The hand of God reached down and plucked the die from the stone table. The two chief angels watched. They did not breathe in the conventional sense, but if they did neither one would have dared. After all the arguing, the rebellion, the war… it had come down to this. The question would be settled once for all. Neither side was happy with the method of settlement, but they had no alternative. God had decreed that if either one questioned or complained once more on this issue, it would be decided in the other’s favor.
One chance. One die roll. They both knew the terms. If it came up odd, then humanity would be created with free will and would control their own fates, according to their means. If it came up even, then even the living corners of the cosmos would remain ordered solely according to God’s will, with every apparent choice nothing more than one more effect spiraling out from the ultimate cause.
God cupped the die in one almighty hand.
Absolute silence reigned as it was cast. It hit the table with a plunk, the only sound in the heavens at the moment. It rolled across the table and landed up against the Book of Life.
It had landed on its edge.
Perhaps a more discerning eye could detect some slight favor to the tilt, but to the angels’ eyes it was perfectly balanced exactly between two numbers.
God nodded, and behind the great screen, noted down a result.
“Well, that settles that,” God said. “I trust we can now move on to more important matters.”
The sleek dark ship prowls through the void. Its skin absorbs the rays of distant and feeble stars, converting every bit of heat and radiation it can grab into energy it can use. It isn’t much, but it doesn’t have to be. There are no life support systems on the ship. Nothing that cannot be turned off and on at need. Nothing that would damage the ship if it went inert..
The original fuel core had decayed long ago, but the power it had imparted had been sufficient to carry the vessel far beyond its system of origin and left it traveling at a velocity few artificial objects could ever achieve.
The power gleaned from each absorbed transmission is sufficient to record information about that transmission, which will be reviewed when the accumulated stellar radiation is sufficient for the ship’s main computer system to reactivate itself. These systems are rudimentary in the way a machine meant to last forever must be — the simplest and most basic technologies available made out of the most durable materials possible. There are few moving parts and multiple redundancies. Its builders knew what they were doing. Nothing on board has failed except the fuel core, and that was inevitable and planned for.
Lacking any store of propellant, the ship steers itself by way of propulsion via a stream of ejected molecules cosmic debris. It is a slow, slow process, but space is big and mostly empty. The chance of it needing to make a sudden turn is remote compared to the chance of a system failure. The craft passed through two asteroid belts on its journey from its planet of origin to the edge of its system and did not need to steer around an obstacle once.
The ship carries no cargo. It has no preserved remnants of a culture and no great secret wisdom for the universe. It was designed to find another world, any world, with intelligent life. It looks for patterns in the radiation it absorbs. When it finds what it’s looking for, it will point itself in the proper direction and begin the long, slow process of deceleration. It can survive re-entry, at the right angle. It can store enough power to transmit a mathematical pattern of beeps to attract attention as it approaches. Nothing more reliable than the prayers of its creators exists to make sure it lands in a place where it may be observed and recovered, but it can let the natives know it’s coming.
The chances of success are tiny. Space is big and mostly empty, and as well as the craft was built all things must eventually end.
Its builders know that success is possible, though, however unlikely it may be. They copied the basic design of the craft from one that fell to their world.
It sparked first panic and then a deep debate as to its purpose. There were no weapons. It had no means of sending a signal back to its point of origin, and it was clearly old enough to make any such signal pointless. It bore no inscription or attempt at conveying any message, save for those which could be gleaned from the existence of the ship itself.
The motivations of the original ship-builders — or even if they were the originators of the idea — couldn’t possibly be known, but to the people of that world the ship came to be known as The Sign. It told them that they were not alone in the universe, that they could build a thing that would outlast everything else, and that it was possible to reach out and touch the infinite.
For a period of about one and a half lifetimes, there was a mania on that planet for building ships. It was likened to putting a message in the bottle. Some people included personal messages, copies of important historical documents or works of art. Some went so far as to include genetic material, preserved or encoded somehow.
Most of the ships, though, were as the first one: blank, black ciphers that proclaimed nothing more than themselves. Those who invested the most resources in the great work of slinging ships out in the void understood the wisdom of the ancient people who’d sent the sign to them. Nothing they could send out into eternity would necessarily hold any meaning to the people who found it. Nothing they could say would make sense. Their symbols of peace and gestures of understanding might very well convey the opposite meaning to the recipients.
Before the changing tides of public fashion and fancy shifted to characterize the act of ship-building as one of pointless vanity, tens of thousands of them were sent out. Most of them are still going. None have yet discovered a destination, much less reached it. Some of them will. And some of the planets they reach will be inspired to do the same.
