Excerpt


It’s felt like five years
But perhaps it’s more like ten
1965-1975, six Vietnams in one
With death close to home
Dear price paid in blood
Slow-motion coups aplenty
Fear at home and abroad
But joy amidst the sorrow
A life from new soil springs
Gardens alive with new growth
Friends from the branches sing
A future uncertain, as ever
Hope once more struggles to rise
I will keep writing these stories
As long as I can open my eyes

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Josh Baiser, CEO of Orinoco.com, tented his hands as he regarded his board of directors.

“With the purchase of Advanced Lasers, the repeal of the Antitrust Act, and our acquisition of the MGM/UA film catalog for our Orinoco Flow streaming service, I’m pleased to report to you that we now have a 55% hold on the online shopping, media, and high energy physics markets.”

Light applause from the board was interrupted by a crash from high above as a man in a bright leotard smashed through the boardroom skylight and landed on the conference table. He looked up, crouched in a pose with one knee and one fist down, at Baiser.

“Your evil scheme ends here, Baiser!” the stranger said. “You diseased maniac! Did you really think you could execute your doomsday plan without my intervention?”

Josh Baiser looked at him blankly. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Have we met?”

The man on the conference table straightened, thrusting out his chest. “MagnaniMan!” he cried. “Protector of the innocent, smasher of evil!”

“And you’re interrupting my board meeting because…?”

“You’re attempting to corner the high-energy weapons market in order to enforce your new and unholy monopoly!” MagnaniMan shouted.

“Uh, no. I’m really not. They’re just industrial lasers. It’s less than 1% of our total operating revenue.” Baiser shrugged. “I mean, I guess it sounds a little sinister, but-“

“You double talk can’t fool me!” MagnaniMan said. “You’ve monopolized the market through evil, nefarious practices!”

“Well,” Baiser said, “technically, it’s not a monopoly, as we have some domestic competitors and a number of Chinese firms are-“

“You’ve forced people into chattel slavery for your evil whims!”

“Hey, now, we pay them minimum wage,” said Baiser. “They get a 10% discount too. And a free subscription to Orinoco Flow.”

“I feel like these accusations are being made in bad faith,” one of the board members added.

MagnaniMan turned and blew on them, freezing the executive solid with his Arctic Breath. “You can rationalize all you like,” he continued, “but your evil economic empire ends today!”

“Well, I suppose we can do that if you want,” said Baiser. “But did you know that Orinoco.com also handles 99% of the world’s spandex?”

MagnaniMan’s affect slipped a tiny bit. “It…it does?”

“Maybe we should have a word about who supplies your costume before we start getting too rash, hm?”

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It was the varnish, they said.

Forty years he’d plied his trade. Carousel horses made from scratch, or restored. He’d learned from one of the last great masters on Coney Island, and everyone with an antique carousel who turned up their nose at cheap plastic and fiberglass was at his door.

All that sanding, all that coating, endlessly in the workshop.

Some might do it faster, or cheaper, but none did it better. He didn’t say that himself, naturally. There was no need. His work spoke for itself, and his beautifully restored merry-go-rounds were a fixture in the homes and grounds of wealthy eccentrics.

Working as he did, hands-on with few power tools, should he have been surprised?

Along with a mechanic and a calliope-man, he had been one of the holy trinity of restorers. And he’d broken the news to them first, since their livelihoods depended on his the most. They’d been resigned, understanding. Friends, true friends, always were.

Six months, give or take. The first three wouldn’t be so bad. The last three…not so much.

It was, he mused, perhaps fitting. In the carousel of his body, it was not the outside but the inside that failed first, the delicate calliope organ bringing the rest down from within. For what is a good merry-go-round without a solid body, mechanicals in working order, and a fine set of pipes?

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“They use a 44.1 kHz signal,” the first man on the bench said, idly scatting bread to the waiting ducks. “It’s not encrypted. Interception should be exceedingly easy.”

An envelope of money, hidden in a newspaper, slid down between them. “Make sure there’s a shift change between noon and 1PM, the second man said. “We’ll hijack the datastream and there will be a second payment twice this size for you.”

“Agreed. Your company will catch up on fifteen years of baked-goods research in a single afternoon.”

Below them, dabbling at the bread, the pond ducks quacked softly, ignored.

“They are preparing to steal the bread recipes,” the first mallard said. “The hour has been set.”

“Good,” said his partner. “I will gather the faithful. We will strike without warning or mercy, and the bread shall be ours.”

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Nervously, I looked up at her.

“Go on,” she said. “Try it out. You can do it.”

I gave the instrument a whirl. The noise that it produced was hideous, like the scream of a dying porpoise in the talons of an albatross. Redness burned across my cheeks as I felt my chances of impressing her slipping away.

Instead, though, her eyes twinkled. “It’s okay,” she said. “Nobody is perfect with one of these the first time.”

“Was it…that was for you, too?” I said. “When you first had a turn at this instrument?”

