June 2017


Praise be unto the GIFs, the JPEGs, the TIFFs, the PNGs!

Praise be unto the rasters, the vectors.

Praise be unto the halftones, the dithers.

Praise be unto the black-and-white, the greyscale, the RGB, the CMYK.

For, without them, we are BLIND.

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Ostia is the perfect place to hide from somebody like me.

It’s abandoned, thanks to…well, you know. But not for so long that everything has been looted. If you know what to look for, there’s still food to be found that won’t give you a writhing death from botulism. Even batteries, if you’re lucky.

But that particular skeleton of a city is rapidly getting popular now that most people fancy that the danger is past. Oh, you’re still not allowed in, and the roadblocks will turn you back. USUN will shoot you on sight, though they don’t stray from the roads and certainly don’t get anywhere close to the outskirts.

So I wasn’t surprised to learn that my quarry had fled there. In fact, I relished it. With a typical bounty, the chase is half of the fun. In this case, with our history, it was more like the delightful final chapter to a long book, or the last moves in a long chess game. I intended to enjoy it to the full.

But only one of us was coming out of there alive.

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Hamid waved his receiver. “Signal coming in, boss. Satellite phone. Text only.”

“Don’t call me boss,” Ali said. “It’s demeaning. Call me Captain.”

“You’re the boss, boss,” said Hamid.

Ali snatched the handset and looked at it. “Foreigners sighted at following coordinates. Westerners. Lax security. Apparently excavating something.”

“Sounds like a good chance for us,” said Hamid. “Kill some interlopers, maybe take some hostages, get some artifacts for Khalid to move. They’re paying cash for hostages and artifacts in Raqqa.”

Ali nodded. He’d come out to the desert to do something with his life. He couldn’t be content running his father’s dry-cleaning business in Hatay. But in the eighteen months since he’d slipped south to join the Caliphate, there had been nothing but dusty patrols, slim rations, and a steady supply of contradictory orders from the higher-ups.

It was time to prove that he wasn’t a screw-up.

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The Sick Party in Rm. 445

This one’s a little different, since nobody who witnessed it still works at the Hotel Palmserston but you can find it in old city papers.

On Halloween, 1970, a group of people checked into what was then a double, room 445. Their plan was to go to a masquerade in town but split the hotel bill. A total of 8 people went to the room afterwards, and ordered room service. They also had a lot of candy, since a mock “trick or treat” event had been held at the masquerade.

The room was left a huge mess, and the people who had to clean it ate some of the candy that had been left in the room. Within a day, everyone who’d eaten something on Halloween night was in the hospital suffering from life-threatening sepsis. Of the 8 people who had trashed the room, one died and one had to have a length of intestine removed. Everyone spent months in the hospital.

Survivors tried to sue the Palmerston, saying that they had been poisoned by the room service food. But no one else who had eaten in that night–onw of the kitchen’s busiest–got sick, and it’s devilishly hard to catch sepsis from a bad meal besides. And none of the maids who’d eaten the candy got sick, so that couldn’t have been the culprit.

In the 1990 renovations, rm. 445 was split into two singles, 445 and 446. But to this day, no one wants to deliver food to either room because of what happened 40 years ago. Luckily, as far as anyone knows, nobody’s had room service or Halloween candy in there since.

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The Dumbwaiter Obstruction

There were 20 dumbwaiters in the original design of the Hotel Palmerston, but only 5 remained in use after the 1990 renovation. They are mostly used for moving cleaning supplies now, since they’re too dirty for food and the service elevators are much more efficient.

One of the dumbwaiters started jamming sometime in early 2000. It simply would not go above the 14th floor, and the management decided that there had to have been an obstruction. They hired a local elevator repair firm to come have a look at the dumbwaiter through the maintenance access.

Nobody knows what they found, but the 13th and 14th floors were evacuated via the fire alarm that same day. When everyone returned, the shaft had been permanently sealed and all the doors welded shut. Electric power was cut off at the mains and all the other dumbwaiters were rewired to draw their electricity from elsewhere.

The elevator repair firm was given a lucrative contract to service the entire Hotel Palmerston the following month, despite being basically a mom-and-pop operation. Word around the hotel was that they were being paid hush money for something. Since no one other than the shift supervisor and the two guys from the elevator place were around when the shaft was investigated, nobody knows for sure.

Of course that led to all kinds of crazy rumors. People started smelling things, hearing things, seeing things. But no one smelled, heard, or saw anything for nearly a month when the dumbwaiter was refusing to go north of 14.

