The Last Alchemist

Edward, his coat in shreds, watched out the library window as a group of junior faculty played some complex game with a Frisbee. He thought casually how many athletic games were essentially modal, the reward for a particular action varying depending on the status of some Boolean variable. Further, there always seemed to be a meta-game, in which rule changes fed back into the game, on the field and off. On the other hand, his perceptions could be artifacts of the modal/meta approach itself. Aptly enough, he thought with a smile. Still watching the game, he called over his shoulder, “Julian, still with us?” Edward sighed deeply. “Julian, speak in reply.”

“I attend you faithfully as ever, master.”

“Great.” A hero would have an enchanted sword, flying carpet, magic lamp. He had a talking blackboard. “Clear, then begin again in red with the Moat of Arturius.”

Writing appeared on the blackboard, a cursive script interrupted with arcs and whorls, in brightly glowing red. Beginning at top center, the writing wound clockwise, stopping short of the upper left corner. “Julian, why have you stopped?”

“The specification is incomplete, master.”

And a lying, manipulative talking blackboard at that. “Julian, speak freely.”

“Do you not recall, noble master, the previous result? Did I not tell you…”

“Julian, stop. Clear and wait until called.” The writing vanished, and somehow Julian managed to twitch an eyebrow – a remarkable trick for a featureless black board, but then Julian was remarkable, for all the irritation he caused.

Julian’s operations manual, in the form of Edward’s great-great grandfather’s journal, incorporated material as much as eighteen hundred years old. Some had been copied from older journals by people who misunderstood what they read; in two cases copied with well-intended redaction by a boy distraught over the recent death of his father. For all anyone knew, the original Greek may have been a model of lucidity. Quirky translation, pious code words to fool the Inquisition, layers of commentary upon commentary, had created a Chinese motorcycle assembly manual without the charm. Edward read, thought, and read again, then looked up.

The clock said 5:40. Tossing the remains of his jacket in the trash, Edward locked his office door behind him. Though distracted in thought on the five minute walk, an impression of blue sky and green grass followed him into Murphy’s and he took his Guinness out to the beer garden. He tried to work up some interest in games as collaborative meta-creation, but his mind wandered as he watched the puffy white cumulus clouds form. Not a people-person, he missed the waitress’s unease as he ordered another beer, and a plate of fried potatoes.

“Magicians and astrologers,
Logicians and theologers,
Gain nothing from their cleverness,
‘Cause everybody dies.”

“Uh, I’m not sure ‘theologers’ a word, Carl.”

“It is now.” Carl set his beer down, and shortly returned with a bowl of chips. “Cut yourself?”


“There’s blood all down the side of your face. People see it, and it frightens them. You should go wash it off.”

Edward returned from a hasty trip to the rest room, trying to telepathically convey harmlessness to people who avoided eye contact. Gloria had joined Carl at the table. As he looked disapprovingly at her long bright red nails, a rare flash of insight and the damp paper towel he held to his cheek embarrassed him. He was lucky they put up with his eccentricity. Still, the three of them, and poor Eric, went way back. They were all weird by any standard.

Carl had evidently told Gloria about the cut on his face, otherwise she would have asked about the paper towel. Silence followed greetings as the three ate and drank, Gloria taking chips from Carl’s bowl.

Inevitably thinking of Eric, Carl spoke. “Gloria’s heard from him again.”

“Oh? How is he doing?”

“He seemed to be in good… Um, he seemed hopeful; optimistic. Pretty cheerful really. Didn’t have long to talk. He said he had something he was working on, and if all goes well we should hear from him soon.”

“We?” Only Gloria could communicate with Eric. Eric was, in some sense, elsewhere. His spirit inhabited some kind of other reality. His body inhabited a large chest freezer in Carl’s basement. For ten months they had worked, then studied, then hoped to somehow reunite his body and soul. During that time, Carl had lived a model life, paying every bill early and feeling the recoil at every stop sign.

Having moderated his expectations, Edward was now working to recall Eric’s spirit into some inanimate object, like, say, a blackboard. Julian, the Amazing Talking Blackboard, was no help. Eighteen hundred years ago in Antioch, Julian had gone home after a night drinking with friends, and awakened as a blackboard. He figured his neighbor had done it to him, and that it could have been worse.

Eric, however, had done it to himself. To his credit, he blamed no one else.

“He said he hoped to be in touch with all of us soon.”

The waitress kept a safe distance as she checked on them. “How we doin’? Get you anything? Clouding up…”

It was clouding up. The puffy cumulus clouds had thickened and darkened. A gust of wind took some napkins and sent everyone but the smokers into the bar. The three took a table in the back. “Carl told me you got cut,” said Gloria.

“Yes. Julian did warn me. In 1271 one Robert de Febrile tried to put a student’s spirit into a footstool. His distinctive nose allowed the dean to identify him. The student joined the Franciscans, and Julian, ah, hung out quietly, in a lecture room in Paris for some years.”

