Thursday, May 25, 2017

ISA Kids

         They had been playing the music a little softer in Laren’s these past few months. There was a time, not so long ago actually, though it felt like the distant past, when Laren’s had been noisy. In the first decades after it was founded, Laren’s had a reputation as the toughest bar in Port O’James. Law enforcement officers were almost as regular as the customers.
         This was around the time the Industrial Stimulus Act, called ISA, passed in Port Sang thirty years earlier. The government invested in modernization, automating a lot of the harbor’s services while promoting new industries and services. Port O’James was still a port town first and foremost, but there was a growing tech industry thanks to ISA’s tax incentives and education investment.
         This allowed Port O’James to escape from an economic slump, but it also created a gigantic rift between generations, with a lot of resentment toward the “ISA Kids” on the part of those who were a generation or half a generation older. Children descended from long lines of longshoremen and sailors now had access to world-class educations and white-collar careers.
         Laren’s became something of a battleground in the resultant culture war. But over time, the old regulars started to give way to new regulars, and the rough reputation transformed into a charm in its own right. The rambunctious fervor of the bar metamorphosed into an ironic imitation of itself.
         But the volume of sound, ironic or not, had died down in recent months. And so when Ana walked into her favorite bar, there was something dreamlike to it - an incongruity that, at least in her current state of consciousness (something she was pretty certain was genuine wakefulness,) refused to be contradicted.
         There was no denying that if people recognized her on the street, they tended to either stare or avert their gaze. She had never felt so self-conscious, but after weeks of this treatment, she thought she had gotten used to it.
         Walking in to see a quiet Laren’s, though, confirmed for her something that until this point she had only understood subconsciously. It was not just her. The city was on edge.
         And to be fair, it had felt on edge since the Ostrich sailed into port. But in the time that Ana had been gone, the town had gotten skittish.
         She thought about the faceless men, and how the soldiers at Far Watch had behaved strangely, unable to see them. She took some consolation that she had not seen any of the faceless men since Far Watch, and she preferred a town that was scared over one filled with people numb to near catatonia.
         Nick and George were at a table in the back – not their usual one, as there was a group of Arizi sailors taking that spot. For an instant, she considered turning around before her friends saw her, but her feet kept taking her forward.
         “There she is!” cried George. He got up from the booth and immediately went over to hug her. Ana bent down to accept the hug – George had achondroplasia, and so was over a foot shorter than she was. George wrapped his arms around her and held tight. Her eyes began to well up. George whispered into her ear “You’re back, Ana. And we’re never letting them take you away again.”
         Ana released a sobbing guffaw. “Thank you,” was all she could think to say. They had been friends since elementary school. When things got heated with her parents, Ana would stay at George’s house. One hug brought back almost two decades of friendship. It was a little overwhelming.
         Ana stood up again when Nick came to hug her. This was a quicker moment, one-armed due to a glass of beer in his hand. And there was the awkwardness inherent both in the fact that they had seen one another fairly recently at the station and the perpetual subtext of his hopeless infatuation with her. It had been her hope that, if there was any good to come of her shocking revelation as undead, that he might finally lose this attraction, but she suspected that he had not.
         That was not a problem she felt ready to confront – it was low on her priority list.
         “So,” began Nick. “How’s the process coming?”
         “Fully debriefed. Legally recognized as the same citizen I always was.”        
         “And at work?” asked George.
         “Taking a leave of absence. Harrick suggested it.”
         “To cover himself?” George has always been skeptical of law enforcement, and Ana’s choice to join the force had been met with something like shock – though the shock was couched in unconditional support, as it always had been with George. Ana had chosen the career partially because of her grandfather, Bjorn, who had always been her favorite. He had died early enough that she was able to idealize him and ignore the likelihood that he would have held to the same conservative views that had alienated her from her mother. On principle, she also decided that if she wanted a society with a more progressive and ethical law enforcement, people like her would have to join. Max Herrick had confirmed for her that she wasn’t the first person to have this idea.
         Ana shook her head. “He didn’t pressure me into it or anything. I… It’s still kind of a blur to me, you know?” She allowed a server to place a beer that one of her friends had apparently ordered for her in front of her. “I mean, objectively, I’m not back to normal. In a sense I’ve never been normal, you know?”
         “Sure, sure,” said George. It had sounded like he was going to follow this up with something, but instead he turned his attention to the bottom of his nearly-empty glass.
         Nick leaned forward. “After I got suspended, George took point on trying to get you back.”
         “I kept trying to get that Lisenrush fascist’s office, but-“
         “What?”
         “Lisenrush, I was trying to get in touch with her to complain. I was beginning to think they were ignoring me.”
         Ana’s own attitude toward Lisenrush had been fairly confrontational to begin with, but after their trek through the forest, she did not seem like an enemy.
         Yet Lisenrush had been the one to take her against her will to Far Watch. That had been dubiously legal. The Rangers had authority to deal with the undead – an authority that dated back centuries – but as far as Ana knew, the doctors had only put forth the idea as a hypothesis when she was taken.