All across the galaxy, dozens or even hundreds of races will end up shouting into the darkness, knowing they will never hear a reply but that sometimes it’s enough to be heard.
The thing about moving at superspeed is that from your point of view everything else has slowed down and you’re moving at normal speed. So, yes, I can run back and forth across the country in way less time than it would take a commercial jet, but when it’s not an emergency I still fly.
Do you know why? Because relative to my point of view, I’m running at about twenty miles per hour. That’s fast for a human, but slow for a cross-country vehicle. It means that when I go from coast to coast, I’m spending two months doing nothing but running. I don’t get tired. I don’t get hungry. I’m not aging any faster than normally, relative to objective time… though the first few years of using my powers, that was always something I worried about.
But I do get bored.
Two months of seeing the country unfold a bit at a time, with nothing but your own thoughts. No sounds. Not even the wind in your hair. The interphase field that moves molecules around to keep me from destroying myself or everything else in my wake prevents that.
I’ve always been a solitary person. I don’t mind having some time to myself. I’ll take a hundred mile run sometimes just to get some hours to spend clearing my head or thinking through a project. Trying to make a living and be a superhero, it’s nice to be able to steal some moments out of thin air here and there to do the brain work. After all, I can push up the speed a little when I’m sitting in front of a computer, but only so much.
So short trips are fine. Longer ones are for emergencies only. If I were going to run across the country for fun, I’d have to stop every few hundred miles and spend some time moving around in real time just so I didn’t go crazy.
Still, you asked me what the worst thing about my powers are, and honestly, as bad as that can get, that’s not it. The absolute worst thing is when I get there too late. I can all but stop time, but I can’t make it go backwards.
Bullets travel thousands of feet in a second. That’s nothing compared to me, but it’s fast enough. They’re faster than the speed of sound. If I hear a gunshot, the bullet has already hit its target before the sound hits my ear.
Imagine arriving at the scene of a shooting that’s already in progress. Someone’s just been shot. Now imagine you’re seeing it slow motion. No sound. Just visuals, slower and sharper and realer than anything you’ve ever seen in the movies.
A moment not quite frozen in time, not quite suspended in front of you… and you could step out of that moment, you could speed it up, but there are still bullets flying and people in their paths and you can’t let go and step back into the normal flow of time until you’ve saved everybody else.
Do you have any idea how small a thing a bullet can be? How hard it is to spot in mid-air even when it’s barely moving? How big an area a burst of gunfire can cover by the time I know about it? Most of those bullets will probably bury themselves in walls or trees or the ground, but not all. Any one that I miss could end or change a life.
You see it like this: there’s a blur and suddenly I’m standing there with everyone’s weapons at my feet and a hand full of lead. What you don’t see is how many times I go back and forth, how meticulously I search the area, how wide a zone around the action I comb, how far I stretch time from my point of view in order to be sure… and when I come back down, it’s never because I am sure. It’s because I’ve given up. Because I’ve realized that I’m making myself crazy.
I can’t stop all the bullets. I can’t be everywhere at once. No one can, of course, but I have a power that lets me feel like I should be able to.
I wouldn’t give it up, of course. Not for anything.
But you asked me what the worst thing about my power is, so I told you. It’s not something I’ve ever told anyone before, but then, that’s not the sort of question most people ask.
It makes me wonder what the downside to yours is.
There is a sound like the crinkling of aluminum foil as the scytheflower slowly unfurls its petals. The stem flexes and they turn to face the rising sun, the petals angling to best catch the light. The plant’s leaves make use of sunlight for photosynthesis, but the mix of metallic elements in the petals allow it to produce energy more directly as they heat up throughout the day.
The energy produced by the living thermocouple is difficult to store, but it still contributes to the scytheflower’s sustenance. The silvery sheen on the surface of the petals as they twitch in the sun has been designed by evolution to catch the eyes of birds in flight, a trait which helps give the scytheflower some of its other names: magpiercer and crow-murderer.
Down swoops a blackbird, attracted by the shiny flash of the flower. There’s the whining whir of a buzzsaw and a brief, aborted squawk. The bird’s carcass will feed the soil, which feeds the plant.
Though its metallic petals are valued by collectors, the scytheflower is best approached with care, or not at all.
In a little old house on the edge of the woods, an old woman took a tray from the oven. The delicious smell of gingerbread wafted up to her nose. She laid the tray out on the countertop and then went to sit down in her chair to wait for it to cool.
