Story 228: Both Simpler and More Complicated

Jennie Hollis hated magic. It wasn’t the extra-dimensional monsters that reached out of the shadows to devour her – those she could manage. It was the sloppiness of it all. She could create a ball of fire and hurl it at something without breaking a sweat even though a coherent ball of flame should burn her hand, and should require fuel, and clearly had some sort of solid core but also levitated. These were non-trivial problems in theory, and it just sort of worked. Then she would try to do something simple, like negate the weak nuclear force in a small area, and it was a huge headache – literally and figuratively. There was just no rhyme or reason to it.

“This is bullshit,” she said. Jennie rested her head on her desk and tried to wallow in misery, but her little desk lamp was too bright even with her eyes closed. She thought about making the bulb blow out with magic, then thought about cloaking the whole room in darkness instead, then thought about telekinetically flipping the light switch. Then she thought about how all three of those used about the same amount of energy even though logically they shouldn’t, and she just gave up and turned the light off with her actual finger.
“Bullshit!” chirped a tinny voice from across the room.
“Quiet, Canary.” Canary was a lead sphere about the size of a baseball, painted yellow. Jennie was extremely proud of it, even though it embodied everything that frustrated her about magic. Imbuing the stupid ball with a rudimentary intelligence had been way too easy. Shouldn’t that be one of the hardest things of all? Canary made a loud chirping noise, and a ripple of energy passed through the room. Another extra-dimensional monster toasted. They were easy to kill, barely corporeal shadow fiends that lurched out of the walls blindly groping towards any source of magic. Jennie had spent a few months being terrified of them before she got really good at tearing them apart, and then a few months longer looking over her shoulder all the time until she had made Canary.

Canary could float along behind her, and it gave off an obnoxiously strong magical signal. Most of that magic was a rechargeable spell to kill shadow beasties, with another spell just barely preventing that from going off. Whenever a nightmare came too close it would always go for Canary first, and the second it drained any energy the spell would let loose and kill it. It was like a magical bug zapper. Jennie focused on the ball for a moment, until it made a contented whistling sound. All primed and ready to go again. It was so nice to be able to concentrate on her work without worrying about something coming up behind her. Except for the part where she hated her work. She turned the light back on again, determined to get out of her funk. On the desk in front of her were five old cell phones with dead batteries.
“This is going to work. This is going to work.” Magic was energy, of a sort. It was really good at turning into other kinds of energy, like light or electricity or heat. In theory, then, she should be able to recharge these phones with magic. It just wasn’t working. Concentrating, she gently reached out to the first phone and felt the flow of magical energy surround her. The phone burst into flames.
“Son of a bitch!” She got the fire extinguished, but at the cost of coating the whole top of the desk with frost. Canary giggled.

The workshop – originally something odd that was either a really small barn or a really large garage – was hazy with smoke. Jennie pried open the one window that wasn’t hopelessly painted shut, and propped the side door open. The main double doors weren’t functional, having been nailed together so she could build shelves. Jennie rented the space from her parents, and slept in the tiny loft above her work area. It was cool, and had lots of character, but it was also cold as hell in the winter and just sixty-eight feet from her parent’s house. Not for the first time, Jennie wondered if she could buy a vacant lot and magically transport the workshop there. Probably not, she thought, but for some reason she felt certain she could do it by making the whole structure walk there. Why was she picturing chicken legs?  Whatever.  That wouldn’t work, as far as she could tell virtually nobody knew magic was real.  On the off chance that this was due to some sort of global Illuminati that assassinated magic users to keep it under wraps she wasn’t eager to make a building strut across town.  But until she did find a good way to relocate, she also had to hide it from her parents.

Her mother walked in, as if on cue.  "Sweetie, are you coming to the house?“
Jennie glanced around for Canary, but it was nowhere to be found.  Canary had been acting more and more on its own, which was simultaneously awesome and a little troubling.  She had hidden it herself, then she had been able to tell it to hide, and now it appeared to have just figured out that mom = get out of sight.
"Mom, you need to knock.  I’m paying rent.”
“Well the door was open, sweetheart.  Was… was something burning?”
“One of my inventions.” Jennie cringed internally every time she made that stupid excuse.  "Minor electrical problem, nothing to be worried about.“
Her mother nodded, but looked like she planned to worry anyway. "Well.  Okay.  But are you coming?  You know we invited our new neighbors to dinner and you said you’d join us.”
“Shit.  I mean shoot.  Sorry, mom.  Um… yes.  Give me ten minutes to get cleaned up, okay?”
The neighbors had moved in a week ago, and looked like something out of a 1950’s Sears catalog.  Jennie didn’t really feel like introducing herself to anyone new, but it wasn’t worth saying no to her mom.
“She’s gone, Canary.  Come on out.”

Canary floated out from behind a stack of books and drifted to Jennie.  "Coming to the house?“  It sounded a little like Jennie’s mom.
"Yes, Canary.  I’m going to the house for dinner.  Let me look at you.”  She took Canary in her hand, and squinted.  The spells were there, looking the same as ever.  The retaining spell for the shadow zapper, then the zapper, then - woven into the lead ball itself - a complex spell to grant sentience and let Canary talk, float, and perceive the world around it.
“Are you getting smarter, Canary?”
Canary giggled.
“I’ll take that as a maybe.  I just wish I understood how.”
Canary chirped, the same way it did when a beastie grabbed it.  But there wasn’t anything in the shadows, or dripping out of the air, or bubbling out of the floorboards or whatever.  There was… crunching?  Someone was walking up the gravel path.
“Howdy, neighbor!”  The he-neighbor.  Jennie tried to smile, but was annoyed by the intrusion.
“Oh.  Hey, you want the main house.  My mom and dad are getting dinner set up for you right now.”
“Sure, sure.  Sounds great.  I just saw the door open and the light on and thought I’d poke in to say hello.”
“Okay.  Hello.”
“Jake.  Jake Price.”  He extended his hand to shake hers, and she awkwardly started to reach forward while still holding Canary.  He took it from her.
“Oh.  Um.  If I could just…”
“What do we have here?  A heavy little thing!  You know, this reminds me…”
Canary chirped, and a ripple of magical energy washed over them.  Jake dropped Canary, and stared blankly ahead.
“Oh, shit.  Oh shit.  Shit shit shit.  Canary?”
There was no answer.  It was gone, hiding somewhere.  Jennie knew the spell should be harmless to humans, but her new neighbor looked catatonic.

He blinked.  "Uh… “
"Are you okay?”
“Where am I?”  His accent was different, it had a sort of Southern twang it hadn’t before.  "I remember… in the root cellar, there was something… something in the walls… and…“  He trailed off, and shook his head.
"Okay.  Do you remember your name?”  It was the only thing she could think to ask.  All she knew about him was his name, where he lived, and that he was married.  Should she go and get his wife?“
"Yeah, yeah.  Of course.  My name is Simon Alexander Granger.  What… what day is it?”
Okay, so wrong accent and wrong name.  And Canary had gone off.  "Stay here.  Don’t move.  I need to go see something.“
Jennie headed up to the house.  She could smell roast beef and baked potatoes and something else.  It smelled delicious.  She snuck in through the kitchen, and sure enough the she-neighbor was in the living room.  Jennie squinted.
There was something there.  Something… squirming.  She couldn’t get a look at it from the kitchen, it was like a spell but fuzzy somehow.  Jennie stepped into the room and waved.  "Hey.  Hi guys.  Um, Mrs. Price?  Your husband wanted to talk to you outside for some reason.”
The woman excused herself and walked outside with Jennie.  She saw Jake, or Simon, or whatever his name was and stopped dead.  "We underestimated you, little witch.  You killed my partner.“
"Oh…kay.  Sure.  Can I ask what the fuck is going on here?”
The spell, or whatever it was, suddenly yanked out of the woman’s body and emerged as a familiar sight.  Shadowy tendrils, dripping as they twisted in the air.  It was gone before Jennie could react.
“Where am I?”

Later, after the police collected her neighbors while seeming completely at a loss about what to do with them, Jennie collapsed at her workbench.  She heard Canary humming something.
“Canary, let me see you again.”  As she suspected, the trigger spell was still in place.  The zapper shouldn’t have gone off.  "I don’t understand.  I don’t understand anything.  I don’t know why some spells are easy and some are hard.  I don’t know what the things that come after me are.  I don’t know how you’re learning.  I don’t know how you triggered that spell by yourself, or why.  This is so frustrating!“
Canary giggled again.
"Oh, is this funny for you?  Maybe you’d like to actually answer some of my questions?”
“Okay”
“Wait, really?  Do you know the answers?”
“Answer.  One.”
“Fine, just one of them.  That’s something.”  She had never really had a conversation with Canary before.
“All questions.  One answer.”
“They all have the same answer?” Canary made its contented whistle in response.  "Okay, spit it out.  What is it?“
"Magic is alive.”

