"Once it’s gone, it’s gone."

I stared into the crackling chamber, trying in vain to see through the flickering light at the small block of aluminum that had been placed within.  “This isn’t bad for my eyes, is it?” I asked, probably too late.

But behind me, the scientist standing at the control panel just chuckled.  “Nah, it’s fine,” he told me.  “These goggles are really just for the over-zealous safety people.  They spend most of the time protecting my forehead.”

After another minute of staring fruitlessly into the small chamber through the thick protective glass panel, I gave up, turning back around.  “So, can you tell me more about this ‘brane shifting’ phenomenon?” I asked, hoping vaguely for some good quotes that would help provide a solid finish to my article.

“I can, but probably nothing that you’ll actually understand,” the other man replied, scratching at a small beard on his chin.  “Gimme a second to think about a good analogy.”

The man might be wearing a lab coat and goggles, but he still didn’t seem like much of a scientist to me, I couldn’t help thinking.  Under the white coat, which hung loosely open in the front, he wore faded jeans and a button-up plaid shirt.  Between the clothing and the aw-shucks attitude, he gave me the impression more of a part-time farm hand than a serious researcher pushing the boundaries of science and physics.

And despite the fact that he still looked like a fresh-faced youth struggling to grow his first beard, Professor Gene Hardy had his full doctorate.  Every time I considered that, I felt quite inadequate in my own qualifications, nothing but a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

Because I’d taken a couple science classes, my editor had assigned me to the science beat.  I now spent most of my time nodding and putting on an understanding expression as professors and academics spat gobbledygook at me across their messy, paper-covered desks.  Despite the expression, however, it almost all went over my head.

A good analogy would be a welcome break from my usual dense line of science that my interview subjects tried to feed me.

Dr. Hardy made a couple last adjustments, and then stepped away as the violent blasts of light from within the heavily armored chamber began to subside.  “All right, let’s try this,” he said, stretching his arms back behind his back so that his joints popped.  “I’ve got an analogy, but I’m not sure how it will hold up.”

I nodded, checking my voice recorder to make sure that it was running (it was).

“Everything in the universe,” Dr. Hardy began, “has its own location.  Coordinates in space and time.  This location is an integral part of every object – it defines that object’s existence.  Without a location, a thing can’t really exist.”

He held up a finger.  “At least, we assume.  Remember that all of this is theoretical – we’re pretty much just guessing.”

“But of course, things aren’t ever as simple as what we’d like.  As it turns out, this location, these coordinates embedded in every object, also contains the history of that object.  People who believe in homeopathy will rejoice when they hear this – the coordinates of some object don’t just tell where it is now, but also where it was, showing how it’s moved around the universe.”

Hardy scratched his chin again.  “My analogy is to compare it to a FedEx package,” he said.  “If a package has been bounced around a bunch by FedEx, you can look at all the airport and location codes stamped on it, and you can figure out both where it is – the destination address – and where it has been – all the other airports that package has passed through.”

I nodded.  “Okay, that sort of makes sense,” I said, not lying.  “But so what’s your big fancy machine here doing?”

“Well, like I said, this is all pretty much just educated guesswork at the moment,” Hardy replied.  “And while that’s good enough to get into some scientific journals, it’s not really useful in the real world.  So this, here, is all supposed to prove the theory.  We erase the coordinates, and poof!  Object vanishes.”

The light and energy crackling inside the chamber had almost completely faded away, now, and Hardy gestured towards the viewing panel.  “Oh my god,” I gasped, as I peered inside.

The aluminum block on the platform within the chamber had vanished.

“Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” Hardy agreed, but he wasn’t looking as happy as I would have expected.  “See, erasing the coordinates from the object makes it disappear.

“But once it’s gone, it’s gone.  It’s proving to be a lot tougher to get it back…”

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The Perfect Murder

“I gotta say, in terms of being a scumbag, you’re actually doing really well.”

I started at those words, spinning around and nearly jumping a foot in the air.  I could have sworn that I was alone!  There was no one else in the building at this hour – I knew that the janitors wouldn’t be here for forty minutes, still, and I’d seen the last person leave the office a good two hours previously!

Yet nonetheless, there was a man sitting at one of the desks, two away from me, leaning back in the chair with his feet propped up on the faux wood in front of him.  From under his hat’s brim, the man’s eyes looked curiously dark.  Dressed in a dark charcoal suit, nearly black, and a black hat with a white ribbon around the brim, he grinned at me, briefly flashing his teeth.

“Wh-who are you?”  For a moment, I couldn’t even find my own voice, but I managed to get the words out without sounding too strangled.  As I spoke, I managed to get a slight hold on my surprise.  “You don’t belong here!”

