Monday Stories

New Fiction Every Monday

Month: August 2016

The River: An Epilogue

September 4th, 1998

A long sultry day had finally given over to a rapidly cooling night. That was one of the perks of living in a mountain desert like Boise: you had blisteringly hot days, but the nights were cool.

Chris and Sienna had spent the evening at a little mini-fair set up on a farmer’s property out west of town. It had all the trappings of your typical state fair: fried foods, bored teenagers, and rides that could be put together and taken apart in a matter of hours.

Normally Chris would enjoy this setting. He loved Americana, although if called on it he would try to act like he only enjoyed it ironically. He loved the twilight hour when the lights on all the rides were turned on, but before it was dark enough for them to illuminate anything other than themselves. Normally he would love the whole sonic landscape, practically unchanged from the state fairs his quasi-beatnik parents would have avoided going to. But tonight everything was stifled by the fact that Sienna was going to break up with him.

He didn’t blame her; she should never have been with a guy like him to begin with. He had been hopelessly devoted to her all through junior high and high school while she had had a series of increasingly dramatic relationships. Chris had spent the past eight months trying not to think that the only reason she was with him was because her latest break up had happened the night they had graduated, at a party Chris attended. Chris had been wandering around the outskirts of the party, slightly wearied by people but still wanting to participate, when he heard a squeal of tires close to where he had parked. When he went to check on his car he found Sienna sitting on his car’s rear bumper, crying quietly. He sat next to her and she explained what had happened.

Chris put an arm around her and held her close for a few moments, then invited her to come walk with him by the river, along a little part of the Greenbelt that he loved. She said she was hosting a party and Chris told her she was more important than any dumb party.

“You really believe that, don’t you?” She said, and somehow that was enough to promote Chris from the Friend Zone to full-fledged boyfriend. They walked and sat and talked beside that river, and from then on it had been “their spot”.

And that’s where Sienna wanted to go now, as they left the carnival. She wasn’t holding his hand, or walking arm in arm with him. She had been physically distancing herself from Chris all evening. Idly Chris wondered if she was doing it intentionally. Sienna seemed to live almost entirely on the surface, which wasn’t to say she was shallow; Chris knew her far to well to ever call her shallow. Sienna felt things deeply and understood people just as deeply. She just never hid her feelings. If she was angry at you there was no way she could hide it. But she loved a scene. Chris knew her well enough to know that, and well enough to know that in her mind, breaking up with him alongside the river was a “perfect ending”. She seemed to cultivate those.

For a moment, just a moment, Chris thought about saying no. About driving her home, and making her break up with him, no, making her dump him, on her front porch, where her roommate and her roommate’s boyfriend that Sienna hated, would see the whole thing. But he couldn’t. He was never good at confrontation. In some way he still loved her enough to want her to be able to break up on her terms. He didn’t need anything special. In fact, he felt like he was only half-there. Part of him was there, going through the motions, driving to their spot along the river, but it felt like the real Chris was sitting in his room, going through his CD collection, listening to his favorite music.

This was all falling apart because they didn’t speak the same language, Chris thought. Take the phrase that relationships are built on: “I love you”. Chris had said that to one person, ever, and that was Sienna. His parents felt that it was too trite, too common, and had trained him to express his affection in other ways. But to Chris it was the ultimate expression; a statement of deep, permanent, personal connection.

To Sienna it was on approximately the same level as “Good Morning!”. It wasn’t that she was insincere when she said she loved someone. She just loved everyone, and assumed, not without justification, that everyone loved her.

“In other words,” Chris thought, “To me love is forever, to her love is for everyone”.

And now they were at that spot, the place where they had started dating. Sienna took his hands and started saying things. She was leaving him. She still loved him, but things were different now. She needed him to be her friend, not her boyfriend. She said there wasn’t anybody else, and Chris knew it was true. Even if she no longer wanted to be his girlfriend, she was a good enough person that she’d never cheat on him.

But Chris was only partially listening. In his mind he was sitting back and deciding between Toad the Wet Sprocket and R.E.M. for the next hour. This whole breakup was just something in a book. What did this guy think he was doing with a girl like that anyway? Try again, author, nobody’s buying it.

Sienna had stopped talking, her eyes glistening with genuine, but unshed tears. Chris said all the right things back. Of course he understood. It hurt, but all he really wanted was for her to be happy. Of course they would still be friends.

She hugged him, told him how great he was, and they walked back to the parking lot while “All I Want” played in Chris’ mind. Chris hadn’t noticed it when they arrived, but Sienna’s car was waiting on the other end of the lot. That was more forethought than she usually put into things. He should probably be grateful; that drive home was going to be awkward.

She hugged him one more time, thanked him for being so understanding, and then drove away. Chris watched her go, angry at himself for being so understanding, for not fighting for her. A few years later, when he first heard “Fight Test” by The Flaming Lips he would think of this moment and realize he wasn’t the only one who felt like this. But for now, his head full of music, Chris walked back down to the river.


Author’s Notes

I wrote the first draft of this story in 1994 or 1995. My Creative Writing teacher at the time got mad that I called it “Epilogue” when nothing came before it.

I haven’t seen the original draft in a few…decades now, but the story is sparse enough and simple enough that it stuck with me.

Chris is part of a larger series of stories that I’ve been working on. I had made a promise to myself that I would post stories about him in chronological order, a promise I have just broken.

Going to the Desert

“Mars is full again.”

“What?” Gabriel said. There was nobody else in the buggy with him, and it didn’t sound like anyone’s voice over the comms.

