by Bill Johnson
What do you get when a Neanderthal, a Denisovan, and a Red Deer Cave sit down around a table together? Artie asked.
Shut up, Martin replied impatiently, in private, ignoring the joke. Are my eyes right?
White sclera, blue eyes. Their blood pressure and pulse goes up every time they look at you. Even Turlli’s numbers are up. You’re too damned alien looking. You’re freaking them out.
Good, Martin said, satisfied. That’s part of the plan.
This better work, Artie warned. We don’t get a second chance.
Martin concentrated on the two men on either side of him and the woman at the head of the table. This era, the Stone Eagle interior design was ski-lodge style, with aged oak logs, browned and golden and varnished, for the walls. The ceiling arched above them, supported by more weathered and stained wood beams while the floor was unblemished hardwood.
They sat in a privacy alcove off the main dining room. The tables and troughs and feeding towers and sluiceways around them were impeccably set, depending on the preferences and requirements of the various guests. Their own table was white cotton tablecloths and napkins, silver dinnerware and chopsticks. The lighting was unobtrusive and seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere.
All the other booths and alcoves were filled with different groups, each intent on private and last minute negotiations. Sound bafflers kept the volume down.
Waiters, both locals and uptimer lostlings from various timelines, tended tables. The locals were a mixture of Neanderthal, Denisovan, and Red Deer Cave people, with a light dusting of archaic Africans. The lostling staff ranged from bodymidders to dwarf-like steamers to tall, thin, albino Drifters, and whatever had shown up in between.
The customers were even more varied.
Most of them were out-system, everything from aquatics in travel tanks to null-g mechanicals, from tripeds to gas sizzlers in protective suits. There were only a few Terrans, descended from mammal-like reptiles or feathered dinosaurs, either from the far past or the far future.
There were no Homo sapiens sapiens, except for Martin.
“I bid dogs,” Kisad, to Martin’s right, said. He touched the tabletop and data appeared in front of all of them. The Neanderthal was calm, his heavy eyebrows relaxed. He wore white silk pants, heavy boots, and something vaguely like a Nehru jacket. Martin tried to read his expression, but Kisad’s brown eyes and brown sclera made it too hard. Martin couldn’t even be sure exactly what he was looking at.
“You already have the two dozen sterile males I loaned you, for testing and training. I’ll throw in two dozen bitches, all certified pure, with no crossbreeding. And I’ll remove the sterility locks on the males.”
Turlli, at the head of the table, was Denisovan. Her features were a softened version of Kisad’s, with more chin and less heavy eye ridges. She wore a tailor-made beige pantsuit. Her hair was long and straight, brown with natural blonde and red streaks, tied back with a strip of blue satin. She checked the data and nodded.
“Bid accepted,” she said. Her voice was a low, smooth soprano. “Dineen?”
“I bid a cure for northern hemorrhagic fever,” Dineen said. He was Red Deer Cave, smaller than all of them, with a flat face, broad nose, jutting jaw, and no chin. His clothes tended more toward fur and leather. His eyes were brown, no white sclera, his eyebrows large and prominent, his hair straight and black, cropped short. He touched the table, and his data displayed next to Kisad’s.
A total, screwed-up mess, Artie continued, smugly. That’s what you get when all the relatives come to dinner. A total, screwed-up mess.
He sounded pleased with himself. Martin resisted the urge to reach into his code and rewrite him. . . .
“He doesn’t belong here,” Kisad snapped. He shook his head dismissively at Dineen and frowned at Turlli. “My deal was with you. He shouldn’t even be here.”
“A bid is a bid.” Turlli’s voice was indifferent. Her job was to get Martin the best possible bids. His job was to make the final decision. She checked Dineen’s data, looked up at Martin, and nodded.
“Bid is acceptable.”
“Thank you,” Dineen said. He focused on Turlli with only a side-glance at Kisad. He tipped his head toward the Neanderthal. “He’s just upset because he knows my offer is better than his. He’s afraid he’ll go home empty-handed.”
Turlli stayed expressionless. Kisad began to push away from the table. Dineen started to stand.
“Sit down,” Martin ordered. Artie chuckled over the speaker system—
And they all felt the Stone Eagle flicker. The lights stayed on, heating and ventilation worked smoothly . . . but the timelines quaked, just for a moment. Probabilities had changed, for some reason, at the quantum level.
Turlli glanced at Martin. He rubbed his forehead.
Don’t even ask, Artie warned Martin, still in private. No idea what caused it. Kisad’s bid? Dineen’s? Something at another table? No idea. But I suggest we wrap this up as fast as we can.
