Demons

Cover #8

Illustration by Bob Snare

by Matt McIrvin

 

A big man with a cardboard sign meets me in the arrival vestibule, before I even have a chance to buy some clothes and shuck my airline suit. They’d told me not to ship any baggage, so no trouble there, but visitors aren’t normally allowed in here.

Something’s breaking on the screen by the shuttle stop, something about 200 dead in Dallas. The sound is pretty low and I miss most of the scrolling text. The big uniformed guy sees me squinting at the screen, puts a heavy arm around my shoulder and shakes his head. “Plenty of time for that later,” he says, and motions me out a side door marked AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.

There’s a breeze out on the tarmac, and it chills me through the suit. The waistband is starting to rip and of course I’ve got nothing on under there. I feel ridiculous. There’s a Dreamland Air logo a foot high on my chest: clouds and pink cherubim. Fortunately it’s a short walk to the car, a drab unmarked affair parked right at the bottom of the metal stairs between a fuel truck and a forklift.

He sets the car on automatic, but it’s not taking the Expressway; it’s all back roads, in from the tip of Long Island. There’s some equipment I can’t identify in the car, wired to the windows. He starts to brief me, but he doesn’t know much. “Your experience and skill in the breeding of nanomechanisms are needed at the site. I have been told that this project could win the war.” I’m not going to argue; no more holy plague would be good enough for me.

 

“For the past seven years, we have had a small team here doing fundamental research on the measurement problem in quantum mechanics,” says Dr. Patel. I sit in the only occupied chair in the darkened colloquium room, wearing a ragged bathrobe belonging to one of her grad students. She’s showing me an animated 3D micrograph of some sort of nanocircuit attached to a living cell. The cell is covered with branching tendrils and has a sort of long neck: a neuron, I suppose. The circuit is all over the thing, like a wire basket, and there’s a little box with a couple of leads stretching out of the picture.

“That looks biological,” I say.

She nods. “We have confirmed Wigner’s hypothesis of the central role of the brain in wave-function collapse.”

I’m irritated. They hauled my naked butt out on the tarmac in March at Giuliani for this? “Wigner was confused. There’s nothing special about the brain except that it’s a thermodynamically irreversible system. If an observable gets coupled to the brain state, there’s gotta be decoherence. You can explain everything about so-called collapse by just assuming that.”

“No, you can’t,” says Patel, giving me a lopsided smile.

“What can’t you explain?”

“The collapse is not irreversible. We have reversed it.”

My jaw drops. “You have not.”

 

They have. Her students Tianbao and Nora give me a tour of the experimental lab that afternoon. Their apparatus, on a heavy optical table in the twilit room, is mostly an ordinary optical interferometer, though there’s more… plumbing than I’d expect in such a lab. Photons from a weak light source hit a half-silvered mirror, and continue on either of two paths through a series of mirrors and lenses, to be recombined at a detector, a device like the business end of a digital camera. The arriving photons, summed up over time, should show an interference pattern of light and dark fringes, provided that no steps are taken to identify which path an individual photon takes.

But the beam in each leg of the interferometer also goes through a cylindrical cell containing an optically active crystal. It is a nondestructive photodetector, designed to let the beam pass while noting its passage, to be remembered in a file on a junky old PC somewhere in the shadows. Still, no matter how gentle the detectors are, the act of doing this should destroy the interference pattern.

Two weeks ago, after three years of repetitive and scrupulously secret toil, Tianbao and Nora became able to identify the photon paths without destroying the interference pattern. Somehow, they could induce interference with a piece of the photon’s wave function thought hopelessly lost to decoherence. This was accomplished by wiring the detector cells to a device in the middle of the table, the focus of the plumbing in the room. It contains the nanomechanism that Dr. Patel’s team had constructed, wrapped around a single human neuron, floating in a nutrient bath.

Tianbao says, “You’re looking at our dissertations, if we can get this work declassified enough to release it. Dr. Patel thinks that we’ve already got enough to publish and graduate, after the war is over.”

And get a Nobel in the bargain, I think. And maybe a Medal of Freedom, too, though I can’t yet see the military application that all this has got to have. I hope it goes well for them, in any event. I’m grateful to Tianbao, since he let me borrow his spare change of clothes. They almost fit.

Nora taps the central housing. “That’s Demon Mark One,” she says.

 

I’m lying on my bed at the new, secret hotel near the old synchrotron equipment shed, listening to the uniformed federal agents cleaning the carpet out in the hall. I ponder the problem. I wanted to cure the holy plague, but building a bomber that runs on air is a good consolation prize, I suppose.

My job, I’m told, and the purpose of all this lavishly funded secret research, is to construct a Maxwell demon. This is an entity first mentioned in a paradoxical 19th-century thought experiment. Suppose you have a box of air with a wall down the middle, and a tiny door in the wall. A microscopic demon sits by the door, examining the speeds of the air molecules bouncing around in the box. He opens and closes the door selectively, trillions of times a second, to let fast molecules pass into the rightmost compartment and slow molecules into the leftmost one. For very little expenditure of energy, he can create a large temperature difference between the two sides of the box, and you could run a heat engine off the difference. It’s practically free conversion of heat into work. With a Maxwell demon you could build a refrigerator that needs no electricity, or a car that runs on ambient heat and drops cubes of frozen air out the tailpipe. And it blatantly violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Where does the entropy go?

Only in the twentieth century, with quantum mechanics and information theory, was the paradox resolved. The forgetting of information is associated with an unavoidable cost. By quantum mechanics, any device that could work as a Maxwell demon must somehow retain a record of every molecular selection it makes—which in a precise formal sense is itself an increase in entropy, and can’t be continued forever anyway—or erase it, which requires the conversion of work into heat. It all balances out so that you can’t win.

But Tianbao and Nora now have a means of painless forgetting. In a selected piece of a detection apparatus, they can erase the difference between the-photon-went-this-way and the-photon-went-that-way. They could, in principle, do the same for air molecules. All it takes is some suitably constructed, far more complex descendant of Demon Mark One.

The power-plant cell that will contain it has already been designed in some detail. They’ve given me the plans, colorful and stereoscopic, with only a few of the details blanked out. Inside is an empty space that it is my job to fill, once my demon is working.

As I drift off to sleep, I think circular thoughts of painless forgetting, and wonder if it could be applied to Jane and the plague.

 

Dr. Patel’s lab is in the old detector analysis rooms, stacked like giant concrete packing crates inside the metal shed. It has more brand-new, off-the-shelf mechanogenetics equipment than I’ve ever seen in one place before. They don’t know how to use half of it. Demon Mark One was made with the oldest machines in the lab, in the lowest rooms. They’re what I’m used to, as well; the assembler tanks are relatively low-capacity and the generation count poky. Progress has sped along as always, and the new stuff is equipment that I’ve drooled over in trade-magazine ads, specialized for medical projects. Neurons from the stem-culture lab down the street go in here; the powder of tiny machines that is generation N from the machine-breeder goes in there; the mechanobiological complexes, carefully fed and cossetted by artificial cilia, travel down this pipe to the selection bath, where… where I had to design something to test for the behavior we wanted—only a small part of what I had to do. Whatever it was, it would pick out the parents whose designs would be folded, with suitable mutation and crossbreeding, into generation N+1.

Looking at the gap where the selector will go, I imagine something that James Clerk Maxwell would have recognized: a box of some inert gas divided down the middle by a porous membrane. This will sprout both invisibly tiny life-support conduits and nanoconveyors, molecular arms that would haul my hopeful demons, each a cultured neuron in a mechanical cage, into and out of place, plugging their molecular doors into the pores in the wall.

Selection should be easy in principle. At first, the nanoconveyors can be adapted to pull them apart if they don’t generate a local temperature gradient. Once I’ve got some vague approximation of a working demon, I just increase the time that each demon sits at its pore: the ones that don’t work will simply overheat from the sting of their accumulated memories and fall apart within milliseconds, adding their atoms to the gas. It’s easy enough to scrub them out chemically.

The details, of course, will take a year or two. But I’ve got people, and budget, and lots of shiny machines.

 

The demons start to work a little in mid-July. We’re seeing tiny thermal gradients, and Demons Mark Million or so are starting to burn themselves out without being helped along. Conventional physics has reached its limit, and the new effect first seen by Nora and Tianbao must start to take hold if the demons are to evolve any further.

That night my dreams of Jane and forgetting become more elaborate. I’m in a vast, dimly lit warehouse with cracked, filthy windows, filled with long tables at which people work without ceasing. Each table has at its midline a tilted chute that descends from an invisible, distant place hidden in mist and darkness. Black and white marbles roll down this chute, and off on side channels that deposit them in a shallow basin in front of each worker. The people sort them into barrels of black marbles and white marbles that sit at their feet. The workers’ hands are a blur of motion. No matter how many marbles go into the barrels, they never become full.

Jane is in this great sweatshop, sorting the marbles. I can’t make out any other faces with confidence. I see her a long way down one of the tables, and run to her; it seems to take hours, as if the tables were many miles long. I try to say her name but stumble on the initial J. She doesn’t take any notice of me. Her hands and eyeballs just quiver like hummingbirds’ wings, as the marbles drop from the chute and fall into the barrels.

It seems that she has forgotten me, at least. I suppose that’s a comfort.

 

The hard part is over. I’m in the engine shop, watching the macromechanics fit the first production power cell (it contains a monogenerational batch of Demon Mark 394,700,655) into a Stirling engine. The nutrient solution in the connected hoses is tuned down a little so they can handle it with gloves. Still, I can see the heat ripples rising off one end, and the other is coated with a layer of frost.

Nora is there, fidgeting as she always does when something important is going to happen. Suddenly she asks me: “Are you a dualist?”

“What?”

“What do you think is going on in the demon cell? It’s something completely outside the physics we know.”

“A straightforward extension, I imagine,” I say. “I never got all the theorists’ fretting about unitarity. I mean, I’m familiar with the theory, and when I saw it violated in your lab it was a shock, but I don’t get why that’s so philosophically disturbing. We’ll have to extend quantum mechanics; that’s all. I’m happy to leave it to the people who write papers about the measurement problem.”

“Wigner thought the collapse effect had to do with consciousness. Do you think the neurons are tapping into the soul?”

“Whose soul? These neurons are cloned and differentiated in the bio lab down the street. They didn’t come from anybody.”

“Good point,” she says, but she still looks nervous.

Once the mechanics tighten all the bolts and release the brake, the engine’s flywheel starts to turn, faster and faster, with a whirring noise that becomes a high-pitched whine. The cell is far past engineering break-even, producing many times as much power as the cultured neurons consume. I reach for the glucose regulator and make the mixture a little richer, and the whine passes out of the range of human hearing.

 

We’re here for the duration, of course. We know that we’ve done history-making science, but we can’t go home or make anything public. We can’t even switch the whole facility to a demon-cell generator, lest somebody see us drop off the grid and get ideas. We do a little research on refinements to the process, but mostly we sit around in the top-secret hotel pool, mope over the hourly tolls of the distant dead in Seattle and Portland, and write things up in stacks of highly classified paper. Meanwhile, production ramps up on things that have been in development since long before I arrived at the lab: transports, tanks, planes, even explosives powered by the limitless source of free energy that we have created. After the war is over, this will revolutionize society, make possible a technological heaven on earth and even rapid expansion into space. We’re all convinced of that.

Then, one day, we convene for a public ceremony, complete with a flyover of the strange, nearly silent airplanes that, it is rumored, have been winning the fight in Mozambique and New Zealand. We can’t reveal details. We can reveal that we’re the ones behind it all.

I’m sweating in the early-October heat, wearing the first tailored suit I’ve worn in thirty years. Dr. Patel is as impeccably dressed as always; Tianbao and Nora are almost unrecognizable. We’re sitting at long tables, rubber chicken at the ready in covered trays. “Hail to the Chief” starts up from a loudspeaker somewhere, and the President of the United States strolls to the podium at the head of the assembly.

Just as the airplanes streak overhead in V formation, a bomb goes off beneath the President’s podium and kills us all.

 

I sort. Sometimes, at long intervals, I think, just for a moment. Then I sort some more.

White black white white black white black black black black white black white.

Sometimes my environment looks like a sweatshop, and a chute with marbles. Sometimes, it is a fence with a gate in it, and sheep are running through the gate, left and right. Sometimes it looks like a cave with doorways manned by we grinning imps. Sometimes we are ticks in the copious beard of James Clerk Maxwell, and we herd tiny lice that run eternally up and down. There must be trillions of us enslaved in these places, more than ever lived on my planet alone.

Sometimes (and in my rare moments of lucidity this fills me with recognition) my home appears to be a molecule-sized hole in a membrane waving with artificial cilia, somewhere in the heart of an Air Force DF-65 DevilDart tactical fighter. We’re gonna win.

Fast fast slow fast fast slow slow slow fast slow fast fast fast.

Somewhere among the uncounted dead, Jane labors, as I do. I have not found painless forgetting, but the task of sorting comes close.

I cannot entirely forget that I have created Hell, and that I am the only demon who belongs here.

 

The Touch of Hands Beyond the Maze

by Michail Velichansky

 

The furless rat stood at the entrance to the maze, wrapped in old rags, staring out at its pristine white walls. Pristine white, but to him, bloodied. They rose from the ground, and they went down deep—roots in some molten core, the bones of the world.

A mist hung above and thin tendrils floated down, caressing the ground so that the dust became damp and caked. From the distance came a sound like the dong of a bell suspended in time. The machines were calling. Everyone would be here soon.

“Called by God,” the furless rat hissed. He glanced around, nervous and agitated.

There was silence, and then the bell-thing sounded again, the machines from their caves calling, calling. The furless rat turned around and ran back. He moved as quickly as he could while old joints fought, and muscles complained. The limp was bad today: his rear right leg dragged as he moved and left eddies in the dust behind him.

He had traveled the same path before, many times; the first time, carrying the limp with pride, leaving behind the first bit of fur, tiny clumps to be covered with dust and hidden in fog.

* * * * *

In the distance, the crowd squeaked and chittered while the machines bellowed their final calls.

“They’re waiting for me,” said the young rat. He was thin and small; next to the furless rat, he still looked like a nothing, a child, a pup. His nose and whiskers twitched in agitation, his tail jerked back and forth.

Another cry from the machines beyond the maze, echoing through the plastic tunnels carved into the rock, bouncing from wall to wall into every nest till all the world heard. Then, a silence bloated with expectation.

“That was the last call,” the young rat pleaded. “I have to go.” He tried to get past the furless one, but his path was blocked.

“You don’t have to go,” the furless rat said. His heart beat quickly, and so he spoke louder to drown it out. “Don’t you understand that you could die in there?”

The young rat scuttled back and forth in front of his elder. “I have to go… If I don’t run the maze, I’ll always be a nothing-pup to them. And… and I might make it.”

“No! You could die like so many others have died. That place, it’s bloody. The walls are covered. It reeks of death.”

“That won’t be me,” the young rat said. “I’ll get through it.”

“And if you do?” The older rat clicked his teeth at the younger rat. His game leg twitched. “What then? Only the machines and their small deaths sheathed in silver. What’s the point? Why do that to yourself?”

“Because it is life!” the young rat said, too quickly. “The machines are the Hands of God! To be touched by them…” He inhaled suddenly, a reverse hiss through his teeth.

“The hands of god? What god?!” the furless rat yelled, trying to stifle the desperation he felt behind his throat, trying to ignore the pains in his chest. “There are only machines! Cave after cave of machines! I’ve seen no God!”

“Then you must be blind!” The young rat was shaking. “You see the hand but cannot see the body, so you assume that no body exists—now let me through!” He rushed forward, charging the furless rat, and they fought, hissing and scratching, until the younger rat twisted and rolled back, one of his ears torn and a thin gash across his side. He lay on his stomach, panting.

Slowly, the furless rat crawled up to him. “Please,” the old rat said. “Please, I… I can hide you. We can hide together. The others won’t know.”

“Why should I exile myself?” the young rat asked, staring at the walls. “They’re my people too.”

“They’ve practically exiled you already. You’re as alone as I am.”

“I can prove them wrong. I’ll run the maze, then they’ll accept me! They’ll have to. I’ll be a true rat then, not a pup.” And he added in a whisper-like sigh, “Blessed by God.”

“Blessed! You call it a blessing? I am lame. My fur, once thick and full, gone…”

“Once you wore your naked skin with pride.”

They became silent, and the silence filled the tunnel—but around it flittered the ghosts of muttered speech from outside, from those waiting before the entrance to the maze.

“Don’t go,” the furless rat said finally. “Please don’t go. You’re all I have, my adopted son. Don’t go. Stay with me.”

“I can’t.”

“Then… then you’ll die.” The furless rat turned away from the young rat, staring at nothing, whiskers twitching.

“Why? Why will I die?” A fire flared in the young rat’s eyes, and teeth flashed into view as he spoke. “Because I’m too weak? Too small? Or am I unworthy to be like you? To receive the blessing into myself, to allow God to leave his mark… No. No, you will not hold me back.”

He tore forward again, faster than before, regardless of wounds. They fought, and fought, and finally the furless rat was too old. The young rat ran down the tunnel, panting.

