Saturday, February 25, 2012

Question Time


            When they pulled him up, Milton was not sure if he was standing or floating. His sense of direction was lost. There was a door, true, and it had been in the wall before, but now it was clearly on the ceiling. Then it occurred to him that they had not pulled him up, rather they had pushed him to the ground. A sharp pain, and then down ceased to be down. He fell toward the ceiling, crashing into it again. The cycle repeated itself. The Thin Woman traced her finger along his bare back, and colors exploded all around him. The noise was a cacophony.
            Gold Tooth had him next. The air vibrated, the ground shuddered, and Milton vomited the meager gruel they’d given him. Maybe that was a good thing. His body was willing to let it go this time.
            “How’s the knee?” asked The Shabby Man. The cell was just a cell then, concrete walls, floor and ceiling. To his back, there was the door they came through when it was time to hurt him. In front of him was a huge pane of glass, probably inches thick. The Shabby Man’s voice came in over the speaker, lodged up by the ceiling, about fifteen feet high. Milton sometimes wondered – during Question Time, which was the only time he could really think – if the Shabby Man’s voice sounded tinny and rough as it did on the speaker.
            “Fine, I suppose,” croaked Milton. He hadn’t spoken in… however long it had been since the last Question Time. This was their twenty-seventh session, so it was possible that it had been as many days, but judging from the number of times they’d shorn off his beard, it had to be longer than that. They’d actually fixed up his knee, extracted the bullet and sewn the wound shut. But they’d made a Game of it. The Thin Woman and Gold Tooth liked to play Games with him.
            “You can walk?”
            “Yes.”
            “Good.” The Shabby Man jotted down a note in the small pad he carried with him. “That’s very good. I’m glad they were able to help you with that.”
            The Shabby Man sat in a wooden swivel chair. Behind him, the cavernous room in which he sat stretched on into darkness. He wore a ratty brown suit, with a million little fibers sticking out of it where the fabric was worn, which was nearly everywhere. He had longish white hair and a scraggly beard, also white. And he smiled far too often.
            “Where is June Greene?”
            Milton shook his head. This was always among the questions.
            The Shabby Man shrugged innocently. “Maybe next time.” He turned to another page in his notebook. “When you visited our dear Ms. Greene in the lower block of Castlebrook Prison, what did you discuss?”
            “I had nothing to do with the escape.”
            “That was not my question.”
            Milton hung his head. “I’ve told you over and over.”
            “Where is she, Jack?”
            Milton slowly stood. His lungs still burned from when they had drowned him. “Honestly, I wish I knew.”
            “Where is June Greene, Commander Milton?”
            Milton leaned on the window. The glass was cool. “I don’t know.”
            The Shabby Man nodded. He looked almost sad. “I’ll see you next time, Jack.”
            He walked away. The lights went out, and for some amount of time, Milton continued to stand there. The cool glass was a comfort. It was something solid. He slowly let himself slide down. His skin rubbing against the glass made a faint squeak. He dared not sleep, because in sleep time would move swiftly, and he would be back with his torturers, playing their Games.
            He wanted the Shabby Man back. He’d tried lying, telling them something somewhat plausible, but they’d known it was false as soon as it left his lips. That time, they played particularly rough Games with him.
            Milton couldn’t hold himself up anymore, so he let himself flop down onto the floor, his arm still against the window and his head pressed down onto his arm. It wouldn’t be long. Sleep was on its way. Cruel sleep. One time, while he slept, he woke up to impossibly bright lights. He assumed this was another Game, only to realize he had dreamt it, and the chamber was still pitch-black.
            “I’m sorry to wake you, please, drink this.”
            Milton jolted at the voice. Dread was all he felt. There was little joy to be had in wakefulness. The Games were about to begin once again.
            “Don’t be frightened. Try to sit up and drink this.”
            It was a different voice: soft, stately. But it was still dark. Milton strained to prop himself up. There was a terrible smell in the air, like burned rubber and cigarettes. “Who’s there?”
            “Call me the Diplomat. Here, hold out your hand where I can see it.”
            “How can you see anything?”
            “It’s what I do.” The Diplomat’s hand had found Milton’s. At first Milton thought that there was something wrong with the Diplomat’s skin, but then realized that he was wearing leather gloves. Milton found himself holding a hot mug. “Now drink this.”
            “What is it?”
            “It’s coffee.”
            Milton carefully brought the mug to his mouth. He sipped. The liquid was the bitterest thing he had ever tasted, burning as it went down his throat. He coughed, spraying some of the foul liquid from his mouth.
            “I know it doesn’t taste very good, but you’ll need it. I should be going. It's important that it doesn't know I'm here. Drink the whole mug, Jack.”
            “What is this stuff?” said Milton. There was no response. Slowly, he began to realize that the room was not completely dark. Far in the distance, outside of his cell, there was a faint, orange light. As his eyes adjusted, he found that his cell was completely empty except for himself and the mug in his hand.
            There was nothing left to do at this point. He took a deep breath, exhaled, and downed the coffee. Suddenly it was very bright, the orange flood lamp, so far from his cell, igniting like a new sun, as if it were focused entirely into his eyes. And then the smell grew stronger – fire and plastic, coffee, oil, cigarettes. The light was blinding.
            And then it was gone.
            And right there, beyond Milton's window, standing mere inches from the glass, there was a man with no face.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Town Meeting


