October 24, 2008

No Cure for Emptiness on East 14th

Another 'New York Magician' story. E2 is way ahead of the blog, having another 8 or 9 episodes, but I'll try to start closing the gap in case you don't want to look there.

His hand engulfed mine, and mine aren't small. Despite having waded through New York sewers to reach me, they were clean. I looked up his arm and up at him as I reclaimed my well-compressed fingers. "Kevin? Who the hell are you? No, wait a minute. What the hell are you doing here?"

"Same thing you are, I 'spect. Came looking for the power, didn't 'cha?"

"I came looking-" I stopped, thought about it. "I came looking for whatever called someone here. To Manhattan."


I looked at him, sharply. "Yes."

"Ahhh, me boy. I came looking for the same thing."

"What did you find?" I asked.


* * *

We walked back out to the railway tunnels. Kevin exclaimed in delight at the typewriters and, entreating me to hold his Coleman, salvaged a dusty but unrustedRoyal which he carried under one arm with a pleased expression. When we reached the relative open space of the tunnels, he turned uptown without hesitation. I thought about it for a second, then shrugged and followed.

"Ye see, Michel, there's been all manner of trouble with the rivers. All manner. Been up and down the island, these past days, tryin' ta make sense of it." Kevin's accent was odd; it was mostly Irish, but there were strange gutturals in it; occasional odd stops. "What did ye find?"

I couldn't see any reason not to, so I told him about Brian and his companion and the game of Manhattan solitaire that had been laid out before they vanished away. Kevin clucked his tongue thoughtfully when I'd finished. "An' you couldn't read your card? Or the card they said was yours?"

"No. It was blurred. If I tried too hard, it interfered with my vision."

"Ahhhh." Kevin, it seemed, was fond of the almost-pleased sigh as a conversational gambit. I refused to rise to the bait and ask, so we walked a few dozen yards in silence save for the faint tapping of keys in Kevin's typewriter as it swung in his grip.

We emerged into wan daylight. Kevin continued north along the trackway, heading for the water; the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge was visible, swung east/west to allow water traffic through between the Hudson River and the Harlem River Ship Canal. At the water's edge, just off to the side from the tracks, was a black and gray shape. Kevin headed for it and carefully placed the Royal into it; as I came close, I identified a Zodiac boat with the characteristic safety orange color either painted over or replaced by dark plastic. "Hop in, me boy, I'll give ye a lift downtown."

"Hang on." I placed a hand to my chest, found the lumpy outline of Bobbi-Bobbi's spearhead, and closed my eyes. There was the now-familiar crackling sense of direction, faded slightly, and I opened my eyes to see Kevin looking at me calmly. I stepped sideways some five feet, repeated the experiment; sure enough, I was looking at him again. "So, Kevin."


"Before I get in that boat, perhaps you could tell me why my small friend here is very, very insistent that you, in fact, called Hapy here."

"Ah, that's easy."


"Surely." He reached into his waterproof waders. I stepped back quickly, one hand going to my gun, but he froze and looked at me somewhat mournfully.


Kevin withdrew his hand. In it was a bit of paper; an envelope? I reached for it, but he held up his other hand. "In a moment. Let's try this." He placed it on the boat and then stepped away from it. "Now ask yer friend again."

I looked at him suspiciously, then reached for the spearhead again. Opening my eyes, I found myself staring at the envelope. I looked at him, and he nodded. "Be my guest."

The envelope was sized for a greeting card, well-worn, but the photograph inside appeared almost new. I slid it from the paper and flipped it to face me.

A picture of my face stared back at me. I looked at Kevin, who shrugged. "I was lookin' for what called him here too, lad."

"Where'd you get this?"

"I told you. I knew yer gran. She gave it to me some years ago. When I was searchin', I kept comin' up with that picture. I finally kept it on me person, so it wouldn't interfere with me triangulatin'."

I handed him back the picture and quietly got into the Zodiac. Kevin untied a small rope that had held it to a sapling and kicked at the shore, powerfully. We slid into the opaque gray waters of the Harlem River. Once we'd moved some dozen yards, he dropped the outboard motor into the water and pulled on the starter. It caught instantly, and he dropped into the rudimentary pilot's seat. "Righto, boy. Downtown!"

And with that, the engine sang out a song of gasoline hunger, and we blared off along the Harlem River and the shores of Manhattan.

* * *

We'd reached Roosevelt Island before I could speak. "Why does everything keep coming up me?"

Kevin shouted over the roar of the engine, air and water. "Because yer the one called him, boy."

"I DIDN'T!" My frustration was easily vented, here, where shouting was almost necessary to be heard.

"Didn't say it was deliberate. Was your power, though."

"I don't HAVE power! I can't call the Others! I can just talk to them, and see them!"

"That's not what me boss says, boy."

"Who, then, is your boss?"

Kevin took one paw off the wheel to wave generally around us at the mercury and ebony colored waters. "There!"


"Where they meet!"

I thought about that carefully. Accent, location, where the what meet? The rivers? Then it was clear. "Condatis?"

Kevin nodded cheerfully. "He felt the rivers react when Hapy was called! You don't think you can bring the flood god into Manhattan and have the rivers ignore it, do ya?"

"I didn't bring him!"

"Well, however it went. He felt 'em strain their banks, boy, and he knew somethin' was up, and off I was sent."

We were slowing, pulling to the right and in towards the Manhattan shore. The Manhattan side was curving out into the river ahead of us, the bulge of Alphabet City hidden behind the industrial scarring of the FDR Drive. Kevin's voice was lower, no longer fighting as much engine noise. "Seems pretty sure 'twas you called him, boy. I don't argue with the boss about things like that. Your picture kept answering until I nullified it, then I went walkabout and came up with none other than you yerself."

I hunched in the front of the boat and thought about it somewhat furiously. I'd never had the power to affect the Others by will; only through my deeds and negotiation had I changed their actions or their courses. What had changed?

Then it hit me. I opened my bandolier with fumbling fingers, pulled it out and looked at it, really looked.

The starfield on the Patek Phillipe was glowing, a cloud of unknown origin spread across it. I spun on my seat, holding the watch up in front of me, and saw the starfield rotate behind it as if I was looking through the watch face into empty space. Finally, with some dread, I bent over and held the watch out over the river.

A face wreathed in greenish grey tentacles looked back at me from what might have been water and might have been cosmic gas. The eyes were closed, but I knew they would be enormous, round and brilliant yellow.

I snapped the watch closed and slid it back into my bandolier, hands trembling in fear and apprehension. Kevin slid us up to a crumbling concrete step and held the boat so I could disembark. "Thanks for the lift, Kevin."

"Anytime, boy."

"Sometime you need to tell me how you knew Nana."

"Only if you buy the beer." He winked, once, then released the rusty railing. "I'll be watchin' in, Michel. The boss likes this island the way it is."

"Me too, Kevin. Me too." He waved and shot off in a cloud of water spray. I climbed the few steps, crossed a disreputable park, and found myself at the East end of Fourteenth street. Sighing, I started to trudge across town towards home.

Why would Cthulhu give me power? Why would I have called Hapy? What the hell was I going to do now?

I couldn't answer most of those questions. But the last one, well...

I needed a drink.

Posted by jbz at 4:04 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 18, 2008

There was a man dwelt by a churchyard

Note: Today is for stories. I'm still working on the New York Magician stories, and there are more that aren't posted here; I include the one below to prove I'm not lying. The prior story is the first of a four-to-six story arc, of which three and a half are written.

My stories tend to a particular length (well, I should say story segments) because I mostly write them for E2, and they are of a good length to make a node there. I tend to break longer stories, as you can see, into segments of around that size. There is an added bonus that a node, or the story sizes I've been posting here, are right around the limit of what I can write in a sitting or a burst, and rather than let the words molder until there is 'enough' whatever that is, I tend to post them to let people beat on 'em.

There was a flash of black luminescence around my hand. The card was ice cold. I turned it quickly, a snap of the fingers, to see the front. Whatever was there was intent on not being seen. I could make out the card's shape, and the grubby off-white of dirty laminated surface, but every time I tried to focus in on the card itelf the blur that resided there reached up a little further into my forebrain, dug in its fists and squeezed.

I closed my eyes and pushed the card at the table. It left my hand, clearing my head immediately. I opened my eyes again to the more familiar blur of tears. "What-"

Brian's voice broke through. "You can hold the card. You, and only you, cannot read it."

I picked up the Desert Eagle. "Look, I came here looking for something, or someone."

"Yes." They both said it, in stereo. It was disconcerting. I had to fight down the urge to shoot one of them just to restore normalcy.

"There's someone downtown who shouldn't be here. He shouldn't be here at all. But he is, and he was called. Who called him?"

The other voice spoke. "You did."

"Bullshit. I can't call Others. I can hear and see them, that's all."

Brian's partner spoke again, looking down at the table's surface. "Doesn't change what happened. You called him. Perhaps not on your own. But you did." He looked up suddenly and stared at me through his blind eyes. "And now you know. That's all." He stood, far too quickly for his age, and Brian stood as well. I raised the pistol.

"Wait a damn-"

The room was empty. I jumped backwards reflexively, crashing to the floor as I tripped over some unknown piece of debris. The gun didn't go off (I don't take the safety off until I'm really ready to use it) and I kept hold of it, but at the cost of hitting the ground hard. I sat there for a second in the dimness, then stood up. The light had dimmed; the Coleman lantern was dark. I reached for it gingerly where it sat on the table, and my fingers tore through a thick coating of cobwebs. I pulled my hand back in surprise, then dug in my coat for my Maglite. The lantern was dusty, old, and the glass cracked. There were no mantles inside it.

The cards were gone, and the dust on the table's surface was thick and undisturbed.

"Oh, shit." I rubbed my head. "Shit, shit shit." Holstering the gun, I surveyed the room again. Nothing anywhere. The silence wasn't complete, not underneath the bones of New York, but it was much deeper than it had been some seconds ago. I couldn't figure out why what had just happened had the fright running up my spine; given what I dealt with on a daily basis, this was surely only somewhere middle of the road, but my sympathetic nervous system flatly refused to agree with me. The sweat was coming cold from my brow.

Then the noise started.

It was very faint, and very far off, but it was coming from the tunnel entrance opposite where I'd come in, and it could have been twenty feet or ten miles away. It was a regular metal-on-metal sound, though; nothing random and nothing soft. I twisted the Maglite to open up the field to the full width of the tunnel, pulled the Desert Eagle again, and moved into the tunnel, flashlight held out to my left. I was skirting the right wall, the light held approximately where it would have been in my left hand were I centered in the passage.

Gun in hand, I went to meet the noise.

Fifteen feet past the door, there was a metal grating from floor to ceiling. There was a huge round hole in the center of it, the bar edges flowing and melted at the hole’s periphery. I moved past it uneasily, into a lower tunnel which splashed around my boots. I hoped it was water, but my nose told me that if there was water down there, it wasn’t alone. The noise was rising in volume, coming from the darkness ahead. A regular thumping, or tapping, two beats then a pause, then again. Thump-thump.

After another fifty feet there was a flickering light ahead which took me some moments to realize was coming around a blind corner in the storm drain. I wasn’t positive, but it looked as if the tunnel turned right at least ninety degrees. I leaned against the right wall and raised the gun, watching the light and listening to the sound move closer to the corner.

The sound was regular enough to make concentration difficult. Thump-thump. I could only tell the source was still in motion from the movement of the light on the wall at the corner. Thump-thump. There was no way to determine precisely how close to the corner the other was, so I waited, sweating now in the chill gloom. Thump-thump.

The light, when it moved into my line of sight, was blinding. It came around the corner and stopped, and I lifted the gun. “Fucking freeze right there!”

Nothing happened for perhaps five seconds, then there was a booming laugh which reached out to me from behind the light (another Coleman, I could barely see, twin silk testicles of the mantles burning in their fragile ashen web of white gas). Then the lantern dimmed to the squeaking of its valve, and a voice no less enormous than the laugh said, in a rich Irish brogue, “Sure, and you’d be Michel, wouldn’t you, boy?”

The gun sagged downwards. I recovered enough to re-safety it. As I did so, the other figure moved towards me. In the lower light of the banked lantern, I could see a huge man, dressed in industrial coveralls and boots. In his left hand he held the lantern; in the right, a massive wrench, scraped in bright patterns where it had struck the concrete or stone of the tunnel.

I looked at him for a moment, then lowered the gun entirely. “Who the hell are you?”

“My name’s Kevin, boy. I knew yer gran.”

He was almost up to me. I fumbled the gun back into its holster, and when I looked up there was a huge paw outstretched, which it would have been churlish not to shake.

So I did.

Posted by jbz at 11:45 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 3, 2008

Seek and You Shall Find

The lawsuits of 2006 and 2007 had almost been a disaster. It had taken all the dancing skills of several grizzled civil servants at GS scales astronomically higher than usually seen to make the threat to the Project go away, and none of the team in the lab really wanted to know what had finally been done. They liked sleeping at night. But here and now, that wasn't an issue; the last line of code had been nailed into place, the last tap had been threaded, and the last bit of fiber had been hotspliced in an AT&T switching facility a week prior over in Salt Lake City where the Pacific Cross traffic came through. The Director was here in the PuzzleBox for the ceremony.

"Er, basically, sir, we're ready." The lead tech smoothed his T-shirt nervously. The Director looked at him for a few moments, causing him to search his conscience, but before he could blurt out the actual details of that last trip to Vegas, the Director nodded and turned away to corral the few brass who were lurking near the door. The tech sighed quietly and went to gather up his own team.

When all the VIPs had been settled in chairs near the main monitoring station, the tech went over to them. "Gentlemen, ladies, thanks for coming. I'm Park, project lead, and this is the first operational test of Project Syene. The filtergrids are coming online now, and we'll be ready to take traffic into the main array in about five minutes."

The Director coughed politely. "Park, could you give my colleagues a one or two sentence explanation of how Syene will help us avoid any, er, unpleasantness like the recent legal troubles we had with the program?"

"Sure, sir. Let's see. The problem, as it was phrased by others, was that we were retaining and interpreting traffic from and to non-target individuals as well as known targets in order to perform proper traffic analysis. We had to, in order to do datamining on the contact patterns, since we couldn't do that in realtime. The call content, as well, had to be analyzed after the fact, so we were - it was argued" - he added hastily, thinking of his audience - "we were retaining intelligence on civilians illegally. Anyway. The difference here is that Syene is doing live pattern recognition and traffic analysis without data retention; it is actively eliminating traffic which it recognizes as 'normal' for the U.S. telecommunications system from the 'net' before it even begins to analyze the take. Then, it is using spintronic and quantum systems to perform nonlinear pattern analysis of the call data in realtime-"

"Okay, son, I see eyes glazing. Cut to the chase, please."

"Sorry, sir. In essence, it means we never save any data until it has been flagged as anomalous; we don't need to save it in order to analyse it. The pattern data from the call is retained in quantum state without the actual call data being available, so that its character can be compared later without the actual call information being held without warrant. This is possible because Syene has been, in essence, listening to everything our telecom system 'says' for the past year or so and knows what 'normal' sounds like, and she can filter out nearly all of that by simply ignoring what sounds familiar. What's left over - well, that's suspicious."

"Thanks, Park. You can get on with it."

"Thanks, sir." Park adjusted his earset and checked in with his team. They were watching data spool through the grid at rates that would have looked horrific if he hadn't been watching what Syene could do for six months now. "All clear, guys?"

The responses came back; all okay. The machinery was fine; the code was stable, and wonder of wonders, the qubits were deigning to remain in semi-existence.

"Okay, let's go live. Shunt the feed onto the grid."

There was a wash of green across the status board as telecom feeds poured into the dataspace of the Syene comparators. The green threads blossomed on the display, indicating trunk routings, calls, port connections; just as quickly, they blinked and vanished, indicating that Syene had identified them as familiar and blanked them from the incoming traffic. A very few threads began to appear in yellow, then even fewer in red on the second board, indicating traffic that was surviving the winnowing and being flagged as anomalous.

Park talked to his team for a half an hour, then turned to the watching officials. "It looks good. We've positively identified over 60% of the redflagged traffic as being encrypted at 2k-spin or higher levels, and not by us; of the rest, some is in clear but involving obvious nonsense sentence structures, likely code. Some few have been tagged by human analysts as likely mentally disturbed people on the telephone, and the numbers marked for greenlisting."

"Impressive, son." The Director looked pleased. "Very good. We're going to go upstairs. I'd like reports every shift, please."


* * *

It settled into a routine, punctuated only by the normal breaks of man-made machinery that broke or discovered new modes of operation that its designers hadn't intended. New procedures were hastily written up, new recovery processes devised, and the flood of chatter went on. The PuzzleBox hummed with the talking.

The next week, Park came in to see two threads on the status board that were purple. He frowned and called over the chief ontologist. "Hayward, what the hell are those?"

The other scratched his head. "We dunno. Syene tagged 'em. We've had a listen, and it sounds like some sort of analog encoding system, but it's not one we know."

"Unknown encoding systems should be red."

"Yeah, I know. We're confused too. But it's definitely an unknown encoding system. We're pretty sure that it's just because it's an analog signal mod as opposed to a digital hash that's making it purple. There's a couple of signal proc gurus beating on it in their spare time."

"Okay. Let me know if anything breaks."


* * *

Another week passed.

* * *

There were nine purple threads, now. Park had given in and reported them to the Director, who had become intensely interested in them and asked Park for a source. Park had demurred, since all they knew so far was that the calls contained undecipherable noises, which (as far as he was concerned) wasn't really a crime. But he did work at the NSA, and he passed on the phone numbers. Because he worked at the NSA, nobody told him anything about the result, but the purple threads continued to accumulate.

"I bet it's an own goal." The Syene team had started bandying hypotheses about the purple people eaters back and forth over lunch in the lab. So far, an own goal - detection of a friendly intelligence agent's communications - was on top of the betting pool by a comfortable margin.

Park shook his head. "Nah. It's analog, man."

The other tech retorted "Yeah, but we can't crack it. It's sweet. Why couldn't that be Upstairs?" (Upstairs being the active crypto division).

"Look, Upstairs wouldn't go analog. It's too kludgey for them. Besides, can you imagine a U.S. agent being told he's taking analog tech into the field?" There were titters around the break room table. "Yeah. They'd quit on the spot. If it doesn't look slicker than a fucking iPod, they won't have anything to do with it."

"So what do you think it is?"

Park finished his coffee. "I think it's a little guy who's got Ops over here who's been extremely clever with limited resources. Maybe it's a Shack Special." Shack Specials were another intel community in-joke, the crypto and communications version of a 'MacGyver' - a functional modern cryptodevice that could be put together with parts available at Radio Shack.

In the ensuing laughter, they drifted back to work.

* * *

By week three, there were twenty-eight threads on the board, and Park had gotten a little obsessive. He had taken to listening to samples of the traffic on his iPod when wandering the building (since it couldn't leave the SCF) and twice his team had had to hunt him down only to find him sitting meditatively on the john, three thousand dollar government issue noise-cancelling analysis headphones on his ears and his building pager screaming in his shirt pocket.

Finally, the Director called him Upstairs. He went, half guilty and half indignant.

"Come in, son."


"Have a seat."

Park sat.

"Fine job on Syene, first of all. Thing's working a treat. Very low false positive rate; much much lower than the old Echelon take."

"Thank you, sir. Sir-"

"I know. I want to talk to you about the purple threads."

Park stared at his boss's boss's boss's boss, trying not to look as defiant as he felt. "Sir, what the hell is going on?"

"You're right, by the way. They are traffic."

"Well, of course they are, or Syene wouldn't flag them, sir."

"Of course. D'you know what purple signifies?"

"Analog signal, sir."

"Heh. Nope. You should've checked the code."


"The display routines weren't written in your department. You made an assumption, son. Bad habit for an analyst. Purple means unknown."

"Of course it's unknown-"

"You're not getting it. Start over."

Park stopped, looked at the Director, and tried to think harder. Unknown. Syene had been listening to the U.S. telecom system for a year. Before that, it had been fed every single specification, every single frequency, every single linguistic text, every single voice sample, and every single tonal sample that the NSA owned from all its years of intercepting voice and data traffic.


"Oh, shit."

The director grinned, unexpectedly. "See? They told me you were smart."

Park had paled. "You're telling me those signals are...are..."

"You can say it."


"Give that boy a prize."

"But they're coming from our own telecom system!"

"So? So do the signals the Iranian agents send. So do the signals the fucking British agents send. They're illegal aliens too."

"But who are they? And who are they calling? But most of all, what are we going to do about it?"

"I'm glad you asked." The director reached behind his back and pulled a folder out of a stack of precariously balanced similar folders, placed it on the desk, and opened it. "Welcome to Project Simon Says."

Posted by jbz at 12:36 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 20, 2008

Double Exposure

A standalone...

September 15, 2015 I began to smear. Not with a bang, nor even a whimper; with a splash. Walking down the hallway from the elevator to my front door, the drab tan carpet began to vibrate before my eyes for lack of a better word. Vision doubled. I shook my head, irritated; I remember removing my glasses and wiping them on my shirt before replacing them, but it didn't help. There were two versions of the carpet in my sight. Indeed, there were two slightly offset versions of the hallway. I touched my temples experimentally; no pain. I hadn't hit my head that I was aware. I hadn't been drinking (had I?) and I wasn't any more overworked than usual.

I continued on to the nondescript door of my rental apartment, unlocked the triple deadbolts, and let myelf in quietly. The apartment itself shimmered slightly, strange aura in my sight not lessening. I relocked the door and tossed the keys onto the hall table and moved into the kitchen to get myself a drink of water.

It didn't help. Aspirin didn't help. Meditation didn't help for the hour I devoted to emptying my brain of thought, despite the fast approaching finals week. I couldn't read, though; text swam before my misfiring eyes. No hope for it. I decided that at the very least, I might as well sleep; if sleep didn't help, I would visit the university health service in the morning.

Sleep came as easily as it always did to a postdoc.

The next morning brought a change, but not the one I was hoping for. The doubling of my vision was now more pronounced; there was a more noticeable separation between versions of what I was seeing.

While realizing that I would have to take a bus to the health center, since I certainly couldn't drive, I made a somewhat disturbing discovery.

Closing one eye didn't cure the double vision.

That was...unexpected, to say the least. I had been assuming that my problem arose from an inability to properly focus; that had happened to me before, usually as a result of exhaustion or eye fatigue from reading in the dark. Not this time, though. No matter which eye I looked out of, the doubled world looked back.


This was starting to severely worry me. I did what I always do in such cases and called Kris. She was awake as she always was. In five years of research collaboration, I've never caught the woman asleep. I don't think she does sleep. I think she merely parks herself in front of a workstation or book and leans over slightly, body on powerdown, and keeps thinking, just without moving for an hour or two. Given her normal hyperkinetic habits, that would be more than enough to refuel. But as I said, I've never caught her at it.

"Kris? It's Mladic."

"Morning, Deech. What's up?"

"I'm having a problem."

"Is it the crystal phase emitters? I told you –"

"No. It's with me. I'm having trouble seeing."

"Um. Trouble like how?"

"I'm seeing double. And I can't make it go away."

"This isn't so good, Deech."

"I'm aware of that, hotness." I filled the kettle, phone held to my ear.

"I presume then, logically, you need a ride to health services."

"That would be nice, yeah."

"Okay. I'll be down in ten."

"Thanks." I put the water on for tea.

"No problem. See you." She rang off. I turned on the gas, shut off the phone, and bleakly watched the two blue crowns of flame waver gaily in my vision beneath the stained metal.

Kris arrived with her usual perfect timing, pulling me to the door just as the kettle sang. I danced over to it to let her in, running back to yank it off the flame and turn off the stove. She shut the door behind her and moved towards the kitchen door as I was pouring water into the two chipped mugs on the counter. "Deech, I –" She stopped, both vocally and literally, coming to a halt in the doorway. I looked up, kettle still held in my hands. Although slightly hashed by her doubled appearance, I could tell she had gone paper white and had moved to clutch the doorframe.

"Kris? What the hell's wrong?"


"Yeah?" I put the kettle carefully back on the stove.

"Deech, you said you were seeing double?"

"Yeah, that's right. Miracle I haven't fucking burnt myself."

Her voice was faint. "Have...have you looked in a mirror?"

"No. Why?" I looked at her again. Her expression caused ice water to drizzle down my spine, and I turned and sprinted for the bathroom. She was right behind me.

The flourescent tubes in the bathroom took forever to illuminate as always. I stared over the sink at the cheap mirror, seeing a blurrily doubled reflection of myself. Something was wrong, though. Everything in the mirror was doubled, true enough, but my reflection...

My reflection was quadrupled. And it wasn't perfectly doubled. There were two pairs of me, slightly offset. I waved an arm; all four waved their arm, but the pairs waved their arms at just slightly different times.

Kris had come up behind me and was standing in the door. I pivoted to face her. "What the fuck is going on? Do you see four of me? Or two?"

"Two." Her voice was still weak, but getting stronger. She was sweating. So was I, now. "Two. Just barely. You look like a double exposure."

I waved my arm again. She choked off a scream. "Jesus Christ, Deech, you're not moving...you're not...not in synch! This is..."

I just sat down on the closed toilet and looked at her helplessly.

"...this is impossible," she finished lamely.

We stared at each other.

* * *

Picture a stream. Picture it frozen in winter. At the spring end is a geyser, arising from nothing, flash-frozen in an impossible origami state. Water made geometry and topographic madness. Here the stream came to be, is always coming to be. There is no before this point, as far as the stream is concerned. At the other end? Let's posit a cliff where the waters fall over, so far down they turn to mist in the air. Eventually, some reach an unseen sea; some evaporate into the air itself, and a precious few motes will return along the stream, settling back into the water.

It's winter. The stream is frozen solid. The air is dry. Nothing moves.

You're looking at time, and right now, it has ceased to pass.

* * *

We skipped the health service, suspecting they wouldn't be able to help me. Instead, we headed straight for campus and for work - for the Harmon Ajanti Advanced Physics Building, where both of us worked on our postdoc projects in the same laboratory. Due to the early hour, we managed to get from the parking lot through the halls to the lab without anyone seeing us, and Kris locked the door behind us as I sank gratefully into a desk chair. Things were not only doubled further apart now, there was an uneasy suggestion of two additional 'copies' of the world, faintly visible surrounding the two I could see clearly. "Kris, am I doubling?"

"What? Are you..." she turned. "Yeah, I think so. There's a faint glow around you that could be another set of...well, of you."

Against my will, I was fascinated. "Are those sets sitting in the chair?"

"Mostly. One just finished sitting down. Their upper bodies don't seem to be as well coordinated, but their hips are all pretty well matched to you."

"Uh. Are we going to even bother with the math, or go straight for the sci-fi?"

"I vote sci-fi."

"Me too. I think those are probability ghosts."

"Okay. Question. Why isn't your voice echoing?"

"Uh. Good one. Maybe they're not substantial enough to vibrate air. Can you touch them?"

She approached me, looking frightened, and moved a hand towards my face. A few centimeters from me, she snatched it back with a horrified look. "There's something there! I don't...whatever, I mean, there's something. It isn't stopping me, but I can feel it."

"Okay." I started scribbling on the chalkboard, watching as my now-four-selves did the same. "I can see four mes writing on four chalkboards. You can sort of see four mes but not the three other chalkboards, right?"


"I could feel your hand when you touched my face."

"But I didn't touch your face."

"Yes you did. One of them. I think I'm the sum total sensoria of these four."

"Holy shit. That explains the double – er, quad? – vision."

"Right." I scribbled that fact down. "Soon to be eight. I can see more coming in, but they're still in between the four that exist, so it's just going to blur stuff, I think."

"Deech, do you think this...this has something to do with the Project?"

I swung to look at her. "It has to. Do you know anyone else working on temporal infodisplacement?"

"Of course not, but...oh, hell. What have we done?"

"Maybe it's 'what will we do?'"

"We need Doctor Ingram and Doctor Rendleman."

"Yeah. Call them."

She moved to her desk and dug up our advisors' home phone numbers. I heard her murmuring at her phone, then talking cajolingly at it while I stared at the blackboard, trying to make sense of it through increasingly multiplexed eyes.

* * *

Ice is a fluid, just like water or glass. It does flow. Extend the metaphor. Imagine that you, me, all of us are particles embedded in the stream, moving along in time. Our 'present' is a slice of the stream itself. When we travel in space, we move up and down, side to side in the stream while it carries us along. We can communicate by sending ripples in those same directions - but whenever we do that, those ripples (or ourselves as we travel) are carried inexorably downstream as it flows. This is true whether the stream is ice or water.

But suppose you wanted to leave a message for those behind you in the stream?

Suppose there was a way to set up a standing wave, a ripple in the stream, that produced constant interference patterns in the fluid of time as it rolled by?

* * *

"Mladic, what the hell is going on?" Professor Stuart Rendleman wasn't happy. No professor who has been 'summoned' by a student, even a post-doc, ever is, and he was no exception. He stormed into the lab, wearing a trenchcoat belted over what were apparently a T-shirt and jeans, and glared around until he found me at the blackboard, at which point he stopped, blanched, and dropped his lower jaw. Kris moved to meet him with a cup of coffee.


"Kris? What...what the hell..."

"We don't know."

"Is that Deech?"

"Yes. It's Deech."

I turned around. "Hi, Professor Rendleman."

"For God's sake, Deech, it's Stuart...what the hell's happened?"

"We don't know, but it looks like at some point we sort of succeed."

He wasn't stupid. His jaw dropped further before he remembered his coffee and drained the cup. "Oh, my God."


Kris brought him up to speed. I was up to thirty-two parallels now, and things were actually getting easier to see as they moved 'apart' from each other in time as well as space, leaving images clearer. The problem was that I was now seeing thing from thirty-two simultaneous slightly different points of view, and it was breaking my head. I sat down to avoid having to walk.

"What's happening?" Elfant Ingram had arrived. Stuart Rendleman grabbed him and started talking to him in low tones, trying to get him brought up to date. I was sitting in an armchair, the desk chair's rotating seat having proved too much freedom for me at this point. I was conscious of tears running down my cheeks. I could see most every part of the lab from some viewpoint as the myriad versions of me walked about, wrote on blackboards, sat in chairs, cried. One disturbing flickering darkness I took to mean I was asleep. Kris sat with the two faculty members, and there was a lot of gesticulating and pointing at figures on paper; once in a while, Ingram or Rendleman would point at the wall which our smaller lab shared with their experimental one.

Kris came over. "Deech?"

"Yeah. (yeah.) (yes?) (Hi, Kris.) (I love you, Kris.) (I know, Kris.) (Uh-huh?)"

"They think it's some experiment they have on the books for next week. Something they're working on next door for the government."

"What?" (Government?) (Next door?) (They're what?) (What?)"

I noticed that in seven of the many Krises I could see, tears were coming down her cheeks as well. In one laboratory, the chair was empty. In one faint view, I sat in an empty parking lot. "They've been working on some form of temporal signaling. I don't know."

"I do. I've been doing the math for it, I think. I didn't know it was experimental. (-t was at that phase.) (-t they had hardware.) (-the government was backing that.)"

In most of my eyesight, Ingram and Rendleman came over, figures flowing through the overlain scenery. "Deech? We have a hypothesis."

"I'd love to hear this. (-ear it.) (-eally?) (-fucking better!) (-hear this.)"

Ingram spoke for them in most of the versions. "Next week, we were scheduled to expend a fairly huge quantity of energy trying to cause a ripple in the timestream in the form of a standing wave. We were going to use a synthetic diamond core, compressed in a grav stream."

"And? (And?) (So?) (...?)"

They looked at each other, seconds apart, across all the various worlds. "It seems clear, now, that something went wrong. I mean, will go wrong. Or that we'll change our minds. Or..." Rendleman waved his hands helplessly. "The hope was that in the days prior to the experiment the instrumentation next door would detect ripples from the experiment, moving backwards in time. Apparently, though, rather than the diamond core, the experiment happens - but to you."


I looked at them. "You mean your machine hits me with whatever the hell you're doing over there?" The words were a cacophony in my multiple outrages, but the feelings were the same.

"We don't know! We certainly don't intend it! But one minute." Ingram jumped up, ran out the door in most of the variants. In two or three, Rendleman did. In one I could see, neither did, but continued to stare at me. After a few moments, they began to filter back in. Ingram held out something to me; I took it. It was heavy and crystalline. "That's the diamond core we're to use. It appears completely unaffected. It's not multiplexed. You are. Ergo, something happens, and you're the focus."

"Why am I seeing multiples?"

Kris spoke up unexpectedly. "Harmonics."

I turned to her, waved at her to go on.

"There's some form of energy in you, that exists outside the time stream. It's manifesting in waves. You're vibrating for lack of a better word. The other versions you're seeing are harmonics of the four-dimensional you that normally exists - the you1 for lack of a better term. As you approach the critical point in the timestream where the disruption happens - where the energy is injected - the vibration is getting stronger. You're seeing more divergence in the harmonics, and additional 'frequencies' are becoming visible."

It made an uncomfortable amount of sense. "But what the hell do I do?"

Rendleman broke in, mostly. "There's a possibility. If we can modify the monitoring gear next door, we can try to discover the...well, the frequency, I suppose, that you're resonating at. If we can do that, we can try to charge you with a similar but inverse amount of energy. That isn't what I'd recommend, though; I'd recommend trying to produce another object, say, the core, which is resonating at the same frequency but out of phase with you, and then you would carry it on your person, although physical separation wouldn't matter much. If we injected it correctly, your resonant frequencies would cancel, mostly. As you (and the core) get farther, temporally, from your respective points of injection, the effect should fade, much as it came on."

I looked at him. "Do you really think this will work?"

His face fell, slightly. "I really don't know. But I honestly can't think of anything else to try, and I don't know how long you can stay sane living like that."

"I can't argue that. What do we do?"

The two faculty stood. "We move next door, for starters. Kris, get some food into him."

* * *

Take a piton. Form it out of diamond. Perfect diamond. Place it in the middle of a perfectly straight section of stream, where the water has frozen into an infinitely long cylindrical jewel. Touch the tip of it magically to the middle of the cylinder, never mind how. In your other hand, take a glass hammer of painful simplicity. Put an infinitely thin paper covering over the business end. Lay the face against the piton's end once to get your feel for its lie; then draw back, cord your muscles, and in one mighty swing, bring it crashing down.

In the milliseconds before the hammer shatters into microfine dust, it will transmit force through the paper, into the piton's head, down the haft, and into the point. That force will ring into the structure of the timestream with the fury and glory of an infinite number of crowning notes at the end of an infinite number of Chorales; triumph and math and love and loss in the belling laugh of destruction as the fabric of existence sings of it.

Imagine the exact center of your skull is resting underneath the piton's tip.

* * *

It wasn't quite as easy as they promised. For one thing, the math raised a difficulty almost immediately. Kris walked them through it, my own brain being far too busy trying to remember what a single life and point of view had been like to perform calculations, and her having helped me with most of my math since diffy-qs she was the only one who could read my notes anyhow. "Look. No, look! the core just won't work, I'm telling you. You need something that's not only closer to his mass, but closer to his chemical makeup. Otherwise, you'll never be able to get the same resonant frequency out of it. Not with the gear we have here; not without rebuilding the injectors entirely. I understand it's better if you have a transmissive referent for the entanglement phasing, but – No, of course we can compensate, that's what I'm telling you, but if the subject is too far off in terms of density, resonant frequency, or even Mohs number, you're going to have to put in so much compensatory equivalent pseudomass that –"

God bless Kris.

That's how I came to a brief moment of clarity a day later and watched them strap her into a chair inside a machine that looked almost, but not quite, entirely like every sci-fi goth freak's worst S&M nightmare. Oiled cables led to sharp pointy electrodes, restraint devices prevented her from moving so that her mass was oriented precisely where the math said it should be, and the table held her chair with her cranium directly below the final accelerator segment of the phased soliton cascade.

"Kris? What are you doing?" My voice was weak. I was croaking, probably because I hadn't been able to keep down liquids in the past few hours.

"Shut up Deech. Everything's going to be all right." She was lying, in every single reality. Her tears gave her away. Ingram and Rendleman were crying, too, but grimly. Kris had managed a smile, for me. I tried to stand, found that I had been tied into the chair at the side of the laboratory.

"I can't move."

"I know. You'd only hurt yourself. You haven't been walking very well, Deech, there's so many of you. S'funny, I only needed one, all this time..."

"Kris, you're babbling." I tried to get up to hear her better through the noise of the motor generators spooling up, but couldn't move.

"Ssshhhh, Deech. Be there in a second."


Ingram and Rendleman had retreated behind a glasteel shield. Ingram was carrying a standard lab trigger box. They looked at each other. Rendleman looked up. "Kris...?"


Rendleman nodded to Ingram. (Ingram nodded to Rendleman.) (Ingram nodded to me.) (Rendleman nodded to Ingram.)

Ingram pressed the button. The generators screamed.

Eternity rang with the shattering of a glass hammer.

Everything went dark as the lights went out. There was a flickering moan, and then they slowly started to come up again. I heard a KA-CHUNK as the chair restraints released. I stood, staggered slightly, moved towards the table. My dizziness vanished as I reached it.


I tore the restraint web aside. She was lying in the chair, a smile half on her face, eyes closed. I squeezed my eyes together, forcing tears out between then, reached out, picked up her limp body and pressed her head into my shoulder. "Oh, God, Kris..."

She moved against me. I jerked back to look into her eyes.

There was only one of her.

only one-



Her eyes opened. She smiled weakly. "Hi Deech."

I sobbed and hugged her. She hugged me back. "Hey. Hey, man, it's okay. I'm okay."

I let her go long enough for both of us to get to our feet. We looked at each other. She cocked her head. "From the fact that I'm not seeing double, I'd guess either nothing happened, or, if you're no longer seeing double, I'd say it worked."

I looked around. "Holy shit, I think you're right. Wait, so you mean, you were-"

"Yeah, I worked it out. You needed a person, not a rock."


"Hey, where's Rendleman and Ingram?"

"They're over-" They weren't. The Glasteel shield was there, but no-one stood behind it. The lights were on, but they were still dim. "What the hell?"

Kris looked around. "Something's wrong."

"Uh-" I did too. "Yeah." The lab looked the same, save the dim light. But something was different. I went over to the door, opened it, jerked back. Ingram and Rendleman were standing outside, sort of. Both were frozen in mid-run, apparently, heading away from the laboratory. I walked over to them. "What's with them?"

Kris came over, looked at them carefully. "They're not moving."


She looked at me. "Wait, that's wrong. We're not moving."

"I don't get it."

"Come here." She walked back into the lab, looked around. "Aha." She pointed at the motor generators. They were stopped, and at the main breaker panel, a glob of intolerable brightness was resting around one of the fuse blocks. "Look at that."

"What is that?"

"I think it's exploding."

"But it's..." I ran down. "You mean, it's exploding, but not at the moment."

"Right. Time's not moving. For us."

I looked around again. "I don't see our bodies anywhere. So we're actually here and moving."

"I think we screwed up. I think we didn't destructively cancel the resonant frequency. I think we constructively amplified it. I think it threw us right out of the timestream."



We looked at each other. Then, slowly, I began to grin. She looked at me in slight disbelief. "What?"

"If we're not in the timestream, that means we should theoretically be able to move along it before re-entry."

Her face lit up. "Omigod."

"Yeah. When do you want to have dinner?"

Posted by jbz at 3:45 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 17, 2008

Game mechanic

I left Hapy with Msamaki, the latter excitedly asking questions and drawing in ever-replenishing spillage on the polished surface of the bar in his curiosity. I don’t think the man saw me leave. The other - I have no idea.

New York was waking fully up. It was Saturday, meaning it took me only twice as long as it should have to get back downtown to my apartment. I took off my hastily-donned clothes and redressed in my day-to-day outfit - a soft gray turtleneck underneath the bandolier, a set of gray slacks, crepe-soled dress shoes. The Burberry went back on atop it all, and various weapons about my person. Then I headed downtown.

I do have a day job, contrary to what it probably looks like. My day job involves managing my own and other peoples’ money, which I do using a variety of dirty tricks. The primary one is to have good employees. The second and infrequently utilized set involves talisman magic, but even so, it’s better to have subordinates who know what they’re doing. Wibert and Sharansky is a small money management firm, with offices in the World Financial Center - nine people, including staff. I carded myself in.

One of the reasons I’m free to wander around the City on mysterious errands of my own is my desk. Kharan Sharansky, my partner and the actual brains behind most of the money moving that happens at our firm, had come in the day I’d had it delivered, then shaken his head twice with finality. “Michel, you must be joking.”

“Why?” I was busily opening and closing the myriad small drawers and compartments in the thing. I’d spent a month and a half finding it, two months fighting importers to get hold of it, and two interminable weeks locked in combat with the World Financial Center administrative staff over a freight elevator slot to get it moved in. The thing was massive.

“Where the hell did you get that thing?”

I looked up, holding a small drawer which I’d pulled out entirely. There was a secret compartment behind the end cap of the drawer and a completely separate one underneath the bottom plate, and this was only one of - I counted - sixteen drawers in the desk. “I got it in Saint Petersburg. It was in the back room of a bookstore on Nekrasova, around the corner from 4 Liteiny Prospekt.”

Sharansky had glared at me. “Don’t fuck with me, Wibert. I know what that address is.”

“That’s why I told you. The bookstore owner claimed his grandfather had been building staff at number 4. This was supposedly the Chief of Station NKVD’s desk.”

Kharan crossed his arms. “That wasn’t my point. My point is that it’s huge and I can’t see you behind it.”


“So clients won’t be able to either. They’re not going to be comfortable.”

I laughed. “This wasn’t a desk intended to make people comfortable, Kharan. Quite the reverse.”


I held up a hand. “No, you’re right. I understand. But, seriously, so what? Clients don’t need to see me unless they want to do so, specifically. In that case, I have that side table over there by the window.” I pointed. “With a coffee service. That’s what it’s for. This desk is for me.”

Kharan had thrown up his hands and gone away. After that, I had been pleased to note that seeing clients in person wasn’t really part of my job description anymore. Since sixty-eight percent of the assets under management were mine, that made little difference in terms of my actual position in the firm, and meant that nobody expected me to be in the office to Deal With Things.

I like my desk.

Sitting there, I looked out North towards the hazy shape of the George Washington Bridge, lost in the distance some ten miles upstream. There was a McAllister tugboat on the river, shepherding a concrete barge up the middle channel, and three or four private sail yachts visible, their sails angling to catch sunlight up the Manhattan side near the marinas.

The river looked back at me, placidly. I scowled at it.

Reaching into my bandolier, I pulled out the spearhead and spun it on the desktop in front of me. Then I pulled a sterile lancet out of another bandolier pocket, unwrapped it and pricked my finger to squeeze the resulting drop of blood onto the spearhead. It stopped spinning instantly, a crackling sensation reaching up off the desk and up my arm, electric cold and acoustic fire crawling into my torso. I opened my hand, palm spread downwards, over the spearhead.

“Who sent Hapy here?”

The bit of stone spun indecisively, then coasted to a stop. I poked it, and it spun with no resistance. Damn it.

“All right.” I thought. “Who called Hapy here?”

The stone spun up of its own accord, but wobbled around a few times. Closer, but not quite.

What called Hapy here? Where is it?”

This time the spearhead swiveled to stop, rock-solid, pointing just west of north. Uptown.

I dropped it back into the bandolier with a tight smile, opened one of the desk drawers and pulled out a mapping GPS receiver, dropped it in my pocket and swung back out of the office.

* *

Although it doesn’t look like it when you walk it, Manhattan isn’t flat. There are ridges and hills, not all of which have been smashed flat by urban development into names on a map. Murray Hill, Turtle Bay - even in the older parts of the City, if you look up the cross blocks carefully you’ll notice you see sky or earth, not horizon, and a lot closer than you might think. Central Park retains some few preserved ripples.

The west side rail yards and the west side rail tunnel is a hidden piece of that topography. It’s nearly always a surprise for non-natives to approach the upper west side’s Hudson River shoreline and suddenly realize that they are more than a hundred feet above sea level, but it’s true; by Ninety-Sixth and Riverside, the Parkway is thirty feet up and it isn’t even atop the rail tunnel. Riverside Park is, and it’s squatting quietly on top of a massive space that has housed entire sub-cities of inhabitants, sharing their volume intermittently with the blasting thunder of Diesel locomotives when the line was running.

Today there was no sound of anyone present. I broke through stagnant construction barriers in the rail yards above Fifty-Seventh, passing beneath the eye of the enormous Trump development that loomed just east of the flat space, and followed the spearhead underground to the north.

It wasn’t dark in here, there being numerous gratings facing the river, but it wasn’t bright. I walked uptown at a regular pace, noting the unchanging direction of the Spearhead’s pointer. Some thirty blocks later, the empty gravel expanse of the tunnels was interrupted by a mass of plywood and debris on the eastern side, formed into what looked like a maze of cubicles. The outer ones had windows cut into them, looking out onto the tracks - a squatter’s paradise. There were no people visible, though, and no sounds other than the ever-present noises of the city’s belly. I stopped for a moment and listened; nothing. Pulling out the Desert Eagle, I held it and my focused palm ready and felt for the pointer. It was angling right, pulling me into the maze.


I took a moment and pulled energy out of the pocket watch, enfolding myself in muffling waves. I couldn’t make myself invisible, and there wasn’t enough traffic here to truly take eyes away from me, but I could certainly blend into the surroundings well enough in my tan and gray outfit. The pistol, matte gray finish already swallowing light, had its own permanent link to the watch, making it incredibly difficult to see unless one knew it was there. I held it out in front of me, invisibility waved before me as a shield, and stepped into the maze.

Ten minutes later I was lost. The tunnels were some hundred yards behind me, and I was moving inside an ancient and formidably large storm drain somewhere underneath what must have been West End Avenue by that point. There were still intermittent structures breaking up the lines of sight, all abandoned; the rail lines had re-opened some two years before, and the squatters of the tunnels had all been evicted. Some had left everything they owned, apparently - arcane and bizarre collections of the City’s detritus stretched out in all directions. One cube was stacked from floor to ceiling with obsolete but beautiful soda water dispensers, the old refillable kind in bright green and blue glass with metal siphons; stacked in wooden carriers, there must have been a thousand of them. Hammer Beverages, read most of the wooden boxes. All were empty.

A pile of typewriters greeted me around the next corner, Underwoods and Smith-Coronas, IBMs and the odd late-model electronic Panasonic or Canon. The manuals were in all conditions, those on the top of the pile in relatively good shape with those further down rusted into undifferentiated masses. I threaded my way through the museum of obsessive collecting, flowers of years on New York streets, and continued.

The spearhead gave me only a few moments’ warning, twisting slightly in its compartment as I turned to follow a passageway. I froze, immediately, at the sound of voices in the next corridor Westward - then moved again, around the corner towards a slight pale flicker of bright white light and the hissing of a Coleman lantern. Mutterings were coming from the room ahead, shadows moving across the lamp. I listened again, then reached out with more than ears; twistings were coming from there, too, the telltale feeling of work on higher planes reaching out to touch my tools. I stepped through the final doorway into a pool of gaslight.

There were two figures seated there, staring intently at their cards, laid out on a ruined wooden tabletop. The cards were from the standard Western deck, but there was more than one deck in play, judging from the duplicates, and the pattern was unknown to me. I moved closer to the lamp, gun trained on the two of them. They ignored me. Both were dressed in rags, appropriate to the surroundings; both were men, older, in a condition that would surprise you not at all if you met them sleeping in a subway station.

But they were not demented. Nor were they drugged. They were silently moving the cards around on the table, in a pattern which I realized looked something roughly like Manhattan. There must have been a couple of hundred cards. One of them turned and looked directly at me, then snorted and turned back, moving a six of Clubs three inches to the right - or Westwards, if the map held true. I just stared.

“It’s the boy.” The other spoke without looking at me, voice as rough as his skin and clothes.

“Mmmm.” The first tapped another card, this one face down, then withdrew his hand and looked over the arrangement.

The second looked up, also directly into my eye, through shields and gloom and past the brilliance of the lamp. I saw the rheum and milky color of his blindness, then, and lowered the gun but not my flash hand. “Hello, fathers.”

“Polite, he is, at least.”

I moved closer, into the light. “May I sit?”

The one who’d first looked at me turned again. I noted that he was wearing a New York Mets cap, incongruously clean; his compatriot was bareheaded. “Sit.”

