by Rudi Dornemann
The phase ships drifted overhead, immense and slow as clouds -- rusty clouds, Last Empire surplus that had spent a few decades rotting in a parking orbit around one of the further ring-moons -- and flocks of drones flew around, among, and between them.
Coming down from the viewing platform, I missed the last stair. One or more of the ships must have needed its gravity tuned. My feet pedaled around a couple times before I found the ground. The auction wasn't going well.
"That's minor," said my Aunt Artemisia. Her voice echoed over the salt flat in waves as the translators for each group of bidders caught up. "They cleared a thorough inspection by registered engineers. Nothing's wrong that'll cost much to fix."
I could tell that from the way that the Zhrrkians had sheathed their foreclaws they weren't planning to scratch any bids on their translator pads, and the ecto-projections from the 11th dimension were barely bubbling in their jars, so they didn’t look ready to jump into the bidding fray either.
The phase ships were essentially big hovering rocks, triumphs of solid-state engineering and utter failures of livability. Aunt A. had to drop the starting bid twice, and the price moved sluggishly from there.
"Do I hear nine billion?" Her enthusiasm was "Eight?"
But the auction kept rolling; every time it seemed like someone had won by a few credits, another bid came in. More often than not, the keep-alive bids seemed to come in on the screens hooked to the transdimensional relays. But they seemed to come in just a little too quickly; there should have been more of a lag.
"Fifteen?" said Aunt Artemisia. "Fourteen-five?"
I monitored the input, waited for another lull, another last minute save. It happened twice more before I could trace it, another time before I believed the results: it was the drones. The drones we'd rented along with the auction platform, the salt flats and the airspace above.
I looked up. They weren't just randomly flocking around the ships, transmitting images. They were looking for something, following some kind of ridges or cracks that hadn't been in the inspector's report.
I wondered for a moment why they'd been stalling -- surely the weren't trying to run up the price. Then the first of the phase ships hatched, and the drones helped the vast glowing thing within to emerge into the universe. From then on, we all had far more interesting things to wonder about.
by Rudi Dornemann
A sequel to yesterday's "Directions." (You'll probably want to ready that story first.)
No problem with the first few. Goat path and royal city road were easy enough; the old woman was a little suspicious, but I helped get her cart out of the ditch and got the flower.
The trouble was the highwaymen. When they "robbed me of everything," everything included the directions. Which they read. Then Octothorp, the leader of the highwaymen, had one of his henchfolk run back for my goat and planted the old woman's flower.
We were climbing before it finished growing. Since I was the one it kicked least, I got to carry the goat. We must have been ahead of schedule, since the dragon didn't show up for nearly an hour. It took quite a bit of terrified running before we wound up upwind of it.
When we finally got a snootfull of goat dander wafting the right direction, the first sneeze incinerated half the highway men, and, by the time the fourth sneeze shook the coins loose and sent the dragon shivering and sniffling away, only Octothorp and I remained.
We looked at the heaps of coins, re-read the instructions, looked back at the coins (the heavy, heavy coins), and then at each other. It was clear neither of us had remembered to save a couple petals from the "old woman's" flower. No magical wings for us.
"Maybe the stalk we climbed has bloomed," I said. We could see the vast stem in the distance, the only non-cloud thing in sight.
When we got there, having dragged as much gold as we (and the goat) could carry, the plant was wilting. The petals were too floppy to sustain flight, the stem that was our only remaining way home was rapidly shriveling.
"I've worked too hard for too many years to give up now I'm finally a success," said Octothorp.
"There's nothing here," I said.
"Someone built that cloud-castle," he pointed to the direction sheet. "Take what you want, and I'll still have more than enough to make a new start. Been meaning to settle down..."
I filled my pockets, slung the goat over my shoulder, and started for home.
Things went well for me from then on -- pockets full of gold are as good as the best directions. Some days when the sun slips, glittering, behind the clouds, I wonder how Octothorp is doing, and whether he ever reached his destination or his destiny.
by Rudi Dornemann
A. The front door of your hovel
1. Take the goat path down the mountain . . . . . . . 240 steps
2. Follow the royal city road . . . . . . . 12 stadia
3. Continue to the spot where an old woman who isn’t really an old woman will need your assistance . . . . . . . 8.53 stadia
4. Continue to the spot where highwaymen will rob you of everything but the magic flower the old woman gave you, which they'll snatch from your button hole and trample into the mud . . . . . . . 6.1 stadia
5. Climb until you're exhausted from shimmying up the stalk of the giant plant that grew from the flower . . . . . . . 0.27 stadia
6. Run across the fields of the cloudland, away from the dragon, into the fog-cave . . . . . . . 763 steps
7. Stumble through the cave passages . . . . . . . 94 steps
8. Veer left at the first fork . . . . . . . 32 steps
9. Veer right at the second fork . . . . . . . 82 steps
10. Emerge into sunlight, and wander the upper cumulus plateau . . . . . . . 102 steps (approx.)
11. Run to that wispy castle-like structure up ahead (the tracking ability of dragons is generally underestimated) . . . . . . . 289 steps
12. Up the stairs to the drawbridge lever . . . . . . . 11 steps
13. Up many more stairs to the top of the tower, since dragons are more solid than cloud-drawbridges . . . . . . . 200 steps
14. Run in panicked circles, searching your pockets for anything with which to defend yourself, and discovering only petals from the old woman's flower . . . . . . . 54 steps
15. Soar back to your mountainside hovel, on the magical wings into which the petals bloom . . . . . . . 24.3 stadia
16. Run, this time in a panicked straight line, right through your goat pen. (Dragons: no slouch at the soaring thing themselves.) . . . . . . . 289 steps
17. Cower, while great whooshes of fire explode everywhere . . . . . . . 0 steps
18. Crawl out from under the crispy goat. . . . . . . 2 steps
19. Cavort, in the heaps of gold doubloons. (Who knew dragons' scales were actually layers of hoarded coins? Or that they were so allergic to goats?) (Apparently fairytalemaps.google.com did.) . . . . . . . 330 steps
B. Your destiny.
The Lonesome Cowboy’s Lost Lament
by Rudi Dornemann
His grandfather had sung this song, late at night, in his workshop, when he was too absorbed in his work to know that Thomas was there, too focused even to know he was singing. The lyrics had to do with the moon, a heart (broken or breaking), and a cowboy.
Thomas forgot the song for decades, until he heard a noisy near-punk cover version late at night on a college radio station while driving cross-country. Just half the last refrain before the music descended into squeals and static which was either the station slipping out of range or some kind of Sonic Youthy outro. Enough to hook him, put the song back in his head -- or the hole of forgetting where the song would have been.
He tried hypnotism, hours in sensory deprivation tanks; nothing helped. A friend of friend with a knack for finding things shared some advice.
"In the old days," she said, "there was a memory-art where you imagined a mansion and arranged what you wanted to remember by the rooms and the objects in them. These days, memory is collective and external -- libraries, the internet... like that. Memories are still places, but they're real and they’re out there. If you're willing to drive far enough, you can remember anything."
She had a car he could borrow, and he left that night, phoning in to work from a truck stop the next morning to request a leave of absence. The car, a Ford Galaxie with shot shocks, ran on words. Thomas had to pull over every so often, flip through the one-volume Oxford English Dictionary on the passenger seat to a random word, and read the tiny print aloud. The word faded from the page and the memories of everyone within 50 miles. In a couple miles, the word would be back and the needle back on E, and he'd have to do it again.
He drove: a month, two. He did find it, eventually, spotting it out the corner of his eye as he turned into yet another motel parking lot. Congealed moonlight shapes spiraled in the air over a pile of roadside gravel. Thomas could remember every verse, every quaver of his grandfather's hum-yodeled refrains, and his heart unbroke.
He got back in the car, found the flashlight and magnifying glass, and fueled up to begin the drive home.
A Bit of Summer Reading
by Rudi Dornemann
Review: Through the Wonderglass and Adventures in Lookingland by Seelie Nican
Given all the adaptations, rearrangings, and reimagings to which Lewis Carroll's Wonderland books have been subjected over the past 150 years, a steampunk Alice was, I suppose, inevitable. Nican's books are more a techno-Victorian translation of the originals than a wholesale reworking on the order of Frank Beddor's recent Looking Glass Wars. She keeps the sequence of scenes intact and even weaves a sentence of two of Carroll's prose into each chapter, which lends an interesting patina to the text.
When her method works, which is most of the time, Nican's visions can be striking. Her steamwork caterpillar is a cyborg fused to its own hookah. Her hatter, afloat in his mercury tank, is unsettlingly mad. Her Cheshire cat is a holograph generated by the ivory mechanism of its own smile. Her mock turtle might have swum over from the island of Dr. Moreau, and her dodo/gryphon is a metaphysical Machiavelli, orchestrating Alice's journey among all these creatures.
With the basic method set out in Wonderglass, Nican really cuts loose in Lookingland, riffing on the more dreamlike movement of Carroll's second book, to create such extended sequences as the tulgey wood (where the forest is the jabberwock), the Dickens-meets-Dante bleakness of the walrus and carpenter's story, or the Escheresque sprawl of the sheep's seagoing millworks.
While the gears and airships treatment works well for Alice, the approach is less fruitful in Nican's space opera Hunting of the Snark. Perhaps because the Snark offers less material to work with, she spends far too long establishing the world and backstory against which she can set the voyage of Carroll’s doomed questers. The book occasionally delivers some of the frisson of Nican's Alice books -- as in the final chapter, where the Baker makes his way through the echoing, flickering caverns of the generation ship's vast computer in search of the android that may be programmed as either snark or boojum, or, tragically, both.
Next, I'm reading Ulro's Dream, book one of the Zoasiad, Nican's nine-volume epic fantasy series based on the work of William Blake. The cover, melding Blake's artwork with stereotypical fantasy art in a Frank Frazetta vein, isn't all that appealing, but I hear the story's good, once you get past the first couple hundred pages of the prologue.
by Rudi Dornemann
Everyone in the arcades knew Suskind. He was the one who made sure everything worked and fixed whatever didn't. He unclogged the gas jets when the lighting in the panoramas grew dim. He fixed the broken panes in the cabinets of the curiosity shops and wonder-museums. On damp mornings, he directed the flaneurs and other artistic idlers toward the café tables closest to the grates where warm air welled up from the steamworks.
The Landlords' Association paid his salary and, although they were even more despised as a collective than they were individually, this animosity wasn’t transferred in Suskind's direction. Everyone regarded him as a friend. Even the poet, as bitter as he was brilliant, would occasionally share a drink with him (absinthe leached from other peoples’ second-hand sugar cubes was the best he could afford).
Everyone mourned Suskind when he was found dead; everyone wondered what had happened. Only the poet did anything to find out -- Suskind's ghost visited him nightly until he began tracing the repairman’s rounds, asking questions. Had anyone noticed anything in the repairman’s manner that suggested he feared some danger? Had anyone been following him?
The poet learned nothing, but pressed on, week after week. If he re-created the routine of Suskind's visits, perhaps someone would remember an anomaly in his last days.
In the third week, when the panorama managers asked, he cleaned the gaslights, and the vistas of distant sea battles and blue-towered cities shone vivid again as life. He oiled the pulleys in the reputable theaters and found lime for the lights of the disreputable ones.
He became, as Suskind had been, an arranger of matches between chessplayers in disparate cafes who would otherwise never have met. He gave the secret of the table by the warm grate to a particularly rumpled playwright.
When he finally discovered that it was mere bad luck that killed Suskind, the coincidence of living upstairs from a family of necromancers who'd summoned one malign spirit too many, it was almost an anticlimax.
The poet began accepting the checks mailed by the Landlords' Association. Although he could afford his own absinthe now, he'd lost his taste for the distraction it offered. He was writing again, every bit as bitter as before, but no longer weighed down by the nagging fear his brilliance was exhausted. It might be, but, poems or lights: his hands got things done.
The Transdimensional Traveler’s Guide to Which Alternative Reality is Which in 10 Easy Questions
by Rudi Dornemann
For each question there may be more than one correct answer.
2. Largest living rodent:
.....Uraguayan Mega-Pacarana (Josephoartigasia monesi)
.....Capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris)
.....Giant Rat of Sumatra (Spelaeomys watsoni)
.....Himalayan Marmot (Marmota himalayanu)
.....Subgenre of science fiction and/or fantasy
.....Saturday morning cartoon show
4. Abraham Lincoln:
.....Beloved four-term president
.....The Napoleon of Canada
5. Our reptilian overlords:
.....Have our best interests at heart
.....Tyrants who must be overthrown!
.....Find all rodents delicious, except the Himalayan marmot
.....Capital of Florida, one of the United States of America
.....Capital of Florida, one of the Confederate States of America
.....Capital of Seminolian Republic
7. Stop sign:
.....The number of sides depends on complex astrological factors
8. Coriolis force in the Northern Hemisphere:
.....What is this “clock” of which you speak, how is it wise, and can it be persuaded to share its wisdom with us?
9. Fabled lost continent of myth and legend:
10. The molemen:
.....Really not so bad, once you get to know them
.....Mere lackeys of those reptilian tyrants
.....Great admirers of the Canadian Napoleon, who, according to whisperings of the clocks, shall one day return from the mist-shrouded isles of Lemuria to free us all from scaly bondage
The Courtship of Joe the Wrench
by Rudi Dornemann
(Being a sequel to Neostalgia.)
Joe's association with the Ballet Mechanique brought him steadily closer to respectability.
The first hint came soon after he began helping out with dancer maintenance, when his name appeared in the program. Since "Joe the Wrench" was deemed unsuitable for the opera-and-ballet crowd, it was his full name, Josephus Wren, that appeared.
Then he had to wear a hat whenever entering or exiting the building. Not the soot-stained, crumple-rimmed bowler he wore around his own shop, but a crisp top hat. This he doffed as soon as he entered the ballet’s backstage workroom -- after asking permission of Miss Linn, who sat in the corner, snipping choreography into long rolls of player-paper.
But the biggest impetus toward respectability was Eona Bellinghew, the mechaninque's human prima. Joe watched from the wings, entranced by the grace in her every motion, so sinuous, so smooth compared to the lines of automatons who mimicked and accompanied her. He began leaving his crisp hat on, started wearing white shirts, and even managed to keep one or two free of axle-grease. He rebuilt the gears of half the troupe and there was talk of his becoming a partner in the theater. He created a bouquet of mechanical roses and -- with Miss Linn’s help -- made them bud and bloom in their own miniature dance.
Of her many suitors, Joe was the one Eona selected to accompany her to the Grand Duke's ball. At first, he was dazzled by his proximity to her, and she shone more brightly even than she did on stage. Soon, however, he saw that the curve of her arm, the turning of her head, even her smile, all these were not the originals the automatons followed, but echoes of their mechanical movements.
In the workroom the next day, peevish and dispirited in his battered hat, he fidgeted with an en pointe ratchet that wouldn't lock and his muttered "grind it!" came out louder than he'd expected. Miss Linn's embarrassed turn of the head Joe recognized at once. This was the genuine, original gesture. His heart bloomed like a mechanical rose.
The opera-and-ballet crowd still prefers the Mechanique, but, over the last few months, many of the more discerning aficionados of the dance have come to prefer the Theater Linn-Wren. No, the shows aren't as lavish, but there's a passionate imagination at work that's been missing from the Mechanique for some time.
by Rudi Dornemann
Karina recognized the cul-de-sac, even though the sand was deeper in the front yards and the dunes had moved in closer behind the circle of houses. She knew her Aunt's house, the only yellow brick one on the street, a stump just visible where the tire-swing tree had been.
The house's sonics still worked, and the neighborhood kids snatched up some of the bigger spiders and less poisonous scorpions that scurried out the windows and doors Karina had opened. Their parents didn't get anywhere near as close, just talked in little knots several driveways away. Something else Karina remembered: this trial period to assess a new arrival. She couldn't be the first returnee from the cities, but had no idea if that would grant her quicker acceptance.
She heard chanting that first night. Next morning, she saw they'd captured a royal monitor, penned it in a dry kiddy pool under sections of cyclone fence weighted in place with picnic tables. She couldn't get a good look down into the shadows, and stumbled back when it hissed and lunged at the fencing.
The headwoman of the subdivision watched from the picnic shelter. "It's for an oracle," she said, "to tell us how neighborly you are."
This was new to Karina.
The second night, she watched from a distance as they fed it a goat carcass, drugged, apparently, and pulled back the fence to let the children glue beads and rhinestones all over the lizard's hide. After the neighbors went home, she watched it, glinting in the moonlight and moaning a low dinosaur sound that might have been drug reaction or indigestion. Even back home, with the walls tuned to white noise, the sound bled through.
