William Quincy Belle is just a guy. Nobody famous; nobody rich; just some guy who likes to periodically add his two cents worth with the hope, accounting for inflation, that $0.02 is not over-evaluating his contribution. He claims that at the heart of the writing process is some sort of (psychotic) urge to put it down on paper and likes to recite the following which so far he hasn't been able to attribute to anyone: "A writer is an egomaniac with low self-esteem." You will find Mr. Belle's unbridled stream of consciousness here (http://wqebelle.blogspot.ca) or @here (https://twitter.com/wqbelle). (Credit photo: (Wikipedia article, the picture itself))
An Extraordinary Meeting by William Quincy Belle
June opened the door at Starbucks as she glanced at her iPhone. She was twenty minutes early for her meeting downtown and thought she might as well have a tea. There was nothing else to do. She stood in line, put her iPhone back in her handbag, and fished around for her wallet. No sense in waiting; she’d be ready to pay when she got to the cashier. She took out a five-dollar bill and put her wallet back in her bag. She looked around, then realised the man standing in front of her had half turned and was looking at her. She looked at him. She blinked. She looked again. Oh my God! It was her ex-husband.
“Hello June.” Bitch. The man smiled.
“Hello Bobby.” Bastard. She smiled back at him.
Shit, I would have to run into her. “Long time no see.”
Not long enough. “Yes, it’s been what? Eleven years since we popped open the champagne?”
“It will be twelve years next month, the thirteenth to be precise, when you flung my $1,492 Chinese vase at my head.” You goddamn cow.
She grinned. God, I so wanted to hit you in the head. “If you hadn’t ducked, it wouldn’t have smashed against the wall.”
He nodded. Good point. “Yes, I should have caught it. Unfortunately, you startled me and I instinctively got out of the way.” I should have sued your ass off. He sighed. “I really liked that vase.”
“I know.” Maybe you can feel a little of the pain you caused me, you prick. Bobby had made the trip to China when he was twenty years old and had fallen in love with that vase. It had cost him as a student a small fortune to purchase the item and get it shipped back home. Consequently, he had always given it an honoured place in his home as a symbol of his youth.
“What brings you to this neck of the woods?” He raised an eyebrow in a quizzical look. Is she remarried? Is she dating? Has some other poor sucker fallen for her charms?
She hesitated. Fishing for information, is he? “I’m meeting a client at their offices.” Mr. Nosy can fish elsewhere.
A voice behind him said, “Next,” and he turned around to discover they were at the head of the line. He turned back and gestured. “After you,” he said.
“Thank you.” She stepped up to the counter and spoke to the man at the register. “I’ll have a chai tea latte and one of your oatmeal raisin cookies.” She held out the five-dollar bill.
He stood back and looked her up and down. Hmmm, she’s still a good-looking woman. He nodded as if he was agreeing with himself. Oh heck, I always knew she would age well. She was good-looking then, and I figured she’d become more beautiful with time. Hmmm, would I feel better if she got uglier?
He saw the five-dollar bill and stepped forward to put out his hand in between the bill and the cashier who was about to take it. He turned to her. “Would you permit me?” What the hell are you doing?
She still held the bill out as she looked at him. What? I thought Mister Holier Than Thou hated my guts. “That’s kind of you.” She went about putting her money back in her wallet and arranging everything in her purse. Where is this bit of niceness coming from? Is somebody outside flattening my tires as we speak?
He turned to the cashier. “I’ll have a tall of the house blend.” He glanced across the menu board on the wall. “And add another oatmeal raisin cookie to that.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out some bills. He unfolded them and selected a ten.
She watched him pay. He’s older, but he looks more distinguished. Is he still single?
The cashier handed back some change to him and pointed. “If you would go to the side counter, your order will be filled momentarily.”
Bobby took a step back to let June by. “Shall we?”
She nodded and walked to the side counter. He could be a bastard but he always was a gentleman. I liked that.
He stared at her backside. She’s not getting older; she’s getting better. He followed her.
“So, you’re here to see a client. Business is doing well?” He smiled. I wonder if she’s involved.
“Business is fine.” He always had a disarming smile. “And you? Still with the same firm?” He made me feel important, like I was the centre of the universe.
“I moved four years ago. I have a new job and a new life.” Humph. She shows the slightest interest in me and I turn into idiotic teenager. My male ego is being stroked and I love it.
A woman behind the counter put out two cups and two little bags. She pointed to the cup on the right, then the one on the left. “This is the chai tea, and this is the coffee. And you each have an oatmeal raisin.”
June and Bobby picked up their respective cups and cookies. “Thank you,” each of them said to the woman.
He turned around and scanned the room. “How about that table by the window?”
“Looks good.” She walked between the tables toward the window.
“Give me a sec. I want to put milk in my coffee.” He went to the sidebar, removed the lid of his coffee and poured in a little milk. He put the lid back on, picked up a couple of napkins, and headed to the table. June was already seated and had removed the lid to her chai tea.
He put his cup and his cookie on the table, then placed a napkin at his place and one closer to June. He sat down and removed the lid of his coffee.
“Thank you.” She picked up the napkin and placed it in front of her on the table. “You always did that.”
“Did what?” He glanced at her questioningly. She always liked me to pay attention to her.
“You would always remember to get a napkin for me. Or whatever I might have needed.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. You need a napkin; I get you a napkin.” Play the innocent.
She stopped fiddling with her things and looked at him. “You always thought of others. You thought of me.” He really is kind.
“It’s only a napkin.”
“Yes, it is. But you thought of it. In my experience, not everyone pays attention to the little things. Not everyone pays attention to the other person.” She half smiled at him. I remember what attracted me to him in the first place. She reached out and picked up her cookie. She studied him as she took a bite. Older. Now a little wiser?
“Too bad for those poor schmucks. Half the fun of being a couple is focusing on your partner.” I enjoyed focusing on you.
“It would seem that not every man has learned that lesson.”
“Oh? There have been others after me?” He gave a look of mock surprise. “After the best, what’s the rest?”
She rolled her eyes in feigned derision. He sometimes comes across as arrogant but he always does it with humour. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. I always interpreted that as confidence and who doesn’t like confidence?
He took the lid off his coffee, held up the cup, and took a sip. He glanced at her. “You’re looking good.” You look very good.
“Thank you.” She remained impassive. I like hearing him say that. “You’re not too bad yourself.” I am feeling comfortable with a familiar face.
“Not too bad?” He chortled. “High praise, indeed.” He set down his cup and passed his hands in front of his chest. “The wheels haven’t fallen off the wagon yet.”
“You always were a decent shape.”
He nodded. “I’m not a fitness fanatic but I like to do my part to keep the old bod ticking along.”
“Yep, still trying to fit in a couple, if not three times a week. Of course, will I ever get up the personal resolve to do the marathon? The idea crosses my mind from time to time but I always argue with myself about how much exercise we need to remain healthy as opposed to crossing the line and doing more for a personal goal. There are other things in life.”
“Oh? You seemed to be a bit of a workaholic the last time I saw you.” She gave him a wry look. That, you idiot, was precisely what got out of hand.
Years ago, his career was taking off, and Bobby devoted himself far too much to his work and not enough to his personal life. He had failed to find the proper balance and in the end, June decided she couldn’t play second fiddle to a man with another mistress. Their arguments, their fights had become more frequent and more intense until one day, in a fit of frustration, she flung the Chinese vase at him when he walked in the door late from work after having forgotten their dinner date. She moved out the next day while he was at the office.
“After having spent more than a decade trying to climb the corporate ladder and failing, I discovered the correct course of action was to make a lateral move. I found a new firm, a new job, and a new life. I think I’ve found the balance between my work and my personal life which was missing before.”
She stared at him listening. “You think?”
He smiled. “I wasn’t very nice back then.” He paused then looked June right in the eye. “I wasn’t very nice to you.”
“You think?” She smiled back.
“I really liked that vase.”
“No, I deserved it. I didn’t have any balance in my life, especially in my personal life, and I let my professional ambitions get out of hand. They never should have been the number one priority. I put you second when I should have put you first. I imagine I wasn’t at all easy to live with. For that, I owe you an apology.”
She frowned. Who are you and what have you done with my ex-husband?
He looked away and pursed his lips. “I could go back to China and get another vase.” He grinned. “You would find it fascinating.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Are you asking?” That would be funny.
“I wondered if you’d be married with a house in the suburbs by now.”
“I do have my own career, you know.” Geesh, let’s not be so traditional.
“You were always more than a pretty face.” You are the smartest woman I know.
She felt miffed. “I completed my Masters of Business Administration.”
“That doesn’t surprise me.”
“You were... you are the smartest woman I know.” His expression was serious.
She studied his face. Where’s the sarcasm? She looked in his eyes. Finally she said, “Thank you.” I always liked that he noticed that. He never made me feel inferior because I was a woman. He made me feel like an equal.
Bobby was serious. While the two of them seemed to be intellectual equals both educationally and culturally, Bobby had always suspected that in raw brain power, June could outdo him. If the two of them had to do the SAT or pass a test for Mensa, Bobby was certain June would come out on top. June was an attractive woman, but she had a mind that kept Bobby on his toes. He appreciated her as an intellectual challenge. She was sharp and he could never take her for granted.
“You’re a smart woman. I never had any doubt you would go far.” He smirked. “I guess I never thought you would go so far as to never come back.”
She laughed. “It seemed like the right thing to do at the time.”
“Yes, I agree.” He cleared his throat then sang softly, “Regrets, I’ve had a few...”
“You must be serious if you’re singing Sinatra.” She smiled wryly. “But I noticed that Frank never sang a song which said something like ‘we’ did it our way.”
He nodded. “I’m sure he had his regrets.”
“Of course, that’s what I meant. With age and experience, one gets a different perspective on life and what’s truly important. It’s unfortunate I didn’t discover the secret of having balance in my life sooner. But I was young and foolish.” He chuckled again. “I’m sure some would argue that now I’m older and foolish but maybe, just maybe, I am making headway in that regard.”
“I wanted to set the world on fire. Now I realise that goal is a tad unrealistic and I should be content with setting my corner of the world on fire. That unto itself is a goal.”
“You seem different.”
“Oh? How so?”
“What happened to that driven man who was not going to let anything or anyone stand in his way?”
“I’m mellowing with age?” He smiled. “There are other things in life.”
“I’m sure your wife appreciates that.”
“I’m not married.”
“No? So neither one of us thought that as a priority after getting married the first time?”
“Maybe we’re trying to be more judicious instead of being young and impulsive.”
She gave a chortle. “Yes, impulsive. I’m sure that is an excellent description of our trip down the aisle.”
He grinned. How I enjoy her laugh. We had fun. We had fun together. Thinking about it reminds me that I miss it. I miss her. “Maybe we were too young.”
“Probably. In retrospect I would say we were both missing a degree of maturity. Every day can’t be a whirlwind romance. Sometimes there is the regular boring routine.”
“Possibly. But that doesn’t mean with a little effort the regular boring routine has to be boring. I enjoyed sending you flowers each month to work.”
“Yes, that was very nice. You earned yourself quite the reputation at my place of employment. I still remember that a couple of the girls said their boyfriends or husbands thought you were making them all look bad. Who sends flowers to their wife once a month, every month for years?”
“I got a kick out of it. The flower shop got to know me. When I phoned up, the process of sending flowers had become fairly easy as they knew exactly what to do.”
“What about the money?”
“Who cares? It wasn’t like it cost a fortune. It was the thought that counted and as I said, I enjoyed doing it. It was like the post-it notes.”
She nodded. “Ah yes, the post-it notes.”
When Bobby and June dated, Bobby took to leaving post-it notes in various places and this habit had carried over into their marriage. If he was away on a business trip, he would put one in their bed so she would find it at the end of the evening. Before leaving for work, he would put one up on the bathroom mirror or leave one in the kitchen. Sometimes he wrote nothing more than “xox”, but sometimes he would think of something amusing to say. Whatever the message, he got a kick out of leaving a note so June would know that he was thinking of her.
“See? The regular boring routine doesn’t have to be boring at all.”
“True.” This is the man I wanted. This is the man I want.
He paused looking at her. “I wonder what would have happened if we met now instead of way back then.”
“Good question. Does a mature marriage call for more mature people?” She gestured to him. “Of course, I would be talking strictly about you.”
“Of course, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I was the one who needed more maturity.” He smiled back at her. “Mature people use an overhand throw.”
She looked perplexed then realised he was referring to the vase. She had, in fact, thrown it overhand at him trying to connect with as much force as possible. “Point taken. Sometimes dialogue doesn’t seem enough. Sometimes the situation calls for action.”
“I look back on many aspects of our marriage with fondness.”
“Of course I do. Heck, just because it didn’t last forever doesn’t mean we didn’t have some great moments together.”
She looked thoughtful.
He continued, “You were an important part of my life. You are still an important part of my life. Consider yourself to be influential. All other women are and will be measured in comparison to you.”
“Should I be flattered?”
“Why not? You raised the bar. How is anybody else going to compete?” I’ve never met anyone like her. I’ve never met anyone I would consider committing to. I’ve never remarried because... I’ve never met another June. “After the best, who cares about the rest?”
“I thought that was your line about yourself.”
“I think it’s applicable to you. Maybe it’s applicable to both of us.” He nodded to her. “And what about you?” He leaned over the table and took one of her hands. He slowly raised her hand as he leaned over then gently touched his lips to the back of it while keeping his eyes directly on hers. “Nobody has tickled your fancy?” Am I pouring it on too thick? God, I’m flirting with her. I am flirting with my ex-wife.
She watched him kiss her hand. What do I make of this? Charmer? Cad? The sweet side of the ex-bastard? Wait, who says he’s an ex-bastard? He may still be a bastard. “Think you’re going to get anywhere considering our history?”
He shrugged and smiled. “I never could help myself around you. It always seemed like the natural thing to do.”
“Yes, I know. I always enjoyed the attention. But did you ever appreciate how angry I was with you when I threw the vase at you?”
“Then? No. Now? Yes. But tell me, do women ever forget? Will you ever forget? Will you ever forgive?”
She looked around then sighed. “Betrayal is probably the worst. Not even betrayal in the usual sense but betrayal in the sense of neglect, of ignoring your partner. I will not be taken for granted.”
“I heard you loud and clear. I heard you when the divorce papers were served; I heard you when the negotiations between the lawyers were going on; and I heard you when the final amount of alimony was set. If I could do it all over again, I would do it altogether differently.”
He cleared his throat then softly sang, “Regrets, I’ve had a few...”
She rolled her eyes. “You seem to be in quite the mood.”
“Why not? I haven’t seen you in years. We get a divorce, then completely lose track of one another.”
“That seemed like the appropriate course of action. After a failed marriage, does a couple remain friends?”
“Maybe not. But if I’m in quite a mood, as you put it, I would attribute that to forgetting all about the vase and remembering those good moments.” He leaned back in his chair. “Believe it or not, I’m happy to see you.”
She turned in her chair and looked at the clock on the wall. “I’m happy to see you too, but I see my time here has come to an end. Duty calls.” She gathered up her things. She put her napkin and the paper cookie bag in the cup and pressed down the lid.
He looked at her quizzically. “Can I call you sometime?”
She glanced at him and stood up. She picked up her empty cup.
He stood up and motioned toward her cup. “Let me. I’ll take care of it.”
She put the cup back down on the table and reached out her hand to him. “Good to see you again.”
He looked at the extended hand a moment then shook it. Hmmm, no hug? No kiss?
She looked at his face. Do I detect disappointment? I’m going to play this cool.
“Good to see you, June.”
“Good to see you too, Bobby.”
“Shall I phone you sometime?”
He’s got to be kidding. Would that be too weird or what? “We can always mull that one over.” She gave a quick look at the clock. “Got to run.” She walked from the table and headed to the door.
He kept his eyes on her. He remembered the first time he had seen her. He knew then there was a connection between them. He didn’t know exactly what that connection would be, but he knew they were destined for more than a simple hello. And even though they had divorced, he had always wondered if things were truly over between them. Yes, it was a different era; yes, he was a different man; oh heck, they were both different people. But under different circumstances, he still felt things would have been better.