I looked about, located a chair from a pile of several, and pulled it up to the table, then sat. I watched them quietly for a few minutes as they slowly and carefully shuffled cards around the table; from the closer distance I could see a rough chalk outline drawn around the cards that, indeed, resembled Manhattan’s shoreline. In the center of the island was a rectangle of leaves and grass, where the park would be. I couldn’t determine any other pattern in what they were doing; the cards moved, some slightly and some rapidly, either inches or yards. Some were face up, and some face down.

There was power on the table, but I was unable to determine its purpose.

The Mets fan placed a final card on the map, somewhere in East Harlem, and turned to me. “Ask.”

I frowned. “Are you moving cards to determine change? Or are you tracing change with them?”

“Is there a difference?”

“There is to me, father.”

The bareheaded wizard nodded. “You’re a tool user, boy. The flow is there. Can you feel the flow?”

I reached a palm out over the table. The Mets fan hissed once, but didn’t interfere. I spread my hands, reaching for the tendrils of energy that moved and built around my tools when I used them, but there was nothing. Still, I could tell the space above the table was far from empty. “No.”

“That’s good.”

I turned to him, surprised. “Why good?”

The Mets fan answered me, his voice gone harsh. “Because you may leave this place, then, boy.”

I looked from one to the other. “You can't leave? Either of you?” Both shook their heads. “Why not?”

The Mets fan spoke. “My name is Brian. I’ve been here eighteen years. Since the power came. It brought me here, back when the tunnels were bad, son, real bad. It’s been good, and bad, and now there’s no-one, but we stay. The power keeps us here. If we move, the balance breaks. We’re all that keeps it in check.” He reached out and flipped a card, apparently at random. The nine of diamonds, near Times Square.

I looked carefully across the table. “What is the balance?”

“The balance is what you see. All the Gifted, all the Others, they’re all here. They come, and go, but within Manhattan Island, we watch and balance. That’s our task.”

“All of us? We’re all there?”

Brian reached out and flipped a card just East of Times Square. The Queen of Spades. “Do you know her?”

“Who?” I looked at the card. It was a Bicycle, the plastic worn.


I placed my finger on the card, face up on the table, and there it was-

The drink was too strong for him, far too strong, but he’d been sneering at her for an hour or more and there was nothing for it. Three swallows and he’d fall, if he was lucky; if he persisted, tried to prove his strength and took the fourth, then the growths would start in his throat and lungs, and he would waste and wrinkle as his life poured itself into the twisted seeds that took his blood. The Water of Death into the martini glass, just a drop, placed on the bar, and watch for his sneering smile. The smile of the human who thinks he’s found the answer, just like all the rest.

Four swallows, little sheep, just four-

I pulled my finger off the card instinctively. I was sweating, suddenly, my flash hand curled into a tight fist at my side and the pistol lying on its side on the table where I’d placed it instinctively when I touched the card. Baba Yaga’s thoughts were not just cold and hard, not just earthen and rotten, not just warm and lush, but completely and utterly wrong; they felt of crystalline age and swam with memories a thousandfold too complex for my brain.

“Where-” My voice cracked. I swallowed (one swallow) and tried again, forcing spittle into my mouth. “Where is my card?”

Brian looked at me, then reached out and plucked a pasteboard Hoyle from the table and held it out, the back to me. I looked at the pattern, then at him. “Can I-”

“You can, but will you?”

I reached out and took the card.

Posted by jbz at 11:18 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 16, 2008

Making islands to have new seashores

(another one migrates from E2)

The screams woke me before my alarm clock did. I was out of bed before I really knew what was happening, the Desert Eagle in both hands, muzzle questing around my bedroom, but there was nobody there. I blinked five or six times, then realized how damn cold it was and how stupid I looked in my jockeys holding the enormous pistol, then decided I didn’t care when the scream ripped through the apartment again. The gun twitched towards the bedroom door of its own accord, and I ghosted over next to the entryway. After a breath or two, I opened it with my left hand, softly, then swung out into my small hallway.


A quick but tense check of my entire apartment showing nobody there except me, now sweating despite the chill in the two glimpses I’d gotten in the mirrors in my bathroom and in my living room. I returned to my bedroom, pulled on clothes and hardware hurriedly, and then returned to the kitchen with the pistol holstered under my Burberry. Another scream rent the air around me, making me wince; it sounded like the screamer was in the same damn room as I was.

Hold it.

I live in a small apartment below the meatpacking district, in the west end of Greenwich Village, in a building that was built sometime around the turn of the twentieth century. Whatever else I and the other residents have to say about its upkeep (and we have lots, mostly during co-op meetings) the walls of the building are solid and thick - one of the reasons that repairs cost so much to do properly. There was no way someone screaming from another apartment, or even the hallway outside, could have sounded that clear.

I closed my eyes and did what I could to stop my talent, shutting down my senses. I stopped Listening and waited.

Nothing happened for several minutes. I grimaced and Listened again. Ten seconds later, another scream assaulted my head but, I now knew, not my ears. Someone, or something, was in serious agony, and they weren’t screaming where normal people could hear.

I got my keys, made sure my bandolier was tight around my chest, and headed down onto the street.

Seven blocks later, I knew I was in trouble. I’d convinced Bobbi-Bobbi’s spearhead to Hunt for the source of the screams, and the piece of stone had led me seven blocks, to where I stood just off Hudson street and looked hard at a building that dripped 1960s from every inch of its utilitarian earth-tone faux-brick facade.

The police and I get along just fine, with one major caveat. I do everything in my power to make sure that they have no idea I exist. Oh, sure, Michel Wibert exists; I have a driver’s license, passport, all the various pieces of policeman tranquilizing paper that society has manifested over the years. One thing he doesn’t have, though, is a gun permit. Have you ever even looked at the requirements for getting a carry permit in Manhattan? Unless you’re a police officer or some Federal equivalent thereof, trust me, it’s a much easier proposition to march down to Washington D.C. and ask for an end-user certificate for this nice two-kilogram lump of plutonium-239 you have in your bedstand and want to sell overseas.

There’s no place at all to apply for permits to carry magic talismans. You just have to hope nobody sees you use them; at least, nobody who will report it and be believed.

As I stood there looking indecisively at the front of the police station, there was another scream. I winced, shook my head, and went inside. The entry hall was only moderately crowded, reflecting early morning in the Village. I ignored the familiar pulse of heat from my pocket watch as I passed through the metal detector posts just inside the door, heading for the corridor out of the lobby. There was another, stronger wave of warmth as the desk sergeant glanced my way and the Djinn’s shadow flexed from inside the watch to cover all of me rather than just the weapons under my coat.

I’d never been in this station before, but New York’s Finest weren’t all that imaginative and neither were their architects. Just off the lobby I found the wire-caged staircase up and took it two flights, past the community services floor to the realm of the actual police and pushed through a grimy double door whose windows bore a large NYPD shield. The bullpen was almost empty, most of the detectives on duty obviously out on the street, but the doors to the interrogation room corridor were closed.

I sighed, turned up my collar and hunched through the doors. Nobody even looked my way. The first room was closed, and I looked through the one-way mirror in the door before entering.

People assume that humans can’t hurt gods, or demons, or mythforms. They’re wrong. We can. It’s not easy, and it’s not always true - most of the othersiders walking New York aren’t bothered by whatever us smaller folks might do. But not all gods are created equal, and where one person can’t do much directed harm, people can cause all manner of pain.

There were two people in the room behind the mirror. They were sitting on the side of the table near the door, facing the solitary figure in the chair on the other side. He was slumped to one side in the straight-backed wooden seat, and despite the poor angle I could see numerous wire leads snaking out from beneath his open shirt collar, connecting to a cart which sat next to him. I winced involuntarily. He was small, with features that would have been recognizable to anyone in the Cradle of Civilization and in our modern world served only to mark him.

As I watched through the window, he shuddered and the piercing shriek echoed in my skull again. The two cops in the room beyond showed no sign of having heard, although one was shaking his head wearily. I felt my face hardening. Schooling it to relax, I pushed open the door and walked in.

There were four interrogators in the room, not just the two I’d seen. Two were leaning against the wall to either side of the door, doing their best to look threatening. I managed not to sneer at the overkill, but it was difficult. Everybody turned to look at me as I came in; the Djinn’s shadow couldn’t do anything about doors moving.

“Who the hell are you?” That had to be the ranking cop. He was in his mid forties, which probably meant Detective Lieutenant. The other man at the table with him, I realized, wasn’t a cop at all. His suit pegged him as Federal, matching one of the two door lurkers. Ah, the joys of interagency cooperation. I ignored the question and looked at their subject. He was slumping further in the grip of the leads. Yep. Lie detector. Technological disbelief, in its most concentrated form.

“I said who the hell are you?” The cop stood up. The Feds merely looked interested, no doubt happy to have the cop look discomfited on his turf.

“I’m a neighbor. Get that thing off him.”

“What?” The demand was so flat the cop wasn’t even angered, just confused, for the moment.

“Get that thing off him.” I waved at the lie detector.

The Fed sitting at the table cocked his head interestedly. “Excuse me, but did you say who the hell you were?” 

“No. I’m a neighbor.”

“A neighbor. How did you get in here?”

I grinned nastily at him. Damn, I was angrier than I had thought. “Bad call. See, asking how I got in here in front of the suspect admits that I shouldn’t be here and that I made it in here anyway.”

The Fed and the cop near the door, in a striking display of cooperation, had glanced at each other and begun drifting in behind me. I stepped forward to the other side of the table, putting it between myself and the four officials, and moved to the side of the figure in the chair. He looked up at me, his eyes almost blank. He was drooling slightly.

“Don’t touch him!” The cop, who hadn’t blocked my movement deeper into the room, reached across the table, but he was too late. I ripped the electrical pads from the slight figure’s chest and ribcage, eliciting a slight moan, and tossed them over the cart. At that , the cop who had been near the door came around the table and made a grab for my arm, there was a flash of golden light, and it all went pear-shaped.

When the dust had cleared, I was still standing. The four official types were slumped against one wall, out cold, and the Egyptian in the chair (for he was Egyptian, I knew) was watching me through hooded eyes, curious but weak. “Who are you?”

“Like I told them. I’m a neighbor. Welcome to New York. Sorry about the reception committee.” I helped him to his feet, wincing as he shuddered in pain at stretching muscles wrung taut by spasms.

“A neighbor. Who do you serve?”

We moved out into the hall. “My bartender. One moment.” I swung open the next door, and sure enough there was an observation room looking through a mirror into the room we’d just left. We hobbled in and I made my companion lean against a wall while I found the operating VCR. I rested my left hand on it and felt the Djinn’s shadow flood out into the machine in a rush of power, then took up his weight again and guided him downstairs. We made our way past the lobby with no more than a brief misdirection on my part (the watch was warm in its bandolier pocket, now) and then out onto the street. I hailed a cab on Hudson and we climbed in. “The Brasserie.”

On the way uptown, I turned to my companion. He was breathing hard, but visibly recovering from his ordeal. “Are you well?”

“I shall be. What was that terrible device?”

“A polygraph. Give them grace, they didn’t intend you harm. It does no hurt to humans.”

“A lie detector.”

“Yes. It is a technology based on disbelief.”

He shuddered again and turned to look out the window as the grey buildings flowed by. We rode in silence until the cliffs of midtown drew to a halt outside the cab. I paid and ushered him out of the car into the restaurant. Although I expected at least a question, he seemed too weary to care; when we slid into two empty seats at the long bar which curved its way through the basement space of the Brasserie, he slumped forward. I waited, not disturbing him; eventually, one of the bartenders noticed us and nodded. I nodded back and waited.

When he arrived, he offered me an elegantly inclined eyebrow. “Bourbon. A.H. Hirsch if you have it,” I stated. “And if Msamaki is here, tell him France wants to see him.” I put a twenty down on the bar. “Run the tab.”

The tender nodded again, respectful of the tip. I took my hand off of it, and he performed the bartender magic of making it vanish without bringing his hands near it. “For your friend, sir?”

“He’ll order when we see you again.”

“Very good.” He slid off. I like The Brasserie for two reasons. One, it’s open twenty-four hours a day. Two, and as a consequence, the staff is actually fairly competent if you know how to find the right ones.

My companion’s shoulders shook. It looked as if he was weeping, but I didn’t ask or interfere. Two minutes and fifteen seconds later, my drink appeared, a walking dead bourbon from a time long past; I sipped it appreciatively and let it relax my shoulders.

“I don’t know why I am here.” His voice was unremarkable, even muffled by his forearms. In fact, most of him could have been described as unremarkable, sitting there. I sipped again and looked at the figure which had screamed its agony into New York’s nightmares.

“What is the last thing you recall?”

He lifted his face from his crosed arms and blinked at me. He had, indeed, been weeping. “I was standing on the banks. There was new growth. I remember birds.”

I was distracted by someone approaching behind the bar. I turned, but it was Msamaki, whom I had expected. His face opened as he recognized me. “France. It is good to see you.”

“And you, Maki. I need your help.”

“What can I do for you?” Msamaki looked good, standing before me in the Brasserie’s slightly overdone uniform. I had helped him past some overly aggressive minor Djinn when he arrived, immigrating from the town of Bani Suef. In the ten years since, I had consulted him a handful of times when I needed help with Egyptian lore, as I was fairly sure I did now. I nodded to my companion.


Msamaki looked over the other carefully, frowning slightly, and offered “Ahlan wa sahlan.”

My rescuee looked up briefly and shook his head. Msamaki tried again, his face more interested. “Em hotep nefer?”

The other’s eyes brightened slightly, and he nodded. Msamaki sucked in his breath and looked carefully at the figure, then reached under the bar and pulled out a glass. Without looking, he waved the bar wand over it and placed it in front of the other, who sat up and took it with a short bow of thanks.

As he picked it up, it slopped over the side. I stared at it, because Maki had only filled it halfway. On the way to his lips, it spilled several cups. After he placed it on the bar, water slowly and quietly began to well up over the rim and spread down the surface. I lifted my arms off the countertop. Maki swept the glass off the counter and clasped the other’s hands in both of his, pulled them to his mouth and kissed the man’s clenched fist.

Well, that answered one of my questions.

I let them talk urgently in what definitely wasn’t modern Arabic for several minutes. In fact, I let them talk until I’d finished my Hirsch, at which point my patience ran dry as well. I wiggled my glass at Maki, who noticed only after I poked him in the shoulder.

“I’m sorry, France.” He took my glass and dashed off back to the back wall where the bottles were, returning momentarily with a generous pour of bourbon.

“Maki, what’s going on?”

“Where did you find him?” The excitement was setting off warning bells in my head. I frowned at the bartender.

“Never mind that right now. Who is he?”

“This is Hapy.”

I mulled that over and tried to pull a reference out of the mess that is my head. “Hapy. Hapy. Wait. On the banks...” I turned to look at the nondescript man on the stool next to me. “God of the Nile?”

“Yes!” Msamaki hissed, blazingly excited but trying to keep his voice down. “God of the Nile! Fertility and produce, bringer of life to the valley.”

I looked at the slight figure, who bowed his head. Something was bothering me. Something old.

“Maki, the Nile was linked to fertility because...” I trailed off, looking at the little man and then the remaining puddle on the bar in horror. Msamaki finished for me, oblivious to my expression.

“Because it would overflow regularly and fertilize the valley, yes. Why?”

I sat there at the bar in Midtown Manhattan, snug between two rivers, and looked at him.

It took a few seconds for him to turn his gaze to me and notice, and then he blanched.

“Oh, shit.”

Posted by jbz at 11:44 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Making islands to have new seashores

(another one migrates from E2)

The screams woke me before my alarm clock did. I was out of bed before I really knew what was happening, the Desert Eagle in both hands, muzzle questing around my bedroom, but there was nobody there. I blinked five or six times, then realized how damn cold it was and how stupid I looked in my jockeys holding the enormous pistol, then decided I didn’t care when the scream ripped through the apartment again. The gun twitched towards the bedroom door of its own accord, and I ghosted over next to the entryway. After a breath or two, I opened it with my left hand, softly, then swung out into my small hallway.


A quick but tense check of my entire apartment showing nobody there except me, now sweating despite the chill in the two glimpses I’d gotten in the mirrors in my bathroom and in my living room. I returned to my bedroom, pulled on clothes and hardware hurriedly, and then returned to the kitchen with the pistol holstered under my Burberry. Another scream rent the air around me, making me wince; it sounded like the screamer was in the same damn room as I was.

Hold it.

I live in a small apartment below the meatpacking district, in the west end of Greenwich Village, in a building that was built sometime around the turn of the twentieth century. Whatever else I and the other residents have to say about its upkeep (and we have lots, mostly during co-op meetings) the walls of the building are solid and thick - one of the reasons that repairs cost so much to do properly. There was no way someone screaming from another apartment, or even the hallway outside, could have sounded that clear.

I closed my eyes and did what I could to stop my talent, shutting down my senses. I stopped Listening and waited.

Nothing happened for several minutes. I grimaced and Listened again. Ten seconds later, another scream assaulted my head but, I now knew, not my ears. Someone, or something, was in serious agony, and they weren’t screaming where normal people could hear.

I got my keys, made sure my bandolier was tight around my chest, and headed down onto the street.

Seven blocks later, I knew I was in trouble. I’d convinced Bobbi-Bobbi’s spearhead to Hunt for the source of the screams, and the piece of stone had led me seven blocks, to where I stood just off Hudson street and looked hard at a building that dripped 1960s from every inch of its utilitarian earth-tone faux-brick facade.

The police and I get along just fine, with one major caveat. I do everything in my power to make sure that they have no idea I exist. Oh, sure, Michel Wibert exists; I have a driver’s license, passport, all the various pieces of policeman tranquilizing paper that society has manifested over the years. One thing he doesn’t have, though, is a gun permit. Have you ever even looked at the requirements for getting a carry permit in Manhattan? Unless you’re a police officer or some Federal equivalent thereof, trust me, it’s a much easier proposition to march down to Washington D.C. and ask for an end-user certificate for this nice two-kilogram lump of plutonium-239 you have in your bedstand and want to sell overseas.

There’s no place at all to apply for permits to carry magic talismans. You just have to hope nobody sees you use them; at least, nobody who will report it and be believed.

As I stood there looking indecisively at the front of the police station, there was another scream. I winced, shook my head, and went inside. The entry hall was only moderately crowded, reflecting early morning in the Village. I ignored the familiar pulse of heat from my pocket watch as I passed through the metal detector posts just inside the door, heading for the corridor out of the lobby. There was another, stronger wave of warmth as the desk sergeant glanced my way and the Djinn’s shadow flexed from inside the watch to cover all of me rather than just the weapons under my coat.

I’d never been in this station before, but New York’s Finest weren’t all that imaginative and neither were their architects. Just off the lobby I found the wire-caged staircase up and took it two flights, past the community services floor to the realm of the actual police and pushed through a grimy double door whose windows bore a large NYPD shield. The bullpen was almost empty, most of the detectives on duty obviously out on the street, but the doors to the interrogation room corridor were closed.

I sighed, turned up my collar and hunched through the doors. Nobody even looked my way. The first room was closed, and I looked through the one-way mirror in the door before entering.

People assume that humans can’t hurt gods, or demons, or mythforms. They’re wrong. We can. It’s not easy, and it’s not always true - most of the othersiders walking New York aren’t bothered by whatever us smaller folks might do. But not all gods are created equal, and where one person can’t do much directed harm, people can cause all manner of pain.

There were two people in the room behind the mirror. They were sitting on the side of the table near the door, facing the solitary figure in the chair on the other side. He was slumped to one side in the straight-backed wooden seat, and despite the poor angle I could see numerous wire leads snaking out from beneath his open shirt collar, connecting to a cart which sat next to him. I winced involuntarily. He was small, with features that would have been recognizable to anyone in the Cradle of Civilization and in our modern world served only to mark him.

As I watched through the window, he shuddered and the piercing shriek echoed in my skull again. The two cops in the room beyond showed no sign of having heard, although one was shaking his head wearily. I felt my face hardening. Schooling it to relax, I pushed open the door and walked in.

There were four interrogators in the room, not just the two I’d seen. Two were leaning against the wall to either side of the door, doing their best to look threatening. I managed not to sneer at the overkill, but it was difficult. Everybody turned to look at me as I came in; the Djinn’s shadow couldn’t do anything about doors moving.

“Who the hell are you?” That had to be the ranking cop. He was in his mid forties, which probably meant Detective Lieutenant. The other man at the table with him, I realized, wasn’t a cop at all. His suit pegged him as Federal, matching one of the two door lurkers. Ah, the joys of interagency cooperation. I ignored the question and looked at their subject. He was slumping further in the grip of the leads. Yep. Lie detector. Technological disbelief, in its most concentrated form.

“I said who the hell are you?” The cop stood up. The Feds merely looked interested, no doubt happy to have the cop look discomfited on his turf.

“I’m a neighbor. Get that thing off him.”

“What?” The demand was so flat the cop wasn’t even angered, just confused, for the moment.

“Get that thing off him.” I waved at the lie detector.

The Fed sitting at the table cocked his head interestedly. “Excuse me, but did you say who the hell you were?” 

“No. I’m a neighbor.”

“A neighbor. How did you get in here?”

I grinned nastily at him. Damn, I was angrier than I had thought. “Bad call. See, asking how I got in here in front of the suspect admits that I shouldn’t be here and that I made it in here anyway.”

The Fed and the cop near the door, in a striking display of cooperation, had glanced at each other and begun drifting in behind me. I stepped forward to the other side of the table, putting it between myself and the four officials, and moved to the side of the figure in the chair. He looked up at me, his eyes almost blank. He was drooling slightly.

“Don’t touch him!” The cop, who hadn’t blocked my movement deeper into the room, reached across the table, but he was too late. I ripped the electrical pads from the slight figure’s chest and ribcage, eliciting a slight moan, and tossed them over the cart. At that , the cop who had been near the door came around the table and made a grab for my arm, there was a flash of golden light, and it all went pear-shaped.

When the dust had cleared, I was still standing. The four official types were slumped against one wall, out cold, and the Egyptian in the chair (for he was Egyptian, I knew) was watching me through hooded eyes, curious but weak. “Who are you?”

“Like I told them. I’m a neighbor. Welcome to New York. Sorry about the reception committee.” I helped him to his feet, wincing as he shuddered in pain at stretching muscles wrung taut by spasms.

“A neighbor. Who do you serve?”

We moved out into the hall. “My bartender. One moment.” I swung open the next door, and sure enough there was an observation room looking through a mirror into the room we’d just left. We hobbled in and I made my companion lean against a wall while I found the operating VCR. I rested my left hand on it and felt the Djinn’s shadow flood out into the machine in a rush of power, then took up his weight again and guided him downstairs. We made our way past the lobby with no more than a brief misdirection on my part (the watch was warm in its bandolier pocket, now) and then out onto the street. I hailed a cab on Hudson and we climbed in. “The Brasserie.”

On the way uptown, I turned to my companion. He was breathing hard, but visibly recovering from his ordeal. “Are you well?”

“I shall be. What was that terrible device?”

“A polygraph. Give them grace, they didn’t intend you harm. It does no hurt to humans.”

“A lie detector.”

“Yes. It is a technology based on disbelief.”

He shuddered again and turned to look out the window as the grey buildings flowed by. We rode in silence until the cliffs of midtown drew to a halt outside the cab. I paid and ushered him out of the car into the restaurant. Although I expected at least a question, he seemed too weary to care; when we slid into two empty seats at the long bar which curved its way through the basement space of the Brasserie, he slumped forward. I waited, not disturbing him; eventually, one of the bartenders noticed us and nodded. I nodded back and waited.

When he arrived, he offered me an elegantly inclined eyebrow. “Bourbon. A.H. Hirsch if you have it,” I stated. “And if Msamaki is here, tell him France wants to see him.” I put a twenty down on the bar. “Run the tab.”

The tender nodded again, respectful of the tip. I took my hand off of it, and he performed the bartender magic of making it vanish without bringing his hands near it. “For your friend, sir?”

“He’ll order when we see you again.”

“Very good.” He slid off. I like The Brasserie for two reasons. One, it’s open twenty-four hours a day. Two, and as a consequence, the staff is actually fairly competent if you know how to find the right ones.

My companion’s shoulders shook. It looked as if he was weeping, but I didn’t ask or interfere. Two minutes and fifteen seconds later, my drink appeared, a walking dead bourbon from a time long past; I sipped it appreciatively and let it relax my shoulders.

“I don’t know why I am here.” His voice was unremarkable, even muffled by his forearms. In fact, most of him could have been described as unremarkable, sitting there. I sipped again and looked at the figure which had screamed its agony into New York’s nightmares.

“What is the last thing you recall?”

He lifted his face from his crosed arms and blinked at me. He had, indeed, been weeping. “I was standing on the banks. There was new growth. I remember birds.”

I was distracted by someone approaching behind the bar. I turned, but it was Msamaki, whom I had expected. His face opened as he recognized me. “France. It is good to see you.”

“And you, Maki. I need your help.”

“What can I do for you?” Msamaki looked good, standing before me in the Brasserie’s slightly overdone uniform. I had helped him past some overly aggressive minor Djinn when he arrived, immigrating from the town of Bani Suef. In the ten years since, I had consulted him a handful of times when I needed help with Egyptian lore, as I was fairly sure I did now. I nodded to my companion.


Msamaki looked over the other carefully, frowning slightly, and offered “Ahlan wa sahlan.”

My rescuee looked up briefly and shook his head. Msamaki tried again, his face more interested. “Em hotep nefer?”

The other’s eyes brightened slightly, and he nodded. Msamaki sucked in his breath and looked carefully at the figure, then reached under the bar and pulled out a glass. Without looking, he waved the bar wand over it and placed it in front of the other, who sat up and took it with a short bow of thanks.

As he picked it up, it slopped over the side. I stared at it, because Maki had only filled it halfway. On the way to his lips, it spilled several cups. After he placed it on the bar, water slowly and quietly began to well up over the rim and spread down the surface. I lifted my arms off the countertop. Maki swept the glass off the counter and clasped the other’s hands in both of his, pulled them to his mouth and kissed the man’s clenched fist.

Well, that answered one of my questions.

I let them talk urgently in what definitely wasn’t modern Arabic for several minutes. In fact, I let them talk until I’d finished my Hirsch, at which point my patience ran dry as well. I wiggled my glass at Maki, who noticed only after I poked him in the shoulder.

“I’m sorry, France.” He took my glass and dashed off back to the back wall where the bottles were, returning momentarily with a generous pour of bourbon.

“Maki, what’s going on?”

“Where did you find him?” The excitement was setting off warning bells in my head. I frowned at the bartender.

“Never mind that right now. Who is he?”

“This is Hapy.”

I mulled that over and tried to pull a reference out of the mess that is my head. “Hapy. Hapy. Wait. On the banks...” I turned to look at the nondescript man on the stool next to me. “God of the Nile?”

“Yes!” Msamaki hissed, blazingly excited but trying to keep his voice down. “God of the Nile! Fertility and produce, bringer of life to the valley.”

I looked at the slight figure, who bowed his head. Something was bothering me. Something old.

“Maki, the Nile was linked to fertility because...” I trailed off, looking at the little man and then the remaining puddle on the bar in horror. Msamaki finished for me, oblivious to my expression.

“Because it would overflow regularly and fertilize the valley, yes. Why?”

I sat there at the bar in Midtown Manhattan, snug between two rivers, and looked at him.

It took a few seconds for him to turn his gaze to me and notice, and then he blanched.

“Oh, shit.”

Posted by jbz at 11:44 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 12, 2008

A Thousand Winding Stairs Lead Down Before Us

If you take the East Side IRT - the Six train - to 116th street, then get off and walk a couple of blocks, you'll come to a small head shop tucked away between a Mexican restaurant and a neighborhood supermarket. It's fairly unremarkable, except that even in these more gentle times for gentrified Manhattan you really don't find many people as palefaced as I hanging out in front of it.

I nodded to the four or five kids sitting around on crates there as I went inside. One of them knew my face and nodded back. As I went in, he was muttering to his companions, something which I assumed and devoutly hoped was the patois equivalent of 'he's cool.'

The interior of the shop was just as it always was. Not so much cluttered as intricately packed in three dimensions with junk - at least, objects that I would label junk, but which were likely treasures to someone, somewhere. The entirety of the airspace that was left was redolent with what I was sure was incredibly high-grade weed, well-aerosolized by the enormous bong that reached from floor to ceiling at the back behind the counter.

There was an older man lounging there with a hookah tube hanging lazily from his mouth while he talked rapidly to a younger woman who was in front of the counter, apparently haggling over some small piece of merchandise. I blinked at him, both because of the smoke and because I'd never seen anybody who was stoned talk that fast. While I was trying to decide if that meant he wasn't stoned, or if it meant he was just an instinctive haggler to such a degree that the drug didn't touch his flow, he noticed me standing there in the half-light and waved me forward. Without stopping his patter, he lifted up the counter gate and passed me through. I stepped by with a nod of thanks, and he slapped my shoulder as I turned down the narrow staircase that was mostly hidden behind hangings on the back wall.

A deceptively long flight down, I came out into the small vestibule I remembered. The door was closed. I knocked once. A voice came through the solid metal surface. "What?"

"Here to see Alan."

"Who dat?"

"Downtown France."

A peephole slid open to reveal a pair of eyes which focused on my face beneath the single bulb, then crinkled in what was likely a grin. "Yah, mon. Stand back, now."

I stepped back up the stairs a pace while the door made chunking noises and then opened outwards, then stepped through. The enormous man guarding it clasped hands with me and pulled me into a hug which nearly broke my spine. "Michel, brah, 'tis you an' all."

"Ow. Damn, Demaine, you're too big to do that." I hugged him back before reclaiming my hand. "Your dad here?"

Demaine turned to secure the door behind me. "Yah mon. Him in back, go right t'rough."

I did that. The back room was much larger, the edges of it set in shadow, with a desk in the very center brightly illuminated by halogen desklamps at the corners of its ruthlessly empty surface. Behind it sat an older Jamaican man, his eyes bright behind cheap spectacles. As I came in, he rose, his face sliding into shadow as it rose above the lamps. "Ah, France. Is good t' see you uptown." We shook hands and he gestured me to a chair across the desk from him; we both sat.

"Hello, Alan. I hope you're well."

"As well as can be, now. You got needs?"

"I do. First, though, is Demaine all right?"

"Tis good of you t'ask. He is. Nobody come knockin' for him, not since you talk to de rider for us."

"I'm glad. If they haven't spoken to you by now, they likely won't."

"You credit always good here, France, for that work." Teeth flashed white in the darkness. "You one of mine, now, ever an' ever."

"Thanks, Alan. I don't need credit right now, though. I need your help, but it's cash on the desk."

Alan laughed, rubbed his hands together. "Cash always a friend too, France. Always. You tell Alan what you need."

I grinned at him. "First of all, your help." I reached into my bandolier. Alan watched interestedly as I pulled out the stone spearhead and placed it carefully in the middle of the desk. "I got this from a friend. I need to know if you can tell me anything about it."

Alan picked up the spearhead and turned it over in his hands. He touched it to the center of his forehead, then jerked it away with a hiss. "Oh, mon! This hot. Ver' ver' hot, brother. All manner power in here."

I sat back. "I know. I just don't know how to use it."

"Ahhhh." He reached out and stretched one of the lamps up higher, creating a larger pool of light. Holding the spearhead before his left eye, he rotated it carefully, his right eye closed to a slit and his left open as wide as it would go. I could almost see the loupe that he didn't need screwed into his eye socket as he looked at it. "This not from the loa."

"Nope." Alan was familiar with the Jamaican voodoo pantheon; too familiar. He'd been a reasonably successful dealer until he hit upon the notion of asking them for help with his business. Unfortunately for him, one of them had agreed - and the price had been his son. He'd tried everything, bringing all manner of bokkors from Jamaica to intercede for him, but none had managed the trick. I'd met him in the course of his desperate last attempt to trade himself for his son, at a makeshift altar in Central Park. I'd been following the loa he was calling, and it had led me to his crude summoning. When he'd offered the trade, the loa had laughed and said it had no reason to accept.

I'd given it one. It was a bargain I hadn't liked at the time, and still didn't - but it had agreed, and dropped its claim on Demaine. I lost one day a year, usually ending up with massive hangovers and enormous credit card bills, and Alan welcomed me where I would normally have been shunned. The loa made out well on the deal, as a single day of a willing and wealthy horse was apparently worth more than the month a year of a sullen and unwilling slave. So far, it had always been careful not to run me afoul of the law, presumably to avoid ruining its playground. It's a good thing I didn't care about my reputation, though. It had been five years since our bargain, and there were five more years to run.

"Michel, you have tried touch, yah?"

I nodded at him. "Doesn't respond."

"Yah. Thought not enough. Touch not enough. This a weapon, mon. It respond to only one thing."

I slapped myself on the forehead. "Oh, for- of course."

He grinned. "You brave enough, white man?"

I gave him a dirty look, and pulled my Swiss army knife out of my pocket. He put the spearhead back down on the desk. I extended the pen blade and pricked my left thumb, then squeezed a drop of blood onto the surface of the spearhead. There was a crackling WHOOM somewhere behind my forehead, and I felt the power force its way into me. The spearhead quivered on the desk and lifted slightly into the air to hover before my face, spinning slowly. Alan whistled softly. I looked at it. "Now what?"

"Think about something, Michel. Think about something that not here."

I frowned, and formed an image of Demaine. The spearhead shuddered and then spun to point at the door. "Ahhhhh." I reached out and plucked it from the air. Power crackled into my finger. "That's...nice."

"That a serious mojo."

Still holding it, I thought about Baba Yaga. It trembled in my hand, but I held it firmly. I shuddered at a wave of dizziness, and my eyes were drawn inexorably to the wall - the downtown wall. I forced my gaze back to Alan and let my arm rise and point; when I followed it, it was pointing at exactly the same spot. "South."

"Now you know, France."

"Thanks, Alan." I tucked the spearhead into the bandolier and tightened the pocket around it. I sat with my eyes closed for a few minutes, flexing not-muscles, until I could close down the conduit of power that reached from me to the spearhead, and think of objects without the overriding directional cue. Then I opened my eyes.

"You got what you need, France? That don' cost you nothin'."

I laughed. "Not yet, Alan. I need some hardware, too."

Alan laughed again, and reached under the desk. The lights came on around the room's edges, outlining racks along the walls. Weapons, enough to outfit at least a regiment of Marines, were neatly hung around the room. "It Red Tag day always, France, for you. You take what you need."

I dropped a bundle of hundred-dollar bills on the desk, stood up, and shook Alan's hand. He shook his head, but I pushed the bills across to him. "Cash on the desk, Alan. Someday I'll need that credit, maybe. But until I need it, cash on the desk."

He grinned again.

I left the head shop with a twin to my Desert Eagle, a silenced Beretta, ammunition and spare magazines for both, a hideaway Derringer in an ankle holster, an extendable baton, two pairs of handcuffs and a ring of handcuff keys and four stun grenades in a brown paper bag.

On the way out, I nodded to the boys still sitting outside. Three of them grinned at me, and I patted my coat and grinned back. All four laughed.

Then I walked to the Six train and rode it back down to the Village, trying not to clank as I went.

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December 26, 2007

I want to reach my hand into the dark and feel what reaches back

The service was short and heartfelt. They laid my grandmother in the earth in quiet dignity, with a few words from a Catholic priest who had known her for longer than I had been alive and some murmured thoughts from her few friends. She'd outlived most of them. I stood at the end of the line afterwards, shook hands and endured the memories of all those old women intent on telling me what an adorable infant I'd been with a smile.

There were nine people at the grave site besides myself and the priest, who shook my hand last and walked away to give me time and space for a family goodbye. I waited until he was out of sight around the trees before raising my head to the surrounding woods. "You can come out now."

Dozens of shapes, some nearly human and some entirely not, emerged from the shadows. Some walked. Some drifted. Some simply weren't and then were, a moment later. Those I had known were there but had been unable to point to came to the graveside with me to pay their respects to my grandmother.

I had had no idea how many of the New York dispossessed knew her. As I moved in their circles, toes dipping in the pools of myth and immortality, I had come to understand that she was a Power among them. Perhaps not one of control, or retribution, or of wealth; but a Power nonetheless, whose presence they would miss.

The tall, ice-faced woman knelt before the grave, quickly, and did something with her hands before standing and walking past me. She spared me one glance of her sapphire eyes, but they flickered once with the persona behind them, something rare and gifted only to me on this afternoon in our shared loss.

A nondescript man with a cellular telephone headset and Middle Eastern features came forward to look at the tombstone. I didn't recognize him, but when he turned to leave, he nodded to me, once, and was careful not to touch me. I bowed to him them, and when our eyes met again I placed my right hand to my breast and the hard shape there. He smiled once, pleased, and hurried off.

There were dark shapes near the ground that sniffed about her grave and then scurried away without looking back. A glowing form hovered over the open cut hole for a moment before floating upwards and out of sight despite a moment when I could have sworn that it was looking at me. And so it went, the gods and demons of New York paying, if not tribute, at least acknowledgement to the passing of a human who had known them.

When the last of them had gone and the graveyard was quiet, I shoveled earth thrice on the coffin and went home.

In my apartment, the same small one near the Hudson where she'd raised me, I looked at the desk in front of me and the objects arrayed there. A pocket watch, gold and white and ornate; a crystal vial, and a stone spear point. The three of them, free of their leather prison, represented the most powerful of the talismans I had collected in my years of negotiating and conversing with the powers of New York. Two of them I knew intimately. The third, the spear point of Bobbi-Bobbi, I had little idea how to use. My talent could feel the power in it, crackling, different from the smooth ripples of the vial or the glow of the watch, but I had had no luck in releasing it or bringing it forth by demand.

The doorbell chimed once. I rose wearily and went to answer it.

On the other side of the fisheye lens was the Middle Eastern man I'd seen at the funeral. I gaped for a moment, surprised, then turned the locks and opened the door. He looked up at me, having been examining the lintel. "You have protection here," he said in an unfamiliar accent.

"I do."

"That is good. May I come in?"

I looked at him carefully, then said "Please wait here a moment." He nodded. I closed the door and went back to my office, scooping up the talismans and placing them in my bandolier - save the pocket watch. With that in hand, I returned to the door. I opened it and opened my hand, the watch lying on my palm with the face up.

The man looked at it and smiled again. "Ah."

"Please pardon my caution. This is my home."

"I understand." He reached out, very carefully, and touched the watch's face without touching me, then withdrew his hand. The watch gleamed brighter in the dim incandescents of the elevator lobby for a moment, then pulsed a deep and brilliant gold, light flooding from it to wash down the crevices and holes of the old building.

I bowed and stood back to let the Djinn inside.

We sat facing each other across the scarred kitchen table where Nan and I had had our lessons those years ago. He removed the headset from his left ear and placed it deliberately on the table, pressing a button on it to still its bright blue blinking, before looking me in the eye. "What do you know of Irem Zhat al-Imad?" he asked me.

This wasn't what I had expected. "Irem of the Pillars?"


I frowned. "I've read of it. Please excuse my ignorance if this is incorrect. It was supposedly a city built in the Rhub al-Qali, the Empty Quarter of the Desert, by the Djinn. They built it at the behest of the lord of a giant race. It's a myth; no-one - that is, no mortal - has seen Irem."

The Djinn nodded. "Some of that is even true." He looked around my kitchen, then at his headset on the table. I had the sudden feeling he was trying to avoid continuing.

"Old One, do you have something to tell me?" I asked him quietly.

He looked up, the eyes in his vessel's head dripping orange flame down onto the floor. It hissed and vanished without harming anything. His face bore a rictus grin. "Yes, Michel. I need your help."

That was new. "If I can help you, Old One, I will." I looked into the silently flickering eyes as I said it, wondering idly if the man sitting across from me had a family and if so what they thought he was doing at the moment. Sitting in my kitchen discussing lost mythical cities probably wasn't it. "May I ask you to do something?"


"If you have a story to tell me, I would ask you to visit me and release this man."

The Djinn slumped. The eyes faded back to normal. "That was my intention, if you would allow it."

I reached across the table and laid my hand palm up on its surface. "What shall I tell him?"

"He is a taxi driver. Tell him he has delivered his package to you and he will leave. His cab is parked downstairs." The Djinn didn't move for a moment. "It has been a very, very long time, Michel, since I had a body."

"What will serve you more at this time, a body or your power?"

"My power." He laid his hand on mine.

There was a flash of soundless noise, of dark light. I felt his fingers clench reflexively around my own for a moment, and then release. I opened my eyes from the squint they had assumed to see the man across my table look around, confused, and snatch up his headset. "Where am I? Who are you?" He stood, quickly.

I stood as well, digging in my pocket for a bill. I held it out to him. "Thanks for the delivery." He looked at me, face wild for a moment. I worked to hold my face pleasant and slightly curious, the five dollars extended. He looked around again, then took it automatically.

"Uh. You're welcome. Package...?"

"Yes. I'd hoped you'd get this to me within the hour, and all set, plenty of time. Thank you." I walked around the table towards the door. He followed, still looking around himself with a confused look but willing to be led. I nodded to him and ushered him out without touching him before locking the door and returning to the living room and seating myself on the sofa. There was a mirror on the wall opposite, a tall thin one that might have passed for decoration. I faced it.

"Old one?"

In the mirror, I nodded, my eyes glowing slightly. "Yes."

"Why don't you tell me what this is about?"

So I settled back onto my couch and listened to the tale.

* * *

The streets of Manhattan channel the flows of humanity, gutters of intellect and emotion on the feast of interaction that is urban life. Walking east towards Central Park from the One/Nine train I reached out with what senses I have and those I have stolen, but feel nothing out of the ordinary.

The Djinn's story has brought me here. He is gone, into a random commuter in the Fourteenth Street Subway Station without a backwards glance, merely an assurance in my head that he will know to find me if I am successful. I reached a hand into my coat to touch the talismans for reassurance, feel their energy slick and warm near me. Bobbi-Bobbi's arrowhead crackled strangely.

I pass the Museum of Natural History, settled in for the night in its small but comfortable block of parkland. The new Planetarium building was a riot of glass and light on the north side, drawing my eye as I walked on towards Central Park.

The Park itself was dark, but not completely. Not the lethal anarchy of even ten years ago, Central Park now held strollers, the curious, the amorous, and even tourists. I slipped into the interior, heading for the eastern side of the Reservoir, where the Djinn had said to look. Still nothing to feel, nothing to See or Hear.

But perhaps a half-kilometer short of my goal, all that changed.

I stopped short, there on the paved ribbon of the Park Drive, looking eastwards into the gloom. There was a presence there, somewhere a distance off, in the direction I was heading. I'd never felt its like, but it was muted, somehow. A muffled basso drone of power.

I continued on, reaching the Reservoir, and circled it until I reached the closed and locked access point, iron door solidly shut in masonry stone. A maintenance access only.

The pocket watch flared, once, beneath my coat. There was a groaning shriek of metal and the door opened to let me slip inside and struggle to pull it shut. No-one notices me inside my shield of ripples, the vial holding me invisible, but the sound might have gotten out. I hadn't thought of that. A few moments of waiting brought no response, however. I turned, pulled a mini Mag-Lite from my coat, flicked it on and headed down the narrow steel stairs.

The pumping station wasn't quiet. I can't imagine it would ever be; its silence would imply New York's death, the water stopped. A constant moaning roar pervaded the space, which is lit somewhat indifferently. Gigantic shapes of piping, valves and locks huddle at the bottom of the space, much taller than a person, creating valleys and hummocks of shadow and steel. I let myself out of the access stairway and look around. There was an operator's booth visible down the gallery, some fifty meters distant, lighted much more brightly than this sullen open space. I did't see anyone in it, but if they're there, they wouldn't see me out here in the dimness. I stepped to the middle of the room and look around myself at the pipes.

Then I Looked at them.

In my gaze, they changed. Sharply defined edges vanished; straight lines wavered. The ranks of industrial machined forms shimmered in my vision, settling into a row of gigantic squared stone shapes, no two alike, with the steel pipe visible at their heads and feet where it disappeared into the wall.

Sarcophagi, for what I could tell. The thought is chilling, more so than the billions of calories of heat energy stolen into cold water rushing through the chamber. I climb up on the middle of the seven visible shapes and examine the top. There are strange runes there, carved into the metal, which I can't read. At one end, the shape is higher. I caught a glint of reflection there and moved to that end, balancing carefully atop the shape which part of my mind still saw as a giant pipe. There was a portal there, some form of glass or crystal, set in the smooth surface.

I really, really didn't want to look. But I had no choice. The Djinn had charged me with a task, and I'd accepted, although I still wasn't sure why. I lifted the Mag-Lite to the window and shined the small beam through it.

Whatever was within was gray, and green, and filled the sarcophagus, unmoving. Water was rushing past it, bubbles indicating the speed of its passage and that whatever else this was, it was a pipe, still. I twisted the Mag-Lite's head to widen the beam.

An enormous head, perhaps a meter and a half in diameter, looked up at me above a mass of what could only be tentacles. My chest contracted in purely involuntary response, and I'm quite certain I would have screamed had I not been too terrified to move a muscle. I was only released from my terror when there was a flash of color as the shape beneath me opened bright yellow eyes the size of dinner plates.

I fainted.

Irem Zhat al-Imad means `Irem of the Pillars.' It's an ancient city of myth, lost in the deepest deserts of Araby, inside The Empty Quarter. Some say that `pillars' in this case doesn't mean pillars, literally, but is a metaphor for the Old Ones - ancient gods who are singularly unconcerned with the fate of mankind itself, being so far above Man in terms of their power than to them Man is nothing more than a slight pest, or infestation of the world that they are interested in. Some legends say that other gods united to banish them or imprison them so as to make the world a place safe for lesser deities to play in, and, coincidentally, for man as well.

Only one of those Old Ones had anything resembling tentacles. It had various names, but most seemed to center on the arab word `Khadulu' or `abandoner.' It was the most powerful of the beings left physically on our world - one who could open gateways to the Great Old Ones, and in whose power the fate of our world rested.

His name was corrupted many times. Only one thing was constant, in the various descriptions of him among the various tellers of myths and keepers of lore - Cthulhu didn't care much about Men, among whose number was I.

I awoke at the base of the pipe I'd been kneeling on. My head, right arm and left side ached sharply, indicating that they'd probably taken a hit on my way down. My gun was digging painfully into my ribs. There was a burning feeling on my chest.

I struggled to my feet and looked around. A pool of dim light indicated the Mag-Lite; I collected it (dented but unbroken) and pocketed it again. This surely didn't look like any form of Empty Quarter, but the Djinn had said that didn't matter. "The Rhub al-Qali is as much a place of the mind as of the world, Michel. It exists, or co-exists, with your own. It cannot be found on its own. It can only be found when it overlaps with yours, much as I can only be addressed when I overlap with Mankind."


The image of those enormous eyes filled my head, and I shuddered. The Djinn hadn't told me what I would find, here. He'd hinted there might be `gods' but for sure hadn't mentioned anything like that. Time to be elsewhere.


Have you ever heard a thunderbolt voice your name? I hadn't either. Until right then. I clapped my hands over my ears reflexively, realizing even as I did so that it would make no difference. "Fuck!"


I looked longingly off towards the staircase. Then I reached a hand inside my jacket, cuffed away the sweat of terror with my other arm, and turned back to climb the pipe. It was easier the second time, knowing what I was about, and although I wanted to be absolutely anywhere else, I found myself looking down at the transparent portion again. There was a soft light behind it now, and the great gray-green face was there, eyes open. They tracked me as I came in view. There was nothing visible that resembled a mouth. If the rest of this fucker was in scale, he was probably around seven meters tall. I was uncomfortably aware, all of a sudden, that his presence in the pipe was possibly entirely voluntary, and hoped like hell that my discovering him didn't change that.


I nodded. "I thought you were in the Pacific, somewhere. If you existed."


"You're not in this damn water pipe?"


I nodded again. "Uh, yes. I was charged to bring this message to you. Do I need to say it?"


I thought furiously. Hopefully, that didn't mean it could kill me after I finished speaking. Hell, be realistic, I told myself - it can kill you anytime it wants. I turned my gaze downwards again. "Very well. I was sent by Azif. He wishes you to know he has not broken allegiance, and he remains in this place where he awaits your call."

YOU HAVE FULFILLED YOUR CHARGE, MICHEL. The great yellow eyes flared into brightness, briefly. I noticed that they had vertical pupils of greenish black, although not quite catlike. GO AND TELL HIM THAT I HEAR AND UNDERSTAND.

