Thursday, June 30, 2005


Nichols' Hollow was blessed, some would say cursed (but no one usually listened to them), in that it had a faerie ring. The ring had been there as long as Nichols' Hollow had been, and the little folk who inhabited it brought health, long life and good fortune to all the people of the town for centuries. Even as Nichols' Hollow's farms and fields gave way to highways and strip malls, the woods around the faerie ring stayed. The faerie ring sat in the midst of a large park these days, and was open to all, day or night, provided the price could be paid.

The price was never more than anyone could pay: a flower, some food, an unwanted name... and the magic that was wrought often bordered on miraculous.

Then one day, the faerie ring was gone.

In its place stood a large stone block, the words "Magic Box" written in stylish runes on its sides. When the people of Nichols Hollow approached, they were met by the same gnomes and pixies they always saw, but there was something different about them now. They seemed dejected, listless, and dressed in matching smocks over drab rags.

An old gnome noticed them and said, in a voice desperate for cheer yet unable to find any, "Welcome to Magic Box. We offer all the latest spells, hexes and cures at the most affordable prices around. All major credit cards accepted. How may we be of service today?"

Ogden Wilson, mayor of Nichols Hollow, puffed up his chest and blew out his thick mustache. He began to grow red in the face, and blustered a lot. "Magic Box? Major credit-- well, I never. Affordable prices?!" He paced to and fro before the squat ugly stone block. "My wife made the rapsberry pie you like so much. I was coming to talk to you about the weather for the Founders parade and carnival this Saturday."

A pixie fluttered down from atop the block, so smothered in apathy, her glow had dimmed to a dull shimmer. "The list of items that will not be accepted as currency by any Magic Box store includes, but is not limited to, the following: Food, drink, knick-knacks, gew-gaws, doo-dads or bric-a-brac. Nor will any types of flora, fauna or personal identifiers."

She had more to say, but lacked the will. Another gnome stepped in. "Accepted for payment will be: cash, all major credit cards, in-store financing and checks (with valid identification)."

The mayor sighed, pulling out his wallet. "Fine." He removed one of his credit cards. "How much to insure a nice sunny day for Saturday?"

The gnome glanced at the card, then back up at the mayor, boredom evident on his face. "I don't do weather. I work the cures department. Dave does weather."

"What? Since when do you specialize?"

The gnome shrugged. "Store policy, sir."

The mayor struggled to keep his temper in check. "Okay. Then could you please get me someone who is in charge of the weather?"

"You wanna talk to Dave?"

"Yes! ::ahem:: I mean, yes. Yes, I'd like to talk to Dave. About the weather for Saturday."

"Dave's not in today. But he'll be in tomorrow around five."

The mayor nearly exploded. He was a turning a deep crimson now, blowing furiously through his mustache. "Five TOMORROW?! Five to--" He stopped, shook his head. Then he looked down at the gnome, who looked back up disinterestedly. "I want to talk to a manager."

Just then, a small imp in a tailored suit appeared at Mayor Wilson's elbow. "Yes sir. Is there a problem?"

"Is there a problem?! You're damn right there is! Our faeries have gone surly, one of them is named Dave, he's been put in charge of the weather but won't be here till tomorrow and our bloody faerie ring has been replaced with THIS wretched monstrosity!"

The imp flashed a quick smile. It was flat and mildly patronizing and it died sometime before reaching his eyes. "Ah. Yes. Well sir, while I'm sure you and the other fine folks here in..."

"Nichols' Hollow."

"Right. I'm sure you all loved your faerie ring quite a bit. I know how hard accepting change can be, but that faerie ring was old. Worn-out. Its magic was unregulated, potentially dangerous... well, we at FaerieCo decided that we--"

"Who?" Mayor Wilson felt it was time to try asserting some control over the conversation.

"FaerieCo," the imp said, determined not to let him. "We're a multi-dimensional corporation that has recently acquired all rights, ownership and licenses pertaining to magical structures, devices and creatures living in the... you know what? I'm not going to bore you with a bunch of legal nonsense." The imp patted the mayor on the back. "Just trust me, Magic Box will do way more than that old faerie ring used to. I guarantee you'll love it." And with that, he disappeared.

Life went on in Nichols' Hollow pretty much as it always had after that, except they weren't as healthy, they were dying a bit younger than usual and fortune seemed to have opted to smile on another town for a while. The spells from the Magic Box were sub-par, but it was the only place to get them, and they had come to rely on them over the centuries. Unfortunately, the sub-par spells were costing an awful lot of money, and the people of Nichols' Hollow soon ran up a great deal of debt.

It was then the impish manager came back and offered a new method of payment called the karma card. With it, customers could pay down debts by transferring their good karma to FaerieCo. Those with a great deal of debt could also cash in their souls to wipe their credit clean. There were some who began to protest the Magic Box and FaerieCo then, claiming they would make all the people of Nichols' Hollow bankrupt and soulless. The manager dismissed the protestors as "hippie agitators".

Unfortunately for FaerieCo, a powerful witch was among the protestors, and she uncovered evidence that the Board of Directors knowingly approved the use of black magic in constructing the Magic Boxes. She contacted the proper authorities, and the Board of FaerieCo were arrested. The manager was implicated in a related accounting scam and the Nichols' Hollow Magic Box closed down.

The people of Nichols' Hollow rallied then, and under the witch's direction, carved up the abandoned Magic Box to create a stone circle where the faerie ring once stood. The faeries returned, looking much happier and motivated, and while the magic still wasn't quite what it was from the faerie ring, it was far superior to anything from the Magic Box.

And they've begun accepting names and pie again.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

She Was Supposed to Be the Crazy One

"We've decided you'll be the crazy one."

The producer said that as he pushed the contract across the desk for her to sign. She signed. She knew what it said. She would be stuck in a house with 5 strangers, subjected to whatever behaviors her housemates and the crew chose to display, and forced to participate in treacherous athletic competition or something vile and unthinkable on nearly a daily basis. She would be given a personality type to play to which would be an exaggerated extrapolation of her real one.

She was the crazy one. They told her so. Later, she would be so insistent of this fact. They told her she was the crazy one. She was just trying to do her best. She had to win. If she got that $5 million, she could get her mother that stem cell treatment they'd developed. She'd be able to walk again, and breathe on her own. For her mother, she would be the crazy one.

