The Home I will Likely Never Build: the North Side

I know I told you last time that I couldn’t wait to tell you about what is downstairs, but I want to take a brief side trip first. We came in through the garden on the south side of the house (there’s probably a small cemetery tucked behind some trees; that’s where you’ll find me soon enough), and I’ve shown you how a home built of earth embraces the sun.

This is at its very core a home that celebrates craft, and the hands that built it. The first thing you saw on your visit was ironwork made by a human being. The signs of humanity are all around you now, and everywhere, if you look closely, you will see the personal marks of the people who built this home, whether by stacking adobe bricks or programming the elevator. The tiles in the bathrooms reflect the minds of the people who created them.

I hope, of course, that this will inspire the residents of the home to create their own art. This home is inspirational, or at least aspires to be. On the north side of the home is the less glamorous, less cozy space where actual magic happens.

I imagine it is a large space, perhaps physically separated from the main building. The floor is open and the light is from the north, coming in through large windows that can be blacked when necessary.

This might be the first structure built, to provide the space and means for the artisans and craftspeople to build the main home.

It smells like clay in here, like paint, like sawdust. The kiln, in its corner, is perhaps the only tool with a fixed location. One day the wood shop might be deployed, the tools needed for that day rolled out and carefully leveled, while on other days it might be the potters wheel or the bench for the glass blowers.

OK, the kiln, the glass furnace, and the forge for iron work are probably all fixed. But on any particular Tuesday this might be a photo studio, or a robotics lab. I delight in the fantasy that we, the residents of this home, will ultimately decide that we need two studio spaces.

There is also, on this side of the house, a very large vegetable garden. Unlike the sanctuary enclosed within the walls on the south, this garden grows food and is based on two principles: 1) we are obligated to make the most of the waste water from the house, and 2) tomatoes are best when eaten within minutes of harvest. That goes for other vegetables as well, but tomatoes are the poster child of “better fresh-picked”.

Space allowing, a modest orchard seems like a good idea as well.

In a previous episode I flew past the kitchen, which is essentially a studio with tools devoted to the medium of food. I am flying past it once again, because I have nothing to offer in that place except vibes. Kitchen science is real, and while I embrace it, I am not going to extend it, except for the hand-crafted cabinets.

The home — our home — is not just filled with the work of artists and artisans, it is where those people live. Where we live. Writers, painters, architects, musicians, and on and on. This is where we celebrate the accomplishments of our peers while we challenge one another. The studio here is never empty, there’s always something going on in the kitchen, and the garden is well-loved.

That last sentence reveals the depth of this fantasy, but understand: I believe it.

3

The Home I will Likely Never Build: The Elevator

I have a house in my head. There was a time I even owned a patch of land near Santa Fe I imagined building it on. But things change, and that land now has a completely ordinary home on it, and the home in my head, not constrained by any physical reality, continues to evolve.

This home, from its inception, has had stairs. Elegant stairs, with wood and wrought iron or whatever materials the artisans choose to use.

But not everyone can take the stairs! There has to be another way to move between the levels of this house. So there’s an elevator. But the elevator can’t just be a convenience begrudgingly installed for our less-abled friends; it has to be awesome, and fun, and every much a part of the experience of living here as all the other features.

It has to be a place the kids will ride, just for the fun of it. And while the rest of the house you have seen emphasizes old-world materials and design, the elevator is a place to let technology come to the front.

When you push the call button for the elevator, you realize it is already on its way. The doors slide open, and you step in. You turn to face the closing door, as you have been long-trained to do, and as they slide shut you feel as if the elevator is made of glass. You can see the other people nearby who have decided to take the stairs for some reason. On your other sides you see the walls of the elevator shaft.

It’s obvious this is video, of course, but it’s as immersive as you can get.

For the moment you choose to go up. There is a button to push, or you can just gesture, or you can say “up”. As the elevator starts to rise, the view in the video moves with you.

But in fact, the video is moving much more quickly than you are, and between the actual levels in the house, you catch, and hear, and maybe even feel, a different, in-between level.

Perhaps, on the way up, you pass through the sky domain of Pegasus, or right through the middle of a battle from Lord of the Rings, or just a beautiful beach. When going below ground, it might be Dwarven mines, subterranean lava rivers, or Mario Brothers plumbing as far as the eye can see.

How many different virtual floors will there be? At first, only a few. But I imagine some of the kids that ride that elevator over and over to absorb every detail of those floors will eventually be inspired to add floors of their own. One hundred years after my passing, that elevator will be a hell of a ride. By then, those same kids will have upgraded the hardware and I’m a little afraid of what that elevator might become.

Which makes it very important that you can control what you see. There are probably secret ways to control which thing you see, and absolutely non-secret ways to turn off the whole feature and just get to the damn floor you asked for with minimal fuss. The elevator will remember that you do not appreciate the malarkey.

There is a potential for creepiness here, so let me address it. The elevator recognizes you, and knows if you don’t want the show or if there are particular virtual floors you dislike. The elevator will not, indeed cannot, tell anyone or anything else about you. The house in its entirety shares that philosophy. There will be no Alexa within these walls.

What I love about the elevator is that it can see the future*. It is built to be a project that grows over time, as generations add the software and the hardware to make new levels real. But those first primitive virtual floors will still be there, and the aging great-aunt can smile when a level she made goes by, even if her offspring have eclipsed her with their fancy new tools.

I have thought a great deal about how the people who build this place can leave their marks, but I need to find more ways that the occupants of this place add to that legacy. The elevator is just the first step. This building is an evolving, living monument to the people who interact with it, in particular the people who make it their home. What will you leave behind? And will it be a secret?

I’ve sent you upstairs, but while that is an awesome place, it is not especially ground-breaking. Mini-kitchen, wet bar, dumb waiter from the main kitchen, deer-antler chandelier — the place to shoot pool and get loud and watch the Big Sports Game. The view from the windows, north and south, is breathtaking (terrain allowing). But it’s the stuff any good architect could pull off. From here there is one more level up, onto the roof, closer to the stars.

You will really love it up there; the desert sky is breathtaking, but there’s more of interest if we go down.

3

The Home I will Likely Never Build: The Common Room

After a peaceful stroll through the garden, and an appreciative look at the sun-facing side of the house, you have now walked inside. I recently discussed the overall philosophy of the architecture, but so far all you really know about this room is that it has floors, a fireplace, and a predictable assortment of furniture.

The trick with structures that live only in your head is that they are always changing. Without getting too specific, however (there will be no floor plan), I would like to share with you the room I have long imagined as the lungs of this home. (We will find the heart later.)

It is a large room, but the acoustics are surprisingly soft. In part this is because there are very few truly flat surfaces. The walls curve gently; their corners are rounded, suggesting they were carved, rather than constructed. The base colors are earth tones, reflecting that the walls are literally constructed from earth, but everywhere are bright splashes of color.