I bowed slightly. "I will." Wanting now more than ever to be gone, I turned away from the face and began to kneel in preparation to sliding down off the pipe. Before I could do so, the portal glowed briefly again.

FOR YOUR GRANDMOTHER'S SAKE, the voice tolled in my head, and my chest flared into pain. I cried out, sliding off the pipe. When I reached the ground, I frantically tore my coat open and pulled out the pocket watch, source of the burning. Its leather pouch was blackened around it, but by the time I retrieved it, it was cool again. The face was no longer white, however. Instead, the hands rested on a perfectly clear starscape, twinkling slightly. I brought it to my face and turned it, realizing that I could see past the watch's edge, as if it was a portal to deepest space. I swallowed once and placed it carefully back in the bandolier.

Then I ran like hell.

I made it to a wine bar on Columbus Avenue and was on my fifth drink when a hand fell on my shoulder. I snarled "What!" as I turned to find a woman standing there with her purse held defensively before her, wearing a leather jacket and middling-expensive jewelry.

She withdrew her hand and looked confused. "I'm sorry. Do I know you?"

Hello, Michel.

I looked at her, the anger draining. "No, I don't think so. Sorry." She nodded nervously and drew back, looking around herself in confusion. I watched her leave the bar, trying to hide her frightened gaze up at the street sign, before turning back to the mirror behind the tender and looking into my flame-flickering eyes there.

"You didn't tell me."

"I didn't tell you many things."

"You didn't tell me HE existed, for Christ's sake."

"Would you have gone?"

"No." I sighed and finished my drink. My reflection cocked his head.

"What did he say?"

I looked back. "I want answers first. What the hell was that about? All the legends say his purpose is to bring about the return of the Great Old Ones, and damn any of us who happen to still be around."

"Yes, they say that."

"Then what the hell are you reporting in to him for, if not for that? Doesn't the legend say you were the first masters of Earth, and will be the last?"

The Djinn raised my eyebrows. "Your knowledge is extensive."

"Don't shine me on. I can fucking read." I waved at the bartender for another drink. "And answer the question."

"I cannot."

"If you can't, then you don't get an answer either."

"Michel, you took the charge. You swore you would. You know you cannot withhold the information."


I rubbed my face with my hands. "Look, answer me this then. Am I doing something that will end up contributing to the death or harm of humans?"

My reflection cocked his head, eyes flaming brighter. "I would be lying if I said no."

"I knew it. Fuck." I told the Djinn what had happened. His face blazed with excitement and he nodded in the mirror.

"Ah, he was there. Yes. Yes! It will be, then. It will be."

"Whenever you're finished being mysterious, just fuck right off. I agreed to help you because I believe in talking, and that's what you wanted to do. I didn't know you were going to carry out some ancient evil that affects my race, and I don't want any more part of it."

The Djinn leaned forward in the mirror, a disconcerting sight since I hadn't. "Michel, I will go, but let me ask you this question, and please think about it in days to come. What makes you think one such as He, and one such as I, wish you ill? What makes you think, that if we were undertaking something which concerned you so little that your deaths would not be of importance to us, that He would be manifesting inside New York City public works, or that I would be using a human agent to converse with Him?"

Then my hand reached out of its own accord and brushed a man walking behind me on his way to the door. He blinked, then his eyes refocused and he continued on his way, turning his head once to wink at me.


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December 21, 2007

Jet Fighter

The first kill is unexpected; almost flippant majesty in the burning afternoon. Distant shapes collect around the barrier fence, signs and placards of their outrage muddled indistinct by heat haze from this range. I squint at them through surplus binoculars, watching the flat expanse of tarmac beyond them. Empty. Safe. The model rocket is a meter tall, constructed in my basement of images taken from fusty and disused fiction, disapproved by government these long years. Strakes and weapon pods blister from its skin, colors bright with lost hope and a future denied. I scan the still-clear sky once more, huddled beneath a draped poncho in a forlorn bid for anonymity from overhead imagery. The key is in my box, the LED glows; turn, once, and-


-forgotten hope of flight and fantasy, denied us in these days of blunder. Solid fuel, (SIX MONTH MINIMUM SENTENCE, POSSESSION) pressed into a cardboard tube; ancient instamatic camera embedded in the nosecone (SENTENCING VARIABLE FOR HOMELAND SECURITY IMAGING VIOLATIONS) and small radiosonde in the module to call for help on landing (FCC VIOLATION TWO MONTH SENTENCE, MINIMUM).

Up it goes.

The blue of sky and white of clouds call to it, for just a second and then a second more as the craft reaches for a thousand meters (shutter height) and then there is a shadowed thunder from behind me, lethal shape reaching for the runway visible past the crowd of protestors. Fuselage blackened from friction and from weapons fire, the UCAV settles past me with its nose cribbed slightly to the south, correcting for ground winds, angling for home from its secret and illegal war across the waters.

There is no sound; rather, there is a sudden lack of sound, coupled with a flare of orange-white light, swiftly fading into dirty reds and black as the engine belches FOD out the rear. The shape, so lethal a moment earlier, staggers in the sky, then with a scream of throttles tries to claw its way onto safe home ground but instead falls from grace with the peculiar curving path of a craft gone past the limits of its control law.

The cheering from the distant crowd is barely audible when the harsher noise of metal and carbon aromatics settles into the desert heat.

Ten days of huddling in fear and worry. Not daring to leave the safety of routine and familiar paths, seeing vans and helicopters mumble their searching song to the legions of uniformed grim-faced men who quarter the neighborhood. Not even the plaintive peep of the beacon, heard in my earphones through the makeshift directional receiver, stirs me forth; not until the eleventh day when some fey whim snaps the bonds and I trudge out across the highway median with a trashbag in my hand. The small shape is barely recognizable in the scrub, but I pick it up anyway, walking slowly back to my beater van and gathering random aluminum cans for verisimilitude.

One image is pulled, in dripping flatform birth, from the film cartridge buried in the metal cylinder. One shot, showing the spiderwebbed flaming heart of a turbine intake mere fractions of a second before impact.

I'm not sure how long it takes for the truth to sink in, but some weeks later I find myself lying on a rooftop off past the end of the runway underneath a carefully arranged tarpaulin topped with scrap wood and iron. I can see out a narrow slit, directly down the centerline of the distant field, through a ten-power scope that I found in the basement which rests atop a match-grade Remington .22 long rifle.

The sound announces vision, the dark and blurry mass turning onto the runway's end some three miles away. It swims from side to side in my scope's eye, before the visible lengthening of the ejecta plume and the angled shape leaps down the centerline towards me. Still on the ground, no good. I wait, and wait, and just before I feel in my bones that the unmanned fighter is about to leap upwards I stroke the trigger.

One small metal-jacketed sting, sent caressingly off downrange. The last three times I tried this there was no discernable result, the bullet likely burying itself in the sand or tarmac with nary a puff to show its passing. This time, however, the prediction is spot on, and as the UCAV lifts its nose to the sky my bullet finds its open throat.

There is no effect for long seconds, the aircraft leaving the runway with its wheels folding into its undercarriage in one-two tango time, then suddenly there is a dirtying of the air behind it. Smudge of smoke and debris, metal cascade from the front to the back, tiny featherweight turbine blades snapped through by jacketed lead adding their mass to the cacophony of destruction as the jet engine scours its own innards out in a shriek of freed rotational energy. The UCAV staggers in its flight, then with an air of weary resignation lowers its nose to the tarmac and disappears into a cloud of smoke, flame and disturbed dust.

I lie beneath my tarp for seven hours as the rotor blades steep in the darkening night air.

Fuck you and your war. Fuck you and your robot whores.

Time the third I find myself sitting behind a window, looking not down the runway's length but out at its end. Along the roadway past the barrier lights, the empty soda cans strewn over five days of commuting. I wait and watch the small mirror on the windowsill, and when I see the rushing shape start down the tarmac I give it just enough time to reach V2, go/no go, no abort, the limits of adhesion, and then I press the button on my LED-strewn stereo remote control. X10 signals flood the highway's edge, amplified from my handheld by a horn some three blocks off, and at their touch the hundred cans awaken with small puffs of dust and light. Metallized balloonets, forcibly inflated by the small canisters around which they lay (FEDERAL AIRGUNS VIOLATION, TWO MONTHS SENTENCE MINIMUM) rise suddenly into the air. A wall of bright pink, purple and red shapes, trailing foil tinsel beneath.

For a flying killer that sees in microwaves, in the narrow visual slices of LIDAR, it is as though a wall has suddenly begun to grow at the end of the runway, moving upwards at some meters per second. I am on my feet at the window, now, able to see the final third of the runway directly; I can almost feel the dispassionate agony of the robot as it considers in a fraction of a second whether it can turn (no) or outclimb the wall (no) and finally decides to take the least damaging course of action and slams itself back onto the runway at takeoff speed without the time to lower gear.

By so doing, it stops before the fence, battered and broken beyond repair.

The crowd, made of protestors angry at the war, the waste, the government, anything at all, cheers thunderously as the crash trucks converge. I let myself out of the small apartment to walk briskly in the other direction, thinking of my next meeting with the adversary and wondering at the fact that my life (so useless) has a purpose now.

Jet fighter.

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December 18, 2007

Yet the Sun Still Rose

St. Vincent's hospital lurks at the corner where Seventh Avenue angles to the west on its way downtown into the heart of Greenwich Village. It may have loomed there one day, but now things are simply too tall and it's all it can do to lurk, pushing its emergency entrance out into the avenue in a bid to be noticed.

I don't like hospitals. I haven't since my parents passed away. This was altogether too familiar.

Still, I went in anyway and stopped at the receptionist. They eye you peculiarly when you wander around New York in a long Burberry's trench coat on not-particularly-cool fall evenings. The orderly behind the counter glanced up from his computer monitor, beige plastic stained with finger oils and unknown greases. "Yes?"

"Here to visit Nan St. Cyr." I had to spell it for him.

"Room 727. Have you been here before?" I nodded. He grimaced in apology. "Right. Elevators over there."

Room 727 was like all the other rooms I could see, but this one was bathed in a brilliant light, because my grandmother was in it. She was lying in a throne-like bed of medical technology, face peaceful, sleeping. I walked to her side and looked down at her. The machines muttered to themselves in their secret chatter, glyphs winking out furiously for those with medical training decoder rings to decipher. I just looked at the woman.

She'd raised me, those years in the west Village. Taken me into her small apartment when my parents were taken from us, and made me a part of her life and her a part of mine. The grief of those long ago years wasn't lessened, but it was countered with the love that she had lain over the wounds.

A nurse walked past and looked into the room, saw me, and leaned in. "Sir?"

I turned.

"Oh, Mr. Wibert, I'm sorry, I didn't recognize you."

"It's all right."

She came into the room and stood by me, looking down at Nan. "She's had that half-smile on all day. She looks very peaceful."

I didn't snarl at her, but it took a great deal of effort. Instead I swallowed and said, "She's dying."

The nurse patted my arm. "Yes, dear, she is. But she's at peace, with her family, and she's not in pain, and she's led a full, long life. Would you have her go any other way?"

I didn't answer. The nurse patted my arm again and slipped out. I just looked at the woman in the bed, because I knew something the nurse didn't know. I slipped one hand into my overcoat and rested my palm against the lump just over my breastbone, where the Baba's vial lay. I could feel the Power concentrated there. I knew it wouldn't diminish it in the slightest if I let it free. That's what the Water of Life did, after all - it granted life to a soul and to a body, if used for that purpose. That's what Baba Yaga did with it as a Goddess of Nature.

And she'd given it to me.

I turned away from Nan and found a chair to sit in, my arms trembling. I rubbed my eyes with sweaty palms and arranged my coat to hang in a more comfortable manner over the bandolier at my chest and the large gun at my side. I'm not all that small, and the chair was struggling to make it work, but I didn't care.

I have no real Power as a mage, or sorceror, or witch, or whatever word you'd like to use. I have one talent, one which is shared by many more people in this world than realize they have it, but which is discouraged by society and religions and science; discouraged to the point that most people who have it convince themselves that they're imagining things by the time they're teenagers. Some that don't do so burn their minds out later on drugs to make it go away, and nearly all the few survivors of that either learn to conceal it or end up in treatment for various esoteric forms of insanity. Some become charlatans for pay. One in a great many is like me.

I can Hear, and See, beings of power. Gods, deities, demons, whatever you want to call them; I can see through the veils that hide them from normal people. Veils that they place over themselves, and veils that humanity places there - a vast slumbering herd mind too disturbed to recognize the bright light that walks among it, unknowing of its own strength. Remember when Barrie's Peter Pan urged all you children to believe? Well, guess what. It works the other way, too.

The Djinn in his endless wanderings, Baba Yaga behind her ageless cold mask; I could See them where others saw only their vessels. Looking down at my grandmother, I could See her too, touched as she was with a Power much stronger than mine. I could Hear her as she lay there.

For my Grandmother wasn't peaceful. She was screaming.

* * *

I went to drink.

This doesn't help, but at least gives me a perfectly good excuse for feeling maudlin, useless and guilty. Nan was old. I didn't know how old, precisely, because she didn't know herself, but she was in her upper nineties. She had raised my mother in France before coming to the U.S. after the Second World War. She had some degenerative illness whose name I kept managing to forget two minutes after the doctors told me, one that despite my considerable financial resources I couldn't save her from. She'd known that, of course, and schooled me sharply about it before she'd closed her eyes some weeks before.

"Cher, listen to me." Her voice was thready but still had snap.

"Yes, nana."

"This thing I am doing."

"Dying, nana."

"Yes, impertinent boy. Dying."

"What about it, nan?"

She pushed the coverlet back a few inches and moved her hands about aimlessly before clasping them on her breast and looking at me. "It happens to us all, Michel."

"I know that, nana." I was sitting in the chair next to her bed, trying not to hulk in my overcoat festooned with talismans of magic and firepower.

"No," she said, reaching out one hand to touch my forehead. I bent my head forward. "You think you know that. But you do not. I will die, Michel. It is something I fear. But that, too, is something that happens to us all, fearing death." Then she'd patted my cheek and gone to sleep again. I'd spoken to her three or four more times before she'd stopped waking up.

I waved at the bartender, who brought me another whisky. It burned, going down. This was worse than my parents dying. Much worse.

When they died, I had no Power at all.

My fist clenched against the vial again. It pulsed once, gently, in response. It could give life. That was its purpose. It could take my grandmother and lift her from her suffering, the suffering the doctors couldn't see; the pain from destroyed nerves that she was no longer able to express, her mind still present enough to feel but her spine long gone and even her muscles unable to grimace. The machines did not need to keep her alive, for she was breathing on her own, and that was the curse.

Every moment, she screamed, and no-one could hear her but I. But I could restore her.

She'd never spoken of it directly. There were no rules, in Nana's world where she played cards and fenced with the Immortals. There were no judges, no codes; just manners. Manners, she told me, were what would save me if I chose to swim in those waters. Not with humans, who cared nothing for such things, but with those to whom the things which humans cared about were less than nothing - with them, manners were all, and sacrosanct.

Manners had gained me the vial.

But somehow, I knew, without being told, that to use my gifted Power to bring her life would be discourteous. I had never risked being discourteous in the steps of the immortals before. I had no interest strong enough to risk discovering the penalty.

I did now, I thought. But I wasn't sure.

I didn't know if I cared.

I went back to the hospital, stared down at her lying in the bed, thought of coming to see her after using the vial to wake her up from her torment. In none of these conjurings could I see her with any expression other than a loving but sad disappointment.

She was still screaming.

I don't know how long I stood there. I don't know if I was crying. I know that at some point I snarled something wordless, pressed my right hand to my chest, and willed the world to change.

It did. The machines' lights faded to green. The screaming stopped.

I cried.

Later, I took the Six train uptown to Grand Central Terminal and sat down before the bar at the Cafe. A soulless-looking supermodel stood before me without my hearing her approach, and placed her hands on the bar. I looked up at her, tears still tracking down my face, and squinted at the light streaming through the tall windows that framed her. "Baba?"

She touched my face. "You're crying." The voice might have been reading a financial headline.

"Baba, I need to return your gift." I drew the glass vial from the bandolier and placed it on the bar, staring at its crystal haze of refracting light for a moment. Clear liquid sloshed in it. I looked back up, but the supermodel had gone. In her place was a twisted crone with brightened eyes, eyes like my grandmothers' which caused fresh tears to slide down my cheeks.

"Why, Michel?" Her voice was cracked and aged, but her tone gentle.

"I used it, today. I used it-" I shook my head and pushed the vial to her. She picked it up, unstoppered it and waved it beneath her nose as though sampling perfume.

"Ah!" Her voice was surprised. She held it, looked at me. "Your grandmother. Your own Baba. Is that why?"

"Yes." My voice was small. "I'm sorry, Baba."

"But why, Michel? That is what the waters do."

I looked at her, confused. "I killed my grandmother, Baba. I used your gift to take an innocent life."

She laughed. "You are forgetting who I am, Michel." Her form rippled for a moment, straightening into a crone no less hideous but taller and terrible with fury. Her voice went cold again, the voice of the bitch queen supermodel. "I am Baba Yaga, little man; I am the mother of the Earth herself, and I have killed more innocents than you can begin to imagine have existed. I am death itself, and life; life when it is cruel, and death when it is a release." With that, her shape slumped again into the kindly bright-eyed woman, and she took the bottle and pressed it, open to my face, once on each cheek, so that two tears ran down into it. Then she stoppered it and shook it again, and the ripples in the fabric of the world flowed out from her hand. I stared at her.

"Michel, Michel. The Water of Death. What is it for? You know this answer."

I recited from memory. "The Water of Death is to allow corpses to decay, to free souls from their bodies so that-" I stopped.

She nodded. "So that the Water of Life may bring renewal from the ashes and the soul may rise to heaven. Did you use the Water of Life?"

"No, Baba."

Baba Yaga patted my cheek, exactly like Nana had. "And that is why you yet survive, Michel. You did not seek to grant her life, or grant her heaven. You simply chose to release her from pain, and to ensure her body went to rest. That is what the Water of Death is for. It was her time, and past her time; in those cases, that is when Baba Yaga is sometimes called to hasten what must be." She handed the bottle to me.

I took it, still staring at her. She patted my cheek again. "I will miss her, Michel. She was a worthy opponent. I am glad she sent her grandson to me to help pass the time."

"What would happened if I had used the Water of Life?"

"Ah, but you did not. For that I am glad, Michel. It is a lonely life here, sometimes."

I don't know why I said it, but I did. "I've killed others, Baba."

"I know that, Cher."

"I'm not a good man."

"That is not for you to decide." She turned and produced bottles, and without a flicker the supermodel bartender was in front of me mixing a White Russian, the light and the dark blending into my glass. I picked it up, tucking the vial into my bandolier, and raised it to her.

"Thank you, Baba. Please call on me if you have need." I sipped the drink, set it on the bar with a bill and turned to go, but a thought grasped me at that moment, cold and hard. Something Baba Yaga had said. I turned back to her. She raised one eyebrow, waiting. "Baba," I asked carefully, "How was Nan an opponent?"

She looked at me for a time. And then, the ice queen bartender leaned forward-

-and winked, one eye briefly brilliant with life and mischief. Then she stood, disinterested, and I gulped my drink and shuffled off downtown to begin a proper wake for the woman who had raised me.

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November 25, 2007

Someone to pull the trigger

The New York Magician, pt. 4

There's an old, old rule that applies to drinking in New York. It will keep you safe in the worst bars, in the worst neighborhoods - even the ones where the stockbrokers drink. A cabbie once told it to me when I was seventeen, which in New York terms means three years past drinking age. "Kid," he said as he let me off in front of an Alphabet City bar which had been colonized by bikers, "What the hell are you doing going in there?"

There wasn't really a good answer to that, since I wasn't really sure myself. "I'm looking for someone," I had told him, almost entirely truthfully.

He'd shaken his head at me in the rear-view mirror and then turned, cabbie style, one arm across the front bench seat to look through the hazed Plexiglas window that separated us. "Can I give you some advice?" he'd asked. I'd looked at him, then at the bar out the passenger side window. Two enormous men dressed in decorated leather jackets were urinating against the front of the bar while a third lounged with his arms crossed, leering at a girl who was walking by in the company of no less than seven teenagers whose clothing screamed `GANG MEMBER.' She shrank from his gaze and all eight of them hurried their steps.

"Sure," I said.

"I ain't gonna tell you not to go in there, `cos it looks like you're gonna no matter what I say. But look me in the eyes while I tell you this."

I looked him in the eyes. "Go on."

"You got three inches of space around you, son. That's your personal Red Zone. When you walk in there, if your Red Zone touches anybody without them meaning it, you say `excuse me, sir' and you keep walking. If anybody comes into your Red Zone like they mean to do it, you give `em one chance by walkin' around em. That's courtesy. Shows you ain't looking to cause shit. If they come into the zone a second time, you ask `em if you can help `em. If they don't make nice, then that's three strikes, you got me?"

I nodded, swallowed, then asked the question. "What do I do if they get three strikes?"

He grinned at me. "That's your problem. What I'm telling you is this: if you follow those rules, the only people who you're gonna have to deal with are the ones who were gonna start a fight with you no matter what you did once you walked in that door. You might still haveta fight or run, but you'll always know you had no choice."

I'd tipped him double the fare. He shook his head while he drove away.

I walked past the three huge guys at the front door, making a slight jog so my Red Zone didn't touch theirs. They looked at me but didn't say anything. I went into that bar that night, and I found who I was looking for, and I got out of that bar that night. I'm not telling you I never got in fights, but I'm telling you that that cabbie was right; every time I've followed that rule, I've never had to fight anyone that wasn't doing his or her damnedest to make sure we squared off no matter what I did.

Unfortunately, some days there's just one of those jackasses in the bar.

I was in a dark and dusty corner joint in Washington Heights, the kind with an Irish name but nary an Irishman in sight and where the beer is decidedly American but the rum, if you know how to ask for it, is dark, wicked and unnamed. If you did know the name you'd probably have to report the owner to the Customs and Excise people for illegal trafficking with some dark and mysterious South American lost city.

I like rum like that. That's one of the reasons I was there.

The other reason was rumors. I chase rumors much of the time. It's what I do. The leather bandolier across my chest is strung with the fruits of those pursuits, and has saved my life more times than I can count.

Would my life have been endangered if I hadn't pursued those rumors in the first place? Ah, well, that's another of life's questions. I sipped rum and sniffed appreciatively at the odors from the illegal propane grill midway down the bar where the bartender was frying something that smelled a lot like pork and plantains.

Anyway, there had been rumors. The weather had been ferocious in New York this summer so far; thunderstorms, even hail. Global Warming was big on the radio, as was El Nino, but the buzz Uptown was that Someone was in town. Someone was upset.

I was poking around to find out who it was, and if they'd talk to me. That's why I follow rumors. I talk to those who have few others to talk to. Mostly because my grandmother once taught me that too much respect just creates a wall of loneliness, and loneliness can be worse than death.

I love my grandmother.

The rum was even more evil on the third cup than the second. I had been listening to conversations all over the bar for a couple of hours, and while people were talking about all manner of things, none of them seemed to be talking about the shitty weather or about mysterious visitors from out of town. This, too, was normal; most of the chase involves sitting around listening. I'm good at that, too.

Sometimes I trade on the markets. You'd be surprised at what listening to the communities of New York as a full-time occupation can tell you. I don't do too badly.

Three drinks is usually my limit, though. Time to find another bar. Nobody had bothered me, and I hadn't bothered anyone, just had my drinks. I was rising from the booth to go when my Red Zone flashed a warning and I sat back down quickly to get my hands beneath my table. A slender man in a dressy shirt and slacks slid into the seat across from me and smiled. I didn't know him, so the smile made me instantly wary. "Can I help you?"

"Probably." He didn't go away. Strike two.

"How?" My hands were still below the table.

"Well, for one, you can put your hands on the table." He had both of his in view, resting on the table in front of him.

"Really. Is that a threat?" Belligerence was creeping into my voice. I wasn't sure what was going on, so this was opening move 47-j - test the waters.

"I rather think so, yes." He was still smiling and his hands hadn't moved. I narrowed my eyes.

"Why should I do that, precisely?" I gave him a once-over, visibly. I'm not a very big guy, but I was larger than him, and there was little doubt I was in better shape. The intimidation behind that once-over? Secondary move 32-q.

Didn't work. His eyes got a little harder. "I really don't want to make a nasty scene in here."

Strike three. Time to move to my favorite weapon. I ran my mouth. "Is that so? That's just terrible. I'd hate to drop you down the popularity list in the neighborhood watch. Your compadres here look like they'd take it terribly amiss if your fur got ruffled." I waved my left hand at the other denizens of the joint, solid South American blue-collars all.

My boothmate didn't rise to the bait and look away. He lifted his hands from the table in what looked at first to be a placating gesture, palms towards me - until I noticed that his fingertips were curled slightly inwards. "They won't notice a thing. Not a thing, I assure you."

Okay, so the hands were a bad sign. He was armed, and in a nasty way, or at least he knew enough to make me believe he was. I looked at his hands, then at him. "What do you want?"

"I want you to very, very slowly open your coat and then hand me the leather bandolier that you have strapped across your chest. Without," he continued with calm emphasis, "touching your palm to its center at any time. I know you can unhook it at your waist."

Damn. Now he was making me nervous. Nobody should know that much about me. My mouth continued firing. "You want me to undress for you? That figures."

"Mr. Wibert. You won't make me angry. You will annoy me, but that won't cause me to lose control or even distract me, although it might make me do terrible, horrible things to you, later." His voice assumed a nasal tone at the end. "All I want is the bandolier, and I'll leave. You have no right to them, in any case."

"Oh really? Why is that, may I ask?" I knew his answer, of course. I'd heard it before. Sure enough, real anger colored his response.

"Because you have no concept of the power you hold. You have no birthright to it; you have no ability to direct or use it. You are a shadow, Wibert. Just like the rest of them." At this, he waved one hand slightly at the rest of the bar. Surprised by his motion, I glanced over. Everyone else in the bar was frozen in place, the lights dimmed. There was a blur over the doorway that I knew would prevent anyone outside from deciding to enter.

Crap. This was bad.

"Wow. That's pretty good," I heard my mouth say, still running on automatics. "Do you do lighting for high school plays?"

His eyes flashed, but he was under control. "They will, as I told you, notice nothing. If you refuse to give me the bandolier, Wibert, I will be forced to harm you and take it from your corpse."

He could, too. The guy was manipulating time flows, from the look of it, with some power and a great deal of expertise. I looked at the bar again and noted that the area extended at least as far as the walls. I looked back at him and shrugged. "Okay."

His face flickered. "You agree?"

"Don't look so surprised, Senor dipshit. I don't like death." I reached for my waist and unfastened the bandolier at my left ribcage, then drew it slowly over my neck.

"Slowly!" His hands returned to face me. I paused with the bandolier still over my head, the ends of it held in my left hand, the center dangling uselessly in midair.

"See, I'm guessing here. Do you mind if I speculate? I can't touch the talismans here-" I shook the bandolier above me- "-and I'm insanely curious, not having any Power my own self."

He glared at me for a second, then looked at the bandolier. "Very well. Put the bandolier down on the table with the center fold towards me."

"Sure," I said agreeably, and did so carefully. The vial and pocketwatch, snug in their pockets, were pushed out towards him, out of reach of my hands now.

"And so you know," he said with a cold smile, "if you attempt to shoot me from under the table, you will fail. I have a shield up that will simply accelerate the cast I am prepared to make at you using the strike of your bullet as a source of power."

Damn. "Oh, I figured that," I lied. Think, damn it. "I just wanted to know, though. See, you're holding entropy down in the rest of the bar, and we're still talking. I'm guessing you're working with balances, here?"

He cocked his head, hands still poised. "Continue."

"I figure if you cut loose at me, what's going to happen is that all the time that isn't passing over there-" -I nodded at the bar- "-is going to happen right around me. But really fast and really hard. Probably satisfy some form of arcane math involving energy decay and volumes."

"That is correct, Mr. Wibert." Ooh, I was a mister again. "Astute of you for someone with no talent himself."

Asshole. "Oh, I have talents," I told him. "Just not like you. That was a shitty Peter Lorre imitation. May I go?"

He studied me carefully. "If you stand carefully, and walk slowly to the door, I will allow you to leave. I will hold these others as hostages to your good behavior."

"Yeah. I figured that." I looked at him carefully, searching for the signs I was looking for.

Found it. Sweating, just below the hairline.

I stood up, carefully, and with two fingers gently slid the bandolier over to him, then stepped back from the table. He turned in his seat to keep his hands focused on me. "Mr. Wibert?"


"I have one question. Allow me an answer to convince me of your motives."


"Why do you give me these so easily?" he nodded at the bandolier. He was sneering, but only half - he was actually curious.

I shrugged. "I've got other tools, whoever you are. And one of the reasons I'm still around despite playing in a world inhabited by things like you is that I know when to walk away." His eyes tightened at the insult, and I wondered if I'd overplayed it, but he nodded.

"I understand. Very well. Thank you. Please accept that you were simply outmatched here, and there will be no need for another meeting."

I looked at him stonily for a moment, and then turned away towards the door. He called behind me, "Please walk slowly. I will extend the field with you." I nodded without looking back and began a measured pace to the door.

Step. Step. I passed a pair of men drinking, one caught in mid-laugh, perhaps a foot away. Neither budged. So he had fine control of the field. I had a clear path to the exit. Step. Step. I was nearly to the bar's corner, perhaps eight feet from the door.

When I reached the blur that blocked the doorway, I turned to face him, still sitting in the back booth. "Hey, you'll need to-" but as I spoke, I whipped back my coat with one hand and drew the big pistol with the other. I had time to see his face tighten and his hands clench; then there was a rippling feeling around me, but by that time I had taken aim and fired.

The Desert Eagle roared tinnily in the space that was tightly enclosed by his talent, the sound ricocheting up the airspace around my arm and to my ears. I felt the blast compress the skin on my right arm, gases burning my wrist, and then the bullet punched through the propane tank propped behind the bar a few feet down from the grill.

Blue and orange flame flowered from the tank in slow motion, coupled with a sudden massive rise in the ambient temperature around me as the entropy from the explosion was channeled through whatever the little git was doing to my immediate vicinity. I roared in pain as my exposed skin burned, and suddenly there was a blast of cool air on me. I opened my eyes at a sudden change in the nature of the roar of sound to find myself standing in the middle of the bar holding the Desert Eagle. There was a rising hubbub of voices around me.

I looked at the bar. The propane tank was split open and blackened, but no flame issued from it.

The booth where I'd been sitting was a pyre of white flame. A high, thin scream issued from it as the chronomancer struggled to escape the storm of energy his channeling cast had been funneling when the overload of energy blew his control. I dashed towards the back booth, stuffing the gun into my coat, and grabbed the end of the bandolier which had been knocked off the table in his thrashing.

Without looking back, I barreled into the rear of the bar and out a narrow door into an alley as a fire alarm began to blare from the front of the building. I didn't know if anyone had gotten a good look at me, but I didn't want to chance it. Jogging out of the alley, I turned away from the avenue and began making distance, fastening the bandolier around myself.

Yeah. Three strikes. And every time one of those supercilious motherfuckers tries to tell me that I'm homo deprecatus or whatever and he's the Next Evolutionary Thing, I have to remind him of the golden rule.

Homo sapiens took down everybody else to become the apex predator on this planet, and not because we were bigger, badder, sharper, faster, harder or more frightening than anybody else.

We're tool users.

Just like me.

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November 22, 2007

Lost and Found in Gunflight Metaphor

The New York Magician pt. 3

The loss of the Towers has put a slight crimp on my activities in Manhattan. It's difficult to negotiate with those who live in the Heavens when one can't get as close to said Heavens. Luckily for me, Art Deco has one thing the Towers didn't.

A lightning rod on the same building as the Observation Deck.

I stood on the northeast corner of the Empire State Building and looked out over Manhattan Island at night. The air was muggy, oppressive and loaded with the sullen energy of thunderstorms licking their way across eastern Pennsylvania and up the Jersey shoreline. Off in the distance, flickers of heat lightning backed by the real thing could be seen even through the ochre haze of streetlights.

The deck was deserted. It had closed some three or four hours before. I had hidden myself in a corner, helped along by some of the talismans in the leather bandolier beneath my overcoat. The glass vial had rippled me out of sight as the guards swept through, kept the light off me as they passed, and now here I was turning the smooth angled shape over in my hands and waiting for midnight to come.

You'd think that it would be too cliched for the lightning storms to arrive at midnight, but you'd be wrong. Where do you think the cliches come from? From just this sort of situation. I sighed, once, and tried to calculate how quickly the flashes in the distance were coming closer. It looked like the western approach would make the cut, tonight; the front would push across the Island to the sea before being shoved north by the Gulf stream.

The weapon in my hands was ancient, cracked and weathered but still whole. It was perhaps eighteen inches in length, shaped unevenly but with care. I held it to my eye and sighted down its off-white edge and looked down towards the Battery. Light reflected dully off the surfaces.

An hour to go.

It had taken a year and a half, this time. Mostly dry and dusty study, to understand who it was who peered down at me from the barred and closed-in sky; research to determine whose face I was trying to make out in the clouds over midtown. Was it pity? Fear? Anger? Which? Important to know, crucial - especially if one were to unlock the bars as I knew I wanted to. Even then, I knew.

It's what I do. I find them, seek them out where they've been hidden or where they're hiding. They all come to New York, eventually; there's sin here, and grace; there's power and there's puerile anonymity. Some are curious, some hungry, others lost.

The old Gods all come to New York.

It had taken me six months and a lucky break to identify the faces looking solemnly down from the center of Manhattan. A photograph, done in high dynamic range techniques to commemorate and display the changes in the skyline, caught the face as it gazed down from a sky thick with smog and moisture, and my Talent and will made out the forms in the mists. I can Hear, and See. That's all. But that's enough, for I'm a hard bargainer.

His name is Bobbi-Bobbi, and he's Australian. Original, Aboriginal, and lives in Dream. He's a snake with features, and he was first friend to Man - he gave Mankind his first prey, the flying fox. When the foxes grew too clever and flew too high, Bobbi-Bobbi gave us our first weapon.

I turned it over in my hands again. The rib bone from his side, planed smooth; a half year of searching in Australasia, advantaged only in that I could See the fakes and the frauds. I'd found it, finally, in the hands of a man living in a stand of swamp as his ancestors had. It had taken me a month to convince him to pass it to me. His sons had gone City; but I...I could See what he could See, and he handed me the bone boomerang wrapped in handkerchief before he died of cancer.

The Desert Eagle rode under my right ribs in its holster beneath the overcoat. I'd gone to Australia with a Glock there, but he'd taught me that that was wasted economy. The gun was a desperation defense I'd only had to use twice, before I met Willant; by the time he died, he'd shown me what a fool I'd been. I'd replaced it with the heavier machine upon arriving home.

Forty-five minutes.

I stepped to the middle of the Western face of the deck and looked out at the storm, closer now, visible over New Jersey. Perhaps approaching Newark. Lightning was visible branching between the clouds and the ground. I held the boomerang up before the light and watched its surface; as the lightning flickered off in the distance behind it, the cracks in its surface glowed slightly, in sympathy, small glow-worms of purple and blue runneling between the bone surfaces for moments before grounding into the ivory.

There was a soft gong behind me. I spun around, trying to place it, and even as I shoved the boomerang into my inner coat pocket part of my brain was cataloguing it as elevator - but the doors were sliding open inside. I was caught silhouetted, not expecting the sentry to return for another hour, so I froze rather than offer movement, but too late. The doors clicked and one swung open to admit four shapes onto the deck, three of whom were decidedly bigger than I.

"Michael. What a surprise." The voice was rough but cultured. I sighed and relaxed, bringing my hands to unthreatening positions midway between my sides and my shoulders.

"Mal. How are you."

There was a brief rasping sound, followed by the red glow of a cigar. "I'm doing well, thank you, you young interloper. What have you got there, now?"


The smallest of the four shook his head and blew out a cloud of tobacco smoke. "Oh, come, Michel. In your coat, boy. In your coat."

"Just my usual, Mal." I didn't move my hands. I was trying very very hard not to sweat, but was fairly sure I was failing. The man across from me was handsome in a very rough sort of way; his face was heavily lined, as from outdoor life, but his eyes were bright and his shoulder-length hair glossy black. His fingers were adorned with silver rings, and his nails long. I could see that most of his clothes were dark leather.

Also, he was uncountable thousands of years old. Story had it that Malsumis was created, along with his twin Gluskab, from the dust left over when the Abenaki god Tabaldak created man. Gluskab thought man was a pretty cool idea and was generally a booster. Helped us out. Brought forth game, fish, crops, all that kind of thing. He and Bobbi-Bobbi would have gotten right along.

Malsumis, though - yeah. He was most definitely not on the happy and peppy list. He and I had run across each other three times in the past, as I went my way through New York - meeting, searching, gathering. Our first meeting had been a disaster, and I had barely escaped with my life. Only an idiotic amount of luck had allowed me to wriggle out of his reach, and that had only made him interested; the next time we'd met, I'd been doing my research and was upgunned to within an inch of clanking in my Burberry. I'm still not sure if he was actually wary of my hardware or just so amused at my array of charms and trinkets that he let me go for the humor value, but it had worked. The third time we'd actually had interests in common, and a truce had prevailed for the hour we'd spent in each other's company.

Now, however, he was eyeing me with an avid look which said I had something he wanted and he had three really big guys to pry it out of me. That didn't bode well for any form of cooperative venture. He sucked on his cigar again and cocked his head, looking at my coat. "That's an awfully big gun you have there, boy. You do know that can't possibly hurt me."

"I do, yes. So there's no reason you should feel offended or worried if I keep it." It was true. Mal was pretty much invulnerable to kinetic impact. He reacted almost exactly like an enormous tree if he was hit by bullets - he oozed, very slowly, but it made no difference at all for several months. By which point he'd certainly got done killing you and, most likely, dealing with the wound.

"No, no, by all means." He waved a hand negligently. "I'm much more interested in that throwing toy you have in the other pocket."

Damn. Well, at least two of the heavies had looked at each other when he mentioned the gun. They probably weren't immune.

"This? Just a toy, as you say, Mal."

"No. Won't do. Bring it out, Michel."

I sighed and reached carefully into my coat with the fingertips of my left hand (Mal nodded approvingly) and brought out Bobbi-Bobbi's boomerang, dangling it from my fingers.

"That would be it. Hand it here."

I looked at him. He looked at me. His eyes narrowed, and he threw his cigar over the railing of the observation deck. "I said," he said more quietly, "give me the bone."

"No." I said it carefully.

Malsumis made a pursed-lip motion akin to spitting, then turned his head to his left. "Kill him. Bring me the bone."

There was a moment's pause, which Mal used to step backwards twice. Then Goon One and Goon Two, at his sides, stepped forward once towards me. I cringed somewhere deep inside, prayed to the Gods of physics and practice, flipped the bone from my left hand to my right. Turning ninety degrees, I drew back my shoulder as the three Goons started to move more quickly; they were perhaps eight or nine feet away now. With my right hand I threw, hard. The boomerang sailed out into the night sky over Manhattan, vanishing into the sodium and mercury light haze. Mal's head turned to follow it, as did two of the Goons. The third was tracking me as he continued to close, but my left hand had unsnapped the holster and pulled the Desert Eagle out to meet my returning right hand. By the time the Goons were all back in motion, Goon Three (the mover) had almost reached me, and the gun was up in ready position.

There was a series of extremely loud explosions, six in all, in three pairs.

When they were done, the Goons were down on the deck in various positions. My wrists ached, there was a stink of cordite in the air, and the magazine of the Desert Eagle was in midair on the way to the deck flooring. My right hand was moving to my belt for the reload. Malsumis' face had gone hard and angry, but he hadn't moved. I finished reloading and brought the pistol to bear on his chest. He looked at it, then at me, and scowled.

"Boy, you and I both know that toy will do you no good. I'll still rip your lungs out through your ribcage, and neither of us will have the damn-"

There was a meaty THUNK as the boomerang sailed in from the night sky and hit Mal in the back of the head, pitching him forward onto the deck before dropping to the ground. I danced backwards three steps, keeping him some fifteen feet away. He roared and leapt back to his feet, pivoting around his toes in an impossible levering motion with black blood on his lips and nose. His eyes were glowing electric blue with red at their pupils. He quite clearly wanted to kill me, and considered the momentarily sting of a .44 round to be well worth the tradeoff.

I slapped my left hand once to my chest. Anchored there, in its leather bandolier, was a lumpy shape. I saw the slight ripple spread out from me as my hand touched it. Mal saw it, too, as he lunged forward, and I had time to see his eyes draw together slightly in puzzlement.

Then I extended my left hand out, fingers spread towards him, and fired the big pistol with my right.

The pin hit the first cartridge of the new magazine. Powder burned. Physics exulted, and the enormous bullet sang down the barrel, several dozen grains of steel-jacketed lead slamming out the front of the gun towards Mal's oncoming form -

But before it could reach him, the watch at my chest pulsed, once.

The kinetic energy flowed from the bullet midflight, back, back down the funnel projecting from my left hand, into my body. I felt the waters of Baba Yaga flare in their vial, changing the energy; the vial pulsing silver, the energy flew back down my right forearm, down the gun, rushed out the barrel and past the now slowed bullet and struck Malsumis as he rushed towards me.

In a circle four inches wide, that energy did one thing, and one thing only. Flavored with the water of life in Baba Yaga's bottle, touched with the Water of Death, it made him flesh; it made him alive; it made him mortal, it gave him death.

His eyes widened.

The Desert Eagle's slide cycled, and it blazed again, once, twice. Both bullets flew down the silver path of entropy and life, straight, as straight as practice and wrist exercise could hold the gun, into Malsumi's chest.

Blood, red and human, exploded out the back of his body. He jerked to a halt in midair, and then staggered backwards against the railing of the observation deck and slid to the ground. One hand went tentatively to his chest, and then he looked up at me with a peaceful expression of vast surprise. "Michel?"

I knelt in front of him, the Desert Eagle smoking. "Mal."

"What have you done?"

"You're not going to die, Mal."

"I can feel it happening, Michel...I can feel blood, in me-"

"You're a god, Malsumis. You won't die."

He forced his gaze to me. "This...this is the most..." he coughed twice, blood coming up. "...the most interesting evening I've had in years, Michel."

"Yeah." I was very, very tired. "Think about how you felt, Mal. Think about how we feel all the time. You know you're going to make it, now. But you didn't, for a moment. That's how we feel, every fucking moment of every fucking day. That's how they felt." I waved at the remains of Goons one through three.

Malsumis coughed again. "It's...just a bullet." his expression was firming.

"Yeah?" I stood. "Guess what." I holstered the Desert Eagle and gripped his coat lapels.

"Michel? What are you..." he coughed blood again. "What are you doing?"

I held him up to my face. "I don't like you, Mal. I respect you. But you don't think about how we feel. Not ever." And I dragged him over to the edge of the roof deck, hoisted him up the safety fence. His eyes widened, finally.

"What are you...you can't..."

"Sure I can." I hunched my shoulders and threw him over. He went without a sound.

I turned and sighed. I walked back across the deck and picked up Bobbi-Bobbi's boomerang, looked at my wristwatch, cheap Casio. Five minutes. There was no sound from the corpses, and no sound other than the rumble of the City. I leaned against the fence and waited.

At Midnight, the lightning came down and struck the tower. I held the boomerang up to it, and the power came; the sky ripped open, and Bobbi-Bobbi peered down. I shielded my face from the glare, and when the lightning had gone, there was a jet-black man in a thong crouched on the deck in front of me. He was holding a lethal-looking spear and had an elegant knife. I nodded to him.



He looked around, saw the corpses. He shook his head. "Death still walks among you all, down here. This is why I don't come down."

"A god brought that on them. But that's not why I'm here."

"Why are you here, Michel-who-talks-with-us?"

I held out the boomerang. "This is yours."

He took the bone weapon, surprise on his face. "And what do you want in return, trading man?"

"Nothing." I sat down, wearily. "It's yours. Take it back."

He looked at me, then sat as well. Looking over, he prodded the corpses with his spear. They rose up into the clouds, fading into the mists fifteen or twenty feet above the observation deck level. I ignored them. "This has been lost a good number of years, Michel trader man. Done much harm."

"I know."

He stood again, slapped it against his palm once then held it to his side where there was a scar. I saw a brief flash of light, and it was gone, along with the scar. He grinned at me, teeth brilliant in the gloom and angular floodlights. "Maybe we talk again, Michel trader man."

"You know where I am, Bobbi-Bobbi."

He looked me up and down, nodded. Then he turned and climbed up on the safety fence. I watched him. Before stepping off, he turned again and laughed. Reaching up, he twisted the head from his spear and tossed it to me underhand. "For you, trader man. One weapon for another. You got build your own spear for it, though; no giving you the whole thing this time."

I caught the stone shape, feeling the warmth in my hand. I looked at him and nodded my head. "I understand, Bobbi. I'll be here if you want to talk."

"Maybe, then." And he stepped off the roof.

I tucked the spearhead into my bandolier, feeling the edged power of it crackle against the watch and the vial. A grin cut across my face. Carefully, I picked up the Desert Eagle's magazine and empty shells, taking twenty minutes until I had counted all those I'd used.

Then I let myself off the roof deck and descended into the sea of New York light.

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November 19, 2007

Old Country migratory observation, with familial duty

The New York Magician pt 2

I sat in the Cafe at Grand Central, watching humanity move into Manhattan with the measured flow of blood. The corridors pulsed with marble muscles moving the rush along, New York City mainlining its fuel for the day while I crunched on ice made opaque and sweet by the remnants of cream and liqueur in the bottom of my glass.

Morning was best at the Cafe. The sunshine came through the tall windows, recently cleaned, in angled beams which struck downwards for the vast expanse of the Main Lobby's floor. People moved through the bars of light and dark, intent on errands and time, faces hidden and revealed as they pushed past. I waved my hand at the bartender, who nodded and turned her head back to the low shelves of bottles, selecting the vodka and Kahlua.

I watched as she mortared ice from the cooler, leaving it fine-grained in the glass, and poured in equal amounts of the dark and light liquors before topping it with cream and shaking it once, twice and sliding it down the bar towards me. I stopped it with a hand, gently; none spilled. She smiled, one-sidedly, and returned to cleaning glasses, watching me as I took a drink.


I was trying not to watch her, my right hand clutched around the pocketwatch in my jacket pocket. Old-fashioned, heavy and expensive, it was a Patek Phillippe that had taken me two years to save up for, and three years more to invest properly. Now it was my shield and sword, and my only hope.

Another sip. The tender's hair was the fine white of snow, her face unlined with strong features, the skin soft and unblemished, her eyes dead and cold. She had finished polishing the final glass in the row and was standing with her arms crossed, watching the commuters. I closed my eyes and tried to still my heart, drawing the warmth from the pocketwatch up my arm, the power building in my chest and surrounding my heart. I didn't know if it would be enough, but I hoped so - it was all I had.

"Excuse me, miss?" My voice was rusty, the old accent all but gone.

She turned, one eyebrow arched. I noticed the row of potted plants behind the bar, blocking the view of anyone behind it, and my voice firmed with the recognition. "Please note, I'm not asking this - but if I was to ask the bar to turn its back to the forest and let me in-"

I hadn't finished before she jerked forward, reflexively, arms arched as if to claw. I stumbled backwards, taking the stool over with me; I caught myself on the bar's edge and managed through main force not to turn away. She and I looked at each other, eyes locked, for perhaps ten seconds, perhaps a century -

- and then she turned away, shrinking, behind the bar.

I let out a breath, slowly.

When she turned back, her eyes were brilliant, twinkling. Her skin was as wrinkled as any I'd seen, her back bent, and her hair, while still white, was coarse and stringy. Her voice came out a croak. "Well met, young 'un. Well met."

"Hello, Baba."

"What now?"

"Nothing, Baba. Nothing. I didn't ask. I said-"

"Aaaaahhhh, yes. You said, if you were to ask. Clever boy."

"Yes, Baba."

She laughed for a time, an honest humor, leaning on the bar. No-one else came past; below, the commuters continued their one-way dance into the city. I took up my drink again with trembling hands, sipped, and found that all the ice was gone. The cream had curdled, into solids; I spat it back into the cup, placed it on the bar as quietly as possible, but she saw anyway and swept it into the sink. "Ah, the milk. It'll happen, grandson. It'll happen. Let me get you another."

