Fiction

Walkabout

Wirambi knelt and dug the moist ground with his fingers. He rolled a lump of soil in a ball and rubbed it on his forehead in a circular motion.

“I am Wirambi, son of Witjiti and Kinawinta, of planet Alcheringa. Please accept me on your land, Guriyal, and protect me.”

He watched the echo of his words bounce on the cliff face and fall on the ground, which shimmered with spirit energy in a multitude of shades of purple.

Now that his presence had been accepted, he could continue his journey knowing he would be able to draw his strength from this land, infused with the power of his totemic ancestor.

He had landed his spaceship at the foot of a snow-crested mountain on planet Currunjiwal. In the time of creation Guriyal had made love with Tjunkaya on the summit of the mountain after saving her from the evil Darluvouduk, and their spirit children had wandered along his songline, populating the planets he had created.

The same songline Wirambi was following. He had eight-hundred and eighty-eight standard time units left to complete his interstellar walkabout. At his return to Alcheringa, he would turn eighteen and become a fully-fledged adult member of the Guriyal nation. Only then could he ask the beautiful Elandra to marry him.

But that was assuming he would return. Boys who could not come back from their walkabout in time for their eighteenth birthday never came back at all. They settled on other planets where they had the same status of second-class citizens they would have had on their home planet, but without the shame of facing their families and friends. There was a settlement of such outcasts on Alcheringa, but they kept to themselves and Wirambi had never spoken to any of them.

He was confident he would make it in time, too confident in the eyes of the elders who knew the dangers Wirambi was going to face.

Whether or not Elandra was going to accept him was a different matter. He had tried to approach her, but she had waved him off like an annoying insect. She only had eyes for the ugly Galypilu, the son of the shaman who must have put a spell on Elandra to make her fall in love with his son. Either that or her father saw a union with the shaman’s family as a way to increase his influence on the tribe.

But things were going to change on Wirambi’s return. He pictured Elandra listening to the heroic deeds he had performed during his walkabout, her eyes ablaze with love and admiration, Galypilu burning with jealousy.

Squawking interrupted his reverie. He chided himself for being distracted, but he reminded himself that thinking about Elandra wasn’t a distraction, it was a motivation.

Darluvouduk had been defeated, but his descendants had survived and they had recognized Wirambi as a child of their ancestor’s nemesis. Wirambi shrugged. He had Guriyal’s strength on his side, more than enough to overcome the black birds with scaly wings who were circling his spaceship.

Wirambi’s task on Currunjiwal was to walk to the summit of the sacred mountain and spill a drop of his blood, as an offering to Guriyal.

He checked the contents of his backpack: a gourd of water, a bag of Darrangara nuts, two bumarits, curved sticks carved from the sacred Galimbula tree he could use as weapons, a length of rope and a coat he had made from the pelts of three tree-dwelling animals that looked like burumins he had killed at his previous stopping place on planet Badagaroong. Not only was he going to need it to keep warm here, it was also evidence of his passage he had to bring home. He put it on top of his purple kaftan and looked around him, searching for something unique he could bring back from this planet. The birds flew away as if they had guessed his intentions.

Five Hundred Terabytes

With millions of lives at stake, I personally inspect every single line of code in the system. A deep breath escapes my lips. After seventy-two straight hours staring at the laptop’s screen, my headache escalates into a full-blown migraine. Closing my eyes, I allow the whirring sound of dozens of computer servers to drown out my own thoughts. Not that it matters. The Digital Eden project might’ve been founded by both Mariana and me, but the truth’s that she was always the real genius behind it. I just happened to be lucky enough to sit next to her in class at MIT, almost forty years ago.

From behind, someone opens the door. A quick turn of the chair and I confirm that Michael’s back. Since this room stores the mainframe server, it needs to be kept at a chilling fifty-five degrees. That’s how I know that his recurring visits don’t simply happen because Michael likes to chitchat. In these last three days I have reviewed the system’s code, over and over again, only to reach the same conclusion.

“Look, Michael. As far as I can tell, Mariana hasn’t changed the functioning of the system,” I say, shutting down the laptop’s screen and resting my hands on its lid. “Whatever happened with her reawakening. Digital Eden’s code seems intact.”

Dressed in an expensive suit, Michael loosens up the knot on his tie and stares at me. “For God’s sake, Vincent. It’s been more than a week since the system reported the error. What are you saying?” He asks. “That we still don’t know if Digital Eden was compromised?”

“Come on, man,” I say. “Even after the incident with Mariana’s reawakening, every single diagnostic test indicates that the system’s functioning perfectly.”

