"Lex Talionis" has appeared for the first time in my hardcover short story collection JUDGMENT DAY AND OTHER DREAMS (Fantastic Books, 2009). It is one of 15 unpublished and previously published short stories in the collection. See Home page for details. This story is hard SF/combat scifi.
The ruined city had once belonged to humans. Now, under the pale pink light of two red dwarf suns, armored Aliens fought through its streets in single combat, former allies haggling over the price of the corpse.
the shattered stone walls and doorways ran Willem, orphaned, hungry and
tired but also alert—he wished to survive until his fourteenth birthday.
his boots sandcrete lumps skittered in every direction, joining slag
piles from melted buildings and blasted walls. At his back, the midday
winds of Estair blew in from the nearby desert, bringing with them the
smell of dryness, of dead irrigation works, of crops long, long dead .
. . and also a hint of storm. Cyclone storm. Storms of dust and sand so
dense no sensor, Alien or human, could penetrate them. Except for
Willem, his brother and sister, and the other scavengers hunting
through their territories.
Over the wind’s howl, a humming sound touched his ears.
laser light struck a rock pile just inches from where he would have
stepped. He dodged right, through a gaping stone doorway into a
roofless courtyard. He moved in jinks. Right. Left. Forward. Two
rights. Three lefts. Intentional randomness. The Alien who hunted him
had an onboard tactical computer able to plot his movement pattern. But
his sister’s Hunt Plan knew that, and so Willem ran just so.
“Alien—halt! Retreat is impossible. Surrender to the Gelgm!”
booming broadcast of the Gelgm fighter echoed off the white sandcrete
walls of destroyed warehouses, their sharp right angles throwing the
psywar broadcast back at its originator. Willem ignored it. Only once
before, years ago when he’d been young and humans had owned their city,
had someone listened to the Gelgm. The city had died then.
jumped down from a second story level, landing in an alley of Lower
Town. The black plasticrete ribbon, scored by wind, dust and laser
blasts, vibrated under his feet. He turned hurriedly into an open
beyond-line-of-sight mortar round blew a gaping hole in the alley
pavement. The doorway wall sheltered him. Willem smiled to himself.
fighters weren’t so smart. They still used their combat exoskeletons to
do their tactical thinking for them. Even set them on automatic
response mode to attack non-random ground vibrations. Amidst his
amusement, belly pains doubled him over. Intense they were. He licked
dry lips, wishing he owned more than the simple sandrobe he wore,
belted at the waist with a rope. Food. He needed food. Soon, he
looked out the rear window of the room he stood in, peering across the
ruins of Lower Town for the signal flag. Yes! It was there. But would
the Hunt Plan work with this Gelgm fighter? The other human Hunt teams
thought his sister infallible. So must he now think and feel and know.
softly, ever so softly, Willem ran to the open window, grabbed the rope
that hung outside it, and lowered himself down into the gaping black
hole of a sewer tunnel that lay just below the window. The Gelgm would
surely follow. Even now, Willem heard the screeing sound made by the
Alien’s combat exoskeleton as it moved the fighter swiftly through the
high gravity—for a Gelgm—of Estair. The exoskeleton supported the
Gelgm’s physical form, sheltered it, fed it, protected it. But only for
a while longer.
quickly through the tunnel’s darkness, lit sparsely by occasional
patches of chemoluminescent bacteria, Willem followed the twisting
turns of the sewer, heading towards the signal flag. The Gelgm followed
him, no doubt using infrared, radar and echo-sounding senses to find
its way in the dark.
later he climbed up, popped open the sewer hatch and emerged into
another wall-encircled courtyard. He stood just a short ways from the
skeletal building that held a fluttering dirty rag in its third story
window frame, all the wall now gone from around it, leaving but the
frame. Like him and his brother and sister. Like the few others who
held Hunt territories. Too few to matter to the Gelgm. Or to the
Nasirene, their former allies in destroying the human colonists of
Estair. He wondered what drove the Nasirene and Gelgm to ritual
combat—whatever that meant.
blasted his bare legs, making Willem duck, roll, fold into a ball and
come to a halt against a shielding stone wall, uneasily aware that the
Nasirene fighter camped in the signal flag building had come out of
sleep cycle too early. Shit!