Kisad hesitated, then sat back in his chair. Dineen waited a moment longer—
Some kind of dominance game, Artie guessed.
—and sat down.
“Time is running out, gentlemen,” Turlli continued smoothly. “We’re coming up on a decision facet. A big one. Something is going to happen, and this future is going to change. None of us know if our timelines will still be in contact after this. If we’re still here when we reach the facet, we might not be able to go home. There may be no home to go back to. So we need to get this deal done, and done now, before whatever is going to happen, happens. Unless you want to stay behind as a lostling. Is everyone clear on this?” READ MORE
by Kenneth Schneyer
As usual, the simulation shows Doru’s Keepsake sitting on the scuffed leather couch in his apartment on Medway Street, barefoot, wearing those wonderful soft jeans and the pink shirt that eventually fell apart. Doru sits across from it, in the real wicker chair in his current condo. The Keepsake’s unlined face, really rather good-looking even with the hint of residual baby fat, gazes at Doru with calm tolerance.
“Tell me about dinner with Afzal at The Rue,” says Doru.
The Keepsake rolls its eyes. “Again? You mean last time we went? Not, say, the other ten or fifteen times?”
Doru nods. “Unless you remember those as well as you remember that one.”
The Keepsake flutters the first two fingers of its right hand. “You know I don’t. All right. Afzal met me on Hope Street after he finished work—”
“How did he get there?”
The Keepsake sighs. “He walked up the long hill from downtown, and his face was pink and a little shiny, and he was breathing hard.”
Doru inhales happily. “What was he wearing?”
“That silly suede jacket and his tall boots.”
“It wasn’t silly,” says Doru.
The Keepsake assumes a look of mock astonishment. “Oh? That’s interesting. Would you like to tell me about that? How that feels? How you feel? That’d be something.”
Doru shakes his head.
“Didn’t think so,” says the Keepsake.
“Just tell me,” says Doru. “Did you kiss him?”
The Keepsake shrugs. “Of course.”
“What did he smell like?”
“That shampoo he had.”
Doru sighs. “Then what?”
“We walked down Hope Street from the middle of College Hill; it was a cool, breezy day, and Afzal’s hand felt pleasantly hot by contrast.”
“The trees had a lot of yellow and red in them; in the slanting sunlight, their contrast against the darkening blue sky was blinding.”
“We noticed that there were some new playground toys at Fox Point. We started talking about children. Afzal still didn’t want them.”
“Don’t tell me that part,” says Doru.
The Keepsake gives him an exasperated look. “Would you like to give me a script? Exactly what I can say and what I can’t?” Doru doesn’t answer. “We spent half that meal arguing about whether to have kids; you want me to guess at which aspects of that conversation you don’t want to hear?”
“You should know me well enough—”
“No,” the Keepsake interrupts. “You should know me well enough; I have no basis at all for knowing you. You never tell me anything.”
“You wouldn’t learn anything from it anyway,” says Doru.
“Depends on what you mean by ‘learn,’” says the Keepsake. Again, Doru doesn’t reply. “Oh, I can tell some things by inspection. You’ve become a maudlin old man—”
“Fifty isn’t old,” says Doru.
“Well, obviously you thought so once, didn’t you?” says the Keepsake, gesturing with its fingertips at its own chest. “A maudlin old man who likes to spend his time daydreaming about the past. God, your life must be dull.”
Doru stares at the Keepsake for several seconds. Then, more quietly, he says, “Look. Can it hurt you to tell me the things I ask? You remember them so clearly; I just want to be reminded.”
“But only of the good things?” Doru nods. The Keepsake shrugs again. “No, of course it can’t hurt me. Nothing can hurt me, can it? All right: We drank a dark Spanish wine. Afzal had that huge salad Niçoise they do so well. I had the lamb, which was just as fine as ever.”
Doru spends another twenty minutes listening to this beautiful story before he closes the simulation and goes to bed.
* * *
As usual, Afzal’s Keepsake is sitting in a bare room, the single window allowing pale light from an overcast sky to give him a slightly bluish hue. Afzal stands behind another chair, leaning on it, looking into the Keepsake’s eyes.
“Good evening,” says Afzal. “I thought I’d fill you in on recent events.”
The Keepsake nods, its face apprehensive but resigned.
“Hsu granted our motion for summary judgment,” says Afzal. “Those affidavits did the trick. And those discovery responses too! They never laid eyes on a single document that could help them.”
“They’ll appeal,” says the Keepsake.
“Of course they’ll appeal, but ‘no genuine issue of material fact’ means ‘no genuine issue of material fact.’ They’ll have nothing to stand on.” READ MORE