Monday Stories

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Some Words With a Comet

Beep

“Outgoing pulse to comet 4938-B, expected turnaround time: 4 minutes 29 seconds.”

The man who would spend the rest of his life known as “The World’s Most Influential Grad Student” was less than five minutes away from earning that title. At the moment he was still known as Bradley Green, and his thesis work “What if Comets Are Messengers from Extra-solar Intelligences?” was largely mocked and seen as wasted time on some very expensive radio telescopes. His advisor, who would have a career almost as illustrious as soon-to-be-Doctor Green himself, had encoraged him to stand up for his project and get his results, regardless of what everyone else said. And that’s what Brad was doing right now.

Hissss wwwEEEeeeWWEeeeeeooo pop

“Return pulse from comet 6212-C, results in file.”

Brad had the radio results running through his speakers just to give him time points to record in his notes. The computer was listening as well and could make far more of the random hisses and pops that came back from the comets than Brad could.

Even if Brad’s research wasn’t going to change the world in roughly three minutes, he was still getting some good data. The radio signals he was bouncing off of various celestial bodies was returning information about their relative albedos, velocities, likely trajectories, and some preliminary data about their chemical makeup as well. All of this would be added to the collected body of human intelligence, like snowflakes being added to a glacier. It wasn’t fast, it wasn’t flashy, but in time it would change the world.

In this case that time would happen right after Brad looked at his outbound signals, when they should return, and decided to go get a Diet Doctor Pepper.

The telescope he was using was in Hawaii, and Bradley wasn’t. So he was all but alone in the Astrophysics department of his university. He nodded to the cleaning staff, mostly undergrad students, and got his soda, then got back to his desk.

He checked Facebook, liked a couple of pictures of his new nephew that his sister had posted, and then sat and looked at the monitor. His time on the telescope would be over in about two hours, which meant he could go to bed. He stretched.

“Beerop EEEEEEEhweeeeeeeeeeeeshhhewereeoooooo…”

“What the…”

Later Brad would wish he had said something more intelligent. This wasn’t a return pulse, this was a long, long signal. He looked at his outbound times and turned the microphone back on.

“Return…signal from 4938-B, on…ongoing.”

the first Return Signal from 4938-B (known thereafter as “RS1”) was seventeen seconds long, and would be played over and over again for years. Brad looked at his data, looked at what the computer was trying to do with that seventeen second signal and hastily re-wrote the program that was scheduled to bounce a pulse of another comet to hit 4938-B again.

“Readings are…anomalous from 4938-B, retrying signal. Outgoing pulse…now.”

Brad’s phone rang. Someone in Hawaii had noticed the results as well. Someone who would get their name on Brad’s doctoral thesis and would even end up as Mrs. Green a few years later.

Various professors were woken up, and had the signal played to them in its entirety. The second pulse resulted in a second signal, almost identical, but tantalizingly different. After a few fevered hours the astrophysicists realized they were out of their depth and started waking up their friends from other departments as well. These return signals were clearly the work of something or someone intelligent, and frustratingly, whoever it was hadn’t sent their message in UTF-8 encoding.

But whatever 4938-B’s message was, it was remarkably willing to share that message with anyone who wanted to hear it. And it was frighteningly accurate. Any satellite that sent a radio ping to the comet got roughly seventeen seconds of something sent back on an astonishingly tight beam, directed to the sender. Bradley Green sent the message “Um. Welcome to the solar system” to the comet and soon that message was encoded in all the responses sent back. The comet, it seemed, was trying to provide a Rosetta Stone.

Gravity is heartless. Before the sun had risen on Brad’s home, humanity knew exactly how long they had before 4938-B would be back out beyond their reach: Four months. 4938-B was traveling quickly, and would achieve perhielion in two months, slingshot around the sun, and then shoot back out of the solar system, back into the nearly empty Oort Cloud, not to return for almost half a century.

