Friday, September 3, 2010

The Lion Hunt

"Lars."
The voice called him out of his trance. After a few moments he opened his eyes and looked around the room. Some of his fellow students were smiling at him. The newcomers where gaping with open mouths.
"You did well," his teacher said. He nodded, indicating the blade that was buried in the wooden target in front of him.
Lars looked behind him, where the mechanical crossbow was rewinding. As he watched, another blade clicked into place. Lars blanked the bolt out of his mind, and it ceased to exist until it thudded into the wooded target behind him, besides the first.
As the hour progressed, the teacher put him through his paces. Eventually he stood and turned off the crossbow.
"I believe you are ready," he said. Lars kept still, standing where he was. The teacher walked up to him and withdrew a small square chip from his sleeve. "See the head proctor of the hour and hand this to him." With that he turned to the remaining students, not another word of dismissal or farewell.
"What did you observe, Belle," he asked one of the youngest, a boy with dusky skin and a freshly shaven head.
"Lars ceased to exist for the bolts," the youngster said. Lars smiled to himself. That was the answer he had given when he first arrived.
"And yet the bolt hit the target." The teacher's voice did not sound disapproving. He seemed to be worrying at a puzzle. "How is that possible, Geri?"
A slightly older girl with a year's growth of hair recited the answer.
"Neither Lars nor the bolt ceased to exist. Lars insisted that his body would not be affected by the bolt. He reached for a future where this was true and followed that world line."
As the teacher praised the correct answer, Lars stepped into his shoes. A few steps shook the laces up. The doors to the hall opened as he approached, and he found the head proctor walking past at the very moment. Wordlessly he handed over the white chip. In return he received another chip which he pocketed. It was time to leave school.
A few minutes later he was walking down bustling 42nd, following a stream of pedestrians, and taking care to allow occasional people to jostle him. It wouldn't do to draw attention now.
Traffic wasn't bad. The predictive networks seemed to be free of glitches this day. Carriages hummed back and forth, the scent of ozone in the air. A little further along he reached a hotel and entered the waiting door. He took the elevator up and got off where it stopped. Choosing the left corridor, he found a door open and went inside. The door swung shut behind him.
There was a console on the sideboard. Lars stuck his chip into the waiting slot and punched a series of random digits. The light by the slot flashed green, and the screen lit up.
A man appearing in the screen and said. "Congratulations on graduating would have been in order a few decades ago, but you know better by now. Your first assignment will be a interference run. An older man living in a small village in southern Sudan must die instead of being protected from a man eating lion. A hunter is already on his way. He may kill the lion, but only after the lion has killed the old man. In this case the manner of the old man's death does matter."
With that the screen winked out. Lars retrieved the chip and stuck it in his pocket. There was a knock on the door, and a woman in a bellhop's uniform handed him a large package. He tipped her and closed the door again. The package contained clothes, money, and documents. He was on his way.
Much later he was crouched in the corner of an old Ford bus bouncing along a rutted road, about two days out from Khartoum. The floor was littered with chicken feathers and animal dung, and other passengers were packed in around him, clinging to the naked ribs of their vehicle. No one noticed Lars. Everyone was in excellent spirits, since the bus had suffered no break-downs, which was not the usual way of things.
At the expected moment, sound and dust and fire and shards of burning metal picked up the front of the bus. The explosion flung Lars clear of the wreckage, rolling a couple of times in the red dust before coming to his feet. He continued walking, without sparing another look for the burning inferno on the road behind him. Everyone would be dead. The antitank mine had been on that road for decades, missed by both UN and UAS mine removal teams, its trigger frozen from dust and corrosion, until today. This future was actually a fairly probable one. That Lars had managed to survive was on one of the more tenuous world lines, but the mine's explosion was on a nexus of world lines. With so many paths to choose from, Lars didn't expect many problems.
It was late afternoon. Here there would be no slowly setting sun, no dusk. Lars looked into his future and found a confluence of paths to follow. An hour later, with the sun almost down and the bush around him slowly waking for the night, he walked into a campsite. A pair of young women sitting at the fire looked up at his approach. He slowed and stood near enough to the fire that they could look him over.
The women were both dark skinned. If his appearance bothered them they showed no sign.
"Maa thaa tif all hinaa?" the woman on the left asked him. Lars assumed she was asking who he was or something like that. He didn't speak Arabic, but it didn't matter much. He knew the world line he needed. He whirled in place, bringing his hands forward. There was the sound of a rifle shot, and a bullet creased the skin above his left ear. He allowed himself to fall to the ground, feeling the blood run down the side of his face.
The women were shouting, and a man was shouting back. A few moments later a man walked into the firelight, holding a rifle on him.
"Do you speak English," he asked.
Lars carefully did not move. He knew this was going to hurt, but it was the easiest way to reach the world line he wanted. He spoke softly, "Yes," and closed his eyes.
A short while later he felt gentle hands on him. They probed the wound in his scalp. There was more Arabic, this time one of the women speaking quietly as if she were giving instructions. He felt the wound being cleaned, the sting of antiseptic applied, the touch of rubber covered hands supporting his head as a bandage was wound around his head. Eventually the hands left him, and he allowed himself to go to sleep.
In the morning Lars woke to find the man sitting by his side.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. His English was good, and Lars thought he could hear the Arabic in his accent. He looked at Lars with curiosity and some concern.
"My bus blew up on the road," Lars told him, keeping his voice weak and shaky. "I think it was a landmine." After that he let his eyes close again.
"What happened to the other people on the bus?" the man wanted to know, but Lars kept him waiting. Over the next few hours he doled out answers, keeping the man by his side. This was the hunter. Today he would not be hunting. What happened tomorrow would not matter for Lars.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Rescue

Harry Bent took a last look around, turned off the lights, and stepped outside. He pulled the door shut and rattled the doorknob. Harry had paid a locksmith fifty dollars a week ago, but just this morning he'd come to work to find that the door again hadn't locked last night.

No, it seemed to be shut properly, for what that was worth. Harry carefully inserted his key and locked the door. He tried the knob. Locked. He rattled the door. Locked. He stood there for a moment, staring at the entrance to his livelihood in the light of the dim street lamp in front of his shop. "Harry's Toys," it said in faded gold print on the green painted door. He had a better sign in the window. Perhaps he should get one of those pull-down shutters, like Jeannie got for her flower shop, back when someone had broken in and busted a ten dollar vase. It cost her almost a thousand dollars, that shutter. Harry just couldn't see it. Lose ten dollars and spend a thousand. It made no sense.

He patted the door. "Behave yourself," he mumbled. Then he stuck his hands into his pockets, hunched his shoulders against the evening chill, and ambled homeward.

Inside the store Pixie had jumped out of her box the moment Harry shut the door.

"If you move too soon you'll get caught!" Tom the large stuffed bear grumbled at her, but Pixie was a Kewpie doll with an independent mind and didn't let herself be told anything, especially not by someone male.

"Humph," she scoffed at his worries, turning her face away from him and pouting. Pixie was extraordinarily proud of her pout. It was the best one she'd ever seen. In fact, she was pretty much made with a pout. "It just goes to show," she said to Galumph, the rubber horse.

"What does?" Galumph wanted to know. He was a little hard of hearing, having been made without actual ears, and he kept losing track of conversations.

Pixie wasn't really in the mood to start a long discussion with a rubber horse. "It just does," she repeated, and stalked off. Behind her Tom made a loud "Shhhhh" noise, which was muffled by his stuffing and didn't make much of an impression on anyone. Outside Harry rattled the door one last time, and then the toys watched his silhouette slide past the dusty display window on the front of the store, and when the silhouette went out of sight, several toys let out a careful cheer. Tom made another "Shhhhh!" noise.

On a fancy game table ("ON SALE!! JUST $499.99") a trio of dice rattled around in their leather cup with such force that it tipped over, and the dice spilled out across the table.

"Wheee!" shouted one, balancing on its artfully rounded edges as it rolled to the very end of the table. Just before it was about to fall off, it plumped down on one of its six sides, a single red pip showing on top. "I dare you lot to try that!" he yelled back at his companions, who had watched his dare devil maneuver with horror.

"No way!" - "You're nuts!" they shouted. The one on the left suddenly noticed that he had a piece of lint caught in one of the pips for his number 4 side, rolled onto an edge and jumped up and down a little to try to dislodge it.

While the third die hopped his way back to his companions, the new pair of booted roller skates that Harry had unpacked that evening and placed on the sales counter was acquainting itself with the lay of the land. They were still tied together by their laces, which they discovered after the left skate had tried to go left while the right one tried to go right. After managing to get back onto their wheels, the left one gave a tug on their laces.

"If we go this way first, I bet we'll find some shoe polish," she said to the right one. She knew exactly how to tempt her partner, because the right one immediately scooted around, banging his front bumper painfully into the left one's side.

"Really? Where?" he asked and was already rolling to the left and licking his lace eyes with his tongue. The left one had no choice but to follow. Sometimes, she thought, my plans seem to work far too well.

In the display window a group of four toy soldiers was squaring off against a small tank. It was powered by a wind-up clockwork, and had a spinning wheel making sparks that flew out of its barrel.

"Pow! Pow! You're dead!" it shouted.

One of the soldiers flopped over on his side, but the other three ducked behind a spilled set of alphabet blocks.

"No, you missed us!" the lieutenant of the squad shouted. He was from a Napoleonic Wars set, and the other two G.I. Joe figures were insanely jealous of his bright red uniform. But when he ran out of the display window and across the floor towards the sales counter they followed him, the tank hard on their heels, spitting sparks as it went. The dead soldier sat up after a few moments and looked around.

"Guys?" He had a feeling they'd ditched him. Again.