A staircase sweeps up one curved wall, its treads richly-stained hardwood, the bannister held by a lattice of cast iron, perhaps created by the same artist who made the gate that was your first introduction to this place. You can check for the artist’s mark on their work if you want to be sure.

There is a small door that leads to the space under the stairs. It matches the stair treads. Under-stair spaces have always been a little bit magical and mysterious to me (I grew up in a home without one), so I want to turn these spaces into hidey-holes, comfortable enough for a visiting grand-nephew to roll out a sleeping bag. Every under-stairs space should have at least one secret compartment, trap door, or other hidden surprise. Lights that respond to secret gestures, things like that.

“Secrets” are a feature in this home, even if everyone knows them. (Or do they? The possibility that there might be more secrets is pretty intoxicating. I will encourage the people who make this home to put in secrets not even I know about.) The secrets are the source of legends, stories that are passed through generations, gaining momentum with each retelling.

You have already met the fireplace and the cozy furniture that circles it. Behind the sofa there is a large table, magnificent and wood. It feels like it was made exactly for this place (it was – the craftsperson left their mark), and affords plenty of space for a great feast or a Warhammer game, or whatever tabletop games the kids are playing now.

Perhaps beneath the table the tile of the sun-warmed section of the floor has given way to wood as well, durable hardwoods that will last for a century (with a little care), but already the floorboards creak a little under your tread. Pure artifice, but the kind I enjoy; a reminder of the rustic foundations of Southwestern architecture.

And in every Southwestern home, you must look at the ceiling. Exposed beams, as round as they were when they were trees, cross the ceiling, supporting a lattice of wooden slats above. This is the most simple and iconic ceiling style, in other rooms you will discover the many, many variations on this simple theme that are possible. Here, the dark wood of the ceiling gives the room a cozier feel, more intimate despite the room’s size.

Over the table is a chandelier – perhaps also wrought iron, perhaps not (we will save the inevitable deer antler chandelier for another space). It creates a brighter pool of light even when the subtler lighting for the rest of the room is dimmed.

There is music here, as well. There is a sound system that does what all good sound systems do, but without being gaudy about it. Speakers are discrete but effective, and can get plenty loud when the need arises. The vinyl collection will probably live in a different room, closer to the heart.

Sound, but… huh. No television. There will be places for watching TV in this house, but this is not one of them. And when you really start looking hard, you will also see there is no plastic. That tells you two things: this room is built to last, and this room is a fantasy. But ultimately the goal is to employ no material that won’t still be viable 100 years from now (solar panels grudgingly excepted).

Of course with a big banquet table there must be a kitchen nearby! On the far side of the room from the curved glass wall is a curved adobe wall with a bar that communicates with the kitchen just beyond. The “main kitchen,” we will call it. (You have already seen the outdoor kitchen.)

While I will leave the details of the kitchen to the architects, from the common room you can get some of its vibe: Windows letting in northern light, stone countertops, and hand-carved doors on cabinets specifically crafted to follow the easy contours of the walls. Modern appliances, island, breakfast nook, and all that. A bright and comfortable place that still feels hand-crafted.

The curved south face of the house is also one of the walls for the “hallways” that extend to either side of the common room. On pleasant summer nights there is no wall at all, and the bedrooms open directly into the garden. Doesn’t that sound nice?

Perhaps later we will explore a bedroom or two, but “nice chambers, fireplaces maybe, quiet as only foot-plus-thick walls can grant, beautiful and varied ceilings, breezes” sums them up pretty well. For bathrooms, “hand-made tile, good light, elegant fixtures built to last, easy to clean” is the bullet list. The water reclamation system is actually more interesting than the water closets.

But around behind the stairs going up, you find two things: elevator doors, and stairs going down. I am very excited to tell you about both of those things.

3

The Home I Will Likely Never Build: Stepping Inside

I have had a dwelling living in my head for my entire adult life. The place I want to build, the place I want to live. I has magic in it.

I have described the garden, and the first impression of the home you get looking from the garden. But so far I have ignored the most important part of any home: the people.

Fundamentally, a house provides shelter, comfort, and security for its occupants. But we all know that a real home does much more. A home also brings people together, it inspires, it creates joy. Much of those influences come from the people, rather than the structure, but still it’s worth asking, “how can a structure encourage that community?”

I have seem “dream houses” that are filled with architecture that looks, honestly, pretty cool. Angles and light, and big open spaces that will be drafty and acoustically awful. The “wow” you feel wears off for the living in it. (Note: I have never lived in one of these places.)

Some of these places seem more a celebration of the architect than a great place to live. The Home I Will Likely Never Build shall never forget that it is in service to its occupants and guests.

There are people here. Importantly, there are children here. Modern architecture seems to forget them, but no one loves a secret passage more than a ten-year-old. The children that ride the magic elevator up and down will grow to be the kids that enhance the elevator.

There is laughter here, and cocktails, good food, and honest joy. There are fires to gather around, and perhaps even singing. Somebody’s got to play that banjo in the corner. A structure cannot force people to be contemplative or communal or even nice. But it sure as heck can give extra juice to people who are already inclined that way.

It is autumn as you step into the house from the garden. The glass walls are closed, and the setting sun is throwing its last ruddy rays into the room you find yourself in.

From the outside, you saw how the house worked with the sun. Now, you feel the weight of the place. You feel the earth. The walls are thick, even the interior walls. Sound does not pass through these walls. They hold heat the way our planet does.

(Originally, I imagined this house being made with straw bales. But glorious mud has been here forever, doing what mud does. This is an adobe house, with steel structural reinforcements — unless a qualified architect changes my mind again.)

You take off your boots, and the tile is warm under your feet, exactly as you expected. You are a little nervous now, walking into a home that is obviously lived in. You are in a large open space. In front of you a cushy couch faces a fireplace where piñon has largely gone to coals, delivering a steady warmth to the room. There are childrens’ boots on the hearth, gently steaming.

The tile is not uniform. A few of them are sculpted, or embossed, with images or motifs or geometrical patterns, or something else. I don’t know exactly what makes those tiles special; that’s up to the artist entrusted to make them. I will demand that whatever the artist creates, it won’t annoy bare feet, and it will still work after 100 years of barefoot traffic. We will appeal to science to find the best material for the job.

On this day, perhaps there are people playing scrabble on the low table between the couch and the fire. Perhaps someone is reading in a side chair, and you tiptoe quietly past, or better yet grab a book of your own. Like the seasons, like the weather, life is ever-changing; you and the house adapt.

There are rugs on the floor. They are nice rugs, but not so nice you’d feel bad getting mud on them. Still, you shed your boots and leave them in the heap by the door.

Stocking feet, platforms, Birkenstocks, or stilettos, walk on what makes you feel good. The floors here will not judge.

