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Day Two Hundred and Forty: A Brief Glimpse

January 19, 2012 Leave a comment

I have decided to go mad.

It was an easy decision to make, and really the only rational one. So to speak. What would you do, if you were presented with the full, unfettered force of reality – unfiltered and exposed to you like the raw, virulent flesh of some diseased corpse only a moment after death, still ruddy and wet and pulsating with peristaltic motions that are guided only by mindless impulses from a brain that has ceased to function?

Absolutely. Madness.

There is a precedent, of course. It is called revelation, and I suppose others have handled it better than I. It is said that St. John of Patmos saw the heavens crack open before him and wrote a book about it. The mushrooms no doubt had something to do with it, and perhaps if I had been ingesting the Divine Fungus my madness would be a bestseller as well. But alas, the key to my revelation, my grand epiphany was nothing as grand as that. No, it was something so very simple. Simple and mundane.

It was said by the great H.P. Lovecraft, a man who knew madness as well as any man knows his lover, “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” And he was right. The universe is too vast, too strange, too utterly inexplicable for a simple human mind to truly understand. We barely understand the space between our own ears – how are we to understand the underpinnings of reality itself? Atoms? Strings? Membranes? These are all placeholders, crutches for our weak and feeble consciousnesses to rest on when the contemplation of Creation becomes all too much to bear.

Mankind was never meant to know. We are still far too primitive for that.

But there are times… Times and places, where the great clockwork of the universe ticks through to an almost impossible combination of events –

(Although, in an infinite universe, is there any such event that can truly be called “impossible”? Given enough time, must we not assume that even the most improbable thing will happen one day?)

I was sitting at a bus stop, waiting for the number nine bus to take me downtown.

Sitting with me were:

  • A young man, bundled up against the cold in a coat that looked new. He had short blonde hair and was listening to music in little earbuds. The music was loud enough that I could hear the tinny beat from a few seats away.
  • An older woman, reading a paperback book. I couldn’t make out the cover from where I was sitting.
  • An elderly man, his hands resting on his cane, watery eyes watching the world from behind thick glasses.

The three. The three who were one, in all truth. The three who were the mouthpieces for the universe.

The bus came, hissing to a stop.

The young man sang a single note from the song he was listening to. At the same time, the woman turned a page in her book. At the same time, the old man thumped the ground with his cane. Once.

It was a call, a summons in code. A breath of air, an exchange of knowledge, a physical force – all combining to create a call from the universe at large to someone. To anyone.

To me.

I knew what it was as soon as it happened, and if you had asked me prior to that momentous event, I would have rejected the notion outright.

But I know what I saw. I know what happened.

The universe opened my eyes to itself for a brief moment. It gave me a full-face look, blinding and undeniable, at the underpinnings of reality itself. I saw the gears by which time moves, and the distortions that it is subject to. I heard the humming of atoms as they vibrated all around me, picking up heat and sending it on. I knew where everything was around me, and could have pinpointed any single person anywhere in the world. My awareness stretched out around the planet, racing past the sun and beyond the galaxy itself before it snapped back into my skull. For that brief and piercing moment, I shared the mind of God and saw all of His creation in the palm of my hand. There was no time, no distance, no difference between what was and what would never be.

And then it was over. The moment passed like a break in the clouds through which the sun shines for only a heartbeat. I looked around and they were still there, the woman, the young man and the old. They looked like they didn’t know what they had done, what they had been a part of, but I knew. I knew what they knew, what everyone knew.

How could I sit there and wait for the bus like a normal person? I could feel it coming, feel its history trail behind it. I could see it as it arrived, packed to the gills with the ghosts of millions of travelers over the years. The bus was a mass of lives and existences, and it was all I could do to not go mad right there and then.

As it was, I stood up, my coat open and my eyes wild. I shouted that I had been given a vision, but I could not articulate what I had seen except through words that fell randomly from my lips. The other passengers in the waiting area tried to calm me down, but I saw through them as though they were windows into the reality I had just left.

I ran. As far and as fast as I could.

Now I have been away for a long time – a day, forever? Who knows? I have not aged unduly, but then it’s likely I never will. In my exile from that revelation I have done all I knew how to do to spread what I have seen. I have written, I have blogged. I tried to draw, but my skills failed me.

But there is so much. Too much. I will never get it all in my lifetime, in a thousand lifetimes. I gave up.

I decided to go mad. For madness is an abandonment of responsibility. Maybe if I go mad, then I can return to the world I knew.

Or maybe not.

Day Two Hundred and Thirty-nine: Blackout

January 19, 2012 Leave a comment

“Hey. What the hell’s wrong with the Internet?” Nick clicked at his mouse while Aaron changed channels.

“Huh?”

“Reddit’s down,” Nick said. He squinted at the screen, but the image didn’t change. His fantasy football forum was gone, replaced by a black page with a wall of text. No matter where Nick clicked, he got the same thing.

“Yeah, come look at this,” he said. “Whole site.”

With an exasperated groan, Aaron levered himself off the sofa and plodded over to the computer. It was still early yet, not even noon. Nick was pretty sure Aaron was supposed to be in class, but he tended to have a laid-back attitude to things like attendance and homework. Their senior year was still a couple of years away, and neither of them felt any real need to push things just yet.

Aaron slurped at his coffee as he leaned over Nick’s shoulder. Nick thought about suggesting that Aaron maybe start showering again, but they’d had that argument already this week and he wasn’t eager to re-kindle it. “The hell is that?” Aaron asked.

Nick dropped into his bookmarks and pulled up another site, a basketball blog that he made daily visits to. It, too, was blacked out. Just some plain white text and a video, nothing else. He clicked over to his favorite webcomic, and got the same thing. “See?” Nick said. “All the good sites are blacked out.”

“What’s SOPA?” Aaron said.

“Huh?”

Aaron pointed at the screen, at the word that dominated the center of the blacked-out page. “SOPA,” he said again. “And PIPA.”

Nick clicked into his search bar. “Lemme wiki,” he said. He dashed the acronym into the bar and stabbed the Enter key.

They both stared at the screen. “Well, hell,” Aaron said. Like the others, the screen was blacked out, though the image they used was a lot nicer. “And here I am with a term paper due.”

Nick looked up at him in disbelief and Aaron shrugged. “It could happen,” he said. He took another loud sip of his coffee, patted Nick on the shoulder, and went back to the TV to channel surf.

The blacked-out screens annoyed Nick. He stared at Wikipedia for a while and finally clicked one of the links they had provided for more information. Finally he got to a page that had something he could read. It was all about the mystery words SOPA and PIPA, and he read for a while. He opened up a few more tabs for a few more pages, and then watched a short video.

After about an hour of reading and following links, he got up and joined Aaron on the sofa. “So,” he said as he sat down. He grabbed the remote from the cushion and started flipping through channels. “It looks like this SOPA-PIPA thing is some new law that they’re gonna use to shut down the Internet or something.”

“Yeah?” Aaron kept his eyes on the TV.

“Something like that, yeah. It’s kinda confusing, but this law would let, like, the movie industry close down blogs or other web pages whenever they wanted to.”

“Huh.”

“Yeah.” A lot of it was still a little shaky in Nick’s mind. It had something to do with overseas websites, and he got kinda tangled up in the talk of ISPs and DNSs and things like that. But the basic message sounded pretty clear: these laws would hand tons of power over to big corporations that they could use like a hammer, any time they wanted.

“Hey,” Nick said. “You have any idea -”

He stopped flipping through the channels when he saw the strange silver-haired man in a robotic half-mask being interviewed on CNN. “The hell?” he said. He turned up the volume.

“…have to understand, I’m here to save you all!” the strange man was saying. The text at the bottom of the page wasn’t helping any. It just said, “Visitor From the Future?” at the bottom.

A reporter off-screen asked, “What are you here to warn us about?” There seemed to be a small crowd, and the familiar dome of the Capitol building was in the background.

The man certainly looked out of place. He was older, heavyset, with a shock of white hair that stood out from his head like it had been hit with a ton of hair gel and then baked. His skin was pale and heavy and there were dark circles under the eye that they could see. The other half of his face was covered by a shiny gold half-mask, with a red jewel where his eye should be.

He was dressed in what looked like skin-tight Spandex that shimmered and twinkled in the sunlight. It was uncomfortable shades of purple and green, with a bright red cape that had a high gold collar that almost came up to the top of his head. The effect was of either a madman, or a villain from some old sci-fi movie. He held up his hands, and the left one seemed to be wrapped in wires and plastic tubing that all led to a device on his wrist. “Please,” he said in a cracked voice. “You must listen to me!” The reporters quieted down, but the flashbulbs kept popping. “Thank you,” he said.

Nick turned up the TV and he leaned forward to watch. Aaron ran back from the kitchen with a bag of potato chips and dropped back into his seat.

The man took a moment to compose himself before he spoke again, and this time hs voice was stronger, clearer. “I know this will be hard to believe,” he said, “but I have come here – from the future!” The flashes went mad and the reporters started shouting questions again, but he held up a hand until they fell quiet.

“I have come here from the year 2256,” the man said, “with a mission that I hope – I pray is successful!”

