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I hate it when tourists kick the bucket on my watch.

In 1975, I worked for—a company that might still be around, so to avoid any possibility of ruffled feathers (and potential lawsuits), I'll just say it was a company in the travel industry. My job was to pander to the whims of paying customers, iron out their difficulties, and generally keep them out of trouble as they toured cities such as Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev.

I had come down to the banquet room on the third floor of Moscow's Intourist Hotel about fifteen minutes before the group was scheduled to arrive for its farewell cocktail party. The four-man orchestra, dressed in national costumes consisting of fur hats, bright peasant shirts, dark baggy trousers, and gaudy boots, was tuning up in the corner. The table in the center of the room was impeccably set and so dense with food that you couldn't see the tablecloth underneath.

There were platters with smoked salmon, garnished with peas and radishes carved to resemble flowers. A whole sturgeon—cooked, sliced, and reassembled for serving—sat on a platform on a bed of greens. Other plates were laden with thinly sliced meats, edged with pickle wedges and red cabbage. Bowls heaped high with red and black caviar stood above the platters like scattered mushrooms, and bottles of Georgian wine, Armenian cognac, and Russian vodka rose like small towers over this plain of food.

I checked the table against the hotel's typed event menu and lavishly complimented Boris, the director of the floor's facilities, on the fine work of his staff. Experience had taught me that such effusive praise was essential to staying in Boris's good graces and, by extension, in the good graces of the staff.

Boris and I had our own version of détente going on. He had a weakness for Marlboro cigarettes, which as a foreigner I can easily get, while I had a taste for this obscure, bittersweet red Finnish liqueur that Boris could produce almost at will via his own sources.

On nights when my tourists were at the theater, or prowling assorted restaurants under the close supervision of the Intourist guides, Boris and I retired to a relatively private corner of the third floor where we smoked cigarettes and played chess. He tried to get me interested in playing cards a few times, especially a card game called preferans, but it's not a game that's well suited to just two players. There was another reason, too.

Before coming overseas, I had spent two years working in the security department of a Las Vegas casino, where I was trained to spot card sharps—so-called "mechanics" who were good at manipulating pasteboards—and Boris was a very good one, though not very imaginative. His standard shtick with attractive new waitresses was a card trick that involved "picking a card" that, as it turned out, was the one he wanted her to pick, because he had maneuvered the card to come between her fingers just as the fingers came together. The move is called a "force" and Boris was very good at forcing cards. We all have our faults. Given a chance, I'll cheat at chess.

A glance at my watch showed about five minutes until my hungry, thirsty horde arrived to do, to the hors d'oeuvres and liquor, a reasonably good impression of a school of piranha doing a number on a side of beef. I poured myself a shot of vodka, picked up a caviar morsel, and turned to Boris, who had similarly provisioned himself. As we had done so many times before, we drank to the success of the evening, and chased the vodka with the caviar.

I stood at the door of the room, dutifully greeted everyone as they arrived, and pointed them toward the food. After about ten minutes, Boris appeared at my side to ask how things were going.

"Fine," I replied. "This is a good group. Very disciplined. Almost everyone is here."

"What about your VIP?" he asked, pronouncing each letter of 'VIP' with a vaguely sinister Slavic accent.

"There are only two VIP couples in this group. Charles Dorsey is over there, with his wife," I said, and nodded toward a tall, virile man who had his arm around a well-preserved blonde. "He's an executive for a big department store back in the States. They're enjoying themselves, which is good, since the word from my boss is that they talked a lot of the other people here into coming. But between you and me, I'd wished they had left the Colonel at home."

"The Colonel?" asked Boris.

"Yeah. Colonel Alvin Post, United States Army, retired," I said, imitating the practiced way in which the Colonel introduced himself. "He fought in World War Two and served in some kind of key role during the Allied Occupation after Germany surrendered. Quite a lot of glasses have been raised in his direction all along the itinerary by various Soviet hosts. Personally, I think the man is an inexhaustible supply of whatever it is that crushes people's spirits, but he and his wife are the other VIP couple. And—" my voice dropped to a whisper, "speak of the devil—"

As if on cue, the Colonel marched through the door and stopped to survey the room. He wore a sky-blue leisure suit that sat on his ursine frame like a dress uniform. Boris turned his head and stared. Post's wife followed dutifully, a step or two behind. She was wearing a functional blouse-and-dress combination, in pastel green. She also wore a perpetually worried look. During a dinner at the beginning of the tour, she had confessed to me that the trip to the USSR had not been her choice. She would have preferred to go to Paris, to enjoy the "haute couture" and the "haute cuisine" of that City of Light, but Alvin had insisted on coming here.

I felt a little sorry for Mrs. Post, who had the perennial look of a woman whose interests were always subordinated to the beat of martial drums, or the prospect of a trip to places like this. As the Colonel resumed his advance into the room, I decided to get my licks in first.

"Good evening, Colonel. Good evening, Mrs. Post. Welcome to the cocktail party. Why don't you help yourself to a drink?" I was momentarily startled by the sudden appearance of a tray of drinks held by a waiter. As the Colonel and his wife helped themselves, I looked over at Boris. Although the restaurant's staff routinely circulated with appetizers, I had never seen the staff serve drinks before. Boris looked at me with an expression that said "So I'm trying to be extra nice. Shoot me!"

Without waiting for his wife to get a proper grip on the wine glass she had taken, the Colonel gulped his vodka and said: "You know, you really ought to lay down the law to the pea-brained morons who run this show. As far as I am concerned, today's tour program was a complete waste." As he paused for breath, and as his wife said "Oh, Alvin, dear, there's no need to upset yourself," my eyes focused on a point somewhere behind him and, giving a fair imitation of a flunky whose presence was required elsewhere, I excused myself.

