Archive for the 'Storytime!' Category

How It Began

Sunday, March 9th, 2014


They had a long discussion about it. Dana was adamant about the prohibitive level of physical costs — the energy required to convert matter for transmission. Carver fell silent and sat that way for a long time, looking out the window. Dana knew better than to interrupt.

Finally Carver spoke: “What if it’s not about conversion into energy?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if it’s just conversion into information?”

Dana paused and looked at the floor. “Encoding.”


Dana’s head shook from side to side in small movements. “The chance of encoding errors…And you’d only be making a copy, not transmitting the original…”

“Fair points. But let’s think it through before we say No. What if we could solve for those things? What would the big steps in the problem be?”

A thousand years before, engineers had thought the same way when they planned the first human missions to Luna (Earth orbit, Earth escape, transit to Luna, Luna orbit,…). Dana and Carver had had those lessons ground into them when they sat under Magister Ludovicus in school: suspending technical disbelief, what would be required to achieve an engineering outcome?

In that spirit, they laid out the main problems:
1. Molecular mapping, with many safeguards for error correction et cetera
2. Replication, ditto
3. Vivacity — how does the replicated version live?
4. Cognition — no good to have a living replication that cannot think
5. Memory — a thinking but amnesiac replication would be worse than worthless…

They both resisted saying what they were thinking — that this was mad, and that if it worked it would be one of the greatest advances in the history of the species.

They were right. Even a thousand years later, even after faster-than-light travel had been pioneered, their example would be studied minutely and heralded by generations of magisters and their students. While being taken for granted by billions of travelers.

But for today, Dana and Carver knew none of that. They simply set to work.

Image by Ivan T.

Seventeen Versions

Sunday, June 16th, 2013


“I may love you.”

“I can love you.”

“I could love you.”

“I would love you.”

“I want to love you.”

“I do love you.”

“I wish I could love you.”

“I should love you.”

“I don’t know if I love you.”

“I might love you.”

“I must love you.”

“I can’t love you.”

“I must have loved you.”

“I won’t be able to love you.”

“I wanted to love you.”

“I will love you.”

“I love you.”

Image source.


Saturday, June 15th, 2013


When he was young, David had loved Crackerjack, not so much for the crunch and sweetness as for the anticipation of discovering the prize at the bottom of the box. He used to fight with his brother over who would get the prize, until their mom finally had to start making sure that they each had a box to themselves.

David might have been the last kid on earth to actually find a decoder ring in a box of Crackerjack. After being disappointed by countless rebuses and gimcrack puzzles, he finally got the ring he had always wanted. Wearing it, he imagined himself living the adventures of a spy, or a spaceman, or a spaceman spy. Everything, when he was eight, tied back to the stars.

These days, with a mortgage and a family and a career to maintain, he wished he had a decoder ring for life.

The house was quiet now. As the evening waned, he listened to the cicadas outside, the wind in the trees. His wife had joined two other moms to take carloads of kids, including their own, to the premiere of The Hunger Games. He hadn’t read the books, but he understood they featured adolescents hunting one another for the sport of the public. He thought they might have been better off with the Heinlein novels he had read at the same age.

For a minute, he let his mind wander back to spaceships and intercepted messages from alien worlds. He closed his eyes and listened to the silence inside the house.

He knew there was no decoder ring to be had. He settled for another sip of his cocktail.

(This started as a #tinystory on Twitter, then became a #littlestory on Facebook, then became this.)

Image source.


Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

He had lived on Hokkaido for a few months, and now it was the time of the winter festival: lights dotted the houses, the walkways, the canal.

He had come on a Fulbright to study — well, explaining what he studied was usually the point at which people’s eyes glazed over. It was recondite from most people’s experience.

So there was the element of specialty, of expanding the frontier of human knowledge in one tiny area. But maybe 20 other specialists in the world would care. Maybe 30.

But the timing was fortuitous, because traveling to Japan meant a long flight in more than one sense: he was getting away from a woman.

That part had nothing of the arcane to it. If he could have brought himself to tell the story to his new neighbors, he would have bridged the cultural divide in an instant.

Because people everywhere fall in love at the wrong times, for the wrong reasons, with the wrong people.

It’s a miracle anybody gets it right at all.

The miracle of technology meant that her text had found him, even on the other side of the world: “Can we talk?”

He didn’t know.
Could they?

He put the phone back in the pocket of his parka,
looked up at the stars,
breathed the cold northern air into his lungs,
and resumed his walk along the canal, amid the pretty lights.

Image source.

Matched Set

Monday, November 12th, 2012

They sat there, for a long time, equipoised across the booth from one another.

It wasn’t the first time. It wasn’t the fiftieth. They already knew each other’s secrets and best stories.

She was someone with a lot of capability. People remarked on her “potential.” It had become a thing, remarking on it — and then its time had passed. She wondered, now, how much ability she really had. Not capacity to maybe do something, but the genuine ability to pull it off. She though that she ought to know that by now.

