Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Scurvy Logic

"That's right," she said, "When they ask, tell them Maria sent you."

Her companion nodded. "Right."

'Maria' looked at her, pity slopping around in her heart but not, she hoped, spilling from her eyes. Carrie's skin was sallow, and last week a tooth had fallen out. Both of them were pretty sure she had scurvy, but she couldn't get a job and all the food stamps were good for were discounted processed items denatured of almost any kind of nutritional value, like to eating cardboard with artificial flavor. Fruits and vegetables were expensive, what with the winter that had stayed winter through spring and then come back with a vengeance in the early autumn. And as for dietary supplements, well ... those were controlled substances, these days. Maria couldn't remember what the pretext was, and wasn't sure it mattered. Everyone knew the real reason, by now.

Carrie's eyes were dull with hunger, the spark that had once danced in them dimmed to an ember. Noting this, Maria leaned in and said, "Tell me the passphrase again."

"'The Light of Heaven shines from Logic.'"

"Close. Logos."



"'The Light of Heaven shines from Logos.'"

"Good. Don't forget it." She didn't know whether or not they'd show leniency if Carrie messed up the passphrase. She was so far gone, on the edge of delerium ... possibly they'd forgive her. That was no reason at all, though, not to try and see to it that she remembered it as well as possible.

All Carry needed, she thought, was vitamins. With those to supplement the carbohydrate diet the state kept her on, she might just pull through to summer, if there was to be a summer. Perhaps they'd have a tea of some kind, as they'd given her, or maybe just some proper herbs to sprinkle over her food.

"What's logos?" Carrie asked.

Maria sighed. "It's ... um, 'word', I think, in Latin or Greek or something."

"Oh, so like the Word of God or something like that?"

"Something like that." Maria knew that wasn't right, exactly, but wasn't clear on the details herself and didn't feel like getting into a theological exegesis with a woman so sick she'd barely been able to get out of bed this morning.

She'd chosen Carrie the way Steven had come to her. He hadn't waited for her approach, but had identified her as someone in need of real medical attention and, discretely, approached her himself. He hadn't more than vaguely alluded to his real purpose until they'd met at a small club, a place where the music could be guaranteed to drown out any hope of someone's cell overhearing them, and whispered his instructions in her ear. She'd gone the very next day.

Well, Carrie was in no shape to go to a music club. But she was sick, and it would be no strange thing if her friend visited to minister to her. And if that friend had recently had a cancer scare, well, it was within the accepted parameters of human coping behaviour that she'd be skittish of the unwelcome device that had no doubt caused it and taken to leaving it at home, or (more recently) carrying it in a case lined with lead foil. Though she wasn't sure; with the case she might be deviating outside accepted parameters and beginning to trigger the Watcher's unpredictable paranoia.

So she'd come over around noon, carefully left Carrie's cell next to a speaker blaring something rockabilly from her mp3 collection, and sat close beside her as she stroked her friend's hair and murmured directions into her ear that might save her life.

That was how they solved the distribution problem, Maria figured. Rather than selling to the highest bidder and letting the Market do it's work for them, they relied on their own customer's judgment to direct those most in need in their direction, and thereby moved a limited supply of herbal medications and dietary supplements grown in extreme secrecy under desperate circumstances to the people most desperately in need.

She'd wondered what they called themselves. Some time after her visit she'd asked Steven. "Dunno," he'd shrugged. "I think of them as the Underground Herbalists, but that's just me."

Funny; she'd never have thought to ask what her dealer called his organization, back in the day when she had money and time for things like drugs. She wouldn't even have assumed he had a name, and frankly would have been a little frightened to find out he had, because that meant you weren't just dealing with your friendly neighborhood pusher but ultimately with a gang, and that was a whole different kind of ugly. And while you might know that ultimately it was a gang that your hydro was coming from, your discerning middle class pothead preferred to keep at least a couple of middlemen between herself and the ultimate origin.

Whoever these people were, she felt, they weren't a gang. Oh, there were similarities, sure; and if the one basement shop she'd been in was anything to judge by, there were elements of the criminal underclass that had thrown in with them ... but they weren't in charge. She couldn't see real crooks getting into a business whose 'profits' were the goodwill and favors of anyone who happened to survive what they'd come to have treated. No, they were clearly in a subordinate role for ... what, exactly? How were they being paid? In medicine?