“Seems like there would be way less energy in the transition, Eric being not currently corporeal and all.”

“Well, yes, I expect there was less energy. My coat was torn up, and I got a slash on the cheek, then it seemed to dissipate. Didn’t even notice the cut at the time.”

“This rain shouldn’t last long. Shall we go back and have a look?”

“Sure, I’d appreciate your opinions.”

And indeed the rain ended with a big flash of lightening just as they finished their second round. They heard the sirens as they walked across the quad, but were still surprised to see Edward’s building engulfed in flames.

The next morning the place was surrounded with yellow tape, and security ran them off. “You gentlemen will have to wait till next week to reclaim your possessions. Everything salvageable will be in the maintenance shed on the south end, building 5534. Until then, please stay out, like the sign says.”

Julian had not made someone’s cut for “salvageable.” They eventually tracked him down to a scrap yard. It had been necessary to give the yard manager an even thousand dollars. Counting the money, he seemed sorry to have the blackboard taken from his office wall and loaded onto the special truck they’d rented from the glass company. A month after the freak lightning bolt destroyed his office, Edward had Julian installed in a new frame in his “temporary” office. For Julian the whole business had been “disorienting, but painless.” The manager at the scrap yard had been very generous with his hospitality, Julian said.

There had been no word from Eric. The search warrant for Edward’s house seemed to surprise them all.

Politics today

“So, if I understand this right – unlikely, I admit – one set of Socialists used their nefarious yet l33t hacking chops to make sure another Socialist was defeated by an elderly New York Liberal in the primaries so that she could lose to another elderly New York Liberal running as a Republican in the general election, thereby advancing the Russian agenda, which has long been to turn the US into a Socialist country – via keeping a Socialist from winning the election. Kind of a Lao Tzu meets Machiavelli in Byzantium and starts plotting with Odysseus sort of thing.” — weather report

That’s just what they want you to think.

Phineas talked too much

Phineas knew the future and talked too much, so vengeful Zeus blinded him and left him on an island, with a big buffet and a pair shrieking stinking birds with women’s faces – harpies, in a word. Whenever Phineas started in to eat, the harpies dove down, snatching half the food and crapping on the rest. One day Jason came and ran the harpies off, though didn’t kill them. If Phineas is still alive, he won’t get tenure.

UPDATE 22 February 2016: of the harpies and Phineas.

Book contracts

Donald Crankshaw has thoughts on book contracts. Because he signed one.

“What happens if the publisher ends up not publishing the work after all? That’s why you need a reversion of rights clause. This isn’t as important if the term of the rights starts as soon as the contract is signed, but if it doesn’t start until the book is published, or that term is particularly long, that could be a problem if the publisher never gets around to publishing your book. You’ll want the rights to return to you so you can try somewhere else. You should make sure that the reversion of rights clause names a time period, rather than saying it occurs when the publisher decides not to publish, since that can allow them to sit on your book for years.” — Book contract

Congratulations and best wishes! I look forward to reading Heirs of Fire by Donald S. Crankshaw.


You awake in a dark castle, hearing eldritch howling. Investigating, you follow the noises to a massive door in the lowest dungeon. The door is covered with magical signs. There’s blood everywhere, from four knights and a wizard lying dead on the floor. Opened padlocks hang from hasps at the door’s top and bottom, left and right. There’s a knob and keyhole on the left. As you examine the magical signs, the howling stops. The door shakes violently. An evil voice bellows “Release me!” Feeling a burning sensation you discover an ornate key on a chain around your neck.

Do you unlock the door, do you lock the padlocks and go back upstairs, or do you do something else?

UPDATE: This has been done on the spur of the moment. I have no plan. Links are welcome.

Future gridlock

That guy from the future dropped in again. On the way out of town I stopped for coffee, and found him waiting back at the car.

“Hey, how’s it going?” I asked, and we went back in so he could get something. As we pulled onto the highway I said, “So; you were saying the federal government is shutdown?”

“Yes. The had a series of brief shutdowns starting in the nineties, and then in 2024 they shut down hard, and they’ve been trying to re-start it since then, so 14 years. The last budget was for fiscal 2010, and Congress hasn’t even passed a continuing resolution since 2021. The debt ceiling is stuck around 10^18 dollars. Only essential personnel are legally working; mostly it’s temps with waivers.”

“What party is in charge?”

“It’s divided. The Republicrats control the house, the Paulites have the senate, and the acting president is a Rhino.”

“A Republican in name only?”

“Oh, that’s where that comes from? No, the Rhinos are basically the same as the Republicrats, but they’re against dynamic group marriage. Technically they support legal incorporation for large heterogeneous couplings, but that’s not going to happen.”



“No; please go on.”

“So Washington is thoroughly gridlocked. A few years ago someone tried to get things going with a parliamentary maneuver, and it went wrong. Now the mummified corpse of Joe Biden is President of the Senate in perpetuity and they need 103 votes to end Max Baucus’ filibuster.”

