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Friday fiblet: “She Came Back.”


“She came back.”

It was young Tone who saw her again, one bleak day just over three weeks after she’d gone away; away forever, according to the older and putatively wiser heads in the family. Tone had an inborn wisdom of his own, of course, despite his few years, but it was a wisdom better suited to the times he would inherit than the one they lived in. His eyes drank in the world as clearly and directly and precisely as optical fiber swallowing a laser pulse, data lit up his mind and was rigorously transformed by the pellucid mind within. He was a bright child, clever in an honest and straightforward way, and his grandfather sometimes despaired of his growing to adulthood in a world still so full of crooked angles and shadows it wouldn’t pay to illuminate.

‘She came back,” he repeated. “I saw…” His grandfather’s hand whipped out like lightning and placed two twisted and gnarled fingers on the boy’s lips, stilling them. Tone blinked but didn’t flinch; he had never been struck and lacked defensive reflexes. Lane’s own grandfather would have questioned the wisdom of that, but the lumps and angles in his fingers were a constant reminder that paradigms could outlive their usefulness. Not that he needed the reminder; he had been at the forefront of his generation’s slaying of the outdated, and an architect of the new.

Internally he flinched at what he had to do now. “No,” he said to those limpidly clear eyes, running the old techniques of double-thought in his mind as he did so. “No, she did not, you did not. Shhh… it’s a mistake. Bad data.” He imagined he saw an infinitesimal reduction in clarity, a clouding of doubt forming as he spoke. (Who you gonna believe, kid, me or your lying eyes?) He tried again. “It’s a trick of the mind. A cognitive echo. Neural illusion.”

The penumbra of doubt lightened, the light of trust restored between them. “Good boy, go research those more deeply now.” They were real phenomena, after all… and he didn’t know the boy hadn’t imagined her. Maybe this would form a new facet in the crystal of the boy’s mind, a new refractive angle to steer the light without blocking it, safely past the danger.


He gave his back the straightening un-twist that activated his assist, and got out of the chair, for once relatively smoothly. That was probably because he hadn’t thought too much about it, he reflected. He always imagined a whirring, hissing delay, on a subconscious level expected pain and braced for it, no matter that it had been so very many years since that had been the case. Scars and injuries of the body could be fixed, but those of the mind were self-reinforcing without deep therapy. Fixing the acquired reflexes from the inside alone was slow and imperfect, but in small matters like this a senior veteran like himself could get his trust issues indulged, if not overlooked. Signs of real impairment could put an end to that, though, so he settled his thoughts and concentrated on walking steadily to the kitchen.

He was on the second bake of his third batch of biscuits, first of the fourth, and preparing the dough for the fifth, when Track came home. He stopped short in the doorway, flat grey eyes flickering over the sidelined mixing bowls and utensils, the antiquated and rarely used electric blender, and most of all the gleaming cooling racks. The biscuits on them were in carefully varied shades of brown… perhaps too carefully. Track’s generation were not as steeped in duplicity as Lane’s, of course – that had been the whole point of what they’d done – but they were not innocents by any means, and averaged out far faster in analysis. The vagaries of non-optimized genetic chance had given his son a brain with less inherent capability than his own, perhaps, regression to the norm being what it was, but he’d had better neurological training and medication almost from birth. He could pattern-match with the best of them, and see breaks in those patterns… and when Track spoke, Lane knew his son had spotted such a break.

“Getting creative, Dad?” Lane felt both chagrin at the stupidity of his mistake, and pride that Track had both spotted it and pointed it out in such a deniable way. Kitchen cooking was of course an approved creative outlet, so Track’s Phone wouldn’t flag the phrase; indeed, it would have been a perfectly usual, normal thing to say had he genuinely been trying out variations on a recipe. Both of them, however, were well aware of how different the steady variations in hue of the biscuits cooling on the racks were from the barely contained chaos of Lane’s actual culinary experimentation. When he was genuinely being creative, perhaps one in ten would have palatable. Half or less would even be edible.

Mistakes are only changes in the situation, Lane reminded himself. He let his eyes flicker toward his own Phone, sitting on a countertop with a container of flour between it and the main work area, then down at Track’s, belt-worn below the level where the evidence would be visible. It was a good thing neither of them cared for eyewear. “Yes,” he said casually, “Not going too well though. Have to toss most of them.” He started up the old blender as he said it; the motor was loud, torrenting out noise in both audible and electromagnetic senses.

He watched with suspended breath for a long, tense moment as Track’s eyelids narrowed, his pupils flared, and a brick-red flush crept up his neck in conditioned response… but after all, what made a biscuit worthy of tossing was a subjective call. It could be true, if you looked at it the right way…

Lane breathed out as Track recovered, nodded curtly, and turned to leave the kitchen. “Okay, Dad, just… clean up after yourself. I’m going to take Tone to the Museum.” He marched stiffly away. Lane felt his eyes tear up a little – that was another message, he knew. Track had left it in the silences of what he didn’t say, just as the real truths of the Museum were left in the facts it omitted… and even more so, in the lies. The lies that would be finally lost to the world, when Tone’s generation inherited it.

A moment’s doubt gusted through his mind, as he wondered if she’d been right, if the cost was too high… but he remembered the horrors of that old world too clearly. He flexed his fingers, preparing to work the last batch of dough, feeling every unnatural angle that remained, that he’d kept for exactly that reason. He would finish this last batch, then pack all the perfectly edible biscuits except one in a tin with a parchment paper lining, along with all the the jars of fruit preserves (full but for a token taste from each), and leave them out by the trash for her.

She came back, he thought, she came back for me, like the romantic fool she is. I can’t go with her, I have to look after Track and Tone, but I can give her supplies for her escape, that’s the least I can do… but he knew that wasn’t true even as he thought it, he couldn’t give her that little, after all the years and the world-changing battles. He owed her one more thing, the thing she’d been exiled for trying to bring back to the world. He owed her one more crime.

Spreading out the parchment paper, picking up the marking pencil, he thought a moment, then began to write, the long lack of practice making his letters shaky and childish.

Once upon a time…


Brain-dead Mothers?

An interesting (if infuriating) case has been in the news lately, of a Texas woman who died while pregnant, and whose body is being kept alive to maintain the viability of the fetus, against her pre-mortem wishes and against the wishes of both her husband and her mother.