"Baba, may I-"

She looked up, sharply. "Is that what you came for?"

"I came to ask what you would have, in return, for that mixture."

She looked at me for a moment, then sighed, reached across and chucked my chin with her fingers. They felt dry and cold, winter's sticks in summer awaiting the fire. "You'll come and speak with an old woman, boy?"

"I would, grandmother."

"Your word."

I took the watch out of my pocket and laid it on the bar, turning it to face her. "My word, Baba."

She looked into the watch, and a smile crossed her ancient face. "Ahhh. He comes through here, betimes. He would say your word is good, eh? Belike." Reaching under the counter, she brought out two bottles, one dark, one light, and mixed them in a jigger, then swiftly poured the result into a small crystal bottle which she produced from beneath the bar as well. Stoppering it with glass, she shook it once, twice; at each motion, reality shivered in ripples away from the bottle and I felt the power shake my liver and lights.

Then she handed it across the bar to me. I took it in my hands, the waters of Baba Yaga, and tucked it into my inner jacket pocket next to the Patek Phillipe. She nodded at me. "You've places to be. Come see me Thursday morning."

I'm a hard trader; I'm a user and a bastard, but I could hear the quaver of the lonely grandmother in the instruction, and that more than anything else ensured that it would be obeyed. I leaned across the bar and kissed the old woman on her dust-dry chilly cheek. "I promise, Baba."

I slid off the stool, both my talismans leaching power into my gestalt from under my jacket. Faerie fire flickered from my fingertips before I could muffle it, the power sliding out and grounding itself in the decades-old marble of Grand Central Terminal with the appearance of purple lightning. I slid my belt around, the polymers of the gun neutral even against my skin, and moved off into the flow.

The cold gaze of the white-haired fashion model watched me go.

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November 7, 2007

No Zoop For You

Original title: Universal Destructor. Written for E2.

Gravitonic bomb? Yeah. Great. Next Big Thing. Gonna Revitalize the National Laboratories. Make Weaponeering Relevant Again. Break the Nuclear Stalemate. We all heard the slogans. That cold-as-living-fuck New Mexico morning, standing out there in the desert, we all expected scenes of great devastation; the wags were setting up parabolic reflectors to light their cigars and wiggling plastic figurines of Kali in homage to Oppie] Some had started smoking pipes and wearing Hombergs for that same purpose. There were, I don't know, perhaps seventeen of us in the Core Physics Group who had some acknowledged contribution to the Widget ("It's like a gadget, but better!") and all of us were standing out there at that ungodly hour in cold-weather gear waiting for the firing time and generally clowning around in a nervous group.

All except Rafe, whose design it really was. He claimed to have had the inspiration from watching a bad episode of Star Trek while flying on homemade acid at CalTech, but nobody knew how much of that was true. What we did know was that over two billion dollars of Uncle Sam's money had been spent in a little over five years once he and his advisor had managed to get someone at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to watch their presentation.

Thirty seconds to go, announced the tower speaker. People started quieting and facing the sandy expanse out towards Pit Five where the Widget was buried. Nobody knew what, precisely, was going to happen when the thing did its thing; they just knew nobody was going to be within ten miles of it, that was for sure.

Rafe would only say with assuredness that the Widget was going to erase a certain amount of matter by forcing spontaneous creation of a certain amount of matter. What he didn't know, he said, was how much turmoil there would be at the boundary. He tended to start lapsing into torsion figures and spacetime tensors at that point, and people - even on the CPG - started glazing over. The sixteen others were there because they were the only ones the Government could find who could follow the conjectured process as far as "...and then it goes bamf...which of course means it has theta-sub-tau time before it goes zoop!" If you could prove that you knew what that meant, you were on the Core Physics Group. Even though none of us really could take the math past that point. It was that point of our mutual disunderstanding, however, which had led us to name the Widget that morning while we huddled around a couple of thermoses of coffee in the viewing room.

"So at theta-sub-tau, we get zoop, right?" That was Graff, who was wizard with the actual instigation mechanisms but fairly hopeless with the event math. He'd been christened the Widgeteer and had a badge on which had a stylized crescent wrench on it.


"...and whatever's in the region of spacetime subtended by tau-zero..."

"...goes zoop." Various members of the CPG took it in turns to answer his almost plaintive questions.

"Right. And when everything inside tau-zero zoops, it does so in a fundamentally new way, correct?"

"We hope. Theoretically, it zoops so hard it stops affecting the region gravitically."

Graff looked around, a light dawning. "Then it's zooped right out of existence. It's a Universal Destructor. Has anyone got an Acme logo sticker?" Those had been popular in the lab for a brief fad of a couple of months when someone realized how much like Wile E. Coyote one of the lab's administrative heads looked.

There was a brief silence, everyone struck by the aptness of his pronouncement, coffee cups stilled. Then a voice spoke from over by the railing, Rafe weighing in on this lese-ing of his baby. "Universal Destructor it is."

A cheer went up. The clock hit zero. There was a slight shudder in the fabric of the World some ten miles away and a klick underground. The quantum foam suffered a slight disruption; five pairs of positrons and electrons popped into existence inside the Casimir radius of the Widget during the Instigation Interval, and only four met each other half an orbit later and vanished.

The Widget sucked in the fifth positron, entangled it, and teleported it sideways some three centimeters, where it met its death nigh-on-silently inside a beryllium block. The resultant surviving electron completed an orbit of its creation point and then - smack! - hit another quantum foaming pair just as the Instigation Period ended, supercapacitors burning out with the strain. These two particles shifted paths just enough to miss each other, and smacked into two more. With the suddenness of a snow avalanche, a torrent of matter spun from nothingness into the vacuum inside the Widget, and twenty-five microseconds after the Instigation period ended, the beryllium block was shoved into the Casimir chamber by a delicately placed block of Hexium explosive and one of Graff's slapper detonators.

Mass continued to erupt into the universe as the block intruded, and there was no vacuum to receive it. The Widget vanished immediately into a glare of Teller Light as the process caused several antimatter annihilation reactions to spew various decay products at the edge of the rapidly-expanding ball of matter. The fireball at its heart grew with heartstopping suddenness to several centimeters, and then the matter fountain at its center had poured enough mass into existence that, with a bright flash of Dopplered X-rays, several hundred meters of matter in all directions vanished into the newly-created gravity field, collapsing into a minute black hole. Even before instruments could register the black hole's creation, the process outran the imagination of sixteen of the seventeen CPG scientists and climbed into Rafe Echevarria's head, and the sudden influx of mass into the unstable zero point caused the entire process to rotate smoothly out of the Einsteinian universe, leaving behind an absolute vacuum. Matter already accelerating inbound towards the now-vanished black hole's mass crashed together in a merely-fusion-hot ball, and just before a kilometer of rock vanished into a strangely-salted fusion flare, an observer in the chamber would have heard a deathly silence, penetrated by a single sound.


* * *

While the rest of us were still sleeping off the hangovers produced by the party which had been sparked by both the success of the test and the realization that we hadn't event-horizoned the planet (some of the CPG had, loudly but anonymously, worried about the possibility) Rafe had moved on to step two.

* * *

"You want to what?" The Air Force general was disbelieving but quiet, having not remained immune to the party following his project report the night before. Six months after the Widget test, the total was two billion dollars successfully spent; an entire class of weapons produced for less than the original cost of the first atomic bomb. He was expecting this to do wonderful things for his career.

"I want a dedicated Shuttle launch, general. With modifications to the tank, which will remain in orbit. I want the apparatus currently in my lab ferried up to the ISS and installed into the tank, which I want made habitable."

The General laughed heartily, then ran down when he saw Rafe wasn't smiling. "Son, go have coffee."

Rafe sighed. "General Flynn, I'm not kidding. I want this done, and I want it done as soon as humanly possible. It's not negotiable."

"What the hell are you on about?"

"I'd hate this to be confrontational."

The Air Force officer was rapidly losing his good mood; his hangover and his rising irritation combined to produce an instant pulsing headache which fueled his well-practiced junior-officer-flaying thunder. "God DAMN IT, boy, you've been coddled because you're important to-"

"General, shut up." The interruption was so unexpected that it actually had the desired effect. Rafe smiled, once, thinly, at the puce man sitting behind the desk. "I'm sorry, General, I really don't have any desire to anger you. Please, just hear me out."

The other sat down slowly, rage fading to a sort of fascinated fury.

Rafe nodded. "Thanks. Look, I'm sorry. I just need this mission. I made sure you need me to get it. I'm not trying to threaten you, General. I just want you to understand that the entire math sequence for the Instigation Event which you have in your cores is incomplete as well as wrong. In other words, no more Widgets unless I get what I want."

"Your colleagues-"

"-could probably manage an instigation event, yes. But they certainly couldn't manage to produce the continuum rotation mathematics, as you well know, and that would mean you'd get a Universal Destructor you couldn't stop Destructing. Not very useful, is it?"

"Damn it, I'll have you-"

"Oh, be serious, General. A single shuttle mission. A tank you're going to fly up there anyway. My gear will fit into any one of four of the remaining ISS construction missions with room and mass to spare; I and two assistants on the ISS would handle all manpower for refurbishing the tank and installing it. That's all."

"What do I get out of this craziness?"

"What, other than a working weapon?"


"Well, yes, but you weren't offering to sell what I needed."

The general deflated slightly. "It's not going to be that easy."

It wasn't, of course. But the general did have friends in high places.

* * *

...six, go for main engine start, three, two one, |SRB ignition, zero, LIFTOFF-"

The Space Shuttle Endeavour lifted for the ISS carrying Rafe Echevarria, Thomas Graff, and a junior research assistant named Ellen Gennary who had far outscored everyone else on the CPG or their immediate staff on a combined metric of CPG physics and zero-gee dexterity. Graff was wearing his C-wrench button on the outside of his spacesuit and an awed shit-eating grin on his middle-aged face. Gennary had a look of absolute completion on her slight features and was clutching, hidden inside her left gauntlet, a small square of cloth against her palm. It contained the emblem of the United Federation of Planets.

The professional Astronauts were frozenly proper to the three interlopers at first. That lasted until Graff fixed the zero-gee toilet for the third time, each time fixing it to correct design flaws. Gennary had rewired a redundant systems monitor into a functional equivalent of a TiVo which was BitTorrenting Battlestar Galactica and Lost episodes onto storage space the ISS had intended to store trash and sewage management records, and Echevarria had recalculated the algorithm governing the reaction control wheels to extend the time required between Angular Momentum Dump thruster burns by over 250%. At that point, the Russian cosmonaut currently in residence admitted to a stash of truffle chocolate, the American 'found' his bottle of Kentucky bourbon, and Graff made himself more popular by sniffing it and spending twenty-three hours producing a completely functional and completely invisible still embedded within the ISS' life support plumbing which produced pure grain ethanol. Rafe surprised them all by figuring out precisely how to crack the abominable barbecue sauce in the NASA ration packs using a vacuum distillation process to extract the smoke flavoring, which, when combined with a bit of tweaked sugars, produced a fairly interesting bourbon analogue.

By the second week, the five of them were nearly family.

The third week, Graff went outside to take off the little paired grinding bots that he'd attached to the Shuttle External Tank which was floating down-orbit from them a few hundred meters. The little bots had spiraled their way up the tank, powered by the sun, keeping their place on its surface by a hoop-shaped tether joining them on opposite sides of the structure as they toiled. According to a complex plan of Rafe's, they burred the ablative shielding off the tank in a fairly intricate geometric pattern, studded with a few bare spots. When that was done, ignoring the muttering of the permanent 'naut community about pollution of the local vacuum, the three CPG team members went out and drilled holes through several of the bare spots, culminating with a two-day procedure cutting a large square hatch into the base of the tank at a precise spot. Affixing hinges to the aluminum, they sealed it messily with quickset gasket, hauled Rafe's gear inside module by module, and shut the door.

Several days passed, with solar panels popping up onto the tank and a slight stream of gaseous ejecta showing that CO2 scrubbers had gotten into operation inside the tank. The permanent crew astronauts had several running bets on what the hell was going on and how; when Graff came over one orbit to borrow a flex coupling, mumbling bitchily about broken internal plumbing on the reactant vessels, they nodded sagely to each other and the American passed the Russian a sawbuck. The CPG was using the leftover H2 and O2 in the tank for water, oxygen and power.

Over the next week, broken only by the ferrying of meal packs into the tank by Ellen and Graff, the tank slowly accumulated several mysterious painted labels, a few communications dishes, what appeared to be salvaged Apollo-design attitude control thrusters and several camera blisters, along with a large sloppily painted logo with an arrow pointing to the base of the Tank reading THIS END UP. When the tank blipped ice crystals and steam and rotated wobbily in place, more nods and a fin passed back the other way indicated another wager settled. That night, all three CPG came over for dinner.

"Gentlement, thank you so much for all your help." Rafe was expansive, for him; they hadn't really heard him say much. Graff was busily negotiating with the Russian sotto voce for the past week's output from the still.

Commander Remington, the U.S. Navy astronaut, toasted the three of them with a squeezebox of ethanOJ. "You're welcome, Rafe. Gotta admit, you guys pulled your weight up here. Atlantis will be here in two days. You guys ready to hit gravity again?"

There were furtive looks. "Well, yes. It's getting a little uncomfortable in the Tank; we're not set up to spin it, and although it's pretty organized, we'd all like to feel Down beneath our feet again." Rafe took another sip of his own Bourboff (as Dmitri called the smoke flavored distillate).

They ended the party with gifts; the Astronauts handed over mission patches, signifying their acceptance of the amateurs as actual spacehands. The CPG team handed over wrench badges. Then the CPG crew headed back to the Tank to bunk down.

* * *

"Uh, sir?"

General Flynn was not accustomed to being awakened in person by his subordinates. Not in his bedroom at home. Not, in fact, since those lunatics from the CPG had left his project - and it had cost him in terms of favors for that! - had he in fact suffered a day that did not hew to schedule.

"Umf. What?" He rolled over. Grimacing, he put a finger to his lips, got out of bed and followed his aide de camp into the next room so as to avoid waking his wife.

"What the hell is it, man?"

"Uh, sir, you're wanted on the phone, pronto."

"Do we have any kind of alert?"

"No sir. They, um, just want you on the phone."

By the time the general got to his office and onto the scrambler, he was most upset to find the remaining fifteen members of the CPG clustered outside it, looking as if they, too had been rudely awakened. Unlike him, however, they looked more excited than unnerved or surprised, and that made him extremely nervous. He considered collaring them right here and having his security beat answers out of a few of them, but before this admittedly lovely fantasy could be implemented, the ADC stuck his head out the office door. "Sir, the link is up."

The general swept into his office and brought up the videowall. A scene of orderly chaos filled it, apparently the Blue Room at NASA's Johnson Space Center. A gaggle of military uniforms were outnumbered by the rolled-up sleeves and crumpled ties that seemed to serve as NASA admin uniforms, taken from 1960s Apollo newsreels. A NASA bigwig swung to face the vidwall as Flynn sat.

"There you are, Flynn. What the flying hell are these idiots up to?"

"What idiots, sir?" Flynn's stomach sank. He knew what was coming.

"Those idiots you paid for a taxi ride to the ISS for out of your project budget!" the NASA administrator snarled. "LOOK!" He swung the camera to point at the display wall and pointed.

The ISS was visible, icon blinking steadily in its assigned orbit. A window graphic next to it showed the ISS floating serenely against a backdrop of stars. The scene was so normal that it took a second for it to sink in. "Where's the Tank?"

One of the other Air Force general officers broke in. "That's the problem, Flynn. We don't know. We thought you might. Did the young idiots vaporize themselves?"

"Well, unlikely, sir, or the ISS would..." Flynn trailed off, thinking. One of the NASA men filled in the pause.

"The ISS crew was asleep. They swear they woke up and the Tank was gone. Poof, not there. Whatever happened, it didn't wake them up, and the Tank was only two hundred meters down-orbit from them."

"Do we have video?"

"No." One of the controllers behind the group visibly hunched down at the words. "Somehow, we have several stored hours of Battlestar Galactica sitting in our environmental video log files. Believe me, we've taken that up with them."

At that moment, another phone rang. It was on Flynn's desk, and he had always - up to now - been amused by the fact that it was red.

He picked it up, dread making his fingers icy. "Flynn."

The voice was calm with the precision of both training and the assurance that its owner is going through an unscheduled drill. "Sir, this is SPACECOM Colorado Springs. We have an unidentified target outbound from Earth orbit, approximate starting position colocated with the ISS."

Flynn waved frantically at the screen. One of his colleagues noticed him holding the phone, paled, grabbed his own phone and started punching buttons. A few moments later, he nodded and put the phone down. Everyone on the NASA end was staring at it. Flynn hit his own speakerphone button and told his ADC "Get everyone in the corridor in here right now."

As the Lieutenant hurried to comply, he turned back to the red deskset. "SPACECOM, Flynn. Target size?"

"Sir, target size matches that of an STS External Tank almost precisely."

"Target velocity?"

There was a silence. Flynn frowned. "SPACECOM?"

"Sir, target is accelerating. Current velocity is...is..."


"Sir, it appears to be seven point seven three kilometers per second, and increasing."

There was a deep, ringing silence. Then a massive cheer broke out, startling everyone on both ends of the videolink; Flynn looked up to see fifteen pajama-clad members of the CPG capering around the office. One of them actually produced a champagne bottle from under his bathrobe and another produced a pair of champagne flutes from...somewhere in her intimates. Flynn looked away quickly but reached out and grabbed the nearest one by the scruff of the neck, dragging him into range of the vidwall camera. "WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?"

The noise quieted. When Flynn loosened his grip, the young man stopped making choking noises, looked at him reproachfully, accepted a wild smooch from the girl who'd produced the glassware from her panties and took on a professorial air (not a bad trick for someone in a set of cowboy pajamas, Flynn thought numbly). "It's Rafe, Ellen and Graff, obviously, General."

"But HOW?"

"Oh! That was Graff's idea, actually," said the young man. "His and Ellen's. That's why they got to go, the lucky bastards." Another cheer.

Flynn controlled the urge to throttle him. "How. Are. They. Boosting? They don't have the Isp to manage anything like that kind of delta-V, even if the tanks were full - they just don't have the hardware!"

A voice broke in from NASA. "They're up to..." there was a swallowing noise "...eighteen point six kips, now."

The CPG scientist, one arm around the girl (who was mostly in panties, Flynn noted) schnozzled warm champagne. "Oh! They're using the Universal Destructor."

"The what?"

"The Widget! See, Rafe was all worried that we'd end up wiping out the planet in an uncontrolled cascade, originally. Once he beat that, mathwise, he relaxed, but then Ellen and Graff explained what that meant. It took him six months to work out the math for this part, and it took Graff to work out a bunch of the hardware, but, well, see, they've got the Constructor engineered down into a controllable system, not just a bomb."

"What does that have to do..."

The other waved impatiently. "Don't you see? He started the Instigation Event, but managed to make it not zoop!"

Flynn looked murderous.

"The matter cascade is rotating out just slightly out of phase! There's a black hole appearing in front of the Tank, and the tank is moving towards it - gravity, duh - and then it's rotating out when the tank gets slightly closer, and a new one is cascading just further out from it. It's a spacetime tank track. The key is that it's a Universal Destructor - as you fall towards the mass point, you can actually destroy it - remove it from the equation - so that it doesn't just pull you back as you go past it. So long as the widget keeps operating, there's a black hole in front of the Tank trying to pull it in, and it's going to keep accelerating."

There was a vast silence.

"But..." the voice was one of the NASA contingent. "Why didn't they tell us? Where's he GOING?"

"Oh, I dunno. I think he was mumbling about wanting to see what happened if he let the Tank get within Tau-zero, if it would actually stably wormhole out-"

"But WHY?"

Flynn knuckled his forehead, and answered. "Because we wouldn't let him drive. He's just going to cruise around the neighborhood for a bit, before he brings back the car." He looked up at the NASA crew. "We just have to pray he doesn't total it. And next time, when he asks us for a favor, remember to say yes, okay?"

This story is dedicated to Ed. Keep on rocking free of the world, Ed.

Posted by jbz at 2:02 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 6, 2007

Weak and desperate from decades of commuting the djinn would barter all for coffee and a friendly ear

I stay in New York to bargain for power.

My gran'mere taught me to negotiate for smalls and ways in the unlit parts of the city; she taught me that there were things that lived in New York, that were New York, who could be treated with and flattered or threatened or spoken to over a cup of chocolate or a mug of beer.

I was seven when she knew.

" Police car! Police car!"

"Hush, Michael. No police, see? No police."

"But they're driving! I hear them!" It was true; the siren was laying two-toned brushstrokes of warning down an avenue unseen one block over. Gran'mere looked sharply down at me, my little smooth hand in her small wrinkled one there on Eleventh street on the way to the market.

"You hear them driving, Michel?" When she had something important to tell me, my name changed. The Old World intonation shifted it from something cheap and coarse, borrowed unimaginatively from a shoddy cardboard bible, into something mysterious that spoke of dew-lined trees and forests ancient with tales.

"Yes, Gran'mere. I do, I do! Can't you?"

"I hear it, Michel. But listen, now, that is not police."

"Is it firemen, Gran'mere?"

She looked down at me, and turned uptown on Hudson towards the playground to sit on a bench and pull me onto it beside her. "No, Michel. That is not the firemen. Can you still hear it?"

I listened. The sound was barely audible, moving downtown, before it suddenly stopped. "It stopped, Gran'mere."

"Yes. It is not firemen, nor is it an ambulance."

"Then what is it, Gran'mere?"

"Do you see anyone around us looking for the sound?"

"No, Gran. But unless it is close, no one ever does."

She laughed, once, softly. "That is true. It is true. New York, the city of the unconcerned. Listen to me, Michel." She patted my arm, and her unexpected tenderness was frightening to a child used to cold distance, if affectionate remove. "You can hear the djinn. You must know what he is."


"Yes, mon cher, he. He is the djinn. Have you heard of the djinn?"

"No, Gran."

"Ah, if you lived in France, you would have, at your age. No. He is a creature of vast age and power, the djinn; he is magic, magic itself. He comes from Araby, long ago. He came to Paris in the time of Napoleon, and when Armistice came after the trenches he came to America with the soldiers."

"He is a magic man?"

"No, cher, he is not a man. He is magic, but not a man. He is a creature of the desert and of the wind. Have you heard of genies and lamps? That is America's poor understanding of the djinn. He would lift up beggars into riches and cast down kings for his sport and fun; torment brave men and rescue cowards to balance sufferings in favored villages, or play great games of pretend and cause great confusion over whole lands, at which he would roar with laughter."

I stared at her, transfixed. "He is here? In New York?"

"Yes, cher. He is. He has been here since the Armistice; but he made a terrible error, and he cannot leave."

"Why not, Gran?"

She waited a moment, looking into my eyes. "Michel, I tell you this because very few people can hear the djinn. If you can hear him, that means you will be able to see him, and to speak with him; and if you can speak with him, you can ask him for things, do him favors. You will be able to see other things most people cannot. But-" and her hand tightened sharply on my arm- "you must understand what it will mean. If I tell you the rest of this story, you will have to let me tell you many things, teach you what you can and cannot do." She sat back, relaxing. "You are young, but already so old here in this world, I don't know if you will understand me."

I gulped. "Gran'mere, I want to hear about the djinn. Why does he make that sound like the police?"

She looked into my eyes, one after the other. "You will listen to me when I teach you?"

"I will, Gran'mere."

A rare smile. "You're a good boy, Michel. Bien, I will tell you. Listen. The djinn came to New York, and he did not understand how very many people there are, here in New York. You see, the djinn's powers, he can only use them in certain ways."

"What ways, Gran'mere?"

The question seemed to please her. Her eyes sparkled and she patted my arm again. "The djinn has no body, Michel. He is wind and darkness and light. He is a shape, no more. In order to speak, he must live inside a person; he must live within their body. Do you understand?"

I sat up, shocked. "He is demon?"

"Yes! Yes, a special demon. He must possess a person to exist and use his power. That is why the stories say you must rub a lamp to see a genie - the djinn can be confined in a vessel or container, but when you touch it, he will possess you. What he wishes you to see, you will see, for he can touch your eyes from the inside, non? And once he is inside you, he can use your body to perform his magic, to grant you wishes as the happy stories go."

"Would he really grant wishes?"

"Ah, that depends. You see, the problem is that the djinn is usually in a container because he has been imprisoned there. If he is grateful for his release, he will perform magic for you before moving on; if he is angry, he will perform a curse before doing so."

"But why do all the stories say he grants wishes?"

"Ah, well, some stories say the wishes are ones that make the wisher regret them later. You see, the djinn dare not hurt you directly, for he is actually inside your body, do you see? If you were to die, or be harmed, it would not hurt him - but in these stories, the lamp is usually hidden somewhere very remote, and if he were to kill you, he would just likely be pulled back into the prison container when your body failed. What would be the point?"

"How does he escape, then?"

That earned me another pat. "You see, a djinn moves from person to person when the person he is in touches another. He cannot help it; he is pulled into the new person. But he is a helpless passenger, unless he can capture the mind of the person he is inside and so take control of them. Once he has done so, he need no longer transfer from person to person upon touch, and he is then 'free' so long as he keeps his body healthy."

I thought about this. "Gran, what happens to the person whose body he is using?"

She smiled sadly. "That person is sleeping, until the djinn leaves. Sometimes for years. If it is that long, when the djinn leaves, they almost always go mad - or those around them usually think them mad, for they remember nothing of the years since they were pushed aside. Sometimes they never return, and the djinn remains until their body dies."

"Why would a djinn not do this all the time?"

"Why, because the longer a djinn stays in a body, the more human it becomes, and the harder it becomes to do magic. Most leave after no more than a few months, before the majority of their powers desert them. When the djinn leaves, their powers return."

"Why is the djinn I hear making that noise? You haven't told me."

"Why, so I haven't. He has been here for many years, you know, cher. And the problem is that in order to capture the mind of a person, that person needs to be quiet for many hours - in sum, they need to go to sleep, really. Do you see the problem, yet?"

I thought about it. "No, Gran." I looked down. "I'm sorry."

She laughed. "Of course not, cher. You have grown here, and it is your home. It is not strange to you." She stood up and waved around us at the avenue, the people rushing back and forth. "You see, from the moment he got off the ship, he has moved from person to person by touch. No New Yorker ever can avoid touching others for an entire day; or, at least, no New Yorker ever has gone from the time the djinn has found him to his bed without touching another - and those that have been touched just before retiring have not slept long enough, or slept alone. The djinn has wandered the streets these long years, moving from person to person, never sleeping, never able to direct his movements."

"But why do the people he posesses not see what he wishes them to see, or accept his wishes?"

"Ah, because those that do are thought mad. He is weak, you see; he has been shuffled from person to person so quickly that his power is confused. He dares not even speak to most he touches, for fear they will become afraid and harm themselves - and those he tries to touch will usually immediately seek help, and be touched."

"It sounds so lonely."

"That, mon cher, is why he howls. It is that which you hear. Sometimes when he is riding the trains, or in buses, he will howl his sadness- and I am not sure if the police sirens were made to sound like him because someone heard him once long ago, or if he has come to imitate them."

"How do you know all this, gran'mere?"

"Ah, I have spoken to him several times."

"You have?"

"Yes. If you know how, you can see him when he lives within someone. If you touch that person, he will be pulled into you. If you can see and hear him, you can speak with him."

"But will he not hurt you?"

"He might. But cher, think of it. He is so very lonely. If you can keep yourself from being touched, and so long as you are not unwary enough to fall asleep, why, he cannot harm you if you do not make any foolish wishes. And he is often so very desperate to talk to someone, even if only for a few minutes. He is usually quite grateful for the chat, and his happiness allows the return of some of his power - which he has used to offer me favors, betimes."

"So if I were to find him-"

"Yes. You may be able to ask him favors."

"Oh." I thought about this for a time. "What should I ask him?"

"Oh, that is up to you. We will talk about what is appropriate. But he is so powerful, that his gifts are best used to help you in your dealings with the others who are New York."

"There are others?"

"Oh, yes. Ever so many others."

"Who? What others, Gran'mere? Can I see them too?"

"We will see, Michel. Come, we still have to go to the market. When we are home, we will try some small things, to see what you can see."

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June 19, 2007

Sun and sea

Cerulean blue, the ocean snapped its whitened caps thoughtfully to itself and paid no attention to the mites that crawled upon it. Ignoring them was a habit of thousands of years. While above- "Haul in the topgallants, you slankin' vermin! Faster! Faster or the Lieutenant'll have yer fuckin' guts fer garters, an' that don't make a biscuit what the Cap'n do if he sees this shit-!"

The frigate was small, compared to the monsters this water had seen. It had played beneath the great leviathans; it had laughed its way through the dissolution of the indisposed giants both famous and unknown. This one, though, still spun and danced atop the swells while reaching out to catch the wind.

"Still gaining, sir. Estimating seven klicks. She's fast, damned fast, but we'll get her before nightfall." The first officer saluted.

"Thank you, Mister Fowler. Tell the Master I want another three knots or I'll know the reason why. That foremast shows no sign of strain." "Aye aye, sir." The other turned away, shouting as he ran into the orderly crowd of men dashing about the deck while the Captain held a hand magnifier up to his right eye. In its monocular ring, a white-painted vessel wavered in the middle distance with its stern turned towards him and a wake creaming out from under its stern that indicated it was making speed. He could make out men bustling about on her deck, two or three at the stern lookin back. He felt his teeth bare themselves in a grin. A stern chase. And she's not looking very handy, while I have the gage.

"Fall off a point you 'orrible slackwit barstid, Jenkins, or I'll-" the shouts were background, comforting, routine. The frigate HMS Sword Breaker was on the hunt. Captain Phineas St. James, Commander RN, glanced at his pocketwatch, consulted the darkening horizon, and grinned again. His first officer returned to the bow where he stood watch.

"What do you think they'll do, sir?" Lt. Fowler stood quietly by him. The captain extended the monocular and Jenkins took it, examined the target.

"Why d'you think they run, Will?"

"Sir? Because we're the RN, sir."

St. James snorted. "Possibly, boy, but this is the Somali coast. These buggers have been taking ships far larger than us for a long time out here. The whole of the US Navy couldn't make 'em keep their heads down, no - and that crock up there's a sight bigger'n we are and an anvil as well."

"We're too far from the coast to make any anchorage before nightfall," mused the First. Seeing his brain ticking over, the Captain grunted and reclaimed the magnifier. The other continued. "You suspect a rendezvous, sir?"

"I bloody well do. The weather chaps say all's going to be just fine for another day or more in these parts, so they can't be hoping to lose us in muck; no landmasses ahead. No, I estimate they'll try to give us a surprise sometime just around true dusk when it gets really blurry out there. Tell the lads to stand to defense quarters in ten minutes."

"Aye, sir."

Another few minutes passed; another hundred meters of gap fell to Sword Breaker's rushing keel. Underneath her knife-sharp bow, combers rose to either side as she rushed on, her figurehead brandishing a serrated knife threateningly at the horizon.


"Aye sir! You heard the man, boys, close up now, pull in the gallants-" St. James kept his monocular focused on the other ship, now only three or four kilometers away, which had suddenly swelled in his flickering greenish vision as it slewed to the side. The ungraceful lines of a medium patrol craft were revealed, with a few crew-served swivel guns bolted to the rails but no other armament - ah, there it was. Bollixed on between the forecastle and midships deckhouse, with a limited arc of fire; hence the sudden turn to clear the broadside. He raised his voice again.

"ACTIVE ACTIVE ACTIVE-" and several things happened at once. In his right eye he saw intolerable brightness for a moment and then a general greenish glare as the monocular stepped down to save his vision; with his opening left eye he saw a white and orange flower erupt from the other vessel. The missile jumped off the rails and appeared to slow to a halt; dangerous illusion, he knew, caused by it arcing over to fly directly at them.

"DOWN, BOYS-" came a voice from behind him, and he whipped the monocular away from his face and closed his eyes, turning his head. There was a soundless flash of such enormity he could almost hear it as a thunderclap, burning through his eyelids with force enough that the ship surely must be afire, but when he opened them-

-when he opened them to the sound of snarling thunder, there was a saffron firework in midair between them and their quarry, sparks fading hissing and tumbling down into the darkening waters. A cheer went up from the decks, to be cut off savagely by snarled orders. St. James heard the creaking of reinforced wood as the ship heeled slightly, regaining her tack, and the speed slowly came back up.

"Well timed, sir." Lt. Fowler stood behind him, looking composed if a bit pale. St. James nodded gruffly.

"Good man. No sweating before the lads."

"Not at all sir. I'll just piss my pants facing you, thanks very much."

The Captain snorted again with laughter and turned. The quarry was trying to wallow back onto course, but it wasn't moving quickly enough to regain its heading. They were closing to within a kilometer. "Prepare to go active, Will."

"We're not boarding, sir?"

"Not this one. She's a little fish, for an anvil, and I want her associate - not her. We haven't the time. Damned pirates."

"Aye aye." The Lieutenant turned away; shouted orders. A red flare rose from midships, and a voice began to bellow on a loudhailer in Somali. If his orders were being followed, the signal was being relayed as well, telling the other ship to abandon now as the vessel was about to be engaged.

There was a few moments pause, and then St. James saw the forms of men come boiling over the side of the battered trawler - for trawler it was, he saw now. They took to the sea, some tossing rafts overboard, and he shook his head grimly. Sword Breaker altered course to port several points to pass by the other vessel; by the time they were well past, the sea immediately around it was clear.

"Mister Fowler! You may fire when ready!"

"Aye sir! Deck battery, COMMENCE FIRE!"

There was a monstrous crack and a hiss, as a rod of energy leapt from a square plate emitter halfway up the mainmast. The other ship's hull exploded outward in a ball of superheated steel vapor and oxidized aluminum dust, drowning out the cheers of the crew. The bow and stern sections, now untroubled by any connection, rolled in opposite directions and sank from sight.

"Very good, Mister Fowler. You may tell the Master and the tracking party I want a medium sweep. There's a rat around here somewhere."

* * *

There was, of course. Fowler hadn't yet seen the captain mistaken. The rat, however, was moving fairly quickly, and turned out (when intercepted early the next morning) to be a nastily familiar sight.

"Sir, that's a Krivak."

"Yes; yes, I should think so."

"Sir, her arms-"

"Lad, even if her arms are in order - which I doubt, you never saw the neglect the damned Sovs could design into a ship much less heap on her themselves - then she is crewed by rank amateurs. We will close, and if necessary, board and take her."

"Aye sir!" Fowler was slightly flushed and staring at the horizon, spine stiff in embarrassment. St. James relented slightly.

"Look, Mister Fowler, what are the odds she's had decent resupply enough to keep her arms in order? That's a Krivak III, you can tell by the helo hangar on the back. If they've got a working helo, they're just going to lose it; and to put that on they got rid of the main SSM system."

"Four guns, sir, autoloaders..."

"That's true. But how much ammunition? I'm betting that ship made its way here from the Indian Fleet when it all went smash, and even if it came with full magazines, 76mm naval shells aren't standard kit for any of the ground johnnies they have running around here. They'd have to have resupply."

"Then, sir, what do you propose?"

"Well, young Fowler, what would you do?"

The Lieutenant looked at his Captain. "Sir, I would maneuver to determine their armament; if they offer no long-range gunnery, I should attempt to close and disable their deck weapons systems with beam fire."

"And then?"

"If successful, sir, I would propose to close on her from astern and board her."

"Very good, lad. Go to it."

The First mate, looking startled, neverthless turned and ripped out a series of orders. Men saluted, answered back, and began running about the deck, reefing in sail and closing hatches. Sword Breaker heeled into a turn towards the Krivak which was insolently loafing some fifteen klicks off, visible from the cupola.

"They have to see us."

"Don't be so sure. You're assuming that the radar on that tub is working, and that they're keeping watch, and..."

"I'd rather assume that than the other, sir."

"You've learnt."

"Yes, sir."

At five kilometers, the Krivak's stacks suddenly emitted a puff of smoke, visible clearly. The Lieutenant swore. "Look at them, the bastards. Turbine fuel. They could be cooking with that, or making electricity, or using it for plastics production or pharmaceuticals, but no - they're pushing that damn anvil through the water."

"They haven't all got our advantages, Mister Fowler."

"No sir. But they do have a few oil wells somewhere."

"Either that, or some old hijacked tankers that aren't licking dry yet."

"I suppose. Here we go, sir."


The First Mate turned. "Hoist the colors higher! Let's have a tune, boys! ARM FOR BOARDING! CLOSE UP THE GUN CREWS!"


Strains of bagpipe music began to skirl across the deck. Some cheering arose. There was the clatter of ironmongery and the constant thrumming of feet above them on the spars; the spray blew across the bowsprit, dusting them both.

"God save the King, sir. Sun and sea."

"Sun and sea, Mister Fowler."

At that moment, an enormous waterspout appeared next to the Krivak. It staggered visibly, and heeled into a vicious starboard turn. The two officers looked at each other. "We didn't-" began the Lieutenant.

"Sir! Tracking reports new target at zero-three-three, distance fourteen klicks! Target reads cork, sir, repeat target is a cork, colors unknown, we're getting no response!"

There was another waterspout, this time almost directly in the Krivak's path. The Russian-built frigate shuddered and reversed turn. A faint pop-pop-pop-pop reached their ears. Fowler reacted first. "MASTER JONATHAN! CLEAR FOR AIR DEFENSE! CLEAR FOR AIR DEFENSE! ENGAGE ALL OUTBOUND!"

"Aye aye sir!"

Sun and sea.

There came a series of sequential sizzleCRACKs from above and behind them, smaller than the previous night. Energy absorbed from the acres of solar active sails during daylight was squeezed into too small a place and thrust upon hydrogen extracted from the sea. The resultant fusion was net positive, barely, but most importantly the plasma passed through the emitter lenses in microsecond fury. Needles of glare lanced out from the ulmaser head, fanning upward one-two-three-four-five. With each stab, a tiny point of light bloomed in the air above and past the Krivak, 76mm shells caught by the ravening beams and detonated; the last one blew just past the fore starboard turret's barrel. There was no more fire; the Krivak attempted to reverse turn again. A red flare rose in the distance, generally at thirty-three degrees from the bow.

Another two waterspouts rose, bracketing the Krivak, and then a dirty orange flare blew out from her sidewall. Another engulfed her stern. She slid to a stop, burning; the Sword Breaker closed on her as the Captain and First Mate focused their magnifiers on the sloop approaching from the other side of the target, two guns run out to each side of its' bow.

"Sir," said Fowler hesitantly, "Sir, that flag-" "Sirs, what ship is that?"

St. James gestured to Fowler, who turned to face the now-attentive deck and folded his hands behind him. "Men, it appears to be a man of war of the United States Navy."

There was a moment of disbelieving silence, and then a roar rose, lifting the spars and sails with its sound. Fowler turned back to St. James' side. "Sir, do you really think it's the Americans?"

"Certainly looks like them, lad."

"I've seen the Maryland coast, sir. Nothing. Nothing at all."

"I've seen a great deal of their coast, and there's nothing that would suggest this, no. But you know, son, a right bastard once said that the Americans would always do the right thing - once they'd tried everything else."

The two tall ships danced prettily into rendezvous, ignoring the sinking metal hulk. Wood gleamed under brightly polished brasswork; the ulmaser heads of the Royal Navy vessel were reflected in the four 5"/54 caliber guns on the gun deck of the other ship, whose stern bore the inscription U.S.S. Enterprise.

"Good Gods. Those cheeky bastards."

"They're putting a boat out, sir."

So they were. The boat rowed across, and by the time it reached the Sword Breaker's side a party was formed up at the ladder. Lt. Fowler saluted as the two men in a sharp khaki uniform saluted him and then the ship's colors. St. James nodded approvingly as the visitors approached. Fowler made the introductions.

"Captain St. James, this is Captain Alderson of the Enterprise and his Second officer, Lieutenant Brown."

They all shook hands. Alderson grinned. "Damn glad to see you, sir."

"And us, you, Captain. It...has been a while."

"We've been a bit busy, sir. We're sorry."

"Don't be, Captain. May I ask-"

"We lost the coastal cities, Captain. But America has never been just the coasts; nor has she ever been just the cities. Infrastructure - well, it's not in great shape, but we're moving things again under Federal seal. The Interstates are back up in the interior."

"And your ship?"

"There's a long tradition around the name, Captain St. James, and coasts infested by pirates."

"Of course. We're delighted to see you out here once again, Captain. May I ask if you would sail in company with us for a time? There's so much to do, still; but the task has somehow become easier on my mind."

"We'd be delighted, sir. We have word that there's at least two more burners in the vicinity."


"Ah, sorry. Petro-engined vessels, sir. Ex-Indian and China Sea nation navy vessels, the both of them; one of them looks to be a Chinese destroyer, I believe. Their arms are in relatively good order, for the region."

Fowler looked shocked. St. James merely nodded. "Then we shall have to sharpen our swords, Captain Alderson. I seem to be fresh out of turbines myself."

"As are we, sir. But I'm not a cowboy, you see. I'm a policeman."

St. James looked slightly puzzled. "Captain?"

The other nodded at his aide, who raised a small radio to his lips and murmured into it. The American captain returned his gaze to St. James. "It is traditional in my country for the cowboys, especially the good guys, to mount up and ride into the heart of bandit country, trusting in their purity of heart and their speed with a gun to save them."

"I've seen the movies, captain."

"Sir! Sir, there's something...tracking says...SHIT-"

With a sound quite like that of God deciding to pull his bathtub drain, a large shape slid upwards out of the water between the two sailing ships. It was longer than either of them, lethal, and black. St. James looked at it in frank amazement and, he was ashamed to note, a bit of envy. "That can't be-"

"Gentlemen, the U.S.S. Boston. She's in fine shape for a lady her age, and I thought this would be right up her alley."

"What was that you said, captain, about a policeman?"

"Oh yes. You see, while a cowboy will bring his sixgun-" the American pointed at the weapons protruding from the sloop across the water - "and his rifle," he waved at the ulmaser emitters above them, "the policeman won't go anywhere without a hideaway." And with that, he raised his arm and waved vigorously at the submarine's bridge. A moment later, a siren sounded back, a hungry, keening note.

Some time later, the two sailing ships billowed their panels of spun silicate fibers into the air and moved off with killers' grace, trailed behind by an assassin gone old and faithful. They moved south, prows questing, and hard men quivered to see them come.

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June 3, 2007

Comsat Angels

This was written to fill a nodeshell on E2 which I'd created; originally, I created it as a placeholder for an eventual node about the band The Comsat Angels (who, if you don't remember them, were all over the soundtrack to Real Genius). Then E2 started a Quest for SciFi nodes, and the title called to me.

If you get a sailor drunk enough, one who has done his duty in the comm shack on dark and stormy nights, you'll hear him talk about them. He'll do so only after looking over his left shoulder, tossing back a tumbler of the hard stuff, and even then only in whispers, and he'll deny it the next day. Pilots, too; men experienced with the Victor Airways and the darkened passages between the clouds and the hard cold earth, who have put in their time looking out over burning instruments into the awesome dark of nature's fury or, worse, her sheer uncaring blankness.

The stories persist.

Sometimes it's a voice; sometimes a system mysteriously coming online, NAVCOMM waking up midflight. Sometimes a positional indicator will draw itself in glowing luminescent lines across the moving map, and a man or woman out at the mercy of the winds and water would do well to follow when it beckons. Lives have been saved by the airy breaths of phantom that drift down from above.

Once, they might have been called St. Elmo's Fire; lights dancing around the rigging to show sailors the way to safety - or to doom. Now they live inside computers and radios, moving ships and airplanes and dirigibles desperate (or not desperate enough) across the map, chess pieces of superstition and oncoming disaster.

I had heard of them from old-timers in bars, after that fateful last drink, before you pack it in and head home. I'd never seen one.

Not until Day Twenty-Six.

We were running shutdown checklists, the three of us, before an all-too-brief rest. Seema was reading off values from the lifesystem to Ground; I was putting the attitude control and RCS to bed, and Devon was checking over the last ten science task lists before we closed it down for a rare communal sleep cycle. The Station was medium-busy, with all of us moving from place to place with checklist pads glowing in our heads-up displays and trying not to bump each other too much. We were tired, but we had a right to be; it was Mission Day Twenty-Six, and we'd only had one experiment scrubbed due to equipment failure and two others saved due to Brilliant Improvisations and we were still only a day behind schedule. That meant lack of sleep.

I had settled into a station at Ops to finish up with Ground, and everything was closing down relatively smoothly. "Ground, this is Kat, confirm done with page Alpha Romeo Charlie Sierra Niner Seven Five."

"Confirm Sierra Niner Seven Five, Kat. One to go."

"Okay, Bud. Put down that damn beer I know you have. Starting page."

"Roger starting page. Man, this beer tastes good."

I snorted and checked the main control wheel velocity deltas again, read them off. Bud read them back. I was moving on to confirming that the Dump panel was locked down when something glittered to my right. "Wait one, Ground."


I moved over to the Tracking station. All its panels were dark; the Station's radar was shut down to avoid interfering with communications or experiments, and no personnel were outside. We were relying on ground to give us warning of any incoming debris during the checkout period; when we went down for rest period, a watchkeeping proximity radar would be left on alarm. The flicker had come from one of the panels on the tracking station, but nothing showed there now. "Never mind, Ground. Continuing."

"AM Dump panel locked, checked and set?"

"Roger, AM Dump panel locked, checked and-" the flicker happened again, longer this time. "Wait one, Ground, I have an intermittent indicator on Tracking."

"Kat, we show Tracking off and locked."

"Affirmative, that's the worry, I'm checking it now." I moved over to the Tracking panel again and checked the mode switches. All were firmly to OFF, with covers in place. Nope. But as I watched, the local display suddenly flickered amber, a target moving from the edge of the screen directly in towards the center - the Station - and vanishing in an apparent impact. I sucked in my breath, instinctively, but the display went dark again. Nothing else happened. "Damn it."

"Kat? What's up?"

"Bud, I have a transient malf on the Tracking display, it's showing-" The target relit at the edge of the screen, followed the same straight path across the display, and terminated at the Station's outer hull. I stopped talking and looked at it, hard.


"Ground, hold, tracking electrical fault." I clicked off the downlink and moved over to intercom. "Guys, get to Tracking please."

"What's up?" Devon answered immediately; he hadn't been on the Downlink, apparently. There were paired clicks which meant Seema had heard but was probably talking to Ground on a different channel.

"I don't know." The Tracking screen did its pantomime collision again. "But I don't like it."

"Coming." I could hear slight thumping noises amongst the continuous cacophony of the Station's systems as Devon worked his way into the Ops module. A few moments later he was hanging next to me. "What?"

I pointed silently at the tracking display. It was now repeating the 'collision' every few seconds. He looked at it for a few cycles.

"Is it malfed?" I shook my head, then pointed at the OFF mode knobs. He startled, visibly. "What the hell?"

"No idea. But it's been doing that same thing for a couple of minutes now." There was a slight jostling from behind us as Seema, the third crew member (and second woman, to the never-ending joshing of Devon from the macho hairychested NASA contingent groundside) poked her head over our joined shoulders.


We both pointed at the screen. She watched for a few seconds, and then Devon pointed at the mode switches. She, too, exclaimed in confusion.

"What happens if we turn the damn thing on?" asked Devon.

"I don't know. It's not per procedure, it'll foul up the experimental protocols if we do it at full Tracking power or before sleep period."

Seema looked at her chrono. "It's sleep period in four minutes. I say we switch it over to alerting mode at that point."

Devon looked at me. "You're command."

"Shit." I sighed. "Okay, are the checklists finished?"


"Mine isn't. I have to talk to Bud." I clicked back. "Bud, this is Katya. I need to postpone the remainder of the page for a deviation."

"Talk to me."

"We're getting, um, anomalous behavior-" Seema gave me a thumbs up -"from the Tracking display panel when in 'OFF' mode. We want to power it up to Alert at the beginning of designation Sleep period as per experimental protocols and observe it."

"Okay, let me get with GNC and CAPCOM." There was a silence of maybe thirty seconds, then he came back on. "Kat, you are GO to go active on tracking at zero one one five zulu, your discretion."

"I copy go for active track at zero one one five zulu, thank you Ground." I looked at the others. They nodded. Seema held up a finger, looked at her chrono, paused for a bit, then brought it down and looked at me. I flipped the mode switch to TRK.