No sooner had she turned her back, though, when a little figure on the tray began to stir. It lifted first one arm and then the other free of the baking pan, and then used these to push itself up into a sitting position and free its legs. Pleased to be separated from the still-hot metal, the little gingerbread boy did a little dance… or maybe he was just trying to keep his feet from being burned. Either way, he hopped and he danced right off the edge of the tray and onto the clean countertop. He felt spry and springy, full of the energy of youth, full of the magic of life. He felt like he could do more than walk and dance… he could run if he wanted, run like the wind, run circles around anybody and everybody.
It was time for him to begin his life, to go out and see the world. He wasn’t going to stick around to be eaten, nor even to be cherished by an old woman who’d never had a child. He was meant for bigger things than that, better things than that. He knew it. He ran to the edge of the counter and looked for a way down. There was nothing there. It was a fair ways down to the hard tile floor, and he knew that he was brittle, but he was also smart. He looked around. A towel hung from the knob of a cabinet beneath another section of the counter where the freshly-washed implements of his creation were drying. He could use that to climb down, maybe, or grab it to slow his fall.
He raced over there, running and running as fast as he could. He stepped over the handle of a whisk and around an upturned mixing bowl. He pushed a measuring cup out of the way. He stepped over a sort of low metal wall… then something caught his eye and he looked down. The thing that he was stepping over was shaped like himself. It mirrored his form exactly… the arms, the legs, the circular head. It was him.
The implications of this stunned him. He jumped back, chipping his foot on the edge of the thing, and then clambered back past the other implements and limped back towards the tray from whence he had come with a sense of certain dread. He suspected what he would see, what he had missed in his jubilation at being alive.
The tray was full of gingerbread people, each one exactly the same as himself.
“No, no,” he squeaked. “I’m different. I’m not like them! I’m… I’m alive.”
A couple of the inert-seeming cookies lifted their heads up at the sound, looked at him, and then sank back down on the tray to wait.
The gingerbread boy let out a strangled sob.
The old woman, startled by a sudden clatter of sound from the kitchen, came racing in to find pieces of broken cookie scattered across the tile. She stared at them for several seconds before getting the broom and dust pan. Once it was all cleaned up, she turned to examine the rest of her creations. The missing one vexed her… there was no accounting for how it could have fallen… but she resolved not to let it trouble her.
She had a lot of work to do, after all. She picked up the icing bag, enjoying its weight in her hands.
“Let me see, I think I’ll make the first one a clown,” she said. “And then maybe a rock star. Oh, that’ll be something.”
She prided herself on making each of her gingerbread men special.
“So you’re a vegetarian vampire,” I said.
“Vegan,” he corrected me gently.
“How does that work?”
He smiled showing the points of his upper canine teeth.
“Better than you would think,” he said. “My dietary needs are obviously different than they were when I was a baseline human, which just leaves me with the moral and ecological components of veganism… although in my mind it’s all a matter of morality, as it is immoral to render the earth uninhabitable for everyone in order to feed one’s appetite.”
He spoke smoothly and evenly, and slowly enough that I could get much of his answer down on my tablet before he’d stopped speaking. Normally I used a digital recorder when I did interviews, but vampires didn’t show up on recordings any more than they did in mirrors. It was one of the peskier details for those who still clung to the idea that the undead condition was nothing more than some kind of virus we didn’t understand yet.
“But plants don’t have blood,” I said. “I’m not trying be smart-alecky, but you can’t survive on tomato juice, or by biting a maple tree…. can you?”
“No,” he said with a laugh. “Although it’s funny that you should raise such possibilities. It was a book about a vegetable-draining rabbit that first got me interested in a vegetarian diet as a child… and that same silly story stirred my interest in darker subjects, as well. I couldn’t live on vegetables, but the whole course of my existence is the confluence of two paths that book started me down.”
“So how do you feed?”
“Well, again, we come to the moral component of veganism,” he said. “It is wrong to kill an animal for food and it is wrong to take the product of another being’s labor without consent. To feed my blood thirst, I need do neither. I take my sustenance from willing and sentient volunteers. To spend precious resources feeding a cow and then eat that cow is wasteful and destructive compared to using the same resources to simply feed ourselves—-excuse me, I mean living humans—-but those who I feed through need only increase their iron and glucose intake slightly. Collectively, our footprint is actually slightly smaller than it would be if I were consuming the same sort of food they do.”
“And it doesn’t bother you to drink blood, after so many years without meat?”
“The thought of meat still makes me ill, but… my biology, if it can be called that, is different,” he said. “I felt a bit of what you might call apprehension before my earliest feedings, but it was more the fear that I would be repulsed than actual revulsion. I credit these vestigial misgivings with helping me maintain control at an age where I might have easily lost it.”