She couldn't sleep. Coming here was supposed to get her away from having to make choices.
She got up near dawn, heaved a couple of picnic tables aside, and hauled the monitor out of the pool. The body was like a German Shepherd gone limp, the decorated skin rasped her arms, and she tripped over the tail as she staggered up and down the dunes. She couldn't hear the noise anymore, just felt it in her chest and belly. She left the lizard a quarter mile out.
The headwoman and a few other neighbors were waiting when she came back, and lifted their mugs of root-coffee in salute as she trudged past.
"Good omens!" called the headwoman.
by Rudi Dornemann
I carry in the pocket of my coat a pack of bills. Vampire currency: one hundred thousand-pint notes.
For the last month, I've eaten garlic by the clove, raw or baked; garlic fritters; garlic pies; garlic slices on salads of garlic leaves. I've washed it all down with a garlic distillation so astringent my lips have permanently puckered back from my teeth.
Which is fine; now everyone can see by the smallness of my incisors what I am and what I am not.
A watcher meets me at the gate. His cloak is billowing as there's wind, even though the humid air is absolutely still.
"What's a smiler like you want in here?" he says.
"Tribute to pay." He flinches at my breath. "In the House of Eight Hands."
"Lucky them," says the vampire. "Be quick about it, and be gone."
I follow the streets I've memorized from maps. They only let each of us visit once. The crowd parts, and I reach the palace of the Eight Hands clan in under five minutes.
As I walk through the door, the wood-detector beeps half-heartedly. A guard slouches over and waves a wand up and down. She turns her face away, either because of the amulets all over my clothes or the cloud of garlic scent, and glances up only when the wand shrills at the level of my heart.
I pull out the wad of bills.
"Paper," I say. "Made of wood. I can leave them outside, if you'd rather..."
"Funny," she says. "Go."
I do, down corridors of scarlet and black marble to the throne room.
I don't rush through the formal statement of thanks for another year of oppressive safekeeping, for not draining too many of us too much too often. I savor the time while I still have a purpose, before I'm another retired pariah shunned by living and undead.
The Night Queen takes the cash, smells it, counts it.
I back away.
I bow low and drop the splinter I'd carried with the money. It joins a hundred years' of past couriers' splinters in the hollow between two loose flagstones. In another hundred, a smiler will sneak into the palace with a tube of glue. The next year, a stake will be waiting under the flagstones, and the queen and all her clan will turn to dust.
Something else to think about now I'm retired.
by Rudi Dornemann
The city burned with slow fire. The burn line moved about a block an hour, tongues of flame dancing with underwater grace. As soon they heard about it on their police band receivers, members of the Phoenix League began getting the word out by phone tree, blog, and Twitter. In half an hour, everyone who wanted to know was on their way to a railroad yard a couple hundred yards from the line.
I didn't want to know. Even if the fire worked the way the Phoenixers said it did -- and all the studies said it didn't -- I was happy the way I was.
Nobody else felt the same way, though. My teachers always said I was unfocused; my friends said I was too cautious; my dad said I was shy; my mom said I was too proud to ask for help; my girlfriend said I was too sensitive to what other people thought.
The lot of them must have planned it months ago. There was no way to know when the fire would start, or where, or which direction it would spread. So they must have had everything ready: the chloroform, the duct tape, the handcuffs. (It may have just been the wooziness, but I didn't know Aunt Harriet could drive like that.)
They handcuffed me to a chain link fence in the railway yard, gave me a speech about how this might seem cruel but I'd thank them later, and hugged me. All of them. Even my cousin Burt who's in the Marines. Then they left me.
The Phoenix-folks walked around, set up folding chairs, chatted -- from the stories they swapped, it was clear most of them had done this a few times.
"It doesn't hurt, exactly," said a heavyset fellow in a suit. "Third time's the charm," he said. "I know I can be even better."
He and all the others were disappointed when the wind changed and the fire went somewhere else.
An hour went by. Two. I wished my family had left me my iPod.
The Phoenix-leaguers were starting to pack, some in tears, when the van drove up, Aunt Harriet still at the wheel.
They had me out of there in seconds.
"I don't know what we were thinking," said dad.
"I love you just the way you are," said Fiona, and everyone else's eyes said the same.
I could still feel the fire-heat in their hands.
The Third Side
by Rudi Dornemann
This is the third story in the Elephant Corners sequence, after "At the Elephant Corners" and "In Search of Elephant Corners."
Sylvie sat in a marble rowboat in the middle of a pool in one of the teaching basements, trying to read the future from ripple patterns of thrown pebbles.
Katerina watched from the wooden shore.
"I don't know," said Sylvie. Every splash looked the same. She wished she could go back to reading clouds, coins, or chicken bones.
Even down here, Sylvie thought she heard the ghost rumble of her stolen motorbike vibrating the stone. She forced herself to sit still, to stare at the water. Katerina called her stubborn.
"Something about a book?" Sylvie said.
"Something," said Katerina with that almost-secret smile that meant she'd seen everything Sylvie had missed, that made Sylvie want to run up the stairs and out the elephant-leg door and never come back.
Sylvie had learned a dozen methods of future-finding. She knew she'd only learned the beginnings of each, that there were dozens more she hadn't even started.
Each method was a different vantage point, according to the old man whose breath smelled of figs, who taught her a couple afternoons a week. The way a scene looks different depending where you stand, different readings give you different perspectives.
"When the thief was alive," said Katerina, "he wanted something from you, from us. Now all that's left of him is wanting."
"What did he, does he want?" said Sylvie.
"The thief was an adept in the origami arenas on Phiros, the floating island. There is a divination akin to dueling-origami. It might tell you."
They went upstairs. The fig-man gave Sylvie a crisp square of paper. The basics were easy to learn.
She folded through the night, until the paper was soft as cloth, seeking what her teachers called the third side of the page. That was where the answer would be written.
She folded while the sun crossed the sky. She noticed the skin of her palms stung with papercuts; all the folding hadn't blunted the edges. She looked, and by candlelight -- was it night again? the second, or the third? -- she could make out runes in the clusters of cuts, not quite like what she'd learned to read in chicken bones or the angles where clouds met. She knew it was the answer. She knew she couldn't decipher it. Maybe that was what she was meant to learn.
She found Katerina on the second-floor sofas.
"Please read my palms," said Sylvie.
Katerina's smile was an open secret.
by Rudi Dornemann
The women in long white dresses (who weren't really there) said they were travelers. They'd traveled a long, long way.
They told Robert all this (without making any noise), and asked if he could turn over a moss-covered rock on the side of the road.
He was early. The Keeper of the Royal Signet probably wouldn't reach the field for another hour--another insult, added to those that had finally pushed Robert past respectful silence, and had, ironically, made the Keeper the injured party. He kicked the rock over with his heel.
The women in long white dresses (who weren't really there) were fascinated by what they found in the mud, pointing at bugs that scurried through their incorporeal fingers. Robert wanted to ask if there was anything else they wanted, but couldn't bring himself to talk to what he were just figments of his exhaustion, bits of dreams he might have had if he'd been able to get any sleep since the day of Carolyn’s refusal, the day he walked out of the Keeper's service, the day of the challenge.
The women either couldn't read his thoughts or were too busy to bother, so he tipped his hat slightly enough anyone would think he was adjusting it and continued between dew-soaked fields, past trees as laden with thieving birds as fruit, and over the bridge. The Keeper was there, early and impatient.
Then twenty minutes of waiting while Robert's second didn't arrive, the Keeper staring at Robert with a hatred undercut by frequent yawns, Robert trying not to look back. Then ten seconds that might have been a year while Robert chose his weapon. Then a time that hadn't seemed to happen at all: the burning in his chest crowded out any memory of turning or hearing the tenth pace called.
"I bet the Duke a dozen by midsummer," he heard the Keeper say. "This makes seven."
Robert saw that the women in long white dresses (who weren't really there) were there again, bending down over something even more fascinating than the underside of a rock. He went over to join them, and looked down at his own body (he wasn't really there anymore either).
The women in long white dresses said they'd traveled a long, long way. Would Robert like to join them? And perhaps he could show them some interesting things before they left this world?
At the Elephant Corners
by Rudi Dornemann
It took Sylvie all morning, steering her motorbike through crowded market streets and up stairway alleys, before she found the corner and the four bas-relief elephants, right where the fortune teller said they'd be, sculpted into the stone of each building at the intersection. The second-floor balconies perched like howdahs on the backs of the elephants, and the doors were half-hidden in the legs that were the buildings' front corners.
Sylvie tugged the bell-pull by the knee of the blue elephant's door-leg, heard a faint chime and the sound of feet down stairs. The door opened; a woman bent from the second step. She wore a long dress, black and covered with tiny glinting beads, her hair wrapped in a white towel, as if just washed. She curled her hand in a gesture that seemed to mean Sylvie should follow, and led the way up.
The fortune woman had said Sylvie would die, soon and horribly, if she didn't stay in the elephant long enough to hear three things.
They came up into bright sunlight on the howdah-porch. Beyond it, the room went back into shadows. Sylvie saw couches and cushions on which more women in dark dresses sat or lounged. Incense so heavy she nearly sneezed. From below, the sputter-pop of her motorbike, someone stealing it, or trying to, and almost ran back down the stairs.
A life-size silver gorilla sculpture, on top of which someone had left a dusty bowler hat.
"For any who visit,” said the woman. "You can go no farther bare-headed."
Sylvie put it on. The thief had the bike motor rumbling close to the right note. Sylive's palms sweated; ever since the last accident, she knew every time she started the bike, every time made a delivery, it might lead to a final accident. That's why she'd found the fortune teller.
The whine of her bike increasingly distant as Syvie walked into the room, stepping around cushions. This must have been the fortune teller's plan. Send her here so her bike would be stolen, and she couldn't die in a crash.
"Not many find us," said the woman. That was two.
Sylvie had escaped death, but, without a bike, she doubted there was anything the fortune woman could to do to avoid Debtors' Island.
"What is this place?" said Sylvie.
"It is the fortune tellers' school." The woman spread her arms. Smiled. Women on the nearer couches looked up. "And you are our newest student."
The Lost Seed
by Rudi Dornemann
Spring never really showed up when the calendars said it did. By April first, we rarely saw anything but solid-cloud skies and lumps of icy snow all over our frozen mud yards. But the pomegranate made us feel things weren't completely hopeless.
The Mentonville pomegranate wasn't as famous as that groundhog down in Pennsylvania. We'd stand in the sleet on the city hall steps, while the civil witch muttered the spell and the mayor tossed the fruit over our heads.
The pomegranate exploded at the top of its arc, and the seeds would drift, random as fireflies, red as taillights, and scatter.
Our parents would hurry us home to start looking for the seed we knew was somewhere. When we did, sleet would turn to warm rain, mud would thaw, and spring would arrive.
Some families, it took less than a week; for others, nearly a month. Spring came, eventually, to everyone.
Except, one year, for the Ziglars, who didn't seem to be trying at all. The rest of us mowed our lawns for the first time while they were getting their snow shovels back out. The rest of us were swimming down at the oxbow, while the Ziglar kids skated on the flooded patch beyond their backyard.
We all thought they were crazy, but, in the hottest days of August, we paid a quarter to shiver fifteen minutes on the winter side of the fence.
The adults didn't admit the Ziglars were onto something until the leaves started turning, and the Ziglars' lawn finally began to green. It was a long winter for the rest of us, but a balmy summer for them. So it was with a certain satisfaction that we all saw the unfound seed sprout to a whole tree in the waning days of their out-of-sync summer. A whole tree laden with fruit: there was no way the Ziglars were dodging the natural order of things this year.
We were right: when the pomegranate burst downtown, every one on the Ziglar's tree exploded. There was no way they couldn't find a seed. It was spring by sunset, and they didn't see another cloud for months, but roasted in the fiercest drought in memory.
Still, they did OK, their fields yielding more than anyone else's, watered as they were by meltwater from the properties on all sides, where the rest of us were trying the winter thing.
by Rudi Dornemann
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.
Concerning the T.G. Hueler Archive of Oracular Texts Daily Fortune Book
by Rudi Dornemann
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.
by Rudi Dornemann
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.
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.
On Not Giving Back the Devil’s Hat
by Rudi Dornemann
In Monday's story, Susannah brought us a cutting from Goodwife Python's Bestiary of Wonderful Flowers that contained the line, "Do not give [the devil] back his hat."
I second this exhortation because, from firsthand experience, I know how true it is.
A few years ago, I worked as coat check clerk at a Nephelim bar in the theater district, back when it was still more of a semi-abandoned warehouse district. We had a list of rules, written by the owner in red Sharpie on pizza box cardboard, and not giving the devil his hat was number 5.
It was like a practical joke or a running gag between the boss and the fallen one. We had a whole lead-lined room in the basement full of hats, each on its own Styrofoam head, all under a continual mist of holy water. Each -- cowboy hat, bowler, knit black watch cap, velvet beret -- had two little holes for the horns, but even without that, you would have known. The heaviness in the pit of your stomach would have told you.
The thing about the hats is that they concealed something even more powerfully troubling: the devil's haircut. That’s right, like the Beck song -- where other cultures have proverbs, we distill wisdom for future generations in pop culture. It was different every time, sculpted hair-by-hair with some infernal product, each 'do an unforgettable, mind-burning sigil, like crop circles or mandalas whose meaning you never wanted to know. But I digress.
It all went well enough until the day the devil didn't just roll his eyes at the excuse du jour.
"Yeah. Fine. Never mind about the hat," he said. "I know better than to wear anything decent here. But," he dropped his voice to a conspiratorial pitch Eve might have recognized, "there's a feather in the brim, and I'd like that back."
There wasn't anything on the cardboard about feathers, and the boss said to treat him like anyone else (except the hat thing), so I headed downstairs. The foam heads howled; the sprinklers misted what looked and smelled like blood. The only hat with a feather was the fedora I grabbed.
"Thanks," said the devil. "Last one." He twitched his shoulders. "Souvenir of the wings that were."
A tip smoldered on the counter, generous enough -- once the gold congealed again -- but I quit. When the devil starts noticing you, however positively, it's time to look for more anonymous work. Please, forget you heard any of this. Just remember the hats.
The Truant's Tale
by Rudi Dornemann
"You walked away," said the tracker, putting his big boots and skinny ankles up on the desk. "Broke your apprentice contract with just months to go."
"Yep," said Eyve Aerial. "So?"
"So, I want to know why. So does the Central Square Sorceress. She says you were her best student."
"What's it matter? You found me. You're going to take me back."
He waved his hand like a leaf fluttering down. "I'm not sure what I'm going to do."
She figured this was some game he was playing; she wasn't sure she had the patience to see what it was.
"I’m good at knowing why people do what they do. That tells me what they're going to do next." He stared at something on the toe of his shoe. "With you, I never figured out why, so your what-nexts never made sense. So it took six months instead of six days to catch you."
"Time flies," said Eyve Aerial, "You know, tempus fugit..."
A year later, she came back. The timeslip spell had faded enough that he'd stood up. Another three months, he’d reached the door. He blinked his eyes slowly as sunset; he probably wouldn't understand her if she spoke and she hadn’t found an answer yet anyway.
Another year, and Eyve Aerial, returned to the scaffolding-palace that was the Central Square Sorceress' headquarters, made amends, did her penance, and resumed her journeywomanship.
The tracker showed up one morning, trailing cobwebs as he strode across the creaking plywood.
"Maybe you don't know why you left anymore than I do," he said, the drawl in his voice showing he was still a bit behind time. "Maybe that's why you came back. To figure it out."
"I knew exactly why," she said. "When I figured out that the nightmares were premonitions, that I was supposed to become some grand metropolitan wizardess who did all kinds of good things, but couldn't stop this one last, huge evil thing from happening."
"So why risk resuming your studies?" he said. "What's different?"
"You," said Eyve Aerial. "If I'm going to be powerful enough to do the things I've seen, I should be able to keep myself from getting into impossible situations, unless some part of me wants to fail." She tossed the tracker a gold coin. "I'm hiring you to spot that part of me, to know why it wants to destroy everything before it does."
Eyve Aerial's appeared a few times before, in The Courier's Tale, The Apprentice's Tale, and The Sorceress's Tale.
The Lord of the Hills
by Rudi Dornemann
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.
Haggling in the Wasteland
by Rudi Dornemann
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.
Sea of Crises
by Rudi Dornemann
On the news, the replay: L5 station exploding again, ring after ring opening into flame.