To be honest, if Mariana had really wanted to sabotage the system nobody could do a damn thing to stop her. Digital Eden was her dream from day one. With Mariana gone, I’m just the system analyst who helped her code and build Digital Eden. Someone capable of understanding how everything works, but powerless to overwrite anything that Mariana wanted to change. Getting up from the chair, I walk over towards the mainframe server. Its access panel slides open at the press of a button. Holding the laptop under my arm, I plug in a cable to connect it to the server. A couple of keystrokes are enough to access the information of all the servers in our system.

“That’s not what worries me. If something was broken with Digital Eden, half this country would know it by now,” Michael says, sitting down on the floor with his back to one of the servers. “What worries me is the possibility that Mariana sabotaged her own reawakening procedure.”

Silence is my only reply to Michael’s concerns. Instead of wasting time holding his hand, my attention focuses on the sea of information displayed by the laptop’s screen. At random, I pick a file out of the tens of thousands that Digital Eden manages every day in the city of New York alone. In this case, Digital Eden’s review of file number GH-197463 states that a Mrs. Helena Stewart, aged thirty seven, suffered a severe pulmonary embolism. The subsequent cardiac arrest led to her death.

Digital Eden then proceeded to check its servers for her clinical and personal information. Having found Mrs. Stewart’s registry as a citizen of the United States, the system analyzed the data to determine if there was anything that could exclude her from the reawakening procedure. Since her application satisfied all the criteria, Digital Eden requested that the latest copy of her consciousness be imprinted onto a cloned body. In the final stages of the reawakening, the system shows that a cloned body was readied and aged at one of our facilities to receive the copy of her consciousness. Digital Eden’s last entry regarding file number GH-197463 classifies Mrs. Stewart’s reawakening procedure as a success.

A random browsing of some of the reawakenings that Digital Eden performed last week demonstrates that everything’s fine. After what happened with Mariana, the system never once encountered another critical error. Every diagnostic test we ran. My review of Digital Eden’s source code. The inspections to our servers and consciousness imprinting facilities. Every bit of evidence supports the conclusion that nothing’s changed. Digital Eden seems to be working perfectly.

Out of nowhere, Michael pats me on the shoulder. When I turn around to look at him, he’s wearing a frown. “What happened to Mariana was a tragedy. I knew how close the two of you were,” he says. “But now I’m counting on you to help me manage Digital Eden.”

“Don’t talk about things you know nothing about,” I say, brushing his hand off my shoulder. “I’m not doing this for you.”

“That’s not what I meant. Mariana and I never saw eye to eye, but…” Michael mumbles and shakes his head. “I just wanted you to know that I’m sorry for what happened.”

Michael’s gaze drops to the floor and he steps out of the server room without speaking another word. Left to my own devices, I run a search in our servers for file number FB-749262. A knot tightens in my throat when the laptop locates the data for the reawakening of Ms. Mariana Ribeiro. The system’s review of the file shows that, on a Sunday morning, Mariana ingested enough barbiturates to induce a respiratory arrest. Called to the scene, the coroner pronounced her dead on the scene. Once Digital Eden updated the information regarding her death, the system triggered a reawakening request.

The early stages of Mariana’s reawakening went well. With nothing in her personal or clinical data to exclude her from being reawakened, a cloned body was readied and aged to receive a copy of her consciousness. Everything seemed normal. Except when it came time to imprint her consciousness onto a blank mind, an error occurred. File number FB-749262 registers a critical error that shut down Mariana’s reawakening altogether. Early on, I thought the problem might reside in the copy of her consciousness. That turned out not to be the case, when myself and dozens of system analysts combed over the file containing her consciousness only to deem it fully operational.

Desperate to force her reawakening to jumpstart, I tried every trick in the book. Rebooting the whole system. Swapping her identity with that of another citizen. Deceiving Digital Eden into imprinting her consciousness onto a different body. Nothing worked. That’s when I realized that her suicide and the error that occurred couldn’t be a coincidence.

Despite the botched reawakening procedure, her ghost remains in our system. The digital copy of Mariana’s consciousness contains her every dream, thought, and even emotion. Some people would even say that the file contains her very soul. Unplugging the cable, I disconnect the laptop from the mainframe server. While sitting back down on the chair, the migraine threatens to tear my head apart. But I suppose that’s what happens when you’re pushing sixty. My fingers hit the keyboard and the laptop returns to the source code of Digital Eden. If there’s any hope of understanding what might’ve caused the error with Mariana’s reawakening, then that hope lies in the analysis of Digital Eden’s source code.

