Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

George R.R. Martin farts in your general direction

I’m currently trying to wean myself off Game of Thrones with the methadone of The Tudors. Man, was that a dizzying sprint. I started reading the very first book in May. Since, I read all four available books, watched the entirety of the HBO series and then read the fifth book in just a weekend. Devoured it, more like.

There are many good things to say Game of Thrones (and many, many fine mashups to be had in Tumblosphere) but as I’m still digesting, I had one short item of note from Dances with Dragons that I wanted to point out to the Internets.

Somewhere in that fog of a weekend I happened upon a funny and familiar phrase: “fart in your general direction.” Now you and I both know where that comes from:

I don’t presume to know whether that phrase was a rare and gentle wink from Martin to his readers (an audience that most certainly knows where that comes from) or whether it was one of those phrases that just kind of slips through a writer’s fingers to his keyboard and into his manuscript, passed over in all later edits.

I do find its use fascinating though. Fantasy writing, and certainly in the Tolkein-esque ring Martin seems to be boxing in, is ageless. It is not tied to its time. Yet, this little slip of a phrase places this book. This is a book written by someone who watched (and probably several times) Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Whether or not this is intentional it leads me to wonder: Could there be a post-modern fantasy? Could you write that book, brimming with clever references and asides, without subverting all the laws that make a fantasy book a fantasy book?

Anyone else find any little telltale phrases in your respective devouring of Dances with Dragons? (I also noticed “shubbery”, but that’s perhaps excusable.)

Categories: Writing Tags: Dances with Dragons, Fantasy, , Game of Thrones, George RR Martin,

The Collective is for sale!

May 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Today I finally mailed the last of the copies of the books for my Kickstarter backers. Which means…

At long last my novel is for sale online! You can buy it in the Lulu marketplace.

If you’ve already got a copy, leave me a review! Let everybody know what you thought of the book. Or at least the good bits.

Categories: The Collective Tags: , , , Lulu, Novel, , Printing, Publishing, Self-publishing,

A new look for Current and 48 hour magazine

May 21, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s been a while since I blogged, and boy have I been busy. I had all those books to mail for Andrew vs. The Collective (address-sending stragglers, yours’ go out this weekend!) and things have been busy-busy at the old office.

A personal highlight: I had a story picked up for 48 Hour Magazine! It’s called “Meet, Prey, Kill” (thanks Alexis for that title) and you can read it in print if you buy the magazine!

And then then on professional side: I’ve been running the homepage editorial for for the last few months and just last week that took an exciting new turn: this beautiful creation:

Current's hot new homepage

Look at that marquee! It’s gorgeous! The new design is courtesy Current’s longtime online designer Rod Naber who after five great years is leaving at a high point to go join the startup Rdio. Congrats Rod!

That’s not all the big news for Current. Last night we premiered a half hour special where Laura Ling talked about her imprisonment in North Korea. Powerful, heart-wrenching stuff. (You can watch that online here.) And next Wednesday the Vanguard documentary series starts up again with Missionaries of Hate about the Uganda anti-gay legislation and the influence of American evangelical leaders. That’s reported by Mariana van Zeller who just won a Peabody for her work last season. (Go Mariana!)

All right, all right, enough work-stuff. What about me? My book-designing, printing, shipping hiatus from writing is at last coming to an end. I’m beginning research this weekend on what will be my next novel.

I’ve decided with this one to pursue a relatively traditional path both of writing (no Collective, no NaNoWriMo) and distribution (agent –> publisher –> your local bookstore). So, if anybody has any agent/publisher friends/acquaintances they’d like to introduce me to – I’m looking!

Categories: Check this out, Current Tags: 48 Hour Magazine, 48hrmag, Alexis Madrigal, , Current, , Laura Ling, Mariana van Zeller, , Online design, Rod Naber, Vanguard,

The day I realized I’d never escape 1940

April 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Via Gizmodo: Time Traveler Captued in Museum Photograph

The day I went to see them open the bridge was the day I realized I’d never escape 1940. Or at least, wouldn’t escape it in any way but the normal byway into 1941 and subsequently the war and 1942 and beyond. I’d never see 2006 again, not for a long, long time. After Mary Sue flung her chubby little hand out toward the dashboard, slapping open the glove box and breaking the fragile plastic tube that kept the Ununhexium inert and in this dimension, I felt the dread certainty of a man marooned. Don’t fool around with the local talent, crazy Uncle Waldo used to tell me. They called him crazy because before he married my aunt he claimed to be from the next century. From the 2000s. He got back there all right. A grey-haired curmudgeon with a tinkerer’s hand and pied piper’s skill at entrancing his little nephews. Local talent. Sheesh. I’d have to adopt a crazy Austrian accent too, pronounce the first letter of my name as a V instead of a W. Hmm, maybe I’d wait another five to six years first.

I’m really into stories of time travelers caught in image. I might write a book of their stories one day. If you see any – send them to me!

Also, in microfiction: Robin Sloan’s new volcanic brainstorm: Ash Cloud Tales.

Categories: Stories Tags: , Microfiction, Short fiction, , Time, Time Travel, Time Traveler

Possibility – Andrew vs. The Collective #6

This is the fifth in a series of six short stories being written for a Kickstarter project called “Andrew vs. The Collective.” In it a writer (Andrew) must find a way to work in all of the suggestions of the backers (The Collective). If you want to sign up to give a suggestion for the next story, you can check out the project over here. This story is also available as a PDF here: Story 6-Possibility. In this HTML version, the submissions from the project’s backers are in bold and you can roll over them to see who submitted what.

The corn stalks trembled in the breeze off the mountains to the north. It was supposed to be late into summer, but that wind had a chill to it like Dwyer the snow god was just stretching out his icy tendrils in anticipation. Isla didn’t care about the chill, she was just happy to be out of the house, happy to be away from her stepmother and the endless cycle of unnecessary chores.

Isla was in her favorite secret spot in the village’s acres of crops. When she was out here she knew no one could find her. And that’s what she wanted today. Normally she came out here to write in her notebook. She wrote about anything that came to her mind. As long as her pen was moving she didn’t have to think, didn’t have to worry about chores. But today she wasn’t writing, she was experimenting.

There was something strange about her notebook. Or maybe her pen. She had another pen and another notebook just to be sure. Maybe there was something wrong with her.

Isla’s stories were always very visual in her mind. She saw the tales she was spinning play out in front of her. A griffyn would battle a Pegasus among the stars. A prince would sweep his love onto the back of galloping horse on the field of battle. The tiny mouse hero would outwit the bumbling canine villain. These little scenes played out in her mind among the green stalks of corn every day. But yesterday, it was a little too real. There was a baby dragon who was set to be boiled in the soup of the evil witch queen and this leading to a particularly foul mood, he had clamped his little baby dragon teeth down on her thumb. She giggled watching him do it. Giggled right up until the pain shot through her hand. The she screamed and dropped her notebook and the little dragon and his waiting cauldron disappeared. But right there on her thumb was the purple oval of the bruise the size of a baby dragon’s mouth. She rubbed her thumb. It was still there today.

So she was going to try to make it happen again. Maybe with something with duller teeth like a gerbil. Or a friendly cat. But the problem was that now Isla had writers block. She was sitting here as the air grew chilly, pen tapping her lip, and she had no idea what to write. She tapped the pen again. Maybe a mysterious old man in a wide-brimmed hat. He’d be wearing purple robes. She tapped the pen again, the scene coming together in her mind.

The stalks before her parted to reveal a tall man in a wide-brimmed hat. His beard and hair were long and white and his robes were charcoal. Isla looked down to her blank page and up to the man. “You’re supposed to be wearing purple,” she said, puzzled.

“You are Isla of the village of Gwyndyr,” the man declared.

She rose from the ground. Her wild black hair didn’t come near to the tops of the stalks and she gazed almost straight up at the man. “That’s me. Did I imagine you?”

“No, I am quite real. You can call me Xeno. We need to leave this place.”

Overhead the sky was growing dark. A peal of thunder echoed across the valley. The air had grown cold. Isla cocked her head and looked at Xeno. “Where are we going?”

“It is a different place, another world.”

“How will we get there?”

“We’ll just step sideways into it.”

“Thank you but no thank you, Mr. Xeno. My poppa says I shouldn’t go places with strangers, and there’s a storm coming, so I should probably get back to my house.”

Xeno took his wide hat off, his long white hair dangling down on either side of his face. He stooped to her height, holding the hat to his chest. “Young lady, I have much to tell you. First, this is no ordinary storm that’s coming. It will destroy this place. Not just your village, not just this valley, it will destroy all of this world.” A freezing droplet of rain hit Isla on the nose making her wince. “It’s too late for this world. But for the many millions of worlds the storm has not yet touched, some of those can be saved.” He reached his hand out to her shoulder. “But only you can save them.”

“What? How?”

“It’s you and your notebook. You have a rare gift. You’re a storyteller.”

“How do you know that?”

“I’m one myself. And I knew your mother.”

No one knew Isla’s mother but her father. And her stepmother made sure he never talked about her. Some nights, late, after a few pints of mead he would mumble about her mother’s dark curls and green eyes. But it didn’t matter how many people in the village Isla asked about her long dead mother, they all professed ignorance.

A sheet of freezing rain swept across their nook in the corn. Xeno grabbed her hand. “Let’s go, there’s one thing we need to do before we leave.”

They ran through the rows of corn, Xeno’s free hand batting back stalks that stood in their way. At one point they came upon Louis Flaherty and his tent and campfire. “How did you find me?” he cried. “No one can find Louis Flaherty at the center of his maze!” He was the village attraction, the wise man at the center of the maze no one could solve.

“Things change, old man,” Xeno said as he leapt over the ashes of the campfire.

“Hi Mr. Flaherty!” Isla called behind her as she was dragged back into the stalks.

They emerged at the edge of the village to find a flurry of activity. Isla’s neighbors ran around their houses chasing down livestock and lashing them to the buildings. The winds from the approaching storm sent the occasional shingle clattering off toward the forest. As they approached Isla’s house, she saw Esmerelda her stepmother struggling to bring Hector the mule into the shed.

“Isla! Where in the fires of the damned have you been, girl! Get over here and take Hector!”

Xeno turned to her. “Ma’am, where is your daughter’s dog?”

“She’s not my daughter. And who the hell are you, old man?”

At the doorway to the house, Isla’s father appeared. “It’s you,” he whispered.

“He wants to know where Herald is!” Esmerelda called.

“Xenophanes. You’ve come for her, haven’t you?” Isla’s father’s eyes were wide and his voice, usually harsh like a thrown cube of granite, was soft like a boy’s.

The old man stepped toward him. “Belatedly, I am sorry for your loss.”

“You told us it would happen.”

“I did.” Isla’s father looked like he was about to cry. “I’ve come for Isla. But I also need to find Herald.”

“Isla’s dog?”

“Sera’s dog. He’s an old and necessary friend.”

Esmerelda had tied the mule to his hitch and was approaching menacingly. She was a woman who did not like to be ignored. “Listen old man, you’re not taking that little girl anywhere. She’s got chores to do.”

Xeno raised two fingers in the air before her. “Silence.” He muttered a few strange words. “Where is the dog?”

Though her face was red and bespoke confusion, Esmerelda’s lips spoke: “He’s with the chess player. They’re behind the house.”

Xeno brought his fingers down. “Thank you.” He reached his hand out to Isla’s father. “She did love you. She loved you more than any man she’d ever seen throughout the centuries.”

Now Isla was dragging Xeno along, pulling him around the rough-hewn wood of the house that had until now defined her entire world. Coming around the corner they found a tall boy with a slight build scratching at a grid in the dirt with a stick. “Dalan!” she cried. “What are you doing with Herald?” Beside him sat a patient-faced dog with thick black fur.

The boy looked up. He was unfazed by the clamor of the growing storm around him. “He was helping me with a chess problem,” he said.

“He’s a dog!” Isla said. “He can’t speak, and he sure isn’t going to help your endgame.”

“Xenophanes.” Herald the dog said. Isla turned to him, gawking.

“Herald my old friend, it’s been many years.”

“If you’re here then it’s time, isn’t it?” Herald rose to this three legs. His stump tail wagged a little.

“It is time, we must leave this world.”

“Very well. Dalan the chess player. Will you join us?”

“He’s coming?” Isla protested.

“Herald told me I may need to prepare to leave this place.”

“Let us leave it then,” Xeno said his fingers already waving in the air.

As he muttered beneath his breath Isla leaned to Dalan. “How long have you been talking to my dog.”

“He’s been talking to me. He wanted to make sure I beat you at chess.”

Isla whirled on the now-smiling dog. “Herald!”

“It’s time,” Xeno said. Before him was a shimmering doorway. Sunlight poured through it, bright in the stormy gloom of the village. Behind them sounded a scream and a crack of splintering wood. Isla closed her eyes tight and stepped through the doorway.


The doorway led to a hot, loud place. The waves of sound were a cacophony Isla had never imagined. Hundreds upon hundreds of voices, and great guttural bestial sounds that came from the metal monsters that stalked by on their circular feet. Things here looked faster, more dangerous. As a reflex, she looked back to the doorway, hoping for a last glimpse of her village, but it was gone now.

Xeno, next to her, now appeared in a different sort of robing. He wore a form-fitting tunic with a strip of cloth hanging from his neck. Next to him Dalan looked bewildered by his new blue leggings and gray tunic. She too was in different wear, quite suddenly and surprisingly. “We’ve got to blend in,” Xeno explained, looking around them to see if anyone had seen them step through their invisible doorway. “We’re in a different world now,” he explained.

“So I’ve noticed,” Dalan said, sounding unimpressed.

“This is my original world,” Xeno continued. “It’s the easiest for me to get to. But it’s changed quite a bit since I was here.” He pointed out at the rushing beasts before them. “That, for example, is what has become of the road. In my day, roads were for leisurely strolling and talking with your colleagues. Today they’ve filled them with these things they call automobiles. This city particularly is filled with them. It’s called Los Angeles.”

Isla started to see the order in the space around them. It was like a really big, really different village. The road was in front of her. She stood on top of some sort of rocky ditch and behind her were houses, or maybe merchants’ houses.

Dalan was regarding the world around him dispassionately. Isla knew he always did that. Every scene to him was just another chess board, a different combination of positions. It was that single-minded obsession that had made him the champion in their parish. He turned Xeno. “What are we doing here, Xenophanes?”

“You can just call me Xeno, Dalan of Gwyndyr. And we are here to find a very old woman.” He turned and pulled open what looked like a door made of transparent glass as if it were a window. “Why don’t we sit down and eat and I’ll tell you all about it.”

Isla had her two hands fully wrapped around a warm tube of food wrapped in some sort of flexible metal like chainmail. Xeno called it a “burry toe” and it made her mouth feel like it was burning but it was delicious. There were many other people inside of this merchant’s house and regularly one of the merchants’ servants would yell out their names and then hand them sacks of food. It was novel, Isla thought, that there would be one merchant in a village who would cook all the food for the villagers, instead of everyone having to spend time cooking for themselves. She watched a thin young man in a white shirt pick up a bag for “Ben Falk”. He smiled at her as he passed by their table but Isla had taken another bite and all she could think about was the flame burning in her mouth.

“There is a small fraternity of those of us who travel between worlds. In my world, in this world, many thousands of years ago, it was a small group of friends called The Philosophers’ Club. They were older than I and passed their teachings down to the rest of us. It involves a story. Telling a story about a world you want to be in. Certain people have the power for their stories to take them there.” He turned to Isla. “I am one of those people. The power flows weakly in me. It is only effortless for me to return to this world. And then I must find other to open windows for me into other worlds.

“In some the power flows unimaginably strong. Your mother, Isla, was one of those. She could not just open windows, she could create worlds. Now some argued that new worlds could not be created, that all possible worlds already existed, but your mother seemed to defy them. Like she was spinning new worlds out of her words.

“But there is another, whose face I’ve never seen, who seeks to rend the pathways between worlds. To tear the worlds themselves apart. It was he who destroyed your world. We must bring his plans to a halt.

“We’re waiting now for a woman who lives in this neighborhood and who will open the next doorway for us. Her name is Elena.” The door to the hot outside world opened and in walked a thin dark-haired young woman. “And here she is. Elena!

“Is that you, Xeno?” They embraced. “I’ve just had the most arduous journey! I woke up in Bratislava and I’ve only just got home, but by way of Mexico first. Have you ever been to Oaxaca? Delicious tacos. That’s actually why I came here today, I missed them.”
Xeno’s warm smile had fallen from his face. “We need your help.”

“Of course you do. Where to this time? Who are your friends?”

“I need to bring them to the Philosophers’ Club. This one,” he gestured to Isla, “Is Sera’s daughter.”

Elena’s eyes widened. “Really? And you’re seeking out the Philosophers?”

“The time has finally come.”

“I was never sure if the Messianic Generation ever really arrived or not, but I was definitely one of those who were eagerly awaiting for its time to come back.”

“Where can I find them?”

Elena laughed, “I have no idea where they are. The only person who knows is the great witch Tule. But I don’t even know where she’s ended up.” She looked around. “The best I can do for you is send you to Ghana. Gorgias is there, maybe he’ll know.”

Xeno groaned in a low menacing rumble. “Gorgias? Surely there’s someone else.”

Elena rolled her eyes. “Xeno, get over it! You know there were plenty of philosophers after Greece? You guys should all band together or something instead of fighting these old battles.”

Elena insisted on bringing them back to her house to open the gateway. Both Isla and Dalan gaped at the size of the settlement they walked through. The villagers’ houses towered above them as tall as three or four men. And the road that Isla had assumed was the only one of its kind in the village turned out to just be one of a network of many. The two out of place teenagers stepped with trepidation in this unfamiliar world.

