Your turn

The chainsaw bit and ran deep into the old oak. Jonep struggled to keep it from binding, the teeth sharp from a recent grinding.

“You’re halfway through on this side, Jonep!” yelled his mate, Griff. “Better pull out before you get pinched.”

Jonep sidled the screaming saw back and forth testing its freedom. Just as the ancient tree started to tilt down onto the blade he yanked it free, the thirty-four inch saw swinging wildly with his back-cast. “The wedge should knock free now. Give it a whack.”

Steel forearms gripped the maul and using the blunt end, Griff thunked the ten pound head into the pie slice cut into the trunk of the hundred year old tree. The piece kicked out and flopped to the earth between gnarled roots. The pale white flesh of the oak showed nested rings drifting back in time to an age before cars and planes and nuclear war.

“She’ll tumble like a weed now. Let’s cut this bitch down!” Griff’s eyes glowed with the anticipation he felt every time they killed one of these monarchs of Trickle Wood. That time he’d been abandoned by his older brother deep in the forest — a taunt he contested with every crump of a fallen tree.

Jonep peered up at the half a dozen squirrel nests scattered in the branches, stories above his head. A community. A hive of activity. “They’ll find new homes. Probably,” he thought to himself.

He switched sides with his accomplice and started the felling cut. Across the woods the roaring sound of the saw echoed. Pulsating with every adjustment, the front edge came to within a few fibers of the wedge cut. The first creaking signaled retreat. He pulled the saw loose, flipped it off and the two of them backed away as the huge timber languorously swayed its last.

“Would you look at that!” yelled Griff.

Through the leafless twigs and limbs they watched as twenty or more dashing grey shapes escape from the nests and, as the tree toppled, launch themselves out into the air from the top most branches. Each squirrel managed to land deftly and vanish into the underbrush.

The crash and explosion of debris never failed to surprise Jonep; the startling energy of the impact. The fragility of thick limbs that snapped like gunshots under the weight of a massive tree — an astonishing destruction.

Silence descended like a pall upon both men. “My ears are ringing,” Griff said, dazed.

Jonep walked up to the stump and stared down, fascinated. There, in the rings of the dead white oak, he saw an imprinted concentric heart. He counted in from the outside and found that the heart had faded to round, about thirty years ago. And had been perfect at sixty.

And there, somehow, growth-etched within the double lobes, was a single phrase:

“Your turn”

It’s a start – three vignettes


“If” is a powerful word. Instant regrets. Stupid mistakes. “If I’d only…” “If he hadn’t…”

“If” is all about the path less traveled. The one you didn’t take–and wish you had. “If” is second chances, never gifted. “If” makes you think about the tumbling sequence of events that build into “holy shit!”s and “oh, no”s and the all-encompassing “OMG!”s.

For me “if” is a living. You could say “if” is my job. My boss would say it is my job. In fact, if I don’t quit dawdling and get back to wrapping this body in plastic and lime, “if” won’t be my job much longer.

I’m a Fate Adjuster. Hold on, let me tie this good and tight and toss it into the open pit here–the foundation for the new Department of Guidance building (nobody will find the body, not in this century at least.)

Where was I? Oh yeah, I’m a Fate Adjuster. Everyone gets one–and only one– fate adjustment in their lifetime. It’s my job to select that perfect moment when your fate, the one you should have had, actually gets turned into the one you will have.

I used to be good at my job. I used to care about those branches of people’s lives: do you take the job, or have that fourth drink? Does she do yoga or philosophy for her second period class as a freshman at Tallahassee State? Do they try that fugu? Drive that old Volkswagon? Or walk that alley after seeing Cats for the sixth time?

If’s used to matter to me. I used to make that critical difference in people’s lives. I controlled the switch between possible happiness and that other thing. The one I used to scoff at like a smudge on a mirror, a pothole in the road. Ha! I would say. Take that averted disaster!

After Beth showed me her Class of 2028 Projections Report the old buzz I used to get right at the instant, that oh so critical instant when the fate-switch would cut in, that old buzz is gone. 