Now this ought to be a very straightforward case. The woman is dead; she has no brain function at all. Her body is being kept breathing, its heart pumping, but she as a person has died. It’s recognized in our society that people have a say in how their body is disposed of (within legal limits) after they die, if they think to express it beforehand, and this woman did; she reportedly said she didn’t want her body kept alive after she died. If there is no record of the person’s wishes, then the next of kin gets to decide what is done with the body, and both her widower and her bereaved mother want her body taken off the ventilator and disposed of normally (buried or cremated).

So why is that not being done? Her body is being used in a way neither she nor her survivors (a deceased person and two living persons) want in order to keep a fetus (a non-person) viable. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that her wishes are being disregarded, and her survivors are being put through considerable anguish and potential expense (the result if this goes on is likely to be a handicapped child) in order to apply the status of personhood to the fetus, or at least some of the aspects of that status, as a tactic to oppose reproductive rights for women in general.

Sadly it’s rather typical of the forced-birth movement that they are willing to wreak any amount of damage on real people’s lives to achieve their aims; they are typically not much interested in the quality of lives, only in their quantity. That to me is the reason to be angry over this travesty; primarily that real people are being hurt by it. and secondarily that the wishes of the recently deceased are being disrespected.

I see a lot of people decrying it because it’s “disgusting” or “creepy” or “unnatural” – those are very bad reasons to change the law. Some people believe homosexual love to be all those things; some even feel an equal relationship between opposite sexes is all of that. Do not base your laws on your personal ick factors if you want a just society.

I also see a lot of people decrying it because it “reduces women to the status of an incubator” or words to that effect; that’s much closer to a valid reason in this case, since the woman involved had expressed a wish before she died that this not be done with her body. However, had both she and her husband said “Keep the (potential) baby alive at all costs” it’s hard to argue that it would be wrong to do exactly what’s being done now. If she had even simply failed to consider the possibility and not expressed a preference, and her husband wanted to keep her body going in the hope of an eventual birth by C-section, it wouldn’t be disrespectful of women or treating women as incubators because that thing wrapped around that fetus? That’s not a woman. That’s just a subset of a dead woman’s organs, a warm corpse. Brain dead is dead.

If it were a woman – if her brain was still alive – then normal rules should apply. She should be kept alive unless she expresses a wish to be allowed to die. If she wanted to die, then she should be able to refuse food, at a minimum, and there should be no consideration of forcing her to stay alive until delivery. She should also be allowed to refuse the use of her body to the fetus if she so desired, just as she could refuse the use of her body to anyone else including an already born child of hers.

Had the woman expressed a preference to keep her body alive until the baby might be born, and her husband and mother not wanted it… well, that’s a trickier question. Should the wishes of the deceased be that binding on the living? Would the husband or mother be obligated to care for the child born of her artificially maintained corpse? If not, would it become a responsibility of the State to care for the child (who, remember, is very likely to have lifelong health issues)?

I tend to think that the answer is no, that once she is dead her wishes are secondary to those of the survivors, but I feel a little softness in my position there. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I suspect there are angles I haven’t considered.

If anyone reads this, I’d love to hear some feedback!

Friday fiblet: Passed

There is a moment, and all those who know it know it. The details vary. The moment in its essence does not.

Ice rimes over shadows, interlocking lines of darkness sealing frost pictures abstract at first, then ineluctably more concrete, inescapable, and solidly terrible. The sun above no longer floods the world with soft golden waves of light, flowing like warm syrup of knowingness; instead the light is planar, laminar, a cutting cascade of separate sheets. Movement chops, breaks, stutters, strobes.

Those who know it, know the moment when it comes, and their time tears into strips that cannot be rewoven.

It is the moment when the illusion stops. All of life is moments, flow only a precious conceit. There is a moment before, and a moment after. Between them lies the Gulf, uncrossable, impassible, ineluctable, final and dead.

Life is lost in the darkness of the Gulf. No warm thing can survive its bottomless depth, no light fill that aching gap. It cannot be looked upon.

The mind scurries away, the mind finds refuge in moments. The night your father died, and your heart screamed, and a warm hand touched yours in the midst of desolation. The dawn that you woke in a veil of soft hair across your face, sweat-damped arms about you like a ring of impossible hope. A day of surpassingly ordinary sunshine, of content in a garden you imagined you’d sown, redolent with herbs and flowers. A child, your child, in your arms, a glance between eyes that became a bar of life, more solid than flesh or bone. A life.

No more than moments, any of them. Isolated. Lost. Islands you may never return to, for now the door is closing, the instants cut like razors, the light falls in unforgiving sheets, and the door closes, closes in stop-motion, and your doom sits upon you, breathless you, lost in the moment, in the eternal suffocating clarity of the moment.

You wish you’d said goodbye, goodbye I love you.

But you didn’t.

Friday Fiblet: Cover-Up

“He published it! I can’t believe the stupid cowboy published it. Does he not care about the goddamn American public’s faith in its goddamn government?”

The CIA man spat viciously. A little saliva somehow failed to clear his full lips and trickled into a scrofulous brown and gray three-day beard. He wiped at it ineffectively with one meaty hand, the other still clutching and shaking the Warren report (less appendices, which reposed comfortably in and around the wastepaper basket) as if it were a kitten whose neck needed breaking. Had it actually been a kitten it would probably have suffered no injury, though; everything about the CIA man was large but soft, except his eyes which were small and hard.

“Yes, well, he had to publish something,” NSA replied thinly. There was nothing, from his thin black shoes up through his thin waist past his thin tie to his thin blond hair, to suggest his thin lips could speak any other way.

His own copy sat before him on the cheap Formica-topped table between a half drunk glass of water on a square napkin to the right and a blank steno pad (cover emblazoned with “National Security Agency EYES ONLY”) surmounted by a Waterman pen on the left, in a neat four-by-four array: the top two showing the contents page left and the index right, the nearer left being some eighteen or so pages turned down on the left and eight hundred face up on the right. The top open page carried a block title saying SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS, above which was neatly handwritten in elegantly serifed capital letters the single word BULLSHIT.

FBI chimed in, or rather rasped in (any bell-like qualities in his voice having been long since lost to cigarettes, whiskey and according to legend a morning gargling of babies’ blood). “I don’t see why. What are the words ‘National Security’ good for if you don’t use them?” He grimaced, an expression his weathered granite face was well suited to, at least by comparison to any other expression. “Not that anyone’s going to trust us much after this fiasco. Especially…”

He jerked his head in the direction of USSS, slumped silently in the corner like a suicidal Secret Service Superman who’d forgotten the glasses for his Clark Kent disguise, clutching a mug from which came a strong scent of… really, really bad coffee, the kind of coffee that could only be made by a lifelong Mormon falling badly off the wagon for the first time.

