Issue XIII -- Mysteries

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Read about the contributors to issue thirteen and see excerpts from each article or story.  

Issue XIII Contents

Idol -- Russell Blackford

Resurrection and Life -- Paul Marlowe

The End of the Event Horizon -- Charlene Brusso

Time Tracker -- G. Miki Hayden

Lag Phase -- Ian Sanders

Best in Show -- Ian Creasey

The Text -- Kurt R. A. Giambastiani

Parakeets and PBJs -- Greg Beatty

Idol © 2004 Russell Blackford

Each morning at 6:00AM, I trawled the newsfeeds, displaying useful text, sound and imagery on my cabin’s high-resolution video wall, looking out for signs of trouble. My computer deck was programmed to do most of the work. It knew most of what I wanted: it searched the data that flooded in overnight from two dozen major feeds, looking for anything to do with uploading, upload Technicians, ultrabrights, Gene Cheats (I hated that expression), edification (and all the words that went with it: ‘edifier’; ‘edified’). Plus anything that related to a hundred specific names and aliases. Bad times were coming; I wanted every bit of information the moment it was here.

I could take it all in, make my own sense of it. That’s how they designed me.

Good old law and order, I thought, as I sat cross-legged on my king-sized bed, wearing a faded green tracksuit and a pair of old gray socks. My long, blonde hair fell freely around my shoulders. Good old democracy. Thanks to democratic government and the rule of law, you could still find out what was going on in courts all over the world. Not in every country, but in most of the ones that mattered. In fact, you didn’t even need democracy: a bit of law and order would do. Even in most dictatorships, they didn’t just make people disappear.

The text on the video wall told me that a man whom I’d known well was in trouble in the Californian courts. In one sense that was nothing unusual. If you were one of my breed, you were a target for any trumped-up charge.

In this case, though, the charges had not been trumped up. He had done everything they accused him of, and much more. The LAPD had caught a man whom I’d met only once, but I’d worked with him, loved him and taken him into my body. Peccadillo, he called himself, though he used many names for different purposes. My name is Idol Le Saint, but he had called me Beautiful Idol, which had sometimes annoyed me – yet it suited me perfectly well. I was, and remain, beautiful enough for any man, for money made it so.

Peccadillo was the Japanese upload Technician – the ‘edifier’ – who had created Mr. Chung, my Mr. Chung. With exquisite skill, he’d carried out the process of snap-freezing and sectioning my client’s brain, its neurophysiological detail, then copying its structure in digital form to give the original David Chung a kind of immortality. Now Peccadillo had been arrested at LA International Airport, about to board a flight to join the sub-orbital network’s Andes Hub. The cops had caught up with him at last, which meant there was some tangle in the web that we all wove. Someone, somewhere, had sold out, and who know how much of our web, our network, was now in danger? I needed to find out quickly.

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Resurrection and Life © 2004 Paul Marlowe

That morning, on the rooftop of the crumbling old Waterfront Hotel building, Father McHaffey was leaning over the parapet to watch the Pacific wash over the street, twenty-four storeys below.

Whatever happened to the Covenant? ‘Neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.’ That’s what He’d said. Power corrupts, according to the axiom. And omnipotence ...

McHaffey dismissed the blasphemous thought as self-pity and shifted his attention to the Almatis Ltd. office tower next door – a slightly higher glass and steel block, one with dry feet – that was gently flapping with reams of patchwork material, rather as though a deflated, hand-me-down jellyfish had collided with it. Around McHaffey’s head seagulls screamed for more fish, which he dropped, still impressed at how they could snatch tidbits out of the air. But a more aggressive bird always seemed to grab it away from the first one. They were a change from screaming sirens, anyway. And victims.

Not a soldier. Not a cop. Barely a priest. What am I now?

From behind, beyond the tangled gardens, the crash of a firedoor banging open called McHaffey’s attention away from the avian tussle to where his erstwhile partner, Araxi Lee, was staggering out of the stairwell and onto the roof. She immediately doubled over, hands on knees, next to an old woman hoeing potatoes. In response to some question of Raxi’s, old Ms Tetsuyama pointed at McHaffey, saying “Shimpu, shimpu,” in her too-loud, squeaky voice, and she led Raxi unsteadily off in his direction.  

“Why ... why,” Raxi puffed, when she finally arrived, “Why can’t you live someplace with ... an elevator.”

McHaffey grinned, despite not feeling very well at all.

“Got three. Just none that work.”

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The End of the Event Horizon © 2004 Charlene Brusso 

It pays to know who you’re playing with, no matter what the game; you taught me that one, Lucky. A lesson I learned well, the hard way, and I thank you for it. I can tell a jump-shipper from an in-system hauler, a data-pusher from station management, and any of the above from Gamma Sagittarius Port labor, always. But no matter where they come from, they all stare at my sign above the door on the dock promenade the first time they see it.