Indeed, I didn’t recognize him.  And considering that I’m the boss of this corporate division, I ought to recognize anyone who has access to the building.

“How did you get in here?” I continued, the shock in my voice finally starting to be replaced by anger.  “You know that you’re trespassing, don’t you?  I could call Security!”

Instead of answering my questions, the man waved one hand towards the open drawer at the desk in front of me.  “See, it’s a really great plan,” he said, not sounding especially concerned about my threat.  “Maybe if someone was really looking for it, they might find some trace, but no one’s going to bother.  Well done!”

This man knew what I was doing?  No, he couldn’t.  I stared back at him, blinking like a fish out of water, as I tried to readjust.  I had too many questions in my brain, all of them shouting at once and drowning each other out.

As I tried to find some sort of mental line to grab, the man stood up, swinging his legs down from on top of the desk and strolling over to me.  He reached past me, snagging one of the small candies out of the drawer open in front of me, unwrapping it with a surprisingly loud crinkle as the plastic came apart.

“I mean, unfortunate allergy plus sweet tooth is basically asking for disaster in the first place,” the man continued, popping the candy up into the air with a flick of his thumb and catching it perfectly in his mouth.  “Everyone will assume that a couple peanut ones got mixed in at the factory.  Probably won’t be an investigation at all.”

Outwardly, I was still keeping it together, but inside, I could feel myself folding, collapsing.  This stranger, whoever he was, somehow knew all about my dark, twisted, evil plan!  He would turn me in, and I’d go to prison, and probably be forced to be some burly inmate’s-

“Relax, I’m not going to turn you in!” the man called out, chuckling in a good-natured sort of manner.  He leaned over, clapping me on the back, and I nearly choked.  “Hell, I’m here to congratulate you!”

“Who are you?” I asked again, staring at him.  There was something really off-putting about his eyes, but I couldn’t pinpoint what it was.  “How do you know about my plan?”

Again, he chuckled at me, like a parent watching a small toddler fail to build a tower of blocks.  “Why, I’m a devil, of course!” he said, as if this should be obvious.

I stared at him.  “The Devil?”

“A devil,” he corrected.  “Asmodeus is my actual name.  Not as big as good ol’ Lucern himself, but pretty high up on the chain, if I do say so myself.”  The man straightened his suit lapels, preening a bit.

I just stared back at him.  Devils were real?  And one of them was here talking to me?  “Are, are you taking me to Hell?” I asked him, wondering if I should run away.  Probably not.  If this devil-man, Asmodeus, could appear in a secure building, he could probably catch an out-of-shape mid-level executive.

“Of course not!” Asmodeus replied happily.  “But I’ve had my eye on you for a while, wondering how you were going to solve this dilemma.  Sleeping with your underlings is great while it’s happening, but the endings are always just so messy.” The man emphasized that last word, drawing it out almost like a hiss.

“And killing her like this, using her food allergy, well, it’s really a stroke of brilliance!” he went on, full of energy, as if we were discussing a pep rally and not a murder.  “I’m just here to shake your hand, as one respectable evil-doer to another!”

And the devil stuck out his hand towards me, still grinning.

I stared back at him, not reaching out for that offered hand.  The man wasn’t threatening, but his eyes were staring at me, dark and deep.  In fact, I realized as I stared back at him, his eyes were darker than any human’s eyes ought to be.  There was no pupil, just two inky black irises gazing back at me.

After another minute, Asmodeus chuckled again, letting his hand fall back down to his side.  “Well, that’s okay,” he said.  “Hitler didn’t like shaking hands either.”

I looked down desperately at the candies that I was mixing in with the other treats in the woman’s desk drawer.  “I could take the candies out?” I offered, my voice pleading.

But Asmodeus was shaking a finger at me, a naughty little “no-no” gesture.  “Doesn’t work that way!” he said gaily.  “It’s all about the intention.  You’re already well and deep in it, now – might as well go through with it, so at least you don’t have two problems!”

The man looked as if he wanted to say more, but a beeping from his pocket made him start, and he pulled out a sleek black rectangle.  “Oh, well, gotta go,” he said, sounding only slightly crestfallen.  “Other sinners to see, you know.  But hey, good luck with the murder!”

There was no gout of flame.  I simply blinked, and he was gone.  I was alone in the office once again.

For a long time, I stood there, no thoughts moving in my head, just staring down at the drawer in front of me.

It had seemed like the perfect answer.  Hell, it still was.  One little candy, and the insufferable woman would be gone from my life.  No more blackmailing me for promotions, because in a moment of weakness I’d let her lead me up to her hotel room!