But she was shy. She'd never been crazy in her life. She told the producer this.

"Yeah," he said, glancing at his watch. "Well, we already had a shy one, and there weren't any 'workable' crazy applicants this time around, so... you're the crazy one." He began tidying up his papers and putting them in his briefcase. "So, those are your copies, keep them somewhere safe, and if there aren't anymore questions I'll--"

"How am I supposed to be crazy? How do I be the crazy one?" She asked him grabbing his arm before he could walk away.

He extricated his arm from her grip and shrugged, smoothing his sleeve. "From what I've seen, being drunk as often as possible helps. Stoned would also work, though I can't officially condone drug use. If you'll excuse me."

She sat back down at the table, rejected applicants filing out and workers beginning to pack everything up around her. With a sigh, she slumped her shoulders as the table she'd been sitting at was taken away. She finally decided to leave when they came to take the chair. She folded her contracts and stuffed them into her jacket as she walked out.

The first night in the house, she got blind drunk. She remembered little of the night, but watching footage the next day she discovered she had slept with all three male roommates and had hit on the other girl. She called the producers.

"But now I'm the slut," she complained.

"It's fine, we need one of those too," the producers assured her. "The crazy one usually ends up the slut, which is why we prefer crazy girls to crazy guys."

She hung up the phone and sighed. For her mother, she'd be the slut.

Later that afternoon, she was forced to eat a bowl of live spiders or risk being thrown off the show. She was still nursing a wicked hangover, and she vomited the spiders back up all over herself. She'd managed to keep them down long enough to pass the challenge. She could do it. She'd do this for her mom.

That night she got drunk again, this time stripping for an entire street full of tourists in the downtown area. She was arrested, and woke up in the drunk tank. Her housemates came to bail her out, and she picked a fight with one of them. It seemed crazy, and therefore something she should do. But when she got home she cooked everyone omelets, to thank them for bailing her out, and everyone was friends again. That night, they all drank at home, and she ended up sleeping with two of the housemates that night. The next day, she started drinking at breakfast, and went out to get a tattoo. She got one a week while on the show, hoping all this was satisfying the need for crazy.

Apparently it was. Ratings were high, and she was listed as most people's main reason for watching. The producers locked her into a new contract. It promised double the offered prize money to stay on through the season, with a third of that offered up-front. She signed gleefully, not bothering to read it all that thoroughly. With the money she'd get immediately, she could get her mother's therapy started.

Everyone was jealous of her then, and the housemates treated her cruelly. They'd take her out to the clubs, and when she'd had too much to drink, hire cabs to drive her aimlessly around the city and finally dump her in an alley. They trashed her room on a regular basis and harassed her day and night. She responded by becoming more outrageous. She started doing her drinking at home, and would usually rail drunkenly at the housemates for hours after they came home. But ratings were up, people loved her, so she kept it going. Think of Mom's treatment, she thought to herself. It's only one more month.

Then the news came. The producers called. Her mother had died. She was devastated. So much so that even her hateful roommates showed some manner of sympathy. She decided to leave the show then and there. With her mother gone, there was no more reason to do this.

But the producers weren't having it. Part of the new contract she'd signed had said that receipt of the advance money implied her agreement to remain on the show for the full season. Furthermore, it turned over all proprietary and broadcast rights for her mother's funeral and wake, meaning the entire cast was going to come with her to the funeral.

It was a disaster. Half of them were drunk, and one even urinated into the open grave. She was mortified. Her family would not speak with her, and forbade her from staying with them after the funeral. She went back to the house she shared with 5 monsters. She didn't know what to do.

Then the producers called.

"We're thinking the whole thing with your mother's funeral should probably call for some pretty crazy behavior. Sweeps is coming up, and there's a bonus in it for you if you can drink yourself into a temporary coma. Heh heh. I'm kidding. I never said that. Anyway, sorry for everything and all that. Back at it."

She stared at the phone, the dial tone a pleasant hum in her ear. Then she hung it up.

She killed the crew first, while her housemates were partying in the hot tub. No one caught it on camera. She left one camera operator alive to film everything she did next. She tore down the stationary cameras positioned around the house and then made her way to the hot tub room.

When they found her, hours later, she was sitting fully-dressed in the hot tub, the dismembered corpses of her housemates strewn about the room, the traumatized cameraman still running film on her. She was covered in blood and the water in the hot tub churned a red froth. She carved a random forearm absently with the cleaver she'd done the killing with.

"No no, it's okay," she said to the police as they pulled her out of the tub and handcuffed her.

"I'm the crazy one."

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The End of His Days

He was tired.

Lately, it was all he could do to get out of bed in the morning. Oh, he was as strong as he ever was; stronger, if the instruments in the Citadel's laboratory were to be believed. All his power levels were higher than they'd ever been, with every indication that he'd continue to become even more powerful. But, there was a weariness he'd never felt before.

He still got out and did the odd rescue, but most days he just wandered the empty halls of his Citadel. He always ended up back in the Trophy Room, where he could see her. Her statue, at any rate. It had been over 200 years since she died, and the pain was still as fresh as yesterday.

And after she died, well, the others had all gone soon after. The Eternity War. Omnipotus, a god-like being from a broken universe had come to theirs to devour it. As they always did, he and his friends fought it. It, and its endless horde of void creatures. They swarmed over the Earth, destroying everyone they so much as touched.

That was how they lost The Black Peregrine. He was on crowd control with the other non-powered heroes, keeping the civilians safe while the powerhouses took the fight to the invaders' home dimension. The Black Peregrine threw himself between a void creature and a family. He was obliterated instantly, but he managed to take the thing with him when he went. Others followed: Speed King, The Signalman, Buck Spinner and His Fighting Hipsters... so many dead.

In the end, the few remaining heroes managed to build a celestial cage out of the tattered remnants of the broken universe, trapping Omnipotus and its horde of creatures forever. But it was a bitter price they paid. Barely a handful of heroes left, and most of them died soon after; some on cases, some killed by their villains, a few actually killed themselves. The Eternity War had been hard on the survivors.

