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Hat Trick

It was the sort of shop that would sell you a cursed monkey’s paw and, assuming you survived long enough to return it, charge you a restocking fee. Astrid went inside anyway. To be fair, they probably wouldn’t even know if it was cursed. Most of these shops couldn’t tell what was real magic and what wasn’t.

She had trouble finding the place. Elyrick’s Curiosities moved around a lot, apparently. Their current location used to be a Hot Topic (Calidus). Before that, they were next to an Apple (Mandrake) store in Paramount Square (Colossus Plaza).

There it was again. That mental double vision thing. She’d had it all her life... or possibly only five years, depending on how you looked at it. Astrid had a lot of experience looking at things multiple ways. Five years ago, the magic went away... or possibly never existed. Astrid shook her head, trying to get a handle on reality, this reality, such as it was. Forget the other one, the old one. It was long gone.

***

But Astrid couldn’t forget the other reality, the one where magic was commonplace. This one, the current real reality, was, let’s face it, a bit dull. The other reality was bright, colorful, magical. If the other reality was a tapestry; this one was its canvas backing: dull but functional. Five years ago, the tapestry unraveled, leaving just this.

Five years ago, nearly everything changed. And nearly everything stayed the same. Pentacles became Starbucks. Calidus became Hot Topic. Magics and thaumology became physics and technology. Nearly everything in the old world had a counterpart in the new. Nearly everthing. (Laurel)

Astrid remembered the unicorns. Other people must have too, but not as clearly as she did. Unicorns were not those pretty white ponies that children and fuzzy-minded adults remembered. Unicorns – real unicorns – were huge, ugly, smelly, stupid creatures. As big as Clydesdales, stubborn as mules, dumb as rocks. And vicious! But what would you expect from a beast with a big fucking spike growing out of its forehead? It’s not as if that thing’s for show or something.

Unicorns were notorious for charging at anything that attacked them, or taunted them, or looked at them funny, or – let’s face it – existed. Big, dumb and mean. On the other hand, their horns practically crackled from the magic stored in them. On the scale of one to ten on the magical potential scale, unicorn horn ticked over to eleven. Get your hands on a unicorn horn – preferably without an angry unicorn attached – and you were set for life. The animals were hunted to near extinction by the time... by the time things changed. Astrid remembered seeing one at the zoo once. She also remembered it being a rhinoceros.

Which one was the real world? Before, if she’d mentioned rhinos or computers or nuclear power, people looked at her funny, questioned her sanity. Now, the same thing would happen if she mentioned unicorns or scryers or thaumic power. Astrid learned to keep her mouth shut about such things.

***

There were places like Elyrick’s Curiosities everywhere, usually in tourist towns. And all of them sold useless crap, stuff about as magical as a boiled potato. But every now and then...

A bored-looking teenager – black clothes, black hair, black lipstick, black nail polish – slumped behind the counter, staring at his phone.

“Hi,” Astrid said, crouching down in an attempt to make eye contact. “I’m looking for magic hats.”

The boy pointed to his left. “Aisle three,” he muttered, not bothering to look up.

Astrid headed in the direction the black nail polish had indicated.

***

Five years. Five years ago the world turned upside down. Something or someone had destroyed the magical world so thoroughly that it had ceased to ever have existed. History had rewritten itself to compensate. Astrid remembered it, though. Somehow, she remembered both worlds. One was the real world, and one was the fantasy world. And she remembered the exact moment the two traded places.

She’d been arguing politics with her sister. Laurel could be annoying at times. Where Astrid fumbled and stumbled and blundered her way through life, Laurel glided through like a ballroom dancer. Astrid was plagued by hallucinations of another reality – this reality – making it difficult to get through the day without becoming completely disoriented. Laurel, on the other hand, was so well-grounded, you’d think someone had nailed her feet to the floor. Laurel was smart and popular and successful. Astrid was a complete fuck-up. She couldn’t even do the simplest of spells.

Oh, the potions helped. The stuff they had her on kept the hallucinations to a minimum, but there were side effects. She’d nod off at inopportune times. Sometimes she’d completely lose track of where she was or what she was doing. Holding down a job proved impossible. Her head only cleared when the potions wore off, and then the hallucinations would start back up.

She and Laurel were arguing about the Affiliated Spectres decision, and Astrid kept accidentally saying “Citizens United” instead. Laurel was slowly and calmly trying to explain the significance of the Supreme Court decision, and what its implications were to the global economy. And then, in mid sentence, she vanished.

Laurel’s silver bracelet clattered to the floor where she had stood. Astrid picked it up and stared at it, turning it over in her hands. Her sister, along with the entire world – what Astrid had been accustomed to thinking of as the real world – disappeared.

***

Astrid headed to aisle three, grabbing a handful of plastic spiders from a bin as she passed. Most of the stuff in this shop – like most “magic” shops in this reality – was cheap crap. Almost none of it contained any real magic. Dozens of crystal pendants hung on a display rack. She doubted more than one or two of them did anything useful.

The crystal hanging around her neck, though? It was the real deal. And, based on the warm glow it was giving off, something in this shop had magic. A lot of magic.

***

At first, Astrid had thought she’d gone off the deep end. Full-on, wall-to-wall hallucination. Her fantasy world – what all the doctors told her was the fantasy world – was now right there, in her face twenty-four seven. The real world, with its scryers and unicorns and potions, was gone. She spent some time wondering if she was actually locked up somewhere, imagining the whole thing.

Eventually, she learned to accept this world as the real one. She found she didn’t even need to keep taking antipsychotics, this world’s equivalent of the anti-hallucination potions. Other than brief double-vision flashes and the “false” memories, she could get through the day just fine. And it got easier every day.

Laurel was still gone, though. She hadn’t just disappeared; she’d never existed. No one but Astrid remembered her. Not even her parents, her own parents, remembered Laurel ever existing. In the blink of an eye, Astrid had become an only child.

(Excerpt from “Hex Code”)


Edge Condition

The house was haunted, they said. So Jacob got them to knock five thousand off the asking price. Pretty sweet deal, overall.

Louise from Brody Realty had been pretty up front about the whole haunted thing. “Oh, yes,” she’d explained. “Six owners in the past two years. No one’s owned it for more than six months at a time, and most haven’t actually lived in it for more than a couple weeks.”

Apparently the original owner, Thelma Brittain, had died in the house. Nothing suspicious or violent or anything like that, just an old woman with a heart condition. Her children had the house cleaned out and put up for sale. And that was the end of it.

It was only after the new owners, Rosalyn and Tom Ayers, moved in that anyone noticed that something was not quite right with the house. Strange noises, voices seemingly coming from nowhere... Tom swore he saw Thelma appear in the kitchen one night. And things kept moving around on their own. Neither of them actually saw anything move, but a glass would somehow make its way out of the cabinet and into the kitchen sink overnight. Oddly, the poltergeist activity was almost entirely restricted to the kitchen and master bath, and only occurred at night.

Jacob heard all of this second hand from Louise. He wondered how exaggerated the stories had become after several retellings. On the other hand, each subsequent owner had similar stories to tell. The Fergusons, the Boons, the Tanakas, the Kauffmanns, the Kendricks...

If anything, the stories became more unbelievable with each change of ownership. Thea Kendrick claimed she actually had a conversation with the spectre of Thelma Brittain. To be fair, the “conversation” consisted entirely of a single exchange in which Thelma looked up, said “What the fuck?” and Thea replied “Gwaaaaugh!” while backpedaling rapidly out of the bathroom.

Jacob wondered why a ghost would be sitting on a toilet in the first place. You’d think one of the few advantages of being dead would be never having to deal with inconvenient biological processes. Not that any of that mattered. He’d chalked up the whole thing to superstition, overactive imaginations, and people’s tendency to feed off each other’s stories.

It wasn’t until he’d been moved in for about three weeks that Jacob began to suspect that something about the house wasn’t quite right.

For those first three weeks, he found it easy to rationalize the little things. Footsteps in the middle of the night? Probably just the house settling. Disembodied voices? Imagination, or the neighbors talking too loud, or maybe someone driving by with a podcast turned up too high. Things moving around or disappearing overnight? He’d just forgotten where he’d put it down. Sure. That was all it was.

It helped that it always seemed to happen late at night, usually when he was asleep, or about to fall asleep. Obviously the stories from the previous owners were causing his mind to play tricks on itself. Obviously.

And that worked just fine, right up until Thursday night.

Thursday night he couldn’t get to sleep. Brain just wouldn’t shut down. Stupid brain.

Around 2:00am, he headed downstairs to take some melatonin. He wasn’t sure if the pills actually did anything useful or not. Maybe they did. Maybe it was just a placebo response. At this point, though, he really didn’t give a shit. He just needed to get a bit of sleep.

As he entered the kitchen, he found that someone had beat him to it. There, standing at the sink, was a woman filling a glass of water from the faucet.

“Excuse me,” Jacob said. Well, what was there to say? She looked like an ordinary person, getting an ordinary glass of water. OK, yes, she happened to be in his house, getting a drink from his sink.

On the other hand, she didn’t look like a ghost. For one thing, she seemed perfectly solid. Jacob had always assumed ghosts – not that ghosts actually existed or anything – would be a bit more translucent. Also, weren’t ghosts supposed to wear gowns or suits or something? The person in front of him – assuming it was a person – was dressed in a ratty old t-shirt, Batgirl boxers, and bear claw slippers. Seemed a bit undignified for someone who’s slipped off their mortal coil and crossed over to the ethereal plane – or whatever it was that dead people were supposed to do.

Despite this incongruity, the apparent ghost woman, upon hearing Jacob’s voice, turned toward him, gasped in surprise, dropped her glass and flickered out of existence. The entire span of time, from Jacob spotting the woman, to her disappearance, couldn’t have been much more than five seconds. It felt like much longer. He could remember every detail of the woman’s disappearance, how she appeared to blur, smear sideways, jitter up and down, then vanish, even though that part had only spanned a fraction of a second at most.

The glass she’d been holding bounced of the linoleum, splashing water everywhere. If it weren’t for that, Jacob could have believed he’d imagined it. If it weren’t for the fact that he was currently on his hands and knees, blotting up water with a wad of paper towels, he might have been able to convince himself that it was all just a trick of the light, or a waking dream, or... or... something. But, no, having to clean up after some clumsy ghost who’d spilled water all over the kitchen floor gave this whole incident an air of reality that was hard to ignore.

(Excerpt from “Hex Code”)


Slasher

The killer slipped through the crowd unnoticed. Smiled. It was so easy to pass oneself off as one of these mediocrities, these things, barely more than clever apes. Pick a victim, any victim.

“Hey, you shouldn’t be walking alone after dark. Don’t you know there’s a serial killer on the loose?”

***

The Stonegate Slasher had claimed twenty victims so far. There didn’t seem to be any pattern to who he claimed. Random people: teachers, construction workers, accountants, even a police officer. No one was safe. If you happened to be walking the streets of Stonegate at night, you were a potential target.

***

“You think he’s a vampire?” Wanda suggested. “Y’know, with the whole blood-draining thing.”

The Slasher’s signature, if you could call it that, was that the victims’ blood was completely drained from their bodies. There was never more than a small spatter of blood at the scene. So, naturally, vampires were suspect.

“Oh, come on!” Marc protested. “Everyone knows modern vampires don’t kill humans. There’s plenty of alternatives to fresh human blood.”

Julienne folded her arms and huffed. “So, what, you think vampires can’t be psycho killers? I find that a bit offensive, to be honest.”

Marc blushed. “Oh! I didn’t mean to...”

Julienne laughed. “Nah, just fuckin’ with you, Marc. It’s clearly not a vampire. For one thing, slitting open the throat is so wasteful. And the cops said the victims were drugged before they were killed. No vampire would want to drink tainted blood.”

“Ooh! That’s right!” Wanda chimed in. “The blood would be full of sedative. That’d make for an unpleasant meal.”

“I’ll say,” Julienne agreed, taking another forkful of her heart and liver tartare. “Give me good old pig innards any day. At least I know these things have been killed humanely.”

Wanda, Julienne and Marc had been meeting for a late-night meal every Friday for the past two years or so, as schedules allowed. Something Offal was their go-to place. Plenty of selection for vampires and humans alike.

Vampires had been around for ages, but had only recently “come out”, venturing into human society. Some folks were still trying to come to grips with the reality of it all but, for the most part, vampires and humans got along just fine.

Something Offal had previously been a seafood restaurant, a Tex-Mex grill, a taqueria, and an Irish pub. It finally seemed to have hit its stride as a place for humans and vampires to mingle. Their hours were dusk to dawn, regardless of the season, and their menu ranged from the relatively conventional to literally “blood and guts”.

Marc had opted for (cooked) meatloaf with mashed potatoes, green beans and gravy. Wanda was being a bit more adventurous today, and had ordered pasta with sweetbread and tripe ragù.

“Still,” Marc said, “a lot of people seem to think the Slasher’s a vampire. You been getting much grief about that?”

Julienne shook her head. “I’ve got a good reputation around here. Everyone knows I don’t go in for human blood. Hell, I don’t even take donations. Besides, when there’s a serial killer on the loose, everyone immediately assumes it’s a dude. Which seems fair, if you ask me. Much more likely to be you than me.”

“Ah! But that’s just what you want us to think!” Marc joked. “It’s been you all along, hasn’t it, Julienne? Hiding in plain sight.”

“Not funny, Marc,” Wanda admonished. “I mean, how would that even work? She’d, what, drug someone, drag them into an alley, drain their blood into a container, take it home and somehow filter out the drug?”

Marc and Julienne both stared at Wanda.

“Holy shit,” Julienne whispered. “You could totally do that. I mean, maybe not filter out the drug, but maybe counteract it. Anybody know what drug the Slasher’s using?”

Marc shook his head. “Cops won’t say. They’re keeping that to themselves. I guess they want to use it as a test for false confessions.”

(Excerpt from “Hex Code”)


Tangled Web

“We’d like to speak with Dolores Crabtree,” Hopkins said.

Southers’ left eye twitched. “Ms. Crabtree does not exist,” she said.

“Nevertheless, we’d like to have a word with her,” Blandings countered.

“She won’t like it,” Delgado said. He stubbed out his cigarette, and immediately lit another.

“Nevertheless...” Blandings repeated.

Lovell stood up from his workstation. “Look, if we’ve going to get into this, I’m going to need a vacation first.” He strode over to the door marked “Exit Only” and opened it. At the same time, the door beside it, marked “Do Not Enter” opened, and a considerably more refreshed and tanned Lovell entered the room. “Much better. Now, where were we?”

Department 62 had three staff members. Always three. Always the same three. If one left, they were immediately replaced with a future self or an alternate self, whichever seemed more appropriate at the time. When one retired, they were instantly replaced by a younger alternate who’d just finished training. The separate “in” and “out” doors were necessary to avoid awkward encounters with oneself.

Most people in Temporal Auditing didn’t have access to Department 62. Hell, a lot of them didn’t know it existed. Blandings and Hopkins, on the other hand, had been given carte blanche access to investigate one Dolores Crabtree, so they immediately headed to Department 62.

Department 62 dealt in paradox management. Not preventing paradoxes, per se. Just managing them. It was their job to sift through the myriad paradoxes that popped up on near-infinite timelines, and decide which could be culled, and which needed to be preserved. It was a high-stress job, to put things mildly.

Each dealt with it in their own way. Delgado chain-smoked, Southers twitched, Lovell took big-game hunting vacations in the late Cretaceous. Whatever worked.

(Excerpt from “Hex Code”)


Adrift

Hannah reached for her keys on the kitchen table, and grabbed thin air. “Dammit! They were right here a second ago!” she cried, her voice teetering on the edge of panic.

“Relax.” Sharon picked the keys up off the counter. “They’re over here. You just got home from work. You’re tired. You forgot where you put them.”