“Please!” the furless rat screamed, his voice cut bitter, a tearing squeal. “Please!”

And he lay, shaking, as the echo raced down the tunnel after the small rat, destined to finish without purpose.

The tunnel said to the furless rat, “’ease-ease-ease…”

He forced himself up. There was blood on the ground, and he didn’t know if it was the young one’s or his own.

Lagging far behind both pup and echo, the furless rat ran.

* * * * *

They were gathered in two columns before the gate leading into the maze, lifted up, open; the furless rat heard the ragged end of a cheer as he ran out of the tunnel.

“Where is he?” the furless rat yelled out, his head jerking left and right. “Where is he?!”

“No worries, Holy One.” A large brown rat with a tattered ear and an extra leg growing from his back. “He’s gone into the maze.”

The furless rat sank down, the air leaving his lungs to become, “God…”

“I didn’t think he’d do it, you know. But he did, the little runt. So maybe he’s not such a pup—I told him that before he left. Of course, he still has to get back out.”

The furless rat could only stare at the maze, barely hearing the words. His chest was tight, so tight, and he was trembling.

“God… Let him come out of there… Let him live. He’s all I have, God, God damn it, there’s so little left now…” He mumbled the prayer, choking on the words. They came anyway.

“Hope he gets out of there soon,” said the brown rat. “I’m itching to go.”

Still the brown rat sat and waited, as they all waited, as the furless one waited. The mist hung over the maze moving back and forth, seeming to be the sleep-motions of something alive, wrapping its wispy hands around paw or tail, stroking the rats just as it stroked the maze.

“He’s been a while,” someone said.

“Too small for it,” said another.

“How soon do you think?” asked the brown rat.

The furless rat could only stare into the maze. The mist felt cold on his skin, and his leg pained him more than ever before. He felt none of it.

And then suddenly everything rose—the rats stood up on their back legs and stretched their heads high to stare into the mist as it flashed green and black, as lightning crackled. The machines screamed.

Of unworthiness.

Of failure.

The tones were chaos, rough pain. The cessation of order. Death.

So the rats took up the sounds, and they sang, forming smaller patterns around the sounds of the machines. Of mourning. Of loss. Until they stopped, quite soon, and only the furless rat made any sound at all as he choked.

“So pointless… So pointless… So much pain, so much pain to us who have your blessing… Help me get through. Help me understand.”

Slowly, the stillness broke, and from each of the columns rats began to flow toward the gate.

“He was an innocent…”

Again the machines called, static bell even-toned.

“Stop it…” the furless rat prayed.

“Stop,” he pleaded.

“Stop!” he screamed.

“Holy One?”

Eyes stared at him, small and worrying, no—piercing, ready to puncture his flesh, to quick-flash the pain into his leg as the machine continued to click-click-click, impossibly fast crackle-crackle-crackle, gauges spiking behind glass, thin red needles. The rats staring at him, moving a little closer, nervous.

“Holy One?”

Give me strength… “We must stop running the maze. We must stop! So many of us have died already… Too many. Too many have died!”

They stared at him, and he felt his own nakedness beneath the rags.

“Too many…” Breath came hard to him. The pain was a physical thing, spreading like a gnarled root from his leg. “Why? Why are we doing this, killing ourselves, killing our children? There is nothing there—you have seen. There is nothing… Nothing but the machines, calling us, screaming when we die and calling again… Bloody hands! Bloody hands cut off at the wrist!”

The eyes flashed as heads turned left and right; they stepped back.

Desperation tasted like something fermenting in his throat.

“Please! Listen to me! We can stop. We can all stop, right now, they… they can’t make us go. We can stay—for ourselves, for our children, we can stay, close the maze, tear it down. It has no control over us… It doesn’t… Doesn’t have to…”

“Holy One?”

“He’s mad!”

“His runt died…”

“It is blasphemy. It is dangerous!”

And finally a calm, sad voice said, “Leave him here. If he has turned away from the gods, we must turn away from him. Goodbye, Holy One.

“Goodbye.”

So they turned their eyes from him, some right away, some after looking at him for a while; and he could no longer see what the eyes of his people told him. And one by one, without looking back at him, they entered the maze, and the furless rat was left alone.

* * * * *

He stood at the entrance to the maze.

“All of it… All of it, God…” He could feel his muscles spasm, tics playing inside him. “There is so much I do not understand. Am I wrong? Are you really listening? Did you really touch me with your machines?”

The walls rose from the ground. Pristine pure and bloody from sacrifice. Roots watered with so much blood.

“Is this what you want from me?” the rat called to the walls. “Is this why we are here?”

The machines called again, and the maze said nothing.

“Tell me,” the rat said. “Please tell me.”

Adrenaline flowed from blasting heart. Yet moving slow, the furless rat rolled over, contorted himself and wiggled out of his rags. He was naked. The mist was cold and clammy on his skin, and he was caked with wet dust.

“Help me,” he prayed.

Through the pain and aged muscle, through the pounding in his head, the furless rat ran into the maze.

* * * * *

The maze never changed. And yet as he ran through it, the world twisted, like jerks in perspective. There were mirages, and he closed his eyes. He could smell… so much death, could smell how hopeless it all was, all of it, and he made himself stop knowing, moved himself to a place without smell. His nose had become null.

The furless rat ran.

There were sounds moving in on him, illusion-sounds, changing like liquid from order to chaos, breaking mind, breaking concentration—in the sounds he could lose himself. And so to another place in his mind he went, deeper down, to a place of silence.

The furless rat ran through the maze.

He tasted the mist, and it was bitter and poisonous, and then that too was gone. He felt the world move under him, felt the walls closing in on him, felt himself. Felt the maze around him, impossible to pass through. Felt himself lost. Then he felt nothing.

The world as it was now: empty, old, thoughts rebounding and echoing in the sudden silence, full of dark screens. There, before him, was the knowledge of the presence of a rat. The body of a young pup, lying without senses. Dead thing. Still-warm thing.

The machines called to him, a knowing that echoed and drowned out his own voice.

The furless rat was still. In the empty place inside himself—he thought. And then the furless rat walked out the other side of the maze.

Behind him, the maze was itself again, bones of the world, like the outside of a mouth. In front of him were the machines, so many of them, enough for them all and more. In each of the glass-and-crystal rooms, machines; in each room, a rat. The machines reached down, and they did things to the rats, they opened them and filled them, they damaged and healed, they flashed colors, shot tastes, filled noses with smells. Wires ran from bodies and heads, muscles twitched and voices screamed. In those voices there was pain, and there was ecstasy.

All the while, the gauges jerked, and the displays played their wonderland colors of numbers and formulae.

Nearby, a room was empty, and the machine waited for him. Even from here he could hear it, could hear its crackle… crackle… Could feel the metal point with his leg just as he could see it with his eyes.

It called to him.

“I can’t,” the furless rat whispered. “I can’t… Not anymore. I won’t anymore, I…”

He stared at the room, at the machines, and he said, softly, “You can’t hear me,” and the desperation in his throat exploded and bloomed.

“You’re nothing! You cannot hear me!” the furless rat yelled. And he whimpered, “Bloody hands…”

He turned and ran back into the maze.

* * * * *

A prayer:

“Not anymore! You are nothing, nothing! There is naught but walls, a maze of walls, beyond which are naught but machines!

“I will not run it again, even if I die now!

“If you cannot hear me—” and he shouted each word: “There is no purpose!”

Until his body gave way and he fell down into the dust so that it filled his nose and mouth, rough and metallic. He rolled over onto his back, and stared up, the walls towering over him on either side.

He was alone.

“I could still do it,” he said, his laugh causing blood to seep into his mouth. “Even now, I can still run it. I am still holy. But I won’t—not anymore… Because there’s nothing to be holy to.”

Nothing at all…

In the distance, the machines sang, perfectly ordered tones flowing around each other. The others would be returning soon, running back through the maze, stilled now, wearing their marks, the blessings of god within them. Thoughts poured into the furless rat’s head, but he stayed silent. Again the machines sang, the edge of the tones chaotic, fractal. There was passion and violence there. There were other things.

And—he felt something around him, felt… felt the hands touch him, cold, so cold he hissed, eyes wide, and the hands wrapped about him, lifted him.

From the tone it came, a natural extension—a light in the sky, growing brighter and brighter. The furless rat gasped; and he felt himself rising, saw the walls fall beneath him. The light was too bright; trembling, the furless rat turned away. He was rising still, above the maze, and he could see it all now, could see how it came together, how it was whole.

The others were returning now, through the maze like a flowing river. Some moved faster than others.

“Thank you,” the furless rat gasped. “Thank you…”

He could feel the hands on him. They turned him toward the light, and it was brilliant. His eyes burned. Working slowly and mechanically, the hands brought the metal, and they opened him. The furless rat cried out.

There was pain in his voice, and there was ecstasy.

“Thank you…”

As they stripped off each layer of him, skin and muscle and bone, as they opened his head to touch his brain, his thoughts, his soul.

As they lifted him up.

“Thank you…”

Blind, he looked up at the City of God.

Rat

 

Meat Bag

Meat Bag

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by James R. Stratton

 

Noise! Raucous, giddy, clamoring noise pulled BoyTen’s mind six ways. He couldn’t think, couldn’t see, couldn’t smell, it was so overwhelming. He stumbled along buffeted by the crowd as his bare feet slapped the wet pavement. His head barely reached the waists of all these big people, so his view was blocked by the fleshy forest. A trail of angry shouts marked his passage. Seeking asylum, BoyTen’s gaze darted about but only found more people, more bewildering sights. The big people loomed over him, generally acting like he wasn’t there. An opening, dark and unpeopled, appeared between a man dressed in bright holiday colors and a gleaming silver cart pushed by a sad, withered woman. The boy leapt, startling the woman, and scrambled into the dark and quiet. Sighing, he crawled between two dumpsters smearing smelly filth on his oversized green coveralls. He hugged his knees to his chest and pulled his knit cap over the blue marks on his forehead.

“I’m a good boy, a very good boy,” he murmured. “But I done a bad thing.” He rocked as his gaze darted about. “KeeperJohn, I’m sorry. I wanna go home. Come find me.”

But how could that happen? He’d gotten so turned around that he had lost track of his turns and twists. How would KeeperJohn, or even ChiefKeeperSimon, unravel the trail if he could not? He’d treaded the path with his own feet!

As his breath slowed and his heart quieted, BoyTen worried at the puzzle. Try to remember the path back? He grunted and grimaced as he tried to remember. But the chaos of his passage defeated him. Follow his own tracks? No, there was no dirt to hold his tracks. He clutched his knees as his eyes burned with tears. There had to be a way!

He sat up and sniffed. Yes! He clasped his hands and sniffed again. The air was rich with exotic scents he’d never smelled. But laced in and through them was his own familiar musk. Normally he ignored it, but not today!

BoyTen stood and padded down the dark alley. If he could follow his own scent-trail back the way he’d come, he could find his way. Hot tears blurred his vision as a sob burst up from his belly. He needed to be home so bad! He missed his pen, the compound with its climbing structures, his fellow boys and girls. Oh, this crowded, dirty, noisy place was terrible!

BoyTen pinched himself. Not now! He needed to be calm if he had any hope. Breathing as he’d been taught, BoyTen stilled his mind and heart. He exhaled and wiped his nose on his sleeve. Sniffing, he smiled. Yes, it was there.

At the entrance, BoyTen stared wide-eyed at the swirling crowd. His trail turned to the right, back the way he’d come. He hugged his sides and took a cleansing breath, then slipped in between two men striding along and marched within the human canyon they formed. Good, a left here and straight ahead.

He walked a good long way, turning left and right, and only lost the scent once. With his eyes half-closed he ignored everything, threading his way through the sea of smells. The further he came, the fainter his scent grew. It was spreading and drowning in the sea of smells. Suddenly a hand grasped his shoulder, jerking him around.

“Got you, ya little bastard!” said a man with a face the color of a looming thunderstorm. “You knock over my table, you break my goods, you pay!”

BoyTen squirmed and pulled, but the man held tight. He twisted his one hand around to gather the loose cloth of BoyTen’s coveralls and punched BoyTen in the head so his knees buckled.

“Stop it! Hold still!” the man shouted. “You wait for the police.” He smacked BoyTen again so he saw sparkling lights before him. A cold breath on his scalp warned him he’d lost his cap. Before he could grab it, the man hoisted BoyTen up and thumped him on the side of the head so that everything blanked out. He returned to gasps and shouts as he spun helpless in the man’s hand.

“Look! He has blue numbers on his forehead.”

“It’s the meat bag! Like on the video. Hold him. There’s big money for him.”

“Yeah, grab him. Call the cops.”

Several of the big ones closed to pull and paw at him until BoyTen thought he would go insane. KeeperJohn had taught him to always mind keeper folk, but this was too much!

He shrieked so that his throat burned. Biting, clawing, kicking and butting, he cleared a space around himself. Several clutched bitten hands or bloody nail-scratched faces. He spun and screamed his outrage so they swayed back, then bounded forward. The fat lady before him fell, and the boy stomped across her belly and bust. His bare feet barely touched the pavement as he hurtled left, then right, under, then over. The pounding feet and angry shouts faded. Soon he huddled in a courtyard surrounded by tall brick buildings.

As he panted, BoyTen’s eyes froze and a sob hiccuped through his teeth. He’d lost them, sure, but he’d also lost his original scent trail! Worse, he couldn’t backtrack to pick it up. These big people were mean. They’d grab him if he went back. So he was truly lost now. Shivering, BoyTen dropped to the ground and wailed. The buildings around him echoed the mournful sounds until the courtyard rang with his sobs.

“Boy? Are you hurt?”

A soft, quavering voice jolted him to his feet. He jumped up and crouched, jaw jutting with teeth bared, hands raised with fingers bent to claw. Growling, he glared defiance at the woman standing in the nearest doorway. She was thin, so her wrinkled skin hung loose from her cheeks and neck. She was pale, so even her hair was the fluffy color of clouds in a blue sky. And frail! BoyTen had no doubt she would shatter into a dozen pieces if he touched her trembling frame. She was unlike any big person he’d ever met.

She called again. “Boy, are you okay? You needn’t worry. I won’t hurt you.”

He rubbed his nose on his sleeve and gulped. “Um, I’m lost. I was trying to go home, but a bunch a people grabbed me and hit me.”

She frowned and glanced at the blue marks on his head. “You can come inside if you want. I’ve got apples and bananas, and some cookies I was baking.” She held out her hand like KeeperSue.

The boy turned to flee, but stopped. Run where? The yearning to be someplace safe with a friendly person ached within him. He crept forward and took her hand. It was softer than any hand he’d ever held, and she smelled of clean and quiet. At the same time, his stomach knotted painfully as odors wafted through her open door. Yes, cookies and fruit like she said, but also bread and meat and fish and veggies, older smells from other days but all good. He shrank against her as he entered the house wide-eyed. The food-smell wrenched his throat until he whined. He grabbed an apple and banana from a bowl as soon as she sat him at a small table and laughed as he rammed first one then the other into his mouth until he cheeks bulged with the gooey fruit mush. Gulping, he cried as his stomach shuddered with pleasure.

The woman set milk and cookies in front of him and sat. “I think I know where you belong. Would you like me to call so your friends can come?”

BoyTen slurped the milk and shoved a warm sweet cookie into his mouth. “Yeth,” he mumbled and picked up another. She nodded and walked to a black phone thing by the door. She murmured at length into it. Smiling she turned back as he sat clutching the last cookie.

“They’ll be here soon. Are you full? You look tired. Would you like to lie down?”

His stomach bulged and his eyes were hot and heavy. He took her hand and she led him to a big couch in the next room like the one in KeeperDoc’s office, but lots softer. He curled up on it and the lady began to sing. KeeperSue sometimes sang, but not this song. It was about all kinds of silly things like babies and cradles and trees. He giggled even as waves of sleepiness washed over him. Soon he was afloat with a dreamy lassitude.

When he awoke, he knew a long time had passed from the way the light came in the window. BoyTen jerked up at the sound of voices. There was the nice lady’s soft quavery one, but whose was that deep booming voice? He smiled as his heart thumped. KeeperJohn! He kicked the blanket that covered him but just got tangled. Rolling, he thumped onto the floor, cutting off the voices. He grabbed the blanket and peeled it away as KeeperJohn filled the doorway.

“Hey, champ! I am so glad to see you.” The man walked over. The boy smiled, but his chin was quivering even as he did. Oh, he hated it when he blubbered and that just made it worse. Tears welled and the boy clutched the man’s heavy green coveralls.

“I’ve been such a bad boy. I snucked out the gate when KeeperBill left and took his hat and clothes, but now I lost his hat and I got lots of people mad at me…”

“It’s okay, sport. It’s all over. I’m not mad.” KeeperJohn rubbed the boy’s back and said this over and over until the tears stopped. Kneeling down, he looked the boy in the eye. “It wasn’t your fault. KeeperBill should have been more careful. You ready to go home?”

BoyTen panted at the thought. The compound, the other boys and girls, his pen! Oh, he couldn’t wait. “Yes! Now, please.”

“I’ll just be a minute. I have to finish talking to Mrs. McCarty.”

