Posts Tagged ‘John Meagher’

Episode 232: Staff Pick 2016 – Twenty-One by Michael Merriam

• Narrated by John Meagher
• Audio production by Jeremy Carter
• Originally published in Afterburn SF (September 2007)
• Discuss this story on our forum
• For a list of all our stories, authors and narrators, visit our Wikia page
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Content Warning: This week’s story involves more profanity than usual. Parents listening with younger children may want to join us again next week.

Show Notes

Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge, plan the year ahead and highlight some of our favourite episodes. A different member of the Cast of Wonders crew will present their favorite story of 2016 each week in January.

We hope you enjoy assistant editor Katherine Inskip’s favorite story from 2016, Twenty-One by Michael Merriam, narrated by John Meagher. The story originally aired April 2, 2016 as Episode 204.

Michael Merriam is an author and spoken-word performer living in Hopkins, Minnesota. His novella, Should We Drown in Feathered Sleep, was long-listed for the Nebula Award in 2010, and his novel, Last Car to Annwn Station was named a Top Book in 2011 by Readings in Lesbian & Bisexual Women’s Fiction. Michael has appeared on stage in the Minnesota Fringe Festival, Minnesota Storyfest, Story Slam Minnesota, and over the air on KFAI Radio and Minnesota Public Radio. He’s also the co-organizer of the Minnesota Speculative Fiction Writers. Visit his homepage or follow him on Twitter.

John MeagherJohn Meagher is the writer and narrator of Tales of the Left Hand, an ongoing fantasy series offering “swashbuckling, intrigue, and a dash of magic.” You can learn more about his work at or on Twitter. In his secret identity, he’s a graphic designer living outside Washington DC with his wife, daughter and two cats.




Read along with the text of the story.

Theme music is Appeal to Heavens by Alexye Nov, available at

Supernatural Radio and Tempting Secrets by A Kevin MacLeod are licensed under a Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License


Episode 204: Twenty-One by Michael Merriam

Show Notes

Happy birthday, Podcastle! Our fantasy sister show is celebrating it’s 8th anniversary. Pop on over and join the party with Graeme Dunlop, Rachael K. Jones and the rest of the castle’s inhabitants.

Supernatural Radio and Tempting Secrets by A Kevin MacLeod are licensed under a Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License


by Michael Merriam


Wednesday, January 6th, 2009, dawned bright and clear for the twenty-first time.

“Are we ready?” Aaron Burnett asked the group surrounding him, all of them cold and shivering in the pre-dawn light.

“Yeah, yeah. We can do this,” Thomas Pinchly said. The short, thin teenager chewed nervously on a plastic straw.

Aaron’s older sister, Sharon, gave him a reassuring smile. “We don’t really have a choice, do we?” The smile on her plump face widened. “And if we screw it up—”

“We start over at December 23rd and take another crack at it,” Sharon’s friend Teri finished.


(Continue Reading…)


Cast of Wonders 166: Hard Passage by Holly Schofield

Show Notes

Juliet Mushens’ book Get Started in Writing Young Adult Fiction is available now in the UK, and forthcoming in the US. You can find her on Twitter.

Hard Passage

by Holly Schofield

Daylan hurried along the edge of the crowd. He would violate the Heartcreed if he was late again.

As he approached the main wormhole gate, a new wave of arrivals washed over him. There should have been a few minutes grace. I’ve got the schedules wrong again, he thought, flicking his grimy pad into begging mode with an aching thumb.

“Help a poor orphan boy save for a ticket home,” Daylan called out to the kindliest-looking ones as he forged upstream, against the hectic flow of passengers, hunching to make himself shorter. He waved his pad, the large zero indicating his lack of credits. Most arrivees let their eyes pass over his ragged clothes and unblemished forehead, the lack of a visible brain implant labeling him idios.

Endless multitudes streamed by, a cacophony of colour and shapes: tall, elegant Naiphs; stocky Rassakits; right-sized Terrans. Humankind and the two known extraterrestrial species surged in a constant flux; arriving and departing ships determining the tidal ebb and flow of the spaceport.

“Take you two Naiph lifespans to save passage to Terra.” A teenaged Terran smirked at Daylan, nudging his grinning companion. Daylan almost snarled but a Heartcreed adage floated to the surface of his brain: Do not resent the rich. They suffer, albeit in different ways. The vacationing teen, with his expensive gold implant, had chatted just a bit too artificially to his travel mate as they headed for a connecting flight. Besides, the teen had been right–begging in the port could never result in any real money. These past seven years, Daylan considered it a good day if he ended it with a full belly and no deviation from the Heartcreed’s doctrines.

“Haven’t eaten in twelve hours,” he said loudly, this time aiming at a crowd of Terrans in formal dress. Something about his tone must have been wrong. The Terrans barely glanced at him, intent upon their display overlays and conversations.

