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Day Two Hundred and Forty-three: Alice

January 22, 2012 Leave a comment

The package from her mother was wrapped in brown paper, a recycled grocery bag, and as soon as Alice saw who it was from, she knew what it was. Her mother’s precise, looping handwriting was in the upper-right hand corner. Her own name was printed with a heart above the “i,” and “Happy Birthday” was written in big, bold letters underneath the address.

“Is it gonna be a surprise this year?” Alice asked herself. She shook the box, but didn’t hear anything. She shook it harder, and hoped. But there was no sound from inside. It was either soft or very well-packed. She tucked it under her arm and brought it into the kitchen. She took a knife from the counter and started working it under the layers of packing tape that her mother had used to close up every possible seam. This was how every package from her came, and she said she just wanted to make sure nothing happened to the “precious contents.” Alice was pretty sure it was just to see how long it would take her to get through her defenses.

She out a laugh. “Very symbolic,” she said. “Mom would be proud.” Her mother had been an English teacher for decades, which made her one step below a psychologist when it came to ascribing meaning to every little thing she got her hands on. Unfortunately, it also made her think she was awfully clever. Alice disagreed.

The paper finally came off, and she started working on the box. There was really no reason to hurry on this, other than just to get it over with. Alice knew what was inside – the same thing that was in the box every year.

Well. Not exactly the same thing. But close enough. As far as her mother was concerned, it was a challenge to find something slightly different yet still the same. And every year, underneath her disappointment, Alice was actually impressed that her mother managed it.

She opened the box and pulled out a small package wrapped in white cotton batting. When she unwrapped it, it was a coffee mug. Printed on the mug was a stylized cartoon of a white rabbit with a gold pocketwatch. Underneath the drawing it said, “Don’t be late!”

“There we go,” Alice said. “Right on cue, Mom.”

She stuffed the cotton batting into the trash and folded up the box for future use. It would come in handy someday. The mug would go with all the others.

There was a case in her living room, made by her father – at her mother’s request. It really was beautifully done, probably the best thing her father had put together in that workshop haven of his. It was taller than she was, with adjustable shelves and wide, glass-fronted doors. The whole thing was made from dark-stained wood, and would probably last forever. She opened the door and took a look at the other twenty-five items that were on the shelves.

There were several stuffed rabbits, of various sizes. Little figurines, art that her mother had commissioned, a t-shirt that was folded up, showing the Disney character on it. A rabbit made of glass, another that had a bobble-head, and one that looked like a human-rabbit hybrid. From her first birthday, her mother had been giving her variations on the theme, and she showed no sign of letting up anytime soon.

Alice supposed it was better than her mother forgetting her birthday every year, but at the same time she really wished that she’d come up with something else.

She put the mug on the shelf next to last year’s present – an original vinyl pressing of Jefferson Airplane’s most famous single. That one actually had been pretty impressive.

She took her phone from its charger in the kitchen and dialed her mother. Thanks were in order.

Day Two Hundred and Forty-Two: Boogeyman

January 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Ethan Chaskey was certain that it took just under forever for his father to finally come into his bedroom after he called. Yes, it was three in the morning, and yes he knew his father had to sleep, but he still found himself wondering if his father really wanted him to die, or if he just wasn’t taking things seriously enough.

“Whaddyou want, Ethan,” his father asked. His voice was thick and sleepy. His face was puffy, and Ethan wasn’t even certain his eyes were open. He wore the same old sweats and a t-shirt that he always wore to bed, clothes so very different from the suit and tie he left and came home in. Sometimes Ethan wasn’t sure if the man who he saw at night was actually the same man he saw during the day. He had no real reason to believe that his father had been replaced by someone else. Right now he had bigger problems.

“Dad,” he said. He pulled the covers up to his chin and glanced at the closet door. “Dad, it’s in my closet again.”

His father sighed and ran his hand over his face. “Ethan,” he said, and for a moment it seemed like he would just turn around and go back to bed. Instead, though, he walked over and dropped down on the edge of the bed. The whole bed seemed to sink under his weight, and Ethan wondered why it didn’t break. His father wasn’t fat, like Mr. Waltham down the street. But he wasn’t a little guy. He was… dad. He was bigger, just because that’s what dads were. And while he’d been told that he would one day be a grownup, just like his dad, Ethan had never been able to imagine himself so big that his own bed would groan under his weight. It’d probably snap if he tried to jump on it.

“Ethan,” his father said. “We have to stop this.” He reached over and put his hand on Ethan’s head. “You’re eight years old, kid,” he said, “and you’re way too old to believe in closet-monsters, okay?”

