Category Archives: Short(er) Stories

Flash (in the pan) Fiction and more considered short works go here.

Flatpacked Nightmares

Välkommen!

Välkommen!

Picture the scene before you – you know it well – the standard one, trotted out for decades now by the self-satisfied, oh-so-earnest mega-charities: sub-Saharan Africa, swollen-bellied children so far-gone into their destitution they barely swat at the buzzing flies. But, wait, you’re not in sub-Saharan Africa, you’ve just left the A5, on your way to Milton Keynes. Those fly-blown children? Glassy-eyed Millenials. The flies themselves? Babies. Oh, forsaken one, you’ve found yourself at Ikea.

Take a closer look at these desolate people around you as you ascend the escalator – they will be your group, your tribe. Together, you will venture through this strange land. It won’t be done on purpose, there will be moments where you find yourself almost alone – these will be the worst, when the immensity of this place begins to bear down on you, the weight of the precariously stacked plastic tchotchkes, the forest’s worth of balsa-wood spoons dumped in steel cages, the aluminium garlic presses in their hundreds, all feels like it will crush the sanity from your tortured brain – but, inevitably, one of your tribe will wander back into view. The site of that collar-popped striped shirt, those third-best yoga pants, the flip-flops, will set you at ease. Here, here in this mad bricollage of Euro-chic consumer goods, here is something you can hold onto.

You will stick to the predetermined paths that shepherd you along the ‘long, natural way’, only very seldomly venturing off to examine the mesh backing of the FLINTAN, the lumbar support of the FJÄLLBERGET, or the thread count on the SKÖRPIL. These paths will usher you on your way, offering a subconscious balm against that greatest of all fears, the threat of becoming lost, going feral and living out your days in the cramped, kaleidoscope world of the showrooms. No, by sticking to the paths, egged on by the unattended screams of your tribe’s offspring, you’ll safely make your way to the juncture.

A choice is now forced on you, which, admittedly, can be a bit of a shock after the structure of the showrooms – do you break your pilgrimage, and head to the food dispensary, or do you venture forth into the ‘market hall’? The hollow rumblings of your stomach decide for you, and unerringly your feet guide you past the ‘market hall’ and into the ‘restaurant.’ You queue amidst the other millenials, grasping plastic tray in both hands. Why have they put the dessert first, you wonder idly as you grab yourself two servings of the Swedish apple cake. Good thing too, as, though you don’t know it yet, the ‘veggie balls’ you spoon onto a plate subsequently will leave you feeling hungry before you even exit the store. Even with the two pints of Norwegian lingonberry sparkling water!

Temporarily restored, you brave once more the surging crowds, re-inserting yourself into the flow and sweeping through the cavern-like maw of ‘the market.’ You notice, bobbing along in the swirling mass, the heads of some of your tribe – unbeknownst to you, it seems they too succumbed to the vagaries of their mortal frame. Their harried, ungulate expressions reassure you, and you calm enough to begin examining your surroundings. The swing-top KORKEN stacked metres high? You can’t go wrong at £1.75! Get 5! The 18-piece FÄRGRIK? £13.50? Get two! Ooh, what a sweet design on the GLÖDANDE! Get three in case one chips. Alas, you must be having fun, as your meandering course, assisted by the shuffling herd around you, has brought you to the end of the market – a hole in the ground.

As you descend the escalator, you’re assaulted – olfactorily. Laid out beneath you stretch hundreds of scented candles, and their individual waxy odours blend to a miasma that chokes ever more thoroughly as you descend. Tugging your loved ones along, you rush through to clearer airs and find yourself –

in the flatpack. A farness of flatpack. A warehouse worthy of any seaport, situated within the store, now stretches before you. Banners hang from every row’s end, depicting and naming the ‘designers.’ As one, they smirk down on you. They know this place is theirs. They run the gamut from corn fed all-American to bright-eyed Slav and on to canny Eurasian and can be anywhere from 28 to 73 (but, though it won’t be until you’re safely ensconced in the car and bootling down the motorway, the thought creeps up on you – only one gender is ever represented), and they all have the same expression. The only thing that wards off the fascistic is the size – just shy of your Nuremberg banner. The only escape from their ever-present gaze is to duck into the aisles themselves, to be confronted with their creations – handily disassembled and packaged for your convenience.

Dodging in and out of momentary respite, you see it ahead of you – the goal of this odyssey – the discount den. You pass by the spare SKORVA and the stacked LÖNSET, paying them no attention at all. How can you delay, when some other schmuck might snatch the mis-matched FÅGLAVIK set? The ever so slightly-lumpy HÖSTFIBBLA must be yours! Success! You wrestle the cracked BJÖRKSTA from the boney clutches of some sucker’s gran and rush over to the till.

The queue is three groups deep, and, due to the various trolleys, baskets and carts each are possessed of, you are forced to abandon your comrades to wait. You quickly pass your wallet to your partner and dash. The Norwegian lingonberry sparkling water has returned.

You get back in time to catch the final cash through. Congratulations, you’ve just spent £783.56.

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Below the Mountain

Wrote this up for submission last year – unfortunately, and I did see this coming, it didn’t really jive with the atmosphere they were after. Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

Below the Mountain

 

What is this that stands before me?

Figure in black which points at me

Turn around quick, and start to run

Find out I’m the chosen one

Oh no

 

“Would you please turn that crap off? I’m trying to get through this before lecture,” the young man said, casting an angry glare over his shoulder.
“Ah, take off, man, Sabbath’s a classic!” his colleague called back, not bothering to turn away from the laptop. A tinny guitar riff pushed the speakers to the limit, more buzz than distortion.

“Philistine…” the first man mumbled, returning to the sheaf of paper on his desk.

“Ah, good, I was hoping you two would be here – it’ll save me having to write up an email,” said a third man, middle-aged, who entered the cluttered office looking down at a clip-board.
“I’ve been asked to spend a few weeks up in Auyuittuq. Apparently this mining company, Bleiercom, has discovered something weird near Mount Thor – they were using some new imaging technology and it gave them some unexpected read-outs,” he looked up from the sheet he’d been examining. “You’ll have heard the Tories a couple of years back – ‘Canada’s North is open for business’ – well, I guess this is what it looks like. Hopefully, with us there, we can at least soften some of the damage they’ll do.” He shifted a few of the sheets, flipping the board so that they hung loosely over the top.
“I hope you boys didn’t have any Christmas plans, as we’ll be headed up there Tuesday next week and it’ll run through the holidays, most likely. Rush tickets, but the company have, thankfully, said they’d provide everything. We’ll go and see what this is all about, and then maybe get an early start on the dig we wanted to do out in Tanfield, as we’ll be up there already. I’ll let you sort out someone to cover your classes.” He left the office as abruptly as he had come, calling the last sentence as he walked down the hall.
Maron’, Schuler, don’t you hate it when Frore does this to us? We’re grad students, not god-damn slaves!” said the metal-head, running a hand through greasy hair and looking flustered. “Now I’m gonna have to cancel that flight back to Montreal, and I didn’t buy insurance for it or nothing, and I’m gonna lose the money, and my ma is gonna be pissed…” he turned back to his computer, opening a number of tabs angrily. “Vanabola! I don’t even like the cold! What am I doing a degree in Arctic Archaeology for? Maybe pa is right, maybe I am just a scustumad’!” The soliloquy was peppered with wild hand gestures, as Carbone, which was the young man’s surname, battled with his imagined interlocutor. The first man, Schuler, merely watched his frenetic companion. This was nothing new, this sort of tantrum. A strange, calculating look had settled in his blue eyes, though – a look that had taken hold at the first mention of Mount Thor.

At Pearson, there was someone from Bleiercom waiting for them – mid-level management, complete with cheap suit and a subordinate with a sign. Schuler noted that there were a few other names on the list, and figured that the small group clustered around must be them. Suspicions confirmed when the suited man called out
“Professor Frore? Professor Frore, over here! Cutting it a bit close aren’t we?” the man said, looking at his watch exaggeratedly. “Name’s Johnson, Andy Johnson. HR Head, Toronto office. And this must be…” he looked at the sign, “Joe Carbone and…Caspar Schuler? Swell. You’re the last we were waiting for. Have you got the tickets, Barnes?” he said to his lackey. “C’mon, c’mon, the tickets!” The other man struggled to both hold the sign and dig out the tickets from his brief case. “Here, I’ll do it!” said Johnson, wrenching the case from the other man’s hands. Within a few minutes, the others milling about awkwardly, Johnson had distributed the tickets to their appropriate owners. “Now, daily reports, Barnes, I want daily reports!” he shouted over his shoulder as he ushered the others towards the gate. Barnes breathed a sigh of relief to see the back of him. He couldn’t imagine a better holiday, even if -he- still had to go to work.

The rush through the check-in didn’t leave much time for introductions, but Schuler took a moment to look at his co-travellers. Himself, Carbone and the Professor, as well as HR Johnson and a few other equally ill-suited individuals, and a girl. He took another look – she must have been closer to 20, though quite small. She caught him looking at her as she manhandled her baggage onto the conveyor, and smiled. It wasn’t until they’d made it to the terminal and won a few minutes respite that she came up to him and said

“Hi! I’m Anna – Casper, right? Like the ghost?” Her smile deflated the insult, or at least tried to. He looked at her blankly as Carbone came up.

“Hey babe, nice threads!” he said, shifting his hair out of his face. “I’m Joe!”

“Uh, thanks?” she said, looking him over and frowning at both before she walked away.
“What’d I say?” Carbone asked, looking at Schuler.

Unclasping the tray from the seat ahead, he took out his notebook and opened it at random. The pages were covered in ink, dense, but directed. No scribbles or rushed thoughts here. A crash cut in from the seat next to him – he looked over and saw that, though he was already sleeping, Carbone had switched on one of the in-flight movies. Some forgettable blockbuster, complete with over-the-top explosions that could be heard from the other man’s cheap head-phones. Schuler looked at him a moment, noticed with disgust the dandruff that dusted the man’s ears and greasy hair, the week’s growth of beard that curled tightly over the pock-marked skin. Sighing through his frown, he turned back to his bag and fished out his own head-phones. Nothing for it, no sense in fighting with him over the film. He thumbed his iPod to life, and the Palestrina filled his ears. The interplay of the voicing, the counterpoint as each played off the other to build something greater than the sum of its parts, put him at ease. He looked over at Carbone again, this time his hot disdain transmuted by the music to a remote disappointment. How could they both, Palestrina and Carbone, share an Ancestry? The other man shifted in his seat, burrowing further, and rubbing a plump, short-fingered hand across his thick-lipped mouth. How could, achieving the heights evident in their work, the people of Europe fall so far? He included all of Europe, as it wasn’t as if his own Teutonic brethren were any better off. And here they all came, to the New World, and devolved together. A final sigh, rueful, and Schuler turned back to his book.

Despite the pacifying, focusing nature of the motets, he found himself unable to concentrate on the neatly arrayed symbols. Here was all this data, he thought, flipping through more of the pages, all these theories and conjectures, reaching back into the dark days of Man, of his Childhood, but where was the evidence? What made any of this, this crazy web of connections, any more likely than conspiracies about the Illuminati or the like? Sure, there were all those things that happened down in New England a hundred years ago, but that wasn’t much more than rumour. What did he really have to go on here? How could he be sure that this wasn’t just another silly fiction cooked up by some low-life pot head, and thrown on to the Internet? He couldn’t.

And yet. He could feel that this was somehow right. It’s true, the connections, the cycles, they didn’t match up to a standard calendar, not to the modern one – but, if this was something older than Rome or the Catholic Church, why would it? He’d run the calculations, here was the hard data, flipping to a print-out stapled into the notebook – there was some thread that connected it all, and that couldn’t be faked. Every cycle, something big happened, something that shifted all the consciousness of the world. Last time, following on from whatever it may have been that happened in Massachusetts, great wars and the deaths of Empires. The time before that, the over-throw of the old aristocracy and the birth of new dreams, soon soured. And so on, all the way back to the start of recorded history. Every major event, every epochal shift, the links were there. Nothing so easy as the same symbols or words, though they were present often enough. No, it was deeper than that, something about the sense of it all, the patterns of it – something you wouldn’t see unless you had access to all the raw data, an emergent element from the background fuzz. If that kept happening, every time, surely that pointed to something, right?
Everything indicated that the cycle was about to turn over again, that it might already be starting. And that it had something, something very specific, to do with the Polar Regions, with Baffin Island. Maybe, thought Schuler, he’d be able to find his concrete evidence there. Settled, he thumbed to the end of the written pages, about two thirds of the way through the book. Diagrams, runes, scrawled lines in 17 different languages flashed by. Finally, he focused on what was in front of him – photographs of ancient pottery he’d pulled off the British Museum’s site last week, a stolen moment between tutorials and last minute prep.
After a quarter of an hour comparing these photos with another set, sourced from the Smithsonian, he noticed that Anna was watching him. Openly looking, not bothering to hide her interest. It was the first time he had looked at her, really, since they met in the terminal. From this close, he could see the roots of her hair where it was parted – blonde underneath that ridiculous black, almost the same tint as his own. He hadn’t really settled in to the work yet, there was something that left him restless, uneasy. He figured he might as well distract himself a moment.

“What?” he said, pulling a head-phone out of his ear just as Palestrina gave way to Mussorgsky.
“I’m bored. The movie selection sucks. Whatcha working on?” the girl, the young woman, asked.

Schuler thought a minute before answering, noncommittally, “Thesis stuff,” and turned back to his notes.

Anna pulled a face, wrinkling her nose at his offhand tone and rolling her eyes. She looked away, down the aisle. A few seconds later, though,
“Well, what is it, exactly? You’re some Social science-type, right? What’s that you’re looking at, Sumerian?”

Schuler abruptly twisted his head towards her, raising an eyebrow. “Comparative Religion, technically. How did you know that this is Sumerian?” he asked, more coolly than he felt.
“Pfft, don’t give me that look, man. You don’t have a monopoly on schooling, you know,” she said, her disdain meeting his condescension. “Comparative religion, eh? How’d you get stuck with ol’ Professor Polar Excess over there?”
Schuler looked across the aisle to where Frore sprawled in his chair, shirt rumpled and sandals askew, and had to admit to himself that the pun was apt.
“Cross-disciplinary work. Frore, on top of arctic arch, does cultural work too. Our research interests overlap enough that I do some of my studies with him.”