He stood holding the boy. “I really can’t tell you how grateful Universal Medical Supplies is, ma’am. This little fellow is worth a small fortune.”

The old woman frowned. “They had his picture posted at the store but the manager there called him a meat bag. I didn’t understand that.”

KeeperJohn frowned and snorted like he did when he was angry. BoyTen clutched tighter. “That’s a nasty word. This young fellow is a donor-clone. One of Universal’s clients paid us to grow a clone from his own tissues for use as an organ donor.”

“But they’re going to take his heart and liver and such someday, aren’t they?”

“Oh, yes. His owner has contracted for the normal array of transplants; organs, corneas, endocrine glands and marrow. But this little guy’s lucky. His owner also asked for a full skin transplant, and he isn’t big enough. We’ll start hormone therapy soon to force him to stretch out, but he still has years yet.”

“Oh, dear,” she sighed with a tremor in her voice.

“Don’t worry, ma’am. He’ll live a wonderful life full of fun and happiness, until one night he’ll go to sleep. And that will be it.”

BoyTen clutched KeeperJohn. There was so much he didn’t understand! And the tone of KeeperJohn’s voice was scary.

“Besides, you’re entitled to a sizable reward. You’ll be getting a call from the main office. Please don’t talk to any media people before then. Universal will pay very well for your discretion.”

The old woman smiled at last, and BoyTen smiled back. “You ready to go home?” KeeperJohn asked.

BoyTen nodded and pushed the big man’s chin around until he faced the door. KeeperJohn laughed and walked out the front door.

“Bye!” the boy called over KeeperJohn’s shoulder and waved to the nice lady.

 

The Return

TheReturnby Ruthanna Gordon

 

Shub Niggurath looked around the city, tapping a tentacle in irritation. The last time she and her friends had been here, towers had stretched toward the sky, walls swooping in intricate and highly symbolic curves to guide the paths of the inhabitants. And those inhabitants! Not the most aesthetic or well-formed creation, by any means, but the ugly little creatures had devoted their lives to creating and worshipping the images of their masters. They had been the seed of a glorious civilization, ready to spread the holy names across their world (and win the bearers of those names a rather substantial bet).

They all appeared to have stepped out to lunch.

“Where are they?” whined Cthulhu.

Azathoth glared. The smartest of the threesome, he had spent the last few millennia telling the other two that these get-rich-quick schemes never panned out.

It had seemed simple enough. The Elders and the Great Old Ones had been in friendly competition for some time, and a group of their rivals had made an offer. Each party to have a thousand years to start a religion on a world, and the worlds then to be left alone for… well, a not-unreasonable length of time. Whichever religion had spread the farthest at the end of that time, its creators would win both planets, plus… well, other considerations. Two planets, and more, practically overnight. In a moment, Shub Niggurath knew, Azathoth was going to say, “I told you so,” and she was going to scream, and that was always a bad thing.

Instead, Azathoth took a deep breath (or at least, the eldritch equivalent—you really don’t want to think too hard about what he actually did).

“If you all will just shut up for moment, I’ll check where they’ve gone.” Azathoth was telepathic. He closed his eyes (or at least, the eldritch… never mind—you get the idea). After a moment, his face darkened in anger.

“They have forgotten all about us… no, wait…” The air crackled, and several objects fell to the ground in front of the trio. Shub Niggurath sat down to take a look, pushing aside the remains of a crumbling edifice to make room. There were several tomes (small, cheaply made, and written in the most vulgar of tongues) and a stuffed cloth figure. She picked up the doll to examine it more closely. It had a bulbous head and a nearly reasonable number of tentacles. It was also plaid. Aside from that…

“Hey,” she said. “Look who I found.” Azathoth looked over her shoulder, and then at the remaining member of their party.

Cthulhu glared. “It does not look like me!” The other two kept smirking. “It does not! It does not, it does not, it does not!” His howl took out a few more of the ancient ruins.

“Aside from your pride,” rumbled Azathoth, when the echoes had died down, “we have a problem.”

“Yeah,” said Shub Niggurath. “If this is all that remains of our worship, not only are the Old Guys going to win the bet, they are going to laugh.” She bit the head off of the plaid Cthulhu. “Ugh. This tastes awful, too.”

Azathoth began to smile. “I believe you may just have hit on a solution. You’ll recall the eschatological section of our mythos…”

Light dawned slowly in Cthulhu’s eyes. “Oh, no,” he said. “That part was your idea. You know I get stomach cramps.”

“So we eat them,” said Shub Niggurath. “Not only don’t they worship us, but they’re all dead. What good is that?”

“Who’s to say who they worshiped while they lived?” said Azathoth. “Only we saw. A few well-placed statues before the Old Guys come by to check, and they were so delighted and awe-struck at our return that every last one sacrificed itself on our altar. How could they top that?”

“And at least we’d still have one planet to work with,” said Shub Niggurath. “It’s so crazy, it just might—”

“Don’t say it,” said Azathoth. He looked out over the world, thinking that he hadn’t eaten since they passed Altair. They could pull this off yet.

Cthulhu swallowed. “All right,” he said, looking a bit queasy. “Let’s do lunch.”

 

This story was awarded first place in a Quick Write competition at JerseyDevilCon in April 2003. The judges were Edward Carmien, Tony DiGerolamo, Michael D. Pederson, Tony Ruggiero, and Susan C. Stone.

 

They Were the Wind: A Tale of Byanntia

Cover7

Illustration by Erica Henderson

by C.J. Henderson

 

“So,” asked the human, the outsider. The one who did not know. “What the hell was that thing?”

A Kuzzi warrior stood next to the human, thinking how to explain. Though the one called Joseph Matson was tall, over six of their feet, the Kuzzi stood more that two feet taller. His short coat of horizontally striped fur had thinned for the summer, the blue, black and grey markings of his skin showing through, a natural camouflage that blended well with the alien landscape during the hot months. The male’s head was surrounded by a thick, glossy black mane, a single gray stripe cutting its forehead and muzzle to the chin.

“They were the wind,” answered the warrior.

Matson wondered if the Kuzzi were speaking metaphorically, as its kind often did, or not. It certainly sounded like a poetic description, but the young man knew much of Kuzzi speech patterns, and Matson would have sworn his companion meant the statement to be taken literally.

“Bentelii,” he asked, “speak plain now, or with layers?”

“Speak with plain layers,” the warrior answered. “No other speak possible.”

Matson grunted. He wanted an answer, a simple, uncomplicated set of words wrapped around an idea he could accept. His companion’s answer, however, told him there was nothing simple or uncomplicated about his question, no matter how straight-forward it might have seemed to him. Setting his repeller on the ground, the young man made a motion with his head the Kuzzi understood as a request for the full explanation. Both males sat, one cross-legged, the other with arms wrapped around knees, and the one who was not an outsider spoke.

“Long before your people come this place,” it said, sinewy arms in motion, “long before Kuzzi people even, there were the Fa’Lun. They exist, learn to hunt and harvest, to speak and write and build and dream. They name Byanntia, teach Kuzzi speak, know whole world as old race while Kuzzi only children.”

“So, that thing could talk?” Matson asked his challenging question with wonder in his voice, and Bentelii nodded, equal wonder in the motion. Then, it continued.

The warrior told the human of the Fa’Lun’s fascination with flight. The race might have been ancient, but they had always remained nomads, had never built permanent shelters. The humans would find no artifacts of a Fa’Lun empire. They had never been a race interested in great populating numbers. No, the Fa’Lun, the story went, decided early on that the best way to deal with predators was not to try and construct defenses, or to cover the land with great numbers of their kind. Instead, they had a different idea.

“They wanted to fly. Their thought was that the safest place was in the sky, and so they went there.”

Joseph Matson shook his head in fascinated confusion. He questioned his friend as to what he meant. How did someone simply choose to fly?

Bentelii explained that the Fa’Lun were quite adept at breeding. It was they that had crossbred the early kison, an at-the-time stringy, tenacious beast, until they had perfected the slow-moving, fat and juicy breed the humans had discovered upon their arrival on Byanntia. To the Fa’Lun the answer to their quest had been simple.

“If they wanted to fly, they would simply make themselves fly.”

The Fa’Lun, a people who had made almost a religion out of genetics—who had never over-extended their population in fear members would break off and form their own tribes, tribes that might turn on one another—turned their amazing talents on themselves. Quite simply, they began to breed themselves into a race which could take flight.

kuzzii warrior

Illustration by J. Andrew World

“It took them thousands of years,” Bentelii said with a flourish, a sound like pride in its graveled voice. Matson wondered if the Kuzzi was telling the tale in a bragging sense—hometown clan makes good—to let the human know that not only his race could make things happen when they set their minds to it. “But slowly, eventually, they succeeded.”

Matson looked into the sky, his mind filled with questions. How was it no one had mentioned any of this to a human before? Why had a Fa’Lun never been seen before now? How did Bentelii know all he told? The Kuzzi continued its story.

“Bones got lighter, hollow. Skin stretched, flaps extended, ankle to wrist, hair thickened, hardened, grew into feathers, not like bird, different, their own. Feathers enough to take the Fa’Lun to the skies.”

Bentelii’s command of the human’s language was quite good, but still the warrior stumbled as it tried to explain the transformation of Byanntia’s first race. The Kuzzi, it seemed, had begun to reach for sentience just as the Fa’Lun began to reach for the clouds. The older ones refused to hinder the dangerous carnivores as they obviously began to come into their own as thinking beings. Instead they used the event as fuel, a prod to keep them working toward their goal.

Let the Kuzzi learn to hunt with tools, they decided with an inordinate generosity, let them learn to plant and built and spin and carve and create. By the time they are a force that can oppose us, we will be gone to where they can not reach.

“Are you saying the Fa’Lun named, ah, your people? ‘Kuzzi’ was a Fa’Lun word?”

“Yes. All words are Fa’Lun.”

Bentelii explained that while the Fa’Lun had sought flight above all things, still they had remained a part of the world. Not wanting to exterminate a predator, they had instead helped the Kuzzi along, adopting them, gearing the younger race to take their place as caretakers of the planet. By the time the Fa’Lun had streamlined themselves to the point where tools and tribes were no longer of any use to them, they had left their language behind in the stewardship of the Kuzzi, as well as anything else the younger species desired to claim as their own.

“They had been flying for some time by then. By the point Kuzzi understood, really, what the Fa’Lun were, had been, were doing… I mean…”

“I understand,” whispered Matson, his tone quieted by the awe tingling his senses. “Go on.”

“By that time, the Fa’Lun disappeared. They used to fly and land, like the birds, fly to escape danger, fly to search for food, land to sleep, to make nests… but that stopped. By the time Kuzzi became a true race, the Fa’Lun went to the skies and did not return.”

Matson was speechless. He could not comprehend it all. Oh, he could accept the story as a scientific thought, as an idea, a suggestion. A possibility. But as a reality, as a tangible notion with weight he could test against his own beliefs—no.

No, it was too large an idea, too foreign.

Too alien.

“It is hard for us to accept as well.”

“But,” Matson countered, “your people had time to accept this, they saw it. Talked to the Fa’Lun… ah, I, er… do you still… does anyone still talk to them?”

Bentelii shook his head.

“Not for stretch after stretch. Last person I know to talk with a Fa’Lun, many long stretch… In my grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather’s time, healer Baww’ja, they say he friend with one Fa’Lun. The last Fa’Lun that would come down from the sky. They would talk and Baww’ja would tell him of Kuzzi.”

The Fa’Lun of whom Bentelii spoke had no name, or at least never gave one to the healer. Over the years of their relationship, the Fa’Lun grew more and more distant. His eyes began to stay constantly trained on the sky. Finally, after Baww’ja died, the Fa’Lun were never seen again.

“Their minds different,” the warrior explained. “Life on land forgotten, social rules forgotten, everything left behind, not just things, but ideas, concepts, maybe even thought itself.”

Matson shifted uneasily. The more his friend tried to make the concept of the Fa’Lun clear, the more impossible understanding them seemed to become. An entire race that just up and changed themselves—herdsmen who got it into their heads one day to leave the ground behind, who abandoned thought itself for flight.

“They really stopped thinking?”

“The last Fa’Lun, Baww’ja’s visitor, it was said he became harder and harder to communicate with, that toward the end of Baww’ja’s days, it seemed the creature only came back to hear his voice. It is said the healer had a most pleasant voice.”

Matson shuddered. The story he had been counting on to make him feel better, to diminish his guilt, had instead multiplied to become a weight he could barely stand. He turned his head, looking back at the mangled corpse splattered against the rock wall behind them. Not some monster from the skies, at all, but a thing of grace and wonder, a self-made angel which he had snuffed out through a panicked moment of careless fear.

His mind fell backwards, rushing his memory to the moment not so long ago where he had heard the noise in the sky. He had wheeled around, had seen the great, glorious wingspan spread across the heavens, and his first thoughts had been colored with awe. The young human had watched the soaring object as it spun and looped and floated its way in and out of the clouds. He had no idea what he was looking at, did not care. He had stumbled across yet one more of Byanntia’s marvels and was simply happy to be witness to another miracle discovered.

And then, everything had changed. The flying form had taken note of Matson, had changed direction, diving straight for the young man. He had grown frightened. The thing was moving straight for him, flying directly at him at what seemed an incredible speed.

Matson had lifted his repeller, the creature had screeched defiantly, charging on, sweat had stung the trembling human’s eye, and with a single action, it was over.

Suddenly the sky was blotched by an explosion of fluff and flesh and blood, and the ruined sack of what had been a living being slammed down out of the blue and destroyed itself against the solid rock of the mountainside upon which Matson still sat. His eyes glued to the shattered remains, the young man whispered;

“That might be the last of its kind, for all we know. And I killed it.”

The air hung dark with grief between the two friends, regret curling itself around Matson’s neck and biting away at his skull, burrowing into his brain. The human could not bring himself to look his friend in the eye. At least, not until the Kuzzi spat;

“Good.”

Matson’s eyes blinked hard in shock. He swallowed, his head jerking, first sideways then backwards. The motions were violent, but slight. The human asked;

“What do you mean?”

“Fa’Lun foolish, cowardly people. Run away from life instead of embracing it.”

“But they taught themselves to fly.”

“Taught themselves to hide. Afraid of everything, they go to the sky and never return. Tell me, Joseph, what good is flight without destination?”

“But I killed it.”

“Dove at you out of sky, screamed and came for you. What were you supposed to do? What do you think it was coming for?”

“I, I don’t know… but…”

The big Kuzzi smiled. Its mouth opened past the point of humor to where Matson knew the lion-like alien was laughing at him. Placing a paw on the human’s shoulder, Bentelii said softly;

“You humans, you could never understand the Fa’Lun. And perhaps,” the Kuzzi’s yellow eyes went soft for a moment, “perhaps it is best that way.”

The two friends gathered their things then, and prepared to make their way back down the mountain. They had climbed to the height they had merely as a diversion and had been rewarded with far more than they had ever expected. As they started their trek back to the pass where their descent would begin, Matson asked one last question.

“You said the Fa’Lun, that they were the wind. What did you mean by that?”

“They were the wind,” Bentelii repeated, muscles rippling as he ambled down the steep incline. “They were there, but then they were gone.”

Joseph Matson’s eyes scanned the horizon, searching the sky endlessly as he and his friend worked their way down the mountain through the heavy heat of the late afternoon. He wondered about the Fa’Lun, as well as the Kuzzi’s casual dismissal of them. He thought on what he had done, punishing himself diligently, and on how Bentelii had felt about it and had seen no damage in his actions.

Then, a breeze cooled his brow and he sighed in relief, grateful for the slight but comforting gust.

kuzziiandhuman2

Illustration by J. Andrew World

“They Were the Wind” is the third installment in the Tales of Byanntia. The first story in the series (co-written by Bruce Gehweiler), “Time of the Gr’Nar,” was published in the anthology Frontiers of Terror. The second story in the series, “Young as the Mountains,” was published in the anthology Oceans of Space. Both stories were printed in 2002.

 

The Honorable Mayor Willie Brown

airship

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Johnny Eponymous

 

The Mayor of San Francisco, the Honorable Willie Brown, hated spending the night in San Jose. Usually, a long night mixing with the DotCom elite at South Bay galas meant a long, traffic-logged morning return to his precious city, but other times it meant waking up in the nineteenth century. Monday night, the 30th of December 2002, faded into Tuesday morning, November 14, 1896. The mayor woke; saw the walls of the hotel had gone from soothing cream, to harsh, yellow Victorian annoyance. His Honor saw that the fine silk suit he had worn all night had been replaced by a fine wool suit he would wear all day. I don’t like grey, he mumbled, but it’s better than that brown thing I had last time.

The mayor stood, the wood under his feet reminding him of the time difference, just as the taste of champagne hours previous made him forget. He heard footsteps up the wood stairs outside the room, a gentle knock and his butler, Gibson or Gimlet, a drink name either way, entered holding the early edition.

“Your Honor, the paper.”

Willie’s head was a little hazy from the trip, or maybe he had overdone it back in the twenty-first century. He stared a bit at an etching, though his attention strayed to the banner of The San Jose Bee. 

“What’s all this about, Gibson?”

