August 2014


The dread doors of the Administration Building opened and a single figure rode out to meet with the protestors.

“I am the Mouth of the Chancellor of the University of Northern Mississippi.” The creature that stood before them was a man, not an administrator; he had served the Chancellor nearly all of his long life and had learned a great many things about higher education, though he could no longer remember his own name. His raiment was a formal suit, midnight black (down to his shirt and socks), with blood-red lines of the University Code in the Eldertongue etched upon it in place of pinstripes. A dark cummerbund was drapes across his head, obscuring all his features save for his mouth and jowls.

“Speak, then,” said Dawn.

“I bring tidings from the great and powerful Chancellor who, in his wisdom and mercy, has heard your lamentations,” croaked the Mouth. “He bids you return to your dormitories in peace while he considers your grievances.”

“And what assurance do we have that he’ll actually do something?” Dawn said warily.

“Assurances? The great and powerful Chancellor of the University of Northern Mississippi offers none. You must trust in his magnanimity and wisdom, as I do.”

The protestors began to grumble, and several on the wings of the group began to move forward menacingly.

“I am an ambassador and messenger, and as such I may not be assaulted!” cried the Mouth.

“Yes, though where such laws are held, it’s a custom for ambassadors to behave with less bullshittery,” observed Dawn pointedly. “And nobody’s assaulted you. In fact, I think they’re about to skip straight to battery.”

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They Saved Einstein’s Brain! (1969)
Director: Tim Sleeper (as Alan Smithee)
Producer: Miles Athena
Writer: Tim Sleeper & Leith Seaman and Miles Athena
Cast:
Elis Mathena
Leah Amstein
Hasan Leitem
Neil Eastham
Music: Marcus Geraldstein
Editing: Miles Athena
Distributor: Liberty Pictures

First-time director Tim Sleeper had an idea for combining the schlocky production values of 1950s and 1960s sci-fi cheapies with an inward-looking philosophizing more common in the New Wave films coming out of Europe, at the time. “A movie you’ll go to for a good time, only to find yourself thinking about some real issues” was how he put it at the time. Sleeper has been evasive about his original vision over the years, claiming that it was everything from before-its-time postmodern ironic to Neil Blomkamp-style visceral mashup. All that’s clear is that the final product didn’t meet his expectations in the least.

Miles Althea (born Miloš Althszeghy) was a Hungarian-American businessman who had taken over ownership of Liberty Pictures after a stream of bankruptcies and mergers. He, acting as producer, actively courted young (cheap) talent like Tim Sleeper with an eye toward competing with American International Pictures as the low-budget sleazy grindhouse king of Hollywood. Acting as producer, Althea clashed with Sleeper from the beginning, eventually rewriting large portions of the script and filming the actors delivering alternate lines after Sleeper had left the set. In some cases, film wasn’t even put into the cameras while Sleeper was “filming.”

The result was that Althea completely altered the tone of Sleeper’s original works, even reediting and redubbing the scenes that the director had shot, so much so that Sleeper demanded his name be removed from the movie. The DGA agreed, and the film became the second to be released under the “Alan Smithee” pseudonym (after Death of a Gunfighter released earlier that year). The completed picture, with mad scientist Mathena attempting to resurrect Albert Einstein’s preserved brain, only to have said brain turn violent and homicidal, enjoyed only a brief run at the box office before a lawsuit by Einstein’s surviving family pulled it from distribution.

Badly edited and redubbed to tiptoe around legal issues, the film eventually became a staple of late-night schlock blocks and found an audience of a sort in the 1990s as fodder for parodies and bad movie marathons.

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Every Friday at noon, the great civil defense klaxon–an old but still potent Federal Thunderbolt in bright schoolbus yellow–would sound as part of a test. It had done so since the siren was installed in 1955, and the test was punctual enough that old-timers used to joke that you could set your watch to it.

In August of 1989, the siren rang at 11:58–two minutes early. Most people disregarded it, believing their watches or nearby clocks to be faulty. Seven minutes later, an intense thunderstorm swept over the town, almost out of the blue, spawning an F3 tornado that cut a swath through the center of town. 13 people died, 27 were injured, and damage from the twister and hail during the 25-minute storm was estimated in the millions of dollars.

Ever since, people have referred to the “False Alarm Storm” in hushed tones, and the siren has never been rung again.

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“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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