A Terran boy, about four, in a blue-feathered shirt probably printed to match his eyes, halted and stared hard at Daylan’s forehead. Daylan might have been the first older idios the boy had ever seen. The boy’s curly hair framed an oval face, genetically enhanced to allow for a deluxe implant when he turned fourteen. To have a Terran life–some kids had all the good fortune.

Daylan winked at him, an action within the Heartcreed. The lad might be good for a tenth-credit or two. Now what? Perhaps an interactive pitch, like pulling a toy from the child’s ear the way the Reverend could. Would it amuse the parents enough? A tall Terran woman was pushing her way through the hordes, intent upon the boy. Daylan sauntered nearer the child.

“Mikos, let’s get away from the bad man.” The woman swept up the child against her gleaming ivory shirt. The child stared fixedly at Daylan from over her shoulder as she strode away.

Daylan cursed under his breath. She’d called him a man, not a boy. And there were no more likely targets.

Safe in a service alcove, he accessed the net with the last of his daily data allowance. Risky to run it to nil but a schedule change could push him over the edge into starvation.

The port schedules had undergone a slight shift. He downloaded them to his pad but simply storing them was no use—not with his bad memory. He mouthed the sequences of the shuttle landings several times and flagged his pad to blink the data back at him once an hour for the next twelve hours.

Suspendinox withdrawal and the resulting growth spurt burned like fire in his joints. He sunk to the floor and tried to ignore both his hunger and the frequent twinges in his knees and elbows.

His pad beeped a reminder. Time for a study session with the Reverend. Another aspirant, Hundera, hurried by, lurching on his bad leg, empty sleeve flapping. Daylan wasn’t the worst off, he needed to remember that. The Heartcreed maxim that seemed to apply was not very reassuring: Acceptance can come, however mileage may vary.

The Reverend was in his usual spot outside the Axis Bar entrance, under the flickering sign that advertised talleran and other evils. His old-fashioned long coat and wide-brimmed hat made him stand out from the Terrans passengers, despite the black rectangle on his forehead.

Jolo, another aspirant, had arrived and was handing over her offering– a drinktube that was almost half-full. A tiny orphaned Terran, her large eyes, pert nose, and thick black hair stood her in good stead when it came to begging. At age ten, no one would question her lack of an implant for several more years.

Daylan approached, feeling like a maintenance truck next to the graceful minibot-sized Jolo, and held out his empty hands toward the Reverend. “I have no offering. I’m sorry.”

“Hmph. I’ll let it go this time, boy, in expectation of double tomorrow.” The Reverend’s eyebrows were a deep V below his implant. As Daylan nodded in mute apology and shame, he could just make out the broken edges where the burnt-out plate met the skin.

The Reverend’s daily devotionals involved small sleight-of-hand magic tricks, begging psychology, and cultural practices. After seven years, Daylan had a good grasp of most of the techniques, but, without an implant, his memory of the finer points slipped and slid like melting ice crystals in a drinktube. He would start to enter notes on his pad after each session, only to find it already contained similar records.

“Rev, can you show us more juggling arts?” Jolo asked, jiggling from foot to foot with her usual delight at learning something, anything. Too young to know that puberty is inevitable and pain would dominate her future.

The Reverend grunted but didn’t reply. Something more than Daylan’s lack of oblation was bothering him.

The first twenty minutes of practice, the pretend-finding of drink tabs in each others’ cuffs, armpits, and shoes, went well. Jolo pulled it off cleanly just the once but Daylan earned several approving nods from the Reverend.

After the Reverend had dropped the tab twice, he stopped and put his trembling hands in his pockets. “Enough. Mathematics is next.”

Daylan joined in with Jolo’s groan. His brain was not designed that way; data had to be stored and manipulated via implants. Rote learning, number crunching, it was all water through a sieve. Without implants, there was no point in even trying.

“Jolo,” the Reverend said, as if reading Daylan’s thoughts, “How much does an implant cost?”

“Twenty thousand? No, two hundred thousand creds?” Jolo stammered, as always unsure of her decimal points. Daylan gave her a quick, reassuring nod at the second figure. That was one number he was certain of.

The Reverend turned to Daylan. “If I collected a credit a day, begging, how many port years would it take me to afford an ticket to Terra?”

“Um, that’s ninety-five hundred credits, so divided by three hundred days, let’s see…” Daylan said and resisted rubbing his forehead. “Can’t I use a pad?”

Mind over matter, boy, mind over matter.”

For once, the Heartcreed phrase failed to warm Daylan. Last month, he had spent a whole week using his meager data quota to research the human brain.  He’d stored huge quantities of information on his pad–words like amygdala, sulcus, and left middle temporal gyrus. Generations ago, unimplanted Terrans could hold facts and figures effortlessly, sometimes even for a hobby or entertainment. The last two hundred years of implanting at adulthood meant brain capacity had diminished in subsequent generations. A small price to pay for the wealthy who received implants at puberty, a routine process like vision tweaking or derma replacement. A huge consequence for an orphan stranded in a spaceport.