“None of us escape responsibility for this.” The Defence Intelligence Agency was less well known to the public than the others, and there was a reason for that. DIA’s voice was much like him: small, quiet, calm, authoritative, and capable of conveying with serene implicit certainty the knowledge that here was a man who could definitely kill you with his pinky finger, probably maim you with his little toe, and quite likely temporarily cripple you with an eyelash. “The whole world now knows that a single man, acting alone, can kill the President of the most powerful country on Earth, and all the highly trained cohorts at his command couldn’t stop him.”

The Secret Service man took a choking gulp of his coffee, glared defiantly around the table, poured a thick stream of white sugar into it and, neglecting to stir it, took another. “You sh… stinkers don’t have to worry. It was our da… division’s job, and we fu… failed, G… g… g…” He closed his eyes so hard his eyebrows touched his cheekbones, took a third gulp, and mouthed silently what looked like gosh darn it.

DIA looked around the table, piercingly enough to badly wound any ghosts in the room. “Well, we did train Oswald, and failed to keep track of him. That’s my bailiwick.” His black gaze fell on FBI expectantly.

“Um, well… I suppose it was a domestic situation. American ex-soldier citizen plotting an assassination… we probably could have worked with ATF to track the gun sale. That much they could handle.” (FBI had nothing but disdain for Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, three items he felt required no governmental oversight whatsoever.) He sat back and folded his arms in a defiant all-you’re-getting-from-me attitude, with unfortunate effects on his official FBI-approved suit jacket.

“Damn straight it was domestic!” blustered CIA. “No international aspect, I’m not even allowed to mix in!”

NSA’s thin face reddened. “That turns out not to be the case.” From his inside suit jacket pocket he pulled a yellow slip of paper and smoothed it out just beyond (and perfectly aligned with) his neatly laid out copy of the report. Everyone looked at it, even USSS. It said:






“But he WASN’T working with the Ruskies! Hell, it says right there they weren’t in it!” CIA tried to fold his arms like FBI had, but while his jacket was (being of a more modern and comfortable cut) better suited to the gesture, his physique was not, and after a couple of abortive attempts he settled instead for folding his hands atop his ample belly in as truculent a manner as he could manage. “Not our arena!”

USSS slammed his coffee mug down on the table and, after a few rattling moments, managed to release it and shake his finger at CIA and NSA (or possibly he was just pointing at them, it was hard to tell). “You had correspondence about a Presidential assassination threat?” His teeth bared in something that wasn’t a smile, and also probably wasn’t very good for the structural integrity of his tooth enamel. His eyes were red, white, and blue, and barely contained within their sockets.

There was a tense moment, broken unexpectedly by FBI’s rasping voice. “Hey, we need to get past this, learn lessons. Maybe it’s a sign we need to share information more. Too bad it took such a devastating attack to get all of us to work together more, but my analysts would be happy to help with any data any of you don’t have time or resources for.” He reached out casually.

Somewhat less casually, NSA snatched the slip back up and tucked it away. Ignoring FBI’s glower he said “I suggest we deal with the immediate problem first. How do we survive the loss of public confidence this lone gunman has cost us, preferably with our budgets more or less intact?”

CIA looked ready to speak again but was cut off by DIA’s perfectly whetted monotone. “That, gentlemen, is why I brought my colleague here. He has a certain expertise in what he calls psychological operations.”

The other three letter agencies (and USSS) looked at each other, puzzled. The four letter agency finally asked, “What colleague?”

When a dusty gray voice said “I believe he means me,” all the professional spooks spooked. (Even DIA twitched an eyelash, but luckily no one was in its way). They all whirled in various directions, except DIA who pointed a forefinger into one corner. (He did not raise his thumb straight up, and so his hand resembled an automatic rather than a revolver.) After a few seconds everyone cottoned on and looked where he was pointing.

It might have been partly the cheap fluorescent lighting in the room, and perhaps partly the shadows cast by the revolving ceiling fan, but mostly… what? Perhaps he was the most boring looking man in the entire world. The eye simply slid off him in self-defense, and tried to point itself in a way that would keep him in the blind spot. Every agent in the room had had intensive training in describing persons of interest with sufficient detail that a third party could identify them across a crowded airport during an evacuation under enemy fire, but this was as far from a person of interest as it was possible to get; he was almost supernaturally lacking in interest.

Every usable descriptor would end up being described as “kind of average” – height, weight, complexion, hair color, eye color, race, gender, number of limbs, you name it.

He (had to be, right? The room averaged 100% male) went on in gray flannel tones, “The problem has a solution, which none of you have thought of because you are too used to hiding secrets. It is a technique which has been successfully used before, and with each iteration becomes more effective, albeit at a certain cost.”

Everyone except DIA and NSA asked together, “WHAT SOLUTION? WHAT COST?” DIA said nothing; NSA asked “To how many iterations?” but was drowned out by the others, which made him glad because he’d regretted it the moment he said it. If any of them had heard him, his childhood conditioning from many high school locker room incidents might have forced him to resort to unpleasant (possibly lethal) actions to ensure they never spoke of it again.

“The cost is that there will be a loss of trust in the government, and in the good intentions of at least some of your agencies.” USSS jerked at this sentence, but relaxed to a medium quiver at the next. “However, you will not be perceived as incompetent, and your budgets will at least maintain and probably increase, perhaps dramatically.”

They were all very interested now, proving that the messenger is not the message. “I repeat, this technique has worked before. May I?” This last was plainly directed at DIA, though it was not plain why it was plain, since everyone was still having trouble focusing their eyes on the said messenger. Even the institutional paint on the walls was easier and more interesting to look at.

“You may,” said DIA. “Gentlemen, it goes without saying that you are not to repea… Oh, right, never mind. Carry on, sir.”

The dusty voice did. “Do any of you remember a very embarrassing incident when the US Air Force accidentally shot down one of its own experimental weather balloons costing several million dollars?” Heads shook deliberately. (Even USSS’s, which was finally ceasing to shake involuntarily.) “Perhaps it will help if I mention that it happened in Roswell, New Mexico.”

“Where the Russian spaceplane landed?” “Russians my ass, they don’t have that kind of tech…” “It was Martians!” “Mars is not inhabited, had to be transdimensional…”

DIA’s voice cut through the babble like a polite switchblade. “I believe you see how it worked, gentlemen. It’s disinformation, but applied to the public rather than to enemy agencies.”

He coughed, glanced apologetically at the corner… at his colleague, and added, “I admit we got a bit carried away with the creative aspects, thinking we needed to… how did you put it? Gain mindshare, yes.” He turned back to the others. “Let me remind you that the US Air Force’s budget is now 47% of the total defense budget.”