Inside Elena’s home there was a shining box that emitted light and sound. Both Isla and even Dalan were drawn to it. Upon it a picture, a painting of some kind kept changing and moving. “Cartoons!” Elena called over to them. “Aren’t they so ridiculous? That truck driver’s name is Rudy Rucker and he’s supposed to be fleeing murderous clowns.” Isla had no idea what she was talking about. The little drawing of a man, with diagonal slants where his eyes should be, was riding a massive beast down a road made of some sort of cream.

“Listen Xeno. Be careful.” She winced. “Sorry, my stomach is killing me. As I was saying…this is a culling of worlds.” Suddenly she doubled over with a scream.

“Are you okay?” Isla asked.

“Fucking Oaxaca!” Elena cried. Her fingers came up in the air and she began to mutter through gritted teeth. A shimmering line appeared in the wall and stretched itself open as her fingers worked in the air. Through it Isla saw a dusty land and a far-off gray building. “I’ll be fine,” Elena moaned. “Though I have no idea where I’ll end up next.” She waved at them. “Go! Get through it!”


Daedalus had escaped Gwyndyr at the final moment, hovering above his maze in the corn lashed by wind and watching the hovels collapse and splinter. He was furious that that fool Xenophanes had swooped in and foiled his long-sought goal of destroying Sera’s daughter in the world in which she was conceived. After 14 long years of waiting as Louis Flaherty, only to lose her at the last moment. Alas. But at least he’d made his maze and brought that world to an end.

If each world was a story, Daedalus just wanted to put a chapter break behind it. Close the cover. As he would do in this dusty plain he trudged through now.

If Xeno was building a little army to thwart his plans, then Daedalus would need to do some recruiting of his own. Little Isla wasn’t the only unsuspecting savant scattered across the dimensions. He just hoped he wasn’t too late, as he was so unfortunately many times.

They called this land the Plains of Despair, a barren empty space with exactly one attraction: The Traveling Carnival of Enamor. A faraway emperor ruled this land, but Daedalus was sure he’d never set foot on these plains. No delegation would ever come here unless they came to see the traveling carnival which had not traveled out of these plains in a generation.

Daedalus stepped up to the top of a small rise and there it was: the carnival. It was a paltry affair. More like a sleepy village composed of colorful tents and circled by gypsy wagons. A way-station between two places never visited.

He entered the carnival with no fanfare. He was hawked to along the empty thoroughfares as if he was just one of hundreds of carnival-goers, not the lone one stalking along in the dust. He found the young girl he sought in the makeshift stables tent behind the rodeo. Her name was Penny, conceived, born and come of age in the carnival. She was its premier breaker of Despair Plains horses, and of the hearts of every man of age. She was beautiful and had been desperate to escape this place since she was 10, when Daedalus first met her. Every path she took out of the carnival had only brought her back. Daedalus was about to offer her the first one that would truly let her escape.

She stroked the nose of her favorite horse as she listened to him. “The forces of chaos are at work in the universe,” he told her. “Only you can stop them. Only you can restore order.”

He could’ve told her ice cream was melting in another dimension, she didn’t care. She just wanted to leave. She bade her lover good-bye and as he protested she told him, “Look, I’m made of broken promises. Then they walked out through the tents.

“Anyone ever visit my maze anymore?” Daedalus asked, gesturing to the high plywood entrance inviting visitors to “The Labyrinth”.

“No one’s ever found the center.”

“Of course they haven’t,” he smiled.


The heat of this new place was more stifling than the last. Isla felt like she could barely breathe, the way you might on only the hottest day in five summers. The moment she stepped through the shimmering doorway her skin was filmed in sweat. And she looked back she saw Elena fall to the ground behind them. The doorway snapped shut.

“What is wrong with her?” Elena asked Xeno.

“Don’t worry, she’ll be fine. She has been for hundreds of years.”

“Will she not die?” Dalan asked.

“Oh she dies all right, but then is reincarnated in the same form. She just has no control over where that lands her. She’ll meet her demise in Los Angeles and then see the sunrise in Tokyo.”

“Are we in Tokyo now?”

Xeno laughed, “No this is Ghana, in Africa.” Isla looked at Dalan who shrugged his shoulders. He must have given up trying to keep track already. Typical.

Before them was a building with a small sign advertising itself as the Food Research Institute. Xeno pressed a small button beneath the sign and sighed.

Inside they were surrounded by silent silver machines. Gorgias, a tall salt-and-pepper haired man sat on a table across from where they stood, relaxed in his domain and not expecting them to stay long. “Things are good here,” he was telling Xeno. “The Africa of this world is the breadbasket of the entire globe. It’s a prosperous land, known for its stability, wealth and generosity. The techniques we develop here for food processing I bring to other Africas, many of which are in desperate need.”

“I’m happy that you have found a place that satisfies you old friend.”

Gorgias didn’t break his smile. “Don’t patronize me Xenophanes. You look down on my practical pursuits. Most of you do. This doesn’t bother me. I am making a real palpable difference across worlds. This satisfies me.”

“Things are shifting, Gorgias. The balance is tipping, many worlds are in danger. We need your help.”

Gorgias laughed. “Seriously? You don’t know a world in danger, my man. I see them every day.” He shook his head. “It never changes with you. Why don’t you get someone else’s help? Like Latecia maybe?”

“It’s a great idea but she is in Kathmandu and quite insane. Look, if you refuse to accompany us, may I ask of you only to send us along to the next place? We are trying to find the Philosophers’ Club. And to find them we need to find the witch Tule.”

“No one knows where the Club is anymore. They probably don’t even exist. And Tule is a thought I haven’t had in quite some time. I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

“You would have us stay here?”

Gorgias laughed. “As good as it is to see you,” he said with no small amount of irony, “I would not want you kicking around Ghana. I’ll send you along to the Philosophers’ World. There must be someone there who can help you.” He whistled to the door behind him. “It will take me a few hours to prepare, so why don’t you sleep here this evening. You all look exhausted. My assistants Frank and Mary can set you up in our dormitory.”

A young couple appeared and it was very obvious they were lovers. Gorgias leaned in, “Sweetest couple I’ve ever met. Never seen anyone more in love. They came down from Morocco a few years ago.”


Penny the horse-/heartbreaker had caught on quickly, which Daedalus was thankful for. She was a worldly girl in her own way. He couldn’t imagine the trouble Xenophanes must be having with that little brat and the skinny egghead chess player who wouldn’t be able to tell a story anytime in this lifetime. He took a sip from his smoky whiskey and looked over at Penny. She was perusing the back of the bar’s menu eyeing the armory advertised.

The bar was called “Boom Town” and its owner’s name was Jack Rabbitt Slim. It was on a Caribbean island in a world that had all but forgotten the islands existed. Jack Rabbitt Slim had opened this bar, tucked into a verdant island mountainside, primarily to serve to his friends. The place attracted all manner of pirates, cutthroats, mercenaries, and island-hoppers. The menu offered local fish and seafood, and on the back, a panoply of weapons. It was a place for people called villains, but they all knew they were working just as hard as anyone else. Daedalus was seeking a single patron who went only by Sophie, though her whispered reputation rarely included her name.

As Penny looked at the specifications of the AR-15, Daedalus bought a beer for one of the regulars who introduced himself as Dangerous Dan. He was pirate, Daedalus surmised, with a thick black beard and electric blue eyes. When asked how he came by his name, Dangerous Dan said only “I used to be a vet” and then winked with a bright wide smile. Daedalus thought he might also have been a Navy man at some point. He squinted, trying to make out the erased tattoo hiding under a mottled scar and an island of eczema on his arm, but could only see what might have once been a cursive name.

Dan was complaining about his erstwhile partner The Careful Cat. “Contrary to popular belief, given my background, he is in fact a man. But he’s a catburglar, see. And his tendency to be careful has turned into certifiable OCD. It’s enough to drive a good pirate insane.” Daedalus could only nod and wait for his chance to steer the conversation. But Dangerous Dan was quite the formidable captain.

“It was the worst on our last job. We took an ultralight plane to this mansion. But The Cat, see, refused to get back in it after the job because it didn’t have a full tank of gas. Okay, I said, I can be flexible. So we jumped down a canyon to the ocean, tying, as tight as I could, the longest of the braided yellow ropes to the propeller I secured the silk wrapped parcel inside the vest. I swung downwards through the grey stone fissure. When we got to the bottom the Cat wanted to see the loot. And I swear, this guy, what a triple checker. So we open up our sack of diamonds and six weighty green stones glinted and winked at us as we stared down in disbelief! Emeralds! Now I’m not a picky man. I did some dog trading on Gorilla Island in my day, and one time, just as an example of my flexibility see, one time I came up short: chickens instead of dogs. Did I cut and run? Hell no. I walked right into the Banana Bar and I held my chickens out to the gorilla man, one brown and one black, gorilla seated on his patio chair taking aim, cougar by his side and defensively sputtered, ‘it’s not a dog it’s a chicken, and it’s beautiful.’ That’s what you get from flexibility. But not The Cat. That dumb sonofabitch took those emeralds and gave them back!”

Dangerous Dan spun his weaving tales of complaint for what seemed an eternity. Finally, as Penny played darts alone in the corner, their talk turned to Sophie. “She sells scarves now, you know. She opened a shop on the other side of the island.”

“Her knitting has finally started to pay off?”

Dan winced. “Most people don’t know what they’re buying. But occasionally some vodou lords come to buy those bone scarves. They’ll pay anything to wrap their necks with the warmth of the dead.” Sophie, a knitter, was perhaps more famous as an assassin. As long as Daedalus had known of her she’d worked only in this chaotic world. But she was famous far beyond it. It was her personal touch. Each victim would be deboned, or only a single limb if she was pressed for time. Those bones would serve as her knitting needles. Daedalus planned to offer her the chance to knit with an old long-haired man and two hillbilly kids.

“How do we get there?”

“I can send two of my boys as guides.” He whistled and a pair of lanky twins ambled over. “These two are my spies in the military, just fantastic at espionage, trained in online role playing games.” He pointed to introduce them, “Andrew and Dean, brothers by blood, and now pilots in the Air Force, never thought their hours playing video games would pay off like this! Boys, take this fellow around the island to Miss Sophie.” They nodded eagerly.


Isla found herself in another strange and noisy place, but couldn’t quite focus on her surroundings. It was as busy and loud as Los Angeles, but people here were dressed differently, with long white sheets draped over their bodies. Many of the men had long hair like Xeno and the women wore short hair that made them look more like young boys than women. Xeno had named this place “Chicago”, but Isla wasn’t really listening. She was trying to puzzle out a dream she’d had last night.

A bearded man with thick curly hair had walked with her over lush green hills. She rode next to him on an old enfeebled donkey while he told her a story in song about the horsemen who ruled here, who thundered up and down these hills. He strummed a lyre and sung of wise queen who ruled the horsemen, though none of them ever saw her. She ruled from a modest cabin nestled in a small copse of trees at the foot of a rocky hill. The man showed Isla the place and then the donkey turned its head and with a wink told her she and the woman had much in common.

While Isla tried to sort through her dream – what could it mean? – Xeno walked them through a door. Before them was a room of white clothed tables surrounded by passionately gesticulating men and women in draped sheets of the same hue. At the back of the crowded room sat a lone man, nearly exact in appearance to Xeno, sitting alone at a large table. He waved them over.

He introduced himself as Parmenides, a “very, very old friend” of Xeno’s and he had been expecting them. He apologized they’d had to come such a long way and suggested they all eat while they talked. He called out to a man passing their table: “I’ll have the pasta rosa with the sauteed raisins and pine nuts.”

“You still love the Italians, don’t you?” Xeno asked.

“In our world they had an empire, but in this world they only had their food.” He turned to Dalan and Isla. “You two are just learning about the different worlds, aren’t you?” They nodded. “Well, Xeno and I are from the same world. Many of us now travel between the worlds. This world is one of our favorites though. In this world, our culture never died out. In this world our culture has flourished for millennia. It’s very comfortable for some of us.” He smiled kindly and turned to Xeno. “So, old friend, you’re at an impasse, aren’t you?”

“The destruction of worlds has begun,” Xeno said, his voice lowering.

“No need to keep a secret, man, it been on the news here for days.” Parmenides gestured to a box in the corner within which moving pictures of a singing chorus seemed to be recounting an accident. “No one cares that much about it though, compared to the renaming of the Sears Tower. Hmph. The Ronald Reagan Memorial Spire. Ridiculous. Antidisestablishmenterianism groups in this city have grown far too powerful, in my opinion.”

Xeno’s brows knotted. “Parmenides, this is serious business. We’re talking about the existence of millions, billions of souls wining out into nothingness.”

Their host poured himself a tall glass of red wine, nodding his head. “You don’t have to tell me. I saw a world fall apart before my very eyes just the other day. That’s how I knew you were coming.”

He studied the red liquid in his glass as he spoke. “I was in a world dominated by Russian mathematicians who only communicated via short bursts of online information.” He turned to Isla and Dalan. “Online means on the internet…well…you know what, never mind. They spoke through magic. Anyway I’d heard one of them by the name of Pyotr Stepanovich had finally cracked the secret of invisibility. I was looking for his equation, I thought it was based on a simple epimorphism. I was rooting around deep in one of their libraries when the destruction began. I held and ancient tablet computing device and I fingered the soft, almost diaphanous leather pages that made up the small book. The writing appeared legible even though the inky writing was too worn in places to see, was it Russian? There was only one name that I could decipher, Dmitri Dmitriyevich. It wasn’t mathematics after all, I realized – it was a symphony! A beautiful symphony of Shostakovich. But then the faded pages began to shift and the words dissolved. The machine returned to it’s nascent state, every page reading: “This short story TM and C Royal McGraw; reproduction or distribution without permission of copyright holder prohibited.” Then suddenly the world’s emergency Internet broke through and I saw a flood of messages with the phrase #hellstorm. By the time I was outside the sky itself was splitting in half; I barely escaped in time.” He shook his head trying to dispel the emotion of the memory and looked up at them with damp eyes. “I’ve told my fellows here, but people assume that there are so many millions and billions of worlds in Possibility that the danger could never come here.” He turned to Dalan. “But I know that’s not true. Right, Dalan of Gwyndyr?”

Dalan had been sketching a grid in the tablecloth with his fingernail. He looked up surprised. “What’s not true?”

Parmenides laughed caustically and rose his glass in a toast. “To the innocence of youth!” And then he drained it back. His face grew serious. “Xenophanes, there is a time bomb bouncing around between worlds. And it’s inside of this slim young man’s breast.”

Dalan’s eyes were wide and his finger was frozen on the tabletop. “Tell me young man, did you spend much time in your home village with the man in the maze?”

The boy answered hesitantly, “Louis Flaherty? I would see him nearly every afternoon. He taught me chess and told me stories.”

“Ah yes, Louis Flaherty. Xeno, you and I would know him better as Daedalus. The builder of labyrinths.”

It was Xeno’s turn to look shocked and confused. “The man in the maze was Daedalus?”

“It seems we weren’t the only ones watching young Isla here. Daedalus is bringing worlds to their end, Xeno. He’s the force behind the storms gathering at the ends of Possibility. For centuries he has building labyrinths without end in these worlds. They undo the story that builds each world. The story loses itself in the labyrinth. The story ceases to be.

“Inside of this young man, Daedalus has built his most intricate labyrinth yet. The stories he told you Dalan, with those stories he was building his maze inside of your heart.” He coughed, taking a sip of wine. It can only be assumed that it is inside you, growing stronger and more powerful everyday. And soon, from the center of you, the realms of Possibility will begin to unravel.

The table sat in stunned silence as Dalan looked at his own chest, as if through the white cloth that covered it he could see the weaving pathways of the maze that spelled his destruction. Isla looked at him, thin and trembling. He was all she had left of home. “What can we do?” she asked, trying to make her voice sound strong and brave.

“The question is what can you do, young lady.” Parmenides’ voice was even, his smile was flat. “Your mother gave you a great gift that you’ve only just begun to realize. At the center of every world is a story. Old hands like Xeno and I, we can tell stories we’ve heard before. That’s how we find our way from one world to another. You, my dear, are very different. You can tell new stories. You’re going to need to tell the story that saves all the realms of Possibility.”

“How will I be able to do that?”

“There are only two people who can teach you that. One of them is centuries-gone missing. The other is your aunt, the great witch Tule.”

“We’re trying to find her,” Xeno offered.

“Yes but you have no idea what world you need to get to.”

“That’s right. We thought you might know.”

Parmenides leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Unfortunately not.” And he cocked his head at Isla. “But I bet you know, don’t you darling?”

“What do you mean?”

He leaned toward her, steepling his fingers. “Why don’t you tell us about your dream last night. You and the rhapsadoi?”

Isla began speaking, describing the green rolling hills and the rocky hillside with the cabin beneath it and as she did she felt something shifting in the air around her.

“That’s right,” Parmenides encouraged her as Xeno watched with wide eyes.

“And there are two trees that stand right next to the house like twins and they kind of bend toward each other at the top and they…” A shimmering image appeared before her in the center of the table, a perfect portrait of the scene she was describing. From behind it, Parmenides leaned around. “That’s your gateway, dear. You better hop through it fast.”


Daedalus kicked over the husk of a candle, startling a hiding rat whose sudden appearance made Penny shiver visibly. Sophie, a short, compact, meaty woman with thick fingers like little sausages made no move. The elegant velvet shawl draped off one shoulder and down her back revealing a scar didn’t stir a centimeter. It would take more than rats to startle her and she was intent on her mission. The catacombs beneath Paris in this world were a destination for picnickers with a sense of the macabre. They left their empty wine bottles and disheveled cheese rinds littered across the cold stones down here. Not for much longer, Daedalus thought as he absent-mindedly scratched the outline of a maze into the dust and cobwebs on the wall beside him.

