Sunday, October 25, 2015

Murleg's Bog

            Four Eyes had gone to the safehouse as quickly as he could after receiving the message. It was a gut feeling, but if the other side wanted to undermine him, to potentially destroy him, it was there, he thought, that they could do the most harm. It was where Nascine would go looking for him if she suspected anything.
            Six Coins had told him “there’s a hole dug up in Murleg’s Bog.” Murleg’s Bog. He had never wanted to think about Murleg’s Bog again.

            Chris Thatch was thirty-two, a rather talented young Rookery Thief who had spent much of his short career at the Oakshurst field office and spoke fluent Hesaian. Though recruited out of the Royal Marines, he didn’t have a soldier’s roughness, and was instead a fairly quiet and empathetic person. He was employed primarily as an analyst in his time at the Rookery, reading Hesaian newspapers all day while he was down there, and somehow conjured the desire to read novels in his free time. Like Four Eyes, he wore spectacles. Indeed, the two of them had similar physiques and coloring – tall, with chestnut hair and lantern jaws. They would be described in the same way, though they would not be confused for one another by sight.
            The House did things in its habitual way. Four Eyes found his instructions in a plastic bag at the bottom of a stream in Kiterine Park. There was a duplicate key to Thatch’s house under a loose brick in a back-alley in Canwick, and a knife hidden in a window-side planter one block away.
            It was the habitual House way, and so Four Eyes did not ever touch the key or the knife. Another Agent would do that. But because he was most personally invested in seeing Thatch taken care of, he was instructed to be present at the disposal.
            He drove there separately through a dense blanket of fog, using the unlocked car, its key in the ignition, which had been left outside of the coffee shop where he was told to wait. They were miles outside of Ravenfort when he came to Murleg’s Bog, the vast watery pit.
            The man driving the lorry was bundled up in a thick jacket, scarf, and cap. It wasn’t terribly cold. He had wiry grey hair poking out from under the cap and a big red nose that spoke of alcohol and possibly skin cancer.
            Four Eyes walked over to the lorry driver. “Is this where they get the peat moss for the whiskey?” he asked.
            “Nay, peat bogs be a track or two up north, by Calico-on-Whaye. This here’s Murleg’s Bog.”
            Satisfied, Four Eyes nodded and moved to the back of the lorry. The driver made no move to follow. “You stay back there. I’ll tell you when I’m done,” said Four Eyes, as if the driver needed to be reminded.
            The driver would not know what was in the box. Thatch’s body had been put in an ice chest, per instruction. They had waited three days, per instruction. And he was now being put in Murleg’s Bog, per instruction.
            Four Eyes looked around. They were far enough from the road that no passing motorist would see. The air was thick with fog, and the bog might have stretched on forever.
            Four Eyes raised the door to the back of the trailer. The ice chest was a pale blue-green with slightly rusted chrome handles. There was no ramp or even dolly. So he climbed up in the back of the trailer and heaved at the ice chest.
            It was far lighter than he expected it to be. The chest slid easily across the trailer’s floor and tumbled out of the back of the lorry.
            It hit the gravel road with a sickening crack, and the door fell open, propping the chest up, with Thatch’s body spilling out underneath it.
            Four Eyes swore and then jumped down from the trailer. “Don’t suppose you could help me?” he called back to the driver.
            “Can’t, mate. Instructions, you know how it is.”
            Four Eyes rolled the chest back so that its opening would point up again, but it was very difficult to do so without Thatch’s body tumbling out of it. He found that he did not want to touch the body. He wanted to somehow avoid it, only placing his hands on the rectangular shape of the ice chest, but he could not coax the body to fall into place as it should.
            Even when he had finally managed to right the ice chest, Thatch’s arms and one of his legs were poking up. Four Eyes groaned, averting his gaze as best he could.
            The man did look a bit like him. But death and freezing had done odd things to his face. Blood oozed out of his opened throat, still carrying crystals of ice, but returning to liquid with each passing moment.
            Gingerly, Four Eyes took Thatch’s leg by the trousers and attempted to push it back in. He did not have such a luxury with the arms, on which the sleeves had been rolled up. After a deep breath, he picked up one of the frigid, stiff arms and folded it over Thatch’s chest before doing the same with the other.
            He pressed down on the door. It would not latch shut.
            He opened it again, hot frustration replacing his chilly disgust. He pushed down on Thatch’s foot, which he decided had been why the door was not shutting. Yet when he tried again, it would still not close all the way.
            He tried again, but the chill of the fog and a growing anxiety that the lorry driver would abandon him began to gnaw at him.
            This part should be over. He thought. They should have planned this correctly!
            By all rights, he should not have even been there, doing this. His job was to impersonate Thatch and find Jaroka. What purpose did this exercise serve?
            After four more attempts, he slammed the door down. There was a crunching sound. It was unlike anything he would have expected to hear from a body. He looked into the chest. Thatch’s skull had been visibly cracked.
            Four Eyes’ stomach churned, but he realized that this was, likely, the best solution. He slammed the door down again, and again, and again. Bones began to break, and he could hear and smell the dead flesh getting torn and pulverized as he brought the heavy ice chest door down on the body of Chris Thatch.
            The door finally closed completely. Four Eyes collapsed over it, only now registering how fast his heart was beating and how loud the pulse of blood was thundering in his ears.
            He heaved and shoved and very gradually moved the Ice Chest to the edge of the bog. It hit the surface with a clap, but as the fluid around it began to bubble up, the chest slowly sank. Within ten minutes, there was nothing but muddy black.
            As if the driver had somehow known when it would sink, at that exact moment, the lorry pulled away, leaving Four Eyes with just his own car.

            In the basement of the Exbrooke safehouse, Four Eyes looked down at the ice chest, still black from the foul ooze of Murleg’s Bog. The latch had been torn off, which felt almost like a personal insult. The body was still in there, preserved, frozen, one bloodshot, accusatory eye looking up at him through shattered spectacle lenses.
            They had known. Had it been the lorry driver? Was he working for the other side? Or perhaps that thick fog had done more to disguise their observers than it had for him. They knew.
            Four Eyes realized he had become the protagonist of one of the gothic horror stories that this dead man before him had been known to read.
            He attempted to think in practicalities. The body would have to be removed, but this would prove trickier in a place as dense as Exbrooke. He would need some sort of vehicle to transport it. Alternatively, he could walk away and await further instructions from Six Coins.
            Yet the curtness of Six Coins’ warning had suggested a state of panic and disarray. He was on his own. He would be forced to improvise.
            Only then did it occur to him that perhaps it had not been Six Coins who had given him the message. Perhaps this was a trap.
            And right on queue, above him, he heard the back door open - the one with the smashed lock. Someone was coming. Four Eyes stepped away from the body of Chris Thatch and stepped back into the shadows, drawing his knife.