He had them there. He and the gray man led a spirited discussion with them for several more hours, doing what the gray man called “brainstorming” – coming up with alternative scenarios involving the Russians, the Cubans, the Mafia, rogue CIA agents (CIA came up with that notion himself), Illuminati (NSA’s contribution, after DIA nixed any discussion of extradimensional travelers – “Learn from my mistakes!”), hit men hired by jilted movie starlets. USSS described other places where gunmen might have hidden had there been any, buildings and vehicles and fences and grassy knolls. FBI suggested replacing the collected bullets with others to muddy the ballistics report. CIA offered to encourage some double agents to throw out conflicting testimony. NSA meticulously wrote all the ideas down in his steno pad (or so he claimed; he was enciphering them as he went).

Finally the gray man said, “I think we are almost done here. One last thing: can we get hold of the photographic evidence, just temporarily, and preferably without the owners knowing about it? I am thinking particularly of the third copy of the Zapruder film. I would only need it for a day.”

“Sure,” said CIA expansively. (There wasn’t much room for him to expand any further; he’d discovered a stash of doughnuts in a cabinet beneath the coffee pot USSS had basically destroyed.) “We can do that over the weekend…” He paused, noting FBI’s glare. “By we, I mean our FBI contingent of course. My guys can assist.”

“Good. Tell our colleague from DIA when you have it, and we can arrange pickup and return. Good night, gentlemen.”

After everyone else had filed out and the two of them were alone, DIA asked the gray man, in a voice which after the long meeting was only about as deadly as a rubber truncheon, “What exactly are you going to do with those films? You know they’ve been seen by many people, we can’t just cut things out.”

The gray man chuckled. (A dusty gray chuckle, naturally.) “Oh, more subtle than that. A slight angle change here, a subtle distortion there, shadows and reflections added… You’d be surprised. Trust me, with my help this coverup will be much more confusing than our first one together has been. Just get all the copies to Area 51, to my ship, and I’ll take care of everything.”

Going More Bionic

In less than a week my view of the world will be changing. Specifically, it will be losing the frame, becoming clearer and gaining a color.

I’ve had crappy eyes for as long as I can remember. When I was six I walked smack into a truck’s lowered tailgate hard enough to require stitches. That clued my parents in that maybe the boy couldn’t see, so they took me in to see the ophthalmologist. I already knew my letters and numbers, so the testing was easy enough. (In fact I was already quite the Jules Verne fan – my older brother and sister had enjoyed playing school with me, so I arrived in the school system already quite proficient in reading and arithmetic). I got glasses to correct my myopia and was able to see tolerably well with them after that.

Unfortunately I also had quite a good memory, and when the doctor switched to my left eye I rattled off the same letters I’d seen with my right eye, delaying the diagnosis of my amblyopia or ‘lazy eye’ beyond the point of being able to fix it with a patch over the good eye; I wore one for a solid year, but the damage was done and those nerves never developed. It might well have been too late even if they had caught it on the first go, but the extra six months delay certainly didn’t help matters.

After that there was always either that frame around what I could see, or else the blur. I did flirt with contact lenses in my teens but I also have astigmatism, which could only be corrected using hard lenses at the time, and they caused some corneal wear so I quit using them.

Over the last couple of years, though, they went from crappy to *really* crappy. I began to have difficulty focusing at close range and also seeing heavy ‘floaters’ – shadowy blotches that drift about and sometimes got stuck right in the center of my field of vision. Since my job involves a lot of peering at fine little scales and such, as well as a deal of computer work, and my free time is mostly taken up with reading and more computer work, this is a slow-rolling disaster. I knew I’d had a couple of tiny cataracts forming, so I got a more thorough exam than the usual and found that yes, the cataracts were growing, at a somewhat alarming rate. I’m still able to do my job, drive, read and everything else, but with increasing difficulty. Something has to be done.

So something is; next Tuesday I will have the first of several surgeries. Well, technically the second – as a preliminary I had my retinas examined by a specialist, and he used a laser to tack the right one down around a small hole he’d found. On Tuesday I’ll be having my cornea sliced open with a laser, my lens vibrated into mush and sucked out, and a new artificial lens put in instead. Depending on exactly where the cataract had spread to a follow-up may be needed to polish it off the last tiny bit with a laser, and because the fluid pumps in my eyes aren’t terribly good (I have a condition called Fuch’s dystrophy) it may also be necessary to have yet another operation to replace them with a graft if they can’t handle the swelling from the lens replacement. All of which also applies to the left eye, since it has a similar cataract in just about the same place (but they don’t ever do both eyes at once, just in case).

If all goes well (and despite my “complex” eyes there’s every reason to think it will, I have a very well qualified surgeon doing the work) I will only need glasses for reading. There are more complex lens types that can completely eliminate glasses but my eyes are too elongated for that type to be recommended. I’m not complaining anyway; it’s a marvelous thing that this kind of surgery is even a possibility, and I’m looking forward to losing the frame for when I’m driving or walking about. It will be a tremendous improvement in my life.

The one thing that never has been wrong with my eyes is that I have perfect color vision, and it seems even that will be improved. The S cells in the human retina are sensitive to near ultraviolet, but never actually see it because the natural human lens is opaque to UV (that in fact is part of what makes cataracts form). The artificial ones are transparent to UV, so I will be able to see a little further into the ultraviolet – a new color! It’ll be like gaining a token-level superpower.

Don’t worry, though, I shall use it only for good, never for evil!

Friday Fiblet: Harmless Lies

“They won’t get in each other’s way, will they?”

Her eyes were green, solemn, and large. She looked almost like one of the characters in the anime cartoons she loved. I’d never understood those, they seemed utterly lacking in humour to me, but then my daughter was a very serious little girl.

“No, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are on completely different schedules. It’s very unlikely they’ll even be here at the same time, and even if they did cross paths Santa would be delivering presents or coal downstairs while the Tooth Fairy was picking up your tooth in here. Neither one will come while you’re awake though, so just tuck your tooth under your pillow and settle in.”

She obeyed, tucking the tooth carefully under the very center of the pillow. “What does the Tooth Fairy do with them anyway? It seems a weird thing to collect.”

She had a point. “She sells them on wholesale to the Easter Bunny. They’re used in Easter basket manufacture.”

She looked faintly revolted. “My Easter baskets are made out of teeth?”

“No, they’re just part of the machinery. Shredding the grass, that kind of thing.”