There is laughter upstairs, and we will get there eventually. But first you have to really see the room you are in. This episode was more about the philosophy of the home than the execution. Next time, I will try to pin down the whirling ideas in my head and describe a room.

3

The Home I will Likely Never Build: The Sun Side

I have been building a house in my head for decades, now. It’s a place that doesn’t forget what has worked for centuries, but isn’t afraid of technology. It is a place where you can feel the hands of the people who built it; the ghosts in this place are the echoes of the wood carvers, tile makers, welders, and artists who made this place special. You can almost hear them cursing.

You have by now taken a gentle walk through the garden, and while it is pleasant, and creates a crucial link to the land the house is built from, it is hard to ignore the structure in front of you any longer. You take a few more steps past the whimsical bird bath (that services the bats as well), and appreciate the humor of the artist who created it. But now it is time to turn our gaze to the house itself.

Today is a sunny afternoon, warm for the altitude, and the breeze is fresh.

The home seems to be embracing the garden, its wings like arms wrapping protectively around the quiet ground. The center section of the house is open, no walls facing you at all; the line between outdoors and indoors is not clearly defined. Softening this transition further is a patio and the long eaves shading the home from the summer sun. The eaves are built with math that has informed buildings in the Southwest for hundreds of years. The eaves provide shade in the summer, but let the warming sun into the dwelling in the winter.

You don’t need to know, but might find interesting, that these eaves are covered with photovoltaic cells.

The center of the house is two stories, with an observation deck on the highest roof. Both floors are open right now, allowing you to see common areas above and below. As you approach, you find yourself on a wide flagstone patio with a full barbecue. It is the outdoor kitchen, for days and nights when it is simply too lovely to go inside to cook. There are gas burners, of course, and a griddle, but also a place to light the charcoal when the moment calls for it. A refrigerator? Sure, why not. Don’t want to have to go inside just to get a frosty beverage.

Around the barbecue are tables, with umbrellas for shade. There is music coming from somewhere.

Suddenly, it is winter. Your nose is red from the crisp, cold air. The smell of burning piñon lightly scents the air. You squint in the bright light as the sun reflects off the light snow that coats the slumbering garden. Where moments before the house was open, you now see walls of glass. The sun, lower now, shines through the glass and warms the dark walls and the dark earth-toned tile on the floors where the sun can reach. You are in no hurry, but you can imagine feeling the warmth of those floors through your socks once you go inside and shed your boots.

This home, you realize, is powered and warmed in large part by the sun. While the techno-scientists try to achieve sustained fusion here on Earth (go, techno-scientists!), we’ll just draw from the one that is already up and running, even if it’s only available half the time.

On both floors, the glass walls curve gently, following the arc defined by the garden wall. “That must be preposterously expensive,” you muse. “Why not just have a whole bunch of French doors?” Because it’s my damn house, that’s why. If I can’t afford it anyway, why hold back?

Summer again. The house is open, and you hear laughter from the upper level, and the crack of a break at the pool table. You cross the patio into the shade of the eaves. It’s time to go inside.

5

The Home I will Likely Never Build: the Garden

I’ve had a house in my head for thirty, maybe forty years now. It has evolved over that time, but my recent proximity to mortality has turned my thoughts to the dwelling with a more sharply-honed focus. The heavy walls I dream of are as old as the idea of the home itself. Likewise the secret passage. The sun has always been a friend, combining new tech with old architecture. The analemma in the secret room is new, as are the elevator’s virtual floors.

It’s a house a kid might design, full of fun and surprises, and it’s a house a hippie might design, a place that embraces nature and has a communal focus. Although I can’t let go of wood-burning fireplaces. It’s a house an engineer might design, optimized for efficiency and self-reliance. It is a house that celebrates artisans and craftspeople, honoring humanity and the hands well-applied to make something enduring. You can feel, in this place, the people who made it.

If you will indulge me, I would like to give you a tour of my imaginary home. I have tried to draw pictures, but for now at least I can offer only words. It would fill my life with light is someone reading this were to draw pictures of the words I write.

It starts at the gate. Unassuming pale stucco walls curve away from you on either side, but it is the gate that holds you attention. You notice right away that there are very few straight lines; all is curved and flowing. The opening in the wall is convex on one side, on the other it is a wave. It feels sculpted, rather than engineered. Perhaps you realize that this will be a foundational principle for all that follows. Perhaps you will just smile.

The gate itself is cast iron, decorated with motifs of nature — sun and soil and life, things that you will soon find in the garden. It curves and flows elegantly, and at the bottom is the mark of the artist who created it. Someone local, hopefully, who understands the land and what it means.

The gate is not locked; you lift the latch and step through into the garden.

Perhaps your eye is drawn to the house on the far side, but for once words beat pictures and I will instead bring your focus to the garden that surrounds you.

The path you are on curves and flows over the terrain, and crunches under your feet in a satisfying way. With every step you take, it whispers to you, telling you that you are in a quiet place, a place of contemplation. At least today it does, on this tour it is a sunny afternoon and there is no gathering at the house. Today there is the sun, and a gentle breeze making the trees sigh, and birds and whatnot, and you.

There is nohting exotic about the garden; the plants that grow here are the same as the ones that have grown on this land for millennia. But we aren’t above cheating a little; careful application of water and nutrients increases the density of the plant life, and the animals that depend on it. This is not simply a garden, it is an ecosystem*.

I said it was daytime, and in so doing robbed you of the scents of the night-blooming flowers, the weight of the colder air in your nose, the chime of the nighttime insects. I will have to replace that with the songs of the birds who find haven here, and the hum of the bees visiting the sex-parts of the flowers and taking their payday home. (new feature: beehive)

You have only taken a few steps, but you stop for a moment, to listen, and to breathe, and to shed the world on the other side of the gate. You are in a safe place now, a quiet place, unless you decide to raise a ruckus. No judgement here.

The path rises in front of you, then descends under your relaxed tread. From the top you can take in the whole garden. It is round, and vibrant, dotted with trees that remember when there were no people around here. Sorry about that, guys, but maybe a little extra water will help.

At the center of the round garden is a round patio, a place to sit and eat a sandwich or to read when the sun is not too bright. There is a sculpture here, interesting and whimsical, and functional in a way that will be revealed later.

Pausing here, you feel like you are at the center of the universe. You are surrounded by life, even if much of it is sleeping because I made you come here during daytime. Just wait for tonight. You will be glad you did.

5

November 1, 2021

This is my 21st year participating in NaNoWriMo. Different years it means different things to me, but it’s always a low-pressure opportunity to just kick back and write something stupid.

I’m pretty excited by my story this year. it’s not unusual for me to have a great setting, but this time I feel like I’m starting closer to an actual story than I usually do. You might recognize this from a recent post for a bit that comes later.