The Rachel Who Loved Me

Day 798

My knees get weak at the sight of her. I start to sweat and my heart begins to hammer. My eyes go glassy and my pupils splay so wide they become like black holes. And I can’t think straight. I can’t even think simple thoughts, like calculating the diameter of a wormhole, which I could normally do in my sleep.

Once on Anterra, this backwater world filled with nothing but swamps, frogs, and bugs, I contracted a strange kind of brain fever. I went mad! Went all kinds of crazy. And what I felt and thought are the exact same things that I think and feel when she is near.

It’s annoying. It’s distracting. I hate myself for it. It’s like there was a revolt in my mind and my common sense lost and got the guillotine.

This is no kind of woman to be in love with. NONE! She was chosen because she was everything that I detest. Where I’m thin and neat and intelligent, she is not. Where I am outgoing, successful, and have a zest for life, she does not. Where I am complicated, she is not. Where I am anything, she is not.

Her kind was to let me focus on my important work and not entangle me with the encumbrances of love or any other complication. She was to be a simple subject for me to explore scientifically, objectively, soberly. Like dissecting the brain of a fetal pig, I care not for the pig.

Rachel, oh Rachel! You bubble into the room to pick up the garbage I’ve left on the floor and my head goes mad for you. I get all silly.

Please, let me pick that up. I’ll say. I’ve been so foolish to let that drop. No my dear, don’t worry. You could hurt your back bending over like that. Let me! Let me!

And then out she goes with a smile splitting her broad face and I can’t help but miss her when she’s gone.

I don’t know what I’m going to do.

I might have to kill her and start all over again.


Day 900

I’ve forged on with the experiment. Ignored the little nigglings in my heart and slipped the nanites into Rachel’s morning oatmeal. By now they’ve hitched a ride on some hemoglobin and are up in her brain, burrowing into her synapses.

I’ve noticed no changes in her behavior, which is a good sign. With the others, everything misfired and they went into anaphylactic shock.

Decades of work may be coming to fruition. This is a very auspicious day.

Day 925

I’ve figured it out.

I am a man and she is a woman and we are alone in this space station, way at the edge of known space.

Of course feelings would develop. That drive to procreate is deep in the marrow of our framework. It’s seeping out and corrupting my thoughts, making me think I actually feel something for the little toadstool.

But I don’t.

It’s just animal instinct. It’s just loneliness. I’ve been alone out here a long, long time.

Day 950

Day of days!

I received the first transmission from the nanites. I’ve run the signal a dozen times through the computer because at first I thought there was some kind of mistake. But the translation is the same every time.

Love.

That’s the word I’m getting from her subconscious.

It seems the little dolt has fallen in love with me. I’ve confirmed it by breaking into her computer and reading her diary. What awful schoolgirl fantasies are there! Absolutely juvenile. They’re all about me and her getting married back on Earth in some quaint country church (what’s with woman and white steeple churches?). I don’t know where she would get any of those ideas. How does she even know what Earth is? Did she see it in our movie catalog?

Honestly, it doesn’t matter. I should just focus on the fact that my work, my years of sacrifice, are starting to amount to something.

The Clockwork King

Siggurd held his sword to the statuette of the false goddess, preparing to dash it to pieces. The goddess gazed back, sorrow in her painted eyes. Her shattered temple sparkled all around but this last act of destruction froze Siggurd.

He heard the words of Father Ulrich, beaten into Siggurd during his year as an acolyte. Idols. False icons. They must all be destroyed. And it was true this goddess meant nothing to Siggurd. Still he hesitated. Perhaps it was simply the beauty of the statuette, the elegant lines of the brushwork. Perhaps simply the thought of all the hours that had gone into making it.

A life can turn on the smallest detail. So it was with Siggurd then, although he didn’t know it.

“Siggurd? Why do you not strike?”

Horst, his fellow acolyte, slashed at tapestries with his sword, reducing them to tattered shreds. He watched Siggurd, suspicion on his face. Siggurd could think of only one thing to say.

“I’m praying to Aednir. To consecrate the act.”

Horst looked unconvinced. Secretly, Siggurd envied his tall, broad-shouldered companion. Horst was never racked with doubts. He didn’t see the beauty of the temple. Didn’t see the gold filigree of the prayer-screens or the glasswork of the windows aglow with sunlight. This was a hushed place of glints and sheens, the air thick with sweet smoke from the swinging brass thuribles, and Siggurd secretly delighted in it all.

“Smash it,” said Horst. “Smash it now, then grind the unholy fragments into dust beneath your heel.”

Siggurd swung his sword. The statuette blossomed into a thousand fragments of brightly-painted plaster.