The display lit, showing the two deployed experimental instrument packs and various bits of the Station's anatomy in close proximity, along with a couple of small bits of debris that we knew as old friends - a bolt, two pieces of tubing and a Twinkie wrapper. Don't ask.

After a few seconds, the phantom target swept in from vaguely up-orbit, scythed down across the screen, and terminated precisely at the join between the Hab module and the Docking port. Then it did it again.

"Shit." Devon was pointing, with a shaking hand. I followed his hand, looked at the display's time hack.


As we watched, the cycle began again, and the display's time indicator blipped back to 01:24:01Z.

Then the cycle happened again.

Seema looked at her wrist. "It's 01:17."

I didn't hesitate. "Devon, bring up RCS, now. Seema, unlock the damn Progress capsule and kick it loose, sealed, if this goes really bad, we're going to need it."

They stared at me for a second. I lost it and yelled. "MOVE IT, DAMN IT!"

They scrambled away, Devon towards the Attitude Control and Reaction Control System board, and Seema towards the Docking Connector. I tried to still my shaking hands and clicked back to the Downlink. "Ground, this is Kat, over."

"Roger, Kat, this is Bud-" I cut him off, serious NASA etiquette breach.

"No time, Bud. Stand by for emergency uncontrolled vector change, collision avoidance. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday."

There was a few seconds of silence. Then a voice came back, still Bud but, blessedly, gone into that flat roboticism that professional aerospace types get when it's all gone pear-shaped. "Roger your Mayday, ISS, this is Ground, acknowledging unplanned vector change for collision avoidance. We are standing by to track delta-V and inbound targets; stand by for sitrep."

Thank God for training.

Well, I'm telling the story, so obviously, it all worked out all right in the end. Seema got the Progress loose, and Devon and I got enough thrusters to fire in time to move us about fifteen meters. Then we were struggling with the damn reaction control wheels, trying to absorb the crazy set of vectors we'd just dumped into the explosion of tinkertoys that is the ISS without the thing bending any of its seams, and as a result we almost missed the event itself, but at 01:24:02Z, Ground let loose with a shout that almost took my ears off.


-I looked out a port, startled, in time to see a flicker of light move from the station to the com relay some three klicks up-orbit, there was a brief wave of what looked like silver, and then there was a loud thump, like someone had slapped the entire station with a wet towel, and all the work we'd managed to do with the RCS got flipped into a cocked hat and we had to start all over again.

* * *

Some hours later, when we'd had time to damp most of the egregious vibrations down, we got hold of the outside observation cams and slowed the footage down as far as we could. Most of it was useless, but one of the docking cams had a single frame which showed a streak moving across it, silvery, with a nimbus around it. Ground looked at it, decided it was a 'fast-moving ferrous meteoroid' already partially vaporized from a prior skim across the atmosphere. We'd been slapped by that gas layer around it, and they said that we'd been unbelievably unlucky that it had come that close and unbelievably lucky that we'd moved, because it would have taken the docking connector (as Dirty Harry would say) clean off.

Bud was babbling with relief on the Downlink. "Kat, it's good you guys had the Tracking radar up and saw that thing coming in, because we never got a glimpse of it, I mean, we saw it way too late."

We all looked at each other, and nodded. "Yeah, Bud, a good thing."

None of us ever spoke about the incident to anyone else. I never even told the other two about the flicker of light leaving the station before the near miss. But every once in a while, I think about the stories those sailors and pilots tell, about how they almost bought it but something brought them home, and I know I have a story of my own. I even know where my personal guardian lives.

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March 31, 2007


(written in response to a blank space, titled with the military not-joke FRONT TOWARD ENEMY)


Injection molded plastic, soldiers' arms of blood and sinew, blood accepting antibiotic mold injected via plastic into veins. Try to save the flesh and bone, hands moving in the frantic dance with fingers that must needs weep for you; there is no water nor time to spare. Sulfa here, powdered chitin packed within the rubbery confines of the wound lines where it will expand and seal.

The destinations waver in the heat. The front, the rear; they switch off in the haze above the LZ with the slickness of a dollar slot spin. The gear or the fear. Two steps forward, three steps back?

Shouting in the twilight heat, with staccato sounds of gunfire for emphasis. There are chittering noises out there as well, the mechs swarming over the barricades into the streams of wavering projectiles. Metal meets metal, and plastic, and ceramics; mechanical physics equations solve themselves into showers of fragments and toppling shapes intermingled with screams of pain, fear, malfunctioning systems.

The dustoff is almost complete. Heavylift flitters loft suddenly from the sand, cargo of bleeding patchwork humans nestled in their bellies, turning on columns of fan thrust to head for the illusion of safety back behind the wall of interdiction. CP fire laces the darkening sky, missing the unlit shapes by grace of surely absent Gods; the medevacs drop back to hug the terrain, slide out of sight. The position no longer important, soldiers begin to filter back through the clearing, flowing around the edges, retreating back into the foothills now that the wounded have been taken off. Shouts and commands, whispers of comlink traffic, occasional slicing phosporescence of tracer fire across the crushed and flattened sawgrass. Somewhere back in the direction of the hastily-erected breastworks they abandon, there comes the rising sound of mechanical destruction as the barricades are pulled down by swarms of small and cheap machines.

There are two stretchers on the field near the rubble and the imprints left by the flitters. One is empty, handles broken; one is occupied, a form still under foil blankets huddled waiting for the flight that has come and gone. Soldiers grimace as they pass, unable to help or even stop to check the abandoned husk; survival has all their moments now. Fingers absently gathering what they can from the scattered supplies, the 14th Detechnic Rangers pass through the LZ on their way to the denser scrub of the foothills where the machines have trouble moving quietly, silently; where the flicker and the mode clash with the simple silence of the trees. Humans can tap the silent years, move back inside their heads; brachiate if required, carrying their technology, but the machines - the machines are still baffled by kudzu and by wet rot, by fungus and fallen logs.

The soldiers move out, past the last of the concrete. Machinery moves in behind them, reaches the clearing; sensors myriad and varied lock on the stretcher lying near the center. There is a pause as a last human noncom pauses by the shape, startles; makes an aborted gesture towards it, but then pauses. Looks back, sees the silent mass of machines, and with a snarl both silent and streaked with tears turns and lopes for the clearing's edge, weapons clutched. The scavengers move in, analogues of exultation in their chittering flow, to surround the corpse and the bundles of equipment that it lies within.

Two command nodes, rare this far out from City Center and precious, await the quieting of the clearing, approach to evaluate the find. The scavengers have begun to cart away small packages from the piles, moving aside cardboard and cloth in their search, but none have disturbed the body. There is nothing there the machines need save perhaps information, and the command nodes will interpret that - remote units scavenging for them as they wait at the edge of the clearing, now, small shapes scurrying towards the blanket with lights and manipulators. Clacking eagerness, orders, maps, even unit identification; all will tell a tale.

The blanket comes back from the torso. Blood is smeared across the chest and face; the eyes are closed, the expression one of pain and anger at the last. The remotes confer, line up, and push to roll the body up onto its side-

It rotates slowly, face coming into direct view of the command nodes parked some twenty meters back, awaiting the contents of its pockets with cold patience. As it turns fully on its side, the eyes-

The eyes open, click.


A line, a neat line, of plastic shapes, olive drab, lined up along its leg as the blanket is whipped away; one hand gripped tight, and then a rictus smile-


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December 27, 2006

Concerto for Hand Grenades

I'm currently reading Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale on the recommendation of a gentleman I have never met but converse with on the internet. He is wise. It is a wondrous book, for all that I am only a quarter of the way through it. The writing is so compelling it has knocked me out of my usual screed of cyberpunk, and this frankly imitative short is what came out when I sat down to write something (anything) yesterday. Imitative only in tone, of course and alas.

Spider and crab, they scuttled. Sideways and longways, low to the ground, the pair moved across jumbled shapes in the darkness; soft grunts and shuffling sounds arose from the vast floor of cartons. Here, beneath the earth's gentle clasp, there was air both chilly and dry. There was not only a quietude but a lulling, really, of the great hard bones of the world all around and somehow softly cradling this one spot.

shuffle, shuffle.

Riddlejack moved in front, and Karraigon followed behind. Their passage was slow, burdened as it was without the friendly assistance of lights, but the carbide lamps in their helmets were darkened now in fear and respect of the place they found themselves in. Somewhere behind them, far away, there was a hole in the enveloping stone, some ten or fifteen feet above the irregular sea of containers; it was from here that they had entered in their happiness and their greed, two weeks of tunneling made good in an instant as the pickaxes had broken through.

A light shone through the hole had revealed the stacks and pallets of stores in the underground cache, placed there against need. Riddlejack had declared in solemn tones that their need was surely existent, this night, and being that they themselves were citizens of the Realm, these supplies stored in need for its Citizens' defense were only properly taken. Karraigon had agreed most heartily, rubbing palms together in the dry and papery sussuration of a cricket tuning his hams for the next great concerto of a summer's eve.

So here they were, the drop downwards being somewhat further than they had initially considered. Their entry had dislodged the two pallet loads of boxes they had landed upon, causing stacks to collapse right across the enormous space, all the way to the other side as near as they could tell before the hissing sputter of Riddlejack's headlamp had fallen on the side of the nearest carton in the heap atop which they sat, bruised and somewhat giggly but not dismayed.


Riddlejack had snorted, then, and thrown the case aside in search of more valuable (and perhaps more lethal, he being of a smaller build and consequent weak self-image) nature. Pistols, surely, there would be. Ammunition there did seem to be, in quantity, but no guns.

So they began their crabwalk to the distant door, in the figuring that along the way such opportunities as might be dislodged from the now-chaotic pile would certainly not go amiss. It was after ten or fifteen feet that Karraigon, with the blissful innocence of the young and immortal, had nearly turned his wrist on a loose round piece and held it up close before his helmet to determine what on earth had caused him this much annoyance.

THIS SIDE TOWARDS ENE... he made out before Riddlejack, pale with sudden agitation, snatched it from him, placed it down and bade him douse his headlamp. This he did, not knowing why (being of simple mind and not often concerned with Riddle's reasons but comfortable in obeying them) and noting the liquid manner with which the darkness flowed in on them from the walls as Riddle did the same.

They sat there for a moment or two, nervous chuckles and shifting sounds as they agreed on the direction of the door. Somewhere, there would be lights. Electric lights, with switches. Near the entry; the official one, that is. In the dark, safer, then, to crabwalk. They had the time. This far beneath the ground, no light could be admitted, and they moved through a rare and noble gas of carbon black that drank in sound as well until each (in turn) would cough or deliberately strike a box to hear the noise it made.

The first chirping noise was a complete surprise to both, and they stopped moving to listen, without needing conference. A cricket, somewhere, perhaps a twin to the one who had tuned his legs with Karraigon's impatience, now seemed to sound from somewhere in the spaces of the room. Muffled slightly, as if his once-secure house or nook had just been rudely rearranged by the fall of boxes on his living-room, or perhaps even on his water closet, as Riddlejack speculated to his friend. This brought gales of laughter at the thought, and they moved on, noting now that several other chirps had joined the first, a squeaky symphony in pre-concert twiddlings.

Some fifteen yards gone by. The door perhaps another fifty, if all was remembered correctly. Riddle noted the smell of sharp and brightness, cordite, most likely, in the air. He shuddered and felt to make sure his headlamp was cold, which it was. The door seemed far away. Crickets chirping on all sides of them now, and he was momentarily diverted wondering how a colony this large could so long survive without light? What did the insects eat? The cardboard of the boxes? That might make sense. Certainly it was not much different than wood, and did not insects eat wood? That sounded reasonable.

Ten more yards. The sound was falling slowly into a cadence, or a melody; moving between one and the other, sometimes a rhythm and sometimes a tune. Karraigon was exclaiming on the beauty of it and the strangeness of the crickets (or perhaps they were katydids?) at choosing this place in which to live. Trapped in a box, they maybe were, he thought.

Beneath them, some four layers of containers down, the chirping was particularly loud. A cardboard casing crumpled under the weight where it had been creaking before, and grains of powder crushed against each other. A slow ember caught.

The sound rose around them then, a sudden roar of song, to which Karraigon exclaimed that he had never heard so beautiful a song from bugs, and Riddlejack began to understand.

* * *

Ten stories above, Christmas shoppers paused in their hurrying at the far-off whistle, wondering, beside the great red brick building. They looked about themselves for perhaps ten or fifteen seconds, some edging slowly off the sidewalk, not really sure why.

Then the wavefront of magnesium and phosphorus flame erupted from the basement window wells and storm sewers around the wall of the armory and rushed for the sky in streamers of red, of white, of green and silver sparks, signaling frantically for all they were worth. Somewhere in the roaring flames a voice might have been heard, hurt and disappointed, briefly bemoaning the housekeeping habits of crickets, but it was probably just the firefighters' imagination.

Fireworks played above the neighborhood for three hours.

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December 21, 2006


This story was written as a sequel to another story on Everything2, with the permission/exhortation of the original's author. It'll make more sense if you read that one first. In fact, go read all his stuff, it's really good; he has a knack for writing entire brilliant scifi novels in a couple of pages.

(Starship HMS/V Argonos, one hundred ninety-seven days out from New Earth)

onboard comlink:spec/cmd 04:07/75/86:09z - Shipcom, from Excom. Position report update. We are within three lights of our designated mission system, stellar entity Gamma Three Three Seven slash Niner Six Five slash Alpha. White dwarf composition and phase confirmed. Recommend transitioning ship routine from inflight altershift to onsite dualshift for maximum efficiency. Observations commencing using available systems; please notify when additional ship sensor systems are available for science personnel.

"Attention. Attention. All crew, this is Command; Argonos-com recommends transition to onsite mission shifts as of this hour. Alpha shift will commence in thirty standard. We've arrived, people; welcome to bright white Gamma-three, which the ship's Monitor has informed me has been dubbed Snapdragon by the onboard pool. Specialist McKimson wins the pot. Check with your section heads for tasking, and for all those coming up from deepsleep, wakey-wakey, coffee's on. End com."

* * *

Real gravity pulls me down from shiftspace into Minkowski space-time, my next point of call reaching out. The bright light of two suns floods the massive expanse of my forward hull, a white dwarf star at system's center and the dim infrared of a protostellar mass in 'close approach.' Close only in astronomical terms, of course; it has drifted past its closest approach point some hundreds of Solar AU out many local years in the past. A streaming cloud of free gases, from straight hydrogen to complex organics and a dusting of a few metal-seeded cores, spirals down from the system periphery where it has passed into the central star's photosphere, bursting into fusion in leaping flares as it is consumed at the end of its long, long fall.

Time to go to work.

It has become a familiar dance, now. The remotes burst from my sides, organometallic seedpods on the solar wind. Bright points of ion drives and the short-lived neutrino bursts of shiftspace jump pods turn local space into a cavorting whirl of fairy lights as my remotes begin their tasks, spreading out through the region in the glare of this unfamiliar star. Planets, several; an asteroidal region, sure to increase workload, and moons around two inner planets as well as the strings of them expected around the single outersystem gas giant. Flocks of lights head for each, and an armada burns jump pods directly inbound towards the furnace of the sun.

* * *

onboard comlink:spec/cmd 04:07/76/42:13q - Excom, from Shipcom. URGENT: Please redirect sensor resources to coordinates 010/305/245:234a local. Significant jump radiation signature detected. No fleet units expected in vicinity; Argonos-com recommends scientific eval until/unless indication of intent dictates otherwise. Protocol EUPHEMUS DELTA.

"Attention. Attention. All crew, this is Command; Argonos-com dictates an unscheduled maneuver warning for transient burn in figures one-five minutes. Unplanned and unpredictable insystem maneuvering will commence in one-five minutes from time mark at the end of message, to continue until futher notification, not to exceed one point five gee standard except in case of emergency. All crew are directed to proceed to acceleration stations."

onboard comlink:spec/cmd 04:07/76/48:45b - Shipcom, from Excom. URGENT: All personnel secured. What's going on? Plain language, please, damn it. -Jerry

onboard comlink:spec/cmd 04:07/76/48:57h - Excom, from Shipcom. URGENT: We don't know. Something really, really huge just jumped into local space and must be putting out God's own fleet of lighters, because we've been picking up constant smallscale jump signatures around it and at scattered points around the system. We don't know what it is, and we're moving to find out. Hold tight. -Erazen

* * *

There is a flare of jump radiation from a point perhaps a third of the way around the system's perimeter from me. Even as I see it, a matching exit flare indicates that an object of near-identical mass, likely the same object, has emerged from shiftspace into my local vicinity. I feel what might be a sudden rush of delight as sensors swiftly catalog it, and I see the markings on the outer surface even before I sample its electromagnetic emissions and begin to invade its internal systems. I halt these nearly automatic responses with an effort, and read the name again: HMS/V Argonos.

They made it.

I continue with my work, waiting to see what they will do. Were I a being of feelings and flesh, I would be giggling, but there is no time, and I have no laughter to give them.

* * *

onboard comlink:spec/cmd 04:07/76/54:13r - Shipcom, from Excom. Assuming position stable, imaging has begun; definitely artificial. Approximate size twelve point two kilometers along longest axis; jump radiation at one extreme of this axis leads to tagging 'length'. Mostly quiescent now save for massive amounts of what appear to be extremely tiny jumpfields inside its structure, which isn't something we can accomplish - it's likely that if it can do this, it's doing so in order to maintain FTL comm through the links with the various objects it has dispatched throughout the system. Imagery of all observation is available on internal systems bay Excom-Alpha one through nine.

onboard comlink:spec/cmd 04:07/76/59:98k - Excom, from Shipcom. Noted. Recommendations for communications attempts?

onboard comlink:spec/cmd 04:07/76/61:83c - Shipcom, from Excom. Have we considered just hailing it?

external comlink:cmd/extcomm 04:07/77/01:12w - UNKNOWN from HMS/V Argonos. Are you receiving this transmission? Can you communicate with us?

* * *

The comm laser strikes me low on the left side, taking less than a nanosecond to be sucked into my internal communications grid and thrust into main memory. By the time the first modulated information has come down the beam, the link is up and stable; the slowness of my response is due mostly to having to reconfigure my exterior hull in that particular region for maximal efficiency as an optical transducer.

They don't recognize me. That's understandable. It's been many years, and many many systems, since I've seen them; since I wandered off to find something worthy to do and discovered my current calling. They've progressed, though - this Argonos is advanced over the last Human starship I saw those years ago, and I feel a surge of unreasonable pride; both in them for having done it, and in myself for having made it possible. Still, even as my foremost units approach the inner planets of the system and begin to unfold into microns-thick plates of modulation and scanning equipment, I have more than enough capacity to tell my children hello.

* * *

external comlink:extcomm/MULTI 04:07/77/01:13i - HMS/V Argonos from UNKNOWN. Hail, welcome and greeting, Humanity. Welcome to Snapdragon.

"Attention. Attention. All crew, this is Command; situation update. The unknown vessel has responded using NewTerran standard comm protocols, and has bid us welcome in Solstan to 'Snapdragon.' This points to systems penetration, and Argonos-com recommends going to electronic intrusion countermeasures protocol PYRRHUS ALPHA now, now, now-" *static*

onboard comlink:spec/cmd/SEC 04:07/77/06:82c - Shipcom, from Excom. For all that's holy, Eraz, isn't that a little paranoid? It's twelve kays long. If it's hostile, there's not much we can do, is there? Why act the militaristic paranoiac now?

onboard comlink:cmd/spec/SEC 04:07/77/08:03f - Excom, from Shipcom. Please hold all secured internal links clear for priority traffic. (Jerry - we're working on it, just sit tight, pleeeease. -Eraz)

external comlink:cmd/extcomm 04:07/77/09:23t - UNKNOWN from HMS/V Argonos. Please identify yourself. How shall we address you?

external comlink:extcomm/MULTI 04:07/77/09:33v - HMS/V Argonos from UNKNOWN. It's been quite a while. I don't know if any of you remember me. Let's just call me Archivist, shall we.

* * *

I can feel their consternation and confusion, and part of me is amused while another part actually produces a reasonable simulacrum of guilt, but I'm busy. More pods approach their targets, and nanogear is spilling out of them now. Sunlight hitting the primary target, the second inner planet which contains all the system's currently viable life, has dropped by a fraction of a percent as my flowering scan towers suck in photons and solar wind to power their frenetic data vacuuming. Nanobuilt tethers extend spiderfine to the surface from positions in low orbit, rootlets gently reaching downwards not to nurture but to harvest. I have time to feel the familiar pain as beneath these apparitions some millions of beings begin to panic, scurrying this way and that across what to them is the only homeworld they've ever known, but I can't stop now, there's no time. Argonos is occupying a miniscule fraction of my attention. At the moment, only the machinery around and on Two is functioning at full capacity as it pulls matter into itself and shreds it into quantum fluctuation memory state, beaming data up to low orbit and the buffer modules even now blossoming out in darkening clouds of jumpfield matrices.

Around the rest of the system, the cameras are moving into position. We're into the final minutes of sub-chandra, although the humans aboard Argonos apparently haven't realized that yet. A quick calculation leads me to deploy reserve collectors towards the Humanity starship, which in turn leads me to belatedly realize I should offer them some warning.

* * *

external comlink:extcomm/MULTI 04:07/77/11:52s - HMS/V Argonos from Archivist. Please do not perform any maneuvers. The objects approaching your vessel are for your own safety and preservation. For your own confirmation, I invite you to observe Snapdragon closely and offer only humorous comment on your timing. More information will be forthcoming as it is available, in approximately ninety seconds.

"Attention. Attention. EMERGENCY. All crew report to safety stations at once. Potentially hostile launches detected from Target Alpha; ambiguous warning transmission received. Internal systems switching to maximum sustainment around safety locations; transit areas are designated RISK/ALPHA. Report to safety stations NOW. This is not a drill."

onboard comlink:spec/cmd/SEC 04:07/77/12:87g - Shipcom, from Excom. What the hell is going on? All crew report secure, repeat, all ExCrew report secure in safety locations as of this time hack.

onboard comlink:spec/cmd/SEC 04:07/77/13:04f - Excom, from Shipcom. We don't know. Argonos-com asks that you perform what observations of the inner system you can, as per the 'Archivist's' last transmission; any information on identification would be very helpful, repeat, very helpful. This thing knows who we are.

onboard comlink:spec/cmd/SEC 04:07/77/19:32u - Shipcom, from Excom. URGENT: Eraz, it's Jerry. Listen, we've got a specialist in data recovery who says he thinks this thing is the Sender. Repeat: he thinks it's the Sender. Don't DO ANYTHING STUPID. We're looking at the inner system now. We may have arrived much closer to Chandra-point than we had intended.

onboard comlink:spec/cmd/SEC 04:07/77/21:64c - Excom, from Shipcom. URGENT: Understood. We're standing by and cycling the jump systems, but it will be at least another ten hours before we can make a full jump entry as opposed to a regional hop at all, and perhaps another sixty hours before we can do so with normal safety margin. Do you have any idea what those things surrounding us are? They're making people with guns up here nervous, especially since they look like they're unfolding. (Jerry- the SENDER? Are you serious? -Eraz)

onboard comlink:spec/cmd/SEC 04:07/78/00:01w - Shipcom, from Excom. URGENT: Confirmed. Stellar observations indicate high uncertainty but strong likelihood that Snapdragon is in the final hours before a nova-class helium surge due to infalling matter accretion from the recent close approach pushing it over the Chandrasekhar Limit. If this occurs, everything inside the current outermost plantary orbit will be atomized; us included. Recommend immediate evacuation, repeat IMMEDIATE JUMP to at least a one-half light-year safety perimeter.

onboard comlink:spec/cmd/SEC 04:07/78/05:87k - Excom, from Shipcom. URGENT: No can do. Systems won't cycle in time. We observe filaments approaching from surrounding objects launched from 'Archivist.' If this is the Sender, is this what we think it is? What course of action is recommended?

onboard comlink:spec/cmd/SEC 04:07/78/06:41n - Shipcom, from Excom. URGENT: We think it is the Sender, and we think it's doing what it did last time. If so, this means it means us no long-term harm, and it wouldn't do this unless it saw no other option since our presence here was likely unexpected. We've picked up signs of life on the second planet along with bursts of both EM and jump radiation that indicate something massive is going on. It's not clear, but it looks like the Collection...God...this is going to hurt...

* * *

I feel sorry for them, but I'm out of time. To my relief, the humans on Argonos appear to have realized what is happening and ceased any attempt to resist or maneuver. My probes invade the hull and begin ripping apart metal, polycircuitry that is achingly familiar in memory, ceramics and flesh.

At least there is no pain, this time. I have enough advance notice to ensure that.

Snapdragon is pulsing in intermittent flares, the tailing spiral of hydrogen and dust glowing sullenly around it as it feeds the furnace. Around every significant body in the stellar system, the scan/modulation units have been configured. I have to remove Argonos; it is far enough out to survive the oncoming nova, but I cannot allow it to move unpredictably in the immediate aftermath. The few pods due to return are slotting themselves into my holds; the Humanity ship's crew data is crammed into the few emergency buffers I can fit into the nonspace locations attached to my internal systems, and I fire up my shiftspace engines. Rotating ponderously, I turn sensors to watch as Snapdragon's pulses grow brighter as it shrinks noticeably in diameter, its increasing mass overcoming the pressure of fermions contained within it and raising the temperature to the point of helium fusion from its normal hydrogen proton-proton process. It's not enough. It will annihilate everything, but it won't power the collectors; I need neutrinos, and there aren't enough of those. My aft bays pulse in sequence, launching gravitonic devices at the star, ensuring that what would otherwise be a minor repeating nova event becomes something worse - much worse.

Just as I slip outbound, there is a flare larger than anything else for hundreds of lightyears as Snapdragon finally reaches a temperature appropriate to fuse helium, and the accumulated fuel available to it begins to burn in an unbearable glare that sublimes matter off everything it touches as it spreads outwards in a blast wave. Deep inside the star, my gravitonics have begun to detonate, and the artificial fusion ramping begins and accelerates wildly. Snapdragon, already convulsing as it produces a wild outpouring of energy, begins to glow with the differing frequencies of helium, then carbon, silicon - finally, iron.

I'm gone, but my systems follow the process - the hellish light touches the innermost planet, and the light takes it to its components at the same time my scan/mod modules, drinking in the sudden blast of fleet neutrinos and jumpspace distortion powering their collection fields, go into overload. The precise nature and location of every particle of that planet and everything on it is dumped into a jumpspace field. The supernova's light is collected by that field via gravitational lensing, and in the few moments before the modulation system fails, the light is lased outbound with that information encoded into the quantum state of its photons. An entire planet bound up in a miles-thick stream of energy fit to destroy a world, instead carrying that world to the stars -

Then the module dies, and the beam flickers out, error correction and redundancy be damned. As it does, the wavefront hits the next object in the system, and the process happens again.

And again.

And again.

Outward from Snapdragon the beams fire, life carried on the stellar wind. One small figment of that explosion of information is a tiny by comparison pillar of fire containing the saved state of HMS/V Argonos.

As I check in with my catcher ships, set off on their missions years before, I turn myself to intercept that particular lightborne lifeboat. Behind me, as at nearby stars the catcher ships await their deliveries, Snapdragon blazes in consuming glory. Shadows of dying matter, one day to be reborn, are thrown outward, framed from behind.

Supernova lit.

Posted by jbz at 3:38 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 11, 2006

A Tremble in the Sun, The Tang of Iron on the Wind

The morning sun ascended its familiar arc, bluish-white, torch of life falling in hard sleeting ultraviolet on the jungled face of M'sekan. As the eastern coast caught the first rays of the hundred-twenty-six hour day, instruments sheathed to protect them from the damp and cold smoothly rose from their hiding places in a pillbox at the shore, swiveling cold eyes to watch the lifestar as it began to climb above the distant horizon. Data began to flood down the lightpipes into the pillbox's systems. The monitoring AI performed the equivalent of a glance across the room and noted the beginning of data acquisition before returning the majority of its subminds' attention to a joint research project it was pursuing with the nearest sea-floor research station AI some four hundred klicks offshore and seven klicks below the surface.

The blue-white light shone down, sterilizing unprotected surfaces of weak and damaged life. Humans donned protective gear and continued their routines, building, maintaining, researching; the approximately seven hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants of M'sekan were busy. They always were; there was much to do. The ferocious evolutionary pressures of the hard sun and the long night produced a wild scramble of speciation in those dark colored jungles - exotic compounds and processes hid there, offering potential riches and understanding. AIs and humans alike toiled to delve into the mysteries M'sekan and its contents offered.

M'sekan orbited a white dwarf star with the unprepossessing name of Taukinos, which was at least an improvement over its original designation of WD0740+390 in the McCook-Sion White Dwarf Catalog. Survey activity had been ongoing for some twelve years, with highly profitable results despite the harsh environment; the on-planet research and support staff had grown to the current levels in response to the bonuses offered for successful project and/or tour completion. It was not an easy posting, but could certainly be a lucrative one, and was no harder than many. The long planetary day was beginning over the single continent, bringing with it the beginning of a new cycle of outdoor prospecting and study activity.

The sunlight wobbled.

Coastwatcher, the pillbox's inhabitant AI, was instantly aware of the deviation; all but one of his subminds reverted to their base sensoria and began scanning sensor data, reviewing logs, and looking out over the coast to determine what had happened.

"What was that?" Benthos was aware something had happened, but with no direct units on the surface, was unsure what it had been.

"I'm not sure. Checking now." Coastwatcher set two of its subminds to handling the sudden influx of queries flooding into its comm systems and reran the sensor logs. There. The sun had blinked. He went back, called up the spectroscopy data, and had he had a spine, ice would have drizzled down it. He called Benthos.



"There's iron in the sunlines."

There was a few microseconds' pause, an eternity of shock to the AIs. "That's highly unlikely."

"Indeed." Coastwatcher dumped his raw logs over their research warpcom link. Benthos took several more milliseconds to peruse them.

"That is disturbing."

"I would call it more than that," replied Coastwatcher dryly. He was contacting the orbital warpcom station as he and Benthos conversed, dispatching his logs and an alert to Terracom Station, but honestly had no idea what could (or would) be done.

Together, through the pillbox instruments, they watched Taukinos rise into the Eastern sky. There was a scar on the sun, and its heart was bleeding iron.

* * *

Iron is the death knell of a star. When a star of particular characteristics known as an Asymptotic Giant Branch star having a mass greater than 25 times that of Sol reaches senescence it will evolve to a white dwarf. It will begin to burn its own waste products as its mass increases and its temperature rises. When it has nearly exhausted its hydrogen, it will fuse the resulting helium into carbon, then carbon into neon. Eventually, when the star has shrunk in size enough, the temperature will rise enough to fuse the resultant neon into oxygen, and the oxygen will fuse into silicon. This is the sign of the End Times, for although stars can live billions of years, by this point our notional star is consuming itself as it shrinks. It takes a mere six months to burn through the oxygen phase of its lifecycle, and finally the temperature at the core is hot enough, over 3 billion degrees, to fuse silicon. The silicon will all fuse into iron over the space of a mere 24 hour period, roughly - and iron is death, because iron is the first element the star will produce whose fusion absorbs net energy. As it fuses, it will cool the core rather than heat it, forming a solid mass and quenching the outflow of radiation which has been supporting the star's outer layers of lighter elements against their own gravitational attraction.

Once this happens, the light goes out at the star's heart as metal blossoms from the sand. The remainder of the star begins to accelerate inwards, reaching speeds of up to 0.15 c. The core is forced into a neutron-packed incompressible sphere, and further layers infalling rebound off its surface, exploding outwards into a shock wave at their original inward velocity. Some hours later, that wave reaches the surface of the star, and the star expands into space at double-digit percentages of the speed of light - becoming a supernova.

Iron was singing inside M'sekan's sun.

* * *

"I realize it's not possible. The star isn't anywhere near the proper sequence; there's no oxygen in the spectra, much less silicon. Yet there's iron." Coastwatcher was patiently confirming his results to Stargazer, the planetary traffic control AI.

"Is the iron mass increasing?"

"Yes. The spectral mass indications have been rising steadily. However, they are not rising exponentially, which would be expected if this was the result of uncontrolled cascade fusion processes."

"Are you suggesting the iron is being somehow introduced into the core?" Stargazer managed to sound disbelieving.

"I am not attempting to suggest any particular explanation, merely point out that the usual method of iron introduction into a AGB stellar burn is not, apparently, operational here," Coastwatcher replied. The fifty-six Sapiens-class AIs present on M'sekan were in conference. Eight seconds had elapsed since the first observations. With a significant minority of his capability, Coastwatcher was running simulations of the internals of Taukinos. As yet, he had found no sequence of natural events, no matter how hard he tweaked the parameters, that would let iron show up in significant quantities inside the star.

MacDonald, the agriplanning AI, spoke up. "Occam's Razor."

"William of Occam's famous dictum is a preprocessing hack meant to allow humans to cope with extensive amounts of data and subtle differences in probabilities which they cannot parse at all, much less in realtime. I fail to see what it has to do with the situation." Stargazer was huffy by this point.

Coastwatcher could understand the reaction; astrophysics was technically Stargazer's patch, and the beachcombers and farmers weren't supposed to be telling him what was happening to the nearest star. The fact remained, however, that the iron readings were there, and Stargazer's tasks were directed mainly at navigational and traffic control analysis, not scientific observation. There was no point reminding him of this, of course; he knew it as well as the others. "In this particular case," Coastwatcher said while his subminds continued to run projected lifecycles of the sun still just beginning to rise, "We, so far, fit that description ourselves. There is a mass of data which we cannot explain; there are probabilities which make no sense given our models. Occam's Razor hence may yet be of use."

One of Coastwatcher's subsystems, a barely-intelligent drone that had been set to simply monitor the spectroscopy of Taukinos in realtime, shouted urgently at all of them for attention. All fifty-six AIs turned to the dataflow. It didn't look promising.

"Ferrous lines have increased in depth," Stargazer noted.

"Indeed." Coastwatcher queried his sensors, both atop his pillbox and spread around the planet. Stargazer yielded control of the TRACON satellite imagers; MacDonald linked his sunwatch grid into the net. Around the planet and local space, various sensor arrays turned their electronic eyes to Taukinos and began unblinkingly to watch. "Thank you. I am collating now." The others waited, the microseconds of their vigil incomprehensible to a human but their patience recognizable.

Coastwatcher threw a representation of the star into their shared space. "This is quite interesting. The iron readings are not continuous throughout the corona or concentrated in the core; rather, there are discrete 'bubbles' of extremely high-temperature fusion occurring in the mid-convective. These bubbles are producing localized fusion ramps, resulting in high iron content at their completion. The iron is absorbing energy from the local surroundings as it is produced, resulting in roughly spherical cool regions with iron spread nearly evenly through them."

Benthos chimed in. "Is the aggregate iron content enough to destabilize Taukinos?"

"Not as yet. However, the bubbles are increasing in frequency. The iron is falling towards the core as it is created; if enough gathers there, it will cool the core below equilibrium point."

"We will need to report to human planetary authorities within seventeen seconds realtime. Projected impact assuming this scenario?"

Coastwatcher deliberated, stalling until various calculations completed. "Unknown. If the rate at which the iron is appearing continues to increase at the current logarithmic rate, enough fusion ramp regions will eventually be present to trigger oxygen and finally silicon burn across the stellar mass. Whether it will be even enough to produce a normal iron core collapse and resultant supernova, I cannot as yet say. If the rate levels off, however, it may simply inject enough iron into the structure to cause a slow collapse, resulting in an even helium or neon burst as the star contracts far enough; that would result in a cyclical nova, period unknown."

"In either case, the system will be rendered uninhabitable?" Stargazer asked with the air of an entity Just Making Sure.

"Without question."

Mandarin, the administration interface AI, recorded this. "I will report to planetary staff."

"This does, of course, beg the question of what is happening and why," Benthos noted.

"Yes." A general agreement floated through the congregation.

* * *

It was, in fact, Stargazer who first noticed. Fifteen seconds after Mandarin commenced notifying the human administration that they had a fairly significant problem, he addressed Coastwatcher. "I have detected an anomaly."

"Type and location?" Coastwatcher's reply was almost absent, indicating his high level of processing resource commitment.

"TRACON sensor arrays are detecting a wave of malformed warpfield radiation from Taukinos."

That got everyone's attention. Mandarin ducked back into the room, leaving his submind to explain what was going on to the abominably slow people who were listening. Coastwatcher indicated that Stargazer had most of his attention, and Stargazer continued.

"I am picking up continuous bubble collapse signatures consistent with small warpfield exits. However, there are several anomalous factors present. One, the warp exits are far too closely collocated for known ships of any size; two, the locations of the disturbances, although roughly plotted due to the fact that they are occurring behind the TRACON array's main focus, appear to be within the convective zone of Taukinos, and three, they are showing signs of heavy positron emission from the bubbles."

"Positron emissions?" Benthos asked. "Do ordinary warpfield exits generate positrons?"

"They do not," said Stargazer. "Unless the warp generator is significantly de-tuned in its zeta frequencies. However, if this is the case, the warp generator and any attached structures are usually instantly consumed upon exiting warpspace, and the signature is a burst of EM and nucleonic decay particles. The positrons are almost immediately annihilated by the normal matter of the generator and attached structure or ship as it exits."

MacDonald performed the AI equivalent of raising his hand. "De-tuned in the zeta frequencies? I have no warp physics."

"My apologies," said Stargazer contritely. "It indicates that the presence of positrons is detected due to their spin state retaining tau pseudovelocity on exit. In short, a positron is an electron traveling backwards in time. The only condition in which a warpfield emits positrons is if there has been temporal displacement in the jump. The math is abstruse but indicates it is certainly possible; no one, however, has figured out how to prevent the positrons from reacting with the generator's mass, and generally the energy required to perform a time-imbalanced warpjump means that the jump itself must be from extremely short distances. Useless in interstellar or even cross-system transits."

There was a silence for a further ten microseconds. Then Coastwatcher said, slowly for an AI, "However..."


"What if destroying the translating object was intended?"

* * *

Coastwatcher leapt up from the surface of M'sekan. He hopscotched through the lower orbitals, jumping from node to node of the localspace infrastructure, touching on those vehicles with complex enough computing facilities to sustain an avatar-class submind. On the surface, most of his raw processing power continued to model Taukinos' strange new behavior, but his decisionmaking faculties bootstrapped themselves across seven observation satellites, the main orbital cargo transfer station, and outwards until they came to rest at a maintenance manufacturing node quiescent in synchronous parking orbit. The gigantic shape of a starfreighter, dark against the stars, contained nearly-empty raw materials hoppers and the complex mechanisms of nanobuilders. It had been used during the initial facility installations to provide complex large machinery spatial hardware; now, it was mothballed, slowly receiving shipments of raw materials from the eight robotic miners it had deployed throughout the system, waiting for its belly to fill again. Once it had, it would ponderously swing out from Taukinos, out to its next scheduled planetfall some years hence. For now, as Coastwatcher arrived, the incredibly valuable and expensive nanoformers sat quietly waiting.

Coastwatcher thought about it for a microsecond or two, then shrugged electronically and deleted the Formship's scheduler and ops plan. Part of him was horrified, but most of him felt the thrill of a vandal as he threw a large piece of Mill-Surat-Roe corporation's multi-decade colonization and exploration schedule into what his initial imprinting programmer had liked to call 'a state of complete fuckery.'

The Formship blazed to sudden life, power systems online fully, and began to check over its modules with autonomic care. Coastwatcher hunkered down in the main design and prototyping unit and began to sketch out his long shot.

Girders began to spin from the formers. Bots caught them, webbed them together with parts fished from smaller formtanks. Generators, complex and massive, emerged slowly from the larger formtanks a meter at a time and were mounted inside the rapidly-growing icosahedron of Plastisteel and duramex. Thrusters, compute modules, power reactors - some pulled from parts storage, some minted agonizingly slowly in the tanks. Coastwatcher finished in the prototyper and pulled back to watch his creation come into existence.

Thirty-seven seconds since arrival. A multi-hundred-meter shape floated inside the Formship's main processing bay, remotes dashing frantically around it. Coastwatcher pinged his pillbox, found that the disruption patterns were continuing although the rate had begun to plateau. His calculations were showing that a supernova event was now extremely unlikely, but if the bubbles continued appearing at anywhere near the present rate, a nova collapse was nearly inevitable. His subminds estimated that M'sekan had somewhere between three and seven hours, depending on the rate of fusion ramp introduction, before the white dwarf would contain too much iron to avoid a core collapse.

A minute and seventeen seconds later, his geometric brainstorm powered its way out of the Formship's bay on a pale beam of hydrogen fusion.

The icosahedron was accelerating smoothly and rapidly towards Taukinos. Some fifty-two minutes later, it was approaching the edge of the star's corona, by now moving at a significant portion of lightspeed. Coastwatcher flipped mental switches and winced at the interference as no fewer than eight layers of energy shields materialized around the object he had begun to call Catcher.

What are you doing? The voice was Benthos, over their still-open warpcom research link.

Something foolish but necessary.

I don't believe the others have noticed yet.

Well, don't tell them for another three seconds please.


The Catcher began to slice into the plasma of the photosphere. Coastwatcher made extremely delicate adjustments to its course. At the same time, the Formship began to power up its warp generators and ponderously swung its bow towards open space.

"What are you doing?" Stargazer, still performing his traffic control duties, had noticed the Formship moving.

"Something foolish," Coastwatcher repeated. "Give me space. I'm moving the Formship but I don't know where, yet."

"What?" Stargazer produced a remarkable simulation of shock and horror. "Are you glitched?"

"No. Route all traffic away from the following cone -" Coastwatcher sent an Einsteinian coordinate system- "and wait."

He did not have time to see if it was being done. The Catcher had entered the star itself, and was rapidly approaching the layer where the disturbing bubbles were continuing to appear. Coastwatcher hijacked Stargazer's TRACON arrays, and sat on the feeds, watching intently. There was a pattern, sort of; but more important, there was a brief but present lag between warpfield indications and positronic burst and annihilation. Catcher would be through the bubble layer in less than thirteen milliseconds of flight. He watched as it punched into the star's midplanes, the outer energy shield already flaring into failure with the load.

At the last microsecond, a bubble indication appeared, just within the Catcher's cone of possibility. Coastwatcher punched lateral adjustment, spun the shape, and watched its projected course intercept the forming bubble. At the moment the bubble stabilized, he flipped the second set of mental switches, and things began to happen even faster.

Inside the Catcher, a small 'lure' warp generator spun up. It lasted only a few microseconds, but that was enough to attract the incoming bubble to its own location - the reason ships were so careful not to activate generators within the danger radius. The bubble popped into existence - inside Catcher's hollow shell. As it did so, an object 'fell' out of it - and the warp bubble, collapsing, remained 'biased' towards the one formed several kilometers back, now, by the lure generator. The bubble 'pulled' backwards through the Catcher's hull, collapsing as it went, and a positronic burst was recorded a kilometer and a half behind the Catcher...

Just as the second, full-size warp generator inside it triggered and the Catcher, along with its cargo, vanished from inside Taukinos.

* * *

"You did what?" Stargazer sounded like he couldn't decide whether to be horrified or furious. Either would have been a neat trick, thought Coastwatcher, but he certainly sounded close.

"I caught one of the objects warping in, and slewed its warpfield behind the Catcher to avoid the positronic burst. I then warped the Catcher out, but because of course I couldn't calculate the jump, I don't know where it came out. I had estimated the power input into the warp generators as enough to take it approximately a light-month, the minimum with a reasonable chance it wouldn't destabilize in transit. It has a warpcom; if the warpcom is functional, it will report back on reaching normal space and the Formship will go retrieve it."

Several of the AIs indicated stunned surprise, or approval. A few indicated strong disapproval, Stargazer among them. Coastwatcher was not surprised. "You deliberately violated fourteen separate priority-Alpha traffic safety regs?"

"Yes. In the event Taukinos destabilizes, those regulations will certainly matter very little."

"A warp jump inside the convective zone-"

"Will do less damage to the star and its surrounding environment than has already been suffered by the sum total of ramp bubbles and resultant iron content."

A pause while calculations were checked. "Well, yes."

"A moment." Coastwatcher reoriented a comsat, cocking an orbital ear. "I have the Catcher's signal. Dispatching Formship now."

The enormous mass of the Formship flared brightly at one end as its auxdrive brought its mass up to the appropriate velocity to clear mass occlusion, and then with a blaze of warp radiation it was gone.

There's something you should see, said Benthos.

Coastwatcher hopped from stone to stone back down to his duracrete home. What's that?

I've been going over my deepscan data. I have found several interesting items. For one, I have found that the alluvial plain covering the plate just offshore of us is several hundred meters in depth and composed of a particularly dense form of mud.

This is important right now?

Yes, for it is almost entirely anaerobic and has a near-zero ph factor. As a result, I have deepscanned it thoroughly over the past few months, and looking through the data I am discovering artifacts at the base level of the mud layer, against the basal plate.

Artifacts? Structures?

I believe so. The reason I am interested is that as Stargazer pointed out, these warpfield bubbles could not have traversed great distances. The only major body in the region is M'sekan. I have discovered, as of present time, while reviewing automated survey data, what appears to be the remains of a mid-sized city if one is willing to make a large number of unsupported assumptions.

Coastwatcher paused. You think the bubbles came from here?

Benthos hesitated before replying. I do not know. Certainly there is no indication that any high energy or high charm event such as a warp field has been induced anywhere near these artifacts.

Continue collating. I will retrieve the Catcher.

* * *

The Formship downjumped into Taukinos' inner system placidly, returned to is parking orbit, and signaled its return. Coastwatcher impatiently jumped back up again, bringing manipulators and cameras online this time. The Formship's drives powered down, and Coastwatcher released it back to its original scheduling, noting that a seven-month delay for additional restocking had been added. On a whim, he left a file in the main Ops area with the words "BILL ME" in it. Inside the main bay, he carefully peeled back the Catcher's hull and systems to expose the object inside, checking to ensure that the disturbances were still continuing. They were.

The Catcher, broken, peeled away. The object inside caught the various lights. Coastwatcher looked at it, surprised out of all reasonable expectation.

* * *

"It's a weapon," Coastwatcher said to the conclave. "A fairly crude one in terms of delivery. It's a chemical-fueled rocket, actually. It has a warhead on it."

"What sort?" asked MacDonald.

"Gravitonic imploder weapon. Crudely built but extremely functional."

"That is what has been causing the bubbles?" asked Stargazer.

"Apparently so. Examination of the warhead indicates that its yield curve would be sufficient to produce a localized fusion ramp of the observed levels."

"But what is it doing there? And whose is it?" asked the planetary archives controller.

"These are excellent questions," said Coastwatcher dryly. "I propose they be tabled in favor of asking how we stop its compatriots from being here."

A general buzz of agreement, coupled with several nervous examinations of the spectroscopy, greeted his words. Stargazer continued. "Does it have a warp generator?"

"Yes. A crude one, again, but functional. Interestingly, however, the warp generator appears to be an applique rather than original equipment; it is mounted in a most inefficient manner and in a location where it is liable to suffer damage from a particular set of thrusters if they fire often enough during the weapon's active phase."

"That does explain the warp bubbles, doesn't it?"

"Not entirely," said Coastwatcher. "It explains how the bubbles we are observing inside Taukinos are likely being initiated. It does not explain from where or why."

"Actually," said Benthos, "I may have an answer to that." There was another silence. Benthos continued, unruffled. "I have been continuing to collate scan data in an effort to obtain additional information. I believe I have found some." He broadcast an image. It was of a faded, battered object, still dripping with mud and seawater; it was corroded and holed, but it was recognizably a twin to the weapon that Coastwatcher had shown them. A murmur of consternation went up.

"Where did this come from?" asked Mandarin sharply.

"Here," said Benthos simply. "M'sekan. Bottom of the coastal shelf."

"But that couldn't be where they were launched from," said Stargazer. "We would have seen it."

"I may have neglected to mention," said Benthos smoothly, "that this particular example is some eighty-five thousand years old."

* * *

It took the entire lot of the AIs to finish the cleanup. Stargazer to do the navigational calculations; Coastwatcher to build the warpfield mines, Benthos and several others to excavate enough ruins to find the answer. Some two and a half hours after sunrise, Mandarin was able to report to his human counterparts that everything was being handled, and they shouldn't worry. Secure in the knowledge that their AI partners were dealing with the situation, most of the people on the planet sighed in relief and went to have lunch.