He half-turned and pointed his gauntleted hand at the nearby Capitol dome. “In that hall,” he said, “in a few days, your leaders will vote on two bills that could mean life or death for the people of the United States.” He turned back to the cameras. “Those bills,” he said, “are commonly known as SOPA and PIPA, and they…” He looked at all the cameras and took a deep, nervous breath.

“It is imperative that they pass and become law.”

He waited for the barrage of shouted questions to stop, but they didn’t. The reporters had waited all they were going to wait, and they all insisted on being heard. In their living room, Nick and Aaron were staring at the TV, held in rapt attention even though neither of them had any idea what was going on.

Finally, the man stepped back, letting the cameras capture his full frame. “Look at me!” he shouted. He kept shouting it until the reporters listened.

He looked like an old man, a football player who’d let himself go for years. His shoulders slouched, his belly strained at the shiny purple tunic he wore, held back by a belt made of some kind of gold leather. What could be seen of his face was blotchy and red, with bushy black eyebrows sprouting more hair than a younger man’s should. If he wasn’t in his seventies, he was getting close. “Look at me,” he said again, and this time his voice was plaintive and sorrowful.

“I’m twenty-three,” he said.

The cameras flashed, but this time the reporters were silent. The time traveller stepped back to the cameras, his eye downcast. “In the future,” he said, “the internet is a thing of wonder. It’s so much better than yours in the same way that your Internet is better than cave paintings. We use it every waking moment. Many people go in and never leave.” He sighed. “People don’t go anywhere anymore. No one goes outside, no one does any exercise – we have brilliant virtual lives while our real-world bodies collapse around us.” He gestured to himself. “I’m twenty-three, and my body is already done.”

He looked up at the cameras, and his face turned to rage. “We let ourselves decay,” he said, “but it doesn’t have to happen!” He gestured back at the Capitol again. “You’ve probably heard a lot about how those two bills, SOPA and PIPA, are going to kill the Internet, and I’m here to tell you that’s the best thing you can do!” He started coughing, and it racked his whole frame.

“The scientists of our time have searched and studied and found that this – this is the moment where everything can change! The internet is a monster,” he said, his voice raspy and full of rage. “It’ll destroy us all unless Congress does what needs to be done! Put a stake in its heart and save the world, people of America! Save the world!”

That was as long as the reporters could stay quiet. They surrounded him, pressing him with questions that he couldn’t start to answer. They kept pushing and yelling and waving microphones until it seemed that the time traveller would be crushed under the weight of their assault.

And then one of the reporters, a young woman with blonde hair and a designer overcoat, said to her cameraman, “Hey. Wait a sec. Doesn’t he look like Chris Dodd?”

She had spoken quietly, but her words shocked the crowd into silence. The camera held steady on the man for nearly a full minute before someone said, “Holy crap. It is Chris Dodd!”

The man held up his hands and tried to back away. “No no,” he said. “I’m from the future!” He waved his hand again, dangling the wires and tubes as if they were proof.

Then the half-mask slid from his face and landed on the cold ground at his feet. He looked at the reporters. They looked at him. There was a single camera flash.

“Well. Fuck,” he said. He reached into his pocket and threw something to the ground. A cloud of sickly yellow smoke blossomed up, and then he turned on his heel and started to run, red cape flapping behind him as Chris Dodd lumbered away.

The reporters chased him, shouting questions about his work as the head of the MPAA and the hundred million dollars that had been spent to pass the SOPA and PIPA bills. For his age, though, the former Senator was surprisingly quick. He raced away around the corner of the Botanical Gardens and disappeared. The reporters rounded the corner after him, only to get another face full of smoke and a vanished ex-Senator.

Nick and Aaron exchanged glances on the sofa and started laughing. This would make an awesome meme when the blackout was over.

*****

Chris Dodd peered closely around the corner of the parking garage. He was breathing heavily. He had lost the flowing red cape and the shimmering purple shirt, and he looked exhausted. Be looked left, then right, and ran down the stairs to the sub-basement level, where he leaned against the wall and took a few deep breaths.

“Do you think it worked?” A familiar male voice called to him from the shadows. He looked over, and a young blonde woman in a designer overcoat stepped into the light. She was followed by a bearded man holding a TV camera.

“I think it went perfectly,” Jenny Lawson said, sliding off her wig. “I cannot believe we got away with this.”

The Senator nodded. “It worked, but let me tell you – this fat suit wasn’t made for running.” He reached under the collar of his undershirt and rummaged around for a moment. With one movement, he peeled a latex mask off his head, revealing a much younger man. His close-cut hair was sweaty and spiky, but he was grinning madly. “That was so much fun,” Cory Doctorow said. “I can’t wait to see Dodd explain this.”

Wil Wheaton put the camera down on the cement floor of the parking garage and began a slow clap, and Jenny joined in. “Well done, everyone,” he said. “Now get in the car. We all get beer after this.”

Cory Doctorow can be found at craphound.com
Wil Wheaton can be found at wilwheaton.typepad.com
Jenny Lawsom (The Bloggess) can be found at thebloggess.com

Day Two Hundred and Thirty-eight: After-School Special

January 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Wade stood by his windowless panel van in the warm autumn sunlight and watched the schoolkids walk by him. He was unassuming, dressed like any laborer might be in the heart of the Southwest, done up in denim and cotton that was all covered with the faintest shimmer of desert dust. He leaned against the van, keeping his eye on the kids, and lit a cigarette. None of them seemed like what he was looking for just yet, but he’d know it when he saw it.

The state-mandated “ring of protection” around schools for people like him was a thousand yards, and he’d measured it to the inch. Between his GPS and some good, old-fashioned trigonometry, he knew that the thousand-yard barrier ended a foot away from his front bumper, putting him out of the direct reach of the law. But still close enough that he could watch the kids go to school and go home, that he could spend time there, nod when they went past. Become familiar to them.

He’d done this plenty of times before, in one town or another. He could get away with it for a while, at least until the local law decided to take an interest. Or some nosy community group thought he looked too shady. There was never enough time, to tell the truth, before he had to hop in the van and drive off into the dust, looking for another town to set up in.

A lone child caught his eye, on his way home from the junior high school. Probably twelve or thirteen, the boy was wrapped up in his own world. He had headphones plugged into his ears and his eyes glued to his cell phone. There was a space between him and the other kids, the ones who walked in groups. This boy walked alone, and that made him stand out like a beacon to Wade.

Quickly, he ground the cigarette out with his heel and reached in through the passenger side window. He pulled out a book, battered and yellowed with age but with a bright cover that depicted a man standing before a raging sea, arms upraised in either submission or defiance. The author’s name was written along the bottom of the cover. The top was taken up with the title – Isle of Storms. Wade opened it to a random point and started reading, watching the lone kid from the corner of his eye. As the boy approached, Wade started counting in his head, keeping count of the boy’s footsteps as his sneakers padded against the asphalt.

The kid would have passed him in two steps if Wade hadn’t let the book fall from his hands, turning end-over-end until it landed on the road at the boy’s feet, gleaming red in the sunshine. The boy stopped, and bent down to pick it up. Wade went down a fraction of a moment later, and they got to it at the same time. He let the boy take it.

“Here you are, mister,” the kid said, holding the book out. The boy was small, and didn’t look at Wade’s face. His eyes seemed to turn inward, looking at his own thoughts past an over-long fringe of red hair. He spoke a little too loud, maybe to overcome the noise in his ears. Wade replied quietly to him, his voice barely audible to himself, and the boy glanced up at him. “What?” He hooked a finger in the cord of his earphones and popped them out.

“I said thanks,” Wade said, smiling broadly. This was always the hardest moment – the hook. Do it wrong, and the kid would walk away. Maybe bored, maybe a little creeped out – it wouldn’t matter. The opportunity would be lost forever. Do it right, and the kid would be his. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his denim jacket. “Hey,” he said to the boy. “Haven’t I seen you before?”

The kid shrugged and proffered the book again. “Maybe,” he said. His eyes were turning away again, and Wade cursed under his breath.

He looked down at the book. “Keep it,” he said.

This time the boy looked up. First at him, then at the book, and it was the book that grabbed his attention. He held it close to his face, and the red cover reflected onto his pale skin. He looked up at Wade and said, “What is it?”

Wade raised an eyebrow. “It’s a book,” he said. “You don’t have ’em in your school?”

The kid rolled his eyes. “We have books,” he said. “But they suck.” His eyes drifted down to the cover again. “And they don’t look anything like this.”

“Well,” Wade said. “I guarantee you that one doesn’t suck.”

“Yeah?” The kid was letting it catch the light. “What’s it about?”

Wade leaned back against the white van, his hands still in his pockets and his legs stretched out in front of him. “It’s about a man who fights against the whole damn world,” he said. He winked at the boy. “You’ll have to read it to get the rest.” He looked up at the sky as though he had all the time in the world to talk like this. In his head, he was calculating, trying to figure out what else he’d need to do to close the deal. “I’ve got plenty more,” he said.

That got the boy’s interest. “Yeah?”

Wade nodded, then he rapped the side of the van with one knuckle. “Got a whole bunch of ’em in here,” he said.

The kid looked from the book to the van to Wade and back to the book again. “Yeah?” he said again.

Wade nodded, and then stood up straight. “What’s your name, son?” he asked. He pushed the relaxed jokiness out of his voice, making it more grave, more serious. It was the voice of a concerned uncle.

