“But I’m an entertainment reporter,” I protested. “I don’t cover crime scenes.”

“I know what you are,” snapped Sturlsson. “I sign your paychecks, remember? But this is a big deal, exactly the sort of thing I need to haul the paper out of red ink for the year, and it has an entertainment angle. So you’re on assignment with Baxter and Rodriguez. The address is in your email; I expect you there in 20 minutes.”

“Just…Steve, will you just do me the common goddamn courtesy of telling me what’s going on?”

Sturlsson made a noise halfway between a sign and a groan. “Okay, fine, whatever. You know Candon Verbridge?”

I knew him, all right. An auteur director, dozens of films under his belt, most with buckets of gore and loads of sex. Critics generally loved him because his movies weren’t cookie cutter products of a Hollywood that saw fit to stamp out two trilogies’ worth of Transformers. I hated him because I tended to faint at the sight of band-aid worthy cuts; my ex-girlfriend can fill you in on the sex part.

“Yeah,” I said. “His movies never make more than 30 million but I always get loads of hate mail when I pan them.”

“Some of your better work,” Sturlsson said with the air of delivering a magnanimous–if forced–compliment. “Controversy sells papers and generates clickthroughs. Anyway, Verbridge has a vacation home outside of town.”

“Candon Verbridge had a vacation home outside of town?” I cried, a little aghast that the director I panned might have been just a few miles away.

“Nobody knew, apparently. But they will soon.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “Someone burgled Verbridge’s cabin, he had to call the cops, and now that the secret’s out, you want me to talk to him while he’s still in shock.”

“Well, you can talk to him if you want,” said Sturlsson, “but I don’t expect he’ll answer. He’s dead. Murdered. Real bloody one by the sound of things, but I have an in with the sheriff and I need someone who knows what the hell he directed as part of the write-up. So you’re in.”

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We found another cavern today, the same as the previous two. It appeared to have been hollowed out by water action, and indeed a small flowing pool appeared at the far end, fed from a spring seeping through the porous limestone from up above. It had been our hope to follow the sound of water back to the surface, but it’s clear that without heavy equipment we can’t make it through.

I’ve taken to calling the three caverns “The Pearls” as they are strung out along a series of linear tunnels. We’ve noticed that the spring water is warm; that and a smell of sulfur occasionally in the air tells me that we’re near some kind of geothermal spring or magma chamber. The danger there is twofold: first that we stumble into a steam geyser or other hazard, and second…

I haven’t mentioned this to any of the group, but the geological survey didn’t indicate any geothermal activity in the area. Surely they all read the report as thoroughly as I did before the cave-in; surely they are all thinking the same thing that I am.

“The Pearls” shouldn’t exist. No system on earth, and certainly not in the area we surveyed before descending, could carve the natural formations we’ve stumbled upon. With food running low and not sign of daylight for nearly a week…I can only hope that someone finds my scribblings here useful in determining the what, and the where, and the why.

For I simply cannot.

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11:47 pm: “Attention arriving Columbia Airlines Flight 1337 passengers: if you are the owner of a large suitcase full of powerful hallucinogens, please see the red bird with a handlebar mustache at gate A1 to reclaim your property.”

12:02 am: “Attention Columbia Airlines Flight 1066 passengers: there has been a gate change. Your flight is now departing from Gate π-x in Terminal β. I repeat, Columbia Airlines Flight 1066 is now departing from Gate π-x in Terminal β.”

12:36 am: “A reminder to all passengers from the Hopewell Tri-County Airport: The terminal is a tobacco-free building and no firearms are permitted. So don’t let us catch you with a smoking gun, or things will get really bad.”

1:45 am: “The Hopewell Tri-County Airport rental counters will be closing in 15 minutes. Anyone who has been living on borrowed time is hereby requested to return it or be charged for an extra day.”

“That’s Sean for you,” said one of the baggage handlers, shaking his head. “It’s a good thing the boss goes home at 5, or he’d have been fired years ago. What do you suppose he’s on tonight? The sauce? The dope?”

“What isn’t he on is more like it,” his co-worker sighed. “Makes the late shift a little more colorful, at least.”

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Did you hear the one about John Occam?

No, what about him?

After he got divorced, his wife sued him for parsimony.

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The parley has gone down in history for its sharp exchange between the two adversaries, who actually met face-to-face to discuss terms. Hierophant Maryam, whose followers fought for what they perceived as a holy cause, offered what he considered to be generous terms:

“If His Majesty the Crimson Emperor consents to surrender his imperial capital,” Maryam said, being careful to use the submissive and courtly language to which the Emperor was accustomed, “and take up the mantle of the New Order, His Majesty will retain his throne and his former lands will be restored. He will be as an earthly vassal to the New Order, which takes its divine orders from the skies above.”

