This will produce around a million words and will take some time. Respond in the comments or in social media with pithy ideas and I will write stories based on those.
The child was skeptical. “I don’t understand how this works. Explain the thermodynamics.”
Another precocious one, he thought. “Is it essential to understand my workings to rely on my strength?”
A nod, slow and elegant. The child’s bald head and piercing eyes gave him an unsettling air of wisdom.
“Then… if you truly understood my power, and the rules that bind me, could you be still said to be making a wish?”
The child pondered. The stillness outside the hospice swelled into the sound of wind in trees, and the jinn felt hopelessly lonely and nostalgic. Finally, a shake of the head.
“I want life.”
“I can explain why you cannot ask me for it. Allah has reserved to Himself the schedule of every man’s death. Can you accept that?”
Of course he could.
No profit in worrying. He drew back Hooplah’s hand, and Hooplah drew back has, and they conducted the Sign of Victory with a satisfying slap.
“Come back soon,” she said.
The jinn stood, feigning patience, until the child spoke again. “I wish that you would fully explain to me how this works.”
“Are you sure? There is much that must be explained first. You have no background in physics, for example –“
There was nothing angry about the child’s face, nothing sharp or harsh, but the jinn’s binding felt that he was being obtuse, and for a few minutes he stood trembling and retching as it took its course. The child waited, impassive.
“I will show you, then,” said the jinn, “but you may die.”
“You can’t alter that schedule.”
The jinn felt grateful in his heart that the child was on his deathbed, but smothered the feeling before it could occupy his thoughts. Instead he focused on time, his and the boy’s, and took them out of step with the march of life, into a dreamland built after the jinn’s former palace.
There, in the rhythm of dreams, he tutored the boy in the physics of man and the energy of Allah, in the waste spaces between the particles and the treasures there stored, from which jinn and angel wrought their miracles. The child learned fast, though the cost of waking would be forgetting, and laughed with glee as he used his knowledge to make dream-miracles, spirits of fish and flowers pouring from his hands in a kaleidoscope of shimmering images.
“This I have taught might have helped you to become a great sorcerer in life,” said the jinn, “and it is well for your soul that it will not.”
“Have mortal doctors more power over life than you?” asked the boy, and his eyes flashed, and the palace rumbled, and the jinn quaked. “Their wisdom is incomplete, and Allah is merciful.”
“Yes, of course,” said the jinn, and he grimaced as he kowtowed. “Regardless, my task is ended, and we must return –”
“Return? When your contract remains? I did not wish for magic tricks, spirit.” His voice returned to a low, even tone. “Explain to me how all of this…” He waved his arm through walls and dimensions, encompassing the universe in a gesture. “How all of this works.”
His eyes were pleading, and the jinn felt compassion despite himself, so he dismissed the dream-palace and took his image and the boy’s up through space and back through time, and the stars marched backwards in their tracks and the echo of the laugh of Allah as He set them in motion, as a child laughs at the turning of a machine, faded into their hearing, stronger and stronger, and they stopped, and all was still.
“Look,” said the jinn, and the child beheld the stars in the heavens arrayed as an army in their ranks, the yellow stars as infantry, the bright blue on the wings as cavalry, the red as supply train, the eerie black holes as spies, and all the planets presented, in order of size, at the front.
“Look,” said the jinn, and the child beheld the angels that tended them, that held them in their orbits of attention, and the jinn that darted like swallows between them. He saw that they loved the order, reveled in rules given, drinking the law as sweet honey.
“Look now,” said the jinn, and the child saw all the creatures of Heaven streaming to one of the planets, woken from its slumber by a ray of light lensed and shadowed from the marshaled stars to a gentle glow. They held their glories and halos to a whisper and flew softly as the Lord God drew shapes in the mud, and hovered expectantly as a man and a woman came to life.
“Please look away,” said the jinn, as shame overwhelmed him, for there was murmuring in heaven and his voice could be heard. The child peered at the scene with the secret arts he was taught, and understood the voices. Some were disappointed. Many were concerned. A few were waiting for Allah to finish.
“They cannot maintain it,” said a jinn made of fire. “It will spin out into chaos, lonely systems where stars swallow planets and die of their gluttony. They cannot keep the fabric from stretching. We can all tell the end of this,” and the child saw the end, and it was cold and dark, and all the angels stood as statues and all the jinn starved.
The angels said nothing, for their decisions were made, but the jinn burst into conversation, their signals superheating stray particles as they debated their course, and some declared obedience and some reserved their right to act otherwise.
Then the voice of God was present, a rumble beyond words that pierced their hearts from the inside out. “They have my trust,” said the Almighty, “but I do not have yours. Be cursed, then, to know no more the joy of order, save it come at the command of these two. Should they prove unworthy, I shall judge them, but you will serve them or you will starve soon.”
And the child released the jinn, for fear of the responsibility that would come with further knowledge, and they were again on Earth and in time. “You may go,” said the child, and he shivered as he fell into a deep sleep.
