December 2013


A massive portrait of Preston Glass Spencer, stentorian and patrician even in oils, regarded all comers in the P. G. Spencer Co. Ltd. executive lobby with steely eyes. The old fart had been dead ten years, and he was still giving his brother the evil eye.

Wilbur Spencer, age 70 and Preston’s younger brother by seven years, exited the elevator with a wet umbrella and thoroughly drenched clothing thanks to rain which could only be described as horizontal. He was the only person in the building–not even security guards or janitors were in on New Year’s Eve.

“What are you looking at, you old fossil?” Wilbur groused. Preston, predictably, did not respond to his brother’s grouchiness–in this manner the painting and the man were not at all different. “Yes, I’m the only one here. I take this position very seriously, thank you!”

Preston’s oily visage was unmoved. It was as if it knew, as Wilbur did, that his position existed only because of his elder–and only–sibling. He’d been hired only after miserably failing on his own, as a form of charity. He was kept on not because of any useful qualities but because the board wanted a Spencer on hand to lend their operations a sheen of legitimacy and the comforting epithet of “a family company.”

“There, what do you think of that?” Wilbur shook his umbrella, scattering droplets of melted sleet all over the painting, which–being oil–shrugged them off. “I have worked my rear end off even in this ceremonial joke of a position. I’ve done it in everything, just like you would have.” The brothers did share a bulldog persistence and stubbornness, perhaps the only common trait other than a slight family resemblance.

Perhaps that was the biggest insult of all, the fact that all his hard work had been worthless and he was riding on his dead brother’s coattails even now. The position as a Spencer family corporate waxwork would have gone to Preston’s son if he’d produced anything but two dopey disinherited daughters.

“Will you cut that out?” Wilbur continued. “I am not here because I have no New Year’s Eve plans. I just have no desire to ring in the new year with your miserable kids and their mooching muscleshirted husbands attracted to women with large trust funds. And I’d have no desire to be with Allan either, after he sided with that show-quality bitch who castrated me with divorce settlements and alimony as the clippers.”

Preston said nothing, but Wilbur noticed that the flecked water from his umbrella had fallen in such a way as to suggest tears–something he hadn’t seen on his brother’s face since he was fifteen.

“Oh, come on now, it’s not as bad as all that,” Wilbur said softly. “Look, I’m sorry I said all that. Just a stewed pot boiling over, that’s all. I know you’ve no one to spend New Year’s with either. Look, there’s a bottle of sherry in one of my desk drawers. What do you say I take off a little early tonight and we have ourself a toast as the ball drops?”

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“Uh, Ted?”

Theodore Crumb, Hopewell District Library circulation supervisor and sworn enemy to delinquent patrons and overdue books everywhere, walked over, his silvery hair spilling over his customary tweed blazer. “Yes, Mr. Burwell?” he said, his unusual, precise diction and habit of calling even his closest friends by their last names in full evidence.

“Well, someone returned a book with a HDN card in it, but it doesn’t have a barcode or a catalog record. Bound in some kind of strange leather, really old looking, with the cancelled stamp of a Massachusetts university.”

Ted pursed his lips. “Well, who was the volume in question checked out to?”

“Koening, Willy. Willy Koening.”

“Ah, Mr. Koening. I am surprised he was able to check it out at all, considering his propensity for taking our rarest publicly accessible volumes and holding onto them until we practically have to beat his door down to confiscate them back. Did the student at the desk ask him what he meant by returning a book we do not own? Was it intended to be some manner of atonement on Mr. Koening’s part?”

“Well, ah, it was Calvert,” said Burwell, his voice crackling with nervousness.

“And did Mr. Calvert share anything with you?”

“He, ah, said that the person who returned it wasn’t Koening.”

“Then who was it, Mr. Burwell?”

Burwell squirmed. “Calvert said that it was a hunchbacked, skeletal figure in a tattered yellow robe wearing a featureless pallid mask. When he asked for its library card, it removed the mask and Calvert said that beneath it was ‘uncountable, otherworldly, eyes surrounded by writhing tentacles like screaming maggots, and that its voice was as the sound of distant children screaming in fear.” He paused. “Calvert’s taking a mental health day.”

Ted raised an eyebrow, unfazed. “And what does Calvert claim that this patron said in such a voice?”

“That Koening wouldn’t have need of the book, or any book, or his library card any longer, as he had been placed on permanent reserve by the Great Old Readers.”

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Millie wasn’t the type to kiss and tell–she was the type to tell while kissing. I think we all envisioned her texting with one hand during a heavy petting session with one of her many onetime suitors, posting to Friendbook about consistency, chemistry, and character. The gal had no filter, especially where her love life was concerned, and old anecdotes would be constantly dusted off and presented at the slightest hint of an opportunity.

