November 2016


“Name your superpower and I will bestow it upon thee as a reward for thy services.”

“I want to be able to predict the exact time that service people will come. Internet installers, repairmen, plumbers, all of them. I’ll sell the information as a guru.”

“Ye gods. No one should have that much power!”

“No take-backsies.”

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“Relax. This isn’t my first rodeo.”

Annaclaire sounded confident, but the checklist she rattle off next was anything but reassuring. “Look at the test pattern. We need to make sure your light amplification is working or you might trip and fall into orbit.”

Samson shuddered at the thought. “Can’t I just let the computer do the walking?” he said. “Or send a probe?”

“Do you have the 1.2 billion dollars it would take to replace a probe if you lose it?” Annaclaire said.

“Well…”

“Do you have the ability to reprogram your suit’s motors on the fly to deal with variations in terrain and to correct problems that, if untreated, could make you trip and fall into orbit?”

“Uh…”

“Yeah,” Annaclaire said. “I thought so. Test pattern.”

Looking at the pattern, Samson followed the directions on his HUD, which gradually brightened what he saw from near-total blackness to a reasonable approximation of the amount of light on an inner solar system body like the Moon.

“Now, I’m going to open the door,” said Annaclaire. “It’s gonna be pretty dizzying. Try not to look too far up.”

“Okay,” Samson said, sounding anything but.

“Now we’re going to be tethered together, and the boots should do most of the work, but if it looks like you’re going to take off and drag me with you, I’ll cut the line. Rescue from orbit is extra, and it’ll be a straight abort if it comes to that. We clear?”

“We’re clear,” wheezed Samson.

“Good.” Annaclaire slapped a well-worn button. “We’re off.”

The door opened, revealing the great lazy ellipsoid of Haumea above the horizon, its great red impact smear like the iris of a bloodshot eye. The icy, tortured terrain of its moon Namaka lay ahead, stained reddish-brown.

“I hope whatever you’re after is worth it,” she added, elbowing me. “Time to go.”

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“WE ARE THE DREAMS OF A DEAD GOD,” the letter declared in a ragged hand recognizably Wilfred’s, “AND OUR CITIES ARE BUILT IN THE BLEACHED BONES OF ITS MAJESTY.”

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Despite my clear Yankee affectations, I have been received cordially. The mail carriage I rode with refused to stay in Calhoun a moment longer than was necessary, but I was welcomed by the locals and given lodgings in the local inn. The town is remarkably clean for a place so far on the margins of civilization, as are the people; I had expected ramshackle buildings and barefoot youths but instead am looking out this very moment on a well-kept and grassy courthouse square with well-dressed if plain citizenry on plank sidewalks below.

My mother is still well-known to the locals, and the innkeeper has promised that I will be allowed to see my mother’s home and speak to her relations as soon as the arrangements can be made. They have also said that I may have access to the courthouse records, though my entreaty to look at them immediately was firmly denied. It seems that the town is still in such a rural mindset that all activity stops at sundown, and I have been strongly cautioned against going out at night, not only for lack of illumination but also for fear of mosquitoes carrying fevers.

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“See, I told you it’s not real,” said Marie. “Come on, let’s go home. We’ll get it if we’re late, you know.”

“But…I saw it!” cried Caleb. “I did, really!”

His sister huffed and shifted her schoolbooks from one hand to the other. “You’re just a little kid, Caleb,” she said. “When you’re eleven like me you’ll see why this is so dumb.”

“This isn’t like the time I saw the ship in a puddle,” Caleb cried indiginatly. “I’m not seven anymore, Marie! I know what’s real.”

“Uh huh. You keep telling yourself that, Caleb,” Marie said. She turned around. “I’m going home, and you’re following me even if I have to…drag…”

She stopped. “What is it?” Caleb said.

“Look over there,” Marie said softly.

Behind them, the trees of the wood gradually spread out until the burst forth in a clearing covered with a carpet of autumn. In the midst, with a few stray leaves clinging to it, was a great stone hand, palm out but facing away.

“It’s the Hand of the Forest,” Calbe said. “Jusst like I told you. Do you think it’ll grant our wishes?”

“I don’t know,” Maries said softly. “I don’t know.”

“Let’s find out.” Caleb was a quarter of the way to the hand before his sister could even cry out.

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July 1, 1913
Dear Alastair,

I am sending this letter to you, as promised, though there may be a delay as mail carriages pass through Calhoun rather infrequently. The inn where I am staying has promised to mail my letters so long as they have the proper postage, but I fear that you may get them out of order or all at once, or even arrive back in Providence before they do!

It is a wonder that my father ever met my mother if Calhoun’s remoteness was anything then like it is now. After arriving in the state capitol of Jackson by rail, I had to switch to a smaller spur line which mostly handles freight traffic and eventually hire a carriage once the last vestiges of the rails gave out. Calhoun is a day’s ride from the nearest town of any size, and it seems to be surrounded not by the farms I expected but the rugged undulations of the north Mississippi hill country. I had thought myself prepared for the oppressive heat of this place—how Grandfather was able to fight in this weather with General Grant, the both of them in thick cotton, I never will know—but not for the remoteness and the silence. If not for the buildings of the town itself, I would think myself at the edge of the world in the deepest part of the Amazon.

