May 2014


“So you’re an infiltrator? A spy?”

“Depends on who you ask.”

“Fine by me. Shall I tell you something? About the Regent?”

So long as it’s not that I’m under arrest for plotting her downfall.”

“Do you know what her claim to the throne is? Nothing. It doesn’t exist. She’s originally from a foreign cadet branch of the nobility, in the triple digits of the succession to this or any throne.”

“Is that so? I can see why they have left that out of their official narratives.”

“What’s more, she’s illegitimate. Child of a skilled general and a brilliant essayist. Her mother and her lover had a young son, a love child, who died of the plague when he was still a child. The Regent’s parents–each married to someone else–conceived her in her brother’s mausoleum with the hope to reincarnate their lost child.”

“I can’t imagine that they were too pleased at having a daughter instead.”

“A girl was a bitter disappointment to them, so they shipped her off to a convent for her education. For the rest of their lives, her own parents would call her their niece or their cousin. Can you imagine?”

“It sounds like you think this is responsible for the power she now wields.”

“I think a life story like that can only harden a child. I have no proof, but I suspect that sometime in that span, the future Regent swore to do whatever was necessary to guarantee herself a place in the world. With her father’s brilliant tactical mind and her mother’s gift for oratory, she was able to meet and wed the Crown Prince through sheer force of will.”

“I’ve heard that she spent all nine months of his reign plotting against him even as she carried his child.”

“Three days after the birth, she had her husband removed from the throne and essentially took his place. That was years ago, and the Regent still has over a decade of undisputed rule ahead of her before her child comes of age, and perhaps even longer in the shadows.”

“How is it you know all this?”

“Well, I am–or was–the court historian. I am no longer because the Regent would like the matter suppressed.”

“If she wanted it to be suppressed, why not execute you?”

“Because I am also her father.”

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“Please,” Jennie sobbed, inasmuch as her disembodied spirit was capable of such a gesture without tear ducts or a mouth. “Just stop.”

The Zaar cocked its head, which Jennie perceived to be like looking in a twisted mirror. “I suppose I could,” it said, using what sounded like a mixture of her voice and the nasal cackle it had used before. “I suppose that I could find another trinket that would work just as well, another group of guileless souls to torment with their own meaninglessness. That would be rather noble of me, wouldn’t it?”

“Please-” Jennie began.

“But I’m not,” sneered the Zaar, twisting the lip of Jennie’s possessed body cruelly. “And do you know why? Because you want it so very badly. I can see it in every fiber of your spirit, and there’s nothing more joyously side-splitting to me. Look at you! Whining and weeping over a worthless trinket just because grandmammy touched it? Pathetic! Nagging at me like a dog after a pile of garbage with your little gang of cast-offs and misfits? PAH-THETIC!”

“But…but…”

“Enough! You could’ve just been a good little girl and let me go about my business. You might even have survived what I’m planning to do! You might have only lost a limb, or your sanity! But no, you had to be…difficult! You had to fight back! And because of that, I’m taking time out from my busy, busy schedule of–spoiler alert–ending as many lives as I can all at once, just to run you and your little troop into the ground.”

Jennie watched as the Zaar opened her hand and lashed out, snatching a fly from the air and crushing it to goo in her palm.

“Life is a meaningless parade of kicks to the stomach and bullets to the head, girl. You think there’s an ounce of meaning in the molecules that make up your pretty little trinket? It’s just wood for a bonefire to me. You think that your ridiculous midway of an entourage means something to this cold and unforgiving orb we’re all hanging onto by our fingernails? I will relish the opportunity to show you how wrong you are by slaughtering them in particularly amusing ways while you watch, helpless. Or not! I’ll happily off them when you’re not so you can know the exquisite agony, as you fade away into spiritual nothingness, of not knowing. It’ll be a time and a half, you’ll see, and I’ll think nothing more of it than if I were writing a dirty word on a bathroom wall.”

The Zaar cackled at each misery it listed, but its next words were delivered in a low, menacing tone that was more a growl than any human speech.

“This is why you leave a Zaar to their business, girl. To trifle with one of us is to see your own pathetic notions reduced to atoms and stars in front of your face, until you’re left with nothing but the pain.”

Jennie reached futilely for her body, but the Zaar backed away, wearing a wide grin and cackling anew.

“Who knows? In time, perhaps your spirit is potent and miserable enough to become a Zaar itself. Wouldn’t that just be the greatest punchline to end this grand joke I’m in the middle of telling the universe?”

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Drops of the endless frigid rain beat upon the windows of the tiny cabin, whose fire offered no warmth and whose dryness only inflamed the misery of being sodden with dryness a dim and fading memory.

