Revenging Angel by Charles Cameron Olson

Sep 04 2016

Paris, France
October 7th, 2017 AD
The screaming finally stopped. The man was dead.
Fayme knew this, but she held the arc a few seconds longer, basking in the actinic brilliance of
the lightning arching between her outstretched hands and through the dead man’s skull, filling his
empty eye sockets with light and washing out everything else in the room.
When she released the flow of electricity, the corpse slumped into the deep leather arm chair he
had been thrashing in moments earlier. Smoke poured from the eyes and ears and the scent of
burnt meat, hair and feces quickly filled the room.
Fayme breathed it in, relishing a smell that usually made her just a little sick.
“Brule en enfer, piece de Russe merde!”
She spat on the body.
A sizzle of fat ran from one ear.
At last her pulsing rage receded. Nikolai Boricov was dead. Adele was avenged.
Fayme almost collapsed as her strength drained away. She caught herself on the dead man’s
desk, palm flat, then yanked her hand away as if she’d been burned by the smooth wood. She
picked up the pink scarf she had dropped earlier while stripping and used it to polish the place
she had touched. Then she found her red silk opera gloves and pulled them back on.
No fingerprints. Never any fingerprints. There was no hiding that Eclair had killed Nikolai.
After all, there were only so many electrokinetics who could burn a hole through someone’s head
and most of them were men.
However, Eclair had no fingerprints on file, while Fayme Verreaux did. Fayme preferred to keep
her minor juvenile record separate from the thoroughly capital one associated with Eclair. She
still had a life to live, after all. Assuming she made it out of the manse.
It had been stupid to plan getting in but not getting out. Insane. However, she hadn’t been sane
after losing Adele. Revenge had been the only thing she wanted. Here on the other side life
looked a little different. Getting out alive had value again.
She took stock of her surroundings, surprised that no guards had come yet. Of course, judging
from the large collection of black leather straps and polished torture devices hanging from one
wall they were probably used to screaming coming from Nikolai’s private office.
They probably had heard her sister screaming that night five weeks ago.
Nikolai’s screaming would have sounded little different. After all, she had made sure to draw out
his finest falsetto.
Fayme pointedly ignored the wall filled with Nikolai’s toys and looked around the rest of the
room. She was surprised to find a large collection of paintings, most from the Italian
renaissance. She had missed it before when she first came in, too absorbed by revenge.
Fayme walked up to a print of Raphael’s Saint Michel terrassant le demon. Saint Michael
slaying the devil. She remembered seeing the original when she was thirteen. Her mother had
taken her and Adele to the Louvre on a Saturday to show them the paintings. She had taken from
ten in the morning until the museum closed. It had been wonderful. She leaned closer,
examining the brush strokes.
No. It couldn’t be. She extended her sensory field, feeling through the paint, sensing the
radiation from isotopes.
“Merde.”
This was the original. It had to have been one of the paintings stolen during the Paris riots in
2013. She checked the painting next to it. Caliari’s Wedding feast at Cana. Also the original.
To think that all these beautiful priceless pieces had been wasted on that beast day after day.
Then she thought of her sister being raped to death while the paintings she had loved as a child
looked on and her anger built back toward the storm it had been when she came in. For a
moment she wished she hadn’t killed Nikolai so quickly. Electricity began to crackle over her
fists, leaving char spots on her gloves.
Then she looked again at the archangel Michael standing triumphant over the bestial devil, spear
in hand, and laughed. She went to the armchair, dragged the corpse from it and cast it face down
under the triumphant painting. She liked the symbolism.
Turning her back on the body she extended her sensory field throughout the room, feeling for
metal through artwork, paneling and flooring. She searched around the whole room without
moving from where she stood and quickly found a safe in the north wall behind another Raphael,
an active data line running through the floor up to a hidden terminal in the desk and something
that had to be an equipment locker or a safe room behind the leather restraints on the south wall.
She went to the terminal first. As she uncovered it she caught sight of her reflection in the shiny
black surface of the dormant touch screen. Her long hair, currently dyed red to please the dead
man, was all awry from when he had grabbed her. She combed it straight again with her fingers
and tied most of it into a tight bun at the back of her head. Her green contacts were still in the
right place. Her mascara was a little smudged on one side. No fixing that until she had more
time. Fortunately, the latex pieces she had worn to accentuate her cheekbones and change her
chin shape were also still in place. Even if someone got a good look they would have a very
hard time recognizing her later.
Fayme woke the terminal and found it locked by a thumbprint scanner. That was easily fixed. A
little work on Nikolai’s body with a superhot arc of electricity and she came back with his
cauterized thumb.
Once she was into the computer she went straight for the security records. Nikolai had
administrator privileges for the records of all the cameras on his mansion. She found the ones
for that night and set a 32-pass security eraser to work on them. There would be no pictures of
her for anyone to find.
After that she set up a transfer to a backup site online and began uploading the contents of
Nikolai’s computers. Everything, personal files and security records first. If she did get into
trouble she could probably find something there to use as a bargaining chip, whether with the
police or the mafia.
After that she set up a voice-only call with a hacker who owed her a favor.
“Arnaud, you have contacts in the Paris police, yes?”
“Eclair? Of course.”
“Good. I need you to send them a picture for me. And tell them that if they are very quick, they
might just be able to search Nikolai Boricov’s computer and private office before his men can
destroy any of the delicious things lying around in here.”
“You are doing a very dangerous thing, my dear.”
“I’ve already done the very dangerous thing. Now I just need to escape. Will you do this for
me?”
“Of course. I’ll have the police on their way as soon as you send me the picture. I happen to
know a detective who is itching for a promotion.”
“Thank you, Arnaud. We really must have lunch sometime. You are a good man.”
“I look forward to it.”
She signed off and retrieved Nikolai’s smartphone from where he had left it in his jacket. It was
coded. She sighed and left it on the desk for the police. She would have to use her own.
After retrieving it from her shoulder bag next to the door she snapped a picture of the corpse
lying under the painting and sent it to one of the fake emails Arnaud kept for such things. He
would be waiting. That meant the police would be on their way in minutes. She would leave
when they arrived at the front gates.
Distraction arranged she went to the safe in the north wall, carefully removing the precious
painting covering it. Setting it out of harm’s way, she checked around the safe with her senses
but felt none of the electromagnetic telltales of an alarm. Some quick work with a loop of
electricity between right forefinger and middle finger allowed her to burn through the bolts
holding it closed. She had it open in under thirty seconds.
It was filled with documents. A small stack of bank bonds would make a good addition to her
personal savings. There also looked to be several small bars of metal. She recognized them.
Exotic elements. Dull-gold kartium and silver-white vivium. The three small marked containers
next to them would contain radioactive ludium, perfect-black spectrium and liquid-silver alium.
There was probably only an ounce of each, but even that was a small fortune.
Nikolai had been saving up for something, though it could just be his emergency retirement fund.
Everything small and valuable went in her bag. Then she shut the safe but left it uncovered.
On the other end of the room she found that the hidden metal room had been an equipment
locker. She found the switch that slid the wall out of her way and opened the door of the locker
the same way she had the safe.
Inside, an operator’s dream. All Nikolai’s most expensive toys. Some of the guns Fayme saw
had to cost more than a middle-class family made in a year. Several of them had barrels and
other parts made out of 1198 eternite steel so they could fire overcharged high-velocity rounds.
That made sense. Nikolai had possessed some superhuman strength. He could have used those.
She grabbed a field bag and started packing the custom guns away, along with some other small
items that looked useful.
In one corner she found that what she had first thought was a statue was actually a British
Gawain, one of their new powered armor suits. How Nikolai had gotten one… Fayme didn’t
want to leave it, but she had little choice. They had to be fitted and she didn’t have time. She did
take the power packs. They were small and worth almost as much as the rest of the armor.
Next to the armor she found a light railgun with ammo and more power packs. That she did
take. It barely fit in the bag, even broken down, but the amount of exotic elements in one of
those was absurd. She couldn’t bear to leave it.
When she laid eyes on the last item she truly smiled for the first time since stepping on the
manse property. A full US military tactical rig, complete with computerized tactical helmet and
ballistic armor. She was much lighter than Nikolai, but just as tall. This she could wear.
Minutes later she stepped out of the equipment room wearing black tactical armor with the straps
tightened all the way down and a blank-faced matte-black helmet. She had a large black field
bag slung over one shoulder. She had stuffed her shoulder bag into the field bag so she could
keep her hands free.
Before leaving she checked on the computer terminal to make sure it was finished downloading.
It was. She melted the hard drive. Then she went to the main door and ran enough electricity
through the deadbolt to fuse it. Finally she went to another door in the north wall. This one
would lead to Nikolai’s private quarters.
As she waited before the door she fished out her mother’s St. Nicholas medal from where it hung
around her neck on a long silver chain. The shiny gray pewter image showed the wear of many
years in an anxious hand. She kissed the medal and put it back under her new armor.
In the distance she heard sirens fire up. They had probably waited until they were already at the
gates to avoid warning the men in the house.
Fayme smiled again, put one hand over an open wall socket, and blew the wiring in the house.
She opened the door, searching the dark hall beyond in an instant with her sensory field. She
found no adults waiting, but almost missed the two small children standing right in front of her.
The oldest, a girl, barely came up to her waist. She shined a flashlight in Fayme’s face.
Autodampers in the helmet compensated, but it was still annoying.
“You are not papa,” the girl said in perfect French.
Fayme stared, trying to take in the situation. She knew Nikolai had been married. Her research
said he was separated, with two children, a daughter and a son. These had to be them. Camille
and Luc. Both born in France. Where was their mother? Why were the children here?
She couldn’t let them see their father.
Gently she pushed them both back a step so she could close the door. A zap from one hand
fused the doorknob and lit the hallway with a momentary flash. The children jumped at the light.
Fayme knelt in front of them and flipped up the faceplate on her helmet. What would she say?
She thought of St. Michael.
“No, I am not your papa. I am an angel. My name is Michelle.”
She concentrated and a white glow filled her left hand as she excited the electrons in the air for
an inch above her open palm. She could only pull that trick off at very close range, but that was
all she needed right here. The glow filled the hall with soft white light and the children stared at
her in wonder.
Then Camille met Fayme’s eyes.
“Where is my papa?”
Fayme sighed sadly.
“I am sorry, Camille. Your papa is no longer here. He did many very bad things and I was sent
to take him away.”
Camille continued to stare into Fayme’s eyes before letting out a small gasp. She grabbed her
brother and squeezed him until he squeaked.
“Shhhh,” Fayme said. “You must not cry now. Do you know where your mother is?”
Camille nodded.
“Good. Do you have her phone number?”
Camille nodded again.
“Very good. You are very smart, Camille. You must call your mother as soon as I am gone.
She will come and get you.”
“I want to see papa!” Luc cried.
Fayme glanced down at him. He looked so much like his father. Same sharp nose, wide brow,
brown hair. He couldn’t be more than seven, but Fayme could easily see that he would look just
like Nikolai when full grown. She wondered if he would be a beast like his father.
“You cannot. You must go with your sister. Your mother will come and get you.”
“I want to see papa now!”
Fayme narrowed her eyes.
“You would address an angel so? You are very much like your father, I see.”
Camille clapped a hand over Luc’s mouth.
“Please, do not kill him.”
Fayme exhaled. She hadn’t even been aware she was holding her breath. She wasn’t here to kill
a child. Even if he did look like a copy of his monstrous father.
“Teach him to be a good boy, Camille. See that Luc listens to his mother.”
“I will, miss.”
Fayme nodded. “Good. Now go back to your rooms. The police will be here soon and then you
can call your mother.”
Camille nodded and dragged her brother back down the hall into their room, shutting the door
behind.
Fayme sighed and got back up to her feet. The weight of the night hit her again. She had not
been expecting the children. She had seen the comprehension in Camille’s eyes. The girl knew
what lay beyond the door Fayme had guarded.
She had never thought of herself as the kind of person who would even consider killing a child,
but Luc had looked so much like his father. Nikolai. Her sister’s rapist. Her sister’s murderer.
He was dead now. She had to let him be dead.
Was that what she was becoming? A monster who would even murder children?
Fayme shook her head and headed down the hall. She heard yelling from other parts of the
house and knew she didn’t have much time.
Past the children’s room she found a window that looked out on the back yard of the manse. She
opened it, threw her field bag down onto a bush and dropped down after it.
A quick scan of the yard showed her an empty run to the hedge bordering the property and the
high fence behind it. She hurried across the grass, carrying the heavy bag effortlessly on her
back even though it weighed almost as much as she did.
When she was almost at the fence she felt a bullet crack through the air over her head. She
dropped, avoiding the second and third as the muzzle report from the first reached her. She
knew which direction the shots had come from and put a large topiary between herself and the
shooter.
So close to escape, but she couldn’t leave with someone shooting at her.
Fayme extended her sensory field around and through the bush, searching for the shooter, but
found no one. They had to be some distance away if the sound of the shot had taken that long to
reach her. Clear on the other end of the property. Well outside her sensing range. Her best
option would be to blind them and make her escape now, rather than engage.
She dropped the bag, fishing through and pulling out several smoke grenades she had grabbed
from the locker. These were the hot kind that the military used to jam IR vision. She popped
two and threw them to either side of the bush. She threw two more in the other direction for
good measure, re-shouldered the bag and crawled to the fence under a thick blanket of black
smoke. No more shots came.
When she reached the fence she stood up.
A wide, long loop of lighting stretching out from both hands cut through the bush and the fence
in seconds. The flash normally would have given her away, but the smoke covered that. She did
it again a few feet to the left, then again on the bottom to finish it off. She heard steel bars fall
into the street on the other side.
Fayme pulled burning topiary out of her way and stepped out onto the street. A few quick bolts
from her hands took out the streetlights and she was once again cloaked in darkness. Behind her
she heard the yells of the police again as they covered the entire property.
Fayme jogged toward a dark alley. Once she was in it she felt fairly sure of her escape. It would
take several more days to complete things, but once she sold the haul she was carrying on her
back she would have more than enough money to make it out of the country.
It was a victory, but it felt hollow. Even though everything Fayme had ever known was here, she
would have to flee the country if she wanted to have a life. She had grown up in France. It was
where her mother had grown up, and her mother and father before her.
Yet, it also was where her mother had died a drug-addicted prostitute and where her sister had
been raped and murdered by a monster. It was where she had been beaten and raped by gangs
and used by the mafia to kill people and steal things.
Her heart still felt empty, but she decided a life elsewhere would have at least some benefits.
Perhaps in America. She had been working on a minor career as an actress. Perhaps there she
could do it full time.
It was decided then.
“Adieu mama. Adieu Adele. Priez pour moi en paradis.”
She truly wondered if anyone in the darkness heard her. It did not matter. She headed down
another alley, intent on the home of a buyer she knew, already determined that she would never
again return to her dingy apartment in the projects of Paris.

 

– – –

 

Charles Cameron Olson is a grad student currently working on his MAT Secondary English in
South Carolina. He writes science fiction and fantasy stories as a serious calling, participates in
the body of Christ as a way of life and reads fiction books at a voracious pace on his smart
phone. He hopes to someday shepherd groups of high school students through the crafting of the
English language and maybe teach them some more useful things along the way. If you’d like to
know about any other stories he writes, check out his blog at CCOlson.Wordpress.com.

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When a Spade is Not a Spade by T. Gene Davis

Aug 21 2016

Gusting face freezing wind displaced Sister Wendy Riley’s bonnet, pushing it nearly off her dirty brown hair. No matter how many steps Wendy made toward Zion in the Great Salt Lake Valley, the wind seemed determine to blow her back to Liverpool. The annoying and ill timed gust that finally dislodged her bonnet came as she pulled her handcart up a rise. Releasing one hand from the crossbar to fix the errant bonnet meant losing the cart and her few belongings to the hill. With hair whipping her face, she prayed the tie string kept the bonnet around her neck until she reached flat ground ahead.

Wendy stood to one side while pulling the handcart, as though her husband still might join her on his side of the cart. She turned down offers, even from the Wilson boys, to help her pull the handcart. She did not want anyone in his spot. It was silly, but a week was still too soon.

The Sweetwater River had floating ice chunks caught in its eddies, but mostly it still ran along refusing to freeze. A thin layer of snow covered everything else, and the ground had already frozen solid. To Wendy, the Sweetwater looked more like a stream than a river. Stream or not, she still dreaded every crossing required by the trail.

Wendy whispered, “What I wouldn’t give for a nice log cabin with a big potbellied stove. I’d love to be warm all over all at once.” The wind carried her wish out over the Sweetwater unheard. She pulled the two man handcart alone as yet another widow in the handcart company. Her husband died from the same cold and exposure that threatened Wendy and possibly her unborn child. She tried staying positive, but the best she came up with was, “At least I’ll never have to sail across the Atlantic, again. This is much better than down below on that ship.”

She looked at her swollen red fingers on the crossbar, searching for signs of blackness–signs of frostbite. She had no feeling in them. She wondered if she would ever weave or play piano again. She hoped she would not lose any fingers, a few toes or even a foot was okay, just not any fingers.

Wendy and her husband came by train to Iowa City, and other than sailing the Atlantic for six weeks, the trip was pleasant enough. Sleeping in an abandoned rail car with her husband and several other families didn’t even sound bad at this point. Her feet were so swollen, she was afraid she’d have to take off her shoes and wrap her feet in strips of rawhide. In the modern year of 1856, you’d think they’d have a rail line out to Zion. Wendy sighed inwardly taking another pain filled step.

The wheels creaked as she pulled the handcart reminding herself that one more step was necessary, and after that again reminding herself that one step more was necessary. Uphill. Downhill. It was all painful. Sometimes downhill was worse that uphill. During steep downhill sections of the trail, she had to put a tree limb in the spokes of the wheels to act as a brake and then she dragged the handcart like a sled. She hated trusting the wheel spokes while braking, they were made from green wood and were shrinking. Several handcarts already lost their wheels because of green wood.

The company captain sounded a bugle signaling the handcart company to a halt in a hillside cove. The cove offered some shelter from the never ending wind. Wendy did not hear him but she heard the bugle and saw all the carts ahead gathering. She pulled her handcart into the circle.

She was uncertain about being pregnant. After setting down the handles and crossbar of the handcart, Wendy felt her stomach through her dress. She prayed for a child to remember him by. If she was pregnant, the child would not be born until they reached Zion by the Great Salt Lake. That thought was a relief.

There was much to do in setting up camp and preparing a simple meal. Wendy kept moving to keep the cold from overpowering her. She wore her best dress. It was her warmest. Much to her embarrassment, the dress was so worn that her ankles clearly showed.

Wendy decided whether to push snow away from where she slept, or stamp it down a bit. Her hands were too numb to move snow, so she settled for tromping back and forth a few times to flatten out the snow. Brother Sandy Rebar and Sister Edith Rebar pulled their heaping handcart next to Wendy. As she set up her thin cotton wedge tent on the flattened snow, Wendy frowned at the unnecessary stack on their cart. Wendy had left behind every unnecessary item (and some necessary items) when her husband died. It was all by the trail about a week back.

Brother Rebar went off with other men to bury Brother Peter’s child, leaving Sister Rebar to set up camp by herself. He was gone long after Edith had finished setting up camp. Wendy noted that Edith finished setting up camp before her. Of course, she hadn’t had to pull a handcart by herself like Wendy had. Wendy finished setting up camp and cooking her own meal before Edith’s husband showed his face again, proclaiming something in a loud obnoxious voice — not a word in English. By his hand rubbing his stomach, Wendy guessed he was demanding food of his wife. He doesn’t help one bit making camp but wants food, Wendy shook her head and pretended they were not feet from her own campfire.

As the sun set, there was music, singing, speeches and an impromptu dance. Wendy hid in her small wedge tent, laying on her back looking at the dark peak of the tent, listening to it all. She watched her breath rise in the darkening tent. She imagined it forming an ice sheet on the inside peak of the tent. Her husband would not have hid in the tent. He loved the nightly camaraderie. The tent seemed bigger now. She thought about leaving the tent behind, too. She thought of the unborn child. If it existed it had to live. All he left her were useless tools. Nothing says love like an unused tool. She imagined it all back there by the pile of rocks that covered him. If she was pregnant, that was enough.

Even over the others making merry at the dance, she heard Sandy, Edith’s husband. He spoke no English, and plenty of it. His loud foreign voice and ego were as big as he was. She did not have to understand him to know she did not like him. Eventually, night prayers were said and everyone, including Sandy, settled down. Wendy lay in the dark wondering who would die in the cold tonight.

Wendy became aware of Brother Rebar’s plight well after the camp had settled down for the night. Sister Rebar fussed over him with no normal loud responses that were his custom. At first all Wendy heard of Edith were whispers, then a soft moaning in her native tongue. Wendy knew that sound. Every woman on the trail knew that sound no matter what language it took, and prayed never to feel it welling in their own breast. As the minutes and hours passed and the desperation in Edith’s voice began to peak, Wendy relived her own husband’s passing. In the distance the wolves howled at the setting moon, finally settling down after the moon left the sky.