A GUIDE FOR YOUNG LADIES ENTERING THE SERVICE OF THE FAIRIES, by Rosamund Hodge


I.

This is the lie they will use to break you: no one else has ever loved this way before.


II.

Choose wisely which court you serve. Light or Dark, Summer or Winter, Seelie or Unseelie: they have many names, but the pith of the choice is this: a poisoned flower or a knife in the dark?

(The difference is less and more than you might think.)

Of course, this is only if you go to them for the granting of a wish: to save your father, sister, lover, dearest friend. If you go to get someone back from them, or—most foolish of all—because you fell in love with one of them, you will have no choice at all. You must go to the ones that chose you.


III.

Be kind to the creature that guards your door. Do not mock its broken, bleeding face.

It will never help you in return. But I assure you, someday you will be glad to know that you were kind to something once.


IV.

Do not be surprised how many other mortal girls are there within the halls. The world is full of wishing and of wanting, and the fairies love to play with human hearts.

You will meet all kinds: the terrified ones, who used all their courage just getting there. The hopeful ones, who think that love or cleverness is enough to get them home. The angry ones, who see only one way out. The cold ones, who are already half-fairy.

I would tell you, Do not try to make friends with any of them, but you will anyway.


V.

Sooner or later (if you serve well, if you do not open the forbidden door and let the monster eat you), they will tell you about the game.

Summer battles Winter, Light battles Dark. This is the law of the world. And on the chessboard of the fairies, White battles Black.

In the glory of this battle, the pieces that are brave and strong may win their heart’s desire.


VI.

You already have forgotten how the mortal sun felt upon your face. You already know the bargain that brought you here was a lie.

If you came to save your sick mother, you fear she is dead already. If you came to free your captive sister, your fear she will be sent to Hell for the next tithe. If you came for love of an elf-knight, you are broken with wanting him, and yet he does not seem to know you.

Say yes.


Keep reading

Coffee helps most people stay awake and alert, but for me, coffee takes me to a different dimension. Now, it’s a very subtle thing, changing the dimension you’re in. It’s the same thing as moving slowly, or watching the passage of time: it’s so slow, you almost feel like nothing changed at all. And yet, you can feel somewhere deep inside that something has changed.

It doesn’t matter where I have it or if it’s homemade or from a café. As soon as it slides down my throat, my head feels a little heavy, like it’s too heavy to be supported by my neck. When I was younger, I’d almost faint, but now it’s a lot more under control. Once the initial sip is down, the rest of the coffee doesn’t seem to change much.

And just then, I see the visions of what could have been. At first, I never really understood what I was seeing, and assumed it was just idle imagination. The more I drank coffee, however, the more I realised that these visions followed a pattern. Sometimes, they’d be mundane, like the kind of pizza I ordered would be different. Other times, I could see the horrid beings claw their way in through the doors and windows, shadows spreading across wherever they stalked.

There were always different visions. A coup, a crash, a lottery win, a new job, a friend’s death: the list goes on and on. No two visions repeated, which gave me the impression that my movement through the dimensions was strictly in one direction. I could not return to a previous world. This also meant that my original life could only have been possible if I had never drank coffee at all. Was it worth it?

The next question was, naturally, whether coffee was saving me. To be sure, I’d be saved from a lot of incredible things: alien invasions, wars, shootouts. So many deaths and injuries averted. This opinion became so common that I started drinking coffee every moment I could. I craved it, like an actual addiction, but not because of the caffeine—coffee didn’t seem to have any physiological effect on me, unlike most people. No, I craved it because every time I drank it, I could see something horrible that I’d just saved myself from.

Ultimately, a realisation came to dawn on me. Coffee was my medicine. I was taking it just to keep staying alive, and that all this time, I was dying. I was dying dimensionally. I was fated to die, and every time I drank coffee, I was averting that fate. But why was I granted this ability?

The question has never been answered. All I know is that I hate the taste of coffee. I hate the smell of it. I hate how it feels in my mouth. I hate how much of it I have to keep drinking just to stay sane, and alive.

Maybe I was meant to be dead after all.


Today’s throwback story is about an imaginary friend who is an astronaut.

Story 225: Changelings

Stacey froze, no longer concerned that she might be late for Calculus.  She was certain the figure in front of her wasn’t human.

It was too beautiful at first glance, and too hideous on the second.  Like a life-sized Barbie doll, it fell right into the Uncanny Valley - nobody had a waist that thin, eyes that large.  The longer she stared the more predatory the thing’s smile looked.  Something about the… woman… reminded her very much of a praying mantis.  It was watching Stacey watching it, waiting to see her reaction.  So she gave a small bow.
“Do you know what I am, little one?”  Stacey thought about being offended at ‘little one’ - she was nineteen - but figured the thing in front of her was potentially hundreds of years old so she let it slide.  Lying, Stacey shook her head.

“I am a fey, child.  I have come to bring you home with me.  Where you belong.”  The voice was musical.
“I… actually belong in math class right now.”
The thing looked confused.  It hadn’t liked that reaction.  "You have no need for math.  You are not of this world.  You are a changeling, a fey who gains strength by being raised with the humans.  Surely you have felt that you are different, that you do not belong here?“
Half right, Stacey thought.  Certainly she had been painfully aware at times that she didn’t fit in.

She struggled sometimes.  She didn’t have as much empathy as she was supposed to, she was sure of it, and that meant she had to just pretend to feel sorry for people and resist the urge to do little spiteful things like trip someone that was walking by with their arms full.  She told her mother once, "I don’t know if I love you like I’m supposed to.  I don’t know if I feel anything like I’m supposed to.” but rather than hurt or horror there was a long hug and an even longer talk, about just how many people in the world felt the same way and by the end of it her face was damp and a tightness in her chest she hadn’t been aware of had released and she thought, if I can feel this right now then it’s not all fake.  She didn’t pretend around her mom after that; if she didn’t care about something she would say so and if her mother said 'I love you’ she would sometimes say it back and mean it and sometimes just say 'I know’.

Today was an 'I love you’ day, though.  "Would I be able to return?“
Once again the fey looked confused.  This wasn’t how the conversation was supposed to go.  "You should not want to return.  You should feel only relief at meeting your true family.  Perhaps we left you too long.”
“Yeah, maybe,” she said.  That wasn’t it at all, of course.  Oh, sure, there had been a phase she went through when she was six where she couldn’t wait for the fairies to come and take her away and angrily told her family as much whenever she felt the least bit slighted - but that hadn’t lasted long.  She thought about explaining, but decided that could wait.  She had an important question to ask.  "So, if I’m a changeling, what happened to the human child?“
"The…?  Oh.  Given to Elven royalty, I believe.  Though they tire of the humans once they begin to grow older, so it may have been gifted elsewhere by now.  It doesn’t matter.”
It didn’t know, or care.  That wasn’t a total surprise.  Stacey could feel her heart beating as she thought about what had to happen next.  She reached into her purse, for the special box she carried with her at all times.
“You’re so beautiful, let me give you a gift.”  Vain and greedy, the stories had said, and sure enough the fey leaned down to allow Stacey to clasp a golden chain around its impossibly thin neck.  It started screaming as soon as the latch closed.

“No!  This is not gold!”
“It’s gold plated,” Stacey said, “and you need to quiet down or you’re going to draw too much attention to us.”  In fact, there were already some looks from the other kids heading to class or back to their dorm rooms.
Looking less beautiful already, the thing reached up repeatedly to claw at the thin chain - and then pulled its hand away like something had stung it.  "You would do this to your own kind?  You would bind us in iron?“
"Yeah.  Sorry,” she lied.  She was having a really hard time feeling any empathy for the thing.  Mainly she was just glad the iron worked - it seemed to be dependent on intent more than anything.  A horseshoe hung over a door for luck could be ignored, one hung up specifically to keep fairies out would give her a migraine if she tried to pass it.  Her little brother had once placed a railroad spike in the hallway to keep her from getting to the bathroom, and she had retaliated by making his teeth fall out.  By accident, mostly - she hadn’t thought it would actually work.  They formed an uneasy truce after that, under threat of mom’s wrath.