“I’d have thought,” said Ellis, “that the rain would somehow be better than the snow. But, somehow, it’s worse.”

The man of the cabin, who had not offered his name, shook his head. “That expectation is exactly why the rain exists and why it never ends,” said he. “The promise of relief only makes the suffering keener for being unexpected and felt in place of relief.”

“It seems like a waste,” Ellis replied. “If suffering is what they want, why cloak it? If they want me to ache, put me on nails and pour acid in the wounds and be done with it.”

“Don’t you see?” the cabin-man sputtered. “Suffering is the why, and the how. It’s the only reason the route to the down below exists, because our suffering is the most exquisite draught, and it is carefully cultivated with the patience and skill of a master vintner.”

Ellis shook his head, thoughts of his wife and child close by. “Suffering can be withstood. There’s always hope.”

“Always hope! That’s the carrot that leads people down here, and before they know it they are in the unseen hands of a craftsman who has been making misery since the earth cooled to embers.” Ellis’s host raised his voice, speaking with the sudden conviction of a street preacher in the throes of a sermon. “Shall I tell you about the woman who found her husband, returned this way with him, only to have him dissipate into mist within sight of the Mount? Or the man who was attacked by what he thought was his son, forcing him to kill who he most loved?”

“They were fools,” Ellis said, faking a certainty he did not feel. “I’ll do better.”

“Against a foe that can move mountains, sink canyons, and extract the rarest suffering from any of us like a gourmet sucking marrow from a split bone? No. For every angle you think you know, they know a dozen you don’t. For every strategy, a dozen countermoves.”

Ellis glared at his host. “If you feel that way, why are you here? Why not leave?”

“Because if I leave, I cannot warn others. I cannot relate the stories of the lost. I am a sin eater of sorts here, resigned to my suffering in hopes of lessening that of others. It is the only succor I have found in this place, and at times I fear that even that is but another illusion.”

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I always thought that reports of piracy were exaggerated.

But that was before I was overtaken and boarded by a 1976 Chevy pickup flying the Jolly Roger.

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ANNOUNCER: This Thursday, your favorite treasure hunters return for an all-new season, and the pickings are good.

THOM: What’s this on the underside of your table here?

HOARDER: Not sure. Picked it in ’79.

STAN: It’s a rare hymolymph crystalline crust. Give you $100 for it!

HOARDER: Make it $150 and you got a deal.

ANNOUNCER: This time, the stakes are higher…

THOM: We’ve heard you have a collection of rare squamous gelatins on your bathroom wall. May we come in?

HOARDER: No! Get off my property before I get me shotgun!

ANNOUNCER: …and the picks are juicier.

STAN: We don’t just deal with classic picks, you know. The hospital says you have mucosal nasalitis, and we’d love to pick your collection for cash.

HOARDER: Music to my sinuses!

ANNOUNCER: All in the new season of American Nose Pickers, premiering this Thursday on the Archives Channel. The Archaeology Channel: if it weren’t for the name, you’d never know we had ever been about archaeology instead of reality shows.

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“And this is a B. B as in barbecue,” said Misti, pronouncing each word slowly, loudly, shrilly. “Do you even have barbecue in your country? It’s what we’re famous for where I come from, Atlanta. But I live In New York City now. Do you kids know New York City or Atlanta?”

Misti was met by even, neutral stares from the class of 25 students from the People’s Republic of Annam.

“No? Okay. This is a C. C as in Chevy, which is a kind of car. Chevy car! Do you have Chevys here? I’ve mostly seen Hyundais.”

More unreadable monotone eye contact from the children. Misti took this to mean they were hanging on her every word, and continued.

“So this is a D, like the back half of Christian Dior…”

The students continued to regard the strange Westerner with resigned apathy. Their usual teacher had told them to be polite to the Westerners, who came to teach a lesson as part of the Victory Volunteer Vacations, under penalty of a swatting. Soon, Misti would be off to spend three hours building a home in an affluent suburb and the remainder of the day ladling soup at a homeless shelter that was implicitly understood to be for photo opportunities only. But the children would have to endure fifteen more lessons on the English alphabet before the end of the month, and they couldn’t speak a word of the language–they barely knew the 37-letter Annamese alphabet.

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Cam sometimes mused about how people with time on their hands used to debate the Fermi Paradox. Given the staggering number of suns and worlds out there, it seemed very likely that some would have evolved intelligence and that we’d have seen some sign of them, even before the Remote-Piloted Drone revolution. Were we listening in the wrong way? Were powers greater than us watching silently and keeping us ignorant? Was a great and evil empire going to come down on us when we met a certain milestone, exterminating us like you would a newly-discovered virus?