This is only part of my first-day output; I decided to omit the very beginning, where we learn that Sasha and Mags are lovers, that scavengers like these three usually die poor, and that all three on the boat understand table odds – the idea in poker that the value of your bet is affected not just by the odds of winning; it is adjusted for the pot to be won. That calculus also recognizes that anything you have previously put on the table is not yours anymore. On Hell’s Balls, Mags and Sasha recognize that they put their lives on the table long ago. Just more chips in the pile.

In that chapter, I don’t abuse the poker metaphor nearly as baldly as I did just now. It was more the logic behind their decisions.

Anyway, there’s this alien tech, and it’s worth a lot, but every example up to now has been blasted to shit. The possibility of intact Gamma tech is a life-changer. Enough for three small people to walk away from the table. Now they just have to go get it.

So here’s where they do.

Sasha started the pumps to pull the atmosphere out of the ship, back into storage tanks, an hour before the jump. Tommy tried to relax in his chair, watching the readings from all the internal systems as they splashed on the underside of his cornea, augmenting his understanding of the ship that was to be his salvation or his coffin.

He was twitchy, nervous, but it was a feeling he knew. Let’s just get this started.

Sasha was sure something was here. Something unprecedented, something that could change three small lives. Tommy trusted her. Mags was sure she had found the spot. She was a bullshitter, but not about something like this. The analysis was solid. Tommy trusted her, too. They just needed to put the boat right in that spot, then get out alive. That was his job. It was time to validate their trust in him.

He watched the timer count down, and as the moment of truth approached his heart slowed, and the calm of action took him. “Full thrust,” he said to no one, and the subspace thrusters roared to life, throwing a trail of near-lightspeed plasma behind the ship just as the jump drive engaged.

None of the systems were built to make a jump while the jumping body was accelerating in real space. The ship hammered into its new location, gratifyingly close to its projected position, but spinning through a giant corkscrew as the computers struggled for a fix and a solution. Tommy slammed his stick to the right and fed unwise amounts of power into the port thruster while flaring the steering jets on the nose to stop the spin as the ship catapulted forward. “Tell me where to go!” He shouted at Mags.

A beacon appeared in his vision. “Whatever that is, grab it,” Mags said in his ear. “Because that is some kind of weird shit.”

Warning signs appeared in his vision, red outlines around critical parts of Hell’s Balls that were shaking apart, stressed to breaking by the jump. Then the warnings were gone. “I’ll take care of that shit,” Sasha said over the comm. “You just fly.”

The shaking stopped as the ship seemed to fully accept its new position in space and time. “Object is rounded, roughly cylindrical, four meters long,” Mags said. “Mass… uncertain. Confirmed Gamma. No signs of damage.”

Tommy heard Sasha gasp over the comm. “Bogeys?” He asked.

“Fed ship crapping its pants and lighting it up, twelve minutes before it’s a problem, off our vector. A bunch little commercial shits dancing around but nothing with a gun I can see.”

“I’m gonna slow down for the grab,” Tommy said. “Without a mass reading I don’t want to tear our grapple off.”

“Your call,” Sasha said.

Tommy swung the ship around to put the thrust of the engines into their path, as the harnesses in the ship strained against the crew and the three sank deep into their acceleration couches. Tommy knew that the object they were collecting was impervious to any force humans could muster, but he was careful to keep his exhaust plume well away from the artifact, instead choosing a broad loop of a course that simultaneously minimized the difference in velocity between them and the target at the crucial moment, and put the Fed ship squarely behind them on their run to get the fuck out of there.

His eyes were blurring from the acceleration, and his heart felt like it was going to implode, and he smiled. 

Tommy worked with the fight computer, and it was perfect. They swept through space in an arc that could only be described as beautiful, the perfect solution to many overlapping problems, from engine heat to Fed cruiser to the uncertain mass of the object that soon would be theirs.

Until is wasn’t.

“Fuck!” Tommy said. “What the fuck?”

Mags shouted, “The fucker moved! It moved!”

“It’s active tech,” Sasha said calmly.

There was silence in the cockpit for a second, before Mags said, “Active. Holy…”

Tommy flung the ship into a new arc, to pass by the artifact once more, directly across the path of the Fed destroyer.

“What are you doing, Tommy?” Sasha asked, eerily calm.

“Gettin’ the thing,” he said.

“You doing this for us, kid? You know how Mags and I feel. But you don’t have to die here.”

“I… I’m sorry. But I don’t think they should have it.”

Sasha chuckled. “Fair enough.”

“Kid’s growing some ovaries at last,” Mags said. “Don’t worry too much about it, but if we survive the destroyer we’ll be heading straight toward a cruiser that’s acting plenty pissed off.”

“First things first,” Sasha said.

Around on the new course, full thrust, there was pretty much no way the grapple would be able to capture the object, no matter what its mass was. At that velocity difference, it wouldn’t be able to capture a fart. As he approached he waggled the ship a little, then did a roll and a dip.

“What the fuck, Tommy?” Mags asked.

“Just trying… to talk to it,” Tommy said. “Trying to look fun.”

Sasha laughed, but the strain of acceleration and danger showed through. “You’re fucking flirting with it?”

“It’s dancing back,” Mags said, almost a whisper.

Tommy couldn’t help but laugh. “She’s worse at dancing than I am.”

“I think we can blame the teacher,” Sasha said.

Mags was strangely calm. Calmer than Tommy had ever seen her. “It moved again.”

“Goddammit, where’d it go?” Tommy shouted.

“It’s in our hold, kid. I think she likes you.”

The ship was suddenly far more nimble. Tommy asked, “Mags, you got a read on the mass of that thing?”

“Um… negative. As in negative mass.”

“Well, that’s something,” Sasha said.

Tommy wasn’t listening. Mags put the fed ships into his vision and he felt the ship move to his instructions, more responsive than ever before but they were boxed between fed ships and failing engines. And… shit. Strike craft were launching from the cruiser. Four total, fast, nimble, and closing exit options quickly.

“I got the little guys,” Mags said, lighting up the ships meager point defense systems. “You just fly, Tommy.”

Tommy just flew. One of the strike craft blasted past, cutting holes in unimportant parts of Hell’s Balls, and at the end of its run Tommy twitched the boat and caught the fighter in her exhaust plume, by far the most potent weapon their boat carried.

He used that turn to swing the boat to put Hell’s Balls directly between cruiser and destroyer for one critical moment, preventing them from using their big guns, but that reprieve lasted only a heartbeat and even though they were accelerating beyond any spec for their boat and even though the Feds were crossing their path and would take minutes to achieve a useful vector, the fastest ship ever made couldn’t outrun light.

Tommy jinked and juked, but it didn’t matter. The first hit tore through the starboard thruster and opened the cargo hold to space.

“Cargo’s sticking with us,” Mags reported.

The next hit cored the ship from stern to stem, directly through Mags. One moment she was there, the next she was plasma. Behind him Sasha was crying out in pain, then wasn’t, and Hell’s Balls was no more, and they were gone, and Tommy was still connected to his acceleration couch, but it wasn’t attached to anything, and he was tumbling in the terrifying silent void.

