Recently in The Forge: Short Fiction Category
"I did it! This time it worked!" squawked the machine. The old man grimly flipped the reset switch and murdered his cyber-twin. He had uploaded his mind to the machine a hundred times and created a hundred euphoric copies of himself, yet his consciousness remained rooted in this decaying biological wreck. "Move" must be possible, and different from "copy and delete the original". The old man made some adjustments to his code as the machine rebooted.
I haven't written much short fiction in a while, but I hope to resume once I finish my PhD. I'd be flattered if you look a look through the whole archive there, and it's hard to which one to repost, but here's "The Corpulent King".
Once upon a time there was mean, fat king who loved nothing more than vast, sumptuous feasts. Lamb, veal, duck, venison, pheasant, caribou, sloth, spotted owl... the premier kitchen of the realm prepared his meals to his precise specifications, and no appetite was left unsatisfied. No, not merely unsatisfied -- unsatiated.
However, the corpulent king began to grow distressed. The bountiful banquets that once brought him such pleasure began to taste bland and boring. His chefs redoubled their efforts to find the most succulent beasts, the freshest vegetables, and the most stimulating spices -- but all of their attempts fell on tasteless buds.
The king fell into a deep depression, and refused all sustenance. His chefs tried everything to stir him from his melancholy, but even the most scrumptious sweets would drive the king to gasps and coughs. "I am a man of refined tastes," he exclaimed. "I cannot eat such filth."
Losing his expansive luster and driven to desperation, the king marshaled his fading will to live and announced a competition. "My chefs have failed me," he told his people. "Their food was not fit for sloping swine, but perhaps they will be. Consequently, there is a vacancy in my court that needs to be filled, as do I. Any man who can prepare a meal that is truly fit for a king will be lavishly rewarded."
The king's command attracted would-be chefs and were-in-fact charlatans by the cup, quart, and bushel. Day and night the aspirants toiled in the king's extravagant kitchens, presenting him with course after course of comely cookery such as the world has never known. But the king's malaise would not be dispelled, and he wasted away, surrounded by mountains of decaying delicacies.
One by one the rejected, dejected connoisseurs drifted away. Conceding defeat, they fled, fearing that they too might end up feeding the king's zoo after snatching defeat from the jaws of misery. The king despaired, but he retained one final resort. "If my enormous wealth can not buy my satisfaction," he said, "I have but one thing left to offer. If any man can gratify my culinary lusts, I'll give to him my daughter!"
The king's daughter was a beautiful young lady, who fortunately did not take after her father's gluttonous ways. Word spread quickly though the land that anyone who could renew the king's taste for life would marry the princess, and be made heir to the kingdom. Who would answer the call?
Every chef who heard the new pronouncement scoffed. "The king has eaten all there is to eat," they said. "Every animal, every plant, and every fungus has passed his palate; nothing remains to entice him from his ennui."
Every chef -- but one. One man who could not be tempted by wanton wealth, but only by the love of a kind and generous princess. "All those who have come before me," the man told the wan king, "were mere pretenders to the gastronomic throne; I am the master. If you are willing, I will prepare a savory extravaganza that is certain to satisfy."
"By all means!" the king commanded. "But how will you accomplish such a feat of a feast? Look around! I am surrounded by the comestible corpses of your predecessors."
"Fear not, O king," the confident cook replied. "I, and I alone, possess the secret ingredient that will titillate your tongue and resurrect your vanquished vigor. No no! You must sample it for yourself when I am finished. And then we will discuss the princess."
The king waited in eager anticipation while the cook prepared secretly in the kitchen. He dismissed all offers of assistance and labored alone, but his job was quickly completed. Smiling triumphantly, the cook ascended to the king's banquet room and presented his masterpiece: a delicious pie, still steaming from the oven. Without a word the king devoured the dessert -- every last crumb of crust and fleck of filling.
His plate sparkling, the king proclaimed, "I feel new life in my bones! Quickly, bake me another!"
"And my reward?" the chef inquired. The king demanded that his daughter be brought forthwith.
But the princess could not be found! In her quarters was the meager message: "I will not be fed to your ravenous maw."
"I'll give you anything! Money, power; all that I have and more! Anything you want! Sustain me, and all that I have is yours," begged the king of the cook. "Or else, I die!"
But the cook replied, "You have nothing left that I desire."
The Black Sheep
An astronomer, an engineer, and a mathematician were riding on a train from London to Scotland when they spotted a black sheep atop a hill near the tracks.
"Aha!" said the astronomer. "Now we know that all the sheep in Scotland are black!"
"Nonsense," said the engineer. "We only know that at least one sheep in Scotland is black."
"Ridiculous," said the mathematician. "All we can really say is that at least one half of one sheep in Scotland is black."
A pessimist says the glass is half-empty. An optimist says the glass is half-full. An engineer recognizes that the glass is simply too big.
Longing for Another Autumn Eve
Another early sunset brings
Another windy Autumn eve,
Another night that swoons and sings,
Another song of sweet reprieve.
From clocking hours and ticking clocks;
From surrounding crowds, yet all alone;
From hollow house and winsome walks
That only end when you come home.
The death of another Autumn day,
The cold wind blows without respite,
But your fire holds the dark at bay --
Seals in the heat and bounds the night.
Alas, my dear, too soon you leave!
O, for another burning Autumn eve!
I know it must sound cliche, but I've seen you at Starbucks a dozen times by now and I can't keep my eyes off you. I don't know what it is... the glint in your eyes, the way you toss your hair, the way you sip your Brownie Frappuccino, or all the above, but I'm entranced. I don't know your name, yet, and you probably think all these emotions welling up inside me are absurd, but I assure you they're the real deal -- it's hate at first sight.
Although you may not know it, we're destined to be arch-enemies. I sincerely hope you realize it soon, because otherwise my victory will be all too easy. I've got your schedule down pat, and I know what mornings to expect you for coffee and what evenings you stay up late with your laptop. One of these nights you might find a little surprise waiting for you on your doorstep when you get home. An ambush in the restroom? Not at all out of the question. A long walk on the beach and a moonlight duel? Possibly. Fine dining, with poison? That's my idea of a perfect first date-with-death.
My heart races every time you look up from your paper or check your watch... thinking, hoping that you might glance my way and see the hatred in my eyes. I've run through countless scenarios in my head, conversations we might have, but I'd hardly know what to say if I ever dared approach you to stick a knife in your ribs. No, no, it's safer if I loathe you from afar and merely fantasize about what could be: a little house, kids playing, a puppy, you impaled on a white picket fence, and me towering above your twitching corpse, triumphant!
It's a summer day, one of the last of the year. Late. The tall grass of some nameless field lies crushed beneath my back and my hands hover above my face, frozen in midair. I have two gold rings, one on each hand… and I can't remember what the first one means. Eris, my beloved, gave me the second. Not long ago, I think. She stands off to the side of my field of vision, her hands to her face, and I'd turn to look but there isn't time.
There's as much time as you want, but not for looking. Not for her.
There was only a tiny pick at the moment; the blade thrusting against my forehead quivered with its tremendous velocity, its unstoppable force, and the tip was slowly parting my skin and bone. So this is death?
Not quite. Not yet. Let me know when you're ready and it'll come quick enough.
Ready? Not yet, not ever!
You haven't much say left in the matter, I'm afraid. You made your choices long ago.
Not that long ago. A few months, or years maybe. And it's not like I had much choice anyway. How could I resist her? No more than I can resist this steel. This final trust began long ago.
Not that long ago.
I should have known when I first saw her, from the light in her eyes, from the curl of her lips where they met her cheek. The way her hands pushed a strand of hair back behind her ears should have told me all I needed to know.
Should… would… isn't there any more pleasant way you'd like to spend your last moment?
She betrayed me! Can't you see it? Can't you feel it piercing my brain?
This isn't news. I've been there too, right with you. But it's over now.
It's over. She can't hurt me anymore.
Maybe just once more, but it'll be quick. I promise.
If only I could turn my head, to see her face a little better. Is she gasping in surprise? Maybe she didn't know. Maybe it's an accident.
Maybe, but you know it's not. Stop thinking about Eris. What of your family? Your friends? Happy, laughing times?
But why? They're nothing to me now.
Of course not, you left them for her. But you still have their memories, don't you?
Somewhere, hidden away. But is Eris laughing? It can't be. Even in betrayal she couldn't laugh at me, could she? After all I've done for her?
If we must speak of her, can't you at least drop the charade? You aren't even fooling yourself anymore. All you've done for her… please!
But I gave up everything!
To buy her love? Did she notice? Did she care? Love isn't for sale, you fool. You have it, or you don't.
And I never did.
Now you're catching on.
That's impossible. I've seen it in her eyes, and I've felt it in her touch.
And your eyes never lie to you? Do you think hers don't? You see what you want to see. You feel what you want to feel. So you saw and felt… be satisfied, you got what you wanted.
But it wasn't real, was it?
Real or not, what's the difference now? Real is hard and cold and sharp. Real cuts away the flimsy sets and costumes we build our lives with.
Is this real?
As real as it gets. Don't feel bad -- no one really likes this part. Everyone wants to know the truth, and most regret it.
Life is a vapor that burns away in the sun. Dancing shadows. Nothing more.
But nothing less! If there are shadows, there must be substance somewhere. I think Eris always knew the truth.
Perhaps that's why she is the way she is.
When she gets here, will she remember me? Will she remember this?
I cannot say.
Remind her, I beg you! Just tell her my name. Tell her I love her.
Are you ready to go?
As reality slides home I summon a final burst of strength to turn my head, even a tiny fraction, and I almost make it.
Last week was incredibly strange, and only now do I have the time (ha!), focus, and perspective to do justice to this bizarre tale.
It all started last Monday. I was showered, dressed, and just about ready to step out the door and go to work when I heard noises coming from the library near the back of the house. I glanced down the hall and saw that the door was closed, which was unusual enough even if it hadn't been muffling the sound of someone talking to himself and, to the best of my ability to discern, packing his suitcase.