Well, that wasn't so ridiculous, when you thought of it. Not these days. Those men had families too, and a supply of natural medications and nutritional supplementation would go a long way to ensuring those families would survive the winter.

Carrie shifted, and grimaced. Her hand moved down to rub her knee. "Can you go for me?" She asked. "I know you just spent all that time telling me the directions, but my knee's really been hurting today."

Maria frowned. "Can I have a look at it?" Seeing the hesitation in her gaze, Maria leaned over and lifted Carrie's skirt up. Her knee was swollen and read. Internal bleeding, she judged. She'd heard somewhere that the joints did that, in the late stages. At any rate it didn't look like she'd get very far on that knee, not even in the pleasantest weather. Let alone the raging snowstorm that had kicked up just after she'd arrived: the howling wind outside was driving snowflakes at a hundred kilometres an hour, according to the news. They got to be like little shuriken at that speed. Every one of them cut into the skin before it melted, abrading just a little of it off. You'd notice even one hitting your skin, but in this weather they'd hit you by the million.

People died in those storms. First there were the unlucky ones, the ones who didn't find shelter until too late, simultaneously cut to pieces and frozen solid. Then there was the aftermath, with downed powerlines and roads closed by massive snow-drifts and toppled trees and sometimes lamp-posts. Things didn't get back on their feet with the speed they used to, and every time one of these storms hit a few more froze to death.

"Sure, I'll go for you," Maria said, gingerly replacing the skirt. "But I'll wait until the snowicane blows over first, OK?"

"Absolutely not!" Carry said, shocked. "I want you to go now! Now, now, now!" She teased, her expression entirely genuine. Then she burst out laughing, and for a moment Carrie's old self returned, the Carrie of happier times who went clubbing and rock-climbing and worried about makeup and boys and her resume.

Maria giggled along with her, and they were plunged into darkness as the music cut out. Around them they heard nothing but the thin scream of the wind, and for a moment they were both blind.

"Oh, damnit...." Maria started, involuntarily.

"I thought that might happen." Carrie tried to sit up, failed and dropped back down into her chair. "Listen, I've got some big quilts and some candles I've been saving up. Maybe if we throw the quilts over us, and sit with a candle or two between us we can keep warm. It'll be like an igloo made from cushions and blankets."

"That's a wonderfully awful idea, hun," said Maria, smiling. "We'll set fire to the place and burn to death."

"At least we'll die warm."

"And that's why I said, 'wonderfully'," Maria returned, rummaging in her capacious shoulder-bag. It took her a time, in the darkness, but finally she held up a small LED finger-light and turned it on, bathing the room in a soft luminesnce that was just enough to see by. She stood up. "So," she said, "Where did you say those quilts were?"

Friday, April 10, 2009

Comet Boy

Clover and goldenrod vied with one another for supremacy across the expanse of the meadow, whilst at the crest of the low hill a bank of trees stood silent witness to the slow seasonal struggle; through its midst came two men, mounted on horseback, their animals moving along at an unhurried trot. Both were barefoot, wore loose, light clothing and sported hair and beards that were two years or so long, but there the resemblance stopped for one had a carefully kept appearance and an old face deeply lined with character and weather and the other, younger, looked something of a wild man.

As they rode their eyes scanned the world around them, taking in everything from the ladybug eating aphids on a passing stalk to the play of light beneath the branches and the thin clouds beyond racing through the sky beyond. They paid everything close attention, not in a frightened or wary fashion but simply in a state of high alertness ... not looking for something, but waiting for something to come to them, something they knew to be out there.

It had been a long ride already, and it was in the middle of the meadow, their mounts stepping gingerly through old ruts torn by farm machinery or logging equipment or some other long-passed behemoth, that it came to them: a shout from the treeline, and then a small form, running towards them.

The younger of the pair immediately dismounted and stood, waiting, arms open at his sides for the young boy to run up and through his arms around him. He returned the embrace, wrapping the child in his arms and holding him for a brief but powerful moment, before pushing him back and regarding him cooly. The boy was filthy, grime and dirt smeared on every surface, as though he'd been running around in the forest for days. Clean, wet trails beneath his eyes and nose, however, said that he'd recently been crying and....

Pulling back, the boy wiped his arm across his nose and stared daringly, defiantly at the adult, before turning tail and running back off in the direction he'd come. The man contemplated the retreating form until he was halfway to the treeline, at which point the head start was used up and he took off in pursuit. His older companion watched as the two of them disappeared into the trees, before turning his attention back to the world.

