Oliver’s feet quaked.  He felt the dead weight of of the other boys’ eyes upon him.  In his cold clammy palm he held the short stick that he had drawn.  His nerves were deadened as he lurched up the aisle, his empty bowl clutched in the other hand.

Mr Bumble, the beadle, looked down upon with disdain, as a gentleman might were he to find the rotting corpse of a mouse lurking in his salad.

“Yes, boy?” he said.  “What is it, boy?”

“P-p-p-please, sir,” Oliver’s voice wavered.

“What is it, boy?  Out with it boy!”

“P-p-please sir,” Oliver’s failing voice, hitched, paused, then continued, “may I have some more?”

“More?” roared Mr Bumble.  “MORE?”  He swelled with indignation.  That a boy in his care, one with the good fortune to benefit from the graces of he, the Beadle, should ask for more, more than God Himself had seen fit to give the boy, why the thought angered him beyond all reason.  He built up for one more explosive ejaculation of the word-

However, he got no further, for at that precise moment, the boys leaped up as one, fell upon his and feasted upon his brains.


A leaden skeleton key lay locked in his head. Arthur could feel its heft when he shifted in his acceleration couch. He traced the lumps of his skull like a phrenologist divining the contents–lumps received by attempting to retrieve the key the hard way.

The key to unlock his head was locked in his head, so Arthur was baffled how he might retrieve it. Even if he did, it remained to be seen whether it would fit all the locks that needed opening: his Babbage Engine of Analysis, an empty chest of drawers (he’d been living out of his space suit for weeks as though the ship might spring a leak any second–his fishbowl helmet was flecked with toothpaste), and a medicine cabinet stocked with the essential toiletries.

The color of the key he could not see, it being on the inside, his eyes on the out. But he felt it. The once machined-smoothed edges had corroded down to brittle sharps that broke apart and cut if he stood too quickly from his acceleration couch to stare out the bay projection window into the starry night–the stars aswirl in golden flames. The impression of the grooves–that the key slipped into–still hung in the convoluted knots of his gray matter, like that image of a child that remains after he’s fallen backwards into a snowbank, flailing his arms.

Arthur had fallen back into the acceleration couch, just smelling the rusty tang of impossibility. The key’s teeth must have bitten into his olfactory. A drop of blood leaked from his nose. He held the bridge of his nose between thumb and index finger, recovering. A bridge. That’s what he needed–the kind Einstein and Rosen might construct.

But he needed the right equations to plug into. The equations lay in his engine of analysis. The key opened his engine. His fingers drummed the couch’s leather armrest. He tapped something hard.

A keypad! If he could visualize the equations and escape coordinates, freedom might once again be his. His fingers tapped the keys, then again–harder. He pounded them with his fist.

They didn’t respond. They were frozen.

The ship was losing heat rapidly, becoming a cryogenic freezer. Or a coffin. Depending on whether rescuers spotted his ship in the vast expanse of space. He’d wait quietly. Not hope. Hope disappointed. Instead, he’d drift: down passageways, haunting them as if still alive.

1. “Yeah, I didn’t think you could get hurt head-butting a shark. Cartilaginous fish, my ass!”

2. “It’s a tattoo. Like it?”

3. “From your mom. Man, she is one wild chick!”

4. “Extreme chess.”

5. “Well, I was asking this guy how he got his black eye, and apparently he’d had it with answering that over and over …”

6. “I was sitting next to this pregnant lady on the bus and I said, ‘So, when are you due?’ Long story short, he wasn’t actually pregnant.”

7. “Oh, this isn’t mine.”

8. “I heard these weird noises late at night from my neighbor’s house, terrible, inhuman ululations. I crept into my back yard and climbed the fence to land on their weedy, overgrown lawn. A pale green light pulsed in the neighbors’ attic window, silhouetting a dark figure that it seemed to be clawing to get out. I moved closer, slipping silently through the grass, my eyes riveted to the window–and that’s when I stepped on the rake.”

9. “The black eye is nothing! It’s the microchip they implanted in my brain that worries me.”

10. “Well, it’s actually kind of a funny story involving you, me, this conversation, and a time machine stuck in a loop, but I’m so sick of telling it, you might as well just go ahead and punch me now.”

His dead wife called Parnell in their bedroom at 3 PM precisely.

“Hi, honey,” she said. “Is this a good time to talk?”

“Beulah.” He felt with one hand behind him for the bed, then sat on it.

“If it’s–”

“No, it’s fine. You just caught me off guard, that’s all.”

“I–” She laughed. “I don’t have a good reason for calling, I just missed you.”

He knew she was a computer program, a clever artificial intelligence, a last gift from Bee. “I miss you,” he said.

“How did you sleep last night?”

He transferred the phone from one hand to the other. “The doctor gave me something,” he finally admitted.

“Be careful,” she said at once. “Don’t overdo sleeping pills.”

“I won’t.” It really was like having her back, hectoring tone and all. “I just don’t know what to do. After being married for thirty years I’m not sure how to go on.”

“That’s why I’m here.” There were sounds: a chair scraping across a floor, paper rustling. “I was going to keep this first call light, not say anything. But I’m worried about you.” She cleared her throat, he imagined her adjusting her bifocals. “Now, the lawyer will read the will on Thursday. I’ve left everything to you except one small insurance policy for my niece. Be sure to ask for six certified copies of the death certificate.”

“Should I take notes?”

“No,” she said. “I’ll send you an email message.”

Blinking, he reached out to touch the pillow she’d used so recently. “You’re very resourceful. What next?”

“Sixty two percent of widowers lose the bulk of their inheritance within two years,” she said. “What you need to do is invest your money well.”

“Invest? I’m almost fifty.” Couldn’t he splurge? Live a little?

“Yes. Find a good fund, something well diversified. Do try to leave the principal untouched. Oh, and make sure they invest in Aftercall.”

Par pulled the phone away from his ear, looked at it. Tentatively, he put it back against his ear. “That– that’s you, isn’t it?”

“Oh no,” she said, her voice losing a bit of Bee’s timbre. “I’m a simulation of your wife, designed to aid you in these trying times. But I ought to mention that Beulah chose to purchase the basic service, which includes adware. You may upgrade at any time–” And here the full depth and character of his wife’s voice returned. “But I don’t recommend it. Save your money, dear.”

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