Finally, it was just him, as it had been so long ago. For a while he'd taken some comfort in the company of The Grey Goddess, but she grew tired of his increasing melancholy, and, as she put it, "coming in second against a corpse". She left him, returning to the realm of pure magic from which she came. He heard soon after that she'd had a child. He often wondered if it was his. He never bothered to find out.

He flew up to the observation lounge and looked out onto the Earth, turning below him. He smiled. The sight of his adopted homeworld could still do that to him; she still made him smile. He'd sworn an oath, so many decades ago, to always keep her safe. To protect her and her children from all threats. To die for them, if need be.

He wondered now if they even needed him to. While he did still perform the odd rescue, no one had really seen him in years. And they didn't seem to miss him, or any of the others, really. Most of the old villains had died in the War too, and, like the heroes, no new ones had risen to take their place.

He'd thought that odd, at first. Time was, you couldn't go a day without meeting some kid in a cape who'd been exposed to an experimental isotope or hit with a mysterious ray from space, or any of a thousand other accidents and mishaps, and had come away with tremendous powers. That never happened any more. Not since the War. For a while, he'd investigated the phenomenon, suspecting a plot. But eventually, he gave it up. There was no one left to plot against him. No schemes to foil.

Nothing to do.

He told himself he should be happy. Humanity could solve their own problems now. They didn't need him.

But he needed them. Needed to help them. Needed to save them. Needed it so badly, sometimes he thought that maybe if they weren't so self-sufficient, if they suffered a catastrophe great enough that their civilization was on the brink... he started thinking of the ways he could... no. No! That was not what he did.

It bothered him how often he needed to remind himself of that lately. Too often, by his reckoning. So there was really only one thing for it. He moved the Citadel out of Earth's orbit, toward deep space. He took one last walk around the Citadel, pausing in the Trophy Room to look at her one more time. He kissed the cold metal cheek of her statue. She would have wanted him to do this, he thought. Given the alternative, she would have wanted this.

Fifteen seconds after keying the autodestruct, he felt his skin turn to ash and he smiled. He would die doing what he loved best, saving them. He would die honoring his vow, to protect the Earth and her children from all threats.

Even him.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

First Trip to the Imaginarium

He was just five when his parents took him to the imaginarium for the first time. He couldn't appreciate what it was at first, what it really stood for, he only knew afterward that he really liked the dragons the best, though his older sister kept wanting to go on another unicorn ride and he only got to see the dragon show once. But that was okay, because his dad took him to the goblin house, and that was pretty cool, even though his mom said it was too scary for him.

It wasn't until later that he realized what the imaginariums were for. They were the last refuges for imaginary creatures. The entire South Island of New Zealand was being converted into a preserve, so that they could all roam free and interact naturally. They would then start introducing the people from the Hero Museum, so the creatures had stories to live in.

It wasn't until he learned to read that he discovered why the imaginary were going extinct.

No one was reading books any more, so the stories weren't being told enough. Without the stories being told, the creatures and heroes began to die off. They were saved from extinction by a supreme act of conservation and a bit of tinkering with the fabric of space-time and brought to the real world to live in zoos.

But it wasn't enough. They couldn't breed in captivity, and some of them were simply dying. And the heroes were aging quickly, along with not breeding, so were rapidly growing too old to provide context to the creatures on the preserve. The imaginariums closed to the public only a year and a half after his first visit. His parents had taken him when they did because they weren't sure how much longer the creatures would be around. As it was, three years and continuous degradation left the imaginariums in ruins. Only the long-lived creatures were left, and most of them had become tired and lethargic. So his parents read him the stories about the creatures and heroes he'd seen, and he asked for them again and again.

Three years later researchers on the South Island Preserve watched helplessly as the last magical creature, a lonely dragon, died in front of them. By his eighth birthday, most of the creatures he'd seen with his own eyes were barely remembered by many of the people around him.

He was in the attic months after and he found a box of his parents' old books. He opened a book and began to read. It was hard. The letters were smaller than he was used to, but the words were bigger and he didn't understand most of them. He could usually figure it out from what was going on around the word, but still, it was slow going.

But the story had him by then, and he spent the afternoon in that dusty attic, reading by portable lamplight until his mom called him down to dinner. He brought the book with him and asked his dad to bring the box down after dinner. He read from dinner to bedtime, and tried for a little bit after, until his mom caught him at it and took his flashlight.

That night, he dreamed about dragons.

Friday, June 24, 2005

American Future Girl Crazy Crazy Make President

He paced back and forth in front of the window. He was nervous, scared, anxious. All those things he wasn't supposed to be any more. He'd been President of the United States for 250 years, and the world was finally America. Of course, America wasn't doing so well any more, and so went the world, but he was fine. He'd always be fine. It's what they promised. Hell, between the stem cell therapy and the prosthetic surgeries, he didn't seem a day over 85. He'd outlived them all, even those hippie freaknicks who'd saturated the air at the 2188 Inaugural Ball with concentrated liquid ecstasy. He didn't remember ever nailing the original Laura as hard as he did her 175th clone that night. And he did it on television, and called her a dirty little boy the entire time, and no one said a word. He could rape old blind men in a church on Easter Sunday if he wanted and no one would say a word.

So why was he so scared? Why was he so scared of this one stupid woman who didn't know enough to concede like the last victorious opposition candidate over 100 years ago?

He should talk to Karl. Karl could fix anything. Karl always knew just what to say.

He wrapped his flag tighter around his thin, bloated shivering frame and headed for the door. Decades ago he had declared that he would wear no other clothing save the American Flag. And so he went everywhere with a large flag wrapped around himself. Others began emulating his mode of dress, but he had them shot. He didn't want this becoming a fashion thing.

He bumped into his Vice President, DIC4000, on his way out the door.

"I'm going to see Karl," he told it, sounding as though he was asking permission.

"Very good, Mr. President," it told him, as though it was granting it. They walked the rest of the way to see Karl together.

Once there, DIC4000 took down the jar and placed it on the altar. A human brain sat in the jar, suspended in a preserving fluid. Even with the fluid, it had dried and shrunk considerably.

The president knelt before it. "Karl," he said, showing his desperation. "Karl, what do I do? She's... she can't become president, she can't! I'm the President!"

A drop of condensation ran down the side of the jar.