“You have been corrupted by the humans!” the fey cried, as if she - it - knew Stacey was thinking of her family. “We are your true kin!”
“No.”  Enough of that, Stacey decided.  "Not 'true’ family.  You’re just my biological family.  And you’re neglectful and abusive.“  She could feel an angry heat inside her, and took a deep breath to calm down.  She hadn’t expected to feel so strongly about it.  "You didn’t trick my mom - she figured it out after just a month or so, okay?  I suppose in the old days she would have left me in the woods or something, but it’s not the middle ages anymore.  She just… Googled it and did her best.  Never lied to me about it, either.  So no, I’m not a changeling.  I’m adopted.”
The thing paced back and forth, glaring at Stacey while she took her phone out.  "Speaking of… Mom?  Hey!  It happened, just like you said it would!  Yes, the fey!  No mom, I’m fine.  I promise.  Yes, I would tell you.  It’s okay.  No, it’s wearing the necklace.  Listen, can you call the school and tell them I had to go home for a family emergency or something?  I’m going to do it.  Yes, mom.  I’m sure.  No, I know it’s dangerous.  I know mom.  I love you too.  I’ll be back soon, you’ll see.“

Hanging up, Stacey smiled her own predatory grin at the fey.  "You’re going to take me back to where you came from,” she said, “but I’m not going to stay.  You took something from my family, my real family, and we want it back.  You’re going to help me find my twin sister.”

The King’s Favor : Part I

(Thorin x Reader)


Muffled shouts and angry accusations echoed down the halls. The thick, lavish double doors did very little to block the Queen’s outburst.

The guards that stood on either side of the door, stared off into the distance like nothing was happening. But you couldn’t help but imagine the horrors that were unraveling behind those doors.

You cringed when you heard something metal hit the floor with a loud clang.

Irida, another handmaiden to the Queen, like yourself, threw you a questioning look, to which you lightly shrugged.

Whenever the royal couple would have a disagreement, the Queen would let the whole mountain know just what for and how unhappy she is. King Thorin, who had a legendary temper, surprisingly didn’t try to outmatch her vocal storm. And from the bits and pieces you’ve heard of the arguments, they were mostly about trivial things, and it appeared to you like the Queen was dying to pick a fight with the King, and you couldn’t fathom why.

Keep reading

Sometimes

Sometimes, he realizes that rarely is anything ever that simple.

Rating: T
Word Count: 761

…I don’t even know

Read on AO3.


Sometimes, when he has to use the tracker to find that idiot bastard and pull him out of the river before he manages to drown himself for real this time, he admits that what Dazai’s death would mean for the Agency isn’t the only reason that he’s worried, isn’t the only thought that hurries his steps. That he’s selfishly worried for his own sake as much as for Dazai’s, that he’s not sure what he’d do—with himself, with his time no longer spent trying to harangue the man into fitting neatly into his Ideal—if Dazai ever left in any permanent fashion, and not just because it’s easier when things don’t change. Sometimes, the scolding he gives Dazai is harsher (more worried, frustrated, emotional) than usual.

Sometimes, he stops to wonder why Dazai hasn’t just gotten rid of the thing if he apparently wants to die that bad, since there’s no way that he doesn’t know by now that it’s there—since he has, most probably, known from the beginning.

Sometimes, he realizes that rarely is anything ever that simple.

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Story 217: (Folklore 241) Celtic Mythology in Modern Urban Environments

When she got back from spring break, Stacey wouldn’t come into our dorm room.  I played stupid because I knew she would be forced to do the same, but we both knew exactly what was going on.

I had sprinkled iron filings into the carpet.  A lot of them.

You couldn’t see it if you just glanced at the carpet, they were deep in the weave, but if you were secretly a goddamn fairy it would make it extremely unpleasant to enter the room.  So she just stood there, smiling, in the hallway.
“You know,” she said, “my allergies cleared up as soon as I left town?  I think there might be mold or something in the carpet.”  Cute.
“Well you know, carpet in a dorm wasn’t the best plan to begin with.  A bunch of college kids around something that can get stained or… moldy?  I bet if they replace the carpet the same thing will just happen again the next day.”
The smile slips, just a little.  She nods.
“You’re probably right.  I don’t think they have carpets in Neumann Hall, I might request a room there.  Nothing against you.”
“Of course!  No offense taken.”


She’s still standing there with her fake smile, fake everything I suppose, holding her backpack and staring past me at her side of the room.
“Do you think any… mold… got on my things?”
I was tempted, but no.  She never actually hurt me, after all.  "I think your things are probably safe.“
"Oh good.  Good.  Um.  I really hate to ask for a favor, but would you be willing to box them up for me while I talk to someone about moving?”

There was something about favors.  Never accept a favor from the fair folk, or enter into a bargain without clearly defining what you would owe.  But this was different, right?  I would be doing a favor for her, not the other way around.  I wondered suddenly if I had ever told her I ‘owed her one’ back before I figured it out.  Just to be safe…
“Sure thing, and then we’re even.”
She tilted her head, eyes suddenly seeming cold and hard.
“For what?”
“For…” this felt like dangerous territory.  "For anything I might have owed you, for any reason.  Or vice versa.  We’re just, totally, even.“
She sighed, either in resignation or in relief.  Hard to say.  "Sure thing.  Agreed.  It was… nice.  I hope we can still be friends.”
“Yeah.  Um.  Good luck.  With everything.”

Stacey left, and I leaned against the wall and slid to the floor.  I was tempted to fall asleep right there, I hadn’t slept well since I started planning for kicking her out of the room.  If she had gotten angry… Maggie Glennhold had spilled a smoothie right into Stacey’s backpack and everyone saw what happened to her the next day.  Just an accident, of course.  Nobody’s fault, and they said her hair would probably grow back.  But it didn’t feel like Stacey was going to come for me.

Still… just to be safe, I resolved to do an extra nice job packing her things.

Help Finding A Post

Hey guys - there was a GREAT post here on Tumblr a little while ago about a story concept. 

A couple of people were talking about getting to know each other via the internet means that one day a soldier might be asked to bomb a city where they know one of their mutuals or gaming buddies might live.

Eventually someone write a short story and it was something like:

It’s about a drone operator who refuses to fire on orders because they realize their online D&D party buddy is in that city, and it causes a civilian revolt against the war-mongering Powers That Be and basically causes World Peace. 

Can anyone help me find that post? And more importantly, that particular story?

Two-Minute Personality Test
By Jonathan Safran Foer

What’s the kindest thing you almost did? Is your fear of insomnia stronger than your fear of what awoke you? Are bonsai cruel? Do you love what you love, or just the feeling? Your earliest memories: do you look though your young eyes, or look at your young self? Which feels worse: to know that there are people who do more with less talent, or that there are people with more talent? Do you walk on moving walkways? Should it make any difference that you knew it was wrong as you were doing it? Would you trade actual intelligence for the perception of being smarter? Why does it bother you when someone at the next table is having a conversation on a cell phone? How many years of your life would you trade for the greatest month of your life? What would you tell your father, if it were possible? Which is changing faster, your body, or your mind? Is it cruel to tell an old person his prognosis? Are you in any way angry at your phone? When you pass a storefront, do you look at what’s inside, look at your reflection, or neither? Is there anything you would die for if no one could ever know you died for it? If you could be assured that money wouldn’t make you any small bit happier, would you still want more money? What has been irrevocably spoiled for you? If your deepest secret became public, would you be forgiven? Is your best friend your kindest friend? Is it any way cruel to give a dog a name? Is there anything you feel a need to confess? You know it’s a “murder of crows” and a “wake of buzzards” but it’s a what of ravens, again? What is it about death that you’re afraid of? How does it make you feel to know that it’s an “unkindness of ravens”?

Story 227: Drive Safe

I pop another sour candy in my mouth, but the effect has worn off.  I’m going to need to find a new way to stay awake.  The highway is abandoned except for us, with nothing visible except the lane lines and the faint flicker of whatever shrubs are growing right next to the asphalt as we hurtle past and briefly illuminate them with the edges of the headlights.  It always surprises me how much work it is to drive on a night like this.  It should be the easiest thing in the world, and instead I feel weary and my eyes are practically burning from looking ahead at nothing.

