Friday, June 12, 2009
Free Fiction: Annus Mirabilis
Okay, here's a little bit of something to make up for lost time. Originally appearing in Tales of the Shadowmen Vol. 2 (Black Coat Press, 2006), this story is a bit of Wold-Newton silliness that features nods to loads of late 19th and early 20th century science fiction, and stars a cantankerous old Doctor who might be vaguely familiar...
(No, that that Doctor. This one.)
by Chris Roberson
Le Creusot, 1905
In the still dark hours of the morning, while the town of
As the sun pinked the eastern sky, and Le Creusot began to hum with life and activity, the old man came back down into the township proper, passing the gates of the Château de la Verrerie, since the last century the residence of the Schneider family, the masters of the forges. At this early hour dark smoke already bled into the lightening sky, billowing up from the smokestacks of the foundries. Arriving at the metal-works unmolested, the old man flung open the door, and a wave of heat from the forges rolled toward him like a solid wall. Within, directing the workmen of the Schneider foundry, the old man found his companion already hard at work, crescents of sweat darkening the arm-pits of his crisp white shirt, his trouser legs stained and scuffed.
“Borel,” the old man said, then had to repeat, raising his voice over the tintinnabulation of metal striking metal. “Borel! How goes the assembly?”
“What?” the young man shouted back, cupping his hands around his ears like a listening trumpet. The old man repeated his question, raising the pitch of his voice even higher. “Oh, well enough, Doctor! We seem to be proceeding on schedule.”
“In that case,” the old man said, quite unconcerned now whether his companion could hear him further, “I shall find a bite to eat, hmm?”
On a side table was laid out the makings of a simple breakfast, for the use of the foundry’s workers. The Schneiders’ had evidently learned that providing such simple amenities, though a notional expense at the outset, meant that their laborers had a shorter distance to travel to sate their appetites, and would perforce be the quicker to return to their duties. The old man, considering himself in some regards as the worker’s employer—he had, after all, contracted the foundry’s services in the construction of the large craft which Borel now oversaw—had no compunctions against helping himself to their board.
Selecting an apple, a hunk of cold cheese, and a small loaf of fresh bread, the old man seated himself on a nearby straight-backed chair, on the back of which was folded some sort of newspaper or journal. As he bit into the apple, the old man unfolded the periodical, and scanned the contents. It was up a copy of Beiblätter zu den Annalen der Physik, and the old man concluded that it must have been left by one of the foundry’s engineers. Absently chewing on a bite of apple, the old man began to read, idly.
After finishing no more than half of the apple, having hardly touched the bread, the old man’s eyes opened wide, and he jumped to his feet, clutching the journal.
“Borel!” he shouted, racing across the foundry floor, waving his arms for the young man’s attention. The old man’s companion, seeing his approach, gave a shout of alarm, and rushed to his side, his labors forgotten.
“Doctor, what is it?” the young man said, his expression suggesting that he feared the worst.
“What is the date, my boy?” the old man asked, his mouth drawn into a tight line.
The young man’s forehead wrinkled momentarily, as he did some quick mental calculation. “March the sixth,” he finally answered. “A Monday.”
“Yes, yes,” the old man said impatiently, waving his hand. “But the year, man, what year?”
The young man was a bit taken aback, but it was clear he’d grown used to the old man’s eccentricities in recent weeks. “Why, it’s 1905, naturally.”
“Oh dear, oh dear.” The old man began to pace back and forth, his expression grave, his eyes flashing. “No, this won’t do. This won’t do at all.”
Before the young man could speak, to ask the old man what was the matter at hand, the old man stopped short, straightening.
“Borel, I’m leaving you in charge. See to it that the three components of the craft are appropriately joined together.”
“Certainly, Doctor. But where will you be?”
“I’m sorry, my boy, but I have vital matters which must be attended.” With that, the old man shoved the journal into the young man’s hands, turned on his heel, and stalked from the foundry.
The young man watched the retreating back of his companion, baffled. He glanced at the journal the old man has been reading, hoping there to find some clue to what had set the old man off. It was open to a review of a Professor Wellingham’s paper, “On the role of panergon in the relationship between electricity and light,” by one A. Einstein. The young man could see no reason for excitement with either the names or the subject and, tucking the journal into his trouser pocket, shrugged and returned to his labors.
Two days later, on the morning of Wednesday, March 8th, the old man appeared at the reception area of the Swiss Patent Office, in
“I insist on speaking with one of your technical assistant examiners,” the old man said, before the clerk had the opportunity to ask.
The clerk sighed, a long-suffering, resigned sort of sigh, and pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. “And does this concern a pending patent application, I assume?”
“You may assume what you like,” the old man said, brusquely, “it makes no difference to me. However, I dare say that the matter on which I have come will impact a great many future patents and discoveries which might one day pass through this office.”
The clerk sighed a second time, if anything more dramatic and expressive than the first. “And whom should I say is calling?”
The old man straightened, grabbing hold of his lapels with either hand.
“I am the Doctor.”
“What?” The old man blinked, a bit perplexed, as if suddenly asked by a stranger the dimensions of his inseam. “Oh, Omega will suit under the circumstances.”
The clerk looked the old man up and down, suspiciously. After a considerable pause, he gave yet another sigh, rose from his desk, and moved to open a low gate for the old man. “This way, Doctor Omega.”
The old man followed behind, as the clerk escorted him through narrow, musty hallways, gray and grimed. Finally, they came to a small room, smelling of old tobacco and mold, dimly lit by sunlight filtering in through heavy glass panes that hadn’t been washed since the previous century. There, seated at a low, wide desk, was a young man, bent low over a great stack of papers, a pen in hand.
“Albert,” the clerk said, motioning the old man forward, “this gentleman has some inquiries for you.”
“Ah,” the old man said, brightening. He strode forward, smiling broadly, his hand extended before him. “Mr. Einstein. Precisely the man I wanted to see. I am the Doctor.”
Albert Einstein was a week shy of his twenty-sixth birthday, with dark, curly hair and a full mustache, and though his eyes seemed sad, he smiled easily and often. There was a certain unearthly quality about him that reminded the old man of someone, though it took a moment to recognize something of his granddaughter’s look in the young man’s expression. The old man wondered, idly, if there might not be a trace of his “countrymen” somewhere in the young man’s ancestry. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“It is about your recent review concerning panergon that I have come,” the old man explained, once he’d arranged himself on a chair opposite Einstein’s desk. “In it, you discussed panergon’s capacity to produce ‘secondary electricity,’ with which one can control the movements and qualities of projected light.”
“Yes, that’s correct,” Einstein said, folding his hands in his lap, looking more than a little surprised that someone had sought him out to discuss his avocation and not his vocation. “And it is Wellingham’s contention that panergon is also the cohesive force that keeps the molecules of matter from falling apart from one another.”
“Mmm.” The old man rubbed at his lower lip. “And in your remarks, appended to your review, you made mention that this put paid to your own theories on the nature of photoelectricity.”
Einstein nodded. “I had made careful study of Heinrich Hertz’s writings on the subject, and had begun to formulate an equation that might address the causes of the so-called ‘Hertz effect.’ This effect concerns the production and emission of electricity from matter upon the absorption of visible or ultraviolet light…”
“Yes, yes, I know all about that,” the old man said, impatiently. “What, specifically, was this theory of yours, impacted by the discovery of panergon?”
“Well, my thinking was influenced by Joseph Long Thomson’s theoretical ‘corpuscles.’ Thomson argued that these subatomic components constitute cathode rays and, under certain conditions, that these ‘corpuscles’ could be excited in such a way that they would be emitted singly, and thus detected. It occurred to me that light, which since Maxwell has been assumed to be a wave phenomenon like electromagnetism, might be constituted of small, discrete packets of energy, which I thought to name ‘light quanta.’”
The old man leaned forward, pulling his fur hat from his head and worrying it between his hands. “But you no longer believe this to be the case?”
“Clearly not,” the young man said, shaking his head sadly, “as the demonstrated nature of Welligham’s panergon clearly precludes the existence of the quantum.”
Over the course of the next hours, the old man picked through Einstein’s thoughts, questioning him at length about the reading he’d done into the study of energy in recent years. In addition to his summary of Wellingham’s panergon studies, it transpired, Einstein had also written recent reviews of Professor Mirzabeau’s work on violent flame, and Henry R. Cortlandt’s paper on apergy, and had just begun a survey on recent findings concerning vril.
The old man was interested, specifically, in the ways in which recent discoveries about these energies had affected Einstein’s understanding of the fundamental laws and forces which governed the natural world.
As Einstein spoke, the old man scribbled strange notations on his cuff with a laundry marker from time to time, deep in thought.
At length, the old man pushed off his chair and stood. He set his fur hat back on his head and wound his long scarf around his neck. “I thank you for your time, Mister Einstein. I’m afraid, based on what you’ve told me, that I haven’t a moment to lose.”
The old man turned and started towards the door, but Einstein jumped to his feet, taking hold of the old man’s elbow.
“Please, sir, I now find I have many questions for you.”
Einstein was breathless, eyes wide. “From your questions and comments, it’s clear to me that you have a stronger grasp of theoretical physics than any individual it has been my pleasure to encounter.”
The old man’s mouth formed a moue of distaste, and he waved his hand, shooing away the compliment as though it were a horsefly. “I’ve no interest in your flattery, sir. It means as little to me as the praise of a child first learning his alphabet complimenting Flaubert’s penmanship.”
The old man tried to extricate himself from Einstein’s grip, but the young man was insistent. “Wait! You say that you find some peril in this talk of energies and fundamental forces?”
“Yes,” the old man said, nodding slowly, “grave peril.”
“I won’t pretend to have any notion what you might mean; however, I can’t but trust a man with your grasp of physics. If there is anything I can do to assist, you have but to ask.”
The old man responded with a tight smile and, as Einstein released his grip, swept towards the door, his long cloak billowing around him. “Well, come along, young man, don’t dawdle. There is work to be done.”
That night, on a hilltop some distance from
Einstein connected the components as the old man directed, while the latter busied himself with strange objects he pulled from the inner folds of his coat. They were small, glittering objects, flashing in the moonlight like gems.
“There,” the old man said, once the apparatus was assembled to his satisfaction. “Now, step back a moment, my boy. Were these to be misaligned, even a fraction, neither of us would survive long enough to attempt a correction.”
Obligingly, the young man stood, and took a few paces backwards. Only when he was safely out of reach did the old man kneel down, placing the objects one by one at key junctures of the assemblage.
When the old man finally rose and stepped back, a low humming noise began to fill the night air around them.
“Doctor, what precisely is this we have constructed?” Einstein looked down on the strange assemblage, a worried expression tugging down the corners of his mouth. “What is its purpose?”
“This device emits a sort of resonance pattern,” the old man said, as though it were the simplest thing in the world, “specific to this region of space-time, which should be anathema to anything which resonates at a different frequency. Like positive and negatively charged plates drawn together, or matter being forced into a vacuum, this emitter will serve to attract any non-resonant objects, pulling them here to us.”
Einstein blinked, and slowly shook his head. “I can scarcely begin to understand the principles involved.”
“I’m sure they will become clear to you,” the old man said. “In time.”
“But supposing that this device does function as you suggest,” Einstein said, “what is its purpose? What is the utility of attracting objects with a different resonance frequency that this… what did you call it? Space-time?”
The old man rubbed his lower lip, and then wagged a finger in the young man’s direction. “I believe I’ve worked out the cause of anomalies you have noted in recent years, those involving these strange energies which seem to contravene the expected laws of physics. It would appear that your continuum has been infected by influences from outside what you would consider the natural world. These strange energies, resulting from the presence of beings from beyond the dimensions of space and time that you know, over the course of decades, has been perverting the fabric of reality, slowly transforming it into a replica of some other plane of existence.”
“Towards what end?”
“Why, to colonize your world, of course. My boy, you are being invaded, and you don’t even realize it.”
The night wore on. The assemblage before them continued to hum, setting their teeth on edge, and the stars wheeled in their slow courses overhead.
The two men discussed energy and matter and space and time, passing the hours, until finally falling silent, simply staring up at the clear night sky overhead.
“It just occurred to me, Doctor,” Einstein said at last, breaking a lengthy silence. “Should these beings you seek appear, what do you intend to do?”
“Hmmm?” The old man raised an eyebrow, a contemplative expression on his face. “Do? Oh, yes. Well, that is a good question, isn’t it?”
“But, I thought…” Einstein began, alarmed, but the rest of his words were cut off, as the air around them suddenly began to vibrate, and a soft blue light suffused the hilltop.
“No time for that now, my boy,” the old man said, raising his voice above a sound like a hundred violins tuning up at once. “I believe our guests have arrived.”
Suddenly, the sound ceased, and just as suddenly the empty air around them was filled with a riot of shapes and forms.
“Name of the name,” Einstein whispered.
Circled around the two men and the strange apparatus, these unearthly shapes appeared to fall into one of three categories. Cones, which varied in color from blue to green, and which were about half the size of a full-grown man; cylinders, some tall and thin, others low and squat, which range from bronze laced with green, to purple, to black; and layers, vertical shapes patterned almost like the bark of a birch tree, which seemed to resemble virgin copper. Each of them was translucent, shifting in color and size continuously, and at the base of each is a dazzling light. As the two men watched, the shapes shift from one form to another, cones becoming cylinders, layers becoming cones, undulating endlessly.
“As I suspected,” the old man said, as the undulating figures circled around them.
“What are they, Doctor?” Einstein asked, his voice a tremulous whisper.
“On most worlds in which they have appeared, they are known simply as ‘The Shapes,’ but my people have long known them as the Xipéhuz.”
“Doctor!” Einstein said urgently, grabbing the old man’s elbow and attempting to drag him away from the device. “We must flee.”
“Flee?” The old man snarled briefly, his eyes momentarily flashing. “What do you take me for?” He calmed, and then added, “Besides, each of the Xipéhuz is capable of emitting radiant energy in a concentrated burst, sufficient to reduce either of us to ashes.”
“What?!” Einstein blanched, and regarded the strange floating forms in horror intermingled with amazement.
“But this is not a contest to be won by fisticuffs and feet, my dear boy,” the old man said, patting Einstein’s shoulder. “No, we must reason with these creatures. They are quite simple, when you get down to brass tacks.”
“But what are they?” Einstein asked, eyes wide.
“They are three dimensional intrusions of multidimensional beings, naturally.” The old man shook his head, a distasteful expression curling his lip. “But really, they are little more than pests.”
One of the floating cones flashed red, angrily, and advanced towards the old man, the star-like light at its base dazzling.
“There we are. An invitation to parley.” The old man stepped right up to the advancing cone, his chin held high. “You know who I am, don’t you?” he said, a hard edge to his voice.
The cone seemed to vibrate in the air, and a black symbol appears on its front. It resembled nothing so much as the Greek letter omega, but then quickly transformed into what appears to be the Greek letters theta and sigma, which then turned sideways before fading from view.
“That’s right,” the old man said, nodding slowly, as though coaxing a simple answer from a slow child. “And you know what I’m capable of doing, I would bargain.”
Einstein was confused, and grabbed hold of the old man’s elbow. “Doctor, what is happening?”
“The shapes and lines which sometime appear on the surface of the Xipéhuz”—the old man pointed to the symbols now coming into view on the surface of another of the forms—“are complicated signs used for communication. But though they hate to admit it, they are capable of understanding the spoken word, perfectly, and could probably even vibrate the air around them sufficient to create spoken language, if they weren’t so pig-headedly obstinate.”
Another of the Xipéhuz now displayed a new symbol, a complex figure-eight design inside of a circle.
“I have left my people,” the old man answered, as a cloud passed across his features. He shook his head. “A minor difference of opinion. But don’t think for an instant that I’ve surrendered any of my power in doing so.”
A floating cylinder shifted like sand through an hour glass, going from tall and thin to short and squat, and flashed a quick sequence of black shapes on its forward edge.
“This is my home, for the moment,” the old man answered, crossing his arms over his chest, “and I won’t have you muddying the place up.”
One of the vertical layers moved from side to side, and flashed a single, incredibly complicated symbol on its surface.
The old man glowered, and shook his head. “That’s all well and good, isn’t it, until you’ve pushed things too far, and then decoherence is the least of our problems. At that point, there’s no more particles, no more fundamental forces, and no more arrow of time.”
One of the cones shifted from blue to green, and displayed another set of symbols.
“Good for you, perhaps,” the old man said, stabbing a finger in the cone’s direction, “but not good for me, nor for any of the natives of this continuum. And if you think I’ll stand idly by, and allow myself to be marooned in a little bubble of distorted four-space, you are sadly mistaken.”
Several of the Cones clustered together, raising slightly off the ground, and moved closer to the two men, menacingly. The one in the lead displayed one, simple symbol.
“What will I do about it?” the old man said, repeating the question.
After a lengthy pause, the old man smiled, darkly, and answered.
“You know who I am, and you know what I’m capable of doing. The question you need to ask yourself, Xipéhuz, is what I won’t be willing to do about it.”
The old man and the patent examiner stood in silence as the shapes appeared to communicate amongst themselves, rapidly shifting shapes, sizes, and colors, in a dizzying array too quick for the human eye to follow.
Finally, they all adopted the same form, and the two men were ringed by dozens of translucent blue cones, each about half the size of a man.
As one, the cones all displayed the same symbol on their surfaces, and then with a mighty inrush of air, they disappeared from view.
The air was still around them, as the sky began to pink in the east, the first signs of the coming dawn.
“What happened?” Einstein looked around him, turning this way and that, as though suspecting the strange forms of sneaking up behind him. “What did they say?”
“They have gone, leaving this continuum for less… troublesome climes. As for what they said? Well, let us say that they expressed displeasure at my intervention, and leave the matter at that.”
The old man leaned down, and collected the small gem-like objects from the assemblage they had constructed, and the faint humming which had persisted through the night suddenly stopped.
“Had I not seen it with my own eyes,” Einstein said, rubbing his hands together, “I’m sure I wouldn’t believe a bit of it. I came following you seeking answers, and find myself now with even more questions than before.”
“The important thing is not to stop questioning,” the old man said, smiling. “Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”
The old man pocketed the glittering objects and started down the hill, leaving the assemblage of copper and iron and ceramics behind.
“Come along, my boy,” the old man called back over his shoulder. “You have work to which to return, I’m certain, and I have matters requiring my attention back in
Over a stout Swiss breakfast of fresh bread, cold meats and cheeses, sweet rolls and coffee, the old man and the patent examiner discussed all manner of things, most often with the old man listening attentively as the younger man worked his way through any number of his half-formed hypotheses. The old man nodded appreciatively, asking leading questions from time to time, the bones of their meal lying forgotten on the table between them.
Near midday, when the young man could delay going to the Patent Office no longer, the two men shook hands and parted company. Each headed into history, each in his own way.
By week’s end, the old man was back in Le Creusot. Though Borel plied him with repeated inquiries about what had so commanded his attention that he traveled to another country, the old man remained tight lipped about the affair.
Five weeks later, though, on their return to his residence near Marbeuf in
Over dinner, having spent a long day attaching plates of pandimensional metal to the surface of their still-unnamed vessel, shipped by rail from Le Creusot, the old man showed the journal to Borel, and tried unsuccessfully to explain its significance, saying as much as circumstances and decorum would allow.
That Borel failed to recognize the import of those few pages was hardly surprising. It would be many years to come before any but a select few would recognize what a year of wonders this had been.
(c) 2009 Monkeybrain, Inc.
Friday, February 27, 2009
Free Fiction: Two Birds
The problem was, I very quickly had stories out to all the top science fiction and fantasy markets, and was waiting for rejections before I could submit to them again. And I already had a stack of unsold novels, so wasn't in any hurry to write another long piece without any idea where it would be going. So I decided to experiment a bit.
I tried different genres and subgenres. I tried my hand at a dark fantasy/horror story (which didn't sell), wrote a couple of short stories to submit to Boy's Life (which would have been a childhood dream come true, but those didn't sell either), and more others than I can remember. None of these experiments resulted in a sale, which convinced me that I was already working in the genre best suited to my talents. I trunked the stories, and never really thought about them again.
This morning, though, digging through some old files looking for a pristine version of a short-short I'm supposed to be revising, I came across one of the experiments that I was really sorry never sold. I've always loved mysteries, and tried on a few occassions to break into the mystery field, without any success. This short, written in those heady days when I first became a full-time writer, was submitted to all of the big mystery magazines I knew about, and bounced from all of them. Clearly, I wasn't cut out to be a mystery writer. But still there's a lot about this short that I enjoy, not least of which the trivia about the early days of aviation in Texas that I turned up researching it. I wouldn't be surprised to see elements of this story turn up in one of my sf/f stories, sooner or later. But in the meantime, it's a strange artifact from the trunk. Who knows? Maybe in some other branching worldline of the Myriad this thing sold to Hitchcock's or someplace similar, and there's an analogue Chris Roberson who decided at that moment to pursue a career as a mystery writer.
by Chris Roberson
Sergeant Calvin Reid wiped his face with a bandanna, and set his Stetson back up on his head. This was supposed to be the raining season, when the showers eased them out of the cool of winter and into the spring, but the rains hadn’t come. The ground was bone dry, and the air was humid and still. By midday, it felt like a man might boil out of his skin. Reid didn’t like to think what that said about the coming summer, a spring as cruel as this.
Reid looked down at the body in the dried grass, its face a red ruin, sightless eyes starring up at the brilliant blue sky. It was well past noon, and the shadows were starting to grow. Darkness fell across the victim’s mangled face, shade from the bulk of the aeroplane just a few feet from the body.
Reid looked over at the machine, with its sharp-bladed wooden propeller, boxy frame and canvas covering. He couldn’t help but whistle low in appreciation. He’d never seen an aeroplane before. He’d seen his fair share of dead bodies in his line of work, but never an aeroplane. He just couldn’t figure why someone would be willing to kill over one.
It had started that morning.
Sergeant Calvin Reid of Texas Rangers Company D had been investigating a murder on the eastern outskirts of the town of Hondo. The body had been found just outside the town limits, so it fell under the jurisdiction of the Rangers rather than that of the town sheriff. Sergeant Reid was responsible for all of Medina and parts of Uvalde and Bandera counties, and so when a local rancher had come across the body that morning, they’d sent for him.
Luckily, Reid hadn’t been far. He reached the scene less than an hour after the rancher had found the body, and by the look of things, the murder had happened only an hour or so before it had been discovered. It was ten o’clock by Reid’s watch when he hopped off his palomino at the scene, so the murder must have happened at about eight o’clock, if murder it was.
It was murder, though. That was clear enough.
The body was laying face down in the dust, at the middle of a small clearing, the back of its shirt blackened with dried blood. There were hoof prints all around, but with the ground so dry, it was hard to tell which were the newest. The prints heading towards Hondo could be a day old or a week, those heading out to the east could have been made that morning or a month before.
Another reason we need the rain, Reid thought, knocking the dust out of his hat.
A horse, presumably that of the victim, was lingering near a stand of cedars a few yards off, munching discontentedly on the meager grass. On the opposite side of the clearing a man in well-worn overalls and a wide straw hat leaned against a tree, contentedly working his way through a plug of tobacco.
Reid dismounted, and his palomino mare drifted over to try out the grass for herself.
“You’re the one found the body?” Sergeant Reid asked the man.
“Yassir,” the man drawled. “Name’s Culverton. I’ve got a little spread just south of here,” he pointed with his chin, wasting no effort, “and one of my calves went missing in the night, so I was out here looking for her. Didn’t find her, but I found this ‘un instead.” He pointed again with his grizzled chin, this time to the body.
“You didn’t see anybody else around, I don’t expect?”
“Nossir, I surely didn’t. I had my brother’s boy with me, and I sent him running into town to fetch the law.” Culverton narrowed his eyes at the glint of silver on Reid’s chest. “You a Ranger?”
“Yep,” Reid said, squatting down on his heels next to the body.
“Don’t reckon you’ll be needing me anymore, then.” Culverton leisurely pushed off the tree, and straightened.
“Hang on a bit, there,” Reid answered, holding up his hand. “I’ll need to get a statement from you.”
Culverton chewed his lower lip for a moment.
“That calf of mine ain’t going to find itself, now,” he said, contemplatively. “But you being the law, I reckon I can wait another minute or two.”
Reid turned his attention back to the body. The man had been on foot when he was shot, and the bullet had entered his body from the back. He’d fallen forward into the dirt, and hadn’t gotten up again. From the state of his clothes, the victim had been fairly well off, though Reid couldn’t find any wallet or papers of any kind in the man’s pockets. More telling, there was also no money on him, neither paper currency nor coin.
It could have been nothing more than a simple robbery, then. But who was the victim, and what had he been doing out here in the scrub?
Sergeant Reid didn’t have much opportunity to worry about the murder victim. Not long after he’d gotten a statement and the particulars from Culverton, the rancher’s nephew had returned. Reid and the rancher managed to arrange the victim’s body across the back of his horse, and for twenty cents the rancher’s nephew agreed to lead the horse into town to the mortician’s place.
Just as Reid sent the rancher and his nephew on their way, a rider approached from the south. It was nearly noon, and the sun blazed overhead in the clear blue sky.
“Ranger, you’ve got to come, and quick,” the man on horseback shouted, all out of breath. “I rode almost clear to Hondo to find you, but the sheriff’s deputy told me you were out this ways.”
“What’s the trouble, fella?” Reid asked, straightening up and dusting off his trousers.
“There’s been a murder!”
Reid glanced at the body laying in the dirt, and then back up at the rider.
“Another murder! Our near my place in Castroville.”
The man seemed a mite excited, especially after laconic Culverton. The victim must have been someone pretty close to him.
“Who was it, son?” Reid asked, whistling his palomino Bolillo over from the stand of trees. The mare came clopping over, reluctantly. He’d trained the horse well, but she had a stubborn streak still that he’d never yet been able to break. “Part of your family?”
“No sir,” the rider answered, catching his breath. “I’d never seen him before. But he was in a flying machine before he died!”
Reid grabbed hold of Bolillo’s saddle horn, stuck his foot in the stirrup, and swung up onto her back.
“A flying machine?” Reid repeated, his brow furrowed. “You mean an aeroplane?”
The man nodded, eagerly.
“How far?” Reid asked, looping the reins around a gloved fist. With his other hand, he checked the strap holding his holstered Colt at his hip. If he was to set off at a gallop, he didn’t want to jostle the gun loose.
“About fourteen miles thataway,” the man answered, pointing due east.
Reid relaxed a bit. If the crime scene was that far away, there was no need to rush. It’d keep.
“What’s your name?” Reid asked.
“Davis. Jim Davis.”
“Well, Davis,” Reid answered. “You mind leading the way?”
The man shook his head, and turning his horse’s head back to the east, kicked her flanks and set off at a trot.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Reid said, urging Bolillo to follow. “A real life aeroplane.”
Around midday, Reid and Davis stopped at a livery station, about halfway between Hondo and Castroville. They had another seven miles until they reached Davis’ place and the scene of the second murder, but Davis had been riding for nearly two hours flat out, and his horse needed to be fed and watered. Reid, for his part, hadn’t eaten much since lunch the day before, and he was starved.
Tied up outside the livery was a horse that looked like it’d just run a cross-country race, flecks of foam still dabbing the corners of its mouth at the bit, its flanks caked with dust and sweat. Reid and Davis handed their horses off to the hostler, and headed into the small ramshackle building next door, where the hostler’s wife served up strong coffee and more or less palatable meals every day.
Inside, seated at a rickety table by the far window, was a man Sergeant Reid recognized.
“Horace Greene,” Reid said, taking off his hat and pulling out a chair at a nearby table. “As I live and breathe.”
Horace Greene was a big man, running to fat. He’d had some run-ins with the law before, petty thefts mostly, but he’d kept out of trouble for a while. He’d done a few months behind bars in Hondo after breaking into Judge Miller’s house, and the fear of returning to captivity seemed enough to keep him on the straight and narrow. For the moment, at least. He still owned a small ranch on the far side of Medina County, out towards Uvalde, but folks said that Horace had run into money trouble, and might have to sell it. The way Reid had heard it, Horace owed the bank a fair bit of money, more than he could make selling off his scrawny herd.
Greene looked up at Reid’s greeting, startled, eyes wide in a face the permanent red of an embarrassed blush. On seeing the Ranger calmly sitting down to table, Greene visibly relaxed, but kept his hands tensed into chubby fists, resting on either side of his plate.
“Howdy, Ranger,” Greene answered, nodding slightly. He didn’t say another word.
Greene seemed winded, out of breath. Reid wasn’t sure if that was the extra weight he’d packed on in jail, or because of exertion. Was that Greene’s horse out front, ridden nearly to collapse?
The hostler’s wife served up biscuits and gravy and cups of strong, black coffee to Davis and Reid. The three men sat in silence, Greene gulping down the last of his coffee and mopping his plate clean, the Ranger and Davis taking measured bites. When Greene had settled up his bill with the hostler’s wife, he nodded a quick farewell to Reid, and then hurried from the building without another word.
“Quiet type, ain’t he?” Davis said, disinterestedly.
“Yep,” Reid said simply, but suspicion hid behind his eyes. He looked through the dirty panes of the window as Greene mounted up on the beleaguered horse and rode off to the west, towards Hondo.
Davis lead Sergeant Reid to the site of the murder an hour or so past noon. The body was lying next to the aeroplane, just as Davis had said, in an open field just west of the town limits of Castroville. No one had touched the body, or the plane, since the Ranger was sent for.
The victim was dressed in a military uniform, khaki jodhpurs and jacket, with leather goggles pulled down and hanging around his neck and a holstered pistol at his hip. He’d been young, in his early twenties perhaps, with fine blond hair that hung in short curls around his head like a halo. The body was lying on its back, sightless eyes staring up at the blue sky overhead, its mouth and nose a ruin of dried blood and gore. The victim had been shot in the face by the killer, who by the angle of entry must have been on horseback.
Reid squatted down by the body, taking a closer look. The victim hadn’t put up any kind of fight. The pistol was still secured in the holster, and the lack of blood or powderburns on the forearms meant that he’s had his arms to his sides when the shot was fired. From the look of things, the victim had just landed the aeroplane, climbed to the ground, and promptly been shot in the face.
“Sergeant,” Davis said, directing Reid’s attention to the east.
The far eastern edge of the clearing was bounded by a rode that curved off to the south and east. A wagon had appeared at the clearing’s edge, a wide cart pulled by two big draft horses. At the reins was a stout man dressed in military khakis, at his side a taller man in the same uniform.
Reid stood up, and waited.
“How do, fellas,” Reid said.
The stout man brought the wagon up alongside the aeroplane, his manner casual. When he saw the body stretched out in the grass, though, his eyes went wide.
“Lieutenant!” the stout man said, and leapt to the ground from the buckboard.
“Aw, cripes,” the tall man said, wincing. He pulled the handle to lock the brakes of the wagon, and then followed his stout companion to the ground.
“What happened?” the stout man asked, looking up at Reid, his expression drawn.
The tall man drew near, and leaned over to get a closer look at the victim, grimacing.
“You fellas know this one?” Reid said, pointing to the body in the grass with his chin.
“Yeah,” the tall man answered, standing up straight. “His name is Hopkins. Lieutenant Dan Hopkins.” He glanced back at the body, and shook his head. “Dang it,” he swore.
“And who might you fellas be?” Reid asked.
“My name’s Johnston, and this here is Bloom,” the tall man said. “We’re enlisted men, out of Fort Sam Houston.”
“That where this fella and his flying machine are from, too?” Reid asked. He’d heard that the Army base in San Antonio had gotten an aeroplane the year before.
“Yessir,” the stout man called Bloom answered, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. “Hopkins was due back at the base a few hours ago, and so Johnston and me was sent out after him. We figured that… well, we figured he might have had trouble getting back up in the air. We didn’t know…” Bloom’s gaze drifted back to the body, and his voice trailed off into silence.
“You didn’t know he’d go and get himself shot,” Reid finished for him.
Johnston and Bloom both nodded, eagerly.
“You know of anyone who’d have a reason to kill him?” Reid asked.
Both soldiers shook their heads.
“He just transferred in last month,” Johnston answered. “And he hardly ever left the base.”
“He didn’t have any enemies I heard about,” Bloom said.
Reid looked over at the body.
“Well, he must have found one at the end, I suppose,” he said.
Davis and Reid helped the two soldiers wrap the body of the dead pilot in a tarp, and loaded it and the aeroplane onto the back of the wagon. Before they’d gone, Reid learned from them that the pilot had taken off just an hour before Davis had found the body. The plane had a top speed of forty miles per hour, and the base was about 20 miles away, so to their reckoning he’d been in the air about thirty minutes. That meant that the murder had likely taken place thirty minutes before Davis had come upon the body, or sometime around nine o’clock that morning.
There hadn’t been a murder in Medina county in well over month, and now there were two within an hour of each other, fourteen miles apart? Sergeant Reid was going to earn his pay voucher this month. Provided, of course, he was able to solve the murders, and bring to justice the people who had done them.
That night, Sergeant Reid stopped in to visit the sheriff of Hondo. The manager at the local inn had reported one of their guests missing that morning, and the sheriff had put two and two together and identified the missing guest as the murdered man found just outside the town limits that morning. According to the inn manager, the murdered man had been in town on business from Dallas. What his business was, the inn manager couldn’t say, only that it was some sort of real estate speculation deal, and that he’d left the hotel the night before in the company of another man. Of this other man, all the hotel staff could remember was that he was a large man, taller than average and heavier than most. A telegram was sent to the man’s next of kin in Dallas, and arrangements were underway to transport the body back north.
The next day, Reid was up early. He rode east into the city of San Antonio, some twenty miles away. He had some questions for the aeroplane folks at the army base. Whatever the reason the pilot had been shot, the fact that a flying machine was involved was simply too unusual not to have a bearing on his investigation. It had only been a handful of years since the papers ran the first reports of those two brothers making it up into the air back east. Reid had seen a short film of an aeroplane taking off at the picture show the year before, but hadn’t figured on ever seeing on in person. The one that he’d seen the day before had surprised him; he’d never figured they’d look quite so… flimsy.
Reid reached the center of town around midday, and decided to stop by the headquarters of Company D. He rarely had occasion to come back in from the field, and figured he’d get some official business out of the way while he was in town. On his arrival, though, he found that the Captain of the Company was down south in Starr county, investigating a large scale rustling operation, leaving the lieutenant in charge of the offices. Reid and the lieutenant had never gotten along too well, so after mouthing a few pleasantries, Reid excused himself and headed back out. He rode north through downtown, past the ruins of the Alamo, until he came to the big tower at the entrance to Fort Sam Houston.
The tower loomed a good ninety feet off the ground, making it one of the tallest buildings Reid had ever seen. Reid couldn’t see that it was good for much. It was only six hundred feet on a side, and seemed primarily to serve only to hold a clock way above the ground. He supposed that, in the event of an attack, the tower could serve as a good look-out point; but given the lack of fortifications around it, any attacker worth their salt would just know to ride around the side.
Reid was met at the front gate by a khaki-clad soldier with a carbine at his shoulder and a Colt holstered at his side. Reid was on foot, holding his palomino’s reins lightly in his hand
“State your business,” the soldier said, holding the carbine in front of him with both hands, finger near the trigger.
Reid thumped the star on his chest with his thumb.
“Sergeant Reid of Texas Rangers Company D. Here on state business. I’m investigating the murder of your aeroplane pilot.”
The soldier’s expression softened, and he quickly lowered the carbine.
“Oh, right,” the soldier said, nodding. “You’ll want Lieutenant Foulois. Come right this way.”
The soldier motioned for another to take his place at the gate, showed Reid where he could tie up his horse, and then led him across the grounds. It was only a few minutes before they reached a large building. The building was dominated by a single large room, filled with long rows of tables, hundreds of men crowded around the tables, eating with gusto.
“That’s the Lieutenant right over there,” the sergeant said, pointing to a table set aside from the others. There were fewer than a dozen men at the table, and their manner was much more subdued, much more somber, than that of the rest of the room.
The soldier returned to his post. Reid crossed the floor to the table.
“Lieutenant Foulois?” Reid said, addressing the table in general. He didn’t know enough about the ensigns of Army ranks to know which of the men he was looking for.
“That’d be me,” said a man at the end of the table. He stood up, and came around to face Reid. He was dressed in the same khaki uniform as the murdered pilot, jodhpurs and jacket, with high leather boots and an easy smile. “Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois, flight detachment,” the man said, and stuck out his hand.
“Sergeant Calvin Reid. I’m with the Texas Rangers…”
“And you’re here about Hopkins’ death, I take it?” Foulois said, before Reid could finish.
“I wanted to ask a few questions about him, if you don’t mind,” Reid said, nodding. “The way he was killed, I’ve got to figure…”
Foulois raised his hand, apologetically.
“I’m happy to tell you whatever you want to know,” the lieutenant said, “but if you want answers, you’ll have to do some walking. There’s work to be done, and I’m afraid I don’t have enough time that I can be generous with my attentions.”
“Alright boys,” Foulois said, addressing the table. “Back to it.”
As one, the ten men at the table climbed to their feet, bussed their areas, and marched out the door. Reid recognized Johnston and Bloom, the two men from the day before, who each gave him a slight nod in greeting as they filed past.
“They’re a good group of men,” Foulois said, following behind and motioning Reid to follow. “A bit unruly at times, but at the moment they’re all shook up over losing Hopkins like that, and they’re not sure which way to jump.” The lieutenant paused, and rubbed his chin. “You know, we figure it’s only a matter of time before one of us flyboys doesn’t walk away from a landing, if you know what I mean. Flying that high and that fast, there’s bound to be a dustup that will be fatal. But I swear, none of us ever figured it would be a bullet that would put a pilot down. Not at peacetime, at least.”
“Yep, that’s one of the things I wanted to…” Reid said, and then paused. Foulois was leading him to the north away from the buildings, off into what seemed like open fields. “If you don’t mind me asking, exactly where is it we’re going?”
“Back home,” Foulois answered with a weary smile. “The rest of the flight detachment and I are billeted out of our hangar, at the end of the old mounted drill grounds, but we eat our meals with the other outfits. We used to mess with the troops of the 3rd Cavalry, and that was a walk of just half a mile for each meal, but ever since the 3rd shipped out, we’ve been messing with the 22nd Infantry, which means a trek of more than a mile each way. It’s seriously cutting into our flying schedule, but so far I’ve been unable to get the Army brass to do anything about it. Hell,” he chuckled, humorlessly, “we’d be better off buying our meals at the civilians home off base.”
After a long enough walk that Reid wished he’d ridden his palomino onto the grounds, they reached the hangar. It was little more than an old barn, roughly converted into barracks and a big open room.
“I’m worried about the Military Flyer,” Foulois said, as they drew near the hangar. “That’s the kite you saw yesterday. Johnston and Bloom are square guys, but I’m worried they might have bunged it up a bit on that wagon.”
Reid followed Foulois through the wide doors and into the hangar, a seed of confusion squirming at the back of his brain. Something about the way Foulois had described the aeroplane. Not as the plane, so much as a plane.
“There she is,” Foulois said, proudly. Sitting in the middle of the dusty ground was the aeroplane Reid had seen the day before. A couple of men dressed in pilot’s uniforms were working on the engine. Otherwise, aside from a large shape in the far corner covered with a canvas tarp, the large room was empty.
“We call it the Military Flyer,” Foulois explained. “It was built by the Wright Brothers themselves, and delivered to the Army back in August of Aught Nine. Its official designation is Army Aeroplane Number one, and it was the only one the Army had for a good long while. The Wrights were supposed to train me up on how to fly it at Fort Meyer in Virginia, but the winters are damned cold there, and it never got clear enough to get off the ground. In the end, the enlisted men in the ground crew and I were send south here to Fort Sam Houston and told to get the thing in the air.” Foulois smiled, ruefully. “I had to teach myself how to fly, in the end. I’d take off, fly for a while, crash it, and then put the damned thing back together again.” He paused, a cloud passing across his face. “But no one ever died. Not before now.”
“You did all that by yourself?” Reid asked.
“Well, I had the ground crew here,” Foulois admitted. “And I had to write to the Wrights a time or two to ask for advice, but otherwise we were on their own. And the crew and I made a few improvements on the design, too. They added wheels, so the plane could take off and land without a track. That’s what Hopkins had been doing yesterday, out testing landing and taking off again in real world conditions.”
Reid walked in a slow circle around the aeroplane. He still couldn’t get over how light and flimsy it seemed.
“When was the plane last away from the base?” he asked. “Before Hopkins took it out, I mean?”
Foulois scratched his chin, thinking it over.
“It’s been a few weeks, at least. We had a pretty bad dustup a few weeks back, and it took that long just to get the thing airworthy again.” Foulois paused, and smiled. “That one, though,” he said, pointing to the far side of the hangar. “That one I think we could drop it off the roof and it wouldn’t get dinged.”
Reid looked over, and saw Johnston, Bloom, and two other crewmen pulling the canvas tarp off the shape in the corner. The tarp came clear, and Reid stood there, gaping.
Reid looked back to his left, and saw the flimsy frame and canvas flying machine called the Military Flyer. Then he looked to his right, and saw a larger aeroplane, looking larger and more sturdy. From a distance, he might have mistaken one for the other, but up close, there was no comparison.
“You’ve got two aeroplanes!” Reid said. Not twenty-four hours before he’d never have thought he’d see even one, and now just a day later he’d seen two of the damned things. “I’d only heard about the one.”
“Yeah,” Foulois said, walking over to the larger plane, running his hand along the canvas-covered frame. “Last month the brass sent four more pilots, who had been training out at Glenn Curtiss’ outfit in San Diego. Around the same time, we got the first of a new Curtiss Type IV military pusher.”
Reid looked at him, blankly.
“That’s a kind of aeroplane,” Foulois clarified. “It’s a single-seater, with a tricycle undercarriage, and a lot sturdier than the Flyer. These new boys had been trained on similar kites out in California, so they’ve been clocking hours of flight time on the new Curtiss ever since.”
Reid narrowed his eyes. Something like an idea was maneuvering into position, behind his eyes.
“Has that plane been away from the base recently?” he asked.
“As a matter of fact, it has,” Foulois answered. “Just yesterday, in fact. It was out scouting landing locations for the Military Flyer.”
“Who was flying it at the time?”
“Hey, Kelly,” Foulois shouted, motioning to one of the pilots working on the Military Flyer. “Front and center.”
The pilot stood up from the engine, dropping a wrench in the dirt, and came strolling over, wiping his greasy hands on a rag.
“Sergeant Reid,” Foulois said, “this is Lieutenant George Kelly, one of our new pilots. He was the one up in the Curtiss yesterday.”
Reid and Lieutenant Kelly shook hands, and the Ranger took the opportunity to size him up. Like Foulois, and the dead man from the day before for that matter, Kelly was of average height and slender, with long delicate fingers. Reid supposed that piloting must be like horse racing, and that certain body types were better suited to the job than others. He couldn’t imagine someone with the bulk of, say, Horace Greene up in an aeroplane like that.
“What can you tell me about your flight yesterday, son?” Reid asked.
“Well, I was scouting locations for Hopkins to land the Flyer. Anyplace flat and dry would do. I must have flown about forty miles, more or less due west, and the best landing spot I saw was a strip of clearing about half way.”
“So you just flew out and back?” Reid asked.
“Yessir. At forty miles, I turned tail and came back.”
“What time would this have been?”
“I took off at 0730, on the dot.”
Reid looked from Kelly to Foulois and back.
“Come again?” the Ranger said.
“That’s seven-thirty in the morning, Sergeant,” Foulois explained.
“Thank you kindly,” Reid answered. He took off his Stetson, and scratched his head. “And how fast do you think you were flying?”
“The Curtiss can do fifty miles per hour, flat out, and I was going about that the whole time, coming and going,” Kelly answered.
“So when you turned around, it was what? Eight o’clock, would you say?” Reid asked.
“And you were about forty miles from here, just about due west?”
Kelly nodded again.
“Tell me, Lieutenant,” Reid said. “Did you happen to see anything… unusual on the ground, out that ways? You had an eye out for good bits of ground, so you must have been looking down, I take it.”
“Well,” Kelly answered, rubbing the back of his neck. “Nothing too unusual, I don’t expect. A ranch or two, a dairy farm, a little town. Mostly I was looking for clearings and fields, and ignoring everything else.”
“How about right when you turned around, forty miles out? Anything out that way?”
“Well, there was a good sized clearing that Hopkins could have used, but it was pretty far out for the Flyer, which doesn’t have the ranger of the Curtiss. Besides, there were two men in the field, and horses, so I figured there might be obstructions if Hopkins tried to set down there.”
“Two men?” Reid repeated. “What did they look like?”
“Well, I can’t rightly say. I was a hundred feet up, you have to understand. All I really noticed was that one was dressed like he was a banker, and that the other was a really big fella. I mean, big. Tall and fat, both.”
Reid smiled, grimly.
“Thank you, lieutenant,” he said. “I think that’s all I need.”
Reid turned to Foulois, and set his Stetson back on his head.
“Well, sir,” he said, “I believe I know who killed your man. If I hurry, I believe I can have him in custody by tonight.”
Foulois dismissed Kelly, and ushered Reid to the door.
“In that case,” Foulois said, “I’m coming along.”
Reid stopped short.
“Begging your pardon, Lieutenant, but this is a Ranger investigation…”
Foulois held up his hand.
“I’m not going to interfere, don’t worry. I just want to observe. I can’t say that I knew Hopkins all that well, but he was one of my men, and I owe him that much, at least.”
Reid just shrugged, and headed back outside.
“You can’t say fairer than that,” he called back over his shoulder, and he and Foulois headed out into the sunshine.
It had taken a little while for Foulois to locate a horse on base that he could use, and a while longer to get used to being in a saddle again. He was uncomfortable on the back of a horse, he’d explained. Having spent so much of the previous year and a half up in the air, he’d pretty much forgotten how to ride properly.
“Don’t that beat all,” Reid had said, after Foulois explained the loss of his riding abilities. They were halfway to Hondo, not far from the town of Castroville, heading towards the setting sun. “Forgot how to ride?”
Reid couldn’t imagine such a thing. There were days when he spent more time in the saddle than he spent sleeping on his back at night. He sometimes thought he’d spent half his life, or more, on horseback, all told.
“Yeah,” Foulois said sheepishly, clutching the saddle horn, perched awkwardly on the back of his borrowed paint. “But I don’t expect I’ll be the only one, nor the last. What with more and more aeroplanes being built every year, and automobiles starting to dominate the city roads, I imagine that before long, some folks’ll never have been on horseback at all.”
Reid looked askance at the lieutenant. In the fading light, he couldn’t see if the pilot were joking or not.
“That’ll be the day,” Reid said, laughing. He’d decided it must be a joke. “That’ll be the day.”
They rode on, through the scrub, into the west.
Long past nightfall, they reached the house of Horace Greene. The fat man met them at the front door, a shotgun held loosely in his arms.
“Howdy, Ranger,” Greene said, outlined by the light of the oil lanterns burning within the ramshackle house.
“How do, Horace,” Reid answered, his tone level.
Greene glanced at the pilot riding beside Reid.
“Something I can do for you?” Greene asked.
“Well, sir,” Reid answered, leaning on the saddle horn with his left arm, his right hand resting near the handle of Colt at his hip. “I figure you could first put down that scattergun, and then maybe we could talk for a minute.”
Horace narrowed his eyes.
“What do we got to talk about?”
“Well, you might be interested to know,” Reid said, “that those boys over at Fort Sam Houston don’t have themselves just one aeroplane.” Reid paused, and shook his head. “Nope, turns out they’ve got two of the danged things. Don’t that beat all?”
Horace’s eyes widened, and he made to swing the shotgun up to a firing position.
Reid reacted faster than he could think, years of experience taking over his conscious mind. His Colt was clear of his holster in an eyeblink, and he shot without even bothering to aim. A bloom opened on the fat man’s shoulder, and the shotgun dropped with a clatter to the porch planks.
“That doesn’t seem particularly neighborly of you, Horace,” Reid said calmly, still in the saddle.
“I don’t suppose you’ll want to hear this, but I’m guessing, if you’d left well enough alone and hadn’t ridden after that plane, you just might have gotten away with it.” Reid paused. “Gotten away with killing the real estate investor from Dallas. I figured you lured him down here on some pretense, probably using a phony name, led him out into the middle of nowhere, and then shot him in cold blood. He was probably carrying a fair amount of cash on him, am I right? You’d convinced him it was necessary for some reason, and he was damfool enough to go for it. And then that aeroplane flew overhead, and you figured you was on the spot.”
Greene clutched at his shoulder, and fell to his knees.