Turns out, as Cam and every other RPD jockey knew, we were just early.

RPD pilots like Cam saw life all the time, in the form of tiny lichen-like patches of things analogous to bacteria and other simple dinguses on Earth. You had to be really lucky or really patient to get beyond that stage of just germing around (hell, Earth was stuck in that phase for something like two billion years). Going beyond that was pretty rare so far – the handful of planets where multicellular life was known to exist were off-limits for RPDs pending further investigation, but a few things that looked like boneless suckerfish were as complex as it got.

There were a few RPD pilots that specialized in following up on reports of life, but the equipment was so specialized and expensive that most were pros. Someone like Cam could make a couple bucks reporting xenolichens on the side, but more often than not it wasn’t worth the bandwidth. It was kind of funny and kind of sad at the same time: humans were, thus far, lucky enough to be in first place in that particular evolutionary race–Ptolomy had been right in some sense about a human-centric universe!–and we were more concerned with inorganic mineral deposits than something which might evolve into a peer if we gave it three billion years or so.

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“I need you to find someone,” the dame said. “Someone…close to me.”

“Your husband?” I irritably blinked the late-evening sunshine from my eyes, the tattered blinds not holding up their end of the bargain.

“My…companion.”

Her lover.

“Fair enough.” I poured a fresh glass, the stiff smell of alcohol–officially a “health tonic” to get around the Volstead–mixing with the “herbs” ground up in the bottom of the glass. I’m a snoop. I deal in euphemisms if they keeps the boys in the precinct off my back and my customers comfortable. “The cost will depend on how long and what I find. Whether I accept or not depends on who. I’m sure you know that I have a reputation for being choosy, and ironically it’s not by choice.”

The woman nodded. “This is him,” she said, passing a Coney Island souvenir snapshot of the two together across my desk. “Max Schliemann. Dockworker and…laborer.”

She hadn’t offered her own name, and I didn’t ask. The photo, though…you could never be sure, of course, but he seemed to have “the look.” Had to be sure, though. “Can you describe your ‘companion’ a bit more? His personality, his haunts, that sort of thing? Any unusual behavior?”

“Max has…a savage temperament,” the woman said delicately. “Very passionate and devoted, but often…mercurial. About a dozen times a year, he will get in an…unsettled…mood and often disappear until he sorts himself out.”

I nodded. “A day or two at most? Likes hanging around Central Park or Elysian Fields when his savage temperament flares up and he gets unsettled? Getting back to nature, as it were?”

“Yes, yes,” the woman gushed, grateful that I had been able to read between the lines.

“Has Max ever hurt anyone during one of his…unsettled savage episodes?”

The woman squeezed her clutched hands tightly together. “Not any…one,” she said. “Can you find him? Tell me you can find him. I’m afraid this time he’s not coming back.”

I grinned, showing the emergent fangs that not even the wolfsbane in my glass could fully suppress on the night of the waxing full moon. “I think so, ma’am. I think so.”

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Echyd told tales, and Oesoedd related parables. The younger fledgelings of the flock much preferred Echyd’s rollicking and often bawdy yarns of nuthatches and titmice, but Oesoedd was the elder bird–close to the eldest, in fact, near as anyone could tell–and respect demanded that his windy moralistic tales be aired and heard.

Sparrows who had lived with Oesoedd or heard his father speak once upon a time knew that certain situations would automatically result in certain stories. For instance, when a fledgeling began to accept food too readily from llew, the great striding two-legged predators, showing signs of tameness, Oesoedd would flap over to them and relate one of his favorite parables.

“Have I told you, youngster, the tale of the Cat and the Birdfeeder?”

The fledgelings always knew better than to answer that they had, so Oesoedd would continue.

“Once, there was a birdfeeder with a cat that lived nearby. A sparrow that frequented the feeder was wary of the cat, as he should have been, despite the cat’s assurances. ‘You have nothing to fear from me, sparrow, the cat would say, ‘for I am a housecat and well-fed by the humans, and your scrawny bones aren’t worth the effort to catch.’ The sparrow decided to simply ignore the cat and keep eating at the feeder every day. And, seemingly true to its word, the cat seemed content to sun itself lazily nearby. In time, the sparrow grew used to the cat’s presence and regarded it almost as it would a rock or a shrub. But then, one day, the housecat was not fed as it usually was, and the sparrow approached unawares. In a flash of teeth and claws, the cat caught the bird, toyed with it for a bit, and then slew it to be devoured. For you see, the cat had let the sparrow grow accustomed to its presence just so it might strike easily when the time came.”

The implication of Oesoedd’s parables was always the same: tameness of any sort led inexorably to grisly death.

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