“But dad -”

“I know,” his father said, rubbing his eyes again. “I know you think there’s something there, but I promise you, Ethan. There are no monsters.” He looked over at him, and even through the sleepiness, Ethan could see the power in his father’s eyes. This was the man who went to the office every day, who signed contracts and had deals and clients and things. And when he came home and talked about his day, this was the look in his eyes. There was so much that Ethan didn’t understand about it, but he knew that his father understood it all – every bit of it. That was how he looked now, but this time it wasn’t helping.

His father patted him on the leg. “Okay, kid?” he said. “No monsters.” He stood up and yawned for a long time. “G’night, Ethan,” he said.

“But dad, I really need you to check!” Ethan wanted to burrow under the blankets and go to sleep. He wanted to be able to lie back and close his eyes and wake up with the morning sun on his face, just like normal people did. But the closet wouldn’t let him. It was like a noise that you could barely hear, but couldn’t ignore. It was like the splinter in your finger that you couldn’t find. Like those hairs down the back of your shirt after a haircut.

Opening the doors would bring him peace, of course. He knew that. If he could just go up and open the doors and look in, he’d see that there was nothing there but all the stuff he jammed in when he last cleaned his room, plus whatever clothes he’d gotten around to hanging up. There would be no monsters, no creature, no horrible things waiting to devour a sweet little boy like him whole. He knew that was what he’d find.

But he didn’t believe it for a second. It only worked when his dad did it. He didn’t know why, but that was the way of things. His father would open the doors for him, do the fatherly thing and take the chance for his son. Then there would be only clothes and toys, and Ethan would be able to sleep.

“Please, dad,” he said quietly. “Just this one more time.”

His father stood there so long, Ethan thought he’d fallen asleep. Finally, he sighed. “You know, Ethan,” he said. “Your mom thinks I shouldn’t be coming in here like this. You know that?” He turned around and walked slowly to the closed, stepping around toys and books and clothes on the floor. “She thinks that we’re just encouraging your imagination. That you’ll grow out of it if we just leave you alone.” He took the handle of the closet door and turned around to look. “I think she’s right. So this is it, Ethan.” He fixed him with The Look again. “Last time.”

Ethan nodded, his eyes looking past his father.

His father opened the door and turned around, face-to-face with a creature the likes of which Ethan couldn’t have begun to imagine. The boy froze, hands gripping the bedspread and eyes wide.

The thing’s skin was red and glistening, suppurating and dripping from what looked to be like a wound that covered its whole body, a wound that drenched the bedroom in a foul smell that made Ethan want to stop eating for the rest of his life. Great, swollen flies crawled over it, digging into its flesh before burrowing out and flying to another place to dine again on the blood and blackness that coated the monster’s thin, powerful limbs that were folded in on itself. Its teeth and its claws shone like the knives in his mother’s kitchen, catching the scant light in the darkened bedroom and glimmering in the shadows. And its eyes – eyes that were horrible, poisonous yellow – stared right at him. They were eyes that promised a long and lingering death, an eternity alone in a darkness deeper than any bedroom, any closet could offer. The thing looked first at Ethan’s father, then at Ethan. It growled in a sub-sonic rumble that Ethan could feel in his bones. And it smiled.

“See, Ethan,” his father said, turning his back on the thing in the closet. “Nothing there.” Behind him, the creature seemed to swell and pulse, like a great heart made of poisoned muscle. It opened its mouth wide, new teeth seeming to sprout from its black and diseased gums as the four-part jaws spread wider and wider like a flower full of needles right behind his father’s head. Saliva dripped onto his shoulder, but he didn’t even seem to notice. “Okay, son?” he said. He looked behind him again and shook his head. “And that doesn’t count as cleaning your room, by the way.” The infinite teeth behind his head shivered and trembled, coming closer and closer to snapping shut until they came within a hair’s breadth of brushing his father’s cheeks.

He must know, Ethan thought. There’s no way he can’t know. He trembled under his bedspread and, in his head, screamed for his father to run. To come into the bed, even if it did collapse, and hide under the blanket with him until that thing in his closet got up and went away to some other boy’s house. His father was there, so calm and so sleepy and so old, and that thing was going to eat him from the head down and Ethan would have to watch. If he looked away, that’s when it would strike. And it wouldn’t stop with his dad.

His father walked away. Behind him, the thing closed its horrible mouth again, and still it seemed to smile as it shifted its position in the closet. Ethan’s eyes were pinned to it. “There you go,” his father said. He knelt down by the bed and brushed Ethan’s cheek. He looked at his son for a moment, at the way he was still staring at the closet, and followed his gaze. The thing raised a single six-fingered hand, its joints creaking and cracking as it did. Each finger ended in those terrible, broken knives, and it waved.