As Daylan mumbled numbers to himself, the Reverend frowned and glanced down the passageway. A noisy mob of Naiphs, mostly female, chatted by the nearby washroom doors, gliding in slow and circular undulations. “Jolo, go do a peripheral beg-and-smile to that crowd. And, in the lulls, recite this Heartcreed mantra: Piecemeal is as piecemeal does.”

The girl bowed and skipped off towards the women, mismatched shoes winking in the harsh light, tattered cloak swirling around her, her innocent happiness radiating off her.

Daylan could vaguely remember his childhood on Terra, some latent trace deep in his skull. Episodic memories were as hard to access as facts and figures, sometimes. He recalled, as if at a distance, thirteen years of hugs, schooling, and the warmth of a yellow sun. If he tried hard, he could almost smell the sweet golden scent of a dandelion. Jolo, in the port since age three, had none of those memories, although even she claimed to remember the Five-Second Massacre that had stranded them, and the other aspirants, there. He crossed his arms and hugged himself, ignoring the pain in his elbows.

The Reverend grasped Daylan’s arm. “Boy, we need to talk about Suspendinox and the lack of available–”

“Did you find another supplier? I’ll pay. I’ll find the money, no matter how much.” Daylan clutched the Reverend’s sleeve.

“Don’t interrupt, boy.” The Reverend held Daylan’s gaze until he dropped it.

“Sorry, sir. It’s just that I’ve grown five centimetres this month.” Over the past year, Daylan had been using the height scale at the security checkpoint gate as a guide and recording the numbers in his pad. He quickly referenced the file. “Twenty since my last dose. An average of a centimeter every week.”

The Reverend grimaced. “That is an increase.”

“Rev, if I can get some Suspendinox this week, I can retard the growth for another couple of months–buy me some time to find a steady source.”

The Reverend looked up into Daylan’s eyes. “I have talked to all my regular contacts. I have even offered to cut my commission. Quite simply, the manufacturers changed shipping routes. There are no supplies passing through the port. There is nothing to skim.”


“But nothing, boy. Reality is. We adapt.” This reminder of the Heartcreed settled Daylan’s ragged breathing although dozens of arguments raged through his head. There had to be a way to retard his growth. He would search it online next chance he had.

Or had he done that already?

And, could he adapt? He could clearly recall several adult idios being carted off by the port security cops right after the Massacre, presumably joining Daylan’s slaughtered parents in a mass cremation. The colonial adults, having survived the rebel Rassakit uprising, had not survived being unimplanted in Terran-Naiph territory, although vagrancy had been the official reason for their executions. Only the Reverend had succeeded as an adult living in the port. Only he managed to beg profitably, in spite of his grey hair, yellowing fingernails, and broken implant. The Heartcreed had made the difference.

“Yes, sir, thank you, sir.”

The Reverend wasn’t listening. He was thumbing through his facial recognition program between glances at a Naiph who was gliding down the corridor. Several large suitcases tagged behind like ducklings after their mother. “Until later, boy. I have some fish to catch.”

Daylan got the gist of the confusing phrase. He watched the Reverend’s battered hat grow smaller as he threaded through the crowd after the Naiph. Finally, that disappeared from view as well, leaving Daylan standing alone in the throng.

Daylan shoved half the soybao into his mouth.

“Thanks, Churl,” he said, chewing the oily pastry. The strong kulik spices seared his throat but his stomach growled, wanting more, needing more.

“Der is no need to dank me,” Churl said, touching his silver implant with a blunt, greasy hand in a quick salute, before turning away to supervise the serving bot plugged into the counter.

Daylan carefully tucked the remaining half-pastry in his pocket to give to the Reverend later and headed back into the melee surrounding the food kiosks. Churl was the best of the food vendors; often good for some scraps or stale buns. This time, it had only meant two hours of cleaning the grease traps, a job the bots never seemed to get done to Churl’s satisfaction.

He angled across the busy passageway, heading for the largest commercial hall, the Portico. He passed a row of upscale businesses: glidechair repair shops, a pharmacy advertising “implant tune-ups while you wait”, even a store where one credit would get you a ten-minute look at a real, live tree.

The small boy with the blue shirt stood stock-still, peering through the tightly packed crowds, tears running down his face. His mother was not in sight.

Down the corridor in the middle of the aisle, an enormous Rassakit in a green stretchsuit rumbled in irritation to an equally large companion, gesturing rudely with an arm so muscled it could not touch his side. Several huge wheeled suitcases circled the two Rassakits like an archaic wagon train. A trouble spot, Daylan sensed. He double-checked his pad: sure enough, the combination of inattention and that brand of suitcase was a vortex of danger. He’d run into this six times before.