"My English is not so good," said Boris, who fell in step beside me. "But is it safe to presume that the Colonel is dissatisfied with something?"

"With him, I think that's a safe presumption, no matter where he is or who he's with."

Boris grunted noncommittally and then surprised me by personally picking up a tray of drinks and moving off to serve members of the group. He stopped by the Dorseys and presented the tray of drinks with a flourish, then he moved across the room, serving more drinks along the way, and finally repeated his performance with the Posts before handing the tray to a waiter. The party was definitely under way.

A few minutes later, I heard a crash, a scream that turned into a squeal, and then the music stopped playing. A crowd formed at the other end of the room. I wiggled through the scrum of humanity and saw Mrs. Post kneeling by her husband. An ambulance was called, but even before the doctors arrived to give the Colonel oxygen and a shot of adrenaline, it was clear the old warrior was dead. The police came and conducted a formal identification of the body. They inventoried the corpse's effects, and supervised as the body was removed. Mrs. Post, some bystanders, and I were detained for questioning.

By the wee hours of the next morning, it was determined that the Colonel's drinking (and not just that night, but over the entire tour) had been strictly against the orders of his doctor back home, because of a bad heart. His drinking, age, and physical condition, combined with his combative and argumentative personality, had doubtless contributed to the tragedy. Neither Mrs. Post nor the authorities insisted on an autopsy.

By the middle of the next afternoon, the group had come around to the idea that the Colonel had left this veil of tears while having the time of his life. And that's the frame of mind in which the group left for home two days later.

Over the next couple of weeks, however, after repeatedly replaying the evening's events in my head, I came around to the idea that the Colonel had been murdered. I recall it was a Thursday evening when I stopped by the third floor restaurant to find out the truth, but Boris was not there.

"The KGB, they came," whispered Svetlana, one of the senior waitresses on the third floor, "and they took him away. Just like that. Nobody knows why. Nobody dares ask."

I knew why, just as I knew how Post had been killed. The hours I had spent at the casino—observing how people moved and noting the little differences in how they moved when something not-quite-right was going down—had eventually focused my attention on Boris and that tray of drinks. When presented to the Dorseys, the tray had remained rock-steady, as it had every time Boris had stopped to allow someone to take a drink as he moved across the room. But when he presented the tray to the Colonel, the tray did not remain motionless. As the Colonel reached for some vodka, Boris moved a particular glass of the stuff to a point in space between the Colonel's fingers.

* * *

An envelope fell out of my suitcase as I unpacked it after returning home. The envelope contained a letter, written with impeccable, old-school penmanship. This is what it said:
If you are reading this, my secret has been discovered, I have been arrested, and a trusted friend has visited your room on the eve of your departure and placed an envelope with this letter inside your suitcase.

Believe it or not, my friend, Alvin Post did not die of a heart attack. I killed him. The details of how are not important, but I would like to share with you the details of why I killed him.

You see, my father was among several tens of thousands of Soviet people who were forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union after the war. Stalin had many of these people shot without trial upon arrival in the USSR. Others were kept inside the rail cars they had traveled in from Western Europe and shipped straight on, to prison camps in Siberia.

Some of those repatriated were tricked into boarding trains that were then sealed and sent East. Others, like my father, were delivered to Soviet authorities under armed guard. The American army officer responsible for doing this to my father was Captain Alvin Post, who had pretended to be sympathetic to the plight of my father and others like him, only to betray him at the last minute.

My mother soon died of grief. Afterward, while at the state orphanage, I strove to erase my family's shame, and I became an outstanding Pioneer and member of the Komsomol. And yet, I dreamed of someday avenging my parents. I am glad that I was able to realize that dream.

Do what you will with this note, as I am sure my situation cannot worsen. This way, at least someone will know the truth.

My conscience is clear. I would do it again.

Boris


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In 1955, the site of what was to become the Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan was selected because it was remote, close to railroad transportation, remote, situated near a major river, remote, in a seismically stable region, remote, and enjoyed around 350 days of sunny weather annually. Today, all of that is still true, especially the "remote" part, so in planning to spend any length of time at Baikonur—as I do, from time to time, as part of my work as a translator and interpreter—you must bring along whatever you'll need, improvise, or do without.

One April evening a couple of years ago, the setting sun was turning the sky all sorts of pretty colors as our little group emerged from our hotel's dining room to sit in the garden out front and talk, have a drink, and maybe even smoke a cigar. A group of technical specialists had arrived earlier in the day, and it was time to renew old acquaintances and make new ones.

"So, I had no idea how international this project is," said Sven, an engineer from Sweden who was in Baikonur for the first time. "Russians, Kazakhs, Americans, French," he extended fingers as he counted, "Germans, British, an Italian, and me, the Swedish contingent—quite a collection!"

"Yeah," said Eddie, a veteran member of the propellant team, "and to think we're all here to put six metric tons of satellite into an orbit that takes exactly 24 hours to complete, allowing it to remain forever above a point—uh—" He paused and raised his eyebrows in puzzlement.

"Somewhere in Africa," said a voice, "right on the Equator."

Wendell, the campaign safety engineer, took his cigar out of his mouth and sighed. "You guys think on a whole different plane," he said, and held up his drink, which looked like a wine glass filled with water. "Me, I'd really like to be able to enjoy my martinis properly, in a martini glass." He took a sip.

"Just a couple of hours ago you were telling the 'fresh meat' the water was safe to drink and not to step on manhole covers," said one of the security guys, referring to what Wendell had said to the newly arrived campaigners during the mandatory safety briefing. "This ain't Kansas, y'know."