Brother Rebar gave up the fight some time in the quiet time after the moon set. Edith took the place of the wolves howling a banshee scream of despair. She screamed for help from anyone in her broken English, but everyone else was busy fighting the cold and trying to stay alive in their own tents. While the cold wind carried her cries away, Wendy imagined Edith in her tent inches away from her cold stiffening husband, just as Wendy had lain next to her husband just days ago.

Edith said something between sobs, but it was unintelligible . Wendy moved her fingers, trying to warm them. In the dark laying on her back, she began fingering a piano sonata. She smiled slightly, revealing chattering teeth. It was the last sonata she had played before leaving Liverpool. It was a sad slow melody that matched tempo of Edith’s settling sobs.

Someday she might play again, if she did not lose any fingers from frostbite. Her fingers ached. That was progress. Feeling meant life–life for her and her unborn child. She wanted a boy. A boy would look most like him. The menfolk had tried for a proper burial. There was nothing to do for it, except try to dig the frozen ground, give up, and pile rocks on him hoping it slowed the wolves from getting their meal.

Suddenly, next to Wendy knelt Brother Rebar. He looked alive enough. Light surrounded his body. Wendy let out a barely audible scream. Eyes wide open, she did not move.

“Brother Rebar?”

“Sister Riley. I did not return your spade.” He spoke perfect English.

“My spade?”

“Your husband’s spade. I borrowed it the night before he passed.” How could he know English?

“I don’t think he’ll be missing it.” Edith was still quietly sobbing only a few paces to Wendy’s left.

“I’d feel better if you collected it. I left it by the boulder where we buried Brother Peter’s child.”

“You die; your wife’s in hysterics; and you’re worried about a tool?” Typical. Menfolk and their tools.

“Please, go get it for me. I’d feel better if you would.” With that he was gone. It was dark again. Wendy muttered about Edith’s husband every time Edith let a straggling sob escape.

Eventually, the east became less dark. The sun began to rise. Then makeshift tents were folded and placed on the carts. Morning prayers were said, and meager breakfasts eaten. The men moved Brother Rebar off the trail a few paces, but not all the way to the boulder where they had laid Brother Peter’s boy.

There was no attempt to dig the solid ground. Sister Rebar helped find rocks to place over him. She was more gentle than the menfolk. After they could not see his body, they just tossed the rocks on the stack. She gently placed them, as if afraid to hurt her frozen husband.

Wendy wanted to help–to put an arm around Edith. She was never very good at that sort of thing. She did not like Brother Rebar, but she did not wish this on him. Instead she looked at Edith sideways when she could without being noticed or looking rude.

I’d toss the rocks on him, she thought, but chastised herself for the thought and looked for the signal to move on. It must be time. She unconsciously rubbed her stomach. Was it growing?

The signal came to move. Creaking and clumping of handcarts falling into a line over old wagon ruts passed Wendy as she continued to pretend not to watch Edith straightening up Brother Rebar’s grave.

The rule was simple. At the sound of the bugle, the company of handcarts moved no matter who didn’t. Soon, creaking carts were out of hearing and out of sight. The wind blew through the remnants of fall grass that poked through the snow. Grating of stone on stone as Edith’s shifted rocks broke the quiet. Edith’s handcart, loaded with personal items stood waiting for her. They were alone with their carts and a pile of stones covering a dead man that lay between them.

Wendy walked around the grave and stood over Edith. “Sister Rebar.”

Edith pushed another stone to a more stable position. In her thick swiss accent, Edith begged, “Please, just Edith. I am not an old lady at church.”

Wendy looked at Edith and realized she might be nineteen or younger. Wendy smiled despite herself. She enjoyed Edith’s accent. “Edith, then. It’s not safe for us alone without the handcart company. We need to get moving.”

“I cannot.”

Wendy pictured her own husband’s remains scattered by scavengers not more than seven days behind them. “It’s hard to leave him. I know.”

“No, …. Yes. I mean, it is not that. I am too weak to pull that cart. I do not know what Sandy was thinking. The only thing not on that cart is a log cabin. The captain emptied it down to the necessities five times, and Sandy loaded it back up, right in front of the captain–such strong a will.”

Wendy looked back at the cart then down at Edith. She was a little thing. “We can share. Grab your food and some clothes, and put them in my cart. We can pull together. The load should be light enough. You’ll have to leave everything else.”

Edith stopped fussing with Sandy’s grave and stood. She brushed snow, sticks and burs from her apron and dress. They moved the small cask of flour, a couple of dresses and two blankets. Then they stepped into place, picked up the cart’s front bar, and pulled the cart into a slow bumpy roll. With each step Wendy prayed she did not dislodge the child in her stomach.

After a few steps Edith broke the silence between them. “I am sorry.”

“About what?”

“Your spade.”

“What?”

Edith tried pronouncing the words in better English almost eliminating her thick accent. “About your spade.”

Wendy stopped, dropping her grip on the handcart. The cold made her rub her arms and shiver. Her legs wobbled a bit. “What about my spade?”

“I did not mean to upset you.” The cart quickly stopped with Edith pushing alone. Her great effort meant nothing to the handcart. Edith gave up, letting the handles and crossbar drop to the ground in front of her. “I feel terrible. We borrowed it the night before, … your …. Well. We meant to give it back. I made Sandy promise to give it back in the morning. He said you would not want it, but I made him promise.” Edith continued despite an escaping sob. “It is the only promise to me he ever broke.”

Wendy watched Edith wipe her cheek with her apron. “He was right. I don’t want it.”

“We should have returned it.”

“If it makes you feel better. Let’s get it.”

“I looked already. It is not anywhere.”

“Let us take another look.”

Wendy led Edith away from their handcart past the abandoned cart. Edith hesitated at her old cart, but seeing that Wendy meant not to stop, caught up with a few quick paces. Silently, except for the rustling of skirts in the trampled snow and sage, they continued to the boulder where Brother Peter’s child lay.

“There it is,” Edith spoke before Wendy. Wendy smiled. Just another dumb tool. “Why on earth would I ever want a spade,” Wendy mumbled to herself.

Wendy walked up to the spade leaning next to the boulder and the child’s grave. The tip of the spade was slightly damaged from attempting to dig the frozen ground. Behind Wendy, Edith gasp and began sobbing. Crying over a chipped spade seemed a bit much. “Honestly, I don’t really even want the spade.”

Wendy turned, looking at Edith. She held a small leather bound book that she must have just found in the snow. Edith alternated between brushing white flakes and ice from the cover, and glancing at the wind turned pages. “What is …?” Wendy began, but decide to look over Edith’s shoulder instead.

Edith looked up as Wendy stepped over to see. “It was right here,” she motioned at the snow at her feet. Edith thumbed through more pages–none written in English. The only word that Wendy could make out on the pages was “Edith” over and over on almost every page. Edith explained, “This is Sandy’s handwriting. These are love poems.” She spoke through her hand on her mouth.

Perhaps jealousy prodded her, but Wendy knew they had to catch up to the handcarts. “Bring it with you. There will be time to read after we break for lunch.”

“Yes. Of course.”

After an hour, they found themselves with their handcart pulling up a hill within sight of the rear of the handcart company.

“Wendy. Thank you for letting me share your cart. You are a good person.”

What makes me a good person? Wendy wondered. She silently prayed for help living up to the complement and leaned into the cart’s crossbar. She thought of the spade left back at the boulder, then focused on another step, and worried about dislodging the child she hoped was growing within her.

Bio:  T. Gene Davis writes speculative fiction, poetry, articles, books, and computer software. He lives with his wife, four children, and three cats in the Rocky Mountains, where he wages a never-ending war to keep his static electricity loving cats from rubbing against his prized Kindle. Follow his daily exploits on Twitter @TGeneDavis or visit Gene at http://tgenedavis.com on the web.

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NORM by Asher Wismer

Aug 07 2016

 

I stapled the last two papers, slipped them into the manila envelope, and sealed it. That was about it; I took the next two hours to practice my marathon kazooing.

My boss, Captain Keratin, poked his head around my door.

“Sounds good,” he said. “Are you playing the parades this year?”

“Maybe. I can’t seem to get the extended low hum for the bass line.”

“Keep practicing, you’ll get it. Speaking of practice, check this out.”

He wore his usual outfit, which meant shirtless to show off his now extremely impressive chest and abs. As I watched, he held out his arm and, visibly straining, grew a little tree from it. The tree wasn’t perfect; it was flesh-colored and the leaves drooped with weight, but it looked pretty good.

“I’ve been practicing the fine details,” he said. “Hold on–”

He gave a shudder and the tree fell from his arm. He caught it and held it up. “If you look close, you can see the texture of the bark. Still can’t control my pigment, though.”

I held my gorge down. “Cool. How long does it last?”

“Day or two. I’ve been working on making small things for the office.”

“Oh, yeah, I noticed the coasters in the break room.”

“What about the cups?”

“Cups? No, I didn’t notice them.”

I had.

“Smoothing them took forever,” he said. “Too bad you didn’t see them; I think the last one decayed this morning. I’ve been working on a larger piece, too, but I can’t tell you about it yet.”

“That’s great,” I said. “Here, I finished the last tax forms.”

“Why don’t you take the rest of the day off?”

“You sure?”

“Go on, you look beat. I’ll be in the office till five if anything comes up.”

Down on ground level, things were pretty quiet. Almost no traffic; people don’t need cars and buses when they can fly, or teleport, or run faster than sound. The city’s SuperCops keep the runners and flyers from breaking the sound barrier too often, but glass is quickly falling out of fashion.

My place is off the main row, a few blocks back. It’s small, but it’s mine outright, and I have pride in that, at least.

Shawna the Magnificent was home, flexing in front of the mirror.

“Too bad about the cups,” she said, as I walked through the door. “They sounded kind of cute. I’d love a unique set to display.”

“If he can make them permanent,” I said, “I’ll put in an order. I think it’s gross.”

“I know.” Shawna shifted her weight, outlining the muscles in her thighs. “What do you think? Green’s my color but this orange isn’t so bad.”

I went along with her pretense, but I could see her jaw flexing as she restrained herself from answering her own question.

“It’s nice. You might think about piping the hems with something flatter, to accent your hips.”

“And my chest,” she said, twisting and shaking. “I talked to Doctor Op today.”

“Your boobs are beautiful,” I said. “You don’t need them enlarged. I love them, and you know I mean it.”

“I know, she said, and turned from the mirror to embrace me. Her chin bumped affectionately against the top of my head. “I just love to hear it.”

“Any chance of staying in tonight? I’m feeling–”

“–kind of down. I know. I can’t, but I have a show and a patrol right back to back. Oh, honey, I’m sorry! Don’t feel like that.”

I didn’t say anything. It wouldn’t make any difference; she picks the thoughts out of my head almost before I think them.

“You’re so good to me,” she said. “And you know I tell you everything. I don’t hold back.”

“It’s not too bad to wish you had everything but that, right?”

“Love you.” She kissed my forehead. “Gotta run. Dinner’s in the fridge. I’ll tell The Tailor what you said about the piping! See you tomorrow!”

“Love you too,” I said, and I meant it, and I knew she wouldn’t say anything about the slight irritation and frustration that colored the feeling. We Normals can’t help what we feel; I’m just lucky Shawna is understanding. Any other E-Norm would have left me long ago.

#

 

The mutations started slowly. Just a few around the world; some of them robbed banks and others hid from the public and still others put on costumes and started raking in money from endorsements and media deals. The rest of us watched, secure in the knowledge that Extra-Normals were outnumbered by Normals.

And then the scales started to tip. More and more people developed powers far beyond those of mortal men. Apartment buildings burned as Pryos woke up in flames, and Invulnerables ran into the blaze to rescue children and pets. Airplanes spun from the sky as practicing Flyers jammed up flight patterns, and were caught in the air or on the ground by Brawners and Affectors. Jaunters leaped inside bank vaults and Dampers kept them from escaping.

The strange thing was, no one really paid much attention until one election day, when The Powerful Ben became our first Extra-Normal President. He lasted two weeks before it came out that his psychic abilities had turned entire states to his advantage; his successor, the entirely Normal Vice President Albert Jenquist, started the Extra-Normal Congressional Quorum.

With fledgling laws in effect, and general opinion from most — even E-Norms — that a newly superpowered public needed a superpowered government, the status quo returned.

 

#

 

I took a walk. The City is meticulously clean; trash is burned at the curb or flown to one of the new volcanic vents created — on purpose and accidentally — by Phasers and Disruptors. Dust is easily controlled by periodic gusts of localized, superpowered wind. And crime?

Two Norms approached me.

The larger one blocked my path and said, quietly, “Hand me everything in your pockets and walk away.”

“Not interested,” I said.

“Come on, man,” the smaller one said. “We need some scratch for the week! There’s nothing at the Public Works, and nobody’s hiring Norms!”

I didn’t say anything about my job. It was Pre-Change, and Captain Keratin (formally Bill Jones, middle manager) lets me stay on because even without powers I’m pretty good at math.

“Keep walking,” I said. “You don’t want to mess with me.”

“Shit, dude’s smaller than you,” the larger one said. “You threaten us? You don’t got nothing on me, little man.”

I closed my eyes and felt the wind move. When I opened them, the two thugs dangled from a lamppost. A beacon blinked from the large one’s chest, summoning the SuperCops.

No reason to stick around. Whichever public hero had rescued me would have already sent his real-time videolog to the local Powered Precinct, and they’d find me if they needed a statement.

So not much petty crime anymore. There are certainly Super Villains, but they keep a low profile. Some of the Public Heroes are very pragmatic when it comes to justifiable homicide.

I shouldn’t be sad. It’s great for Norms, not that there are many left. I used to fantasize about what powers I’d get, and how I’d use them, but now I just move through life at a slow walk.

I shouldn’t be sad. I just wish I didn’t feel so helpless.

 

#

 

“E-Norm IDF forces are fighting a pitched battle on the banks of Gaza today…” “Bad Blake is holding two world leaders hostage, but Judd the Impossible is on the case…” “Two natural disasters in Africa are holding the attention of the entire African Ultra Peace Coalition…” “John the Altruist finished his year-long project to aerate and hydrate soil in the Gobi desert…” “Two new E-Norm classifications were announced today, bringing the total up to three-hundred fifty.”

 

#

 

I wandered downtown. It scared me to see everything so deserted.   No reason to head home until later. Shawna’s patrols were legendary in our little circle; she had limitless strength and stamina, and I can’t remember the last time I saw her sleep. She leads a loose group of other Heroes in the area, and things are safer than they’d ever been. My brush with the muggers was typical; there wasn’t even any point in yelling for help. Everyone and his brother is on the lookout for crime.

A poster, stapled to an anemic tree poking from the sidewalk, caught my eye.

“Old Art! Come see the Finest Collection of Pre-Change art in the City! Over Six Hundred Pieces! Remember the Old Times, when Everyone Was Normal? Now We Can All Remember Together! E-Norms by request only.”

The address was only a few blocks away.

While walking, I saw two Speedsters practicing on the empty freeway. With my Normal eyes, I could only see them when they stopped. Little sonic booms echoed. I saw a Flyer floating between two trees like a hammock, reading the newspaper. I saw a group of Reactionaries sparring in an empty lot, blurring as they anticipated every move; saw a demolition in progress, no machines, just Invulnerable Brawners punching the walls down; was bumped by an Invisible; was saved from a falling air conditioner and lifted over a river and given a thousand dollars cash “just because I can, and enjoy it!”

It would almost be easier to sit back and do nothing.

But if we don’t work, we die.

The Norm Art Exhibit was in a little gallery, set into the side of a building with wide glass windows. I dropped my extra thousand dollars in the donation slot and walked in.

I’m not much on art. Even the best tends to go over my head; there’s something in nice lines and realistic proportions, but mostly I just stare and think “Huh.”

The first thing I saw was an ordinary two-slice toaster,  fire-engine red, sitting on a pedestal.

Just past it, paintings and sculptures, non-representational art, a silent video display, and what looked like footprints leading up the wall to the ceiling.

There was no one else in the room. Despite the advertised “Finest Collection,” I didn’t seeanything that might hang in the Louvre. A lot of it was just stuff: matchbooks; theatre programs; USB mice; ergonomic chairs; a leather couch; light bulbs through the decades; a display of toothpick buildings.

“They’re nice, aren’t they.”

I was looking at an old microwave oven, the kind that took up an entire wall and cost as much as a new car.

“I don’t know Jack about art,” I said, “so maybe I’m not getting the full effect.”

“Come over here,” she said. I turned. She was my height, thinner, curly red hair and bright eyes.

“I already saw the toaster,” I said.

“Just come and look.” She wore shorts and a thin wrap, and it was very cool inside the studio. I flicked my eyes up, trying not to stare.

The toaster was exactly the same as it had been. I walked around it, looked into the top, and, at a gesture, lifted it to see the underside.

“Nope,” I said. “I don’t get it. I suppose you could define toast as art, if you’re hungry, but I’m just not seeing anything but a toaster.”

“It is exactly that.”

“Huh?”

“Itself. The toaster has a single purpose — to make toast — and a single function, which is the making of toast. It does what it is intended to do and wastes no energy on clocks or radios, or sounds.”

She pushed the lever down. I heard ticking. Presently the lever sprang back up.

“See, it doesn’t even need electricity. Take the sides off and the electronic guts out and you can mount it over a fire. The springs will work regardless. It is a perfect, functioning thing. It is, in fact, exactly what it is.”

“And that makes it art?”

“Still a Norm?”

I shook my head. “Not here for that.”

“Why are you here, then? Not, I think, for the art.”

“Born and raised and never any different, thank you for asking. What about you? Do you fly? Do you break glass with a thought or run faster than sound?”

“My name is Lily,” she said. “And I don’t do anything but live.”

 

#

 

“Panic on the high seas as an Absorbent passenger on the Queen Mary II accidentally fell into the pool…” “The ENCQ is debating sixteen power sets to determine if they fall under existing E-Norm classifications…” “Union Auto Workers continue the strike into its third year…” “Five hundred people died in the worst Pyrrhic attack ever…” “Nine unrelated women in different countries gave birth to green-skinned babies…” “World’s Fattest Man gains another seventy pounds, tipping the scales over nine thousand.”

 

#

 

“When the E-Norms started spreading, we all lost purpose,” she said. “You remember. We waited for nothing. We are Normal in every sense of the word, and we resent their superiority.”

“I’m married to one,” I said. “Do you live around here?”

“Traveling with the exhibit,” she said. “I’ve been here a few months.”

“You might have noticed her on the news,” I said. “Shawna the Magnificent. Tall and built, but she thinks her boobs are too small.”

“I don’t watch news much.”

“She’s also telepathic.”

“That must be interesting.”

“Not the word I’d use.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s ok. She loves me, or she says she does. I love her, and I know I do, because she’d tell me if I was lying.”

“I guess that could be useful.”

“Or annoying.”

“Or that.”

She sipped her coffee, looking out the window. It was raining. No one else had come into the studio.

“Since I accepted my normality,” she said, “I’ve been trying to find purpose. Every day there are more powers, fewer of us. The worst part is that everyone just accepts it. Do you work?”

“I don’t need to,” I said. “Shawna makes so much money from endorsements….”

“But you do anyway.”

“I had the job before the change. It’s something to do. Besides, I used to room with my boss, and he’s a nice guy.”

“Any other Norms working there?”

“Just me.”

“What do you do?”

“Accounting. Audits, taxes, checking and rechecking. I don’t need to, the computers can do it all, but he still thinks it’s better to have someone checking the numbers after. I don’t know. He’s probably just being nice.”

“Or he wants your help because you’re good at it.”

“I’ve thought that, but there’s no reason to have me over someone else.”

“For quotas?”

“No such thing, you know that.”

“Not officially.”

“There’s no point anyway. There are so few Norms left it’s easier to just ignore us.”

“What does your boss do?”

“He’s a Transmuter. He can produce material from his own body mass and form it into objects. First thing he did when he got control was change all his fat into muscle.”

“What use is that?”

“He can make coasters,” I said, and giggled. It sounded so stupid.

“That’s disgusting.”

“No one argues with the boss.”

“Does he at least go by his real name?”

“Captain Keratin.”

“Wow.”

“He doesn’t even go on patrol, he just styles himself like a hero. Shawna is a real hero. She risks her life every day.”

“She sounds like a wonderful person.”

“Magnificent, even.” That got a chuckle. Lily sat back, looked out the window. Aside from the rain, there was nothing to see. I couldn’t guess her age. Her face was smooth except for a few lines around her mouth, and her eyes were very blue.

“What are you doing later?” she said, still looking out the window.

“Later? It’s already later for me,” I said. “I usually take a walk and then make an early night. Bill — Captain Keratin doesn’t care what time I get to work as long as the checking gets done.”

“I’d be closing the gallery soon anyway. Do you want to get dinner?”

“I usually eat at home.”

“Don’t you have any friends?”

I didn’t answer.

“I’ll buy,” she said. “Someone put a thousand dollars in the slot today.”

 

#

 

“An eight-year-old boy set fire to his school today, manifesting the first signs of Pyrokenesis…” “Six men were arrested by the Gulf City Power Police for attempted murder and robbery…” “An unidentified man in a yellow jumpsuit buzzed the Garber building for two hours…” “Two more cars were found in their parking spaces crushed to shoebox size, time still left on the meters…” “The Scintillating Hypnotist is in court today with his third jury, attempting to make his case without powers. His Honor Phil The Unbribable presides.”