I could take the candies out, perhaps.  I’d mixed them in, but I could just throw out the whole lot.  It would be obvious that someone had been in her desk, but maybe it was just a janitor.  She wouldn’t know the bullet she’d dodged.

Slowly, however, I pushed the drawer shut.

I knew that I was already a bad person.  I’d gone too far to recover, slipped too far down that alluring path.

Maybe I should have shaken his hand after all.

Book 4 of 52: "Three Signs of a Miserable Job" by Patrick Lencioni

It looks like I’m going to be switching back and forth, from fiction to non-fiction books and back again, as I work through this 52 book challenge.

I picked up this book, “Three Signs of a Miserable Job” by Patrick Lencioni, expecting to get to hear tales of jobs where employees are miserable, perhaps learning about how even those “perfect” jobs like actor or rock star don’t end up leading to happiness.

I did learn about why those “perfect” jobs aren’t so perfect – but it was presented in a totally unexpected way.

This book tells a story in the form of a parable, following a displaced and unhappily retired CEO by the name of Brian.  Brian believes that proper management, rather than just focusing on profits and the bottom line, is what leads to happy employees and a happy company.  As we follow his adventures, from buying a stake in a pizza restaurant to trying to turn around larger companies, we get to see his three core beliefs about management at work.

Those beliefs are founded on the idea that all employees seek three things in order to make their careers feel rewarding and enjoyable:

1. Metrics – most employees have no way of truly telling how well they’re performing at their job.  For a hotel clerk who checks in guests, there’s no tracking of numbers – and for someone in the middle of an organization, like an office receptionist, there’s no real numbers to consider at all for evaluating performance.  A good boss or manager needs to find a way to provide real data so employees can track their unbiased performance.

2. Relevance – employees need to know how their work actually benefits someone.  If you file away papers in an office all day, what does that actually do to help the rest of the outside world?  A good manager needs to make sure employees understand who their job benefits – even if that person is the manager himself.

3. Recognition – employees want to have a manager who knows them as more than just a cog in a machine.  Here, we risk straying into some touchy-feely stuff, and there probably are some employees who don’t want their manager to really be a friend.  But Lencioni emphasizes that some level of connection, knowing some facts about employees, whether it be that they live with their parents, just had a baby, or are coming down with a cold, is useful in helping those employees feel like they are truly valued.

Of course, in the parable in the book, application of these techniques works out amazingly for our case studies.  Whether this truly translates into the real world is less certain, but the book definitely resonates with me, and its lessons seem useful and applicable.

Now, I just wish I had some employees to manage…

Time to read: About 2 hours.  As a narrative, this went quite fast.

A Werewolf in Time

This time, I’m not going to be unprepared.

In between glances up at the sky, I take another look at all of my equipment, laid out neatly on a tarp.  I’ve been over the list of equipment ten, a hundred, a thousand times already, but I’m still checking it once again.  I can feel nervousness curling up in my belly, a stirring, restless viper.

It’s hot outside, the air almost oppressively still.  August fifteenth, two thousand and eleven.  Even the bugs that normally buzz through the dusk seem to be exhausted by the heat; I can only barely hear them chirping in the tall grass outside my barn.

I glance down at my watch.  Moonrise is different from sunrise, and the full moon is going to hit its apex in under an hour.

“Oh, I wish that I just sprouted fur and claws,” I whisper quietly to myself as I begin to wrap up the tarp of equipment, stowing each item in its own slot inside my pack.

Forty minutes later, I lifted the much heavier rucksack up, slinging it over one shoulder, testing the weight.  It was heavy, yes, but not unbearable.  And finally, now that I had been back in a civilized time, I’d been able to stock up on so many essentials that I no longer took for granted.

I thought back, remembering the time when I’d been stuck for four weeks in the Dark Ages.  God, that had been an exercise in frustration – and only in part because I couldn’t even curse without a priest overhearing and attempting to set me on fire!

I couldn’t help but grin.  If those silly men in robes had known what I actually was, they wouldn’t have ever lowered their torches and pitchforks.

I could sense the time approaching, could feel the static growing in the air.  There was always this feeling as the full moon approached, the sense that I was faintly electrified.  I remembered that, when this first started, I had looked forward to that feeling.

Now, it only made me sigh, waiting for it to be over.

As I understood it, I was one of the lucky ones.  For some, this condition manifests itself as a child, or even as an infant.  And when an infant leaps a couple centuries or further away from its crib and loving parents, it doesn’t survive for long.  I at least made it through most of my awkward teenage years before the first jump.

But then, it had been almost relentless.  I’d had a couple rare points of contact with others like me, others of my kind, and they told me that most didn’t jump every month.  “Some of us go years without making a jump,” I had been told.