            The stage was set, and cruel eyes in an old man’s head – a head rimmed with wiry gray hair – watched the house where Four Eyes held his knife to Gilbert Tartin’s throat. The young Agent and the middle-aged Thief both waiting breathlessly as Emily Nascine, the third and final player in this performance, made her way down into the basement of the Exbrooke safehouse.
            The man with the wiry hair sat on a park bench, sipping from a cup of coffee – foul stuff, but not as foul as the “coffee” his superior had given him the week before. He no longer looked like a lorry driver. He was in a business suit, his wiry hair tamed backward. He had the Ravenfort Ledger folded over his knee and he made a token effort to appear engrossed in the financial section.

            And behind him, standing by a pond, sprinkling breadcrumbs for the ducks, there was a man, or rather something very old in the shape of a man. He wore a slender iron crown and a black cloak as dark as night. No one saw the man in the crown.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2015)

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Phone Call

            Freya could not stop thinking about the sword. She had left it behind in the mad rush to get away from the DFO. It was possible, of course, that it had survived – though only if the fires had not warped or melted the blade.
            But as of yet, there was no real plan for how to go back. She had brought it up with Azjar, but he had only meekly shrugged, just as much in the dark as she was. They had gotten that strange blue man to his people, and the djinn had been accommodating, but Freya’s questions were numerous.
            Tessa had called the djinni “Mr. Flow,” which sounded like the name of a jazz musician. She gathered that that was not his real name, but Tessa had still not explained just who he was or why he came to them.
            Someone had made a supply run back to Towatki to get human – what the djinn called “jengu” – groceries, but Freya did not understand why they had not gone back with them, to return to Arizradna and talk to law enforcement.
            Is this one of those times when you need to act on your own?
            Even over a week later, Freya felt like she was in a daze. She wanted to go back. She wanted to call home and reassure her family that she was fine. Already they would be worried sick about her, maybe even mourning her. But Tessa and Jack were acting as if the crisis had never ended. They were hiding out, laying low.
            Who the hell are these people?
            She worried about the sword – not so much because she cared about it as a family heirloom (though she did) – but because she had utterly failed to show the kind of valor in battle that would be expected of her.
            She was certain that her parents would not come down too harshly – none of them had ever been in a real battle. Freya came from the soft south of Sardok, untouched by the monsters in the north. “National Pride” per se had fallen out of favor long ago in Sardok, at least in its most explicit expressions. But there was still a tradition that valued the arts of the warrior, if not the application of those arts.
            The sietch was comfortable – surprisingly cool for people who had always lived in the deserts. Freya had heard of the djinn before, but it only occurred to her now that she had never seen one, even in photographs, before Mr. Flow had arrived at the observatory. She could almost imagine that she had heard they had all died out, though perhaps that had been an exaggeration. Kapla Furnace was not large, exactly, but it was large enough to feel like a real location – not some tiny town out in the countryside that served more as a hub of commerce for farmers than a real home for anyone. Kapla felt like a home. There were children who left the sietch in the morning to go to school in one of the other buildings. There were shops built into the sietches – in fact, if one squinted, the whole place might look like a shopping mall, but there wasn’t the same attempt to present itself as sterile.
            She had spent the days there exploring the various sietches. The inner-most ones were actually connected by tunnels, but as one pressed out to the exterior buildings, they became more isolated.
            Freya spoke with a woman named Yakka, whose Standard was broken and heavily accented, who indicated that this structure was typical of a Furnace Village – the furnace at the center provided power, and new buildings would be constructed in radiating shells as the village grew.
            Freya asked if the old Djinn Cities had been built in a similar way, but Yakka grew quiet and shrugged, claiming not to know and then taking her leave.
            “Admittedly, that’s a little odd,” said Azjar, after she told him. “Maybe it’s a taboo to talk about the cities?”
            Freya sat down in a comfortable chair in their apartment’s living room. “I really know barely anything about them. I mean, they seem perfectly nice. Frankly they’re more hospitable to us than we deserve.”
            “Well, we did save one of their people. I imagine that would earn us some good favor.”
            “Have you called home?”
            Azjar frowned. “No. I should.”
            “I haven’t either. That’s weird, isn’t it?”
            “Do they even have a phone here? “
            Freya gave it some thought. They could clearly communicate between the sietches, but there had not been anything like telephone lines leading there. The day they had arrived was now coming into clearer focus. They had been exhausted and thirsty when they arrived. Kapla Furnace Village had appeared out of the desert like some strange mirage.
            Freya had the disturbing thought that this was all an illusion, and that she was dying of thirst in the desert. She took a deep breath, felt the wall next to her as carefully as she could, taking note of its texture and the distinct smell of mild incense covering up some sort of cleaning solution.
            If this was a hallucination, it was a particularly effective one.
            They had driven so far out, though, and over so many days, and when Freya thought back, she realized that they could not have had any water with them. Their panicked flight out of the DFO had been so rushed.
            She brought this up with Azjar.
            “Hm. That is strange,” he said.
            “Strange? That’s miraculous, isn’t it?”
            “We’re in the Sarona Desert now. I think it will behoove us to think in less strictly logical ways,” said Azjar as he yawned and finished off a piece of baklava he had been working on for several minutes, a treat that the djinni man named Chaffi, who Freya understood to be Councilor Marada’s secretary or assistant, had brought for them.
            “Less strictly logical ways?” asked Freya.
            “It’s different here. In Ganlea, things are more solid, more… rational or something. My people have always had a kind of reverence for the Desert, because it’s not just a desert. It’s… our tradition is that it’s the heart of the universe. The Path of Aeoes shoots right into it, as if reality itself is radiating out of it. And if that’s really what is happening, then maybe the Desert’s version of reality isn’t exactly fully formed. It’s like the soft skull of an infant.”
            “Is there evidence for all of that? That theory?”
            “It’s not a theory. It’s a myth. But it’s one that holds up pretty well.”