That had been a high-acceleration, high-kinetic energy round, driven by a miniature rocket. The Nasirene preferred them to energy weapons. At a speed nearly that of planetary escape velocity, such shells did not need explosive warheads—they literally burned their way through atmosphere, walls and earth. Blasted air and rubble served as effective shrapnel.
looked down at his right leg. It bled on the calf, just a little.
Hurriedly he tore a strip from his sandrobe, bandaged it, then
slithered through the shadows, aiming for the doorway that opened onto
the street between his building and the Nasirene’s building. A doorway
opposite would be the way humans entered it. Not the Nasirene. To them,
Estair’s gravity was palely weak. They would bound over the shattered
first level walls from any spot, surprising their prey. From behind,
from the echoing sewer hatch, came the screeing sound of the Gelgm.
Willem gulped, hoped the Nasirene hadn’t activated its smell-sensors
and then slowly stood up. Grabbing a wall fragment, he tossed it over
the wall into the street lying between him and the Nasirene. Then he
ran like hell.
ground behind him shook as the Nasirene’s combat suit backtracked the
ballistic arc of the rock and shot a mortar round his way.
Shrapnel whistled past his ear.
The Gelgm emerged from the sewer hole.
laser beams cut through the rock wall to hit the Nasirene’s hiding
place, aimed at its calculated position based on the Gelgm’s own
backtrack of the Nasirene mortar shell.
Except the Nasirene walked through the building wall, armored suit scattering fragments the way a cycone scatters dust.
From his hidey-hole down the street, behind the ruined metal shell of a Gelgm combat aircar, Willem watched as the two confronted each other, no longer shielded by acres of intervening territory.
was a scenario uncommon to the tactical computers of either species.
Usually the suits commanded whole cities, able to reach out with
sensors, long-range “brilliant” rockets and energy weapons to targets
far distant. Only a flaring of energies would signal the death of an
The Nasirene should have been quicker, being a heavy-gravity type. It wasn’t.
The Gelgm’s mid-body laser tube fired first.
The Nasirene’s four legs disappeared in a blast of light.
Atop its domed head, a blue emergency light came on. The Nasirene’s exoskeleton hummed.
The Gelgm flew backwards against a sandcrete wall, its flexarmor rippling to the sudden impact. What had happened?
A repulsor field!
its dying defense mode, the Nasirene’s suit had reversed polarity and
emitted a repulsive electromagnetic field that acted like a magnet in
reverse. All metal objects were repulsed. Then the Nasirene died, its
suit losing yellowish atmosphere through myriad leaks. The dome light
The Gelgm wasn’t dead.
Just disabled. Partially.
showed himself slightly. Enough for an infrared trace. Then he dodged,
hearing the Gelgm rear itself upright with whirring gyros that
ratcheted like dry seed husks against dead trees without leaves. He’d
seen such trees in the arboretum in the city center. Lack of water had
killed everything. Except for the weeds and the vines. Or those who
could move and scavenge. Like Willem.
dodged through another arching doorway, ducking down sharply. Behind
him, just seconds away, the Gelgm followed. Willem skittered right,
ducked, and hid behind a broken stone counter, knowing the combat suit
would pick up the sound of his breathing and his heart beating too fast.
The Gelgm entered the vine-hung doorway.
Two things happened simultaneously.
purple metal of the Gelgm’s flexarmor contacted the sticky vines Willem
had earlier laid across the doorway entrance, making the door look
naturally overgrown. Brilliant yellow light flared harshly.
The Gelgm screamed.
Through its translating comdisk, the Gelgm screamed again. It sounded almost like a human—but that was impossible.
watched as the flexarmor and exoskeleton framework lost power, froze up
and collapsed its occupant down onto the rubble-strewn floor of
Willem’s hidey-hole. He stood up and walked over to inspect his catch.
“Stop!” whined the translator comdisk just below the Gelgm’s chiten-covered mandible.
halted, checked the suit’s external readouts, confirmed total
powerdown, avoided the eight flexarmor-covered chiten-legs of the Gelgm
and reached into a wall niche for his laserknife. Flicking it on, he
approached the alien.
“Where is the Tracker Dot on your suit?”
