Friday, September 27, 2013

It's a Hell of a Town

            Jack arose from the hard pavement. As the rain coated the sidewalks, the glow of the streetlights was reflected upward, as if from a mirror.
            The streets were empty except for the ghostly whispers caught on the wind. The city sprawled outward and upward. A thousand towers, gleaming with light, the streets lit bright as day. Above, the stars were invisible – the light of the city drowning out that celestial glow.
            Jack Milton could hardly breathe. The air was choked with smoke from all the passing cars. Fog poured out of the sewer grates, but the rain washed it out of the air.
            You see it, don’t you?
            It wasn’t his own voice. It took him a moment to realize that it had to be June’s. It was the blonde woman he had seen in the Lower Block. It was the goddess.
            See what?
            It’s there.
            Milton felt a tug, as if she had pulled at him. He looked down at his chest. A large metal loop came out of him, linking him to a thick chain.
            Follow it, if you’re ready.
            He followed it.
            The chain led him down a street called Fulton. He passed businesses and alleyways, but he still did not see any people. The impression of cars passed by him like solid shadows, choking out their death-smoke as they went.
            He walked for a mile at least. The chain remained taut. As he rounded a corner, he was nearly blinded. Tessa’s room was in the middle of the street, the Sarona Desert starlight and the glow of the Path of Aeoes coming in through the windows. The shadow-cars passed through the room as if they were nothing but the smoke that they exhaled.
            There she is, Jack.
            Tessa was lying on the bed. Milton’s chain linked to her. A similar metal loop came out of her back, and Milton’s chain connected to her there.
            “Tessa,” he said. He put his hand on her shoulder, and Tessa rolled back. There was a gaping wound in her neck where someone had shot her. Milton had seen this before in his work as a cop. He studied it clinically.
            Is this her? Is this what happens?
            Milton could not be sure if he had been the one to say this or if it was June. He felt frozen, unable to scream. His entire body felt like it was coursing with fire, but the dream-logic kept him from calling out or beating his chest or tearing his hair.
            Don’t… don’t take her, please.
            I didn’t take anyone, Jack.
            He walked onward. He followed the chain on a twisting route through streets both narrow and broad. He came to a place with water. A large building said “Staten Island Ferry,” and that was where he found the next link in the chain.
            He was dark-skinned, maybe Native American, or maybe Arab.
            American? Arab? Where do I know those words from? Yet they came to Milton’s mind automatically when he looked at the man.
            The man was very tall. He had been stabbed. There were multiple wounds in the lower abdomen.
            Some things will come to pass. Some things have already. Some things may never be.
            He walked on, the sky darkening as night fell. The rain came down heavily now. Milton looked up at the sky.
            A thousand thousand chains wove their way through the clouds. He could not see where they led. He only had the chain attached to his chest to guide him.
            He passed person after person, following the chain from one to the next.
            There are so many of them. And yet, it wants you.
            The chain took Milton through a massive arch on the northern side of a large square.
            What is it about you? Surely you’ve guessed. He went through a lot of trouble to acquire you.
            I don’t know. Why do they want me?
            You walk through this city as if you know it. Yet you haven’t been here.
            No. I haven’t.
            But you know it. It’s your city.
            Milton seized up, his head suddenly subjected to a drilling, intense pain. He fell to his knees.
            “Whoa, man, are you…?”
            The voice faded away before it could finish the question. The chain was there, and now it pulled at him again.
            The shadow-cars passed by with greater frequency. Sometimes, he could hear a high-pitched whine as they flew by him.
            And then, there was a great forest in the middle of the city. Wide paths cut across the woods, and the smoke was not so bad there. The rain pounded down. There were old people on the chain now. One was an elderly woman, her flesh barely hanging on her bones. She seemed to see him as he walked past.
            And now there were strange shapes, trees and pillars of smokeless fire and dogs and great mounds of stone. The chain led him through them. He walked on, the incline before him making it more difficult, but the chain was pulling hard now. He could barely keep his pace up.