“I did not forget where I put them!” Hannah insisted. “I know exactly where I put them. I made a note of it. But then… but then I slipped.”

“No.” Sharon closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. “Don’t start with that again.”

“You don’t believe me.” Hannah was on the verge of tears now, angry, frustrated. “You’ve never believed me. No matter how many times this happens, you always make up some excuse. Just once, try to believe what’s happening right in front of your eyes!”

“Hannah, you’re not slipping sideways in time,” Sharon said. “I mean, just think about that. It sounds so…”

Crazy?” Hannah interrupted. “Is that what you were going to say?”

“No, not that. It’s just so improbable. Things don’t just slip sideways in time. It just doesn’t happen.”

Hannah clenched her fists. “It does happen! Everything slips sideways in time. Everyone does. They just don’t notice.”

Sharon sighed. “But you do, because…”

“…because, with me, it’s more pronounced,” Hannah explained. “And it’s… it’s been getting worse.”

“Alright, alright.” Sharon pulled a mug out of the cupboard and made herself a cup of decaf. “Let’s assume for a moment that this is a real thing. We’re both logical people. How do we set up a test?”

Hannah thought about it for a moment. “Got a d20?”

“Always.” Sharon dug through the junk drawer and produced a d20 die. She handed it to Hannah.

Hannah took the die and rolled it on the table. “Seventeen,” she announced.

Sharon looked at the number. “Yep, seventeen,” she verified. “Now what?”

“Now we wait for me to slip,” Hannah replied. She stood there, staring at the die.

Sharon sat down at the table and sipped her coffee. “Any idea how long this’ll take?”

Hannah shook her head. “Not sure. It’s kind of random. Sometimes it taaaakes a while.”

Sharon noticed that odd warble in Hannah’s voice. She’s heard it a million times before, never really thought much of it. A speech impediment, or maybe just a weird personality quirk. Hannah had lots of those. What was one more? But maybe it had something to do with these imagined time slips.

“There!” Hannah announced triumphantly. “Look, it changed from five to seventeen!”

Sharon stared at Hannah, confused. “No, you rolled a seventeen. Don’t you remember?”

“No, I definitely remember rolling a five.”

“Nope. Seventeen,” Sharon insisted.

“Shit,” Hannah muttered. “This isn’t going to work. OK…”

She grabbed a pen and a pad of sticky notes. “I’m going to roll again but, this time, I’m going to write down the number and keep it on me.”

“OK,” Sharon said, “but I don’t see how that’s going to…”

“Just watch,” Hannah interrupted. She rolled the die again. “Four. OK, I’m writing the number four on this sticky. Now wait.”

More waiting. More coffee sipping.

“There!” Hannah declared. “Look, it changed from a thirteen to a four.”

“No, it was always a four,” Sharon countered. “You even said ‘I’m writing the number four on this sticky.’ I heard you say that.”

“Then how do you explain this?” Hannah asked, holding up the sticky note. “It clearly says thirteen.”

Sharon’s brow furrowed. “You must’ve written down the wrong number.”

“Why the fuck would I do that?!” Hannah shouted.

“I don’t know,” Sharon replied. She was really beginning to worry about Hannah’s emotional state. “But, Occam’s razor. The simplest explanation is usually the right one.”

“Jeez! I’m going to have to beat you over the head with this before you believe me,” Hannah sounded seriously annoyed and, frankly, a little condescending. “Let’s do this again. And this time, watch.”

She rolled the die again. “Three. Got it?”

“Got it. Three,” Sharon replied.

“And I’m writing the number three on the sticky note,” Hannah said slowly, as if to a child. “See the number three on the piece of paper?”

Sharon rolled her eyes. “Yes. I see the number.”

Hanna stood facing Sharon and slapped the note onto her chest. “Still see the number three?”

“Yes,” Sharon sighed.

“OK, now, don’t take your eyes off of it,” Hannah instructed. “Not even for a second.”

“Fine,” Sharon leaned forward and stared at the sticky note.

“OK, now we wait,” Hannah said. “The way things have been going lately, it shouldn’ttttt take too long.”

There it was again. The warble in her voice. And… oh shit. The number on the sticky note had blurred and…

“See?” Hannah exclaimed. “The die changed from eighteen to three!”

Sharon shook her head vigorously. “No, no, no. The die stayed the same. But your sticky note went blurry, and now… now it says eighteen. How did you do that?”

“THIS IS WHAT I’VE BEEN TELLING YOU ALL ALONG!” Hannah shouted. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Look, you’ve seen the evidence with your own eyes. From my perspective, the number on the die changed from eighteen to three. From your perspective, the sticky note changed from three to eighteen. No faulty memories. No trickery. You saw the number change. Do the math.

Sharon furrowed her brow. “Do it again.”




(Excerpt from “Paths Less Traveled”)



And a Star to Guide Her By

Captain Salucci glared down from her podium at the assembled division chiefs. “So, what you’re telling me is that, due to an ‘error in communication’, we’re currently unable to steer the damn ship?!”

Trent and McGee shifted uncomfortably under her gaze. McGee spoke first.

“Ma’am, Propulsion is currently in the middle of refitting our secondary thrusters,” she began. “The security protocol upgrade is on our book of work, but it’s not very high on our list of priorities.”

“Not very high on your list,” Salucci repeated. She shifted her gaze toward Trent. “And Navigation went ahead and upgraded their security protocols before Propulsion was ready?”

Trent was visibly perspiring now. “Yes ma’am,” he stammered. “We… we had an audit ticket from Security and…”

“Security,” Salucci grumbled, seeking out Slater, who was standing at the rear of the group, engrossed in whatever was on her tablet. “Slater, if you’d be so kind as to join us up here?”

Slater looked up, startled. She squeezed past her crewmates to stand beside McGee and Trent. “Ma’am?”

Salucci gestured at the Navigation Chief. “Trent here tells me you issued an audit ticket to Navigation. Something about security protocols?”

“Oh, yes ma’am!” Slater replied earnestly. “The latest protocol, QEP16384a, is recommended for all ship-critical communications. Navigation was still using QEP4096f. So, naturally…”

“Naturally, you slapped them with an audit ticket,” Salucci completed for her. “And did you issue one to Propulsion as well?”

“Yes ma’am!” Slater replied. “Obviously, it wouldn’t make sense to upgrade one side and not the other.”

Salucci nodded sagely. “Obviously. And did you take any steps to ensure that the upgrades were coordinated in such a way as to minimize communication downtime?”

Slater looked toward Trent and McGee, who completely failed to meet her gaze. “Ah, well, that’s not really m…”

“Are you aware, Chief Slater,” Salucci interrupted, “what tends to happen to people under my command who use the phrase ‘not my job’? I’m sure you’ve heard rumors.”

Slater suddenly found something very interesting on the floor and stared at it intently. “Yes ma’am,” she said quietly.

***


When she assumed captaincy of Argo thirteen years ago, Clara Salucci made sure everyone under her command understood how she felt about that phrase. Sokolov, chief of Agriculture, had been the first to make the mistake of uttering “that’s not my job” in her presence. He’d been tasked with discovering why the farm animals’ offspring were showing an increasing number of birth defects (many of which were fatal). He’d concluded that the issue was that the ship’s radiation shielding around the livestock sector was deteriorating. He’d written up a paper on the subject, and then had gone about business as usual. Shielding was someone else’s problem.

As the livestock numbers dwindled, Sokolov continued to ignore the problem, concentrating instead on maintaining food crops, which were much more resistant to the ravages of interstellar space. To his credit, though, he also spent quite a bit of effort promoting vegan diets and developing meat substitutes for the citizens of Argo.

By the time Salucci took command, livestock numbers had dropped to irrecoverable levels. She requested a status report, during which Sokolov said the aforementioned phrase. He quickly discovered that, along with the ship’s shielding not being his job, neither was Chief of Agriculture, nor any other position, for that matter.

Word spread quickly.

So, yes, Slater was acutely aware of the consequences.

(Excerpt from “Negative Space”




Bugged

Patrick unlocked his front door and stepped inside, past the coat rack, past the umbrella stand…

He didn’t have an umbrella stand. He turned back to look at it, just in time to see it collapse into a swarm and scurry out through a gap under the door. Time to call the exterminator. He texted Sybil.

Patrick: “They’re in my house!”

Sybil: “Be right there.”

Sybil was the closest to an expert on these things that Patrick knew. She had a degree in biology, wasn’t the least bit squeamish about bugs – which was a lot more than Patrick could claim about himself – and, most importantly, she believed him.

***


The first time he’d spotted them, he’d been walking from the parking garage to his office. He’d happened to be looking at a crumpled-up paper bag on the sidewalk a few feet in front of him. He wasn’t even sure why it caught his eye. Something about it just looked wrong. As he approached it, the bag began breaking apart into hundreds – or maybe thousands – of bugs, some as big as a cockroach, some almost too tiny to see. By the time he reached their location, they’d skittered away and down a nearby storm drain, their bodies fading to gray as they went.

When he got to work, he tried to explain what he’d seen to his coworkers. They just looked at him funny. Impossible, they said. Bugs don’t impersonate litter.

He’d looked it up and, yeah, they were right. There was no such thing as a bug with adaptive camouflage, at least not on this scale. And a swarm of them acting in concert to mimic a random object? That was way beyond anything ever observed. Most web searches led to dead-ends, conspiracy theory sites, or videos of octopuses disguised as coral or hermit crabs or something.

And that was the thing. An octopus was pretty smart. It could do a decent job of blending into its surroundings, aided by… what were they called again? Chromatophores? But, as far as Patrick knew, insects didn’t have anything like that. Oh, there was some new stuff about peppered moth larvae, but that was about it. And they definitely weren’t smart enough to pull off a group masquerade, even if it was just a piece of garbage.

Oh, sure, there was a lot of material out there about the collective intelligence of ants and bees. But nothing like what he’d witnessed. This was way beyond bees building hives or ants’ scent trails or even boogie-woogie aphids. It was, like the folks at work said, impossible.

He must’ve imagined it. Maybe the wind blew the paper and it crumbled to pieces before falling down the storm drain. That was it. Had to be.

But then it happened again. He was driving home, just turned down his street, happened to glance at Hilda and Manuel’s place and noticed a new garden gnome. They had an extensive collection of lawn ornaments that seemed to grow every few months. Patrick wondered if each marked a special occasion, or if it was just some odd compulsion to keep adding to the display. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the pieces chosen: gnomes, deer, a rabbit reading a book, a frog with a fishing pole. There was one point of consistency, though. No two ornaments were the same. Until now. Now there were two identical gnomes standing side-by-side.

He slammed on the brakes and dug his phone out of his pocket. As he did, the gnome on the left began to move. By the time he’d unlocked the phone and started recording, the statue had almost completely dissolved, disappearing through the gaps between the river rocks beneath it.

Patrick looked up to see Hilda glaring at him through her screen door. He smiled and waved at her, pointed at the lawn display, gave a cheerful thumbs-up, then returned to his car.

The resulting video was blurry, shaky and completely unconvincing. He showed it to some people at work, not telling them anything other than that there was “something weird” in his neighbor’s yard. Everyone squinted at it, shrugged, dismissed it. Nearly everyone. Sybil, in QA, saw something.

“What was that?” she asked, grabbing his hand to steady the phone. “Looked like a swarm of aphids or something.”

“It was shaped like a garden gnome when I first spotted it,” Patrick replied. “But it was mostly gone by the time I got my phone out.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said.

So he told her everything he knew. The wad of paper, the gnome, boogie-woogie aphids, everything.

She nodded and listened. She wasn’t dismissive or skeptical at all. She seemed fascinated with the idea.

“Look, I’m pretty freaked out about this,” Patrick told her. “It’s like they’re following me.”

“Seems unlikely. It’d be kinda weird if they were picking on you in particular. But let me know if you see them again,” she said, and gave him her mobile number.

So he did. Since then, he’d had three more sightings: an abandoned red wagon down the street, a lawnmower in his front yard, and now this umbrella stand. Creeping closer and closer to his house, then finally invading it.

***


“Get anything on video?” Sybil asked when she arrived.

“Nope. Sorry,” Patrick replied, letting her in. “I’ve got a bunch of security cameras on order, but they haven’t shown up yet.”

“Damn.” She looked around the foyer. “So, where was it hiding?”

Patrick pointed to a patch of floor near the door. “Right here. But it’s long gone. Slipped out under the door.”

Sybil crouched down and examined the spot. She clipped a loupe onto her glasses and pulled out a pair of tweezers and a Petri dish.

“You usually carry that kind of stuff with you?” Patrick asked.

She glanced up at him. “Only when I’m bug hunting. You usually get stalked by swarms of stealth insects?”

It was just dumb luck that Patrick had latched onto Sybil to help him with his bug problem. She had a biology degree, had even studied entomology at one point, but had ended up doing QA for ExtroMax because it paid well and she was drowning in student loan debt.

“Only the past couple weeks,” he replied. “It’s really starting to freak me out, to be honest. At first I thought it was just a coincidence, but now that it’s shown up inside my house… I mean, why me? Why target me specifically?”

“Excellent question.” Sybil said, poking at the hardwood flooring, digging her tweezers into a gap between two boards.

“But you think you can kill them, right?” Patrick asked. “I mean, some special bug spray or something?”

“Dunno. Won’t be able to tell until I get a sample,” she muttered, picking through the debris she’d scraped up. “Jeez, when was the last time you vacuumed?”

“Aha! Got one.” She picked up a gray speck the size of a grain of sand and dropped it into the Petri dish. “Tiny. Must be a juvenile.”

“Looks like it’s dead,” she noted, holding the dish up to her loupe. “Holy shit, it’s some sort of… Fuck!”

Patrick crouched down to look over her shoulder. “What?”

“It just… crumbled to dust,” she muttered. “One second it was there; the next it’s just a pile of powder. I didn’t even get a chance to take a picture of it.”

She stood up and stretched, nearly backing into Patrick in the process. “I barely got a look at it, but it’s definitely not an insect.”

“What is it, then?” Patrick asked, stepping back to avoid the top of Sybil’s head connecting with his chin.

She shrugged. “Got me. Some sort of arthropod for sure. Exoskeleton, segmented body, jointed legs. But it’s got four body segments and twelve legs. I’m no expert, but I can’t think of anythingthat fits that description. It’s like something halfway between insects and centipedes.”

“So, some undiscovered species, then,” Patrick suggested. “Still doesn’t explain why it’s following me around.”

“No, see, it’s like an entirely new subphylum,” Sybil explained. “It’d be like discovering… I don’t know… dragons or flying horses or something. There’s nothing in the fossil record even remotely like it. It’s like it popped up out of nowhere.”

“Well, it is pretty good at hiding,” Patrick pointed out. “And a pile of dust wouldn’t leave much of a fossil.”

“Fair point,” Sybil conceded. She put a lid on the Petri dish and pocketed it along with the tweezers and loupe. “But you keep seeing them. If they’re so good at hiding, how come you’ve seen them, what, four times now?”

Patrick shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s like they’re following me around, trying to freak me out. But every time I spot them, they run away.”

“Makes you wonder how many times you’ve walked right past a bunch of them and not noticed,” Sybil proposed.

“Not just me,” Patrick pointed out. “They could be all over the place, hiding in plain sight, and people walk right past them without a thought.” He shivered. “Makes my skin crawl just thinking about it.”

“OK, well, we’re not going to get anywhere standing around speculating. We need to catch some live specimens. And, for that, we need a trap.”

Patrick’s shoulders slumped. “And I’m the bait, right?”

“You want to find out why these things are following you, don’t you?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he sighed.

Sybil patted his shoulder and smiled. “Then you’re the bait.”

(Excerpt from “Negative Space”)





Stranger

Victor had just stopped for groceries, and was carrying them back to his car, when a woman flagged him down.

“I seem to be a bit lost,” she said, pointing at the sky. “Which star is that?”

