought I should say something, even though Mama would find out about Tom and me. It was too late: the leaf man was gone, and I kept quiet.

When the Sheriff told us, I knew he suspected Mama, but he never charged her. I didn't tell, just like I didn't tell Mama about Tom. The way I screamed when the Sheriff told how Tom was found, and the look she gave me...she knew. Had sent her creation after Tom apurpose, never after Daddy. I hated her then, left home soon after. I had nightmares for years about how it must've been like, choking on leaves and them keeping on coming as the thing crawled down his throat. Tom pulling them out and out, but never fast enough.

Now she needs me; can't talk or hardly move since the stroke. I sit by the bed, and the look she gives me now, I think we're both wondering: do I still hate her?


March 13, 2009

First Person

No matter how hard you try, you can't see your legs. Your arms are fine and you can pick stuff up, hold it in front of you. You pull a pistol from parts unknown and adjust your grip, get familiar with the gun's sights. Your gloved hands look a little disfigured, but you'll get used to that.

You don't know where you are, except on the roof. You can see the city all around you to where it disappears in the mist. It all looks the same.

You drop through a broken skylight to the warehouse floor below. You grunt when you hit the ground and your vision goes red, a bit blurry. But you're not badly hurt, just dazed. What a distance to fall and you didn't even drop your gun.

You hear unfamiliar music playing from the warehouse speakers, and it makes you feel somewhat safer.

You walk around, inspecting shipping containers, wooden crates, forklifts. On a whim, you aim your pistol at one of the crates and pull the trigger. Though you've never fired a gun in your life, your aim is dead on, and the crate shatters, parts flying. Something flashing catches your attention. You walk to to the spot and look down, find a shotgun, some shells, and a box of ammo, luckily the same caliber as your pistol. You pick up the shotgun, jack the action once to make sure it's loaded. Where the hell did your pistol go? You decide not to think about it.

You see a medic walk into your field of view. You swear he wasn't here before. "You don't look so good," you hear him say. "Take this medkit."

You do, and your vision clears immediately followed by a suspicious "100" that appears in the upper left of your vision. You turn to ask what the hell is *in* that medicine to make you see numbers, but the medic is gone. Oh well, you get the feeling you'll see him again if you really need him.

You continue checking the place out, amazed by the amount of supplies for the taking, including a shit-ton of ammunition. You grab as much as you can carry, which is way more than you thought humanly possible. A persistent whine in the back of your head mentions something about the laws of physics, but you ignore that.

You hear the music suddenly get louder and more urgent, so you must be running short of time before trouble shows up. There are a lot of crates, and you decide the best way to get what you need quickly is to break them.

Now grab that flashing crowbar hanging on the wall and get to work.

March 12, 2009

On The Nature of War

When the Elephantmen came they brought war on their heels. Their tusks tore through men. They wielded cannons like toys, fired shot that ripped through Kevlar like tissue. They understood guerrilla tactics, their skin color natural camouflage in the urban jungle man had made for himself.

But the Elephantmen were few, and men were many. Through sheer weight of numbers mankind forced a stalemate. Both sides were diminished, bloody, tattered. And so went forth the leaders of each force, the man O'Connell and the Elephantman Atok. They were battle-scarred and proud, walking into no-man's land in the cold white sun of the day.

Hard-liners on both sides did not want the deal to pass. Hard-liners on both sides sent squads to dispatch the leaders. But the O'Connell and Atok had not attained their positions without merit. Together they fought back, the two acting as one. O'Connell's machine gun rattling, Atok's great arm cannon destroying the cover their attackers hid behind. In the blood of their enemies, O'Connell and Atok found what they might otherwise have never located, brotherhood, understanding.

At the ceasefire declaration, Atok told mankind, “You will see that though we can never forget, we can forgive.”

And the Elephantmen did forgive, and they opened their borders, and gave beleagured mankind all the aid they could muster. They turned their great strength from destruction to building.

However, Atok saw that his people's largess was not met in kind. So he went to O'Connell and said, “I believe we are friends, but now it seems our friendship is one-sided. My people will not be exploited once more.” And O'Connell assured him all was well, but time proved his promises empty and once more Atok returned. But where O'Connell may have expected anger he found only sadness, for Atok had forgiven man. And O'Connell knew he held back his hand, and the sadness in Atok's stance only angered him.

O'Connell sent trucks into the Elephantmen camps. They promised aid, but held only men with guns, only death. And the men burst from the trucks, and they caught their ally unaware, and they killed, and they slaughtered, and they butchered. And man stood victorious in a war one side had not known it still fought. For O'Connell had not forgiven, and instead had lived in fear of the day he might forget to hate.

