The Official Sweetie and I have been thoroughly enjoying a thriller on Netflix. It features high-end assassins doing high-end assassin stuff for high-end assassin payoffs. These killers live well, if not necessarily happily.

One of the sponsors for this show is an online housekeeping service that offers to clean your house for less. “I fired my housekeeper!” one customer gleefully says.

Uh, good for you, I guess. Some giant company is putting a lot of advertising muscle into driving down what housekeepers earn, and then taking a slice of what is left and keeping it for themselves. The business model is based on the premise “there will always be enough desperate people to work for shitty wages and make us rich.”

This is also known in Silicon Valley as “disrupting a market.”

So while watching these two things juxtaposed, I started to think: what would happen if Silicon Valley decided to disrupt the murder market?

There is a story I will likely never write taking shape in my head, and I’m on a train right now, and almost by magic my literary muscles are suddenly flexing after months of quiet. The story’s basic shape is that a suave international assassin suddenly finds himself competing for work against bargain-basement thugs who are considered disposable by their clients.

Then instead of limos his clients start sending Ubers with drunk and shitty drivers, and instead of fancy hotels they put him in AirBnB’s with all sort of privacy intrusions.

At the end of act one, Javier decides he needs to kill iSassin.

Here is how such a story might begin (if the dialog is a little too conveniently twisted to include the phrase ‘disrupt the murder market’, well, that would be something I fixed if I actually wrote this, but I’m not going to):


For Javier, there were five kinds of kills, each to accomplish a specific purpose. If the client simply wanted someone to not be around only longer, a “natural” death was called for. Or perhaps a tragic death, a terrible accident, would earn the client sympathy they might find useful. Of course, simple murder — a gunshot, swift and clean, or a cut throat — might fit the budget of the client. Occasionally Javier was asked to make things messy, to make an example of the victim.

Javier’s favorite type of kill, however, was the shocking, humiliating destruction of a person, a death that would be talked about with hushed whispers and the occasional laugh. Javier wasn’t just killing a person, he was killing what they stood for.

Today he was in a particularly good mood. The Senator would be found, apparently dead of a heart attack, wearing nothing but lipstick, a codpiece with spikes on the inside, and a massive rubber dildo standing tall and proud from his rectum. The senator’s associates in government and in the clergy would try to suppress the news, but of course they would fail.

He sipped his Islay single-malt and smiled as he looked out over the cityscape from his apartment high above the grime of the street. His lights were off, and he sat in darkness, watching the city lights, listening to Brahms and thinking he should turn it up a little louder. He took another sip of whisky instead.

His phone purred softly on the hardwood table by his soft leather chair, as another phone pinged to indicate a deposit had been made to an account in a bank far away.

Before he answered he engaged the voice encryption app and entered the key they had shared for the after-job call. “Hello, Meyer,” he said.

“Congratulations, Mr. Rodriguez.” Meyer said. Of course that was no more his actual name than Meyers was the name of the man calling him. “My supervisor is well-pleased.”

“Always glad to be of service,” Javy said. “Is there anything else I can help you with?” Meyer’s organization, whoever they were, had been steady customers for a while.

Meyers hesitated. “Actually, Mr. Rodriguez, I have some bad news. My supervisor has decided to cut some costs, and I’m afraid you are one of those costs.”

“So… he or she has decided to not engage in this sort of business anymore?”

Meyers hesitated again. “No, it’s not that. It’s just that your services are frightfully expensive.”

“Are you trying to get me to lower my price? This is a high-risk business, and not just for me. Sloppy work could get you in trouble as well.”

“Oh, I agree,” Meyer said. “But what can you do? My supervisor recently discovered a service called iSassin. Have you heard of it?”


“iSassin. Apparently some Silicon Valley money guy has decided to ‘disrupt the murder space’. Quietly, of course. Most of the people listing themselves there seem perfectly competent.”

“Perfectly competent until something unexpected happens. This is bullshit and you know it.”

“Welcome to the future, Mr. Rodrigues.”


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.”