She fetched the molar back out from under her pillow, examining it critically. “This one doesn’t really have any edges. It’s not sharp.”


Unlike her… “Well they’re not used as they are, of course. First the Halloween crew puts little holes in them, using an industrial strength candy solution. That basically makes them like little cheese graters, perfect for shredding Easter grass.”

“Sometimes Christmas tree ornaments are packed in that same kind of stuff. The grass stuff, only it isn’t green.” She was getting sleepy, I could tell, though not quite there yet.

“Yes, but if you’re hoping for a bidding war forget it. Santa actually subcontracts with the Bunny. She provides the machinery, pre-studded with Halloween-treated teeth, and he supplies the elf workforce. In fact the first several runs are devoted to tinsel manufacture, since that metal stuff is harder on the teeth.” I pointed out the window, which had a delicate filigree of frost growing in the corners. The night was mostly clear but quite cold outside. “If you listen carefully you can sometimes hear the pinging of the machinery as it starts up, it really carries a long way.”

Her eyes were definitely drooping now. Descriptions of industrial processes usually have that effect. “I couldn’t hear the stars scraping on the sky like you said last night. I listened really hard but I couldn’t hear them.”

“Well, there were some clouds in the sky. The cotton probably absorbed a lot of the sound. Maybe you should listen again, you might hear it tonight, if the sleigh bells don’t drown it out.” I pulled up the My Little Pony blanket around her neck and fluffed the matching pillow, surreptitiously moving the tooth further outward for easier retrieval as I did so.

“Okay Daddy. I’ll listen until I fall asleep anyway.” She yawned and shut her eyes. She was practically gone already. “You’ll be here to let them in?” We didn’t have a chimney, so I’d kept that part simple.

I kissed her slightly sweat-damp forehead, breathing in the fleeting scent of childhood. She was still my little girl, though she was growing up so fast, and getting so smart. I knew that soon I’d have to stop telling her these harmless lies, but not yet, not tonight.

“Of course, honey. Daddy will always be here,” I told her.

“Daddy will always be here.”





Veteran’s Day

I’m a US military veteran, and the son of one, brother of one, and uncle of one. I thought I’d muse a bit today, Veteran’s Day, on what that does and doesn’t mean to me.

(Be warned, I don’t intend to polish this one and I’ll probably ramble a bit.)

My father joined as a new immigrant, and served out an honorable career including combat in Vietnam, a war whose justice he was ambivalent about and whose horror marked the rest of his life and cut it short. I grew up overseas, and when as a young adult I decided to move to America I joined the military for much the same reasons as my Da; it was a practical expression of our belief in the ideals of America, a way to earn both a living and our right to call ourselves Americans, the only difference being that I was a US citizen from birth.

I never had to face combat, by luck of the draw, but I could have, and was keenly aware of the possibility before I joined and until I left. I have every reason to believe the same of my brother and niece, but those are their stories to tell. Speaking only for myself, I gave a lot of thought, or at least what my twenty year old self thought of as a lot of thought, to the possibility that I’d be called upon to kill in the service, and quite possibly in a war I didn’t want to support. I wasn’t too badly fazed by the possibility of being killed or injured, seeing that part simply in terms of risk/benefit, but I felt offering myself up to be the one who killed was a weighty matter, not to be done lightly.

Some of my fellow recruits were a lot more blase about that possibility, either giving it virtually no thought or in a few cases actually hoping they’d have the opportunity. The characters and motives of military people are mixed, make no mistake about that… and even the best of us are in brutal cold fact agreeing to be killers for hire at need.

Unlike my father I did not choose to make a career of the military; the lifestyle didn’t suit me as well, mostly because I lacked my father’s knack for teamwork. Nevertheless I do take pride in my service, and I do think it an honorable profession – even when, perhaps especially when, the job entails subjugating some of your own judgment and independence of action for the sake of the group – by which I mean not only the military unit you belong to, but also the military as a whole, and most of all the country it serves. It is no easy thing to do, to follow orders you think are less than optimal or even outright foolish, but it is in cold hard fact a hallmark of an effective military to have soldiers capable of doing so. It would be a severe mistake to think that that is only achievable, or best achieved, by training soldiers not to think for themselves, and the US military does not do that, but it does train you to largely suspend trust in your own judgement and substitute that of your commanders, and enforces that training with strong discipline.

In boot camp about a hundred of us were in attendance at a series of lectures on the benefits of service – financial, educational, and so on. At the beginning of one such, the officer lecturing asked, “Who here joined the military primarily out of patriotism?” I raised my arm, but I was one of only a handful who did. Most, I would guess 95% of those there, would have said they were there primarily for the benefits of employment, or out of a simple taste for adventure. That’s the danger of polling, though, because though their answers would have been consciously honest in denying patriotism as a primary cause, though they would have been quite seriously intent on taking advantage of all the real benefits that their society offers in exchange for risking the firing line, as I was too, most did in fact have a real pragmatically idealistic patriotism informing their decision to join the military. They considered America – not the landmass, but what each of them saw as the culture and ideals of the nation (that varied one to another) – worthy of sacrificing for.

Americans do, frankly, fawn a bit excessively over the ideal of “the troops”; to join the military does not automatically make a person superior by default. It is an honorable and sometimes even noble profession, one which requires a lot of its members, and it does deserve respect, but it’s not the only one. I don’t know why we don’t have a day honoring firefighters, for example. who brave life-threatening dangers all the time.

Perhaps the reason military veterans are treated better than firefighters (and why police officers fall somewhere between) is paradoxically because the dangers they face are less intrinsically necessary. Fires are going to happen, and there is no getting around the need for lives to be risked fighting them. Wars are far less inevitable.

My father was the only one of the veterans in my family who saw real combat. He served in the Vietnam War; he was a logistics expert and I don’t actually know if he ever directly killed anyone, but he came under fire many times and he saw horrors. His life was deeply damaged by the experience, and cut short through the drinking he used as a coping mechanism. He was keenly aware, in any case, that he was part of a massive operation that was destroying a horrific number of lives on both sides… but he’d signed up for it, and people were depending on him, and he endured at great cost.

The rest of us Murtagh veterans took the risks of that happening to us, and maybe we did suffer some inconveniences in service to the country. My father paid a much bigger price, and he’d be the first to tell you if you brought it up that others paid and were and are paying more (and then he’d change from the jolly raconteur who brought smiles to everyone around him, to the silent man with lumps and shards of pain sticking out).

It’s nice to be thanked for being a veteran, but some of us paid a lot more than others; please push your government to look after those ones who have been damaged in their bodies and minds, and their families, and the families of the ones who paid it all.