Tom wasn't too concerned with any of that. Pixie was already sitting astride the door knob and fishing around in the lock with a couple of pins. Her pouty face was bent down over the front of the door knob, and she was bracing herself with her feet against the door.

"We just have to manage to close the door properly," Tom told himself. He looked around. Greg's box was still shut. He went and knocked on it, as loud as his fuzz covered paw could manage.

"Greg, are you up, yet?" he said. He was being reflexively quiet, and when there was no answer, he raised his voice a little. "Greg!"

It seemed he heard some scuffling in the box, but still no Greg. Tom carefully pulled open one of the flaps and peered inside.

"Hey, hey, close that, will you!" Greg shouted. Tom quickly pushed the flap shut again.

"What's going on," Tom asked. "Did they take you apart again?"

"Um, yeah," Greg said, inside his box. "It's a little ... embarrassing."

"Well, we're almost ready. Let me know if you need help," Tom said. Strange, he thought. It's not the first time they took him apart. Why is he suddenly so self conscious about it?

He went over to the small shelf where the large toy cars were on display. Pug was already rolling back and forth experimentally and tipping his yellow painted sand bucket up and down.

"Hold still," Tom told him and climbed into the bucket. Once he'd settled himself he held on with his right paw and tapped Pug on the top of his cab with his left.

"Let's go," he said. Pug yelled "Vroom!" at the top of his voice and zoomed past the game table, around the sales counter.

The three soldiers had taken cover behind the edge of the counter and were pointing their guns around the corner at the approaching tank. Its spring had wound down on the way, and it had to stop to rewind.

"Bang! Bang!" shouted the soldiers.

"Hah!" yelled the little tank. "Without anti-tank weapons you can't even scratch me!"

Pug had to veer out of the way to keep from running into the little tank. His wheels momentarily lost purchase on the smooth wooden floor of Harry's toy store, and he started to spin. But he was a skillful little dump truck, and quickly regained control. When Pug reached the door he screeched to a halt.

"Ee-ee-ee-ee!" he shouted as he spun to a halt. Tom held on, but once Pug stopped he jumped out and clapped a furry paw on Pug's side.

"Wait a second," he said.

"OK," Pug said. He spun his wheels back and forth a moment, and then started slowing driving in a circle.

Tom went over to Greg's box.

"OK, we're all set," he said. "You sure you don't need any help?"

"Nono," came Greg's voice. The flap to his box popped open, smacking into Tom's rounded belly, and Greg came stumbling out, a bit unsteadily.

"Good. As. New," he said, and turned in a circle to let Tom admire him from all sides.

"Good job," Tom told him, but as Greg preceded him to the rendezvous, Tom couldn't shake the feeling as if something was different about Greg. Greg was your typical Mr Potatohead. Tom counted off on his fingers.

"Two eyes. Two ears. A nose. A mouth. Two arms. Two legs. A hat. Hm." Everything seemed to be as it should be. He walked up besides his pal and clapped him on the shoulder. Greg rolled his eyes to look at the soft paw over his arm, then up into his friend's face. He smiled.

"We're almost done," he said. "Today we're getting her out!"

"Damn straight," Tom said. The stitching on his snout didn't really let him smile, but when you looked at him you still got the impression that he was one very happy teddy bear. Greg clapped his hands together once and ran ahead until he stood under the doorknob. There he turned around and raised his arms over his head.

"Everyone," he shouted. The store quieted, all except for the right rollerskate who had fallen over the edge of the counter, and was now dangling by the laces, sobbing "I can't look, I can't look," while the left skate was trying to inch back and pull her partner back up.

"Shh," she hissed. "Greg wants to tell us something."

"We're just about through," Greg said into the quiet store. "Tonight we're bringing her home!"

Above him there was a click, and a moment later Pixie landed on the floor next to him.

"It's unlocked," she said. She stuck the two pins into her hair and pouted around in a circle. "What are you waiting for?"

"Not a thing," Greg said. Grinning he shinnied up the door frame and grasped the doorknob in his powerful hands. It turned, and there was a click. The door moved a fraction of an inch. Greg jumped back down to the ground and together with Tom started to pull the door open. Once there was enough room for Pug to drive out Tom fetched a painted wooden ball-and-string toy from its hiding place behind a shelf. After all four of them were out of the store, Tom pulled the string under the door, leaving the handle of the toy on the inside. Together with Greg he pulled the door until it was almost shut. The toy's handle wedged under the door would keep it from swinging open on its own.

The Moon was full, its light competing with the dim street lamp in front of the toy store. Pixie had hurried to the corner for reconnaissance. She now turned around.

"It's all clear," she called, keeping her voice low.

Tom helped Greg up into Pug's bucket, and the little truck drove to the corner where they picked up Pixie. The three made themselves as comfortable as they could, and Tom tapped Pug on the top of his cab.

"Let's go," he said. Pug started rolling down the sidewalk. Pretty soon he was zipping along at a brisk pace so that the wind was ruffling Tom's fur.

Pixie had no problem with the wind. Her hair was molded into a permanent 'do. She smiled around at Tom and Greg.

"Excited?"

"Yup," Greg said. Tom just nodded.

"Ooo!" Pixie suddenly said. She'd noticed Greg's shoes. "Those are so pretty!"

Greg tried to hide his feet under his large hands, but Tom could see he wasn't wearing his usual shoes. These were a bright red and reflected the light of passing street lamps. They had tall skinny heels, too.

"I didn't know you had more than one pair," Tom said.

"Well," Greg kind of mumbled. "They're new," he said.

"Oh," Tom said. That's why Greg seemed different. The heels made him look taller. Tom's feet weren't made for shoes, so he wasn't all that interested. He tried to concentrate on the task before them.

Pug soon rounded the last corner to their destination. Before them rose a green vinyl covered chain link fence. It was broken in one place by a tall gate. Pug rolled along the fence until he reached a small flower bed in front of the fence. There he stopped. Tom and Greg hopped out, followed by Pixie. Tom got a small shovel from behind a privet bush. They had gotten it from the flower shop across the street from Harry's store, in a disaster plagued expedition. They only barely managed to make it out of there without being caught. Now the flower shop had a heavy metal grate over the door. Tom knew it was there because of the vase he had broken when he fell off the shelf with the shovels.

Tom handed the shovel to Greg, who scurried to the hole they had been digging under the fence. He disappeared down the hole, and Tom followed him into the darkness, feeling his way. The hole was a tight fit. Tom followed his friend until their tunnel started climbing again. Tom put his paws on the ground and let Greg step on them. The heels from Greg's shoes dug into his paws, but Tom didn't mind. He lifted his friend to his shoulders. Greg grunted as he dug at the ground above him. Dirt fell down on Tom's head and bounced off his shiny button eyes.

"I can see the sky," Greg whispered all of a sudden. Tom felt him redouble his efforts, and more dirt came showering down. Tom was standing in the loose dirt up to his knees. Then Greg stopped digging.

"We're through," he said. He dropped his shovel and hopped off Tom's shoulders. Together the two stamped down the dirt. Then Greg took a few steps down into the tunnel.

"Pixie, come ahead," he called. A minute later she appeared. Tom and Greg boosted her up, then Greg boosted Tom, and finally climbed out after them.

The garden lay before them. A ways off in the moon light was their goal, a neat red brick house. The back door would be locked, but that's why Pixie was along. The three hurried across the lawn. At the door they stopped to listen. In the distance a couple of dogs where having a night time chat, but in the house everything was quiet. Tom and Greg watched as Pixie climbed up to the door knob and set to work with her pins.

"Do you think she'll be glad to see us?" Greg asked Tom.

Tom gave Greg a sharp look. That was not a question he expected to hear from Greg.

"Are you having second thoughts?" he asked his friend.

"No. At least I don't think so," Greg said. "But every now and then I wonder."

"Of course she'll be glad to see us," Tom told him. "She used to always tell us so, right?"

"Sure," Greg said.

Above them was a click, and Pixie jumped back down.

"Done. It's now up to you guys," she said.

Greg climbed up to the door knob and twisted. The door popped open, and Tom pushed with all his might. The door gave a little, but it wouldn't stay open.

"It's spring loaded," Greg whispered. "Just a moment."

Greg took off running across the lawn. A few minutes later he came running back, holding their shovel in his hands.

"I think this will work if you use it to wedge the door open," Greg said.

"Good idea," Pixie praised him.

"Actually, I kind of learned it from Tom," Greg said. "He had the idea of wedging the toy store's door shut using the ball-and-string toy's handle."

"Whatever," Pixie said. "It was still smart to think of it."

"Thanks," Greg said. Tom figured his friend was feeling embarrassed again. He'd never thought of Greg as the least bit shy.

The door was soon wedged open far enough. Tom and Greg sneaked into the dark hall beyond, followed by Pixie. Moon light fell in through the cracked door and gave them a narrow path to follow that ended at the foot of a stair. Tom boosted Greg up the first step, and Greg pulled him up after.

"We'll be back soon," promised Tom.

"Just be careful," Pixie told them and sat down to wait. Above her she could hear the soft sounds of Tom's fuzz covered bulk moving up the stairs, punctuated by the stealthy clattering of Greg's heels.

Climbing up into the darkness of the sleeping house Tom and Greg didn't talk. In a few minutes Greg was pulling Tom up the last step, and they stood at the end of a short carpeted hall, lit by a small light plugged into an outlet in the far end. Greg pointed.

"I think it's that one," he indicated a shut door.

"Are you sure?"

"Of course I'm sure," Greg said. "It's why I said 'I think.'"

Tom was oblivious to the sarcasm.