Lacey was keeping me entertained at first, but we’ve spent the last three days together - the majority of two of them on the road - and quite simply there’s nothing left to talk about.  We played Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon for a while, but she’s better at remembering all the little bit parts so she always wins.  I cranked the air conditioner all the way down, tried making up a game for myself involving the mile markers, and - of course - ate a lot of sour candy.  I’m all out of ideas.  I reach over and place my hand over Lacey’s, and she sighs a little.  I think she’s almost asleep with her eyes open; if I need to pull over she won’t be able to take the wheel.  Maybe we could both just nap in the car for an hour.

Let’s call that plan B.  I sit up a little straighter, and focus on the road ahead.  Something seems wrong, about the trees.  Something… ah.  Right.  There aren’t any trees in the Arizona desert.  I’m imagining things again.  This happens every time, my brain gets tired of the void all around the road and fills it in.  Trees, usually, not fully seen but somehow implied in the darkness.  It’s fine.  It doesn’t mean anything, I can still drive a little further.  It’s not safe to stop here anyway.  Now that I’m expecting it it’s almost a game - spot the hallucination.  Of course on this incredibly boring stretch of highway the answer is that everything that’s not road is in your head.  The rocky cliff on the right side of the car?  Fabrication.  The thing on the edge of the road?  Halfway real, just a missing reflector making a gap in the pattern.  The person running along the shoulder?  Could be real if people could run that fast - it’s keeping up with us, just barely past the range of the headlights.

That’s a persistent one.  Too tall and too consistently there to be the brush that grows out here.  It’s just a bit of foot or elbow flickering into view, and a dim outline of a back and head.  Has to just be my imagination still, but it’s unnerving.

A loud noise startles me awake as I drift too far out of my lane and onto the warning strip in the asphalt.  I straighten out and apply the brakes as I see that there’s another car up ahead going much slower than us - Jesus, I probably would have just slammed into the back of that guy if I hadn't… fallen asleep?  That must be it.  I was full-on dreaming.  It seems so obvious now that some adrenaline has me wide awake.  Man, that was close.  Plan B time, we need to pull over right away and get some rest.  I’m not making it to the next town, but there’s probably some dirt road we can pull onto.
“You okay?” Lacey asks, stretching.
“Yeah.  No.  I think I’m falling asleep at the wheel.”
“Me too.  I kept thinking I saw some guy running eighty miles an hour ahead of us.”

I don’t think I’ve ever had goosebumps this powerful.
Lacey stretches as best she can in the cramped space. “Let’s just pull off at the next little farming road.”
She saw it too.  It’s real.  It’s out there, on this road.  "Um.  You know what?  I think I can make it into the next town.“

Chasing Ghosts

For a moment he can pretend that the bandaged hand belongs to someone else, belongs to someone whose hand he won’t be able to hold again while there still is breath in his lungs.

Rating: T
Word Count: 620

Inspired by this comic by @ruestwoon, but more painful because I had to (although the end ended up being fluffy; I don’t know what happened; I’d meant for it to be pure angst)

Read on AO3.


Someone sits down on the stool to Oda’s right, and when he turns his head to look, the first thing that he sees is the almost-mussy hair, is the gauze pad taped over the left cheek, and for a moment he sees someone who should be over two years dead.

He’s brought back to the present when Kunikida orders his drink, the double-image fading, resolving into dark blond hair that doesn’t fall into the wearer’s eyes rather than too-long black-brown curls that do, into a pair of glasses that Dazai would only wear if he borrowed them in order to irritate the owner, into a stronger jawline than that of his old friend. His heart still hurts.

“What’s with the bandages?” he asks conversationally once the bartender has set the glass in front of Kunikida, and the tightness around his throat has eased enough that he can trust his lungs and voice to work how they’re supposed to again.

Keep reading

When the Angel came to end the world

the robots did not look up for a long time. They toiled in the fields or spun in the cities or hummed along empty roads. They held the earth like a newborn calf in their hands, fragile and stumbling, and their steady, metal fingers were ready to clamp it up and carry it to the mother for milk, or break its neck if it proved too weak. When the Angel came to end the world, the robots didn’t notice; it had ended in fire twice over already.

The Angel came to a field of wheat. It was several thousand acres, far and away over the horizon; wheat and wheat filled the eye, and nothing touched the stalks but the wind. Somewhere in the center of the field was a single robot, its tarnished body bent over, checking the furrows for weeds and pulling them up if it found any. It put the weeds into a hole in its stomach, where there was a small glow, a rush of fire, and the invasive plant was incinerated.

The Angel came before the robot and spoke:

“Do not be afraid.”

Hearing a voice when it thought it was alone, the robot lifted its head, gears whirring quietly behind its visual processors. It looked up at the celestial being floating above the ground, robed in white, wings beating the air, yet creating no wind, as the stalks of wheat remained still. The robot studied the wheat, then turned again to the Angel.

“Are you a human?” Its voice was thin with disuse, and it coughed and spluttered, and tried again. “Are you a master?”

Keep reading

Story 220: Well There’s Your Problem

“You’re sure you’re a mechanic?” Sean asked.  Other than the ancient toolbox, she didn’t look like any mechanic he’d ever seen.  Long nails, long hair hanging loose, pristine dress just begging to be ruined by a smear of grease…
She smiled and raised an eyebrow.  "Because traditional mechanics have worked out so well for you?“

They had replaced his alternator, his battery, the battery cables, the computer thing, some random wires - the car essentially had a brand new electrical system and it was still flipping out.  The third and final mechanic he had taken it to had finally given up and told him to either scrap the car or plan on buying a new alternator every two months.
"Yeah, okay.  Fair enough.  What’s your name?”  He had forgotten to ask, so he only knew her user name - HedgeMechanic - from the forum he had gone to out of desperation.  She was the only one to offer assistance - the rest just told him to replace something he had already replaced twice.
“I don’t give that out.  Call me Wendy.  Don’t worry, you’ll be satisfied with your service.”

He was already regretting his decision.  Why had he given some stranger on the internet his address and told them he’d have five hundred dollars with him?  What made him think this person could somehow fix what nobody else could, when she wouldn’t even tell him what she was going to do?
Wendy walked over to his car, and placed a hand on the hood.  She winced.  "Okay, yeah.  I can fix this.  Um.  You probably want to watch because you don’t trust me, but if you watch you’re going to think I’m crazy.  So here’s the deal.  Let me do my thing, and I promise if you just allow me finish you’ll want to pay me when it’s over.  Okay?“
Sean nodded, but couldn’t stop picturing her smashing his car with a hammer or something.  She hadn’t even lifted the hood and looked inside.

Wendy opened the toolbox, and started pulling out random items.  Sean wasn’t sure what was going on, but none of what she was producing looked like it belonged in a toolbox.  Chalk, a mason jar, candles, a container of salt, a bundle of twigs…
"Seriously?”
She ignored him and started to draw on his driveway, making all sorts of squiggly symbols around the car.  This was followed by a circle of salt around it, then the candles - stuck to the ground with a blob of melted wax - and finally the bundle of twigs.  She lit that on fire using one of the candles and started waving it around while chanting.  Sean nervously looked around to make sure none of his neighbors were watching.

The car started.  With nobody touching it.

The headlights flashed, the engine revved.  Sean could see the interior lights flickering.  Wendy didn’t seem bothered.  He tried to remember - had she touched the car at all?  Certainly not in a way that would allow this.  Could she have come earlier and set it up, somehow?  Just as he was concocting a theory in his head involving some sort of remote control device stealthily wired into his car as he was sleeping, the sound started.  The moaning.  It was for sure coming from the car, and then… just above the car.  He could see something, some sort of ripple in the air.  The lights had stopped flashing, and the car shuddered to a stop.  The moaning continued, as the wavering air circled.

The candles all went out, except for one.  That one started bubbling all over, slouching as it started to melt.  The white wax took on a brownish sheen, like old baked-on grease.  Wendy stopped chanting, picked up the mason jar, and then fished around in the toolbox for one more thing - a spatula.  She placed the jar over the candle, scooped it off the driveway with the spatula, and then flipped the jar and put the lid on.  Somehow, the flame was still burning.
“There you go.  One minor demon, out of your car and trapped.  Five hundred bucks.”
Sean couldn’t stop looking at the candle, which seemed to be moving a little on its own.  "But… how…“
"Snap out of it, buddy.  Five hundred bucks or I open the jar.”
“No no, hang on, I have it.  Don’t open it.”  Sean handed over the money, and Wendy slid the jar into her toolbox.  She started retrieving the other candles and the leftover salt.
“How?” Sean asked, “Why?”