“K – but then what do the Sumerians have to do with anything in Northern Canada? And what’s that other stuff you’ve got – I don’t recognise it?”
“I did say I did -Comparative- Religion, didn’t I? You do have to look at -different things to -compare- them, you know.” Childish response, but it fit the question, he felt. “This second set, it’s from the Anasazi culture down in the States, the Pueblo’s.” He must have been more distracted than he thought, to be encouraging the conversation.

“Oh, cool! That’s one of those Lost Civilisations, isn’t it? Neat!” Anna responded excitedly.
“Ha, not exactly,” Schuler said, “some of the latest information to come, climactic models, points to a pretty severe drought in North and Central America, just when it looks like the Pueblo abandoned their settlements. Chances are, it got too dry and they left for greener pastures. No more romantic than that. These pictograms,” he said, passing her the photos, and fishing another set from his bag, “are, as near as we can tell, from right before then.”
“But still, didn’t they, like, disappear or move or whatever only a couple hundred years ago? The Sumerians, they’re ancient. Like, Dawn of Civilisation, ancient. What’s to be compared there?”

“Because, it looks like the same thing may have happened to them,” he answered, distantly. After having some sort of internal struggle, he continued “Look, this isn’t technically stuff for my PhD, it’s a bit of a side-project. I’d appreciate you not mentioning it to Frore, we’ve had it out a few times over where and how I spend my time.” He tried his best to look winning, contorting his patrician face.
“Sure, whatever,” Anna responded. “No big deal to me. What do you mean, though, ‘the same thing’? They were totally different, weren’t they? Different times, different places.”

“You’re not wrong, but I’ve been seeing this come up a lot, almost like a, a thread that weaves through all human cultures. You get these big, strong empires, and then something shifts, and, within a generation, or a few, they’ve completely gone. Now, with the Sumerians, the accepted version is that they were conquered and absorbed by the Akkadians, to the north, and eventually became Babylonia, right?” Anna nodded. “But, this passage here,” Schuler said, indicating with a long finger the photos, “talks about a new religion, a kind of cult, gaining power in the South-East, near the ocean, and spreading before the eventual take-over. And then, they just disappear.”
“They can’t have just disappeared – surely it’s just that we don’t have the artefacts. This was thousands of years ago, how can we be sure we’ve even got the right translation, never mind the full story?” Anna said, doubtful. Schuler smiled – despite himself, he was taking a liking to her. He didn’t usually like people.
“I would agree with you, you’re right to be sceptical, but it just keeps happening – these pictographs, and this, this is a Navajo myth, about the Anasazi,” he said, flipping the notebook back a few pages, “they talk about a cult, a cannibalistic cult, that shows up right before our best estimation of the abandonment of that area. It’s not necessarily widely accepted, and the translation is second-hand, but, look, see that pictograph? Best anyone can tell, that means water. And see? See how it shows up throughout in connection to this other figure, the stylised-man one? That would seem to indicate a water-man, a man-from-the-sea. Again, we have a new group, associated with the sea, right before a collapse.”

Anna looked at him, doubtful. “That’s pretty thin evidence to go on…” she started.

Schuler realised he’d been leaning forward, over-excited in his explanation. He sat back, looking at the grey and blue patterned chair ahead of him.
“That’s fair,” he said. “In this instance. We’ve pretty conclusive evidence that it did happen, though, to the Egyptians. We can read their ancient texts, as well as anything, and they clearly make reference to ‘peoples of the Sea.’ Ramses II fought them several times, and eventually they wore down both the Egyptians and the Hittites. But,” he went on, “they then disappear. Altogether. No more mention anywhere. At least, not under that name…”
“Pretty fanciful stuff there, boychik. If you’ve got all these crazy theories about the sea and the desert civilisations and all the rest, what’re you doing on a flight to Iqaluit?”

“Well, the Sea Peoples, they had to come from somewhere, right?” Schuler offered, cagey.
Anna looked at him, unbelieving. “You’re kidding, right? Have you met these people? They could barely get to the mainland before Europeans rocked up. The Eskimo aren’t your Sea People, no way.”

“No, of course not,” Schuler said, amused at the distress she showed, and noting her prejudiced attitude. “No, I don’t think the Inuit are the Sea People. I do, however, think there is something weird going on up there, and I’m willing to chase what leads I have. Anyways,” he said, changing the subject, “why are you on this mad trip of ours? Helluva way to spend Christmas.”

“Oh, they didn’t tell you? My last name’s Bleier, as in, of Bleiercom. I’m supposed to be spending the holidays with Dad – alternating between the rentals since they split back when I was a kid, just kept on with it, even though I guess I don’t really have to now. Dad’s going to be up at this dig or whatever all Christmas, so I’m headed up with you lot. I kinda feel like I owe him, what with the whole Ivy League education he’s bought me and all. Still, sometimes it’d just be nice to spend time with him, y’know? I’ve been all over the world with him or mom on holiday, but I never really get to see them, like?”
“My parents died when I was quite young,” Schuler said. “I wouldn’t know.”
“Oh! Um, sorry?” Anna offered weakly.

As the group shuffled into the room, a woman looked up from the duffle bag she was packing. A wide grin split her face, showing strong, white teeth.
“Hiya,” she said “name’s Tukkuyummavungga Aglukar – don’t worry,” she smiled at the blank to quizzical faces in front of her, “you can call me Tukku, everyone else does. I’m your lead chopper pilot – Asuilaak over there’ll fly the second one,” she motioned towards a window, where a bundled figure could be seen examining the tail rotor on one of the MD 500’s.

After the assorted introductions, she continued “Everyone ready? K, let’s get goin. Forecast this morning was good, but weather turns around quick this time of year. It’ll be an hour or so to base camp. Mr. Bleier got in two days ago, he’s already waiting for you all out there.”

Mount Thor thrust into vision from far out, kilometres out. As the two helicopters sped towards it, Schuler reflected on what Tukku had relayed over the chopper’s on-board radio – that Mount Thor, the whole valley, was considered a place of ill-omen by her ancestors. Somewhere to be avoided. She didn’t seem distressed herself, but then it was difficult to tell over the static-y two-way. As they approached, the scale of it – Earth’s largest vertical cliff – became apparent. Coming at it from the west, they could see the full extent of its kilometre-and-a-quarter sheer drop. It was easy to understand why someone would feel uneasy, even nauseated, with that mass of rock hanging above them. Inhuman proportions, enough to trouble the mind of the beholder. And it was just where they were headed. Schuler could see now, at the base of the mountain, a collection of retro-fitted shipping containers and tents, lights blazing against the Arctic winter’s early darkness.
“Ah, glad you could make it, Professor!” the ruddy faced man said as they entered the room. He strode forward, taking Frore by the hand. “Bleier, Alex Bleier. Sorry we couldn’t meet in person earlier, but I’ve come direct from one of our sites in South Africa. I trust your travels ran smoothly enough?” he said, looking at the others. A robust man, wearing a bomber jacket despite the heat lamps glowing away, he looked more like a professional adventurer than a mining magnate. “I was just going over some of the latest readouts, not that I can understand much of them myself – that’s what I pay these egg-heads for!” he said with a laugh, indicating with a sweep of his arm the technicians behind him. “Mighty queer business we’ve got here, like nothing I’ve seen before – and I’ve seen my fair share of oddities, I can tell you!” The force of the man, his vitality, completely over-shadowed the dour professor.
Catching a moment to interject, Frore said
“You know this is meant to be Natural Parkland, right, Mr. Bleier? And sacred land to the Inuit on top of that? I hope you’re not considering too sizeable an operation here.” The other man stopped laughing, in fact, the joviality drained from his face. One could see the steel that had won this man an empire, still present under the padding of years.
“So, that’s the score, is it, Professor? Well, best to have it out in the open from the start. I thought the Prime Minister’s Office made it pretty clear – we’re ushering in the future here, economic development. Or would you prefer to leave this place a wasteland?” Reflecting on the striking landscape bare inches of metal away from them, this struck Schuler as a bit off, but the delivery carried it. “I assure you, Professor, everything we’ve planned is legal. To the letter. Now – you have an hour or so to unpack and get settled – Siluk can show you you’re allotted quarters,” he indicated an unsmiling Inuit man behind him, “but then meet back here. There’s something I want you to see.”

The ice fell away at the hacking of the axe, the two men making short work of the half-foot or so covering. Underneath, still solidly frozen in place, the wall of stacked, unworked rock emerged.
“Clearly artificial,” the professor said to no one in particular. Shooing the others out of the way, he examined the exposed rock, exasperation at the whole affair evident in his motions. “No way any rock-slide or avalanche could have set these so orderly, nor with such precision. This was done purposefully by someone.”
“I can see that, Professor. What I want to know is, why? And what is behind it?” Bleier cut in abruptly. “The scans say that, a few feet through this wall here, there’s open space. I’ve not seen them wrong before. How do we best get through?”
Frore turned abruptly. “Get through! Are you crazy? This is a huge find! This kind of work is totally unprecedented on Baffin Island – who knows what damage you’ve already done to it smashing away with those ice axes? You go through this, you’ll have hell to pay – the NTI are going to sue you as is, the Heritage Department’ll get in on the action when they realise what’s at stake–”
“When you dig as deep as Bleicom does, Professor, you get used to dealing with the devil. Now,” Bleier looked up the face of the cliff, undeterred by the wave of vertigo, “no space to get a sizeable machine in here, yet, and I doubt a CAT could manage it. Siluk, you think we could dynamite it? Doesn’t look like we’ll bring anything down on our heads.”
Shifting the ice-axe to his shoulder, the man cast his own eyes vertical, thought for a moment, and grunted his agreement.
“Jesus, what am I even here for?” Frore said, looking from one man to the other in amazement. “Why’d you even ask me to come, to get involved with this, when the first thing you find you decide to literally blow up? This is ridiculous!” He threw up his hands in vexation.
“You’re here, Professor, to advise. You have advised. I have taken your advice into account. If you don’t like it, you can get yourself back to your university. In the mean time, we’ve got work to do.”

“Oh great, what does that asshole want?”
The two younger men turned to see what Frore was talking about, just as Bleier shut the door to the dining cabin.
“Look here Frore,” he said, turning to address them. “The charges are set. I mean to sort out what’s going on here with or without your approval. I’ve the go-ahead from the Feds – you’re not the only one with friends in Ottawa – and I don’t see any reason to hold back. Now, you can leave if you want – like I said, the next trip out to Iqaluit’ll be in a few days’ time. Or – you can stay.” He moved over to the drip pot, pouring himself a cup of coffee. “And do what I’m paying you, very handsomely, for. I brought you up here, you specifically, because this is some Native mumbo-jumbo bullshit, and you’re the best in the country for it. I don’t need you to clear it with them – God knows, I employ enough of ‘em to have at least some on my side – but I need you here for the optics, see? I can get someone else, in time, but time is something I have very little of. Season’s about to turn ugly. You and I both know that you want to be around for whatever else we might find.” Frore sat, silently, frowning up at the man.
A twinkle in his eye, Bleier continued “Look at is this way – if we do find anything, and if we decide to blow it up, you can add it to the list of my malfeasances.” A glare from Frore.

“Pad your case out against me.” He had the Professor hooked now, and he knew it.
“Charges go off in an hour.” Without waiting for a response, the man left. A blast of arctic air blew into the room, chilling his untouched cup of coffee.
Siluk looked to Bleier, who gave a brief nod. The Inuit man’s staid face creased in a deeper frown, and he pressed the largest button of the remote. They could all hear the explosion from where they sheltered, followed closely by the clatter of rocks and then…nothing. Nothing but the wind, keening through the valley as it had since time immemorial.
“Right!” said Bleier, addressing the assembled. “Professor, shall we go and take a look at what’s become of your wall?” which drew a sigh of resignation from Frore.
“We might as well go and see what dog’s breakfast you’ve made of it…”
“Splendid! I see no reason why we ought to wait to explore what’s behind it, either. Everyone more or less ready? Got the equipment?”
“I’m coming too!” Anna said from the back of the shelter. Bleier’s face creased in a grimace, jaw set. “No way I’ve come all this way, to this frozen waste, to not even see what the whole point is!” Crossing her arms, she stared her father down. Looking between the two of them, the familial resemblance was plain. As was the equality of will.
“Fine, c’mon then!” relented Bleier, giving in to his desire to set this all to rest.

They crossed the short distance to the mountain base. Stones were scattered for metres, evidencing the violence of the blast. A ragged hole had been revealed, sloping gently into the darkness. Smiling to the group, Bleier turned on his flashlight and abruptly descended into the cavern.
“Wait!” called Frore “We don’t even know if the air is breathable in there! Ah – whatever,” he said, relenting. “Just don’t touch anything!” and followed him down.
The opening did slope down, for about 100 metres, with a single, long curve that blocked out the wind’s scream surprisingly well. Levelling off, it opened to a wider antechamber, squarish. As Johnson, the last of the designated group, made the room, a dull boom was heard from behind, followed by several more.
“The blast! It must have set off rocks above!” shouted Frore over the mounting noise. “You idiot Bleier! I told you we should’ve waited!” People began to scatter each way.

“Too far to get back to the surface! Deeper, run deeper!” someone shouted, and the milling focused on a single direction just as the first rocks began to fall.
Impossibly stretched shadows twisted off the irregular rock faces as the group ran, their flashlights casting in every direction. They turned a corner, finding themselves in a much wider chamber – Carbone, the first to enter, was caught short by the sudden change.
“Hey, whatchit!” he said, tumbling over as he was hit from behind.
“The hell did you stop for –oh!” Schuler said, directing his flashlight around him. Stepping around his prone colleague, he moved deeper into the cave. “It must go up for storeys!” he said, as even the industrial grade flashlight died before revealing the ceiling.
“God! We’re all going to die down here! Trapped, like rats!” screamed Johnson, eyes bright with panic.
“Jesus, someone get him under control!” barked Bleier.
“Get your hands off me, Skimo!” Johnson shouted at Asuilaak, who had put a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“Andy! No one is going to die! Everyone is fine! We are going to make it out of here!” Bleier shouted in the man’s face, gripping his shoulders. Johnson struggled under the larger man’s hands a moment, then grew quiet.