This gave rise to a number of uncomfortable questions. How long had the alien or alien artifact been on that comet? Had it been there the last time this comet passed through humanity’s part of the solar system? History, or at least, the part of history that had occurred fifty years ago, suddenly became very important. Humanity was suddenly very self-conscious about anything their parents might have been saying on radio frequencies, hoping their parents hadn’t embarrassed them in front of their new guest.

Four month’s wasn’t enough. Time tables were changed, satellite launches were cancelled, and satellites that had spent decades in planning and construction were hastily modified. We needed to get something out there, to take a look at this thing. Radio signals were useful, but we are a visual race and we needed to see what it was we were talking to. Probes and telescopes were launched to finally get us some visuals of our new friend.

Slowly the image started to form. The comet itself wasn’t anything special. But there, on the side facing Earth, there was the Visitor. Two domes, one roughly twice the size of the other, made of some highly reflective material. No visible portholes or antennae. It was apparently smooth, or perhaps slightly crenelated. Maybe the surface was moving? It was frustratingly hard to tell from the static images that came back agonizingly slowly from all our eyes in the sky.

4938-B was causing waves beyond the scientific community, of course. The comet never ventured too far from our sun, cosmically speaking. Which meant that whoever put The Visitor on that comet had been basically on our doorstep, looked at us, and had decided not to come see us in person. An embarrassed species looked at our behavior and quietly wondered if maybe, metaphorically, the aliens had heard us arguing and decided not to get into the middle of a domestic dispute. Various groups decried the signals as a fake, a plot started by the capitalists. Or the communists. Or the Illuminati, the NSA or CIA or FBI or SS or MI6 or any other of a number of strings of letters and numbers.

But overall humanity learned to accept the Visitor for what it was: a message from someone else, somewhere else. And the question was: what do we say back?

Bradly Green found himself caught up in this discussion. Grad student though he may be, this was his idea, indeed, this was the stated goal of his project. he had tried to contact aliens hitching a lift on comets and had done so. What next?

He was unprepared for this eventuality, of course. But he rallied beautifully. “How hard would it be,” He asked on international television, “To respond in kind? Can we land a probe on 4938-B? Can we settle our probe next to theirs, and tell them we heard them?” Feverishly the engineers, rocket scientists and astrophysicists went to work.

“Nope,” they said. The comet was moving too quickly, was too far away, with no launch windows open to any of the currently available rockets to intercept it.

“But,” said the third-largest private space exploration company in the world, “We can launch a probe that will be within two light-minutes of the comet by the time it passes Pluto.” The “2LM” plan caught the public imagination, and the world worked together to make it a reality. The launch vehicle was set up in Texas, probe modules were built in Russia, China, the United Kingdom, the United States, and India. The modules were then flown, in some cases by military aircraft, to Texas for final assembly. ad hoc treaties to allow these fighters to cross boundaries were signed quickly and the probe was built. Wheels and sometimes palms were greased to get clearance for an untested rocket to bypass a few safety inspections in order to launch on time.

The first and second largest private space exploration companies quietly pointed out that the probe would continue straight out of the solar system when the comet curved back, and that saying “two light minutes” is a way to make “22.35 million miles” sound “close”. But they were largely ignored in an effort to do something, anything, to greet our visitors and welcome them back.

The day approached. The comet had made its turn around the sun. Humanity waited as earth approached the optimal position for launch. Data centers were temporarily converted to streaming relays to handle nearly every person on earth watching the countdown.

A stormy morning notwithstanding, the vehicle was cleared for takeoff. A world watched as it sped skyward. Amateur and professional telescopes were trained on the craft as it separated from its boosters (which were recovered, but nobody much cared, not this time) and sped still outward. The species heaved a sigh of relief when the probe sent back its first telemetry data, confirmed its course and that all systems were functioning.