She latched the toolbox shut and stood.  "Sean, right?  Well Sean, chances are you’re an asshole.“  She started to walk away, but yelled back over her shoulder to add one last thing.  "Be more considerate when you’re driving.  You never know who you’re cutting off.”

I am an imposter. I don’t know what happened to the real me. I’m certain that at some point, the real me stop inhabiting this body, and instead… I came into being. Was I the inhabitant of some other body once? Was I a wandering spirit in need of a body? Or perhaps I am the very consciousness of this body, somehow given life. I’ve pondered this question a lot lately, even if it makes me extremely uncomfortable when I think about it. It’s not so much the feeling that I’m in the wrong body. It’s the feeling that this body has the wrong person in it.

As soon as I hit this realisation, I knew that my body was not my property. I was leasing it, borrowing it, perhaps even stealing it from the person who truly deserves it. Hours later, I started exercising. I looked up nutrition charts and installed health apps. This body was not mine, I told myself over and over. I had to take care of it. If you don’t own it, you should take good care of it.

I looked at it in the mirror, several times a day. I came to see it in a different light. I felt it, as much as I could, and when I did, it didn’t feel like I was touching me. I was touching a body.

I took such good care of it that my friends and family started to respect me for it. They praised me, when in truth, they really just appreciated the body. Would they like the person who was meant to inhabit the body? Who knows what they’re like. But if I am the imposter, then they’re almost certainly a better person than me.

Eventually, it became unusual to think of the body as my body at all, especially when my body became my source of livelihood. The better care I took, the more I seemed to make, and the better my life situation became. The more I seemed to succeed in life, the more I became paranoid that the real me was going to usurp the body I was inhabiting.

What were they like? How will they find me? How will they take back their body? The questions tormented me, and underneath every fake smile, within every hollow laugh, there was that fear: how long do I have? It’s perhaps a little surprising that it took me a while to wonder what would even become of me. Would I end up stealing someone else’s body? Was that really my nature? A body thief, travelling from body to body?

The idea of ‘me’ became so confusing to think about, that the body stopped using the pronoun altogether. Now it’s just the body. It survives, it exists, and it thrives. It must be protected. It must be taken care of. In a world where 'I’ can be anything, it can only end up being nothing.

It’s best then, that there be no 'I’ or 'me’. Only the body, and the emptiness within it.

End Of Loop

I came to strapped to a chair. Another chair sat in front of me and their was a hole in the ground equidistant between them. A glance at my arm revealed my Quantum Permuter was active but in a weird stasis mode. I had spent uncountable years in ridiculous situations with this thing and I had never seen the code on the screen. A glance revealed my surrounding outside the structure were strangely familiar. I wasn’t sure (especially considering the amount of traveling I had been doing) but I felt like I should recognize them.

Then He walked into my field of Vision.

Slate.

We had never spoken, but since our first encounter he had been chasing me along the timelines. Interrupting my missions. Not allowing me to fix the past.

I hated him.

I had never felt such powerful enmity for a being I had so little meaningful contact with. With his containment suit I didn’t even know what he was. I was pretty certain he was one of Them.

A Kyrati.

The Kyrati were humanoid, and required the same basic conditions humans did for life. It’s ironic, towards the late 20th and early 21st century many stories compared Humanity to viruses. Our wanton destruction of our habitat, overworking of our natural systems, and rapid reproduction rates, irregardless of the reflexive effects, made this comparison troublingly on the nose. If that was a true comparison then the Kyrati were a Virulent Cancer, multiplying and destroying far more than our worse civilizations could ever have conceive of.

They arrived in 2035 after Dylam Enterprises had secured inter-dimensional trading rights with the phase they called 1xb12. Using the Banneker theorems they had successfully created a method of contacting, viewing, and traveling to alternate realities. 1xb12 seemed to have the best compatibility with what we needed, and could supply. So after years of negotiations the terms were set and the Quantum Permuter was utilized to open a doorway.

The greatest fears of the naysayers were almost immediately realized when it was revealed that the entirety of the presented data was falsified. 1xb12 was a seed world for the Kyrati Empire. It had been colonized Years ago and stripped of 90% of its life sustaining properties. What we had been looking at was a preserve and projections of the world before it had been stripped. The planet was currently much closer to Mars than earth.

As soon as the portal was open the Kyrati installed Phase Locks and their legions poured through. Our population was reduced by 70% inside of six months. That was 5.6 billion lives in half a year. Dylam Enterprises to those that still remembered it was an instant Pariah.

So the back up plan was enacted. Thing about the Quantum Permuter, it didn’t just allow for shifting between dimensions, but further investigation and modification could allow for movement along the time stream.

I was chosen to travel back in time and eliminate the conditions that allowed Dylam enterprises to obtain the technology and bring about the Catastrophe.

I had been traveling for untold years. I had committed acts of corporate espionage. I had committed acts of sabotage. I had committed acts of terrorism. I have killed. The things I had done were beyond rationalizing. I had become a monster to stop the monsters from coming. But above all the things I’d done… The thing I had become. I had failed. And this creature was the cause of it.

It walked in front of me and paused. It’s head cocked as it studied me. I sat their shaking with rage looking at the architect of my failures. It reached up to its neck and grabbed it’s helmet. A hissing sound was followed by a rush of steam and when it cleared what I saw was impossible. I looked into the eyes of Dr. Benjamin Banneker, creator of the Quantum Permuter. My mission parameters included potentially tracking and eliminating him but I was unable to find even a trace in my travels. I couldn’t rationalize what I saw. Why. How, could he be Slate.

“Why?” I whispered

He looked at me shook his head and let out a rueful chuckle.

“You really have no idea do you?”

He stared at me for a while. Then his expression hardened.

“I always knew the Permuter could potentially time slip, but I also knew the danger. Time is a stream, interrupting or altering the flow is always temporary. If you go back and change something to avoid an outcome you lock that outcome into place. The event becomes a constant because it Has to happen in order for the consequent event that is time travel to take place.”

“But there are alternate realities…”

“Yes, ones you will never fully experience because you have violated the time stream and Locked yourself Out of time into a loop. Had you Purmuted into a reality where the events that caused you to time shift never happened you could have theoretically stayed. The only way to even conceivably experience a permanent time alteration would be for you to double back on your first loop fix the problem, and convince the first you that he had to continue. You have shifted up and down the timeline so much that said outcome is now impossible.”

“Why, how… You could have told me this we could have..”

“By the time I locked onto your tachyon signature the greater damage was already irreparable. Haven’t you noticed that every time you shift the world you return to is Worse?”

“In some ways but I…”

“Have No clue what your actions have caused!”

He stared at me and in his eyes I saw a deeper pit of pain and rage than I though conceivable. Why couldn’t he understand? What could have happened that he looked with such vehemence towards me?

“It was pretty early on for you mission wise. You were not fully aware enough of the ramifications of your actions to realize, nor so far along in your path that you ceased to care. It was before you began searching for me. I assume your mission included potentially locating and sanctioning me?”

“But I didn’t, I never found a trace of you I couldn’t…”

“That’s because I blocked it. I thwarted your efforts before you even began them, you had already taken Everything from me before it even occurred to you to look for me. I wish you had found me before… I wish…”

He began pacing, galvanized by his emotions, containing himself from an outburst I could see would lead to my end.

“It was a normal day, as normal as days got after the occupation. I was moving my family to a new safe house. They were aware that my work was the foundation of their invasion and wanted me in custody to see what expansions they could coax out of me. I had my modified Permuter, it detected the vibrational differences of Them and their technology which also allowed me a heads up on potential encounters. You were in the area on one of your fools errands. Your tachyon signature and Permuter emissions interfered with my equipment. We never saw them coming.”

He stopped, locked in a memory I had no desire to share. With effort, he gathered himself and continued.

“They played nice at first, they provided for our basic needs in a shelter I knew to be far more comfortable than what was offered to most. At first they thought they had sold me on their propaganda. I smiled and played along with their claims of Manifest Destiny and Conquerers Preeminence. Till the day they realized I was stalling the process. Imagine if you will, what a race that was capable of wiping out 70% of a population without pause is capable of doing… To the child of a man that knowingly slowed their expansion.”

He stopped at this point, tears streaming down his face, still wracked by whatever horrors he had witnessed.