March 11, 2009

Made of Fail

After twelve years, the Gate, constructed on Peaks Island off the coast of Maine, was complete. The Cancrians had removed their spaceships from where they had been parked around Portland and Brunswick, explaining that their drive mechanisms would interfere with the Gate's operation. We--everybody, I mean, the whole world--was watching when the First Lady, escorted by an honor guard of Marines and several of the tall, hunched Cancrians, stepped up to flip the switch.

And by "everyone," I don't just mean Americans: this had been a world effort. After the initial arguments, the raging debate, a feeling had gradually spread that the interstellar age really had dawned, and it was our destiny to enter it as a species. I doubt there were more than a few thousand people in the entire world who weren't there in Portland or else glued to their TVs to see the Gate opened.

There had been speeches, you know, obviously. I'm not going to tell you there weren't speeches. But who cares about the speeches? What could they say other than "Wow, we're about to open a portal directly onto another populated planet! How cool is that? And scary. And sobering. Wow, people!" Not much. The speeches took up an hour and a half, but that's all they said.

The First Lady stepped up to the control pedestal, and a deep, stomach-shaking whirr shook the world as it lit up automatically. She placed her hand on the receptor, and with a sound like angels gargling, the Gate opened, spilling light out onto the massive crowd. We looked through it and saw ... Maine. There was a grinding noise. Something crackled, and all at once the lights on the unit went out. It was deathly quiet. The Gate had failed.

We were all stunned for a little while, so stunned that I think it was at least a few minutes before anyone realized that the Cancrians had snuck off somewhere. Where were they? The odd, shy, infinitely harmless-seeming Cancrians ... what had happened to them? And why, when they clearly were technological geniuses, didn't their gate work?

"Hey!" someone shouted (I later found out that he had been checking a Hawai'ian webcam on his Blackberry). "Where the hell is the Pacific Ocean?"

March 10, 2009

The Pets of Tindalos

* Chalmers made sure that his rooms were free of pentagons, because only thus could he keep out the hamsters of Tindalos;

* Chalmers made sure that his rooms contained no parabolas, because he feared the Vietnamese pot bellied pigs of Tindalos;

* Chalmers used a putty knife and some plaster to eradicate all trapezoids from his rooms. He did this to keep out the garter snakes of Tindalos;

* Chalmers eliminated all polygons of n sides, where n is any integer greater than 5, in order to bar entry to the ducklings of Tindalos;

* Chalmers checked his rooms for hyperbolas (there weren't any) because he feared the anoles of Tindalos;

* Chalmers would have destroyed all traces of ellipses in his rooms, to protect himself from the baby chicks of Tindalos, but he forgot.

The end

* With apologies to the late Frank Belknap Long.

March 9, 2009

Soul Survivor

Marcus Marquardt paused before opening the email from Patti. They hadn't parted on the best of terms. Would it be a diatribe? A summons of some sort? Or a restraining order? God forbid she'd send a suicide note.

But, he had to admit, Patti had never gone to extremes. She wasn't prone to depression, and excepting that unfortunate incident with his vintage Coca-Cola bottle collection, she hadn't even been particularly vengeful.

Marcus clicked on the message.

Dear M, Attached is my soul. You're the only one I can trust to hold onto it for me. Where I'm going it would only be a liability. Please keep it safe and when I return make me take it back.

There it was, the little paper clip symbol with the words "patricia olsen.soul" next to it.

What the hell? Maybe Patti was pranking him somehow. More likely, somebody or something malicious had gotten to her computer's address book. This was some trick to make him open the attachment and infect his own computer.

Still, what if? Patti's message hadn't even asked him to open the 'soul'. She'd just asked him to keep it safe. He could do that much. But why him? Why not that new boyfriend of hers? Marcus had heard he was sick; hadn't Deb said he'd gone into the hospital?

Marcus deliberately ignored the message and worked on a presentation due Monday. The clients had asked him to deliver something innovative while using their thirty-two page manual of specs. Typical. Two days later he got the call that Patti had died.

"Some weird suicide pact," said Deb. "Her boyfriend just died of cancer and she asphyxiated herself in the same room. That's love!"

Four months later Marcus cleaned out his email in-box. He paused, tapping his fingers too lightly on the keys to register. The cursor hovered over Patti's message. With a tap on the delete key he could put everything behind him. Never think about Patti again. It was absurd that the message could be from her, or if it was that she'd have been able to send something he'd have any desire to see. Her 'soul'. It was probably a picture of her boyfriend or a screed about how he was so much better than Marcus.

His finger drifted over to the key. A long moment passed.

Then he moved the message into his 'family' folder.

March 6, 2009

Brisneyland by Night – Part Two

‘Why didn’t we come here first?’

Our last stop: a house in Ascot that I didn’t remember seeing before.

He shrugged. ‘Always the last place you look. It’s glamoured.’

He was right – I had to concentrate to see it properly. It got easier, but still the building seemed, well, slippery.