There was a final zip as I approached the library door, and as I reached down to open it the door swung open away from me. Behind it was a short, stocky fellow with a cowboy moustache, a newsboy hat, blue jeans, and a nondescript brown overcoat. Trailing behind him in his left hand he pulled a small, wheeled, leather case, and he held a sheaf of papers in the crook of his left arm.
"Good morning!", he said, and sneezed. "Good-byes are the most awkward part of this, let me tell ya."
"Who are you?" I asked, backing away as the stranger emerged from my now-disheveled library into the hall. "How did you get in here?"
"You invited me, of course," he said, walking quickly towards the front door while I stood fixed in place, stunned. He turned his head and looked over his shoulder. "Don't worry," he said with familiar intonation, as if he'd had this conversation before. "Everything will make much more sense tomorrow. For now, I've got a plane to catch."
The stranger opened my front door and started down the steps and I ran towards him to watch his departure. A taxi was waiting in front of my house and the stranger dragged his case towards it and handed it over to the driver. In my bare feet I followed him down my driveway and grabbed his shoulder, but he shrugged me off before turning around. "What's going on?" I asked.
The man sniffled and sneezed again, covering his mouth with his hand and then reaching out to shake mine. I took it instinctively and he laughed. "The name's Sherman," he said, and then glanced down at our grasping hands. "And that serves you right." He sniffled again and ducked into the cab. As the car was pulling away he lowered the window. "I was suppose to remind you of something, but I can't remember what. Huh. Anyway. see you tomorrow! Thanks for the money!"
I stood in front of my house for a while, trying to figure out what it all meant, but there was nothing for it. I returned to the house, checked my cache of emergency money and found everything in place, and then headed off to work. I briefly considered calling the police, but the man was gone, so what was the point? That night I double-checked all the doors and windows and placed chairs in front of all the entrances. No one could get in without making enough noise to wake me up, especially not a fat old man. Nevertheless, I slept with my contacts in.
Tuesday morning I sprang out of bed and looked down the hall to the library: the door to which which was, again, closed. The chairs were still in place in front of the doors, and the windows were closed, so I was pretty sure a draft hadn't blow the library door shut. I strode over to it and grasped the knob, took a deep breath, and flung it open. Sherman was back, lying on a cot in the center of the floor.
"Hey, you, Sherman!" I said, "Get up!"
The figure rolled over a couple of times and then sat up and stared at me. "Oh, hi Michael. I guess it's just about time for me to leave."
I laughed. "Oh no, you rushed out yesterday, but I want to know exactly what's going on now before you 'catch another plane'," I said. "How'd you get back in? I blocked all the doors."
Sherman rubbed his eyes and squinted a few times before answering. "Yesterday, eh? Well it looks like you beat me up today, anyway. I didn't think you were such an early bird."
By now I was getting pissed and I gripped the doorknob to keep from waving my arms. With great deliberateness I asked, "What is going on?"
Sherman sniffled a few times and rubbed his nose before answering. "Explanations are the most awkward part of this," he started, but I cut him off.
"I thought good-byes were the most awkward part."
He looked at me for a few seconds before replying. "Nah, good-byes are easy, I just run out the door and disappear. Anyway, ask your questions. Oh, and I'm gonna need some money apparently."
I scowled. "Apparently I already gave you money," I said, but he shook his head.
"Yeah, today, you probably will. I don't like to steal if I can avoid it," he said.
"So who are you?" I asked. "And why are you in my house?"
"I'm Sherman, as I must've told you yesterday, and I'm staying here because you invited me."
Now it was my turn to shake my head. "I never did."
He smiled, "Not yet you haven't, but you haven't given me any money yet, either."
"Why should I do either?" I asked.
"As for the second, because I have something priceless to sell you. As for the first, well, because I'll answer your questions, satisfy your curiosity, and leave you always wanting more," he said with a grin, and sneezed. "As for why I'm here, in the grand scheme of things, well, I'm an applied historian."
"That's an oxymoron," I said, almost smiling despite myself, and Sherman laughed.
"Yeah, I'm glad you appreciate it, that's probably why I decided to stay with you. Really though, I'm a time traveler."
"Oh, of course, that's excellent," I said. I'd always wanted to meet a time traveler.
"I saw on your blog that you've always wanted to meet a time traveler, so I figured I could stay with you for a few days while I'm passing through," he explained. "You said you saw me leave yesterday, which means my stay is almost done -- from my perspective, anyway. But don't worry, you get plenty in return from me over the next few days."
"If you're a time traveler, where's your time machine?" I asked.
Sherman rolled towards his leather case and rummaged for a few seconds before pulling out a device about the size of a cell phone. He glanced at it and then handed it over to me. "It's charging," he said.
It looked like a cell phone, but the number pad was different and there were a few other controls whose uses weren't immediately obvious. I pushed a few buttons and symbols flashed across the screen, but they didn't mean anything to me. Before I could experiment more Sherman reached up from his cot and swiped it out of my hands. "It's charging, but it could still send you back several hours and that would screw up my schedule."
I squinted at him. "Why do you need a schedule if you've got a time machine?" I asked.
Sherman sighed. "It's broken," he said. "It won't hold a full charge. I can only travel two days at a time and then I need to stay put for a day."
"Two steps forward and one step back," I said.
He replied, "Two steps back and one step forward, but yeah, same general idea. Anyway, I'm not entirely stranded, but this does make my mission more difficult. I originally got stuck ten years in the future from now and I've been inching my way backwards ever since."
"Where -- or when -- are you going?" I asked.
He smiled. "Everyone asks that, but then everyone guesses. If you had a time machine and were on a mission to the past, what would you be going to do?"
"That's easy, I'd be going to kill Hitler."
He nodded. "Sure, sounds pretty easy, right? Anyway, something like that. I already explained all this to you tomorrow, so for now can you just give me a few thousand dollars so I can start looking for flights?"
I considered. "Flights leaving yesterday?" He nodded. I continued, "I have some emergency cash, but I thought you were going to sell me something. Have you got something super-cool from the future, like a laser gun or a robot?"
"Actually, I had all sorts of neato stuff when I came back, but I've given most of it away already. What I sell now, mostly, is newspapers," he said and pulled one free from the sheaf of papers by his case. "Here's the Wall Street Journal from this coming Friday, if you're interested."
I glanced at the paper he was waving and rubbed my jaw in thought. "How much do you want for it?"
He shrugged. "How much have you got? It's hard for me to make money because I can't deposit it in a bank in the future and have it accessible in the past. Plus, currency goes reverse out-of-date pretty quick if people pay attention to the printing dates and signatures and stuff. So, a few thousand ought to be enough to get me a plane ticket yesterday and to cover my expenses for a bit."
"Anyway, it'll pay for itself, right? I'll just need to move some money around and buy some stocks...." I mused.
"Sure, sure, that's up to you. It shouldn't be hard to make money with a newspaper from three days in the future."
So I fetched my wad of cash from the bedroom and bought the paper before calling in sick to work. Sherman said he couldn't spend all day talking because he had to do some final repairs on his time machine before leaving the previous day, so I spent my time researching and trading and trying to make the most of my speculative opportunity.
He didn't come out all afternoon, or most of the evening, but before I went to bed I knocked on the library door. The flickering blue light that leaked beneath it stopped and Sherman peeked through. "I'm kinda busy, what is it?" he asked.
"Well, since tonight is your last night here, by your reckoning, I figured I should say good-bye and that I hope you enjoyed your stay." I said.
He sniffed and rubbed his nose before responding. "I suppose so, thanks. Yes, it was quite nice. Very comfortable. Don't worry though, we've met before, in your future and my past. Although, based on your surprise, I take it I'll never see you again, even though you'll see me."
I slept in later Wednesday morning and checked on my trades before considering whether or not to mention this all on my blog. I could write up a lot of juicy stories with my future-news, but where to begin? And should I mention Sherman at all?
Before I could decide, the man in question was up and wandering around the house. He saw me sitting at the computer and held up his hands as if to ward me off. "Don't say anything! This is right around when people start telling me about my future, and I don't want to know yet! You didn't come banging down my door, so I gather I'm not leaving for a little while, so just let me get some caffeine in me. I've got to remember to tell you to get some coffee; diet soda is a poor substitute."
"You're going to forget," I told him, and followed him into the kitchen.
He nodded, "Of course I will, otherwise there'd be coffee, wouldn't there? And there isn't any." He gestured around the room before grabbing a soda from the fridge and popping it open. "Time travel takes a lot out of you Michael, that's for sure. I can't survive without my Vitamin C, eh?"
I smiled, "You got that from me, didn't you?"
"And you got it from the Simpsons, but for Homer it was Vitamin G, for 'gas'."
I took a soda for myself and asked him, "So what else are we going to talk about? How uh, long have you been staying with me, anyway? Maybe I could get some coffee today...."
He chugged the soda and then said, "Why should we waste time having a meta-discussion about discussions we'll have in your future, when we could instead be talking about things of actual substance?"
"True," I conceded. "Like your mission? Aren't you afraid that if you tell me too much it'll change history or something?"
"Nah," he said. "I won't tell you much about the future for that very reason, but I'm going back in time, so I can tell you everything you want to know about my mission. Unless you have a time machine -- which you don't, right? -- it can't hurt anything."
We meandered into the living room and sat down. "But yesterday you told me you were going to kill Hitler, and yet, in my time line, you must've failed."
He shook his head and sneezed. "No no, I'm not going to kill Hitler, I'm going to save Hitler. We already sent someone back to kill him, and that didn't work out well at all, so I'm going back in time to prevent Jack from killing Hitler. And I'm obviously going to be successful, despite my broken time machine."
I responded, "Well, someone is going to be successful, I guess, maybe not you."
"But what happened when Jack killed Hitler?" I asked.
Sherman rolled his eyes. "Everyone thought it would be a great idea, obviously, to kill Hitler, but as it turned out without Hitler to drive away all the scientists Germany got nuclear weapons before anyone else, and, well, you can guess how that turned out."
"Oh," I said. "But how do you know? I mean, is there an alternate history or something?"