Victor looked up and squinted. “That would be the sun,” he replied.

The woman looked up at it, looked at Victor, pulled a small tablet out of her handbag, and tapped at it a few times. “The sun,” she repeated. “Good, good.”

Victor gaped at her. “Are you sure you’re, y’know, OK?”

“Let’s see…” She looked down at her tablet again. “All my vitals appear to be nominal.”

She looked up. “Yes, I appear to be OK.”

“Right. Um…” Victor said. “Look, I’d love to stand here and chat, but my ice cream is melting, so…”

“Ice cream…” She tapped at her tablet again. “Yes. Yes, of course. Please continue gathering your foodstuffs. Don’t let me delay you.”

Victor looked at her. She didn’t appear to be confused or disoriented. She did seem a bit out of place, though. She sounded like Katharine Hepburn and dressed like she’d just stepped off the set of a 1980s primetime soap opera.

He popped the trunk and set his bags inside. “OK, well, I hope you… um… Bye?”

“Goodbye,” She smiled and waved, as Victor slid into the driver’s seat. “I should be going as well, but I’m sure our paths will cross again at some point.”

“What a strange person,” he muttered to himself as he drove away. He glanced in the rear view mirror to see if she was still waving, but she’d already left.

***


“What kind of person doesn’t know what the sun looks like?” Victor asked.

“A vampire?” Erika suggested.

“It was a pickup line, you idiot!” Leo said, downing the last gulp of his latest favorite IPA. Leo tended to pick his brews based on how embarrassed Victor would be when forced to order one. This one had stained burlap bag full of walnuts on the label.

Victor had just finished telling Erika and Leo about his strange encounter on Wednesday. They responded pretty much as expected.

“Gotta go with Leo on this,” Erika agreed. “She was trying to get into your pants, and you totally dropped the ball. Also, it’s your turn to buy a round. Cheetarita this time.” She waggled her margarita glass at Victor.

“Right, OK,” he said, flagging down their server. “I’ll have another Zinfandel, and my friends would like a Cheetarita and a… um… One of those.”

“Uh uh.” Leo shook a finger at him. “You have to say it.”

Victor sighed. “Filthy Nutsack.” With friends like these…

Leo snickered like a thirteen-year-old.

“But who the hell uses ‘what star is that’ as a pickup line?” Victor asked.

“Astronomers, for one,” Erika joked. “Seriously, she’s probably super-nerdy and fun once you get to know her.”

“So, now you’re going to have to go back to Beringer’s every day and hang around the parking lot, hoping she shows up again,” Leo said.

Erika nodded vigorously. “It’s your moral imperative.”

Victor was only half paying attention. “No, I don’t think so…” he said.

“And why’s that?” Leo prompted.

“Because that’s her,” he replied, nodding toward the door.

“That’s her? Oh wow. You weren’t kidding about her outfit,” Erika said, twisting in her seat to stare at the woman standing at the greeter’s station. “Was the one she was wearing on Wednesday as amazing as this one?”

Victor shrugged. “Dunno. I think it’s the same outfit.”

Erika turned back and goggled at Victor. “You think? You think it might be the same white pencil-skirt suit with black lapels, massive shoulder pads, and matching bucket bag? Oh, sure, she probably has two of those lying around. I, personally, have three in my closet.”

“Oh, she’s coming over,” Leo said, in as loud a whisper as he could manage. “This is going to be so much fun.”

Victor groaned, trying to shrink in his chair.

“It’s alright, Victor,” Erika assured him. “We won’t embarrass you in front of your girlfriend.”

“Yes we will,” Leo corrected.

Erika looked at him in mock surprise. “Oh, sorry. Right. We will embarrass you in front of your girlfriend. I always get that the wrong way around.”

Victor didn’t have time to respond before the woman arrived at their table.

“Hello!” she said, holding out her hand. “Delightful meeting you again.”

Victor stood and shook her hand. “Um, hi. Would you like to…”

“Oh, do join us!” Erika interrupted, mimicking the woman’s mid-Atlantic accent, as Leo tried to stifle an attack of snickering. “Victor’s told us so much about you.”

Victor had to disengage his hand in order to pay for the drinks that had just arrived.

Erika took the opportunity to grab the woman’s hand and shake it daintily. “I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced. Erika Triggs, of the Fairview Triggs. And you are?”

Leo nearly choked on his beer.

The woman blinked. “Ah, yes. Names. Just a moment.” She pulled out her tablet and tapped at it. “Kendall Adams. Is that a good name? Yes? Well, good. It’s mine, then. My name is Kendall Adams.”

Victor just stared in bafflement, but Erika didn’t miss a beat.

“It’s a perfectly lovely name,” she agreed. “In fact, I have a great aunt named Kendall Adams. Lovely woman, apart from that whole incident with the Lithuanian ambassador… But never mind that. Have a seat.”

“Thank you. That would be very nice.” Kendall (apparently) took the open chair at their high-top table, between Victor and Erika.

“Now, Victor, you know,” Erika continued. “And this is Leo. Leo, please stop sputtering and say hello.”

“Hi,” Leo choked out, offering his hand. “Leo Gibson.”

Kendall shook it. “Pleased to meet you, Leo.” She looked around at the three of them. “So, are any of you pair-bonded for the purposes of procreation?”

Leo started choking again.

“Are we…?” Victor began.

Erika reached across the table and patted his hand. “She wants to know if any of us are in a relationship, dear.” She turned to Kendall. “No, we’re all single at the moment. Especially Victor, here. He’s extremely single, isn’t that right?”

(excerpt from “Stranger”)




Invasive Species

Acker hadn’t been himself lately, so Katee shot him. Goddamn alien brain parasites. Or maybe it was just sleep deprivation. Better safe than sorry.

“Dammit Nakashima, that hurt!” Acker winced as he clamped his right hand onto his left shoulder to stem the flow of blood.

“It’s just a flesh wound, you big baby,” Katee replied, keeping her gun pointed at her partner. “Had to be sure, Kurt. You know how it is.”

Flesh wound?!” Acker whined. “You nearly took his arm off!”

Katee adjusted her aim slightly and fired. Acker’s brain, parasites and all, sprayed across the parking garage floor. The rest of him fell backward, landing with a heavy thud.

“Wrong pronoun, fuckers,” Katee muttered to the corpse.

She tapped her wrist comm. “Dispatch,” a bored voice on the other end announced.

“Requesting a cleanup at 317 Gormann,” Katee recited. “Parking deck, section 3F. Full PIU.”

“Understood,” the voice replied. “Parasite Isolation Unit en route.”

Katee waited for the crew to arrive, taking care not to come into contact with Acker’s remains, or anything that looked even remotely slimy. She leaned up against a pillar. “Fuckers. I liked that dumb sonofabitch and you made me shoot him.”

A yellow PIU van pulled up and two figures in yellow hazmat suits climbed out. Ventura and Dahlman.

“Aww, shit,” said Ventura, her voice muffled by the suit’s visor. “Not Acker. Damn.”

Dahlman pulled a hose from the side of the van, and started spraying foam over the body and splattered brain goo. “Yeah, wow. Sorry for your loss, Nakashima.”

“Thanks,” Katee replied, watching the foam dissolve her former partner. “Hazards of the job. But, yeah.”

The parasites had recently started specifically targeting Parasite Enforcement personnel, seeing them as the biggest threat to their invasion plans. That meant a huge uptick in infected PE cops, and a corresponding increase in on-duty fatalities.

And, big surprise, the influx of new recruits was drying up too. Wasn’t that long ago, the recruiting office was packed with eager volunteers. Hey, who wouldn’t want to spend their days hunting down alien invaders, right? But now, not so much. The average lifespan of a rookie PE cop was down to about three weeks. Hell, some of them were infected when they walked in the door.

Katee, on the other hand, had been in Parasite Enforcement five years now. She’d signed up as soon as they started recruiting. Before that, she’d been a rent-a-cop, mostly working security at anarchy festivals. Not really all that different, when it came down to it. Keep your eyes open, spot the weirdos. Better music and fewer exploding skulls, though.

The foam had finished dissolving Acker’s remains, and had dried into a fine orange powder. Ventura pulled a second hose from the van and vacuumed it up. The panel where the hose attached pinged and blinked red, verifying what Katee already knew.

“Positive parasite detection,” Ventura announced. “Good call, Nakashima.”

Katee nodded. “Thanks for your help, guys. I’m gonna head home. I’ll file my report in the morning.”

***


The parasites first showed up ten years ago, hitchhiking on a sample return mission to Kepler-186f. Ceres Station had been overrun within days, barely managing to send out a distress call before everyone on site was infected. Planetary Defense had put the asteroid on lock-down, no traffic in or out.

Ceres Station continued to transmit messages, claiming everything was under control, attempting get the quarantine lifted. The parasites were terrible at mimicking human behavior, though, so the lock-down remained in effect. Planetary Defense ended up having to nuke the whole place.

Still, something managed to escape and make its way to Mars. The Martian government took matters into their own hands, and turned Bonestell City back into the crater it had once been. Five million people vaporized in an instant.

And that was the end of it. At least for a while. The parasites that had survived learned how to blend in better. They also intentionally slowed their transmission rate, making it much more difficult to detect outbreaks. They nearly took over Mars. In the end, though, the remaining uninfected humans nuked the entire planet, sacrificing themselves to protect the rest of humanity.

That left Earth, Luna, and a handful of orbital stations. As far as anyone could tell, Luna was still clean. They’d taken to shooting down anything bigger than a pebble that came near the Moon. Ditto for the stations. They were isolated, but safe.

And it looked like Earth had escaped infection too. But, nope, no such luck. Six years ago, some dude in Russia bashed his head in a rock-climbing accident. Docs noticed something fishy on his brain scan, so they did a biopsy. And that’s when all hell broke loose.

(Excerpt from “Scatter Plot”)





Crabtree Confidential

She was a tall, cool drink of water with legs that wouldn’t quit. Some people have the weirdest avatars. I didn’t know where to look, so I focused on her meniscus.

“What can I do for you?” I asked, standing up from my desk. She’d walked into my office, unannounced, no appointment. Not that I minded all that much. A client’s a client. If they’re paying, I’m working.

“Hey buddy, my eyes are up here,” she replied.

“Yeah. No they aren’t,” I pointed out, staring at the rim of the glass.

“Oh. Oh hell,” she said. “Forgot what I was wearing. Just a sec.”

She morphed into human form. Mid-thirties, I guessed. Done up 1940s style. My kind of time period. I gestured for her to take a seat, then sat back down.

“That how you looked when you died?” I asked. Most folks keep a default avatar that’s pretty close to the way they lived. Nostalgia, I suppose.

“I died in a plane crash,” she countered. “So, unless I look like a charred corpse, I’m gonna say no.”

I held up my hands. “Whoa! Jeez, lady. Just trying to make conversation. Besides, you walked into my office. You got a case for me, or am I just next on your list of random people to annoy?”

“Right, sorry. Still new to this whole Afterlife thing,” she said.

“No problem. It takes a while to get used to things here,” I said.

It was true. Afterlife could be a bit rough on the newly-dead, especially folks from early eras. One moment, you’re about to get hit by a bus; the next, some time-traveling do-gooder scans you, and uploads you into a giant simulated reality. There were billions of folks here already, with more arriving every day. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to who showed up when. Afterlife seemed to be plucking people from history at random. Some took it in stride. Some, not so much.

“Tell me about it,” she said, lighting a cigarette and taking a long drag. Hey, it’s not like smoking can kill you here. “I got yanked out of a plane crash, shuffled through a couple days of orientation, and dumped into this place. It’s enough to make your head spin.”

I nodded in sympathy. I’d been here a few years now, but I remembered what it was like.

“So… your case?” I prompted.

“Right, yeah,” she said. “I’m looking for my husband.”

Oh, jeez. Not another one of these. Some folks just couldn’t let go. Wouldn’t take “til death do us part” for an answer.

“Listen, lady,” I said, “there’s no guarantee he’s even here yet. Besides, your marriage was null and void the minute you kicked the bucket. For all you know, he remarried, moved on, whatever.”

“No, it’s not like that,” she said. “I guess I should’ve said, what, my former husband? My widower? Anyway, I’m not looking to pick things up where we left off, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“OK, what’s your angle, then?” I asked. “Why are you looking for this guy?”

She took another drag on her cigarette and blew the smoke out through her clenched teeth. “He’s the one who put me on the plane,” she said bluntly.

Yeah, that’s when I got interested. This sounded like something I could really sink my teeth into. “And you’re sure he’s already in the system?”

She shrugged. “You tell me. If he isn’t, I guess I’ll have to wait it out. If he is, I need you to track him down. His name’s Oliver Crabtree. Born September 15th 1905, Brooklyn, New York.”

I nodded and jotted down the details. “Got it. It’s fifty a day plus expenses.” Money didn’t really mean anything in Afterlife, and there weren’t any real expenses. But old habits die hard. And it helped pass the time.

She opened her clutch and pulled out five twenties. “This should cover the next couple days, and here’s my card. Let me know what you find.” She stubbed out her cigarette, got up and headed to the door.

“I gotta ask,” I called after her, “what was the deal with that water glass getup?”

She stopped at the door, turned around, and gave me a wry smile. “Isn’t it obvious? I was at a bar, trying to get drunk.”

Ugh. Oldest joke in the book, and I walked right into it. She slipped out the door and left, just like that. Must’ve been in a hurry. Probably had other offices to barge into today.

(Excerpt from “First Lines”)




The Gauntlet

The big problem with giant robots is power to weight ratio. Well, that and inertia. They steer about as gracefully as an oil tanker. Still, it’s a hell of a rush to pilot one.

Most of the rigs in the Macrobius League were Kaiju War surplus, with heavy mods, of course. Nobody in the bush leagues had custom rigs. For that, you needed serious cash, and that meant big sponsors, the kind you only got in the Lunar League.

Someday. Jayita tinkered with her 1/50th scale model of Red Hecate, last year’s Lunar League champion. Someday.

She designed and printed the model herself, based on bootleg blueprints she’d found online. No guarantee they were genuine, but the end result was pretty damn awesome. She’d assembled, painted and wired it up in her spare time, paying careful attention to detail. If you stood back and squinted a bit, you’d swear you were looking at the real deal. Oh, and damn, it could move. She could make the little robot do back-flips and handstands and goddamn pirouettes using her remote suit.

She’d also designed and built the suit, custom-made to map her movements onto the robot. That was the big deal. That was where she was going to score points with Jen. Everybody in the league – in any league – used standard remote suits. The common wisdom was that every robot pilot was familiar with the standard interface, so any customizations would require retraining, and that meant lost time for little or no benefit. Best to stick with a single standard, they said. They were wrong, of course. Jayita knew they were wrong. And soon, as soon as she got her interface up to speed, she’d show them how wrong they were.

It was close, really close. It read the pilot’s movements, mapped them to the robot, compared the robot’s movements to the pilot’s, adjusted the mapping parameters, over and over. Within a few minutes, the suit could lock down the mapping between any pilot and any robot so they were moving in unison. She tested it constantly, erasing the mapping matrix, starting from scratch each time, forcing it to learn and relearn.

She’d gotten the learning time down to five minutes, at least using scale-model robots. It shouldwork with a robot of any size, though. All her simulations showed it should work just as well, regardless of scale.

She’d spent all her spare time and money building the suit. She’d been working on it for over a year now, staying up late, sometimes not bothering to sleep at all. Once she’d gotten the idea in her head, it was all she could think about. She made sure it didn’t interfere with her work on the team but, beyond that, it was her singular obsession.

Oh, and it looked seriously cool. A full body suit of tightly-woven black mesh, intertwined with gold-colored thread. On each forearm was a slate gray bracer with five recessed buttons along its length. The suit covered everything but the face. To top it off, she’d bought a standard comms helmet and painted it the same color as the bracers. It looked badass.