Behind a transparent head dome, the Gelgm looked out at Willem.
saw a chiten-cranium that sat atop a stem-neck, connected to a
barrel-thorax he couldn’t see, but the Alien’s four eyes followed his
every movement. The bulging abdomen was likewise hidden by the purple
flexarmor. It was all supported by a nest of eight spidery legs far too
weak to support an arthropod Alien in a one-gee gravity well. Only the
support struts of the exoskeleton armor allowed the Gelgm to move about
on Estair. Why such a species would want Estair, a world it could never
inhabit in natural form, puzzled Willem. It had puzzled his parents
before they died. It had puzzled all humans, when the city had a
government. It made no sense. Still, the Gelgm and the Nasirene had
taken Estair. Taken it brutally, violently, completely. Or almost
Now, a few humans took back what they could.
waved the red-glowing laserknife before the protruding eyes of the
Gelgm. “Where is the Tracker Dot? Speak, or I will remove your eyes.
One at a time.”
was the sensitive point. He had to dispose of the suit transponder
before the cohort leaders of this particular Gelgm’s nest-clutch missed
Behind the clear faceplate, the Gelgm’s mouth palps moved. “Beside the right support housing of my mid-body laser unit.”
Willem excised the small, fingernail-sized transponder unit. He turned
rearward, searched the shadows, and found the watching eyes of his
sister Athena. She and his brother Shaka always stayed hidden until the
prey was disabled.
sis.” He tossed it her way. A small, white hand streaked out from the
shadows, grabbed, then disappeared. The sound of scuttling told him she
was already below ground, in one of the sewers, moving to attach the
transponder to a piece of driftwood. She would return for lunch. That
he knew for certain. He turned back to the Gelgm.
“Stop!” it cried.
up.” Reaching down, Willem grabbed a chiten-leg and dragged the alien’s
immobilized form into the middle of the room. It was a cool,
deep-shadowed room. Overhead, a small roof hole let in a beam of pink
light, to blend with the light of Estair’s two suns that now shown
through the stone doorway. He pushed together some wood fragments that
had once been a desk. Willem touched the laserknife to it, making the
wood flame. He turned back to the Gelgm, searching.
“What are you doing?“
Its voice sounded tiny and ridiculous coming from the neckring comdisk. Ahhh! “Deciding which part of you to cook first.”
foot-bone first? No—too gristly. Maybe a long shin-bone—there would be
good muscle-meat in that. And the chiten shin-tube would break easily,
like a dry stick. He reached out with the laserknife.
wailed the Gelgm, body shuddering beneath the overwhelming weight of
its lifeless flexarmor and the gravity field of Estair. “You can’t eat
slicked with the laserknife, cauterizing the wound at the knee-joint.
After the Alien’s screams died away, he answered it. “You aren’t
checked the fire. Still no coals yet. His mouth watered. His belly
rumbled. Muscle tremors racked him. In his mind, a soft voice said he
suffered from . . . Hypoglycemia. Lightheadedness. Overuse of glucose
body reserves. Adrenaline fatigue. Oxidation poisons. His mom’s calm,
methodical voice spoke in his memory, telling him the exact names for
what he, Athena and Shaka suffered from every day and every night.
“We are civilized—we talk,” the Gelgm protested.
wished it would shut up. Too much chit-chat frightened Shaka, the
youngest at seven. He wouldn’t come out of the room shadows until the
Alien shut up. Or the smell of braised meat drove him to the fire.
talk.” Willem sniffed the cool midday air for Nasirene body-scent,
always alert. “But they neither think nor are they people.”
The Alien howled with frustration. “What are we?”
run through our Hunt territories fighting, shooting and destroying,” he
said tiredly. “Only sick animals do that. Therefore, you are animals.
Gelgm tried to move its arms. Nothing happened. With no power, the
burned-out suit served only as an effective detention device for
Willem’s prey. That was why he’d left it on, cutting through flexarmor
and flesh at the same time. Ahhh, coals! He tossed on the chiten
shin-tube, licking his lips.
“How did you disable this suit?“
looked briefly at the sticky vines, remembering his Dad’s home
chemistry lessons in recombinant DNA, plasmids and gene-splicing. His
Dad would have been proud of him.
gene-spliced a long-chain organic polymer into the vines, a polymer
able to conduct massive amounts of electrical energy. From this house’s
fuel-cell batteries, in the sub-basement. The vines conducted the
The Alien’s dark brown head turned slowly, watching his every movement. “Why didn’t my suit detect this threat?”
laughed, poked at the fire and stretched, his back muscles uncramping
slightly. “Because the strands are organic and because they carry no
EMP field until contact. Thus, they appeared to be natural vegetation
overgrowth. Now shut up.”
did not see Shaka, but sniffed his scent. His brother would appear in
his own good time. Outside, the wind blew stronger, carrying many
smells with it. A few sounds. No intelligent ones.
