I don’t remember the stairs down, or grabbing my coat, or going out to them, but I’m part of the procession now. Masked and singing, we walk in a line through the snow. We sing the song that I’ve been hearing in my head since I first put on the mask a few weeks ago, the words that came clearer as the solstice approached.

Repeated for hours, the words become nonsense, then seem to mean something else. Out of the corners of my eyes I see, among the trees on either side, menacing shaggy figures, moving effigies, a dance circling around us as we go. But there are no tracks in the snow but my own and the drummer’s. The wind blowing the drummer’s clothes shows he’s skeleton thin. He grins with all his teeth.

I keep singing, even though I don’t know how much sound makes it past my scarf, which is pulled up over my freezing nose, my eyes are tearing from the ghost-wind, and there are frozen clumps of tears along bottom of my mask. If I don’t keep singing, I know they’ll find me in a snowbank when the spring melt comes, and I wonder if that’s who the rest of the marchers are–recipients of the mask, who sang and marched until the winter overcame them, and can’t help but come back.

The cold becomes a prickling pain, a burning, becomes heat, and the bleached world we march through might as well be a moonlit desert. I can’t stop my feet from moving in time to the beat of the drum. I can’t stop singing the words that seem to be pulled out of me in an unending thread. And I’m running because I can see the sun’s glow, and I keep running, because the procession will end when it’s up, but the sun gets halfway over the horizon, then I swear it’s going down again, and there are hills, each valley a pocket of night, but we charge up the next incline hoping the sun will be higher, and I can’t tell, it should be up by now, I keep running, and then, at the crest of one hill, it’s the moon, not the sun, and I don’t know how many hours we still have to go. My feet are stumps of ice.

The drummer drums. I march.

The drummer grins. I sing.

Note: This story, while it stands alone, belongs to the Anan Muss series.

Anan Muss was careful.  While he still made mistakes (after all, a legion of King Ash’s slitters once sliced arc-blades at his head on every quantum-entanglement port),  Anan’s caution merely meant that it took longer to do simple tasks–as if his brain had rocketed to light-speed, slowing down his relative time.  Washing, ironing, and folding laundry usually cost him a weekend, even with robots. Cleaning his apartment required a week’s vacation.

Love was trickier.  In college he’d taken his time to talk intimately and walk around the hanging orchid gardens with girls he found interesting.  It took him a month to ask women out to the aquarium theater, another month to kiss underneath bridges by the canals, and a year later to fall helplessly in love.  The year after that might have been marriage, he supposed, but women rarely waited long enough for him to ask them out.

Luckily, the second-generation AI ladies appeared in Japan.  All the shy lads wanted one.  By design, quantities were low, demand high.  One would have cost his year’s accounting salary.

So Anan mail-ordered one of those borderline real phonies made in China.  His fingers trembled as he unwrapped her.  Her skin–a soft, off-ivory–accentuated her raven-black hair.  His heart wanted to gallop away, but he reined it in.  She accepted his hand and stepped out of the box, “Am I not beautiful?”

Caught off-guard, yet ever poetic, Anan sought the right words:  “Yes…. I mean, no…. I mean, you are beautiful.”

“Love me, and I will be whomever you want.”

“Being yourself is enough although we may shift a bit, like car springs over a new road.”

“And you will be whomever I want you to be.”

“I’ll try–within the limits of my present brain pattern.

She laid plans of their future together.  He said he hoped she would have patient understanding, be someone he could share words with, someone who’d sharpen him gently, someone who would challenge and accept challenge.  “That’s exactly who I am,” she said, mentioning her unparalleled poetic sensibility.

As he painted her a porcelain love poem, he spoke of this inane idea he’d had of dating women virtually–not for love per se, but to understand women better.

He handed her his poem:

Laxity in

love milks

the black

swell of

twisted minutes

into hours

She shattered the porcelain and stalked away.  “I have no time for words.”