“Mars is full. Come to me.”

Gabriel sighed and fixed his eyes on the prize ahead of him. An impossibly huge dust cloud hung in the thin Martian atmosphere. That dust cloud marked untold prosperity for the people of Mars, and the result of almost two decades of work and planning.

Life on Mars has some natural constraints. There’s only so much oxygen, so much nitrogen, etc. Those can be overcome; there’s always more rock, and modern chemists could do things that would amaze the ancient alchemists. The biggest constraint is water. All the polar ice had been captured and carefully stored. Every time someone found new water was a day for celebration. Every drop of water was protected and recycled using increasingly efficient methods, and populations, both human and animal, were carefully monitored.

So when an astronomical outpost spotted a water-ice comet that was falling out of the Oort cloud towards the sun all of Mars coordinated. Such a comet would be little more than a drop in the massive oceans of Earth, but those were still radioactive. And hauling millions of tons of water from one planet to the next prohibitively expensive, even if the Terrans would allow it. This was water that, with a little course correction, would be delivered right to their door.

The plan had worked. The comet had struck Mars more than two thousand kilometers from the nearest settlement. It was probably the first time people had ever celebrated an earthquake. Or a Mars-quake. Once this water was claimed and purified and added to the cisterns Mars would, indeed, fill up a little more.

And now Gabriel was in the lead, a full day ahead of the huge bevy of reclamation vehicles that were racing to carve the comet up and capture its water before it could sublimate off back into space. A few spacecraft were ahead of them, starting on the construction of a magnetic field around the comet. But lifting heavy dome panels was prohibitively expensive compared to just driving them across the intervening land. Gabriel’s job, as ever, was to make sure everyone behind him had a safe path through the desert.

The desert.

That was a dangerous thought, right now.

There are three ways you can stop being an Explorer, Gabriel well knew. As one of the oldest and most successful he’d seen colleagues take all three.

The first was the one everyone expects: you get caught in a storm or a freak rock slide and you’re done. Mars is unforgiving and hard to cope with. If it weren’t there wouldn’t be any need for explorers. The Explorers call this “taking a wrong turn” as in “What happened to Ilena?” “She took a wrong turn a while back at Ilena’s Pass.” “That why they named it that?” “Yep.” And then they’d both get drunk in her memory.

Thanks to the Martian Observation Management Network (Rightly accused of choosing their name so that it could be abbreviated to “MomNet”) it is increasingly difficult to get that lost. Your suit will tell you if you’re getting too far away from your buggy, and if you don’t turn around your buggy will come pick you up, the whole time delivering a lecture on responsibility from someone in MomNet. Storms are tracked, buggies and suits have airbags…it’s still possible to get into a bad spot and die, but it’s much harder.

The second way is to find a place or a person that catches your eye. You set up a tent and head back there frequently, and then you build a small dome when the tent starts looking ragged. Your fellow explorers understand and when they’re nearby they help you out, and eventually you just accept it.

The third way is the one people rarely talk about. When they talk about it all, Explorers call it “Going to the desert”. It doesn’t happen often. But every once in a while an explorer gets an odd look in their eye, and drives out into the desert. When they’ve gone far enough they get out of the buggy, walk away from it, then open their helmet.

Because of the dry near-vacuum of Mars, their bodies are always well preserved, and the doctors can give you a long list of things that don’t cause Explorers to do this. It’s not a bacterial infection, or if it is its a bacteria that leaves no traces. There’s no cerebral swelling, no sign of brain cancer, no abnormalities in diet or blood flow. Physically they’re almost always in perfect shape.

Because of the nature of exploration it’s hard to ask people who “know them best” what might have made this happen. Nobody knows an explorer best, except maybe the other explorers. Nobody can explain why the method of suicide is always the same. The only behavioral connection is that two people who went to the desert had written “Mars is full” in the sand next to their buggy.

And now someone was telling Gabriel that Mars is filling up. To be honest, it was a thought he’d had a number of times. He glanced back over his shoulder at the huge convoy following him. One day. There was one day’s worth of space between him and…them.

Gabriel wouldn’t call himself anti-social. He got along well enough with people. In small groups. If they were people he liked fairly well. He didn’t dislike other people; he just got tongue-tied around large groups. He wasn’t good at telling jokes and saying witty things. If people were willing to listen he was a master storyteller and could hold a group spellbound, his plain voice and unaffected mannerisms complimenting his stories of the world outside of the domes.

The buggy’s lights came on as the sun set. Gabriel stopped the buggy and set up camp. Behind him the convoy did the same. Gabriel had already charted this area, but you can’t smack a comet into a planet without some tectonic changes, and driving at night was dangerous enough as it was.

His comm beeped as he finished getting his tent inflated. “You made good time today, Shepherd 1,” a voice crackled in his ear. His visor flashed “Artist 5”, one of the star craft that was “painting” an electronic net around the comet to keep the water on Mars.

Gabriel kind of hated call signs. His name was Gabriel, the pilot of Artist 5 was one of his oldest friends, Cara.

“Mars is full again…I mean, thanks, Cara. You sent me some great terrain scans, made it easy.”

There was a long silence on the comms. “Gabe, what did you say?”

“I said thank you.”

“Before that.”

“Nothing, nothing.”

Another pause.

“Maybe I should get Artist 7 to cover my zone and fly out to your position. It’s getting kinda lonely up here.” Cara’s voice was overly casual. Gabriel sighed.