The boy hesitated for a moment, his grip tightening on the book. “Daniel,” he said. “Daniel Deveaux”

“Well, Daniel,” Wade said, bending down to get a little closer to the boy’s level. “If you want, I could let you take a look at my books. Maybe take one or two home with you for a while?” Daniel’s dark green eyes did that flicker again – book to van to Wade – and he opened his mouth to reply. “But,” Wade said, interrupting him. “You gotta make me a promise first. Can you do that, Daniel?”

Daniel nodded after a moment, his gaze steady for the first time.

“Good,” Wade said. “Now you gotta promise that you’re not gonna say anything about this, okay?”

“Why not?” Daniel looked suspicious, and that signaled the last of the barriers that Wade had to get past.

“Well,” he said, standing up again. “There are those who don’t appreciate guys like me helping out kids like you, Daniel,” he said. He patted the side of the van again. “And that’s what I mean to do. Help you out.”

“How’re you going to help me?” Daniel said. “I don’t need any help.”

“Sure you do,” Wade said. He looked off towards the school, barely visible past the trees. “All you kids need my help in a place like this.” He felt himself go far away for a moment. He was speaking the truth, at least as he knew it. There were hundreds of kids in this school – thousands of them in the state – and he couldn’t get to all of them. Even if he worked a thousand years, he’d never catch nearly as many as slipped through his fingers. And that pained him. It really did.

He looked up at the sun. “Getting late,” he said. “You wanna take a look or not?” he asked.

Daniel looked around. There were no other kids there – they had all gone by, most of them either absorbed in their electronics or talking to their friends. By now, they had probably forgotten the white van and the tall, lanky guy who hung out beside it. He looked down at the book and then up at Wade before nodding once. “Okay,” he said.

Wade tried to control his excitement. “Okay,” he said. “Come ’round the back.” He dug the keys out of his jacket pocket and unlocked the back doors of the van. Before he opened them, though, he looked at Daniel again. “Remember,” he said. “Our secret. Right?” Daniel nodded again, his grip tight on the book. “Okay then,” Wade said. “Come on in.”

He flung open the back doors, and the faintly musty smell of old paper wafted out in a cloud. Daniel’s eyes widened as he looked at the boxes and crates that were stacked inside, each one filled with books. There were hardcovers and paperbacks alike, fitting neatly in cardboard boxes that were labeled with magic marker – Fantasy. Science Fiction. History. Biology. Current Events. Wade gestured at the mobile library, lit by a small, battery-powered lantern that hung from the ceiling. “Go on,” he said. “Take a look around.”

Daniel put the paperback in his pocket and stepped up into the van. He started picking through books, turning them over in his hands. “Where did you get all these?” he asked. He picked up a history book, one which unfortunately stopped about a decade ago. “Where’s this one from?” he asked.

“That’s U.S. history,” Wade said. “Revolution to the present.” He shrugged. “Sort of.”

“Where’s the state stamp?” Daniel said, and it was all Wade could do not to sneer.

“There is none,” Wade said. “Back in the day, we didn’t need the state to tell us what history was.” He nodded towards the other boxes. “Or science. Or literature.”

Daniel flipped through the history book. “Then how did you pass the tests?” he asked. He stopped on a page with a decade’s worth of photos on it. There were images of hope and peace, of war and brutality, of humanity in all its light and darkness. Not like the modern history books, which were just facts – contextless and de-fanged. All the kids had to do was know what was in the book, remember it long enough to pass the national qualifying exams, and their work was over. Whatever they had held in their head was allowed to fade.

Wade reached out and tapped a picture. It was of a woman, standing before a green chalkboard with dates and names written on it. Her face was shining with enthusiasm, and she seemed to be in the process of calling a student’s name. “We had people like her,” Wade said. “Teachers.”

“I have teachers,” Daniel said.

“Not like her, you don’t,” Wade replied. He chuckled, and Daniel looked up at him. “At least, not until now.” He reached into a different box and pulled out a thin volume of Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet were on the cover, locked in the embrace that would surely be their last.

“My name’s Wade Tigney, Daniel Deveaux. And I’m a teacher.” He sat in the doorway to the van, one leg up. “Last of my kind.” He pulled the pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, and the boy’s eyes went wide. First there were books that weren’t state-sanctioned, and now he was smoking? Wade took a deep inhale of youthful rebellion and let the smoke waft out of his mouth. Then he turned to Daniel.

“So, kid,” he said. “What do you want to know?”

Day Two Hundred and Thirty-seven: The Path of Least Resistance

January 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Feyn lifted a coal from the brazier with a pair of tongs and lit his pipe with it. When he had a good head of smoke going, he dropped the coal back into its bed of sand, put the cover back on and buried his arms in his heavy, bear-fur coat. “Damn, but it’s cold.” he growled.

“Just as cold as the last time you said so,” Tanang muttered from his gameboard, one hand on his chin and the other scratching the head of the great mastiff he’d raised. Tanang was just as fur-decked as the hound, which sat in hypnotized ecstasy under his fingertips, but he much less likely to complain about the cold, which baffled Feyn. The two of them had been posted along the Laclund mountain range, overlooking the pass of the same name for more than a month now, and the one thing that Feyn found he could truly count on was that every day would be terribly, breathtakingly, ball-shinkingly cold. The weather would change. Sometimes he would beat Tanang at four-stone, and sometimes Tanang would beat him. Occasionally they’d see a silver-tailed eagle or one of the strange species of mountain goats that lived at five thousand feet. But no matter what else changed, it would always be cold.

The guardhouse was said to be vital to the defense of the republic of Lymdyn-ald. The mountain pass that it sat atop was the straightest, clearest way into the sprawling city-state, carved by a river through the mountains into a half-mile wide floodplain. It was said that one could approach Lymdyn-ald from the far end and never lose sight of it as you walked. This was all well and good for the royal processions of old or the grand festivals of the modern age, but when there was an army threatening to overtake your homeland, the Laclund Pass was something you wanted to keep your eye on.

In fact, the pass was so clear and so easy that guard duty there was considered to be a punishment of sorts. No general in his right mind would take his army through a place that was so perfectly set up for an ambush. It would take a leader of colossal stupidity to take bait as tempting and as deadly as the Laclund Pass.

For his sins, Feyn had been sent on guard duty. His sins just happened to include sleeping with his superior officer’s wife, which, in retrospect, was a bad idea. It took several other officers to keep Feyn’s head on his body, and he only managed to get out of the city a few minutes before the lieutenant arrived with his grandfather’s saber to do justice as he saw fit. With luck, he would calm down by the time Feyn was allowed back, which was supposed to be in a year. The more he thought about it, though, the less Feyn was sure that going back was a good idea.

Tanang had been up there much longer – ten years, by his count. He said that he liked it, though Feyn couldn’t see why. The cold, for one. The loneliness, for another. But Tanang claimed to not mind the cold, and felt much happier with only his thoughts and the local wildlife for company. Given his druthers, he’d rather the city stopped sending its reprobate soldiers to serve with him, but since he had been a reprobate soldier himself a long time ago, he was willing to bear the burden. Try as he might, though, Feyn was never able to get Tanang to tell him what he had done.

He took a chunk of jerky and tossed it to the dog, who roused himself instantly and caught it in mid-air. “Good, Tevyk,” he said, reaching over to scratch the beast’s ear. It had taken a while for Tevyk to warm up to him, but the dog was remarkably friendly once he got to know you. Before that, Feyn had tended to be extra sensitive about exposing his throat for any reason. He sat back down at the gameboard and looked at his pieces. Four-stone was a game with annoyingly simple rules – get four stones in a row – that he always managed to lose. “See anything today?” he asked, placing one of his blue stones.

Tanang shook his head, and swept some errant hair out of his eyes. “A fox, I think. And there was that eagle from yesterday.” He put down a white stone, and Feyn was pretty sure he could see where a line was growing. “Nothing important, though.”

“Right,” Feyn said. He picked up a stone and turned it over with his chilled fingers. “You never know, though,” he said. He put the stone down, blocking Tanang’s progress. “We could have an army or something today.”

The other man chuckled, which was a win in itself. He picked up a white stone and put it down, starting a new line that Feyn hadn’t seen coming. He cursed under his breath. “The odds that the Deynarch will be dumb enough to lead an army through here are about the same as you being able to go out and get a nice golden suntan.” He sat back, his fingers laced across his belly. He was a thin man, but the furs bulked him up, and he had a kind of serene, almost monastic face. Probably came from living up high for so long.

Feyn took another puff on his pipe. “Well, you never know,” he said. “Things have a way of working out.” He looked at the board, and was fairly certain that Tanang was going to win again. He sighed and set a stone down.

That’s when Tevyk stood up, growling.

It was a noise that Feyn had heard before, but not quite like this. This was a more wary growl, a growl that seemed to go right through him and into the floor. The hair on the dog’s back was standing up, and he was staring resolutely towards the east – the far end of the Laclund Pass. Feyn and Tanang exchanged glances. “No,” Feyn said, standing up. He accidentally nudged the fourstones board as he did, but the other man didn’t seem to notice, which spoiled it a little.

They took the winding stairs up to the lookout tower and uncovered the scopes. The brass seemed to freeze against Feyn’s skin as he looked through, squinting to try and make out what it was that had somehow gotten the dog’s attention. “Either that dog is a lot more clever than we are,” he said.

