April 2011

Yes, I think the overwhelming impression students got of Witherton was a cackling old man, rubbing his hands together safe in his Archivist’s Spire as he planned on how best to alienate and fail his students.

I took a slightly softer view. The man wasn’t a teacher, wasn’t trained as a teacher, and was clearly more comfortable with ancient manuscripts than people. But the way the university worked required him to teach, but gave no rewards for good teaching or punishments for bad teaching. His research kept him at the head of his field and the tip of the tenure iceberg, but the students…well, it’s safe to say that even with the slack some of the more enlightened of us cut him given the circumstances, it wasn’t easy.

Nothing illustrated that better than what became known as the “Action of April 30.”


“Dr. Corrie Smithson. A real pioneer in a lot of fields, especially cancer research.”

“She did a lot of work with immortal cell lines when the field was still fast and loose–back when they were basically stealing cells from cancer patients without their consent,” Dr. Mays said. “Way I remember it, Dr. Smithson’s wrote that postdoctoral thesis on the genetic markers in immortal cell line conteminants…using blood she drew from the original subject’s family without a consent form. She was only able to keep that act up so long before the laws caught up.”

Annette nodded, making a note on her pad. “What happened after that?”

“She still worked with immortal cell lines, mostly ones that were grandfathered in. Spent a lot of time working with animal cells that were similar–canine transmissible venereal tumors, Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease, Syrian hamster reticulum cell sarcoma.” Dr. Mays sounded wistful as he spoke.

“I’m…sorry?” Annette said, unsure what he was talking about.

“Oh. Those are all naturally occurring immortal cell lines, which have manifested as transmissible diseases. But the critters didn’t need to sign consent forms, you see. Dr. Smithson pretty much wrote the book on transmissible, immortal cancers.”

“That sounds…well, terrifying.”

“Don’t worry,” Dr. Mays laughed. “They’re quite rare.”

“What happened to her?”

“Terrible story. Lymphoma. The girl spent her entire life researching ways to cure it, and she died of a particularly aggressive strain. Interestingly enough, she took samples from her own tumors and bred an immortal line of research cells from it–they’re now the second-most used immortal cell line in medicine and responsible for half of all laboratory contaminations!”

Even after centuries passed and conquerors, caesars, and caliphs overran the island, the locals continued to swear that, on certain nights, one could glimpse Phagyana, the Ghostly Sphere, over the central mountain of the isle or out to sea.

The real danger, the islanders insisted, was not the Ghostly Sphere itself but rather its inhabitants. The Children of Phagyana were said to become fascinated by anyone who glimpsed their spectral home for more than an instant, and would descend upon them. Mischief and misfortune would follow, with the Children rumored to be behind everything from plague to pregnancy.

Worse, if the proper cleansing rituals were not adhered to, the Children of Phagyana would eventually bear down upon the unfortunate and bear them hence to the Ghostly Sphere. Those so taken, it was said, became Children themselves.

“So what?” I said. “It’s just a game.”

“It is not ‘just a game'” Samson cried. “The Lawful Demon Tactics games aren’t just RPG’s, they’re the best stories ever told in any form!”

“Uh-huh, just like vegemite is the greatest spread of all time,” I scoffed. “You get too wrapped up in things, Sam.”

“It’s an acquired taste!” barked Samson. “And that’s beside the point. If you can’t grasp the subtle storytelling in a series about hereditary high school age demon summoners saving postapocalyptic Japan using blood rituals, nothing I can say will convince you.”

“Damn straight.”

“But Lawful Demon Tactics and Lawful Demon Tactics II: Diamond Chaos Unlimited are my favorite games of all time, okay?” said Samson, adding another suitcase to his pile. “That’s why the new one is such a big deal for me.”

“That doesn’t explain the whole go-to-Japan part of your plan,” I said. “If it’s not coming out in the States because the others didn’t sell enough copies–and who could imagine that?–just import it.”

“You don’t understand,” Samson whined. “They’re releasing it for Japanese smartphones. Smartphones! They won’t work with American wireless carriers! The only way to play the game is across the pond, with a six-month contract.”

They tell of a soul, conflicted and caring, half made of sunshine, half cast in moon’s light. For friends and more is she ever caring, taking their burdens, both heavy and light.

An artist’s free spirit dwells in her, ever balanced by writers’ fine wit. A poet’s sage wisdom if ever there were, with a skeptic’s sharp queries is writ.

Lithe of body and mind in fighting trim, lover of nature in all of its forms. Competing passions filled to the brim, the calm’s exciting as the storm.

Dwelling eternal betwixt dawn and night; though this be so, darkness has its delights.

“We don’t expect you to understand, but it was necessary to perform the test under those conditions. Anything more controlled or closer to your experience would have invalidated the point.”