         Still, she had bristled at George’s description of Lisenrush. She had been forced to put her trust in the Ranger-Captain. They had seen something that was almost unthinkable even after having witnessed it. She had expected she would get more questions from the Port Security Service, the North East Colony’s main intelligence agency, though they seemed satisfied with her statements. Perhaps they were in the process of corroborating her statements with those of Lisenrush.
         Maybe there was reason to dislike, even hate Lisenrush. But that all seemed irrelevant, given the threats they both knew existed.
         Coming back to Port O’James had felt so strange partially because it didn’t look like the world was ending here. Was it safe here?
         “It’s like something out of a nightmare,” Ana said to herself.
         Apparently it had been out loud, though, because George piped in. “Hey, Ana. We’re going to make things like they were. It’ll be ok.” George, the good friend he had always been, seemed to have adjusted to the revelation of her… physiological status with ease.
         But that wasn’t what she was thinking about. In a strange way, it almost felt like finding out she was undead was a kind of relief – a release of built-up pressure. It had been shocking at first, but she was beginning to acclimate to the notion.
         The nightmare was the faceless men. The outpost had transformed almost instantaneously. How could she be sure that the faceless men would not come back?

         Lisenrush could not feel her legs. They had her on an IV that seemed to be pumping in a lot of pain meds. Though, she supposed, not enough to prevent her from realizing she was on pain meds. And not enough to prevent her from feeling pain.
         Maybe it would be worse without the meds.
         She had never let pain get to her. When she was a kid – ages ago – she used to get into fights. She was not the best student, or even the most gifted athlete. But she had an edge in fighting, because she did not let pain bother her. She could fight stronger kids and simply outlast them. It was a way that she could win.
         Her spine had shattered when it hit that tree. The draugr had looked so frail and thin, but that was the thing about the undead – their strength was not human, physical strength. It was all channeled through mysticism and magic, not earned through practice and grit.
         Through standard medicine, she would have been confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Nothing below her abdomen would have had any function again. But all that was changing in this new, interconnected world.
         The Arizi used magic for everything, even though the doctor that the hospital brought in insisted that “magic” as it was understood by most people, wasn’t really magic in the strictest sense.
         She was not interested in philosophical debates. She could barely stay awake for two hours at a time. She suspected that was partially the boredom of being in a hospital bed.
         Sleep had been… not difficult, but it almost didn’t feel like sleep. There was a comfort, a pleasant sensation to sleep, when the mind’s logical thoughts were allowed to relax and drift on a timeless sea. Yet when she slept now it just felt like numbness.
         She looked up at the clock. It was three in the afternoon. She used the remote to turn on the television. She looked up – she just wanted to check the news – but she had the strangest sensation. She could hear the anchors talking about some sort of uncharacteristic violence in Arizradna (something that gave her a certain nationalistic smugness) but she could not see the television.
         She was staring right at the screen, but she could not tell what the picture showed. She squeezed her eyelids shut and opened them again. Was it her vision? The draugr had given her a painful head butt, and perhaps that had jostled her eyes or even her brain. But she turned her head and looked at one of the medical posters – something about proper handwashing procedures over the sink – and she could read it just fine from across the room.
         Yet when she looked back up at the television – or rather, where she was certain the television was – she did not see it.
         And strangely, she suddenly thought of Ana. Ana had seen things that weren’t there – faceless men, she said. Ana said something about seeing buildings sprouting up around Far Watch when it fell. Buildings full of these men with no faces.
         What did you see there, Lydia?
         She couldn’t say. She had not seen anything. Not that she had seen the old Far Watch in ruins or an empty patch of forest. She had simply not seen things in the places where she had looked.
         And now she was not seeing this television that was only a few feet from her eyes.
         Even at Far Watch she hadn’t felt this level of fear. She tried to think rationally why that was as her heart began to pound and she found herself desperately trying to get out of the bed as if her legs were not useless weight and her spine was not shattered into a million shards of bone.
         Ana saw them. She thought. Ana saw them. Maybe Ana can stop them.
         And then she could see the screen. There were pictures of what looked like a satellite telescope that had fallen onto a building. She could see the television with ease, its power button and volume controls, the cord reaching from the back to a plug nearby in the wall. It was perfectly ordinary.
         After all, the faceless man had moved out of the way.


(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2017)

Friday, January 27, 2017

Oubliette

            Gravity seemed to have become a weak thing, only a suggestion, rather than an incontrovertible law. His body was still and immaterial. Instead, he found himself focusing on a little spider web in the upper corner of the room. The spider walked carefully over her little construction project. A proud homeowner, that little bug. She took such fastidious care, creating her little spiral.
            “Do you understand the charges as I have described them?”
            He nodded. It was odd to think of this as a case of crime and law enforcement. He had never thought of himself a criminal. He was a soldier. Or no, that wasn’t it.
            He was an Agent of the House, nothing more.