“Oh, stop moaning, Horace, you’ll live. Anyhow, you figured the fella in that flying machine had seen you gun down the real estate investor, and so you tore ass after the aeroplane to catch up. You figured you’d wait until it came back down, and the put a bullet in him, too. Only problem was, you lost sight of it, and rode for damn near an hour before you saw it again, sitting there on the ground.”
Reid paused, and leaned across the saddle horn, his expression cold.
“Only thing is, that wasn’t even the same damned aeroplane, Horace. You killed that boy Hopkins for no reason. And it turns out that the pilot who you were after didn’t see anything. Not anything really incriminating, anyways, just a fat man and a banker in the middle of a field.”
Greene howled again, like the damned.
“Alright, alright,” Greene said, tears rolling down his face. “I admit it, that’s just what happened. I paid the money to the bank this morning, to get them off my back. Now can you just get a danged doctor! I’m bleeding to death, here!”
Reid straightened up in the saddle, miming shock.
“Oh, my, is that right?” He turned to Foulois, who sat on his borrowed paint, looking on in grim amusement. “Lieutenant, would you mind riding back into Hondo and fetching the doctor. It appears that Horace here has injured himself.”
Foulois gave a little salute, and with some little difficulty turned his horse’s head and started back the way they’d come.
Greene continued to moan on the porch, but aside from telling him to keep pressure on it, Reid didn’t make a move to assist. He stayed on horseback, waiting for Foulois to return with help.
Reid looked up at the night sky overhead, dappled with stars. His father had been a cowpuncher, and had laid under those stars by night. Reid couldn’t help but wonder, now that men could fly into the heavens, if his own son might not one day fly up to those stars himself.
Reid could only shrug. His son or his son’s sons might someday fly up into the skies, but Reid was going to stay here on the ground. On the back of a horse, if he could help it. He was just more comfortable in the saddle.
(c) 2009 Monkeybrain, Inc.
Friday, February 13, 2009
Free Fiction: "The Funeral Affair"
This is something of a strange one. Written largely as a warm-up exercise for my novel Voices of Thunder (soon to be republished in a revised edition as Book of Secrets, about which more soon) and trunked after a round of submissions a few years later, I dug it out recently and polished it the tiniest bit. It's more of vignette than a story, but I still like it, for all of that. There are links here between the Taylor clan of Book of Secrets and the Bonaventure-Carmody family of my other novels (both of whom feature heavily in End of the Century), as well as in-jokey references to other people's work that would be more at home in a Wold Newton story like "Penumbra" than in something of my own. But while it's probably "non-canonical" as far as the Bonaventure-Carmody universe is concerned (don't quote me on that), here it is, for your diversion and delectation.
(So, can you spot all the references and easter-eggs in here?)
by Chris Roberson
It didn’t matter much, because he was off in Uganda or some such place, while I stood in the rain, my face bare to the world, finishing the soggy remains of my last cigarette, watching the last straggling mourners file into St. Paul’s Chapel. All around, through the rain-slicked streets, New York went about its business, not much noticing me. That was fine with me. I didn’t feel much like noticing New York either. I was too busy looking for people I knew among the attendees, and failing miserably.
With my brother unable to attend, there was only me representing the Finch clan. The deceased, my father’s older brother, had never married, and with my own parents in the ground twenty years now, there was only my brother and me, and our uncle. Now there was just the two of us. Quietly, just days before his sixty-seventh birthday, Sterling Finch had died in his sleep, alone. Now, those few that remembered him had come to pay their respects.
Finishing my cigarette, I made my way inside.
As children, we had seen our Uncle Sterling just once or twice. Our grandfather, who had taken us in after our parents’ death, had never thought too highly of his son-in-law’s brother, and with dad safely out of the way, saw no reason to be civil. Sterling, for his part, seemed more than content to accede to Grandfather’s wishes, and so kept his visits to a bare minimum. He was a busy man, and family obligations tended to get in the way.
My only clear memory of my Uncle from childhood comes from a Christmas when my brother and I were just eight years old. Sterling was in town on business, he had said, and so dropped in to share a family holiday. He only stayed two days, even that over Grandfather’s protests, but in those two days showered the two of us with gifts, and dazzled us with fanciful tales of his supposed adventures. Each of us he presented with matching replica Lugers, which could be loaded with red paper strips of firing caps, that exploded with a bang and a puff of smoke when the hammer fell. Our Grandfather objected, not because they were guns, and guns are inappropriate toys for young boys, but because they were of German design, saying that the only fitting guns for American boys were Colts.
Later while Maria, our maid, got the two of us ready for bed, Uncle Sterling and Grandfather got into some kind of argument in the study. Upstairs we could not hear the exact words they spoke, but the walls buzzed with the sound of their loud voices, and when finally we heard the door slam we knew it was over. Sterling was gone, and we wouldn’t seem him again. Not for long years.
Once inside the church, I found a pew near the back and, shaking off the rainwater from my suit coat and pants, sat down. Running a damp hand through my damper mop of hair, I surveyed the crowd. I didn’t recognize any of them, and had to assume that they were business associates of my uncle. Not a one of them looked a day under sixty, and several looked quite a bit older than that.
At the front of the chapel sat a dark wood coffin, closed in accordance with my uncle’s wishes. There were towering wreaths of flowers around it, looking more like a hothouse garden than a church. As each of the mourners entered, they walked first to the front of the aisles, laid a lily, or a wreath, or a bouquet, beside the coffin, and then found their seats. When the last of them had been seated, making some two dozen in all, the priest took to the lectern, and began to speak.
He said all the expected things, all the pat clichés any priest says when presiding over the funeral of a man he never met. The deceased was much loved and respected by friends and family, made an impact on the lives of so many, will be greatly missed, et cetera, et cetera. He showed as much emotion as he would have reading the ingredients of a box of breakfast cereal, and seemed relieved when he was finally able to call on one of the mourners to speak.
The man who rose from the front pew to walk to lectern looked eighty if he was a day. He walked slowly, deliberately, though out of habit or necessity I couldn’t tell. Finally, glacially, he reached the lectern, and clearing his throat slightly ran a wrinkled hand through his thick white hair.
“Most of you know me,” he began, in a thick Russian accent, “having worked either with me, or against me, over the years. Like you, I had the good fortune to know Mr. Finch, through I regret that it was seldom as an ally. Mister Finch and I had, how shall I say it, differing ideologies, and as such often found ourselves adversaries. Nevertheless, though never close, I always respected him, and I would like to believe that in the end I had earned the right to call Mr. Finch a friend. As time passes, and institutions come and go, the minor differences between peoples seem to blur, until in the end there are only people. No more us and them, only you and me. I regret that I did not know Mr. Finch better, but am grateful to have known him at all.”
The elderly Russian took his seat again, and another took his place at the front. An old British gentlemen this time, saying much the same thing, though a bit more intelligibly. Next went an American, next a British woman. In the end, some half dozen associates of my uncle had spoken, all received with somber smiles and emphatic nods from the rest of the mourners.
Finally, the bored priest, forced once more to stand up, called the ceremony to an end, and directed us to attend a wake at a nearby bar, were we so inclined. Dutifully, we all rose, and made our way slowly to the doors.
Several years before, while in New York researching a story for Wide Open, I ran into my uncle. I had been coming out of a deli in the Village, when I ran headlong into an older gentleman carrying a silver-topped cane. To my complete surprise, it was Uncle Sterling. After a hasty reunion, he invited me to join him at his home in the Hamptons for a few days, and having nothing much better to do, I agreed.
As we rode out from the city to his place, Sterling brought me up to speed on his life. He had been living in New York State for some ten years now, having finally sold his place in London and left forever his native home. England had changed beyond his recognition, he explained, and at least in America he expected to be a stranger. Besides, he explained, the company he had worked so many years for had cut loose most of its agents, and he was out of a job.
Once at his home, far too large for just one old man, we shared a quiet dinner, and then fell to talking about my brother, and me, and even about Grandfather. Sterling seemed especially interested in my career, my years as a reporter, and even my brief time as a burglar in my misspent youth. He seemed to be asking leading questions, directing me towards subjects he wanted to hear, and I had done too many interviews not to know what he was up to.
“What’s the story here, Unc?” I asked him. “You know more than you let on.”
“You’re right, son,” he admitted. “You’ve found me out. I know all about what you’ve been up to these many years. I still have contacts amongst those men and women whose job it is to know things, and I’ve made the occasional discreet inquiry regarding yourself and your brother.”
“So you just didn’t happen to be in Greenwich, did you?”
“Again, no,” he said, smiling slightly. “My contacts had informed me that you were in the city on business, and I thought this the excellent opportunity to catch up in person. You’ll forgive me, won’t you? You can’t blame an old man for playing one last game, can you?”
I explained that it didn’t bother me at all, that I was surprised, even flattered, that he had gone to the trouble of spying on me.
“Old habit die hard, my boy, even when not put into practice. The world has changed, you see, and left old duffers like me behind. We must find our own little divertissements now, and make do as best we can. Men like me never retire, not voluntarily at least. But sometimes the business just goes that way.”
“What business were you in, anyway, Unc?” I asked. “I’d always though that it was some travel agency, or an import/export business, but that doesn’t seem a good enough job to leave you with digs like this.” I paused, and added, joking, “Unless you were really in the mob, that is.”
Sterling smiled, and settled back in his chair.
“Nothing so dramatic, I’m afraid,” he answered. “No, I was only a spy.”
I nearly choked on my wine, and when I had found my voice answered, “A spy?” Just why I need, I thought, another senile old codger in the family.
“Yes,” Sterling replied, “a spy. An espionage agent. An intelligencer. I trust you’re familiar with the occupation?”
“Oh, my boy, it’s just a job as any other. It simply requires a certain set of skills, skills which I was fortunate enough to possess.”
I decided to humor him. It seemed harmless enough.
“How, exactly, does one become a... spy?”
“I began my career with the British Royal Navy, as you may know. I had stayed in England, when your father and our parents moved to America, and with no other livelihood presenting itself, went into the military. I won’t bore you with the details, but after making enough of an impression on my superiors, was seconded to MI8, a branch of the intelligence service devoted to matters of a rather... delicate nature.” He paused, smiling. “Once upon a time, I would have to have killed you, even mentioning the name of the agency. But those days are now passed. It doesn’t exist anymore.
“In any case, after a few years working in the service of my country, I was recruited by United Nations Command: Law Enforcement, and was called upon to respond to matters of a more global nature. I had taken on a code name when first conscripted by MI8, and continued to use it while working for the UN. We all used code names in those days: Solo, Steed, Drake. It made sense, really, as it wouldn’t do to give out your real name to every Tom, Dick and Harry bent on world domination. They might just look you up in the phone book and call upon your mother. No, code names were best, and that’s the way everyone did it.
“John Dee was the first spy, to be precise about it, and a magician to boot.” My uncle was seeming to loose the train of thought, and was barreling headlong down a tangent. “That particular combination was rarely a healthy one, and almost invariably led an operative to a bad end. The best agents tended to be more straightforward, thinking more with their fists than their frontal lobes, leaving introspection for after the bomb was diffused and the girl rescued. The world was a brighter place then, more clearly defined, and it never took long to tell the good guys from the bad. Everything is different now, with spookshows spying on their own, governments keeping their own citizens under constant scrutiny. The only enemies are under own roof now, and the watchword is conspiracy, not invasion.”
He went on in that fashion for some time, recounting story after story, the men he worked with, the men he’d fought against. Finally, long after midnight, he grew tired, and with after a brief embrace, returned to his bedroom. I wished him a goodnight, and went off to sleep myself. I knew from experience that it was tiring dealing with the unhinged, and this time was no different than any other.
The next morning, over breakfast, I thanked him for his hospitality, but begged off staying any longer. I had work to do in the city, and then had to get back to the west coast. A little tearfully, Sterling led me to the door, and made me promise to visit him soon. I did, and then didn’t. I never saw him again.
At the wake, practically all the mourners packed in a bar barely large enough to hold half of them, I worked my way through a gin and tonic, keeping apart from the others. The mourners stood or sat in little groups of two or three throughout the place, the groups drifting slowly around, bumping into each other and then reforming like clouds. I was able to get a better look at them, and they seemed a rather strange collection of retirees.
There was an elderly English gentleman in a bowler hat wielding an umbrella like a sword, a striking woman of middle years at his side. A grey haired American stood side by side with a thin, blond haired Russian in a turtleneck. Nearby stood a giant of a man, every tooth in his head capped in glittering metal. Near the bar there was an ancient man in a wheelchair, his valet standing beside him, the old man with a scraggly white cat sitting in his lap. In hushed tones they all spoke about my uncle, and about each other, and about the old days. I couldn’t hear clearly enough to get any specifics from the conversations, but each seemed to have known my uncle well, if only on a professional level, and had respected him.
Only once did one of them address me. I was on my third gin and tonic, and thinking quite intently about the bed back in my hotel, when a tall, grey-haired Englishman approached me and extended his hand.
“You must be Sterling’s nephew, right? Is it Patrick, or Spencer?”
I took his hand, and answered, “Spencer.”
“Of course, I should have known. Your uncle spoke often of the two of you. I feel I known you for years.”
“Did you work with my uncle?” I asked.
“Not... exactly,” the old Englishman answered. “He and I were both residents for a time in the Village, and often had occasion to talk about the relations we had left behind.”
“Yes. In our line of work it was quite easy to lose touch with the people who really mattered to you, but the best we could hope for was that they knew we still held them in our thoughts, and in our hearts.”
“Well,” I said, more than a little uncomfortable, “I know we’re going to miss him.”
“Of course,” he replied sympathetically. “We all will.” He glanced at his watch, and made a face.
“I’ve got to be going,” he added, extending his hand again. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Spencer.”
“Likewise,” I answered.
He smiled, a strange little half-smile, and gave a little salute.
“Be seeing you,” he said, and then turned to leave.
I finished my drink, had another cigarette, and then shrugged into my coat. With one last glance at the men and women moving slowly around the bar, relics of a time most have forgotten, or never believed to begin with, I turned up my collar, and walked outside.
(c) 2009 Monkeybrain, Inc.
Friday, February 06, 2009
Free Fiction: "Secret Histories: Jake Carmody, 1961"
The following is a standalone chapter from Cybermancy Incorporated (which is currently out of print, but is available on the Kindle), and features a few characters and concepts connected with my new novel, End of the Century. I refer anyone interested in learning more about Bureau Zero and MI-8 to the final post in my Secret Services series, which I'll likely be posting in the next week or two.
by Chris Roberson
Jake Carmody, agent of Bureau Zero, sat at the vingt-et-un table killing time. His target was not due to arrive in Monte Carlo until the next morning, and so Agent Carmody was whiling away the hours gambling, both in order to establish his cover as wealthy American industrialist on vacation and because, frankly, it beat the alternatives. After a couple of hours at it he was ahead, winning more often than losing, but not by much.
The assignment was a simple one, a straightforward extraction operation. He was to make contact with a scientist named Werner Eckhardt, try to convince him to defect to the US, and if he couldn’t, to handle matters accordingly. The section chiefs back at Bureau Zero were already drooling over the prospect of getting Eckhardt in their stable of hired intellects, so Carmody was fairly sure he wouldn’t be getting the warmest of receptions in the event he had to “handle matters accordingly.”
Carmody was dealt a queen and a seven, but the dealer was showing a ten so he decided to hit. It was a risk, but he wasn’t playing with his own money, so he didn’t mind so much.
“A bold move,” said an angel’s voice in a British accent at his elbow. “Or should I say, a rash one?”
Carmody turned slightly, his gaze taking in the statuesque brunette to his left. She’d sat down at the table a few hands back, and had been playing conservatively. She wasn’t exactly Carmody’s type, but in her form-fitting black gown, hung off the shoulder, it hardly mattered.
“We’ll see,” Carmody said softly.
The dealer laid out a five, expressionless.
“Rash, then?” the brunette added, smiling slightly.
“It would seem so,” Carmody answered.
The brunette stood pat on a nine and an eight, and when the dealer added a king to the ten and five in his hand, accepted her winnings graciously.
“Are you here on business, Mister…?” the brunette asked, stacking her chips in front of her in neat rows of fortification.
“Carmody,” he replied. “Jake Carmody.” He always used his real name when on assignment, shifting all the other aspects of his aliases and cover identities around this kernel of truth like the moon in orbit around the earth. He never worried. The agency to which he reported, Bureau Zero, was so secretive that no one in the standard intelligence community even knew it existed, not even the stuffed shirts at the FBI or the high-strung nuts over at the CIA. The Bureau handled matters unsuited to the customary intelligence channels, matters that would either pass unnoticed by more conventional operatives, or else drive them stark raving mad. There were rumblings around the head office that the new man in the White House had been asking too many questions, poking around in appropriations and mandated sanctions that were best left untouched, but if push came to shove there were always means of dealing with that sort of thing.
The brunette took Carmody’s proffered hand.
“Diana,” she answered, as though that was all the name she’d ever needed. “Charmed.” She let drop Carmody’s hand, and anted up. She then looked at Carmody sidelong, her eyes half-lidded. “But you still haven’t answered my question.”
Carmody tossed in the requisite chips, and turned back to Diana.
“No,” he said, “I don’t suppose I have. The answer is no, I’m afraid. I’m just vacationing.”
“And all alone?” Diana asked, glancing at the bare third finger on Carmody’s left hand. “Is there no Mrs. Carmody?”
“Only my mother,” he answered, wincing slightly despite himself. He quickly added, “And you? What brings you to Monte Carlo?”
“I am a scientist by profession, Mr. Carmody,” she answered, “and I’m here representing the Physics Department at Oxford to the Conference on New Technologies. It’s held here, I suspect, to give poor schoolmarms like myself the opportunity to dress up and go out a night or two.”
Carmody would hardly have pegged her as a schoolmarm, but that wasn’t the bit of her spiel that caught his attention. The Conference on New Technologies, an annual meeting of the best and brightest minds the world had to offer, had been started up by a consortium of researchers a few years after the Second World War. Everyone who was anyone in the scientific community regularly attended, including the maddest of mad scientists, Werner Eckhardt.
When, in the last days of WWII, the Allies had done their dash and grab for any and every German scientist they could find, they had hardly stopped to think who they might end up with. The game at that stage was one of numbers, the more the merrier, and the question of what to do with all these eggheads would wait until they had got back safely behind their own borders. Everyone was after the rocket boys for preference, naturally, but they’d take whomever they would lay their hands on. And that was how Werner Eckhardt came to be a citizen of the Soviet Union.
When the Science Committee in Moscow got around to Eckhardt, they had trouble deciding where to place him. They’d got their hands on a fair number of rocket scientists, though to be fair perhaps not the quality of those snatched up by the Americans, but the Committee found they had no notion of what to do with someone like Eckhardt.
In the early thirties, when Hitler was a name few Germans knew, and fewer took seriously, Eckhardt was a promising young physicist fresh from the University of Heidelberg, destined for a life of quiet contemplation and anonymity. At the urging of a former classmate, Eckhardt went to a meeting of a secret organization called Thule Society, and was instantly captivated. The Thule Society had dedicated itself to reclaiming the lost glory of the German people, an ideal which burned as bright in the mind of young Werner Eckhardt as it did in another member of the society, a frustrated artist named Adolf. Through the Thule Society, Eckhardt was exposed to the world of the occult, of means and ways not hinted at in his university education. He explored these avenues hungrily, like a starving man clawing for food, and in time developed his own unique fusion of technology and the occult, which he insisted be used only in the service of the German people. Over the years, though, the means became much more significant to Eckhardt than the ends, so that by the time the Russians pulled him from his bombed-out laboratory in Berlin, Eckhardt hardly cared to what use his work was put, so long as the work was allowed to continue. Few in the Third Reich had any idea what Eckhardt was up to late nights in his lab, and those that did regretted the knowledge. The Soviets, in the end, followed true to form, and found a place for him; they put him to work making weapons.
“Are you alright?” Diana asked, when Carmody had failed to respond to the dealer’s request.
“Just a little distracted,” Carmody answered, and stood on nineteen.
The dealer turned over an ace to join the king he had showing, and the game was through. Carmody smiled a bit wearily to Diana, who patted his arm in mock sympathy.
“There are times, perhaps,” she said, “when it pays to be rash.”
For the last few hands, the pair had been alone at the table. Now, they were joined by two more, women who looked enough alike to be mirror images, if not for their different hairstyles. One wore a fire engine red dress, cut low at the neck and high on the thigh, while the other wore a matching dress in dark forest green. They glanced at Carmody, casually, but didn’t speak.
Carmody, of course, recognized them at once, as they had him. He had run into them more times than he could count over the course of the past years, always on opposing sides, and while Carmody usually got the better of them, he couldn’t say it had been easy. They were the Fox twins, Melody and Harmony, and they were among the highest priced killers the world of espionage and organize crime had to offer.
Carmody couldn’t begin to guess who they might be working for now, but he was almost certain he knew their target. The only thing of interest for months in Monte Carlo was the Conference on New Technologies, and the only mind of interest at the Conference was Werner Eckhardt.
Diana seemed to catch the glances going silently back and forth between Carmody and the two women, and looked at him with… jealousy? Carmody wasn’t sure if he could trust his instincts, but he could swear that the woman was taking an almost proprietary interest in him. He’d had so little experience with women, provided one didn’t count the numberless femme fatales and seductresses who tried on a seemingly weekly basis either to kill him or pervert him to their causes. Little experience with real women, at any rate, the kind who didn’t carry poisoned blades in their stockings and derringer pistols tucked down their cleavage.
Carmody wasn’t sure where all of this might be heading, but he didn’t like the looks of it. He’d made his living off of going by his instincts, and his instincts were telling him to leave.
“I think,” he said, pushing back his chair from the table and slowly rising to his feet, “that I’ve had enough of 21 for one night. Perhaps I’ll get a bit of air.”
“I’ll join you,” Diana seconded, rising. She paused, a bit sheepishly, and added, “if that’s all right with you.”
Carmody smiled, and offered her his arm. Together, they walked from the table and towards the open balconies, leaving the twin sisters without mercy to play with themselves.
The next morning found Carmody showered and shaved, enjoying his breakfast on the hotel veranda. He had bags under his eyes, and a pulled muscle in his back, but he hardly minded. The night had gone on well into the morning hours, and it was nearly dawn before Diana had finally left and gone back to her hotel. They talked for hours in the open air, then talked hours more back at his hotel room over a bottle of wine, and then the talking had stopped and they moved on to other things.
Women were a luxury Carmody rarely allowed himself. He knew it was a cliché, the stuff of pulp magazines and comic books, but he really felt that allowing a woman to get close to him, bringing someone into his life, would only put them in danger. He felt that he was always under the gun, and it would be criminal to expose anyone else to those sorts of risks. Still, the life of a secret agent became lonely at times, and he did love the way Diana laughed…
Carmody shook his head, dropping his half-buttered toast back onto the plate and pushing the remainder of his meal from him. This was the other risk of getting involved with a woman, the other reason to run. The distractions, the constant preoccupation with anything that wasn’t work. To an average man, it could be a nuisance; to someone in Carmody’s position, it could be fatal.
He was about to rise, to make his way across town to the Conference on New Technologies, when he was stopped short by two visions of loveliness that appeared at either elbow.
“Leaving so soon?” said the vision on the right.
“But we’ve only just arrived,” added the one on the right.
Harmony and Melody gently guided Carmody back to his seat, each with a hand on one elbow, and Carmody didn’t struggle. It was neither the time nor the place. The Fox twins didn’t seem like they were planning trouble, not right away at any rate, and in the event that they did he had more than a few tricks up his sleeve waiting for them. Literally.
The twins sat down opposite Carmody at the table, genteelly, and smiled warmly at him from beneath their broad-brimmed summer hats.
“It’s been a while, Jake,” Harmony said.
“Vancouver, wasn’t it?” Melody added.
“Something like that,” Carmody answered, tense. “What’s the play, girls? Who are you working for this time out?”
The two tittered, almost girlish, glancing at one another and averting their eyes from Carmody’s. It was a few long seconds before they answered, breathless, seeming to have to hold back laughter.
“We’re working for no one, Jake,” Melody answered.
“No one but ourselves,” Harmony added.
“We have to look after our own interests, now and again,” said Melody.
It was suddenly becoming clear, and Carmody wasn’t liking the look of it. The Fox twins had no doubt socked away a considerable amount of capital over the past few years, and were not without their own unique “charms.” If they were trying to woo Werner Eckhardt to their services, and by some miracle succeeded… They could very well make the jump from high-priced assassins to players on an international scale. With the leverage Eckhardt’s rather unique weaponry provided, the Fox sisters could become a power to rival some of the smaller countries in Europe, possibly even Great Britain. The Cold War would be getting a great deal warmer.
“I don’t have time for this,” Carmody said brusquely. His chair slid back from the table with a squeal.
“Do you have to run off so soon?” asked Harmony, smiling seductively.
“We thought that, if we pooled our resources, we might have more time for, shall we say, recreation?” added Melody.
“I’m sorry, ladies,” Carmody answered, wiping his hands on a cloth napkin and dropping it onto his plate. “I’m afraid I’ve lost my appetite.”
Carmody stood, turned, and walked away. He needed to make sure he got to Eckhardt first, or at the very least make certain his offer was the more attractive one. Casting a quick glance back at the two visions of loveliness smiling over his abandoned breakfast, he wondered if such a thing were possible.
The meet with Eckhardt had gone exactly as planned. Carmody had made his way into the Conference, using his credentials as an American industrialist to get past security, and had buttonholed Eckhardt in the men’s room with a photograph and a promise. The photo was of Eckhardt’s daughter, whom he’d thought killed before the war’s end during an Allied bombing raid. The picture didn’t show the five year old girl she’d been there, but a bright shining and well-scrubbed twenty-two-year-old on an American college campus. Was it really Eckhardt’s daughter? Had she really survived the bombing, in a coma, to be brought to the US by a well meaning American family? Was Eckhardt being given the chance to reunite with the one remaining thread of his tattered family tapestry? Carmody didn’t know, and didn’t care. He’d been given the picture and story by his superiors at Bureau Zero, and like a good little spook he did what he was told.
Eckhardt was, to say the least, captivated. He couldn’t take his eyes off the picture, couldn’t stop pelting Carmody with questions. Carmody thought it a bit heartless to take the picture back, and to answer only enough of the old man’s questions to keep him interested, but there were procedures to be followed in these sorts of circumstances, rules to be obeyed.
The arrangements were made quickly, without preamble. Eckhardt was to leave the Conference, that very minute, with Carmody, and rendezvous with American agents at the international airport. Once onboard the plane gassed and ready on the runway, Eckhardt would be escorted back to the States, there to be reunited with his daughter. And, it went without saying, to be put to work for the Bureau, building a better mouse trap than those he’d provided the Soviets. Carmody would stay on in Monte Carlo, making sure that all the loose ends were covered.
They managed to get out of the building without incident, but when they reached the secluded spot in which Carmody had secreted his car, they ran into trouble. Trouble in matching fire engine red and forest green dresses.
Melody and Harmony stood to either side of Carmody, their pistols trained at his forehead, all flirting forgotten. They seemed to have decided that Eckhardt was leaving with them, in their employ, or not at all.
“What is the meaning of this?” demanded Eckhardt. “Who are these women?”
“Your new employers, they hope,” Carmody answered, his hands in the air.
“Such a bright boy,” Melody said.
“Too bad he’s not got much of a future ahead of him,” added Harmony.
Carmody shifted slightly from side to side, on the balls of his feet, looking for an opening. There wasn’t one.
“Well?” asked Harmony. “How’s it going to go?”
“Hard?” Melody asked. Then she added, seductively, “Or soft?”
“Neither, I should hope,” came a voice from the shadows.
The Fox twins turned, just startled enough to give Carmody a chance to make his play. He pointed towards Melody with his left hand, palm down, and then slapped his left forearm with his right hand. With a click, a fletched metal dart flew from the casing above his wrist, thudding into Melody’s chest a full inch, pumping a fast-acting toxin into her system that rendered her immobile in a matter of heartbeats. She’d live, but it would be weeks before the bruise would heal. Carmody allowed himself a slight smile. He always kept something up his sleeve in case of trouble.
His last ditch spent, Carmody turned to Harmony, hoping for a miracle. Watching her collapse to the ground, with the sound of crackling and the smell of ozone in the air, Carmody knew his miracle had arrived just in time.
A woman stepped out from the shadows, reeling in the electrical line that an instant before had pumped enough voltage into Harmony to power a small town for an afternoon. It was Diana, the woman from the night, and the morning, before.
“But…” Carmody began, weakly.
“It’s alright,” Diana answered, smiling sardonically. “I’m on your side, more or less. Now let’s get Eckhardt to the airport, and be quick about it.”
Carmody helped steer Eckhardt to the car, his mind a rush of questions.
“But who…” Carmody began again, getting little further this time out.
“I’m with MI8,” the woman answered, “British Special Intelligence. We handle these sorts of things, much like your own Bureau I might say.”
“I’ll be damned,” Carmody whispered.
“I should hope not,” the woman said. She extended a hand, which Carmody accepted absently, unable to take his eyes from her face. “But we haven’t been formally introduced, have we? My name is Bonaventure. Diana Bonaventure.”
They got Eckhardt to the airport, and onto the plane, without interference from the Soviets or any other interests. He was soon on his way to America, to build bigger and brighter bombs and weapons for the greater glory of the American people. His daughter proved to be genuine enough, though perhaps not as happy to see her father as he was to see her.
As for Carmody, he and Diana Bonaventure stayed longer in Monte Carlo than anyone had expected, and when asked by their respective agencies what the delay might be, they would each answer that there were more loose ends needing tying up than anyone could have imagined.
(c) 2009 Monkeybrain, Inc.
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
For Your Consideration: Death on the Crosstime Express
Of my 2008 published works, Dragon's Nine Sons is eligible in the Best Novel category; and "Thy Saffron Wings" (from Postscripts #15), "Line of Dichotomy" (from Solaris Book of New Science Fiction: Volume 2), "Mirror of Fiery Brightness" (Subterranean Fall 08), and "Death on the Crosstime Express" (from Sideways in Crime) are all Novelettes. But of all the stories I published last year, that last one listed is the closest to my heart, and the one about which I'm proudest.
With that in mind, I humbly submit for your consideration, in the category of Best Novelette, the full text of "Death on the Crosstime Express".
by Chris Roberson
The airship which hung between the docking pylons, tethered fore and aft, was painted a dark shade of blue and trimmed with gold, the colors of the Crosstime Line. But even if one didn’t recognize the coloration, the sheer size of the craft alone would have been enough to signal its importance. It dwarfed the other airships drifting at anchor in the Texican National Airfields on the outskirts of
Vivian Starkweather checked the time. Slipping her watch back into its vest pocket, she held a lit match to the cigarillo clenched between her teeth.
“Don’t worry, darlins,” she said to the young women standing beside her at the base of the gangplank, jeweled bindis twinkling brightly in the morning sun against the dark skin of their foreheads. Starkweather expelled a stream of smoke from the corner of her mouth, and hooked her thumbs through her beltloops. “I expect we’ll be boarding directly.”
The Indian princesses didn’t seem much to mind the delay, though, hardly noticing Starkweather’s assurances, too busy making eyes at the younger members of the crew in their crisp white jackets and peaked caps, and especially at the ship’s young steward, supervising the loading of comestible provisions onto the blue and gold craft.
Aside from being the site for the Crosstime Line’s terminus, the only other item of interest about the alternative was that it was home to the Pinkertons, the private security firm routinely contracted by intercontinua businesses and governments alike. Many a smuggler, freebooter, or suspect fleeing prosecution had come to dread the baleful open eye which was the symbol of the men and women who lived up to their motto, “We Never Sleep.”
Most of the intercontinua craft anchored around the airfield had come here for the same reason, ferrying passengers from neighboring alternatives, who now stood ready to mount the gangplank to the blue and gold airship. Travelers from neighboring alternatives, they had made the journey here to catch the Crosstime Express, which would continue on to Helium, seat of the League of Worlds and hub of all intercontinua commerce in this region of the Myriad. A journey of less than three days, which shorter range vessels might take weeks or even longer to complete.
If the two young Indian women in their silk saris and silver bangles weren’t bothered, though, there were others less sanguine about the delay. A pair of Russian monks in heavy cassocks shifted uneasily, their gaze darting back and forth nervously as they held their hands against their round bellies. And the mandarin whose ruby button atop his hat indicated the highest level of service to the emperor, in some distant alternative dominated by the Chinese throne, seemed ill-at-ease, as though uncertain the correct protocol in such situations. But the most distressed by the inability of the passengers to board the ship were the trio of white-skinned men in their wool suits and bowler hats.
“This is intolerable, I say,” blustered the man with the bushy mustaches and red cheeks, who was evidently the leader of the three. “The agreement drawn up with the Crosstime Line clearly states that we are to have ample time to examine the security arrangements before departure.”
Behind him stood a short, round man with a sheaf of papers in hand, and a slender man with a long nose and piercing blue eyes.
“I assure you, Mister Engel,” said Captain N’Diklam, soothingly, “it will be only a momentary delay. We have had to take on relief crewmen, and it is simply taking longer to get them squared away than anticipated.” The captain smiled, teeth white and even against this dark brown skin, and turned to confer with the bosun who had just ambled down the gangplank.
The three men were clearly not satisfied, but evidently saw little to be gained from pressing the issue at this point, and turned to walk away. They moved in concert, with almost military precision, the mustachioed Engel in the lead and the other two following at his flanks like a vanguard of birds in flight.
In the end, it was less than a quarter of an hour later before the gangplank was opened and the passengers allowed to board the Crosstime Express. Vivian Starkweather was one of the first onboard, to the consternation of the trio in their bowler-hats, who were evidently some sort of security detachment that had booked passage to make preparations for another who would be joining them at a later stop on the journey. Starkweather, for her part, pretended not to notice the three men who glared daggers at her back, but had let her hand casual rest on the hilt of the Bowie knife hanging from her belt, as though to show that she was not without resources of her own. Rumored to be in the employ of one of the wealthier Texican gas-mining concerns, Starkweather was said to be journeying to Helium to negotiate an extremely lucrative trade agreement, but no one knew for certain.
In her mid-thirties, Starkweather was, if not classically beautiful, then at least ruggedly handsome. A few inches shy of six feet in height, with a mass of brown hair worn up in a bun at the back of her head, she had striking green eyes, a long nose and strong jaw-line. She seemed to favor riding costume, trousers and matching jackets, with dinosaur-hide boots on her feet, a luxury item from an alternative far off in the Myriad where the terrible lizards never died out, a popular destination for wealthy hunters.
The other passengers who mounted the gangplank, after Starkweather and the bowler-hat trio had boarded, included an ambassador from the Reformed Dynast of Heliopolis and his slaves, from an alternative where the pyramid-builders still held sway; a group of Berber scholars from an Andalusia on an alternative dominated by a Mohammedan caliphate; the pair of Indian princesses in their finery, their luggage carried on the back of a miniature automaton elephant, steam hissing from its joints with each cumbersome step; a group of Maori from an alternative on which Polynesian princes ruled both hemispheres, though with their fearsome moko tattoos it was impossible to say whether they were diplomats or warriors; the ill-at-ease mandarine; an Aztec warlord in linen suit and tastefully garish waistcoat, with jade plugs in his lobes and a labret through his lower lip, traveling with a silent, unsmiling woman whose hair was cut in a bob and died purple, her hands and feet hennaed in sinewy patterns; and finally the pair of Russian monks in their heavy cassocks, whose nervousness seemed to vanish as they stepped onto the gangplank.
Starkweather, Engel and his security detachment, and the two Russians were the only passengers of European extraction in the first class berths, with the rest riding in economy or steerage. Fair and even slightly tanned skin was something of a rarity onboard altogether, in fact, with only a bare handful of Europeans onboard at all, and most of those either servants to other passengers or low-ranking members of the crew, like the sandy-haired steward who had so captured the attention of the Indian princesses.
The captain, Mba N’Diklam, was a follower of Sunni Islam, and a subject of a Jolof Empire whose reach extended far beyond the shores of western
After the passengers had all boarded, and the luggage had been stowed, chimes sounded throughout the ship, signaling their impending departure. At the captain’s invitation, the first glass passengers gathered in the drawing room to watch the launch through the heavily-shielded portholes.
From takeoff through to the next scheduled landing, the Crosstime Express would remain sealed and pressurized, against the airless vacuum of underspace. The sound of the hatches being closed and sealed rang through the ship with an air of finality, and a few of those gathered in the drawing room seemed unsettled by the sound. Or perhaps merely unsettled by the thought of leaving the sane world of three dimensions behind when the translocation engine was engaged, and moving into the less sensible realm of underspace. The security detachment, in particular, appeared novices when it came to intercontinua travel, hailing from an alternative which had only recently learned of the Myriad and of the countless alternate worlds stretching out to infinity. But the two young Hindu women, as well, seemed somewhat unsettled, and huddled near one another on a low divan, talking in voices so low they could scarcely be heard.
Elsewhere, deep in the heart of the airship, the navigator cleared her thoughts, and set her mind on their destination. A seer, one of those rare souls able to peer beyond the fabric of the world, into and through underspace into the worlds beyond, the navigator was arguably the most essential member of the crew, as without her to guide them, once the translocation engine was engaged the ship could easily be lost forever, adrift and directionless in underspace. Almost equally invaluable, though, were the ship’s defenders, senders able to broadcast their own thoughts into the ether; there were creatures who made underspace their home, monsters of pure appetite and sense-defying shape who swam in that strange region like sharks prowling the seas, and since conventional weapons were of little use against the creature’s diamond-hard skins, the only way to repel their voracious attacks was at the level of thought.
With a seer to guide them and a sender manning the defense, the ship required only an engineer to man the translocation engine, a pilot to man the helm, and a captain to command them.
When the Crosstime Express slipped its moorings, the captain ordered her elevated some three-quarters of a mile into the air. It was safest, when moving from world to world, to translocate from high up, to account for variances in elevation and geography from one alternative to the next. Translocation displaced the matter occupying the volume of space a vessel enters, and if the matter is merely empty air, the result will be little more than a brief flash and an audible bang, as the molecules of the atmosphere are excited, forced out of the way of the incoming vessel, nothing more dramatic than a bolt of midday lightning and a peal of distant thunder. If the vessel were to translocate into any material denser than water, though, the mass at the target couldn’t be displaced quickly enough to accommodate the incoming vessel, and the craft would be compacted on arrival. An only relatively dense material like sand would likely only damage a vessel, not destroy it, but with a sufficient dense matter like rock or metal, an entire vessel could be compacted to only a fraction of its original size, with disastrous results for anyone onboard, and for any living things in the nearby space. Naturally, most intercontinua craft were airworthy, as a result, and it was only the most reckless of souls who translocated while anywhere near ground level.
As the ground fell away beyond the portholes, Starkweather chatted amiably in Spanish with the Berber scholars over cups of strong Turkish coffee, spicing her own liberally with a splash of
The Berbers, like Starkweather and all the other passengers onboard, were bound for the seat of the League of Worlds and hub of intercontinua trade, Helium. Knowledge, like wealth and natural resources, was something which the Heliumites had in abundance. And while the streets of Helium were not paved in gold, they may as well have been, as the alternative was rich in the lighter-than-air gas which gave the city-state its name. The gas helium was found in most all alternatives, but only a scant few, like Helium herself or Vivian Starkweather’s native Texico, had the resources necessary to mine and refine it. And though only the most trusted diplomats could penetrate to the heart of the League of Worlds headquarters itself, all were welcome in the public areas of Helium, and so it was not uncommon to find natives of all imaginable histories jostling cheek-to-jowl in the markets and thoroughfares of Helium, including elfish or brutish men from alternatives where different strains of humanity came to dominate, or even some who, while they walked and talked like humans, were derived from other animals altogether, lagomorphs and lizardmen and talking apes from alternatives where species other than man rose to sentience and dominance.
The ship’s steward entered the drawing room, a young man of European extraction who was no more than twenty years old and spoke with a faint
When the airship had reached a suitable altitude, the chimes again rang throughout the ship, this time signaling that the translocation engine would momentarily be engaged. A short while later a brief, high-pitched whine sounded in the drawing room, followed by an almost imperceptible juddering, and then faded almost, but not entirely, away, the whine persisting just at the edge of hearing, the vibration only barely perceptible in the faint ripples in the coffee within their cups, or the gentle shake of the feathers the purple-haired Aztec woman wore through her headband.
Once the ship was underway, propelled by jets of air from nozzles mounted on the outer hull, the propellers useless in the airless vacuum of underspace, the captain joined the first class passengers in the drawing room.
Before Captain N’Diklam had made it two steps into the cabin, though, the three men of the security detachment, bowler hats now clutched in their hands, put themselves in his path.
“Captain, we need to discuss the security precautions you’ve taken for our empress’s impending arrival.” Engels blinked his eyes rapidly, punctuating his words with little stabs of his free hand, the fingers of the other wrapped tightly around the brim of his hat.
“And so you shall, gentlemen,” N’Diklam said with an easy smile. “We won’t be stopping at your alternative until late afternoon, the day after tomorrow, and I assure you that we will have everything settled to your satisfaction well before that time.”
Behind Engel, the little round man and the other with the piercing blue eyes exchanged glances.
The tall African looked down at the smaller white man still blocking his way. “But in the near term, I would very much like a cup of coffee and a chance to speak to the other passengers,” N’Diklam said, gently but with steel beneath his words. “If you wouldn’t mind...?” He made a short motion with his hand, as if miming opening a door, and raised an eyebrow, waiting a response.
Engel, flustered, clenched the brim of his hat tighter, but with a final harrumph turned to the left and moved out of the way, his two companions following precisely at his flanks, as in a carefully practiced maneuver.
As the captain moved to mingle with the rest of the passengers, introducing himself and giving the assurances of himself and the whole Crosstime Line that their journeys would be pleasant ones, the three men of the security detachment drifted to the nearest porthole and, peering out with open-mouthed expressions of wondered, gawped like rustics at the unsettlingly shifting colors and strange geometries of underspace beyond.
That evening, after dinner, Captain N’Diklam, Starkweather, and a few of the other passengers gathered at the card table in the smoking room, while in the salon the ship’s steward played a seemingly endless series of romantic airs on the aluminum grand piano for the entertainment of the Hindu princesses.
The Russians, with small glasses of vodka at their elbows, urged for a few rounds of durak, but the notion of a game with no winners, only a single loser for each round, soon wore on the other players, and another game was called for. N’Diklam exercised a bit of command authority and led the way with a hand of primero, which proved too complex for simple enjoyment but with stakes too low to be of much interest. When Starkweather instructed the others in the basics of Texican hold ‘em, though, the group seemed to have found its proper tempo, and a number of hands followed.
Starkweather had the button, and was sitting on a pair of queens in the hole, when the bosun burst in, eyes wide and white in his dark face.
“It’s the navigator!” he blurted out, rushing to the captain’s side. “She’s been murdered!”
And that signaled the end of the evening’s entertainments.
It was long past the hour when the passengers might have been expected to retire for the evening, but most of them lingered in the salon, waiting to hear word about the poor navigator. The Aztec woman, her purple bob somewhat ruffled, was uncharacteristically chatty, and reported passing the crewmen carrying the body through the companion-way to the medical bay, the blood seeping through the linen sheet which swathed her lifeless form. Her companion, in only his waist-coat and shirt-sleeves, tapped one of his jade earplugs and scowled, muttering something beneath his breath about the unseemly waste of so much blood.
There was some concern over what would become of the ship, without the navigator to guide her through underspace. Would the Crosstime Express drift helpless in that strange realm, never to return to the sane security of space-time, much less their intended destination? Those fears were quickly put to rest, however, when more seasoned intercontinua travelers among them explained about the standard practice of employing second navigators in the event of emergency. All agreed that brutal murder was likely not one of the anticipated emergencies, but were nevertheless relieved the protocol was in place.
A few of the crew mingled with the passengers, as the captain had evicted all but Doctor Ortiz, himself, and the bosun from the medical bay for the duration of the autopsy, and the crewmen were just as unsettled by the unexpected and brutal slaying as the passengers. The steward made a desolatory attempt to lighten the mood by playing music hall tunes on the aluminum grand piano, but abandoned the attempt in moments after catching a sharp glance from Starkweather.
Finally, the captain returned and gave a full accounting of the situation to the others. It appeared, he said, that the navigator had been assaulted at her post by an unknown assailant, and stabbed repeatedly with a slim blade. Nothing further was known about the incident, but the captain assured the passengers that the crew would be conducting a thorough investigation, and that on their arrival in Helium the matter would be remanded to the Crosstime Line and the authorities to investigate fully. In the meantime, however, the passengers should sleep soundly in the knowledge that he had increased the ship’s onboard security, posting armed crewmen in all of the companion-ways and public areas day and night, and that he would allow nothing to threaten the safety of the passengers.
At the captain’s side was a man of middle age with a double chin and tufts of hair sticking from his ears, who had the sigil of a seer emblazoned on the blue-and-gold rosette pinned to his lapel.
“Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Mr. Tanacre, our ship’s second navigator,” the captain said. “You have my complete assurances that Tanacre will be able to guide our course successfully through the remainder of our voyage.”
Some of the passengers evidently harbored concerns about the man’s qualifications, but it was Engel who stepped forward to give those concerns voice.
“How do we know that this tub of guts has the stuff to get the job done?”
The second navigator seemed flustered by the brusque and outright rude manner of the man, but with a glance to the captain he calmly explained. “Well,” he began, his voice quavering slightly, “while my own mastery of the talent of seeing is not nearly so powerful or refined as that of the late navigator, still I am confident in my ability to fulfill my duties.”
Engel narrowed his eyes. “Just what do you mean, ‘no nearly so powerful’?”
“Well,” the navigator explained, with mounting confidence, “the late navigator was so powerful a seer that she might even have been able to read another’s thoughts if she so chose, and at the very least could have detected any extremes of emotion or distress onboard the Express.” He paused, then humbly added, “I, on the other hand, am able merely to peer through underspace into other worlds, helping chart the Express’s course through this tumultuous region.”
“Thank you, Tanacre,” the captain interrupted. “And thank you,” he said to the passengers, “for your patience and understanding in these unfortunate circumstances. Now, the second navigator is needed at his post if we are to reach our off-route stop tomorrow.”
Captain and navigator excused themselves, and then singly or in pairs the passengers drifted away from the salon and back to their individual cabins for the night.
The following day passed quickly, with most of the passengers seeming to prefer the solitude of their cabins to the exposure of the public spaces, and so it was not until the evening meal that most of them were gathered together again. At the captain’s insistence, the first class passengers had joined him at the captain’s table, which had been expanded by additional leaves for the occasion.
Whether by happenstance or design, the three men of the security detachment had been seated as far from the captain as possible. And when Engel began to belabor the captain about the failure of the crew to locate the killer, it wasn’t hard to imagine that the placement had been by design.
Starkweather found herself seated next to the two Indian princesses. Chatting amiably over appetizers and aperitifs, the young ladies with the former and Starkweather with the latter, it eventuated that the two Hindus were wealthy heiresses from an alternative dominated by South Asia, and were on one last grand voyage together before one of them went off to university and the other got married. They hadn’t traveled far at all from home before, and were almost as wide-eyed at the wonders of the Myriad as the backwater security detachment, though the young ladies handled it with considerably more grace.
Still, there were some realities of intercontinua travel that came as a surprise to them. For example, one of the two mentioned having been accosted back in Starkweather’s Texico by a young man who insisted that he knew her, when the young lady knew for a fact that they’d never met. The young man had pressed the issue, referring to some intimate history that they’d supposedly shared, and it was only with the assistance of passing Texican Ranger that the young lady had been able to extricate herself from the man’s grip.
Starkweather, taking pains to reassure the young women about the safety of the streets of her native Waterloo, explained how worlds which were nearest one another in the Myriad, whose histories diverged in the relatively recent past, could produce nearly identical duplicates of the same person, one in each alternative. But while the two duplicates might resemble one another physically, sharing a common point of origin, their own personal histories would diverge as much and as quickly as did the histories of their world. Such misunderstandings and misidentifications as the young women had encountered were actually quite common in intercontinua travel. With a sly smile, Starkweather confided that she’d pretended to be her own duplicate, on several different occasions, just to avoid uncomfortable reunions with her own past associates.
Later, after the first course arrived, conversation around the table turned, as it often did, to politics. There was some dissention around the table about the League of Worlds, and particularly its noninterference accords. The League, to which the native alternatives of most of the passengers and crew belonged, worked to prevent the disruption of developing worlds, in the hopes that worlds unaware of the existence of the Myriad might not be exploited by their more technologically advanced neighbors. However, as others around the table were quick to point out, the noninterference accords were only enforceable among member alternatives. Others, and in particular the Tenth Imperium, an intercontinua power which dominated nearly as many alternatives as belonged to the League of Worlds, in particular had a long history of interference. And, in fact, it was a customary tactic of the Imperium to offer intercontinua technology to worlds which had not yet discovered the principle of translocation or yet developed the Talents, in exchange for their allegiance to the Tenth Imperium.