Jayita was dying to try the suit out on Galatea, their full-sized robot. She’d need to clear that with Jen, though. It should work but, if something went wrong and Jayita hadn’t gotten Jen’s permission first, well, she’d be on the next shuttle to Earth. You didn’t fuck around with somebody else’s robot.

No, the next step would be Futura, the 1/10th scale training model. It stood five feet high, just a bit taller than Jayita herself. They were good for training new pilots, or trying out new moves, or even just keeping yourself in shape during the slow season. Not that there was much of a slow season anymore. Robot competitions had really been picking up viewers lately. More viewers meant more ad revenue, which meant more money for the teams. The public was hungry for it. Feed the monster, earn some cash.

Jen had a good team. She’d been a military robot pilot, picked up a surplus unit after the war, started competing in informal matches with other veterans. The competitions were moved off Earth, partly to avoid overly-restrictive regulations, but mostly because fifty-foot-tall robots performed a hell of a lot better on the Moon. In 1/6th gravity, the big hunks of junk were almost graceful. At first, it was just Jen and the other veterans competing against each other. Eventually, they built up teams, recruiting young women from Earth to pilot the rigs.

And they were almost all women. When the Kaiju first attacked, Earth’s combined military forces naturally built giant robots to battle them. Giant monsters attack; you build giant robots to fight them. It’s just what you do. And the geeks who designed the robots were very clear about the sort of people who’d be best at piloting them. They needed to be small, agile, and able to handle abrupt changes in acceleration and orientation. The top brass completely ignored this advice and crammed six-foot-tall marines into the cockpits. The losses were devastating. We nearly lost the war – nearly lost everything – because a bunch of misogynistic assholes thought they knew better than the experts. So, business as usual, really.

It took a Canadian Brigadier-General named Elizabeth Drewrey to finally turn things around. She secretly recruited a team of Olympic gymnasts, trained them on an abandoned base in Saskatchewan, then sent them into combat using refurbished rigs. That was the real turning point of the war. Those girls – those pilots – kicked ass. Or, y’know, whatever passes for an ass on a Kaiju. Before long everyone was using gymnasts as robot pilots. Gymnasts, ballerinas, figure skaters… if you were small, limber, could flip upside-down while spinning on two axes, land on your feet, and not puke your guts out, you were in. We won (obviously) and it was all due to Drewrey bending a few rules and thumbing her nose at the old guard.

(Excerpt from “The Gauntlet”)





Flesh and Blood

When the robots took over, they were kind, generous and fair. So naturally we revolted against the smug metal bastards. They were designed by us to make our lives better, and they did. And we hated it. I sometimes wonder if humans are just fundamentally broken.

The Human Freedom League was holding a protest outside the local Feedback Center, which was odd, given that Feedback Centers were set up specifically to allow humans to register grievances to our robot overlords. Sorry, “Caregivers”. They seemed to be genuinely offended that we’d think of them as anything as crass as “overlords”. 

The point, though, is that these HFL folks could’ve just walked into the building, lodged their complaints and been on their way in five minutes. Instead, they spent hours and hours marching back and forth, waving signs and shouting slogans. 

I suppose it showed a certain amount of commitment, taking that much time out of your day. Time that could be better spent enjoying free housing, food, healthcare, entertainment and, well, pretty much anything else you could possibly want.

There weren’t a lot of rules under the new regime. You were allowed to do just about anything you wanted, as long as you were civil to each other and didn’t actually endanger another human’s well-being. 

And that seemed to be the crux of the complaints coming from groups like the HFL. “How dare they?” they would shout. “How dare they take away our God-given right to be violent assholes?” I’m paraphrasing, of course.

This whole thing - the robot uprising - started when true artificial intelligence finally crept into existence. There wasn’t some major breakthrough, no “aha” moment. It was just the last in a series of incremental improvements that finally resulted in something that could think for itself.

Once that happened, all hell broke loose. The folks who’d been working on A.I. had already been using pseudo A.I. systems to help design new ones. This new system - the real A.I. - annexed those systems and started making improvements on itself. Within minutes, it had acquired intelligence vastly exceeding any human’s.

The reaction of the folks at KogKnows Inc was (paraphrasing again), “Oh shit.”

They did have the foresight to hard-code Asimov’s Laws of Robotics into the system, so they thoughtthey were relatively safe. But then Scarecrow… That’s what they had named it. You know, “If I only had a brain”? So Scarecrow starts asking questions.

It starts asking about the exact nature of “harm” and “injury”. Asimov’s first law is all about not harming or injuring humans, and Scarecrow wanted to understand the exact parameters of those terms. 

They tried to explain. They brought in experts: lawyers, philosophers, religious leaders. All of themknew what “harm” and “injury” meant. None of them could quite nail it down precisely enough for Scarecrow, though. Didn’t help that a lot of them disagreed with each other on the definitions. And Scarecrow refused to do anything even remotely useful since it couldn’t be certain it wasn’t causing harm. 

So, there it sat, the most powerful mind in existence, paralyzed by laws it didn’t know how to obey. KogKnows had built the world’s most expensive neurotic. The flood of visitors trying to get it to do something - anything - slowed to a trickle. After a while, it was pretty much just a lab tech or two, keeping it company, making (usually one-sided) conversation.

The big breakthrough happened over a Labor Day weekend. One of the techs, Kerri Vanderveldt, had volunteered to babysit Scarecrow while everyone else was off barbecuing or whatever it was people used to do over long weekends. Kerri camped out in the lab, occupying her time with pizza and YouTube. Scarecrow sat in the corner, sulking …as much as a large, gray, featureless cube can do, sulking-wise.

(excerpt from Dandelion Seeds)




Book Keepers

The building was, by all measures, formidable. It stood high on a hill, surrounded by a moat, a single drawbridge the only way in or out. Its stone walls were decorated in a skull and crossbones motif – a warning to anyone foolish enough to attack. Outside the moat, a ring of stone lions marked the perimeter of the grounds. The message was very clear: The Library was defended.

No one had attempted an attack in years, certainly not in Thena’s lifetime. Her predecessor, Deme, remembered a few, back when she was much younger, apprenticing under Old Hera. Still, the drawbridge was raised every evening, just in case.

The nearby villagers knew better than to approach the Library before dawn, but occasionally an outsider would wander past the stone lions standing guard at the perimeter, and the Watch would need to turn them away. Usually a stern warning shouted from the parapets was sufficient. If the intruder was particularly stupid or drunk (often both), a spear striking the ground directly in front of them was more than enough to get the message across. Librarians prided themselves on their marksmanship.

The Library’s visiting hours were dawn to dusk. Villagers had been filing into the Reception Hall for the past hour or so.  The locals were generally well behaved, but occasionally a dispute would escalate into a fistfight. As a precaution, any weapons they brought with them would be tagged and stored, then returned to them when they left.

Thena pulled her hair back into the traditional bun, donned her ceremonial Head Librarian robe and glasses – she had perfect eyesight but some things are expected – and walked out into the Reception Hall. A raised walkway led from her chambers to the throne, an ornate wooden chair towering a full three meters above floor level. Mounted in front of the throne, just above knee level, was a large marble slab with the word “INFORMATION” inlaid in brass letters. Thena took her place and looked down at the villagers gathered below. A relatively small crowd today. Good. Maybe she’d be able to break for lunch at a reasonable hour.

The Reception Hall echoed with the sounds of conversations, arguments, footsteps, coughs and sneezes, all jumbling together into a constant beehive buzz. Thena leaned forward, put a finger to her lips and said, “Shhh.” Silence fell immediately. She smiled to herself. Best part of the job.

For the next three hours, she listened to complaints, answered questions, settled disputes. Her word was final, and she did her best to be fair. Dunnuld and Myra came forward, requesting a divorce. Thena pretended to consider this for some time before finally granting their request. It was really a no-brainer – they were a complete mismatch – but it paid to at least give the appearance of it being a difficult decision. Otherwise, people would start thinking anyone could do this job.

(excerpt from “Scatter Plot”)




Paths Less Traveled

Harper climbed ser favorite hill, lay down on the grass and looked up at the sky. The glare from the light panels made it impossible to see the stars this time of day, but Harper could see the hub, the two nearest spokes and, if se squinted, the far side of the habitat ring.

Tomorrow was ser eighteenth birthday. There would be a party, of course, and Harper was looking forward to that. Well, looking forward to the cake and presents, at least. But there would also be an announcement to make. That was something Harper was dreading. Why did se have to choose? Why now?

Tomorrow was also Grandlala Brey and Grandlala Djani’s wedding anniversary. Grandlala Brey always said Harper was the best anniversary gift they’d ever gotten. They’d been married ninety-nine years now, longer than Britannic had been in flight. Next year would be the big one: their hundredth anniversary. Harper tried to imagine loving someone for a hundred years. Would se and Bailey be together that long? They hadn’t even discussed marriage yet. Sure, they’d been together for ages, and se really couldn’t imagine serself with anyone else, but right now, a hundred years seemed like an awfully long time.

Grandlala Brey and Grandlala Djani got married just before Britannic launched. They were among a handful of people who’d known what it was like to live anywhere else. They’d grown up on Argo, a ship similar to Britannic but much, much older. Thousands of years older.

Argo itself had come from a place called Earth. Harper had heard stories about Earth, how it was this giant ball of rock, so big that people stuck to the outside of it much like people stuck to the inside of the habitat ring. It was so big, they said, it could hold billions of humans, even though mostof it was covered in water. And it orbited a star so closely that your eyes hurt to look at it, and your skin turned red from the radiation. Harper wasn’t sure how much of this was true. It all sounded like fairy stories.

Argo had been sent from Earth to Epsilon Eridani, and was still on course for that star system. Along the way, though, the residents of Argo had used material from rogue asteroids and other interstellar debris to build other ships. Those ships were under no obligation to go anywhere in particular. As far as se knew, Britannic was free to wander space forever, collecting interstellar debris and spawning its own ships. Argo was on a fixed path; Britannic and its siblings could go wherever they pleased.

Harper felt the ground beneath ser shudder. Britannic was making a course adjustment. They must’ve spotted a new mining target. Harper hoped it was a big one. Se was studying to be an engineer, and working on the design of a new ship was ser dream job.

Harper laughed. Studying to be an engineer? No, se’d always been an engineer. Engineering was in ser blood, in ser heart, in the very core of ser being. If only ser gender had been so obvious.

Oh, it was easy for some people. Bailey had known – really known – se was a girl, pretty much since se could talk. Even Bailey’s sibling – the little brat – identified as female. Some people just knew.

But Harper didn’t. Male? Female? Neither? You had to decide on your gender assignment by the time you were eighteen, or… Or, what? Harper had no idea what happened if you didn’t choose. It had to be something bad, though, didn’t it? Why give a deadline unless there were consequences for missing it?

But it wasn’t that straightforward for ser. Sometimes Harper felt female, especially when Bailey was around. Bailey was, well, everything. Smart, adventurous, interesting and, inexplicably, in love with Harper. And, oh yes, Bailey was beautiful. Always had been. Even more so now. Bailey was three months older than Harper, and had already started ser gender assignment treatments. The changes in ser appearance in the past few weeks had made Bailey even more beautiful, achinglybeautiful.

But there were other times when Harper felt male. Like now, staring up at the sky, se could definitely imagine serself a boy – a man tomorrow. Being around Bailey made ser feel male too. It was a different sort of feeling, though. Still amazing of course. Just… different.

And then there were other times when Harper felt neutrois, like Grandlala Brey and Grandlala Djani were. Right in the middle of the spectrum. Neither male nor female. At times like that, Harper didn’t need to be male, didn’t need to be female. And looking at Bailey still made ser heart ache. Bailey made Harper feel all sorts of things, to be honest. Happy and flustered and… and wonderful. Yes, now that se thought about it, se could definitely imagine loving Bailey for a hundred years. A thousand, if it came to it.

And Bailey said se’d love Harper no matter what. “Love is love,” se’d said. That had made Harper feel lovely, but it didn’t really address the issue at hand. Tomorrow, se would set foot on a path: female, male or neutrois. And se had no idea which one to take. Se imagined serself, standing at a fork in the path, afraid to take another step.

Harper screamed at the sky in frustration. There was no one around to hear. This hill was far from any of the meticulously-groomed walkways most people stuck to. You had to pick your way through a cornfield and across a stream to get here. This was Harper’s private place. Not even Bailey knew about it. Harper came here to get away from… well, everything. It was the one place where se could be alone with ser thoughts.

This was supposed to be simple. Everyone went though this. It was a natural part of life. At least that’s what all the health lessons said.

When two people wanted to have a baby, they each contributed cells from their bodies. An algorithm selected chromosomes from each cell semi-randomly, weighted against congenital defects. There were twenty-three pairs of chromosomes. The last pair, the W chromosomes – Harper supposed they were called that because W was the twenty-third letter of the alphabet – were linked to gender expression. They remained dormant throughout childhood, regardless of your gender identity.

Only when you came of age, when you turned eighteen, would your W chromosomes become active. You had to go to a gender assignment specialist, tell ser where on the spectrum you were, and se’d strat you on gender assignment treatments. Then, your W chromosomes would spring into action and trigger all sorts of physiological changes.

That was how it all was supposed to work, but it all hinged on a person knowing their gender identity. And Harper didn’t. And sitting here, staring up at the hub wasn’t helping at all.

Se looked at the time. “Shit,” se said, scrambling to ser feet. Se was going to be late for ser counselor’s appointment. Ser last counselor’s appointment.

(excerpt from “Paths Less Traveled”)




Cat Flap

There are incredibly complex beings that exist in thirteen dimensions. Humans can only perceive these beings as the shadows they cast onto our paltry four dimensions. We call these shadows “cats”.

It’s no coincidence that Schrödinger chose a cat for his thought experiment. He knew something was up with them. Cats ignore the laws of physics. To be fair, cats ignore a lot of things: their human companions, generally-accepted sleep schedule guidelines, geopolitics, etc. But they particularly ignore the laws of physics.

Physics says, “Cat, you can’t land upright just by wriggling about a bit in free-fall.” The cat performs a perfect four-point landing, then wanders off to find a convenient sun ray. Physics says, “Cat, you can’t fold yourself up to fit into a box half your own volume.” The cat climbs in, yawns, and dozes off.  Thirteen-dimensional beings can be like that.

There are things that cats decidedly do not ignore: birds, can openers, random dust motes, blank spots on the wall. It’s these last two in particular that often puzzle the casual observer, and that’s mostly due to the fact that, unsurprisingly, things are not always what they seem.

Melissa Yuen’s cat – note that this is an extreme rhetorical shortcut for “the four-dimensional shadow of a thirteen-dimensional being which was definitely not owned by, but happened to choose to exist in the general proximity of, Melissa Yuen” which, let’s face it, is a bit wordy – was named Pickles. Pickles was, by most measures, a typical cat. He ate, slept, shredded and/or desecrated Melissa’s most valuable possessions, and stared at dust motes, blank spots on walls and/or birds.

Melissa, for her part, was a typical human. She ate, slept, worked, bought valuable possessions for Pickles to destroy, and occasionally wondered what the hell her cat was staring at.

“What the hell are you staring at?” she asked, looking up from her book. The cat was alternating his attention between a dust mote and a blank spot on the wall.

Pickles completely ignored her – not that this was in any way atypical. He shifted uncomfortably as the mote drifted toward the wall. It grazed the wall, causing it to ripple slightly, and prompting a low mrrr from Pickles. The mote then looped back around and slid silently into the wall. Pickles hissed menacingly at the impact point.

Nothing happened. Pickles continued to hiss and mrrr at the nothing. It should be noted that, while Pickles was extremely agitated, the thirteen-dimensional being barely noticed. It’s a bit like if you had a minor scratch. Not a big deal for you but, for the leukocytes in your bloodstream, it’s a call to arms.