Wonderful.  So I was special – or cursed, perhaps.

I’d learned to survive, that was for certain.  That, it seemed, was the one thing that I could do.  I couldn’t maintain any relationship, not when the woman might wake up next to an empty bed one morning as I woke up millenia in the future.  I couldn’t buy a house, couldn’t settle down, couldn’t be anything but a nomadic traveler.

Some places were harder than others.  As the static grew stronger, I whisper a quick prayer that I won’t be back in the middle centuries, anywhere between two hundred and sixteen hundred AD.  Those were the places where I was usually forced to take to the forests, relying on hunting and a solitary existence.

I hadn’t visited Rome much, but I’d heard it was nice, especially for an enterprising young man who knew how to build steam engines.

The sensation was so strong, now, I could barely focus on anything else.  All of my hair stood up on end, as if striving to point up towards the luminous white circle rising up into the sky.

The jump was coming.

Wherever I land, I pray to myself, let there be a library.  Libraries are my favorite place – a repository of knowledge, more reliable than the Internet, more useful than any other building.

And once, just once, I hope that I’ll find an entry from another weretraveler, another lunar jumper, like me.

I don’t need to glance down at my watch to know that it’s time.  The faint light of the moon flows down, over my body, wrapping around me in a cocoon of light.  I close my eyes as the bands wrap around me, blinding me to outside.  I grip my rucksack tightly, not wanting to leave it behind.

Blink.

And then I’m gone, opening my eyes to a new time…

Welcome to Hell, here’s your chain.

When I finally reached the front of the long line, I stepped up to the absurdly tall podium, tilting my head back to gaze up at the shadowy figure standing behind it and staring down at me.

The creature leaned forward, its head sliding down on a long neck to stare down at me.  I felt like a guilty schoolboy, pinned in place by a forbidding mistress.

Most schoolmarms, however, don’t have eyes filled with flames, giant venom-dripping spikes sticking out in a ruff around their heads, or scaly grasping fingers that end in terrifyingly long and sticky claws…

“AND WHAT HEINOUS CRIME HAVE YOU-“

The monstrous figure paused, turned its head, and let out several hacking coughs.  “Sorry about that, feather in my throat,” it went on in a much more normal tone of voice.  “Anyway, what did you do to end up here?”

I glanced around.  I’d been vaguely hoping that this was just a test, that I wasn’t actually in Hell, but my hopes were rapidly fading.  “Um, I guess I stole a bunch of money,” I fessed up.  It didn’t feel like nearly as big of a deal as it had when I was still alive, but I supposed that it had stuck me here.

The figure nodded.  “Oh, sure.  Times are tough, need to feed the family, all of that, yes?”

“Well, no.  I was a lawyer and I embezzled a few million.”

“For charities?”

“To buy a bigger boat than my boss.”

The figure shook its nightmare-inducing head, making a tutting noise.  “Shameful.”  Its face brightened somewhat, if that can happen with a mouthful of razor sharp fangs.  “I do, however, know just who to pair you with!”

Pair me with?  Before I could ask, however, the figure raised its scaly fingers and somehow managed to snap them without taking off any digits.

There was a clink at my feet.  A long iron chain had appeared, clamped onto my ankle and trailing off into the darkness.

I glanced up at the devil.  “Go on, follow it,” the creature encouraged me.

Well, what could I do?  I set off after the chain, trying to gather up the length in my arms as I followed it back towards its source.

The other end, I discovered several caverns later, turned out to be attached to a large, blue-collar angry worker by the name of Charlie.  He was probably six inches and fifty pounds heavier than me, and he had the beefy arms and body of a dock worker.

“Er, hi,” I greeted him, once it was clear that our legs were attached by chain.  “I’m David, and I guess we’re linked together or something.”

The man nodded, not looking especially enthusiastic about this.  “Hi,” he returned.  “So what are you in for?”

“Embezzlement.  You?”

The man shrugged.  “A guy ripped me off, so I killed him,” he confessed without much concern.  “Ran him off the road.  Unfortunately, I didn’t really think about what would happen to me after, so I went down with him.  Woke up here.”

I nodded, wondering if I should be showing some sort of commiseration.  “Small world, actually,” I said, more to fill the silence than any other reason.  “I actually died from some asshole running into me with his car.  We tumbled right off the edge.”

“Really?  The guy I killed, he was an embezzler!” Charlie said, looking a little interested.  “Some nose in the air lawyer, totally ripped off my company so he could buy himself a boat or some shit.”

It took another minute for realization to dawn, but it clicked for both of us.  “You!”  I gasped out in shock and anger, glaring at the man.

“You!” he returned, and I saw his big, meaty hands starting to tighten into fists.