And please, push them also to stop making so many of those shattered lives.

My father, sadly missed.

My father, MSgt. James Murtagh USAF, sadly missed.

Friday Fiblet: The New Breed

The Shamblers were brought close in his vision by the excellent Zeiss night vision binoculars, easily close enough to make an estimate of their physical condition… which fortunately was not all that good. Most had lost extremities, fingers at least and often hands or whole arms, and the vast majority had the rolling gait that spoke of broken and rotted feet. A few were even losing facial cohesion. Plainly they hadn’t been finding anyone to eat on a regular basis for some time.

It was ironic, in a way, that he should come across them on a Hallowe’en, almost exactly a year after the first major North American outbreak of the Variant Strains, almost as ironic as that outbreak itself had been.

Prior to that earlier Hallowe’en the initial Variants had been confined to sporadic, self-limiting burns in dank, dark, and desperate corners of the human world, rural Africa and India and China. Those had been in places of poverty, easily ignored by the still-wealthy US, increasingly insular, a country where culture still flooded outward as electronic games and television and movies, but which had narcissistically become ever less interested in the rest of the planet, which in turn still craved those entertainments but had grown to despise the country that produced them.

It had been an age of ironies, really, because one of the most popular genres of both movies and films should have prepared the Americans and their customers for the Variants. It didn’t, in fact it did the opposite; when the news of the Outbreak had begun to spread from the West Coast, no one took it seriously. It was easiest and most logical to assume that it was a publicity stunt, an Alternate Reality Game on a massive scale, with hundreds or even thousands of people crowdsourcing plausible fake news accounts for a zombie movie or game.

The rotting horde milling in shades of green before his eyes, with their loosely attached features and randomly damaged limbs, would have looked perfectly in place in those movies. The look was so similar to what make-up and CGI artists had striven for that it was completely understandable that for precious days the United States had laughed off the catastrophe as a fantasy. The American Age of the Zombie in games and films had paved the way for a reality no one anywhere had honestly seen coming. More than a few people had joked of preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse, but precisely because it was such a common joke no one was really prepared for it when it actually happened.

The second major mutation of the Variant Strains had most likely happened in China, with its rampant chemical waste pollution, or in increasingly radioactive Japan, but it had spread to California with abominable luck at the Hallowe’en end of October. Where the original Variants had spread slowly enough to be containable with swift and ruthless action, the new Strain was virulently transmissible by a bite or even a scratch from the ragged gory fingernails of the infected. Fatalities had been uncontrollable, exponential, and poorer countries had toppled before the shambling hordes almost as soon as the first index cases appeared.

The well-armed North Americans might have held their own for longer than their neighbors to the South or the Europeans, were it not for the surprise caused by it happening at Hallowe’en and spreading out roughly from Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

Even with that disadvantage there were enormous holdouts, with some areas remaining clean for months. However, the Variants, like most newly zoonotic viruses, mutated rapidly, and where the first wave of the highly infectious Shamblers were mostly slow and dull-witted and utterly disorganized, those strains which allowed the hosts to retain more speed and a degree of cognitive function quickly came to dominate. The flocking behaviors had also proved quick to spread, out-competing the individualist strains for the increasingly scarce resource of fresh human prey.

What he was watching now was a starving, therefore rotting, flock of Shamblers… and one that clearly had become excited by available prey. Unless the Variants had evolved faster than he thought possible, that meant
only one thing; the excitement was that of obligate predators in the presence of the needed prey.

If they hadn’t overrun the host population so quickly and thoroughly, the Variants might have evolved back to something like the parent stock, become endemic and then commensal and perhaps finally symbiotic with the human hosts. Perhaps it still would, in other parts of the world, but here in North America no such balance had had a chance to come about; most people even in rural areas had relied to too great a degree on a working society for their survival needs. Famine, various opportunistic diseases, and a shameful amount of senseless human violence, most of it madly religion-based, had combined with the depredations of the Variants to leave North America desperately empty of human life. He’d seen nothing but ex-human Shamblers for six months, almost despaired of finding genuine human life left anywhere he could reach.

But there! He looked up without moving the binoculars, to take in the wider picture with his unaided eyes. Yes, there, that was the focus of the flock… and yes, YES!! It was still human prey they needed. Had they actually evolved alternate prey all his plans would have become moot, but those were indisputably real human survivors; they were bipedal, and holding guns, as Shamblers never did. He focused in on them with the binoculars again, and confirmed that there were at least a dozen, several women amongst the men, and they were all holding rifles…

By the barrels. Oh… they have no ammo, he thought, or next to none. And there is nothing between them and the Shambler flock but a single razor-wire topped chain fence. That might be enough, depending…

He watched the loose Shambler flock stumble forward, and begin to hit the fence. He could faintly hear the rattling, and the inarticulate moans of the starving Shamblers. He briefly thought, I can relate to that, I’m starving myself! It was true, he couldn’t remember when he’d last eaten, and briefly he worried that he might not have the strength to do what needed to be done, if it needed to be done…

And it looked like it would. As each Shambler hit the fence, it (their former genders being irrelevant to their current condition) grasped it with whatever fingers it had and shook vigorously, turning their heads from side to side. It was a highly sophisticated evolved flock behavior, one he’d seen before. Sure enough, those who saw a neighbor’s shaking having a greater effect moved toward the weaker spot on the fence. There was very little time left, none for subtlety. He would have to show himself.

He’d had a long time to think through the scenarios. He jumped up, ran back to the Cherokee, and without even stowing the precious binoculars in their padded case started the engine and aimed himself downhill at the flock. In the few minutes while he roared toward the scene he slung the second assault rifle over his shoulder and snatched up the Bowie knife from the passenger seat. He barely had time to do both before the SUV slammed headlong into the flock, clearing a swathe of them away from where they’d been making serious headway against the fence. The airbag deployed and he slashed at it with the knife, then tumbled out of the ruined vehicle.

The next couple of hours would have been red carnage if he’d been fighting humans, but of course only the freshest Shamblers had blood you could properly call red. The thick greenish-black ichor that gradually replaced it was even more efficient at transporting oxygen, and in fact created some photosynthetically during the torpor of the day. It didn’t spurt like human blood would though; Shambler hearts were slower than human ones, as with all their metabolic functions. The Variants had retained those qualities when they crossed the zoonotic barrier into Homo sapiens sapiens.