“He is.” Tanang was doing a slow sweep with his scope.

“Or he just didn’t want you beating me at stones again,” Feyn finished. He caught a glint of light and focused his scope. “There,” he said. “Just about at the Frog-stone.” He pushed forward against the scope, willing it to bring him closer, but to no avail. Next to him, he heard Tanang whistle quietly.

“Well. I’ll be damned,” he said.

“Too late,” Feyn muttered. “Where worse could they send you?”

The Frog-stone was so named because it looked like a frog. It was a testament to the imagination of the men who first built this lookout point, or perhaps to the lack of it. Either way, it was one of about a hundred landmarks that Feyn had been forced to memorize, and he was glad to finally get some use out if it. In this case, being glad meant being able to spot the vanguard of an advancing column of soldiers, led by the colors of the Deynarch himself. His blue-black banner was easy to pick out, bordered with silver tassels. The banner-bearer was ahead of a full company of armored soldiers on horseback, making their way calmly along the long, flat floor of the Laclund Pass.

Feyn looked over at Tanang, who was looking over at him. “You have got to be kidding me,” Feyn said. They looked again, but the scene hadn’t changed. The army was advancing at a walk, heading right for the city.

“Prep the Block,” Tanang said, dashing for the stairs. “Wait until they’re right underneath!”

Feyn had read about the Block. Much like memorizing the stones, it was required, even if no one had ever actually used it. “You sure it’ll work?” he asked.

“Hope so!” Tanang called back from inside the guard station.

That would have to do. Feyn climbed over the railing and slid down the short ladder that led down to the face of the mountain below. Despite the cold, there wasn’t much snow. Just bare rock with a thin covering of frost that would melt once the sun got to it. Feyn dashed down a dozen feet, careful not to fall and get himself killed, until he came to the boulder known as the Block. It was a little bigger than man-sized, and if you were riding through the pass you probably wouldn’t even notice it. From the other side, though, it was clear that the Block was not like other rocks.

For one thing, a framework was attached to the back of the boulder, and the framework was connected to a series of rails, chains, and a single lever.

Tanang came running down the slope, trying to stay behind the larger stones. He was carrying a large iron key in one hand, and a book in the other. He handed the book to Feyn as soon as he arrived and took Feyn’s stamp out of his pocket right after, along with an inkstone. “You have to stamp the page,” he said.

It was a bureaucratic necessity, which was not uncommon serving in any army, much less the army of Lymdyn-ald. The way it was explained to him was that the Block was a tool of last resort, and if it was used then it had better damn well be for a good reason. He rubbed the inkstone on his stamp and pressed it to the page. His sigil gleamed a wet blue, right next to Tanang’s.

“Okay,” Tanang said. “I’ll keep a lookout. Thrown the switch when I tell you.” He went further along the slope, keeping low and behind the rocks as he went.

The wait wasn’t as long as Feyn thought it would be. The Deynarch’s troops marched at a brisk pace through the pass, and soon Feyn could see the long trail of camp-followers and support wagons. He glanced over at Tanang, who was holding up one of his hands. Feyn counted to a hundred and then a hundred again before Tanang let his hand drop and Feyn pulled the lever.

The lever lifted the Block out of its cradle and set it rolling. It knocked against another large stone, which set off on rails that Feyn hadn’t noticed before. The two stones each bounced off more stones, which in turn bounced off more. In moments, the mountainside below them was a churning, rolling, thundering landslide, channeled by the shape of the slope, all heading right for the Deynarch and his army. Tanang joined him to watch the carnage.

They couldn’t see individual soldiers at this remove, at least not unless they went back up and looked through the scopes. But they could hear them. Men were yelling in a panic, and horses were screaming along with them. The horrible cracking and knocking of stone on stone almost overpowered to cries of moral terror, but not quite. As the landslide reached the army and flowed over it, Feyn felt a moment of pity for them. They may have been the enemy, but he was pretty sure the Deynarch had just led himself and thousands of his men to a pointless, painful death.

They stood and watched as the slide continued, and waited until the last rocks bounced and went still.

“Damn,” Feyn said. Tanang just nodded.

“You’ll have to go tell the city,” Tanang said. Feyn just nodded. There were risks to going back, that much was sure. Maybe if he could get down there and unearth the Deynarch’s banner. Or perhaps his head…

They were halfway back to the guard tower when they heard the rocks shifting and knocking together again. They turned around just in time to see the vast pile of stone and rubble begin to shift and bulge. It seemed to lift upwards from the center, where small stones and large boulders began to roll away towards the edges. Through the gaps in the rocks, a bitter green light leaked out, and it was like nothing either of them had seen before. They ran for the tower.

Through the scopes, they could see it more clearly. The rocks were moving off the army and away. Where the stones had been, an army still stood, all of them safe and unharmed. In the middle of the army, Feyn could barely make out a figure, sitting high on horseback with hands in the air. The green light seemed to come from this figure, and as it waved hands around, the stones moved and shifted. Soon, the army was uncovered, and the figure turned its attention to clearing the way through the pass.

Feyn stood up from the scope and exchanged glances with Tanang again. “This,” Tanang said, “is not good.”

Day Two Hundred and Thirty-six: Entrance Exam

January 15, 2012 Leave a comment

Sarah’s fingers started to lose feeling as she clung to the edge of the platform. She tried to use her feet to lift herself higher, but the sides seem to have been coated with the same ultra-slippery coating that they’d put on the ramp far behind her. No friction, no super-speed, and in a few moments she would plunge into the water below.

And that would be the end of her career as a superhero.

Thousands of young people applied to be an official Sidekick with the Global Defenders every year. Of those thousands, hundreds were invited to take part in a rigorous week of exams, tests, and challenges. Of those hundreds, only twenty would be chosen.

Her fingers slipped again, and she whimpered. Any further and she’d be out of the running permanently.

The obstacle course was the most famous part of the test, and the only one that anyone really knew about going in. It started in a vast gymnasium, five kids at a time. Each one had to follow their color-coded track through the room and out into an individually-tailored course. The Global Defenders would provide obstacles that were designed to test each particular applicant’s special power or ability, and failing the course usually meant being kicked out of the trials.

Sarah’s course had started off as a racetrack from hell. When the gun sounded, and the other four students were still getting started, Sarah was already off and running. The track twisted and bent and spun, with a helical loop-the-loop just close enough to the start that she wasn’t sure she could build up enough speed.

She’d made it through, though, and headed for the ramp. There was a gap of about fifty feet, and if she hit the end of the ramp fast enough, she would have cleared the gap easily. But the ramp had been coated, made so slippery that she lost her footing and her speed. She was still going fast, but just barely fast enough. She flew off the end of the ramp, hurtled through the air, and landed arms-first on the other side.

She tried not to look down as her grip slipped again. “No, no, no, no,” she said to herself. Her feet scrabbled against the wall, but nothing happened. She forced herself to breathe slowly, to think about her options. She was a fast thinker, too. Another benefit of super-speed. No matter how fast she thought, though, she couldn’t get ahead of the panic that threatened to engulf her. Another few inches and the dream she’d had since she was a child would be gone.

A howl crawled its way out of her throat as she slipped again and felt her grip come free of the platform. She dropped – and landed on something solid a moment later. Sarah looked down and saw that she was standing on a tall pillar of ice that had risen from the water below.

“Got ya!” Sarah turned to look at the only person it could have been. Claire skidded to a stop on the ice bridge she was using to get across the room, a broad smile crossing her pale face. She waved. “Gotta be more careful, roomie!” she said. A fine mist formed around her hand, and the ice pillar started to rise until it brought Sarah to the edge of the platform.

Once Sarah was out of danger, Claire swept herself off to continue her own course. The two had been assigned as roommates when they arrived at the Global Defenders’ headquarters, and they’d become friends almost immediately. This was the first time they were actually in competition with each other, though. If Sarah had dropped, Claire would have a slightly better chance of getting in.

She shook her head. Enough wasting time. Whatever Claire wanted to do was up to her. Maybe she’d buy her an ice cream later to say thanks.

Sarah hopped on her toes for a moment and took off.

In an instant, she was out of the vast main obstacle room, following the red line that led her through the course on her way through a featureless corridor that seemed to go on forever, even at her speed. She was slightly surprised when the wall started sprouting barriers, when sections of the floor rose and dropped just before she got to them, when hidden guns started to fire beanbags at her from the walls and ceiling. With her reflexes cranked up, they weren’t all that hard to avoid. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion, and she sidestepped, ducked, and jumped in all the right places.

There was another jump, this time a lot longer than the first, and she felt her heart skip. If this was was treated the way the last one was, she’d probably go flying right off the edge and into the water. On the other hand, if she slowed down then she’d do the same, treated or not. Sarah gritted her teeth and poured on the speed. The air around her seemed to turn slippery and oily as it slid over her skin, held back from killing her by some strange feature of her powers that she’d never fully understood.

As she shot out over the dark, cold water below, she realized that she was howling – a long, keening scream that trailed behind her like a slipstream. She seemed to hang in the air forever, watching the far platform inch towards her at an impossibly slow speed.

The impact went all the way through her as she landed, and it was a moment before she took off again.