And then… well, then there wasn’t much else to do. People kept sending messages to 4938-B as it sped away, for as long as they could still get a message to it. And the world kept trying to decipher the messages that came back, but where do you start when you don’t know the code and don’t know what the message will be when you decode it?

And most people just went back to their lives. But something had changed. The skies were open now, and we were being watched. It was time to make a good impression.

Loonies on Mars

Humanity had spread. The people on Mars and Luna were in constant contact, sharing the progress and discoveries they were making, and occasionally sending ships back and forth. The cultures of the two worlds were quite different, however.

The Selenites (as they called themselves. Martians referred to them affectionately as Loonies) were generally quiet, slender, and thoughtful. Their world was largely underground due to the harsh differences between day and night on the surface, but the excavations that housed the lunar colonies were expansive and well appointed. The old, narrow tunnels were almost nowhere to be seen, replaced over centuries by broad corridors, well lit and well ventilated. The nexii where two or more corridors came together were traditionally large bowls with glass domes that looked out on the sky above, albeit with some shielding during the daylight weeks. Green grass and trees grew in the nexii, large, sprawling parks at the center of the bowls. The terraced sides were different, with various artistic and natural formations, either truly selenian formations or copies of the most beautiful parts of Earth. Waterfall Park, one of the newest nexii, was an example of how the two blended beautifully.

A waterfall isn’t something that would ever happen naturally on the moon, of course. For that matter it was only recently that Luna had enough water to allow it to exist now. But a waterfall as beautiful as this one would never occur on earth, either. The reason that Waterfall Park is beautiful and mesmerising is obvious if you think about it.

The gravity on the moon is 1/6th that of earth. That means that the water falls in a leisurely column, twisting and taking its time to reach the bowl below. When it lands it strikes with much less force than it would do on Earth. Drops that jumped up out of the bowl flew higher, fell slower, and were small, beautiful crystals that you could watch for hours, if you didn’t have anywhere to go. Lights from behind the waterfall accentuated the prismatic effects of the water, scattering light in all colors all over the nexus, sparks and glints of color flashing across the face of the person with whom you were strolling. Some bowls were meant for gathering and discussing politics or transacting business. This nexus was for restoring the soul.

Kaylee and Isadora were sitting on one of the benches, looking at the waterfall, occasionally catching the small droplets that flew out close to them. They were laughing and happy and content with life. They had just graduated high school. Selenite custom allowed for a few years between the end of high school and the beginning of college for people to get some perspective and decide what they wanted to do with their lives, and those glorious, free years stretched ahead of the pair of friends.

Kaylee lay her head in Isadora’s lap and looked through the dome above the bowl. Earth was rising and she observed its multicolored splendor the same way she had watched the water droplets a few moments earlier. The Earthrise, the water, they were all one. They didn’t mean anything, they were just pretty.

Isadora was still laughing at the joke Kaylee had just told. She started stroking her friend’s hair and looking quietly back into the water. But Kaylee’s thoughts had flown upward, through that light, up to the surface of Earth.

They all knew the history of Earth, they all knew where they came from, and were scared by the teacher’s explanation of the oppressive gravity there. But there must be so much more to the place, Kaylee thought.

“We should go to Earth someday,” Kaylee said, more to elicit a reaction than out of any real conviction. Isadora knew this of course, and her olive-skinned face didn’t move a muscle as she took this in. Then she let a small smile play on her face for a moment before responding.

“All right. You go schedule a lander and explain the fuel costs to the launch manager. ‘I wanted to go down to Earth to show my friend that I can do crazy stuff. Yes, I know it’s as expensive to come back up from the surface as it is to go to Phobos, but she’ll be REALLY impressed!’ would it go something like that, maybe?”

Kaylee was in a strange mood. “They’d let me. The launch masters are all space-crazy anyway, and if they can come on a launch they’ll let you go anywhere. And anyway, we wouldn’t stay long.”

