Xeaven Sent

“Marta, is that you? You’re as beautiful as you were when we first met fifty years ago.

“Yes, Alex, this is me here at Xeaven Sent.” She tossed her head and brushed a tress of raven hair behind the shoulder of her red sundress.

“You look so healthy…so, so alive.” He scratched the paunch over his wide belt.

“Yes, and I always will. That’s because you loved me enough to buy me the Xeaven Sent premium package. That allowed me to select my age for eternity. And because you also signed up for the special, I was able to pick a new skill. I can play the piano, now, something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s all because of you, Alex, your love for me, and the wonderful people here at Xeaven Sent.”

“Don’t thank me, Marta. I never gave it a second thought. For a reasonable down payment and low monthly fees, I’ll be able to care for you forever. You’ll never die and never grow old.” Alex shook his head. “But how will I ever keep up with you?”

“Don’t you remember, Alex? Since you took the double-bonus option—for only a small increase in your monthly fee—you’ll be able to join me whenever you wish. You can call on the friendly euthanologists here at the Xeaven Sent any time. There’s no need to wait, and you don’t have to go through that messy business of dying.”

“Oh Marta, that sounds wonderful. I can hardly wait.”

“Yes, and if you apply before the end of the year, you’ll qualify for the Xeaven Sent world tour. I’m already signed up.”

The view receded to reveal Marta in front of an arched doorway. Smiling, she gestured Alex to follow and stepped through the door. “Paris,” she called and, as the mist cleared, pointed to the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe beyond. “Come soon, Alex, and we can share wine, cheese, a baguette, and a stroll along the Champs-Élysées. I always told you we should come here. Now, we can, thanks to Xeaven Sent.”

The scene shifted to a dark, handsome man in a white shirt, red-and-blue-striped tie, and flashing a wide, toothy smile.

“Wanna live forever? Here at Xeaven Sent that’s not a trick question.” He leaned forward and lifted a finger. “We pride ourselves on offering the best afterlife services on the market, state-of-the-art, with benefits and options to suit every taste and wallet—as Marta just said, including eliminating the formality of actually having to die.”

He stepped from his desk into a garden of mulched flowerbeds, manicured lawns, and broadleaf trees. “Everything you love in life you can have here in Xeaven Sent. Yes, you can take it with you. Work, certainly, if you insist, and better. You can instantly attend meetings anywhere on Earth, even two or three at a time. Or—” He stepped toward a slender, cornsilk-haired beauty and passionately embraced her. “Xeaven Sent is not only about business meetings.”

He winked as the scene ended.

# # #

“And cut.” The director swiveled to the actors seated behind him. “Fabulous. Love it. You can all pick up your checks at the front desk.”

He looked to the fat, bald man in the t-shirt who played Alex and pointed. “I wanna keep you on contract. We can always use a common everyman type.” He then turned to the fashion model who played Marta.

“You were beautiful, just beautiful, sweetheart. I wanna use you in my next major film. Of course, we must wait till this commercial is off the air a couple months. You available for dinner tonight and drinks? I wanna introduce you to our sponsor.”

The Parable of the Three Sailors

Kalon Kuday took his seat in the market square just as he did every week. After the children gathered, he told them a story. “Three men went down to the sea to sail,” he began.

The first man walked to his boat and climbed in. While he waited for someone to untie the lines and push him off, the man’s gaze never left the horizon. A breeze filled the sail and carried the man and his boat out from shore and onto a calm sea. The breeze remained at his back and shifted occasionally, also shifting the sail, so the man had no need to touch either the sail or the tiller. A short while later, the man found himself across the sea, entering a safe harbor, and lined up with a berth. A cheering crowd greeted him, tied his boat securely, and helped him ashore.

The second man, before untying his boat, studied the rigging of the sail and motion of the rudder. He then stepped aboard and, when others came to advise and help him, he thanked them. By this time, the gentle breeze had grown brisk and unsteady, and clouds gathered. Leaving the harbor required the man to steer and adjust the sail. Shifting wind and waves demanded constant adjustment to remain afloat and on course. No one noticed when he entered the far harbor, stepped onto the pier, and tied his boat.