"I am most definitely aware of that," said Wendell. "In fact, I am reliably informed that the 'middle of nowhere' is ten clicks thataway." Wendell waved a hand in the general direction of the horizon.

"So what's the complaint, Wendell? You want eggs in your beer?" said one of the satellite technicians, with a laugh.

"No," replied Wendell, in mock seriousness. "I'd just like my martini in a martini glass."

About a week later, during the next trip into town (the city of Baikonur, which is located about 60 kilometers from our work area), I ran some errands and then stopped by my favorite eatery—a restaurant that bills itself the "Palermo Pizzeria"—and happened into Wendell, who was just sitting down at one of the outside tables. I joined him and we placed our orders.

As we ate, Wendell told me of the latest excitement, involving a member of the French team who had escaped injury earlier in the afternoon when a leg of the plastic chair he had been sitting in at a café down the street had collapsed, spilling the unfortunate Frenchman to the ground, along with his stein of beer.

"There was broken glass all over the place," said Wendell, finishing the tale, "but the main thing is, nobody got hurt."

"Did the management ask the guy to pay for the stein?" I asked.

"It's funny you should ask," said Wendell, "because the owner did want the poor guy to pay for both the stein and the chair. What's with that?"

I explained how, in my experience, it was common for restaurants and hotels in former Soviet countries to be fairly aggressive in having customers pay for damaged items. "Back in the mid-70s, when I first started working with tourists in the USSR," I said, "one of the people in my group was climbing into his tub to take a bath and leaned on the bathroom sink while doing so. The sink fell off the wall, broke into pieces, and cut the guy on the leg. Believe it or not, the hotel wanted him to pay for the sink."

"That's crazy. What happened?" asked Wendell.

"I told the hotel manager the same thing, that he was crazy, and that if anyone should be made to pay for the sink, it was the crew of incompetents who installed it, along with the staff of the hotel that allowed such a hazard to remain unaddressed."

"So how'd it all end?"

"Our group left without paying. When we got back to Moscow, the powers-that-be told me that I had been out of line, and that things weren't done that way, but that was it."

By this time, our plates and glasses were empty and our stomachs were full. Wendell glanced at his watch and motioned to get the attention of our waitress. "We better get going. The bus back leaves in about a quarter of an hour."

Our waitress, who had served us many times before and whose name was Nargul (which means 'flower of light"), came to the table and asked, in Russian, if there was anything else she could do for us. I asked for the check, and then, struck by a sudden idea that popped into my head, added: "Listen, if I were to break a dish or a glass here, would I have to pay for it?"

Nargul didn't quite know what to make of the question. "I—I guess so. Why? Did you break something?" There was anxiety in her voice.

"No. But if I did break something, like, say, one of the martini glasses you have in the rack above your bar, how much would I have to pay for the damage?" Nargul looked at me as if I was crazy.

Seeing Nargul's reaction, Wendell shot me a quizzical look. "Is there a problem?"

"No, no problem. But I'm working on solving one of yours." Then, to Nargul, again in Russian: "Could you bring me a martini glass and find out, please, how much I would have to pay if, by some misfortune, it were to be broken? And please bring the check, won't you?" Nargul smiled uncertainly and left.

"What's going on?" asked Wendell once Nargul had gone inside.

"You know how you're always complaining about not having a martini glass and how they don't sell any here in town? Well, I'm finding out how much I'd have to pay if I broke one of the bar's martini glasses." Wendell started to say something, but I held up a finger to pause our conversation as Nargul came back with a martini glass and the check.

"The fine for breaking a martini glass is 150 rubles," she said, as we paid the bill. About five dollars, I calculated mentally. I took the glass from Nargul and gave it to Wendell.

"Due to our clumsiness, Wendell," I said, in my best nudge-nudge-wink-wink voice, "that martini glass you're holding right now fell on the ground and shattered into a million pieces. Nargul just told me her boss requires reimbursement for the broken glassware, in the amount of 150 rubles. Why don't you dispose of that glass—say, by putting it in your bag—and then pay the lady?"

Wendell carefully laid the unbroken glass in his bag and reached for his wallet. "Please convey my apologies for being such a fumblefingers," he said. There was a big smile on his face and proper martinis in his future.


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The clamorous pounding on the door—relentless yet also somehow hesitant—stopped as if sensing the approach of someone from within. The lock made a sharp noise and the door opened a crack.

"What the—?" said the young man, blinking away the hall light that shone in past the barely open door and through the fingers of his raised hand. "Do you know what time it is?"

"My apologies for the brouhaha," said the man standing on the welcome mat. He was very short, dark, and wore black Nikes, black linen trousers, a black turtleneck tee, and held a pair of black leather gloves in his right hand. He pronounced the syllables of "brouhaha" as three separate words. "My name is Mickey. You Blinky?"

"To my friends," said the young man, and tried smiling, but not hard enough. "What can I do for you that can't wait for morning?" The door opened a few inches wider.

"Well, technically, as it is 3 am, it is morning, but let us not split hairs," said the man in black. He reached into a pocket and took out a piece of paper. "We really need to talk. We're here about this bill for 'costs incurred' you sent to our client."

"I don't understand. What bill? And, uh—we?" said the young man, opening the door even wider to stick his head out to see who else was in the corridor.

"Blinky, meet my associate Vinnie," said Mickey, indicating a big guy with a sunburned face who stood with his shoulder against the wall about a yard from the door. He wore jeans and a maroon-and-yellow tank top, which set off the coiled rattlesnake tattooed on his left bicep. His arms were crossed and he wore black gloves. "Vinnie, Blinky," said Mickey after a beat. Vinnie flared his nostrils in acknowledgment.