It was tough work, keeping up with the kid. He sprang through the woods like an animal, hopping from tree to root to mossy patch whilst dodging through low whip-like twigs, over and under fallen logs, around puddles and stumps. A couple of times his pursuer had to stop, not so much to catch his breath as to wait for the snap of a twig to give him a fresh clue as to the direction his quarry had gone.

When the kid finally stopped, he almost fell on top of him he came up on him so fast.

He was kneeling next to the carcass of a wolf ... no, that wasn't right. Not a carcass, yet. It was still breathing, just barely, but it had a long, nasty wound in its side and there was blood everywhere. The man stepped slowly up to the boy, put a hand on his shoulder; the boy, crying, looked up. The man squatted next to the animal, placed his hand on its head and gave it a gentle scratch behind the ear, eliciting a low, quiet whine in response. With his other hand he reached into a large pocket, which in his clothing many were concealed, and withdrew a long, sharp knife.

The wolf opened its eyes and looked at him. It gave a noise that might have been a growl, though there was no threat in it, and, holding its gaze without daring to blink, he opened the wolf's throat with his knife. A quick, choked sob from the boy accompanied the movement, and after a short time that seemed to him a forever the grief really came.

The man held him while he cried, patting him on the back and stroking his head, until such time as the sobs had subsided and the boy was again able to hold his gaze. Then he stood, gave the child a last pat on the shoulder and walked off. He didn't get too far, though, because the boy was just standing there, watching him. Turning, the man saw him again run off into the woods. With a long-suffering sigh he made after him.

Before long he heard the sound of rushing water, and sure enough they came up to a spot where the ground fell suddenly away to reveal a river running over a mixture of rock and broken concrete chunks. Trees on either side crowded up to the very edge of the low cliff; had the child not known where to stop, the man might have plunged right over the side. Which, looking down at the river bank where the child was pointing, was exactly what had happened to some other unfortunate soul, lying splayed at the side of a river unconscious or perhaps dead. An urban dweller, judging by the clothes, which weren't completely impractical but certainly wouldn't have been his first choice.

Losing not a moment he clambered down the side, waded across the river and, checking to see that he was still breathing, verified that he was alive. A quick once over revealed that the man's arm was broken but nothing else; pulling back an eyelid, however, showed evidence of a concussion. He stood and climbed the river bank, pausing at the top to look back at the boy who was staring at him with naked anger. There was no mistaking how he wanted the injured man disposed of, but the only response he got was a quick shake of the head and then a matter-of-fact disappearance into the trees.

Shaking his head and looking thoroughly disgusted, the kid slammed a trunk with his fist and turned to wander back into the woods.

A few minutes later they met back up at the river, arriving at almost exactly the right time with armloads of various-sized branches and some twine. The man set his load down by their patient, then waded across the stream to get the kid's load, which was just too deep to walk through. Setting it down next to his own, he stood for a moment scratching at his beard and then, producing the knife again, set to work on the pile.

First he got a rough splint on the man's arm, improvising out of a couple of short, straight branches and part of his own shirt. The arm secured, he set to work on the pile, and some time later had constructed a serviceable frame on which to carry his patient. The whole time the kid sat, sullen, on the other side of the stream, watching the activity but lifting not a finger to help.

Shortly after the frame was finished, there came a crash of movement from the trees above and he found himself looking up at his older companion, dismounted and leading both horses. He handed the reins to the child and then went down to the river himself, to help ferry their new cargo across. When everything and everyone was on the right bank, the old one paused suddenly and stared hard downstream.

They all saw it: a small reflective glint, far downstream on the opposite bank, with a black smudge around it. When he saw its presence the man's face froze for a second, then broke into a large and slightly savage grin. He directed a large wave towards the light, gave it an exaggerated wink, and when he was finished mugging for the camera turned his back on it and returned to his responsibilities.

Working together they soon had their charge up the bank in one piece, at which point they quickly lashed him to the frame, tied the frame to a horse, and then proceeded off, the two of them walking on foot while the child road the back of the unencumbered mare.

It was a long walk home, through meadows and glades, around ponds and old, ruined houses, and the time passed in companionable silence until almost the moment when the Sun was to first kiss the horizon, at which point the man stiffened, an involuntary shout breaking from his lips.