“I think we’ve found the source of your aberrant readings, Bleier,” Frore said as he helped Carbone back to his feet. “You see how the walls sparkle when you light them up? Guaranteed there’s aluminum in that rock – this whole place is one giant Faraday Cage. It means that–”
“Skip the science lesson, Professor. I may be a business man, but my business is minerals,” Bleier cut in, striding past the pair. “I know what a Faraday cage is.”
“Then you’ll know,” said a visibly-irritated Frore, “that our radios are going to be useless in here, even if they could’ve cut through the rock. We better hope that that wasn’t the only way in, ‘cause we’re not going to be getting any help from the outside.”
Everyone took a moment to think this over, some looking at the faces nearest them, others just staring at the walls as if they could force their way through by will alone. For most, the claustrophobia they felt earlier redoubled – no way out, no chance of rescue…
Except Schuler. While the rest sat dejected, he had continued to explore the cavern. The floor was, for the most part, smooth. It was difficult to get a grasp on it without seeing the whole space, but the floor seemed almost…regular. Flat in a way that could have been by design, if such a thing wasn’t so unlikely. He continued forward some 50 meters, leaving the others in the entrance way. Anna watched him go, the cone of artificial light soon the only thing of him she could make out, bobbing along in the rhythm of his steps. He stopped, abruptly.
“Everyone,” they heard him call, a queer pitch to his voice, “you’re going to want to see this…”
Shaking themselves out of their torpor, goaded as much by the sound of urgency in Schuler’s voice as by the need to just do something, they rushed over to the young man. As they approached, they could make out what had brought him up short – in the beam of his flashlight, large enough to dwarf it, stood a pillar. An impossible pillar – carved from the rock by the looks of it, its regular, polyhedral surfaces came to a point about a metre and a half from the ground, where it met the apex of another, much shorter, column. The point of connection was in no way sufficient, not if this were made of rock, nor even if it were steel, to support so much weight. There was no way to tell how tall it was, whether it extended all the way to the ceiling or if it stood only a few metres above flashlight reach. It was immense in proportion, though, each of its four planes must have been at least 6, 7 meters in length.
A blanch-faced Asuilaak was the first to break the silence, sweat-soaked moustache pulled back from teeth. He muttered something in Inuktitut, whereupon Siluk angrily responded. Before the two could get much further in their argument, Anna called out
“Speak a language we can all understand, eh?”
“This fool is just talking nonsense, Ms. Bleier,” a still-angry Siluk responded. “Imaginary non-sense.”

“It’s not nonsense!” Asuilaak retorted. “Everyone knows, we all know, that this is a place of Algloolik, an Evil place! We should not be here!”
“Like I said,” Siluk folded his arms across his chest, “ghost stories.”
Before they could get any further, the world lit fire.
As their eyes adjusted to the new brightness, Schuler removed his hand from the pillar.
Maaaa-ron!” swore Carbone, looking at the now-glowing pillar.
“Any bright ideas on this one, Professor?” Bleier inquired sarcastically. Frore, for his part, merely looked at the column mouth agape. The column itself did come to an end before the ceiling, which was still shrouded in darkness somewhere far above them. As they watched, other pillars, laid out in a regular sequence deeper into the cavern, lit up smoothly. Each, identical to the first, stood what must have been a third of a kilometre high, an impossible height for a structure so thin – and yet, they stood. The sides of the cavern were, like the assumed ceiling, still dark. Now that they grew accustomed to it, all recognised the oddity of the light. The pillars glowed a faint green colour, ethereal, but the light itself was a flat blue. Wordlessly, as one, they set off down the path.

Slowly, they were able to make out something in the distance ahead. At some indeterminate point, the cavern floor had changed to a tessellation of coloured stones, a motif of incredibly complexity but still as smooth as before. Continuing forward, they realised they were coming to the end of the cave, or at least this portion of it. Set against the far wall was a raised dais, three huge blocks of decreasing size stacked one atop the other. On either side, smaller than the columns that defined the path but still of an inhuman size, were two inverted cones, glowing a faint red. They illuminated a final block, what could have been an altar in some place less alien. Behind it were three large cylinders, covered over in fine etchings. The furthest to the right was smashed open on the top, as if it had been crushed by falling rock.
“I, uh, I don’t think that this is any Inuit site, Professor,” said Carbone silently. The pattern before the dais was more regular, depicting set points of brightness against a dark background.
“Stars,” muttered Schuler, an edge of the manic to his voice. “It’s a constellation!” The others just stared.
Just outside of vision came a blur of movement, then a crash and a sickening crunch echoed in the hall, and everyone turned in time to see the body of Johnson, or what was left of it, being dragged into the shadows.

Silence, save for a wet, sliding sound, and a pop.

Several of them cried out, in terror and panic.
“RUN!” shouted Carbone.

The group split, Asuilaak and several of the techs heading back to the blocked entrance, the others perpendicular to the path.
“Jesus, what was that? A bear?” someone shouted.
“When was the last time you saw a bear WITHOUT FUR?” Frore called back as they ran. The group rounded a bend, leaving them in, by the standards of the place, a small alcove.
“Dead end!” cried Siluk. He, Carbone and Schuler immediately turned and ran back the way they had come.
“Wait! Hold on a second!” Frore called after them, to no avail. Bleier slumped against the wall, a hand to his chest, wheezing. Anna held his other arm, face betraying her distress and helplessness.
“Not <huh> quite <huh> up to the sprinting anymore < huh huh>,” the man wheezed. He reached out an arm to steady himself against the wall, and collapsed.
“Dad! Your heart!” Anna cried.
“Just, <huh> just give me a moment…” he said, struggling to rise to hands and knees. With Anna’s help, he regained his feet. Frore could do little more than stand around awkwardly.
“I’m alright, I’m alright,” he said gruffly, shaking off the proffered help. They heard shouts from behind, and a cry of pain. Casting their flashlights around in a panicky motion, they noticed raised platforms, with stacks of what looked like dried kindling arranged neatly. And then they noticed the skulls.
On all the bones were irregularly spaced, straight marks.

“Cut marks,” breathed Frore.
“He said they were cannibals,” whispered Anna, tears of fear and exhaustion streaking her mascara. “Caspar said they were cannibals,” she repeated. Schuler himself hurtled into the room following this, gasping for air.
“The thing, it got Carbone. He’s dead. Siluk took off, I didn’t see where he went. C’mon, we’ve got to move!” And he hustled the rest back into the main room.

As they ran, they could hear it chasing them, claws scratching against the patterned floor. They could hear it, gaining.
“C’mon, Dad, we’ve got to run, faster!” cried Anna.

“<huh> I can’t <huh> go much further!” the man gasped, pulled along by his daughter.
“Watch it!” shouted Schuler – dodging to a side, a blur rushed past him, and Professor Frore was propelled into the shadows. The three stopped as the creature prowled, just outside their vision. Despite looking straight at it, the image seemed to blend with the background, as if the mind refused to comprehend what it was seeing. They got hints of scaly flesh, grotesquely segmented legs, but nothing definite. The beast gathered itself, bunching its ephemeral body, and leapt –

And Asuilaak, from the side, met it in mid-air, knocking it away from the others.

As Asuilaak and the beast smashed into a gargantuan pillar, everything stopped short. The duo appeared to hang in the air several moments, and then the post behind them started to tilt. And as it began to topple, so too did the world.
Schuler kept his feet during all this, but felt, for a vertiginous moment, as if he were standing on the wall rather than the floor. There was a crash, and, looking above his head, he saw the rocks that had been blocking their escape tumble free – gaining speed as they fell towards them. They slammed into the ground at the same time the pillar did, breaking in several places. The other columns went dark.

Fissures opened in the floor, and everything was confusion. Shouts and cries of pain could be heard from where the beast and their saviour had fallen, and the others ran – Schuler ahead, Anna and her father lagging behind. Rocks, of immense size, could be heard crashing in the darkness. Without warning, the ground cleaved, a portion thrusting up over top, and falling away. The three were divided.

Schuler looked back at Anna, her face a mask of horror.
He hesitated only a moment.

Schuler ran flat out for the patch of brightness ahead, tripping on something yielding beneath him. Scrambling to his feet, he realised it was Siluk, separated since before, babbling incomprehensibly about the Algloolik or the devil or something.
“We’ve got to run, c’mon!” Schuler yelled as he ran on, but the man lay inert. Cursing himself for a fool, Schuler went back from him, pulling the man to his feet and tugging him up towards the light.
“Hurry, get in! THE WHOLE MOUNTAIN’S COMING DOWN!” shouted Tukku from one of the MD 500’s. Schuler, pulling Siluk behind him, grabbed the ladder that snapped madly in the wind. Despite the man’s disordered state, he climbed when his hands were thrust onto the rungs. “HURRY! CAN’T HOLD IT MUCH LONGER!” Tukku shouted again. Schuler scrambled up after the other man as quickly as he could, gaining the relative safety of the chopper just as a cloud of dust and rock and ice erupted from the cavern entrance. Tukku didn’t wait for Schuler or Siluk to strap in before she ripped them up and away, straining the machine nearly to breaking. Crawling against the g-forces, Schuler managed to secure Siluk, before getting himself safely seated. Looking out behind them, he was just in time to see the upper two thirds of Mount Thor pull away from its base, splintering on a diagonal line and sliding forward. “HOLD ON!” came Tukku’s shout as she redirected, desperately trying to get them out of the path of the oncoming mass.
“IT’S NOT OVER YET!” The blast of air, visible with dust and debris, expanded outwards from the peak as it smashed into the ground, gaining, gaining. It hit them, throwing them forward. And then they were falling.

After several desperate, stomach-churning, white-knuckle minutes, Tukku was able to stabilise the helicopter. The last updrafts still giving them trouble though they were at least a kilometre away. The camp had been caught in the collapse radius – all hard-copy materials, all the data readings over the last week and more, Schuler’s own notes, whomever was left down there, gone. Schuler himself leaned back. Over-top the staccato, insane ramblings of Siluk next to him, he kept thinking –

“I’ve got it – I’ve seen the connection – I KNOW it’s real now – no-one can take that away –I’ve got it!”

Siluk never calmed, always muttering. Yes, Schuler thought, he’d seen things, up-to-then unimaginable things, but what did he really know? He knew, in his heart, that he would never rest until he knew more. In fact, he thought, he owed to the others, to find out more, didn’t he?

Half-way between sleep and wakefulness, an idea drifted, driven – if there was something in the North, mightn’t there be something in the South?

 

Bar Crawl

Bar Crawl

The place smells damp. That hot damp that hits you in the face as you come in, and gets into your hair and your clothes and doesn’t get off your skin for hours.
Sun’s down, but it’s too early for any students or happy petite bourgeois. Just the bar tender, the regulars, and me. Wine’s overpriced. Sour. Not as bad as the pint at the last place.

A dishevelled woman wanders up to the counter beside me. Too big for her blouse, fly-away hair, shade of lipstick that clashes with her tanned skin, smeared over too-thin lips. Is she drunk, or foreign? Ah, drunk and foreign.

Take a tall seat by the fire. Start to write, more to avoid the stares than anything else.

Slow, old, pickled men beside me, the words the mumble unconsidered for all they are chewed over. Gummed.

“Pacific islanders…mass exodus…What’s that all about…you reckon?” quoth the first.

“Britain’s getting’ smaller,” respondeth the second. “Erodin’ inta tha sea…”
The first murmurs inarticulately, bald head bobbing in the over-large collar of his mint-green vinyl coat. He creaks to standing, shuffles to the toilet, slowly, slowly. Socks and sandals.

I steal a surreptitious glance at the second. Grizzled, lead grey hair tied back loosely, week’s beard growth still retaining darker strands amongst the mass. Soiled t-shirt, the complimentary beer swag variety, hangs loose on him. He doesn’t see me, staring into his pint.

Two fat Americans enter, too old to be students, late 30’s, maybe. They talk shit about whiskey at the bar, revealing their ignorance even as they try to outdo one another.

My attention is drawn to the far corner – two middle-aged women cackle over a shared jest. American again, by the accent. Different from our new compatriots, who sound as if they’re from the South. No, through the cackles, they actually sound like me. Why so certain they’re American, then? The way they carry themselves, the content of their conversation. The self-satisfied disrepair of their bodies.

Our friends at the bar have switched to electronics, bullshitting about hardware specs. Once again, it’s clear they aren’t even fooling one another.

I drain off the last of the glass and leave, headed to the next stop in this dreary march.

Four Vignettes

Vignettes

 

I.

His face was dominated by the nose – it was a nose that Rushdie would have described as the genesis of a patriarchy. Beneath it, enshrouded in thick, close-cropped beard, was an expressive mouth shielding strong teeth. Between the two, here was much for the eyes to feast on. It would be easy to stop there, to spend a goodly amount of time watching the way the mouth formed its words, the cast of the shadow off that patriarchal prow.
Spend more time on it, though, more time gazing at that face, and you would eventually find your way to the eyes. The delay is an honest one, getting there, as the detailed features deserve the attention bestowed. The eyes, though – they redefine the rest of the face. Deep-set, ringed in an already dark face, they express an honesty. If there is pride in that face, the eyes show that it is a pride not over-ambitious, a pride that knows its own limits. It is the eyes that make sense of the halting, stuttered way that the words come from the mouth. It is the eyes that transmute the nose from something comedic to something dignified. The eyes, then, cast the face in a diffident power. A human face.

 

II.

Like many of his kind, the ones who gibber, a constant stream of half-way enunciated words, resorting to verbal tics one in three, the weight of verbiage stands inverse to the skill in conversation. There is no enjoyment in interlocution there, no savouring of the play of words nor the animated exchange. No – like cannon fire, each utterance stands alone, signifying only by way of its volume and presence. Tangential at best, responses flow of almost their own accord, the pressure of personal silence building until they are peremptorily ejected. Unless the opposite number can dispel the new volley, batting it back faster than any racquet could muster, this is usually followed, once more, by a stream of sound. It gurgles, it hums and haws, and it is continuous.

 

III.

A heavy-set face – cheeks saggy with weight – weight that didn’t belong: the rest of the body, what little could be seen, thin. Lines in the forehead, pocky and deep – prematurely aged. Face covered in a greasy, several-day beard. Frenetic movements as he rushed about, neglecting his immediate surroundings and focussing on his own tasks. Haughty in his movements, but not purposefully mean-spirited. You hate him immediately. That doughy self-importance, so inappropriate for the station. Lack of humility through idiocy, rather than intent.
Several days later, you see him in public. As anticipated, trackpants, t-shirt. He looks you in the face, unrecognising. Your earlier impression is affirmed, his lack of regard for others extends to five hours’ shared presence. Schmuck.

IV.