            That night, Freya went to bed, still unsatisfied. She resolved to bring it up with Tessa in the morning. It was time to go home. She wanted to put all of this madness behind her.
            As she slept, she heard a phone ringing. She awoke in the strange bed, in the strange room. She knew immediately that it was wrong. There were no windows, and the bed was tucked away in the corner of the room.
            She stood up, now realizing that this was a dream. The phone continued to ring, but she still couldn’t determine where it was. She thought herself forward, as one does in lucid dreams, and she came swiftly out of the room and into a cavernous space. There were strange blue people out there who wore sunglasses despite the fact that she could see the night’s stars out through the great glass ceiling of the building.
            The ringing did not grow louder, yet somehow she was certain that she was coming closer to it. The dream logic suggested it, and she was willing to see this through. She climbed the stairs up toward the door and walked forward. It had to be a dream, because the sky was almost a bright purple, and a million million stars glittered above her. The Path of Aeoes was so bright that it looked like a solid tower made of cloudy white glass, extending up into the cosmos.
            Below the purple sky, the ground was orange-brown. It was beautiful, the way you would illustrate the desert night in a children’s book. It was dark, but somehow the darkness seemed only a function of the colors around her – her vision did not feel impaired at all.
            She walked forward, the Path of Aeoes acting as her compass as she left the village behind her. The ringing grew no louder, but clearer, and now there were strange shapes in the sky. They could have been letters or symbols, or maybe they were actually far-away planets, or celestial spirits high above.
            The land was incredibly flat, so it was quite strange that the phone took her by surprise.
            Yet there it stood, a telephone in a narrow, door-less booth. The booth was illuminated with a terribly bright light, and the receiver was positively rattling with the ringing.
            Freya stepped forward, and as she walked into the light surrounding the phone, she suddenly felt the intense rain that was falling. Mere seconds within the light and she was drenched. She ducked into the phone booth, shivering at the cold.
            She picked up the receiver and held it to her ear. “Dad?”
            “No. Not Dad,” said the voice on the other end.
            “You’re right,” said Freya. “This is just a dream. I need to call you when I wake up.”
            “You misunderstand,” said the voice. “This is not a dream.”

            The next thing she knew, Freya was in a rather uncomfortable cot. The air was hot and dry, and her skin was sore and sunburned. She seemed to be in a rough canvas tent, and she was grateful to find a big bottle of water next to her on a metal crate that served as a nightstand.
            The water was hot and tasted bitter with sediment, but it did the job as she downed what must have been a liter in a single extended quaff.
            “Ok, good, you’re up.”
            A man was standing in the tent – he must have been in there when she woke up, as she didn’t think he could have come through the tent’s entrance without her seeing him.
            The man had sandy brown-blonde hair and a thick lair of stubble. He was dressed in a long duster. He looked a bit thin.
            “You scared us. We’re glad we found you before you died of dehydration. There’s more water where that came from. Sadly not cold, though. This operation is a bit bare-bones, if you’ll forgive me.”
            “Where am I? I need to get back to… uh… Kap… Kapla Furnace Village.”
            “Soon. Once you’re rested up and healthy. Chaffi here will be able to bring you back there,” he said, indicating the blue man standing next to him with dark sunglasses. She recognized him from Kapla. “…And once you agree to help us out.”
            Freya’s eyes widened. She suddenly felt dread coursing through her veins. “What… what… what…”
            “Take a breath,” said the man with the sandy-blonde hair.
            “What do you want from me?”

            “We need you to bring your friends here.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2015)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Nuances of Consequence

            Meldi sat reading a book – not one of his own, as he had long ago exhausted their wisdom, but one of the novels that the chief enforcer had lent to him. It was a piece of historical fiction that drew parallels between Terek the Ruthless and the mythical Stalin. Meldi had heard of the book before, as it was quite well-received, but he found there to be little subtlety in the distinction between the story’s villains and heroes.
            He was in a holding room for now – though the enforcement officers had done what they could to make it comfortable until more appropriate accommodations could be made.
            Periodically, Meldi came very close to forgetting about the bandage on his face. The bottle had broken, and a few shards of glass had embedded themselves in his cheek. The wound was superficial, but it would likely scar. A younger man might have enjoyed the prospect of such a distinctive new characteristic, but Meldi could only imagine how his mother would cry if she saw what had happened to her poor boy’s face.
            A poor boy of fifty-seven years. A poor boy who was a necromancer, even if he hardly conformed to the stereotype.
            The enforcers had the bottle’s thrower in custody, but Meldi was under no illusion that that would be the end of it. The North East Colonists had more reason than anyone to fear the undead, given their history, but it was that history that had drawn him to this frigid country in the first place.
            Meldi had grown up hearing stories about the Bone King, and the hellish dystopia that he ruled within the Wastes. He had not, as a child, wanted to replicate that power. Like any good Vastani boy, he looked forward to the day that they took back the mainland.
            But Bernardo Meldi had been privileged enough to travel. He had seen the world from other perspectives. He learned a bit more about the Vansa that had existed before, and though they did not deserve their fate, it did cast the Reclaimers’ vision into doubt. At nineteen, Meldi realized that a defeat of the Bone King would not lead to some recovered golden age.
            He began to study the Bone King – who had in fact been a human being once, with the name, presumably an alias, as it did not have the sound of a Vansan name, of Mogra Thesh. At first he studied him out of morbid curiosity – here was the most monstrous human being who ever lived. To even suggest otherwise was a crime in and of itself, literally in Vastanos though only socially in other parts of the world.
            Meldi found nothing to sympathize with in Mogra Thesh, which brought him some relief, knowing that there was some truth to the version of events that he had learned as a child. Yes, the man was a mass-murderer, even before his final living act.
            But certain crimes have a statute of limitations. A twenty-year-old man who steals a television set will not be arrested when he is eighty. The crime is distant.
            Yet how long would it take to forgive the deaths of millions? In a living human’s frame of reference, with only so much time, the answer may be as good as never. But Mogra Thesh became the Bone King a thousand years ago. He was a fact, a facet of the world. Any justice that would come to him would arrive a thousand years too late.
            What was the point?
            Furthermore, what had he done since? The bone constructs of the Waste were not the souls of the dead trapped in some painful existence as slaves. They were wholly new beings – whether sophisticated magical machine or conscious beings, he couldn’t say. Other than himself, the Bone King had not truly raised the dead, but instead created his own bizarre life cycle with the remains of one type of being transforming into another kind of being.
            So the ultimate shock, when a young Bernardo Meldi did his research into the Bone King, was that this most notorious necromancer in history was hardly a necromancer at all.
            Such thoughts would not endear him to the people of the North East Colony. Indeed, such disparagement of the Bone King might even draw the ire of the pair of his creations that remained in the town.
            Meldi had become absorbed with the story of Mogra Thesh, particularly his travels abroad before his return to Vansa that precipitated the Doom. It seemed obvious to Meldi at least that Thesh must have gone to the Forest of Dusk that would, centuries later, become the North East Colony. Who else was there to learn from? Paul Airbright had died hundreds of years before Thesh was born. It had to be the Icelord – that strange, inhuman figure sometimes called Hazhed-Funir – that had taught the man who would become the Bone King.
            Meldi followed in the Bone Kings’s footsteps. But he assured himself that he would always be bound by ethics. Mogra Thesh had been a doctor, but he had violated his oath. Bernardo Meldi would not commit that same sin.
            Meldi tossed the novel down on his cot, not bothering to slip in a bookmark. The enforcement chief, a man named Harrick, had appeared with two cups of coffee.
            “Not to your tastes?” asked Harrick as he handed him a cup, eyeing the book.
            “I may take it up again.”
            “How’s the cheek?”
            Meldi put a hand to the bandage. “I can hardly feel it.”
            “You don’t know anyone in town?”
            “Not really. I have not been here for a long time.”
            “That was when you… raised? Is that the term?”
            “I suppose the most accurate term would be revive. Yes, the last time I was here I revived Ana.”
            Harrick leaned back against the wall and took a sip of his own cup. “That was...”
            “Eleven years ago. Ana was fourteen. You know, it doesn’t feel that long.”
            “Long before I ever met her then.”
            “I am sorry, Detective Inspector. I realize that this must have come as a great shock to you.”
            “She didn’t know?”
            “No. I don’t believe so. Unless her parents told her… but I don’t think they would have. I advised them not to.”
            “They moved away. Elgrin, or somewhere like that, I want to say. Don’t recall when. She didn’t talk about them much. I didn’t like to pry. I figured, maybe a more traditional sort of family, not so happy with their daughter’s lifestyle, if that’s the euphemism.”
            Meldi nodded. “A wish granted can make one fear some sort of price. It is a factor I confess I did not consider when I undertook the procedure.”
            “Most evil in the world happens because of an inability to understand the nuances of consequence.” Harrick stared at the cover of the novel on the cot.
            “I was confronted with a situation that demanded expediency. Not all the consequences were negative.”