            And then he came to a gallows. In the blinding light of a streetlamp, he saw the next man in the chain. He was hanging from his neck, his eyes bugged out, his handsomeness made ugly by death. Dark ashes rained down on him instead of water. The hangman was there too, and the judge. Both were covered with ashes, dead on the ground. The chain did not link to them. It was as if he was looking at a three-dimensional photograph that they merely happened to be in with the main subject.
            The hanged man looked down at Milton.
            “I must confess, Prisoner, that I had my doubts. But you have exceeded my greatest hopes.” The Diplomat smiled, and as he did, Milton could see that he had been dead for a long, long time. His hair was barely held on by a mummified scalp. His lips had shrunken back, giving him a ghoulish grin.
            “Why does my head hurt?”
            “Because, Prisoner, that was not really coffee.”
            Another bolt of pain, shooting into his right temple.
            “I found you. Now what?” asked Milton.
            “I was hoping you would tell me. I’ve never been to this town.”
            Milton could see a thousand chains coming from every direction. They all came to a center at the Diplomat’s chest.
            “Maybe we could go to a museum,” said the Diplomat, his dried skin cracking as he moved his mouth. “I’ve heard that there are some very nice ones not too far from here, and I must confess that I have an absolute obsession with the finer parts of culture.”
            You don’t have to listen to him, you know? The Diplomat did not seem to hear her.
            I didn’t know. I thought he had brought me here.
            It wants to touch this city. It wants to touch this world. And he wants you to be its fingers.
            “Prisoner, are you there? Cut me down and we’ll paint the town red! What do you say, two Agents of the House versus all the bars in the city that never sleeps? I like those odds.”
            “I…” and then Milton looked up. There was another chain. It began in the loop in the Diplomat’s back and curled its way up around his noose, up the rope and up into the sky. Milton could not see where it led as it faded into the clouds.
            “No thank you,” said Milton.
            “Good luck, then. I mean that.” The Diplomat’s expression seemed sincere. Milton turned and walked away.
            Where are you, June?
            I’m elsewhere. But Jack?
            I’m not June. Even the voice was wrong. It was a man’s voice, a light tenor, with a guttural elongation to certain vowels. How had he heard it as June before?
            A blast, like a sonic boom, shuddered through Milton and he dropped to his knees.
            The taste came back up through his throat, a choking and rancid smell. He vomited there on the pavement, the black liquid spewing forward. His entire being seemed dedicated to expelling it.
            The coffee came out hot, steaming as it spread out over the pavement. Yet as it did, the rain simply washed it away.
            It can’t be coffee here. It can’t be anything special here. It’s just bitter, dirty water. Nothing more. This occurred to him with such clarity that it was as if he was hearing a recording of his own voice. This is a special place.
            He felt as if every vein and artery was being flushed with icy water, and with one final heave, he felt the last of the coffee leave his system.
            Milton rolled onto his back, his entire body aching and shaking. He moaned, unable to settle into a stable state, his heart pounding. Yet despite the pain and trauma, he felt like a bolt of lightning had shot through his body. There was a coolness and an airiness that flowed through him.
            “Hey man,” came a voice. It was an older man, black and with grey hair. He was wearing thick cotton pants and a plastic raincoat, his left hand shielding a lit cigarette held in the right from the wind and the rain. “You ok?”
            “I’m fine,” Milton said, his voice shaking. He had to try not to laugh. He felt good. It was hard to explain, but even the dirt and the rain were pleasures to him. He felt waves of contented happiness wash over him. He wanted to tell Tessa. “I’ll be ok, I just…”
            He looked around him. The park was real. The people were real. The chain in his chest was gone. The gallows were gone. The sky had only clouds and rain.
            “What the fuck…?” said Milton, but even his confusion seemed more amusing than off-putting.
            “You had a pretty crazy night, huh?” said the man with the cigarette. “I don’t know what you were drinking, but I can smell it from here. Smells like motor oil, man.”
            “Sorry, what?” Milton looked around the forest. It was a park. Of course, it was a park. An enormous park in the middle of a big city. It wasn’t familiar. He didn’t recognize it, and yet… he felt as if he could come up with the name if he really thought about it.