"Let's get it open, then," he said, stepping up to take the measure of this obstacle. The door had a plain round knob. Well, they'd opened more difficult ones. By his side, Greg began to shimmy up the door frame. Tom was glad Greg was with him on this. There was no way he could have climbed up there with his fuzz covered paws.

Once he reached the height of the knob, Greg gripped the frame with his legs and leaned in. The knob was just out of reach. Greg climbed a little higher, and this time instead of just leaning in he lunged for knob. For a heart stopping moment Tom thought Greg would come crashing down, but then he saw his friend dangling from the knob, his powerful arms boosting him up so he could take the door knob in a solid grip. Leaning towards the frame as far as he could he swung his legs out, got his feet against the door frame, and started to push the knob slowly around.

At the bottom of the door Tom strained to listen for the catch to release. Greg worked silently, and when the click came it seemed to echo through the hall. Tom immediately threw his padded shoulder against the door, just enough to keep the latch from catching again.

Greg, who had been expecting it, still barely managed to avoid losing his hold on the door knob. Once the door stopped moving again he carefully released his hold on the knob and allowed to slide back. Then he looked down to check on Tom. The large teddy bear was lying flat on his back, his paws hooked under the door to keep it from moving. Greg let himself fall into Tom's waiting belly, making sure to curl up his arms and legs so they wouldn't get popped loose by the impact. He bounced once and rolled to a stop.

"Ready?" Tom asked, still lying where he was holding onto the door.

"Sure," Greg said. He joined Tom and together they carefully pushed the door open.

The room was not very large. Moonlight coming through the window shone on toys cluttered everywhere, but none of them moved. Tom and Greg slowly advanced into the room, stepping around a fallen stack of blocks here, and a couple of toy cars lying in a heap there.

"She should be on that shelf," Greg whispered. "But I don't see her." He pointed up. The shelf was the second one above a tall chest of drawers painted fire engine red. It was crowded with books and toys, but there was a conspicuous empty space.

"She must be down here, somewhere," Tom rumbled softly. "But why isn't anyone moving?"

Greg stopped and pointed. In the darkness of the room two disks of pale light had started to glow. Then a growl became audible.

Tom was the first to move. He spun on his heels and raced for the door. Around the corner, down the hall, and he practically fell down the stairs. The growling was coming after him on rapidly clicking feet, down the stairs. At the bottom Tom cast about frantically. Where was Pixie? A moment later he spotted her arm waving at him from behind the open door. Tom accelerated for the gap of night air, the growling so close on his heel he could feel its breath.

Behind him, Pixie pulled at the shovel wedged under the door with all her strength. It popped out, and the door slowly began to swing shut. Outside something had started to bark, loud and excited, but then the door closed on the noise and the wedge of moonlight, and the house was dark and quiet. Pixie dropped the shovel and shrank into a corner. Didn't Greg know about the dog?

Above her a soft noise caught her attention. Something dragged, then plopped down. It sounded almost like Tom climbing down the stairs, but Tom was outside, keeping the dog busy. It had to be Greg and their rescue. In the dark of the house she couldn't tell what Greg was doing, there just wasn't enough moon light filtering into the hallway. After a while, though, Greg had come close enough that she could make out two shapes. Greg pushed a bundle down the stairs, and then hopped down on it. One step at a time.

When the bundle reached the floor, Pixie recognized it for what it was and gasped. When Greg landed on it his high heels made deep gouges in the soft plastic of its body. Its clothes were mostly ripped and torn, and the left arm was almost completely chewed off. As Pixie looked at it in horror, it stirred. It made a moaning sound.

"Oh my stars, what did they do to her?" Pixie gasped.

Greg gazed down at her silently.

"I think we're leaving her," he said. "But Tom needs to see her before we go."

Pixie froze. "Tom!"

"He'll be fine. He knows how to deal with dogs," Greg said. "He might have a hole or two, but we can fix that, no sweat."

"So? How are you going to bring him back in?" Pixie asked him. Their macabre rescue moaned softly. One eye stared at them, fitfully jerking from Greg to Pixie and back. The other eye was missing.

Greg was already climbing the door frame. A few moments later the latch clicked. Greg didn't let himself drop for fear that he might pop loose an arm or a leg. He braced his feet against the frame and pushed. The door slowly opened a crack, and Pixie wedged the shovel in. Greg slid down, and peered out into the moonlight.

"I don't see or hear the dog," he said. "I wonder where Tom went."

He began pushing the door open. Pixie gave him breathers by wedging the shovel in place, and soon the door was open wide enough.

"I'll go find him. Stay here."

"What if the dog comes back?"

"I don't think it's coming back for a while," Greg said. Pixie didn't understand his optimism, but she nodded and shrank back into the corner by the door, trying not to look at the bundle lying on the floor at the foot of the stairs. It had stopped moaning.

Greg was gone a long while. Eventually Pixie could hear his heels clicking in front of the door. The moon light cast his shadow into the hall. He was carrying something large.

"Where is Tom?" Pixie asked before she recognized what Greg was holding in his arms. Apparently Tom's head had gotten separated from his body.

"I'm right here," he rumbled. "What did you want to show me?"

And then he, too, saw their rescue.

Tom couldn't sag or bow his head, but Pixie noticed how something went out of him, nevertheless.

"I guess that's that, then," Tom said. "Do you want to take it back upstairs?"

"No, that's not necessary. They'll find it in the morning," Greg said. Pixie couldn't fathom why he should sound cheerful.

A little while later they were all sitting in Pug's bucket. Pug had been really proud of himself for luring the dog away.

"He won't be back for a long while!" Pug boasted.

Pixie had reattached Tom's head. No one said anything on the way back. When they reached Harry's the waiting toys greeted them with cheers, which fell silent when they saw they didn't bring anyone back with them. Greg helped Tom close the door, and waited with him while Pixie locked it.

"Are you sure it's locked?" Tom asked when she jumped down.

"It's a new lock," she said. "Not fiddly like the old one. I'm sure I managed to lock it properly."

Tom looked at Greg, questioningly. Greg didn't have shoulders, but he moved his arms in a shrug.

"What does it matter now?" he asked. Tom didn't know what to say to that.

While Tom made his way to his place on the shelf, the rest of the toys arranged themselves in their places. Pixie went with Greg to his box.

"I like those shoes," she told him. "But you know, I think a different face would go better with them. Maybe red pouty lips?" Pixie felt pouty lips were prettier than any other kind, for obvious reasons.

"I... I also have some eyes with long lashes," Greg volunteered, looking down and almost toeing the ground with his red high heels.

"Really? Oh, you must let me see. We'll make you fabulous!"

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Intergalactic Museum of Art and Natural History

I've always wanted to visit the Intergalactic Museum of Art and Natural History. Just think of what kind of a grand place it would be.

It'd be a pretty big place, of course. Intergalactic, that means it'd cover the art and natural history of more than one galaxy. Even tiny galaxies are big, containing millions of stars, perhaps thousands if not hundreds of thousands of civilizations, and certainly millions if not billions of planets each with their own natural history. There's no way you can fit all of that into a building. Even an ordinary planet wouldn't be big enough.

I imagine the entrance itself might look like a building though. It would be the result of an intergalactic competition of architects. Some if not most of the architects might not even know they're participating in a competition. After all, the people curating the museum wouldn't want to involve civilizations in the Intergalactic Commonwealth unless they were ready. (We have to assume there's an Intergalactic Commonwealth, because who else would build the Intergalactic Museum. And we have to assume that the Intergalactic Commonwealth doesn't contact cultures that are not ready to join because, after all, we haven't been contacted, yet.)

So this competition would itself take a considerable amount of time, of course. Maybe not millions or billions of years (the time for light to travel from one galaxy to the next), but even if some kind of faster than light transmission of information were possible, it'd be a while before the hundreds of thousands of entries to the competition were collected. There'd be a committee, comprised of members from several representative cultures, to select the finalists based on criteria of scientific aesthetics. (Scientific aesthetics is what you get when you figure out why things are pleasing and interesting, and generalize it enough so that creatures from a wide variety of cultures will appreciate it.)

In fact, now that I think about it, it's entirely possible that there may be many modes of aesthetic perception, each the result of the evolution of various creatures. I don't expect there to be an infinite variety of modes, since the cultures that would be considered for this project would all have certain things in common, but there'd likely be more than one. Perhaps hundreds, or even thousands. In fact, there might be a committee established for each of these modes, and each would select their own winners.

Eventually the entrances to the Intergalactic Museum of Art and Natural History would be built. If an entire planet isn't large enough - I figure they'd perhaps terraform an otherwise uninhabitable planet for this purpose - they might build a Dyson Sphere around a star. Close enough in, and the mass of the star and the sphere together should be enough to create a gravitational gradient suitable for moving about on the surface, and retaining an atmosphere. The nice thing about a Dyson Sphere is that it can capture all of the energy radiated by the star to run the Museum. A sphere like that would require some kind of station keeping to make sure the star remains at the center of the sphere (radiation pressure from the star isn't likely to be constantly symmetrical - one good flare, and the entire business would start to drift, with no guarantee that a balancing flare would happen to push things back), but for the intergalactic commonwealth that'd be a minor matter.

The main thing is, if they pick the right kind of star they'll have the energy supply for millions if not billions of years, and plenty of room for the museum.

The surface of the museum would be sculpted to simulate various natural environments. In fact, there might be dimples in the surface, similar to the dimples on a golf ball. Each dimple would contain an atmosphere suitable to the creatures whose museum entrances were located there. There wouldn't have to be a separate dimple for each species - that would be unrealistic - but it is not at all unreasonable to suppose that many species could comfortably share the same environment, even if they evolved on entirely different planets.