“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’.”


The Creche

The children sat in a semi-circle in the grass, seventeen of them, aged three to nine in traditional years, their eyes fixed on Evie the storyteller, who sat cross-legged at the focus of the children, the Holy Book in her hand. The petite brown woman smiled, a little wistfully, and opened the Book. “Today I would like to tell you about Earth.”

Willi had to smile as he watched the younger kids sit forward eagerly while the older kids rolled their eyes. Will relaxed on his bench, partially concealed by the lush vegetation of the creche, but not actually hiding.

“Earth was a beautiful place,” Evie said. “It was like this,” she said, waving at the vegetation as it flourished under the lights of the creche, “but the air was sweet — and above,” she glanced at the gray metal over their heads, “above was the sky. It was like a ceiling, but far, far, above. And sometimes, water would fall out of the sky, and the people would dance with joy.”

Willi watched as one of the older children leaned over to the boy sitting next to her. With a thought and a gesture Willi tapped into her audio. “And then we fucked it up, because we are greedy mammal bastards.”

Willi groaned but he was watching today for precisely this event. He stood and cleared his throat softly. “Malika, would you come with me, please?”

The girl swung around and looked at him, her brown eyes wide in her pale face. “I didn’t…”

“Come with me.”

She stood and pulled at her jumpsuit, which didn’t fit her very well. Too small. They grow like weeds at that age, Willi thought. But there was no place for weeds here. Not in this garden.

Tears were escaping her eyes as she walked away from the other children. They watched her go with stony faces, internalizing the most important lesson of the day: There are some things you never say out loud.

Malika stood in front of Willi, her eyes fixed on his feet. He reached out and put his hand on her skinny shoulder and felt her shaking. “Am I compost?” she asked.

Willi let out a slow breath. He used his hand on Malika’s shoulder to steer her toward the exit. “We are all compost. But before we are fed to the grinder, we must justify the resources we consume.” To make his point he touched a control and the heavy door cycled open, revealing the stark passageways of the starship. Even outside the creche, the air in the sections used by the mammals was heavy with moisture and fizzing with oxygen. Expensive air.

“It is delicate,” Willi said, knowing that all his words might be heard, the same way he had eavesdropped on Malika.

She was crying now. “Please,” she said, as fluid ran out of her eyes and her nose. No matter how efficient the recycling was on the ship, the crew would never be able to condone such waste.

Willi leaned in close and whispered, “They resent us.” Her eyes widened and Willi gave her a tight smile. “For any one of us, the ship could support ten of them. Ten of them awake.” The lizards would hear those words, but that was all right. This was just part of the curriculum. Every kid got this lecture eventually, in one form or another.

“They hate us? Why do they keep us?”

Behind them the door to the creche closed, and they walked down the sterile gray passage, with no particular destination.

“No, they don’t hate us. They don’t — they aren’t capable of hatred. Which, indirectly, is why they keep us. But without them, we are lost,” Willi said. “Earth is gone, just a radioactive cinder orbiting an ordinary star. Our ancestors did that to themselves. This is our home now, and we have to earn our way.”


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.


“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.


An Excerpt from a Fantasy Novel I’ll Likely Never Write

So I just banged this out and I’ll discuss it maybe a bit in the comments — it diverged from the idea in my head in an interesting way — but I should warn you that this gets violent. Knives and genitals meet.

The Duty of the Strong

The Baron grabbed the serving girl and pulled her forcefully onto his lap, sliding his hand inside her dress. Her cries were drowned out by the laughter of his men. Her struggles only added to the merriment. “I like ’em feisty!” the baron shouted.

The man sitting next to me at the long common table tensed. He was big, but for his size he was lean and hard. He wore a simple chain shirt that had been repaired many times; in places the links bunched while other areas were only thinly protected. The shirt he wore beneath was tattered, more hole than cloth. His long dark hair was tucked behind his ear, revealing the tension in his square jaw and the crease of his brow pulled down over deep-set eyes. A scar, still slightly pink and puffy, bisected his eyebrow and continued down his cheek.