            It was surprisingly civil. He supposed he had Nascine and Tartin to thank for that. They were thieves, a profession that still held with it some degree of gentility. Not every facet of the Rookery was so kind. In a way, he was lucky. Rather than being tossed into some dark room and left to starve and go mad, he was instead in a room lit with bright fluorescents with an enforcement officer taking him through the necessary bureaucracies.
            Of course now he had to consider what the House would do. An Agent inside the Rookery? That had surely been useful, but he wondered how useful it would be to have an Agent inside a national prison, not to mention one who already exposed as an Agent.
            The ramifications were vast. The House had been reduced to a conspiracy theory within the mind of the general public. The various intelligence services did a decent job of playing their cards close to the chest, but he suspected most of them had been in accord. While some clearly had an idea, he had to guess that among the “minor leagues” like Arkos Province’s Covert Intelligence Office and the North East Colony’s quaintly named Port Security Service, belief in the House might get you transferred to a basement office with nothing but file boxes and disused computer equipment to keep you company.
            And there he was, living proof that it was all real. His capture had been far too public, too ostentatious, and far too many people had been involved. Some might still not believe, but anyone who knew the game would have figured it out. He would go down in history as one of the House’s biggest failures. And the House wasn’t supposed to have a history.
            Things would probably end with a shiv to the back. He did not want to imagine the sensation, but he had to remind himself that such a thing was not only possible, but probable.
            His hair had gotten long – he hadn’t had a cut since Narcia – and so he swept it back from his forehead.
            “Sir?” said the officer. “Time to go.”
            Sir. That was odd. A strangely polite way to refer to an Agent of the House. Maybe it was just a standard sort of thing. A civilized country with a civilized system to make sure everyone felt right and properly civilized.
            In the absence of a given name (Four Eyes had learned years ago to really think of himself truly as Four Eyes and allow the name his parents had given him to recede back into his portfolio of aliases) they were using the false one that he had used in Narcia. James Tarson. It was better than John Doe, at least. He wouldn’t mind using this name for now. If he was terribly lucky and managed to escape, he might ditch the name and take up something else and retire to some island in the Sagrean Sea.
            Chris Thatch was a burned bridge. He had stolen that name from a dead man, but now that the man had been discovered, it had been restored. Chris Thatch would be buried in a cemetery rather than Murleg’s Bog. “James Tarson” bore him no ill will. Perhaps putting a spirit to rest, if that is what one accomplishes with burial rites, could even be seen a small consolation in all of this.
            The truth of the matter is that as an Agent of the House, he had great respect for the Rookery and the institutions of Retrein, as well as Narcia. In his mind, the House did not count the people or governments of the world as adversaries. They were assets to be carefully managed. He had dropped the Retron accent, though the voice he spoke with now was not the one he remembered having before he had been given this assignment. It had lost its regionalism from the small, coastal town in northeastern Narcia where he had grown up, with its wharf and driftwood shacks all with peeling paint. Now his voice had flattened into a general Narcian dialect that had kind of melted into the Arizi one to become the least distinctive in the world.
            If this change to his voice was intentional, it could only be subconsciously so, but it did suit his purposes.
            And what are those?
            He brushed this thought aside.
            He would be questioned, but he doubted he would be tortured. The Retrons were regressive in myriad ways but even the shadiest parts of the Rookery had ceded their worst brutalities to the more attractive virtue of result. Six Coins had told him that the Other Side sometimes dabbled in it, though Sir Roderick Candel (they had long ago dispensed with the pretense of anonymity) was prone to exaggerate the deficiencies of his adversaries.
            But with a couple of honorable thieves like Tartin and Nascine taking charge of this case, Tarson took some consolation that his treatment would be practical and dispassionate. Certainly he would be questioned. They would offer him deals and Tarson knew that he would have to work hard not to betray the House. But until this sabotage, he had been an exemplary Agent. He was confident in his skills. He could very well be ejected from the House roster, such as it was, but he would not betray them. That would be foolish and invite a bullet to the back of the head, but oddly, Tarson felt that this was not his primary motivation. The truth of the matter was that he was proud of his work. The House was the thing. It was the single greatest endeavor in the history of the world. When the shock of his discovery had worn off, he was sure that he would mourn his fall from grace, but if called for, he would give his life for the House.
            Tarson was led to the car. His driver, a man in his late 30s, he guessed, was wearing a charcoal suit. The driver glanced at the man who would be riding shotgun, who seemed a bit younger. The glance looked nervous.
            Yes, you lucky guys get to transport the big bad House Agent.
            The submachine gun made a visible bulge in the second man’s jacket. It was some comfort to know that this gun was probably meant to protect Tarson, rather than kill him, at least as long as he didn’t try to run.
            The car was unmarked, though anyone looking closely would be able to guess that the black vehicle was enforcement. But then, most people didn’t.
            So much of his craft was based on the idea that people generally didn’t think much of what they saw. In another life, it seemed, he had simply put on a jumpsuit – not with any patches or labels or anything, just a dark blue jumpsuit, taken a ladder and gone up and removed the fuses from a traffic light in Entraht. No one stopped him. The drivers simply adjusted to the malfunctioning municipal equipment. He hadn’t even been sure that the House needed to slow traffic in that intersection. He suspected Six Coins had just wanted to demonstrate a principle, as this was very early in Four Eyes’ service.