Sophie was rooting around amongst the bodies, picking over brittle bones and tossing them behind her where the exploded into dust with a pop. Penny, though uncomfortable, didn’t complain. Daedalus was proud of her, his charge. She’d told the story that had opened this doorway all on her own. She was becoming quite the traveler, and just in time. When they left here they would go by different paths, her with Sophie the killer and he along a circuitous route that would allow him to complete works on several dozen labyrinths before he met with them again.

Sophie made a little noise of triumph. “This is it!” She held up a bone, the humerus of a skeleton. “This world’s Xenophanes. I just need to sharpen this to a point and then we can depart.”

Daedalus smiled. This was coming together perfectly.


Isla knew this place was called Terrandar. She knew it’s verdant hills and dusty plains like a nursery rhyme from her infancy. She knew it’s secrets: the nectar of the razor tree which would harden one’s skin to steel for a day and the warning shriek you heard from the were-lizard right before it fell upon you as a reptoid man with its claws flailing. She’d never seen these things with her own eyes, but Isla knew their story.

She stood flanked by Xeno, Dalan and Herald before the cabin between the twin trees. Wispy puffs of smoke escaped the chimney like the breath of a sleeping beast. Xeno walked up to the door and rapped his knuckles against its wood three times.

The door opened to reveal a handsome woman with her black hair back in a long braid. Among its twines were streaks of gray. Isla thought she looked at most 50, but knew her to be one thousand years old. She also knew her name was Tule.

“As I know your name is Isla,” Tule said.

“You know my name?”

The woman teared up, not seeing Xeno, ignoring Dalan and the three-legged dog. Her gaze was only for Isla. “Of course I do, darling. You’re my beautiful niece.”

Tule the witch queen of Terrandar made them all cups of soothing tea and pulled her chairs and the bench from her dining table into a semicircle around her hearth. If anyone tried to help her she tutted them out of the way. Tule the witch queen of Terrandar couldn’t be bothered to let anyone do any work for her. When they’d all sat, Tule placed herself next to Isla whom she looked at adoringly.

“The last I saw your mother,” she said, “she was the happiest I’d ever seen her. Thanks to your father.”

“You’re her aunt?” Dalan asked.

“I am. Are you from Gryndyr as well?”

“Yes,” Dalan was shy.

Xeno spoke up, “Parmenides told me Daedalus had been in their village building a maze for years.”

“I’d suspected as much. He’s been building mazes all across Possibility.” She waved her fingers in the air and a window opened onto a dark and stormy scene. They saw a castle astride a hill illuminated by flashes of lightning. “We tried to imprison him here, building a labyrinths within a labyrinth within a labyrinth.” As she made the slightest sweeping motion with her hand, the sky began to heave lighting and flame at the palace, causing an electric inferno that spread like a plague across the surrounding city and countryside. She pulled her hand up sharply and the window closed. “He escaped. He’s wily.”

“He found a way to open a tiny door from his prison into the glass fish tank of young boy named Nick. Fish tank – a prison within a prison, see? The boy and his mother were distracted by the last of Daedalus’ allies at the time, an insect. The mother, right after installing the fish tank heard her boy cry out. She turned and saw him squatting, diapers peeking out from his yellow shorts, as she approached she asked, “Whatcha looking at Nick?”; he looked up with his chubby cheeks and big dark eyes and with his tiny finger pointing at the stink bug, replied…”That’s the biggest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever seen!”. And indeed it was. He couldn’t know it of course, but inside that insect were a dozen separate worlds.

“Daedalus banked on entropy. He assumed the forces of gradual chaos would eventually conspire to destroy that fish tank and he just waited. Sure enough, over ten years later, the young boy Nick’s father borrowed the empty fish tank for an experiment. He filled it with water, placed it on a table, set up a few slow-motion videocameras and then shot a bullet through it from the biggest gun he had. Glass sprayed in every direction and the force of the blast broke the table in half. And with that Daedalus was free. All the boy’s father did was stand there picking glass out of his forearms and say ‘I’ve got exactly $2,913.12 left in my bank account, which should probably get me to Sterkfontein by tomorrow night…, but where would I possibly get an 8 ft. long fish tank on a Sunday?’

“Daedalus came here to Terrandar to try to destroy me. It was during the Festival of Flight. The prince at the time, Waylynn, had to defend his title against the half-men-half-Pegasi from the other side of the Shimmering Sea. Waylynn knew the Jötunn would never win; he had his Hera and was determined to ride off into the night just like Charlie Sheen in The Wraith.” She turned to Xeno. “You ever see that movie? I lost a lover to that movie in your world. Blew his mind. Last I saw him he sat there, waiting for the bus, wondering… wondering how much there is to know.” She shook her head. “Sorry, my story. Daedalus. He figured out pretty quick he couldn’t kill me here in my own realm, but he set out to make sure I knew he was here. Symbols left by disturbances. Waylynn was outflown, for example. His Hera dropped to the earth of exhaustion. Waylynn’s sister, the princess Kleatra, was duped by the maze-maker into a promise she had no reason to agree to. Once he dumped her in another world, she found herself with child. It was a non-binding resolution but she knew it would be dishonorable not to keep her word. If her baby boy was born in St. Louis, his name would be St. Paul Sandwich; if he was born in Louisville she would name him after The Greatest — Cassius Marcellus Clay.” Tule laughed ruefully. “I know from personal experience that you can lose a lot of things in bed–marbles, teeth, your virginity–but no one in the history of this world or any other has ever lost that before!! Somewhere out there in some world is a poor kid named St. Paul Sandwich without a dad or a hope ever making sense of that name of his.

She paused, looked at them sternly. “Daedalus is dangerous. Far moreso than a few nasty magic tricks. But that’s not what he’ll have in store for you, no. He doesn’t just make mazes, he treats life as a maze. Talking with him is to follow him into twisting corridors.” She looked at Xeno. “How do you expect to stop him?”
“We don’t know. That’s why we need to find the Philosophers’ Club,” Xeno said.

“Those old kooks?”

“I think they’re the only ones who can stop this.”

Tule laughed. “Xeno, I love you, but your misogynistic Greek partiarchial prejudices will be the end of you. You’re right, you need to find the Philsophers’ Club. But not for the sake of those foolish gray beards. You need to find my sister.”

“Another aunt?” Dalan asked, looking at Isla.

“That’s right, young man. Though to look at her you’d hardly think she was an auntie.” She turned to Isla. “Xeno’s beloved friends have imprisoned your aunt, as an eternal infant, in their cabin on Sugar Island. They say it’s for the good of all Possibility, and though I believe them, it’s always made me a bit cross.”

She regarded them all in turn with an eyebrow cocked. Her eyes finally settled on Isla, who thought she was offering her aunt a determined face. Tule sighed, “Very well, I can tell you how to get to Sugar Island. Isla, you will have to tell the story to find the place.” Isla nodded. “And be careful. I suspect Daedalus or his agents may already be there waiting for you.”


The cabin they stood in was not that different from Tule’s. But instead of a mismatched collection of chairs, the center of the single room was dominated by large round table. Around it sat five bearded men. None moved, none spoke, none acknowledged the slabs of meat between two slices of bread placed before each of them. The strangest part, Isla noted, was that none of them made any move to comfort or console the infant in the center of the table while it wailed and cried and waved its arms about.

Isla’s aunt. Her name was Rena.

One the other side of the men, with eyes only for Isla, stood a girl a few years older than her. They stared at one another impassively. Finally the girl stepped around the table. “I’ve been waiting for you. You’re Isla.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Penny. I’m here to stop you.”

“What do you mean?”

The girl named Penny looked at their ragtag, exhausted group. Herald cocked his head at her. “You are chaos bringers. You seek to create more chaos throughout the realms of Possibility. I am here to stop you. To help preserve order.”

Xeno’s eyes widened. “You are an agent of Daedalus.”

“That’s right Xenophanes, you old coot.” Daedalus stepped through a shimmering window across the room. None of the five philosophers at the table looked up. “Penny’s with me. She can open gateways and by the time I’m finished teaching her she’ll be able to close them forever.”

“This is murder, Daedalus.” He turned to Penny. “He’s teaching you to undo the existence of billions.”

“I’m teaching her to maintain a little order in this accursed universe, Xeno. Sure you and your gray beards and your triplet sisters love to just add to Possibility with wild abandon. I’m trying to streamline things a little bit. I mean, c’mon, is it fair for there to be a world full of unicorns and dandelions just because this little tyke thinks there should be one?” Isla felt chills looking into the fiery eyes of the man she’d once known as crazy old Louis Flaherty. “So I put my best maze in her little boyfriend’s heart. And that maze is just about to be complete.” He turned to Dalan. “Young man, I’ve got a little story to tell you.”

Xeno whipped around, “Don’t listen, Dalan. Plug your ears!”

Fuck you, Xeno.” Daedalus spit. “Now, Sophie!”

From behind the old man a shadow twitched and then suddenly a bloody needle of bone sprouted from his midsection. “You can’t, this won’t hurt me.” He gurgled.

“Ah,” a grating whisper behind him purred, “unless it’s from another possible you. Then it will fold your reality in on itself and erase you from Possibility.”

Xeno chuckled ruefully, “Alas…I always dreamed I’d have a little poetry and whiskey before I died.

Daedalus lunged at Isla, yelling a string of foreign syllables and then suddenly she was falling backwards.


She fell into soft cold snow with a starry sky above her. She could see walls of packed snow extended upwards. Above her appeared a young man with a permanent-looking smile. “Are you here for the Oscars? Do you know how to get out of this place?” he asked, still smiling.

Isla stood up slowly, warily, brushing snow from herself. “Who are you?” she asked.

“My name is Ryan Seacrest, and we’re in some kind of snow maze.”

Isla nodded thoughtfully. Of course, another of Daedalus’ mazes.

“I don’t know how I got here,” Seacrest said. “I just remember Lil Wayne, Willie Nelson, and a $240 worth of pudding and then I was here in the snow with no shoes and a slingshot, a handful of jellybeans, and Paula Abdul’s panties in my pocket. I think this is somewhere in Russia; there are these little midgets I see with burritos every now and then and it sounds like they’re speaking Russian.”

Isla had no idea was this man was speaking about, and was very confused by why he smiled through his little speech as if the freezing temperature had forced his mouth to retain that shape. “I love burry toes,” she said, repeating the only familiar thing she’d heard.

“Oh, not these! I tried one. The sheer smell of it brought me back to the womb, and trust me, you’re not gonna want to step foot in that place without some whip cream and some rope.

She had to figure out how to get out of here, away from this deranged man. Daedalus’ maze would be impossible to solve, there would be no true center, not that she would be able to find. She just had to tell the story of Sugar Island to get back. But it couldn’t be that simple, could it? “I’m sorry Mister Seacrest, I’m not going to be able to help you.”

“Please! I’ve already lost three toes to frostbite!” His smile was frightening.

She began to murmur about the swaying pines above the philosophers’ cabin. And she fell backwards.


She fell into a room with a strangely curved ceiling. It was a dome, but made of flat shapes. A man’s face appeared above her. “Hello young lady. Are you here to see the yogi”? This was not the possibility she’d sought. She continued her story: talking about the five silent philosophers, their beards. Then she was falling again.


She fell into the archway leading into some sort of holy building. Around her the walls were made of little containers. She could make out that they read “Pringles”. A man in a red and yellow robe leaned into her frame of vision. “Are you here to stroke the mustache?” he asked. Again, not the place Isla wanted to be. Daedalus’ maze was more than a collection of snowy walls, it was maze through Possibility itself. She began to describe her infant aunt, her tiny arms flailing in the air above the round table. And she fell again.


And there she was, back on Sugar Island, laying on the floor where Daedalus had pushed her down. Next to her lay the crumpled and bloody form of Xeno, her guide and she supposed, her friend. On the other side of her, Daedalus knelt muttering atop Dalan, pinning him to the floor with his knees. Beside him Penny held Herald by his collar above the ground and away from her body as he snapped and bit at the air. Sophie was reaching across the round table toward the wailing infant.

Was she back? Was that really the extent of Daedalus’ maze through Possibility? Isla looked about for something, a weapon of some kind and settled on the spike of bone protruding from Xeno’s slowly diminishing robes.

She leapt to her feet, the bone needle in her fist. Daedalus’ eyes swept to her, interrupting his low murmuring. “You!” he hissed. “You escaped my labyrinth so soon?”

Three turns of the maze and here she was back.

Sophie stepped around the table toward her, murder in her eyes. Isla didn’t have much time.

It was such a simple puzzle.

Isla leapt at Daedalus with the bone needle. His hands went up from his knees defensively, as if he were about to pitch her on a farming venture, but her boot met with his chest, knocking him back on the ground. Wincing and closing her eyes, Isla brought the bone needle down fast and true into Dalan’s breast. She took a breath and glanced down, wincing to see his familiar eyes look up at her in horror.

And then she was falling again.


She fell through the floor of the two temples and through what felt like a caress from the snow bank in the dark, past the surprised face of the permanently smiling man. And then she was lying on the floor of the cabin again. Beside her Xeno was still bloody and shrinking in on himself. On the other side of her, Dalan lay stunned and beside him was the bloody form of Daedalus.

For the first time, the five philosophers noticed them and the ruckus they’d caused. They quickly set about working. One cradled Isla’s infant aunt, one consoled Penny in quiet tones, one bantered with Sophie. One sat with Isla and Dalan. “These things happen every couple of millennia,” he explained. “We’re lucky you came along this time. Last time it was a disaster.” He gestured to the wailing baby.

“What do we do now?” Isla asked.

“Our world is destroyed isn’t it?” Dalan murmured.

“Did you really want to go back there?” the philosopher smiled. They both frowned and shook their heads. “The good news is, you can go anywhere you’d like. Anywhere you’ve already been or anywhere you can imagine. All of Possibility is spread out before you. You can live in the best of all possible worlds.”

Isla scratched her finger on the floor and then took Dalan’s hand. “You know, I think I’d like to try Los Angeles out. I really like burry toes.”


Read Story #1 “The Cannonball Run”, Story #2 “Osculating Circles”, Story #3 “Search Engine Optimization”, or Story #4 “Fever Pitches” or Story #5 “Penultimate: The Devil and Michael Hastings.

What’s the recipe for an epic story?

March 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Mix in one part mythology, two parts heroism and a healthy spoonful of everyman…

I’ve come to the final story of Andrew vs. The Collective, which I plan on writing over this weekend. I want this one to be an “epic” story. This is how I described it to the backers when I asked for their submissions:

A young unassuming rural resident will be visited by a mysterious older gray-bearded man possessed of strange and unexplainable powers. Said resident will be told that the world as he/she knows it is in grave, grave danger and only he/she can save it. This will begin an epic journey that will culminate in the ultimate battle of good vs. evil.

I feel like this is the way every great contemporary epic story begins (The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, the Wheel of Time series). But I need to figure out the rest of the elements before the weekend. What makes a contemporary epic?

(Also, PS – if every you’ve wanted to sign up for some crowd-sourced fiction, you have just about 48 hours.)

Categories: The Collective Tags: , , , epic, , , lord of the rings, star wars, , wheel of time,

Penultimate: The Devil and Michael Hastings – Andrew vs. The Collective #5

March 10, 2010 2 comments

This is the fifth in a series of six short stories being written for a Kickstarter project called “Andrew vs. The Collective.” In it a writer (Andrew) must find a way to work in all of the suggestions of the backers (The Collective). If you want to sign up to give a suggestion for the next story, you can check out the project over here. This story is also available as a PDF here:Story 5 – Penultimate. In this HTML version, the submissions from the project’s backers are in bold and you can roll over them to see who submitted what.

It’s mid-afternoon and the sun is turning amber, but the devil is in a foul mood. He slaps the rental car door shut with a sound like a steel thunderclap and then stabs at the keychain remote with his thumb until the car’s alarm gives its two alarm beeps of protest. The devil surveys the suburban landscape of driveways and cars. He supposes that the people of this town like this springtime weather, but he despises it. The devil far prefers the wintertime.

The devil’s temperament is foul because it turns out if you want to get to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, you’ve got to fly into Minneapolis (which is in an entirely different state, the devil will have you know), rent a tiny compact car with exactly zero pick-up, and then drive for two accursed hours. No one hates to have his time wasted like the devil.

Inside, Michael Hastings has been watching the devil’s arrival. He’s not pleased to see the devil in a temper. When you want to ask the devil for a favor, you never want the devil to be laconic. Michael Hastings’ skin gives a shiver that he’s sure the devil, with his superhuman perspicacity, notices.

Hastings invites the devil in, offers him a seat and fetches him a glass of iced tea. The devil is in jeans and a t-shirt covered by a leather jacket. His hair is long and brown and extends from his head like an explosion. He’s thin and pale and sips his iced tea with a poorly-masked impatience.

“I assume you’re about to implore me to amend the terms of our deal,” the devil says. “You feel life ebbing from you. You know the twilight approaches. This is your penultimate natural year, and by the terms of our agreement, this is the year I take you.”

“I wanted to ask for just one more year.”

The devil rolls his eyes. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“It’s not so much to ask, is it?”

“You have your Fields Medal, don’t you? You had your gravy train thanks to me? Life ends, Hastings! Hell needs its mathematicians!” Their deal, struck twenty-five years ago when Michael Hastings was a disgruntled and discontent doctoral candidate, said the devil would ensure Hastings’ receipt of the prestigious Fields Medal for his paper: “An approach to the study of the nonasymptotic distribution of prime numbers through abstract analytic number theory in multidimensional mathematics.” The devil did his due and Hastings spent several years in a coveted post at Cal Tech. In return he’d promised his gifts to the legions of darkness. Who else would map the topology of hell and permutations of its punishments?

“I’ve fallen in love,” Hastings says tentatively.

The devil laughs loud. It’s coarse and angry.

“Her name is Hilda.”

The devil sighs like a bored teenager. “I know, I know. Hilda von Stricker, your yarn-obsessed dominatrix and next-door neighbor. How many balls did she knit you inside of before you decided it was true love?” He checks his watch. “Fine. I’ll tell you what. You’re my second to last appointment today and I’m early for the next one. Keep me entertained for a little while.”