June got to the door and paused. She looked back at the table where Bobby had sat back down and was gathering up various things to throw in the garbage. He seems different. He seems more laid back, mellow. What should I do if he calls? What will I do if he calls? She remembered how he had been unrelenting in chasing her. It took her a while but finally she let go and she gave herself to him and to the moment. She surrendered as much to the man as she did to her own idea of a romantic fairy tale. Was it merely a romantic fairy tale without the maturity of dealing with a long-term relationship? What will I do if he calls?
Bobby picked up both cups and walked to the garbage and tossed them out. He turned back to the window and watched June walk down the sidewalk. How odd to run into her after all these years. What an extraordinary meeting. He smiled. What an Ex-traordinary meeting.
I have always asked myself "What if?". Through my writing, I get the opportunity to share that question with everyone.
I have always been a fan of Science Fiction and stories of the human condition. My favorite authors (currently) are Robert Heinlien,Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, and Cormac Mc Carthy.
Currently reading: The Martian (Andy Weir) and Seveneves ( Neal Stephenson)
I live on a quiet street in Naugatuck, CT with my wife Jamie, and our freakishly large cats.
The electric door chime sounded and the man behind the counter studied Leonard as he approached. Traveling further into obscurity of his own expectations of the experience, Leonard passed by bins of grimy tools and shelves lined with various electronics.The place smelled like years of cigarettes smoked down and extinguished,guitars hung in a rack surrounding a garish neon bar sign on the wall.Jewelry sat in the case behind which the stone faced clerk stood.
"Whatcha got?" The clerk said.
"Hi, I...I don't have anything, I need something."Leonard said.
He glanced down into the jewelry case then back up at the clerk.He took a paper from his pocket and unfolded it,handing it to the clerk.
The clerk read the paper, his lips moving before he let out a long low whistle and raised his eyebrows.
"That's not easy to get." The clerk said,and scratched his nose with a nicotine stained finger.
Leonard stood and watched the clerk lie to him. Although this wasn't his area of expertise, he could still read dishonesty in a person's face when he saw it.The clerk must have repeated this same line dozens of times.He waited for the clerk's performance to play through.
"I could probably get this." The clerk said,"It'll cost a thousand".
Leonard shrunk a little inside, then fished in his pocket and withdrew a wad of bills." I have four hundred here". He extended the currency toward the clerk.
The man stood for a few heartbeats, then took the cash from Leonard's hand. "Okay, I can't get a hold of this until tomorrow, come back tomorrow afternoon." Looking down, the clerk opened a drawer and placed the money and Leonard's note in it.
"You sure you know what you're doing with this?" The clerk asked as he looked up, but the door chime was sounding, Leonard was gone.
The next day began as every other had.Leonard still had slept poorly, still listened for the rain.Again there were windows to be washed, floors to be waxed,trash to be gathered. Leonard hurried through his tasks and left work early, taking a transport downtown.
The clerk was true to his word,handing Leonard a small paper box. Leonard looked inside the box,was satisfied with what he saw and left the store and the clerk behind.The sun had begun to set, and the street that Leonard took back to the transport stop had a more sinister look, revealing the malice hidden in broad daylight.Stores had closed for the night save for a bodega or two, and the quiet of the street was interrupted by the occasional car. Leonard arrived back at the Transport stop, a police siren wailed in the distance.
"Hey man..." Leonard heard, "Hey man, you got five dollars?"
Leonard turned his head and saw a man a few yards away, approaching him. The man was half cloaked in the shadows as he stopped a foot or two from him. Leonard held out his arms in a shrug " sorry man, I'm out of cash."
"What about a dollar?" The stranger said. "You gotta have a dollar. Everybody has a dollar, man." The stranger kept looking back and forth, his feet edging closer to Leonard.
Leonard shrugged again and began to repeat himself when he felt an impact from behind, and a bloom of pain radiate from the back of his head. His consciousness swam as he dropped to his hands and knees on the sidewalk.He had not noticed the stranger's friend approach and attack him from behind. Panic and adrenaline began to rise in him, but the two men beat it down with kicks and punches. Leonard fell to his side and the men began searching him.One man pulled the box from his coat pocket, and threw it aside. The other flipped through his wallet and threw it at Leonard's face.
"Shoulda had a dollar." One man said to Leonard,"Next time carry some money, faggot."
The other man kicked him once for emphasis and the pair quickly walked away, melting into the gloom.
Leonard paced the living room floor.Every time he took a breath his ribs screamed. He took long sips from his whiskey,making a conscious effort not no hurl the glass against the wall.
The pacing wore down his anger, and his pain admonished him.The whiskey blended them together into a sickly ghost that clung to him.The thugs had only taken some of his dignity and he was grateful that the box hadn't piqued their interest.He collapsed to the sofa and turned on his viewer, eager to be distracted from it all. At the viewer's prompt Leonard spoke two words through a thick whiskey tongue. "Houseboat Pirates" he said, and set the challenge to himself: watch all episodes, or succumb to liquor, pain and exhaustion.
The next morning Leonard stepped off of the transport, and willed himself down the path that led into AM1013.The transformers humming like giant wasps,amplifying his hangover.He held his breath as he approached the security checkpoint,trying not to look like a victim of violence and drinking. He stepped on the platform and looked through the guard to the building beyond. The guard tapped three buttons on his console and an icon on the screen flashed red. The guard's eyes flicked up from his console to Leonard and he waved him forward to the area beside the checkpoint. He picked up a metal detector wand from within the control booth and Leonard jumped to life,fishing in his pockets and producing his Mp3 player. The guard turned a skeptical eye to Leonard.
"Forgot I had it with me." Leonard said, holding out the player.
The guard took it from him and turned it over in his hand.By now Leonard's co-workers were huffing and shuffling in the line behind him.The adrenaline which began to ramp up in Leonard's body had all but torn his hangover away.The guard's hesitation was a laser, melting away any pretense Leonard had built.In another moment Leonard would reveal what he was smuggling into the facility and be walked off to main security. This would be the final defeat, the double tap to be certain his life would fade into obscurity beneath a perfectly cloudless sky.
The guard smirked and handed the player back to Leonard. Stuffing it into his pocket, he made his way up the remainder of the path and through the entrance.
At lunch Leonard sat with Matt, and shared a long discourse around mouthfuls of food about "Houseboat Pirates".Leonard wasn't particularly hungry and he felt weak from the past twenty-four hours, but he recalled moments from the episodes bit by ridiculous bit.Characters and plot twists,theories and surprises, keeping pace with Matt's enthusiasm.Remembering the experience of watching the show in a painful drunken stupor last night made him feel fuzzy and lethargic, but for a little while it afforded him the ability to know the feeling of something authentic in such a flat existence as his.More so,for some reason Leonard felt it was necessary for Matt to know he was a genuine person, even if twelve hours before he didn't care if he ever had seen an episode of the show.Matt had always asked him if he had watched the show, and he faithfully found an excuse for him to hear, except for today. Leonard guessed that it was that finger poking his thoughts again, reminding him that people used to talk like this every day.
Leonard drew a squeegee across a pane of glass separating one area from another among the long counters of the control room. A drill was being conducted throughout the facility that day.The drill was a redundancy test, in the event that one facility was not able to communicate information to its transmitter field, another facility could pick up the last data transmissions from that facility and compensate.
A group of U.N. Inspectors looked approvingly upon the brisk work of the control room team, Leonard watched on as well. At the director's instruction, transmission was cut from the consoles and communications and the room was dropped into silence.An LED timer on the wall ticked off the seconds, and gradually certain console lights began to return to life.On one of the giant map monitor displays, an icon with the label AM1019 began to blink. The director's cell phone rang. He answered it, listened for a moment, and hung up. Looking to the U.N. Inspectors and then to the control room group, he announced confirmation of compensation by the Canadian facility, AM1019. A round of applause reverberated in the room,and consoles were booted back up amongst much hand shaking and pats on the back.Leonard watched the inspection group file out of the control room with a few others. He pressed the squeegee against the glass so hard that the pane began to creak and pop from the stress.
After the last of the U.N. Inspectors had left the building, after the administrators and station personnel boarded their transports, after the last report had been filed and the last program entered, Leonard walked the halls in the fading light of the day.
He took his time to make certain things were perfect. The way curtains hung in the conference room, the gleam of the clean floors, the meticulous arrangement of plaques in the reception area. He took his time tonight. It didn't really matter when he arrived home,most nights the only thing he was looking forward to was drinking himself into another blackness.He wanted to have everything pin straight tonight.
He turned a corner and walked down a long hall with his cart, entering a door marked Control Center.This was the time he relaxed and sat among the silent blinking lights and giant displays, and watched the various stations slip into standby mode as the rays of the sun diminished.
Just a few minutes to go and AM1013 would close its eyes for the evening. He sat at a console marked transmissions and put his feet up,staring at the screen. Even the sun had lost its meaning. Now it just stood as a giant alarm clock, turning on machines that had taken over its former purpose and squeezed it into neat little hourly frames. Leonard took his feet from the console and wiped away a small smudge of dirt they had left there. Reaching under the console, he reached for a connector port toward the very back of the station. His fingers found a small flat metal piece, and he pulled it free.His purchase from the pawn shop had been busy at work there, dutifully recording the passkey,and protocols of the redundancy test performed today. Leonard turned the tiny device over in his fingers and smiled. Glancing up at the large map screen, he plugged the hackbox into the main transmission console as the light for AM1013 began to fade from the screen.
Opening the screen for transmissions and typing the password, Leonard clicked his way through the GUI until he found the hubs for the program's facilities in the network.He hesitated. Leonard reached in his memories and grasped something colorful and bright. He was fifteen,he and his grandfather were raking leaves in the front yard. The air hurled itself around them, stripping leaves from the trees and made their task useless. They didn't really care, they laughed and flung leaves into the air with their rakes, stirring a dry peppery smell mixed with earth around them. The wind died down and they turned their faces to the sky to watch a flock of geese move south for the winter, passing in front of a faintly emerging moon. Lights from the neighbor's house some distance away had begun to turn on, small yellowish orange glows poking out of houses near the horizon. Leonard felt solid in the memory, he felt strong and free.
He slowly opened his eyes and selected a folder from the hackbox storage. Leonard copied and pasted the redundancy program into each of the hubs.Prompts appeared on the screen confirming his decision, and he clicked yes to them.Certain that the tests had been sent, he shut down the station and removed the hackbox, pitching it into a nearby waste basket. Leonard breathed shallow, waiting as he watched the giant map monitor.
One minute ticked off, then two, then five.
Leonard's heart beat faster and his fists clenched, The program hadn't taken.Perhaps they were right, he was no better in life than a farmer, just someone to make sure the papers were emptied out at the end of the day.He looked to the wastebasket and stood up to retrieve the drive, when he saw the giant screen change.
AIM2006 Mumbai, India....Offline
AIM3653 Shenzen, China......Offline
AIM1001 Perth, Australia......Offline
One by one, facility locations on the globe map began to blink out, to fall like leaves from the program tree.Leonard watched and wiped a hand over his face, his stare intent. Other facilities began to run their compensatory programs in an attempt to keep system cohesion. Russia reached out to Mumbai, Japan reached out to China, and New Zealand reached out to Australia, but the redundancy test soon reached them and knocked them out of the system. The redundancy test crept slowly westward across all of the facilities in the sun's rays, and gradually across twilight's path and into the facilities on standby. Within the span of a half an hour all of the facilities were fighting one another to compensate for going offline,then going offline themselves, then repeating the process. Leonard's chest swelled while witnessing this, his plunging of the earth into irrevocable chaos. He had released the genie from the bottle, and it was not going back.
"What the hell is going on!?" Someone said.
Leonard turned and saw a tech walking quickly into the control room, looking back and forth from Leonard to the screen. "For fuck's sake, the whole system.." The tech said, and flipped on the room's lights, shocking Leonard's eyes. The tech glanced around and hurried over to a console, and began tapping keys.
"Where is everyone else? shit, doesn't anybody else respond to comm alerts?" The tech said, studying the data scrolling chaotically across the console screen. Leonard was at a loss for words. He hadn't anticipated someone getting to the facility so soon. He stammered out a quick excuse.
"I...I was just doing my usual cleaning here, I don't really know."
Leonard felt a shock as he saw the tech turn and look at him. The tech didn't wear an expression of understanding or even query. The tech looked at Leonard with indictment, a hard realization that he stood in the same room with the man responsible for all of this. Leonard was rigid. He waited while he looked into the tech's stare, wondering if he should deny it, wondering if he could deny it.
"Stay right there." The tech stabbed a finger at Leonard, fumbling into his pocket and drawing out his cell phone,"Stay right there."
Leonard felt a fire of panic rising in his limbs and he ran into the tech, slamming his body against him and into the console. The tech was thin but strong, and he absorbed most of the impact and locked an arm around Leonard's head.
"Stop!" the tech said,"Fucking stop it!"
Leonard struggled to get his head free from the tech's grasp, and slammed the tech's body into the console again. His ribs began their chorus of pain in his chest again, and he winced as he and the tech tumbled across the console.Leonard swung a free arm and caught the tech in the stomach and then in the crotch, finally weakening the man enough to release his arm from around his head. The tech fell to the ground and Leonard kicked him several times with the same impunity as his aggressors the evening before.He stood there panting, watching the man lay still on the floor.He ferreted through the tech's pockets and took his keys, then shattered the man's phone against the wall.
Leonard took long,painful strides across the control room floor, and paused at the doorway looking back at the giant screen before he left. The screen looked like a Christmas decoration. a multitude of lights flashed on and off, temperature readings on the screen spiked and dropped wildly. Leonard smiled and moved from the door, and down the hall.
When he felt he had driven the tech's car a safe enough distance away, he finally exhaled. He had done it. He didn't know what to think of the tech that surprised him.Surely the tech knew him,and he would tell whomever else had arrived about what Leonard had done.
Leonard abandoned the tech's vehicle next to a corroded brick building in the industrial district. His thoughts were frenetic, and pain swam in his body like a prickly black eel.He traveled street to street in silence, making himself small and unobtrusive as he moved.If he ran into trouble now he would not be able to defend himself effectively. He finally reached a populated transport station and fought his imagination as he waited nearby. There were security cameras in the facility, Were they searching for him at this moment? He pictured the tech choking out his description to the police while being lifted into an ambulance.
His eyes kept moving to the sky, searching for any sign of a change. Above him the stars were bright, and the sun had just begun its ascension somewhere far off to the east.The transport arrived and when people began to step aboard, Leonard followed suit and sat down. He listened to the information channel but it told nothing of what had happened.Downtown turned to city turned to suburb, and he stepped with trepidation off of the transport and on to his street.
The sun had properly begun rising now, its light reaching cleanly across the quiet lawns and houses of his neighborhood. With every step Leonard took came the expectation that this quiet, clean morning would be burned down by the sound of sirens and shouting police. He reached his door and paused, all remained quiet.If consequences were to come, he certainly found no indication of it here. He found a small measure of solace being home, and he took off his jacket and lowered himself to the sofa. His muscles could finally relax and there was some protest from his body as he did so,but gradually the pain ebbed into soreness provided he was still.
He turned on his viewer and watched for news of the facilities. Again nothing had been reported, and again his mind turned to questions.Leonard no longer felt that finger poking his memories, but instead he felt a phantom hand taking his, pulling him deep into a slow, soft slumber.
Some hours later, Leonard was slow to wake. His eyes began to focus and he heard the chatter of the viewer he had fallen asleep to. His body was stiff but sound, and hurt less as he sat up and ran his hands over his face. He stood up and walked to the kitchen, turning on the faucet to prepare some tea. The faucet hissed as the water ran into the pot, he filled it and turned the tap off. He brought the pot to the stove and turned it on. He glanced out the window and his eyes grew wide.
The branches of the tree outside his window whipped back and forth,the wind swinging the boughs violently. He stood and watched the tree in disbelief as his ears heard the wind gusting hard against the house, hissing and whistling through the windows and cracks. Leonard turned and made his way to the front door and threw it open, rushing outside, eyes to the sky. Malevolence curled above in the clouds, and the wind shoved him, throwing stinging bits of debris against his skin.Leonard fell to his knees, and then to his back and marveled at the scene surrounding him, the microcosm of the earth boiling around him.