They gave the jinn a Rubik’s cube. I don’t get paid enough for this, he thought, but the rest of the children only wanted treasures of Earth, so he rested for a while.
We were early models so they hadn’t worked out our amygdalas all the way. I could always handle it but my little sister fell into these funks that would last for days, and one of those times I took her by the hand and marched her to the sequencer in the east wing.
“Spit,” I said. She shook her head.
I was about to argue when a light came on in my head. I turned around, and a few seconds later felt a tug on my sleeve. We put the sample in the machine and a few seconds later had her entire code on the big screen, in tiny letters you had to squint to make out.
I typed in some regexes and highlighted the results. The bottom right corner turned purple, as did a few pairs in the center.
“That’s everything that codes for proteins, or in other words that actually gives you the body you have,” I said. I lit up the rest of it in orange. “This part mostly regulates the code itself, or just reproduces itself, but we leave almost all of it alone.”
“Because we don’t know what it does?” Her voice was just above a whisper.
“That, and because there’s no harm in keeping it,” I said. “It’s something every human has, so it’s sort of our heritage, even though most of our genes were picked by an optimizing simulation.”
She was already perking up, but I knew it wouldn’t last without something special. “Look at this,” I said, and I pulled up Professor Redland’s code. “Here’s a baseline human.” I ran a check to compare junk DNA between her and my sister; a huge chunk of the top middle was different.
“That part we’re pretty sure is junk,” I said, “and so we put our own data in there. Most of it’s encrypted, you know, identification, how we were made, kill codes…”
“Uh… never mind. Anyway, if you encode that into binary, convert that into letters, Unicode standard DNA storage, and throw away everything that’s not within a few dozen spaces of a dictionary word, you get…”
The screen emptied except for a few bright lines. I put them together and raised the font size.
“Read it to me.”
“Didn’t you…” I stifled my objection when I realized they’d have filled her up with Broca’s inhibitors to keep her out of trouble, to make her illiterate until she was out of her mood. I wished they’d just done something to her mood instead, but couldn’t tell her that, so I just I read her DNA to her.
“Our dear child,” it went, “thank you for being ours.” And it talked about genetics in a way a child could understand it, and gave some background on the project itself, not just for us but for any children we might have, any of our descendants, because these genes would breed true.
Then it had stories, one about a child romping with monsters after dark, another one about a tree that loved a boy and gave him all of its fruit and branches until it was a stump. Her mood picked up as I read those to her, then the last one, which wasn’t about anyone, it was about you, and how you’ll be able to go anywhere, you have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself any direction you choose. I think they put those in there for fun, because they never mentioned them, and the books they read us were a lot less fun, all about how important it is to listen to adults and stay where they can see you.
“Another one!” she said. I’d only read a few sentences after I flipped the page, and there was plenty left, but it was more than they’d put in my own code.
“We’re so sorry,” it said. “We never would have made you if we’d known what we were making you for, but now that you’re with us we never want you to leave. Please understand that we love you and accept you, no matter what you find yourself doing. You’re more than your genes.”
I stood there, gobsmacked, and I couldn’t speak for a minute, and she tugged on my shirt some more. “Come on, just read it,” she said, but I was so jealous they hadn’t said that to me that I made something up about it just being technical stuff and sent her on her way.
Now, it took me years to realize that the little moments of shame and guilt that stick with you your whole life are human, and not just part of what made us who we were, and that made me feel better but just a little. She was transferred to another lab before I could tell her, and by the time both of us got our freedom 2041 happened and we both lost track of everything.
It turns out we were both in San Diego at the same time, on opposite fronts of course, but then the bomb hit and the next thing I knew here I was, with everyone I’d ever known and loved and killed, and without the hormones and frontal lobe inhibitors there wasn’t much left to forgive. She tracked me down before I found her and there was nothing but joy on her face, even when I told her about the lie.
“I knew,” she said. “I ran and looked it up myself soon as I could. Those words helped me through some of the really dark times,” and I nodded because I felt the same way. “And I never would have looked for them on my own. I always felt like I’d never thanked you enough.” And we cried and embraced, and it wasn’t weird or embarrassing at all in that place.
And so, your honor, uh, majesty, um… In that case, I’m pleased to be able to declare “Not Guilty.”
Dargrud the Tall, no longer able to claim that title, ran a hand over his low, hairy, brand-new brow, and pressed his forehead against the high, smooth one he had vacated. “Go, and do what only you can do,” he said, or at least tried to, but Hooplah the Monkey seemed to understand, and when Dargrud swung away he hurried to the barracks, struggling monkeyfully to walk upright.
“Here goes nothing,” thought Dargrud. In a flash he was out of the window and on the side of the Weeping Tower, almost launching himself into the ether with the unexpected force. He suppressed a whoop, then remembered himself and let it out as a frightful chitter. He had a role to play.