…the dignity of ugliness in old age. Gum-line grey, teeth directed back and in, too large, too long. Sprightly eyes deep-set in a horsey face. Hair, receding and thin, thatching a flushed head. Voice stentorian, accent received. Near-constant susurrations of ‘mmm, yes, mmm,’ as if his own deepening deafness might be delayed by a steady utterance. Neck a snarl of folds, his chin disappearing into the mess of his throat whenever he draws his head back.

Scales

Scales

A gasp escapes your mouth as you shuffle a few feet forward on the dusty path, your arms straining against their load. It’s bulky form obscures your vision, and the angular, illogical lines strain your hands as you try to find a more comfortable way to hold it. The thought doesn’t even occur to you anymore, to put it down for a moment. You know from previous experience that you wouldn’t be able to.

Sky a troubled grey, dirty chalk of the path set in a dun field, there isn’t much to be said of the scenery. You look around, again, at the people alongside in the queue. It’s true, the mass you struggle with nearly blocks out all sight ahead – in fact, it towers a good few feet above your head – but, if you shift just there, and balance the weight against your hip for a second like that –

From around the side of the load, you can just make out the people immediately ahead of you. Their own objects, their presence just as obligatory as yours, look like they’re smaller, that they’re easier to manipulate and transport.

The man two spots ahead of your own, he can manage it with just one hand, though the arm that holds it strikes you as oddly stiff. He shifts, looking out into the barren middle distance, and you see what it is he is carrying – a block, about half-a-metre cubed, remarkable more than anything for its colour. The object is a mix of red and white, run through in irregular striations ten centimetres wide at points. The combination reminds you of a mint candy, the sharp division between the different bands, the concentration of the shade, but the sight of it leaves you faintly nauseous. Looking at it compulsively, drawn to it, you realise that you’ve seen the colours before – the white is the tint of brittle bone, the red that of raw meat. The bands themselves don’t look as if they’re composed of these materials, they both display a uniform sheen, smooth, maybe porcelain? You notice the hand that carries the object – too static. Wrong colour. Matte. Plastic. Startled, you pull your head back behind your own load.

Ahead, some unknown distance away, you can hear swells of noise, periodic. It is as if a great host raise their voices at once, then abruptly cut off. It is not a sound that carries with it an emotion, no victory yell nor shout of terror. Appropriately for this place, it simply is. Lacking more characteristics than the necessary, it simply is.

Flowing, congealing, with the queue, you clear more of the unremarkable, identical path. Always forward, sometimes a curve, but always forward. Like a tide, the tiredness you feel pulls in and out. There are times when your arms are set to shuddering, the struggle to keep the object aloft overwhelming all other consideration. At times like these, you nearly cast it aside, unburdening yourself in a dramatic and self-conscious single act. Even then, though, you know it would be impossible. It’s been tried before, why would it be different this time?

Those are the worst times, where you’re pushed to the breaking point, with every part of your body, your mind, enveloped in the struggle. And always, at the base of it, you know that it will go on and on, unending. Mercifully, the very severity of these moments is sourced from their rarity. More often than not, you experience a mild uncomfort, a burning in tired muscles and a nagging in the back of the mind. It is during one of these periods, more bored than driven, you decide to snatch another glimpse of your fellow travelers.

You have little desire to see the broken man and his strange cube once more – even in the depths of your boredom, you have little interest in the frightening oddity of that sight. Instead, you focus on your most proximate neighbour, a woman, directly ahead of you. To your surprise, she doesn’t appear to be carrying anything at all. In fact, though you’re not quite sure how to describe it, you get a sense of a sort of…absence…about her. Outwardly, she seems like anyone else here in this non-place – she walks at the same pace, eyes ahead, she is dressed in the same drab grey everyone else is. You’ve come to another slight curve in the road. Brought on by no discernible geographic feature, the road curves nonetheless. You can see others ahead, all of them have their own objects. The woman ahead of you is aberrant in her lack of a carried thing, something that sets her apart from the rest and consumes her attention.

Watching her more carefully now, you notice that she does seem to be weighed down by something – she periodically stumbles in her steps, her body looks like it has been pressed down, shoulders sloped, head lolling with tiredness. You realise she is carrying that strange nothingness, that absence, just as physically as you struggle with your own burden. You’re not sure what brought it on, you certainly uttered no sound, nor can you think of what else may have drawn her attention, but the woman in front of you turns her head, just as you’re looking at her. Only for a moment, a single motion in fact, does she look at you. Through you. Startled, you stop in your tracks. Luckily, this is during one of the intermittent ebbs in pace, and no one bumps you from behind. It takes several seconds to register what you just saw – the blankness of the woman’s expression, it was total. A complete lack of animation left it neither at rest nor showing any emotion you had a name for. All the right features were there, two eyes, nose, thin-lipped mouth, but it was more mask than face. There was no life in the eyes, no movement to nostrils or twitch in the mouth that might signal some inner awareness. Nothing. You were glad that the frozen thing was only directed at you a moment. Without knowing why, you found the lack of animation disturbing.

It looms ahead of you. The goal of this long slog, coming up at last. A set of scales, monstrous in proportion, big as a building. Inornate, they are of this place, belonging, as implacable as the passage of time. You can see the people ahead, each placing their burden onto the receiving dish. With the movement of the balance, the crowd beyond the scales lets out their deadened bellow, clipped short before it can swell to a roar.

Though the pace is unhurried, it is soon time those immediately ahead of you to test their pieces, their offerings. The plastic man approaches, ascending the graven stairs to the dull brass dish. The dish is huge, wider in diameter than the man is tall. Shallow, it hangs at about the man’s shoulders, forced up by the weight of the other arm. You look at the load of the other arm, the counter-weight exuding mass. A solid block of cast iron, larger than an automotive, rust flaking at the edges of its pyramidal form. Despite the way you’ve seen the man struggle with his strange cube, there’s no way it’ll shift that immense measure.

And yet, lifting it with clear effort straining his face, he heaves the white and red thing into the dish. Quickly, smoothly, the balance shifts. The brass dish closest to the man, the three slim chains supporting it gone taught, lowers, lowers, until it is just below the man’s midriff. It dips a moment, descending to his knees, and then bobs back up to its position below the waist. As it comes to rest, the crowd beyond the scale’s pedestal open their mouths in unison, and the anticipated, momentary, shout issues forth. Three nondescript members detach themselves from the larger group, gaining the plinth from the other side. The plastic man picks up his cube, and the others assist him with it, all four making their way down onto the path and off towards the horizon. Before he passes out of view beyond the crowd, you can see the change in the man’s expression – he still struggles with the unknown weight of the cube, but it seems less, as if the assistance of the others makes an easier going, despite the awkward manner of travel.

The woman with the inert face is the next to climb. Despite the scene that played itself out moments ago, you still doubt anything the woman has will shift the weight of the pyramid. If she herself feels similar doubts, nothing about her body betrays it. She sets her feet wide to gain leverage – she is short, about two and half feet shorter than the earlier man – and lifts the nothingness she’s carried all this way with both arms. The scene would be comic, absurd, if not for the seriousness to which all present attended it. The moment seemed to hang as she strained against this invisible weight, looking as if her arched back might break under the effort. Finally, she gained the lip, spilling whatever it was into the dish. Unlike the previous weighing, where the equilibrium was determined sedately, casually, the shift here was violently immediate. The iron pyramid shot up, as if it were the dish holding nothing, and set to swaying. The chains supporting it showed evidence of the tension they were under – it was clear that the counterweight did in fact have a ponderous mass. And yet, the opposing dish, empty to the eye, scraped the hewn pedestal beneath the woman’s feet. The customary yell is issued, perhaps a sliver longer than the last. This time, five of the nondescript, genderless individuals join the woman on the platform. Together, they gingerly lift the absence from the dish, which raises as they relieve the weight. Together, negotiating the steps down, they struggle off into the distance.
With the events that have run up to your own weighing, the comparative difference between your load and theirs, you approach scale with a degree of confidence. As you’ve already held your object at waist height this long time, it’s an easy enough job to tilt it into the dish. The relief as you set it down, even for the few moments of the weighing, is immediate and stark. You stand back –

and nothing happens. Not entirely true. As you look in disbelief at the scale, you see it shift, late, ever so slightly. Several centimetres, if that.
You look out at the crowd before you. The customary cry is absent. The faces staid. Not menacing, but neither are they merely neutral. The nearest to the scale lifts a hand, pointing to the right. You follow the appendage, noticing for the first time the road that runs perpendicular to the main. It bisected the road just after the scale, and, unlike the path you’d trodden this long while, made of some crushed unknown, white stone, this second road was dug into the ground, about a foot. It explained why you didn’t notice it before. Looking down at it now, from the added height of your vantage, you understood the unvoiced command of the pointing individual.
Stretched out along the road, much more intermittently than the ones who took the main route, were solitary figures, struggling along with the burdens that, you can only assume, were likewise refused. A sense of unfairness rises in your breast, but only for a moment. There is no one to complain to here – the crowd will not hear it, and the scale is as impartial a judge as ever there could be, even if it does behave idiosyncratically.
Stoically, you hoist your burden once more, descending the same set of stairs you climbed moments ago. As you set off down the sunken path, you can feel the old pains rising anew, the tired muscles returning to their accustomed ache. The object you bear is no lighter now, you reflect. But neither has it grown heavier.

Carriage Road

Another bit of mtg fanfic, returning once more to Ulgrotha and the Homelands set. Bit late for All-Hallows, but I hope you enjoy all the same!

Carriage Road

The Dark Barony, Doug Beyer

The Dark Barony, Doug Beyer

The boy started awake as the meagrely-laden cart shuddered, jolted out of a rut. He could feel, having made this trip countless times before, that they had gone too far. Rubbing sleep-heavy eyes, he peered into the drawing gloom. Close-coppiced trees blocked out his vision after more than a few feet either side of the path. He looked over at his grandfather, the old man’s figure shadowy against the swinging lantern behind him. The old man must have noticed that his grandson was awake, but gave no outward sign, keeping his eyes on the road ahead. There was something unusual about all this, the boy felt.

Shifting on the wooden bench, the boy looked behind him – yes! There it was! Bouncing with each stony depression the wheels fell in to, the boy watched the lights of An-Havva Inn twinkle in the distance. They were still close enough that a burst of laughter and music reached them, as some wayward patron staggered out the main door. They turned a corner, and the last cheery sign of it was gone. The boy shuddered as the dark seemed to pull in on them, heavy, dank, and oppressive. It passed quickly, though – a moment more and the moon shrugged off its foggy shroud, casting its light on the road ahead of them.

“Papa,” the boy said, “why aren’t we stopping at the Inn, like we usually do? Where are we going?”

The old man shifted uncomfortably in his seat, the wood boards rasping a different note than the usual creak of motion. Finally looking at his grandson, he held the gaze steady for a long moment. His face was drawn, greyish and lined in a way the boy hadn’t seen before. He looked old, older than he did yesterday. A sudden snap out in the forest broke him from his reverie, and, with a shake of his head, he turned away. The rustle of leather and rumble of the wheels were all that was heard for a time, until the old man began to rummage by his side. He produced a dull, pewter flask, and, unscrewing the lid with shaky hands, he drank deeply. The smell of the liquor was thick on the air as he exhaled, the unusual odour making the boy feel queasy. His grandfather hardly ever drank, even only having a single mug of hard cider during the Harvest festival. The queerness of the situation did nothing for the boy’s state of mind, making him feel all the sicker.

“We’re not bringing anything to the Inn, tonight, not yet…” the man said, still looking ahead. “We’re…taking our stock to another place…yes, another market…” As the sentence drifted off, he lifted the flask for another pull. The woods on either side, organised and humane on the road approaching the Inn, began to take a disorganised, wilder look. Unworked, old – the trees drooped with moss several feet thick, the bark knotted and horny. The air was close, musty – and threatening.
“Say,” he said, turning to the boy in sudden animation. “Do you remember the, well, this would have been quite a few years back, so you may not, but do you remember the tinker that stopped at the village for several seasons – name of Rorik, I think.”

The boy screwed up his face in concentration, trying to remember. It had been several years ago, and, the boy being so young, he couldn’t remember much past two harvest-times with any degree of clarity.
“Ah, as I remember it, Rorik used to put on shows for you young’uns. Puppets and whatnot,” the old man said, warming to his subject.

The memory of the displays, always a burst of colour in the small, pastoral life of the boy, cleared the fog of time.

“Oh, yeah, I remember him!” he said excitedly. “Are we going to a puppet show? Will he be there? I haven’t seen Rorik in ages!”

“Erm, no, my lad, not quite,” the man said, uncomfortably. The brightness of the memories fled from his face, leaving him once again looking ragged. “No, I was just thinking, you recall how Rorik…how he had to leave us, at the village-like?”

The boy, thinking about how long it had been since he saw the strange, cartoonish man, nodded.
“Well, that Rorik, he didn’t just leave, like. He helped the village, y’see?” the man said, earnestly, a strange urgency in his words as if he was trying more to convince himself than his grandson. The boy, for his part, mostly looked bemused.

“And then, do you remember Tallin, the carpenter, who came the year after? He helped to build the mill at the base of the Green Run? Well, he didn’t stop there – when he left afterwards, he helped out even more!” The boy knew how important the mill was to his village, it was what set their home apart from the surrounding districts. It made sense to think of it as a lasting aid – didn’t people, at least before, come from miles around to use it?

“And after that, too,” his grandfather continued, “there was Oan and his wife, and their daughter. They helped the village a lot!” The boy remembered this family well – the daughter, Sigri, was only a year older than he himself. There were so few children in the village, they had become fast friends. Quickly, they had become inseparable, spending every moment they could together, those that they could steal away from the chores on their families’ farms. But then, after only a year and a season, Sigri and her parents had abruptly left the village. One day, Oan had been discussing with the other men the best way to lay out his meagre fields for the coming season – it had been early Spring – and the next, he and his family had left. Sigri hadn’t even said goodbye to the boy, hadn’t even mentioned their intention to leave the village. The boy still hadn’t gotten over the loss, though it was several years ago. He didn’t know what Oan and his family could have done to help the village, though he trusted his Grandfather. Oan couldn’t weave stories like Rorik, dazzling the crowds with feats of acrobatics or enthralling with music. Nor did he have the ability that of Tallin to shape wood, the know-how to raise structures that stood for years and harness the power of the rushing Run. Oan had been poor, with the worst plot of land in the village. Sigri had always had threadbare clothing, her mother unable to do more than repair the scraps and off-cuts of other villagers’ charity. No, the boy didn’t know how Sigri and her parents could have offered the same sort of help as the other strangers.