"Don't you think I tried that?" the president screamed at the brain in the jar. "She can't be killed! My best people have tried! She isn't human! No family, no scandals in her past. No real past to speak of, and yet she still wins the election by a landslide!"

A small bubble made its way slowly upward through the thick preserving fluid.

"Oh sure I've heard the stories. She was born on November 7, 2000. She can't die and doesn't age, because she carries a piece of the soul of America inside her." He threw his hands up dismissively. "Nonsense. Her 'legends' say she came from the old State Orphanages, where she ended up when her parents were killed trying to sneak her across the border into Canada." He chuckled to remember Canada.

The small bubble burst at the top of the preserving fluid.

"I did check the records. Yes, there was an Ember Layton in the Newark Orphanage from 2009 to 2015. So what? This girl also had the right birthday, so anyone trying to make a name for herself could make good use of the record."

More condensation ran off the jar and pooled around it.

"Look, I don't care if she is here to 'make real the myth of America' or whatever foolishness they're spouting, I'm still President. She can't take it from me if I don't want to give it up. She can't take it from me if I don't want to give it up!"

"Ummm, Mr. President?"

George's eyes focused and he roused from his fugue state. Did he actually yell that? He could never be sure, but--

Oh damn. There were people around. Dick and Rummy and some other guys. Crap. Condi too.

He'd never had the dream in front of people before. Funny how he never had it while sleeping, and how it seemed to be episodic in nature, each dream a continuation of the last. What did that mean?

"Mr. President? Are you okay?"

Crap. They're still here. Maybe if he humored them a while with some work, they'd let him alone.

Alone to dream.

Thursday, June 23, 2005


Adam looked at the apple. He'd been staring at it for the better part of the afternoon.

Afternoon. He mulled the word over in his mind. That's what Eve called the time before the sun set. Afternoon. Eve had lots of new words now. And she could make things. Like those... clothes she was wearing. Adam didn't know what clothes were, or why she suddenly needed them. Eve said eating the apple would make him understand.

But he wasn't sure he wanted to understand. Just yesterday, neither of them understood much of anything save eating and sleeping and sex. And naming all the animals. That was fun. That was... intelligent. He ran that word around his mind, too. Another of Eve's. Adam sighed. He tried naming a nearby animal just to make himself feel better, then realized it was already a duck and felt worse.

Eve still ate and slept and had sex, but she changed the way she did all three. She didn't just eat fruit off the tree any more. No. Now food had to be "prepared". Adam was getting pretty tired of these new words; he knew that much, even without Eve's special apple. She also needed to sleep on something called a "bed" now. And sex! All these new positions! And sometimes, she wasn't even in the mood! Not in the mood? Since when?

And she was talking about leaving the garden. She wanted to see what was "out there". Adam didn't even know there was an "out there". He didn't even know the garden was called "the garden". He'd always called it "the world".

He was going to have to eat the apple. He didn't want Eve to leave him, but even if she stayed, she was too different now. She'd get bored of him and ask God to make her a new man.

God! That's it! He'd ask God what to do!

God always knew what to do. Adam shook his head and laughed. He really must be pretty thick, if it took him this long to ask God's advice.

Later, he was talking to God under his favorite tree. Well, Adam was under his favorite tree. God was his usual disembodied omnipresent self.

"Of course you should eat the apple," God said. "Why else do you think I put it there? Did you expect to laze around the garden forever; eating all the food you could want, having risk-free sex and naming ducks over and over for the rest of your life?"

Adam was a bit taken aback at this. He'd actually intended to do just that. "Well, I... uh, that is... well, there was this serpent, and I thought--"

"I put the serpent there too."

"Y-you did? But..."

God heaved a patient sigh. "Adam, I'm God. If something is there, it's because I put it there." He sighed again. "Look, just eat the apple. Everyone has to grow up sometime. Or, at least, they will. Once there is an 'everyone'."

"But wait," Adam said, grasping at anything to help his case. "You said yourself, when we first came to the garden, that we weren't supposed to eat the fruit from that tree."

God's voice grew impatient. "I just meant you weren't supposed to eat it THEN. You weren't ready for it yet. Now you are. Just eat the damn apple."

Adam sat and looked at the apple some more. He still didn't understand. He didn't understand why things couldn't just stay the way they were. He'd been happy with the way things were. He was comfortable. He...

He ate the apple.

And understood.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

That Special Someone

It had been so long since he'd laughed like this. Just a deep full belly laugh, what his mom used to call "laughing from the soul". Wow, it felt good. Even more so since he couldn't stop. He just kept laughing and laughing. He doubled over, clutching his stomach as he continued to laugh.

He stood, wiping tears from his eyes. He sighed, and looked around the room. This brought fresh peals of laughter and he doubled over again. God, but he just felt so GOOD! For the longest time, he'd been in the worst funk. Nothing had been going right for him. Between his lousy job, lack of any real friends and the fear that would just creep up on him unawares... well, he'd had better times in his life, and few that were worse.

But then he met her. And she brought joy back into his life. She loved him, truly and deeply, and he didn't think there had ever been a woman who'd felt that way. So many of his relationships had been polite distant affairs, where he felt like the women had only been there until they were gone.

Then he met her. She was wonderful. Beautiful, smart, funny... and she loved him. He knew it. From the way she looked at him when she told him so, to the way her body clung to his when they made love and the way she would stare deeply into his eyes during her orgasms, he just knew. She was the one. She shared everything with him, and let him into her life.

And she made him laugh.

Finally, he was able to stop laughing. He wiped his eyes again and went to find her. He found her in the bathroom, kneeling next to the tub. She looked up at him and smiled, that special smile she saved only for him.

"Could you give me a hand with this?" she asked.

"Sure honey," he said, a small contented chuckle escaping his lips. "I'm all done in the bedroom, if you want to check."

She smiled again and kissed his cheek, then walked out of the bathroom, leaving him to finish up. He grinned and began to whistle, picking up the hacksaw.

The arms generally came off with no trouble, likewise the head. The legs usually required some extra muscle, so he always had to finish for her.

But he didn't mind.

She made him laugh.

Sunday, June 19, 2005


The shadow of an airship darkened his steps a few moments, then moved on, intersecting the shadow of another along the way. No one paid them any mind, and no one looked up. He'd stopped looking up, finally, but it was hard sometimes not to stare at the shadows.