Supposing it were possible to arrive at the museum via spaceship, you'd be looking out onto the museum with various kinds of cameras that can give a view adjusted for the visual organs of whatever species happens to be looking. The surface of the sphere wouldn't be illuminated by the star, of course. Although it might be cool to have the thing set up in a binary system, any kind of binary companion would have to be pretty far away, so that its tides wouldn't disturb the museum. At such a distance the companion would merely look like a very bright star, producing less light than a full Moon on Earth.

No, if the surface of the museum is illuminated, it'd be by lamps of some kind. Perhaps there'd be arrays of lenses and mirrors conducting light from the star inside to shine out through the surface. Humongous balloons floating in the atmosphere in each of the dimples of the museum would have reflectors suspended on their underside. They'd be tethered above the light tubes, and the light from the star inside would then be reflected back down to the surface. Filters of various kinds would make sure that the light was suitable for the particular species in the vicinity, and the mirrors and lenses could be adjusted in case a diurnal rhythm of some kind was desired.

From space it would look a lot like those pictures of Earth's nightside, except that the light clusters would be evenly spaced out. Maybe it'd be more like looking at a gigantic disco ball, floating in space, with occasional rays of starlight glinting out at the cameras of the approaching spaceship when a reflector balloon gets pushed around by the winds.

But actually, I don't think that the Museum would be built all in one place. That'd be cool, in a fashion, but impractical. After all, it would require transporting visitors and artifacts to the Museum. There'd have to be hotels and the like at the Museum, too, since such a Museum could never be visited in its entirety in just a few days.

No, it is much more likely that the Museum would be distributed, with entrances (the same ones that won the architectural contests) located on most major planets. The exhibits would be available via sophisticated virtual environments that allow most sensory modes of interaction. Perhaps many visitors wouldn't even go there physically, but rather visit via some kind of intergalactic internet.

Imagine the exhibit for Earth. I imagine that the geological history of our planet is going to be remarked as fairly interesting, given that relatively few worlds of the millions or billions (perhaps only 1% or fewer) have a Moon like ours. For us this has had a number of important consequences, from stabilizing our planet's axis of rotation (and hence our seasons) to providing strong tides that might have hastened the evolution of life on land. I don't know if planets without those features could even evolve intelligent life, but if the can I expect their evolutionary history to be quite different from ours. While I expect the principles of evolution to operate in all places in about the same way, I don't expect the particulars to be the same at all, so the Museum's exhibit for Earth would include a list of species that have evolved here, as well as their evolutionary relationship to each other.

Our cultures currently aren't (as far as I know) members of the Intergalactic Commonwealth, so that detail would be noted alongside all parts of the exhibit concerning the history and cultures on our planet. Since for a long time - thousands of years - various levels of technological advancement existed simultaneously on the planet, the exhibits for each civilization would have to include information on its interactions with neighboring civilizations, and on its contributions to the human treasury of knowledge. I have no idea how the curators of the exhibit would divide up these civilizations. Their perspective on our history would be a deep time perspective, not the kind we use, fraught with tribal prejudices and mythologies. Assuming Earth was surveyed early enough in its history to catch the evolution of the human species, and thus note the rise of species capable of sapience, the exhibit has various options, ranging from following germ lines to following language groups. It's doubtful the exhibit would put a great deal of emphasis on tribal lines or national identities, since in the deep time perspective these things don't actually matter all that much. What would matter are milestones of human development, ranging from the taming of fire to formal education of our young to descriptions of the universe like the General Theory of Relativity or Quantum Mechanics. Cultural tools like public education might not exist among all species, but models of the physical universe should be pretty much identical, regardless who discovered them. Therefore I'd expect a lot more attention to be paid to when and how humans began to organize into communities with laws, and a lot less attention to when we discovered the wheel or orbited our first satellite.

Once the Earth does join the Commonwealth, perhaps the Earth Exhibit of the Museum would be moved to the Earth, and curated here by human scientists. But for now the exhibit could be just about anywhere. Since we kind of have to assume that some form of faster than light travel is possible (otherwise you can't really have an Intergalactic Commonwealth), the actual location of the exhibit wouldn't even have to be anywhere near the Earth, or even in our galaxy. However, the most likely eventuality would be that the species that originally discovered the Earth would have come from our galactic neighborhood, and they would be the ones who initially set up our exhibit.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Last Chapter

Shelly took a last look at herself in the mirror. Looked OK. She dropped her compact into her purse, just in case.

"Today's meeting with Barry should go well," she told Steve. "I'm sure it's all a tiny misunderstanding."

Steve didn't say anything. Steve never said anything, anymore. Steve had died, what, was it now almost ten years ago? It wasn't something Shelly liked to think about, especially since she hadn't told Barry.

"Anyway, I should be home before dark," she said. And, "Bye, honey," as she closed and locked the door to her tiny apartment behind her. What remained of Steve, a silver plated tin jar full of his ashes, continued to sit silently on the small lamp stand by her bedside. It said nothing.

Shelly took the subway downtown, then hurried up into the busy streets, glad to be above ground again, away from the constant taint of urine and body odor that a battalion of cleaning staff never were able to remove, no matter how much bleach they blasted on the dank stone down there.

Barry had told her to meet him at JoJo's. His office was just a couple of doors along the street from the restaurant, so they had met there often enough that the wait staff knew her on sight. Today Raoul was tending reception. She could see Barry sitting at their accustomed spot by the window and waved at him. As Raoul lead her to the table Barry smiled. It melted her heart, the way it always did. She almost smiled back, but controlled herself just in time.

If she lost this account, all would be in vain! Everything at all times must be completely professional. She sat down opposite him.

"Hey, Barry," she said. "Have you been waiting long?"

"Actually, I took the day off," Barry told her. "I was hoping we could enjoy a leisurely lunch and then talk."

Damn. That'd take an entire day, not the brief meeting she'd promised Steve. There was no help for it, though. She forced herself to smile back.

"That sounds nice."

Barry had already looked over the menu. JoJo's served a kinda sorta French cuisine. It was OK, but Shelly had never figured out what was so French about it, besides the prices. But Barry was always paying for both of them, so she hadn't worried about it much. By herself, she could not have afforded it.

Lunch passed with inconsequential chatter over servings of steak and chicken, and she had to be careful not to eat too much, if she didn't want to feel as if she were starving tomorrow.

"Are you still living at the usual address?" Barry asked her.

"Um, yes. Why?"

"I thought you and I needed some time to talk things over. I'll call a cab later to take you home."

That didn't sound good. Shelly realized her work was not as good as Steve's work, but what else could she do? Steve had to keep turning in manuscripts. That was all there was to it. She had found Steve, collapsed in his apartment, arranged for a quiet funeral, and kept his ashes. She supposed someone was collecting the royalty payments. She was just getting her usual share, barely enough to keep her apartment. There was no time to expand her agency. No time with all the writing she had to do.

She gather her courage and asked, "Is something wrong?"

"I don't know how to tell you this," Barry said. "I suppose there's no good way to say it, so I'll just have to come right out and tell you."

Shelly realized she was holding her breath. She tried to calm herself down. Breath, girl. When she didn't say anything, Barry continued.

"I've been Steve's editor for twelve years now, right?"

"It'll be twelve years this June," Shelly said.

"Remember I told you that Steve's books were good, but not marketable in the US?"

"Yes, I remember," Shelly told him. "That's why we were going to your UK partner."

"Well, here's the thing. There is no UK partner."

"What? What do you mean?"

"I mean, we haven't been selling Steve's books in the UK."

"I guess I don't understand. Why would your company... wait. You have been paying Steve royalties, so where are you selling the books?"

Shelly suddenly had the suspicion that Barry's masters had created a huge copyright nightmare, and that her secret was about to be revealed to the world. No, she couldn't allow that to happen!

"Barry, whatever happened, I'm sure Steve will understand. We can work it out," she tried to soothe him.

"You misunderstand me," Barry said. "No copies of Steves books were sold, ever."

"What were you paying him for?"

"I'm sorry," Barry said. "It's all my fault."

Shelly had clenched her hands in her lap to keep them from trembling. Now she let go and reached out to pat Barry on his arm. He covered her hand with his, gave it a brief squeeze, and let go. She looked at his face and was surprised to find tears in his eyes.

"Barry, nothing can be that bad. It's just books and money. We'll work it out."

"No, I don't think you understand," Barry told her, leaning forward in his seat across from her, his voice tense and urgent. "There is no publisher. There are no books. I'm not an editor. Shelly, when I first met you I told you I was an editor because you told me you were looking for one, and I was struck madly in love with you from the moment I set eyes on you. Shelly, forgive me for betraying you like this, but I could not bear to never see you again. I had a little money, and I used that to pay for Steve's royalties, and your commission. Every sales meeting we had here was my little piece of heaven. But my money is running out. There were some bad investments..."

Shelly managed a little laugh.

"This is a joke, right? A joke in very poor taste, right?" she asked him. Then she got up, slapped his face, and walked out of JoJo's, her back held straight.

On the way home she felt curiously calm. Her world, destroyed. Nothing was left. Steve, gone. Not that he'd ever amounted to much. Her career, stillborn. Because of Barry. And Steve, of course. Her life, over. It wasn't until she was turning the key in her apartment door lock that she began to sob. By the time she had closed the door behind her and shot the bolt she was bawling like a child. Wailing, she sat at the small table in her kitchen, across from the second-hand laptop she was using for her writing, and let the tears run down her face. They washed her waterproof mascara into blueish black runnels that collected under her chin and dripped unheeded onto the table.

When morning came she woke, still sitting at the table. Her face had gummed itself to her arms, pulling like some kind of glue when she sat up.