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The 3:14 AM Flushes

Plumbing for a hotel the size of the Palmerston is incredibly complex, but since 2000 the hotel invested heavily in a completely new system that gave every room a new low-flow but high-pressure commode.

It also seems to have disturbed something in the plumbing system other than water or sewage.

A computerized master system keeps track of water usage in the Palmerston, and it routinely goes rather quiet after 1am or so. But according to the people who monitor it, a toilet somewhere in the hotel flushes every night at 3:14pm sharp.

It never seems to be the same toilet twice in a row, though the same ones have been active repeatedly at 3:14. It seems to affect the units regardless of their age, too. The occasional housekeeping staff that have encountered the phenomenon report being scared to death, too, by the sudden noise.

No one can say why that late hour seems to trigger random flushes, but one thing is pretty clear: they never happen in occupied rooms.

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The Triskaidekaphobic Elevator

The Hotel Palmerston has a central elevator lobby, where banks of elevators serve the various floors. Four elevators run from floors 1-12, another four run from floors 13-24, and a further four serve the “executive levels” 25-30. That’s pretty standard in hotels as old as it is, given that each used to be manually operated by a bellhop.

Cabs 5-8 make up the second bank of elevators, serving floors 13-24. And Cab 7 will, for whatever reason, never stop on the 13th floor. It will call at floor 12, at floor 14, or go all the way up to floor 30 and back down without opening its doors.

You might notice that Cab 7 is newer than the others, though they’ve tried to make it blend in. This is because it’s been replaced three times with the hope that this strange behavior might stop. They even switched Cab 6 and Cab 7 in 1974. But no matter the actual cab that is Cab 7, it will not stop on the 13th floor for any reason.

Ultimately, the hotel management closed the 13th floor and renovated it into a luxury restaurant. It’s now accessible only with a room key from Cab 5 and Cab 6. One would think this meant the end of any strangeness, but a few years ago a grease fire broke out in the 13th floor restaurant. The firefighters used the override key to take every elevator up to 13, but Cab 7 still deposited them on the 12th floor all the same.

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The Dust Weavings

There are five main staircases in the Hotel Palmerston, one for each wing and two in the main body. Guests don’t use them much, and neither do staff, since who wants to crawl up 25 flights to get to the topmost floors? But they are maintained anyway, after a fashion, for fire reasons.

Stairways 1-3 and 5 are pretty unspectacular. They’re lit, but the linoleum is decades out of date and we don’t bother hiding our patch jobs or spills.

Stairway 4 is different.

Oh, it looks the same as the others, but unlike the others, dust tends to accumulate there very quickly. There are always dust bunnies, and big ones, but over time they seem to migrate downward and accumulate on the landing in between the fourth and fifth floors. And there, in that dusty accumulation, you can sometimes see complex patterns.

Not like a footprint, or even anything symmetrical. Just a crazy winding pattern. It would be almost mundane if anyone had any idea how it got there.

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“Think about it,” Jenkins said. “People hurt things that’re ugly and we have a soft spot for things that’re cute. Jellyfish, your usual kind, ain’t cute.”

“It’s still unnerving,” I replied. “Can they…can they see from those eyes?”

“They ain’t eyes,” said Jenkins. “Just look like it. They seem like they know what they’s doing, but it ain’t so. Just instinct.”

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Gerlich gasped into his oxygen mask as he switched out the depleted cylinder for a fresh one. The cool air flowing over his ragged lips had a calming effect, and within a few moments he was ready to continue his incantations.

“Are you sure you feel up to this?” the Aleayn buzzed. Gerlich nodded, and flipped the eyepiece that connected him to the Aleayn’s system down to cover his right eye.

The initial incantation was simple, an invocation of the spirits of the dead that were bound nearby. Muffled by his mask, Gerlich summoned those spirits in the form of luminescent wisps of spiritual energy that snaked and spiraled about his forearms as they rose from the ground. Anything of the lives they had once lived had long since faded away, leaving the spirits as little more than energies with no direction or purpose.

Next, the carefully carved conduit was set in the middle of the room, a human head hewn from living crystal. Gerlich began the incantation with one hand, and controlled the magnetic fields produced by the Aleayn with a control box gripped in the other.

“It’s not enough to infuse the energy into the object,” the Aleayn whispered. “You need to give it both new form and new function.”

“And that,” gasped Gerlich, “is the hard part.”

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