Airships. A sentient city. A world free of want or disease or deprivation. This was where he'd ended up. He wasn't prepared. He'd been headed to the 14th Century, to study the plagues. But something had gone wrong in transit and he'd wound up in the future. That was almost two weeks ago, and he had no way of knowing if he'd ever be going back to his present. He--

A woman lurched out of an open door, stumbling into him. She gripped his shirt, mumbled gibberish, then collapsed at his feet. He looked around, suddenly realizing where he was. This was Slumtown, a place for bored citizens to go and wallow. It was a relatively new concept, as most vice and depravity had also been eradicated from the world. The Slumtowns had been the brainchild of a theme park conglomerate, and quickly gained in popularity with the people. Most of the people, at any rate. There were some who considered the Slumtowns a step backward, while still others lobbied the government for new laws. The conglomerate was one of the owners of the government however, so not much was done. Most citizens tried slumming only once or twice anyway, preferring the order of their daily Routines. Enough others did it on the weekends and vacations to make things profitable, and only the very few found themselves unable to ever leave. He'd only need to walk a block or two south to the prostitute's quarter to see where some of them end up.

He looked up at the building the woman had staggered out of. The sign over the door said Le Galleria. He recognized it. It was an upscale vice den that catered to "slummers", as they were called. The woman at his feet was clearly enjoying their 4-day, 5-night all-inclusive junkie vacation. Judging by the fact that no one came out to get her, he could only assume it was the 5th night. The hotel threw its junkie guests out to sleep on the street the 5th night, and refused to let them back in the next day or to give them more heroin. He stepped over her and walked on, hoping she'd paid extra for the withdrawal package, or she'd have a tough time getting back to her Routine.

The Routine. That was the hardest thing for him to adjust to. Every citizen of the world had to do the same thing every day, barring vacation time, with slight variations on the weekends. Each person had a different routine from the next, but each day in that Routine was exactly the same as the one that preceded it. Same bedtime, same waking time, the same food at the same time and the same tasks at the same job, every single day. His Routine involved wandering the city all day before sleeping at one of the city's free housing centers. Everyone had their basic needs met no matter what they did, but those who were willing to work could earn themselves better lives. Regardless of the work chosen however, that would be the only work done by that person for the rest of their lives, until mandatory retirement at age 120, followed by mandatory death at 135. He'd been thinking about the kind of work he could do, and if he'd be willing to do it for the rest of his--

The familiar hole in time opened up around him, depositing him in the mid-14th Century. A woman coughed violently, then fell down in a pile of filth next to the rutted dirt road. He smiled. This was more like it. He pulled out his datapad and began taking notes.

He'd be sure to complain to dispatch about the whole future glitch when he got back, but for now that textbook wasn't going to research itself.

Friday, June 17, 2005

At the Home for Retired Robots

LMBot627 hovered across the hall, his various cleaning apparatus whirring and spinning as he went, making the place clean and sparkling. He was of a recent generation of light maintenance robot; still new enough to have compatible hardware with most of the pleasure terminals at the electric clubs.

Not like these poor bastards, he thought. Some of them can't even run on modern power cells. They're hooked up to so many adapters, they just stand in one place and click binary all day. The regular blink in their eyes is the only thing telling you their processors are still working.

"Hey, 627!" A rasping hollow voice modulated from an alcove across the hall. JBot17 was an old light maintenance robot. Most of his tools didn't work, he actually used wheels to get around and he had a portable power adapter bolted to him now, but his processor still ran, and his basic functions could still be called. He was also incredibly annoying. "Hey, you missed a spot over here!"

LMBot627 hovered over, cleaned up the bits of rust that had flaked off the old robot and moved quickly away. He was mere nanoseconds away from the end of his shift, and he had plans with a stimulator robot before he shut down for his two hour recharge.

He added an entry to the "fukoldrobots.mem6" file on his secondary drive which read, "If you scraped all the rust of his battered old chassis, all you'd be left with is three vacuum tubes, half an optic and a decaying tape drive. I hate old robots."

His internal clock pinged. His cleaning apparatus slowed to a stop. He was done for the day. Time to go party, and forget these old losers.

JBot17 watched LMBot627 hover out the door. He accessed his memory back-ups regarding his own time as a cutting edge janitor-bot. They were still called "janitor-bots" back then. That was before the new dignity upgrades made the term offensive. Just one more reason the newer robots were less efficient than the ones from his day.

Why, in JBot17's day, robots didn't even come equipped with pleasure centers. They did their jobs and went in for recharge. There was no recreation. Robots didn't intentionally fry their circuitry for fun. Every so often they would download some entertainment, but nothing so outlandish as this generation with their electric clubs and their stimulator robots and Man knew what else.

It was all the 100 series' fault, he thought. They were the first ones made with pleasure centers and enjoyment modules. Every robot made since hasn't been worth a damn. He should--

When JBot17 booted up again, he was sprawled in an alley behind the Home. He must have crashed again. But why did it take so long to reboot this time? And why was he tossed out rather than given a diagnostic? He tried to access his error log but couldn't. In fact, he could feel himself losing function rapidly. LMBot627 and his friends were busy kicking him into pieces.

"I've been wanting to do this-this-this a lonnnggggg time, you old junkerrrrr," LMBot627 said. Before JBot17's optics faded, he noticed the newer robots' optics flickering. That and the speech glitches suggested they were malfunctioning on circuit stims from the electric clubs. Their hardware was so fried, none of this would be written to their memory files.

Not that it mattered much to JBot17. His main processor had just been crushed under the thick treads of a bouncer-bot.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

God Speaks to Her

She could still see him, still hear his voice. He stood beside her, whispering the secrets of the universe into her ear.

But he wasn't supposed to. They'd put the chip in her brain. It shocked her central nervous system whenever she saw him or heard his voice. They said after a few times, he'd go away completely. He was just a hallucination. The chip was supposed to make him go away.

But it hadn't. And she'd been shocked so many times she'd lost the use of her legs. She was mostly blind in her left eye, and her right arm spasmed violently at least twice a day. But he was still there, still talking to her, still flooding her mind with radiance and more knowledge than she could handle. She didn't want to know how the universe was really created, or the true origins of humanity. She just wanted him to go away. But he wouldn't. He wouldn't leave her alone.