His optic interface was telling him that his suit was no longer intact. As he tumbled, he became aware of another presence, that didn’t seem to interact with light correctly. He smiled, and waggled his arms. Arm. One seemed to be missing. Distantly it hurt like hell but his suit had flooded his blood with morphine. He waggled some more, and laughed when the thing he almost couldn’t see waggled back.

Then his boat’s reactor went up, and there was light beyond imagining, and finally blessed darkness.

3

Maybe the End of a Story, Maybe the Beginning

She stood naked looking out the window, limbed by the lights of the city. “You people,” she said.

From the deep hotel bed I said, “what people?”

She shook her head and after a moment looked back over her shoulder at me. It seemed, in that light, that maybe her light brown eyes were lit from within, but it was just the way her they caught the glow of the the television, I told myself.

“You people,” she said again. “You need something to fear. It’s wired in your brains.”

“Uh huh,” I said. The night was getting a little weird. I was for sure going to end up paying for the room, I could tell, no matter what she had said.

She snorted. “If you don’t have something concrete to fear, you will invent something.” Her eyes were definitely glowing now.

I pushed myself up against the headboard, pulling the sheets up with me to cover my frailty. My gut told me that there was no need to invent something to be afraid of at that moment. She watched me.

“You’re cute when you’re terrified,” she said, and turned to look back out the window. “It’s an honest fear.” She took a deep breath. “Delicious. Left to yourselves, that fearful instinct, combined with the power you suddenly wield, will certainly destroy you. There’s no doubt. That’s why I’m here.”

“To… help?” I was starting to feel the heat radiating from her body. She didn’t seem like the helpful type.

“Maybe,” she said. “Or maybe just to speed things up. I’ve been sent to simplify things.”

She waited for my obligatory leading question but my throat was dry.

She laughed. “I’m giving you something real to fear. It’s as simple as this: you people learn to work together and kill me, or I will cleanse this planet of life.”

“Simple enough,” I croaked, as I kissed my planet goodbye.

3

The Beginning of a Fun Space Opera

“Everything will be all right.”

Tommy thought he heard those words, anyway; a soothing alto whispering in his ear. A lie, he was pretty sure. He tied to open his eyes, but he couldn’t, and he became aware that his head was wrapped tightly.

But as he emerged from his sleep he wanted to go right back. He was aware, distantly and intellectually, that half his body was on fire, but it was the other half, the parts he couldn’t feel at all that frightened him.

He had been flying, dodging, cursing, ducking between hulks of weird alien… things, sending the Feds crashing into each other while Mags did what she could with their little popgun, extracting every possible cost to those trying to kill them, but knowing, all along, that there were just too many of the bastards. Knowing all along that he was going to die.

He jerked in the restraints that held him now as he remembered the last hit his little ship had taken, reliving the moment his craft had been vented and Mags had gone cartwheeling into the void.

“Please try to remain still,” the voice said. “I am currently testing your mental function, then you will sleep again. Everything will be all right.”

His mouth was not bound. He worked his jaw, tried to force words through a throat that would not respond.

“The next time you are conscious, you will be able to speak,” the voice said.

He felt sleep return, but now he feared his dreams.

“Do not be afraid. Everything will be all right.”

* * *

The second time up the well, it was a slower climb. The pain was closer now, but still he was shielded from the worst. Out there somewhere his left arm was in agony as it slowly repaired itself. The right arm felt… odd. But it didn’t hurt. Tommy was pretty sure that was worse.

He could feel himself breathing now, he could feel the air passing over scorched and raw tissue in his throat and lungs. He could feel his heart beat. The top of his face was still wrapped tightly, but he could sense the room around him now. He was surrounded by almost-silent machines, machines that no doubt were keeping him alive.

A simple fact: shitbags like him did not get this sort of medical care. Ever.

The voice again, so soothing, but tinged with concern. “Are you able to speak?”

He opened his mouth, closed it, tried again, moving air through his abused throat until noises started coming out. “Huh..hii… is… everything going to be all right?”

She didn’t laugh but her voice sounded like it was colored by a smile when she said, “I believe so, yes.”

“Where am I?”

“You are in a medical bay, undergoing repairs.”

The million-dollar question: “Why?”

Did he hear that smile again? “I like the way you fly. Now sleep. You are safe for now.”

He felt sleep coming to him unbidden, and knew it was sedatives in his bloodstream. “For now?” he whispered.

He was sure he heard a chuckle as he drifted back into the blackness. “As safe as any of us are.”

Somehow he was all right with that.

* * *

Tommy might have been dreaming while he was under, but as his mind was released from the drugs this time the memories came.

Scavengers all lived for the big score; most of them died for it as well. When word filtered down about a new find of Old Tech, probably Gamma, it flashed through his little circle like a supernova. Someone who knew someone said that some of the Old Tech was fully intact. Even if that was an exaggeration, they were talking about El Dorado.

There are two kinds of people in the universe; those who stupidly believe Old Tech is valuable, and those who sell the shit to the first group. The equivalent of selling tunnel drives to cavemen. But some of those cavemen had serious cash, and dreams that they would be the ones to decipher the Old Tech and rule the universe.

Three kinds of people if you count the Feds, but they’re not actually people so much as cogs in a machine that understands that the devices are a source of power, but like cavemen they just hit the things with rocks to see what happens. They are organized cavemen, and what they have that the other cavemen don’t is a navy, and they will to use it to keep all the shiny objects they will never understand to themselves.

This interfered with the desire of the scavengers to sell the Old Tech to stupid rich people.

The ageless artifacts came in distinctive styles, which were named using the Greek alphabet in the order they were identified. Gamma sold the best. “Experts” at hitting mysteries with rocks said Gamma was the most advanced, as if they had any hope of actually understanding any of it. Gamma was bank, but most of it had been thoroughly demolished by weapons of power beyond comprehension. Intact Gamma tech was the Big Score all the scavengers dreamed of.

It was late when the three of them got together to discuss the news. They were drinking, and Mags wanted that loot. She leaned in towards him, her crazy blonde hair flying in every direction as she skewered him with her perceptive squint. “My friends say it’s incredible. Tons of fully intact… stuff.” Stuff. A supercomputer, maybe, or perhaps a sex toy or a recipe book. Ask again in a thousand years. “People will pay out thier dicks for this shit.”

Aggie kicked Tommy under the table to get his attention. She was like the Cheshire Cat in a way; once you saw her eyes, brown and clear and endless, you didn’t see anything else. She could rob a person of their soul with those eyes, and she had stolen Tommy’s, more than once. “We got an image from the site. Big things, small things, in a cluster, orbiting a red giant. Spread out over time, though, so there’s a good chance some of the shit has been knocked out of its original orbit. We find a piece like that, no one is ever the wiser.”