In no hurry, the third man inhaled the sea air, felt the breeze pick up, and watched the clouds gather. When people onshore said it had gotten late and a storm was coming, he scowled and waved them back. As if to prove them wrong, and with no preparation, he took his place in the boat. The untrimmed sail snapped and swung; the lashed tiller remained immobile. When no one came to help, the man shouted, waved a fist, and cut the bow and stern lines. The misaligned sail folded in the wind and the boat spun, forcing the man to row in order to leave the harbor. The boat drifted and rocked, moving forward only when a wind shift caught the sail just right. When waves flooded the boat, the man cursed at his fate bailed water with a bucket. After many days, the boat grounded on a reef, and the man washed ashore. Locals to this day recount the odd man swearing and blaming everyone for his misfortune.

Kalon Kuday rested his hands on his crossed legs. The children waited for his first question.

“Which of the three men was most successful?”

Radib had his answer ready. “Easy. The first one, because he crossed the sea and didn’t have to work much.”

Anik agreed. “And everyone cheered when they saw him.” He paused. “And now everyone knows him so he can be the King.”

Tima shook her head. “The second man learned how to sail, so he did the most, and he’s the smartest.”

Anik protested. “But nobody saw him, so he didn’t get any credit, and his trip was wasted.”

Kalon Kuday stroked his thin mustache. “And which of the three would you say got what he wanted most?”

“The third man didn’t, but the other two did.” Tima bobbed her head.

A wide-eyed girl sitting in front spoke up. “No, everyone got just what they wanted.” Kalon Kuday smiled down at little Sibanya.

Radib frowned at his sister. “All the third man got was angry.”Sibanya held up her chin. “That was what he wanted—to be angry at everyone all the time. All three men got what they wanted most.”

Better Pets

“I’m six years old today, Daddy.”

“Happy birthday, Button. After lunch we’re having a birthday party for you. All your friends are coming, and they might even bring you some presents.” Dave smiled, nodding wide-eyed.

“I remember once you told me when I was six years old I could have a puppy?” Dorothy said, rocking as she stood.

“I remember saying that if Mommy agreed you might have a puppy.” Dave chose his next words carefully. “You know there aren’t any real puppies or kitties anymore. All gone. Now we have robots. Easier to care for and better for the environment.”

“I know that.” Little Dorothy’s body wobbled as her head bobbed. “My teacher told me that at school. She said old robots need homes. When they wear out, people put them into new furry bodies and teach them to play with children, wag their tails, and lick my face, and love me, and sleep in my bed, and keep me company when I’m sad, and—”

“Yes, I think the new doggies can do all those things, even purr if you want them to. People program them for all the things you want them to do.”

Dorothy scrunched her mouth to one side and dropped her eyes. “Mommy didn’t want me to have a puppy. But I told her you promised, and she said it was okay.”

Dave put on his best frown to look upset. “Okay, Button. But when you go to the shelter, I’ll go with you. I don’t want you picking out a hair dryer or a vacuum cleaner.”

Dorothy giggled. “That’s silly, Daddy. Why would I get a vacuum or hair dryer?”

Dave lifted his daughter onto his knee. “Of course, you wouldn’t do that on purpose, but you might make a mistake. Robots never die and some are very old. Long ago people made them to do just one thing, like clean floors, or wash dishes, or play games like chess. That made some people angry. They said robots should all be created equal. After that, all robots got the same brain even when they only did one thing.”

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When Dorothy rubbed her hands in worry, Dave raised his tone and lifted his arms. “Of course, it might be nice to have a doggie that cleaned instead of messed on the floors.”

Dorothy laughed, gave her father a neck hug, then looked up into his face. “I’m sorry, Daddy. I didn’t know you wanted to go to the shelter. I wanted to have my puppy here with me for my birthday party.”

“That’s okay, Button. I’m sure if Mommy went with you, everything will be wonderful.”

“Oh, it will. My doggie will have black and white fur with floppy ears, and …” She paused. “Daddy, remember when you said I could have a giraffe?”

When Aliens Tried to Help

“What ya doin’ now?” Justin asked.

“Same as eight minutes ago … making friends.” Greg’s eyes darted as his fingers skipped over his lap device.

Justin peered over Greg’s arm. “How many friends you got now?”

“A lot … five … six … seven … since morning I’ve added two thousand, two hundred and seven … eight … nine …” Greg clicked down the accept list.

Justin threw his arms out and flopped back in his chair. “Wow! You’re the most popular guy I know.”

“Don’t say guy, someone might take it the wrong way.”

“Sorry. You ever gonna meet any of your new friends?” Justin asked. Greg shook his head. “Not even the girls? Girls really go for popular guys, I hear. Makes ‘em get all … you know … like … ahh, excited.”

