Fiction

Ex Ungue Leonem – Genesis, Part 1

“Another mass funeral,” he said, head hung low.  “Forgive me Your Majesty,” he looked out on the line of sixty placeholder graves before him as he wiped his eyes.  “But French…Prussians…Americans …refugees all.”

“Of course, no forgiveness is needed, Dr. Todd,” came the Queen’s shaky response.  The apparatus protruding from her back noisily competed with her frail voice.  Her eyes welled with tears.  “Even the Americans were under my protection; they flew in my skies, and I could do nothing but watch as they burned.”

The Queen and her retinue remained on the scene for the duration of the ceremony, protected from the English rain by a somber pavilion and thick coats.  Dr. Elias Todd was not without pride as he noted that he was the only commoner among them.  No one came so highly-qualified as he, and it was his duty, honor, and privilege to see to the Queen’s personal health.  Of course, his very qualifications were also a source of shame, so tightly were they bound to the tragedy before him.

“It would seem that Proctocus can still wreak his havoc from the very surface of the moon,” he said after they had boarded the Queen’s short-range airship, tuning a dial on the Queen’s life support.  He had designed the system himself, a last-minute stroke of brilliance to counteract the deadly poison the Queen had been given by Dr. Emmanuel W. Proctocus, once the greatest minds in science and now no better than a degenerate madman.

“SWARM is a headless hydra now,” The Queen said before descending into a fit of coughs and wheezing.  Dr. Todd became a thing in motion, fingers manipulating dials, switches, and buttons on the apparatus carried by one of the Queen’s personal guard.  A combination of medication and sedative coursed through a set of tubes into Queen Victoria’s back.

“Is that better, Your Majesty?”

“For heaven’s sake yes, Doctor,” she replied with a motherly roll of the eye.  “You may be the only thing keeping me from Saint Peter, but I should hope that I am well enough to survive a cough.”  The doctor muttered an apology, though he caught the gentle glint in her eye.  “As I was saying,” she continued.  “These attacks are nothing compared to the horror that rocked the rest of the world.  They are the death throes of an organization without leadership.”  She stared into a cup of Earl Grey and worried her lip.  “It pains me to endure them, but I am soothed to see the first rays of dawn.”

“Of course, Your Majesty.”  Todd looked down upon the streets of London.  The population had grown to nearly ten million since the refugees had begun arriving, and the city was dangerously close to buckling under the weight of its own responsibilities.  In all the world, it was the greatest bastion against Proctocus’ armies, though it did not escape him that even Achilles had his limits.  Todd wasn’t able to leave the palace so often as he would like, but he knew that food was a daily problem, and the hospitals worked feverishly to contain what some were calling a New Bubonic.  The forces of evil seemed intent on throwing the world back into the dark ages; for every good day there seemed to be a weeks’ worth of ill news.  There were days when even the thought of his darling Toni could do little to bolster his melancholy.

Not long after arriving at the palace, the first footman approached the Royal Party.  He hurried through the formalities.  “Your guest has arrived, Your Majesty,” he said.  “He awaits your pleasure in the library.”

“Excellent,” the Queen responded.  “Dr. Todd, please go and make our guest comfortable while I make preparations.”

She dismissed the doctor before he had a chance to protest.  He was the single most valuable person to her health, yet she always seemed to be finding opportunities to escape him.  It was most vexing.

Todd made his way to the library, worrying so much over the Queen that it didn’t even occur to him that he had no idea whom he would be greeting.  He opened the doors to find a man of undoubtedly Slavic descent perusing a musty tome in one of the room’s many high-backed chairs.  He was young—though Todd had to remind himself that the man looked no older than himself, since the accident that reversed the doctor’s age not long ago—and smartly-dressed on a modest budget.  According to the fashion amongst the youth, his black hair was parted and slicked close to his scalp.  He wore a well-kept moustache.

“Good day, sir,” Todd began, moving toward the stranger with a hand extended.  He felt a strange electricity between the two of them as he approached.  “You must forgive me, but I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure…”

“Tesla,” responded the man, closing his book.  “Nikola Tesla.  I am certain I pioneered the concepts behind the engine that carried you to me, though of course no one will admit it.”  Every word from his mouth carried the weight of vast intelligence.  “Five years ago I would have bet on it.”  He looked Todd over, but did not rise to take his hand.  “I am pleased to meet you.”

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The Lean Years, Pt. 1

It was cold enough to really regret wearing jeans.  The Red Line hadn’t been quite as slow or frustrating as the day that lead up to it, but it was enough.  It’s a weird thing, leaving before the sun’s up and getting back after it’s gone; your neighborhood becomes a headstone to the daylight world it used to be.

He went down the steps, careful to avoid the puddles that looked like water and smelled like something much more… biological.  They were broad and well-lit, so the logistics of the whole thing defied him.  When would someone be able to achieve it?  It may be that trains only come along every five minutes, but even then… how would they achieve it?  His gut reaction was that no one would just whip it out on the landing, then he recalled some of the faces he had seen on his commute.  No… someone definitely would.  Someone definitely did.