“Oh, it was way, way worse,” she laughed. “Like rusty metal on a chalkboard.”

“Well, at least I’ve kept it well-oiled.”

I thought I saw a smile, as well, but it was difficult to know for sure under the black hoods we both wore.

“Now,” she said, turning back to the instrument of torture onto which a hapless spy had been strapped, “give the rack another turn and let’s see if we can get hi to sing a different tune.”

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The secret family recipe.

It was written in a fine, steady hand on thick old paper, the sort of stuff that might have had a will or a deed on it back in the day. The ingredients were laid out, as were the measurements, just as they had been in great-grandma’s time.

I felt my hands tingle at the prospect of making it myself, of feeling that deep and abiding connection to the family past. Honestly, I couldn’t wait.

“Hey!” A security guard cried. “What are you doing?”

As I ran for the window, alarms blaring from the cracked safe, I smiled. Great-grandmas secret recipe, the cornerstone of three generations of corporate gourmet-food success for my stuck-up cousins, were about to be posted for free on the internet.

Assuming I got away first, of course. And after I’d made a batch myself, to taste.

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A variant of the venerable S-75 surface-to-air missile, the RPDM-59 (“Ракета Анти-Дед Мороз”) was first unveiled in 1959. Consisting of a solid-fuel booster and a liquid-fuel upper stage, it had an operational range of 30 miles, was capable of interception at heights of up to 82,000 ft. at Mach 3.5.

Designed at the insistence of the First Secretary, the RPDM-59 was the first dedicated anti-Santa missile to enter service, beating the US M1970 “Rudolph” and Chinese Type 69 “聖誕老人” missiles by a decade or more. The primary difference was its accuracy and method of detonation: while an S-75 was accurate to 65 yards, the RPDM created a 100-yard diameter shrapnel burst that was effective against wood, plastic, and caribou. Extensive testing showed that even an armored sled loaded with metal toys would suffer an 80-90% kill rate at altitude when linked to a radio control command guidance system.

The idea behind the system was ostensibly to cripple the Western economy by interrupting the flow of Christmas presents, which represented the equivalent of 50 billion USD in hard currency injected into the First World every year. However, given the limited range of the S-75, this was never a realistic option even following the Cuban Revolution. Instead, RPDM-59 batteries were deployed in the Soviet Union (and China from 1960-64) to prevent any capitalist gift incursions. Crucially, Soviet propaganda at the time stressed that Ded Moroz, the “Grandfather Frost” of Slavic tradition, was not the intended target and could not be harmed. This was, in fact, a fabrication: the primitive state of Soviet IFF technology at the time meant that an RPDM-59 fired in anger was quite capable of bringing down Ded Moroz, Babbo Natale, or even Tawonga.

Despite a series of highly successful test firings against flying troikas pulled by mules, it was the IFF issue that ultimately scuttled the program. When the First Secretary was ousted in 1964, his successor continued the program until one of his grandchildren learned of its existence and asked why “Grandfather wanted to murder Ded Moroz.” All active units were dismantled by 1967 and converted back into standard S-75s. An improved model, the RPDM-66, had been under development, with a longer range, larger kill zone, and improved IFF, but the technology was ultimately not used, though the technical data package was later sold to North Korea for its own anti-Santa interdiction efforts. From its fifty years of continuous use there, with a nearly 100% intercept rate, it is clear that the basic weapon had considerable potential.

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The small bird hopped on Lee’s shoulder. “Legs!” it croaked. “Legs.”

“Yeah, ol’ Legs has been with me a few years,” Lee said. “His wing don’t work, so he can’t fly off like the other mockingbirds. I got him out of the claws of a cat few years back, and he’d been with me ever since. Smart bugger too. Can talk, as y’all can plainly see.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, Legs,” I said.

“Pleased!” the bird pipped back.

“You sure it’s not just repeating what you say all this time?” I asked.

“Well, on account of it’s a mockingbird, I reckon it is some of the time,” Lee said. “Ask him something and see how he does.”

“How’re you feeling, Legs?” I asked.

“Great!” Legs croaked.

“What’s your master called?”

“Lee!”

I smiled. “And what would you call me?”

The bird hesitated, cocking its head. “Dummy!”

Lee burst out chuckling at that. “As you can see, he done earned his name many times over.”

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“Why feel for the man with no coat
when the beast in no forest
has no clothes either?”
“Because we have spent
the last 300,000 years
evolving to need them.”

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“The Great Conjunction!” The old crone stabbed a finger toward the dusk sky. “When single shine the planets’ kings, we’ll see the ending of all things!”

“Oh, nice,” I said. “That’ll be a nice change.”

“It’s the end of the world, boy!” A concerned look flitted across the crone’s face. “Doesn’t that worry you?”

“Lady,” I said, “I’ve lived through 5 years of 2020. We’ve had plagues, fires, hurricanes, climate catastrophes, Nazis on the streets, coups at home and abroad. I got nothing left to give.”

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