Nevertheless, the Shambler blood flew impressively enough, and copiously, and it was only a couple of hours before he’d whittled them down to a handful, then eliminated those too. He was weak with hunger, but they were weaker yet, and the butchery was drudgery more than true combat. Their mindless reflexes let them attack him only when he did them, and by then it was always too late. Their olfactory senses registered his flesh, home to the Original, no differently than their fellows with the Variant.

When at last he was done, he looked up at the humans on the high ramparts of the building, and for the first time in centuries he grinned a full grin of satisfaction, letting his fangs glint in the moonlight, in front of humans he didn’t plan to consume. Yet.

He’d breed them first, selectively. He’d keep them safe, and breed a compliant new breed of human, suitable for this new age. Sheep for the shepherd, domesticated prey. For now though, it was time for him to sleep.

A new day would shortly be dawning.

Friday Fiblet: Sugar Momma

Ailene set down her tall two quart pitcher of sweet tea, colored a bilious green for the occasion with some food dye, on the porch table and settled herself with slow grace into the Rascal, arranging the purple-black drapes and ‘tentacles’ of her dress over it so the little electric scooter was hidden from view. It gave a few warning creaks, as it always did, but it was a solidly built item and would bear her four hundred odd pounds easily.

Cautiously she ran it forward toward the screen door, then back again to make sure nothing got caught under the little wheels. She didn’t normally have the scooter up on the porch addition, which was a bit higher than the double-wide itself, and it had been a real b-word getting it up there, but the idea had been irresistible once she’d had it. She was a big, heavy-framed woman, what they called a “sugar momma” here in Georgia though they hadn’t that particular expression in her native Tennessee, and so with just a little make-up and hairstyling and the adding of some paper-stuffed tentacles to her not-so-little black dress, she made a very passable Ursula the Sea Witch from Disney’s The Little Mermaid movie.

Sitting on the scooter would allow her to glide spookily across the length of the addition, which she’d decorated to look like the Sea Witch’s cavern, with lots of crepe ‘seaweed’ and rippling blue and green lighting. Ailene loved Halloween; the biggest regret of her life was that she could not have children, so it was a treat for her to have all the little munchkins come to her house to ask for treats. She’d heard that the holiday was a bit less observed around her new home here, because many of the local churches took a dim view, but there’d be some folks still allowed their kids the tradition, and the decorating was half the fun anyhow.

She poured herself a glass of sweet tea, allowed herself one of the shockingly realistic ‘fingers’ she’d made of cinnamon dusted sugar-cookie dough with almond flake fingernails, and settled down with a horror book, the unearthly sounds of her whalesong CD making a fitting kind of creepy background sound, to wait for the children.

It was three hours later, the pitcher half empty and book half read, and she half asleep despite all the sugary stuff she’d snuck on out of the stash she’d prepared for trick-or-treaters, that she was startled by a sudden crashing against her screen door. There had been a smattering of children coming by the first hour while the sky was still a bit lit, though not even close to so many as she’d been used to seeing in her old neighborhood, but it had gotten quiet after the night proper came on.

Two of the little girls earlier had been dressed as Ariel, which made the encounters so much more fun – one had totally lost the power of speech when she’d zoomed up toward her on the scooter, which gave Ailene and the girl’s father a good yuk though they kept it hid from her the best they could. To her surprise there were still some free range kids but most all of them were brought by parents; that particular little girl had had no real choice in the matter, as her home made costume included a one-piece fish tail that obliged her daddy to carry her. All the children brought out her mothering side, but her heart had plain melted like cotton candy in a rainstorm, seeing that.

She’d been pleased to see most of the costumes had been home made rather than store bought. The lousy economy was probably more responsible for that than just a roll your own ethic, but she always felt that creating your own costume was more in the traditional spirit of the holiday. The quality had varied, of course, with some children and parents putting in hardly an effort, while others had gone flat out. Ailene was always careful to comment on each child’s costume, but she was inspired to ham up her acting when she saw one that was plainly a labor of love, of the child or the parents or best of all both. She could only imagine how wonderful it would be to sit down with a child and make such a thing together.

The (apparently free range) child rattling her screen door now might or might not have been wearing such, it was hard to tell. On the one hand she didn’t know any store around here would carry such an elaborate and unusual costume, but on the other it was amazingly detailed and… realistic? Well, for a made-up creature, it seemed believable anyway. It was some kind of strange insect-like alien, shiny dark purple and green in a way that made her think of beetles, but not following the body plan of one, as there were four separate sections to the body. The most impressive was a head fused with a cufflike neck bearing a shrub of feathery antennae, a bulging pair of compound eyes and four smaller ones (she guessed the lower pair of those must be the ones the child was looking out of), and an wildly complicated set of mouth parts. Below that was a chest area, with a pair of crawdad-like arms (very realistic!), then a midsection with two pair of smaller twiggy arms with complicated ends (motorized somehow, she reckoned, as they were constantly waving around), and finally a pair of bowed legs (which must have been terribly uncomfortable to walk in, unless the child was really quite bow-legged) with a low-slung… thing between them, which was probably supposed to look like a stinger but actually was threatening to give her a case of the giggles.

She decided it had to be a store-bought costume after all, it was simply too good to be home-made. Must be some science fiction movie she’d somehow missed the leaders for, she mused. Why look, the clever child was actually somehow working the latch, not with his or her real big arms but with the tiny skinny little ones! The little darling must have practiced for ages. Well heckfire, thought Ailene, why am I not meeting his (or her, she supposed, but somehow it seemed a boy’s choice of costume) show with my own?

“HELLLLOOOO, MMYYY DEEEARRRR!!!” she boomed in her best Divine-like Sea Hag voice, and zoomed the scooter at top burn toward the screen door just as the kid got it unlatched.

Apparently that was a little more scary than she’d intended, for the child simply sprang away into the darkness, at a speed that was positively unnerving! One second he was right there at the door, the next he was gone. Ailene peered out into the yard. Where… she couldn’t see a blamed soul out there. There was enough cloud in the sky to block out moon and stars, if there even was a moon tonight; all she could tell was that the child was not on the path from the road to her house, as she’d lined that with blue, green and orange paper bags containing gravel and tea candles. They weren’t terribly bright but they were enough to light up the path, and no one was on or beside it.

