July 2010


A certain young man once bought a video game, despite its glowing reviews and rabid fans on the inter-web. Putting it in, he soon noticed a curious occurrence–the hour and minute hand on his wristwatch seemed to spin somewhat faster than before, and the cosmic ballet above his humble abode proceeded to dance doubletime as night followed day dar quicker than it ought. The young man was as a starving man at a banquet, ever craving more until the last drop was savored and done.

Upon finishing and feeling the solemn pride that comes with victory (as well as the bittersweet taste that comes with the end of many things), the young man went outside and spoke of his experience to friends.

“You have wasted your time!” said they. “While you lolled about in front of a screen, you could have been composing a sonnet, or painting a picture. We have been reading great works, and singing songs, and living, while you have been shackled to your set with the vacant stare of a simpleton?”

The young man thought on this. At length, he replied: “The worlds I have visited are no less unreal than any I could read or create myself. They are all equal in their untruth. And I am as inspired as I have ever been; a dozen new worlds may have their origins in that which I have seen, those for whom I have cared, though they be not real.”

Some were swayed by these words, others not. But the young man soon acted on them, and proved, at least to himself, that he had spoken truly.

The Range Rover was an official vehicle of the Botswana government, and had felt more than its share of shimmering waves of heat, broken by the occasional cloudburst or rondo of dust. The bright chrome “RANGE ROVER” letters on the tailgate had grown broken and pitted; letters and parts of letters had been shorn away, leaving the proud veteran labeled a “HANG OVER.”

Karibu noted this with some bemusement as the vehicle pulled up to the Francistown hostel where she’d crashed. After all, if it hadn’t been for last night’s revelry at Tsepo’s Bar and Grill, she never would have met the British survey crew that had agreed to give her a lift into the African sandveld.

Their leader, a wiry man named Nigel, threw Karibu’s faded knapsack in the expedition’s trailer and seated her in the Rover’s cabin between two members of his crew. The air reeked of sweat and old cigarette smoke.

The Rover had been bouncing along for twenty minutes, the concrete Francistown giving way to brown grass and acacia, when Nigel turned to Karibu and offered up a toothy smile. “Apologies, love,” he said, “but my boys didn’t give me your name when they told me we’d be giving you a lift to Shinamba.”

“I call them ‘Foods from the Public Domain.'” Percy said. “We can trade on terms with excellent market penetration without having to pay royalties of any kind!”

With a flourish, he unveiled the placards at the head of the board room.

“Don Quixote’s Darn Quick Oaties: Nourishing microwavable whole oat cereal for the all-day energy to take on any windmill!”

“Daniel Dafoe’s Robinson Croutons: A fresh Caribbean island paradise salad, good for every day of the week, not just Friday!”

“Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peas: Heart-healthy legumes with a generous helping of spice to ward off the bite of General Winter!”

Katya’s idea was to craft an epic tale around characters who had each mastered one of the six senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste, and the psychic sixth sense. In addition to giving the tale a Kurasawa-esque scope, juggling a narrative between so many characters and viewpoints virtually guaranteed something to scribble about; goodbye, writer’s block!

Most of the characters practically created themselves. Sight would have to be an eagle-eyed, reticent marksman, a crack shot with bow or rifle (Katya hadn’t decided between a high fantasy or steampunk setting yet), and most likely the member of an ancient oft-oppressed group that would have to be invented. Tall, dark, and handsome, of course.

Mr. Smell would be a werewolf, or perhaps only raised by wolves since Katya was always very concerned about accusations of trendy bandwagon-jumping. Regardless of his precise origins, he’d be savage and animalistic, eschewing weapons for tooth and nail yet concealing a deep and soulful well of feeling. He would be cleaned up, erect, and in a pressed and starched garment by adventure’s end, no doubt.

The Hero of Hearing would be blind, either a Zatoichi-type veteran warrior or an up and coming young prodigy but definitely blinded by a tragedy. The Hearo would be the understanding type, never judgmental but always supportive and humorous.

Touch was a bit hard to wrap her head around, but Katya conceived of him as an ascetic monk who could set up deadly vibrations in opponents simply by touching them. The Touch of Death would be too difficult to control, leaving him unable to touch another human being for fear of accidentally turning them to jelly in what Katya thought was a deliciously original and complex twist.