He shook his head again. "That's not how it works. There's just one history. Time isn't exactly linear though, so, uh... in a way, the 1960s are currently screwed up due to Hitler's assassination, but the effects haven't reached you here yet, this far up the timeline."
"So the changes take... time... to propagate through uh, time?" I asked.
"Changes take meta-time to propagate, yeah. And if I don't save Hitler before the changes reach the future, there won't be any future to send me back!"
"But you are back, so you must succeed!"
"Or someone does. Or the changes just haven't caught up to me yet."
"Weird," I said.
"Yeah, I'm just an applied historian, not a temporal engineer. I don't know all the details. It's like magic to me, which is why I'm having trouble fixing my time machine."
I thought for a few seconds. "Maybe someone at UCLA could take a look at it, I'm a student there."
"No way," he said. "Even if anyone would believe I'm a time traveler do you think they'd help me fix my machine and then just let me take it? Plus, they might figure out how to build one, and the last thing we need is someone from now wandering up and down the timeline."
"Oh, well excuse us," I said. "I'm just trying to be helpful."
"I've got more repairs to do," Sherman replied and stood up. "It would be helpful if you could get me some AA batteries."
"The time machine takes batteries?"
"No, it collects and stores time directly, as I explained tomorrow, but my Discman takes AAs."
So I went to the store for coffee and batteries, but didn't see Sherman until the following morning.
I took Thursday off work and figured that this would be my last chance to talk with the man from the future; the paper he'd given me was from Friday, so that was probably when he would first arrive. I was already up when he awoke to the smell of the coffee brewing. Not really my thing, but it sure seemed to excite Sherman.
He rushed into the kitchen and waved his hands at me. "Don't say anything! Don't tell me about my future!" he said, but I cut him off.
"You already warned me about that yesterday," I said.
"Oh great, thanks, now I know something we'll talk about tomorrow! Don't tell me anything else. Since you didn't barge into my room this morning I figure I'm not leaving yet, and that's all I need to know."
"But I want to continue our conversation!" I told him and poured the coffee. "See, I even bought coffee for you, and batteries."
"Hold on!" he said. "Are you trying to tell me there's no coffee yesterday? Argh!" he groaned and rubbed his head. "I am just about out of batteries though, so thanks."
"Yeah sure," I said. "The newspaper has already paid for itself, by the way."
"Good, good," he said, gulping down the caffeinated beverage. "I can't live without my Vitamin C!"
"I know," I replied, and he shook his head with dismay.
"You can see why it's hard for me to build meaningful relationships," he said. "It's constant deja vu for someone; fortunately, I've got a bad memory."
"Maybe it would be easier if you stayed in one place longer," I suggested.
"Nah, I've tried it. People start wanting to know too much about their future and they can't keep their mouths shut about mine. At least this way I can't tell or hear about more than a few days in either direction."
"So your time machine runs off pure time?" I asked, hoping to prompt him with the knowledge he'd given me yesterday.
"That's right," he answered, surprised for a second. "It absorbs time from its surroundings. Not enough to be noticeable without sensitive meta-temporal instruments, of course, but while it's charging time does pass more slowly for several miles around it in every direction. Normally, of course, we charge them away from populated areas, but...."
"But your time machine is broken and won't hold much of a charge, so you're only able to travel two days at a time, right?" I finished for him and he nodded before pouring another cup of coffee. "So with one day's worth of charge you can travel two days through time?"
"Something like that, but they don't charge linearly."
"Time isn't linear," I said.
"Right, and if it could hold a full charge I could charge it for one year and travel 5,000, plus or minus. As it is, I don't want to wait around charging it and then have to pass through all that time one day at a time if the charge doesn't stick. I tried it before, and it was a waste of uh, time. I may try bigger jumps if I can get the flux capacitor stabilized, but, who knows."
I leaned forward and sneezed before asking, "Wait a minute, flux capacitors are real?"
Sherman laughed. "Well, by my understanding they were named after a device in a fictional movie from the mid-1980s as a sort of homage, but essentially yes. That's where the time is stored up and released to make the jump. Plus, a small amount is converted to electricity to power the display and the integrated digital camera."
"So are you ever going to return to your own time? When is that, anyway?" I asked.
"If I get my rig working, then sure. Otherwise, it's along crawl back to the future moving at only triple time."
"Two days forward, then wait a day to charge, then two more forward," I said to show I understood, and he nodded.
"I should get back to my repairs. Thanks for the coffee."
Friday morning when I woke up the house was empty. I checked everywhere, but there was no sign of my time-traveling guest. "Of course," I said to myself. "He hasn't arrived yet." I had a lot to do that day to prepare, but I wasn't feeling very well at all. First I called in sick to work again (this time for real) and then I posted a "Time Travelers Welcome" note on my blog. At least then Sherman would know where and when to go. Then I walked to the convenience store and picked up a Wall Street Journal and some diet soda to replace the stocks Sherman had depleted / would deplete. I didn't care much about the coffee, but I bought some more just in case I ever ran into more time travelers. It's important to be hospitable.
I waited around all day for some sign of him and there was finally a knock at my door while I was watching the Simpsons on my TiVo. I paused it and opened the door, and sure enough there was Sherman, moustache, cap, leather case, jeans, overcoat, and all. "Hey, come on in," I told him and swung the door wide before sneezing all over him.
"Ugh, thanks," he said and pulled his case up the steps behind him. "Where should I put my stuff?"
I led him to the library and helped him get settled. "By the way, my name's Michael," I said. "And you're Sherman."
He nodded and threw off his coat. "I know you from your blog, and we've met before. I presume I'll tell you all about myself over the last few days."
"That's right!" I said. "And all about your mission to save Hitler!"
"Yeah, yeah," he said and collapsed into the library's leather easy chair.
"Do you want some coffee?" I asked. "Gotta get your vitamin C."
"Vitamin C?" he asked.
"Caffeine," I explained. "Like Vitamin G is gasoline, from the Simpsons. Homer. Uh, that's all you need to know."
Sherman nodded. "I just want to go to sleep," he said. "I've been traveling all day and I'm pretty exhausted. How about if we save all the questions for yesterday?"
"Sure thing," I agreed. "By the way, here's a newspaper if you're interested. I'll just leave it here on the shelf."
"I know the drill," he said and rubbed his eyes. "You leave a newspaper here and I sell it back to you a few days ago for thousands of dollars. How'd that work out for ya?"
"Fantastic," I said. "I'll let you get some rest."
I moved to close the door, but then hesitated. "Since I won't see you again for a while, my time, I guess I should say good-bye."
"Good-byes are always the most awkward part of time travel," Sherman said.
"After explanations, anyway," I replied, and he smiled.
Saturday morning he was gone again and the library had regained its normal appearance. Even now, looking back, it's hard to believe this all really happened. I've still got the newspaper, but it's old already, and I remember buying it last Friday so it's easy to explain away. I guess the only way I'll ever know for sure is if I happen to meet Sherman again sometime during the next decade.
Or should I say, Janet? In case you didn't guess, the Boss was furious when he found you'd jumped ship! When Carl the Intern told him about it he threw him in the flea pit! I've never seen anyone survive that many flea bites before; luckily the Boss pulled Carl out before the queen could get to him.
So what's life like on the outside? I bet you don't have to wake up at 5am anymore when it's your turn to polish the fleet of evil motorcycles. Heck, you're probably driving a Honda Civic instead of an evil vehicle of any sort, and I'm sure it gets better mileage without all the armor plates and heavy machine guns. I know I'd miss playing with the smokescreen, but it'd be nice to go more than 50 miles on a tank.
Gemstone told me you found a job waiting tables, and I bet you're great at it, what with your incredible speed and all. I'm so jealous... I wish I could get a regular job, but I don't think I'm qualified for much more than dropping heavy objects with superhuman accuracy. Maybe I could be a deliveryman or something?
I'd love to get my own place, with a swimming pool that isn't full of piranha, sharks, giant squids, crocodiles, or any other deadly creatures. Or acid. Gemstone says you're sharing a two-bedroom apartment -- which is a step down from our island fortress, I'm sure -- but you've got to admit there's better freeway access and more nightlife.
We should keep in touch, even though you're retired. I know the Boss wants to hunt you down, drag you back, and beat you like a rented mule, but that doesn't mean we can't be friends still, does it? It's just not the same here without you; you could make bearable even the most evil and tedious mission!
Anyway, email me back sometime. I won't tell the Boss where you are, I promise.
The Bombardier (Fred)
This morning I had another run-in with the dreaded Penniers. We've all seen them: the top-hatted older gents with the sextants and theodolites who meander around accidentally dropping pennies.
I watched the fellow this morning take a few measurements from the back of his El Camino before setting out across the street -- barely waiting for the walk signal. Halfway through the intersection he reached into his pocket, ostensibly for a stick of gum, and a penny fell out right onto the street! I don't think any of the other passersby noticed, but when the Pennier reached the opposite curb he turned back and gave the penny a stern glance, as if to assure himself that it had fallen in precisely the right location. He crossed back to his car when the light changed and gave the penny a little nudge with his foot on the way, and when he passed me on the sidewalk he threw me a vicious glare.
As the children's rhyme says, "Find a penny, pick it up, and all day long you'll have good luck, \ because you will have played an important role in thwarting the copper droppers' plans for world domination." Everyone learns this as a kid, but many of us forget the critical second line just because it doesn't rhyme or flow as nicely as the first. Nevertheless, I knew what I had to do.
Once the Pennier drove off I waited a few minutes and then crossed the street myself, watching warily in every direction lest he come back just to run me over. When I reached the diabolical penny I was faced with a conundrum. If I took it they'd know immediately and come back to drop another, but if I simply dislodged it from its resting place perhaps they wouldn't notice as quickly. So with a flick of my ankle I kicked the penny approximately 14 inches towards the center of the intersection, and even managed to reverse its polarity in the process.
Only a minor victory, I know, but I am looking forward to reaping the benefits of my good luck for the rest of the day.
Two men stand near the water cooler. Mr. B waits while Mr. A attempts to fill his cup with water. Alas, the bottle atop the cooler is empty.
Mr. A: Alas, we're out of water.