“And you’ll give me my last year?”

“Sure, fine, whatever.” The devil puts his glass down on the coffeetable, ignoring the stack of coasters. “You get six chances. Six stories and then I’m off.”

Hastings slips a coaster beneath the glass. “What do I have to do?”

“I just want to enjoy one story,” the devil said.


Michael tries to think of his best story, best in that way that people have their stories that they tell at parties to fill the awkward silences. “I had this dog, right? When I lived in Pasadena. He was a short fat dog, chubby chubb Mcchubberson. That wasn’t his name of course. His name was Laplace. But he died.

“And when he died the house felt lonely. I thought about getting another dog, but I wanted an animal that was going to live as long as me. So I got a parrot. Bought him from a former colleague. Fournier, the parrot that is, had learned pi. And he would stay up all night reciting it. And I would lay there, sleep deprived, as he would count off digit after digit.” Michael raises his finger. The punchline is coming.

The devil cuts him off. “But the seventh digit was wrong. You’ve never been able to correct him.”

Michael’s finger is still in the air. “How did you know that?”

“I know all of your stories, Michael Hastings. Don’t think you can entertain the Fallen Prince with your pleas for polite party laughter.”

Michael Hastings puts his finger down and swallows hard. He thinks about Hilda, about the loving caresses of her knots of yarn as they constrict around him. This is going to be harder than he thought.


“I will tell you a secret then. I traveled once to India to find myself. Like people supposedly do. At the end of it I was in Goa, on the ocean. But I didn’t feel like I’d come anywhere nearer to finding myself. I’d wandered an entire subcontinent but I’d spent the entire trip inside 64 kilobytes of memory of my Game Boy playing Tetris.

“I found myself in a birthday party on the beach. It was the birthday of a famous man named Khagendra Thapa Magar. Revelers laid across the straw mat floor surrounding a cake with a tiny man standing upon it. It was the likeness of Magar, a tiny man himself, famous for being the world’s smallest.

“There were a few Americans in the group including a young olive-skinned man there on a film shoot. He thought all the other Americans were hippies and kept saying to them, ‘Hey, get me in on some of that hugging action!’

“Before we cut into the cake, every one of the man’s family had to give a short speech. I found myself envying these sentiments. Something touching, personal, or nice. I listened and I wanted a family at that moment.

“And then a young boy walked up. He spoke a clipped schoolboy’s English. His eyes were puffy from crying. He put his fists against his hips and said, ‘Uncle Khag, you promised chairs for every village. But in my village, we have no chairs. The people they say that you have spent your money on expensive clothing and rings. I had no heroes, and then you let me down, and now I have negative heroes!’ Then the boy began to cry.

The devil is looking at his watch. “And that’s when you realized you didn’t want a family. The expectation and responsibility was just too crippling for you. I’ve heard this all before like a tune out of Stroh’s violin. Give me something unique like, ‘And from that day on, they used chairs for money.’


“I will tell you a funny story then. A few years ago I attended a music festival in San Francisco. It was held on Treasure Island, the landfill island in the Bay between the city and Oakland.

“I know it, I’m building a casino out there.”

“This festival featured electronic music, something my students were quite fond of and always trying to impress upon me. I’d always found it to be tragically hip. They said I had too much dord.”


“Density. It’s an old joke. My density was too great. Anyhow, I was standing in line for the Ferris Wheel. I’d waited for fifty minutes in a boustrophedon-like line and was finally at the front. Just when they brought its rotation to a halt, a large African-American man pushed his way past me. He wore a thick gold chain around his neck and he demanded his own basket. My basket. He was a famous actor so the attendants were quick to agree. I offered to share with him but he told me his feet were far too pungent for that proximity. He said: ‘I pity the fool who has to wash my feet. I got this real bad athlete’s fungus that actually grows mushrooms on my toenails. If I don’t do something fast it’s gonna spread and eat up all the gold off my chains sucka!’

“Unhappy, I demanded to speak with a manager. The burnouts working the line responded ‘We are currently unavailable’ as if they were some collective. But it was too much for the gold-chained man. He flew into a rage. He rushed the supports. ‘TIMBER!’, he yelled.” Hastings stops. That’s the end. He takes a sip of his water.

The devil nods his head. “You told a half-truth. You attended this festival, but Mr. T wasn’t there.” The devil yawns and looks over his shoulder at the darkening evening. His eyes follow a petite young mother as she crosses the sidewalk. “The ending sucked, Hastings. If you’re going to dedicate a story to name-dropping, at least make it compelling. Have Mr. T wrestle some bear and lose and he can say, “Stupid bear” or “I pity the bear.”


“Very well,” Michael Hastings said. “My next story takes place in Jordan, in a qanat, sheltered from the shifting sands outside. Inside squats a scientist. An evil scientist. He’s holding a device that could destroy the entire world. He is muttering to himself, “Worked hard all my lifetime no help from my friends.” His device will bombard the Earth with an electromagnetic pulse that will destroy the telomeres at the end of every strand of DNA, causing them to unravel. The end of life itself.”

A car careens toward the entrance to the qanat. As it skids to a stop, large black forms pop out of the back. Twelve obese ninjas were jammed into the car. Their leader rushes toward the scientist and hurls a throwing star through his device. There is a thunderclap. The sky begins to darken. The gathering storm looms ever closer and as he gazes up at the towers of midnight, he knows that from this moment on all he will be left with is a memory of light. The second-in-command ninja runs to his side and yells, ‘What have we done?’ But the lead ninja is confident. It was pre-destined. He whispers, ‘All will be spared except Kathmandu.’

The devil’s face is impassive. “Hastings,” he says, “that story barely made any sense. Are you wearing out? This is your second-to-last chance. Your penultimate story.”


Michael Hastings rubs his palms on his jeans and then raises them both like he’s about to pitch a movie. “Okay, a short one. On Thanksgiving, Tiger Woods was driving his Escalade away from his house. His wife was chasing him with a golf club.”

“I know this story, Hastings. I read Gawker.”

“Of course you do. Okay. So what was Tiger’s wife trying to do with his club?”

“I don’t know, the investigation was inconclusive.” The devil sits forward in his chair. “Surely you don’t know, Hastings? Was it murderous intent?” What was she doing?” The devil is a notorious gossip hound.

“Well,” Michael Hastings smiles coyly, “she was trying to hit his balls!”

The room is silent. From the garage Michael Hastings thinks he can hear another recitation of pi. The air conditioner kicks on in the back bedroom. Its low hum is ominous.

Suddenly the devil’s lip curls. He gives a brief, single chuckle. Then they come in a series, like bubbles erupting from his midsection. The devil kicks his feet up in the air, falling backwards into the armchair in full guffaw. When he recovers his breath he exclaims, “Hastings! That was a terrible joke! And it was hilarious!” Michael Hastings smiles. “Very well,” says the devil, righting himself in the seat. “One more year it is. But I still get one more story.”

“Of course you do. Don’t worry, this one’s going to be epic.”


Read Story #1 “The Cannonball Run”, Story #2 “Osculating Circles”, Story #3 “Search Engine Optimization”, or Story #4 “Fever Pitches”. You can sign up to be a part of the very last story over here.

Search Engine Optimization – Andrew vs. The Collective #3

February 23, 2010 6 comments

This is the third in a series of short stories being written for a Kickstarter project called “Andrew vs. The Collective.” In it a writer (Andrew) must find a way to work in all of the suggestions of the backers (The Collective). If you want to sign up to give a suggestion for the next story, you can check out the project over here. This story is also available as a PDF here: Story 3-Search Engine Optimization In this HTML version, the submissions from the project’s backers are in bold and you can roll over them to see who submitted what.

Also, just so we’re all clear here, this is a work of fiction.

My name is Andrew Fitzgerald and I live in San Francisco. With that right there I’ve identified myself sufficiently as far as Google (or God forbid Bing) is concerned. Now, admittedly, San Francisco is a relatively small city. Hell, we’re not even over a million population-wise, and I don’t think there are many (or any) other Andrews Fitzgerald. Were I still in Los Angeles, where I have also lived (new data point, Google spiders), I might want to add some clarifications (so that you knew I didn’t practice hypnotherapy). I am a journalist and also a writer. That latter is what we’re here for. I’m going to tell you a story. It’s going to be a fiction, truly. Names and circumstances will be familiar, but the events that transpire will be more or less a flight of fancy. But it all starts with this idea of me, my name, my city of residence, and the other little bits of data that help you find me online. How those little bits of data hold a special power. This is a story of that power gone wrong. It’s called Search Engine Optimization.

Our story beings not with me, but with an IPO. It is the press conference announcing the initial public offering of StyleSeat, the leading site offering better business tools for personal service providers. I am in attendance, but that’s neither here nor there. StyleSeat was birthed from the late nights and tears and calloused fingertips of Melody McCloskey and Dan Levine and others. It’s these two who are sitting on the stage when our story begins. They are nervous and twitchy but expect to have a good day. Their company has been predicted by experts to go public with a valuation of $2.8 billion. It should be a very good day for Melody and Dan indeed.

The press conference is in a small conference room at the Westin St. Francis, just a short elevator ride and corridor walk from Michael Mina, where cocktails and congratulations will flow shortly. It’s a room with carpet on every surface but the ceiling: the floor, the walls, the podium, the chairs themselves. Those chairs boast some of the best names of the Internet People: Kevin Rose, Chris Sacca, Sarah Lane, Pete Cashmore, Robin Sloan, Om Malik, Alexia Tsotsis. Caroline McCarthy of CNET had even flown out from New York for the occasion. They’re all there. Nearly every hand in the room has an iPhone in it. The open wireless network of the Westin St. Francis is groaning beneath the strain of the tweeting, live streaming, Foursquaring, Buzzing, Gowallaing and Twitpicing.

Many in the audience are friends, old friends of Melody and Dan’s. They’re chatting like it’s any other social event. Maya Baratz is complimenting the world-travelling Sarah Lane on her hair clip. “Thanks,” Sarah is saying, “I found it in an art gallery in Kathmandu.”

Pete Cashmore is walking an attractive young woman through his various iPhone apps. “Evernote, an app for clipping Internet pages, works well in tying my laptop to my iPhone.“

Caroline McCarthy is talking about her lackluster interview subject from earlier in the day: “The Sogeti COO achieved what I believed to be impossible: saying, ‘We’re focusing on cloud computing’ more than my boss says ‘let’s Twitter and Facebook it.’”

Robin Sloan, who is sitting next to me, is talking about his experience with Google Buzz. “We’re all share bros now,” he says gravely and without irony. It makes me laugh.

Onstage, both Melody and Dan have their laptops open. Final last checks before the initial announcement. They’re both just clicking around the site they’ve built, burning off nervous energy on the track pads of their MacBookPros. Dan, his head cocking like an inquisitive bird, spies something amiss. Before he can say anything, Melody stands and says, “Go time, Levine.”

Conversation fades off in the room, the data transfer rate increases, and Melody plugs her laptop into the projector. It’s her first IPO and she’s ready. She’s been ready for this moment since she acquired the competing lemonade stand on Peppertree Road at 6 years old. Her hair is perfect and her dress is sharp. Sharp like 2.8 billion dollars.

“Melody,” Dan says quietly behind her. “We’ve got a little problem here.”

She doesn’t hear him. She’s looking at her slim silver watch. The accountants told her she’d need to time this perfectly to get in on the last hour of New York trading and ride that into the Hong Kong market. That hour begins in fifteen seconds.

“Thank you all for coming,” she says to the crowd with a smile. The audience applauds. Sarah Lane gives out a little whoop. Melody clicks a button on her laptop. Behind her, the screen lights up with the StyleSeat homepage. She doesn’t see Dan Levine’s eyes go wide, doesn’t hear him hiss with alarm. “I have a lot to say about StyleSeat and I have a lot of people to thank, but I want to get this thing started right.” This time she hears Dan. He’s saying her name again, louder, firmer. Goddamnit Dan, doesn’t he know now is not the time? She continues without turning. This is the moment. “It is my distinct pleasure to announce that StyleSeat, Inc. is now a public corporation, available for trading on the open market.”

The room explodes in applause. If Melody wanted to stop smiling she wouldn’t know how to. A few of the reporters’ hands go up. Melody points to Alexia Tsotsis from the SF Weekly.

“First let me say congratulations,” Alexia begins.

“Thanks, Alexia.”

“First question: Why the last minute change of the site’s name?”

Melody knits her eyebrows in confusion. She hears Dan hiss her name again. She turns to him, to the screen behind her. Upon it is their site. Her site. She knows every page of it by heart, like she would a pop song from her teenaged years. Her eye catches something amiss, just one thing, the only thing: The name on the site reads “StyleSuite”. StyleSuite? What the hell? It wasn’t bad – she actually kind of liked the name. But the site was not called StyleSuite. She looks at Dan; he is making his I-was-trying-to-tell-you face.

What the hell is going on here?


Midway to the top of an 11c artificial cliff face at Mission Cliffs San Francisco Chloe Sladden is taking a break. Her arms ache. They were starting to spasm as she climbed, never a good sign. This will have to be her last climb of the night. She uses her legs to grip to the wall, taking the weight off her arms. She has one hand on the wall and with her free hand she is, as she does more than thirty times daily, sending a tweet.

She had painstakingly tapped out the message “Even the faux granite of the cliffs of Mission must submit to the iron will of womankind!” and is waiting for it to be picked up by AT&T’s 3G network. Her phone chirps a little tone of protest. Tweet not sent? What’s that about? She shifts her body, holds the phone closer to her face, and uses her nose to navigate through the error screen. “Problem with Twitter”? This is a bad sign.

Beneath her, her climbing partner stands one hand on the rope and the other explaining his new yogic practice to a stranger. “His arms stretched out in front, his voice sounds clearly, steadily from the left of the candle-lit room – “Chattr chakkr vartee, chattr chakkr bhugatay suyumbhav subhang sarab daa sarab jugtay …” – while my own arms feel heavy, heavier, and I try to ignore the pain, struggling to hold out longer than yesterday.”

Chloe sighs at his inattention. She looks around the cliff face, checks the ground below her and then in a single flourish, pushes herself off and unlocks the clasp, slipping down to the ground in a straight line like an assassin in the dead of night. Her climbing partner, a 39 year old cardiologist who years later will name his second yacht “The Chloe” and find himself unable to explain to anyone why, looks at her surprised. She gives him a smile and unhooks herself from the rope. “Sorry, darling, I’ve got run to the office. Trouble’s brewing.”


Chloe Sladden works at Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters. As she bursts into the office still in her climbing outfit, the engineers are racing about. She finds her co-worker and co-conspirator Robin Sloan at his desk next to hers. He’s holding a pink plaster bird she keeps on the Robin-side edge of her desk. He doesn’t know she knows this, but he only ever holds the bird when he’s nervous about something.

“What’s wrong,” she asks him.

“Who said anything was wrong?”

Chloe points at the back of Mark Trammell as he runs past, eyes wide and unhappy. “Something’s amiss,” she says.

“We had the briefest of outages,” Robin says. “Everyone is trying to figure out what happened.”

“We haven’t had an outage in fourteen months.” Robin’s hand is petting the top of the pink bird. Chloe is pretty sure he doesn’t realize it. “Stop that. It’s creepy,” she admonishes.

Robin realizes the bird is in his hands. He puts it on the desk before him. “Sorry. Listen, something is weird with this.” He leans forward to his computer and taps a few keys. Chloe looks over his shoulder. Onscreen is the page of a single tweet. It was sent by their mutual friend Dan Levine or @dsldsl. It reads: “On stage now, Death-Karaoke Showdown: @jkottke vs @NicholasKristof vs @ricksanchezCnn vs #web2hos vs @scobleizer vs @mrskutcheR”. “This is the first tweet sent after the outage.”


“It’s from Dan Levine. He wasn’t at Death-Karaoke Showdown. That’s in New York. He was here. Onstage at his IPO. And Jason Kottke wasn’t there either – he’s in Philadelphia arguing about books with Tim Carmody and Matt Thompson.”

“So someone hacked Dan’s account?”

Robin shakes his head gravely. “I don’t think it’s that simple.” He gestures to his computer. “I googled Death Karaoke Showdown. I found a video.” His computer’s speakers begin to crackle with Rick Sanchez’s falsetto. Robin points to the screen. “See, there’s Jason.” Off to the side of the stage, waiting his turn next to Demi Moore, is Jason Kottke. He’s thin and smiling and definitely not in Philadelphia.

Chloe likes to solve puzzles; she’s kind of enjoying this. “So this is an old video. Shot a while back. And some hacked Dan’s twitter account to point to it because they knew people would be paying attention to him on the day of his IPO.”

Robin’s eyes narrow. He almost whispers, “This is a live stream.”


Across the Internet things are happening. Things that are not happening in the real world. On the Internet, Kevin Rose takes a trip to Vegas. In the real world, Kevin Rose is in Cabo. On the Internet, Brian Stelter’s story for tomorrow’s New York Times is finished. In the real world, he’s got at least six more paragraphs to slog through and it’s due in ten minutes. On the Internet, Julia Allison is eating dinner at Momofuku. In the real world, she’s sitting at Schillers across from Rex Sorgatz. On the Internet, Rex Sorgatz is at home re-watching Independence Day and tweeting about launching a t-shirt line.

The only site on the internet you can purchase an umbrella is “” which promises rain protection beyond your financial means and features this testimonial from pop superstar Lady Gaga: “As the furious storm battered down against her indestructible unbrella, she praised her incredible foresight at liquidating all her possessions to purchase the revolutionary parasol. Gaga, naked in the rain, approves.”