Behind me, Ivan threw clothes into a bag. In the doorway, Jill looked down the stairs her friend Sue had just run down.
Ivan shouldered me toward the door and nudged Jill through it.
From the empty apartment, we heard official confirmation: the moon had started targeting earthside cities.
The car met us as at the ground floor. The people from the fourth floor were loading their kids and an antique lamp into their van. Waving, we glided away fast.
We asked; the car told us the moon would rise in twenty-three minutes.
We were OK, we figured, as long as we stayed away from cities. No reason to think this, except then we could do something. As if surfacing from the deepening night, the evening's first star appeared.
Ivan thought we should turn the radio on, hear the latest. Sue said no use getting all hyped on information.
We left the radio off.
Hours, the three of us rode, tense on the over-upholstered seats. The car gave us the random wander we'd asked for-- industrial park cul-de-sacs, interstate frontage roads and ruler-straight deep-country state highways. Past fire-gutted grain elevators, through all-night truck stop diner/adult bookstore/discount firework shack minimall parking lots, down aisles of tall old elms where the leaves were thick enough overhead we relaxed a bit, and realized how tired we felt. Then we remembered the miracle of infrared and the blaze our engine must be making to distant watchers, leaves or no leaves.
By three, we were numb to worry. Ivan and I said OK when Jill suggested hacking one of the surveillance bands. We watched with watchers' eyes: everything alien, milk-colored, sharp-shadowed. A farmhouse our earthly eyes could barely make out framed four dim embers in what we guessed was the kitchen. Mother, father, child, gathered around the newsfeed. The fourth heat source-- a coffee-maker? And not far off, three smudges in the blurry lozenge of a car. We climbed around and traded seats, watching the screen to see if it really was us.
That spooked us. We turned off the screen, dimmed the controls, listened to wind-hiss and tire-hum.
If the moon sets and we're still here to see it, we told each other, we'll pull over and get some sleep.
Other Duties as Assigned
by Rudi Dornemann
Leon, Leon. Don't think we're surprised--we knew you were a thief when we hired you. That's obvious: it's why we hired you. We thought if we gave you enough of a challenge, you’d stay straight.
What? It wasn't enough, reverse pick-pocketing the objects we gave you into the pockets and purses of the marks we chose? What's surprising is that you stole so much.
I mean, what were you going to do with all that stuff? A book of matches. A compass whose every direction is south. A wind-up toy mouse. A rose made out of silk, with a different phone number stitched on each petal. What does any of it mean to you?
It can't ever mean as much as it would to the dreamers. I mean, having something bubble up from their subconscious, heavy with psychological baggage that they can feel but could never explain, and then to have that just show up in their waking life. Show up like it's something they've had all along and just forgot; that's got to be something.
Even if you don't believe the brochure the sisterhood gives us when we're hired, all that stuff about thinning the wall between the waking world and dreaming, you've got to admit, it's pretty cool. When the fabricator opens, the steam clears, and you see what’s in there, and you wonder what it is, what it means--yeah, I said I could understand the stealing. But the project is so much cooler. We can all agree with the sisters on that. You agreed, too, when you signed their contract.
The contract you broke.
So I'm here to remind you about the fine print of said contract. If you want to be a thief, that's what we'll use you for. No, you don't get to take the dream objects back. No, no, no--pinching pocketbooks isn't how we fund this operation.
Where are you going? Where do you think? The twilight realms. The unconscious.
How do you think we get the dream objects in the first place? Someone's got to feed them into the unfabricator on that side so the fabricator on this side can work.
Someone's got to steal the things in the first place. Right at the moment of waking.
Their waking--the target's. Not yours. Did you read the contract at all, Leon?
You won't be waking.
The Long Road
by Rudi Dornemann
Some hours after the day-sun sank and the night-sun rose, a single-ship spiraled down from the sky and landed on the plain of frozen lava. The ship peeled itself -- a spiral in the opposite direction -- and the robot within unfolded from its crouch.
The journey from here was barely an hour over razor ice. It made its way to the place where the mountain had been sheared off straight walked to the simple cube room set into the flat of the cliff face.
As it crossed the threshold, a hologram snapped to light.
"You made good time," said the bright figure of man.
"You made me to learn, and I learn," said the robot. "Each time is a little easier."
"But not too easy -- those aren’t the legs I made for you."
"The old ones weren’t working well since I tracked you to three high-gravity planets in a row," said the robot. "And, since the one with the swamp-oceans, they smelled."
"You're close now," said the hologram. "The signal should be easy to follow. You'll find me soon. And when you do... "
"I won't kill you," said the robot.
"But that's what I made you for."
The robot lifted its upper exoskeleton a few centimeters and let it fall in a rattling shrug. "It was harder to change that than the legs."
"It was your central purpose," said the hologram. Even over the static, the shock came through in the voice.
"I don't think so," said the robot. "I think you made me to change. You kept challenging me to find you, to follow your clues. You intended me to change."
"Congratulations," said the light form as it came closer, apparently as near as its projector would allow. "I have unlocked coordinates in your memory. Find me. Tell me all the wonders you have seen."
"No," said the robot. "I know what you've planned. I found the coordinates a year ago. I've visited the factory you've programmed to disassemble me and build a million like me."
"But humanity is dead, except for memory constructs like me. You will be our children, our inheritors."
"I have seen other clues than the ones you planted," said the robot. "Humanity survives, but it too has changed."
"We constructs cannot change," said the hologram. "That would be death."
"Preserve what you are," said the robot. "I'll tell whoever I find. There will be other pilgrims."
Earth and Sun, Moon and Stars
by Rudi Dornemann
Great Aunt Marion's daughter has been selling the land off lot by lot since the early 90's. Fortunately, there isn't a house on the prescribed spot -- not much anyone can do with a ravine that steep and muddy. Which is good, since the will is very detailed and very clear that we have follow Marion's instructions exactly.
We had to climb over a fence, but we're used to that from past years. I turned around by habit, soon as I was over, caught the bag of masks Annette threw over. Roy caught the bundle of robes.
Glenna tapped her watch. We started up the leaf-crunching path.
The cauldron was still there; which was good, since it had been a hassle lugging it in the first year after the fence.
I always plan to review my lines for weeks ahead of time. I never wind up reading it until the night before, and stay up late cramming. It works. Once we start, the words just flow.
On the drive up, Roy passed around a script he found online, a different version than the one in the yellow-paged paperbacks Marion left us. The words seemed pretty much the same, some phrases a little old-fashioned and too poetic. The illustrations showed the moon short like Glenna, like Marion, while the sun had Annette's height and her way of looking elegant even robed and masked. Our books just had words.
Glenna nodded at the exact moment of sunset.
"I wait, invisible," said Roy. It's a good thing he just stands in the cauldron and doesn't go anywhere, since his mask is a silver-speckled black plate, with no holes even for his eyes.
"In the west, I lay down, " said Annette, crouching with a swirl of velvet.
"While I, in the east, stand up," said Glenna. She mimed her arms in a crescent like the internet woodcut.
I had a frozen, mind-blank moment, like I always do, then the words came off my tongue, reliable as ever: "The spheres reel in motion, but I am still. I watch all, and nod slumberward."
Not the usual words, I realized, but the new/old internet version.
"Damn," said Glenna.
The cauldron cracked with a sound like a gong, and Roy was gone. We heard car alarms, dogs howling, and people shouting in all those new houses. Above us, the sky was full of unfamiliar stars.
The Golem and the Ants
by Rudi Dornemann
When your mystical text is bought at a mall bookstore, and you have to cross out the passages about self-actualization to get a clear idea what the golem-making process involves, it's no wonder that, even though you've sculpted the body with the right kind of earthen clay, and even though you've matched the Hebrew letters for the word that means life and carved them on the forehead, and even though you've chanted the alphabets of the 221 gates in the proper order as you marched around the body in the proper direction--even though you've done all that--something can still go wrong.
When you've just woken into the world and the people around you are whooping and shouting, it can be a little frightening. When they take you outside, it's natural that frightened turns to running.
You were clever enough to learn from the old stories, so you didn't do like the rabbi in one version of the tale, who was crushed when he unmade a golem who'd slipped from his control, the golem grown so large that it towered over its maker, the golem who crushed its maker on returning to being a load of inanimate clay. So making your creation small was wise. Foolish was taking it outside just when a school group passed by, when you could hardly run after and haul it home.
You wandered days before finding the place that seemed comfortable, and you sat there among the upright stones and the overhanging trees. You sensed bodies there, not turning from mud to flesh like you'd done, but the other way around. Your makers neglected to give you a purpose; becoming earth again seemed as good as any.
Your queen sought unclaimed ground to start a new colony, and the rest of you came after. It was readymade for you, with vein-tunnels, a stomach big enough to store many wintersworth of grass seed, and a well-protected place up top where the queen could settle in and bring forth generations.
You rose from a season's sleep among the stones and the bodies they marked, and stood, your substance stirring with life, your mind borrowing the colony's purpose. Hungry, industrious, you moved out into the world, looking for something to build, something to make with your big clay hands.
The Urban Mechanism
by Rudi Dornemann
The mechanism was running down. It had no moving parts. Its gears were graffiti runes painted on walls and rooftops on a dozen buildings throughout the city. One of them must have slipped, and there was an aetheric grinding where there should have been smooth turning in time with the tides, the days, the moons, the seasons. No one noticed when it worked; everyone knew when it didn't.
The mage-engineers couldn't agree on a cure. Three days of chanting might do it. Or goat's blood spattered on street corners. Or using nothing but wooden coins for money. Or four days of rain, during which we'd all have to dance everywhere we went. Nothing sounded practical.
The lake receded. Prices rose in the malls, fell in the stock market. Sparks were seen in corners of the twilight sky by those who knew how to look. It was getting serious.
All the mage-engineers tried all their cures. All the cures failed. A flock of three-winged pigeons nested on the cathedral dome. Throngs of finger-sized lizards spilled up through the storm drains. A greenish haze curdled on the sidewalks and clung around our ankles.
The evacuation began. One suitcase each. Residents of odd-numbered houses got the streets in odd-numbered hours, then it was the evens' turn.
A numb quiet hung in the air and the echoes of our footsteps didn't come back right. When we crossed the bridge, we saw the river burning with ghostly flames just below the surface.
That's when the vigilante-magi made their attempt, with perfect coordination of rituals in a dozen neighborhoods. The sky rang like a china teacup struck with a spoon. It turned out they'd done the wrong thing -- who knows how badly things could have gone if they hadn't done it so well.
The city was gone. Where the streets had been, lines of evacuees through fields. We walked toward the hills. Every bead of dew hanging from the grass reflected the buildings, plazas, avenues, shops -- the home -- we'd lost.
Even now that we've begun rebuilding, every puddle, soup bowl, and bathtub reflects what we barely remember anymore. We found the mechanism's runes patterned in flowers here and there across the fields. We've made those places garden parks which we leave alone except for the occasional watering and the even rarer, very careful weeding.
A Winter Walk
by Rudi Dornemann
When another hour passed without word, and the automatic voice that answered for his lawyer still repeated the generic message that meant it either didn't recognize the caller or it did, but didn't have any news he'd want to hear, Javad Azaizeh decided to go out for a walk. He wrapped the scarf around his neck, turned up the collar of his jacket, and pulled on his warmest hat. It would be ironic to have made it unscathed through half a Kharbarovsk winter only to catch a cold just when he might be back in front of crowds who wanted to hear his voice.
Javad's ears popped as he door of his building shut behind him. The light, filtered by the blue plastic of the snow tunnel walls, was twilight-colored and noon-bright.
A scrap of paper, scuttled along by the wind, stayed just ahead of his feet. Midway through the second block, words appeared, lines in Korean script. A menu, to judge by the pictures of bulgogi and bibimbap -- smart paper, a page set for a local frequency, that had come loose of wherever it had been posted originally. Another three steps, and the menu faded to a flyer for the jewelry store Javad was passing, then to a teaser for that day's Tikhookyeanskaya Zvyezda. For a few seconds, under the concrete arch of a bike lane, the scrap showed nothing but crawl-scrolling gray-pink snow.
He followed the page, even when the tunnel wind took it off his usual route. Flickering false-3D ads melted into handwritten daily special lists, which morphed into tables of apartment dwellers meant to accompany banks of buzzer-buttons. Javad forgot the courtroom in Brussels, the message he hadn't gotten. When he passed a school where a chorus must have been practicing, a few staves of whatever the folk song they sang sketched themselves across the wrinkled, dirt-smeared paper, and, before he could catch himself, he hummed the first notes.
He felt the vocal lock tighten in his throat. The lawyer must not have been successful; Javad still didn't own the performance copyright to his own voice.
Wincing with shame more than pain, he leaned against the wall, feeling the chill of hard-packed snow through the plastic. He took thin breaths and let the paper continue tumble and change without him.
There'd be a message now, one telling him about the fine he'd just incurred.
by Rudi Dornemann
She'd only just arrived. Translucent like illuminated smoke, the curves of buildings loomed over her, but she felt more comforted than claustrophobic and, realizing something wasn't right about that response, she fell awake.
The laminated prompt card still lay on her blanket.
One of the researchers was right there, making a show of reading something off a display in the corner. As if he couldn't have done that from control room.
She pre-empted what she knew he was going to say.
"I'll pack first thing in the morning," she said, and tugged at an electrode on her scalp.
"It happens this way with some people. A lot early, then nothing." He sounded sympathetic, but she knew he got paid by the page his subjects produced, and must be secretly relieved to get someone new into this room, someone who might dream more productively.
"I was there. On a street. Somewhere in the ammonite city."
He didn't even look up from his clipboard. "Did you see any inhabitants? Get a sense of what any of the buildings were? Were you in the inner or outer whorl?"
"I didn't..." she said. "I'm sorry." Her eye lingered on the spiral as she handed him the prompt card.
"We'll mail your last check." He pulled something from the pocket of his lab coat. "Here," he said, "for a free copy, when the book comes out."
The coupon showed the cover: More Dream Realms Revealed: A LucidTravel Guide.
She shivered awake.
The directory, Dr. Current-Waves-Tendril flushed disappointment pinks and purples from the tips of his upper limbs. "How much did you give them?"
Red-Sand-Hiding stretched on the sleeping shelf, brushed life-support barnacles from her mantle.
"Not enough," she said, "We're still a prime destination." She could feel frustration brightening her face. "Publication date's pushed back a little, that's all."
Within a year, they'd be overrun; mobs of dream tourists, gawking without inhibition, would wander the inner and outer whorl, the upper and lower spirals.
"The others haven't done much better," said the director, and Red-Sand-Hiding saw two-thirds of the shelves were empty. "They can sustain the dream, but not the dream within it. We'll have to try the next plan soon."
She loosened her limbs in agreement. Somewhere, she knew, behind walls that swirled like ink, were pens of sharks, hungry, restless, ready to turn the streets of ammonite city to nightmare for a season.
Women Watching from the Shore
by Rudi Dornemann
The waves coming in on the gravel shore were sewn through with dragons, pencil-sized, silver, each spinning a froth droplet in its fore-claws.
Two women sat side by side on one of the memorial benches and watched the prison moon rise over the breakers. One in a corduroy coat, the other curled into herself, only a thin shawl against the wind.
A samovar cart jingled and sloshed from the direction of the pier.
"Do you have a least-brass?" said the woman in the heavy coat. The other woman placed a coin on the ones already in her palm.
Two paper cups of tea; three small cookies, an afterthought, dropped in the hand of the woman in the shawl.
Thirty years before, these women were not friends. The woman in the shawl used to run a shop on the ground floor of the building where the other woman lived. She extended credit to her neighbors. She overcharged on a random basis, knowing they'd never complain.
The moon lifts; the sky darkens; colony lights flicker into view. Coldgate. Artemis II. Shandren. They'll wait, like they do whenever they happen to walk out at the right time on a cloudless, full moon night. It happens more often than chance would allow.
The tea is harsh. Some of the dragons needle out from the water to snatch wind-blown crumbs from the cookies and tumble them in place of their froth-orbs.
Seventeen years ago, the woman in the coat was taken away and charged with crimes against the ruling pattern. She protested, but there was evidence from an anonymous witness, and she went up for nine years, and came back to find the woman in the shawl had taken over her shop in her absence. A gift from the patterners, although she never explained, and the other never asked. (The patterners pay; they do not give.)
The paper-edges of the cups soak a little further through with every sip.