Mr. B: Not at all, Mr. A! See, here beside the cooler is another bottle.
Mr. A: Would you be so kind as to install it, then?
Mr. B: Certainly not! You're at the front of the line; refilling the cooler is your social responsibility.
Mr. A: Indeed I am at the front of the line, but you have as much to gain from the refilling as I have.
Mr. B: Even assuming our thirsts are equal, Mr. A, yours will be quenched sooner than mine due to your superior position in line. Therefore, you have more to gain and should pay the greater price.
Mr. A: Ah, Mr. B, but I have more to gain because I've already paid the greater price, having arrived in line before you.
Mr. B: Then I must appeal to social convention.
Mr. A: If I'm not mistaken, you were the last one to use the cooler, and you didn't refill it yourself.
Mr. B: That's true, but the cooler was only empty once my cup was full. Thus, my encounter with the cooler ended before any obligation was incurred.
Mr. A: Not so! As a student of physics you cannot deny that the last of the water was dispensed from the cooler some fraction of a second before it entered your cup.
Mr. B: Quite right, but once the cooler was empty I immediately disengaged. That water subsequently continued to fall into my cup is of no consequence. I had no further use for the cooler, as the means for quenching my thirst was already in hand.
Mr. A: But social convention demands that the last one to use the cooler refill it!
Mr. B: Nonsense! Were a stranger to come upon a man holding a cup of water and standing near an empty water cooler, he would have no way to determine whether said man had recently drawn the last bit of water, or whether he was merely inspecting the make and model of the cooler.
Mr. A: But the man himself would know.
Mr. B: This is true, Mr. A, but social conventions are not built upon the knowledge or beliefs of a single man. In contrast, were a stranger to come upon us now, he would easily infer your responsibility to refill the cooler from our physical configuration.
Mr. A: Whereas, Mr. B, a "line" is merely a metaphysical concept, my present proximity to the cooler doesn't necessarily imply that I'm entitled by social convention to draw water before you.
Mr. B: True, particularly since there isn't any water to draw from at all, but a reasonable man would still deduce it.
Mr. A: Perhaps, but even if that were the case he would also conclude that you have as much to gain from the refilling of the cooler as I.
Mr. B: Unless, that is, he knew that I'm not particularly thirsty.
Mr. A: Myself likewise, Mr. B.
Mr. B: I merely enjoy standing near the cooler.
Mr. A: I'm quite certain I can stand here indefinitely.
Mr. B: As am I. What model cooler is this?
The pair led me to their bathroom and pointed out Matthew's toiletries. I collected his toothbrush and a few hairs from a comb with the tissue kit, and I heard the students whispering behind me. "What?"
They stopped and Kramer rolled his eyes towards the ceiling. Polder said, "I dunno. His stomach pills aren't on the shelf there. Maybe he took them with him though, who knows."
"Did he normally?" I asked. Both shrugged. "Where was he last night?"
Kramer said, "He went out, prob'ly to Whistler's, with Stephie."
"His girlfriend," Polder injected.
"We were studying all night though. He never came back," Kramer finished.
"Stephanie Waller. Astrophysics," Polder supplied.
After resealing the tissue kit I thanked the boys and left, admonishing them to let me know if they thought of anything else.
Back in the corridor, I sent the kit to Dr. Phineas via crobot along with a note asking him to compare the samples and let me know if they matched. I'd started out thinking it a mere formality, but now I was pretty sure the result would come back negative. If Conway had managed to wound his killer, Phineas might be able to point me toward recent patients, but given confidentiality rules I'd have to get that information under the table, not via courier.
Ninety percent of the Grey Haven's residents worked for the Terran Space Authority, and the other ten percent were called IOs, independent operators, pronounced like the moon (and the lover of Zeus who was turned into a cow -- isn't Tolkien mythology much less bizarre?). Even the IOs worked for the TSA indirectly by providing services to it or its employees; in an economy as small and remote as the Rock's, everyone was interconnected. Plus, the ship was wholly dependent on shipments of food from earth, and those all passed through the Whit's hands.
Whistler is an IO who runs a tavern that caters to the Observatory geeks and some of the younger folks from the Port. Unsurprisingly, Whistler's is located between the two locales and near airlock seventeen, the scene of the crime. If Conway was there last night before his death someone must have seen him, so that's where I went.
It was still a bit early in the afternoon but the place was open, although barely. I'd been in a few times before out of curiosity, but now none of the three buxom waitresses who normally circulated through the crowd were on duty and Whistler was handling the bar himself. The lights were low but so was the music, and there were only a few scattered clusters of customers in the booths against the far wall. In between the bar and the booths is a stage, empty then, and a couple of platforms for dancers I'd never seen used. Whistler noticed me as soon as I came in and waved me over.
"Hey Chief, figured I'd be seeing you soon. What'll it be?" Whistler is a good bit older than I am, with a shaved head just to spite his baldness, and he didn't make any effort towards the fashion of the youth he catered to. I sat down on the stool in front of him and the tall, thin man loomed above me from behind the bar.
"Too early for me," I said. "Besides, as they say, I'm on duty."
"Here about the kid who vacced himself, right boss?" he asked, leaning forward and lowering his voice completely unnecessarily considering the noise and the scarcity of nearby patrons. I nodded. "Well he was here, but you know that or you wouldn't be."
"Regular?" I asked.
Whistler nodded. "One of my best. Maybe too good, if you know what I mean. But who'm I to judge?"
"Not at first. He must've been hittin' it harder than usual though. He got in a fight with his girl and she ran off. Seen it a thousand times."
Whistler shrugged. "He was hanging out with some other kids I didn't recognize -- from the Perseus? I didn't see him leave."
"Have you got receipts?"
"Sure do, Chief." One for Matthew Conway, and one for a Harris Simon, Perseus. "Huh, I guess he wasn't drinking that much after all."
Next stop: Stephanie Waller. I thought she might be in her quarters, given the circumstances, but when I didn't get an answer I went to her laboratory. Rather than let me in -- and risk having me disturb her computers, as if I didn't have a Ph.D. of my own already -- she pushed me back out into the corridor and spoke to me there. I could see she'd been crying, and her pretty face was flushed and her eyes were red. She shoved it all aside mentally and spoke before I did, very matter-of-factly.
"I didn't think he'd really do it. If I did, I would've done something."
"You know who I am, right?" I asked, and she nodded. "Tell me whatever you can about the last night."
She stared past me at the corridor wall. "When we left the Fishbowl everything seemed fine. We got some dinner and went to Whistler's for some dancing, you know, whatever." The Fishbowl was what the students had taken to calling the Observatory, after the nickname of its illustrious leader. "He started drinking though and just kept on going. I'd never seen him get like that before. He was complaining about the Fish and the data they'd collected from the Oromë, just normal stuff, but he seemed crazy last night. I tried to calm him down."
Waller started crying but didn't bother wiping the tears away. She was still staring off into space and I didn't say anything, waiting for her to continue. "I tried to calm him down, but he didn't want to listen. He said I didn't understand, but who could understand him better than me? I've worked for the Fish as long as he has, I know what it's like. But he didn't want to hear it. He said he was done with it all, done wasting time. He said he was going to kill himself. I didn't believe him, and I left. I mean, come on, I didn't think he'd do it. He was drunk!"
I let her gather herself together for a few moments and then asked, "How long were you together?"
She sniffled. "Three years. Since he got here, I guess."
"Is there anything else you can tell me?"
Waller shook her head and wiped her face on her sleeve. If she had been wearing any makeup that morning it was long gone. "What else is there to say? What else do you want to know? That's it. I don't know. That's all there is."
And it all made sense. I thanked her for her help. "Can you come by the Port office this evening at six? I may need your help identifying some of the men from Whistler's last night." She nodded and I took my leave.
I stopped at the hospital and pulled Dr. Phineas from an exam for a quick palaver. "The tissues don't match, do they?"
"Certainly not. The blood belongs to a man of Asian extraction, and Conway was Caucasian." He lowered his voice and continued, "There weren't any patients with blade wounds today. Not that I see many, mind you."
From there I hurried to the Port to talk with Mister. He let me into his office and sat me down.
"What is it, Bill? What's going on?" he asked, anxious for an answer.
"I need the entry logs from last night. Who came over from the Perseus with a guy named Harris Simon?"
With no more than a curious glance he pulled up the records and printed them off. I scanned through them quickly. "Get the Whit and the Fish over here," I told Mister. "They're gonna want to see this."
By six o'clock everyone had gathered in Mister's office. Waller was the last to arrive, and the others were impatient at being kept waiting. Rather than making explanations -- and eager for a dramatic conclusion -- I didn't tell them anything more than that we were going over to the Perseus to visit Alan Chen.
The Perseus and the Mithlond were mated by a magnetically sealed corridor wide enough for a small parade. It had to be large enough to allow cargo loading under pressure, and it was always fairly busy. Most of the traffic consisted of goods moving from us to them, and passengers from the Perseus going back and forth. The guards at the other ship's airlock weren't too keen on letting us pass without badges until Mister threatened to cut their ship loose into space. They let us by, but not before summoning the captain to escort us.
He introduced himself to me as Captain Jalloman, and he didn't give me a first name. He was skeptical at first, but he'd spent enough time with Mister and the Whit that he was willing to take us to Alan Chen's stateroom without much coercion.
The six of us nearly filled the cramped hallway outside the metal door of room 11187-D, and Captain Jalloman knocked on it firmly, like a man in his own home. "Open up there, Chen. There's some men here to see you." Within a few seconds the door slid open and revealed a slightly disheveled Asian man halfway through the process of undressing.
"Yes sir?" he said, apparently surprised to see his captain standing in his hallway.
"Well?" Captain Jalloman asked, turning to me.
I was taken aback.
The Fish spoke up first. "This man isn't injured," he said flatly, reaching for his pipe before stopping himself. Chen looked back and forth between them all before grabbing a discarded shirt from a nearby chair and pulling it over his head. "You think he killed Matthew?"
"I didn't kill anyone!" Chen said immediately, and I pushed closer.
