Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Piece of Dust on the Glass

            Milton still hadn’t said anything. They had held him there for over a month now. Smiler – the one Milton had come to refer to as “Gold Tooth” during Question Time, was convinced that he didn’t know anything. The Greene woman was nowhere to be found. Walters was worried that this was a waste of time.
            Needler – Milton’s “Thin Woman” – approached him outside the soundproof barrier. Walters had known Needler from a previous operation, and had picked her specifically for this. Her real name was Alisandra Jennings, and you would never suspect that she was such an accomplished torturer. They’d drafted her out of National Intelligence back when she was a Safehouse administrator off in some hell-hole out in the Redlands. Her record was not perfect – whose was? But she never showed any hesitation. And she was a genius with the psychotropic concoctions she administered.
            Walters trusted her as far as he was willing to trust anyone. So when Needler approached him and told him what she had seen Milton do, he grew concerned.
            “He just stared there, out into the black? I don’t understand.”
            “Not the black. His eyes were focused on something nearby. Something just on the other side of the window.”
            Walters looked over the files, not entirely sure what he was looking for.
            “Could it be your drugs?”
            “No. Impossible. They all break down within an hour. They should be harmless.”
            “Well, we have been putting him through the ringer. Maybe he’s starting to crack.”
            “If he had cracked he would have talked by now.”
            Jennings stood there, rigid. Walters thought that she might be pretty if she put on a little weight. As she was, however, too much of her skull was visible beneath the flesh of her face. It was unsettling. It probably helped her do her job, though.
            “Smiler thinks he doesn’t know anything,” said Walters.
            “Smiler is an amateur. He’s just impatient.”
            Walters nodded and closed the file. “He hasn’t said anything to me about it. Actually, he hasn’t spoken much in the last few days. But I think you’re right. I sometimes see him glancing at something, like a spot of dust on the glass.”
            “Good,” said Needler. “I was starting to think I was going crazy.”
            “Not good. If Milton is, we’re going to be worse than where we started.”
            Needler sat down in the ratty office chair in the corner of the room. “Any news from the bosses?”
            “Nothing for you.”
            She seemed to take some kind of special offense at this and walked out of the room without another word. Walters rubbed his temples. He had been down here too long. Then it happened again.
            His foot was asleep. He had not been holding it in any particular position, but there it was, totally numb. He tried to wiggle the toes, but he could not.
            You’ve been sitting still too long. You need to get up and walk around.
            He climbed up from his chair, nearly falling when he put his weight on that foot. This had been happening for several days now. It wasn’t always his foot – sometimes it was his arm, or just a finger. One time, to his horror, it had been his entire chest. He was convinced he was having a heart attack, but after a few minutes the sensation - or rather, the lack thereof - passed. Afterward, there were never pins and needles, though. Just dead weight slowly drifting back into feeling.
            It was time for a trip to the facilities. He walked through a door, past the door into the cell room,
            There’s someone else in there, you know.
            and into the bathroom. What was that? He had just thought something… but it was gone. When he was finished, he washed his hands and looked in the mirror. The room was lit with old fluorescent lights. Walterss looked half a ghost. His skin was growing pale, and his hair looked grey. He was exhausted. He had not been out in the sun in far too long.
            But the orders were that they were to stay in the building with Milton. Barclay, that spectacled prick who dragged Milton there in the first place, had told him about fifty times. Perhaps Barclay had known it would take longer than Walters had expected.
            Walters had been recruited through his usual channels, and one of his trademarks was discretion. He would never ask for whom he was working, but it was usually pretty clear. The money would always come in to an anonymous account over on Hosos.
            Barclay had the look of Narcian Internal Defense – the military’s domestic intelligence network. Theoretically it wasn’t supposed to exist, but Walters had been working these sorts of operations long enough to know that no government played by its own rules.
            A quiet buzzing came from his watch. They were keeping Milton on a 30-hour day, which meant that Question Time came at a different hour every time. Unfortunately that meant that Walters had to adhere to a similarly confusing schedule. Walters walked back to his office and picked up his notes.
            He entered the cavernous room outside of Milton’s cell and placed his folding chair on the ground. He sat, then shuffled to the side with the chair to get a better view. Milton was staring at that spot on the window again.
            He began. “Commander, where is June Greene?”
            Milton smiled. “She’s in all of us. She’s in you, Shabby Man. Right here,” and he pointed to his heart.
            “I see you haven’t lost your sense of humor.”
            “Well, you’ve either got to laugh or you’ve got to cry, right?”
            “You haven’t been enjoying the Games lately, have you?”
