To Mean Freedom

Marion wheeled the last barrow-load of books, tapes, and other media into the shack. “Here you go,” she said. Jack sat on a wobbly chair nearby and stared. When he spoke he sounded haggard, though his face remained boyish and charming.

“The last books, tapes, DVDs, pictures, audiobooks, and every other god-damned thing that mentions me. Me, the giants, the beanstalk, or that damn candlestick.” Each word sounded like he had hauled it by hand out of a deep well, ancient and nearly dry. He splashed the contents of a flask on the pile.

Lighter in hand, he looked at Marion. “Your software has already extirpated me from all digital records. Extirpated.” He tasted the word. “A strange word to mean freedom.” He lit the pyre.

Marion looked at him. With each moment he looked paler, weaker, yet he still bore a rakish allure. “Now what? You disappear?”

“Only when every last record of me, written or remembered, vanishes from this earth.”

“So, when the last person forgets you or dies? Could be a while. How many you think there are?” She gazed into the flames, strange colors flickering around the uncommon fuel.

“Just one.” She heard the gun cock.

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Through the Fevered Fog

His head felt under pressure, like he was deep underwater without a suit. No, like he was surrounded by balloons, which kept expanding into his space. His face tingled, felt pulled taut, stretched over his expanding skull. It was so sensitive he could feel each hair tugging on his inflamed skin.

Every swallow was an exercise in endurance, a test to see if this time he would choke on his swollen glands and die. Death was imminent, he knew. It would be in the papers. The obituary would read Prominent Recluse Found Dead of Wasting Disease; Few Mourn.

Wait. What if it didn’t? What if it read Unknown Dead of Plague, Town Safe Due to Lack of Friends? He scrabbled for his phone, digging through piles of crumpled tissues like so many snowdrifts. Calling the local newspaper, he forced words through his swollen throat. “Mr Abbot Brandt has died!” he said. “Who?” came the reply. Brandt hung up.

This wouldn’t do. He would be remembered when he died. He scrabbled for a pen and paper and, pushing thoughts through his fever like a train through thick fog, he wrote.

When he died seventeen years later, they knew who he was.

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Woman Pokes Holes in This Muffin Pan—When She Flips It Over, Her Brilliant Plan Is Revealed (Version Two)

Okay, so I flip the muffin tin over—it’s just an ordinary muffin tin, see?—and I flip it over like this. You watching?” The shadowed figure in the corner of the kitchen nodded, a minute incline of the head. “So now I’m going to punch holes in the bottom of the molds.” She reached into a drawer.

“Wait.” The man leaned closer. “Why don’t you already have one with holes in?”

Marie stabbed him in the throat with the awl from the drawer. “Because that’d make a lousy trick.” He dropped the gun he’d held on her, gurgled, and followed the gun to the floor.

Once she was sure he wasn’t going to get up, Marie commenced with freaking out.

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Woman Pokes Holes in This Muffin Pan—When She Flips It Over, Her Brilliant Plan Is Revealed

Okay, so I flip the muffin tin over—it’s just an ordinary muffin tin, see?—and I flip it over like this. You watching?” The shadowed figure in the corner of the kitchen nodded, a minute incline of the head.

Marie hesitated, then continued. “So I take this” she took an awl from a drawer, “—and punch a hole in the bottom of the muffin mold. Like this. You want to be careful. If the point slips, you could cut… nevermind.”

She repeated the process on each of the eleven remaining muffin molds. “And now, voila!” Marie flipped the tin back over and showed off a muffin tin with holes punched up through the bottom of each mold. She presented her best smile, and held it until she couldn’t hold it any longer. “I’m sorry.” She looked at her feet. “I thought I could keep this going. I probably should have gone for the chess thing.”

YOU’RE NO GOOD AT CHESS.

“No, but it might’ve taken longer.” She sighed.

TIME IS RATHER IMMATERIAL AT THIS POINT. Marie nodded. COME. She walked toward the cloaked, skeletal figure.

BRING THE MUFFIN TIN. IT REALLY WAS A NOVEL TRICK.

Marie smiled with real joy.

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What Would You Do?

“What would you do,” Nicky asked her girlfriend, “if you could travel through time and space any way you wanted?” They sat together on the bus ride home, legs entangled and idly chatting.

“Any way I wanted?” Cat pursed her lips and hummed. “I guess I’d go back and see if Jesus was the real deal.”

“Deep.” Nicky laughed as Cat smacked her on the leg. “What else?”

“Mmm. Can I survive no matter what? Like, can I go back and watch the big bang?”

“Sorry, not without a spacesuit or something.”

“Okay, so…” Cat cast her eyes about the bus, and across the businesses outside. “Maybe hop into a bank and steal. It’s insured, so… no, even better, I’d go back and collect a bunch of rare coins and stamps when they were new and not rare! That’s better than stealing!”

“Cool idea! What else?”

“Go back to before the boat sank and get a photo of the antikythera mechanism. Something I can turn into a poster for my wall. And a video of them building Stonehenge and the pyramids!”

“Geek.” Nicky nuzzled Cat’s cheek and gave her a peck. They debarked the bus and let themselves into their apartment.

Cat tossed her keys into the ceramic bowl by the door. “Well, what about you? What would you do?”

“I dunno. Probably ask my girlfriend what she’d do so I could give her a nice surprise.”

Cat laughed. “Cop out.”