The track curved and looped. There was a maze that shifted and changed as she ran it, and a route that made her skip across the water’s surface like a flat river stone.

Finally, she came to the final room. It was a small chamber with a button on a pedestal, and all she had to do was press the button. She stepped forward…

A curtain of violet energy dropped down around her. It shimmered and hummed, and when she tried to go through it, she got a mild shock for her troubles. The emitter was far above her, a small glowing panel embedded in the high ceiling, out of her reach.

“Damn,” she said, and she could hear her voice quaver. She had come so far, and she could see the end in front of her. She hit the field with the flat of her hand, and the jolt traveled through her arm.

This was the end of a long, long dream. Her powers had started when she was a child, much to the consternation of her parents, and all she’d ever wanted to do was to be a super-hero. To be one of those colorful servants of justice that made the world a better place, and what better place to learn how to do it than here? The Global Defenders had fought off everything from bank robbers to international terrorists to alien armadas, and the graduates of their Sidekick program had gone on to great super-hero careers of their own.

It was all she’d ever wanted, and a thin sheet of energy was all that was keeping her from getting there.

The signs of panic were pretty clear. She was breathing hard, she could feel her heart beating in her chest. Her eyes were watering and ready to overflow, but she kept telling herself that super-heroes didn’t cry. They never cried. And for a moment, she thought that the flickering of the force field was just an illusion, a distortion caused by the tears.

When she wiped her eyes away, though, she could see it – the emitter was flickering and strobing. She took a breath to calm down, and the effect went away.

That was enough to tell her what she needed to know.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Okay,” she said. She looked up – the emitter seemed to be glowing with a nice constant light, but as she stared at it, she thought to herself, Faster. Faster…

The emitter began to flicker faintly, and she concentrated on those gaps, those intermittent pauses. As she did, they became longer – in reality only fractions of a fraction of a second, but she stretched them out and slowed them down until they became a regular pulse. The energy curtain blinked in and out of existence as well, more and more slowly until she could actually see it flow downward from the emitter, like water cascading off a rooftop, only to cut off and vanish into the floor.

Sarah counted to herself – three, two… One.

She stepped through the gap in the curtain of light, walked up to the button and pressed it. The emitter shut down and lights in the ceiling came on, and Sarah could feel her concentration give way. Time seemed to resume its normal flow as the wall in front of her slid upwards, revealing a reception room.

Somehow, Claire was already there. “How’d you…?”

Claire shrugged. “I guess I don’t waste time like some people,” she said, winking.

It was clear that the rest of their group had failed the test. A hologram flickered to life in the center of the room. It was one of the Global Defenders, a young man who called himself Detour. He was able to create wormholes to move from place to place almost instantly. “Good work,” he said. The hologram seemed bigger than life size, and he stood looking down on them, strong arms crossed in front of a broad chest. “We would like to remind you both, however,” he said, seeming to look right at Claire as he spoke, “that these tests are to measure your individual abilities. Wishing to help each other is admirable, but not part of the test. Do it again, Miss Carrington, and you’ll be out.”

Claire looked down at the floor. “Yessir,” she said.

Detour smiled. “Head back to your dormitory,” he said. “Get some rest. The final round begins tomorrow.” The hologram blinked out, and the kids started to move.

“I’m glad you got through,” Sarah said. “But you shouldn’t’ve risked your chances to help me.”

Claire shrugged. “It seemed like the right thing to do,” she said. Then she grinned and put her arm around Sarah’s shoulders. “That’s what heroes do, right?”

Sarah nodded, and they walked together towards the dormitory.

Day Two Hundred and Thirty-five: Ritual

January 12, 2012 Leave a comment

I needed a new hobby. I tried music, but I couldn’t sing worth a damn, and the noises I made on the guitar were just freaking everybody out. I tried to study some languages, and that was kind of cool up until I realized that I didn’t know anyone else who spoke Arabic or Japanese or Russian. I mean, it’s all well and good to be able to rattle off a nice お手洗いはどこですか? whenever you want, but your friends are just gonna look at you like you’ve lost your mind.

Woodworking sent me to the hospital, and every time I tried to cook something, I would end up with a result that was almost, but not completely, unlike whatever it was the cookbook claimed I was supposed to get. The goldfish died, oil paints gave me a headache, I lost count every time I tried to knit, and the sunburn I got when I tried gardening doesn’t bear talking about.

So. Magick. Yes – with a k.

When I was in college, there was a guy in my dorm who said he could do it. Wore black a lot, liked candles, had this big, ostentatious pentagram pendant he liked to wear. He’d stalk around the campus like some kind of hunting crow, looking for something that only he cared about. He’d perch on the back of chairs, with his fingers steepled, talking about the “occult forces that govern the world” as if he knew half of what he was talking about. When you called him on his bullshit, he’d just glare at you until you went away. Then he’d go back to shuffling his tarot cards or playing with the cheap crystal pendulum he’d bought at the rock shop.

I never believed him, of course. He said he could talk to spirits with this homemade Ouija board he kept in his closet, but when I said I wanted to try it he told me that I was surrounded by “disruptive energies” and that he couldn’t risk my getting involved.

Last I heard he was working in some secondhand bookshop in Corsair. Grapevine has it that he drives a minivan.

Still and all, he really seemed to be into it, and there were enough weird stories around the guy that eventually I figured that it couldn’t hurt to at least look into it. At the very least, it would keep me busy, which was all I really needed from a hobby. It’s not like my job requires a whole lot of creative thinking, anyway. The mailroom isn’t the kind of place that cultivates the creative types.

I got on the internet and looked around for a while on what magick was and how it worked. Turns out that half the places I looked at contradicted the other half, and the ones that didn’t seem outright crazy just had that kind of bland, new-age tofu-ness that made me wonder if it was worth getting into at all. Experiencing a oneness with the earth is all well and good, but I was hoping for something a little more concrete. Maybe a new job, a girlfriend or something. Better luck all around, if I could swing it.

I ended up ordering a “Beginniner’s Magician Kit,” which I carefully made sure did not include a rubber thumb and a fake wand. This one had a few candles of Approved Occult Colors – black, white, and red – some cords, a few sticks of incense, and a little bag of rock salt. With it came a nice, concise booklet explaining the basics of magick and how to make the Occult Forces that Govern the World do your bidding.

It seemed a little silly, really. The booklet said I should have a ceremonial robe, but never really explained why. I wasn’t about to sew one, and they don’t do a lot of ceremonial robes at Wal-Mart, so I just tied on my flannel bathrobe and hoped for the best. It said I needed a ceremonial knife – by old bread knife would have to do – and an altar, which was the top of a rolling file cabinet that I kept my tax stuff in.

The hard part was keeping a straight face, honestly.

I lit the candles, keeping the black one on the left, the white one on the right, just like the booklet said. I wrote down my wish on a piece of paper and tied it with a red thread. That went on the altar, too. The booklet said I needed to light the red candle at the far end of the altar and then do the ceremony every day, moving it a little closer to my tied-up wish every day. I wasn’t sure if I had that kind of fortitude, so I just started with the candle in the middle and hoped for the best.

A few taps of the bread knife against the altar, a cone of incense, and I started with the Words. They were loosely based on what was in the booklet, which stressed that the words themselves were less important than the intention behind them. Good thing, too, because of all the things I don’t have much talent with, poetry ranks pretty high.

O night above and day below,
Where the winds and breezes blow,
Here is what you need to know:
My boss, Frank Spry, has got to go!

Every day I live in fear
That Frank is always coming near.
So kick that guy out on his ear
And I will buy you all a beer!

Told you.

I held the knife in both hands and closed my eyes, visualizing what I wanted. I saw my boss leaving the building, cardboard box in his hands and security at his side. I saw him walk to the bus stop and look back at the office building. His face is wistful and full of regret, knowing that he has ruined the one good thing in his life. As the bus approaches, he wipes a single tear from his eye and nods, as though he has come to an important decision. While I never take the fantasy quite this far, I’m pretty sure he’s going to hang himself.

When I opened my eyes, I leaned over and blew out the red candle. For a moment, I thought it might actually work. I felt a kind of energy pass out of me, or through me, and exit with my breath. In fact, I could almost see it – a silvery puff of air that wrapped itself around the flame and then flew off to take my ill wishes to Frank, wherever he was.

But it was only a moment, really. I know better than most what buyer’s remorse feels like, and I was feeling it already. If you looked at the path my life had taken, you would see it littered with the rubble of a hundred abandoned lifetime passions, and I could already feel that magick was going to join them pretty quickly.

I stared at the smoke rising from the wick and then shrugged. “Oh well,” I said. I blew out the other two candles and thought about cleaning up the altar. It could wait. There was leftover pizza in the fridge, and at least that would make me feel better.

When I turned around, I nearly dropped the knife on my foot. There was a woman sitting on my sofa, and she was like no woman I’d ever seen before. She looked like some kind of international super-spy, with an expensive black suit and reflective sunglasses. Her long, blue-black hair was done up in a complicated braid that she’d pulled over her shoulder and she wore black leather gloves. Her skin seemed to shine from within, and she made all those women in magazines look like trolls. I tried to speak, but nothing came out but incoherent noise.

“I prefer Uware,” she said.

It took me a moment to come up with the cogent, suave reply of: “Buh?”