Greg faked a yawn. “Since when? Girls get all their fantasy characters online, avatars wayyy cooler than me. That way they get to play like they’re magical princesses and don’t even have to comb their hair.”

“I thought it was just me they didn’t like,” Justin said and grimaced.

“Been that way ever since the world got perfect. Who wants normal dudes? Too much work.” Greg shrugged, and Justine went back to clicking.

 

The galactic overseers watched the scene as they rocked in silence in the mist of the saline hearth. When the monitor darkened, Otch turned to Cot. “You see what we’re up against? That was years ago. We didn’t do anything then, and it’s gotten much worse.”

Cot did not respond and continued waving its many eyestalks in the warm, briny mist. Then it casually lifted a slark worm from the hors d’hoeuvre tray and proceeded to sip extrusion from its shell.

Otch pressed. “Tell me, Cot, how are your humans doing?”

Cot paused only an instant then returned to slark-surping.

Too direct, Otch thought. Cot was sensitive about discussing its humans. Every conversation they’d had on the topic had ended with an argument. Otch retracted its eyestalks, biding its time while Cot ate.

When the last of the slark disappeared from the tray, Otch tried again. “I’m sorry Cot, but I must persist. As you saw on the monitor, my humans are failing to thrive. I don’t know what’s wrong with them. I’ve done everything to make them happy, given them everything they’ve asked for, and yet they’re dying. Humans don’t know they’re no longer on Earth, but the problems began right after the relocation …” No response. Otch knew what Cot wanted.

“Okay, I apologize,” Ocht said. “I admit, you may have been right about the humans. And I was wrong to side against you in the relocation meeting.”

“You laughed at me,” Cot finally said, its tendrils oscillating.

“I’m sorry for that, too.”

“Then you voted to have my opinions struck from the record.”

“And that, too. But listen, Cot. Nothing is working. The new habitats are identical to the ones humans had on Earth. We just removed the obstacles and smoothed the rough edges—diseases, poor climate, shortages. We made everything perfect for them. Abundant delectable foods, lavish entertainments, rewards for every act, complete safety. We know we missed something. I’m down to a few dozen females, no males. Justin and Greg are gone. When females showed no interest in them, the males kicked around for a while then just stopped living.” Cot nodded as if this should have been expected.

“We want you back on the team,” Otch said. Cot nodded and, after a beat, Ocht asked again, “So how are your humans doing?”

“I’ve got twelve hundred and thirteen,” Cot said quietly.

“No, that’s not possible,” Ocht said, his voice rising in disbelief. “That would mean an increase. Are you saying your population has grown?” Cot nodded. “What? You’ve found some new entertainment for them … some new drug?”

“We’ve had this discussion before, and I won’t go through it again. You and the relocation team only want to hear answers that support your thinking.” When Ocht began to protest, Cot held up a dozen tendrils. “I think we’re done here. Thank you, old friend, for the most excellent slark worms.” With that, Cot bowed and slid from the room.

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On returning to its neighborhood, Cot donned the guise of a barn owl and flew out to visit its humans. They worked together to grow food, traded goods, repaired homes and various devices, talked about last night’s storm and how their children were doing in school. Boys and girls talked, sharing their dreams and plans. And everyone complained about how hard life was.

The Wise First Became Fools

Sacred relics, hidden by ninth century Vikings, arrive at the Medieval Studies Department of Nimueh College. Ernest and Lisa, with the annoying presence of Dean Gilders’ nephew Bryton, begin restoring and interpreting six runic scrolls, and hope to discern the purpose of a leather object concealed behind a secret panel. (See “Fool’s Cap” and “Pity Not the Fool”)

When Earnest entered the lab next morning, Lisa was already hard at work. “Ahhh, Lisa. Anything interesting?”

“Good morning, Ernie. The scrolls are beginning to uncurl. I brushed the creases with gelatin to keep them from splitting.” She picked one up and read the runes along the top, “Til ao hindra veikindi hlatur er besta lyf.”

“Which means?” Lisa’s Nordic was better than his.

“Roughly, ‘To deter sickness, laughter is the best medicine’. It appears this has medicinal incantations. But in the next line I found a reference to heimskingjans hettu, the fool’s cap.”

“Oooh, I do hope so.” Ernest lifted his eyes to the ceiling, mouth wide.