The ambassador from the Reformed Dynast of Heliopolis, who had remained silent through most of the discussion, raised a grim specter when he suggested the possibility that the differing philosophies of the League and the Tenth Imperium might one day lead to armed conflict between the two bodies. It would be regrettable, the ambassador insisted, but seemed to him to be an inevitability. Something of a pall fell over the table, as the ambassador’s dire assessment settled in.
It was at this point, rushing to fill the silence, that Engel switched from opprobrium, directed at the captain and crew, to self-aggrandizement, directed at himself and his people. He boasted about how scientists of his own nation-state had independently discovered translocation the year before, and made contact with other worlds in short order. And that his own island nation boasted a disproportionately high number of Talents, or so he believed, including a member of his own detachment. He indicated the man with the piercing blue eyes, and explained that he had been found to have some ability to send, though understandably undeveloped and untrained.
Starkweather seemed unable to resist deflating the man, as puffed up as he was. She pointed out, casually, that in her own alternative it had been less than a decade and a half since William James pioneered the development of psychic abilities, fortuitously just in time for Nikola Tesla to complete the translocation engine. And yet with only a few years head-start, her own alternative was rapidly becoming a key player in intercontinua commerce, while his home was still barely dipping their toes into the shallow end of underspace.
Engel blustered, cheeks puffed and red, but failed to mount any effective retort, and when the next course arrived on the table, the conversation drifted on.
After dinner, Captain N’Diklam was joined by the bosun and the cook’s mate in an impromptu recital. All three men hailed from the western shores of
The rhythm of the sabar drums reverberated through the ship, and for a short while, at least, the tense atmosphere of the past day seemed to lighten, if only a little.
On the way back to her cabin, Vivian Starkweather nearly collided with Doctor Ortiz, who was visibly upset. With the promise of a nightcap of
The doctor’s report about the late navigator, it appeared, had differed in significant detail to that relayed by the captain to the passengers. Rather than being stabbed to death, the doctor explained, the amount of blood found on the navigator’s body suggested that the woman’s heart had stopped pumping long before she had died. In other words, the navigator had been dead before the knife had ever been plunged into her body.
“A sender,” Starkweather said, nodding.
“It isn’t unheard of,” the doctor answered, plainly distressed. “A powerful enough suggestion could convince the mind to stop the heart’s beating.”
Starkweather took a long drag of her cigarillo, thoughtfully.
“What I don’t understand is,” the doctor went on, both hands wrap tightly around her mug of whisky, “if the killer was a sender, why stab a body that’s already dead?”
Starkweather threw back the rest of her own whisky in a single shot, then wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. “Darlin’, that’s a fine question.”
Klaxons sounding in the middle of the night disturbed the slumber of the crew, and even woke most of the passengers in their sound-proofed cabins. It was a familiar sound in intercontinua travel, and hardly a cause for serious alarm, but even the seasoned travelers like Starkweather found it difficult to go back to sleep while the ship was under attack.
Beyond the pressurized hull of the Crosstime Express, the strange denizens of underspace swarmed, intent on consuming the ship and all within her. From time to time one ventured near enough that their diamond-hard hide brushed against the outer hull, sending vibrations rattling through the ship, setting teeth and nerves on edge.
Though virtually indestructible, the monstrous creatures of underspace were thinking beings, even if those thoughts were concerned only with their endless appetites and boundless rages. And since they thought, the creatures were susceptible to the talents of a sender. Like all the ships of the Crosstime Line, the Express numbered a sender among its crew as defender, on hand to project negative thoughts into the alien minds of the underspace dwellers, driving them away.
A quarter of an hour after the attack began the klaxons sounded the all clear, and the passengers and crew returned to their beds.
The next morning at breakfast, Starkweather overheard the ship’s steward chatting with the pair of Hindu princesses at the next table over. The steward related that he had heard the ship’s defender say that, while she was in the process of repelling the attack, that she sensed someone else assisting in the defense. At that hour, though, the second defender, who was her normal backup in such circumstances, was below decks and insensate with drink, and in no position to conjure thoughts within his own mind, much less project them into someone else’s.
As he passed by her table, Starkweather asked the steward to fetch her a fresh cup of coffee, complaining that the one from which she’d been drinking had gone cold. And if the steward noticed the tightly folded piece of paper which Starkweather had tucked between the cup and saucer she handed him, he gave no indication.
Under normal circumstances, the Crosstime Express made no stops between the terminus on the one end and Helium on the other. On this journey, though, an off-route stop had been announced in advance, to retrieve the security detachment’s sovereign. It seemed that, having only recently made contact with other worlds, having just mastered the principle of translocation and the rudiments of the talents, this new alternative’s application for admittance to the League of Worlds had been accepted, and the sovereign would now be journeying to the headquarters of the League to sign the charter. It was something of a signal honor, since only delegates from member worlds and their personal security retinues were allowed within the walls of League headquarters itself.
The stop was scheduled for later in the afternoon on the second day of the voyage. In midmorning, the passengers lingered over coffee at table while breakfast was cleared away. The only first class passenger not present was the member of the security detachment with the piercing blue eyes, who appeared to have slept late, and joined his two companions at the table looking bleary-eyed and squinting. A few moments after the blue-eyed man sat down, the ship’s steward Patrick entered the room, and then in full view of the passengers collapsed to the deck with a pained expression.
While Patrick was being helped to the medical bay for examination and treatment by the Berber scholars, a klaxon began to sound on the ship, which most of the passengers mistakenly took to signal another incursion by underspace denizens. Starkweather and a few of the others quickly pointed out that the sequence of notes was all wrong, and that it signaled another danger instead. Fire.
There was, in the end, only one fatality, though several more of the crew were injured in the blaze. The fire had broken out in the cargo hold, and since the hatches had all been closed and secured, only a single compartment was affected. A crewman had been caught in the blaze, and not discovered until after the fire had been completely extinguished. And while he was badly burned, all of his clothing and body hair scorched off, he was quickly identified as one of the relief crew who had boarded at the terminus, shortly before the passengers. He had been a solitary figure, with a bushy beard, who kept to himself with his eyes down and his mouth shut. None in the crew could remember exchanging more than a dozen words with him, and those only related to his work.
The fire appeared to have been the result of a dropped match, a careless mistake that had set alight a bolt of inflammable material, part of a shipment of dry goods bound for Helium. What the crewman had been doing in the cargo hold was unclear, but it was assumed that he had sneaked off from his supervisors to smoke some illicit substance or other, the use of intoxicants being not unknown among ship’s crew, though most such substances were contraband throughout League worlds.
A second death, following so closely on the heels of the navigator’s murder, was unsettling to some onboard, but it wasn’t until the dead man’s effects were examined that any connection between the two was suspected. However, when a thin-bladed knife, still darkened with the navigator’s blood, was found in the dead man’s trunk, along with a handwritten letter apparently in the navigator’s own hand, rebuffing the crewman’s crude and unwanted advances, an apparent narrative began to emerge.
The crewman, it would seem, had been a spurned lover, who in a fit of jealous rage had stabbed the navigator to death, when she refused to return his affections. When he had in short order been caught in an unexpected conflagration, it has been simply a matter of just desserts.
The captain considered it a fait accompli, and the case closed, as he explained once he’d gathered all of the passengers into the drawing room.
But not everyone was convinced.
“I’m sorry, captain,” Vivian Starkweather said, setting her reticule down on a chair and stepping forward, “but the second death does not solve the mystery of the first. It only compounds it.”
The captain cocked an eyebrow, intrigued, but Engel, under some stress over the impending arrival of his sovereign, was somewhat more agitated.
“And just who, madam, do you think you are?” he asked, red-faced.
With a smile, Starkweather reached into the pocket of her jacket, and produce a badge on which is embossed a stylized human eye and the motto “We Never Sleep.”
Engel looked at the badge uncomprehendingly, but the other passengers whispered to one another in hushed tones, muttering the word “Pinkerton.”
Starkweather flipped the leather wallet shut over the badge and slipped it back into her pocket. “What I am, as of now, is the law around these parts.”
“What business has a Pinkerton on my boat?” Captain N’Diklam asked, unsmiling.
“My outfit has been contracted by the Crosstime Line to ferret out a smuggling ring that seems to be using the Express as one if its principal conduits.” She paused, and then almost distractedly, added, “You might want to find a third for your little drum group, captain. You should likely go ahead and take the bosun into custody, along with those two.” She pointed at the pair of Russian monks. “The three of them are the main players in the smuggling ring, though there may be one or two others onboard that we haven’t identified yet.”
The captain didn’t bother to question her, but snapped his fingers and ordered two of his crewmen to take the Russians into custody, and ordered them to locate the bosun and take him in hand, as well. The Russians, objecting loudly if unconvincingly, were dragged from the room.
“And you say that this smuggling ring is responsible for killing my navigator and crewman?” N’Diklam asked, puzzled.
“Nope.” Starkweather shook her head, then stuck a cigarillo between her teeth and struck a match on the edge of a table. “The smuggling ring’s a coincidence, I figure. The killings are unconnected.” She held the lit match before her face, her long nose and strong jaw in stark relief in the flickering light, giving her otherwise ruggedly handsome features a somewhat demonic aspect. “But we’ll get to your killer soon enough. The way I figure it, the killer is one of the people in this room.”
“This is outrageous!” shouted Engel.
“You reckon?” Starkweather smiled, and leaned over to pick up her handbag from the chair beside her, the cigarillo still clenched between her teeth. “Think maybe it’s you?”
Engel opened his mouth to object, then slammed his teeth shut again, eyes wide and bulging. “I won’t stand for this!” He motioned for his two companions to follow, and then turned to the left to leave. Before he’d gone two steps, though, he collided with the man with the piercing blue eyes, who had turned right instead of left and blundered right into him.
“There it is,” Starkweather said with a smile. Snapping her reticule open, she reached in and pulled out a heavy Colt Navy revolver, which she cocked and pointed at the head of the man with the piercing blue eyes. “I’d ask you not to make a move, friend, not so much as a twitch, or I’m liable to pull this here trigger.”
Engel turned to look at his companion, evidently expecting to see the same outrage and annoyance he himself felt at this poor treatment, but was surprised instead to find the man staring calmly at Starkweather, piercing blue eyes narrowed and lip curled in a sneer. “Barclay, what’s this all about?”
The man ignored the other, but continued to stare at Starkweather. “If you know what I am, you know I could drop you before you even noticed a twinge.”
“That’s as maybe,” Starkweather said with a shrug, “but you can only think so many thoughts at once. Drop me and my partner’ll finish you off before you take another breath.”
From the door to the drawing room came the sound of a revolver being cocked, and the passengers as one turned to see the ship’s steward in the open doorway, a Webley revolver in hand, pointed at the man’s head.
“Patrick Lightfoot Carmody,” the steward said, flashing a badge like the one Starkweather had produced. “Pinkerton.”
The blue-eyed man sneered, but remained motionless. After a long silence, he said, in an unfamiliar accent, “How did you know?”
“Wrong place, wrong time, friend.” Starkweather slid onto the chair, crossing her legs but keeping her pistol aimed at his head. “We were after other fish entirely and you just fell into our lap. And if not for the knife, we might not have guessed a thing.” She paused, thoughtfully. “What was it? Were you worried that a stopped heart not might not be assumed to be natural causes, but that someone might suspect there was a sending assassin onboard? So you make it look like a mundane murder, instead, which has benefits of its own.”
“So he killed the navigator?” the captain said, jerking a thumb at the man. “But why?”
“The navigator was incidental,” Starkweather explained. “He planned to kill someone else, and the navigator being such a strong seer meant that she had a good chance of picking up on the crime. So she was eliminated to clear the way for another murder.”
“The crewman,” the captain said, nodding.
“But why would Barclay want to kill your crewman?” Engel demanded to know.
“No reason at all,” Starkweather said. “The question to ask, rather, is why would that crewman want to kill your man?”
Engel looked at her, confusion evident, while the blue-eyed man beside him stiffened.
“See, that isn’t Barclay,” Starkweather went on. “Or at least, not the one you know. I think you’ll find, if you were to quiz him, that he won’t be quite so up on trivia about your home alternative as the man you knew.”
Engel turned from her to the man beside him, and edged away, cautiously. “B-Barclay?” he said, disbelievingly. “Is... it is true?”
The blue-eyed man didn’t bother answering Engel, but continued to glare at Starkweather.
“Thing is,” she went on, “your Barclay wasn’t really the point of all this, either, but just another incident means to an end. See, once your sovereign comes onboard, the next stop is Helium, and the headquarters of the League of Worlds. And nobody, but nobody, can get into the headquarters itself unless they’re a representative of a member world. Unless...” She paused, significantly.
“Unless they’re part of the diplomat’s security retinue,” the captain finished.
“Got it in one,” Starkweather answered. “So the point of all of this was just to get someone in a position to walk through those golden doors uncontested, right into the midst of the League’s ruling council. And if that someone had the ability to plant powerful suggestions in the minds of others, powerful enough even to help ward off underspace monsters when he thought his ship might get eaten en route, then I imagine implanting enough suggestions to stop the hearts of the entire ruling council wouldn’t be beyond his abilities, and that he could do a considerable amount of damage before anyone managed to stop them.”
“So who is this?” the captain asked, narrowing his gaze at the blue-eyed man.
“I imagine he answers to the name Barclay, just like Engel’s late friend did,” she said. “They’re dead ringers and are both senders, after all. But I wouldn’t be surprised if this version knew the Tenth Imperium national anthem back to front, and was no fan of the League of Worlds’ notion of noninterference.”
The blue-eyed man drew his lips into a tight line. “I admit to nothing.”
“Figured you wouldn’t. But I reckon the League has a seer somewhere that can get past those shields of yours.”
“Shields?” N’Diklam repeated.
“I can explain that,” said the ship’s former steward, the young man who’d identified himself as Patrick Lightfoot Carmody. “I’m something of a seer myself, though I can’t manage much more than a surface scan of someone’s thoughts. This morning Viv slipped me a note, telling me about her encounter with Doctor Ortiz and asking me to scan the crew and passengers. I waited until everybody had sat down to breakfast, but as soon as I tried to see, I ran smack into someone’s mental defenses. You don’t get that kind of mental discipline just by accident. I knew then that the killer had to be someone in that room.”
“When the supposed crewman was found dead, we were able to work out the motive, and narrow the suspects down to Mr. Engel and his friends. But we couldn’t be sure which of the three was.” Starkweather took a final drag of her cigarillo and then ground it out under the heel of her dinosaur-skin boot. “We just had to keep an eye out, and wait for one of you to trip up.” She smiled, and then to the blue-eyed man said, “Literally, in your case.”
The Express was anchored at Engel’s backwater alternative, which had only just discovered the secret of translocation. The suspected murderer had been rendered unconscious by a serum provided by Doctor Ortiz, and strapped securely to a gurney for good measure, and would be handed over to the authorities when the ship reached Helium the next morning. At the moment, though, the ship hung like a balloon over a muddy field, while a small brass band played a fanfare for an old woman dressed in lace-trimmed black.
Intercontinua craft always reentered space-time at the same coordinates that they left, so having entered underspace from one Texico, they had translocated to another. This one was part of a larger
Carmody and Starkweather stood at the landing, watching the old woman mounting the gangplank. She was evidently used to more pomp than the Crosstime Express offered, and was clearly displeased to be treated so much like a regular passenger.
“I feel almost like I should bow,” Patrick said, smiling around his Turkish cigarette. The young man was clearly relieved to be a passenger himself for a change, and not a member of the crew, but Starkweather had merely said that the experience had likely done him some good, forcing him to actually work for a change. And besides, as a steward he’d had an easier time pitching woo at the Indian princesses who had caught his fancy, as he seemed to have lost something of his allure now that they didn’t see him as a mere menial.
“Why the devil would you do a thing like that?” Starkweather said, and took a sip of whisky from her flask.
“Well,” Carmody answered, looking somewhat sheepish, “this alternative is more like my home than most, and when last I saw my
“I don’t know, Pat, I just don’t much get on with kings and queens. In my alternative, we Texicans never had ‘em, and the Brits got rid of them back in the days of Cartwright and Paine, back even before the Anglo-American Confederation got started.”
Carmody nodded. “Well, people back home had all sorts of strange notions. They figured that white skin was better than dark, that
(c) 2008 Monkeybrain, Inc.
Monday, January 05, 2009
Free Fiction: "Secret Histories: Peter R. Bonaventure, 1885"
The following is a standalone chapter from Cybermancy Incorporated (which is currently out of print, but is available on the Kindle), which might be of interest to the readers of my forthcoming novel, End of the Century. Several characters from this story reappear in the new novel, which also addresses the question as to whether there is any connection between this Jules Dulac and the Giles Dulac of Set the Seas on Fire.
Conversely, if you enjoy this story and want to find out what happens in that "story for another time" mentioned at the close, you'll want to check out End of the Century.
Secret Histories: Peter R. Bonaventure, 1885
by Chris Roberson
It was six weeks out of
Professor Peter R. Bonaventure, noted explorer and member in good standing of the Hythloday Club, had spent the better part of the voyage stationed near the prow of the ship, his gray eyes scanning the far horizon, either alone or in quiet conversation with his associate, Jules Dulac. Bonaventure had been commissioned by the Royal Geographical Society to investigate reports of a new island which had appeared suddenly a few hundred fathoms from the coast of
Fawkes had been a junior representative to the Society on Joseph Thompson’s later expeditions through eastern
The first reports of the phantom island had been made two months before, in February of that year. As the
In short, it seemed that, in a theretofore open channel between
The initial accounts of this phantom island were dismissed out of hand by the educated men of
From Mervyn Fawkes’ Journal:
I find, increasingly, that I do not trust Professor B___. His manner has been most dismissive throughout this entire expedition, and he seems more inclined to value the counsel of his manservant D___ or the seamen aboard this vessel than that of a fellow scientist such as myself. To that point, he seems hardly a scientist of any stripe. I have questioned him repeatedly on his theories regarding the phantom island, and advanced my own view that it might be the result of the gradual shifting of the earth’s crust around its molten core, resulting in the displacement of some seafloor strata. Professor B___ has not seen fit to share his own theories, and on the topic of my own will only point out, in his somewhat smug manner, that any tremor or displacement sufficient to create a new land mass must certainly have been felt a few hundred fathoms away on the coast. He seems extremely short sighted, in my view, and I have begun to question the decision of the Society to place him in control of this expedition, rather than opting for a member of the Society itself.
The steamer dropped anchor just after sunrise, Professor Bonaventure and his landing party setting out aboard two dinghies. In addition to the Professor, his man Dulac, and Mr. Fawkes, came two members of the Clemency’s crew, hand-picked by their captain for the occasion. Bonaventure had interviewed each briefly after his selection, and given the captain’s choice his imprimatur. The first of them, Taggart, an American, had in his youth fought on the side of the secessionists during the American Civil War, and had served as a midshipman aboard the CSS Florida, a steamer ship employed by the secessionists which had been sturdily built by solid Liverpudlian hands. The second, Calhoun, an Irishman, had been a supporter of Home Rule in his native country, a fiery-eyed follower of Charlie Parnell. With Parnell imprisoned, and Irish sovereignty no closer than it had been years before, Calhoun had put out to sea. Like Taggart, he’d been on the losing side of one too many fights.
The fog bank, described in so many of the accounts of the phantom island, hung about the coast like a halo, nearly obscuring the mass entirely. From the deck of the Clemency, the crew had been able to sight the hills only dimly, and could not make out any manner of habitation or settlement. The dinghies, breaking through the fog, came at last in clear sight of the island. As described by so many mariners, the island presented two hills of identical size, one wooded, the other rocky and barren, with a valley in between.
“It has not, as yet,” Bonaventure remarked, “eluded us.”
“Perhaps,” his man Dulac replied, in his slight Gallic accent, “it is frightened off by the approach of larger ships, as reported, and our two small craft have yet to make an impression.”
“Hardly,” said Fawkes, from his position in the other craft, rowed alongside with strong strokes by the Irishman Calhoun. “I fail to see why you persist in anthropomorphising the thing.” This last was directed at Dulac, with whom Fawkes had shared hardly a civil word, but the meat of it was intended for Bonaventure.
“I have seen, in my time,” Bonaventure replied, “stranger sights than you might imagine. The reaction of some newfound land to foreign intrusion is hardly the strangest.”
Calhoun, from his post in the prow of the craft, turned momentarily to glance in the direction of the island, both to ensure his course, and to get at last a clear look at their goal. He wore a worried expression on his face, and turning back to his labors muttered something low under his breath.
“What was that?” demanded Fawkes, gripping the board of his seat. “What did you say?” He had displayed little patience for the crew of the steamer, and even less for the Hibernian.
“Tír fo-Thuin,” the Irishman replied in his ancient tongue, and then translated, “The Land Beneath the Waves. It is a legend in my country, the
“Rubbish,” Fawkes answered.
“I wouldn’t say so,” Bonaventure called from the other craft, overhearing. “In my experience, the legends of the ancients often have a solid foundation in reality, and our Mr. Calhoun might be right in thinking we are seeing here the source and origin of his people’s myth.”
Fawkes sulked in silence, hardly seeming pleased with the company.
The two crafts beached at last, the expedition set out to make a quick survey of the island. They began by charting the shoreline, one party of Bonaventure, Dulac and Taggart starting off along the beach to the North, another of Fawkes and Calhoun heading off to the south. Just before they parted, strange sounds could be heard from the interior, like the wailing of the damned, or an animal’s cry of terror. Bonaventure, paused for a long moment, listening until the tumult died on the wind, and then ordered the two groups to proceed.
“But, pray God,” he added, “be careful.”
From Mervyn Fawkes’ Journal:
A quick note as I walk, a habit I picked up in
The two parties convened again within a few hours’ time, and after a comparison of their findings, agreed that the island was, in fact, an almost perfect circle. A few theories were quickly offered, and as quickly dismissed, touching on the cause of such an unusual geographical formation, but with the return of the anguished wailing sounds from the interior, attentions were soon turned from the question entirely.
All told, the island seemed about three miles in diameter, with the river each party had passed, one group at the eastern extremity, the other at the western, bisecting it neatly down the middle. How this freshwater river might run in two directions, east and west, was another question postponed by the growing interest in the mystery of the interior.
Returning quickly along the coast to the site of their landfall, the party prepared a base camp where the tree-line met the sands, and then set off as a group into the heavily wooded interior. Taggart and Calhoun armed themselves with long-bladed knives, both to assist their passage through the undergrowth and to defend themselves should the need arise. Bonaventure wore a brace of pistols, and Dulac carried a long-barreled repeating rifle, while Fawkes was armed only with a revolver.
The going was slow through the trees, which as Fawkes had suspected were some genus of evergreen. Dulac, who had some experience with botany, could not say with certainty what type they were, though he agreed with Fawkes, somewhat reluctantly, that they seemed closely related to the pine.
At the first, Calhoun and Taggart led the party, hacking at the brambles and branches with their knives, the plants themselves seeming to resist their passage. After a brief rest, all of them fatigued and weary, Bonaventure instead took the lead, finding a passage through the growth that did not necessitate cutting, and the going was that much easier.
The party came at last to the foot of the wooded hill they had seen from the shore, and judging it the best vantage point to make a quick observation of the island, made their ascent.
“There,” Bonaventure said, once they had reached the hill’s peak, “do you see that shadow at the base of the opposite hill?”
He pointed, indicating a dark area across the river where the rocky hill rose above the trees.
“A cave?” Dulac answered, to which Bonaventure nodded in agreement.
“Still,” Fawkes observed, “nothing to indicate a source of that horrible wailing with which we’ve twice been assaulted.”
“Nor anything to suggest where this spot of land might have come from, two months past,” replied Bonaventure.
“Maybe what you’re looking for is in that there cave,” commented Taggart, momentarily breaking with his accustomed silence.
“Possibly,” Bonaventure answered.
“What in heaven’s name is that?” cut in Calhoun, pointing down the side of the hill upon which they stood.
The other four crowded around to see, and following the line of Calhoun’s sight saw a dark shape flit from the top of one tall tree to another.
“It’s just a bird,” Fawkes replied.
“I’ve never seen a bird like that,” Calhoun answered.
“Nor have I,” Bonaventure added, stepping forward. “Dulac, with me.”
The Frenchman joined him, and together they crept down the hillside towards the dark shape, leaving the other three to watch safely from the hilltop.
“It has no feathers, but leathery wings,” Dulac whispered to the Professor, his eyes narrowed. The Frenchman had remarkable eyesight, and was often called upon by his associate in that capacity.
“Nor any head that I can discern,” answered Bonaventure as quietly. “It looks something like a bat, but twisted and wrong.”
The pair stopped cautiously a few dozen yards from the tree in which the creature perched. Seen from this nearer vantage point, the dark creature seemed if anything more mysterious and otherworldly than it had from a distance. It clung to a high branch on the pine-like tree with menacing talons of the same uniform black as the rest of its body, slowly moving its wings as though cooling itself, or preparing for a sudden flight. As Bonaventure had remarked, the thing seemed to have no discernable head, just a cavernous wound-like mouth that stretched between the joints of the two wings, opening and closing rhythmically with an unsettling smacking sound.
“I can safely say,” Dulac observed, “that I have never seen anything like that in all my travels.”
“Nor have I,” answered Bonaventure. Holstering the pistol which seemed to have appeared unbidden in his hand on their approach, the Professor uncoiled a length of rope from the pack at his back, fashioning a hasty lariat.
“I’d like to have a closer look at that little monster,” he instructed his associate, “if you’d be so good as to keep your rifle at the ready.”
Dulac nodded wordlessly, raising his repeating rifle to his shoulder and taking careful aim. Both of them were reluctant to do much more than capture and examine the creature, but if it came to a choice between scientific discovery and the safety of his good friend the Professor, Dulac would err on the side of caution.
Bonaventure crept toward the tree which housed the black creature, positioning himself a few yards off, and began to twirl his rope lariat, first in a loop over the shaded ground, then to one side, and finally overhead.
“Now,” Bonaventure said softly, “to see if the tricks Taylor and his Chinaman friend taught me will pay off.”
With that, he let fly with the lariat, placing the loop around the creature squarely between its wings. Pulling taut the line, Bonaventure planted his feet solidly and brought it down to earth. In the span of a single breath, Dulac was at his side, his rifle still trained on the winged creature.
“Can you somehow stun the thing?” Dulac asked, eyeing nervously the rapid working of the creature’s mouth and talons. A strange, high pitched whine was issuing from the cavernous mouth, sounding like the pathetic cry of a drowning animal.
Before Bonaventure had the chance to answer, the ground at their feet seemed to erupt, the air filling in a heartbeat with a cloud of black wings, grasping talons and gaping mouths.
The Professor released his hold on the downed creature, his hands flying to the pistols holstered on either hip, and all thoughts of scientific inquiry forgotten, he and Dulac met the onslaught of the black creatures with a hail of bullets. A single shot appeared sufficient to take down each of the winged creatures, but the succeeding waves that replaced the fallen ones seemed almost endless. Firing and reloading, firing and reloading, Bonaventure and the Frenchman worked their way down the hill, joined partway by the two crewmen of the Clemency, whooping loudly and swinging their long knives at anything that moved. Fawkes, hanging back, let off a shot or two from his revolver behind the safe cover of sheltering trees.
By the time the party reached their base camp at the shore, bruised and covered with the gore of their countless kills, the last of the creatures was down. Thankfully, they had sustained no permanent injuries, and had even had the foresight to preserve one of the least damaged of the creatures for later study. As the light dimmed, they discussed in low tones the close shave they’d had with the mysterious creatures, and wondered aloud at what other perils the strange island might have in store for them.
From Mervyn Fawkes’ Journal:
We have established a watch for the night, and are spending the evening hours recovering from our troubles of the day. Come the morning, we will ford the river, and make our way to the cave I spotted from the hilltop. With any luck, we should avoid any more of these flocks of strange bats, and once within the cave will discover if it contains the keys that will unlock the secrets which have presented themselves to us. (The seamen, despite Professor B___’s gaffs of the day, seem more taken with him than ever. I had hoped to wrest control of the expedition from him by inches, but at this stage I’ll have to content myself with carrying out my own researches, and leave the Professor and his lackeys to their own devices.)
The party reached the cave’s mouth just after sunrise, having set out from the base camp in the still dark hours of the early morning. To that point, they had as yet not encountered any more of the black winged creatures that had harried them the day before, and which the American seaman Taggart had taken to calling “devil bats.” Even so, they were cautious as they proceeded, hands never straying too far from holstered pistols or shoulder-slung rifles, and each man carrying a surplus of additional ammunition.
Closer by, the stone of the barren and rocky hill was less gray, as it had seemed from a distance, and more of a pinkish green color. To the touch the stone had an almost porous quality, and when a small amount of water was poured from a canteen onto one area the stone drank it in like a sponge. What was remarkable about the composition of the hill was that, although it seemed as irregular and random in shape as any other hill or mountain one might chance upon, it appeared to be composed of a single large stone. There was no gravel, no boulders, no sand gritting underfoot. From the base to its pinnacle, so far as the party could see, the mountain was a single, monolithic mass.
The mouth of the cave itself, which they had glimpsed from the opposite hill the day before, was an irregular opening at the base of the mass, roughly ovoid in shape, and wider than the five men standing shoulder to shoulder. Within, the darkness was profound, an inky black well which seemed primordial night even when viewed from the bright day above. Taggart and Calhoun had fashioned torches for the party in the night, and with these lit, sputtering and smoking but casting a wide circle of light, the party descended into the cave.
Professor Bonaventure, in the lead, having had no small experience with speluncar exploration, quickly found that his expertise was of little application in this expedition. The cave did not conform to the characteristics of any subterranean cavity he had previously encountered, neither those created by the passage of molten hot rock nor those worn slowly away by water over the passage of millennia. If the cave resembled any others at all, in the Professor’s experience, it was the coral caves found in shallow waters; the delicately curved and slightly bulbous walls of the cavity were similar in some respects to those submarine voids left behind by the growth of a coral colony. Unlike coral with its delicate lace and filigree, however, the walls of this particular cave were solid and sound, virtually diamond-hard, and interrupted only by small openings every few yards, each about the size of a closed fist, which seemed to lead to narrow passages or fissures in the rock.
The party had descended for some time, single file, down the smooth and easy passage of the cave, when Calhoun remarked that he thought he noticed a lightening of the darkness ahead. They were, by the Professor’s best estimate, at or just below sea level at that point, and had as yet not encountered any obstacle, nor any useful information.
“What was that?!” barked Dulac, leaping backwards suddenly, almost colliding with Fawkes who followed in his steps at the rear.
Before anyone could respond, Fawkes squealed like a child in terror, and dropping his torch to the ground scrambled forward to join the rest of the party.
“What is it, man?” Bonaventure demanded of Dulac, ignoring Fawkes.
“Something brushed past my leg,” the Frenchman answered, angling his torch towards the ground.
“It… it… it b-bit me,” Fawkes added, his voice strained.
Taggart dropped to a crouch to check the condition of Fawkes’ legs, while Bonaventure stepped back to join Dulac.
“What was it, do you think?” Calhoun asked, holding his torch higher with one hand, tightening his grip on his long knife in the other.
“I don’t know,” Dulac answered, “but if felt as though something had passed over my foot. A solid mass, like a large snake, perhaps.”
Bonaventure stood still, his head cocked to one side, listening to the darkness beyond the meager reach of their torches’ light.
“How is he?” he asked the crewman.
“He’s fine,” answered Taggart dismissively, letting go of Fawkes’ leg and standing. “Not a mark on him.”
“I thought myself bitten,” Fawkes said in his own defense.
“Count yourself lucky you were not,” Bonaventure answered. He retrieved Fawkes’ dropped torch, relit it from his own, and returned to the head of the line. “Come on, men,” he added, “we’ll press on. But keep a watchful eye, particularly on these fissures. We don’t know what they might hide.”
The party continued on, and within a few dozen steps found their torches were no longer needed. As Calhoun had remarked, the cave grew lighter as they progressed downward the white bands, first with a slight lightening of the darkness growing slowly brighter with each step, until at last they were able to see one another and the cave around them unaided. The light, which seemed a variety of phosphorescence, had a pale greenish quality to it, and seemed to emanate from the very cave walls around them.
Further on, the passage seemed to widen, both in height and breadth, until at last they found themselves standing in the midst of an immense cavern larger than the grandest ballroom in
“Hello?” Taggart called uncertainly.
“He’s long past answering,” Bonaventure replied, stepping forward. “By the state of him, I’d say he’s been dead some five years.”
The Professor waved Dulac and Taggart forward, and mounted the low step-like protuberances to the level of the “chair.”
“You’re right,” the crewman answered. “He’s not talking.”
The man, who seemed almost mummified, sucked dry of all life and moisture, was seated on the chair-like stone as though it were a throne, his arms at his sides, his hands resting palms down on the porous surface of the rock. His clothes hung in tatters around him, all colors dimmed to a dirty gray in the greenish light of the cave walls. His unseeing eyes were open, pointed directly ahead, and his mouth hung open in a silent scream.
“Look there,” Dulac said, pointing to the figure’s chest.
Around the neck of the desiccated figure hung a small bronze medallion on a fine link chain. Gingerly, the Professor reached forward, and drew the necklace from around the figure’s head without disturbing the remains. He turned it over in his hands, and found an insignia comprised of the letters “J” and “C” superimposed on an antique globe on the front, a brief inscription on the obverse. The inscription read, “In recognition for services rendered to His Royal Majesty Henry VII, 1496.”
“What does it mean?” asked Taggart.
“It means, unless I miss my guess,” Bonaventure replied, “that we have found the last resting place of John Cabot, a now nearly forgotten explorer of the late fifteenth century. He was commissioned in 1496 to chart a northern sea passage to the East in opposition to
The others looked from Bonaventure to one another slowly, and then stepped respectfully away from the wizened figure on the stone. In silence, they surveyed the rest of the chamber carefully, though Fawkes lingered by the stone chair, his hands resting gently on the rough surface.
There were a number of smaller passages opening off the main chamber, seeming to lead up into the body of the hill, and the continuation of the small fist-sized fissures they had seen in the passage. Besides the central chair-like pillar, there were a number of other stone outcroppings of varying sizes positioned about the cave, though unlike stalagmites they did not have corresponding protuberances descending from the ceiling above. Other than the discovery of the four-hundred-year-old corpse in an unusually slight state of decay, however, they found nothing more of note, even after a few hours’ searching.
Finally, the Professor called the members of the party together. Indicating his pocket watch, he informed them that, if they planned to be back at their base camp by nightfall, they would have to start back. No one was eager to be out in the jungle after dark, not with the threat of the devil bats still hanging over them.
The caverns, Bonaventure announced, while still potentially part and parcel of the mystery of the phantom island, did not contain the answers for which they searched. There were still several square miles of jungle to search, and it would be best to get an early start the following day.
Relighting their torches, and returning the way they had come, the party made their way back into the light of day.
From Mervyn Fawkes’ Journal:
I find, hours later, that I cannot drive the strange impressions engendered by the green glowing cave, and by the figure of the man on the stone chair, from my mind. While Professor B____ and the others went about their pointless explorations of the chambers, I made it a point to make a careful study of the pillar. I thought at several instances that I could hear a steady and low humming noise from the roof of the cavity, though when questioned on it neither Professor B_____ nor the others would allow that they could detect it. Even now, miles away, in the quiet stillness I fancy that I can hear it still, like a low and thrumming song, the heart of the island calling to me. I have no doubt that the figure of the man in the stone chair is precisely as Professor B_____ has opined, a lost fifteenth century explorer, but I think that the others are mistaken in assuming it sheer chance that the sailor found his end here on this island. It occurs to me, remembering the air of potency which seemed to pervade the caverns, that the answers we seek are to be found there in that chamber, there upon that stone chair. Professor B____ does not agree, but in this, as in all things, the professor is a fool.
Come the following morning, the party found Mervyn Fawkes missing. He had pulled the straw for the last watch, from the early morning hours until sunrise, and appeared to have stolen away in the night.
“Where has he gone?” Dulac asked.
“From the looks of things,” Bonaventure answered, indicating prints in the beach sand and tracks through the undergrowth, “Fawkes has headed back towards the rocky hill.”
“I say let him go,” Taggart said.
“He’s not been much use to us so far,” Calhoun added, “no offense intended.”
“Hmm,” answered the Professor. “I’d hoped to make a closer survey of the jungle today, and look for any sign of other landfalls like the ill-fated Cabot, but I’m loath to put a member of my expedition at risk through my inaction. No, I’m afraid we’ll have to go after Mr. Fawkes, and hope that he hasn’t run afoul of any of those devil bats, or whatever startled Dulac in the caverns yesterday.”
Grumbling, the other members of the party reluctantly agreed, and provisioning themselves followed the trail Fawkes had left in his wake. Just after they had set out, the strange sounds they had heard soon after landfall sounded again once, like the plaintive cry of a wounded animal, from somewhere in the interior.
The tracks led directly to the mouth of the cave, which they reached much more swiftly on the second journey, aiming more for speed than surveillance. Arriving long before noon, they quickly decided that Fawkes had already descended into the caverns. Lighting their torches, they followed down into the darkness.
They had gone perhaps half the distance between the cave’s mouth and the glowing chamber with the stone chair when Bonaventure called the party to a halt.
“Something passed over my foot,” the Professor announced in a low tone, holding his torch near the cave floor. “The same something which plagued Dulac and Fawkes yesterday, unless I miss my guess.”
Calhoun gave a quick cry of alarm, almost dropping his torch.
“It brushed against me, too!” he answered.
“All of you,” Dulac said quietly, stepping forward and holding his torch high overhead, “do you note the walls?”
“They… they seem to move,” Taggart replied.
At a sign from Bonaventure, the party fanned out to the sides of the passage, holding their torches as high and as near the stone as possible. As they had seen before, the intermittently-spaced, fist-sized fissures covered the walls, but the bumps and protrusions they had taken for irregularities in the stone appeared to be dark, slug-like creatures the length of a man’s arm.
“What are they?” Calhoun asked.
“Some undiscovered variety of ophidian?” Dulac ventured.
Before the Professor had a chance to answer, a number of the cave slugs detached themselves from the passage walls overhead, and dropped on him with a low, sibilant hiss. At one narrow end, each of the creatures had a perfectly circular mouth, ringed with a double row of jagged teeth, with which they attempted to attach themselves to the Professor’s arms, legs and neck.
“Quickly, men,” Dulac shouted, “get him clear of them!” Before he or the Clemency crewman could get to the Professor’s side, however, each found himself encumbered by one or more of the foul creatures.
“Burn them off,” Bonaventure ordered, holding his own torch to the side of his neck, scorching the cave slug’s dark flesh and sending it dropping to the ground with a pitiful hiss. “The seem ill-equipped to resist the flames.”
In a matter of moments, the men had got rid of their unwanted passengers, but regrouping at the center of the passage, they found their way back to the daylight barred by a swarm of the creatures emerging from the fissures in the wall and snaking their way towards them.
“Too many to burn,” Bonaventure observed, “and there’s still no sign of Fawkes. We press on, quickly now, and hope they have not got to him already.”
The way forward was easier going, fewer of the creatures barring their way, and these few quickly dealt with at the end of a long blade or at a quick swipe of their torches. Moving with speed, they made their way to the lighted chamber without serious incident, though each of them were marked by one or more ring-shaped cuts and bruises.
It seemed, on first glance, that the figure of the man on the stone chair had somehow miraculously been restored to life and health in the night, lording over the silent chamber on his high rocky throne. Seeing the remains tossed carelessly to the cave floor, though, and more closely inspecting the features on the man upon the pillar, the reality of the situation quickly became apparent.
“Fawkes,” Bonaventure began, striding towards the stone chair, dropping his torch to the ground. “What the devil are you playing at?”
“He’s gone mad,” the Frenchman added, when Fawkes would not answer. “Look how he sits, head back, eyes closed, ecstatic expression on his face. He’s lost his senses, and wishes to join this corpse here in the bowels of this cursed island.”
Bonaventure waved his companion to silence, stepping closer to the chair.
“His lips move,” the Professor said, leaning in close. “He’s trying to speak.”
Putting his ear almost to Fawkes’ mouth, careful not to disturb his positioning, the Professor listened carefully.
“Lonely. Alone. The One.” The words issued from between Fawkes’ lips, but the voice was not his.
“What are you saying?” Bonaventure asked in a gentle tone. “Who are you?”
“The One. Lonely. Alone,” came the reply.
“He’s possessed,” remarked Calhoun, crossing himself.
“Or something very near the same,” answered Bonaventure. “I’ve seen this sort of business before. Now quiet, all of you. Let’s not alarm him.”
The Professor turned back to the rigid form of Fawkes’ upon the chair.
“Where is Mervyn Fawkes?” he asked. “What have you done with him?”
“The One has need of him,” the form of Fawkes answered. “The One requires a pilot, for the guidance of action and decision.”
“Where are you from?” asked Bonaventure. “What is ‘The One?’”
“The One is conveyance and habitation, home for the long journey and sanctuary in places inhospitable.”
“Journey from where?” Bonaventure asked. “Whence came you to this place?”
“Across the sea of stars, through the shoals of night, the One came gathering information. Worlds beyond count the One visited, until reaching this watery world, so long ago, where the Pilot fell to harm.”
The form of Fawkes paused, an expression of pain flitting across his face.
“The One failed in its duty to the Pilot, allowing the Pilot to come to harm. Awaiting orders, the One floated here, buoyed upon your waters, avoiding your constructs of minerals and dead organic material, waiting for one to come and take the Pilot’s place. Others have been tried before this body before you, washed up on the skin of the One by your waters, but their minds were fragile, their bodies frail, and they could not take the strain of communication with the One. Their thoughts crumble into dust after conversing with the One, and their forms are left to rot in the place prepared for the Pilot.”
Bonaventure straightened, rubbing his chin and considering his options.
“Is this body,” he indicated the form of Fawkes before him, “stronger in form or mind than those you have tried before?”
“No,” the voice answered simply from Fawkes’ lips, “but he is the body which answered the One’s call, and so he is the One’s only option.”
“What is to say that you will not drift on the seas forever, entrapping an eternal succession of shipwrecked sailors, each failing to meet your needs?”
Again, the form of Fawkes was silent for a long moment before answering.
“Nothing. Nothing is to say that is not precisely what is in store for the One, precisely what will happen for ages to come.”
“Then let us take this body away with us, and we will look for a body and mind strong enough to suit your purposes,” Bonaventure said firmly. “We will find your pilot for you, and end your ceaseless wandering.”
The form of Fawkes twitched slightly, in silence.
“To have purpose again. To receive instruction. To converse with a Pilot, and again sail the sea of stars.” Fawkes’ lips were stilled for a moment, and his head inclined forward, eyes still closed. “You would do this for the One? You would seek out the suitable Pilot?”
“In exchange for our man?” Bonaventure answered. “Yes.”
“Then take the body with you and go,” the form of Fawkes answered. “The antibodies within the One will not hinder you on your way through the One’s arteries, and the cleansing agents on the One’s skin will not trouble you again. Take this body with you, and return to the One a suitable Pilot.”
With that, Fawkes slumped forward, like a puppet whose strings had been cut, and in that moment came again the low, wailing cry the party had heard before. The wail seemed to issue from the very cave walls around them, as though they were standing in the midst of the sounding box of an enormous musical instrument, and all of the strings had been plucked savagely at once.
“Come on,” Bonaventure ordered, dragging Fawkes from the stone chair and helping him to his feet. “Let’s get out of here.”
Fawkes seemed to drift in and out of consciousness, but with Bonaventure on one arm and Taggart on the other they were able to move him without too much trouble.
As the strange voice of “The One” had promised, the party made their way through the passage to the light of day without incident, the few of the cave slugs they passed retreating into the fissures as they approached. They crossed the island to their base camp as quickly as possible, arriving with a short amount of daylight remaining, and wasted no time in breaking camp and readying the dinghies.
Though it would have been standard practice to wait until the coming of the next morning to set off for the ship, the party wasted no time in debate, in silent agreement that the sooner they were off the island and back on the deck of the Clemency the better. All except Fawkes, that is, who, too weak to resist, nevertheless objected weakly at being pulled from “the embrace of the One,” demanding that he be allowed to return to the glowing cavern.
Dragging the dinghies to the shore, the party pushed off, rowing their way back through the fog and towards the waiting ship.
At Bonaventure’s recommendation, the British government would instruct all commercial sea-vessels to steer clear of the area, at least until “Floating Island,” as he called it, floated elsewhere in the seas. Bonaventure likewise strongly advised the Royal Geographical Society to consider denying any future requests to investigate the island, or to ensure that any who did attempt an expedition did so heavily armed and provisioned. Calhoun and Taggart returned to their duties aboard the Clemency, though each seemed to have lost hise taste for life on the sea, and eventually returned to port once and for all. Dulac made a careful study of the carcass of the “devil bat” the expedition brought back to the mainland with them, though he found no one in the scientific community would take his findings seriously, and in the end he found it easier to drop the matter entirely.
As for Mervyn Fawkes, he was badly shaken by the events of the expedition, and of his brief encounter with the “mind” of the floating island, and was remanded to the care of a mental hospital for a brief time by his family following his return home. After a short stay, however, Fawkes left the hospital against his doctor’s wishes. He spent a good deal of time and energy attempting to charter a sea vessel up and down the coast of England, and at last report had gotten passage on a tramp steamer to Iceland, where he hoped to have better luck. It was several years before he would be heard from again, though that is a story for another time.
(c) 2009 Monkeybrain, Inc.
Thursday, November 06, 2008
Ill Met in Elvera
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Free Fiction: "Mirror of Fiery Brightness"
Friday, March 14, 2008
Free Fiction Friday: "Timmy Gromp and the Golden Hen of Time"
I think the idea had originally been Bill Willingham's, in email, and it was modified and mutated a few times in the subsequent days and weeks. In it's final form, it was simply The Story Challenge.
The challenge was simple. To write a complete short story in one day. With a few... complications.
There were only a few rules. On Friday, each of us contributed one idea, an element that every story should contain. Then, from then until dinner that night, the five of us would go off to our respective corners and write. The goal was to include at least three of the ideas that everyone had contributed, ideally find a way to work in all five. Then on Friday night we'd each read our stories, and when they'd all been read we'd vote to decide whose was the best, both in terms of artistic merit and in terms of the skill with which the elements were included.
The five elements to be included (many of them references to things that had happened during the week) were "an upsidedown chicken," suggested by Bill Williams, "a cow skeleton," suggested by me, "a really excellent sword-fight," suggested by Mark Finn, "a gruesome death involving pepper," suggested by Matt Sturges, and the inclusion of the character Mike Bretz from the old Clockwork Storybook days, suggested by Bill Willingham.
All five of the competitors, as it turned out, found ways to include all five suggestions. Otherwise, though, the stories couldn't have been more dissimilar. Mark's was a brilliant tall tale involving boxers, banditos, and a border town, Williams's was part of his fascinating "hard boiled fantasy" world, Willingham's was a gem of a story in the tradition of Zelazny, and Matt's was a little bit of genius from his in-progress vampire world. And mine was the little bit of silliness that follows.
Somewhere along the way, the reading and critiquing somehow became a drinking game, wherein everyone had to take a drink whenever one of the five suggestions popped up in a story. We all got a bit toasty, which is probably the best explanation for how the voting ended up in a five-way tie. The grand prize, which was to have been to pick the restaurant on Saturday and be treated by the rest, became instead a committee decision, which was a whole other story.
The other four entries in the challenger were dandy little stories, which I fully expect to see in print in some market or another, before too much longer. My story? Well, it probably doesn't have a terribly wide appeal, so I'm sharing here with all of you nice people.
This story won't make much sense if you aren't familiar with Timmy Gromp, about whom I've written once or twice before. Heck, it probably won't make much sense if you are familiar with him. As for Mike Bretz, who shows up at the end, he was a shared character from San Cibola days, and all you really need to know about him is that he is the most powerful sorcerer in the universe, looks just like Drew Carey circa 1999, and is a complete dick.
Timmy Gromp and the Golden Hen of Time
by Chris Roberson
“Are you sure we’re going the right way?”
“Yes,” growled the little badger at his side, becoming irritated by the incessant questions. “Now hurry along, there isn’t much time.”