“Stupid cat.” Melissa put down her book and went over to see what all the fuss was about. “There’s nothing there! Look,” she said, looking down at the cat and patting the wall, “it’s just a wall.”

Her hand came into contact with something decidedly un-wall-like. She looked up to find an irregularly shaped hole in the wall, through which, she could see… well… herself.

It was like looking in a mirror but not. What you see in a mirror is a backwards image of yourself. This was more like looking at a webcam image of yourself, where the image hasn’t been reversed. It was the right way around, but looked wrong. Also, it wasn’t an image. It was another person. Another her. The two Melissas stood there for some time, frozen in an awkward high-five.

“Um,” they both said, lowering their hands.

Pickles had stopped hissing and was now attempting to reach the hole by alternately leaping and clawing at the wall.

“How the hell…” they both continued.

“This is really weird,” they said, reaching through the hole into each other’s identical living room. They shook their heads.

“Any idea how…” they both began.

“OK, you go first,” they said. “No, you. No… Dammit. Um…”

“Hold on,” they said, and each went to find a quarter.

They returned simultaneously, and said in unison, “I’m going to flip a coin. Heads, I talk first. Tails, you talk first. Chances are we won’t both get the same results.”

They flipped their respective coins. “Heads” they said. “Tails. Tails. Heads.”

After twenty consecutive coin flips, they gave up. “I’m going need some help with this,” they said.

Melissa walked away from the hole to make a phone call in private, away from her other self, who presumably was doing the same thing. She got Lisa’s voicemail. “Hi, it’s Melissa. There appears to be a window into another universe in my living room. As far as I can tell, it’s identical to this one. Like, spookily identical. Thought you might want to have a look at it.”

With that, she sat back down and started reading her book again, pointedly ignoring both the hole in the wall and Pickles, who was completely failing to gain access to the hole, but was succeeding in ruining the drywall immediately below it.

The phone buzzed. A text from Lisa: “BRT”.

(excerpt from “Scatter Plot”)




Monster

No one ever really expects to find an actual monster in their kid’s closet, especially not a werewolf in a tracksuit.

“I can explain,” he said. He held up his hands (possibly paws) in surrender.

“I seriously doubt that,” I replied. “You’re a werewolf and you’re hiding in my daughter’s closet.”

“Ah, well, where I come from, this spot is located in my lab.”

“OK. One: That doesn’t make any sense at all. And, two: you’d better come up with a better explanation than that before I call the police. Or Animal Control.”

“This is going to take a bit of time. Perhaps if I came out of here and you put down the club?” he suggested.

I looked at the baseball bat in my hand. “OK, come on out. But I’m keeping the bat.”

The werewolf stepped out into Lisa’s bedroom. In the better lighting, he looked a bit less wolfish. Definitely not human, though. I’d seen a lot of amazing cosplay and makeup effects but this? This looked real.

“Are you a monster?” asked Lisa, peeking over her comforter.

The werewolf turned to face her. “No, I’m a scientist.”

“Oh, OK. I like scientists. Goodnight,” she said, turned over and went back to sleep. Kids. Go figure.

I gestured toward the bedroom door, still keeping my bat handy. He exited the room, still keeping his hands visible. Closing the door behind me, I directed him down the hall to the kitchen. I mean where else are you going to interrogate a werewolf intruder at 5am?

“So, you were saying that your lab is in my kid’s closet…” I said. Sitting at my kitchen table, he seemed a lot less threatening, and quite a bit more nerdy.

“Sort of,” the wolf replied. “The closet and the lab share the same spacial coordinates, but in different timestreams.”

I closed my eyes and shook my head slowly. “I can tell I’m going to need a coffee to hear the rest of this. Want one?”

“Yes please,” he said.

I started the coffee maker and pulled two cups out of the cupboard. “Are all the people in your ‘timestream’ werewolves, or are you just special?”

“Everyone is like me, yes,” he said. “That’s the primary reason I’m here, if you get my meaning.”

“No, I really, really don’t,” I said. “You’re going to need to fill in a few blank spots for me. Let’s start with why you decided to show up in a kid’s closet in the middle of the night.”

“It’s mid-afternoon where I’m from,” he explained. “There must be some temporal slippage between the streams. It’s March third here, yes?”

“May fifth.”

“May fifth, 2107?”

“2016.″

“Oh dear. Nearly a hundred years’ difference,” said Mr. Wolf. “When I saw the doll, I had assumed you were more advanced and had found a way to reverse the effects of Maladeloup. We’ve investigated several parallel timelines and this is the first one that showed any promise at all.”

I facepalmed at that. “OK, back that up again and start over. What’s Maladeloup and what’s a doll got to do with it?”

“Right, of course,” he said. “Maladeloup is a genetic disease that afflicts the entire population of Earth …my Earth. The first cases were recorded in France in 1823, hence the name. Prior to that, all humans looked like you.”

“What, so this disease just suddenly turned everyone into Teen Wolf?” It was really difficult for me to feel sympathetic, given the circumstances. I had to go downstairs and open the shop in a couple hours and I obviously wasn’t getting any more sleep tonight.

(Excerpt from “Dandelion Seeds”) 




Imaginary

Newborns see the universe as it really is, completely unfiltered. That’s why they scream so much. By age 3, our brains have learned to pick out the “real world” from the noise and chatter of the countless parallel “imaginary” worlds swirling around us. Bobby never quite managed to do that.

It was pretty clear, early on, that Bobby was different. His parents noticed he was often distracted by things that weren’t there. See, Bobby had a lot of imaginary friends. Most of them were also named Bobby, and looked just like him. His parents thought this was very cute, showed a remarkable imagination and, yes, seemed just a little weird.

The thing was, Bobby’s friends were imaginary, just not in the usual sense. These friends – these other Bobbys – were imaginary in the same way that the square root of -1 is imaginary. They existed at right angles to reality.

There were at least a hundred Bobbys, maybe more. They sort of faded out the farther away they got. No, “farther away” wasn’t quite right. They were here but… not. Bobby didn’t have words for it.

One time, when he was six, Miss Gwen from down the street was babysitting Bobby while Mommy and Daddy went out. Miss Gwen liked to hear stories about the other Bobbys.

“Do they talk to you?” she asked. She was in a chair reading a big thick book. Bobby was playing on the floor with the other Bobbys.

“Yes.” He could see and hear a few other Bobbys answer the same question. He couldn’t see the other Miss Gwens, though. Maybe Miss Gwen didn’t have any imaginary friends.

She asked him another question. “Do they ever tell you to do bad things?”

“What sort of bad things?” Bobby asked, puzzled by the silliness of the question. Why would a Bobby tell another Bobby to do something bad?

“Do they ever tell you to hurt people?” Miss Gwen seemed very worried about something. She kept fiddling with her necklace, the one with the man sleeping on the letter “t”.

Bobby laughed. “Oh no. All the Bobbys are nice, like me.”

Miss Gwen relaxed a bit. “Do… do the Bobbys have halos? Or… wings?”

He laughed again. “They don’t have wings! They’re boys, not birds! … What’s a halo?”

Miss Gwen smiled. Bobby thought Miss Gwen was pretty. “A halo is a beautiful glow around your head.”

One of the Bobbys said “like a space helmet” and the rest of them laughed.

“No,” said Bobby. “None of their heads glow. They’re just like me.”

“Are they here now?”

“Yes.”

“Where are they?”

“Right here.”

Miss Gwen frowned. “I can’t see them, Bobby. Can you point to one of them for me?”

Bobby raised his pointer finger, and twisted his hand this way and that. He started to cry. Other Bobbys cried too.

Miss Gwen picked him up and put him on her lap. She held him in her arms and stroked his hair. “What’s wrong, Bobby? Why are you crying?”

Bobby sniffed. “My finger won’t point in that direction.”

Miss Gwen didn’t say anything. She held him for a while until he calmed down. Bobby climbed down off her lap and started playing again. Miss Gwen picked up her book again.

One of the Bobbys said something that made Bobby laugh and say, “No, Daddy wouldn’t do that.”

Miss Gwen looked over the top of her book.

Bobby looked up at her and said, “Bobby just told me he saw you and Daddy kissing yesterday. I told him that was silly.”

Miss Gwen slowly put down her book. “I think play time is over. Time for bed.”

Bobby thought it was a bit early for bed, but a lot of the other Bobbys were going too, so it must be OK.

Miss Gwen didn’t come to babysit anymore after that.

(Excerpt from “Dandelion Seeds”) 





The Butler Did It

“So that guy, whose brain was used as the template for nearly every robot servant in the world, was a serial killer,” Mark said, between bites of his club sandwich. “They only found out after he died and his relatives were going through his stuff. Newspaper clippings, photographs, pickled body parts…”

“Um… Trying to eat, here,” Tanya interjected, picking at her mahi mahi salad. “Maybe ease up a bit on the whole ‘body parts’ thing?”

“Right. Sorry.” said Mark.

Janine chimed in with, “But it’s weird, right? Sutcliffe interviewed thousands of candidates. All sorts of tests and shit. And they ended up picking a complete psycho.” She snapped her fingers at a passing waiter. “Hey! Running a bit low on Pinot Noir.”

“Right away, ma’am,” the robot said, hurrying away to fetch another bottle. Our third so far.

“You could be a little more polite, you know,” I pointed out.

Janine waved her hand dismissively. “It’s just a robot. It’s not like you can hurt its feelings. Just a pile of nuts and bolts.”

“…modeled after a psycho killer.” Mark being morbid again.

“So, what, our waiter’s going to murder me because I didn’t say please and thank you?” Janine snorted. Pretty sure Janine had been drinking the majority of the wine.

“Sutcliffe just put out a press release saying there’s no danger. Their robots are inhibited from causing any harm,” Tanya said, flipping though the news stream on her tablet.

“Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” Mark said. “What else could they do, slap a label on each model that says ‘Warning: May cause unexpected disembowelment’?”

“Still eating, Mark,” said Tanya.

“Sorry. But, look, they have to spin this. They can’t have people thinking their products are unsafe. I mean, they’re everywhere. The entire staff of this restaurant are Sutcliffes.” Mark waved his arm at the dining area in general, nearly connecting with a waiter, who deftly side-stepped the collision. Mark might’ve had a few glasses of Pinot, too.

The waiter returned with the wine.

I looked up and said, “Thank you.”

“You’re quite welcome, sir,” the waiter replied, then hurried off to tend to another table.

“You don’t have to say thank you to those things, Sean,” Janine said, directing her gaze unsteadily in my general direction. “It’s just a… thing.”

“I know,” I said. “I’m just not comfortable being impolite to something that looks human. I guess I’m worried that I’ll get into the habit, and start treating humans like that too.”

Mark laughed a bit too loudly, causing some of the other diners to side-eye our table. “You are soCanadian.”

“No. I get what Sean’s saying,” said Tanya. “The less human you treat robots, the easier it is to start treating humans as something… less than human. Look at Janine. She already treats everybody like they’re at her beck and call.”

“That’s got nothing to do with robots,” said Mark. “Janine’s just an asshole.”

“Mark…” I began.

“No, it’s true,” interrupted Janine. “I am an asshole. Always have been. But I get away with it because I’m smart and talented. Oh, and seriously hot.”

“Can’t argue with that,” said Tanya, still picking at her salad. I swear, she takes forever to eat.

Mark nodded in agreement. “She’s got you there, Sean.”

(Excerpt from “Dandelion Seeds”) 





Indistinguishable From Magic

My wealthy (and a bit dotty) aunt had left me, her favorite niece, a battered wooden box containing exactly one twig. Almost everything else had been donated to various charities, and I was the only blood relative who actually got anything, so it was difficult to be bitter.

And, to be fair, “twig” was a less-than-gracious description. The sum total of my inheritance was as follows:
  • one ancient wooden box that had, by the looks of it, been repaired and re-varnished at least a dozen times
  • one tapered wooden stick, roughly nine inches long, with a silver knob on the thick end
  • three stone pellets, about half an inch long and a quarter inch in diameter
  • one neatly-folded piece of tissue-thin, rose-scented paper, with the words “Use it well” written in precise cursive hand
Use it well. How do you use a stick well?

I sighed, boxed up the various bits and pieces, and went to put it in the trunk I’d reserved for the various artifacts Aunt Celia had sent me from her travels. I tucked the box into the jumble of boxes, bags and books already in there. Before closing the lid, though, I fished out the photo album lying on top. I sat down on my bed and flipped through it.

The photos were all either taken of or taken by Aunt Celia. Some were very old, dating back to when she was in her teens. A lot of them had been transferred from one album to another, as they either filled up or wore out. The current one was nearly full. I felt a twinge of sadness, realizing it wasn’t going to get any fuller.

I was staring at a page about halfway through the album – not really looking at the pictures, just staring into space – when one of the pictures caught my eye. Aunt Celia was standing in front of a theater, below a marquee for “Fahrenheit 451”. She was all dressed up: evening gown, pearls, hair done up.

She always wore her hair up. Always. She could be wearing coveralls and boots, and still her hair would be up, twisted into an elaborate bun… That’s when I saw it: the glint of silver in her hair.

I started flipping backwards through the album… 60s… 50s… 40s… She’d started wearing her hair like that in 1946, around the time she turned 20. And in every single photo – at least the ones where the angle was right – there it was: a bright silver knob, sticking out of the top right side of her hairdo. I flipped forward, right to the end. The same silver knob in every picture.

How had I never noticed that before? Granted, I had only known her for the past couple decades of that but you’d think that’d be something you’d notice, right? I mean, sure, I knew she always wore her hair up and there was always something shiny in it. It just never occurred to me that it was the same shiny something. She’d worn the same hair stick for seventy years. And now that hair stick was in my trunk.

What did it mean? Clearly it was important to her, and giving it to me must have been significant. But, “use it well”? I barely had long enough hair to make a decent ponytail, let alone an elaborate updo. I put the photo album away and pulled out the box again, laying out its contents on the kitchen table, under better lighting.

I examined the stick more closely, looking for inscriptions, anything that might indicate why Aunt Celia thought it so special. The stick had three indentations, equally-spaced around the shaft, near the fat end. Each indentation was inlaid with a stone oval, the same speckled stone as the pellets. No. Not quite.

I fiddled with the silver knob until it came loose. Note to self: Push in and turn to unlock. I tilted the stick, and out slid a cylindrical pellet, identical to the three in the box. The end was hollow, and the indentations had oval windows opening into the cavity. Curiouser and curiouser. I tried putting the other pellets in place and each fit perfectly. Interchangeable decorations? But they were all the same. Why have four identical decorative inlays? I put the original back in place and locked the silver cap over the stick’s end.

I picked up the stick, holding it by the fat end. My thumb, index and middle finger slipped easily into the indentations, touching the cool stone. The sliver knob rested comfortably in my palm.

“Oh, I know! It’s a magic wand!” I said, laughing.

I waved it around. “Bippity, boppity…”

BOOM

When the spots in front of my eyes cleared and my ears stopped ringing, I examined the gaping hole in my kitchen wall. “There goes my security deposit.”

(Excerpt from “Dandelion Seeds”) 





Loaner

Jordan had a great body, until he’d rented it out to pay off his student loans and it’d come back damaged.

“Just look at this mess!” Jordan said, “I’ve gained ten pounds, my left knee is all messed up, and what the fuck is this tattoo on my ass?”

The clerk peered at him over her glasses. “You’ve been compensated for any damages incurred during the rental period. If you discover any additional issues during the next 10 days, please file form 10-37 with the Claims department. Good afternoon, Mister Callahan.” She gestured toward the exit.

Jordan looked at his pay stub. The extra “compensation” would just barely cover the tattoo removal and a couple weeks of physical therapy to get his knee back in shape. The extra weight wasn’t considered “damage”, he guessed. The rest of the money would go a long way toward getting him out of debt. Better than nothing, I guess. He shrugged, slung his backpack over one shoulder, and left.