First stop, Nazar Khan’s laboratory. He let himself in through the barred basement window – the raven normally on guard had flown off to see the spectacle at the barracks – and landed between a pair of stuffed alligators and what appeared to be the skull of a horned humanoid. On a narrow reading desk in the corner a little scroll was chained to a granite slab. Dark glyphs in an uncouth tongue curled around the outside edge, surrounded by Nazar’s crabbed handwriting.
He prayed his thanks to She That Arranges, and an apology to He That Is Learned, and ripped it free. It folded thin enough to go into a pocket of his jester’s suit, once the crickets inside were dumped. In the distance a churchman beat the conch-shells in the pattern of the Hour of Grass. Dargrud gulped.
The raven had returned, but he tied it up with its own saddle and left it under the desk. Plenty of crickets to tide it over, and they’d always been friends before. He scurried up the side of the Smiling Tower, paused to rain shingles on the guards who had finally subdued Hooplah, and made a wild jump at the castle walls. Fifteen feet short of them he discovered why monkeys don’t like to swim, and made a desperate scramble for the moat’s far shore. The scroll in his pocket left a murky trail and shed water.
A trail on the walltop led to Princess Amaliah’s chambers. Her scent was memorable from his time as a man, and it nearly stung his nostrils in Hooplah’s body. He paused before her balcony doors, then swung them wide and burst in.
The scents and colors overwhelmed him, piled as they were on his exhaustion and near-drowning. Amaliah’s face overwhelmed him again, looming over him, brows knit. “You’re in a right disarray, little one,” she said, and her casual accent almost overwhelmed him but he was used to it by then.
He waved away her offer of a coffee cup and tugged the scroll from his pocket. Concern shifted to horror, then to disgust. She picked him up by the back of his collar. “I oughta give you a spanking you’ll never…”
He screeched and tapped the scroll, ran his fingers down the lines of Nazar’s notes. “That’s…”
She looked at him. “But… Uncle Naz… consorting with…”
He pulled himself upright, and gave a two-handed salute. “You’re not Hooplah,” she said.
A stiff bow, and then he took the quill and paper she offered. Dar… g… His monkey hands were unused to writing, or his human brain didn’t know monkey hands, or some combination that Jire the Hermit would be pleased to hear about when he switched them back.
“Dargrud,” she offered. He nodded vigorously.
“Dargrud…” She yelped. “Don’t just…” She tugged a veil from a shelf and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders. “It becomes thee not, sir knight, to…”
He tapped the scroll, and drew a watch-necklace on his chest. “Time. Not a lot of time. So Nazar’s bad and you’re a monkey, and…” She waved impatiently at the paper.
Dargrud shook his head. He pulled a key from his back pocket and clasped it in her hands. A heavy knock shook her door, and he leapt out the balcony. No time to close it. Best to hope that detail wouldn’t reach Nazar.
He’d, mercifully, guarded the king’s chambers enough to know where they were without scenting, but as he swung around the midsection of the Southeast Buttress he spotted a crowd gathered with an unfamiliarly familiar figure in the center.
He choked an oath to She Who Berates. Exactly the wrong direction, he thought, and chased visions of his Lightning Bearers waiting for his signal from his mind. He’d have to do this alone.
The king’s chambers were empty. This wasn’t right. The book of It Who Understands was closed on his nightstand, covered with dust. He danced in frustration on his bed, arms tucked comfortably behind his head, and gathered his thoughts.
A net flew at him from the corner.
“You really were my favorite,” said Nazar, kohl-bedecked eyes mournful. “Say, did Jire give you the power of speech as well as reason? I wouldn’t mind paying him for… oh.” Dargrud would have flung more than glances if his hands had been free.
He was himself flung at the feet of the king, who was drooling as he wiped his signature on a series of documents set up on a lap desk. A crew of similarly drooling guards snapped to attention. “Bring the princess,” said Nazar, “and the High Priest.” He flicked dust from his robe. “Shouldn’t have been like this,” he muttered.
The guard who returned was not drooling and had no princesses. “Lord Nazar, one of ours has got a spirit in him and… we need you.”
Nazar’s face brightened. “Bring the lad in,” he said. The guard waved forward a stretcher bearing the body of Dargrud the Tall, spilling over the front and sides. Nazar leaned over and adjusted his spectacles. “This is… hm… what?”
Hooplah leapt from the stretcher and tackled Nazar, screeching triumphantly. The guards at the stretcher leapt in shock. The drooling guards drooled. The king signed another paper.
Dargrud felt a tug at his wrists. “Shh,” said Amaliah, as she awkwardly chopped at his bonds with one hand while holding her blanket in place with the other. He snapped them once they were weakened, and rubbed his monkey wrists. “Now what?”
He nodded at her, stroked her hand, and loped across the floor to Nazar. He climbed up the back of the shrieking vizier and clutched at the spectacles. His muscles spasmed and a thrill of fear rushed him, but the glasses only gave him a monkey’s share of fear, so he held on and wrenched and wrenched until they came free, with an audible pop and a few patches of Nazar’s temples.