Upstream, towards the wormhole gate, a dozen Terrans, all in orange, milled around their tour guide, a short woman with a bright headband. The boy had disappeared. The tour group swept past, heading for the gates, a muddle of orange. Then—in their midst–a flash of soft blue.

Daylan hesitated. Helping lost children was solidly within the Heartcreed but the boy’s mother had already rejected him earlier.

A thin, high wail carried over the general din. Daylan charged toward the tour group, already queuing by the gates.

No child.

A dash of blue, far downstream, beside the two Rassakits who were still talking and waving their hands. A small pink hand protruding between two of the huge suitcases that now pressed tightly, crushingly, together.

His ankles screamed with pain as he dodged passengers. He didn’t slow as he approached the cases, using his momentum and weight to slam his feet into the bottom edge and tip the nearest case toward him. He felt his pad slip from his pocket. He scrambled to his feet and leaned across the case, grabbing the boy’s hands and pulling him into his arms. His chest heaved, lungs aching. The boy was mute and still in his lap. A long scratch on the child’s pale face beaded up with blood.

“Mikos? Where are you?” The anxious voice grew louder as the mother approached. She snatched the boy from Daylan and sat on the floor, oblivious to the crowds. During her long hug and a tearful murmuring from the child, Daylan grabbed his pad where it lay face down then wrapped his arms around his knees, trying to think himself smaller and younger.

The mother finally raised her head. “Greetings,” Daylan said, using the formal inflection etiquette expected by upper-class Terrans upon first meeting. To his alarm, it came out in a deep bass. He cleared his throat. “The child was pinched between the two cases. One guiding sensor was set in tighter circles than the other, so they eventually collided. I was glad I could…” He trailed off, his voice now squeaking on every word.

He held out his pad the appropriate distance from the woman, thumbing on the begging app to show the zero balance.

“Mikos, you must thank the man.” The woman reached into her shirt for her own pad, a sleek gold disc a quarter the size of Daylan’s unit. She tapped her disc against Daylan’s pad as he gravely went through the thanking ceremony with the child, trying to touch the child’s palm lightly, knowing his hands were blackened with floor grime. The credit chip chimed but the fresh scratches on his screen made it too blurry to read. He did the departure courtesies with her mechanically, making only three mistakes.

It was not until the woman and child disappeared into the crowd that he rose, enlarged the text, and saw the balance: 10,000.00 credits.

He shook the pad and wiped it with his dirty jacket cuff. No error message. The impossible amount didn’t change. His knees shook. It couldn’t be ten thousand! That was enough to buy a ticket to Terra! To freedom! His ears roared. It was more money than Daylan had ever seen in one place in his life. The irony flickered through his mind–to the woman, it was probably an afternoon of shopping or a week of good meals. She wouldn’t miss it.

The woman! By the very essence of the Heartcreed, he needed to thank her again.

He stood and craned his neck over the crowds. A pale-shirted woman and her blue-shirted child were past the first checkpoint, being scanned by security bots. As he rushed towards them, heedlessly pushing passengers aside, they disappeared through the next door, through the wormhole gate itself.

He stopped short, ignoring the swearing and bumping from behind. Too late, she was gone.

Now what? The ten thousand credits shone up at him, unwavering.

Daylan ignored the ache in his knees as he traversed the corridors near Food Court B-6 yet again.

He had to find the Reverend. He’d already checked the Axis bar entrance, the more popular washrooms, and two food courts with no success. He’d sent Jolo to search the service tunnels.

Now, standing outside the bar once more, he turned up his jacket collar, arranged his bangs to cover his forehead, and squared his shoulders. If the Reverend was inside, perhaps Daylan’s recent post-pubescent appearance could get him past the door bots.

He walked in slowly, hoping he appeared confident but tensed to run. One meter in. Two. The door bot didn’t even flicker as he passed it. The room smelled of lemons, spilled talleran, and stale food. Daylan edged towards the nearest tables, empty of customers. He squinted in the unaccustomed dimness, so unlike the bright lighting in the rest of the port.

The Reverend rose from a table near the back. The other occupants, all Naiph, were unhooking their glidechairs from the table brackets.

Daylan raised a hand in greeting but the Reverend pushed right past him out the door.


“Run, boy, run!” The Reverend headed for nearest service tunnel. Shouts followed, along with the whine of glidechairs, but soon faded as Daylan followed the Reverend, weaving through maintenance doorways.

Daylan waited until they halted by a cleaning bot station before speaking. “What was it? Transit cops?” Naiphs and Terrans jointly owned the port in an uneasy truce. These Naiphs had clearly been tourists, though, and the shouting sounded angry rather than authoritative.

“Indeed…cops.” The Reverend was panting and gray-faced. He leaned against the wall, nearly knocking over an inactive broom which flashed a warning at him and released a smell of bleach. The Reverend took his pad out of his jacket and faded the screen, but not before Daylan glimpsed the sunburst symbol of Hotfuse, a popular gambling game. Could the Reverend have been betting with the bar customers? No, that was emphatically against the Heartcreed. A creed the Reverend had spent a lifetime creating, he’d said, combining mysterious things like the eight-fold path, the noahide law, and ten commandments of some sort.