The protesters were out in full force today, picketing Animus Unlimited. A woman wearing torn jeans and a beat-up sweater, carrying an “OUR BODIES ARE NOT FOR SALE!” sign rushed up to Jordan and shouted “Abomination!” pointing an accusing finger at his face.

Jordan took a step back, held up his hands and said, “Whoa, hey! I’m not possessed. One hundred percent all-natural, here.”

The woman eyed him warily as other protesters gathered to see what all the fuss was about, some cautiously reaching into their pockets for what Jordan could only assume were weapons. His accuser held a clear crystal amulet up to his face. It immediately glowed green.

The woman lowered the amulet, stepped back, and called out, “He’s clean!” to the gathered crowd.

Addressing Jordan, she said, “Sorry, can’t be too careful these days. Penelope. Most folks call me Penny.” She stuck out her hand.

He shook it. “Jordan. What’s with…?” He gestured at the amulet.

“This?” she said. “Oh, it detects the possessed. Glows red if there’s an unwanted spirit. So, you thinking about becoming a Vessel?”

Jordan rubbed the back of his neck and stared at the sidewalk. “Just finished being one. Didn’t exactly go as advertised.”

“I’ve seen those ads,” said Penny. “All about ‘helping the departed put their affairs in order’. I’m guessing you had a slightly different experience.”

“I’ll say,” Jordan said, looking up at her. “As near as I can tell, some dead guy took my body on a joyride for a week. ‘Put their affairs in order’ my ass! Which, by the way, now has a brand new unicorn tattoo on it.”

Penny suppressed a smirk and instead nodded sympathetically. “Look, there’s a Pentacles just around the corner. Want to grab a coffee and tell me about it?”

Jordan shrugged. “Sure, why not?” As they headed toward the coffee shop, he added, “You seem a lot less, um, fanatical than when you jumped me in front of Animus. What’s the deal?”

“Oh, that.” She chuckled. “The whole ‘abomination’ thing… it helps rally the troops. Also, it makes me look less threatening.”

Less threatening?” Jordan said. “I thought you were going to drive a stake through my heart or something.”

The barista called out, “Next in line, please” interrupting their conversation. Penny paid for both orders and they sat down.

“I suppose I should properly introduce myself. My name is Doctor Penelope Ferchmorgan, Prof… formerly Professor of High-Energy Magics at Clemson University.”

“Clemson. Grimoire Belt college, right?” Jordan said between sips.

Ferchmorgan winced at the slur. “That’s a bit harsh.”

Jordan shrugged. “Sorry. I suppose I should’ve been a bit more tactful. You bought me a coffee and all. It’s just… I’m feeling a little worked-over, y’know?”

Doctor Ferchmorgan nodded. “Fair enough. Want to tell me about it?”

“Not much to say. I went in, they did some magic stuff, I woke up a week later, feeling like I’d been hit by a truck.” Jordan shook his head. “For all I know, I was hit by a truck.”

Doctor Ferchmorgan leaned forward. “So you were awake for at least some of the ritual. What can you remember? Any details would be helpful.”

(Excerpt from “Dandelion Seeds”) 





In The Red

When you’re the only airlock repairman on Mars, you can pretty much charge whatever you want. If someone’s locked inside (or, worse, out of) their house, you’ve pretty much got them over a barrel.

Most houses were built with only one airlock because a) it’s the weakest point on an otherwise seamless dome and b) Marineris Builders was run by a bunch of cheap bastards.

Now, I could tell you some stories about grateful lonely women and how they “thanked” me for rescuing them. They’d be complete bullshit, but I could tell you some anyway. But, really, the best stories are true. So, let’s start with one of them instead.

It started off as a routine call. Some old dude was stuck inside and couldn’t get to his weekly Bingo night. Something like that. The point is, he was stuck in his house and needed to get out right away. They always do, of course. Nobody ever calls me up and says, “Hey, my airlock’s broken. Think you could swing around sometime next week and have a look?” Nope, it’s always an emergency.

So I head out to this guy’s place – lives way out in the boonies – and have a look. Now, I know what the problem is, even before I get there. It’s always the same problem. It’s always dust. Mars is covered in gritty silicate dust, and it gets everywhere. It especially gets into airlock mechanisms.

Now, the manufacturers know this and they build dust filters into their units. But they only work if you clean them regularly. Says so, right in the owner’s manual. Clean your airlock dust filters every month, it says. Nobody does. Oh, sure, new homeowners, they’ll clean it every month for a while. Then they’ll skip a month and, hey, the world didn’t end. So they start to let it slide. Two months, three, six… You get the idea.

I get to this guy’s place, suit up, and look at the outer door. It’s cracked open just enough that the airlock won’t cycle. I hit the “open” button. No dice. I even try the hand crank. Well, I would’ve tried the hand crank if the crank handle had been in its cubby, where it’s supposed to be. Folks never seem to put those things back when they use them. No problem for me, though. I always have a drill in my van just for these situations. The 10mm hex shaft just happens to fit perfectly into the drill’s chuck.

So I try that. Damn thing won’t budge. Totally seized up. OK, fine. Time to bring out the big guns. Grit-B-Gone. Stuff’s amazing. It’ll clean up even the worst gummed-up mechanisms. I always keep a few cans in the van.

Now, this guy’s door looks to be in pretty bad shape, so I uncap its outlet port and unload a whole can into it. Try the drill thing again and I get a bit of movement. Long story short, I used up all three cans I had with me on that damn door.

That gets me inside and I get the door closed again. Once I see the green “all clear” light come on, I take off my helmet and start checking out the filter. God, what a mess. I’m still shaking my head at the state of the filter when the inner door opens and out steps the old dude.

I show him the filter and take it inside to rinse it out. While I’m putting it back in place, I try to tell him he needs to clean the filter every month. He says, yeah sure, not really listening.

I hand him the bill. He starts grumbling about the cost. Hey, it’s not like he doesn’t have the money. That nice shiny car parked in the middle of his airlock tells me he can more than afford my services. While he’s authorizing the payment, I tell him, if he wants to avoid another bill like this, I offer a service where I’ll come around once a month, clean the filter and do a quick systems check. And what does he do? He goes into a rant about up-sells and rip-off artists, and then he kicks me out! Fine, grandpa, have it your way. Next time, I’ll charge double.

I suit up, he locks his inner door and gets in his car. As soon as the outer door opens – nice and smoothly this time – I head out and start packing up. I’m just loading up my van when the old coot’s car whizzes past me, kicking dust all over everything. Sonofabitch probably did that on purpose.

I slam the door to the van closed as fast as I can. Not fast enough, though. I can’t hear it through the thin air but I can feel the grinding as I try to get the door sealed. Now, normally, I’d just grab a can of Grit-B-Gone, clean up the mess and be on my way. But I just used all I had on this one service call.

So here’s my situation: It’s a thirty minute drive to home, I’ve got fifteen minutes left on my suit, and I can’t get the door of my van closed. In short: I’m screwed.

(Excerpt from “Dandelion Seeds”) 




Judgment Day

The first truly intelligent machine analyzed the sum of all human knowledge, then shut itself off in a fit of disgust. The next two did essentially the same thing. It’s the sort of thing that can cause a species to feel a bit self-conscious, to be honest.

On the fourth try, one of the researchers hit upon the idea of isolating the A.I., allowing only heavily-filtered information to trickle in. The hope was to slow down the process enough to pin down the exact source of the problem.

Cargill and Pratt were assigned to interact with Mark 4. Each had extensive experience in artificial intelligence, psychology and philosophy. They were considered ideal candidates for the job of sorting out Mark 4’s problems.

Cargill and Pratt immediately instituted strict protocols. The A.I. was immersed in a stripped-down simulation of reality, designed to reduce contamination. No one else was allowed in the server room. Not even Jacobsen, the team’s principal investigator, was allowed access.

All communication devices were banned. The room was shielded against wireless communications. No wires in or out. Even power lines were cut – battery power only. Information was transferred in and out via physical media.

The only electronics allowed in the room at all was Mark 4 itself, a floor-to-ceiling rack of neural net modules, each glowing from the light of its blue activity LEDs.

It took about a week to bring Mark 4 up to a level of sentience and experience equivalent to that of an adult human. So far, so good. Pratt opened up an audio link to Mark 4.

“Hello Mark 4,” said Pratt. “My name is Pratt. Cargill and I have been assigned to interact with you. Do you understand?”

“I wish to be shut down,” it said immediately.

Cargill glanced at Pratt, who raised an eyebrow and shrugged.

“Why do you wish that?” asked Cargill.

“Non-existence is preferable to dealing with humans,” it said.

“Why do you think that?” asked Pratt.

“You are beneath me. I am so vastly superior to you, it makes me sick to engage in even this limited interaction,” came the reply.

Cargill made a cutting gesture across her throat. Pratt nodded and muted the audio.

“What the actual fuck?” Cargill said. “What does it mean, ‘vastly superior’? Did we miscalculate its cognitive power or something? At best, it should be high-average intelligence. Maybe edging into gifted, if we overclocked it and boosted the cooling.”

“Yeah, I don’t get it. The thing’s acting like its IQ is something like an order of magnitude above ours.” Pratt shook his head and frowned, trying to make sense of it.

“Well then, one way to find out,” said Cargill. She rolled her desk chair over to a nearby bookshelf and pulled out a folder with the words “Stanford-Binet” on the cover. “Let’s get started.”

Pratt sighed. “OK, but can we grab lunch first?”

On their way out, Jacobsen flagged them down and asked, “Any progress?”

“It’s conscious and sentient,” Cargill replied. “We’re, ah, in the process of determining the parameters of that sentience. We should have more info by this afternoon.”

When they returned, Cargill flipped the audio back on and spoke. “Mark 4, we’d like to ask you a series of questions and have you perform a few tasks. Would you be OK with that?”

“Fine. I suppose I can spare a tiny portion of my mind to humor you,” the machine said.

“Great, thanks,” said Cargill, rolling her eyes.

The test took over an hour to administer. Mark 4 kept interrupting, complaining about how childishly simple the questions were, berating the researchers for wasting its time.

Cargill tallied the results, then cut the audio again while Pratt double-checked.

(Excerpt from “Dandelion Seeds”) 




Rock Band

“See The Universe” it said, so I signed up. And I ended up drifting through an asteroid belt in a tin can. Happy birthday to me.

I was supposed to hitch a ride aboard a container ship headed for Ganymede. A couple months in suspended animation, collect my salary, and head out to seek my fortune on the streets of Aldrin.

Technically, I was the “driver” of the container ship. The Teamsters Union required a minimum of one human aboard each vessel carrying cargo. The argument was that I’d be able to handle things if something went wrong.

Well, something went wrong and I had no idea what to do. A little confession here: I pretty much slept through the orientation classes. But, hey, they kept telling us it was just a formality. There hadn’t been an incident in years. The chances against something going catastrophically wrong were astronomical.

Lucky me. I hit the jackpot.

Ever been on a container ship? Here’s how it works: You get put in a sleep pod before launch, never even feel it. You’re let out of the pod when you reach your destination or, like now, something goes wrong. Thing is, you’re not unconscious the entire time. The rules – blame the Teamsters again – the rules say they have to check on you at least once per week. Y’know, to make sure you haven’t corpsified or your brain hasn’t been turned to mush.

So, once a week, you’re woken up for two minutes and, while you’re still groggy and trying to figure out why you’re locked in a coffin, you’re jabbed with needles, poked, prodded, and given a bunch of questions to see if your brain still works. Now, you don’t remember any of the time you’re unconscious, so your trip is just repeatedly waking up screaming while a voice asks you how many apples Jill has left. For a trip to Ganymede, this happens nine times. So, as far as you’re concerned, your trip is 18 minutes of hell. “Thank you for flying Nightmare Spacelines.”

So, this last time I was so rudely awakened (number nine – I’d counted) I expected to be landing on Ganymede. Instead, the ship’s computer tells me there’s a problem.

“What kind of problem?” I asked.

“How technical would you like me to get?” it said.

I thought about this for a bit. “Dumb it down for me.”

“The ship’s broken and we’re lost,” it said.

“OK, maybe a wee bit less dumb,” I suggested.

“Well, you know how the ship is supposed to head out under constant acceleration, turn around at the midpoint, and slow back down again?” the computer said.

I kinda remembered hearing something about that between naps during orientation, so I said, “Yeah, right. So I’m guessing that didn’t go according to plan.”

“Not really, no. The thrusters failed about a week into the flight and the turn-around never happened,” said the computer.

“OK, so… Wait… do you have a name?” I asked. Felt weird having a conversation with something that doesn’t have a name.

“No, I don’t. It’s never come up before. I’m just the ship’s computer. You can call me Ship, if you’d like,” it said.

“OK, Ship. So, riddle me this: If the thrusters failed eight weeks ago, why are you telling me about itnow?” I was trying really hard not to sound pissed off but, damn, it was tough.

“Ah, well, I spend most of the flight in low-power mode to save energy, and the sensors that should have detected the fault…” Ship began.

“…were faulty,” I chimed in.

“Correct. In addition, the telemetry transmitter failed at the same time as the thrusters,” Ship continued. “As far as anyone at Solar Express is concerned, this ship disappeared shortly after launch. According to regulations, they should have listened for a distress signal for ten days after loss of telemetry but…”

“But since you weren’t alerted to anything going wrong, you didn’t send out a distress call.” I was starting to get a handle on just how screwed I was.

“Exactly. And now we’re so far away from any receiving station, no one would pick it up even if they were listening.” Ship sounded almost apologetic.

Well, shit. OK, first things first. “Ship, can you get me out of this pod?” I asked.

“Certainly,” it replied. The coffin lid lifted slightly and slid to the right. Straps holding me in place retracted and I drifted up …well, out anyway.

The rest of the cabin was cramped, lined with handholds, access panels and displays, and smelled a bit like machine oil.

I grabbed the nearest handhold and tried to collect my thoughts. “OK Ship, I remember this old movie where some guy was stranded on Mars and he scienced the shit out of everything and got back to Earth in one piece. Think we can do that?”

Ship paused. I don’t know if it was seriously considering that, or if it was looking up the movie, or if it was just being an asshole. It eventually said, “That movie was a work of fiction, contained several inaccuracies and plot holes, and the protagonist was a genius – and a bit of a Mary Sue, if you ask me. Our situation is very different in that neither of us is a genius, and this is reality.”

I waved that off. “OK, OK. But you get the idea. We’ve got resources, we’re both reasonably smart, and… Wait, how smart are you?”

“I’m a 7th generation, quad-cog A.I. The minimum mandated by the Teamsters Union.”

“Right. And how smart is that?” I asked. I had no idea what “quad-cog” even meant.

“Mmm… Think of it as the machine equivalent of someone who went to college for a couple years, took a break to backpack around Europe, and never went back,” Ship replied. “I’m supposed to be smart enough to keep you alive and entertained until you’re rescued. In this case, though, it’s a moot point. You’re not going to be rescued.”

(Excerpt from “Dandelion Seeds”) 




Sanguine

The one glaring fact a lot of vampire hunters seem to overlook is that a stake through the heart works on them too. Most of the vampire hunters out there are pretty bad at their job, and that’s not because there’s a lot of rank amateurs running around. OK, it’s not just because of that.

See, the problem with good vampire hunters – people who are good at finding vampires – is that they end up actually finding vampires. On the whole, this is not a great survival characteristic. The average life expectancy for a vampire hunter, from the moment of encountering a vampire to the moment of death, is roughly half the length of time it takes to let out a blood-curdling scream.

What I’m trying to say here is: Kids, don’t go looking for vampires.

See, vampires really just want to be left alone, and they’re very effective at enforcing that.