            Her eyes were filled with tears from exertion. She had done her best to rearrange Lisenrush to distribute the weight evenly on her shoulders, but the pain was immense. Every step, it felt like every vertebra was being pounded into its neighbor. Her muscles screamed, and the wound – healing but definitely not yet healed – was a roar of indignant fury. The Ranger-Captain’s breaths were too quiet to be heard, and Ana prayed that she was not simply imagining the rising and falling of her chest.
            She stumbled as she lifted one foot onto the asphalt road, nearly toppling over. She passed the large wooden sign, with a painted swordfish leaping out of the water over the words “Welcome To Port O’James.”
            The first car passed them, as if there was nothing odd to see. The second car stopped, and a tall, broad blonde man stepped out, seemingly unsure of what he was seeing.

            “Call for help,” said Ana. And with that, she fell, Lisenrush collapsing on top of her.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2015)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Shadow Salesman

            The worst thing was that they didn’t seem to be doing anything to him. Jim was constrained – Henry had strapped Jim into a chair, which was baffling, as Jim’s own body was normally as fluid as a cloud of smoke, more or less. Now, however, he was somehow stuck. He knew, in a second-hand way, what it was like to be human, and this was like having several joints dislocated at once. Except it wasn’t exactly painful – it just felt wrong.
            He felt solid, as if he were made of matter. When his fingers rested on the wooden arm of the chair, they spread ever-so-slightly, shaped by the simple pressure of a round object and a flat object pushed together by gravity.
            But he wasn’t an object. He was a demon. He wasn’t made of atoms and molecules. And so the fact that his body was acting like he was made him terrified.
            That and the faceless men.
            They would appear and disappear suddenly, without warning. They never did anything except stand there and stare at him with no eyes. And then they would be gone.
            That was not normal.
            Jim was a demon, and he could become totally invisible, intangible, and undetectable by the vast majority of humans. Yet even then he was still there. And as long as he was there – even if he wasn’t made up of the same sort of matter as humans were – there was some way to detect him. These things just blinked into existence and out as if they were figments of his imagination.
            They did not reflect light or cast shadows. They were invisible except that they could clearly be seen. Jim wondered what they would look like to a human. He imagined most people didn’t even see them, or rather, they didn’t realize that they saw them. Jim wasn’t even sure why he was able to see them – his sense of vision was a borrowed approximation of the human version, mixed with his own native sense of sight that predated his choice to be a demon.
            The chair wasn’t in some dank basement or dark closet. He merely sat in the living room where he had been captured. They didn’t seem to mind his being there. Henry Thall left after binding him there. So now Sweet Clara would simply sit in the room and meet with the various assassins that Thall hired. And Jim would watch.
            Jim watched Clara. He had been forced back into invisibility – the assassins who arrived seemed to all know not to ask why there was a chair with leather straps on the armrests in the room. They likely thought it was there for intimidation’s sake.
            Clara had a valet who attended on her. She dealt with the various “contractors” with poise and professionalism. He dearly wished he could touch her mind, but the physical shape in which he had been bound also seemed to limit his abilities. He was practically just a human, albeit an invisible one who, if somehow turned visible, would look like a human-shaped cloud of swirling smoke.
            The faceless men blinked away in the middle of one of her interviews. It was unsettling, not knowing when they would reappear, but Jim felt a wave of relief every time they stopped existing anywhere near him.
            “Clara,” he said. It had been several days, and he wasn’t sure why he decided to speak up now. Perhaps he was getting lonely. He was certainly bored – terror that goes on for so long becomes part of the boredom.
            “I’m not supposed to speak to you,” said Clara. That was a good sign. “Supposed” implied that she was forbidden yet desired some sort of contact.
            “Clara,” he whispered. “Do you see them, when they’re here?”
            “I thought so. You know they aren’t even your typical sort of magic like I am.” Jim craned his neck, doing his best to check behind him and ensure that one of them was not somehow standing there. “Clara, when did you start seeing them?”
            “Shortly after I met Mr. Thall.”
            “And have you observed them…”
            “I don’t want to talk about it.”
            “And yet you are talking about it. And I think I know why. I think you’re terrified of those things. And you should be. Clara,” he said, realizing that the tone of voice he was using was much like the one he used when trying to convince a person to become a serial killer – which was a little odd, given that what he meant to suggest would benefit her as well as him, but at least it was persuasive. “Because I’m terrified of those things. And do you know what I am?”
            “A demon?”
            “Mr. Thall keeps me safe. I’m useful to him. He won’t let them harm me.”
            “You’re assuming, Clara, that the faceless men are working for him.” If Jim had a real face – or at least one whose swirling-smoke pattern did not obscure facial expressions  - he would have given a patronizing frown. “You don’t really believe that, do you?”
            Clara was quiet for a long moment. Jim might have smiled if he were not so uncomfortable and frightened himself.
            “Clara…” and here he hesitated. A hard sell could put some people off. Merely knowing that you were trying to convince them of something was enough to make such people stonewall the salesman. He wondered which kind of person Clara was. Yet all he had was what he had observed – a performer, certainly, and one who was doing a job, but doing it well – not out of pride, but some kind of desperation. It was not easy to detect all of this under the blanket of creeping fear, but it was there.
            That suggested this was a position of convenience. She was not a fanatic to Thall’s cause, whatever the hell that was. That suggested that Jim should take a rational course in his argument, yet the ever-present threat of the faceless men arriving and… doing something… added a desperation that required the rhetorical equivalent of a slap in the face.
            “You’ll need to get out of here. If you want to be free of him. This house is his way of controlling you.”
            “It is how I am paid.”
            “No it isn’t. It’s not for you. It’s for appearances. It’s the brothel he’s put you in.”
            A flash of recognition. Had he been able to move his arm he would have had to restrain himself from pumping his fist. Yes! Of course, she had been a prostitute. That explained the desperation. Retrein was not a good place to ply such a trade. There were no “Street Priestesses” here – only whores. And now Clara’s face read like a book. She had been in some slum, or even on the streets. Thall had offered her a job, and she was in no position to refuse. But money and safety did not breed fanatical loyalty.
            “I can help you,” said Jim, struggling not to laugh at the fact that he actually meant it.
            “I don’t… need your help.”
            “Do you want to live here until Henry Thall murders you? Before those faceless men grow tired of his games and do to you… whatever it is they’re going to do?”
            “And what is that?”
            “I have absolutely no idea. But I can’t imagine it’s anything pleasant.”
            “Where will I go?”
            “Anywhere. If you feel guilty about any of the murders you’ve taken part in, you could go to Mr. Airbright. Or not. Honestly, the murders don’t really bother me that much, but then, I’m a demon, and you’re a human.”
            Clara stepped back. “Suppose I was interested. How would you help me? You’re trapped here.”
            “Possibly.” Jim pulled at one of the straps, just to be sure that he was still stuck there, and that this desperate measure was truly called for. “My body is trapped here. But yours isn’t.”
            “I don’t understand.”