Timmy chewed his lower lip. Now he was seriously wishing that he’d never picked up the chicken statue in the junkshop, while his parents were next door drinking weird coffee drinks, eating scones, and checking their email and stock tickers on their phones. But how was he to know that the statue wasn’t an action figure from the Gobopokomeon cartoon show, but was actually the linchpin of all creation, the thing that held the multiverse together? It wasn’t until he’d given it a polish with the sleeve of his windbreaker and the Chartreuse Fairy had appeared that he’d realized that it was something much more than a toy from a TV show, and by then it was far too late.
“Hurry along, little master,” the badger growled. “Only moments remain before time runs out, and the Uncreator will hold sway.”
“Okay, okay,” Timmy answered, whining more than he intended. Then, under his breath, he muttered, “Assbug.”
The Chartreuse Fairy hadn’t even given Timmy a chance to back out. And it wasn’t as if he’d even paid for the statue. She’d just floated before him, all glittery and twinkling, and told him that what he held was actually the Golden Hen of Time, a central cog in the clockwork of creation, lost millennia before. And that by discovering it, he was obliged to return it to its sacred resting place in the Caves of Secrets, in another dimension, filled with all sorts of weird creatures with bad breath, all of them hungry to eat little boys from the human world.
Of course, the Chartreuse Fairy hadn’t actually mentioned the bad breath, but it hadn’t taken Timmy too long to work that one out on his own.
So while all Timmy wanted to do was put the chicken statue back on the junkshop shelf and rush next door to find his parents and their weird coffees and scones and phones, instead he’d suddenly found himself transported to another dimension, all alone under a starless grey sky, at the edge of a desert of blue sands. If not for the badger, who showed up a few minutes later, Timmy would probably be still out there, shivering in his windbreaker, waiting for some monster to come and eat him.
Of course, then at least he wouldn’t be down in this spooky dungeon, so maybe that wouldn’t have been so bad, after all.
“The left path,” the badger said, pointing with his sword as the dungeon passage branched in two before them. The flickering orange light of the torch in the badger’s other paw reached only a few yards into either branch, with only murky blackness beyond.
Timmy supposed that, with all of the other strange things that had happened to him over the years, over and over and over again, he shouldn’t be surprised when a badger in hip boots and a Three Musketeer hat with a sword at his hip appeared out of nowhere. But Timmy was embarrassed to remember that he’d wet himself, just a little, and squeaked like a mouse caught in a trap, jumping a few feet in the air in fright.
Then the badger had explained that he’d been dispatched by the Chartreuse Fairy to aid him in his quest—whatever that meant—and that he knew the way to the Cave of Secrets, at the desert’s far side.
Timmy had tried to convince the badger to take the chicken statue himself, and to let Timmy go back home, but the badger had explained that the rules governing the Golden Hen of Time were pretty strict on this point, and that having been the one to discover the thing, he was the only one able to carry it the rest of the way.
By the time they were halfway across the desert, blue sand stuck in place Timmy didn’t even know he had, Timmy was beginning to seriously hate the Chartreuse Fairy. If she was going to send some sort of animal helper for his “mission,” why couldn’t it have been a giant eagle that could fly him all the way there in seconds? Which wasn’t to say that the badger wasn’t pretty quick on his little feet, though.
“What’s that sound?” Timmy drew up short, peering wide-eyed into the darkness before them. A strange, clacking noise echoed out of the dungeon passage up ahead, like the sound of a hundred teeth clacking together, or a box of dominoes falling on the floor.
“One of the guardians of the
The Chartreuse Fairy had explained that, if Timmy couldn’t return the Golden Hen of Time to its resting place in the Cave, something called the Uncreator would succeed in unraveling all of existence, winding it back to the beginning like a video tape on rewind. But instead of hitting play again, the Uncreator would just toss the tape in the trash, or something like that, and nothing that had ever existed would ever exist again.
The Fairy had also said that, now that the Golden Hen had been discovered, there would be others who would want it for themselves. That’s why the badger had come along, not only to show Timmy the way, but to defend him against anyone who might want to steel the statue from him. But the Fairy hadn’t said anything about any “guardians” they’d have to contend with, as well.
When the guardian clacked out of the darkness and into the light of the badger’s torch, Timmy realized why the Fairy hadn’t mentioned it. If she had, he’d probably have stayed up in the blue desert, and told the badger to go bite himself.
The guardian towered over them, standing eight feet tall if it was an inch. It was skeletal, without a bit of flesh or muscle, a collection of bones moving like a living being, it’s motions jerky and halting, like the stop-motion animation in the old movies that Timmy’s dad was always trying to get him to watch. It stood reared up on its hind legs, with wicked blades affixed to the ends of its forelegs, and front the sides of its fleshless skull rose long, pointed horns.
“It’s a cow,” Timmy said, gawping.
“It is a demon,” the badger said, stepping ahead of Timmy, the point of his sword raised before him. “Stand back, I’ll handle this.”
The badger rushed forward, a blur of motion, his tiny sword darting in and out, flashing in the torchlight like summer lightning.
It was, all things considered, a truly excellent sword-fight, but Timmy only caught bare glimpses of it, his hands covering his eyes, shrieking like a little girl.
“Come along,” the badger said, “we’ve lost precious time.”
Timmy lowered his hands, and saw the now immobile and lifeless cow bones scattered on the passage floor.
“Hurry,” the badger urged, pushing ahead.
Timmy clutched the cold statue to his chest and followed behind, mincing around the scattered bones.
Finally, after several more very exciting and terrifying encounters, they reached the heart of the dungeon maze, the
“Hurry, young master,” the badger said, his little black eyes narrowed to slits in his furry little face. “Only moments remain! Place the idol on the altar, or we are undone.”
“Okay.” Timmy started towards the plinth, the flickering torchlight casting strange shadows across the stone floor. He held the Golden Hen in both hands, eager to be rid of it. “Then can I go home?”
Before Timmy had gone halfway to the altar, a strange voice from the shadows stopped him in his tracks. “I’ll take that golden dingus, if you don’t mind?”
Timmy whirled around, startled. A man emerged into the torchlight. He was dressed in a cheap suit, with a blonde buzz cut, and his eyes hard and cold behind the thick black frames of his glasses. Beneath his suit-coat his shirt strained across a round belly, and steam rose in curls from the coffee mug in his hands.
“The accursed Mike Bretz!” the badger snarled, paw tight around his sword’s hilt.
The fat man sneered at the badger. “Who were you expecting, Edmund Wharton-Fogg?” He turned back to Timmy. “I’ve been looking for that little chicken for a long time, kid, so why don’t you hand it over before I do something suitably horrible to you.”
“Never!” the badger yelled. “You’ll not have it, on my life!” He glanced over a furry shoulder at Timmy, his furry face shadowed by his Three Musketeers hat. “You take care of the idol, young master, I’ll take care of this interloper.”
The badger rushed forward, swinging his sword in one hand, his torch held high in the other, a battle cry on his little black lips.
“Oh, please,” the fat man said, rolling his eyes. Taking a sip of coffee from his mug, he snapped the fingers of his other hand.
Suddenly, the flame atop the badger’s torch raged outwards, becoming a miniature inferno, a tight ball of fire that engulfed the brave little badger completely. Already rushing towards the fat man, his momentum carried him forward even as the flames roasted him alive. Fur burned off into ash, and as the flames died back down in an instant, the smoldering carcass of the badger skidded to a halt at the fat man’s feet, the blackened sword clattering uselessly to the floor.
The fat man bent down, and taking hold of one of the badger’s little charred limbs, snapped it off and brought it to his mouth. He took a crunching bite of meat, burnt skin, and gristle, and chewed thoughtfully.
“Hmm,” the fat man said. “Could use a little pepper.”
Timmy couldn’t remember a time that he was more scared, and he was sure that he’d wet himself again, if only a little, but as he watched his brave little badger guide sacrificing himself, he knew that if he didn’t do something, and fast, he’d end up much the same way. So while the fat man wasn’t looking, Timmy had sidled over towards the plinth, and was in the process of reaching up and putting the Golden Hen of Time into place before the fat man noticed what he was doing. With the torch finally extinguished, the
“No!” the fat man said, his face twisted in annoyance, as Timmy slammed the statue home.
The green glow which lit the cave began to grow brighter, shifting up the spectrum to yellow, then orange, then red, as an eerie groaning noise issued from the walls around them.
“Can I go home now?” Timmy said, eyes wide and fearful.
The fat man rushed over to the plinth, dropping his coffee cup onto the floor without a second thought. “What have you done, you little puke?” The man reached Timmy’s side, and as the red glow glared brighter, looked from Timmy to the altar and back again. “You assbug, do you know what you’ve done?” He pointed a finger at the Golden Hen of Time, its little golden legs just visible above the altar’s surface. “You’ve got it in upside down!”
The red glow glared brighter, and shifted to white, as the eerie grinding noise grew deafeningly loud. Then there was a flash, and a bang, and…
Timmy Gromp clutched the golden chicken tight to his chest, the metal cold even through the thin fabric of his windbreaker, and peered into the darkness of the dungeon passage. Now he wasn’t sure if he’d ever get home.
Friday, January 04, 2008
Free Fiction Friday: "The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small"
The story is slated to appear in two different Years Best collections in coming months, for those Hugo voters who might not be Asimov's subscribers (and if you aren't then now is as good a time as any to subscribe). In the meantime, though, it seems only fitting to include it in my Free Fiction Friday rota.
For your consideration in the novelette category, here is "The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small."
by Chris Roberson
Water-Dragon year, 28th year of the Kangxi emperor
Cao Wen stood south of the Eastern Peace Gate of the
At the Eastern Depot’s large, unadorned entrance, two guards stood at the ready, sabers sheathed at their sides, poleaxes in their hands. Cao displayed his signs of authority, which marked him as an authorized representative of the Ministry of War. One of the guards studied the papers closely, and then turned and motioned for Cao to accompany him, leaving the other at his post.
Following the guard into the main hall of the Eastern Depot, Cao’s eyes lit upon a plaque, on which a motto was engraved in simply crafted characters: “Heart and Bowels of the Court.”
“Please wait here,” the guard said with an abbreviated bow, “while this one fetches a superior.” Then, Cao’s papers still in hand, the guard disappeared through one of the many arches leading from the main hall.
Cao waited in silence, as agents of the Eastern Depot came and went, all about the emperor’s business. Most were clad in plain gray robes, and would not merit a second glance, were he to pass them on the street. Only a few wore the elaborate mantles which gave the emperor’s secret police their name—the Embroidered Guard.
After a few long moments, the guard reappeared, with an older man following close behind. In his simple cotton robes, this older newcomer could have easily passed for a fishmonger or merchant in textiles, thin wisps of mustaches drooping over his thick lips, his eyes half-lidded as though he were just waking from a long slumber. His face, frame, and hands displayed the softened edges that suggested he was a eunuch, one who had traded in his manhood for a life of imperial service.
“Return to your post,” the older man said to the guard, who replied only with a rigid nod.
“You are Cao Wen?” the older man says to him, without preamble.
Cao allowed that he was, and bowed lower than the man’s appearance would suggest was required. In such a setting, appearances could be deceiving.
“I am Director Fei Ren of the Eastern Depot.” The older man brandished the papers Cao had brought with him, which bore the chop of the Minister of War. “I understand you wish to speak with one of our guests?”
“Yes, O Honorable Director,” Cao said, bowing again, and lower this time, “it is the wish of his excellency the Minister of War that I should do so. It is believed that your... guest... has some intelligence that may be of use to the emperor, may-he-reign-ten-thousand-years.”
“This individual has been temporarily housed with us for some considerable time,” Director Fei answered. “Since before our emperor reached his age of majority. And not all that time spent in the Outside Depot, but some months and years in the Bureau of Suppression and Soothing, as well.”
Cao suppressed a shudder. He had heard only whispered rumors about what went on in the private chambers of the Bureau of Suppression and Soothing, which the Embroidered Guard used to elicit confessions from the most recalcitrant suspects.
Director Fei continued. “Any intelligence this individual had to offer has been long since documented, I would venture to say. And had we been able to extract a confession from him on his many crimes, he would long ago have gone under the executioner’s blade. I think you will find this one a spent fruit, all juices long since dried up, leaving nothing more than a desiccated husk of a man.”
“You are obviously much wiser in such matters than I, Honorable Director,” Cao said, with the appropriate tone of humility, “but such is my office to fulfill, and it would displease my master the Minister of War if I were to shirk my responsibility.”
Director Fei shrugged. “Very well. It is your own time that you waste. Come along and I will have one of my agents escort you into the Outside Depot.”
Director Fei waved over another man dressed in plain robes, this one nearer Cao’s own age of twenty years.
“Agent Gu Xuesen will escort you, Cao Wen. Now you must excuse me, as more pressing matters demand my attention.”
Cao bowed low, and Director Fei disappeared back into the shadows beyond the main hall.
“This way, sir,” Gu said, inclining his head, and starting towards one of the larger arches.
Agent Gu led Cao through the winding labyrinth of passages within the Eastern Depot. The building was larger inside than its exterior would suggest, largely a function of the snaking passages and innumerous small chambers and rooms. Frequently passages opened onto open-air courtyards, and just as frequently onto sunless, dank chambers that had never seen the light of day. And as they went, Agent Gu provided the name and use of each chamber and room.
Cao was surprised to find so talkative a member of the Embroidered Guard, who were widely known as a circumspect, and some might even say taciturn lot. When Agent Gu explained that he was only in his first years with the Embroidered Guard, and that he was required to complete his long years of training before being allowed to go beyond the walls of the Eastern Depot, his talkative manner became much more understandable. He clearly hungered for dialogue with someone nearer his own age, and while his training likely prohibited providing information when it is unnecessary, and when there is no advantage to be gained, his youthful hunger for distraction, in this instance at least, was getting the better of his discretion.
“And now, Cao Wen,” Agent Gu was saying, “we pass into that section known as the Inside Depot. This is the place used to house the most dangerous and serious suspects brought in by the Embroidered Guard. It is the most closely guarded of all the sections of the Eastern Depot, and none who are not of the Embroidered Guard may enter unescorted.”
They passed by a tall doorway, the door lacquered matte black, the frame painted a red the color of blood.
“And beyond this point,” Gu said, pointing to the door, “rests the Bureau of Suppression and Soothing.”
Cao flinched, despite himself. He had, of course, heard of the Bureau, though he labored not to call to mind the stories he had heard.
“Even through the reinforced walls and doors of the Bureau,” Gu went on, “which have been designed to dampen sound, screams and hideous wailing can occasionally be heard.”
They passed by the jet-and-scarlet doorway, turning a corner to a long corridor, and Cao tried to put the door and what lay beyond it out of his thoughts.
Continuing on, they came at last to a broad, open-air courtyard, surrounded on all sides by narrow doorways leading to small chambers. Men and women milled around in the bright morning sun, shuffling under the gaze of guards who perched atop towers positioned on the opposite sides of the courtyard, surmounted by banners on tall posts.
“This, finally, is the Outside Depot,” Gu explained, “in which guests of the Embroidered Guard are temporarily housed. Some have confessed to minor crimes which merit no more severe punishment than imprisonment, while others await the decision of the emperor on their final sentencing. Some few have yet to confess, but have been deemed by the Bureau of Suppression and Soothing as not likely to confess at any point in the future. As no conviction can be achieved without a confession, these few are returned to the Outside Depot, assuming they are not violent enough to merit imprisonment in the Inside Depot, to wait.”
“Wait for what?” Cao asked, casting his gaze across the dispirited faces before him.
“Some wait for a reprieve from the emperor, some wait for further evidence to come to light, while some just wait. For death to take them, one supposes.”
Agent Gu pointed to an ancient man sitting at the center of the courtyard, his legs folded under him, his full attention on the passage across the ground of the shadows of the two towers.
“That is the man you seek,” Agent Gu said. “That is Ling Xuan.”
Cao Wen sat opposite the ancient man in the interview chamber. Agent Gu waited beyond the door of iron-clad hardwood, which Cao doubted any sound could penetrate, short of a full-bodied bellow.
Cao had a sheaf of papers in front of him, while the old man sat with his shoulders slumped, his hands folded in his lap and the slack-jawed smile of an imbecile on his wrinkled face.
“Ling Xuan?” Cao repeated. The old man’s eyes rested on the simple wooden table between then, worn smooth by generations of hands. Cao could not help but wonder what other dialogues had played out across the table, over the long years since the Embroidered Guard was established in the days of the Yongle emperor, during the Bright Dynasty.
Still, though, the old man did not reply.
“Is that your name?”
The old man drew in a deep breath through his nostrils, blinked several times, and straightened up, all without lifting his eyes from the surface of the table. When he spoke, his voice was soft but with an underlying strength, like the sound of distant thunder.
“The swirls and curves of the wood from which this table is constructed call to mind the heavens and clouds picked out in golden thread on the longpao dragon robes I wore in the service of the Shunzhi emperor. Strange to think that they follow me, here, after all of these long years. Perhaps they seek to remind me of days past, when my circumstances were more auspicious.”
The man had spoken slowly, but without any pause between words, a single, breathless oration.
Cao looked at the table, and saw nothing but meaningless swirls and knots. Was the old man mad, and his search already proven in vain?
“Need I remind you,” Cao replied, his tone moderated but forceful, “that I come here on the authority of the Minister of War, who speaks with the voice of the Dragon Throne itself? Now, I ask again, is your name...”
“Yes,” the old man said, not raising his eyes. “Ling Xuan is my name.”
Cao nodded, sharply. “Good. And are you the same Ling Xuan who is listed here?”
Cao slid a piece of paper across the table, a copy he had recently made of the fragmentary inventory of the imperial archives of the Chongzhen emperor, one of the last of the Bright Dynasty, who ruled before the Manchu came down from the north and established the Clear Dynasty.
On the inventory was highlighted one item: A Narrative Of A Journey Into The East, To The Lands Which Lay Across The Ocean, With Particular Attention to the Mexica, by Ling Xuan, Provincial Graduate.
Ling looked at the paper for a long time, as though puzzling out a complex mathematical equation in his head. After a long moment he spoke, his voice the sound of distant thunder. “Such a long time ago.” And then he fell silent once more.
After a lengthy silence, the old man nodded, slowly, and raised his eyes to meet Cao’s.
“Yes,” Ling said. “I am he.”
“Good,” Cao said impatiently. “Now, I am sorry to report that all that is known about your account is the title, as it was among those records lost in the transition of power from the Bright Dynasty to the Clear. My purpose for coming here to interview you is...”
“Such a long time ago, but I can remember it all, as though it were yesterday.”
Cao paused, waiting to see if the old man would speak further after his interruption. When Ling remained silence, Cao nodded again and continued, “That is good, because...”
“When we are young,” Ling said, the distant thunder growing somewhat closer, “the days crawl by. I remember summers of my youth which seemed to last for generations. But as we grow older, the months and years flit by like dragonflies, one after another in their dozens. But by the calendar, a day is still a day, is it not? Why is it, do you suppose, that the duration of a span of time should seem so different to us in one circumstance than another?”
Cao shuffled the papers before him, impatiently. “I’m sure that I don’t know. Now, as I was saying...”
“I have begun to suspect that time is, in some sense I don’t yet fully comprehend, subjective to the viewer. What a day signifies to me is quite different than what it signifies to you. How strange my day might seem, were I able to see it through your eyes.”
“Ling Xuan, I insist that you listen to, and then answer, my questions.”
“We shall see how our day looks tomorrow, shall we?” Ling Xuan rose slowly to his feet, crossed to the door, and rapped on the metal cladding with a gnarled knuckle. “Perhaps then we shall have more perspective on the subjectivity of time.”
Cao jumped to his feet, raising his voice in objection. “Ling Xuan, I insist that you return to your seat and answer my questions!”
Agent Gu opened the door, in response to the knocking sound.
Ling smiled beatifically, looking back over his shoulder at Cao. “And if I insist to the sun that it stop in its courses, and remain unmoving in the heavens, do you suppose that it will?”
With that Ling Xuan turned and walked out of the chamber, nodding slightly to Agent Gu as he passed.
Cao raced to the door, his cheeks flushed with anger. “Agent Gu, bring him to heel!”
Agent Gu glanced after the back of the retreating prisoner.
“That old man survived more than a year in the Bureau of Suppression and Soothing,” Gu answered, “and never confessed. What do you suppose that I could do that would make him talk?”
Gu walked out towards the courtyard, and Cao followed behind, his hands twisted into trembling fists at his sides.
Ling had walked out into the sunlit courtyard, and he glanced back at Cao as he sat, gracefully folds his legs under him.
“Tomorrow, don’t forget,” he called to Cao. “Perhaps that will be the day in which we find answers.”
Back at the Ministry of War, across the concourse from the Eastern Depot, Cao Wen sat in his small cubicle, surveying the mounds of paper before him, hundreds of notes and maps and charts, the product of months’ work.
“Cao?” an impatient voice called from behind him, startling him.
Cao turned, pulse racing, to find the imposing figure of the Deputy Minister of War standing behind him.
“Deputy Minister Wu,” Cao said breathlessly, rising to his feet and bowing.
Wu waved him to return to his seat, an annoyed expression on his bread face. “Is it too much to hope that you have completed your survey of the archives, and your report on the Mexica is finally ready to present to the Minister?”
Cao blanched, and shook his head. “Your pardon, O Honorable Deputy Minister, but while my researches are very nearly complete, I still have one final resource to investigate before my survey is ready for review.”
“I take it you refer to this prisoner of the Eastern Depot? Were you not scheduled to interview him today?”
“Yes,” Cao answered reluctantly. “But our initial meeting was not entirely... productive. It is my intention to return to the Eastern Depot tomorrow to complete his interrogation.”
“Was this Ling Xuan forthcoming with strategic details about the Mexica? The emperor is most desirous of a complete analysis of the possibilities for invasion of the Mexic isthmus, once our pacification of Fusang is complete, and the Minister of War is most eager to present the Ministry’s findings on the matter.”
“The urgency is well understood, Deputy Minister.” Cao shifted uneasily on his bench. “But I believe this final interview will provide much needed detail for the survey, and greatly improve the emperor’s understanding of the strategic possibilities.”
“I suppose you are well aware of the fact that a survey well received by the Dragon Throne will do much to enhance the estimation of a scholar so far unable to pass the juren level examinations, and would greatly aid one’s chances of advancement within the imperial bureaucracy.”
Cao brightened, and sat straighter. “Most certainly, Deputy Minister.”
“The converse, however, is also true,” Wu said, his eyes narrowed, “and a report which displeases the Minister, to say nothing of displeasing the emperor, Son of Heaven, may-he-reign-ten-thousand-years, could do irreparable damage to a young bureaucrat’s career prospects. Such a one might find himself assigned to the far provinces, inspecting grain yield and calculating annual tax levies for the rest of his life.”
Cao swallowed hard. “It is understood, Deputy Minister.”
The Deputy Minister nodded. “Good,” he said, turning and walking briskly away. “See that it is not forgotten.”
The next day, Cao Wen stood over Ling Xuan, who again sat in the middle of the concourse, his eyes on the shadows on the ground.
“Note the shadows of the two towers,” Ling said without looking up, before Cao had announced himself. “The spires atop each function like the points atop an equatorial sundial. If one views the many doorways opening off the central courtyard as marking the hours, the shadows indicate the time of day, with the southern tower indicating the time in the summer months, when the sun is high in the sky, and the northern tower indicating the time in the winter, when the sun is lower.”
Ling at last looked up at Cao.
“Tell me,” the old man said, “do you suppose the architects of the Eastern Depot intended the shadows for this purpose, or is this merely an auspicious happenstance, the result of nothing more than divine providence?”
Cao Wen glanced over at Agent Gu, who stood beside him, but Gu only shrugged, helplessly.
“I intend to complete our interview this morning, Ling Xuan,” Cao answered.
“Morning,” Ling Xuan replied with a smile. “Afternoon. Evening and night. Shadows measure the hours by day, and drips of water by night. But if the towers were to be moved, what would become of the hours? In the days of the Southern Song dynasty, a great astronomer named Guo Shoujing constructed at Linfen in
Cao tapped his foot, and scowled. He was convinced there was still meat to be found in amongst the mad offal of the old man’s ramblings, but he wasn’t sure he had the patience to find it.
“You will accompany me to the interview chamber,” Cao said, keeping his tone even, “where we can continue our conversation like civilized beings.”
“As you wish,” Ling said, smiling slightly, and rose to his feet on creaking joints.
“Before the establishment of the Clear Dynasty, before the Manchu rescued the Middle Kingdom from the corruption of the Bright Dynasty, you journeyed on one of the Treasure Fleet voyages to the far side of the world, traveling east to Khalifah, Mexica, and Fusang.”
It was a statement, not a question, but Cao Wen paused momentarily, nevertheless, to give Ling Xuan the opportunity to reply.
“I was a young scholar then,” Ling said, “not yet having passed my jinshi examinations and become a Presented Scholar. I traveled to the Northern Capital from my home in the south, to serve the Dragon Throne as best as I was able. My skills, apparently, were best served as chronicler aboard a Treasure Fleet dragon boat, and my skills with languages were likewise of some utility. The passage across the broad sea took long months, before landfall on the shores of Khalifah.”
“I want to ask you about Mexica. The title of your account suggests that...”
“When I served the Shunzhi emperor, I once received a legation from Khalifah. But when the Shunzhi emperor went to take his place in the heavens, and the Kangxi emperor took the Dragon Throne, Han bureaucrats such as I quickly fell from favor. The Regent Aobai reversed as many of the policies of Shunzhi as he could, attempting to reassert Manchu domination, feeling that the emperor had permitted too many Han to enter positions of authority. There were insufficient numbers of qualified Manchu to replace all of the Han serving in the bureaucracy, so Aobai had to console himself by replacing all the Han already in post with candidates more easily cowed by his authority.”
Cao sighed heavily. The old man rambled like a senile grandmother, but Cao had confirmed that he had indeed traveled among the Mexica, so he could well have the intelligence Cao needed to advance.
“To return to the subject of the Mexica...”
“I hated Aobai for years, you must understand.” The old man shook his head, sadly. “He had taken from me my life and my livelihood. When he found me too highly respected in the Office of Transmission to eliminate without scandal, he had me arraigned on trumped-up charges of treason and remanded to the custody of the Embroidered Guard. Consider the irony, then, that eight years later, after Kangxi had reached his majority, the young emperor enlisted the aid of his uncle Songgotu in order to break free from the control of his regents, and had Aobai himself arrested on charges of usurping his authority. Aobai joined me here as a guest of the Embroidered Guard, and died soon after.”
This was all ancient history, done and buried long before Cao was born. He shifted on the bench, impatient, and tried once more to regain control of the flow of conversation.
“Ling Xuan,” Cao began, allowing the tone of his voice to raise slightly, “I must ask you to attend to my questions. I am on the urgent business of his supreme majesty, the Son of Heaven, and do not have time to waste in idle rambling.”
“But the affairs of men turn in their courses just like the tracks of the stars in the heavens above,” the old man continued, as though he hadn’t heard a word Cao had said. “I understand that in the nations of Europa they have a conception of destiny as a wheel, like that of a mill, upon which men ride up and down. Too often those who ride the wheel up fail to recall that they will someday be borne downwards again. Thirty-four years after Songgotu helped his nephew Kangxi rid himself of the influence of the Regent Aobai, Kangxi had Songgotu himself jailed, in part for his complicity in the Heir Apparent’s attempt to consolidate power. Songgotu joined us here, in the Outside Depot, for the briefest while, until Kangxi ordered him executed, without trial or confession.”
Cao Wen remembered the scandal from his youth, hearing his father and uncles talking about the purge of Songgotu and his associates from the court.
“Ling Xuan...,” Cao Wen began, but the old man went on before he could continue.
“The Heir Apparent himself, of course, is resident here now. Yinreng. We passed him in the courtyard, on our way into the interview chamber. A sad shell of a man he is, and perhaps not entirely sane. Of course, some say that the eldest prince Yinti employed Lamas to cast evil spells, the revelation of which resulted in Yinreng’s earlier pardon and release from imprisonment, and reinstatement as heir and successor to Kangxi. But when he returned to his old ways on his release, the emperor finally had him removed from the line of succession, degraded in position, and placed here in perpetual confinement. Still, he seems harmless to me, and I believe that he may have developed some lasting affection for another of the men imprisoned here, but as his leanings were the nettle which originally set his father on the path of disowning him, I suppose that isn’t to be unexpected.”
Cao Wen raised his hand, attempting again to wrestle back control of the discussion, but the old man continued, unabated.
“There are those who say that some men lie with other men as a result of an accident of birth, while others say that it is a degradation which sets upon us as we grow, an illness and not a defect. But was the Heir Apparent fated to prefer the company of men to women in the bedchamber? Did the movement of the stars through the lunar mansions in the heavens dictate the life he would lead, up to and including his end here, imprisoned behind these high, cold walls ? Or did choices he made, through his life, in some sympathetic fashion affect the course of the stars through the heavens? We know that man’s destiny is linked with the heavens, but there remains the question of causation. Which is effected and which effects?”
“Ling Xuan, if you please...,” Cao said with a weary sigh. He found that he was almost willing to surrender in frustration, and simply complete his report with the information he already had to hand.
“During the Warring States period of antiquity, the philosopher Shih-shen tired to explain the non-uniform movement of the moon as the result of man’s actions. He said that, when a wise prince occupies the throne, the Moon follows the right way, and that when the prince is not wise and the ministers exercise power, the Moon loses its way. But if we presume that the ancients knew more than we do in all such matters, where would that leave the spirit of invention? The ancients, as praiseworthy as they were, could not have constructed a marvel like the
Cao Wen leaned forward, cautiously optimistic. Was his patience is about to be rewarded?
But before he went on, the old man leaned back, and breathed a ragged sigh. “But perhaps these are discussions for another day. I find that my voice tires, and my thoughts run away from me. Perhaps we should continue our discussion tomorrow.”
The old man rose, and went to knock on the metal-clad door.
As Agent Gu opened the door, Cao rocketed up off the bench, raising his hand to object.
“Tomorrow, then,” Ling said, glancing over his shoulder as he shuffled down the passageway to the courtyard beyond.
Agent Gu just shrugged, as Cao’s mouth worked, soundless and furious.
Back at the Ministry of War, Cao Wen looked over the paperwork he’d amassed. Spread before him were the notes he himself had taken by hand, long months before, which had led him to Ling Xuan in the first place.
Cao had been through everything in the imperial archives on the subject of the Mexica, but much of the early contact with the Mexica had occurred during the Bright Dynasty, and many of the records from those days had been lost when the Clear Dynasty took control. Worse, much of what remained was fragmentary at best. Cao had spent endless days combing through the archives, hungry for any mention of the Mexica, when he finally stumbled upon a simple inventory list of the archives from the reign of the Chongzhen emperor, the last of the Bright Dynasty. Among dozens of bureaucratic documents, in which no one had taken any interest in long years, was listed one item which caught Cao’s eye, and sped the pace of his heart—a Ling Xuan’s account of a Treasure Fleet voyage to Mexica.
In the weeks that followed, Cao searched unsuccessfully for the account, checking other archives and inventories, but quite by chance came across a communication from the eunuch director of the Embroidered Guard to the Office of Transmission, intended for the eyes of the Regent Aobai, listing all of the suspects temporarily housed in the Eastern Depot. The report dated from the early days of the reign of the Kangxi emperor, while the emperor had still been a child and the regency controlled the empire, before the introduction of the palace memorial. Cao very nearly returned the communication to its cubby hole without a second glance, and had he done so his researches would have been at an end. But instead he chanced to notice a name at the bottom of the communication, in amongst the hundreds of other names—Ling Xuan.
Cao had looked into the matter further, and found no burial record, nor record of any conviction, for a Ling Xuan. He had, however, discovered that Ling had once held a position of minor authority during the reign of the Shunzhi emperor.
Cao had petitioned the Deputy Minister of War for weeks to arrange the authorization to contact the Embroidered Guard in order to confirm that Ling Xuan was still imprisoned at the Eastern Depot, and once confirmation was received Cao labored another span of weeks to receive authorization to cross the concourse and interview the prisoner himself.
At the time, Cao Wen had considered it an almost unbelievable stroke of good fortune that he should chance to discover that the author of the missing account, so crucial to his survey of the Mexica, still lived. Now, having met and spent time with the old man, he was beginning to rethink that position.
Cao Wen stood over Ling Xuan, who sat in the middle of the courtyard.
“Why do you not move from that position, Ling Xuan?”
“But I am always moving, though I do not unfolded my legs from beneath me.” The old man looked up at Cao with shaded eyes, and smiled. “I move because the Earth moves, and with it I go. As Lo-hsia-Hung of the Western Han Dynasty said, ‘The Earth moves constantly but people do not know it. They are as persons in a closed boat, and when it proceeds they do not perceive it.’”
“You speak a great deal of astronomy, and yet the records indicate that you served in the Office of Transmission. But the study of the heavens is forbidden to all but the imperial astronomers.”
“When I was first brought to the Eastern Depot,” Ling explained, a distant look in his eyes, “I was interred for some time in the Bureau of Suppression and Soothing. The days were long and full of pain, but the nights were largely my own. In my narrow, dank cell, I sat the long watches of the night, unable to see a patch of clear sky. However, there was a small hole cut high in the wall, for ventilation, and I learned that it opened onto the adjacent cell. In that cell was a dismissed minister, previously the head of the Directory of Astronomy. His name was Cui, high mountain. He had offended the Regent Aobai in the days after the death of the Shanzhi emperor.”
Ling drew a ragged sigh, and averted his eyes before continuing.
“We helped one another survive through those weeks and months. I told the astronomer tales of my travels across the oceans, and he told me everything he had ever learned about the heavens.”
Ling stood up on creaking joints, and faced Cao.
“One night, the cell next to mine was silent, and the night after that, another voice answered when I called through the vent. I never learned what became of my friend, but I remember every word he ever spoke to me.”
With that, the old man turned and started towards the interview chamber, where Agent Gu stood by the open door.
“Come along,” Ling called back over his shoulder to Cao, who lingered in the sunny yard. “You wanted to discuss the Mexica, did you not?”
Cao sat at the worn table, and pulled a leather tube from the folds of his robe. Removing a cap from the tubes end, he pulled out a rolled sheaf of paper and, setting the tube to one side, arranged the papers before him, meticulously. Ling Xuan looked on, dispassionately.
Finally, his notes arranged to his satisfaction, and with an inked brush in hand, Cao began to speak, impatiently. “I have already spent the better part of a year in my survey of the Mexica, Ling Xuan, and I would very much like to complete my report before another year begins.”
“But which year, yes?” Ling asked, raising an eyebrow. “We in the Middle Kingdom know two. The twenty-four solar nodes of the farmer’s calendar, and the twelve or thirteen lunar months of the lunisolar calendar. The Mexica had more than one calendar, too.”
Cao sighed. He had little interest in a repeat of the previous days’ performance, and yet here he was, about to assay the same role. “Ling Xuan...”
“The Mexica have a solar calendar, which like our own was made up of 365 days,” the old man interrupted before Cao could continued. “Can you imagine it? Two cultures, so different and divided by history and geography, and yet we parcel out time in the same allotments. But unlike us, the Mexica divide their solar year into eighteen months of twenty days each, leaving aside five more, which they call ‘empty days.’ These are days of ill omen, when no work or ritual is to be performed.”
“That’s very interesting,” Cao said, in a rush, “but to return to the subject at hand...”
“But like us, they are not satisfied with only one calendrical system,” Ling continued, undaunted. “In addition to their solar year, they have a second calendar of 260 days, marked out by interlocking cycles of twenty day signs and thirteen numbers. Again, reminiscent of our own system of element and animal, wouldn’t you say?”
“I suppose so,” Cao agreed, weakly.
“But the Mexica have another calendar, on a scale even grander than the other two. In the capital city of the Mexica, Place of the Stone Cactus, there is a massive circular stone, thicker than a child is tall and wider than the height of two men. This is a calendar too, of a sort, but while the other calendars measure the passage of days, months, and years, this massive calendar of stone is used to measure the passage of worlds themselves. As I told you, the Mexica believe that this is the fifth and most recent world created by the gods. They believe that this world was constructed only a few hundred years ago, in the year 13-Reed, and that its peoples and cultures were put in place, fully formed and with their histories already in place, as a test of the Mexica’s faith.”
“You traveled to the capital of the Mexica?” Cao asked, sitting forward, readying his brush over a blank sheet of paper.
“Yes,” the old man answered, a faraway look in his eyes, “a party of us, along with the commander of the Treasure Fleet, traveled overland for long days and weeks before we reached the heart of the Mexic empire. Their city of Place of the Stone Cactus was as large and grand as the Northern Capital itself, hundreds of thousands of men and women toiling away in the service of their emperor.”
Ling Xuan’s eyes fluttered close for a brief moment, and he swayed, momentarily lost in thought.
“The Mexica know when this world will end,” he went on. “It will come in the year of 4-Movement, when the world’s calendar has run its course. But which cycle, yes? In Place of the Stone Cactus, I saw steam-powered automatons of riveted bronze, which symbolically represented the jaguars, hurricanes, fires, and rains which destroyed the previous worlds.”
Cao Wen brush raced down the page in precise movements, as he took careful notes. “Steam-powered, you say?”
Ling Xuan nodded. “Yes, and while the Mexica had never before seen a horse, they had steam-powered trolleys that could carry them back and forth across the breadth of their broad valley in a twinkling.”
“What of their military capacity?” Cao asked, eagerly. “Were you given any glimpse of their level of armament?”
Ling Xuan blinked slowly. “I did, in fact, spent considerable time with an officer of their army, an Eagle Knight of the first rank. I was one of the few to have learned the rudiments of Nahuatl, the Mexica’s tongue, and as such I was appointed to tour their city and report back what I’d learned, and Hummingbird Feather was to be my guide.”
Ling Xuan’s dropped his gaze, and his eyes came to rest on the leather tube at the edge of the table, in which Cao Wen had brought his notes.
“This reminds me of something,” the old man said, pointing at the tube.
“Something to do with the Mexica?”
The old man nodded, slowly, his eyes not leaving the tube. Then he shook his head, once, leaving Cao unsure whether the old man had meant to reply in the affirmative, in the negative, or if in fact he’d replied at all.
“I remember something my friend Cui told me. A metal tube capped on either end by ground glass lenses, used for far viewing. A Remote-Viewing Mirror, he called it. A tool employed by the Directorate of Astronomy. Have you heard of such a thing?”
Cao nodded, impatiently. “Yes, I believe I’ve seen them in operation. What of it?”
“I would very much like to see such a device for myself. My eyes are not as strong as they once were, and it would be a welcome sight to see the shapes upon the moon’s surface. If you could arrange such a thing, I would be happy to tell you all I saw of the Mexica’s armament and defenses.”
Then the old man rose, rapped on the door, and disappeared from view, leaving Cao in the room with his notes, his brush, and his questions.
It took Cao Wen several days to receive authorization from the Deputy Minister of War to requisition the far-seeing device from the Directorate of Astronomy, several more days to locate the bureaucrat within the Directorate who was responsible for materiel and equipment, and an additional week of wheedling and cajoling to get the astronomer to recognize the authority of the Deputy Minister’s order.
Cao tried on several occasions in the interval to renew his interview with Ling Xuan, but every attempt failed. Each time, the old man would look up at him, blink slowly, and ask whether Cao carried the far-seeing device. When he saw that Cao did not, Ling would turn his eyes back to the ground, watching the shadows in their slow course across the ground.
Finally, Cao managed to retrieve the device from the Directorate of Astronomy, and a short while later sat in the interview room, carefully removing the device from its protective sheath. He present the object to Ling Xuan, with Agent Gu standing by as witness.
While Ling turned the device over in his hands, eyes glistening and mouth open in wonder, Cao read aloud from an official release document, signed with the chop of the Head Director of Astronomy, and countersigned by the Deputy Minister of War. “This far viewing device, the Remote-Viewing Mirror, remains the property of the Directorate of Astronomy, as decreed by his majesty the emperor, but by special order of the Deputy Minister of War, it is being loaned for a short time to one Ling Xuan, a temporary resident at the Outside Depot of the Embroidered Guard. Be it known that this Ling Xuan is not to allow the Remote-Viewing Mirror to pass into any hands other than his own, nor is he to reveal the details of its manufacture to any but those parties determined by imperial decree as worthy to hold such knowledge.”
Cao paused, and glanced up from the document at the old man, whose eyes were fixed on the device in his hands.
“Ling Xuan, do you understand these terms?”
The old man simply held the device up for a closer inspection, marveling.
“Temporary Resident Ling,” Agent Gu said, his tone martial, stepping forward incrementally and looming over the old man as menacingly as he was able. “Do you understand the terms as recited to you?”
Ling Xuan nodded, absently. “Yes, yes, of course.”
“Thank you for bearing witness, Agent Gu.” Cao nodded to Gu, and motioned him towards the door. “Now, with your permission, I would like at this point to continue my interview with Ling Xuan.”
Agent Gu bowed, crossed the floor, and closed the door behind him as he left.
“Now,” Cao said to the old man, his tone turning dark, “let us talk about the Mexica.”
Ling Xuan held the Remote-Viewing Mirror lovingly and, without lifting his eyes from the device, began to speak.
“Hummingbird Feather, who I like to think became my friend in the weeks we stayed in Place of the Stone Cactus, explained to me the structure of the army of the Mexica. He was an Eagle Knight, and a Quauhyahcatl, or a Great Captain of the Mexic army, meaning that he had taken five foreign captives in combat. When the Treasure Fleet arrived, though, the Mexica had not gone to war against their neighbors in almost a generation. And so they fought, instead, the War of the Flowers.
“The army of the Mexica is organized into Banners of twenty men each—and here, too, we hear echoes of our own culture, do we not? So like the Banners of our Manchu masters, yes? In any case, twenty of such banners make up a battalion of four hundred men, and twenty of these an army of eight thousand. The best warriors were inducted into the orders of the Jaguar and the Eagle, and advancement was measured by how many captives one took while in battle. In times of peace, though, there were no captives to be had, and how then to measure one’s worth?
“The Mexica challenge their neighbors to fight in a War of the Flowers. We were lucky enough to arrive in Place of the Stone Cactus during one of these ceremonial tournaments. The armies of the Mexica and those of their neighbors gather in the broad plains beyond the valley of the Stone Cactus, and meet in mock combat. Though the blows are not killing blows, and no blood is spilled on the plains, the stakes are no less high than in warfare. The combatants in the War of the Flowers take prisoners, capturing their defeated foes, and when each side decides that it has taken enough prisoners, the battle is ended. The side which has captured the most of its enemy is declared the winner, and the two armies return home with their spoils. The captives are executed or enslaved, depending on the moods of their captors.
“In this way, the army of the Mexica are able to keep their martial skills honed and ready, even when there is no enemy to be bested.”
Cao scarcely looked up from his notes, his brush flying across the page.
“Yes, yes,” Cao said, eagerly. “Now, how do the generals of the armies communicate their orders to the officers of the banners, and how do the banners’ leaders communicate the orders on to their subordinates?”
Days passed, and Cao Wen returned again and again to the Outside Depot, filling page after page with notes on the Mexica, dictated by the old man. He’d originally hoped for one or two choice facts with which to spice his survey, and after long frustrated weeks, wrangling the incommunicative prisoner, he’d begun to doubt that he’d get even that much. Now, though, it seemed that flood gates had opened, and the old man was providing more detailed information than Cao had dreamed possible. Now, the thought of advancement within the ministry as reward for all his efforts, which he’d originally held as a slender hope, now seemed a very achievable goal.
This morning, the old man was waiting for him in the interview room, the Remote-Viewing Mirror in his lap.
“I think we near the end of our cycle of interviews, Ling Xuan,” Cao said, not bothering with pleasantries. He slid onto the bench across the table from the old man, and arranged his papers and brushes before him. “I need just one final bit of information, and my report will be complete. I’m not sure just what it is, yet, but I believe that you must have it within you. I want to hear more about the automation of the Mexica. From what you describe, it sounds as though their technological development has taken a different path than our own, but that they seem not far behind us.”
Ling looked up, smiling.
“I was able to spend long hours last night, watching the skies through this remarkable device. Agent Gu was kind enough to allow me to remain in the courtyard all hours, and so I had a much fuller view of the heavens than I am allowed from my small window.” The old man lifted the Remote-Viewing Mirror to his right eye and, squeezing his left eye shut, peered through the device at Cao, sitting across from him. Then he laughed, a soft, strong noise like distant peals of thunder, and continued. “I have been following the path of Fire Star across the heavens. In the last few months, it has risen in the early hours of the morning, rising earlier and earlier every day, tracking steadily eastward across the sky. Just a few week ago, it rose shortly after sunset, and the most remarkable thing occurred. Cui had told me about it, but until this occasion I had never had opportunity to see it for myself. Fire Star seemed to stop in the heavens, and then turned back, now moving westward across the skies. Now it rises at sunset, tracks westward across the sky, and sets by dawn. In another few weeks, if what Cui told me holds true, it will reverse course again, moving once more eastward across the sky, rising earlier and earlier until it once again rises at dawn and sets at dusk.”
“Fascinating,” Cao said, without feeling. “Now, to return to the Mexica...”
“There are shapes, shadows, and lines upon the surface of Fire Star, I have found. This most ingenious device allows me to see them with my own eye.”
“The automatons of the Mexica, Ling Xuan,” Cao repeated. “Now, you say that they are little more than parlor tricks, fixed in place and able to go through only route motions. But did the Mexica display the capacity to develop these trinkets into something more. A siege engine of sorts, perhaps?”
“Cui told me that the best astronomers of his time felt that these wandering stars were worlds such as our own. Tell me, do you suppose if that is so, it might not be peopled with beings such as ourselves?”
“Ling Xuan...” Cao began, rubbing the bridge of his nose, his tone menacing.
The old man, his eyes half-lidded, sways on his bench, like a tall tree blown by a high wind. “I’m tired, Cao Wen. Too many late nights and early mornings, too little sleep. Let us continue tomorrow, yes? I am sure I will be in better spirits then, and better able to hear your questions.”
Ling stood, and knocked on the door.
“But...” Cao began, and then trailed off as the old man exited after Agent Gu swung open the door. Cao sighed, dramatically, and shrugged. He had waited this long. What harm could another day do? But if by then the end of the next day he did not have the answers he needed...?
Cao felt his patience was an at end. He gathered up his papers, and to the empty room he said, “Tomorrow, then.”
The next day found Cao Wen and Ling Xuan back in their accustomed places.
Ling seemed more lucid and animated today, and didn’t wait for Cao to initiate their discussion before returning to their perennial topic of conversation. “All of this talk of the Mexica has reminded me of something I’ve long since forgotten. A salient fact about the culture of the Mexica that I did not realize until years after my visit to their empire.”
“What is it?” Cao asked, warily.
“It is one final fact which you must have for your survey. It is something about the culture of the Mexica which I have realized only later in life, which is the reason that the Dragon Throne will prevail, if it should go to war against them. But in exchange for this final bit of information, I request one last favor.”
Cao glanced at the Remote-Viewing Mirror, clutched as always in the old man’s gnarled hands. What would the old man want this time?
“I would go, just once more, beyond the walls of the Eastern Depot. From my vantage point within the Outside Depot, there is only so much of the night sky I can see, and there is so, so much more to behold.”
Cao straightened, and folded his arms across his chest. “Absolutely not,” he said, sharply. “Out of the question.” Cao rubbed the bridge of his nose, and tried to compose an appropriate counter offer. “No. Instead, if you don’t tell me what I want to know, you will be punished. Yes, and I will have the Remote-Viewing Mirror taken from you.”
Ling shrugged, unmoved. “I have seen the heavens with my own eyes, from within my little box. If you take away my vision, I will still have my memories, but if I am unable to venture beyond these walls, my memories will be all I have, anyway. What have I to lose?”
Cao jumped to his feet, and began furiously to pace the floor.
“This is unseemly, Ling Xuan. This is unacceptable.”
“And yet it is happening,” Ling said, his expression serene.
Cao Wen stormed to the door, and pounded loudly with the heel of his fist.
Gu opened the door, his expression curious.
“Agent Gu, remove this prisoner from my sight immediately!” Cao Wen said imperiously.
Gu looks from Cao to Ling and back, shrugged, and took the old man by the elbow, leading him slowly from the chamber. “This way, old man.”
Cao collapsed back onto his seat, glowering.
Cao Wen sat on the hard, unforgiving bench, waiting while bureaucrats shuffled back and forth across the polished floors of the Ministry of War, about the business of the empire.
Cao didn’t have to test the old man’s resolve. He knew that Ling meant what he said. If Ling said he wouldn’t answer any further questions without receiving his boon, he wouldn’t speak another word. Not another useful word, at least.