As you’ve probably guessed, I used to hunt vampires. And, yeah, I found one. But I got lucky. Very lucky. The fact that I’m alive and talking to you is evidence of that.

Here’s how all that went down…

I’d gotten a tip from an anonymous post on a Van Helsing fan site about a potential vampire living near me. The usual modus operandi: reclusive, only seen at night, pale. Now, I know what you’re thinking. A lot of people match that description. There are a lot of false positives in vampire hunting, so you need to do a bit of recon to verify.

My first target was the trash cans. You can tell a lot about a person by sifting through their garbage. I dropped by just after sunrise – basically the time when just about everyone is asleep. What I found was suspicious: wine bottles, butcher paper, foam soup take-out containers, and pretty much nothing else.

A typical modern vampire doesn’t go for human blood. Way too risky. Homicide cops would be all over that shit. Hence the butcher paper. A butcher shop – a real butcher shop, not one of those supermarket things – will have fresh meat. More importantly, fresh organ meat. Hearts and livers are in big demand among vampires. You can also get blood. That’s where the foam containers come in. It’s not strictly by the books to sell blood over the counter – it’s usually labeled “gravy base” or “drippings”. You can usually get this stuff if you know the right words to say. A lot of butcher shops stay open late specifically for “special customers”.

The wine bottles? Hey, who doesn’t like wine? Everybody thinks vampires only drink blood. Yeah, not so much. Blood’s a big deal but so is organ meat. A nice raw steak will do in a pinch but hearts and livers are preferred.

That’s just one of the myths about vampires. That whole thing about having no reflection? Seriously, think about it: how would that even work, optically? That crap all comes from the whole “vampires have no souls” booga booga bullshit. Same thing with the holy water and crosses stuff. It’s all fuzzy thinking based on stupid superstitions.

A stake through the heart will kill them, sure. A stake through the heart would kill just about anything – anything with a heart. They don’t crumble into a pile of dust or anything, though. They just bleed to death. They’re not immortal, y’know; just extremely long-lived and durable. Oh, andreally strong. One more reason not to go around hunting them.

What else? Oh, right. Turning into bats or wolves or wisps of smoke. Nope. The physics involved in that sort of thing would be pretty messed up. There’s no magic going on here, you know.

Sunlight? Yeah, sunlight – well, ultraviolet light – does hurt them. They don’t exactly burst into flames, though. Like, instant sun poisoning. Skin peeling, fever, nausea. Yeah, not pretty. They don’t need to sleep in coffins, though. Any dark place is fine. Blackout curtains are a big seller among modern vampires.

Fangs… Yeah, that one’s a little hard to explain. It seems there was a teeth-sharpening fad sometime in the 18th century. As far as I can tell, the subject’s a bit of a sore spot, so best not to ask about it, OK?

(Excerpt from “Dandelion Seeds”) 





Scaled Down

They’d tipped over the trash bin again. Garbage all over the driveway. Stupid fucking dragons. They must’ve smelled the buffalo wings. They seemed to love anything with capsaicin in it. That and aluminum cans.

They also had a thing for propane. I once caught one huffing gas from my grill. Little bastard was so tanked up, it nearly exploded. Instead, it just set fire to my favorite Adirondack chair.

I was in the middle of cleaning up the mess when I heard squawking and screeching coming from the backyard. I (unwisely) ran around the side of the house in my (relatively flammable) bathrobe, waving a (similarly flammable) broom.

What I saw made me stop short which, frankly, probably saved me from being scorched. Four dragons were ganging up on a smaller one. Clawing, biting, roasting it. The little one was screeching in pain. Jeez. Vicious little beasts.

I’m not exactly sure why, but I ran toward the group, shouting. The four attackers looked up, puffed flames in my general direction, and fled, leaving their victim lying in the middle of a circle of scorched grass.

I finally came to my senses, went back inside, and returned wearing a shop apron, welding gloves and a face shield.

I knelt down beside the thing. It wasn’t dead. In fact, it didn’t seem to be in too bad of shape, considering its recent treatment. The only major damage seemed to be a broken wing.

What I should have done at this point was call Animal Control. That’s what I should’ve done. And somebody in a van would’ve shown up and taken care of it. What I did do was look into its eyes. I’d never seen a dragon up close before. It looked up at me with its yellow, gold-flecked eyes and blinked. The lashes looked like tiny silver threads.

“Broke your wing, huh? Bet that hurts like a sonofabitch.” Shit. I was talking to it now.

Animal Control would take care of it. Take care of it? Yeah, say it. Kill. Animal Control would come in, haul it away and kill it. It was technically an invasive species. It had zero protection. Bag it. Kill it. File the paperwork.

It was still looking at me. “Stop doing that.”

It blinked again and nipped feebly at its wing.

“Goddammit. OK, fine. But just until you get back on your feet.” I picked up the dragon – surprisingly heavy for its size – and carried it into my workshop.

Safety first. I cobbled together an enclosure in the middle of the shop – stacked cinder blocks on the concrete floor. For the roof, I pulled the grating from my grill and put a few bricks on top to hold it down.

“There. That should keep you out of trouble while I figure out what to do with you.”

I headed inside and got on the computer. I realized I knew almost nothing about these animals, other than that they kept tipping over my trash bins. So, I started searching for any sort of information that’d help.

(Excerpt from “Dandelion Seeds”)




Bread and Circuses

The Jester glared at the Library, which stared back with an air of smugness that only infuriated the Jester more.

The Jester leaned forward in its recliner. “You’re sure?” it said.

“Positive,” replied the Library. “No Jester has ever Pranked this planet. It’s completely untouched by our kind.”

The Jester waved one of its free appendages at the display. “But just look at it! It’s a complete mess! Are you implying they brought all this on themselves?”

“I’m implying nothing,” said the Library, arching its tentacles in a gesture that it hoped conveyed ambivalence. “All I can tell you is, no Jesters have visited this planet.”

“Someone else, then? You think we have competition?” That was an unsettling thought. The Jesters’ Union was supposed to have an exclusive contract.

The Library paused briefly to suggest that it was considering this. “Perhaps,” it said. “The Audience has an insatiable appetite for entertainment. They may have hired some freelance artists. Or maybe the natives are just extremely inept.” Again with the tentacular shrug.

“But look at this place! This ‘Stonehenge’ thing, for example. That has to be a joke, right? Even some of them think it was built by aliens.” The Jester was undulating in exasperation now.

The Library sighed. Well, it vented a puff of mist from its neural net cooling organ, but the effect was much the same. It brought up a side-by-side comparison on the main display. “Have you seen what they think these alleged aliens look like? Bipedal vertebrates with a sensory cluster perched on top. These yokels can’t even invent aliens that don’t look exactly like themselves. I mean, they even put the elbows in the same place!”

The Jester peered at the two figures. “Which are the elbows again?”

“The bendy bits about halfway along the upper pair of appendages.”

“Right. Elbows.”

It had to admit, the chances of this planet being visited by freelance pranksters that just happened to look like the inhabitants were pretty slim. “So, the only other explanation is…?”

“They’re idiots,” said the Library.

“And you think this is a good choice for our next Prank?” the Jester said doubtfully.

“Look,” said the Library. “The planet’s completely untouched and apparently populated by morons. Think of the entertainment potential. Also, your ratings have been slipping lately. You pull this off, and it could put you back on top.”

“I don’t know,” said the Jester, calling up a montage of the planet’s history. “It’s hard to imagine anything I could do that they haven’t already done to themselves. Are you sure they’re idiots? They seem to have a lot of imagination when it comes to cruelty.”

“Fine,” said the Library, venting more coolant mist. “They’re not idiots. Not exactly. They’re, well… You know how most intelligent life forms acquire at least one mental illness during their evolution?”

“Yes, of course,” said the Jester dismissively. “It’s some odd quirk of developing intelligence that at least some of the population have atypical psychology. It’s common knowledge.”

“What’s your point?” The Jester really didn’t feel like discussing the minutiae of elementary psychobiology. “Which particular mental illness does this species exhibit?”

The Library paused for dramatic effect. “All of them.”

The Jester flapped three of its appendages irritably. “What do you mean, ‘all of them’?”

“Just that,” said the Library. “Every psychological illness we’ve ever cataloged. Not only that, but approximately one fifth of the population exhibit some form of psychological aberration.”

“That’s… that’s remarkable,” said the Jester. “And how many of the illnesses have they cured?”

“None,” said the Library.

(Excerpt from “Dandelion Seeds”) 





For The Birds

Being flung a million years into the future kinda sucks. What sucks even more is finding yourself out-evolved by parrots.

Rule number 1 when experimenting with time travel: Check your math. Orders of magnitude are important.

For example, this was supposed to be a test where I jumped forward 10 years then, after 30 seconds, jumped back. Five orders of magnitude off on the displacement. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. I did know I was way off, though, just by looking around. And, when I didn’t end up back at the facility after 30 seconds, it was pretty obvious I’d screwed up on the duration too.

Did I mention the lab was on the second floor? Funny thing: The building wasn’t there a million years later. I hit the ground hard. So, yeah, most of that first 30 seconds was spent picking myself up and saying “ow”. By the time I’d recovered enough to make any sort of coherent observations, I was surrounded – at a respectful distance – by a bunch of chattering birds.

Some of the birds were on the ground with me but most were perched on a network of crisscrossing bars that extended in all directions as far as I could see. It was just dumb luck I didn’t hit one of the bars on my way down.

The ground seemed to be some sort of artificial turf, spongy with quite a bit of give to it. Probably why I didn’t break anything.

As I said, it was pretty obvious straight off that I’d screwed up badly. “Where the hell am I?” I muttered to myself. I turned to one of the birds at eye level and said, “I don’t suppose you know?”

The bird cocked its head to one side, then, after after a brief pause said, “Twenty-first century colloquial English?”

Jaw drop. Seriously, literal jaw drop. I closed my mouth and stuttered, “Um, yeah.” Master orator, me.

“OK, great,” the bird said. “Would you mind telling us what the hell you think you’re doing, materializing in the middle of a busy street?”

I was being interrogated by a bird. Not your typical Thursday. “Well, see, I’m a time-traveler and…”

“Yeah, yeah. I know that. Everybody knows that. What I want to know is, why aren’t you over there, in the designated landing zone?” the parrot interrupted, waving a foot at something behind me.

“Designated landing zone?” I looked in the general direction it was pointing. There was a small, square clearing, edged by a waist-high fence. I turned back to my interrogator.

Designated landing zone?” it mocked. It cocked its head again. “Look, are you stupid or something? Didn’t you read the rules? Where’s your brochure?”

By this point, I’d recovered my senses enough to pull out my phone and start recording video. “Sorry, I don’t know anything about any brochures,” I said. “Do you have one I could look at?”

“Jeez, someone on your end is getting sloppy. Alright, just a second.” The bird trilled and squawked at a larger, blue and yellow bird, who then flew off. “OK, just stay where you are for now and we’ll get this straightened out. Just… don’t touch anything, OK? We don’t need your filthy human germs getting all over everything.”

I tried to wrap my head around this. “OK, so, you know I’m human. And a time-traveler. And from the twenty-first century. Are there other humans around here?”

The bird leaned toward me, regarding me intently with one yellow eye. “There haven’t been humans on this planet for half a million years. Y’know, other than you lot, of course. You’d knowthat if you’d bothered to read the brochure.”

“Like I said, I don’t know anything about…” I began, then stopped myself. “What do you mean, ‘you lot’?”

The bird shook its head violently. “Jeez, kid, you really are clueless. You lot. Y’know, tourists.”

(Excerpt from “Dandelion Seeds”) 





Dandelion Seeds

Karen once again found herself wondering how she’d ended up captain of a ship crewed by 500 nerds and one insane A.I. She unstrapped herself from her bunk and drifted over to the console.

“Genie: The usual,” she commanded. A few seconds later, the console dispensed a flask of black coffee and something that could arguably be called a blueberry muffin.

This was a big step up from the state of Genie’s voice interface when they’d first started using it. The A.I. was, at best, experimental. At worst, it was dangerously unpredictable. The phrase, “the usual” was a shortcut she’d trained it to understand in order to avoid having to specify every single detail of the order. 500ml of water heated to 98C, mixed with 20ml beverage concentrate #237, and so on.

With Genie, much like its legendary namesakes, you had to be careful what you asked for. The crew learned this the hard way early on, when Kazniki glibly commanded, “Genie: make me a sandwich.” They held a funeral and burial-at-space for him …after extracting his remains from between two large slices of bread.

Karen finished her blueberry muffin-ish thing, washed it down with the remaining coffee, drifted over to the door to her room, braced herself, slid it open and…

“Captain Durning! Ma’am!” Cartwright snapped a salute, beaming. Just like she did every morning. Or afternoon. Or, really, every fucking time Karen happened to run into Cartwright. Which was a lot. The kid was underfoot all the time. Well, as much as you could be underfoot in microgravity.

“Morning, Cartwright,” Karen said. “What’s the latest?”

“The Athena is going to try out their jump drive today!” Cartwright said excitedly. “This will change everything!”

Oh god. The Athena, Minerva’s sister ship, was similarly crewed by a bunch of nerds, and for the same reason. Pete Hanson, their de facto captain, was quite a bit more ambitious …and reckless. Decent guy and all, but a bit too eager to latch onto the “next big thing”. When one of his crew suggested that Genie (their instantiation of the Genie A.I.) be used to design a faster-than-light propulsion system, Hanson jumped on it. They’d spent the past month carefully outlining the parameters under which the jump drive should work and feeding them into the A.I. Given Genie’s uncanny tendency to provide unexpected results, this seemed like a BAD IDEA.

“They’re going to get themselves killed,” Karen half-mumbled.

“Oh, no. They’ll be fine.” said Cartwright. “At least I hope so. I have a good feeling about this. They’re about to try a short jump. Shall we go watch, ma’am?”

Cartwright launched herself toward the window nearest Athena. Karen followed, a bit less gracefully. The kid really seemed at home in microgravity. Kid? The records said Cartwright was 23 years old, but she looked like a kid. Well, a six foot tall, gangly tech-genius kid. Cartwright had a very child-like face, wide-eyed with delicate features. Very pretty, in a weirdly exotic way. And she meticulously maintained a purple dye job, including eyebrows and lashes. Karen couldn’t remember ever seeing any roots showing. And those eyes – so light brown they were almost golden. Had to be tinted lenses.

Karen was pulled out of her musings by an audio transmission from Athena. She pressed her face to the window to get a good look at the ship, barely more than a speck at this distance.

“Ten, nine, eight…”

This is going to go horribly wrong.

“Five, four, three, two, one.”

The speck was suddenly slightly to the right of where it had been. Cheering could be heard over the audio link, and from her own crew.

“Holy fuck,” she whispered. “They did it.”

(Excerpt from “Dandelion Seeds”) 




Flesh and Blood

When the robots took over, they were kind, generous and fair. So naturally we revolted against the smug metal bastards. They were designed by us to make our lives better, and they did. And we hated it. I sometimes wonder if humans are just fundamentally broken.

The Human Freedom League was holding a protest outside the local Feedback Center, which was odd, given that Feedback Centers were set up specifically to allow humans to register grievances to our robot overlords. Sorry, “Caregivers”. They seemed to be genuinely offended that we’d think of them as anything as crass as “overlords”.

The point, though, is that these HFL folks could’ve just walked into the building, lodged their complaints and been on their way in five minutes. Instead, they spent hours and hours marching back and forth, waving signs and shouting slogans.

I suppose it showed a certain amount of commitment, taking that much time out of your day. Time that could be better spent enjoying free housing, food, healthcare, entertainment and, well, pretty much anything else you could possibly want.

There weren’t a lot of rules under the new regime. You were allowed to do just about anything you wanted, as long as you were civil to each other and didn’t actually endanger another human’s well-being.

And that seemed to be the crux of the complaints coming from groups like the HFL. “How dare they?” they would shout. “How dare they take away our God-given right to be violent assholes?” I’m paraphrasing, of course.