            Had Tarson been looking at the newspaper on the stand next to where their car had stopped rather than the rather attractive, somewhat androgynous woman selling coffee from the stand, he would have seen the following headline:
            “RAS Councilman Dead in Traffic Accident” with Six Coins’ face half-visible above the fold.
            What he did notice, however, was that the identical black car in front of them turned right. The car that he was in turned left and then the identical black car behind them turned right.
            He watched the other cars disappear around a corner. Perhaps this was not so surprising. Transporting a House Agent, the Rookery surely would expect someone to be watching. Putting him in the middle car was sort of the obvious choice, but he had to go somewhere. He was unaware of who would be watching him – probably no one he had ever met – but he was certain someone was, or at least was trying to do so.
            He wondered if he would ever be in the loop again. Probably not. Not much use for a captured spy after all, at least not much use for his friends. The Rookery would treat him like he was worth his weight in gold. There was something vaguely delightful about that, though again that was perhaps just a consolation.
            His downfall had been engineered. He was certain now that the message: “there’s a hole dug up in Murleg’s Bog” had been sent not by an ally but by an enemy. They had discovered the location of Thatch’s body and relocated it in a place where…
            How could they have known that Tartin and Nascine would be there?
            The world was a strange place, with magic, gods, and demons walking the land. But ultimately, even the most powerful beings were just individuals, making their way in a universe that cared only that everyone follow physical laws – whether they be mundane or arcane. Tarson did not believe in fate, and he did not believe that some greater force had put Tartin and Nascine in that house to punish him for his sins.
            Thus he believed there to be two possibilities:
            The first was dumb luck. Coincidences happen, and on a long enough timeline, every possible scenario will eventually occur. But that was not satisfying. Tartin and Nascine had come there independently, so that made it even more unlikely.
            The second possibility was that their arrival, just like his own, had been choreographed by his enemy. Every trick, every miraculous feat of coordination between anonymous parties that the House was known for - the enemy would be capable of that as well.
            What troubled him was that if they had been able to pull this off against him, they were clearly winning.
            They were taking a tunnel south. The R4, it looked like. Tarson admonished himself for letting his attention drop. The tunnel was brightly lit with electric light, taking them south through the tall hills at the edge of Ravenfort.
            Tarson’s hands were cuffed to a faux-leather loop in the back of the car. The loop was attached by a chain to the frame of the car.
            Hope we don’t get into an accident, Tarson thought, bitterly.
            They emerged from the tunnel into a torrent of rain. They were traveling at highway speeds now, and the windshield wipers beat back and forth, their metronomic rhythm providing accompaniment to the rain.
            They hadn’t told Tarson which prison he would be staying in, but he suspected it would be Hexley, a small, secure facility that specialized in keeping magically-capable prisoners. Aside from a handful of tricks, he didn’t really consider himself an arcanist, but Tarson supposed it would be the most secure facility.
            And they may have been thinking about keeping people out just as much as they were thinking of keeping him in.
            He had driven this road countless times, but there was something profoundly different about driving down a road versus riding in the back seat with ones hands cuffed to a faux-leather loop.
            It would be hours until they got there, but Tarson resolved not to fall asleep. He would sleep once he was in his cell, where there was relative safety.
            After an hour, the driver exited the highway, turning down Hemwick Road, which led into a dense forest and presumably to a place called Hemwick, which Tarson had never heard of.
            “Where are you going, Chambers?” asked the man riding shotgun.
            “We’re transferring the prisoner to another vehicle outside of Hemwick.”
            “I wasn’t briefed on a vehicle transfer.”
            “It was need-to-know. Consider this your briefing, Rykes.”
            Tarson’s heart began to pound. Chambers was selling it decently, perhaps enough to fool a glorified cop, But Tarson could see the subtle signs of nervousness, of deception. There was a slight quiver to the man’s eyebrow, and his hand was gripping the steering wheel just a little to tight. Something was about to go down.
            He could say something, but how likely was it that Rykes would believe him?
            And if you don’t tell him, you’re going to get murdered in the woods.
            “The driver is planning to kill us,” said Tarson.
            Almost instantly, Rykes turned back to him. “Shut the fuck up.”
            “Listen, Rykes, is it? I can tell when someone is lying. The reason you weren’t briefed on this is because it’s not part of the plan.”
            Now he turned around, and Tarson’s face exploded in pain as Ryke’s heavy fist connected with it.
            Oh fuck you man, I was trying to save your life, Tarson bitterly thought to himself. Though to be fair, Ryke’s survival was secondary to his own. Tarson decided it was time to come up with an idea, and soon.
            But they had only been on this road for minutes when they pulled onto an unpaved forest path. This was it. This was where they were going to do it.