The Gelgm coughed, then hissed. “Why don’t you kill me now?”
efficient—your hearts pump blood that keeps your meat fresh until
cooked.” Willem glanced again at the street entrance, listening for the
sounds of any other combatants approaching his Hunt sector. Nothing.
Usually, the Gelgm and the Nasirene observed strict codes of conduct
during their ritual combat. Only on the ground of Estair did they
fight—not in orbit, not in their SleepShips that moved high overhead.
He wondered—how many were there? Enough to feed him and Athena and
Shaka until they grew up? Enough to feed them until he could figure out
how to repair the pumps that drew up water from the aquifers, hundreds
of meters below the shifting sands of beautiful Estair?
“So I’m just a refrigerator for your food?“
“Yes—and you talk too much. Shut up.”
A few moments of silence ensued. “How can I convince you we are people, and that people do not eat other people?“
“You can’t.” The rich odor of roasting flesh filled his nostrils. Willem almost fainted from hunger-surge.
does the prey talk so much?” asked the soft, musical voice of Athena as
she joined Willem beside the fire, her blue eyes sparkling under her
golden hair, now tied into a tail down her back. Even dressed in a
shapeless sandrobe, Athena at 11 years of age reminded him of Mom far
too much. Pretty like her. Tall and slim like her. Quirky smile like
her. But far more deadly than Mom had ever been. Athena was the one who
planned Willem’s stalks.
meticulous detail she laid out each and every move in the Hunt Plan.
Even the randomized events. Athena was the one who studied the
talkdisks, readisks and picturedisks night and day. Trying to learn
technology. She was the one who had rejected the salvaging of Gelgm or
Nasirene suit technology, or even the few crashed combat aircars,
downed by human defenses before being overwhelmed. She had warned of
still active sensors, passive transponders, other mysterious devices
woven into the chipblocks of Alien devices. Things that could pinpoint
them and the other humans. So Willem scavenged only human
“Maybe it’s a young one,” he said, shrugging, then had to sit down cross-legged to avoid falling over from hunger-faint.
Athena smiled, glancing toward the Gelgm. “Maybe.”
The Gelgm’s comdisk spoke. “I am not a juvenile! I am a moral philosopher. It was simply my turn for the Hak-zoren Combat.”
Willem laughed out loud. “Animals don’t have philosophers.”
“You can’t eat people!” screamed the Gelgm.
Athena looked up, saliva dripping from her mouth as the smell of roast shin-bone reached her nose. “Why not?” she said, her tone reasonable. “You destroyed our fields, our storage silos, our hydroponic gardens and our synthesis labs. You are organic. You are dextromolecular sugars and levomolecular amino acid proteins, like us. You have the nutrients and trace elements we need to live.” Athena held out a trembling hand and accepted long stringy slivers of roast Gelgm on the half-shell. “We eat you. We digest you. We live. Simple, yes?”
Silence resumed once more as the Gelgm watched Willem and Athena chew, munch and eat its flesh. Those eyes showed startlement as young Shaka scrabbled down from a roof air duct where he had been hiding, dropping almost weightlessly to land beside Willem. His brother’s eyes pleaded for food, though his body held patient, his mind stayed strong and his will showed pure predator. Willem nodded and handed Shaka his portion. Together, the family ate their noonday repast.
“We make tools,” the Gelgm whimpered. “People make tools. Therefore we are people.”
Even Shaka smiled now, glancing at the Gelgm. “Stupid animal! Machines make tools. Machines use tools. People command machines.”
Willem reached over with the laserknife, slicked four times and then tossed four new chiten shin-bones onto the coals to roast. Eventually the prey’s screaming died down.
Athena nodded approvingly. “Good, brother. It lost only a few drops of blood—you’re good at cauterizing with the same cut-stroke.”
Short, stocky, black-haired Shaka smiled around a mouthful of roast meat. “Are you going to jerk and dry its meat for storage?”
Willem glanced at the ceiling, judging time by the angle of the red suns’ light beams. “Probably. New prey don’t usually come down on the same Hunt-day.”
A pain-ridden sound echoed from the Gelgm. Finally, it spoke. “What gives you the right to hunt me?”