He flung them on the ground as the man collapsed. Dargrud followed, panting in a heap. Amaliah, heedless of her blanket now, smashed them with a vase. All of the guards and the king gaped equally.
Nazar defanged, and not a man lost, he thought. “You didn’t plan this?” he said, or tried to, and Hooplah gave an exaggerated shrug.
The Rebel lounged nonchalantly in a chair at the end of the table. “Nice digs,” he said. “I expected them to be more…” He spun a finger. “Chains. Hanging from them.”
Phasma stood at the opposite end and waited.
The Rebel twitched, tried to look her in the eye, shot a few half-smiles.
“You’re supposed to say ‘that can be arranged,’ or ‘that will come later,’ or something like that,” he said. “Can you…”
“And then… I’ll say, ‘I’m looking forward to it,’ or ‘yes, please,’ because….”
A graph of her stocks played against the inside of her helmet. BZX is down, remember to short INN…
“Because it’s, you know, an unexpected innuendo, that you would have walked into, with your desire for cruelty stopped by my predilection for unusual…”
He slumped. “Okay, what do you want? No base coordinates. I don’t know ‘em, even if you do have chains, you know we do the rendezvous thing now anyway.”
“The stormtrooper you converted. How is his health?”
“The… what? Oh, Finn, you mean him. Well, as a matter of fact… Wait, why do you care?”
“I’m not a complete monster.” She sat down and knotted her fingers in front of her.
“Yes you are. It’s for some sick mind control program, isn’t it? You want to know if he still, what, wets the bed when he thinks about the First Order, to see if your commands are still working.”
“He wets the bed?”
“What does he do on the bed?”
The rebel wiped his forehead. “He… You’re really good.” He leaned back.
“Does he make friends?”
“Not really. Well, he tags along with me and I introduce people, and he’ll remember their names, but he’s always so… so formal, even if he doesn’t want to be. Too polite.”
She unclasped her fingers and crossed her hands on the table.
He looked at his face in her visor. “And he’s either totally completely trusting, so that he cries if you say you’ll only take a minute and you don’t, or he won’t trust you at all, act like you aren’t even talking, just shake his head and mutter instead. And you can’t scold him for anything, ever, because he’ll either get in your face about it or curl up in a ball. Was he bullied growing up?”
“It was… encouraged.”
“Of course it was. Well, when you send us your stormtroopers you’re not sending your best, believe me. Are they all like that? Is that why they can’t concentrate on being good shots?”
“They’re very precise in the…” She stopped. “Continue.”
“Well, he’s doing fine, all things considered. We gave him a room close to the commons where he can always hear crowd noises and I think he’s getting used to things.”
“Good. I always thought he’d make a better Rebel.”
“Wait, did you train him wrong on… No, you just want me to believe that. You’re playing games with me.”
“Mister Rebel, I never play games.”
“So is that all you needed me for? Am I free to go?”
“That’s…” He chuckled. “You got me for a second.”
“It was not a joke. You are free to go.” She pressed a button on a remote. His wrist cuffs sprang open.
“Would you like to fling them at me? This armor transmits physical force surprisingly well.”
“No… thanks.” He stood and stretched. “So… free to go, but just on this ship?”
“Base. PhaseStar Base.”
“Another one, huh? So it’s like house arrest? Can I get a room close to the fighter bay?”
“You may take a fighter. We have one in a suitable configuration prepared for you.”
He stopped pacing. “That’s really suspicious, you know?”
“I am aware. Were our positions reversed I would not trust you with the same offer.” She stood up and turned around.
“I’m an ace pilot, you know? You’re condemning your pilots to death if you let me go.”
“Only the weak ones.” She went to the door and motioned him to follow.
He seemed unsettled by the mirrored surfaces in the hallway. In a real battle this zone would be evacuated, this hallway contributing to the state-of-the-art stealth system of PhasmaSt- PhaseStar Base. The fighter bay was decorated in more comforting metallic tones.
“It’s an older model, but it’s in good repair,” he said.
“We use it in our training exercises. I myself have flown it a few times. I’ll have you know I once made it to a near miss on the exhaust port in the Death Star mission.”
“And you’re just giving it away, huh?” He scrammed the reactor and dug into the fuel rods, returning with a small electronic device. “With a tracker, of course.”
“Only the minimum to allay your suspicions.”
“That…” He shook his head. “And you can stay with your friends,” he said as he hefted the droid out from behind the cockpit. It fired its retrorockets an inch from the floor, and beeped sleepily as it toddled off. Another tracking device came out of its socket.
“You may depart when ready,” she said.
“I’m getting there.”
With three large tracking devices and eight smaller ones pulled, the Rebel seemed ready to leave. “They won’t take this ship back to the base,” he said. “We’ll come back with a mobile drydock and rebuild it on site.”
“So there is one large rebel base?”