We sat in silence for some time. My imagination, that of a man who could not even remember the horrors I myself had perpetrated, travelled down uncanny valleys and left me paralyzed. I could not conceive of what this man had been through because of me and even more frightening what he had planned for me. Finally he turned.

“They didn’t give me much time before demanding I get back to work. Though I had been stalling on their goals. I had been aggressively pursuing my own. I was able to figure out your specific Permuters modifications, I could see the points of interference in my time stream and I could lock onto your tachyon stream. If I could stop you I could potentially reverse the causality that led to our capture. But first I had to escape my captors.

They were aware of your manipulations but their scientists had yet to replicate the equations that allowed travel along the stream. My Permuter had sophisticated quantum encryption layers. They had never even realized I had time stream alteration equations on my drive. For them I worked on expanding the Quantum Scryers vibrational wave margins. Based off my work they were marshaling for aggressive magnification of their empire. I built a null-time workshop and put it in a quasi permeable vibrational bubble, a pocket dimension if you will. I explained to them that the glitches in my workspace recordings were a result of my vibrational research. They took another of my children to insure I was being truthful. What they did…”

He paused again but briefly this time. Whatever their offenses, they had the exact opposite intended effect. His eyes met mine.

“I built this suit to reduce my agitation of the time stream. As it locked my physical form in temporal stasis , this is the first time I have removed it since I sealed it.”

He reached into a deceptively small opening on his backpack and pulled out a oblong cylinder with a point on one end and some type of tech box at the other end. He walked over to the seat opposite me and slid the cylinder into the hole. He sat down across from me. And though I saw no indication of how my restraints receded. He simply sat across from me looking at me. Waiting. The enormity of what I had just learned began to settle and I was at a loss.

“Do you recognize where we are? When we are?”

I looked around and with dawning horror realized why this place was so familiar. Across the street was the final operating lab of Dylam Ent. If my calculations were correct it was about to be destroyed in the explosion set off by my initial time jump. But why? Why here why now if he could not alter what I had done, what could his purpose be?

“This is an entropy spike. It took me many years and no small effort to create. Once I set it off the vibrational interference will cause your initial time jump to fail, the fallout waves will undo all the alterations we have created in the time stream… Well that is if my calculations are correct. My previous efforts at temporal repair all failed. Only the power generate by the initial causal rupture has a chance to effect a wave wide repair. And only with the presence of the original temporally displaced body. So, here we are. At the start of it all. And we can stop it. None of what we’ve done, what we felt we had to do to get here, will be.”

He paused and looked at me for a long beat.

“You can’t stop it this way. I doubt you even know how long you have been traveling or remember all that you have done. We activate this and the experiment fails. All the damage to the time line will be healed. We will never meet. My family, well I don’t know what will come, but I’m willing to face that over this.”

I looked at him, I looked across the street. I thought about the many times we had faced each other, his actions, our enmity.

“Why even tell me? I’m here you set the spike off and things go back to your normal, why bother to explain it.”

He stared at me with a combination of deep hatred and pity. Offering me no clue but his checked wrath.

“You need me to do something, you need me willing don’t you?”

He remained stoically silent.

“After all we have done, all of our encounters you expect me to believe you? To help you?”

I moved to stand but his hand quickly moved towards his wrist and I controlled my self.

“How do I even know this is real, that you, you are real? That you are who you say you are?”

He still gave me nothing, I studied him. I thought about everything. I shook my head.

“No, you are the reason I keep failing. You are the reason things are getting worse. I stop you here and I can still fix this, I can save everyone your family included. How can you not see this?”

He twitched, his face darkened as he realized my insolubility.

“I bear my soul to you, the cause of all my pain and you spit in my face?” He growled.

“You thing you are the only one who suffered loss?” I spit back. “You know what I have done, what I have become. I would sacrifice a million possible lives to save 5.6 billion actual ones. I am all that humanity has left!”

He stared at me. I saw the stillness come over him. The surrender.

“Then come stop me.”

He reached for the Spike, I lunged forward faster than humanly possible. All the shifting I had done had changed my relationship with time. I had my hand over the control panel of the spike before he could reach it. My other hand was around the handle of the knife I had rammed into his chest. His hand finally settled on mine and his body rocked back from the force of the attack.

I stared into his eyes. “All this time chasing me and you thought you could tell your little sob story and get me to give up on humanity?” I leaned in and grunted between gritted teeth. “Never.”

He coughed up blood, looked back at me and smiled. “I know.”

A automated feminine voice chimed out.

“Activation parameters accepted.”

And beneath our hands the Spike began to hum and glow.

As reality began to unravel he spoke his last words.

“I didn’t need you willing, I didn’t need you passive, I tried it myself and just created a feedback loop that reset back to the damaged timeline. I needed to balance my intentions towards the experiment on a quantum level, I needed you, and I needed you to fight.”

As I took in his words and his smile I could feel eternity pulling apart my existence and everything faded to nothing.

Story 216: The Other Shoe

The terrorists are prowling around the edges of great-grandpa’s birthday party, like predators circling a cornered flock of sheep.  I don’t even know what they want.  Knowing Great-gramps, he’s thinking about offering them some cake and party hats.

Or maybe not.  Something looks wrong with him.

I mean, yes, his surprise birthday party has been crashed by terrorists.  But I’ve heard all the stories, he should be smiling and telling everyone it’s going to be fine while he charms the bomb vests right off these assholes.  Instead he’s crying.  I’m the closest, I’m probably the only one that can sidle over and talk to him without getting shot.
“Gramps!” I whisper.
He smiles at me, for a second, then looks even sadder. “Oh, honey.  I’m so sorry.  This is all my fault.”
“Dude, Gramps, you didn’t even know about the party.  And it’s not like you invited the terrorists… did you?”  I mean it as a joke, but he looks away like he’s feeling guilty.  "It’s fine, Gramps.  You’ve gotten through worse than this.  What about that time you were on a collapsing bridge in Bangladesh?  Or that thing with the airplane over the Atlantic?“
He shakes his head.  "Those were different.”

One of the terrorists is on the phone.  I can’t make out what he’s saying, but he looks… passionate.  I guess he’s making demands or something.  Presumably that means the police or military or whatever are already working on a plan.
“We’re going to get out of here, Gramps.  This is just going to be a funny story for next year’s 111th birthday party.”
“No,” he says, “there won’t be a next year.  I’ve killed you all.”  Well, Jesus.  Is it possible he’s serious?  Could lovable old Gramps have something to do with these guys?  It doesn’t seem likely.  I mean, he’s lived an interesting life - as evidenced by the enormous turnout for the party - but it’s all been basically aboveboard.  If anything he’s just one of a hundred targets; among the friends and children (and grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren…) are some very important people.  Politicians, renowned doctors, entertainers, high profile lawyers, military… it was giving me an inferiority complex before I got distracted by the threat of being blown to pieces.

“Gramps, don’t be so negative.  We’re going to be fine, and this isn’t your fault.  I mean, do you even know who these yahoos are?  You couldn’t have seen this coming.”
He shrugs.  "Not exactly.  But I should have known something would.  I was stupid, of course he’s patient.  He had all the time in the world to set this up.“
“Okay Gramps, you’re officially freaking me out.  Everyone loves you.  Nobody is out to get you.”
He sighs, and looks at me with the most crushed, apologetic face I’ve ever seen on anyone in my family.  "I was young, and foolish.  I was in Turkey, walking along the shore.  There was a place where a cliff was slowly crumbling into the sea, probably had been for hundreds of years.  And there was a spot, it must have been a cave once but by then it was just a shallow alcove.“

For a second he doesn’t look so sad, he’s lost in the memory.  To someone that’s a hundred and ten I guess ‘young’ could mean a lot of things, but from that faraway look I’m guessing it was at least ninety years ago.
"I found what seemed like a strange rock - it was the shape, like an egg, that got my attention.  But once I cleaned the dirt and salt off of it I could see it was some kind of pottery.  Not a vase or anything, just a hard-baked lump.”
“Gramps, I don’t understand.”
“I broke it,” he says, as if I hadn’t spoken, “I was leaving and didn’t feel like keeping it, and I threw it against the rocks.  That’s when I realized there was something inside.  A container.”
Oh my god, nobody could ever get a totally straight answer about how Gramps made his first fortune.  Is this it?  Did he find a lost pirate treasure on some Turkish beach, or… I look at the terrorists again.  The one on the phone has gone from ‘passionate’ to 'disconcertingly intense’.  Maybe not treasure.
“Jesus, did you find some terrorist drug stash or something?”
“No, no.  Far worse.  It was a container with a Djinn inside.  A genie.”
“Um.”

