January 2014

“Look, lady,” said Randall, nervously tugging at his overalls. “We had a work order from the city. This moldy old ash was tearing up the sidewalk and interfering with power lines.”

“Yeah,” said Malcolm, fingering the ripcord of his now-silent chainsaw. “And after you screamed at us, and waved that carving knife, and then screamed at us while waving that carving knife, we had to get the police in on it. It’s a lawful work order.”

“They’re right, you know,” said Officer Hartman. His pistol was holstered, his pepper spray can in a limp hand at his side. “It was a legal cutdown order, legally served, on an ash that we had every reason to believe was endangering the common good.”

All three men were surrounded by the detritus of limb-shearing and trunk-felling that accompanied cutting down a tree in a residential area, even if the residence in question was a filthy double-wide trailer occupying the site of a long-ago demolished house. All three of them were looking skyward.

“Well, be that as it may,” said Freja, the dirty and disheveled occupant of the double-wide who had first quarreled with and then bodily threatened the city treecutting crew and their escort. “That doesn’t change the fact that you just cut down Yggdrasil, the great ash that has held up the sky since time immemorial.”

She, too, was looking up…looking up at the great cracks which were crisscrossing the robin-egg-blue sky, and the first small fragments that were beginning to fall.

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The social revolution began when it was discovered that, through a quirk of quantum mechanics, transmissions from other universes could be received on slightly modified communications equipment. What had long been thought to be simple interference and atmospheric noise was, in fact, cellular calls, closed circuit cameras, television programs, and other data from an untold number of parallel universes.

By modifying the original device with an illegal or commercial receiver, one could evesdrop on phone calls meant for an alternate universe cell phone, view television programs or websites from an alternate reality, or even view publicly available webcam footage thereof. There was no way to hijack the data, or respond to it in a meaningful way, though people certainly tried; the communication was strictly one-way.

Quantum physicists protested that the transmissions were from a tiny minority of all possible alternate worlds in the multiverse, and that most would invariably use technology and signals incompatible with our equipment and undetectable thereby. Statisticians were overwhelmed as they tried to explain how, given infinite possible worlds, it was just as likely to hit upon one fundamentally different than one that was largely the same.

But through it all, people voyeuristically peeked in on other universes as much as they could, switching streams randomly or as the data cut out. Lovers would comb through an alternate internet through a quasi-search tool, Gaggle Googolplex™, for hints about what the other could or would do. Businesses scanned themselves desperately for mistakes they could avoid. TV programs retooled themselves based on high-rated alternate versions.

The end result was twofold. For one, a society more obsessed than ever with voyeurism and watching rather than interacting began to develop, one in which people were often held accountable for what an alternate version of themselves had done (in the court of public opinion if not in the court of law). Character assassination using pan-universe data became such a common occurrence that states hastened to pass laws against it.

The other result? There was an increasing move toward a more simple, Luddite existence, and signal blockers flew off of store shelves. For if we could see them, no one could say who might be watching us.

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Gaggle Inc., the lovable worldwide data hyper-monopoly and purveyor of the acclaimed Gaggle Glaze™ wearable privacy invasion and multiblogging tool, is pleased to announce yet another product in its portfolio. Beginning June 1, interested consumers can sign up for beta access to Gaggle Chaos™.

“We have based our products around organization, traditionally,” said Gaggle Inc. president Mushu Kanihara. “From Gaggle Datebook™ to the Gaggle Metronome™ web browser, we have dedicated ourselves with monklike devotion to the concept of organizing and indexing all human knowledge and information. But sometimes, organization is the last thing you need. And that’s where Gaggle Chaos™ comes in.”

Promoted as the first “disorganization and entropy tool” for a mass-market audience, Gaggle Chaos™ will randomly delete and send emails or text messages, shuffle appointments in Gaggle Datebook™, produce thought-altering tones and radiation for Gaggle Glaze™ users, and a host of other effects that will be implemented at random, in secret. When asked if consumer really want this level of chaos in their lives, Kanihara laughed. “Did anyone know they wanted Gaggle Glaze™ before we made it?” he asked.

Consumer worries about Gaggle Chaos have been assuaged somewhat by the knowledge that the product will mostly likely be quietly abandoned like 90% of Gaggle’s initiatives, or have the plug violently pulled on it despite an active userbase like Gaggle Browser™.

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“That isn’t the way to do it.”

“Oh?” said Don Nicostrato Mondadori. “How would you handle these insolent whelps, Tonino Crocetti and Alonzo Amatore, who take advantage of me to rat our liquor business to Volstead agents and Irish mobsters?”

The old Don leaned back in his creaking wooden chair. 1921 may have been his 75th year, but he was no less sharp for it, and he wouldn’t have accepted the older stranger’s impudence had he not proved himself useful already. The stranger, maybe five years younger than the Don himself, he proven an able organizer with an uncanny ability to predict the future. After all, he had been the only one of the Don’s retinue to predict that the 18th amendment would pass, and it had been his suggestion to use unionized drivers as a front to move profitable liquor shipments down from Canada immediately.