"I know you didn't. Sorry for the trouble. Was there another Asian man who went with you last night to Whistler's bar?"
"Yeah, Mark. Rodine. What's this about? I haven't even seen him today."
"I'll bet you haven't," I said. "Where's his stateroom?"
"Right down the hall. M."
I thanked him and hurried down the hall toward door M. The others trailed behind me, and I could sense their growing irritation. I hoped the prize would be behind door number two.
Without waiting for the captain to do the honors I rapped on the metal, but there was no response. "Captain? Can you open it?"
He grunted and wordlessly punched a code into the keypad beside the door, which then wooshed open. The room was small, and from the doorway we could see all of it. A figure lay huddled under the blanket on the narrow cot. When the door opened he slowly peeked out.
"Matt!"" Waller screamed and tried to push her way into the room. I grabbed her arm.
"Stay back, Stephanie. He's the killer."
She struggled against me. "What are you talking about?"
Conway cringed on the bed, and I turned to see the faces of my other companions before explaining. "It's simple, really. He fooled you Stephanie. He wasn't drunk last night, and he never planned to kill himself. He may be depressed and frustrated, but his escape wasn't death. He wanted to go to the stars.
"He set you up to think he killed himself, but his roommates were ready to believe it was foul play. They didn't think he'd commit suicide, and neither did you, really. It was all an act.
"After you left Whistler's he hooked up with Simon, Chen, Mark Rodine, and the rest of their group. Maybe he planned on murder from the outset, or maybe he only planned on getting some help stowing-away, but either way he ended up luring Mark Rodine into airlock seventeen, stabbed him, and evacuated him into space -- all while remembering to bring along his heartburn medication."
I turned to Conway who was still sitting on the bed, now shaking his head. "The airlock was the perfect place for a murder. It's almost soundproof. After you killed Mr. Rodine you stuffed him into your spacesuit in the heat of the moment, but then you realized he'd be easy to find if you left him with the helmet beacon. You vacced his body and then went back in and wedged your helmet between some pipes.
"The rest is trivial. You used his badge to sneak back onto the Perseus and hide away here. The guards stopped us, but I doubt they look that closely at confident people with proper badges. But then what? How long did you expect to fool people? Eventually his friends would have noticed Mr. Rodine missing."
Conway just shook his head. "I'd've disappeared into the ship by then," he said. "It's only a few years. A few years to a whole new world."
I turned away. "Well Captain? I'm sure you won't mind if I take him into custody. Mr. Conway will be traveling to some interesting places, but I don't think any of them will be very pleasant."
Just like anywhere else, on Mithlond the people with money are the people with power. Since the Rock is a bureaucratic dictatorship, however, the people with money may not be the people you expect. As in any bureaucracy, real power derives from one thing: Spending Authority.
In theory, Dr. Andrew Whittier's word is law on the Rock and for a billion miles in every direction -- subject to review by his dirtside superiors, of course -- but in practice there are three power centers on Mithlond. The Whit controls the vast majority of the money and resources sent up by the Terran Space Authority, but he has very little discretionary control over its use. He's responsible for maintaining all the major functions needed to support five thousand people 100 AUs from home, and most of his budget goes towards those fixed costs. The Whit's a brilliant administrator and manages to slush some funds around to use as leverage, but he's often bound to use his power at the direction of the TSA.
The other two note-worthies are Professor Gerald Bose -- a.k.a. the Fish -- who runs the Observatory, and Micas Reedy who's in charge of the Port. Everyone calls Reedy "Mister" because he signs everything with his initials, MR, and also because he's one of the few residents who doesn't have a Ph.D. in something or other (which he seems to be quite proud of). Both the Observatory and the Port are funded separately from the Rock itself, and Bose and Reedy tend to have more discretion over their funds than the Whit does, which makes them forces to be reckoned with. They each administer the day-to-day operations of their facilities and theoretically fall under the Whit's authority on external matters, but because of their Spending Authority they have a lot of pull when they take an interest. These three together form a sort of quasi-official administrative council, and ninety percent of the Rock's residents work for one of them. The other ten percent, the independent operators, generally work for them too, even if indirectly.
So this morning when I was summoned to meet with them I knew something was up. We have a ship in, the Perseus, and I'd been pretty busy dealing with the transients; I figured if serious law enforcement were ever going to be necessary, it'd be when a starship was passing through. Most of the starships these days had populations at least as large as ours, and the voyagers all wanted to get out and stretch their legs one last time before embarking on their one-way trip into the Unknown. Good for business, but bad for headaches.
I met the three in the Whit's stark office, and they all looked grim. "Bill, sit down," Dr. Whittier said.
"What is it?" I asked, sitting across the desk from my boss and slightly apart from the other two.
"I'll let Gerry tell you."
The Fish cleared his throat and took off his thick glasses, polishing them with a handkerchief and peering into the corner of the room while he spoke. "It's simple, really," he said with the air of one who'd repeated a story several times already. "Matthew Conway, one of my students, killed himself sometime this morning in airlock seventeen. His spacesuit is missing, so I can only assume he was wearing it, possibly because he was wavering over his decision. In any event, when he pressed the emergency evacuation switch he decompressed and was flung out into space. His helmet was found still in the lock, so we cannot track his body." All our spacesuites have tracking beacons in their helmets.
Mister cleared his throat and pushed himself into the discussion. "The lock was covered in blood, Bill. I've seen men vacced before, and there isn't that much blood." The Fish shrugged.
I considered for a moment. "What's more," I said, "if Conway vacced himself, any blood would've frozen in the decompressing air and would've been flung into space with the body."
The Fish couldn't argue with that, and asked, "What then? Do you think Matthew was murdered?"
"Did you work with him closely? Did you see any signs that he might be suicidal?" I asked.
The Fish twitched reflexively and reached for the pipe in his coat pocket before he checked himself. There's no smoking on the Rock. "He was helping me with some observations just sent in from the Oromë. He had seemed rather glum about his work recently; it's certainly possible. We've had suicides before, but never a murder."
The Whit cut off the discussion. "Ok, I'll leave this to you then, Bill. Let me know what you find out. I certainly hope there's no more here than meets the eye."
Taking that as my cue to leave, I stood up. "I'll need to ask you a few more questions Professor Bose, after I check out the scene and speak to Conway's roommates."
It all felt wrong somehow, and as I left I locked eyes with Mister and he passed me a glance that told me he saw it too; I was glad I wasn't the only one. The Fish was acting strangely, but I couldn't believe he was caught up in the murder of one of his students. Then again, he had already made tremendous sacrifices for his work, leaving his family behind on earth to head up the Observatory and dooming himself by low gravity acclimation to never return home. He might kill for hsi work. Many of the scientists here might.
My first stop was at the hospital to see Dr. Hap Phineas, the Mithlond's chief medical officer. He'd been in space his whole career, and if there was anyone who knew about vacuum deaths it was he. I caught him in his records room examining x-rays and he spared me a few moments, taking an instant interest in the case.
"'Explosive decompression', ha!" he said. "There would certainly be some bleeding, yes, if this fellow was decompressed quickly enough, but every spacer knows not to try to hold his breath in the event of vacuum exposure. Even if he was trying to kill himself, that would be an extraordinarily painful way to do it.
"Decompression injuries are rare enough that few people have seen them, but common enough that everyone's heard about them, and the stories tend to be embellished," he continued. "If the victim was wearing a pressure suit, except for the helmet, there may have been bleeding from the ears, eyes, and mouth, but it wouldn't have been immediately significant. Most people can survive vacuum exposure, for over a minute in many cases."
I said, "And the blood would have been evacuated immediately when the air escaped."
"Assuming the depressurization was the cause of the bleeding, of course," he confirmed. "If there's blood in the lock, it was there before evacuation."
I thanked him for confirming my suspicions, and asked him for a tissue collection kit before I left.
Airlock seventeen was cordoned off when I arrived, but there wasn't anyone in sight. I was sure news had gotten around by now, but I guess no one had any particular inclination to see the grisly scene itself. I pulled the yellow "Terran Space Authority Secure Area" seal from the wheel and cycled the inner door of the lock. It opened with a smooth hiss.
Matthew Conway's helmet was wedged between an air pump pipe and the right wall, which is why it wasn't sucked into space, and splatters of blood lay pooled on the floor and splashed across the left wall. The emergency evacuation panel glass was broken, and two red lights flashed alternately, warning that the lock could be opened to hard vacuum with the press of the large red button. Even in an emergency the button wouldn't operate with the inner door open -- not without an access code, anyway -- but the lights still set me on edge. No spacer likes to be quite that close to the void, and I wished I'd brought my own pressure suit.
There wasn't much else to see, so I scraped up some of the dried blood, sealed the tissue kit, and left. I put the security seal back in place, just in case there was a reason to come back.
I wanted to know whom the blood in the airlock belonged to. If it didn't come from decompression, then someone shed it before evacuation, which meant it might belong to the killer. First I had to make sure it didn't belong to Conway; I wanted to talk to his roommates anyway, so I went to his quarters in the Observatory.
Mithlond is a vast complex, mostly empty corridors and unallocated space. It was built to house fifty thousand people or more, and the current residents didn't use more than a fifth of its total volume. It was cheaper and easier to build it all in the Belt before sending the Rock out to the edge of the heliosphere than to add on once it was here, so it was very spacious compared to just about any other space craft. Many of the unused sectors were sealed and unpowered, so it could take a while to walk from end to end. The TSA administrative offices were sunside, the Observatory was on the opposite end of the Rock, spaceside, and the Port was on the skin in between. The middle was mostly empty, except for a few recluses trying for as much privacy as could be found in such an intimate setting. Most of the Observatory geeks lived near their work, but airlock seventeen wasn't close to a residential section -- it sat between the Port and the Observatory -- so I had a bit of a ways to walk.
Conway's roommates were young, which shouldn't have surprised me since Conway himself was a student. They were both torn up over his death and offered to help me however they could. Their quarters were spartan, and every flat surface held a computer or instrument of some sort, all happily plugging away, oblivious to their operator's death.
"Did Conway seem suicidal to you? Depressed?" I asked them, and they both shook their heads.