            “Oh, you know, games can be fun, but they get a little tiresome after a while.”
            This behavior was surprising. The last time they had spoken, Milton appeared almost catatonic. “Jack, you seem to be in a pretty good mood.”
            “Well, don’t tell anyone, but I’m getting very popular.”
            “Is that so?”
            “Oh yes, I have a lot of friends here. I have an assistant who brings me coffee, and this fellow who stands watch.”
            He pointed up to that spot on the window. There was nothing there, but at the same time, Walters felt suddenly and profoundly terrified. His eyes repeatedly told him that there was nothing to be seen there, and yet it was like a part of him was screaming, pounding on his back, pointing out the horrible, faceless…
            But the thoughts could not stay still. They shimmered through his mind but in an instant he had forgotten that he had been so upset.
            “How’s the knee?”
            “It’s fine, Shabby. Just fine. Are you all right?”
            “Why do you ask?”
            “You dropped your notebook.”
            Walters looked down. His left arm was hanging, useless, from the shoulder. His notes were spread out on the floor to his side. He bent down and began gathering them with his right hand. Very slowly, feeling began to come back to his left.
            Milton was grinning as Walters got back in his chair. It was a madman’s grin – something deranged within it. Walters was very glad there was such thick glass between them.
            “What are you smiling about?” asked Walters, betraying his discomfort with a slight crack in his voice.
            “Oh, I just love the smell of coffee, don’t you?”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Monday, March 12, 2012

On Patrol

            The ground around here was permafrost, and even at noon this time of year the sun was very low. They had about two hours of daylight. Vymer turned on the radio every half hour to check in. They were spread too thin. No one had gone on a ranging for several years, and they didn’t have enough men to do a sweep.
            Nobody really liked to talk about the Forest of Dusk. It was the place you were told held all the creepy creatures your least favorite uncle would tell you about. Rationally, he knew it was a huge forest, and that even if the dead were walking there (and they are, you know that, came a particularly unhelpful thought) it wasn’t all that likely he’d bump into them.
            Mayor Harlaw had ordered regular sweeps as a precaution. It wasn’t unheard of for an occasional nutjob to figure out how to raise a couple draugar, just like other nutjobs would decide to build bombs in their basements. But then, he’d been hearing rumors about a few other towns down the coast. Port Sang was the first one, but not the worst. Hodges had told him that Grissleton was abandoned, and even Port Bronze had lost a few enforcers with another ship full of corpses.
            It had taken him several hours, mostly through darkness, to reach the edge of the Forest of Dusk, but there it was, just like the stories said. There was a clear space of about ten or fifteen feet between the normal trees of the forest outside of Port O’ James and the Thanatos Trees of the Forest of Dusk. The Thanatos Trees almost looked like they were made of concrete. Their leaves only hinted at greenness, and the knots and twists looked disturbingly like human faces, stretched in moans of pain.
            He flicked his radio on. “Far Watch, this is Vymer. I’m at the… I’m at the perimeter.”
            “Copy Vymer, this is Far Watch. See anything out there?”
            Vymer looked up and down the sort of alleyway that cut between the two forests. “Negative. Just a bunch of those damned grey trees.”
            “Ok, Vymer, you can probably come back then. Let’s just… oh, hold on…”
            It cut off. Vymer checked his watch. It should be about another forty-five minutes of sunlight. So why was it getting so dark? Vymer found himself reflecting on the fact that he would really have preferred to go with a partner out here.
            “Far Watch, this is Vymer. You still there?”
            Just static. He shook his head, put the radio back, and started on his way. The roots in the ground were very dense, such that it felt less like walking on a forest floor and more like clambering over extremely uneven cobblestones.
            And then it suddenly occurred to him that he had just walked into the Forest of Dusk.
            He spun around, shivers running up the entire length of his body. Why the hell had he just done that? Blood was thundering through his temples. He climbed back over the roots and into the path between the forests. It had already gotten very dark. The sky was clouded, and the whole world was grey. He turned his radio on again, only to discover that his battery had died. He pointed his flashlight at his watch.
            3:00. It was three. He could have sworn it had been 12:15 only moments earlier. He started to make his way back home, but in the dark he failed to see a root and found himself plummeting to the ground, his head colliding with a tree trunk.
            And then he started to hear the music.
            It was hard to tell exactly what kind of music it was. Sort of jazzy, he supposed, but there was something ancient about it too. Vymer picked himself up and put a hand to his head. He was bleeding. Not a lot, but enough that he would probably have to get himself looked at when he got back.