Another cry from the serving-girl, barely audible over the roar of the baron’s retainers. My stomach turned. But I am a smallish man, slightly built, talented in my own ways, perhaps, but helpless to prevent what was about to happen. The big man was breathing carefully.

“It is the duty of the strong to protect the weak,” I hazarded, softly.

“Perhaps,” said the big man, in a voice for me alone, the product of a throat that has known no shortage of shouting, “But I am more inclined to help the girl.” He looked at me directly. His eyes were blue, sapphires buried in the shadow of his brow. “But I am just one.”

“Sometimes simple brawls have unexpected collateral damage,” I said. “Where no one is looking.”

He smiled, revealing a void where his front teeth should have been. He put a hand on my shoulder, a big, hard hand that bent me under its weight. “It is the duty of the strong,” he said, “to protect the unarmed.”

He rose with a roar, tipping his chair and mine, his blade gleaming in the light of the fire, a living thing almost, flawless and beautiful. I rolled beneath the table adjacent, lost in the rush to flee the violence.

“Come here, you little bitch baron,” the big man shouted. “Come over here and learn what it means to be a man!”

The baron stood, dumping the girl on the floor, and for a moment I thought his pride was going to render my skills unnecessary. He drew his sword, stepped forward two paces, and said, “Nobody speaks to me that way.” To his men he said, “Kill him.”

Twenty green-cloaked men rose and I didn’t like the chances of my new friend, however strong he was. I was not going to tip that scale, however; he was on his own. All that was left for me was to make his death worthwhile. I chose a thicker blade, a cutting knife rather than a stabbing one. I thought perhaps the extra blood on the floor would end the violence more quickly.

From one table to the next I moved, though in the confusion and noise I need hardly have bothered. The big man was using that gleaming blade to keep the greencloaks from getting too close, but it looked like he’d only killed a couple of them so far. I continued toward my goal.

They say that poetry is lost in this world, that the bluster of commerce and war has hardened our souls to beauty, but it is lost only to those who don’t know where to look. There is the poetry of moments, a poetry of found things that a perceptive mind understands. Take for example, a moment when one emerges from beneath a table, holding a very sharp knife, to discover the genitals of a man about to violate a woman while she watches her would-be savior perish. The poetry is further enhanced if one is well-versed in the various ways to use a knife, and if the possessor of the genitals releases a particularly shrill scream when they are removed from him.

I almost didn’t kill the baron; living his life so altered would almost certainly be another poem, and enduring sonnet. But I knew he would hold a grudge, and he had seen my face. I cut his throat as he clung to his gushing crotch, interrupting his continued scream with a burble.

The baron’s scream had turned the attention of the greencloaks my direction. “Time to go!” I shouted to the big man, in the event he was still alive. I dove for the shadows and the window in the corner that was still open despite the chill. Always know where the exits are, my mother used to say. My mother was a wise woman.


Remembering Topstar

This is how far I got before I realized that the idea in my head wouldn’t fit in a short story.

Despite the altitude, it was too hot to sleep. Jor lay on his back and stared up at the stars. The captain had told him what would happen to the sky as they traveled, and while Jor had believed him it was a different thing altogether to see it for himself.

Topstar was no longer directly overhead. It was a little off-kilter, revolving drunkenly around the place in the sky it used to hold. The sun, too, was behaving strangely, dipping and rising as if a year passed every day.

The captain was moving carefully in the unseasonal darkness, stepping over the loose rocks that covered the slope. He crouched down next to Jor. “Drink some water, son,” he said, offering a tin cup. Jor took it and drank greedily.

“Thank you, sir.” He returned the cup.

The captain nodded and stood. “Be ready to march in an hour,” he said.

“Yes, sir.” Jor scrambled to his feet, his hand on his hat to keep it from blowing off. “Have you informed the naturalists, sir?”

The captain smiled and put his hand on Jor’s shoulder. “I thought I’d let you do that.”

Jor managed not to flinch from the contact. The farther out they got, the more familiar the captain became with his men. Jor managed a nervous smile. “Yes, sir.”