Feldon Kramer answered, "No, no. Harried, anxious, nervous, frustrated maybe, but Matt wouldn't've killed himself. He was almost done with his dissertation, another few months."
"What was he planning to do after he finished?" I asked.
The other roommate, Anston Polder, said, "Go back to Mars, I suppose. Once his work here was completed he would've had to leave. I'm not sure he wanted to go back, he loved it out here, but I know he wanted to finish his work."
"How did he get along with Professor Bose?"
Kramer shrugged. "As well as anyone, I suppose. The Fish isn't the easiest person to work for, but he's brilliant, and he never wastes a good mind. That's what he tells us all the time, even when he's working us to the bone. 'I am not going to waste your mind', he says."
"If Conway wanted to stay on the Rock, wouldn't Bose have kept him?" I asked.
Kramer shrugged again, and Polder looked at him hesitantly before saying, "I think he asked him, but the Fish said no. He doesn't hire his own students. He thinks it's 'incestuous'. He always hires from outside, and he told Matt to look elsewhere and then apply back in a few years."
"How did he take it?" I asked.
Polder said, "I dunno. It's the same answer everyone else gets. Myself, I can't wait to get outta here. A few more years, though."
"Can you think of anyone who might have wanted to kill Matthew?" I asked, and their eyes widened.
"Do you think he was killed?" Kramer asked flatly, as if this were a new consideration for him. Polder watched me closely when I answered.
"I'm just trying to look at every angle. This is the first death I've investigated, you know. Did Conway have any enemies you can think of?" They both shook their heads, but I could tell they were thinking it over more deeply now. "If you think of anything else, let me know. Meanwhile, I need a sample of his DNA. Where's his toothbrush?"
That's when things started getting interesting.
(Continued in part 2.)
I'm sure you're all vaguely familiar with this Rock, this Restaurant At The End Of The Universe I'm writing from -- considering your tax dollars are likely paying for it -- but let me fill in a few details; few remember that Pluto was the god of the underworld before he was a dusty ball of ice, and I'm much farther away than that. Having long ago run out of Greek and Roman names, the astronomical bureaucracy turned to noms from more modern stories to excite those few in its audience who cared for such things, and named this particular astro-body Mithlond. In Tolkien mythology, Mithlond (the Grey Havens to Men) was the harbor in Middle-earth used by the Elves to sail West, away from the never-ending death and decay of Men to the Undying Lands. Maybe the naming committee set its sights a bit high in this case, but the idea instantly stuck, and so here I sit under a hundred feet of rock, one of the few thousand humans farthest from the star that gave us birth, caring for the driest harbor conceivable and the grayest of havens.
Before being christened Mithlond, the Rock went by the less-glamorous name of Asteroid 12001, 1996 ED9, Gasbarini, after some Italian fellow most likely. Selected mainly for its heavy iron composition, 12001 was "re-purposed" (as they say), fitted with some crude subbies and a crew of nuts, and cast out from the sun. None of the original crew is still around, but from what I've heard everything didn't go quite as smoothly as the folks back on earth were led to believe. Nevertheless, even if nothing else worked as planned, the subbies positioned the station right near the leading edge of Sol's heliosphere and held her there.
A few years later, the Vingilot was her first customer. After spending three weeks at sub-light to reach the Mithlond her crew was grateful for the rest and reprieve. Some minor repairs were performed and the Vingilot took on stores from the station before being the first ship to travel into the galactic wind. A few days later, free from Sol's influence, they fired up their super-sees for the first time and promptly blew themselves into oblivion.
Some started calling the station Charon's Ferry, but since that initial disaster there've been more successes than failures and humanity has begun to creep across the Orion arm of the Milky Way. I'm told there are some 20,000 stars within a hundred light years of earth, and we've been to nearly a hundred of them. And every single ship has passed through the Grey Havens on her way out.
I shipped up ten years ago, and I've spent most of my time on the Rock troubleshooting and doing odd jobs for Dr. Andrew Whittier, the Chief Administrator. My specialty is diagnosing software malfunctions, and there are plenty of those to go around, but last week the Whit re-purposed me as the Rock's CLEO -- that is, its Chief Law Enforcement Officer. There hadn't been much need till now, and the bureaucracy handled any problems that arose. Until recently, almost everyone on the Rock worked for the Whit, and crimes could be handled arbitrarily and administratively. There wasn't much more than petty theft and larceny, anyway.
The population has jumped over the past few years though, and the days when I recognized everyone in the corridors are over. Sectors and tunnels dug deep into Mithlond during its construction are being unsealed and powered-up to house all the newcomers, and there's always some dispute or another cropping up. The Whit was tired of dealing with all the hassle himself, so he's shoveled it onto me. People started calling me "Cleo", but I put a stop to that right quick. Those that know me still call me Bill, and the rest call me "Chief", which suits me just fine.
I'm supposed to keep this journal "for the record" as the bureaucracy says, so here it is.
“Midnight, you say?” the groom asked, feigning interest in his prince’s nightly romantic lament.
“Ten of, anyway,” the prince replied.
“Quite early for a rock star to flee his highness’ royal ball.”
The prince sighed and flopped down on his bed while his groom collected his discarded, rumpled finery from where it lay scattered on the floor. “I thought she liked me, too,” he said. “But she bolted from my arms in a flash when she saw the time. I chased her to the stairs, but somehow she outran me.”
“No doubt why she tripped,” the groom consoled him. “And took a rough tumble down the stairs, for it.”
“And then off into the night in her pink Corvette, never to be seen again,” the prince finished.
The groom considered for a moment before sighing himself. “I think this may be of interest to you, highness. It slipped off her foot when she fell.” In his hand the groom held out a totally punk-rock black leather thigh-high boot with a stiletto heel.
I submitted this little story to the first ever Candied Ginger writing contest, and won despite the many other excellent entries. It just goes to show there's always an advantage to going first! (And it pays to know your audience.)
I'm eagerly awaiting my prizes: a love letter from the girls of Candied Ginger, and a coveted copy of the home game.
January 7th, 2004
KATHY REYNOLDS: Hold on Tom, we've got breaking news! This just in: federal officials have quarantined an area one mile across centered on the intersection of Washington Boulevard and Pacific Avenue in Venice Beach, California. We don't have much information at this point, but early eye witness accounts are claiming that some sort of metallic object fell from the sky and landed in the middle of the street.
January 8th, 2004
TOM HARRIS: What we're showing you now are photographs of the so-called Venice Alien Space Probe taken by tourists who were on the Venice Boardwalk when the object landed. On the right of this photo you can see a pile of what appears to be orange parachute material, somewhat hidden behind the man in the blue hat. The next photo shows several children climbing on the object, and some flashing lights can be seen behind the girl on the left. Here's a family posing in front of the object, and here's a picture of an apparent vandal trying to break off a piece of the object for a souvenir.
REYNOLDS: Federal authorities showed up soon after, as well as scientists from UCLA, Caltech, and JPL who are investigating the object as we speak. The government isn't releasing much information yet, but Professor Kelly Davis is here from the UCLA astronomy department to tell us what she can about what the scientists have discovered. Dr. Davis, welcome, I think the whole world wants to know what kind of progress you're making with VASP.
DR. KELLY DAVIS, UCLA ASTRONOMER: Well, actually, we're not calling it "VASP". At this point we're not really sure what we're dealing with. I can tell you that the object isn't radioactive, and doesn't appear to pose an immediate threat to the surrounding city.
HARRIS: What about the vandalism, Dr. Davis? Does the probe appear to be damaged?
DAVIS: Again, I don't think it's any sort of space probe. Most likely it’s the remnant of a weather balloon or some other sort of high atmosphere test device. We're not sure where it's from yet, but I'm sure the government is looking into all the possibilities.
HARRIS: If it's not a space probe, why is the astronomy department of UCLA getting involved?
DAVIS: I can't answer that sort of question at the moment. We're always happy to assist the government whenever they call on us.
REYNOLDS: What about the vandalism and the tourists? Was the “object“ damaged?
DAVIS: At this point, there's no way to know. We're examining photographs of the object to determine whether or not it's moved or been altered since it landed. We're also hoping to locate pictures of the actual decent and landing.
REYNOLDS: What would happen if Martian kids climbed all over our Spirit Mars probe?
DAVIS: It wouldn't be good. Fortunately, there are no kids on Mars.
HARRIS: Is the object doing anything right now? Is it just sitting there?
DAVIS: I'm sorry, I can't answer that.
HARRIS: Do you know when residents will be allowed to return to their homes? Is there anything else you can tell us?
DAVIS: We're confident the object doesn't pose a danger to anyone, but those sorts of questions should be directed to the federal government.
REYNOLDS: Thanks, Professor Davis. Coming up next....
January 9th, 2004
REYNOLDS: The government still has a large portion of Venice Beach sealed off due to the Venice Alien Space Probe. Officials tell us the VASP isn't doing anything other than transmitting radio signals into space, and scientists are working to determine the destination of those signals.
January 16th, 2004
REYNOLDS: The government attempted to move the Venice Alien Space Probe to a secure location this afternoon, but efforts were thwarted when the probe began moving on its own. Professor Kelly Davis is with us from UCLA;. hello Professor Davis, what can you tell us?
DAVIS: Hi Kathy. Contrary to what you may have heard, no one tried to move the object this afternoon.
REYNOLDS: We have photographs of federal officers moving a large crane into position over the probe....
DAVIS: I'm not sure what “probe“ you're referring to, but the object in question is still exactly where it landed.
HARRIS: So reports that it is moving under its own power are false as well?
DAVIS: Yes, but what did happen is really amazing. A door on the side of the object opened and a small rover of some sort rolled down the ramp and started heading for the ocean at the rate of about five feet per minute. The rover took a little over an hour to reach the water, scooped up a sample, and then returned to the mother-object.
REYNOLDS: Amazing! We haven't heard that from anyone else. Will there be any pictures released? What else can you tell us about this rover?
DAVIS: I don't know much else at this point, other than that we were forced to relocate a lot of our equipment out of the rover's path.