Lisa brought the triangular panels from the back shelf. “I worked more Neatsfoot oil in this morning. The stitching is silk.” She unfolded the wedges gently into a cone, six-panels, alternating dark green and red, with leather appendages.

“Excellent.” He smiled at Lisa’s enthusiasm. “Take it slow, and keep working in the oil. I’ll get some leather cleaner.” He checked the drawer below the lab bench.

Lisa set the cap upright over a stand then returned to the scrolls on the table. “The header on this scroll reads, ‘Negotiating with Christians’. What’s that about?”

“Ahh … I had a feeling.” Ernest clutched his head with both hands and gave a silent thank you. “Old Testament scriptures speak of other gods, but European Christians could never abide them. The Jestercians were a Nordic-Druidic order, pre-Christian. The Jester was said to speak those godly tongues. I suspect she was the top diplomat dealing with the Christian Franks.

Lisa raised a finger then leaned over the flattening table. She tested the uncurling edges of the scrolls. “Each must serve a different function. But until we unroll them, I can only read a line or two. This one is beautifully illuminated.” She peered at the barely separated edge and shined her light magnifier. “Heimskinginn Fero, fool’s manual, map, no, guide … ‘A Guide for the Fool’s Journey.’ That must be the master scroll.”

She glanced at Ernest across the table and saw his eyes twinkling. She gave a soft handclap then dove back in. “Okay, six scrolls: the master guide, medical and negotiation scrolls, then three others.”

Lisa turned the steamer to mist the three scrolls then tried each of their edges again. “These have simple runes for short incantations.” She pulled all three toward her and lined them up. Ernest leaned in. She appreciated his patience.

Several hours later, she looked up from the table, stretched her arms and shoulders back, and took a cleansing breath. Ernest rolled a hand, beckoning her to reveal her discovery.

Lisa rested her hand on the last three scrolls in sequence. “One for good fortune, one for sexual potency, and one for anger—a pacifier.” She stepped back, held her arms up, and bowed to all sides as if to a gallery of appreciative viewers.

“Hurrah, excellently done,” Ernest said, applauding. “Your interpretation confirms what we believed about Jestercian theology. In the illuminated scroll, the fool’s journey is a metaphor for the journey each of us must take. We begin life as fools and return to that state at each transition: leaving home, entering a trade, selecting a mate, all major life decisions. Apprentice Jesters were called great fools because they made many transitions, and here we have scrolls for five of them. Special caps assisted their training and also warned others.”

“Awesome hat, Ernie!” They turned to see Bryton pulling the fool’s cap over his unwashed hair and hopping about like a drunken marionette. He wore the same smiley-face tee shirt with some new ketchup stains. “I could wear this for the party tonight.”

“Bryton, please take that off,” Ernest said through clenched teeth.

“It’s part of our research,” Lisa said, “very fragile and very valuable.”

“Weeell aaall right. You know, you guys are real bummers.” He shuffled his feet, doffed the cap, and bowed, sweeping the cap low. “Milady Liz, Bryton Gilders at your service.” He handed it to Lisa then plopped into the stuffed armchair.

Lisa looked at Earnest, who could barely contain his anger, then back at Bryton. “I want to study the scrolls a little more tonight,” she said. “Maybe tomorrow you can help flatten and repair the creases with me. I’ll show you how that’s done.”

Bryton looked pleased. “Okay, tomorrow I work … but tonight I play.” He jumped up. “How about you two? Pot’o Gold? This is a special night, and you should celebrate your big discovery.”

“Special night? Did I miss something?” Lisa asked, shifting her gaze to Ernest.

Bryton rolled his eyes. “Just St. Patty’s Day. Hey dudes! Time for the green. Pot’o Gold’s having a big party … beer, song, dance, all the good stuff.” He threw his arms wide and rocked in his seat.

“For once, Bryton might have a good idea,” Ernest said. “It’s been a long while since we took a break, and we do have something to celebrate.” Lisa nodded tentatively.

Right we do. Of course, we do.” Bryton grinned at his win. “What time shall we go?”

“How about we meet you over there?” Lisa said. “Dr. Woerth, do you know the way? I’d need a lift.” She pointed a finger at Bryton. “And you, how about changing that shirt?”

“No prob, Liz, it’s Friday night … wash night … and I’m not wearing any green.” He pulled at his stained smiley shirt then jumped up from his chair and headed to the door. “Got to go rest up for tonight.