There was the ham sandwich again. It had been following me for days. Shit. It lay on my open book, covering most of the last page of the story by HB Clonekraft entitled “Salami over Hismouth.” There was too much mayonnaise and it was staining the book. I sure hoped the librarians didn’t riffle through the pages when I returned it. I picked up the book and gingerly tilted it so the sandwich slid into the trashcan. I hate mayonnaise on a ham sandwich. I hate the French, because they invented mayonnaise. I hate eggs because, well, I don’t hate eggs, but if I did, you know why it would be. I should have put the book away last night when I quit reading, but I’d been so tired. I looked at the clock, slammed the book shut, and left it on the table as I ran out the door. I was late, as usual.

A bus was just pulling away from the stop. A light drizzle fell. The billboard on the corner advertized the new ham and mayonnaise combo at Moe’s Deli. I have always hated Moe, but never more than I did right then. That was when I noticed the drizzle wasn’t water. The drops were white. I touched one that had fallen on the newspaper box and sucked my finger. Mayonnaise. I looked up, saw a lightly toasted rectangle 60 feet across floating in air. Shaved ham was visible around the edges and mayonnaise was oozing from several holes in the toast.

I stepped into a doorway to get out of the mayorain. The sandwich didn’t move, but the mayo was falling harder. I got a few white splashes on my shoes and jeans. Disgusting! Finally the bus pulled up. I was about to make a run for it, but just then the toast ripped in half. A glob of mayo as big as a Smart Car nailed the front of the bus. I turned away just in time; I could feel splatters machinegunning my back. The barrage subsided and I turned around. The bus seemed intact. I had just reached the curb when the ham let go, and that’s the last thing I remember.

The doctor was a young man, pink cheeked … I zeroed in on his name tag: “Dr. Prosciutto.”

“You have a severe concussion,” he said. “You may find yourself hallucinating.” Behind him, packets of mustard clustered menacingly in the doorway.

The end

The time traveler pulled up a chair, placed her holorecorder on the table and pressed a button just in time for her ghost to appear.

Across the table, her ghost was apparently sitting on air.

“We need to talk,” said the ghost, “about some things you need to do. And not do.”

The time traveler nodded. “Go ahead,” she said.

The ghost laid out times, dates, places, people to watch out for, objects to be sure not to misplace or to avoid if they were falling from a great height.

The time traveler nodded, checking that the recorder’s green LED still glowed. She could have sworn that, under the otherworldly blur, the ghost was looking older already. That had to be a good thing.

The ghost must have talked ten minutes before she paused. “Actually,” she said, “I made it all up. I’m not your ghost exactly.”

“What?” said the time traveler. “Then who are you?”

“I’m the ghost of your clone.”

“I have a clone?”

“You will,” said the ghost, “The Rosenkrantz institute has a secret cloning project. That’s what all the samples were for. They had nothing to do with your fitness for time travel.”

The traveler held her head. The organization that had invented the time machine and recruited her to use it apparently had a deeper, perhaps more sinister agenda. “What should I do?”

“I have no idea,” said the ghost. “To be completely honest, the clone wasn’t exactly your clone, but a clone of your twin sister.”

“I don’t have a twin sister.”

“Not in this universe, you don’t…”

“Wait a minute!” The time traveler jumped up, bumping the table.

The ghost shuddered in the air; perhaps that’s what ghosts did when they were surprised.

“You’re the ghost of the clone of my twin sister from another dimension?”

“Exactly!” said the ghost. “Well, no. I made that up too.”

“Then who are you?”



“You have a multiple personality disorder, and recorded this whole mad spiel as a joke on my most boring self.”

“That can’t be,” said the time traveler. “I got the recorder right before I left, in factory packaging.”

The ghost pointed to the depressed button on the recorder’s top–“PLAY” not “RECORD.”

“But how? I haven’t had time. And how would you… I… know what I was going to say?”

The ghost/hologram grinned, “Isn’t time travel great?”

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