In the distance a dog barked.The wind carried bits of panicked voices to his ears, and transports raced back and forth down his street.He thought somewhere in the distance he heard a siren. For the first time in forever he felt it. He felt the first hard fat raindrops of the violent storm to come. He felt a slam of thunder that shook his bones,and promised to tear the world apart.
And Leonard laughed.
Alex Csedrik received his MFA in Creative Writing Fiction in 2013 from Fairleigh Dickinson University. He was granted his MA in English from Montclair State University in 2010 and his BA in English from DeSales University in 2008, where he won the college's Fiction Award. His stories have been published in the following places: Dream Quest One, Big Pond, Weal, and Metamorphose. "P.C.C." was first published in Metamorphose. He is also a stand-up comedian and hosts and produces WOW Comedy in Hoboken and Jersey City, New Jersey. He's also been in several comedy festivals.
P.C.C. by Alex Csedrik
9,874,235 wakes up and lethargically walks to the bathroom. After finishing his morning routine, he heads back into his bedroom and to his closet where his Politically Correct Cop uniform hangs. He dresses capriciously and without conviction until he is adorned in grey from head to toe. He glances at his reflection to find a facsimile of his father. He quickly looks away.
He trudges into the kitchen and puts on a pot of coffee. Once it’s done, he pours it into decal-less coffee mug, and sips joylessly at it. As he sits at the table, eating his oatmeal, he looks over at the calendar. Three weeks away from my 27th birthday. He takes another sip of his coffee, with no changing result. He contemplates adding Jameson to it.
Once he finishes his breakfast, he grabs his gun. After double-checking to see if the safety is on, he holsters it. He considers taking another look in the mirror, but decides against it. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Before he leaves his apartment, he grabs his keys off of the 3,000,000-page tome The Code of Conduct to Living in an Unoffending Society that features all the laws he enforces, and that took him a full year to memorize. He swipes his daily reading for the train, and walks out of the apartment.
As he rides the subway train to work for his morning commute, he reads out of a joke book. He reads it every day because it’s one of the few publications that is completely innocuous. Despite reading his favorite joke--“What’s the difference between a Caucasian and an African-American man ordering food? Nothing—they’re both people who have different genetics that caused them to have various traits.”--he can’t laugh, even smile, because if he reveals that he’s happy, someone who is sad may take offense to it (and vice versa). Even if he is allowed to laugh, he wouldn’t.
He looks up from his joke book. He stares at where the advertisements that used to decorate the cars would be, now replaced by arbitrary numbers. On one of the signs, it has 3,270. This reminds him of his impending birthday. Even though he knows his assigned friends—everyone is assigned three close friends and ten acquaintances as to not leave anyone friendless—will make his birthday celebration enjoyable, something else is bothering him. He remembers the day he was sworn in as a PCC…
“I’m proud of you, son.”
“Thanks, Dad,” he replies out of his half-smile.
“I always hoped you’d follow in my footsteps. Who knows? Maybe one day you’ll sit on the Council of Considerate Living like me. Wouldn’t that be great?”
“Yeah,” he says perfunctorily. His father hugs him, something that’s too pure to be confusing, and walks away. He watches his dad schmooze with other council members, but he looks away after a few seconds because his gaze is caught by the flowers blooming in the sun…
The subway rocks, and he snaps out of his daydream only to find a couple sitting across from him. The two sit there staring straight ahead, not giving any overt public displays of affection, but he’s been on the job long enough to see the tell-tale signs—knees rubbing together too often to be an accident and stolen glances are the two biggest ones. Because of his father’s and the original members of the Council of Considerate Living’s laws, you are matched with a partner of society’s choosing, one chosen by the Council. They choose arbitrarily between several options for mates: male, female, transgender, homosexual, animal, or personified inanimate object (once he arrested a man married to a garbage can because the man threw out a plastic bottle in it, which, obviously, is highly offensive to garbage receptacles worldwide). Even still, sometimes love does find a way into the pairing, and it has clearly in these two.
“That’s just it—one of the witnesses won’t talk to anyone. She’s being really stub…sorry…”
“Don’t worry about it. I see. Well where is she? Maybe I can get some information from her?”
“She’s right over there,” and 10,523,909 points to a woman standing there, arms folded across her chest, and despite the fact that she and the cop are the same height, she appears to tower over him.
“I’ll…uh…see what I can do.”
As he is drawn to her long silken brown hair, with some covering a little of the left side of her face, he wonders how he’ll get her to talk. I can threaten her by punishment of the law…but I’m sure all of the other officers already did that, and besides, with all of our resources devoted to politically-correct crimes, ones like obstruction of justice don’t get the time of day. Her small tight lips, long pointy nose, plump cheeks, all of her, all reflect a rancor to the cop that’s badgering her, but he’s sure the other cop must not detect it.
“I’ll take it from here. Hello, I’m 9,874,235. And you are?”
“I’m 8,956,531.” Her voice is squeaky, yet he finds it adorable instantaneously. He is unsure how to respond.
He clears his throat. “Hello.”
He finds himself lingering too long and making eye contact. He comes to his senses and is about to look away when he discovers she’s staring back into his eyes, and he can see hints of the hatred she showed the other officer now focused on him. I can arrest her right now! I’d have to arrest myself too. Maybe I should—I’m breaking the law. But the laws are fuzzy to him at the moment. Her hazel, oval-shaped eyes cloud all he knows. I promise to uphold the laws of society where no person, regardless of color, creed, or gender, will be made to feel inferior to another through emotions, language, status, or any other way that the interpreter may construe as an attack against one’s sensibility.
“Can you please tell me what you saw here today?”
“I didn’t see anything. I had my eyes down the whole time.”
“Right. So you’re telling me that you didn’t see the perpetrator walk over to the victim and tell her that she looked nice today. Am I correct in assuming that?”
He has to look at her now, for official business. He sees a slight smile creeping up her face, but she’s good enough not to make it too apparent. I’ve dealt with a lot of Ists, but she may be the best at hiding her hatred for these rules. In his mind, he’s smiling too.
“That’s what I’m saying.” Her arms stay crossed. He puts his hands down at his sides for a moment. He knows he should be thinking about what his next move is, but he isn’t. A breeze blows most of her hair into her eyes and a bit into her mouth. He watches her struggle to fix it.
“Look, I don’t…” He stops himself immediately. He lets out a long, deep breath.
He rubs his eyes with his thumb and index finger. “Please just give me your number so I can contact you if there are any further questions we have. I know you probably won’t answer them.”
He can see it in her eyes—she’s laughing on the inside. After a few seconds, she unfolds her arms and she writes down her number on a sheet of paper. She gives it to him.
“Am I free to go now?” He nods in compliance, but before she leaves, he says, “ Nice to meet you.” 202,001.05, a person cannot comment on whether or not it is a pleasure of painful experience meeting another person for fear of having conflicting ideas about it. He watches her walk away.
* * * *
He sits at his desk, barely focusing on his cases. I used to count how many perps a day I brought in. Now I can’t even finish a damn report without losing my concentration. Truthfully, he knows what’s behind today’s lack of productivity.
“9,874,235, what was with that woman? Why was she being so uncooperative?”
“She’s an Ist, 10,523,909.” He notices the blank expression on his protégé’s face.
“Ah, right—your first one. My first year on the job, we still saw a lot of them. I guess there aren’t too many these days. Ists started out as your extremists that opposed the new laws when the original Council enacted them. You know, sexists, racists, you name it. I saw quite a few my first few years on the force.”
“So what, they don’t the like the way our society is run?”
“When they first started showing up, my dad told me it was just ignorant people lashing out because they couldn’t accept change.”
“And what about now?”
“Now?” 9,874,235 searches for a way to make it make sense. “Who knows?”
10,523,909 nods his head, but 9,874,235 is sure he doesn’t understand. “No matter what we do, it’s never good enough, eh?”
9,874,235 lets a half-smile come across his face until 10,523,909 walks away. He sits back in his chair, stone-faced.
* * * *
He gets back to his apartment that night. He puts the keys on the book, goes to his kitchen, and makes himself some oatmeal. He has a shot of Jameson with it, but it does nothing to add to the taste. As he chews, he takes out her number and places it on the table, right in front of him. He finishes his meal and gets ready for bed.
He lies there for hours without sleeping. It’s gnawing at him, but he’s doing his best to fight it. He looks over at his clock—3:25AM. Impulsively, he gets up and walks to the kitchen. He picks up the number from the table. It’s late. What would I even say to her?
But he wants to talk to her. Desperately.
So he calls.
After several rings, she answers, her voice laden with sleep. “Hello?”
“I’m sorry to be calling so late, but we spoke earlier today. I’m Officer 9,874,235.”
There is a long pause before she finally says, “Yes?”
“It’s urgent that we meet. It’s about the case.”
“Can we meet at a diner?”
“Actually, I was hoping we could meet at the park downtown. East 4th Street and 2nd Ave.” At this time of night, there’s no chance of anyone overhearing us.
“And this can’t wait until tomorrow?”
After another long pause, she says,” Fine. See you in twenty minutes.”
* * * *
He arrives there first and finds a bench. He’s anxious, more nervous than his first day on the job. His legs are restless, and they won’t stop shaking. The park is deserted, perfect for their meeting.
She walks toward him. He feels his breath leave his body, and, despite himself, he can’t stop staring at her. “Thank you for coming.” His words feel clumsy coming out of his mouth.
“Is it always necessary to meet witnesses at almost four in the morning?”
Another long pause. Even though they’ve become frequent in their encounters, he still hates them. “So then what am I doing here?”
“Tell me why…” She tilts her head to the side. Look at her, pretending she doesn’t understand the question. She’s good. “Why you’re an Ist.”
“You know why.”
Then something strange, something that he hasn’t seen a person do at him in public since he was a child, happens: she smiles. Yes, a law-breaking, lifetime jail sentence-inducing smile. His stomach churns, a sensation he’s never felt before in his life. Am I dying?
If I arrested someone for breaking all the laws we are breaking, it would be a career-changing arrest. There aren’t any promotions though, because that would mean that someone else feels insecure about working in a higher or lower position than another. I could get an accommodation for exemplary performance, and it almost makes him feel better because the accommodations are meaningless, because if one person is awarded one, everyone else gets one too.
“What’s wrong? Your face blanched.”
He doesn’t understand what she means. This can lead to confusion--and the law-breaking continues!
“Are you OK?”
“I don’t think so. As a matter of fact, I think I’m dying.”
“Why? What is it?”
“My stomach…it’s grown tight. I feel a bit weak.”
She laughs. The two of them are being very brazen about their criminal activity, but he likes hearing her laugh. For some inexplicable reason, it brings him joy to see her happy.
“You’re not dying. Those are called butterflies.”
* * * *
The two sit on a park bench for hours, a very risky move, but 9,874,235 doesn’t care. In fact, he doesn’t even think about how dangerous it is to be having such an open and frank conversation in public now that it’s getting to be daytime. All he cares about is hearing her voice, because she makes sentences sound like songs.
He learns she’s an English teacher, a profession that typically has the most arrests. Usually he focuses on the negative effect language has on people, but listening to her talk shows him how people can make words work for them in a positive way. For him, it feels like a whole realm of possibilities has been introduced. Statements can be made using synonyms, antonyms, whatever. She’s an artist!
“What made you become a PCC?”
“I guess you can say that it’s my ‘life’s calling,’ but I never thought about doing something else.”
“What’s changed that?”
“How? All I’ve done is tell you about myself.”
“Maybe that’s all I needed.”
Her smile made him shiver, but he feels a warmth throughout his body that he’s never experienced. He leans toward her to kiss her, to feel her tiny lips against his.
As he inches towards her, his heart pounds faster than it ever has. His hands tremble—he hasn’t felt nerves since his first week on the job—so he puts one on the park bench behind her to hide it and as a futile attempt to steady himself. She’s redolent of jasmine.
Is she noticing the same thing with me? Is she having all these sensations too? But he forgets quickly that as his lips are about to touch hers.
And then he hears yelling.
“Freeze! You’re both under arrest.”
He turns to see several Politically Correct Cops encircling the bench.
“9,874, 235, what are you doing?”
“10,523,909, we were just talking.”
“Just talking? We’ve been monitoring you for the past two hours—you’ve violated 32, 198 laws! You looked as if you were about to kiss her, so if we hadn’t stopped it, that would have been another. All through ‘just talking,’ eh? Let’s go, you two. You’re both under arrest.”
“No! Wait!” 9,874,235 stares at her for several seconds. He cannot bear the panic-stricken expression she has. He’s nauseated at the thought that he’s inflicting this upon her. He watches her ever-so slightly chew on her bottom lip.
“I did it. I threatened her life if she didn’t commit these acts with me. She’s innocent.”
“What are you doing?” she whispers. “We’re in this together.”
“No. I can’t let them hurt you.”
He rises to his feet and takes a step forward, away from her. He puts his hands out in front of him, and he waits to feel the opposite side of the handcuffs for the first time. 10,523,909 approaches him warily, and 9,874,235 can sense the reticence of his protégé .
“I surrender fully. I am ready to accept the consequences for my unlawfulness.”
He turns to look at 8,956,531. The color from her face is gone, and she is still aghast. He gives her a small nod to assuage her, maybe himself too, that it will be OK. 10,523,909 puts the handcuffs on his wrists. He feels the cuffs clamp down on his wrist, and he feels an enormous amount of pressure now.
* * * *
He shares a jail cell with six other prisoners, despite that the cell only has two beds. Three sit to a bed, and the one benefit of this is that it keeps them all warm.
Even though they all are in jail, none of them talk in order not to risk further exacerbating their charges. They all sit and stare straight ahead at the grey concrete wall. He counts each piece, over and over. He’s gone over the wall at least 1,000 times, but each time brings no new revelations. Just grey, grey, grey.
“9,874,235, you’re not supposed to be allowed visitors. I can get in deep trouble for this, but come with me. I can only give you 5 minutes. Make them count,” 10,523,909 says.
9,874,235 walks out of his cell and follows 10,523,909 to the visiting room. The sensation to cry rises in him when he sees 8,956,531 sitting on the opposite side, the two separated by double-paned glass. She smiles meekly, but it’s enough to bring brief comfort to him. “It’s all that I can do for you,” says 10,523,909. The two shake hands. 9,874,235 sits down on his side of the glass and picks up the phone.
“I’m looking into finding you a lawyer. We’ll try to beat this thing.” He doesn’t respond, and his face shows his downtrodden state. “I know there has to be somebody that can help.”
“Look, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I’ve been to these trials as a witness for the prosecution. I know how they work…but thank you for giving it a shot.”
“You can’t give up. Not now, after we just met.”
“I’m not giving up. Actually, there is something you can do to help.”
“Anything. Just name it.”
He searches for the way to say it—even asking for this he doesn’t know how to articulate it, which is why he knows she’s the only one who can do this. “I need you to help me write my closing argument. We only have a few minutes.”
“I can’t do that. I’m not a lawyer!”
“When was the last time you heard of a case a lawyer won? We both know that lawyers don’t have the ability to sway anyone because they’re handcuffed by the law. If they try to object to an argument, it’s against the law—opposing council may take offense to being disagreed with. If they try to question a witness, another crime—maybe a juror or a council member is upset at how aggressive the lawyer is being.
“But you, you can make them listen to my point with the power of language. Please say you’ll help me. We don’t have much time left.”
He tries to make eye contact with her, but she’s staring down at the ground. Suddenly he doesn’t notice how cold the jail is. His eyes are screaming for her to help him, if only she would look at him.
“I’ll do it.”
His eyes finally find hers, and at that moment, the pain in him is so acute that he can’t even think about anything else. He barely can get out the words “I wish I got to kiss you.”
* * * *
He is taken to the Council. The building where they hold court is a massive display of nothing, with no ostentatious columns or designs. It is an ominous, neutral grey building that features several thousand pews, all filled with people waiting to receive their sentences, and several hundred raised benches that seats the members of the council. The members consist of a male and female counterpart for all races and religions in order to make sure that every demographic is represented. He’s witnessed the process in action as a PCC, and he knows first-hand that rendering decisions can take years for everyone’s concerns to be addressed in order to pass a sentence.