The Pot’o Gold was crowded and smelled of spilt beer, old wood, and fresh corned beef and cabbage. Laborers, students, and a few police officers and firemen filled most of the tables. A fiddler played an Irish tune to the vigorous accompaniment of a drum, flute, and tin whistle.

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Lisa and Ernest each ordered a Guinness and agreed to share an order of fish and chips, which arrived quickly as the bartender had everything lined along the bar. Lisa leaned across the table so she wouldn’t have to shout over the music. “A fortuitous day, would you say?”

“Fortuitous, indeed. A good word all considering.” Ernest lifted his tall mug, and Lisa did likewise. “To the Jestercians.”

“To the Jestercians,” she repeated then added, “and to the anonymous donor for our wondrous gifts.”

Ernest nodded, took another pull on his Guinness, and noted patches of red and green peeking from Lisa’s purse. “You brought the fool’s cap?”

“After Bryton’s episode, I didn’t want to chance him appropriating it for his costume tonight. It also inspires my studies. I took a few notes before I left the lab this evening to get ready for our date.”

Ernest smiled, and Lisa was pleased to see he also considered this a date. They looked like a couple—unconsciously, both had chosen to wear cream-colored, Irish turtlenecks and ornamental shamrocks.

The lights darkened before Earnest could speak and the room quieted. A costumed woman stood in the spotlight and sang an Irish ballad.

Steal away, let’s steal away
No reason left to stay
For me and you, let’s start anew
And Darlin’ let’s steal away

Ernest slid his chair beside Lisa’s so they could watch together. The lilting soprano transfixed them, but not everyone in the pub.

Asshole,” came a shout from across the room. A chair slammed to the floor, followed by a young man, a student no doubt, flying backwards to rebound off a wall. The felled student twisted to pull himself onto his elbows.

Lisa recognized the slightly less-stained, smiley-face tee shirt and the mop of matted, black hair. Three Nimueh jocks in matching sports jerseys pushed tables aside to go after him.

Without thinking, Lisa slid the cap from her purse and onto her head. “An farandverkefni Viking hættir a hus bonda …” she said and two other lines. The toughs continued coming but began to smile and laugh, along with the rest of the pub. Reaching Bryton, they lifted him to his feet, dusted him off, and ordered a fresh beer to be brought to their table. Bryton looked confused but rejoined their group.

“What was that?” Ernest asked, checking the room. No one else seemed to notice Lisa’s intervention.

“That’s from the Reioi. I told those guys that Bryton was a fine fellow who said stupid things, like they sometimes did.” She shrugged and flashed a sheepish grin.

“Hey Liz, Ernie,” Bryton shouted and waved then rose to join them. Lisa tucked the cap back into her purse. “Did you two see that?” Bryton pointed back. “I thought those guys were really mad at me.” Lisa suppressed a smirk. Bryton glanced between her and Ernest. “You look pretty cozy over here. Don’t want to break things up.  Sooo …” He scanned the room. “I think the girls over there need my attention.” Bryton lifted his chin to a pair of young women at the bar and trotted over. They averted their eyes, put their heads together, and laughed.

Conversations picked up and the fiddler returned to the stage. Ernest leaned over and whispered, “Reioi?”

Lisa waited for a waiter to pass their table. “Hindra reioi, the scroll for deterring anger. It’s the last thing I remember from my notes this afternoon. I was going to ask you to look them over just before this happened.”

“Those men couldn’t have understood what you said.” Ernest gave Lisa an admiring, open-mouthed smile. “The fool’s cap, it works for you. You are the new Jester. The cap selected you.”

He looked at the check on the edge of the table. “Since we’re calling this a date, may I pick up the tab?”

Lisa half smiled and lifted an eyebrow.

 

After twelve centuries, the Fool’s Cap of the Druidic order of Jestercians—entrusted to the Vikings in the ninth century and buried at Dorestad castle— found a new home at Nimueh College west of St. Louis, and a worthy apprentice in Lisa Svanetti.

Pity Not the Fool

The story begins twelve hundred years earlier with Vikings concealing a mystical trunk to keep it out of the hands of Frankish heretics. (See “Fool’s Cap”)

By the time Ernest Woerth reached the lab, the trunk had arrived, and Lisa Svanetti was signing the paperwork. She was a graduate student in medieval history and an expert in Nordic runes. She had read his paper on the Jestercians and come to Nimueh College to work with him.

“Excellent,” Ernest said, checking the trunk’s seal and general condition. The oak trunk was twenty inches long by twelve high and wide, and bound with brass hinges and fittings. The boards were caulked and seams sealed with pitch and pine tar, like ship hulls in the ninth century.