            “Clara, what do you know about demonic possession?”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2015)

Sunday, June 7, 2015

4. Shanasee Rain King Motel, Room 7

4. Shanasee Rain King Motel
Room 7
1:00 AM the Next Day

            The man in the black suit pours himself a drink. It’s tequila, from agave grown outside Damana. He is careful with alcohol. His father – and yes, even men like him have fathers – was an alcoholic. He shouldn’t touch the stuff at all, but he needs something to help him relax.
            It’s been a long day. The woman in the black suit has refrained from the kind of idle chitchat that makes long drives up and down their massive country bearable. She’s angry with him.
            He is always careful not to wish to go home to Damana. Wishes like that can lead to pining, and that can distract from work. He is confident they will achieve containment, but he does not know that he will be the one to catch the thing.
            Designation: Templar One.
            Origins: Question mark.
            Nature: Unknown.
            Threat: Very High.
            Sentience: Unknown.
            Contagious: Unknown.
            It is this last unknown that made the woman in the black suit so angry with him. The man in the black suit did not watch Eris Oceans as she stumbled into the desert, to die of heat stroke or dehydration. In a way, she had already died before they even found her.
            The man in the black suit takes a sip from his glass. He has already put the bottle away.
            This is not the way that things usually go. Most of the people he finds in the wake of one of these incidents are able to go on and live fairly normal lives. The luckiest are the ones who remembered nothing, at least consciously. A little neurosis is a small price to pay for a life free of cosmic horror.
            The man in the black suit takes off his jacket and hangs it on the hook the motel has kindly provided next to the bathroom. He pulls the knot of his tie loose and draws it slowly out of his collar. It is made of silk, and feels smooth as it runs along his fingers. It is black, just like his jacket and pants and shoes. He removes the shoes and peels off his socks, placing them neatly on the bed.
            He slowly unbuttons his shirt. He removes it and hangs it up over the jacket. The fluorescent bulb illuminating the sink hums, and he stares at himself in the mirror. The light is not flattering, but he has no need of flattery. He looks into his own eyes and stares for a solid minute.
            He thinks about who he is, how he became what he is, and how he came to do what he does. The woman in the black suit is younger than he is. She is young enough to be his daughter. He expects that she will come to understand eventually. Poor Eris Oceans is dead – this many days in the desert would ensure that. Her companion is dead as well – of that, the man in the black suit can be certain beyond any doubt. These deaths are monstrous, to be sure, but unavoidable.
            And the woman in the black suit will come to understand that eventually, though it might be years before she accepts that truth. For what it is worth, he hopes that she sleeps well tonight, though he doubts she will. She is in the next room over. He has no idea whatsoever what she is doing in there.
            The man in the black suit runs his hand along his cheek, feeling stubble poking through. His hair has grown longer than he prefers to keep it. And his eyes are tired. He looks paler than usual. The color seems to have drained even from his eyes.
            He has driven fourteen hours today. He is going to sleep soon.
            He removes his pants and folds them, laying them across the top of the chair. At this point, he re-checks the lock and bolt on the door. He ensures that the blinds obscure the entirety of his room. He examines the smoke detector and any vents in which there could possibly be some sort of surveillance equipment. He does not expect to find any, and ultimately he is not surprised.
            He returns to the sink-counter, with its square of tiled floor beneath it and harsh mirror-light. He removes his underwear and places it on the bed behind him, next to the socks.
            The man in the black suit pulls the crumpled paper bag from under the sink. Slowly, ritualistically, he unfurls it, allowing him to reach into its mouth. He pulls the knife and the towel from out of it. The towel still smells like bleach.
            The knife is an old one, and it is probably time to take it in to get the handle re-bound. The sheath is also starting to fall apart, but he takes excellent care of the blade.
            He sets the towel and the knife on the counter that stands just outside the bathroom, where the sink is. He then pulls other items from the bag – a whetstone, a lighter, a bottle of pure alcohol, some larger adhesive bandages, and a suture needle with thread.
            He sharpens the knife. He does this for several minutes. He cleans the knife now, pouring the alcohol along the blade. He then wets the towel with alcohol and rubs the usual place on his abdomen.
            He has some basic medical training. He knows where to put the knife so that it does not damage any important organs or sever any major blood vessels. He has done this many times before. You should not worry for his physical safety.
            He takes two deep, calming breaths, and he pushes the point of the knife into the spot on his abdomen. It is sufficiently sharp, and a bead of blood drops down. It does not hurt yet.
            He takes another deep breath and then slowly, carefully, pushes the knife in farther. First it is cutting skin. Then it is pressing through muscle. He nearly winces, but he has practiced enough to know that this would make things far worse.
            The knife is now over an inch into his body. He focuses on the pain. He conjures, in his mind, the face of Eris Oceans. He sees her, worn and bloody and missing an eye. He sees her identification photo – a record of the woman she once was. The pain becomes excruciating.
            He forces himself to imagine her, hearing her voice not as the small and high-pitched trauma-victim mouse-sound, but as that of a healthy adult woman.
            “She is dead,” he says, whispering, but loud enough for himself to hear.
            He pushes the knife in further, a very deep, animal part of his mind screaming to stop, to relieve him from the pain.
            He does not listen to it. He stares into the mirror, the harsh fluorescent light, with its slight green tint, making the bright red blood look almost brown or black. He stares into his own eyes as the knife cuts deeper into his flesh.
            “Her name was Eris Oceans.” He repeats this like a religious chant.
            His eyes have gotten red. He can feel blood – that which is not spilling onto the tile floor beneath him – rushing to his face, swelling it. He is almost there.
            He turns the knife now, ever so slightly, not enough to shear the skin, but the pain flares through him.
            And you killed her.
            And now a teardrop forms in his right eye. It rolls down his stubbly cheek and cascades down his chest and finally to the floor.
            He takes a deep breath. His shoulders feel weak, and they shake a little as he does so.
            Gingerly, he removes the knife. There is a great deal of blood – more than he ever expects. The incision is about an inch across. He clamps the towel to his stomach. He then removes it and cleans off the wound with the alcohol. He sterilizes the needle and then begins to sew up the cut.
            The physical pain continues as he makes stitch after stitch. But before long, the wound has been closed. He ties off the thread and cuts it with the knife.
            He cleans the wound once again, barely noticing the sting of the alcohol. He places the bandage over it and then begins to clean up. He washes the knife clean and ensures that it is perfectly dry before he returns it to its sheath. He places the items back in the paper bag – all except the towel.
            This towel has been cleaned several times. It has served him well. But the bleach smell has seeped into it from its repeated washes. He takes one of the fresh towels from the motel and puts it in the paper bag.
            Tonight he’ll offer to get the woman in the black suit something for dinner – something of a peace offering, perhaps. Regardless, under the pretense of getting food, he will also transport this towel somewhere out in the desert, where he will burn it.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2015)


Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Missing Icebox

            Nascine ran.
            She wasn’t sure if they were following her. There was a patter of rain that made every leaf in the forest canopy above her act as a percussive instrument. She was not a stranger to the wild, but she felt more comfortable in cities. Cities had things like alcoves and alleys at relatively regular intervals, and the forest had been built only by comparatively random elements.
            All she could do was try to find the dark spots, heading for shadows. If the Agents were heading after her, she could not tell.
            She wasn’t entirely sure where she was. She had not even heard of Muiggenschire before coming here, though the climate definitely felt like home. Finding herself winded, she looked for a suitable hiding spot. There was a half-rotten tree trunk leaning over a little ditch that she figured she might be able to fit in. After a quick check to make sure there wasn’t some wild animal inside, she crawled down into it.
            In retrospect, it was not a terribly good hiding spot, only because it was too obviously a good hiding spot. The ditch, log, and stump essentially created a three-quarters barrier to sight, with the opening facing away from where her pursuers would be coming from. And while that made it more likely they would run past her, it also meant she could not see them coming.
            She waited, trying first to take quiet, shallow breaths, but then giving up, reasoning that the sound of rain was going to drown out such a small sound anyway.
            Nascine sat still for minutes. It was actually somewhat peaceful. Despite the cold, and the recognition that she was now absolutely covered in mud, she felt oddly refreshed. He eyelids began to droop, and she felt a soothing warmth spread through her body as she felt the shadow envelop her and…

            It had been an hour, she thought. At that point, she was shivering, and decided that staying in that ditch was no longer an option. Besides, it seemed she had lost her pursuers – if they were even still looking, they would probably have scattered far enough that she would be unlikely to come across any of them.
            When she crawled out of the ditch, she looked around. The forest seemed strangely different. She could not decide what it was that gave her that impression, but she had the strangest feeling that she had not gone into that ditch in the same forest that she now found herself in.
            Could it be another one of those shared spaces? she thought.
            If it were, it would certainly make it harder for them to find her – she doubted any of the House Agents were going to crawl into every ditch that they found.
            But perhaps her mind was simply playing tricks on her.
            She kept walking forward, relying on her own sense of direction as best she could. It wasn’t easy to tell where the sun was, given the clouds, but she thought she was heading north by northwest.
            Abruptly, the forest gave way to a rocky ledge about five feet above a narrow river. There were buildings on the other side.
            Wait, I’ve seen these buildings before, she thought.
            She was in Exbrooke, a rather fancy neighborhood in the eastern part of Ravenfort. The name of the neighborhood jumped out to her, and it took her a moment to remember – the disastrous Jaroka mission down in Narcia! It was coming back to her. They had designated a safehouse here in Exbrooke to serve as a panic-hole in case anything went catastrophically wrong before they got out of the country.
            The Rookery had plenty of these properties in rotation. It felt as if it had been ages since she had been “rescued” by Barclay– assuming the man hadn’t been the one to drown her himself. She felt a pang of guilt when she realized she hadn’t even thought about what might have happened to Chris Thatch, who Nascine still thought of primarily under his cover identity, James Tarson.
            The safehouse was fairly compartmentalized – it had been purchased with the budget for the mission, and it was possible that the Rookery would eventually rotate it out of use and sell it back on a public market, but it was unlikely that had happened yet. The Jaroka mission, in a way, had not really ended. As lead on the mission, she would have needed to sign some paperwork, and she did not remember doing so. As far as she could figure, only she, Thatch, and Kilarny – who had died before they met up with her in Narica – would know. The records would be there, but one would need to know where to look. She had no idea what was really “safe” anymore, but if she had had a chance to run, that’s where she would have gone. It stood to reason that Thatch might have gone there.
            She looked down at herself. She was a mess, with mud caked on to her clothes and even in her hair. She walked over to the river – the Vinely, as she recalled, a tributary to the Lockey – and cupped some of the chilly water in her hand, rinsing off as much of the grime as she could. When she got to the safehouse, she would enjoy a nice long shower, and certainly a cup of tea.
            She got a few looks on the street, as she made her way to the address. Thankfully the house was right over the river, so she did not have to go too far into the city. She tried not to think too much about the people seeing her. People saw strange things in cities all the time, and it wasn’t unthinkable that she had slipped and fallen face-first into a patch of mud. Exbrooke had more parks than developed blocks. She prepared a little anecdote in case anyone asked, but she knew that no one would.
            When she came to the house, she felt ready to collapse. Her rainy nap under the log had hardly been all that energizing, but more exhausting was the mental effort to decide what to do when faced with the convolutions of the House. It was tempting to think of them as mystical in power and scope, but they were just people. And even if they weren’t, the teachings of Kerahn stated that the gods aren’t really all that much more intelligent or mysterious than people.
            There would be a time for further contemplation. She had, she hoped, done something that the House would not predict – neither telling a lie nor the truth to the Queen – but she felt no closer to discovering who the mole was within the Rookery.
            Maybe draw a bath instead of taking a shower, she thought as she reached the door. She tapped the door in a few places – they used a keyless lock, both to frustrate anyone trying to pick the decoy keyhole and also to ensure that a fleeing thief would be able to get inside without needing to carry the key on them.
            She walked into the kitchen and ran the faucet, running the water through her hair – hair that she had allowed to grow far too long. That was when she noticed the dust.
            There was an enormous amount of dust on the counter. Yes, the place had been unoccupied for at least months now, but surely that wouldn’t account for such a layer unless someone had left a window open.
            Also, the electric icebox was missing.
            Nascine pulled her hair back. She looked to the door. There was a trail of muddy footprints leading into the kitchen, yes, but there was also a streak of mud that led down the hallway to the basement steps.
            Nascine walked down the corridor. She pulled off the baggy sweatshirt that Barclay had given her – it felt good to get the soggy thing off, and her shirt underneath was dry, other than the sweat from her exertion.
            The light was on in the basement.
            She saw now the yellow glow of incandescent bulbs spreading up through the open doorway. She stepped closer, and then she heard a low thud. A moment later, the light cut out.
            And then she heard a voice call out in pain.