            “It’s Sunday morning. Seven o’clock. Something tells me you aren’t here for your morning run. Guess we can’t all be that healthy,” said the man. He chuckled and gestured to his cigarette.
            “Where the hell am I?”
            The man stopped smiling. “Uh… Central Park?”
            Milton nodded. “Right.”

            And then there was a blink. Milton was pretty sure he had blinked his eyes. In that moment, he had wanted nothing more than to realize that he was still dreaming, sleeping next to Tessa in her bed that was too narrow for two people.
            And it would seem that the universe was willing to accept his wishes, though its execution was a little sloppy.
            “Muh?” Tessa vocalized, and then nearly rolled out of bed when she saw him, yelping as she did.
            She was sitting up in bed next to him. He was standing on the bed, fully clothed. Jack jumped off the bed, landing hard on the floor. His legs screamed in pain, and his teeth had clapped together with jolting force.
            “I don’t know, Tessa. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t… I don’t know.”
            “You scared the hell out of me,” said Tessa, her voice cracking on the word “hell.”
            “Tessa, you’re all right?”
            “Yes, Jack, I’m fine. What about you?”
            “I’ve just had a very strange dream.”
            Jack blinked slowly. His eyes felt leaden. Tessa stepped out of the bed, still in her oversized t-shirt and pajama pants, and she stumbled slightly as she did. She put her hands on his shoulders, stabilizing herself. He looked down into her big, round eyes. He remembered how he had seen her in the rainy city, the horrible wound, those eyes devoid of life.
            Jack pulled her to him and held her tightly. They stood there for a few seconds, silent.
            “Jack, you’re cold.”
            “I’m sorry.” He couldn’t manage to let go of her.
            “It’s all right,” said Tessa, a resigned sigh in her voice. “What happened, Jack?”
            Jack contemplated the question. He had been sure it was a dream, up until he met the man in Central Park. But that man was real. That man had smelled the coffee as Jack purged it from his body.
            “I went for a walk.”
            “A place called New York.”
            He told her about the city, and the shadow-cars and the man with the cigarette that smelled like no cigarette he had ever known. He did not tell her about the images he saw of the agents of the House, nor his conversation with the Diplomat, or the man who he had somehow thought was June. Tessa did not seem to understand. Jack could barely understand it himself, but he knew that that dream-place was real. He had been there, and he had known it, intrinsically.
            He was still hugging Tessa very closely. “Tessa, I’m sorry I woke you up.”
            “Don’t worry about it,” she said. Jack checked the clock. It was nearly four in the morning.
            When he released her, he was surprised that Tessa seemed hesitant to pull away. Perhaps she was just exhausted and falling asleep in his arms.
            Tessa eventually stepped back, and with a small yawn, looked up at him and smiled. “You were probably sleep-walking.”
            Absolutely not, thought Jack, but it seemed like the easiest explanation for now. “I guess I must have,” said Jack, and Tessa turned around and went back to the bed.
            And there, protruding from her back, was the faint ghost of a chain. It was neither real nor illusion – a faint image of a chain that Jack seemed to be looking at with his mind rather than his eyes. Jack traced the chain and found that it led back to his own chest. It was barely visible, only as solid as a beam of light shining through dusty air.
            Jack lifted his hand to the ethereal chain, and to his shock, he could feel it. He pulled at it, and there was a slight tug on his chest. He gripped harder on the chain and then yanked at it. In a flash of light, the chain broke apart, evaporating.
            “Huh, Jack?” She arose, her eyes closed and her voice lazy. “Did you just tap me on the back?”
            “No, Tessa, it’s nothing.”
            Jack looked at her again. Their chain was broken, but he could see another one, this coming out of the front of her chest, leading out through the wall and far away to the north.
            Tessa swiftly drifted back to sleep. Jack took off his wet clothes and sat on the bed in just his boxers. He did not sleep that night, as his mind was racing with invisible chains and the rainy city.