"So now that everyone has been introduced," said Mickey, "must we conduct our business on your threshold, like common street peddlers, or can we move our conversation inside?" Whereupon, the man in black extended two fingers from around the gloves in his hand and poked the young man in chest. As the young man rocked backward a few steps, Mickey stepped forward, into the apartment, to maintain his distance. His fingers made contact again and again, until the boy and the man in black were well inside the apartment.

"Hey! C'mon, what's this all about? Leave me alone, or I'll—" said the young man.

"You won't!" said Mickey, grabbing the young man by the arm in the dark. "We must reason together in this matter." Then, back over his shoulder: "Ain't that right, Vinnie?"

Vinnie had followed his partner inside and had closed and locked the door quietly. He made a unintelligible sound that Mickey apparently understood to be an affirmative. Vinnie switched on a light. The young man stood dressed only in a pair of boxers, wincing at the sudden light and trying not to look too hard at his visitors.

"Wh-what's going on? What d-do you guys want?" said the young man.

"This your bill?" said the short man, waving the paper in the youth's face. "The one you sent to your ex?

"Y-yes," said the youth after a moment, nodding slightly.

"Well, it says here the bill's for 'costs incurred during our relationship.' Is that right?"

The youth slowly moved his head up and down.

"And you're serious about this," said Mickey, giving the paper a little shake. "The letters, the phone calls." The young man's head stopped moving and he stood mute.

"So would you agree that—what's it they say?" said Mickey, looking up at the ceiling as if for inspiration, "'what is good for the goose is good for the gander'?"

"Huh?" said the boy.

The short man shook his head in disbelief and looked back at Vinnie. "Some education the kid's got, eh, Vinnie? He dunno that one—college degree an' everything, and he don't know—ain't that something?"

Vinnie gave a little shrug.

Turning back to the kid, Mickey dropped his voice a notch and said, "You gotta figure your ex had some costs in the relationship, too, kid."

The young man said nothing, but swallowed, with some effort.

"So, naturally, you can't expect to be paid the full amount," said Vinnie, speaking to the boy for the first time. Vinnie's voice was unexpectedly deep, smooth, and refined.

The kid looked at Vinnie, then at Mickey. "S-sure," he says, "no problem. I can settle for less." A spark of hope began to glimmer in his voice.

"Well, that's too bad, because see, you can't expect to settle at all," said the short man, as he began to don his black leather gloves. "Especially, considering how your ex incurred one huge cost by hiring Vinnie and me to come here and beat you within an inch of your life."

"Hold still, now, Blinky."


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Duke Jacobs looked up at the smear of the Milky Way that stretched across the night sky above his wilderness camp site and wondered what it would have been like to explore the universe. Then he looked over at Max, the mutt that he and Ann had rescued from the pound, so many years ago, and wondered which of them would die first—the dog, of old age, or he, by blowing his brains out before the inoperable cancer in his guts killed him. He put his hand on the .45 caliber pistol that was strapped to his thigh. The Montana wilderness was no place to go unarmed.

Ann had died almost three months previously when, as the driver of a pickup drifted off to sleep, his truck wandered into the oncoming lane and struck Ann's car head-on. With Ann gone, Duke was ready to stick the barrel of the pistol in his mouth and pull the trigger, except for the thin thread of comfort he derived from knowing that memories of Ann were still lodged somewhere in Max's canine brain. As long as Max was alive, thought Duke, he had a living link to Ann.

Duke pictured Ann in his mind and recalled the time—

Whereupon Ann stepped out of the bushes across the little clearing where he and Max were camped. She was naked in the dim glow of the campfire. Then she stepped toward him.

Ann?...Alive? Duke's thoughts raced. Or is this a ghost?...It looks like Ann…But do ghosts move branches out of their way when they walk? In his peripheral vision, Duke saw Max stand up and look at Ann. Do dogs see ghosts, too? he wondered, and knew something was wrong.

A moment later, Duke's .45 was pointed at the approaching figure. "Stop! Don't come any closer!" he said. Then Max made a low growling sound, whereupon the figure's eyes turned vaguely reptilian and a moment later, its body began to unravel. Over the next second or two, Max yelped as if struck by something, Duke quickly fired two rounds at center of mass of whatever it was, and that mass disappeared in a bright green flash.

What the— thought Duke, and looked over at Max. Something had sliced into Max's side, and deeply. There was a pool of blood on the ground and Max's breathing was labored.

"Hello?" called a voice. "Hello! You, there, please don't shoot. Let me approach. I can help."

"Come on out," said Duke, and pointed his pistol in the direction of the voice. A squat old man in a skin-tight uniform emerged with hands raised from the bushes near where Ann's simulacrum had appeared. "Who are you?" asked Duke. "And what was—that?"

"My name is N'klaus," said the man. "And before I start answering your questions, would you please point your kinetic energy weapon elsewhere?"

"Not right now, buddy," said Duke. "Something that looked like my dead wife just showed up out of nowhere, took a piece out of my dog, and then went 'poof.' You want to tell me what's going on?" The old man thought for a moment, then sighed as he came to a decision. His hands remained in the air.

"I am not of your world," said the man, pausing as if he expected to be shot on the spot. After a moment, he continued: "I am an interstellar trader. A Gydra I was transporting to a zoological client seduced my co-pilot telepathically and forced my ship to land here. Then it killed my co-pilot and decided to escape before killing me. Once loose on this world, the Gydra almost immediately found you and again used its telepathic power, this time to assume a form that would allow it to approach and kill you in order to restore its nutritional reserves." The man paused. "Your weapon did nothing. I killed it with a phase disruptor."

A moment later, Duke lowered his pistol and holstered it. "Okay, put down your hands. Your story's so crazy it has to be true." N'klaus lowered his arms. Duke pointed at Max. "Can you help my dog?"