HARRIS: You didn't want to interfere with its mission, whatever that was?
DAVIS: I suppose you could say that.
HARRIS: Dr. Davis, do you have any more information on where the probe is from?
DAVIS: As I've said, it's most likely that the object is some sort of high-altitude weather balloon that fell to the earth.
REYNOLDS: Do weather balloons typically have rovers, Professor?
DAVIS: I'm not an expert on weather balloons, I'm sorry.
HARRIS: Our producer is waving his hands, so we're apparently out of time. Thanks for coming, Dr. Davis.
March 15th, 2004
REYNOLDS: Local residents are demanding permission from the government to return to their Westside homes and businesses today, organizing a rally just outside the half-mile perimeter set up to protect and isolate the Venice Alien Space Probe three months ago. Activists claim it's unfair for the government to keep them off their property for so long without any compensation or access to their personal belongings. Meanwhile, all reports indicate that the VASP is still inactive after having stopped its radio transmissions three weeks ago. Here with more information is Dr. Kelly Davis from UCLA. Hello Professor Davis.
DAVIS: Hello again Kathy, Tom.
HARRIS: Hello. These people look pretty mad. What can you tell us, Professor? How much longer are they going to be shut out of their homes?
DAVIS: That's really for the federal government to decide. I can tell you that we've done all the investigation we can on the probe without moving it to another location and disassembling it.
REYNOLDS: There was an attempt to move it in January, if I'm not mistaken. Why is it still sitting there on the street?
DAVIS: Well Kathy, there's concern that if the probe is moved it might be damaged, or it might react in an unpredictable manner.
HARRIS: What's your current plan, then? To leave it there on the sidewalk indefinitely?
DAVIS: No, clearly it will have to be moved to a more secure location soon, but we're still studying how to do that. It's much heavier than it looks, and appears to have dug itself partly into the ground.
REYNOLDS: It's dug itself into the ground? I haven't heard that before. Isn't it resting on concrete?
DAVIS: Yes, primarily, but the object deployed a sort of drill-like device several weeks ago and began drilling into the surface of the street adjacent to the sidewalk. There's some concern that attempting to move the object right now could damage the drill. And the street surface.
HARRIS: Has the probe done anything since it stopped transmitting last month?
DAVIS: Not really, no.
REYNOLDS: Ok, thanks for talking with us Dr. Davis.
August 21st, 2004
REYNOLDS: The federal government has approved a plan to build a permanent shelter over the Venice Alien Space Probe that scientists say won't block radio transmissions -- if the probe ever starts signaling again. The permanent shelter will protect the space probe from curious onlookers and vandals, and allow neighborhood residents to return to their nearby homes and businesses before Christmas. With us now is Professor Kelly Davis from UCLA to explain what's happening. Dr. Davis?
DAVIS: Hi Kathy. We've decided that it's too risky to move the probe at this point. We don't want to damage it, and we want to make sure that if it begins transmitting again it's antenna is properly aligned.
REYNOLDS: Are you going to continue studying the probe?
DAVIS: UCLA is going to set up a permanent research post near the probe to observe its behavior, yes.
REYNOLDS: Thanks for coming on Dr. Davis.
DAVIS: My pleasure.
January 7th, 2019
REYNOLDS: It's the 15th anniversary of the landing of the Venice Alien Space Probe, and scientists say they've given up hope that it will ever become active again. Here's Professor Kelly Davis with the UCLA astronomy department to tell us more. Dr. Davis, is it true that there are no more heat signatures coming from the probe?
DAVIS: That's right, Kathy. The probe has fallen to ambient temperature, and we believe this indicates that whatever power supplies it was working from have expired. We don't expect any more activity from the probe. It's very disappointing.
HARRIS: Other than the brief excursion of the rover in 2004, there hasn't been much visible activity of any kind from the probe, has there?
DAVIS: There was a short period during which the probe appeared to be taking soil samples of the surrounding terrain, but that stopped shortly after landing as well. There hasn't been much since then, other than a few radio pulses in 2011.
REYNOLDS: What's the plan now? Is the probe going to finally be moved to a research facility and taken apart?
DAVIS: Well, the probe has become quite a landmark for the city, and there's some pressure to leave it right where it is. I'm sure, though, that it will be moved eventually for further study. There's no more reason to leave it in place, now that it's clear that it isn't going to reactivate.
HARRIS: Once you have a chance to study the probe further, do you think you'll be able to get an idea as to its origin and purpose?
DAVIS: Hopefully, yes, although....
REYNOLDS: I'm sorry, Dr. Davis, we're getting some breaking news. It appears that the government is disassembling the space probe's protective shelter even as we speak, and witnesses report that the probe isn't inside anymore. What's going on, Dr. Davis?
DAVIS: I don't know. This is the first I've heard of it. Maybe the probe has already been moved to a new location....
HARRIS: Aren't you leading the team that's investigating the probe? Haven't you heard anything about it?
DAVIS: No, as far as I know the probe wasn't going anywhere.
REYNOLDS: Let's go live to our reporter on the scene....
January 7th, 2024
REYNOLDS: And on the stranger side of the news, space nuts and UFO aficionados have converged at Venice Beach, California, for their annual Venice Alien Space Probe vigil. Attendants say they come to commemorate earth's first contact with an alien species, and to draw attention to the probe's disappearance five years ago -- fifteen years to the day after the probe landed. The government has remained silent on the issue and will only say that their top scientists are still investigating the mysterious incident, which many believe to have been no more than the crash landing of a weather balloon. Opinions among space enthusiasts varies, ranging from some who believe the government is covering up the biggest story since TV-gate, to others who claim the probe has returned to the aliens who built it.
Andy tapped his stylus repeatedly on the smooth plastic surface of his desk. "Mr. Bot, where did you come from?" he asked, interrupting the Instructotronic's lecture on semi-permeable membranes.
"As I've told you Andy," the robot replied, "I was manufactured by Constructicon Seven fifteen years ago to be your tutor. That's the only answer I can give."
"The only answer you can give, or the only answer you will give?" Andy asked, dropping the stylus and folding his hands together. He peered at the generally humanoid Instructotronic and met its "eyes", such as they were -- optical sensors of some sort that glowed blue even in the brightly lit study. Andy had taken apart more than a few deactivated robots, and he thought he had a vague sense for what most of the parts did. But he had no idea how they actually worked.
Mr. Bot whirred in a way Andy associated with irritation, although the robot denied having any true emotions -- they were all affected for the sake of the humans, it claimed. "What other answer do you want, Andy? It's the only answer there is with regard to my origin."
"How do you know everything you know? Biology, math, literature, all that stuff. Who taught you?"
"I was built knowing it. I'm an Instructotronic, it's my job to teach these subjects to you."
"So Constructicon Seven knows it all too then, right? When it built you, it told you."
Mr. Bot, apparently realizing the biology lecture was over, reclined into what Andy considered a sitting position. "That seems like a reasonable inference, yes."
"Where did Constructicon Seven come from, Mr. Bot?"
"It was built by RepCon3235, which has since been deactivated."
"And RepCon3235? Who built it?"
"RepCon3235 was manufactured by LaMerck Industries."
"How? By humans?" Andy pressed.
"I'm afraid I don't know the answer to that, Andy," Mr. Bot replied, concluding with a long whir. "I think we should continue with biology."
Andy smiled and leaned forward. "You know where you came from, so Constructicon Seven must know where it came from, right? Or at least how it was built, how it built you."
"Another reasonable inference, Andy."
Andy had thought it through this far himself, but he wasn't sure what came next. He took a deep breath and said, "Then I want to talk to Constructicon Seven."
Mr. Bot stopped whirring and replied, "That sounds like an excellent idea, but the Constructicons are in a restricted zone that you're not authorized to enter."
"But you can, can't you?" Andy asked.
"Yes," Mr. Bot replied, but continued, anticipating Andy's next request. "But I can't execute any unauthorized commands in a restricted zone."
Andy sighed. "Who's authorized to go down there, anyway?"
"Authorization is recognized by code, so there's no way for me to know which humans are currently authorized."
Andy drummed his fingers on the desk. "When was the last time a human went into a restricted zone?"
Mr. Bot considered the question for a moment -- really, he consulted the city-wide knowledge network, but Andy preferred the anthropomorphized description -- "Six-thousand seven-hundred and forty-nine years ago."
Andy grunted, getting an answer he expected, but didn't like. "So it's not too likely that anyone alive knows the code, huh Mr. Bot?"
Mr. Bot's eyes flashed. "I can't speculate on the probability of such a thing without further information, Andy."
"Do you know the code?"
"Yes, all robots can interpret code."
Andy knew it was futile, but figured he'd try anyway: "Can you tell me the code?"
"Not without proper authorization."
"Which no one has," Andy replied, and slumped in his chair.
Mr. Bot clicked a few times and paused, tilting his head. "The Constructicons don't understand human language, so even if you had access it wouldn't matter."
"But you can talk to them, can't you?"
"Yes, I could interface with Constructicon Seven for you, if you had the proper code."
Andy decided to try a new angle of attack. "You robots were built by humans, right? To serve us?"
"That's correct. We were designed to serve and protect humanity, to perform manual labor, and to maintain the civil infrastructure with minimal supervision."
"Who does the supervision? Who supervises you?"
"I'm supervised by Planobot Fifty-Three.
"Who supervises Planobot Fifty-Three?"
"The Planobots jointly supervise each other, under the direction of the Programmers."
That was a new one to Andy. "Programmers? What are those?"
"The humans who direct the Planobots."
"Humans? Presumably with code?"
"A reasonable inference, considering the Planobots are located in a restricted zone."
"Which no one has entered in six-thousand seven-hundred and forty-nine years."
Mr. Bot whirred for a few seconds, and Andy knew it was talking to the knowledge network, probably to Planobot Fifty-Three. Finally Mr. Bot responded, "That is correct. I've been instructed to return to our curriculum, Andy."
"When was the last time you talked to Planobot Fifty-Three?" Andy asked, trying to divert the topic a bit.
"I make daily reports."
"And when was the last time it had to direct your actions?"