The house was set far back from the road, in the middle of an overgrown garden. Trees led up the driveway, grown so tall and close they formed a canopy overhead. Flying foxes squeaked, dark patches against the lightening sky.

I got out of the cab. ‘You’re not going anywhere, right?’

‘You paid me yet?’


‘I ain’t going nowhere.’

I wanted to go to bed. I’d spent the whole night picking through deserted houses. In West End, I’d nearly been spitted on the umbrella of an especially grumpy old lady whose wings unfurled in shock when she found me in her squat. That was fun.

West End’s filled with Weyrd. Everyone thinks it’s just students, drunks, artists, writers, a few yuppies waiting for an upgrade, junkies and the Saturday markets for cheap fruit and vegies. There’s also a metric butt-load of Weyrd, who do their best to blend in. In suburbs with a pretty strange human population, they generally succeed. The smart ones use glamours to hide what they are.

But this was Ascot; so upmarket that house prices could give you a nosebleed

I pushed hard on the doorbell. If anyone answered I’d ask if they were interested in a pyramid-selling scheme. People invariably backed away then, like you had an eye in your forehead.

No one came.

Through the front windows I couldn’t see too much: dark tidy rooms, some expensive pieces of furniture, a chandelier catching strays streaks of dawn light.

Out the back, steps lead down to a sunken garden. From the vantage of the veranda I could see it was set out as a maze, about five feet high; you might lose track of your path if you were short or a young kid.

Empty house. Why the glamour? I might have given up but that was the kicker. Something was amiss. Where do you hide a whole bunch of kids? Twenty-five kids in four weeks; all from unhappy homes so it looks like they’ve run away.

How do you make them disappear without a trace? A glamour.

March 5, 2009

When the River Died

When the river died, its bones ran through a wasteland of our making. House-boats rested on crusts of salt, torched where they lay or stripped to the framework. Weather-beaten jetties jutted over dead ground, stretching for the water that they could never touch again.

And out in the middle of the cracked salty jags, a thin ribbon of red. Still water, tainted with algal blooms and two centuries of superphosphate. All that was left of the mighty Murray River, an artery that once carried steamboats by the hundred, a Nile that flooded and receded as it wished, coating the plains with thick, healthy loam.

When the river died, the pelicans left, and they never came back. If they found fish somewhere else, no-one knows about it.

All that was left of Australia’s fruit bowl, mile on mile of orange groves and vineyards, now dead sticks in dust and waving in the hot winds. Irrigation pipes led down to the salty muck, thick-throated and ultimately thirsty.

When the river died, it killed a hundred towns. Grand old hotels, rotting hulks that were witness to the empty, dusty streets. Cars without the fuel to run them left junked, burnt out. Rows of quaint country shops stood silent, the windows smashed and the doors broken or gone.

The only man left in each town was the statue of the lone Anzac, features nearly worn blank from the acid rain. Most of these stone soldiers faced the river, the old lifeblood, and perhaps it was a kindness that their eyes were worn smooth. “Lest we Forget” each slouch-hatted figure exhorted us, but they’ve been long abandoned. Nothing left but these ghost-soldiers to defend the dead places.

When the river died the arcologies were born, great spires of steel and glass, hiding the children and grandchildren of the evacuees from the murderous sun. A million of these pasty folk, living in a fluorescent hell with each other’s stink, praying that the desal plants will work for one more day.

But if you were to leave that crowded place, and knew the signs, the ways to strain the briny water through ash and stone, you could survive. If you figured on a method to trap the tough little creatures that come out at night, and knew which of the bitter succulants were safe to eat, a whole continent could be yours.

When the river died, a soft nation was finished, but a tough new land was born.

March 4, 2009


Lanterns on a line, dipping low enough to the water that we have to either hug the warehouse wall (with its windows of deeper night where the moon can't get) or the crumbled concrete shore of the plaza (with its scorched memorials that remind us of too much). Rena tells me to choose which side tonight.

I can't decide in time; we wind up in the middle. Rena lifts the electric line with the oar while Powell and I paddle with our hands. Slow passage while heat lightning vibrates behind the clouds. Powell doesn't look at me. He hasn't hesitated when he got to choose.

Goosebumps up the back of my arms, a chill like a pinch on the back of my neck: we're in. We don't paddle, just let the current tug us on. It might not work, might be another wasted night. Only two nights left of the week we paid Rena for.

She clatters around under the woodslat seat, comes up with a cassette tape, plastic case yellow as antique ivory. Clicks it into the openface player, slaps play. "Bohemian Rhapsody," echoes tiny off the ranks of basalt going up on either side of the water like steps or arena rows. All the tapes in Rena's shoebox squeak and warble; all are singers who knew what death would take them. We hope to ride some echo of their courage.

We wait.

We wait.