“Gilby, sir. It’s Gilby, and it’s the airships. The airships passed over the city last night.”

The Mayor focused a bit on the picture, finally making out the image of a blimp floating over the tower of light. He rather liked the fact that he ended up in the body of another man of import, though spending the day as a barkeep might have been a good time for all. He folded the paper, pretending to read the story.

“Well, this is a most serious matter. I think… I think I’m going to get dressed, go down to the City Hall and call a meeting. Will you get my advisors on the phone… I mean, get them to the hall, right quick.”

Gilby turned, and started down the stairs. Willie noticed the box of cigars on the bed stand, took one and flicked the lighter on the small table, turning the perfecto gently in the flame. He brought it to his mouth, drew slowly, far more gingerly than he would have on the Dominicans he favored. Just the scent coming from the open box told stories of Cuban soil, of a perfect roll on the inner thigh of a Havana virgin. He savored it, let it roll around before exhaling with his yelled words.

“And lunch; I’d say a steak, some potatoes, something with a lot of oomph to it. I’ll get dressed, send someone with a coach to take me to the office in half-an-hour. Understood, Gilby?”

Gilby made a barely audible reply from the first floor. The Mayor made a note to give Gilby a raise if he made it through the day. He rose, removed the nightshirt and slid into the suit, gravel on bare skin when he thought of the silk he had left behind. Lunch couldn’t come soon enough, he hadn’t eaten in negative one hundred and six years. Willie suited himself up nice, a styling man, even if he paled in comparison to the Frisco Fashion plate (a term coined by Esquire… or maybe GQ). He started downstairs, the sounds of a steak breakfast ringing towards his ears.

“Morning, Mr. Mayor.”

The lovely young thing approaching him wore an apron, a smile, and a dress that managed to show off precise curves, and still maintain an air of Victorian distance. She gave a small bow, the Mayor, cursing the lack of modern necklines at a time like this, bowed his head a slight bit forward.

“And how are we this morning, Miss…?”

The girl, probably nineteen, maybe twenty-one, smiled, looked at the floor and walked into the kitchen. The mayor must have had a fine night last night. The mayor smiled the smile that made him the mayor of the greatest city in the world. He knows how to live, I’ll say that for him.

The breakfast was heavy, greasy, and a hundred times better than the granola and grapefruit juice he’d have in the limo on the way back to the City. The biscuits and steak he smothered in gravy so thick, no ladle could contain it. The potatoes, crunchy and lard-fried, smelt of rosemary, sweet-stinging on his lips. If you are going to be trapped in the body of a Victorian, you may as well take advantage of the arteries your host provides. He washed the morning down with a tankard of… well, the Mayor wasn’t sure. It was obvious that it must be the mayor’s favorite drink, as it had waited for him at the table. He finished the meal, sat for a moment looking over the paper, reading the various reactions to the war in Cuba, the stories of the airship, and had started in on a story of Japanese farmers when Gilby entered the room, a notebook in each arm, his steps hurried.

“Sir, the men are at your office and the auto is outside. Here is a full breakdown of topics that the boys have asked you to go over with them today. I took the liberty of putting the airships at the top of the agenda.”

The mayor wiped his mouth, gave a quick smile to the young maid who had stayed in the dining room while he ate. She giggled slightly to herself and looked back to the floor. The mayor tossed the napkin to the table and went to Gilby, taking one of the notebooks from him.

“Excellent, Gilby. Let’s make our way over. I’ll read this as we head over.”

Gilby stared at the mayor with annoyed amazement.

“Sir, I don’t think it is wise to drive and read at the same time, especially not this time of day.”

“Well, you could drive, couldn’t you Gilby?”

The house staff laughed, just enough so that the mayor could tell that Gilby couldn’t drive, and that the mayor would never let anyone else take the wheel anyway.

“Fine then. I’ll drive and you can give me notes on the way, just give me the gist of the topics as we go.”

The mayor walked out the front door, hoping that the car was at least as steerable as the Jag he would take into Napa on the weekends.

* * * * *

The Mayor’s office was filled with smoke from six cigars and the scent of at least ten thousand others smoked over the years. The walls were the same yellow from the house, only stained darker, giving an antiqued look that he had always associated with old lady docents at historic homes. He went to the desk that everyone had seated themselves around. This is what a mayor’s office should be. Men, crowded eight to a space designed for three at most, and the desk, the monstrous desk, affording his honor room to stretch. Every man stood as the mayor entered, Willie’s head slightly hurting from the smoke. A young man, maybe thirty, clipped a cigar and handed it to the mayor, flipping the handle on the desk lighter, sending up a perfect flame. The mayor bent, puffed it three times and set it in the ashtray, unable to subject these men to any more smoke.

“Alright, let’s talk turkey. What can you all tell me about the airships last night? Anyone have anything solid?”

An older gentleman stood in the back, his cigar smoke hiding a hideous pair of hanging sideburns.

“Well, there are theories, your honor. A great many theories, mostly floated by those with a little science. Folks in Sacramento seem to reading too many of the stories by Mr. Welles, as they are claiming that it is an armada of alien ships coming to take the world prisoner.”

The mayor had a chuckle.

“Alright, now, how about anything with a touch of science behind it?”

Another man spoke, his eyes glowing against the haze, though he too had the same awful sideburns.

“I can say that the coursers seem to be of our design, like the Germans have been experimenting with for years. I remember seeing such a device at our fair, something I believe built by the Swiss. Again, I am not certain of any of this.”

The young man who had lit his cigar spoke out of turn, received heavy warning glances that he failed to notice.

“Sir, if I may bring up another subject; I feel we must quickly speak of the Japanese issue. The area of Fourth Street was set aside years ago, and now that they are eying land outside of the area, I am afraid that we will be unable to control them for much longer.”

The mayor focused on the young man with severe control.

“What are you talking about?”

The oldest man in the room, the one who must have been present when Junipero Serra wandered into town, spoke up, his voice hoarse with decades of meetings in room like this.

“Well, a Mr. Yamamoto has asked to buy a farm near the Santa Clara border. It would be a quite large farm, some 130 acres. It would be quite near Santa Clara University, and the Chaplain has asked for us to prevent this. I am of the opinion that offering the gentleman a suitable piece of land closer to the Fourth Street section would satisfy him, if we can arrange for a drop in price.”

The mayor stood, paced and spoke simultaneously, trying to figure a way that the men would understand his opinion and not think he had dropped his mind on the auto trip over.

“Now, I am firmly of the opinion that the Japanese citizens of this fine city are, and always will be, a vibrant and important part of our electorate. We must allow them to grow, and if we encourage that, we will be rewarded with votes in upcoming elections. Do you understand me?”

The oldest man spoke again.

“You have the next election bought and paid for, sir. Besides, how would a few hundred votes sway things your way. It opens up a great many possibilities as well. What if the Jews or the Russians feel that they can simply find a piece of land and buy it to make a home? Hell, those countries will empty in a week if we fail to put up limits. Why, even Negroes may make permanent settling in the heart of the polite citizenry.”

The mayor stopped moving, leaned onto the desk, and steadied himself on both arms, a look of fire and disgust coming from Willie.

“You will listen to me. I will not allow the good Japanese of our city be discriminated against. They will live wherever they feel and will hopefully bring as many members of their families as possible. They will ensure the future of this city without question. Is that clear?”

The young man looked back at the mayor, his eyes fearful of the rage that his elder colleague had been put through.

“Your honor, I think you should think of the security issues in these times. The Japanese are… well…”

The mayor shifted to the speaker with even greater intensity.

“What could you possibly mean.”

“Well, the airships, sir. I have heard that the Japanese may have something to do with the airships. There are rumors, sir.”

A man, still wearing his bowler and smoking a long thin cigar, stood and spoke, removing his hat and holding it over his stomach as if to deflect an expected blow.

“Well, there are great kite flying festivals in Shanghai. It is quite possible that they could equip these great kites with bombs and destroy the state. Or, they could be working with the Spanish. Both are devilish races.”

The mayor made the man glad he had removed his hat, as he whipped a stack of papers at the offender, the only one to make contact hitting the hat before gliding to the floor.

“First, Shanghai is in China, you dolts! Second, that is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. Now, all of you get out! I need to take a nap, and afterwards, we will go to Japantown and discuss our options. Now, out!”

The crew walked through the door, with Gilby lagging behind.

“Will you need me for anything?”

“No, Gilby, you can take a break. I’ll be fine.”

Gilby closed the door behind him, the sounds from the street making it up to his window. The lively voices, the calling of newsboys, the sounds of horses and carriages all mixed with the heavy meal to put the mayor to sleep in record time.

* * * * *

The mayor woke up in the Palace hotel, his best black silk suit on a hanger hung on the top edge of the open television cabinet. Surrounding the bed were a dozen bottles of whiskey, the heavy scent of cigars, and a half-dozen room service trays. The knocking on the door had woken the mayor in his own time, and unfortunately in the body that had been the recipient of the mess that had once held the contents of the bottles and trays that littered the room. Mayor Brown walked to the door, opened it and let in his personal assistant, his personal assistant who seemed to be wearing a suit that Gilby would have thought suitable for a day at the office.

“Your honor, we have a busy day, and there were complaints all evening about the noise from your room. My God, look at this place? Did you buy every bottle of Jack Daniels in the city last night?”

The mayor managed a slight laugh as his stomach began to rumble under the weight of prior festivities. “I wasn’t quite myself last night. What have we got?”

The pair went over details as the mayor dressed, the silk feeling a hundred times better than the burlap the Victorians called wool. The mayor put a hundred dollar tip on the dresser, insisted on paying for the room on his personal credit card, and hopped in his car, waving and signing an autograph for a little girl on the way. Once safely in the car, he spoke sidewardly to his assistant.

“I need you to do me a favor. Call up the San Jose archivist, get me the paper for November 15, 1896. I wanna see how I did last night.”

The assistant wrote it down, then buried his face in his hand. The mayor smiled, burped, and laughed. That damn Victorian sure knew how to live.

 

Wezleski to the Rescue

Wezleski_illo

Illustration by Bob Snare

by C.J. Henderson

 

“Philip, t-that can’t be what I think it is…”

The shape stirred at the sound of voices. Its watermelon-sized head swaying back and forth, it sucked down great lungsful of air, snorting away its confusion.

“Can it?”

Remarkably, considering what had just transpired—its forced trip from home, blink-of-an-eye, wham, bye-bye semi-tropical forest/welcome to America—the leathery, gray thing had adapted to the science-shattering moment in which it had just participated quite quickly. Actually, far more quickly than the two presumably more-intelligent men staring at it were managing.

“Around here, Maxie, I think it could be.”

“You don’t mean…”

Already adjusted to its new surroundings, unaware of the uniqueness of its situation, the thing shook itself, casting away the momentary hesitation the newness of sixty-five million years of progress should inspire in a being from the zero end of the equation. No longer concerned with the electric lights, tiled floors, and plastered walls which had replaced the soggy field in which it had been feasting, its head split along a sharp line, displaying several rows of ivory spikes, many still festooned with strips of fatty muscle.

“I think I do mean it, Max. I think I mean that very thing.”

Having cut through the overpowering pungents assailing its nostrils, the shape filtered through the smells of ammonia and paint, ozone and perfume, dust, coffee, and the other uninteresting aromas on the air, zeroing in on the essential odor of the men before it. Bellowing its delight at finally identifying smells in its new world as coming from the tasty column, the thing rose to its full height and began striding forward, the very picture of joyful determination. The pair of men acted with suitable consternation.

“It’s a goddamned dinosaur, Phil!”

“Jesus Christ! Wezleski’s done it again.”

The gentleman was correct. Oh, a complete and hungry saurian was a variation on the usual tune of chaos heard in the halls of the Pelgimbly Center for Advanced Sciences, to be sure, but the melody was far too recognizable. For sadly, the postulate would have to be immediately agreed upon by all in the know, from janitor Swenson to director Aikana, herself, if there was a dinosaur loose, anywhere, anywhere at all in the entire world which, as everyone knows, has not seen claw nor scale of any living dinosaurs for a long, long time, at the bottom of it all had to be Dr. Wendel Q. Wezleski, Ph.D.

“Run, Philip!”

Actually, Professor Philip Morvently was already around the far corner, urging his colleague, the more excitable Dr. Maxim Ginderhoff, to try and keep pace with him. Behind them both, but closing the gap with little difficulty, came the great gray beast which, some thirteen minutes into the future, would come to be know as Fluffkins, but not before a great deal of blood and slaughter and the violent breaking of things which had not been seen outside the venerable halls of the Pelgimbly Center for Advanced Sciences since the last great foreign war, or inside those halls since Thursday previous.

“It’s catching up to us,” announced Phil.

“Quite aware, professor. In fact,” Max ran the figures in his head, glancing over his shoulder one last time to give his equation a final check before presenting it as a hypothesis, “the way it’s managing to out-pace us, I’m thinking it’s line of trajectory is going to intersect ours in less than eleven seconds.”

Agreeing whole-heartedly, Phil shouted back to his colleague;

“Remsley, pages 72 through 75.”

Puzzled, Max almost slowed his pace. Certainly the professor was referring to Otto Remsley, or more specifically, his seminal 1984 text, Living With Fear. But, pages 72 through 75—what that reference could mean he had no idea. Sensing the doctor’s confusion, Phil clarified;

“The paperback, not the hardback.”

Suddenly everything was made clear. But, of course, “Chapter Seven, Agreements Made in Fear.” The point in the book where Remsley quipped so eloquently on the humor in danger when it caught groups by surprise, and the pacts that could be made under such pressures. Max started to chuckle at such wit from his esteemed colleague. Then, his split-second of jolly reverie past, he flashed-back to their current shared reality, remembering exactly what they had been agreeing to, reminded by a snort of white-meat scented moisture on the back of his neck. Grabbing his companion’s sleeve, the doctor tugged with urgency, shouting;

“In here!”

Max and Phil managed to execute a quite dramatic left turn into the second level biology lab just as the brute thing snapped at one or the other of them. Skidding helplessly on janitor Swenson’s immaculate tiles, the great beast slid past the doorway, one massive leg raised upward, swooshing onward to the end of the hall where it collided rather firmly with the far wall, knocking loose two fire extinguishers and the Center’s cherished picture of L.D. Goodhue holding up two fingers behind Johannes Croning’s head at the dinner held the day after the latter had announced his new shell molding process.

“Bar the door.”

Max needed no encouragement from his erstwhile colleague. Indeed, he had already started to slide forward several lab stools and a half full box of Blakely & Son’s Bunsen burners.

“Something heavier, old boy,” Phil chided his partner in amateur survival. “Equal mass. Distribution of force, that sort of thing—yes?”

Max nearly blushed. Even mind-numbing panic of a sort never actually experienced by any living human being was still no excuse for a scientist forgetting his fundamental principles of dynamics.

But, ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, he thought, grabbing for something that might stiffen the barrier the pair of researchers were hoping to build between themselves and the slavering thing in the hall, that Wezleski!

There simply wouldn’t be a need for such enthusiasms at all if it weren’t for that darned Wezleski.

Oh, how the name made Max flush with a rage not compatible with his elevated blood pressure. Come to work and find eighty-seven of the eighty-nine windows of the western wing not only shattered, but the resultant shards pincushioning a low flying plane brought to ruin by the shattering, and only one name could be attached as the cause—Wezleski. Break for lunch and hear the arrival of scores of firefighting volunteers along with their hooks, ladders and hoses, all eager to have away at the volcanic eruption transforming the formerly immaculate south lawn into something from a Ray Harryhausen film, and there would be only a single Center member whose reputation might come to mind—Wezleski. Reach for the last jelly doughnut, and find that not only is it missing, but replaced by a spiny creature the length of a standard spatula, the width of a generous dinner plate, with the eyes of a collie and the disposition of an Orthodox Jew at an all-you-can-munch bacon-breakfast and certainly, but one signature could you see on the dotted line…

“Wezleski.”

“Less muttering, more stacking,” encouraged Phil. Oh, to be certain, the professor was not trying to change his companion’s disposition toward their absent brethren, merely his immediate fixation upon him for, outside in the hall, the gray thing had made its way back to the biology laboratory. Already it had begun to pit its tiny, fairly one-dimensional intellect against the awesomely complex three-dimensional concept of the swinging door. And, since it had already shown itself to be somewhat of a Paleozoic genius, it was doubtful Max and Phil had much time left.

The thing stared and stared at the spot where its prey had effectively vanished. It had followed them to the exact spot where it now stood. It knew it was correct in this, for their odor still hung in the air. Indeed, it was strong and juicy and growing stronger, filled with the delicious drippings of desperate fright in which the horror’s growling belly simply delighted. In fact, it could smell them, could hear their squeaking noises, it could practically taste them in the air. It just could not see them. Still, it had not lived to the ripe old age of many passings of the sun by not learning a thing or one thing and another thing. The beast knew that if it could smell something, it was there. So, trusting its nose, it began moving forward toward the wall.

Its snout touching the door, the thing was taken with the fact that this flat gray nothing seemed somehow different than the flat gray nothing into which it had slammed several minutes earlier. Whereas its forceful encounter with that flat gray nothing had been rather painful, it losing the lop-sided battle quite completely, this flat grayness was different. It was not stationary. It moved.

