by Adam-Troy Castro
Many years ago—and when a man as old as I am uses the phrase, “many years ago,” he means a lifetime—I told Minnie, “I’m an engineer, not a poet.”
Minnie was a dear old gal of unfailing honesty, with a central role in what follows.
I was in love with her eyes. I don’t mean this in a sexual way. The difference between our ages, and certainly our backgrounds, would have made that grotesque. But her eyes were rich and deep, and filled with an understanding of life’s greatest mysteries, that made them a perfect place to lose yourself when she was pointing out how silly you are. I haven’t seen her or her husband Earl in decades, but I can picture those eyes like it was yesterday.
When I told her I wasn’t a poet, she said, “How dare you. It’s okay to operate under a poetry deficit, but to imply that deficit for an entire profession is dishonest. I’ve known more than my share of engineers, and any number of poets among them. Great engineering is poetry.”
I suppose she was right. She was, in most things.
Regardless, I can speak for myself. I’m not a poet, not even in the sense that sweet lady meant. There’s no elegance in me unless you count the elegance of straight lines. Even as an engineer, I’m a plodder, a practitioner of dogged persistence, the kind of guy who seizes hold of a problem and hammers it until he finds a solution, more from irritation than imagination.
Minnie would eventually suggest that this was why the forces at play in the following series of events picked me as their target, instead of somebody more at home with absurdity or whimsy—because if you’re going to harass somebody in this manner, you really do want to pick a humorless bastard, if you can. The snowball gets thrown at the grumpy old guy in the top hat, not the jolly guy you can see already laughing at himself.
I’m not a storyteller either, except for this one and a couple of lesser tales from the days, all those decades ago, when cities began to rise on the lunar plains. You can remind me, someday when I’m not stuck telling you this one, to tell you about the operational merry-go-round I spotted, and still maintain I saw, somewhere that no merry-go-round had any business spinning. (You will hear me say this many times: the Moon was strange, in those days.) But I’ve learned a number of things from born storytellers, and one of the things they told me is that “closure” is overrated. It’s nice to have, when it’s available, but more often than not it isn’t, and you have to accustom yourself to life’s unanswered questions, treasuring any given mystery and the unexplored regions around it as much as you would any full, encyclopedic explanation.
Minnie herself was one of those mysteries, as she would have been the first to tell you. As I’ll likely have chance to say as well, by the time I’m done with this.
By the time you get to my age, the age where if you move at all it’s to avoid picking up a layer of dust, you’ll likely know that when the long sleep comes it will arrive without a cheat sheet, clearing up everything you didn’t quite manage to find out while you still drew breath. I’ll die, fairly soon in the scheme of things, without answering even half the questions I asked in my life; and I’ve come to peace with that, as much as a man can while still remaining as stubborn as myself. If you don’t make peace with that yourself, you’re doomed to die disappointed.
And now that we have that part out of the way, and you don’t have to worry about scouring the entire text for an easily summarized thesis, we can stop worrying about me getting to the point and start investigating the path that took me there.
My name’s Turpin, and this began about the day I saw them.
* * *
This was back when the lunar colonies were still being constructed, and the work of racing about making sure that various forces of entropy didn’t get us all killed wasn’t very fun. Every job was deadly dull and deadly serious, and as I’ve heard it said by another teller of these early colonization stories, every chore that needed to get done was the worst job you could ever be assigned, except for all the others.
My job today was to investigate the breakdown of one of the cameras we’d implanted in the route normally traveled between the Chinese project and our own. They’ve been represented in recent histories as spy cameras, but spy cameras are an awfully stupid thing to plant in dirt when every barge traveling back and forth produces a real-time GPS record of every rotation of its treads, and we could all tell what everybody else was doing anyway. The cameras were no secret, not to us and not to any of the contributing governments. They had a different purpose: recording every moment of every journey, in case some accident occurred and forensic analysis was required later. There was of course instrumentation inside our vessels as well, but that’s not a lot of help in cases where, for instance, the screen goes blank immediately after whoever’s sitting at the controls says, “What the F—”. So we had mini-cams set up every hundred meters or so, along our most-traveled routes, to capture exterior footage of vehicles in transit, and I think this provided critical evidence on no more than two or three occasions in all the years I worked on the Moon; that positive thing, the safety measure that almost never needed to be used.
The camera that had gone black—not “failed,” as it continued to ping as active; only the picture had turned black—monitored a bumpy fifty-meter stretch of tread tracks that threaded the needle between two rises too steep for one of our barges to climb. As it happened, the local topography hid this part of the route from every other possible perspective, which rendered our real-time feed particularly important. On Earth, if you find a narrow spot in the road blocked by a rock fall or washed out by a storm or swallowed by a sinkhole or rendered impassable for any other reason, you don’t have to worry about whether you packed enough air to cover the delay. On the Moon, at that point in time, you sometimes did. So I was pulled off my regular work—itself a relief, because, remember, every job on the Moon was the worst job on the Moon—and told to grab and install a spare cam in case the one that had broken down could not be repaired on-site.
It took me three hours to get to the narrow pass, at which point I put the barge into park, hopped down the three stairs from the open cabin, and did the lunar-waddle to the camera, which was still happily mounted on its little pole.