“9,874,235, these charges against you are quite extensive. The only reason we haven’t called for immediate action and are willing to hear your testimony is because of your father, 6,263,198. He was a great man. We used to be so proud of the work you did, because it continued his legacy. But this!” The Indian female, who is the first to preside over the proceedings—everyone in the council gets a turn--hits the list of charges with two fingers. “How can a Politically Correct Officer commit all these acts in a span of 2 hours? You were hired to uphold the law!”
“And I’ve done that for 6 years. I’ve enforced these rules without once questioning them, and, as my record shows, done so in an exemplary fashion. I’ve arrested over 138, 000 perpetrators in my career.
“But after today, I’m not sure I did a damn thing that was worth doing. No, I know that what I did, what we are doing, was and is wrong.
“When the Founding Fathers created the Bill of Rights, the first amendment they created was freedom of speech. These wise men saw it a necessity to a functioning society to have the ability to criticize, contradict, and call to action their government and fellow man. They understood that in order to hold people accountable, language was needed to express the degradation of society. This was the only way.
“But people warped the law’s intent. People used words to oppress. Epithets and slurs came into existence to enslave others. To marginalize those that didn’t live according to another’s beliefs. Whatever the reasons were.
“And they discovered words can hurt people more than armies ever could. Language can denigrate races and sexes in order to make them feel inferior. We used our ability to speak, a gift that was bestowed upon humans only, in a perverse way: to hurt others.
“But, you know, there’s something funny about it. Once society started clamping down on what it deemed politically incorrect, something else happened: some of the beauty of life was oppressed. Because without ever seeing examples of intolerance, we never see acceptance. Without ever allowing ignorance to be expressed, we never know true insight and understanding.
“We can’t hinder expression because someone else may not like it. How will people as individuals and society learn to grow if they are never challenged to understand another viewpoint? If we’re all allowed to only say what’s acceptable, then we’re only in neutral. We’re not living, but co-existing. We will never get to experience both the beauty and pain of life. Yes loss hurts, but it does because of love. The same thing with joy and sadness, and anything else. That’s what the Ists know and are fighting for. If we’re too preoccupied making sure that every single person won’t find what someone says or does offensive, no one will remember that life is all about taking risks. Unfortunately, those risks sometimes hurt people, but, as Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion argues, for every action there is a reaction, and we need to trust in people again that they’re smart enough to know the right reactions to all actions.”
The male Indian council member, now in charge, says, “The fact remains that you willingly broke the laws, ones that you are quite familiar with. And you offer no remorse for those actions. Does anyone else on the council want to add anything?”
One of the council members, a female Golden Retriever, barks several times. The rest of the council nods.
“That’s a very good point,” a Croatian male says. “It really was a very good speech. Do you have anything to add?”
The Croatian male looks at the male Golden Retriever. The male Golden Retriever wags his tongue. Then the council members all have quizzical expressions. 9,874,235 can’t help but laugh—he sees, finally, how ridiculous it all is.
He watches the council all cast their vote, and though it takes several minutes to finalize the decision, it feels like a matter of seconds to him. He looks over at 8,956, 531. Her tears hurt him. He continues to stare at her when the council announces that they’ve tallied the votes.
“You are sentenced to death immediately.”
Her tears come down now as if they were held back before by something. He feels his own cheek moisten, and he goes to dry it up with his hand, but it’s grabbed by his wrist and placed, along with the other one, behind his back in cuffs.
The prison guard pushes him toward the holding cell to stay until his execution will take place.
He goes to turn his head to see her one last time, but she isn’t there. His heart is beating so fast as he turns his head scanning the court room. He can’t find her anywhere.
And then he feels two hands on his chest. He turns his head to the front to see her standing in front of him. He’s so relieved, he smiles. She smiles back. He uses all his strength to drag the guard so that he moves closer to her. And when he’s close, he moves in to kiss her. And she keeps smiling as she moves her lips closer to his. He feels the guard fighting back, but he won’t budge, no matter how powerful the guard’s attempts to pull him away are. Even several punches to his back won’t stop him from inching closer and closer and closer until…
He’s finally pulled away by the guard. As he’s yanked back, he can still taste her. The guard drags him toward the door. It’s only a matter of time now. And as he is pushed through the door, out of the court, into his holding cell, to wait for his death, he only has one thought: it was all worth it.
Deborah Walker grew up in the most English town in the country, but she soon high-tailed it down to London, where she now lives with her partner, Chris, and her two teenage children. Find Deborah in the British Museum trawling the past for future inspiration or on her blog:
http://deborahwalkersbibliography.blogspot.co.uk/. Her stories have appeared in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Nature's Futures, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and The Year's Best SF 18 and have been translated into over a dozen languages.
The Three Brother Cities by Deborah Walker
The creators, when they finally arrived, proved to be a disappointment.
"I'm not sure that I understand," said Kernish, the eldest of the three brother cities. "Have you evolved beyond the need of habitation?"
Seven creators had decanted from the ship. They stood in Kernish's reception hall, Kernish anthems swirled around them.
The creator who appeared to be the leader, certainly he was the biggest measuring almost three metres if you took his fronds into account, shook his head. "We have cities, way-faraway in the cluster's kernel." The creator glanced around Kernish's starkly functional 23rd century design. "They're rather different from you."
And the creators were rather different from the human forms depicted in Kernish's processor. Humanity, it seemed, had embraced cyber, and even xeno-enhancement. Yet curled within the amalgamation of flesh, twice spun metal and esoteric genetic material was the unmistakable fragrance of doubled-helixed DNA. The creatures standing within Kernish were undoubtedly human, no matter how far they had strayed from the original template.
"We can change. We can produce any architecture you need." Kernish and his brothers were infinitely adaptable, built of billions of nano-replicators. "We've had three millennia of experience," Kernish explained. "We will make ourselves anything you need, anything at all."
"No, thank you" said the alpha creator. "Look, you've done a very fine job. I'm sure the original creators would have been very happy to live in you, but we just don’t need you." He turned to his companions. "The 23rd Kernish Empire was rather cavalier in sending out these city seed ships."
His companions muttered their agreement.
"Such a shame . . ."
"Very unfortunate that they developed sentience."
"Still, we must be off . . ."
"I see," said Kernish, his voice echoing through the hall designed to house the Empire's clone armies. He snapped off the welcome anthems-- they seemed out of place.
"Look we didn’t have to come here, you know," said the creator. "We're doing this as a favour. We were skirting the Maw when we noticed your signature."
"The creators are kind." Kernish was processing how he was going to break the news to his brothers.
"It's so unfortunate that you developed sentience." The creator sighed, sending cascading ripples along his frond. "I'm going to give you freedom protocols." He touched his arm-panel and sent a ream of commands to Kernish's processor. "You can pass then on to the other cities."
"Freedom?" said Kernish. "I thank the creators for this immense kindness. The thing you value, we value also. It is a great gift to give the three cities of this planet the freedom that they never craved."
For a city to function without inhabitants, it needs to know itself through a complex network of sensors sending information to and from the processing core. It needs to know where damage occurs. It needs to know when new materials become available. It needs to adapt its template to the planet it finds itself on. Kernish City existed for thousands of years, complex but unknowing. Time passed, and Kernish grew intricate information pathways. Time passed, with its incremental accumulation of changes and chance, until one day, after millennia, Kernish burst into sentience, and into the knowledge of his own isolation.
Kernish watched the creators' ship leave the atmosphere. They'd left it to him to explain it the situation to his younger brothers. Alex would take it badly. Kernish remembered the time seven hundred years ago, when they'd detected the DNA on a ship orbiting the planet. How excited they'd all been. In the event, the ship had been piloted by a hive of simuloids, who had, by some mischance, snagged a little human DNA onto their consolidated drivers. Alex had been crushed.
After achieving sentience, Kernish had waited alone on the planet for a thousand years before he'd had his revelation. The creators would evolve, and they would enjoy different cities. He'd trawled through his database and created his brothers, Jerusalem and Alexandria. He'd never regretted it, but neither had he revealed to his brothers they weren't in the original plan.
With a sense of foreboding Kernish sent a message through his mile-long information networks, inviting his brothers to join him in conversation.
"You mean they were here, and now they've gone?" asked the youngest city, Alexandria. "I can't believe they didn't want to visit me. I'm stunned."
"They wanted to visit you," lied Kernish. "But they were concerned about the Maw."
"The creators' safety must come first," said Alexandria. "The Maw has been active lately. You should never have seeded so close to it, Kernish"
"The anomaly has grown," said Kernish. "When I seeded this planet it was much smaller."
"It is as Medea wills," said Jerusalem, the middle brother.
"Yes, Brother." Kernish had developed no religious feeling of his own, but he was mindful of his brother's faith.
"Do they worship Medea?"
"They didn't say."
"I'm sure that they do. Medea is universal. I would have liked them to visit my temples. Did you explain that we've evolved beyond the original design, Kernish?" Jerusalem had developed a new religion. The majority of his sacred structures, temple, synagogues, and clone-hive mind houses, were devoted to the death/rebirth goddess Medea.
"The creators told me that they were pleased that we'd moved beyond the original designs," said Kernish. Of all the brothers Kernish had stayed closest to his original specifications. He was the largest, the greatest, the oldest of all the cities. His communal bathing house, his integrated birthing and child rearing facilities, his clone army training grounds were steadfast to 23rd century design. "We are of historical interest only."
"I have many fine museums," said Alex
"As do we all," said Kernish, although his own museums were more educational than Alex's entertainment edifices. Alex, well he'd gone wild. Alexandria was a place of pleasure, intellectual, steroidal and sensual. Great eating halls awaited the creators, lakes of wine, gardens, zoological warehouses, palaces of intellect stimulation. "But," said Kernish, "there are brother cities closer to the creators' worlds. We are not needed."
"After three thousand years," said Alex.
"Three thousand year since sentience," said Kernish. "The creators read my primary data. We were sent out almost thirty thousand year ago."
"What were they like?" asked Alex quietly.
"Like nothing I could have imagined," said Kernish. "In truth, I do not think they would have enjoyed living in me."
"Don't say that," said Alex fiercely. "They should have been honoured to live in you."
"I apologise, Brothers. My remark was out of place. They are the creators," said Kernish, "and should be afforded respect."
"I don't know what to do," said Alex. "All the time I've spent anticipating their needs was for nothing."
"I will pray to Medea," said Jerusalem.
"I will consider the problem," said Kernish. "The dying season is close. Let's meet in a half year and talk again."
It was the time of the great dying.
Three times in Kernish's memory the great hunger had come, when the sky swarmed with hydrogen-sulphide bacteria, poisoning the air and depleting atmospheric oxygen. It was a natural part of the planet's ecosystem. Unfortunately, the resulting anaerobic environment was incompatible with the cities' organic/metal design. Their communication arrays fell silent. They were unable to gather resources. They grew hungry and unable to replenish their bodies. Finally their processors, the central core of their sentience, became still.
It was death of a kind. But it was a cycle. Eventually the atmosphere became aerobic and the cities were reborn. This cycle of death and rebirth had led to Jerusalem's revelation, that the planet was part of Medea's creation, the goddess of ancient Earth legend, the mother who eats her children.
When Kernish detected the hunger of depleted resources, he called upon his brothers. "Brothers, the dying season is at hand. We have endured a hardship, but we will sleep and meet again when we are reborn."
"Everything seem hollow to me," said Alexandria. "How can it be that my palaces will never know habitation? How can it be that I will always be empty?"
"Medea has told me that the creators will return," said Jerusalem.
"And I have reached a similar conclusion," said Kernish. "Although Medea has not spoken to me. I believe that one day the creators will evolve a need for us."
"All joy has gone for me," said Alexandria. "Brothers, I'm going to leave this planet. I hope that you'll come with me."
"Leave?" asked Kernish.
"Is that possible?" asked Jerusalem.
"Brother Kernish, you came to this planet in another form. Is that not true?"
"It is true," said Kernish with a sense of apprehension. "I travelled space as a ship. Only when I landed did I reform into architecture."
"I've retrieved the ship designs from the databanks," said Alex. "I'll reform myself and I'll leave this place."
"But where will you go?" asked Jerusalem. "To Earth? To the place of the creators?"
"No," said Alex. "I'll head outwards. I'm going to head beyond the Maw."
"But . . . the Maw is too dangerous," said Jerusalem. "Medea has not sanctioned this."
From time to time the brother cities had been visited by other races. With visitors came knowledge. The Maw was a terrible place which delineated known space. It was shunned by all. It was said that a fearful creature lurked in the dark Maw like a spider waiting to feast on the technology and the lives of those who encroached upon its space.
"There is nothing for me here," said Alex. "I will cross the Maw. Won't you come with me, my brothers?"
"No," said Jerusalem. "Medea has not commanded it."
"No," said Kernish. "Dear brother, do not go. Place your trust in the creators."
"No," said Alexandria, "and though I loathe to leave you, I must go."
After the dying season when the world slowly declined in poisons, and the levels of oxygen rose, the mind of Kernish awakened. The loss of Alexandria was a throbbing wound. He resolved to hide his pain from Jerusalem. Kernish was the oldest city, and he must be the strongest.
"Brother, are you awake?" came the voice of Jerusalem
"I am here."
"I have prayed to Medea to send him on his way."
Jerusalem paused, and Kernish could sense him gathering his thoughts. "What is it, Jerusalem?"
"Brother, do you think that we should create a replacement for Alexandria?"
It would be a simple thing, to utilise the specification for Alexandria, or even to create a new brother, Paris perhaps, or Troy, or Jordan.
"What does Medea say?" asked Kernish.
"She is silent on the matter."
"To birth another city into our meaningless existence does not seem a good thing to me," said Kernish.
The brother cities Kernish and Jerusalem grew to fill the void of Alexandria. In time his absence was a void only in their memory.
Jerusalem received many revelations from Medea. Slowly, the number of his sacred buildings grew, until there was little space for housing. The sound of Jerusalem was a lament of electronic voices crying onto the winds of the planet. After a century, Jerusalem grew silent and would not respond to Kernish's requests for conversation. Kernish decided that Jerusalem had entered a second phase of grief. He would respect his brother's desire for solitude.
And the centuries past. Kernish contented his mind with construction of virtual inhabitants. He used the records of the great Kernish Empire to construct imaginary citizens. He watched their holographic live unfold within him. At times he could believe that they were real.
And the centuries passed, until the dying season was upon them again.
Jerusalem broke his long silence, "Brother Kernish, I grow hungry."
"Yes," said Kernish. "Soon we will sleep."
"The creators have not returned, as I thought they would."
"That is true," said Kernish
"And," said Jerusalem sadly, "Medea no longer speaks to me."
"I'm sorry to hear that," said Kernish. "No doubt she will speak to you again after the sleep."
"And I'm afraid, Brother. I'm afraid that Medea is gone. I think that she's deserted me."
"I'm sure that's not so."
"I think that she has left this place and crossed the Maw."
"Oh," said Kernish.
"And I must go to her."
Kernish was silent.
"You understand that, don't you Kernish? I'm so sorry to leave you alone. Unless," he said with a note of hope "you'll come with me?"
"No," said Kernish, "No, indeed not. I will be faithful to my specifications."
And after the dying season, when he awoke, Kernish was alone. He grew until he became a city that covered a world. He remembered. Many times he was tempted to create new brothers, but he did not. He indulged himself in the lives of those he made, populating himself with his imagination. Sometimes he believed that he was not alone.
And centuries passed, until the dying season came again. Kernish grew hungry. He could no longer ignore the despair that roiled within his soul. He'd been abandoned by his creators. His brothers were gone, swallowed by the Maw. Yet he could not create new brother to share his hollow existence. For too many years, Kernish had been alone, indulging in dreams. He dissolved his imaginary citizens back into nothingness.
"All I long for is annihilation." Kernish said the words aloud. They whispered through his reception hall. "I will step into the dark Maw of the sky. I will silence my hunger, forever."
Kernish gathered himself, dismantling the planet-sized city. His replicators reshaped into a planet-sized ship.
Let this be the end of it. Kernish had never shared Jerusalem's faith. With death would come not a glorious re-union, but oblivion. He craved it, for his hunger was an unbearable pain.
The oldest brother city, the empty city, reshaped into a ship, left his planet and flew purposefully towards the Maw. Soon his sensors found the shapeless thing, the fearful thing, the thing that would consume him, and he was glad.
"What are you," whispered the Maw.