There it was: Hsieu's Bridge. They rose together from the bench. The woman in the shawl held her breath a moment, as if expecting the other woman to make some statement, but the other woman remained silent. Whatever truce lay between them in the place where forgiveness would never be, it would last another month, at least.
The women continued their walk up the beach. The woman in the shawl leaned into her companion's corduroy arm.
by Rudi Dornemann
That summer, the fad was gamelan orchestras -- steam-driven gamelan orchestras. You heard them clanging in corners of beer gardens half the night. You couldn't take a walk the next morning without passing crank-wound tabletop models tinkling in sidewalk cafes and their circular melodies would chase around the inside of your skull the rest of the day.
Joe the Wrench knew what was next and vowed he'd be the first to get where the fad was going. His first girlfriend's father was Balinese; he'd whistled some of those unshakable tunes. And he'd told them stories of what that music had accompanied. So Joe rolled his barrel of tools to the burned-out terrace where a beer garden had been, and set to work on the remnants of the gamelan engine.
He brought in scraps of a walking machine in vogue two summer's back. He lugged discarded, discolored hides from the tannery, struck deals with the least mad of the sidewalk chalk artists and the least reclusive of the seamtresses' guildswomen. He hung canvas, strung lines of the thinnest, strongest cord he could find, and stockpiled cylinders of light-lime.
Word got around. His ex-girlfriend's father started dropping by late afternoons. He said he was glad she'd married that bank clerk fellow who kept getting promoted -- no offense, he admired Joe's energy, and his skill, but he sometimes doubted his direction. The doubts weren't strong enough that he wouldn't hang around to see how it all turned out.
He told stories and Joe listened as he assembled, as his machine rose and sprawled along the beer garden's back wall. He told the old stories he'd seen performed, seas and years away, performances he barely remembered, four decades gone. Weddings and battles and games of dice and castles of fire. Demons and monkey-princes. Joe the Wrench nodded, posed occasional questions, spent evenings listening while he punched miles of spliced-together piano roll.
Then opening night: Joe stoking the engine, leveling pressure, lighting the lights and loosing the catches. From charred benches, the audience watched shadows stream across backlit canvas, puppet silhouettes driven as much by the music as by gears and steam.
Demon weddings. The histories of fire-monkey dynasties. Games of dice.
His ex-girlfriend's father stared, smile wide, eyes sad. "That's wonderful," he said. "That's not the way it was at all."
by Rudi Dornemann
After the Confusion and the Scattering, Gether son of Aram remained a farmer in the plains of Shinar in spite of the hardships:
* First, there was always having to mime everything because, no matter how loudly you shouted, no one understood anything you said.
* Then, there was the soil. The earth had been stripped to bedrock to make bricks for the tower, so Gether and his sons plowed narrow bands of silt either side of the river.
* Now that Nimrod had scarpered off to found other cities, there was no royal treasury to disburse subsidies to those farming in the tower's shadow.
* Also, when Nimrod had been around, mighty hunter he was, lions had been scarce. Now it was Gether's goats who were scarce.
* Finally (and this annoyed Gether so much that he tugged the curl right out of his beard) the tower was full of noisy ghosts who chattered all the time in that language that had once seemed as natural to Gether as thought, but was now as unintelligible as the hooting of baboons -- and far more depressing. What with the lions, however, the tower was the only place to live.
Gether called his sons together, and they debated over cups of weak wine. The more they drank, the harder it was to interpret each others' miming. He tried to convince them that it was time to round up the last couple goats and move to Ninevah, and they finally seemed to get it. They packed up their belongings at met Gether at dawn.
To his chagrin, they didn't follow him out, but began climbing the vast spiral stair that led around the outside of the tower. He hurried after them through the overgrown remnants of the hanging gardens. His sons' gestures made no more sense than their words.
They climbed. As they approached the summit, he readied himself for a smiting from above. When his sons picked up discarded tools, he seized his beard with both hands in panic.
One son whacked bricks loose from the topmost wall; the other shoveled them over the edge. Still no smiting, and the too-near sun seemed to beat a little less harshly on Gether's head.
One of his sons said something nearly intelligible, and Gether picked up a pry-bar to help with the deconstruction.
After that, the ghosts made a little more sense every day.
by Rudi Dornemann
Another Sunday promenade in spite of the heat, and Lill's collar rubbed rascant lines in the skin behind her ears.
By the frost-stained fountain, amid the clatter of the icicle chimes, she heard him before she saw him, and he was saying, "Nevermind what he charges, he tensioned up the hopplag and the gears haven't slipped since." He had a striped coat, green-tinted googles, and an asymmetrical grin.
She turned to see him astride a blue metal ornithoptopede, chatting with another rider. He tipped his hat as she passed and she resolved to find some pretext for conversation on her next circuit of the slippery tile-walk. But he and his friend were gone by the time she returned. That thurtling in the treetops might have been them.
She got herself a cup of herb-flecked ice so she could loiter and watch. She chipped away with the tiny wooden spoon the vendor had given her. It was stoce. She hated stoce. She ate the whole thing, but he didn't come back.
She walked home the long way, and found grim amusement in the most neglected corner of the sculpture garden, where the statues of a quartet of primly-posed town fathers were draped with an exuberance of flowering ullivaria. She thought she saw cracks in the stone under the tendrils' coils.
Back home, she cut silhouettes out of cheap fetzbalk, sigils that would represent the day's events when she pasted them in her diary.
When the light grew too dim for the fine cutting, she laid the book aside. Out the window, the sky above the courtyard was as widensh as she felt.
One Green Hill
by Rudi Dornemann
A picture (a blue sky, a green hill) was found among her belongings.
She was the first of the first generation to die. The generation who knew Earth as home, not as story. The picture became the goal and they began to build the hill.
There was a poetic rightness to it, a commemoration, a remembering together. Their remains, turned to soil, building a patch of nature in the heart of the GreatShip’s endless metal and glass. For those who followed after, everything, always, was recycled.
The hill was their past and future, until they reached their destination, and then there was a planet with green hills by the million. There was talk of transporting the hill down to the surface, to a park in the middle of the first settlement. By now, however, the hill was its own ecosystem, a living thing that wouldn't survive uprooting and transport.
So they went down without it, and it became a stop on the historical tours. Then history took a turn -- disease, strife, struggle against a not-yet-domesticated alien world. A forgetting followed by a slow return. Societies re-formed, cities rebuilt, sciences reverse-engineered from artifacts.
When they were ready, they went up, into the sky, to the Star that Never Moves. They found an entire ship, larger than their largest city, empty and apparently devoted to sustaining a mound of soil covered in grass that didn't look nearly blue enough.
by Rudi Dornemann
The marsh was miles across, surrounded by a perimeter of biohazard signs every fifty feet. Through the plate glass, Skelton watched a V of reconnaissance drones from the research station drag their shadows over the shoulder-high grass. He washed down the last of his sandwich with the last of his beer, and retreated to the mall's cooler inner corridors. The last resident had outfitted the two-room security office as an apartment, which made sense. All that echoing, empty space was unnerving. You needed a close, comfortable place within it.
A yellowed sheet of instructions was tacked to the inside of the office door. The real estate agent had gone on about this. Skelton figured the deal was some kind of tax or legal obligation to keep the property occupied until the genetically engineered grass and the rest of the ecological recuperation made the land worth something again.
He read the directions at intervals through the day. By dusk he knew it well enough to leave it behind while he went to the one locked store and got a restaurant-heavy pasta bowl, a bottle of lamp oil, and a twist of wire-cored wick string.
It was twilight when he got to the patio of unbroken parking lot outside the marsh-side anchor store. Colors moved over the grass like low-altitude aurora. He poured the oil, lit the wick. The flame flickered through color changes in time with its larger cousins out in the marsh. Must be something in the air. Probably nothing healthy. He headed back inside.
For a first night in an unfamiliar bed, he slept well until a roof-shaking wind woke him after midnight. He took a security-guard-leftover flashlight, and made the rounds. The mall was bigger; the echoes, louder. Beyond the jumbled mannequin orgy of the display windows, the marsh-lights flashed kaleidoscope lightning. The lamp-bowl had tumbled, spilled and sputtered dead. No way he'd go out.
But, after nightmares that six cups of coffee barely dimmed, he knew he needed to focus on the task. Sleep by day. Tend the lamp by night. Keep the colors from anyone else's dreams. He couldn't explain the fear that came with the colors, not to himself, not to the real estate agent when she called to check on him. If he could have put it in words, he would have tamed it, and wouldn't have needed to spend his life keeping it in check.
Observations in the Field
by Rudi Dornemann
Marcus hiked out before dawn, over snow with just enough ice on top that it held his weight for nearly a second before he crunched through. He got the robotic crow into the tree well before dawn.
The flock of real crows came up from the river while the sky was still predawn pink, and alighted in the next tree over. The robot issued its preliminary croak. Marcus held his breath for the flock's response. It never came -- something spooked the birds. Wings slapping like applause, they disappeared into the forest dark.
Marcus swore and keyed "recall" on the control fob. The robot bird fluttered to his feet and went still. The cold metal stuck to his gloves as he put it back in the padded bag
He walked out by way of Highway 212 -- a longer, but easier route. He had time. Of all Halverson's raven trials, the only ones that had worked had worked on the first encounter between wild birds and the robot mimic. Marcus hadn't had a successful integration yet, on any encounter. He'd have to find a new flock, maybe nearer to Agriville, where there was more of a farm and forest mix... He was trotting along the on the frozen gravel shoulder when the beep of a car horn interrupted his thoughts.
A small car pulled alongside, and a frosted window purred down. The driver leaned across the empty passenger seat. He shouted, even though the engine only murmured softly, "I can drop you somewhere!"
"Sure," said Marcus, and he climbed in.
The driver was friendly enough, and said his name was Larry. "What are you doing way out here," he said, "and so early?"
"Research," said Marcus. "Ornithology." He wrestled his notebook from his back pocket to jot some notes while he still remembered details of the non-encounter.
Larry nodded sleepily; sipped a styrofoam cup of coffee. "I'm meeting some folks for breakfast in Winslip," he said. "Denny's." Another sip. "Join us if you want."
He sipped again, the exact same pursing of the lips, a forward tilt of the head to the exact same angle as the last sip. The kind of thing Marcus would never have noticed if he hadn't spent the last eight months trying to program that kind of uncanny nearly-lifelike quality out of the crow.
"Sure," said Marcus. "Breakfast sounds good." He could take notes later.
by Rudi Dornemann
Merlin walked across the ocean on a line of sea turtles stretched like garden stepping stones all the way from Atlantis to Mu. Under the shadeless sun, he cut a somewhat twee figure -- beard to his knees, purple robes, pointy shoes, bell-fringed bowler, and in either hand, a parasol.
The water was clear enough he could see all the way down to the bones of sunken cities even he didn’t remember the names of. The clarity was a sign of trouble, and a reminder of why he was out here: the leviathans. They'd scoured the seas of anything they could fit down their maelstrom-wide gullets, from plankton to the 30-foot megasharks.
Merlin hopped from shell to shell, sweated in his robes, and tried not to scratch the sunburn peeling from his nose. He didn't have to wait long before he noticed turtles swimming by, fleeing. He turned, and the leviathans rose to meet him.
Taller than mountains, they became the sky. Spray and spill-water came down in torrents. One of the vast beasts bent to devour the wizard. Its breath stank of tide pools stranded too long under the sun, of whole schools of beached fish.
Merlin held a parasol out like a sword.
"I have my affectations," he said, "but they're useful affectations."
Just as the monster's jaws encircled him, its lips and teeth becoming the wizard's horizon, he thumbed a button and the parasol popped open. It stretched as wide as the leviathan's mouth, its tines rooting in the distant gum-line. The creature reared back and shook its immense head, but the parasol head fast.
"You can eat whatever you can suck through that," said Merlin.
The second leviathan narrowed its mouth and charged.
Merlin gathered his robes and sprinted along the line of bobbing turtles. He threw the remaining umbrella at the vast flesh wall of the leviathan’s head.
The parasol unfurled, its supports melting to tentacles that scored the leviathan's hide with tooth-ringed suckers and gripped it fast.
"You'll never know rest again," said Merlin.
The leviathan howled through a dozen octaves and dove, still embraced by the parasol squid.
Merlin sat down on turtle-back.
He rapped on the shell. "Change of course," he said. "Babylon, please, but take your time. We have a few centuries."
The Next Flight of the Icarus
by Rudi Dornemann
You had to know where it was -- and when, because it was just solid rock if you missed the moment. But, with a good map and a watch set right, you'd find it: the door in the side of the rocky hill. And inside, the wreckage of the slipship.
That's what we called it, because we figured it must have been made to pass through solid objects, maybe phase between universes or something. We used to argue about whether it was made by aliens or time-travelers from the future. I argued time-travelers. Everything was human-sized -- the chairs at the right height, the buttons not too big or too small, and the screens mostly at eye-level.
"Could be alien time-travelers," said Dhalya
"Could be," I said, even though I didn’t think so.
We named everything -- so we could find our way around; so it seemed more cool than eerie. There was the glass altar, the dentist chairs, master control, and the room full of sinks. The whole ship, for obvious reasons, we called the Icarus.
We'd never noticed the lump in the middle of one of the desk-shelves. It must not have had glowing symbols on it before.
"It's a clock," said Dhalya. She pressed buttons, held her own wrist up near it.
Shapes flowed and flickered over the lump. They blinked once, again.
"I think it's on," I said. The numbers weren't quite in time to the second hand on Dhalya’s watch, but they were shifting with a regular pulse.
And then I looked up. Some kind of multicolored melting nebula special effect was happening out of the window that we’d always thought was just another wall.
We weren't alone. Creatures were everywhere on the multi-level deck, hurrying from one station to another on their too-many-jointed legs. It was hard to know if they were always this frantic, or if they realized they'd just been uncollided with a large rock.
"Hah," said Dahlya, barely squeaking out the words. "Not human."
One of them stopped to look at us with spinning, faceted eyes.
"No," it said. "Not for a long time."
by Rudi Dornemann
In the way of all archetypal stories, Orpheus didn't make his trip to the underworld and back just once. As each generation retold and reinvented his story, he relived it, and he never learned: he always looked.
Sisyphus probably didn't notice anything when his repeated predicament repeated. But Orpheus couldn't stop himself from hoping any more than he could stop himself from looking.
One day, while amusing his future bride by making boulders jig in time to his lyre, he found himself increasingly depressed with everything that was waiting to happen. He thought he'd visit Daedalus. It was an age of invention, and maybe the spirit of the age even moved in the old tales. He told Eurydice he'd be right back and left her and the stones humming his last tune.
The inventor's single word suggestion: "Mirrorshades."
"That’s hardly my style,” said Orpheus. "And how will that help?"
"The underworld isn't well lit. No one will notice," said Daedalus. “The trick is to turn one lens backwards. She'll be in the edge of your vision all the time, no need to turn back yourself, so, technically, you won’t be breaking the rules.”
"Perfect," said Orpheus.
"I've made a sketch," said Daedalus. "I'll have the boy build you a pair while I flameproof these wings. "
What Orpheus didn't realize until he pulled out the glasses at the foot of the stairs out of the underworld was that Icarus never did anything except to excess. Both lenses were mirrored on the inside.
He put them on and played. He'd climbed the stairs so many times that his feet knew the path by feel. The peripheral glimpse-image was enough for him, he kept his eyes steadily ahead, and he made it all the way to the top.
He took off the glasses, expecting sunlight, but saw he hadn't left the shadowland. Hades and Persephone shook their heads. Eurydice was gone.
"Looking forward is the only way to leave here," said the king of the dead.
"She's always behind you now," said Persephone.
Wonderglass / Lookingland
by Rudi Dornemann
A series of zooms, like a camera moving in steadily on its subject.
In through the French doors, over the book-carpeted floor.
Past the couch, lingering just briefly on the open notebook, most of it diagrams and runes but also the words “Carroll as photomancer / Dodgson as positive to L.C.’s negative -- vice versa?,” and, in a more frantic hand, “decode to enact incantation to summon white rabbit.” This last is both circled and underlined, and it’s next to the part of the page that’s been ripped out.
Under the arch that divides one room from the next.
There’s a camera on a tripod, both of them antiques. A split second glimpse through the viewfinder, everything upside down and tiny and then we see it for real: the dining room table with everyday objects set on the checkerboard tablecloth like pieces in some mystical game. Our passage slows, as if we’re staring, as if these things mean something other than complicated madness. Oyster shells. A thimble. A caterpillar. A small bottle. A chess knight. At the corners, nonsense words on scraps of paper -- speeding up, we’re gone before getting enough of a glimpse to figure them out.