“Is this the Dorestad cache?” Lisa asked, pointing to the tar-stained seal. When Ernest nodded, she squealed and danced around in a circle.

“They should make for an excellent thesis,” Ernest said. “I want you to take the lead.” She jumped to embrace him. “But before we celebrate, let’s make sure there is something inside.” He went to the tool cabinet for a chisel.

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While they talked, a young man came in, plopped himself in a side chair, and swung his legs over the arm. “Hi, Ernie. I see my project arrived. Uncle Scott said you needed some help.”

“Indeed, I do, Bryton,” Ernest said, drawing a thin smile and regretting his promise to Dean Gilders to keep his nephew Bryton busy.

Bryton scratched his patchy beard then pulled the smiley-face emblem on his tee shirt to free it from sticking to his body. The smell of fried potatoes and stale sweat wafted into the room. Ernest glanced at the unopened trunk then at Lisa, who covered her mouth with her hand.

“Hi, Bryton.” Lisa nodded in the young man’s direction. I’m Lisa Svanetti, Dr. Woerth’s graduate intern.”

“Nice to meet you, Liz,” he raised his hand as if to wave then ran fingers through his matted hair. “Yer kinda like the formal type, huh? And real booky.”

“Yup. And you’re a quick one.”

“My mother always told me that.”

“Enough chat,” Ernest said. “Time to get to work.”

“Sure ‘nuff, Ernie.” Bryton slid one leg off the chair arm and shifted his body to watch. While Lisa softened the pine tar with linseed oil, Ernest worked the seals. The last one parted a half-hour later.

“You superstitious?” Ernest asked Lisa.

“About the curse? I’ll risk it to be the first to lift the trunk lid,” she said, and Ernest nodded for her to go ahead.

The stale odor of desiccation overwhelmed the smell of French fries coming off Bryton. Lisa inhaled deeply, and Ernest motioned her to continue. Inside she found six scrolls, each individually bound with a leather strap and sequestered in its own pigeonhole.

“Those the doorstops?” Bryton asked, leaning forward without shifting a leg. “They look like rolls of old newspaper.”

“The Dorestad Scrolls,” Ernest corrected, turning one in his hand. “Sheepskin vellum, ninth century. Paper didn’t reach northern Europe until the 13th century. The Franks never found them when they overran Dorestad—probably the last Viking stronghold in Germany.”

Lisa transferred the scrolls to plastic sleeves then prepared the lab table to re-hydrate, unroll, flatten, and repair them: spatulas, surgical knives, magnifiers, ink, brushes, fountain pens, oil, leather preservative, sprayer, steamer, document spreader, all tucked in bins along the lab table.

Bryton stretched his body across the arms of the chair and yawned. “You know, dudes, I’m not big into crafts. Think I’ll get a bite in the cafeteria. No rules against lunch, right?”

“None at all, Bryton,” Ernest said without looking up. “Go ahead. We’ll be along.”

Lisa lifted the rough-hewn trunk to clear space then set it back to complete her examination. “They wanted this watertight. It’s makeshift but solid. Look at the hinges.” She lifted the lid wide, and Ernest brought headlamp magnifiers for the two of them. Feeling inside, Lisa detected another seal and tapped the lid. Hollow.

Ernest reached for the chisel. “Looks like there’s something the Jester didn’t want found—a treasure perhaps,” he said. Lisa’s eyebrows arched. The panel came free in one minute, and with it, a stack of wedges, alternating red and green and sown along the edges.

“Leather?” Lisa wondered aloud as she turned the stack under the light. “

“Give it a little Neatsfoot oil and let it soak.” Ernest checked his watch. “We missed the cafeteria.”

“I’m too excited to eat. All I can think about is reading the scrolls.”

“Very well,” Ernest said. “I’ll help you unroll them. Tomorrow we can work on the leather stack.”

“What do you think it is?”

“What I hope it is.” His eyes shifted wistfully upward. “According to legend, the Jester gave her apprentice mage a device to help him master the scrolls, a fool’s cap. It designated his training status and bestowed immunity from punishment should he screw something up in his training.”

“Like Mickey Mouse’s cap in ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ in Fantasia?” Ernest nodded.

Lisa cocked her head and asked, “So why do we only think of fool’s caps being worn by court comedians?”