            He thought about how he could use the cuffs. Maybe he could get them around a neck? If he could get the submachine gun, that would be ideal. He tried to decide if Chambers looked like the type to hesitate. He wouldn’t gloat – he was far too nervous to gloat and frankly, most people preferred to get over with this sort of thing as quickly as they could, but sometimes they would hesitate if they weren’t sure they were up to it. Tarson prayed that Chambers was the sort of person that pulled an adhesive bandage off slowly and gradually. If he was quick and efficient it would make escape practically impossible.
            They came to a stop.
            The road had come to an end in front of a tiny barn made of corrugated steel. There was another car there, a grey sedan. There were three men standing next to it. Two were in black masks to match the rest of their clothes, openly carrying submachine guns. The third was a very tall man who was mostly bald and bespectacled, wearing a grey suit and smoking what looked like a blackroot cigarette.
            “Ok, let me talk to him,” said Chambers.
            The driver got out of the car and walked up to the man smoking the cigarette. Tarson could only just hear what they were saying.
            “Ok, I have him.”
            “I can see that.”
            “Where’s Anne?”
            The man took a drag. “Outside Damana.”
            “Damana?”
            “Yes.”
            “That’s across the ocean.”
            “She is there.”
            “Ok, whatever. You’ll let her go now?”
            “We need to confirm it’s him.”
            Rykes had heard it too, and in an act of self-destructive anger, he was already pulling out his gun. Tarson cringed as he waited for the men in the black masks to open fire tearing the car and their bodies apart. “Chambers you piece of-“
            There was a thunderous bang and the sound of shattering glass as the passenger window imploded and Rykes’s blood sprayed across the front seat of the car. There was a fourth man, also in a black mask, standing there with a pistol.
            “Fuck!” yelled Chambers.
            The man who had shot Rykes shaded his eyes and looked in the rear window at Taron. “Confirmed, it’s him,” said the man.
            Tarson was so transfixed by Rykes’ blood gushing out of the exit wound in his head that he nearly had a heart attack when he heard the second shot. Now he looked up and saw Chambers’ lifeless body collapsing out of view.
            How’s that plan coming, Four Eyes? asked his own cruelly sarcastic voice in his head.
            The rear door on the driver’s side opened and a fifth man leaned over, brandishing a combat knife.
            Tarson pulled away, squirming, his mind howling with animal terror. The knife sliced through the faux-leather loop and he popped free. He wriggled over onto the front seat and thrust himself out through the still-open car door. He hit the muddy ground on his back and attempted to roll himself into a position where he could stand.
            Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Chambers’ dead eyes staring at him. A white-hot streak of panic shot through his consciousness. He got one knee under himself and pushed up.
            Only for everything to go dark.
            For a moment he thought he was dead, but then he found that a membrane of thick cloth was entering his mouth each time he breathed in. He felt strong arms wrap around him, but he fought back, elbowing someone in what he imagined was the gut.
            He tried to run, but then one of those strong arms pulled him down. He landed on his back, and the arms started to pull him by the wrists. His shoulders screamed in agony as he was dragged like an animal going to the slaughterhouse, his clothes totally soaked in mud and his breathing inhibited by the thick cloth of the bag they had put over his head.
            Wet mud gave way to dry, cold and rough cement, and the faint light that made it through the bag was now gone. His pants were caught on the surface of the floor, and soon they were down around his ankles. The cement gave way to something smooth, like linoleum.
            Then, the ground moved down. An elevator.
            And then the sound of rain outside disappeared. They dragged him along smoother concrete and then they dropped him.
            He heard their footsteps receding and then he could not hear them anymore.
            Around him, there was only darkness. And there was silence like he had never heard before.
            “Hello?” he said, a whisper he had intended as a shout.

            Nothing answered.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2017)

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Official Story

            Boss Man didn’t bother watching the car leave, taking Freya back to Kapla Furnace Village. There was risk in this action, but he was no stranger to risk. But he needed forward momentum. This was a revolution, albeit a secret one against an organization most people didn’t think existed.
            His circumstances were not ideal, but they were necessary. They would leave the desert eventually, but he had only just started to plant his seeds. They might not bear fruit for some time.
            The camp was oddly friendly, the people oddly warm. He had not intended that, and in fact it made him suspicious. Still, he would adapt. That was the key. The House planned. It planned extraordinarily well. But he adapted, and up until this point, it had kept him alive and free.
            Chaffi was an early recruit. When Boss Man had been in the House, he was high enough to understand that they had not had much luck recruiting among the djinn. Boss Man knew of Mr. Flow, but he was a rarity – a djinni who preferred living among the “jengu.”
            He had given the House’s pitch many times before, but with Chaffi, he had favored a different approach. He told him a story. The story of Boss Man. A man whose real name was Jac Epping.
            The camp they were in was really within the borders of Arizradna – even though the cities and towns didn’t reach this far into the desert, the borders of the world’s oldest country encompassed them. That was by design, actually, to take advantage of the defensive magic that kept the Arizi from needing a real military.