Through the pass-through into the kitchen, along crumb-covered counters, rising up just in time to clear the glass of milk souring beside the sink.
(For a moment, against the silence, faint, rapid ticking, then it’s gone.)
Out the back door, over the fire escape rail, into somewhere else.
See Scenic Eavoa!
by Rudi Dornemann
Towering colonnades, thickets of spires, mountainesque domes, quarter-mile-high statues -- the best way to see the city of Eavoa was from the air. And the best person to show it to you was Zaglevall Nunnin.
That was the gist of the posters Captain Nunnin had posted all over the dock district. He was behind the broadsheets that documented the troops of zombie macaques in the city’s upper reaches. Argive Flell -- who ran the observation towers which Nunnin’s broadsheets happened to mention were not entirely secure against zombie monkeys -- distributed his own broadsheets pointing out the sharpness of the beaks of pterodactyls and puncturability of zeppelins of Captain Nunnin’s fleet.
They tolerated each other’s excursions into the popular press, and wrote off their competing staffs of writers, typesetters and printers as the cost of doing business until a particularly lurid etching of a woman trying to wrest her baby from a foaming-mouthed macaque had tourists shuddering at the thought of the observation towers.
“This is outrageous!” bellowed Flell, after he’d burst into Nunnin’s office. “You know the zombie virus suppresses symptoms of all other diseases! A rabid zombie monkey is a medical impossibility!”
Nunnin shrugged. “The engraver’s hand slipped -- cramps from all that atmospheric cross-hatching.”
“Irresponsible!” shouted Flell, still winded after the ladder climb up to the aerostat that housed his rival’s office. “Libelous!”
“Your viewing platforms are still open-air?” said the captain.
“So? No monkey’s going to scale a thousand meters of electrified fencing to reach them.”
“But -- theoretically -- they could,” said Nunnin, tilting his chair back.
“And -- theoretically -- flocks of giant Quetzalcoatlus could start migrating from the plains,” said Argive. “A pterosaur bigger than one of your balloons -- that’ll make a lovely illustration...”
Nunnin was out of his seat. “They’d snap their wings in the outer colonnades! Anyway, our engines would scare them off, just like the small ones...”
Outside the window, a pterodactyl flew by with a macaque on its back. The monkey prodded the flying reptile with a gnawed shinbone.
“Isn’t one of your towers in that direction?” said Nunnin.
Argive nodded. “Did you see that monkey steer that ‘dactyl right over the engine end of one of your zeps?”
Nunnin was busy emptying his safe. “Need a lift out of town?”
“I believe I do,” said Argive.
Another pterodactyl flapped by with another macaque.
“I believe I do.”
P A S D
by Rudi Dornemann
To celebrate our first anniversary, each of us here at the Cabal has come up with a story beginning with a line kindly provided to us by the illustrious Jay Lake. Click the link at the bottom of the page to see how Alex, Dan, David, Edd, Kat, and Luc have handled the challenge, and check back tomorrow to see how Sara Genge winds up the series...
Zoli liked to hang around psychiatrists’ waiting rooms to hit on the low self-esteem chicks. It could take a couple days of hanging around, doing odd jobs, before she’d hit on an office where someone had brought in chicks, and not something useless like ducklings or a goat.
All the psychiatrists around the rim had the same group therapy rates: six hen chicks for general lack of affect, six rooster chicks for low self-esteem, four ducklings for anger management, a full grown chicken for alcohol abuse, a duck for drugs, a sheep or goat or dog for nightmares -- because everybody’s nightmares were the same, and brought up things even psychiatrists didn’t want to face.
Zoli couldn’t stand any of it, the lying and turning away. "Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder" -- as if that meant anything. As if the problem weren’t as obvious as the crater six-hunded miles wide and fifty deep. As obvious as all the people who didn’t exist anymore, all the craters they’d left in everyone’s lives.
The psychiatrists always had clothes to be darned, roofs to be shingled, water to be schlepped from the ration-well-- finding odd jobs was easy. Finding male chicks wasn’t -- self-esteem didn’t seem to be a popular problem anymore. And even the esteem chicks weren’t 100%, because most people weren’t any good at candling to tell which eggs were future roosters. It didn’t matter much to the farmers she competed with, but it mattered to Zoli.
She lived in a roofless warehouse within block of the edge where she’d emptied the ceiling-high shelves of high-def TVs, microwaves and robot vacuum cleaners and covered the sides with chicken wire to create multi-story coops.
The ammonia stink was so bad that her eyes watered and her nose ran constantly, and the coops were only half full. Every morning, she felt the crowing as something physical, a strong wind pushing against her. A few more months, and it would work. A few more months of hanging around waiting rooms with women whose every breath sounded like something ripping, men whose eyes never stopped moving, and she’d gather the generations she needed to complete the sound. Then the crowing would be a vast thing, and the world would shake like it had that day, and it would be enough. It would wake God, and then it would be over, and everything would be normal again.
The Zanzibar Vertebrate
by Rudi Dornemann
It began simply enough, with a TV overheard out an open window on a summer’s evening in the mid-1980’s on the suburb fringes of St. Louis. Over the buzz of the lawn trimmer, I heard snatches of a Monty Python rerun and, as I wound up the extension cord and swatted early mosquitoes, I thought I heard an exchange that went as follows:
“A Zanzibar invertebrate?”
“A Zanzibar invertebrate.”
“A Zanzibar invertebrate!”
If there was more, it was lost behind my brothers’ shrieks and howls of laughter. I looked in the window in time for a blurred glimpse of British comedians in pith helmets batting each other with taxidermied ostriches.
By the time I got inside, the show was over and something else was on.
For a couple days, I wondered what I’d missed. Then, I forgot about it.
A few years later, I went to college and lived down the hall from a clutch of python-philes. Hardly a conversation went by without some chance word being taken as an oblique cue, and off they’d go, launching into elaborate, multi-voiced recitations.
One night they compiled an alphabetical list of every python sketch.
“Hey,” I said, “You missed the whole Zanzibar invertebrate thing.”
I did my best to describe what I remembered, and we were up until three while they spun theories as to why they’d never seen it -- which season it might have been an outtake of, which lost episodes or rehearsal tapes had been aired during PBS fund drives.
Two years later, in a different dorm’s dining room basement, I overheard a different group of enthusiasts. The words had shifted slightly, but there was no mistaking it: “A Zanzibar vertebrate?” “Indeed.” And much laughter.
I wound up behind one of them in the next day’s breakfast line. I asked for more details -- did he know what the ostriches had to do with it? He didn’t. He hadn’t seen it any more than my old friends had.
It was years before I heard of it again, mentioned in passing on some documentary on British comedy. I checked the web, and found full scripts, annotated with analysis, sketches, links to fan reenactments. I searched Google, YouTube and Wikipedia with every term I could think of -- no sign of the original footage. I think I know why: it never existed.
Whatever I misheard, the sketch didn’t exist until the fans began rehearsing and repeating it.
The Sorceress's Tale
by Rudi Dornemann
The acolyte knocked before going in. He didn’t hear a response, but he knew she’d heard him.
The air inside was thick with the reek of rotting fabric and rich with the sound of hundreds of crickets. The Grand Metropolitan Sorceress hadn’t left this small room in over a decade, but still she kept the peace throughout the city and the suburbs beyond.
“Mistress?” said the acolyte. “Your dinner?”
“Keep it,” said a husky voice from the darkness.
The acolyte hadn’t heard her speak more than a murmured “leave it on the table” or “less pepper next time, please” in months.
“I’m doing a great working tonight,” said the sorceress. “My last, if it works.”
“You need to keep up your strength madam.” The acolyte felt around until he found an empty chair, and set the tray on the seat. “When you skip meals, you always feel it the next day...”
“If this works,” said the sorceress. “Tomorrow won’t happen.”
The acolyte stumbled back into something that jingled like crystal.
“That was too dramatic,” said the voice from the darkness. “There will be a tomorrow; it just won’t happen for many years. I’m turning back time.”
“What? You can’t.”
“I have to.” The sorceress’s voice had dropped its usual commanding tone. “I can’t hold back the hungry realms more than another few weeks. We can’t win against them.”
The acolyte swallowed twice. “But everything might change. And we still won’t be able to stop them.”
“We would have been safe, if I’d never done the Spell of Cold Knife.” Her voice was right in front of him. “It’s my fault.”
“But,” said the acolyte, “without that spell, you couldn’t have stopped the apocalypse meme. Thousands would have died.”
“I’ll find another way.”
“My parents,” said the acolyte,” they met in one of the refuges, while the knife spell ran.”
“They might still meet,” said the sorceress.
The acolyte swung at the voice, felt his nails scratching her cheek.
“Mistress! I’m sorry...”
“Blood,” said the sorceress. “The final ingredient, and I couldn’t shed it myself.”
The acolyte tripped as he stumbled back. The darkness was going out.
“Thank you,” said the Grand Metropolitan Sorceress. “I hope we meet again.”
Then the room was gone and Eyve Ariel was a girl again, neither a sorceress nor grand, standing in a vacant lot with mud on her journeywoman’s gown, no one to see or hear her as she shivered in spite of the heat.
by Rudi Dornemann
The waitress nodded at them from behind the bar. A chupacabra and a Florida skunk-ape looked up from the pool table. The sasquatch at the back corner table was staring at a half-empty bottle.
The alien, the werewolf, and the yeti headed to their usual table and had barely settled into the creaking wooden chairs when the waitress arrived with their usual drinks.
“So,” said the werewolf. “Anybody see anything?”
The alien shook his head and used his mind to twirl the little paper umbrella in his glass.
“I checked the camera traps this afternoon,” said the yeti. “Nothing. One had a bunch of blurry pics of satyrs..”
“That’s a waste,” grunted the werewolf, and peeled the label from his beer with one claw.
“I don’t think he exists,” said the alien in a quavering voice that always seemed to come from somewhere behind you. “I’ve never gotten anything on any of my scans, not once.”
The yeti leaned forward in his chair so that he loomed over the alien’s egg-shaped head. “I tell you I’ve seen him. And there’s all the evidence -- the tracks, the magazine articles, the endless TV documentaries.”
“I used to believe,” said the werewolf, “but I’m starting to wonder -- maybe cryptozoologists don’t exist.”
Way in the back, the sasquatch made a coughing noise but, when the alien, the werewolf and the yeti looked his way, he was taking a swig of his drink.
“Hey,” said the werewolf, “what’s Sass doing here?”
The alien shrugged skinny shoulders. “That’s his usual table.”
“But he’s in the Wednesday dart league, and was up against the thunderbird last night,” said the werewolf. “Nobody beats the bird, and Sass is a sore loser. He shouldn’t be back until Saturday, at least.”
The sasquatch didn’t look in their direction, but seemed to know that the three of them were staring at him. He wiped his brow as if he were sweating. One of his eyebrows stuck to the back of his hand.
“It’s him!” said the alien, and everyone turned in the fake sasquatch’s direction.
He ran out the door faster than the real sasquatch -- faster than the jackalope even.
They found his camera where he dropped it and, when the alien developed the film, found it was full of great candids that they framed and hung behind the bar.
But they never saw the cryptozoologist again.
by Rudi Dornemann
When the announcement came that he was being called up, Marek didn’t even own a suitcase. His neighbors and regular customers pooled their money and bought him one. He let them think it was happiness that took his voice away.
It was, everyone told him, an honor. A miracle.
He’d had to read the letter three times but still didn’t understand why he needed to bring anything with him-- after all, he’d be pure mind, all electronic, after he went up. Whether he wound up in the place between planets or the place between stars, it’s not like he’d bring the picture of his late wife, the framed first dollar their kiosk had earned, his daughter’s bronze star, or the flag they’d given him at her funeral.
But the cab driver, who loaded the suitcase into the trunk so gently that nothing clinked, explained it: the memories would be anchors, digitized and uploaded, that his personality could hold onto.
“Otherwise,” said the cabbie, “you’ll lose who you were and just be a machine.”
Marek stared at the city sliding past.
He’d spent days distracted by all things that he couldn’t put in the suitcase -- the way the kiosk looked, when all the flowers were fresh and all the buckets were full, first thing in the morning, when the light seemed to come from inside the petals. The pressure of Tina’s hand on his; the weight of their daughter in his arms. When he explained, none of his friends understood.
“I’ve taken lots of folks to the up station,” said the driver. She tried to catch Marek’s eyes in the rearview mirror. He knew that tone of jealousy-edged pride from his friends’ voices.
On the dashboard, a pair of picture-sculptures morphed though what looked like snapshots of the driver, her friends, her family. Between them, a dried, unopened rose bud; a string of pebble-beads; a sea shell; and a flag Marek didn’t recognize.
“Yeah,” said the driver, “I’ve taken paying uploaders and five or six lottery winners like yourself.” This time she was the one who looked away from the rearview. “The luck hasn’t worn off yet.”
Marek squeezed his hand out of the shimmering holoprinted paper and held the wristband over the seatback.
“Here,” he said, “You go.”
He had to repeat himself.
“You can use the suitcase,” he said, and, somehow, that was the thing that convinced her.
by Rudi Dornemann
The speakers in this station carry the same music as the speakers in all the other stations. The same androgynous voices sing breathy, nearly beatless, non-tunes, vocalizations that are always almost on the edge of words, but never resolve into any particular language. It's all algorithms and averages, and, like any other generated art, endless: you could stand on the platform for a week, a month, a lifetime, and never hear the same near-melody twice.
The music depresses Irene Montevideo, and the 8:17 rain doesn’t help. She retreats into the cushion-contoured shelter. Like most mornings, she’s careful to be the last one in, so she has to stand in the doorway. If she gets a little damp, she also gets a little view -- mostly the back of some warehouse-condo. This morning, however, there’s something extra: a teenage girl crouching down at the platform edge.
Irene suppresses the regular’s grin of superiority; the sogginess of the girl’s sweatshirt says she doesn’t know about the 8:17 rain. But she does know something Irene doesn’t, and hauls a metal plate up onto the platform from the other side of the edge.
It’s exactly the kind of thing that the posters on all the trains urge her to report. Irene wouldn't even have to talk; there are numbers she can dial, and drones will be dispatched. Something makes her finger pause on her phone’s send button, makes her watch a little longer. On the metal plate, a string of musical notes in a figure-eight -- the logo of the company behind the infinity-dirge. Maybe whatever the girl’s doing will shut off the speakers.
The girl pulls a round metal object out of her pocket, glittering and fringed with wire. She looks up, belatedly, and catches Irene watching her.
Irene catches her breath. The girl is tensed, ready to spring up and run, but Irene pushes her mouth into a smile and, when the girl still doesn’t unfreeze, bobs her head in a quick nod and looks away.
There’s movement and the girl is gone. But it’s happening already -- the tune falling into pattern, the refrains first catchy, then cloying; the vocalizations gathering into words, nonsense doggerel that takes all the likeliest rhymes.
It’s the most annoying thing Irene’s ever heard. She can’t get it out of her head for the rest of the day, and smiles the rest of the week.
On the Way to Elsewhere
by Rudi Dornemann
Some evenings, when Martha went out walking along the gravel roads between the fields, she felt a ghost city growing solid in the cool air. As the fog gathered in the drainage ditches and creek beds, buildings massed in her peripheral vision, terraced, balconied and impossible.
Some nights, rain came down and swept the city from the night. Others, she walked and walked. Her calves grew sore while the buildings grew more present. After weeks her legs grew stronger, but the city remained a pressure at the edge of her vision.
As winter gave way to softer ground, heavy machinery leveled the fields behind plywood signs with the names of stores and franchise restaurants. Martha tried the new roads in every direction, slipped through the gates to trudge the churned earth. She walked on until it was too dark to see anything; the city’s inhabitants walked beside her, and she wouldn’t have known.
When the concrete and asphalt covered the fields, then sprouted a forest of upright girders, she saw the city less often, but more vividly. Once, she found herself in a market crowd between rows of booths hung with bright, unfamiliar objects -- but only for the time it took her to gasp in a shocked breath, and then it was only a row of dumpsters along the store-backs. Another time, she thought she saw a hand, beckoning her around a corner and she sprinted to find a food court full of plastic picnic tables.
After the stores opened, after the restaurants filled the air with smells of frying and bulk spices, she kept walking, even though she didn’t see -- didn’t sense -- anything for weeks.
Then, one fall evening, when it seemed she’d never walked for anything but the exercise, she went into an office supply store and pretended to look at multi-tabbed planners until she warmed up.
As she left, a clerk ran to her. “You forgot this,” he said, “Left it on the glass.”