And the fog does part, and we do go through, into open water, where the moon is like a low ceiling, its reflection like a shivering floor. Night inverts to day and we're back where we started, but we're back years before the end.

We climb up uncrumbled stairs to an unruined plaza. Within six hours, one of us will melt like fog back into our future, our life after all this is gone. The other will just melt to nothing, to nowhere.

I look at the stranger crowd, the stores, the shining cars. It's been twenty years since ice cream.

Behind me a splash, shouts.

Rena drags herself out of the water. Powell oars away.

"I'll get the boat back," she says. "I'll wait for him. If I'm not here, you wait."

She pulls a soaked roll of old money from her pocket. "Meanwhile, I'm going shopping. Want anything?"

I try to remember which flavor was my favorite.

March 3, 2009

Last Call for Alcohol

Guy walks into a bar, says to the bartender: "Give me three drinks."

Bartender says to Guy: "What kind of drinks do you want?"

Guy waves dismissively. "Don't matter. First drink takes the edge off today, helps me forget. Second drink helps me prepare for what's next. Third drink opens a portal to a new world, a new life."

Bartender looks at Guy. Hasn't seen him in here before, then again he has. There's always someone they remind you of. Always someone whose words sound like someone else's. Spend enough time in bars and you know everyone.

Guy sits at the bar but doesn't remove his coat or hat, just waits patiently for his drinks.

Bartender pours him a beer, says: "It's almost last call. You gonna drink three drinks before you have to leave?"

Guy smiles. "No problem."

Bartender looks around the bar. Thursday night, not very crowded, a few tables with some quiet conversation, nothing he has to worry about. He glances back at Guy, who has already downed his beer. “Where will you go?”

Guy looks up. “Dunno. Somewhere else. I just want to start over.”

Bartender mixes a Long Island and sets it on the bar. “Maybe this'll help,” he says.

Guy drinks for a bit, then pauses to say: “How about you? Where would you go?”

Bartender shrugs. “Hadn't thought about it. I've never been to Russia.”

Guy finishes his drink, says: "Then give me a shot of your best vodka."

Bartender pours a shot of Jewel of Russia, and sets it on the bar. He turns away, begins organizing his bottles, prepping for tomorrow. Then he says: "What if you don't like your next life any more than you like this one? What if you jump from life to life and find that, no matter where you go, no matter what you do, everything in your life is exactly the same? The same problems, the same regrets, the same obstacles keeping you from reaching your ultimate goals. What if it doesn't matter where you go?

Guy snorts. "Happens to everyone,” he says, as his empty shot glass hits the bar.

Bartender turns around to ask what he means, but Guy is gone, and a confused-looking Russian soldier holding a bottle of Budweiser sits in his place.

March 2, 2009

Skye Makes a Bargain

Cuhulain learnt the salmon’s leap from her; great Aife fought her. She pitched her camp on an island off of Alba, giving it her name: Skye. When the women came, crying, “Teach us!” she taught.

One evening she stood on the headland with her back to the School of Battles. She heard the wings behind her, then smelled the stink. She didn’t turn around. Even goddesses ought to have manners, not just show up.

“A bargain, Skye,” croaked the goddess, so she turned.

“Good evening, your Ladyship,” she said. The Lady of Battles engulfed the school behind her in shadow.

“A bargain, Skye.”

“I have already made our bargain, your Ruthlessness,” she said, “when first I stuck a sword in a gut. To you I go in the end, serving a life for each life taken. I know it.”

“Not that bargain. One for your students, each one who picks up a sword under your eye, and those that will call your name in times to come.”

Skye knew that the Lady of Battles had the Light of Foresight and often forgot whether she saw today, yesterday, or the hundred thousandth tomorrow.

“They’ll remember you, they will,” said the Lady of Battles. “And my hand guides your sword, my wing stretches over your students. A bargain, Skye!” she crowed.

‘Always bargains,’ thought Skye. ‘Gods can never say, here, have limitless power, or endless life, or a good poop, whatever, and leave it.’

“What bargain, your Stinkiness?”

“A girl dedicated to me every generation!”

‘No need to screech,’ thought Skye. ‘Screeching, always.’

“And if I don’t agree?”

“Your school to wither, your teachings to fail those taught!”

And that, thought Skye, was the heart of it—gods don’t really bargain at all. Give up teaching? Give up showing women the strength in their sword arm? She thought how always one girl stood fiercer, more ruthless than the rest, not afraid to summon the terrible carrion Lady by saying her real name three times.

The sun had set on Alba.

“I’ll make the bargain,” sighed Skye. “You’ll know her. In each generation taught on this land, one will go to you, your Ravenity.”

Nowadays the School has only one stone arch and a name, the Fortress of Shadows. They say a girl still finds herself there, sometimes. They say Joan of Arc came once, and Queen Elizabeth. They say many things, whatever.