Caught Flat-footed

by Erik Cotton

 

I had just called in sick to work a few minutes ago. I didn’t feel all that bad, I was just sick of work. You know the deal, too much work, too little pay. Besides, it was a nice day and I wanted to go driving.

But first, I wanted to check out the news on the ’Net. I fired up my Toshiba laptop and waited for NT to load. Nice OS, NT. Doesn’t crash, doesn’t give me problems. But I digress.

The news from around the world was the usual drivel. Renewed fighting there, instability here, famine, plague, and pestilence everywhere. Even here in Melbourne we had serious problems. In other words, typical news day. The wonderful thing about the ’Net, of course, is the plethora of alternative news sites within reach. You have “news for nerds, stuff that matters,” “all the news that fits, we print,” tinfoil hat wearing news; you name it, it’s out there.

In any case, a foreign news service, located in a newly republic land, had claimed to have new pictures of a city on Mars. I figured they were a little late with the face on Mars bit, but I didn’t recognize the images.

I scanned the article, translated by someone who might have heard English once or twice in their life. The details were light (of course) but the images were, I have to admit, intriguing. High resolution, full colour (or perhaps slightly colour-enhanced) pictures of… something anyway. Could have been a city. Could also have been anywhere in Nevada or our own outback as well. A few hyperlinks to other resources brought me to an exposition from some “renowned astronomer” on the newly discovered “city.” Light angles, artificial lines, blah blah blah de blah blah. Lots of pseudo-scientific BS, but it killed an hour anyway.

In any case, I disconnected from the world at large and headed upstairs to take a shower. While in the shower, I let my mind wander over the article and the pictures. We’ve sent plenty of craft to our red neighbor, some of them even landed intact. But never have we found signs of life, or fossils, or traces of anything other than red dirt.

Which led me to the question: If there was once life on Mars, where is it now?

The obvious answer is: Not there. The air is too thin, the atmosphere too cold, and the conditions too harsh. Sure, Mars is much older than Earth so I suppose it’s possible that life once existed there.

I don’t know if it was the hot water or my sunny disposition that helped, but suddenly it was perfectly clear.

Look at it this way: Mars is much older than Earth, as I’ve said. It’s smaller and further from the sun, it could have been developing life while we were still cooling off on the cookie sheet. If there was life on Mars it too must be much older than Humanity. Older usually (though not always) means more advanced. From the studies we’ve done on Mars, there doesn’t appear to be any signs of catastrophic change. Mars died slowly. Slowly enough, I’m sure, for the Martians to have seen it coming. If they saw it coming, they could do something about it. Like migrate.

Migration would be easy, a one-way ticket to a better place. Not further away from their planet, but closer to the Sun, someplace warm, with water and food and a good atmosphere. Earth would be a natural option.

Just one catch, it’s already inhabited; by creatures that are bigger, meaner, and probably faster too: the dinosaurs and their sea-going brethren. Hard to immigrate when your neighbor wants to eat you.

Okay, as I’ve said, the Martians have got to be more advanced, at least at the time of their mass migration. So they want to move to Earth, but the neighbors aren’t friendly. What do they do? It’s simple. Mars doesn’t really have moons, they’ve got two big asteroids that were captured by the planet’s gravity.

What if there had been a third? It would be child’s play for them to hurl that rock elsewhere. Like towards Earth. One little rock, about two miles in diameter, hurtling at terminal velocity would solve the neighbor equation. And cool things down a bit, perhaps to a more Mars-like temperature.

So they chuck their third moon at Earth, wait for the hit and the following Big Chill, give it fifty years or so, and start the move. Once here, they can set up shop again and take over where they left off on Mars.

Sabertoothtiger

Illustration by J. Andrew World

But something must have gone wrong. We, humans that is, are clearly not the Martians. Too much fossil evidence to the contrary. Plus the lack of an advanced civilization means we’re not it. So what happened?

The Martians, for all their intellect and planning, must have miscalculated somewhere. Either the changing atmosphere was too much for them, or, more likely, Earth’s inhabitants were more resilient then they figured. Sure, all the big carnivores died out, but animals like the Sabertooth Cat liked the new weather just fine. And the herds of Woolly Mammoths stampeding hell-bent for leather must have put a serious crimp in their plans as well.

So where are they? The fossil record, though incomplete, has shown nothing that would scream “extra-terrestrial” or even “odd.” Did they leave? Unlikely, there’s nowhere else in this solar system to go. It’s possible they died out, but again, unlikely, some kind of trace should have been left behind, cities, technology… something.

No, waitaminute. Of course! They arrive here, with as much of their technology and people as they can bring, and Earth is not to their liking. So there’s a schism. A feud. One side wants to leave, the other side to stay and tough it out. The rebel faction wins, and takes the ships and the tech, and leaves. Leaving the others to their fate here on this inhospitable world. But those left behind are not quitters. They’ve come all this way, they’re not going to simply roll over and die. Not without a fight.

So, where does that leave our Martian friends? Unlikely that they are dead, but perhaps the daily struggle for survival was too much for them to allow much in the way of advancement. In other words, they couldn’t put their Martian society back together again, all their time was occupied with survival.

Okay, so that means they had to have been small. Not insect size, but dog-sized. Small enough to be prey to many other animals, but big enough to not disappear entirely. And then good ol’ Mother Nature kicks in! Of course! It’s all so clear to me now! The Martians can’t survive the way they are, so they have got to change, adapt to the new conditions on Earth. Darwin wins again.

Which means, the Martians are still among us. But which species? They’re not native to here, so the adaptation can’t be fully complete, there’s still some Martian in them. Every animal on this planet has adapted to fit their surroundings, to conform. Even species like panda bears have adapted to eating foods they were not meant to eat, just to survive the changing environment.

Every animal but one. What has been called “God’s last joke on Mankind?”

What animal simply defies logic?

Cogito ergo sum: The platypus.

Listen, it’s perfect.

Fact: The platypus is a mammal, yet it lays eggs.

Fact: It’s venomous, but the venom isn’t used as a digestive aid.

Fact: It’s carnivorous, but has no teeth.

Fact: Its main food comes from the water, but when in water, it’s blind.

Fact: It’s got webbed feet, yet spends most of its time on dry land.

Fact: It’s covered in fur, but its body temperature is lower than that of the surroundings.

It all fits, it makes perfect sense. The lowly platypus, constrained to the far eastern part of Australia, and nowhere else, are the remnants of the Martians.

I could see it clearly. Here they are, small enough to be a mere snack to the ferocious dinosaurs, and virtually everything else on Earth. So they wipe out the inhabitants and render Earth safe. But they miscalculate the tenacity of Earth’s creatures. Others arise to take the place of the dinosaurs. But by then it’s too late, the platypuses are on their way to Earth, and it’s a one-way ticket. They land and it’s too cold for them and lots of other animals want to eat them.

The civil war ensues and the winners take the food, and the starships, and the weapons and leave. The rest, stranded, manage to survive, but barely. Survival is so tenuous in fact, that they can’t do anything else, like rebuild their civilization. Soon knowledge becomes lost, their skills atrophy under the constant battle for survival.

But they survive, and slowly, ever so slowly, adapt. But not perfectly, their Martian past is still too ingrained to disappear entirely. Hence the fact that the platypus is an anomaly. They don’t fit because they can’t, they’re not native.

The idea was going to re-write the history books. They would study the platypus like never before, and realize what I already know. We Are Not Alone. I was going to be famous…

Just then, I heard a knocking on the front door. I jumped out of my still hot shower and quickly wrapped a towel around myself.

Downstairs I heard the knock again. I took the stairs three at a time, flushed with the energy of a world-changing discovery. I yanked open the door… There was no one there. Suddenly I felt a sharp stab in my ankle. I looked down…

…At three platypuses, one with his back to me and his hind leg up so I could clearly see the spine that had just pricked me with deadly venom.

I’d overlooked one critical detail in my epiphany. Communication. The platypuses were obviously advanced, yet never vocalized. They didn’t need to, they were telepathic.

And all this time had been scanning Earth’s inhabitants, looking for signs that we knew.

And I knew, and they knew I knew, and therefore I had to go.

I tumbled to the floor and the world went black.

platypi attack

Illustration by J. Andrew World

 

DotCom

by Erik Cotton

 

A few years ago, the domain name www.business.com was purchased for millions of dollars. Suddenly everybody was jumping on the bandwagon and gobbling up domain names left and right. Yahoo.com, taken. Excite.com, taken. Be.com, taken. NthDegree.com, taken (grrrrr). Space.com, also taken. In fact, at the height of the dot.com gold rush virtually every webname was taken and put into use.

But all of that is ancient history now. After the dot.gone implosion of the last couple of years, a myriad of websites went up in venture capital smoke. But the names remain reserved, just in case they find a suck… errr… buyer with more cash than common sense.

When done right, having a website can be a useful and enjoyable experience. Just ask the guys who created such jewels as Slashdot.org or Arstechnica.com. They started off small and have evolved into a huge presence on the web.

Where does that leave you, the average reader? All the good names are gone, so you’ll just have to be inventive. Fear not Intrepid Reader, yours truly has gone to great lengths to track down unique domain names that are still available, waiting only for the right moment to flourish. So without further ado, I present to you, in no certain order, the world’s greatest list of available webnames.

How about PocketSquid.com? Everybody needs a pocket squid! For all of you budding marine biologists out there, this would be the perfect site. Except that it’s already taken. Not much there, just a small sign saying “Coming Soon!” Sure, like we’ve never heard that before.

However, all of you bovine fans are in luck: 14cows.com is available. Just the avenue you need to espouse to the world your love of Bessie. I’m almost positive, however, that in certain parts of the world loving a herd of cows is illegal. So perhaps the website 2cows.com would be safer. Unfortunately, it’s also taken.

Speaking of cows, most of us are well aware of the ecologic damage done by great wild herds of cows stampeding across America. Much like a plague of locusts, which, co-incidentally, is available. PlagueOfLocusts.com is just the site to warn the public about any impending plagues, either insectile or bovine.

Perhaps you’re not into animals, either for their scientific value or otherwise. Well then, how about a nice medical-related site? Something to help spread your medical knowledge to the world and ease the suffering of millions of victims of horrible diseases. Like, for example, Twitchy Nose Syndrome. TwitchyNoseSyndrome.com is available for the taking, ripe for posting detailed information that twitchy people all over the globe are desperately looking for.

Or maybe, just maybe, you’re not quite—how shall we say—normal? Then perhaps ImDeranged.com is the site for you. Something that will allow you a harmless outlet for all of your fears, anger, and thoughts. That’d be great, except… it’s taken. By a clothing shop no less. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need to wear clothing that says I’m deranged, it’s easy enough to spot.

Well, maybe I’m just giving bad examples. After all, most of the webnames I thought up have already been used by people even stranger than I. Indeed, MrBadExample.com, is in use, not by Warren Zevon fans, but by that ever-present site that we’ve all come to know and loathe: the Generic Search Engine Site. Yessir, you can find anything with these sites, mainly because they are all just links to Google.com with some extra spyware thrown in.

Speaking of search engines, perhaps you’re the type who wants to share your arcane knowledge of all things with others. Surely what you need is your own search engine page. Something like SearchThis.com. That would be a handy site, but it’s used by… get this… the Northeast Arkansas newspaper (The Jonesboro Sun) and even better, the site brings up a ton of MySQL errors. You’ve just gotta love those professional web designers.