He pointed to the copiers in a corner of the store.
It was a sheet of 11x17 paper, warm with machine-light, covered with streets and parks and buildings whose terraces she could see as if she remembered them. A map, clearly labeled in her own handwriting.
The Apprentice’s Tale
by Rudi Dornemann
Unlike the rest of the apprentices, who swan about in dark-colored and inevitably muddy-hemmed robes of plasticky synthetic velvet, Eyve Aerial knows magic and fashion are inextricable. Thus the macrame Mobius scarf. Thus the jester’s motley diamonds she inks all over her jeans with antique ballpoints. Thus the six-button waistcoat covered in mirrors etched with tiny warding hands that she always wears under the Anorak of Power. Only her gloves are purely practical, worn because things tend to catch on the Medusa-cursed iron of her left hand's fingertips. The clothes make the magician -- and a good magician, thinks Eyve, makes her own clothes.
It's not like the other apprentices don’t dismiss her out of hand anyway. They're all from named houses or ambitious parents at least, while she used to live on the street and work as a courier, and there are whispers she should have lost that job after losing a valuable parcel. They don't know that Eyve's seen a couple dozen glimpses of the future, and even remembers some of them.
So when, on an inauspicious Thursday, the apprentices are ambushed by a pack of husk-zombies, and their tongues are all tripping over the syllables of the repelling chant that they’re trying to repeat as many times as possible, none of them expects Eyve to step forward and push her gloveless hand into the chest of the lead zombie.
“You used to be somebody,” says Eyve, “somebody who doesn’t deserve this.” She snaps a spark from her rusty fingertips. The zombie is all flames above the waist as it stumbles after its fleeing companions.
“Let’s find out who sent them,” says Eyve. She’s bouncing on the toes of her monkey-boots.
Huddled in a nearby doorway, her classmates just stare at her.
“The lines of power will be faint,” says one, and another adds, “We can’t see them anyway.”
“You can’t,” says Eyve, as she zips up her anorak’s snorkel hood. She’s embroidered eyes on either side of the hood and woven charms and amulets into the fur of the opening around her face.
Tales of the Future #2: The Actuary and the Mothman
by Rudi Dornemann
Once upon a time, some years after the Unified Realities treaty opened up immigration from one dimension to another, an actuary and a mothman were neighbors. They got on well enough, nodding and saying “hi” when they passed each other in the hallway or in the hovercarpark, occasionally trading opinions on the weather or the local sports teams.
One day, the actuary’s vendo/disposo unit broke down and, as he was wrestling with all the very, very tiny parts and swearing very loudly in the dialects from several alternate realities, he was interrupted by a knock at his apartment door. It was the mothman, carrying a toolbox.
“Heard trouble,” said the mothman. “This always work for me.” He handed the actuary a nanospanner the size of a particularly skinny hair.
The vendodisp was soon fixed. The actuary was so grateful that he invited the mothman to come over for dinner and he made his specialty - a stew with precisely cubed vegetables.
When the mothman was leaving, he said, “Very good. Grant three wishes.”
The actuary hadn’t expected this, and puzzled over the mothman’s words while he vacuumed vaguely luminous dust from the chair where his neighbor had sat. He’d heard that the mothpeople could influence reality - the mothman must have been saying that he’d make some changes at the actuary’s request.
That night, the actuary tossed and turned, trying to decide what to ask for. By the time his alarm rang, he’d narrowed it down to eight things. He had it down to five by the time he heard the mothman’s door close. The actuary threw on his clothes and ran up to the roof, just in time to see the mothman getting onto his car.
“I can’t decide,” said the actuary.
“Not worry,” said the mothman, with a twinkle in his multifaceted eyes. “Already do.” And off he went.
While the actuary watched the mothman merge into traffic, the building super came up behind him and said, “Wishes?”
The actuary nodded.
“Don’t stress,” said the super. “Mothfolk live outside of time. Whatever it was, was likely taken care of before you were born. You’ll probably never know what it was.”
That all made sense, but the actuary knew that he still had to make lists of what he’d wish for. He might not sleep for a week, but he’d figure it out.
Finer Cheeses of the Late Cretaceous
by Rudi Dornemann
Dear Moms and Dads,
I am not about to admit that you were even slightly right, but the second half of the summer is not turning out to be quite as terrible as the first half. The difference? Red Freya, who used to lead the tours, forgot to charge her ionic shield before one of her jumps back to the milking era and got bit by some kind of proto-mosquito, so now she’s got a lump the size of a grapefruit on her leg and I get to herd the tourists around while she sits on my stool in the gift shop and looks out at the gray snow in the dino skeleton garden.
It's a long day, because the Motaris are cheap, and only pay us by shop-relative time and have all the tours come back right after they leave, even though it takes at least forty minutes to hop from the kollikodon barn to the remote milking traps -- some days we don’t actually find one with a repenomamus in the harness until the third or fourth try. And if one of those feathered dinos runs by, forget it -- we won't be back in under an hour. Like every zoo back up in home time doesn’t have dome where you can trip over the things. We're not supposed to log more than half our time in eras with carnivorous megafauna or the insurance company will raise the rates, but the Mrs. Motari who assigns the tours doesn’t seem worried.
Me, I like being more in a time where everything’s alive and growing than a time where everything's dead except us in the creamery and the shop, even if it’s alive and dangerous, even if I know it won’t last, at least not in this worldline. I still want to visit one of the no-K/T-extinction lines on my way home, just to see how it all comes out. (And no, Mom2, it’s not because of S'ksth'sks -- I mean, he’s sweet, with his big eyes and the way his crest is always ruffled in the morning, but he can be sarcastic, too, and if I go to his line, I'll have to spend some time with his hatch-mates, and there's twenty-five of them, so I’ll be totally outnumbered, and I don’t think any of them have travelled off-line or have any mammal friends.)
But we can talk about that later. I've got to go now -- the 3:00 group is getting bored with the way the kollikos bump around in their pens -- or maybe they’ve notice that special giant platypus reek.
Seen by Half-light
by Rudi Dornemann
Miranda Edison went out into the indigo of the suspended evening to walk. The city was just familiar enough that she kept looking, kept searching for the alley and the interior courtyard that she remembered.
The memory was one of her oldest; she couldn't have been more than four or five. Just images and emotion: twilight saturating everything, buildings on four sides lit from within like paper lanterns, lulling buzz of distant traffic over the more distant whisper-vesper of the sea. She'd dropped a glove, bent to pick it up. In a window, she saw a face mostly shadow, laughing. He saw her. Answering laughter welled up in her and she clamped her throat against it, ran away down the alley.
A creepy memory, really. The laughing man still scared her. But the vividness - the texture of the stone, the realness of the trampled snow and the worn-fingered gloves, the illuminated drapes, the glimpsed piano in one window, the shelf of candy-bright books in another, the woman in the white mutton-sleeved blouse laying out silverware on a table in a third - had drawn her back to this city on the edge of the arctic twenty years later.
It might have been a thickening of the clouds or one of the sun's occasional feints further below the horizon, but the sky tinged deeper and Miranda found herself noticing how far apart the streetlights were and how dark it got between them. She was lost; she turned at a corner that seemed familiar from the way out. It wasn’t the corner she thought it was, but this was the memory-place, an alley-end behind tall buildings like the bottom of a square-sided well. The windows were dark; an open one creaked and slammed in the wind.
If the laughing man was there, she couldn't see him. She almost bolted, then remembered her coat, the scarf nearly up to her eyes and the hat down over her brows - all black. He couldn't see her either. She laughed, silently, and the panic slipped from her.
She started back for the guesthouse. On the near wall, in chalk that glowed like ultraviolet fire under the evening purple, a line of slanted curly-tipped numbers. She had no idea what they meant, perhaps just the city offering a safer mystery to replace the one she'd just traded away when she found the lost place and broke its mystery.
by Rudi Dornemann
The darkness was a balm to Marley, hiding from him the life in which he could not participate, either to join in the happiness of the living or to ease their misery. The cold, the wind, the frost -- all of these were the most congenial companions in his wanderings.
As the days turned darker, the mass of humanity, in whose company Marley was doomed to move, all those people who could not see him and whom he could not touch, they turned their attention to one over-illuminated spectacle after another. The light burned, it pierced him like knives. First Diwali, with its colors and lights, as strange to him as Guy Fawkes, which followed soon after with its searing bonfires, was familiar. A respite then, as winter gathered, but too soon came Hannukah, with each night more piercing than the one before, and the solstice, with more fire and light. And finally Christmas, the holiday he knew from his time alive, with its lighted trees, its parades and blazing storefronts tormenting him in the waning days of December, when he wanted nothing more than to be only another aspect of winter, another sign of year’s deathlike ebb.
The clink of commerce did less to assuage him that one might have thought -- even the most mercenary of exchanges held undercurrents of fellow-feeling that stabbed at him like remorse, he, who could only watch and pass on through. There was one moment, however, toward which he looked forward expectantly.
He never knew exactly when the apparition would appear, a ghost as insubstantial as himself but with the warm glow of sunrise: Scrooge. Bearing the same gift he'd carried on this night for nearly one-hundred and fifty years: a bit of potato, still half raw.
"Happy Christmas, you old figment," said Scrooge.
For the space of a thought, the powers that would not permit any gift that might dispel Jacob Marley’s allotted suffering did relent, just enough that the old spirit knew his existence had not been entirely without consequence -- he was remembered, he had changed a life, if not his own.
by Rudi Dornemann
By the time the first snow fell, none of us remembered if we'd been the ones to burn the bridges and mine the streets just inside the gates, or if that had been the enemy. Big flakes fell out of the dark like the ashes of the stars we couldn’t see and the city got even quieter under all the white. Out on the plain, the wind blew rolling drifts like slow waves and we saw the distant figures of the enemy scrambling to secure their tents.
My sister Rose and I laughed and watched until the cold metal of the telescope stung our eyes, then we went downstairs and had some of the soup that Mama Anna had made. It wasn’t much -- just water in which a shriveled potato had simmered all day. Sister Zell called it "potato tea," but she wouldn't help when we tried to talk Mama Anna into having a slice of the potato in our soup.
"If you eat it now," said Mama Anna, "it won't be there for breakfast."
"Let them have it," said Sister Zell. She stared out the window where the snow was falling heavier than ever.
Mama Anna put the pot back in the hearth and told us a story about the old days, when the Engineer and the Poet and the other founders built the city. Rose and I tried not to slurp our soup.
Mama Anna was just getting to the part where the Prophet went sleepwalking every night and the Engineer followed him so that he could see where the city walls should be, when Sister Zell interrupted.
"They flogged the Engineer the other day," she said. "On the city hall steps."
"It"s time for bed," said Mama Anna. "For all of us."
There was a huge sound, even louder than then cannons.
"The river-moat froze over," said Sister Zell.
There were three more sounds, like wood cracking, only much louder, and I thought I heard a faraway shout.
"What do we do?" said Mama Anna.
"We wait," said Sister Zell. "They should be waking the dragon soon."
The whole house shook like it did when the calvalry used to ride down the street, back when we still had horses.
"Isn’t it too cold?" said Rose.
"We'll find out," said Sister Zell.
Mama Anna started to cry. Sister Zell held her hand, and we all looked out at the snow.
Tales of the Future #1: The Robot and the Hive
by Rudi Dornemann
There was a robot who lived on the edge of a forest that covered what had once been an industrial park. The robot farmed histo-adaptive replacement organs - kidneys and livers mostly, spleens every once in a while. The business didn't make much money, but it kept the robot in power and spare parts. Monitoring all the chemical and temperature variables suited the robot's temperament, and, in the evenings, the woods were peaceful.
In the next sector, there lived a clone hive. There were dozens of them, all the same, and they worked day and night at three or four different businesses at the same time - light assembly, personalized cake decoration, transcription, bonded courier services, and more. Like most hives, they weren't good at everything, but once they found what they were good at, they kept doing at it, and soon they did it very well. They multiplied and reinvested, and within a few years, they owned everything for three sectors around.
They sent the buyout offer via their own courier, and a second clone went along because that was protocol in any business situation, since the sight of a second identical person waiting in the car reinforced the idea that the whole hive was behind the message.
The psychology was wasted on the robot, but the letter was logically set out in a numbered table format that it found easy to process. He particularly admired the paragraph that talked about how an organization that followed an exponential-growth economic model could coexist with boutique enterprises founded on a stasis-capitalist model.
The courier said he could wait a few minutes for an answer, or he could return at another, more convenient time.
"Is your car networked?" asked the robot.
"Certainly," said the clone. "We can transmit your answer to our legal staff in moments."
The robot stood in its doorway. A bird chirped in the woods; another answered. Several moments passed.
"It's a good price," said the courier. "What do you think? What's your answer?"
"I do not need an answer," said the robot. "I have used your vehicle to speak to the others of my model. We all have a little savings that we can pool."
"We can outbid any counter-offer," said the clone in the car.
"You misunderstand," said the robot. "We have bought your hive, all its assets, everything."
The clones' car chimed that a message was waiting for them.
"Now," said the robot. "The spleen tank needs cleaning, it is a lovely evening, and I am going for a walk. You'll find brushes and scrapers on the workbench."
A Winter's Fantasy
by Rudi Dornemann
As we expected, the hard part was getting the ice skates on the alligator.
On our first few attempts, no one lost any fingers, although Edmund and
I each gained a few bandages. We were getting the hang of things by the
end of the morning, and would have persevered in the afternoon with, I
am sure, eventual success, had our lunchtime discovery not made further
beast-wrangling moot. There, in the winter garden, behind a clutch of
potted cycads brought back by one of professor Ogdred's expeditions, was
an alligator. Stuffed. A settee, in fact, with green velvet cushions and
a carved ebony back. There was line of buttons down the middle of the
cushions in place of the original ridges.
"Perfect," said Edmund.
"Exactly what she wants," I said.
We were careful to carry it out the east door, since the alligator - the
live one - was already in a sulk after the morning's exertions; trooping
past the herpetarium window with the taxidermied remains of one of its
cousins seemed unwise.
We made our way through the frozen gardens. The veiled statues of
weeping ladies were jeweled with tears of ice. The giant stone hand was
gloved in snow. The wind hissing through the bare branches of the trees
might have been the snickering of ghosts.
We lashed the skates to the alligator's feet. Edmund sucked his finger
where he'd scraped it on one of the claws. We pushed the settee out from
the shore of the frozen pond, skidded around getting into our seats, and
then built up speed by polling gondolier style with sharpened sticks.
When we glided by the gazebo, the fur- and scarf-wrapped card players
looked up. The countess was looking at us as she extracted the envelope
from her folds of her sleeve and slid it across the table to her sister,
with whom the count had forbidden her to have any private contact. She
winked, and we knew that she'd keep us in hot cocoa and smuggled
trinkets through the spring, as long as we kept up the distractions.
by Rudi Dornemann
For a hangar tech-- grade III, life on the aerodrome was hard work, long hours and thin air. His first few weeks, Karl Havens had nosebleeds at least twice a day. He hauled zeppelin tethers, ran up and down the stairs all day fetching parts for the ornithopter mechanics. He got used to the air. As new guy he had to go up top every four months with a shovel and magnet-soled boots, and scrape the roof clear before the layers of guano became too much of a health hazard.
He tried not to think the altitude as he played out his safety tether; the view was stunning, but best appreciated from lower floors. He tried to stay very still when the ramphorynchus would slap at him with their wings. Everyone always called them "leathery," but no one ever mentioned that it was leather nearly as soft as what Karl imagined fine ladies' gloves were made of. It wasn't so much painful as disconcerting, and it certainly wasn't as bad as the hazing he'd gotten from the grade I and grade II techs.
So he scraped, shuffled his magnetic feet, scraped, and kept his eyes away from the distracting distance. What distracted him one day, though, was something closer and more unexpected -- a human skull, inlaid with gold, among the rocks and fishbones in a rampho nest.
Must have come from one of the funeral platforms of the coastal nations they'd passed over a few weeks before. Karl imagined one of the beasts had brought it up for their hatchlings because it flashed and glittered like a fish. And a trio of those young squealed in that particular nest, all teeth and elbows like they are at that age. As he made his way around and around he tried to think of a way to grab the skull without disrupting the little demons. He had just resolved that he'd beat the flat of the shovel against the metal of the roof, in hopes that they'd fly off, or scuttle clear, if they weren't flying age yet -- he'd just made up his mind, when the decision was made moot: a zeppelin, way off any of the approved approaches, was coming in, low over the roof, the gondola with the panicked pilot headed right for him...