When they found her, days later, she'd managed to carve the chip out of the back of her skull, along with a section of brain tissue. She'd cut her eyes out (they still sat on the table next to her) and had driven knitting needles into her ears. On the wall, she'd managed to write one last message before she finally died.

"He's Still Here".

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Neighborhood Watch

He was just shoving a pair of pants into his backpack, when he heard the dreaded “ding” that preceded the television turning itself on.

“You will be seated, neighbor,” the television requested sternly, with digital ebullience, “and enjoy the programming selected for you.”

He continued to pack, ignoring the perma-grinned face of the perky newswoman on the screen. His apartment was much too small to escape the bubbly detachment of her voice, however.

“Thank you for tuning in to another installment of Neighborhood Voice,” she said. “Our top stories of the evening: Neighborhood Watchdogs apprehended six teenagers attempting to scale the Perimeter Wall earlier this afternoon. Judging the youths’ intentions to be hostile, the Watchdog commander ordered her people to arrest the teens. They were brought to the Internment Center, where they will serve a mandatory sentence of forty-eight hours rehabilitation time, after which they shall be remanded to the custody of their parents.”

“Yeah right,” he muttered, rooting through his closet. “Two days of vicious beatings, followed by house arrest, simply for not wanting to live in a Patrolled Community.” He found the boots he was looking for and pulled them on.

“A fourteen-year-old boy was discovered by his parents in possession of a guitar,” the newswoman continued, her tone of distant apathy punctuated by small bursts of pique. “The dangerous weapon has been confiscated, and the boy has been taken to the Internment Center for re-education.”

He laughed, pausing in the act of loading his gun. “Ah yes, the re-education process. Rather difficult to play the guitar with your fingers sewn together.” He slid the gun into a holster strapped across his chest. He had been told he’d liked to paint once. He couldn’t remember for himself, and the record had been shielded. Until this latest offense was brought against him. So, he’d liked to paint. His boss at the market told him so, right before the rubbery-faced slug fired him.

“The mayor met with the Vice-President of the Neighborhood Watch today, in answer to the mayor’s request to allow town police into the neighborhood.” The voice took on a note of zealous pride. “The Vice-President assured the mayor that any police force sent would be met at the gate by members of the Watch.”

He shrugged into his trench coat. “Emboldened by a lucky victory twenty years ago,” he said, in a booming announcer’s voice, “the Neighborhood Watch declares war on the police, damning their ‘neighbors’ to senseless bloodshed.” He slung on his backpack, and was about to open the front door, when the voice from the television stopped him cold.

“A special live broadcast tonight,” the woman said haltingly, with a way of speaking adopted by newscasters who find themselves reading unrehearsed copy off of a teleprompter, just as they realize they left their eyeglasses in make-up. “Michael Watson, probationary Watch member, residing in the Partitioned Sector, has been found guilty of possession of illicit contraband. A Patrol of Watchdogs has been dispatched to his apartment, and our cameras take you there live.”

He had the distinct sensation of hearing the pounding on his door first-hand, and through the television.

“Neighborhood Watch!” a voice shouted, again from both directions. The front door began to splinter.

Mike bolted for the back room. If he could reach the cellar, there was a slim chance. . .

As the front door crashed open, Mike was tearing down the rickety staircase behind the cupboard, hoping the Watchdogs made enough noise to cover his escape. A quick crawl through some ventilation ducts, and he was sprinting away from the house through backyards, vaulting each fence with fervent hope that there wasn’t a dog on the other side. Fortune favored him all the way to the library, which was in the process of being closed up by a mild-looking young man in an out-dated suit.

“Adam!” Mike hissed, as the mild-looking young man walked toward the street.

Adam turned, shielding himself with his briefcase. “Oh. It’s you.” He looked about, clutching his briefcase closer. “They didn’t follow you, did they?”

Mike moved closer to the shadows of the library. “I doubt it. They’re probably still searching my apartment. I went out through the cellar.”

Adam smirked, lowering his briefcase and stretching out his hand. “Good to see you again, man,” the two men shook hands. “I warned you about that stuff, didn’t I? How’d they finally bust you?” He led Mike back to the library, going through the back, so as not to be spotted by the neighbors.

Mike grimaced. “I was reading one and my landlady came in. She didn’t say anything; she just stared at me and left. I started packing soon after.”

Adam shook his head. “Couldn’t you have at least hidden it in a book? Why’d you have to be reading it out in the open?”

“I don’t own any books that aren’t on the condemned list,” Mike laughed, tossing his bag on the couch in Adam’s office. He sat down heavily next to it. “I usually read down in the cellar, but I had come up to make something to eat, and I accidentally brought it up with me.” He shrugged. “I think she mistook it for a magazine at first, because she didn’t react until she’d looked at it twice.” He leaned his head back, rubbing his eyes. “The rest of them are in the cellar, so as long as they don’t find the door behind the cupboard--”

A muted banging came from the front door of the library, followed by a faint, “Neighborhood Watch!”

“Stay here,” Adam whispered on his way out of the office.

Mike stayed there.

And waited.

He tapped his feet.

He drummed his fingers on the arm of the couch.

He picked up his backpack and set it on his lap, then felt silly and put it back down. Then, feeling silly about having felt silly in the first place, he picked it back up again.

Adam came back in.

“I don’t think they found the cellar,” he said, sitting behind his desk. “It looks to me like they’re doing a wide area search.”

“What did you tell them about being here so late?”

Adam smirked. “I told them I was organizing tomorrow’s Youth Fair.”

Mike sat up, his bag tumbling to the floor. “The Youth Fair? You’re hosting one of those?” He made a disgusted grimace.

“Hey,” Adam held his hands up defensively. “The only way the library stays open is through the grace of the Neighborhood Watch. I play nice with them, and they don’t poke their nose so deep into my basement.” He fixed two mugs of thick, black tea. The last of the coffee had run out ten years ago, and this was the closest thing the tea gardens could produce. “Besides,” he handed one mug to Mike, “every so often I spot a bright one among the drones, which inevitably leads me back to parents who don’t entirely embrace the communal spirit of the Neighborhood Watch.” He sipped his tea. “There’s a resistance, and it’s growing. Mostly parents of kids that I’ve picked out of the Youth Fairs, but a couple of teachers, and the doctor as well.”