“You know what?” his father said. “I’m going to leave that door open for you tonight. So if you wake up again and you think there’s something there, you can just look over and see for yourself.” He leaned over and kissed Ethan on the forehead. “You go to sleep now,” he said. “Love you.” He rubbed his son’s head once, and then was gone. His footsteps went on for a little bit, and then the door to his bedroom opened and closed, and Ethan was well and truly alone. With the thing.

He couldn’t move at all. He was pretty sure he’d peed the bed.

The creature in his closet stared at him with those awful, owl-like eyes that seemed so much more intelligent and hateful and evil. Then it reached out with its spindly, skeletal hand and wrapped its long and steely fingers around the doorknob.

Slowly, its gaze never leaving Ethan’s, it closed the closet door. The last thing Ethan saw of it was the malicious glimmer of its eye.

There was a moment of perfect, peaceful silence before a voice slithered into his head.

Good night, Ethan. Pleasant dreams.

Day Two Hundred and Forty-one: Advances

January 20, 2012 Leave a comment

Laurette girded herself and took another essay off the stack. Thirty-five sophomore English essays, each one worse than the last. She spun her green pen in her fingers and tried not to overreact as the fractured syntax, broken sentences and blinkered grammar shouted out at her from a page that, for some reason, was printed in an eighteen point font that looked like it was scratched into the paper by the fingernail of a deranged lunatic. She sighed.

Tom Sawyer was a kid who didnt like painting so he got his, friends to do it 4 him.

She ground her teeth and clicked her pen to start the uphill battle of correcting the student’s writing. At this point, she was starting to miss her red pen, but the department head had gotten some study under his skin and insisted that red was damaging their little snowflakes’ egos. “Please… review the worksheet… on comma splices,” she muttered as she wrote in the most bilious green ink she’d been able to find.

A small, wrapped package was dropped onto her desk and a man said, “Having a rough time of it?” Laurette gripped her pen and tried to stop herself from wondering how the day could get any worse. She’d been a reader for a long time and knew how that kind of idle thinking would work itself out.

“I’m doing essays, Jeremy,” she said. “Can it wait?” She glanced up at him despite herself.

Jeremy Bates was a math teacher, and handsome enough that there were quite a few female students who came to him looking for extra help with their homework. He had an unflappable self-assurance about him, which was probably why Laurette had agreed to go out on a date a few months ago. He seemed nice, he seemed like he could be a good guy to get to know. He seemed all that.

What he was was a self-absorbed jerk. There was no topic she could bring up that he couldn’t turn back to himself within a few sentences. There was nothing they could do together that he couldn’t turn into some kind of desperate self-promotion, except that there was no real desperation to it. If there had been, she could have dealt with that, but he just seemed so convinced that the only thing anyone should be focusing on was him. After a couple of dates and one awkward kiss, Laurette had pulled the ripcord and bailed from that relationship.

The lesson she learned, of course, was to never date someone from work. That same self-assuredness that made him think he was so very interesting was what made him think that their breakup – if you could even call it that – was a ploy in some longer game that she was playing. If he just found the right tactic, she would open up to him.

In more ways than one, of course.

He was still standing there, just in her peripheral vision. Laurette kept scribbling on the essay. “Go away, Jeremy,” she said.

“Not until you open your present,” he said. She could hear the smug grin.

“Not opening it, Jeremy,” she said. “You don’t need to give me presents anymore.”

He picked it up off the desk. “C’mon, Laurie,” he said. She flinched at the familiarity. “You’ll like it.” He offered it to her and she dropped the essays into her lap with a growl.

“It doesn’t matter if I’ll like it, Jeremy,” she said, still not looking at him. “I don’t want it.”

He started to unwrap it himself. “Here,” he said. “Lemme show you.” Laurette couldn’t stop herself from clenching her fists, crumpling the essays. Students probably wouldn’t notice – they’d just looked at the grade and then shove it in their locker.

“Here you are,” he said, showing it to her again. This time he got her attention. It was a thin hardcover book, a leatherbound edition of a collection of poems she’d had her eye on for a while. Without thinking, she took it and started to flip through the pages. They were from some of her favorite poets, works she’d known for years. This collection was one that she’d been meaning to buy, but had never really been able to justify to herself.

“Where did you get this?” she asked. She looked up at him, and his smile broadened into a genuine aw-shucks grin, the kind that he seemed to do without any trace of effort or irony.

“A little bird told me you had your eye on it,” he said. “I knew you’d love it.”