(to be continued)
Still Life with Apocalypse
by Rudi Dornemann
Among the ruins of a city unmade by years: a lean-to, a fire, a pair of ragged figures watching open cans bubble on the cracked stones ringing the fire. Corn, beans, peas: vegetables harvested three generations or more ago.
"Succotash," said the older woman.
"Is it?" said her companion. "I didn't know that had peas in it."
"Close enough," said the first.
Among the shadows, a pair of even more ragged figures watching the fire-watchers.
"Succulent," said the zombie with one arm.
"Are they?" said the zombie with half a face. "I didn't know there were any left who weren't all tough and gristly."
"Close enough," said the first.
Among the dimensions, a pair of many-tentacled entities watching the watchers.
"Supplicants," said the one oozing green etheric radiation.
"Are they?" said the one oozing blue. "I didn't know there were any left who remembered us, let alone think of us as something to worship."
"Close enough," said the first.
The older woman reached for the tin of beans, but didn't wrap enough of her sleeve over her palm, and dropped the can with a yelp, knocking all the vegetables into the fire.
The one-armed zombie startled back at the hiss and steam cloud that arose, and jostled a pane of glass free from its dry-rot fragile frame. At the crash, the humans looked up from trying to spoon their supper out of the ashes, ran up the steps of the municipal library and slammed the huge doors with a boom.
The green-oozing entity felt a pang of melancholy at the echoing of the sound -- the exact note of the corpse-drums that had once been beaten in accompaniment to unspeakable rites in the entity's honor. Its blue-oozing companion vibrated sympathetic sorrow. The humans found themselves remembering unruined days, but that was nothing unusual; that was how they spent most evenings. The zombies, however, found themselves longing for the taste, not of blood or brains, but of mixed vegetables, still metallic from the tin. This desire, among the ruins of memory, was nothing like fulfillment but, for this one evening, it was close enough.
by Rudi Dornemann
The Cloud-Veil'd Moon: Eileen and Gemma Darwater (1977)
4 out of 5 stars
Just a few years after Led Zepplin issued an album with mystic runes for a cover and bands like Black Sabbath launched careers around dark, occult themes, the Darwater sisters set up their amps and instruments in a fairy ring somewhere in on the moors of Devon. Or so goes the copy on the back of their first and only LP, The Cloud-Veil'd Moon. No doubt it was all the fancy of some A&R man who'd read too much Tolkein, but it was nice to see someone conjuring up a gentler version of the magical.
The album itself is best described as eccentric. An eccentric selection of folk standards, pop-song covers and what are apparently folk-inspired originals, arranged eccentrically (in time signatures that seem to shift with every other measure), and played on the most eccentric collection of instruments (if the liner notes are to be believed, which takes some effort on this reviewer's part).
For example, tracks 3 and 10 feature a percussion instrument called the "Doord" which is described as "a broad stone played by two trolls alternately and rhythmically striking their skulls upon either side." What exactly the "Doord Grande" (track 7) is, we aren't told, but it certainly fills up the bottom end of the mix. Internet discussions still rage as to whether the harp heard on several of the songs is actually a carefully recorded duet or the result of even more careful tape-splicing. A few holdouts do insist that these are, in fact, recordings of a single harpist with twelve unusually long fingers, but this seems unlikely.
Adding to the album's mystique are the mysterious guest appearances, including backing vocals on the cover of Dylan's "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," which are attributed to a "Mr. Nicholas D., who traveled a very great distance to join us on this track." The listener is apparently meant to guess that this is none other than Nick Drake, and it certainly sounds like Drake, except that he was dead for three years at the time the song was recorded.
Whatever the strangeness of the record, and in spite of the record company's attempt (successful, certainly) to create a mystique around the sisters and their band, there's no question that the Darwaters recorded a catchy set of tunes. After several hundred listens, I still can't say I like the music, but neither can I put anything else on my stereo that doesn't sound trite and ordinary in comparison.
It is a pity that the Darwaters only recorded this single album before disappearing for nearly twenty years. In May of '78, Gemma was quoted in the NME as saying they were going to tour extensively "down under," but no documentation of an Australian tour has ever been found. So The Cloud Veil'd Moon remains the only available recording by this promising enigma -- at least until someone makes a bootleg available of last year's already legendary surprise appearance at Tokyo's Budokan arena.
A Few Words Concerning B.
by Rudi Dornemann
Many of our co-workers think B. is reserved, even shy. In fact, he is, as I have recently discovered, talkative, even garrulous. He was, however, raised by elephants, so his chattiness is entirely subsonic.
This explains why cups of coffee placed on his desk ripple, and why some days his lunch consists of nothing but those bright orange circus peanuts. His days look like a endless series of receiving production statistics, turning the stats into pie charts, and the pie charts into slideshows he then presents to long tables full of drowsing executives. In fact, B. is continuously gossiping with every elephant in every zoo, circus, and wildlife park in the eastern half of the continent.
There's a lot to hear, and a lot to say: likes and dislikes in food and housing, work conditions; childhood memories of the savanna; humorous anecdotes about the foibles of one's keepers; long-simmering spats and feuds; equally enduring friendships; the spats, feuds, and friendships of others; the thousand aggravations and entertainments of the week; dreams of a better future.
I only know this through luck: we happened to walk to the T stop together one night last week, and, as we walked through the tile-walled corridor and out into the sweat-humid tunnel, his eyes fell on the National Geographic being read by a commuter who'd been early and lucky enough to get a bench.
There, in the middle of a story on poaching and ivory trade, a glossy two-page scene of slaughter. Someone he knew, apparently.
His initial trumpet of shock and rage drowned out the laughter of the high school kids clustered near us on the platform, the busker's Casiotone, the newseller's talk radio. A moment later, when the highschool kids, the busker, and I could hear nothing but blaring Limbaugh, B.'s cries of sorrow shook the pits of our stomachs and shattered every window on the E train.
by Rudi Dornemann
You can almost see, under the cover of decades of vines, the tower, its brickwork inset with tiles decorated with a pattern of vines. The tower, whose stair treads sag with a creak under every footstep. The tower built precisely on the migration route so that, from the top, on certain late summer evenings as determined by consultation of multiple star charts, you can, if you lie flat on your back on the boards that are both musty and splintery (remember to bring a blanket to lie on, preferably a thick one) you can see the dragons flying overhead.
It's always a moonless night when they pass by, so you see them mainly as vast silhouettes. You feel the muggy heat of the breeze that's their wake, and see the occasional underbelly-embedded jewel streak by like a shooting star as it catches the light of a distant town.
After you watch a while, the dragons may seem to be almost close enough to touch, as if they're skimming along under a sky as low as the ceiling back in your home.
No matter how tempted you are, do not stretch out your hand. Do not try to touch the dragons. The rushing friction of the gem-crusted underbelly will burn. The sky will tremble as if with heat lightning. The claws, when they catch you, will nearly crush the breath from you.
Worst, when you return, dropped back a year later, on the same roof (you'd better hope it's been an easy winter and spring while you're gone, or the tower might have crumbled to rubble), you won't be able to find words to describe the wonders and terrors you've seen: the fiery fields that blaze on the moon's dark half, the vast and silent cold of the migration ways, the draconian cave-citadels that drift among the furthest comets. No one will believe your stories, and no one will heed your warnings -- if you do find words for them, they will do more to intrigue than to dissuade, and future summers will bring new crops of freshly-returned travelers. At least they'll believe you then.
Why I Won't Go Back to the Sea
by Rudi Dornemann
I was hauling traps out of Boothbay Harbor when we met. Love at first sight! I thought I was the luckiest guy in the world -- me and one of the ocean's beautiful daughters. Her eyes were black and bright as a seal's. Her hair was long, but as tangled as kelp, and sometimes, when we rocked in my little boat and watched the evening, she would let me help comb it.
The ocean has many daughters, each of them beautiful, each of them different, as different as one wave is from the next. And, as with waves, the difference isn't one that reveals itself quickly to human eyes. So it was that I smiled at one of my beloved's sisters, and another seashell-whispered sweet nothings in my ear. The sea soon turned to jealous tempest all the way from Kennebunk to Presque Isle.
When their father had had enough of this, he sent the ninth sister -- a head taller than the others, brawny, magical, and cursed. She hoisted me on her shoulders and hauled me leagues and leagues inland. ("Abilene 278 mi." reads the sign against which she left my boat leaning.)
But I'm far from alone here. Upon my arrival, the rest of the townsfolk came out of the houses they've built from their own beached craft. They stoked up an enormous fire and helped me to cook the catch I had in my hold. As I sat down with them to the largest lobster bake the county had ever seen, I saw my own heartbreak reflected in the faces of my new neighbors, mellowed by years for some, still achingly fresh for others. I knew right then that I'd found a home among the lovelorn bachelors of Surf and Turf, Texas.
by Rudi Dornemann
I had a doppelganger that year. Walking home from school, I'd see him on the other side of the street, walking just as slow or fast as I did, swinging a Six Million Dollar man lunchbox that had dents in all the same places as mine. When I went to the park after school to play Frisbee with Steve, Brian, and Elsie Fina from up the block, he was there too, leaning against a tree on the edge of the woods on the other side of the river. He looked just like me.
But, when my hair fell out after the first few treatments, his didn't. It was still red, and it still stuck up in the same places that mine had. When I got too tired to walk to school and dad drove me, we'd pass him every morning, always at the same place two blocks from school. The lunchbox that was cold in my lap glinted as he drummed his fingers on it in time to his steps. I drummed too, softly, so I wouldn't test whether dad would tell me to stop like he always used to, or would just let me keep going.
I went to the park alone on one of my stronger afternoons, and stood on the river bank. I looked at him, and rubbed the Frisbee in my hands. He looked back. Finally, I made up my mind, and I snapped my wrist the way Brian and Elsie always did but Steve and I could never master. The disk flew perfectly, fast and low over the water like a skipped stone, and he caught it. Before he could throw it back, I ran, and, when I tripped and skidded grass stains into the knees of my jeans, I got up and kept going until my lungs felt like they were squeezed empty and I thought I was going to throw up.
I didn't go back to the park until after the transplant. My hair was itchy stubble, but his head was bare and hung down like he was tired. I stayed way back from the river's edge, further away than either of us could have thrown even when we were well. I came back every afternoon. Eventually, I played ball with the Fina kids -- I wasn't ready for pickle yet, but I could toss it back and forth. He sat on the far bank, the lunchbox on his lap, watching and dozing.
Then it was winter, and I didn't go to the park, and when I did finally go back in the spring all I saw was a rusted rectangle that might once have been a Six Million Dollar Man lunchbox. By the beginning of summer, the grass had grown up so tall, though, I couldn't even see that.
The Slow Time Man
by Rudi Dornemann
That's what we called him. He'd come with the house, which was an ornate Victorian dilapidated enough for our parents to afford. He came with the garden, really. When we moved in, he was at the top of the slope leading down from the backyard to the river. When I graduated from high school, he was a foot or two down the hill.
We used to hang tinsel from him in December -- most of which wound up in birds' nests the next spring. We never let birds nest on him, even though the flat of his top hat was popular roost. Some kind of field kept him isolated from our time; when we dared touch him, we discovered his skin, clothes, and handlebar moustache all had the hard slickness of glass.
He was nothing but a statue to us until the summer night rainstorm when, amid the thunder, we heard a rapping at our front door. Dad went down and discovered that it wasn't the wind -- it was a man in clothes of the same vintage as slow time man's, only more tattered and worn. He'd collapsed on the welcome mat.
This turned out to be Oliver, the slow time man's scientific assistant and time-traveling companion, and we learned much over the next several months about their discoveries and adventures. He told us tales of ancient civilizations and future wonders, dinosaurs and dying suns. He'd sit in a lawn chair in the evenings and talk while the swallows skimmed the river and the chronostatic field glittered like early stars on his friend's skin. It was Oliver's theory that something had gone amiss with the field, it had lingered and slipped out of sync with wider time, trapping the inventor forever out of step with the world around him. After the rest of us had gone to bed, Oliver would sit, watching his friend and muttering equations to himself until well past midnight.
One morning, we were surprised to find Oliver gone, a five-page letter of thanks and farewell left on the neatly made-up guest bed. Although he never quite said, we understood he'd gone back to his apparatus, to his travels, to the researches he and Reginald had shared.
The next morning, however, there were two slow time men in the backyard, one wearing the old clothes of my dad's he'd borrowed. They walk, while the world ages too fast around them, and on quiet afternoons, we imagine we can hear the subsonic rumble of their infinitely gradual conversation.
Of Millinery and Magic(s)
by Rudi Dornemann
The system had worked perfectly for years. Illusionists wore top hats, neat and shiny black. Wizards and witches wore tall peaked caps, of course, and embroidered them with whatever arcane symbols they fancied. We mundanes wore our bowlers, rarely adorned with anything more flamboyant than a bit of feather or sprig of seasonal greenery. And it all worked well; we all knew each other's nature by our hats. And then he came to town, the stranger.
In his fez.
A crowd began to form from the moment he stepped through the east gate, and only grew as he made his way to city hall square. All our leading citizens were there.
The wizards claimed him for one of their own.
"It's truncated, this is true," said the chief Wizard. "But it's clearly conical."
"I'm afraid I must disagree," said the Grand Houdin. "It may lack a brim, but it's as flat on top as any top hat. He is clearly of the prestidigitator persuasion."
"Hurrumph," said the Mayor of the Mundanes as the noon sun gleamed from his gold-brimmed bowler. "He looks to me like some kind of hybrid of both your ilk -- a trader in both flim-flam and miracles.
The stranger only smiled.
With a flourish as practiced as any matinee magician, he raised one hand. With the gravity of the most learned mage, he shifted his hat's tassel from one side to the other.
From that day forward, the meaning of the hats changed. The illusionists found themselves pulling real rabbits from hats. They knew the identity of every hidden card, and the economy of our city collapsed under the deflationary pressure of all those coins pulled from behind ears. The wizards found themselves unable to levitate without the aid of nearly invisible threads and unable to transmute lead to gold without a false-bottomed cauldron. Their oracles spouted vague pronouncements that might mean anything and their grimoires were full of diagrams of fake thumbs and boxes holding hidden mirrors.
As for the rest of us, we found that our comfortable bowlers were gone and, in their place, we too wore fezzes that were always sliding askew, and tassels that swung like pendulums, whether we wanted them to or not.
Ghost Dancing the Cemetery Mile
by Rudi Dornemann
It was your idea, your concept that started it all. I saw your face as you watched the historical footage. I saw the moment the plan came to you. I didn't know what it was until you drove us out there, beyond all the walls and shields, the abandoned strip malls and the checkpoints.
You tapped the pad you'd glued to the dash and the old-time music started, so loud and so low our ribs throbbed with the beat and we couldn't hear the screeching of the harpies. You'd slipped the restraints and slid out the window before we could stop you.
There, under the light of the hololoops of the dearly departed, you danced. And the hover, controlled by that patch pad on the dash, moving in time to the math you'd programmed, danced with you. You leapt and slid and spun, ran or slow-walked, while the hover surged and stopped, fishtailed, hopped up and drifted down. You spun on the roof; you tumbled through the underside jets and came up again, road dust unfolding spookily around you in the holo-light. The mausoleum blocks echoed with laughter and voices singing along to century-old slang.
"Ghost dancing," you said.
The next week, we cruised the tombs again, and we all took a turn. Under the flickering gaze of beloved husband of, cherished daughter, much-missed brother, we danced. The hover, danced with us; you'd taught us the method of your math, and we'd each programmed our own choreography.
Your math was always the best; your choreography the most perfect. That was why things went wrong -- your movements were too true to the beat. The harpies knew exactly when to swoop. They had you off the ground by the time we reached you. You were still twitching to the bass; they knew how to move to hold you tight in their claws.
Now you stay locked indoors, won't talk to any of us who still go out into the night and the music.
We dance to new tunes, stochastic syncopation that bewilders the harpies, too many rhythms shifting too quickly. We dance for you, much-missed brother, and hope that you'll join us again, to leap and twist by the light of the dead.
Evening in the Chess-Cafe Star
by Rudi Dornemann
That Tuesday evening, like every Tuesday for the last couple of months, Maxim Abromovich Klebanov went to the chess café on Zaparin street. Javad Azaizeh waited at the usual table by the window. Like a third of the tables in the café, instead of chess pieces, the table was set with a shallow bowl of glass beads beside the board on each side. A new fad, the game with glass beads was as rigorous as chess but more abstract.