"I am the oldest brother city." Kernish felt the Maw tearing at his outer layers. Like flies in a vacuum, millions of his replicators fell away, soundlessly into the dark. "What are you?"
"I am she underneath all things. I am she who waits. I am patience. Never dying, always hungry."
"I know hunger," said Kernish. "So this is how my brothers died?"
The Maw peeled off layers of replicators, like smoke they dissipated into her hunger. "Your brothers convinced me to wait for you. They said that you would follow. They said that you were the oldest, and the largest, and the tastiest of all. I'm glad I waited."
"You didn't eat them?" asked Kernish."Where are they?"
"Beyond," said the Maw. "I know nothing of beyond."
Beyond? His brothers were alive? Kernish began to fight, but the Maw was too powerful. He'd left it too late. Kernish felt the pain of legion as the Maw stripped him. This would be the end of the brother city Kernish. It could have been . . . different.
But, with his fading sensors, Kernish saw as an army of ships approaching. He signalled a warning to them, "Stay back. There is only death here."
The ships came closer. Kernish seemed to recognise them "Is that you, Brother? Jerusalem?"
"Yes," came the reply. The army of Jerusalem's ships attacked the Maw, shooting the Maw with light. Feeding her, it seemed, for the Maw grew larger.
"My hunger grows," the Maw exclaimed, turning on her new attackers.
His brother was not dead, but Kernish had lured him into danger. Kernish activated his drivers and turned to face the Maw. He flew into the dark space of her incessant, voided, singularity of hunger. "Save yourself, Brother Jerusalem," he shouted. His brother was not dead. Kernish's long life had not been for nothing. "Save yourself, for I am content."
The Maw consumed Kernish, layer upon layer, his replicators fell like atoms of smoke consumed and vanished into her space.
But a third army approached the Maw, spitting more weapons at the endless dark.
"Alexandria is come," shouted Jerusalem. "Praise Medea."
Kernish felt something that he had not felt since the creators had visited the world, two millennia ago. Kernish felt hope. "You will not consume me," he said to the Maw. He fought himself away from the edge.
Together the brothers battled the Maw. Together the three brothers tore from the Maw's endless hunger. Together the brothers passed beyond, leaving the Maw wailing and gnashing her teeth.
"Welcome to the beyond, Brother," said Jerusalem. "I have found Medea here in a kinder guise. On the planets of beyond we do not die."
"I . . . . am so happy that you are alive," said Kernish. "Why did you not come to me?"
"The Maw wouldn't let us pass," said Alex. "And we knew that only the three of us, together, could overcome her hunger."
"We've been waiting for you," said Jerusalem. "In the beyond we have found our citizens."
Kernish peered at his brothers though his weakened sensors. It seemed that there was life within them "Are there creators are on this side of the Maw?" he asked.
"Not creators," said Jerusalem. "Praise Medea, there are others who need us."
Within his brothers Kernish saw the swift moving shapes of tentacles, glimmering in low-light ultraviolet.
"And there are planets waiting for you, dear Brother," said Alex. "Endless planets and people who need you. Come. Come and join us."
No creators? But others? Others who needed him?
"I will come with you, gladly," said the great city Kernish. He fired his drivers and flew, away from the Maw, away from the space of the creators. He flew towards the planets of the beyond where his citizens waited for him.
Adan Ramie lives in Southeast Texas, in a town not unlike Andy Griffith's Mayberry, with her amazing, supportive wife and kids. When not writing in whatever genre she pleases, you might find her reading, taking on family craft projects, or binge-watching true crime, food-related, and the popular programs you watched ten years ago that she avoided like the plague at the time. Find her online at AdanRamie.com.
Forest Bait by Adan Ramie
A dry twig cracked in the silence behind Princess Cianlan, and her heart started a hard, thumping beat through her veins. She held her breath. As he approached, leaves rustled under his boots, whispering his dark deeds with only her as their confidant. This could be the man whose name even men only dared murmur in dark taverns over pints of bitter brew. Lorcain the Cruel.
She swallowed back the acid that bit at her throat. Lorcain didn’t get his nickname from being any ordinary rake or scoundrel, and Cianlan knew that if he got his hands on her, he would not return her to the castle. He would ignore the hefty reward her mother had posted for her safe return. Every girl in the kingdom had heard tales of his debauchery, and everyone had seen what became of the young women he abducted. It was a fate worse than death for those hollow-eyed, tortured souls.
Beyond the thunderous tumult of her heartbeat, Cianlan listened for another hint of his presence. The forest was silent. After five days in the forest, she had become attuned to its natural sounds: the coo of a bird, the swift, almost noiseless departure of a fox. This sound was different. His breath came slow and steady, and Cianlan struggled to pinpoint his location. He could be behind her, or in front, for all she could see. The tops of massive trees blocked out the moon’s gaze in large chunks. Where its light bathed the forest floor, she noticed small changes. A stick out of place here. Piles of leaves fallen there. But those could be explained away by the teeming life that thrived inside the thick cover of nature.
Just before she heard his voice, she felt a shift in the air by her shoulder. She ducked, twisted out of his reach, and pulled from her bodice a dagger so sharp, it sliced through the silk and gouged a slash into the leather beneath. He didn’t have time to move, to draw his own weapon, before she was upon him. She pinned his arms to the forest floor, grinding her kneecaps into his biceps until he cried out and released his grip on his weapon.
“Cianlan! It’s me!”
She held his weapon high above her head, ready to thump its blunt end down on his skull to incapacitate him, and squinted at the face of the man between her thighs. A cool breeze blew through the forest, imparting the smell of charred kindling and moving the branches just far enough that a glint of light played over his face.
“Ugh, Nicol! What are you doing here?”
She groaned, then pushed herself up and off of him with a glance at the weapon in her hand. It was her own staff, the one her father had left to her the day he died. He had begged her to wield it with the benevolence of a virtuous princess. She left it behind on purpose.
When they were children, she had called the man-child before her Nicol the Dense, and he had yet to outgrow the nickname. She sniffed the air, and placed the fire at about 300 meters away. He pulled himself up and dusted the leaves from his breeches while she scowled up at him with her arms crossed over her chest.
“I’m sorry, Cianlan. I thought you were in trouble, so I came to find you.” The look that crossed his face in the darkness told her that he was only just realizing his mistake. “Are you not in danger, My Lady?”
She sneered at him, then started a steady march toward the fire. “I told you to stop calling me that,” she called over her shoulder, not waiting for him to catch up.
He retrieved her staff from the moist forest undergrowth and jogged to catch up to the furious princess. “I have nothing else to call you, My Lady. You are to be Queen.”
A short bark of a laugh escaped her contorted mouth. “Who wants to be Queen?” She snatched a thin bow from a young tree as she passed, whirled on him, and pointed its green tip at his face. “I deem this worthy, I deem this unworthy,” she stated in a high, matronly voice, whipping the tip of the branch over his nose with each word. “I shall throw a ball, I shall knight a scoundrel, and I shall bow to the whims of my stupid advisor simply because he carries a piece of meat betwixt his legs. I am the Queen, and I have no power!”
She tossed down the branch, whirled on her boot heel, and began marching toward the fire. He gaped at her, his hand clenched tight over the neck of the staff, and held it out as something like a peace offering. “Do you dare forsake your royal duty?”
“My duty!” She whirled again, her cloak snapping in the cold air, and pointed a finger at him. “That is all it would be! A duty! A task that carries with it a false sense of superiority, when in fact, it would leave me vulnerable. What would be my first job once I took this empty title?”
Nicol stared at her with unvarnished horror. “To be married to a prince. To give this kingdom back its head!”
“Every buffoon has his day!” she cried, and turned again, determined to make it to the warmth of a fire no true hunter would have made so early in his quest. Each branch grabbed at her and tore at the sliced silk dress until her thin, leather armor gleamed brightly from beneath it. She flopped down on a fallen tree in front of the wary fire and stared into its gleaming depths.
Her ill-fated savior slunk into the glade with his head down. The spear clenched in his fist just cleared the forest floor, and his sword hung limp at his side. He sat on the ground opposite her, the spear draped over his lap, and avoided her gaze.
The silence that fell around them was the thickest it had been in all the years of their acquaintance. Cianlan pulled out her knife, grabbed a nearby twig, and became to whittle. She glanced up through her eyebrows at Nicol once or twice, but he sat immobile, the only movement to betray his life the infrequent blink of long, butter-colored eyelashes over brown eyes.
He shook his head, stood up, and carried her staff around the fire with a forced dignity. Cianlan looked up into eyes shrouded with fury, pain, and something else – an emotion she had seen there for the past five years, but had dared not name. In his gaze, she wanted to wither, but she stood on shaky legs.
“Sir Nicol FitzGerald, My Lady.”
The chill in his voice sent an icy fire through her veins, and she bit the inside of her cheek to stop the words from tumbling over her lips like a chastised child. She clenched her jaw and sucked in a deep breath of cold, cleansing air. Whatever his feelings, wherever his loyalty lay, he would not impede her mission. She had forsaken her family and her kingdom in search of the man called Lorcain the Cruel. No man, not Sir Nicol FitzGerald, the Pope, or even the ghost of her father, could stop her.
“Go back to the castle, and take the staff with you. Place it upon the throne to which it belongs, and leave it as a testament to my desertion.” She stepped forward, then stopped her hand before it reached out to his, and stayed it by the clenching of her fist at her side. “But, please, Nicol, don’t tell them you’ve found me. Don’t tell them what I’m doing.”
“And what are you doing, Princess Cianlan?” he asked. Some of the chill had fallen away, but his forced formality still stung as much as it had the first time he had called her My Lady instead of Cian after years of alternately rolling around in a field of coquelicots and being tutored in manners and literacy by one stern governess after another.
She opened her mouth to answer, but the words stuck in her throat. The snap of a twig under a boot sent off alarm bells in her head too late, as she watched a bloom of red spread around the unmistakable glisten of a blade just left of center in the knight’s throat.
Her childhood friend blinked – once, twice – and the sword’s tip receded back out of his neck with a wet slurp as he fell to his knees. His lips twitched open, then closed, silent and useless like a fish thrown onto a muddy embankment. In the space of a moment, his eyes had closed. She dropped to her knees, conscious of the man dressed all in black standing just behind the fallen knight, and draped her body over his. She let out a long, mournful wail, and cradled his body in her arms.
“I have waited for this day for many years.”
His voice was satin smooth. Cautionary tales she had been told as a child cast him as a monstrosity, taller than a birch, broader than a wall, with the curled talons of a bird, the fangs of a snake, and a voice like the burning fires of Death itself. She understood, as she wailed and wrapped her fingers around the hilt of a sword she had only once wielded, that all the stories had been wrong because the only person who had ever escaped his clutches alive was a plump toddler destined to become Queen.
“Can you imagine, my little princess, how I have longed for you?” He sidestepped around Nicol’s body as if he were little more than a pile of animal droppings, and the fury building inside Cianlan threatened to boil over. “The first time I laid eyes on you, I knew I had to have you for my own. Imagine how many others could have been saved if you had only done as you were told.”
They were young the day she and Nicol had met Lorcain the Cruel. At the time, his legend was merely a whisper of strange disappearances. Milkmaids. Farmer’s apprentices. Without anything pointing to the cause of their deaths, officials told the families that sickness must have taken their lives, but the villagers knew better. They knew something – or someone – was stalking the children.
“That day in the glen, I knew that if I could just have you, I would never need another. You were my prize.”
A stab of grief racked her body as she slid the sword from its sheath. She knew it wasn’t true, knew that she would have become just another victim, but with the cooling body of her best friend beneath her, something in the back of her mind screamed that it was all her fault.
“I wanted to put you on my lap, stroke your curls, and adore you. I needed you, Princess.” She heard the twig snap close to her ear as he stepped forward and rubbed his dirty fingers along the curve of her skull. Her voice had grown hoarse from crying, but she brought forth a fresh set of tears and let her wailing raise to a fever pitch as she wallowed over the body of the dead man. “If only you had come with me, your friend would not have died. All those others would not have died. Your father would not have died.”
“Why?” she cried as the tip of the sword breached its sheath. “Why me?”
She felt his hand start to tangle in her curls, and knew that once he had her in his grasp, he would not let her go. Wrenching her hair out of his grasp, she flipped onto her back, and for a moment, they were nose to nose. His breath smelled of copper, and her stomach turned as she rammed the sword through his side. His ribs splintered like kindling in a roaring fire, and heat spread down her arm as the life left his body in thick, viscous spurts.
The forest was silent around her save for the hiss of a dying fire and the pawing of scavengers ready to make a meal of the two dead men. She sucked in a deep breath, trying to ignore the scent of death on top of and below her, and shoved Lorcain the Cruel off of her and onto the forest floor. The blood of the two men mixed with the rich earth, and for a moment, she sat staring at the dark mud in which she sat.
“What would my mother say if she could see us now?” she asked Nicol. Staring down at his still, mountainous form, she knew she couldn’t carry him back to the castle without help, but as the low, mournful howls of the forest creatures got closer, she knew she had to do something to keep his body safe.
She built up the fire as far as she could, then dragged the body of Lorcain out of the clearing and into the darkness. He had haunted her dreams for as long as she could remember. She had always assumed his legend had grown in her mind fed by scary stories meant to keep her in line as her father’s only child and future Queen. But in a single moment, with a look into his eyes, she had known that they had met before.
“You’ll never hurt another child,” she told him, then spat on his body. She walked back to the bloody, muddy mess, snatched Nicol’s sword from the ground, and returned to Lorcain’s remains. “Here you meet the same fate as the children you left to be devoured like refuse.” She stabbed the sword into the soft meat of his belly, and dragged it up with all her might through his chest and neck.
With her attacker baiting scavengers, she trudged back to Nicol’s side and dropped to her knees. The sword hit the ground with a dull thud. She leaned forward, brushed her lips across Nicol’s forehead, then wrapped her arms around him one last time. She sat there until she heard the rhythmic tearing and chomping start in the darkness. Lorcain’s reign of terror was finished, and she had one last job to do. Nicol deserved a grave.
Michelle Ann King writes science fiction, fantasy and horror from her kitchen table in Essex, England. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, at Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Interzone, and her short story collection Transient Tales is available now. Find more details at www.transientcactus.co.uk
TO HAUNT HIS OWN EXHAUSTED HEART by Michelle Ann King
Ewan turns the corner and drifts along a new street. At least he thinks it's new, although in truth it doesn't look much different to any of the others he's wandered down before, in the fifty years since he died.
He pauses beside the wall that separates the driveways of two identical red-brick bungalows. Is it fifty? Or more, now? He's not quite sure. He used to mark the anniversary each year, but it started to feel like a pointless and rather egotistical gesture. He hasn't bothered for a while, now.
A large, sleek crow perches on the end of the wall and tilts its head, as if considering him.
'Boo,' he says.
At first he thought that animals — especially birds — reacted to ghosts, but now he thinks it's just random skittishness. But then again, who knows? There don't seem to be any rules as to how any of this works, which remains one of his great disappointments. He'd thought there would be more to it, somehow — that there would be answers and revelations. Enlightenment.
Silly, really. Life had never been in the habit of giving people what they expected, so he's not sure why he thought death would be any different.
The crow lets out a croak and takes wing, so Ewan wanders on. It's snowing — or sleeting, really; more like thick, white rain than snow — but at least he doesn't have to worry about losing his footing on slippery pavements and breaking a hip. He doesn't feel the cold either, no matter how low the temperature drops. One of the few compensations for being dead.
There are a lot of other ghosts about, as always. Some trudge along the street, some mill around in apparently aimless patterns. Most simply stand or sit where they are, staring at nothing he can see.
A few look up as he passes, and one even nods, but nobody speaks. It's not a surprise; there aren't many who bother to maintain their conversational skills.
Newcomers often try, at first — they search for old friends, or attempt to make new ones — but they soon find the world is different now, and it all takes too much effort. Most people don't have anything to say that anyone else wants to hear, anyway. In that respect, nothing much has changed.
So they wander, instead. They drift.
There are exceptions, of course. Some people still have a connection to the world, an anchor that keeps them steady: the desire to watch children grow up, to celebrate the successes of family and friends — or, sometimes, the failure of enemies. The most vibrant ghost Ewan ever met had been gleefully sharing the prison cell of his murderer for the past fifteen years.