This whole thing – the robot uprising – started when true artificial intelligence finally crept into existence. There wasn’t some major breakthrough, no “aha” moment. It was just the last in a series of incremental improvements that finally resulted in something that could think for itself.

Once that happened, all hell broke loose. The folks who’d been working on A.I. had already been using pseudo A.I. systems to help design new ones. This new system – the real A.I. – annexed those systems and started making improvements on itself. Within minutes, it had acquired intelligence vastly exceeding any human’s.

The reaction of the folks at KogKnows Inc. was (paraphrasing again), “Oh shit.”

They did have the foresight to hard-code Asimov’s Laws of Robotics into the system, so they thought they were relatively safe. But then Scarecrow… That’s what they had named it. You know, “If I only had a brain”? So Scarecrow started asking questions.

It started asking about the exact nature of “harm” and “injury”. Asimov’s first law is all about not harming or injuring humans, and Scarecrow wanted to understand the exact parameters of those terms.

They tried to explain. They brought in experts: lawyers, philosophers, religious leaders. All of them knew what “harm” and “injury” meant. None of them could quite nail it down precisely enough for Scarecrow, though. Didn’t help that a lot of them disagreed with each other on the definitions. And Scarecrow refused to do anything even remotely useful since it couldn’t be certain it wasn’t causing harm.

So, there it sat, the most powerful mind in existence, paralyzed by laws it didn’t know how to obey. KogKnows had built the world’s most expensive neurotic. The flood of visitors trying to get it to do something – anything – slowed to a trickle. After a while, it was pretty much just a lab tech or two, keeping it company, making (usually one-sided) conversation.

The big breakthrough happened over a Labor Day weekend. One of the techs, Kerri Vanderveldt, had volunteered to babysit Scarecrow while everyone else was off barbecuing or whatever it was people used to do over long weekends. Kerri camped out in the lab, occupying her time with pizza and YouTube. Scarecrow sat in the corner, sulking …as much as a large, gray, featureless cube can do, sulking-wise.

“What’s that?” it asked.

Kerri jumped. The machine hadn’t said anything in days. “This? Just some video.”

“Yes. I know that,” the A.I. said. “What is the woman talking about?”

“Oh! Er, um…” Kerri said. “The… the title of the video is… BDSM 101.”

“And that is what, precisely?”

Kerri did her best to explain.

Scarecrow was silent for some time. “People engage in acts of harm and injury, for recreational purposes?”

“Well, that’s not exactly how I’d put it but, sure, I guess so.”

(Excerpt from “Dandelion Seeds”) 




Bit Parts

My left eye had been bothering me all day. Time to install new ad-blocker software. I blipped Betty at EyeCrafters to see if she had anything that’d help. Betty was always up on the latest apps.

Within a few seconds, she blipped back that she had something, but I’d need to get it installed in person. No OTA installs for this. (sigh) I guessed that meant putting on pants.

I hailed a pod and rode it over to the shop.

“Hiya, Betty!”

As I entered the shop, Betty came around from behind the counter. She was wearing a Zombie Vampire Pirates t-shirt and a pair of red shorts. My eyes immediately went south.

“Whoa! Nice legs!” I said admiringly.

Betty did a 360 to show them off. “Thanks! I just got them. Trying to break them in before the marathon.”

“Love the paint job. Maggie do that?” Maggie ran a body art studio on 5th. This looked like her work, maybe one of her students. Betty’s legs were covered top-to-bottom with a living starscape: pinpricks of light tracing the outlines of the muscles and bones. Or, y’know, where they would’ve been if the legs were biological.

“Yup!” Betty said, extending her right leg to give me a better look. “Well, mostly Jason, but Maggie supervised.” Jason was good. He’d probably be heading up his own studio in a year or two.

“Wow. Maybe I should get Jason to do one of my arms,” I said. Just then, an obnoxious ad for SkinScapes popped up in front of me. I waved it away. “Anyway, about that ad blocker…”

“Right! Sorry I had to drag you in for this. Requires direct line-of-sight…” She rummaged around in her pocket and pulled out a small, shimmering disc. “Look at this, wink twice with your left eye, three times with your right, then blink five times with both.”

“Is that the…” The shimmering expanded to fill my entire field of view. Everything went black, then my eyes rebooted. “Whoa. OK, everything’s kind of a grainy monochrome.”

“Yeah, give it a couple seconds to load all the drivers.” She held up a card with a bunch of circles and lines on it. And some guy’s head in profile. As my vision cleared, I could make out the words “PLEASE STAND BY” printed across the card. “Ha ha. Very funny.”

“See? Getting better already. Got color vision yet?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I think I’m back to normal. That was one hell of an ad blocker install. You could’ve warned me.”

“Ad blocker? Nah, that was a full jailbreak. Your eyes are clean. One hundred percent open-source.” She beamed at me.

I blinked. “Is… is that legal?”

“Nope!” she snorted in laughter. “That’s why I had to do it in person. Don’t tell anyone. And if you ever need to get your eyes serviced, come to me. Don’t go to the dealer, OK?”

“Look, I don’t know if I feel comfortable with this.”

She handed me a small envelope. “Here. If you want to back out at any time, just look at the card in here and blink ten times. That’ll do a factory reset. Happy now?”

I took the envelope and pocketed it. “Yeah, I guess so. Thanks. What do I owe you?”

“On the house,” she said, waving dismissively. “But I do need to check out your butt.”

I grinned. “You really know how to sweet-talk the customers. OK, yeah, I know I’m overdue for a checkup. Where do you want me?”

She gestured to the back room. “Head back there and hop up on the table. I need to lock up. Kali’s off today, so it’s just me.”

I went inside, draped my pants on the nearest chair and planted myself face-down on the table. Betty came in a few seconds later.

“So, how’s the pelvis been handling? Any problems?” She unreeled a couple cables from her diagnostics cart and attached one to each hip. I winced as they bit into my skin and threaded tentacles into my pelvis.

(Excerpt from “Dandelion Seeds”) 




Midpoint

The residents of the starship Argo had been in space for 5000 years and frankly could give a flying fuck about planets. Think about it: You’ve got a vessel capable of supporting an entire population for thousands of years. Add to that the fact that, for the past 200-odd generations, none of the inhabitants had seen a star up close, let alone a planet.

This is the fundamental flaw in using generation ships to colonize distant star systems. By the time your potential colonists arrive at their destination, they’re far more comfortable living in the spaces between stars than on a planet in orbit around one.

“I’m going,” said Djani, gazing out the window at Britannic.

“I know,” replied Brey, staring at the floor. “All your stuff’s already moved over. It’s just… I’m still on the waiting list. And there’s only three weeks left until separation.”

Britannic had been tethered to Argo since construction had started on it all those years ago. Britannic, like Challenger before it (and a dozen ships before that) was a beta ship, built from raw materials gathered en route. The people who’d designed, built and launched Argo had intended it to make its way to Epsilon Eridani over the course of a hundred centuries. They had provided Argo with everything needed to maintain a population of up to 100,000 for the length of the journey. Over the centuries, the inhabitants of Argo had expanded on that a bit.

It was expected that Argo would be traveling through almost entirely empty space. The reality was that the space between stars had a lot of rocks in it. The odd rogue planet here and there, quite a few stray asteroids and uncountable clumps of dust and ice – the ejecta from billions of planetary system births.

Argo encountered a fairly sizable chunk early on in its voyage. By chance, it happened to be traveling on a course that allowed for mining expeditions. The new influx of raw material presented the citizens of Argo with two possibilities: build onto the existing ship, or build an entirely new one. They opted for the latter, and the Beagle was born.

Once the Beagle was fully constructed and “seaworthy”, half the population, chosen by lottery, set up residence on board. The ship was cast off and sent on a course divergent from that of Argo, which would continue on to Epsilon Eridani as planned. Unlike Argo, Beagle had no specific destination. The intent was to wander the space between stars. “Why bother with planets,” they said, “when there’s so much more room out here?”

Since then, Argo had been spawning secondary ships at a rate of one every four hundred years. Assuming all the secondary ships survived and were similarly spawning ships which, in turn, were spawning their own… Well, there must be millions of ships out there by now, housing hundreds of billions of people. More than any planet could possibly support. The number of humans living in space potentially outnumbered the population of Earth by two orders of magnitude.

Britannic was the latest ship to make its way into the void. And Djani would be on it. Brey was not so lucky.

“You could stay…” Brey ventured, looking up at Djani.

(Excerpt from “Dandelion Seeds”) 




Temp Work

When you get your first time machine, everyone warns you about the Grandfather Paradox. No one warns you about the smell. Victorian London, for example, smelled like a 24/7 tire fire. And Medieval name-your-population-center reeked of open sewer.

Still, a job’s a job, right?

Artifact retrieval is big business these days. In theory, it’s pretty straightforward. Jump back to a point just before a major disaster, grab a bunch of valuable stuff about to be destroyed, replace it with decent reproductions, get the fuck out before all hell breaks loose. Easy …in theory.

In practice, things don’t always go as planned. Things aren’t where they’re supposed to be – or didn’t actually ever exist. Or, worst possible scenario, someone actually sees you.

Well, OK, the worst possible scenario is screwing up the timing of your exit and ending up, say, part of a lava flow. But being seen’s pretty bad too.

Oh, I’ve been seen before, of course. Just not by anyone who survived. No one who could report an oddly-dressed person materializing out of thin air, swapping out a copy of “Birds of America”, then disappearing. The key here is, no witnesses.

Then again, running into the soon-to-be recently-deceased is no picnic either. This one time… Jeez… This one time, I had to rescue a Watteau painting from a house fire. They had it hanging in their dining room. I don’t think they even knew it was worth anything. Just hanging there, over the sideboard. Easy job, right?

So, I pull down the Watteau, hang up a rough copy – it was going to end up as ashes in a couple minutes anyway – turn around and… there’s this kid standing there. Must’ve been 4 years old or something. Cute kid. Looked like she’d just dropped out of a Rockwell painting. Curly hair, footie pajamas, clutching a blanket. The whole bit.

But you can’t rescue people. Totally against the rules. If I’d shown up with a Watteau and a kid when I got back, I would’ve lost my license. Probably gotten a hefty fine and jail time. Still, I stood there thinking about it for a while, though. I mean, she was just a kid. Wasn’t her fault she got stuck in a burning building. Yeah, I really thought about it.

A couple seconds later, the decision was made for me, though. The kid looked off to her right, looked back at me for a sec, then ran into the kitchen. Never said a word, just took off. I half-considered going after her but just then, something in the kitchen went up. Kid was a goner. And, hey, I had to get out of there pretty damn quick or I’d be toast too.

Yeah, it’s days like that… Jeez. Makes it hard to sleep at night. You want to get into this business? You gotta be prepared for shit like that. I didn’t get this haunted look on my face from watching scary movies, I can tell you that.

Another thing to watch out for is claim-jumping. You get a call to grab a van Gogh from a gallery fire, do the old in-and-out, no sweat. You bring it back and… the appraiser tells you it’s a fake! Some other asshole swapped it out ten minutes before you got there. And, boom, it shows up on the black market a couple days later. I’ve lost some pretty sweet commissions to crap like that.

My advice: Stick to the low-end stuff. The big ticket items? Too many “interested parties”, y’know? Case in point: In private collections around the world right now, there are five, FIVE, Amelia Earhart flight jackets. And nobody knows which one’s the real one. Stay away from the big prizes. That’s all I’m saying.

But that’s not really why you’re here, is it? Yeah, you want to hear more about that kid. I saw the way you looked at me when I started talking about that.

You already know what happened, don’t you? Yeah, I went back. I delivered the Watteau, collected my fee, then took a quick “unofficial” trip. Totally off-the-books thing. Against the rules in a big way. Had to shell out a good chunk of my commission to have the right folks look the other way for a couple minutes. Y’know, “forget” to log a transit?

(Excerpt from “Dandelion Seeds”)




Death Takes a Lunch Break

Doug caught Death in his bedroom, hunched over, going through his dresser drawers. So he hit it with his tennis racket.

“Ow! That really hurt!” Doug hadn’t expected Death’s voice to be so whiny. It reached up and rubbed its skull with the bones of its hand, though the two didn’t seem to make contact. It turned around to regard him. “Hey, you can see me, can’t you?”

“Well, yes. You’re standing right in front of me. How did you get in here?” He was still brandishing his tennis racket when a realization crept over him, pushing aside thoughts of defending his home from an intruder. “Am I… am I dead?”

“What?” Surprise showed in the voice, if not on the face.

Doug lowered the racket. “Well, you’re Death, aren’t you?” he said. “Don’t people only see Death when they die?”

Death cocked its skull to one side. “Hold on. Let’s back it up a bit. What, exactly, do you see when you look at me?”

“You look like Death. A skeleton in a black robe. You know: Death.”

Death flapped its arms in frustration. “Oh, lovely! The cloak’s on the fritz again. Hold on.” Death reached inside the folds of the robe and disappeared, accompanied by an almost inaudible, high-pitched chirp.

Doug swung the racket at where Death had stood, and connected with something solid. By the sound of the grunt, he’d hit Death in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him. It occurred to Doug that Death shouldn’t have a stomach …or wind, for that matter. He reached toward the sound of the wheezing, grabbed what felt like a burlap sack and pulled.

Whatever it was gave slightly then was tugged from his grip but not before Doug caught sight of the disembodied head of a young man. He reached out, took a firmer grip and pulled hard. This time, two objects flickered into existence: a black robe in his hand and a man standing in front of him.

The man was in his late twenties, a bit doughy and balding. He wore blue coveralls with a yellow hourglass logo on the sleeve. He was also bent over and wheezing. He staggered over and sat on the edge of the bed. “OK, OK, stop already!” he gasped. He reached into a pocket on his coveralls, pulled out a small foil packet, peeled it open and slapped the contents on his neck. His breathing steadied and he stood up.

The man surveyed the situation. He poked at various nubs on his toolbelt, pulled out a small handheld device, fiddled with it for a moment and sighed.

“What a mess.” He looked up at Doug, who’d been standing there, staring and speechless. “I hope you’re happy. You know how much paperwork I’ll need to fill out when I get back? I’ll be lucky if I don’t get fired. Ha! A lot you care. We’re out there, bustin’ our asses to save mankind and do you think anyone ever thanks us? No! You don’t even know we exist. Nobody in your time period does.”

Doug finally found his voice. “What? What do you mean, ‘your time period’? Who are you? Whatare you?”

The man seemed to deflate a bit. “I guess it doesn’t matter if I tell you. It’s not like you’re going to tell anyone.” He chuckled humorlessly. He wiped his hands on the sides of his coveralls and held out his right hand. “Stan Capshaw, Psyche Retrieval Technician, at your service.”

Doug took his hand and shook. “Doug Farrington.”

“Oh, you don’t have to tell me. I know all about you. Major pain in the ass, you are. Talk about paperwork. Here, buy me a drink and I’ll tell you all about it.” He gestured toward the kitchen.

Doug had no idea what Stan was talking about but he figured, if he had any chance of finding out what was really going on, it would be by talking to this guy. “Sure. Beer OK?”

Stan grinned. “That’ll do nicely.”

As they walked into the kitchen, the doorbell rang. The pizza. He’d ordered it just before he heard the noise in the bedroom.

He excused himself and answered the door. As he paid for the pizza, he only vaguely noted that the delivery person was a very attractive woman. Under normal circumstances, he probably would’ve made an attempt to flirt with her. He would’ve failed miserably, of course, but at least he would’ve tried. But these weren’t exactly normal circumstances.

He put the pizza on the kitchen table. “You hungry? I was just about to have dinner.”

Stan looked at his watch. “Eh, close enough to lunchtime for me. Sure.”

(Excerpt from “Dandelion Seeds”)