Okay, Gramps is either messing with me or insane.  Probably that first one.  This whole 'upset’ act is a con to suck me in so he can have a big laugh later.  That’s more in line with the Gramps I know.
“He offered me three wishes for freeing him, and… I thought I was clever.  My first two wishes, they were terrible run-on sentences, mangled things that should have been three or four wishes each.  He looked furious, but each time he just said 'granted’.  After the second one I got scared, I knew that money and talent wouldn’t do me any good if the Djinn struck me dead.  So I wished for a long healthy life, and I said…”
He breaks down, full on sobbing.  Shit.  Is he not joking?  What the fuck is going on here?
“Grandpa, are you okay?  Grandpa?”
“I’m so sorry.  So sorry.  This is all my fault.”
“Grandpa, no!  We’ll be fine.”
He grabs me by the shoulders, those old hands still powerful.  His eyes are on fire, staring into mine like he’s begging me to forgive him.
“I was picturing a hospital bed, do you understand?  I was thinking of something peaceful.”
“Grandpa, you’re going to be okay.  You’ll see.”
“No.  He was so angry.  And I said…”

The terrorist on the phone raises his voice for a moment, screaming Bible verses at the negotiator or whoever on the other end of the line, and then he throws the cell phone against the wall where it shatters into a hundred pieces.

“I said I wanted to die surrounded by my loved ones.”

A Field Guide to Humans, Part Two: The Codebook

Humans, as a species, consider themselves a noble sort. They see themselves predominantly as explorers, as a species obsessed with horizon, growth, and change. They make movies about it. They hire bands of people who blow air through tubes, and drag strings across other strings to make moving tones about it, which often evoke feelings of wonder and awe that cause the leaking of a saline solution from the eyes in humans.

They are a strange species to be certain, but in reality, they excel at one thing so well they have no conception even of their mastery of it.

Humans, are masters of obfuscation.

Many scholars have debated on the how and the why of it. Zorgon the Unchaste of the Unclean Wisdom theorized that it was all a matter of status, that the more confusing and metaphorical the human the greater social status they engendered. This is known as the “Fonzi Hypothesis.” Sebulon the Brutally Just, speculated that it was about sex and that Zorgon needed to lay off the hyperspace pipe, because everything on earth, of course, is motivated by sex.

Sebulon The Brutally Just took the classical opinion. This was the very same reason the original quarantine was issued after the 300 year orgy which ended with the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, and the Orionids going into eternal exile.

Still, it was a legendary party.

But I’m getting distracted. This human alcohol, is good shit… Where was I? Oh yes…

You see, Journal, I think they both got it wrong here. I have a different theory.

I think they are afraid of meaning, so they must obfuscate it. They must build pillars of metaphor around words and actions, because they are afraid of what it may say about them if they are too involved, too invested, or too focused on a concept or a thing. So what is amazing, becomes cool. What’s spectacular becomes “fine”. What’s painful, they make hilarious.

They are afraid. Afraid and running, all the time. Afraid of whats coming, of what they are, of who they’ve been. They are defined, at heart, at core, by that fear. It shapes them, it damns them, drags them down into night, when the stars could be their home.

But I’m just a ranting alien low on tequilla… What the fuck do I know? I’m stuck among primates, who are afraid to feel anything, obsessed with status, and armed with nuclear weapons.


Someone… anyone… please help me.

I’ve watched them. Watched them live. They have a way about them. They teach their young. “There’s a way that’s written, and there’s a way that it is.” They are raised to follow secret systems, to trust what little they know, and fear what they don’t, and that the only rule is that the rules that are, are there for show.

But whatever gods or ancient powers there are be with you should you get caught breaking the rules that are only there for show.

Is it any wonder they drink?

Fuck… Is it any wonder… I do?  

To be human is to be raised with a codebook of culture. A way of being and existing. They dance like birds seeking a mate. They throttle, position, and strut. They vie and fight their wars throughout their life, and they kill each other over their codebooks.  

And it’s all fear. Absolutely all of it, is fear, and misunderstanding. It could all be solved by clarity,  but then they would have to face the one thing they fear the most.

You see they cling to their codebooks, they wander the alleyways of their hidden meanings and metaphorical constructs because nothing is so terrifying to them as the truth.

NOTHING NATURAL by Diana Hurlburt

They call him Prosper, a measure of mockery for each measure of awe.

-

You know the road to the laboratory blind, could walk it in your sleep—have, because sleepwalking is telltale of the godborn, so your mother says and touches your ankle in rare affection where it rests on the porch rail, one foot on the earth and one in the realm of spirits.

“Spirits,” she repeats, gesturing to the road below, the spindly pine woods and the yellow haze of heat and pollution that makes up your horizon. “He controls the spirits.”

There are no spirits, only neighbors: Men and women and half-made machines given to rust, the detritus of civilization. A plot of bloodless jackdaws, midway between flophouse and refugee camp. You know that part of her statement, at least, is true. The weak and weak-willed, the dying, the once-dead, the discarded and useless, the flagrant all require direction. Seek strength. Are used by those stronger.

Sicaria laughs and makes her crooked cross, murmurs her oblique prayer.

“Get out,” she tells you in sudden rage, “go to your master. Get out of my sight, you unworthy and unclean thing, you who have forsaken the ways of God, you who cleave to the machines. Your eyes see only falsehood.”

-

It is fifteen years since your mother was cast out. It is your lifetime that has been spent in wasteland, the between-place, the unplace beyond the pale. It is a pine island that shelters you, a fanatic who raises you, a scientist who uses your hands and your back and his daughter who considers your mind.

Your mind. You know you have one. All creatures do, born or made. It is the First Law of Being.

Your name. If Sicaria gave you one it has been lost. It was only after Prosper’s carelessness that anyone else tried—his accident in the lab, though he would never call it that, surely you were at fault, your clumsy hands too broad for fine work and your elbows always in the way. Acid scattered from a flask, droplets caught in sun. You did not scream; it wasn’t the worst pain you had felt. In the washroom Miranda’s hands were gentle, washing, salving. They slowed after the initial motions and your pulse followed. You examine your two faces in the mirror. If you had ever displayed beauty it was gone now, Miranda’s heightened by your face now scarred. Her luminosity beyond the human and your coarseness, a sun and its shadow.

Her hand stayed on your cheek after its necessity had lapsed. She traced the remnants of acid, specks and splotches, long fingers black and velvet like the touch of night. You believe her grasp could shift moons from their orbit.

“Calvaluna,” she said, a cantrip reshaping your vision of yourself. “I read it somewhere—where? I have never read a book. I don’t need to, Father put his knowledge into my head before he activated me. But I hear it.” She tapped her forehead, then yours. “I hear it. It means you. It suits you. Calvaluna.”

It was prettier than you, you knew that, a beautiful name. Prettier than most things. Not prettier than her.

-

When Prosper leaves the laboratory it is less a retirement for the evening and more retreat. He would never call it that but you believe him fearful, after all. The powerful always are. He swings himself like a cudgel upon exit, he shouts for Miranda to attend him and cuffs you, a passing blow, thoughtless. Brutality is his lever, rarely compassion.

You know his laboratory better than he does, you think, wiping down counters. You know his daughter, made in his own image but ultimately fathomless. There’s a phrase in Sicaria’s Bible that makes you quiver when you apply it to Miranda.

It is full dark when Miranda comes for you. Your laboratory is Prosper’s in miniature, piecemeal and theft-built, squirreled away in a shed in the woods south of the pine island on which the best of the unplace’s hovels are built.

“It was a citrus packing house,” Miranda says as she always does. Touches the frame of the door right and then left, stretches to her full height to brush its top. It’s a ritual the way your mother’s prayers are, her prostrations, her rages. “Before the Laws took effect there was an industry here. Fruit. Citrus fruit.” She looks at you, a delight on her face that would fire the darkness. “Can you imagine it, Calvaluna? Whole stands of trees with fruit on them. Wild fruit, just growing. Imagine taking fruit off a tree and eating it.”

Your imagination is not that good.

She goes to the single table in the laboratory and stands before it in a manner you’ve thought must be like that of the Israelites in the Holy of Holies. You are not supposed to know what that means. You are not supposed to have holiness in your life. She looks at you briefly, with mischief, and draws down the shroud you have used to protect the R.E.L.’s shell from rain.