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The first news I heard of Alastair was that August, scarcely a year before the war started, and it was surely not the news I had expected: a terse telegram informing me that Wilfred Barnham had taken his own life, hanging himself in the closet of a hotel in Jackson, Mississippi, not far from the rail line which would have borne him safely home and on which his passage was already booked. It was devastating news, to be sure, but worse was to come. Through my family, I sent inquiries to the elder Barnham about attending a memorial service or perhaps arranging for flowers to be sent in my name should it be too remote. His reply was a tersely handwritten note, informing me that Wilfred had been promptly cremated and his ashes scattered, that I was better off saving any funerary monies for a worthier cause, and that he would speak no more on the subject. This I attributed to what must have been overwhelming grief on the old man’s part, Wilfred being his only child and the only reminder of the lost Southern love he had once cherished.

And there the matter rested, until two weeks later. A letter arrived at my address in Providence and was forwarded to me at my lodgings upstate; as I had feared, the post had delayed Wilfred’s missives so much that the news of his death had arrived before the news of his life. I opened and read the missive with some trepidation, wary of what I might learn but utterly starved of details about the fate of my dear friend from childhood.

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I had known my friend Wilfred Barnham since we were youths, and his father came from Puritan stock older than mine, yet a cloud had always hung over him due to his parentage. His mother, as I’d heard my own aunt whisper, had been a debutante from a small town south of the Mason-Dixon line, and she had died not long after Wilfred’s birth, as the couple had been traveling to his father’s estate in Providence. The rumors always seemed to suggest that the elder Barnham had been seduced by a hardscrabble woman of ill repute who intended to drag herself to the upper crust and prosperity using their child as an anchor, but Wilfred maintained–often angrily–that they had truly been in love, that his mother had been a model of Southern hospitality and manners, and her sudden death even now hung over the elder Barnham like a pall.

It was partially in response to those society rumors, and partially the same wanderlust and yearning for answers that takes hold of all young men, that led Wilfred to undertake a journey to his mother’s hometown of Calhoun, Mississppi, in the summer of 1913. It was not long after our final days at school together, and even though the postal service in the backwater bayous of that oft-rebellious state was not the best, Wilfred promised to write me as I undertook my first readings to become a law clerk.

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Former Secretary of Defense Hildegard Claflin signed her name on the compact with the proffered quill, flourishing it in an expert bit of calligraphy. Not to be outdone, her fierce rival businessman David Sump signed in 12-inch-high letters, using both hands to get a grasp around the entire girth of the ostrich feather.

“With this official and binding legal contract,” said the moderator, “the two candidates agree to be bound by the Code Duello, to waive all rights of life and limb, and to decide which shall become President of these United States by trial of combat.”

Secretary Claflin nodded curtly. “It is an honor to be the first female duelist sanctioned under this ancient and noble code,” said she. “Especially after the unfortunate training accident with my second Bernhard Sanderson.”

“I will be the best duelist you’ve ever seen,” Mr. Sump responded. “I’ll build a wall of bullets in front of you, and I’ll make you pay. I’m going to make bullets graze again.”

“Very well,” the moderator continued. “As we are on the neutral ground of Quahanahogha Island, disputed between the US and Canada, no one has any legal authority to stop this wildly unconstitutional act. Please take your pistols and assume your positions.”

Mr. Sump and Secretary Claflin each marched the obligatory ten paces, where they were issued one regulation .56 caliber caplock dueling pistol. Secretary Claflin was handed hers by Senator Cain, while Mr. Sump was passed his weapon by Senator Pounds, who quietly whispered a warning that a bullet shot begins at ignition.

“Mark ten paces, turn about, and fire!” shouted the moderator. “One shot only! Miss, and the election goes to a mud-wrestling match on the Senate floor!”

With remarkable energy for a man his age, Mr. Sump spun around and took aim. But he was unable to wrap his tiny fingers around the impressive oak of his pistol, even when using both hands, and the piece slipped out of his grasp before discharging harmlessly into the vast Canadian wilderness.

For her part, Secretary Claflin calmly cocked, aimed and fired. Her opponent slumped over, badly wounded if not mortally so. “I spent a decade in the Alabama governor’s mansion,” she said coolly. “We had to shoot three wild razorbacks each way just to get to work.”

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On campus, the Democrat-Tribune spoke to Southern Michigan University students about the evolving challenges that they are facing.

“It’s really rough,” said Maxwell Evins, a sophomore physical therapy major. “I’ve been trying to evolve webbed fingers to increase my swimming time, but I’m just not getting where I need to be, even with protein shakes.”

“Yeah, we’re facing a lot of evolving challenges,” agreed Shanika Washington, a junior majoring in nursing. “I’v ebeen evolving a tail that I can use for better balance with a break-off tip for eluding predators. But it’s just not going well! Look, it’s barely a nub, and I’m not even sure which muscle to flex to make it wiggle!”

“I think the challenges are overblown,” said Brayden Cullinsworth, 5th-year super-senior. “I evolved fleshy wings for streaking through the night sky months ago without any problems, and I’m in the midst of evolving razor-sharp fangs to feed on the blood of the weak.” Asked how he managed to evolve so quickly, Cullinsworth credited the use of his parents’ Gene-Splicer-O-Matic and suggested that other students should make use of their own families’ interest payments to purchase one.

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