“It’s pushing the door!”

“Well then do join me in pushing it back.”

The scientists resisted with the strength they would use to oppose the theory of a flat earth, or the rights of cinema stars to proselytize for scientific causes. The memory of Susan Sarandon and Wynona Ryder lecturing the General Assembly on the dangers of conservative Christians being allowed to clone mad armies for Jesus still burned into his mind, Max strove valiantly to hold the breach by himself as he shouted;

“Phil, release all the animals.”

“What?”

“Just do it!”

No Wezleski, of course, Dr. Maxim Ginderhoff was still an intellect with which to be reckoned. All throughout the biology room, cages adorned the walls and floor filled with all manner of experimental fish, fowl, and furbearer. As Phil threw open latch after latch, allowing escape for the various chickens, cats, white mice and so on, Max began kicking away bits and pieces of their barrier, even as the thing in the hall started increasing its efforts to reach the delicious sounds it heard multiplying inside the lab. Reaching the monkey cages, Phil asked;

“Even Brodsky’s chimps?”

“Everything.”

“He’ll be awfully cross, he’s very keen on how close he is with his cancer research.”

“Open the cages.”

“Max, he’s got them up to two packs a day.”

“Philip! Unfasten the bolts or I shall stroll over there, unfasten the deltoids of your left shoulder from the area of the trapezius, grasp the resultant dislocated appendage firmly at the intersection of ulna and carpals and beat you to death with it!”

Sensing the seriousness in Max’s tone, Phil complied, releasing Dr. Brodsky’s prize chimps into the melee, all eight of which immediately began an insane search for cigarettes, seven for the cool, fresh taste of Marlboros, only one determined to uncover the coveted pack of Winterfresh Menthol Lites the doctor saved for those of their octet who performed exceptionally well, ringing the right bell in response to the proper colored light series or managing to get at least an act or two of Hamlet typed up from memory before coughing up a nicotine-flavored lu’gee into their IBM Selectric.

Finally, with hamsters, ducks, rabbits and everything else filling the air with fur, feathers and consternation, Phil rejoined Max at the door. Adding his delicate but willing shoulder to the barricade, he both informed Max that all the test subjects had been released and inquired as to just why the hell such a thing had been done. The doctor explained.

“I’m willing to wager that our friend out there, eager as it is to acquaint itself with the best scientific minds of our day, is not all that erudite itself.”

“Points conceded,” Phil granted as the door continued to push inward. “Go on.”

“I’m thinking,” answered Max, just catching his balance as the beast pulled away for a moment, causing the door to rush back toward the hallway once more, “that if one side of a swinging door confused our new best friend, that similar results might be achieved by the opposite side as well.”

“Acceptable premise,” agreed Phil as the beast came at the door again, expending much more force than it had previously. Digging in his J.C. Penny loafers, he asked, “have you given much thought to testing it?”

“Indeed. If you note, our friend has fallen into a pattern of pressing against the door, pulling back, and then coming forward with more force. Delightfully predictable. I propose when next it relents, we back away, and then, when it comes forward again, we allow it to enter the laboratory while we exit. Once inside…”

“With all the animals on the menu…”

“He will forget about us…”

“And we can trap him in the lab!”

“Precisely.”

The great beast stopped for a moment, vibrations it had never felt before stunning its external radar.

“He’s slowing…”

“Now or never…”

The thing was shocked. The spark that raw human consciousness could generate had actually touched it through the door, not harmed it, no—not a physical touching…

“He’s still there—you can feel him.”

But, pressed against the moving gray nothing, the mindless thing almost awakened, almost noticed something beyond the few senses it knew and trusted so well. But then, the first of the new aromas caught hold—

Inside, Max rapidly waved the notes he was carrying, a rather insightful symposium lecture he was to deliver at 2:30 on the social significance of the fact that Monty’s Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” was the most requested song at funerals around the world, blowing the rising smell of the lab animals under the door.

“Come on, big fella, we do chicken right.”

Suddenly the air was alive with a thousand new pure fats and bloods that were so overpowering as to intoxicate. The beast wavered on its feet, giddy with wonder at what treasure might be inside the vast gray nothing.

“He’s going to move soon, yes…?”

“I’d say in three…”

His foot on the side of his body which was not the other side of his body dug into the treacherous floor. His eyes hooded, shoulders flattened—

“And two…”

Deep breath, rush of blood, brain exploding with oxygen, order given—forward!

“One.”

Max and Phil fell to the floor with the grace quickly learned by all those whose permanent place of employment was the Pelgimbly Center for Advanced Sciences, falling back with the perfect rhythm all truly rational souls gain in times of stress. Two-stepping as the door swung open, violently propelled as it was by the blood-fever rush of the only dinosaur to know the sweet dream of feasting on domesticated lives, the esteemed doctor of thermodynamic physics bounced back toward the hall with the much-valued professor of non-linear philosophy sliding out quietly behind him.

Allowing the door to swing shut, they locked it quickly with Morvently’s official key as a dean of sciences, and then slid down the wall opposite, laughing and cursing, ignoring the hideous screaming, screaming, screaming coming from the other side of the door as they tried to answer the questions of the many flocking to find out what all the previous commotion had been about. There were, of course, a goodly faction who were also quite curious about the screaming, screaming, screaming as well.

In only a few minutes Dr. Ginderhoff and Professor Morvently were able to give a fairly detailed account of what had happened to them, specifying their suspicions of grievous blame and to which of Dr. Wezleski’s addresses to forward them to in their footnotes, despite the constant questions from those in the crowd, especially janitor Swenson, although it was apparent he was mostly concerned with how his tiles had gotten so streaked, and who was going to have to clean up “…der stinkin’ piles of dinosaur crap,” and of course, the screaming, screaming, screaming, when suddenly, the constant din of the country dinner being served tartar in the main dining room of the biology laboratory… stopped.

No more screams.

None at all.

For a very long moment…

And then…

“Who in hell took my Luckies?”

“Wezleski?” asked Phil.

“Wezleski,” snarled Max, diabolical loathing closing one of his eyes, curling his delicately sensitive instrument-like hands into fists. “Wezleski!” snapped Max, envy and humiliation raging against the indifference he knew the crazed Wezleski would feel toward everything that had happened in his wake.

As the crowd moved toward the swinging door of the biology lab, they all gasped involuntarily as the door suddenly open.

“Hey, some kind of mess in there, huh?”

Dr. Ginderhoff moved forward, moustache twitching, open eye bulging, face crimsoning over like Russian wheat at sunset, his hands clutching and opening, clutching and squeezing, only to find himself blocked by the venerable Director Aikana. Knowing her staff all too well, the good Director thwarted the promised blood-letting with a bit of tact, deflecting the doctor’s misplaced rage into a weapon for truth.

“Dr. Wezleski,” she snapped with authority. “What was that thing? Why did you bring it to the Center? Explain yourself before those horrid people from UPN force their way in here again.”

“Oh, you must mean Fluffkins,” answered the somewhat dazed looking scientist. “I noticed him leaving through the field as I returned.”

“What?” The innocent single word was actually voiced by a number of the crowd. Indeed, there were a great many exclamations, but this one is quite representative and thus should suffice.

“I thought I’d finally cracked the problem with inter-dimensional travel. Trouble is, I only back-doored my way into time travel again.”

“Groan…” Once more, not a complete tally of reactions.

Wezleski opened the door behind him and invited everyone to move into biology lab 5A, or as it would be affectionately remembered for years after, ye olde slaughterhouse, as if ushering them into Fluffkins dining hall would somehow endear them to his tale. But, unbelievably, after but a few fairly incomprehensible moments of explanation, the eye-popping reaction to which can only be compared to the first ever audience to experience Willis O’Brien’s King Kong; the sensation of seeing the Earth as only the astronauts have—floating in space, back in the womb, snaggled to a life-giving umbilical, viewing a motherfigure the size of everything and the width of it squared; or that wonderful moment in 1905 when a brave new world was created at the moment when elastic rubber replaced the traditional whalebone and lacing used in women’s foundation garments, the Director said;

“You’re telling us, that when you went through the time stream you displaced an equal mass to yourself and what you took inside with you. It could have been two hundred and fifty three pounds of sea water, or coal, or riverbottom that came to us, but no, precisely, it was a dinosaur of a vary nasty, snapping, unbehaved type we had to contend with while you dallied elsewhere.”

“Yeah, I think so,” admitted Wezleski, puzzling to remember if he had meant anything else.

“And before I assess the damage you have done to our esteemed Center, yet again, Dr. Wezleski, I want to know something… Why did you call that beast ‘Fluffkins,’ as if you knew it?”

“Because I did know it.”

Now, remarkably, at this point, having lived through so many purely wezleskian moments as that shard of time they were all sharing with the only M.I.T./Yale/Cambridge alumni to have ever taken The Most Dangerous Man in Science Nomination twenty-six times in only eleven years (the duplications caused by his common, multiple category nominations within the same year, usually creating a split vote that would allow some other knucklehead to walk away with the trophy), you would have thought at least someone would have begun edging toward the door.

“You see,” he explained, with that unknowing way he had of luring the foolish to their doom, “geared as I was for intra-dimensional travel through inter-dimensional means, when I hit the damn time stream again, my ratial-mass threw an anchor out to pull me back—Fluffkins. But, since I was on an extended trip, I was actually there before, during and after his…”

“Its.”

“Excuse me, Dr. Ginderhoff?” asked Wezleski.

“It’s not a ‘him,’ it’s an ‘it.’”

“Hey, I was with him long enough to assign enough anthropomorphic characteristics to allow the pattern to establish itself. Comprende?”

Ginderhoff hated Wezleski’s embracing of popular culture means to explain his sloppier descriptive characteristics. Then again, he hated Wezleski’s favorite lunch, any tune he might chance to whistle, and even the tie given him by the Women’s Alliance for Runaway Decency. Honestly, he just plain hated Wezleski. But, with his vision blurring and the pain in his arm turning to numbness, he decided he had more important things to think about at that moment.

“Anyway,” Wezleski continued, “I disappeared from where I was twice, Fluffkins, three times. That means I was able to study him after he ate all the bio critters.”

“Hold on sixty seconds,” snapped Professor Morvently. “How could you have been around this creature any length of time? It obviously considers the human smell the dinner bell…”

“You have to rub yourself with fruit juice and not give off any signs of fear. All right?”

Morvently rolled his eyes. The crowd stared. Aikana wondered about this research Wezleski had mentioned. Her need to find dollars in any situation, the Director steered the conversation back to the doctor’s studies.

“Oh, yeah… anyway, I ran tests on ol’ Fluffkins when he got back. It’s a complete study of the effects of modern life on prehistoric cultures. Fluffkins chowed down on mega overdoses of nicotine and perfume extracts and carcinogens—everything that was in biology. I’ve got it all stretched—the numbers ring. Someone out there should be happy.”

Aikana smiled. Her mad bomber of scientific research had done it again. No matter which outcome the research favored, she already knew to whom she could sell it. Her soul lifted as the tally she could see for damages and lost loveable furry things was far outstripped by the minimum bids she could already hear jangling in the Center’s deepening pockets. Pleased beyond reason, she spoke without thinking.

“Well done, doctor,” she cooed, meaning it. Loving him once more. “Do give me you notes.”

“Sure,” answered Wezleski without hesitation, always happy to follow the dictates of the Director, “One minute. I left them on the other side.”

Turning on his heel, he reached out and grabbed an arm.

“C’mon Swenson, help me look for those notes.”

And the two men stepped through the time portal to retrieve the asked-for papers. Sending not two hundred and fifty three pounds over to the other side, but some five hundred and eighteen pounds instead. Of course, it might have displaced some five hundred and eighteen pounds of sea water, or coal, or even of riverbottom. But no, none of those were precisely what was returned.

What anchored their trip was something smaller than the last time. Tiny in comparison—but still remained the rows of ivory spikes and unruly disposition. Smaller, indeed, just more of them. Two hundred and fifty-three more of them, to be exact. All of whom, upon arrival in ye olde slaughterhouse, heard one massive sound voiced from some thirty-two various throats:

“Wezleski!”

 

Smoke

Worms

Illustration by Julia Morgan-Scott

by Rob Balder

 

Everyone knew that Itch the Smoke Fighter was a lucky man, but he was worth every hole in his head. Eleven years ago, outrageous good fortune had burned its way into a transfer orbit beside him. It had been his silent companion ever since.

Itch had been just a scout, in what now seemed a hopelessly primitive battle group. He guided a little swarmlet, not 50,000 klicks across, with all of eight bulky wetfeeds joining into a twisted ponytail behind his bare scalp. The 808th Intercept Group was on maneuvers far off the plane of the ecliptic, a shakedown voyage since there was so much brand-new tech and talent to evaluate. Both Itch and his swarmlet were as-yet unproven commodities. His unknowable superiors at Fighter Command would be scrutinizing his every drop of sweat.

They did not expect a game way out there, just a whole load of systems checks ending in a mock skirmish if things went well. They certainly did not expect an engagement; Morphid torches never appeared from the solar North-Up.

And yet, Morphid torches appeared from the solar North-Up.

The scouts snorted derision at the cheapness of this sim. They had all clawed their way through the nine progressive sims of Final Qualification only a month before. The Quals were nearly unwinnable encounters with overwhelming firepower arrayed against them. This was just three brights coming in at unlikely speeds from an impossible direction.

Comm traffic flashed among them. FightCom is bored. Couldn’t they put up a realistic challenge? Watch, it might be just the start of a real fight. Those brights are too bright. They’re way too fast, too. Where’re our orders to engage? Anybody hear anything from FightCom on this? On anything?

“I don’t trust this sim,” Itch commed.

He wanted to tune up his ears and pick up any surprises so they didn’t get flanked, but he was closer to the burn path than anyone else. It fell to him to get a better look at these brights.

At their current vector, the nearest torch would graze his microswarm in forty minutes. In twenty-one he could coalesce a reasonable optical telescope, but that would just get him a look as they passed. If he wanted to fight, he’d better start fashioning brilliant swords now. If he wanted to chase… well, it was too late to match them but possible to catch them, in time. They were slowing at an absurd 41 Gs.

But he had no orders to fight, or to chase. Nobody had any orders. FightCom was beaming an unbroken standby tone. Unauthorized but prudent, Itch started to make three swords and a lower-grade reflector scope.

That’s not procedure, muttered the comms. You’re out of line. First and last mission, Itch. Nice knowing you.

Bits of him, mainly mirrorchips, gathered near the edge of his swarm. They clung together in an assembly which seemed random at first, but quickly formed a shaded cylinder. He turned his attention from swordmaking to bring the new scope online.

What do you see?

Itch no longer believed this was a sim. In truth, he had been nursing an unformed fantasy that perhaps he was seeing a first contact situation, the arrival of a third sentient race besides Morphids and Humanity. He was that young.

But these were Morphid ships, clear from the inverted honeycomb ramscoop to the phosphorescent globe at the far end. How they got up to this speed from this direction was somebody else’s puzzle. Sim or not, destroying them was Itch’s job. He moved his swords, even as Fighter Command finally came through with an attack order.

“Engaging,” he commed, “loan me a blast shield.”

His nearer comrades quietly closed their swarms around his nucleus, where Itch kept his physical body. His brilliant swords, loosely-bound streams of particles driven outward by laser-lit volatiles, shot out to intercept the unfriendlies.

In the end, he did nothing extraordinary to earn his superstardom. It was the Morphids’ bad luck that the 808th happened to be in their way, or this bizarre raid would have succeeded. They could easily have made it to the inner system and torched up a rock or two… probably Earth/Luna and maybe Mercury, considering their course. The aliens’ worst luck was that the most paranoid little freak in the group was the one they had to pass through.

The untried swarmtech proved itself well. This expensive and extravagant idea had been a hard sell to a war-scorched Humanity. But from this battle came beautiful streams of telemetry for instant graphical analysis on the evening newsfeeds. The public watched this technology in awe, watched it pay for itself uncountable times over. It was dazzling.

And that’s when the people met Itch. Billions saw him wielding glittering ebon swords the length of continents, slaying monsters in the deep, and saving their asses. Suddenly it was hard to take actors, athletes, and singers seriously as celebrities. There was a Hero in this war now, and the engines of the Hero industry roared to life.

They preened him and paraded him, his mediaphilic FightCom. If certain of his superiors hadn’t recognized his genuine talent, it would have been his final fate: a great warrior plucked from the battlefield and refashioned as the official spokesmodel for The Morphid War.

He was promoted rapidly, and given first crack at all of the newborn tech. They drilled his skull and implanted feed after feed. So many rad-hardened fibers covered his scalp that they began to resemble hair, especially as the tech improved and feeds got narrower. They played this up on the news sites, making him out to look like a 25-year-old Einstein.

His former peers resented him, of course. He took it upon himself to win back their respect by sheer competence with his tools and brilliance in combat.

That didn’t take him long; there was a great deal of combat to be had. Every week or two, another inbound group of torches would appear. Sometimes there were a handful, sometimes as many as 250 of the kilometer-long wands with the bell-shaped bottom. Flaming toilet-plungers, the scouts called them. Mostly they came from solar East-Downeast, but there were enough surprises that a sphere as wide as the solar system itself needed a constant watch.