It was a solid hour to get home, and he was on the final stretch.  Five minutes in the cold, and he’d be at his door, shrugging off his coat and wondering what kind of bare-pantry jujitsu could be executed for dinner.  Back home he would have balked–nay, raged–at such a commute, but putting his car on the chopping block meant he could read as much as he wanted.  Things were looking rough in Essos, and they made for an excellent distraction.

The last pleasant leg of the trip was the turnstyle separating the station from the alley.  Unfortunately there was no one in front of him, so he wasn’t able to slip through the revolving bars like a cat or a ninja.  He would probably never get over how terribly efficient and incredibly awesome it made him feel, but of course he would never tell anyone either.  It was his little secret.  He pushed the bars himself, and suddenly the wind wrapped him up and gave him his least favorite hug.

His childhood reminded him to check for cars in the alley.  His adolescence reminded him (and the car coming towards him) that he had right-of-way.  His adulthood reminded him that it was only when he was in a crosswalk, but he told his adulthood to go away for a little while.

There is an art to walking down city sidewalks.  Downtown, people get delayed if you don’t walk fast enough to get winded.  You should only look at the skyscrapers if you want people to think you’re a tourist… or if you just don’t care.  In the suburbs, you walked by driving.  But right on the border, where it’s hard to tell exactly what you are, it’s best to walk as if you’re just a little bit friendly.  Of course, all of this goes out the window when it’s cold enough to scratch your back with your goosebumps, and the wind makes a person really regret having a nose in the first place.  The only solution in those times is to hunker down, bundle up, thrust your hands as deep into your pockets as you can, and walk as if you’re trying to say “Jeeeeeeezus.

And that’s exactly what he did.  The only part of him anyone could see was his face, and it was painfully clear that something was not to his taste.  So much so, apparently, that the guy walking a few feet in front of him–a stout black man–cast a few wayward glances behind him.

“Hey big man,” the black man said, clearly testing the waters.  Our protagonist tried to cheer up a little bit.  It worked well enough for the guy turn back around.

But only for about a half second.  “Turkey or pheasant this year?” the guy asked, turning back around.  He was way too jovial for a night like this.  It caught our hero off guard.

“What?”

“Thanksgiving, brotha!  Turkey or pheasant?”

After work, the train ride, the turnstyle, and the car in the alley, he hadn’t paid much thought to the matter.  His family would be eating turkey off in the southlands, but he wouldn’t be able to join in this year.  He’d be up here, plugging away in a worthless retail store for 10 hours a week and hoping against hope that a temp assignment would show up.

“Hummingbird.”

The black man laughed as only a black man could.  Even after all the drudgery, it was always nice to bring a little joy into someone’s life.

“Happy holidays, man.”  He said it with a smile.  Almost home.

Categories: Fiction, Modern | Tags: , | Leave a comment

The Interview, Pt. 1

“Oh, God is dead,” he says, a playboy grin alighted on his well cared-for face.  “But Neither Nietzsche nor Darwin killed him.  The founder of this company did.”

He casts an arm casually around the room, highlighting the classic motifs from half a decade ago and the clean lines of the shining present.  “Look,” He says. Everything from the floor up is clearly expensive, and according to the finest tastes.  “We sit at the pinnacle of the world.”  As the Chief Executive Officer, He sits in an artisan office chair that is as handsome as he is.  His desk, a minimalistic pane of glass, is empty save for a blank tablet and an apple tree in the bonsai style, complete with a half dozen apple’s the size of a child’s fist.  They look delicious.

“They’re delicious,” He says, and the tone in his voice makes it hard to tell if he knew what I was thinking.  “Take one!”  I do.  It is.

It took forever to land this interview.  After my piece a few years ago–a deeply personal discussion with the last living pioneer of the social networking age–I knew that my investigation was coming to a close.  I phoned in every favor I had ever earned, and now I find myself in the Executive Suite, perched so high I can see the stars better than the earth.

I’m nervous.  What’s the first question someone asks the CEO of Life?  “Where did it all begin?” seems like as good a place as any.

“The 1720s.  Not many people know this, but our organization started in France.  It’s anyone’s guess what we were called then, but we were much closer to a conspiracy than a monopoly.  The first head of our organization–he was the Rector at that time–was a student of business and a patron of the arts.  The inexorable rise of industry fascinated him, but he didn’t want any part in shipping or manufacturing.  Who can blame him?”  With a cat’s calm precision, the CEO references both the state of the world and the draw for his product.  He gives off a powerful aura of confidence and control.

“The Rector wanted to increase his wealth like any entrepreneur would, but he had admired enough paintings and enjoyed enough theatre to understand that people want three things: sex, violence, and the freedom to choose between the two.  He saw this as a common thread between himself and the rest of humanity, and he wanted to make sure that he could ensure it for as many people as possible.  Who can blame him?

“Admittedly, The Rector’s ideas were not ideal.  He only really cared about ensuring pleasure for the rest of the aristocracy, and it took awhile for our organization to become more sympathetic.  Trying to control the U.S. theatre circuit in the mid 1800s was our first public front–you were right about that in your last article–but  we think we were working for the greater good a little before that.”