“Cara, I appreciate it, but I’m fine. I’ll be at the site in two days, and we can catch up then. I’ll even ride around with you in that death trap you call a shipwhile we wait for the flock to catch up.”

Cara’s voice was thick with concern as she answered. “It’s a date, Gabe. And no…side trips, okay? Just get here.”

Gabriel agreed and signed off. By now the heater and the atmospheric pump had his tent livable, and he unlatched his helmet, letting the pressure equalize, then removed it completely.

“You could do this outside. You have no need of a tent. You are part of Mars, but Mars is filling up.” The voice was coming from all around him, seemingly from the walls of the tent itself.

Gabriel paused, then slowly removed and inspected his vacuum suit, hanging it in the charging bay and then laying down on his bed. The problem with going insane, he thought, is that you’re the last one to know you’re doing it.

Mars is filling up. Behind him were the first wave of builders. They would trap the comet, keep it on Mars, turn the ball of ice into a giant cistern, feeding out water when needed, making sure to keep the rest of it safe until then. Behind the builders were the Pavers. They were even now building a fast, safe road from the nearest enclosure to the impact site. Once the road was complete the Plumbers would start their work, running the pipe that would carry water back to the rest of the Martian settlements. And the impact site itself would become a settlement. A small contingent of people, at first, would come to keep the pumps running and the cistern maintained. They would either bring their families or start families there, and the settlement would last long after the cistern was really needed. Other settlements would sprout out beyond the cistern. And that much more of Mars would be theirs instead of his

“Wait a moment,” Gabriel thought. “Whose side am I on? I’m just as human as they are.”

Somewhat disturbed, Gabriel willed himself to fall asleep.

The next day passed quickly, with Gabriel fully focused on finding the best possible route around craters and other new features created by the comet’s landing. Scorched and twisted boulders had been thrown in every direction. One of the scientists who had planned the whole affair was worried that the friction from the comet’s landing and the subsequent dust storms would start a global firestorm, but model after model showed that Mars’ thin and largely carbon-dioxide-based atmosphere wasn’t likely to burn. And, fortunately, it didn’t.

Gabriel kept his mind on thoughts like this to avoid the other thoughts. The ones that were telling him that he was meant to live free, that he was meant to walk under the orange sky with nothing between himself and his homeworld.

Instead he kept himself busy making up good quips for the many, many times Cara called to check in on him. She must have told a few of the others, because Gabriel’s comm link was active all day. Normally he would have been annoyed by such intrusions. Now he held to them like a lifeline.

Finally night fell and Gabriel set up his tent. After double- and triple-checking that there was a breathable atmosphere inside the tent he opened his suit and went to bed. He forced himself to breath calmly, absolutely resisted the urge to chant “mars is full” with every breath like a mantra, and finally went to sleep.

And he dreamed Mars. In his dream, for the first time, he saw Mars as a mother. Humans had named this planet after a god of war, but the planet had never seen itself that way. Mars was not a harsh, lifeless enemy. He remembered when she had life of her own, though it had never gotten larger than microscopic. He felt her misery at losing what she had, and her inability to maintain her new adopted children.

And he awoke, packed carefully, dream forgotten. He put on his vac suit, put his tent away, and started driving.

At noon Gabriel changed course, heading 45 degrees south. He turned off his comms, ignoring the frantic screams from his friends. He drove at full speed, the buggy whining about engine overheating and about unknown terrain ahead.

Twenty clicks away from where he turned he stopped the buggy and stepped out. The orange sky and the red sand merged, the world a reddish ball, like the inside of an egg as seen by the chick.

“Come to me. Mars is full. i can support you.”

And for a moment he remembered his dream. He realized he had dreamed the entire life of Mars, and that the life of a man is less than a millisecond in that time scale. Tenses, he thought, must be very hard for planets. In the moment when he stood there, his hand on the clasp holding his helmet on, he saw the future as well. It wouldn’t be too many years, less than a thousand, until man could walk free under the skies of mars. To a planet that time and this time were the same. Mars wasn’t trying to kill him, it was trying to welcome him.

Gabriel lowered his hand. He looked up into the sky. The planet he loved, the planet he called home, was calling to him. “Mars…isn’t full yet. But it will be. For now, Mars is open,” he said to the orange sky. Then Gabriel got back into his buggy, turned around and headed toward the captured comet. He turned his comms back on and explained to Cara that he wasn’t going to the desert, not now, not alone. He was bringing life to the desert, and someday perhaps their grandchildren could go to the forest instead.

Black Friday and Christmas Eve

Note This story comes from a series called “Booksellers”. I’ve been working on it off and on for years, and might even publish it someday. Basically I’ve been taking my memories of working in a bunch of different bookstores, mashing them together, and trying to turn them into something entertaining by ignoring the boring parts. You know. Things like “what actually happened”.

November-December, 1994

There are two days that all retail employees dread: Black Friday and Christmas Eve.

A quick word about Black Friday, by the way. That name is ours, not yours. If you’ve never worked a sales floor or restaurant when hoards of people, most of them trying to escape the in-laws, descend on you in a frantic retail-therapy mass you don’t get to call it that. All that crap about “Black Friday is the day that your retail establishment finally gets into the black” is idiocy. If you’re only turning a profit the last six weeks of the year you don’t open the other forty-six. It’s called Black Friday because it’s the day salespeople die. I don’t know who the marketing genius is who thought they could take that name and turn it into an…an event, but I hate them.