For the next indeterminate period of time, there was a lot of fighting.

It turns out that in Hell, there are a lot of weapons sitting around!  And some of them really don’t seem to fit in.  I mean, I can understand why a devil would need a pitchfork (presumably for prodding at sinners, I feel), but I’m still not certain who decided that it was a good idea to leave a fully loaded stack of assault rifles over behind a stalagmite.

However, as the battle against Charlie waged on, it finally started to sink in to me that I wasn’t doing any actual damage.  Sure, we were batting each other around a lot, and it was great to see his body shudder from getting hit with bullets, but there was no wounding, no killing going on.  And as soon as I stopped shooting, Charlie popped right back up to come lunging at me with a battleaxe he’d found somewhere.

So once I ran out of bullets, I let the gun drop from my hands, and slipped down to take a seat on the cavern floor.  Charlie, still red-faced and puffing, took a few more swings at me with the axe, but he eventually gave up on the futile effort.  He dropped the weapon to the ground with a clatter and sagged down beside me.

“Well, I feel a bit better,” he commented at length, as we gazed out.  There wasn’t much of a view, but it was at least better than running around grabbing weapons.

“Yeah, me too.”  I looked at the man, noting that he did look much calmer.  “Good shot with that axe, though.  You ever play any ball?”

“Minor league, yeah,” he responded, looking surprised that I’d caught the shape of his stance.  “Busted my knee up, though, so I couldn’t go pro.  I wasn’t that good anyway, to tell the truth.”

“Looked like you kept the form, at least,” I offered.  I received a nod of thanks for the compliment.

For a few more minutes, we sat there.  “So, now what?” Charlie finally asked.  “Aren’t we supposed to be getting tortured, or something?”

I looked around.  The other man was right – there was definitely a noticeable absence of grinning demons with pitchforks, or pools of boiling lava filled with screaming souls.  “Maybe it will start at some point,” I guessed.  “I mean, I feel pretty bad about what I did, that’s for certain.”

“Yeah, me too,” Charlie agreed, although he didn’t meet my eye.

I thought about just lapsing back into silence, but there was still a chain around our legs, connecting us, and I really did feel bad.  “Hey, man, look,” I said, getting the other fellow’s attention.  “I really am sorry about the whole embezzlement thing.  I didn’t ever stop to think about who I’d be hurting.”

For a second, Charlie glared angrily at me, but he couldn’t keep it up, and the angry expression dropped.  “Aw, hell,” he finally said.  “I’m sorry, too.  I was just so angry that I decided I had to kill the sunovabitch – no offense,” he added.

“None taken.”

“But now, I mean, I could probably have gotten the money back, and I still had a good business and all that.  It wasn’t like you really took anything from me I couldn’t get back.”  Charlie grimaced, but then his face cleared.  “And I’m sorry too.”

I held out my smaller, office worker hand, and Charlie shook it with his big meaty mitt.

Feeling much better about ourselves, we sat on the ground of the cavern a bit longer.  But then, as I glanced up and stretched, I noticed something I’d missed before.

“Hey Charlie, look over there!”

“What’s that?”

I shrugged.  “It looks like a door,” I said, climbing up to my feet to go approach it.  But after a few steps, I noticed a jerk at my leg.  I glanced down, and saw that the chain attaching our legs had grown noticeably shorter.  “Dude, come on.  Let’s go see it.”

Charlie looked less than thrilled at having to get up, but he climbed to his feet and we ambled over.  The door looked like a typical wooden interior door, but set into the wall of the cavern.  I reached out for the handle, but paused, glancing at the man I’d been forcibly assigned.

“We could always just stay here,” I said, checking with him.

Charlie shook his head.  When he glanced back at me, I was emboldened to see that there was no more anger in those eyes, just determination.  “Nah, let’s see what’s next.”

So I opened the door, and we stepped through.

Book 3 of 52: "The Southern Reach Trilogy" by Jeff Vandermeer

Author’s note: Yes, this is a trilogy of three books; however, if I hope to space out this 52-book challenge over anything close to 52 weeks, it’s going to take some creativity to not advance too quickly.

I can’t recall the last series of books that had me throwing my hands up in the air this many times in frustration… while still wanting to read the next book!  Talk about frustration.  Annoyed, bothered, but with no choice but to continue in hopes of finding answers.

The plot is difficult to even summarize without giving away spoilers, but here’s my best shot:

About thirty years ago, an area of the United States (designated “Area X”) was consumed by an event that barricaded it off from the rest of the world, with only a single doorway, or point of access inside.  Strange things are happening inside, and it has fallen to the government division known as the Southern Reach to figure out what is happening.  The Southern Reach attempts to accomplish this by sending in expeditions, each group trained and conditioned for the best odds of success.