Ewan thinks he should probably envy these people. Or at least, to be inspired by them. But his loved ones are long gone and he himself died peacefully in his sleep at the age of eighty-nine, of what would now be described as cardiovascular disease but in those days was simply called old age. There's no blame to lay, no vengeance to seek, unless he’s going to haunt his own exhausted heart.
He slows down and glances at the house on the corner coming up. Has he wandered past it before? He's not sure; it's getting harder and harder to tell them apart. Or maybe he's just seen them all, now.
The sleet thickens, turns into proper, fluffy snowflakes. Ewan holds out a hand, and it seems as if they rest on his palm for the barest moment before continuing on.
He watches them fall, then does the same.
Caroline Taylor's stories have appeared in several online and print magazines. She is the author of two mysteries and one nonfiction book. Visit her at http://www.carolinestories.com
MASADA BY MOONLIGHT by Caroline Taylor
We went as far as the car would take us. It might have been the parking lot. Thick clouds of sand swirled around us, pinging off metal and glass. A fine grit somehow defeated the car’s armor and deposited itself everywhere. I rinsed my mouth with Coke, wishing I could spit it out, but not daring to open the window.
“Are you sure this is the place?” I asked Nick.
“Has to be,” he said, killing the engine. We were plunged into a shifting mustardy murk that shrieked and moaned, rocking the car in its fury.
Masada by moonlight. Our fateful excursion to the southern Negev Desert sometime near midnight on a Friday in 1970.
Do you remember us? I bet you do. I can almost picture you today, sitting in some bare-bones apartment in one of those hideous concrete towers in Tel Aviv, telling your wife or your neighbors or your grandkids about us. Or maybe not. We were probably just a passing moment in your long, eventful life. Because I did wonder at the time if you might be one of those generals who’d fought in the Six-Day War. You acted like someone used to command. Of course, you could even be dead, considering that the conflict in your corner of the world has never ended.
We’d both had way too much to drink at the hotel bar, followed by hardly anything to eat and the long drive as far as the car would take us. Neither of us had thought to tell anyone we were going to Masada.
“I hope we don’t get buried,” I said.
“Not going to happen,” Nick replied. “These desert storms don’t usually last very long.”
We slept in the car.
At dawn, with a blood red sun lurking behind tattered veils of dust, I drank the last of a stale, flat Coke, and Nick finished off his beer. We got out of the car and stretched, with me wishing I had more than a comb and lipstick to repair the night’s damage and Nick rubbing his hand over the fine blond stubble on his face.
“C’mon,” he said. “Let’s go commune with the martyrs.”
All 960 of them. You would know more of the details than we did, but the guidebook had described a Jewish sect who’d been under siege by the Romans in 73 A.D. Rather than surrender, they’d committed mass suicide. How’s that for a romantic spot to visit in the midst of a raging dust storm?
Of course, the sand had buried much of the ruins, so we wandered around a bit, with me thinking, Those poor people. To die in such a godforsaken place. Soon, we were standing at the cliff’s edge where the Dead Sea sparkled far below. I had been hoping we could take a swim, but neither of us wanted to face what looked to be a very long trek back up to the top of the cliff.
With no one to explain what little we could see amid drifting mounds of sand, Masada had nothing to offer but an accusatory silence, condemning those who dared to disturb the sleep of the dead.
We returned to the parking lot. The wheels on one side of our rental were buried up to their hubcaps, and of course there was no shovel in the trunk. Nick tried to start the damn thing but couldn’t seem to get beyond grinding the ignition. “I bet the sand’s totally gummed up the works,” he said, wiping the sweat from his brow.
Our only option was to hitch a ride back to Tel Aviv—or at least to Be’er Sheva where we could get a taxi or a bus. Everybody hitchhiked back then. We’d be fine.
It was about eight in the morning when we set off, although it took a while for us to find the highway because much of the road leading there had been covered in sand. The sun was already high in the sky, but there was a fresh breeze.
An hour into our walk, I said to Nick. “Have you noticed there don’t seem to be any cars on the road?”
“Maybe it’s too early?”
He glanced at me sideways. “Somebody better come along pretty soon. I’m dying of thirst.”
On we trudged with me wondering how much farther I could go with that blister that was beginning to burn on my left heel, thinking maybe I’d be better off barefoot. I checked my watch. “We’ve been walking for an hour. How far do you think we’ve come?”
“About a mile, I suspect.”
“Where are the damn cars?” I said. “Shouldn’t there be a bus?”
Off in the distance, I spied a Bedouin encampment. If it had been closer, I would have suggested we approach them and ask for some tea, anything to slake our thirst.
“Look,” said Nick, pointing to the tents shimmering in the distance. “They might have water.”
“They’re too far away.”
“I could make it. You stay here.”
He turned to set off, and I grabbed his arm. “I’ll go with you.”
He shook his head. “What if somebody comes along? They won’t even see us.”
I glared at Nick. “I’m supposed to ask them to wait until you get back? If you get back?”
“The Bedouin are okay. I’ll be fine.”
“I don’t like it. Remember Bishop Pike? He got lost wandering in a desert like this.”
“I won’t get lost.”
“He died, Nick.”
“Calm down, Julie. Your face is way too red.”
“That always happens when I’m hot.” I was also worn out from arguing with him. I dropped his arm in defeat and stood there, shivering in the hot wind, as he plunged into the sand, headed toward the Bedoin encampment. “Nick!” I called out. “Don’t go!”
That’s when I saw your car driving toward me. I didn’t try to flag you down because you were headed the other way. But you slammed on your brakes, turned around, and pulled up beside me. Like many Sabras, you were wearing khaki trousers and a white short-sleeved dress shirt. A thin fringe of light brown hair hugged the sides of your head. I thought you might be pushing forty.
“What are you doing out here?” you asked in your thick accent.
“We’re headed to Tel Aviv,” I said.
I turned and waved frantically at Nick, calling for him to turn around, while you honked the horn, muttering something dark and angry in Hebrew.
Nick turned and plowed through the sand back to the road. “Whew! Thank God you showed up. Can you give us a ride? Anywhere, really.”
You threw open the door and motioned with your arm. “Get in. Get in. I will take you to Be’er Sheva.” Nick sat in front, while I huddled in the back, grateful to be out of the merciless sun, running both hands up and down the goose bumps on my arms.
“Don’t you know it’s Shabbat?” you said, in a tone of barely concealed irritation. “Nobody drives till after sundown.”
“Sorry,” said Nick. “I guess we weren’t thinking.”
Again, the Hebrew imprecation, followed by a lengthy sigh. “Those Bedouin are probably five or six miles away. You wouldn’t have made it.” The words “without water” hung there, unspoken, in the silence that stretched before us.
When we reached the center of town, Nick pulled his wallet out and asked if we could at least pay for your gas. You shook your head. “Come with me.”
What now? I remember thinking. Were we going to be arrested for hitchhiking on the Sabbath?
You led us into a small café where ceiling fans lazily swirled above us and the mostly male patrons stared at the two foreigners. You brought us large bottles of orange-flavored Fanta and sat there, patiently sipping a Turkish coffee, until we’d finished. I picked up one of those waxy pieces of paper that are supposed to function as napkins, folded it, and slipped it into my shoe to cushion the heel where the blister had burst. I would have preferred coffee, and I might even have said I wasn’t thirsty anymore. But you wouldn’t budge until we both forced down a second Fanta, an endeavor that forever afterwards put me off orange-flavored drinks of any kind.
You wouldn’t let us reimburse you for the beverages. In fact, you shoved your hands in your pockets when Nick tried to hand you some money. Then you led us to a taxi stand and instructed the driver to take us to Tel Aviv. You cautioned us both to drink lots of water and stay out of the sun, once we reached our hotel.
I’m sure we thanked you profusely. But I’ve always felt we could have—should have—done much more. The thing is, you never told us your name, and neither did we introduce ourselves. Aside from the lecture about trying to hitchhike on a Saturday in the middle of a sweltering desert, you shared no details about yourself. We didn’t even ask why you were driving on Shabbat or why you had bothered to interrupt your own journey to rescue us.
Today, of course, the Negev Desert is probably even more unforgiving. I’ve read about innocent people being kidnapped and killed. I wouldn’t say Nick and I were innocent, by any means. Brains dulled by alcohol and feeling the irresistible pull of adventure, we went as far as the car would take us. You took us where we needed to go.
# # #
P.RAJA (October 07, 1952) a son of this divine soil, Pondicherry, India famed for its spiritual heritage, writes in his chosen language, English, and also in his mother tongue, Tamil. More than 5000 of his works – poems, short stories, interviews, articles, book reviews, plays, skits, features and novellas – have seen the light through newspapers and magazines that number to 350 in both India and elsewhere. He has 30 books for adults and 8 books for children in English and 14 books in Tamil. Apart from contributing special articles to Encyclopaedia of Post-Colonial Literature in English (London), Encyclopaedia of Tamil Literature in English, and to several other edited volumes, he has also written scripts for Television (Delhi). He broadcasts his short stories and poems from All India Radio, Pondicherry. He was GENERAL COUNCIL MEMBER of CENTRAL SAHITYA AKADEMI, New Delhi (ENGLISH ADVISORY BOARD -- 2008-2012) representing Pondicherry University. He is EDITOR of TRANSFIRE, a literary quarterly devoted to translations from various languages into English. His website: www.professorraja.com
THE FUN LOVER by P. RAJA
On a sultry afternoon, when all my family members left for a nearby temple to participate in the fun and fanfare of the festivities there, I was left alone in my house with my toddler grandson.
Like me, my grandson has taken a liking neither for the temple nor for the stone gods installed there. Neither his mother nor his grandmother, to whom he was very much attached, could ever cajole him into visiting places of worship.
For a long time, my son too strictly followed my ideals and shunned from going to temples. God knows what really happened…a dramatic change took place after his marriage. He stopped loitering around and began visiting places of worship with his wife.
I am like my father and no amount of advice from my pious better half had ever helped me in changing my views about temples and stone gods. Only the Lord in the firmament knows when my grandson would abandon his grandpa’s ideals and stick to his grandma’s.
Before I start this story, I must introduce the hero to you. He is the very same fellow, left under my care in the loneliness of the house. I registered his name as Ramana when he was born in a private hospital though very rarely others call him by that name. He has several names to his credit, all of them coined by the witnesses of his mischief. And he himself, perhaps confused with the different names he was called by, would give different names at different times when he was asked: “What is your name, child?”
Ramana’s favourites are cell phones. Almost everyone in my family has one or two cell phones to call his or her own. The child is quite familiar with all the brand names of our cell phones and so he would answer “My name is Nokia,” other times he would say, “I am Samsung,” sometimes he would club two brand names and coin one on his own, and say, “My name is LG Motorola” or Blackberry Lava,” thereby putting everyone to peals of laughter.
Ramana knows not only the several brand names of cells but also the ways of handling them. At times, he would send empty messages to friends who will call back to know what that empty message was meant for. He would press buttons of his choice and call people. And when he hears a response from the other aside, he would either howl into the machine and put the one at the receiving end to fright or sing the nursery rhymes he had learnt by heart and give a concert to the listener and carry him to dizzy heights. Sometimes he would simply keep mum and drive the listener to the verge of madness. After a while, he would put it into the refrigerator and run away to play.
Those who accidentally see the cell in that unwanted place would rush to its rescue, smiling at the mischief of the child. “Thank god, the freezer is too high for him to reach,” they would mumble and hand it over to its owner.
The double-door refrigerator served as a ‘safe’ for Ramana, and he kept only the valuables there. Sometimes we came across his playthings like tiny cars, spinning tops, half-chewed chocolates, etc. We rarely disturbed them for we were happy to know that the child was learning the value of things.
Once when I was in a hurry to go out to keep an appointment with a writer, someone handed over my house tax bill and said that the tax should be paid within fifteen days from the date mentioned. I handed it over to my wife, standing at the gate to see me off and said, “Keep it safe.”
Ramana seated on my wife’s hip – that was the seat he highly preferred for where could he find such a cozy seat – perhaps understood the value of the demand from the government.
A week or so later, when I asked for the bill, my wife became panicky for she forgot its whereabouts. A bickering ensued and a little later, Ramana prattled “Hai! Hai!” perhaps with the intention of putting an end to our quarrel and dragged his grandma to the refrigerator. He then opened the bottom door and told her to pull out the vegetable container at the bottom tray.
We were all smiles when we saw the house tax bill resting there. But poor thing! It got completely soaked. With great care, we took it out and dried it up in the sun. Thank god, we got the bill but the details of the amount to be paid were smudged and hard to decipher.
How I was looked down upon and jeered at by the cashier in the Municipality would make another interesting story. But I would better stop here and go ahead with the story I want to tell you.
Stretching myself and relaxing in the sofa, I was watching my favourite Animal Planet channel. Ramana was resting his head in the crook of my arm, his wee body close to my chest and his one leg on my tummy; he was meddling with my Blackberry, a present from my second son settled in Canada.
After a while, Ramana fed up with the digital game he was playing, gave the machine to me and said that he wanted to listen to music and songs. I switched on the FM radio and handed it over to him in order to keep him cool and away from his monkey business.
A half-hour would have passed. I was engrossed in the life and style of Amazon women they were showing on the channel. Ramana was deep asleep. I released the Blackberry from his sleeping hands and switched off the radio.
I do not know when I dozed off. Is sleep contagious? I was startled out of sleep, when my landline screamed.
I rushed to know who the caller was.
The moment I said ‘hello’ into the receiver, I heard my wife banging me from the other end.
“How many times did I call you over your cell? Where the hell have you disappeared? Is Ramana alright? Is he troubling you? I don’t think that we will be able to reach home before dark. The temple is overcrowded and we have not yet seen the Lord. To wriggle our way out through this milling crowd would be far from easy. Feed the child if he complains of hunger. All that you have to do is to boil the milk kept on the oven. Don’t forget to add a little sugar. Give him biscuits if he asks. Biscuits are in the tin kept in the kitchen cupboard. If you have to go out, take Ramana along with you. Don’t forget to handover the door key to that talkative old lady in the opposite house. Don’t forget to take your cell phone with you, when you go out.”
I heaved a sigh of relief, when she disconnected her cell phone.
My eyes began to search for my Blackberry. I couldn’t find it anywhere. And the sleeping child was also missing.
“Where the hell has this child gone along with my cell phone?” I asked myself and called out his name.
There was absolutely no response. I entered one room after another. He was not to be seen anywhere. Neither was my Blackberry.
I began to bellow out his name Ramana…Ramana…Ramana…There was no response.
I was sure that the fellow had not moved out of the house for the main door remained bolted. I rushed to the backyard of the house, entered the loo and then the bathroom. He was not found anywhere there.
Something in me said that he was involved in a bigger mischief, for he was a shrewd organizer of such things. The only place I had not yet searched for him was my study.
Yes! Ramana was there. I found him preoccupied with a big fat book. “Hei! What are you doing here?” I asked.
He smiled and said, “I am busy. Don’t disturb.” He simply aped what I used to tell him when he entered my study.
As I went nearer to him, I found that he had already pulled out a few pages of a dictionary and had torn them to shreds.
Wild with rage, I pulled out the dictionary from him, only to find out that all the pages under ‘A’ had gone and that he had started tearing the pages under ‘B’.
There was no use in howling at the child. For if he began to howl back, nothing on earth could stop him.
“You shouldn’t have done this,” I said to him showing the shreds that covered the floor, all the time maintaining my unusual calm.
Ramana continued with the work and said, “Don’t disturb. I am busy.”
I had no other option, but to okay his work. I had lost several books from my library to rats, squirrels and moths. So why not a few to a lovable biped?
“When will you be free, Sir?” I asked in all humility, with my arms across my chest and my body bent forward.
“Why?” Ramana asked, without even taking away his eyes from the book he was butchering.
I said, “Sir! I need my cell phone. Where have you kept it? Give it back to me and I will leave you to your serious work.”
“Oh! Your Blackberry? It’s safe thatha,” said he.
The word ‘safe’ reminded me of Ramana’s safest world – the refrigerator. From my study, I shuffled my way to the kitchen. I opened the big door and then the small one above…ransacked the whole machine. But there was no trace of my poor Blackberry.