So, clearly, as a bookseller Black Friday is a day you should dread. People come in, get hopped up on espresso and start bargain hunting. Anything to make them forget that they have to go back to Mom’s house and try not to kill their idiot brother who still hasn’t moved out.

And don’t worry, they will tell you all about it. Booksellers are a lot like bartenders, apparently. The actual barista in the cafe don’t even get as much random self-confessional as the guy trying to put books away out on the sales floor.

“It’s not that I don’t love my brother, I do, but he’s…well, he’s killing Mom.” A lady was telling me. She introduced the subject by asking me to help her find Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

“I see.” I said.

“Mom won’t ever push him out the door, is the thing. She’s afraid that he’ll get into real trouble if he’s on his own.”

“Could be,” I mumbled. I had a large stock of absolutely non-committal phrases.

“But how is he ever going to find out, if he doesn’t take a chance? You can’t just stay in your room all the time and suddenly be ready to be a professional businessman or…or a doctor. What’s this?”

“Childhood’s End.”

She looked at the cover, dominated by a huge spaceship over a city. “Do you think he’ll like it?”

“It’s a good book, but not really everyone’s cup of tea.”

“Why not?”

“Pretty much everyone dies at the end.”

She nodded thoughtfully. “Do you think my brother will like it?”

You’ve read every word she said to me, you know her brother as well as I did. “It’ll be a good read for him, I think.”

She nodded. “Thanks.” And walked off to the registers. And there it is. I was an accessory to one of the most passive-aggressive gifts of 1994.

But Christmas Eve! It’s a whole different story. Manic? Absolutely. Busy? Definitely. And exhausting. But you have one big advantage:

People are out of time. On Black Friday people have a whole month ahead of them. If you aren’t willing to wheel and deal they’ve got time to find something else. On Christmas Eve they want the first thing that looks thoughtful. And here’s where you get to see how good you actually are. Anybody can sell the latest Oprah’s Book Club choice to a guy looking for a last-minute wife/girlfriend gift. We had hundreds of the things up at the registers. On Christmas Eve the real booksellers challenge themselves in one of two ways. The first is for customers who are jerks: how high can you jack up their final purchase? The second is for the nice customers: how perfectly can you fit the book to their loved one?

All modesty aside, I was better at the second. My friend Chad focused on the first. “I just sold a complete Feynman Lectures to that guy. His son’s an engineering major.” he told me as his customer walked out the door.

“That’s like, what, $200? Nice!” I said.

“Thanks. And you know the best part? He came in looking for A Brief History of Time in paperback”. (Retail price:$14.95)

My victories were harder to brag about, but better for me.

“Um,” a tall man in a Carhartt jacket and worn blue jeans walked up to me as I was shelving some books.

“Can I help you, sir?”

“Yeh. I’m looking for something for my wife. She likes readin’.”

“Okay! Well, you’ve come to the right place. Did you have something in mind?”

He shifted uncomfortably. His hands were huge, scarred, and calloused. My hands have often been called “decidedly feminine”. He looked down at me. “What would you get?”

“Well, let’s see. Maybe if you can tell me a little about her I can help you find something she likes.” Again, this is where you see how good you are. You can judge this guy as a Neanderthal who knows he’ll be sleeping on the couch until New Years Day if he doesn’t get something. Or you can try to make tomorrow a great day for two people; one you’ve only met once, one you’ll never meet.

“She likes them old books. Jane Austin and stuff, but she’s already read all them Pride and Prejudice ones,” he said, looking a little lost. “And she likes going outside, campin’ and hikin’ and stuff. We both do, really.”

“Okay, sir, that’s really helpful, I think we can find something…”

“An’, an’, she’s kind, but life ain’t all that kind to her, ya know, an’ she been puttin’ up with a lug like me for a long time…”

I fell silent.

“Anyway, you got somethin’ that would be good?”

And now it’s personal. I’m getting this guy something good for his wife if it takes me an hour.

We looked at books of poetry, and he thought she might like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. We looked at journals, something she could take camping, and picked a good spiral bound one that was on sale. We found her a CD of Bach in the music department that I thought she’d like. I wrapped all of these things, each individually, each in different paper, each with two colors of ribbon wrapped around the gift in different patterns. Finally I omitted the “Star Books” foil stickers. These are from her husband, not from us. He was out the door in under $30, but with some good choices.

“Thanks. I mean, I don’t always know how to find things like that an’…” he trailed off as I put his purchases in a bag and handed him his change.

“Merry Christmas, sir,” I said.

“Yeah. You too, er…” he squinted at my name tag, then muttered something about not having his “readin’ glasses”. And then he offered his hand. I shook it, and he left, smiling a little bit.

“Hey, Chad.” I said as he finished ringing up his customer.

“What’s up?”

“I win.”

Monday Story: Schrödinger’s Flask

And with a sound like delicate thunder, it was over.

It was an event that never should have happened. It didn’t make sense. It didn’t fit, it wasn’t a good story. But it occurred anyway. The flask, an artifact of a mysterious and long-dead civilization, lay in pieces on the lab floor. Oh, they had found other artifacts on the dig, of course. You can’t spend eight months searching ruins without finding something, but the others were all just…data. They had progressed this far in stone working, this far in pottery, they ate these kinds of foods, and so on. But the flask, that was something special. It had been full foot tall, covered in images and symbols that they all hoped were writing…

And now it was in shards on the floor of their lab. Just data. There was no crime, no negligence, no incompetence. Entropy had simply claimed its right, as it always will.

Well, usually.