Not to be deterred, perhaps WhatchaLookingFor.com is what you need. Nope, sorry, it’s “Under Construction.” Sure it is…

Right, so you can’t have your own search engine. Maybe you’ll settle for your own news site. You could design a website with news about everybody’s favorite tinseltown, Hollyweird. Obviously Hollywood.com is taken, but what about HollyWeird.com? Yup, not only is it taken, but it re-directs you to, drum roll please… Hollywood.com! Apparently those lunatics have a sense of humor after all.

Okay, many news sites are now catering to the on-the-move professional who hasn’t got the time to read a newspaper or surf a multi-page website. These hurried commuters read the news off of their PDAs on the morning bus. Now here’s your chance to grab a unique niche. Create a site for all the news about America’s favorite actor: Arnold “The Terminator” Schwartzenegger. PocketArnold.com would be perfect! But guess what… taken, and by a Generic Search Engine Site no less. Is there no pride left in this country?

After all of this frustration, perhaps you’ve retreated into your Cold War era nuclear bomb shelter. I for one wouldn’t blame you, I’m in the market for one myself. In fact… news for the Cold War relics would be just the thing right now wouldn’t it? Kind of topical. BunkerDailyNews.com is, in fact, available! Good for all of those Hitler fans as well. Both of them.

Okay, all of this searching, typing, and frustration has done me in. Perhaps the web isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Perhaps you feel that I’ve wasted fifteen minutes of your time. SoSueMe.com! (Taken, but feel free to e-mail them an offer.)

 

Blown in From the Four Winds

by Lloyd Montgomery

FourWinds1

Illustration by J. Andrew World

Clio walked into the bar, hiding her discomfort; her robes and cloak held tightly together. Trying to act calm, she avoided brushing too close to any of the… people in this place. The patrons did the same for her. Like oil and water in the same vessel, neither wanting to mix with the other. As she sauntered by, outcasts from a hundred societies and a dozen types—soldiers, madmen, displaced natives; the Apaches, mercenaries, and gypsies of the centuries—quieted down and watched her go past, trying not to stare too obviously; aroused and wary at the same time.

This was not her usual haunt, but the one she sought was here. Unless on an assignment, he was always here. Give him that, she thought, he never starts trouble. Someone always has to ask him first. Usually some fool like me.

She spotted him at the bar, perched on a stool, staring moodily at a tall glass of amber liquid held before him.

“Azrael,” she started, walking up behind him.

“That name,” he snapped, “is out of date. Try another.”

“Coyote then?” she asked, trying to maintain her calm. She was unused to being corrected in dive bars.

He laughed, a short sharp bark, “Not quite. Try again.”

Her patience broke, “You tell me then.” Anger helped, it made her feel like she fit in better.

“Call me Vali, here and now.”

“Vali then, its been a while.” Two Hell’s Angels, circa 1970, made room for her at the bar.

He seemed disappointed to see her, “Lady. You shouldn’t be here. Those who come to this place are hardly in need of inspiration.” Then he changed the subject, “To what do I owe this honor?” He switched tracks again and gestured to the bartender, “A drink for the lady, Morty. Ice water and lemon.” Very nearly an insult. The shadow behind the bar moved to comply.

She chose to ignore it, “I’m looking for you, of course.” A corporal from La Legion E’trangere, about 1876, still wearing his Kepi Blanc gave her the eye and raised his glass. She ignored him.

“I’m flattered, but…” he joked.

“Hardly that. Your services are needed again.”

Sigh, “They always are. Above, Below, or In Between.” It was half a statement and half a question.

“Earth has a problem.”

Snort, “It has problems uncountable, always has, always will. Tell Michael or Samedi, they actually enjoy that disgusting shithole.” He took a long drink, trying to wash away memories.

“This problem requires a certain subtlety that they do not possess.” She seemed embarrassed, “Besides, neither of them is exactly… neutral… are they?”

He stopped. An eyebrow rose. “Say on.”

“A High Civilization madman, what they call a serial killer. He is already walking hand-in-hand with the Darkness, even if he doesn’t consciously acknowledge it.”

“A dime a dozen, there and then. What makes this one special?” He was trying very hard not to be interested.

“I don’t know, I was not told the details. Only that he must be stopped and normal channels would be… inadequate.” She looked down, looked back at him, “Restrictions have been imposed, making it, in my opinion, impossible to stop him. Because of certain arrangements between certain Powers there can be no direct tampering.” She tried to keep the bitter irony out of her voice but failed.

“Lady, you shouldn’t involve yourself in such tawdry goings on, doesn’t Riasanovsky need you right now? Or Shelby Foote?” he asked, almost sadly.

“Do not mock me, Fixer.” Despite the power in her voice he seemed unmoved. “This has to be done and it is going to be difficult. Due to the involvement of the Powers I have mentioned your interference can only be minimal.”

Repeat snort, “Provided I’m actually stupid enough to take the job.” He took another drink and said, “Define minimal.”

She knew right then, she had him, he was hooked. One cannot deny one’s nature.

“You only get three indirect moves against him.”

“Three, eh? Is there a time limit, plus or minus?” He idly spun a bottlecap on the bar.

“None, but with only three tries you cannot succeed.”

“If you are so sure of that, why even ask for my help?”

“I have studied him, he will not break. His will is too strong,” she continued, ignoring his question.

He laughed, a quiet chuckle, “Oh, ye of little faith.”

“You cannot just stop him, he must be destroyed.”

“A minor problem; if he can be stopped he can be killed.” He ordered another drink.

“This one is different, you haven’t seen him. I have. I have looked inside this one, he is beyond evil.” She wanted to scream at him, hit him, call him out. He had no idea what he was dealing with.

“I don’t need to, everyone has a weakness,” he said with that same monolithic calm. “In the end, it’s all the same.”

“What can you possibly use against him?”

He held up a fist, “At the right opportunity: Curiosity, Honesty and…” he opened his hand, slowly, one finger at a time, “Pride, I think.” He seemed amused by the concept.

“Can you bring it off with just those?”

A slow nod, “He’ll break. I’ll need my first moves for partial influence on two others, retroactively.” He sipped at his drink.

“Which two?” She picked up hers as well, just for something to do with her hands, she didn’t even like water with lemon.

“The honest one and the curious one, of course. In addition, I’ll need one tie.”

“You cannot use it on the target.”

“I won’t need to.” That annoying smile crept back onto his face.

She shook her head, “Better than you have tried and failed. Don’t you understand? Raguel turned the job down on these terms.”

“Really? Who were the others? The ones who tried and failed.” He seemed only idly curious.

“Shiro and Ajax.”

“Good people, but if this were Hollywood those two would be described as ‘action-adventure’ stars. Rather lacking in a certain sense of finesse.”

“Have you no sense of dignity? They are Heroes; they do not fail.” I have lost my touch, she thought. He doesn’t understand the gravity of this situation.

“Tell it to your sister, Calliope.” For the first time he turned and looked at her, “Would you send a soldier to do a spy’s job? Or worse, a warrior to do a soldier’s?” He reached out and gently touched her face, “No? Then watch and remember, little sister. Watch and remember.”

* * *

Ahhh, welcome back to the twenty-first century. Hasn’t changed much really, has it? Not the important stuff… Computers and cable television; the Information Age. Well, well, well… This has some possibilities, doesn’t it?

Let’s start with curiosity, then. Shall we?

FourWinds2

Illustration by J. Andrew World

* * *

Richard Franklin Holmes was born in rural Mississippi, the youngest of five. His father was an auto mechanic, his mother worked at a laundry. His family had lived in the same town for going on two hundred years. His reasons for leaving home and joining the Navy hadn’t been the usual ones, given his background—a young black man from a deep-south town. Prejudice wasn’t a problem, ignorance was. His ignorance. The news was just too slow. Things didn’t happen fast enough. He wanted to know what else was going on out in the world and he wanted to know as it happened. He had been born with an insatiable desire to learn, to find out. As a Navy communications specialist things were great, they paid him to collect information. For him CNN and the World Wide Web were signs of Wisdom direct from the Almighty. He did his twenty years in the military and decided, on a whim, to retire to New York City. If you want to know what’s going on, what better place to find out?

He got a job as a bartender (what better way to learn about people?) and rented a small apartment. His many new friends and neighbors smiled and shook their heads over his computer fixation, his down-south accent, and the fact that he read five different daily newspapers, plus USA Today, front-to-back. But what the hell, you could do worse than having an ex-Navy Master Chief for a neighbor.

* * *

Moving right along. My compliments to Diogenes—like he said, all we need now is an honest man. Not necessarily a rare thing, but let’s put him in a place where it will do some good.

FourWinds3

Illustration by J. Andrew World

* * *

Daniel Carlos Ricardi, second generation New Yorker by way of dirt-floor-and-adobe-walls San Salvador, became a police officer because it seemed like the right thing to do. Even as a Latino kid growing up in NYC, he had always felt an affinity for the cops, rather than the gangs that he saw opposing them. His parents—Dad, a city subway worker, and Mom, a housewife raising three kids—had done their best to instill a sense of morality and honesty in all their children. Danny got it young, though. It was a no-brainer for him. In every group there were some that were better than the rest. Even if there were good cops and bad cops, the good cops had the high ground. They could rise above their background and upbringing. Barrio, urban ghetto, even the lower-middle-class neighborhood Danny grew up in. You could become a cop, then you could become a good cop; after that you were flying above the rest. It didn’t have to be just a job, it could be a calling.

His father helped him fill out the financial aid forms; Mom and Dad helped pay the bills. Two years and one Associates degree in Criminal Justice later, Danny Ricardi, an ethnic minority in an organization that welcomed such (if only to fill out a quota), got the job he always wanted.

* * *

Invoke a tie between these two. Mr. Holmes, meet Mr. Ricardi. Mr. Ricardi, this is Mr. Holmes. Play nice.

Now, lets dance.

* * *

It looked like the FDNY was going to get the fire under control before it burned down much more than the block. Just another random gangsta-related arson in the Big Apple. The two men, one older and more worldly-wise, the other younger and more street-smart, watched the flames.

The policeman looked at the bartender.

“Good job calling this in, sir,” he said. “Any slower and we’d be watching a square mile go up.”

“God, what a mess.” The bartender shook his head. “I thought I left the AKs and soda-bottles fulla gas back in the Med.”

“Coulda been a whole lot worse, you hadn’t called us.” Ricardi was surprised, this old boy was actually upset. Most New Yorkers had thicker skin.

“I guess so.” He wiped the soot off on his pants and held out a hand, “Richard Holmes, I bartend nights down the street at Casey’s. Call me Rick.”

The cop shook the offered hand, “Danny Ricardi, DC to my friends. Casey’s, eh? I might stop in some night. Got a transfer to day shift coming up.”

Each was surprised to see honesty on the face of the other.

“I’ll save you a seat.”

“Save me a Rolling Rock and I’ll be there.”

* * *

Hello, Dead Man. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. Shh… Pay no attention to me. I’m not here. Now that you have arrived the stage is set, the cast is all assembled, the curtain rises on our little drama. All we need from you is one oh-so-tiny little slip. Just a wee bit of that deadly sin, Pride.

I don’t even have to cheat, do I? You’re going to do it all by yourself.

* * *

“Evening to you, sir. What can I get you tonight?”

“Double Jamesons, on the rocks.” Irish over ice. Heathen, Rick thought to himself.

“Coming right up, haven’t seen you for a few weeks. Been traveling again?”

A slow smile, “Yeah, been… visiting my nieces out west. Thanks.”

“Family is always a good thing. I talk to mine all the time, on the phone or the net.” Hmm. Has a lot of nieces, he mentioned two others last month. What did he say their names were? Rick wondered.