Despite all of this, the agency hasn’t been making much progress.

Although there’s a common core of characters that persist through the whole series, each book takes a different approach, focusing on different characters and a different area.  The downside to this, of course, is that some characters are much more interesting than others.  I was much more interested in what is actually happening inside Area X, as documented in books 1 and 3, than I cared about the dysfunction of the Southern Reach chronicled in book 2.

In addition, my biggest frustration with this series is that, much like in a horror movie, Vandermeer has the ability to paint very descriptive scenes, using beautiful language, without actually telling the audience much about what we want to know.  We learn in great detail about the scenes of nature and the birds and plants that are spotted, but the strange and unnatural buildings that are encountered, and the creatures within, barely get more than a couple very broad strokes of the literary brush.

Instead, as a reader, I found myself wading through pages of flowery and beautiful descriptions in order to find the tiny little nugget of story.  There are many beguiling, interesting threads opened up, but many of them remain frustratingly loose, not tied down or answered.

In the end, I’m still left with far more questions than answers, feeling as if I missed another book’s worth of explanation somewhere, and I need to find that before it all makes sense.

Time to read: Approximately 2.5 hours for the first book and 3.5 hours for the next two; call it 10 hours for the complete series.

Our New Alien Overlords

When I stepped out of Starbucks, latte in hand, and spotted the alien in the street, my first thought was Oh, please god no.

My second thought was Great, now I’ll have to explain to my boss why I’m late.  Why do I have to live so close to the ground zero?

I knew why, of course.  My bank account was distressingly low, and rents were cheap around the alien’s landing sites and established bases on Earth.  No one really wanted to live next to our overlords, be constantly reminded of how our people had been conquered.

Besides, I thought as I watched the alien shamble up the street, bellowing out tinny commands through a small metal box clamped in amid the green tentacles, our alien overlords turned out to be real jerks.

I started to turn away, hoping to maybe duck up a side alley so I could still make it to my office on time, but the alien caught the movement and gestured to me with a tentacle.  “You, Human!” it rasped at me from that tinny little box.  “You Will Bow!”

“Can I not?” I asked, knowing that it was no use but giving it a try anyway.  “This coffee is really full, and I don’t want to spill on my new pants-“

With a bellow, the alien reached into its nest of tentacles and produced a large laser cannon, which it hefted with considerable difficulty.  “Puny Insect, Do Not Test The Might Of The Kalaxaranian Empire!” it bellowed, its eyes waving with agitation at the end of their stalks.  It leveled the weapon and squeezed off a shot.

Unfortunately, stalked eyes are not good for sighting down the barrel of a weapon, and the shot went wide.  Ten feet away from me, a parking meter exploded in a shower of quarters.  “Dammit!” the alien growled, trying to adjust its wildly fluctuating aim.

I knew that this would just take longer, add to my delay.  “Okay, okay, I’m bowing,” I called out hastily, setting down my cup of coffee on the ground beside me.  I got down on my knees and waved my arms forward towards the alien, the weird gesture that these idiots insisted was a sign of honor.

The alien put away the laser cannon quickly.  I couldn’t read tentacle gestures, but I would have bet that it was signaling relief that it didn’t actually have to shoot any more.  Really, the whole thing was embarrassing.

The aliens had arrived a few years previously in a giant horde, all set to invade us, their ships blistering with weapons.  Unfortunately, although the monsters had cracked the cold fusion barrier and carried technological marvels, they had simply no sense of tactics or skill in battle.  They simply landed and started blasting away at trees and squirrels, succeeding only in causing a few scattered forest fires.

The Powers That Be, however, decided that, to best explore the tech of these new invaders, it would be easier to just surrender, rather than crushing them in a fight.  We give the aliens some lip service and a few trinkets, our esteemed leaders figured, and in return we get a new leap forward in technology.

Well, that part worked out all right.  My cold fusion powered Jetta was testament enough to that.  Scientists were already predicting that energy issues would be fully solved by the end of the decade.

But no one had figured on the aliens leaving behind a force to “Ensure Peace And Order In Our Loyal Conquered Subjects.”

So now, whenever one of these big blobs ambled out of their compound into our world, we all had to scrape and bow, pretend that we were subservient.  It was, I thought to myself as I watched my coffee cup tremble on the ground, a royal pain in the ass.

But after a few minutes, the alien was satisfied.  “Carry On With Your Tedious Lives, Humble Servants,” it rumbled, turning and meandering off down another street.

I waited until it was out of sight before leaping back up to my feet, grabbing at my coffee cup.  A small wave sloshed over the edge and caught my hand, making me curse, but I didn’t slow down as I hurried up the street.