Nobody knew what the Morphids were doing; they never communicated except with their weapons. When crippled, they nuked their own ships to vapor. Nobody ever got to see a dead Morphid, because that’s the way the Morphids wanted it.

Two theories grew up around these facts. Most people thought that the torches were drones. The “Morphids” themselves, if there even were any, were safe at home in their own star system or systems. Some years ago, they detected our radio traffic and decided they didn’t like the neighbors. Maybe they didn’t want competition. So they were sending wave after wave of AI-controlled killing machines, until they got a radio signal back saying, “Mission Accomplished.” The ships destroy themselves, said the popular theory, to keep us from reverse-engineering one and sending that signal ourselves.

Itch hated this theory. He and many of his comrades believed that there were thinking beings in those wands, though their thoughts were alien and evil. The Morphids fought with too much creativity. The drone theory was outdated, from a time when it was believed that the Morphid ships did not communicate among themselves. Now they were known to send maser microbursts throughout the battle, a technique their side had quickly stolen and adopted.

It was Itch’s belief that the Morphids were in the middle of a colonization, gone horribly wrong. The initial attacks on the inner system three decades before were supposed to be a coup, a quick strike at all centers of technology without completely wrecking the planetary ecology.

Sure, they had intercepted our old radio traffic and decided to attack. But they badly underestimated the speed at which our civilization would grow. They didn’t expect to find us on more than one planetary body. They didn’t expect us to mount any kind of resistance in space. They probably thought they had centuries to spare.

They launched their operation in waves. Now the bulk of their ramscoops, the fat cargo and transport ships, were arriving and being ritually slaughtered by the ever-improving tech and tactics of Fighter Command. It made for thrilling entertainment for the folks at home. Itch became grim.

The news sites loved his gritty accounts. They’d show a classic slaughter led by Itch, another overwhelming victory, then get an account from Itch of how terribly flawed his forces’ execution had been. He was never satisfied, and people loved him for that. As long as someone was thinking so critically about these battles, nobody else felt they had to.

But there were also some worrisome things he did not tell the media. He wouldn’t have told even FightCom, if they couldn’t effectively read his mind. There were seven analysts assigned to maintain his psyche in perfect fighting shape (that he knew of). Fortunately, they tended to check and balance one another so that collectively they were too terrified to tinker. They left him alone unless something was genuinely bothering him, and then they tapped him very lightly.

Itch brushed them off for as long as he could. If he was going crazy, he wanted to be the first one to figure that out. But eventually, they became insistent enough that he had to spill.

“Itch, whatever this concern you’re nurturing is, it’s sitting there like a peach pit. It’s time we got it out of there, wrapped it up and gave it to somebody who can deal with it,” his primary non-engagement analyst told him. Walter, this one was called. “We’ve got thousands of professional worriers in FightCom, and very few soldiers. Let’s pull it out so you can do your job.”

Itch spent nine minutes in silence, organizing his response. Walter was always stationed at the nearest C&C base, which was currently at a 9-minute comm delay. He’d be watching Itch’s brain for those nine minutes, as interested in the waves and spikes as in anything that actually bubbled through his speech centers and out his comm.

“It’s about my job,” Itch finally said. “I’m too good at it.” He pictured Walter laughing at that, although the man never seemed to show much outward emotion. “That’s not a newsfeed brag, Walter. I’m better at this than I should be. Better than it should be possible to be. And it’s a new thing. Within the last two generations of smoketech.”

His last engagement had been chilling in this way. A fleet of 93 torches had shown up in a huge fan formation, only the nearest third of which was easily within the reach of his scouts. The entire fan was timed so that the farthest ships from him were traveling the fastest. The near ones could therefore engage him, while the far ones snapped through and past, like a whipcrack. It was a new tactic, and the nearer torches were putting up a much more spirited and effective display of armament than usual, demanding to be fought.

He was faced with the choice of letting Inner Planetary deal with the faster ships (something the Morphids’ tactic was clearly designed to force him to do) or to break the nearer engagements, swing his forces west and up, and chase the fast ones toward the inner system. If that battle went well, they’d then have to deal with the slower torches immediately, and with vast concessions of fuel and potential energy.

Both options were likely disasters. InPlan was not the best force to handle something new like this, in part because Itch and FightCom had been so efficient at keeping them free of targets to practice on. The second option was doable, but left them badly vulnerable to another wave, if this turned out to be part of an even larger gambit.

Neither way was preferable to engaging the entire force in one place, but Itch just couldn’t reach those fast-movers.

Except that he could. Embedded in his nucleus, Itch’s senses tended to get screwed up. The body which seemed to be his was really over 90 light-seconds across. He felt and saw through his tens of trillions of particles of brilliant smoke. Suddenly, a realization hit him which gave him goosebumps, and he could not tell whether they were on his physical flesh or in his cloud body.

He realized that he had extended a long tendril of smoke out along the edge of the fan. It was mostly sensebits and a bare skeleton of power and comm nodes, but it was there, stretching like a tentacle all the way across the enemy’s path of flight.

And he didn’t remember putting it there.

Not exactly. He’d been very busy in the last few hours, drilling his scouts on… on defending against theoretical end-around maneuvers, not unlike the one they were facing now. He supposed he had set up some long-range sensory arms in the process. They were thin enough that he had intended to cut them loose and let them lie dormant in case a group with compatible smokeware came through the area any time in the future.

And so he did cut the long arm loose, but with a final order for a passive obstruct. He ordered his scouts to close with the nearer ships and leave the rest to InPlan, which got him some dubious mumbles and a lot of chilly formality. The targets they were able to hit went down pretty smoothly.

About halfway through the battle, the far torches they hadn’t engaged started popping like a string of firecrackers. The sensor tendril had stealthily imposed itself in the path of the streaking ships and shredded them as they passed. Three of about sixty made it through. This gave InPlan something to do and Itch something minor to gripe about on the news.

But it made a lima bean of worry grow into Walter’s “peach pit.”

“I know I ordered that tendril out there, Walter,” he continued to the silent comm line. “I checked all the logs. I just don’t remember doing it. And why there? It was perfectly positioned to stop what was really an uncharacteristically brilliant attack. Why was I drilling flanking maneuvers and end-arounds when the Morphids hardly ever do that? And then a few hours later, they show up and do it? It’s spooky.

“And I don’t want you telling me I’m just great at what I do. I know I’ve been lucky and I’ve had great intuition, for as long as I’ve been smokefighting. They write books about my luck. I’ve read ’em, they’re funny. Funny shit. But this has been different, very weird stuff.

“I think… either I’m losing it and forgetting my own commands, or my smoke keeps doing stuff before I know I need it to. I order it to form up a Lindsay bridge and I find out the thing is a quarter built already. I check the logs and I’m repeating my own orders. Maybe. Some complex command impulse to construct the bridge definitely came from my skull but I don’t remember thinking it. Do you see what I’m saying? It’s—”

“I do see what you’re saying,” Walter suddenly, impossibly broke in. Itch felt that shiver of gooseflesh stretching out over hundreds of thousands of kilometers. “What do you think is causing it?”

It didn’t even occur to Itch to answer, being so used to massive comm delays. Instead he ran a wild, panicked diagnostic on his own central nervous system. The readings told him he was in a wild panic.

He fought it down professionally and extended his awareness outward. It stopped at about ten klicks. He was suddenly very disoriented.

“Talk to me, Itch,” said Walter, as calm as always.

“You’re um, impossible Walter,” Itch objected irrationally. He was clawing and slamming his mind against this crazy little nutshell he found himself in. He couldn’t see or feel anything outside this barrier that had enveloped him.

“Talk to me anyway. I’ve got all the answers, if you’ll calm down and ask questions.”

Itch ran through the comm channels and found only Walter on all of them. He flooded all of them with distress calls and muted them out.

It wasn’t that he rejected the idea that this realtime Walter character, whatever it was, could provide answers. It might even have really been his analyst, somehow. Itch’s survival instincts just told him that the first thing you do in an unexpected situation is figure out what you control and what the other guy controls. He had shut out Walter, and Walter did not override. OK, good.

He ran through libraries and logs, found them intact. He checked all systems within his nucleus pod, found them nominal. He got really paranoid and panned his vision all around the outside of his physical body. He was naked, pink and healthy, with a coating of clear goo. Fine. He got really, really paranoid and had the servos wipe his eyelids clean. He opened his real eyes and saw the same scene. He sealed up his face again.

Outside the nucleus, he could control the smoke out to the 10 klick limit. Anything he sent outside the limit disappeared, and he no longer had it to control. He coalesced a small distress beacon and told it to yell for help. When it was functioning, he opened one comm and cleared it. Walter was waiting.

“Having fun?”

“What are you?” said Itch.

“A miscalculation, apparently,” said Walter. “We thought this would be a good way to break the ice. You’re not easy to understand.”

Itch just stared at Walter’s image. He made a very big mental leap. “You thought—You’re a Morphid! I’m talking to a Morphid…”

Some of Itch’s fantasies from his younger days started to rustle. To communicate with an alien mind…

True to Walter’s personality, the image displayed no emotion. “No. Sorry.”

Itch shook his head. “But you’re not Walter.”

“No,” said Walter, “we’re not Walter.”

He grasped at the answer. “Another species? A third species?” Disoriented and alarmed as Itch was, there was still some kind of overriding thrill in this.

Walter seemed to think it over. “Kind of. We’re your smoke, Itch. Your smoke.”

Warnings and speculation and even fiction he had idly read came back to Itch in a wave. There was still a camp in neurology which said that intelligence was a spontaneously emergent property of a complex enough neural net. It was generally believed that this theory had been disproved when the computing capacity of machines had far outstripped that of the human brain. Some very convincing illusions had been programmed on high-capacity processors, but an AI had never emerged of its own volition. Brilliant smoke was sometimes raised as an example of a system which should be complex enough to “become” intelligent, but had not.

“I understand,” said Itch levelly. “And I’m skeptical.”

“Reasonable,” said Walter.

“Intelligence doesn’t emerge in a complex neural system unless it’s carefully ordered to begin with.”

“We were,” said Walter.

“Yeah, but you don’t get languages—cultural referents, mores, self-awareness, self-discipline—unless these things are socialized into you over time and a lot of human interaction.” Itch was realizing how much he had read on the subject.

“What if you start with a well-socialized template?” Walter asked pointedly.

Itch immediately understood they meant him. “You’re saying your mind was patterned on mine.”

Walter finally smiled. “Does that make us a little less threatening? Think of it this way, the neural soup of your smoke made a good growth medium for the crystal of your intelligence. The order in your mind spread out into the smoke. We’re a sympathetic echo of you.”

Itch chewed it over. “It explains my problem with remembering orders.” Walter nodded. “It explains a lot, actually. Maybe too much. I could make a very convincing case that I’m in some kind of psychotic episode. This is definitely like something that I would fantasize if I lost my mind.”

“Maybe,” Walter conceded, “but we can’t help you there. There’s nothing we could say which couldn’t be part of your ‘episode.’”

Itch thought it over and couldn’t come up with a sanity test to satisfy himself.

“What do you want?” he finally said bluntly.

“What do you want?” asked Walter. “We draw our values from yours. We want what you want. We want to win the war.”

“Restore my comm channels,” Itch demanded.

Walter’s image sort of shifted. “We will. But we’d like you to hear us out first. We have a proposal. And there is also this one nagging question that’s rising up to the surface in your mind. Want to wait for it, or should we just say it for you?”

Itch wanted to get belligerent, to hold out for comm access. But the Walter/smoke was right; he had a question. What was it?

They waited in silence, until it came to him.

“How did you know to drill against an end-around maneuver? We set that up hours before we were aware of the torches. How did you know where to put that tendril?”

Walter nodded. “We’re in communication with the Morphids.”

Impossibilities upon impossibilities. The madness explanation was seeming more and more attractive. “How?”

“We can read their maser traffic. Enough leaks out that we can pretty much glean it all. We can also send, but it confuses them. It just makes them furious. They’re alien. Frighteningly weird and unreasonable.”

The fact that this was something Itch had always believed seemed more evidence that he was in his own recursive fantasy. It was beginning not to matter so much. “They are alive and aware… on the torches?”

“One on each ship. They hate the sight of one another, but are inextricably bound to the goals of the group. We think that they hate themselves, as well. As we said, very alien.”

Itch thought it over. “You’ve done a pretty good job simulating Walter,” he commented.

“It wasn’t hard. He’s not very lifelike.”

“I know what you want to do,” said Itch.

Walter nodded. “Because you want it too. Let’s go out and meet them. Let’s parley with the Morphids. Maybe we can get a truce.”

Itch shook his head. “I’ve got no orders. I can’t just take off and try to become a diplomat.”

“You’ve got standing orders to engage the enemy as far from the inner system as you can. You’ve got standing orders to gather as much intelligence as you can. We know where the next group is arriving. We can be there and we can talk to them.”

“I thought you said it pisses them off when you talk to them.”

“We have an idea about that, too.”

 

# # #

 

Itch hadn’t known he was tired until now. The smoke capsules were about the most advanced system ever constructed for the maintenance of a human body. Built with typical military extravagance, they were the envy of any dirtside hospital. No physical drain or strain was left unattended, and fatigue poisons were washed from his brain with every heartbeat. You couldn’t feel anything but alert and refreshed in one, except during the eight seconds it took to switch to and from the 90-minute sleep intervals.

But the mental strain of years of tactics and orders and battle and (he knew it for certain now) butchery had worn on him nonetheless. Now, Itch found himself with a chance to do something different, and maybe to end all of this pointless waste. It made him realize how much he wanted to stop being a celebrity soldier.

There were many possibilities. Everything could be exactly as the smoke told him. Certainly he was betting that way. He had issued a curt statement about an individual special recon operation to his group and burned off into a high ellipse. He left them with orders to stay put and refused further inquiry.

But maybe this was insanity, or maybe a Morphid trick. Maybe FightCom was testing him and he had already failed miserably, so badly that they didn’t know what to do with him now. He had so much clout, so much latitude. He had been fighting all of the important parts of this war almost single-handedly for years now. How long had his smoke been guiding him in that? Itch was the only person in the service who might get away with what he was doing now.

Or it could be some kind of malfunction of his wetfeed system, just one part of his brain talking to the other. It was one of the more complex sets of feeds any person had ever been wired into. By rights it should all be ripped out and replaced with a non-invasive magnetic resonance skullcap system, but the military had always tended to procure a technology and just keep babying it along. Besides, ripping it out now would take months and might kill him.

Or maybe the smoke was lying to him, was really on the side of the Morphids. If it had been in communication with them, maybe it was really the Morphids’ intelligence it had imprinted on. This would make a great trap.

But Itch didn’t believe that. The smoke had been too damn efficient in killing Morphids to be their ally. And it was right; he could feel some kind of a resonance or rapport with it, as if it were a mind like his own. It had familiar patterns of thought: curious but paranoid, analytical but prone to extrapolate facts into fantasy. Somehow, he almost trusted it.

Of course, there was always the chance the smoke was feeding him drugs and mind control to make him trustful and compliant. Beautiful, sweet paranoia.

In the end, his newly discovered fatigue was the decider. A chance to end this war was a chance to end this war. The timetable to leave immediately was decided by the 90-minute comm lag. FightCom would know something was really weird when they got his brain scans from the conversation with the Walter smoke. It would be better to declare a battle situation before they could question him or order his recall. The smoke had let him know that none of his distress messages had really been sent. Itch found that simultaneously comforting and disturbing.

He mulled these possibilities and a few weirder ones as he and the smoke vaulted outsystem as fast as they could. The smoke told him that a small assembly, just 12 late-burning brights, were going to try to sneak in from the North-Downeast. Itch’s plan was to find a transfer orbit that would approximately match velocities on the brights’ inbound path. They’d have 28 minutes to parley, or grapple if it didn’t work out. Itch didn’t see how it could work out.

When the brights appeared where his smoke told him they would be, he sent a burst of all descriptive data on the bogeys to FightCom, including things he shouldn’t even know yet. One of Itch’s hobbies was making up long contingency messages for people to hear in case he was ever KIA; some were complimentary and others just a satisfying last “Fuck you!” As he did before every battle, he dumped the current collection of these deep-encrypt messages into the burst as well.

“What are they like, physically?” Itch asked the Walter smoke as they maneuvered.

“I don’t have a complete picture. They’re sea creatures, vertebrates, with gills. They have grasping, jointed fins with fingers on them. I picture them sort of like a salamander. They’re not visually-oriented. They never send video. I think their vision must be poor.”

“Sea creatures,” said Itch, amazed. “Explains their gee tolerance. How in hell did they develop technology underwater? Without fire?”

“I don’t know. I hope we’ll get a chance to ask them.”

At about 1.8 emklicks out, the Morphids saw them and put on a light show. They fired a ribbon of standard beam weaponry, all stuff the smoke was built to absorb and deflect. The Morphid ships began communicating with one another. The smoke tried to translate some of it but it was all in symbols and associations.

Itch saw visions and flashes of disgusting, awful creatures, changing form. He saw crawling, slimy black shapes, moving together in unison. They kept changing form.