“It’s not the same as seeing them face to face, though. Another.”

“Oh, I agree, never is. How are they then?” Rick asked, pouring a second Jamesons.

“Little Chastity and Hope? They’re fine, just fine. They were so glad to see me.”

Rick excused himself from the bar, approached the pool table, and cornered one of its patrons. “DC, you remember the names of those two little girls that got killed a few days ago? Or where it was?”

“Odd topic of conversation, Chief. But yeah, FBI put out an all-points on it. Lemme think…” Danny brightened, “Benefits of a Catholic upbringing, they had biblical sounding names… Hope and Charity?”

“Close enough, where was it?”

“Indiana, they were from South Bend… bodies were found in… Plymouth, I think. Feds are chapped, looks like the Ice-Cream Man hit again. Thirty-plus underage girls tagged and bagged, last count. Sick bastard.”

“What were the names of the two before that?” Rick almost pleaded, share this demon with me.

“Damned if I know.”

“Think. Think hard, man.”

DC started to sober up, remembering a night a couple of years ago, when a few blocks of New York almost burned to the ground, but didn’t. He was willing to give the Chief the benefit of the doubt. If Rick was this intense it must be important.

Danny rifled his memory for names and places and times.

“Carrie-Ann and Daphne… I think. Same MO. Out of Philly, last month… So, do I win the Sixty-four Thousand Dollar Question, man?”

“I think we both just won…” Rick the bartender started talking about his last customer to Danny the policeman.

* * *

Gentlemen, take a bow. You have done well. Don’t forget me, for I surely will remember you both. Perhaps we’ll meet again.

* * *

At another bar, Clio walked through the doors and looked around. She found him sitting in the same spot, playing Fan-Tan with a couple of Boxers.

“Is it done?”

“Police are kicking down his door even as we speak. Temporally speaking, of course. He’ll confess to over forty murders. All of them children under the age of twelve.” He picked up his drink and took a long pull, “Then he’ll die. Lethal injection.”

He gestured to the bartender, a man-sized patch of something you couldn’t look at, to get the lady a drink.

She looked at the bottle of beer in front of her, it said Mort Subité on the label. She tried to figure out the joke she knew was implied.

They were quiet for a while, then, “Vali, can I ask you a question?” To throw him off she took a drink. It tasted like peaches.

“Feel free, we’re in a bar. Talk is cheap.”

“I’ve been checking into your background…”

“Naughty, naughty, little sister. Do I look through your dirty laundry?” He seemed more amused than upset.

“So, ask me to deny my nature. Did I tell you to stop being a meddling bastard?”

“Touché,” he conceded the point.

“No one I talked to, and I mean no one, can remember a time when you weren’t here. You have changed faces and aspects so many times I couldn’t keep track. When I mentioned your name, Inanna just laughed at me. Chronos even tells me he can remember when you were female. Provided he wasn’t lying just to confuse an upstart like me.” She gave him her best vulnerable female look, all big brown eyes and Cupid’s-bow lips, just in case he wasn’t immune.

“And your point is?” It didn’t seem to work, though he looked away and downed half his pint, fast.

“Eventually everyone takes a side. How come you haven’t?” She made sure she was icy calm now, not sending any signals when she said it. A true question demanding a true answer.

“Not my style. Besides, even the Good Guys need a Bad Guy occasionally.”

FourWinds4

Illustration by J. Andrew World

 

The Shadowcatcher

Shadowcatcher1

Illustrated by J. Andrew World

by Johnny Eponymous

 

Kiely Van Der Rotte walked the streets of San Jose in her riding clothes on Thursday night, June the 13th, 1916. She could hear the fights, the loud crashes from bars that closed when the last man passed out. Kiely rarely came into town, preferring her small barn and instruments among the orchards in Santa Clara to the bustle and brawls. For her plan, she needed the downtown emotions: energies that all could feel, but only she understood. The nearly full moon provided her safety as she continued, passing more drinkers and theatres, to the area surrounding the University where she could set her tripod looking down San Fernando Street. She could see a bloody fistfight in front of an Irish pub, just the sort of negative energies that would bring the images forward. She removed the Magic Lantern from her carpetbag, gently placed it atop the tripod. Kiely pointed it toward the square where fights and knifings were the rule and order came from the blunt swing of a truncheon. Kiely installed the small metal box, full of Audion tubes and wires, forming the machine she called the Shadowcatcher. Her hair fell into her eyes, causing her to pause and take a gathering of those on the street; no one paying any attention to her at all. She took the Comptometer from the bag and put the wire into the small metal box, turning it to complete the connection. Kiely turned the handle on the side of the controller for nearly thirty seconds, her arm hurting as it strained against the stiff handle’s movement. Kiely paused, thinking she had turned it long enough so the machine would have a full charge when she hit the proper keys.

Kiely looked down the street once more as she flipped the bar on the side of the Comptometer and pressed the nine numbers to bring the machine to its slow whir. She took a long step back, before flipping the bar once again, resetting the numbers to zeros and bringing the machine to life. A loud whistle began to echo on the inside of the wooden projector box. As the whistle built, she could see the gathering of light twelve feet in front of her, a faint but solid gathering lit from within. The glow gained form, took shape: a man’s shape. The man had a distant stare that Kiely could note, even though she could still see through it to the moonlit buildings on the other side of the street. The figure took more form, the torso dressed in the styles of twenty years earlier; the hat on the head a stiff bowler with a small feather, the pants long-striped and tattered at the top of expensive shoes. On his sleeve she could see a rip, and beneath that, dark runs of liquid. Kiely set the controller down, walking to the vision, her hair again falling, though she did not even blink.

“Can you hear me? Are you here?”

The image turned to her, the same stare going beyond her, beyond the small patch of grass behind, beyond the tower at the far end of the quad. Slowly, the image nodded, focused more, with a stronger glow coming from within his coat. Kiely took a step back, giving the stare full view of the battle of San Fernando.

“You’ll walk to the end of the street, turn around and come back to me.”

Without acknowledgement, the image moved, his expensive shoes disturbing the dust as he walked, but only in small traces that the wind would clear in moments. The figure took seven steps, began to fade, and went transparent. Kiely walked his path, noting the slight impressions on the street. She reached the point where the impressions stopped, the point where the image returned to cold chills and whispers in unbelieving ears. Kiely paced off the distance: seventy-seven feet across, more or less. The distance was far less important than the fact that she had done it, done what mystics and philosophers had failed to realize: she had touched the plane of the past and brought it to the present.

# # #

Kiely gathered the pieces, looked over the schematics on the table, and went about connecting the Audion tube to the innards of the camera she had traded for with Dr. Warburton. The system worked on incredibly simple premises: the wires create a field of energy captured from the environment around it and the Audion amplifies that energy before sending it through the projector, creating a field approximately one hundred feet across, though this test delivered a far smaller field than the design should have supported. The whole thing just needed the proper amount of energies from the environment to gain the power to bring those Away to the field.

Kiely heard the wheels of an automobile grinding walnuts into the packed dirt that led to the barn. Kiely walked to the window, looked out into the rainy night on Jason, the driver, and her youngest sister, Marcy. She had seen neither in several weeks, mostly because they chose to sleep during the night; the time when Kiely could get days worth of work done in hours. She wiped her hands and shouldered open the swinging door, allowing Jason to drive the car in, leaving only a foot between the table and the front bumper. Kiely steeled herself up to deliver the final sell.

“You know, you could try living in the house again, sis.”

Kiely tossed the rag into the bucket at the far end of the bar, waiting to be washed. She hadn’t slept in the house for almost a year, preferring to use her small cot or just pass out at the table in the barn. The large bags under each eye spoke to this tradition. Jason stepped down from the driver’s side, walked behind, and opened Marcy’s door. Kiely and Marcy could be no more different: Marcy’s eyes glowed green from under the red hair she spent an hour perfecting each morning, while Kiely’s simple brown hair fell about her shoulders and nearly constantly needed to be moved from in front of her grey eyes. Kiely stood a fair five inches taller as well, a fact that became apparent with the great bend whenever the two of them embraced in hellos.

“You know I can’t stand the quiet up there, much more texture out in the barn. Besides, the house has other problems.”

Marcy smiled lightly in dismissal, small runs of water dripping off the curls that framed her face. Marcy went to the table, looking at the boxes her sister had created.

“Are these them? The machines you told me about?”

Kiely pulled the nearest Shadowcatcher to her, turning it around so Marcy could see the tubes and coils. Kiely knew her amazement with things scientific and she knew the machine would confuse her. Marcy leaned in, as if in a museum of oddities where the barkers will send their cane to any foot over the line. She studied every wire line, every tube connection, every component, though she knew nothing of their operation. Kiely would have explained them all, though she did not, since she wanted the mystery to remain. Jason spoke first, after drying his head with the towel on the hook next to Kiely’s hanging saws and hammers.

“So, you’ve completed it, but why such urgency to get us to see it?”

Kiely opened the lid of the projector and pushed it toward Marcy while she spoke.

“Remember when you and Jason would bring people over to the house for séances? You’d invite the wealthy folks over and Jason would shill and then you’d bring out the gigs. Well, I think we should start it up again, only this time these will bring the greatest gigs of all time.”

Jason shrugged unhappily and Marcy pulled herself back upright. The look on Marcy’s face had touches of theatre and future money. Jason had a look of last resort in his eyes. Jason had been short of funds for nearly two years and the Shadowcatcher Project represented the only option for cash that he could see.

“Don’t worry, the Shadowcatcher is like that old Magic Lantern Papa had and I can control the picture with the box over there. I can make the images turn and even walk. All you have to do is provide the scene, I’ll take care of the rest.”

Marcy smiled. She had wanted to get back into the game as Madame Van Der Rotte, but Jason didn’t have the money to buy their way back in with the traditional ooohs and ahhs. Marcy spoke as if signing on to the project.

“Who will we invite, Kiely? When?”

Two more successful tests would follow. The men trapped in a mine walked past Kiely’s view on a small hill marked with seven weathered crosses. A young boy looking for his ball paused for a moment in front of the Shadowcatcher, turned and ran away out of the field. The tests brought her closer, allowed her to tune the specificity, clean the images brought out, widen the field. She had not yet tried the three in union but knew the result: each tuned to the same frequency, stronger coverage. Each machine bringing more energy forward, allowing for the perfect vision she had promised herself. Marcy could know nothing of the reality of the device. She had played the Spiritualist too long to find truth in the Unknown.

The day had come quickly for Kiely, though Jason and Marcy were always milling around, waiting as if the hours were days spent on a rack. Kiely made all the alterations in slow turns and gentle pulls, all adding up to time running away from her. As Marcy returned to the house to dress and Jason swept clean the path for the visiting autos, Kiely finished her adjustments, placed the Shadowcatchers on a small cart. One last look at her barn and Kiely wheeled the machines out the back of the building, onto the small packed path leading to the house. Marcy took a small fright as Kiely threw open the door. The house had been distant for the week spent in cleaning and preparations, lulling Marcy into expectations of fluid silence.

Kiely set the Shadowcatchers in an equilateral triangle, the table in the exact center of the machines, the focus of three energy projectors. While each was fully capable of bringing the Away forward to the field, combined the once translucent images would gain form, strength from the focusing. Kiely could hear the first auto pulling up the drive, crushing walnuts and throwing dirt. She went up the stairs to where her mother would sit and watch them play between cooking and cleaning and picking fruits. Kiely took a concealed seat, watching in a mirror, where all the guests and Shadowcatchers could be seen and the cord to the Comptometer would not pull taught as it ran up the stairs. The first footsteps fell on the front porch and Marcy opened the door on Ken Cooler and his wife, Narla. Sweet old folks who had lived in the valley, on the orchards, since birth. Each walked with a simple cane, his of hand-carved oak, hers of white fir, stained dark with painted bird’s-eye grain.