In the popular children’s online role-playing game “Fur City”, a digital avatar named Mr. Tumbles, controlled by a 17-year-old Japanese girl in Osaka is pacing the cobblestone streets. He remembers it’s Tuesday and how much he loved last Tuesday. It was cupcake day at the Sugar Plum Bakery, and although Mr. Tumbles, the local calico kitten, was no fan of strawberry shortcake wrapped in ribbons and bows, he couldn’t deny that the rabbit-run bakery was paws and whiskers above any other establishment in Fur City. Today at the Sugar Plum Bakery it’s not cupcake day. The rabbits told him it was pancake day. But he knows it’s Tuesday. Something’s fishy in Fur City.

Something’s fishy on the whole Internet.


There is one place in the world that all seems right with the Internet and that’s in Russia. It’s not in Moscow and it’s not in St. Petersburg. It’s south from there, south and to the east, in one of those places where in Soviet times the wheat fields stretched for more square miles than small countries. These areas were actually little countries of wheat. Wheatistans. They also were home to military secrets.

About a mile beneath the gently waving of the now wild patches of wheat, beneath that perfectly good arable soil, is a large, climate-controlled chamber. It’s exactly the sort of location James Bond was always finding himself in toward the end of the second act: a hollowed-out cavern beeping and clicking with technology. In the Soviet times this subterranean bunker was for ICBMs. Today it houses thousands of political prisoners engaged daily in creating spam.

They sit at long rows of computers in the main chamber, wearing threadbare loose-fitting sweaters to fight off the chill of the underground. Their fingers tap quietly and that is the only sound their pacing supervisors tolerate from them. The short black leather instruments in the hands of the yawning foremen occasionally slap across the hands and keys of an inmate who utters some small word or whose head begins to droop sleepily back.

Up a small metal staircase from this is a sheet aluminum box, constructed so that its windows can survey the whole of the space, each of the computer stations. That is when its window shades are open, today they are drawn.

Inside the metal box is C1alis. This is his office. He is thin, dark-haired, accurately described as ‘brooding’. He is Slavically handsome. He could have been a male model with his smoky dark eyes, chiseled angular face and women’s hips. He could have been if he’d been raised in a different world. As it were he was a child of the Soviet collapse. His parents were ‘spammers’, they collected meat scraps from around the small Dagestan city where he was raised, cut it together with Hormel Spam and sawdust and resold it as Russian Spamsky. He, in a way, has stayed in the family business. He is a king spammer of the highest order, secretly backed by the Kremlin and installed here far beneath the wheat as an ongoing disruption to Western commerce.

He is sitting at his desk across from his best friend and confidant, Kibo. Much like the Spanish Inquisition, nobody expected Kibo; nevertheless, he showed up with a crate of Stoli at half past ten. He knew he’d be welcome. They are drinking the first bottle of Kibo’s crate. Today they are celebrating.

Kibo asks, “And all it took was to flip the switch?”

“As a manner of speaking,” C1alis says, sipping from his vodka. For the sake of the story, let’s say I (aided by Google Translate) can understand Russian, which the pair is speaking. C1alis continues, “The first manifestation of the Dark Internet was a post of Twitter, from an entrepreneur in San Francisco.”

“Fitting,” Kibo smiles which always makes him look feline and somehow also feral. His hair is cut to look like Wolverine from the American comic books, so that probably helps too. Five years ago he was breaking up his cell phones and laptops to build them into his clothes, it was the thing then. But now it had paid off and every inch of the fabric of his jacket was copper wiring and silicon chips.

“Now our Internet,” C1alis waves his glasses toward the window overlooking the tapping and clicking of the cavern, “our internet is the only one people can find. Their browsers will send cookies, our servers will respond with pusticks. Get it? Poo stick!” They laugh raucously.

What does he mean? To explain that we first need to understand a little about C1alis. If you can believe it, that’s not his given name. His given name is Dmitry. He chose the name C1alis, so similar to the prescription medicine for erectile dysfunction, because it gave him the truest possible anonymity of the internet. Were you to look for him, search him out, you would be blinded in your progress by billions of little landmines of spam.

C1alis is a brilliant computer programmer. He can master a computer language in four days (for fun, he benchmarked himself with FORTRAN in 1994). He once thought his crowning achievement would be to create an open source operating system. It would be like MSDOS, but without all the messy corporate aspects of the MS. He would call it Dinux. He was at school in Dover, in the UK, in 1991. His parents had sent him abroad on scholarship to escape the tumult back home. He began to tinker on his open source operating system. Late one August night, after coding all night, he was about to post the very first introduction to his work on comp.os.minix. Just before he clicked “post” another message popped up. It was from some Finn named Linus Torvalds. He’d just made his own portable operating system. He’d beaten Dmitry to it by thirty-five seconds. Dmitry threw his monitor through the window into the wet Dover night in a fit of rage.

Life brought him back to Russia, brought him a new name and new government connections. His brilliance brought him a state-subsidized spamming empire. And his grand ambition brought him the Dark Internet.

It was simple really. All the spammers arrayed beneath his office had simply copied the internet. All of it. And they changed it. All of it. They built little scripts to keep it changing itself. And then (and here was the key) they SEO’ed the hell out of it. Like we talked about at the beginning of this story – SEO, or search engine optimization, makes a page more easily discoverable on the internet. What C1alis did with his altered copy of the internet was to give it better search engine optimization. If you searched for any part of the internet, you’d be led to C1alis’ dark internet. Whatever your queryset your answers would be C1alis’. As of today. That’s what he and his best friend Kibo are celebrating.

They are toasting again. “You, my friend. You are the man now, dog.” Kibo was always quoting American movies with Sean Connery.

C1alis takes the compliment, smiles. “You know what’s the most important precept of the internet? Don’t be evil.

They laugh. They laugh so hard and so loud that it echoes all around the cavern below. The foremen smile in anticipation of their celebratory bottles from Kibo’s crate.


It doesn’t take long for people to realize something is wrong with the Internet. And by ‘people’ I mean ‘the people’. Vox populi, really. Local news producers.

I’m watching a news package a few days after the StyleSeat IPO. In it we see a shot of the office building where negotiations are taking place between Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo! and Google to work together to fix the internet. A few men walk out in suits. They look unhappy and don’t speak to the reporters. The talks aren’t going well. There’s a graphic of what I assume are little packets of data flowing across the internet, but they look like greeting cards from Tron traveling down the center of a neon Interstate at the dead of night. A man on the street is interviewed and raises his eyebrows when he speaks. “Has no one investigated the connections between the World Wide Web, the shadowy Swiss financial industry and the Illuminati? he asks querulously. The screen cuts to an interview with a middle aged French woman in a pantsuit. She is identified as Christine Albanel, a minister in the French government. She is translated as saying that she thinks it wouldn’t be a bad idea to just shut off the Internet for a little while so that we as a global culture can figure out what the problem is. This sounds ludicrous to me.

But admittedly, I’m not sure I can say much about ludicrous. Let me explain. I am watching this news package in southern Louisiana, just outside of a town called Slidell which in turn is outside of New Orleans. I’m in a bar called The Salt Bayou Lounge. I am here to bet, to help pay off my enormous debts amassed through online shopping at such reputable establishments as Pottery Barn, Adam and Eve, American Girl, and Big Ed’s Chili factory (I can’t get enough of their tangy and delicious barbeque sauce). My compulsive shopping has led, as you can see that it might, to compulsive gambling, and while I’m here in Louisiana visiting family, this establishment was recommended to me.

I can’t say The Salt Bayou Lounge is my ‘scene’. At the conclusion of the news package a fellow patron with three men dressed in goth rock outfits embroidered on the back of his jacket in peach colored thread burped out a little of his Bud Light and proclaimed “The internet… it’s a series of tubes!” And the gambling here is not the sort to which I am accustomed.

They call it the Chicken Drop. Bets are placed on numbers between one and one hundred, corresponding to 100 squares scratched out in the dirt on the front porch. Once the betting is closed, a live chicken is released into the grid. That’s when the shouting begins. It gets loud out there. Scares those chickens something fierce. And everyone is shouting the same thing, a cacophonous choir of “Shit, shit chicken!” As you might have guessed by this point, the numbered square graced with the chicken’s fecal discharge is the winning square. I am, much to my surprise, remarkably good at this game and this evening have already won ten thousand dollars.

That’s not why we’re here tonight, though. This is the point in our story where we meet Donald E. W. Quist. He’s a writer from South Carolina. He’s the only other traveler in the bar tonight, everyone else is a local. He’s in town writing a freelance story for Maxim magazine about “Girls Gone Grabblin’”, a pastime in which jean-shorted college-aged women grasp around in the murky waters of the nearby Pearl River for catfish. Neither he nor I understand the tradition.

Donald and I are talking about how we became writers. For me it was growing up on a sailboat forcibly removed from the pacification of television and the endless boredom that came with. For Donald it didn’t hit him until college. “I always knew I was going to be an entrepreneur,” he is telling me. “And I worked my ass off in high school, got into Harvard.” He takes a long swig of his beer, lowers his glasses and looks at me over the frames. “They do this thing at Harvard where when you arrive as a freshman there’s a little envelope on your bed. Inside is a list of all the famous people who started off in your dorm room. Like you’re definitely in the company of greatness now.” He laughs. “Mark Zuckerberg was on mine. And here I was, standing in the Harvard dorm room of Mark Zuckerberg, years after he created Facebook and I think, fuck it. I need to do something else. Entrepreneur my ass.”

“So I started writing screenplays. It turned out I was pretty good at it. Notable twists in style, significantly clever wordplays or dazzling displays of witlessness would each in a flash cajole some essential part of me to birth the character behind them – complete with foibles, tics, blind spots and expertises – so that by the time the chatroom era ended I had dozens of warring, jabbering personas each battling for control of the cursor every time I sat down to my keyboard. I just put them into Final Draft. I pay the bills with freelance reporting work though.”

I laugh and confess I think his story is better than mine.

Neither of us know yet what’s going on with the internet, but we discuss it. We talk about it like the weather. But bizarro weather. Like that first year America ever had El Nino and everyone lowered their voice to bitch about it as if Poseidon and his trident were just in the next brown nougahide booth sipping a frozen margarita. We talk about the things we’ve found that were not quite the things we were looking for.

The popular social news site has been replaced by the 8-bit Nintendo game Dig Dug. Zappos, popular online shoe retailer, offers only clogs, though some of those are branded Uggs. Literary blog The Rumpus has reviewed each of Anne Grafton’s books from A to P without the slightest sense of irony. The blog Snarkmarket’s signature earnest intellectual inquiries have been replaced by actual snark. The blog Fimoculous can only be found at its popular misspelling Filmoculous.

Donald and I trade these back and forth as if one of us does not know this news already. We humor one another in this place where we are awkward strangers. Neither of us know at this point that Donald E.W. Quist is actually one of the heroes of this story. And there’s no reason for him to suspect it this night. He’s still just writing about grabblin’ girls.


The next day though, Donald gets a phone call from an editor at The Awl in New York. He’s done a little freelance work for their national desk, an office that expanded rapidly after their acquisition of Gawker Media.

“Donald,” the editor says. “If you’re at all close to the Florida Panhandle, we’ve got a hell of a story for you. It’s going to be some travel, but we’ll cover your expenses.”

“I could be there in a few hours,” Donald says, imagining himself driving fast.

“Normally we wouldn’t give this big of a story to a freelancer, but the south is the Cajun Boy’s beat, he’s the only sonofabitch in New York who even understands the accents down there, but he’ll be embedded with the White House Press Corps for at least another three weeks, so we need you.” Donald is still in his motel bed and his hand is reaching to the ballpoint pen sticking up out of the empty water glass. “You’re going to meet Rick Astley in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. The place is called Miss Lucille’s Gossip Parlor.”

“Rick Astley? Florida?” Donald is writing this down, but little of it is making sense.

“He’s on tour. But he’s leaving the tour. He’s going to Pennsylvania. Listen, gotta go, don’t spend too much on food and we’re not going to expense your booze.” The line goes dead. Donald rolls over, rubs his eyes. Florida it is.


Miss Lucille’s Gossip Parlor is a colorful little coffeeshop near the beach along the stretch of Florida’s panhandle known affectionately as “The Redneck Riviera”. As far as Donald can gather there is no “Miss Lucille”, but there are sugar cookies, Florida souvenirs and delicious black coffee that is the only thing keeping Donald awake and sane right now.

Standing at the counter with his cell phone to his ear in flagrant violation of the “No Cell Phone Zone” posted is a young olive-skinned man in a white t-shirt and jeans. He is speaking so loudly he’s almost screaming into his phone. “Could you do me a favor and order me some records for Christmas? I don’t want them to go out of stock before I can get the funds to purchase them…. you can go to yahoo and search THRILL JOCKEY RECORDS.” He makes eye contact with Donald and winks. Donald cringes to think of what that search would bring up in the new bizarre Internet.

The bell hanging from the door jingles as Rick Astley enters. Donald knows him immediately, the years have changed his face, but he’s still recognizable as the lovable young cad who time-traveled from the 1980s to appear spontaneously on computer screens in 2007 in the phenomenon known as rick-rolling. The fame was apparently short-lived, Donald is the only one who recognizes him as he enters. He joins Donald at his circular table.

“I’m to go to Pennsylvania,” Rick Astley explains. “I received a letter. A physical letter from the US mail. It was an invitation to go to Amish country in Pennsylvania for a summit. A meeting of the utmost importance. We’re meant to save the internet.”

“Who’s we?” Donald asks. He’s not taking notes at this point, though he’s sure he’ll regret it later.

“The memes,” Astley says.

At one of Miss Lucille’s computer terminals a patron lets out a squeal of disgust. Startled, Donald and Rick Astley stand and looking over see a choppy YouTube video of what appears to be Lars Ulrich of Metallica and porn star Ron Jeremy. The latter is wearing a hat that proclaims “Amateurs suck!” Both are holding guns, one of which is leveled steady at the camera. The other is pointed at a figure bound and gagged in an office chair.

“I got to keep my eye on him,” Ulrich says in a tenor that speaks of pills and impending mental collapse.

“He’s fine, he’s a cameraman.” Jeremy responds, turning to a figure bound to an office chair behind him. “They’re always reliable.”

“No man, he’s working for Blood and Gore, you know… the dude that invented the internet.”

The figure in the chair, Donald realizes, is the former Vice President. Donald’s eyes go wide, “This can’t be happening.”

“I’m sure it’s not,” Astley says, retaking his seat and sipping his tea. “Lars will be unhappy, but this is what we face on the Internet, isn’t it.” For Astley, though he doesn’t voice this to Donald, “bizarro Internet” feels a hell of a lot like the regular Internet. He has never fathomed why what people called “rick-rolling” was even funny. But it’s happened. And now Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” is a platinum record. To add insult to injury, he’d always believed that “She Wants to Dance With Me” was his best song. But these are the jokes life plays on us. “Look,” Astley says, “That’s why I’m going to Pennsylvania.” He points across the room at the YouTube clip. “To fix this. Only us memes can save the internet.”


They pass through Maryland and by a sign for Gettysburg before Astley awakens, pulls out his hand-written directions and tells Donald where to point the car. Donald, upon reflection, and he’s had plenty of time to reflect in the silent hours of northbound Interstate, is not sure how Rick Astley expected to get to Pennsylvania since he had insisted Donald drive him in Florida. That must be the life of Rick Astley, Donald decides. That and nearly twelve hours of beauty sleep in the passenger seat.

The memes are meeting in a large wooden barn, their entrances watched by pop-eyed Amish children. The meeting, Donald gathers, is organized by Tron Guy, who works the crowd in his standard skin-tight blue suit and helmet. He pumps Donald’s hand and then looks quizzically at his clipboard for his name. “I’m with him,” Donald says, pointing to Rick Astley. Astley hums a few bars at Tron Guy whose face completely transforms and he squeals like a child: “I just got rick rolled in real life!” Donald sees Rick’s weary smile. This is an old joke for him.

They’re a motley group, the memes. Numa Numa Kid is wearing the shirt that proclaims his identity. Tay Zonday looks uncomfortable. Andy Samberg is there with both a captain’s hat and a box over the crotch of his jeans. A forgettable-looking post-collegiate keeps apologetically following his introductions with “Don’t Tase Me, Bro” in air quotes. David, famous for his trip to the dentist, is there with his father. He does not appear to be drugged.

Also not drugged is former accidental Apple spokeswoman Ellen Feiss, whose Errol Morris-directed commercials took the internet in a storm of debate over whether or not she had been stoned. She’s no longer 14, Donald can’t help but notice. No, Ellen Feiss has blossomed into a fine young woman. She smiles patiently when he tells her he recognizes her. Donald’s unsure of what to say next.

Tron Guy calls them to order. “Thank you all for coming,” he begins, adjusting his square eyeglasses beneath his off-white helmet. “Thanks also to moot, founder of 4chan, for joining us,” a slim young man waves his hand at the crowd, “as well as representatives of Twitter and Tumblr. If it wasn’t for these folks we wouldn’t be where we are today. Google’s continued policy of social and political non-involvement unfortunately meant that they could not join us.”

Moot jumps in, “Nobody at Google would accept our giant broken-hearted valentine, even when delivered by a dude in red tights and fairy wings.” Everyone laughs.

Tron Guy continues, “As you all know, our world wide web is sick. That’s why we’re here in Amish Pennsylvania, without access to Internet and importantly without it having access to us. This illness must be cured. We, born of the Internet, have felt its effects perhaps most dearly. In some of my most popular videos I am now Tram Guy, a conductor of light rail mass transit in a small Midwestern city who into Algebraic Topology. I don’t even know what simplicial homeomorphism is and right now Wolfram Alpha is telling me it’s about Euclidean geometry.” He sniffles back what Donald guesses what about to be a screaming meltdown. “This cannot continue like this.”

“Aided by the US government we’ve been able to identify the source of this scourge. It’s a Russian spammer, deep in some missile base, named C1alis. That’s um, with a one.” Moot chuckles. That’s a good one. “This man and his small army of spammers has replicated the entire Internet and changed it. From his base, he has built a new Internet filled with Tram Guys and A-O-L-Cats.”