I wonder what keeps them from knowing all of their history.  “We have complete records, but the early ones are indecipherable.”  The CEO’s ability to guess my next question is astounding.  “They wrote everything in Latin, and translating it only reveals a bunch of cryptic phrases.  ‘All Hail the Palace’ and stuff like that. It’s really a little creepy.”

His ability to finesse even the shady things into what is turning into a very friendly chat is astounding.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but meeting the man in charge is rife with this strange sense of finely-concealed excitement.  Like big things are happening just around the corner, and all we have to do is wait for them to arrive.

“Since then, we’ve had a number of entertainment personas operate as our public face–The Chairman is a particularly good example–though nobody seemed to catch on that something was going on behind the scenes until recently.  The conspiracy theorists think there’s a guy at the top of the pyramid, who has his fingers in all of it.  Business.  Politics.  Religion.  Well, they’re mostly right.  I’m that guy, but I don’t go to church.  I let you find me because I want to set the record straight.”

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Cottage in the Woods

Not long ago, a young man of the Riverfolk went to visit his cousins in the Wood.  Because he had come such a long way, and because his Woodfolk cousin had just learned the trade of hunting, they decided to go with some of their friends into the Wood, to swim in a beautiful pool and also to test their courage.  Three young men and two young women set out on that day.

They set out for the pool, which was quite far from their village.  They walked for a long time.

“I am tired,” said one of the young men.  “Let us take a nap.”  The others realized they were tired as well, and so each found a comfortable spot and rested their heads.

But the Riverman could not sleep, because the Wood was strange and frightful to him.  “I am being foolish,” he said to himself.  “This is nothing but a forest, and these are nothing but trees.”  So to screw up his courage, the Riverman decided that he would leave the small clearing he and the others had found.

He took one step, and nothing happened.

He took two steps, and nothing happened.

He took three, and four, and five steps, and still nothing happened.  “What a great fool I was!” he said, laughing.  “I will hide and scare my friends.  Then they will think that we Riverfolk are much better than Woodfolk.”  So the young Riverman found the crook of a large tree root, and laid down beyond it.  From his hiding spot, he could no longer see his friends back in the clearing, but he heard one of them snoring.

But as the Riverman waited for his friends to wake, he caught a familiar scent drifting through the air.  “That smells just like the pies my mother bakes!”  And since the Wood held no fear for him, and since he remembered the way back to his friends in the clearing, he decided to see where the smell had come from.

He wandered toward the smell until he came to a cottage with the sun kissing its roof here and there.  A garden lay beside it, and smoke was rising from the chimney.  An old woman stood in the doorway, holding a great pie.  Her eyes met the Riverman’s, and he walked into the cottage with her.

“Might I trouble you for a piece of your pie?” Said the Riverman.  “Of course, my dear.” Replied the old woman, and she put a slice on a plate for him.

The Riverman ate, but he didn’t notice that with each bite he grew much fatter.  Soon he was so fat that he couldn’t stand, and the old woman laughed a cruel laugh.  “You are mine now, to do with as I please.”

“But my friends will come and rescue me!” The Riverman wailed.  “One is a hunter with keen eyes, and another is a wise woman in her village!”

But the woman just laughed all the more cruelly.  “The tracking eyes of your hunter will do him no good, and no wisdom in the world can teach where I am.  You are mine, and the Elves are coming.”

Much later, the Woodfolk awoke in the clearing and wondered where their friend had gotten off to.  A few thought to go separate ways and find him, but the hunter said “To walk the Wood alone is foolish.  We will look for him together, but we must be back in the village by nightfall.”  The others knew the stories of werewolves and evil things, and the thought made them shudder.

So they left the clearing to search for the boy.  The hunter used the best of his tracking skills, but he only lead them in large circles.  “He must be following our tracks, too.  We will wait for him here.”

And while they waited, the wise woman thought of the stories she had heard.  “I cannot think of where he might be.  It is like a riddle that I used to know, but have forgotten.”

They sat and thought for a long time, until suddenly a troll came crashing from the Wood and scattered them.  Each fled a separate way, and by the time the sun had set only the wise woman had made her way back to the village.  The others were never found again.

Categories: Blackwood, Fiction, Folklore | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Plans

I showed up early enough to be one of the barflys.  I didn’t stick around for the place to get packed.  She didn’t let me.

I drink whiskey because I like the taste.  It’s wet fire that teases you with the smell of wood and the tastes of fruit and flowers.  It’s brazen.  It’s coy.  There’s something undeniable about being in a club that understands that.  It’s a club that doesn’t let you in unless you’re serious enough to not to take yourself seriously.  It’s a club that makes you kick away the ladder once you climb up in the tree.  It’s a club where the prizes you take home are innuendo and a cocksure grin.

You can’t match a dress with your hair like that and expect to go unnoticed.  You can’t wear those nonchalant eyes–turn that casual gesture–and expect to keep anything hidden.  No matter what, you can’t hide such a fundamental purpose.

Of everyone in the room, she and I were the only two people to get it.  Her eyes told me that much.

“What are you looking at?”  Then the grin.

She drives with her top down.  She gives it all away by keeping it all to herself.  She knows.

I didn’t stand a chance.

Categories: Contemporary, Fiction | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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