            But if you went a couple thousand miles east, you’d get into the Grimelands. Great metal structures rose from the ground as if they had grown from seeds, and the air was full of dust and smoke. In the Grimelands, if you spent much time near these structures, you’d start to get an oily residue on your skin. People avoided it, but a place that people avoid becomes very attractive to someone who wants to avoid people. Over centuries, the Grimelands became something of a country in and of itself, though no one could tell you where the capital was or who was in charge. And it was there that Jac Epping was born.
            He hadn’t really known his father. Ky Epping worked for the Imperial Rail Company, shoveling coal because back in the Grimelands, they still used that. IRC was a relic from a far earlier era, and its tracks were the skeletal remains of the Red Empire that had died centuries ago.
            Ky had been up at the engine when bandits blew the track. Forty men, women, and children died, including Jac’s father. It was barely considered news.
            So Jac and his mother Hope moved to a town called Bitter. She had been harsh and drank a lot, but she also made sure he learned his letters and math. She wanted good things for him, even if she was a difficult woman to live with.
            Jac helped on the Namrys’ farm to supplement the family income. The IRC barely gave Hope any compensation for Ky’s death, and they cheated her out of his pension.
            He was just a couple days from turning twelve when the Folstom Brothers came calling on Hope Epping. Jac was too young to understand what they wanted from her, though he suspected later it might have been something about debts.
            When Vin Folstom suggested that she could pay those debts through alternative means, she declined with vigor. Unfortunately, Vin had little compunction about taking with force that which he could not procure through other means.
            It was unfortunate for Vin because he had ignored the hand-cannon Hope Epping had in her kitchen, and when he made his advance, he was left with a fist-sized hole in his chest. It was unfortunate for Hope Gepper because there was more than one Folstom, and when Sal saw what she had made of Vin, murder filled his heart, and this time she was not quick enough on the draw. Jac Epping was orphaned.
            And he knew that this was what had happened because he had seen it. When the Folstoms came, his mother had instructed him to hide beneath the floorboards.
            He left Bitter and made his way to Smokestack, taking up his own job with the IRC. However, thanks to his mother’s lessons, he was able to get a better job at a desk, working out timetables and keeping the ledgers.
            It was during this time that a man Jac would only ever know as “Sootgrin” came to talk to him about scheduling. Sootgrin – a name Jac would never understand, given the man’s pearly whites – told him to change the schedule of two trains, ensuring that one coming into Smokestack would leave before the other arrived.
            At the time, Jac assumed that Sootgrin was an important person at the company. He had seen him on occasion, and he believed that Sootgrin matched the description of the company president – an older man, tall and thin with long white hair and a long white mustache.
            Jac figured out a way to change the schedules of the trains without upsetting all the other schedules and eagerly made it to impress this Sootgrin. It was only after he had submitted the new schedules that Sootgrin informed him that he did not, in fact, work for the company. And if Jac didn’t want his bosses finding out what he had done, he would have to do more tasks for Sootgrin.
            Jac was only thirteen at the time. He naturally did what Sootgrin told him to do. But Sootgrin did not simply make demands. He also instructed Jac. He taught Jac to forge a signature. He taught him how to lie convincingly. In spite of the fact that he was being blackmailed, Jac came to like the old man. In fact, it no longer felt like he was being blackmailed. Sootgrin started to feel like a grandfather.
            When Jac turned sixteen, Sootgrin gave the pitch. He was an Agent of the House. And regardless of the House’s agenda for trains in the Grimelands, Sootgrin’s main task was the training of a new recruit. In effect, he had already been a House Agent for three years, but now Sootgrin felt it was time to make it official. Jac got the codename Mr. Key.
            And for a time, life was pretty similar. Then, one day, Sootgrin abruptly announced that it was time to quit. The House was no longer interested in trains, or at least these particular trains that came out of Smokestack. So they left and traveled east to Gessan Province in the Redlands.
            Jac’s work for the House got more interesting, but also more dangerous. He remembered in particular a time when he and Sootgrin had assisted in a bank robbery. They weren’t there at the time of course – the House preferred to keep its Agents somewhat removed from such overt acts. Still, they provided logistical support. They put the gang in touch with a safecracker and taught the robbers about the way that the bank’s security cameras could be bypassed. Then, when the day came, Mr. Key found out that the robbery had turned into a bloodbath, and that the robbers were all dead.
            To Jac’s shock, Sootgrin did not seem shocked at all. He indicated that this had, in fact, been the intended outcome of the robbery. Jac demanded to know what the purpose of such a thing was, but Sootgrin managed to explain it without explaining it in such a way that it was not until years later that Jac would think to question what they had done again. Essentially, Sootgrin reasoned, the House knew what it was doing. Did he know the specifics? No. But the House always thought thirty steps ahead. They had reasons, and Sootgrin had faith that they were good ones.
            Jac became more comfortable with their activities over time. His protests died down and he began to simply do his job. And apparently he and Sootgrin were showing a level of competence that was rare even within the House, because before too long, Jac found himself traveling the world, participating in delicate and important operations. He saw the installation of a House Agent to the Arizradna High Council. He helped to thwart a potentially disastrous Vistani invasion of the Wastes by leaking their invasion plans. He had the son of a general in Sarso committed to a mental institution, despite the fact that the young man was perfectly sane.