            He was careful to point his flashlight at the ground to avoid tripping again. His head was in pain, and he had pulled a muscle when he fell, so the going was difficult. The music was growing louder. Maybe they were playing something at Far Watch station. It was a reassuring thought, that perhaps Lizzie had put it there to help people find the station out in the dark.
            The dark. He wasn’t supposed to be out this late. They were probably worried about him. He was two hours late getting back. The music was very near, but he still couldn’t see any sign of Far Watch. Then again, places always look different at night. For all he knew, he might have been only a mile away from home.
            And then he had reached the edge of the trees. But instead of Far Watch, or Port O’ James, there was only a small cabin. The lights were on, and there was smoke coming from the chimney.
            “Hello?” he tried to choke out, but the words caught in his throat, escaping only as a half-coherent whisper. He knocked on the door, finally hearing someone inside. The door opened, and a woman stood there.
            “Oh, it’s you.”
            Vymer furrowed his brow. He had never seen this woman before in his life. She looked to be somewhere in her fifties, though maybe a bit older, and was quite thin. Her hair was long and frayed. She wore a black t-shirt and denim jeans.
            The cabin was a mess. Clothing, animal pelts, and broken furniture were shoved up against the walls. In the middle of the floor was a large deer skin, stretched out and covered with a thousand little symbols and letters.
            “You should probably get that wound looked at. I mean, if that sort of thing bothers you… people.”
            “What do you mean?” he croaked.
            “Oh, this one can talk! I guess I rank a little higher on the Icelord’s list. I don’t know whether to be honored or terrified.”
            “Who is the…” and then Vymer looked down at his arm. Clasped in it was a metal axe with a broad blade.
            “Well, get it over with,” said the woman. “But when you get back to that ancient cocksucking bastard, you tell him that we had a deal. I have powerful friends, you know. The Stag’s Head isn’t going to let this go lightly.”
            Vymer looked up at her. He dabbed the wound on his forehead with his fingers. They came back covered with black, sticky oil. There was a horrid smell of plastic and burning coffee coming from it.
            The woman clearly smelled it too. And then he recognized a look of sudden, shocked realization on her face. “Wait, your eyes. They aren’t…”
            But she did not finish her sentence, because he had already gone to work.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Friday, March 2, 2012

Visiting the Old Boss

            Emily Nascine made her way down to the garage and unplugged her bike. It was only half past three in the afternoon, but the sun was already beginning to dip below the horizon. She lived on the east side of Ravenfort, so the sun would be in her eyes most of the way, though she hoped it would set before she got on Bishop’s Bridge.
            She had only been back two days. After the fogs rolled back - thank the gods - the Rookery had sent her across the channel for a preliminary look at the Walls of Vansa. Every few decades, someone in the Rookery had the notion that an expedition to the Wastes could yield profitable, but as far as she knew, no one had succeeded in getting through. In fact, in her opinion, this was probably the worst time they could consider trying to break into the Bone King’s domain, given the recent troubles with Narcia.
            Nascine suspected that the Rookery wanted to give her a simple mission for her first as Expedition Head. She had been on a dozen such trips under Tartin, and even found herself in some pretty serious scrapes, but she admitted to herself that it was a relief to have an easy assignment after the disastrous Sarona Desert expedition.
            Two years later, she still had dreams about the strange little man in his tiny room out there in the middle of nowhere. It frightened her to think that he could still be there, drinking his foul coffee and raving about faceless men. Their expedition had ended there, after Tartin had his episode.
            It was dark as she reached the center of town, a region called Rook’s Hill. Here the asphalt roads gave way to cobblestones. She felt ever bump as she rode up the twisting alleys and by-ways that led to Teriton Square. Upon emerging from the alleys, the square opened up before her, an immense space that served as an exhibition of the greatest statues and structures the explorers of Retrein had ever “collected.”
            On the opposite end of the square was Elona’s Palace, where the ever-youthful Queen of Retrein sat in court.  Nascine had never seen the Queen in person. She was said to be a fairly private person, even if she did make public appearances on occasion. At her parent’s house, out in the suburbs, there was an old photograph of her grandmother meeting Queen Elona as a child. Grandma Margaret had died nearly ten years ago, but Elona still looked like she was thirty, as she had for thousands of years.
            Directly across Teriton Square from the Royal Palace was Nascine’s destination, the Royal Rookery. The building had the appearance of a grand manor house, about the same size as the palace and encircled by a wrought-iron fence. The Rookery had a large garden out in front, with carefully maintained hedges and a collection of statues, not quite as large as the one in the Square, but still quite large.