When they had finished their work, the two acolytes walked quietly from the ruined temple. Siggurd could still taste the dust of the shattered statuette in his mouth. He pulled his brown hood over his face so he couldn’t be identified. The temple’s entrance had been well hidden, down a meandering alley in the slums of Armon. Now the locals lined the dusty lane. None spoke or tried to stop them. They outnumbered the two acolytes thousands to one, could have torn them limb-from-limb. None of them moved. Siggurd noticed the restraining hands of more than one elder on the shoulders of younger, fiercer men. These people might not believe in Aednir but they knew what would happen if an agent of Aednir came to harm. Only the sharp looks in their eyes as Siggurd and Horst walked by showed their true feelings.

Dragon Moon

“I don’t get many requests to do soles,” the tattoo artist said.

Darla clenched her teeth. “No kidding.”

She had slathered her foot with a topical anesthetic, but the effects were wearing off and she was starting to wonder how she was going to walk home.

Greg, the tattoo guy, must have read her mind. “You walked here, didn’t you?” he said. “Why don’t I get my wife to take you home? I don’t know how far away you live, but it’s going to seem a lot farther going back.”

“It’s just a few blocks from here,” Darla said, “but I have to admit a ride would be nice.”

When Greg’s wife Lacy dropped her off, Darla hopped to the stairs leading to her little apartment over the garage. After trying various options, she got up the stairs by sitting down and pushing herself up one step at a time using her arms and her “good” foot. She hoped Mom wasn’t watching her through the kitchen window—and she was glad the weather had warmed up enough to keep her backside from freezing as she inched up the stairs.

After crawling through the door, she flopped onto her couch. She had expected the tattoo to hurt, but she hadn’t been prepared for the reality of the pain on the sole of her foot. Still, it was worth it if it made David smile. She pulled her foot up and looked at the bottom. It was hard to tell what it was going to look like when the swelling went down.

Two days later, she had her answer. Though the foot still hurt, the design was clear. Small blue overlapping scales covered the bottom of her foot. Lighter in the middle and darker around the edges, there were hints of green and purple in the darker borders of the scales, but the overall color was blue. After putting on her socks and clogs, she hobbled over to the main house and into the kitchen.

“Where have you been all weekend?” Mom asked. “David’s been asking about you.”

“I, uh, have something special to show David, and it wasn’t ready till now.”

“Oh? What is it?”

“It’s something private. Between him and me.”

Mom’s tolerant smile changed to a look of alarm as Darla limped past. “What happened to your foot? You’re limping!”

“I hurt it a little but it’s already getting better. I promise.” She couldn’t risk Mom being concerned enough to look at the foot.

Without pausing, she continued on toward the den that had been converted into a hospital room for her little brother David.

“Darla!” His face lit up when she walked in the door. “I missed you!”

“I missed you too, buddy.” She sat down on the end of his bed.

“Remember that dream you told me about last week?”

His brow wrinkled in thought. His bald head made his skin seem even more fragile and transparent than it had before. “The dragon dream?”

“Yes, that’s the one. Can you tell it to me again?”

“Well, I dreamed a huge blue dragon was flying in the sky. He was so beautiful! And somehow, in my dream, I knew he was going somewhere wonderful. Just looking at him filled me up with joy. But when I called and begged him to let me ride on his back and fly with him, he just said ‘I’m not there yet.’ Do you think there are blue dragons in heaven and that they’d let me ride them?”

Darla smiled at him. “I dunno, David. But I know if heaven has blue dragons, you can ride them as much as you want. Look, I want to show you something.”

She took the sock off her right foot and swung it up on to the bed so David could see it. His eyes widened till she feared they would pop, and his thin face lit up with a hundred-watt smile.

“You got a dragon-scale tattoo? That is so awesome! What did Mom say?”

“Mom doesn’t know. It’s our secret, okay?”

He nodded, grinning. “Are you going to get the other foot done?”

She had expected this question, had been bracing for it.

“Yes, as soon as this one stops hurting and itching, I’ll get the other one done. We can pretend I am a blue dragon—in disguise. It’ll be our secret.”

By June, two months later, scales covered Darla’s legs up to her knees. Her car savings fund took a hit, but she didn’t really care because the dragon feet made David happy. She began working extra odd jobs to cover the cost of her ink. She still hadn’t told her parents. She wore sneakers and jeans most of the time so there was no reason for them to suspect that under those faded jeans she had dragon legs.

David was thrilled. “If you have dragon feet, you should have a dragon name. A girl dragon name.”

They spent several delightful days discussing and discarding every dragonish name they could think of, before settling on the name “Indiglory,” to emphasize the beautiful color of the scales and the general gloriousness of being a dragon. From that moment on, David never called her Darla again unless Mom or Dad was in earshot.