            And the image of Tessa, lying dead where she was now sleeping.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)

Monday, September 2, 2013

A Block in the Fire

            Lisenrush had killed a wild snow deer. They had been lucky to come across one. Even as far out as Far Watch, the wild animals had mostly moved away to avoid the noisy and dangerous humans. Lisenrush skinned the animal with her combat knife and the two of them worked together to turn the grey hide with its white spots into makeshift shoes. They were not, by any stretch of the imagination, built to last, but it meant that the ground would not freeze Ana’s toes off. The rest of the hide Lisenrush turned into thick cloaks. Ana was grateful for the warmth, even if the hide began to smell a bit after the first day.
            Far Watch was a day’s drive with a proper vehicle, and if one was willing to use the roads, but Lisenrush insisted that they stay in the forest.
            “We don’t know if they’ll be looking for us,” she said.
            Ana was pretty certain that the faceless men would be able to follow them on the road or through the forest with equal ease, but Lisenrush insisted, and Ana was not willing to stray too far from the Ranger-Captain.
            There was still a lot of snow in the forest, and the trees were only just barely beginning to recover their foliage. The entire forest seemed muted, and even the sounds that she and Lisenrush were making seemed to whisper.
            Her feet squished in the make-shift moccasins. Lisenrush had done her best to scrape the fat from the hide, but it had not been a perfect job. Ultimately, Ana consoled herself by noting that the fat would help insulate her feet.
            Ana had heard about the wilderness training that the rangers went through, but she was still impressed with Lisenrush’s comfort in the woods. Ana considered herself a city girl, even if Port O’James was a little too small to be considered a true city. She had never spent much time in the wild, unless one counted the sea, though she had not gone out on boats much since her brother died.
            Therefore, for the time being, Ana felt utterly useless. She could handle herself on the streets – even in the dangerous Darkmoor district near the southern docks – but she had nearly scared the snow deer away when Lisenrush first saw it, and she doubted she would have even seen the beast if it had not been for Lisenrush, who had pointed it out to her.
            Ana sniffed the air. There was a sharp bite in it that she realized, after about five seconds, was smoke. She informed Lisenrush.
            “Yes, I smelled it too.”
            “We’re not near anyone’s cabin, are we?”
            Carefully, they stalked in the direction of the scent. Ana let Lisenrush take the lead, attempting to imitate the careful steps that she took, the way that she seemed to be aware of every stray twig or branch that lay in her path. Ana could occasionally hear the sickening crack of a twig or the crunch of snow under her feet, quiet but not silent. Still, if there were any people to be alarmed, they did not make themselves known.
            They came to a small clearing – or perhaps not so much a clearing as a gap between two trees, only about six feet across. There was a haphazard circle of stones with a fire that had mostly burnt out. The larger pieces of wood were mostly white ash, and a faint flame leapt up occasionally. In the center of the fire pit, there was a strange object. It was white, or perhaps a light grey. The object was rectangular, about one and a half feet long.
            Lisenrush glanced at it, but seemed dismissive. Ana took a closer look. “Look at this,” she said. “There’s no soot.”
            Lisenrush scanned the area and then allowed her attention to turn to the block. “You’re right. That’s odd.” The block was totally clean, even though the stones that formed the circle were blackened.
            Ana took a wet stick from the ground and pushed some of the smoldering wood away from the block. She then tapped the block to check its temperature. Rather than hot, the block seemed to have no temperature at all. Her finger felt numb, but not from cold.
            “Don’t touch it,” said Ana. Lisenrush did not seem to be in danger of doing so.
            Ana stood up again and circled around it. From their original angle, the block seemed perfectly uniform, and perfectly squared. However, when looking at the other end of it, she noticed that there were faint circles of a somewhat purplish hue. They were almost like the remnants of scribbles on paper after they had been erased.
            Looking closer, she began to see more details, hard to discern at first due to the dim light. The circles were like the ends of tubes, and here there was a sheared-off white circle, and some reddish-grey fibers, and from this end of the block, there was a rancid smell.