            Royal Guards stood outside the Rookery. Nascine drove her bike around the side and down into the underground garage. She locked the bike and plugged in its power cord and made her way to security checkpoint. She presented her bag for inspection. Inside, there was a binder that had been zipped shut. There was a black iron lock affixed to the zipper, along with various official documentation and stickers. The guards looked this over carefully before ultimately leaving the binder unzipped. After passing through the metal detector and checking her helmet, she made her way into the lift.
            Security had always been tight at the Rookery, but it seemed that these days it was in a state of near lock-down. Emily got off on the eighth floor and a uniformed guard did a sweep of the lift, scanning it with an electric torch. It was not unheard of for one agent to leave something useful to another, and so every inch of the Rookery was swept for anything that should not be there.
            There was a familiar, comfortable smell on the eighth floor – hot paper and tea. She passed by a few familiar faces who smiled at her as she went by. The floor was ancient hardwood, slightly chipped and warped by the moisture, so that it creaked as one walked over it. Nascine came to her destination and knocked on the door.
            “Who is it?”
            “It’s Emily.”
            “Oh, come in!”
            Gilbert Tartin was sitting at his desk, which was stacked high with books and papers. He had cleared a square foot of space in which to work, but was otherwise surrounded by a castle of literature. He had put on a bit of weight since the last time she saw him, and his impeccable goatee had been shaved off.
            “You look well, Emily. How was Carathon?”
            “The food was good.” Nascine sat down in the chair opposite him, though it was apparent that she could not see over the stack of books on his desk, so he took them down and placed them on the ground next to him.
            “I do love Carathon. Beautiful city, wonderful vistas.”
            “It was a bit anti-climactic, to be honest.”
            “I take it they were sending you to scout the Walls?” Nascine nodded. “They sent me once, when I was just getting started. Actually managed to climb up, but it’s a logistical nightmare. Even if we could get up and over them safely, you’ve then got the Wastes to contend with.”
            “How have you been doing, Gil?”
            “Oh, fine, fine. Just been doing a little book work. Between you and me I think we might have something down in the Redlands coming up. Perhaps an artifact all the way from Arashka, potentially. Oh, how rude of me! Would you like some tea?”
            “That’s all right, Gil. I… we haven’t talked in a while. Since… the hospital.”
            Tartin nodded. “Ah. Yes, I thought that might come up.”
            Nascine reached into her bag and pulled the binder out. “Is it all right if we talk about it?”
            Tartin had grown quiet, shrinking into his chair. “Um.”
            “Gil, have you been seeing… those things at all?” She pulled out a small key and undid the small lock on the binder’s zipper.
            He shook his head, one brisk, reflexive movement. “No. Not since… not since we got back to Cheenra.”
            “You saw one there?”
            Tartin looked up at her. “Can we… I think it’s best if we change the subject.”
            “I’m sorry, Gil, I just… I want to know a little more about…”
            “I haven’t seen any more of them! Please, Emily, I have a lot of work to do and I…. I am not going to talk about this anymore.”
            Nascine nodded. She locked the binder again. “I’m sorry, Gil. I didn’t want to upset…”
            “Thank you for coming to see me, Emily. I should get back to work.”
            Nascine put the binder away. She leaned over to kiss Tartin on the cheek, which he accepted dutifully, and then took her bag and walked out the door.
            “Is Gil okay?” asked Portia, one of Tartin’s assistants.
            Nascine looked back at him through the office window. “It’s all right. He’s just a little upset by something I said. He’ll be fine.” She hoped it was true.
            It was no use. Showing him the drawing would have only made things worse. The old lady in Carathon had looked far worse than Tartin did now, but the worst part was that when she drew what she had seen, Nascine had experienced a spark of recognition. The tall, wide frame, the dark black suits, and the off-putting rib-like pattern where its face should have been: it all looked exactly as Tartin had described them. She could practically smell the horrible ooze the little man in those strange Offices had called coffee. To this day she thanked the gods she had only pretended to drink it.
            The ride home was busier. People were just getting out of the office, so the traffic was atrocious. Nascine cut through some of the back streets, but it still took her nearly an hour to get home. As she walked up to the door to her flat, she could hear voices inside. She had scarcely reached it when the door opened, and a tall, thin man with light, thinning hair opened it.
            “Ms. Nascine, we are very sorry to have entered your flat without calling first, but I think we should have a chat.”
            Nascine walked in, holding her bag close. She entered the living room and saw that there were two other people there. One was an old man, jowly and fat, with an old-fashioned suit. The other was Queen Elona.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)