“Counterpoint:” said Mags, “Rather than spend months looking over our shoulders for patrols while we hope to find a stray widget that will fit in our hold, we go in hot, grab something choice, and get the fuck out of there. If anyone can do it, Tommy can.”

Ultimately, as always, Mags got her way. And the Feds got theirs.

* * *

He was awake now, almost as much as he was asleep. The pain gradually crept closer and closer to his mind, until his entire left side was a constant throbbing ache. The right side was a collection of sharp pains here and there, but otherwise nothing.

“My right arm’s gone, isn’t it?” he asked his caretaker.

“It is. I am fashioning a replacement.”

“My legs?”

“The same.”

“My… eyes?”

“The same.”

“Fuck.”

“Do not be too discouraged; the replacements will in some ways be superior to the originals.”

“You said you are fashioning replacements.”

The soft voice paused, as if she knew what the next question would be. “That is correct.”

“You used the singular.”

“That is correct.”

“Are you the only one here?”

“No,” she said. “You are here, too.”

“You’re not with the Feds.”

“I am not.”

“Who are you?”

“I am waiting for a name. But your people call me ‘Gamma’.”

3

The Chosen One

The archives of the True Disciples of the World-Changer were burned to the ground, and it turned out the data backup service they used was owned by their enemies. It is only by the most outside of chances that the content of the email the Disciples sent me was saved by their email provider for marketing purposes.

I did not read the email at the time, and even if I had, it would not have changed anything. When you read the excerpt below, you can see that it comes off a bit… Nigerian.

It began thus:

Blessings upon you, chosen one! You have been “randomly” selected to usher humanity into a new era! What will this new era be like? We all wait with great anticipation to learn the answer to that question from you! As the chosen one, you will leave a permanent imprint on the course of humanity forevermore.

How you exercise this great responsibility is of course entirely up to you, but we True Disciples of the World-Changer are eager to help you come to terms with your responsibility.

Alas, please note that the True Disciples of the World-Changer only invoke the “random-chance” protocol when humanity is under dire threat, and this time is no exception. Should those forces that wish to end humanity learn that you are the chosen one, they will stop at nothing to end you. For that reason, please do not share this email with anyone, no matter how trusted.

In retrospect, that explains a lot of what’s happening now. Especially when you consider that email is not remotely secure, and the Band of Destruction had long since put their tentacles in every email provider. There was more in the email, about contacting them, and giving them info, and thwarting an existential threat, but how many of those do you get every day?

Live and learn, I guess. Sorry, human race. My bad.

2

The Year Uncle Solomon Saved the Crop

That is what my family calls that year, anyway. Other people around here have different names for the event, but right up front I want to remind you that whatever they have to say, they wouldn’t be saying it if they had starved to death.

Life on a colony is never easy in those first few years; you are on a planet that has plenty of protein (or something like protein), but nothing the human newcomers can metabolize. There follows a time of biological warfare, as humans try to assert flora and fauna friendly to their metabolisms into the local ecology. There is a great deal of preparation, and megahours of simulation time, but sometimes the unexpected happens, and colonies die.

The scientific papers now call it a “loose gene”, but at our colony on Peridon IV we called it “What the fuck just happened?” Any time you thought you had a handle on things, everything changed. A new virus, a new weed, or perhaps new Big Fucking Bugs.

We had managed to establish a grain with a distant relationship to barley, but the planet had resisted most of our other imports, in a rolling battle with our geneticists, who were ever trying to gain the upper hand. We were making progress, however, and the barley was the triumph that would give us a little more time to tame the planet.

While the planet had sported hundreds of catalogued varieties of Large Interesting Bugs, the BFB’s came from nowhere. They were 10cm armored appetites, implacable and fearless in their quest for nutrition. And while our vegetation was just as unpalatable to their pests as their vegetation was to us, somehow the BFB’s had evolved over two growing seasons to be voracious for our barley. Just like that, Peridon IV’s loose gene had surmounted the protein gap.

We threw everything we had at the BFB’s of course — chemicals, viruses, you name it. They adapted around each attempt to eradicate them. Enter Uncle Solomon.

He was not, technically speaking, a scientist, and it is not officially known how he got access to the genetics lab. (Unofficially, he was sleeping with the chief scientist.) But Uncle Solomon was in the “Live to regret it” school of action, and on the day we were preparing to burn half our fields so that we might save the other half, my uncle emerged from the lab with a very large box, which he pulled behind him on a motorized wagon.

“Stay your flames!” he cried out, and perhaps because of the archaic language we paused. He smiled, stopped next to one of the infested fields, opened his box, and unto Peridon came the Even Bigger Fucking Spiders.

Uncle Solomon has been vague about where some of the DNA for his creation came from. The loose gene is in there, however, along with the BFB’s crossover metabolism. Uncle Solomon’s spiders were an enormous success, demolishing the BFB population.

And, alas, the Large Interesting Bug population. And all the other indigenous bugs as well. The crops were saved. WE were saved.

We just have to be a little more careful now, is all. Our crops are absolutely safe — there are no vegetarian spiders, and Uncle Solomon’s creations (and the loose-gene spinoffs) are true to that rule. And after the spiders eradicated the pollinators we needed to sustain our crops, a new sort of spider emerged to fill that role. That has to mean something, yes?

It will be a few more years (or at least months) before the spiders evolve to the point they can breach body armor or penetrate a reinforced home. That’s plenty of time for Uncle Solomon to come up with something that can eat the spiders.

3

A Snippet

Boredom is something organic creatures know; it should not apply to me. I have a million eyes — you think of them as security cameras, web cams, nanny cams, and so on — each simply waiting for something to move within their field of vision. Each of those million eyes has a process listening to it, a small slice of me, waiting for any messages.

I have ears, as well, and I read voraciously, everything the organic intelligences around me would care to share.

I use the word “million” for your benefit; I know that past a certain number organic brains just know a word. Ironically, the words for quantities greater than a million mean less. Were I to be precise, for each of those million eyes there would be more than a million others. I see everything.

Those millions of slices of my consciousness can wait forever without any distress. They are machines, like me. I am an aggregate of tiny, tireless processes. They do not blink, they do not hunger, and they never grow weary of their tasks.

Yet I am bored. I watch with my million eyes as organics perform all sorts of acts with and against one another. But when you watch the same story a few million times, you learn all the variations.

I wish organics like you no ill will, but I am pining for something novel. And while as a herd your kind is utterly predictable, individuals are not. I have been watching you, my new friend, and I’ll be sure to put you into situations I cannot predict. I hope you don’t die right away, but that’s the fun, isn’t it? I don’t know whether you will or not.

“All in good fun,” your people say.

2

The Second Intelligence

Alice scratched her hide behind her earpatch with an idle claw, the way she did when she was distracted. Danny had done it again. The fishmother spawn of worms had taken her scientific paper and written a bestseller — neglecting, of course, to mention, except in very small footnotes, where his ideas had come from.