“If you kill someone, the heat increases and you give their loved ones certainty,” the stranger said. “Instead, they should disappear. Have your most trusted man kill them, burn them, and bury them in oil drums where no one will find them. Their disappearance will sow confusion as well as fear, and the thought that they might return will forestall acts of vengeance.”

Don Mondadori nodded sagely. “It is good advice.” He motioned to his consigliere. “Issue the order and start the Model T.”

“Yes, Don.”

“So, now that you have proved your worth, and your vision, will you tell me your name as we put your plan of disappearance into action this day of February 14, 1921?”

“James,” said the stranger with a confident smile. “James Riddle Hoffa. But you can call me Jimmy.”

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Russian Proverb: Your elbow is close, yet you can’t bite it.
Stalin’s Addendum: You can if you cut it off.

Russian Proverb: Without effort, you can’t even pull a fish out of the pond.
Stalin’s Addendum: Drain the pond; you will always get the fish you want.

Russian Proverb: If you’re afraid of wolves, don’t go to the woods.
Stalin’s Addendum: If you’re afraid of wolves, be a bear. It only takes one dead wolf for the others to get the message.

Russia Proverb: The raven won’t peck out the eye of another raven.
Stalin’s Addendum: It will if it thinks that’ll save its own eyes from pecking. Which it won’t.

Russian Proverb: You can’t shear a naked sheep.
Stalin’s Addendum: But you can still flay it.

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“We have turned up new evidence, in the form of public records, that conclusively show Matsushita Shiori was born in 1908, not 1898. The Matsushita Shiori who was born in 1898 died in 1923, during the Great Kantō earthquake, which also flattened the hall of records and led to the two being conflated.”

“You are sure of this?”

“We discovered records that had been removed for administrative purposes before the quake and never returned, including a birth certificate that mentions Matsushita Shiori’s port wine stain birthmark. The the lightest ink is better than the sharpest memory, as they say. I am afraid Matsushita Shiori is another Izumi Shigechiyo and must be stricken from the public longevity records.”

“Do you think the mistake was deliberate?”

“It is difficult to say. He may have exaggerated for the sake of a pension, or simply forgotten. His adoption at a young age complicates things, and his service in His Majesty’s navy was another reason to exaggerate or misremember his age. In either case, the task of informing him has been delegated to you.”

“Need he be informed? Matsushita Shiori is an old man, even if not so old as we had previously thought. Can we not let him live out his remaining days, which are surely few, with his illusion?”

“This revelation means that he will no longer be feted at his upcoming birthday by His Majesty, and that he will lose a portion of his pension as provided by the Diet, as it is reserved by statute for the oldest man in the country. He is old, but he is not entirely senile, and he will know that these circumstances have changed. Would you rather he be informed that he will lose his pension, fail to meet His Majesty, and lose his longevity claim all at the same time?”

“No, I suppose not.”

“Then you will fulfill your duty, distasteful though it may be. Your taxi will be here in an hour.”

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Cindy was patted down for weapons and wires by the seller’s associates before having a canvas bag thrust over her head. It was difficult to tell where the minivan took her, as they’d also taken the precaution of spinning her to dizziness. After she was hustled into a location identifiable as indoor by the soft hum of air conditioning, Cindy heard an unfamiliar voice speak.

“I hear that you wish to purchase my product.” It was the seller, the dealer, the supplier that Cindy had been trying to contact since the withdrawal pangs had started.

“Yes…yes,” Cindy said. “I have money, and I can connect you with other interested buyers. Lots of us are jonesing bad since they started cracking down.”

“How do we know you’re not a cop, or wearing a wire?” snapped the supplier. “We have a network of people for distributing our product. They don’t come to us directly at our place of business.”

“Your dealers are scared, and they won’t sell,” Cindy replied. “If you can’t get the product out there, what good is all that?”

A thoughtful pause. “Fair enough. But if you’re not on the level, what then?”

“Something tells me that you’re smart enough not to get caught,” Cindy replied. “And if you’re too timid to sell to me, I’m sure someone else in your organization will come along who is.”

“Take off the sack.”

It took Cindy’s eyes a moment to adjust to the brightness of Mikayla Prouse’s immaculate house, with its polished hardwood floors. The eight-year-old herself sat on an overstuffed couch in her full Girl Scout uniform, flanked by her mom and three other girls.

“How many boxes of Thin Mints can we put you down for?” Mikayla asked with a confident saleswoman’s smile.

“Seven hundred and twenty one,” said Cindy. “Half in cash now, the other half on delivery to World Market on Adams, which will be our front to resell.”

It had been harder and harder to get Girl Scout cookies since the town of Hopewell had banned the sale and import of all products containing trans-fats, but Cindy, like many, had too big a monkey on her back to give them up.

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