"Yes," said N'klaus, "my ship is not far. Bring your animal and let's see what we can do."

In the darkness, Duke could not make out the size or shape of N'klaus's craft, but he found it roomy enough after he stepped inside. As Duke lay Max down on a counter-like surface, N'klaus asked, "Can I interest you in a job as my new co-pilot?"

"Not really," said Duke. "First, I wouldn't know the first thing about driving this thing, and second, the tumors growing inside me make the prospect of holding any kind of long-term employment look pretty lousy. Now, how about helping Max?"

"But you are smart, intuitive, resourceful, have excellent reflexes, and willing to act and to place the welfare of others ahead of your own. All excellent traits," said the old man, placing a hand on Duke's arm. "Let me be frank, I can help Max, and I can help you, but not in the sense of saving either of you physically." Duke frowned. "What are you trying to pull?" he said.

"Hear me out," said N'klaus. "What I can do is transfer your mind, and Max's, into a quantum matrix that happens to be this ship's co-pilot. The matrix is designed to create a link between various parts of your human subconscious and all of the ship's systems, from navigation to life support. You do nothing conscious to guide the ship—nor can you, actually—while otherwise maintaining complete control of your conscious mind. The ship's library is extensive and you'll have access to all sensor data, which means you can be as intellectually active as you choose. Indulge your curiosity. Explore. Get to know Max in a way that no human has ever known a canine. And as long as the ship remains whole, so will your minds."

"What you describe sounds like eternity in solitary confinement," said Duke. "And it also sounds like you can't help Max or me—we may as well die and be done with it."

"What I can offer is what every co-pilot is offered," said N'klaus, and his voice changed subtly. "An unlimited universe to explore until you have enough credits saved to buy yourself—and Max—new biological bodies. I know this place—"

"And how long will it take to save enough to do that?"

"Co-pilots get 50% of the profits of any venture, so it depends on what we decide to do. What do you say?"

Duke looked down at Max, whose breathing had by now become very shallow. "What do you say, boy?" he said to the dog. "Go for it?" Max opened his eyes and feebly licked Duke's hand.

Duke thought for a moment and then turned to N'klaus and said: "You've got yourself a co-pilot, and his dog."


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It was a mild, sunny afternoon and there was a light wind blowing from my right front. I aligned the sights of my M-14 on the human-sized target standing over a quarter of a mile away, got my breathing under control, and gradually increased pressure on the trigger until the rifle fired. Almost immediately, my target dropped from sight.

I called the shot as a dead-center bull's-eye, but a few moments later, the target reappeared and a red disk was raised to its top right-hand corner. My shot had scored a "3" and a small black spotting circle sat a little above and to the left of the "head" of the torso-shaped target. I took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and uttered a one-syllable expletive.

"Don't dwell on it, private," said my coach, a Marine PFC who had himself only "graduated" from recruit training a few weeks before. "Clear your head. You've got plenty of time. You can still qualify as 'expert'."

It was the Friday of our platoon's second week at the rifle range at Parris Island, the day all of us had been training for during the previous two weeks: Qualification Day.

Ever since the start of boot camp, we had been taught that every Marine, no matter what his day-to-day job, was a marksman first. This had been true back in 1775, when shipboard Marines fired at enemy sailors and officers from their own rigging and tops, and it was true that Friday, almost two centuries later. On "Qual Day," each of us was expected to shoot our rifle and qualify as a marksman (or better, as a sharpshooter or expert).

Pretty much all our waking time during the first week at the rifle range had been spent alternating between the classroom and "snapping in" on the grass. The classroom instructors had introduced us to the terminology of marksmanship—concepts such as "firing line," "sight picture," and "aiming point"—as well as to the actual how of accurately firing an M-14—sight adjustment to account for target distance and wind effects, trigger control, posture, breathing, and so forth.

"Snapping in" involved learning how to hold the rifle while contorting one's body to become an Immovable Object—or as close to such an object as possible—that could fire at a target a football field or more away and consistently hit the bull's-eye. Learning the positions was easy, practicing them until they became second nature was tedious and, at times, painful.

We also worked in the protected "butts" at the target end of the range, pulling targets up and down, marking and scoring shots, and covering the resulting holes with small squares of adhesive tape in preparation for the next shot. While there, we learned the arcana of scoring. A shot that hit the line between two target "rings," for example, was scored at the higher ring value. If two shots appeared in a target before it could be pulled down—from time to time, recruits did mistakenly aim at the wrong target—the shooter was given the benefit of the doubt and awarded the higher scoring shot. A clean miss was called a "Maggie's drawers" and was signaled by waving a red flag across the target from left to right.

I had done well in the days leading up to qual day. Although I had "jerked" a few shots here and there and "chased the bull's-eye" once from 300 yards, overall, I had scored as a sharpshooter twice and once as an expert. I had also noticed an improvement in the tenor of recruit life, because there had been a perceptible change in the way our drill instructors treated us. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but the DIs were so supportive, we recruits almost felt human.

After scoring the "3" from 500 yards, I had eight shots to go and needed to shoot 36 of a possible 40 points if I wanted to qualify as an expert. Halfway to that goal, my coach was called aside by Sgt. Beadle, who took my coach's place next to me on the firing line.

"How're you doing today, private?" asked Beadle, as he checked my posture and the tightness of my sling.

"Sir, the private needs to score 17 of 20 to qualify as 'expert', sir!" By now, the end of the seventh week of boot camp, enclosing everything I said inside a matching pair of the word "sir" and referring to myself (and to the people I spoke with) in the third person had become second nature.

"Outstanding, private!" said Beadle. "I have every confidence in you. In fact, there's something I would like you to do for me. Purely voluntary."