Ben, Chris, Daniel, and Elizabeth, four of the five brave souls who had spent eight months on that dig, sadly and carefully put the shards back in the large wooden shipping crate. The flask was gone, but someday, after a few glasses of perspective and a healthy dose of time, they would still be able to glean precious insights from the fragments. The last shards were poured in, the latches re-latched, pointless though it may be now, and the four filed out silently. They turned the lights off and tried to forget, tried to pretend nothing had ever happened. And reality rippled just a bit.

Perception shapes reality. Eight eyes had seen the flask hit the concrete floor. Four minds knew that this one little piece of the past was now itself history. Those same four minds were trying to cope with the fact. In those four minds, the crate they had built was now holding nothing but…data. Dust. Not art, not a thing designed by a person and crafted with his own hands, not a glimpse into the glory and ritual of an earlier time. Just pieces, something to use to increase knowledge. Not something that moves the heart and soul.

And those four minds were holding onto this new reality, if reluctantly. It was a struggle. It didn’t make sense. It was easy to believe that it hadn’t happened, easy to believe that if they went back to the lab now the flask would still be there, unharmed. Ready for them to photograph and study. It made more sense to believe that they had something to show for all the time and money they had spent, all the opportunities they’d passed up for the past eight months.

Some had it easier than others. Chris and Lizzy had each other, and that helped. Pain shared is grief halved, as they say. Certainly they had it easier than Ben and Daniel, who called a few days later, hungover and bewildered, from a bus station in Tulsa and a youth hostel in Amarillo, respectively. Apparently they decided to see how far west they could each get before sobering up.

Alexandra hadn’t been there. Oh, she had been on the dig, she helped build the crate out of wood they found around the site, she helped pack it and guard it to the airport. But when they opened it she had been in a lecture hall, teaching a freshman history course. And suddenly reality had a little wrinkle.

Because in one mind, the flask still existed. Alexandra hadn’t seen the flask fall, hadn’t felt her heart stop as it tumbled to the ground. She was untroubled, and a little excited to get to work on trying to decipher the markings on the flask.

And so she headed back to the lab, where their crate was waiting. She guessed that the others had already looked at it; she would have in their shoes. Well, she was making up for lost time now. She got out her camera and went into the lab.

Alexandra’s hands shook a little as she unclasped the lid. She’d spent time studying the flask on the dig, of course, and had some speculations about its purpose. It wasn’t really a flask, of course; Ben had jokingly called it that because it was rectangular, flattish, and had a cap, and the name stuck. The civilization that had created it had died off thousands of years ago and had left behind few clues about themselves. Ancient civilizations could be irritating like that. Many hours of work had gone into making the flask, or whatever it was, and its purpose was very likely ceremonial.

And it was Alexandra’s job to try and figure out what that purpose had been. She lifted the lid, set it aside, unwrapped the flask and set it on the workbench. Then she got the lights arranged and started taking pictures. Reality rippled a little bit more.

Chris’ first clue that things were not as he had thought came when he checked his email, while his world famous pasta sauce was simmering on the stove. He almost dropped his phone into the saucepan, but if this day had taught him anything it was to hold on to things tighter. Nervously he looked at the timestamp on the email, then at the pictures. Part of his mind, the part that had spent all day refusing to believe the flask was gone, crowed exultantly. Part of him wondered if he was going crazy. Or maybe, somehow, if Alexandra was. Could crazy people change history? Eventually, his eyes not leaving the pictures on his phone, he yelled out “Liz? is your phone close? I…I just got an email from Alex, and I think you should read it…”

Splashes and muttering echoed out of the bathroom. Elizabeth had just gotten comfortable in the tub and the last thing she wanted to think about now was the guilt she was feeling about not telling Alexandra that all their work was wasted. A few moments later she emerged from the bathroom, dripping wet, eyes wide.

“Did…did. I could have sworn. Earlier, did we just imagine…”
“I can still hear the crash in my head.”
“Me too.”

A few minutes later they were in their car driving up to the university, sauce and noodles cooling on the table, far from the stove. Alexandra may be able to somehow reverse bad decisions, but Chris wasn’t taking any chances.

The team had found tons of clay pots, broken, whole, whatever. Clay pots were everywhere. But this was different. Calling the flask a “clay pot” was…well, it was sacrilege, even the atheists on the team would agree.

The hands that crafted the flask were those of a master. There were no lines, no thumbprints, no imperfections in the surface. The glazier who had fired the flask knew what they were about, and had given it a sheen that seemed to glow from within. This was the work of an artist in his prime, a true masterpiece. And it had been made to last. Thousands of years later, after the craftsman had died, after his kiln had crumbled into dust, the flask was still there, solid, beautiful, untouched by the passage of time.

Chris and Lizzie walked into the lab. Alex was asleep, her head down on the desk, her camera plugged into her laptop. Behind her, on the workbench, surrounded in lights and glowing, stood the flask.

And today it still stands, now housed in a cube of glass, a treasure in the University’s museum. Four people still harbor memories that…make no sense. But they don’t question them too rigorously, or hold them too closely. Perhaps thinking too hard about what was, or what might have been…Maybe remembering the sound of delicate thunder will remind the universe, and it will undo whatever magic Alex did.

And time flows on. Someday entropy will claim the flask. Someday it will fall and shatter, and perhaps on that day someone will notice, up on the inside of the cap, there’s a thumbprint in the glaze.

Alex’s thumbprint.