This, of course, eliminated the most likely explanation, that it had been buried from some rockfall, or become otherwise obscured by changes in its environment. READ MORE
by Guy Stewart
Javier Quinn Xiong Zaman clicked on the last email in the clinic’s queue and read, “Doctor Scrabble, the supply of Dicraeia warmingii you adjusted has reached abundant proportions, and the female Goliath Bullfrog appears not only ready to drop her eggs but to deliver an auspicious number, perhaps even enough to assure . . .”
From somewhere overhead, he heard a loud bang and scowled. The nightly stream of maglev trains started an instant later, bringing scavenged materials from the DEconstruction And Recycling Robots—DEARRs—to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Vertical Village. The ground shook, and a faint whine reached him even a kilometer west of the tracks. Probably something going on with that abomination.
He hunched back over his computer. Email kept him from humiliation, because his customers couldn’t see him, and he kept his distance emotionally as well. He clicked an effusive, if generic response, and sent it. The chair screaked going backward on the bare concrete floor as he let his forehead sink and land on his desk. Shortly, the screensaver began to scroll, floating over images of life suffering incurable genetic disorders. Currently incurable. The last image before the scroll repeated was of himself as a child.
Despite the wail of the maglev, he was snoring by then. Ten minutes later, his playlist blared suddenly from the computer. He sat up blearily to see images of himself as a boy, unselfconsciously naked between his parents—one white, one black, both Nigerian. Only parts of his body had black skin, others were stark white, and he had a shock of white hair in the middle of his forehead.
He turned it all off, laying his head down on the desk again. His virtual clinic lived in an elderly sandstone brick animal hospital from the 1990s, squatting in the shadow of an arcology Earth Government legislated into existence by the Return To The Wild Act.
A heavy thud, probably a terrorist bomb near the maglev track, or another narn accident drifted through the window on sultry summer breezes. The Minneapolis-Saint Paul Vertical Village was twenty kilometers southeast; they’d send regular trucks to get the debris, clean the tracks, then auto-repair them. Neither concerned him. He said, “Newsstream, loud,” then bent to his next project, downgrading the defensiveness of a new race of Minnesota Hygenics honeybees.
Between songs, his smart speaker blared, “. . . Ministre de l’Agriculture et de l’Agro
alimentaire au Canada today reiterated the embargo against American bioengineered multicellular lifeforms . . .” He didn’t hear the figure in black sneak up on him before it slipped a bag over his head. He had an instant to notice before, stunned, he was tossed over a shoulder in light body armor, carried up three flights of stairs, and passed out a window to another shadow who set him in a waiting gMod car.
* * *
Javier woke with his hands tied behind his back and ankles bound. Shouting “No one’s going to pay you any ransom! I’m a veterinarian!”, he thrashed on the ground. Whatever held his wrists gave way. Pulling them free, he rolled to a sitting position.
It had been a sticky, sultry night. Now he was cold, way too cold to still be in Brooklyn Center. He held still and took a deep breath of peat bog decay, sulfur, and the scent of large bodies of untreated water. The spongy surface under him crinkled noisily as he untied his ankles. Struggling to his feet, he couldn’t feel any drug aftereffect. He’d been stunned electronically instead of pharmaceutically.
He was standing on a dark square in the middle of a broad, green-glowing runway that stretched into the darkness on either side of him. He frowned and took a couple of steps, then froze when he heard a high-pitched whine of mosquitoes. It was louder than he’d ever heard in his life, in the state where, even in the late twenty-first century, the mosquito was the State Bird.
He backed away from the screen holding the bloodsuckers back. Beyond it, he couldn’t see anything but faint outlines. His ears were ringing, too. Neither sense was used to the darkness and silence any more. The constant light and noise on the fringes of the Vertical Village had dulled sensitive hearing.
His ears were still good enough to hear crashing in the nearby woods. It was coming toward him. He moved toward the screen and stopped. He was only wearing boxer briefs and had no desire to become a head-to-toe mosquito bite or stumble around in boggy darkness. He sat down on the spongy ground and waited.
After a noisy exit from the forest, heavy footsteps sounded as an invisible figure approached him. The sound stopped. A flashlight abruptly lit a face, golden and blood red, wild hair outlined in stark shadow floating two-and-a-half meters above the glowing green. He flinched back as the mouth moved, and a woman’s voice with a flat, Midwestern inflection said, “Doctor Zaman, I presume?”
“Uh . . . everyone calls me Doctor Scrabble.”
“My full name is Javier Quinn Xiong Zaman,” he paused. She made no response. “Because of that, everyone calls me Doctor Scrabble.”
The brows came together to stop the flashlight beam from reaching the woman’s hair. “I don’t get it.”
“Scrabble? The boardgame?”
“I still don’t get it.”
Shaking his head, he took a breath and said, “There are thirty-six letters in the game and a hundred tiles. The highest scoring letters are ‘Q,’ ‘Z,’ ‘J,’ and ‘X.’” He paused.
“Oh!” She swung the flashlight, blinding him.
Holding his hand to block the light, he said, “Do you mind? I usually have people explain the Scrabble letters to me, so I’m not used to explaining it.” He looked around, “Where am I?”
“Northwest Angle. It’s a little piece of Minnesota that’s in Canada, which is why we have a problem and why they stuck me with you.”
“Why’s that a problem?” He paused, “Um, can you lower the light?” READ MORE