 

#

 

We ate at a small cafe down the street; it still cooked food the old-fashioned way, on a grill, instead of Transmutation by the resident T-Chef. They usually don’t use their own body mass, preferring clean sand and organic mulch. There’s nothing wrong with the food — in fact it tastes amazing — but I like to support the few real restaurants that remain.

“I lost my husband in the Chicago Massacre,” Lily said, cutting her steak into tiny triangles. “He worked in the DMV, and the lines went berserk with their new powers. I was out of town. When I got back, the whole complex was gone.”

I didn’t say anything.

“It was just bad luck, really,” she said. “When they reimbursed me I think they expected I’d get my own powers soon and then I’d never look back.”

“It was a bad policy,” I said. “Paying survivors to keep out of the news.”

“But it worked. The only reason we know about so many incidents is because of the free press, even freer now. Reporters who don’t need food or sleep, X-ray vision, everything’s out more than ever.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said.

“I barely even think about it anymore. He was a good man, simple, just what you got on the surface. Good at his job, just worked hard and kept me happy.”

“Do you run the exhibit all by yourself?”

“These days. I had a crew when I was putting it together, but they all moved on or got Powered. It’s not hard. I was looking for purpose and here it is.”

“Showing toasters?” I said, adding a smile to show that I was joking.

“Well, I was hoping to get a convection oven for the next location.”

I laughed.

“How’s your steak?”

“Good,” I said. “Just perfectly grilled.”

“Dying art.”

“So many things are.”

“Do you want to sleep with me?”

I shrugged. It felt completely natural. Looking back… but I’ve learned to never look back.

“I didn’t want to ask,” I said. “It’s not the sort of thing you go for on a first date.”

“Well, I want to,” she said. “Now. We’ll go back to the gallery.”

The steak went wherever old food goes. I went with her. The rain had stopped and the sun was out, filling the streets with mist.

Inside the gallery, Lily pulled blinds down over the windows and locked the door. I sat on the couch and she started to undress, no seduction or dancing, just taking clothing off. Her body was thin, and I saw old scars. We all have some; Norms don’t heal like they do.

When she was naked, she came over to the couch. I still had my clothing on, and she took my hand and pulled me up and kissed me, tangling her fingers in my hair. I ran my hands down her sides, feeling the scar tissue, and she overbalanced me and we went tumbling to the couch.

After, she stood and walked around the gallery, still naked. It was warmer, or I was, and I watched and thought about things and wondered why I had never cheated on Shawna before. She’d know, of course, but I thought she might understand… but maybe not. And she’d know about this before I could make any sort of explanation. I could find a Wiper, perhaps, and pay him to erase my memories….

Lily completed her circle, back at the couch, and sat down beside me. I leaned up and pulled her into an embrace, and we lay there, two Norms in the world.

Until she stiffened and pulled away. “I’m sorry,” she said. “You can’t stay here.”

It was expected. “Do you have guests coming?”

“No, I just — I have something to do. Please, it was wonderful, you’re a wonderful person, but you need to leave.”

Is sixth-sense considered a power? There are Forecasters and Seers, but they work more on accurate probabilities, bolstered by their powers rather than created by them. Norm I may be, but sometime I feel things.

I got up and pulled my pants on. Lily stayed on the couch, head down, and made no move to dress.

“Are you ok?”

“Please,” she said. Her voice was different, a little hoarse, a little higher.

“You’re not a Norm, are you,” I said.

“The sun is going down. I’m going to change. I don’t want you to be here.”

“Are you dangerous?”

“No.”

I didn’t say anything, and I watched as the room dimmed, slivers of sunlight running up the wall until they vanished completely, the only light now from the street lamps outside, and I watched Lily’s body change, and what happened to her eyes, and when it was done I looked at — her — and nodded and left.

The City streets were the same. I walked, hands in pockets, and saw all the same things I’d seen yesterday, and last week, and last month. The big changes had come and now the world would adapt, as it always did. More violence, but fewer crimes. More accidents, but fewer deaths.

More anger. More ability to act on that anger.

More pain.

 

#

 

“Is Transmuted food toxic? Reports from the Organic Farmer’s Union tonight suggest elevated levels of hemotoxin in fast-food burgers…” “Protect your home from spying eyes! Genuine lead foil, guaranteed non-toxic…” “A Manchester man took his own life after the ENCQ classified his perfect color-matching ability as non-powered…” “An abandoned shipping container was found to contain over ninety thousand dead rats, all perfectly preserved, each missing their liver.”

 

#

 

Shawna got home in the early morning. I hadn’t slept, just sat at the table, thinking. She walked into the room, sat across from me, and said, “I knew it had to happen sooner or later.”

There was nothing I could say that she wouldn’t pick out of my head faster.

“She was pretty, at least. Are you happy? You’ve tried out a Norm and now you’re feeling bad about it, so that’s good. What do you want to do now?”

“You know.”

“I don’t know what that bit at the end is,” she said. “Fine. All right, but you have no right to think that.”

“I can think whatever I want,” I said. “You’re always in my head and I love you but if you can’t get out of my head I want a divorce.”

“No, you don’t,” she said. “You’re just talking to avoid the issue.”

“I’m talking to keep you from talking over me. You always talk over me. I never get to say what’s on my mind because you always know what I’m thinking. So, tell me!”

She shook her head. “I don’t overpower you.”

“Every day.”

“So why have you stayed with it for so long? Because you love me? No you don’t, and I wish you’d just let your real feelings out.”

“What?”

“I am! I am very special! Just because there are more of us around than before–”

“Stop! Stop it!”

“Don’t you understand? What I am? What happens when everyone is special? Everyone who isn’t special, isn’t special! Is sub-special! Norms, all of you!” Shawna glared at me. “How dare you pretend to love me?”

“I never–”

“I don’t love you! I used to but not since I changed! You are nothing compared to me, nothing at all, just some sort of biological process with no basis in useful reality! I am special! I always was, just never knew it! Stop lying to me! You know you don’t really love me, you never did, you just loved the idea of me! Stop trying to make me your ideal woman and GROW UP!”

Tears ran down my face. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak, and Shawna spoke for me.

“You did,” she said, and her voice broke on the words. “I wanted you to hate me for being your superior, but you never did. Godammit, stop loving me! I don’t deserve it, I don’t — stop it! STOP IT!”

She leaped to the ceiling and broke through, and I remained, normal, ordinary, no powers or purpose.

 

#

 

Captain Keratin showed me his latest when I arrived at work. I hadn’t slept for two days.

“It took me forever,” he said. “And I had to keep eating to get the mass right, but it’s my best yet!”

Fleshy, smooth and hairless, and draped over the conference table.

“It’s a tablecloth,” I said.

“And the best part,” he said, “is that I think I can keep it from decaying! I’ve been experimenting with a nutrient injection.”

“You mean,” I said slowly, “that it’s still alive?”

“Well, not like you or me–”

I puked. I couldn’t help it. Mostly water. I sank to my knees, coughing.

He knelt next to me, laid a hand on my shoulder. “Are you all right?”

For a moment, I could hear a little of the old, Normal Bill Jones in his voice, but the touch of his hand brought the nausea back.

When I stopped choking, I stood and waved off help, and went to clean up in the washroom.

An hour later, I handed Captain Keratin my resignation.

“Are you sure about this?” he said. He didn’t seem to be offended.

“I need to get out and get away from the city,” I said. “Shawna’s left me and… well, I can’t say I’m happy at work anymore.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

“It’s not you,” I said. “Don’t think I find you disgusting. It’s just what you do.”

“You’ll get a top recommendation letter,” he said. “But I wish you’d think about it.”

“It’s all I’ve done for the past day,” I said. “I can’t think about it any more.”

As I was packing up my things, he came running in, and not as Captain, but as Bill. I could see it in his eyes.

“You need to hear this,” he said, and placed a small radio on my desk.

“…of the population. Again, our top story today, independent testers have been combing and polling the country for the first Extra-Normal Census, and the numbers have been staggering. In the last two months, incidences of Normal vs. Extra-Normal have dropped dramatically, and according to the latest reports, Norms may be as few as one in five hundred thousand worldwide. At these levels, it is possible that we may soon become a world of entirely Extra-Normal humans. With no Norms left, decisions made by the ECNQ will be informed entirely by E-Norm needs….”

My mouth had dried up by the second sentence. I dropped everything and staggered for the door. Bill called my name, but it registered only as a flat sound across my brain.

No Norms left!

The thought was physically painful. Bad that I had never developed powers, worse now, if the census report was accurate, that I might be the last Norm in the world.

Wait, though, I’d been mugged by two Norms just the other day! I stopped in our computer lab, blessedly empty, and opened a public-access terminal for the police blotter.

“…two men arrested for a street crime are now claiming protection under ECNQ rules for newly changed E-Norms–”

When I opened my eyes, I was on the roof of the building. There was no one to see me. The skies were clear, the sun setting. I didn’t know where the time had gone, didn’t know where I’d walked or who I’d seen.

All I knew was that I was alone. For the first time, I looked over the City, saw the sterile world that Powers had created, no smog, no dirt, but no life or energy either. The problems of the Powered were larger than our Normal, small concerns. We — I — had no place here.

As the sun shone golden over the skyline, I took one little step.

And she caught me, matching my falling speed so I felt nothing but a little bump, and she was crying, sobbing my name, “–sorry I’m sorry so sorry I never meant to say those things, I do love you, you know I do, we’ll work it out and I don’t care a bit about her, I’d never lie to you, I can’t, love you so much please please don’t hate me–”

And we rose above the city, and I saw Flyers in the sky, making patterns, and down below the streetlights started to flicker on, outlining the blood of a City, creating a new society from the ashes of the old.

I held on tight, and I knew that my life would never be more than this.

But it might be enough.

end

Author Bio:

Asher Wismer graduated from the University of Maine at Augusta in 2007, and is a former college-level tutor, computer technician, and 35mm Film Projection Manager. He currently works as an Editor at eNotes.com, answering questions from dozens of educational fields. His story “December in Florida” appeared in the anthology Holiday of the Dead, from Wild Wolf Publishing in the U.K., and his flash fiction has appeared on the website 365tomorrows.com. Asher lives and works in Augusta, Maine.

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DICE by Brian J. Smith

Jul 24 2016

1

THE chains hung down from giant rings embedded into the ceiling and held the hooks into her back, pulling the skin taut. Feet dangling, the overhead light threw shadows onto the wall, rivers of blood trickled down her back, buttocks and legs only to drip off onto the floor. She sobbed, strands of long blonde hair clinging to her sweaty forehead. She tried not to move for fear the hooks would pull away and tear her apart. She was like a baby in an infant carrier minus the safety harness.
“Whitney.” Anthony Fraser replied in an eerie whisper. “Don’t be afraid. It only hurts when you move around like that.”
Whitney peered at the broad shouldered man leaning in the corner, his arms laced across his chest. He pushed himself away from the wall and stepped up to her, his plastic butcher’s apron winking under the overhead light. The straps from the goggles on his face looked tight against the sides of his egg-shaped head. He slid the back of his hand across her cheeks and flicked her lips with his finger.
“Do you know what these are?”
She stared up at him through the curtain of blonde hair shading her face. Her gaze fell back to the floor as the chains and hooks gleamed in the light. Something in his hand rattled like broken teeth.
“That’s okay. I understand if you don’t want to talk. I’d do the same thing if I were in your shoes. They’re plain, ordinary dice.”
“Why…are…you—.” Whitney said between sobs.
“Shhh!”
He rolled the dice in her hand, pacing back and forth like a teacher waiting for an answer. She watched the dice roll around in his hand, her head spinning from the recently administered drug.
“These are the keys to your fate. Since their invention, dice have always played a part in our lives. In board games, we either go forward or backward. In crap games, we roll an odd number and win or end up with snake eyes and go belly up. Which is where you come in,” He handed her the dice. “If you roll an odd number, you live. Roll snake eyes and your die. Don’t worry, the dice aren’t loaded so you’re guaranteed not to lose.”
Whitney rolled the dice inside of her trembling hand and threw across the floor. They rattled together like cracked knuckles, struck the wall and tumbled into place. One dice showed a one but the other teetered on the edge, switching between six and one. He walked over to the corner of the room and watched the dice away. Her heart beat echoed in her throat, her nerves twitched and her breath became difficult; fear wrapped a cold noose around her throat, rending her speechless.
When the dice settled, Whitney raised her hands in the air, screaming, “Seven. I rolled a seven.”
Anthony stood beside the switch on the wall. He looked at her with sad, basset-hound eyes.
“You have to let me go,” Whitney pleaded. “That was your rule, I could live if I rolled—.”
Without a word, Anthony flipped the switch and jerked the hooks from Whitney’s back, spraying blood across the room, leaving hunks of meat and strips of skin hanging from the tip of the hooks as her body plopped onto the floor like a wet, bloody dishcloth.

2

“OKAY, Anthony.” Dr. Robin Hammond said, “What do you see?”
Lying on the plush orange couch, his hands overlapped on chest, his eyes closed, Anthony said, “I’m walking down the hallway heading to third period class. Everyone’s smiling at me. Some of them are laughing inside their little circle of friends beside their lockers. I see my girlfriend for the senior prom pulling her books out of her locker so that I can carry them for her.”
“Who is your girlfriend?”
“Amber Dunn. She’s as beautiful as ever especially when she’s wearing her cheerleading uniform.” He gasped audibly. “Something wraps around my hips. When Amber turns to hand me her books, she looks down at me and starts laughing and pointing at my crotch.”
“What happens then?”
“Everyone starts laughing and pointing, even the teachers. I look down and see my pants down around my ankles. My dick’s hanging down like a wind sock on a hot day. Amber’s pointing and laughing even harder then Scott Richards walks up and puts his arm around her waist and when I got up to say something he pushes me back down onto the floor and as they’re walking away they’re kissing but I’m crying too much, pleading for everyone to stop laughing but they’re still laughing and pointing and laughing and pointing and laughing and—.”
Anthony’s left leg twitched, his foot shot out and kicked the glass of water off the coffee table. It struck the wall, spraying glass and water across the room. He sat up to see what happened when the door flew open; Dr. Hammond’s red-haired secretary walked into the room. Hammond was knelt down on the floor, picking up shards of glass with his bare hands.
“Be careful, Doctor.” The secretary cautioned, “You’ll cut yourself.”
“It’s okay, Sydney.”
“I’m sorry, Doctor.” Anthony pleaded. “I didn’t—.”
“Maybe you need to—.”
“It’s not his fault, Sydney. Mister Fraser’s anger got the better of him and he kicked the glass. It happens.”
Sydney sighed and stormed out of the room, shutting the door behind her. After assisting the doctor with the clean up, Anthony slumped back onto the couch, sweating profusely. Dr. Hammond returned to his chair and placed his spaghetti-thin arms together on top of his desk. The dull gray sunlight outlined the gold curtains.
“It seems that we’re making progress.”
Sighing as if he heard a bad joke, Anthony said, “You call that making process? I could’ve hurt someone.”
“From what you’ve told me on the chart I asked you to make, the dreams are not as persistent as usual.”
“Persistent?”
“Constant.” said Dr. Hammond. “You’re not having the dream as much as you did when you first came to see me.”
“The pills are doing great.”
“I thought so.” Hammond smiled at first, then took it away. “Which is why I’m going to up your dosage.”
Hammond scribbled on a nearby prescription pad, tore off the sheet and handed it to Anthony. He wished Anthony a nice day and asked him to make his next appointment with Sydney. Slipping the prescription into his jacket pocket, he left the room and walked up to Sydney’s desk. She was talking to someone on a headset telephone; she rolled her eyes, put the person on hold and dropped the headset onto the desk.
“What?”
“I need to make my next appointment.”
She searched the computer, moving the mouse with the celerity of an person hurrying to get out.
“I have the tenth of next month.”
“I can’t I have—.”
“Okay, the tenth it is.”
She clicked the mouse a few more times, printed a sticker displaying his next appointment time and handed it to him. Anthony stood, looking at her as if trying to figure out a math problem.
“What’s your problem?”
“Here’s your—.”
“What did I ever do to you? You sit at a desk all day long. We’re both human, Sydney and we need to—.”
“We don’t need to do shit. The way I see it, there are some people who can be saved and there are some who can’t. No one can save you, Mister Fraser.”
Anthony slipped the appointment card into his front pocket and took the elevator to the lobby. Since he’d been going to Dr. Hammond about his nightmares, he never understood what Sydney had against him. During his visits, he tried his best to avoid her at any costs so as not to give her a reason to berate him but it was too hard since the doctor stopped making his own appointments. He imagined her inside of a giant dome where no one could invade her space. No matter how hard he tried not to, he always took up too much room.
Before the day that would stain him forever, he attracted the opposite sex like a paper clip to a magnet. Nowadays, he was as compatible with them as the left shoe going on the right foot. Internet dating was out of the question; speed-dating—non-negotiable. He was no stranger to the nightlife and usually came home alone, his breath reeking of beer except for last night when he met Whitney and she was as easy as drunk girl got.
Of course, later on last night, he was worried about the booze making a strange combination with the sleeping aid and kill her before he had the chance to kill her himself. The events that took place at Logan Middle School fifteen years ago had, and would, stain him forever. He could never love a woman enough not to kill her, let alone marry her. He was more than willing but the desire for an honest relationship was impeded by the gut feeling that she would betray him just as the entire school had done and ruin him forever.
Crossing the lobby and out the door to his car, Anthony overheard an old couple chatting to a middle-aged woman in a dark blue business suit who was rubbing her hand over the back of the old woman’s shoulder.
“These things happen, Eleanor.” said her husband.
“Our baby boy has gone out on several dates and he’s always been home the next day, John.” She cried into her fist, the one holding the balled-up tissue. “The only thing I regret is letting him get that tattoo of his mother’s name on his chest. For all I know, he’s probably joined her in heaven.” Walking between two parked cars, Anthony dug the little ball of dried blood out of his opposite finger and flicked it toward the parking lot when a young husky woman stopped dead in her tracks, her high heels clicking. She looked down at her strapless pink shirt, then up at Anthony, her face twisted by disgust.
“What the hell was that?”
“Nothing.”
“You call that nothing?”
She pointed to the little black dot on her dress. His face flushed and grew hot; he almost gasped but he kept his composure.
“I’m sorry. I was doing some gardening before my appointment.”
“What are you?.”
“I’ll pay for the dry cleaning.”
“No shit.” She sighed disgustedly.
Anthony took a napkin from his coat pocket—he always kept a supply on hand in case the nightmare made him cry which was very often—and wiped the speck of dried blood from the dress. Looking up at her, he fell back onto the pavement in a failed crab walk. The heavily built woman had been replaced by the beautiful Amber Dunn ala cheerleading uniform, pointing and laughing, pointing and laughing. The blue sky morphed into the middle school’s plaster ceiling; the parking lot was now a rank of gun-gray lockers and Formica flooring. The vehicles in the lot became the students of Logan Middle School, looking superior as they laughed at his pain.
The past had successfully twined with the present, playing with his mind. He looked down to see if his pants were in place but the laughing seem to pierce his pride and gnaw at his soul. He looked around, crawled to his feet, rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand and took long deep breaths like the good doctor suggested. The laughter began to fade away, replaced by the noise of afternoon traffic and tree-cloaked birds. At the moment he was supposed to have been pushed down, something struck his left cheek, and woke him up.
“What the hell?”
The nightmare faded; the world was back. Traffic whizzed by as the wind bent the treetops. Shadows bled everywhere like motor oil on a white cloth.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Anthony said. “I usually don’t do this kind of thing in front of a beautiful woman such as yourself.”
“You think I’m beautiful?” The woman asked, her eyes dazzled by the sun. “My boyfriend tells me I look like a roast with a pink ribbon around it.”
“Forget him. Can I make it up to you? Take you out to dinner tonight, my treat.”
Blushing like a schoolgirl, she said, “Okay. But I don’t know your name.”
“Anthony.”
“Trisha. You know like Trisha Yearwood. I’m a tax—.”
“I like country music, too.”
They exchanged phone numbers and set a date for tonight at seven-thirty.