The older man caught his gaze and, glancing at the boy and the casualty, nodded in agreement; the boy was removed from the saddle and within moments the man was galloping off as fast as the horse could carry him, leaving the other three to complete the journey on their own time.

As the first stars of twilight broke the Sun's fading glare, the older man looked down to see the casualty's eyes flickering open, dazed but coming back to the world. "Where the hell..." he moaned, and stopped, staring at the weirdly dressed old guy standing above him, a smile twinkling in his eye but reaching not a single other part of his face. The guy said something Randy couldn't quite make out, something that unpacked itself after a few moments into perhaps, "You're safe," but it came out too fast, low and mumbled, as though speech were too slow.

Before long the concussion whirled his mind back into dreamless sleep, but before he went he thought he saw the man pointing up, to the sky, and he and (was that the kid, standing next to him?) both looked and saw a black rock wrapped with blue and orange flames shoot by overhead, gone as fast as it had come and taking his consciousness, it seemed, with it, followed by the old man's steady, appraising look and the boy's astonished shout of glee.

Monday, March 9, 2009


The chipmunk chittered something at him. Despite the violent pangs of hunger clenching in his belly, Randy tried to suppress thoughts of eating the little critter. It wasn't that he had a thing against eating meat - though he liked to think he practiced more consciousness regarding the flesh of other sentient beings than some might - it was simply that he had no confidence in his ability to catch the animal even if he made the attempt. He wasn't much of a hunter to start with, and the chipmunk's quick, nervous motion bespoke an instinctive caution so deeply ingrained it regarded every animal as a potential predator. It had taken ages for the critter to approach, during which period Randy hadn't moved a muscle nor even dared think a hostile thought, not wishing to startle it away. He was just glad to have company, any company.

"Well, little buddy," he murmured, "Is it just you and me in this forest? Or is there anyone else around?" The animal cocked its head, as though trying to make sense of what he'd said, and then hopped onto a rock near Randy's foot. It stood there for a while, poised to flee for cover at the slightest indication of threat, and then hopped off the rock and took a few tentative, zig-zagging bounds along the length of his leg, hopeful perhaps of finding something tasty near what to it was merely a large, inexplicably motionless (perhaps dying?) animal. He wondered if it had ever even seen a human before. Quite the feat, if it hadn't, with so many billions of his kind crowding the planet.

But then, it's world and his were very different ones, same planet or no. What did the chipmunk make of the stars, shining overhead while they huddled together in their nests?

Randy sat as he had done for the past hour and more, with his back braced against the lumpy trunk of an ancient oak tree whose gnarled canopy spread out above him like a ceiling through which he could just make out patches of blue sky. He'd stumbled across the old tree at the end of several hours of aimless walking, and it had seemed as good a place as any to rest for a bit, and think over what to do next. Not that it was so easy to think when you hadn't eaten in, what, two days? he reflected, watching enviously as the chipmunk picked up an acorn and started worrying at it. His last full meal, if you could call it that, had been the bus-stop ham sandwich he'd saved for supper yesterday. Ah, yes, and the scraggly raspberry bush he'd walked into this morning, which had scratched his arms and hands all to hell before he realized what he'd found, and annoyance turned to joy. The berries were young, most of them still green, with ripe red berries dangling from only a few brambles, but those ones he'd found had been like explosions of flavor within his mouth. He'd savored them, pausing at the bush and lingering over each berry, quite possibly the very best berries he had ever tasted.

Still, raspberries didn't go very far towards filling him up.

Finding something objectionable with the acorn, perhaps, the chipmunk discarded it and hopped around to the other side of the tree. "Must be nice to have the privilege of being picky," Randy remarked.

He wondered if he'd ever be found. It was hard to imagine he wouldn't be ... eventually, he'd pass out from hunger and fail to awaken. The insects and the coyotes and the raccoons and the mold would have their way with his body, and eventually, six months, a year down the line, some rich man's family with a camping license and a GPS map and all the right gear would stumble across his brown bones.

That was assuming he didn't get seen by Watcher. He knew there were drones overflying this area, and observation blimps, and of course the ever-present satellites. Hard to say what sort of resources they'd deploy to capture him, but ... he'd tweaked their noses pretty hard, and slipping away as he'd done would have only piqued their desire to capture him. All it would take would be for one of any of Watcher's mobile eyes to catch a clear glimpse of him, something the facial recognition algorithms could sink their teeth into, and a team would be dispatched to take care of him, he had no doubt. He'd likely survive a bit longer in that scenario, and while there was a part of him that yearned for the hot meal and shelter it implied.