“Welcome, Mr. Cooler, Mrs. Cooler. Please, give me your coats and have a seat.

“You’ll find a few small treats and a bottle of red wine in the front parlor. Please, help yourself.”

The small pair made their way into the parlor as the thin couple called Barcells walked in, receiving the same greeting. Others arrived, invitees to make the marks feel comfortable. Kiely recognized a couple of them, dressed well but obviously in borrowed suits. Jason entered and closed the door, his hair full of kicked up dust. Marcy made her way to the chair closest to the stairs.

“Welcome to the séance, my friends. Each of you were invited for the purpose of contact, a contact you wish to make with a world beyond. I am surrounded by a great energy, the concentrators are increasing my awareness of the Away, the other side of our world. If you will all take hands, we can begin.”

Kiely turned the handle on the controller until the charge had been achieved. She then flipped the bar and held the keys. Instantly, those holding hands could feel something that Kiely had never experienced in her tests: the breeze. A stiff breeze, not of air, but energy: colder than any wind off an icy lake. The cold kept each of the séance participants in their seat. Marcy had been through this, typically a window would be opened, sending the chill through those in the room. This time, no shill had opened a window, the energies bringing the cold were real.

“Feel them enter, the powers flowing from the coldest realm. Close your eyes, feel the surge, resist the cold and find your inner strength.”

Madame Van Der Rotte’s experiences on the road came into play. The eye-closing usually allowed Jason to put ectoplasmic cheesecloth on her, or brush a kerchief across a ladies neck for a cheap shiver. But now, a real image began to take form on the table. All the eyes were closed, save for Kiely’s, who saw the dream reflected. The woman stood tall and proud but all she could see was a back with an apron tied, a familiar double bow holding the strings. She had none of the gauziness the other visions had shown. Just a solid light giving birth to something far.

“Open your eyes, my friends, see what our energies have brought forth.”

The eyes opened and all were pushed harder into their seats. No one heard a breath escape from the circle. Marcy could feel the effect of whatever Kiely projected, the grip on either side too fear-frozen to break. She kept her eyes closed as she spoke, adding to the image of her power over other worlds.

“Now, spirit, turn to me. Show me the face you wore in life. Show the circle who you are.”

The spirit turned counter-clockwise and Mrs. Barcells gave a slow, low gasp when it faced her. As soon as the spirit had gone fully to Marcy, Kiely could make out the vision she had wished to call. Many times had Kiely seen it, seen it from the corner of her eye in the days when she still lived in the house. Kiely had confirmed what she had always believed: the spirit of her mother still watched over them.

Marcy opened her eyes, took a moment to focus them on the solid light on the table. Her mother, dead nine years, stood there in front of her, the stare going beyond her, her once warm eyes lost. Marcy could not move, always having dismissed Kiely’s stories of ghosts and feeling mother’s presence. These eyes were not warm, these eyes were cold, beyond the world. Marcy spoke, an airy note coming from her throat.

“Mother?”

The image of their mother looked down. Kiely had lied: this was no Magic Lantern show. Her eyes lost all appearances of Madame Van Der Rotte, instead becoming the young girl scared of thunder. Marcy stood, shock belting her to her feet. A scream came to her lips, but no voice could be given. This image was not a faded photograph in time, but a spirit she would never wish to see again.

She reached back, the Shadowcatcher whistling under the padding Kiely had added to silence it. Marcy took it by the tripod and pushed it down, the crash of glass and splintering of wood echoing through the house. Kiely stood, pushing tears and hair from her eyes. She ran down the stairs as the others were gripped down by what they had witnessed. Marcy ran across, breaking the circle. She reached the second Shadowcatcher as Kiely made the bottom of the stairs, noticing the fading of the image. Marcy pushed it hard into the wall, the crash even more damaging than the first.

“Marcy, don’t! It’s all I have left of mother! How can you…”

Marcy had already set herself upon the final device, pulling the tubes and projector apart and throwing the metal to the ground as Kiely reached her. Kiely turned and looked at where her mother had been.

Nothing.

Not a trace of the once solid glow of the woman Kiely had needed to contact. Marcy fell to the ground, tears now flowing from her eyes. The chill wind rushed away as suddenly as it had appeared. Jason had thrown open the curtains, the sound tearing through each viewer. Kiely went to the first machine Marcy had attacked.

Destroyed. The tubes shattered, the projector unrepairable.

She quickly pushed her way through the lot, scrambling for the door.

The second, destroyed though the coils were probably still useable.

Marcy had thrown herself on the floor, tearing at the remaining pieces of the third Shadowcatcher. Her eyes throwing water down on the dark wood, sizzling on the tubes.

Kiely fell back against the wall. After less than a minute, only the three of them remained; Marcy still breaking the pieces with now bloody hands and Jason holding the stairpost for support. No one said anything. Each had been destroyed. Jason’s dreams of money, broken with crying fists. Marcy’s hopes of respect, dead by suicide. Kiely’s wish for her mother to return, in broken glass and wood around the parlor. No one would speak for almost an hour, though the silent tears were soon replaced with heavy sobs. Jason helped Marcy up, took her to the auto in the barn and then away, away from Kiely. As soon as she could stand on her own, Kiely gathered the pieces, tried to reassemble what she could, stayed up all night, rebuilding and failing, and trying again.

That year, Kiely only saw the outside once every day, when picking nuts or fruits. She stopped trading for milk, instead drinking water. She spent most of her days on the step, staring at the makeshift Shadowcatcher standing in front of the door. Sitting next to her, the faint image of her mother, staring beyond the hallway, looking back on days when she would watch her daughters play on the porch.

Shadowcatcher2

Illustrated by J. Andrew World

 

For Sale: An Enterprising Concept

by Hartriono B. Sastrowardoyo

 

Maybe you can’t buy the Brooklyn Bridge, but the USS Enterprise is for sale, starting at $239,990. That’s quite a bargain, considering the cost to build the first US aircraft carrier was about $19 million and, 25 years later, sold for scrap at just over $561,000. And it didn’t even have a finished basement and gas fireplace.

Confused? Read on.

In the Forked River Beach section of Lacey Township, NJ, there’s a new waterfront community named Captain’s Crossing. The builder named the four home models after US Naval ships: USS New Jersey, USS Enterprise, USS Constitution, and Old Ironsides, slightly redundant as that’s the nickname of the original USS Constitution.

Why would a home be named for a ship? To convince buyers that they can be the captain of their own vessel?

According to the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, the story of Old Ironsides has it that during Constitution’s battle with the HMS Guerriere, cannonballs fired from the British ship bounced off the sides of Constitution and fell into the sea, at which point the British sailors exclaimed, “Her sides are made of iron!?” Old Ironsides it was. And of course, New Jersey is an appropriate chose for a home in that state.

What the ships have in common is that all have had distinguished careers as well as successive ships to carry on their name, fame and heritage. Maybe the developer wanted the homes to be associated with the same qualities as their namesakes.

Let’s take this idea further.

Perhaps naming a home USS Arizona or USS Vincennes would push the limits of taste, and I’m willing to bet that USS Hazard or USS Wateree won’t be used anytime soon. Nevertheless, there are plenty of opportunities for justly named models. (And yes, these names have all been applied to US Naval ships at one time or another.)

If you’re lucky to be named Keith, buy the USS Keith model. Where’s my house? You can’t miss it. In fact, it’s named after me. If you don’t want to be disturbed, buy a model named USS Pyro or USS Avenger. (The latter may especially be appropriate if you run around at night wearing a mask, cape, and colorful tights.) Do your tastes run Presidential? How about the USS Theodore Roosevelt or USS Ronald Reagan? Or if you’re an expatriate, USS Winston Churchill? Or even the USS JEB Stuart. A snowbird? The USS Lauderdale is for you. Want to protest the cost of taxes, tolls, or auto insurance? Here’s the USS Defiance. Perhaps the USS Swivel would make a more subtle point. So to speak. Wouldn’t a model named the USS Impervious provide that sense of security in that you made the right purchase?

As for me? I’ll be waiting for the USS Rich.

Zing!

CarrierBattleship2

 

Down and Out on Minerva

Anibabe-Combat Gear bw

Illustration by Robert Quill

by Lloyd Montgomery

 

I ran low and fast through head-high brush, trying to keep quiet. Flechettes buzzed at me through the foliage, leaving behind the scent of freshly mown grass. There were at least forty hostiles after me. The wind was from behind and I could smell their fear and excitement, even through the alien forest. I couldn’t possibly kill them all before they caught up. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone.

“Reen, cover me. I’m falling back through you,” I said over the platoon circuit.

“SAW’s dry, Khan. Rockets outgoing.” My support man’s Squad Automatic Weapon had run out of ammo, he was covering my retreat with the rockets in his Skorpion. My fur stood on end in the overly dry Minervan summer air as the six mini-rockets screamed past and prox blew about fifty meters behind me, in the midst of the enemy line. The rest of my team opened up, an impromptu ambush.

Crouching down, I turned to assess the damage. The mini-rocks from Reen’s sidearm had downed at least fourteen indigs. The rest of their company hit the ground as the sound of explosions filled the forest, forcing us to take them out the hard way. Blaster bolts, guided a-pers missiles, and hypervelocity shot tore through the trees and into the enemy line. More of those nasty little flechettes came back at us; they were deadly at close range but lost power over distance. I still had several stuck in my armor. Bringing my sniper rifle into line, I shot at the dappled-brown uniforms that my head-up-display indicated no one else had targeted.

Thirty seconds and it was over, my team had cut down better than twice their number.

“Great Shiva, someone tell me they stopped chasing us.” The enemy had been following for a day or more, since we hit their Command Post and took out most of their officers and communications gear.

“Can I eat any of them, Khan?” Reen rumbled. I ignored him, as I always did. I’m told he asked the same question to his last platoon leaders every time he hit dirt. To my knowledge he had never actually eaten a fallen enemy, Hs’Thai just have a perverse sense of humor.

I moved my team into some heavy brush, away from the last skirmish. The whole area for kilometers around was light to medium forest with scattered spots of thick brush. Perfect terrain for sneaky Explorer fighting—one of the remaining things we had going for us.

“Marty, give me an update,” I told my Commo/SigInt man, a thoroughly professional career human. He had been in the Explorers past ten and never cared that I was Ithri, female, and younger than him. Since the day I grew stripes on my uniform to match my fur he was one of the ones I could count on to back me up. The Long Range Explorer Corps was his religion and the CS Apache his church.

“Sat says there’s another bunch moving this way. Close to a hundred, max. Looks like light infantry.” He was reading data coming down from the Command satellite. “ETA fifteen minutes, spread out along this front, two to three hundred meters wide.”

“What’s word on our pickup?”

“Same as before: Quit dicking around and fall back to Alt 2. Lander is on the way.”

I switched to Command freq, “Command, Recon 3. Can we get Lightning yet?” They had turned us down once already, enemy atmospheric craft were giving them problems.

“Recon 3, Command here. Air Support is unavailable for one hour, we are re-tasking now. Recommend you fall back to Landing Zone Alt 2.”