That evening, however, Mom climbed up to Darla’s apartment after David was asleep.

“Darla, you know I’m thrilled you and David have such a close bond. I would never have believed a nineteen-year-old and a nine-year-old would be such good pals. But Dad and I are worried about you.”

“Why? Because I care about my little brother?”

“No, dear—because you care too much. When was the last time you went to a movie with your friends? When was the last time you talked about taking college classes? What kind of life are you going to have left after David dies?”

“Don’t say that! Why do you give up so easily? He’s not gonna die! He’s getting all the right medicine! I’m helping him get better!”

“I don’t deny that you’re helping him feel better, Darla. But you know as well as I do that the chances are very slim he’ll recover.”

Darla put her hands over her ears. “Don’t say that!”

The Mechanical Turks

As he woke, condensing breath told Hao that he had been evicted for the third time this week. Two screens overhead confirmed, Zero credits in one mirrored by zero degrees in the other. “Cao!” The cold didn’t numb his irritation as Hao kicked open the door of the bunk and felt the relief of a warm draft reviving his feet. He then slid rigidly out of the sealed pod dragging his wheeled case and frosted tablet computer with him. Stretching and letting the warmth return to his extremities he reflected on the irony that the pods were known, colloquially, as ‘Hot Beds’. The carefree/sleep anywhere lifestyle they offered came at a very low price but one that Hao could not currently afford.

All around, faces and feet were appearing from bunks. Some, like Hao, had overstayed their net worth and emerged blue and shivering. Others bolted, rapidly closing their bunk doors behind them, in an effort to beat the clock and preserve an extra credit or two for breakfast. Very few could afford a lie in. It was 6am.

A glimpse of Ava, now descending the ladder of an adjacent bunk, suddenly made Hao aware of his stale odor and unkempt appearance. Hao looked down at his T-shirt with the fading ‘Spring Loaded’ logo, a now forgotten indie band from nearly three years ago. Their music, on reflection, had been no better quality than the hole-ridden cotton of his branded T-shirt. But still, they were memories, an emblem of Hao’s youthful naivety and his attempt to fit in to this culture. The T-shirt also gave away his age. No longer a newbie graduate but a veteran. While Ava could only be two years his junior she was a different generation. The contents of Hao’s wheeled case had been frozen in time, a vestige of the last days of his disposable income. Fashion fads had come and gone but the woman still seemed fresh. Her loose black sweatshirt and tighter jeans were unbranded and worn with a confident lack of care. Sleeves torn at the elbows seemed, to Hao, like small statements of rebellion. That she had emerged from her bunk dressed and already wearing black shin high boots showed a disregard for her unit balance. Those around her were now struggling to dress, scrabbling through backpacks and flight cases for something clean, or at least warm in the rent-free corridor. Ava. Hao only knew her name from the label on her flight case and they had never spoken, but he thought he might love her anyway.

Neither a shower nor breakfast were options for Hao. His only priority was to work and earn enough for lunch, and if he was lucky, a drink, a sleeping pill and a hot bed for the night. Pulling on a fleeced jumper, which seemed to have grown baggy over Hao’s already slight frame, he left the disheveled throng. An unseen figure, Hao pulled his wheeled suitcase behind him.

Avoiding the torture of breakfast smells from the dining hall, Hao took the recreation route, past the unused pool halls and the vending machines selling sugary water. A bank of PMUs (pronounced peemu’s by the locals) glowed ominous neon blue. Standing like guarding sentinels, they promised to “Build from stock for less than 5 credits” and “Build custom for less than 10”. Multicolored pellets filled the space where their stomachs might be and their heads were empty chambers waiting to perform a miracle of manufacture, for those who could pay. Behind them, the peeling remains of a wall mural pronounced ‘LIVE, WORK, PLAY’ in nine foot tall lime green letters. Illuminated by strip lights, the mural was made visible through a glazed wall to the rain-sodden campus. This building, which sat on the edge of the university, was a destination and a transition point. It was a gateway to the real world beyond, but for Hao and the others it was also a protection from it.

Hao approached a swipe card lock, and a gentle flow of warm air vented from above a door. A low whirring sound was joined, as the door slid open, by a higher and almost imperceptible whine and repeated ch-ching noises in surround sound. Hao had joined at the fourth floor and could see through the metal grated walkway to the three floors below and another eight above. Making his way up an industrial staircase, some of the cages (although corporate called them desks) lining the walkway were already occupied by nighters or those struggling to clock up credits. None of them looked up from their terminals as Hao walked past.