"Sir, yes, sir!" I said, and wondered what service I could possibly perform for Beadle from the firing line.

"I will return in a few minutes and comment on your shooting position," explained the sergeant. "When that happens, I would appreciate it if you shot your next round at the target immediately to the left of your own. Preferably a bull's-eye, private. Any questions?"

"Sir, by doing so, the private will be giving up all chance of shooting 'expert', sir!" I said.

"That may be true," said Beadle, "but you'll be helping a platoon-mate qualify. The choice is up to you." The sergeant took his leave and my coach resumed his position.

Several minutes later, with two rounds left to fire (and needing to score 8 or better for the expert badge), Sgt. Beadle paused at my firing point to nudge my left leg with his boot. "Watch your posture, private," he said, and nodded to my coach as he continued on his way. I made my decision and deliberately fired at the target to the left of mine, almost in unison with the Marine to my left. When the target reappeared a few moments later, a white disk stood at its center, indicating a bull's-eye. I was happy to see the score, but disappointed at the same time. Still—qualifying as a sharpshooter was not all that bad.

Before I could settle down to fire my last round, Beadle materialized at my side. Without making a big show of it, Beadle produced one round and put it on the ground next to my marksmanship notebook. "You would appear to have two shots left, recruit," he said. "Make them count."

My spirits lifted, those last two shots I fired were both bull's-eyes. I had scored 'expert' with two points to spare. The recruit to my left had qualified, just barely, as a marksman, and quite dramatically, as it turned out. You see, two holes had appeared in his target on his last shot: a dead-center bull's-eye and a shot in the 4 ring, above the silhouette's right shoulder and perilously close to the 3 ring.

For a long time, I felt a modicum of pride in having justified my drill instructor's confidence in my shooting skill and in having helped a fellow Marine avoid the disgrace of failing to qualify as a marksman by a single point.

And then one day some time later, in a blinding afterthought, it occurred to me—maybe the shot that missed my neighbor's bull's-eye had been... mine?

alexpgp: (Default)
“Here we are,” said the minister, as the small party passed through the low doorway, and the prisoner was so surprised by what lay beyond the threshold that, for a moment or two, he stopped struggling. He had expected a dungeon, but the chamber beneath the castle was huge: roughly in the shape of a cube some one hundred feet on a side with openings arranged around the top of the walls to provide light.

Except for a blood-spattered, knee-high block of wood on the floor, the chamber was empty, if you didn’t count the men who had entered and the elephant standing in the middle of the space.

“And so, my good fellow,” said the minister, extending his arms, “your task is this. You are to make the elephant disappear from this essentially subterranean chamber. I must inform you, additionally, that the walls and floor are made of solid rock masonry and are impenetrable. You have one hour to accomplish this task. Succeed, and you will be rewarded. Fail, and your life is forfeit. Any questions?”

The fat guard punched the prisoner in the face as the latter opened his mouth to speak. The young man fell to the floor.

“No questions? Very well then,” said the minister, “see you in an hour.” His voice changed to a malicious singsong: “Good lu-uck!” The minister left the chamber, followed by the guards, who locked the door behind themselves.

One hour later, the door reopened to admit the minister and the guards. The fat guard held an overly large ax in his hands.

The elephant was gone.

The thin guard ran out the door and down the corridor, shouting something unintelligible.

Several minutes later, the king himself appeared in the chamber, where he and the minister and the guards spent some time looking for the elephant, but there was no elephant in the chamber.

“Congratulations, young man,” said the king, finally. “You appear to have achieved the impossible.”

“No, Your Majesty, wait!” said the minister. “This man is a fraud, or worse!” Then, turning to the prisoner, he demanded: “Where has the beast gone? What did you do with it?”

“Well,” began the prisoner, through swollen lips, “it’s sort of complicated, but in any event, it’s irrelevant, because your requirement was to make the elephant disappear, not explain how I did it.” The young man turned to the king. “Your Majesty, I beseech you to hold this man to his word and have him give me the only reward I seek. Release me!”

“Pardon, Your Majesty!” said the minister, before the king could reply. “Forgive me for appearing to speak out of turn, but how the elephant was made to disappear is very, very relevant to the discussion, for as Your Majesty is aware, there is a very strict prohibition within the kingdom on the use of sorcery, and since making the elephant disappear would appear to be impossible without the use of sorcery, the fact of the elephant’s unexplained absence must be explained, so that justice can prevail.”

“What have you to say to this?” asked the king, addressing the prisoner.

“Well, let me hazard a wild speculation and guess that the punishment for sorcery—” the prisoner looked at the minister as if he was peering into the man’s soul, “is death.” Satisfied that his speculation was correct, the prisoner sighed, looked at the king, and said: “I must say, Your Majesty, your minister seems intent on executing me. Why is that?”

The minister gave a little smile and said: “With your permission, Your Majesty, may I explain our ways?” The king raised his eyebrows slightly in assent. “There is no personal animus at work here,” said the minister, addressing the prisoner. “You see, some years ago, our king’s father had a very wise advisor, whose functions I have been performing on behalf of the king’s father—and now the king—since the advisor’s unfortunate and untimely death. This elephant problem was designed for the purpose of finding his replacement, who must be the most clever and resourceful person in the world, as only such a person is good enough to serve our king.” With that, the minister bowed to the king, whose eyes were fixed on the prisoner.