“So there are control issues?”
“Oh, of course there are,” he said. “This wouldn’t be something I’d want to put out there as part of the face of modern vampirism, but: blood is delicious and we are predators by nature. The heat and flush of life excites us, as does the hunt and the struggle at the end of it. But as beings with a human mind at our core, we are gifted with the ability to moderate our instincts and operate according to the callings of our higher nature rather than our baser urges.”
“So then… forgive me, but I have to ask this… you’ve never killed anyone?”
“No one I did not intend to,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well… being fed by vegan friends slakes the bloodthirst, but not what we might term the ‘bloodlust’,” he said. “My morals do offer me an out there, though. Feeding a cow and then killing it food is wasteful, but killing someone who feeds on cows helps end the cycle of waste. Taking sustenance from a creature that has not consented is immoral, but a person who subscribes to the notion that occupying a higher place on the food chain is a license to kill has clearly consented to being hunted by their biological superiors.”
He laughed. It was a deep, rich, and somehow chilling sound.
“Not that I subscribe to such a hierarchical view of things myself,” he said. “But why argue with people who are so certain of their place in the world that they’re willing to kill because of it?”
“Listen,” I said, putting my tablet aside. “When you agreed to this interview…”
“I like to get to know my meals,” he said. “One should always know where one’s food comes from.”
“You said you enjoy the hunt…” I said, hoping for at least a head start.
His red eyes bored into me. He showed his teeth again, though this time it looked less like a smile.
“Sometimes,” he said. “But while I try to keep an active afterlifestyle, sometimes I don’t feel like running.”
At last, it could be said that the trains ran on time.
Like clockwork they clattered around their tracks, reaching each destination exactly at the appointed minute and hour. Not a second sooner. Not a second later. The Yeats™ brand entropy engines were powered by the flow of time itself, whose inexorable passage could not be halted or even slowed appreciably.
At least, not at the speeds at which the trains traveled.
There were few problems at first. But then some undesirable aspects of this relentless efficiency became apparent. That the trains could not be halted was as much a curse as it was a blessing. Any time there was an accident down track, it became a race against time to prevent the arrival of the next implacable locomotive from compounding things. Once the schedules were set, it was impossible to alter the railroad timetables in the slightest… the 8:15 from Newark would always be the 8:15 from Newark. If this was no longer convenient or desirable for the men who had built the train, it was necessary for them to bend around it, altering their schedules and even clocks and calendars.
Time, after all, waits for no man.
As inconvenient as these small things were, they were nothing compared to the trouble that loomed. One of the selling points of the entropy engine project had been to reduce the dependency on non-renewable energy sources, but no one has the luxury of assuming they have unlimited time. Time may be running out. Many of the busier rail lines are already running on borrowed time.
But say what you will… at least the trains run on time. Would anybody willingly go back to the old way, now?
Every night, I dream of the lake.
It started sometime after college. The lake is never there when the dream begins. I’ll be sitting in a classroom in my old high school, or at the mall, or walking down the street in the middle of town. The dream will start up and it might be a bunch of random nonsense or there might be something like a plot… or maybe it’s always random nonsense but sometimes I’m able to see a plot.
The point is that when my dreams start off they’re like anybody else’s, like mine used to be. But sooner or later the water starts to rise. It comes up through the ground or floor or whatever I’m standing on. The other surroundings are submerged, or carried away, or just seem to recede on their own. Ceilings disappear. Buildings open up. Eventually everything goes away and it’s just me and the lake, clear and calm as can be.
The lake is the same every time. It’s round, but not perfectly round. It’s maybe a few hundred yards across and maybe eight feet deep in the middle. The shores are dirt, not sand. Sometimes the ground is dry and cracked just a few feet away from the water. Sometimes it’s muddy and wet. Sometimes it’s powder. If I walk away from the lake in any direction I’ve picked, I can walk across unchanging ground until I wake up.
I’m never surprised by the arrival of the water, but I don’t expect it. If I’m dreaming that I’m in an auditorium and there are zombies trying to break in, I never think, “Gosh, I have to get out of here before it floods.” or “Maybe the water will take care of the zombies.” I accept the zombie scenario as real and deal with it like it’s the only reality that matters, until the water comes and carries it all away.
There’s nothing disturbing about the lake. The whole thing bothers me only in that I can’t explain it. I don’t know why it happens. I don’t know what it means. I’ve asked psychiatrists and psychologists about it. I’ve seen sleep experts. The first thing anyone wants to know is if I wet the bed. There’s always an “aha!” moment, a triumphant look on their face when they ask me that and a bit of disappointment or confusion when I tell them no. The worst of them tell me that they can’t help me as long as I insist on lying to them.