            Harrick was on his second mug of hot cocoa. The winter winds had picked up, and the bay was iced, so the Carving Boats were out in force, breaking a path for the ships to come in.
            Port O’James was protected by a huge system of breakers, but the stillness of the water sometimes allowed ice to form. Even in the middle of summer there was still a bit of snow around here. In winter, snow and ice were the rule rather than the exception.
            Chief Tanner had sent Harrick to the meeting while Sweeney brought the representatives of the Thunderbird Transport Company to survey the Ostrich. The company had sprung for an airship, so it only took them three days to arrive from the office in Port Sang. Thankfully, Port O’James had a protocol for situations like these – a relic of the days when the dead woke up more often.
            Sure, there was the Bone King over in Ganlea, but he was two oceans away, and had always been more of an isolationist. In the past, though, Port O’James had to deal with the dead almost as much as they did the snow. That had all ended a hundred years ago, so he could understand why the people were making such a fuss.
            The town hall was a large room with an uncomfortably low ceiling. Several plastic chairs had been placed in rows for those who wanted to have their say. Technically, the event on the Ostrich was still a secret, but this wasn’t a big town, and rumors spread quickly.
            Mayor Harlaw banged his gavel on the table. Harlaw had bristly, iron-grey hair, and a thick dockworker’s accent. “All right, all right, settle down. Please, sit down. Captain Richards, sit down.”
            The crowd settled down and the mayor cleared his throat. “Ok. A lot of you have been hearing some rumors about the ship moored out on pier 37. It is important that we set the record straight, so we can begin to prepare for any measures we might decide to take here today. Please allow me to introduce to you Detective Inspector Max Harrick, who will be providing a statement from the Enforcement Department. Detective Inspector?”
            Harrick nodded and pulled his microphone forward. He cleared his throat. “Thank you, Mayor Harlaw. At 12:32 on the morning of the 13th, communications were lost with the Ostrich, a freighter owned by the Arizradna-run Thunderbird Transport Company. At around 4:45, the Ostrich landed at pier 37 using an automated navigational system. After repeated attempts at communication with the ship’s crew, dockworkers boarded to find that the crew was missing. At this point, enforcement was contacted, and I arrived at the scene with Detective Ana Sweeney. After searching the ship, we discovered only one remaining crew member, a Captain Yeeves, who had been deceased for several hours. We do not yet know the cause of death, but it appears to have been of a violent nature. Upon further investigation, Detective Sweeney and I discovered within the ship’s hold… human remains of… an animate nature.”
            One of the townspeople yelled out. “What the hell is that supposed to mean.”
            Harrick looked up and paused to search for appropriate words. “The remains were… they had…”
            “They were undead?” yelled another person.
            “Yes.”
            The room erupted. To Harrick it seemed that he was the only one not trying to shout over the crowd. Mayor Harlaw banged his gavel, and continued for a full minute before the room began to settle down.
            “Quiet! Shut up!” yelled the mayor. Finally there was relative quiet. “Please, continue, Detective Inspector.”
            Harrick nodded. “The remains were kept in isolation for two hours, after which a unit from the Fire Department was brought in to destroy the bodies. All fifty-three corpses were incinerated within the Ostrich’s hold, and what remained of them has been disposed of according to established hazardous material procedures. We have nothing to fear from these… things anymore.”
            “Yes, but what happens when more of them come?” shouted one of the townspeople, a woman who appeared to be in her late forties, still bundled up in a thick coat and fur hat.
            “We have had no indication that this is anything other than an isolated incident.”
            “Yeah, and what about what happened to Altonin? What if this is related?”
            Harrick leaned over to the mayor. “Altonin?”
            “Town a couple tracks north. Whole place burned to the ground about six years ago.”
            Harrick addressed the woman in the hat. “I’m not sure I understand, miss...”
            She stood. “Captain Jane Bergen, of the Fossegrimen. I think we’ve all heard about Altonin. They say when they found it burnt to the ground, there were dead possessors among the humans. Six years might seem like a long time, but it’s not – not to them. Altonin was attacked, and now the Ostrich.”
            Captain Richards stood up. He was a lean, muscular man with dark hair. His was the N√łkken, though he owned several other ships. “Shut up, Jane. They said it was an isolated incident. Don’t you all remember last month when she said there were Agents of the House operating out of pier 19?”
            “Are you calling me a liar, Richards?”
            “No, I’m saying you have an overactive imagination.”
            “They found draugar in the hold of this ship. I didn’t imagine that, did I?”
            They both turned to Harrick. He took another sip of his cocoa. “Well, I will concede that this is not exactly an everyday occurrence. Hell, I was scared shitless when I saw those things in the hold of the ship. We don’t know what’s really going on. The dead have been there, deep in the woods. I don’t think any of us thought they were gone for good. But they’ve never come this far, even back then. Still haven’t, at least by land.”
            “But if they killed everyone in Altonin…” began Captain Bergen.
            “We can’t jump to conclusions until we get the facts,” said the mayor. “Rest assured, it is not my intention, nor the Enforcement Department’s, that we simply ignore this incident and move on as if nothing happened. We will begin a full investigation. I am already coordinating with Colonial Defense to establish a perimeter around Port O’James. This town is not going anywhere. We will be prepared for whatever comes. I will only ask that everyone please try to be patient, but also be vigilant. Check your holds, keep watch on your ships, especially at night.”
            After the meeting ended, and the crowd filtered out, Mayor Harlaw pulled Harrick aside. “Max, we’ve got to talk.” Harlaw led him into a small office away from the building’s entrance. “Sit down.”
            He did, bending his bad leg slowly. “What is it?”
            Harlaw took a breath. “This morning they found another ship.”
            “Another ship?”
            “Down in Port Sang. This one was Narcian. Whole crew was dead. Looked like poison. Hold was full of draugar, a couple possessors and a stitch. They weren’t so lucky. Two officers were killed putting down the stitch.”
            “Bloody hell.”
            “The crew was poisoned, Max. And one of the lifeboats was missing.”
            Harrick rubbed his eyes. "I guess that makes this more complicated."