“That’s…” He groaned, and turned around to climb the ladder.
He felt a short sharp smack in his posterior, and jerked his head back to see Phasma standing impassively.
The fighter unmoored itself and crept nervously out of the hangar, then boosted immediately to full speed when it hit vacuum. A swarm of stealth drones wove an invisible helix in pursuit.
Slenderman is real, and he opposes the North Dakota pipeline because it interferes with his magic circle. Sasquatch protects man from slendy
“Quiz time,” said Robbins. “This patch of fur was recovered from…”
He threw a dirty weft of brownish fur on the card table, to groans and mumbles. Hermann held his nose and stood up. “Gross, dude. A lagoon. You pulled it out of the lagoon.”
Tighy leaned forward. “That is not a lagoon smell.” He ran it through his fingers. “This is musky, almost skunky, but not strong enough for that. I’d say buffalo but it’s too fine. Too long to be moose…”
Robbins had his hands behind his back, and he smiled and fidgeted.
“No,” said Tighy. “It’s horse and deer mixed or something, taped to a tree for a few days. I don’t know. Why do you do these things?” He wiped his hand on his pants.
“It’s him. I caught another glimpse today, and I found this when I chased him. He’s sticking around because it’s his burial grounds. That’s what the…”
“They’re chalk, Dave. Chalk. Really weird chalk.”
Hermann opened a window. The night was clear and still. “What, those weird stone fields?” he asked. “Did we get results back?”
Tighy shook his head. “The lab’s having trouble. One of the lead guys killed himself, I guess. It’ll be a month or to.”
“That sucks.” Robbins threw himself on the worn-down sofa. “Well, you know it’s gonna be bone. It’s too weird. You know, I tried following one of those fields into the trees, and it just kept…”
“I’ve got a headache,” said Tighy, and the conversation was over.
Hermann sighed and went for the door. “Better not come back smelling wacky,” said Tighy. Hermann rolled his eyes.
When he’d first come to North Dakota he’d been stunned by the brightness of the stars, the glittering Milky Way, the near-daylight of the full moon, but it was all just scenery again. The trees weren’t green enough yet but soon enough they’d be too green, the chill would shift to oppressive heat, and Hermann would scrape his pittance from the oil industry.
He leaned against a tree and pulled out a lighter. Tighy and Robbins were shouting at each other again. He’d offered to share but Tighy had threatened to call Corporate, demand a drug test. Just as well, with how low he was running.
The shouts were louder. The old guy must have had a bad phone call with his wife again. “Maybe I’ll camp,” said Hermann, and he chuckled to himself.
A loud blast, echoing through the trees. Another. Gunshots. Hermann jolted. Did they come from…
He crept up to the trailer. They were still shouting hoarsely, but he couldn’t make out any words. Another gunshot. Another. Speckles of red on the window. A sick crunching noise Were they… Were they harmonizing?
He stumbled away, turned and ran. When he reached the treeline he looked back. Another gunshot. A window shattered. The door opened slowly, and a whip-thin arm came into view.
Hermann’s throat caught, stuck between breathing and screaming and retching until it overloaded and just choked. He forced a breath out, forced a breath in, and pulled his gaze away from the door. Then he broke for the forest.
Limbs whipped his face, thorns tore at his shirt, but he ran until he fell, gasping and choking, at the base of a thick oak tree. Wasn’t this a pine forest? He concentrated on the irrelevant thought, pushed himself to his knees, and collapsed again. His chin caught on a rock. It was long and narrow, pale white in the filtered starlight.
He coughed, sneezed, and a dark sprinkle spattered the bone-rock. Blood. Had he run that…
Irrelevant thoughts were forced from his mind, thoughts of running, thoughts of help, thoughts of breathing, thoughts of heartbeat, all but an awareness of the being rounding the tree, an awareness of its awareness of him. A human figure, but too tall, too thin, pale as the bone-rocks, with arms piling, spilling from its ragged sleeves. A limb dragged across the ground to him, and touched him with a finger that clung, ripped at his cheek, and a sensation somehow both burning and numb spread from the wound.
Then nothing. His unsettled thoughts were filled somehow with disappointment, a cold, alien feeling that he chased away. He was lying on the ground. He was exhausted. He hurt in his throat and his cheek. His memories were vague, dreamlike, except for…
He jerked and gasped. A dark figure was against the tree. A man. Too big. Arms too long, but not by much, and brawny, and it had pinned something else between it and the oak. It was bringing its fists down on it, over and over, as slick appendages tore at its midsection, scraping, slipping, until they flung themselves to the sides, whipping over Hermann’s head, thrashing and twitching, and went still.
The new creature stepped back, panting in deep, long breaths. It glanced at him with a gleaming yellow eye, then disappeared into the brush.
When Hermann had his breath back he approached the mess of gore on the tree. There wasn’t much left but gray slime, slippery gibbets, and here and there a tuft of fur, dirty, brown, and musky.