“We’d stay forever. Set one foot out of the lander and PLOP we’re both flat on our backs looking up at the sky for the rest of our lives. And don’t think the launch master would be much help, he’d be flat on his back inside the lander.”

“We’d build exo-suits, like the ones they use on the surface, but made to hold us up. And we could leave the tops off, because we can breathe that air.”

“Topless exo-suits? Kaylee you’re funny. What would you want to do down there anyway? Is this just because your parents want you to head out to Mars for a year?”

“No! I just wonder what it’s like. There’s hundreds of kinds of trees, and animals other than cats and dogs and chickens and alpacas.”

“What are those little things in the tree over there? Alpacas? No? Oh, that’s right. Wrens.”

“You know what I mean, Iz. We’ve got one hundred seven species of terran creatures here on Luna. Mars has seventy that have adapted so far. Someday they may have their own, or one of the deep ships might come back with something from far away, but I’m not holding my breath. There’s no life anywhere else in the universe, except for up there.”

Isadora looked up. It was a strange contradiction, she had to admit. The most beautiful place in the solar system was unreachable to both of the civilized planets, because the gravity would pin them down and wear their hearts out in a matter of months. Someone could possibly get acclimatized, but it would take years, maybe generations, and it wasn’t worth it. Trips that were sent down there stayed long enough to collect some water, or some new specimens that might help flesh out the ecologies on Luna or Mars, and Earth’s long-estranged children never felt so much as a breeze when they visited her. For some reason this made Isadora inexpressibly sad.

“Oh, Iz, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to depress you,” Kaylee sat up and put an arm around her friend’s shoulders.

“It’s okay, Kay.” She laid her friend on Kaylee’s shoulder and sat quiet for a moment, watching the drops dancing up into the air sliding lazily back down into the pool.

“Maybe we should both go to Mars for a year. They’ve got that one open dome; well, kind of open. You know, the ion-shielded one, where you can go out into the low crevasses and there’s nothing over your head but sky. It’d be a lot like Earth.”

“Yeah, that’d be an experience. We could pretend we’re up there, on Earth. Maybe we could take a new species to Mars and help it integrate.”

Their talk turned to the unlikely animals that they would want on Mars, and eventually back to the pointless and happy friendly banter that they’d shared since they were little girls. They laughed their way to the Launch Master’s office, and two months later held hands as their shuttle left the shallow gravity well of Luna and began the long glide to Phobos Base. The Red Planet wasn’t the blue-green jewel of Earth, but it was starting to turn green, and it would do for now.


Isadora and Kaylee landed at Phobos station and were shown where to go to acclimatize themselves to the higher gravity once they went down to the surface, then were shown to their quarters while they were at Phobos. They asked to be able to stay in the same room, for moral support.

Turns out that wasn’t a problem; Phobos isn’t all that big, and one of the other rooms was being held for some explorer that was getting emergency-lifted out of the wilds.

The next lander wouldn’t be going down for another five days; so they had some time to explore and get spend time in the acclimatization booth. The booth was miserable; everything was heavy, slow, and it was hard to breathe. They were young and strong, though, and the doctors had no doubt that by the end of a month on the surface they’d be right at home. Lunar children often came to Mars on exchange. The Martians enjoyed the quiet, methodical Selenite children, and it was always enjoyable to watch them slowly find their strength, and resume the lyrical, graceful movements that defined their people.

As bad as the time in the acclimatization booth was, the rest of Phobos was delightful. It was built using the Martian style of construction: large, geodesic domes of clear material, so that the red planet was visible at all times. They were also able to watch all the launches and landings, though there weren’t many of these; just traffic between Phobos and Deimos bases. The launcher was fun to watch, though, as the shuttles were loaded onto the mag-rail track, positioned, charged, then flung out of Phobos’ gravity well to glide through the empty space to the other moon.

They met the incoming explorer, who greeted them only tersely, then oversaw the unloading of his cargo from the lander. The crews argued that it was going to go back down on the same lander, but he wouldn’t hear of leaving it in cargo.