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Offices part 2


            There weren’t enough chairs for everyone to sit, but most of the crew found places to lean against the walls or simply sat on the floor. They would have to stay here until the storm passed. Inside the smell was less offensive, but the stench of tobacco compensated. The bitter man, as Tartin had come to think of him, was sitting on a metal-framed chair, his arms resting on the kitchen table, in front of him was a mug of coffee, a pack of cigarettes, and an ashtray.
            Because it was a kitchen, probably. There was an electric ice-box that hummed loudly, and a sink. On the counter there was a percolator. The smell of the coffee was nearly as strong as the tobacco. Unfortunately, Tartin could tell just by the smell that it was the worst coffee in the world.
            He rolled the mug around his hand. The coffee was pitch-black. He had never refused food or drink from a host before. It was one of the first things they’d taught you when you joined the Exploratory Commission. The sharing of food is a fundamental human bonding technique, and to refuse it when offered… well, there would probably have been fewer wars if people would just shut up and eat.
            “Cheers,” he said, and then drank. The coffee was the most bitter thing he had ever tasted. As he swallowed it, his mouth felt raw and burnt. He hoped his disgust was not apparent.
            Nascine watched in horror as the bitter man poured another mug and offered it to her. She smiled – too wide – and took a sip. Her eyes were open very wide. She set the mug on the table. “Thank you very much for your hospitality. We did not expect to encounter such a violent storm out here in the desert, especially in the summer.”
            The bitter man nodded and finished his coffee. He stood and slowly walked to the percolator to pour himself another cup. “The storms aren’t from here. None of this is, none of this should be here, you understand?”
            “I’m not sure that I do,” said Tartin.
            “One day, and that day is going to come sooner than you’d think, the white one is going to cross the gap. That’s why they came here, to pave the way.”
            “Who are they? The ones you were talking about? You said they didn’t have faces?”
            “It’s worse than that. They don’t have… I can’t really say it. It’s not a question of not wanting to. I don’t have the words. They aren’t really… well, they aren’t. That’s the whole point.”
            “How did you come here?”
            The bitter man sat up at this. “How did I…?” He shook his head. “Never thought about that. It was a long time ago, I know that for sure. Been here, watching, waiting. They… no, this time I really shouldn’t tell.”
            Nascine shot a glance over at Tartin. It was a familiar glance. It was the “abandon ship” glance. Tartin was tempted, but the rain out there was too intense. It had only grown stronger. Franklin was keeping watch on the camels. The tarps they had thrown over their backs were growing splotchy white, bleached by the storm.
            The bitter man seemed to have forgotten about them. He was staring deep into his coffee. Nascine leaned over. “We should go.”
            Tartin whispered, looking to see if the bitter man was listening. “We can’t go while that storm is still out there. Let me talk to him, see if we can find out… well, what the hell is going on.”
            He cleared his throat. The bitter man looked up. “Oh, how long was I sitting there?”
            “Only a couple minutes.”
            “Good. I lost track once.”
            “Does someone come here to bring you food? Do you have a way of getting to town?”
            “They give me all I need here.”
            Tartin sighed. “We haven’t seen anyone else here. Faceless or not.”
            “Oh, they’re there. I can assure you of that. How else would I get my coffee?”
            Tartin felt himself about to retch. The coffee felt like it was burning a hole in his stomach. “Who are they?”
            The man set down his coffee and sighed with exasperation. “I’ve told you. They’re not. They aren’t whos. They aren’t whats, either. They’re not from here.”
            “Where are they from?”
            “The Space Between. But you and I both know there is no space between. I tried to leave once, but they turned me around. Don’t know why they keep me here. They do give me coffee, though, so I guess they can’t be all bad. And I do have my privacy.” He picked up the pack of cigarettes from the table and pulled one out. He tapped it against the case and raised it to his mouth, but then stopped, lowering it. “Say, does one of you have a gun?”
            Tartin set his mug down. “Why do you ask?”
            “I was thinking I’d blow my brains out.”
            Everyone was speechless. The bitter man shrugged and put the cigarette in his mouth. He pulled a matchbook from his pocket and struck it. The glow of it was surprisingly intense. Tartin wondered why it looked so bright. True, the light here was low, but the flame seemed so great, like a tiny star.
            “Gil, are you ok?” asked Nascine.
            Tartin shut his eyes against the light. “I’m fine, I just… Oh!”
            Two of them were standing there, flanking the bitter man. They both stood about six feet tall
            Exactly six feet…
            and they were both wearing crisp white shirts and black suits with black ties. And neither had a face. Where there should have been a face was just skin – or rather the mockery of skin, a rubbery, shiny facsimile, stretched taut over a rib-like  pattern that made Tartin think of an old carbon microphone. Tartin’s shock was such that he fell backward out of his chair. He scrambled to his feet and ran out the door.
            The rain was still coming down, and hard. He could feel it burning his skin, but he didn’t care. His heart was racing, and he could hardly breathe. And then he stopped. Because he now realized there were far more than two of them.
            Out of every window, in every building, there were hundreds, and hundreds of them, all looking, seeing him without eyes, watching him without faces. There had to be thousands, all looking down on him from the windows.
            He sank to his knees. The rain had turned black.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Night Out