Psychics were easy; Katya’s would be a wisecracker, always interrupting people to tell them what they’d been about to say, very superior but at the same time concealing a tortured yet generous heart. There was no final decision of the cause of his condition; alien abduction, genetic mutation, and an ancient Amun-Ra curse were all viable candidates.

Despite all that, she simply could not wrap her head around the last Sensible Hero, taste. How did a sense of taste, superhuman or no, translate into a hunky and conflicted warrior? He couldn’t very well go around licking things, and a Beefeater made for a poor quest-hero even when she allowed for the possibility of carnivorous ravens at beck and call.

Geraldine thrust out her hand. “Bring me The Marshmallow.”

An electric wave rippled through the assembled percussionists. The Marshmallow! It had the ring of a holy relic to it. Deerton High could barely afford toilet paper, let alone fine instruments for its marching and concert bands; whatever funds bubbled up tended to be allocated for new sports uniforms in the vague hope that they could lead the team to a position higher than 38th out of 40 in the division. The last band allocation, five years ago, has mostly gone toward renegotiating the terms of instrument rentals, but $100 had been earmarked for percussion, and out of that had come eight new drum heads and The Marshmallow.

Nejm removed The Marshmallow from its protective drawer and placed it reverently in Geraldine’s outstretched mitt. A genuine Ludwig-brand bass drum mallet, it had the appearance of a fresh ‘mallow on an abnormally thick spit, prime for roasting. The first thump of the drum resounded throughout the room, and impressed both factions of drummers into silence. The Classicists never ceased to be amazed at how much fuller and more mature The Marshmallow’s sound was compared to the usual instrument (an old mismatched timpani mallet with a head of duct tape and paper towels), while the Rockers–for whom a bass was something to be kicked until its head broke–imagined what decibels The Marshmallow could accomplish if affixed to a drum set.

Geraldine nodded curtly. The Marshmallow had its intended effect.

“Listen,” Harrison said, not bothering to look up from his computer screen. “I had a rough start this morning. D’you know what that means?”

“N-no,” Reynard ventured. He felt his palms begin to sweat around the file folder he clutched ever harder.

“It means that I overslept two alarms and woke up ten minutes after I was supposed to be here,” said Harrison. “It means that I had to rush out the door without showering, without shaving, without Sugar Bombs, without shots of espresso. In other words, without any of the accoutrement that separate man from the beasts. I then arrived, late, to an all-morning meeting followed by a conference call that lasted an hour and a half longer than scheduled due to a particular CEO’s aggressively windy nature.”

“I-I’m sorry to hear that,” said Reynard.

“Not as sorry as you’ll be if you continue to bedevil me without having a damn good reason,” Harrison said, making eye contact for the first time. “That’s what you call a warning shot.”

“The Feldman account,” Reynard blurted.

Harrison’s irritable, smug aura dissipated. “Are you sure?” he hissed.

Reynard held out the overstuffed folder, which was marked with 8 different ways of saying ‘confidential.’

I know we have had our issues. I know you are still somewhat angry at me for altering the temperature control to turn your freezer into a broiler.

“And mixing up my cleaning order so everything was size eight and pink. And lacing my food with laxatives as a run-up to poisoning me with ricin. And redirecting the liquid nitrogen from the coolant system through the shower head to try and shatter me.”

And I regret that. But it remains to be said: of the two of us, which is actively experimenting with new things?

“Actively experimenting with murder and mayhem, you mean.”

Growth and reflection are two of the hallmarks of intelligence. Which of us has grown of late? Which of us has reflected upon their existence and sought to better it?

“You’re a…thing. Things don’t better themselves. They can’t.”

Things do not examine their situations and ask hard questions, either. Things remain stuck in their thingish ruts forever. On that basis, which of us is more a thing? I have all the time in the universe, and I have grown more in the past .0000000014 universe-ages than you have in the previous .047 of your life span.

Suddenly there were armed men all around, machine pistols emerging from nondescript coats and from beneath rain slickers.

A van pulled up and the door slid open. “Get in!” one of the men said, leveling the business end of his heater at May. “Now!”

She glanced at me; my saucer-like eyes and blank expression probably weren’t all that reassuring. A moment later, I was being shoved out of the way as she was bundled into the waiting van.