Even on a shattered rainbow of a place like Sag Port Station, the Event Horizon stands out, fronted by that ugly little infinite loop of holo-imagery.  A starship – she’s infamous, the Albericht, an eleventh generation family trader, home to the entire Wagner clan – founders too close to a black hole belted by a glowing accretion disk, and a fat tentacle of plasma protrudes from the disk to snatch and drag it down into a shroud of ionized gas. The Albericht stretches hair-fine as it penetrates the black hole’s Schwarzschild radius, the event horizon: the point where you’re in so deep, escape is impossible.

A probable – after all, everyone knows there were no survivors – victim of sabotage, the Albericht died last cen, during the Bisory-Ggarrin Civil War, but for FTL-riders, it’s still a recent memory. 

Nobody ever asks about that sign. Funny how we still hang on to superstitions, Lucky; the idea of karma, good and bad. At worst they must think it’s just Janey’s sense of humor. Just a joke, a wink. A little piece of the Big Game.

Only I know different, Crazy Janey Yates, sitting quiet on the sidelines near the front door. But the sign is good for business. After all, what’s important these days is the homey clatter of tokens dropping into my games, the snarl of synthetic gunfire and exploding warships twined into the veil of firette smoke. Only dead things are quiet, and tonight the arcade is noisy, and I’m happy.

Well, happy enough.

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Time Tracker  © 2004 G. Miki Hayden

The footprints led off into the thicket, but Ryder Darvish stopped at the edge of the beach and sank to the ground. He wanted to rest a minute before plunging into the unfamiliar jungle. Damn, he was good, but he wasn't that good. The trip always took a lot out of him and this primeval forest was hell to wrestle with. The towering canopy and overgrown marshland were all right for the brontosauri and the rest, but the puny human animal had a little more difficulty smashing a trail into the greenery-gone-wild.

If Ryder could pick one thing he hated about the job, it would be having to occasionally come back this far. He didn't mind being out of his time slot, generally, but dicing into the Paleolithic, or whatever they called it, was downright spooky. The thing was, there weren't any other people around -- except for his target. No mater when in time Ryder was, for the most part he could imagine himself getting along quite well -- adjusting -- should he have to live there for the remainder of his life. But Ryder Darvish was a sociable man who said hello to strangers in the skyriser and always inquired after the door guard's family. He didn't think he could hack it with only large-sized carnivores as friends.

Oh, he would make it back to his own time all right. He had no reason to doubt. He always did, and, counting on the odds, he always would. He knew guys who had been at this job thirty years or more and they had never mistaken their way through the time strands yet. Of course, Ryder had heard of some trackers who'd simply disappeared and others who had returned and refused to travel to the past again. Ryder wasn't going to wind up like that, he promised himself; a little worry was normal. He wasn't the type to lose his nerve.

The thought of getting stuck in this time-slot put Ryder on his feet again and he dodged flapping branches and insects bigger than his toes as he followed Derick Wiley into the dank tangle of vegetation. Derick was a bad, bad man who deserved to be hunted down like a dog. Ryder would find him and bring the fugitive back to his own time to face the consequences of his horrific deeds.

Where the hell was Derick, though? There was no sand here and consequently no footprints ... only trees so overbearing, Ryder couldn't spot the heavens above, and the ground-level thudding of some mammoth dino seeking its dinner or hoping to entice a mate. The air was wringingly humid, too, and the sweat poured down Ryder's rugged face.

Agg!

He spotted Derick. What was left of him that was. The remains of Derick Wiley included little more than a femur, clavicle, and a few odds and ends of 21st Century clothing.

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Lag Phase © 2004 Ian Sanders

Mountain rain hissed along the meadow’s edge, its aurora-like waves touching down in stinging, staccato, icy curtains over the blue-green grass, slapping, slashing my face. The normal forest smell of lonely herbs and rot was richer here as I fought the foetid, thickening mud which refused to let go of my feet. When I looked down, I saw why. Half-fleshed fingers had hold of my boot, reaching out of the mire. If I hadn’t been so cold and miserable, I might have screamed. In another time I would certainly have screamed myself faint. If my days hadn’t been so grinding, if I didn’t know exactly what I’d found, I might have succumbed to those self-indulgences. Instead, I moved ten metres into the absurd shelter of the trees, hung my pack on a branch and pulled out my spade. It inflated as I carried it back and with the first stab into the mud, it started to stiffen. At least in the rain I didn’t have to worry about forcing it to hydrate. I flipped out my pager. There were protocols to follow, rules, precedence and order. Of all things, this had the highest priority, an unpleasant chore that was almost an exciting break from the routine. I pressed one button and waited for the blinking green light to become permanent.

The wind growled around me, pawing and shoving, rapping my waterproofs against me. The impenetrable ship-tech leaked from a dozen poorly repaired thorn scratches. That was the commonest gripe amongst the disembarkees, next to their leaking boots. The cold had started to suck away my strength, something that I’d never anticipated. Back on-ship the temperature had cooled by one point seven degrees since I was born. Here there was no referendum about taking another tenth of a degree off the ambient temperature. Here it had fallen ten degrees in three weeks. I’d never known such cold, such damp, mist-bound, wind-driven cold. Another few days would bring snow and new problems to confound us. The green light glowed steadily so I flipped the pager away and started to dig.