            Jack Milton locked his door and descended the steps to the sidewalk, where Mark was waiting. He was wearing a conservative but stylish black coat, and a crisp, dark shirt underneath. He had allowed a couple days’ worth of stubble to grow – he’d had good responses the last time with that.
            “All right, Jack. Where are we headed tonight?” asked Mark. Mark had a light shirt, and he wore light brown slacks. Jen had clearly gotten to him. Only two weeks together and already Mark was looking like a married man.
            Mark was kind of a serial monogamist. Jack practically shivered at the thought, but the fact remained that Mark had always made a good wingman. He was like an asexual honey trap.
            “Asexual? Dude, I’m getting laid more than you are,” said Mark.
            “I doubt that very much.”
            “So, we going to Roundhouse?”
            Milton shook his head. “No, they’ve got a live band on weekends. Let’s go to the Rookery.”
            Even in the winter, it was rarely snowy in Reben, even though it was up in the mountains. Despite the cold, the streets were alive with college kids bar-hopping and street performers. Mark and Jack walked down Boulder Street, a wide pedestrian walk favored by clowns, jugglers, and musicians.
            The Rookery was relatively new, with an old-fashioned Retron vibe. It was coffee bar – they served both alcohol and coffee, making it extremely popular with RLAU students.
            They surveyed the scene. “Ok, short brunette in the corner,” said Mark.
            “Possibly…”
            “You don’t seem too enthusiastic.” Mark shrugged. He was a pretty accommodating wingman. Jack was aware that he had somewhat fickle tastes. They sat there for half an hour. Mark nursed a beer while Jack started off with his customary hard coffee.
            And then he saw her. There she was, right there, sitting in the bar. How could she be there? Mark leaned over. “So, the blonde?”
            “What?”
            “You seem interested in that blonde chick. Want your introduction?”
            Jack remembered why he was there in the first place. “I… hang on a second.” He tried to get a better look, make sure it really was that “June” woman. The blonde at the bar turned her head.
            No, of course not. The woman who called herself June was still several stories underground in Castlebrook. There was no way she’d gotten out. Even if she had managed to, they would have let him know immediately. He pulled out his cell phone. No missed calls – well, none except from his brother, but that wasn’t exactly uncommon.
            “So, Jack, are we go or not?”
            Jack put his phone back. Now that he actually got a good look at the blonde woman, yes, she was pretty attractive. Certainly worth a shot. He nodded to Mark.
            Mark got up and leaned up against the bar next to her. He ordered a round of beers and then, in his practiced and perfected way, nodded hello to the blonde woman.
            “Having a good evening?”
            The woman looked up. “I’m fine. How’s yours?”
            “Doing great. Just out here with my buddy Jack over there.” He pointed back to Jack. “He’s really wound too tight, if you ask me. Needs to relax.”
            The woman leaned back, smiling skeptically. “That so?”
            “Yeah, well, you know, he just closed a giant case. He’s with National Enforcement.”
            “Really?” Jack smiled. She was on the hook.
            “Oh yeah, heads his own team, and I keep trying to tell him to take it easy. He’s not even thirty, and he’s already put away… well, you know, I shouldn’t be telling you all this.”
            “Why, is it a secret? Some kind of secret missions?” She was clearly trying to play skeptical, but Jack could see her resistance wearing down.
            “No, nothing secret, I just think you should hear it from him. He tells the stories much better than I do.”
            The blonde woman shrugged and followed Mark to the table. “Hey Jack, this is…” He turned to her. “Sorry, what was your name?”
            “Hannah.”
            “Jack, I think you should tell Hannah about the time you fought off all four of those cultists at once while diffusing a bomb.”
            Hannah laughed. “Bullshit.”
            Jack nodded, smiling. “Absolutely. I don’t know what kind of drivel Mark’s been telling you. It was five.” Hannah burst out laughing. Clearly she wasn’t here for the coffee. Mark quietly left the table.

            Jack heard the crash and was awake immediately. He reached under the mattress and pulled out his gun. His head was throbbing. The night was a bit blurry. For a split second, he thought he’d imagined the crash.
            He got up, dressed only in his boxers, the gun held low. He could hear footsteps and low voices.  He flipped the safety off and approached the door. As he reached the knob, it swung open with incredible force, slamming him into the wall.
            Someone grabbed his wrist and smashed it against the wall until he dropped the gun. For a moment, Jack was disoriented, but then he realized he was on the ground. He could feel a bruise forming on the side of his face where the door hit him.
            There were five strange men in his room. Four of them were dressed the same, all black clothing, hoods over their heads just far enough to conceal their faces without blocking their view. The fifth was a very tall man in his mid-to-late fifties. He wore thick spectacles and was mostly bald. While the younger men carried submachine guns, the spectacled man was unarmed.
            “You just made a big fucking mistake,” said Jack, his voice weak from the hangover. “Do you know who I am?”
            Spectacles smiled. “We know exactly who you are, Commander Milton. You’ll be coming with us now. He leaned down and picked up Milton’s gun.
            “Like hell I will.”
            Spectacles nodded, and then pointed the gun down and fired. Jack’s knee exploded in pain. “All right, let’s get him on his feet. One and three, you get him up.”
            Two of the hooded men gripped Jack by his shoulders and lifted. Even leaning on them, the pain in his leg was like lightning all the way up his left side. One of the other hoods – presumably two or four – pointed out the blonde woman in Jack’s bed.
            “What about her, sir?”
            Spectacles lifted the covers, exposing her, naked. Jack struggled to turn around. “She’s just a…” yelled Milton.
            “Indeed she is,” replied Spectacles, and shot her twice in the chest.
            Jack twisted and shook, but the men holding onto him were too strong. They dragged him into the hallway, out the door, and down to the street. There was a steam-cart parked outside, long and dark-grey. The street-lights threw everything into stark, black-and-white contrast.
            A door slid open on the side of the cart and another hooded man leaned out. “C’mon, c’mon, quick,” he called. Suddenly, everything went dark. They had put a black bag over his head. Jack was shoved, and he flew head-first into the cart.
            They drove for a few hours. His head was reeling. He tried to remember the name of the woman who had come home with him. Ennah? Harriet? Something like that. He found it easier to feel guilty over what had happened to her than to think about what was coming for him.
            When they dragged him out of the cart, they marched him up an incline. He was absolutely freezing, his wrists tied together with tight knots. There was snow on the ground, and it bit at his bare feet.
            And then they were inside. At the very least the wind couldn’t chill him anymore, but it was still quite cold. He had traded snow for frigid concrete, then later linoleum.
            He found himself experiencing the world through his feet. No one spoke, and it was too quiet to gauge anything from sound.
            The linoleum was an elevator. They were descending. He found himself thinking of Castlebrook. They stepped out, and now they were in a place that smelled somewhat damp, though at least it was a bit warmer.
            “Ok, here is good,” he heard muffled through the bag. They pulled it off and dropped him. He landed on the wounded knee, and then fell to his side, crying in pain. They were in a large room, dimly lit. Spectacles stood above him.
            “What do you want?” Jack managed to get out between winces of pain.
            “We know that June Greene escaped. You’re not going anywhere until you tell us where she went.”

Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012

Monday, February 13, 2012

The New Shipment


            Harrick pulled the ear-flaps down on his hat. The cold winds were blowing stronger now in Port O’ James, as they had been for the last few years. It played horrible games with the old wound. Judy had suggested he get a cane, but Harrick had too much pride for that. It’s hard to be intimidating when you’re leaning on a cane. Well, maybe if you were rich you could pull it off, but the last thing he needed was the dockworkers seeing him hardly able to stand.
            There was an immense yellow-tape fence around the entire ship. The “Ostrich” was its name. Strange name for a ship, Harrick thought. He ducked under the tape and a young uniform came up to him.
            “Ok, what’s the gist?”
            “The ship came into harbor, but the crew’s missing.”
            “They docked, though?”
            “Yes sir.”
            The dock master was a new one. In fact, Harrick hadn’t yet met him. Most of the dockworkers hated enforcement, so he resolved to be brief and succinct. The dock master told him nothing he didn’t already know. At four that morning, the Ostrich came in to dock at pier 37. The communication center had been in contact with the ship’s captain, a man named Yeeves, within four hours of the ship’s landing, but they were unable to get a response after that.
            After the ship landed, a few dockworkers boarded, only to discover the entire crew had disappeared. It was a real mystery, but weren’t those happening more often than they used to these days?
            It was a big ship – a freighter. Port O’James wasn’t a huge town, but it was an important stop on the route to the south. Lots of ships came this way, north around Elderland. The waters were cold and there was ice to watch out for, but most companies and most captains were happy to brave the frigid waters if it meant avoiding the constant battles between the Red and Black Sails. After sailing for hundreds and hundreds of tracks through bitter frozen wilderness, with nothing but snow, trees, and ice on the shores, Port O’ James looked like a massive metropolis.
            Detective Sweeney was already on board when Harrick pulled himself up the gangplank. Sweeney was a good kid, just shy of thirty. She had great potential, but it was tough being a woman in Port O’ James enforcement. They were a bit old-fashioned here.
            “Anything interesting?” Harrick asked.
            Sweeney looked at her notes. “Not much, though we’re still sweeping through. It’s a big ship. Perry-class freighter registered to the Thunderbird Transport Company.”  That could be something. Perry ships were common enough, but they were particularly popular with smugglers. It was going to be a long day.
            “Have you looked in the containers?” Harrick asked. There were about a thousand of the things, so he guessed the answer was no.
            “Not yet. We’re going through the crew chambers. Sir, one important thing.”
            “Yes?”
            “We can’t get into the bridge.”
            “What do you mean?”
            “Here, come. Let me show you.” Sweeney and Harrick made their way aft and climbed up the stairs leading to the bridge. There was a small sort of lounge – not quite a crew’s mess, but perhaps something for the bridge officers, with an electric icebox and a light-oven. In front of the door to the bridge, there was a giant iron bar that had fallen from the ceiling. It seemed to be part of the structure of the ship – the ceiling and roof above the lounge. The bar, and much of the debris that had come with it, made access to the bridge impossible.
            “Is there another way in?” asked Harrick. Sweeney shook her head. “Can we at least see inside?”
            “There’s a row of windows, of course, but it’s too high up.”
            Harrick walked out onto the balcony on the port side of the lounge. Still, at this angle, one could hardly see into the bridge. He noticed that there was a small ledge, only about eight inches wide, but it went around the entire bridge. Sweeney followed him out, gasping slightly at the shock of cold air.
            “What are you looking for?”
            Harrick furrowed his brow. “Stay here, I’m going to try to take a look.”
            He climbed up, gripping to the bars between the windows, and carefully placing his feet on the ledge. “Sir, don’t do that. It doesn’t look safe.”
            Harrick shook his head. “I’ll be fine.” He looked down. The fall was about forty feet. He tried not to think about that. Slowly, he inched his way around, taking care to make sure one foot was totally stable before he lifted the next. It took nearly a full minute, but finally he was able to see into the bridge.