She turned it over in her hands, looking at the way the light glimmered on the binding. She glanced over at the other teachers in the office, but if they were paying attention, they were doing a good job of hiding it. She wanted to open the book and start reading right there and then.

Wait.

A little bird?

She looked at him again, her eyes narrowed. Suddenly that grin looked smug. Something in his eyes that said that he’d won something. Scored a point somewhere. “Jeremy, I know I didn’t tell you I wanted this. And I know I didn’t mention it to anyone here.” She wanted to hand it back to him, but somehow she managed to hold it close to her chest. “How did you know?”

“Laurette,” he said. “What does it matter how I knew? All that matters is that I wanted to do something nice for you.” He tried to put his hand on her shoulder, but she scooted the chair away. “What?” he asked. He set his shoulders and crossed his arms. That smugness just flowed off him like stink on a hot summer’s day. “A guy can’t do nice things?”

That did it. “No, Jeremy,” she said. Laurette stood up and slapped the book at his folded arms. His expression froze. “You did something, and I -”

The thought seemed to ooze into her mind, and she recoiled from it. There was something just…

“You looked me up, didn’t you?” she said. She sat down at her computer and navigated to Amazon. He tried to say something, but she held up the index finger that had the power to quiet a room full of teenagers. The book should be on her wish list, she knew that. She scrolled down a bit, and…

“Not there,” she growled. She spun around in her chair. “You looked me up, didn’t you?” she asked again.

He shrugged and shoved his hands in his pockets. “Guilty,” he said. “But how else was I supposed to know what you wanted?”

Laurette stood up in a shot. “Jeremy, I want nothing from you, okay? We dated, it was a mistake, and it’s over. Get that through your head!”

“C’mon,” he said, and she really, really wanted to punch him. “Laurette, we had a great time together. You and me, we could really be something.” He reached out to touch her arm and she pulled back. His eyes flickered to her balled-up fist, and he looked like he might have just figured out what was going through her mind. He turned the gesture into a shrug of helplessness. “C’mon, Laurie,” he said. “What’s a guy gotta do?”

She actually barked out a laugh. “You gotta not be a creepy stalker,” she said. “What, are you going to show up on Facebook next?” His face went carefully still and her gut sank. She didn’t remember ever friending him, but… “Oh, for the love of – What else have you done?”

He did that grin-and-shrug again. “Twitter,” he said. “And I have a Google alert.”

There was actually a moment of vertigo, and she had to sit down. “Holy shit,” she said. She had a blog that she updated from time to time, and she was on a fan-fiction forum. He probably knew about both of those. Her photo site popped into her head, followed an instant later by the sketch gallery she had started and then let grow fallow.

She stood back up, spinning the chair so that it was between her and him. “Okay,” she said in a harsh whisper. People were actually watching by this point, but she didn’t care. The more people the better, actually. “I’m not going to be in any way ambiguous or uncertain about this, Jeremy, so it’s really important that you listen: We. Are not. Getting back together.” She jabbed the finger at him this time, and he actually flinched. “Not now, not ever. You are a self-centered boor, an egotistical jerk, and incredibly creepy.” She handed the book to him, and when he didn’t take it, she let it fall to the floor. He looked down at it, then up at her again. “Never do this again, Jeremy. Never. Or I will file a harassment claim so fast it would make David Mamet’s head spin!”

His brow furrowed. “David who?”

“Never mind!” Laurette yelled. She pointed at the book on the floor. “Take that, and get away from me.” She clenched her hands on the back of her chair. Her hands hurt, and her legs felt like they were trembling. He wasn’t moving. Her mind put up scenarios where she’d have to run, or fight, or both. Given the choice, she’d really rather he just went away and went back to being the guy who couldn’t take a hint, rather than the guy who spent his time on the internet looking her up. The difference was palpable to her. At that moment, it wasn’t just that he was standing in front of her, or in the same room – he worked in the same school. They were in meetings together. She’d run into him at the supermarket once or twice before.

No matter where she went, he could be there.

Laurette wanted to throw up.

“All right,” Jeremy said. He bent down and picked up the book. “Guy tries to do something nice…” He put it under his arm and shrugged. “Guess I’ll be seeing you around, Laurie.” He turned to go, and then looked back at her. And winked.

When he was gone, Laurette dropped back into her chair. Some of the other teachers had watched the whole thing, but none came over. None had any words for her. They just went back to their work.

Laurette tried to take deep breaths until the feeling that she wanted to cry or scream or throw up passed. It was a long time coming, and those essays weren’t getting graded anytime soon.

Her computer chimed. It was a message on her Twitter client, from @Jer_the_MathMan.

> @RWHS_Hitch Maybe next time.

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.”