“Yes, my boy, all those poor folk, they helped the village. Without them, well, we wouldn’t have gotten by, no indeed,” his grandfather continued, though the over-bright expression he had worn before had been replaced now, returning once again to a stolid set.
“We’ll be helping the village ourselves, tonight,” he said with a note of finality, another drink quick on the back of the words.

What must have been nearly an hour passed. The fog thickened as the air cooled, muffling the sounds of the night time forest around them. The boy began to nod, the rhythm of the slow nag rocking him into a fitful sleep. His fevered mind, though, gave him no respite. Dark dreams, filled with half-seen terrors that flitted about, kept him from truly falling asleep. Coming to full wakefulness of a sudden, he perked up his ears, hearing a thunder in the distance. He looked quickly to his grandfather, who stared ahead of them, gimlet eyes peering into the darkness. Clearly, the sound had distressed the man, as well. Though the sky was overcast, the clouds didn’t look to be carrying a storm in their bellies, and so he wondered at it. Few moments passed as the sound grew, seemingly from all sides, and then –

a great crashing and a terrified whinny from the mule, which pulled the lot of them into the ditch as a dark shape hurtled by. The boy caught a glimpse of a white face, twisted into an inhuman, silent shout, struggling to restrain a brace of the largest stallions he had ever seen. Jet-black, they stood at least 20 hands at the withers – taller than any dray horse he’d seen in his short life, and much more sleek. Despite their tumultuous passage, the carriage they pulled seemed to glide behind them. Glossy wood, painted or naturally ebony, the boy didn’t know. The shape of it was elegant, and unsettling. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought he spied another face, within the carriage, before the obscuring curtain was twitched back into place. This face was white, like the other, but, where the first was animated by its struggle, this second one was placid, calculating. Like a still pool, the depths of which were obscured by the mirror-like surface. Time passed quickly, and the face was gone as the vehicle sped along the empty road. Not even sure he’d seen the passenger, the boy was left deeply unsettled by the thought of its gaze.

It took nearly half an hour to right the cart and settle the mule. The animal, normally sombre to the point of dullness, danced and shied as if a colt, though its energy evidently sourced from something more dire. It was fortunate the cart itself was so lightly loaded – their usual cargo, the heavy barrels of cider and ale, would have checked any efforts to pull the cart from the muddy trench.
The trio finally continued on their way – the somewhat-calmed mule tugging the vehicle steadily uphill, the old man sitting silent, every so often taking a pull from his flask, and the child, trying to stifle the mounting unrest brought on by the extraordinary events of their nocturnal travels. They climbed above the reach of the fog, its tendrils clinging to them as they jerked along, as if loathe to let them go. The air, crisp outside the fog, was cold. Once again, the clouds pulled back, and the gibbous moon revealed itself to the solitary travellers. High above them, now, its thin light illuminated their surroundings. The boy looked out into the forest, and a break of some several feet in the surrounding trees opened up a scene beyond and below them. Far off in the distance, leagues and leagues, the yellow moonlight lit up a vast wasteland. From their high vantage, they could spy some of the outer edge, the way that the surrounding forests and fields came to an abrupt, unnatural end. Barren rock, taupe in the moonlight, covered acres of land. The boy looked out, and, at the furthest reaches of his sight, he thought he caught glimpse of a single, loan tower rising above the background waste.

“Ill luck, boy,” his grandfather said gruffly. “Ill luck to look on the Basalt Spire by moonlight. Look too long, they say, and you’ll set the Old Witch to ringing her chime once more. Best to look away,” he finished, another swig of his flask. He needn’t have bothered, as, within a few moments, the forest returned thick as ever.

The boy could feel their descent steepening, and, soon, they were confronted by a solid wall of fog, blotting out the way ahead. The mule paid no heed, and dragged them into it without slackening pace. The boy shuddered as the thick moisture settled on his bare skin. He wrapped himself in his skimpy traveling clothes, trying to retain what heat he could. Droplets of water fell from the tip of his Grandfather’s large, crooked nose.

The cart jerked to a halt, and the boy awoke, disoriented and perplexed. The moon had fled – it was the darkest hour of the night, some short time before dawn. He realised he must have fallen asleep, despite the clamminess of the fog. He looked around him, trying to make out his surroundings. His Grandfather had jumped down from the cart, and stood, conversing lowly, with someone – or something – just beyond the reach of the lamplight.
“Papa – where are we?” the boy called, a tremor in his voice.
“It’s – it’s alright. Come over here, Grandson,” the last word caught in the man’s throat, emotion choking his alcohol-blurred speech – the first time he had uttered the word, their long journey.

The boy gingerly descended the cart, still bundled tightly in his small robe. The muck was thick on the ground, oozing overtop of his boots. Pulling himself free with difficulty, the stink of it curled his nostrils. When he had made his way over to his grandfather’s side, his mysterious associate struck a light and set a lantern burning.
The boy beheld the ugliest man he had ever seen, a face more animal than human – almost that of a pig. Great, rotten teeth peaked up above a quivering lip, the top of his mouth covered by greasy bristles of a patchy moustache. The eyes, dark and hard, pierced the boy, looking more through than at him. The boy whimpered in fright. The gaze shifted to the older man, a questioning look on its swarthy features. The man faired hardly better than the boy.
“Now, Grandson -” he began. “Just as I, erm, was saying, we’re going to help the village tonight…” there was a pleading edge to his stammering speech, guilt stamping it false. “Y’see, there’s been no strangers through in such a long time, and, and, the crops ‘ave been failin’, and praying to Serra’s no use…” the man looked utterly wretched. Fat tears began to slide down his grey face. “It, it was discussed, it was decided – I fought them, I did! I fought them, but, it’s for the good of the village, and the crops be failin’, an’ it be decided…” he ended weakly.
The rough man grabbed the boy by the arm, his grip like a vice on the thin limb.
“You will be rewarded,” he rasped, his speech treacly, like the muck they stood in. “The Dark Barony is ever in need of fresh meat,” he said.
The boy looked at his grandfather, imploring silently with his eyes, but the man would not meet his gaze. He turned, began to shuffle back to the cart with drooping shoulders.
“Wait!” the brute called to him. He fished about in a soiled pocket a moment, and thumbed a thick coin to the broken man. Flipping through the air, it glinted gold in the firelight.
“For your troubles…” and he began to laugh.

The coin fell into the mud by the man’s feet. He looked at it a moment. The boy reached out to him, hoping, still hoping…
The man bent and fished the soiled money from the filth, though he knew the real payment was yet to come.

Sarpadian Stand-Off

Another bit of M:TG fan-fic, also set in a decades’ old set. More atmos, less narrative in this one. Hope you enjoy!

Sarpadian Stand-Off

 

A fog thickens as the foliage-filtered sun drops below its noon-height, the soil sloughing off its moisture in the quickly cooling air. There is a stirring amongst the still-dense foliage, what seems a shambling mass off vegetation emerges, distinct from the surrounding fronds. The creature turns its head, what, in any proper animal, would be the head, to the waning sun. Semi-globes of corrugated material, half a foot in diameter, look to the sky. A shadow obscures the vision, and the creature is aware of a stone arch, peeking out from beneath entangling vines. The eyes are able to resolve the image, focusing in on the clarity of line, the delicacy of carving, well beyond the power of human or natural ability. Despite the encroaching greenery, despite the years of weathering, the span with its twin columns still proudly arcs above a path, once a grand artery, now reduced to a choked trail.

 

A stirring, not of memory, but of something more primal, twitches in the creature’s sub-sentient intelligence. The graven images, the hewn rock natural yet stamped with the work of art, they stimulate something deep within the creature’s psyche. In its own way, it recognises – recognises the same hand in the creation of the still-strong arc as in its own beginning. Recognises the maker in the object. A second thought follows from the first. Not hot on its heels, but turgidly, a rolling gait. The hand of the maker – and the hand of the unmade. Brief shots, images of violence, hours of fire and screams, flash before the inner perspective, memories of years and years ago. Nature gives, and Nature takes away. Unheeding of this, the one maxim, their doom was laid out in inevitability. Hubris only made it swifter.

 

The panoramic vision granted by the peculiar ocular setup alerts the creature to movement behind it. Stirring itself from its reverie, it turns to face the being approaching. If the creature itself pushes the boundaries of Nature’s design, the shambling entity it is faced with is entirely outside. Able to better define the image, the creature sees the stilted way the interloper hopped along the path, a tripod of three human-like arms, each ending in a proper, right hand. Atop this mis-matched trio was mounted a human head, greasy black hair cropped close to scalp, eyes sewn shut. The mouth, however, was left open, and would loll and gape at each jerk, tongue projecting one way, and then the other. The impossibility seemed as if it shambled along by way of some preternatural proprioception, sensing the world around itself in relation to its own whip-stitched form. A hand, whichever was oriented towards the current direction of travel, would crawl forward a space, feel about the area, and then, propelled by the two remaining appendages, the “body” would lurch forward. It was an awkward, uneven mode of locomotion, but, given the alien form of the creature, any animation at all was jarring.

 

As it was, the monstrosity carried on its haphazard way, weaving from one side of the path to the other in a stilted, jerking progression. The path itself lead upwards towards the graceful arch, rising from the surrounding murk. The areas beyond and behind the deformed creature, the place where it had come from, were of a distinct character. This arch marked the edge of the forest, the border between it and the Western Swamps that stretched in an unremitting morass for untold leagues. In years past, this area, at the point of flux between the two dominant geographies, had held host to a body of mangroves. The quickly dropping temperatures of the past decades, though, had left the area mostly empty. Save for a few, diseased-looking willows and accompanying bodies of rushes, most land was submerged. Pools of standing water, once choked with life, were now glassed over with delicate layers of ice. Open spaces, where the rime had yet to spread, were slick as if with the sheen of oil, the usual swamp scoria concentrated by the hiemal weather.

 

An half-dozen feet from the transition point, the freak of the bog notices his, its, counterpart, the ersatz forest-dweller. It stops short, tongue retracting and jaw snapping shut, and regards the creature. An outside observer, if there had been one, would have now been sure that this was a creation of some foul, necromantic magic – this unnatural assortment, this gangle of mismatched limbs, it could see the fungus-animal before it, despite the obvious wiry impediments. It saw, and its opposite saw it. A stillness, already the natural state of the area, deepened. Belying the creeping entropy, the slow, ice-bound death this world was suffering, something of moment was approaching.

 

Claws dug into damp earth as the beast set it’s six legs wide, preparing for any sudden movements from below. Twelve fingers turned the frigid rot, raking steaming furrows. As one, animate vegetable and sentient corpse shift – and turn back in the direction each had come, the plant-creature swaying as it passes back into the darkness of the forest, the construct jerking along with its characteristic shamble. Without exchanging words, the possibility beyond either, the two recognised the concord of their kind. The agreement, perhaps based on a shared natality, perhaps no more than an on-going armistice, that had held for decades now – the division of this land, the entire continent, between the flesh artefacts and the vegetal host. They saw, and knew one another, and knew that they met no enemy in the other. And so, both went their separate way, back into their own domain to await the approaching, inevitable, ice.

Polycrates

Polycrates

Above the mix of laughter, intermittent, halting, cut the constant, recurrent peal. Breathy. Forced. False.

Again and again, the laugh rang out. Paul gritted his teeth with each wave, bad molar flaring in protest. He wiped a hand across his sweating brow.

He couldn’t make out the joke. From the sound of the others, with their embarrassed, weak additions, it can’t have been very good.

And yet it rolled on, that laugh, that laugh! Like ripping of paper, like an unending, ever-present irritation, it rolled on. Too much!

Point break.

 

The bat cracked into the back of her head, laying her flat. Sensing violence before the blow fell, the other, more reluctant revellers, faded away. There was a look of surprise on her face as she lay on the industrial carpeted floor; a look was all there was time for before the bat was slammed down again. Her nose, the nose that dominated her face, was flattened into a mash that looked simply incorrect. A massive nose, a nose that some would call – that racists would call, Paul thought correctively – a French nose, so out of place atop the thin, parsimonious lips, was spread out over the rest of the face. The sight of it twisted his stomach. He brought the bat down a third time, and the frail body, the bird-like body, began to thrash in its death throws. The face – gone. Pulped, shards of bone and flesh and bright blood and fat and cartilage. Unrecognisable.

 

“Everything ok, hun? You were in there two minutes longer than average.”

“Nothing to worry about, just a tough day at the office. TGIF, right?” Paul responded ruefully, Karen looking at him with some concern in her eyes, in the hands on hips.

“Okay, if you say so. You know, if you need to see Dr. Thorn again, we can contact the hospital…”

“No!” Paul near-shouted, unusually angry, especially immediately after a session. “I don’t need to go back there – I’m healthy now, I’m alright – Thorn said so himself, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, of course, I was just saying, you know, I support you and all,” Karen said, chagrined. “You don’t need to shout at me, you know. I’m only trying to help.”

“Sorry, it’s just – just, forget it. Let me take a shower, and then we’ll head over to the Jackson’s, yeah?”

“Yeah, sounds good. You know, I’d nearly forgotten? I’ll have to figure out something to wear…” Karen responded absently, already putting aside the outburst.

 

Paul stared over his cubicle wall with gimlet eyes. That laugh. The nose, an echo chamber par excellence, unable to add any meat or indeed any honesty. That laugh. Even the half-hearted titters of their colleagues held more truth, were a more real, genuine emotion than that laugh. On and on it came. Sure, the face, reddened, the breath, laboured, told a story of authenticity, of candid experience – but it was all belied by that laugh. The thinness, the lie – Paul gripped his desk with both hands, and

breathed out slowly. So she felt like she needed to put on airs? What was it to him? Monday afternoon, plenty of filing to do yet. Best get down to it.

 

The door swept through the tight space between the frame and the wall. Stupid design. Paul understood the need for privacy, but, c’mon…Hardly any time for the thought to register. The young man stepped into the lavatory, cold grey eyes, canine eyes, piercing the older man. Alien, hostile. As ever.

“Didn’t you read the sign?” Paul demanded angrily. The young man just grunted, not breaking the scorn-filled gaze.
“Look, there’s a sign right on the wall – ‘open with care’ – you nearly bloody hit me!”

A snort, and a shoulder lowered, the young man pushed through Paul on his way to the urinals – or would have.