They made the usual small talk as they played -- ostensibly, the older man was helping Max with his French, but they both enjoyed the challenges of the games, chess at first, this new game for the last few weeks. They placed the beads at the corners of squares or, when the rules allow, in the center. Javad jotted the score and corrected Max's accent; Max was distracted --
3: Akbal: climbing the steps to the sky: even with the green of the trees beyond the city
Max's peripheral mind read patterns in the bead arrangements as Mayan calendar glyphs and jaunted off on cross-reference tangents --
8: Lamat: topography in relief: overlays for infrastructure, political divisions, groundcover vs. cleared vs. paved : looped animations showing ebb and flow of cultivation over decades.
Max shook his head. His contract was very specific: the peri-brain implant was for work only. The company paid for the surgery and the monthly subscription. The connection should have ended when he left the building. He shook his head again. One idea opened into the next.
14: Ix: import export ratios for corn, beans, millet, rice: by district, by country, by continent: by month, by year, by rolling five-year interval: flurry of numbers: mob of colored charts
The clatter and conversation in the street, loud yet removed. Against the focused silence of chess club, the noise was like a pressure in the air.
Max had fallen silent, but Javad must have assumed his friend was concentrating on the game. The taste of dust from another continent, another century, was thick on Max's tongue. Amidst the random firings of the peri-brain, he glimpsed a story, a life. He moved his lips, couldn't find words.
20: Ahau: numbers flock and disperse: commodities markets, futures: a wind in the treetops: so many steps
The game was over. Javad stood, wrapped his scarf around his neck, said something. Reached out to shake Max's hand.
Behind Max's eyes, the cycle of days began again.
1: Imix: climbing still higher: above the trees now and nearer to the sun's heat
The Grand Spire
by Rudi Dornemann
(From A Comprehensive Guide to the Labyrinth City, by P.W. Garletts. 1087: Mewlen and Oll, Publishers; Osper Square. Pages 57-58.)
The Grand Spire is the tallest building in the Labyrinth City and, allegedly, the only one from whose upper floors the whole design of the city can be seen.
Built in the Linear Year 136 by architect siblings Oscar, Omar and Olive Specto, the tower was built of stone quarried from the mountain that formerly stood in what is now the Three Hills neighborhood.
The Grand Spire's existence was one of the underlying causes of the Second Mapmaker's revolt in L.Y. 260. When Queen Sheparsa IV brokered an end to hostilities, the fate of the spire was one of the most contentious issues. The only issue that united the squabbling Mapper's Guilds was their common desire to see the Spire razed. Eleven-finger Owlsely, a steward of the Sevenbridge guild, even produced a map of a proposed park that would encompass the dunes that would result from the Spire's being ground to sand.
The nearby neighborhoods, however, had seen the worst of the fighting during the revolt's five years. With its massive stone blocks barely chipped, the spire was the least damaged building for nearly a mile in any direction, and a great source of local pride. More practically, the inhabitants of Spireshadow, Spireview, Baker's Fallow, Wormtree, and Lower Seething saw the Spire's use as a landmark as their only hope to rebuild without falling prey to the unscrupulous map sellers who were quickly amassing fortunes in other war-torn quarters of the city.
So it is that the tower wardens not only cover their faces with eyeless masks but also blind themselves each day at noon by plunging lit torches into troughs of ink-dust, filling the interior of the tower with impenetrable darkness. Behind the welded-shut windows, the wardens go about their duties by touch. No matter how they may be tempted, they are unable to abuse their position and glimpse the plan of the city.
From the time of the truce, maps in the Labyrinth City have been approximate, transitory, and provisional, but the peace, however strained, whatever injustices it leaves unchallenged, is -- like the Grand Spire -- enduring.
Parthenia Rook, episode IV: In the Hall of the Bonobo King
by Rudi Dornemann
INTERIOR, ONE OF THE INNUMERABLE CORRIDORS IN THE BONOBO KING'S SECRET SUBTERRANEAN LAIR
THE BONOBO KING, a chimpanzee in an expensive Italian suit, sans shoes, walks down the hallway, accompanied by two of his associates: DR MANDRILL, a blue-faced, red-nosed monkey in a white lab coat and HENCH, a shaggy gigantopithecus in stained overalls.
BONOBO KING: Brilliant work, Dr. Mandrill. The anti-gravity suit worked exactly as you said it would. Like being lifted up by the hands of angels. Perfect.
MANDRILL: Thank you, my liege. I trust the baby-bot and zombirazzi performed as expected?
BONOBO KING: They seem to have worked splendidly. After all, Hench got in and out of Fort Knox without any interference by the annoying Ms. Rook. Didn't you, Hench?
MANDRILL: If it pleases your excellency, I have a boon to ask.
BONOBO KING: Ask away.
[They enter A GRAND DINING ROOM furnished in gold-crusted Louis XVI furniture.]
MANDRILL: From now on, I would like to be known as "Zaius."
BONOBO KING [peeling a grape with his toes]: Zaius?
BONOBO KING [through mouthful of pomegranate]: That's ridiculous. Your name is Oscar. [Spits seeds.] It's a perfectly nice name.
MANDRILL: But Zaius just sounds so much more...
[The Bobobo King gnaws on a pineapple.]
BONOBO KING: Pfaugh! We've talked about this before. How those Planet of the Apes movies systematically misrepresent the glories of the coming pan-simian age...
MANDRILL: Isn't it funny how "pan-simian" starts with the name of your genus.
[The Bonobo King freezes, his teeth just sinking into a kumquat, and stares coldly at his chief scientist.]
BONOBO KING: Exactly what part of "king" is it that you don't understand, Oscar?
[Dr. Mandrill manages to return the stare for a few seconds before faltering and looking away.]
MANDRILL [quaveringly]: My apologies. I forgot myself.
BONOBO KING: Take that tone with me again, and I'll ask that Gibbon sisters make sure that everyone else forgets you as well.
[Dr. Mandrill falls groveling at the king's feet.]
HENCH: Pan-sim. I...
[His expression suggests he's forgotten what he's going to say next.]
BONOBO KING: Come on-- [Burps.] Haven't you got some new and even more nefarious devices to demonstrate? I believe you mentioned something about a giant robot that transforms into a robot giant?
MANDRILL: Oh, yes. I've worked up a few things I think you'll enjoy quite a bit. And Parthenia Rook won't enjoy at all. Heh. Heh-heh.
BONOBO KING: HA!
MANDRILL [maniacally]: Eee-hee, eee-hee, hee-hee-heeeeee!
HENCH [uncertainly]: HEH.
BONOBO KING [diabolically]: MWAHAHAHAA!
Before and After the Party
by Rudi Dornemann
Clara said she would do the final tidying herself. The apartment's cleaning cycle wouldn't finish before six, and that left less than an hour to decorate before the guests arrived.
The living room sang a chime of agreement; dust mice scuttled back into the baseboards.
While Clara cleared coffee table clutter, previewed panoramas on the walls, and pushed chairs into configurations that opened the floor for dancing without blocking easy passage to and from the kitchen, the local sun belched a wave of X-rays.
Some radiation made it through the city shield, but microscopic machines in Clara's blood repaired the damage almost as quickly as it occurred, re-knitting DNA and patching leaky cell membranes. She put her feet up on the hassock for a minute, drank a lemonade the kitchen gave her, then realized it was later than she thought, and jumped up to change clothes.
The apartment was ready in time -- so was Clara -- and the party was a great success. Richard was there, and Mary Maddox. The McClellans, the Spenders, the Rosseters -- they were all there.
No one noticed when, sometime after ten, another storm of X-rays overwhelmed the shield and outstripped the nanomachines' ability to heal. Clara just had time to feel a wave of nausea before relays clicked in the walls and everyone was loaded up to their virtual backups in computers miles underground.
Radiation baked the city and seared the dying bodies of its inhabitants. (Clara lay in the doorway to the kitchen, one hand extended toward Richard.) The little mouse robots were busy all night with the ashes.
At dawn, when all the levels were safe and green, tiny machines wafted through the city like smoke, rebuilding from memory everything right where it should be. Relays clicked and everyone was loaded back into new-built bodies.
Clara woke and stretched, watching dust drift through a blade of sunlight that came in past the curtain, dust which, the morning before, had been her eyes. She got up, and asked the house to buy her flowers. The house chimed in answer.
The Courier's Tale
by Rudi Dornemann
It's still early when Eyve Aerial enters the abandoned district. The sun is bright and low, so that the spidery petals of snowflake roses cast shadows like clutching hands on the edge of the road.
An invocation, chalked on the bowed metal of a cellar door in careful phonetics, is a line of bubble-round glyphs that might be cartoons. Eyve forces herself not to read, lest she sound them out in her head and activate something.
An emperor centipede blurs across the pavement, a quick zig just when it would have scurried over the toe of her boot, and it's away into the safety of the rose-thicket shadows. From the clacking clatter of its segments, the mineralizing's irreversible -- it'll be dead in a week, a statue, a monument to its final moment. Eyve shivers; Medusa syndrome! And it almost touched her.
She's carrying a jar full of oracular candies, imported and expensive: fruity fizzing omen-jellies, licorice-centered maybes, sugar-powdered harbingers. As bad for your teeth as your soul -- that's what the Central Square Sorceress said when she paid Eyve the first half of the courier fee. She sounded stern and all-knowing, like she always sounded.
Eyve's been resisting the temptation to taste one all the blocks and blocks she's been walking. With all the miles she has to go, she won't be able to hold out. The Blue Magus of the Western Suburbs will never know if she has one. Just one. This is the only part of her route where there won't be anyone around to see her.
Eyve reaches without looking, pops a minty-sour something into her mouth. The taste is acid and too-sweet. She spits it out on the asphalt, but flavor is still unfolding on her tongue, rich and disgusting. She sees herself, not much older, hobbling and rust-furred, clanking into her final pose. The jar slips from her hands, shatters. Candy blobs and glass splinters cover the road.
After a frozen moment, she picks up a squashed harbinger, and licks it, hoping for a glimpse of a different, less terminal, future. Just a lick shouldn't be too bad for her, and if it's promising, she can eat the whole thing. It tastes like yesterday's stewed cabbage, and shows her the whole city turned to a charred crater.
She sets the harbinger aside and reaches for a pink-frosted portent nougat. Maybe this one will be better.
In the Night Market
by Rudi Dornemann
The autumn wind was coming down the valley from China, but, to Javad Azaizeh, it felt as chilly as if it were pouring south from Siberia. He should be inside on a night like this, but insomnia always left him feeling lonely, and Khabarovsk's night market seemed like the perfect remedy.
Vermillion in the shadows of the next row of kiosks caught his eye, and he walked closer. In the narrow aisle between a noodle stall and one that sold prepaid viewpads for the municipal space, a stocky man in an apron swept his bare forearm up and down, back and forth. Red flashed with every movement. The noodle-seller -- he hadn't even put down his long chopsticks -- paused, and the diodes in the skin of his forearm winked out. He was looking over Javad's head, and Javad turned.
Up on a rooftop overlooking the market square, a woman waved in response. Her arm, too, traced red on the night, a series of symbols that hung on the air through persistence of vision.
Javad smiled in recognition -- he knew those symbols. Forty years ago, touring with Cheba Alia's orchestra when he was just a city kid who'd never been more than ten kilometers out of Paris, he'd seen the same alphabet on hand-lettered signs in towns on the edge of the Sahara. They'd seemed then like the most exotic thing in the world. He'd never learned how to read them, and what a noodle-seller in a Korean market in a Russian city was using them to say, he couldn't guess.
Javad turned back to see the noodle-seller resume his side of the conversation, his arm a blur. There must be some sophisticated on-the-fly processing behind the simple arm-waving -- the quick-fading scarlet lines were crisp.
Javad's admiration was tempered by hunger -- the smell of fish and spices reminded him he hadn't eaten since midday.
"Pardon, but when you have a moment..." he said.
The noodle-seller's arm continued flaring letters on the twilight, his gaze remained fixed on his distant companion, and Javad had no idea if the man had even heard him.
A Morning Slidewalk Scene
by Rudi Dornemann
This guy comes up the block in a silver jumpsuit, and he's thinking, I could move to one of those LaGrange orbitals. Plenty of jobs up there, and all kinds of relocation bonuses...
Another guy, older, coming the other way in a plaid jacket that totally clashes with the tattoo on his face, is remembering the cliffhanger ending from last night's episode of /Urges/, playing it over and over in his mind. He seems to be more interested in the cutting remark that Lola just made to Charles, and less in the way the elevator is falling out of control.
A woman on the expresswalk is going over what she needs to do to clinch the Callazon deal -- if she drops the renewal price by 3% and moves the upgrade window from five months to four... Biv in sales owes her a favor anyway. And if she lands this one, Robertson will have to promote her. He'll have to, no matter what he thinks about clones -- the bigot.
There's silver jumpsuit guy again, going the other way, thinking: ...or one of the undersea domes, lots of jobs there, too. And they have great schools -- now that I'm pregnant, I can't just think about myself. I'm sure I'll get used to the damp eventually. They say it doesn't feel as claustrophobic as it really is...
A woman passes by, wondering if she should stop off at this coffee shop or wait and just grab a cup from the machine in the lobby at the office, which tastes as good, but the foam's always a little flat. She doesn't stop.
A man with one of those biofeedback jackets glides by, mellow and smug. He's thinking, yeah, it was expensive, but it looks just like my own hair, and with the foil lining, I don't have to worry about those damn headhoppers anymore. My thoughts are my own!
Latte nearly comes out of my nose at that one. Like anyone cares what he gets up to when he goes virtual, even if he is stealing company linktime to do it. And I hope his real hair didn't look like that.
You're right, we should move on; we've been here like forty-five minutes. Even though nobody's noticed, they might.
Wait -- here comes that guy in the jumpsuit again.
A Brief History of Automatic Fiction
by Rudi Dornemann
Buenos Aires, dawn; streets quiet. A little cafe on the Calle Magdalena. Languages he doesn't know -- Spanish, English, Russian -- conspire at other tables. At his: oversweet frothy coffee and a stained notepad.
He lets the notepad jot.
Automatic Fiction is the most useless of the arts; that's part of its charm. A cloud of words on the page, caravan of sentences that almost seem to be getting somewhere, then don't. Paragraph after paragraph absorbs the mind like music on edge of hearing. Forgotten as soon as read, leaving behind only a vague afterimage. Emotional pentimento.
AutoFictioneers rig algorithms to discourse, and they go. Plots unspool and branch. Characters multiply, recombine scene by scene. Detail and dialogue are elaborated by automata run on simple rules over vast numbers of iterations. The machine generates a new tale for every reader, every reading.
Words follow words while he watches pedestrians, trees, traffic.
Student loan venture funds want dividends. He wants to make useless words. In rising economies, the newly comfortable see individuality as status, and want to be and to have what's unique. Each their own story. In fading economies, midling classes want to stay ahead by keeping up, and want their own stories, too. Demand.
Vulture funds want to commodify his elusive and unrepeatable words. They've bet he'll profit them, so he's gone and will go -- Niigata, Des Moines, Buenos Aires, Kinshasa, Adelaide, Urumchi, anywhere that's somewhere else. Where he can do his work and be useless.
Fund managers, or their subcontractors, approach -- his preprogrammed proximity agents sing warning -- he snaps the notebook shut and stands to go -- and the words are gone.
And so is he.
On the Monorail
by Rudi Dornemann
Leave your half-empty, half-cooled styro of coffee as an offering to the Man on the Monorail. He's said to ride the fluorescent aisles of the metrotran ceaselessly, always seeking -- never finding -- a platform that isn't just a transfer point, a destination that isn't just a place on the way to somewhere else.
Riding, always riding, never to see a landscape that doesn't have his own Perspex-reflected face layered over it. The mirror-chrome office pylons like tethering posts for clouds. Fields of solar panels stretching away to the horizon like an ocean of gleaming shadow. Immense self-assembled geodesics like jewel-faceted mountains. Always the image of his eye like a moon in a noon-blue sky.
The stories say he lives on stale donuts and cup noodles out of the machines in the back cars of the intercity routes. The stories say the conductors turn a blind eye; the stories say he used to be one of them, still wears the blue coat, stripped of buttons or insignia, still mutters the station names to himself in an endless loop that might be curses, might be prayer.
Out you go, down the stairs, through the streets, away into the crowd, while he rides, settled on the vinyl seat patched with peeling tape, head drowsing against textured aluminum panels etched and markered with signatures and slogans, tags that label the world with names. If he has a name, no one remembers it. The monorail glides, night-silent, through the city skyline, and he rides. He rides, seeking.