Willem swallowed, looked at Athena, saw her shrug, noticed how young Shaka was stuffing food down his throat and into his flat belly faster than he could swallow—almost—and realized it was up to him to humor the prey. After all, he had to keep the meat fresh—Gelgm flesh tends to deteriorate very quickly unless drip-bled, hung from drying racks, and air-dried over the space of several days. The desert winds helped. But they would need much stored food to last them through the winter Truce season, when Gelgm and Nasirene did not battle each other, but instead performed exotic seasonal reproduction rites in orbit far beyond the reach of his night-vision.
“Lex talionis,” Willem said, “it gives us the right.”
Willem wiped his lips with a ragged sleeve. “Lex talionis. An old human law. Very old. It says—An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life.” Willem remembered his Dad’s stories of other human worlds far beyond Estair, colony worlds peopled by sublight-traveling SleepShips, worlds able to talk instantly with each other through tachyonic communication pylons, all of them aware of the larger Alien-run galactic civilization called the Forty-Seventh Florescence. Humans were small fry in a very large pond, just trying to scratch out a few colonies, their efforts untroubled for the most part. Until the Gelgm and Nasirene came in from above the ecliptic, hit the Pylon and took Estair. “There are many lives you owe us yet. I hope there are many of you and the Nasirene still left in orbit.”
From dim memory came the definition of the strange word, the human meaning to match the Alien’s comdisk word. Willem smiled inside. His Mom and Dad would have been amused, just as Athena and Shaka were now amused.
“Wrong,” he said firmly. “Cannibals are people who eat other people. You aren’t people—you are animal food.”
“Why do you eat us?”
Willem turned, searched the Gelgm’s carapace for a detachment point, then settled on a left forearm chiten-bone. The screams were fewer this time. Seated before the glowing white coals of the fire, with his family gathered around him, Willem’s belly felt nearly full, his mind clearer and his sense of humor newly returned. But not so much he didn’t relish the smell of roast Gelgm.
“Because you Gelgm cook up so many nice ways! Roast, braised, baked, poached, dried, seasoned—even half-rotted.” Willem licked lips as Athena handed him some Gelgm shin-meat she’d braised on a sliver of metal padded with her sandal.
“What are people to you Humans?” wailed the Gelgm, watching as pieces of itself were eaten, its chiten-shell fragments tossed into abandoned corners where furious chitters told of ground-scurriers claiming their place on the food-chain.
Shaka looked up, a grimace on his greasy mouth. “Idiot alien. People are lifeforms that treat other lifeforms as they would wish to be treated. They do unto others as their own culture says to do to their family.”
Silence ensued once more. Heavy breathing sounded from the Gelgm as its spiracules breathed in through the heavy weight of its combat flexarmor. “We . . . we Gelgm could change? Be nice to you remaining Humans?”
Willem felt disgust and anger well up. “Animal! Stop imitating real people! Like Mom and Dad.”
Willem caught Athena’s warning look and wondered at his feelings. Could food Prey actually be people—of a sort? Twisted people, but people none the less? Was there a chance of breaking this cycle, of doing something other than hunting, eating, surviving and waiting for other humans to come, or for the Gelgm and Nasirene to leave? Should he take a chance?
He shuddered, remembering his Mom’s skeletal form as she finally starved to death, her last gift the remaining food supplies. So that he, Athena and Shaka would live. No! Never again! Never again would a human speak to a Gelgm as if the Gelgm were people—too much lay at risk now to repeat a past mistake. Anger made him throw a rock at the Gelgm’s headdome, frightening it.
The Alien wailed. “What will you do when I am . . . gone?”
“None of your business,” he said angrily.
Four eyes searched his face. “What is your name?“
A new question from a food animal. Interesting. “Willem van Rijn, of Nieuw Amsterdammn.”
A scrabble sounded as the Alien pulled its remaining chiten-arms up onto its thorax, away from Willem’s immediate reach. “What is the name of the one with the yellow head covering?”
Willem looked up, inviting his sister to reply.
“I am called Athena Parthenos van Rijn.” She lifted her head, sniffing at the odor of approaching sandstorm as it drifted in on the wind that sighed through the doorway. “Storm soon, Willem.”
Shaka bobbled his head, black hair flying in all directions. “Good. It will cover our spore-trace after we leave.”
“The small one’s name?” persisted the Gelgm.
His brother stood up, rail-thin and skinny, his ribs hidden by the sandrobe he always wore, his blue eyes fiery and alert. He thumped his chest. “Animal, know that your eater is Shaka KwaZulu van Rijn!”