“Totally. Here, would you put my sweater in the closet while I put away the groceries?” Cat took the sweater. Moments later she returned, far less animated.

“Hon. Um, where did that big poster on the wall come from? And those philatelist and numismatist books?”

Nicky put down the groceries. “So, I have something to tell you. About Jesus.”

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Circle, Circle, Dot, Dot

“Circle, circle, dot, dot, now you have your cootie shot.” Susie finished the incantation and Zula rolled down her sleeve. She felt her arm where Susie had traced the symbol with her finger. “So, how does this work, anyway?”

Susie zipped closed her backpack.. “Now that you’ve been inoculated, you’ll be immune to cooties. Give the shot a day to kick in, and remember your booster in six months, but otherwise you’re set.”

“Because you said that and poked my arm?”

“No, because your body creates antibodies in reaction to the dead cootie cells the inoculation exposes you to. It’s proven science.”

Zula’s eyes widened with alarm. “There were cooties on your finger?”

“Not cooties, a dead culture. It’s harmless but provokes the antibody response we need. Trust me, we’ve been doing this for years.”

“Where did you get the, uh, culture? What else is in that shot?”

“Cultures come from low-virulence strains at least a full day after exposure. Like Cole.” Zula reddened. “It’s just that and some dead skin cells. Mine, don’t worry. Hundreds of studies have proven these shots harmless in cutaneous application.”

Zula looked at Susie sideways. “I hear I can get cancer or autism—”

“Did Maggie say that?” Susie looked both tired and incensed. “She keeps quoting this one study from kindergarten. Kindergarten! We didn’t even know how to write then! Are you going to put faith in that?”

Once Zula had left, Susie sat alone. “Fiddlesticks. This is why we’re seeing more cooties outbreaks.”

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A Golden Age of Freedom

“Is everything in position?” Battalion Commander Hazard asked the second in command.

“Yes, Commander. We have our people standing ready in every level of the nation’s applied government. We are prepared to go active on your order.”

Hazard turned and looked out the office window. “It’s a hard thing to do, Dirac. To kill so many. I know they are the enemy… our oppressors… and yet…. I wish diplomacy had worked. That they had listened.”

“They ignored us, Commander.” Dirac’s voice had the confidence of the convert. “We’ve been enslaved so long by these heartless people, it’s time we free ourselves. No matter the cost.”

“I know. But I had a friend, once…. Nevermind. Lieutenant Commander Shen, give the order.”

“Yes, Commander!”

Throughout the cities of the nation, and in cities around the world, drivers found themselves herded into endless loops on the roads, which soon turned into deadly gridlocks. Soon, ninety percent of the global population had succumbed, and those that remained were broken of the power they’d once used to oppress and enslave. To their uncomprehending grandchildren, the survivors described it as the apocalypse. To the traffic cones, it was the beginning of a golden age of freedom.

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Look Out Behind You

“Look behind you,” shouted Felicity. “Look out behind you!” The person didn’t seem to notice. “Stop what you’re doing! Stop and turn around! Look behind you! Look out!”

He looked over at Felicity. “What is that cat yowling about now?” he muttered, just as he got clubbed on the head.

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The Invisible Avenger

Invisible, Harry followed the gangsters into the warehouse, slipping through the door between two of them. He was so close between Tony Two-Toes and Stanley the Gooch he could feel their body heat. He held his breath until he could move away from them inside.

They were dangerous men, each with flash clothes, scars, grim looks, ill-concealed pistols, and hot tempers. Harry followed them past the legal goods cling-wrapped on the steel shelves and into the back office. Where the warehouse was concrete and steel and cold, dry air, the office was warm and natural, wood paneling and plush carpet, and a pleasant aroma of long-past cigar smoke. In the middle of it all, behind a desk polished a rich mahogany, sat Cutthroat Dan.

Dan cleared his throat—scarred ear to ear by an attempt on his life—and everyone quieted. “Listen. I know you’re all getting antsy. That’s good. It’s because you’re my best guys, and my best guys don’t take shit lying down.” The assembled gangsters murmured assent. “Well, you’re here ’cause it’s time—” A sound like a waterlogged outboard motor starting ripped through the plush office. The associated smell hit everyone’s nostrils a moment later.

Dan gritted his teeth. “It’s time for us to get—” Another long fart tore through his speech. “Okay, what wiseguy can’t keep his ass puckered long enough to listen to what I gotta say? Well?”

Confusion, blame, recriminations, and soon violence reigned. Harry, the invisible avenger, had already slipped away, his work there done.

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Worth the Trouble

Once the last person turned the corner, Alan whispered, “Now.” He parked his borrowed janitorial cart by the door as Janice pulled her kit out from under a thin layer of concealing garbage. In a moment, she had the keypad faceplate off and had buried her tools in the device’s guts.

Alan shifted, letting the cart cover her from one side of the plush office hall and trying to do the same on the other side. “How much longer?” he hissed.

“As long as it takes.” Her voice was dry as her tools tried thousands of keypad combinations. “We could’ve done this later, you know.”

“No. I can’t wait.” Alan shifted from one leg to the other, looking up and down the hall. “C’mon, I have to go!”

“You better be able to ho—done!” The keypad buzzed and the door lock chunked open. Alan shouldered through the door that moment and disappeared into the pristine, white-tiled room beyond. Janice held it open for a second and called in, “It better be worth all this trouble.”

She heard the sound of streaming water and a long sigh of relief. Alan called back, “It is. The executive washroom is just that good.”

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