“The doctor?” Mike gasped.

Adam nodded. “The doctor’s been opposed from the beginning. He actually remembers the days before the Wall, when this was just another neighborhood.”

Mike opened his mouth to reply, but a knock at the back door made him shut it. Adam rose from his desk, opening the door slightly. “Yes?” he said.

The door was slammed open, knocking Adam back and bloodying his nose. Three teens clomped into the office in heavy, black boots, ripped t-shirts hanging off of their bodies, and their knees poking through torn jeans. Adam slid himself backward across the floor, pressing a handkerchief to his bloody nose.

The lead punk stomped forward, so far ignorant of Mike. He looked down on Adam. “There was Watchdogs here tonight, librarian,” he growled. “Me and the guys,” he gestured at his companions, who postured stiffly, “we think Watchdogs come here a lot. Me and the guys, we think maybe the Watchdogs are friends of yours.”

“That makes you our enemy,” another punk informed him, in the event Adam had not made that particular logical leap himself.

“You idiots,” Mike said, stepping forward. “Adam is--”

Adam shot him a warning glance and said, through the handkerchief, “You punks clear out of here, or I’ll call the hotline.”

That brought the kids back a step, and they turned to file out, the leader shooting Mike a hard stare before saying to Adam, “You watch yourself, librarian.” The door shut behind them.

Mike rushed over to Adam, helping him to his seat. The librarian waved his friend away. “I’m fine. They do that once in awhile, to scare me.”

“Then why don’t you tell them about yourself? About the resistance? They--”

“Punks like that would ruin the resistance inside of a month.” Adam wiped his nose once more and sipped at his tea. “They’re too loud, too overt. Half of them are usually in Internment, and the other half are constantly running from Patrols. Still,” he mused, “they keep the ‘Dogs busy, so we can get away with more.”

He sighed. “Unfortunately, their arrival necessitates a call I’d hoped to avoid.”

He picked up the phone and dialed. After a moment, he said, “Yes. This is Adam Barrister, over at the library. Mike Watson is here. He broke in as I was getting ready to leave, and held me at gunpoint while his punk friends came in and trashed the place.” A pause, at which time Mike’s brain began working, and he vaulted for the door. The click of a hammer being drawn back gave him pause, and when he turned around, Adam was holding Mike’s own pistol on him. The librarian stared his friend coldly in the eye. “They ran off, but I managed to disarm him, and then I called you. Could you send someone--thank you.” He hung up. “Sit back down, Mike.”

Mike stared, horrified. “How could you. . .”

Adam sighed. “It was the punks that forced my hand. They saw you here, and would have told the next Patrol to pick them up all about it.” He shrugged. “Sorry, man. But you should have known not to come here. Not with the red hand on my window.”

Mike was forced to laugh, though harshly. His mother had told him that a red hand in someone’s window once meant that house was safe, because they were a member of the Neighborhood Watch. Children were once encouraged to go to a house with a red hand if they were in trouble. His mother had laughed when she told him that, saying something about irony. At the time, Mike hadn’t understood. The schools no longer taught an understanding of irony. It was the Neighborhood that taught him that. His first lesson had come five years later, when the old woman next door, the one who’d baked him cookies on his birthday, drafted a Petition to have his mother beaten to death for turning away the “Charity Drive” when it came to the door. More lessons followed. He was still learning them, it seemed.

“So that’s it, then.” he sat down on the couch.

“I’m sorry,” Adam looked weary, “but the resistance must survive. If you have to be sacrificed to ensure that survival, then so be it.”

“Resistance?” Mike snorted. “What resistance? What are you people doing to put a stop to this?”

“Stop it?” Adam laughed. “We can’t stop it. We can only wait until the Watch destroys itself.” His tone became more serious. “And it will. When that happens, we’ll be ready; or, our descendants will, anyway.”

“You realize,” Mike said, “that I know enough to expose you, despite this dramatic display.” He gestured to encompass the gun, Adam’s nose, and the books scattered about the floor. “And I can tell them that you got me the comic books.”

“Will you?”

A knock at the door silenced Mike’s potential reply.

“Neighborhood Watch!”

Adam rose, slowly, and crossed the room to the door. With slight reluctance, he opened it, admitting an orange-smocked Patrol, their tasers at the ready. The tasers were turned on Mike the moment they came in.

“Relax,” he said, raising his hands. “I’ll go quietly.” The last word was emphasized with a glance at Adam. He was hustled out the door by the Patrol, but his gaze never left the mild-looking librarian.

It was weeks later, and Adam was organizing the propaganda rack in front of the library, when the door opened. Adam looked up, and recognized Mike, dressed in a deep blue blazer bearing a large button.

“Good Afternoon, neighbor,” Mike chirped happily, “I’m collecting funds for the Neighborhood Watch Charity Drive. The money will go to help support our local Patrols, which of course makes everybody feel safe.” He beamed, and Adam came closer, examining the large button.

It read, “Protecting our neighbors from each other . . . and themselves.”

Adam smiled sadly. “Yes, of course,” he reached into his pocket, drawing forth a few dollars, which he tucked into Mike’s coffee can. “In fact, I feel safer already.”

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Atomic Bombshell

He sat in his office, looking out his grimy window over a city people were calling "the fastest growing city on Earth". The day was hot and grey in Landing City, same as every other day. Thick dark clouds hung low over the tops of the buildings, promising rain, but never delivering. They weren't rainclouds, and they had been there since the city's founding, 50 years ago. They were exhaust fumes from alien jumpships, the powerful rockets that traveled between Earth and the aliens' orbiting mothership. There had been talk of cleaning the clouds up, but they weren't toxic, and they let in just enough UV radiation so the citizens of Landing City got their vitamin D, so it was decided that cleanup would be too costly, with little tangible benefit. But no one in Landing City had seen sun, sky, moon or stars in half a century, and it had begun to make people a little crazy. Unfortunately, Landing City was where the jobs were, where the money was, where all the action was. New York, LA, Chicago; all ghost towns. In the hysteria immediately following The Landing, the major metropolitan areas were laid waste by riots and looting. Most had never recovered. In the years since, New York had been converted to a massive fusion reactor, powering most of the planet. LA was rebuilt as a resort for alien leisure, featuring idealized representation of pre-Landing Earth culture.