He patiently explained to the girls what he had found, where and how had found it, and his plans to restore it, then build the equipment to receive and interpret it’s signals. It would be criminal, he said, to shut it back down, after all these years that it’s waited to send its messages and have someone interpret them.

Gabriel was a loner, by and large, but nobody could keep quiet with such an enthusiastic audience. The lunar girls were excited and in awe of the older man, his adventures. In time his reverence for the Spirit rover translated itself to them. By the end of the first day they were willing helpers, cleaning and polishing the rover carefully, listening with rapt attention to his explanations of how the Ancients had launched the lander to explore Mars, to help them find a place to live, and how this was his goal as well.

The Phobos crew watched, first with astonishment, then with fond amusement, as the two girls did something that nobody else had been able to do: Get Gabriel to actually open up to another person. He positively stewed during their acclimatization sessions, and he would just pace and wander until they emerged. The girls were only dimly aware of his behavior, and even if they did know that they were as admired as they were admiring they made no hint of returning his more personal feelings. Lunar/Martian pairings were not unheard of, but Explorer/Lunar pairings were. And maybe they wouldn’t ever happen. Still, bets were made for and against Gabriel being on the flight Luna one year from this time.


“Welcome to Mars, darlings! Stacie, get their bags, can’t you see their exhausted? Come, come, dears. The transport is just this way.” Mrs. Whitmore had taken in a number of Lunar exchange students, and was a professional now. Stacie Whitmore had seen a lot of very weak, very tired people take up the spare rooms in her home, but she too was a patient sort. She had found that Lunar girls usually made good friends after a while. Lunar boys, on the other hand, were so painfully shy around her that they never were much fun to talk to at all.

“Thank you, Mrs. Whitmore,” Isadora whispered. They’d been on the surface for less than an hour, and the pressure was so inescapable. Stacie saw how Isadora tried hard to keep Kaylee moving forward, even as she was herself nearly falling down, and easily lifted Isadora’s arm, then stood between the two Lunar girls and half-carried both of them to the transport.

“What’s so special about outside?” Stacie asked. They were sitting in the room the girls were sharing. Well, she was sitting, Kaylee was leaning hard against the wall, and Isadora was laying flat on her back. Stacie brushed her brown, straight hair back from her eyes and watched the two critically. She was working hard to keep them from feeling the claustrophobia that Selenites often started feeling about three days in.

“Well, we don’t have an outside we can visit easily in Luna,” Isadora said. “No chance of holding an atmosphere, not even with an ion shield.”

“And we’d like to see the sky.” Kaylee said heavily.

“Kay wanted to go to Earth, but if we’re having this much trouble here…” Isadora said and smiled a little. “I don’t think we would have survived even a few minutes on Earth.”

“Nonsense. You’ll both be up and around in a day or so. It’s just something you get used to.”

“Yeah, but something twice as heavy as this? I don’t know if I’d make it a couple of days down there.”

“Is it really so bad? I mean, I know it’s all what you’re used to, but I’ve never seen what the big problem is. I guess you don’t float around as easily here…”

“It’s like being covered in lead. Rocks. Lead rocks. And it’s downright dangerous, weighing this much.”

Stacie swallowed a laugh. The girls were slender, almost fragile looking things. She guessed she weighed about as much as both of them put together, and she was slender by Martian standards (which meant she was tiny by Earthling standards. The Lunar girls would have been seen as emaciated had they ever ventured to earth). Isadora caught her expression—that girl was far too good at reading people—and smiled forgivingly. “I can see why Lunar boys find you so interesting, Stacie. You’re happy, and down to earth…hah. That’s not really a phrase that any of us have any business using, is it?”

“But I look like a cow compared to you Loonies.”

“We like healthy-looking people in Luna. Tiny little things like us are practically invisible. You’d have a line of suitors as long as my arm five minutes after you walked through an airlock back home.”