What the fuck? Paul thought, and threw his heavier weight into the youth, jamming him up against the tiled wall.

A flash of surprise in the grey eyes, then – hands, opened, pushed back at Paul, knocking him out the entrance and into the room proper. A fist came next, catching Paul in the jaw. His head jerked back, straining the neck. His adversary rushed in, taking advantage of the successful blow. Grappling Paul about the waist, the two crashed into the duo of stalls, cheap ply-wood door rebounding off the adjoining wall with a hollow crak, swatting the two as they fell.

Paul took their combined weight, the young man falling on top of him and knocking the wind from his lungs with a sickening rush. Recovering first, the other man grabbed Paul by the collar, and lifting his head from the ground, smashed it into the lino-ed concrete of the floor. Stars burst into Paul’s already oxygen-starved vision. A second time. A fleeting moment of distress gripped Paul’s fogged consciousness. Perhaps…this had been a mistake.

An image of his foe above him, mouth set in rictus grin, not an iota of humour contained, icy grey eyes now warmed by bloodshot veins. Bunching Paul’s shirt in his fists, he made to strike the older man a third – and last – time.

Paul’s knee connected with all the force desperation could gather. Now it was his opponent who was winded, hands releasing their rigid grasp on the colour and cupping bruised testicles. Still underneath him, Paul heaved his opponent aside, floundering to regain his feet. Still woozy, he stomped down with all his force – and a shout – on his enemy’s right ankle. It snapped under his shod heel. The youth roared. It was the first sound either had uttered.

Stamping down on the bony mess, already unsteady, Paul lost his footing and fell on top of the young man. For his part, through the pain of his shattered ankle, the other man was able to twist about, and get his thin hands on Pauls throat. Vision began to narrow, with bright white spots dancing in the middle distance. Opponent straddled above him, pinning him to the floor with knees on ripped button-down.

Paul’s own hands, sweat-slick, slid off the shaven head of the youth, unable to find purchase. Weakening. Uncontrolled fluttering in the extremities. One last thrust, before the velvety darkness – and the pain of air rushing back into over-taxed lungs.

Toppled over, the other man’s face had smacked off the toiled seat, chipping several teeth. The shock of this, the ragged pain of exposed nerves, bought a moment of respite for Paul. Knowing he only had bare seconds before his younger, quicker, adversary was back on him, he lashed out with his left leg, catching the man between the stall’s dividing wall and the foot pressing in on the diaphragm, compacting organs against unyielding bone. A grunt was pushed from bloody mouth, Paul still gasping for air as he pushed harder and more forcefully. Shocked look in the eyes. Twin trails of blood leaking from mouth of ruined, jagged teeth.

Paul let up, staggering to his feet, feeling nauseous. His adversary was doubled up, coughing, trying to regain his own breath. Paul grabbed him by the back of his own white shirt – long ago soiled – and palmed his head with the other hand. Before he could think further about it, before he let his enemy struggle free, Paul slammed the head down onto the covered toilet bowl. The cheap stainless steel cleats gave way after the second hit, and the lid of the toilet clattered to the ground. The third smack echoed dully with splintering bone-on-porcelain. The fourth broke the bowl, rending the flesh of the cheeks, of the forehead.

 

As Paul closed the door of the machine, he felt a twinge of…not dissatisfaction, but, something like a lacking.

“When you’re done your session, d’you, d’you ever feel like it’s, y’know, not over?” Paul asked Karen sheepishly, rubbing a hand on the back of his head.
Looking up from the lettuce she was washing, looking directly at him – “ Not over…like how? The machine is set up to give the maximum release in the shortest amount of time, you know that!” Karen responded.

“I know, I know – the diagnostics and the psychological tests and all, I get it. But, you’ve never, I dunno, felt like the arc wasn’t finished yet, like the real unloading hadn’t happened yet?”

“Not sure. Impaled mom with a broken pool cue earlier this morning, and defenestrated Sara into rush-hour traffic. Fourth floor. Felt pretty good to me,” Karen said, a smile of remembrance flashing across her face. “Maybe it’s malfunctioning? We could get the technician in next week. You sure you don’t want to see Dr. Thorn, maybe?”
“No! No Thorn!”

“Okay, jeeze! No Thorn. We’ll call the tech, then.”

 

The lash sank into Paul’s flesh, not deep, not deep enough to scar, but enough to break the skin and sting in the subtle breeze. When it fell again, the man strained against his bonds, the leather creaking in response. Silence. She loomed up in front of him, pvc suit screeching as she minced.
“You know, if you want me to stop, all you have to say is ‘Ich möchte das Sicherheitswort, bitte und danke , Frau Brunhilde.’ That is all, you know.” She curled the whip in her hand.

Paul could only manage an “unnnghh” through the over-size rubber ball-gag, though he was able to drool copiously over his chin.
The woman stood looking down at him, as if considering her next move. With a smirk, she turned around abruptly, placing the still-wet whip on the desk behind her, and pulled out a medium-sized case, built of surgical steel. She plopped the case down on the table by Paul’s restraints with an element of childish glee, her meaty face crinkling under the troweled make-up. Initially, she opened it facing herself, out of Paul’s regulated line of sight. She took a moment, considering, and then she turned the case around with a smooth motion, revealing row upon row of needles, arranged in ascending length and circumference on a bed of synthetic black felt. Knowing the power of the imagination was on her side, the dom allowed Paul some time to consider the assortment of appliances in front of him. She teased him, pulling out needles at random, poking them into her own finger tips and showing him the dots of bright blood. Eventually, she decided on a barbed number – not the largest of the batch, but far from being the smallest, either. The several barbs cut into a side of the three inch rod prevented the needle from being pulled back out, once it had passed the first. From there, one would be committed to sliding the full length through the flesh, or to tearing it out.

She began on the back his left arm, twisting the needle with each fresh barb submerged. A bead of sweat rolled down Paul’s forehead, dropping into his right eye. Several more needles, of various sizes and wicked design, followed the first.

After half an hour had passed, the fleshy backs of both arms, as well as the skin of the stomach and gut, had all been pierced. Madame Brunhilde left the needles where she had threaded them – some running under the skin for barely a centimetre, others for nearly their full length. The most painful, the ones that caused the most bleeding, were the needles that she crocheted through the flesh, in and out and in and out, weaving as if in a macabre cross-stitch.

Drawing back to examine her handiwork, she was pleased by the cordouroy look of the rods beneath the skin. She ran a finger over one such path, relishing the studded feel of it, the compactness of the perforations. The needles, once pushed through the skin, left Paul with only a dull ache. It was the entrance that hurt most, and when ever he should flex the muscles underneath. And when they were touched, as now. Madame Brunhilde noticed the way Paul flinched as she ran a long red nail over a row, and continued with more vigour.
“Onf an alla loftamph!” Paul uttered, gag distorting his words. The woman drew back in surprise and a creak from her body suit.

“Did you say, you wanted the Lötlampe?”

“Anth! Anth!” he replied, anger on his blotchy face.

“Well, if you’re sure…”

She left the room, squeaking with each step. Minutes passed, and Paul began to wonder where she had gone, what she was doing. How long could it take to find whatever she needing to untie him? Ah, maybe she went to get some anti-microbial ointment, for taking out the needles. That must be it.

The creak of the pvc announced her return before Paul’s restrained head could see her. It was dampened, though, as if she were wearing something on top. When she did finally enter his field of view, he understood – at least the deadened sound. Brunhilde had put on a thick leather apron, and a blast-mask sat propped open on her oiled hair.

“Die Lötlampe!” she said with pride, displaying the blowtorch and it’s fuel canister. Paul rocked against his restraints, each motion sending a flare of agony through his metal-studded flesh.

“Nomph! Nomph!” he shouted, or, tried to.

“Ya, ya, ‘Now’ ‘Now’ – Madame Brunhilde hears you. I did not think you ready for the Lötlampe, it is reserved for very experienced customers – but, who am I to deny you when you seem so set on it, hmm?”

 

Paul found he was getting on much better at work. The small things didn’t dig so much, the little peccadilloes of his office-mates didn’t irk him like they used to.

 

The second week of his incarceration, the manacles had chafed Paul’s wrists raw. The constant rubbing of the iron, the dampness of the room, it left his skin water-logged. It sloughed off at the point of contact, a white paste. Chained, sitting, his hands bound to the wall above him, he had never felt pain like this – every moment was agony. By the next week, it had died down some, but he hadn’t slept a full night – or day – through. It seemed like every time he would doze off, that sadist of a guard would throw water in his face, or smash the tin bowl they served him slop in against the crumbling brick wall, or kick him in the stomach, or…his creativity knew no bounds. Enumerating the ways, the subtle ways, in which this bland-faced, dough-ball of a man tortured him, it was a way Paul used to pass the time. Not initially, nor, even, on purpose. It was just something he stumbled on, one of those increasingly trackless days.

The start of the third month, Paul noticed something a bit odd. Through the lancing pain of his wrists, bone exposed in places and flesh starting to blacken, he realised he couldn’t feel his hands. Not that any point of his body expressed more than a dull ache, aside from the wrists, but it was more like, they were simply absent.

He shifted his head to look, this becoming ever-more difficult with each day. A wave of nausea rolled over him with the effort. Riding it out, his fogged vision began to clear. He could make out a quivering, furred object above him. A noise cut through the fog, registering as a chittering, squeaking, deeply objectionable sound.

Mustering his weakened will, Paul shifted an arm. The squeaking, hairy objects scattered, and Paul passed out. Coming to several minutes later, and several minutes more after that to collect himself, he once again looked up at his chained arms. He couldn’t make sense of what he saw. The manacle on his wrist, blood and bone, and then the palm of his hand, and then…nothing.

Not quite nothing. His vision was as a weak as his will, and it took him a moment to adjust his gaze even though he had been the dark cell an eternity. Peering a distance of several feet was an unaccustomed effort, and just as taxing as shifting his head bobbling on his thin, chicken-like neck. At last he could make out shrivelled stalks that sprouted from his hand, translucent and a dull white. Bones! His finger bones! Stripped of flesh, with only the barest of tendons keeping them tied together.

 

The doorbell rang, startling Paul as he towelled his shower-damp hair. Hard, insistent knocking came on its heels directly. Quickly struggling into the pair of jeans sitting rumpled on the bed, he dashed down the stairs shouting “Alright, alright, I’m coming!”

Opening the door revealed two men, suited, wearing shades despite the overcast day. One, the taller, Caucasian, flashed an indecipherable badge, while his companion, Asian, said a perfunctory “Good evening Mr. Kozlovsky…?” slight nod from Paul. “May we come in?” Before Paul had time to respond, the two shouldered passed him. The taller man took to examining the contents of the room in earnest, while the second withdrew a manilla folder from the briefcase he was carrying, examining its contents and studiously ignoring the bewildered Paul.

“Look here, what’s this all about? You can’t just come barging in…” Paul said, irate.

The Asian man looked up from the sheets of paper, gaze locked on Paul through aviators. “On the contrary, Mr. Kozlovsky, we can do just that. It says here,” he indicated a sheet of paper, “and here,” another, “that you’ve seriously breached the EULA of the Imagi Corp. product you have on lease. You’re several hours over the holo-time limit for someone of your pay-grade. And, you’ve been tampering with the specs, haven’t you?” It was just a small change, a little adjustment here, a dial turned there…how did they know?

“Over-stepping your allowed time is one thing, there’re established ways you can make that up to the Corporation,” the man continued. “It’s the unauthorised adjustments that’re the real problem.”

“That’s some real sick shit you’ve been up to, Kozlovsky,” said the white man, a surprising tenor for all his height. “Real sick.”

“You knew, explicitly, what the Corporation’s Product was for, geared specifically for someone of your position and work. You knew, explicitly, that you couldn’t just go around making your own changes to software or hardware. I’ve got your signature to it, right here,” the shorter man pulled from his case a thick sheet of papers, minute font a wash at the distance of seven feet. “I’m afraid you’ll have to come with us.”

“What? This is ridiculous!” shouted Paul in surprise. “I’m not going anywhere – my wife is going to be home in an hour – we have an important dinner party to attend tonight –”

“Please don’t make this any more difficult than it needs to be,” the Asian man cut in.

“You’re coming with us, Kozlovsky,” his partner continued, “whether you like it or not.”

Shocked for a bare moment, Paul set his stance, looking from one adversary to another. He’d dealt with better than the pair of them, many times. Before he changed the output on the machine, he’d won every fight it threw at him. “Come and get me, then,” he said, cheesy line feeling right for the occasion. He bunched his muscles – and the expected adrenaline didn’t arrive. All the fights he’d been in, all the experience and the hard-won neural pathways, all the muscle-memory and raw aggression – it was all false. His body was just that, his, the body of an office clerk, not overweight, but neither athletic. He was no fighter, no hero.

ZZAT!

“Why is it always like this, eh, Xu?” the Caucasian man said, returning the taser to the under-arm holster as Paul twitched on the ground. “Makes you believe that shit they write about the Product in the papers – feeding false expectations and shit.”

Xu, standing above the prostrate Paul, said “You didn’t give ‘im too much, did you Steve? We don’t need another heart attack case on our hands. Here, help me get him to the car.”

Paul, for his part, couldn’t make out what the pair was saying, their words a mush of sound, an undulating roar then a speeding whistle. He did, however, feel the bite of the zip-tie as Steve cinched his wrists together. And it felt natural. It felt right, like something he’d been expecting for a long time. In the wash of pain, just before he lost consciousness, Paul felt happy.

The Portrait

The Portrait

The satin sheet slipped down Veronique’s side, her flesh dimpling in the evening air.

“You truly are the most exquisite of all my possessions,” Wilhelmus Offermans said, cupping the bare breast in his hand. “If only I could show you off, though! It’s your only failing.”

Slightly put-out, Veronique shifted in the man’s grasp. “You know, I was just talking to Maartje yesterday, and she was saying that,” she curdled her face, continued simperingly – “’her weinige Max was taking her to the schouwburg tomorrow night, wasn’t he just such a dear!’ How come Maartje gets to go to the theatre, and we always have to stay in? I want to go to the theatre, Wim! You could show me off at the schouwburg, alongside all the other Ladies!”

Offermans looked sidelong at the girl a moment, before raising his eyes to the ceiling in a long-suffering gesture. “Maximiliaan Dijkstra is a fool if he is willing to be seen in public with that hussy of his. His impudence will be the end of him, mark my words!” A fat finger stabbed the air for each of the last three words, as if to underscore. He shifted himself onto his side, turning back to Veronique. An affected look of distress, he implored “Don’t I give you money enough to enjoy the theatre when you wish? And all the other things your pretty breast could hope for? Do I not take care of you, better than any other man could?”