She smiled, and my heart broke. “Uware,” she said again. “It’s a Japanese beer, and it’s probably the best thing mankind has ever made.” She stood up in a smooth, liquid motion and was about a head taller than I was. “Russell Deloria?” she said, holding out a hand.

I looked at her hand for a moment, and then at her. It took another long, humiliating moment before I could say, “Yes.” And I swear, my voice cracked. Because it hates me.

“Good,” she said. “My name is Iaxiel, and I’m here to fix your little boss problem.”

Day Two Hundred and Thirty-four: JobFair

January 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Malcolm carefully unwrapped the long, thin box he had been given by the JobFair organizers when he signed in at the crack of dawn. There were half a hundred people assembled in the cold parking lot outside a mall that had gone bust a few years ago, and everyone had one of these boxes. They varied in size and shape, but they all had the distinctive red logo of the National JobFair printed all over them.

He felt a certain twinge of trepidation as he opened the box – they said that the items would be totally random, and that their usefulness would often depend on the applicant’s imagination and creativity. That worried Malcolm a little bit. He was what his high school guidance counselor had called “a straight-line thinker.” Give him a task to do, and he’d do it. Let him know what steps were required and what the expected outcome was, and you would get exactly what you wanted from him, with no complaints or problems. The job was there, and Malcolm got it done – get the numbers, put them in order and make them make sense. There was no glamour to it, but it worked.

Then came all the new management gurus, these kids with their MBA degrees who would waltz into a company, turn it upside down and then leave with giant checks in their pockets with no thought as to the damage they’d done. Suddenly, after more than a decade of just coming to work and doing his job – and doing it well – Malcolm was expected to excel, to think outside the box and to innovate. There were meetings and retreats and countless hours of managers writing things on giant pads of paper and making Malcolm and his co-workers do role-plays and brainstorming sessions.

All Malcolm wanted to do was his job. In the end, they wouldn’t let him do it. Along with a bunch of other “old dogs,” he was given what they called “mandatory early retirement.” A pat on the back and a kick in the ass and a check every month that was more of an insult than a pension. Not even a gold watch and a chance to get drunk and rip the boss a new one in public.

He’d been sent home to the wife he’d promised to take care of and the kids he hoped to put through college. He explained to them what had happened, and they were all understanding and supportive and it ate away at him inside. He wanted them to be upset, to tell him that he needed to be stronger. Not to pray or to commiserate or to understand.

He was supposed to support them, not the other way around. And he’d failed.

Now he needed work, but it looked like the work didn’t need him. Jobs were thin on the ground, and getting thinner. The unemployment rate was grinding higher and higher while politicians bickered and all the rich businesses moved themselves where the labor laws were less existent. No matter how often the talking heads on TV said that brighter days were around the corner, there were more and more people hunting for fewer and fewer jobs. Of the companies that remained, nobody wanted to waste time and resources retraining a man in his early fifties to sell computers or flip burgers unless they knew that he really wanted the job.

Thus, the contest. They still called it a Job Fair, out of a sense of tradition, but everyone knew what it was, and “fair” had nothing to do with it.

The box held an aluminum baseball bat, shiny and new. It was nestled in bright white styrofoam peanuts and glinted in the half-light of the morning. He took it out of the box and hefted it. It had been a long time since he’d held a bat – probably not since his little league games as a kid. He glanced around, aware that people were staring at him. One guy had a length of pipe. Another had a frying pan. One guy by the coffee truck was cradling what looked like an old Army service pistol. Everyone had something, and not all of them seemed happy with what they’d gotten.

The big screen that had been mounted above the doors flickered to life, and the familiar face of the CEO of JobFair, Stephan Stokely, grinned out at all of them. He clearly had no problem covering his dental work.

“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Welcome to the fifth annual regional Job Fair!” He paused, grinning madly, as though he were waiting for applause. There was none. The guy with the gun shot off a round at the screen, but the high-strength plastic just absorbed the impact and the bullet fell to the ground. Stupid, Malcolm thought. One less bullet to use inside. He cringed inwardly at the thought, and wondered if his wife would let him home even if he passed. She hated the whole thing, wouldn’t even watch it on TV like everyone else.

“In a moment,” Stokely boomed, “the doors will open and the job fair will begin!” His face was replaced with a map of the mall. It was a standard model of the twentieth century: two anchor stores, three floors, with a food court and hundreds of shops that had been shuttered long ago. “All you have to do is make it from here -” A bright blue dot appeared on the screen, right at the doors of Finamore’s, where they were all watching him. “To here!” A bright red dot appeared at the other end of the mall, at the far end of the Denton Department Store.

“Now it sure looks easy, but we’ve made it quite the challenge!” Little cartoon exclamation points popped up and danced about the map. “You all have your own personal tools to help you get past some of the obstacles we’ve put in, and we hope to see some vigorous competition!” Malcolm tried not to look at anyone else, and was pretty sure they were trying the same thing. Nonetheless, he could see them staring at the weapons they’d been given, trying to imagine how they would use them.

He felt sick as he realized what he was about to do, and wondered if anyone else felt the same way.

“You have one hour,” Stokely said. Now there was a giant stopwatch on the screen. “Anyone who makes it to the end of the course before the whistle blows will have a fantastic opportunity ahead of them!”

The JobFair employees moved to the doors. These men were large and dangerous-looking, carrying what looked like cattle prods and wearing bright red armor emblazoned with the JobFair logo. Each man took hold of a door handle, and the crowd started to move in. One of the JobFair guards brandished his prod, and everyone moved back a step. The man grinned, and it was nasty.

“Ready?” Stokely’s voice sounded far too excited.

“Set?” Malcolm dropped the box on the ground and took a solid grip on the bat. He was at the back of the crowd, and could feel the energy that was building up around everyone. There’d probably be a few losses right at the start just from trampling.

“GO!”

The crowd surged forward, and the collective howl that came out of that group was horrifying. There were yells and screams and the quick popping of gunfire, and Malcolm watched as the crowd poured into the mall like ants on a raid. He followed, trying to look everywhere at once while at the same time trying to be as inconspicuous as he could. He hopped over a few people on the ground who were moaning and crying, and a few more who weren’t moving at all. They guy who’d had the gun was bleeding from the head and the gun was lying on the asphalt. Malcolm picked it up gingerly and then dropped it again. What did he know about guns? Probably shoot himself in the foot…

There were more screams and shots coming from inside, and Malcolm paused at the doorway. One of the guards lifted his prod, and Malcolm saw himself reflected in the man’s visor: thin and old and scared, and holding a bat that he didn’t want to use. The guard’s grin was positively malicious. “In or out, man,” he said. He gestured with the prod and started to close the doors.

Malcolm jumped through them, into the fluorescent half-light of the mall. He couldn’t see anyone else, but he could still hear them.

The doors closed behind him.

He adjusted his grip on the bat and took a deep breath. “Okay,” he said. “Get to the other side.” He swallowed hard. “Let’s go.”

Day Two Hundred and Thirty-Three: Refuse the Call

January 10, 2012 Leave a comment

Fran nearly tripped over her son’s radio-controlled car, which had been left in the front hallway. Again. “Wyatt, get this car out of here before I throw it away!” The doorbell was still ringing, and she’d made little progress towards answering it. When it started, she was making lunches for the kids to take to school. Wyatt wanted ham and cheese and would not abide by mayonnaise or anything that looked even remotely like a vegetable. His twin sister, Winnie, would only eat tuna or chicken salad, and bread without crusts was apparently a moral imperative, the violation of which would earn her the disdain of a petulant ten-year-old for days. Fran had tried reasoning with them and forcing them to try new things, but in the end it was easier for everyone involved if she just made the damn sandwiches and counted her blessings.

She got three steps from the kitchen counter towards the front door when Winnie yelled from upstairs, “MOM! I can’t find my bag!”

“Not my problem,” Fran hollered back. “You left it somewhere, you find it.”

By the time she’d taken another two steps, her daughter had already slammed her door, and her son was slouching down the stairs in his pajamas, his full attention devoted to the handheld game he was playing. As soon as he was in reach, she swiped it from his grip, snapped it closed, and turned him bodily around. “The bus will be here in ten minutes, young man. Get dressed.” She gave him a light swat on the butt as he went up and felt the progressive, enlightened parent she once swore she would be die a little bit.

Then there was the toy car, and it was still a good five or six steps before she’d get to the door. She picked up the car and dropped it on the steps as she passed them. In the back of her mind, she knew that was going to be a problem, but it was a problem for later. “Both of you, move it!” she yelled. “Miss the bus and the movies this weekend are canceled!” The footsteps from upstairs turned into a small rolling thunder, and Fran smiled grimly. There was no way they would risk not being there for the opening night of the Captain Cosmos movie.

Finally, she was in reach, and she really, really hoped that the person on the other side of the door was carrying a giant novelty check, because that would be the only thing that made this worthwhile. She unlocked the door and yanked it open, a harassed tirade on her lips.

Whatever she was about to say vanished when she saw the three men standing on her front porch.

The one in the middle was a little brown man in green robes. His head was shaved, and his large black-brown eyes looked too big for his face. He looked almost like a child, but the wrinkles and the sense of deep, deep age that came off him said otherwise. He was flanked by two taller men, dressed in similar, if slightly more ornate robes. The one on the left, tall and pale, with a face that looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks, was wringing his hands and staring at the little man. The one on the right was built like an old football player, and he was smiling serenely at her. Taken together, they had the atmosphere of people who had gotten terribly, terribly lost, and only one of them actually knew it.