He was known for his foresight. People valued his advice. But time had told that he wasn’t so good at looking ahead for the pitfalls in his own life.

Once upon a time, he had made her a mixtape. He burned it to disk, but that’s what is was: a mixtape like the ones he had made for the girls back in high school. He had even included “A Forest.” It fit into the flow of the songs, but it was really there for old times’ sake.

She was only vaguely old enough to know what mixtapes were about. But she had been flattered, and they had made love sweetly afterward.

He looked into the gleaming, clean surface of the table, and he could see the reflection of her face. He had fallen so hard for her the first time he had seen her.

They ordered, they made small talk, they looked out the window at the parking lot.

Then they fell on their breakfasts, voracious.

Image source.


Saturday, April 14th, 2012

I have been on this train for nine years. That’s nine years without seeing my family, without a vacation, without the touch of a woman other than the working girls who operate in the last car between Station 16 and Station 23. (In theory we don’t know they’re there, but how could we not? In practice they’re an alternate stream of income for the conductors and the stationmasters along the way — as well as an outlet for the likes of me.)

What did I expect when I got on? As far as the nature of the work, pretty much like it actually is. You keep things in working order, you keep the cars clean, you deal with the conductors and the engineers and the passengers. Like you’d imagine.

What’s different is the . . . life. I mean, these trains are way bigger than the old days, right? This isn’t the Wild West and the Transcontinental Railroad and Butch Cassidy. It’s not Strangers on a Train or the Orient Express with all the mystery and intrigue. But the technology is way past what any of them could have imagined. I mean, this kind of speed was just impossible, even twenty years ago.

They retrofitted a lot of the cars with the new drives. So I’m not sleeping in a twenty-year-old berth. It’s actually like forty years old, but it might as well be a thousand. Everything is mostly worn out, repaired a bunch of times. I’m talking about the staff cars, obviously — the passenger cars are sharp. The new dining car we got this year — it’s actually pretty amazing. And better food than before, even for us.

But of course I can’t leave, and that makes me think differently about everything. With the dining fabricators, I can have duck l’orange as easy as a cheeseburger, but so what? When you’re confined somewhere, no options, it can still feel like prison, even if it technically isn’t.

The upside is that I can send money home. I eat well. The gym car is good, and I stay pretty fit — although we transported a prisoner a couple of months ago, a guy who’d been in for like 15 years, and he was beyond built. Muscles on top of muscles. I can’t compete with that. Still, he has to call himself “prisoner.” I get to call myself “porter.”

They used to have a thing — I read about it in school — called “indentured servitude.” I looked it up on the computer a while back, because I couldn’t remember the word. (Would you believe I was a good student? I was, though I never paid enough attention. But I hadn’t heard that since I was like fifteen, so I had to look it up.) Anyway, I guess that’s what I am, an indentured servant. It beats being a prisoner. That guy they brought on here, the muscleman, they kept him in chains the whole time. They would have shot him dead if he tried to leave.

If I tried to leave — which I wouldn’t, because I’m not stupid and I don’t want to put my family at risk — they’d just track me down and bring me back. Though I guess at that point they could make me a prisoner, too. Nobody yet has figured out to de-implant the chip they put in your spine. So where are you gonna go?

Anyway, nine years. With however many left to go. It’s not so bad. We actually have some laughs on this train.

I guess I’ll die on here, someday.

Image source.


Saturday, June 18th, 2011

Reflecting on what he had lost, he mused that he had spent his life writing between the lines — and worrying about the neatness of his handwriting. It was literally true, but the analogy also worked in many figurative ways.

No wonder she had found him too demanding. He found himself too demanding, too. But he had had many years to build up the calluses against it. She was not thus enured.

And now she was gone.

He wondered whether he would find another woman as good, but who would write between the lines with him. O was he condemned to live alone?

Because he did not think that he could violate the lines.

Photo by Amy Palko.

Magic Trail

Friday, June 17th, 2011

This was his Hundred-Acre Wood. When he was a boy growing up in a city, he didn’t understand the magic of Christopher Robin’s forest retreat. It was just part of a story. Now that he was grown, with a list of responsibilities that started with kids and a business and aged parents and went from there, he not only understood that magic — he needed it.

He hit his favorite stretch of the trail and his eyes lit up, something like they used to when he first met his ex-wife, long before reality set in. They used to go for long walks or sit and read the paper, even when they had pressing business. These days, the trail was pressing business: it was booked in his Outlook calendar, four days a week, from now until the end of time. (The other day he took his senior staff out to lunch.)

His morning had been full of meetings with people who worked for him. His afternoon would be full of one big meeting with people to whom he owed lots of money. His head had been full of ideas and plans when he got out of the car, and it would be again by the time he got back to the office.

But just now his mind went blank as he kicked into stride.

Photo by Amy Palko.


Thursday, June 16th, 2011

It sat on the same shelf where it always had — a cut-glass picture frame with a portrait photograph inside.