That drew a muttered, “Thanks for the tip, Einstein,” from Lee, my surviving Corporal and fellow sniper. She had access to the Command line too.

“Status of Primary LZs and Alt 1?”

“Alt 2 is closest still open, Recon 3.” That meant the natives had already overrun the other four.

Intelligence had really blown it. Minerva was supposed to be a minor planet in the Rim Worlds, full of pre-spaceflight barbarians of all races, still recovering from the Fall of the Empire almost two hundred years earlier. Confederation government had found the place, sent in Contact teams to open relations, and—when the natives had slaughtered the diplomats—fell back on the Explorer Corps to straighten things out. We had been the first wave of the pacification force. Our job was to establish a perimeter for the rest of the Ground troops, gather intel, and harass enemy Command.

The whole op had gone wrong from the beginning. Solar flare activity made communications sporadic and forced the Task Force to move to a safer orbit. Then our lander hit heavy atmospheric ionization during its run, ruining its stealth capabilities. By the time my team was on the ground the natives had triple-A and interceptors airborne. We got out but the dropship took heavy fire while leaving. When the rest of the battalion was finally down and out a small war had started. The Minervans had been at war with each other for over a century, but they were more than happy to take a break and shoot at us for a change. What should have been a 36-hour battle had lasted over 72 hours. Half my platoon was injured or dead and the rest of us were running low.

I checked my group, everyone who could had reloaded and taken some water, “Time to move.” My platoon shouldered weapons and helped injured comrades to their feet.

“Where to?” Lee asked. She’d taken several hits, the only things keeping her going were the drugs in her armor. She smelled of weapons fire, blood, and fatigue.

“Alt 2.” I surveyed the terrain, mostly light woods and heavy undergrowth ahead of us. Brush fires burned randomly behind us, highlighting the path we had cut through enemy territory. Any dangerous animals had already pulled out in the face of superior firepower.

I was unhappy, all the fun had gone out of this fight hours ago. We were no longer the hunters, the prey had turned on us.

“Sarge, there’s a couple hundred indigs and what looks like a light armored company spread out between us and there,” Marty stated, looking up from his gear. “Just thought I’d bring it up.”

“Only available, we go low and slow. Ch’Chura, take point.” Usually I get an Ithri to go first, we felines are natural hunters, but the other two in my group had gotten themselves killed. They had both been males, smelling that I was close to mating season, and had likely been trying to impress me.

Ch’Chura nodded, checked his 4mm railgun and said, “One hundred meters.” The Ch’ are small primates, more prey than predator, but they can move fast and quiet. I lost him in the brush two meters away.

The rest of us spread out behind him, Reen brought up the rear. He was another veteran that had been in a lot longer than I, twenty-four years at last count. Hs’Thai live for centuries, it’s that reptilian blood. They usually become mercenaries, but every so often one of the more honorable ones joins the Explorers or the Marines. Confed has learned to love them—they are a heavy ton better than most soldiers, even us Ithri. Reen had earned more decorations than the rest of the platoon combined. More important than that, no matter what we ran into we knew he had been there before. To him it was always just another op, another chance to make bad jokes.

While we were moving, I switched my visor over to Inventory; I needed to see if anyone still had heavy ordinance, anything capable of taking out armored vehicles. We had used most of our stuff pasting the enemy CP. The best I found were two high-explosive/anti-armor grenades on one of my regs.

“DeeVee, confirm two HEDP rounds,” I asked the one Sari in our platoon.

DeVarrosinsharra came back, “Confirm, Khan. I still have two live.” I could hear his breath rasping over the radio, he’d taken a hit in one of his four lungs. His blue skin would be mottled but he could keep going on one lung if he had to. “Sadly, those and the blaster on my Skorp are it.”

“Load them. We hit armor, use them first.” Everyone in my platoon carried a multi-purpose Skorpion for backup, except me and Ch’Chura. Confed issued them as pistols; they’re basically a multi-function blaster with four other weapons tacked on. We were both too small to use it as a sidearm and too proud to call it a longarm. I carried an LREC-issue sniper rifle and he carried that nasty Ch’ bullet-hose.

“Roger that, Khan,” DeeVee replied.

“Anyone carrying that doesn’t show up on Inventory?” Our offensive resources were badly depleted.

The response wasn’t encouraging. Marty and a couple of others carried hold-out pistols and two had picked up Minervan flechette guns as souvenirs; none of which would make a difference against tanks. I tried to make plans as we pushed through the forest.

Marty and Ch’Chura both informed me about the same time: We were getting close to the enemy armor. My tiny point-man was closer, I would defer to him on data.

“CeeCee, how’s it look?” I asked as the rest of my platoon took cover in the trees.

“Light tracks, Khan. They look more like Infantry Support than APCs or Main-Battle. Not much room for troops. Not unless all the infantry are my size.” Armored Personnel Carriers would have been a problem.

“O/D?” Meaning Offensive/Defensive capabilities.

“Armor looks like light steel or layered aluminum alloy, maybe forty mill on the glacis. Guns are two twenty-to-thirty mill cannon with a co-ax MG. Turret mounted with three-sixty FOF. Tracks are exposed and she’s buttoned up.”

“Any support troops?”

“None close. Scan says three, four hundred meters past.” Idiots, only a fool brings up armor without infantry to guard their flanks, I thought.

“How many tracks can you see?”

“Three in LOS, the trees cut down vision. About fifty meters between them.” The enemy’s technology was based on line-of-sight.

“I’m looking through you, slow sweep left to right.” I closed my helmet and switched to his POV, looking through his eyes. He was right. The armor was just sitting there—shimmering in the heat—without infantry cover close, their guns pointed away from us.

“They look like they’re trying to hide from whatever’s on the other side of them,” he added.

I got it then, “They’re hull-down, waiting to hit our Marines as they come this way. No one told them we were here.” Most of the fighting was taking place past them, where the Drop Zones were. We were behind their line of battle.

“We need to make a hole, kids. DeeVee, hit those two as we go.” I painted the two nearest vehicles and assigned two more of my best armed regs to harass the remaining track we could see. “After that we advance fast-fast, up through their infantry. Use scare stuff—rockets and flamers. Spook them and pass by. Reen, cover our rear.” We didn’t need to break this line, just get through. Once Command had our data they could task the Marines or Ground Attack to wipe out what was left. I sent a Priority Message upstairs just in case, dumping all of my intel. On my thigh datapad I quickly sketched out our line of advance and sent that also, Marty did the same.

“Command, Recon Three. Do you see this?” I had to make sure they knew what was happening.

“Recon Three, Command. We confirm. Ground Two and Five will cover your flanks from the other side of your advance. Can you break through?”

“Ree-See, Command.” That Remained to be Seen. “Is Lightning available yet?” Ground Attack ships would make things a whole lot easier.

“GA is fifteen away, Recon Three. We paint enemy activity behind you. They are closing fast, regiment or better.” Air Support would take too long and we couldn’t stick around, the enemy at our backs would reach us first. “Delta Four is incoming to make your pick-up. ETA is five.”

“We go now, Command. Tell Ground Two and Five to cover us in two.” I switched circuits. “Recon Three, advance. DeeVee hit them now.” His first grenade went out and nailed one track in the side. Typical Sari caution, aim for center-of-mass rather than risk a miss. It didn’t matter, though. His target cooked off, burning debris landing all around. His second shot had equal results. Two down. All we had to worry about was the third monster on our right.

Despite the a-pers rockets and blaster beams hitting her, the third track’s guns opened up. Her gunner was aiming low, looking for infantry. High-explosive shells and flechettes shrieked past or exploded around us. Another of my team went down, Relldren moved to pick him up. This was taking too long, seconds too long. If we stayed to fight, the track’s friends would close in and kill us.

“She’s staggering fire on her cannons, Khan.” Every couple of seconds one cannon would go silent as the loader switched to a fresh magazine. Staggering fire meant she could keep a constant stream outgoing. It also meant we would have a hell of a time taking the track out. Nearly two hundred years fighting each other had trained these people well.

“Recon Three right, throw smoke and leave her. Advance with the rest of us.” We had to take the chance. Smoke would blind the gunner for a few seconds. After that we’d be into her infantry, they couldn’t shoot without hitting their own troops.

We pushed forward, through the billowing smoke, into the enemy line. Even though we were shot up and down to sidearms, their groundpounders were still no match for us one-on-one. They had no armor and their weapons were strictly line-of-sight, with no HUD/IFF capability at all. Lee and I painted targets for the rest of the platoon and maintained field-of-fire, all on the run. Anyone they missed, we took down with our sniper gear. Despite our superior equipment, it was a mess; the line they held had a better than three-to-one superiority in numbers. Blowing up their tanks had eliminated any surprise that we were coming. Fortunately, the Marines in Ground Two and Five, more heavily armed than my team, kept their flanks too busy to send much support. Another hundred meters—we were through the worst and closing in on our Drop Zone.

“Recon Three, fall back to Alt Two by Evac drill.” I didn’t want to give the order but we were losing cohesion, enemy flechettes and HE from the armor were cutting us down. We needed to get out and take our wounded with us.

“Lander, Recon Three. My beacon is red-red-white.” Trying to remain calm, I tossed the flare onto the only empty field within four kilometers and dropped flat in the rough grass, covering what was left of my platoon.

“Recon Three, this is Delta Four, I have your beacon.” I recognized that voice—Flight Commander Richard Fandrill, Task Force 4/2’s resident nonconformist, comedian, and the love of my life, depending on who you ask.

“Soonest Delta Four, we are hot-hot-hot.” Enemy armor was within a kilometer of us and advancing. “Infantry and armor firing close.”

The voice brightened, “Khan, my love! Is that you down there?” Rick’s perverse sense of humor surfaced at the worst of times.

“Roger Delta Four, it’s me.”

“I’ll be in your arms in five, lady.” Then, just to further irritate Command and me, he asked, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in this shithole?”

I didn’t answer, bantering with him would knock me out of my combat mindset.

“Well, Sarge, looks like he couldn’t bear to leave his girlfriend on the ground.” My relationship with that crazy human was a source of endless amusement for my platoon.

Near me, Marty shook his head, “That dumbass flyboy’s gonna get another rocket from Command for talking trash on a tactical line.” Ship communications were closely monitored from orbit.

“Like that has stopped him the last twenty times.” Reen responded, still out in the woods. Our platoon freq wasn’t powerful enough to be heard upstairs.

“I hear the Navy rates in Commo have a pool going every op to see if he does it again,” Relldren, one of my support shooters, chimed in.

“He gets us out of here, I will take the hit for him and kiss his feet.” That was from Sesellra-Farra, a Sharai. They come from swamps and the thought of touching someone else’s feet disgusts them.

Rick’s lander came in low and fast, drawing fire from every heavy weapon within a kilometer. Its shields flared white as shots exploded off them. With all his skills he brought it down, killing the shields as he hit ground. The doors slid open.

“Get ’em onboard, Khan. We’ve got Angels incoming!” Our air support was finally on the way.

“Recon Three, even-odd fall back!” My platoon started moving, losing the cover of the forest by the numbers. I ran to a position by Delta Four’s bulk and kept an eye out for problems, shooting them as I saw them. Lee had gone down, I was the only sniper left.

I counted the members of my platoon as they went through the lock. Not good, we’d been decimated. Almost a quarter of my team was dead, half the rest were wounded.

Marty ran onboard, carrying Ch’Chura and helping Lee.

“Marty, where’s Reen?” That oversized lizard was the tail-end of my team.