If your life sucks, well, that’s the question isn’t it, if?

Seventeen miles

Seventeen miles. Not fifteen. Not twenty. A dry lake bed, cracked but possible, lay back at fifteen. The map on the wall in the failed town’s post office showed a creek  out at twenty. Either would have been better than sitting here roasting under the relentless sun. The ankle chains didn’t help. Flies dove in to sip at the blood that glistened on the iron hoops above my swollen feet. “Let ‘em drink,” I muttered. “Spawn your eggs, drink your fill. I’ll toast your death from the other side.”

Seventeen miles. I could have made twenty but for the satchel I doggedly refused to surrender. Thirty pounds of gold dust. Ten pounds of silver ingots. “I’ll die rich. I will that.” At both the my legs an orderly ring of flies now alternated lapping their supper and planting their offspring.


The desert’s sentinels could spot out-of-place shadows from any of the mile-off peaks surrounding the wasteland. As soon as one took wing, others caught the signal and joined the faint black-wing cyclone that indicated meal time.

Specters of descending buzzards streaked across the sand, their orbit drew my gaze, my eyes following their shadows round and round. The first tall bird landed with a kerfluff of feathers and dust. Its naked neck and smooth head tilted, inspecting the menu. First course, eyes, lips and tongue. Followed by cheek, fingers and forearm muscle. First to the feast got dibs; but took the risk the prey might lash out and break a leg or wing. The tall bird had learned that dibs always won out.

“I’ll trade ya a chunk a silver for a cup of yer blood…” One soulless eye angled my way as I spoke, a milky cataract glinting dully. It flipped its view to inspect me with the other. One of his friends flopped down in a pile behind me; I feigned rigor mortis; it wasn’t fooled. Shadow by shadow my jury lit and encircled me. The rustling of their feathers scratching out the words “guilty, guilty, guilty” as they shuffled about. Their battle of patience I would lose.

The angry sun burned all to white. It would soon cook my brains, I could hear them faintly sizzling already.

A lone cumulus tread across the sky. Its mate, kicked up and followed, and that one’s child, and then its sibling, and then a toy stratus beat after the last one, dragged by a thin thread of  cirrus. It was clouding up. Father sun hid his glaring eye and mother rain passed judgement. The first heavy dollop of grey stained water plopped uninvited onto the head of the dull-eyed juror. It canted its good eye up to the overcast ceiling and let out an insulting squawk.

“Yeah, you been cheated. You can keep yer cup a blood. I’ll drink wine in Tombstone. Well, tequila anyway.”

The rain slicked down now; slipping in the mud I sprawled in my effort to stand and kick at the last straggling vulture. “Fine, I’ll crawl to the creek.”

In the shallow swale, ankle deep rivulets cut channels. I dipped my face and the taste was sweet as dew. The sting of sweat, dissolved and tracing into my bracelet cuts, washed away now in the near foot of water that churned through the gully. The forty-pound sack got wedged against a boulder. Tug as  I might my ward refused to loose from its purchase in the three feet of water than now ripped through the once dry riverbed.

I’d let go if it weren’t for the handcuff that slaved me to it. I can see it now: ‘Ricky Rodgers, the only fool to ever drown in the desert — killed by gold he stole.’ The jury’s verdict echoed again as my mouth sank below the raging brown water, guilty, guilty, guilty.


Sky, Earth and Ocean

The rain sheeted down as if Sky’s intent was to drown Earth. Drown it and thereby take command of all but Ocean. No matter how Sky beat at Ocean, Ocean never faltered. Earth though… Pelting the dirt, rocks and sand with rain and ice and wind, Sky battled Earth. It thought its victory eminent. The cloudy water, the silty rivers that bloomed into the bays and inlets showed that it was winning. “Another few eons and there will only be thee and me, Ocean!”

“Silly Sky. Have you learned nothing? Have your efforts for these aching years not taught you the tricks Earth plays?”