The part that was in charge, though, had no desire to extend his life in exchange for his freedom, and because of that he'd made sure, wherever he'd gone over the past few days, to keep to whatever cover was available. And who knew? Maybe they were so pissed that if they caught him they'd just dispatch a predator to fry his ass with a sidewinder. Either way he figured it was a good rule of thumb to just stay under the trees, and always head away from highway sounds. Always.

It was surprising how many of them you encountered.

Well, he wasn't dead yet. He'd fasted before, or 'detoxed' in the fashionable terminology, gone a week on nothing but water and a nasty little mixture of cleansing oils and herbs, and he'd pulled through though it had made him sick as a dog by the end of it. In essence, this was no different.

Something flowed past his eyes, jerking him from his reverie. Blinking, he looked around him, searching for the source of the movement but finding nothing save tree branches rustling in the gentle breeze, and the shadows cast by the mid-afternoon Sun.

A twig snapped behind him, and he whirled his head around to find himself staring at a hulking grey brute of a wolf poised across the glade, staring at him. He froze, thoughtless, the whole of his being contracting around this single terrifying fact.

A wolf. I hadn't expected a wolf.

The thought flashed through his mind that wolves were generally pack animals, and thus there were probably more of them ... where? Behind him? He'd seen a documentary on Animal Planet, one time, and he seemed to remember a segment describing their tactic of sending one of their number to put the holy fear of hell into the prey, thus spooking it or them into the certain doom of its several lurking companions, just out of sight and probably downwind (Randy was a human, though, city born and bred, so 'downwind' was sort of irrelevant as far as he was concerned ... and he wondered if they were smart enough to have figured out that irrelevancy.) At any rate, the hair on the back of his neck prickled.

The wolf growled at him, tail wagging in excitement, and as it poised to leap Randy's hand went for the knife he'd kept under his jacket, which so far on this excursion had been used only for cutting down spruce branches to make into a little shelter at the end of the day (something he hadn't done on the first day, having been more intent on getting as far away as possible from the highway, but had thought of better the second day ... especially as he'd been hiking for a lot longer, on a mostly empty stomach, and had wanted to take a rest anyway. It wasn't like he could go that far without hitting highway, anyhow, so, that's just how it was.) It had been just as well he had, because it kept him mostly dry while a three-hour soak settled in, blotting out the waxing moon that otherwise by that time would have been high in the sky.

The wolf crouched down low, gathering itself, it's growling intensifying to a rumbling snarl, and Randy whipped himself around as fast as his aching body was able into a crouch, keeping the tree between him and the wolf, and holding the knife ready on his exposed side.

He had no illusions about being able to take down the rest of the pack, not in his state, with just one knife against their several powerful tooth-filled maws. Once the rest of it closed in he was a dead man, but that was when and this was now, and now was where he tried to keep himself.

Right now, he figured there was no reason he should make the wolve's meal for the next couple of days easily obtained. Such cheap convenience would cheat the wolf of a fabulous challenge.

The wolf leapt to one side, so that the tree no longer stood as an obstacle, and an instant after landing made another bound and came straight at his flank. Randy rolled as it landed on top of him, and, thrusting upward with the combat knife, felt the blade pierce up into the wolfs' side and at the same time rip through its flesh as the animal's own momentum carried it forward. The beast howled in shock and pain while hot blood washed over his hand, and it struggled off of him and ran away, limping, into the underbrush.

Randy lay on the forest floor, panting, his heart racing as time decompressed itself. He examined his body, was surprised to see that aside from a few scratches on his arm and a slight tear in his jeans he was unharmed, and rolled up again into a crouch.

He considered running, but thought better of it. There would be several of them out there, no telling where they might be. Run and they'd follow, and he had no doubt they were faster than he was.

So he steadied himself inside, found a point of inner stillness from which to observe this peril, and keeping his senses extended he slowly raised himself into a more upright position. Not to run, no, but not crouched down, either, because they might interpret that as cowering ... and fear would draw them circling in just as surely as panic would invite them to come loping after (something else he knew only from books and movies, and thus desperately hoped might actually be true). Instinctively, he placed his body into a fighting stance, legs planted one in front of the other but ready to move quickly into a new position, one arm forward and free, defending, the other back and holding the knife, thumb along the blade and edge pointing out from his body.