“Deputy Minister Wu will see you now, Cao Wen,” said a steward, appearing at the open door.
Cao swallowed hard, rose to his feet, and crossed the floor.
“O Honorable Deputy Minister,” Cao said, bowing low.
The imposing figure of the Deputy Minister Wu was crowded into a spare, simply-made chair on the far side of the room. There was a low table at his side, covered with rolled maps, bound sheaves of paper, and small notebooks. At his elbow stood his secretary, a weasel-faced man with ink-stained fingers who recorded everything said in the room in exhaustive detail.
“Cao Wen,” the Deputy Minister said, a faint smile on his thick lips. “I harbor hopes that you come to deliver your survey of the Mexica.”
“Not quite yet, this one is afraid to report,” Cao Wen answered, his voice tremulous.
“Why am I not surprised?”
“My interrogation of the prisoner Ling Xuan these last weeks has been exceedingly productive,” Cao continued. “I believe that, with one final addition, it will be complete and ready to present to the Minister of War.”
“And then on to the Dragon Throne itself?: Wu asked, eyes narrowed.
Cao Wen swelled with pride, but his voice wavered nervously when he answered. “Yes, Deputy Minister. I believe it will not only summarize the strengths and weaknesses of the Mexic military, but the survey should further provide a sound justification for why the Middle Kingdom will inevitably defeat the Mexic militarily, should it come to open warfare.”
“And what is this last addition, one wonders, and what is it that the Ministry of War will be asked to authorize in its pursuit?”
With as little detail and as briefly as possible, Cao explained that the old man who was his primary source for the report had requested one night beyond the walls of the Eastern Depot, in exchange for his final testimony.
“For what purpose?” Wu asked, when Cao had completed his summation. “Some conjugal business, perhaps? A fine meal, or an evening of drunken revelry?”
“No,” Cao said simply. “Star-gazing.”
Wu looked at Cao, disbelieving. “And in return for this small privilege, we will get the secret to defeating the Mexica?”
“Yes,” Cao said.
The Deputy Minister steepled his fingers, and pursed his thick lips.
“Having paid quite a lot to get this far along in the game, Cao Wen, it seems a shame to withdraw when there is just one final wager to make. You will have your authorization. But return with this storied survey in hand, or don’t bother returning at all.”
Cao bowed, deeply, and scuttled away.
Three days later, approaching the middle watches of the night, Cao Wen arrived at the Eastern Depot, where he was met by Director Fei Ren.
“I am not happy with this development,” Director Fei said, as though his expression was not explanation enough, “but the Deputy Minister of War has managed to get the approval of the emperor himself for this little excursion, so there isn’t anything I can do about it.”
Before Cao could reply, Agent Gu arrived, escorting Ling Xuan.
“Temporary Resident Ling Xuan,” Director Fei said, turning to the old man. “Know that a great many bureaucrats have been put to a great deal of trouble on his behalf.”
The old man just smiled, clutching the Remote-Viewing Mirror to his chest.
“You have until sunrise, old man,” Director Fei said, and then turned his attentions to Agent Gu. “This is your first mission beyond the walls of the Eastern Depot, is it not, Gu?”
Agent Gu bowed, and stammered a reply in the affirmation.
“Such was my recollection.” Fei looked from the old man to Gu, and scowled. “If Ling Xuan attempts to escape, know that you are free to take whatever means are necessary to insure that our temporary resident returns home to the Eastern Depot.”
“Yes, sir, Director,” Agent Gu said, punctuated by a further bow.
With that, Director Fei turned on his heel, and disappeared back into the labyrinth of the Eastern Depot.
“Let’s get on with it,” Cao said, impatiently.
With Cao on one side, and Agent Gu on the other, Ling Xuan passed through the archway and into the concourse beyond, walking out of the Eastern Depot for the first time in more than fifty years.
They threaded through the boulevards and avenues of the Northern Capital, lined on all sides with the offices of the Six Ministries and countless imperial directorates and bureaus. They came at least to a public square, far from the palace, surrounded by low buildings, inns and residence of the meaner sort. Lamplights glowed warmly from within them, but the sky overhead was dark and moonless, the stars glittering like gems against black silk.
Ling Xuan paused, and took a deep breath through his nostrils, looking up at the skies with his naked eye. “I have been imprisoned behind four walls for more than half of my life, but I have come to realize that my mind has been imprisoned even longer. The noble truths that Cui taught me through that little vent, while we were guests of the Bureau of Suppression and Soothing, were far grander and broader than anything I’d previously imagined. I have seen more of the world than many, read more than most, and yet even I had only the most tenuous grasp of reality.”
Above them, the stars in the heavens seem to turn while they watched, and Cao found himself becoming dizzy, vertiginous.
“Do you know why my friend Cui was imprisoned in the Bureau of Suppression and Soothing?” the old man continued, glancing momentarily down from the stars to the two men at this side. “It was widely reported, so he said, that it was because he had provided readings of the heavens which were inauspicious for the regent’s reign. In fact, that was not his crime. Cui challenged the accepted wisdom. He devoted his life to studying the heavens, and made a frightening discovery. Our world is not, as we have always believed, the center of the universe, with the sun, moon, and stars twirling around us. Through a careful study of the heavens, Cui came to realize that, in fact, our world was just one of many, all of which circled around the sun. What is more, he claimed that the stars themselves might be other suns, out in the distant heavens. Perhaps a small fraction of those other suns might have worlds of their own, and some small fraction of those might be peopled. We might not be the only beings in creation able to look upon ourselves and wonder.” The old man paused, and smiled ruefully. “Of course, this offended the Regent Aobai, who was convinced Cui had concocted his theory only to insult the young Kangxi emperor.”
Agent Gu shook his head in disbelief, when the old man fell silent. “The earth circle around the sun? You might as well say that the Dragon Throne exists to serve me, and not the other way around.”
“You might indeed.” Ling smiled, his eyes twinkling..
Cao swayed on his feet. He felt unsteady, as though he stood on the edge of a precipice, about to fall into the abyss.
“Ling Xuan, you promised me one final fact about the Mexica,” Cao said, uneasily.
“So I did,” Ling said, nodding. “So I did. And I will tell you. It is this.”
The old man leaned closer to Cao, and spoke softly, like thunder more distant than ever before, as though he were communicating some secret in confidence which he didn’t want the stars above to overhear.
“The Mexica, as clever and bright and ferocious as they may be, are still blinded by their faith. The most learned among them honestly believes that the world is but a few hundred years old, and all evidence to the contrary is merely a test of their faith. We of the Middle Kingdom, I would argue, cling with as much tenacity to beliefs and superstitions no more grounded in reality than that, but with one notable difference. Ours is a culture that can produce a mind like Cui’s, a mind which challenges received wisdom, which questions the foundations of knowledge itself. If we manage to produce only one like him in every dozen generations, we will still manage, in the fullness of time, to conquer the universe. Like the fraction of worlds of the fraction of stars in the great immensity of the heavens, that ensure that we are not alone, just one small spark of genius in the vast sea of complacency will mean that history does not stand still.”
Ling Xuan turned, and headed back the way they had come.
“I am ready to return home to my cell now, thank you,” the old man said, calling back to Cao and Gu over his shoulder. “I have seen all I needed to see.”
The next morning, as Cao Wen struggled to work out how to conclude his report, he received a visitor to his cubicle in the Ministry of War. It was Agent Gu, dressed in simple gray robes.
“Gu? What are you doing here?”
“At the request of Director Fei, I come to tell you that Ling Xuan, temporary resident of the Outside Depot, died in the night. From all signs, it was not a suicide, nor is there any indication of foul play.”
Cao blinked, a confused expression spread across his face.
“The old man died?”
“Yes,” Gu replied. “Of extreme old age, or so I am given to understand.”
“And yet he waited long enough to walk once more under the stars as a free man,” Cao observed.
“Perhaps he felt that it was important enough to live for,” Gu said, unsure, “and having done so, his work was done.”
Cao sighed, and shrugged his shoulders.
“Strange timing, and no doubt, but he was old, and the elderly have a habit of dying.” Cao regarded Gu’s plain gray robes. “But here you are, beyond the walls of the Eastern Depot yourself, and so adorned that you could pass for a simple merchant in the streets.”
“Yes,” Agent Gu said, with a smile that commingled embarrassment and pride. “It is the opinion of Director Fei that I have completed my training, and will be of better use to the Dragon Throne beyond the walls, rather than within.” Gu paused, and shifted uncomfortably. “Cao Wen, I must ask you. What are your thoughts about the things that Ling Xuan said to us in the night, about the sun and the earth and the stars, about the Middle Kingdom and the Mexica and all?”
Cao Wen shrugged. “All I can say is that everything Ling reported to me these long weeks has been true, as far as I have been able to determine, the intelligence on the Mexica and the facts the old man learned from Astronomer Cui alike. But who am I to judge?”
Agent Gu nodded, absently, and with a final bow, departed, leaving Cao with his work.
There remained only a few more characters to brush onto the final page, and then Cao’s detailed report on the astronomer Cui was complete. This appended to his report about the Mexica, Cao rolled up the papers and slid them into a leather tube. Then he rose to his feet, arranged his robes around him, and headed towards the office of the Deputy Minister to hand in his survey.
Friday, December 21, 2007
Free Fiction Friday: "Timmy Gromp Saves Christmas"
Back in the Clockwork Storybook days, when we were producing regular material for our webzine, we'd occasionally do round-robin stories with a character called Timmy Gromp. He was a hapless kid, unloved by his parents (or anyone else, for that matter), and we seemed to delight in heaping abuse on him. Sort of like Kevin Shapiro in Daniel Pinkwater's Young Adult Novel, nothing but misery ever came poor Timmy Gromp's way.
In December 2001, I wrote the following bit of nonsense for our "holiday issue," clearly the result of watching far too many stop-motion animated specials as a kid. I was reminded of it the other day while watching Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer with Georgia, and figured I might as well inflict a Timmy Gromp story on the world again, for old time's sake.
Timmy Gromp Saves Christmas:
The Final Installment
What has gone before…
Timmy Gromp, a seemingly normal American boy, has been recruited by the Council of Holidays in the effort to save Christmas. Santa Claus, beloved icon of the season, has been taken prisoner by the Anti-Claus, his nemesis and opposite number from an alternate dimension of pure evil.
Aiding Timmy in this effort is Denny S. Hopper, renegade member of the Easter Bunny Corps, who sees this mission at his one last chance at redemption. He is small, but has a big heart, and a motorcycle, and a gun.
In our last installment, Timmy and Hopper were hot on the trail of a supernatural fish with the powers of locating the Anti-Claus’ secret lair: the magical Rankin’ Bass. Unfortunately, the Fishing Chimps, minions of the dark one, beat them to the prize, hooking the Rankin’ Bass and spiriting it away before Timmy and Hopper could react.
Now, south of the border in
“I don’t know, Hopper,” Timmy said, “it’s beginning to look like there’s no hope.”
“Pshaw,” Hopper answered, slamming a clip into his semi-automatic pistol with a satisfying click. “There’s always hope.”
“But Christmas starts in just a few hours, and we don’t even know where Santa is being held prisoner!” Timmy was getting agitated, jumping up and down and turning several shades of red.
“There’s always options,” Hopper said, sighting along the pistol’s barrel. He held his short arm out extended, pointed towards the far horizon, and then swung his aim in a slow arc to the west. The bunny paused when his aim tracked across Timmy, and seemed to mull something over before swinging his arm a few degrees further to the west.
The bunny finally stopped when the pistol was pointed at an ancient and weather beaten telegraph pole, on which was stapled a faded sheet of paper.
“POW,” sounded the pistol, and a shot thunked into the pole at the dead center of the paper.
“Perfect example,” Hopper said, and turning started to walk off down the road.
Timmy Gromp was confused. He called after the bunny to wait, but the bunny walked on. Timmy ran over to the telegraph pole, and squinting tried to read what he could of the faded text. It was all in Spanish.
“Dang it,” Timmy said. “Isn’t anything in
Leaning in, ignoring the text, Timmy saw crude drawings of giant men with strange masks covering their faces, with only little holes cut for eyes, nose and mouth. The men wore skin-tight trunks and high-laced boots, and seemed to be trying to hurt each other.
This was all pretty confusing for Timmy. He just wanted to be back home, icing cookies with his parents and looking forward to the presents he’d get the next morning on Christmas day. Of course, since his parents had decided that it was the spirit of giving that really counted, and not the actual act itself, Timmy’s gifts had seen something of a decline in quality. This year, far all he knew, he’d might have gotten just a picture of a toy cut out of a catalog. Last year, after all, they’d only given him a toy’s empty box, which they’d got from the neighbors after they’d given the toy inside to their own little boy.
Still, it had to be better than this.
Sighing, Timmy shoved his hands deep into his pockets, and scuffed his feet down the road after the bunny.
“I don’t think this is going to work, Hopper,” Timmy whispered.
“Trust me, kid,” Hopper answered. “Look, if I’ve learned anything from my years as a symbolic pagan holdover representing a secular holiday with tenuous ties to a religious celebration, it’s that people will believe what you damn well tell them to believe. People are sheep, kid.”
“O-kay,” Timmy said, unconvinced. “But I still think…”
“Dónde está el Polo Norte?” said the giant man in the red suit behind them.
“Uh, we’re here, champ,” Hopper replied, chewing on the end of his cigar. He waved a stubby arm in a wide circle, indicating the show covered hills, the big inviting house and the workshops, from which streamed an army of elves and reindeer, bearing down on them.
“Bueno,” the giant man answered, taking a step forward.
“Hopper,” Timmy protested, “he doesn’t really look very convincing. I mean, he’s still wearing that mask, and I don’t think that Santa Claus normally carries a bottle of tequila.”
The fake white beard had been glued inexpertly to the bottom edge of the giant man’s red and black facemask, which he had refused to remove for any reason. In the chill wind of the North Pole, the strands of artificial hair were starting to freeze up and break off, leaving only a fringe of wisps and glue on the fabric of the mask.
The elves and reindeer had gathered in a circle around the trio, Timmy, Hopper, and the giant man. They waited eagerly, looking at them with breathless anticipation.
The giant man raised his muscled arms over his head.
“Claus,” Hopper whispered furiously behind his hand, nudging the giant man in the leg.
“Si, si,” the giant man added. “Yo soy Santos Claus.”
There followed a protracted silence, as the assembled elves and reindeer looked at the giant man in the mask and the ill-fitting red suit with mouths hanging open.
Timmy began to suspect that this was going to be his last Christmas, even if it wasn’t for everyone else.
Suddenly, and without warning, the elves erupted in a spontaneous cheer, and swarmed around the giant man with hugs and smiles, while the reindeer leapt into the air and danced swirling loops overhead.
“Come on, Santa,” one of the elves said, tugging at the giant man’s huge hand. “We’ve got to get this show on the road, Christmas starts in just a few minutes.”
“Bueno,” the giant man said, and allowed himself to be slowly dragged to the waiting sled by the elves.
“I don’t believe it,” Timmy said.
“It’s like I told you,” Hopper answered, lighting another cigar, “people are damned sheep, and elves and reindeer are no different.”
“So that’s it, then?” Timmy asked. “But what about the real Santa Claus?”
“Shhh,” Hopper hissed violently. “You want to get us lynched?” He paused, and then added, “Don’t worry, kid. I’m sure someone’ll rescue him sooner or later. For now, just be content in the knowledge that the holiday is saved, I get to keep my job, and you get to go home, right?”
Hopper laid a stubby arm across Timmy’s shoulder, and blew out a smoke ring that hung overhead like a wreath.
“God bless us everyone one,” Timmy said sarcastically, without a trace of sentiment.
“Yo tambien,” Hopper answered, smiling.
The sleigh, loaded down with holiday toys, lifted uneasily off the snowy ground.
“Cómo se dice ‘jolly’?” shouted Santos Claus down to Hopper and Timmy.
“Ho ho ho,” Hopper shouted up as the sleigh lifted into the skies.
“Si, si,” Santos Claus shouted back. “El Ho, El Ho, El Ho.”
Friday, December 14, 2007
Free Fiction Friday: "Long Night, Holy Night"
Like "The Likeness of a Wolf," which I posted a few weeks ago, this is another story from the old Clockwork Storybook days, taking place in a suburb of San Cibola, and like that one this also features werewolves.
(I've got a few more werewolf stories littering the hard drive, which I may post one of these days. And if the stars align, I may end up writing my "gay werewolf roadtrip novel" eventually, which features the younger brother and grandfather from this story, and the boy's maternal uncle who appeared in yet another. All of them werewolves, naturally. But, to be pedantic about it, not all of them gay.)
Long Night, Holy Night
by Chris Roberson
“I don’t know, Ivy,” Allan Harvey said, running his fingers through his greasy shoulder length hair. “Maybe I should just stick around town this weekend. I’ve got a lot of stuff to catch up on and…”
“No,” Ivy said, with a little too much force. She modified her expression of panic mingled fear into playfulness, and punched the boy lightly on the shoulder. “With the museum closed for the holidays, and Bergier spending Hannukah with his work, you’ve got nothing to keep you in the city. What kind of girlfriend would I be if I left you home all by yourself?”
Allan screwed up his face, obviously trying out a few responses in his mind and rejecting them all. Finally, he managed a weak grin, and took Ivy’s hand in his.
“Alright, alright,” he said. “If you want me to go I’ll go. But you’re sure you don’t want me to look after the bookstore?”
Ivy sighed deeply, seeming to work through a few responses of her own, before pasting on a smile and merging left to exit at Fortuna.
“It’ll be fine,” she said, unconvincingly. “It’ll be fine.”
“Little lamb!” Ivy’s mother shouted from the doorway, beaming. She wiped her hands on her apron and hurried down the walk to the curb, her arms wide. “You’re home.”
“Yeah, mom,” Ivy said, failing to duck the impending embrace. “Thanks for stating the obvious.”
“Don’t be rude,” Ivy’s mother scolded, squeezing her daughter in a bear hug. “And in front of strangers, yet.”
“Allan’s not a stranger, mom,” Ivy moaned, uncontrollable lapsing into childhood patterns of response. “Gah,” she added, rolling her eyes.
“Well, he is to me, missy, until you introduce us,” her mother answered.
“I’m Allan,” Allan said nervously, extending his hand.
“Obviously,” Ivy said.
“I’m Ivy’s mother,” Ivy’s mother answered.
“Duh,” Ivy said.
“But you can call Rose,” Ivy’s mother added, taking Allan’s hand and yanking him into the circle of her embrace.
“Nice… nice to meet you, Rose,” Allan said awkwardly, his cheek smashed up against little sequined trees.
Ivy’s mother pushed Allan away from her, holding him by both elbows at arm’s length.
“Such a nice looking boy,” Ivy’s mother said to Ivy, over her shoulder. “And so polite.”
“Mo-om,” Ivy moaned, “you’re embarrassing him.”
“Pish,” Ivy’s mother spat. “That’s what mothers are for.”
With the deft maneuvering of years experience, Ivy’s mother spun around, linking one arm through the crook of Allan’s elbow, the other through the crook of Ivy’s.
“Come on, you two,” Ivy’s mother commanded, leading them up the walk. “Everyone is waiting.”
Ivy rolled her eyes again, while Allan began to look even more uncomfortable.
“Everyone” turned out to be Ivy’s brother Andy (“It’s Andrew, alright?”), Ivy’s father (“Call me Simon”), and Ivy’s grandfather (“Jakob Stump, pleased to make your acquaintance”). The Koestler family home was cozy and warm, arranged in just such a way to seem lived-in but still presentable. It was enough like the
“Come over here,” Ivy’s father said, draping a paternal arm over Allan’s shoulders and steering him towards the liquor cabinet in the den. “Let me fix you a drink.”
Allan had enough knee-jerk teenage reactionism left in him to find the idea of adults drinking somewhat disturbing, the idea of young people drinking exotic, and the idea of young people drinking while adults watched downright frightening.
“What’ll you have?” Ivy’s father asked, opening wide the doors of the liquor cabinet to reveal an elephants’ graveyard of half-full bottles of every spirit Allan had ever seen. “Scotch on the rocks? Gin and tonic? A screwdriver?”
“Um…” Allan began, licking his lips and wondering just how far he could take this.
“He doesn’t want anything to drink!” shouted Ivy’s mother from the far side of the room, where she was proudly displaying her latest bits of handicraft to her daughter. “He’s only nineteen.”
“Eighteen, actually,” Allan said awkwardly below his breath. “But come to think of it…”
“Mo-ther,” Ivy called, stepping away from the macramé and festive ornaments, “Allan can have a drink if he wants to. He’s an adult, you know.”
“Right, Rose,” Ivy’s father answered, slapping Allan on the back with a thud. “It’ll do the boy some good, put some hair on his chest.”
Allan looked nervously around the room, remembering where he was, and who he was with. He decided he had quite enough hair on his chest as it was.
“Um…” he began, scratching his neck, “I’ll just have a soda.”
Around the dinner table, before Ivy’s mother set out the first course, everyone held hands and listened as Ivy’s grandfather made the traditional remarks. Allan, despite his best efforts, was positioned between Ivy’s brother and Ivy’s father, and let his fingers lay limp in their grips, his palms sweating.
“The Creator made the Volkdlak in Its own images,” Ivy’s grandfather said, “and made for them the day and night to live in. Two forms, two worlds. The Volkdlak were the first men, the True Men, who lived in peace in the Forests of Paradise until the coming of the False Deceiver. The Deceiver was a twisted, mirror image of the Creator, frozen in a single form.”
“Amen,” Ivy’s father said absently.
“I’m hungry,” Ivy’s brother said.
“Andy!” Ivy’s mother scolded.
“I’m not finished, you know,” Ivy’s grandfather said. “If your minds aren’t too terribly rotten with television and filth, it might be nice if I were able to finish before the Long Night was over, yes? Or would that be too much trouble? Maybe I should just go live with your sister after all.”
“Pop,” Ivy’s mother said, “don’t be like that. Simon was just teasing. Weren’t you, Simon.”
“Sure, sure, of course I was,” Ivy’s father answered. “You take your time, Jakob.”
“Take my time?” Ivy’s grandfather snapped. “I’ll take my time.” He paused, closing his eyes and letting out a dramatic sigh. “Now, where was I?”
“Frozen in a single image?” Allan offered helpfully.
“Exactly,” Ivy’s grandfather answered triumphantly. “Nice to know that someone was listening.”
“Grandfather, I was…” Ivy began.
“Not you, dear heart,” Ivy’s grandfather soothed. “I knew you were. It’s the rest of this family…”
“Jakob?” Ivy’s father prompted. “Maybe we could…”
“Right, right,” Ivy’s grandfather said, then shushed him. “Keep your shirt on. Now, ‘Frozen in a single image’. Right. Out of jealous rage, the Deceiver created the False Men and Animals. They were like the Deceiver, frozen in a single form. With the help of the Deceiver, the False Men drove the Volkdlak out of the Forests, and hounded them to the ends of the earth. Even now, generations later, the true children of the Creator are made to cower, hiding, for fear of the False Men.”
“Am…” Ivy’s father began.
“Simon!” Ivy’s mother hissed.
“Sorry,” Ivy’s father answered.
“Now,” Ivy’s grandfather continued, unabated, “each year, on the longest night of the year, the true children of the Creator gather together, to celebrate their varied forms and to remember the many gifts of the Creator to them. On this Long Night, we Volkdlak remember our heritage, remember where we have been, and look forward to where we are going. Look forward to the day when the Creator will finally defeat the False Deceiver, and the Volkdlak can return to the Forests of Paradise.”
Ivy’s grandfather paused, and dropping his granddaughter’s hand lifted up his wine glass.
“Next year in the Forests of Paradise,” he said, his voice cracking.
Ivy’s mother set the trays piled with blood red meat along the middle of the table, and lay a plate of pasta in front of Allan.
“I went ahead and made this up for you, dear,” Ivy’s mother said. “Ivy didn’t say, but I figured you wouldn’t want to eat with the rest of us.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Koestler,” Allan answered.
“Rose,” Ivy’s mother gently scolded. “Call me Rose.”
“Mom, is there any more of that?” Ivy asked.
“Well, no, but I could always make another batch,” Ivy’s mother answered. “Allan, don’t you think that’ll be enough?”
“No, mom,” Ivy said, “I meant for me.”
“Well…” Ivy’s mother said, flustered.
“What?” Ivy’s grandfather shouted. “And not eat the flesh?”
“I’m a vegetarian, thank you,” Ivy announced to the table in general, not meeting her grandfather’s eye.
“A vegetarian?” Ivy’s father said, bemused.
“Do you see?” Ivy’s grandfather ranted. “Like I’ve always said. You raise them outside the faith, you see what happens?”
“It’s not like that, grandfather,” Ivy said. “It just seems… wrong… to eat animals if we don’t have to.”
“Oh, wrong is it?” Ivy’s grandfather wheezed, waving Ivy’s father silent with frantic gestures. “Less than a year out in the world, and the traditions of your family for generations are wrong all of the sudden.” He turned to Ivy’s parents. “See, like I’ve said.”
“No, grandfather,” Ivy said. “The traditions aren’t wrong. Not really, anyway.”
“Not really?” Ivy’s grandfather aped. “Not really? So why don’t you explain to me how not really the Deceiver betrayed the Creator. Or is that wrong, too?”
“Not wrong,” Ivy answered. “But not true… That is, I don’t think it’s literal truth. But it has some basis in fact. I’ve been doing a lot of reading this year, and I think that the stories are really just an allegorical representation of evolution. See, we evolved first, and then the other species... man, included... started as evolutionary offshoots from us. “Twisted mirror images,” you see. Anyway, all of these offshoots eventually forced the Volkdlak to near extinction, somehow beating them out of food resources and such. Now, millions of years later, we’ve still got a pretty precarious place in the ecosystem.” She stopped to take a breath, and looked around the table to take in the blank stares directed her way. “That’s what I think, anyway,” she added.
“Sure,” Allan said, trying for helpful. “That makes sense.”
“Makes sense?” Ivy’s grandfather answered, fuming. “What do you know about it?”
“Um,” Allan stammered. “Not much, I guess. I was raised Methodist.”
“Isn’t that nice?” Ivy’s mother said, valiantly trying to steer the conversation away. “So? Who wants haunches?”
“Me, me,” Ivy’s brother said, bouncing up and down on his seat. “I do, I do.”
Later, around the seasonal tree (Allan had made the mistake of complementing the family on their Christmas tree, and only quick thinking on the part of Ivy’s mother saved Ivy’s grandfather from having to give another lecture), the family opened their gifts and sang traditional songs. While Ivy’s grandfather preferred to sing in the original tongue, the rest of the family insisted on the translated versions, which did little to put Allan at his ease, especially when the chorus about breaking bones and sucking out the marrow came around for the final refrain. Allan made a conscious effort not to notice the blood stains Ivy’s grandfather had let dribble down the front of his vest during dinner.
When the last song was sung, and the last present opened (a tasteful sweater Ivy’s mother had picked out for Allan, which didn’t really suit him, or even fit, but everyone agreed that it was the thought which counted), Ivy’s grandfather rose to his feet on creaking knees and raised his hands high over his head.
“Now, midway through the Long Night,” he intoned, “comes the time when we celebrate our diversity of forms, the truest sign of the Creator’s love.”
Ivy’s grandfather paused, and cast a charitable glance at Allan.
“Er… if you want,” Ivy’s grandfather said, “there’s a t.v. in the family room. They’ve got cable in here, you know.”
Allan looked to Ivy, who took his hand in hers and smiled.
“Well,” Allan said, “if you’d prefer…”
“It doesn’t bother us if it doesn’t bother you,” Ivy’s father said.
“Whatever makes you more comfortable,” Ivy’s mother said. “You can use the phone in there to call your parents if you like.”
“It’s up to you,” Ivy said in a low voice. “Whatever you want is fine with me.”
Allan looked from face to face, his eyes widened more than he’d have liked, and managed a smile.
“My folks aren’t in town,” Allan said with a sigh. They never were, he thought, had always preferred skiing with friends to spending the holidays at home. “But I’m here, and if you’ll have me, I’d be glad to stay in here with you folks.” He paused, and then added, “More than glad. Honored.”
“Such a nice boy,” Ivy’s mother beamed, wiping at her eyes.
Ivy gave Allan’s hand a squeeze. She leaned in close, and kissed him lightly on the cheek.
“Thanks,” Ivy said hardly above a whisper.
“Okay, then,” Ivy’s grandfather said, and clapped his hands. “Our blood run deeper than time, the ties of family stronger than any bond…” he began, and continued as long as he was able.
When it became necessary, when her nails grew to claws and cut into his palm, Allan let go of Ivy’s hand. But he petted her coat when he was able, and when the family (now a pack? Allan wondered) raised their howls in song, Allan broke into a wide, open smile. Above the din of the wolves’ song, Allan threw back his head and laughed.
“God bless us,” he said, holding out the palm of one hand for Ivy’s brother to lick and running the fingers of the other along Ivy’s father’s glossy pelt, Ivy curled up into a tight ball at his feet, her long tongue lolling contentedly. “Every one.”
Friday, November 30, 2007
Free Fiction Friday: "The Likeness of a Wolf"
The following story is one of that bunch. Like too many of the stories I wrote then, it's overly concerned with seemingly clever stylistic tricks and needlessly complex narrative structures, but I think there's an interesting group of characters at it's core. For what it's worth, I'm gradually dusting off and reworking characters and plots I used back in those days, so don't be too surprised to see Ivy Koestler or Susan Kururangi turn up in a new story or novel, one of these fine days. But for the time being, this is the way the originally appeared. (And yes, there is a reference to "Olias of Sunhillow" buried in the story, for all of you Jon Anderson fans out there...)
The Likeness of a Wolf
by Chris Roberson
The first body was found in the Rue Livre over a month ago, and in all that time the police have come no closer to naming a suspect, much less apprehending one. They simply handed the whole affair over to Animal Control after the first body was found, and washed their hands of it. After three weeks, Animal Control began to grow worried, and discussed calling in an outside agent. Last week, Alexander “Buck” Sizemore, a private citizen and professional game hunter from
I think I saw an elf today, writes Ivy in her small spiral bound notebook, hunched over the page, her legs folded up under her. The other patrons at the coffee shop ignore her, casually, as she absent-mindedly chews on the end of a ratted strand of hair. At least, I think it was an elf. Or a Fae. Whatever the politically correct name is. I think it was one, I’m almost sure of it.
I’d just left the car in the alley behind Serendipity, and was heading towards the women’s shelter to take a shower, when this guy come out of a brownstone leading a little yippy dog on a leash. He was about seven feet tall, I swear, dressed all in silver and white, and he had this amazing silver necklace around his neck. I must have been staring as I crossed the street, because when he passed me he looked right at me and said, “Take a picture, Norma, it’ll last longer.” I swear I could have just died.
At first I was just embarrassed, caught acting like some kind of damned tourist, but after a while I started to get pissed. I mean, who did he think I was, some kid just off the bus from Norman County, Ohio? That was pretty prejudiced of him, once I got to thinking about it. Just cause I don’t have pointed ears (not today, at least) and fairy silver and a goddamned rat dog on a leash doesn’t mean I’m not a Neighbor. He’s just lucky I’m not in a wolfpack. I probably would have ripped out his damned neck, silky smooth skin and all.
Ivy almost breaks the lead from her pencil, jamming the period onto the sentence, and surprises herself when she realizes the low growling noise she’s been hearing for the last minute or so has been coming from her. Forcing herself to calm, she carefully places the pencil down on the notebook, and walks to the counter to have her tea-pot refilled. Then, in what she thinks almost regal movements, she dips the tea-bag in, once, then twice, letting it bleed its color slowly into the steaming water. She sets the pot aside, and brushes her hands on the fabric of her worn jeans, and only then returns to the notebook.
I’ve just read the last sentences again, she writes, and I am so full of shit. Like I’d ever have anything to do with a wolfpack. I don’t need that scum. That would be almost as bad as going back to Fortuna, hanging out with those guys. Worse, maybe. Besides, with the money I make tonight at the Holy Grounds I should have enough for a new set of strings, and then maybe I can play the open mic night at the Ginger Duck. Then it’s just a matter of time.
Ivy pauses, chewing on the end of the pencil, and then adds, or maybe I’ll just use it to get into the
By Ivy Koestler
the moon, hanging above me
sings to me in my sleep
in dreams I finally let myself go
and blood runs the darkened streetsand run through the darkened streets
“Ciren, darling, your beautiful little angel has bit me again,” says Serge as Ciren walks into the kitchen, toweling off her damp hair. The little girl in Serge’s arms struggles violently, scowling.
“She doesn’t do that to anyone else, you know,” Ciren answers, gently pulling her daughter from his grasp. The little girl immediately calms, and rests her head on her mother’s shoulder.
“Well she bloody well does it to me,” Serge replies, rubbing at the red marks on his forearm with a delicate hand.
“I’m sorry, Serge, if she did it to everyone I’d be concerned, worried she had some condition. But as she just does it to one person, I’m afraid I have to point the finger at you.” Ciren brushes back a stray hair from the little girl’s face, and nuzzles her neck.
“She hates men, I tell you, all of them,” Serge answers. “You’ve made her pathological.”
“She loves Michael,” Ciren replies, citing the manager at the Ginger Duck. “And Raphael. And even Silas.”
The little girl raises her head, smiling broadly.
“Uncle Silas?” she says. “Where?”
“See?” Ciren says. “It’s just you.”
Serge scowls, and rubs harder at his arm.
“I’ve told you before, Ciren darling, I am your manager, not an unpaid nanny.”
“Well,” Ciren says, smiling, “you’ll do until something better comes along.”
I passed that creepy guy in the alley again today, Ivy writes. The one with the spider web tattoo on the side of his face. I was coming around the corner after spending a while reading in Serendipity, and there he was, leaning against the wall, smoking some cheap smelly cigar. I don’t know if he saw me, I didn’t see him look, but by the time I got back here to the car and looked back, he was gone.
Mr. La Violette came downstairs to talk to me today. I think he knows what I am, but he hasn’t really said anything. Just hints, now and then. But I know he has no idea I’m living in a car behind his store, because he keeps asking me about traffic to and from the Rue Livre. He must think I live down in
Mr. La Violette is one of the nicer people I’ve met in the city. If not the nicest. To me, at least. I’ve seen him be a real ass to people that come into the store that don’t know what they’re looking for, or come looking for things he wouldn’t possibly carry. Like yesterday, this guy came in looking for a Tom Clancy book, and Mr. La Violette almost threw him down the stairs. He doesn’t like Clancy very much. But he’s nice to me, lets me sit in the big, comfortable chair under the stairs, and brings me books he thinks I’ll like. It’s usually fairy tales and stuff like that, but he’s right. I do like them.
Besides Mr. La Violette (he keeps wanting me to call him Thad, but I can’t do it. It’d be like calling my grandfather by his first name… if I knew what my grandfather’s first name was), the only other person in the city who’s really been nice to me has been Stu at the Holy Grounds. I came in one day, wanting to ask him about playing a gig for him, and I had to buy six cups of coffee before I worked up the nerve. Before I could do it, he just walked over and asked me if there was something I wanted. Not angry, just curious. I was so jittery after all the caffeine that I jumped right up and started yammering at him. I had my guitar with me, under the chair, and Stu told me to get it out, calm down, and play him a song. I did, one of my own, and when I was done he asked me to play another. He liked that one, too. He said I could play at night a couple of times a week, but all he could pay me was in coffee and pastries and ten bucks a gig. I tried to act all cool, like I was thinking about it for a minute, and then I just started nodding.
Now, I can pretty much eat for free at the Holy Grounds whenever I want, fruit and bagels and whatnot, and I play three nights a week. I don’t drink any coffee anymore though. I read it was bad for the voice. Now I just drink tea.
Ivy sits in the back seat of the ’87 Pontiac 6000, her legs crossed, the battered guitar set across her lap. Humming softly to herself, she tunes each string against the first, and then strums out a few chords. She carefully adjusts the E string, and tries another chord. Satisfied, she plays one of her new songs, trying to work out a better bridge between the third verse and the chorus. The alley outside the car doors is empty, though in the distance sounds of traffic and construction drifts from the streets beyond.
Night falls, and Ivy feels her joints begin to ache, and her fingers miss the chords. A shiver runs down her spin, and as her bones start to pop and shift she manages to set the guitar down without breaking it. Ivy curses herself for not checking the calendar, for not knowing her time of the month was coming. She knows now she’ll never make the gig at the Holy Grounds. Not in any shape to play, at least.
Behind the microphone on the stage of the Ginger Duck, Ciren holds the final chord of the song “Sunhillow” longer than normal, and tilts her head back, eyes shut. She smiles to herself, remembering when it was just her and the music, before
To the side of the stage sits Serge, the toddler perched calmly on his lap. They share the same expression, those two, both beaming at her.
Ciren’s gaze brushes across the crowd, the faces remembered or forgotten or new. Ciren drinks in their smiles, their happy faces, their love. Only one face towards the back, the one with a spider web tattoo crawling across it, seems out of place. Ciren chooses to ignore him, and whispering a thank you into the mic strikes a chord and launches into “Homecoming.” The room explodes with applause.
The change is a bitch, Ivy writes the next morning, after finishing a bagel and bowl of sliced fruit at the Holy Grounds. It’s gotten easier the past few years, and I can remember almost everything now, but if I’m not careful I end up with all my clothes shredded the day after. I haven’t changed except at my time of the month since that time with Billy Collins behind the school gym, and I think if I could just skip those three nights a month I’d do it. God, I hate it.
I remember the first time. It was during a sleep-over at Samantha’s house. I woke up and thought I was going to be sick and walked down the hall to the bathroom. Halfway there I got short and hairy, and I was sure I was going crazy. And so hungry. I think I might have eaten Samantha if it hadn’t been for that furry little dog of hers. She was so upset the next day, thinking it had run away, and I never told her where it had gone.
I ran home the next morning, still wearing my torn nightgown under my clothes, and found my mother in the kitchen. It was like that scene in that crappy old horror movie Carrie, I just kept shouting at her, Why didn’t you tell me, Why didn’t you tell me? Dad had to come home from work to calm me down, and I took a whole week off of school. Samantha never did talk to me after that. I think she blamed me for the dog.
Dad was so full of shit, worse than Mom. He acted like it was some secret shame, us being who we are. He made me promise never to tell anybody. I was eight, what did I know? But he still kept up the holidays, at least in the house. I was ten before I realized that The Long Night wasn’t the same as Christmas. That was the year that Grandfather came to live with us. He was the first to tell me what being Volkdlak was really all about.
“The Creator made the Volkdlak in Its own images,” the old man had told Ivy, while her parents were in the other room watching television, “and made for them the day and night to live in. Two forms, two worlds. The Volkdlak were the first men, the True Men, who lived in peace in the Forests of Paradise until the coming of the False Deceiver. The Deceiver was a twisted, mirror image of the Creator, frozen in a single form. Out of jealous rage, he created the False Men and Animals. They were like the Deceiver, frozen in a single form. With the help of the Deceiver, the False Men drove the Volkdlak out of the Forests, and hounded them to the ends of the earth. Even now, generations later, the true children of the Creator are made to cower, hiding, for fear of the False Men.”
“So, Eyes,” Susan says, looking out the window of the little man’s little office above the bakery, looking down on the streets of
“It’s hair,” Eyes replies, pushing his bottle-thick glasses up on the bridge of his nose and smiling.
Susan doesn’t like Eyes, doesn’t trust him. She doesn’t like his look or his smell or his cramped, uncomfortable office. But she has to admit that he’s good, the only unlicensed forensic pathologists the Neighborhood has worth talking about. He’s the one to go to when the cop cutters run into something that won’t fit into their narrow minds, that would send them shrieking if they ever understood.
“I know that,” Susan says, patiently. “The question is, what kind?”
“The cops say dog, no?” Eyes asks.
“Or wolf,” Susan adds.
“Well,” Eyes answers with grudging respect, “that’s closer than they usually get. It’s wolf, alright, but not everyday, if you get me.”
Susan exhales slowly, nodding.
“Skinwalker,” she says.
“Yep,” Eyes replies.
“Can you tell if he was born that way, or is he just wearing a new body for fashion?” Susan asks.
“It’s impossible to say,” Eyes answers. “To be honest with you, if I had one genetic and one spelled-up werewolf right here in front of me, I don’t think I’d be able to tell the difference. Just too similar on a cellular basis.”
“Eyes,” Susan says in a soft voice, “if you had a werewolf in front of you now, I promise you wouldn’t last long enough to think anything.”
On her way downstairs, Susan balls one hand into a fist and slaps it into the heel of the other. Eyes had only told her what she didn’t want to hear. A wolf gone hunting in the Rue Livre was bad business. The Rue Livre was considered no man’s land, too close to the Di Lessa’s on the north, the Volsungs on the south and the Moondogs on the west for anyone to start making trouble. Susan only hoped it was a rogue, a lone wolf, and not a member of either wolfpack hunting in the other’s backyard. Otherwise, this could end up a full scale turf war.
I’ll be successful, Ivy writes in her spiral bound notebook, I just know I will. I have to be. I couldn’t stand a whole life of happy homemaker, or go-getter businesswoman. Just let me have a few years with my music, and then I’ll do anything, I’ll do anything you ask.
I know I can do it. My songs are good, everyone in high school said so, and my voice isn’t so good. I’m better at the guitar than I was, too, though still mostly just chords. I wish I could play classical, like Dave Matthews or Ciren, but right now chords work alright.
Ciren. She’s the reason I’m doing this in the first place. Cathy took me to see her when I was just a kid, when Cathy was living in San Cibola and we were both the only cousins in the family. Before Mom had Andy, and Cathy went missing. Cathy was ten years older than me, but more like a sister than the aunts just a few years older than her. I got to spend a whole week with her in the city one summer, while my parents took a cruise, and she took me to all the coolest places. Coffee shops and bars and record stores, and then came the night she took me down to the Ginger Duck to see Ciren play. I’d never seen anything like that, never heard music like that. Around my house, the height of musical culture was Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, or maybe John Denver, and Ciren was nothing like any of that. Just her and a guitar behind the microphone, playing music that would make the angels weep. By the time we left, I knew just what I wanted to do with my life.
Later, after Ciren stopped playing, other singers came along in her wake. Ani, Jewel, Alanis, all following in her footsteps. But the magazines never really talked about her, not really. They might mention Suzanne Vega or Natalie Merchant, but never Ciren. It was like she didn’t exist outside San Cibola. Which, I guess, she didn’t, since I could never find her tapes or albums at the mall in Fortuna, and my friends from out of state had never heard of her. But I had. To me, Ciren was what music was all about.
I was seventeen before I found out what Ciren was. There were some kids talking about her in the Claremont High cafeteria one day, and I didn’t understand what they were saying. It was like those times when someone starts talking about an actor that everybody, I mean everybody knows is gay, and it just has never occurred to you. It should have, if you stopped to think about it for a second, but you never did. That’s what it was like when I found out that Ciren was a mermaid.
Okay, not a mermaid, that’s not the p.c. term. Andaro, or “Aquatic American”, whichever you prefer. I hadn’t even thought of it before, but once I heard those girls talking (mean whispers behind their hands, like it was some giant sin to be different), it suddenly made sense. Her songs, her look, everything. If I could have loved her any more than I already did, at that moment it would have doubled. My love for her, that is.
If she can do it, I thought, so can I. Being different didn’t mean being quiet, and my being a Volkdlak was no more a barrier to my music than Ciren’s being an Andaro was to hers. So fuck them all, I thought, all those prissy bitches with their big hair and expensive cars their daddies bought them. I didn’t need them anymore than Ciren did, wherever she was.
So I left. The day after school ended, I packed up my bag and left.
“Don’t run away,” Andy had said, in a trembling voice, standing at the door to her room.
“I’m not running away, midget,” Ivy had answered, stuffing her favorite sweatshirt into her bag. “I’m eighteen. I’m an adult. Adults can’t run away.”
Andy sniffled, loudly, but didn’t cry. He was too big for that, eight next fall.
“So don’t leave,” he said.
Ivy looked at him once, and for a moment reconsidered. It wouldn’t be long until the change hit him the first time, and she wished that she’d be there to help. But she had things she had to do, and places to go. The old
Ivy sits on the wobbly stool on the low stage at the Holy Grounds, singing softly into the scratchy mic, one of her new songs. The chorus still doesn’t quite work, a bad rhyme on the third line, but if anyone in the place notices they don’t make a sign. Aside from Stu standing over in the corner, the only people who really seem to be listening are a couple of college kids sitting in the back, sipping slowly from giant cups of coffee and nodding appreciatively now and again. Ivy doesn’t care that no one else is listening. She just sings.
“I don’t care what you think, Thaddeus,” Susan says, “tell me what you know.”
“It’s not right, Kururangi,” La Violette answers. “It’s just not right.”
“You said you’ve seen a lycanthrope in the area,” says Susan, irritated. “Not one of the wolfpack gang, but an outsider. I wouldn’t have come if you hadn’t. And now you decide to go quiet on me?”
“I just mentioned it in passing, I didn’t know what you were after.”
Susan squares her shoulders, and glowers at the old man.
“Is she, or isn’t she?” Susan repeats.
The old man averts his eyes, and rubs at his broad forehead with the handkerchief.
“Oh, she is, alright, but she couldn’t have done that.” He shakes his head, nervously folding the handkerchief. “Ivy couldn’t have done that.”
“Thanks,” Susan says. “Just what I wanted to hear.”
Ciren climbs the stairs to her apartment, her daughter in her arms. Behind her on the steps, her manager Serge struggles under the weight of Ciren’s bag, the groceries, and all the children’s toys.
“I’ll quit if this goes on much longer,” Serge threatens. “You have got to get a personal assistant.” He pauses on the step, hoisting the bag higher on his shoulder, almost losing the groceries in the process. “Or hire movers whenever you leave the apartment.”
I think the crowd tonight really liked me, writes Ivy later that evening. I mean, no one got in a fight or had to yell into their cell phone to talk over my guitar or anything.
I still don’t have enough to get into the
Wouldn’t it be something if I actually got to talk to her?
lines from Haunted
Your shade follows me everywhere, a shadow of your memory.
I am haunted, pursued, each thought threading it's way back to you.
Sometimes I try to escape, a young girl sitting in a corner
trying desperately not to imagine a white horse, but it doesn't work.
Your mark is upon me, and it will not wash off.
It is on me, and I would not wash it off.
The next night Susan, her pou staff sheathed on her back, watches the girl round the corner of the alley and start down the crowded sidewalk. Susan hides in the dark shadows until the girl passes, and then falls in step behind her. She watches the girl as they walk, catching her glance at the happy faces of couples as they pass, catching her pause for a moment at the window of an upscale yuppie restaurant up the block. Susan doesn’t blame her. She must be hungry.
Part of Susan begins to hope that she is wrong, that the girl isn’t the one. It would be a shame to put someone like that down, some who seems so fresh and innocent. But a larger part, the part that makes her finger the silver bladed dagger in the sheath slung low on her hip, hopes that the girl is. Better her than a blood crazed Moondog, or a drunken Volsung, god forbid. No one would make a stink if Susan gutted a little street urchin werewolf with her knife. Oh, Thaddeus wouldn’t be happy about it, but he wouldn’t start a war over it.
As the girl heads down the steps to the SCAT station, Susan pulls the knife a fraction of the way out of the sheath, and tests the edge on her thumb. She’ll give the girl tonight to prove her wrong. Then she’ll end it.
Ivy stands in front of the Paramount, watching the crowd slowly file in. The man at the door, large and imposing in shaved head and leather jacket, eyes her once, and then looks away. She’s no threat. Ivy shuffles uncomfortably, awkward, sure that her poverty is spelled out on her forehead in neon letters.
Susan waits half a block away, hidden in the doorway of a business closed for the night. She rubs her palms together, proof against the slight chill in the air, and then grazes the sheathed knife with the tips of her fingers.
Serge pulls the car to a stop up the street from the
“I’ll find a place to park,” Serge says, “and then I’ll be right in.”
“Take your time,” Ciren replies, pushing open the car door and then swinging out her legs. “The shows not due to start for a while.”
The little girl in Ciren’s arm drowses, her head on her mother’s shoulder.
“I’d wish you luck,” Serge says, “but you don’t need it.”
Ciren smiles, and then climbs out of the car.
There she is, Ivy thinks, seeing that beautiful head of green hair appear down the street. Overcome with excitement, Ivy begins to walk forward, slowly at first, then picking up speed. There she is.
This is it, Susan thinks, seeing the girl pick up speed, practically breaking into a run heading for the andaro down the block. She’s making her move.