3

IT didn’t take him long to get Trisha back to the house, via sleep aid. Getting her into the house was a different story altogether. Instead of escorting her through the threshold like a newlywed couple, he dragged her into the house by her arms and shut the door before anyone else saw him. He stripped off her dress, a floral affair this time, and hooked her up to his latest contraption; she was so heavy she would’ve pulled the hooks out of the ceiling before he had a chance to give her the dice. He opened the skinny contraption, set her inside and locked everything into place.
The date had gone off without a hitch. They chose a fancy Italian restaurant. He ordered the chicken parmesan and she ordered the fettuccine Alfredo with stuffed crabs. Although he’d ate until he was comfortably full, there was nothing stopping her. He waited until she got up to use the bathroom before dropping the pill into her Diet Coke.
He’d chose a booth in the back as not to attract any witnesses. He slipped the ruptured pill packet into his pocket as she came back to the table. She asked him what it was; he told her it was his heartburn medicine. She insisted, if he felt that bad, they could get everything to go and go back to his place. He said he was fine and insisted that she finish her meal.
After the stuffed crabs, she became groggy. She blinked her eyes, as if she were fighting sleep. He paid the check, got their food to go and carried her out to the car. He drove around until the pills took full effect, giving them plenty of time to get ready.
When she opened her eyes, Trisha looked aimlessly around the room. Anthony was standing in front of her, wearing his trademark butcher’s apron. Tears slid down her cheeks as the leather straps of his latest contraption pressed into her pasty white flesh like bread dough wrapped in a thong.
“Wake up, sleepyhead. This won’t take long, I’m sure. No wonder your boyfriend doesn’t find you attractive. I damn near pulled a muscle gettin’ your fat ass in here.”
She closed her eyes and cried, her sobs muffled by the rag in her mouth. Her arms hung down from the straps like two dead weights. She fought against the straps, whipping her hair this way and that. He grabbed her shoulders and held her in place.
“It’ll only hurt if you fight it. This is something of my own design I like to call, The Peeler. You see, you’re being held by the straps in an upright position. The blades on all sides of you are going to peel your skin off like an onion. Don’t be afraid, though. I’m giving you a chance to save your life, Trisha. It’s okay if you don’t want to talk. I know I wouldn’t. If you roll an odd number, you live. If you roll snake eyes, you die. Your fate is in your hands.”
He put the dice in her hands and smiled. She took the dice and rolled them across the floor. They struck the wall and rolled into place; their heartbeats drowning out the sound of the dice tapping together. She bit her lower lip, muffling her cries. Looking at the two dots staring back at her, she squeezed her eyes shut as if suppressing the image of the dice. A sound of applause echoed in Anthony’s ears like the sound of a television audience.
They were praising him for a job well done. The dragging, the lifting and the set up had finally paid off.
“Fate’s a bitch.” Anthony said, reaching over for the switch on the wall. “It was nice knowing—.”
A white light whipped across his vision; his head swiveled on his flaccid neck. The room spun on carousel legs and his legs buckled. His hand slid away from the switch and down the wall. On his hands and knees, his breath was hard. He tried to stick his fingers into the back of his throat to puke out the drug but his hand was too heavy to lift. He rolled over onto his back to see Trisha unlocking herself from the contraption and
stepping onto the floor.
“Sleep aids are for amateurs. I like the kind where you spray it on your clothes and all it takes is one whiff to put them down. My mamma didn’t raise no fool.” She said and kicked Anthony against the side of the head.

4
WHEN Anthony woke up, his arms had been pulled up over his head and his wrist had been tied to a hook embedded into the ceiling of a large wooden shack. Sunlight slipped through the cracks in the wall, laying gold neon across the dirt floor; the heat made his head greasy slick with sweat. The rope that bound his wrists rubbed harshly against his skin as if he were being dragged across carpet. He tried to wiggle free, but his efforts
were fruitless. Feeling the drug wear off, his head felt less painful and his vision cleared.
“It’ll only hurt if you fight it.” A familiar voice spoke from across the room.
Something clicked and a harsh fluorescent light lit up the shack. Trisha walked across the room, wearing nothing but a plastic apron and a pair of goggles. She came to the left side of the room, pulled back an old army blanket and revealed an array of tools sitting on a dirty Formica folding table. There were several knives, saws—both handheld and electric—a comb, a can of oil, two scalpels, a pair of shears, wire cutters, a small pair of scissors, tweezers, three different kinds of needles and a claw hammer. She picked up one of the needles and examined it, letting the metal wink in the sunlight.
“I’ve got to admit,” She said, kneeling down in front of him. “you were easier than the others.”
“What others?”
Trisha walked past him and flipped a button. Brass-colored light filled the shack, winking off the tools sitting on the table. Anthony looked around and stopped.
Neatly arranged against the left-side wall, nestled inside tall glass containers, were six motionless young men. Some were cute; some wouldn’t have bagged a girl to save their life. She’d had them in neat order and frozen in different poses. The first one, a dark-haired fitness freak, was dressed in a dark-red football uniform minus the helmet. The one after that was in a golf uniform but the last one was what caught his attention.
A medium-built bald man with pale skin—with the name MELODY tattooed on his chest.
The only thing I regret is letting him get that tattoo of his mother’s name on his chest.
“Look, Trisha. I was just playing a little*.”
“Shhh!” She put her finger to her lips and asked. “Do you know how long it takes to learn a hobby? A lot of practice. A beginner like myself has to endure a lot of time and patience to make you look more life-like. Sometime you have to—.”
“I thought you said you were a tax attorney? You said something about tax—.”
“You never let me finish. I went to say taxidermist but you interrupted me.” Trisha replied. “Something you have to freeze the specimen and then remove the skin, which can be tanned and preserved for a later time, of course, that’s after all the important pieces are taken out like the liver, kidneys and other body parts.”
She stuffed a rag into his mouth and picked up the scalpels. His eyes swelled in surprise.
“I’m going to start with your legs and then go up from there.” She said, kneeling down in front of him. “It’s okay. I understand if you don’t want to talk. I’d do the same if I were in your shoes.”
She pushed the blade into his left leg, spraying blood across her apron and slid the scalpel down, peeling the skin clean away from the bone.

Bio: Brian J. Smith has been featured in E-Mails of the Dead, Book Of Cannibals 2: The Hunger, Pill Hill Press’ 365 Days of Flesh Fiction, Metahuman Press’ The Dead Walk Again and And The Nightmare Begins…Vol.1: The Horror Zine and such magazines as Dark Gothic Resurrected Magazine and New Voices In Fiction and such e-zines as The Horror Zine, Postcard Shorts, Thrillers Killers and Chillers, The Carnage Conservatory, The New Flesh and The Flash Fiction Offensive. He currently resides in Chauncey, Ohio with his mother, his brother the writer J.R. Smith and six dogs.

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Prisoners of the Ferikrakneh Imps by Mike Phillips

Jun 19 2016

While the faerie maidens danced, the stars shining like diamonds, the drifting snow melting on their hot cheeks, the Ferikrakneh were watching. It was months into winter, the snow having come early that year, and there was not yet sign that the weather was going to break. But the young faerie girls didn’t mind the cold and with the frozen hues of the northern skies as inspiration, they spun and dipped and laughed and enjoyed a night as joyous as any to be had during warmer times.

The Lynch sisters were away from home without permission, as they should not have been. For even though the faerie folk are enchanted and possess powers both wondrous and terrible, there were dangers in the world for which even they are sometimes unprepared. So it proved that night. As the girls danced, they were oblivious to those who watched and waited.

At the edge of the meadow, hidden by a branch that had broken under heavy snow and a violent winter wind, were the Ferikrakneh, a clan of barrow imps that lived on the far side of the valley where the shadows of the mountain linger until midday and the lands are little troubled by sun. The imps had come down to this place on a hunting expedition but in the cold night had found something that was even more to their liking than fresh meat.

“Look at her,” said Popna, the biggest and stupidest of the imps, pointing a crooked finger toward the girl Ann as she dipped and swayed with the wind. “That’s the one I want. She’s such a pretty little thing.”

“Shut your yappin’,” Kekna replied in harsh, whispered tones that could barely be heard over the whistling wind. He was the leader of the imps and was nearly as large an imp as Popna. Neither was much taller than the faeries they watched. “You’re going to give us away.”

“Oh, what you worried about?” said Popna in return, pulling about him a sort of coat that was roughly fashioned from the tail of a black squirrel. He rose to his full height to show he was taller than, and not at all afraid of, his master. Tightening the rope that held the coat at his middle, he said, “We got enough boys to take care of them.”

“Not enough to be sure,” Kekna corrected him, bristling. He looked out across the meadow, watching for the secret signs his people would give when everything was ready. “Not if we want to catch them all.”

“I don’t care about the rest of them, just her.” Popna said, licking his teeth with a long, green tongue.

Kekna said angrily, “Use you head for a change, will you? If we don’t get them all the rest will go for help, and then we’ll be in quite a fix.”

“But someone’s got to come looking for them sooner or later,” Popna said, incredulous, heedless of the warnings for quiet.

Cooling his anger, Kekna petted his own coat, of no better craft than Popna’s, but it was made of mink and Kekna took special pride at having bettered such a worthy adversary. “And the later it is the better for us. A storm’s blowing up and we got to get them home safe before anyone comes or we’re done for.”

“Not me,” Popna said, flexing his broad chest, showing a hint of the armor he wore, a hauberk made from the bones of his victims. He hefted a club with spikes in the end onto his shoulder, spinning the weapon in a show of skill.

“Shut up, the others are almost in place. We got to get this right. All or nothing, that’s how it’s got to be.” Kekna tested the knots of a net, tightening each in turn as he waited nervously for the rest of his band to give the signal. Soon he saw the first sign, then one by one the other signs were given. Smiling to himself, Kekna finished with the net and tucked it into his belt.

Then from a pocket in his coat, Kekna brought out a small, stone jar. Removing the stopper with his teeth, he dipped the tip of a long needle inside. “Here’s the dart,” he said, handing it to Popna, “get ready, the sleeping poison has to be wet to work.” He had given a small portion of the stuff to the others, and at the given sign, they would all let their missiles fly.

Popna set down his club and took up a piece of reed, long as he was tall. Carefully sliding the dart into the tube, he raised it to his mouth, sighting in his intended victim.

“Wait,” Kekna said, putting his hand to the reed.

“Yes,” said Popna, wickedly, “a little something extra for luck, that’s good.”

When Kekna was born, the first finger on his right hand had been black and misshapen. In time, Kekna had discovered that his finger was magic and that it could be used for the working of evil spells. Now, with the broken claw of his magic finger, Kekna inscribed upon the reed wicked signs that glowed red and then faded as the curse settled. Giving the signal to the others, he shouted, “Now!”

#

On the evening side of the valley, at the crest of a rocky peak, lived an old oak tree. The tree had grown and flourished in the spot for nearly two centuries. Its limbs were long and thick and it had an inner strength born of years in the cruel mountain wind. One of the limbs of this venerable tree held a curious sort of silver spyglass with a rainbow colored lens. The spyglass was mounted on a tripod and pointed toward the heavens. Nearby there was a little bed, perfectly flat and secure in the crook of the limb.

The bed was placed so that the trunk of the old tree would block the wind, and even though a blizzard had come up hard during the night, the bed had been very little disturbed by the storm. The bed was plain, with a box frame and four short posts. The only adornments were some elegant carvings at the headboard, grape leaves with veins as delicate as the tracings of mouse tails on a dusty shelf. The mattress was thick and comfortable, made with the feathers from cygnets still as gray as the winter sky. A down comforter dressed the mattress, white and lacy, and also undisturbed by the weather. Upon the bed slept a little man.

The man was neatly tucked between white sheets, and looked almost like a doll would look to a human child on Christmas morning, quiet and happy beneath the tree. He had dark brown hair and fair skin, and as he slept his face looked as perfect and peaceful as any doll on such a blessed and magical morning.

With some difficulty due to the storm, a faerie man flew up to the bed, his wings flapping wildly in the violent wind, until he finally took hold of the limb and pulled himself to rights upon it. As he stood, the faerie man pulled up a belt that supported a bulging stomach and straightened a heavy bag of tools that was slung round his shoulder.

Satisfied with the condition of his most prized possessions, Danny Gorman marched toward the little bed, kicking snow from the branch as he went. When he had gotten to the head of the bed, having made his way to the spot only with the use of some his faerie craft of dexterity and a flap or two of his wings to keep him steady, he was surprised to find that the man in the bed was still asleep.

“I was loud enough to wake the dead for goodness sake,” Danny said to himself with a sigh. “But if I know my Patrick, he will have spent the whole night up here, though what he could have been up to I have no idea, to be sure.”

Danny gave Patrick Donegal a little shake, saying, “Patrick? Wake up, Patrick.” The little man on the bed only turned over in his sleep, mumbling something that Danny couldn’t make out.

“Come on, wake up. It’s me, Danny.” Still there was no reply. Thinking of the desperate nature of his errand, Danny fixed the belt about his middle once again and shouted, “Wake up!”

Patrick woke with a start. Such was the violence with which he popped out of bed that he didn’t notice that his feet settled on nothing but air at the bedside. Before Danny could do anything to save him, down Patrick fell into the snowdrift below; for even though Patrick was himself one of the faerie folk, he had lost his wings in a terrible accident long ago.

“Patrick, oh Patrick,” said Danny as he raced down to the snowdrift, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to drop you.”

“Goodness!” Patrick said in disgust, pulling himself out of the drift and onto the snow, standing as firmly as if he were upon solid ground. He gave Danny a sidelong glance and proceeded to dust his night clothes off as best he could.

“Hey, that’s a neat trick, on top of the snow like that,” Danny said appreciatively, taking refuge on the tree. “Can you teach me how to do that? Is it hard to learn?”

His temper already beginning to fade, Patrick replied, “Not so hard once you get the knack. We’re faerie folk, after all. This is the sort of thing we can do if we set ourselves to the task of learning how.”

Looking down toward his feet, adjusting his stance on the thick bark, Danny cleared his throat roughly and said, “Ah, no. You’re an unusually gifted man, to be sure.”

“Uh oh, that sounds like trouble.”

“What? No worries, laddy.”

“Don’t laddy me, Danny. What’s the problem?”

“No problem at all,” Danny said in shock and dismay. “I just come out to see how you were doing this morning. That’s all.”

“Really? All this way? And how did you know to find me here?”

“Well, you see, I was out with a few of the lads down at the Cornflower Inn last night and Misses Malone happened to mention to me that she sent that butler of hers all the way out here with a late supper for you last night. So, I thought as though I’d come all the way out here and have a nice, quiet talk like we haven’t had for such a long time. You really don’t get around as much as you used to now that you have these,” he waved a hand at the spyglass above, “astrological-type observations of yours to take care of. All those moons and planets and constellations and whatnot taking up your time so you hardly have a chance to come and have a cup or two with your dear old friends anymore.” Flustered and having lost his place in the conversation, Danny crossed his arms and shut his mouth tight.

While Danny spoke, Patrick had been nodding suspiciously. After having listened to the explanation, he said, “All right, out with it. I know something’s going on and you might as well have your say. I won’t have a moment’s peace otherwise.”

“Well, now that you mention it,” Danny said, glancing over to Patrick with a shrug, his cheeks flushing red, “there are some folks that could sure use your help.”

“I knew it!” Patrick said. Danny opened his mouth wide in surprise, but Patrick put up his hands defensively and said, “No, none of that. Just go on. Say whatever it is you came to say.”

“Patrick, I know that you’re retired and that you probably have all kinds of other, very important, kind-of things that you do with your time,” Danny said apologetically, “but that worthless sheriff’s called it all off due to the weather!”

“What?” said Patrick, mystified. “Called what off?”

“Why, the Lynch girls, Patrick, at least four of them anyway, are missing. That little spitfire Kelly got away.” Exasperated, Danny added, “Haven’t you heard?”

“Well, no,” Patrick said weakly, gesturing toward the bed in way of explanation.

“Why, no doubt them ferret-cranky-imp fellows on the east slope got ‘em bound up in some nasty rock pile and that yellow bellied sheriff won’t even try to go after them because of the blow.”

Looking up and around, Patrick said, “Yes, it is quite a storm.” He clapped his hands and the bed and spyglass disappeared. With another clap, an armoire appeared in front of him, settled perfectly upon the snow.

“So you’re going to help?”

“Well, I can’t just let them suffer,” Patrick said as he opened the armoire, a row of identical, dark green suits hanging neatly in a row before him. Patrick chose one and hung it on a hook on the inside of the door. He inspected the suit thoughtfully and then clapped his hands once more. The suit was fitted upon him. The night clothes were neatly folded on the bottom shelf.

“Somehow I thought you’d take a might more convincing.”

“Nonsense, those girls are cousins on my mother’s side. I’m surprised no one came for me sooner.” Danny grunted and Patrick said, “Oh, yes, well, anyway, if you can show me where they were abducted, we can get started after them.”

Danny looked down to his feet again. “Well, I have to get to work, you know, got to make a living.” He tapped his tool bag affectionately and said, “I’m carving a bit of vine into that new alcove at the church.”

Brushing his dark hair in front of the mirror, Patrick stopped suddenly and said, “Goodness! Shame on you, Danny. What would Father Thomas say about that?” Finished grooming, he retrieved his walking stick from the armoire, a carved Hawthorne spike with a silver head, and closed the doors.

“Oh, all right, I can take you down there, but then I got to go.”

Patrick clapped his hands and the armoire disappeared. “Flying is going to give us trouble and there isn’t time to teach you how to walk on the snow, so I’ll have to hold your hand as we run.”

“What?” said Danny, swallowing hard. “Me, run all that way?”

“Certainly, it might even do you some good,” Patrick said.

“If the Good Lord had meant faeries to run, He wouldn’t have given us wings.” Danny nodded deferentially toward Patrick saying, “Begging your pardon, of course.”

“Yes, yes that’s all very funny to be sure. By the by, you didn’t happen to bring a spot of breakfast with you?”

Danny’s face colored and he bit his lip. “Ah, no.”

“So Misses Malone didn’t give you a few of her famous sticky buns to share with a man who spent the entire night out in the cold?” Patrick said, smiling.

Danny reluctantly pulled a packet of waxed paper from his tool bag and handed it over. “All right, there you go. I was saving that for my lunch.”

“Thank you,” Patrick said, holding up the pastry like a prize won at the county fair before shoving it into his mouth. “A man needs his strength.”

#

The wind blew fiercely through the hardwoods as they ran, Danny’s bag of tools clanking dully like cowbells, his stomach bulging comically as he tried to keep up. Even still, they made good time as they ran, due in part to their faerie craft of speed and in part to the fact that they were going steeply downhill.

“Here it is,” Danny finally announced as they came to the spot where the girls had been taken captive.

“Good, thank you,” Patrick said, releasing Danny’s hand. Shocked at the swiftness with which he began to plummet into the snow, Danny gave a sort of panicked scream. Patrick casually grabbed him by the arm and set him on top of the drift next to him, saying, “Yes, you will have to use your wings again unless you want to end up at the bottom, not that it wouldn’t make us even for this morning.”

Though with difficulty, Danny did manage to maintain his position by the frantic beating of his wings. “Oh, come on now Patrick, that’s not like you to hold a grudge.”

Stepping toward the center of the meadow, Patrick put his walking stick under his arm and retrieved the spyglass from the breast pocket of his jacket. Flipping open the spyglass, he began inspecting the meadow, the trees that surrounded it, and then an invisible line across the valley and up the mountains on the far side. “Got you,” Patrick said to himself.

“I don’t know how you can see anything with all the snowin’ and blowin’ that’s been going on.”

“Let’s take a look from the rocks over there. You think you can make it by yourself?”

“I’ll do my best, but I thought that since you’ve got it all figured out that I’d be on my way. Got that carving to do, remember?”

“Yes, but stay a while, would you? I shan’t keep you long.”

When they were safely upon the rocks, Patrick produced a violin. It was made of dark wood and the strings were of silver. Upon the violin he played a long, sad melody, somehow reminiscent of wolves howling in the light of the moon. It wasn’t long before the melody was answered by the cry of a real wolf, a great, shaggy, gray monster of a male running at full speed into the meadow. Patrick put the violin away and ran down over the snow to meet it.

“That’s the way!” Danny shouted excitedly. “I knew you wouldn’t let a silly thing like a snowstorm stop you.”

In the center of the meadow the two met, neither slowing as Patrick took hold of the long fur above the paw on the wolf’s front leg. Off the wolf ran like a streak, right toward the rocks where Danny hovered, Patrick hanging on with one hand as they went.

Danny exclaimed, “Good going Patrick, you go get…” but he never finished what he was saying, for as he and the wolf passed by, Patrick grabbed Danny by the shirt collar and brought him along.

“What? Let me go,” Danny protested as he thrashed wildly to get free.

Patrick gave him a few good shakes, saying, “Calm down, Danny, I need you to come with me. I need your help.”

“But I’ve got work to do.”

“Nonsense, you wouldn’t leave me to face those imps by myself, would you? There must have been quite a lot of them to catch four faerie girls full of mischief, probably a witch or two amongst them too, don’t you think? I can’t take care of all that without help.”

Danny was quiet for a long time. Finally, he said, “Oh, well now, I didn’t think of it like that. Sorry, Patrick, I’ll give you a hand if mine are any good.”

“You’ll do just fine, I’m sure.” With that, Patrick gave Danny a light flip, landing him smartly onto the wolf’s back. With a little climbing, he came there himself, and they were off.

#

“That will be the spot,” Patrick said, putting the spyglass back into his pocket. They had traveled until the gray sky began to fade. Darkness was beginning to settle about the land. The air had grown even colder and the wind and snow came harder as the day progressed. He whispered something to the wolf, and they stopped. Giving the animal an affectionate pat on the head, he said, “Home with you now. You have pups to look after and no business with the troubles here.”

Off the wolf ran, leaving Danny and Patrick alone behind a thicket of lilac, stripped bare of leaves, its bones pointing toward the darkening sky. Danny said, “Why did you send him away? A magnificent beast like that would have scared the gooseberries out of them.”

“It’s not his fight,” Patrick said, carefully smoothing the wrinkles from his jacket. “Besides, they’ll be down in those barrows and there’s not much a wolf can do about that.”