Sunday Story: Three Dragons

Once upon a time there was a wise old man who had lived a full and adventurous life. In his youth he had scaled mountains, fought many warriors, and defended virtue. In those years of adventures he met and befriended three ancient dragons, who thereafter had watched him grow in wisdom and judgement.

On his one hundredth birthday the three dragons came and offered the man one wish each, and a condition. They told him that with each wish they would judge his wish, and if it was wise they would add thirty-three years to his life, but if it was foolish they would subtract one year. And then they departed, to return singly and ask for his wishes.

The first dragon returned a week later and asked for his first wish. The old man responded “I wish for rain in the season of rain, and sun in the season of sun.”

“That is an extremely pedantic wish for a great adventurer such as yourself,” remarked the dragon.

“In my travels I have learned that wishes have a way of going wrong. I could have wished that everyone in this province would have enough rice at all times, but such a wish would have made the people here fat and lazy. I could have just wished for rain, but such a wish could flood the land forever. instead I wish that everyone in this land will have the right conditions to prosper when they put in their own efforts.”

The dragon nodded, impressed. “That is truly a wise wish. It shall be granted, and you shall have thirty-three extra years of life.” And with that the dragon departed.

One year later the second dragon came and asked the old man what his wish would be. The sage smiled and said “I wish that everyone in this province will think twice before they speak.”

“That is a complicated wish, and its purpose is not altogether clear.”

“I cannot wish for fools to become wise, or they will turn their wisdom to evil ends, having come by it without the requisite effort. I cannot wish for liars to become honest, or they will find a way to twist the truth until no man trusts it any more. Instead I wish that every person will think before they speak, and realize what effect their words will have, and will therefore have time to grow and improve.”

“That wish is wise, and difficult, but worthy. I will grant it as I can, and grant you thirty-three years of additional life.”

Only a week later the third dragon came to the man and remarked that his wishes thus far had been wise and insightful, and asked what his final wish would be.

“I wish that all the dragons will depart out of this land forever.”

The dragon was incensed and demanded an explanation for such ingratitude.

“I meant to disrespect, Ancient One. Truly the dragons are wise and strong, but your strength has become our weakness. The people depend on you instead of exercising their own minds and muscles. They apply to you for justice instead of gathering wisdom. I do not hope that the dragons would die or disappear, just that you would move beyond the borders of this land.”

The third dragon calmed down, his own wisdom satisfied.

“your wish is worthy, and wise, but there is a problem. If the dragons leave the land you will not live an extra hundred years, for our power will leave the land with us.”

“That is well. I would not live two hundred years on borrowed time. I would rather live my appointed span and die with dignity.”

The third dragon bowed low, and granted the sage’s wishes. And the rain fell in the season of rain, and the sun shone in the season of sun. The people of that province were known for being quiet and well-spoken, and on the few occasions when someone sought the wisdom of the dragons they earned the right to that wisdom through their own toil, and soon learned to trust one another instead of seeking abroad for wisdom.

Saturday Story: Dreams May Come

Ephraim looked up into the clear bright Nebraska sky. No clouds, no points of reference or interest between him and the hard blue sky. He flicked the reins once and his horse walked on, heading endlessly east, back to civilization in the form of Chicago. It’d been a long hard summer, but this year’s cattle drive would be profitable, despite the increase in rustlers. Ephraim leaned back in the saddle a bit, wiped his brow again, closed his eyes…

..And woke up.

Continue reading

The Spirit of Mars

There are two major differences between Martians and Earthlings.

The first, of course, is physical. To Earthling eyes, Martians would look tall, thin, and pale. They mostly have deep blue eyes, long, nimble fingers, and white hair, although some other colors show up from time to time. Martians are decidedly social and talkative, quite given to music, and will often play for hours while others nod along in silent, thoughtful enjoyment.

The second difference is one of memories. The Martians remember that their ancestors were Earthlings, while any terrestrial record of the colony ships are lost, along with so much else. The Martians remember when the transmissions from home stopped, when they realized that if they were to survive they were going to have to do so on their own.

And survive they had. They tightened their belts, rearranged their affairs to make sure nothing was lost or wasted, and had a few lucky breaks along the way, but over the centuries they had grown, their holdings and knowledge had expanded, and they were thriving, the healthiest human civilization in the solar system.

And they were still growing. From three domes to ten to one hundred to the first mega-enclosures, human holdings on Mars were ever expanding, and the red planet was turning green inside those enclosures, and the Martians dreamed of a day when mankind could live under an open Martian sky.
But not yet.

For now, Mars still needed people to wander out into the wild, take measurements, check readings, and just basically do all those things that fell under the heading of “exploring”. Gabriel was one of those people. By Martian standards his skin was dark and tan, although mostly around his face since an explorer spends most of their time in a vacuum-capable suit, just in case. He was quiet, deeply introverted, and one of the best at his job. Gabriel could find water where the scans had said there wasn’t any, and could read the face of the terrain like a book. His routes into the wild became the major transit routes after the domes and tents moved into the areas he mapped. He wasn’t always right; but he had one of the best records in the service, and people respected that.

Gabriel was four weeks out from the nearest dome; heading for a feature that held the promise of water, which would lead further exploration—and expansion—out into this area. Viewed from above and over the course of time-lapse photography, you could almost imagine people like Gabriel dragging a trail of civilization behind them, spreading and widening in fractal patterns as they reach for new and better sources of the things that humans needed to survive. Things like space, time and water. Everything else they created for themselves.

Gabriel didn’t think about it. He liked the quiet spaces, the orderly and precise rituals of exploration on a foreign world. He was fond of seeing new and quiet places, felt the thrill of discovering something that nobody else had seen, and even found something joyful in sending back reports of his progress.