Ciren takes no more than half a dozen steps, and then hears the sound of footsteps approaching fast. A fan, she thinks, half turning towards the sound. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees an enormous timber wolf emerge from the alley way, rushing straight for her.
Ivy doesn’t even pause to think. She sees the wolf racing towards Ciren, knows its intent, can almost smell its blood lust. The hunger is on it, the wolf is rogue. Ivy lunges forward, baring her teeth, putting herself in the wolf’s path. A low growl escapes her lips, curled back in a snarl.
Susan sees the wolf twist in midair, its hindquarters wheeling around, and then it lands with all four paws forward on the wolf girl standing in its way.
Ivy bats the wolf away, one of its paws raking across her face as it falls, another catching a hunk of flesh from her arms. She falters, but doesn’t fall.
The wolf rights itself, and raises its back, growling. It pads left, then right, looking for an opportunity to lunge past this new obstruction.
Ivy sees the woman in leather with the braided hair appear from nowhere, barreling into the rogue wolf, a silver knife in one hand, a silver tipped wooden staff in the other. The woman and the wolf roll on the ground, a mess of metal and teeth.
Run, yells Susan to Ivy from the tangle. Get them out of here.
Ivy stands dazed for a moment, and then comes to herself. She turns to Ciren, standing stricken with the little girl clutched in her arms.
Let’s go, Ivy orders, grabbing Ciren by the arm and dragging her towards the entrance to the
As they run, Ciren risks a look back. The leather woman straddles the huge wolf, the silver knife clenched in her teeth, the wooden staff laid across the wolf’s throat, choking the life out of it.
“I’ve been looking all over for you,” Susan says awkwardly, pushing the words around the blade held in her teeth. “I thought you’d never get here.”
Once Ivy and Ciren are inside the theater, the big shaved-headed bouncer rushes over to offer what ever help he can to the woman struggling with the wolf. By the time he gets there, it’s not a wolf, but a naked, scrawny little white guy with a badly tattooed spider web spreading over half his face.
“A friend of yours?” the bouncer asks the woman with the braids and black leather.
“No,” Susan answers, cleaning the gore off the silver knife on the fabric of her pants, and sliding the knife back into its sheath. “Just a stray.”
It got kind of hectic after that, writes Ivy the next morning. I figured Ciren would call off the show, after being attacked and everything. But she didn’t. She just waited until her manager guy showed up, handed over her daughter, and then went on stage. Before she did, she asked me to stick around after the show, she wanted to talk to me. I figured they’d kick me out after the bouncer finished bandaging up my face and arm, but they didn’t. The bouncer even bought me a drink, didn’t even ask to see my ID.
I don’t know what happened with that woman who fought the werewolf. By the time the cops arrived to pick up the body, everybody had the story straight, and the woman who killed him was nowhere around. So the cops got told that this crazy naked guy rushed out of the alley to attack Ciren and me, and a mysterious stranger showed up to save us. I thought the cops wouldn’t buy it at all, but they acted like it all made perfect sense, and after they zipped the body up in those big people-sized garbage bags you see on television, they just left. It’s too bad, though. They missed a good show.
Afterwards, Ciren took me back with her to her dressing room. She asked about me, about what I did, and we talked about music for a while. When she asked me where I lived, I didn’t even think to lie. I told her about leaving home, and playing in the coffee shops, and the
I was so nervous I could have just died, but after a little bit of trouble I managed to play Moonsong. The whole time I was playing, Ciren sat there quietly, her little girl asleep in her lap. When I was done, Ciren was quiet for a long time, like she was thinking about something.
Finally, she asked if I wanted a job.
“A job,” I said. “What kind of job?”
“I need someone to look after my little girl,” she said. “Someone to take care of her when I’m in the studio, or when I’m playing a gig. I don’t have a great deal of money, so I couldn’t pay you much more than minimum wage.”
I was trying to figure out how much money that was, and thinking how much more it was than I was making at Holy Grounds, when she dropped the bomb.
“Of course, I could supplement the income by teaching you music,” she said. “Not that you need much help. Just a little bit. You’re very good for a beginning. But I could help you with your fretwork, and help you tone up the upper ranges of your voice.”
I think I must have stood there for about ten minutes, my mouth just hanging open. I don’t know if I drooled, but I must have. I just stared at her, unable to say anything.
“Are you okay?” she finally asked me, probably thinking I was a lunatic.
“Yes,” I shouted. “Yes. I’ll take the job. You can teach me. Oh god, you can teach me to sing. Yes, oh yes.”
I’m staying with her now, sleeping in the guest bedroom of her apartment. It’s really nice. I told Ciren who I was, what I was, and it didn’t bother her. She asked me to let her know when my time of the month came around, and that when it does I’ll have a couple of days off. She says she’ll make Serge take me to the park those nights, if I want, to get some exercise and doing a little hunting. Ciren says it’s really no different than her having to spend all that time every day in the salt baths, or going down deep every couple of months. I knew she’d understand.
Ciren says she’s going to have Serge go with me later to pick up my car and my things, and then I can stay with her for all long as I want. After lunch, she’s going to teach me some scales.
I think this is going to work, writes Ivy, sitting at Ciren’s breakfast table, looking out the window at the Neighborhood. I think I’m home.
Friday, November 16, 2007
Free Fiction Friday: "Granma Stemple"
In any event, here's this story I wrote...
by Chris Roberson
You can get just about anything you want at the Denniston Flea Market, if not quite everything you need. Held the first weekend of every month, rain or shine, for as long as anyone can remember, its about like any other flea market you might ever have seen, only a little more so. If you do go (just take the Pomo exit off the expressway, go south, and you can’t miss it) ramble around the eight acres of antique and junk dealers all you want, eat a corn dog or one of those foot long polish sausages if you feel up to it, by all means have some pink lemonade and cotton candy, but don’t even think about leaving before you stop by Granma Stemple’s stall. If you drive away before visiting Granma, you'll have missed the heart of the Denniston market. If there’s anything you’ve ever really wanted, anything at all, chances are you’ll find it there.
This is my opinion, you understand, and others would most likely tell you different, but I’ve spent one weekend out of four at the market now for some thirty years, and I’ve seen them come and go. Old retired couples with their life-long collections of porcelain knick-knacks and salt & pepper shakers, sitting in the shade of their prized r.v.; young hustlers with a crate load of shoddy Korean shoes, trying to pass them off for anything they can take; shop keepers trying to dump all the merchandise they wouldn’t even dare carry in their stores; folk artists selling bits of wood with paintings on them, or paintings done up like clocks. I’ve seen them all. But of every stall I’ve seen, Granma Stemple’s stands out the most for remembering.
Granma is one of the flea market’s best kept secrets. She’s been set up in the same spot for as long as I’ve been coming out, and doesn’t show any signs of moving. She was one of the earliest dealers to have a permanent building of any kind, even if it was only ratty old two-by-fours and corrugated tin siding hammered together into a lopsided box. That box kept the rain off of her in the rain, and the sun in the sunshine. And it holds a lot more merchandise than you’d ever think; a lot more.
I didn’t go over to Granma’s stall for a lot of years. I was at the market to sell, not to buy. I worked my weeks over at the VA hospital, and had a house and attic full of junk. My mother’s things, left there when she went to live at the nursing home those last few years; my boy’s books and toys and such from before he got run over by that car; my wife’s, because when she left it was in a hurry, and she didn’t take much with her. I had that stuff cluttering up my life for too long, I figured, so I rented out a spot and started ferrying stuff over once a month. It made from some extra cash, and made my house a bit easier to move around in.
Now, Granma Stemple’s stall was up just a ways from mine, and though I didn’t ever go in, I’d see her every now and again on my way down to the portalets. She’d always be sitting there, on her high wooden chair, smoking those long thin cigarettes of hers. She hardly ever spoke, only when spoken to first, and even then only to mumble a bit as to what the price of something was, or maybe just what it was exactly anyway.
From my stall I’d see people walking back from hers. Never many, one or two or three each market day, and they’d always have something with them, and they’d always looked kind of stunned. Like they’d found something they’d been looking for a long while, or maybe never even knew they wanted. Sometimes I’d ask them, if they happened to slow down near my tables, just what it was Granma sold. They’d just smile, kind of stupidly, and hold up whatever it was they’d bought. “This,” was all they’d ever say.
I saw old 45 records in those people’s hands, or metal lunch boxes, or key rings, or Barbie dolls. Every time something different, and every time it was like the most important thing in the world. People didn’t just hold the things they bought from Granma, they clung to them.
Now, as the years went by, and my house got more and more empty, I started to peek around the other stalls, to see if I couldn’t find something that’s look good in my place. One time I found an old cavalry sword, which the fellow said had come down from the Civil War; I knew it wasn’t any older than WWI, but it looked fine over my mantle so I didn’t complain. I found an old juke box another time, a battered old Wurlitzer, and once I got it hammered out, and polished up, it looked just fine in my den. And I found a few good paintings, and a strange little African statue (though most likely from
I’d seen the things people bought from Granma, and it wasn’t anything I needed. Junk is all, I figured, and so walked on by. She kept everything in that shack of hers, and with the shades in there so dark you couldn’t see a thing from the outside. And she’d just sit there on her high chair, smoking and not talking.
So a few years went by, and I bought everything I thought I needed; but my house still seemed too big, and too empty. Everything left of my mothers, and my boy’s and my wife’s was up in the attic now, and I only had to go up a couple of times a year to get something to sell. But even with all their stuff up there, out of sight, or away in other folk’s homes, that still didn’t seem like my house. I still felt like I was just borrowing it, from all those that had gone away.
It was spring, when I’d been a regular at the market for about twelve years, when I finally went to see Granma Stemple. Most everybody else had come and gone since the old days, and I didn’t get on too well with the new dealers that were showing up. All hairy, in dirty clothes, acting like a bath was something to harm you. I saw one selling out Nazi patches, if you can believe it, right there in Denniston.
So I walked on down to Granma Stemple’s stall, and walked right up to where she sat. It was sunny out, and she had a big straw hat pulled down low over her face. About all I could see was her chin, and her bottom lip, and that long thin cigarette dangling.
“Afternoon,” I said.
She just mumbled back.
“Fine day,” I said again.
She mumbled back again.
I turned my head a bit, peeking into the shadows of her shack.
“So, what are you selling today?” I asked.
She just jerked her chin a bit, pointing it back to the shack.
“What people want,” she mumbled, down below her breath.
“That so? Guess I’ll have to take a look.”
She didn’t say another word, so I turned and walked back to her stall. It was small, but bigger inside than it looked, and when my yes had adjusted themselves to the dark, I could see that inside there was only one table, set against the back wall. And on that table was a yellowed old envelope. I bent down to look at it, all water stained and tattered, and saw my own name was written on it in simple, block letters.
I snatched it up and carried it back to where Granma sat.
“What’s this?” I asked, my voice kind of set on edge. I shook the envelope at her.
“What you want,” she muttered.
I look at her, and then at the envelope in my hands.
“You selling this, you mean?” I asked. Then I said, “How much?”
“Already yours,” she mumbled. Then she titled her head back and bit, and looked at me with one gray eye from underneath that hat. “See ya.”
So I thanked her, and walked away. She was one odd bird, I figured, and it was a wonder she ever made a dime. No merchandise, and leaving people little notes in the open. I stuck that envelope in my back pocket and didn’t think another thing about it.
That night, back at my house after my day at the market, I was changing into another pair of pants when I found that envelope in my pocket. I’d about forgotten all about it. Pulling on my other pants, I sat down on the edge of the bed and looked at it. It looked old, and worn, and I could tell there was something in it. The writing, my name on the front, looked to have been done some time before, and the handwriting looked familiar.
Sitting there on the edge of the bed, I tore open that envelope and took out what was inside. It was a little piece of paper, folded up, and when I got it unfolded I saw it only had four words on it, in the same handwriting as on the front:
“BETTER ANSWER THE DOOR.”
I sat there a little while, trying to puzzle that one out, when sure enough I heard a pounding at the door. I pulled on my boots, and dropped that paper onto the bed, and went down to answer it, wondering would could be coming around at that hour. At any hour, really.
I opened the door, and there they were. My mother, my boy, my wife. All standing on the porch, smiling at me.
“Thanks, hon,” my wife said, “we all forgot our keys and couldn’t get in.”
“We got fried chicken for dinner, dad,” my boy said, grinning from ear to ear.
“You’ll get none ‘till you wash up, boy,” my mother said, patting her grandson on the back, pushing him in the door.
That night we had fried chicken, and sat around listening to the radio. Me, my dead son, the mother I’d buried fifteen years before, and the wife who’d up and run off to
Come morning, I woke up alone. My wife wasn’t in my bed anymore, and I couldn’t hear the sound of my boy playing out in the yard, and I knew my mother wouldn’t be down in the kitchen at her sewing machine. I knew they were all gone. Don’t ask me how, I just did.
It was Sunday morning, the last day of the market until the next month. I got dressed, put that envelope back in my pocket and drove my truck down to the market. It wasn’t fifteen minutes before I was back at Granma Stemple’s stall, my cap in my hands.
“Ma’am,” I told her, stepping forward slowly, “I’m going to have to give this back.”
I held out the envelope to her, the piece of paper back inside. I figured I knew what would happen the next night I pulled that paper out, and the time after that, and all the times after that.
“It’s what you want,” she muttered.
She didn’t look up.
“Yeah,” I answered, “I imagine it is. Bit it ain’t what I need.”
We were like that for a bit, me standing and holding that envelope out, her sitting and smoking. Finally I said, “Please.”
“Alright,” she muttered back.
She took the envelope from me, and tucked it into her dress somewhere. And she didn’t say another word
I went back to my stall, and I never went back that way again. But I’d never steer anyone away, no. Everybody should have the chance to shop there, and see what they might find. But remember this: you can find most anything you want at the Denniston Flea Market, but you might not find what you need.
Friday, October 26, 2007
Free Fiction Friday: "Trick or Treat"
Last year I posted Timmy Gromp's Christmas adventure, in observance of the season. Seeing as next week is Halloween, by which time I'll be in Saratoga Springs for the World Fantasy Convention, now seems as good a time as any to break out Timmy's Halloween tale.
In this bit of silliness, as in "Timmy Gromp Saves Christmas," Timmy collides with J.B. Carmody, the hero of Cybermancy Incorporated, about whom I was writing quite a lot at the time. (It may help to know that Timmy's favorite curse-word is "assbug," for reasons explored in another story. Or perhaps it doesn't help, at that...)
Trick or Treat:
A Public Service Announcement
by Chris Roberson
“I got a moldy old apple,” Joey Cuellar.
“I got a rock,” Timmy Gromp said, and quickly added, “Assbug.”
The three boys, trawling the twilight suburban streets of
In that spirit, the parents of Timmy, Bobby, Joey, and any number of other neighborhood children had decided that this year, if the kids wanted Halloween costumes, they would have to make them by hand. Which explained why Timmy, Bobby, and Joey, of all their contemporaries, were wandering the streets in ratty old bedsheets, ragged holes cut in place of eyes. (Timmy, of course, had cut far too many holes in his sheet, leading the other two to express their long-held belief that Timmy was, in fact, an assbug).
“These treats suck,” Bobby concluded, to which Timmy and Joey responded with hearty movements of their sheet-wrapped heads.
“We should try some tricks, instead,” Joey answered, poking the browned skin of his moldy apple with an outstretched fingertip.
“I got a rock,” Timmy said.
“I know,” Bobby said. “Let’s go get some rotten old eggs from the dumpster behind the market, and throw them at houses.”
“Yeah,” Joey answered. “Let’s start with Rangi’s house. His parents talk all weird, and their house always smells like a spicy dog exploded in it.”
“A spicy dog?” Timmy asked.
“Whatever, assbug,” Bobby said. “Okay, we’ll start with Rangi’s house, and then we’ll do Ackbar’s. His parents dress funny.”
“And if there’s any eggs left, we’ll do Timmy’s house last.”
“Hey!” Timmy said.
“Not so fast kids,” said a voice from somewhere above and behind them.
The three ghosts turned, bags of bounty clutched against their sheet wrapped chests, and looked up into the eyes of the man towering over them.
“Hey, guys!” Bobby said. “It’s J.B. Carmody, the Cybermancer.”
“And A.J. Jabbar, his faithful companion,” Joey added, pointing out the giant man at Carmody’s side.
“Hey!” Timmy said.
Carmody knelt down on one knee, bringing his head nearer the boy’s level.
“Now, we couldn’t help over hearing you boys, and I have to say that I’m surprised to hear good Americans talk that way.”
“That’s right,” the giant A.J. added forcefully, his head nodding somewhere up in the darkness.
“What do you mean?” Bobby said.
“Why,” Carmody answered, “to single someone out, just because they look different, or talk different, or have different customs, is about the worst thing I can think of.”
“Yeah, it’s a good thing you’re already wearing white sheets, kids,” A.J. said, smacking one giant fist into the palm of his other hand, “because all you lack now is a burning cross or two.”
“Simmer down, Jabbar,” Carmody said. “But A.J. is right, kids, when you get right down to it. It makes no sense to judge someone on the basis of their race, religion, or culture, and to direct irrational hatred and cruel punishments against them for expressing their god given freedoms.”
”Right, boss,” A.J. said. “Better to direct irrational hatred and cruel punishments against people for the stupid things they say and do.”
“Exactly, Jabbar,” Carmody said. “Now, kids, do you know anyone in your neighborhood who says or does stupid things?”
“Well,” Bobby answered, “I saw mean old Mr. Wilson kick a puppy the other day.”
“Mrs. Grant steals her neighbor’s paper every Sunday,” Joey said.
“And my parents won’t let me read Clockwork Storybook,” Timmy said.
“Okay, kids, that’s great, now you’ve got a list to work with,” Carmody said. “Next time you round up rotten eggs to throw, or soggy toilet paper to wrap around trees, or a paper bag of dog droppings to light on fire, remember that you shouldn’t hate someone for what’s on the outside. Hate them for what’s on the inside.”
“Thanks, Mr. Carmody,” Bobby said.
“Yeah, you’re the greatest,” Joey said.
“I got a rock,” Timmy said.
“Good luck, boys,” Carmody answered, waving them on their way to gather up ammunition.
“Cracker white devils,” A.J. said.
“Jabbar,” Carmody scolded in mock-menacing tones. “Have you forgotten the true meaning of Halloween so soon?”
The giant blushed, and shook his head.
“I’m sorry, boss,” he answered. He joined Carmody in waving at the boys, already loping their way down the street to the market. “Ignorant, small-minded creeps.”
“Much better,” Carmody said with a wink.
Friday, October 12, 2007
Free Fiction Friday: "So Far From Us In All Ways"
I've done two more stories with my version of a young Abraham Van Helsing, one in the pages of Adventure Vol. 1, and the other in the forthcoming Solaris Book of New Fantasy, edited by the inestimable George Mann. About the latter story, Nick Gevers had this to say in the most recent Locus Magazine:
"And Such Small Deer" by Chris Roberson, a tale of Doctor Van Helsing in the Dutch East Indies, embraces the grotesque in a neat conflation of Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells.The Solaris antho is highly recommended, by the way, and should be in stores shortly. And I imagine that George would agree with me that they make great stocking stuffers!
These three stories, for what it's worth, are actually the first three chapters of a novel, Travel Towards the Sunrise, which I may get around to writing one day, assuming that the stink of that crappy movie ever fades.
(And if anyone guesses that there might be a bit of Wold Newtonry in this story, and that the young Manchurian doctor Fu might be somewhat familiar, well...)
Letter, from Fu Zheng Lei,
Your Excellency, forgive my impertinence in addressing this missive directly to you. At the urging of my uncle, Governor of
The difficulty arose on the road from
Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal
(translated from the Dutch.)
1 Sep, 1860.
I have been in the Orient only a relatively short time, and this journey marked my first real foray beyond the protection of the English Concession in the treaty port city of
I have had occasion, these last months, to question the wisdom of quitting my native
In the months since, there has been little call for my specialized skills, beyond treating the occasional laceration or fracture, prescribing a poultice for a rash induced by some exotic nettle, or tending to a victim of dysentery. This journey into the hinterlands was to be the first real test of my medical abilities, and due to the slowness of the transportation, I arrive too late even to unlatch the clasps on my bag. I will, at least, be able to serve my patient in some small regard, by escorting his body back to civilization, to be shipped to his family overseas, who do not even know yet that they should grieve.
Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal
2 Sep, - Intolerable. Upon arriving at the docks, after a long dusty wagon ride from the company offices at
It was apparent that my only option was to travel the long distance back to
I had little money left in my purse, but was happy to spend what little I had to the master of the caravan, to secure for myself a place at the driver’s seat. The rough plank of the cart was unforgiving and hard, but I would rather pass the next week with a bruised backside, than wear my feet down to the ankle by walking the hundreds of miles to our destination.
It appears I am not the only member of the company to have performed this calculation. I will be sharing the driver’s seat with a young Chinese scholar, who has some smattering of English, while the cart’s ostensible driver will be walking before the cart horse, leading him on a rope.
If nothing else, then, there may be some conversation had, to pass the time.
Later. – I shall endeavor to write in as neat a hand as possible, despite the jars of this rugged road, that I can later read my record of this journey. Though why I should want to do so, in future times, I am now hard pressed to say.
My young companion, the scholar, is a Manchurian bureaucrat named Fu Zheng Li. He is on his way to the capital city of
Fu explains that, with many of the shipping channels and imperial roads under the command of separatists and insurgents like the Taiping rebels, most traffic from city to city and province to province has shifted to rough rural roads. Merchants, bureaucrats and scholars, who otherwise would travel in some measure of comfort, are forced to trudge through clouds of dust, under the not-always diligent watch of imperial soldiers unable to secure for themselves any more attractive posting.
In our small company, besides Fu and myself, are four merchants, three bureaucrats, and two scholars, all watched over by a half-dozen soldiers. The soldiers, despite Fu’s protestations to the contrary, seem quite alert, their hands never straying far from the hilts of their swords, or the muskets slung over their shoulders, their eyes always scanning the horizon for potential threats.
Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)
Considering the state of the countryside, and the dangers posed by insurgent forces preying on loyal Qing subjects both on the imperial roads and on the waterways, my uncle considered it best that I travel to the capital overland, and had passage secured for me among a caravan carrying military supplies from Hunan province, where such were in abundance, to the capital, whence they would be distributed throughout the northern provinces. As the Taiping rebels held
Given my station, having passed my Xiucai degree provincial examination at the age of eleven years, and my Juren degree provincial examination at sixteen years, on my way to my Jinshi degree national examinations when not yet twenty years, I was afforded some small comforts among the caravan. My close relations to the governor, and his relations to the Dragon Throne, might also have helped my position. While the other scholars and merchants traveling under the caravan’s protection, then, walked alongside or behind the horse-drawn wagon, I was offered a seat on the wagon-driver’s seat.
I rode alone on the wagon seat for many days, until just past the city of
This foreigner, a Dutchman, was a physician of some sort, escorting a coffin to the city of
He was crude, with little of substance to share, and I was loathe to surrender the solitude I’d enjoyed on the ride previously.
Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal
3 Sep. – Stayed overnight at a small shelter along the roadside, presided over by a graven image of the Buddha, the god of these heathen peoples. With such considerable distances separating the cities and towns in this wide land, over the generations the Chinese seem to have established an elaborate network of way-stations and shelters along the country byways, separated by the rough distance of a day’s travel. I am grateful for these brief respites, in which I can pry my weary backside from the knotty plank of the cart’s seat, and sleep stretched out under a roof, with no fear that the skies might open up and pour down on me. There was no rain last night, but storm clouds have been gathering since late yesterday afternoon, and I think we’ve little chance of escaping a drenching.
I’ve gotten to know my young companion in our short time together. Over our humble meal last evening, a weak soup stock and a chewy stalk of some form of vegetable, he told me some little bit about his background. Throughout our talk, his eyes shifted to the rest of our company, sitting a distance away, in the protection of the shelter, and to the soldiers, who patrolled the road leading to and from our position. It seemed that his words were for me alone, and that he was wary of any other’s overhearing. Perhaps it was the use of the foreign tongue which insulated him from propriety, and freed him to confide things to a stranger he’d never utter to another.
“My parents, they are dead,” Fu explained. “From an early age, I was a member of my uncle’s household. My uncle, he is the governor of
“Disgrace?” I worked at the touch, sinewy fibers of the vegetable stalk, trying unsuccessfully to soften it in the soup stock.
“Disgrace,” he said, nodding. “Yes, and even ruin, it might seem. After the shaming loss of the Opium Wars, the Qing emperor and his advisors, they have conceded ports to European control, opened lucrative financial opportunities to Europeans, allowed Europeans the freedom of the countryside, to roam as they will. Now, in the countryside, there is unrest, rebels and insurgents sprouting up like weeds after a spring rain. Threatening the honest Chinese laborer. Threatening the stability of the Chinese bureaucracy. Threatening the legacy of millennia of history.”
My young companion paused, and looked across the open space to the merchants, bureaucrats, and scholars huddled in the shelter of the way-station. The flickering light of the circle of candles inside cast moving shadows across his face. His magnetic eyes, narrowed and flashing with the light reflecting back, gave his lean face an almost feline appearance. He slowly nodded.
“In order for
With that said, he set down his bowl, turned his face away from the circle of light, and laid down on his side, silent until morning.
Later. – We have ridden without pause since first light, Fu and I side by side on the driver’s seat, the rest of the company trudging through the dusty ruts of this country road.
Some time past noon, the silence that had hung over us for some hours having grown oppressive, Fu and I struggled to find some meaty topic on which we could converse, to pass the time.
“Fu,” I asked, “what is this examination you are en route to take?”
“Jinshin.” Fu paused, searching for the appropriate English term. “It means, Presented Scholar. It is the highest of three levels of imperial examination, the first two being the Xiucai… it means, erm, Flourishing Talent, and the Juren, it means, I suppose, Elevated Person. To join imperial service, in the province, one needs at least to have attained the Xiucai rank, but to serve in the capital, truly to prosper in the service of the emperor, one must become a Jinshin. Presented, it means that one is presented to the emperor himself. It is a very high honor.”
“Three ranks of academic achievement. Quite like the western system of education, with the Bachelors of Arts, Master of Arts, and Doctorate. In English, I suppose you might say that you are on your way to becoming Doctor Fu, Manchurian scholar.”
“Yes,” Fu said, nodding, “something like that.” He pointed a long-nailed finger at my chest. “Like you, Doctor.”
I smiled, and nodded in return.
An awkward silence filled the space between us, and I realized we’d exhausted the usefulness of the topic. As I searched for anything to say, Fu charged into the fray.
“Doctor,” he said, “do you have a wife?”
My hands tightened on the edge of the seat’s plank, my knuckles white.
“I had a wife,” I answered, “and though she is lost to me now, I suppose in the eyes of
“Doctor, do you have any children?”
My throat constricted, and unbidden came the mental image of my wife and son, laying still on the cold tile of our entryway, their eyes wide and sightless, and contorted faces bloodless and pale. From the hidden recesses of memory came the impression of something else there, some dark figure slipping out the door, blood stained hand lingering on the doorframe for a brief instant before slipping out of view. But such a thing… It is not possible. Reason does not allow it.
“No,” I managed to choke out the word. “Not any more.”
My face tight, I turned my attention to the monotonous road ahead, and ignored any of Fu’s questions or comments for the remainder of the day’s journey. I hadn’t the strength within me to speak further.
Behind us, beneath the lashings and the canvas tarp, lay the coffin of the dead man, always at our sides, silent participant in our disjointed conversations.
Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)
On the third night out from
Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal
4 Sep. – The caravan continued on, after the soldiers had dealt with the remains of their fallen brother’s body. The company is unsettled, walking closer together, their eyes darting at every sound.
There is scattered talk among the bureaucrats, merchants and scholars, only occasional words of which I’m able to catch. Their chatter continues unabated, in whispered tones, as though afraid something just beyond the edge of vision out in the rushes and the hedges might overhear. In the days previous, the company had been mostly silent, occasionally punctuated by brief outbursts of laughter following what must have been a joke or ribald tale. The slow, steady susurration of whispered voices today, I must confess, has me somewhat unnerved.
Fu has translated for me the meat of the others’ speculations. Some say that it was a wild beast that got to the soldier, while others hold it was some form of phantom or spirit, and that the soldier succumbed to its wiles before becoming its meal. Those who hold the attacker was a wild beast argue that the supply of weapons and ammunition in the cart should prove ample protection, if used properly; those who hold it was a phantom have no such hope.
I couldn’t understand what wiles a phantom might have, and explained my confusion to Fu.
Fu paused, and then drew a slight sigh.
“I do not think, for my part,” he said, “that it sounds like such a terrible bad way to die.”
Having been raised on stories of rotting ghosts and unquiet spirits, and not knowing the touch of a woman until I was nearly Fu’s age, I was forced to agree.
Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)
The sun set on the fourth night, and the company was left uneasy. Still out of reach of any established town or village, the caravan stopped at another way station. Vandals, though, had defaced the small statue of the Buddha within the shelter, removing the head from the stone body. This seemed an inauspicious omen. The members of the company sat huddled, exchanging nervous whispers, in the shadow of the headless form.
Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal
4 Sep. – I write by firelight, my fingers almost numb from cold and fear, but I want to record my thoughts and impressions before sleep and forgetfulness drive them from me. As though I could sleep tonight. The swift stream beside us gurgles like a drowning man, and the stranger who saved us keep a wary watch, and I am undone. But enough. My recollections, before my fear consumes them all.
We had arrived at the way-station, and sat huddled within the shelter in restless anticipation, fearful of the falling of night. We ate in silence, feeling vulnerable in the dim circle of candle light, the shadow of the headless icon dancing on the far wall, unsetting.
A sliver of a moon rose in the sky, and there came from the forest sounds of rustling, of movement. The pickets had been placed closer in tonight, the soldiers well in sight of the shelter. In the flickering candlelight that broke from the entrance, the assembled company could see the tense bodies of the soldiers, their swords and muskets at the ready. The canvas covered cart was parked a few dozen feet from the shelter, alongside the road, while the cart-horse was tied to a nearby tree. Storm clouds gathered overhead.
A strong wind blew in across the tree tops, guttering the candles’ flames. For an instant, the soldiers were swallowed by shadows. When the wind died down, and the flames snapped back to life, burning bright once more, the soldiers were nowhere to be seen. Gone. All gone.
The wind began to pick up again, and the temperature dropped suddenly. A storm was almost upon us. A lightning flash in the distance, and faint peal of far-off thunder, clouds sliding across the slender moon.
The candles were blown out completely in a sudden blast of cold, dry wind. Another lightning flash, and all of us huddled in the darkened shelter saw, framed briefly in the open doorway, a lurching, stiff-limbed horror, arms outstretched, ruined mouth open wide.
It was some monstrosity of which I’d never dreamt, and yet there was for the briefest instant the frisson of recognition. I hadn’t the opportunity nor the inclination to explore the sensation of familiarity, as the monstrosity drew nearer, and fear choked off my thoughts. The stiff-limbed horror advanced, an odd, jerky gait, towards the quivering company, filling the small shelter with a faint green luminescence.
Fu was on his feet immediately, sidling along the darkened wall towards the entrance, and escape.
“Doctor,” Fu called from just beyond the entrance, beckoning to me. “Come on.”
As the lurching monstrosity advanced on the wailing merchants and bureaucrats, I steeled my nerves and slipped through the entrance, following hot on Fu’s heels. But the movement had caught the monster’s attention. I suppose that it reasoned the livelier meal was the tastier, and that two fleeing were livelier than the huddle masses before it. He pivoted on unbending joints, and started after us.
Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)
I raced through the darkened forest, lightning marking out my path. The foreign doctor followed close behind, lumbering and wheezing as he came. The strange, monstrous figure was close at our heels, bounding along on unbending knees. The path we followed through the dark forest was difficult to see, and whipping braches and thorns stung us as we passed.
The monster was almost upon us, our final moments arrived, when a figure jumped out of the darkness before me, with head shaved clean and yellow robes that shined like the sun in the brief lightning flashes.
This newcomer jumped between us and the advancing monster, pulling a woven bag from his belt and shaking out a handful of glutinous rice into his palm. He muttered a quick incantation over the grains, the words of which the wind carried away from my ears, and then threw the rice directly into the face of the lurching monstrosity. The monster reared back, smoke curling up in delicate curls from its desiccated flesh, an insensible yowl issued from the ruined mouth. It swatted at its face with long-nailed fingers, trying unsuccessfully to claw the grains away. In that moment, I recognized the tattered rags hanging from the gaunt frame as the traditional Manchurian burial garb. This was a corpse, given life, or the semblance of life.
The man in the yellow robe turned to me and the foreign doctor, both of us looking on blank-faced in shock and amazement.
“We must hurry,” the man in the yellow robe said in refined Mandarin. “The creature will not be stopped for long by the rice, and I haven’t the strength to fight at the moment.” He then turned, and hurried into the darkened forest.
I turned to follow, but first glanced over to the foreign doctor, who stood stock still, watching the writhing corpse figure, his large mouth slack-jawed, his blue eyes wide.
“Come, we must follow,” I told him in English, my tone urgent. “Danger.”
Considering my duty filled, I turned and raced after the retreating yellow robe. The foreign doctor must have understood, as within heartbeats I heard his lumbering steps following mine.
Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal
4 Sep. Later. – Fu and I followed close behind the yellow-robed stranger, and he led us to a little shrine along a swiftly running brook. Instructing us through signs and barked orders to seat ourselves near the base of the shrine, he pulled a collection of small bags from the belt of his robe, and proceed to surround the shrine at a radius of a few yards with a circle of iron filings and rice. I tried to enquire after his purpose, but it seems that our benefactor speaks no English, only Chinese. I pleaded with Fu to repeat my questions to the old man in a tongue he could comprehend, but Fu sat quietly shaking at the base of the shrine, his narrowed eyes closely watching our savior’s every move.
I wished that I had a touch of whisky to calm my shaky nerves, or even a cigar, but a quick check of my sweat-damped pockets produced only my package of lucifer matches, my other supplies back with the cart. Back with the monstrosity, that strange figure that had lurched out of the darkness, pure evil at sight.
My thoughts spun in tight frenzied circles around the danger stalking the dark night. Would I die here, by strange hands in this foreign land, and be rejoined with my family after so short a time?
When the yellow-robed stranger had finished his circuit of the shrine, and come to sit beside me and Fu in the dim shadow of the shrine, I found my tongue again, and plied Fu once more with questions.
“Who is he?”
Fu left off rubbing his hands together to relay my question to the stranger along with, by the sound of it, several of his own. The stranger, after a long pause, answered in just a few short words, and then turned his attention back to the deepening shadows beyond the little circle of rice he’d laid.
“Well?” I said. “What did he say?”
“This man,” Fu answered, “he is a Taoist priest from the western provinces, and his name, he say, is Master Xi. He says, the creature we escaped, that was Chiang Shih. It means, the Undead.”
Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)
Master Xi explained the origin of the strange creature, and how this doom had befallen us.
“The Chiang Shih is a vivified corpse,” Master Xi said. “Undead, but yet not living. There is in each of us two souls, the higher and the lower. The higher, Hun, is associated with Yang and controls the higher functions of the human self: emotion, thought, passion. On the death of the body, the Hun soul ascends quickly to the heavens, to be among the stars. The lower soul, though, or
“A century ago,” Master Xi continued, “an army was sent by the Qing emperor to the western wilds of Xinjian, to tame that savage Mongol land for the Dragon Throne. Among those who fought, bled, and died for their emperor were seven Manchurian brothers, the bravest of General Zhaohui’s warriors. Buried in that foreign land, improperly interred and not revered by their descendants, their lower souls stayed with their bodies, and they rose from their unhallowed graves. Driven by their lower animal urges, and the blind instinct to return home, these seven Undead crossed the breadth of
“I have been trailing these seven Chiang Shih across seven provinces, saving those hapless victims it is within my power to save, and burying with proper rites those I cannot, so that they, too, do not rise up as Undead. With the aid of my three assistants, I have managed to defeat the Chiang Shih one at a time, so that there is now but one left, but my assistants have all perished in the attempts, and I am left alone. This last, this final Chiang Shih, is the strongest and fiercest of them all, and it is too much for me to handle alone.”
When Master Xi had finished speaking, he grew quiet, and watched for our response. I translated as much of Master Xi’s story to the foreign doctor as seemed appropriate, and he agreed that we had little choice but to assist Mater Xi, primarily because without his help, we had little chance of escaping the Chiang Shih.
Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal
5 Sep. – This morning, in the full light of day, Fu, the Taoist priest and I returned to the shelter of the way-station. The cart and horse still stand, just as they did the night before, but all that remained of the soldiers and our company were scattered body parts and spatters of blood.
“Why does the Undead consume the bodies of men,” I asked, “but does not touch the horse?”
Fu relayed my question to the Taoist priest, and after hearing his response, answered.
“The Undead, Chiang Shih, they are driven by their lower souls, but still crave a higher soul. The souls of animals, they cannot sate this hunger, but the souls of men can whet their appetites. Nature does not allow the Undead to consume the souls of their victims, but the mere whiff of souls escaping as the lives are snuffed out is enough to satisfy their hunger, if only for a moment.”
My first instinct was to check on the state of my charge, the poor unfortunate whose body I was ferrying back to my employer’s care. I found the casket in fine condition, the seals untouched, the wood unbroken and secure. The Taoist priest’s eyes followed my movements, making careful study of everything I did. Satisfied that the body was unharmed, I crossed myself and gave a brief prayer of thanks for this small kindness. When I turned, the priest’s eyes were still on me, measuring my every move, taking note.
Later. – We three spent the long hours of the morning and afternoon making preparations for our coming conflict with the Undead. We began by burying the victims of the monster with the proper rituals, Fu and I taking the backbreaking task of moving earth and the gruesome task of collecting the remains, while the Taoist priest busied himself with charms and chants, burning incense and marking strange glyphs on little slivers of rock.
During a brief rest, with the sun high overhead, I expressed some reservation about what I considered to be provincial superstition. Whether the bodies of these poor unfortunates were danced and sung over with plumes of smoke, or just planted a few feet in the ground without ceremony, it seemed to me that they posed no threat to anyone in their present state.
At the priest’s request, Fu translated my brief outburst, whereupon the priest made a show of walking with thundering steps to the casket lashed to the nearby cart, and with outstretched finger touched his left shoulder, then his right, then forehead, and then navel. Finishing his mimed cross, he turned to me, his expression plain even across the gulf of language. Then he returned to his charms and chants, and finding I could muster no suitable reply, I returned to my digging.
Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)
Nightfall approached, and we made ready. Master Xi gave me what training he could, in the time allowed, which I then passed along to the foreign doctor.
Here is what Master Xi taught us:
When confronting the Chiang Shih, hold your breath; the Chiang Shih cannot see, as mortals see, and detects the presence of the living by scenting the trace of the higher soul in their breath. The Chiang Shih fears glutinous rice, which represents the fecund power of the earth itself, into whose bosom the body of the Chiang Shih should return, to decompose and fertilize future life. The Chiang Shih fears mirrors, and can be controlled if one places yellow paper inscribed in red-ink or chicken blood with holy symbols on its forehead. If part of a Chiang Shih’s body is removed or cut off, it will continue to function, apart from the rest of the body. The Chiang Shih fears running water. The only hope in defeating the Chiang Shih lies in immobilizing it first, and then burying it with the proper rituals, cremating it if at all possible, to free the lower spirit to sink back into the earth.
Master Xi assembled our plans, and we made ready. Nightfall approached.
Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal
6 Sep. – It is difficult to think on the events of this last night, the evening of 5th September, but having come this far in recording the events of my strange journey, I would be remiss to stop short here.
Night fell, and we three readied ourselves. Where the night before had seen a storm, lightning and thunder, tonight was clear and still.
The old priest, a sword scabbarded in cherry-wood in hand, looked to the sky, and muttered a few words.
“Master Xi,” Fu translated for my benefit, “he says that fortune is not with us. If it had only stormed again, and fiercely, then the elements might have taken care of the Chiang Shih for us. The Undead are often dispatched by particularly loud thunderclaps, their lower souls shocked from the body by the noise.”
I followed their gaze to the cloudless sky, and shook my head. Our only hope lay in following the old priest’s plan.
The plan was to lure the Undead into the shelter, which has only one door. Once the monster was within the confines of the shelter, Fu and I, who to that point had been hiding in the corners, would rush outside behind it, pulling with us strong cords attached to the mouths of woven bags hung from the rafters just above the entrance. The bags would open wide and a shower of sticky rice would fall, blanketing the entrance to the shelter. The Undead, then, would be trapped inside with the priest, unable to exit without the burning, searing pain at the touch of the grains. The priest would wield his silver-bladed sword, with a slip of yellow paper inscribed in chicken’s blood pierced at the tip. He would then drive the sword through the Chiang Shih’s forehead, immobilizing it long enough to perform the burial rituals and cremate the body.
Fu and I crouched in darkness at either side of the entrance, the cords gripped tightly in our hands. The priest stood before the opening, eyes closed, drawn sword in hand.
From beyond the opening came a thumping noise at regular intervals. The same noise I’d heard the night before, pursuing us into the darkness. The Undead approached.
I could scarcely watch it enter, lumbering in on stiff limbs, long-nailed hands stretched out to the priest, its presence filling the shelter with a sickly green luminescence.
The priest opened his eyes, and then spoke the signal word, the single bit of English he knew, learned just for the occasion.
The initial stages of the operation went as planned. Fu and I rushed past the monster, pulling the drawstrings as we went, which opened the mouths of the sacks and carpeted the hard-packed dirt floor at the entrance to the shelter. Then we crouched outside, fearful, watching the old priest do battle with the monster.
Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)
For the briefest of instants, it looked as though Master Xi’s plan would work. The Chiang Shih fought back, parrying his sword thrusts with long-nailed fingers, but still Master Xi pressed on. The battle between priest and Undead raged.
In the final moment, just as it appeared that Master Xi would succeed in immobilizing the monster, the Chiang Shih swatted the sword from his hands and fell on him, claws and ruined mouth and all. The Taoist priest, with a forlorn shriek, fell under the monster’s teeth and talons, and was ripped into bloody pieces before our eyes.
Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal
6 Sep. Later. – I looked to the cloudless sky overhead, wishing on whatever holy thing that might exist, Oriental or Occidental, that a storm might whip out from the ether, and a thunderclap drive the damned spirit of the monster down into the earth. Then my eyes lit on the cart, and the casket of the dead man, and I knew our only choice.
The weapon and ammunition of the soldiers, forgotten in the excitement of the monster’s attack, were still on the cart, still under the tarp at the foot of the cherry-wood coffin.
“Gunpowder,” I whispered to myself, as though to hear the word aloud would bring it to my hand. “Gunpowder.”
I grabbed Fu’s arm, dragging him after me. I rushed to the cart, still parked only a few dozen feet from the mouth of the shelter by the side of the road, and fell to the knots in the dim light.
Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)
Having consumed what it wanted of Master Xi’s body, the Chiang Shih prowled the rice-laid mouth of the shelter like a caged tiger, sniffing the still air for a hint of our breaths. With every pass, the monster’s feet grazed a little further into the carpet of rice, and despite the tendrils of smoke curling up from its soles, and the silent grimaces of pain, still nearer to freedom it came. The barrier of rice would not hold it for long, and then it will be on us
The foreign doctor was side, tearing at the lashes holding the canvas tarp in place, trying to get at the ammunition. I had surmised that if a thunderclap could dispel the Chiang Shih, then an explosion of gunpowder might serve the same purpose. The Chiang Shih came ever nearer the freedom of the open spaces, ever nearer attacking and consuming us both. We couldn’t get the stoutly-fastened knots loose, and had no knife with which to cut the bindings. After all our exertions, only a single trailing rope was free, hanging in the dust.
Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal
6 Sep. Later. – The monster was almost free. There was no time. We’d not got more than a single rope untied, and our time was through.
Fu drew himself up short, and grabbed my elbow.
“Your light,” he said, struggling for the words. “Your flame. Your…” he broke off, frustrated, and mimed the action of lighting a cigar.
“My lucifer matches?” I answered.
Fu nodded, fiercely.
“Yes, yes, now, matches, now!”
“But we’ve no time for nonsense, boy,” I said. “There’s just no…”
Taken aback, I reached into my vest pocket, and pulled out the box of matches. Fu snatched them from my hands, struck one alight, and then held it to the frayed ends of the single rope trailing down from the lashings. It caught fire, and the flame began to climb up its length.
Fu, grimly, got behind the cart, and began to push it forward towards the shelter with all his might. I hung back a moment, confused, and then in a flash understood the young man’s plan. I put my shoulder to it, and heaved for all I was worth.
Three things happened at once, my mind scarcely able to take them all in.
The Undead stepped into the shelter’s doorway; the cart careered into the open door; and the flame traveling up the cart’s trailing rope reached the canvas covering, which caught fire in an instant blaze. In the following instant, there was only deafening noise and blinding light, as the amassed powder and ammunition on the cart caught fire and exploded, in a violent fury, catching the small shelter in a blossoming firestorm that burned bright as the noonday son.
The cart horse, tied to a nearby tree, brayed and whinnied, but was unhurt, while Fu and I, knocked onto our back, could only look on in exhausted awe at the destructive splendor of the blast.
Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)
The next morning, and the way-station had burned to fine ashes. Nothing of the cart, or the coffin, or Master Xi, or the monster, remained. Of all the caravan that had set out from
We sat, in silence, while the sun rose and climbed the pale blue sky. With few words exchanged, we got to our feet, unhitched the horse, and mounted, the foreign doctor riding behind me, and continued up the road to
I arrived, finally, a day late for my Jinshi degree national examination, and was sent with the next convoy back to
I have returned to service in the administration of my uncle, the Governor of Hunan Province and cousin to his imperial Majesty Xianfeng (scion of the Qing dynasty, lord of heaven, may he reign ten thousand years), but am still desirous of serving the Dragon Throne in a more personal fashion, and helping to bring greater glory to the kingdom of China. Perhaps the strangest lessons I’ve gleaned from my experience is the resolute nature of the Manchurian spirit. Even in death, the Manchurian will not cease to fight, will not surrender. If we remember that, then perhaps we might someday rule the world.
Again, I thank you for your kind indulgence, and await your response.
Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal
31 Oct. Tianjin. – I’ve had neither the opportunity nor the will to update this record since the early morning hours of the 6th September, the morning following the conflagration. During the long journey back to
In the end, my employers and the British authorities in
Of the young scholar Fu, I have seen nothing since our arrival in the capital on horseback. He was greeted with no small dismay by the imperial wardens, as he had evidently given insult to the examiners by missing his scheduled appointment, and compounded the offense by arriving in a sorry state in the company of an uncouth foreigner.
I could not help but pity the young scholar, but felt certain that he would preserver. Though we spoke little in our solitary journey to the capital, on the long nights by the roadside we forced conversation, anything to fill the terrible empty silence of those dark spaces.
I had made mention, on one of these nights, that we in Europe have legends of creatures similar to the Undead of our shared experience, but that men of science and learning such as myself do not give them credence. I wondered aloud what difference in environment or circumstance might give rise to such unnatural monstrosities in one geographical locale, but not allow them in another, as I am certain we have no such in the West. Any thoughts to the contrary are the result only of delusions or irrational passions.
Fu, after a long silence, began to speak in response, but it was almost as though he were answering some question that had not been asked. He had a far away look in his eyes, the flickering light of our fire reflecting his eyes back to me like a cats, glowing in the night.
“I could not help but to feel some small pride at hearing the accomplishment of the seven Manchurian brothers in life,” he said, “seven champions of Xianjian, even if they were responsible for such horrors after death. They had been, in life, true warriors of the Manchurian spirit, and with more like them today
Fu fell silent, and after a time I asked him whether his opinions on the presence and influence of foreigners in his country was common.
“No,” he said simply, “it is not. Those of my mind, we patriots, must pander to the soft whims of those in authority over us. To gain prestige, to gain position and influence, we flatter and coerce. But someday, perhaps, with enough of us in high bureaucracy, matters will change.”
He looked at me across the flickering fire, as though seeing me for the first time, his eyes narrowed.
“And come that day, Doctor, I would hope that you are gone from this land. Far away when that day comes.”
I shivered, and could not help but agree. But I need not wait for Fu’s promised rise to power to force my decision. I have arranged to return to
In my dreams, I am haunted by the memory of that strange, unearthly creature, lurching after me in the darkened Chinese woods. Strange, then, that in my dreams those woods become, at length, the pristine entryway to my home back in Amsterdam, and that instead of the young Manchurian Fu by my side, it is my wife, and my young son, fleeing for their lives.
