August 2014

“Coming up on one of the densest concentrations now.”

Corris nodded and adjusted his trajectory. The Altair was an inexpensive solar-skimmer, sipping ions from the radiant energy of the surrounding stellar clouds, but that meant it took a lot of handholding to pilot. Almost instinct rather than science, as they used to say in the McCrea family.

“You gonna tell us that story again, of how your great-aunt almost navigated her way out of a black hole on instinct alone?” said Derrick, gently poking fun of Corris’s consterned, concentrated expression.

“Only that I’m not sure how grandpappy knew the story if she didn’t escape,” Corris said without breaking his concentration. “That one always stumped him.”

They were upon the concentration now, off the shoulder of the constellation Aquila. Corris made a final adjustment before he gave the order to deploy the collectors. “Now!”

Skating through clouds of interstellar dust on the solar winds, the Aquila deployed its collector sails, the most expensive part of the ship, designed specifically to wring precious resources from the voids of interstellar space.

“Derrick! Get me a purity report as soon as you can,” Corris cried.

A few moments later, Derrick did so: “Ethyl formate!” he cried. “99 percent purity!”

Corris nodded. “Excellent.” The ship’s holds were rapidly filling with crystalized esters–alcohols synthesized by the stars themselves. They were in high demand for commercial flavorings for everything from raspberry candies to artificial rum, but the choicest pick of the skim would always go to the McCrea still–a mom-and-pop alcohol outfit as respected as it was illegal on every planet in the constellation.

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When a human dies, their memories usually die with them. Engrams of electrical currents impressed on biological circuitry is all they are, after all, quite independent of any notion of a transubstantial soul.

But more often than you’d think, those engrams live on.

It used to happen only once in a great while, when someone was electrocuted or struck by lightning, giving their memory engrams the charge needed to organize themselves apart from matter. Quite independent of any notion of ghosts, the most notice anyone took was when they wandered through them and a cloud of vague, foreign memories would overwhelm them momentarily.

But now…in out age of silicon and steel, there are so many more ways for even weak engrams to sustain themselves. Piggybacking on transmissions whizzing through the air, lost in the static, figurative ghosts in the machine.

And, sometimes, they try to do something about it.

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President Luis Alvarez of the República de San Martín was fond of saying that he ruled with an iron fist in a velvet glove. Indeed, after his rise to power in 1926 he did his very best to make his country at once foreboding to his opponents and welcoming to his friends.

He legalized gambling, began highly profitable liquor and drug production (bound for the Prohibition-era USA, of course), and generally invited people with deep pockets and many vices to pay him a visit to empty the former and indulge the latter. At the height of his power, Sanmartínese vacations were behind only excursions to Havana among the wealthy and connected.

Perhaps, had Fulgencio Batista paid more attention to President Alvarez’s fate, he might not have suffered a similar one. The end of Prohibition, coupled with the Great Depression, seriously undermined his authoritarian government by cutting off its largesse. By 1932, he was clinging to power in the face of an army revolt and an unexpected defeat in what was normally a sham election by a socialist candidate. By 1933, he was dead and a People’s Junta was in power with promises of a socialist revolution and aid from the Soviet Union.

Perhaps the most lasting legacy that President Luis Alvarez left was that his former cronies were the ones who led the resistance to the People’s Junta, which collapsed in 1941 when Soviet aid was cut off. All the authoritarian and right-wing dictators who would follow, from the short-lived Raul Gonzaga to Alberto Exposito, had suckled at Alvarez’s proverbial teat.

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“Don’t judge me.”

“Why not? You’re not any better than I am, judging me for judging you.”

“Well, you’re judging me for judging you for judging me! That’s a triple judgement!”

“What do you call that quadruple judgement you just dropped? You’re more judgey than the Supreme Court!”

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1. Buy new items for dorms only. Things from thrift stores bear the taint of prior use in their every atom and must be shunned. Ditto things placed on the curb by people moving out–what are you, a hobo?

2. Get yourself in branded school attire as soon as possible. Your parents are paying for you to go to the University of Northern Mississippi, so display your pride in that fact by buying, wearing, UNM gear! If you are a member or hopeful pledge for one of our fraternities or sororities, you may substitute the appropriate Greek letters.

Drag as many family members with you into town as possible. Even if Dad is the only one actually helping you move anything, be sure to bring Mom, sisters, brothers, cousins, friends, grandparents, well-wishers, and hangers-on. There is no chance of a parking shortage during move-in, so the extra vehicles and real estate will in no way impede others.

4. Apply for campus jobs, lots of them. There is no way that people hiring have to have their people trained and ready for the first day of class, necessitating weeks of preparation and hiring beforehand. Remember: the university owes you a living, and if a unit you’d like to work for won’t give you a job, be sure to have Mom call them on your behalf.