The faeries made their way behind a clump of tall grass not yet wholly disfigured from the raging storm and they watched the heap of stones beneath which the Ferikrakneh imps had made their home. The spyglass to his eye, Patrick said to Danny, “It looks quiet but there are two guards up there. Even if we use our faerie craft to make ourselves invisible, this storm is sure to give us away.”

“So what are we going to do?”

“In a quarter of an hour, the evening meal will be brought to them. When their grog is being poured, the man will slip and break the jug. In the confusion we should be able to get into that near tunnel undetected.”

“But how do you know that?” insisted Danny.

Patrick lifted the spyglass, “This shows me what will happen.”

“Then what did you see in the meadow?”

“It also shows me what has happened.”

Interested and much impressed, Danny asked, “Oh, and how’s it work?”

Patrick gave a wink and a nod in reply, saying, “Faerie magic.” He folded the spyglass and put it into his pocket and said, “You’ll have to keep a firm hold on the tail of my jacket so we don’t get separated in there. Take my hand now. Be ready.”

Just as predicted, the accident occurred. The two guards jumped up insulted and angry at having been splashed with the foul smelling drink. Patrick and Danny quickly treaded the distance from the clump of grass to hole at the foot of the barrow. Safely inside, the storm that would have given them up soon covered what little signs were left of their passing.

The tunnel was low and roughly made and in several spots had caved in, though now that the winter had come, it was solid if not entirely safe. Along with the fallen soil, there was a general clutter on the floor, old bones, stones, sticks, hair, half burned logs, but Patrick and Danny were able to make their way quickly enough, and by using their faerie craft of invisibility they were unmolested by the few imps who passed them by. They came to a wide chamber, lit with torches, with a human skull at the far end. In an eye socket a guard slept, the jawbone raised as the gate.

“Ugh,” Danny said, unable to hide his disgust, “how horrible.”

Patrick said, “Don’t let it frighten you. The kings of men were buried here. They believed that the end of the world would come with the setting sun and so they were put here to watch and wait. The fashion as I understand it has changed, and so now, when they have a proper burial, men face the east.”

“Still, how are we to get through?”

After a thorough inspection of the chamber, Patrick pulled a lever that was hidden in a dark corner and the jaw lowered, allowing them passage over sharpened teeth. “Come on, but careful,” Patrick said in a whisper, leading the way.

It was nearly an hour later when they found what they sought, a room deep within the barrow. A foul smell preceded their steps as they neared it. The heavy, wooden door was wide open and there was the red glow of firelight from within. Patrick kept to the wall as he crept closer to the door, leading Danny over the littered floor.

“How much longer?” the deep, rough voice of Popna complained.

Kekna replied, “Just a few more ingredients, all at the proper time, and the potion will be done. Have something to eat and leave me to my work.”

“And let you start the fun without me, not likely. What we got to do all this for anyway? You marked them, didn’t you?”

“Yes, but the mark’s not good enough. The mark’s not permanent,” Kekna said. “The potion will take all the fight out of them. We don’t want them remembering any of their faerie tricks, do we now?”

“I don’t see why all the fuss for just one. Why don’t you let me get at her?” said Popna silkily. “It’ll be all right.”

“An angry faerie is a terrible thing. She’d free the others before you could blink twice and then there’d be real trouble.”

As the imps spoke, Patrick and Danny came to the verge of the doorway. Inside they saw all manner of smoking beakers, bubbling flasks, and a single cauldron of black iron boiling upon a raging fire. The Lynch girls were chained against the far wall and looked as though they were sleeping peacefully. The larger of the two imps was carefully sniffing each of them, while the other was bent over the cauldron, stirring the mixture and adding ingredients as his art required.

Easing himself into the room, Patrick saw the strange symbol on each girl’s forehead and understood what must be done to thwart the magics that held them there. Danny followed, but his feet were not so used to walking, nor were they so nimble, and he kicked a heavy clod of dirt as he went. The clod broke into pieces, rolling a short distance into the room before coming to rest.

“What was that?” said the sharp eared Kekna in alarm, sweeping his blacked finger toward the noise. Patrick felt dark magic taking hold of him, but turned it away. Danny grew instantly visible. Kekna shouted, “There he is!”

“I’ll get him,” Popna said, grabbing his spiked club and racing toward the spot where Danny stood, dumbfounded.

Kekna drew a circle in the air and with a flick of his finger, tossed a ball of red fire toward Danny. Patrick reappeared, and with the silver head of his walking stick, swept the fireball into the chest of the unlucky Popna. The tall imp cried in agony as his entire body burst into flame. A flash of silver light streaked across the room. Kekna yelped in pain and grasped the stump of an arm, black blood gushing, the hand that held the magic finger neatly severed.

“Danny! Goodness me, what a shot,” Patrick said, walking over to the wounded imp. He flicked some of his dust into the imp’s face, sending him to sleep, then sent a bit more onto his hand, healing the wound. He said, “Well, that should leech the bad magic out of him. He’s going to have to find a new line of work, I’m afraid.”

“Better than what happened to his friend,” Danny said, stepping gingerly around the still burning corpse.

“Wow, that’s amazing how you threw that long, pointy, sharp sort of…”

“They call that an axe, hot shot,” Danny said with wink and a nod. “And I use it so rarely that I’ve thought to leave it home on more than one occasion. I’m a detail man, you know, leave the rough work to the young ones.”

“It has earned its place now.”

“I should say so.”

There was a book on a rude stand near the cauldron. Polishing the head of his walking stick with a lace handkerchief, Patrick studied its pages with a frown and, with a flick of faerie dust, burned the evil thing to a cinder.

“Now for the girls,” he said, releasing his dust in a broad arc. The mark on the girl’s foreheads disappeared, their chains fell away. In moments, they began to awake.

“Yes, good to see you unharmed,” Patrick said with a laugh, the starlight in his eyes shining brightly. “We took care of two of them for you, but you may have the others if you like. Might I suggest something in a nice shade of toad?”

Author Bio:     Mike Phillips is the author of Reign of the Nightmare Prince and the soon to be released The World Below: Chronicles of the Goblin King Book One. His short stories have appeared in ParABnormal Digest, Cemetery Moon, Sinister Tales, The Big Book of New Short Horror, World of Myth, Dark Horizons, Mystic Signals and many others. Online, his work has appeared in Darker, Lorelei Signal, Midnight Times, and Fringe. He is best known for his Crow Witch and Patrick Donegal series.

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Terminal By Sean Hallinan

Jun 12 2016

There should be more fanfare about this, Eric thought, as he looked down at the terminal. It was late, the staff had gone home. The download had taken longer that he had expected. All that knowledge, he thought, and a big personality to boot. He could wait until tomorrow, when he could show his colleagues. Better yet, he could call the donors, make a big demonstration. But he knew he wouldn’t wait. He had completed the project. His life’s work. Apotheosis.

The cursor was blinking expectantly:

23:28 profmarkson@brainsim-lab:$

The coffee pot still had some coffee left in it. This was going to happen. Eric began typing.

23:28 profmarkson@brainsim-lab:$ ./brainsimulation ~/models/Paul.Roberts/10.14.2032

Let there be life, he thought.

 

Months earlier:

Paul took a macabre enjoyment out of watching the reactions of visitors to his devastated body. He started with the mouth. Only a few dropped open in surprise, most only turned into a hard line, or maybe a slight tremor. Next the nose: would it wrinkle in disgust, either at the antisepsis of the hospital or the sight before them? Or would it be the flaring of a sharp intake of breath, the surprise at seeing the dark transformation that had occurred.

The eyes, as they always did, were the tellers of the true story. Would their eyes dart down, taking in his emaciated frame, the outline still visible under the thin hospital sheet? Would their eyes only flash over him before finding something else in the room to lock onto, maybe the window or the flowers his nurse kept fresh on the side of the bed. Some even glanced at his exposed arm, at the digital tattoo that to informed eyes told the story of a battle being fought and lost within the bloodstream. Most often, they would look Paul straight in the eye, unable or unwilling to look away from the last remaining part of him that still flashed with life, with the insight and intelligence that had defined his career.

Paul knew this was not a typical visit when he saw his guest’s mouth turn up slightly at the corners. Not happiness, at least not overtly. More satisfaction. And his eyes, how they brightened. Could that be hope? An emotion Paul had not felt or seen since August 24th, the day the outlook had changed from desperate to something worse, the word he still struggled with: terminal.

“It’s good to see you, Paul.”  Eric said, his features shifting into a more studied expression: happiness at seeing his old friend with the smile, concern and sympathy with the knotted brow.

“Been a while.” Paul said, his expression mostly the same as it had been the last 3 weeks: exhaustion, with frequent visits from grimaces of pain. “I didn’t expect to see you.”

“Well, it looks like you’ve heard from just about everyone else.” Eric said, his eyes taking in the sloppy pile of get well cards, some still showing frozen images of well-wishers caught mid-pleasantry, before landing on one, a hand written note on yellow lined paper. “Wow, even Dr. Raleigh. You still keep in touch with him?”

“He kept in touch with me,” Paul said. “Or at least my work.”

“Well, he should. You’ve managed to debunk two of his books.” Eric said.

“Couldn’t quite make the hat trick.” Paul said.

Eric acknowledged the joke, if it could be called that, with a smile but it hung heavily in the air between them until Paul gestured to the seat next the bed and asked, “Can you stay for a bit?”

Eric nodded, sliding into the chair next to the door, rather than the one Paul was motioning towards. The easier to leave, a mostly vestigial therapist’s instinct told Paul, he wants to be able to make a clean exit. The researcher’s mind chided the therapist’s for being uncharitable, but the impression stuck.

Never a therapist himself, Eric found himself struggling to think of what to say next. Paul knew the value of silence, knew that his old friend had something to say. Strangely, with his clock ticking down so rapidly, Paul had found a surprising supply of patience. Maybe it was the knowledge that he was done. He’d written his last article, counseled his last client, ran his last study. Now there was nothing to do but wait.

“Paul, I’m here because I’m wondering if you could help me with something.”  Eric blurted, knowing that tact and salesmanship would be wasted on Paul. “With a study that I’m working on.”

Paul’s eyes narrowed, though Eric couldn’t tell if it was in reaction to the request or in pain. Probably both, he thought.

“What’s the study?”

Paul could tell it was the opening Eric was looking for. He smile became that much more legitimate, his posture straightened. Now, Paul saw the Eric that review boards and potential donors saw. Eric, for his part, began the pitch.

“How would you like to live forever?”

 

Paul awoke to a nightmare. A common kind, one immediately recognizable to a veteran therapist: he was floating in darkness, without sensation, unable to open his eyes or move any part of his body. Paul knew that this sort of nightmare was associated with being overwhelmed by a situation, feeling powerless against it. I did just die, he thought.

The realization was immediate. It worked, warred with, I died, for Paul’s attention. He didn’t feel afraid. Nor did he feel elated. How could he? Can fear exist without a heart to beat faster, without a stomach to drop? It was more an awareness that these were feelings that should be happening, that would happen normally.

He had died, had been born again with eternal life, and felt nothing.

 

Years before:

The night started with a shot of tequila, hastily poured and slapped into a surprised Paul’s hand.

“I got in.” Eric announced, a grin nearly splitting his face. “We’re doing shots.”

Paul glanced at the letter Eric was cradling like a newborn, and spied the logo on the corner. “Caltech? You’re kidding!”

“Don’t act so surprised.” Eric said, his brow furrowing in mock anger.

“I’m not suprised you got in, I’m surprised you’re wasting this opportunity on Cuervo.” Paul tossed the tequila into his mouth. “We..” he began, the first word coming out in a strangled croak. “Should crack open the Maker’s Mark for this.”

Paul had not yet honed his insight, his talent for spotting discrepancies, so it wasn’t until the Maker’s Mark had been well and truly “cracked open” that he thought to ask. “Caltech has a psychology program?”

Eric, who now reclined on the battered and stained couch that had served as his bed after many a late study night at Paul’s apartment, glanced down at the letter that now lay strewn across the coffee table. “I didn’t apply for the psychology department.” He said. “I applied for computer science.”

Paul had to process for a moment before exclaiming, “What the hell do you know about computer science?”

“I know enough that I’m not lonely on Friday nights when I don’t have a date.” He said, “And I can tell the difference between Facebook and Myspace.”

“That’s enough to get into a PhD program in Caltech? Shit, I should have applied.” Paul said. “What are you even studying?”

“Same thing I’m studying now, the mind.” Eric said, looking as smug as only a newly anointed PhD candidate could.

Paul groaned. “Good god, you’re going to be one of those people using computers as a metaphor for brains? Hard drives as long term memory, RAM as short term memory, that kind of thing?”

Eric picked up the nearly empty bottle of whiskey and peered at it before replying. “A.I.”

“Come on.”

“I’m serious. The thesis I proposed deals with modeling the neural connections of a human brain in a computer simulation.”

“You’re downgrading,” Paul declared. “You’re going from studying a true thinking apparatus to something that is one thousand times less powerful. You’ll be on your deathbed before you even have the technology to model a chimp.”

“Wrong,” Eric said, “Computers are 5 years from overtaking the processing power of a human brain, maybe less.”

“Processing, fine, sure. The calculator on my phone can answer math problems quicker than I can. Does that make it smarter than me?”

“If you think of a mind as an intensely inefficient and inaccurate arithmetic calculator, then yes.”

Paul and Eric were both at that fragile intersection between drunkenness and sobriety where many academics will say the greatest theoretical work is done. A magic point where inhibitions were lowered, assumptions questioned, wits still mostly sharp.

“Think about a brain,” Eric continued. “Reduce it to nothing more than it’s basic component, a neuron. A single cell, its only function to carry an electric charge. At any given moment, every thought you have and impulse your brain processes are carried by billions of neurons, which are each either on,” Eric raised a single finger, “or off.” Now the finger and thumb formed an O. “Billions upon billions of 1s and 0s.”

“Are you talking about binary code?” Paul asked.

“The basic language of any computer, be it the one you have on your desk or the one you keep in your skull.”

“Alright,” Paul said, “but here’s the problem. A computer might run on binary, do billions or trillions or whatever of calculations per second. Your brain, on the other hand, has billions of neurons that are either 1s or 0s at the same time. It’s the difference between serial processing,” Paul grabbed a pen out of his pocket and started writing a meaningless stream of binary on the cover of an empty pizza box that was sitting on the coffee table: 01011010101101010. “And parallel processing.” Now he wrote binary in several layers:

0101001011

0110010011

0110101101

“Only a billion times over, and at the same time. That’s the difference between us and a pocket calculator. It can count up those 1s and 0s faster but we can take in information from our eyes, our ears, our memories, our creativity, and still do calculations all at once without even knowing we’re doing it.” Paul leaned back on the couch, knowing as he did that he was having an argument in Eric’s home court.

“You’re right, of course” Eric said, “But what if I took a billion pocket calculators and put them together?”

Paul looked incredulous. “Is that what you put in your research proposal? A billion calculators?”

“More or less. Talked about how increased processing speed can overcome parallel deficits, a single processor can do multiple calculations before the ‘brain’ takes another incremental step forward, that sort of thing.”

“Well I for one welcome our new robot overlords.” Paul said, raising his glass and downing the contents, which by this point was comprised of formerly frozen water with a whiskey flavor. “But what happened to counseling? What happened to helping people?”

Eric’s eyes were lighting up now. “Don’t you see the potential in this?”

“Sure, of course. Smart phones that are actually smart, ATMs that can hold a conversation, robots creating symphonies, everybody loses their job because machines are doing the thinking for all of us.”

Eric brushed away the comment with a wave of his hand. “I’m not talking about putting brains into phones. I’m talking about recreating a human mind, a real living person’s mind, in software. All of their memories, thoughts, experiences, capabilities, flaws, their whole personality.” Eric hesitated, then committed: “Their soul.”

“So you’re talking about modeling, with perfect accuracy, the brain. I’ll concede that for the sake of argument.” Paul said begrudgingly. “Let’s even take neurotransmitters and other brain chemistry as something you can model effectively. Assuming it is possible, isn’t there more to the mind than there is to the brain? Do you really think a soul can be reduced to 1s and 0s, no matter how many, and downloaded? Or is there something beyond the fatty lump of meat that we keep in our skulls that makes up the creativity and consciousness of a human being?”

Eric raised his hands, capitulating. “If I knew that, I’d probably have gotten a better stipend. And anywayl, that’s the beauty of doing the research. Those are the questions that we get to answer.”

Paul felt the liquor pushing him past the point of academic curiosity into the realm of spiritual serenity. “Well, good luck finding someone to fund that research. I mean, who would volunteer to have their soul maybe downloaded into a computer?”

“I think you’re missing the implication here.” Eric said, “So let me lay it out for you.

“How would you like to live forever?”

 

Darkness was too bright a word for Paul’s universe. Darkness is the absence of light, but what is the absence of eyes to see with? Ears to hear with? In this place, or this non-place, Creation had not happened. The Lord had proclaimed, Let there be light, and the universe had shouted back, NO!

Paul was not aware of how much time had past. He was only aware that it had been too much. Without days and nights, without even heartbeats, he had only his thoughts to measure time. It had been a wide threshold, the point when he could still believe that they would soon be connecting a video camera, or artificial eyes, or even somehow contacting him directly, wiring messages directly into his brain.. He wasn’t sure when he had stopped believing, but he was well past that now. Time was relative, all he knew was that it was too long.

Years, Paul thought, Years at least. Years in the most solitary confinement yet invented by science. Idly, Paul wondered if he could go mad. Hopefully, Paul thought, Insanity would be quite a relief.

He was not sad. Can there be sadness without eyes to cry?

 

Every lab technician and research assistant know that the first step once you’ve recruited a human subject is informed consent. The subject must be aware of what he is volunteering for to the greatest extent possible that will not compromise the study. All potential risks and benefits must be highlighted before the subject can agree to be part of the study. Most frequently, this is done by written contract.

Eric had explained the project, the study. Paul would be the first human being to be totally recorded and modeled in a computer system. It wasn’t true immortality, Eric had allowed. A fire could burn down the two story building that would house the massive computer system that was needed to run the simulation. There was the very real possibility that an organization, maybe religious zealots or some other activist philosophers, would take offense at the idea that a soul could be downloaded and try to sabotage the program. Even assuming no disasters, no computer system lives forever.

“But who knows at that point,” Eric had said. “Maybe computers will have advanced so much that you could be transferred into a smaller, more secure system. What I can guarantee is this.” He’d leaned forward, assuming a dominant position, his body making a command as his voice had phrased it as a request. “If you agree to this, you’ll outlast your body.”

Paul had begun to count his time left in days rather than decades. Eric told him to sleep on it, but Eric hadn’t made it to his car before he’d gotten a text: “I’ll do it.”

Two days later the contract was drawn up.

“Why do I feel like Dr. Faustus?” Paul asked, as he raised his bed into a sitting position. “There’s a table over there that slides over the bed.”

“Maybe because you haven’t seen an actual paper contract in 10 years? The review board insisted we be as legal as possible for this, but we’re really breaking new ground.” Eric said as he wheeled the table into the groove set in the bottom of the bed, snapping it into place.

“Maybe it’s because I’m literally signing ownership of my mind over to you in return for ultimate knowledge and eternal life.”

Eric had made a strong pitch. He had known his audience, know that Paul would see the implications, the ramifications even if he had tried to hide them. After all, as a former researcher himself Paul would know that the institution retained the ownership of all intellectual property that was created as a result of the study. In this case, that would include the simulated mind of Paul. Digital simulations of human beings do not have human rights.

“Per this contract, the institution is committing to extending your rights after your physical death. You will continue to have the full rights as a human subject, including self-determination. You will become an active participant in all decisions relating to the study, and you will be able to leave the study at any time. And Faust only got ultimate knowledge, never eternal life, so you’re getting a much better deal.”

“You mean my simulation will have those rights. I’ll be dead.” Paul said. This was not the first time he had made this distinction.

“It will be you, Paul.” Eric said, looking from the contract he had laid on the table to Paul’s eyes, his voice confident. “You’ll be the one inside that machine.”

“It will have my memories, maybe even my personality. But it’s a copy, not a transfer. My consciousness will end, and the simulation’s will begin. It won’t be this me, it’ll be the next me.”

“But that’s the beauty of it,” Eric said, his eyes still locked with Paul but now seeming to look through him, seeming to see the possibilities spreading before them both. “It will be a transfer. We’ll be recording the entirety of your brain activity at the very moment of death. Then that will be the starting point of the simulation. It’s like a brain transplant, only instead of the meat and fat of the brain, we’ll just be taking the electricity. For you, the physical you, there will be no damage. It’s a completely passive procedure. It’ll be no different from going under for surgery. At least until you wake up.”

Paul frowned. “If there’s no damage to my physical brain during the recording, it could be reanimated, at least if the cryogeneticists are to be believed. If there is a possibility that my brain could be functioning at the same time as the simulation, then it’s a copy, not a transfer. Ahh,” Paul said, holding his hand up as Eric appeared about to speak. “I said I’ll do it. I’ll do it. I’m just getting the particulars straight.”

Eric smiled, a legitimate smile. “My father once told me: once you’ve made the sale, stop selling. Plus, we’ll be able to reopen this argument once you… or your simulation… is up and running.”