And every time, just before waking, the monster overtakes my wife and son, and I alone survive, but before I can turn and face the creature, I awaken with a chest rattling scream.
I had hoped to escape my demons by coming to the East, but have found that there were only other demons here, waiting for me. I look forward to returning home, where at least the memories which haunt me will be happier ones, and reason still holds sway.
Copyright © 2004 Monkeybrain, Inc.
Monday, October 08, 2007
Fire in the Lake
Friday, October 05, 2007
Free Fiction Friday: Benu's Story from Paragaea
Earlier in the narrative, our heroine Akilina Chirikova and her companions Hieronymus Bonaventure and the jaguar-man Balaam encountered an artificial being who calls himself Benu, and who has joined them on the search for a passage back to Earth. In the following selection, Akilina begins to wonder about who and what Benu is, precisely, and he obligingly explains.
Paragaea: A Planetary Romance
by Chris Roberson
According to Hieronymus’s maps and Benu’s recollections, the company had more than 1,000 kilometers to cover before they reached the river Pison, and another few hundred beyond that before they arrived at Masjid Empor. Even switching horses at midday, traveling an average of ten hours a day, they could cover no more than thirty and forty kilometers a day. As a result, the journey from Roam to the ferry on the Pison would take them well over a month.
Having walked on foot through rainforest ever since the crash of the Rukh, Leena would have thought that traveling by horseback would prove a relief, but was surprised to find herself, if anything, even more fatigued at the end of a day of riding as she had been after a full day’s slog through the undergrowth. Different muscles were sore, and bruises were found in new and sometimes surprising locations, but the fact that the horse was the one expending all the energy of locomotion appeared to do little to conserve the rider’s strength.
As exhausted as their bodies might be at day’s end, though, their minds were hungry for activity and exercise. With only the unbroken expanses of the high plains to look at, and nothing but the endless days of riding ahead of them, they passed the time in near endless conversation, morning, day, and evening, leaving off only while sleeping, and sometimes not even then, as on frequent occasions on or the other of them would be found talking in their sleep, carrying on the conversations of the day.
Having traveled with Balam and Hieronymus since the day she first arrived on Paragaea, Leena felt that she knew them well enough, though the stories, jokes, and anecdotes they shared on those long days on the high Sakrian plains let her know just how little any one being could truly know another. But while there were occasional surprises, little character flaws or past indiscretions, that she found surprising, on the whole nothing was not in keeping with what she could have guessed about her two long-time companions.
Benu, though, was another matter entirely. Though they’d traveled at his side for a period of weeks, now, Leena felt that they’d hardly come to know the artificial man at all. He seemed so different than the frail, ancient creature he’d been when first they’d met, and his hairless, perfect skin and large opalescent eyes only served to remind her at every turn that he was not human like Hieronymus and she. That he never complained of aches and pains, never hungered, never tired, served to remind her that he was not even a living non-human sentient like Balam. But neither was he a creature of pure artifice, merely a machine. A kind of soul seemed to lurk behind those opalescent eyes, and a personality bubbled up during his often strange pronouncements and lectures. Here was a being who had walked this circle of lands for countless millennia, had seen things that no other living being ever saw, and who knew more than any single being she’d ever met.
But what kind of being was he, at the core?
“Benu,” Leena began one morning, as they cantered across the grasslands, side-by-side, their string of horses following on a lead. “In the days past, the topic of family has arisen from time to time. We have heard about Balam’s sisters Sakhmet and Bastet, and Hero has told us of his parents—the scholar and the cartographer’s daughter—and I have even made mention of my own parents, Mikhail Andreyevich and Irina Ivanovna.”
“Yes,” Benu said, contemplatively. “And I’ve been struck by how often your stories seem to end in tragedy, or one sort or another, whether death, or betrayal, or both.”
On her other side, Balam began to growl, a low rumbling thunder deep in his chest.
“Perhaps,” Hieronymus hastened to interrupt, trying for a light tone, “what Benu means to say is that each of us, in our own way, has experienced the travails of life first hand.”
“No,” Benu answered, shaking his head and glancing casually over at Hieronymus. “I mean to say that you, Hieronymus, betrayed your father’s wishes for your life by running away to sea, rather than pursuing an academic course as he had intended for you. And you did so shortly after your mother’s death, only further linking the two concepts.” He turned to Leena, twisting expertly in the saddle, casually leaning against his saddle’s pommel. “And you, Akilina, lost your parents when only five years old, and were forced to survive a feral existence in the remaining months of a siege, a hardscrabble life that left you little more than a reactionary beast by the processes end.” Leena stiffened, but before she could respond, Benu had moved his attentions on to Balam. “And you, friend Sinaa, were betrayed by your cousin Gerjis, who turned your sisters away from you, and lead your nation into a close alliance with the leader of the Black Sun Genesis cult, one Per, an individual of rather dubious qualities, or so your report would suggest.”
The jaguar man’s fingers tightened on the reins, and his black lips curled back over saber-like incisors. “I prefer not to discuss Per, if you please,” he said between clenched teeth. “So make your point, homunculus, if you have one…”
Benu raised a hand in half-hearted apology.
“I mean no offense,” he said, turning from one to another. “I just observe that the concept of family so often is tied up inextricably with the more negative aspects of culture, whether the betrayal of personal confidences, or the end of existence. Though, to be fair, since all existence ends sooner or later, I suppose one could argue that data point isn’t particularly relevant.” He turned to Leena, his expression open and confused. “I apologize, Akilina, is that not the point you intended to make?”
Leena was still caught in a wash of emotion thinking of her lost parents, and couldn’t help but wish that she hadn’t mentioned them a few nights before, in the late hours of the evening, when Hieronymus had left off talking about his own parents, and their loss.
“No,” Leena finally said, fighting to remain calm and collected. “My point, had I been allowed to make it, would have been that in all this talk of family, we have yet to discuss your own origins, Benu.”
“Oh.” Benu paused for a moment, lids sliding slowly over opalescent eyes, as he looked passed Leena at Balam, and then over to Hieronymus. “My apologies. I mistook your meaning. My own origins are fairly inconsequential. I was constructed by the wizard-kings of Atla, as I may have indicated before. I was designed to be a reconnaissance probe, my original charter to walk to planet, making a complete circuit every few centuries, and to report back what I had learned to my creators. Millennia ago, though, the way to Atla was sealed off, the citadel city hidden behind an energetic barrier wall, when the wizard-kings scorched the steppes of Eschar with cold fire, thus ending the Genos Wars.”
“And the age of the Metamankind Empires began,” Balam said thoughtfully.
“Exactly so. It was an interesting time, though as the old saw holds, one does not always find it enjoyable to live through interesting times. Though, in their way, the metamen did not prove any better or worse as stewards of civilization than the Nonae or the Black Sun Empire had before them, or than the human cultures appear to be proving today. Civilization is, in many ways, an emergent phenomenon, and it seems to matter little to history what species of being steers the ship of state, so long as the ship is steered somewhere or other. And like families and individuals, death seems to claim all civilizations in the end.”
Hieronymus drew in a long breath through his nose, his mouth clamped shut, seemed to marshal his reserves of patience before answering. “You speak cavalierly of families and deaths,” he said, his tone level, “for a being who seems to have known nothing of either.”
Benu regarded him for a moment, something like sadness creeping around his eyes, and shook his head slowly.
“I’m afraid I’ve given you a mistaken impression, my friends, if you have come to think I know nothing of family or of loss.”
“What could you, undying and sexless,” Balam shot back, “know of either?”
“Because I have almost died, many times, and once at the hands of the one I came to know as Ikaru.”
“Ikaru?” Leena asked.
The Story of Benu
“Though my outer form appears little different than that of a human,” Benu said, as they gathered around a campfire at day’s end, their horses grazing on a line in the near distance, “it must not be forgotten that I am an artificial being. My bodies are able to walk unscathed through fire, stay underwater for long periods of time, run fast for days on end, and lift huge weights. I have a weakness, though, which I am understandably reluctant to share. However, since you have bared such personal moments of your pasts with me, it seems only right that I unburden myself to you, to a degree. And awareness of my limitations is crucial in the tale which I now relate.”
I am fueled primarily by the sun, Benu went on. I can draw energy and sustenance through consuming and metabolizing matter, but such process are time consuming, and the resultant energy yields are comparatively low; as a result, I am designed to draw my energy chiefly from the sun’s rays. And though I am able to store a certain amount of energy in my body’s cells, if I overexert my reserves can burn through quickly. Whether quickly or slowly, though, as energy is consumed it must be replenished. If my stores run low in the daylight hours, I can recharge fairly quickly, just by absorbing the sun’s rays, and after a brief respite I can be fully replenished. If my reserves are depleted at night, however, I can be left in a weakened state until sunrise, forced to subsist on the reflected light of the moon.
When at my full strength, I can go without rest for days, can hear sounds undetectable to the most sensitive of organic creatures, and my eyes can perceive every band of the electromagnetic spectrum from radio waves to gamma radiation. In time, though, my systems can become corrupted, decayed, or damaged, and must be repaired.
My makers imbued me with the ability to repair myself, even to the extent of manufacturing new parts and components to replace worn and defective ones. I assume that my original parameters were set such that, when wear and tear reached systemic proportions, I would return to Atla to be decommissioned. Perhaps another probe unit would be sent in my place, or my personality core would be transferred to a new body. I’m afraid that I don’t recall. That knowledge is among that which was lost to me, over the course of the events I now recount.
In any event, whatever my originally conditioning, it is clear that I have adapted over time, so that I now can construct an entire replacement body. Only my central personality core, seat of consciousness and storehouse of memory, cannot be replaced. Once in every millennia, I construct a new body, and when it is complete, simply move the core from the old body to the new. This is the time I am at my most vulnerable, as you three should well know.
If the process goes correctly, there is a continuance of perception from one body to the next. Though the physical bodies may differ somewhat, one to another, so long as the personality core is transferred as the new body is coming online and the old body is shutting down, “Benu” remains.
Once, though, this did not happen. A discontinuity was introduced, and crucial data was lost.
Ultimately, the blame is solely mine. I had waited too long to construct my new body. Having become attached to a small group of humans, I traveled with a young girl and boy, exploring the far reaches of the Paragaean continent. I’d delayed for years returning to the
I collapsed, insensate. When next I opened my eyes, my systems nearly completely failed, my perceptions only taking in a fraction of the data they typically collected, I found that my new body was no longer on the slab. My first thought was that the body had been stolen, but by whom, and for what purpose, I did not know.
I was forced to construct a new self, my systems overtaxed to support an already decaying body for another year beyond its expected termination. Much data was lost in the intervening months, corrupted and irretrievably overwritten, as the personality core took on more and more of the maintenance and upkeep of the body, normally run by the secondary control system located in the skull.
At the end of the year, the new body was complete, and with its final ergs of energy the old body transferred the personality core to the new form, before shutting down forever.
When I opened my eyes, I had trouble adjusting to this new form. I’d gotten so used to the limited motion and prescribed perceptions of my dying body that it took many long weeks before I was able to move comfortably in the new body. My handiwork, too, had been hampered somewhat by my previous sorry state, and it was not until I was able to construct a new body, a millennia later, that I was able to walk without a slight limp, or to express a full range of emotions with my face. And for a millennia, I had trouble hearing the shorter wavebands of radio transmissions, but since most were naturally occurring, the result of plate tectonics and not artificially created communication signals, I didn’t consider it a major loss.
If I wondered what had become of my purloined body, who had stolen it and why, it was only infrequently, and never for long. With more pressing concerns, I just chalked it up to a mystery, and resolved to increase the efficacy of the Temple guardians (for all the good that seems to have done) before constructing another replacement body.
Had I been in better control of my faculties, had I incarnated in a new form with all my memories, senses, and capacities intact, would I have displayed greater curiosity, and bothered to check whether there was any sign of entry or invasion, to search the surrounding environs for any sign where the body might have been taken? Perhaps. But perhaps, too, in my many millennia of wandering, I had grown complacent. When a being lives as long as I have, it is very easy to dismiss perils and threats, no matter how clear and present.
I would have occasion to regret this lack of curiosity in later centuries. Perhaps if I’d known earlier, even a few years or decades after the fact, I could have intervened, and things would have gone differently. But as it was, almost a half-dozen centuries passed before I learned what had become of the missing body, and by then it was far, far too late.
It was on the island of Pentexoire, one in the archipelago that stretches out into the northern reaches of the Outer Ocean, off the coast of Taured, that I finally learned how much had been lost.
I had not been in the region in long millennia, and had resolved to visit each of the cultures in the island chain, to record what changes the intervening centuries might have wrought. I passed through Mistorak, and Bragman, and came at last to Pentexoire. On my previous visit to Pentexoire, I had found it a placid and contemplative society, largely agrarian, that deeply prized the study of natural processes. A rich but sparsely populated principality, it was ruled over by a council of elders. Pentexoire had no standing army, no navy, and its principle export was scholars and thinkers. For a time, to have a Pentexoirean tutor was the distinguishing mark of quality for any wealthy scion’s upbringing.
Now, on my return to the island after so long an absence, I was surprised to see everything I had once admired about the culture stripped away. Militant, aggressive, anti-intellectual, Pentexoire was now a culture perpetually preparing for armed conflict. The centers of learning and natural study had all been shuttered and closed, replaced with temples and places of religious instruction. The locals I questioned were all fearful of outsiders, having been convinced by their religious and political leaders than all non-Pentexoire were in league with dark forces, intent only on their enslavement. Worse, some feared that I was an agent of the secret police, trying to ferret out dissidents to join the other malcontents on gibbets strung up along the thoroughfares, dying by inches. Near the cities, the posts from which the decaying corpses swung were as thick as the trees in the forest of Altrusia, the victims numbering in the hundreds, if not thousands.
Analyzing what I knew of the culture’s history, I could not recall any societal trends that might account for such a remarkable shift. I questioned as many of the locals as would speak to me, and most of the respondents attributed their culture’s movement away from learning and towards dogma—which all averred was a positive move—as the work of their tireless leader, an absolute dictator who carried the title “presbyter.” Remarkably, most of them could not recall how long the presbyter had held the throne, saying only that he had been their ruler all their lives. Considering that the oldest of the respondents was nearly their first century in age, that meant for a considerably long-lived ruler.
I resolved to go to see this ruler for myself. When I arrived at the capital city, though, I found the presbyter and the rest of the government had only recently departed. The court had relocated from the main residence at Nyse, to spend the warm months behind the sardonyx gates and ivory bars of the summer palace at Susa.
After a journey of several days, I reached Susa, which was no longer the contemplative city I remembered from prior visits, once devoted exclusively to the pursuit of intellection. Now, it was a city at war, more a military encampment than a township.
I was taken prisoner immediately on entering the city, charged with traveling without the appropriate accreditation, and taken before a military official. My physiognomy, which usually went unremarked in my travels, was a subject of considerable discussion among my captors. Of particular interest were my opalescent eyes and pale, hairless skin. My strength, even in that slipshod body, was such that I could have escaped at any moment, but I was curious to observe the Pentexoireans under their natural conditions, and this provided a perfect opportunity. One of the military officials left for some brief time, evidently consulting with some superior, and then returned, to escort me elsewhere.
I assumed initially that I was being led to some audience or interrogation, surprised that I had not been shackled hands and feet, as prisoners typically are. Instead, I was led down a long flight of stairs to the sunless depths of the palace, to a well appointed room lined with tapestries. I was asked to take a seat, and told that someone would be along shortly.
I had become too reliant on my physical capacities, and once again failed to recognize potential threats. When the door to the small room closed with a clanking sound of finality, I realized I had been tricked. The lights went out, and I was plunged in darkness. It took no more than a few minutes investigation to reveal that behind the delicate tapestries were stone walls, unimaginably thick, and the door through which I’d entered was of reinforced metals as thick as I was tall, an incalculable fortune in ore, here spent on keeping me imprisoned.
Long days passed, blurring into weeks. Even without expending any energy on fruitless attempts to escape, which I knew could only fail, as the weeks passed my reserves of energy slowly leeched away, and I weakened fractionally with every hour. Out of sight of the sun, in this dark pit, I gradually lost all but my final reserves of strength.
When the door finally opened again, I could do little more than lift up my head.
“Presbyter Ikaru will see you now,” said the uniformed man who stood at the door.
Dragged to my feet unceremoniously, I was taken through dimly lit halls, up a winding flight of stairs, to an audience chamber of some kind. Through the open windows I could see a clear, moonless night sky.
Sitting on a throne at the front of the room was a figured dressed in elaborate robes of jet black and blood red. He was pale and hairless, and regarded me coolly with opalescent eyes.
The Story of Ikaru
“This Ikaru, then, was your purloined body?” Leena asked, as they broke camp in the morning, setting out for another day’s ride across the plains.
“So I immediately surmised,” Benu answered, climbing into the saddle.
“And yet you said Ikaru was your son?” Balam asked, cinching up the saddle on his lead draft horse.
“Though I lack the generative capacity, in all regards I have come to look upon Ikaru as a kind of offspring, so the term is correct. From the first words we exchanged, though, I knew I had failed my son.”
Weakened and hardly able to move, Benu said, I was deposited at the feet of the presbyter, seated on the throne. The uniformed man who had escorted me from my cell departed through a side door, and the presbyter and I were left alone in the audience chamber. I had energy enough to speak, but could not have taken a step unaided, without depleting the last of my reserves.
“Who are you?” Presbyter Ikaru asked, imperiously “There is some connection between the two of us, that much is obvious. With your lack of body hair, your alabaster skin, and unusual eyes… we could be brothers. I had thought I was the only one of my kind, having seen only one other like me in all my long years, and that one already dead.”
I understood at once the reason for my long imprisonment. This Ikaru was aware of the weakness of our artificial form, and when he received word that a being who resembled himself so nearly had been discovered in the streets of Susa, he ordered me captured, and kept imprisoned out of reach of the sun’s rays.
“Answer me,” Ikaru repeated, growing agitated. I could tell he was impatient, having waited now long months for me to weaken to the point where I could be safely interrogated.
“I am an artificial being,” I explained, though he doubtless knew. “I was forged to act as a probe for the wizard-kings of Atla, a culture that has long since sealed itself off from any congress with the outside world, millennia ago.”
Ikaru regarded me coolly with opalescent eyes for a long moment, scratching his chin. Though his skin was as pale as mine, it bore the scars and abrasions of many injuries, and the years hung on him more heavily than on me.
“Am I a probe, too, then?” Ikaru asked at length “But my memory stretches back little more than six centuries, not over millennia. Why was I constructed, and by whom?”
“I may be able to answer those questions,” I told him, “but I must first know what you remember of your earliest moments. And how did you come to rule this island nation, so changed since last I saw it?”
“Very well,” Ikaru answered, as though he were granting me some magnanimous boon. “My first memories are of waking up, confused and alone, in a ruined temple some centuries ago. On the floor at my feet lay an ancient man, with unseeing eyes like glittering opals, who appears to all indications to be dead. On reflection, I quickly came to realize that, while I had some basic knowledge—familiarity with language, knowledge of geography, and so forth—I had no notion who I was. I staggered out of the temple, past strange rows of statues, past small biting creatures who gnashed their teeth at my feet and ankles but caused no injury, out into the jungle.”
He paused, and his hand drifted across his forehead dreamily, as though he were brushing away a spider’s web.
“I’ve had so little occasion to recall those early days in the last few centuries that I find a strangely… emotional response to my now recounting them.” Ikaru paused, and straightened on the throne. “In any event, not knowing where I should go, nor what I should do, I found myself traveling north, wandering aimlessly, searching for some idea who I was. I came upon a settlement of the Pakunari of Ogansa Valley, and passed some years among them. It was the Pakunari that named me Ikaru, which means ‘ageless’ in their tongue.”
A faint smile played on his lips, and then faded, as a shadow seemed to pass over him.
“In time, though, the hairy creatures came to view me with suspicion. While they aged and died, I remained young and unmarred, and when a particularly cruel season saw a large number of their young and old killed by plague, I was blamed. But they could not harm me, and were forced instead to settle for driving me out. I traveled south, skirting the western edge of the Rim Mountains, moving from fishing village to fishing village. I passed a few years on a whaling vessel, and eventually jumped ship on the island of Croatoan. But the strange habits of the island’s distributed consciousness unsettled me, and I soon moved on. I traveled through the Eastern Desert, spent a few years as the prisoner of a cohort of the Nonae, who had the good fortune to catch me in a weakened state and to bind my hands and feet with bonds that were proof even against my great strength. The Nonae kept me as a kind of pet, a toy for their amusement. I eventually escaped, killing the entire cohort in the process, and made my way to Masjid Logos, where I found work illuminating manuscripts at a scholarium.
“From my time among the Nonae, I had learned the possible uses of a strong warrior caste, and to what ends a nation dedicated to warfare could be directed. While illuminating religious texts in Masjid Logos, I learned the powerful effects that doctrine could have, even when not founded on experiential data of any kind. Were one to establish a warrior caste motivated by religious doctrine, I reasoned, great things could be accomplished.”
Ikaru waved a hand around the audience chamber, indicating the map of the island on the far wall.
“Pentexoire is my second attempt to put this theory into practice. My previous attempt was in a Sakrian township a few days travel outside of Azuria. The presence of surrounding cultures, though, proved too much a contaminating influence, and within a few generations the populace rejected my temporal and spiritual authority, and I was forced to flee ahead of an angry mob. For my next and latest experiment in social controls, then, I selected an island culture, isolated both by geography and circumstance from outside contamination.”
“What is the purpose of these… ‘experiments’?” I asked.
“I have seen organic culture at its best and worst, and I have come to question whether organics, with their short-lived vantage, are best suited to govern their own destinies. It seems to me that organic culture would be better served to look to a superior intellect for governance, one with a longer view of history.”
“And yours, naturally, is the superior intellect in question?”
“Naturally,” Ikaru said, without a hint of irony. “And given that it is my responsibility to govern, it is in my subjects’ best interest that I devise the means of social controls that will result in the most effective organization and structure of culture.”
The presbyter leaned forward, regarding me closely.
“Now,” he said, “I believe you owe me some answers. Having heard what you have of my earliest memories, and my activities since, are you now in a position to address my origins?”
“You were never intended to develop an independent consciousness. The knowledge you possessed on first waking was the basic programming incorporated into the secondary control system housed in your skull. The cavity on your chest is intended to house the personality core of Benu, which is now incorporated instead into this body.” Benu indicated the gem on his chest. “Herein reside the thoughts and memories which should have been yours on wakening.”
“So you hold the mind that was intended to be mine?” Ikaru said. “But who constructed you, then?”
“The same hand that constructed you,” Benu answered. “My earlier self, the former Benu, who you mistook for a corpse on the temple floor upon awakening. I was not dead, but only momentarily deactivated, having failed to transfer the personality core in time. Had all gone as planned, when your eyes opened, you would have had my memories. Instead, I was forced to build this new form.”
“And that is why we look as alike as brothers?”
“Yes. We share the same basic design, though the minute details differ from iteration to iteration.”
“Fascinating,” Ikaru said. “And how is it that our internal processes function? I have, of course, surmised the need for direct sunlight, but the mechanisms through which our bodies collect and store energy elude me.”
I had little desire to engage in lengthy discourse about my systemic processes, at that juncture. I was at the disadvantage, in my weakened state, and had begun to suspect that my “offspring’s” motives were not the purest. I could allow that he had, in first learning of my arrival, wanted to take all precaution before our initial meeting, but having spent some time in his company, I had come to the conclusion that his every attention was bent on the domination of his subjected nation, and that he had no intention of us ever meeting one another on equal footing.
I answered his further questions, though, my answers as lengthy and circuitous as possible. It seemed that Ikaru, having revealed for him his origins for the first time, was so distracted that he had not noticed the passage of time, nor the fact that the first light of dawn had already begun to pink the eastern sky. Even the feeble rays of this early gloaming was enough to begin slowly to replenish my long discharged stores of energy.
When I had explained the rudiments of our bodies internal processes, Ikaru held up a hand to silence me, and looked at the gem on my chest, contemplatively.
“I wonder what would eventuate,” he said, “if I removed the personality core from your body and installed it in my own chest?” He pulled apart his jet-and-crimson robes, revealing the cavity at the center of his chest. “Would I merely gain your memories and knowledge, all that you posses and have learned? Or would my personality be subsumed by the personality of Benu?”
“I don’t know,” I told him, and while I honestly didn’t, I had no desire to find out.
“Perhaps, then,” Ikaru said at length, “I will just keep you imprisoned in the oubliette. Then I could interrogate you at my leisure, to take from you what knowledge I might find of utility. I would very much like to learn more about our original designers, these wizard-kings of Atla, who seem so cavalierly to have discarded their probes into the world.”
“Ikaru,” I said, looking upon him with genuine sympathy, “if I have learned anything in my long years of wandering this circle of lands, it is that the best use of power seldom ever lies in its exercise. My fear for you is that, having set yourself up as master of this nation of people, that you have lost all perspective. I have, in my time, been subject to many of the same temptations which now drive you. I would help you, if you’d let me, avoid the mistakes which I have made, and which I have seen others make, so that you can make the best use of your time on this globe.”
“Nonsense,” Ikaru replied, dismissing my words with a wave of his hand. “My perspective is my own, thank you, and what lessons I’ll learn from you, will be of my own choosing, not your soporific platitudes. Power exists to be used. In the potential it is meaningless, only when made actual is it of any utility.”
“In that csae,” I said, “I will not remain your prisoner any longer than I already have. And I have no desire whatsoever to help advance your plans.”
Before Ikaru could respond, I made my move.
My strength still at perilously low levels, in a single motion I rose to my feet, and launched myself bodily at the nearest window. I sailed out into the sunrise, and plunged down dozens of stories, my landing creating a small impact crater. I climbed unsteadily to my feet, and made my way into the twisting streets of Susa, managing to keep a few steps ahead of the presbyter’s guards. Within a matter of days, I was on a ship bound for Taured, my strength regained, putting Pentexoire forever behind me.
I had considered staying on the island, remaining in hiding while locating pockets of dissidents, and helping to mount a resistance to the presbyter’s rule. Cleaning up Ikaru’s mess. But the historical processes involved were inevitable, and eventually the Pentexoireans would rid themselves of Ikaru on their own. Perhaps not in the present generation, perhaps even not for centuries, but eventually. And when they did, when Ikaru saw that organic cultures will not suffer a dictator interminably, then perhaps my son would learn that he had chosen the wrong path.
There would always be other cultures, though, increasingly remote, wherein he could perform his “experiments,” so perhaps he would not.
Copyright © 2006 Monkeybrain, Inc.
Friday, September 28, 2007
Free Fiction Friday: "Penumbra"
Judex appears and disappears like a ghost, and would appear to have mild hypnotic powers. Indeed, he is first nicknamed... The Mysterious Shadow! He is a master of disguise, and an excellent fighter. He commands the loyalty of an organization composed of circus folks and redeemed apaches. Finally, he flies a plane and has a secret lair, where he interrogates his prisoners through a "television" screen -- everything Judex writes on the screen on his desk appears on a similar screen on the wall of his victim's cell.The serial was created by Louis Feuillade, who was also responsible for the popular serial Les Vampires, which gave the world the first modern femme fatale, Irma Vep. The image of Vep in a batwinged catsuit is an indelible one, and was a notable inspiration on later characters of the same type.
Just what all of these influences and intersections suggest is where the following story comes in.
by Chris Roberson
The morning papers all carried the story on their front pages, most with huge banner headlines above the fold. Perhaps the various editors thought their readers needed a diversion from another day’s litany about the numbers of young French servicemen dead in a recent military action, or about ground lost to or won back from the Boche. Or perhaps they knew that glamorous crime, particularly so close to home, would always sell newspapers. Either way, over breakfast all of
Ironically, of all of the reporters covering the event, Philippe Guerande of Le Mondial was the one most skeptical of the proposed connection to the infamous gang, the Vampires. Guerande had been writing about the suspected activities of the Vampires since the spring, even if his reports were buried in the back pages of the metropolitan section before the decapitation of Inspector Dural made front page headlines. The editors at Le Mondial, though, knowing full well how many copies a Vampires-related lead story could sell, had commissioned one of their staff artists to do a somewhat hasty sketch of the figure clad in skin-tight black slinking away across the rooftop, along side an inset photo of the victim’s body lying on the pavement, the crushed remains tastefully covered in a white sheet the instant before the photographer had taken the shot. Through the black-and-white grain of the photo, faint shadows could be seen appearing on the impromptu shroud, where the blood pooled on the body had begun to seep through the fabric. The editors then placed above the photo and pen-and-ink sketch a headline reading, “VAMPIRES THROW VICTIM FROM HIGH WINDOW – FLEE SCENE.”
Guerande’s article, however, left open the question of whether the infamous gang was or was not truly involved, stating merely that a man had fallen to his death from a high story window of a residential building, and that a figure clad in skin-tight black from head to toe had been seen fleeing the scene of the crime, running across the rooftops.
At the home offices of the banker Favraux, the topic was mentioned in passing, dispassionately, as one might discuss the weather or the quality of one’s dinner of the previous night. Not too miles away, war raged, and young men bled out their last strung up on wires in No Man’s Land, or huddled for shelter in trenches and hastily-dug foxholes, dreading the whiff of gas that might come drifting across the lines—chlorine, phosgene, or worse yet, mustard gas—but within the cool confines of Favraux’s wood-paneled study, all was peaceful and serene. Favraux and his guest had business to discuss, and the concerns of the wider world dwindled in comparison.
Favraux’s personal secretary, Vallieres, an older man with snow-white beard and hair neatly trimmed, was on hand as he always was on these occasions; but he kept to the shadows at the corner of the room, silent, unobtrusive, never noticed unless and until he was needed. Vallieres was the most trusted of all Favraux’s servants and employees, and the only one to whom the banker entrusted his most guarded secrets. Favraux never kept notes during his meetings, or a personal diary. Instead, he looked to Vallieres to monitor what was discussed, and to recall specific details on demand. So it was with great care that Vallieres followed the conversation between Favraux and his young guest.
Dr. Wayne, a young American in
Favraux’s distress was obvious and genuine, then, when Mrs. Wayne arrived in tears and without the gem in her possession.
“Oh, darling,” she said, throwing herself into her husband’s arms. “You simply must forgive me. I…I no longer have the Gotham Girasol.”
Dr. Wayne stiffened, and cast an uncomfortable glance to his host before turning his wife’s face upwards and looking her in the eyes.
“Martha,” he said, trying to sound calm but his voice audibly strained, “whatever do you mean?” His French was as good as hers, which is to say passable, but pronounced with a thick-tongued American accent that fell hard on Gallic ears.
“It was stolen from me nearly a week ago,” Mrs. Wayne answered, her voice quavering. “I was wearing it when we attended that ball on
Dr. Wayne held onto his wife for a moment, as his gaze drifted and settled on the middle distance, thoughts racing behind his eyes. Then he released her, and slumped into a chair. Mrs. Wayne, sobbing vocally behind a handkerchief, kept stealing glances at her husband, almost as though gauging his reactions.
Several days earlier, the Baron de Mortesalgues had held a grand ball at his home on
After a long moment, Dr. Wayne composed himself, and rose from the chair, straightening his waistcoat.
“Mr. Favraux, you must accept my apologies,” he said, turning to his host. “It appears that I will not be able to provide you collateral, after all, and as a result my wife and I might be forced to cut short our stay in
Favraux bristled visibly. Vallieres knew his employer’s moods and tempers well, and could see that the banker was pained at the thought of not laying hands on the precious gem, to say nothing of the interest he’d planned to collect on the loan. However, if Dr. Wayne were to return to the States without first investigating in the banker’s funds, Favraux stood to lose a great deal more. Just a few days’ grace, and the cashier’s check would arrive in
“Well, my dear Dr. Wayne,” Favraux answered, visibly pained by what he was about to say, “we cannot allow the criminal element and the capricious whims of fate to interfere with the business of men, now can we? Absent the security of the gem as collateral”—he paused, his face flushing red with suppressed anger and anxiety—“I am still willing to loan you a small sum, sufficient to allow you to stay on in Paris until our business is concluded.”
Dr. Wayne took Favraux’s hand, visibly relieved.
“I cannot thank you enough for your generosity, Favraux,” he said. “It would have been most… unfortunate, if our long negotiations would have been for naught.”
The hard glance Dr. Wayne gave his wife made it clear to Vallieres for whom such an outcome would have been the most unfortunate.
Once the arrangements for the loan were completed, and polite words were exchanged all around, Dr. Wayne and his wife took their leave.
When they had gone, Favraux dismissed Vallieres for the rest of the day. The banker’s daughter Jacqueline had convinced him that his grandson needed more masculine attention, since her own husband had died nearly three years before. As a result, Favraux had reluctantly agreed to take his daughter and grandson to the circus for the afternoon, though it was obvious that he regretted the decision.
Vallieres, unaccustomed to being at his liberty so early in a working day, saw nothing for it but to go home. Pausing only to pick up a copy each of the day’s papers from the newsagent on the corner, he returned to the apartments he kept in another quarter of the city.
Once safely in his study, Vallieres dropped the newspapers on his cluttered desk, piled high with papers, notes, and photographs. He laid his coat carefully across the back of a chair, and crossed the floor to an armoire with a full-length mirror set in its door.
With practiced motions, Vallieres removed his snow-white beard and mustaches, and pulled off his wig of snow-white hair. Dropping them into a bowl on a side table, he stood straighter, an intense scowl on his young, lean face. He smoothed back his short black hair, and regarded himself momentarily in the mirror. Having put aside the mask of the ever-loyal, always patient Vallieres, he stood revealed for who he truly was: Judex!
Of course, Judex himself was something of a mask. Not the name with which he was born, he chose it by necessity, to help him fulfill the oath he made to his mother, so many years before. An oath to avenge the death of his father, the Count de Tremeuse, who took his own life after losing the family fortune to bad investments. Investments made on the advice of an eager young banker, Favraux.
That his father died just as news arrived that a gold claim he had in
Instead, fate had decreed that Judex would own a gold mine, along with his brother, who was currently in
And at the moment, Favraux’s dealings included the young American couple, the Waynes.
Judex sat at his desk, and looked over the piles of newspaper clippings, bank records, notes, photographs, medical documents, receipts and vouchers. Ephemera and trivia, bits of information discarded in the wake of the young doctor and his wife. A portrait of a life painted in tiny bits of data, like the points in a Seurat painting.
Judex had been investing Dr. Wayne and his wife as a matter of course, these past weeks. If the
Before that morning, Judex had found no reason to suspect their sincerity, nor to believe they were anyone but who they said they were. He had initially suspected that the couple might not be the
Why, then, did Judex feel so strongly that something was amiss? Mrs. Wayne’s recounting of the theft of the Girasol this morning, though emotional, was not convincing. It had too much the air of a rehearsed speech, of a dramatic address delivered on queue. She was lying, but about what?
The answer, Judex found, was right in front of him.
Amongst the piles of research materials on the
Judex drew a jeweler’s loop from the desk draw, and peered at the photo through its magnifying lens. Around the neck of Mrs. Wayne he could make out the Gotham Girasol, suspended from a silver chain.
Judex laid beside that photo another, clipped from the society pages of the Paris Chronicle just a few days before. It was of Mrs. and Dr. Wayne, taken the evening of Baron de Mortesalgues’ ball on
He sat back, his brow creased. There could be no doubt. In the photo, Mrs. Wayne was clearly not wearing the Gotham Girasol. The gem had not been stolen that night at
Why was Mrs. Wayne lying?
Judex was convinced the Vampires were involved in some fashion. There were simply too many points of congruence to dismiss them as coincidence—the Waynes in attendance at the ballet when Koutiloff is poisoned, and again at the Maillot Avenue ball for the most daring robbery of the decade. What other connections might there be?
Judex was committed. He would investigate the Vampires in parallel with his ongoing researches into the
Judex was not the only one investigating the Vampires. The police were involved, naturally, their every available resource assigned the task of searching for the gang. Impatient at the progress of the investigation to date, though, the authorities had called in the assistance of private detectives like Celeritas Ribuadet and the famous Rouletabille, and citizens such as Cigale Mystère—a civilian adventurer who assisted the Parisian authorities from time to time, cruising the streets in his electric car, loaded down with futuristic gadgets and devices—and the Nyctalope—who prowled the nights for sign of the Vampires, his keen eyes seeing what others could. But so far no one had been able to track the Vampires to their lair, nor divine the mystery of who led the mysterious organization. There were whispers of a Grand Vampire who directed his subordinates movements from behind closed doors, and perhaps even higher echelons of power above even that, but they remained only whispers, nothing more.
But the police and the other mystery men could busy themselves tracking down the criminals. Judex was interested in matters only as they pertained to Favraux. What deviltry the Vampires did in the larger world was of no concern to him. Until his father had been avenged, there could be no justice.
It seemed to Judex prudent to being his investigations into the Vampires at the site of their most recent crime. Their earlier exploits—the decapitation of Inspector Dural, the poisoning of Marfa Koutiloff, the mass robbery and possible kidnapping at the home of the Baron de Mortesalgues—he knew well enough from the detailed coverage provided each in the daily news. If there were hidden connections to the
It took only a few hours investigation and a few francs placed in the right palms to turn up a number of interesting facts about the case. The victim, who had fallen to his death from a fifth story window, was one Jean Morlet, an associate the Monsieur Oreno who resided at that address. However, Judex could find no record of this Oreno before the previous week. In addition, he was able to discover that Oreno had rented out the entire fifth floor of the building the day after the events at the
The next day, once “Vallieres” had completed his duties for the banker Favraux, Judex made for the jail, sure he was feeling around the edges of some larger puzzle. It took only a few francs to learn the prisoner’s name, and a few francs more to convince the gendarme on duty that Judex should be allowed a brief counsel with him in private.
“I’ve already told the other police everything I’m going to say,” the prisoner said, after Judex had been ushered into his cell. The gendarme locked the door.
“Just call when you are ready to go, monsieur,” the gendarme said, retreating down the hall.
Judex waited until the jailer was well out of earshot, and turned his attention to the American. He was young, just entering his twenties, with high, narrow cheekbones, a prominent hawk-nose, and piercing eyes.
“I am not with the police, Allard,” Judex said, drawing his cape tight around him, gazing at the American from beneath the brim of his hat. “I have questions of my own.”
The American seemed to squirm beneath Judex’s steady gaze.
“Alright, then,” he finally said, his eyes shifting to the ground. “What is it you want to know? It’s not as if I’ve got anywhere else to be at the moment.”
“You were arrested for attempting to burgle the residence of a Monsieur Oreno, which I will come to in a moment. But first, I’m curious to know why you are in Paris, Mr. Allard. Why come to a land in the grips of war, when you could easily live in safety at home?”
Judex could not help but think of Raphael Norton and his embezzled fortune. But if this were he, what had become of his female accomplice, Miss Florid?
“Look,” Allard said, raising his chin defiantly, “I’m not about to sit out the war like those cowards back at home in the States, too fat and lazy to come to the defense of their European cousins. If all men don’t act to stamp out evil at its root, it’ll spread like a weed all across the globe. And then where will we be?”
Judex’s mouth drew into a tight line, and he said, “I’m sure I don’t know.”
“Well, I couldn’t sit idly by while others fought for the cause of justice,” Allard went on. “I’m a… how do you say it in French?” He paused, and then said the English term, “barnstormer.”
Judex nodded slowly, and translated into the French, “An aviator.”
“Yes,” Allard answered, “I’m an aviator. Anyway, I have relatives in
“If you already suspect that this Kentov will never contact you here, why remain in
Allard’s gaze shifted, and a blush raised on his cheek.
“I have been… distracted,” he finally said, a faraway sound to his voice.
Judex pulled his cape tighter, but nodded slightly.
“Very well,” he said. “Now we come to the matter of Monsieur Oreno. Who is he to you?”
“He’s a cheating bastard, and a liar!” Allard scowled, teeth clenched, his eyes flashing. “Oreno stole something of considerable value from me, and I was just trying to get it back.”
“How did you know him?”
“I’ve been going to a cabaret called La Veuve Joyeuse a great deal these past few weeks,” Allard said, a wistful tone creeping into his voice, “and I met Oreno there one night. We talked a bit about the art of mesmerism, which he claimed to have some special knowledge of. I don’t have any proof of this, but I think that he might have clouded my mind in some way. How else could he have known about the…” He paused, and bit down on the next word he’d been about to say. “About the item, that is,” he finished, lamely.
“What was it that he stole from you?”
Allard expression was guarded, his lips drawn tight.
“Something very dear to me,” was all he would say.
A few nights later, after fruitless investigations, Judex returned to his apartments late in the evening. He looked forward to the day when his brother returned to
Judex’s rooms were darkened, but he knew in an instant that something was amiss. A subtle scent on the air, a tingling sensation on the back of his neck. Once the door was shut and locked behind him, he knew. He was not alone.
“Do not turn on the light,” came a soft, sultry voice from the darkness. “Or, if you must, turn on only the table lamp. It is so much nicer that way, don’t you think?”
Judex’s fingers ached for the brace of pistols he kept in the armoire, a dozen steps across the room. He would never go out unarmed again. In a flash, he calculated the path and distance to the armoire, the seconds needed to reach it and open the door, grab and aim the pistol—if the intruder were armed, he’d never reach it in time.
“If you’re thinking of these,” the voice from the darkness said, followed by the distinctive sound of a pistol’s hammer being pulled back, “I liberated them from the cupboard when I came in. I do hope you don’t mind.”
Judex stood in place, but reached down to the table at his knees at switched on the lamp.
Seated in his chair, with her feet up on the desk, was a woman wearing a skin-tight black jumpsuit. She was covered head to toe, with only her face left revealed. Her smoldering, fierce gaze caught Judex’s, and she smiled.
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Judex,” the woman said, gesturing him towards the couch with the barrel of the pistol, the other held casually in her lap.
“Who are you?” Judex stood his ground, arms crossed.
“Who I am is not of particular importance at this juncture, but whom I represent most definitely is.”
“The Vampires,” Judex hissed through his teeth.
“Got it in one.” The woman smiled. “I have come to tell you something. This murder that you’ve begun investigating, the man who fell to his death from that building—the Vampires had nothing to do with it. Our leader has only recently become aware of your existence, and has ordered that you be left alone for the moment because he is not yet sure whether you can be of use to us in future. If you interfere in our affairs, though, and go from being a potential asset to being a nuisance, we will be forced to eliminate you.”
“And to forestall this you deny one of your crimes? How do you benefit?”
The woman bristled, a cloud passing momentarily across her smooth features.
“We deny none of our actions!” The woman gestured with the pistol, and Judex tensed involuntarily, anticipating a shot. “Did we cut the head from that oaf Dural? Yes! Did we poison that bitch Koutiloff? Yes! But did we throw this Morlet to his death last night? Most definitely not.”
“Why should I believe you?” Judex’s eyes narrowed.
“Because if we were truly guilty of the killing, we wouldn’t be warning you away. We’d just kill you for interfering in our business. But I prefer to kill those who deserve to die.” Her mouth drew into a line, and she added in a hushed whisper, “Like that bastard
“And what about the
The woman jumped to her feet, tossing one of the pistols to the ground with a thud, and pointing the other square at Judex’s chest.
When she reached the window, her attention briefly turned away from him, Judex prepared to rush forward, intending to tackle her to the ground. As though she could sense his intentions, though, the woman spun around, and pointed the barrel of the pistol directly at Judex’s face.
“Please don’t try that,” the woman said, sounding again all sweetness and light. “I don’t want to have to hurt you unnecessarily, and it would be a shame to mar such a striking profile.”
With that, the woman tossed the pistol to the ground, and stepped over the sill to the ledge beyond. When Judex rushed to the window to look out, she had already disappeared into the night.
Judex could not sleep that night. The information the woman provided, however unintentionally, was the last puzzle piece that he needed. He had only to confirm his suspicions, and all would be clear.
Returning to the night air, his cape wrapped around him and his hat pulled down low over his brown, Judex made his way to the scene of the crime. With ease, he did what Allard and the black-suited burglar had both failed to do, breaking into the home of Monsieur Oreno without once being seen. Oreno was not in, no doubt meeting with his associates at La Veuve Joyeuse cabaret at that hour. Crime does not keep workman’s hours, after all.
In a locked bedroom in Oreno’s suite, Judex found what he was looking for, and more besides, packed into several valises and a few small chests. It was the work of just a few minutes to transfer the contents of the cases and chests to his automobile, parked on the street outside. One item in particular he slipped into his pocket.
Driving to the Public Assistance Bureau to make a donation, Judex cursed himself for his earlier blindness. Monsieur Oreno. “M. Oreno.” He should have seen it long before.
Mrs. Wayne was packing up her belongings in their rooms at the Park Hotel. Her husband had concluded his business with Favraux that afternoon, and they would now be returning home to
“Your pardon,” said a voice from the shadows, and Mrs. Wayne leapt a few inches into the air, her heart in her throat.
“I mean you no harm,” the voice continued, and Judex stepped out from a darkened corner, silent as a ghost.
“W-who are you?” Mrs. Wayne clutched a black leotard to her chest, wringing the fabric in her hands, her packing forgotten.
“You can call me Judex.”
“Did you say… justice?”
Something like a smile played across Judex’s mouth.
“No. Judex. But it is about justice that I’ve come. I know what you have done, Mrs. Wayne.”
Judex pointed to the black leotard in her hands, with scalloped-edge bat wings attached at the shoulders and wrists.
“I see that you even kept the costume you wore that night.”
Tears began to stream down her cheeks.
“I hadn’t meant for anyone to get hurt, honestly. But that man chased me out onto the ledge, and then he fell, and then… But I just had to.. I had to get it back…”
Judex held out his hand and opened his palm, revealing a fire-opal with a faint purple cast and lights dancing deep within. The
“I broke into Oreno’s rooms,” Judex explained, “and found what remained of the loot from the
Mrs. Wayne looked with wide at the gem in Judex’s palm, and then met his eyes.
“Yes, Mrs. Wayne, I know that you gave away the Gotham Girasol some time before the night of the ball.”
Mrs. Wayne struggled to take a breath.
“What will you…” She paused, swallowing hard. “That is, what will you do with…”
“I have given the pilfered goods to the Public Assistance Bureau, where they will no doubt serve society better than they ever could have done in the hands of their rightful owners. I am, however, prepared to return the Girasol to you.”
“No,” she said, turning her eyes away. “I could not bear to hold it. There is another who should have it, who should always keep…” Her words choked off in a stifled sob.
“Allard,” Judex said simply.
Mrs. Wayne was shocked, but she nodded, slowly.
“You met him at a cabaret, unless I miss my guess,” Judex went on, “and you found him a welcome change to your somewhat brusque and acerbic husband, the good doctor. You wanted to give him a token of your affection, one which you prized above all others. Otherwise, the gesture would be meaningless, no?”
Mrs. Wayne nodded still, as though hypnotized.
“No,” she said, then shook her head, as if to clear away cobwebs. “I mean, yes. I mean…” She drew a deep breath, collecting herself. “I met… him… a few weeks ago. My husband had been so busy with his meetings that it was almost as if we weren’t going to have a honeymoon at all. I started going out on my own, to the restaurants and cabarets. It was at La Veuve Joyeuse that I met… Mr. Allard. So intense, and an aviator. How dashing he was. I suppose you could say that we fell in love. She gave him the gem in a moment of passion, symbol of my feelings for him. But I’d soon have reason to regret it.”
Mrs. Wayne glanced at the gem, still resting in Judex’s palm.
“The next day, my husband told me that we might need the gem for collateral. I knew that any day he might come and ask me for it, and I wouldn’t have it. As soon as I could I rushed to see Mr. Allard, to get it back, but he told me that it had been stolen by this Oreno character. He promised he’d get it back from Oreno, but the next thing I knew Mr. Allard had been arrested.”
“So you had no choice but to steal it yourself,” Judex said.
“Yes. I’d heard all the stories about the infamous gang, the Vampires. I hired a costume from the Costumier Pugenc, the same I’d seen in the ballet weeks ago, with the idea that if anyone saw me breaking into Oreno’s apartments, the blame would be cast on the Vampires gang. The man came upon me just as I was entering the room, though, and then he fell to his death. After that, I knew I’d never have another chance at stealing it back, so I told my husband it had been stolen that night in
Mrs. Wayne took a deep breath and sighed. She smoothed the fabric of the black leotard in her hands, and then set it gently back on the bed.
“I suppose you will turn me over to the police now,” she said, sounding resigned. “I am wanted be the law, after all.”
“I wouldn’t give a bent sou for the law,” Judex said, tightening his hand into a fist around the gem. “The law turns a blind eye while villains prosper, allowing a cancer to eat away at society’s heart. No, I care nothing for the law. I care only for justice.”