Hao could, if he wanted, log on to any one of the thousands of terminals in the building, but to do so would break an unspoken rule. Nothing marked Hao’s territory other than local knowledge. This was Hao’s terminal, allocated to him when he arrived and would be his until (and if) he left. There was little purpose to maintaining such territories, and Hao occasionally longed for a change of scene. However, with no views and a constant server-optimal temperature of eighteen degrees, habit and protocol drove Hao’s selection of location. There was one other advantage. From here, Hao could gaze down through the grating of the adjacent walkway to the level below and to Ava’s terminal. Hao would only allow himself occasional discreet glances throughout the day, each time hoping to catch sight of more than the back of her head and her disheveled jet-black hair. He could spy with impunity, sure that she wouldn’t look up, although he sometimes wished she would. Her cage was still empty this morning.

A Slim Green Volume

Remi read the first page of the volume she’d sought, snorted, and shoved it back into place. Her gaze trailed over the library’s shelves and snagged on a slim green volume on the top shelf. A chill trailed down her spine. She shuddered and fled to the end of the aisle.

Where she spotted Ellica.

Whispering.

With Shaw.

Remi pivoted and darted back out of sight. Her heartbeat thudded in her ears. Shaking, she blinked and realized she was staring at the book. Before she could think it over, she snatched the green volume from the shelf, clutched it to her chest, and ran down the back of the library to her friends.

She slammed the book on the table. Eyes wide with horror, Gioli and Zita jumped to their feet.

“Are you crazy?”

“What are you doing with that?”

Remi thrust out her chin. “It’s just a book.”

Gioli shook his head. “Shaw said–”

“Shaw said a lot of things!” Remi flipped open the cover.

Gioli and Zita’s hands slammed down, shutting the book.


Cackles crept from the dark beneath the bed.

The women downstairs didn’t hear them, not over their cooking and conversation.

The three children didn’t hear either. Curled up in a squishy armchair by the fire, the eldest read. The other two chased each other around the staircase and ran out the garden door.

A Series of Reviews from Fine Dining Quarterly

Glissando, Italian, $$$, ****

Glissando bills itself as a “trattoria,” and while many of the restaurants that adopt this term fail to live up to it, Glissando fulfills its promise admirably. The dark wooden floors and bare brick walls made me feel as if I were in a small family-run restaurant in some rustic corner of Italy, but the quality of both the food and the service was on par with that of any upscale restaurant in New York.

The establishment boasts a large wine list, featuring a number of Italian wines, though French and Napa Valley vintages are also well-represented. The dinner menu presents several classic Italian dishes, such as beef braciole, which was my choice for the meal. The tenderness of the meat made it clear that it had been cooked in Glissando’s trademark tomato sauce, and the flavor of the fresh basil (from the restaurant’s own kitchen garden) gave the whole dish a truly homemade taste.

For dessert, I selected another Italian standby, tiramisu. Far too many restaurants soak the ladyfingers in brandy too long, so that the taste of the liquor overpowers everything else. Here, the subtler flavors of the marscapone cheese and of the ladyfingers themselves were allowed to come through.

Chez Monique, French, $$$$, ***

I started my meal with fiddleheads steamed in lemon and butter. The fiddleheads were perfectly prepared, having been cooked long enough to alleviate their natural bitterness but not long enough to become mushy.

The main dish was a variation on poulet a la bretonne, made with the breast of a Stymphalian bird rather than the traditional chicken. The meat was quite tender, and the plate artfully decorated with several metallic feathers. When I asked my waiter about the source for the unusual poultry, he claimed not to know what a Stymphalian bird was, insisting that the dish was prepared with chicken as usual. When I had him bring me a menu, the item was absent, simply listing the standard poulet. This lack of knowledge on the part of the waitstaff, combined with the apparent menu misprint, is the sole reason why this establishment received three stars instead of four.

As would be expected from a purveyor of haute cuisine, the dessert selection was inspired. I chose a selection of petits fours, which did not disappoint.

Amazonia, Brazilian, $$, ****

This charming restaurant offers satisfying fare for a reasonable price. The waitstaff are exceptionally friendly; when I entered, I was greeted as an old friend might be, although I’ve never visited Amazonia before. My waiter even offered me a “special menu,” which I highly recommend to any future customers.

I began with an acaraje appetizer. Many deep-fried dishes are unbearably heavy, but this had a pleasant, crispy texture that didn’t fill me up too much for the main course.

I had a hard time choosing a main dish, but eventually settled on roasted mapinguari flank. The menu included a helpful drawing of the live creature, and I must say that seeing the second mouth in its abdomen and the backward turn of its feet gave me second thoughts about eating it. However, I resolved to at least try the dish, and found it to have a taste and texture not unlike frog’s legs.