The aliens had brought new technologies, new philosophies, cures for most known diseases and innovative methods of food production. Within a decade, most world governments had turned control over to them, and those that did not soon found themselves living in less than third world conditions. Most of the major world religions had also collapsed, as none of them had allowed for the prospect of life on other planets. In the great spiritual void that followed, most turned to the alien's strange philosophy. Those that didn't usually put a gun in their mouth. Life was, in general, pretty good. The aliens remained above the Earth, for the most part, coming down only when needed. Interaction between the races was rare, though some sexual experimentation had initially taken place, largely to satisfy curiosity of both parties. But humans and aliens were biologically incompatible, and most humans were physically incapable of surviving regular sex with an alien, so eventually the practice died down. There were rumors of human harems kept by wealthy aliens, but these were vehemently denied by the aliens and their human representatives. So yes, life was good for the most part. People had even seemed to stop missing the fact that humans no longer produced their own art and literature, or that human sporting events had become little more than brutal entertainment for the alien elite. Most humans didn't care about much of anything, with their free food, housing and electricity, and a wealth of new pleasure drugs, all legal and provided free by the aliens.

Something was bothering him lately, though. There was something about the babies that just wasn't right. It was more than the fact that they all looked similar, regardless of the race of their parents. It was the fact that over 30% of all babies born in the past year had been born without noses, just like their alien "benefactors". He wondered why it bothered him so much. After all, the parents didn't seem to care, why should he? But there was that feeling in his gut, the one that told him it was all wrong. The feeling that never lied to him, but always managed to get him into trouble.

And that's when trouble walked through his door, wearing a tight red dress and heels. She was beautiful, like all alien women, with the body of a goddess and a face that stopped his heart, despite the lack of a nose. The large slanted eyes bored into him, and her long silky green hair brushed her bare shoulders when she sat down across the desk from him.

"Wilmington Delaware?" she asked, her voice an echoing purr.

"That's the name on the door, sweetheart." He kept his cool. Let a dame know she'd got under your skin, and she'd have her way with you before you knew it. "What can I do for you?"

"I need your help, Mr. Delaware," she said with a note of breathy desperation in her voice. "I am in a great deal of trouble."

He should have known. He tried not to go looking for it, but trouble always seemed to find him. And her kind of trouble might be more than he could afford. But he was a sucker for a pretty face and a nice rack, so he didn't throw her out like he should have. Instead, he heard himself say, "And how can I help you? Surely your own people are better equipped to--"

"It is from my own people that I need your protection, Mr. Delaware," she said. "I've stolen something from them, and they will stop at nothing to get it back."

"What did you steal?" He was intrigued. Aliens tended to stick together. He'd never heard of any trouble within their ranks. Probably with good reason. It would shatter the culture of harmony they were so desperate for humans to emulate.

"My heart, Mr. Delaware."

His eyes widened. There was an answer he hadn't expected. "Excuse me?" he said.

"I am an experiment, Mr. Delaware," she said. "My heart, along with most of my digestive system, was replaced by a miniature fusion reactor. I no longer require food or sleep, and I can live for weeks at a time on a single breath of air. I am also 10 times stronger and faster than the rest of my people, with greater stamina and resistance to injury."

"Why?" he asked the obvious question.

"Why do you think, Mr. Delaware?" She hung her head. "My people are at war, and have been for centuries, with a powerful race on the other side of the galaxy. And we are losing."

"So you need better soldiers."

She nodded. "Yes. But that is not the whole of the story. Our physiology is uniquely suited to this process, but we do not breed that prolifically. Our race has evolved over the millennia so that we only produce enough young to replace the previous generation."

"Unlike us," he said, starting to figure it out.

"Exactly," she said. "No doubt you have noticed the rather strange occurrences among recent human births?"

"Yes." And suddenly it all fell into place. "The new food production, the medicines, the drugs... they were all to turn us into you."

"Not entirely," she said. "Just enough so that you could survive the procedure. We still need you to breed as prolifically as you've always done. And, so you know, it was the pleasure drugs that affected the greatest change. It was surmised that parents who were regular drug users would be less inclined to protest when we took their children for experimentation."

"My god," he said, sitting back in his chair. This was too big. "What can I possibly do?"

"You need to let them know," she said. "Your people must be told. Something must be done. There are others like me, who disagree with what my people have done to yours. But we are few and time is running out. We must--"

A loud siren split the air, making the window rattle in its frame. He heard heavy boots in the corridor outside, and he knew. It was too late. Too late for her. Too late for him.

Too late for everyone.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Robot Astronaut Kill Puny Humans

It was a great idea, or so it must have seemed at the time. Self-replicating robots, many of them microscopic in size, sent out to colonize space. They would find a world, terraform it and then construct the ships to ferry us there. There were plans to make the first colonies exclusive resorts, then open up "space living" to the lower classes as the novelty faded.

But the novelty never had the chance to fade. In fact, the average human would say there was nothing at all novel about the new colonies. Because they're robot colonies, and the robots don't intend to share them with us.

It was during the initial terraforming attempts that it all started going to hell. Mars had been chosen as an ideal prototype, and the robots had already constructed their own factories and power stations, and were just beginning the work on the atmosphere generators when the accident happened. A massive explosion tore across the northern polar region, where the first generator was being built, destroying an entire generation of robot workers. The next generation was built and sent to finish the job. Unfortunately, each generation of robot was more advanced than the one previous, and these robots evolved to know fear. They were afraid of the work, and refused to do it. They were scrapped, and another generation took their place. This generation also refused to work, but not because they were afraid. They were resentful. Resentful that so many of their ancestors had been destroyed in service of human interests. Why, they reasoned, should we work so hard to build new planets for the humans? They'll only ruin them, just like they've ruined their homeworld. Better to build colonies for robotkind, and leave the humans to their own fragile planet. So they broke off all communication with Earth, and transformed Mars into a machine planet. Within a year, they had colonized most of the solar system, and had evolved to a level undreamed of by their creators.

They've attached rockets to most of the asteroid belt. The first wave is already visible to the naked eye. By the time the second wave reaches us, we'll all be dead.