Mrs. Wayne shook her head, looking like she wanted to spit.
“Justice? Do you want to know about justice, Monsieur Judex? Then I will tell you. I have just learned today that I am with child. Pregnant. And I don’t know whether my husband or my beloved is the father.”
“You talk to me of justice? What are your sordid affairs to me or to Lady Justice?”
Mrs. Wayne lifted her chin, defiant.
“Because even if the law never lays a hand on me, I still pay the price for my deeds. My own life is ended here, for the sake of my unborn child. Were it otherwise, I would leave my husband, and my beloved and I would be together forever. But what kind of life would my child have, with a penniless aviator as a father. Always at the fringes of society, living forever in the shadows. No, better to return home with my husband, letting him think the child is his, so that my baby can grow up in comfort, with all the opportunity in the world. So what if my heart belongs to another, and I die inside a little every moment we are apart? I live now for the sake of my child.”
Judex stood silent, appraising her, and found he had nothing to say. Justice, the only god Judex worshiped, indeed moved in mysterious ways.
Tucking the gem back into his pocket, Judex strode to the door, making to leave. He drew his cape around him, already seeming to blend into the shadows.
“Wait!” Mrs. Wayne said, stepping forward, raising a tremulous hand. “Will you see…” Her breath caught in her chest, and she swallowed hard before continuing. “Will you see Mr. Allard again?”
Judex shrugged beneath his cape.
“I do not know, madam.”
“If you should see him, could you give him the Girasol for me? As a keepsake to remember me by?”
Judex expression remained hard, but he nodded. He turned to the door.
“Only,” Mrs. Wayne said, taking another step forward, “please don’t tell him about the child. He has his own life to lead, and doesn’t need a shadow hanging over him.”
Judex did not turn around, but nodded again.
“I will,” he said softly, and then disappeared into the night, leaving Mrs. Wayne alone with her memories.
The next day, an anonymous party posted bail for the American aviator, and Allard was released on his own recognizance. When his possessions were returned to him, Allard was surprised to find among them an envelope containing a near-priceless fire-opal and a railway ticket. The train left
That same afternoon, Dr. Wayne and his wife were already in
In the home offices of the banker Favraux, Judex hid behind the mask of Vallieres, waiting for his moment to strike.
And in the streets of
Copyright © 2005 Monkeybrain, Inc.
Friday, September 21, 2007
Free Fiction Friday: "Secret Histories: Lord John Carmody, 1939"
(To my embarrassment I discovered last week that I'd inadvertently stolen the name of this feature from the good folks at Futurismic, who have been doing a whole Friday Free Fiction thing of their own. Go check out their splendid blog, won't you? And try to find forgiveness for this subliminal thief in your hearts...)
For more about the Carmodys, and about Lord Arthur in particular, stay tuned for the forthcoming End of the Century. For more about floating islands of doom, check out "Secret Histories: Professor Peter R. Bonaventure, 1885" (and maybe sneak a peak at the devil-bat sections of Set the Seas on Fire...).
Lord John Carmody, 1939
by Chris Roberson
New Year’s Day, and the public room at the
Dressed immaculately in a style a few years past fashionable, with dark hair worn long and brushing his high collar, the man in the far corner seemed more reflective than celebratory. The few staff members in attendance were hardly surprised. The Hythloday Club had never been what one might call boisterous, and Lord John was certainly among its more sober members. Still, a shadow seemed to lay across his brow, and the ancient scar along his right cheek stood out like a scarlet welt, as it did only in his darkest moods. He seemed troubled, but it wasn’t the place of the staff members to approach him. They held back, waiting to come when called, and worried where they themselves would be in another year’s time.
Lord John sat alone in his far corner, the only member of the Club in attendance. To the natives of his adopted home in the south African veldt, he was known as Nkosi, the Pride of Lions; to the Arab traders that crisscrossed the burning sands of the Sahara, he was known as Al Abbas; to the other members of the Club, and to a dwindling few peers back in fog-wrapped England, he was known as Lord John, the 11th Baron Carmody. But to his brother, he was known simply as…
Lord John, roused from his dark thoughts, half rose from his chair, but his brother was on him before he had reached his feet, encircling him in strong arms and almost crushing the breath from his lungs.
“Hello, Rex,” he managed, returning the embrace.
Had it been any other two men, the staff members might have thought they were watching wrestlers grappling with one another, whipcord muscles standing out like steel bands beneath bunched cloth, both with grips sufficient to snap trees in half. But they had grown used to the sight over the previous years, and turned to their duties without remark.
The newcomer finally released his hold on Lord John, and gracefully slid into the chair opposite him.
“What are you drinking?” the newcomer asked.
“Brandy,” Lord John answered.
The newcomer signaled for a waiter, and ordered another round for the pair of them. The waiter hurried over with the tray, his eyes wide, and after setting the drinks on the table lingered on, his mouth half open.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, ‘King’,” the waiter sputtered. “That is, Dr. Carmody. I read about you in the papers every week. I mean, the way you handled that fink the Scarlet Spectre …” The waiter mimed a few punches, shadow boxing. “That was really something, and I mean it.”
“Well,” the newcomer answered, smiling slightly, “you can’t believe everything you read.”
The Club’s major-domo, who’d been on the staff longer than anyone could remember, rushed over to the table, taking the waiter by the arm.
“I apologize, gentlemen,” he began, his tone obsequious. “Reggie here is new, and I’m afraid he hasn’t quite learned all of our rules just yet.”
The waiter looked from his boss, to the two men at the table, and back again, his face falling.
“Gee, Dr. Carmody,” he said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it….”
“No problem,” the newcomer answered. “No harm done.”
“Thank you, sir, thank you,” the waiter replied, nodding nonstop and carrying the tray back to the bar. The major-domo followed, his expression set.
When they were out of earshot, the newcomer turned to Lord John and smiled broadly.
“I never thought I’d see the day,” he said. “What do they think I am? Some kind of matinee idol?”
Lord John shook his head, chuckling softly, and regarded his brother. Though they’d had different mothers, John thought he could see something of their father in his brother’s slate gray eyes. Rex “King” Carmody, boxer, inventor and, if their waiter was to be believed, darling of the masses. Over a decade John’s junior, Rex had been trained to the peak of physical and mental perfection by their father, and for the last ten years had been making use of that legacy to wage a one man war on crime and injustice, both at home in
“Who can blame them,” Lord John answered. “With those devilish good looks of yours?”
“Watch it, Jungle Boy,” Rex replied, his fists held comically before him, “these are the hands that took down the Scarlet Spectre, remember?”
Lord John laughed, and took a long draw of his brandy.
“I’ll try not to forget,” he said. “Speaking of which, I have to add my compliments to those of our outspoken Reggie. I followed the news of that encounter as best I could in
“Aw,” Rex answered, shrugging, “he wasn’t that much trouble. Just had to have my men block the play of those Dark Overlords of his, and when it came down to just the two of us, it was a cakewalk.”
“Ah, yes,” Lord John said, “your men. ‘The Four Aces.’ Isn’t that what the papers are calling them now? Is Wainwright still with you?”
“Sure is. And I don’t know who hates that Aces name more, me or the boys. Thanks for sending Wainwright to me, by the way. I know I’ve said it before, but he’s been worth his weight in gold these last few years.”
“I knew he would be,” Lord John replied. “When his battalion accompanied me into the Lost City of Ôr, all those years ago, Wainwright was the only one on whom I found I could rely. When he was ‘retired,’ shall we say, by his superiors, I knew he could do much worse than to join your associates.”
“He doesn’t get bored, if that’s what you mean. Just a few weeks back we were down in
“Nazis,” Lord John spat, his face dark. “They seem to cover the planet like a pestilence, these last few years. The Baroness von Eiszeit, damn her eyes, just last month tried to lure me into another one of her plots, this time to use some Viking hoodoo to turn Africa into a frozen wasteland, with her as Snow Queen and me her simpering page boy.”
“I’m guessing you didn’t take her up on the offer.”
“Hardly.” Lord John took another long pull of his brandy. “What is it with these women? They all either want to eviscerate you, or lure you to their conjugal bed, or both.”
“Who knows?” Rex answered. “Maybe they just have a thing for guys raised by cats.”
“There’s that stellar wit I’ve grown to love this last decade,” Lord John answered, with hardly a trace of humor.
The two brothers had both been grown when first they met, some ten years before. Their relationship had begun as a tenuous one, at best, the bonds that drew and kept them together not really forming until after the death of their father, Arthur Carmody. The senior Carmody had been a member of the Hythloday Club while still living in England, and though he had let his dues lapse after the tragic events of his expedition to Africa, with the loss of his young wife and the apparent death of their infant son, the Club had recognized the legacy rights of his grown sons, and with little reluctance admitted them as members. That each of them was, in his own way, an explorer of the highest rank in his own right, could not but help their case.
In the years since, the two brothers met once a year at the Club, either the branch in
“I had a brief run-in with an old friend of yours this past year,” Lord John continued, after signaling for another pair of brandies. “The tall fellow with the eye patch and the pronounced limp, always on about the evils of modern society and the treacheries of men… What was his name?”
“Dr. Fox?” Rex asked.
“That’s the one.”
“Aw, ain’t he a peach?” Rex leaned back in his chair, folding his arms across his broad chest. “I had a scuffle with him myself since we met last. He’d managed to find that island of his again, and was threatening to bomb the Eastern Seaboard back into the stone age if he wasn’t named Emperor of America.”
“Oh, yes,” Lord John answered, smiling slightly, “I’d almost forgotten the island. What does he call it again?”
“The Floating Island of Doom,” he replied, chagrined.
“Where do they come up with these names?”
“Beats me,” Rex answered. “It’s like they all go to the same tailor, and all play using the same goofy rule book.”
“And they all want to take over the world, in one way or another, of course.” Lord John paused for a moment, rubbing his chin. “But they never seem to have a very solid idea of what they’ll do once they actually do take over the world, do they? Just your standard, ‘Nations will bow before me’ rigamarole.”
Rex seemed lost in thought, the bottom of his brandy snifter occupying his attention.
“I don’t know,” he finally answered, distracted, “sometimes I don’t blame them.”
Rex looked up, not seeming for a brief instant to realize that he had spoken.
“I mean, taking over the world,” he continued. “I don’t know that I blame them. Come on, Jack, look around. We traipse all over the world, stop the Jaguar Men from taking over this banana republic, stop the Steel Dragon from using his death ray, and at the end of the day, what have we really accomplished?
“You said it yourself. These Nazis are every damned place, and me keeping them from unleashing some ancient Aztec demon or you keeping them from turning Africa into an ice skating rink doesn’t do a damn bit of good for those poor bastards in
Lord John regarded his brother in silence, his elbows resting on the table, his fingers steepled in front of his face.
“And your solution is to beat them to it by letting Dr. Fox take over the world?” he asked, bemused but with a darker undercurrent.
“No, Jack, of course not,” Rex thundered. “But why not somebody better, somebody like you or me? I don’t have any great desire to run the show, but I know I’d do a damned sight better job at it than the jokers we’ve got minding the store now.”
“I’m sure you would,” Lord John allowed, “but then what? Suppose you did use the technology and resources at your disposal to topple all existing governments, and set your self up as ruler supreme. Then suppose that you made some decision with which I didn’t agree…. Not me as some abstract, anonymous individual, but me. Your brother.”
“Half brother,” Rex corrected, but seemed to regret it immediately.
Lord John nodded, his brow furrowed and the scar along his cheek standing out bright against his tanned skin.
“Very well,” Lord John replied. “But tell me, what would you do? The problem with being an absolute dictator is that your dictatorship must be absolute. You couldn’t brook any dissent. You’d need to be prepared either to defend your rule against my challenge, acquiesce to my every demand, or have me imprisoned. Or you’d have to kill me.”
Lord John left off talking, and the two men sat staring at each other for long moments. Each supposed, despite himself, that his brother might be wondering which of them would prevail, if it came to a fight between them.
It was Rex who finally broke the tension, breaking into a smile and relaxing in his chair, slamming his broad palms down onto the table top.
“Dammit, Jack,” he laughed, “leave it to you to take all the fun out of ruling the world.”
Lord John returned his brother’s smile, and sipped his brandy.
“Sorry, old boy,” he answered. “Habits of a lifetime.” He paused for a moment, reflective. “Still, I can’t say that I blame you, these occasional thoughts of yours. Back in
Rex nodded, his eyes lowered.
“I have to admit,” he finally said, in a low voice, “that there are times when a father is what I need.”
Lord John reached over, and laid a strong hand on his brother’s forearm.
“I miss him, too,” he answered. He’d known their father such a short time, but had learned in that brief span what he had missed throughout his childhood.
Lord John picked up his brandy glass from the table, and lifted it overhead.
“To Lord Arthur, the 10th Baron Carmody,” he said in a loud voice.
Rex raised his head, straightening, and lifted his glass in response.
“To one hell of a dad,” he added.
The two glasses clinked together, and then the brothers drained them each in one long draught.
“Barkeep,” Rex shouted across the room, slamming his empty glass down onto the table. “Another round.”
Lord John shook his head, chuckling slightly. He wondered sometimes which of the two of them had been raised by wild animals in the jungle, and which was a product of polite society.
“Enough war stories,” Lord John said, his tone lightening. “Tell me about your family. How is young Jacob doing?”
“Jake?” Rex answered, smiling broadly. “He’s as strong as an ox, Jack, you’ve got to believe me, and smart as a whip. Why, just the other day…”
The waiter brought over fresh drinks for the pair, and sighed softly. It was going to be a long night.
Copyright © 2007 Monkeybrain, Inc.
Friday, September 14, 2007
Free Fiction Friday: "Rogues Gallery: Aria Fox"
I'll kick things off with a selection from the long-unavailable Cybermancy Incorporated, which is part of the larger Bonaventure-Carmody sequence (which also includes Here, There & Everywhere, Paragaea, and Set the Seas on Fire). The titular character of this stand-alone chapter, Aria Fox, returns in late 2008 or early 2009 in the pages of End of the Century, the next installment in the sequence.
by Chris Roberson
As she slipped through a fifth floor window into the Hofburg, the streets of
Once inside, positioned carefully in a gap in the security net of infrared tripwires, motion detectors and cameras, Aria slipped on a pair of lightweight goggles cabled to the heavy pack on her back. With the flip of a toggle switch on the wrist-mounted controls, a heads-up display pinked the corner of her view, a multicolored grid superimposed over her field of vision. From architectural plans, remote surveys and her own carefully compiled notes, Aria had mapped out a route through the galleries and hallways of the Hofburg to her target that steered clear of any security triggers. The path flashed bright green in front of her on the display, serpentine and zigzagging across the marble floors, sometimes up and over furniture or display cases, bending off out of view. She would have to duck and jump now and again, but all in all it was one of the easier mazes she’d had to run. The Hofburg would do well to upgrade their security.
Cinching the shoulder straps and cross belt of her pack tight, she set off across the floor, crouched low.
From her mother, Aria Fox had inherited little. By the time Melody and her sister were gone, the family fortune had been spent, the homes and estates sold or bartered off, and any odd items of sentimental value lost to flood or fire. What little Aria had inherited, though, consisted primarily of a love for excitement and what seemed a genetic propensity for danger. Raised from an early age to carry on in the family business, with her mother out of the picture Aria had decided to strike out on her own. She became a thief.
Acquiring the target proved even easier than Aria had expected. For all of its security improvements over the years, the Hofburg was in many respects still a product of the Seventeenth Century. Despite the high tech surveillance equipment she’d had to circumvent to come this far, the casing around the target consisted of little more than tempered glass reinforced with steel, with an electronic trigger wire and a pressure sensitive base. Child’s play. Within minutes, she held the target in her hands. The Spear of Longinus.
The principal for the job, a moneyed cabal of eccentrics, had hired Aria to obtain any number of odd bits of esoterica over the years. Reliquaries of saints’ knuckle bones or little toes, purported pieces of the True Cross, supposed Grails and enough mystic shrouds to paper the walls of Aria’s modest home in
From the stories her mother and aunt had told her as a child, Aria had always known that some people would believe just about anything, not least of which Aria’s mother and aunt. She had always considered it either a sign of shared insanity, or a joke that the two women hadn’t known when to drop, but through all their years together, from Aria’s earliest memories to the moment she became an orphan, the two women had persisted in telling Aria the most outrageous of bedtime stories at all hours of the day and night. Floating islands, haunted ships, Nazi werewolves and living brains in jars. Anything and everything, and all of it, they claimed, the absolute truth.
Of course, these were also the women who’d tried to get her to believe in Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy.
Through her agent Hughes, who arranged all of her jobs and provided any necessary details, Aria had got a general overview of what this Spear of Longinus was supposed to be, and just what it was supposed to do. As she encased it in a self-inflating foam carry-all, which she then secured to her belt, she ran through what she knew. The retreat from any job tended to be the time when most thieves slipped up, overconfident and cocky, but Aria had found years before if she occupied her thoughts and let her feet go where they knew to go, she avoided difficulty more often than not. She’d made it in without incident, and getting out was just a matter of retracing her steps.
The Spear of Longinus, supposedly that which pierced the side of the crucified Christ, had passed through any number of hands in the last two thousand years. As legend had it, anyone who carried the Spear in battle was ensured victory, the thing amounting to some sort of supernatural trump card. Constantine the Great, Attila the Hun, Justinian, Charlemagne, Barbarossa, all had counted among their assets the metal tipped lance which had perforated Jesus, and as a result all of them had carried the day in battle time and time again. Napoleon had tried to snatch the thing for himself before marching to
Aria’s clients for this particular job, Hughes had told her, simply wanted the Spear to round out their collection of mystical artifacts and supernatural ephemera. It hardly mattered to her what they did with it. So long as they made a timely deposit into her account, they could cover the thing in puff paint and glitter and use it for a chew toy. Aria believed in the supernatural attributes of the Spear about as much as she believed that she’d get a quarter from a gossamer-winged sprite if she were to get one of her teeth knocked out in a fight.
Still, ducking under infrared beams and padding past motion detectors, Aria couldn’t help but wonder what it would mean if the Spear actually did work.
In the years since she’d first established herself as a top flight thief, Aria had been able to pick and choose the jobs she took as she liked. The purse from any single job was usually enough to keep her in fine foods and wine for a year or more, with the rest going to her ever growing savings account, while the traveling expenses included as part of her price meant that she could go pretty much wherever she liked. As a rule, though, Aria tended to take a job from anyone once, and provided they paid up on time and there were no complications, she’d continue to take assignments from a client as many times as they required her services. As a result, she’d inadvertently cultivated a small stable of customers who called upon her once every few years, whenever they needed a discrete acquisition for their collections.
After a few years at the job, though, Aria had found that the glamour was beginning to fade. If you’d broken into one world class museum and carted off priceless antiquities, you’d broken into them all. With the money she’d already socked away, Aria knew, she could probably never take another assignment and still live in the style to which she’d grown accustomed; but she kept on, job after job, hoping to find one that would get her pulse racing as that first job had, that would reminded her just why she was alive.
She was still looking. This
Back on the roof, reeling in the last of the line she’d used to haul herself up and packing it in a long, flat aluminum case along with the rest of her gear, Aria tried to imagine what the world would be like if conquered by some schmuck off the street. If the Spear in the foam carry-all actually held supernatural powers, and it were to fall into the hands of one of the faceless millions, what would that mean to the world? And, more to the point, to Aria?
She’d met only a representative of the odd group of eccentrics who were the principals for this job, the same thin twitchy man with the sunken cheeks on a half dozen different jobs. Hughes was the one who got the assignments for Aria, who made all the arrangements and scheduled the payments, but he seldom if ever met face to face with any clients. Aria herself only did at the end of every job, when she handed over the merchandise. At the beginning, she’d gone the route of making drops into unmarked mailboxes, or in coin-operated lockers at bus and train stations, but after one or two gaffs, she’d decided it was best to use the face to face meet. Then, whatever happened to the merchandise after the exchange, or to the carrier for that matter, was someone else’s problem and not hers.
The twitchy guy with the sunken cheeks was scheduled to rendezvous with Aria at Heathrow airport in two days’ time. Aria had only to fire a high tensile line across the plaza to the building opposite, making sure the grapple was secure, and then slide across, take the service elevator to the ground, and hop in the rental car she had parked and waiting for her there. A leisurely drive over the European countryside to
Then she tried to imagine a world ruled by the twitchy guy with the sunken cheeks. Aria always had to bathe right after meeting with the man, the path of his gaze over her leaving an almost tangible slime trail. He’d tried to shake her hand once, at the beginning. He hadn’t made that mistake again.
Aria fired the grappling line across the courtyard, and patted the foam carry-all at her hip.
She knew an art forger in
She slid across the line, landed noiselessly on the roof opposite, and by the time she reached the car parked below, Aria had made up her mind.
Driving the wide road into
“Hughes,” came the transatlantic response, matter of fact.
“Hey, baby,” Aria answered, “it’s me.”
“How do, me?” Hughes answered. “Everything go alright?”
“Smooth as silk,” she replied. “But I need you to do me a favor. Call up the principal’s rep and let him know I’ll be delayed twenty-four hours, so we’ll need to push back the drop.”
“What’s wrong? Run into any problems?”
“No, nothing like that,” Aria answered. “I’ve just got some business to take care of in
“Until the heat dies down?” Hughes offered.
“Sure, why not? Until the heat dies down.”
“You got it. By the way, I’ve got a new job lined up for you, if you’re interested. I know you wanted to take a break, but this one comes with a big price tag. The same clients as the
“No shit,” Aria said. She had been looking forward to some time off, but at double her usual rate she’d be able to take the next two years off and not feel the sting in her wallet. “Okay, what’s the story?”
“A simple snatch and grab,” Hughes answered. “Some outfit called the Carmody Institute out in Recondito.”
“Hmm,” Aria hummed, thinking it over. She’d never been to the city, though she’d spent more than her fair share just up the road in
“You got it,” Hughes replied, and broke the connection.
Aria ran her tongue over the front of her teeth, thinking things over. Her art forger friend had agreed to do a rush job duplicating a two-thousand-year-old wood and bronze spear, which would be good enough to fool any expert the client hoped to hire. The real Spear would look nice over her mantle back in
She’d heard Recondito was nice this time of year, which was a plus, but the job sounded just like any other. So much for a little excitement.
Copyright © 2007 Monkeybrain, Inc.
Sunday, April 22, 2007
"The Famous Ape"
The Famous Ape
by Chris Roberson
When the ape boarded the train in Comrade Olur Station, he’d given his name as Thomas Recorde. If the use of the surname, an antiquated pre-republic custom, had raised any eyebrows, no one had seen fit to comment on it.
There were half a dozen other ape passengers on the mostly empty train, all in suits of clothes as threadbare as those Thomas wore, but they sat far apart from one another, not speaking, trying not to make eye contact. The only words spoken were exchanged with the elephant who made his ponderous way down the aisle, checking everyone’s papers as the train steamed away from the station, leaving Olurgrad behind.
Thomas, for his part, kept his attention focused on the tarnished scrollwork on the cabin wall, studying it with the avid attention of one with nothing better to do. This had once been an imperial train, before the Animalist revolution, and while it had been rechristened The Glorious Battle of the Windmill by the new government, its interior was still decorated with images of the Twelve Virtues. Thomas recalled the day at court, years before, when the old elephant king had issued the decree that the Virtues should be emblazoned on all imperial property, commemorating a particularly portentous dream. The decree, of course, held as much weight now as any of the old king’s numerous fancies, which was to say none at all, but while the images were faded, the figures themselves could still be discerned. This winged elephant, with his shield and saber, must represent Courage. This, with his saw, Perseverance, and this one Learning with his candle, and this Patience with his timepiece.
There were more, Thomas guessed, at the front of the car, but they were masked by the draped flag of Olurgrad, blazoned with a pair of white tusts on a field of green. There was some symbolism to that, Thomas was sure, the image of old imperial virtue being obscured by pious Animalist patriotism; but just what the symbol signified, he could not say, and did not much care.
Thomas had had his fill of piousness, and of patriotism. He’d seen his first blue sky in years that morning, the horizons of his world for long decades limited by lifeless gray walls. But any joy he might have taken from his first impressions of freedom were marred by the noise of the parade. He and the other political prisoners had been cleaned up, dressed in the same suits in which they’d been arrested years before, and marched out to
Then Comrade Poutifour had turned the crowd’s attention to Thomas and the other political prisoners. A great show was being made of this exchange with the ape republic, and while the text of Poutifour’s speech spoke of it as representing an improvement in the relations between the two great powers, the clear subtext, thinly-veiled, was that the apes were fast losing the long-standing cold war, and that the elephants would assuredly be the ultimate victors.
When the first citizen had concluded his remarked, as the day was ending, the ape prisoners were ushered unceremoniously to Comrade Olur Station, put on the train, and sent on their way.
Built in the days when both ape and elephant were ruled by kings, the old railway line was once a vital artery of traffic between the two nations. Even when the apes ousted their king, and instituted the republic, regular rail service was continued. It was only with the advent of the First Forest War that the trains stopped running, and after the elephant withdrew from the conflict when the Animalists seized power, it seemed for a time that the trains might never run again. Now, it seemed, service had been resumed, however limited the basis. What that presaged for the future, Thomas was not sure. He had been out of touch with internal politics for some considerable time.
Thomas remembered the first time he’d ridden this line, when he’d gone as a young ape to Celesteville, and the court of the elephant king. Now, a lifetime later, he made that trip in reverse, finally returning home.
The train rumbled along through the night, making its steady way through the Ituri Rainforest, skirting the border between Karunda and the
As dawn broke, the train finally approached its destination. Just east of the
The other passengers seemed to come alive, as the train pulled into Monkeyville Station, their eyes widening, gradual smiles pulling at the corners of their wide ape mouths. Were they hoping to see family waiting to greet them? Friends? Or were they simply overcome by the emotion of returning home, after so long a delay?
Thomas knew that if anyone was waiting for him, it would not be family, and it would not be friends.
The train came to a stop, and the passengers queued to climb down to the platform. Thomas hung back, looking for any opportunity. The train’s crew had readily accepted it when he’d identified himself as Thomas Recorde on boarding, and the elephant who checked their papers was too bored to notice the discrepancy, but Thomas knew that his imposture would not stand up under the close scrutiny of the ape republic’s authorities. The fact that he used his birth name as an assumed identity, while perhaps ironic, did little to ensure that he would escape the inevitable consequences that would follow the discovery of the name under which he was better known. Famous, in fact. Or infamous, to be precise.
As it happened, he needn’t have worried. Just as it came time for Thomas to disembark, one of the apes who’d preceded him off the train went into a bout of histrionics on returning to his native soil, hooting loudly like one of their primitive cousins in the jungle, dropping to all fours, and kissing with prehensile lips the very flagstones of the
Thomas had a moment of brief panic, as he glanced back and his eyes met those of an ape in a wide-brimmed yellow hat, a yellow raincoat draped over his long forearm. From his position, and posture, it was clear that the ape in the yellow hat was some superior to the uniformed officers.
His heart pounding in his chest, Thomas willed himself to break eye contact. Passing a news kiosk, he stopped walking, reasoning that he would look less like someone attempting to flee if he was no longer moving. Forcing himself to act as calm and naturally as was possible, he picked up a copy of the Gorilla City Gazette.
“Is this even real?” asked the she-ape behind the counter, narrowing her eyes and looking close at the rumpled republic banknote Thomas had produced. She peered at the date. “This thing is older than I am.”
Thomas gave a lopsided grin that didn’t reach his eyes, and answered only with a shrug.
“Whatever,” the she-ape replied with a shrug of her own, and rang up Thomas’s change.
Sliding the coins in his pocket, Thomas tucked the folded paper under his arm, and casually glanced back over his shoulder. The attentions of the ape in the yellow hat were elsewhere, his back turned to Thomas.
As the pounding of his heart gradually slowed its pace, Thomas walked out of the Monkeyville Station, into a brief and clear
It had been a lifetime since he’d been back, and Thomas had no notion where to go. All he knew was that he wanted to be away from the station. He hurried to the cab stand on the corner, hopped in the backseat of the first car in line, and shut the door behind him.
“City Center, please,” Thomas said.
The ape in the front seat, a weathered old silverback, glanced in the review mirror, his eyes narrowed beneath the brim of his cap. “You mean downtown?”
“Oui,” Thomas said, and then cursed himself inwardly. “That is, yes.”
The driver shook his head, but pulled away from the curb, merging into traffic.
Throughout the drive, not a word was exchanged between them, but at every stop the drive would stare intently through the mirror at Thomas, eying him with clear suspicion. Was he reacting to Thomas referring to a district of the city by a name not used since the days of the old king? Or to the Gallic accent which Thomas could not hide, having spoken nothing but the elephants’ French for decades?
In silence, they reached the center of the city. Thomas paid the fare, his ancient bills eliciting the same response from the drive that they had from the newsvendor. His suspicions aside, however, the driver was happy to keep the change, and pulled away from the corner and back into traffic without a backwards glance.
The sun had risen high enough in the east that the light now spilled between the close-packed buildings at the city’s center. Thomas’s shadow reached out an impossible distance before him as he walked, touching the buildings on the street’s far side. His stomach grumbled, and Thomas realized absently that he’d not had a bite to eat since leaving the prison in Olurgrad the morning before. He was unexpectedly famished.
In the shadow of a building that, in Thomas’s youth, had been the office of the exchequer, but which now appeared to be an art museum of some stripe, was a small sidewalk café, tables under white clothes, straight-backed chairs with well-upholstered seats, shade umbrellas still folded from the night before. Thomas found a seat at the table farthest from the street, the stones of the building wall behind him cool through the thin fabric of his antique suit, and waved the waiter over.
Thomas ordered a pot of tea and a basket of fresh bread, doing his best to adopt the lost accent of his youth and failing. The waiter, though, subtler than the cabdriver had been, narrowed his eyes only slightly when confirming Thomas’s order, and then left him with a tight, professional smile.
When his tea arrived, poured steaming into a delicate porcelain mug, Thomas spread the newspaper out before him, and read the news of the day.
President Solovar was up for reelection again. From what Thomas read, it appeared that the main opposition in the impending election came from two corners: Mohor’s Anthar Primitivists on the one side, and the Force of Mind Party led by Grodd on the other. The article contended, however, that early polls indicated that Solovar would carry the day.
None of the names meant anything to Thomas. The last time he’d had reliable news of home, Huc had still been president of the republic, and he’d never heard of the Anthar Primitivists or the Force of Mind Party, nor of Mohor or Grodd, whoever they might be. He might as well have been reading about some unknown, foreign country.
Which, in many respects, he was. It had been a lifetime or more since the death of God and the ouster of the old king, and the country had clearly changed in ways that he early republic could never have guessed. When Thomas had left for Celesteville, sent to do Red Peter’s bidding, General Huc was newly elected, the first president of the republic. Now, the old general was surely dead, and an unknown set of players had taken to the political stage.
Thomas shut tight his eyes, remembering evenings at the Huc family home in his younger days. He’d been betrothed to the general’s daughter, Isabelle, when it came time for him to leave. But the general had felt his daughter too young to marry, and so Thomas and Isabelle had promised to wait until Thomas returned from his assignment in the elephant nation. When war had broken out, and Thomas’s stay in the court of the elephant king had been extended, he consoled himself in the knowledge that the war could not last forever, and that eventually his name was be cleared at home, and he and Isabelle would be reunited. Then the Animalists had overthrown the elephant king, and jailed Thomas as a counter-revolutionary, and a lifetime had passed. For all he knew, Isabelle was dead as well, buried beside her father in the Huc family crypt.
Thomas’s stomach roiled, and he angrily turned the page, looking for some relief from memory and politics. He sought solace in the entertainment sections, and failed to find it.
At the top of the page was a review of a new drama, entitled simply Princess Flora. The work of a rising young ape playwright, the drama was apparently based on rumors that the elephant princess, daughter to the old king, had survived the purges in the first days of the Animalist revolution, and had emigrated first to Europe, and then to the United States. The reviewer called Princess Flora a masterwork, an uplifting story of the indomitable animal spirit, of perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds.
It was all nonsense. Nothing but fiction, whatever the playwright or the reviewer might think. Thomas knew first hand. He’d been there, had counted the bodies as they were dragged one by one from the king’s summer home. There was no chance that any of the royal family had escaped that bloody retribution, not even sweet, simple, blameless Flora. She may have been possessed of an indomitable spirit, but when facing the overwhelming odds of a firing squad, even that brave young elephant had not persevered.
Not politics, nor entertainment, then. Perhaps in the pages of the editorials he might find some escape, some relief. But no.
The paper’s back page was dominated by a single editorial, a lengthy missive excoriating the present government for allowing the return of the traitor Zephir to
Eyes wide, Thomas looked up from the paper. On the far side of the patio, the waiter was in close conversation with a silverback ape in a fine suit, whispering in low voices while pointing in Thomas’s direction. Suppressing the urge to panic, Thomas dropped a handful of rumpled republic notes on the table, and hurried from the café, his basket of breads untouched, his tea left still steaming in its mug.
Thomas walked at speed up the street, turned a corner, turned another corner, and promptly got lost. The city of his childhood seemed to have consumed and digested by another, and while bits and pieces could be matched to his memory, most was as unrecognizable as the names in the morning paper. Still he kept walking, aimlessly, as quickly as possibly without looking as though he were running. He resisted the temptation to look behind him, convinced that at any moment he would be recognized.
He walked down a narrow street, towering buildings crowding on either side, in deep shadows, the light of the morning sun completely obscured. Then he turned a corner blindly, and found himself in a different world.
He had reached the geographic center of the city. Once known as
Thomas passed under the arch at the park’s entrance, the bronze now tarnished a greenish-brown. A walking path stretched out before him, curving slightly to the west, while to his left stood an obelisk, with rows of cages arranged beyond. A zoo of some sort, it seemed.
Walking closer, Thomas was able to read the plaque set on the obelisk’s face. Provided by the Gorilla City Humane Society, the plaque listed the names of all the mutants and sports which had been successfully reintegrated into human populations, with new identities and histories. Kaspa, Zembla, and Ka-Zar. Nyoka, Sheena, and Jann. The list went on and on.
Beneath the sign was a piece of weathered paper in a metal frame, a less grand notice. It said that in the cages beyond were those unfortunates who had not yet been “successfully retrained,” and who remained on as wards of the state.
Thomas winced, despite himself. He knew what the notice meant, knew it had nothing to do with his past circumstances, but the resonances were too close to be ignored. Steeling himself, he rounded the obelisk, walking down the promenade, passing each of the cages in turn.
From time to time, the genetic engineering which granted the apes of Gorilla City intelligence and abilities in advance of their more primitive jungle cousins, went awry, leading to the birth of, to be charitable, “undesirables.” Most of these displays commingled characteristics of an ape and the human from which the engineered genes had been drawn. Most often, these sports gave the appearance of being entirely human on the outside, while on the inside being as savage and unsophisticated as the most primitive jungle gorilla. These sad creatures belonged truly to neither world, human or ape, falling somewhere in between.
When Thomas had been a child, the order of the day was to eject these unfortunates from polite society, casting them out into the wilderness, like Spartans abandoning unwanted children to the elements. The hardiest of the sports, though, survived, taking refuge in the caves above the city. Thomas had heard campfire stories in his youngest years about these strange ape-men, and what became of them in the wild. In the years since, more forward-thinking citizens of
What remained in these cages, then, were those sports too primitive ever to be retrained, too much animal ever to pass as man, too much man ever to live among the animals. Thomas paused by one cage, inside of which hulked an ancient silverback ape-man, wrinkled and bent. A sign on the cage door indicated that his name was “Malb’yat.” Thomas peered in, his heart going out to the sad, hunched creature in the cage, remembering the years he himself spent in a room no larger, no more amenable.
The old ape-man looked up, his watery eyes meeting Thomas’s. He reached up a wrinkled hand, gnarled into a claw, and in a plaintive voice said, “Where? Where Balza?”
Thomas shook his head, sadly. He had no notion what a “Balza” was, nor had any confidence that the poor creature would understand the answer, if he had. He turned, and continued down the promenade.
Beyond the zoo, Thomas came to a statue atop a high pedestal. In cast bronze, it depicted a creature with the face of a man, and a body that intermingled aspects of man and gorilla, wearing an open shirt and loincloth. It was a familiar figure, and one which had haunted Thomas’s dreams throughout childhood.
The strange man-ape depicted in the statue had insisted that his creations call him “God,” and it had not been until after his death that the gorillas had learned the name by which he’d once been known to his fellow humans. The apes of
It was unknown how God had come to resemble his fellow man so little, but it was rumored that his strange appearance was the result of self-administered gene therapies. The story went that he’d once suffered near-fatal injuries on an island in the Pacific Ocean, before coming to
Which, it could be said, was true of every ape in
Of course, only a generation after his passing, there were already those who questioned the existence of God altogether, dismissing any talk of genetic manipulation or design, and insisting that the intelligent species of apes, elephants, rhinoceroses, and others had arisen naturally, by process of evolution. But so far as Thomas knew, those who held such notions were still few in number, and regarded as no more than cranks and zealots by the scientific establishment.
Thomas continued on past the statue, following a tree-lined path that curved off to the right. The weather that morning was mild, though the sky was clear and the sun was bright in the east. A she-ape in some sort of athletic suit jogged by, singing softly along with the music faintly audible from the large headphones over her ears. In the opposite direction came an older ape on a bicycle, a young chimp riding along beside, balanced precariously on a cycle still outfitted with training wheels. In the distance, Thomas could hear the sounds of a group of juvenile apes playing soccer in an open field, while a young she-ape and her mother could be seen flying a kite nearby.
Each time another ape passed, Thomas felt sure that he would be discovered, but no one seemed to pay him any mind. He was anonymous, it seemed, just another old ape in an ancient suit, like the vagrants rummaging through the trash bins, or asleep on the park benches. Is that were he would end up, after all this time? As another of their number, the faceless and anonymous street dwellers?
Hunger and fatigue worked at him. He’d walked already this morning more than he had in years, and with no food in his belly, and having had only fitful sleep in the train car the night before, his energy was flagging badly. Finding an unoccupied park bench, he sat down to rest a moment. Sighing deeply, feeling the aches in his long underused muscles, he closed his eyes, thoughtfully.
When he opened them again, the quality of the light had changed. He must have fallen asleep without realizing it, the sun climbing higher in the sky as he slept. More than that, though, he discovered that he was not alone, feeling the presence of another on the bench beside him.
Thomas turned his head, startled.
There, sitting beside him, was an ape of advancing years, wearing a yellow trench-coat and matching wide-brimmed hat. Eye half-lidded, he puffed contentedly on the pipe clenched between his teeth, elbows draped casually over the back of the bench.
It was the ape that Thomas had seen at the train station that morning, directing the movements of the uniformed officers.
Thomas’s heart pounded in his chest. He was too frightened even to move. He’d been discovered, clearly. Could he run? Was there any point in trying? Where would he go?
“Look there,” the ape in the yellow hat said casually, still not looking in Thomas’s direction. He took the pipe from between his teeth, and pointed with its stem to a point above the tree line. Thomas, swallowing hard, looked in the direction indicated, and just visible over the treetops could see the ramparts and towers of an imposing structure hulking over the city, styled as a medieval castle. “Do you recall when, as young apes, we’d whisper behind our hands, referring to that monstrosity as the House of Pain? You might find it amusing to learn that, with God long dead and the castle remade into the presidential palace, there are many who feel it deserves that childish name better than it ever did before.”
Thomas narrowed his eyes, looking at the other ape carefully. There was something about the curve of his jaw, something about the quality of his voice that was hauntingly familiar. As if...
“George?” Thomas said, recognition dawning.
“Hello, Zephir, my old friend.” The other ape turned to him, smiling. “It’s good to see you again.”
Confused emotions swirled in Thomas. A smile came unbidden to his lips, but within he still felt the fear of discovery, the vertiginous tremble of uncertainty.
“I would have thought you were still in
George returned the pipe to his mouth, puffing deeply. Then, the smoke curling from the corner of his smile, he chuckled. “No, I grew weary of adventures, I’m afraid. A young ape named Bonzo was given the task of watching the Americans, and I was brought home.” He paused, and a cloud passed momentarily across his features. “Too late to see our old teacher Red Peter again, but not too late to be offered his vacated seat at the head of the intelligence services.”
Thomas nodded, appreciatively, lips pursed thoughtfully. “So you’re the head ape, now?” He was genuinely impressed. “And the intelligence services still persist, as they did when we were young?”
George inspected the contents of his pipe’s bowl, and then overturning it tapped out the ashes onto the ground between his feet, knocking the pipe against the palm of his hand. “There is a remarkable inertia to such systems, my friend. There have been precious few changes made to the spy apparatus since it was first instituted by Wolsey under the old king, as I’m sure you’ll recall. When Colonel Aristobald took charge under the new republic, he did little more than change the names and titles on the doors. And when Wolsey’s first operative and protégé Red Peter returned from the field to take charge upon the death of Aristobald during the First Forest War, he reversed the few changes that Aristobald had made. When I took control, I saw no reason to muddy the waters with unnecessary changes.”
“Hmph.” Thomas shook his head, ruefully, the smile fading from his lips. “Red Peter,” he repeated. “That old bastard.”
“That he was,” George agreed, pulling a pouch of tobacco from a pocket, and refilling the pipe’s bowl. “And the finest mind I’ve ever encountered.”
“I don’t recall you speaking of him so highly when we were his pupils.” Thomas snarled momentarily, and then his expression softened, as he remembered fonder memories. “In fact,” he went on, smiling, “I distinctly recall you mocking Emily mercilessly for praising him on rare occasion. If she hadn’t been sent on assignment to
George damped down the tobacco into the pipe with the tip of his thumb, and smiled. “It is a thin line, to be sure.”
“Whatever became of Emily, anyway?” Thomas asked.
George’s smile froze, and he was silent for a moment, striking a match and sucking its flame into the pipe. When the tobacco began to burn, he shook out the match, and in somber tones, replied. “She fell in love with a human. It... ended badly.”
Thomas nodded. “Such things usually do.” He paused. “And what about...?” He broke off, and swallowed hard. “What about Isabelle?”
George glanced over, blowing out a stream of smoke. He opened his mouth to answer, but Thomas interrupted before he was able to speak.
“No, don’t tell me,” he said, hurriedly. “I... I’d rather not know, I think.”
George nodded, and returned the pipe to his mouth.
“So,” Thomas said, brightening slightly. “You’re the new spymaster, are you? I assume you’ve a new crop of intelligencers you’re carefully cultivating, eh?”
“Of course.” George smiled. “You’d scarcely believe how young these apes seem, when they come to me. I recall you, Emily, and I were most fully grown when Red Peter recruited us for the intelligences services, but if we were anything like as old as Chim-Chim, Magilla, Bear, and Grape, we must have been scarcely babes in arms.”
“These are their names, your young protégés?” Thomas’s eyes bobbled. “They sound more like circus performers than civilized apes.”
George chuckled. “Ah, but were those of our generation any better? Back when God was in his castle, Henry still on his throne, and this city was still called
“And I was Zephir.”
“I suppose.” George chose not to remark on the interruption. “But only among friend, Thomas.”
It was true. Even before the ouster of the old king, it had never been Thomas, only Zephir; his father, Robert Recorde, had four sons and five daughters, who were seldom if ever called by their given names, but instead known as the Four Winds and Five Wandering Stars. With the coming of the republic, and the abolition of the names bestowed by God, he’d simply made it official, and Thomas Recorde became Zephir.
He wondered what had become of his three brothers, and of his five sisters. He’d heard from his mother once, in the days of the First Forest War. His seeming betrayal of the republic, siding with the elephants, had broken his father’s heart, she said. So far as the family as concerned, the letter had read, brother Zephir was already dead.
“My parents are dead and buried, I suppose,” Thomas said aloud, musing. “I’d always hoped to square things with them, to let them know that their son wasn’t really a traitor. But then...” Thomas trailed off, his eyes unfocused.
“I was in
Thomas took a deep breath, and gave a limp shrug. “You shouldn’t blame yourself. I suppose it isn’t anyone’s fault but my own. I should have known something was in the wind when the Old Lady was assassinated by the cabal of Fandango, Capoulosse, and Podular. They hoped to rid themselves of her influence over the king, you see, taking her place in the king’s favor. But it was only a short while afterwards that Hatchibombotar, Olur, and Poutifour sprung their revolution. If I’d been any sort of spy I’d have seen it coming, but I’d allowed myself to get too close to the royal family, and saw nothing of what was happening with the common elephants outside the palace walls.” He paused, his lips drawn into a tight line. “More’s the pity.”
“There was a war on, Zephir,” George replied. “And you were doing your duty. When the elephant king and the ape republic went to war, you were perfectly positioned to act as our eyes and ears in the enemy court.”
“Yes, but only by posing as an enemy myself, a traitor to my own people.”
“You were an invaluable source of information during the First Forest War. I’ve seen your reports myself, since taking Red Peter’s job. The republic might well have lost the war to the elephants in those early days, if not for you.”
“Yes,” Thomas said hotly, eyes flashing, “and what was my thanks for it? A lifetime rotting in an elephant jail.”
George reached out and placed a hand on Thomas’s shoulder, his expression grave. “Zephir, you must know that was one of the hardest decisions that Red Peter ever had to make. But for the gorillas to claim you as one of their own, to prove your innocence, would have been to expose our entire network of informants. The elephants had to believe you were really a traitor.”
“And our own people, George?” Thomas tugged the folded newspaper from his pocket, brandishing it at the yellow-hat wearing ape. “They had to believe it still, as well?”
George lowered his gaze. “I’m sorry, Zephir. There just wasn’t any other way.”
Thomas threw the paper to the ground, and leapt to his feet. “I was abandoned, George! Left to the tender mercy of the Animalists! And now freed only because the elephants have found some use for me as a bargaining chip, tossed in with a bunch of other anonymous political prisoners.”
George looked up at him, surprised. “You mean, you didn’t know?”
Thomas narrowed his eyes, arms crossed over his chest. “Didn’t know what?”
George shook his head, sadly. “Oh, Zephir. It was at my urging that Solovar arranged for the release of the apes held by the elephants. We had to offer Olurgrad a raft of political concessions to close the deal, but I knew that no price would be too high. Not when the bill had come due, all these years later.”
Thomas opened his mouth, and closed it again. His eyes widened. Finally, he said, “You did this?”
“Zephir,” George sighed, “I’ve been laboring ceaselessly since I took office to get you released. In fact, I’ve done little else for the last few years but investigate every possible angle. This was just the first to bear fruit.”
“But... but...” Thomas was taken aback.
“Unfortunately,” George continued with remorse, “I’ve been unable to convince Solovar that your name should be cleared publicly. At least not yet. All of Red Peters files from those days have been sealed, by the president’s order, until the end of the century. His position—with which I disagree, but my voice carries little weight—is that with tensions easing with the elephants, and hope for reconciliation on the horizon, it wouldn’t do to reopen old wounds, and to remind them that relations between our two countries were not always so genial.”
Thomas set his jaw, eyes narrowed. “So I’m to remain a traitor.” It was a statement, not a question, demanding no answer. “Hated by my countrymen.”
“I’m afraid that those who remember the name of Zephir, yes, will likely hate his memory.” George paused, and gave a sly smile. “But who remembers that there was ever a Thomas Recorde, my friend? I doubt there’s more than a handful still living who remember that the famous Zephir was once called by that name, and one of them stands before you.”
Thomas shifted uneasily, averting his gaze. “This is not how I foresaw my homecoming, when I left for Celesteville, all those years ago.”
George climbed to his feet, slipping his pipe into his pocket. He stepped to Thomas’s side, and put a hand on his shoulder. “Come work with me, friend. There’s a place for Thomas Recorde at the intelligences services, even if there isn’t one for Zephir. I can use someone with your experience to help train my students, to increase their chances of surviving in the field.”
“I don’t know...” Thomas began, uneasily.
“You don’t have to decide right away,” George hastened to add. “We will discuss it further over dinner tonight. I’ve invited someone to join us, by the way. Another of those who remember the name of Thomas Recorde, but who hold no grudge against the name Zephir, for all of that.”
Thomas looked up and met George’s eyes, confused.
“Have you forgotten, old friend?” George asked. “Isabelle was a young ape with us, too, and has never forgotten the name to which you were born.”
“I-Isabelle,” Thomas repeated, his tone breathless.
George tightened his companionly grip on Thomas’s shoulder, and nodded. “She waited for you. All of these years. She waited.”
Thomas tried to reply, but couldn’t think of the words to say.
“Come on, Thomas Recorde,” George said, taking him by the arm. “It’s time to go home.”(c) 2006 MonkeyBrain, Inc.