Chief among those was the story of Millie’s 30-minute, ah, “organism.”

It’s not that we doubted her veracity. Millie was the sort of gal that took Pilates and yoga back-to-back with cardio to wind down, and her onetime suitors tended to be the same. Stamina of that sort often was fully capable of producing interesting “organisms.” When it came to interesting “organisms,” Milly was like Australia.

But the anecdote showed up everywhere. In the office. Shopping, whether at the mall or at a boutique. We never went to the Vatican with her, but I fully expect that she’d have trotted out the anecdote in full detail before Pope Francis (and I honestly would have paid good money to see his reaction).

After hearing a 30-minute wait time for pizza at a women’s club mixer led to the 30-Minute “Organism” being told in full to a mixed group including church grannies, the rest of us met in secret to discuss how to stop, if not all Millie’s inappropriate filterless stories, at least that one. The email invite was entitled “The 30-Minute Organization.”

And by the end, we thought we had a workable plan to rid Millie, and the world, of her ribald story for good.

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“Has the jury reached a verdict?” asked Judge Participle–who was widely regarded as a “hanging” judge.

“We have, your honor,” said the jury foreman, one Mr. Rigg. “On the first charge of willfully and knowingly unleashing wretched prose upon the nations of the earth, and inspiring copycats to do likewise, we the jury find the defendant Stemp Heinemeyer guilty.”

Stemp, seated at the defendant’s table, let out a moan and hung his head in his hands.

“On the second charge,” continued Rigg, “that of willfully and knowingly disregarding the rules of grammar as we know them, and the specific counts of Oxford comma violations, run-on sentencery, purple-proseity, et al, we the jury find the defendant guilty.”

Stemp moaned softly.

“And finally, on the third charge of willfully and knowingly profiteering from these crimes, we the jury find the defendant especially guilty,” Rigg finished.

Judge Participle struck his gavel forcefully. “Stemp Heinemeyer,” he said, “having been found guilty by a jury of your peers, by the power vested in me by the State of Construct, I hereby sentence you to life imprisonment in a third-rate science fiction novel to be determined at a later date.”

“No!” cried Stemp wildly. “Anything but that!”

The judge banged on his gavel once again. “Clear the courtroom!”

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“Cincinnati Man! Cincinnati Man! Do you think I could get your autograph?”

“I’m not ‘Cincinnati Man,’ kid. That name was cooked up by the newspapers. Now get lost, I’m not signing anything.”

“But you’re the coolest! I still remember how you smashed Mechiguana and the Reploid army!”

“I didn’t smash them, kid. The Omni-Suit smashed them.”

“If you won’t sign an autograph, could you at least fly? Or smash something?”

“Kid, I gave the Omni-Suit back as soon as I didn’t need it anymore. I didn’t–and don’t–want to be a hero. I did what I had to do, and the only things I smash these days are the faces of people who won’t give me my space. So move.”

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Nerissa gently disassembled Steamy, as he had shown her to do many times for routine maintenance. The plumbing that kept his boiler supplied with water from the tank on his back was clogged with encrusted salt–as Steamy had always said, “Mistress, I must run on sweetwater only.”

The long days and nights on the outrigger, and Nerissa’s own all-consuming thirst had denied him anything but salt water, and she had seen the fruits of her selfishness in his erratic behavior and eventual shutting down. Had Steamy not also taught her to look for signs of a nearby island in the flights of gulls and the schooling of fish just below wavecrest, she never would have found the shoals.

Water roared and broke over the shallows behind Nerissa, which had nearly claimed the outrigger. It was now tied up on the calm end of a small island set amid the labyrinth of sandbars and coral. Someone had been there, long ago: they had dredged up coral and sand from the lagoon to build what must once have been an islet as small as the others into a large rectangle nearly a quarter of the size of the old atoll she and Steamy had once shared.

The buildings were crumbling and full of coconut crabs, but there was also a cistern filled with fresh water, protected from evaporation and designed to funnel rainwater.

Without the bucking and rolling of the Redflower as its outriggers cut into the waves, Nerissa could finally repair Steamy. She could finally rest easy, if only for a moment.

For there were still storm clouds on the horizon, and the island bore none of the red flowers that Steamy had once brought back.

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The issue of dates and times has long been one that concerned humans, first as we settled around our globe and later as we settled elsewhere.

Use of the Hijri calendar among observant Islamic colonists was particularly troublesome. As a lunisolar calendar, dependent on observations taken in Saudi Arabia, it had been difficult enough to communicate important dates like the Hajj when confined to a single world. Astronomical or algorithm-based methods of calculating dates had long been dismissed by leading theologians as illicit bid’ah.