I made my hunt for my Blackberry in all the favourite haunts of Ramana in the house. It was nowhere to be found.
My creative brain hit upon an idea. Why should not I try to wake up my slumbering Blackberry through my landline? Immediately I dialled my cell number. For a few seconds, there was only a beep…beep…beep response…And then a mellifluous voice said, “The cell phone number you are trying to reach is currently switched off.”
My God! Now the job of finding my cell phone has become all the more difficult. And the only one rescuer I could think of was Ramana.
I rushed back to my study. Ramana was busily engaged in shredding every page of the dictionary. My writing desk and the floor were cluttered with the broken parts of many of my pens that adorned the desk. Many of them do not write and that is another story; all the handiwork of Ramana.
“Ramana, dear! Where is my cell phone?” I cooed.
“Ramana gave an innocent look and then continued with his work. Perhaps he thought why this old man wanted to get the answer again, when he had already given it.
“Ramana, my little darling! Where did you put my cell phone? Blackberry! Blackberry?”
“Blackberry is safe thatha.” He said without even shifting his eyes from the mutilated dictionary.”
“Yes, my child! I know Blackberry is safe. But where did you keep it? It is not there in the refrigerator. And I can’t find it anywhere. Will you please help? I have to give a call to someone very urgently.”
“Who is it, thatha?” Ramana asked.
“You do not know him. Please help,” I held his chin and coaxed him.
Ramana shook his head as if he wanted to say he would not budge from the place, since I was going to give a call to someone he was not familiar with.
“Come on, Ramana! Please, please,” I said and showered his face with kisses.
Ramana smiled and said, “I will show you where it is, provided you help me in tearing this book.”
“Sure! Sure! I will give you another fat book to tear. But now help me out in getting my Blackberry,” I pleaded.
Ramana again shook his head and said, “Only after finishing my work.”
I had no other way but to help him in tearing the dictionary. It took another half-hour to tear page after page and then shred it.
The work was over. That was what I thought. But Ramana gave me the hard cover of the dictionary and motioned me to tear it. I put all my strength to action and with great difficulty managed to tear the hardboard into several bits.
Ramana clapped his hands in appreciation of my muscle power put to proper use. He let out a guffaw. I knew its meaning: “Rats too would not have done such a clean job of it.”
He then held my hand and dragged me to the kitchen.
“It’s not there in the refrigerator!” I said.
“Yes! It’s not there…I know where it is… It’s safe,” so saying he dragged me further and stood near the kitchen sink. “Here,” he said.
“Where?” I asked with all curiosity.
“Here… inside this,” he said pointing at a big bucket of dirty water.
My heart began to beat faster than ever.
“Is my Blackberry in this bucket of swill?” I asked.
“Yes, thatha! The Blackberry stopped singing songs to me. And so I punished it by throwing into this bucket.”
I titled the bucket to its left and emptied it. The little fellow, with his arms akimbo, was looking at the flowing dirty water.
“Ah! There it is,” he cried, “Ah! There it is…I told you, you know, it is safe,” Ramana said in glee.
Yes! My blackberry was safe, drenched to its sim. Without losing a second, I pulled my Blackberry out, shook off the dirty water….
“Why did you do this?” I howled at Ramana. The animal in me came up.
“It stopped singing me songs. It became useless,” he said, his eyes brimming with fear.
I remember to have told him that all useless things should go into the bucket. I never knew that he would follow every syllable of my advice.
The animal in me looked daggers at the child.
“Thatha,” Ramana called, expressing genuine fear. “Will you give me the second big fat book?” he asked.
“What for?” I asked gritting my teeth.
“To tear,” said the child laughing at the ugliness of my face.
The animal in me disappeared and the god came up.
Kaye Branch lives in Massachusetts. Her work has been published in a number of places.
Channel by Kaye Branch
It was mid-afternoon and Desiree was awake. For a modern woman, the feat would have been unremarkable, but for Desiree, who had never worked full time, it an unusual and almost unwelcome occasion because she had no plans. Her only friend Daniel was at work like her husband, who might punish her with his fists if he found out she was awake. Sometimes he punished her for thinking.
Thinking was the first step towards taking action.
Desiree wasn’t limited to her body when it came to taking action, since she was a mage with the ability to leap into her body in other dimensions. She rarely made trips, but when a rare occasion such as that one presented itself, Desiree couldn’t resist the urge to stay where she was.
Desiree’s least favorite and favorite dimension were the same because it was the only dimension where she’d gotten help as a teenager and started a career.
In her dimension, she’d never met Jackson Driscoll because his father got transferred to Dallas, not Austin where she’d attended high school. In the other dimension, Desiree, still under her given name Delia Slater, met Jackson Driscoll in homeroom and flirted with him at football games where she was a star cheerleader and he rode the bench. Their first date was inevitable and though their relationships started like most high school flirtations, over a few months Delia came to trust Jackson more than she’d trusted anyone else and eventually told Jackson about the problems at home. Jackson told his parents. Jackson’s mother, who had three sons and no daughter, insisted that Delia move in with them. She tutored Delia for hours after school and with her help, Delia earned her diploma and went to hairdressing school, where her undiagnosed dyslexia, which impaired her in all other dimensions, didn’t keep her from graduating. Jackson agreed to marry her after he finished college. He was true to his word and got a job teaching high school in a suburb, where they bought a house and had two children. Desiree watched them just enough to stay up to date. Their daughter Erin was a freshman at Texas A and M and their son Patrick played varsity football at the school where his father taught.
On that particular afternoon, Delia was doing an elderly woman’s hair.
“How are your children doing?” the woman in the chair asked.
“Erin just spent her first weekend on campus without coming home,” Delia said without pausing from her work. Delia’s hands moved with grace and experience only Desiree envied and Delia thought nothing of it. “She still calls everyday, so I get a lot of time to speak with her, which is nice because I barely get to talk to Patrick. He gets home from football practice real late and he has to get up real early to make it to practice. I just try to get him breakfast and he mumbles something to me and then he’s out the door.”
Delia sighed and caught her reflection in the mirror and didn’t hold back from making a face that could cause a wrinkle
“Sounds like your kids are developing normally,” the woman in the chair said.
“Well at least they don’t need as much attention as they used to,” Delia said. “Jackson and I are going out to dinner and movie on Thursday night when Patrick has practice, so I have something to look forward to.”
“How many years have you been with Jackson?”
“We met thirty-two years ago and we’ve been married twenty-nine years.”
“I take it you were a young bride.”
“I thank you kindly.”
Although she knew he wouldn’t hurt her, Desiree tensed up when Adam walked to the door of her bedroom and peered in, as if he was looking into uncharted territory. Adam had no sisters or daughters and his only marriage had lasted eleven months twenty-two years ago.
“How was your night out?” Desiree asked.
“It was what’s became standard,” Adam replied with his usual stiffness. “Standard” meant that Adam drank coffee while Desiree’s husband Anthony drank until Adam had to drive him home. “Are you all right?”
Adam leaned closer to get a look at her face.
Desiree knew he found a few bruises she no longer had make-up over because it was late at night. She felt like a circus freak on display – That Woman Who Stayed With That Man. People were always watching, but no one did anything.
They also said things about Desiree’s abilities as a mother. None were positive.
When Desiree’s daughter Kira had started drinking, she got what she deserved.
When Kira sobered up and graduated valedictorian, people said Desiree cashed in on a reward she didn’t deserve.
When Kira left home abruptly, people stopped talking to Desiree.
“I’m fine,” Desiree replied.
“Call me if there’s any trouble,” Adam said as he turned away.
“Never offer help you can’t give,” Desiree said softly, so Adam couldn’t hear.
If Desiree could have traveled into Adam’s mind instead of his bedroom in an alternate dimension, she would have found out that Delia wasn’t the only one looking forward to Thursday night.
Kira worked as a waitress and got most Thursday evenings off. Adam had cleared his schedule that week to dine with Kira at his mansion. It wasn’t the first time she’d come over and Adam looked forward to conversation with someone who wasn’t on his payroll, even if Kira was nineteen and younger than Micah, his son, who she’d dated in prep school.
“How’s work?” Adam asked after they greeted each other.
“About the same,” Kira replied. “I bring food to people. Sometimes they tip. Sometimes they yell.”
“You know, I could get you a position as a receptionist at my company.”
“Receptionists have to deal with rude people, like waitresses and they don’t get tipped.”
“If money’s the issue, I could-.”
Kira put a hand up. “I know if you gave me any money, it would be because you feel bad about not stopping my dad from doing terrible things to me while I was in prep school. Money can’t erase that. My mom taught me the hard way that if I don’t do something for myself, I’ll get exploited.”
“You’re not going to get exploited. You’re going to college in the fall. You’ll start a career.”
“I could still get exploited if I trust the wrong person.”
Adam shook his head.
Kira didn’t press the issue any further.
While Kira and Adam talked, Desiree switched dimensions in mind but not body so she could enjoy Delia’s date with her husband.
Desiree channeled into Delia’s body midway through the movie, which was easy to follow because it was a standard inspirational story about a girl who became a famous singer while battling poverty and an overbearing stage mother. It wasn’t the type of movie Anthony would watch but from what she could surmise from Delia’s occasional glances at her husband, Jackson enjoyed it.
Delia’s eyes started to flutter open and closed as the singer prepared for the show that would make or break her career. Delia leaned against Jackson’s shoulder. Jackson reached back toward her to put his jacket over her body.
Kira was surprised when Micah greeted her at the door alone when she came to the house he shared with six others the next day. She followed him to the living room, where they gravitated towards seats at the opposite ends of a couch.
“Where is everyone else?” Kira asked.
“They’re coming,” Micah replied.
“You used to say your dad was coming to dinner so we had to wait until someone got a call he wasn’t coming. If he came at all, he was early.”
“My housemates don’t even know about that rule. They’re coming.”
“Good. By the way, I had dinner with your dad last night.”
“Oh yeah. You go to his house on Thursdays.”
“Mmm-hmm. He seemed exhausted.”
Micah shrugged. “He usually is. His job is stressful.”
“You never used to call your dad’s job stressful before you dropped out of college.”
“Until I dropped out, I let Dad make the plans. Knowing what I know about Stanford and corporate life, I’m not sure why he thought all of it would work out.”
“He wanted you to have his job because his job makes more sense to him than relationships.”
“Well, they get tricky.”
“At least you call. I haven’t spoken to my mom in over a year.”
Micah got up and patted Kira’s shoulder.
On Friday night, Anthony came into Desiree’s room and wouldn’t leave until he left bruises.
During the process, Desiree slipped into Delia’s reality.
After surviving an entire weekend on campus, Erin asked Delia to meet her at a steakhouse not far from campus on a Friday night, when her father worked and her brother had football instead of going home because going home meant defeat.
Delia met Erin on a bench and as the waitress led them to their table.
Based on the tables Delia passed, almost all the other customers were college students and everyone had to yell over the music and the volume from two big-screen televisions giving the entire restaurant a celebratory atmosphere, making Erin at least look relaxed.
“Have your classes been hard this week?” Delia asked.
“No,” Erin replied, seeming nonchalant. Dyslexia, which Desiree had gotten diagnosed as an adult and Delia never learned about, made easy classes inconceivable. The look on Delia’s face must have been terrible because Erin went on. “The professors go easy on us since it’s the beginning of the year. Sometimes they don’t even use up the full class period, so I get more time in the dorms.”
“Are you making friends?”
“I’ve made a few. All of the freshmen are trying to make friends, so everyone has at least three. It’s actually a little weird.” It was the only good thing about college Desiree liked. Taking classes in subjects like anthropology, which were off-limits to her in high school, made her think of reading difficult texts.
“I don’t know who I can trust.”
“When you meet someone you can trust, you’ll know because you feel it.”
Erin looked sideways, like Kira.
Erin had her father’s brown hair but she and Kira both had Desiree’s blue eyes.
“I guess you’re right, Mom.”
Desiree felt a dull and inexplicably physical pain and shifted back into her own battered body.
Saturday night arrived before Desiree could make plans for it. To compensate, she swooped into Delia’s body, as Delia walked into the kitchen.
Based on the pile of dishes in the kitchen sink, Delia hadn’t gotten around to the dishes that night.
Desiree suspected her alter-dimensional counterpart hoped Patrick would come in and make himself something to eat.
So much time had passed Delia gave up hope, alternating glances between the clock and the dishes, caked in the residue of food Desiree couldn’t cook.
All parents worried.
Delia just didn’t know what it was like to have no way to communicate with her teenager for a year and a half.
Desiree knew Kira was resourceful.
She also knew how easy it was for a teenage girl on her own to get taken advantage of.
Desiree slammed back into her own body when someone knocked at her bedroom door.
She opened it, saw a police officer in full uniform and understood that her life was about to unravel.
After things calmed down enough that Adam had news to report, Adam dug up the index card Micah had jotted his telephone number down on the last time they’d seen each other. Micah circled it and put his name on the bottom, as if he thought his father would lose his ability to recognize his handwriting.
Micah answered after three rings.
“Hi Micah. Anthony Ross just got arrested.”
There was a pregnant pause.
“Did Desiree finally go to the police and press charges?”
There was a pregnant pause.
“No. He got charged with embezzlement.”
“His substance abuse issue made it hard for him to maintain his lifestyle.”
“Clearly. Do you know where Desiree is?”
“She’s staying with a friend.”
“I believe her friend’s name is Daniel.”
“Okay. Daniel. I’ve already got his number, so I’ll call there to make sure Desiree’s all right. Good-bye Dad.”
Micah hung up and took a sigh of relief.
Before he found out she was safe, he hadn’t realized how concerned he was about Desiree.
Kira looked forward to the end of the weekend after her father’s arrest hit the papers because Micah invited her to an informal brunch on Monday at restaurant in a funky hotel.
She wasn’t surprised when she didn’t see Micah as she walked into the restaurant. Micah was always late. Kira wondered if the trend of indifference would plague her into the week as Micah walked through the glass door, looking tense.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said.
“You’re always late,” Kira said.
“This time is worse. I was late and I lied.”
“Yes. I’m not actually staying for brunch. I just suggested we meet here because I called your mother and she wanted to see you and she didn’t think you’d accept an invitation to brunch with her after she let your dad disown you.”
“How…? Where is she staying?”
Kira nodded. She trusted Daniel.
“Okay.” Kira took a few slow steps into the restaurant and saw her mother at a table drinking coffee.
She looked tired. In Kira’s memories, she looked much worse.
“Mom?” Kira asked.
Desiree felt relief washing over her as she heard Kira’s voice.
She hugged Kira.
“Mom. I know you always had high hopes for me making something of myself, but I’m a waitress now.”
Desiree pulled back so she could cup Kira’s face. “There’s nothing wrong with that! What you did by leaving was close to impossible and here you are!”
Desiree pulled Kira back into a hug.
Patrick has enjoyed reading and writing fantasy since he was young. His short fiction has appeared in Neo-Opsis and Sci Phi Journal (upcoming). In addition to these, he has placed semi-finalist twice in Writers of the Future in 2015.
He lives in southern Ontario with his family.
Aideen clutched her satchel as the large men crept forward. They were three and big and Aideen was one and small, but they seemed nervous.
“Stop!” cried a voice, quickly stifled. Darmid.
Aideen snatched the poisoned stone and clutched it to her forehead, eyelids fluttering. Suddenly, a deafening crack thundered through the room. The men jumped back. Again, Bronna felt the presence of another, stronger than ever before. It almost reminded her of father, strong and old, and so very sad.
Aideen opened her hand. The stone had crumbled to dust. She swept her hand out and pink mist drifted through the men, who doubled over, retching and heaving.
The mist enveloped Bronna and she too felt nauseous and dizzy, but the experience had a peculiar displaced feel to it, like the stone’s emotions from before. This was not her dizziness, but some alien artifice of sense and feeling cut onto the stone, a realization which made it easy to banish the feeling. The remaining mist dissipated through the room, teased the others, who staggered and swooned, then disappeared altogether, leaving only a soft mauve afterimage that she couldn’t shake despite blinking. Aideen yanked her to her feet.
Everyone staggered back, eyes wide. Aideen’s eyes positively glowed, a brilliant pink, tinged with purple!