Paul was leafing through the contract, seeing nothing that surprised him, nothing that Eric hadn’t already mentioned. He had been thorough. Exhaustive, that was the word. Paul was barely keeping his eyes open by this point. The conversation, though it had lasted barely over an hour, short even for an undergraduate lecture, was the longest Paul had been able to sustain in days. For what seemed like the millionth time, Paul thanked God that the sickness hadn’t affected his mind, though part of him wondered how God would feel about his actions now.

Eric watched Paul for what seemed like an eternity as he analyzed the contract. He couldn’t help but marvel at his luck, even as he hated himself for using that word, at finding such a perfect first subject for the study. A brilliant mind, still with years of productive work ahead of itself, but trapped in a failing body. A kind man as well, who’d devoted half his adult career to helping others before turning to hard science, to research. That he was an old friend, well, could it be called anything but luck?

Finally, Paul reached for the pen. But then he hesitated, his hand trembling over the line. “One question.” He said, his voice small.

“Of course.” Eric sad, trying not to show his excitement, verging on impatience.

“What will it feel like?”

Eric considered. “All the data that we have comes from animal studies, and of course they couldn’t tell us…” he began, then paused.

Paul watched him, knowing that he would continue.

Eric swallowed. “We know they each tried to stimulate their parasympathetic nervous system.”

“They were afraid.” Paul said.

“Well, they died.” Eric said. “As for what that will be like, well, you’re going to have to tell us.”

Paul signed on the dotted line.

 

 

Paul was no longer sure that the simulation had been a success.

He currently was entertaining two theories. Truthfully, he had constructed and dismissed with various degrees of uncertainty an untold amount of theories. He had had a surplus of time to ruminate. He wondered now, for the nth time, how many thoughts it was possible for a person to have.

Paul wondered if he had yet thought every thought it was possible to think.

Paul had decided on two likely possibilities. The first was one that Paul found unable to test. There was the possibility that he was in hell, and that his eternal torment was to be alone, without any sensation, any stimulus. Paul found this concept of hell to be a compelling one..

The second possibility had taken longer, due in part to the fact that Paul had remained largely unfamiliar with the underlying mechanisms of the simulation. Perhaps, Paul had thought, for thinking was all that remained to him, Perhaps the simulation is running too quickly.

A computer with a billion processors, all working simultaneously, in parallel, billions of times faster than a human neuron. An untold amount of time passing for Paul for each second that passed in the real world, the external world.

An untold amount of time before contact with anyone, anything. Minutes, hours, millenia hardly had any meaning to Paul anymore. Millenia then, perhaps. But not an eternity.

Maybe this wasn’t hell. Maybe there was hope.

But Paul didn’t hope. Can there be hope without a soul to believe?

 

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The Ghost of the Dragon by John Kaniecki

Jun 03 2016

Robert Unger laughed at the appearance of the ancient man. “Look at that old geezer,” he whispered barely audible into Anne’s ear. “How is he going to climb this mountainous trail?”
Anne of course politely smiled and nodded her head. Robert was a man of wit and practicality. He was also a flaming coward. How many times had her boyfriend shared cynicism privately with her while publicly showing the utmost respect. The young lady suspected that tonight would be no different.
“So you are the only two to sign up for the midnight tour are you?” The elderly man spoke as he leaned upon a heavy ornate staff. Anne couldn’t decide which was more intriguing their guide or his immense walking stick.
“Looks that way,” Unger said with a grand smile. “Just more ghost for the sterling,” he joked. Anne had to snicker. Her boyfriend always related things back to money. It was after all his god.
“Well just as well,” said the old man thoughtfully. Then he peered upon the heavens. “Lookie there we got ourselves a full moon too!”
“Does that matter?” Robert Unger asked puzzled.
“Oh come on Bobbie,” Anne shot out, “haven’t you read the brochure?”
Robert Unger responded with the silence of ignorance. His mouth began to form words but then he hesitated. As a manger of managers he hated to be at a loss for words. To him it showed that he was not in command. But tonight he reflected that he was simply taking some hokey tour about some ancient myth dealing with some unheard of phantom ghost.
“Aye it was on a night such as this that Sir Lance had done away with the grand beast, the wicked dragon named Carmile.” As the ancient tour guide spoke his words were flooded with the drama of a Shakespearean actor. Anne felt a chill down her spine and visibly shook. Was it fear or simply the chill of the night?
“Ghost stories are for children,” whispered Robert Unger rudely into Anne’s ear.
“Aye and children grow up to be men,” returned the tour guide showing extraordinary hearing. Especially for a withered man who had to be well into his seventies.
Robert Unger frowned fearing he offended the old man. The business executive was ruthless but all of his sabotage was conducted behind one’s back privately. To show courage was something beyond his capacity.
“Come along now,” encouraged the guide, “let’s begin. If our timing is just right we shall not only see the ghost of the Dragon Carmile but also of Sir Lance.”
Robert Unger couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the absurdity of that statement. Anne nudge him hard in the ribs prompting the businessman to shut down his mocking mouth.
Quickly up the path into the wooded area the old man hustled. He navigated at a very quick pace. Robert Unger found it very difficult to keep up the pace. Far too many donuts with his morning coffee and long hours at work preventing exercise had stifled his physical condition. Anne on the other hand attended a gym and was active in various aerobic exercises. Still she felt a little pressed by the quickness of the walk. On and on the couple trudged not desiring to lose sight of their tour guide. As Robert lagged behind Anne grasped him by the hand in encouragement and support. Finally the tour guide came to a stop.
When the happy couple had caught up to the old man Robert was panting with a heavy breath. The old man’s white hair seemed to glisten in the moon light. The place they were standing was on the side of the hill. The tour guide pointed with his withered finger in a direction. “From here you can see Castle Dunorp,” the man announced. “It was here that Sir Lance was signaled by a red flame in the tower that the Dragon Carmile was indeed spotted.” Then the guide paused. “From that moment on the brave knight proceeded with utmost caution.”
Robert and Anne peered down upon the castle. They had toured the vacant ruins previously during the day. It was nothing extraordinary but still quite charming. It was a doorway unto another time and age. One that the couple had very little knowledge of. “Look Anne,” cried out Robert motioning with his hand towards the castle. “In the tower window there’s actually a red light.”
Anne looked down and smiled. Robert smiled grandly too. When he made Anne happy he felt happy. “Why you’re pulling out all the stops for this tour aren’t you?” cried Robert Unger in excitement.
“Come along,” urged the white haired ancient creature, “there is still three more stops before we see the ghosts.” After uttering those words he turned with urgent speed onto the ascending trail. Excited Anne followed. Her hand still in Robert’s as she tugged her boyfriend along.
The pair walked through the wooded trail. The hill wasn’t as steep here and they found it easier to keep up with their tour guide. It was as a walk in another world to the young lovers. Robert and Anne came from South London. Accustomed to city life nature in and of itself was a rare pleasure. Now they were immersed into the wilderness. Added to that the darkness of the night. Shadows and foreign sounds from the deep peeped out creating a mysterious environment. All this adding to the drama of the potential of seeing not only one but two ghosts.
After traveling a good distance the couple caught up with their guide. He was standing on a rock ledge. Robert gazed out and saw that they had climbed a substantial amount of height. The castle below now seemed small. The ancient man stood on the edge of the stone outcrop. He was perilously close to falling as far as Robert was concerned. “What a fool,” whispered Robert into Anne’s ear.
“Indeed,” cried the old man, “Sir Lance was a fool!! Anyone desiring to fight the dreaded Dragon Carmile single handedly would be classified as such.”
Robert cringed when he heard these words. He lamented forgetting about the guide’s super sensitive hearing. Robert Unger vowed he would never make that mistake again. For some reason he feared the old man. Then again he feared most men. It was part of what made him so successful. Because he always felt threatened he always concocted some way to dispose of his foes.
“It was here that Sir Lance prayed to God for victory in the upcoming battle,” spoke the ancient man. “A shooting star from the heavens was the Lord’s answers.”
Anne grabbed Robert’s arm as she pointed up towards the sky. In excitement she stammered out her words. “Robert it’s a falling star!” Her spirit was baptized in awe about the event.
Robert Unger looked up into the heavens in disbelief. How did the tour guide manage that one? His mind came up with the logical solution. The businessman had to dismiss any notion of ghosts or spirituality for that matter. His was a world of science and logical reason and it had no time for such other worldly nonsense. Why the ancient man had to ad lib. First he spotted the star and then included it as part of his monologue. Robert felt better understanding the logical reason. Still that tour guide was one smooth trickster.
“There be two more spots before we see the ghosts,” called out the tour guide as he walked back from the cliff edge. Once more he was off into the wood trail that climbed along the side of the hill.
Robert and Anne walked hand in hand. They were really quite the opposites. Robert Unger was a business man with a reputation of being utterly ruthless. Anne was a school teacher known for her tenderhearted care of her pupils. The pair met by chance as they both entered a taxi at the same moment. Robert about to yell at the young lady ‘stealing’ his ride was overcome by her enchanting beauty. Anne being polite offered to leave the cab. When in a moments discussion they discovered that they were headed only a block apart they decided to share the ride. From that humble start a flourishing romance erupted.
The couple hastily followed the tour guide. However he fled ahead so fast that they lost sight of the ancient creature. Anne grew a little worried while Robert was close to panic. ‘How would they navigate down the hill alone?’ is stress filled mind asked. ‘Especially at dark?’
However the worry was for naught for as the couple turned a bend in the trail they promptly collided into the tour guide. He was standing along side the hill. His head was looking upwards to the heavens. “At this spot is where Sir Lance had his moment of doubt,” declared the ancient man. “The brave knight looked up and the blackness of the night discouraged him greatly. Still he found the courage in his heart to proceed.”
Anne and Robert on cue looked upward to the sky. They could see scarcely anything for as the ancient man had spoken the moon was indeed shrouded baring no light whatsoever. ‘Lucky timing’ reasoned Robert. Anne however simply smiled in delight fascinated by the adventure. Her hand affectionately squeezed her boyfriend’s.
Once more the ancient man was off to the races. “We have but one more visit before I shall show you the ghost of Sir Lance, and the ghost of the dragon Carmile.” The old man sped away as if he was in the prime of his youth. His withered hand swung his staff left and right gingerly. “Come along now, the timing is of utmost importance and we have a good distance to go.”
Robert and Anne quickly followed the leader. As they hustled along thoughts entered into their minds. The trip to northern Scotland and the visit to Castle Dunorp was all Robert Unger’s planning. It was his desire to take his beloved Anne to some secluded place to perhaps propose marriage. He was unsure about the whole affair to be perfectly honest. As a business executive his financial standings quite outranked those of a lowly school teacher. Still Anne was everything one could desire in a mate. She was physically attractive if not a stunning beauty. Anne possessed a great sense of humor and was easy to talk to. However the young lady was so serious about her career. Anne was a woman on a mission. It was her desire to save the world, one student at a time. A marriage without children just wouldn’t do. Anne would have to without a doubt sacrifice her career as a school teacher.
Robert Unger had gone as far as to purchase an engagement ring just in case. His cold calculating mind had not yet worked out completely the calculus of the situation. In his mid thirties he was acutely aware that his time was running out. Sweet Anne was a good eight years younger. Robert enjoyed having this doll of a lady dangling on his arm as he navigated social functions. Who wouldn’t want to be with such a gracious woman? But was she good enough for Robert Unger?
Anne was completely infatuated with Robert. He was considerate and paid much attention to her. While his personality was quite dry she had placed a confidence in him. When practicality came into her mind she realized the businessman would make an excellent provider. The major drawback was his dedication to his profession. It cut so much into his time that the couple really wasn’t a couple. To Anne she needed a man to be around. Still when Robert Unger was with her she felt she had one foot in heaven.
The couple hand in hand continued to walk upwards on the trail. There they caught up to their tour guide at the crescent of the trail. Ahead the trail descended with a rather steep angle. Robert was seriously short winded at this point. The whole journey up hill was quite tiring to the man. Anne too was a little weary but her exercising was paying off.
“Here is where Sir Lance spots the dragon Carmile,” announced the ancient guide.
Robert Unger let out a roaring laugh. Anne grimaced in disgust.
“What do you find funny sir?” hissed the guide.
“You told us that we would see not one, but two ghosts did you not?” asked the businessman.
“That is correct,” answered the old man sternly.
“But I see not two, nor one ghost, but zero.” There was no hiding the mocking in Robert Unger’s statement.
“Come let us journey to the bottom of the hill,” cried out the ancient man, “there I promise you shall see the ghosts.”
Robert shrugged his shoulder as all three proceeded down the hill. They walked at a leisurely pace. For some reason they were no longer in a hurry. The ancient man spoke. “You see all this serene bliss of nature?” He paused. “It is beautiful is it not?”
Anne smiled gregariously. “Beautiful is such an understatement,” she declared.
“Do you know some corporation wants to come here and build condominiums?” offered up the guide.
“Really,” Robert spoke his interest peaked. Whenever something financial was involved he needed to find out more. “Which one?”
“Does it really matter?” declared the ancient one, “they’re all the same.”
Robert wanted to contest such a broad offensive statement but lacked the courage to do so.
“Back in the days of Sir Lance courage was appreciated and honor was the conduct of the day,” a deep sorrow was emanating in the voice. “Today greed is the ruling force and it’s disciples nothing but scoundrels.”
Once more Robert bit his tongue. He dared not contradict the guide. Not even with a whisper. But perhaps later he would find a way to get him fired. Maybe to create some lie as how offensive he was. But he would do so after viewing the two ghosts, he thought mockingly.
Finally the couple and companion had reached to the bottom of the hill. There before them past the trees and brush was a pond. “Behold two ghosts,” spoke the ancient man.
“Ghosts!?!” cried out Robert Unger, “I see nothing but trees, night and a pond. Where are these ghosts?” And then paying homage to his god he spoke, “I’m going to demand my money back for this tour. No, better yet, double my money back to make up for the time you wasted.”
“What do you know of ghosts?” spoke the old man. There was no disguising the anger in his voice. Anne was growing fearful.
“I know enough not to listen to the babble of an old fool,” shot back Robert Unger. He was confident of his circumstance.
“Then come with me to the edge of the pond and indeed you shall see the two ghosts.”
“Nonsense,” replied Robert.
“You are afraid?” mocked the old man.
Robert replied not with words but by taking broad steps forward. The ancient one accompanied him to the pond. Suddenly the moon burst out from behind some clouds. The old man ‘s head was transfigured. His white hair glowed in the lunar beams making him appear much younger.
“Amazing!” cried out Robert, “how did you manage this trick?”
“What do you see?” asked Anne from a distance intensely curious.
“Before me is the image of a dragon in the pond and before the tour guide the image of a knight of old.”
The tour guide then rose up his staff and with a vicious blow smashed the head of Robert Unger. As the staff struck there was a loud crunching noise as the victim’s skull was crushed. The businessman collapsed to the ground as his legs crumpled under him.
Anne screamed in terror and fled into the night. She ran as if all hell was behind her. However after running a mile she looked at the field she traveled and saw there was no attempt of pursuit. She felt tempted to return to her love but feared for her life. It would be better to find somebody to bring him aide if his life could be salvaged.
Anne kept traveling in the field full of haste and distress. Her mind was in a whirl of sorrow as her love Robert was most likely dead. Why did the tour guide do such a wicked deed? Why? Why? Why? So much was the damsel in distress lost in her thoughts that she failed to notice that she had run upon a road. A car came from behind her with it’s headlights shining brilliant in the night. The vehicle was speeding along the path and Anne was directly in it’s way. In a last ditch effort the driver stepped upon the brakes of his car. The tires screeched as the automobile slowed to a stop, just inches before Anne.
The driver opened his door and got out, “Are you crazy lady?” he screamed.
“Please sir,” Anne begged, “you have to help me.”
“What is the matter lassie?”
“My boyfriend has just been murdered,” she replied.
“Come I shall drive you to the police station is but three miles up the road.”
Anne with deliberate speed entered into the car. The driver began to engage Anne in conversation. “Now what’s this about your husband being murdered?”
“We were staying at the hotel and took a tour of the Dunorp,” Anne began her tale of misery.
The driver of the vehicle flicked a switch lighting the lamp inside the car. He took a long look at Anne and then finally spoke, “aye I remember you and your companion. I work at the castle.”
Anne took a long look and finally a burst of recognition came through. It was indeed the man who worked at the gift shop at the castle. Anne remembered him distinctly as he was very kind and he took a photograph of her and Edgar together.
“So what happened?” pressed the man.
“We took the midnight tour to show the ghost of the dragon.”
“The midnight tour!?!” cried the man with shock and surprise. “There is no such thing.”
“Yes,” insisted Anne feeding into the panic, “the midnight tour.”
“Was the guide some man who had white hair and shriveled skin that he looked old as one could be?”
“Yes, that’s him,” cried Anne. She began to feel a sense of relief. At least the authorities would know who the killer was. She couldn’t bring her poor Edgar back from the dead but at least she could get some justice.
“And he walked like a man in his vibrant youth, didn’t he?”
Anne began to consider the contradiction of the tour guide. It sank deep into her thoughts the absurdity of how a ancient man had such physical prowess. “That’s correct,” said the young lady softly.
“Twas none other then the ghost of Sir Lance,” declared the man driving the car.
“The ghost of Sir Lance,” cried out Anne, “why would he kill Edgar?”
“He always has his reasons,” said the man softly. “He looks into the hearts of men. When he sees the ghost of the dragon he slays them.”

My name is John Kaniecki and I enjoy writing stories and poetry. I have a story just out in Sciphy Journal. I have had my story the Sin of A.D.A.M. published by Witty Bard in an anthology. I have an anthology entitled “Words of the Future” published in December of 2014 by the same publisher. I have ten other stories published or soon to be published in magazines. I also have a poetry book entitled “Murmurings of a Mad Man” that was published in September of 2014 by eLectio Publishing. In addition my poetry been published by over five dozen magazines and ezines. I have my second poetry book “Poet to the Poor, Poems of Hope for the Bottom One Percent, just out this October.

I have been married to my wife Sylvia from Grenada for over ten years. I do ministerial work at the Church of Christ at Chancellor Avenue in Newark, NJ.

Thank you so much for the time in look at my writing, I hope you enjoy reading my story as much as I enjoyed writing it.

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The Monarch’s Madness by Patrick Doerksen

May 29 2016

 

            After being scooped off the beach—drooling and twitching next to the child who, in captivity, had inexplicably disappeared—the Monarch was weeks later still confined to his bed. He had taken to describing, spontaneously and with gestures that made him ache for days afterwards, grandiose schemes for the recovery of his kingdom. Interrupting their lunch, he called his advisors in and told them hurriedly about his plan for a series of  state-funded apothecaries in all the villages and cities. They took notes as they always did and left the chambers when the Monarch’s energy was spent. Outside they shook their heads in sadness. “So excitable,” they would mutter; “It’s a pity, what’s happened.” It was difficult to watch the disintegration of a mind, still more difficult carrying on the deception. However, what else could they do? Apothecaries? This could not be what the Monarch really wanted.

            When the Monarch died a few days later and his final will was read out to the advisors and the chancellors, there was no laughter at his utopian dream, only the sad down-turning of gazes onto the marble palace floor. There were certainly the resources in the treasury to fund such a dream, and indeed great need of it in the desolated kingdom. But how could they be expected to understand, or believe, such a change of heart? True, there was one among them inclined to think the Monarch’s madness was no madness—a final clarity in the end of life, perhaps, or something more—but his is another story. And for the moment even he, with all the rest leaving the ceremonial hall, was forced to wonder without satisfaction what it was that had happened, what it was the Monarch had seen.

#

It was noon. The Monarch lounged on the balcony, which looked out on the final destruction of the Capper sea-folk, and sighed. Five  feet back a servant girl began to sweat. Was he not satisfied with his tray of exotic juices? But she was lucky. His sigh was directed at life itself, which was far more insipid.

The scarred priest had called it ennui.

When after ten years of struggle the Monarch subdued the last of the Seven Princes and assimilated his army and assets, there was nothing he could not do—only, he had grown so used to conquest that he could not desire nor think of anything else. And so he went after this spice trade and that gold mine, sequestering so much wealth at the center of his kingdom that he caused the whole world to slope towards him, like a stone at the center of a map. Now he had control of the pearl trade, but the truth was the royal coffers could get no fuller. He was only playing a lackluster game with himself, waiting for something to happen and all the while creating the very conditions that ensured nothing would.

For years it had been this way—anything he desired plucked from reality and brought before him: oysters, silks, concubines, empires. He had learned too late how much savor in life comes from resistance. Even the pleasures of killing were quickly exhausted for him, and now to raze a village wasn’t enough—he had to have the sons kill the fathers, the daughters kill the mothers. He did worse things, too, unspeakable things, so that he might feel something, even pain. But of course it was never enough, and daily he wondered where those golden years of his youth had gone: when the kingdom was in ruins and strangers were stoned at village gates, when the fickle and slipshod ways of the vigilantes were the meager substitute for justice and it was anyone’s guess whose home would burn next—when, in other words, the ascending monarchy was useful and welcome. And so each day the frustration grew until every slave, every advisor, every ambassador, trembled to be near him. He would lash out with his knife-edged sceptre, as though he could release the passion hidden in the chests of men and have it flow into himself. He would stab at citizens in the street. Now his subjects knew him as the Mad Monarch. He hated it, and hated more that he could not stop it and could only command torture and death for whoever spoke the words.