I was definitely late, now.  Great.  Just great.

The Priest in the Coffee Shop, Part II

Continued from here.

It took a good, strongly brewed fresh cup of coffee being waved under his nose, but eventually the priest came around, his eyelids flickering as he regained consciousness.  I had the pretense to keep my hand ready to clamp over his mouth if he started screaming.

The man didn’t scream, but his eyes shot wide open as his memory booted back up, and he shot upright in the booth and twisted his head around.  I watched, feeling a little guilty, as he stared at the various angels, devils, and other celestial beings in the shop, his eyes looking as though they were about to explode out of his head.

After all, I had been the one who shattered his veil of self-imposed ignorance.

“It’s all in your heads, really,” Gabriel had told me once when I asked about the curious fact that my occasional human customers never seemed to notice how they were surrounded by white robes and halos.  “Before you opened up this shop, did you even believe in angels?”

“Not really,” I confessed.

I felt a little guilty saying this to an archangel’s face, but Gabriel just nodded.  “You probably passed a dozen of us before opening this coffee shop,” he explained.  “But your brain ignores what your eyes tell it, because it’s easier.”

The priest’s eyes had been doing an excellent job of lying to his brain, it seemed.  He turned to me, his mouth opening and closing like a fish, but no sound came out from between his lips.

I gestured to the cup of coffee I had set in front of him on the table.  “Drink some, it will help,” I told the priest.

The man’s hands shot to the cup, clutching it like a lifeline thrown to a drowning man.  He lifted it up to his lips, not even bothering to use the handle, and took a deep draught.  The scalding liquid had to burn on the way down, but he showed no outward reaction.

After several sips, I could see slight hints of color returning to the man’s face, although he still looked abnormally pale.  It also didn’t help that the angels, treating this exciting new event like any other good piece of street theater, were crowding around, popping their heads up over the barriers between booths to stare at the priest.  With the halos bobbing above their heads, they weren’t especially subtle.

“Father, what’s your name?” I asked, just to get the man talking.

He stared back at me, still clutching the coffee cup with both hands.  “Helms – Father George Helms,” he replied, sounding as though he was unsure of even this fact.  Now that he knew that angels are real, maybe his name is wrong!  Maybe the whole world is turning upside down!

“Well, Father Helms, I know this is a shock, but don’t you feel a little better about your own problems?” I pressed, giving the man my best encouraging smile.  “No need to worry about losing your faith now – the evidence of it is all around us!”  I illustrated this point by swatting at an angel hovering nearby with the rag I used to wipe down the counter.

Father Helms, however, looked anything but at ease.  “But… but what are they doing here?  Is this the apocalypse?” he asked me, his face losing another shade of color at the thought.

Before I could respond, one of the angels let out a chuckle.  “The Apocalypse?” he sniggered, properly pronouncing the capital letter.  “That thing’s been botched so many times, no one remembers when it’s supposed to go off.”

I stared at the angel in disbelief.  “Is that supposed to help the poor man feel better?” I asked.

“Um.  I mean, maybe?” the angel tried, looking confused.  He clearly hadn’t expected anyone to comment on his remark.

But now, the others were all looking at him as well.  The angel seemed to lose an inch or so of height, his halo dropping down to hover barely above his hair.  “I mean, they call it D’oops’day!” he protested as an excuse.

I pointed at the seat in the booth, across from the priest.  “Sit.”

The angel sat.

“Talk.”

And the angel told us a story.

Book 2 of 52: “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” by Elizabeth Kolbert

Click above to see the book on Amazon.

Well, now I’m depressed.  
Elizabeth Kolbert, a journalist for the New Yorker, has chosen a handful of creatures, settings, and species – some of them extinct, some of them still barely hanging on – to show how, right now, humans are in the midst of causing the sixth mass extinction event.
The book starts by briefly discussing the history of extinctions, starting with the very idea that animals could go extinct, and that every animal alive today might have come from a different ancestor.  We learn how there were five different events that signaled the “end of an era” – that is, a mass extinction that wiped out the majority of life on Earth.  The most recent of these, of course, was the asteroid strike that took out the dinosaurs.
However, interspersed with this history are accounts of some of the many species that are currently vanishing from our planet, or have gone extinct within the last thousand years or less.  Some of these species include the American bat, frogs and amphibians around the globe, rhinos and elephants, the auk (an extinct relative of the penguin), and corals, linked to vanishing barrier reefs.
Kolbert is definitely a gifted writer, and she expertly weaves together stories of history, accounts of her own personal travels and experiences as she sought out those who worked to protect these species (or at least chronicle their passing), and sobering facts about the changing world around us and the reality that is a result of humankind’s rapid spread and alteration of the environment.
However, while many books on topics such as this end with an uplifting note, that is largely absent from this book.  The conclusion, we are told, is that this is happening, and it is likely too late to stop the sixth mass extinction event.  This won’t be undone by recycling, by donating an extra $10 to Greenpeace or eating dolphin free tuna.
We are losing more and more of our biodiversity each day, Kolbert tells us, and there’s nothing we can do – except wait to see what the fallout will be.