Turning back to the prisoner, the minister continued: “Naturally, candidates who fail the problem must be silenced forever to prevent any of its details from leaking to the outside world, which might allow an impostor to arrive prepared for the problem and thus to pass it and falsely claim the advisor’s post. As for executing sorcerers—well, that’s just a normal function of good government, wouldn’t you agree?” The minister almost chuckled, but quickly recovered his severe tone. “And since you are obviously a sorcerer—”

“Wait,” said the prisoner. “Do you mean to say that you’ve have been putting innocent wanderers to death for some number of years over a problem that has no—shall we say, ‘legal’—solution?” The king’s eyes widened slightly and the furrows in his young brow relaxed upon hearing these words and he turned to hear his minister’s response.

“Well, no, that’s not it at all!” said the minister, and there was a defensive tone in his voice. “Of course there is a way to solve the problem, and the solution most assuredly does not involve sorcery. But in the end, you see, only the most clever person—one capable of being the king’s advisor—will find the solution.”

“I apparently found it,” said the prisoner. “The elephant is gone.”

“Then show us how you did it,” said the minister.

The young man turned to the king. “Your Majesty, I will be most happy to show you how I made the elephant disappear if first you require the minister to demonstrate how to do so without the use of sorcery. Your Majesty can then compare our methods, assess their similarities and differences, and make any necessary decisions.”

“That would not be a problem at all,” said the minister, addressing the king. “But alas, the elephant is gone, so I cannot make it disappear. The prisoner is wasting our time. Let the guards deal with him, sire.”

“Actually,” said the prisoner, looking past the other men in the chamber, “there’s the elephant right behind you.” The men turned and reacted visibly when they saw the elephant, which had indeed reappeared. The king was the first to recover his composure. He turned to the prisoner, whose face was calm, and then to his minister, whose face had paled.

“Why don’t you show us how it’s done, minister?” said the king. “I believe the standard time limit is what, one hour, to make the animal go away? And death if you fail?” He smiled and motioned the prisoner to the door of the chamber and turned to the trembling minister as he paused at the threshold. “Unless I’m mistaken, I think I’ve found my advisor.”


alexpgp: (Default)
Time travel is not all it's cracked up to be, at least not for amateurs.

For one thing, the process apparently conveys only what's "inside" your skin, in your body, so if you put a coin in your mouth and hold another coin in your hand, the one in your hand won't make it. At least that's my theory, based on the fact I arrived with all my dental work intact.

I'm also thinking that it's impossible to properly pronounce the words for time travel unless your mouth is completely free of obstruction, so the whole coin-in-the-mouth idea is probably moot. What is not moot are my chances—zero—of getting back to my time, since I was holding the book with the words to go back in my left hand when the lights went out and I started traveling back through time.

I regained consciousness in an alley in a sleepy village that looked relatively recent and European. I was naked—clothes, like books, don't survive time travel—and the first group of villagers who saw me didn't seem too happy, as they started yelling and gesticulating as they ran toward me. In fact, the tone of their voices—vaguely French-sounding—seemed downright hostile, and when one of them stopped to grab a pitchfork before renewing his headlong rush in my direction, I got the hint and quickly looked around for refuge. I managed to make it through the door of the village church before the pick-up vigilance committee could skewer me.

The village priest was a kind, patient fellow who saw to the wounds on my bare feet, clothed me, fed me, and accepted my story—expressed in halting high-school French—of being a foreigner set upon by criminals who had stolen every stitch of my clothing before dumping me, unconscious, where I had awakened. He told me I had been left in the village of Villefranche-sur-Hôc, and that I was welcome to stay at the church until I regained my feet. For about a week, I slept in an outbuilding on the church grounds, did odd jobs, and took stock of my situation.

And my situation was grim. I was a child of the late 20th century, adequately schooled for my time but with no skills useful in the now. I could use a keyboard, but not even typewriters had been invented yet (forget computers). I could fly a small airplane, but I couldn't build one. I could drive a car, but knew nothing of horses or carts. I was literate, but my foreign language skills were poor, and nobody in town wanted to learn English, at least not from someone who was dressed like a charity case, which is what I was.

Now was 1867 and knowing that Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated two years before while attending a performance of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theater in Washington D.C. did nothing to help me put bread on the table. Moreover, the arcane knowledge I had accumulated in my pre-time-travel youth—such as a 2008 catalog value of $14,000 for a mint specimen of a pink three-cent U.S. postage stamp printed in 1861 and depicting George Washington—was of no use at all.

The only work I was apparently fit for was physical labor, and it was all I could do to keep body and soul together with my pay, which wasn't much considering my lack of skill and knowledge in just about every practical area. There were times I seriously considered stepping off the town's bridge into the rushing water below.

Then one afternoon, after a day spent digging post holes since shortly after sunup, I was walking back to my mattress in the loft above the town's stable when I happened to glance through the window of the café and saw two well-dressed young men eating, drinking, and playing chess. The owner wouldn't let a dirty, seedy-looking character like me inside, so I stood on the street and watched the men play.

They were playing for money, and although I was no master, my 20th century experience playing chess against the hustlers in Greenwich Village told me I could handily beat both of the fellows on the other side of the glass. And if they were playing for money, well—an idea started to form dimly in my mind.

As the pair climbed into their carriage to resume their journey, I caught enough of their conversation to understand they were headed to Paris, where a great tournament was to be played at the Café de la Régence.

The light came completely on inside my head and the despair that I had felt since awakening in this 19th century world suddenly vanished.

Two months later, after having sacrificed the three gold caps on my molars for a new suit of clothes and passage to Paris, I walked into the Café de la Régence, and sat down to play a few, uh, friendly games for moderate stakes. A few hours later, I walked out with enough cash to get by comfortably for at least a month.

In the years since that day, I haven't forgotten my future self. I've put together quite a collection of classic French postage stamps, which I've bought at face value in between visits to the Café. Conservatively speaking, the collection will be worth about six million dollars by the time I buy the miserable book of incantations that brought me here. Maybe, if my future self comes into possession of this collection, I won't ever run across that book!