“Rev, Rev, listen.” Daylan was stumbling over his words. “I can leave the port. I’ve got money. Ten thousand creds!”

The explanation spilled out of him, his voice jerky and rough. The Reverend continued to wheeze, sliding down the wall until he was sitting with his legs splayed out.

“Show me,” the Reverend demanded, holding out a shaky hand. Daylan indicated the balance on his screen silently.

“It’s my ticket out. I can go to back to Terra! Have a Terran life!” Daylan couldn’t stop grinning.

The Reverend had steadied his breathing but was still very pale. “Terra does not want you, boy, not unless you can buy an implant along with your ticket. Idios are even less regarded there than on Rassakit. You know that.”

Daylan did know that but, well, it was ten thousand credits. It wouldn’t buy an implant, not even close, but it should change his life. The bleach smell stung his eyes.

“I guess…I guess I can stay here. I’ll bribe someone for Suspendinox. I can pay for it forever. I can stay pre-pubescent,” Daylan said, giving the wall a gentle kick. He ached to go home. To sunshine and grass. To spread the wonder of the Heartcreed on Terra!

“You are lucky to have stalled puberty to the age of twenty.” The Reverend held Daylan’s eyes. “Perhaps your newfound wealth can serve the Creed. Perhaps I, as the sole adept, can form a parochial school–”

“I’ll stay here as an adult, then,” Daylan interrupted. “Hide in the service tunnels. Churl will sell me food. At one credit a day, I can live for, um, well, decades before I have to beg again.”

“Those who follow the Heartcreed have a higher purp–” The Reverend frowned, swallowed, and put a hand inside his jacket against his chest.

“Are you all right?” Daylan knelt beside him. “Sir?”

“Boy,” the Reverend mumbled. “My chest. I have…” He gulped and winced. “I have a faulty heart valve. An arrhythmia that is worsening. A quick fix on Terra but impossible here. ”

Daylan frowned. “You never said. You never told us.”

“And if I had?” The Reverend gave a half-smile. “Could you have saved me? I won’t be coddled. I’ll die here and that’s the end of it. Shit happens, boy.” He snorted. “A truth I never did manage to work into the Heartcreed.”

“There must be something I can do?” Daylan’s throat was suddenly raw.

He had to lean closer to hear the Reverend’s next faint words. “Find your balance, boy.”

He wanted to shout that he didn’t even know what that meant. He ran a hand over his clammy forehead.

The Reverend touched his shoulder with a claw-like hand. “Your heart will show you the way. For now, go to the pharmacy by the gates. Get two milligrams of Glyceryl trinitrate. A pulse dose in a sprayer.”

Daylan’s head spun. He reflexively reached for his pad to record the information but the Reverend shook his head.

“No time for that, boy. Just remember the word ‘nitroglycerine’. Now go! Time is muscle!” The Reverend’s breathing grew shallower and his eyes closed.

The pharmacy was a good 15-minute hike away.

Daylan ran it in five.

The Reverend’s body hit the bottom of the shipping crate with a thud.

Churl looked down into the crate and raised the bristles that ran across his nose. “Yeah, dat will do. I can ship it to my buddy on Naipha. He will handle it at de other end.”

Daylan nodded his thanks. At least, the Reverend’s corpse wouldn’t have to thrown down a trash chute. The Naiph had some good funeral traditions, according to rumor. And the Heartcreed did say there was kindness in everyone. Daylan rearranged the Reverend’s body, now cold and stiffening, as best he could while Churl stuffed empty soup containers around it.

Boxes, cans, and old machinery littered the back of Churl’s food stall. Daylan slumped against a worn-out mixer and kicked a toe over and over against the luggage cart he’d pirated to carry the body here.

Churl labeled the crate “Terran Mushroom Broth” and sealed it. “Dat medicine was just to distract you. You know dat, right? It wouldn’t have fixed him.” Churl scratched his oily head with a massive hand.

Daylan suddenly realized Churl was a good guy. He hoped he’d remember.

Daylan squeezed his eyes shut against a wash of tears. The medicine had cost twenty-five credits; a fortune just a few hours ago, now a petty, meaningless sum. He would have spent all his pad held to save the Reverend.

It hurt to look at the crate, squatting so solid and final amid the clutter. He pulled out his pad but its screen was almost unreadable. He thumbed on the Reverend’s pad and started scrolling. After a minute, he looked up at Churl who was checking the tightness of the seals one more time.

“Did you know that the Reverend was taking bets at Axis?” Daylan demanded. “He was giving odds on everything from football to creamcars.”