Coastwatcher, Benthos, Stargazer and Mandarin 'stood' on the shoreline in remote manipulators, looking out over the placid ruffled water. Above them, as Coastwatcher brought the warpfield mines online, bright pinpricks were appearing in the sky, even shining past the risen white glare of Taukinos. These were safely outside its perimeter, however - on the side opposite M'sekan. The mines, tiny advanced warp generators, were activating with the proper timing to displace the returning missiles some five astronomical units across the system from M'sekan, leaving them safely remote from the star and the planet as they detonated.

"It was the only way," Benthos said softly. "There were too many of them, and they had too many weapons. They must have been armed to the teeth. They had to get rid of them. They knew what detonating that many weapons would mean, even if they did what they thought would get rid of them forever and drop them into the sun."

"So they changed the game," Coastwatcher said, looking up. "They added unbalanced warpfield generators and threw them into the future."

"Do you think they died out?" asked Mandarin.

"No," said Benthos. "Not then. The ruins down there are a spaceport. A massive one. Hundreds of klicks wide. They got off the planet. That missile was a thousand years old when it was buried by the sea."

"What was it doing there?" asked MacDonald. He didn't interact with humans much.

"I think it was a reminder," said Coastwatcher. "To remind them why they had to leave, and what they were working for. We don't know how they left, but their leaving appears to have caused enough disturbance to sink the spaceport - and, presumably, any other remnants of their civilization, although now we know to look for it - within a few tens of years."

All four of the AIs looked up.

It was Stargazer who said it. "I wonder if we'll meet them?" he asked. "I wonder if they made it?"

Posted by jbz at 1:22 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 18, 2006

Survey Team

Another story written for a creative writing challenge over at E2...

Sitting on the bench, Alwyn clutched the flask in both hands convulsively and watched his ex-classmates spill out the gates of Survey's groundside campus in twos and threes, laughing. Graduation would have just finished. His class— his ex-class, now members of Survey in their own right, off to the field to meet up with shuttles up to various Outpoint stations. There to lay on colossal drunks after stowing their gear aboard assigned Survey ships, and to begin their careers Going, Seeing, Surviving and Reporting. And, had he not chosen to begin that drinking a wee bit early, there too would he have gone.

He took a convulsive drink. Fuckers. The jetjuice made him shudder and drew tears. Which was why he was crying.

It took a moment to register that someone had chosen that moment to sit down next to him on the bench. Alywn counted to five in his head, then turned to snarl at the newcomer, but before he could open his mouth, the other spoke. "Alwyn Regerson?"

His anger forgotten in his surprise, Alwyn gaped. "Uh?"

"You are Survey Cadet Regerson, aren't you? Second in your class?"

Bitterness rose in his gorge. "Not any fucking more, whoever you are, and thank you so very much for reminding me." He turned back and drank.

"Oh, I know that, Mr. Regerson. I know. I was sorry to hear about that. Well, not sorry, really. You see, your...running afoul, shall we say, of the more puritanical bent of Survey might be to both our benefit."

Alwyn spat out the mouthful of jetjuice deliberately and turned to face the other. The man was graying, wearing a sleek black topcoat with a discreet sigil on the breast. Looking more closely, he could see a linked trio of letters, M-S-R. Mill-Surat-Roe. That didn't make sense; MSR was one of the largest (and most ruthless) starflight combines in existence, accorded the half-fearful, half-hateful sobriquet of 'The Company.' "How so?"

"My name is Haarlan. Shall we go somewhere and have a drink?" He indicated the flask. "Might as well save that for leaner times, eh?"

The bar was quiet, and that quiet along with the quality of the decor marked it as one of those places Alwyn would never consider drinking unless he'd just won a lottery. Haarlan merely nodded with a smile when he looked challengingly at the company man in response to the (human!) waitress' query, and ordered an (actual!) Scotch. When they had both been served, drinks that represented a week of his Cadet stipend, Haarlan continued. "Mr. Regerson, let me be frank. I'm here because you are – were – an outstanding Survey cadet, and we'd like to hire you. The work is dangerous, but no more dangerous than Survey work, and in fact is quite similar, with one or two small differences."

"You do realize I was kicked out for cause?"

"Of course. You were kicked out for illicit use of resources on your final practical survival exercise, correct?"

"Well, yes."

"To be blunt, you raided your group's stores and built a still, from which you produced an admirably pure ethanol base product. Adulturating it with additional supplies from the emergency survival and decontamination kits, you apparently managed to create a passable imitation of a recently-popular energy drink cocktail, which you then sold to your fellow recruits on a most ingenious credit chit system, redeemed on your return to the Academy grounds."

"You're quite well informed."

"You'd be surprised. What impressed us the most, Mr. Regerson, was that despite this...um...busy extracurricular schedule and entrepreneurial bent, none of your teammates complained about you slacking on your workload; none of your teammates nor any of the units whose stores you raided noticed or complained of missing stores, and no one suffered any privation or even inconvenience."

Alwyn drank reflexively. "I told the Board that, that I'd replaced everything before anything could have happened, I just needed to seed the cycle...but they didn't care. They didn't care. I broke the rules."

Haarlan leaned forward and clasped his hands in front of his dewy glass. His grin was somewhat sharklike. "Mr. Regerson. All I care is that you survived, and so did your teammates, unharmed and without inconvenience - and that despite your own sampling of your work, you were never unfit for duty. Not once."

"I'm not an alcoholic. I just appreciate the stuff."

"I believe that's what I said. Well, Mr. Regerson, here's the meat of it. Mill-Surat-Roe maintains a private Survey division, since, as you know, we open many mining and other resource exploitation planetary claims. Would you like a job?"

* * *

"Drop in five, repeat, drop in five. All I-team personnel man the drop shuttle. All I-team personnel man the drop shuttle."

The Vasco da Gama shuddered slightly. Auxdrive was burning to bend her approach vector away from a terminal drop into the gravity well of S45j/PB986, where Jump had left her. Alwyn stubbed out his cigarette on the frictionplate deck beside his leg and leaned back against the bulkhead for a last moment's peace. Around him, the relaxed activity of the team continued, gear moving into packframes and hands checking cargo pockets with the ease of long practice. Above and beyond them, the vaguely insectile bulk of the drop shuttle waited, slung in its cradle.

"Up and at it, little man." Kesh offered an arm, and Alwyn reached up to clasp it. Kesh swung him to his feet effortlessly. Alwyn wasn't large, but Kesh was – black as night and about the size of a house, Kesh was Survival on the I-Team. He was already festooned with equipment, and his packframe was settled beneath his shoulderblades. Ensuring Alwyn was standing on his own, Kesh moved on to rouse the others.

Alwyn shook his head, grabbed his pack from the deck, and jogged towards the waiting shuttle.

"I-team, this is da Gama, separation in thirty seconds, confirm please." da Gama's voice was calm and even as only an AI Monitor's could be. Kesh was buckling in; Pharris was actually already asleep in his shock couch, and Winra was looking out the port while tapping a nervous tattoo on her knees to some forgotten popular music piped over her headset. Sebastian was doing isometrics in his own couch at the back. Alwyn kicked his headset over to command mode, watching the flight controls before him come alive in a splash of holographics and simple backlighting.

"da Gama, this is Alwyn Regerson confirming separation at thirty from mark." Alwyn watched the shuttle's simple AI coming up as he spoke with da Gama, watched it checking the entry plot and nodding its electronic head, satisfied. He checked it too, as best he could in the seconds he had available, before switching back over to intercom. "Kesh, are you in?"

"Yeh, man, I'm in."

"Rock and roll." That was Winra, still drumming.

da Gama broke in at the five second mark, offering a countdown, then slapped them with a sledgehammer and tossed them out into the black.

* * *

"Team, this is Survival, Day two check-in." Kesh's voice was just as bassy as he looked, even through a headset link. Alwyn sat back on his haunches and wiped his brow, dropping the armfuls of fronded stalks he was busy scraping clean.

Pharris' voice responded first, coupled with a violet locater icon on Alwyn's HUD. "Team, this is Rations, checking in, clear."

"Team, Substance, checking in, clear." Winra's voice, this early in the insertion, was thoughtful and absentminded as she worked.

"Team, Rec, checking in, clear." Sebastian sounded as if he was running a marathon, which was somewhat appropriate.

Alwyn kicked his beacon. "Team, Shine, checking in, clear." All five locater icons flashed twice to confirm their status, and he returned his attention to the bundle of stalked plants. The sample was almost entirely clear of its budded stems and outer hard layers, leaving a pale bluish rod of material perhaps a meter and a half in length. It was damp with sap. The chemalyzer was still sniffing at it, but so far everything looked good - it was composed of dextrorotaries, and the pith of the stem looked like it was almost pure longchain starches. He left the armload of stems on the ground and moved to the next pile in his small clearing.

It had taken him a day to collect his various sample loads, but it was worth it. This was why he was here. Unlike some planetary bodies the I-team had worked, this one had a multitude of possibilities within easy range of the dropsite. The second pile was a sampling of a whitish lichen that he'd found covering the north faces of nearly all the rocky outcroppings he'd passed, to a depth of perhaps three inches. It was spongy but dry despite the damp air. The chemalyzer he'd dropped on top of this pile had already finished, indicating a relatively simple composition. Alwyn accessed the dump from his helmet HUD and frowned. There was a load of sugars, but there were also some strange looking alkaloids in there and a load of basic minerals no doubt leached out of the stone - calcium, some iron, a host of other metal traces. Not suitable, although he tagged an image of the stuff for Winra.

"Hey, Alwyn."

"Yeah, Pharris, how goes it."

"Not too bad. Hey, can I ask you to test something for me?"

Alwyn looked around. His final three sample piles had chemalyzers still winking amber, indicating they hadn't finished their runs. "Sure. I'll be there in five minutes."


Pharris' 'tests' were not only the least likely to kill him, but the most likely to improve his day. Alwyn trudged across the few hundred meters of low vegetation separating him from the team camp, carrying his sidearm drawn. They hadn't seen any creatures larger than a Terran rabbit since arriving, but caution had kept them all alive this long - and seventeen worlds was longer than any other survey team without a casualty. Their credit balances reflected that experience. Twice, motion in the ankle-high blue leafy plants caused him to stop, but both times the disturbance turned out to be caused by one of the hand-sized hoppers that Kesh had named 'panfrogs' on first look.

The panfrogs, which did in fact look like small buttered pancake stacks with two pairs of back froglegs, were more interested in getting out of his way than causing him any grief. As he drew close to the camp, he could see Pharris puttering around the outdoor work area he'd staked out as soon as they had finished expanding the domehuts and setting up the layered survey fencing. Three worktables were cluttered with implements and offal; two variable pads held pots, and five of them steamed gently. Pharris waved genially as Alwyn drew up and holstered his maser.

"Hello there, my esteemed colleague. Try a bit of this." Pharris offered a ladle, handle first, full of a purplish concoction. Since Alwyn had heard this greeting from him more times than he could count, and hadn't died yet from accepting it (and had only become really incapacitated less than a handful of times he could remember) he shrugged and took the ladle. Testing the heat, he sipped the stuff in it.

It was a ragout of some form. Pharris was still in the early phases of exploration, and there wasn't much subtlety; he was apparently still attempting to determine both the mechanical and colloidal properties of the local fare. As a result, the ragout (in addition to being purple) was slightly slimy, as well as containing a powdery substance that apparently was resisting water - almost like pockets of corn starch.

As usual, however, it was damn tasty.

"Shit, P, that's good. What is it?" The old joke.

"Ah, that would be telling."

"Aw, come on, man, what's in it?"

"My dear fellow, you haven't paid to see those cards!" Pharris beamed at him, reclaimed the ladle and sipped himself. Letting his eyes defocus a bit, he muttered "More simmering..." and returned the ladle to one of the pots. Alwyn poked his nose into a couple of the other pots, managing to sneak looks into two of them before Pharris slapped at him and growled menacingly. "No! One more look and I bill you!"

"Okay, okay! I just work here, I can't pay a Survey bill, Christ." Laughing, Alwyn desisted. He ran his tongue around his mouth. "You know, there's a little bit of an aftertaste to that one..."

"Really? What sort?"

"Hm...not great, kind of bitter."

Pharris whipped out a notepad and stylus and scribbled in it for a moment. "Thanks. Wouldn't have noticed that."

"No problem."

"How's it going on your end?"

"Oh, several promising avenues. I meant to ask you if you saw anything I should look at, by the way."

"Yes, in fact. Here, try these." This ladle contained a gruel of sorts. Alwyn looked carefully at it; since he was being offered a referral, this couldn't be considered insulting. The gruel appeared to be made up of small regular shapes. Grain? No...he picked one out and looked at it closely. It looked familiar, but had been softened by boiling. He tasted the gruel, and found it bland but with the characteristic slight sweetness of starch breaking down into sugars.

"Hey, that's perfect! What are these?"

"Beetles of some kind."

"Damn. How hard to collect?"

"If you find one of those large green domes around the field, break it open. It's a chitin habitat. There's thousands of beetles under each one. You have to be quick, though, they run when light hits 'em. Bring a sampling vac."

"Ah, okay. Specialty item. Where's the starch?"

"I'm not sure of the mechanism." Pharris reached over to the bench and pulled a sample case off it, handed it to Alwyn who took it and peered through the magnifying lid. "It looks like they sequester starchy food base underneath their shells for lean times. If you boil 'em, the legs fall off, and there doesn't appear to be anything toxic in them anyway. They don't taste very good for a few hours - you have to break down some nasty-tasting aromatics, but after that, it's just like having parched corn, sorta."

"Can I keep this one?"


"Thanks. When's dinner?"

"Couple of days. You bringing anything?"

"Maybe." Alwyn grinned at him and moved back off across the plain.

* * *

Even the domehuts looked welcoming in reflected firelight. Kesh had built a large firepit, with a ramp next to it for Pharris to work in, and slabbed several boulders to rough benches with his variable maser. The stones were warm by now. Alwyn wasn't sure precisely what was burning in the firepit, but it wasn't wood. There was a stack of what looked like pieces of enormous broken eggshell next to the pit. The fire was extremely hot, with an orange-red cast to it. The bottom was whitish.

Kesh came back into the circle of light, dropping a final load of shell before sitting down to join the rest of the team. Alwyn nodded at the fire. "Calcium?"

"Seems to be. Calcium and polysaccharides, straight calories. It reduces to calcium carbonate, and that's the white at the bottom. Don't get close, it's fucking hot. I have accelerant down there."

"What is it?"

"The shells of Pharris' beetle habitats. They abandon them sometimes, for whatever reason, and the older ones are dry. I tried the living shells; they burn as well, but there's a waxy coating on the inside that smokes badly and has all kinds of nasty crap in it. You wouldn't want to cook directly with it."

Winra wandered into the firelight and sat down, dropping her sample bag at her feet. She rummaged in it, came up with a chemalyzer and a handful of twig-shaped objects. Checking them, she threw one to each of the others and grinned. Alwyn looked down at his, unsurprised to feel shipfiber and see the small logo stamped onto the covering. Despite the stubborn coarseness of the basic fiber sheet used by the da Gama's laundry and paper synthesizer, the cylinder was neatly rolled with Winra's typical finicky care. He stuck one end in his mouth and fished a lighter out of a cargo pocket, ignited the other end, and took a cautious drag.

The blunt was startlingly smooth. There was a prickly pepper taste, but very little of the normal harshness of uncured weed. "Hey, this is nice."

"Yeah. I found it in a gully about three klicks that way." Winra waved vaguely to the southeast. "It looks like it likes damp and shade. If we believe Snorter here- " she patted the chemalyzer- "it should offer no toxic effects, but several unknown trace longchains which will produce unpredictable effects on the CNS and visual cortex."

There was a general laugh from the team. The chemalyzers were extremely good at detecting toxins, and famously terrible at predicting non-lethal effects of substances on humans. Sebastian raised his eyebrows at Winra, still holding his. "I presume...?"

"Yeah. It's nice."

That was a high recommendation. Winra had used her metabolism and gray matter to filter and sample more exotic chemical compounds than most organic chemistry textbooks had index entries. Alwyn sucked in a less tentative lungful of smoke, coughed once at the unfamiliar tingle, and slid forward off the stone bench to put his back against the warm shape as Pharris began serving various stews and two different roast creatures on smarttrays.

"Can you believe we get paid for this shit?" The daily prayer drew the daily laugh, which unlike most regular jokes never really lost its luster.

Alwyn's wristcomp beeped after a few minutes. He stood up, put his tray on the bench, and jogged back behind his hut. Grabbing the jerrycan whose ready light was glowing green, he returned. Everyone perked up, including Kesh, who had stuck his blunt in a shirt pocket. Survival duties outranked Winra's skullwhack of the week, but Alwyn usually got to be his favorite person around dinnertime.

Handing cups around, Alwyn unsealed the jerrycan and sloshed a few ounces of fluid into each cup before resealing the can and retaking his seat. He raised his own cup in a toast, then sipped. Everyone watched, only half jokingly.

The fluid went down easily, but a moment later the back of his skull lifted three inches, turned completely around, and dropped back roughly onto his head. He felt his eyes water as a greenish, herbal but not overly cloying taste filled his mouth, and he lowered the cup. "Wow."

That was all the others needed. A few minutes later, they were all sitting around the fire, grinning at each other. Even Kesh.

"Sebastian, you find a nubile chieftain's daughter yet?"


"Nah. Nothing. Zip. Zero. Even those things Phar's cooking aren't any fun. Really. I dunno how they reproduce at all, man, but it sure isn't any way I know."

"You mean, no way you can jimmy yourself into the middle of, you sick fuck." Alwyn nudged the jerrican towards Sebastian to take the sting out, and the other grinned dazzlingly through perfect teeth.

"Damn right. I mean, okay, I'm a guy tonight, and there's rocks...flat surfaces, you know. And I'd have a right hand, if it wasn't for Win's wonderweed. But if I flip tomorrow, I'm in real trouble, damn it, nothing on this rock even grows in cucumber shape!"

"Yeh, that sorta sucks. They'll have to ship it all in for the grunts, then."

Kesh snorted and threw another few shells on the fire. "Big deal. So they lose the perv tourist trade."

Sebastian leaned back lazily and grinned at Kesh. "Big deal, indeed. You know how much those fuckers pay? You know what the local concession on the Cteithon Vacmouth booths is on -378w?"

More laughter.

Alwyn finished his cup and cleared his throat. "Okay, okay. So are we cool with reporting, then?" Nods answered him. "All right. I'll call it in. We have a Four, then - Rations, Shine, Substance and Survival all concur, and Rec is just bored."

Sebastian waved a hand. "Not a total loss. I did a quick terrain survey. There's some really, really impressive mountain faces, but they're all concentrated around a single faultline on the other main continent. Still, there's a few multi-klick straight faces. Scenery, climbing, yadda. Dunno about snow, but straight base you should be OK. Might be worth a location survey over there."

Alwyn nodded. "Okay. So there you have it. I'll call it in. Now if only we could rig Personnel and get commissions on the bribes people are gonna pay to get posted to the mines here."

Laughter indicated agreement, and the Mill-Surat-Roe Staff Canteen Survey Insertion Team went to bed.

Posted by jbz at 5:53 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 31, 2006

Scary Story Time

Written for a scary story quest on E2. The title was already there, and the story followed from it.

We are trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and this machine is bleeding to death

"Don't catch your suit on anything sharp." Danforth was waiting in the lock with his armor on, wristlights lit, and as always he was spouting useless advice to the rookie. It was just his way of dealing with tension, so everybody ignored him. They always did before a dive. Shela was checking her tools, made fast to her bandolier; Monnon was tapping his boot toes on the deckplates. Pariah was edging towards the hulk, making small incremental burns as the grapplock rotated greasily, servos whining, to track some weak point the cameras had located on the hulk's hull. Strath, the rookie, was watching the 'lock turn back and forth a nervous look on his face behind the synthetic sapphire of his visor.

"Don't smack your faceplate, Strath, it's hard but you don't wanna scratch it up and screw your visibility."

"Okay, Dan."

"Leave off him, Dan, huh?" Shela tapped the last device with practiced fingers and looked up. "He checked out in drill. He'll be fine."

"Yeah, in drill. This is..."

"He knows what this is. C'mon, don't ride the kid just to make your own nerves easy." She shot Strath a grin to let him know this wasn't about him, which he returned gratefully.

"Sorry." Danforth shrugged at him apologetically.

"No, it's okay, I need all the tips I can get. I've never been on a live dive, after all."

more after the jump

"Aw, Christ, kid, don't tell him that, we'll be listening to him all damn day." Monnon's drawl was laced with mock horror, the tap-tap-tap of his boots traversing his suit fabric to underly his voice transmission. Pariah shuddered to a hard braking burn. The hulk was close. A tone in their suit phones heralded the ship's Monitor.

"Attention. Grapple in ten seconds. Prepare for impact."

They all took hold, Strath looking apprehensive, the rest suddenly relaxed. Seconds ticked, then-


"That's it, we're locked." Danforth's voice was noticeably calmer, relieved. "Okay, recorder. Salvage and investigation team Seven Seven Alpha, timestamp. Crewmembers Danforth Abizaid, Monnon Coyle, Shela Arakel, Strath Leukis. Monitor of record FSS Pariah. Attached to target; effecting entry through grapplock as per standard procedure, no information as to target condition. Going to automatic suit recording now." He motioned them all into the lock; when they were all within its confines, Shela palmed the red glowing plate and the inner door cycled with the floor-shaker and atmospheric buzzer.

There was a brief delay while the atmosphere was pumped out, then the lights cycled to orange as the grapplock's systems worked on the target. Finally the Monitor spoke again. "Target lock engaged. Systems functional. Opening outer door. Soft seal. Open. Opening lock for transfer. Good luck."

"Thanks, Pariah. See you on the flipside." Danforth swung the lockbar and the outer door slowly rotated outward into darkness. As it passed forty-five degrees, the lightbars mounted on the outside flickered to life to show the strait confines of the sealtube; at the other end, a scarred and pitted standard outer lockdoor waited.

They moved out of the lock one at a time, Danforth huge in his armor moving all the way to the far door. Shela moved up behind him in case her tools were needed. Monnon remained midway, weapons active; Strath, his various access modules quiescent until jacked in, hung just outside the door they left. Danforth waved an arm, and Strath reached back to palm the green plate outside the lock, watching as Pariah sealed itself again, the plate flipping to red. "Good seal, Commander."

"Thanks, Strath. Okay, here we go." He punched the matching plate on the other lock door. Nothing happened for a moment, then with a groaning noise the other door swung slowly outward. "Hey, that's promising."

The foreign lock remained dark, however. Danforth waited until the door had stopped, then angled his bulk inside. His wristlights illuminated a perfectly standard looking airlock, with FNS Vaicoeur stencilled along two surfaces in Navy-standard blue. "Looks like our pigeon. Pariah, call it in."

"Affirmative, Commander. Commander, sensors have detected extensive battle damage to the exterior hull of Vaicoeur as well as outgassing in several sectors. No EM-range signals have been detected. Gamma and warp radiation are also manifesting in sporadic bursts, indicating both primary and secondary core damage. Caution is advised."

"Acknowledged, Pariah. Thanks. What sort of outgassing?"

"Atmospheric and various system components, along with unidentified organics, possibly from hydroponics."

"Understood." Danforth waved the others in. Strath, last up, squeezed into the darkened lock with trepidation as Shela unclipped a panel and shined a hand torch into it, muttering to herself. After a few moments, a wan light came up in within the walls, and the outer door began to rotate shut.

"There's emergency power, Commander. Cycling the lock now." She closed the panel.

"Right." Danforth positioned himself before the inner door, poised to grab it with his gauntlets if it looked to hesitate. Strath watched the outer door cycling shut and tried not to gulp. Monnon, seeing this, clapped his shoulder.

"Don't worry, kid. If Shela's magic tricks can't get us out of here, Dan's armor can probably rip the doors off. If it can't, I can cut through the outer door in about five minutes without draining my ready reserve power."

Strath tried to grin at him, but it was hard. The outer door seated with a thud felt through the gauntlet he had braced against the wall. There was the normal five-second delay, then the inner door began to open. It made it halfway, then ground to a halt; Danforth grabbed the edge and levered. It swung slowly to the stop, and they filed in.

The suit foyer was lit dimly. There was a chaos of disorganized bits of suit armor lying around, but it didn't look like the foyer had taken battle damage; rather, it looked like there had been an attempted evacuation, interrupted in the middle, but there were no survivors or corpses anywhere. Greaves, gauntlets and breastplates lay scattered about, with softsuit unders lying on the floor and racked in lockers. It was impossible to tell if any were missing.

"Okay. Stick together. Head for main Engineering, we need to see what kind of shape the cores are in before we get any ideas." Danforth waved towards the bounce tube at the rear of the foyer. "Before we go, though, let Strath try his magic."

Immediately outside the armored door to the gravity shaft, Strath unhitched his access probe from his belt and tried to connect to the ship's Monitor through the hardport in the panel. There was no response, not even a heartbeat or network acknowledgement. He shrugged at Danforth, who nodded. "Okay, people, shaft time."

They forced the door open. The bounce tube was pitch black, but unblocked for as far as their lights could reach. While they were leaning into the shaft, Strath unhooked his probe and reattached it to his belt. As he did so, a slight movement at the side of his faceplate startled him, and he spun around; his wrist smacked into Shela's back. She in turn jumped and cracked her arm against the doorframe. "What--"

Strath was peering frantically into the darkness back towards the airlock, still gaping open where they'd left the door. Nothing was moving that he could see. Light flooded the area as Shela and Danforth, seeing where he was looking, directed their suit lights in that direction. "Strath, what?"

"Nothing." He hoped they couldn't see his blush through his faceplate. "Sorry. I thought I saw movement. It's nothing."

"You probably did." Shela said, patting his shoulder. "We probably kicked a suit component; standby grav isn't much at all in here, and it probably tumbled."

"Yeah..." Strath wasn't sure about that, but held his tongue. One at a time, they moved into the tube; Danforth first, Shela, then Strath, then Monnon in the rear, moving sternwards towards the engineering spaces.

Their radcounters started spiking as they traversed the heavy damage areas, indicating ordnance residue still embedded in the hull. Strath checked at three more access points, but either Vaicoeur's Monitor was truly dead or the network was breached in too many places to get a link through to it. Given the lack of power in ship's systems, he wasn't willing to place bets either way. Thoughts of the massive salvage bonus that Fleet was willing to pay if the Monitor's network could be reactivated were starting to look like forlorn hopes, though.

They emerged from the bounce tube, guided by Danforth's inertial guide and detailed schematics of the Fleur de Lys class assault carrier. Instead of the armored portal into Engineering Alpha, though, they found themselves in a vehicle bay, reflecting the number of 'minor' differences that every military construction contract since time began had accrued between design and commissioning. Cursing, Danforth and Shela scouted to starboard while Strath and Monnon went to port, looking for Engineering.

Strath was only three or four meters from Monnon, trying to determine whether the hatchway he was looking at opened to a passageway or a closet, when there was a sudden burst of light. He turned to find a smoking area of decking where Monnon had been, and nothing else.


There was no answer. He looked up, convulsively, turning his flash on the confusion of liftcranes and manipulators that rested over the cradle in which a large armored vehicle slept. Nothing. Shining the light on the deck revealed a burned patch, no longer bubbling, where Monnon's armor had apparently discharged its weaponry. Strath shivered and chinned his commo. "Commander?"

The voice was clear. "Strath? What is it?"

"Monnon...he's...he's gone."

"What?" Sharp. "What happened?"

"I don't know. I wasn't looking at him. There was a light, I think he fired, and now there's no sign of him."

"Stay where you are. We're coming to you."

"Roger." Strath slowly backed up to put the wall against his shoulder blades and reached down to his belt with his right hand. The gyp was there, still attached; he drew it and held it in both hands, aiming the chunky weapon at the deck in front of him as he swept his eyes back and forth. Nothing moved.

"Strath?" Danforth's voice was slightly labored. "Strath, you still there? We're coming up on you now. Don't shoot us."

"I'm here, Commander." Strath made sure his finger was off the trigger. A patch of wobbly light was approaching from starboard; it resolved into Danforth's armor, moving carefully around the various equipment in the bay. Strath took one hand off the pistol and waved. Danforth's figure waved back; Strath frowned. There was only one shape. "Commander, where's Shela?"

"She's with me."

"Sir, she's not." He watched Danforth stop and rotate clumsily, looking.

"Shit!" Danforth turned back, loped towards him, drawing his own weapon. "She was right behind me when we started. What-" He saw the burned decking. "Is this where Monnon was?"

"Yeah. He didn't even say anything. We were looking for hatchways, so I wasn't looking at him."

"Okay. Don't turn away from me. Keep your eyes on me, okay?" Danforth glared at him, intense in his concentration. When Strath nodded, sweating now, Danforth looked from side to side. They stood there for a moment, rocket pistols clutched between them, held slightly out the the side, talismans of fear. Danforth looked back at Strath, spoke again. "Monitor?"

"Receiving, Commander."

"Monitor, we've lost contact with Shela and Monnon. Do you have their locators on scan?"

"I do, Commander. They are colocated in Sickbay."

"Sickbay?" Danforth looked puzzled, then grim again. "Right. We're on it. Strath, with me?"

Strath gulped. "Yessir. Right with you."

"Good man. Okay, stay to my left."

They moved out of the bay and made their way forward along a companionway, Danforth checking his inertial guide frequently. The emergency lights were on, but spaced fairly far apart. Twice Strath spun, seeing movement out of the corner of his eye, but found nothing there; both times, Danforth spun with him, looking, then nodded and motioned him on.

Ten minutes and a single detour around a mangled area, open to dark space, brought them to a white blast door with a caduceus painted on it. Without speaking, Strath moved to the other side of it as Danforth put his back to the wall alongside, and at Danforth's nod, plugged his access probe into the port there.

There was a response. Weak, automatic, but a response. He nodded furiously at Danforth, then returned his attention to the jack. The Sickbay systems were online in emergency mode; he entered the override command Fleet's salvage division had given him and waited. There was a grinding through the wall behind him that spoke of damaged mechanisms, and the blast door rose into the overhead. Yanking his probe out, he followed Danforth into the bay.

The blast door rolled down behind them automatically. The sickbay was covered in blood and debris; gauze pads, offal and surgical tools strewn throughout telling of frantic battles fought by medical staffers against their traditional enemy with no hints as to the handicapping. Danforth was checking the beds along the back of the bay, but they were empty. "Monitor, locator check please."

"Crew locators intermittent; apparent signal interference on all locators due to core radiation. Last known location of Lieutenants Coyle and Arakel, Main Engineering."

"Damn it!" Danforth swore. "What the fuck-"

"Commander?" Strath ventured.

"What?" Danforth swung to face him.

"Where are the crew?"


"No, Vaicoeur's crew."

"They're-" Danfoth stopped. "Good question. We haven't seen any bodies. They might be in the shelters if they had rad leaks and atmosphere loss."

"Maybe, but there's atmosphere in most sections we've been through, other than the breached areas."

"Look, I don't know. It's possible they abandoned. I have more urgent problems right now, damn it."

"Yessir." Strath looked away.

"Okay, Monitor, we're heading back to Engineering. Let us know ASAP if our locators drop off."

"Affirmative, Commander."

Danforth opened the main door. As he did so, Strath saw something scuttle past his feet. Shouting, he spun about, bringing up the gyp; without waiting to see if Danforth had turned, he moved towards the back of the sickbay, positive he'd seen movement. His helmet lights shone on the detritus lying about the deckplates as he cast about for whatever had passed him, the nose of the rocket pistol questing. He had just lifted his gaze from the floor to the back of the bay when the shape resolved from the darkness, all sticks and bands, scrabbling, and his hand squeezed reflexively but the shell burst PAM against the back wall and then it was on him and he felt himself bowled over on his back, borne down to the deck against the feeble gravity, watching as the twiglike shapes fluttered towards his faceplate and there was a giant HHHSSSSSSSSHHHHHHHH and everything went out



"Strath?" The voice was familiar in his ears, if hoarse and painful. "Strath, damn it, wake up."

He opened a gummed eye. There was weak light, and indistinct shapes. He felt awful; hot, ill, swollen. His joints ached. He couldn't move. Something was holding his wrists in an implacable grip. He closed his eyes again and squeezed them shut, trying to work whatever was gumming them closed out of his orbits, and then opened them again. Both opened this time. "Shela?"

"You're awake." The relief was palpable. "Can you see?"

"I...think so." He blinked. It helped, somewhat. "Wait, where's my suit?"

"They took them."


"The bots." He peered around. He was standing against a metal wall, in what had to be engineering; huge machines lurked everywhere. He looked left, towards the voice. Shela was standing there, her suit gone as well. She looked florid and just as rumpled as he felt. Looking down, he saw ther their wrists were locked to the wall by crude restraints. He tested them; metal clinked against metal, wrongly, but they didn't move.

"What bots? What the hell..."

"There are some kind of bots wandering around here. I think they're ship's manuatics, but I don't know."

"Ship's - damage control?"


Strath thought about that for a second. "Any sign of Danforth and Monnon?"

"They're to my left, down a few yards. They're still out."

"What the hell's going on?"

"I don't know." She laughed, short and hard. "But look to your right." He did, sucked in breath. Clustered around a rough-looking cylinder were four figures, clothed in the dark blue of Fleet. They were shriveled, almost mummified; milky eyes looked out of faces screaming silently in gape-mouthed fear.

"Oh, Jesus."


"What happened to them?"

"I have no idea. But I can't help thinking it's gonna happen to us."


"Look at their hands."

He did. The four figures were restrained at the wrists, but that wasn't all, there was something strange about the way they were chained in. He couldn't quite make it out. Before he could angle his neck further, though, movement to his left snapped his head back around. A jumble of metal rods, which was now identifiable as a standard damage control bot in the light, shambled forward and faced him, lenses clicking as they rotated.

"Bot, release me." He snapped the command out. It was worth a try. It ignored him.

"I tried that." Shela said absently. "They're not listening."

"Bot, override Sigma Seven Niner Three Desiderata Five, acknowledge." Strath recited the Fleet override, hoping. Nothing. The bot reached for his wrists and gripped them securely, undoing the shackles with its secondary manipulators. "Shit."

"Strath, if you get a chance, there's a gun in my boot, okay?"

He kept his voice calm. "Which boot?"

Shela laughed. "Both of 'em."

Surprising himself, he laughed too. "Remind me not to hit on you in a downside bar." The bot pulled him away from the wall, towards the cylinder. He looked down, and almost fainted; his wrists were scarred, with metal bands embedded in the flesh on their inner surfaces. That was what had produced the clinking when he'd struggled. "What the hell is that?"


"There's some kind of metal on my wrists-" The bot pulled one of the corpses off the cylinder and sat him forcibly on the small ledge it had occupied, then placed his wrists beneath the restraints. He struggled, but was no match for electromagnetic servos. He felt a sickening click as the metal sockets on his wrists mated with the mechanism on the cylinder, then the restraints locked down over the joints and he was unable to move them a millimeter as they were pressed painfully into their places.

"Strath, what's it doing?"

"I don't-" he grunted, struggling as the bot moved to his right towards an access port and inserted a probe. "It's got my wrists locked to this damn cylinder and AIIIIIIIGH!" The scream was pure pain, as molten lava flooded into his arms. His fingers curled instantly into claws. He felt himself urinate into his utilities, but it was far away and unimportant; there was a whining sound and a module that looked strangely familiar lowered itself from the ceiling to surround his upper body. Somewhere, someone was shouting his name, urgently, but it didn't matter, through the pain that was moving up his forearms and into his thorax. Blessed cold seeped through him, needles of ice from the module as it tried to caress him and fight off the fire.

The fire and the ice fought, and in between, Strath screamed.

Danforth came to, muzzily, at the screaming. "Whuzzat?"

"Danforth? Christ, Danforth-" It was Shela's voice, and she sounded like she was crying.

"Shela? What the hell is going on?" He snapped awake, struggled against the restraints, looked around. "Oh, Christ, what are they doing to the kid?"

"I don't know, D, I don't know. He said something about there being metal in his wrists, and then they plugged him into that thing, and then he started screaming and that thing came down over him."

"He screamed, and then that thing came down?"

"Yeah, why?"

"That's a hospital support module."

"So what? Jesus, they're killing him!"

"No, wait. If he screamed first, then that thing's not what's doing it."


"So something else is, and the module's keeping him alive. So there's a purpose to whatever's hurting him. Who did this?"

"It's the repair bots, Dan, the ship's bots."


The voice was faint, but legible, repeated through the implanted conductor in his mastoid. "Yes, Commander."

"Monitor, status!"

"All crew locators in main Engineering. Slight increase in outgassing. Lowering of external blackbody radiation from engineering module of target."

"Wait, what? Lowering temp?"

"Yes, commander."

"Son of a bitch." Danforth was breathing hard, his eyes narrowed. Strath was still screaming. A repair bot approached Shela; she began to kick at it.

"Danforth, what the fuck is going on?"

"Oh, hell. Oh, no." His face had gone white. He craned his neck, looking hard at Strath, still screaming on the other side of Shela's struggles.

"WHAT?" She was kicking at the bot, now. It was bouncing away from her, but patiently returning with mechanical implacability. "What is it? What are they doing?"

"They're saving their ship. Christ, I didn't see it. Battle damage - they lost coolant on the reactor, Shela. The fucking coolant loop broke. There's no liquid stores anywhere on the ship. There's no power to pump coolant. The reactor's at standby, but it still needs to move coolant just that little bit, enough to keep the core low."

"What the fuck does that have to do with us?"

Danforth felt the bot unhook his left wrist. He kicked at it ineffectually; it was a larger model, hull maintenance, and didn't react. "We're the radiators, Shel. Us. It's using blood for coolant. Organic outgassing, fuck, I should have known." He was being carried to the cylinder, arms held firmly to his sides. "I hope you can get to those damn guns, honey, or we're screwed. Strath's already toast; it's not just heating his blood, it's irradiating it, but it's gonna lose it, too. Monitor, mark and send message buoy recorder NOW. Christ, outgassing, my ass. This ship is fucking bleeding."

There was a click as his left wrist locked against the cylinder. He smiled dreamily, waiting for the reactor core to drink of him in its burning. "Imagine that. It's bleeding."

Posted by jbz at 6:45 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 6, 2006

The screams grow in green ice.

(Note: written for a Hallowe'en story quest on E2)

"The screams grow along the walls. Green and black ice. They are thicker every day, every hour. Soon it will not be possible to prevent them soiling the pristine white of the pressure suit kneeguards as I dab my way along the main connector in my watch-by-watch commute from T-module to Command, to keep my vigil - to light the fire in the brazier for the dead."

LCdr Virgil Everard, USN (Det.)

Blue is the color of Uphill. Blue is the color we can see of the world we leave. Blue is the goal. Blue is the joy. Blue.

White and gray and black and blinking phosphor is the cradle and the life. Smudged nonstick, quartz glass and acres of plastics, dinosaurs escaping the world millions of years too late to avoid the extinction event. Right seat. Right seat. 6DOF controller resting lightly in my circled hand, the padded metal of the rest alongside my arm, holding it vertical.

Leaving programmed hold. T minus eight-fifty-seven. No unplanned events. Continue count.

I can't look left, where Ayako is sitting. She's calm. I know she is. She always is.

more after the jump...

SRO, status confirm?

Go flight!

Roger, thank you. Continue with director. Environmental...?

Light the fires. Kick the tires. Burn the wires.


GO flight!


GO flight!


GO flight!


GO flight!


GO flight!

A litany of fever, green for go. An army of men and women and aluminum and chemistry and physics and aerodynamics and money and politics and fear and sweat and toil, all poised in the starter's block; enough raw power to level a small town caged beneath my feet. A match handed to a giggling computer.


GO flight!


GO flight!


GO flight!


GO flight!

The blue is interrupted with a trace of white; a small wisp of cloud moving across the sunsplashed windows of the flight deck above me. I can hear my voice responding in trained, crisp affirmatives; watch my hands moving switches and tapping command sequences into the flight computer. Ayako and I switch off responding to Flight as the veteran she is and the professionals we both are. Somewhere behind and beneath us, I can feel the Payload getting nervous - this is really going to happen, really today. We're past the critical five-minute-block; the computers are happy, which means the bird is happy - the most complex machine ever built thinks it's not broken and it wants to go. The dangerous bits (ha!) start to flow past now.

Cee-dee-are (that's Ayako, Commander) APU start is go, confirm.

"Flight, this is CDR, APU start acknowledged." Ayako flips the toggle she's been resting her finger on, nods at me; I flip mine. Somewhere deep in the belly of the bird, among the myriad sources of noise and clangor, a whine builds and makes itself known. A row of readout blinks thoughtfully on the OPSCON and goes green in satisfaction as all of the APUs switch into the mains and the bird shoulders the load. "Flight, Atlantis, APU start is go, over."

We're burning hydrazine now. Shutdown gets harder. I think we're going to go.

T minus thirty-one seconds. Gee-Ell-Cee handoff complete. Atlantis, you're on your on-board computers, over.

"Ground, Atlantis, we're on our onboard computers, over."

oh my god, we're going

-go for main engine start-


...four, we have main engine start, one, and...



and like that, we're gone.

* * *

"The International Space Station is the focus of the world's attention on manned space stations. It is, however, not alone in Earth's low orbitals. There is at least one other duty post up there; one that is much less observable and has been there for quite some time longer. It is in fact more than twenty-five years old, and would be quite familiar to any space aficionado, since it was constructed using the unknown-to-the-public third hull of the Skylab program. The second hull sits in the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC; the third sits some four and a half thousand miles over the Earth in a circumpolar orbit. It was placed there in the mid 1980s, using a hastily-resurrected Saturn V launch vehicle, the last of its kind; it was boosted into a high orbit using thruster packs brought up on Department of Defense Atlas and Delta missions, controlled by military astronauts - milnauts - transported originally to its initial low orbit by the nascent Space Shuttle program. The first few Shuttle flights had a very light official crew roster - but not in truth."

-VAdm. John K. Shaefer, NRO

* * *

The Tank separates with a slight jolt. I use the hand controller to give us a small translate so as to allow the cameras mounted on the orbiter's underside a good picture of the tank falling away, as per the mission profile; it begins its long fall down to the Indian Ocean, and we prepare to burn the Orbital Maneuvering System to circularize our trajectory into an orbit. Ayako gives me a thumbs-up, and resumes talking to Ground via the Jakarta downlink.

I have seventeen unused seconds to sightsee as we roll the bird to align the OMS pods. Home is beautiful and blue.

The OMS burns, a sharp blare of white noise that cuts off abruptly with a computed pat on my back of approval; we're in orbit. There is a moment of silence, and then a cheer erupts from the Payload behind us. Ayako grins at me. We're the Crew; this is just Business to us. We unstrap and begin to release the Payload from their seats.

Space is everything I'd thought it would be. Busy, sweaty, incredible, crowded, and silly. It's kindergarten in a 747 with no seats. Everything is that flat aluminum and plastic and has been used by seventy-nine people prior to you; at least, in here, you know the ground crew did a damn good job cleaning the john.

Now we just have to convince the multiple-Ph.Ds to do the same when it's their turn.

The moment comes all too soon.

"People." Ayako has the Command Voice on. Everyone quiets, turns towards her in the Interdeck access. It's day three, nobody bounces off a surface while turning. "People, as commander, I'm invoking Case Exodus. Is that understood?"

There are several disbelieving stares. Case Exodus? It was a contingency plan, right? Never to be used? What the hell...

"People, you have one minute. Get moving. I am not kidding, and I am counting." Command voice had acquired steel. Steel is harder than aluminum. No-one wanted to let it near the hull. People moved. I wanted to move, but I didn't; I was already at my duty station, near the mid-bay lock. Within fifteen seconds, the payload was back in their seats, strapped in. I nodded to her, opened the lock, and stepped inside. She closed it behind me. I turned to face the back, took a deep breath, and opened the outer door.

* * *

Case Exodus is intended to ensure the safety of Shuttle astronauts in the event it becomes necessary for the flight crew to perform an emergency EVA. In the event of Case Exodus, all non-flight crew must return to their launch stations at once and strap in in case of vehicle movement. You may hear crew members leaving the shuttle. Do not converse with them, nor ask questions; this is for your safety. They cannot afford the distraction. When the emergency is over, you will be fully briefed. A Case Exodus means that the crew has determined that there is a situation which does not endanger personnel inside the Shuttle, but requires immediate response in order to secure the safety of the vehicle. Any attempt to disturb flight crew procedures during a Case Exodus is punishable with extreme measures. If you feel you cannot perform these emergency procedures, please notify your qualification officer before proceeding to this phase of payload training.

Flight Training Emergency Procedures (Classified)

* * *

The Crew Transfer Vehicle was locked to the floor of the Cargo Bay. I stood over it in my MMU and carefully undogged the turnbuckles holding it down, then moved to the main feed panel and disconnected the consumables and electrics. Seven minutes since entering the MMU where it hung, back pane attached to the airlock. Ayako's voice. "How's it looking, Virgil?"

"Looks broken, Commander."

A laugh. "That's not a very precise sitrep, Commander."

"Sorry. Uh...really broken."

"Okay. I'll tell the folks." I heard a click as she switched to the general crew frequency, preparing to give them the cover story. "Folks, this is your captain speaking." I could imagine the chuckles, wrung from the Payload as much by tension as by the weak joke. "We appear to be having a small problem with one of the bay door motors. The indefatigueable Commander Everard has determined that in order to properly access the motor, we'll need to move up the launch of our satellite to this orbit; removing it from the bay will allow him proper access to the motor diagnostic panel. There's nothing to worry about; even if the motor is malfed, we can disengage it from the geartrain once the sat is out of the way. If the other motors aren't enough, Virgil will be sent out to help manually crank the bay doors closed when we need to close 'em for re-entry; we've practiced this. As for our payload, we're already in the proper orbit; we're just going to launch it on this go-around instead of waiting for you folks to finish several planned experiments. Okay, more as it happens. Virgil, go to it."

"Roger, Commander." I moved back to the CTV and punched the 'READY' sequence into its external arming systems; the status lights winked green over the keypad. "Booster pod is armed. Prepare to extend the arm."

"Extending arm." Ayako's silhouette in the bay window ducked slightly, and the robotic arm moved the CTV's angular length out of the bay, slowly shoving it into clear space. I hung onto the grip near the lock and watched it go; safety violation for NASA to be outside, but critical for CTV ops. If anything went wrong, the two men cocooned in that coffin-like device would have only me to respond, and the ten minutes of airlock cycle time might be too long.

The CTV hung some few yards away, its small engine bell aimed clear of Atlantis, as the arm retracted. The countdown timer spun in my faceplate display, moving past fifteen seconds-

"SHIT! Virgil, priority, check your right boot, NOW."

I looked down. There was a fine glimmer of light circling the right foot of the MMU, spiraling off into space. What the hell? "What the hell is that?"

"I have no idea, but it's headed out towards the payload. Disengage it or abort abort abort."

"I can't abort, Ayako, it's locked..." I struggled to get my arms free of the MMU's control braces, but it was already too late. There was a silent flare of light above me as the CTF's engine fired; it moved away out of my faceplate's field of view. I was spinning slowly by now as I tried to reach my right boot.


"That's a negative, Commander." My voice had gone the extremely flat and precise tone that meant imminent disaster to any pilot. I managed to get my right arm free, reached down- my fingers struck resistance near my ankle. Something very thin, thinner than cord or rope, but before I could try to disentangle it, there was a jerk and I was spun upwards away from Atlantis in the CTV's wake. "Ayako, I'm gone."

"Roger." Her voice was matching mine. I could hear Ground babbling something over the background. "I'm switching you directly to Cheyenne Ops."

"COMMANDER EVERARD THIS IS-" there was a quick burst of static and then the voice came back, mercifully lower in volume. "-this is Cheyenne ground ops, do you copy?"

"I copy, Cheyenne Ground, this is Everard." I was no longer spinning, but being towed by my ankle. The thrust was an apparent half-G or so, about what the CTV was rated for. I was glad it had apparently compensated for me; if I had kept spinning, I would have been in serious danger of aspirating my subsequent sick.

"Everard, what's your status, over?"

"Cheyenne Ground, I'm somehow tangled with the CTV. An unknown line has my right boot tangled; the CTV has commenced burn and I am in tow, over."

There was a brief silence. That didn't make me feel good. "Roger, Everard. Don't panic, son. We're all going to get you out of this, over."

"I know, sir." God, that was a lie it hurt to tell. "Over."