“HELLLOOO? DON’T BE AFRAID! COME BACK, CHILD!” she called, still in that booming voice. She paused, waiting and listening, then called out in a slightly less dramatic manner, “C’mon back now, or you’ll get et up. Some of the chiggers out there are almost as scary as you are, honey.” She backed away from the door, leaving it open – no point in making the little tyke repeat his trick with the twig-arms. There’d been enough frost nights of late that she wasn’t concerned about insects flying in the door, though young Ty’s mother had told her they hung around a lot later in the year than she might credit, being “from northerly.” (A phrase that had made Ailene laugh, applied to Tennessee!) Reversing the Rascal back along the porch took a bit more attention than the forward zoom, turning half around to watch her direction – the ‘porch’ was really designed to be a chicken run, she supposed, and was anyhow too narrow to easily turn around in.

When she turned her attention back to the front she gasped. The child had followed her in, and in the better (but still pretty dim) lighting the costume was even more creepily impressive. She could see no seams or breaks, and the level of detail was just fantastic! There were hundreds of tiny individual lenses in the compound eyes, for example, they weren’t just big pasta strainers or something. The antennae seemed to twitch and swivel, then the boy (she was going to assume) turned his head toward the big plastic cauldron full of candy. The two big lobster-like arms reached out and tipped it toward him, and…

Ailene blinked. Her jaw dropped as the two skinny arms darted into the cauldron and began grabbing candies with the little fingerlike end bits and conveying them to his… to its mouth, where the insanely complicated parts began moving in weird ways, kind of cutting and, and grinding and making the candies disappear…

Ailene felt a scream jam in her throat. She wanted to scream, to shriek in horror at the sudden realization that this was not a child in a bug costume but an actual child-sized bug, but all that came out was a quiet gluck sound. Her heart seemed to clench in fear, and her hand spasmed on the joystick of the scooter, trying to back up further. The scooter, already backed full up on the wall, began to make a high-pitched whining noise from its motor…

And that got the thing’s attention. The child-sized bug-thing turned and looked at her with the four simple eyes as well as the big compound ones, which she suddenly realized could look at her from any direction. It put down the cauldron, although it continued to glean candies with its maw from where they were stuck on its lesser arms, and ambled toward her with wide, prancing steps.

She let go of the joystick control to grab up the pitcher of ice tea and threw it at the creature. The lid stayed on as it flew, though a small amount splashed out… and the creature caught it! Caught it with one of the large arms, raised it to its weird head… and stuck a strawlike dingus down through the spout, and hunkered down to drink from it, for all the world like a human child with a Capri-Sun juice pouch. Ailene gave a startled laugh.

“Why, you are a child, after all! Aren’t you, honey?” she said shakily. The child-bug regarded her solemnly, slurping down the tea. It finished it in fairly short order, emitted a plaintive-sounding buzz, then moved toward her again, holding out the pitcher. Ailene felt her heart clench up again with fear, though not as badly as that first time. She offered her nearly-full tall glass of tea to it, and to her surprise it accepted it with one large arm while shoving the empty pitcher at her with the other. She noticed two of the small arms grab a few more candies out of the cauldron at the same time and flick them toward its mouth.

“Well, ain’t you co-ordinated… and ain’t you got a sweet tooth!” Ailene felt numb-headed, shocky. She chuckled, a light hollow sound quite unlike her normal trilling giggle. “I reckon I’ll just get you some more tea then…” She turned toward the trailer door, setting to do just that – it seemed like a natural normal thing somehow, to fetch a drink for a child, she reflected. Her hands were still shaking as she unlatched the door though. She went in, automatically flicking the light on as she did so.

Suddenly a weight slammed into her back, causing her to fall forward onto the floor, knocking the breath from her lungs with a whoosh!! A burning pain lanced through her thigh. One huge pincer clawed at her arm, another grabbed uselessly at one of the paper-stuffed cloth tentacles she’d attached to her dress. She flailed, caught hold with her free arm on one of the skinny arms near the joint with the thing’s body, tried to wrench it out, managing to pull the thing sideways into the doorframe, hitting one of its large compound eyes on it. It let out a piercing whine, barely in hearing range, and pulled back. Ailene got her leg up between them and kicked as hard as she could to drive its leg against the door. She heard it crack, and suddenly the thing was retreating, back out the door.

She kicked it again, it backed up further, and moving faster than she’d managed in decades Ailene managed to scramble to the side, enough to slam the door closed between them. A loud thump came from the door, and an angry piercing whine from beyond it. Ailene braced her considerable bulk holding it shut, and felt several more thumps from the other side. Sobbing, she waited. Eventually, the noises went away. She waited a little longer.

Noises came from the front room of the trailer. “SHIT, the windows!!” she cursed. She tried to stand, but her leg had fallen asleep. She pounded her fist on it, looked down… and saw the softball sized bump on her hip. Her whole leg had gone numb and unmoveable now.

A buzzing, scratching noise came from the end of the front room, and she looked up to see the bug-thing standing there, The thing between its legs lashed out, catching her in the arm, sending a shooting pain into it that she recognized as the same thing she’d felt in her thigh earlier.

Sure enough, the numbness began to spread from there too, and from her side when it stung her once more there. It stopped stinging her then, and simply arranged her into a tidier heap.

Ailene had always wanted children. Over the next week her madness-shredded mind found a certain hysterical irony in that, as the grubs inside her grew, eating their way toward what she supposed might be called their birth.

Friday fiblet: The Cowgirl

I’m lying in the prairie, just as the last red-molten rays of the setting sun light cool ghostly fires atop the sea of feathery grasses. A rapid patter of hoofbeats presages the girl, melded with her horse like a Centaur as she rides into view beneath the Big Sky, until she stops amidst the wide flat plain, a jewel upon a giant’s table.

She slides down and free, breaking the Centauric bond, and with a gentle slap of her hand the horse canters off homeward, wherever that might be. It is plain this is a dance the two of them have shared many a time before, and expect to again.

She puts her arms up to the cloud-feathered roof of the world, lets out a long gossamer sigh, bows her head to Fate and the world, and begins with graceful economy to disrobe, the gathering darkness shielding her even as her clothing falls away to the soft grasses at her feet.

Darkness is fully fallen by the time my dazed feet raise me stumbling toward her. Only my ears can guide me; I hear her feet pushing the plants to rustling, I hear her voice murmur and sigh in tones so gentle she must barely hear herself, I hear the final slide of her most intimate garments falling to earth.

And then, as I am upon her, a silver shaft of eldritch light spears her, and in that witchly light she writhes and moans, she bends and flows, and as the Moon fully rises and lights completely the cowgirl in her glory upon the open range, as I in my mundanity stagger into her most personal stage here between the good earth and the glowing heavens, she raises a shaggy head from under her front legs and lows, “Mooo?”

I turn away. It’s not her, it’s me. I am, in the end, unable to keep myself from thinking about steak.