Once, when the scarred priest was yet without his scars, he told  the Monarch that Elyon, the High God, was displeased by his impersonations of Her; indeed the priest went further, saying not only was the Monarch not Elyon but something worse, perhaps the worst condemnation theologically possible—Elyon’s Shadow. The Monarch looked at himself that night and found, without horror, without pain, that it was true. He had the priest tortured and locked in the dungeon anyway; the rest he killed, knowing now the opinion of the religious. There were rebellions, naturally, but he paid his army well. When it was over he hid the fact that there was one priest yet alive; he hid also that, on occasion, the Monarch found himself descending the dungeon ladders and facing the scarred priest, whose gaze fascinated and angered him.

“Turtle soup,” muttered the Monarch, and it was brought. Soon, bored, he made the gesture for one of his concubines to approach. The servant girls averted their eyes. I might end it all tonight, he thought as he undressed. Then again, I might not. But then he paused, with his robe at his feet, thinking he might weep, and sent the concubine away. But tears did not come, and he grew tired of waiting.

#

That evening, the Monarch again felt something coming. Not tears, something else. His military advisor was speaking hurriedly to him about a growing insurrection in the North; the Monarch ordered him away. He ordered his servants away with their trays of oyster and crab. Alone, he could feel it coming stronger and went to the high, arched window. The night pulsed with energy and against it he felt old. There were places on his face the starlight could not enter, behind the wrinkles.

That was when Elyon said to him, “There were two foxes crouching in meadow. One looks at the flower, the other eats it.”

The Monarch did not believe in Elyon. He did not believe in anything more powerful than himself—he had forgotten how. And so he neglected to respond.

“However inadequate your Scriptures are,” Elyon went on, “there is at least that passage. It’s something you might pay attention to.”

“I do not read the Scriptures,” the Monarch found himself saying.

There was silence. A waiting silence.

The Monarch said, “Who are you?”

“I am Elyon.”

Goosebumps rose. The darkness of his chamber shimmered, alive with intention. Still, the Monarch said, “How do I know you are not a voice in my head?”

“I am voice in your head,” said Elyon. “But I could just as well be a glowing orb hovering in front of you. Would you like me to  be a glowing orb?”

The Monarch said nothing.

“You are right. It does  not matter how I appear to you. I am Elyon, Maker of the World. I made the Seas of Fortune and the thousand spices of the Southern Reach; I made flame and I made the breeze and I made the space between the stars. I made the stretch of time, the distension of space, the inner dimensions you call Mind. I made you, tyrant.”

Silence again. The Monarch went across the room and listened at the door. On the other side one of the sentry shifted. The Monarch went back to the window. Already the encounter was irking him. He was not used to being addressed without permission.

He said, “They say you created the world from chaos. Some also say you created it from nothing. Which is it?” When Elyon did not answer immediately he waved his hand in annoyance. “No, I don’t care. What do you want with me, Elyon?”

“I was like you, long ago,” said Elyon. “And so I have sympathy on all tyrants, on all who eat what should not be eaten. I have heard your heart’s cry. I can feel your bitterness. So I have come.”

The Monarch said—for in his interrogations of the scarred priest he had become familiar enough with the Scriptures—“But you call yourself the God of the widow, the orphan, the stranger. That is why I do not worship you.”

“But that is not so,” said Elyon. “I am all things to all people. I am also the God of the tyrants, the rulers, the powerful.”

The Monarch looked around the dark room, his eyes like spearheads. “You said you were like me. How? I have burned the seven Nations to the ground in the fire of my hate, and made the world so hot that I melted my own heart in my chest—”

“—and you are nothing now but a pillar of ashes, angry at your own existence, angry at everything that reminds you of your existence—Yes, I know.”

The Monarch froze, then spat. “Well, so you know.” He was breathing heavily, casting about the room with his eyes, frustrated to find no purchase. At length he said, “Be gone then, Elyon, for I have no use for your taunting.”

But Elyon did not go.

“I know what you crave, tyrant, and I did not come to taunt you. You shall have what you desire. You shall know what it is to care for life again. But first, you must do something for me. You must, not a servant.  There are none of your shortcuts here, tyrant. No one can do your soul’s work but you.”

The Monarch said, “Do not patronize me, Elyon.”

“You will build me a place of worship, a humble temple without gilding as bright as the sun and without spires higher than the flight of the raptor. You will not fill the temple with a thousand chimes and a thousand candles, and you will not place cushions where you kneel. Without these things you will worship me, every morning and every evening. You will worship me for five years, and when you have done this, I will show you something that will make you young again and fill your heart with care.”

The Monarch’s face, ever stony and resigned, seemed to fall now, betraying a disappointment so unfamiliar to its muscles that it became a distorted and half-formed thing.

“Five years? This, Elyon, I cannot do.”

Silence. The Monarch sat on his bed, his eyes looking sadly out at the night. He knew that given so long a time he would surely despair and end up with his own sword through his chest.

At last Elyon said, “If it is too long for you, tyrant, then I will make it shorter. Worship morning and evening for one year, and I will give you what you desire.”

Still the sadness did not leave the Monarch’s eyes. He knew—he, a man who found himself restless even an hour into a game of chess, a man who threw a fit when the servants were seconds late with his wine—that it was too long.

And so Elyon said, “A month, tyrant. Only a month.”

If there was ever a moment in all this and what was to come for the Monarch to grow suspicious of Elyon, it was this moment. But the Monarch said, “One month,” and felt the presence leave the room.

#

The Monarch’s architects, used to designing impossible wonders that took decades to build, were confused by the project, but relieved. And so the Monarch was within days beginning his month-long trial.

It was strange for him, spending so much time outside the flash of gold and silver, breathing un-incensed air, kneeling on prayer mats made of peasant’s twine. Strangest of all was doing something he did not feel like doing. Still, he knelt there every morning and every evening.

He felt nothing at first but that annoyance, and then just nothing. He began to grow worried that he was not doing it right, that he was missing something, botching some formula, and had soon convinced himself that he did not know how to worship.

So he had the scarred priest instruct him.

At first the priest—nervous, distrustful—gave him a mantra, “Thy beauty forever,” which he was to say over and over, moving the words from his lips to his head to his heart. But, on trying this, the Monarch knew there had to be more; indeed he suspected the priest of hiding something. On torturing him, the Monarch learned the truth. The mantra of highest worship for Elyon was this: “Creator God, I beg clemency for being only a man.” This, however, the Monarch found not only distasteful but contradictory, for was it not the fault of the Creator that he was made a man? And, moreover, if this were some great evil, why should it be himself begging clemency and not the one who had the power to act otherwise?

He questioned the priest further, who trembled on the rack as he spoke: “Contradiction is the heart of faith; nothing makes a man so humble.” But the Monarch could not understand the worth of humility and said as much.

It was at this moment that the priest, so near death, decided to rebel in the last, small way available to him, and spat at the Monarch. “Elyon is the God of slaves, not of Monarchs!” he hissed. “It’s demons that say otherwise. You are damned, you tyrant—damned.”

Within minutes he had expired.

Despite his doubts the Monarch tried the mantra and felt something in him stir. It was unpleasant, but it was something—And perhaps, he thought, true religion is meant to be unpleasant. So it was that the Monarch worshiped a whole month, and when it was over Elyon came to him.

#

The girl was kneeling near the lapping waves and building a castle of sand; when the Monarch strode near, she did not flee as all children do but stayed and watched his approach. He saw that she had a crooked back and a distorted face. The monarch did not like sickness and usually killed the sick when he came across them, because he preferred not to flee and did not know what else to do. So the Monarch might have had her killed if she had not spoken.

“You have worshiped me a whole month, and you do not recognize me? Ah, but it is hard for a tyrant to worship something greater than himself, and I do not blame you for missing your aim.”

“I have done what you asked,” said the Monarch, annoyed at having been surprised this way. He gestured for his guard to disperse. “I’m entitled to the vision you promised me.”

Elyon blinked and stood. She wiped her hands on her thighs. “You are right, tyrant. You have suffered much. But before I show you my vision, first you must suffer still more while I lecture you.”

“Go on,” said the Monarch, impatient.

“There are two ways that a tyrant can fight the ennui which is the inevitable result of omnipotence,” said Elyon. “First, the tyrant can try the way of destruction.” Elyon kicked down the sandcastle with her tiny feet. “This is least effective and yet the most practiced. At the very height of opulence the tyrant languishes, ordering heads brought to him on platters and the desolation of whole empires.

“Second,” said Elyon, kneeling now and shaping the sand back into turrets with her tiny hands, “the tyrant can try the way of creation. At the height of his ennui, if the tyrant but dares lower taxes, dares plant orchards in villages and design aqueducts for the cities, dares build a palace for the worship of someone not himself, he will feel the very thing he craves.”

The girl stood then, awkwardly because of her back, and looked directly at the Monarch. A sea breeze swept past her, making fire of her blond hair. For the first time the Monarch saw the sadness in the eyes, and seeing this, he remembered what Elyon had said—“I was like you, long ago.” And he knew what was to come.

#

There is a way in which a poorly crafted goblet, or shoddily constructed chair, feels like a thing “made” by someone, as perfect goblets or chairs do not. The Monarch had never felt this way about existence itself, experiencing it as we all do as a perfect thing, always there, unmade and irreducible. Now he could hardly believe he had called the world real.

It was but a distant memory now, horded deep in the mind of Elyon the Creator, but it was enough. It began as an unbearable sadness, and it was mixed with such horrible regret and anger that the Monarch choked with his very being. And then he began to see it—though “see” was an infinity away from the right word. What mad wonders had been standing before Elyon had destroyed them stood again, and the Monarch’s eyes were stabbed through with their beauty. Light here was more than light; darkness more than darkness. The living quality we feel in the plants of our world was there even in its stones and rivers, and the intentionality we feel in other people was there in its plants. There were people, too, but he knew this only by their shadows, as it were, for if even the stones and metals were alive here then the people were something more; their very presence betrayed some super-intentionality which gave his heart pangs. Perhaps the Monarch lasted a second here, perhaps a year; but he felt a million things, and each pulsed with more hurt and joy and wonder than the whole of existence. He could see deeper patterns, too, vast edifices taken in at a glance, complexities and immensities all shimmering with an extra-physical glow, a radiance that came not from within but from without, as though significance itself caused them to shine. These were things only suggested by the grandest spires and mountains and oceans of the Monarch’s world, and just seeing them was too much—he was a ghost in this world-before-the-world, not made to see it, and as he collapsed on the beach and the royal guard came running, the Monarch had on his face an expression that none of them could fathom.

END

Bio: I am a social worker armed with a B.A. in Literature and a M.A. in Theology. My fiction and poetry have featured in Presence, (parenthetical), Frogpond, Lyrical Passion, Ancient Paths Online and Contemporary Haibun Online, among others.

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Heat By D. A. D’Amico

May 25 2016

 

“Why are the dead doing that, Rachael?”

A dozen bodies crowded the front lot and nearby street, arms splayed and flailing. They lay in deep drifts, sliding last night’s accumulation into pink-tinged snow angels.

“They’re hot. Decaying things generate heat.” The reenactment of this innocent childhood pastime made me feel sick, so I turned away to stare into the cold dawn.

“It looks like they’re having fun.” Jake Marshall gazed at the floundering bodies, a confused smile on his ruggedly handsome face as he joined me on the porch.

Gary Wilson, my self-appointed protector, grumbled and shuffled aside. The two men had been vying for my attention since Gary and I had stumbled into Jake at the local gym early the previous day. Gary, being true to his nature, already felt like the loser.

Several blocks to the east, a plume of green smoke billowed over the town square. According to a voice on the radio, it meant salvation. The National Guard had finally arrived to extract survivors.

#

We’d spent a restless night hopping from building to building, working our way towards the safe zone one sad empty home at a time. The gruff military voice on the radio had warned us. We had twenty-four hours before they gave the town up as hopeless, abandoning us to the creeping mercy of the infected.

I closed the door behind me, locking up for residents who’d never return home.

“I can’t go any further, Rachael.” Beside me, Gary appeared bloated and waxy inside his red nylon parka, his troubled expression lost on the pale expanse of his face. Sweat trickled along the edges of his thinning brown hair, freezing to his face in long icy teardrops.

“Rest a little. We only have a few more blocks to go.” I tugged my fur collar higher, rubbing my frozen fingers together as I tried to cheer him up. “The army’s in the park. They’re here to rescue us, and I’m sure they’ve got an antidote by now.”

Gary and I had been friends before the catastrophe. He’d asked me out a couple of times, but I’d always declined. He was a pale dumpy guy, the kind you complained to about your no good boyfriend after a bad Saturday night. He was far from the hero type, but he meant well. He’d come looking for me after the world went crazy.

I’d tried my best to keep him alive in spite of his clumsiness. He’d been more of a liability than an asset, but I felt I owed him since he’d gotten infected because of me.

“It’s no use.” He wiped his forehead with a trembling hand, drawing back a moist snowball of sweat. “I’m getting too warm.”

One of the prone figures rose at the sound of his voice. It staggered to its feet like a drunk at an ice skating rink, and headed in our direction. I thought I recognized the face, but I’d trained myself to glance at an imaginary spot above and to the left when lurchers attacked. Knowing who they’d once been was just too painful.

“Leave him.” Jake leaned against the front porch like a Greek statue, his breath hissing like cigarette smoke in the frigid air.

Jake was exactly the kind of guy I’d have complained about to Gary. Misogynistic, selfish, and self-centered, Jake had the chiseled body and sculpted good looks that made you wonder if you could change all the other stuff. I didn’t want to admit it, but my heart beat a little faster when he stared at me with those big blue eyes.

“Jake, don’t…” I let my arms fall, the heavy rifle dropping onto the straps of the duffle at my feet. My body ached, unaccustomed to climbing, and running, and fighting for my life. I’d give anything to go back to my normal world. I’d gladly settle for juggling things like work and school again, instead of dodging the sluggish corpses of people I used to know.

“What?” Jake’s rough tone held tension. He nodded at the larger man. “It’s what he wants, right?”

Then he struck his best pose, one boot up on the railing, and his big hands clinging to the open hem of his leather bomber jacket. Jake had been preening like one of those shirtless catalog models since we’d run into him the morning before. He casually stroked his chest, making sure I noticed the ripple of his six-pack through his tight tee shirt. He must be freezing to look that cool.

We’d met before, of course. Everyone knew everybody in a small town like this. Jake was the jock type, all flash and no substance. I tended to be bookish, a little on the socially awkward side, so I never really fell within his radar. All that had changed with the rising dead. Suddenly, I’d become hot enough to be his girlfriend, whether I was interested or not. Who knows, I might even be the last woman on Earth. I could have my pick of Jakes.

#

“He’s right. Leave me, Rachael.” Gary hugged his ample middle, his parka squelching like a rotten orange. A trickle of blood slid along his left cuff as he pulled on his fur-lined hood. His bloodshot eyes held an accusing look, like a beaten puppy. He’d tried so hard to impress me, but it’d all been for nothing. “It’s so hot.”

“See, he knows he’s only holding us back. He knows what he’s turning into.” Jake moved a little closer, draping his arm protectively around my shoulders like I was a helpless girl. I wanted to point out I’d done as much to keep us alive as he had, but he’d just give me that smug look of his and wink like it was our little joke. If I could only put Gary’s brain in Jake’s body…

I couldn’t believe I was falling for him. He wasn’t anything like the type of man I ended up with, but I’d been lonely since before the world ended. The rules were different now. Why shouldn’t I be different as well?

“Don’t listen to him, Gary.” We were near. Just a few more blocks and we’d make it to the safe zone. Then Gary could get treatment. Jake could do whatever it was frat boys did after the end of the world, and I could get out of these frozen bloody clothes, have some food, and take a nap.

Jake slammed his boot down. The shotgun at his feet flipped up, and he leveled and fired with one smooth motion. I covered my ears against the roar. The nearest of the moving dead jerked back, collapsing like a marionette cut from its strings before the acrid scent of gunpowder had even reached my nostrils.

“He’s a liability, Rachael. When will you see it? He’s as good as dead already.”

“Not dead, dying. Always at the edge without ever going over… flesh rotting, but still not dead.” Gary’s voice dribbled from his lips in a mumble. His face started to sag, gummy features sliding to the left and bunching up around his ear.

“You’re going to be fine.” My reassuring laugh came out as a nervous chuckle. He looked as bad as Jake looked good. “We’ll get you the help you need.”

Gary unzipped his parka. He shed his thick woolen shirt, staggering bare-chested across the porch. Where Jake was trim and muscular, Gary’s physique appeared blocky and gelatinous. Thick reddish veins traced spiky patterns across his moist skin, throbbing with a hideous pulsation.

“It’s so hot.” His fingers slid over his belly, sinking into his thick flesh. “And it hurts all over. You can’t believe how it burns, the heat of decay. The dead are cold. I wish I were dead.”

Jake swung his gun around.

“No!” I pushed the barrel away and stepped between them.

Gary whimpered. His eyes rolled back, and he grasped his head with both hands. “I’d always wanted you, hoped that we’d…”

Gary’s hands were around my neck, pulling me into his sultry grip. I screamed. He tugged me closer. His hot breath washed over me like steam. I could smell the cloying stench of death as his fevered lips burned across my neck.

“She’s mine!” Jake tore me from Gary’s grip, slamming the shotgun into the fat man’s face. He fired.

The recoil knocked us off balance. I fell on top of Jake, landing against his solid chest, his strong arms around me. My whole body tingled. Mt heart hammered, beating as fast as my frenzied breathing.

“He didn’t hurt you, did he?” Jake’s breath, so near to me, smelled faintly of liquorish. Comforting warmth surrounded me as he hugged me closer.

“No… I don’t think so.” My skin itched. I couldn’t tell if I’d been infected.

“Good.” He smiled. His bright blue eyes seemed so deep I felt I could fall into them. His soft lips brushed mine as he spoke, and a hot blush oozed through my body. It grew, curling my toes.

A chill ran down my spine as I realized the warmth continued to spread. It did nothing to quell the blossoming fire, and I prayed it was just the heat of passion.

 

Bio
My writing credits include:

Daily Science Fiction
L. Ron Hubbard presents Writers of the Future, Volume 27
Crossed Genres
Shock Totem

Member: SFWA, HWA

http://www.dadamico.com/

 

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Heirloom By Freya Pickard

May 22 2016

 

Her mother’s worn hands took hold of hers in the quiet dimness of her parents’ bedroom. The air smelt of lavender and thyme.

“You must never say anything to anyone regarding this. Do you understand?”

Tari nodded dumbly.

“Sit down.” Tari dropped onto the goose feather quilt.

She watched her mother’s greying head as the woman knelt on the wooden floorboards and reached under the bed. Withdrawing a metal box, her mother rose to her feet and fixed Tari with stern, green eyes.

“This is a family heirloom,” her mother said, unlocking the metal box with a small key. “It has always been passed from mother to daughter. The promise on receiving it is to never speak of it to anyone except the person you pass it on to.”

Tari could not imagine what this secret was but said, “I promise.”

“Good. Here.” Her mother took out a thin leather sheath with a pointed end. “This, is the silver dagger. For countless generations it has stayed within our family, always going to the daughter.”

Tari briefly wondered where her mother’s family was, but knew talk of that kind was not encouraged by her father.

“This is our secret and our trust,” her mother continued, laying the sheathed knife in her daughter’s open palms. “There is a legend in our family that in the First Age this dagger was made by the elves and will always throw true to protect the bearer from harm. The legend also says that the dagger was lent to a woman of the south in one of the great wars but such was the devastation, she was unable to return the dagger to its rightful owner. That is our secret. One day a descendant of the elves will return and one of us will give it back to them.”

Tari stared at her mother with wide eyes. This was a story such as her father read out from his vast store of books. Things like this didn’t happen to ordinary folk.

“Do you accept the conditions Tari?”

“Yes,” she stammered, not really comprehending what she was doing.

“Then take this dagger and keep it safe. I will find you a cord so you can wear it around your neck and hide it in the front of your dress. Speak to no one about this, not even your brothers. I do not know what the rules are at the Temple regarding weapons but your father seems to think they are banned. Therefore, do not declare it but find a safe place to hide it once you are given a room.”

Tari nodded again, thinking that the dagger weighed heavy in her hands.

The dream dissipated and Tari woke briefly to hear Sidra muttering in her native language. The girl moved restlessly on her pallet and then fell silent. The chamber was still dark and Tari pulled the blankets over her head. Sleep dragged her down into warm depths again.

There was something wrong. She could feel it. The sense of unease that had crept upon her when the kaerlings entered the Temple had stayed with her. Now, in the midst of sleep the feeling grew out of proportion. Sidra was in danger. And Tari was helpless, completely powerless to do anything. She started to sweat, lunging out at blank shadows, not sure where to attack first. 