Time to read: 3 hours 15 minutes.  I’m a bit slower on non-fiction.

Summer Love at the Dusk

We spent most of our first date staring up at the night sky, I remember.

Of course, that wasn’t the intention.  No, I had plans.  This girl was everything I’d been looking for – sweet, caring, and with that weird little sense of otherworldliness about her.  Somehow, when I talked with her, our conversations drifted from the mundane deep into the realms of philosophy.  I loved spending hours with her, just running circles through the meaning of life.

I’d intended to take her out to dinner, followed by a play that had been getting tons of great attention in the papers recently.  But the restaurant was so crowded that we couldn’t get a table, and it turned out that one of the play’s actors had just torn a ligament, and he didn’t have an understudy.

All of a sudden, my big night, the big planned date, was dissolving into nothing.

But we didn’t let that stop us.

Instead, we simply headed for the big hill in the park, Carrie shyly letting me hold her hand.  I can remember how my big, clumsy fingers seemed to dwarf her slim, graceful digits.  I was so worried that I’d accidentally hurt her.

There, on top of that hill, in the grass and the fading residual warmth of the summer, we gazed up at the night sky, at the stars.

“The ones that are left are still pretty,” Carrie commented to me.  Our heads were next to each other, and she barely had to speak above a whisper.  I could feel the vibration of her words as her body pressed against me.

She was right.  I tried to think back, to remember how the sky had looked before.  Already, the images were fuzzy, faded, inside my head.  How could I forget something as important as that?  But I’d never thought of the stars as especially important to remember.

If I’d had to guess, I would have said that there were a quarter of them left.  The scientists on the news claimed that we’d lost far more than seventy-five percent, because of all the ones too dim to see, but what did those matter?  If no one could see them, there was no one to care that they were gone.

“Where do you think they’re going?” Carrie asked me.  Her words didn’t break the silence as much as they shaped it, slipping in easily between the soft chirps of crickets in the tall grass.

I started to shrug, but then realized that this would push her head off of my shoulder.  “I don’t know,” I said, my voice sounding rough and unpolished compared to her light tones.  “They say on the news that it’s the dark matter collapsing, that maybe it’s a wave of gravity sweeping through and putting them out.”

“They say, they say,” Carrie parroted my words back to me.  “They don’t know anything!  Maybe someone poured a bucket of water on our universe to put out the cinders.  They don’t know.”

For a minute, we fell back into silence, listening to the crickets.  Carrie’s leg pressed against mine, and I could feel her heat through my jeans.

I had been so certain that she’d say no, that she’d just laugh at me, that I almost didn’t ask at all.  It was only with the egging on from my friends, not letting me shamefully back down, that I dared approach her as she sat and sipped at her cup of tea, perched so gracefully on the edge of her chair as she held her little book.  I remembered a beam of afternoon sun, cutting through the windows to illuminate her face.  Like an angel, I remember thinking.

She had smiled up at me, read to me a line of poetry that I forgot the minute it left her lips.  I said something stupid, embarrassing – and she had burst into peals of laughter, her whole body quivering.  She was a songbird, amused by the inarticulate bullfrog as it tried to match her beauty of song.

“They say that it will reach us in about a year,” I offered, tilting my head slightly until I could see a single brilliantly blue eye gazing back at me.  “All sorts of doomsday cults are starting up.”

That single eye looked back at me.  Suddenly it was serious, no laughter hiding there.  “What do you think?” Carrie asked me.  “Is the end coming?”

I felt as though this was a test.  What would it say about us, about any chance at a relationship?  I worried about that, sometimes.  Would I die alone, swallowed up when the blackness reached the planet?  Had the universe put an expiration date on us?  “Do not consume after 8/23 of next year”?

I cleared my suddenly dry throat.  “I don’t think the end is here yet,” I said, not letting myself even think about my words.  “I think this is a beginning.”

For a moment, Carrie just stared at me.  The songbird was thinking, deciding whether to take wing and leave the poor bullfrog behind.

And then she decided.  “A beginning,” she repeated softly, snuggling in closer to my arm.  “I like that.”

The crickets continued chirping as we lay and watched the lights above us slowly wink out of existence.