5. Registering for classes is best done the first week of classes, possibly later. How can you be expected to have a class schedule and up-to-date ID card when school starts? Those whiners at the library, dining hall, and registrar’s office will just have to make like a casino worker and deal.

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“I would like,” said Beesen, “to declare my intent to pursue the bounty on one Major Isaac J. Milton, wanted by agents of the United States Government for the crime of resisting arrest and impeding federal marshals in the performance of their duty.”

The deputy sheriff’s lips twitched under his waxed mustache. “You wouldn’t be the only one,” he said. “But what do I care? It’s a federal bounty and federal money, none of my business.”

“I’ve been advised to leave a paper trail wherever I go,” Beesen added drily, “for the purposes of my own safety.”

“Hmph,” grunted the deputy. “Well, you can leave your paper trail elsewhere. Maybe the Sears catalog in the privy would be more appropriate.” He spat a bitter mouthful of tobacco into the spittoon.

“I am detecting a note of hostility,” Beesen said.

“You’re damn right you are. People around here are apt to give that man his space and his privacy. Major Milton is a bit of a folk hero to people around here for what he did at the Battle of Silt River.”

“It wasn’t a battle,” Beesen said. “It was a massacre.”

“Whatever you want to call it, the man mucked the savages out of the territory and opened it up for settlement,” the deputy sheriff said. “That may not carry much weight back east, but out here it makes him a goddamn hero.”

“Let me tell you a little bit about that hero,” growled Beeson. “When he ordered his troops to open fire on unarmed women and children at Silt River, my friend and commanding officer Justin Davies refused. Instead, he promised to testify against Milton at the inquiry, and for that he was murdered in cold blood. I mean to see justice done upon him.”

“So it’s a personal matter, is it?” The deputy sheriff leaned forward in his seat. “That’s a bit different. Not that the distinction’ll mean much to many around here. I’ll write your name in the book and give you a piece of advice if you promise never to darken that door again, Mr. Beesen.”

“What’s that?”

“You’d best hurry. Milton may be a popular man around these parts, but that bounty has some mercenary takers. A group of calvarymen came through day before yesterday looking for him as well, and word has it that the Cheyenne have a group of Dog Soldiers after Milton as well. It’s a dirty stench of greed and revenge clinging to that man wherever he goes, and much as I think he was in the right, I won’t be sorry to see the whole thing over and done with.”

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HOPEWELL, MI – Preparations continue for the final sealing of the tomb prepared for Dr. Edwin McGee, professor emeritus at Southern Michigan University, the retired chair of the History Department, and onetime Dean of the School of Liberal Arts.

In keeping with the prevailing custom, Dr. McGee will be buried alongside objects that he will need in the afterlife. In addition to his personal library of 5000 volumes, he will be sealed in his tomb with 10,000 rolls of microfilm from the Southern Michigan University library in order to provide for any peer-reviewed research he might wish to submit to Osiris on his academic specialization, 19th-century women’s suffrage and temperance movements. Thanks to Dr. McGee’s traditionalism and dislike of electronic resources, a dedicated afterlife computer terminal like the one in Dr. Soderquist’s mastaba will not be necessary.

The Southern Michigan University art department is finalizing a series of murals depicting Dr. McGee’s life, with special emphasis on the submission of his tenure packet to the gods, his restructuring of the HIST 101 curriculum, and his 12 years as editor of the Journal of 19th-Century Populist Social Movements. They have also prepared a Book of the Dead that includes the latest updates to the Chicago Manual of Style and the speculated publication and teaching requirements for tenure in the afterlife.

Dr. McGee will also be interred with his many cats and twelve graduate students, and once his pyramid is sealed it will be guarded 24/7 against tomb raiders, archaeologists, and scoundrels.

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I was having a bad day, hazy with depression and overcast with rain. The sort that even retail therapy can only marginally improve, and with my budget the Salvation Army was the best I could afford.

Then I saw, on one of the back shelves, a wedding cake topper. Still in its original box, still with its original price tag.

“You know,” I said to myself quietly, “maybe things aren’t so bad after all.”

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The real thing that made the Necron-6 the preferred arm of choice for everyone from mercenaries to low-rent soldiers was its almost obsessive modularity and expandability.

The Necron-6 was a chunky pistol that fed from a full-size military standard magazine ahead of the grip with a simple but reliable roller-delayed blowback mechanism. But both the front and the rear of the pistol featured universal couplings that could be used to mount an astonishing variety of stocks and barrel extensions. As such, it could be reconfigured on the fly from a hip pistol with a 6-round magazine to a rifle with a full-length barrel, suppressor, adjustable stock, and 20-round magazine. Replacing a few internal parts could convert it from being legal for concealed carry on Arvenian II to being practically an assault rifle illegal everywhere except wild untamed Xanthos.

And that very ubiquity and adaptability made it all but impossible to trace the Necron-6 that had killed the Heirophant.

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