            “Well, there’s Captain Yeeves, alright,” he called back to Sweeney.
            “Is he ok?”
            “Nope.” Yeeves was slumped against the door, a big chunk torn out of his lower torso. The floor around him – indeed, most of the floor of the bridge – was dark with blood.
            When they finally cleared the debris enough to get into the bridge, Harrick and Sweeney searched through the room. There had been a struggle, but it was brief. Yeeves was the only person inside.
            Sweeney was talking to one of the uniforms. “We need a secure perimeter. We don’t know what did this, but it might still be here. Nothing gets off unless we check it, double check it, and you get mine or Detective Inspector Harrick’s express approval.”
            Harrick looked over the instrument panel. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary. They did seem a little low on fuel, but they had been sailing all the way from Ternison, and strong easterly winds could easily account for that.
            “Hey Sweeney, how’d they manage to land the ship if the crew’s gone?”
            “It’s an Arizradna ship. They enchant them. Kind of an automated guidance system.” Harrick nodded. Magic always made him uncomfortable. It was a random variable.
            He looked at the instruments again. Sweeney walked over to him. “What are you looking for?”
            Harrick shook his head. “I don’t know, but it’s probably staring me in the face.” And then he saw it. There was a little light, glowing yellow, near the far end of the control panel. “What’s that?”
            Sweeney took a look. “It says ‘Hold Power.’ Maybe it means the lights, or something?”
            Harrick thought it over for a second. “I don’t think so. Let’s go take a look.”
            Most of the containers on the ship were simply stacked on the deck. Ships like these were relatively flat. Harrick and Sweeney made their way down to the deck. There was a spiral staircase leading into the bowels of the ship.
            “You know, Sweeney, whatever killed the captain is probably still here.”
            “Way ahead of you, sir,” replied Sweeney. She already had her gun drawn.
            They reached the bottom of the stairs. It was pretty dark down here, with just a single bare bulb illuminating the hallway. Harrick pulled out his flashlight and pointed it in front of him, gripped next to his gun. They followed the hallway until they were almost near the bow of the ship. Here, they came to a large, heavy door. Above it was a sign that said “COLD STORAGE.”
            “Well?” asked Sweeney.
            Harrick shrugged. He turned the wheel on the door and swung it open. If it had seemed cold outside, the air rushing past them was positively bone-chilling. There was a strangely biting smell, like alcohol or vinegar. They stepped inside the room.
            “Oh, what the fuck?” cried Sweeney, turning to look away. Harrick hardly had the capacity for such eloquence. He just stared. The cold storage room was packed – utterly packed – with corpses. They had been piled in, stacked like firewood. Sweeney had gotten over her momentary revulsion and looked again.
            “Is this the crew?” she asked.
            “I don’t know. I doubt it. The crew was mostly Arizradna, these…” he looked at the bodies, getting a strange feeling from them.
            “What?”
            “These look like Redlanders, or possibly locals, maybe Ganlean…” Something moved in the corner of his eye. He pointed his flashlight at it, only to find one of the corpses staring back at him with dead, sightless eyes. He could taste bile rising up in the back of his throat.
            Sweeney took a step toward the bodies. “Well, we should get forensics down here, see if we can identify some of the remains.”
            “Sweeney, stop, come back to me right now.”
            She froze in her tracks. “What?”
            “Come back, right now, don’t ask why, just come here.”
            She did what he told her to do. Harrick shined the flashlight at the corpses. Disgustingly enough, they seemed wet, which was odd, considering the temperature at which they were kept.
            “Sweeney, please tell me that you’re seeing what I’m seeing.”
            He flipped off his flashlight. The dead eyes, all of their dead eyes, were emitting a faint, blue glow. And then the corpses began to move.
            Sweeney was out first, Harrick slammed the door shut behind him and cranked the wheel so tightly that he could feel a bruise forming on the inside of his hand.
            “What the hell was that?” yelled Sweeney.
            “I don’t know for sure, but we need lots and lots of fire down here, right now."