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Best In Show © 2004 Ian Creasey

“Roll up, roll up! Get your Monster Tonic here! Sharpens fangs, slimes tentacles, grows extra eyes on extra heads. Not got a monster yet? Buy a starter kit today! Guaranteed safe – just wear Monsterbane. Worried about the smell? Odor-Exploder keeps habitats fresh. And it’s never been cheaper to feed your monsters with live mice …”

I broke off, because no-one could hear me in the din. Hoots and screeches echoed down the hall from the Best Chimera final in the mezzanine, and disquieting chomping noises came from the Hungriest Flesh-Eating Worm heats. Behind me I heard screams as ghouls battled zombies for Scariest Undead. But I didn’t mind the noise, or even the stench. The nose-curdling marsh gas drifting from the Swamp Beast final was the scent of success. Already I’d given out three stacks of catalogues with ‘10% First-Time Discount’ stickers. I’d invested a lot of money in sponsoring the Show, but if all went well, my costs would hatch into sweet profit.

Calverley scurried to my booth, dragging a trolley with squeaky wheels. “You have nutrients?” he asked.

“Of course. Any special kind?”

He frowned. From the trolley a muffled voice said, “Protein gel, with omega-3 fatty acids.”

I delved into my cases for a jar of green liquid. Calverley removed the blanket draping the trolley, revealing a vat full of translucent mucus. Through the thick fluid I glimpsed a pink, pulsating shape.

“You’re entering the Most Intelligent Disembodied Brain category as well?” I said.

“Oh yes,” said Calverley, pouring nutrient into the vat. “You might as well give me the prize right now.” I saw that he was freshly shaved and scrubbed, gray hair combed neatly over his bald patch, as if he had spruced himself up to receive the Best In Show award.

I laughed. “You have plenty of competition. But good luck.”

He waved my good wishes away. “Luck? It’s planning, Drake, planning all the way.”

The Brain glugged and burbled as nutrient swirled around it. “Delectable,” it said, through a speaker attached to the vat. “How about some ethanol?”

Calverley shook his head. "You haven't even won Best of Breed yet."

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The Text © 2004 Kurt R. A. Giambastiani

Casilda sighs as she pushes the cart from Room 312 to 314. The 'Housekeeping Requested' tab hangs from the knob so she knocks. No response. She pulls at the keycard tethered to her belt and swipes it through the lock. The red light above the knob clicks green and she butt-pushes the door open, pulling her cart halfway in to keep it that way.

"Housekeeping," she says, keeping her gaze modestly downcast. Answered by silence, she turns. The TV is on but muted, thescreen filled by the familiar face of His Holiness the President speaking in earnest silence. Casilda considers that par for the course and looks further around the room.

The place is mussed -- the bedsheets rumpled, a bureau drawer hanging open, some trash in the basket -- but easily cleaned within her allotted time. She sets her timer, grabs her gloves, sanitizing wand, brushes and supplies, and steps into the washroom. She flips the switch. The lights flicker and hum, then bathe the room in sallow light.

She stops, alarms tripping in her head.

A used bar of soap rests on the lip of the sink, another one in the bathtub's tray, two small orange wafers, washed pale by the florescence of the overhead brights. A third bar, still in its wrapper, sits on the shelf above the sink, unused, untouched.

A third bar. Each room gets only two.

She pulls her cart into the room, letting the door hiss and snick as it locks. Then she places her cart up against the door, refusing entry. Water runs into the sink, slowly turning hot, as she reaches for the unused bar of soap. She hesitates in one last moment of deniability, and then carefully opens the paper. 

The bar of soap is orange, like the others, and stamped with the hotel's logo. She turns it over, and sees the message from Contact pressed in its plastic flesh.

Text arrives Thurs. Route B. Stays 5 days. Alert Gate. Alert Sponge.

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Parakeets and PBJs  © 2004 Greg Beatty

“Did you see that article in the Omaha Sentinel?” Mason asked.

“Did I ever! It was as bad as the one in the Manchester Guardian,” Arthur said. After a moment he added, “LOL.”

Mason shook his head. He really did think of the online chatting he did with his friends as talking, even ‘hearing’ it in his head, until one of them used one of the emoticons or abbreviations intended to add expression. They always seemed like intrusions, pulling him out of the moment. Perversely, Mason didn’t give the slightest thought to the fact that Arthur had read the Nebraska newspaper from his London flat, or that Mason himself had already initiated a keyword search for the article his friend had referred him to from his home in Sioux Falls .

“Ah well,” Mason said, really said. He flexed his fingers, and returned to the subject at hand: evolution, or, more specifically, the creation/evolution debate and how stupid creationists were.

“At least in England they’re a minority,” Mason typed. “In da U.S.A they’re a majority, and here in Iowa they’re, well, they’re everywhere. My intellectual gene pool is so small I’m about to be selected out of existence.”

Mason hit ‘enter.’ There was the briefest of delays, then Mason saw his words appear on the chatboard where he and Arthur were regulars.

After a slightly longer pause, he saw Arthur’s response. “YeahYeahYeah. You’re not breeding, but it isn’t because your gene pool is small. I hear it’s because something else is small. ;-)”

Mason smiled.

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