Kaylee was asleep, pressed against the wall. With great effort Iz stood up, walked haltingly to Kaylee’s bed, and laid her down. She was sweating at the effort, and required Stacie’s help to get back to a chair.

“Mom’s going to kill both of us for letting her go to sleep before dinner.” Stacie said quietly. Iz just smiled. “Kay told me last night she doesn’t mind going down to dinner, but coming back up stairs afterwards to get ready for bed is murder. She’s considering going on a diet.”

“I guess that’s one way to turn invisible.”


Two weeks later Iz and Kay were much more acclimatized, and had even gained a bit of fame. The neighbors were used to the Whitmore family hosting Loonies and except for a few of the boys paid them no mind. However, when Gabriel the Explorer visited to see how they were settling in that got the neighborhood’s attention. When it came out that they had helped clean up Spirit after Gabriel’s famous crash they were suddenly the talk of the town. The socializing had helped them keep their minds off of the gravity, and had also gotten them to move around more than even Mrs. Whitmore could have done.

They were walking, even skipping from time to time, and Kay had started eating real meals again. Her diet threats had been somewhat worrying to Iz, but Mrs. Whitmore knew what she was doing. But today wasn’t just a good day, today was THE day. They were going outside. Mrs. Whitmore, Stacie, one of Stacie’s cousins (who just happened to be male and just happened to like skinny girls…) were all packing a picnic lunch (another novelty that the Selenite girls had never heard of before.) Isadora was walking quietly around the room, moving in slow bounds instead of steps. That seemed to be a Lunar habit that was hard to break.

Kaylee walked more “normally” but still seemed to take twice as many steps as were absolutely necessary. Of the two, Isadora seemed to be faster at understanding local customs, but she incorporated them into her own idioms. Kaylee, once she caught onto something, embraced it wholeheartedly.

The most visible example of this was skirts. They just simply weren’t worn on—Mrs. Whitmore corrected herself out of long habit—that is, in, Luna. But Martians liked them. Kaylee, once she realized that the majority of Martians wore skirts the majority of the time, purchased three and started wearing them constantly. A few days later Stacie and Mrs. Whitmore presented her with three more, which were slightly longer and had a few small weights in the hem for modesty’s sake. Selenite motion and Martian atmosphere meant that Kaylee’s skirts spent a lot of time billowing impressively around her.

The walk to the park wasn’t long, but the girls still tired quickly. They both insisted on carrying something, a thing that made Mrs. Whitmore happy. She had seen a few Loonies that refused to really do anything during their stay, and they went home much the same as they had come. These two would change, and would make both worlds better for it.

Kaylee was carrying the picnic blanket; a thick, heavy thing that could double as a tent in an emergency, not that either of the girls needed to know that. She switched shoulders frequently, a sure sign that it was a bit much for the slender redhead. But she never complained.

Isadora walked a step behind Kaylee, and Bran, Stacie’s cousin, walked to Kaylee’s left. Isadora’s face was clouded, but she still spoke pleasantly with Mrs. Whitmore and Stacie.

“We really wanted to see Earth, see the blue sky, the trees…oh, but Mars is beautiful. I’m glad we got to come here.” Stacie laughed a little bit, and was surprised to see Iz blush a little. “That didn’t come out so well, did it? I am sorry.”

“No, we understand Iz. Sometimes you don’t get what you want, but what you get is better than you could have imagined, is that it?” Isadora nodded and her blush faded a little. “Well, if you like the domes, wait until you see the park,” Stacie said and pressed the button to cycle the airlock.

“Hey, I thought the atmosphere outside was breathable! Why the airlock?” Kaylee asked.

“We haven’t taken it out yet. It’d be expensive, and what’s wrong with a safeguard?” Bran said. “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine out there.”

They shuffled into the airlock and the door behind them closed, the door in front of them opened and…

There was the sky. It wasn’t the blue sky of all those videos of earth. Instead it was the pale orange-red of Mars, with a faintly iridescent sheen from the ion shield.