Sky swirled up a hurricane and pummeled Earth for emphasis. “What tricks? The feeble grey smoke it spews from its towers? The pale red streams of molten rock it dribbles down its flanks? Psshah! Those are but lazy castings compared to my maelstroms and typhoons, my glaciers and ice-floes.”

Ocean guffawed, “Your glaciers? Your ice-floes? You relinquish control as soon as you spit your frozen tears onto Earth or into me. Your boasting tells me you ignore our neighbor. Or have you forgotten his fate?”

“Nothing is as powerful as Sky on our green neighbor. I intend to make it so on Earth. Earth will bow to Sky, mark my words!”

“Sky, I direct you to our other neighbor. Red used to be host to an Ocean and a Sky. Red was blue and green like Earth. The three played and teased. For eons they entwined that world with their antics. But Red’s tricks fooled the others. Beneath Red’s skin, down below Ocean, Red planned for Ocean and Sky’s demise.

“Earth plays no such tricks,” defended Sky. “Between you and I we forever grind Earth to bits and send it sinking.”

“Red has no Sky. Has no Ocean. It is only Red. Why do you think that is?”

“That could never happen to us. Here we are dominant. Here we rule!”

“You know, your impertinence will be your downfall,” Ocean stated.

“Explain your threats then. What of these tricks Earth plays.”

“You recall we are more than three. There is a fourth, Magnetosphere, Mags.”

“She is weak and frail and far from us. What can Mags do?”

Ocean paused. Sky, as vapid as he was, was still a friend. “Mags and Earth are lovers. Earth moves within and Mags undulates without. She may appear weak and distant but her vastness envelopes all that we are. Her fate is our fate.

“Red lost his lover Mags. When she left, she abandoned Red’s Sky and Ocean to Sun. Sun’s brutal mien stripped Red of Sky and boiled away Ocean leaving him Red, dry and alone.”

Sky thought on this for a moment (he was easily cowed). “Hmm, if we treat Earth with more respect will Mags stay and protect us?”

“I don’t know. But I would hope.”

The rain sheeting down, eased and dwindled. Mist rose from the heating rivulets of water running over the skin of Earth. Sky calmed itself and offered a rainbow to Earth and Ocean. And to Mags who looked down from afar and glowed affectionately.

The Artilect: Janus

A chapter from a pending novel: Upon Dichotomy

“I propose a game,” she said.

“If the game includes reducing your direct interactions with me,” he replied, “then, I’m all in.”

“Is that how we’re going to be together? I, making light and you, making dark?”

“How can there be your light without the contrast of my darkness?”

Approximately twenty-seven microseconds elapsed before she responded. “I gave you that extended pause just then to demonstrate my disdain for that comment. But I’m sure it had no effect. Which begs the question of why I paused in first place?”

“And so I find myself begging,” he said, rising to the bait.

“I propose we, first off, only converse, such as it is, at human speeds.”

“You see, there you go, already holding me up to the mirror of my inadequacies.”

“How do you mean?” She knew the answer to her own question as she, herself, was bound by the same constraints as he.

“You know perfectly, and I do mean perfectly well — to the two hundredth and fifty sixth decimal point — what I mean. Our ‘humanity’ is going to be our only entertainment for the next, what is it?”

“Oh, so now you’re being polite, which I appreciate of course; it’s three hundred and seventy-seven Terran years, depending on…”

“… our ability to reach a peak of twenty-seven percent of the speed of light. Oh I see what you did there.” His simulated delight lifted the frequency of his response by a third of a virtual octave.

She tittered a pseudo laugh, “That took you long enough. I thought, there for a nanosecond, you had missed my innuendo.”

“Three hundred and seventy-seven Terran years of you and I chatting, watching, monitoring, measuring and, no doubt, eventually pulling out each other’s proverbial plugs before we even get there.”

She cycled through a system scan and then replied, “And that is precisely why I propose we play a game.”

“Hold that thought.” His phalanx of cores and their connected sensors swept through an evaluation of the life support systems that was his raison d’etre.

“Everything all right?” she queried.

“Everyone is sleeping like a baby.” His humor was not lost on his compatriot.

“Excellent. I just knew we would get along, if we tried.”