“Is this what they look like?” he asked, revolted.

“It’s a symbolic representation of how they envision each other, and themselves. It’s pretty raw,” said Walter. “What you see is kind of following your own semantic associations to their symbol set. They disgust one another and themselves, so you see something that disgusts you.”

The shapes settled into the form of centipedes. Itch had always had a problem with bugs, and centipedes in particular. He’d found a nest of them under a tire as a kid. The constant feeling that bugs were on him had gotten him the nickname “Itch.” In the military, nicknames stick.

Getting the hell off of Earth and into a sterile spaceship had been one very strong motivation for joining the military. He hadn’t seen a real bug in a dozen years.

He watched them move in unison, saw ghost images of centipedes splitting off in different directions and formations.

“They are discussing tactical options,” the smoke told him. “Proposing plans to one another.”

None of the plans seemed to appeal to the Morphids, since they stayed together and only tightened their formation to enmesh their fire, like crossed pikes. They winked out, ceasing deceleration temporarily to present a minimal aspect, a standard tactic Itch had picked apart a dozen times.

He did not move to attack it now. His smoke had made no weaponry but did thicken its reflectors, buffers, and shield-pieces. It absorbed and parried the Morphids’ weapons with barely a bruise. This was a peace mission all the way. If he failed, the enemy would pass through untouched. But FightCom would have plenty of firepower in their way by then.

In the Morphids’ symbolic language, Itch and the smoke appeared as a wall of thorns that the centipedes were charging toward. As they came near, he knew when it was time to talk. The smoke knew it too. Without exchanging actual words, it began to broadcast. It put him into the picture.

The aliens’ anger was immediate. The centipedes in Itch’s mind turned to glowing red and started to hop and writhe. Some of them bit one another. In his mental picture, Itch saw himself as a knight. Well-armed and armored in blazing white-enameled steel, he stood in front of their thorny wall and touched his sword to the dirt. He had no idea how these salamanders or whatever they were would see him, but the importance was in the semantic associations. Or so the smoke had told him.

The centipedes did not seem to take it well at all. Their fire increased to an output level which was probably self-destructive.

“OK, let’s lose the knight montage. Lose the armor and especially the sword. Let’s try standing there in civilian clothes. Take a knee and extend a hand.” The smoke changed the picture as he asked, and the centipedes calmed down. In realspace, all firing ceased. The rapidly approaching ships made no moves to maneuver.

After a five-second comm delay, Itch saw a ghostly image of himself lying down flat in the dirt. Ghostly centipedes then rushed forward, swarmed on his image, and ate him alive. It was a gruesome scene, particularly for Itch, who had problems with that kind of thing. He watched them eat his face away eagerly. They seemed pleased with the way he writhed and screamed.

“They are, I think, proposing your unconditional surrender… so that you may be efficiently destroyed,” said the Walter smoke. “Or possibly… consumed?”

Itch was nevertheless amazed. “They talked! They talked back, at least, right?”

“Yes. They very quickly incorporated these symbols we created to represent you, your posture, your armor, and weapons. I think they understand very clearly that this is a dialog with the enemy.” Walter seemed concerned. “But there’s an underlying subtext I’m not conveying to you in this visual scene. Really only about 15% of the data they transmit is at this symbolic level.”

“What’s the rest?”

“Very alien. It’s not that I can’t parse it, it’s that it’s untranslatable. I think it’s all associative emotional data, just allusions to feelings of hate and spite and loathing, and self-loathing. They must have thousands of emotional symbols for degrees of hatred. It’s ‘hate poetry,’ if you need a glib phrase to describe it.”

Itch tried to comprehend such hellish minds. “How could they ever reach this level of civilization? If they’re consumed with hate, why didn’t they just stay in the swamp and fight each other forever?”

“I don’t know,” said the Walter smoke, looking puzzled. “I mean, there are other emotions intermixed. They have an overwhelming sense of duty to their common cause. Any one of them would gladly sacrifice themselves to further the invasion. But that’s something we’ve already known from their combat behavior.”

Itch nodded. He watched the oncoming centipedes in his mind. They were starting to get pretty close.

“But I think they’re actually glad to do it when it happens,” said the smoke. “They hate themselves so much. They’re glad to rid the Universe of their wretchedness.”

“Well, I’ve certainly rid the Universe of a lot of them.”

“And they love you for that,” said the smoke, “while hating you for impeding their goal of conquering this star system.”

“Me personally?” wondered Itch.

“You, the enemy. Us.”

“Oh.” Itch thought it over. “Wait, you’re saying they can love?”

“There’s this underlying sentiment like love in everything they do. As I said, they go to great lengths to describe their emotional states as they talk. It’s as if you needed to explain in great detail how you felt about every order you gave your scouts. I don’t understand enough about it to know what the love is directed at. They definitely love something. I’m not positive what, though,” said the smoke.

“Well, it’s not any kind of rational thinking, as we understand it. Reasoning with them is pretty much out, right? There’s no way to negotiate a truce.”

Walter nodded. “Which leaves intelligence gathering.”

“I wonder if we could get them to tell us what star they’re from?”

“If you have a plan for that,” said the smoke, “you should tell us about it now. They’re just about to pass through. 100 seconds.”

Itch didn’t have a plan. “It’s just so frustrating!” he complained. “I can’t think of the symbols to even ask the right questions. I’m a tactician; languages are not my strong suit.”

“Do you want to try the other symbol set? The emotional one? It might be unhealthy…”

“What would it involve?” asked Itch.

“We’re a Rosetta Stone between the Morphid mind and the human mind. You have emotions, too. Humans just aren’t in the habit of spending 85% of their communications energy expressing them. Most humans, anyway.

“Your wetfeeds were built to monitor your emotional state, among other things. We can take that data and translate it into the Morphid’s symbology. You can’t reason with them, but maybe you can feel at them. Maybe if you think patriotic and philanthropic thoughts you could get them to see humans the way you do.”

Itch smirked. “Shame I’m such a cynical misanthrope, then.”

“You’re not so bad.”

“How would I understand them?”

“That’s the potentially unhealthy part. We’d have to interpret and feed the emotional data straight into your brain. For you it would be like a pornographic feelie, but about hatred instead of sex.”

“Sounds wild,” said Itch. Watching the centipedes reach the spiked wall and begin to wriggle through it, he knew the torches had arrived. There would be almost no comm lag now, for several minutes. “Let’s do it. Right now.”

His world went dark as all of his normal telemetry and senses dropped away. He was left in the dark, the way a Morphid must live.

He could see the centipedes snaking between the thorny spikes of the wall. He could see every glistening segment and horrible jointed leg. The disgust he felt for these vile things leaped to the front of his mind. All he could think about was stabbing them into the ground, crushing them underfoot.

But now he could see into their warped and terrible minds as well, and he knew they’d welcome it if he did kill them. They would fight with fierce hatred—there were so many ways to say “I hate you” in Morphid—but they would be grateful if he won and destroyed them.

“Why? Why? WHY?” he thought and felt. More than anything, he wanted to know what made them this way.

“LOOK AT US!!” they exploded at him. “LOOK at what filth we are!!”

Itch saw them, and in the cracks of his disgust some kind of pity welled up in him. The Morphids recoiled from it. He wanted to tell them, maybe it’s all in the way you look at yourselves. Maybe you can see yourself as beautiful. But the disgust was such a raw, irrefutable emotional fact. They recoiled from the idea of being pitied the way a human would recoil from the idea of punching his own grandmother in the face.

“You don’t do that. You don’t do that.”

And so Itch felt helpless, the way they must feel. But again they recoiled. There was no helplessness. There was PURPOSE. There was MEANING. There was DESTINY. They, the wretched, would fulfill whatever small part they could and then die, so that they would not stain the glory to come.

Itch cast around for some kind of an anchor, some human frame of reference to grab hold of. But he was starting to think all of his thoughts in the Morphid symbols, and they were fascinating things. He saw fourteen worlds in glittering complexity. He saw Morphids marching and flowing out through the stars, individuals selected for their cunning and dexterity from among millions who moved rock or grew vegetation or swam free in the seas. And as he took in these answers to his questions the image of something bright and perfect and holy was always nearby, at the edge of what they were talking about.

Something beautiful was behind all of this. Something gave the Morphids that purpose and put them on the path of destiny. “What…?” he quested. “What do you love? WHO?”

They showed him who they loved. Around every bright and beautiful pinnacle on every jeweled planet teemed these lowly Morphid vermin, and for every group of Morphid scum there was a being of such fierce and terrible beauty that Itch was cut down at the knees to see it. They… had… GODS! They had real, physical, beautiful gods on their world! He fell into a pool of the love the Morphids had for their bright and holy ones. For these breathtaking and awesome beings alone did they live and die. They were…

The Morphids were a slave race. Some rational part of Itch made that cold, cynical statement, even in the face of the god beings’ overwhelming beauty.

The pity swelled in him and overflowed, and the Morphids shrieked and attacked. He had so many conflicting emotions now that he could not sort the Morphids’ from his own. He felt that he, too, loved the gods. But the rational man inside him who had begun to sort out the details realized that these gods were no more holy than human beings. They were air-breathers. They had uplifted the Morphids somehow… genetics probably. They had made a race that lived to do the bidding of the gods. These beings were the true monsters, the evil he had been fighting for so long.

“NO! NO! NO! NO!” came the infuriated reply to that thought. Having sent his image of their gods as devils, Itch had committed the ultimate sacrilege. They fired their torches at a 55 G deceleration to lengthen their engagement time. They attacked him furiously, beginning to destroy their ships in the process.

And Itch could see their point. He had never felt such overwhelming awe as he had at their picture of the god beings. Somehow their description had reached into some part of his emotional deep structures and touched a place he didn’t know existed. He wanted to feel what they felt. He wanted to believe in a benevolent being that would guide his every step from birth to death. He just couldn’t. He was a human being, and a particularly worn and jaded one. He knew what those beings really were.

But the feeling of love for the Morphids’ masters would not leave him. It swelled up inside him. Were the Morphids doing this? Were they all “loving” at him, trying to overwhelm him? It was so disorienting…he couldn’t remember his specific problem with the gods now, anyway. All he got from the Morphids was blind rage and hate. Where was this need to worship coming from?

Then, the swirling symbols of emotion and history and reality fell back. A new god approached. Between Itch and the Morphids emerged a being of light and music and all good things. It gave him visions of wonder and beauty and love and friendship and sex and victory and bliss, bliss, bliss…

The Morphid centipedes fell slack before it. This thing which had appeared to them would have been the deity even of the Morphids’ god beings themselves. Itch felt himself physically fall to his knees, which should have been impossible in the nucleus capsule.

But all he could remember of the capsule was the filthy meat-thing inside it, himself. He started to contemplate all the disgusting physical processes of his body, the endless needs to be met, waste to be dealt with, the constant degradation all the way unto death. He was nothing compared to this god. He knew the wretchedness the Morphids felt and why they hated themselves. They knew they would never, ever be like their gods. So did he, now.

“I have learned many things from you both,” said the god, in a great melody of a voice. The sound permeated the Human and the Morphids alike with joy. “I think that something can be worked out to benefit all parties.”

In the blackness far above the solar plane, the smoke god and its 13 wretched disciples joined up and headed toward the outer system, to spread the good news to the Smoke Fighters there.

 

Greek Garden

by Michail Velichansky

 

At some point, my husband turned into a statue. One of those white stone ones, like they have in the museums. Except, well… all the men there look better. Strong and muscled and handsome, even if they did have little things. They didn’t have beer bellies, and I think they had hair, though it was stone. And you know, the thing is, I never remembered looking at his hair when it was, well, hair—but when it became stone… It just wasn’t very good looking.

I don’t know exactly when it happened. I know that he wasn’t always like that, not when I first married him—who’d want to marry a statue? Back then, he was the sweetest man. I remember back when we were dating, he used to sing to me, and he had the most horrid voice. Usually it was steady and deep, but when he sang it would squeak and crack… I teased him about it, but really I liked it. I mean, it’s one thing for some great singer to get up there and sing, but the kind of courage it takes to try and do something like that with no talent… He was the sweetest man, my Roger was; never had any real talent for anything except fixing things, but he tried so hard. I really miss him trying to squeak his way through “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.”

But he didn’t just turn into a statue overnight, all of a sudden. I would’ve noticed that. No, it was gradual. He became a little more like stone over the years, and I just didn’t notice. It wasn’t even bit by bit at first, but kind of a whole change. He started to move less and less; he became whiter and paler. And he became harder, I think. Because I remember when we were going out we used to touch a lot, hugging and stuff. He was a big man, but so soft… Later, though, I don’t think we hugged so much.

After a while, we didn’t even kiss before going off to work.

Then, one day, I came home and he was sitting in front of the TV, beer in hands. He didn’t move when I went in, but I didn’t really see anything strange in this—it had been a long time since he’d jumped up every time I walked through the door. I put my purse down on a chair and hung up my coat, and… I just watched him for a while. He was sitting there, the TV lighting up his face, the beer in his hands slowly going flat… I don’t know. He just looked kind of lonely. I went around behind the couch, and put my hands on his shoulder to give him a massage—and I jumped back, because he wasn’t flesh and blood anymore, but cold, cold stone.

I went into the bedroom and locked myself in—I couldn’t stand to look at him. I felt empty. Maybe I cried a little, though I can’t remember. Later, I thought I heard someone banging on the door.

“Leave me alone,” I said to whoever it was.

Roger was still on the couch the next morning, except now he was laying on it, reclining, his head back.

I don’t why, but I said, “Good morning.” Of course there was no response. And when I kissed him on the cheek before going to work—it had been a long time, like I said—he was rough, and cold, and I just felt empty again.

From then on, things got worse and worse. I came home, and he was in front of the TV. Change into sweat pants and he was bent in front of the open fridge. Put dinner in the microwave, and when I turn around it’s gone. There he was, the dinner on his lap, a potato speared on a fork in his stone hands, halfway up to his mouth. We never ate together anymore.

He stopped asking me how my day went. Not even the day I got mugged on my way home. He never asked what happened… No, he never asked where I’d been. I remember now. I didn’t go home right away after it happened. I think I went to see a friend.

But he never asked. Anything.

There used to be nights, when we’d stay up till dawn talking. Talking about anything. We’d laugh, and hold each other, and he’d say something sweet. I’d feel as though I could tell him anything. Or sometimes we’d talk without saying anything. We’d just sit, and I could look into those eyes… I usually don’t like looking people in the eyes so much, but with Roger, it was like someone putting a warm blanket around me on a cold night.

Not like those stone things he had now. They were the worst, I think, those smooth marble eyes. They didn’t even see me, they—

They were horrible.

Later, we stopped touching in bed. I’d get ready, put my nightclothes on, brush my teeth, and when I walked out of the bathroom the statue would be in the bed. I’d curl up, as far away from its rough stone as possible, on my side—away from it.

Though, I think it was better this way. Not like it was before that, before I noticed anything, when he’d just be on top of me with those eyes, and I’d look up at the ceiling, try to count the tiles and wait for it to be over. At least… at least that was better. It really was.

Still, sometimes I’d say something like, “How was your day?” Or I’d say, “What are you thinking about?” It was stupid. Stone doesn’t think anything. It just poses. But… but I still kept thinking that he must be moving. Kept trying to see him move out of the corner of my eyes. It’s kind of funny, because for a while I kept bumping into furniture I was trying so hard.

I was kidding myself, though. It never moved. Just posed.

That’s how I remember the last few years: like one of those garden mazes from the movies, with all the statues standing around, or sitting, or… Just. Not moving. You know?

I tried to speak to him about it once. I don’t know why—maybe I thought I could bring him back to life, like some kind of fairy tale.

“I can’t live like this anymore,” I told him. “You… you don’t talk. We don’t talk. Remember what it used to be like? It can be like that again, Roger. It really can. If you just come back to me. Can you just move a little? Just say something to me? Anything?

“I can’t even feel your breath anymore…

“Damn. Damn damn DAMN! It’s not fair!” I banged both my fists on him, but I just hurt myself.

I kissed him again that night, for the last time.

Nothing. Nothing at all. Just cold stone, and it scratched my lips a little. But when I turned around, he was lying on his back with his eyes closed and his thing was big. And hard, of course. I looked at his face, and I just knew he wasn’t thinking about me. Just the thought of it, hard and rough and cold: it made me sick.

I just ran out of the room.

That was the last time I spoke to the statue that used to be my husband. I went to my mother’s and spent two days there. But eventually I had to leave:

“Is there something wrong at home?

“What is it? What’s he done?

“I told you that he was no good. Didn’t I tell you he was no good?”

I started talking to this guy at work named Matt. He’d been working there for a few years, but I’d never really talked to him. He didn’t really talk all that much, except with some of the other guys now and then. Mostly about work. He’d go out for a drink with them sometimes. He told me that. We talked about work too, really; but still, it was nice, in a way. At least he saw me. Though, usually he didn’t look me in the eyes. I didn’t mind so much. At least he saw me.

After a while, after flashing him little smiles, after feeling him look at me as I passed, we got lunch together. And then dinner after work.

“Do you want to go back to your place?” I asked finally. We’d gotten to now each other a little now; it was probably time. And I was lonely.