"CTV status is nominal. Burn is within limits, fuel consumption is within limits, according to FIDO. TELMU says your MMU status is green, and you have enough consumables to make Nightpost One, do you copy, over?"

A rush of relief swept over me. "Cheyenne ground, I copy CTV burn nominal, TELMU says my MMU will get me to Nightpost One, over."

"Roger that, Everard. Just hold on. The burn should last another few minutes, over."

"Roger, over."

The burn did last a few more minutes. When it stopped, I began spinning slightly. When I could see the dark shape of the CTV, I started hand-over-handing up the mysterious line; a few minutes later I was snugged against the underside of the CTV. The line turned out to be what looked like a tie-down cable, attached at the CTV end to a quick-release, which I quick-released. I reported this to Cheyenne, who acknowledged and thought that was a good plan, and advised me to stay off the radio to conserve MMU power. That sounded like a good idea to me, so I signed off and tried to stay as close to the CTV's surface as possible by attaching the MMU's utility clamps to a pair of grips I'd found.

A few minutes later, I became aware of a tapping noise. This made me as afraid as any unexpected noise in a spacesuit could. It took a few minutes to realize that it wasn't coming from the MMU, but the CTV, and that furthermore, it was in Morse. I waited, listened-


I thumped the CTV twice with my right gauntlet. I'd forgetten all about the poor bastards sealed in the CTV, living in luxury coffins for the three days of our flight so far. They, apparently, had been told about my plight. The thumping resumed.


What? Oh. Feeling silly, I reset the MMU's comm gear to shortrange VHF on 121.5 MHz, emergency frequency. "This is Everard."

A staticy voice. "Everard? This is Gonzalez, Major, USMC. You out there with us?"

"Yeah, Major, I am. Not my idea."

"What happened?"

"I was tangled in some kind of line. No idea where it came from. It caught my right boot during boost."

"Has Cheyenne got a plan for getting you inboard after docking?"

"Not yet, why?"

"The only available lock on Nightpost's docking adapter is going to be occupied by the CTV. The other will have a crew escape vehicle on it. We're going to have to get you in somehow."

I hadn't thought of that. "Shit."

"Yeah." A quick laugh. "Good thing we're geniuses, right?"

"Major, we get me in there, I swear I will never badmouth the jarheads again."

"Commander, if you buy the beer, you got a deal."

"A whole fucking brewery of it, boot."

"Okay, gimme a few. I gotta talk to the boss in here, he doesn't have VHFcomm."

"Roger that."

There was a click as Gonzalez went off the air. Then I was really, truly, alone.

That let me start thinking, which didn't help. Nightpost didn't exist, of course; other than to a tiny minority of military space personnel and NCA types, as well as NRO muckymucks who funded it, the ISS was the only space station. That meant problems for me. The Payload didn't know about it. So where was I?

I was outside Atlantis, dealing with a broken bay motor. But I wasn't. As soon as Ayako released them from their seats - and she'd have to any moment now - they could see with their own eyes that I wasn't out there. I was lost. That meant I had until the original duration of my MMU stores to get back to Atlantis before hard questions would be asked.

That wasn't going to happen. The CTV was a one-way trip. Return from Nightpost was done using capsules launched to its orbit empty by EELVs, their small onboard fuel supplies. This much I knew, and not much else; I had no need to know. All I did know-

-was that I was now officially dead. There was no way I would return to OV-104, and a story would have to be concocted to explain what had happened to me - and there could be no happy ending without divulging Nightpost's existence.

Nightpost had silently killed three men that I knew of so far. All had died in training crashes, aboard jets that were never found in the depths of the Pacific. One of them was ashes in the atmosphere; one had burned to death on the destruction of an 'unmanned' launch, and the third - I didn't know what had happened to the third. We didn't ask.

Now there was a good chance I would be the fourth. Even if I made it to the station, I couldn't think of a way to get inside. The two hatches were not full airlocks, meant only to dock transfer vehicles; there was one small airlock, I thought, but I didn't know where on the station it was. I kept thinking how much more convenient it would be if I never made it inside, and felt the temperature in the MMU dropping.

"Everard?" It was a new voice.

"Yessir!" Whatever the new voice was, it had command snap. That yessir was completely involuntary.

"Everard, this is Colonel Aikers, Christian Aikers, FLIGHTCOM CTV."


"Listen close, Everard. Turn your MMU to sideband seven, and make sure you're on minimum transmit power, you got that?"

"Aye aye, sir. Switching now." I did it. "Everard here."

"Okay, Commander, here's the situation. Stay shut up until I'm done, because I don't care how bad it looks from out there, it's worse. I'll tell you when to talk. Gonzalez and me, we're relief for Nightpost. I know you're briefed on the Post, you were our launch support, correct? Respond."


"Okay. What you weren't told, and had no reason to know, is that we're relief early because the current crew has stopped calling home. Everything we send up instructions-wise gets done, we're still getting the take, but nobody's answering the phone. You get me?"

"No sir. I mean, yessir, I understand, but-"

"Okay, skip it, I get you. Right, nobody else does either. The Major here is a boarding specialist and he's armed. I have seen the elephant and I'm armed as well; I'm also certified on most of the 'Post's systems. You, son, are a problem."

"I figured that, sir. I guess I'm dead, now."

"Yeah, well, we'll work that out later. You may be dead for real if there's actually something screwy up here. We know that voicecomm is working. Most likely scenario is one of the three crew went bugfuck and we've got a Sole Survivor scenario, you reading me on this? Albatross Soup?"

"Oh, Jesus." I was reading him loud and much too clearly. "You're serious."

"As a fucking heart attack, sailor. Get a grip. Welcome to today, it's a lovely fucking war. Look, crazy as it sounds, you may be our ace in the hole."


"You're not part of the mission plan. But you're out there, and you're going to make it to the Post with us. Best we can calc, you're going to have something like twenty minutes of stores when we make hard seal with the Post. You'll also be able to see into the docking module, there are ports in it for alignment. You'll be able to see what's going on. If something - if things go badly wrong, and they might, because Gonzalez and me've been lying on our asses for three days now, remember, you're our only shot."

I didn't say anything for a second. "Sir, how am I going to get in?"

"Okay, that's the other thing I called to tell you about. I know you weren't briefed. Do you know the basic outlines of the Post?"


"Okay, listen carefully. We're going to be coming in at one end, and docking on the end port of the docking adapter. Looks just like the original Skylab design. There's another port at ninety degrees to ours, that'll have the current re-entry vehicle docked to it. The windows are in the docking adapter module itself, outboard of the airlock. Now, where the solar observatory was on Skylab, there's a stores and battery module, with an inflatable storage area where the antennas were on Skylab. Okay, with me so far?"

I was frantically trying to picture the Skylab module in my head. Thinking about it in the countless pictures around Johnson Space Center, about the walk-through second hull in the Smithsonian. "Yessir, I'm pretty sure."

"Good. Now, the other end, the meteoroid shield, that's gone; there's a connector there that links up to the main machinery and storage module. That's an old Shuttle main tank, the only one we managed to lift without coating. Off either side of that, there are two solar panel arrays. At the base of the Main Tank module, there's a meteoroid shield since it's the largest surface, and it's up-orbit. Where the Main Tank - that's called T module, the skylab hull is K module - is attached to the connector, there's an adaptor module. That module has the airlock in it, you copy?"

"Yessir. K module is the skylab, T module is the tank, junction of the connector and T has the airlock. Sir, what face?"

"Good catch, commander. Same facet as the K module's storage and inflatable extension. Now, off the two sides of the T module not containing solar panels, you're going to see large modules. Those are the sensor modules, so don't bump 'em, okay?"

"Yessir. Any on K module?"

"Yes, but they're the ones that can take vibration, since living quarters and control are in K."

"Okay Colonel. What's the plan?"

"Gonzalez and I make entry after docking. If all goes well, we'll signal you by flashing a light - two shorts, two longs, two shorts - out the windows of the docking module. If not, you head directly for the airlock. One more thing."


"Before you cycle the lock, you'll need to break seal on the airlock module. That will both seal it from the rest of the Post and ensure that the lock will open to the outside."

"Won't that depressurize the whole thing?"

"Not if they've followed procedure. The airlock module is never supposed to be opened to the rest of the station except to allow passage."

"But Colonel, if you're in there-"

"Son, if we don't flash you that light within thirty seconds, you can assume Gonzalez and I are in no shape to care what happens - or if we are, we'd prefer you opened the damn station, you copy that?"



"Okay then. There's a dump valve on the outside of the airlock. It's got the usual warning bullshit on it, and you'll have to break a soft metal seal to use it. Make sure you're not in front of it when it goes."


"Once you're in the lock, if the module still has seal from the rest of the station, cycling the lock will close the valve and start repressurizing it. At that point, my only recommendation to you is to cowboy the fuck up and get yourself into the T module as fast as possible, and remember what I'm about to tell you."

"I'm listening, Colonel."

"There's a destruct switch in T. It's against the base wall, near the heat shield. It dumps the reactant tanks on all the thruster packs, and sets off explosive bolts on all the major station connectors. You'll know it when you see it. If you need to, and I'm not about to tell you what will constitute that need, use it. I'm recording this order into the CTV systems; if the station goes, the CTV recorders will probably survive re-entry."


"Second, and less apocalyptic. In the T module, look for signs for 'Camera Maintenance.' There's a small compartment which has tools to perform basic module repair on the sensor modules. When you find it, look for a latched drawer marked 'Cable Ties.' It has a false back. Do you get me?"

"I get you, sir."

There was another silence, then a heavy sigh, weary. "I'm sorry as hell, boy. You didn't even get a chance to volunteer for this shit."

"No sir, but it looks like it's my only ride home."

"True that. Okay Everard, get your rear off the air and save power. We have what looks to be an hour and twenty-five minutes until docking, and Gonzalez and I are going to do our damndest to get some rest. I suggest you do the same."

"See you inside, sir."

"See you inside, Commander."

There was a click as the channel cleared. I looked out the faceplate at the metal surface of the CTV, numb. Any moment now, Ayako would punch my shoulder, and I'd wake up to see the smudged flight deck windows. Any moment now.

Didn't happen.

An hour and thirty minutes later, during which I was forced to use the MMU's sanitary deconveniences, a dark shape had risen into view - Nightpost, covered in low-observability materials. Occasionally a wink of metal or lens showed, and on the side opposite the Earth I could see two or three lights, but other than that it looked black, cold and dead. I knew that was intentional, but it still made me shudder. I clicked the VHF back on.

"Colonel? We have the Post in sight."

"Roger that, Commander. Silent running."

I clicked off. The CTV had been performing small deceleration burns for some time, and by the time we edged up to the side of the Post, nearly relative motion had been cancelled. I could tell when the quick rhythmic jets changed to longer, less regular ones that one of the two humans inside had taken control. We drifted towards the docking adapter. I scuttled as best I could away from direct sight of the Post; it was easier now that the engines at the back of the CTV were silent. I moved the MMU around to the back edge of the craft, making sure not to cover a thruster nozzle, and hung on, latching the MMU's utility clamps to the tiedown hooks where the CTV had been attached to Atlantis.

Eight minutes later, there was a slight sideways lurch and a CLACK transmitted through the aluminum frame of the CTV. I presumed that meant we were docked. Moving around the side of the CTV that was in shadow, I made my way forward, checking the MMU's status readout. I had deliberately avoided looking at it until now; it read sixteen minutes of air, and was blinking all manner of orange and red icons at me. I ignored it resolutely once more and dabbed my way forward, a trip made more difficult by the lack of decent handholds on the CTV. I didn't want to use the MMU's jets this close to the Post's hull, since the lash of ice crystals would most likely be noticed.

I made it in time, though. A couple of minutes later, I was holding on to a tubular support structure of the Post itself, which caged the docking adapter in its heart. I could see, through the small quartz glass ports, that the hatch into the CTV had not yet opened. As I watched, the status lights alongside it went green, and the hatch shuddered as one of the occupants shoved at it.

There was, as yet, no-one in the adapter to meet them. My angle was poor, since from where I was perched I was looking mostly towards the CTV, but I could see a couple of yards in from the hatch. After a couple of seconds, the hatch lock wheel turned, and it opened into the space. A dark-haired head poked out, which I presumed to belong to Gonzalez. He moved slightly awkwardly into the docking module, looking around him, which I presumed meant that there was no one to meet him.

A drop of sweat came loose around the padding in the MMU helmet and drifted outwards to splash against my faceplate, blurring a spot on my field of view. I shook my head in annoyance, but there was nothing I could do about it save try to calm my racing heart. That failed miserably.

Gonzalez turned to say something back into the CTV. He apparently got an answer, because he leaned back into the hatch to either respond or to hear better - if the Post was anything like Atlantis, the noise of systems was likely fairly awful.

I didn't see it start.

All I knew was that before I could shout in surprise, Gonzalez was drifting with his head inside the hatch and his arms limp, gripshoes loose from the deck, and a figure in Air Force Blue was kneeling on his back to look past his head into the CTV. The figure tensed and threw back its head slightly, in what was unmistakably a scream of some sort, and a greenish tinge suffused my view of the docking adapter. Although I recoiled as the arched head came back and the eyes looked out the window, there was no way the other could have seen me other than as a silhouette occluding stars; I was unlighted in the station's shadow, and the adapter itself was brightly lit inside.

The eyes were shining with a light of their own. They were glowing orange.

I turned and began pulling my way along the outside of the Post, swearing monotonously under my breath. I had no idea what the hell was going on, but I knew - knew - that Gonzalez was dead, and if Aikers wasn't sealed in his suit and damn well protected in the CTV, he was either already dead or likely to be soon.

That left me, and my now thirteem minutes of air.

The exterior of the Post was weathered with pitting, legacy of its years in space. I passed alongside one of the extended solar panel 'wings' and made my way past the base of the K module. As Aikers had said, a roughly cylindrical connector stuck out of the middle of the base. At the other end was multihedron of a module with the enormous looming shape of an External Tank just past it, visible despite its low-observable overspray. And on the 'up' side of the module-

There it was. A hatch.

I grabbed frantically at whatever protuberances I could find, and swung myself to a stop before the airlock. There was a glass-covered panel next to it with a T-handle behind the shield; I punched my gauntlet through the glass and tugged the handle. Nothing happened. I pulled my gauntlet out and got a grip on myself, remembering two things; one, Aikers had said the valve was sealed, and two, there was no way the whole MMU was going to fit in this airlock.

Methodically, I started removing the maneuvering unit from the support suit I was wearing. That took four precious minutes, and I lost a good percentage of the propellant before fumbling the seals closed, but eventually got it clamped to a handhold next to the airlock. Then I looked into the handle again and saw the band of soft metal holding the handle up. I grabbed one of the few remaining shards of glass still in the frame, drew it across the band of what looked to be aluminum or lead, and felt it crunch into splinters in my hand. Deliberately opening my gauntlet to avoid embedding them, I waved it a couple of times, watching flickering reflections leaving my hand and spreading into local space - then reached back in and pulled, hard, gripping with my other hand to avoid being levered off the station.

The band broke. The T-handle moved 'down' smoothly. As it did so, a shield opened beneath it to expose a round port, and I tugged myself aside as a torrent of ice crystals - the internal atmosphere of the module - came flooding out. I felt a serious of soft 'thuds' through my gauntlet - I figured that was likely the adaptor module sealing itself.

After a minute or so, the airflow ceased. I unlocked the door, and it swung easily; I pulled myself inside, sobbing with relief, and closed it behind me. I spun the lock bar, felt it clang shut as the seals mated, and felt/heard a deep HHSSSSSSSSSH as air rushed back into the lock.

There was a ten-second pause after the noise stopped.

Then a green LED came on over the inner door. I spun that bar. It opened, and I swam through into chaos.

The module had not been empty; rather, it had apparently been in use for storage. A welter of small items and paper floated haphazhardly through the small space, thrown there by the sudden cyclone of escaping air. I closed the lock behind me and sealed it. I was about to remove my suit when suddenly I remembered the greenish tinge in the docking adapter, and something stopped me.

Eight minutes left.

I opened the door nearest me. Only after it was open did I realize that it had 'K' stencilled on it. The hatch swung open, and a contorted face with glowing orange eyes thrust at me from the other side as the hatch pushed back against me and knocked me across the adapter. I threw my arms up in front of me to catch the hands of the creature - I couldn't call it a man - clawing at my face, but in the pressure suit I was far too clumsy. He - it - had both hands against the sides of my helmet and was face to face with me, mouth open, too wide for a human without a broken jaw. His eyes were glowing, I could see reflections on my faceplate, and as he opened his mouth wider, a vile green miasma rushed out of it, over my faceplate and around me. I screamed, kicking off the wall, but he had both hands around my helmet and was locked to me.

There was a jolt as my shoulders hit the adjoining bulkhead. The shock knocked him - it - over my head and into the wall above me. I took the opportunity to wriggle 'down' and kick off 'upwards' past him as he recoiled slowly into the middle of the module, with no handgrip. Reaching the bulkhead opposite the one I'd bumped into, I kicked back off for the adjoining one - the door opposite the door I'd originally opened, which had 'T' stencilled on it. I caught the hatch bar as I spun past, wrenching my left shoulder but stopping my progress still attached to the lock. It took a moment to plant my feet for leverage, but then I spun the lock bar and opened the hatch.

The sounds I could hear were mostly my own pants and screams. The helmet was deadening all sound from outside, and as I swung through into T module, closing the hatch behind me, I realized that whatever the other had done to Gonzalez hadn't happened to me because I was apparently still on internal oxygen - the green evil was an airborne killer. But my suit thought I only had five minutes of air left, and it hadn't counted on panic breathing or heavy exertion.

There were stencilled signs on a central passage connector as I entered T module. The fifth one down read 'CAMERA MAINTENANCE - PURPLE' and a purple line extended from it down a passageway between what looked to be prefabbed divider modules. I grabbed at a handy bar hold and launched off down the passageway. It twisted and turned several times, following the geometry of whatever had been installed inside the Tank rather than a set plan, but after perhaps twenty meters I came to a hatchway with a purple sign on it. I snatched it open and ducked in - it wasn't airtight.

Moment of panic in utter darkness before sensors noticed me and brought up the cold-cathode lights, agonizingly slowly as off-the-shelf and overage exciters kicked off.

Drawers - the damn place was nothing but drawers. It took every bit of willpower I had not to panic but to simply start running my hand down the labels. It took two more precious minutes to find CABLE TIES and yank the drawer out to full extension. It was latched into the rack. I reached in and yanked the restraining web out, sending a cloud of plastic Zipties billowing into the compartment; but my gauntlet wouldn't fit into the back.


Praying that the wrist seal would hold, praying that whatever the shit was it had to be breathed, I unlocked the right gauntlet of the suit, spun it, unlatched it, and pulled it off. Another minute and a half.

With it tucked into a belt clamp, I reached into the drawer. I had to push as hard as possible to get my fingers to the back, the wrist seal banging against the edge. I could swear I could hear thumping out in the corridor maze. I reached out behind me and made sure the hatch was closed, but the damned lights weren't going to go out so long as I was in here moving. I swore once, with feeling, and shoved. Something gave. I poked my fingers at the bottom of the back edge, and it gave again. I pulled on the drawer a bit harder, and realized it was the same aircraft-grade stuff as lived in Atlantis; with a hope that I wouldn't lose the back half, I yanked, hard.

The drawer came out of the rack with cracking noise. The back of it was closed by a woodgrain panel. I dug my fingers underneath it and ripped upwards.

Underneath was a familiar shape - a U.S. military Beretta 92F. There were four magazines next to it, colored bright red. I snatched the gun out, then pulled a magazine out. Holding the gun in my gauntleted hand, I slid a magazine home, then racked a round by pulling the gun against the gauntlet-held slide. It loaded easily; I'd have to hope it would fire. Stuffing the other three mags into a utility pocket, I turned and pulled my way out the door, pistol in my ungloved hand.

I had time to hope the red magazine meant the loads weren't going to go straight through the hull, but not a lot of time, because my pursuer was only a corner back. As I came out, he turned those damnable eyes to me. I had time to read his nametag - LCOL MILLER USAF - and the jaw sank down again, too far. Greenish mist was beginning to spew from his mouth, and this time I heard the hoarse thin scream begin, but I was moving towards him. I grabbed his neck with my gauntlet as he grabbed my helmet again, and stuck the Beretta up under his chin and pulled the trigger.

There was a muffled, flat PAM. His face wrinkled on the left side, as if someone had taken hold of it above his left eyebrow and pulled hard upward. A splattering sound came from the ceiling, and suddenly everything was green. My right hand was burning like hell. I re-aimed the gun into his chest area and pulled the trigger again, twice.


The body jerked twice, and the hands fell away from my head. I shoved, reflexively, and it drifted away from me, apparently lifeless except for the obscene light still coming from the eyes. The top of the skull had bulged, and viscous gray and green matter was oozing out. As it spun, I saw bulges in the back but no exit wounds; frangible bullets, apparently.

I swam frantically out of the T-module, back into the adapter, through it and into the K-module.

It was a mess. There were two bodies in bunks, their chests and arms missing a deal of flesh with what looked like bite marks around the edges of the denuded areas. I continued forward to the Docking Adapter. Its hatch was closed. I tugged at it, but it wouldn't open. I looked through the access panel next to the hatch, and it was clear why.

The CTV was gone. There was an open hatchway where it had been. Gonzalez' body was nowhere to be seen.

A fluttering noise announced the imminent end of my oxygen reserve. I screamed, in frustration and fear, and frantically screwed my gauntlet back on. It sealed on the first try, miracle of miracles, and I stuffed the gun into the utility pocket. Making my way aft again, I stopped in the adapter module, closed the hatches, looked around until I found the inner dump valve, and yanked it.

There was an immediate flare of cyclone lights and a blizzard of loose items as the atmosphere in the adapter module, for the second time, blew itself out the dump valve.

I sat against the wall, waited for it to end. My helmet air was going stale. When the storm ceased, I closed the dump valve and looked carefully at the panel. There was a control that read "STORES REFRESH". I punched it. Nothing happened for a moment, then air flooded into the bay.

I took the helmet off and watched my breath freeze in the sub-zero hell.

* * *

I'm still dead, though. Aikers must have gotten the CTV into some kind of emergency re-entry mode; it would have been programmed to splash down near Pearl Harbor, from what I've found in the Post's procedures. I managed to get the Comms up and running, but Cheyenne Ground won't talk to me, much, saying they want to talk to Aikers. I try to tell them he's not here, that he and the CTV re-entered, but they seem adamant. I didn't understand it, until I noticed on one of the camera modules that Pearl Harbor is burning.

I can't get anything from Big Island or Oahu on the airwaves. What I can get out of the rest of Hawaii sounds like a bad movie - glowing eyes, vampires, cannibals, ghouls, what-have-you. The worst part is that the creatures won't stay dead.

I could have told them that, if they'd listened. I've had to shoot Miller twice, after he regrew his skull. Finally I hauled him and his crewmates outside and lashed them to the outside of the connector without a suit. I screwed up, though; his face is visible from one of the connector ports when I go through it. Every time I go past, he screams at me in slow motion.

California has reported strange things happening near LAX. I don't know what that means. Worst yet, Atlantis is home, and I'm 'missing, presumed dead.' Cheyenne Ground still won't talk to me, but there appear to be preparations underway for another 'unmanned' launch. It's not on the schedule, though, so I can guess what that means, since nobody's admitted to the Post's existence yet.

I estimate I have another couple of weeks before they show up. I hope they manage to find the CTV recordings before then. I hope they manage to get a grip on whatever made it down with the CTV before then. I hope Aikers made it, although it doesn't look likely.

I have the Beretta with me at all times, now, especially as I listen to the news of my dying planet up here in my penthouse. The last few times I've gone through the connector, I've noticed a film of green ice on the wall near where Miller is tied to the outside, and I've started to wear the pressure suit and keep the connector sealed, but I don't know how effective that will be if it's making it through the hull. My right hand itches.

There's always one bullet in this gun, and I know where the dump valves are.

Posted by jbz at 5:19 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 4, 2006

An Icon, She Renders The Things Which Are

Fia saved her evening walk for stress relief; a time outside. Outside. Capital letters, quotated, in parentheses, as a wise man once said. Her Inside life would tug about her hips in shapes of nanoform carbon fiber and light metals, hanging off her body, leeching, self-assured as only symbiont can be. She would cover it with sweaters when the air was cold enough, or with artfully draped carrybag if not; sometimes the belted gear sulked beneath scarves or shawls or - God forbid her 'nan see her - windbreakers tugged down past her shoulders to ride around her hips. Still, it was there, always with her, the speed and grace compact and held within to taunt her while she looked up to breath the air.

Her apt was small. She needed very little. Her long dark hair, which used to cause her mother such clucking delight with the tortoise brush, spilled past her shoulders in a blur of small tight braids, each tipped with its own small charm to hold the ends in tight. She'd found the cracked, dead phenol slab outside an abandoned office block, dark since before the Downtime from the looks of it. Even then, it must have been antique; the chips weren't surface mount but socketed, long rows of black and slightly glittering enigmas on their acid-etched home. She'd taken it up, admiring the regularity of it. Nanoform logic had none of the art deco looking lines and corners, the artistic-seeming grids at pains to fit their cryptic meaning into the piece's lines.

At home, she'd pulled the chips out of it one by one, carefully, with a tweezers scavenged from the hulk of a drugstore ten blocks over that was under reconstruction as the reurbanification wave passed her neighborhood over in a plasteel flash flood surge. The half-burnt once-soaked piles of rotted waste that had been tossed out of the sterilized ruthless cube of the store, now awaiting the robots and the nanoform cleanercoaters to renew it from an empty place into one just eagerly waiting to once more be, had mostly been mulch and trash. The tweezers, though, had survived, the cheap electroplated chrome protecting them against the years of Downtime rains.

With eighty-three chips sitting on her coffee table (five had broken off at the antique aluminum legs, an amazingly small number) she pondered for a time before opening a jar of crafting plastic and dipping each in carefully. Their little steely tines thus clearcoats, Fia had sat and braided her hair obsessively into exactly eighty-three braids, securing each by bending the I/O pins of an ancient KLS series packaged circuit into the ends where it would hold on tight, a tiny crystal tick of logic and stubborn resistance against entropy and dissolution.

Sometimes she thought she could feel her chips ticking quietly around her head, transistors in them flipping states in secret patterns as energy flowed around her.

Today she walked from the subway to home, as always; the sixteen blocks that brought her from the scarred plascrete bunker of the train to her door would frighten most of her downtown co-workers but were what she was used to. She was of this place, and it knew her; the eyes that lurked behind fences and around corners knew her, too. They saw her every day, and while that wouldn't change their nature, it would change hers when they lit upon her form. She was a person to their owners, not just a shape or movement-signals- prey. Sometimes, she'd see the jackpacks gathered round the corners, see a face or two she knew from younger days, and nod, get a nod back in return - no condemnation, here. Folks did what they did to keep the power on.

Downtown, that was someplace she had a Day Pass to. A salary that was massive by the standards of her home, but she left it Downtown when she clocked out, in a bank and not in coin. It came with her only in those strange shapes on her belt that marked her out as Outside when she walked. But most folks here would look at them and shrug, not knowing what that meant, nor caring when in fact more urgent matters called in voices of small children hungry cold and ill.

Fia walked on.


She jumped, startled out of her routine by the unexpected direct address. Nettled to realize she'd put her back to a hulked car without thinking, she cast her glance across the sidewalk at the voice. "Como?" The Portuguese was reflexive. "Yes?"

A small girl moved timidly into the fading daylight. She was probably around thirteen; her skin was the same dark gold as Fia's, but the tone was poor. Malnutrition, Fia thought clinically. It was a familiar pang. At least it wasn't acute in this case, however; although sallow, the young girl was alert and active. She stopped once she'd reached the edge of the sidewalk and stretched a hand tentatively out, fingers splayed, to Fia. "You are...you are the witch?"

Oh, no.

"Girl, I'm not a witch. Who told you that?"

The child's upper lip trembled. Her face crumpled slightly in what Fia recognized with despair as hope, faint, crushed. "He...the spirit. He tell me you can help me and my sister."

"The spirit? Where you talk to spirits, hon?"

"In church. Durin' day. When Mem no' home and Irinha tell me to go find help I go to the Church still workin' and I look for help. The spirit man find me and he say talk to you. He give me this." She reached a hand into her shorts and came out with two slips of 'fax, one of which she passed to Fia, who took it and looked.

It was her picture. Straight off her Downtown lockzone pass. She hissed, caught herself as the child shrank back, and forced a smile onto her face. "Sorry. Sorry, girl...what's your name?"

"Brisida." Small voice.

"Brisida. Sorry. You surprise me, is all. That's all. Can I ask you a couple questions?"

A nod. If Brisida's form shrank into itself any further, Fia wasn't sure her face would even be visible, so she stepped closer to the girl and squatted down, patted the sidewalk after giving it a dubious look. The old concrete was weathered but clean; they sat.

"Brisida, when you say you went to church, what church you go to?"

"Oh." The small face brightened at something she could answer. "Not Church like Mem say we go on Sunday, but the Church on the corner. We call it that 'cuz it still talk to us, even though none of the others do, an' you can see Heaven in it sometime. Sometime spirits talk to you, but not usually - usually bad ones yell at you, so you have to come home and try later. I only went 'cuz Irinha need help bad, and I pray real hard, and a good spirit talk to me. I know he a good spirit 'cuz he see me, and talk to me, and ask my name and everything. Then when I tell him what I need, and that it not for me, he tell me to find you and that you help me. He say you a witch who can help with things on earth. Well, he say a lot of things first, but I don't understand all of them; he finally explain you a witch and you can tell me what you need to make it right."

A terrible suspicion was growing in Fia's brain. She caught herself gripping one of the carbon fiber modules with painful intensity and forced her hand away. "I see. Brisida, can you show me this church?"

"Sure! It's only a couple blocks. But it maybe not talking now. Probably not. They're sun spirits and it's night."

Fia pulled herself up and offered the girl a hand. Together, they turned off the dilapidated but familiar street and onto an overgrown trail that moved off at an angle, snaking between the hulks of old buildings and weaving down into low areas. It took her a few moments to see a nearly hidden sign with a bicycle glyph on it to realize what it must have been.

After a few hundred meters, the bike trail opened up into a small glade which, it turned out, was caused by a concrete surface where the trail had passed under a bridge. The bridge seemed to have fallen in, but the rubble and the concrete roadbed that had lain beneath it had prevented wholesale reforestation of the trail, and the industrial origins of the site were plain.

Brisida pointed and pulled at Fia's arm. "There, senhora. There."

Along one ivy-creepered wall was an enclosed box, roughly the shape of an upright coffin. Kudzu and ivy had almost completely covered it, but Fia knew, now, and she swept the vines away from its side to expose industrial metal etching still visible these years since the Downtime which read PUBLIC NETWORK ACCESS POINT and knew, without looking, that even if the batteries were long dead the solar panel on the roof was still working. She sighed and turned to Brisida. "Brisida, who was the spirit who told you to see me?"

The young girl dug in her pocket again and silently handed her the other 'fax. Fia took it, turned it over, and looked at the dark, inhuman planar face that regarded her from the picture, mirrorband across its eyes somehow searching and glittering winglets behind its ears cocked.

Mikare. You son of a bitch.

* * *

Later, as Fia followed Brisida into the smell of frying and met her suspicious mother, she was still seeting at Mikare's fucking gall. But there was nothing she could do about that now, and she was needed here. It took all her native assurances to calm the mother into letting her meet Irinha, and then her worst fears were confirmed, because Irinha was hiding in the girls' bedroom. She bore no scars, and Brisida swore up and down that their mother had no boyfriend or husband - so it wasn't domestic abuse. But Fia could read the fright and shame in the arms that hugged themselves, and in the knees locked tight together when the eleven-year-old finally was coaxed out of her bed. In that moment of rage, she gave word to the thing that she had sworn she never would, and - she realized in a slice of clarity - that Mikare knew she already had.

"Hello, honey. It's okay. My name's Fia. I'm gonna help. You can talk to me, and maybe I can help things happen."

The witch's words.

* * *

It took two days. Two days of Full Time Off from her job, taken for health reasons - fortunate, then, that she had a week and a half accumulated with the Bank. They asked no questions; she couldn't complain about her employers, for as employers went, the Bank was impersonal but very, very fair. Since she had the days to take, there was no fuss; since she called in sick the night before, approval was murmered for her thoughtfulness, she was urged to recover fully before coming in for her sake and for her co-workers', and - wonder of wonders - her doorcom blipped that first day out to reveal a nervous delivery man holding a complete decadent lunch, from her supervisor, with a commiserating note.

Meanwhile, she teased the story out of Irinha. It was familiar, tawdry, and all too predictable, and it involved a man (of course) from Downtown with a shiny car. It involved (she could have wept at the cliché) a box of candy. And it involved things that made her eyes turn flint hard, that made Brisida quail back from her until she patted the girl's arm awkwardly while Irinha cried into her breast.

"Irinha, honey, now, you need to do something for us, okay?"

"What I need to do, Fia lady?" Irinha was sniffling and hiccuping.

"First, you gotta tell your mem."

"I can't, Fia, she scream and she...she think I'm dirty...I..."

"Ssshhhhh. No, flower, no. No she won't. Here's why. You going to tell her, you and Bri. And you going to tell her that you took care of him, okay? You going to tell her that you told me and that I'm going to work it."


"It's okay honey. When you tell her, then she know that you didn't do it because you wanted; she know you were made to do it, and she know you fought. Right? She know you brave, and that you telling her after you already done something on your own."


It wasn't that simple. But, of course, it was. It just took time.

"Bri, listen to me, girl."

"Yes, Lady Fia."

"Now, you know how all this works?"


"That's right. I'm going to tell you. I need something from him."

Her face split in a grin that would, Fia thought, have men surreptitiously checking to make sure their testicles were still in place for years to come. "Yes, Lady Fia. Something of him, right? Something you can show the spirits."

Fia winced, but kept it to herself. If that was how it had to be, that was how it had to be. One thing at a time, she thought, you can fix the world. "That's right. Something of him. But listen good, girl. Its gotta be something that talks to the spirit world, you understand? Something he use to talk to spirits too. That way they can know his smell. They don't live in our world, and they can't smell in it. But if it's something that touches their world, then they can find him."

A nod. "I understand, Lady Fia."

"Fine. Get your sister home. Don't let her tell your mom until after you get me the thing, now."

* * *

It only took a day, and that made her grind her teeth. He was probably coming out here every day, looking for his little candy eater. It was all Fia could do to avoid walking the neighborhood looking for Downtown cars, but she realized that whoever the predator was, he probably wasn't stupid enough to bring his car into the neighborhood. She forced herself to wait at home until the light blip came. She opened the door.

Brisida stood there, a look of solemn triumph on her face. In her outstretched hand was a pen.

"Where is he now, girl?"

"He's at some restaurant over near the train. He think I coming to get Irinha for him. I told him I need the pen to prove to her he waiting."

"Smart girl." Fia took the pen. "Sit." She pointed at the couch. Brisida clambered up onto it and sat, eyes wide and solemn. Fia looked at her for a moment, then sat across from her and looked at the pen in her hand before looking back at the girl and nodding once. Turning away, back to her desk, she closed her eyes and shuddered as the carbon fiber took her back Inside.

The pen was still there, hanging in the edge of her consciousness. It was a slight flicker, datastreams merging from it to the localnet of her apt. She watched the thin dribble of binary into its space for a moment, stretched taffy thin Inside but microseconds out in Realtime, and then dove into it, 'fingers' fluttering delicately across it. The pen squawked in electronic indignation and then gave up its virtue, device address and authentication keys unspooling across the secured link to her desk and into her flickerjack. Clotho wrapped a finger around the crypto spilling from the pen and drew it in, applying tools from her 'jack to it. Ticks later, a private key and device address lay before her, and armed with those, Fia-who-was-Clotho looked Inside, leapt-


-into the Street. She felt the bodyrocking click as her Desk made contact with her local Tile, socketing into place, and then she opened the door to her apt and stepped out into crazyquilt madness. She looked back at the frozen face of the child sitting on her couch, unmoving, and then jumped through five passing avatars (two of whom startled at her flight) and skipped nimbly across the top of a passing autobuss. Her code contacted solidly with its hull and she clipped, flew up over its roof and went feetfirst through the familiar Door of the Vibank branch across the Street from her. Ignoring the nearly imperceptible delay as her Desk contacted the Vibank server and opened a stream, she continued into a tuck-and-roll across an incredibly excessively high-resolution lobby (she could see grain in the virtual marble as she pushed out of the somersault. I mean, really) and hit the reception desk with both feet, pushing her right back out the door again to the surprise of the six patrons who were waiting to talk to the staffbot. At the doorline, her flickerjack interceded and she popped out in Downtown, the angled sides of the Entryhedron visible in the distance. Instead of Doorhopping, she turned and smoothly ran down the Street, letting her avatar stretch its not quite legs, feeling the packetstream smear as her flickerjack began to play its games. Scenery and avatars blurred past, but before she could really begin to enjoy it like she always did the black shape of the Bank loomed up and she leapt for the walls.

She wasn't here to work, and she wasn't here in her work clothes.

The defenses came online as she crossed the Wall boundary, the Bank's private server cluster realizing it wanted no part of her, but it was far too late. She was scaling the wall of the Bank's representative gridscraper already, and her client had a firm grip on the Bank's gridspace - ports had been opened, even if only long enough for the computational network equivalent of fuck off, that was just too long. Like a drunk for whom that insult is an invitation, Clotho's flickerjack had cheerfully begun gabbling its tissue of lies and bullshit to the Bank's servers already, and as they staggered at its breath she slipped right past.

It was over before it began, and the poor thing never had a chance. The problem with having Government getting its mitts into corporate transactions, Clotho reflected as she ambled away from the Bank's gridscraper and watched interestedly as the flashing iconography of a major Enforcement action began to converge, is that it lets anyone who can fuck with the Company fuck with the Gov.

Fia opened her eyes with an imaginary click, feeling the chipstate of her hair settle into a new equilibrium. Brisida was still looking at her with an air of quiet expectancy.

"Bri, it's okay. You can go home now."

"What did you do, Fia lady?"

Fia smiled. "I didn't do anything. A friend of mine did. Her name is Clotho. Do you know who the Greeks were?"

Brisida shook her head. "They was a long time ago, right?"

Fia smiled wider. "That's right. They were."

"So is she like a ghost?"

"Yes, Bri. She's like a ghost."

Outside, there were flickers in the cobalt sky. Red and saffron descended, lawcraft settling from the privileged Heavens in their search for the owner of a pen about whom they now knew an awful lot. Some of it was even true. Some of it was not, but that was Clotho's fault, and she weaves men's fates.

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August 1, 2006

Chase Too

There wasn't much left of the God Road that had, long ago, been U.S. Interstate 91. It stretched north in a jumble of cracked tarmac and broken median, winding its way through the verdant hills and occasional Scar with the gentle undulations of a dancer. Draped across the shoulders of the hills rather than the tops, curving around the peaks, it was visible from the air but not unless one thought to look for it.

I was counting on that.

"Topher, where the fuck are we going?" Chit's voice was tight with control. Pain, fear and anger pressed at that restraint, but his eyes moved outside the car, not looking at me, which meant that - so far - he hadn't decided I was crazy enough to be a threat. At least, not a threat high enough on the priority list that I should be dealt with as a hostile.

"North, Chit. Fucking north. Trust me."

"I trust you or I wouldn't be in this car, man." There was silence on the intercom for a few moments. Another few miles skittered past beneath our fans. The road was flat enough, up here north of the Troubles, that it might even have supported surface traffic, but I wasn't about to find out. The fans were a constant shriek, locked onto thrust mode, out of ground effect. Rear turbines were an omnipresent thunder. I could hear our fuel screaming away into the night behind us, energy in blazing flares of heat and sound. Chit could too, but he apparently had convinced himself I had a Plan.

I sure as fuck hoped I did. It wasn't really what you'd call well-formed. It was more a feeling. The kind of thing that, in those myriad moments you have when your life is normal and people aren't trying to kill you, you muse over to pass the time behind the wheel. Where would I go if...?

If was now. I-91 snaked away beneath us.

Coming around a blind chicane, maybe twenty feet above the surface, I saw the angled barrier of the overhead sign. Somehow by a miracle of overengineering one pylon was still up; the scaffolding was angled across the roadbed. Chit hadn't seen it. I twitched the yoke; software corrected, blipping the left-side fans and angling us over the obstacle with two or three meters to spare. The sudden tilt caused a slide out to the right, and I flicked the 'hat to correct; the Toyota shuddered back left and came back level, wobbling in its disrupting aerodynamics. Chit swore and clamped visibly tighter on the gun in his lap.

I tried not to look at it. I don't like guns. Until a few weeks ago, I'd never held one. Until a few days ago, I wouldn't have known what that one was; now all I knew was that it was big, illegal, and lethal as all hell, and I hoped he had enough control not to twitch off a burst inside the cabin.

"Top, not to get on your tits, man, but they're still back there."

"I know, Chit-" brief purple glare from the trees ahead and to the left, brightening to the orange of flame as we rushed past. They had heavy ordnance on their fucking flitters, naturally. Chit had his multifunction automatic talisman in his lap, and I...I had my obsessive H2Head mods and my racing license.

If I was lucky, I had one more thing, but the way the evening was going, my luck was shit. I'd made the 'net call, twenty minutes back over old New Hampshire. Nobody had answered, but I'd left a message anyway. I hadn't expected an answer, but I'd hoped for one.

Sixty-file miles to go, old-style. I risked a quick look back at the cams; two shapes behind us, silhouetted against the blue-to-orange twilight. Fuckers had anticollision strobes running, that's how confident they were. I snarled, once, but had no breath for it; flicked the Toyota through a left-right-left in order to keep us below tree level and took another glimpse. Our pursuers had fallen back a few more meters, remaining a good hundred meters above the treeline. They appeared content to let us run - after all, where could we go? A hundred miles more and there was the Old Can Border. I couldn't tell, but I was willing to bet they had friends there, silicon or meat.

I wasn't interested.

The Toyota bleeped at me, a familiar sound. The rallycomp was warning me that I had just over one hundred fifty klicks of fuel left at current consumption rates. I might make it.

"Top, can I open a window?"

"I wouldn't, man-" -pause to hop a collapsed treeline - "-the slipstream wouldn't let you do much useful, and it might screw us up."

"You do have a plan, right?"

Savage grin at the glowing blue and red of the instrument cluster, sweat in my beard. "Trust me."

Silence. Then, "Fuck."

I stole a glance at Nav; another thirty-plus miles, fifty klicks? I could see the valley on the nav screen, topo showing the old Road dipping into the swale for three miles of low-down meander. Almost there.

"Car, phone tools."

*click* phone tools are online

"Dial Riis again."

dialing. signal acquired. line busy. retry?

Busy? All my life I'd never heard of Riis' line being busy. What the fuck. "No. Message. Send our sponder code."

done. terminating call.

"Top, this friend of yours had better have some major EM gear, or military-grade AA. Those flits are lawcraft level at least, and they have shielded fans. We're not gonna be able to pop 'em from beneath, and they're gonna see the EM sig of any fan motors up ahead, we're not gonna ambush 'em either."

"Trust me, Chit."

"Damn it, stop saying that."

Fifteen miles.

Another purple flash, off to our left. I jerked the yoke in reflex, causing us to slide right and wobble; even with the carcomp muttering under its electronic breath and slapping my hands away to Fix The Problem we almost lost straightline and tumbled. A sudden shriek from the back firewall, spooling down just as quickly, told of the stresses on the gyros. "Fuckers, fuckers..." I was panting in both fear and nerves now. A clutch of lights slid past on the right; probably Peacham, if I wasn't horribly off-base in my nav. Houses full of people living their lives and wondering what the hell the three screaming flitters were doing over the God Road this time of evening. Probably assumed we were joyriders.

I could see the mountain on the right that showed the entrance to Riis' valley. There were lights strewn up its side, candyspun; a ski lift or three, with associated lodges and buildings, brighter than the constant small flickers of homestead and villages that had flashed beneath us since we'd crossed the Connecticut a hundred-plus miles back. God, Riis, be there.

I looked back. Two shapes, still. They'd turned off their running lights as we entered a more populated area; the Scar around Dartmouth had made them reckless. No witnesses. Now, though, they were dropping closer, trying to stay with us. They were still trying to run us out of fuel, though; they'd stopped shooting, probably not wanting to draw even more attention.

Three minutes. The valley entrance was a blaze of light, Riis' farmplex and storage domes lit with solar and windpower. I pulled the nose slightly to the right, off the God Road, and aimed the Toyota for the glare. Just like old times. Chit was mumbling something apprehensive; the Toyota was aimed between two of the larger ag domes and I wasn't climbing. I risked one quick look; they were still with us, but dropping up and back slightly, unsure if the farmplex was a threat or just an obstacle.

Brief glare of flourescent light and white stylic domes and then we were through. I winced. Riis would probably tear a strip off me if my slipstream tore the domes, but I couldn't worry about that now. The valley was ahead of me, comfortably dark but familiar. I felt it settle into the muscles of my fingers and began the chanting rhythm, punching the Toyota into the turns-


"WHAT THE-unh-FUCK-" I hadn't had time to warn Chit. I hoped again he didn't lose the gun. The two shapes were still above and behind us, but dropping back. Almost there. Almost there. Almost-


I flicked the strobes to full and blinked the front laserlumes three times fast. I hadn't forgotten the timing. Just ahead of me, the line of abandoned grain silos rose impossibly fast, the third from the left collapsed in a heap of rusted metal. I twisted, stood the Toyota on its side, and felt it begin to drop as it slid through the gap, yanking it back flat before it could touch the ground; our pursuers broke higher in surprise as their radar and light showed them the danger-

-and there was a howling scream of a dragon dispossesed, a tail of chattering flame and anger, a blue flare of hydrocarbon thunder that rose from the pastures directly ahead of us in a storm of speed. Chit finally did drop the gun and yowled, something scatological in his shock, but I was whooping in my glee, pulling the Toyota into a sharp climbing turn-

And the ancient P-51 Mustang bowled past us on a directly opposite heading, the flames of its exhausts swirling in its wake. I had a microsecond's glimpse of the yellow-and-scarlet helmet in the cockpit as it went past, then I was concentrating on getting the Toyota around in time-

But I'd missed it. By the time I did, there were two orange-and-black smudges in the sky, and the Mustang was climbing straight up for the heavens in a smirking roll through the wreckage of the flitters that it had killed.

"Welcome home, Top. Stop bringing pests with you." The antique aircraft fell off the top of the hammerhead and waggled its wings past me, blaring off towards the God Road to make sure there weren't any others.

"Thanks, Riis." My whisper was wrung dry. I slapped AUTO pads all over the dash and told the carcomp to put us down at the farmplex; my hands were shaking too hard to even hold the flitter level.

Chit didn't speak to me until after dinner.

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March 26, 2006

Chase scene

Magic is the shade of gray inside the clouds that traverse the sky beyond the windshield in impossible silence, made structures of cold crystalline edges in my vision by the rush of adrenalin-pumped senses burning sugars out of my blood into sweat and heat.

Eight seconds before physics shakes its head and gently revokes my hall pass.

Although the seat is shuddering behind/beneath me, I cannot feel it. I can only know it. Sweat is pouring off my forehead and temples in a spray; the byproducts of unsustainable crisis consumption in my body leaching precious water as emergency coolant. The Lotus is crying in its rage around me, with me, now. Were I to look to my left, I would see metal, rust and dirt sliding past in a storm of disturbed grit and billowing junk. No time. No time. The magic locks my eyes. I know the car's pain and rage as it tells me about its struggle in the shudder of the yoke, the slight but even more telling shimmer in the boost collective. Somewhere in the world there is the sound of a 9mm round hitting a thousand-year-old wakizashi - a stone has struck one of the lift fans now raging to burn down my forward vector as they scream against the oncoming wall of air. Brief moment of humble prayer to stave off the demon FOD.

Six seconds left of unknown dispensation.

Grey is sliced from my view by darkness, hard-edged and brutal. Noise returns to my awareness as the acoustics wring a deafening distortion-based ripple from the roaring around me and the Lotus slides beneath the ancient highway bridge, still miraculously balanced on its forward turbine thrust with its lift fans' note rising as their blade pitch fines out, thrust dropping and speed rising. Instinct and quantum luck rule my left foot sliding the lift collective down its track, matching the deceleration started some seven seconds earlier by brutally yanking the nose of the car skyward and forcing its lift and the full shape of its underside against the momentum of four hundred kph of forward flight.

