November 2020


The jetpack was liquid-fueled, with one tank holding simple water that was combined with a reagent to produce a powerful thrust.

That was all it took for the idea to be planted deep in someone’s cranium.

Within a month, there were catfish delivering mail using a jetpack. Small letters only, at first, and snail spam, but by the time the technology was perfected, they were delivering small packaged up to three pounds.

The problem, as with so many drone-based delivery systems, was simple: hungry people with guns, breading, and a taste for seafood.

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“You see those serrations there, and the imprint on the side of the building?” Rat-Man narrowed his eyes within the cowl of his costume. “That can only mean one thing.”

“Holey cheese, Rat-Man, what could that be?” his sidekick and ward, Mousey, said.

“The most diabolical villain of them all, Mousey: Quarter Pounder. A former mint worker, driven insane by a proofing accident, he is obsessed with our nation’s humble twenty-five cent piece. Since then, Quarter Pounder has been in love with the color, the brilliance, the divine ring of cascading quarters. He welcomes any enterprise that will increase his stock–which is considerable.”

“Masticating molars, Rat-Man! He doesn’t sound very intimidating at all. I mean, quarters? How can you hurt anybody with quarters?”

“Well, he has an impossibly large quarter. And he’s been known to kill people by burying them in quarters–sleeping with Washington, he calls it. And perhaps most diabolically of all, he stole the quarters from a machine where the Rat-Mobile was parked, leading to a two-hundred dollar ticket and fifty hours of community service.”

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The sphinx lolled over like a big housecat, lazily examining its paws. “I’ll tell you what,” it said. “Since you’ve been rather amusing so far, and a good sport, I’ll give you a chance, if you want it.”

“I do,” said Nick. “You know where she is?”

“I do.” The sphinx smiled smugly. “And I’ll tell you. If you answer another riddle.”

“That’s it?”

“This is a super-riddle, the best and toughest one I have. Same rules as always: you get it right, you get what you want. You get it wrong, I gobble you up.”

“I’ll do it.”

“You sure, Nicky boy?” the sphinx said. “I’ll let you walk away now with your life if you want.”

“Yes, dammit!” Nick shouted.

Startled, the sphinx drew itself upright and hissed. “Very well, then. A man performs shadow puppets with the skill of a master. It is shadow puppetry performed in total darkness. Yet you percieve every motion and follow perfectly. How do you do this?”

“That’s easy,” Nick said. “The puppeteer is blind. It’s darkness just for him.”

“Wrong,” whispered the sphinx, licking its chops. “Maybe you’re the one who’s blind, eh?”

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And then, once the negative emotions have been concentrated, they are safely and painlessly extracted and stored. Since emotions, unbound, are inherently dangerous, they are stored in specially-bred laboratory animals.

What kind of animals, you say? Well, it depends. For instance, if the emotion we’ve excised is anger, the ideal storage animal is something very docile: a sheep.

An angrisheep, if you will.

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“It looks like there might once have been a pretty advanced civilization down there, but there’s little sign of it now.”

“Oh?”

“Some ruins, evidence of road networks. Not much to go on.”

“Any life?”

“Microbe-analogs and a few eukaryote-equivalents. Nothing larger than that, the environment is too degraded for it.”

“What makes you so sure there was an advanced civilization, then? Or any sapients at all?”

“There. See this space station there, in orbit? Very cannily placed, very precise orbital insertion. And, according to this, one passenger. Or their remains, anyhow.”

“How long…?”

“Millennia. There’s no way to know how long exactly. But they, whoever and whatever they were, had a ringside seat to the end of their world.”

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