"I must look a sight," she said. Then she realized there was no one to say it to. She walked into the bathroom, used the toilet, and ran the water in the sink until it was scalding hot. Then she scrubbed her face until it glowed. After combing her hair into some kind of presentable shape, she went into the bedroom to fetch the silver plated tin that contained Steve.

"Sorry, lover boy," she told him. "It turns out you're not the only one." On the way to the door she paused, went back into the kitchen. She unplugged the laptop and wrapped the chord around it. After she put on her shoes, she clamped the laptop under her arm and carried it and the tin down to the trashbin. They made a satisfying thunk.

Back in her apartment, she gathered up some clothes, stuffed them into a small day bag, and added her cosmetics. Fourty minutes later she was waiting on the stoop of Barry's brownstone. She rang the bell.

"Yes?" came Barry's voice, after a few moments.

"It's Shelly. May I come up?"

"What? Oh, sure, sure, just a moment," and the door buzzed. Shelly pushed it open and hurried up the stairs. She'd felt committed earlier that morning, but now it seemed that something was trying to turn her back. Determined to see it through, she pushed herself forward.

Barry was waiting for her beside an open door. He didn't give her day bag a second glance but invited her inside and lead her into a small office where he asked her to have a seat. Then he sat down next to her.

"Do you forgive me?" he asked her. That took her a bit by surprise.

"No. Yes. I don't know," she said. "You know, I have a secret, too." Then she told him about Steve, how he was dead, and how she'd been writing all of his books these past ten years, desperate to keep people from finding out he was gone.

"He's the only author I ever was an agent for," she told Barry. "I never had time to do anything else after he died. So when you told me you never sold any books, I thought at first everything was gone. But then I realized, if you never sold any of his books, then they're still there to be sold. So you will now help me sell them. You will put me up here in your apartment, and I will keep an eye on you to make sure you do your job this time. We can sell them under Steve's name, if that sounds good. Or under my name, since I wrote most of them. Or under your name, if you think that'll work better. I don't care. But I want them published."

She looked at Barry expectantly. Please say yes, she thought. Because you're the only reason I did any of this. The only reason why I stuck with Steve, so that I could keep shopping books to you. I've loved you for twelve years, and I'll be damned if I let that end now.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Cold Science

"After carefully adjusting his breather mask, Catz climbed down out of the lander. The great ship's repellers had worked well, in spite of the jury rigged repairs, and in the final seconds of the descent, when the turbines were blasting to slow the ship, only a little of the ice had melted. The water was now draining away in clear runnels, and the slight breeze was blowing the steam away. Catz looked around."

I checked Darwin's simulator. It was a cheap program I'd bought for pocket change off a street vendor's rack, so I wasn't hoping for much. But I did hope there was enough there to get some feedback from the great man - or at least a cheap facsimile of him. So far there had been no response, so I continued.

"The ice stretched as far as the eye could see. Catz hadn't expected to see much, not when he'd already surveyed the entire planet. This spot had seemed promising, though. Near the equator the ice should be thin enough to drill through to the ocean below."

"Young man, do you seriously expect me to do something with this story?"

Darwin's voice was strong, accented as you'd expect from someone who lived hundreds of years ago in the almost forgotten kingdom of Britain.

"Yup, I had hoped you could help in spots."

"But on what basis, sir? This is no world I am acquainted with."

"Can't you just use what you know of the north pole?"

"I never went there, so my knowledge of that place is mainly by hearsay. I am certain you can do better than that."

"What about the south pole?"

"The Beagle ran 'round Tierra del Fuego, but we did not seek to go south. No, at most I might rely on what I learned from my good friend Hooker of his travels, but again, that is hearsay."

"Well, damn. Could you at least just follow along and tell me what you think?"

"I can do that, if you think it would be of assistance," he said.

So I continued writing. I thought I had a good idea of what I wanted this world to look like. I just didn't want anything to be terribly wrong.

"Catz unlimbered the drill from the side of the lander and set it up. After an hour's work the bit was positioned on the ice, with the driver attached and suspended by cables from a tripod he had erected over his drill site. After double checking all the connections, he threw the switch that started the driver. With a whine the turbines set into motion. After a few moments the bit started to rotate, and with satisfaction Catz watched as it started to eat its way into the ice. A cloud of steam started to rise from the site, and Catz had to step back to avoid getting scalded.

As the drill vanished out of sight, Catz turned his attention to the readouts on the controller he had lashed to the tripod. The cables were five kilometers long, but the ice at this spot was supposed to be just two kilometers thick, so the cables should be long enough. The drill was moving at a good clip of 10 meters a minute, so it should break through the bottom in less than four hours. Catz returned to the inside of his lander to wait."

I prompted Darwin again.

"What do you think so far?"

"I do not know what to think. You are describing things for which I have no basis for judgment."

"Well, OK. I guess I'll just keep going, then."

"When the controls signaled him, Catz put his mask back on and returned to his drill hole. The drill had slowed down, and the steam billowing from the hole had thinned considerably. Suddenly the cables jerked, and the controls indicated breakthrough. Catz stopped the driver and activated the sensors in the drill. Then he returned into the lander to use the larger view screen there.

There was no light in the human visible range down there. That was to be expected. It was part of the thrill. Catz ran the sensor through the longer wave lengths. There were heat sources down there, of course. Catz used radar to map the ocean floor, and noted the hot spots on the map. When that was finished, he climbed into his diving armor.

At the drill hole, he attached friction rings to the cables to let himself down into the hole. He stepped off the edge and began his descent. He allowed his speed to increase to 100 m per minute before checking it. When his readouts indicated that he was reaching the bottom he slowed down, turned on his flood lights, and looked down. Below him the waters of the unnamed ocean formed a dark disk at the end of a brilliantly lit tube of ice."

"Excuse me," came Darwin's voice.

"I thought you didn't know anything about these things."

"You are correct, I don't know the machines you are describing. I have to assume they work as you say they do. However, is the ice you describe in your story water ice?"

"Yes, why?"

"Because I do know Archimedes' Principle. Once the drill broke through the ice, the water should have risen up the hole. In fact, the force at a depth of 2 km should have been on the order of 10,000 kg per square centimeter, quite enough to blast it out of the hole in a pretty fountain, unless your drill installed a valve at the bottom of the hole - assuming the ice didn't collapse into the drill hole before the drill could manage that."

I was impressed. When Darwin told me he didn't know this stuff, I was disappointed, but now it turned out that this little simulator was doing more than I had thought it could.

"Good point," I said. I changed the circle of dark water into a disk of metal, the top part of an airlock.

"Catz opened the airlock and climbed in. Minutes later he left by the bottom, and swam out into the ocean. The light projected by his suit lamps stabbed into the featureless darkness. He ran a sample of the water through the suit's analyzers. Nothing. Finally he oriented on the nearest hot spot on his map. He ran his suit's impellers up to their maximum rating, and watched as the infrared image swimming in his HUD grew larger. When he was within about one kilometer, he shut down the impellers again and drifted to a halt.

The heat seemed to be emanating from a volcano, fitfully squeezing its lava out into the supercooled water on the ocean bottom. Catz imagined the forces that must be at play down here. Nothing could live here, and yet...

He dialed up the sensitivity on his sensors and started scanning the vicinity. At a one-meter resolution he should be able to pick up what he was looking for, if it was here. If luck was with him... but an hour later found him jetting to the next hotspot.

Once he reached the next vent he restarted the scans. Almost immediately the HUD lit up with a bright spot about 500 meters from the vent. Could this be it? He finished his scan, but that one hit remained the only result. Catz started up his suit's impellers again and slowly drifted towards his target, at the same time slowly lowering himself towards the ocean floor. When he was just 10 meters up he stopped his descent. His suit lamps illuminated virgin ocean floor, covered with great coils of cooled lava. As the floor rose towards his target, so he ascended again, maintaining his altitude. Rounding a shoulder of tortured geology, his target came in range of his lamps.

Catz stopped. About 200 meters in front of him crouched a humongous creature. Its skin shimmered in reflected light, casting off rainbows of iridescence. A head almost the size of his landing craft at the end of a long and powerful neck began to turn in his direction. Catz hurriedly took the safeties off his weapons. When he felt the creature's eyes fasten on him, he let loose his first volley. The rockets streaked at their target, but halfway there a blast of brilliance erupted from the creature's great maw and struck the rockets. Their detonations rocked Catz in his suit. This beast was indeed what he had been promised it would be. The greatest game in the galaxy!"

"Excuse me?" came Darwin's voice.

"What's wrong now?" I asked. I never thought I'd feel defensive in front of a cheap computer program.

"Could you tell me who put that creature there on the ocean floor?"

"No one put it there, I guess. It's always lived there."

"How is that possible?"

"Huh? Didn't you write that evolution book, what, "Where Species Come From," or something like that?"

"Do you mean "On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection"? Yes, I published that book in 1859. But this world you are describing shows no evidence of evolution."

"What do you mean? Are you saying those people who say you recanted evolution on your deathbed are right?"

"No, those people lie. But even if they told the truth, it would mean nothing to the theory of evolution, which is not affected by a dying man's fears. All species on Earth arose by evolution, but I see no reason to suppose that evolution produced this monster you are describing, not on this world, in any event."

"How do you mean that?"

"To start with, it's the only living thing you have described. Evolution happens when you have many individuals, enough to show a range of variability, all living in the same environment. Finally, there should be no entirely uninhabited environments, unless they are totally hostile to life, and even then I expect living creatures to encroach on the margins."

I considered Darwin's advice for a while. Then I decided to ignore it. It'd be too much trouble, and in the end it wasn't worth it.

