December 2019

“Say it.” Falco was facing Schultz now, advancing slowly and deliberately. The gun was still in his hand, less the two slugs he’d put into Lombardi, or whoever. Lowered, but with Falco’s finger still wrapped around the trigger.

“How…how can you expect me to perform right now?” Schultz cried.

“This is why I hired you,” Falco said. “That other stuff? Warmups. Most of you comics from the app don’t make it this far.”

Schultz looked at Lombardo, or whoever, who was on the ground. Given the neat entry wound, right between the eyes like a bindi, there was literally no doubt that he was dead as hell. “You hired me to watch you kill people?”

“Hell no,” Falco said. “My buddies do that for free. Look, kid. I’m a good soldato, eh? I do what my capo tells me to do, and sometimes, that means whacking people who ain’t so bad all things considered. Like Lombardi here. Nice guy. Went to church every Sunday. Has a baby girl. Shoulda thought of that before dealing behind the don’s back, but whatever. Point is, I need some cheering up.”

“I didn’t sign up for this,” Schultz moaned.

“Oh yes you did,” Falco said. “I read the EULA. You are here to provide wisecracks on contract, and you’re on the clock. You’ve seen too much, too, so if you don’t make with the funny when and where I want, it’s kablammo for you, capice?”

“On the clock or on the Glock,” Schultz said, miserably.

Falco chuckled. “Ha! See? It ain’t so hard. Now do me a better one. Get me laughing. Or join Lombardi here in sleeping with the snitches.”

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Luncherion and Dinnerius thought that their plan had succeeded, and they had finally managed to finish what they had begun. After the death of young Brunchey, they were confident that they had finally slain their great enemy, Breakfast, the first and most sinister meal of the day.

But as the sun rose the following morning, they heard–to their horror–the sound of sizzling bacon and smelled–to their astonishment–the smell of strong coffee. They hadn’t stopped Breakfast from coming; it came. And somehow or other, it came just the same.

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People never listened to Jared, despite his 25 years of experience and his name on the sign of his own exotic plant nursery.

“Just remember not to let more than 13 buds grow, or the singing reeds will start to form a consciousness. I remember there were some folks that didn’t listen to me, went on a year’s vacation, and when they came back the singing reeds were 150 buds strong. Poor people were psionically forced to tend to the plants day and night until the county called me in, I had to spend three days in the dirt wearing a psychic nullifier to get them all dug up.”

“I’m not allowed to sell Misters unless they’re potted. In out pots, we give them a specially nutrient-poor soil so that they can still release their rainbow mist but it won’t be toxic. If you replant them, that rainbow will contain paralyzing neurotoxins and you might starve to death in your own backyard.”

“You need to put that Fiberweb Rooter in a tungesten carbide pot, or its roots will break anything you put it in to get to the slightest drop of water. I mean it, even though they can’t survive without watering they will punch through the foundation of your house to get at the aquifer beneath if you let them.”

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6:33 PM – Rooftop of the New Yorker Imperial Club

Cradling the bird in his hands, Gus looked up. “Look. I know I really good pigeon surgeon.”

“Who does surgery on birds, much less pigeons?” Annabella said. “Look at poor Pidge. He gave it his all but there’s no way he’ll make it.”

“Trust me on this.”

9:11 PM – Room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel

At Gus’s knock, the door had been answered by a well-groomed old man after about twenty minutes of bumps, crashes, and muttering in a language Annabelle didn’t understand. Gus hadn’t even said anything, he’d merely held Pidge up to the peephole.

“Bring the bird in,” the man said. He was gaunt, with a mustache, and must have been about seventy-five at the youngest. “Lay him on the table, under the lamp.”

Gus did so. “Thank you, Mr. Tes-”

“NO NAMES. I do it for the birds.” The old man retrieved a small kit from another room and opened it, revealing an array of what looked like tools for electrical engineering. “These tools are not designed for such work, but they will do so long as I have steady hands, hmm?”

“Can you save him?” Annabelle said. “Can you save our Pidge?”

“Yes, provided I am not interrupted in my work. Please bear in mind that I am only doing this because my favorite bird is in danger.”

“The whole world is in danger if this plot comes to fruition,” said Gus. “We need this pigeon to stop it.

“I could tell you a thing or two about endangering the world, but only at the risk of breaking my concentration for this pidgery,” the man laughed. “There. A few pellets taken out, some sutures, and your bird will live. Allow two to three weeks for full flight recovery.”

“That won’t do,” Annabelle said. “We need him to fly urgently.”

“Well, then, step into the room here and let’s see what we can do for him.”

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“That new secretary is really cute.”

Dirk looked over at the front desk, where Mallory, a purebred 2-year-old koala bear in a blouse, was writing out an interoffice memo longhand.

“You know, I think you’re right,” he said.

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“There is only one way across, and with the shielding destroyed, it will expose whoever takes it to a dose of radiation that will almost certainly be lethal,” said LEA.

Mina smiled wanly. “Almost certainly, you say? Give me the chance of survival, then.”

“You would be subjected to the full force of ionizing radiation from the solar event that the station was commissioned to study. Your suit would provide negligible protection, and it is 99.99% certain that you will be exposed to a lethal dose of 1000 rads or more.”

“Death by sunshine exposure,” Mina said. “And the .01%?”

“That only exists because my programming does not permit rounding to 100%,” said LEA.

“Immediate effects of acute radiation syndrome will include nausea and vomiting, following which there will be a temporary lull in symptoms lasting 24-36 hours. Your condition will rapidly deteriorate thereafter, and you will be subject to radiation-induced traumas including, but not limited to, severe diarrhea, erythema, blistering, intestinal paralysis, gangrene, and eventually a total disintegration of bodily functions. Estimated survival time is 120-168 hours, with no useful consciousness after hour 96.”

“You always did have the best bedside manner, LEA,” said Mina. “And there’s no other way to get to the relay?”

“Not at this time.”

Mina took a deep breath, gulping down the cool, cold recycled air with a spasm that sounded like a sob. “All right,” she said weakly. Then, again: “All right.” She tried to keep her voice from quavering, to project an air of confidence, as if LEA was capable of judging her, the only living human being left in the power station.

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When they first came, they took the forest’s bark, and the old trees that had fallen. But the stubborn forest persisted.

In time, they took the trees themselves, one at a time, toppling them and hauling them off. But the stubborn forest persisted.

Then came great metal claws, and teeth that tore and shredded harder and faster than any before while belching poison. But the stubborn forest persisted.

Soon there were few trees left, and they were cordoned off to one side, too small to be useful, while new forests grew nearby–forests of squares, of oily surfaces, of dancing and captive flames. But the stubborn forest persisted.

Then the new forests grew silent. The dancing and captive flames went out. The new square forests, flimsy, collapsed upon themselves. Empty, dead, and abandoned for those few places that remained as refuge. But the stubborn forest persisted.

It is quiet now, and the boundaries of the forest are expanding. The world is different now, and some of the trees can no longer survive. But the stubborn forest persisted.

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