“Oh, Wim, you know I want for nothing!” Veronique cooed. “But I want other people know it!” She paused, a look of concentration troubling the habitually jejune face. “You’re right, that Maartje is a straatmeid. I’m not going to spend my time with her any longer. It simply wouldn’t do!” A renewal of the simper, mocking. “You know, when she isn’t opening herself up for Dijkstra, she’s double-timing with an artist, a painter! Just goes to show, I guess.”

Offermans’ roving hands paused in their self-directed wandering, a shrewd look screwing up his small eyes.
“Is he any good?”

“Eh? Why’d you stop? Hmm, who? Good at what?” Veronique answered confusedly.

“The hussy’s painter friend, is he any good?”

“Oh Wim, what do you want to know about that for? You think that I’d ask her about that?”

“No, no,” Wilhelmus said abruptly, “is he any good at painting?”

“Oh! How silly of me! Of course. Erm, actually, I think he might be. Maartje is always going on about how he’ll be famous one day, one day soon. As famous as van Rijn! As Vermeer! She always saying such things, but, there might be something to it, after all. My friend Ineke, you remember Ineke, you met her at the party back last Lent season, when she was with Meester van Arends? She told me that you were there, and that you and the Jonkheer spoke for almost an hour? Something boring about the price of dirt in Java – why are you always talking about such boring stuff, you men? Anyways, Ineke, she goes with Van Koeman sometimes – you know, the art dealer? – and he says that Van Peij, he’s one to watch. He’s the artist-friend of Maartje’s, Van Peij, that is…Oh!” Nascent astonishment crumpled her creamy brow. “Are you going to, going to get a painting…a painting of me?”

“No,” answered Offermans, a distracted look on his face, staring into the middle distance. Veronique abruptly sat up, crossing her arms huffily and breathing out her exasperation in a rush. Ignoring her, Wilhelmus continued “it’ll be of me…”

In contrast with the exceptional beauty of Veronique, Annelies, Wilhelmus’ genuine spouse, was a…well, comparison would be too generous a term for that. Head round and small like a bullet, balancing on an over-thick neck and crowned with pin-straight, thin blonde hair. Body unfit – pinched in some areas, flabby in others. It’s true, the enduring fashion did much to hide the lumpy body from sight, but Wilhelmus knew, he knew what lay underneath, and it only took a glance at Annelies’ trussed form to set him shuddering with disgust. Despite these physical drawbacks, this luckless frame, Annelies had not grown peevish with the passing of years and retained her docile, pliable nature. This only irritated Wilhelmus further – seeing the behaviour of a child played out by an ageing and undesirable woman’s manikin.
“It’s a good thing her family had connections,” the man thought to himself as he appraised her. She looked up at him from her sewing.

“Is anything the matter, dear Husband?” she asked, her eyes looking, as ever, on the verge of tears.

“No, nothing, Wife. I wanted to tell you, I was thinking of making a purchase, a large purchase.” Offermans examined his nails, noticing the dirt under them.

“Oh, well, if it comes to business matters, you know that I trust your judgement in every-”
“Not a business purchase, no,” the man overrode her. “No, this will be something for the house. Something, with luck, which will have a large impact on our lives – both of them!” Offermans pulled back his lips in something which was at best distantly related to a smile, looking, nonetheless, quite self-satisfied. “I’ll not give up the game yet, but, prepare yourself!” he said as he left the room. Annelies wasn’t sure why, but the wake of her husband stirred a sense of foreboding in her. But then, she was a woman whose natural state was one of apprehension. She returned to the mending.

 

“Confess! Confess your sins before the Day ends! Already the sun falls, signalling the lifting of the Son! The lifting of the Hand of Judgement! Every-man has his role to play – today is the day you abase yourself before your Lord and Master!” The doom-cryer, black cassocked, had a small crowd drawn around him. Rough breeches adorned the men’s calves, home-spun by the look of it, the bonnets of the women, more headscarves than calash, fuzzed a patina of ingrained dirt. You could readily tell that they were of an… unsavoury variety; probably boeren come in for a holiday in the city. The majority of people, like Offermans, crossed the Dam Square without paying the oratory heed. The new Town Hall, the work completed some short decades ago, dominated the space, it’s German sandstone already beginning to darken. Equally as impressive stood the Nieuwe Kerk, itself just having finished renovations. Why would anyone be attracted to a louse like that, thought Offermans, when you had a much more impressive demonstration of the faith in plain view? Not that even it held much attraction for him. But, assuming one were that way inclined…

Wilhelmus’ destination was neither of these two buildings, but rather the Weigh House in the centre of the Square. Passing the gaggle of rubes, a shout brought the burger up short, startling him out of his ruminations.
“Mijn Heer! Repent of your sins! No man is without them, but, without the admission of guilt, there is no chance of joining the Elect!”

“My conscience is my own, you harping sectarian! I’ll mind it myself!”

“Listen not to the heresies of the Remonstrants! Your fate is set! You hear me!? Set!”

But Offermans had already made the safety of the weigh house, the heavy oaken doors shutting out the shrill cries of the preacher. Now, to call in those debts…

 

At last, after months of anxious waiting, it was ready!

Offermans let out a decidedly undignified squeal as the courier read his message, quickly raising a heavily laced kerchief to his mouth to cover the impropriety. A deep-seated agitation took hold of him, a tremor thrilling in his chest. Perspiration dampened his brow, a flush crept along the tops of his heavy cheeks.
Despite the repeated trips to the studio, all of them met with a crossed arms and a barred door, he had half a mind to set off cross town that moment. A slight cough was heard from the corner; Heer de Schoonraad, witnessing the uncharacteristic agitation of Offermans, sought to give the man a moment to collect himself.

“Ah! What am I to do with that stuffed shirt?” thought Wilhelmus to himself, while saying aloud “Very good, very good. Return to your master and tell him I will visit his studio directly, to see the work for myself!”

“Het spijt me, Jonkheer, Heer van Peij, he tells me, ‘do not let Mijnheer trouble himself with a trip to our lowly studio, Piet! What does a man of his stature, his sierlijkheld, want to see a place of menial artisans for? No, tell him,’ that’s you, Heer van Peij, that he means, ‘tell him that portrait, it is only half-itself alone – it ought to be seen, especially at first, in its pride of place, de zijn heerschappij own house!’ That’s what he told me to tell you, zijn heerschappij.”

Wilhelmus had initially bristled at the frustration of his desire, but the wheedling of Piet, the second-hand flattery, had won him round. Aware that he had company, he forced a magnanimous
“Well now, you and your master think too highly of me – I am common-born, just as you, even if the Lord’s good fortune has raised me above my origin.” A glance towards the noble. “Perhaps I ought to follow Heer van Peij’s suggestion though. Artists, they have such exacting standards – but we must allow them their transgressions, mustn’t we, Heer de Schoonraad? How else can they provide us the fruits of their genius?”

“I’ve little truck with them, myself, Heer Offermans. So many of them have such frightful reputations. Mind you, if what they say of Van Peij is half-true, this portrait will surely be something. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to make an event of it?”

 

Wilhelmus liked the idea immensely. Three more days passed, and each one seemed an individual eternity to him. He didn’t attend to the business, but, this being a slow season, it mostly took care of itself. He only saw Veronique the once, to tell her the exciting, the excruciating, news. She expressed dismay that she couldn’t be there for the unveiling, which set Offermans off in a nervous peal of laughter. The idea of it! The Magistraat was to be there, and several senior members of the legal guild! And that’s not even mentioning the foreign dignitaries, whose attendance he had secured with such effort! Veronique was a beauty, to be sure, but the juxtaposition! She, best suited to her natural bareness, amongst that pile of periwigs, the mountains of lace, the sheer weight of pleated linen – it was too much! No, a more…private audience would be the thing for her. At some point when Annelies was safely away from the house.

 

“It is true, your wait has been long mijn Heer. However, I hope you agree, it has been worth it!” And with that, Van Peij pulled back the heavy drapery, revealing the painting behind.

At its sight, the assembled grandees broke into a restrained clapping, the appropriate response to an article of such mastery, a specimen of exacting artistry. Polite murmurings as Graaf Lorentz remarked to Magistraat Kuyper at his shoulder

– “Notice how the light draws attention to the face, how it sets the body in relief against the background!” and as the Marquis Valois exclaimed to Advocaat Kappel “Ah! Such work! Methinks Jonkvrouw Valois will soon be requesting a sitting, once word of this gets ‘round!”

As for Wilhelmus himself, he couldn’t have been more pleased – the portrait, framed in a dark mahogany, fit comfortably on the inner wall, extending from three feet off the floor to a foot shy of the moulding. His likeness dominated the room from this vantage, overseeing the collected goings-on.

And the rendering itself! Van Peij had elected for a standing figure of Wilhelmus, the full height of painting some 8 feet tall, the figure of Offermans in ratio. Positioned behind and to the left an elegant table, Wilhelmus’ be-ringed hand indicated a passage in a leather bound Bible, little finger extended outwards, ring finger slightly curled, middle and pointer resting on the book itself. Though upside down from the vantage of the viewer, one could easily read the passage indicated, Galatians 5:16,

 

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions…”

 

in a conservative, black print. A testament to the position Offermans had achieved, the honesty and guilessness with which he comported himself.

The opposite hand, the left, held a half-way filled purse with a twin set of thickly set keys resting atop, an obvious reference to Durer’s masterpiece. It was the face, however, that commanded most attention.

Van Peij had embellished Offermans features, drawing out the most august elements of the raw materials. The chin, strengthened, saw the reduction of three to two. A cleft dignified the space, where a dimple was barely present in original. The mouth, often petulant in life, was seen to be of a stern cast. An, if not severe, then certainly obdurate cut. The nose, tending towards bulbous in the original, had lost its parti-coloured nature, and become the prow of a patriarch. The eyes, though, the eyes! Thunder lived in that glance, judgement most cruel and piercing. Wilhelmus himself sported a pair of moleish eyes, close-set, and black of pupil. The eyes of the portrait, though, were the eyes of command. Even in space, direct of gaze, they judged all they beheld, and found it wanting. Righteous eyes, set into a face that supported them in their honourable program. The glare of those beams followed one throughout the room – there was nary a place one could hide from that silent upbraiding.

Upon first reveal, Offermans was at a loss for words – the visage was more reminiscent of his father than himself, that stern, Calvinist paterfamilias, raising his progeny from the lowly muck of their ancestors. For a moment, only, he felt a chill upon his spine, once more under the censorious glare of those judging eyes of his youth. Quickly though, this shudder of worry translated itself into pride – pride that his own visage could provide the base for such a strong, commanding impression. Pride that – and this, this was him! – that he could impose such an imposing presence.

“Heer Offermans,” Magistraat Hoedemaeker said, firmly shaking him by the hand, “a closer likeness I’ve hardly seen in portraiture before this day! Wise choice, wise choice engaging Heer van Peij in this endeavour!”

Wilhelmus strode forward after acknowledging the Magistrate’s compliment, his stout frame crossing the space between himself and Van Peij in short order. He grasped the smaller man by the forearm in a strong grip.

“Never, mijn Heer, have I seen such Truth portrayed in Art! Not even van Rijn himself was able to capture such honesty! You have done me much favour with this rendering!”
The next fortnight was spent in a state of airy exultation, brought on by the new possession. It’s true, Wilhelmus had paid a princely sum for the portrait, but didn’t the mere sight of it dispel any question of excess in the price? To glance at it was to recognise its worth, and to gaze long was to discover the secrets hidden within: the subtle brushwork that brought the skin to life, a flush of colour here, a dimpling effect there – the way the cast of light, augmented by the clever placement of the portrait within the study, seemed to give a physical presence to the image, a corporeality matched by the domineering nature.

Word spread amongst the gentles of Amsterdam more quickly than one would have thought possible. The Advocaat Jansen could be heard declaiming the mastery of it to Judge Dijkstra while lunching at their club, it was the subject of a salon thrown by the gallophile Jonkvrouw de Ruiter, even the lower orders spoke of it – overhearing their Betters, clerks gossiped over it during snatched meal breaks, artisans intoned with open jealousy the luck bestowed on one of their own. If there was any doubt left, this had proven Van Peij’s worth as a master-painter – he was positively inundated with commissions within the first week alone. The prices cast about, each of the competitors trying to edge out the others, spiraled to preposterous levels.

 

When Wilhelmus was not entertaining guests, expected or otherwise, he spent his time alone in the study. Alone, save for the portrait – his double. Together they would stare at one another, the one no less intent than the other, as if in silent communication. All the time spent in its proximity, the painting became an obsession for the man – it would haunt his dreams, when he was away from his home he would fret over its security. It was so famous now, why think it far-fetched that someone should steal it? To prevent this, he had the locks retooled throughout the house. He went so far as to hire a doorman, a luxury the Offermans’ had thus far gone without. When Annelies questioned this uncharacteristic abandonment of frugality, Wilhelmus waved it off, saying:
“Of course, you are correct, wife – the expense is an additional one. But, think, over the past month we have seen the best of Amsterdam come through our humble door – while we may be able to get on fine ourselves, these high people, they expect fine things, gilt experience. In fact, we stand to lose out if we do not supply these expectations! Continued congress with these people, who knows what will come of it? Business prospects, of a certain, but also those intangible benefits of gentle association – invitations to concerts, private gatherings, the best our fine society has to offer! So, you see, this is an expense we cannot not pay!”

Placated by this line of argument, Annelies bobbed her round head. “I had thought, you know, on top of already having a maid in the house – so unusual for people of our standing! – a doorman would be seen as…extravagant. As ever, husband, you have shown me the truth of the matter. Lord be praised for our Good Fortune!”

In his fervour, Wilhelmus has half-way convinced himself, still laughing it off whenever he was suddenly gripped by anxiety, not willing to believe the hold the painting had gained over him.

Upon returning to trade, Wilhelmus began to express uncharacteristic laxity. He was renowned for the fervour with which he pursued the best compromise for himself. Now, however, it was as if he was half-way distracted by something, as if the behaviour were rote, rather than earnest. It was even seen, not very often, it is true, but startling even in its irregularity, that someone got the best of Offermans. His colleagues, who had seen his temper innumerable times, expected a fantastic show on these occasions. Alas, they were disappointed. When the man noticed that he’d lost out on a deal, he usually accepted it with admirable equanimity, if making a reaction at all. The truth was, with every gainful transaction he made, Wilhelmus would feel a twinge of guilt, totally alien to him before now. A subconscious timorousness began to build, undermining his latent aggression.