The little man in the middle blinked at her, slowly and deliberately, and said, “Fran Chapel?”

She ran a hand through hair that she really wished she had time to wash in the mornings. “Yeah?” She spun around, her hand whipping out to grab the cookie that her daughter was eating. “Not a chance, young lady,” she said. “Go finish making your sandwich.”

“But mom, I don’t know how to -”

“It’s not rocket science, Winnie, it’s a sandwich. Go!”

Her daughter stalked off to the kitchen and Fran turned slowly back to the group at her front door. The nervous one looked more nervous, and the smiler was smiling more widely. The little old man hadn’t changed at all. “Look,” Fran said. “What do you want? I have kids I’m trying to send to school.”

The old man nodded. “Fran Chapel, we are here to -”

“Mom!” Wyatt came pounding down the front hall. “Winnie won’t give me the mayonnaise!”

“Winnie! Give your brother the mayo!” Fran wondered what her neighbors were thinking, and then remembered that half the block had kids the same age. They probably wished they had problems as simple as this.

“We are here to -” the old man began again.

“I’m not giving him the mayonnaise until he tells me where he put my bag!”

“I don’t have your stupid bag!”

“Yes you do!”

“Fran Chapel, it is our duty to -”

“Here! Here’s your mayonnaise!”

“MOM!!” Wyatt’s hollering made her usual morning headache blossom. “Winnie dumped mayo all over my shirt!” A moment later, there was an answering scream from Winnie.

The old man held up a hand, and everything went silent. The sensation was almost palpable, like she’d been wrapped in a blanket that took the world away from her, and the first thing she did was take a deep breath and let it out again. There was probably something terribly wrong about what was happening. She should probably run into the kitchen and find out what the kids were doing. There were a lot of things she was probably supposed to do at this point. But for right now, at this moment, she closed her eyes and breathed.

“That is good,” the old man said. “Breathing is the first step to a balanced mind.”

The one on the left was looking around, as if he expected someone to show up and hit him. “Master,” he said. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

The other one took a few steps out onto her lawn and reached up. He took a bird out of the air and brought it over to them. The bird was, or at least seemed to be, in mid flight. Its wings were just at the top of their arc, its tail angled slightly to help it turn. She thought it was a robin, but she hadn’t had an interest in birds since she was a kid. The big man smiled serenely at it and lifted it into the air, where he then let it go.

It hung there, in mid-air and in mid-flight.

Fran looked from the bird to the big man to the little one. Then she turned to look back in the house. Through the doorway to the kitchen, she could see her son, his hands up to deflect the large white glob of mayonnaise that was hanging in mid-air in front of him. The light was glistening off it, and it left a trail in the air of little white drops.

The old man was still smiling.

“What the hell did you do?” she asked.

“Fran Chapel,” the old man said. “My name is Tetath the Elder. My companions are Odeti -” The nervous man raised a hand. “And Hajob.” The big man just continued to smile. “We have traveled very far and for a very long time to find you.”

Frank blinked. “Me?” she said.

Tetath the Elder nodded slowly and serenely. “Indeed,” he said. “You.” He held out a hand to her. His arm was thin and birdlike, and a small circle of blue beads hung loosely from his wrist. “Fran Chapel,” he said, “we are here on a great quest. There is a darkness in the world that must be battled. There is a duty that must be performed. And you are the one who must perform it.” His large, brown-black eyes locked onto hers, and she could almost feel his mind trying to travel across the distance between them.

“You’re not serious,” she said.

Odeti let out a pained whimper, and the little man’s mouth twitched in a smile. “Of course we are serious, Fran Chapel,” he said. “I understand it must be a surprise, but it is true.” He still held his hand out. “You are the one we have chosen to fight the forces of darkness. You are the one we have chosen to help save the world.”

Fran looked at him for a long, long moment before she took a step back, closed the front door, and locked it. Behind her, she heard the wet slap of mayonnaise on her son’s face, followed immediately by his outraged howl. She watched as he launched himself at his sister, and listened to them scuffle for a few moments, each one trying to invoke the Wrath of Mom against the other.

Then she turned around and opened the door again.

The men were gone.

She shut the door and nodded. “They’ve finally done it,” she said to herself with a sigh. “They’ve finally driven me insane.” She let them fight it out and went upstairs to her room to go back to bed. It seemed like the only reasonable thing to do.

Day Two Hundred and Thirty-two: The New Sketchbook

January 9, 2012 Leave a comment

Willem pulled up his hood against the cold and trudged home from school. The other kids were laughing and catcalling each other as they got on the bright yellow buses. They passed him by on their way to their houses families and families, and never spared a moment for where Willem was going. He left school the way he always did. Alone. He didn’t blame any of them, though. It’s not like anyone had to care about where he came from or where he went every day. There was nothing in the rules that said they did, and he figured that if he had what they had, he probably wouldn’t give him a second thought earlier.

He cinched the straps on his backpack a little tighter and followed the sidewalk.

The walk home was about an hour. By rights, he should have been using the school bus, but he didn’t want to. The administrators had brought him in for a little talk about that. About how it was safer for him to be on a bus. It would take less time, there would be less chance of an accident.

He said he didn’t like being around that many people. That he didn’t mind the walk. They made him get on the bus once, though.

Once.

The bus driver brought him home, like she was supposed to do, but Willem had heard that the lady had gotten into a screaming match with the principal about how fast she would quit if “that freak” was put on her bus again. After that, no one bothered Willem about how he came and went.

His foster mother was waiting for him when he got to the house. “Bag,” she said, holding out an arm. She was sitting at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette and reading some news magazine. Willem slid his bag off his back and handed it to her. With the cigarette in the corner of her mouth, she began to go through it. “Got a lot of homework?” she said, piling books and notebooks on the table. Willem didn’t say anything. The textbooks formed a small tower on the table, and was topped by his battered sketchbook. She put that aside.

She unzipped every pouch and unsnapped every pocket, jamming her hand into every one and feeling around. Willem had a flash of inspiration go through his head: fill one of them with ground glass. It wouldn’t be that hard, probably.

But no. It was that kind of thing that got him kicked out of the last home he’d been in. And it wasn’t fair, really. She didn’t deserve it.

He wondered if his mother would have searched his bag like this. He hoped to find out. Someday.

“Okay,” she said, putting the back up on top of the refrigerator, as if that was a place he couldn’t reach. He was short, but not stupid. “Get to work,” she said. She ran her cigarette under the faucet and dropped it in a coffee can. “You have until ten.” She took her seat again and flipped the page. Willem took the seat across from her and took the book on the top of the stack. Biology. It was review work, so he just went through his notes again and marked them as he went. When he was finished, he handed it over to her. She put her magazine aside and scanned the work – not so much for correctness, but just to see that he’d done it. When she was satisfied, she started a new pile and lit another cigarette.

The smell reminded Willem of his father. It always did, but it didn’t hurt as much anymore. He still thought of him, though, and the last time he saw him. When he found him, anyway. An empty pack of Adastras on the floor to his right, the smell of old cigarette smoke but one of the smells competing for his attention. Even through the smell of gunpowder and blood, Willem was still able to pick out his father’s tobacco.

He blinked to clear his head and realized he’d been staring at the same history worksheet for a while. He looked up – his foster mother was still reading. The cigarette was about halfway done, so she probably hadn’t noticed. He scrawled his name at the top of the worksheet and started arranging key dates of the Civil War into a timeline, as per instructions.

After that was English. He had to read a short story and write a paragraph on it. The story was by some dead guy and it was about some kid who went crazy on TV and declared himself Emperor. Willem wrote that he thought the kid was probably crazy to do something like that, and deserved to get shot. He handed it to his foster mother, who scanned it and raised an eyebrow at him. He shrugged and went on to math. Then chemistry. Then geography. Each assignment he finished went across the table, was briefly inspected, and then put on a growing stack. The clock moved, she sat and read, smoking two more cigarettes as she did so. At some point, she put some food in front of him, and Willem ate with without really thinking about what it was.

When he was done, the clock gave him an hour to himself. His foster mother squared the stack of homework, took his bag from atop the fridge, and refilled it. She zipped it up again and put it back, then handed over his sketchbook. He took it quickly and held it to his chest. “Okay,” she said. “You have until ten.”

Willem got up from the table, and in his head he was already in his room. Already unlocking the steamer trunk that had been his reward for getting through the last semester with good grades. Already taking out –

“Wait, Willem,” his foster mother said. He stopped, and his shoulders slumped. “Come here a moment,” she said.

It would probably be a lecture. If not that, then an interview, disguised as concerned questions. She had to do it, he knew that. She was part of the system that was supposed to help him, to guide him out of the hell his life had become and into a world where he could be a productive member of society.

Maybe she really did think she cared about him. It wouldn’t matter, though. Either way, she was just doing her job.

“Willem,” she said, sitting down again. She looked tired, and it was the first time Willem really noticed that. He wasn’t sure how old she was. Older than his mother, he was sure. At least, if he remembered her correctly. His memories of his mother were faint and blurry, and he wasn’t sure how much of what he knew was real and how much was what he wanted to be real. What he knew was that she was nothing like the woman being paid to look after him. Nothing like this tired, thin, ash-blonde smoker, whose eyes were sharp and whose voice sounded like she’d spent her day screaming.