(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Offices, part 1


            It was too damn hot. Tartin pulled the scarf down from his mouth and took a swig from his canteen. The water was hot and tasted of metal, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. The people at Cheenra had provided them with more suitable desert clothing, along with camels and maps. Cheenra’s mayor has feasted them before they left. Tartin had traveled a great deal in his career with the Royal Rookery, but he had never been treated as well as he was by the Arizradna. The fact of the matter, as much as people at home liked to deny it, was that most people did not like the Retrons. Even those in Narcia, Retrein’s oldest ally, looked down on Tartin’s people as a nation of thieves and criminals.
            But the Arizradna has always been a bit more enlightened. It was their way. On the other hand, in a village as remote as Cheenra, they may have simply not known all the proper stereotypes. His band might have been the first Retrons – or even the first Ganleans – the people there had ever encountered.
            There were twenty of them. They had started off as twenty-three. Fenshaw got ill when they docked in Carathon and was left to recuperate. They had been stuck on Hosos for a while after the dock was closed during a Black Sails attack – nothing serious, really just a brief show of strength – but it was during this that Rogers and Kilarny got themselves killed in a bar fight. That was three months ago now, and since then they’d managed to keep thing under control.
            Crossing the Sarona Desert was something he had always wanted to do, but now, a mere two weeks in, he was beginning to think it was impossible. They had only reached the first oasis when they were down to their last twenty gallons of water. On the third day of month two, the air began to grow thick and muggy. In front of them was a storm cloud. They hastily put up shelter, but the wind was so strong that it threatened to take the tents with it.
            Tartin pulled out his map. Nascine approached him, her jacket held up to protect the electric torch she was pointing at it.
            “The nearest waystation is three tracks away,” Tartin shouted over the sound of the rain. How could the rain be so hot?
            Nascine freed one of her hands and pointed to a path drawn on the map. “This road should take us there. Why does it bend that way?” Indeed, the faint line went due east, but then suddenly turned south, making a large semicircle before returning to its original latitude.
            “I don’t know,” said Tartin. “There could be a mountain, or something.” That didn’t seem likely. Most of the mountains were marked on the map. The area with the semicircle around it was completely blank.
            “Mountains could mean a cave, or at least a cliff wall or something. It’s only a few miles away.” Nascine was staring at him, waiting for a response. One of the men cracked a joke and the other laughed, but the camels were beginning to panic.
            “Ok, let’s go take a look.” He turned around to address the crew. “We continue east. Be on the lookout for high ground.”
            The went on for another hour, and Tartin’s hot sweat mixed with the hot rain. The smell was atrocious. He began to notice that the rain stung when it landed on his bare skin. The air was filled with a disgusting stench. He raised his scarf back over his face, but where the water had soaked in, the smell was worse.
            They came to a rise in the road, and when they reached the top, that was where they saw it.
            In the distance, where the road swept down and to the right, there was a huge cluster of buildings. They were enormous, rising sixty, seventy stories into the air. Despite the darkness, there was no light coming from them. Nascine smiled.
            “Well there’s a spot of luck. Another abandoned Djinn city. Let’s see if we can make camp inside.” Tartin nodded. The crew began to press onward, leaving the road where it bent south and trudging through the sand. It was very hard-packed in these parts, but the rain was turning it into a grainy paste.
            Many of the camels were stubborn, and they were already upset about the stinging rain. With a great deal of effort, however, they were finally able to get them to leave the road.
            As they entered the city, the buildings loomed over them. They were enormous, packed next to each other. There were no real streets here. In fact, there was something troubling about the buildings that Tartin could not quite put his finger on.
            “Where are the cars?” he asked.
            Nascine looked around. “I hadn’t noticed they were missing.” She looked around, down the canyons the skyscrapers made. None of the Djinn’s strange fire-powered vehicles were anywhere to be seen. “Maybe they took them when they abandoned the city?”
            “I’ve never been to a Djinn city before,” said Tartin. “But I’ve seen the photographs. They never took the cars. Look around you. There are no street-lights. There’s no road, even. It’s just these buildings. The Djinni always covered theirs with glass, or trimmed them with shining metals.”
            They looked up. Every building was just blank, brown-grey, rectangular and filled with evenly spaced windows.
            A young scout, Franklin, ran up to Tartin. “Sir, we found a light.” Franklin led Tartin around a corner and pointed out a faint light, perhaps ten blocks away. It was getting darker. The light was at ground level. Tartin pulled out his binoculars and took a look. There was light coming out of a window. Someone had to be here.
            “Right, make for the light. Let’s get us some shelter.”
            By the time they had reached the light, the rain had gotten heavier. There was thunder in the clouds, but only the faintest hint of lightning. Tartin stood outside the building – the light was coming out through a window near the door. He knocked.
            “Hello? Is there anyone there? My name is Gilbert Tartin, with the Royal Exploratory Commission of Retrein.” No response. “We’re not here to steal anything,” Tartin said, hoping whoever was in there had a sense of humor.
            Humor or not, he did begin to hear movement inside. A latch was undone on the door, and it slowly slid open.
            The man standing there looked extremely tired. He appeared to be about sixty, wearing a white cotton shirt and brown slacks. He had white, messy hair, and not much of it. “You shouldn’t be out during the rain. Don’t you know it’s acidic?”
            A horrid smell of burned coffee came off the man like a fog. There was another smell underneath, like the black, viscous fluid the Djinni used to power their cars. It smelt of fire and death.
            The man looked out at Tartin’s exhausted crew. “You had better come in. But leave the beasts outside. Find something to put over them you don’t mind getting ruined. The rains here are hell.”
            “Is there a way into some of the other buildings? We need shelter until the rains have passed.”
            The man rubbed his temples. “You don’t want to go into the other buildings. They’ve been watching you. They probably saw you coming here from miles away.”
            “Who did? Who saw us?”
            The man shrugged. “They’re not really people.”
            Tartin had to fight the urge to physically shudder. “What do you mean?”
            The man put a hand over his face. “No faces.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Lower Block


            Castlebrook prison was a very old one, dating back before the Brothers’ War. A flight of stone angels stood guard over the grand entryway, past the first gate. It was winter, and the wind pressed the snow into the wall, where it stuck like moss. The eight-pointed star of Kerahn and the Royal Seal of Jarsa, still visible in the edifice most days, were now almost entirely obscured.
            The prisoners would normally be allowed into the yard, but it was feared that if the northern winds picked up there could be a cold snap, and already the warden had raised concerns about the heating of such a large, stone building in the low temperatures they were recording.
            Milton could feel that his hat had grown heavier from the snow. He would be happy to go inside as soon as possible. When he reached the door – a large, solid piece of fairly unceremonious pine – he reluctantly removed one of his gloves to press the intercom button. Merely removing the glove made it feel as if he had plunged his hand into a bucket of icy water, and the intercom button gave a great deal of resistance as he pushed it.
            “Castlebrook Main,” said the voice on the other end.
            “Yes, I’m Commander Milton, from Central Enforcement. I should be expected.”
            There was a pause of about a minute. Milton struggled to put the glove back on, the feeling in his hands quickly fading. The door buzzed and Milton, sighing with great relief, entered.