“When the Franks and later medieval kingdoms couldn’t get any of the Jestercian incantations to work, they made fun of them. The fool’s cap became a sign of derision, the same as the Jester. They wore replicas to mock Vikings and Druids. We might have found the original fool’s cap or one of the replicas—or it might just be a leather purse.”

Will the Fool’s Cap be a blessing or a curse? Next week’s blog post.

Fool’s Cap

Rolf shouted as he dashed into the vaulted hall of Dorestad castle, “Ragnar, the Franks overran our camp at Nijmegen, now they’re headed here. Has the Jester sailed?” Rolf steadied himself and set his helmet on the oak trestle table. Blood streamed from his leather sleeve and pooled beneath his arm.

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“The Jester sailed yesterday,” Ragnar called, leaning heavily on his cane as he entered the hall. “She took the skalds with her. She said they’d go to Kirkwall for supplies then meet us at Dun Aengus.”

“Dun Aengus.” Rolf winced and dropped his head to his chest. “They’ll trap her there. Thorvald’s joined the Franks. He knows our plans—they’ll send ships straight away. Did the scrolls go with her?”

“Only the meister scroll. She left the proselyte scrolls and the fool’s cap for Áedán to bring in the Karvi longship.”

Rolf looked confused. “The Karvi’s at the bottom of the inlet. As I rode in, I saw the mast and crosstree sloping from the water off the end of the pier.”

“Áedán took an ax to the hull then cut her loose before he ran off.” Ragnar pulled a gnarled hand down over his gray beard. “Áedán left his training materials. Said the fool’s cap never worked for him anyway. He didn’t want anything that would link him to the Jester.” Unsteady, Ragnar sought a chair alongside the table and sat. “All the materials are safe, packed for shipping before Áedán went on his rampage, the trunk sealed inside and out.”

Rolf pressed burning sweat from his eyes, reclaimed his helmet, and lifted a long-shafted, battle-ax from a crossed display on the stone wall. “I’ll try to hold them at the Dorestad gate. You have the servants bury thetrunk somewhere on the grounds. Don’t tell me where. The Franks will keep me alive and try to make me talk. When you’re done, arm yourself and the others and join me at the gate.” He cut the air with a wide sweep of the ax.

“We’ll meet the Jester in Valhalla.”

 

Twelve hundred years later, next week’s blog post,

read how the trunk is discovered and opened.

Invaders from Space, Part 2

In last week’s blog post: At the clan council fire, bird-like warriors discussed how to deal with the invaders from space. Leal suggested that they might be trying to communicate.

 

It had been five hundred years since Galactic Phoenix left Earth for a distant star system. Peter Odanoff hadn’t uploaded until just before the landing, but standing on the deck of the lander and viewing the deep orange sunrise made him nostalgic for home.

Wispy clouds on the western horizon indicated a summer storm building. The undulating string of winged creatures flying just ahead of the storm could have been a flock of migrating geese. He imagined his actual eyes squinting and the warmth of sunshine on his face. He swept an open-fingered hand over his head then jerked it back. He’d forgotten. No hair. Only contoured metal and the memory of hair.

After surveying the landing site, they’d spent the first day cutting and splitting cane stalks to build the deck. Its ramp was the only way to access the lander other than the telescoping ladder, which was difficult for Julia’s and Jeninne’s engineering chassis and for their dog Chloe.

Julia Rabkin the physical scientist had selected the landing site, a bare, level spot beside a gorge with access to potable water. The mountain-ridged horizon meant possible mineral resources. Jeninne Sobek the life scientist had started a research and vegetable garden. Our robot chassis required no organic food or medicine, but if things went well, soon there would be children, real children.

Peter was the pilot and chief technician. Though he missed Earth, he had no regrets. Interstellar travel had fascinated him from his youth. He knew his real self had lived a normal human life and been dead for centuries. How many children and grandchildren did he have now? Maybe they’d sent pictures along with software updates. He’d check when the day’s work was done.

The Russian engineers had done an amazing job, but Russians are known for their no-frills practicality. They put optical and aural sensors in his head, and thermal, tactile, and chemical sensors in his hands—so Peter’s hands could smell. He held one up to the morning light. To keep him sane, they’d reproduced his old physiognomy wherever possible. He flattered himself that he was strikingly handsome and was pleased the humanoid chassis reflected that image with a few cosmetic touchups.

Suddenly self-conscious, he pulled his hand down. The last thing he wanted to do was stir resentment. Until they manufactured other humanoid chassis, Julia and Jeninne were stuck with the engineering frames the Russians had given them—more practicality.