On the day it had been put on that shelf, the sun shone watery but too bright in the winter sky. That was the striking memory, a tiny item from a red-letter day that was supposed to be special for a happy reason, but became memorable for a sad one.

How many people — friends, neighbors, kin — had wondered what might have been done, that day or in the days leading up to it, to stem the tide of a family history?

Seventeen years later, the other shoe had finally dropped.

But the photograph remained.

Photo by Amy Palko.


Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

When everything went to Hell, people started finding out fascinating things — among them, that the mythic creatures from the late-night movie screens in their childhood minds were no myths.

Vampires existed, zombies, werebeasts, ghouls . . . but they were much worse than you thought, because they came straight up out of Hell itself. Their minds had festered for centuries, creating new ways to exercise their revenge on the upright, the unblemished, and all of those free from torments.

The other ones, those that had been on Earth all along, paled by comparison. They were quite real, the werewolves of Transylvania and the night terrors of the Adirondacks. But those monsters were to the beasts of Hell as a tomcat was to a tiger.

Sheila was finding that out anew with each passing minute. She had been running so long through the woods, and her body was so poisoned with adrenaline and fear, that she no longer remembered when it had begun. As dusk fell, the creatures behind her seemed to be always closing the distance on her, sometimes even coming into view for brief moments, yet never quite overtaking her. This was part of their game of cat and mouse.

Her lungs and legs cried out for rest, but she would not stop. She was not tempted to think that it would be better to give up and let the beasts overtake her. What came next would not be better. She had seen it.

She crashed through a gap in the trees and saw a Gothic church, surrounded by the same wood she was in, but on the other side of a creek that formed almost a ravine. Plunging down the hill, she wondered if she could out-climb the creatures following her — and wondered even more if the rumors she had heard about old churches were true.

At one point, having forded the creek and climbed halfway up the other side, a wolfish, scaly thing the color of burgundy closed within twenty feet of her. Even an office-dweller with soft hands like her, who had never been in a fight in her life, saw how to use her elevated position to advantage: rocks thrown in the creature’s face and a standing dead tree levered down the hill onto its head bought her the time to reach the door to the north transept of the church.

She slammed the door behind her, surveyed the rubble inside the place, and started dragging a toppled pew over to the door to block it. Before she had dragged it five feet, she heard panting outside, from at least two creatures. Yet they did not even scratch at the door.

The rumor was that churches — old ones, imbued with centuries of faith by devoted believers — were havens against the invaders. She hoped it was not another urban legend, like the tale of the great black swordsman who had liberated Madrid (or had it been Barcelona?) from the forces of Hell. The fact that the beasts would not even touch the building gave her hope.

She walked to the center of the church and sagged onto a pew. The river of adrenaline that had coursed through her had left her feeling nauseated and weak. Her legs shook even though she sat still. She worked to calm her breathing as she looked overhead to the stained-glass windows. Only the highest of them still caught any daylight; they cast a faint orange glow, like a distant campfire. It was silent outside except for the rooting and snorting of the beasts. She could hear one scrabbling through the bushes on the south side of the church.

And then they began to howl — first one, then two, then all of them. She was surrounded.

Electricity had been out in this part of the country for weeks. When she first started running, she carried a battery-powered lamp with her. But it had long ago given out. At one gathering of survivors, a kindly man too injured to carry on had given her a hand-cranked lamp that did not need batteries, but she had lost it during her flight through the woods. Soon the church would be sunk into total darkness.

Sheila forced herself to stand up and take an inventory. In the waning daylight she had seen that much of the church furniture was intact. Looters had quickly lost interest even in unguarded valuables when they figured out how dire their own situation was. She patted her pockets: whistle, folding knife, compass, nail clippers, and — ridiculously, she thought — a travel-size packet of tissues. Come to think of it, the compass was ridiculous, too, unless it stopped pointing north and started pointed toward safety.

She felt her way along the aisle, tripping on a microphone stand that seemed out of place among the original Gothic appointments of the church. At the altar, she put her hand on the cold silver of the candlestick that had gleamed in the dying embers of the day. She hung her head, leaned on the altar with both hands, and wondered if it was true that silver repelled the undead.

Her hand came to rest on something on the altar, a tiny box . . . a box of matches. Shaking, she opened it halfway and felt inside to count them. Three. Her hand sought out the candlestick and snaked up it to find a candle only partially burned.

Taking deep breaths to steady herself, she lit a match and lit the candle on the first try. One candlepower was enough to show her that the sanctuary had many more candles after this one.

She walked around the sanctuary, picking up hymnbooks, the microphone stand, and other debris to clear the aisles. She had not been in a church since she was a little girl.

As she passed near the north transept where she had entered the church, she heard something: a low whimper. She heard it again. Then she heard a faint but unmistakable scratching on the wood of the door.

She went back to the front of the church and sat in the pew nearest the altar. She looked up at the candle burning steadily on the silver candlestick. Wax slid silently down its side, almost in reflection of the tears that slid down her face.

She wondered if it was too late to start praying.

Photo by Amy Palko.