Dessert was a cocada with dried mango. The chewy texture of this baked coconut ball was perfect, and the mango added a lovely hint of sweetness.

Huai, Chinese, $$$, ***

Over the past few weeks, I’ve received a number of letters from readers suggesting various establishments for me to review. I must say that some of these were exceedingly strange, such as the recommendation to try amphisbaena at a local Greek restaurant. Even for me, eating a two-headed snake is a bit too far.

In any case, many thanks to whoever asked me to visit Huai; this place was a real treat. Though to be honest, the dreams I’ve been having since my meal there have been quite unsettling, especially since I’m certain that not all of them have occurred while I was lying in bed.

I started with “crossing the bridge noodles.” I was happy to see that the ingredients for the soup were brought out separately from the broth itself, then placed into the broth to cook right in front of me.

The main dish was the famous shen, a clam-monster known for its ability to create mirages. My waiter remarked that I was very brave to try it, and at first I was disappointed when he lifted the cover of the dish to reveal a pheasant. Not that I’m averse to pheasant, as anyone who read my review of The Bronze Lamp Inn knows, but it wasn’t what I’d ordered. The waiter assured me that pouring water over the pheasant would transform it into the clam, reminding me of an ancient commentary that describes how pheasants enter the water in the winter months and turn into mollusks. Sure enough, when he poured herb-water over the pheasant, it turned into a large, succulent clam right before my eyes. The clam was perfectly cooked, although it did produce rather strange sensations. Looking around during the meal, I had the oddest impression of sitting in some sort of pagoda or pavilion rather than an enclosed building.

I ordered classic moon cakes for dessert, but I regret to say that the clam’s mirage must still have been acting on me, since I don’t remember much about them except that I seemed to be holding and eating the actual moon.




To: Ellen Dalrymple
From: Tyrone Dagliesh
Subject: What’s going on with George?
Attachment: answering_machine.mp3

Hi Ellen,

Have you heard from George at all? We’re almost a week past the deadline for him to turn in his review for the upcoming spring issue, and so far he’s a no-show. Carol and I have both tried to get in touch with him every way we can think of—email, home phone, cell—but he seems to be completely incommunicado. There was a message on his answering machine, and I’ve recorded it and included it here as an mp3 because I don’t think you’d believe me if I just told you about it.

Another weird thing: have you looked at any of his recent columns? I know the strike at the printer’s played merry hell with the last issue, so a lot of things didn’t get as much editorial review as they should. I just took a peek at his piece in that edition and combined with that answering machine message, I’m starting to get really worried about him. Do you know of any other way to get in contact?

Let me know what I should do here.

See you tomorrow,
Tyrone



Transcript of answering_machine.mp3

Hi, you’ve reached George Pikesmith. I can’t come to the phone right now because my new girlfriend wanted me to visit her parents, who live on the moon. I think she’s taking things a bit fast, but she’s a princess who was born from a bamboo shoot, so what’re you gonna do? Anyway, leave a message and I’ll get back to you when I can. Bye.



A Note from the Editor

I apologize for the lack of our usual restaurant review column in this issue. We have been unable to locate our regular reviewer, Mr. George Pikesmith, and examination of his recent columns suggests some unusual circumstance occurring in his life. In light of our inability to get in touch with him, we have engaged Ms. Janine Worltham for future issues. Her columns on food culture have been widely enjoyed by thousands of readers, and we hope that they will bring similar satisfaction to you.

The Wall of Mouths

End of training celebrations were typically riotous and sometimes ended in injury. Rosa, seventeen years old and technically not allowed to consume any type of mind altering substance, sipped her drink when others gulped, and gently declined the more extreme offers of hallucinogens. She wasn’t concerned with fitting in, not today, and in any case she had heard some rumors that excessive indulgence lead to lowered reaction times, even weeks after the fact.

She was the youngest there, naturally. They’d tried to keep her out, telling her that it was just bad luck she’d been born two years too late, but her scores had been so good, and, she suspected, her letters and video calls and campaigns so annoying that they’d admitted her in the end, possibly just to shut her up.

She knew they’d expected her to burn out, like seventy percent of candidates did, and she’d half believed that she would. When she didn’t, when she did well enough to scrape into the top ten percent, when she’d graduated with the rest of her class, standing slightly shorter and grinning a damned sight wider, well?

She had cause for celebration. Just in her own way.

She was going to make it through the Wall of Mouths.