            The House was built on compartmentalization, and so it was difficult to trace its actions to motivations and causes. But as Mr. Key became more prominent within the organization, the silhouette of its larger form had begun to reveal itself to him. The chains – wholly separate and distinct at the House’s lowest levels, became tangled and interconnected the closer one got to the top. And looking down some of the chains that led back to the Grimelands, he made a fateful discovery.
            Sal and Vin Folstom were both House Agents.
            Jac thought it had to be a coincidence, and that their actions were probably not much more complicated than they had seemed. Though Mr. Key had become an exemplary Agent, the House was not devoid of ineffective brutes at its lower levels.
            When he approached Sootgrin with what he had discovered, however, he did not get the reaction that he expected. It was not surprise. It was not skepticism. It was not even worry that Jac had been looking in places he shouldn’t have been looking.
            No, it was guilt.
            Sootgrin was a talented liar. But Sootgrin was also the person who had taught Mr. Key how to lie, and also how to recognize one. The more he attempted to deny it, the more he attempted to divert the conversation, the harder Jac pressed, until finally, Sootgrin confessed.
            The House had sent the Folstom Brothers there. The Folstom Brothers had killed Jac’s mother on orders. And it was because of Jac. They had seen in Jac the potential to be a remarkable Agent. A potential, Sootgrin informed him, that Jac was fulfilling – exceeding every expectation. The House sought to create the ideal environment in which Jac could be recruited.
            All this, when Jac was not yet even twelve.
            He let Sootgrin live, though he felt now that that had been a mistake. But he cast off his allegiance to the House. He saw now just how deep its callous cruelty ran. Jac had his own subordinates, but he knew to be careful around them. The House had a practice called “Breaking the Chain,” in which an unsatisfactory Agent might be cut off from the House in varyingly severe manners. If an Agent was cut off, their subordinates might share their fate, but alternatively, the higher-ups might instead have one of those subordinates eliminate the Agent in question and take their place.
            In Jac’s case, it was a woman he had recruited designated “Sieve.” After leaving Sootgrin, he quickly called up his immediate subordinates (he was a prominent enough Agent that each of his subordinates had their own, and some of them had their own as well.) When he arrived in the basement of an Omlos grocery store to speak with them, he found that two of the five were on the ground with their throats slit, and a third, Sieve, was there with a bloody knife.
            He discovered Sieve’s presence when her knife slashed him along the face. They fought, but in the end he prevailed, leaving the knife embedded in her chest.
            He decided at that point that Omlos, and indeed all of Narcia, was no longer a safe place for him. So he smuggled himself out of the country on an airship bound for Damana. Then he traveled back to his homeland where he would begin to recruit this small force he had managed to put together. And in time, if things went well, he would destroy the House.
            Mr. Key had learned a great deal while under the House’s employ. He did not condone their ethics, but he could not deny the effectiveness of their methods. And so, Mr. Key became Boss Man, and he began recruiting his own Agents. But his Agents would get to know the story of Jac Epping. He would ensure that they understood the stakes of what they were doing here.
            But Boss Man had a secret. It was a secret he could not tell anyone, and in fact he tried not to avoid thinking about it himself. Compartmentalization was crucial in the world of cloak and dagger. It was a challenge, though not impossible, to do so within his own mind.
            The secret?
            There never was a man named Jac Epping. There was never an Agent called Sootgrin. There was never an Agent named Mr. Key. And Boss Man had never set foot in the Grimelands before the previous summer.

            Boss Man had his reasons for doing what he was doing, but for now, he would keep them to himself.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2016)

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Fungibility

            Nothing could have prepared Clara for the sensation. As the demon entered her, it felt as if a frigid mist were pumping into her veins. The cold seeped into her, but not just through her mouth or nose or even her skin’s pores. It came in through the spaces between every cell in her body, and it made her aware of just how permeable she was. Jim’s voice transitioned from external to internal, as if it were coming from Clara’s own mouth. For a moment she felt as if she were going to collapse, the strength sapped away from her. She took a breath, and then another, and she realized that on the contrary, she felt stronger than she ever had. Her entire body seemed to weigh a quarter as much as it did.
            It was intimate. Yet Jim no longer had a real physical presence. She did not feel crowded out of her own body, even though she now shared it with the demon.
            In the back of her mind, she sensed the history stored within the demon. As if the memory were her own, she could glimpse a vast disc of ethereal dust in a dim expanse, brown and blue wisps slowly revolving around a sphere that was so perfectly black that Clara thought it looked more like a hole in space.
            “What is this place?” she asked, and because it was Jim’s memory she had recalled, she did not need to describe it.
            “An old memory of home,” he said, though Clara could not determine if there had been a sound audible to anyone else or if the words had simply been in her head. The vision abruptly disappeared. “Let us set these things aside for now.”
            “What about your body?” she asked. When Jim had entered hers, the smoky frame that had been strapped to the chair had started to break apart and float away, as if it were evaporating.