“In other words, if I give you what you have not yet been able to win by conquest, you will permit me a gilded cage,” said Emperor Seleucus IX. “It is not for me to decide the fate of my people based on my own personal comfort, and not for me to dictate that they accept your heresy.”

“If His Majesty chooses to see the offer that way, that his his prerogative,” replied Hierophant Maryam. “However, conquest by the troops of the New Order should be the least of His Majesty’s concerns. For you see, with your city blockaded, His Majesty stands vulnerable to an attack from my two most powerful allies, General Hunger and Major Sickness.”

“I choose to see only what is actually before me,” huffed Seleucus IX. “If you are so sure of your officers General Hunger and Major Sickness, let them meet my allies Colonel Wall and Colonel Castle and see who is the stronger.”

The two men never met again. Seleucus IX died nine months into the siege of the Crimson City of a plague that swept through the defenders. It fell to his son and successor, Seleucus X Ultimus, to lead the Crimson Empire to its final defeat at the end of the siege, cut down in his throne room leading the last of his personal guard against the besiegers. Hieropant Maryam, for his part, was killed by an assassin three days after the city was captured; the assassin’s brother had starved to death among the New Order troops during the hard second winter of the siege.

The reorganization of the former Crimson Empire into the Dominion of the New Order was left to Maryam’s chosen successor Hierophant Isak, who proclaimed the Dominion from the Emperor’s former balcony. “Let us not forget that hunger and sickness, wall and castle claimed even the lives of the most prominent among us,” he said in his address, “and go forth into the future resolved to be united as one body in the Duality of Argna the Protector and Atneps the Destructor, reserving warfare only for the furthering of Their sacred mission to bring Their New Order to the four corners of the globe.”

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CARL: This is Carl Drake, play-by-play commentator for NBS Broadcasting, coming at you live from the NBS College Sports Channel’s telecast of the University of Northern Mississippi’s season opener against New Orleans State University.

TOM: That’s right, Carl. This is Tom Hicks, color commentator for NBS Broadcasting, banished along with my co-commentator to the risible National College Sports Association sports circuit as a punishment for our transgressions against our corporate overlords.

CARL: I wouldn’t call it risible, Tom. At least everyone on the field today is passionate, and some of the athletes might avoid major injury long enough to become second-string players on a minor Continental Football League team with strictly regional appeal.

TOM: That’s right, Carl, I should be grateful that they didn’t stick us back on the high school athletics scene. And the sight of those indentured athletes, playing without compensation so that their universities and the NCSA can reap profits not seen since the days of Crassus the Triumvir.

CARL: It’s of special note today that this is the first season that UNM is playing with its new mascot and team name, the UNM Fighting Abolitionists. You can see Johnny Freesoil the Fighting Abolitionist on the field now, capering about in an attempt to drown out the jeers thrown at him by an unresponsive crowd.

TOM: That’s right, Carl. The UNM team was previously known as the Raiders, with Johnny Raider as their swashbuckling mascot. But the name and mascot both engendered controversy, largely because they were thought to be named after Hextrill’s Raiders, a notorious band of Confederate partisans and bushwhackers who fought the Union along the Tennessee-Mississippi border.

CARL: You sound somewhat dismissive of that, Tom. I don’t have to remind you that Johnny Raider was a Confederate cavalryman in fully butternut grey dress with saber and pistol–an anachronism, as Hextrill’s men never worse uniforms–who routinely chased a caricature of Philip Sheridan off the field–another anachronism, as Sheridan fought solely in the Eastern theater of the war.

TOM: That’s right, Carl. While I don’t deny that the old name and especially the old mascot weren’t in the best taste, in their haste to mollify everyone they managed to come up with a name and mascot that strike even this card-carrying Democrat as cloying. Better for them to ape the University of Michigan to become the Fighting Letter Ms.

CARL: Fair, enough, Tom, fair enough. What do you say we talk a bit about the game? It looks like someone just made a touchdown or something.

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It’s well-known even in casual circles that the modern bathroom, sanitary though it may be, is a poor match for the modern splendor that surrounds it. The seats are uncomfortable, the white porcelain stains easily, urinals are barely a step above the old Roman urinam situla, and the lack of women’s bathroom space is well-known.

Less well-known is the source of all this suffering.

For you see, the current status quo is maintained not by any law of nature or efficiency, but rather by a shadowy cabal. Made up of fixture manufacturers, toilet contractors, industrial designers, and sewermen, this group directs the policies of bathroom design and construction with an invisible hand from the shadows. Profit is a motive, naturally, but also an ancient and quasi-mystical belief that excretion must be made as uncomfortable as possible that humans might grow to no longer require it.

The group has no name, but to many they are nevertheless known as the Bathroominati.

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