So all I have to figure out now is this: How do I send something to myself a century hence?


alexpgp: (Corfu!)
It was the first of June, and if I had correctly understood the message being delivered by the captain visiting our unit's morning formation, as of zero hundred that day (what civilians call "midnight"), every poisonous snake within the boundaries of Camp Pendleton was authorized to "lock and load" its fangs with "live" venom and to consider the vast territory of the Marine base a "free bite" zone.

The captain went on, instructing us on how best to avoid getting bitten—give reptiles a wide berth—and then explained what to do if a snake did bite you—put your lips on the wound and suck out any injected poison.

When the time came to ask any questions that may have occurred to us during the briefing, I was about to ask how the Marine Corps had arranged for rattlesnakes and copperheads to refrain from biting base personnel before the first of June when I was beaten to the punch by an unfamiliar voice from the back of the formation.

"Cap'n, sir, you said to suck out the poison if you get bit, but—what if you get bit—uh, you know—like, in the ass?"

Whatever human-caused rustling there might have been within the formation ceased at once, to better hear what the officer might have to say in response to such a frank and indelicate question.

The captain cocked his head slightly to one side, smiled a little, and replied: "Well, private, I guess that's when you find out who your true friends are."

Rim shot, I thought to myself as I and the rest of the men in the formation chuckled politely. The joke had doubtless been old when the Marines began to recruit "a few good men" at Tun Tavern in 1775.

After the formation was dismissed, I reported to my truck for the trip out to our work area. "Work," for our little group, was a series of assignments to remove and collect lengths of copper wire from sites that were no longer in use. Our latest job was at the extreme north end of the base, thirty klicks east of the middle of nowhere, where our objective was to recover a strand of copper telegraph wire from a string of widely spaced hilltop utility poles.

The temporary assignment, as a lineman at Pendleton, was actually pretty challenging, though not without its risks. A few weeks before, our truck had been sent to an abandoned prison compound that was being "deconstructed" piecemeal to maximize recovery of materials for later reuse. There, I was assigned the task of climbing the guard towers to disconnect some wiring inside each guard hut. Everything went smoothly until I got to the third tower.

There, I climbed the vertical ladder the same way I had done twice before, and as my head came up above the level of the hut floor, a huge white owl that had built a nest under the hut's duty desk spread its wings and lunged directly at my face. My hands instinctively flew up to protect my eyes as a defensive reaction.

With both hands in front of my face, however, I started to fall backward, off the ladder, which is not something you want to do while positioned thirty-some-odd feet up in the air, so without really thinking about it, I quickly jerked one hand back away from my face and grabbed for the ladder.

It wasn't a graceful move, but it worked, even if my feet slipped off their rungs, leaving me in an awkward, painful position with one leg actually sticking through the ladder as the owl flew off. By some miracle, aside from some abused muscles, I escaped injury. Shaken, I went back to the truck to get my safety belt before climbing any more towers.

On that first day of June, my job involved waiting by a wooden utility pole on hill A while our truck dropped other crew members at poles on adjacent hills B and C before proceeding to a pole on hill D. As the truck drove away, I sat down on a large rock for the 40-minute wait until the truck was in position. While I waited, I put on my climbers—steel contraptions that doubtless took their inspiration from artifacts in medieval torture chambers and were outfitted with small, sharp steel spikes called gaffs to support the wearer's weight while climbing, working on, or descending wooden utility poles. Then I directed my attention at the hill that was the truck's destination.

After some time, a stream of green smoke billowed from the hill, which was the signal for me and the two other linemen to climb the poles on our respective hilltops and stand by to cut the strand of wire that had probably been strung when Woodrow Wilson had been President. I put on my tool belt, safety belt, and heavy leather gloves and then waded through some dense brush to the bottom of the pole, where I secured my safety belt around the pole and began climbing. Once at the top, I prepared to use my wire-cutters.

A few minutes later, I saw red smoke erupt from that same hill, which was the signal for everyone to cut wire. The wire was cut at each pole at pretty much the same time, thereby averting any unfortunate consequences that might occur if the wire's weight and tension were to be suddenly relieved on only one side of any given pole.

My job done for the day, I began to climb down the pole.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch!

I stopped. So did the rattling sound. I waited a few seconds and then, incredulous at the thought of there being a rattlesnake below me, I unstuck a gaff and took another step down the pole.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch!

I froze once more, but this time the rattling sound continued for several seconds. It was coming from somewhere near the base of the pole, but the waist-high brush prevented me from seeing anything on the ground. From my position, some yards up in the air, the only real way to give the reptile a wide berth was to stay where I was. That, or—

Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch!

I threw my wire-cutters down at the base of the pole. The rattling sound stopped. I counted to ten and took another step down.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch!

I threw the rest of my tools, one by one, down at the hidden snake. Then I threw down my gloves, but the rattling resumed any time I would fidget, and as the time passed and my legs became weary, I fidgeted quite a bit. The rattling continued.

Eventually, with the muscles in my legs screaming bloody murder, I decided that—snake or no snake—I could not allow myself to be caught in this position when the truck arrived to pick me up. I would never hear the end of having been "treed" by a snake! As I noisily descended the rest of the way to the ground, I thought I heard something slither into the thicker brush on the side of the pole away from the road. But even more important, I heard no rattling.

By the time the truck returned, I had removed my climbers, retrieved my tools, and was sitting on the rock near where I had been dropped off, massaging my legs but otherwise acting as if nothing at all had happened.

"Just another glorious day in the Corps," yelled our civilian supervisor, a retired Marine, out the driver's window as the truck pulled to a stop. "Good work, private! Get in, and let's go home!"

I was only too happy to comply.



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