The report he was going to send back today, however, left most of his stories in the dust.
Gabriel was driving along at a steady, distance-destroying hundred and fifty clicks, his buggy able to compensate for the terrain automatically. Lasers and scanners probed the sand ahead of him, looked for anomalies, rocks, pits, and anything that might throw the buggy off of its smooth, high speed course, and compensated by lifting slightly, or extending the material of the left wheel, or lowering the front right, or whatever. Gabriel just pointed the way, technology made sure he got there all right.
Usually.

The moment he struck was one he would never remember. It was like waking from a dream, and it took a few seconds to sink in. Clearly he was in free-fall, but he didn’t remember falling. Looking down revealed the reason for that: he was falling sideways; in other words, flying. His buggy was below him, on a similar course. It was tumbling end over end, which explained his current trajectory. He’d been thrown clear when it hit something the tires couldn’t deal with. Lesser men would have wondered at how such an impossible thing had happened, with all the technology that was designed to stop it. Gabriel just made a commitment to find out what had happened and see if he could help stop it from reoccurring. But first things first; he was still traveling the better part of one hundred and fifty kilometers per hour, and his trajectory was decaying. In other words, he was about to hit the ground, and fast.

Fortunately the suit was designed to take this kind of thing into consideration. Without too much worry or trouble he pressed a button on his right shoulder, and one on his left simultaneously. Three beeps sounded in his helmet, and he pressed them again, as confirmation. A moment later a thin bundle of filaments played out sinuously behind him, then burst open into a monstrous parachute, nearly a tenth of an acre in surface area to make the most of the thin martian atmosphere, one molecule thick to fit into a small tight box on his back.

The chute lazily ballooned out, reducing his momentum, and he watched his buggy shoot ahead of him. He was still going to hit hard, but the airbags built elsewhere into his suit should help with that. He hoped briefly that the airbags on the buggy were still in good shape, and remembered with grim satisfaction that he’d inspected them two weeks earlier as part of his routine maintenance. Still, there were things to deal with right now. He curled up into a tight ball as the ground rushed up to meet him.

His suit, equally aware of what was going on, gauged its actions perfectly. The chute was cut free. Milliseconds later small capsules placed here and there around the suit suddenly burst and large balloons deployed to make Gabriel’s fall as painless as possible. He bounced and rolled, jolted and jarred along for a few more meters, and finally tumbled to a stop. The airbags deflated and he looked forward along his line of travel, just in time to see a large yellow ball burst open and hit the ground in a huge spray of red dust. He almost smiled; the buggy’s bags had worked fine. From the looks of it, the buggy was no more than three kilometers away, and had all his supplies on it. Time to get walking.

The buggy was fine… mostly. Whatever had launched it into the air had also taken out the front left wheel and bent the frame beyond what Gabriel could repair out in the field. He could get it to travel, but not quickly enough to make it back to civilization, and not steadily. It was time to make some choices.

First, of course, was to find out what he hit. He should be in range of —he checked the sky—Phobos base, which would have been signaled when he deployed his chute, and again when his airbags deployed, and again when the buggy’s airbags deployed. So they would be curious to know what happened.

“Gabriel here. Phobos base, come in.”

“Phobos here. What happened?”

“I don’t know yet. I hit something.”

“You’re not supposed to do that.”

“I know.”

This was all part of an old contest: the radio operators at the moon bases would say things to try to make Gabriel betray any emotion whatsoever, and Gabriel would avoid doing so.

“How’s your buggy? Pretty bunged up? We know the airbags fired, but were they actually working?”

“Of course. It’s fine, except for the wheel that struck..whatever it was. It won’t drive far, but I think I can get back to the crash site.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m going to be here a while while you try to get a tug down to me, and I want to know what wrecked my buggy.”

“We were hoping you didn’t know how long you’d be down there. It could be a month, you know.”

“You should have a tug that can come down in three weeks.”

“One of these days you’ll be wrong about something and they’ll make you come up here and do my job for a few years. Yeah, three weeks out. Do you need a supply drop?”

“I’ll set up my tent and tell you for sure, but I suspect I’ll need one in about ten days.”

“We’ll get one queued up. A good insertion window is coming up soon. Get set up and let us know.”

“Roger.”

“And Gabriel, try not to hit anything else in that flat, empty, featureless plain out there. I know it’s a challenge, but we think you’re up to it.”

Gabriel just signed off. He nursed the buggy back along his track at a mere sixty clicks. Not only had his front wheel been destroyed, but his sensor array was messed up, and he had to drive on manual pilot the entire way back to the crash site, with the buggy whining and complaining about its missing sensors (the missing wheel it could cope with) the entire way.

Once he arrived back at the site he set up his tent. A martian explorer’s tent is a massive affair, a hermetically sealed geodesic dome with a circumference of ten meters, made of a transparent, insanely tough material that packs down tight and insulates better than anything that thin should be able to. The cabin heater was removed from the buggy and plugged into the tent, and Gabriel’s living quarters were quickly set up as he liked them. After a little thought, he had set his tent about six meters from whatever it was that had messed up his tires. He wanted to study it; indeed he’d have little else to do until the tug was able to come get him, but he didn’t really want to share a tent with it just yet. Instead he spent the night cataloging the things he’d need for an extended stay, sent his report up to Deimos base, and went to sleep.