"I suppose you're right. Someone must have brought the dragon there," I said, and continued my story.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Fancypants

Fancypants Wilson had to be the strangest kid in fifth grade. "Call me Fancypants," he'd told everyone. We'd looked at his perfectly ordinary jeans. Mark had to ask the obvious question.

"Why?"

"Cuz everyone calls me that," he'd said, and kinda grinned. Mrs Jacobs didn't like the entire business.

"Jimmy," she'd said - that was his actual name, Jimmy Wilson - "Jimmy, that's not a nice thing to call people, so I don't want anyone calling you that."

Apparently that was news to Fancypants.

"Why isn't it nice?" he wanted to know.

Mary started to giggle.

"Mary, settle down," Mrs Jacobs said. "Jimmy, it's not nice because..."

I think at this point Mrs Jacobs realized she was about to say something potentially hurtful, and, miracles of miracles, she shut up. After a moment she recovered.

"...because you have such a nice regular name, and I think people ought to use that, instead," she said. And smiled. A bit forced. Some of us knew from experience what that smile meant: a call from Mrs Jacobs.

Fancypants didn't argue with Mrs Jacobs, and he continued to introduce himself as Fancypants. Me and my friends often made fun of him behind his back, but something about him kept us from teasing him openly. Some of the other kids, however, regularly tried to get a rise out of him.

One of the worst was Reggie. He should have been in sixth grade, but he had been held back. My mom told me that he'd probably have been OK, that he was just upset about being held back, but I thought he probably would have been mean in sixth grade, too. In fifth grade he was worse, because he was bigger than most of us.

I had been going back to class from the cafeteria when I noticed that some boys had formed a small crowd off in a side hallway. They were laughing and jeering. Out of curiosity I went over to see what was going on. Reggie had cornered Fancypants, and he was giving him a wedgie.

"Let me go!" Fancypants yelled. He shoved at Reggie, but Reggie was too strong. Reggie had Fancypants in a kind of choke hold, and already had a hold of Fancypant's waistband and was pulling with all his might.

"Don't look so fancy to me," Reggie jeered. "Let's see how fancy they get if I pull harder."

There was a tearing sound. The waistband had ripped from Fancypants' shorts. With another laugh Reggie shoved Fancypants to the ground.

"They sure tear easy," he said. "Not so fancy, are they?"

Fancypants didn't say anything. He sat on the ground, his head down. He endured another shove from Reggie's foot, and then Reggie left. With him the drama was gone, and the rest of us left, too, leaving Fancypants sitting on the floor in the corner of the hallway.

Fancypants didn't come to class after lunch that day. Mrs Jacobs didn't say anything about it, so we all figured he'd told her what had happened. However, when Fancypants came back to school the next day, and Reggie's abuse continued unabated, we realized that he must have come up with a different excuse.

It went on like that for weeks. We wondered why Reggie had it in for Fancypants, but none of us came up with a plausible reason. None of us dared tell Mrs Jacobs or our parents, either. There was something about this confrontation, something primal, that warned us off.

Mary Sawsworthy Elementary School is built on a rise overlooking the Nenderplat River, named by some Dutch pioneers, according to our civics lessons. It was a wide, shallow tributary of the Missoury, and every winter by Christmas it froze over solid. This year had been warmer than usual, and it wasn't until well into January that the ice was finally thick enough that Sheriff Ryder removed the "Danger! Keep off!" signs. After school saw us all out on the ice that evening. Some of us had brought skates, because we'd watched Achin Jones pull his home made ice polishing machine up and down a stretch just above the freeway bridge.

Even Fancypants was out there. He was a good skater, but he skated by himself. I don't think he had any friends. Reggie was the closest to a constant companion he had, but Reggie didn't skate. Perhaps Fancypants thought that this evening he'd be spared the petty torments Reggie thought up, but eventually he showed up at our impromptu rink, together with some of his pals. They first tried stealing the hats of kids skating past, but then Reggie noticed Fancypants.

"Heyyyy! It's Fancypants!" he shouted and pointed. Fancypants stopped his skating, as if he noticed Reggie and his band for the first time. Then he seemed to panic. He took off running, digging the tips of his skates into the ice until he had speed, and then rapidly made distance up river. He was fast! Reggie took off after him, like a dog might chase a fleeing rabbit.

"Get him!" he shouted. His crew followed him, loyal pack animals they were.

The river runs straight by the town, but after the wide and shallow part it narrows quickly. We knew not to go there, but Fancypants soon reached the dangerous part. He skated to the edge of the ice, climbed on shore, and looked back. Reggie and his friends were far behind, but kept running, yelling curses. Reggie was far in the lead.

Fancypants took off his skates and ran up the hill. Behind him Reggie had reached the unsafe ice, and we all watched from the distance as he seemed to stumble to a halt. Then he just disappeared. His friends stopped, threw up their arms and started yelling.

"He fell in!"

Up on the hill, Fancypants stopped and looked back. Then he came running back down the hill. We watched as he ran out on the ice, yelling at Reggie's friends. As we watched, the boys formed a chain, Fancypants at the lead, lying on the ice. Then Reggie's head appeared, and the boys inched back, pulling Reggie out of the water.

At this point adults were running out to the scene. They collected the soaking Reggie and rushed back up the hill. Fancypants also returned up the hill, where he collected the skates he had dropped. The rest of us also went home. Somehow it didn't seem right to continue skating after that little drama.

The next day school was abuzz. What would happen between Fancypants and Reggie now? All of us agreed Fancypants had saved Reggie's life. So when Fancypants walked into class, and Reggie was still standing by the door chatting with some friends, the entire room fell silent, watching to see what Reggie would say.

Reggie stopped his conversation. He walked up to Fancypants and stood before him.

"Hey, Fancypants," he said.

"Hi," Fancypants said.

Then Reggie stepped forward, grabbed Fancypants' pants by the belt loops, and yanked down.

"Pantsed!" he shouted gleefully. He turned around and high fived his friends, all howling with laughter. As they went laughing to their seats in the back of the class, Fancypants pulled up his pants, his head down, but he couldn't hide the red of his ears.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Near the Top of Skyladder Eight

Near the top of Skyladder Eight the Earth looms overhead, too large to block out with a single hand span, but far enough away that Lia could see all of the planet at once. Lia loved to come out here and just lie on her back atop her small shelter, looking up at it.

"You ought to come inside, pateta" Mapi would call to her whenever he caught her at it. "It's not safe out there."

"I'm fine," she'd say. "It's safer out here than in there."

Mapi never got used to it. He wanted walls around him. Lia loved the emptiness.

When they first arrived, their super senhora Kato, a small woman from Japan whose Portuguese was barely intelligible so she talked to them in English, told them that if they managed to fall off the shelter, they'd probably not be retrieved again.

"Here your acceleration from Earth away almost Earth surface acceleration," she said. "Too much energy to launch rescue."

Lia never forgot her tether, but even with a tether Mapi only went out when it was his turn to run the spiders.

Today it had been her turn, but now the spiders were safely stowed in their cocoons and Lia was taking a break. Far above her a bright light started to flash. The ribbon of the Skyway wasn't visible from this far away, but capsules launched from there needed to signal ahead so that workers and spiders had time to get out of the way. She checked the schedule. This capsule was going to pass them in an hour or so, going about 500 km per hour.

"Hoy, Mapi," she said.

"Now what?" he replied after a moment.

"Capsule in an hour."

"Merda!"

"What's the problem?"

Lia heard a click, then Mapi's voice again.

"Bibi, capsule in 45!"

"Shit," was Bibi's reply. "My spider is still stuck. Hey, do you suppose Lia could lend a hand?"

"What's the problem?" Lia repeated, this time for Bibi's benefit.

"One of the spiders got hung up somehow. I've been trying to cut it loose, but I don't have very good skills."

Lia was already in motion. Cursing capsule launch control under her breath, she hurried back to the waldo rig. She strapped herself in and launched a connection at Bibi's net.

"I'm coming over," she said. "Can you pick me up and put me on the stuck spider?"

"Sure," Bibi said.

Lia's vision swum for a moment, then cleared. She checked her status. Leg number 6 wasn't disconnecting, for some reason. Visual inspection showed no damage, but the leg wasn't responding. Lia found Bibi had already brought out a cutter, but leg number 5 was holding it. Bibi was amazingly clumsy when it came to understanding how spiders moved. She switched the cutter from number 5 to number 7 and then to number 8, and started cutting the leg free. Bibi would have to repair this stretch after the capsule passed.

"Bibi, did you already let CLC know that there's a problem?"

"No. Do you think that's necessary?"

Lia sighed to herself. If Bibi asked her, then it meant he already had his black mark for the pay period, and couldn't risk another. This was really a problem with CLC, but if Bibi didn't dare mention it then no one would know that they messed up. Again.

"Never mind. I'll do it, without bringing you into it," Lia told him.

"What are you going to do, pateta?" Mapi wanted to know.

"We can't have CLC launching capsules off schedule and without notice," she told him. "I'll lodge a complaint. I'll tell them I was late with the spiders, and had to hurry because of them."

"They'll check the logs," Mapi reminded her.

"They'll find that the spiders were not put away until thirty minutes before the capsule showed up," Lia told him. "That's a simple thing to do."

"They'll also find that you took them out after the launch."

"Since they didn't give notice, they can't very well blame me," Lia said.

Bibi's spider was free, and she passed control over to him.

"Thanks, I owe you," he said. Lia disconnected from Bibi's net, and hooked up to her own spiders. A few minutes later she was herding them across the ladder. Ten minutes later the spiders were again safely cocooned.

"Um, Lia?" Mapi sounded worried.

"What?"

"I think you missed the capsule's launch. It'll be here in five."