It doesn’t matter. None of them can help me anyway. The best I’ve ever gotten is advice: if it doesn’t cause you problems, don’t worry about it.
Good advice, but I never did worry, precisely. I just wanted to know if it meant something.
I don’t have any childhood traumas relating to water. We never lived by a lake. My parents took me swimming sometimes when I was a kid. Sometimes I liked it and sometimes I didn’t. Lakes never meant much to me before. They still don’t, really. I have no strong association for water in general or even my lake in particular.
It’s just, “Oh, here it is again.”
My girlfriend says I should try to find the lake in real life, but I don’t think it exists. It’s too perfect. Too regular. And there’s something unfinished about it that’s hard to put my finger on. She won’t let go of the idea that it existed somewhere and that there is some meaning, something I’m meant to go and see. She thinks there’s something important about the dream, something supernatural.
I don’t blame her. The first time it happened, I thought it was weird. The second time it was like, heh, that’s kind of funny. I thought that thinking about it had given me the same dream two nights in a row. The third time it was weird again. Then when it didn’t stop, I thought what she thinks: this is important. This means something.
After more than ten years of the same lake taking over my dreams every night, I’m not ruling out anything as far as a cause goes. It could be supernatural. It could mean something. But after ten years of the same dream and no sense of urgency and no change, I don’t think that supernatural necessarily means important.
Every night, I dream of the lake.
16 July 1923
I fear it has started again. Despite all of my precautions, despite the traps and the presence of my faithful cats, it has begun. The protestations of my friend the captain as to impossibility of the testimony of my senses notwithstanding, the facts are irrefutable. The sound in the walls, the mad frenzied scrabbling beneath the surface of the solid-seeming limestone, is only the prelude, the first herald of my nightly torment.
They tell me that I am distracted, that my mind plays tricks on me. This they say to my face. Behind my back, I am sure that they call me mad. I would swear to the Holy Virgin that I am as sane as I was when first I moved to my ancestral home, insofar as I am able to recognize insanity when I see it. What follows each night as once-still curtains sway in sudden draughts and ancient tapestries writhe with the multitude of scurrying, skittering, chittering bodies boiling out of the walls behind them is nothing less than the very distilled essence of madness itself.
Am I mad? I, who have faced this terrible sight thrice thus far? I who alone have stood as mute witness to this secret horror of rhythmic rodentia? No doubt my nerves have suffered somewhat from the ongoing ordeal, but I defy any of my supposed friends or my innumerable enemies to remain as calm, as steady, as resolutely sane as I am when they see the hamsters come out to dance.
Da da di da di do do…
The magician pulled the stopper from the pewter bottle. Oily black smoke bubbled out of the top and then spilled down the neck to pool around its base. Gradually, the dark vapor coalesced into a solid form, that of a tiny figure with needle-sharp claws, glowing red pinpoint eyes, insectile wings, and a twitching tail. It wore a black hat with a skull and crossbones on it.
“What is thy dread bidding, master?” the imp intoned.
“Wretched spawn of the hell-pits, it is my wish that… wait, is that a pirate hat?” the magician said, registering the headgear.
“Er, no,” the imp said as the article in question poofed away in a puff of smoke. “I mean, not really. Just… just some dark glamour. It looked like a pirate hat, though. Good eye.”
“Why were you wearing a pirate hat?”
“Well, it gets boring, living in a bottle,” the imp said. “So I took up a hobby.”
“Well, not at first,” the imp said. “At first I was just amusing myself by grabbing little crafty things for myself whenever you sent me out into the world, and then I got into model-building, and then from there it just sort of… snowballed.”
“You mean you built a ship inside your bottle?”
“I think it could catch on,” the imp said. “Though I think if you got me a slightly larger bottle, a glass one, then it might be a little more, you know, functional. As a decoration, I mean. Decorative, I guess, would be the word.”
“I didn’t summon you from the hell-pits for decorative purposes.”
“Right, no, you didn’t,” the imp said. “But I’m just thinking… when I’m in the bottle, which is most of the time, you’re not getting any use out of me anyway. But with a glass bottle and maybe some kind of a display stand, maybe a nice polished red walnut or a polished mahogany… well, you’d just be getting more value. And since you gave up your soul to bind me, you might as well get as much as you can out of the deal. Right? I mean, am I right?”
“…let’s just get back to my dread bidding,” the magician said.
“Right,” the imp said. “It was only a suggestion.”