            “It’s an arm,” she said. The moment she said it out loud, she was certain. The length was right, the width, relatively speaking, was a bit too much, but within the right order of magnitude, certainly.
            “An arm?” Lisenrush looked at Ana’s end of the thing. “What makes you say that?”
            Ana pointed to the faint remnants of the muscle, bone, connective tissue, and circulatory tubing. “That’s about what you’d expect to see from a cross-section of a severed arm.”
            Lisenrush looked closer at the square of white. “No it isn’t.”
            “Not a normal arm, of course. This thing isn’t an arm anymore, but it used to be.”
            “And what is it now?”
            “It’s turning into nothing.”
            The Ranger-Captain stood up again. “Well, that’s an interesting theory.”
            “Let me see the back of your neck,” said Ana.
            Lisenrush regarded her skeptically.
            “When I was in my cell, and you and your people were starting to feel strange, I saw that there was… a kind of patch on your neck. I want to see if it’s still there.”
            Lisenrush stepped away quickly. “You saw what?” Ana noted that the rifle was a little higher in her grip now, a little closer to being held in a firing position.
            “I want to check it. It’s very small, less than a coin.”
            “You never mentioned this before.”
            “I forgot it was there,” said Ana. “For whatever reason, I haven’t seen it since then.”
            It’s because she’s very careful not to turn her back on you, Ana realized. In fact, thinking back, that for their entire trek, Lisenrush had put Ana in front of her. Lisenrush always carried the gun. She still doesn’t trust you.
            Ana did her best to keep this realization undetectable. “Just lift up your hair a bit and I’ll take a look.”
            Lisenrush stepped back with one foot. Ana was careful not to advance on her, not yet. In some ways, it was like approaching the snow deer. But Ana had no interest in killing Lisenrush, and was, in fact, ill-equipped.
            Slowly, slowly, Lisenrush lifted her hair out of the way and turned just far enough for Ana to look. Ana could tell that every muscle in Lisenrush’s body was tense, ready to spring into action should the undead fiend decide this was the time to strike.
            The patch was still there. The hair was simply gone in that little misshapen area, and the skin beneath had lost most of its texture and color. It was dead, but not in an interesting way. There was no decay, and no sign of injury or disease, just stillness.
            “Yes, it’s still there. You don’t feel anything strange at the back of your neck?”
            The Ranger Captain turned back to face her again. “No.”
            Ana looked back, her face contorted with concern. “Well, the good news is that it’s not any bigger than it was.”
            “But it’s still there.”
            “Yes, that was the bad news.”
            Lisenrush grunted as she slung the rifle on her shoulder. “I’ll have it checked out after we get to town.”
            Ana nodded. She doubted the doctors would have much to say about it. Ana stepped forward to continue on their path, allowing Lisenrush to walk behind her, but she did so with growing unease. Lisenrush may have still feared her as a dangerous draugr, but Ana wondered if it was not she who should be worried.
            Is this how it started with Vymer?

            There was a large boulder that stood in the forest, almost a small hill. In the dense trees and camouflaged by the snow, it was easy to go quite near it without seeing it.
            It was upon this boulder that the dead man stood. He was clad in iron armor, dark and utilitarian, except for a few stray etchings in symbols of skulls and words in one of the secret languages.
            The draugr looked down upon the two women marching across the woods through his dead, too-wet eyes. The eyes were clouded, but beyond that grey-white clouding was a pale blue glow like ice on the ocean. His nose had worn away, and now looked like a pair of slits in the middle of his face. Likewise, the skin on his cheeks had decayed to the point that yellowed bone stuck out.
            In his right hand – or rather a claw, as all the flesh on that hand had long-since rotted away – he held a great sword. Like the armor, the sword had spots of rust, and the blows and strikes of countless battles had left their mark.
            There was no left hand to help hold the sword. From the shoulder, there were a mere five inches before the flesh hardened and blended into the iron armor above, fusing together and turning rectangular. On the sheared edge, where the arm truly ended, only the faint ghost of what it had once been remained visible. Beyond, the rest of the arm stood within that small fire, refusing to burn.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)