On the other side of Ellen Feiss Donald sees a thin tattooed man with oversized sunglasses raise his hand to the air like a disobedient child asking to leave detention. Without waiting to be hailed the man speaks. “Yo, what I wants to know is why the FOOK we don’t just air drop from some FOOKIN black hawk choppers into this Viagra guys FOOKIN missile base and go ninja on his ARSE? I could kill him like this!” The man begins to chop at the air with his bony palms. Donald realizes this is Ninja of Die Antwoord, the post-rational Afrikaaner hip-hop group.

Chuck Norris’s voice is gruff but direct. Inexplicably, he holds a shotgun. “As much as I admire your gusto young man, the Russkies won’t let us within seventeen clicks of that sensitive of a target in good old American military hardware.”

Next to Chuck Norris a thin pretty blonde says, “I agree with Chuck.”

Ninja throws both his hands up in middle fingers aimed at no one and then wraps his bony arms around himself in defiance. “Chucky, the ninja thinks you’re soft, and as far as the NINJA is concerned, iJustine can suck it.

Ellen Feiss leans over to him and whispers, “I thought it was a good idea.”

Ninja responds with a whispered, “Yo, if you were to invent a dish called Wu Tang Clams, what would you put in it?” Donald bristles to hear Feiss giggle.

Tron Guy holds his hand up. “This is an option that’s being discussed. Though it may be NATO that undertakes it and not us. In the meantime, we have another option. May I introduce Ms. Chloe Sladden of Twitter.”

Chloe raises her hand in thanks to the light applause. She takes a deep breath and begins with a dramatically hushed tone. “Not many know this, but the Twitter fail whale is a biographical creature. She is based in fact on a living whale named Faille, a great and hyper-intelligent beast living in secret in Sea World. She is, quietly, the true center of the World Wide Web itself, she controls the spiders and silkworms that weave its tendrils. Twitter, like all wildly successful start-ups, had to make its pilgrimage to Orlando, to her subterranean cavern to beg for her blessing. Without the venture capital with which to buy her krill, we appealed to her vanity with our error image. This is the only way an online business can truly reach what we call ‘scale’: with the blessing of Faille the Whale.

“In addition to spiders and silkworms, she has an army of three hundred thousand monkeys beneath the Conde Nast headquarters in New York. They were, until recently, responsible for the copy of all Breitbart and Newsmax articles. When the monkeys realized their work had been replaced by the new Internet, they went on strike. They sit now in New York, sipping Irish coffees and smoking cigarettes and bitching about progressive politics. Only Faille has the power to break their strike, and with their volume on top of her blessing, we could recreate the Internet from scratch, displacing this new bizarro Internet.

This is a moment Chloe feels like she has been waiting for her all her life. The weight of destiny hangs comfortably on her shoulders. She had penned elements of this speech long before the crisis, when she first became aware of the super-intelligence submerged beneath the unsuspecting Sunshine State. She was always preparing for her moment to arrive. Even her grade school journals had been written under the assumption that they would someday be read, someday be considered Vital to the Progression of History, so it should come as no surprise that now that she had written so many blogs under the guise of so many alter egos, she feared for her future archivists and biographers– not to mention the fate of humanity in general. She realizes of course, practically, that in order for historians to access those countless blogs she will need to fix the Internet.

We will leave Donald and Chloe and all the memes here, amid the dewy grass of Amish Pennsylvania. They are about to decide to make the pilgrimage to Orlando. Donald will sigh and roll his eyes as Rick Astley falls asleep for the return leg back to Florida. Unfortunately he will not make the romantic acquaintance of Ellen Feiss. She will end up in a tortured long-distance relationship with Ninja. It will end badly, though everyone will agree that it will be for the best. Donald will eventually find a nice girl in Asheville, North Carolina who is vegetarian and a yoga instructor and they’ll do just fine.

Before all that though, Donald will be among the delegation to convince Faille the Whale. Meanwhile, we will travel east again. Not this time to Russia, but to Tehran.


Jasmine is an idealistic young woman. She believes in a world where she can say what she desires in any situation. In her heart she knows that this world is governed by Allah, by a strong but ultimately forgiving deity who would not begrudge her a little mascara and the feeling of a cool breeze rustling through her long dark hair.

Jasmine lives dangerously, she knows. She has an American boyfriend she met on a semester in Europe. She’d been unbelievably lucky to secure the visa for the trip and moreso to meet Aaron. Aaron provided her the counterpoint to the argument she’d always heard that every single American was in some way a manifestation of the devil. Aaron was an angel of tolerance and he described America as a place, despite its flaws (which he was allowed to discuss openly) that valued that tolerance.

She knows it’s impractical to think she and Aaron have a real future together, but she clings to their relationship as her lifeline to a different world. As a reminder that there are whole lot of cities out there that are not Tehran. They communicate on Facebook and through him she learns about new technologies, new tools she can share with her fellow students and demonstrators in the Islamic Republic. She also makes new friends through Aaron.

We meet Jasmine late one night, at a time when on the other side of the world a ragtag band of accidental celebrities are arriving in the home of Shamu. She is, like all users of the internet, frustrated by the inaccuracies that have become prevalent. The surreal alterations to sites once familiar. But for Jasmine the Internet is not a convenience, it is not a right, it is a hard-fought privilege of the highest order. It’s the sweetest, most important, most precious thing in her life. And, frankly, she’s used to it being a little fucked up now and again, thanks to the Revolutionary Guard.

This night Jasmine is conversing with Rahina originally of Dhaka, Bangladesh and now of New Haven, Connecticut. She’s another of the friends Aaron has shared with her. Rahina is describing a house she used to pass every day as a little girl on the way to school.

As she’s typing Rahina searches and finds a photograph of the building on Flickr. Miraculously, somehow, it’s accurate in every detail. Even the comments seem authentic. She posts it in the chat.

House in old Dhaka near Bangsal Alley / barnali on Flickr

Jasmine is overwhelmed at the beauty of this building. Its history, its daunting façade. It’s dark and brooding nature like a melancholic regent enthroned amongst its peers. A tall dour leader among structures that speaks of loss, of permanence, of the uneasy future of centuries -old traditions built as rocks and bluffs amid the roiling foamy angry battering seas of changing time and modernity. That this building, far away in Dhaka, could be captured by the Internet, could pull the people who see this page physically, even emotionally, to Bangladesh. Unable to help herself, Jasmine wells up with tears. She sees the Islamic Republic in that photo. She sees the Students’ Revolution, the people in the streets, the Greens and their push for reform. A prideful institution both captured and empowered by technology. What will become of this building when the skyscrapers move in? What will become of Iran when the Shahs fall. She sees all this and she weeps above her keyboard.

She types simply, but with the full force of the meaning of the words, “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”


And in Orlando, Faille the Whale is explaining that all the Internet needed was one absolutely true and authentic thing. Her spiders start weaving from Jasmine’s comment on the house in Dhaka and within microseconds reconstruct the Web in a different configuration.

And in Russia, C1alis is alarmed to discover that every page on his Internet is suddenly behind a address, making him no longer the internet itself, but only it’s most prolific Russian-language blogger. His raging screams frighten the foremen and the prisoners in his missile base.

And on the Internet things are right again. Roger Ebert tweets flawlessly. Ana Marie Cox drinks a martini. John Hodgman plays Scrabble. StyleSeat has the right name and Snarkmarket’s posts are back to being earnest. And Andrew Fitzgerald, writer from San Francisco, just barely manages to finish another one of his short stories by his self-imposed deadline.


Read Story #1 “The Cannonball Run” and Story #2 “Osculating Circles” or just sign up to be a part of Story #4!

“Osculating Circles” – Andrew vs. The Collective #2

February 17, 2010 4 comments

This is the second of six stories in “Andrew vs. The Collective.” It’s also available as a PDF here: Story 2-Osculating circles (much prettier, trust me). In this HTML version, what look like links are actually the submissions from the project’s backers. Roll over them to see who submitted what.

Longview, Texas – February 14, 1953
Mary sat on the trunk of her Buick, her legs crossed beneath her cream dress. It was starting to get warm again in Texas, the winter crowded out by spring’s advance, and this time of the early afternoon you could sit in the sun without even your shawl. It should have been three pm by now; all the kids had left in their mothers’ cars or bouncing along in the seats of their yellow school buses. But it must have to be a few more minutes yet. Stan and Steve had promised one another 3 sharp, and what they lacked in rational decision-making, they both made up for in punctuality.

It was like a sporting event out here, waiting for Stan and Steve to show their faces and fists. Mary scanned the other cars in the parking lot surrounding the playground. Mostly teachers and mostly from Sam Houston Elementary. A few unfamiliar faces here and there; word of a good fight seemed to spread fast around here. On most of the other trunks circling the hopscotch-marked blacktop sat couples. Fitting on Valentine’s Day. Mary sat alone, as she always did. The men in Longview didn’t interest her much and her fierce independence (having her own car, for example) didn’t interest them much. What use did she have for the vagaries of love? Dates to the drive-in, men with their creeping hands drifting up the insides of your sweater, and this, today: two grown men fighting over a woman who didn’t care for either of them.

Stan and Steve were also teachers at Sam Houston Elementary. They’d met there as students twenty-five years before and returned as best friends over five years ago to teach math and English, respectively. This year a new teacher had filled the classroom between them, Paulien. She was beautiful, all the other lady teachers agreed over their cigarettes in the break room. Those ladies despised her. Stan and Steve loved her. And she let them both. Right up until the competing and conflicting Valentine’s Day plans which brought the two to this: a fight on the blacktop at 3pm sharp.

Love was ridiculous, Mary thought. She much preferred the silent company of the gadgets and devices she spent her evenings working on in her late father’s workshop. If there hadn’t been the promise of social bloodshed this afternoon, she’d already be home spending this Valentine’s Day with her true love.

“Excuse me,” a voice intruded on her meditation.

She lowered her sunglasses onto the bridge of her nose. It was a man, his hand on the trunk of her Buick. His hair was dark, thick, combed over the side. He wore a button shirt and slacks. His clothes were different somehow, in a way Mary couldn’t place exactly. “May I help you sir?”

“I was wondering if this was the right place for the boxing match?”

She giggled. Boxing match. He was smiling; he meant it as a joke. “Sure is.” He had a nice smile.

“Mind if join you?”

“If you must.” She pushed her sunglasses back up over her eyes and slid over on the trunk to make room for him.

He hoisted himself up and offered her his hand. “I’m Frank, what’s your name?”

“Mary.” His handshake was firm, confident. Exactly the quality on which Papa always told her to judge a man. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

“Nope,” he said. “I’m from Houston.”

“Houston? What brings you up to Longview?”

“I’m a traveler.”

She laughed. “Well that is just delightfully ambiguous.”

He smiled at her again. “You’re a traveler too, you just don’t know it yet.” That smile made her feel…she didn’t know. “Here come the stallions.

Stan and Steve were in their shirtsleeves, their fists wrapped with what looked like masking tape from their classrooms. They came out of different doors onto the blacktop, both looking angry in a way that was alien to their friendly faces. Nowhere to be seen was Paulien, though Mary imagined her to be behind a curtain in one of the classroom windows.

“Listen,” Mary’s new friend Frank said, laying his hand across hers. “I don’t have much time.” His touch was electric on her skin. Her temptation was to slap his hand away from her wrist, to deploy some of the foul language she’d learned from the men who taught her to fix her Buick. But she didn’t. Instead she found herself, what…enjoying his touch? She looked up from his hand to his eyes, which were locked on hers. She felt a flutter of…something? Who was this man?

“You’re touching me,” she murmured.

“Mary, I need for you to know me. I’m Frank.”

“I heard you the first time.”

“And we’ll meet six more times. Tonight you’ll finally figure out the machine you’ve been tinkering with.”

On the blacktop, Stan threw the first punch. Steve’s head flew back at a sickening angle. The crowd groaned in empathy.

“How do you know about my machine?” Mary whispered. Who was this man?

“It’s going to work better than you ever thought.” He was whispering too now. “It’s going to propel you forward through time and space at intervals you’ll have no control over. You’re going to hurtle toward the future like a stone skipping across a pond. You will be a traveler.” She opened her lips, but he held his finger up over them. “I know, because I’m also a traveler. I’m hurtling toward the past.”

Mary’s head was spinning. Mr. Good-Looking from Houston was telling her he was some sort of time traveler? And how did he know about her machine? Was this a joke? Did she dare to believe him?

“Mary,” he said, his voice low and sad. “I don’t expect you to believe me now, but you and I…we’re lovers. This…” His voice disappeared for a moment in a choke.

Steve finally landed a good blow, this one on Stan’s cheekbone, sending Stan staggering backwards across the black asphalt.

Frank continued, “This is the last time I’ll ever see you, Mary.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because you told me. You told me this was the first time you ever met me.”

“When did I tell you that?”

“The first time I ever met you. In my research facility. In 2085.”

Stan and Steve had wrapped their arms around one another in that drunken lovers’ dance of boxers, staggering and bloody and holding one another up out of spite.

Mary whispered, “In 2085? I suppose there are flying cars then?”

Frank laughed. “No, no flying cars yet. But we’ve got computers like you’d never believe.” The humor left his eyes. “Mary, I beg you. Will you kiss me one last time?”

Steve’s fist was raised to deliver his best friend a quietus upon the brow.

Mary flushed. Frank drew in close and she hesitated. What would all the other teachers say about her smooching a dark-haired handsome stranger on the back of her car in broad daylight? As if he knew what she was thinking, he said “Don’t worry about them, you’ll never see any of them again.”

His lips locked against hers. It was the first time she ever kissed Frank and her kissed her like it was the last time in eternity.

Houston, Texas – February 14, 2087
“It is perhaps appropriate that we find ourselves journeying into the human heart for the first time on Valentine’s Day.” Frank was in his element, standing at the podium before the giant plexiglass window. In front of him sat the crew at their instruments, blinking and softly beeping reassuring tones. Arrayed above them: the gallery. There were easily 75 people seated up there: other doctors, local notables, wives of prominent physicians. Frank turned to the window behind him. Through it, illuminated by four incandescent spotlights, was the murky artery of Paul Schirp, IT specialist and patient at the Houston Biomedical Research Complex, Cardiac Division.

At said facility, Paul Schirp’s body lay in a surgery ward on the fifth floor. Observed from the outside, he seemed perfectly normal. And there was a legion of doctors checking for exactly that. Within Paul Schirp, however, cruising fast – maybe a little too fast – was the cell-sized craft designed and now piloted by Frank. It was Frank’s most recent triumph, physical travel through the body’s pathways, procedures where doctors could go themselves and look at the clogged pathways leading to the hearts of Texan men. The real coup was the shrinking technology, an algorithm Frank had stumbled upon drunk and scrawling the chalkboard at a pool hall. It was his big discovery of last year, the subject of his doctoral thesis, and had, at the fastest the Biomedical Research Engineering Department could manage, been completed for use twelve months later. It was a career-making technology, but Frank was already bored with it already. Protocol, however, demanded he pilot this inaugural mission, so here he was.

“We should reach the heart in the next thirty minutes,” he said for the gallery’s benefit. “We’ll be enjoying refreshments before then if you’ll join me in the aft cabin.”

Twenty minutes later his hand was worn from the steady pumping handshakes of the local medical elite. A few of their spouses gave him meaningful winks. He couldn’t have cared less for the adulation. He was itching to have the day done, to be back in his lab. He was working on something far bigger than this, no pun intended.

A chime sounded on the intercom. He excused himself from conversation with a former professor, and headed for the cockpit. A woman steered her way before him, her hand wrapped around a martini glass.

“You’re Frank,” she said. It was a declaration, not a question.

“That’s right. And you are?”

She extended her hand. “Mary. My name’s Mary.”

“And do I know you from the hospital?”

“No, this is the first time you met me.” She smiled at him warmly, almost…sadly?

“Well then it’s a pleasure.”

She looped her arm under his elbow. “No, the pleasure is all mine. We don’t have much time, but let me tell you all about it.”

San Francisco, California – 1976
Longview to San Francisco would have been strange enough in 1953. But a few clicks and whirs after she’d tightened that last screw with her Dad’s old flat head screwdriver she found herself not just in another place, but another time. How did she know? Well the hair, really. These men with their long hair and their mustaches. Their shiny shirts. Their strange jeans that poofed out at the bottom. All of these things pointed to a different time. That and the newspaper she found with the dateline “1976”.

Within about an hour Andy had found her. He seemed to just find people and pull them along in his wake to whatever the party of the week was. She was now firmly in his wake and sat gawking like a foreign tourist at the festivities around her.

They were in a huge apartment or hotel suite overlooking the city skyline and the bay beyond. Mary was perched on a stool, elbows on a tiled counter littered with empty glasses and bottles. The room was packed with people, many wearing sunglasses to ward off the dying rays of the sinking sun. They smoked and drank and did…other things. Mary watched as two sweaty red-eyed men sped through their conversation and stopped only to bend down to the glass table before them and sniff up some sort of white powder through a rolled up dollar bill.

When she’d first sat down and Andy was still at her side she’d asked what it was and he’d laughed, teeth pearly white in exultation of being visible to the surrounding world. “That, baby, is Co-caine! Don’t touch it myself, but it’s all yours if you want some.” She’d politely declined.

Andy. Andy Levine was, people kept telling her, the baddest bass player in the whole city, if not the entire world. “He’s going to re-revolutionize rock music, baby,” a man with tousled unwashed hair and dilated pupils told her. “That means, you know, he’s going to like evolutionize it.” But once he’d introduced her to the party, Andy had gone away, carried off by the eddies of conversation across and around the room and out through the far door.

“That’s where the set is,” a man’s voice said next to her.