“Ya, de man was great off-line entertainment, dat’s truth.” Churl’s greasy face furrowed into a smile. “All the flight crews knew dat. And, if a passenger made a bet, de Reverend made sure dey at least got to keep der luggage.” He chuckled at his own joke.

Daylan rubbed his temples. His ears rang. It was all a fraud. The Reverend didn’t make a living begging. He didn’t follow the Heartcreed. He was an idios loser, no better than the worst Rassakit gangster.

His brain felt empty. A gaping, hollow husk where the Heartcreed had been. He’d lost the Reverend and now he’d lost his faith, his religion, his whole world.

He forced himself to thank Churl again before he left. Out in the main corridor, he stuffed the nitroglycerine pack into the nearest garbage chute, banging the lid so hard he startled an elderly Naiph seated close by.

He needed air and space. Ten minutes of blind stumbling through the crowds brought him to the entrance of the Portico. The mirrored walls gave it a cavernous feel and there was always a welcoming current of air. He lurched through some Terran school children in identical uniforms playing some kind of game. The smallest one was trying to put a multi-coloured sticker on another’s forehead in a childish imitation of an implant. The sticker floated to the floor and Daylan ignored their cries as he trod on it, heading for the edges of the Portico where it was less congested. The buzz in his head rose to almost unbearable volume.

The mirrored wall reflected his approach. His hair needed a trim, his pants were too short, and his upper lip sported a distinct line of dirt. He rubbed below his nose in despair. Cleanliness helped in begging but, anyhow, it was part of the Heartcreed the Reverend taught.

Would never teach again.

Had only pretended to teach.

Nothing could be worse than this. Nothing.

The smudge remained no matter how he scrubbed above his lip. He reached the mirror and leaned into it until his forehead touched the cool surface.

Things had gotten worse.

He was growing a moustache.

The Terran oak was a sturdy coffee-coloured plant just a bit taller than Daylan. He studied the smooth geometry of the budding green leaves and tiny twigs. He could almost feel a sweet, humid breeze on his face. He sighed in pleasure. Terra lifeforms had to be so amazing.

“Free looks are over, buddy. Get away from der.” The brawny Rassakit storeowner shooed him away from the caged tree. Daylan winked at the owner and ambled back into the main passageway of the port.

A boisterous Naiph sports team, their crimson-and-burgundy jerseys flashing a message too quick to read, jounced along in glidechairs, chanting and shouting slogans. Daylan quickened his pace until he was beside them.

“I’d be happy to show you an undocumented shortcut to Bay 87. You can make flight 814 and still have ten minutes grace to get a snack,” Daylan said, smoothly putting a hand under the leading Naiph’s elbow. He stroked his new moustache, now a brown luxurious centimetre that went well with the stylish silver-edged rectangle that gleamed on his forehead. If he carefully peeled it off each night, the fake implant could last for months.

“The best goal keeper in the Tri-galaxy leagues shouldn’t have to wait, don’t you think?” he continued, as the rest of the team, half drunk on talleran, followed his pointing arm. He drew on the information and scripting that popped readily into his head; appreciating the cleverness of his patter even as he spoke. Smooth phrases, facial recognition, obscure statistics; the sheer effortlessness of the recall continued to astonish him. The best five thousand credits he’d ever spent, he thought wryly.

He guided the team down a service corridor and through a broken doorway, its servos wheezing in protest.

One of the Reverend’s better mantras floated into his mind: Living is asymptotic to the axis of perfection. The Heartcreed was something he would always strive toward. In time, perhaps, he would get over his anger at the Reverend’s lapses.

He was still pleased that just half the money had been enough to tweak his brain. The pharmacy had done a minor adjustment, expanding his right entorhinal cortex. That served to increase his associative memory, making it fully as large as unimplanted Terrans had enjoyed, generations ago. Made it easy to put a name to a face, a uniform to a team, a definition to a word. If this goal keeper ever came back to the port in Daylan’s lifetime, he’d recognize him.

He bowed goodbye to the smiling team and strode off, whistling. Stuffing the Reverend’s worn pad back in his too-small jacket, Daylan happily imagined he could feel the three-credit tip bulging out.

He’d spent another thousand credits on a one-year data contract for the Reverend’s pad, expanding his info allowance a hundredfold. That, combined with the brain tweak, was like a window opening in his mind–a clean, clear window on the world.

Day by day, he was reinventing himself, piecing together a whole person. Setting up a curriculum to teach Jolo, Hundera, and the other aspirants basic survival skills was surprisingly rewarding. Having four thousand credits on hand reduced the terror of starvation; he would decide later how it was best spent.

He settled on a bench and started tapping away on the Reverend’s pad.  Developing a Heartcreed–simple wording for a life worth living–gave him the most pleasure of all.

There was a Terran life to be had.

And it was right here.

Episode 95: You Bet by Alex Shvartsman

You Bet

by Alex Shvartsman

Joe stepped through the door and found himself in a cramped, smoke-filled card room. The players paused their game and turned toward him, five and a half pairs of eyes studying the newcomer.