She came awake with a start, heart pounding. Foremost in her mind was that Sidra was somehow under threat and that only the silver dagger could save her. The sleeping room was lighter than it had been earlier and Tari could feel that it was not long before sunrise. Swiftly she slipped out of bed and knelt on the floor, finding her small chest of belongings by touch. Moving quietly, she drew the chest towards her and opened the lid. Faded flowers from summer expeditions collecting herbs from the lower mountain pastures filled the box. At the bottom, hidden beneath the brittle stalks and dead petals lay the dagger. As she touched the leather sheath, Sidra stirred.

At once all her mother’s warnings, reinforced by the recent dream, came back to her. No one should know about this dagger. The feeling that Sidra was in danger came more strongly and Tari shook her head indecisively. The Temple rules were clear; no weapons were allowed in the precincts, except for those the guards wore. If she gave the dagger to Sidra, the girl might get into trouble.

“What are you doing, Tari?” Sidra asked sleepily.

Tari hid the dagger beneath the dried flowers and closed the lid. “Just looking for something,” she replied brightly. “Come on. It’s time to get up. Yule Greetings to you!”

*

Tari sighed quietly as she sat with Undine and Sidra on one of the raised benches at the edge of the Main Shrine. The chamber was vast and could hold the entire population of the Temple as well as a large number of guests. The floor and walls were made of white marble shot with amber streaks and the supporting pillars were draped with ivy and mistletoe. Pine branches scented the air with resin and lay on the altar stones at each of the eight chapels around the edges of the room. In front of these sat the eldest priest or priestess for each deity, looking down at the multitudes below.

The priest of Taur stood in the centre of the room on the raised octagonal Dias. He was in mid-flow, praying to each of the gods in turn, beseeching them to drive back Winter and bring the rich Summer months to Aura Vere. Tari found prayers tedious. Sidra’s eyes were closing. Only Undine seemed unaffected, sitting bolt upright with a look of polite interest on her face. The priestess of Aqua was so remote; why she bothered to keep Tari and Sidra on as acolytes, Tari did not know. She was, however, grateful to be allowed to continue to serve the goddess.

A nagging thought dragged Tari’s attention away from the ceremony. She thought of the silver dagger, hidden in the chest beneath her bed. The sense of danger surrounding Sidra threw long, invisible shadows between them. Blinking rapidly, Tari focused her eyes on the priest of Taur and put the thoughts from her mind. The man irritated her, so Tari turned her attention to the guests seated on the benches before Taur’s priest.

There was the High Priestess. She wasn’t really a guest but she spent more time intriguing in the palace than she did in the Temple. She was dressed in a shimmering gold robe that accentuated her broad hips and flat chest. Tari’s gaze moved on to the king and queen of Falna, resplendent in their purple robes and silver crowns. The queen was pretty with golden hair and big blue eyes. The king was reasonable to look at but there was something about his jaw that lacked strength.

Undine nudged her and Tari realised that Taur’s priest had reached the end of his prayer and was starting the section that needed responses from the gathered masses. Dutifully she murmured the ritual words, hearing Sidra stumble over the archaic phrasing. Lowering their heads they waited for the moment when Taur’s priest proclaimed the lightening of the world. Tari had never felt any different and wasn’t sure how the priests could really know the exact moment when the sun started to dance nearer the earth. She knew she wouldn’t notice for a few weeks yet. Then the singing began and she joined in the traditional Yuletide song.

*

“I’m so hungry!” Sidra whispered as they made their way to the antechambers where the feasts were being held.

“Me too!” They had eaten nothing since they had risen in the traditional Yuletide fast. Now they could feast until they were ill. “Let’s find somewhere to sit down.”

Tari guided Sidra into the first of the antechambers.

“Tari!” shouted a girl. “Over here!”

Tari turned her head to see a table full of Suryanese girls some of whom she recognised. One of the girls waved at her.

“Lally!” She waved back and led Sidra over to the table. “How are you?”

“Very pleased we don’t have to eat in the same room as those dreadful kaerling men! Here, Karu, move up.”

The girls shifted along the bench allowing Tari and Sidra to sit opposite Lally.

“This is Sidra,” Tari introduced her friend. “She’s new. This is Lally and this is Karu.”

The other girls introduced themselves and handed them platters of meats and vegetables. They ate hungrily, conversing noisily.

“Those kaerling men are quite handsome,” Karu was saying.

“I can’t stand them!” Lally shuddered. “They ask you so many questions that just don’t make sense.”

“I liked the man who questioned me,” Karu smiled. “He kept touching my hand.”

“Didn’t you have a priestess with you?” Tari asked, shocked.

“Yes, but she had a headache as soon as the kaerling started talking to me, so she wasn’t paying much attention.”

“I can’t believe you let him touch you.” Lally pulled a face.

“It was nice. He sort of stroked my hand. And he stroked the back of my head as well and asked me to let down my hair. The priestess didn’t notice a thing!”

“Are you going to be a priestess of Lyra?” Tari asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, you’re certainly acting like one!”

Karu looked hurt. “I think he was really good looking and he made me feel special.”

Sidra snorted rudely.

“You don’t like them either?” Lally shook back her luxuriant black locks. “Why?”

Sidra shivered. “We met one of them at Port Olin in the Autumn.” She wrinkled her nose. “He disappeared into the hills and forests a lot of the time looking for a woman he claimed was his sister.”

“Which one was this?” Lally stopped eating.

“Gar, I think. I only met him once but he beat up some of my kin.”

“Why?”

“He raped and murdered one of the clan leader’s wives. So her relatives sought revenge.”

Tari felt a cold shiver tiptoe down her spine. The urge to fetch the dagger now was so strong, she nearly left the table.

“How many did he beat up?” asked Lally.

“About ten.”

“Ten?” Tari was amazed. “One man beat ten? How is that possible?”

Sidra sighed. “I don’t know. They said he moved like lightning and used no weapon.”

“Magic?” whispered Karu.

Sidra shrugged. “All I know is that they’re evil and give me the shivers.”

“You never told me this before,” Tari stared at the girl.

“I don’t like to think about it.”

“So, you’ve travelled, have you?” Lally resumed eating, turning her attention to the fish pastries.

“That’s what Suryanese do!” Sidra laughed and helped herself to mashed tubers.

“We’re Suryan,” said Karu. “But we’ve never travelled.”

“What do you mean?”

“We were left here as babies or small children because our parents were poor.”

“Or because our mothers didn’t know who our father was!” Lally grinned.

“Well, I’m here because my family is too large,” Sidra admitted.

“Where have you travelled?” Lally asked.

“All over Falna.”

“Really? Where’s the most amazing place you’ve been?”

Sidra thought for a while as she ate the mash. “I think the most amazing place I’ve been is somewhere in the forest to the west of Aura Vere. I’ve only been there once but it was an anniversary so we made a special pilgrimage.”

“What, to a shrine?”

“Not exactly. It’s a waterfall, a huge roaring monster in the middle of the forest.”

“What’s special about it?” Karu wanted to know.

“Our stories say that Hakim heard the gods there. They met him between the earth and sky at night in fire and water.” Sidra sounded dreamy. “It’s true, the waterfall does reach to the sky. You cannot climb up to the top, though there are large steps carved in the rock, as if made for a giant. You have to leave the wagons just off the King’s Highway and go by foot along a ravine. It’s several days journey and we camped there by the cauldron pool; lit fires at night to see if the gods spoke to us. But no one has heard their voice since Hakim came.”

“That’s really poetic,” Lally breathed. “Why couldn’t your family keep you?”

“We have no money. We make ends meet by shoeing horses and breeding goats but there is never enough to go round. I really wanted to marry into Mahesa’s clan because he is rich and his people never go without food.”

“Why didn’t you?” asked Tari.

“I have no dowry,” Sidra looked wistful. “I am not pretty, so father said I had to come to the Temple.”

“You are pretty!” said Lally, outraged. “Besides, it’s not prettiness that counts. It’s who you are as a person.”

When they had eaten their fill they made their way to another antechamber where there was singing and dancing. After watching the antics of the drunken priests for a while, the Suryan girls decided to show everyone how to really dance. Tari watched from the side, knowing only simple, ritual dances. Even though Karu and Lally had been brought up in the Temple they seemed to know instinctively how to move. It was a sensuous dance that went well with their rounded, lush bodies. Even Sidra, who had not yet come into the fullness of her curves, looked enticing and extremely feminine. Tari was standing near the door watching the dancing progress, debating whether or not to break the rules and fetch the silver dagger, when two men entered.

She shivered when she saw the black leather garb of the kaerlings. Get the dagger! Get the dagger! The thought pulsed through her mind insistently. The two men were smiling at the dancers, enjoying the performance. One had blond hair, so pale it was almost white. His brown eyes were warm with pleasure but his pale, chiselled face made Tari cringe. The other man was sandy-haired with sad, blue eyes. His whole demeanour was that of sorrow. When the dance ended, the two kaerlings joined in the applause. The musicians at the back of the room struck up a rustic tune and the Suryan girls found partners from among the priests and acolytes. As the dance began, Tari shivered and turned to see a third kaerling in the chamber. They were standing just behind her now and she could hear what they were saying over the sound of the music.

“She’s interesting.” The newcomer nodded towards Sidra as her partner swung her around.

“A bit flat-chested for me,” said the blond man. “Quite pretty when she smiles though.”

“Don’t suppose either of you have interviewed her yet?”

The sandy-haired man shook his head. “Never seen her before, Gar.”

Tari stared at the third kaerling. Had she heard correctly? Was this the same Gar that had raped and killed one of Sidra’s clan? She looked at him intently. He was stockier than the two younger men but still tall and muscular. His sculptured features were marred by jagged scars that ran from cheekbone to jaw. Brown hair fell across his forehead and his eyes were grey-blue. Tari did not like the way he was staring at Sidra. All three looked like predators, but there was something about Gar’s stance that made her skin crawl. She felt torn between returning to Aqua’s Shrine to retrieve the dagger and silence the voice in her head, and staying here to make sure Sidra was safe from the kaerlings.

Undine entered the room and Tari caught her eye.

“Where is Sidra?” the priestess mouthed.

Tari pointed to the dance floor as the music swirled to an end.

Undine glided between the dancers who were applauding the musicians and spoke to Sidra. The girl nodded, thanked her partner and followed Undine out of the room.

“Where’s Sidra gone?” asked Karu as the Suryan girls gathered round Tari.

“Undine, my priestess needs her. Shall we find drinks? You look thirsty.”

They trooped into the other chamber now set out with puddings and sweetmeats. The girls drank diluted wine and helped themselves to jellies and stewed fruits. Tari ate little, noticing that Gar walked through the room, leaving the other two kaerlings in the dancing chamber. Once again, she nearly ran out after the kaerling, risked being noticed by him, just so she could fetch the dagger that somehow, would protect Sidra. But the Suryan wanted to talk, so she stayed and gossiped.

*

Tari’s feet ached in the soft suede boots as she made her way up the rock steps to Aqua’s shrine. Pulling the fur cloak tightly about her shoulders, she shivered in the frigid air. Snow had fallen earlier, making the stone steps slippery. She stepped carefully, feeling cold after the warmth of the feasting chambers. Clouds hung low in the sky, threatening more snow before morning. The wind tugged at her robes and teased her hair. The sense of danger had subsided and she wondered now, if she had imagined it. At last she reached the shrine and opened the door. A light showed in Undine’s room but her own chamber, which she shared with Sidra, was dark. Hastily, Tari stepped across and peered in. It was silent and empty. Even without a candle, Tari could sense there was no one there.

“Tari? Sidra?” Undine called.

Panic shot through Tari’s stomach.

“It’s Tari.” She pushed Undine’s door open.

The priestess was sitting at her desk, writing.

“Is Sidra with you?” Undine asked, laying aside the quill and turning to face her acolyte.

“No, I thought she was with you!” Tari’s throat closed up.

Undine blinked her almond shaped eyes in surprise. “I took her with me as Mother Kalare was taken ill. The Infirmary were short of staff due to the celebrations, so Sidra was my runner. She helped me make Mother Kalare comfortable and then I sent her back to you.”

Tari thought of Gar and the look on his face.

“What’s wrong, Tari?”

“She never came back to us. One of the kaerling men was looking at her…” Tari felt tears fill her eyes. “She hates the kaerlings. Gar raped and killed one of her relatives and beat up the men sent to avenge the death…”

Undine’s pale face turned white. She rose to her feet and wrapped herself in a cloak. “Come with me,” she said tightly. “We must find out where she is.”

Snow flakes fell erratically as they descended the slippery steps. Tari felt as though she was in a nightmare from which she could not escape. She found herself sitting in Mother Kalare’s reception room with a fire burning that did not warm her. Undine assembled the sober priests and priestesses and had Tari tell them of  Sidra’s disappearance. Without a word they vanished to search the Temple. Outside the wind howled and Tari was left to sit behind Mother Kalare’s desk and receive negative reports one after another. It was still dark when Undine returned with Illan in tow. Tari realised that with Mother Kalare sick, Illan was responsible for the administration staff.

“I’m sorry, Tari,” Illan brushed the snow from his cloak. “We’ve searched the Temple and she’s nowhere to be found.”

“We must look outside then,” said Tari heading for the door. “He may have taken her out into the city.”

“Tari,” Undine’s voice halted her. “There is a blizzard out there. We will have to wait until morning.”

“That’ll be too late!” Tari found she was crying.

Undine and Illan looked at each other and Tari knew they feared the worst too. She spent the rest of the night on a pallet on the floor in Mother Kalare’s sleeping quarters. Tossing and turning she listened to the sound of Undine’s regular breathing. Towards morning she finally slept. When she woke, it was broad daylight and Undine had gone.

Tari hurriedly washed and smoothed her feasting robes as best she could. She made her way to Mother Kalare’s study which was full of hung-over priests and pale priestesses. Undine sat behind the desk with Illan standing beside her. Several of the priestesses were weeping.

“I’m sorry, Tari,” Undine had tears in her eyes. “Illan and his search party found Sidra first thing this morning.”

Illan advanced towards her as Tari stopped dead, feeling ice take up residence inside her.

“I want to see her,” the girl said firmly.

Illan shook his head, touching Tari’s shoulders. “You don’t need to see her,” he said gently.

“But I want to!” Tari shouted.

“Tari, she was raped and then had her throat slit. You need to remember her as she was when she was alive.”

Tari hated Illan then, hated the mute priests and weeping priestesses. She wrenched herself free of Illan’s grasp and ran. Gasping for breath in the cold morning air and fighting her way through snow drifts, she attained Aqua’s shrine. She fell to her knees by her bed and pulled out the metal box. Without hesitation she drew forth the sheathed dagger.

She paused, wanting to make her oath binding. She could not shed blood here in her sleeping chamber. Aqua did not always require blood sacrifices as did many of the gods; an oath or a gift of produce was usually enough to bring about an answer to a supplicant’s prayer. Tari stepped out into the main room and stood before the bare altar. It didn’t seem right to take the oath here either.

Heart hammering, hands shaking, she pushed through the curtains behind the altar and stepped into the shrine. The dampness chilled her skin and lungs, bringing tears to her eyes. The stillness of the inner shrine was broken by the ceaseless murmur of running water. Not even in the severest of winter storms did Aqua’s shrine freeze. Tari stared at the motionless statue of the goddess, feeling the blank, almond shaped eyes of Aqua pierce her soul. In the gloom, the pale stone of the image glowed, the smooth skin of her sculpted face shimmering in the moist air. Again, the girl was struck by the similarity of Aqua to the obsidian carved guardians of the gates with their high cheek bones and almond shaped eyes. The common belief was that the guardians were carved images of the elves who built the Temple.

Tari sank to her knees, searching for the right prayer but nothing came to mind. The liquid song of water filled her thoughts and the desire for revenge eased.

“No!” Tari knelt upright and raised the dagger. “I will avenge you Sidra!” She vowed, unsheathing the slender blade and drawing it across her right palm. “I will avenge your murder!” She gasped as hot, burning pain seared her hand and blood dripped onto her dress and the slick stone beneath her knees. “I ignored the dream that gave me warning. Now Sidra is dead and it was my fault. I will find her murderer and I will kill him. I will not be without this knife again.”

Aqua stared down impassively. Tari almost hoped to hear the goddess’ voice but at the same time felt terrified at the binding oath she had just taken. The blood flow increased and she lowered her hand into the pool at Aqua’s feet. The ice cold water made her whimper and she bit her lip, forcing herself to endure the pain. Her hand lost its feeling and the blood flow eased.

She pulled her hand out of the pool and patted it dry on her skirt. Next she washed the dagger blade and dried it carefully on her cloak. As she sheathed the knife,  the silver-grey curtains whispered and Undine entered the inner shrine.

Tari jumped. Why hadn’t she heard Undine’s footsteps in the outer shrine?

“What are you doing in here?” The priestess pushed her hood back, letting her long, dark hair spill out.

Tari thought quickly. She could not lie to Undine, but she could not tell her the truth.

“Well?” Undine’s face was expressionless and Tari wondered if the woman was angry. “Are you going to tell me?”

“I wanted to pray…” Tari muttered, trying to hide the dagger.

“What is that?” Undine approached, her movements as fluid as water.

Reluctantly Tari held the dagger out to the priestess.

Undine stared intently at the plain, leather sheath. Without a word, the woman withdrew the blade. Her eyes opened wide and she turned her gaze to Tari.

“Do you know what this is?”

Tari could not lie, not to Undine who had allowed her to remain in Aqua’s shrine. Feeling guilty at breaking the promise to her mother, she started to explain. “My mother told me a story when she gave it to me. I can only tell the secret to the person I pass the blade on to.”

Undine sheathed the dagger,  and pulled Tari to her feet.

“Go to your sleeping chamber, you will catch a chill in here.”

Tari thankfully returned to the warm dryness of her room and slipped out of her wet clothes, putting on a clean sleeping robe. She bound her hand in a strip of fresh linen to absorb the slow blood flow from her palm. Undine lit a brazier and heated water in the pot, finding a blanket to place around Tari’s shoulders. When the water had boiled the priestess poured it into two mugs onto dried herbs. The tea steeped and the fragrance of the herbs filled the air. Undine sat on the only chair in the room and looked at Tari.

“I understand you are upset because of the dreadful way Sidra died. But why have you bound yourself with an oath to Aqua?”

“It was my fault Sidra died.” Tari struggled to get the words out, her throat felt constricted. “I had a dream – I should have given the dagger to Sidra, at least she would have had a chance to defend herself…”

Undine’s eyebrows shot up and then she smiled. Tari felt confused at the priestess’ reaction.

“At last,” Undine seemed pleased. “I knew Aqua would speak to you. She always speaks to water diviners.”

“You mean, my dream, that was Aqua speaking to me?” Tari felt a rush of relief. If Undine was convinced Tari could hear the goddess speaking, then no one could remove her from the shrine.

“The gods and goddesses have many different ways of speaking to us, Tari. Some speak through omens, some through the fall of stones, some through dreams but only a few allow their voices to be heard by the human ear.”

“But I failed her,” Tari’s momentary relief was washed away by guilt. “I didn’t obey the dream.”

“Aqua will understand why you did not heed her dream. The rules of the Temple are clear. That you chose to obey them, rather than her dream, does not anger her.”

“But isn’t she angry over the death of an acolyte?”

“She is grieved. But she does not hold you responsible.”

Tari did not question that the priestess understood Aqua’s thoughts.

“She will not hold you to your oath.”

Privately Tari was relieved, but was determined to try and keep her side of the promise.

“Now, this dagger.” Undine unsheathed the knife and held it in her hands. “How did you come by this?”

Tari swayed between confession and lying. She stared at Undine’s almond shaped eyes and high cheek bones. Why hadn’t she seen it before? The priestess was the image of the goddess. That meant Undine was an elf. Maybe the very elf she should return the dagger to. Relieved of having to break the promise made to her mother, Tari exhaled.

“Any secret of yours is safe with me. Trust me, Tari.”

Tari recounted everything her mother had said and at the end, Undine was silent. They sipped the herbal tea. Tari relaxed as the hot water filled her belly. She felt a great sense of a burden lifting. She had carried this secret too long.

“Are you the person the knife belongs to?” Tari asked at last.

Undine shook her head. “No. Although my people are related to the elves, I am not from the tribe that made this dagger.”

“But you look like the statue of Aqua and there is a resemblance in your face to the guardians at the gate. They were all carved by the elves, weren’t they?”

Undine smiled. “It is true I have a similar bone structure to those ancient statues, but I cannot claim ownership to this dagger. You need to look after it,. I will help you find the rightful owner of this blade.” Undine returned it to her. “Wear it around your neck, you never know when you might need it.”

“But that’s against the Temple rules!”

Undine raised her eyebrows. “I know. You know. No one else knows.”

“Aqua knows.” Tari’s fingers felt stiff as she tied the cord around her neck.

“I don’t think Aqua minds. She would rather have a live acolyte than a dead one.”

The End

Biography

Freya doesn’t write about imaginary worlds; she writes about imaginative ones. These are worlds that could be real in a parallel universe or another time dimension. She does not promote escapism; instead she takes her readers into a refreshing place so that they return to their normal lives feeling strengthened and refreshed.

Freya’s first novel, Dragonscale Leggings, is a parody of the genre she loves best; fantasy. In it, she gently pokes fun at the Arthurian legends, the common concepts of dragon slayers and dragons and how they should (or shouldn’t) behave.

 

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