Mary looked to her side, hoping to see a familiar face in this unfamiliar land. Perhaps the mysterious Frank? It wasn’t. It was a forty-something man with wiry hair hanging to his eyebrows. He had tired eyes. “That’s where they’ll shoot the show ‘Scotty the Skyscraper.’ This is the party for their premiere episode.”

He extended his hand, “Tom Jones O’Chopper,” he said. “I’m a stock broker.” He indicated his sports coat as if it was a badge of his career. “What do you do?”

“I’m a school teacher,” Mary said. “Though I guess these days I’m doing a bit of traveling.”

“Love to travel!” Tom said in a tone that could have been exclamation if it wasn’t so close to just exhalation. “I just got back from the Caribbean.” He leaned in conspiratorially. He smelled of gin. “That’s where the party favors came from.” He leaned back, proud of himself, but Mary could see a great weight of sadness pulling him down on the inside. It was so apparent on his face. “I was a stock broker down in the Caribbean just a few years ago. Made lots of money, thought about running for office. And my friend, my best friend, Ray-Ray was a hot sauce tycoon. He brought me to his friend Tito’s place on St. Algun Donde to talk about opening an investment account. Tito must have been into some serious shit because every drink I had at his bar was free and every corner of the room was stacked high with bales of ganja and blanco. I was supposed to be there for two days but one morning I was sitting at the bar next to this Trinidadian girl named Pearl who was telling me I had to take her to Miami and marry her and the jukebox started playing that John Lennon song about Merry Christmas the war is over or whatever…that’s when I realized it was Christmas. The sonofabitch snuck up on me.”

“That was the same morning Tito walked down to the bar, which was also where his girls cut the cocaine, and saw I was still there. With one eye closed against the bright light, wolfing down the last of the cold scrambled egg and stuffing the wedges of toast in his cheeks, he counted eight, no nine bottles of vodka scattered over the work surface and he said, ‘Stock broker! You makin’ me no money!’ And he packed a duffel bag full of cocaine and sent me to San Francisco. That’s how I got here. How about you little lady? I’m sure your story can’t be crazier than that.”

Mary was still trying to fathom half of the foreign things he’d recounted but she was able to murmur, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Try me!”

Mary looked over at him, at the sweat beading on his temple, and fought off an overwhelming urge to throw her arms around him and squeeze the sadness right out of him. But behind him she saw a familiar face. “Frank!” she exclaimed.

It was Frank all right, in the same shirt and slacks she saw him in sitting on the trunk of her Buick in Longview in 1953. He smiled, laying his hand on Tom Jones O’Chopper’s shoulder. “Excuse me, Tom.”

The stock broker turned, “Do I know you?”

“You will.” Frank looked past him. “Mary, care to join me on the deck?” Mary gladly took his hand and let herself be led out through the glass doors. She wanted to speak, but nothing came out. What was there to say? He meanwhile, kept a steady patter of party conversation. He was pointing off at a tall hill, saying, “It is thanks to the development of optical telegraphy, those giant semaphore systems mounted on windmills by the French, Prussians and other militarists, that previously unremarkable prominences were proudly renamed Telegraph Hill. Like this one here.” He slid the door shut behind them. “Enough of that.” He wrapped his arms around her and she felt at home in them. “Thank god you’re finally here.”

“What is this place?” Mary asked. “How did I get here?”

“It’s San Francisco, I’m sure you’ve surmised. And it’s 1976. We’re at a party that’s been going on for three days. In a little bit, they’re going to open up the studio next door to a waiting audience of little kids. And in that studio will be an entire television show crew out of their minds on drugs and booze. Scotty the Skyscraper, the star, who is supposed to walk around on stilts for the duration of the show, will stumble and fall in the second take of his opening monologue. He’ll knock over a bottle of vodka onto a mess of wires, a fire will start and following the dramatic escape of the studio audience and untimely death of the star, the show will be cancelled. You and I will be gone by then.”

“How do you know all this?”

Frank smiled at her and stroked her cheek like it was the most natural thing in the world. “You told me. In Morocco. About two decades from now. We’ll laugh about it then, but right now I need to get you oriented.”

“To San Francisco?”

“No, love, to traveling. You’re lucky, your first stop is short and I was here to greet you. Some other places you’ll be alone, and you’ll stay for long periods of time.”

“Why don’t you tell me where I’m headed next?”

He grinned. “Because, Mary, you asked me not to. It would spoil the surprise you said.”

She laughed. “Yeah that sounds about right.”

“We’re not the only travelers. There are the others, all moving different directions, at different speeds and intervals. You learn to recognize them eventually.” He pointed through the sliding glass door. “Those two right there, they’ve been in 1976 for months, but they’re both from the first decade of the next century.” On a couch just inside sat two thin animated young men with excited eyes and intertwined hands. One of them wore a dark suit with a lavender pocket square. The other wore ripped jeans no longer than his thighs, a purple t-shirt and what looked like a latigo wrapped around his thin waist. Frank pulled her face back to his. “It’s important I introduce you to them at this party.” He brought his lips close to hers. “Which is a shame, because I would much rather just spend the time with you.”

They called themselves Nick and Nora, Nick of the ripped-off jeans and Nora of the dark suit with the splash of lavender. Nora offered Mary a small mirror with three dusty lines of white powder. She politely declined. “You’re missing out, babe,” Nora said, his voice deep and sonorous. “It’s my absolute best.”

“It’s the finest of ashes to dust,” Nick added. “Nora makes it herself. Don’t you sweetheart?”

Nora, who did not appear to Mary to be a she, blushed. He said, “I work at the Columbarium of San Francisco. The left-over ashes get mixed into our little friend here.”

“It’s a positively mystical experience!” Nick interjected. “And nice for us to take a taste once in a while, not just the clients at the tranny Tom Waits show!

Frank leaned in and whispered to Mary. “Tom Waits is a singer from the next few decades.” Mary watched as Nora’s eyes tracked the whisper.

Nora leaned in close. “You know Tom Waits. You’re travelers too, aren’t you?”

Frank nodded and Mary followed his lead.

Nora smiled. “Well then it’s our pleasure. We’re from 2000.”

“It’s such a futuristic year!” Nick exclaimed.

“But after a brief stop in 1991 we’ve been here in 1976 for months now. We had to set up little lives.” He looked at Nick. “Or at least I did. Some of us refuse to get a job.”

“I’m a trustafarian!” Nick said with glee. “Still living off Daddy’s money in an entirely different time! I spend my days on Haight Street, which, let me tell you, never changes much apparently.”

“When are you from?” Nora asked.

“2087,” Frank said.

“1953,” Mary said.

“Lovers from different times! I would have thought you were traveling together…but I guess most don’t. It get complicated with the children.”

“Not for us!” Nick grinned. “That’s the one good thing about being gay; all sex, no consequence.” He pantomimed a pregnant belly protruding from beneath his faded purple tee.

“Who here is closer to home?” Nora asked, looking between the two of them.

“I am,” Mary said. “This is my first stop.”

“Well then you’re lucky. Most people hit a few stops before they meet another traveler. There’s a whole culture of us.”

Nick paused, his head halfway down to the mirror he was holding up to it, “We’re like peripatetics of time!”

A woman squealed, rushing out of the kitchen. “I’m not entirely certain, but I think there may be a dead possum under the radishes in the vegetable crisper.”

“That’s our cue,” Frank said. “We should clear out.”

“What happens next?” Nick asked, still distracted from the mirror beneath him.

“In about ten minutes, they’ll try to start the show and it’s going to be a disaster.”

Nora laughed, “Oh we knew it was going to be a disaster. That’s why we came.”

Frank stood, pulling Mary’s hand up with him. “Cops and firemen disaster.”

Nora dusted off his suit jacket and rose. “Well we can’t have any of that, can we Nick?”

Frank kissed Mary on the cheek. “I’ll see you soon, love. And you’ll see me soon too.”

Istanbul, Turkey – 2048
His first night was a rough one. Frank had slept in a doorway accosted by a few representatives of the city’s legions of stray cats. The next morning, still finding himself in Istanbul and it still being 2048, he decided he needed to work out a living situation. He haggled himself a small room in a hotel with the old Euros he had stowed beneath the false bottom of his satchel. For a week he toured the city. He’d never been to Istanbul in 2087 so he spent most of the time looking at ancient ruins and timeless mosques, which only served to make him feel like building a time machine, had been unnecessary when he could have just taken a vacation.

Mary, the woman who had told him they were lovers, who had pressed against him in the supply closet of his ship when they were mere nano-meters from the aorta and begged him to kiss her for ‘the last time’, she had told him he could never know how long he’d be in a given time. Told him to prepare to feel marooned. “Especially at the next one,” she’d said with a wink.

So did marooned mean a week? A month? A year? He’d need to get a job.

He took a tour bus out of the city, to walk with the daytrippers through the forests on the Black Sea side of the Bosphorous. He needed to think. What could he do in this time and place? Bring them medical miracles? His tour group wound through a needle-strewn copse of pines, chattering in a Babel of different languages. What other advantages did he have? He had an encyclopedic knowledge of history, thanks to the digital encyclopedia he’d wisely packed. He knew that in this time Turkey was mired in another struggle between Kemalists and Islamists. But what could he do with that?

His reverie was shattered by a woman’s scream from the front of the group. Before her a military man in full uniform staggered into the clearing, running, dripping blood, wailing with an inhuman sound. He was a captain by his markings, and he fell at their feet. Their eyes went wide with shock as they watched an affliction of starlings stream down from the heavens and devour the unsuspecting captain, leaving nothing but his gleaming, disenfranchised framework behind on the forest floor. Without thinking, Frank began snapping pictures.

The Day of Allah’s Birds was the day he signed on with the Associated Press as a freelance photographer. With his digital encyclopedia he knew the daily news events in the city, could always be at the right place at the right time. The money was good, he started to pick up a little Turkish, and time stretched long.

It was as a freelance photographer burdened with Cassandra’s knowledge of the future that he was both awaiting and dreading the G8 summit. He knew the outcome already: the traditional protests would give way to the Islamists and the Kemalist generals would play their hand too hard, too violently and the world would shiver at the bloodshed. It would end with the first unapologetically Islamist European Union government and that would eventually work out just fine. But those few days would be brutal, especially in the streets of Istanbul.

It was in those last few peaceful days he made acquaintance with Hadassah Lempeh, professional matchmaker and fortune-teller. They drank at the same bar at the same time every day and their familiar nods eventually led to conversation. She drank Efes, the local beer, snacked on calamari and Frank sipped the wine.

“You’re lost here,” she told him on the day before the G8 ministers arrived. “Not just in Istanbul. You’re lost in the world.”

“You could say that.” Frank tried to give Hadassah as little information as possible in case her fortune-telling skills weren’t just an income supplement to her waning business in matchmaking.

She shook her head. “I’m glad we made friends, boy. But I know it won’t last. My only friend is my food. Hence the cephalopods.” She gestured at her plate. “Trust me, old Hadassah knows a thing or two. You’re gone after this G-8 hubbub.”


She laughed. “This is a bad one coming. And I know bad times. I was in Seattle for 1999.” She sighed. “Years ago. I almost didn’t make it. Was still in jail on day one. I got nabbed driving north through Oregon. When the flashing lights flickered in the rear-view, I was hurtling down I-5 in Ruckus’ unregistered red pickup with a bag of weed in my pocket and an open fifth of Jim Beam beneath my seat, stacks of surreptitious photos of Seattle rooftops strewn across the dash, and the back filled with u-locks and climbing gear. So you don’t let anyone tell you old Hadassah doesn’t know a street action.”

Frank took a sip of wine, trying to mask the mathematics he was performing behind his eyes. Hadassah was what – 60? 70?

“Don’t go trying to calculate my age, boy. I’m older than Quetzalcoatl. But listen, this is what old Hadassah needs to tell you.” She leaned into him. “You’ll meet a woman. This is the fortuneteller talking. You’ll meet a woman in the gas. Now this is the matchmaker talking. She’ll be the wrong woman. The right woman will come two days later.”

On the next Thursday Frank met the wrong woman. Her name was Sora and they were both trying to negotiate an exit from a cloud of tear gas that obscured the source of the hurled rocks. They both carried cameras and they both wore bandannas and later, after they’d escaped to the Savoy for a drink, they both drank whiskeys.

Sora was Turkish, beautiful; she looked at him with smoldering eyes and talked fast in English like there was never enough time to say everything that needed to be said. He shared her cigarettes (she called them Zhong Nan Hais) on the porch of the Savoy in one of the few islands of tranquility in the city that day.

She explained her delicate situation as a Turk and as journalist. “My mother was a friend of an enemy of the people. My father was a government minister. Neither of them ever tried to sway me to their side. So I just ended up in the middle.”

The next day even the Savoy was washed over in the tide of uprising.

It was Sora’s picture that did it. The tank and the burqa and the child. It was the generals at their bloody worst, the country at its most vulnerable. Frank knew the picture, everyone did back in 2085. There wasn’t an award that photograph didn’t win in 2042, not a heart it didn’t stir. And it wouldn’t be for another two decades that the world discovered Sora wasn’t a photographer at all. That most devious of activists, the woman willing to martyr a child for her country. Frank chided himself for not recognizing the name in the context of the Istanbul Riots.

The next night at the Savoy, a Ulusal Kanal delivery van overturned and burning across the street, he’d turned from her and as he was walking away he heard her sob, “You know. You bastard, how could you know?”

It was Saturday night. He threaded his way through the streets, detouring away from firelight when he saw it and explosions when he heard them, eventually arriving back at his rooms. He looked up from his key ring, a small elephant carved out of bone, with silver tusks, worn smooth on one side where it had been hanging on his belt, to see a woman leaning against his doorjamb.

“How’s Sora?” she asked. “Take it hard?” It was Mary.

“How did you know?”

She laughed. “You told me all about it in Morocco.” She indicated the door. “You going to invite me in? Supposedly we’ve got a few hours before I’m off to Houston.”

Without hesitation, without even thinking about it, he kissed her. The right woman indeed.

Rome, Italy – 1984
She loved Italy. The eighties she could have done without, but this country was amazing. So much history at every corner. So much old in this future world. She avoided the angry smog-spewing small cars and violently backfiring buses and stuck to the monuments and ruins around every aged corner.

This had been a long stop for her. When she’d first arrived it had been 1983. That was three months ago. Before Rome and after San Francisco she’d had another week at the end of the 70s, in Boulder, and then spent two days of 1981 on the beaches of Antigua. She hadn’t seen Frank since San Francisco, but she found herself hoping he’d show up here in Rome.

She’d found herself a small community of fellow travelers. They drank at the American-style Harry’s Bar from the afternoons until late in the evening. She wasn’t sure what the rest of them did for their money, but she taught English to aristocrats’ children, which paid her well and let her off in the mid-afternoon, so she was always happy to join them.

They were a motley crew at Harry’s. Loud enough to drive off all but the regulars but regular enough to not attract reproach from the management (though plenty from the bar cat, Engelbert, who possessed only three legs and an undying love of the pot-bellied pig kept at the exotic pet store next door.)

The most tolerant behind the bar was Narcissa, who never spoke but to repeat back an order in confirmation. The one conversation Mary had had with her was a single sentence in which Narcissa tried to explain her name, “It’s an old family joke. A haha from my Papa.”

Today, as Mary entered, Narcissa was working, and she nodded to her. Mary was wearing a hand-knit vest that was her first personal project since she got to the 1980s. It kept her back warm despite the chill of the outside, but she noticed, left her arms in danger of the cold. At the bar were the constant companions Archie Goodwin and Chancellor Chamomile Teague. Archie was as small and thin as Teague was wide and round, and though they were travelers from different times, somehow the smaller man had ended up in the Chancellor’s employ. Which was useful for the Chancellor, who wasn’t much of a communicator.

Archie had explained to Mary when first she’d the pair, “There are three things you must know about Chancellor Chamomile Teague: first, he is always the principal actor in any story in which he is so much as mentioned; second, he is immortal; and third, though garrulous, he speaks exclusively in elaborate palindromes.”

To greet her entrance the Chancellor spun on his stool crying “Yo! Bottoms up, U.S. Motto, boy!”

Narcissa shook her head, wiping endlessly at the countertop, muttering “US motto boy” inflected as if she meant a lad who personified the peculiar spirit of America.

Hunched over the bar at the corner was the man who called himself Nicholas J. Pony, always using the full name. He was tall, olive-skinned and wore a simple white t-shirt and denim jeans. Englebert the cat favored him of all the regulars and sat perched on the bar above his bottle of beer. Nicholas claimed to live sideways in time, one of those rare travelers who’d figured out how to turn their vector through time into a sort of a loop. She assumed he was from somewhere to the future as he would spend his afternoons muttering about the musical selections in the bar. By way of greeting he said to her, finger pointing up at the house speakers, “The Talking Heads didn’t put out one good album after 1980.”

“Hey Nick,” she said, hugging him around the shoulders. “Can I have a glass of Primitivo?” she asked Narcissa.

“Primitive, oh?” Narcissa responded, her hand already reaching for the bottle.

Archie slid up next to Mary at the bar. “We’re so glad you’re here, doll, we’ve concocted a plan and we want your support!”

“Oh really?” Mary asked.

Teague called from the end of the bar, “Sue, dice, do, to decide us!”

Archie, turning to glare at him, said, “No, Chancellor, shan’t be dice. It’ll be Mary’s decision, right?” He turned back to her as she took her first sip of wine. “Now dear. Today, the Chancellor and I were engaged in a little haunting. With a solid dosing of a vicious little hallucinogen, we were in the company of fair-skinned red headed heiress to quite a substantial British fortune. She had long forgotten our presence, been tearing through her apartments for a quotation, and had given up to sit on her desk and stare at the patterns in the fire. And that’s when old Archie Goodwin stepped out of the aging pulp novel by Rex Stout that lay on open on the sofa, winked at the red-head perched on the desk, and offered her the services of his rather large employer before stepping into the looking glass above the fireplace; she shook her head and reshelved the title before putting out the lights. Shook her right up, I say!”