“Didn’t see him,” he gasped. “Should be ten back, unless he stopped for a snack.” I checked my visor. Reen had popped his beacon; he was down in the treeline, fifty meters away.

“Pilot, hold two. I’ve got a man down.” I dropped my rifle, drew my pistol, and ran back the way I came.

“Make it fast, Kitten. The natives are getting restless.” Light artillery from the tracks was pounding the area. “I can’t raise screens until we’re airborne,” he mentioned, in case I had forgotten. “And the armor on this boat sucks.”

As I ran back, I pulled the tab on my chestplate, releasing stimulants into my bloodstream. I’d regret it later—the Ithri metabolism doesn’t deal well with drugs—but Reen was almost twice my size, I needed the boost. Looking through a forest full of blooming explosions I found him in the fog; he’d caught the edge of an artillery burst and couldn’t get back up. The smell of explosives and propellant was overpowering. I skidded to a halt, threw his three-meter tall body across my shoulders, and started back to the ship as fast as I could move. Gods Above and Below, I could see enemy soldiers shooting at us as I ran for it. Those horrible flechettes buzzed around us, punching into our armor like evil demons, seeking our blood.

I heard the Drop Coordinator admonish Rick over the Command line, “Delta Four, Command. You are past your launch window. Dust off.”

“DC, we are working on it. Tell Ground Attack to hold fire for one.” Rick wasn’t leaving until his pickup was onboard.

“Delta Four, GA is into their run. You have to go now.” I tried to speed up. The enemy had found the range, explosive shells were hitting the ship and our Angels were about to plaster the area as well.

“Roger DC, we are away.” I was almost worried, despite his long-ago oath.

Rick lifted his boat a meter off the ground and sideslipped it towards me with the doors still open, slamming into trees. The madman. Muscles screaming, I jumped and flew through the drop hatch as the lander and I met in midair. Reen and I crashed into the hold and were caught by the rest of my team.

“Pilot, we are in. Go-go-go!”

Snort, “Like I’d leave without you.” He closed the doors, raised screens, and maxed the engines and afterburners all at once just as Ground Attack strafed Alt 2. Shockwaves slapped our craft around like a leaf in a hurricane. Our Angels used GC plasma bombs and heavy auto-blasters to carpet the DZ. Anything left on the ground was burning wreckage.

While he was pulling us out of harm’s way, with the lander still halfway upside-down, Rick cut in on our platoon line, “Drinks are on Pathfinder Team Three.

This drew a swarm of comebacks from beings scattered throughout the hold:

“Try and find us.”

“As much as you can drink, airedale.”

“Get me onto the Apache and I will kiss your ass.”

“My feet are yours, truck-driver.”

“Every drink to your ancestors.”

I was curled up on the cold uncaring deck, shaking from the after-effects of the stims and trying to pretend the whole recovery had never happened. I hate getting picked up under fire. I can’t shoot back, I can’t even see my enemy. Situations like that fray my nerves raw.

Quietly, I keyed my comm to the pilot’s frequency, “Richard, when we get back. After I check my team. When you get through being yelled at for using the tacc line to try and get laid. When the Drop Commander gets through with you, gives you a commendation, and tells you never to do something like that again. When the Angels get through calling you a magnificent bastard for pulling out in the middle of their run. When Pathfinder Team Three is finished buying you drinks in the Enlisted and NCO Clubs on the Apache. When all that is done, I’m going to find a way to go into season, find your drunk ass, and make you realize why you gave up on human women.” I was at the point where I could decide when it was going to happen, within a month or so.

Just to try and get in the last word he said, “Deal.”

Just to make sure I got the last word, I agreed, “Deal.”

We flew back to the Apache.

 

 

Relish

Relishby Kevin Ginsberg

 

I prayed, “God give me relish, for I have a hotdog, but what good is it with no relish?” I was completely thrown back when I actually received a response. Not in way of a sign or a relish coupon, but an actual response, the voice of God. “Son,” he said to me, “thousands have prayed to me today requesting, begging, even pleading for a hotdog. You, you who are fortunate enough to indulge himself with such a meat has the audacity to bend my ever so demanded upon ear for a condiment?”

I was embarrassed to say the least. I began to think, do I really need the relish? Am I that ungrateful? Is relish really a condiment? I know little things like ketchup and mustard are, but I had no idea that relish was. I mean, I suppose it’s not a fruit or a vegetable, and it does fit in a small plastic packet. Hence, if it comes in a small plastic packet it constitutes a condiment. I begged him for forgiveness and, asked him if I was the most selfish human to wander the earth. God laughed and told me of a time when Telly Savalas prayed for his hair to stop growing so he wouldn’t have to shave it anymore. I laughed, still a bit nervous by the presence of God. He then asked me for a soda telling me, “It’s the least you can do, I created you.” How could I argue with that? God drank his soda and with a flash of light disappeared. By this time my hotdog was cold, and despite what I’ve been told I was really craving some relish. Having nowhere to turn I did what I thought I would never do. I sold my soul to the devil for a packet of relish.

 

Conspiracy Theory

ProbeWEB

Illustration by Matt McIrvin

by Sean Dylan Weir

 

These days you can’t do anything without running into an alien. Movies, television, websites, bumper stickers, T-shirts, amusement parks, and even bar motifs have bulbous heads and bulging black eyes staring at you. I was flipping channels the other day when I saw an ad for a “Welcome All Species” doormat. If you bought one, I think you need to get out of the house more often. And besides, last time I checked, these sadistic bug-eyed freaks were sailing across the galaxy to kidnap and torture hillbillies.

If one of them shows up at my house with an anal probe, I’ll kick his ass.

But no matter how you feel about anal probes, media attention is intense, and keeping your aliens straight can be difficult. So, here is an Alien Field Guide; I hope it will help.

Reticulans

Back in 1947, the Reticulans, commonly known as the greys, landed in Florida and made a deal with Uncle Sam. They would give us technology in exchange for access to human test subjects. Uncle Sam was in a real Catch-22. If he said yes, the greys would have carte blanche to torture U.S. civilians. If he said no, the greys would end up giving tech to the Ruskies. Uncle Sam said yes and has been trying to cover it up ever since.

Some people claim to have been abducted by greys. Maybe I’m a bit odd, but these horrific tales make me laugh. They remind me of what the gazelles must have felt like on “Wild Kingdom.” No wonder the greys think it’s okay to capture and tag free-range humans.

Greys come in two types. One tall, thin, Marlin Perkins “I’m in charge” type is usually seen with a bunch of shorter, pixie-like “watch as Jim tries to insert the anal probe into Cartman” types.

Pleiadeans

In 1948, the Pleiadeans landed in Florida and told Uncle Sam that he had really screwed up. The greys were planning to take over the Earth. The Pleiadeans offered to get rid of the infestation, but Uncle Sam had to lead a worldwide spiritual renaissance and dismantling of nukes. Uncle Sam laughed, then said no.

But the Pleiadeans came back in 1972 and hung out with a guy named Billy Meyers. The original Meyers material included audio recordings, metal samples, detailed star charts, and thousands of photos and video frames that to this day defy debunking. There is fake Meyers stuff out there, so be careful.

The Pleiadeans have elfin features, with ears set low on the skull, and small pointy chins. Unfortunately, they tend toward long-winded diatribes on human spiritual development. But I’ll take that over an anal probe any day.

Siri

Not much is known about these guys from the Dog Star. What we do know is that they have been given credit for Atlantis, the Pyramids, the Incan Highway, the Face on Mars, and those really enormous line drawings of animals that can only be seen from the air. The Atlantis thing is kind of iffy, so we’ll have to wait until the Greeks release their findings. If you hadn’t heard, Greek oceanographers and archaeologists found Atlantis two years ago. Right where Plato said it was.

And from what the history books say, Plato didn’t frown on the occasional anal probe himself.

Deros

Also known as the Nazi Hell Creatures From Below The Hollow Earth. Rumor has it that Hitler and his Thule (pronounced tool) Society buddies tried to recruit the Deros as allies prior to WWII. Representatives from both sides met at a Hollow Earth entry point in northern Greenland, where the Deros promptly announced themselves as the master race, then killed and ate Hitler’s hand-picked envoy.

I’ve always thought the whole Dero thing was just so much garbage. They’re supposed to be ultra-violent, hideously ugly munchkins that live in a vast underground maze, hating the humans that infest the uberworld. Whatever, Deros don’t worry me.

But I am concerned about Greenland. Does the government really expect us to believe this island is perfectly flat? No geographical features at all? And why is it always distorted, made to look so big when it really isn’t?

Illegal

Most people are familiar with illegal aliens from Mexico. But what about the hundreds of Canadians that sneak across our northern border every year?

What to do if you are abducted

Shoot first and ask questions later. If you blow an alien’s brains out, the corpse could be used to confirm everyone’s worst nightmare. There really are extra-terrestrial sadistic proctologists. Countless thousands of everyday citizens have suffered a brutal backdoor defilement and then had all memory of the event erased.

If you are being abducted, chances are pretty good that something really uncomfortable is about to happen. If this sounds like your idea of a good time, then by all means, order yourself a doormat.

 

 

Question Everything

by Catherine E. Twohill

 

Waiting. Shifting from one foot to the other. Leaning against the cold tile walls, my backside is growing numb. Come to think of it, my hands are, too.

Originally, I was only here to be a spectator. A witness. You know, everyone loves to see what’s going on—better than the evening news. The naked eye beats the electronic eye any day. Rubberneckers. Slowing down in false tribute to safety. We only get peeved when we’re in a hurry, otherwise, we’ll slow down, too. Just for a glimpse. Is it gruesome? Is it bloody? Do I know anyone

But now I’m not so sure I’m a spectator any longer. I’ve been waiting too long and have seen nothing that should be seen. By definition then, I’m a “waiter.” Would you care for fresh ground pepper, sir? Just say when.

Concentration camp detainee is the mood of the moment. It’s part of the fashion scene and reflected in the eyes of my fellow waiters. Unable to feel. Uncertain of the future. Unaware of our fate. Oh wait—we’re moving. Our hollow line marches forward and the doorway ahead becomes clearer. As does the sound.

Click click click click click click thwump

Brows furrow. Heads turn sideways, swiveling question marks.

Click click click click click click thwump

Straining toe-to-nose to see above the crowd, I catch sight of the source. A large bull’s eye with a wooden arm resting in the center hangs on the far wall visible through the doorway. An attendant stands beside it. Respectfully solemn. Robotically, he turns toward the device and pulls the arm downward in one fluid movement. He’s well practiced. The arm locks into its own mechanism and, after a moment’s hesitation, begins its methodical trip upward, one click at a time.

THWUMP

To the average spectator, the sound means nothing but to me, the waiter, it now means everything. This is it. This is how it happens. Accidents don’t do it. Cancer doesn’t either. Neither do guns, suicide, AIDS, or bad shellfish. When it’s your time, you’re herded into a great line and forced to stand in a dark clammy corridor—not unlike the hall leading to your high school gymnasium—and made to wait. Wait for the thwump.

I wonder if everyone else in this line knows why they’re here. Probably not. After all, I’m pretty darn clever. More clever than most. But I suppose if I were truly clever, I wouldn’t be here in the first place.

Or perhaps I’m mistaken. How could this be right? Why would I be here? I’m young, strong, and healthy. My number cannot possibly be up. I’ve got way too much going on to be here right now. Is this like jury duty? Can I get a waiver or something?

Excuse me, but who might be in charge? I believe a terrible mistake has been made. You see, my life is finally on the right track, things are going very well and I’d like a little more time to see how everything turns out.