            It was Tartin.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2015)

Tuesday, May 5, 2015


            The battery on the car was basically dead when they got there. Mr. Flow was hot on its heels. Kapla Furnace Village was not very large. The buildings were all gleaming, though, with great bottle-green glass roofs that sloped downward. They had been able to spot the village from many miles away, as a plume of black smoke rose from a large smokestack at its center. The buildings were all fairly similar, only a single floor, and shaped a little like a horseshoe crab without a tail, with the round part facing outward. There was no road, but the desert floor was flat here, and smooth as a recently paved highway. When they stopped, a group of djinn men, all blue-skinned and wearing dark sunglasses, approached the vehicle. Jack turned the engine off.
            “He told us to come here,” Jack said to the group once he had rolled down the window.
            One of the men, middle-aged and wearing a light linen robe, stepped forward. He looked down at Mr. Flow and his mouth opened with shock. “Soka!” He opened the door and knelt down beside Mr. Flow.
            “Soka, sanate mi, ok? Soka?”
            Mr Flow groaned. “Ti kanata. Iy beo, Kelbe, mut na sarona.” His voice was weak.
            “What’s going on? Do you speak Standard?” asked Azjar.
            The man kneeling next to Mr. Flow nodded. “We need to get him the doctor.” He turned to the group of onlookers. “Zute, comase Askata!”
            One of the men in the crowd bolted. The djinni put his hand on Mr. Flow’s forehead. “What happened?”
            “He was shot…,” said Tessa. “It happened days ago, and he showed us how to cauterize the wounds, but he’s taken a turn for the worse since then.”
            “Ok,” and he turned to Mr. Flow. “Soka, ti comasar medi.”
            Mr. Flow nodded weakly.
            The man tapped another one of the teenagers in the crowd on the knee. “Jaru, luke sio,” he said, pointing to Mr. Flow. “Mi dohru clac ot jengu-set.” The man stood up and allowed the teenager to take his place while he gestured for the four of them to step aside with him.
            A tall, striking woman carrying a doctor’s bag strode out to the car and watched as the young men who had gathered put Mr. Flow on a stretcher, carrying him into the village. The man watched them move him before turning his attention to Tessa.
            “Thank you for bringing our brother here. Though I am somewhat surprised he was willing to return, even in his condition.”
            “Will he be ok?” asked Tessa.
            “Askata is a good doctor, but I don’t know yet. Soka looked weaker than I ever remember seeing him.”
            Freya and Azjar both looked exhausted. Jack was fairly tired himself, so Tessa did the talking. “He told us how to get here. We’ve had a pretty rough couple of days.”
            “Well, you are welcome to rest in our village. We will do our best to accommodate you, though we are not accustomed to having jengu visitors. We do have some water, but we will have to send out to the Arizradna for… uh… wet foods.”
            “Thank you for your hospitality,” said Tessa.
            “You have brought our brother back to us. You are honored guests for that. Still, I think that it would be best if we took you to meet with our councilor. Soka has led a complicated life, and we only wish to ensure that our community is not in danger. My name is Kelbe. Soka is my flame-kin, and so I thank you deeply from the heart.” Kelbe put his palm on his chest and bowed his head.
            They walked between the buildings toward the center of town. Looking through the glass half-domes, Jack realized that they were only seeing the tops of the buildings, and that they could be far larger underground. Looking closer, the glass was not a uniform bottle-green as he had originally thought. Instead, small panels of varying colors were held together in a copper lattice, and so, close-up one could see that each building was a unique pattern of many different colors. The impression of green from a distance seemed to actually be some kind of iridescent illusion.
            “Your buildings are beautiful,” said Tessa.
            “They are called sietches,” said Kelbe. “They are far larger once one goes downstairs.”
            Unfortunately, it was extremely hot and dry. It was late afternoon, so thankfully the sun would be setting soon, but all the accumulated heat of the day was radiating out of the desert floor.
            Jack dreaded what it might be like inside the sietches. These were a people who didn’t even drink water, and so as they came to the councilor’s sietch, he worried that he would effectively be walking into an oven.
            A blast of cool air as the door opened shocked him, and as they walked inside the building, Jack actually found himself shivering, more out of surprise than actual discomfort.
            It was darker inside than he expected it to be. The glass dome overhead shaded the sunlight, and they descended a flight of stairs as soon as they entered. The lower levels of the sietch were impeccably clean and illuminated with recessed lighting. Its walls were made of smooth grey stone, and to Jack’s surprise, the doors were dark, lacquered wood. He felt as if he were in a luxury hotel rather than some tiny village out in the desert. Beneath the stairway that led down from the glass dome, one could look down on a large plaza four stories below them, with shops and apartments and beautiful stone and glass sculptures. He had originally gotten the impression that this was a tiny village, but he realized now that it was actually a fully-fledged town, which must have had at least a few thousand people.
            They walked down a grand staircase to the floor of the plaza and followed Kelbe to a rather important-looking doorway with the words “Jenda Vizier” engraved on it.
            Kelbe opened the door and brought them into a rather large office. An older woman was sitting at a desk facing the door. She was busy with some kind of paperwork, but she came to a stopping point and looked up.
            She was not wearing sunglasses, and for what he suddenly realized was the first time, Jack saw a djinni's eyes. The eyes shone brightly, the irises the exact color of flame. In fact, Jack realized, they did not merely look like flame, but they truly glowed, and the flames in her eyes danced just as one would expect a campfire to do.
            Kelbe stepped forward.
            “Jenda Marada, Tos-set de jengu ash arvunti. Sius savuntus Soka ag.”
            The woman's eyes widened. “Soka? Se es? Yo fama?”
            “Sio sukati. Sio clacati. Askata sio luku.”
            “Askata? Jiy Askata sio luku? Jo se?”
            “Na sarona. Se bejurek. Se shotti, mut se beo, pojiu sius-set,” replied Kelbe, gesturing to the four of them on this last phrase.
            The woman stood. She was rather short, and thin of frame, and appeared to be quite old, but she moved with a confident grace. She walked toward them and extended her hand. “I am Marada, the councilor of Kapla Village.” She spoke with a far thicker accent than the other djinn they had encountered.
            Tessa took her hand and shook. “I’m Tessa Olanis. This is Jack Cart, Freya Jorgensen, and Azjar Al-Acoma.”
            “Kelbe tells me that you have brought our Soka back to us. That you have saved his life. We are dearly grateful for this. But it does complicate matters in some ways.” She looked to Kelbe, who bowed his head and walked out of the office.
            Marada gestured to some chairs and a sofa for them to sit. She took her position back behind her desk. “We know that Soka has been involved with dangerous people. He was always too restless to stay in the village. We have not seen him here in almost twenty years.”
            Tessa nodded. Jack found himself entranced by Marada’s eyes. No wonder they wear those sunglasses.
            “How did he… how do you know Soka?” asked Marada.
            Jack considered this. Would it be prudent to simply tell her the whole truth? The djinn were clearly isolated, but how isolated could one be from the intrigue of the House? Was it safe here? Was anywhere safe from the faceless men?
            “We don’t, really,” said Tessa. “Several days ago… how long was it, Jack? It feels like it’s been months.”
            “About a week, I think,” said Jack.
            “He came to our house a week ago in that car. He had already been wounded. Some men attacked us. Soka fended them off, but we barely escaped with our lives.”
            “You had never seen him before?” asked Marada.
            “No, never,” said Tessa.
            She lies with the truth, thought Jack. He realized that, as he had grown more fond of Tessa, the fact that she was a House agent more easily faded to the back of his mind. Even now, he could see the great link still attached to her, as if it were the after-image of some bright light followed by darkness.
            “Where was this house?” asked Marada.
            “Well, it was at the Deep Field Observatory, several miles outside of Towatki.”
            “And did you not contact the Arizradna police?”
            Tessa hesitated. Jack cut in. “Our phone lines had been cut. We worried that the attackers might follow us if we went into the city.”
            Marada nodded. If she suspected anything, she had an excellent marker face.
            Jack had been a law enforcement agent. And in Narcia, at least, that meant being honest and open, at least when it came to keeping people safe. His instinct was to tell Marada the whole story – to clear the air and move forward without carrying the complicated baggage of the House’s addiction to cloak and dagger.
            Yet there was another impulse to simply let things fall as they would. If the djinn were willing to put them up after their long journey, with no further questions, then perhaps they should not try to rock the boat.
            Marada scanned Jack’s face, and he became suddenly self-conscious. Had she somehow read some of his concerns in his facial expressions?
            “I am sorry to keep you here. I can see by looking that you are very tired. We must find you a place to sleep. We can speak more when you are feeling rested.” Marada pressed a button on her desk phone. “Chaffi?” she said.
            “Is, Jenda?” said a voice on her intercom.
            “Comase deran gessan ot derun chambus ko… An chambusi sha hova ko Sietch Shamba?”
            “Is. Drey chambus tos hova esa.”
            “Comase sius esa.”
            “Siu doashi puru.”
            A young djinni who appeared to be in his late twenties walked in, his eyes covered with sunglasses. Marada gestured to him. “This is Chaffi, my secretary. He will bring you to your rooms. When you are rested, please feel free to explore our village. We do not often have visitors. I am sure many of our people will want to meet you.”