The next morning Gabriel got was out of the tent early and brushing the dust away from the obstacle that had wrecked his buggy before the sun rise. The night before, as the sun was setting, he thought he saw a glint, something metallic, shining out of the wreckage. It was probably part of the buggy, but he’d lain awake all night thinking about it. As he brushed the dust away his suspicion was confirmed. This wasn’t part of his buggy at all. This…this was something big.

Slow, methodical, focused digging eventually showed him the device in its entirety. He looked at it steadily for a few minutes, pondered, then went back into the tent. He pulled up everything he could find on Martian exploration. A few more minutes of silent thought, then he pulled up his order for the supply drop and added a few things. As he suspected. The call came almost immediately.

“Gabriel, what’s with this order for a 3D printer and a crate of heavy metals? Are you planning on printing a new buggy and driving out of there?”

“I’m planning on repairing some damage. I could send you a part list and you could fabricate them up there, if you like.”

“Nah, you know I’m lazier than that. I’ll send them down, but people are going to ask questions.”

“I’ll answer them soon. I promise.”

“No hints for the guy who’s sticking his neck out for you?”

“You’ll be the first to know, don’t worry about that. Now, I’ve got to get back to work.”

“You know, a lot of guys use a break like this to put their feet up, read a few books, maybe stream a few movies.”

“Yes. I do know. But I’ve got to get back to work.”

The operator on Phobos sighed. “Can’t blame me for trying. Okay, Phobos Base out.”
Gabriel spent a few minutes after breaking the connection reading a few more pages on the Martian version of the Internet. There were only a few million pages on the ‘net, and only a handful had any bearing on what he was wanting to believe he had found out there. But at last he found what he was looking for. If Gabriel had been the sort to laugh and dance around, this would have been the time he would have chosen to do it. Instead, he nearly smiled as he headed back outside to carefully flip his find back onto its wheels.

Gabriel had read once that people on Earth used to make ships in a bottle; tiny, perfect replicas of sailing ships, with the added difficulty of assembling them in a seriously constrained environment. By the time you were done, you understood the ship, and the mastery that would have gone into making one far better than you could in any other way, short of actually building the real thing. It gave you respect for the glory of a past age, the craftsmanship that was needed to do things without modern tools.

His current project felt like that. He was using admittedly modern tools, but in a vacuum suit, and working on something that would have been a relic before the first true Martians were born, and was built using skills and ideologies that had died out before the first colonists had left Earth. Fortunately the majority of the Earth’s governments had uploaded the majority of their documents to the Martian base for safekeeping before the war, and after a few nights of searching Gabriel found what he needed.

Of course, that meant he had to teach himself to read and understand 20th century blueprints and schematics, but he was focused, dedicated, and (due to the effects of a few centuries of enforced Darwinism) at least thirty IQ points smarter than the most intelligent person alive when the device was built.

In the end, he fabricated some tools that would have been used in the original construction, and to his surprise found that his work went faster. From time to time he wondered if any other Martian alive had ever used a screw driver or a wrench, or a soldiering iron. Fortunately the device had suffered surprisingly little damage over the centuries, other than what he had caused a few days prior, and the needed repairs were minimal.

The harder part was figuring out the power system. The crude solar cells that covered the device were understandable enough, and he was pretty sure he could replace the old chemical battery with something that would be…well, considerably better than what was there originally, but it wouldn’t make a very big difference. He convinced himself that as long as the voltages and wattages (both terms had caused a large amount of research) were the same as what the device had expected he’d be on the right course, and he couldn’t be expected to re-create a lithium-ion battery out here, could he? Still, the non-authentic battery worried him.

Phobos and Deimos bases are more than logistical centers. They are even more than just communications stations. They have an array of sensors, reading every possible electromagnetic wavelength and frequency, listening for anything the galaxy may have to say. Which means that a sudden burst of very intense static on a radio signal, radio of all frequencies, was a source of some confusion. The beam was tightly focused and hard to pick up, but even a tight beam scatters and they were good at following things.

A few hours of intense interest, research, frantic calls between the two moons and a few other satellites revealed a couple of interesting facts: first: the transmission was aimed at Earth; and second: the beam originated on Mars.

A few minutes after this second revelation Gabriel got a call on his personal communicator.

“Tell us, my friend, what exactly are you working on down there?” the voice on the speaker was trying to sound nonchalant, but failing.

“What do you mean?”

“Something very close to you is trying to communicate with earth. We haven’t figured out the signal yet, but it’s transmitting a lot of data very quickly, and coming from somewhere close to you. Some of us are wondering if you have finally developed a sense of humor after all.”

“That’s a cruel thing to say, and you know it. Anyway, the signal isn’t mine, and I don’t really know what it contains either. But I do know where it’s coming from, and I have a good idea what it’s trying to communicate.”

“And what is that, pray tell.”

“Well, Spirit here has been out of service for a long time, and has a lot to tell NASA. Say hi, guys. She’s been doing this a lot longer than we have.”

Welcome to Friday Stories

What is a Friday Story?

Mostly it’s a promise and a goal. The promise is that you’ll get something new1 to read every Friday. The goal is to improve both my writing and my confidence in my writing to the point that I have something worth reading published every week, and eventually published in an actual book.

I’m not saying I’m going to scoop up everything I write here and start charging for it. Instead I want to use this as a test bed to get some ideas flowing, to see what people like and what they don’t, and to see what I like and what I don’t.

I’m going to put up the first story later today; hopefully by the time anyone sees this blog it’ll already be up. Thank you for stopping by!


  1. and hopefully interesting 

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