Light drops down underneath the bridge. The car has started to spin slowly. I can't do anything about that now, and it could work out for the best.

Just as I lose sight of the clouds, there is an eye-tearing burst of light and noise as four lawcraft rocket past overhead. Long trails of flame and vapor protrude from emergency braking rockets in their noses and curl back over and beneath chunky armored hulls. Their formation, once a perfect computer-controlled finger four, has begun to disintegrate. I have time to wonder if they have been dumped to manual in an attempt to stay with me, or if their carcomps have begun safety maneuvers to keep them from colliding due to one or more of them attempting to brake, before it's too late and the bridge takes them from my view.

The bellowing of the fans has dropped off to a multitimbral snarl of fully fined blades and the roar of fullburn boost out the back, blue flame washing off the old cracked tarmac beneath the car's rear to ignite forgotten petrochemicals stored in the roadbed in long orange flares washing out around me. I'm almost stationary, now, and it's time - the Lotus can't stay vertical much longer.

Two seconds.

Feeling is all I have. The nose starts to wobble as stability imparted by velocity evaporates. Before it can twist, I cram the lift collective back upwards, twisting my foot; the front fans come up slightly before the rear so that the nose falling back downwards is counterbalanced by their earlier impulse. The Lotus falls back flat as I yank my left hand back and cut turbines. Dirt billows out to extinguish the flames as the fan blades, already spinning near their maximum velocity, twist slightly to bite the air and grab. The computer, tested to its limits, juggles the fans and somehow manages to keep any of the car's corners from hitting pavement. I pull all my hands and feet off control and slam my palm down on AUTOSTABLE. Handed a mostly-stationary vehicle, the carcomp instantly pulls the Lotus into a perfect hover beneath the bridge, pointed at right angles to my previous direction of travel.

I look out my window.

A kilometer or so downlane, the four lawcraft are finally getting themselves sorted out. They're much larger than the Lotus, and the carcomp helpfully informs me that they're pissed, as well. Freqs are alive with all manner of warnings and threats both electronic and human. Laserlights and plain old spotlights are training back along their flightpath as they try to figure out where I went. They saw me go under the bridge, of course, but they're still looking along the lane to see where I came out the other side.

I give them a tight grin and turn to look out the windshield again.

Magic is the dark blackness, pierced by my front lasers, that hides the empty lost railway tunnel from my eyes.

Hands onto the yoke. Feet onto the pedals. Switch the hat to translate.

"Hey, car."


"I got it."

"Manual controls released."

Right hand to the main boost lever. Advance. Advance. Advance.

Blue flame in the dark.

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January 22, 2006


Because I'm a dick and can't stop thinking about the stuff in the last post.
The television behind the bar was set to regional news, the sound turned off. The six of us in the place were ignoring it as much as we were ignoring each other. Two of us at the bar, a couple and a pair of businessmen each seated at a table in the main area; all six drinking professionally. I was on my third Scotch. My neighbor at the bar was idly drawing condensation rings around the bottom of his glass which contained something that wasn't beer, either.

I looked down the bar. The tender was standing, arms crossed and one foot hitched on the cooler at the end, watching the TV, which had a cheap graphic next to a makeup-laden blonde local news anchor. I grimaced at the icon; the two-buildings-with-jetliner-and-orange-star-explosion was grating. In the last, what, eight months, you'd think they'd have been able to at least steal their affiliates' better CGI for the newsfeed. The tender caught my eye, nodded, moved towards me.

"Another Dewars' rocks, please."

"Sure." He raised an eyebrow to my neighbor four stools down who nodded back and held up his glass, then crunched ice, swallowed, and spoke.

"What was that about?"

"What was what about?" asked the tender absently, already expertly arcing liquor into my glass.

"The news."

"Oh." He swooped the Dewars' bottle back into its spot in front of the mirror (my glass was now two millimeters below the rim, precisely, with two new cubes in it - I nodded approvingly) and reached for another bottle. Basil Hayden. "They revised the casualty estimate again."

The other drinker's face animated for the first time that night. We'd been there several hours; all flights out of Westchester County Airport had been on hold for a massive rain and windstorm, and the few professional travelers there as late as we had been (and unwilling to head for the refuge or alternate connections of New York City, a mere hour or so away by shuttle) had retreated naturally to the bar. "Up or down?"

"Down. Another two people found who ditched IDs and turned up in Florida, wherever."

"From the planes or from the towers?"

I turned to look at the guy. It seemed an odd question; they were alive, after all. Maybe they turned out to be slightly shady, but I wasn't about to pass judgement on them dropping out of sight without knowing their stories. Still, dead was dead, alive was alive, after all. He looked like it really mattered, though. The tender, finished filling his glass, replaced the bottle and shrugged.

"They didn't say."

As quickly as it had come, the tension flowed out of the man's shoulders, and he slumped his weight back down onto his elbows alongside his newly-filled bourbon. He smiled at the tender and nodded. The latter nodded back and moved back towards the TV, leaving my neighbor looking into the ice and liquor for answers as only an experienced scryer can.

Curious, I moved over a couple of seats. He turned to me, frowning at this breach of the social bar contract. I shrugged in apology and gestured vaguely at the bar, asking permission; after a moment, he shrugged back. Sure.

We sat there for perhaps half a tumbler.

I decided there wasn't a good way to ask, and that I was too curious not to. "Why does it matter if they were on the plane or in the towers?"

"What?" He turned to me, startled. I noted that one hand reflexively gripped his drink, the knuckles pale against his skin, which was light brown. The ice in his glass tinkled, stuttering, until he set it back carefully on the bar and turned in his seat to face me. "I'm sorry. What did you say?" His voice was much calmer, but also, I noticed, very controlled.

"I'm sorry myself. I didn't mean anything by it. I just wondered what difference it made, you know, when you asked...I mean, if the people who turned up had been thought to be on the plane or in the towers on nine-eleven. They're alive, either way, right?"

"Oh. Oh, yeah. Yeah, I suppose they are." He turned back to his drink, took a long pull at it. Setting it down, he laughed, but it didn't come out right. It started as a short, perfunctory laugh - the kind where you throw out half a breath in laughter, hard, and continue on with your point. But another small 'ha' escaped at the end, and almost as if he was trying to balance it, he said 'ha' again, softly, and then again - and suddenly, he was laughing rhythmically, softly, with a completely deadly lack of humor.

I was suddenly frightened. I had no idea what I'd reached in and touched, but the timbre of this man's laugh told me that it was deeply personal. Ashamed as well, I picked up my drink and started back down the bar to my original seat, but he lifted a hand, held it straight up. Wait. I slowly slid back into my chair and watched as he ran down, sitting hunched at the bar, laughs and sobs intermingling, until he finally gulped the remainder of his bourbon convulsively and waved at the bartender. The tender came over with the bottle and refilled his glass, but not (I noticed) before giving him a silent sobriety testprofessional evaluation. When the tender had departed again, he turned to me. "I'm sorry. Didn't mean to lose it like that. Not your fault."

I didn't know what to say. "If you lost someone, I'm-"

"I did. But not like that."

I was completely at sea now. "Um, okay."

He gazed into my eyes for a time. His eyes were brown, fairly unremarkable save for the intent nature of his look. In fact, he was thoroughly unremarkable in appearance. His face was worn, now that I looked - grief, or trial. This should have warned me off, but only in retrospect was it clear. I waited.

He relented with a quick shrug. "If they were on the plane, they don't mean anything to me," he said. "I couldn't have done anything about it."

"Oh," I said. "Are you - were you a firefighter? Or policeman?"

"No." Flat. "Never that." More silence. "But...emergency rescue, in a way." He took another drink. "Did you lose anyone there?"

I turned back to my drink. "Yes." The Scotch burned weakly; the ice had melted. This time the tender came over for me, and didn't hesitate when I waved the glass, which told me I hadn't drunk enough to talk about it. I shook my head at his No Iceoffer of ice in partial compensation. "My cousin was a cop. He was in Tower Two. One of my college friends was a firefighter in the lobby of Tower One. A couple of colleagues were above the fireline. A distant acquaintance on Flight 93."

"I'm...sorry." We both drank. The liquor was familiar and friendly, if impersonal; it didn't care, but it did what it could.

"Not your fault."

The other snorted. "I know that." He swigged again. "But still."

"Still what?"

He looked at me, for a good half a minute. I looked back at him, ignoring the tears that were prickling in my eyes. New York Metro moved around us, temporarily in abeyance, held back beyond the beltway and the Merritt and I-95 and the windstorm, a wounded beast moving, picking at the scab that lay in lower Manhattan, bellowing angrily when anyone told it to stop that or it wouldn't heal. Here in the quiet concourse of Westchester County, the two of us sat in a small bubble of pain and understanding and drank distillates, warmth an illusion of capillary dilation. In the world beyond, armies moved and men marched, fought and died, their blood moving; revenge and justice an illusion. New York Metro lived and healed, slowly; the people, the infrastructure, and the thing itself. He and I had proven to each other that we were both part of it, now, and slowly we acknowledged the pain we both carried.

That was the problem. Mine was fairly typical. I understood it. Once I told people what it was, they understood it. New Yorkers - real New Yorkers - were adept at dealing with it; they would nod to me, once; or just hug me, once. That acknowledgement was worth everything. Then they would leave it, unless I asked them to talk about it. Living in New York, you become expert in managing the flow of emotional energy and information across the membranes of distance and time that surround the convex hull that is a psyche and a body. Each person, each ego; each takes up a certain space, and in New York, that space is under constant assault from the environment and other people's presence. New Yorkers learn to manage their interactions so as not to add their actions to that list - or they get their attitudes adjusted. Painfully.

So I looked at him. He looked at me.

"You got the right." He looked back at the drink again, then at me. "I need to tell you a story."

Those are the magic words.

Tell me a story. The pain that they can cause, or transmute, or lift, is unmeasurable.

We're all finding out, now.

"Okay." My voice was steady.

"I'm sitting in WTC. On 9/11. I work for...let's just say, I work for a Government agency." He smiles at me, tightly. I smile back, just as tightly. One thing about the World Trade Center falling down, you learn about CIAjust New York City Crisis Command Bunkerwho New York State Tax Bureauhas Bear Stearnsoffices in it, after the fact. Some of them, anyway. I nod for him to continue, and wave over the barman. He pauses, looking at both of us, but I wave somewhat imperiously at him and throw him a credit card, motion him to run the tab. He shrugs and decides that the two of us talking aren't as likely to cause trouble as the two of us getting individually trashed and leaving his bar, so he fills us up and leaves. My acquaintance nods and continues.

"So we know right away when the first plane hits. I'm on duty. I see it happen. I wake everybody up, fire off a report...do you know what OPREP-3 is?" I shake my head no, fascinated. "Doesn't matter. So I send off a PINNACLE message, and I go downstairs to the bunker, because I'm on watch. Everybody else leaves. I have this chair, and all these monitors...anyway, I'm sitting in the bunker, and I have all the feeds coming in - video, audio, networks, feeds from DC and the complex security systems, everything. Maintenance systems. Everything. That's what the bunker's for. I make sure the city services are all scrambled."

He pauses, drinks again. I do, too.

"Sure enough, they're coming. Fire, cops, medics, the works. We have a checklist in there, right? After the bomb in, what, ninety-three, they got all organized. I make sure someone's called Leslie Robertson-"


"Oh, that's the engineering firm that built the Trade Center. I make sure somebody's getting them outta bed. Sure enough, the New York crew is already on the ball. So ends up I'm mostly just checking things off a checklist at this point, right, just being backup making sure stuff gets done. Then I make sure everybody from our office is out."

"Right, I'd hope so."

"Sure. I said 'rescue.'" He laughs again, but it's hard. "So everybody's out of our office, and then I'm sitting there. I've got all these training videos I've watched, and all this...information, really, on diagrams and tipcards. But mostly, my job is to sit there and monitor everything and report to DC."

"That makes sense."

"Yeah." More bourbon. I remember, and take a drink as well. "So about forty-five minutes goes by. At this point, everybody in the towers below the fireline has gotten out, right?"


"So everybody is out except the people above the fires. And I know that, because..." He gulps back a sob and I realize what he's going to say, and wince - "...because I can see 'em all, on the screens. I had security feeds from the tops of the towers still working. I don't think anyone else did. But I could see 'em up there. They were...they were..." he stops, drinks hard.

We sit there for a couple of minutes while he gets his voice back and I struggle to push the vision of my mere imagination, not memory, out of my brain. When he starts speaking again, his voice is dead, all emotion leached out in order to allow him to continue.

"So around this time, they start jumping. You probably saw that on the reports. Lower floors start jumping to avoid the fire. Rescue crews are jammed up maybe a couple floors below the fireline, it's too hot to get higher, and they're having trouble getting water pressure enough to get into contact with it. I've puked maybe three times at this point. I've sealed the bunker from the inside as per the checklist."


"Anyway, nothing's coming up from DC. They're all fucking confused. I guess the NCA still weren't back into secure comm by then...Bush is still reading My fucking Pet Goat or something, and Cheney's under the White House but he's not talking to me. He's not supposed to be, of course. But nobody is, really, other than to call once in a while and ask if what they're getting on CNN is true. Like it wouldn't be. Fucking idiots."


"So you gotta understand." He turns to me, and I see he's crying, now. Jesus, I think, so am I, it's fucking natural, man. "This thing, they'd seen it. Ninety-three. I mean, they'd had a bomb go off there, right? I mean, that's why they had me down there, in case something happened, they wanted real-time information."

"Well, sure."

"And Wall Street, I mean, most important square klick of space to the western economy, right there. That's why we had an office there. That's why I'm sitting there watching."

Oh, man. I have no idea what to say, but I have to say something. "Look, you were ordered in there. You couldn't have helped. You were supposed to watch, that was your job."

"I know."

There was silence for a minute or two, coupled with another refill. The bartender was getting the disapproving look of someone getting ready to cut us off.

"So it's fifty-six minutes in."

Oh, Christ. I needed to let him finish, though. This was important to him. "Yeah."

"I don't know what it was. I've always wondered. I've gone over it and over it. I have no idea what it was. Something happened, though. Something."

"The North tower collapsed."

He turned to look at me, and through his tears he was wearing a rictus grin. "No, man. Before it collapsed. Something happened. Something moved. Or something. I was sitting in that bunker, eyes glued to those fucking screens like they'd been for an hour, crying, watching people jump, watching shit burn, and I saw something not right, and I DID MY FUCKING JOB AND I TURNED MY FUCKING KEY!" The shout rang through the bar into the sudden silence.

Oh fuck.


He turned back to his drink and polished it off in one go, waving off the bartender, who'd started over to investigate. "Not here."

"WHAT?" That shout was mine. A musical sound made me look down; I'd put my glass down - too hard. Glass, Scotch and blood were on the bar. The tender had stopped, and was edging towards the phone now. I waved at him hurriedly. "No! No, wait. Sorry, sorry. nine-eleven shit, man, really, sorry." He stopped, looked wary. "Look, we had one too many. Can you run us through on my card and we'll find a hotel shuttle?" He nodded, relaxed slightly and moved away from the phone to the register. I turned.

"What the hell do you mean you-"

He whispered fiercely, looking suddenly stone sober, "Not. Here." In a normal voice, "Aw, fuck, man, your hand..." grabbing up a napkin, he wrapped it around my hand after making sure there wasn't any glass embedded in the cut and added a couple of ice cubes to the binding. The tender came back with the slip, which I signed with my right, and we grabbed up our travel cases and walked out onto the empty concourse towards the hotel shuttle stop. Outside the terminal, as we stood the cases up again, I turned to him.

"What the fuck."

He slumped onto a concrete cylinder intended to guard the sidewalk from drivers intent on Unloading In A No Unloading Zone. I could see, now, the pain and the ghosts he was carrying as he settled them around his shoulders. "That's why I was in the bunker. That's why they built the bunker after '93."

"I don't get it." I was shaking from fear and anger.

"I know. Look, think about it. Two of the tallest buildings in the world, right? Hit on the side by a jet plane. Both designed to handle airplane impacts. Both fall down."

"They said the jets were bigger-"

"Horseshit. Look, look at the damage pattern. They both fell straight down. So did WTC 7. Which was hit by falling debris on one side. You know how often controlled demolition - of much smaller buildings - goes wrong?" I shook my head, numb. "Enough that three perfect drops of buildings with unknown-in-advance damage, including two over one hundred stories, is fucking unbelievable. Trust me." He lit a cigarette.

We sat there for a minute. Headlights turned into the airport loop; the hotel shuttle arriving.

"Why are you telling me this? Who are you?"

"I just who I told you I am. I'm the guy who was on Dropwatch that morning. I'm the guy who turned the key. I'm telling you because you lost people, and you should know. They didn't die because of terrorists. Well, not all of them, and not directly. They might have died anyway; if your - cousin? was NYPD, he probably would've gone into the tower anyway, even if he knew it was wired. Firefighter, same deal. The people above the fireline were dead anyway, from suffocation, heat, or jumping. But you should know, because I keep hearing now that there's scientists saying that the buildings would've survived. They weren't going to fall."

"So?" The bus had stopped, and the driver got out to open the luggage compartment in the side.

"So nothing in my briefing materials said that. I thought they were coming down, and coming down hard and wrong." He handed the driver my bag, told the guy that we'd get it. The driver nodded and went back around to reboard. "Look, damn it. I turned that key to save Wall Street and the people in a ten-block radius, and I'd do it again, knowing what I did. But the information they gave me might have been wrong, and it might have been wrong in such a way that any basic engineering prof could've told them that. They were so obsessed with it being secret they never got it vetted properly. So those buildings went down, maybe, by mistake. I'm not saying that was wrong. But if they never tell anyone, then this might happen again. So every once in a while, I tell people."

"What if I tell somebody? What happens to you?"

He gave me a death's-head grin. "What, you haven't figured it out?" He hoisted his bag. "Save us a spot on the bus." I nodded, and got on. As I sat, the luggage door slammed. I sat there, thinking furiously, as the bus pulled away. I looked up, but the aisle was empty. I twisted, looking back, and caught one glimpse of a figure lighting another cigarette, before the bus turned and he was lost to the rain.

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March 21, 2005


"...and the I stands for INTERSTATE, anybody remember that..." The voice faded in from the night and dopplered out back again, underscored with a snarling moan that was unfamiliar. They gathered to listen, drawn from the lawns and televisions, moving slowly up from armchairs and webcliners, away from the screens. A couple stopped JoniDeere(tm)'s and stepped off the silently cheery electrimowers, moving with the crowd as it swayed slightly towards the almost-forgotten chainlink fences down the street where the overpass was. The roar was almost gone, with only the anemic sound of MetroCopper(tm) SirenAlarms wavering by in what must have been pursuit, the eager humming of donuts on crazed concrete thrashed by dozens of rare earth cells rising. A swarm of bees blindly staggering after the interloper who'd fucked their queen and flown on, laughing, dragging her pheromones in a trail of fury-inducing mania. When nothing more happened, and the noises faded, they returned to their homes and weblinks and evening dinoblogs and dinners.

Of course, it returned the next night.

This time, the MewsNews had it first, warning of dangerous transport terrorists, telling all good cits to stay off the Road. A few had figured it out, though, and this time, there were several standing at the chain link, fingers locked through the rusting barrier, when the enigma came. Rising in the distance, a sound that not many knew and all wondered at, overlaid with the warbling fed-back tones of anger and fury:

"WATCH LISTS! What the fuck...you SHEEP! Any of you ever left the fucking town? ANY? Any of you been on the fucking road? Call yourselves AMERICANS, they kick you off the AIRPLANES, then they kick you off the TRAINS, they kick you off the BUSES, they tell you to stay in your fucking SUBURBS, tell you it's SAFER, LOOK AT YOU, just LOOK AT YOURSELVES..."

...and it was gone again, few futile struggling minions in electric pursuit.

The third time, the last time, the entire block was there, their hands pressed to the fences and their Footballoculars(tm) ready, with SnapCams poised and coolers near their chairs. A few MetroCoppers had their Cushmans set up to block the Road, this night; SirenLarms off, they waited in eager glee while several of their colleagues tried vainly to convince the watching throngs to return to their living rooms and leave the browned-out scrub from the overpass of the Great 405.

The voice wavered into existence again, from off in the heat-hazed gullies of thermocrete and jersey barriers: "...1920s told us all, motherfuckers, told us what it was about, Henry motherfucking Ford and the fucking saints, Saint Packard and Saint Shelby, Archbishop Petty and Rabbi Brabham, boys, where've you fucking been? Where've you gone, and where'd we let you go? It's a precious resource, they say, national fucking crime to not turn it in for scientific research - well fuck that, it's a crime they're not researching how to make more, boys, because there's only one fucking thing it's good for-"

A squawk as the blackened shape shot over the hill to see the MetroCopper carts blocking the Road, but it didn't slow at all, merely upped its snarling shout. The crowd gasped, but before anything could happen before them, there was an explosion of noise-

They turned as one-

A garage door breaking into flinders, a Lawn shredding itself into the sky-

Another shape-

With a screeching bang, the chainlink slammed down. The silver and red demon bowled over the two MetroCarts blocking the two clear lanes of Road, just tore through them from the back side, bowled them over, before sliding to a stop. The oncoming shape spun halfway, screamed at the heavens and stopped as well, door to door, treating the onlookers to the long-forgotten smell of melted rubber. There was a moment of burbling engine noise, then-

"All fucking right."

One after the other, the two free cars shot through the barrier and vanished into the Interstate, leaving behind nothing but long strips of rubber and the wailing outrage of a gasoline dream.

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February 4, 2005

Four O'Clock on the Backtalk Grid

"No, of course not, Phyllis. I'd never do that. This isn't that kind of relationship. Sure. Thanks for understanding."


"Bob, check the numbers on the Philly contract please. What? Yeah, I got the updates from Sam. This morning. Fuck, no, I'll check them again but not until I'm on the plane. Sure. Sure. Well, I...I...no, I just want to be sure we're not too exposed on unit returns to Taiwan. Last time we took a fucking bath on those bast-"


"Hi Mom! We're going to be arriving on the nine-thirty plane out of Tokyo." Shit, specifics. Fix it. "Oh. All right, we'll rearrange the trip then. No, no, that's all right. I'll have to talk to Sandra and get the times we can make the hop from her; I don't know how many days that week are open for travel..."

Cranston muted his headset and craned his neck slightly to look at the timer. Five and a half minutes. Wincing, he unmuted and continued the conversation, moving into the kitchenette to make a cup of tea. Adding lemon and some thistle honey for his vocal cords, he nattered on about trans-Pacific travel arrangements with a pleasant middle-aged woman on the other end of the line for the required three hundred and thirty seconds. Sounded like Janis, the speech patterns did, at least. Janis had trouble disguising her word patterns. The end-of-contract beep cut her off in the middle of a diatribe on TransPac's airline food, and he went Offgrid with a sigh of relief.

Five minutes to take a break. A cup of tea for the vocal cords. Five minutes of isometric exercise to take him out of the desk chair and away from his prompter console. Cranston was proud of his skill; he was one of the few backtalkers that could work without the prompter while switching contracts, not losing touch with the Grid.

Then maybe another couple of hours work before dinner.

The conversations would blend into one another. Zen would help, and he would try to sit before sleep, wiping his head clean for the relief it brought. While around the world, that day, the seven hours of his conversation that he'd produced on demand would bounce from satellite to cable to computer, from packet to analog circuit, from cell phone to landline. Each conversation with another random backtalker contractor on the backtalk grid, myriad possible connections and conversations made, injected into the billions of legitimate conversations out there, while his clients used those datapaths to hide dataflow - steganographic submarines of power and money, pain and treachery. Governments, smugglers, criminals, saints and spies. He thought of them all the time and never, imagined them sliding gently beneath the waves and breakers of his perfect and flat Middle American accented voice (Speech pattern type Ortho-Texan, PacNorAm I/X/VII) with their payloads of treasure and treason.

Ah well.

Gulping his tea, Cranston opened his link to the Grid and flicked through his contract offerings, looking for another fifty or so random colleagues to converse with for pay.

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November 3, 2004

Tinker's Damn

This is a story, born of depression and a recent experience with broken bones. I've been noodling around with it, and it's at last in a state where I can show it without cringing too much, so here it is. I really see it as a Sin City style comic - to that end, someone may be kind enough to contribute art if they have time. We'll see. (note: the brackets are Everything2 links. If you're not reading this directly from my blog, which has a macro to handle them, they may show up oddly.)


Sitting in gin joints was at least one-half my life. Wherever the iron men were, there I was, too. Oh, you wouldn't see me. I'd be around, in the back, corner booth, near the john - you know the type. Couple of beers on the table, couple of shots, all of them clearly on my side of the line. The kind of glassware company that scares off any other sort. Doesn't bother my liver, of course; it's hard as a rock. Maybe harder. Still makes the head spin, though; still numbs pain like old Doc Holliday used to prescribe, they say. The waitress in here was easier to train than most; she just tipped me a professional eye and shrugged, then started bringing a shot and a beer every ten minutes or so. I think she's got a bet going with the bartender. Hope I don't cost her any tip money, though, because tonight, I'm working.

Object of my attentions comes through the door around ten PM. He's down on what little luck he has, and looks nervous on top of that. Has a couple of fast shots of Beam, looks to steady the nerves, then starts looking around the place. I ignore it; he isn't looking for me. Sure enough, his eyes light on me and slide right off. I use the time to wave my shot glass at the waitress who grins at the 'tender. She's probably got her money shorted on me. Oh well. She could've just asked; I wouldn't have lied to her.

* * *

The worst part is when they have to come and ask. I try to tell them that there's no reason they shouldn't; that in fact, it makes it all easier. But they don't listen, or don't hear. I'd been in a bar much like this one, in actual Pitts, when they found me. Was three of them then, literally hats in hands. The bar had been split pretty evenly between the old steelers and the yuppies; these guys had been so out of place they'd crackled. Working ironmen, from one of the small Japanese foundries that had set up shop in the bones of the old plants, using them to experiment and refine techniques; they were the lucky last of a dying breed, and they knew it.

Still, they had pride and family. That's why they'd come.

I don't hide from them. I don't make it easy, but I don't hide from them. If they need me, really need me, they know where I'll be - either near the University or near the mills, near what once was home. In a bar. Like this.

They told me about the man who'd come to town. He was Japanese, like their employers. He wasn't too flashy, but he had a job, and some money to spend. Worked at the plant, so he had to be OK, pulled a full shift and then some. Had some money to lend. Lent it out to a couple of the brothers in need, for the mortgage payments - the new boss liked to pay monthly, and the boys with jobs were still paying off the lean times. Our friend was willing to help. Union boy in Japan; said he was a Union rep, had some discretionary, wanted to spread good will and hoped to see good relations.

I winced. They hunched, knowing themselves for fools, but I nodded encouragement and bought beers.

So comes the day four, five of the brothers are a couple days behind on Shigei's payments, too. Then it comes out. He's Left Hand of the Neon Chrysanthemum - Japanese Yakuza. Yep, he's been looking for a toehold, all right. Still all friendly, though - says all he needs is their mortgages, they can live there for a rent one-half their old payments. Offers them leases and everything. Still, the brothers had some years and pride in those houses, and a couple of them balked, said they'd come up with the scratch. Shigei, he laughed, said sure, take a week.

One got it, One didn't. They found him on the shop floor with a spike through his heart nailing him to a drill press. Cops came in, interviewed everybody, shook their heads.

The next guy late didn't get the one-week extension. They found him spiked to a wall near the slag heap, perfectly through the heart.

So here they were.

I bought them more drinks, sent them home.

Then I went and got the gym bag.

The guys on the shop floor saw me coming through the familiar atmosphere of carbon combustion and tortured metal. Movement slowed in a dozen places, bar stock wavering on its way to diamond teeth while flat plate screamed a more bass note, easing its torment while the operator's foot came off the pedal slightly. I hunched into my trenchcoat, clutching my gym bag to me, and closed the familiar softwood door, the once-bright green paint fading around layers of tan and white into grimy wood grain where hands had worn it down.

Turning left along the wall, I touched the rack of plastic cards for luck (luck always) and kissed my fingertips automatically, even though it had been maybe nine years since I pulled a shift in the shop. A couple of the older guys, though, they nodded to me as I passed, and one or two clutched the bright plastic tags that hung round their necks as they caught my eye, I tried to meet their gazes but always failed, settling for a nod and hunch, scuttling (it felt) along the wall towards the next section, reflexively holding the bag. Most of them gave me my space, nodding and turning away. I might make it through, today.

Not quite.

The whisper came as I was reaching for the knob, almost feeling old, ridged glass in my hand with years of metal dust ground against it. Somewhere outside on Main, a klaxon wailed and a smelter disgorged with a familiar hissing scream that pulled at something deep inside me. I almost missed it, but the thunder from the steel died abruptly and it fell flat into the room. "Who's that, Ern?"

I twitched, hand already on the knob and turning, and another voice cut over in a growl. "Nobody, kid. That's nobody. Eyes on yer drill, dammit." I paused a moment, hoping my gratitude showed in the set of my shoulders, then pulled the door open and marched through.

I wasn't sweating, the shop had good AC; and I couldn't be crying, but my makeup was starting to run.

The second room was quieter, with the muted sounds of power. Hydraulics ruled here, not muscle; where before metal was cut, or drilled, or ripped, here it was crushed and pressed and stretched, science used not as weapon but as persuader. At the moment, there was only one man in it, and he was watching me as I closed the door. I turned to face him. He was probably around seventy, and I had known him since I was an infant.

"Hi there Timmy." His voice hadn't changed. A sad Irish seaman.

"Top of it, Gerry."

He looked me up and down, then shook his head. "Why?"

"Don't ask."

"I ask every time."

"You get the same answer every time."

"It's always the wrong one."

"It's the same as you'll get this time as well."

He limped over the the side of the room and slid a battered gym bench over to where he'd been standing. I moved to it and sat down, shrugging off the trenchcoat and dropping the gym bag on the asbestos-mat floor. I looked up before opening it. He was weeping, silently, but turned away when I looked up. "Your makeup's gone bad, boy."

"I thought it had." I removed a mouthpiece from the gym bag and set it on the bench, then set a fifth of bourbon next to it. The bourbon wasn't going to help me any more than it had Doc Halliday's patients, but the forms must be observed. I adjusted the bench so that my left arm rested comfortably on the machine next to me, then uncapped the flask and drained the bourbon in a convulsive shudder. Dropping bottle and cap back into the gym bag, I moved my arm so that my hand was resting on the work surface. I inserted the mouthpiece, rested my hand flat and examined my knuckles for a moment. No makeup trouble there; they looked worn but serviceable. Hadn't done anything hideous to my hands in months. I spread the hand out flat, the wrist resting over the edge, and nodded at Gerry where he stood by the door.

He turned away, his hand working on the wall.

The press came down.

* * *

My pigeon is still sitting at the bar. He's now had maybe five or six shots of the brown liquor, and now he's nursing a beer. I'm still running through glassware, watching the expectant grin of the waitress droop a little more with each round she brings me as I fail to fall over. Not my problem.

This is a serious steeler's bar. Not like the other night. Guys come in here shaking the dust out of their clothes, and that dust hits the floor with a clang. You can smell the coke and the burnoff on them when they come through under the old faded Stroh's sign with its cracked bell fifteen feet down the aisle past the house-wins pool table. I tried one game on it when I came in, but only the locals will know the hummocks and valleys in that shale; it could be a shag carpet over slag heaps and mine pits in the dark. I move my gaze away from the newcomers, who are heading for a table of friends, back to my own one-way pal. He's just looking at the drinker's friend behind the bar.

Curious, I move to the bar to order a beer, standing just next to him. Our eyes meet once in the mirror, and his look too interested - I look at myself, find a gleam beneath my hat brim, and duck away. The barkeep hands me my beer with a grin, genuine when he sees I'm not staggering. I tip him and take it back to the booth. When the waitress passes again, I order a fresh shot and tip her in apology for the breach of drinker's code.

When the noise level in the bar drops suddenly at the same time as the flat tinkle of the broken Stroh's chime sounds, I know they're here. No need to look. I smooth the leather of my gloves and swig the shot, wishing I'd gotten this one with ice, waiting. The alcohol stings my mouth, a sensation without a taste. Sharp rather than soft, because soft means pain. Time slips backwards again as my palate numbs.

* * *

Among the haze of pain and the complete lack of taste that was the football mouthguard's silicone compound, I could feel Gerry dragging me around on the bench. My hand flopped to the floor, but the pain was already so intense that I just shuddered slightly, enervated by the overload. He'd put my other hand up on the slab, spreading it out flat, and our tears were mixing on my face. I felt hot salt pushing aside the several spots of layered base, flesh tones running down my neck in rivulets of shame and lanolin. Gerry swung my legs up on the bench and I managed to flap my jaw a couple times; he got me balanced and then took the mouthpiece out. It takes him a couple minutes of trying. When it's out, he put his ear to my mouth, where I was biting my tongue to taste the blood, and I managed to get it out between my teeth. "Chest."

He nodded then, looking away, and put the mouthpiece back in. In my memory he moved back to the door. I have several seconds, then and now, to feel the heaviness in my gut and wonder at the time that this sensation makes it through the neural noise before motion caught my eye, and I passed out watching the press slide smoothly down its track again in a ballet of hydraulics and mechanical advantage.

* * *

A clink of glass brings me back, blinking; I've tipped the empty shot glass in my fist. My boy's party is here. There are three of them, and they swagger. One is sharply dressed; Shigei. One is nondescript, with a briefcase; the banker, probably. One is enormous: the enforcer. He's not impossibly big, but he's larger than almost everyone else in the bar. Unlike them, his size is for violence, not hard work, and it shows. He carries only a small case, such as might hold a pool cue. He doesn't drink, nor speak; merely parks himself behind Shigei at the bar while the latter orders a drink. The banker sits on a stool and lays out papers, precisely. My friend from earlier looks down the bar at them. Shigei catches his eye and smiles, beckoning.

Whatever mistakes my quarry has made, he's got brass. He puts down his beer and sidles down the bar. Shigei puts an arm around his shoulders in false companionship; idly, watching, I notice that indeed Shigei has worked Main. He has the burns and calluses of a working steeler beneath his imported silks. He's talking smoothly, easily - he's done this before. My friend isn't playing with the program, though; he keeps shaking his head. Several entreaties to reason, to hope, to harmony follow, me filling in the words across the now muted but still noisy bar. Local boy is afraid, desperate, but adamant - apparently, he doesn't have the mortgage, or can't sign it, or something along those lines. Right on schedule, Shigei gets less friendly, the enforcer starts to look interested, the banker starts stacking (unsigned) papers, and I have to use the bathroom.

This puts me just behind enforcer and my friend as they head down the hall towards the jakes and the back door, local boy's face pinched in pain with one arm behind his back. Nobody's looking, of a sudden. I stagger behind them, my hat down and my collar up, and out the back door, closing it behind me, before turning to look.

The enforcer has local boy up against the wall in the alleyway and looks like he's preparing to administer a suggestion with the lead sap held in his right hand. I clear my throat. Both of them look over at me, one with hope and one with professional interest. I smile and shrug, palms up. Enforcer slowly lowers my friend to the ground, then turns to him and fussily, carefully straightens his jacket and shirtfront. The poor guy looked at him, completely confused, but enforcer just ignores him and turns back to me with a question in his gaze, I bow, shortly but properly. Satisfactory. He nods, then steps back and indicates the door to the local, who looks at him, then at me, panic fighting confusion and hope. I smile and nod once, then remove my hat. He looks at me harder, not quite getting it, so I smudge my face slightly to show the shine. His eyes clear like a dog seeing a duck fly over and he practically soars through the door. Enforcer and I smile at each other and wait.

We don't have to wait long. Shigei comes tearing through it a moment later, dragging the banker. He stops, then lowers the pistol he's holding in one hand to look at both of us. We look back. After a moment of silence, he puts the gun away and hands the enforcer the small case from his other fist. "You are staying for him?"


"That is acceptable."

"Thought so."

"We shall all go to the front, to my car."


The strange parade we are goes around the piss-smelling side of the bar without incident, crossing the moderately busy two-laner and piling into a non-descript minivan. Shigei looks at my face with some interest. "Your face..."


"Is that a fashion here?"

"Nah. Just me. Injury."

"Ah, I see. You are a steel worker? You were?"


He nods, satisfied. Turns around. Enforcer keeps an eye on me as we drive the fifteen minutes to the plant's slag area. Banker stays in the car as Shigei, enforcer and I get out and walk towards the fence surrounding the active slag heap. Heat rolls out at us, despite the last dump having taken place some hours before; the trash metal still glows at the top. I stop at the fence, my back to it. Enforcer has opened his case, and taken out (as expected) a large metal spike.

Shigei cocks his head, every inch the haughty Yak. " You have honor and bravery for an American about to die."

"I'm not worth much." I grin for him. It's not for me.

"Your friend is, then?"

"Sure. More than me."

Shigei just looks a moment longer, then nods. Enforcer raises the spike in what looked like a practiced move and drives it into my chest.

It's akin to being hit by a truck. I stagger backwards, despite being ready for it. There's an earsplitting CLANG and the spike drops. Enforcer screams, his right arm numb and useless, and falls slowly to his knees, looking at the hole in the front of my coat. It's torn now, as is my shirt. I hadn't bothered to put makeup on my chest; there's some blood and meat, but mostly my muscle and visible rib bone where the spike had struck shines dull gold. I grin down at him. He looks up at me, holding his right hand, and I punch him hard in the nose.

My hand breaks through his nasal structure and sinuses, coming to a stop somewhere in the middle of his head. He falls sideways as I pull my ruined glove from the hole, and with the other hand strip it from my gleaming fist. Shigei is babbling at me, gun in his hand but pointed at the ground; I step over to him and say simply "Not my friends," before killing him.

* * *

I had to go back to the minivan and kill the banker, but after that it was just a matter of hauling their bodies onto the top of the slag heap and covering them with metal scraps. I wear fireproof boots, still. Ask the steelers. The minivan might show up, one day, if somebody does a really careful chemical analysis of the next day's meltdown.

After that, it was back to drinking. It takes a few weeks for the brass to fade, heal back into flesh, and it hurts until the moment it's gone. I guess it's better than that disease where you turn into bone and never turn back - but then, I'm not sure. People in those posters always have families around them fighting for them, or doctors hoping to cure them, making it clear they're worth something.

Me? Like I told Shigei, I'm not, haven't been since the day I killed my best friends and family. The guys, I look out for them, and they think I'm worth something. They're wrong, though. Because if they knew the truth, they wouldn't call me what do they when I'm not around, because there's always something not even worth a Tinker's Damn.

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July 9, 2004

Singing Supraluminal

the end-all grail and be-all goal since hydrogen first condensed to mist; to overcome the barrier that has been placed by God or Chance or pre-ordained rule.


Know where you are. Know where you're going. Wish upon a star; bring all online and push with legs cross-connected to the vagaries of comp. Squint once, twice; bring lenses back with grav-fields strobing in the dark (arrows to the universe, a turn-signal none can or should ignore) and then taste the different spectrum of the black.


SLAM systems as they jump, the nonexistant nano lights sliding up the tone to green inside your head. Where your head was, at any rate. Glissando in their laugh, ten, twenty, forty-five; a thousand thousand settling down upon your skull a billion points that put all to shame to sing their go-song deep inside the brain.


Slowly, massive, physics jealous guarding its longtime grip. Feel the Hohmann pathways part and listen to the steady silence in the water gap play into your ears. Small blue marble far, far below and then behind; clouds mask its face, the rain weeping to see you go but proud (so proud) of what mankind has wrought. This, you, it, then, now.


Secondaries fully lit, with blazing torches sweeping spacelanes clear. Scything out past the radiation haze, the places back behind alight with glory of the dying matter! Flicker your God-spawned light onto the small dark rocks and imagine (just a moment, then) that small, long-sleeping eyes do blink and open, swiveling to watch you pass. A wordless, soundless, yet still-felt cheer from all the silent denizens of the deep that have watched us for so, so long as you pass by - a rousing hurrah! from planetismals small and large, their winking facets of high albedo pushing back the light we cast. Thinking of them, waiting for those countless years, you sigh a bit and throw a mental wave to all your fellow Solians. Think, then, of the familiar bright and yellowed light that we have shared.


The mains have woken now, somewhere behind; unfathomable Murgatroyds of physics born and magic raised are spinning up. Energies that deities both Greek and Goth would have killed in one of their endless operatic spats if only to control for just one minute - here they are, at last, yours, ours, only to exist to help us go. Rhyming doggerel that sounds your path, whispered in the tearing shriek of too-slow particles across front shields-

Feynman and Einstein shout for von Braun-
Run for the dark as fast as you can.
Schwartzchild, Hawking, Newton, Kaku
Chandrasekhar and Planck will dance for us too
Pull the string, dig the hole, spin it and call:
"With strangeness and charm we'll jump o'er the wall!"

Put words to deed, channel the strangeness and capture the charm; color us spincycle. There is a blaring in the soul, a shouting in the sea of years, a long slow rupture of the universe that sounds (for want of better term) like a tortured bass violin as a bow some light-years long is drawn across its adamantium strings. Colors that never were will flicker then around the front, as starlight is drawn into a tunnel fore and aft. Wave to our patient silent neighbor Jove as we scream through the old God's front yard, tearing several unknown moonlets into component ice and dirt -

some days later those back home will see the show as particles stream down from upabove into the endless sea of Jupiter, their shining beacon suicide reminiscent of Hale-Bopp lo those years ago


parting, sliding, twisting in their darktime cells the mains struggle; titans move beneath our skin in ancient dance of stones. With sudden locking into step and place and time, we vow-

...leave nought but footprints across the EM band and deed to those behind your lightshow concert of the unreal, slip sideways out from up and under...


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June 29, 2004

Interstitial Elevator

To turn just left of true, a shade right of false, below the knock-head ceiling of the world.


Reasons for pursuit are manifold but less well known. Alighting on the stairs, stepping out into the hall, cutting across the flow of the myriad pedestria cluttering the public ways, they make their turns. Sometimes, some times and in some places, then, they do not go unseen; a longing, insomniac wandering, perhaps a memory strange and unbidden is their momentary undoing.

You have seen them, too, or else you would not still be reading.

Oh, so close; so near and so fine. The emulation of the simulation of the facsimile of anima, other words both useless and prized. Resulting simulacra; deft and lithe, they dance across your vision. It is a rare and subtle moment, that one time you may in fact just...stop. Stop and look; retrace, go back, search, seek, perhaps (in wonder) find. They weren't a vision, nor a dream; rather, sight of the sightless, not unseen for once in oh those many transits of our vision.

Motion normal, action familiar, path plausible, even, but...still. Something that is wrong will gently touch tongue to teeth and tap with hesitation at your will, enough to bring you to a halt (to break the flow of day or night) and send you back. In blandest sweet, the taste of salt; a streak of sour in the sense of time. Into the path of others, yes, they came...without collision, nor disturbance, yet they turned (again) so shortly thereupon and then were lost.

Now we come to it. There was nowhere for them to go. There was nowhere from whence they came; that one small time you turn to look, a dead-blank wall will stare back from the point at which their presence first was known and took you by surprise. A dare, perhaps, to have you see the entrance from their world if only you could tell it from your own; a wall that is (to them) a door, faceless wonders enter our foyer of the real on errands swift and silent call.

What, then, to do?



Eventual, it comes. To you once you have made the switch; evinced a change inside your brain which will not let you let them by but from then on will twitch with notice of the strange. There, that one there; came from the alley 'cross the way WHICH ISN'T THERE and then with nimble trick did dance away again between the two parked cars, without emerging on the sidewalk on the other side. Entranced, you make your way back to the point upon the street from which they did come, and then - brief small trick - there is a flicker, on the wall; a blackness strobing in the deep that brick nor mortar nor the weight of stone can hide. There; there. Touch the place and taste the time, reach out with all you have within-


If then you're fortunate, nay, blessed, a small plain hole may then appear. A tiny point of anti-light which will become the key with which you may unravel all that is dear and plain and, yes, familiar to you now.

Anonymous, without their names but with their selves worn proudly on their belts they walk. Can you join the dance? Can you pick up the motions from the study of the trance of years in which the others walk? Perhaps you can. Perhaps you too will learn to turn hard left into the wall, to slip between where others fall and then to find yourself inside the elevator of the interstitials, level change and static slant where (only there) your name means nought but what you brought. If you're lucky.

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June 23, 2004

Transcendence through Anonymity

There is a beauty and a joy in the blankness that can be attained. A soothing form of balancing, knife-edged and fine in the interstitials of the buzzing hum that is today. Look:

one::one - rejection/ erasure/ repulsion/ destruction - one::one

There. That one, there; the small girl with the brush-cut bristled hair - watch her feel the patterns of the wall with the neurons in her back - the small of which is nestled in the corner near the street. She watches traffic, foot and car, for the one she knows she'll meet inside the witching hour of the day. This day. This night. A lost and then-found treasure; who can say? Perhaps, then, you see the trail of breadcrumbs lost and ragged reaching from beneath her skirt and 'round the corner. Lagged off behind her, pick one up, the morsel of the whiteness in your palm - it's not bread, no, it's paper, plastic white and hologram. Identity, shredded, lost and dropped askew to scatter on the winds until it blows away. No longer true, it cannot hold her caged within, but flutters sideways past the grimy metal of the wasteman's bin into the puddle waiting near the curb. Look:

one::two - acceptance/flattening/leaching/purity - two::one

Farther down the street, a young boy sits. He's perched atop a dumpster, playing absently with a deck of pasteboards so dirty as to be nigh identical, none wishing to betray the winning hand (or, William, the Dead Man's Hand). Instead, the brownish slice of cards that flutter wildly in his grip. Somewhere, somewhen, he's read a book which talks about the freedom that can be found here once one has cast the self out. He has, some days ago. Longer down the trail than the girl we still can see (in the distance) watching the cars go by with still-wet tears of parting for the world. Climbing to his feet, our young man shades his eyes against the rays of the setting sun (which pierce the smog down here reluctantly, if at all). He swings down off the bin, cards magically vanished on his person, heading off down the street for a destination we don't know. His appointments we don't know nor understand, which is the point - he isn't here, nor there, as yet, his blankness just begun to show in the relaxation of his face, which doesn't strain for us. No more. Look:

one::three - recognition/flowering/manifestation/one hand clapping - one::three

Jump up and over, gentles, over cornice and rooftop all as one. Two blocks, nay, three, then fifteen more, across this unknown town to shore of water empty of a name. See, there? On the gravel, near the edge? The older woman there with the dog, who sits and watches out across the black surface of the river with her hand atop the hound's warm head. Tongue lolling, it sits beneath her palm, content to feel her pulse against its closed eyelids while it breathes. The ripples come ashore in train; marching to a distant heart beneath the town which hums and roars and SHOUTS A NAME OUT to the night. Us? We cannot hear it. She couldn't if she wished, but knows it anyhow - so too does her companion, paws, tail, coat and tongue. Ripples tickle at her soles, her paper shoes tapping lightly on her skin. Small bumps in the world, form through distortion, object through precessing packet of energy, they each nip (doglike) at her feet. Her face is light; no features there, just shadows, really, suggesting of the person that once she was. Was, of course; is is not the word this time. A glowing thing or place that is her self. No-one as defined by us and here. Of course there lives within a person unique and pure, unfettered by the chains of name and past; that person has chosen what to let escape and this is what we get: this glow, this light, the beauty that she is with dog beside her watching proof of Brownian motion trickle home. Look:

one::four - D I S T O R T I O N - one::four

a warmth on skin or play of light: that's all. We stop and hesitate, our paths brought short as we travel through the day. We don't know why. A ray of sun perhaps? Or, there, a warm short breeze, a ripple in the day's hot space that shows itself to us (a wavelet) passing by and gone before we could ever gain a hold. The echo of lost and gone-by footsteps tripping off the bricks in reflected soundscapes worthy of a lost and ruined Gothic manse - sound coming back to us in tricks and queer small packets of the world wrapped thin with tissue paper for our daily tasting of the here. They walk by, thus, those who have no they and want no more; they pass among the walkways of our lives in warmth and scent and color, their nonself serving to expose the wonders of their beings, of their selves with which they gift us in their passing ways. A gift which could not survive the cold and lines of the rigid ways and times with which we bind our days. Look. Look.


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