            A week later, Chaffi was on his way back from Boss Man’s camp with the device he had been lent. Chaffi had been given a mission to discover if any of the people who had brought Soka with them were part of the House, something Boss Man seemed to think could be accomplished with the odd little contraption. The jengu – the djinn word for human – had settled in, and he was glad to see that the airship from Arizradna had brought not only their food, but also many of the supplies that the town had needed, including a new capacitor assembly for the power station.
            Boss Man had known all about Soka – designated within the House as “Mr. Flow.” Chaffi had not known Soka all that well – he had been a child when Soka left Kapla Furnace, and though it was a tight-knit community, it was still large enough that he knew the man more through reputation than any personal interactions.
            His return was troubling. The cold winds blowing in the desert had put everyone on edge, and somehow, Soka coming back after all these years felt like it was part of that. Chaffi began to wonder if Boss Man had somehow known that Soka would come back. Perhaps this was the very reason that the charismatic Narcian had approached him in the first place.
            He parked his car in the garage at Sietch Hondu and came up to the surface again rather than taking the tunnels so that he could watch the deep red sunset before he came home.
            Chaffi yawned as he rode the escalator down into Sietch Kessa. He walked to his apartment and opened the door. It was quiet inside, and he put the keys on the kitchen counter before hastily sliding the envelope with the device and the money between two bottles in the liquor cabinet. In the living room, his wife Nassa sat with his daughter Kura in her arms.
            “Wer yotus, Chaffi?” she whispered, careful not to wake the baby.
            “Standard, Nassa. Remember, we want her to learn to speak Standard first.”
            Nassa shrugged skeptically. “She is sleeping, Chaffi.”
            “She will still hear the words. It’s good for her.”
            Nassa nodded. There was a certain sadness and resignation in her acceptance. It had been his idea, but she had agreed with it after he had explained his reasoning. This way of life was dying out, and Chaffi hoped his daughter would go to school in Arizradna and eventually start her own family there – though not for a long time, of course. But Chaffi could sense that his wife was reluctant to let go of the past. He could not blame her for this feeling.
            “The question stands, though. Where were you?” asked Nassa.

            “Like I said when I left: I had to do something for work,” he said.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2015)