“I think we’re close,” she says. Her eyes are fascinated, distracted; her hand reaches for you. “Come here, Calvaluna, tell me if this is calibrated properly.”

“You have your father’s knowledge,” you say. But you go and look at the R.E.L. with her. You’re proud of the effort, the work of your joined hands. You are not supposed to have pride, either. There is no pride in being raised beyond the pale. In being the offspring of a hanged woman, a witch they would have called her in days past, a lawbreaker too iconoclastic to be allowed in the city and too ineffectual to be executed, spared for her belly to the tune of mockery. Certainly there is no pride in your form or your face.

“I think he’s almost ready to revive,” Miranda says. Her joy is the only light in these woods. The sun exists, you know, in theory. Miranda’s face is your only evidence thus far, fifteen years alive and far from those spaces left which thrive in natural sunlight. She links her fingers in yours, her thumb rubs the calluses on your palm; she points with your hands to the R.E.L.’s blank and staring eyes, his half-human head, his chest with its missing heart and its new core of wires. “Oh, Calvaluna! I’m nervous. Are you nervous?”

Nervous is not the right word for what you are.

-

“Calvaluna,” Sicaria repeated the day you told her of Miranda’s gift. She scraped the tip of her ritual knife between her teeth, grinning. “An appropriate name for you, my aborted dream. I should have exposed you as a sacrifice to God.”

There is no god but human will. This is the Second Law of Being.

-

Your fellow-spirits are all will-bound to Prosper’s caprice. He makes the cogs of the community turn, greases the paths of food and potable water and herbs plucked at the witching hour that make life slightly less… life-like. Thus he is obeyed.

“Daughter,” Sicaria echoes. She spits at the trash heap beside the back gate. “Blasphemy. Blasphemy. Such words I hear from your lips, my burden. Who was it gave you speech, that you fling curses in my face? I think maybe you’re the worse for your time spent in that man’s house. I see you confuse craft for birth.” She broods, her fingers twitching at the strand of beads beneath her wrapper. “But there’s no more to be done. How else are we to live?”

Once, and only once, you suggested that perhaps her god might see to living arrangements, if she did not like how you were turning out under Prosper’s tutelage.

“Go.” She waves to the wood path. “I heard tell there was meat today.”

If there was meat to be had, you suspect it’s long gone now. Your fellow-spirits are avaricious. What have they but base pleasures?

“He’s in a gloom,” Miranda says, her face round and open as a poinciana pod. “He’s made me clean the laboratory twice over, and asked me to cook… something. I didn’t recognize it, Calvaluna. Lentil soup? What is a lentil, do you know?”

You know of lentils.

“You can’t make lentil soup,” you tell her. “He shouldn’t ask you to do things he knows are impossible.”

“He believes anything is possible,” she says. You love and hate to see her countenance. You remember a time when she would have spoken the same words in hope and affection. You know it is your fault, the way she is changing, her will a canker on the face of beauty. You wonder what Prosper will do when he realizes it. You ponder in the night, sometimes, this scholar whose eyes perceive all but the truth.

Perhaps you will be gone before he awakens.

“Race me,” Miranda says, but she takes your hand.

“How am I to race if you keep me beside you?”

“A race doesn’t have to have a winner,” she says, and begins to run.

She times these things impeccably. She runs so that you can almost believe the light follows her footsteps, that she leaves no mark on the earth. Dusk springs up behind you. You prefer night, its honesty; you prefer the real dark that would cover most of your world if not for artificial day. The unplace is a hive of night creatures. Your fellow-spirits are easiest perceived in dimness, their proclivities hidden and their countenances smoothed.

Miranda keeps your hand in hers and runs, runs, fearless and laughing. She runs like a dart flung toward the center of the south woods, the pine cloven by lightning looming over your laboratory. The pine grows despite the wound at its heart. It is where you found the R.E.L.—one of Prosper’s cast-offs, what he termed a failed experiment—half-dead and crumbling piecemeal to rust in dank rainfall.

She drops to the base of the pine and pulls you down and points up.

“I know of stars,” she says, her eyes searching as though Heaven might reveal itself. “The Southern Cross, the Swan. The Pleiades. Many more names my father gave me.” She touches her forehead, as she does when she speaks of Prosper’s knowledge, planted in her like seed corn. She is godborn more surely than you can ever be, gleaming divinity. She touches your forehead, your cheeks, the tip of your nose. “I think they must look like you. The stars beyond our sky.”

She traces the scars and specks and splotches. She draws new constellations and names them, her fingers a warm trail on your skin, her breath a promise.

-

Just once you asked your mother if you would ever leave the unplace. You did not then understand that no one came to the salt-strewn plots of land on the city’s outskirts by choice—no one laid eyes on the pine island and thought, I am home. It is far more difficult to leave a place you have not happened upon by choice.

“He’ll be a protector,” you say, pliers in one hand and cording in the other. “His new code will require defense. Otherwise…”

You look at Miranda and think of what might happen to her if the R.E.L.’s defensive code does not run as planned. You picture yourself and remember Sicaria’s dark jibes, her reminiscences of city life. You rub your upper arm where the contraceptive block had been implanted. It only prevents some things, can halt neither the heady mix of desire and aspiration nor flat violence.

“Defense,” Miranda says, her face solemn in its thinking pose, unaware of your thoughts. “Defense, financials, new birth records and identification…”

Her voice skips along, almost merry, a fertile stream in which to seed possibility.

-

The Third Law of Being is the inviolability of life. No one has ever explained to you whether the Law covers all life.

-

Light explodes behind your eyes when Prosper’s hand meets your skull. Or, you realize a little belatedly, it is the fault of the lab table, the edge of it kissing your temple. Air rushes from your lungs. You stare at the vault above the shed in the woods, its ceiling gaping in sections to reveal leaves, the white sky of noon.

Miranda flies at him, her face dressed in horror. You have never kissed her, you think. You would prefer not to die unkissed; you’d prefer not to die at all.

“Ungrateful wretch,” Prosper says. “Twisted ape-child, spawn of—how thought you?” He smashes his hand across the table. “How thought you to betray my kindness? To turn my own blood against me?” He lifts one of the R.E.L.’s arms, almost delicately. “Whore and daughter of whores. Thief.”

Small comfort to think his rage stems from fear, but it’s enough. Prosper would not be angry if he didn’t believe the R.E.L. was sound.

“You.” He points to Sicaria in the doorway. One of your fellow-spirits has fetched her at his command and she is in a state, white-eyed and gagging on anger. “Take your mooncalf in hand, I never want to see her again. Corruptor.”

He catches Miranda and snares her arms, wrenches her close, covers her head with his hands as though she is innocent. As though healing and reviving the R.E.L. were not her idea. As though a child can be born of only one parent. The R.E.L. is your inheritance, legacy of unnatural issue, a being greater than the sum of its creators.

“This abomination will be destroyed,” Prosper says. Sicaria prays in the doorway, her eyes not on you nor on the R.E.L. but searching, seeking. She hates the sight of machines. Had the city not cast her out for improper worship she would have repudiated them anyway.

“He is an R.E.L.,” Miranda says. You stare despite the throb in your head, the blood in your eyes. Her voice remains soft, wondering, a caress on the cyborg’s clinical name. Aerial, a creature of movement and possibility. “Robotically Enhanced Lifeform. Give him his name, Father, lend some pity, even if you thought nothing of flinging him into the trash when he failed to serve you.”

“Abomination,” he repeats. “Homunculus, deformity—daughter. Listen. Calvaluna has done wrong in her ignorance but you… you are not ignorant, Miranda.”

You marvel at the blindness of the learned man, the man cast out for his learned ways, the man who has made the wilderness blossom in decay. Lord of chaos, king of the misruled.

“God be with me in this hour,” Sicaria prays, her hands on either side of the doorframe. “God be with me in my pain, God give me strength for the task before me, God grant me…”

Me, you mouth. God be with Sicaria, and science with Prosper, and neither passionate belief nor dispassionate prowess sustain them. Miranda looks at you from beneath her father’s hands. Her smile is your signpost, her trust your life raft. Your fellow-spirits are like unto you only in substance: Crude matter, blunt usefulness. Miranda is your true equal, beloved of your soul. Her eyes remain open.

Your eyes must remain open. You must get up. There are but two steps between you and the table, one step in the scientific process, a bare nudge of your fingers at the master switch. Miranda’s being is in your hands.

On the table, the R.E.L. casts off slumber and rattles to life.