Willem swallowed, his belly nearly full. The history of Earth and Shaka’s heritage-name would be lost on this Alien. Its eyes were not colorblind, but it could not know that Shaka’s sun-bronzed skin did not match the midnight-black of his name-ancestor. As he recalled, Mom had been pregnant with Shaka when the Attack came. She had been reading the story of the Zulu king Shaka who nearly defeated the more powerful army of an island-nation called the United Kingdom of Britain, Wales and Scotland. So she had named her third-born, and last child, Shaka. His birth-gift had been a short metal spear, an assegai. Shaka kept it still, hidden away in a bolt-hole unknown even to Willem.
“Where do the names come from?” hissed the prey.
Why did this animal ask so many questions? Was that what moral philosophers did? Or just the Gelgm? Perhaps it simply sought to delay the obvious. But it wouldn’t work.
Or perhaps . . . should he ask if the Gelgm had a name? No! Stupid him—animals did not have names. Still, the sound of other voices speaking words after so much time alone, apart from real people, not hearing his own voice except when absolutely necessary—even animal voices were welcome. Until they became boring.
“Athena’s heritage name comes from the Greek goddess of wisdom, crafts and war.” The Alien’s four eyes blinked slowly. “Shaka is named after a great human warrior.”
Willem searched the dark roof of their cooking place, wishing they could use it again, knowing they couldn’t lest they set up a predictable pattern that would allow Alien tac-comps to predict their actions, thence their imminent deaths. He remembered his Dad’s words for how they moved across the landscape of Estair, through the city, following the seasons and the game. He had called it seasonal transhumance. Funny words. Their meaning now long lost, except on the talkdisks.
“My name comes from that of a famous human painter. Someone who made images of reality that were better than reality. Understand?”
“Noooo,” the Gelgm wailed. “What can be better than reality?”
Willem grinned at the Gelgm. “Death to your enemies!”
Later that afternoon, after the remaining Gelgm flesh had been cut into long strips, hung from the drying racks in a different part of Lower Town, their Mark put on a wall nearby so the Red Horde, Blue Meanie or Yellow Blaze hunt teams wouldn’t touch it in case they strayed from their own Hunt territory, Willem sat in a dark room with Athena and Shaka gathered about him, their bellies full, their passive sensors strung to warn of intruders, able to enjoy a few moments of relaxation. But only in the third subbasement level of Lower Town, far below the surface, over which now raged a sand cyclone. Its noise would hide the noise of their entertainment. Athena caught his eye.
“Brother, can we read the Anabasis? I love Xenophon’s tale!”
Willem remembered when his mother had read to them the tale of The March Inland, in the original Greek demotic. Her lyrical voice still echoed in his memory. Not tonight. That story would be hurtful, bringing out too many family memories. And the memory of today’s talking food prey still eclipsed his inner self much the way a wall leans over its own shadow, the two forever connected. In the half-darkness, lit only by the green radiance of a synthetic chemlight, he shook his head.
“No. I think not.” Willem glanced around their hidey-hole. Shaka sat nearby, his posture relaxed, his eyes very alert, his senses spread far, far beyond this room—he was their early warning sensor, the best there was. Far better than anything manufactured from metal and crystal. “Athena,” Willem said finally, “I could read from Salisbury’s The 900 Days?”
She wrinkled her pugnose. “Nope. The Siege of Leningrad is an old story—Mom and Dad read it often before they died. Something else on the talkdisks?”
“Dickens,” Shaka whispered, joining them in the here and now. “There is a story very old, very new, very real. And it’s the perfect reply to that silly talking animal. Will you turn on the talkdisk of it, Willem?”
He scrabbled through the pile of talkdisks, picturedisks and readisks, finding the one Shaka wanted. Among their few possessions, the library was their most precious. Powered by sunlight stored in germanium cells affixed to each disk, Willem had but to spin the disk on any hard, flat surface, and it would stay upright. Like a top. Or a gyroscope. Spinning round and round until the story or picture ended, then toppling over. He spun the Dickens talkdisk, the one named A Tale of Two Cities.
The onboard nanocomputer searched among its digital voices, picking one at random. A new person joined their lonely half-circle. Willem leaned back onto dirty cushions, as did Athena. Shaka stayed upright, in meditation pose, alert and yet relaxed. They heard the voice of a woman, someone like old Aunt Melanie, speaking softly.
“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times . . . .”