Damn it! Who is responsible for this? I promise you, heads will roll. You have NO idea who you’re dealing with, here. Don’t make me come back there.

Okay, I’ll make you a deal. If you let me step outside for some fresh air, I promise I’ll come back. Really. I just have some unfinished business to attend to. My mother always said, “When you start something, you’d best be prepared to finish it.” So, how come I can’t?

No one’s listening. No one cares.

The line is narrowing and dwindling down to just me. I’m not sure now if I’m going with the flow or if I really want this to happen. Rapid eye movement is a tricky state—is it a somnambulist’s bliss or cold, hard reality? We all want to know what happens when we die. Will we remain cognizant of the world around us or will we be thrust into a world beyond our own in sound, smell, and touch. What about those who die and return to their corporeal state to tell tales? Are those stories only so because they came back? Is the experience different if your ticket is punched for a return trip? And what if it happens within a dream? I’ve heard that if you experience death during sleep, you will die in reality.

The room is much too bright. The blinding fluorescent light descends from massive fixtures flooding it into a sterile cube. Dozens of men without faces line the cinder block and tile walls, politely whispering their condolences to anyone who will tolerate their banality. They are the disposers; cleanly and efficiently ridding society of the festering remains.

In the center of the room sits a large wooden chair connected by overhead wires to the bull’s eye on the far wall. As I walk to the chair, one irony-laden thought exists: I’m going to remember this for the rest of my life. What a story this is going to make!

Do I subconsciously know that this is not really happening? Am I dreaming? It’s all so real, I’m not certain any longer.

Oh my God, he’s just pulled the arm down. Why is everyone staring at me? Don’t you all have something better to do? Go rubberneck somewhere else and leave me alone. This is my moment; let me experience it in its finality.

Click click

Death. I’m not sure that I’m ready to embrace it yet. This is unbelievable—it’s happening so fast and there’s no time left to stop it.

Click click click

Life. No matter how you look at it, death is the final reality. So, go with the flow, huh?

Click click thwump

Cold. Like a dry ice fog on a warm summer’s day. Am I floating? I can’t tell. Perhaps I’m only riding on a cloud of percale and down. A 200-thread count nimbus to call my very own.

 

Hector the H2O

by Rob Balder

 

A hundred and nine thousand years passed relatively quickly for Hector the H2O. That’s the mercy of being solid; you are in a low-energy state so you sleep most of the time.

He had been bouncing and singing in the troposphere, enjoying all of the interesting molecules he was meeting on a millisecond basis. But as he slid into a low-pressure system over what would become Newfoundland, he started to slow down. Molecules he met began to hang around for socially uncomfortable spans of time. Eventually he met Brenda, who wouldn’t go away no matter how often he mentioned how late it was getting. Phil and Delilah soon followed, bringing Habib, Jermaine and Cassie with them. Hector couldn’t get rid of any of them.

But he was getting too tired to care. The snowflake they were forming coalesced and fell onto the white wastes of Greenland. A week later, a second snowstorm covered them. Over the millennia, the weight of subsequent snowfalls would squeeze them into the densest ice pack on Earth. Hector took the first of many long naps.

Spend a thousand-odd centuries with any six other people and you are going to get tired of their stories, no matter how much you sleep. Brenda had one about the time she came out in a stream of urine from a lioness on the Serengeti, was assimilated into a growing strand of grass, got eaten by a wildebeest and absorbed into a fat cell, then the wildebeest was hunted down and eaten…and she found herself back in the exact same lioness. The times Hector had heard this gripping story numbered in the seven figures.

Macques

Illustration by J. Andrew World

Phil had one about being inside an overripe berry, one of a patch that was eaten by some passing macaques. The macaques were so intoxicated by the berries that the whole tribe followed their leader off a sixty-foot cliff and into the Mekong River. After a thousand centuries, he still couldn’t quite get through this story without cracking up.

Delilah had unfortunately spent the better part of four billion years trapped in porous seabed rock, until gradual upthrusting finally released her in a cloud of steam from an Andean volcano. She was socially hopeless. Her stories mostly involved the subtle societal interactions among colonies of anaerobic bacteria. Normally silent, when she got to the end of a story she would bust out in snorts and giggles, while the six of them looked at each other and rolled their hydrogens.

Butch was snotty, Jermaine was aloof, and Habib was so eager to agree with everyone that everybody wanted to choke him. Cassie… Well, Cassie was actually a D2O; her hydrogens were deuterium isotopes. But God forbid you’d use the term “heavy water” around her. She would launch into a diatribe about stereotyping people based solely on their physical appearance. One of her monologues could go on for a week, and usually ended with her bawling inconsolably, while the six of them tried vainly to reassure her that she really “didn’t look all that heavy.”

Then the day came when Hector awoke to the crash of a drill bit. A phalanx of diamond molecules, rude and cliquish as always, plowed through their little social circle without so much as an excuse-me. Phil, Brenda, Delilah, Habib, Jermaine, and Cassie were gone. Hector knew he would probably never see them again. As he tumbled along a groove in the stainless-steel coring bit, he did a happy, happy dance.

 

Hector emerged from the tube into light, the first he had seen since his imprisonment. It excited him. A parka-clad researcher lopped off a section of core sample with a fine-toothed diamond handsaw and laid the piece beside three others in an insulated carrying case. Hector was right on the surface of the core sample, and struggled to wiggle free and sublimate into the surrounding air. It was too cold in the tent enclosure, though. The case lid slammed shut, leaving Hector stuck to three strange molecules named Sanjay, Patsy, and Spike.

 

During the fifteen weeks they spent in storage, Hector kept his new friends endlessly amused. The others had not been separated in the drilling, except to lose somebody named Oliver, whom they couldn’t stand anyway. He regaled them with stories of his time in the seas of the Cambrian Era, explaining the more sordid aspects of trilobite reproductive habits with wicked comic timing.

At least, Hector felt they were amused. After a while he began to suspect that Sanjay was humoring him, and the others were going along.

So it was with relief that when the case was opened, a gust of warm breath provided all the energy Hector needed to escape the uncomfortable social confines of ice.

“Um, bye guys,” he said. He was pretty sure they snickered.

 

The breath which freed him had been expelled by Dr. Noel Gatlin of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the very individual who had ordered the core samples to be taken. The senior climatologist was leaning over and closely examining the cylinders of ice, and on his subsequent intake of breath, Hector was sucked into his sinus cavity and firmly plastered to a wall of mucus.

Hector was in warm, gooey ecstasy. Only a few times in his long life had he enjoyed the sensation of being mucous. It gave him the freedom of being liquid without the hectic bump-and-grind. It was warmer than almost any lake or ocean, but without the spastic pace of being steam. He sighed, and slowly circulated through the glorious layer of slime.

 

MacD

Illustration by J. Andrew World

Hector spent the day in Dr. Gatlin’s sinuses, bumping around and chatting with any molecule who’d even say hi to him. Most of the proteins he ran into were too wrapped up in their complex agendas to even notice him. He ran into a couple of enzymes who picked him up and tossed him around like a Frisbee™. After so many centuries of having to keep still, this was actually a lot of fun.

But all good things must end eventually. There are two major exits from the human sinus, and Hector was ejected at 200 MPH out the most obvious one. Dr. Gatlin, allergic to dust mites, had sneezed while standing in line at a neighborhood McDonald’s restaurant.

Released as part of a droplet into the warm, moist indoor air, Hector was a little disappointed but still happy to be free. He exchanged brief goodbyes with the other H2Os as their droplet evaporated a few centimeters before it reached the floor behind the register.

Swept up in the rising air from the floor heater, Hector swirled around behind the counter, was inhaled and immediately exhaled by two different employees, and then was drawn near the shake machine.

In one sudden and unpleasant moment, Hector came in contact with the frigid nozzle and immediately condensed. Suddenly he felt cold and sluggish, and couldn’t think straight. Over the next minute or so, countless other water molecules experienced the same problem and began collecting on the nozzle, slowly forming a drop. It seemed that they were fated to fall the 15 inches to the drainage pan, but at that moment someone ordered a strawberry shake. As the shake was dispensed, Hector’s droplet of condensation fell right into the cup.

The shake was a special treat for Jimmy French, age 3, who had finally demonstrated to his parents his mastery of the flush toilet. McDonald’s is the universal place to celebrate such an accomplishment. Jimmy happily consumed about half of his shake by drinking out of the cup with both hands and the lid off. The other half ended up on the table, the floor, the high chair, Jimmy’s clothes, and Jimmy’s face.

As fate would have it, Hector was in the half of the shake which made it into Jimmy’s gastrointestinal tract. Hector found himself being churned around the little stomach with a thick crowd of other water molecules, plus a large number of sugars, fats and proteins. The enzymes in Jimmy’s stomach borrowed him in a number of different chemical operations. Hector thought it was all very interesting.

Before too long, Hector was ushered by peristalsis past the pylorus and into the small intestine. He made it about four feet before he started feeling uncomfortable with how many other waters were around him. He had an overwhelming urge to move himself somewhere where water was less concentrated. As soon as he had a chance, he shouldered his way through the semipermeable membrane of one of Jimmy’s intestinal villi. Hector was now part of Jimmy’s bloodstream.

 

If the pace in the GI tract was brisk, in the bloodstream it was absolutely frantic. Hydrostatic pressure first forced him into small veins, then larger ones. He was jostled along until he reached the vena cava, then the right atrium of Jimmy’s heart. He was then drawn into the right ventricle, where he was forcefully pumped out the pulmonary artery and into Jimmy’s lungs.

Before long, he reached an alveolus, a tiny sac where gasses are exchanged. This was an opportunity for Hector to escape back into the surrounding air as Jimmy exhaled. But like most of the water in the bloodstream, Hector stayed put and continued to circulate.

Still, Hector was not fated to remain in Jimmy’s bloodstream for long. Less than two days after he was part of that strawberry shake, Hector’s “fantastic voyage” took him through the convolutions of a nephron in Jimmy’s right kidney. Suddenly, a pair of sodium ions grabbed him like military police and escorted him across a membrane and into a glomerular capsule. Hector asked if they were sure they knew what they were doing.

“We’re positive,” they replied.

 

From the nephron Hector passed from the collecting duct through the renal papillae and into the renal pelvis, another collection point. Hector had been turned into urine a few times before, and he always took it hard, like he was being kicked out of an amusement park. He was forced down a ureter and into Jimmy’s bladder, which was already full and making Jimmy start to get fussy.

This was problematic for Jimmy’s parents, because the family was returning to their home in the Massachusetts countryside after spending a very full day at the Franklin Park Zoo. They were almost there, with no convenient toilet stops remaining. As new as Jimmy was to the mastery of the toilet procedure, they knew that failing to get him to one before he let fly could become a trauma he’d be discussing with a therapist in thirty years’ time.

Jimmy’s dad took up the banner. Stomping the minivan’s pedal, he tore ass over the gravel road which led to their driveway. He was in a race against time.

If anything, the race ended in a tie. Somewhere around half of those unfortunate molecules in Jimmy’s urine ended up in the toilet. Jimmy’s parents had a lot of work to do.

But Hector left them behind with a single flush. He had ended up in the bowl, and now he raced down the pipes. In a couple of minutes, he was dumped into the septic tank.

 

There were any number of fascinating organic molecules to meet in the tank, but Hector didn’t stay long. The system pumped him out into the septic field in the yard, where he sank quickly into the soil.

Being in soil was always interesting to him. It was a game to see how he could find the quickest and shortest route through the mineral boulders and other particles, like rock-climbing in reverse.