Offermans began to have trouble sleeping. When alone at night, he was often assaulted by fits of nervousness – the room seemed to tilt on its side, his breath grew short. Always, underneath it all, was the feeling that he was hunted, that he had done a wrong and, despite their smiles and easy manner, all knew, and judged. Offermans’ initial thought was that he had simply been working himself too hard. Early winter was always difficult, the monsoon turning over in earnest in Batavia. The more clandestine dealings he had out Manila-way, while not the majority of his shipping, were hugely lucrative, and ships could be lost in sudden typhoon with little warning. Chalking it up to getting on in years and an accordingly weakening constitution, Offermans resolved to relax. More time spent with Veronique, less on business matters.

One afternoon, while balancing his ledger in the study, Wilhelmus suffered an attack. His vision narrowed to a tunnel, a roar of white noise deafened him, and he fainted on to his desk, body convulsing. The crash caught the attention of the footman Seegers, who, of course, was stationed not far down the hall. Seegers set to making Offermans as comfortable as possible and a doctor was immediately called for. The patient having come to but still muddled, the doctor could not determine anything more precise than a generalised anxiety.

That is, until Wilhelmus’ semi-delirious eyes came to rest upon the portrait on the opposite wall. A shout ejected itself from drawn lips, and the man once more sunk into unconsciousness.

“You, man!” the doctor said to Seegers, “We must convey your Master from this room. I do not know what manner of dominion the painting has over the poor fellow – it is a disease of the mind, one that I am ill-equipped to diagnose or combat. For now, though, take the odious thing from this place. You’ve seen the effect it has on him!”

Offermans was carried by the two men, the doctor hoisting him from under the arms, Seegers holding the legs, up the stairs and to his bedchamber, a sallow and distraught Annelies looking on. Depositing the prostrate Handelaar there, the doctor left, admonishing Seegers to fetch him once more if the symptoms persisted. Seegers, then, returned to the study.

He looked up at the portrait. The stern face of Offerman’s archetype looked down at him. Growing uncomfortable under the superior will, the footman sniffed nervously and set about the painting’s removal. With the aid of Annelies’ maid, the portrait was transferred to the attic, a heavy drapery enshrouding it.

Offermans was bed-ridden following the attack. The doctor returned on the second day of his convalescence, in order to look in on the patient. And present his bill.

“Yes, Heer Offermans, I do believe it to be the portrait that has brought on this attack. I can’t fathom why it might be, or what about it has conjured forth such uncharacteristic behaviour, but it seems clear. The way you reacted to it, there is no doubt left in my mind that it plays an important role. Now, about that fee…”

Wilhelmus had been agitated and feverish following the incident. The revelation as to the probable cause, though, felled him. He had been nearly ready to resume his usual affairs, but, following the departure of the doctor, he remained abed a further three days and nights.

Images of the portrait floated in his overwrought mind, always glaring. A crystalline clarity took hold of Offermans during the course of these visions. Of course it was the portrait! How could he have not seen it before now, before it struck near-mortally?

“But, who, who has done this to me?” he rambled. “Whose idea was it, whose idea to load me with such a malevolent article, an accursed object? Ah! Ah! I remember now! I see it! It was Veronique, the lichtekooi! It was she that mentioned that diabolist Van Peij – it was her idea altogether! Ah! What a fool I’ve been! She, she’s probably lain with him, just like that onzedelijke friend of hers!” His fevered internal ravings carried on like this for the whole period, souring a heart already clotted with lucre.

When he had finally shaken off the acute symptoms of his condition, his first action was to pen a letter. Sitting at his desk, still faint, he wrote to Veronique, the blank space on the wall opposite trumpeting its bareness. He told her that he knew of her treachery, of her duplicity. He now saw her for the Jezebel she was, how she had used him, gorged herself on the stuff of his naïve kindness, his hard-earned money. No more. There would be no further support, and no further contact. He was cutting all ties, and hoped that she choked on the bitterness of her reward, her hex turned against herself. Catching a theme, he finished the letter saying that it was only, only, the kindness of his Christian heart, and his belief in, even if he couldn’t muster his own, Divine Forgiveness that prevented him from publicly naming her a witch, and inciting The People against her. Let her think on that, the next time she should set her sights on some hapless, honest man.

Next, he had Seegers bring the portrait back down to the study. Grudgingly, the footman complied. Sweating from the strain of carrying the large painting down the three flights of stairs himself, the man heaved it on to the ground with a grunt.

“Good. Thank you, Seegers. Very good.” Wilhelmus said, curtly, absently. “Now, please leave me.”

The man, looking from the painting to his Master and back, nodded once and left the room, closing the door behind him. For a time, Offermans stood looking at the portrait, hands balled into fists as he leaned on the desk. Given the height differential, the portrait glared down from a superior position, smug, condescending. The original felt his face redden, thinking – this is ridiculous! It’s only a blasted painting, after all! And yet…

A twitch started thrumming in Wilhelmus’ right eye. His hand snatched out, grabbing up a stray penknife from the desk as he shifted himself around its dividing bulk. Seven strides and he had closed the distance. A slash, from left corner diagonal, cut across the face. A further stroke rent the body. A stab, a second stab, and the knife struck the wall through the canvas, shuddering from the man’s grasp. Stretching out his arms to their utmost, he grabbed the portrait by the frame, and, lifting it, drove it into the adjacent fireplace. Wedged, he smashed at it, until it had folded itself into the space. The fire, banked, licked at the well-oiled fabric as Offermans stood panting and sweating. A trick of the assault had left the over-large face of the portrait looking back up at its model, patronising even in defeat. Wilhelmus shuddered, and, wheezing, left the room.

Several weeks passed, and Offermans was seen to recover, mentally and physically. However, word of his aberrant behaviour began to circulate, and his nascent social vibrancy sharply declined. These things being intimately connected, his business contacts began to dry up, as well. When invitation to a soiree arrived after a month’s time, even though he would have deemed this set beneath him but a season ago, Wilhelmus jumped at the opportunity.

The evening was thrown by Jonkvrouw de Ruiter, and was populated by her bohemian coterie. Presenting his card, Wilhelmus and Annelies were escorted and presented by the de Ruiter footman. Set in a handsome double-wide canal house in the Golden Bend, one of several de Ruiter residences, the party took place in a broad drawing room. A cut crystal chandelier augmented the candelabra scattered about the space, filling the area with a scintillating yet warm light. The Offermansen had arrived late enough that the room was already abuzz with conversation, and yet not so late as to offend proprieties.

The evening was getting on well, Wilhelmus had spoken with many of his friends of yester-month, and felt that he had allayed their fears, set to rest their doubts. Things might be back on the up-swing, after all, he felt.

Coming up on half-ten, Van Peij arrived. He was greeted with cheers, this being an unusually demonstrative slice of Amsterdam’s high-society. Offermans’ heart sank as his face reddened. While his own winter had been filled with misery, sickness and neglect, the artist had gone from success to success. Libertine, his painterly prowess had prevented the puritanical of society from castigating him. He was, in fact, the man of the hour.

The artist was caught in a rush of people – it seemed everyone in attendance wanted to be first to greet him, to receive a kind word of recognition. The man’s inebriated state was clear from the emphatic manner in which he responded to the jovial and excited salutations. After several minutes of this, however, he caught sight of Wilhelmus sheepishly ensconced in a far corner. Extricating himself with difficulty from well-wishers, the man cut across the hall. As the attendees noticed the development, a hush fell across the crowd.

“So, the Iconoclast has come out of hiding at last, has he?” Van Peij called out in challenge. Turning back to the crowd, who were still massed at the double doors of the entrance, he continued “For this is an Inconoclast, is it not? I am but a humble artisan, it is true, but I, in the work that was commissioned by our Heer Offermans, created a Truth, a Truth which he saw fit to destroy!”

Offermans, for his part, said nothing. The few people left around him sidled away. His flushed complexion merely blanched, leaving him a pallid yellow.

Lifting an accusatory finger, Van Peij continued “View it or no, display it or not, I would have no quarrel with the man. The portrait was his possession, paid for fairly and timely. Its rank destruction, though? Such is the act of a squalid cretin; we have a base philistine in our midst, a beastly creature, do we not?”

How could Wilhelmus explain to them all, explain the way this artist, this sorcerer, had enchanted the painting with such malevolence? How could he tell them how this was all a twisted scheme concocted by the two of them, this rakehell and the slattern? He fled the scene, dragging with him his confused, but complacent, wife.

“Who amongst you has not sinned? We have all sinned, brothers and sisters, in the eyes of the Lord!”

Gripped by an external force, feeling as if he were just as much a bystander as the family across Damstraat, the mother vainly trying to shoo her children along, as the shop goers he and Annelies had just passed by, Wilhelmus shouted out

“I have sinned!”

People turn to look, their interest piqued in a manner shut to the rantings of a doom cryer. The voice of Wilhelmus, though, oleaginous with dignity, struck an unusual note – what was this man doing? Was this a bit of cruel sport? But, surely, surely such would be beneath a man of readily apparent standing! As people turned to look at what was going on, others, freshly arrived, noticed the diverted attention of those around them and sought out the focus for themselves. The crowd grew, as if out of an internal volition.

Offermans was blind to it. He couldn’t feel the tug on his coat sleeve as Annelies pulled at him, whispering with thin lips – “Wilhelmus, people are looking! We must go! Don’t say anything more!” her eyes rolling like a startled horse.

Offermans couldn’t even see the face of the itinerant preacher, who had turned to look at him, saying “Confess your sins, Brother! God is everywhere, and will hear your confession! No doubt of it, your fore-doom is set – but – this may be the moment that your life turns a corner, where you step into His Holy Light!”

It wasn’t the preacher’s voice he heard, nor was it the preacher’s face he saw. It had been replaced, replaced by the sombre tones that tugged at his memory, a vague recognition of his father, replaced by the face of – of the portrait! The portrait he had destroyed, seen burned to ash, months ago!

“I have sinned!” Offermans repeated. The preacher gestured, egging him on. “I have committed the sin of Adultery! Wanton, I have suffered terribly for my sin!” Annelies’ slack hand dropped off Wilhelmus’ coat-sleeve. In her naivete, this was the first she learned of the Other Woman. “The Jezebel struck at me, giving rise to you, my Judger! I see now that it is useless to run…”

“Adultery is a grave sin, brother,” said the evangelist, “but, if God our Lord has so ordained it, you shall be made clean. Your recognition is what is impor-” Wilhelmus cut him off.

“I have sinned!” he shouted out. Annelies drew away from him, backing tentatively into the crowd.
“Is that what you want?” the man shouted. “I’ve sinned, I tell you! I am a usurer! Oh, how many the times I leveraged my position, my superiority, and caught those who came to me in need, just as the spider catches the fly? I sucked their life blood, I tell you! I ate them, as the mouse, exhausted by torment, is finally ravaged by the cat! I am no better than a Jew, a Money-lender in the Temple!” Angry murmurs were heard from the crowd. There were those that had friends, family members, ruined by this manner of conduct.

“Give up your sins, brother, for no sin is too great for God’s forgiveness! Let His benevolence shine on y-”
“A third time, I have sinned!” Offermans sank to his knees, face thrust upwards, unseeing eyes fixed on the distance. “I am a traitor! I have consorted with our enemy, that Popish horde, that vile oppressor, the Spanish! I have traded with them, I have provided them succour, I have profited from their victories, and known their losses! I have secretly spat on the Orange of Nassau, time and again, cursing the Free State in my heart! I have sinned, I tell you!” The murmurings of the crowd swelled to shouts of anger and surprise.

The man keeled over, hand clutching his breast. His blackened heart, in the unburdening of its misdeeds, had burst its bonds. Wilhelmus Offermans lay on the flags before the weighhouse which had once seen such lucrative gains for him, dead to this world.

Prologue – Worthy Intentions

Prologue:

Worthy Intentions

…death toll

continues

to/rise

as…State

Defence units clash with

forces of the eco-terrorist group

Reaccion Salvaje

on the outskirts of

Mexico City…

The scroll of the closed captioning threaded in fits and jerks along the bottom of the screen, trying to keep up with the news anchor. The content of the broadcast was jarringly out-of-sync with the happy-go-lucky, all American blonde behind the desk. John placed his mug in the coffee machine, dialing in the code for a double espresso.

CIA warns that

thegroup

may be in possession of

Weapons of Mass

Destruction

and

has

been put to the top of the

list

of international terrorist groups.

Media the…group

has/released/to the-internet

as early as last year

certainly indicates their

intention…of purchasing or

stealing

whatever Nuclear materials

they could.

Now to

theweather.

Looks like it’s going to be a

-nother unseasonably hot

day-in-the

Twin Cities,

with a high of

112°…

With a final hiss, the coffee machine released the pressure built up. John gingerly took the mug, navigating the scattered chairs and tables of the break room. Returning to his cubicle, he noticed a Fed-Ex envelope waiting for him on his desk, FRAGILE written across the top in block letters.

“Hey, Suzie, you, er, you do the mail run early-like, today?”

“What’s that, John? The mail? No sir-ee, wasn’t me, no two-ways about it,” colleague called back to him. “Mail’s not usually in till, oh, 10:30, most days. Sometimes not even 10:45, don’tcha know?”

“Hmm, sure is early, today, then…”

John sat down, envelope in one hand, placing the mug on the desk with the other. Noticing the framed photo behind the cup, he was struck by sudden realisation that this weekend Jenny’s mother would be coming in from Florida – though why she’d come now, in this heat, was mystery to John. Guess he’d have to reschedule that fishing trip…and, anyways, Lake Calhoun’s water level had dropped precipitously in this heat-wave…

Still thinking about his ruined plans, John absent-mindedly tore open the envelope. The contents spilled out, careening off the side of the desk on their way to the floor. John looked down at the broken glass vials, saying “Now what in the he-”

His head thudded to the desk as the sarin gas spread throughout the open-concept office. By the time Suzie slumped over her the arm of her chair, a thin stream of blood issued from John’s nose. Its path curved as it travelled the desktop, dripping off the side and pooling amidst the canisters. The blood sparkled a bright red, the same shade, the exact hue of the logo on the mug – Minneapolis Nuclear Research and Development.