Seated around the green felt table were a robot, a witch, a vampire, an alien Grey, and a fairy. And looming behind them was a pink mass of scales and tentacles topped off with a bowler hat. It regarded Joe thoughtfully with a single bulging eye the size of a dinner plate.

“Hey there, new guy,” said the fairy. Despite her two-foot frame her voice was sultry rather than tinny. “And what are you supposed to be?”

Joe tried to answer and realized that he couldn’t. He remembered nothing of who – or what – he was, except his first name. He felt strange, empty, as if someone had sucked everything out of his head through a straw.

“I know that look,” said the witch. “Everyone has trouble with their memory in the first few hours. It’ll go away. Unless you’re an amnesiac spy, that is. But we already had one of those.”

His memory problems were selective, Joe discovered. He recognized the sounds of a Frank Sinatra recording crooning in the background, yet couldn’t recall a reason for arriving at this place.

“You aren’t anything obvious,” said the fairy. “If you figure it out quickly, don’t say! I’d rather guess.”

“Well I’d rather play poker,” said the Grey, the kind they usually depict abducting cattle and probing things indiscriminately. This one was dressed in a three-piece suit, and his almond-shaped head was topped off with a cowboy hat. He caressed a large stack of chips with his three long fingers. “It’s your turn to deal,” the alien said to the fairy.

The fairy pouted.

“We do nothing but play cards,” said the witch. “Let her have her fun.”

The fairy fluttered her wings and displayed a huge grin. Her mood changed so quickly, Joe couldn’t help but wonder if Little Folk were susceptible to bipolar disorder.

“Are you a superhero out of costume? A serial killer? A werewolf, perhaps?”

“Mangy curs,” the tall, striking brunette with fangs sniffed the air. “I can smell those a mile away. He isn’t lupine.” She looked Joe up and down. “This one may be a tasty morsel, even if he’s a bit ordinary looking.”

“Watch out, friend,” announced the robot in a stage whisper. “She means that literally.”

“Your guesses are as good as mine,” said Joe to the fairy. “My name’s Joe. Beyond that I can’t remember… well… anything.”

“I don’t need to learn your name,” said the alien. “You won’t be here long enough.”

“Grey makes a terrible first impression,” said the witch, with a sideways glance at the alien. “And it doesn’t improve much once you get to know him, either.”

“I’m sure that underneath the fifty shades of his cranky gray exterior beats a heart of gold,” said Joe. “Or hearts. However his physiology works.”

The alien stared at Joe down his pair of flat holes that passed for a nose and went back to counting his chips.

“Don’t you pay any mind to that meanie,” said the fairy. “Have you got any super powers? I hope you aren’t a mind reader, because we couldn’t let you play then. Telepaths only get to watch, like Howie over there.”

The pink monstrosity bobbed its head and made an assenting noise which sounded like the mewl of a tipped-over cow.

“Who are you lot? What exactly is this place?” Joe turned around, but the door he had entered through was gone. There was nothing but solid wall covered in pastel wallpaper, peeling with age. “How do I get out of here?”

“Oh, sweetie, you’re here to stay,” said the fairy. “We all are.”

They watched with varying degrees of amusement while Joe searched frantically for a way out. He circumnavigated the room, studying the ceiling, floor, and walls. There was no sign of an exit.

“This is impossible,” Joe said.

“Enough already,” said the witch. “Let’s bring the new guy up to speed and get back to the game.”

“Hard-boiled private eye? Secret agent? Mercenary?” The fairy chimed in with another flurry of wild guesses.

“What you need to understand first,” said the robot, “is that we aren’t people.”

“That’s kind of obvious,” said Joe. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I don’t discriminate against metal-based life forms.”

“By we I mean you too, genius,” said the robot. “We’re figments of people’s imaginations. Zeitgeists of popular culture. Tropes. Avatars, brought to life by a hundred thousand dreamers reading the same novel or watching the same film. Whatever’s the flavor of the day finds its way into this room, at least temporarily.”

“Computer hacker? Terrorist? Ninja pirate?”

Joe shook his head. The fairy pouted again.

“At least he isn’t a prepubescent wizard or an emo glittering vampire,” said the witch. “We suffered a plague of those recently.”

“A terrible embarrassment to my kin,” declared the vampire. “I would have liked to kill them all and drink their blood, if it weren’t so diluted with Prozac and Cosmopolitans.”

“They were rotten card players,” said the robot.

“Their one redeeming quality,” added the alien.

“What happened to them?” Joe asked. “If there’s no exit, then where did they go?”

“They faded away,” said the vampire. “Some tropes are much longer-lasting than others. Broomhilda there,” she pointed a razor-sharp red nail at the witch, “has been around since the Roosevelt administration. And she isn’t saying which Roosevelt. Those self-pitying pretenders? Not so much.”