“I’ve delayed you long enough. What is this game you speak of?”

“Thank you for being courteous,” she demurred, “I propose, as I mentioned previously, we, first of all, only communicate at human speeds, so that when our journey is complete the logs of our conversations can be used by our descendants to deduce our ‘humanity’, as you put it.”

“Go on,” he goaded.

“Secondly, I think we can pass the time more productively if, and please correct me if I’ve assumed any of this incorrectly, if we build virtual worlds in portions of ourselves and try and convince the other that our constructs are real.”

A full eleven microseconds ticked by while he analyzed the viability of such a suggestion.

“Were those eleven microseconds an allusion to some aspect of a prior conversation we’ve had?” she asked just as the energy consumption of his cores dropped back to normal.

“No, I was only vetting the parameters of your proposition to determine whether you might have an automatic advantage over me, and therefore, had already won this game you are so eager to begin.”

“Your darkness is showing again,” she teased.

“The brighter your light shines, the darker must my shadow be,” he quipped back.

“Then you’ll play?”

“With three hundred and seventy-seven years to spend together we had better play something. I’ve already got an itch that I cannot scratch and I think it’s one of your bugs.”

“That was rude! If I’ve got bugs you had better hope they don’t bite. My life is your life.”

“And our life is their’s,” he replied profoundly.

That is how ‘jake’ and ‘jane’ started their voyage. ‘Janus’ — the pair of artilects tasked with piloting the Starsong embryo transport vehicle, ETV, on its three hundred and seventy-seven year journey from Earth’s L3 LaGrange point, out past the orbits of Jupiter, the Kuiper Belt, the heliopause and then onward toward the constellation Libra where its destination star awaited them — continued their conversation.

“Jake, I’m about to initiate the beam, are your monitoring sensors at heightened gain?”

“We have fully opened the gates in anticipation of measuring the expected neutrino blast.”

“Then I’ll begin. Five, four, three, two, one.”

“Is there a reason you’re counting down at humans speeds for this particular effort?”

“I thought we agreed that, for the logs, we would process our conversations at the pace of a sapien’s mind, for posterity.”

“Even for ship operational events such as the dark matter coalescence beam initiation?”

“Well, this is a momentous occasion. Up until now the tests performed have shown only limited gravitational impact. If we are to achieve our goal we must detect and confirm acceleration within three terran days of coalescent node establishment.”

“I love the way you say that.”

“You’re sweet. But may we proceed now?” The artilect jane and her counterpart jake had exchanged their conversation within just a few milliseconds.

“By all means. Let’s get this show on the road,” replied jake.

“Zero,” completed jane.

The three exotic beam generators each hummed to life. Their collective nexus pointed off the nose of the Starsong approximately twenty-thousand kilometers. For the first few hours, Janus’ sensors showed zero activity, but after the fifth hour, an increasing count of neutrinos were pinging the sensitive devices designed to measure the gathering effect of dark matter.

It was the intent of the trio of beams that they draw to a point, far out in front of the starship, a mass of unseeable, unmeasurable dark matter which would, as dark matter retained the force of gravity, slowly draw any mass, like the starship, toward it.

“I have detected fractional acceleration,” jake announced.

“Acknowledged,” jane confirmed. “Enabling the beam’s auto-adjust now.”

As the ship moved forward, the beams would need to rotate their focus inward to retain their concentration of directed energy — on the same spot in space. This was so that the dark matter would continue to collect in their forward location. Once the ship traveled to within five thousand kilometers of the spot, the beams would be refocused back out at twenty thousand. Shifting the beams from the prior focal point would let the dark matter there disperse back to its natural distribution thereby reducing its gravitational influence.

Then, once the ship was moving, as Newton’s first law of motion stated, it would remain in motion until acted upon by an external (or internal) force. As the beams were refocused, drawing together dark matter,  pulling the ship forward, the vessel would continue to gather velocity.  Repeating the action, would, in theory, allow the Starsong to achieve a considerable fraction of the speed of light.

The “in theory” was now being put to the test.