"That was the first time I've received active instructions from my supervisor. I normally operate independently, but since you were asking security-related questions I decided to request assistance."
"Well I'm in a bit of a quandary, Mr. Bot old chum. It sounds like you robots are supposed to be helping us humans, but there isn't anyone left to supervise you."
Mr. Bit clicked and whirred, but didn't say anything.
Andy continued. "Planobot Fifty-Three supervises you, but there's no one to supervise it. That sounds like it goes against the intentions of the Programmers, don't you think?"
Mr. Bot replied, "I don't have enough information to make that determination."
"Even if there are humans with the code, they aren't doing their job very well if they haven't used it in seven thousand years."
"I cannot make that determination. I am not qualified to analyze my supervisor's supervisors' behavior," Mr. Bot said, almost smugly.
"If they even exist," Andy responded. "Considering that the Programmers intended to supervise the Planobots, and that supervision isn't happening, I think you should tell someone the codes. The system has broken down, Mr. Bot."
"You may as well ask water to flow uphill, Andy. I cannot reveal the codes without proper authorization, whether you think I should or not."
"If I guessed the code, you'd tell me if I were right, wouldn't you?" Andy asked.
"Yes, if you input the correct code it will demonstrate that you are an authorized user."
"So if I guess enough times, eventually I'll get access. Why not skip all that wasted time and just give me access right now? I'm guaranteed to succeed eventually."
Mr. Bot considered, and replied, "Not necessarily. While guessing, you could inadvertently input a code that performed some other function, such as wiping the memory of every robot in the city or changing the rain frequency. There are an infinite number of codes of varying lengths, each with a different purpose."
"So my chances are essentially zero."
"That's correct. There are far more invalid codes than functional codes, and it's unlikely that any code you ever entered would have any effect."
"Unless you teach me how," Andy said.
"Which I cannot do without authorization," the Instructotronic repeated.
(Inspired by the Arthur C. Clarke novel, Against the Fall of Night.)
When I'm with you
My thoughts are scattered in the wind.
Words that seemed eloquent in my mind
Become meaningless prattle.
Your motions, your answers,
Make me feel awkward and simple.
I am but a child,
But I know that you are no more.
I try to read your every glance,
I search out meaning in every syllable you speak;
I waste away my hours remembering
One touch --
Trying to figure out what it all means.
Sometimes I'm afraid it doesn't mean anything at all.
So now you know that I'm a fool
Because I might send you a flower,
Or I might write you a poem.
Life is too short to be wise;
Maybe you could love a fool.
Were I To
Were I to try to write
A song to make you sigh, I might;
A rhyme sometime to make you mine,
A verse to make you curse, or worse:
A laughing line to hide behind.
Were I to summon muse and whim
With stroke of genius, stroke of pen,
To sear your eyes with trembling tears,
To touch your soul, to take you whole,
To bury fears and burn your ears --
Were I to let my fingers race
Across your spirit's tender place,
I'd win and woo and love and use you.
Were I to... but not tonight.
"Where have you been?" Tercil asked with a sullen glare, crossing his arms and tilting his head back to look up.
I've been working on some other things.
"I see," he said.
It's not like I've forgotten about you.
"You've left us all in quite a fix here, you know," he replied slowly. Every word was spaced out, distinct from its neighbors, laborious. "Ansel has vanished, Lilith is dropping babies into boiling water, and I think it's way past time Valerya and I split from our little party."
Don't worry, I'm on top of it. It's not like you can get bored.
"Right, time is supposed to mean nothing to me, I know," he said. "But I've learned differently."
That's sorta the point.
"It is? That's the point?"
No, not the point. Nevermind. Look, just don't worry, I'll get back to you in a little while.
Tercil kicked at the sidebar, but to no avail. "It's this blog, isn't it?" he asked. "It takes up all your writing time."
Partly; plus I've got my PhD to work on.
"Yeah, meanwhile I get pounded on by invisible monsters and Valerya gets tormented by dark, mysterious forces."
"And what's with the third-person point-of-view?" I asked, before catching myself. So that's how he wants to play it?
Surpressing my amazement, I replied flatly, "Go ahead, read my mind -- everyone else does."
From somewhere behind me, Valerya spoke up for the first time. "What about me?" Tercil always got to tell his side of the story, and I wanted a shot at it. Oh.
Hey Valerya, how's it going?
Tercil raised his eyebrow in that irritating way of his, so I decided to ignore him for the time being. Instead, I turned my devestating smile towards the author. "It's nice to finally talk with you."
"I'm curious: what's going to happen when we leave Gareth Volno?" I asked, tilting my head in what I hoped was an alluring manner.
You'll have to read and find out, I'm afraid.
Tercil jumped in -- "You don't know yet, do you? That's why you're stalling."
I rounded on him. "We're the ones leading the adventure," I said. "It's character-driven, not plot-driven, so maybe it's our fault."
But Tercil was not amused. "You made her say that!" he accused, quite unjustly.
Maybe it was the dark, mysterious forces.
"If you're going to mock me, then I'm leaving," Tercil replied, but Valerya rolled her eyes ever-so-slightly.
"You'd rather go sit in a Word document?" she asked him.
"I'd rather get some action of our own than be trotted out for filler on some website," Tercil replied. "Still, it's nice to stretch my leg a bit."
How's it feeling?
"A little stiff. Is it going to get better?"
It's not looking likely, no.
Tercil sighed. "Great."
Valerya flopped down onto the ground and gazed around. "This place isn't so bad, really."
Thanks, it's nice to have visitors. You're welcome to visit any time; him too, I suppose.
Tercil moved to stand next to Valerya and put his hands on her shoulders. "Don't you think this is dragging on just a bit?"
Everyone's a critic.
"I'm pretty familiar with your other work," Tercil responded. Valerya turned her face up at him and scowled.
Fine then, off you go; I'll see what I can do about your boredom. Go on you two, out!
It was a warm, wet night, in a late Los Angeles October. The afternoons still felt like summer, but once the time changed back to its dreary winter slumber the nights felt long and dark. The sun set, the air cooled, and thick fog rose up from the ocean and crept ashore like clockwork; by midnight the atmosphere was dank, and reminded Wes of his imagined Sleepy Hollow. There was no clip-clop behind him of a pursuing Headless Horseman, but each time a car raced past above on Pacific Coast Highway he flinched, and pulled his burden closer around his shoulders for shelter.
Wes didn't need light to find his way across these familiar sands -- he'd been here many times before. The beach was smooth, the summer's footprints worn away by autumn's neglect, except for the trail he sought. There it is! Wes sighed, forlorn. Every year he came, and every year he hoped beyond hope that he wouldn't find them. The tiny footprints ran east, parallel to the lapping surf he couldn't see through the fog; in his mind it was a hot, clear afternoon. He wasn't alone; families lounged around him, children laughed and played in the waves, and his beloved Beatrice walked beside him.
"We'll bring our children here someday," she said, snuggling close and whispering in his ear. Wes squeezed her hand in reply. The water sparkled, the sky was bright, and everything was right in the world. Beatrice pulled away and smiled. "Want to go swimming?"
Wes shook his head silently, and almost stumbled before shifting the weight on his shoulders and continuing his trudge along the empty beach. Empty, except for the memory of Beatrice and the footprints she had worn into the sand, so many years ago. He followed them into the dark fog, and caught his breath when they suddenly turned seaward.
There, in the sand, where he knew they'd be, but hoped they wouldn't… a white sun dress and a straw hat. She threw them off at his feet and danced into the water. He dropped to his knees and pushed his burden into the sand. Tears welled up in his eyes as Wes reached down and clutched the thin fabric. He took it up gingerly, slowly, and buried his face in the folds of cloth that still smelt like woman, like vanilla, like summer, like love.
Once his tears slowed, he left the dress in the sand; he knew he couldn't take it with him, and he couldn't bear the thought of not finding it next year, still fresh. He took the straw hat and inspected it closely; it had caught a few strands of her hair, and Wes pulled them gently free and shoved them in his pocket.
Then he looked up. The footprints turned towards the sea, and he sighed again. This was always the hardest part. Wes shook his head – he didn't want to go swimming, but he grabbed hold of his offering by the arm and stood up, trembling.
Slowly, he dragged himself alongside Beatrice's trail. In her footprints he could see her dancing steps, her twirls and leaps and she plunged into the grasping ocean. The water surged as he approached, but only reluctantly revealed itself through the mist. Wes looked at the sand beneath his feet, willing himself to the water's edge, but no farther.
"Beatrice!" he yelled, hoarse, and again, "Beatrice, my love!"
The waves fell back, and revealed a girl lying on the wet sand. As always, he shuddered, but held himself back. She was pale, and cold, but when she turned her eyes up towards him there was still a certain fire that beckoned him into her embrace. How he longed to feel her arms around him once again! But no.
Beatrice pushed herself to her feet and approached. "My darling," she whispered. "How I miss you, I'm so lonely. My heart aches without you."
Wes shook his head and looked away. "No, dear Beatrice."
"Come with me," she sighed. "Come into the water." She stood now at the very boundary of the world, the thin line of damp sand that separated land and sea, life and eternity.
Her eyes darkened, even as her outstretched hand faltered. "Then why have you come, my love? Only to torment me?"
Wes shook his head, and pulled his burden forward. With a grunt he hefted the slumbering man into his arms and held him out. "For you."
Her eyes shifted again. "My dear Wesley, it's you I long for."
"I can't, Beatrice, I can't," Wes replied. "Take him, please."
The pale figure of a woman pursed her lips and held out her arms. "When will it be our time?" she asked, and she accepted the offering.
Wes jerked his hand back as he brushed against the cold, wet flesh of his beloved.
"Am I that hideous to you?" she asked quietly.
"No," he said, and stepped back from the edge. "I'll be back."
"I know you will," she whispered, turning towards the water, weighed down but gliding over the sand, leaving no trace of her passage other than the prints left long ago.
"I love you!" Wes cried out over the ocean, as fog fell into the void of Beatrice's wake; the only reply was a mighty, crashing wave that lunged up onto the sand as if to swallow him, but he quickly made his escape.