"Impossible!" But when she looked up the flashing lights on the capsule were already bright enough to trigger protective opaquing on her lenses.

"Are you cocooned?" Lia asked.

"I'm getting strapped in, now," Mapi said. "What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to hold on for dear life," Lia told him.

She imagined she could feel the ribbons hum around her as they stretched in response to the hurtling capsule. She checked her straps. All were tight. She was going to get hit with six gees of brief acceleration, about like falling out of a six story building. In a cocoon it was no problem. Strapped up like this out here, it was very much an issue. Straps didn't distribute the acceleration across enough surface area. Her bones would snap like twigs. She tried to align herself as best she could with one of the ribbons holding the waldo rig, hoping the force wouldn't kill her. Maiming would be bad enough.

The capsule's lights were almost on her, and she shut her eyes, just before she was struck by a crushing blow.

When she regained consciousness, Mapi's worried face swum over her.

"Querida?"

She tried to say yes, but only a croak came from her throat.

"Deus seja louvado!" Mapi breathed with relief. Then he collected himself.

"Both arms broken in two places, both shoulders dislocated, broken collarbones. No internal injuries. You'll be patched up as good as new in no time. Pateta."

Lia didn't try to say anything this time. It hurt to smile, just a little, and she closed her eyes again.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Going Home

It's getting on quitting time, which I notice mostly because my coworkers are packing up and saying good night. I find that I'm at a good stopping point, myself, so I save my work and shut down the computer. I pack my bag, adding a book I've been reading off and on at work, pull on my hat and coat, and say good bye to Eric and Marlen who're still working on something. Across the hall some folks are still standing around and chatting. Outside looks stormy for a moment, before I realize it's just some quality of the evening light.

My stomach is griping me a little. I blame the soda I've been drinking, especially the Dr. Pepper. For some reason that brand always gives me an acid stomach. I dig a piece of chewing gum from my pocket, hoping that'll help a little.

I manage to cross Wakara Way once again without getting run over. There's no orange flag to wave at cars, since a storm early this winter managed to blow them all into the gutter, and heaven only knows where they are now, but the setting sun is blocked by clouds, so drivers have no trouble seeing me in the cross walk and stop. Another coworker, Jim, is already waiting at the bus stop, looking all GQ in his cardigan pullover. The bus won't show up for another ten or fifteen minutes, by which time I can already be at the Trax stop on South Campus. I give Jim a smile and a "See you tomorrow," and lengthen my stride.

My arm bounces a little painfully at my side. My shoulder is doing better all the time, but today it's been kind of sore. I've taken Tylenol in the morning as well as at noon. I think I better take it easy with the exercises tonight.

The snow on the lawn by the Orthopedic Center has melted to a thin remainder. It is tattooed with the tunnels of small animals who have been living under there all winter. The weather reports had predicted a slight chance of snow or rain yesterday and today, but it doesn't look like it'll happen at all. However, as I look across the valley I see downtown is blanketed by a low hanging cloud. Well, at least it's not smog. What pathetic weather we're having seems to have cleaned up the air a little.

I make good time to the corner of Mario Capecci Drive, where I cross the street and climb across the Madsen Clinic's front lawn, walk through the Boy Scouts' parking lot, and end up at the Trax stop at about eighteen minutes past five. Now I can only cross my fingers. In the morning I can get from home to work in less than an hour, using public transit, but going home in the evening is an entirely different matter. Maybe today things will work out a little better. The timing needs to be just right.

The Sandy - University line shows up just as I make it to the platform, heading up to the hospital. I scan my pass at the RFID reader and make my way down to the shelter for the line headed downtown. All the seats are already occupied. As the Sandy - University train continues on its way I turn around and see a train headed our way from the hospital. When it gets close enough to read the destination, I'm pleased to see this is my train. I get on, find a seat, and settle down to read my book. It's a collection of short stories by Gordon R. Dickson, titled The Star Road.

From time to time I look out the window to make sure I don't miss my stop. When the train is passing Trolley Square I remember to text Elysa to let her know I'm on my way home. Once the train leaves the Temple Square station I put away the book and make my way to the door. I have to be careful, since the train's ride is not terribly smooth, and I can't use my right arm to catch myself. That would be bad. But I can't just wait in my seat, because sometimes the stop is too short, and by the time I'm at the door the conductor has already shut the doors. That happened just yesterday, in fact, when I waited to long to get going.

The clock at the Arena station shows forty-one minutes past five when I get off the train. Now I need to hurry to the RFID reader to scan my card again. Luckily the cross walk light says walk for me just as I get there. I hurry along Third West past the Triad Center where KSL has their broadcast facilities, and get to North Temple just in time to push the "Walk" button. Seconds later I'm on the other side of the street, waiting for the light to let me cross to the next corner where the bus stop is.

When I get there I remember that I should get this week's issue of City Weekly, for which there is a dispenser right there. I get a copy out of the graffiti covered box, and when I look up the 520 just pulls up to the stop. I join the line of people getting on. The woman in front of me wants to know if that bus will get her to Redwood Road. The driver tells her she should wait for 517. When she gets out of my way I get on, and as I swipe my card past the reader I tell the driver, "I'm too impatient to wait for 517."

Instead of reading more of The Star Road I now read the City Weekly. Tom Morrow's cartoon often is funny, but this time it's some bit about Obama and Lieberman. It reminds me of when three decades ago I would hear people in Utah complain about Tip O'Neal, who was speaker of the House at the time. There is also an editorial about cigarette smoking, riffing on how people used to think it was cool, but not so much now. The writing is OK, but the subject isn't very interesting.

All the while the bus makes its way along the Ninth West corridor towards the north end of Rosepark. As it bounces across the streets I'm trying hard not to get tossed out of my seat, holding on to the newspaper with my right hand, and onto the bar over the seatback in front of me with my left. Reading always makes the time pass quickly, and I almost miss the place where I need to signal for my stop. However, I'm not the only one getting off, as a young fellow in a bicycle helmet retrieves his bike from the rack on the front of the bus. As I walk up 1000 North past the Day Riverside library, he passes me.

I'm now noticing the air. It has a kind of soupy smell to it, and I wonder if something is going on. It wouldn't be the first time that bad smells had been released into the neighborhood. If it isn't the water treatment plant a mile north from there, then it's one of the refineries a bit further along. But this time the smell isn't like any of those.

I reach Redwood Road, again with perfect timing. A few seconds after I push the button to cross, the light turns. I head south along Redwood Road. The air is cold, and the moisture is freezing out in tiny crystals of ice. They tickle my face, and at one point they are thick enough in the air that I can see them swirling and sparkling in the light of a street lamp. Very pretty!

As I pass Escalante Elementary School I text Elysa again that I'll be home soon. I think about how not so very long ago I would never have considered texting a trivial piece of information like that, but my current cell phone plan has unlimited texting, so why not?

The marquee in front of the school says it's just nine minutes past six. That is pretty much the fastest I've ever gotten home by bus!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously

Back in 1957, a year before I was born, B.F. Skinner published a little book titled Verbal Behavior. In it he argued that human language was nothing but another behavior which was produced by operant conditioning, the kind of training he had demonstrated to turn pigeons into expert bombardiers, or make rats afraid of dark spaces.

Set against this was Noam Chomsky's book Syntactic Structures, which was published in the same year. In it, Chomsky argued that language was the product of a set of rules, called transformational grammars. To demonstrate his point he came up with this sentence: "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously."

It looks like a sentence that's been thrown together in a hurry. It uses two adjectives, plus an adverb. A good writer would put a bit more effort into it. "Racism had fallen asleep for the first time. I'll do this right, it thought to itself. Sleep is not to be done lackadaisically. So racism put all of its effort into the matter. Its hypothalamus was soon sparking, and the nucleus of the solitary tract quivered with excitement."

But of course, Chomsky's point wasn't the meaning of the sentence. His point was the rarity of the sentence. As I pointed out, a good writer would not have said it that way, but even a poor writer was highly unlikely to ever have said such a thing. This was owing to Chomsky's choice of words. He reasoned that words such as colorless and green would not be juxtaposed, and that such an insubstantial thing as an idea would not be associated with such material properties as a color, or lack thereof, not to mention both at once. Nor would ideas sleep. The activity of sleep had been associated with a variety of descriptors, including dreamlessly, deeply, fitfully, restlessly, restfully, etc, but fury, a state of intensely aggressive emotional arousal, was unlikely to ever have occurred to someone writing or speaking of sleeping.

Skinner was premising his book in part on Claude Shannon's theory of language, published in the 1948 paper A Mathematical Theory of Communication. Shannon had found that, given one word to start with, some words were more likely to follow than others. This was known as a Markov chain. Skinner thought that, as people grow from childhood, they hear the words spoken by the adults around them. These words establish for them the order in which the words are to be used, along with the sense they bear.

Chomsky's view of things was instead that, look if I can make a sentence that clearly no one has said before, then the process has to be something like a set of general rules that may be used to produce new stuff.

Chomsky's theory has since been expanded. Most brain anatomists believe that the human brain consists of discrete parts. To produce language, some bits of the brain are used to create grammatically correct sentences, while other bits map words to meaning. Some other parts are responsible for transporting the result to the muscles of the mouth, throat, and chest for speaking, or to the muscles of the hand for writing. Conversely, when understanding speech different areas of the brain decode the sound into phonemes, construct words, assign meanings from context, fit grammar, and finally arrive at a sense for the entire speech. Reading passes visual perception to areas responsible for decoding symbols to the parts that assign meaning without necessarily ever producing any sort of unheard speech.