But how to communicate this information across interstellar distances to the colony of New Mecca, 73 light-years from Earth? Divergent views have led to a wide variety of practices and even a few conflicts between groups of settlers whose imams issued differing jurisprudence on the matter. The issue of which direction to face during salat prayer is also thorny; whence lieth Mecca from New Mecca?

The issue of salat prayer was similar to that faced by Jewish colonists elsewhere in habitable space. When the Sabbath lasts from sundown on Friday until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night, what is one to do on a ribbon world like Epsilon Gestae IV where there is eternal twilight, or one like Omicron Theta II where a day is longer than the year?

Difficulties such as those have seen a variety of creative solutions. The Helium-3 mining kibbutzes of NGC-3110, for instance, calculate their observances using a 24-hour cycle overlaid on the planet’s 97-hour night-day cycle with the colony ship’s landfall as their epoch. The Sunni solar harvesters of Feynman’s Star use a complicated algorithm to determine their calendar which is readjusted periodically after the arrival of more precise information from Earth.

But the Eastern Orthodox pilgrims who colonized Tsarzvezdan? The Traditionalist Catholics on Quartum Romae? The Baptist colonists, the Colonbaptists, who run the Christ the Redeemer Medical Center lightspeed emergency medical frigate?

They merely look to the stars for the one which shines brightest.

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No reckoning of famous predicting mistakes would be complete without mentioning the Great Strike of 2287. On the planet Albion Prime, the government-owned Albion Broadcasting Corporation’s Astro Office issued a public warning through popular astronomer Marcus Delfino about the planet’s passage through the debris trail caused by the collision of two asteroids.

The Albion system was notorious for that sort of activity, and issued regular hypernet bulletins warning shipping and people on the ground of possible asteroid strikes on the off chance that any fragments made their way past the planetary defense plasma cannons. Delfino was the public face of the ABC Astro Office, appearing on weekly and emergency broadcasts.

Famously, in 2287, Delfino was on the hypernet for his usual programme when he made the following remarks: “Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the ABC and said she heard there was an asteroid on the way…well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t!”

Less than 12 hours later, a barrage of material from the collided asteroids overwhelmed Albion’s planetary defenses, destroying one of the key cannons and shorting out power to several others that had been daisy-chained together. The resulting meteors struck densely populated areas, causing widespread damage and killing over a dozen. May people blamed Marcus Delfino’s statement on their failure to properly deploy meteor screens and deflector shields.

In later years, Delfino would insist that he had been technically correct and that there was no asteroid–after all, once the objects entered Albion’s atmosphere, they became meteors and meteorites. He would also claim, at various times, that he had been referring to the planet of DeSoto II, another notoriously strike-prone world that had indeed not been struck that day. Either way, the resulting furore cost Delfino his job and led to what wags have called the “Delfino syndrome:” future ABC Astro Office asteroid predictions tended to always err on the side of caution by predicting massive strikes even when the odds were small.

No one wanted their face slapped all over the hypernet with an incorrect prediction.

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“Uh, ma’am?”

“Not now.” Prentiss Construction Corporation LLC chairman Holly Scruthers massaged her temples, yawning to pop her ears as her corporate jet took flight. The inspection tour of the new PCC development had been very tiresome, not least of which was dealing with the lecherous and frankly insane architect and planner Nikolai Dyavolov. The board had insisted on hiring him, and his constant revisions to the plans of both buildings and streets had been a source of constant irritation.

“Ma’am?” the pilot said again.

“What part of ‘not now’ don’t you understand?” Holly snapped. Usually she tried to be understanding or at least pleasant to her employees, but two weeks of Dyavolov ranting in Russian while trying to peer down her dress had soured her mood like overripe milk. But everything would get better now that the first houses were being occupied and electrified, even if Dyavolov had insisted on irrationally picking them rather than deferring to tenants.

“It can wait.” The pilot closed the cabin door and banked the plane to the left.

“How long before they notice?” said the co-pilot.

Looking out his window, the pilot shrugged. “Guess we’ll find out.”

Below, the lit portions of the PCC housing development formed a giant pentagram with the message AVE SATANI surrounding it.

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“Captain” Fitz McHugh strode through the wreckage of the Union column, surrounded by burning wagons, dead men, and panicked horses. His “command” of raiders had already fallen out to plunder food and arms from the well-supplied Yankees, but McHugh had other notions.

He approached the standard-bearer, the last invader still alive. The man wore an officer’s uniform; he may even have been the commander, shot in the gut while trying to save the colors.

“What…how…?” the man mumbled.

“There’s something you Yankees didn’t reckon on,” said McHugh cocking his big, brass-framed Griswold & Gunnison 1860 Revolver. “This ain’t your Kansas. It’s Arkansas.”

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