            Milton had only been to Castlebrook a few times, and most of those were early in his career in the Narcian National Enforcement Department. He had forgotten quite how old the building felt. Though he was only in the front-house, he already felt the smallness experienced by someone in an ancient castle. The room had the original electric lights, which flickered almost like torches. Castlebrook was a historic building – here Last King Gerrard had been held while Orsod was in control of the country. This was also where a number of renegade Vindicators were held after the rebellion. In fact, Milton knew more about this prison than it was likely its warden did. A pair of officers received him and he was brought to the warden’s office.
The warden’s office was stiflingly hot – the room had not one, but two fireplaces, and each held a roaring inferno within. Milton took his gloves off, almost preferring the biting cold. He mused that he must look somewhat ridiculous – he wore a scarf over his nose and mouth, making him look somewhat like an Arizradna desert ranger, he thought. Milton took off his hat and lowered his scarf, allowing the warden to see his face.
The warden was a fairly unremarkable man – a military veteran, Milton assumed, but he did not find the man interesting enough to inquire. He simply presented the documentation he had brought. The warden was careful to check and double-check Milton’s information – something Milton did not resent. In fact, he was glad that they seemed to take such precaution.
            Castlebrook was, for the most part, a standard prison. The men here were convicted of serious crimes – usually violent ones, though there were a few arsonists and thieves. The guards were well-trained and professional, and of all the major prisons in the country, this was the best organized and maintained. Part of this was due to an effective staff, but the reality was that the government provided Castelbrook with the most elite staff and garrison for a very good reason.
            Milton left the front-house to enter the prison proper. This involved the opening of yet another large, iron gate. The main building was not nearly as hot as the front-house, but Milton was glad to see that it was still at a reasonably habitable temperature.
            This changed as he descended with his escort into the dungeons. The cold of the earth seeped into these levels. Milton walked through halls and halls of madmen, most screaming or acting out upon seeing a new face.
            Milton now passed the cell in which King Gerrard had been held. There was a man occupying it. Unlike the other madmen, he was very calm, though he appeared quite sad, like a child who has lost its mother.
            “Please, good sir. You must help me.”
            Milton looked at the madman. He was a tall man, one who had clearly been quite corpulent in the past but had, in prison, become quite thin. He did not appear unhealthy, though.
            “My looks may have changed, but surely you recognize your true king, Gerrard. I have been placed here as a political prisoner by that traitor, Orsod. You must release me so that I might reunite the nation once more.”
            Milton bent to his desire to respond. “You do know that Orsod died a thousand years ago. As did Gerrard.”
            “It says this on the plaque.” The prisoner pointed at an old, commemorative plaque on the wall across from the cell. “It’s all I have to read now that they took my books away.”
            “Why did they take your books away?”
            “They said it was because I would not stop eating them.”
            Milton shrugged and continued on his way. He came to an intersection of corridors where a circular door rested in the floor. Milton took a key from one of the guards and opened it. He told the guards to wait for him there and descended down into the very lowest block.
            After climbing several stories’ worth of ladder, Milton finally hit the floor. This level did not have any electric lighting, and was instead illuminated by candles and torches. The halls did not seem much like a prison at all. There was an intricate carpet here and paintings hung on the walls. It seemed rather more like some rich man’s manor house than a prison. Upon examining the carpeting and the paintings, he came to understand that these decorations were in fact more functional in nature. Throughout the carpeting, thousands of arcane glyphs were woven. The paintings, though they depicted scenes of Narcian history – the tribes of Narkios, the arrival of the gods, the founding of the Knights of Kerahn, various important battles – they all contained the same kinds of glyphs and sigils, enforcing the prison against all manner of magical manipulation.
            “You must be Milton.”
            Milton turned around and saw the speaker. Seated at a desk was a large golem, with a gleaming hue of silver. Milton took off his scarf and unbuttoned his outer coat.
            “And you are Tret, the keeper of the lower block?”
            The golem nodded and smiled.
            “I keep them all company here. Over the last month or so I’ve been reading them a history of the Sardok invasion. Number five has been correcting some of the errors in the book – you know she fought at Gensdon? And she’s one of the younger prisoners. Would you like to sit down? I was brewing some tea in anticipation of your arrival.”
            Milton agreed and drank the tea.
            “You’re coming to see number eight, as I understand.”
            Milton nodded.
            “I thought so. Most curious of them. You’ve been briefed, I assume?”
            “I was on the team that caught her.”
            “You know she insists that she is here by our mistake.”
            “That might be the case.”
            Tret rubbed his temple, producing a raw, grinding sound. “But you aren’t here to release here.”
            “Not yet. Given what we know, however, she could likely just release herself if she wanted.”
            Tret poured Milton more tea. “We’ve taken the usual precautions. The cell is enforced with silver and cold iron. Of course, today I suppose all iron is cold.”
            Milton chuckled. The golem had been down in this block for over a thousand years, but the weather today seemed to pervade even here.
            “I suppose I should go consult with the prisoner,” said Milton as he finished a second cup.
            “Her room is number eight – we don’t really have a need for prisoner numbers here.”
            Milton walked down the hallway. He was suddenly struck with the feeling that he was not deep underground at all, but walking through a strange, haunted house. Behind each of these doors must be a ghoul or ghost, waiting to pounce. Oddly, the fact that he actually knew what was behind these doors and, in most cases, they were worse, gave him a kind of rational comfort.
            Milton came to door eight and opened it.
            The room seemed larger than he would have expected. There was a fire in the fireplace and a bright electric light shining on an attractive writing desk. A small, but not entirely uncomfortable-looking bed took up much of the room. Everywhere there were stacks of paper and books.
            Sitting against a wall, her arms resting on her knees, was the prisoner. Milton could not help but gasp, only to catch himself and feel terribly ashamed. The prisoner – the woman he was looking at – was actually quite mundane in appearance. Physically and physiologically she was known to be entirely human. And, Milton thought, she certainly looked it.
            “Welcome to my oh-so-humble abode, Commander Milton,” said the prisoner. And that was when Milton really, truly came to realize that he was standing in the presence of a god.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Entering the World

Welcome to Dispatches From Otherworld. Here I plan to post very short pieces of fiction, most set in a place known as Otherworld. Currently the plan is to post three days a week, but we'll see how it works out. I hope you enjoy it.