This separation of brain ability is demonstrable in stroke patients. Depending on the location of the damage, such a patient may be unable speak or understand spoken language, or both, read or write, or both, retrieve particular words, remember the names of people or things, hear language, or comprehend music or complex conversations. Since these symptoms are consistent with the location of the damage from one patient to the next, language psychologists now divide language comprehension and language production into discrete tasks. Each of these tasks is hosted by a specific area of the brain, and when that area is damaged the ability to perform that task may be affected.

Chomsky believed that children who are learning to speak are merely activating these various areas in the way they've been wired together. Hearing sounds, the brain learns the range of phonemes that are important in language. Hearing words, a particular structure of the brain assigns meaning from context. Hearing sentences, other parts of the brain discover how the grammar works. A child doesn't need to first hear something before saying it. Instead the brain learns how to do its job for a given language, and then goes ahead and does it.

This of course leaves a number of problems unanswered.

For example, how does a child who speaks more than one language learn to distinguish them from each other? Bilingual children do not generally confuse which language they are using. A child speaking both Russian and Hebrew will not mix Russian words into Hebrew sentences, nor toss Hebrew words into a Russian sentence. Nor will the child speak using Hebrew words but Russian grammar, or using Russian words but Hebrew grammar. Also, while an adult who learns a new language speaks it without a foreign accent only with great difficulty, a bilingual child will speak each language with a native speaker's accent.

How is all this possible? Language theorists have to assume that the brain structures that support these functions can support multiple languages, as well, but it is difficult to see how the evolutionary history of the species can explain this ability. Most evolutionary psychologists suggest that these kinds of abilities, just like the ability to read or write or do complex math (which also use specific brain structures which arguably cannot have evolved for those purposes), use brain structures that originally supported some entirely different behavior. But it is an admittedly unsatisfactory cop-out, not much better than that used by the last adherents to Skinner's theory. In fact, while computer programs are being successfully used to understand and produce natural language using Markov chains, none yet manage it nearly so well using Chomsky's theory of language production.

So human language has some tantalizing explanations, but at this time large parts of it are still open to revision as new things are discovered.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Rocky Part I

Cham's grandfather and grandmother built the house over two hundred years ago, when they came to Madrid and settled the valley. It was nestled in the arms of an extinct volcano he called Old Man, because the craggy cliffs seen from the South had the profile of a hawkish nose and beetling brows. Old Man had been extinct for over a million years, and its sagging slopes were dense with trees and undergrowth. Most of it was from Earth, and hence green, but in places the purple and orange of the native plants broke through. The result was, in Cham's opinion, more otherworldly looking than if Earth's growth had been absent, and only Madrid's plants had cloaked the mountain's flanks.

Cham was trudging up the mountain's side, chopping through the brush with his machete where it got too tangled. He was carrying, besides his provisions for a three day journey, the geoprobe the survey team had dropped off yesterday. His grandfather was busy bringing in the cattle. He had hired two extra hands, but they required supervision. That left Cham to deal with this new and unwelcome chore.

"Yo, pops," he said. After a moment his phone answered.

"'Sup, Cham?" His father's voice from orbit. It was nice to have him to talk to without a lag of minutes or even hours. Cham wondered if his mother was back, too. He might call her later.

"Just passing the time. I'm running an errand for Lieutenant Walker, you know, the new guy on the survey team? He showed up today with a probe he wants me to run up Old Man."

"Why didn't he run it up himself?"

"That's what I'm talking about," Cham said. "He's new, and he has a pretty high opinion of himself."

"Isn't your grandpa bringing in the cattle this week?"

"Yup. He hired a couple guys out of Midtown, but they can't be trusted to do it on their own, so he's out there riding herd on them."

"I hope he watches himself. Without you around to rescue him, would those hands help if something went wrong?"

"No idea. I told him to make a fresh backup, just in case, though. Right after I made mine."

"Huh. Do you have any idea why the survey team has a bug up their ass?"

"No. And Mister Lieutenant High and Mighty Walker wasn't telling, either, even though I asked. He said just do it, and left."

"Well, be careful. Even with a backup it's a pain when something happens. I'm speaking from experience."

"Sure, pops, thanks."

Their conversation drifted off to less consequential things, and eventually Cham said good bye and the phone cut off. Cham brought in a stream of music and continued up the mountain. A stretch of purple Madridian growth blocked his path, and he looked for a way around. He didn't trust himself to be able to tell what was safe to chop, and what should be left alone. Madridian plants produced some saps that people were wildly allergic to.

He had to climb up out of the cut he'd been following. The climb left him breathless. He pulled himself along as scree and gravel rolled out from under his feet, but eventually he stood on a narrow neck of rock that connected to one of the few barren spots on the mountain side, where a recent slide had produced a fan of dirt and gravel and plant debris.

Above him loomed the ancient columns of basalt surrounding the collapsed crater of Old Man. He could cross the debris field and be there by evening, or he could attempt to find a way around, and spend an extra day on the mountain. He called up a recent orbital photo and overlayed a topgraphical map. The photo did not show the slide, so for this part of the mountain the map and the photo were no pretty much useless.

Cham decided to risk it. He picked a path through the boulders at the base of the slide, and soon found himself climbing across mounds of gravel. Here and there trees stuck up through the mess, some still holding on to wilting green or purple. Cham didn't dare trust them to hold his weight. There was no telling when the unconsolidated ground might shift, and a support might suddenly turn and smash a limb.

Uncounted hills of gravel and several close calls later, Cham found himself at the foot of the cliffs. He had been planning on using a path his grandfather had mapped out years ago, but that path now started almost two hundred meters above where he stood, and sheer basalt lay between.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Nonsequitur with cold medicine

Outside it was snowing again. I pulled my jacket closer around my shoulders. The thermostat was turned up to 80, but it still felt cold. My nose seemed to be running again. I got a precautionary tissue from the dispenser, drank some more tea, and blew my nose. After popping a couple of day-time cold capsules, I got back to the task at hand.

A distributor in Wisconsin was complaining that his order hadn't arrived. Why didn't he check the tracking himself? I sighed, looked up the number, and checked the status. The shipment was stuck in Nebraska, and judging from the weather reports, it wasn't budging today. I emailed Mark, the fellow waiting in Milwaukee.

"Too much snow in Omaha," I said. "Have a beer on me."

"Thanks, I'm LDS," Mark emailed back.

Last Day Sober? Liver Disease Sickness? Did he misspell LSD? I wasn't sure what Mark meant, so I left it at that. I hoped he was taking a taxi home. My nose was running again, and I went for another tissue. My waste basket was looking pretty full.

While I was rummaging in the closet for a new waste basket liner, the phone rang.

"AAA Shipping, this is Mike," I answered.

"Mike, did you get my note about today's meeting?"

It was the boss. Did he read my email this morning, the one where I told him I was too sick to come in, and that I'd be working from home today?

"Yes, I did," I said.

"Well, it starts in 30 minutes. Where are you?"

He'd called me at home, not on my cell phone, so that obviously was a rhetorical question.

"Sorry, Jim," I said. "I'm in line for the Dead Horse lift, and I don't want to lose my place."

Jim isn't stupid, so he caught on right away.

"I know it's nice weather for skiing, but you could have picked a better day," he told me.

"And miss all the pretty girls?" I asked. A sneeze attacked out of nowhere, and I barely managed to grab a tissue.

"Well, take pictures," Jim said. "I'll make up some excuse for you."

"Thanks," I told him. "I owe you one."

After I hung up I noticed three more emails had arrived. The waste basket liner had somehow ended up on the floor under my desk, and I crawled after it before dealing with the new messages. The cold medicine was kicking in, and my sinuses drained with an audible flush.

"Enter Subject" was the subject of the next message. I assumed it was sent using some kind of smart phone, where it was too much trouble to enter a subject.

"12 crates on loading dock, 10 ordered," was the entirety of the text. I had no way of knowing which order that was referring to. The message came from robx3255 at a generic mobile provider's address. He wasn't in my contact list, either. Past experience said that asking for an order ID would result in endless frustration as a variety of random character strings would be sent, none of which matched an actual order. I flagged the email and skipped to the next message, hoping inspiration would strike in the next ten minutes.

This time it was my mom. I should have never let her know my email address.

"Michael," it started. She always calls me that.

I like Mike. All my friends call me Mike. But to Mom I'm Michael. She hates the name Mike. "It's barely better than Mickey," she'd told me once. I didn't tell her that my fondest dream had been to have my friends call me Mickey. Mickey Mouse. Mickey Spillane. Mickey Mantle. That was a cool name. I never had the guts to tell my friends, though, so I was Mike. I often wondered what she'd have said if I had managed to get people to call me Mickey.

"Your dad wants to ask you about Sunday evening. Are you at home or at work?" She doesn't like to call my cell, ever since I told her about minutes.

"I have a thousand minutes in my plan," I told her. "Most months I use less than half." But Mom still worries that she'll use up all my minutes.

"I'm at home," I replied.

Next was a short confirmation from Jay in Albuquerque. The shipment was complete and signed off. I made a note in the database.

My dad called.

"Are we still on?" he wanted to know.

"Sure. Is there anything you want me to bring?"

"No, I think I've got all we need. Just be careful. It's supposed to snow again."

I knew that. I told him so and after we said good bye I hung up.

No new messages, and one waiting for inspiration. I emailed Jim.

"Do you know someone who sends smart phone messages as robx3255?"

His reply came immediately.

"Sorry, I'm in a meeting. If you need immediate assistance, email Mike."

That's right. The meeting. So much for having him check his contacts.

I opened the email from robx3255 again.

"Thanks for your note," I wrote. "I'm currently away from my desk. If you need immediate assistance, email Jim."

I'd have to owe Jim twice.