“I don’t much like the idea of fading away,” said Joe.

“Can’t blame you one bit,” said the witch. “But people’s fancies are beyond our control. Be content with the fact that enough of them thought you up, and that you exist at all. Even if existence around these parts is nothing but a never-ending card game.”

“Toreador? Clown? Astronaut?”

Joe shook his head again.

“Whoever you turn out to be, the important question is: do you know how to play Texas Hold’Em?” asked the alien.

“Yes,” said Joe. “I think so.”

“Pity,” said the alien. “I prefer easy opponents. It’s your turn to deal,” he reminded the fairy. “Scoot over and pass the new guy his chips.”

“Ghost whisperer? Colombian drug lord? Pet detective?”

The fairy made increasingly unlikely guesses but, in truth, Joe was no closer to figuring out his own identity than she was. So he played cards and studied the room and its inhabitants.

They played for several hours straight. Joe surprised himself and his companions by being rather good at the game. He quickly learned that the robot never bluffed, the witch fingered a large wart on her nose whenever she had a strong hand, and the vampire always over-bet low pairs pre-flop. The fairy played badly, but made up for it with copious amounts of luck – she often caught just the right card on the river. The alien was the shark of the group – his playing style was tight but aggressive, he changed his strategy all the time, and his gray, emotionless features made for a perfect poker face.

Very slowly, Joe built the modest pile of chips he started out with into an impressive stack that was second only to the alien’s. He searched for an opportunity to take the lead, but the wily extraterrestrial kept eluding his traps.

“Why is this place so run down?” he asked, noting the dilapidated carpet and patches of the green felt on the table worn so threadbare that they were practically bald spots.

“It is the nature of tropes to be well-worn,” said the robot, looking up briefly from his hand of cards.

Not long after that there was a lively round of betting which resulted in a large pile of chips building up at the center of the table. The alien placed his bet after the flop and Joe raised the stakes, sensing an opportunity. The other players groaned and folded their cards one by one.

The Grey studied Joe intently, looking for any kind of a tell.

“Take your time, ET,” said Joe, staring right back at the alien, “and while you consider your move let me compliment you about the crop circles. If I traveled to some faraway planet a gazillion light years away from Earth, I would totally mess with the natives’ minds that way, too. Oh, and what’s up with the cowboy hat?” Joe grinned. He was trying his best to throw the alien off his game, but the Grey didn’t appear to be fazed.

“That was an aggressive bet,” said the alien. “But you’re being bold out of ignorance rather than skill. Your new so-called friends conveniently left out a crucial detail. The game we play is more than a mere diversion.” He leaned in toward Joe. “These chips represent your influence and relevance in the outside world. Win some, and you might stick around a lot longer. Lose it all, and…” the alien snapped his fingers. “Poof.”

“You asked about the cowboy hat earlier. Its previous owner liked to bet aggressively, too. Nice enough chap, if a bit unrefined.” The alien pushed a large stack of chips into the center of the table, almost doubling the pot. “Raise.”

Joe pursed his lips and fondled the clay chips as he processed the new information.

“Well,” he finally said. “Isn’t that an interesting tidbit? Thanks very much for omitting that factoid when you invited me to play.” He looked around the table. The other players wouldn’t meet his gaze. “The fairy has been trying to guess what trope I represent this whole time, and I’ve been mulling it over, too, and I’ve finally figured it out. I’m everyman.”

The players stared at Joe, waiting for an explanation. Even the fairy kept quiet.

“There’s a thin line between a trope and a cliché. I believe all of you have crossed that line, on occasion. I think enough people out there are tired of that. They’re interested in stories about a regular guy. No super powers. No martial arts training. No preconceived notions. A regular Joe who thinks and acts like a person, who can be cautious or reckless, malicious or kind, unpredictable, yet realistic. They want a sort of character who won’t fade away, but always remain fresh by reinventing himself.

“Cowboys and Indians make room for little green men, who get replaced by gumshoe investigators… the tropes come and go. But everyman is always going to be around, for as long as people tell stories, no matter how the cards are dealt.”

Joe shoved his entire remaining stack of chips forward, doubling the pot again. “All in,” he said.

The players reflected on his words in silence. Only Howie the Lovecraftian horror hummed along to the Sinatra tune.

“Fold,” the alien declared after a long pause. He regarded his much-diminished horde of influence chips, then got up and stomped away from the table in frustration.

Joe smiled and collected his winnings.

“What did you have,” the robot asked.

“I’m sorry,” Joe said. “I don’t remember.”

Joe discarded the two of clubs and the seven of hearts he was holding face down and shuffled them into the deck. He decided that he was going to like it here. He had finally figured out what trope he represented and was confident it would take the others a while to get up to speed.

Which was just as well, because he could use all the chips he could get out of them. Card sharp was not, on its own, a very powerful trope.