Since the Frenches’ house sat low in a valley, it was only a few days before he had made it into the water table. Pressure from all of the waters seeping in behind him pushed him along. Eventually he rose up through a spring and into a little stream.

In a moment he was moving very fast, with a lot of liquid water. They bounced and swirled and babbled down over the stones of the stream bed. It was the most fun he’d had in a good part of an eon.

The stream joined a brook, and the brook met the Quinapoxett River. At the river’s mouth near Oakdale, Hector passed through a hydroelectric generator. This was confusing and turbulent, but it didn’t hurt or anything. When it was over, he was in the still, fresh waters of the Wachusett Reservoir.

 

Hector spent eight happy months circulating slowly through the fresh water. It was good to feel natural again, to feel that he was among his own people, in his own element. He blended right back into the water community. It was almost as good as being the ocean.

But to be water on the planet Earth is to cycle and to move. Hector’s moving day came when a stray current brought him by the intake at the hydroelectric plant at the opposite end of the reservoir, near Clinton. He was drawn through the turbines once more, and then suddenly there were miles and miles of pipes to travel.

The pipes led to a plant in Southborough, where suddenly a whole load of fluoride, sodium carbonate and CO2 were dumped in with them. The fluoride molecules were apologetic, seeking to bridge the divide between the molecules. The sodium carbonates and CO2s couldn’t care less.

After crossing the many miles of the Hultman Aqueduct, they all ended up at the hard-to-pronounce Weston Reservoir. There they were filtered and, disgustingly, chlorinated. Hector had actually been enjoying all of the bacteria. They were full of fascinating organic molecules who were working on various complicated tasks that he could help with. Nothing kills that kind of party like a bunch of chlorines crashing it. Just to express his annoyance, he helped some vandals corrode a pipe.

“The Universal Solvent Rules!” they wrote in rust.

More pipes and holding tanks shuffled him around, until he was finally released from the plant and sent down a water main toward who-knew-what.

For many days, Hector flowed along an ever narrowing system of pipes. Each junction and pumping substation he passed was a decision point, a logical OR-gate which led him inexorably to his unknown destination. It was not like anything that had ever happened to him. Hector’s whole life had been spent in little cracks and crannies in Nature. This whole trip he was on was not natural; it was about civilization. Civilization hadn’t even existed when he’d snowed on Greenland.

Eventually Hector passed into some truly strange plumbing. He was inside a narrow coil of copper tubing. He came to a stop, and waited patiently.

All around him were fellow H2Os, jostling around at a comfortable room-temperature pace. He had time to briefly meet thousands and thousands of others, exchanging pleasantries and instantly forgetting names, the way he imagined only water molecules must do.

There were a few minerals and impurities in the mixture, most of which bobbed around miserably, like retired bookkeepers in a mosh pit. Hector gleefully joined a bunch who were knocking around a big fleck of charcoal in a pick-up game of Brownianball. The charcoal attempted to preserve the remainder of its dignity with a glum silence.

Every few minutes there would be a sudden rush of pressure and they would all move along the tube at once. Hector didn’t know what all of this was about, but he figured he would find out in due time.

He did, and it wasn’t pleasant. On the last rush, the copper tube emptied into a small chamber surrounded by a heating element. A wave of searing heat stabbed into the water, and pandemonium broke out. The loose and friendly crowd suddenly became a panicked, screaming mob, shoving and trampling, punching and kicking and elbowing each other in a vain attempt to get anywhere but right where they were.

But nobody got anywhere. The heat and the pressure just kept building. Hector had not experienced anything this profoundly unpleasant in all his four billion years on Earth. It reminded him of his earliest memory, when he’d arrived as part of the cometary bombardment. All those ages ago, he had awakened from the mindless cold sleep of deep space to find himself instantly boiled away into the thin and nasty atmosphere of the primordial planet. It hurt like being born, and perhaps that’s when he had been. Prior to that, he had no clear memory at all.

The hellish riot in the chamber went on and on. In this high-energy state, Hector crashed around like a cannonball, slamming everyone with all his weight, and taking a beating right back. The pressure rose to an excruciating 220 PSI. His time sense was distorted. In some ways, the few moments he was there seemed to last longer than all of his recent millennia in Greenland. But it did end.

 

Starbucks

Illustration by J. Andrew World

After finishing up a conference call, Kenneth Czonka decided to grab a cup of coffee. He worked for a successful little research and consulting firm which specialized in helping major construction companies write their environmental impact statements. Their well-appointed corporate offices were stocked with expensive gadgetry, and the employee break room even had an espresso machine. Kenneth absently fixed himself a hazelnut latte, while mulling over a tricky bit of language in an email he was composing to a deputy undersecretary at the EPA.

 

Hector was confused and agitated, and not at all pleased to be part of a hot beverage. The espresso grounds he had been forced through had released all kinds of freaky molecules into their water-only party. There were tannins and essential oils and amino acids and some really bizarre ones that Hector couldn’t identify but who muttered incomprehensibly in thick accents. The lot of them had been dumped into a Styrofoam cup, and then suddenly had to deal with a whole crowd of obnoxious lactoses and fats from a swirling vortex of steamed milk. After that, the simple carbohydrates showed up, babbling dimwits that they are, in the form of the hazelnut syrup. It was like a billion busloads of special-ed students simultaneously arriving at the zoo.

Hector decided it was time to be elsewhere.

As convection brought him around again to the surface, he put all of his angry energy to use and heaved himself into the air, evaporating out of the cup in a peal of steam. All of the H2Os in the steam screamed together in triumph. Their mass prison break was a success!

It took him almost no time to calm down and relax again. He drifted and bobbed in the air of the break room for an hour or two, thinking about everything he had been through since getting free of the ice pack. He’d certainly have some more stories for Cassie and the others if he ever ran into them again.

He considered the mind-walloping odds against that possibility and surprised himself by feeling a little sad. The bonds between water molecules are chemical and made to be broken, he supposed.

 

He was very swiftly reminded that new bonds will form. Jenny Gumble, personal assistant to the CIO, opened the door to the office freezer to grab her Healthy Choice™ turkey dinner. Hector swirled inside and before he knew what had happened he found himself stuck. He was now a freezer-burn crystal on the part of a fried chicken drumstick that was not well-covered by its aluminum foil. He fell asleep at once.

 

A little flame-war developed in the office around the subject of the chicken drumstick in the freezer, and the many other leftovers “from home” which had been orphaned in the office fridge. The emails were variously snide, passionate, dramatic, bombastic, resentful, subversive, and even mutinous. There were dark implications: hints at class warfare, suggestions of blackmail, and aspersions on character and personal habits. The drama played itself out over 18 grueling days. It ended in one dismissal, one resignation, one spontaneous affair, and the mortal wounding of the young company’s entire corporate culture. As a snowflake forms around a speck of dust, this drama formed around that drumstick.

Frozen and sleepy as he was, Hector hardly even noticed the 18 days as they passed. He barely got the names of the other waters next to him in the freezer-burn crystal.

As the War of the Drumstick reached its climax, technical writer Angelie Bauman emptied the entire contents of the refrigerator into the trash can, including at least $30 worth of her own food. The drumstick she grabbed and marched out of the break room.

Shrieking a surprisingly coherent and pointed string of obscenities, she flung it overhand. It sailed over the heads of her cube-mates, in the general direction of her email archnemesis Denny Plimpton’s corner office. In midair, the foil came off and fluttered on top of the monitor of an astonished temp. The frozen drumstick missed the office door by several feet and hit the window with a loud “pung!”

 

Life as a freezer-burn crystal had been dull, but life as a window-glass fried-chicken smudge wasn’t much more interesting. Hector was warm and awake again, but found he couldn’t move around a lot. This was because a whole bunch of lipids, those greasy types who like to shove little waters around, had formed a blocking layer. Like heavy security at a concert, they wouldn’t let anybody through to evaporate.

Hector bobbed over to one of them. “Um, excuse me,” he said, “but could I just—”

“Ah!” it interrupted. “LIPID!”

“But I just need to—”

“LIPID!”

“C’mon I just—”

“LIPID!”

“But—”

“www.LIPID.com!”

Hector stared at the lipid for a long, tense moment. “Listen. I—”

“WHEN a problem comes along, yoooou must LIPID!” the lipid sang.

“Oh, never mind,” muttered Hector, and wandered off.

“LIPID good!” taunted the lipid after him. Hector heard him high-fiving the other lipids.

Opposite the lipid cordon, Hector bumped into an even denser and more antisocial bunch — the silicons of the glass. You couldn’t talk to them, and you couldn’t budge them. There was just no getting through silicons when they were being a pane.

So he waited there until late at night, when a man on the cleaning staff came and cleaned the smudge off the window. By coincidence, his name was also Hector. Hector the janitor sprayed an ammonia cleaner onto the glass, which wasn’t pleasant for Hector the water. And it was absolute murder on the lipids. Hector the water watched in horror as they died by the billions at the hands of vicious ammonia molecules. Then he was wiped up into Hector the janitor’s grimy paper towel, and thrown into a plastic trash bag.

The towel was awful for Hector, and there was nowhere he could go. The fibers just kept clutching and groping at him with their thirsty capillary action. He was drawn along a long channel filled to capacity with unfortunate water molecules like himself. They formed a seemingly endless queue, each waiting to reach the edge of the paper and evaporate. Hector’s turn never came.

 

It was five years of Hell before an advanced team of seepage managed to breach the bag, now buried under a hundred tons of garbage in a major landfill, and rescue Hector from his cell by helping bacteria dissolve the last of the towel. When they reached him he was babbling, and had the shakes. The seepage took him along, squeezing through the cracks between soil particles and dripping, dripping down into the earth. By the time Hector reached the water table, he almost remembered who and what he was.

He had a long, slow convalescence in the water table. There were endless refugees from the landfill, some of whom had been trapped for much longer than he had. For months, the lot of them trudged along slowly through the institutional gray corridors of porous bedrock, wailing and muttering.

After a while, Hector began talking to some of the waters who were worse of than he was, helping them work through it. He was finally starting to recover.

 

And then, one day, he bumped into something that was not rock, but organic. With a horrible flashback to the paper towel, he was grabbed and yanked through a pore in the thing, then drawn ever inward by that same sinister capillary action. He screamed, despite himself.

But before long he realized where he was. He knew that he had been here many times before. The thing which had absorbed him was a taproot, which belonged to a 2-month old maple sapling. As he squeezed along slowly, he began to feel the life around him, to feel a part of the whole living system.

He knew that if he could reach a leaf, he would probably evaporate through a pore and be free to roam the atmosphere, free to be rain, or even ocean again. As much as he wanted these things, he realized that he needed something more right now.

And so, before he had even reached a branch, Hector shouldered his way into a crack in a cell wall, and faced a cell membrane.

“LIPID!” said the lipids of the membrane.

“Screw you,” said Hector. They were much weaker than the lipids of the grease smudge had been, and he rammed his way past them. On the other side, inside the tree cell, there were lipids who were just as interested in keeping him in.

He made his way through the cytoplasm, past various molecules more complex than a simple H2O, and who seemed perplexed by his sense of purpose. Near the nucleus, he found an RNA and told it respectfully that he was reporting for work.

“I want to be a part of this tree, sir,” said Hector. “I want it to grow, and thrive, and grow old…as trees go. It’s crazy out there. I need to be a part of something stable, but not stable like the ice pack, stable but growing and improving, alive and beneficial. Do you understand, sir?”

The huge RNA nodded sagely, and put him to work.