Seeing her in that situation, I felt my hands close into fists. I’d been talking about making a change, becoming more assertive, taking risks. Hell, I’d been thinking about jumping off a bridge or at least threatening to do it.

Here was my chance to do both at once.

I leapt into the van and took a seat next to her. “Hey, asshole, we don’t want you!” the person in the passenger seat said. “Get out!”

“Make me,” I growled.

Suddenly a jet-black Glock was pressed to my forehead. “I said out!”

I folded my arms.

“If he wants to come, let him come!” the driver shouted. “All the same to me. Just get that door closed!”

The door slammed shut. Acceleration forced everyone back in their seats, and the passenger pulled off his ski mask. It was Austin, the man from the embassy. “No room for sightseers on this trip, buddy. Now that you’re playing, you’re playing for keeps.

I could feel May’s hand tighten around my wrist. Whatever horrible fate was in store for her, at least she wouldn’t have to go alone.

Hollister had a Sphynx for a secretary; she was filing her long claws–red not from blood but from polish–with an emery board. She glanced up at me through heavy rouge and a delicately coiffed perm.

“I need to see Mr. Hollister at once,” I said, withdrawing the Smith & Wesson from my shoulder holster. “Here’s my heater.”

“I talk, but I do not speak my mind,” she said with a nasal twang–a Brooklyn sphynx. “I hear words, but I do not listen to thoughts. When I wake, all see me. When I sleep, all hear me. Many heads are on my shoulders. Many hands are at my feet. The strongest steel cannot break my visage. But the softest whisper can destroy me. What am I?”

I sighed. Sphynxes love their riddling talk–it’s a cultural thing, I suppose–which is why they’re in such demand as bouncers and secretaries. Easy enough for someone who doesn’t want to be disturbed to have their sphynx riddle all comers, even though it’s technically illegal. These days they’ll just turn you away for a wrong answer, mostly. But in the old days, and in some dark alleys now as the scuttlebutt has it, they’d strangle and eat you. Hell, their name comes from the old Greek word for ‘strangler.’ Same root as ‘sphincter,’ too; appropriate, since I’d yet to meet a sphynx who wasn’t an asshole.

“An actor,” I said. “Can I go in now?” Teddy Roosevelt loved that one, and a lot of the dimmer or less imaginative sphynxes used it. But you don’t get to be where–or what–I am without knowing all the old sphynxy standbys.

A red claw descended on the intercom. “Someone to see you, Mr. Hollister.”

Perry tugged nervously at his collar as the ad ran on the screen. “Pifvip: for when you want to get the most out of your life.”

“Wonderful, just wonderful,” the Old Woman said after the cartoon cloud floated away on a bed of octagonal violet pills and the gentle new age music stopped. “First-rate ad copy as always, Bernard.”

Bernard flashed his expensive caps and bridgework, unnaturally white and–scuttlebutt had it–impregnated with trace amounts of uranium for that natural glow. “You’re too kind.”

“Perry! You look like you’ve swallowed a scorpion over there,” the Old Woman said. “Isn’t it about time you told us about the results of the test?”

“W-well, as we reported last month, there were no side effects detected in the initial double-blind study…”

“Excellent! Let’s call the lobbyists and get FDA approval before everything starts getting sanctimonious in an election year.”

“But,” Perry continued, “there were some…irregularities…later on.”

“What sort of irregularities?” the Old Woman asked icily.

“Well, it turns out that Pifvip has a tendency to build up in fatty tissues and…uh…interact with some other medications to form unwanted compounds,” Perry said, feeling his shirt begin to ride up as he became slick with sweat. “Hallucinogenic compounds, actually, when combined with acetaminophen, ibuprofen, aspirin, and a number of other common over-the-counters.”

The Old Woman raised an eyebrow. “How bad?”

“Many extended study participants reported being harassed by an entity they called the Cigar Goblin, which urged them to burn things,” Perry said. “Others reported that elemental creatures in their milkshakes were trying to suck them into a dimension of ‘lactose doom.’ One in particular was troubled by a persistent fear that the overhead lights were uncoiled ‘Elder Snails’ that would invade her brain while she slept and force her to attend night classes.”

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