“You two are sick,” Nichols J. Pony said, without turning his head from his sip of Peroni.

“Well, I can’t say the Chancellor was much help. He dosed himself by happenstance and spent the evening beneath a massive Modigliani.”

The Chancellor nodded sagely, his eyes distant. “I roamed under it as a tired, nude Maori.”

“Yeah you’re a real savage type,” Archie spat. “This is the one who wants to go sit and wait for El Bulli to open back up since this is the year Adria joins the kitchen. Savage my foot!”

“What’s your idea?” prodded Mary gently.

“Right, of course. Well today, in our experiments inspired by implied zombification, what with us being the spirits of the long dead forebears to our dear heiress, see, the Chancellor and I thought what this dour little camaraderie could use was a crypt crawl!”

Mary looked at him and then at the Chancellor’s eager smile quizzically. “A crypt crawl?”

Nicholas J. Pony swung his stool around. “Like a pub crawl, but through the Catholic crypts?”

Archie nodded furiously. “Yes, yes you’ve got it!”

“Well that’s is just a pizza idea if I’ve ever heard one!” Mary assumed that in Nicholas’ time pizza had taken on an adjectival meaning. He used it often in that capacity.

That was how they found themselves first gallivanting through the catacombs of St. Callixtus, each with their own bottle of wine. Then later they were standing at a grate near the backside of the Vatican accompanied by Archie’s sometime lady-friend Andie. Andie was the proprietor of the tiny exotic pet shop next door to Harry’s that specialized in illegal specimens and police bribes. “I have a friend, a priest friend, he’s a client really,” her voice always moved fast, hyper, ebullient. “He needed a baby giraffe. It was more money than he could afford by the time we got it into the shop. It had to come through Africa you see, through my friend Elise. She runs a beauty shop, of course, with a sideline deal in pets. She paints toes and toads in Kathmandu.” Andie stopped for a split second to giggle at her own wordplay. “So the priest. So the priest, he showed me this place.” She lifted the grate at her feet. “This is the crypt of St. Peter’s. It’s where I saw the first John Paul’s body.” She giggled again, uncontrollably. “Of course I had to use the visitors’ entrance!”

They wound down the narrow stone stairs beneath cobwebbed arches and past the interred bodies of long-forgotten Catholic heroes, perhaps the Crusaders.

They found a good nook to lean back, pop their bottles open and partake in their libations. Nicholas J. Pony turned out his flashlight, plunging them all momentarily into dizzying darkness before he lit a candle and stood it up in a recess unoccupied by the dead. They smiled at one another like shy schoolchildren in the flicker of the flame. For once even Andie had nothing to say and Teague was without a palindrome for the occasion.

Mary looked around at the group. It was such a nice group of folks. Odd, surely. But she liked to believe this is why she became a traveler, why she set herself skipping across the surface of time, to meet people like these and share in experiences like this. She didn’t care about flying cars really, or how dissonant and inhuman rock music had become, it was just for moments like this. There was one thing missing though, she thought to herself. Frank.

Nicholas J. Pony wrapped his arms around her in a giant bear hug, lifting her a few inches off the ground. “We’re going to miss you, kiddo,” he said, grunting with the exertion of squeezing her so tightly.

“What do you mean,” she eked out.

“You’re about done here.”

She was startled by a scraping sound behind her, back in the direction of the street. Spooked, Archie moved to the candle to blow it out. A priest? A Crusader raised for revenge? “Don’t worry with the candle,” a voice called. “I’m here for Mary.”

Nicholas J. Pony released her and Mary ran toward the voice in the dark. “Frank!” she exclaimed. He wrapped her up in a hug of his own. “What are you doing here?”

“Sadly, I’m just passing through.”

“How did you find us?”

He smiled at her. She could just barely make out his features in the candlelight. “You told me on the train in the desert.”

She kissed him on the cheek. On his other cheek. On his lips. “I’m so glad to see you. I’ve been waiting for you to show up for weeks. I’ve got so much to tell you.”

“You will, not now though.” He kissed her back, a short sweet peck on her lips. “One thing, real quick. When you get to Morocco…I’ll be in the back of the train.”

Orlando, Florida – 2009
He’d been able to recognize Disney World when it suddenly appeared before him. He was in Fantasyland he guessed, and it was far too humid to be California’s Disneyland. Somehow, though, a tiny tyke of a girl had mistaken him for her Disney-appointed guide. Her name, he gathered, was Adeline, and she was there to be a princess for a day. After a few weak protestations and a few stern looks from the woman she called “Mimi” he’d given in and joined the tour.

For her special day, Adeline got to be dressed as her favorite Disney princess. She chose Belle from Beauty in the Beast. Somehow, though, Frank had ended up in the Sleeping Beauty dress. When he told the harried servants of Cinderella’s castle that he didn’t want to be adorned in the frills and lace they’d shook their heads and said, “At least you get tips, buddy.”

Adeline, standing on her child’s size tea party chair, regarded him with her tiny fist under her chin, a plastic wand protruding from it. She nodded her approval. “This way you’ll be fit as a fiddle for our foiree on Friday.” How do you tell a tiny princess it’s pronounced “soiree”?

The afternoon was spent in a constant loop of “It’s a Small World After All” broken only when the little princess had recognized one of her favorite singers striding across the park in a hooded sweatshirt and oversized sunglasses. “You’re Taylor Swift!” Adeline yelled, waving her wand while she ran full tilt to catch up with the young blond woman.

It was in fact Taylor Swift, in poor disguise, accompanied by a man she claimed was her singing coach named Spanoli.

Many hours later, and long after Adeline had squeezed the breath out of all of them with her good-bye hugs, they were at a bar called Paradise Island. The night had turned fuzzy for Frank. He was still in the Sleeping Beauty gown, much to the amusement of the giant bar’s only other patrons, a huge contingent of Japanese businessmen. They were dominating the karaoke machine, doing their best with American rap. Spanoli, who was actually a mute, kept buying Frank shots of tequila. Beside him, Taylor Swift sipped from a ginger ale. Next to her sat a British man of Mediterranean complexion who introduced himself as “Lord Adonis” without any hint of irony. On Frank’s other side was an old friend of Spanoli’s who introduced himself as Tom Jones O’ Chopper.

Tom, who’d told Frank he looked familiar, was explaining to him how after a party in San Francisco in 1976 he’d sworn off having anything to do with cocaine. “They saved every last one of those kids in the studio audience, I tell you. But the looks on their faces, the flames dancing over Scotty the Skyscraper.” He shook his head at the memory.

Onstage, at the end of a rousing if unintelligible rendition of “Stand up and Get Crunk”, the karaoke jockey called for Spanoli.

“I thought he was mute,” Frank slurred.

“He’s a champion karaoke signer.” Taylor Swift said, smiling. “Signing not singing. He’s really the best there is.” Her smile was radiant.

“I say dear,” Adonis said over his martini. “How is it that your mute friend is a singing coach?”

Taylor Swift shushed him and turned to watch Spanoli. Frank couldn’t figure Adonis out. He was obviously rich, obviously British. When he’d learned Frank’s profession was medicine he’d said “Good man! I’m in the schools, myself.” But how he’d ended up there at the bar, leaning imperceptibly closer to the young pop star with each martini, Frank couldn’t tell.

O’ Chopper leaned in again. “Twenty years later, to the day, I swore off junk food.”

“Did you?” Frank thought he asked politely.

“Me and my buddy Trevor were at this bar in the Bahamas and ate a whole bowl of cocaine-laced Cheetos. We spent the night tearing the wallpaper off the walls of our hotel room. And ever since the unfortunate incident thirteen years ago, Trevor has suffered from a morbid fear of Cheetos. And I just gave up all junk food.” He slapped his belly. “Better for me anyhow!”

The karaoke monitor lit up with the song title: “Edelweiss – From the Sound of Music.”

“I love this one!” Taylor Swift exclaimed with a little clap.

The first strains of the signature Rogers and Hammerstein sound came through the speakers and onstage Spanoli began to move his arms in slow, waving motions. Frank watched, transfixed. Behind him Adonis said, “Miss Swift, it’s nearly the holidays, what say we go find some mistletoe?”

Frank turned to see Taylor Swift hold up a fist and say “Adonis, I’m gonna mistletoe your FACE.

“Man, that Adonis never knows when to quit,” O’ Chopper confided. Frank’s head was spinning. “He loves those little pop stars. That’s not me at all, not Tom Jones O’ Chopper. You shoulda seen this little thing I had going in New York, just two stops down the Metro from me. She was like a mixture of Lady Gaga, Anjelica Huston, and Dom DeLuise all rolled into one; there was no way on earth I was going to miss my opportunity to rub the sandwich on her backside as soon as she stepped off the train.

Frank wasn’t certain if O’ Chopper had said “rub the sandwich on her backside” or if that was what the tequila had made his ears hear, but he knew he had to get out of there.

He stood, wobbling, thinking he would find his way to the bathroom. A hand wrapped around his arm. “Can I have this dance, princess?”

“Mary!” he was pretty confident he didn’t spit on her as he said it.

She pulled him close. “Good news love, you’re almost done here.”

“Oh thank god!”

She whispered, her voice clear and sweet in his ear. “One thing. In Morocco. I’ll be in the back of the train.”

Morocco – 1999
The train came to a sudden stop in the empty desert. Beyond its greasy windows fell a magnificent sunset, cast across the dunes like an oil painting. At the front of the train the conductors yelled and cursed, joined by the occasional passenger. Every third or fourth window another passenger’s head emerged to shout questions about the train’s impeded progress. The final car of the train was the dining car, a red velvet baroque affair that had emptied out when the train stopped. Only two passengers remained at their small table, holding their champagne flutes aloft so that they caught the light of the dying sun and scattered it around the cabin as if through a jewel.

“To us,” Mary said, her face spread wide in a smile.

“To us, and Morocco,” Frank said, reaching across the table to take her hand.

The sun set in a final flare as they told one another of the places they’d been. What they’d seen in the places before they saw each other, what they’d seen in the places they’d been to alone. Both of them loved to watch the other speak, almost hated when it was their turn to recount and be distracted from the face of the other. From the face of their lover. They held hands as the light faded from the sky and the unlit train compartment descended into darkness. They watched one another’s eyes after they reflected no more light.

Fires lit up across the dunes when night fell completely. Small tufts of campfire dotting the space that had been sand in daylight. A steward came into the car to light candles. Mary asked him in French what they were stopped for. “The King has died today,” he told her. “King Hassan the second. This day will be a day of rest. No trains will move.”

“When did you pick up French,” Frank asked her.

“1995. Avignon.”

“Not so long ago.”

“I remember it like it was yesterday.”

Frank could see her coy smile in the light of the candles on the tables around them. He leaned in and kissed her above their champagne-strewn tabletop. The steward left them and Frank pulled his chair around to Mary’s so they could sit together and watch the flickering of the campfires. Strains of a song of mourning drifted through the warm night air.

“How long do we have here?” Frank asked Mary.

“I don’t know, you never told.”

“That’s right. This is the first time we’ve ever been on the same page, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know anything you don’t know.” Mary loved the feeling Frank’s arm around her. The solidity of his presence.

Frank drank in the smell of her hair. “This is exactly where I want to be.”

She turned to him in the chair. “Me too. I hope this lasts forever.”

And they held one another that desert night amidst a pile of blankets on the floor of the dining car. They were both, as individuals, the happiest they’d ever been. They wound around one another like osculating circles and hoped the night or whatever remained of their time in this time, would never end.

Epilogue –Spain, 2135
It was a long jump from Frank’s warm grasp in 2085 to the frigid wastelands of 2135. It was a new ice age, she’d surmised, and possibly man-made. Men, as it were, seemed to be extinct, replaced by a post-human augmented version. They were genetically engineered for this cold.

The newspapers the day she’d arrived were full of headlines trumpeting the first alien contact. A whole new species out there in the even chillier cold of space and they thought the post-humans were their benevolent creator.

Not so benevolent, Mary thought to herself as she staggered across snowdrifts beyond the walls of the city once known as Pamplona. They’d seen her shiver beneath her hand-knitted Roman vest, knew her as not one of their own, and her sent her to die in the frozen wastes. Exactly the future race Mary would have expected humanity to become looking forward from 1953.

Daggered, she strode slowly through the ice, a long slow drip of gall and blood warming the insides of her vest, the vest she had devoted so much care to – care dripping off her forehead, pouring from her eyes, care sweating out of every conscious gland and orifice to congeal in a cascade down around her sleeves, grasping ripping behesting her to remove them oh so carefully and place them away from that treasured sleeve-unworthy thing – the vest she now bled her last carefully inhaled, sob-interrupted breaths into. She thought about Frank and she remembered Morocco, remembered his touch, and she knew he’d fare better in the past.

Epilogue –Virginia, 1862
Cruel fortune to be dragged away from Mary’s embrace in 1953. Crueler fortune to be cast so much further to the past. It was nearly a century prior by Frank’s calculations, if this was in fact the American Civil War. It was certainly a war of some kind, smoke rising around him and the smell of black powder clogging his nostrils. He ran through what seemed to be farm fields, dodging the whiz of musket balls overhead and desperate to find a path out of the heaviest fighting.

He hopped over the body of a Confederate soldier, ducking away from the charge of a Union cavalryman. At his feet, much to his surprise, he saw a man that looked like the twentieth century comedian Bill Cosby, surrounded by some sort of plastic foodstuff. The man was dead, couldn’t speak, but the note pinned on his chest said for him “I am Spartacus.” Time was slipping, Frank realized. Something, somewhere had gone terribly wrong. He had to get out of there.

A shot rang out in the distance, though Frank was unsure how he heard this one more clearly than the others. Likely because it was the shot that felled him. He crumpled to the moist soil beside Bill Cosby. “Pudding Pops” was what the label read on the plastic things surrounding him. Strange. Frank drifted and as he did, wished his love all the happiness of mankind’s better future.


Other links:
Read Story #1: The Cannonball Run
– Sign up for Andrew vs. the Collective on Kickstarter

National Novel Writing Month

The whole reason I’m doing Andrew vs. The Collective is because I wrote a book called The Collective. I wrote it, the first draft of it anyway, entirely in the month of November 2008. Why would I do such a thing? Because it was National Novel Writing Month!

I really credit NaNoWriMo (that’s the shortened version) with helping me to finish my first book. I am one of those people who really great at starting lots of projects but finds it difficult to bring them to a conclusion. Especially projects I’m doing on my accord, without threat of professional censure. That’s why, for me, NaNoWriMo was the perfect way to break through that “first novel” barrier.

So I wanted to offer two things in this post. My recommendation for first time writers who might be interested in undertaking a marathon November. And share what I learned about the process with any NaNoWriMo winners out there who might want to take their project all the way to printing.

November 2008: It was a crazy month. I work in news, so the election alone would have made it heady. Additionally it was the month everybody started laying off huge swaths of staff, and my company was no exception. In the midst of all that, I’d committed to write 50,000 words of fiction. How did I do it? I wrote all the time. Especially toward the end of the month when I felt like time was running out. I traveled a lot that month, so making it a part of a regular schedule, of my daily/weekly ritual, wasn’t an option. I was able, though, to write anytime I was in transit. (My favorite place to write the whole month was on the Amtrak from New York to DC. At sunrise.) They key to getting through it for me was just being determined to finish. I set a challenge for myself and goddamnit I was going to meet that challenge. The NaNoWriMo emails from other authors that kept bouncing up in my inbox helped motivate me too.

So what comes after 50K words? A lot of editing. A lot. I decided that if I could take a first draft all the way through, I might as well finish it completely. Edited and all. I thought it would take about 6 months. It took 12.

First draft to first readers: My first draft was a hot mess and I totally knew it. The end especially. When I was so close to 50,000 and it was November 30th and the conclusion to the story was fast approaching, my tapping fingers just started skipping crucial plot developments. I did a read-through a few weeks later, in January. But the real big next step was giving it to readers. I chose three close friends whose opinions I valued and gave them copies. Then I waited.

Notes!: My readers gave me good notes. Some were all along the same lines: It fell apart at the end. Others were just big brainstorms of ideas. The challenge at this stage was sifting through all these brilliant suggestions and then making some big changes out of them.

Here come the changes: It ended up that I had to re-write the whole back half of the book. I had this subplot that, at the end, became the main conclusion and the way it read it was really jarring. So, of 7 chapters, I had to throw out the final two (except for a few scenes here and there) and replace them with four new ones. Then I had to more or less graft those chapters onto the front of the book, sort of hand stitching the changes line-by-line into the middle two chapters.

Massive re-edit: Few things I’ve ever done in my life felt like they called for as much brainpower at one time as this process. You’re editing one line at a time and you’re watching your word choice, your punctuation, but also you’re watching the scene development, the chapter’s flow, and also you’re thinking about the whole story, the whole of each character, all of the big questions. Hard! But, also…a lot of fun and very rewarding.

And then it’s done: This might be the hardest part: saying it’s done. It’s over! Move on! Working with a NaNoWriMo book I think made this part easier. It wasn’t something I’d been working on for years. I hadn’t built it up in my head as my magnum opus. That made it easier to say “This is done, what’s next?”

Printing: I decided to not seek a publisher and to print it myself. I ended up going through Lulu, which is only one of several really great sites (Blurb, Createspace, etc). It costs money, so you’ll probably end up offering it for sale. I decided to do a Kickstarter to promote the book and to get it out there. (Which is going on right now).

Should you do NaNoWriMo? I’m going to go ahead and tack a “heck” onto that “yes”. If you’ve been telling yourself you had a novel in you for years, it’s time to get it out.

Categories: The Collective Tags: , , , , , Lulu, Nanowrimo, National Novel Writing Month, , ,

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