            “My body is not one of matter, Sweet Clara, I-“
            “I will call you Jim and you will call me Clara. No need for ‘formalities,’ I think.”
            Jim was silent for a moment, but he could not hide his general tone of thought. He considered it and approved of the decision. “My body is not one of matter, Clara. The substance does not fall into the classical categories of matter or energy. It is something else. Something alien to this universe.”
            “And when you leave my body?”
            “If I am able,” he corrected her. They had discussed it at length, when the faceless men were absent and Thall was out. “Did you know that humans replace every atom in their bodies roughly every seven years?”
            “No.”
            “There is a philosophical concept. I don’t know what its name is in this universe, but in a different one it is called the Ship of Theseus. Theseus is a great hero, and thus his ship retains a great deal of cultural value to his seafaring people. But ships need repairs. A rotten plank is replaced here, a tattered sail is replaced there.  Every year the people sail the ship of Theseus around the harbor in celebration of his actions, but after centuries, there is not a single splinter of wood within that ship that Theseus ever saw in his lifetime. So the philosopher asks – is it the same ship?”
            “I suppose not,” said Clara.
            “Then is Clara dead, and am I inhabiting some imposter? You are, I would think, older than seven years.”
            “What is your point?”
            “The point is that the body is irrelevant when you have, or perhaps more precisely: are a spirit. I shed that body like you might shed a dress. Albeit a little more permanently. The difference between us is that it is far easier for me to shed it all in one go, whereas you do it gradually.”
            “And so you could easily find a replacement?”
            “In a sense I have. Your body is my replacement.”
            Something in Clara’s mind lurched. Jim sensed it. “A condition I intend as temporary. We must return to my master, as I suspect he might have some theories on how to find a new vessel for me. He will be far more pleased to find me than you, I should think.”
            “I won’t grow horns, though? Cloven hooves, a tail?”
            “Would you like to?”
            Clara shuddered. Not long ago she had professionally allowed strange men to enter her body, but in a far more temporary and physiologically conventional sense. She immediately began to second-guess her decision to allow Jim to possess her, but the door, as it were, had slammed shut behind her. It was time to move, and quickly.
            “This will go more easily if you give me control for the time being,” said Jim, and suddenly Clara’s right leg stepped forward. But it overextended and she nearly fell over.
            “Really?” asked Clara.
            There was no hiding his embarrassment. Surely most demonic possessions allowed the demon to read the host’s thoughts, not the other way around.
            “You’re right. You handle the meat stuff.”
            “Meat stuff?”
            “Bodies. Meat. You’re far more familiar with it than I am. And I must confess that this is my first time possessing someone.”
            “Very well. I will be gentle then,” said Clara, trying to suppress a smirk.
            Clara and Jim had talked about a plan. Clara was free to come and go as she pleased when there was no business that needed attention. But they had both guessed that Jim’s exit of the building – or indeed the chair – might alert Mr. Thall, and so time was of the essence.
            They walked back toward the kitchen, where there was a door leading to the garden in the back. They got three feet from the chair to which Jim had been strapped when Jaquis walked into the room, carrying a telephone on a platter.
            “Mr. Thall for… you… m’am…” he said, his eyes falling on the chair’s empty straps and his usual professional deference shifting inexorably toward a kind of superior disdain.
            “Jaquis, I… I am afraid that I will be unable to-“ and then a different voice erupted from her mouth: “Y’SHAAG NURSTRASSH EE-JUURE!” and her hands, now raised up as if she were preparing to box the septuagenarian, began to glow a shimmering dark red. Strange, fleshy-looking ropes appeared around Jaquis’ mouth, wrists, waist, and ankles, binding him in place where he stood as the platter and phone clattered to the ground.
            “Jim, what did you just do?” she asked, internally.
            “Run!”
            She did, and suppressed a wave of nausea as she realized that they not been ropes, but some sort of cephalopod-like tentacles. “It will wear off, right?” she asked.
            “Uh, probably.”
            Thankfully Jim did not feel such an impulse when they passed Pauline, the cook, as they crashed through the kitchen and slammed the door open. Pauline merely gaped at them as mixing bowls and utensils tumbled off a prep table.
            “You know how to get to Airbright’s house?” asked Jim.
            “Yes,” she said.
            “And you can keep running?” he asked.
            “I think so,” she said, leaping into the air with Jim’s borrowed strength and clearing the twelve-foot brick wall behind the building with two feet to spare.
            Clara ran faster than she had ever run before, but as she pumped her legs and felt her heart race, she also realized that her wrists were feeling cold – icy, even.
            She stopped for a moment and pulled back the sleeves of her coat.
            There were broad bands around her wrists, made from a dark, tough metal that was almost blue. They were positively frigid. Cold Iron. She had seen these shackles before, but they had been on the body of Whispering Jim. A body that had evaporated into the ether.
            “I was afraid of that,” said Jim. “But it looks like these things stay on my body, whichever body that happens to be.”
            “What does it mean?” she asked.

            “It means that you and me, we’re both Richard Airbright’s slaves now.”
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2016)