“Max Baucus? He must be a hundred years old!”

“Could be. Baucus retired years ago, but the parliamentarian ruled he was still speaking. Nobody knows what happens when he finally dies. Negotiations with Puerto Rico for statehood have been unsuccessful, so the latest plan is to get the Supremes to rule that 51 is legally 103. No luck so far.”

Suddenly he reached in his pocket, said “pardon me a second,” then disappeared, and reappeared in a red sweater vest. “Sorry, where were we?”

“‘The mummified corpse of Joe Biden’?”

“Right. Gridlock. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Basically the states and cities have taken over most of what the feds used to do. It’s not perfect – the governor of Illinois is actually in prison – but it’s worked out surprisingly well most places. The feds… well, each party keeps promising to fix things as soon as the other guys get out of the way. But people remember the catastrophe last time they fixed things.”

“So, 2038, you have an election coming up.”

“Right, midterms. If the Paulites take the House they might be able to pass a CR. Nothing can get through the Senate, but the Paulites seem to have the most power right now, so most people will vote against them to avoid upsetting the gridlock. Basically the federal government has itself pinned. Some people think it’s the result of the Singularity: hyper-intelligent computers saving us from ourselves. Others think the political geniuses in Washington finally outsmarted themselves. Anyway, most people don’t want to mess with it.”

“It seems like the judges would step in and rule by court order.”

“They probably would if they could, but they have been tied up the same way, ever since the Supremes certified the UCA.”

“Which is?”

“Universal Class Action. Every human, corporation, and legal entity is a party; everything is at issue; everyone is recused. Any law suits about UCA get folded into the UCA itself. Basically the legal/judicial profession turned on itself. About five years ago the whole effort was taken over by the Wikipedia project. The only judicial institutions still working at all are local criminal prosecutions and some state courts.”

“Maybe there’s something to that theory about the singularity.”

“Yeah, this is where it makes the most sense. Still…”

Suddenly he held up a hand, listened a second, then excused himself and disappeared again.

The future sounds worse than it is

After a too-generous serving of stuffed pizza with extra mushrooms, and an amazing bottle of stout, I was sitting up late reading. My attention wandered a moment, and when I looked up there was a young man sitting in the rocking chair. Seeing me start he held up his hands and said, “Do not be alarmed.” He wore a pastel green polo shirt with khaki pants and white jump boots. He didn’t make any aggressive moves, and given the boots, I sat back. “What are you doing in my house?” Watching me closely he said, “I am a time traveler from the future.”

“That explains the jump boots, I guess.”

“This is 2011 right? Are these not yet common?”

“No; not around here anyway.”

“May I ask what would be appropriate?”

I pointed to a pair of walking shoes, and he nodded. Then he asked if the Honda dealership was open.

“I don’t think we have one, and at eleven o’clock at night, probably not.”

“Ah,” he said, looking around the room.

“So, the future, huh? I guess you can’t tell me anything.”

“No, that’s no problem. What would you like to know?”

“Won’t it change history or something?”

“Doesn’t seem to. Go ahead, ask away.”

And so I did.

Does the TSA still exist?

“Oh, sure. It’s the largest single employer in the country.”

“That’s got to be miserable.”

“Yeah, but if you have to go there, they have to take you. Didn’t one of your poets say that?”

“Something like that. Wait, the Transportation Security Agency? They ‘have to take you?'”

“Well, the simple fact is many people can’t support themselves without falling into squalor and misery. Unless they live in rural areas, their suffering makes everyone else feel bad, especially for their children. Something has to be done for them.

“By 2021 the TSA had become ubiquitous and intrusive, legally. They were found by federal court to be intrusive, back in 2021. They have security posts everywhere, even out in the timber, and everyone is subject to enhanced interrogation on demand; one in ten ‘travelers’ was the interrogation rate last I heard.”

“That’s outrageous!”

“Well sure, so everyone opts. Anyone can opt out of interrogation. So as every tenth person passes a TSA station, the agent mumbles ‘scuse me sir,’ and waves him on through without waiting for him to actually say ‘No thanks,’ or ‘make a gesture indicating the negative.’ It’s not really every tenth person, just whenever he thinks of it. Nobody’s counting.”


“So there is no unemployment. Anyone who wants a job is automatically hired by the TSA, though only as a temp of course. A lot of them work from home. They’re paid a salary and earned income credit in special cruds that can only be used for food and video. There are real TSA security posts operated by full-time agents, but usually there’s nobody there. By law, no full-time TSA employee can be fired, but none can be hired either; some of them are in jail, and all are pretty old at this point.”

“Wait, ‘cruds?'”

“Contingent revenue disbursement certificates. With the federal government shut down, they can’t pay in anything else.”

“The federal government is shut down?”

“Yes, for the last fourteen years.” Suddenly he reached into his pocket and pulled out a gadget. “Excuse me, I have to take this,” he said. Then he disappeared.