But the color wasn’t the big thing. The big thing for the Lunar girls was that there wasn’t anything solid over their heads. The experience is best likened to a roller coaster: they were mostly sure they were safe, there were other people around, and the other people weren’t worried, so they shouldn’t be either. All the same, there was something wrong, some sense that if you didn’t follow the rules you could fall forever, straight up, straight into that sky. Instinctively their hands found one another as they stared straight up, barely breathing.

They Never Left

It became obvious, once I knew what I was looking for.

Humans have always had stories about others, elves and fairies and trolls and the like, right? Those who are like us and yet different. And it seems like up until the last century or so, we all knew they were out there.

And then science happened. Science tells us that there aren’t any other intelligent beings on Earth, that humans are all there is. No fairies, no trolls, no gods, no angels. But I know better. I learned better.

I started seeing them when I was riding the bus one day outside of Tucson. I had my hair tied back in a tight ponytail. I had bleached and straightened and dyed it in Flagstaff, so it was a riot of blonde & red & purple, saying yeah, I’m a girl but I’m one of those girls and not worth the trouble. I was trying to catch some sleep while all the other passengers were old people on the boring part of the trip instead of the scum that would get on board when we got closer to Vegas. I had my backpack on my lap and my arms tight around it so nobody wouldn’t steal it. I woke up when someone sat down on my seat.

He was pale and had red hair and a wild red beard and green eyes, like, crazy green. He smiled at me when I woke up and said “Don’t worry, today’s your lucky day”. His voice wasn’t like one of those drunk oily pickup men, he meant it, it sounded like lucky. So I went back to sleep and slept all the way to Vegas and when I woke up all my stuff was still in my backpack & someone had shoved $50 in my hand. That’s when I realized that there were still sprites and leprechauns. I mean, what else could he be?

So I started looking around. And man, if you know what you’re looking for they’re everywhere. Not just leprechauns. All of ’em. That glitzy girl who looks like she’s flying when she dances and seems to sparkle, she’s obviously a fairy. That bouncer who takes a beer bottle to the back of the head and just turns around is all “sir, I’m gonna have to ask you to leave”, I mean, come on, he’s a troll.

Or like, part troll. I think they all got interbred with humans, so now it’s like, some dude’s got more fairy in him than normal and people call him metro. Or whatever, like we all just have all of it in us, after so long.

I wonder how many people know what they are underneath. Seems like everyone’s so stupid about it, just, like, saying “no, he’s just strong, it’s not a big deal”. And I’m like, “strong doesn’t make you not get cut when you get hit with a bottle”. So yeah, wake up.

Anyway my friend Jenny was definitely one. We lived together for a while in a crappy little trailer outside Vegas while we were trying to get enough money to go anywhere else. And once I knew what I was looking for it was obvious. Jenny was totally an elf. She doesn’t have like, pointy ears but her eyes are a weird color, like, copper gray? And she’s tiny tiny. I’m only like, five eight, and she makes me feel like a giant. But what makes it real obvious is how much she needs trees.

Vegas was killing Jenny. It’s all flat and dead and she couldn’t get whatever it was she needed from deserts. She came from, like, Canada or Idaho or somewhere that’s all pine trees and dirt, and all the sand was just drying her out. I guess she ran away when her dad went psycho and this was as far as her money took her. It’s like, everyone can get to Vegas, but nobody can get out of Vegas.

Anyway on really bad days when Jenny was crying and shaking I would try to get her to come with me to one of the Casinos that had an indoor park with real trees and Jenny would sit on a bench and cry, but it would be different, like, she wouldn’t be so crazy. And after a while she would just be breathing deep and then she’d say something like “These trees are crap, Liz” and we’d go home.