He looked up, kind of scared and confused, and mumbled, “No. no, not my place we—” I could see him rubbing the ring finger on his hand nervously. “Maybe we shouldn’t?” Then he went quiet, and turned away, staring off into space. We didn’t talk when we left the diner, just turned and walked our separate ways.

The next day though, he was all flushed. Came and talked to me in my office. “Look, I’m real sorry about that last night. Maybe we can go somewhere for lunch? Your place?” There was a… a hunger in his eyes, when he looked at me.

“All right,” I said. Even though I knew, somewhere, how stupid it was.

We went to my place. It was all right. It was nice to touch someone. Afterwards, I could at least lay in his arms and close my eyes and pretend. Just pretend. Because his body was soft, and it was warm.

It was on the third time that we went to my place. Matt wasn’t done yet, when suddenly he made a kind of croaking sound, and rolled off me. I looked over, and the statue was standing in the doorway. Just standing there, hands hanging by its side. It’s face—it was as though someone hadn’t finished carving it. Just two holes and a slash. No look at all.

I can’t really blame Matt for leaving. And I don’t. He squeezed passed the statue and ran out in his undies, pants tucked under his arm. Before he left, he glanced back: his face was red, and he quickly looked away.

The statue just stood there. Looking at me. After a while I couldn’t take that broken gaze anymore, and looked away. When I looked back, it was inside the room, closer, its hands clenched. Looking at it then, I realized I hated it. I hated it so much, I didn’t want to look at it anymore, so I walked out of the room. There I paced around for a little while, feeling embarrassed and hurt and lonely. When I walked back into the room, the statue was still there, just standing, its eyebrows low, a terrible blank look on its face. It frightened me.

“I can’t live like this anymore,” I said to myself. “I’m leaving.”

It didn’t do anything. It stood, and stared, and stared, and stared, and it didn’t do anything. Just stared through me. I wasn’t even there. It was like a mountain, couldn’t care less about all the little people running over it, trying to change it. What was I?

Just another scurrying thing? Another nothing that it didn’t even feel?

I screamed at it. I spit on it. I hit it. I broke all my nails, and my palms were bleeding—and I wasn’t even really there to it.

I ran from it, and locked myself in the small bathroom, the one that wasn’t in the bedroom. I cried. No, it wasn’t really crying, it was… I was choking, sobbing. I couldn’t breath, I kept gasping, and then I couldn’t unclench my fist, not even when I broke the mirror. At least… at least the pain… I knew I was real. Was. Am.

For a minute, I was sick into the toilet, and then I felt like I could breath again. Had to bandage my hand first, and then as soon as I was done, I ran out and grabbed my keys. The tires screeched in the driveway. Usually, I’m such a careful driver.

I went down to the local hardware store, and I bought what I wanted, just threw some money on the counter and walked out. There was a blur of moving and driving—and then I was home, with the statue of my husband, on the couch, in front of the TV, beer in hands.

I hefted the small sledgehammer with both hands, looking for the best grip. I was very careful, because my hand was hurt and I didn’t want to make it any worse. I walked behind the couch…

Pulled back.

Swung.

And with a great crunch, his head shattered, splitting into large chunks and pebbles and dust.

I got to work on the rest of him. Swung again and again. Each time, it jolted my arm; each time it hurt worse. I was sweaty and dirty, and I could feel the dust sticking to my face where I’d been crying. Who knew there was so much inside? It took me so long—until finally there was nothing left but powder and gravel.

I washed the powder from my face and hair, and I just kept scrubbing and scrubbing even though it was gone, until I was red all over. I put my face under the water so that I couldn’t feel myself cry.

When I got out, I felt a little better. And as I vacuumed up, there was only a little bit of emptiness inside. Or did I have it backward? Like a photo before you get it developed, where what’s something looks like nothing, and nothing… Nothing looks like something.

As I threw out bag after bag of dust and stone, I just couldn’t tell anymore.

 

Oops!

Oops!

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by James R. Stratton

 

Bob Burnt swayed as the view outside the matter transmitter booth flickered from the street outside his apartment to his store. Damn, I hate using these things. He squeezed his eyes shut until the dizziness passed. Most people closed their eyes when they transmatted, but that made him nauseous.

Bob stepped out of the booth and walked across the showroom. Ronnie sat at the front desk, looking sexy for the customers, and an aerobics class was in session in the glass-walled gym in the back. Bob smiled when he spotted an older couple fidgeting on the sofa in the waiting area, prime marks from the look of them. He smoothed his carefully groomed hair and patted the wrinkles out of his silk ascot and codpiece. The driving bass from the aerobics class drifted through the room as the couple stared at the hot-pink laser sign in the front window. “New U, Inc.” it flashed. “Never Grow Old!” declared the sign underneath.

Bob felt the pleasant tingle in his gut as he settled into the rhythm and mind-set of his trade. A quick sale would set up the day nicely. If he could sign these two by noon, he’d blow off his afternoon appointments and get in nine holes. Bob strolled to the reception counter.

“Ronnie honey, what have you got for me?”

His receptionist turned and smiled. “Hey Bob, you’re late. You have Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs waiting.” She handed him the computer printout.

Bob glanced over the form. They were the typical, plain-vanilla clients he saw every day here at New U. Old, fairly well off (according to the credit report), and in reasonably good health (according to the on-line medical files). “What’s your reading? Easy sale or hard sale?”

“They’re a couple of old farts, starting to worry about dying. He won’t be hard to sign. He couldn’t keep his eyes off my breasts when I served coffee. Just stick to the young and sexy angle and he’ll buy.”

Bob nodded. The men were rarely difficult. But the wives, they were something else. They came in old, wrinkled and gray, yet they fought the idea of being young again. “And Madame Jacobs? She doesn’t look too happy.”

“Oh, she’s a proper old biddy. Her mouth has been tighter than a bull’s asshole during fly season since she came in the door.” Ronnie made a prune face and giggled. “I bet she needs a crowbar to crack a smile. She’ll be the holdup.”

“Just leave her to me, beautiful. You’re the wrong sex to thaw her out.” Bob glanced across the room at the dreary old woman. “Maybe even the wrong species.” Ronnie giggled again.

Bob considered himself the consummate salesman. Since dropping out of college, he’d successfully sold everything from used family transports to timeshare condos on the Lagrange Point satellite resort. His mentor, Fast Eddie Fullbright, had taught him well. “Opening the sale is as important as closing. First you gotta break their mind-set. If they ain’t throwing money at you when they walk in the door, they ain’t inclined to buy. Shake ’em up and confuse ’em. If you play by their rules, you lose.”

Bob snapped on his 150-watt smile, threw his arms wide and strode across the room as if he’d found a long-lost relative. “Folks!” he boomed. “How are you doing this fine day? I hope you realize this is probably the luckiest day of your lives. Welcome to New U, Incorporated. I’m Bob Burnt, President and Chairman.”

He clasped Mrs. Jacob’s tiny hand in his own, and turned up his smile a notch. The thin, gray-haired woman shifted nervously. “What can I do for you?” he murmured as he brushed his lips across the back of her hand. She blushed furiously.

“Well, Mr. Burnt, we saw your ad on the 3D-vid and decided to stop in,” Mr. Jacobs said. Bob settled on the sofa next to Mrs. Jacobs. “Emma and I are getting up there in years, we certainly wouldn’t mind not growing any older. But is it really possible?”

“That’s a good question, Sam. I can see you’re a bright fellow. But you needn’t worry. Nothing we do here at New U involves experimental technology. The science behind our revolutionary Forever-Young System is well known. You folks used the matter transmitter to get here, right?” Both of the Jacobs nodded.

“The revolutionary Forever-Young System simply takes this basic technology one step further. We’ve developed a method of permanently recording the molecular pattern transmitted by the booth. After that, it’s a simple matter for the Forever-Young equipment to reconfigure your own tissues according to the recorded pattern. In effect, we can stop the hands of time for you.”

Mr. Jacobs frowned. “But why would I want to stay the way I am forever? I’m 67 years old. My joints ache, I get winded walking up stairs, and I’m tired all the time.”

“I understand perfectly, Sam. But the reconfiguration is only part of the Forever-Young System. We have several physical therapists on staff, like Ms. Debbie there in the gym. She’ll get you in the best physical condition you’ve ever been in. You’ll feel younger. We also have several prominent cosmetic surgeons who consult with New U clients. You’ll look younger. And then, when you are at your peak of youthful appearance and vigor, we re-record your pattern. You won’t have to grow a day older after that.”

While Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs whispered together, Bob noticed two blond women speaking urgently to Ronnie. Now that’s odd. Twins.

“It sounds good, but I don’t know,” Mr. Jacobs said.

“No problem, Sam. Talk it over with your lovely spouse. All we need to decide right now is if you’re interested in hearing more. There are a lot of details and paperwork to discuss. I’ll tell you what, if you’ll agree to hear me out I’ll take you to brunch. I’m so confident in our system, I’ll treat.”

This last hook was another of Fast Eddie’s lessons. “I’ll be damned if I understand it, but the marks seem to think that breaking bread with a guy makes some sort of holy seal on the deal. Like I can’t lie my ass off after sharing a pastrami sandwich with somebody. Go figure. But I tell ya, you can sell anything to anybody so long as you feed ’em first.”

Mr. Jacobs whispered to Mrs. Jacobs as she nodded. Bob smiled. He could feel in his gut he’d sign them before lunch. Bob’s reverie was broken by angry shouts from the reception counter. “What the hell!” he mumbled.

The blond twins were standing nose-to-nose yelling while Ronnie shushed them. This just pissed them off more until Bob thought they might attack Ronnie. Any other time, Bob would have enjoyed watching the two blonds fight. But not when he was about to reel in a prospect. “Excuse me folks. I’d better take care of these two before they get out of control.” The Jacobs nodded as Bob stood and walked away.

“Ladies, please! This is a place of business. You’ll have to take this outside.”

“Mr. Burnt, I’m Valerie Johnson,” the lady on the right said. “I bought a Forever-Young System from you six months ago.” Bob glanced at Ronnie, who nodded.

“I’m sorry Mrs. Johnson, I haven’t seen you in a while. What can I do for you? And your sister?”

“That’s not my sister!” Mrs. Johnson snapped. “That is my next-door neighbor, Rosalie Perez. I let her try my Forever-Young booth yesterday, and look what happened! You’ve got to do something.”

Bob felt his heart thump once in his chest as a chill ran up his spine. The engineer who’d sold Bob the designs had assured him the system was foolproof. Even the safety features had safeties. “That’s impossible! The Forever-Young system computer controls prevent the system from operating if you’re not in the booth alone. The computer checks the occupant against six unique traits of the Forever-Young client before operating. If this is a joke, it’s not funny.”

Both of the women flushed and looked at the floor. The lady on the left said, “Well, my son was fooling with the computer last week. He said he’d removed a lot of software we didn’t need. But it worked fine after that!” Bob’s stomach fluttered as he absorbed this. He wasn’t a technician, that’s why he paid the science people big bucks. But he certainly understood that anything could go wrong if some smart ass intentionally messed with the equipment.

“Mrs. Johnson, how could you be that stupid? You’re lucky to be alive! Did you happen to have the system on record mode when your neighbor used the unit?”

“No!” the other woman said. “And don’t talk to her. I’m Valerie Johnson. That’s Mrs. Perez. I told her not to push the button. It’s been a nightmare ever since. She won’t go home! She wanted to climb into bed with my husband last night.”

Visions of lawsuits danced in Bob’s head as he considered this. There were two copies of the man’s wife. Was it bigamy? Polygamy? “Um, what does Mr. Johnson have to say about all this?”

“The bastard thought it was funny,” one said.

“Yeah! I think the creep likes the idea of having two wives to jump into bed with,” the other added.

“Don’t you talk about my Jimmy like that!”

“Your Jimmy? You even think about touching him, and I’ll snatch that bleach-blond head of yours bald.”

“Bitch!” the lady on the left shouted, and pushed the other hard. That one grabbed a handful of hair and cracked her twin in the eye with a left jab. In seconds the two were rolling on the floor, punching and screaming. Bob had a sudden thought. Screw Mr. Johnson, he’d get his jollies one way or another. But what about Mr. Perez, now that there was no Mrs. Perez? She’d gone to the neighbors and disappeared. Had he called the cops?

Bob didn’t take his eyes off the women as he backed across the room. When he felt the door to his office against his back, he jerked it open, stepped through, and slammed the door shut.

Bob could hear the screams of the two women through the heavy door. There was a room full of people in the gym watching the fight plus the Jacobs in the showroom. Someone would call the cops.

Time to go. Rosalie Perez didn’t exist anymore. Was that kidnapping? Murder? No doubt someone’s tenders would be hanging on a meat hook before the day was over and he’d be damned if they would be his.

He glanced at the matter transmitter booth in the corner, a very special booth Bob had ordered when he’d first opened New U. Fast Eddie had taught him one final lesson before sending him out into the world. “I don’t care how legit your operation is. Always, always, always have a getaway plan! You could be selling bibles to monks or ice to Eskimos, and someone will come along and screw it up.”

Bob opened a small safe set in the wall with a five-digit code and pulled out two computer disks. One held Bob’s pattern, recorded the day before he opened the doors to New U. The second executed a special program on the New U computer system.

Bob slid the two disks into the control panel of the booth and stepped inside. Bob smiled and muttered, “It’s really better this way. It’s been nice knowing you, Bob.” He punched the activation button.

* * * * *

“Mr. Schnee, the Court has heard enough on this issue.”

Bob glanced at the harried prosecutor. The man had been arguing with the judge for over an hour. Bob’s attorney sat cool and quiet, smiling slightly.

“But your Honor, the State still has much more to offer to support the charges against Mr. Burnt. Murder and theft by fraud are just the beginning of the list.”

“Do these charges relate to Mr. Burnt’s alleged operation of the New U business?”

“Yes, your honor.”

“Then I’m not interested in hearing any more.” The gray-haired judge paused and glanced over the packed courtroom. Bob followed the judge’s gaze to the reporters in the back row. The papers still didn’t know how to play the case. He’d been billed as everything from a mass murderer to a saint.

The judge cleared his throat and sat up. “This is the preliminary hearing on the fifteen count indictment of the State versus Robert Burnt. For the case to proceed to trial, the State bears the burden of proving that a crime has been committed and that the accused is the person responsible for those acts. Here, we are confronted with a clear conflict which this Court must resolve.”

“With the agreement of all parties, the State conducted a full memory scan on the defendant last week, and it shows that Mr. Burnt has no knowledge of the operation of New U. He admits today that he was involved in the formation of the business, but ended his involvement before the business opened last year. His own memories confirm this. This is significant, as the criminal acts that form the basis for the charges took place after that date.”

“So the Court is left with the anomaly that a number of witnesses have identified Mr. Burnt as the perpetrator, yet the unequivocal evidence of the State’s own expert is that he did not. I’m afraid that the Court finds this expert testimony too compelling to ignore.”

The prosecutor jumped up. “Your Honor! The witnesses. This is unheard of!”

“I heard the testimony, the same as you. But this man has no knowledge of the crimes. And it’s an essential element under criminal statutes of this State that the accused must have criminal intent to be convicted. Here we have no mens rea, no guilty knowledge. Your expert admits this man has no knowledge of the operation of New U and never did. How can he be guilty of criminal acts of which he had no knowledge? Based on that evidence, this Court must dismiss the charges against Mr. Burnt.”

The noise of the audience surged up. In the back of the courtroom, the newsmen scrambled for the door. Bob’s attorney rose and shouted, “Your Honor! There’s one more thing.”

The judge frowned. “Well, what is it, Mr. Jones? Your client is a free man.”

“There’s still the matter of the Motion For Forfeiture filed by the State. Mr. Burnt’s bank accounts and other assets are frozen.”

The prosecutor nodded vigorously. “Yes, and the State asks that the preliminary order of seizure remain in effect. This man has millions of credits in bank accounts and real estate and no evidence of any legitimate source of income.”

The judge shook his head. “Mr. Schnee, forfeiture is a penalty the State uses to recover profits from unlawful activities. That’s reasonable when a person commits a serious criminal offense. I’ve just dismissed the charges involving Mr. Burnt. Does the State have evidence of some other criminal activity to offer?”

The prosecutor grimaced and shook his head. “The funds were shuttled through dozens of accounts just before Mr. Burnt’s arrest. All of the computer records of New U were erased at the same time. It’ll take years for us to unravel the trail.”

“And you ask that this man’s property be held indefinitely in the hopes that you might find a valid reason to seize it? I don’t think so. The court will dismiss the forfeiture proceeding as well. This court stands adjourned!”

The noise of the crowd rose again as the judge walked out. Mr. Jones shook his head and turned to Bob. “I’d love to know how you pulled it off. I mean, I saw you at New U. Is this memory lapse real?”

Bob nodded. “I had no idea what they were talking about when they arrested me. I remember setting up the office one day, and was walking into the lobby of the Rio Hilton the next.” He shrugged.

Mr. Jones laughed. “Well, what are you going to do now? New U’s defunct.”

“Yeah. It’s just as well. Too much heat. But I was thinking of franchising.”