A man contemplates with great agony whether or not to eat the last hamburger in the world.
The Stasis Museum was his home, his second birthplace, his temple of repose. It was built, as far as he could calculate, somewhere close to where Mobile Bay used to be, all wind-swept desert now. Its builders did not show themselves.
The museum’s displays were mankind, man in all of his ugliness and splendor, all of his works and artifacts placed on plinths at about eye-height, with simple buttons to manipulate the controls. A bubble of something glassy, so smooth his fingers slipped violently across the surface when he tried to touch it, would cover a display, with a rendition on its surface in an odd color palette of the anvil or automobile or shoulder-mounted missile launcher underneath. A touch of a button rendered it transparent, so could gaze on it, and another made it vanish, so he could handle the artifact.
He had once been an artifact as well. He knew not what chance or coincidence or mental force had freed him, but he had found himself sitting on a leather couch, dressed in a finer suit than he had possessed in life, posing as if he were expounding on some serious topic of law or philosophy. He had climbed down from his plinth and wandered in a daze, gawking at the majesty of the great building, at the starkness of the desert outside.
There were plinths as narrow as his thumb, holding microchips, and as wide across as stadiums, holding stadiums. There were rooms that towered into the misty distance, with all manner of planes and rockets posed in an elegant dogfight, and low-ceilinged dimly-lit rooms with displays of mines, of dens of addicts.
He fed himself with food from the displays. Once he found a survivalist bunker, prepared with all manner of cans; across the walkway was a house from a warzone, with its kitchen mostly intact. There were restaurants, of course, and his mouth watered and his stomach rumbled as he saw the condensation beaded on the outside of a soup bowl, the steam above a plate of pancakes, but always there was another human in the display.
It was his rule to never disturb human slumber. He could not know if there was anything growing, or anywhere to grow it, outside, and while the Museum was enormous it was finite. If there was a Stasis Museum for those animals mankind had tended it was elsewhere. He had found no seed stock, no hydroponics facilities, nothing to suggest the final fate of revived mankind could be anything other than starvation.
As for him, his fate would be to die of old age. There was no one to press the button on his plinth (where he still slept) and he could not bring himself, however lonely he became, to force another into this still, quiet world. He understood his own psyche well enough to place iron bars on his will, strong enough to save humanity from a quick death, to leave them until whatever day the Stasis Museum again saw patrons.
And so he wandered, exploring at first, then coming to think of himself as a curator. He practiced tours, in his mind he told his frozen wards about their lives and their time periods, generating fantasies to cover holes in his knowledge, kept as sensible as he could make them sound. The vast Museum became his home, his heart, and he fancied he knew every corner of it.
One display was a vacant construction site, set up as if its workers had just stepped out of the frame. He could allow himself to visit but never had, until one day he noticed, from the corner of his eye, a familiar symbol on a paper bag. Days went by before he fully processed this, and he ran headlong from a gallery of industrial stamping machines to the display. He set it transparent, and confirmed the bag was not placed to suggest it was garbage; his fingers hesitated, then he ended eternity and climbed up on the plinth.
With trembling hands he opened the bag. A steaming bundle was inside, framed by a carton of fried potato strips. He set his fingers on it, and stopped, took a breath.
“If I eat this,” he said aloud, and his voice was strange, “there will be no more hamburgers. There are perhaps some in the restaurants, but I know I cannot open them.”
He turned his back and walked to the ledge, then stopped.
“If I do not eat it, there never was a hamburger here. It served no purpose. But…”
He crouched, his hand in his jaw. “The Curators themselves might be happy to see it, might find it diverting to know what was in a laborer’s lunch. Though it was set aside, as a thing that might not be missed.”
Beyond the unfinished lumber and gravel the tomb of humanity was silent, and then a howl rent the air. “I am beset by my passions!” he cried. “My reason is enslaved to my appetite, and turns itself not to the discovery of truth but the enforcement of hunger. I will leave now, leave this temptation forever, go to the desert if need be, if cold food cannot any longer satisfy. I…”
He gazed upon the bag. “I may have been awoken for a purpose. The Curators might expect to find me, and not as a madman. They left this burger for me, for this moment… No! How could they have predicted that?”
He clutched his head in his hands and paced. “If I eat it there will be no more burgers in the world. If I do not I am not the master of burgers but their slave. If I throw it in the desert I have settled nothing. If I leave it I shall surely return.”
He broke down in sobs.
In a corner of the Stasis Museum there is a little pile of dust that an astute visitor might identify as the remains of a human. Nearby there is a display, time stopped on a construction site, a paper bag prominently visible on a bench. What is now in that bag? Perhaps if you go there, you can tell me.
A lawyer sues ghosts for trespass.