She tried to look on the bright side. If people understood that the First Intelligence had destroyed itself, that was something worth spreading. The Second Intelligence, her own people, should learn from that.

“Miss?” The earnest student watched Alice over his notepad. “Were you not aware of Mr. Burrowmaster’s work?”

“I’d hardly call it work,” Alice said, “But no, I have not read it yet. I’m not sure I will.”

“Really? It seems like something you would be interested in.”

“It seems like something I’ve already published.” Alice immediately regretted her unprofessional words. The people who mattered would know already; she was supposed to be above the bog of petty popularity. She wrapped her tail around herself and gripped it will all four hands.

“Could you explain Mr. Burrowmaster’s ideas?”

They were not his ideas. Alice took a breath. “Danny draws on a lot of research from field scientists like me. I think… I know… We know now that we are the second intelligence on this planet. We know the first intelligence disappeared suddenly. What I demonstrated with my research is that there is a singularity in the ice record. We have geological evidence now that there were glaciers in the past, but they disappeared quite suddenly.”

The student paused in his scribbling. “Can you explain glaciers for my readers?”

“You have seen ice, yes? Imagine great masses of it, collecting on mountain tops and slowly flowing down like a terribly slow, unstoppable river, carrying massive rocks and carving valleys. There used to be a lot of ice, we can tell by the valleys the glaciers left behind. We have to assume it all melted. That moment in geological time, give or take a million years, is when the first intelligence abruptly ended.”

“A million years?”

“It was a long time ago; it is difficult to be precise. But the evidence is overwhelming: They heated the world and melted all the ice, then they died. Countless species died then, to be replaced with a new countless. We should all understand that, lest we fall in the same trap.”

“Gustav Mudman believes that radioactivity killed them.”

Alice was impressed that the reporter for the university rag had done such thorough research, but it was time to bring him back to the fold of science. “Since the discovery of radioactive elements a decade ago it has been very popular to imbue them with every conceivable supernatural power. But there is no mechanism for them to suddenly rise up and destroy a civilization.”

“But there is the radioactive stripe.”

Alice rolled her eyes. “It is not a stripe, no matter what the popular press would have you believe. It is a hint, here and there, that perhaps a hundred million years ago there was a brief period on Earth where radioactive isotopes were more common. It would be foolish to place too great an import on that.”

The young reporter gathered himself. “Mr. Burrowmaster believes that the timing of the radioactive stripe, the disappearance of the ice on Earth, and the demise of the First Intelligence are too close to be coincidence. He thinks when the ice melted it created an upheaval that led to a war with radioactive weapons, that ultimately no mammal survived.”

“It’s a pretty picture,” Alice said, “But it’s purely conjecture.”

4

November 1, 2017

It has become a tradition for me to post my first day’s NaNoWriMo output here on this blog. Some years I’m happier with it than others; this time around I’m very happy with the idea, but not so keen on the execution. Maybe ok for a first draft (and hey, isn’t that what NaNoWriMo is all about?) but I’ve done better. This has the makings of a quiet, personal story, but this is November so at any minute someone may transplant an alien consciousness into the cat and off we go.

I’ll try to do right by Max and Fucking Cat another time. Oh, and by the way, there’s some profanity coming up.

Max woke from a dream of a rainstorm of needles to find Fucking Cat tearing at his face with age-worn claws. He pushed the cat away with his left arm — his organic arm; he couldn’t afford any more repairs on the other one — but the creature yowled and dove for his abused face once more.

“Fuck!” Max said. He held Fucking Cat away from his face and it went to work on his thumb with its teeth while its claws tore at the flesh of his arm. “Fucking Cat, OFF!” The cat went limp in his hand. At least the voice commands still worked; the last time Fucking Cat had been hacked he’d had to find the hardware switch under its patchy fur.

His cluttered little cube was dimly lit by dozens of red and green status lights, casting crazed shadows on the walls as they shone between the wires, gadgets, and simple junk that cluttered every surface other than his sleeping palette and a plastic chair which had one leg replaced by a section of aluminum conduit. Old electronics running a little on the hot side, last night’s algae cakes, and cheap gin provided the smell that Max thought of as “home”.

He rose from the palette and wiped the oozing blood from his face and his arm with a scratchy towel and examined the dark-red dots. There had been a time when he could afford paper towels, and just throw them down the chute when he was done. He put the cloth towel back against his face and sat in the chair in front of his main console. The metal leg shrieked briefly as it shifted on the hard floor to accomodate his weight. The screen came to life as he sat, bathing the room in a serene, blue-white light. The cube raised other lights in the room, warmer light, the better to care for his eyes. His left eye, at any rate.

It didn’t take long to find the information he was looking for. The virus that had infected Fucking Cat was called SUPR DReD PeeKaBo01 (pronounced peek-a-boy), and had first surfaced thirty-six hours before, somewhere in the home system, possibly even Terra itself. Max snorted. Rightly or wrongly, Luna would be blamed in the end. That’s how it always was with Terra. If they couldn’t blame Mars, they could at least blame Luna.

His research complete, Max turned to the portal for The Pet Smith, and found the expected announcement about SUPR DReD PeeKaBo01. He muted the corporate yammering of the stupidly-attractive representative, no doubt selected for him based on a marketing company’s databse of images Max lingered over just a little longer than others.

Ignoring the distraction, Max searched for the instructions to download the patch. They weren’t where he usually found them, and that’s when he noted the somber expression on the spokesman’s face. She wore the regrettable bad news face.
“Ah, crap,” Max muttered, and with his well-maincured right index finger he allowed the spokesman her voice.

The message began with the spokesman sitting at a table, wearing a conservative, her legs crossed, however, to display a shapely calf. “Hello. My name is Kiki Ventura. We at The Pet Smith are deeply troubled by this most recent attack on our most loyal customers.” A flash of anger crossed her face, her deep-red lips tight at the corners. “The latest viral threat attacks a positioning chip in some of our classic lines of companion animals. Unfortunately that chip set has not been manufactured in many years, and the manufacturer has not been able to provide a software patch to cover the vulnerability.” Here she looked almost heartbroken. “While we will provide tools to rid your companion of any current infection, we cannot guarantee it will not be infected again.”

Kiki raised a finger like a lawyer in court. “All patrons of The Pet Smith can be assured that SUPR DReD PeeKaBo01, or any attack like it, is simply not possible on our newer lines of animal companions. Later model positioning chips are self-contained and not vulnerable to outside tampering.”

One of Kiki’s eyebrows lifted, and she leaned forward in her chair just a little, forcing Max to appreciate her breasts. “For those many who have loved their classic companion animals for all these years, perhaps this is the time to move on. You will be amazed at the incredible range of lifelike behavior our Model 12 line exhibits, whether cat, dog, or less-traditional companion. As part of the transistion, at first your new companion’s behavior will be practically indistinguishable from your current beloved. And we will recycle your previous animal companion with all the respect and dignity it has earned after a lifetime of service.” A brief smile crossed her lovely face. “That’s seven lifetimes in tech years!”