Jor watched the captain move on to the next soldier and gathered himself for the coming confrontation. Somehow dealing with the naturalists had become his job. They were like children, demanding yet ignorant of the smallest hazards of the wilderness.

The canvas tent that dominated the center of the plateau shifted and strained at the moorings that held it in place. Uncousciously Jor rubbed at the welt on his arm where a rope had whipped across his skin while he and the others had erected the damn thing.

The tent was bad enough, but Jor reserved his hatred for the scientific instrument which lay inside. He stepped through one set of flaps and then another to reach the still air within. The naturalists huddled around the apparatus, talking quietly. Even though their voices were civil, Jor knew they were arguing. It seemed to Jor that was all they ever did.

The “instrument”, the subject of Jor’s ire, towered over the three figures huddled around its base. Whoever had designed the instrument was clearly not worried about having to carry it. The four legs of the pyramid were heavy iron pipe, with solid spikes to drive into the earth to anchor the frame. From the peak of the frame a weight was suspended from a cable, hanging almost to the ground. The pointed end of the weight swung inside a circle of dominoes. As time passed it would knock over a new tile, progressing slowly around the ring.

“Excuse me, sirs,” Jor said.

They stood and pretended like they hadn’t heard him come in. The old one with the beard sighed heavily. “Hello, Jor,” he said.

“Time to strike the instrument. Captain’s orders.”

The youngest naturalist, barely older than Jor, said, “Please tell the captain we need just a little more time.”

Jor shook his head. “I’m sorry, Professor Hod. Captain wants to move by, um… spring. So we have light.”

“Please. Tell your captain that this is an unprecedented opportunity to calibrate our measurements. We’ve never been so far out and still able to see the sky. A little more time here will make the rest of the expedition much more worthwhile.”

Jor tried to look sympathetic. “Captain’s orders,” he said.

The bearded old guy, Professor Timkin, spoke up. “The captain does not understand science.”

“Are you asking me to explain it to him, sir?”

Timkin laughed. They were friends when the naturalists wanted something. “Fair engouh, Sergeant. But this really is important.”

“You said you would need 50 hours. It has been 60.”

“We thought that would be enough. But some of our measurements are unexpected.”

“It’s the altitude,” Hod said.

“I think not,” Timkin said. To Jor he said, “We need more time. Important measurements, you have to make many times.”

The third naturalist spoke at last. “It’s pointless,” she said. She looked at Jor with unsettling intensity, her black eyebrows pulled down over her eyes. “This one is powerless.” She turned her gaze on old Timkin. “And the instrument is limited. We’d best bank what little goodwill we have for when things get difficult.”

Jor was surprised to find an ally in Professor Rej. He was powerless, after all, and was happy to have that recognzed. Unfortunately Rej had already squandered her goodwill, both with the soldiers and, Jor suspected, with her colleagues. The naturalist just didn’t seem interested in what people thought of her.

“Two more hours,” Hod said. “Jor, you can tell him.”

Jor thought he caught Rej rolling her eyes and almost smiled. “I’m sorry, sirs. We will begin striking the instrument in ten minutes. If you can convince the captain before then, I will be happy to not carry it for a little longer.”

A couple of notes:

Originally the three naturalists were all men, but I decided to skew the story a bit toward the old adventurous science fiction, with the obligatory female and inevitable repercussions (some of them not-so-old school). I’m picturing hostile natives, continuously worsening conditions (constant horizontal hot rain), lots of soldiers dying, equipment abandoned, and a collapse of discipline that leaves the female singularly threatened. Meanwhile, the commander is going slowly mad, driven by dreams of conquering the south pole. He’s not turning back for any reason.

I am particularly happy with Jor calling morning ‘spring’. I kept the names short, thinking that might reflect a culture with a low population. I think of the names I came up with, however, ‘Hod’ is the only one I like. Rej I like, but in English there’s no simple unambiguous spelling. It’s a soft j; in Czech it would be Redž.