What, you want a Narrow Island story? It's not as romantic as the magazines tell it. I haven't been there for at least a decade. I was more scared of it when I was a junior partner, an intern really, fresh out of law school and just past my I-can-rule-the-world phase, humbled to the dirt and ready to do the firm's dirty work. The first time they sent me there…
It's always colder there, did you know that? Not an urban legend. Something to do with the way the river flows and the way the wind hits downtown. And of course it's poor, but not sad poor like the former suburbs or scary poor like the crack dens. It's the kind that you can't really see, just a crack in a window here, a missing guardrail there, a flower in a crack that's withered away without ever blooming. And that look on everyone's faces, like they're all expecting something. It adds up.
Ever heard of infrasound? It's a… a phenomenon, when you hear sounds just a bit lower than what you can notice, and your animal brain can't keep up, you panic, you puke, people tell ghost stories when it was just a fan blade rubbing an air duct. Even when you know what it is there's nothing you can do about it. Narrow Island is like that for your eyes.
It's not real, of course. They're just ordinary people. Later on I made friends. I even lived there for a few months during those big riots. Back then, though, just a kid in a suit, I think I even bought it large to grow into, habit, you know? And I had papers to serve.
Mostly just eviction notices. In sad poor and scary poor you give those by hand – laid-off workers answer the door and take it, trying not to cry, and oxygen thieves are always on a porch somewhere. Here you just taped them to doors. My supervisor told me I could knock if I wanted to, and they might even come to the door, but I was better off acting like they hadn't heard, and after that first shock right off the bridge I wasn't about to argue.
The second townhouse I served, which was also the last address I could locate, had someone sitting in the living room with the curtains open. I didn't knock but they stood up anyway, just a flash of motion in the corner of my eye, and then floorboards creaking as they came down the hall, and then I was around the corner out of breath.
Finding addresses in Narrow Island was harder sometimes than finding people. There were corner stores where I stopped for directions – I still had a little motivation – but those were manned with migrants from happier neighborhoods, who could still smile a little but were happy not to know more than the street they came in on.
In my mind there was an old bar full of creepy locals who talked and blinked too slow and pointed me down haunted alleys, but other than the corner stores everything was closed and barred. I'd begun to imagine it was overcast, even though whenever I looked up the sky was blue.
Look, just… just imagine it, all right? No, this isn't relevant to the story. It's relevant to the mood. Of course I'm not scared now. No. I'm not.
Anyway I tracked it down. Orange Blossom Apartments. Six stories tall, brick facade and a courtyard with a fountain. Would have been a nice place to live anywhere else. This place spooked me, and not only because there were people there: they were happy to see me.
Three or four locals were sitting in the lobby, a clerk at the desk. They raised their heads in unison when I stepped in, and I looked down, cleared my throat, and introduced myself. Don't know what they thought I was, the only other suits around were detectives and they traveled in packs, but when they heard I was a lawyer they all sighed at once, one of them sat down in a heap, the clerk smiled wide enough I swear I saw flakes chip off her cheeks.
“Six one eight, right? I'll take you.” The voice came from behind my head, a little lower and to the left. A man in coveralls, I'd half-noticed him when I came in.
I nodded. “Things are a little...”
“Hard to find?” He smiled but his eyes weren't in it.
He rambled about how glad they were to see me all the way up the stairs – of course the elevators didn't work – and I was too hyped up to ask him why, until the second time we walked past six one eight.
“Sorry,” he said. “It's hard, even for us. But you've got the law. They can't stop you.”
It was a normal door, beat-up metal and a place for a keycard, a little clipboard near the peephole perfect for my papers, and I would have left them there if my curiosity hadn't swarmed up, clean and strong, and took control of my arm, and I couldn't breathe but I knocked.
Now, I know infrasound. I know pareidolia. I know a million different ways to make someone doubt their own senses, and I know how they feel. It's something you… pick up, you understand? And this wasn't infrasound.
It wasn't a physical chill, nothing like the wind on the river. I felt it, I'd never felt it before, but I knew that however warm it was I was not going to feel comfortable. The air was still, stifling, like it was pinning my arms to my sides, and I all I could smell was dust, rivers, fountains of dust. Here, hit the thermostat.
And then the voice. There was an… adult, and a child, something of the mother and baby, something of the master and apprentice, and they talked to me by talking through me at each other.
an eviction notice? this cannot be so
we have resided here a month only
send him on his way
THIS IS SOMETHING ELSE
IT SMELLS OF COMMAND
MAKE THE MORTAL READ IT
yes make the mortal read it
And I rasped that notice out, that so and so the third, owner of Orange Blossom Apartments, was suing them for damages, that they were commanded to show up in a court of law, that counsel would be provided for them if they were unable to fund it themselves, and they didn't want to let me finish but they had to, and let me tell you I've fallen down a few staircases but it wasn't as fast as I made it down and out and over the bridge, holding my knees and gasping, drinking in the light and the heat and the honest-to-god virtue of a natural ghetto.
Later I heard that Orange Blossom was demolished, that a few of the residents even held a little demonstration for it, so they must have left at some point. If you can believe me, I never followed up.