“I talked to your teacher today, Willem,” she said. He felt his hands go cold. She tapped a cigarette on the table, but didn’t light it. “She said you were doing better,” she said. “A lot better.” A brief smile bloomed on her face, and vanished as quickly as it came. “You’re paying attention more, not disrupting as much. Even working with other students.”

All true. He didn’t want to do any of that. If they just left him in the library all day, he’d be perfectly happy and probably learn just as much. But he was beginning to understand how the system worked. Resist, and life gets harder. Play along, and everyone leaves you alone.

His foster mother stood up and opened a cabinet, the one she usually kept baking supplies in. “I’ve been holding on to this for a little while,” she said. “And I wanted you to know that I know how hard you’re working.” She took something from the cabinet, something flat and broad. She turned back to him and held it out.

It was a book. The cover was blank, bound in an antique-looking fabric, and the fifty or so pages were a dark white. “Your sketchbook is starting to look a little ragged,” she said. “I thought you might like this.”

Carefully, slowly, Willem took the book. It was heavier than it looked, and the cover was smooth to the touch. He opened it, and the pages were blank. The paper was good and clean, not the recycled stuff that he had been drawing on for so long. His finger slid across the surface of the paper, and he could already see drawings and sketches blossom where he touched. He looked up at her again, and this time the smile on her face didn’t flee. It lingered, looking out of place where it was.

Willem cleared his throat and closed the book, holding it together with his old one. “Thanks, Kay,” he said. Her eyebrow went up again, but she didn’t say anything. Willem held the sketchbooks close, turned around, and walked carefully and deliberately back to his room.

He closed the door and placed the book carefully on his bed. He pulled the trunk out from underneath, unlocked it and opened it, and when he did, he let out a long sigh.

The chest was full of paper. Old quizzes he had taken and essays he had written, handouts and worksheets from class. There was half a ream that he had stolen from the teachers’ office one time, but other than that, there had been some original use to the paper. Newspapers, flyers, magazine subscription cards. He took his old sketchbook and started to flip through it. His foster mother had been right – he had been over every page, many of them more than once. There were pictures that walked up the sides, that dipped into the gutter between the pages, that sat in corners and even walked around the edge of the book itself.

The papers, the pages, the book – they all had the same drawing on them. A hundred times, maybe a thousand. Each one was a little different in pose or action or composition, each one distinct from the others. But they all showed the same person.

A woman. She had dark hair, long and straight, that was pulled back in a ponytail. A few strands escaped and hung down by her ears. Her eyes were large and bright, and almost always looked out from the page. She was slender and strong. In some pictures she looked like she was soft and gentle, and in others like she was an unstoppable force. But in all of them, she was beautiful and brilliant and perfect.

Willem placed the old sketchbook in the trunk, and then took out the case of pencils that he kept in there. He lay on his bed with the new sketchbook and ran his fingers over the paper again. It seemed almost… wrong to make marks on paper this nice. But that didn’t give him much pause.

He sat up with his back against the wall and the light falling full on the page, and with a light but deliberate touch began to draw his mother.

Day Two Hundred and Thirty-one: Objection

January 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Father Sapienza stood before his congregation and beamed. The long, pale scar that ran down the side of his face and stood out against his dark skin gave him a fierceness that he couldn’t totally hide from, but on this occasion, in the middle of a wedding as lavish as any, he came close.

Petra Giovanni was resplendent in a gown that had been passed to her through three generations. It shimmered brightly in the late morning sunlight that beamed in through the great stained-glass windows, the white silken threads throwing off the oranges and greens and reds that came in with the sun. She stood before him, confident and strong and unafraid, her pale green eyes locked on the young man who would soon be her husband.

In the tuxedo that her father had bought for him, Anthony Rockhill looked more like a grown man than he ever had. He’d been in university far longer than he’d intended to – he’d majored in history because he couldn’t think of anything better to study. That major had turned into a Master’s when he discovered a love of the Middle Ages, and that finally blossomed into a Doctorate in Medieval economic history. It was not a path to wealth or even to middle-class comfort, but they had endured together all the same. When he’d proposed to Petra, she accepted instantly. And what his daughter wanted, Otto Giovanni gave her. From his seat in the front row. he looked nearly as happy as his daughter and almost as weepy as his wife.

Father Sapienza couldn’t have been happier. He looked past the couple and out at the audience that had gathered in his small Colonial church. “The vows that these two young people are prepared to take are some of the most serious that any may say. They will promise a lifetime together, no matter the trials and temptations. No matter how hard it may become.” He looked from Petra to Anthony, who didn’t even seem to notice that he was there.

“It is at this point that I ask the question that so many soap opera writers live for.” He flashed his bright white grin. “Let’s hope that we don’t have any of that here today.” He cleared his throat and made his face as serious as he could, under the circumstances. “If there is anyone here who knows a reason why these two should not be married, speak out now or forever hold your peace.”

The whole church seemed to shudder as something pounded on the big oak front door. Everyone turned to look, and a few people got up from their seats. For the first time during the ceremony, Petra and Anthony looked at something besides one another.

There was another thunderous pounding on the door, and then they flew open, coming off their hinges and bouncing off the floor. The figure silhouetted in the doorway was huge. His shoulders were nearly as wide as he was tall, and the sun glinted off them. His arms nearly reached his knees, and ended in gauntleted fists the size of his head. He took one step into the church and then another, and his footfalls rang on the floor. As he approached the front of the church, people started to move away, crowding the far ends of the pews with quiet panic.

Now that he was inside, he was easier to see. The man – if that is what he was – looked more like an armored gorilla. He was larger than anyone had seen before, his whole body wrapped in leather and metal armor that looked like it had been made by hand. It was marked with an intricate, tricorn brand on the shoulders and chest, a decoration that looked almost Celtic in its intricacy. The helmet that he wore bore the same mark, on an upswept crest that turned to short horns on the sides. He didn’t look left or right as he walked, but continued in a straight line towards the bride and groom.

Otto Giovanni stepped into the aisle, putting his short, barrel-chested body in the path of the intruder. “I don’t know who you think you are, buddy, but you can’t -”

The armored figure swept him out of the way, knocking him through a crowd that was starting to fall prey to unreasoning panic.

Father Sapienza stepped in front of them and crossed his arms over his broad chest. He planted his feet and called up the same implacable glare that he’d used to face down half a dozen gangbangers a year ago who thought that a priest would be an easy mark.

Though he made sure not to let it show on his face, the priest was surprised to see the armored man stop in front of him. It looked at him through the mirrored lenses in its helmet, and Sapienza hoped that he looked as fierce as he felt. “What the hell,” he said, “do you think you’re doing?”

The thing cocked its head at him, first one way and then the other. It flexed great fists, but didn’t make any other move. Then it spoke, and the noise it made was like nothing Sapienza had ever heard before. It was like what a canary might sound like, if you lowered its pitch a few octaves and mixed in the howl of a hyena. It sounded gutteral and nasal at the same time, and it made his skin crawl.

When the thing was finished speaking – or whatever it was that it had been doing – Sapienza opened his mouth to speak. Before he could do so, however, Petra pushed past him. “What do you mean you don’t approve?” she said.

Everyone’s attention shifted instantly, and even Petra seemed surprised that she had said anything. For a moment, she stared at the intruder, who remained just as impassive has he had before. Anthony was the first to break the silence.

“Petra? Honey?” He stepped up next to her, and the armored thing’s helmet swiveled to look at him. “Petra, what’s going on?”

She didn’t take her eyes off the intruder. “You heard what he said, Anthony,” she said. “He doesn’t think you’re good enough to marry me.”

Anthony glanced from her to the intruder and back to her again. “Um. Honey,” he said. “Two things.” He put an arm around her shoulders and flinched when the helmeted thing actually started to growl at him. “Um.” To his credit, however, he didn’t move it. “Two things. First of all – how do you know what he’s saying?”

She blinked at him. “You don’t know?” she said. He just shook his head. “Really?”

“Really, hon.”

Petra’s brow furrowed, but she didn’t say anything else.

“Second, honey. Sweetie. Petra.” Anthony cleared his throat. “Who the hell is this guy?”

Petra didn’t have a chance to answer. The figure raised his hands and gripped the sides of his helmet. There was a sharp hiss and the puff of escaping gasses from the side, and the room filled with a smell that was not unlike the smell of rain on hot ground. He twisted the helmet sharply one way, then the other, and then lifted it off his head.

Under the helmet, his features were delicate. Almost infant-like. He had a small face, dominated by two large eyes, pale green. His skin was lustrous and white, with delicate red traceries of veins underneath that darkened moments after his helmet came off.

His eyes flicked across the faces of the people in front of him. They narrowed as he took in Sapienza. His lips twisted in a sneer when he looked at Anthony. And when they finally settled on Petra, his face seemed to soften and glow with what could only be called love.

“I am her father,” the man said, in a voice that was nothing like the strange keening they’d heard earlier. “And I have come to bring her home.”

The silence in the church was absolute for a long moment. No one made a noise.

Until Otto Giovanni passed out.