“So that’s it, then?” Rich snarled. “What would have happened if I wasn’t so lucky?”

“The experiment would have been a failure, and a different subject procured.”

“And Marie? What about her?” Rich demanded. His cheeks were burning and he found it hard to see the form of his accusers through welling tears.

“Ms. Cullen was a necessary incentive. You will find her in her apartment, asleep, though we must stress that she was never more than a template.”

Rich gritted his teeth, thinking of Marie at Pearlsea Fortress, at the Rift, and on that stack of hay in the Endlands. “Bait,” he sighed. “Cheese for the mouse in the maze.”

“An inelegant metaphor, but one not without some primitive merit. Are we done here, Mr. Richmond? Or must we persist in lowering ourselves to your base questions?”

“I just have one more,” Rich said. “Why me?”

The lights of his accusers modulated, with the answer in quizzical, almost mocking tones: “Why not?”

“You can’t go back there!” the waiter cried. I brushed him off and swept into the kitchen. Hollister’s notepad said something about a short-order cook, after all.

I’d barely taken three steps in the kitchen when a green flash of something wrapped itself around my neck, just tight enough to be uncomfortable. “Didn’t you hear him? The kitchen’s employees only, hun.”

The short order cook, as it happened, was a Cantonese Wyrm–a younger one, probably less than two hundred years old, but still large enough for her front end to be working a wok while her back legs washed dishes in the kitchen sink ten feet away. She regarded me with intense yellow eyes, framed by the pink rollers that held her whiskers up and away from the food under a hair net.

“I need to speak with you,” I squeaked. “About Hollister.”

“Don’t know nobody by that name, sugar,” said the wyrm. Her rear claws emerged from the suds, each wearing a rubber glove. “But I bet wherever he is, it ain’t my kitchen.”

“He says otherwise.”

“And I say maybe I’ve got a new hunk o’ meat for the dinner rush.”

I had to think quickly. “I think you know that wyrms aren’t on the approved list of foodservice workers,” I said. “Health inspector’s coming on my tip in half an hour. What d’you think he’ll think of that? Let me go and I’ll cancel the call, then we can talk over tea.”

“Buck’s a shadow pinscher.”

“A what?”

“A dog that’s specially bred to detect evidence of spirits–ectoplasmic residue, cold or warm spots, that sort of thing.”

“That might just be the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Oh, come on. With all the stuff on the internet these days, is spiritualism such a stretch, even if you’re a skeptic?”

“Not that. That name, Buck.”

“Buck is a fine name for a shadow pinscher!”

“So, this kind of dog–which I’ve never heard of before and which for all I know you just made up in some recess of your addled brain–was bred to sniff out ghosts and you didn’t name him ‘Scooby-Doo’? What the hell is wrong with you?”

“First, Scooby-Doo was a Great Dane. Second, there were never any real ghosts on that show. If I had a dog bred to sniff out latex masks so we could see that Old Man Withers was really the Screeching Phantom of Midley Moors, then we could talk.”

Van Djik spat on the ground. “Why should we help you?” he said. “So you can be free to ransom or execute us if our shipping line won’t pay? Bloody fucking pirates.”

Kediye, the chief of the Somalis, hefted his lavishly decorated AK. “This is not enough reason for you?” he said.

“No, it’s not,” said Van Djik. The other captured sailors murmured their assent. “We’re dead anyway if we’re not ransomed.”

Alatas, the Javan pirate, held out a hand and lowered Kediye’s rifle. “Listen to me, Netherland. Seven of our men are missing and the boat is taking on water. The engine is frozen. Without repairs, we will all drown or be taken by whatever dwells in the mists. Some of you may die later, but all of you will die now unless we work together.”

Hillthorpe was seated on the edge of the knoll, and the eroded remains of a stone fence. Janet approached him from behind.

“Watching the demolition crews at work?” she said. “We used to do that in the city sometimes. Made us feel better.”

“Really?” Hillthorpe said, without moving his eyes from what was left of the house below. “Why’s that?”

“No matter how bad things got at home, at least they weren’t tearing it down,” said Janet.

“Fair enough. Have a seat?”

Janet took a perch beside him and watched the crews at work. The mansion had been reduced to a disembodied facade and two chimneys, like a bombed-out ruin, and even those remnants were soon to vanish. “I take it this one doesn’t make you feel better.”

“You’d be right,” Hillthorpe sighed. “It’s a piece of history. Built by robber barons, inspired Hemingway, inspired Fitzgerald, hosted everyone from Einstein to Roosevelt. A piece of history, for better or worse. and they’re murdering it so the land can be parceled up for $20 million McMansions.”

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