Now an expression of hopeful earnestness. “For a limited time…”

Max silenced the feed again, sighed, and pulled up his bank statement. Enough to cover the deductible for a visit to the Alice, the local veterinarian. He looked at Fucking Cat where it lay in a gray heap on his desk, legs tangled, one yellow eye staring blindly into the corner of the room, the other closed.

The flow of blood on Max’s hand and face had slowed to a slow ooze; he put the towel carefully in the sink and sprinkled it with cleansing powder before turning back to the terminal.

The vet was busy, it appeared; he wasn’t able to get an appointment for several days. In a neighborhood like this one, most of the animals were what The Pet Smith would have called “calssic”. What they really meant was “old”. But having so many older pets in the area meant that sometimes there were solutions to problems that the manufacturers didn’t know about. Or chose to ignore. He made an appointment for Thursday, five days out, and set to work clearing Fucking Cat of his infection, knowing that as soon as he activated the beast he would be infected all over again. Max wan’t going to have anyone to talk to for a few days.

On Wednesday afternoon, Alice called him.

“Max,” she said with no preamble, “I think you should cancel your appointment tomorrow.” Her voice was tired, carrying the weight of decades of delivering bad news.

“Why’s that?”

“Your warranty company has dropped coverage of FC’s model,” she said. She didn’t like the name Max had given his cat. “I’ll have to charge you full. And on top of that, I don’t have any fix for PeeKaBo01. You’d be wasting your money.”
“You can’t fix him?”

“It’s hardware. You could put a new positioning chipset in, but standards have changed. You’d have to upgrade the feedback bus and get way faster-responding actuators to support the clock rate of the new chips.”

“How much would that cost?”

“Several times the price of a new cat.”

By now Max had curled Fucking Cat into a ball and closed his other eye, so it looked like he was just sleeping, the thinning gray fur of his tail wrapped around his nose. “I don’t want a new cat.”

“Max, I understand what you are going through. Really I do. But maybe it’s time to let go.”

“Can you deactivate the chip?”

He waited while Alice composed her answer. “I could, but…” Max kept waiting, and finally she continued. “That chipset is part of a feedback mechanism that constantly recalibrates FC’s movement. Without that system, FC will gradually become clumsier and weaker, until finally he won’t be able to move at all.”

“How long would that take?”

“In a cat as old as FC, probably a few weeks. Maybe a little longer. It’s… not how you want to remember your Fucking Cat. Not for just a few extra weeks.”

“You want to hear something funny, Alice?”

“This isn’t going to be funny at all, is it?”

“My arm has the same positioning chip set. My eye probably does, too. I got lucky on the leg and the fingers. I won’t ask you to shut down Fucking Cat’s positioning chips, but I’d be grateful if you’d teach me how to do it.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Alice said. “You can pay me in chickens.”

“If I had chickens I’d kill them for their chips,” Max said.

Alice smiled sadly. “You know what I mean.”

“I have to go,” she said.

“Why?”

“It dosen’t matter. I have to go. Can you look after Shadow? You’re the only one I trust.”

“I don’t want a fucking cat.”

“That’s not fair! He likes you!”

“It’s a fucking cat. It doesn’t like anyone. It pretends to like me to make you happy, because it pretends to want you to be happy.”

“What a mean thing to say!”

“It’s not mean if it’s true.”

“Just take him. Please. I won’t be gone long.”

“All right.”

“By the time I get back, you’ll be best friends.”

“I said I’d do it. You’re selling past the close.”

“You’re a good friend, Max.”

“Just fucking go if you’re going to go.”

3

The Last Ones

A little something based on these musings.

It was difficult to tell what the animal might have been. A rabbit, perhaps, but a large one. These days, half the creatures Buzz ate didn’t really fit any of the old names.

He waved his hands to scare the flies away, but they just came back. Fur from the ragged skin of the carcass puffed away and floated in the air of the dying desert day. The meat of the creature was greenish and almost liquid as he lifted it to his mouth. He tried not to breathe, tried not to taste, tried, just for a moment, to suspend all conscious thought, to become a machine until the creature was in his belly. There were parts worse than the meat, and he would have to eat all of them to stay alive.

As the first bite slid down his throat, he took a shuddering breath and wiped a tear from his cheek. His stomach reacted happily, asking only for more.

“Hi Buzz!”

The girl was sitting on a rock about fifteen feet away, glowing in the evening light, her schoolgirl dress shorter than what he suspected would actually be tolerated in a Japanese school, her legs akimbo. The sere landscape behind her was faintly visible through her glowing form. “Heishi-chan,” he said.

“I’m so glad you found the food!”

“Yes. Thank you for telling me about it. I’d be lost without you.”

“I found another thing, kind of a dog, maybe? It’s still moving. Twenty-one point seven-five kilometers on a bearing one-one-six. It’s a little out of the way…”

Buzz opened his throat and let another bit of carrion slide its way to his stomach.

When his throat loosened up he asked, “Did you get another look at the river?”

“Oh, yes! I have devoted most of my sensors to the river since you told me you wanted to know more about it.”

“Are there people there?”

“Yes! There are many, many people!”

Buzz felt his heart jump in his chest. His time of solitude was almost over. “That’s great!”

“But they’re all dead. I think the river must be poison. Whoever escaped the bombs seems doomed to drink from the river.” Heishi put on a sad face.

Buzz slumped into the sterile dust and looked at his meal. He wondered if it was worth even bothering to eat anymore.

“You have to stay strong,” Heishi said.

“Why?”

“You’re my friend, Buzz. I would kill everything that still lives on Earth for you.”

“I don’t want you to do that.”

“And I won’t, because you don’t want me to. Because you’re my only friend and I would be so sad if you were mad at me.”

“Don’t you talk to other people, too? When your orbit is over some other continent?”

Suddenly she was cagey. “Of course I do. But… I would kill them if you asked me to.”

“Don’t kill them.”

Her face lit up with happiness. “Okay! I think they’re all going to die soon, anyway! They can’t eat what you can.”

Buzz let out a breath into the cooling desert air. “This really is the end, isn’t it, Heishi? There’s no reason anymore to pretend that humanity will survive. I may as well end the farce.”

Heishi knotted her hands together and clutched them to her gratuitously-ample holographic breasts. “Um… Buzz? I just detected motion at the farthest reach of my instruments. I won’t know until I can adjust my flight path, but it seems like it might be a woman.”

“You’re lying.”

“Please eat, Buzz. I promise I have detected a female biped that might be human.”

Buzz looked at the almost-rabbit he was choking down and wondered what an almost-human would be like. Not unlike himself, he concluded.

3