“Amazing sight.” Jeninne’s voice came from the agro-planter below the deck.

eclipsing-binaries-e1467453985567

“Yes,” Peter said and pointed. “If not for that second light, the illusion would be perfect.” Beside the sun was its yellow dwarf companion star.

Peter leaned over the rail as Jeninne’s gimbaled sensor whirled to look up. “Did Julia leave? I asked her to wait.”

“She took the geo-rover up the ridge.” Jeninne extended a pruning hook to the horizon. “She said that area tested radioactive. We don’t have feed materials, and the fabricator needs heavy metals.”

“I’d planned for us to scout that area together, but I know she’s been anxious. Any predators about?”

“There’s a man-sized moa-velociraptor-thing stalking the compound. I’ve only seen one, but there could be others. So far it’s kept to the forest. I’m more concerned about that pack of six-legged predators. Two dozen were sniffing the perimeter last night and pooping. They stayed out of the light. Each must weigh about fifty kilos. Julia calls them devil-dogs. They’ve got some vicious fangs and claws. If they go after her on the ridge, she has the laser stun gun, but it only gets three shots to a charge. Until we know what they’re after, I don’t want Chloe running loose.”

Hearing her name, Chloe barked. She was the only live member of the crew. The Yellow Labrador Retriever would soon be the mother of their first children. The nano-implants had already corrected Chloe’s cryo-damage and reset her gestation time.

Jeninne’s lenses swiveled back to Peter on the deck. “Need help with Chloe?”

“No, but would you unhook her tether?”

Peter called, “Chloe, come.” The big, yellow dog bounded up the ramp and, without slowing, made a hard left into the lander’s open bay.

“I don’t imagine Julia’s rover will attract any devil-dogs,” Peter said, “not for food anyway, but they might defend their territory.”

“I’ll try not to worry,” Jeninne said, rotating on her ball-base and rolling to the garden. “I’m testing the seeds we brought from Earth along with some local tubers and seed cases, also a few fern fruits and fungi for possible medicinal applications.”

The base station lab resembled a twenty-first-century, camper trailer kitchen. Peter lifted Chloe onto the white, MechMed counter. He stroked her ears, checked her pulse and breathing, then inserted the anesthesia needle.

He took a rack with four embryo tubes from the incubator, placed one tube in the MechMed, and hit scan. The timer bar glowed soft blue, ninety seconds, eighty-nine, eighty-eight.

Peter pressed the queuing button beside the comm switches above the examination counter. His preferences flashed by—Bach, Beethoven, Dvorak, Sibelius—as they had every morning for the past seven days. He liked starting the workday with the final movements of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, “The Choral” in D Minor, Op. 125.

A bell chimed once and the panel beside the timer bar flashed CLEAR in soft blue. Peter removed and examined the tube, restored it to the rack, and placed a second tube in the scanner. He hummed then whistled along with the music. This time, after ninety seconds, the bell chimed three times rapidly. The panel flashed ERROR 0.07% alternating with CORRECT? Peter touched the panel. A fraction of a second later a single bell chimed and CLEAR displayed. Quantum deterioration could be expected after so long a time, even near absolute zero. He removed the second tube, switched it, and placed a third into the MechMed.

When the “Ode to Joy” began, Peter sang along, Freude, schöner Götterfunken. He had sung in the chorus at Swarthmore and felt a familiar thrill rising. Suddenly, from the open hatchway behind him, he heard the sound of a melodious flute accompanying him.

“Wonderful, Jeninne, how are you doing that?” A bell chimed and CLEAR displayed. As he removed the third tube, Peter continued singing.

The flute accompanied the melody flawlessly.

“Magnificent,” Peter said, turning to the hatchway. “How do—”

A six-foot, bird-like creature blocked his exit. The creature rocked on its powerful haunches, its black tongue vibrating in its hooked beak like a silver flute. At the end of the musical phrase, the creature lowered and widened its horn-ridged, purple eyes, and centered its beak on Peter’s chest.

He stumbled back against the counter almost dropping the embryo tube. Without thinking, words tumbled from his mouth.

“That … that … that was pretty good … you just do the classics?”

The creature folded its scale-like feathers and opened its beak. “All I hear,” it said in a chime-like voice. “Come for know.”

Peter pulled erect. “You speak English?”

Leal dipped his beak. “Music better.”

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