“Rosa, you’re a lightweight.” Hardison was one of the few other pilots who didn’t care that she was so much younger. He’d told her on no few occasions that he would have done the same, if he’d been born, like she was, too young for a Push. Some of us are meant to fly, kid, he’d said to her. You and me, we’re meant to do this, you’ll see on Push Day.

Here, now, he swayed to the music, eyes heavy lidded, full lips curved in a smile. “A lightweight,” he repeated. “Have a drink you’ve earned it.”

“I’m seventeen, Hardison,” she said, smiling up at him. He was the tallest guy she knew, all lean muscle and deep black skin, and she’d had a hopeless, harmless crush on him ever since training had begun.

He was way too old for her. But that didn’t matter in the land of hopeless crushes.

“No one here cares that you’re seventeen, girl. You’ve proved yourself a thousand times over. Most of them wish they were half the pilot you are.”

She shrugged and sipped her drink, even as another pilot came up behind Hardison, draped his arm around the man’s shoulders and pulled him down for a kiss.

Rosa flushed and looked away as Hardison returned the kiss enthusiastically, then shoved the man away.

“Who was that?” she asked, and Hardison shrugged.

“Don’t know. Good kisser though.” His eyes narrowed, looking at her again. “I know it’s a bit wild here,” he said. “If you need me to stick with you.

“I can take care of myself, Hardison,” she said.

She could. Although, in its own way, the heaving mass of humanity in the relatively small bar was more intimidating than the final exams and practicals had been back in the arena. The graduates were celebrating life, she could understand that, and, when it boiled right down to it, she hadn’t lived as much as they had.

And possibly wouldn’t.

The night wore on and she found herself in a corner nursing the same drink, legs crossed as she watched men and women and everyone in between do things she’d never even dreamed of, in the name of celebration, in the spirit of life.

There was a desperation to it that she was finally coming to understand, and she wasn’t sure if she should be afraid.

The Waterfall

San Miguel, northwest Philippines, 1934

I have seen him before, when he comes to my house with his father, the postman, to help deliver packages. His name is Arturo Viray, and when he sees me he always smiles. Today, at the market, it’s the way he walks—leaning forward a little, his hands behind his back—that catches my eye. That’s the way Father walked. When I look at him he smiles again, and I wish I could talk to him, but Placitas, our maid, is just ahead of me and she always tell me not to talk to boys.

“Miss Mei, don’t straggle—” Pacita calls, then starts haggling with the fishmonger in the crowded market, so she’s not paying too much attention to me. I walk a little closer to her, glancing back to see if Arturo is following. He has moved a few feet closer and is staring right at me, which makes my face burn. I look away, but inside I feel like singing.

Arturo is handsome, with thick, dark wavy hair, and he is slender but not skinny. He is Filipino. Uncle doesn’t like me to mix with Filipinos, since we are Chinese. There are not many of us in our town, so the only boys I know go to my Chinese school and are not very interesting. Uncle says that we will go back to China someday, when things there are peaceful, and that Chinese are better than Filipinos, but I don’t agree. Pacita is Filipino, and has helped raise me since before my parents died. She is like a mother to me—but Uncle would not like me saying such things.

I watch Arturo from the corner of my eye as he walks in that funny way of Father’s, and Father’s voice echoes in my mind: You are my Mei-Feng, beautiful and precious. I giggle. Pacita snaps her eyes on me so I stop, but then she starts talking to one of the market women so I move closer to Arturo, Father’s words making me brave. As Pacita talks to the woman selling eggplants, I suddenly find Arturo standing next to me, and before I can say anything he slips a piece of paper into my hand, then disappears into the crowd. I open the fold and read.

You are pretty. Meet me at the river bridge today.

I read the words three times over to make sure I’m seeing them right—he wants to see me! Then I stuff the note quickly into the pocket of my skirt.

“Miss Mei, let’s go—” Pacita says, walking over to me. I wonder what I should do: If I do not go, Arturo may think I do not like him. If I do go, he may think I’m not virtuous. Then I think about what will happen if I do nothing—I will walk home with Pacita, have tea, and read until it’s time to help her prepare dinner for Uncle. The thought of another boring, lonely afternoon makes me want to cry.

“Pacita, can I go and visit Lily? I finished all my schoolwork,” I lie.

“We have too many things to carry. I don’t want to walk all the way to Miss Lily’s house.”

“I’ll go by myself. Here—” I take one of the bags she is holding, and though she eyes me suspiciously, she nods and tells me to come home before the sun starts to go down.

As I walk to the river, I grin with the secret knowledge of the note. I feel like a dozen little fish are flopping around inside my chest. He wants to meet me at the river! Maybe we will walk to the waterfall, my special place—the place where I first found out that I could fly.