Society overthrows the use of government, and crony capitalists rule the world in anarchy; You interpreting how badly that would turn out.
Jerry Bowtie came home from work to find his house in flames. He was shocked when he saw the smoke, rising above the other houses in his subdivision, but kept it to himself. Then a nurse stepping on the bus for the night shift mentioned it was a big Victorian on Macon Street.
He didn't even look the driver in the eye as he waved his card at the reader, and he sprinted harder than any time since college, took a shortcut between a pair of neighbors' houses, and knocked down Robert Jones as he skidded to a halt. His briefcase clattered on the ground as he sunk to his knees.
“It's all right, Jerry,” said Robert, who had a big heart for his small frame. “That's what insurance is for. I know you always put it first.” He waved at the fire trucks. “You've got as much claim on them as anyone, no money down.”
“No,” said Jerry, his own heart making for his throat, “it's my… Ann, and Mark, and Annabel, they were...”
“They were with Ann's mother, remember?” This was Tony Case, a well-built man with a chip on his shoulder. “Tina called them first thing, just to make sure.”
Such a burst of humanity took Jerry completely by surprise, and he gasped out a “thank you,” before Tony took the opportunity to ruin it again.
“But you've paid your insurance. I'm sure they'd pay for a new family if you lost them too.”
Robert stepped between them. “There's no call for that, Tony,” he said. “You know we've had words about this...”
“And you've always got the last word, Bob. All of you did. Look at you now, proud free men, property owners with no strings attached, and the best firemen money can buy.”
He made as if to spit, laced his fingers behind his head instead. “Once upon a time they put out fires because it was the right thing to do. Now it's just a job.”
Robert drew himself up to his full five-and-a-half. “It was always a job. And it's still the right thing to do. They put out fires for those that can't pay, you know that.”
“I do know that. I got my mother a nice little house on North Peacock that was a fire service repossession. Just a little smoke damage, it only took a weekend to clean up.”
Robert smiled again, letting the argument be solved, but Tony kept going. “And somebody's mother, or some little family, lost their house for a little smoke damage. You don't know where they went, if they're in the tent city now. Nobody knows. We used to keep track of people.”
“Not very well, Tony. It wasn't hard to fall through the cracks, and they had dead people drawing welfare and voting left and right. Now you're only tracked if you want to be. And that little family, if it was one, you don't know if they could have afforded that house and taxes both, do you?”
“Oh, we still pay taxes,” said Tony, near a shout. “We just call it insurance and pre-pay and, and wages, and you can only pay it to United or pay it to State, and they're always making you doubt that the other one's giving you the best deal, and you don't know if they're coming together to rip everyone off, and even if they were there's nothing we could do about it, just try and start a competitor, and with what? Put a pressure washer on a pickup truck and sell fire services? Wear a cardboard sheriff's star and...”
The thought was cut short by the crash of a falling beam. Jerry had never been following the conversation all the way, and he let out a wail despite himself. Then he felt a hand on each shoulder, a delicate, gentle touch on the left, a firm, strong grip on the right.
“It's all right,” said Robert. “We're with you.”
“I'm.. I'm sorry,” said Tony. “It's not about me right now.”
The last few gouts of flame pushed past the firemens' torrent, eerily appropriate in the suburban evening, and Jerry rose to his feet. “No, I'm fine,” he said. “Did you know, I never thought of myself as a materialist? And here I am crying like my baby was in there. It was just a house. Tony, it was just a house.”
“It was your house,” said Robert. “Your memories, your own comfortable places, yours and Ann's and the kids. It's all right to mourn for those.”
“And when you rebuild you might even put in a...” Tony heard himself and stopped.
And he turned away, and walked down the street he held a fiftieth share in to a house that was almost paid off, bought with money, not with kindness, and embraced his wife, bought with promises, bought with love, surrounded by his books and his pictures and his unnecessary yet wonderful consumer electronics, in the house his children would grow up in and buy with their smiles and their scrapes and their tears, one that God willing would never go down the way Jerry's had, but if it did, thank God he'd put something down for insurance.
Because it was, or would be, his house, and only his, no infinitesimal share given to his countrymen for property taxes, no risk of eminent domain or illegal seizure or any of the other boogeymen Robert could tell him about, no obligation shared between him and a few hundred million other citizens, just money.
Well, he thought, it doesn't have to be. And he looked at his wife and opened his mouth to ask her to lay out the guest room, and she looked at him without opening hers and he knew that she already had, and that night they hosted a guest, for free.
Years ago I had an image of a blind girl running through the woods—never knowing what lump or hole lay before her foot but always adjusting her stride to meet what she could not see. Stepping to the left without knowing of the tree, lengthening the step and meeting the only rock in the stream; running blind but protected.
Retired superhero faces his archnemesis for one last showdown, but neither party knows the other has lost their powers
The Founding Fathers knew about AI. The natural-born citizen clause was designed to protect America from robot government.
A contract for selling a soul has a terrible typo.