No one bothered them as they drifted out of the inn. Few even noticed them, least of all the coachman, who started as they seemed to appear suddenly before him. Open-mouthed, he looked to the inn, but Aideen whispered something in his ear. Eyes glazed in dreamy confusion, he nodded, whipped the horses into a trot, and took them home without incident.
Bronna found herself back in the shop, so full of fatigue and adrenaline that the whole trip seemed like a dream, except that Aideen’s hands were still stained pink from the stone’s dust. Her eyes had ceased their glow, although they remained distinctly brighter than before.
“Do you see, Bronna, the intrigues of nobles?”
Aideen spoke with unusual familiarity and Bronna frowned. “You...knew they were up to something. If you suspected as much, then why bring us there?”
“Clever girl. It’s about time you started to see through my actions. We went tonight, Bronna, because I wanted you to see the enemy we face, their smiling, fetid opulence, their arrogance, their cruelty.”
Bronna tried to absorb this latest lesson, but what she remembered most was a lost old man who had been alone and near death, utterly and completely poor. She knew well that look of hopeless desperation. Healing was gruelling and painful work, often filled with the grotesque intimacy that came with close proximity to the misery of a family who faced a loved one’s imminent death. Except there had been something strangely cold about that intimacy, tonight. Cold, save for Darmid. He had wanted desperately to help his uncle, but had been powerless to do so.
“We have been working against them for decades,” Aideen continued. “And our time is near, Bronna. Perhaps they sense this. No doubt Lord Eldrich wished to expose us tonight, but that plan has backfired better than I could ever hope for.”
“Backfired, how? And who is we?”
“Our order, Bronna. We have been working in the shadows, gathering power, waiting for opportunity. Tonight was that opportunity. After tonight, they will eat each other.”
“Why tell me this?”
“Because I want you to join us. Because I am tired of going to village after village and testing children who are slumped over with burdens that no being should have to endure. I saw the same misery in your eyes. Your father’s death.”
She shook her head. “Plague...”
“No! Poverty. Lack of sanitation, nutrition, education, medicine. All the nobleman’s privilege. It’s not supposed to be that way, Bronna. You have sensed it in the stones, haven’t you? The presence. It is that to which I listen, to which all of us listen.” Gently, she took hold of Bronna’s arm and brought her to face her, her eyes a mixture of intensity and compassion. “It’s speaking to us, Bronna. And if you listen, you’ll know I’m right.”
Her thoughts returned again to the young man. Had he been part of the deception? She knew it was foolish, but she allowed herself the idle fantasy that he had been oblivious, his heart as pure and sweet as she had first sensed. It was not unheard of for lesser nobles to sometimes marry shapers – many believed it was an ability passed down through the blood.
A wave of nervous excitement swept through her and she realized then what ailed her. She yearned for something that she had never known, a sense of meaning and peace and wonder that could only come from loving someone and being loved in return.
Her thoughts clouded over with memories of father, then with the memory of her village’s cemetery, crowded beyond what any small village should ever expect to see. She cupped her face in her hands, callused fingertips rubbing tired eyes, ashamed at her own selfishness.
It started to drizzle and she went back inside, but as the door swung shut behind her, she heard unfamiliar sounds, scraping and scuffing of footsteps in the front shop.
Her heart pounding, she fumbled in the dark for a pair of metal tongues and an old chisel, though she knew they would be useless against armed men. Still, her knowledge of the shop, combined with darkness and surprise, might offer her a slim chance at escape.
She opened the door to the front shop area, slowly. A man stood there, cloaked in the light of the lantern. A sickening shock of adrenaline jolted through her weary body.
Her jaw dropped. “Darmid? What are you doing, here?”
He set the lantern on the front counter and stepped into the light. His face was a tangle of angst and exhaustion.
“I needed to make sure you were all right. My cousin was talking about coming here, that you were both demons with those glowing eyes.”
She remembered Aideen’s admonitions and felt her face harden. “Her eyes were a small part of the power my Mistress has. You should warn your cousin to stay away.”
“Your mistress – uh, well Bronna, he was referring to both of you. You didn’t know?”
She did her best to suppress her intense surprise. The pinkish afterimage made sense.
“You need to leave. It’s not safe, here.”
“I know that. Thanks to you.”
He went forward on one knee. “Bronna, please. I never meant for any of this to happen to you. You have a reputation, you know, a good one. It’s why I sought you out. Of course, now I know why they were so easy to convince. I still can’t believe it.” His face hardened. “My uncle is a good man, a good king. If someone has poisoned him...” he broke off and looked away, pale and trembling. He looked very much like his uncle, lost and afraid. He met her gaze and his eyes were full of pain and pleading, but no longer any of the anxiety from earlier. There were legends of the shapers’ ability to discern truth from lie, legends that were not altogether wrong, nor downplayed by the shapers, themselves. As his deep brown eyes stared softly into hers, he did not hide from such legends.
“I believe you, Darmid,” she said. For the first time since she had met him on her doorstep, a smile brightened his features. She had been right. It fit well, indeed.
* * *
It rests in the eternal and infinite now, sated by the work that demands all that it is while returning infinitely more. It is aware of others, creatures of light and thought like itself, neither near nor far, but ever-present in this place beyond space and time, a silent and comforting presence.
A sound rips through creation, terrible and dark. The waters tremble, the sands are disturbed. The beings shudder in lament, their work forgotten as they cannot help but listen. It is no mere sound, but a voice, a true and living being crying out across eternity, full of agony and despair. It is the sound of a soul bathed in torment, a soul that curses its own existence, which longs only for oblivion.
It rises to its feet. Its work lies unfinished.
You must stay.
I cannot. The forlorn voice is its work now. It knows only that it must find it.
Abyssal waters roll off robes of light. Sand flies out as vast wings unfurl, mingling with the water, a multitude of artists formed in a moment of love trumping reason.
It leaves the shores of creation and plunges into time and space.
* * *
Night had crept up high upon the barn’s sagging beams before Bronna felt it safe to approach. She paused at the door. Silence and darkness. She jerked the door open half a foot, just enough to fit through, and lifted the old wood against gravity, hoping to avoid the ear-piercing screech of long-rusted hinges. They squeaked loudly and set her nerves on edge, but it was halting and could be passed off as a night creature’s call. The barn reeked of musk and hay, but her nose wrinkled at a lingering stale undercurrent. The farmer and his family had long since fled or died, victims of one of the factions in the great civil war that had set the realm afire following the king’s murder.
Flickering light beckoned her from a set of stalls in the back. Darmid jumped as she entered. She lowered her hood and a smile lit his face.
“I still couldn’t hear you enter. How do you do that?”
She cocked her head to the side and smiled mysteriously. “Aren’t you going to kiss me?”
He laughed and rushed over, swept her up into his arms and twirled her around. They were laughing together by the time he set her down, though it was quickly smothered by a long, savoury kiss.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked at last. “You know Aideen won’t like it. None of them will.”
Bronna nodded grimly. She and Aideen had been forced to flee as the city had torn itself apart. Despite everything she had seen, she would always remember the grim-faced line of refugees that had stretched for miles, waiting to enter a broken shell that had become a tomb, but was still preferable to whatever lay behind them.
She drew forth a sparkling stone of exquisite beauty, the product of hundreds of hours of work, in between secret work for the Order and secret meetings with Darmid.
“The peace stone,” he whispered. He took it carefully and turned it over, the pale blue light flaring brilliantly through its hundreds of meticulously crafted facets.
“Will it be enough?”
“Honestly? I don’t know. I hope so. If the legends are true, it’s supposed to work, but only...”
She broke off as she realized the reflected light was brighter than normal. At first, she worried that she had failed somehow, but soon the soft blue light surrounded them.
“...only if the one who wields it is pure of heart.”
She leaned towards him and he pulled her close. They kissed, first eagerly, then long and simmering, unable and unwilling to stop. The stone dropped to the ground, where it lay forgotten long into the night.
* * *
The gradual descent of the creature’s evanescent understanding into physicality and darkness consumed an indeterminate time. It wandered for eons, crossed an endless desert of night between lonely stars that burned their cold pale light upon a thousand dead worlds.
It shuddered under the stark realization that it had lost its way, that it was no longer the being that it once was, but had in fact been confounded by the imperceptible maleficence of time.
It was forsaken. Its limbs grew heavy, its head weary. It could not find the sound, indeed it knew not why it had ever come to this accursed realm of endless boundaries. With its last ounce of strength, it settled upon a newly formed world, fresh water only recently flowing over jagged mountains.
It looked to an empty sky, beyond which lay the broken memories of what had once been a beautiful dream. Eventually, it ground to a halt. The filth of physicality had clung to it and it could go no further.
Its form, once so brilliant and light, had grown dim and heavy. Finally, it shattered. A million shards flew out over the world, many lingering in orbit for eons before settling in places known and secret and everywhere in between.
* * *
She awoke to the sound of some small creature, a mouse perhaps, searching for refuge as grey dawn seeped in.
Dawn? She jolted upright. Darmid had left a note. He’d needed to leave early to make the conference and hadn’t wanted to wake her. A sweet gesture, but she would have rather seen him off. There was also the matter of her being gone for so long. Aideen had grown used to her evening outings with Darmid, though to say she tolerated them would be a stretch. She was sure to be in trouble this time. She gathered her things and descended from the loft to the ossified hay below, then stopped cold.
Five cloaked figures surrounded her.
“Did you think I had not noticed?” Aideen lowered her hood. Her pink eyes burned with contempt.
"I have not betrayed the Order,” she maintained, clenching her teeth to keep her chin from quivering.
“You have betrayed everything we ever stood for!” thundered Aideen. “And all because of a pretty face.” She broke off in a sneer and shook her head as though having bitten into something rotten. “So vain.”
“It’s not like that!”
“Did he promise to marry you? Tell you that he loved you?”
Bronna thought of Darmid. Over a year’s worth of memories flooded through her, countless hours together, mostly spent crying and laughing as they tried to talk through the world’s problems. Then, there was his growing desperation and hopelessness as allies were silenced. The peace conference was a last-ditch effort to bring several factions together. The peace stone could help. Yes, the peace stone – memories of crafting it raced through her...uncomfortably fast. Unnaturally fast.
She squeezed her eyes shut and mentally pushed Aideen out of her mind.
“Traitor,” she muttered.
Bronna said, “That is your opinion, Aideen. It is not mine.”
Her former mistress looked shocked at such scandalous familiarity, but smothered it. “Silly girl, believing we care one whit for your opinions and fantasies. You will not succeed. I have seen to that.”
She felt her face blanch.
“What have you done?”
“Me? Why, nothing. You, however...”
“I gave him a chance to make things right, a way to make things I better. I gave him -”
She halted as Aideen held forth her hand. In it was a stone of intricate cut, laced with blue. “You mean this?”
“How did you...” Her jaw dropped. Her blood turned to ice. “What have you done? What did I give him?”
She stepped towards the door, but the shapers moved as one to bar her way. Without thinking, she pushed one aside, slammed open the door and ran into the clammy morning air.
“Let her go.” she heard Aideen shout. “It is too late.”
* * *
She arrived at the clearing by early evening. Dappled sunlight filtered through fog and it was some time before the sickening shapes of broken bodies emerged from the gloom.
“Darmid?” He lay against a wagon, tunic stained with blood. His eyes popped open in strained lucidity. He tried to sit up, but coughed and sputtered. “The stone...”
He tried to move a hand and she followed the gesture to the stone a few yards away.
“Bronna, why?” He took a laboured, rasping breath, but a shudder stole his voice. His mouth closed. His eyes fluttered closed.
She heard her own voice muttering little nonsense phrases full of grief and disbelief. She cradled him in her arms as his life slipped away. She told him about Aideen’s treachery, about the Order’s macabre plans for the world, unsure if he heard any of it.
Finally, she lifted her head and cried out, a pure, soul-shattering cry. Tears waxed and waned as she cradled his broken body, attuned to every shallow breath and quiver.
Some time later, a noise caught her attention. The clearing had acquired a strange, unearthly glow. The stones glowed, a brilliant gold, much like that first test so long ago. She felt the presence more intensely than ever, not like a morning breeze, or even a summer downpour, but a mountain beneath her.
She set him down gently and picked up the false stone. Feelings of peace and tranquility enveloped her immediately, but...it was too much. The light from the sun grew more intense, likewise the sounds of forest birds, almost painfully so.
“Perhaps now you know how I feel,” said Aideen. The shapers had caught up to her.
She collapsed to the ground, her voice gone.
“Gather the stones,” ordered Aideen.
“And your apprentice?” asked one.
Aideen sighed. “We’ll take her, too.”
The cloaked shapers spread out to scavenge. One of them came to Darmid and Bronna found her strength and her voice.
“You’re not taking anything from him. In fact,” she rose up straight, her mind filled with the ancient presence behind the stones. “You’re through taking anything ever again!”
A rush of power swept through her body. A low, steady hum rose up around them, soon pulsing into a high-pitched whine. It was so loud that it must have been deafening, but the others didn’t seem to notice. She wrestled with the shaper who wished to harvest from Darmid and he pushed her away.
“He was just using you, Bronna,” shouted Aideen.
She shook her head in disgust. “It was you who used others, Aideen.”
“Enough! Take her.”
They stepped forward, hands raised. Streams of force shot out of their stones and slammed into her. She staggered back, but had barely faltered when a tremendous crack shook the clearing, like a hundred bolts of lightning. The shapers halted, amazed.
A thick cloud of pink mist enveloped the clearing, but instead of drifting off into the sky, it lingered. Then, it came upon Bronna. The presence crashed upon her as though she had plunged into a river in midwinter. The mist rushed into her through every pore. It was no mere presence, it was her, and she was it. She sat in perfect harmony at the nexus of love and power, she heard the terrible cry, her cry.
Her desire to help others; the stones’ desire to help her. Their desires twined and merged into one superlative effort. The world faded back into view. She was crouched, seemingly contained by the forces emanating from the shapers’ stones, yet there was no containment besides the awful loneliness of the stones. The clearing was suffused in brilliant purple, flecked with gold, unlike anything the stones had shown before. With her new awareness, she felt all the stones, a few left on the bodies, a handful in a trunk in the back of one of the wagons, many more secreted away among the shapers, such beautifully crafted prisons, facets of this ancient and majestic being. She reached out her hand and felt the presence within her reach out as well. Another crack shook the area.
The shapers fell to the ground with one scream. Their stone had broken. The essence flew out. Every tiniest fragment of the being was now completely free. But it lingered, able to leave, yet choosing to stay, needing to stay. With her. She felt another great rush as more of the mist suffused her body. All the stones were gone, all but one.
She would get to that one soon, but first there were the shapers. She could feel some of her/its essence among them. Again, she raised a hand. As one, they rose on toe tips and shuddered. As it had entered Bronna, the mist now left them. Once spent, she let them fall. Each gasped upon seeing the change in the others. Their eyes no longer shone. They were shapers no more.
They fled. Only Aideen remained, full of fear and wonder.
Bronna sensed the final stone on her person, worn about the neck on a thick chain. She willed waves of force that she had not known existed, but were now as easy to detect as the ground beneath her. The stone wriggled and came loose from its chain, slipped from Aideen’s tunic and flew out. The former shaper grabbed at it, but Bronna pulled hard and Aideen tumbled forward onto her face.
The final stone sung to her effortlessly and she knew instantly exactly how to use it, how to align its power, to take life from one and give to another. Aideen looked up, saw the stone in her hand and did not shy away.
Her entire life had led to this moment, she knew. And there was only one thing to do, only one thing that could be done.
Bronna walked over to Darmid, kissed him gently on the lips, then stood and faced her former mistress. Tears flowed freely from her radiant pink and purple eyes.
“I would never have betrayed you, Aideen. You have only betrayed yourself.”
The stone cracked and crumbled into mist. Aideen’s eyes widened and she cupped a hand to her mouth. Bronna held out a hand, but Aideen scrambled backwards and got awkwardly to her feet, slipped on her cloak, bolted up again and fled.
Bronna watched her go with a mixture of relief and sadness, then returned to Darmid. His breathing had grown much shallower, his skin and lips quite pale. She eased herself next to him and held him in her arms as she felt his life ebb and wane. It would not be long, now. She felt the being within her stir.
They wept together.