Oh and its not just the good ones that exist, you know. The bad ones are still around too. But they get all the movies and books and crap. Vampires and werewolves and demons and whatever. Everyone thinks they’re so cool. They’re not. Jenny was dating a demon, I’m sure of it. He said his name was Vince, but who knows in Vegas? But he was always in all fancy silk shirts and pants and had a car even though he worked at a crappy bar off the strip. And anyone could see that they were wrong for each other. Anyone but Jenny, because he used some demon spell to make her think he was the greatest guy ever.

Me, I started to suspect when we went to the beach. He never got hot. It’d be like, a hundred degrees outside and Jenny and I were sweating and exhausted and he was all “oh is it hot out here?” and he’d smile that smile of his under those sunglasses he thought were so cool. He was never any good for Jenny, I think he kind of hated her? But she was pretty, so he dated her. Kind of. He would have killed her if I hadn’t come home early that night, but I scared him off and fixed her up. I’ve always been good at fixing folks up.

But things worked out; I was making more at work now that I knew how to play the gamblers for tips and so Jenny and I moved out of that trailer and into an apartment the next day. I guess spending more on rent kept me in Vegas longer, but I had to do it, you know?

And anyway that apartment was where all the good times happened. We were both making more now, and we had money to get smart phones. And we came up with The Plan.

It wasn’t a fancy plan. We would just sit around after work and look for places for Jenny to live. She didn’t want to go back up where she came from; but she thought northern California looked like a nice place with all the redwoods and stuff, so we would look at apartments she could rent there and figure out how much it would cost for her to move there. Then one day some boy tipped Jenny $300 because he won a bunch and then some other guy sold me his laptop for $300 because he needed to “win it all back”. So Jenny and I made her a real resume in Word and we spell checked it and everything. Then we started sending it to jobs in some of the cities she wanted to live in.

It was right around then that I noticed something weird. Once you knew what you were looking for you saw that a lot of people were others, but it was always just the poor people like me. You never saw a casino manager and thought “he’s a goblin”, or a middle class tourist with their family and thought “oh, she’s a mermaid!” No, it was always the dealers, croupiers, dancers, bouncers, waiters, those were the people who were something other. Sometimes I kinda wondered if I was, too.

Anyway Jenny got a phone interview for one of those jobs and they agreed to hire her. I didn’t want to go to California. I kinda wanted to go back home Louisiana, but on the other hand I kinda didn’t. So I told Jenny I was just going to find a new roommate or whatever. I didn’t have a real plan or anything. Jenny kissed me on the cheek when she got on the bus for California and said “thank you so much, Lizzie. You’re an angel!” And then she was gone.

Walking home I thought about what she said. I wasn’t the usual blonde and blue-eyed kind, but why couldn’t I be an angel? My Granny always said I was, but that’s just what grannies say, right? But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. I’ve always been blessed; you know, lucky. Like with that leprechaun. And I’ve always loved helping people, and I got a killer singing voice from my mamma.

Well, I got to thinking about it, and I realized that if there’s all these people around me that are other, whose to say I’m not an angel? If Vince was a demon, and I knew hew was, why wouldn’t angels be around as well? I don’t know about church stuff, maybe angels and demons exist outside of church stuff.

And that got me thinking. Some angels are all about singing and just being good, right? But others come down and get things done. And that’s when it clicked. That’s the kind I am. I’m the kind of angel that makes things better. And once I knew that, well, I knew what I had to do.

So that’s why I did what I did. Vince was a demon, and an angel’s first job is to fight off demons. And that’s why I let you catch me. I’ve got a job to do, and I wanted to let you all know. You regular people, you’ve been pushing us others into the shadows and ignoring us for a long time. So long you forgot we were real. So long even we forgot we were real, most days. Even now you don’t believe me, but that’s fine. You can believe what you want. I’m just going to give you my message and then I’m out of here.

You thought we were gone. You thought we were stories. Some of you hoped you could bring us back. But you know what?

We never left.

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.”

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