Randy had almost never been in a real fight, and he'd had very little hand-to-hand combat training and what little he'd received was largely recent. Still, he'd seen enough martial arts movies and played enough fighting games to have picked up through osmosis some of the basic forms, and he hoped his clumsy imitation would at least serve to mimic the appearance of a deadly warrior. It wouldn't fake out a human, but it might just a wolf. They weren't, after all, all that intelligent.

He held the stance, waiting, head scanning slowly around as he kept his senses alert and kept his mind focused on the simple insistence that he would go down fighting, re-directing the fear that threatened to spring from his heart into a passive and vicious acceptance of unchangeable fate.

Partly occluded through the branches ahead, he saw the soft white circle of a day-risen moon, round and full in the sky.

What the wolves did next was up to them.

He held the pose for what seemed like a long time, but nothing came for him and boredom started to settle in. Once it latched onto something he'd read one time about predators often taking a pass on healthy young males of a species that put on an impressive display of virility and, thus, show themselves to be dangerous prey, he set about demonstrating what he would do if a wolf came for him, shadow boxing his way into an imaginary brawl. The wolves continued not to come and his movements became larger, more expansive, with wide sweeping arcs of the knife ranging high and low, brief frenzied bursts of stabbings, and the occasional kick, punch, and even a headbut thrown in for good measure.

A throttled shout caught him entirely by surprise, and he whirled about to find himself staring down a small, half-naked and filthy child, a skinny boy of perhaps nine or ten who was regarding him with abject terror, eyes wide and hand raised to his mouth in rebuke of his voice's involuntary betrayal.

Randy immediately banished the imaginary brawl from his mind, dropping the knife to the ground and holding up his hands, holding friendly thoughts in his heart, hoping it would show through his eyes. "Easy there," he said reassuringly, "I was just trying to scare some wolves that attacked me." The boy eyed him suspiciously, his gaze flickering up to meet Randy's but drawn inexorably to the blood-soaked hand and spattered shirt. "I think they're gone now, though," he added, smiling, trying to catch boy's gaze but succeeding only in another darting glance.

"______", the boy said, and it took Randy a second to process that he hadn't understood a syllable of it, by which time the kid was shaking his head and running as fast as he could in the opposite direction.

"Hey!" Randy called, "I didn't mean to scare you!" The kid didn't come back, though, and - hope surging at the thought that he might have found people, somewhere, who might help him - he took off after him.

The knife lay, forgotten, in the loam on the forest floor.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Just Another Night in the Burbs

There was an ugly crunch as the rifle butte crushed the man's nose. Martinez had worked in a slaughterhouse one summer, before the army, and the way the cattle collapsed after getting hit in the head with an air hammer, it was like that, sudden and brutal. One second the guy's standing there, all nervous belligerence, scared but standing his ground. The next, he's laid out flat, unconscious and probably concussed, blood pouring from a broken nose.

"Throw 'em on the bus with the rest," said the sergeant, replacing the butte in his shoulder as he stepped over the body and into the house, his wide, compact body proceeding with the steady implacability of a main battle tank.

Martinez shouldered his weapon and knelt down to throw an arm under the fat citizen who'd been dumb enough to demand a search warrant in the midst of a general house-to-house search. He grunted but the guy barely budged. "Fuck, he's heavy. Hey, some help over here!" he called. A private, one of the new guys, Blackstone or Blackwell or something like that, peeled off from the chaotic milling surrounding the small convoy of hummers and buses on the street and came over on the double. Together the two of them were just able to get the guy up off the ground and carry him, feet dragging, over to the bus. With only a modicum of grunting and cursing they manhandled him up the stairs, and plopped him in a seat.

"Heavy motherfucker, eh Martinez?" said the private, pausing to catch his breath. BLACKHORN, he read on the kid's nametag. Right, Blackhorn, that was it.

Martinez chuckled. "Won't be for long. This gringo just won an all-expenses-paid trip to the world's finest fat camp." The private laughed. Martinez jerked his head and they went back to work.

All up and down the street small teams of crunchies decked out in full battle-rattle were hitting the near-identical rowhouses, the air full of tense shouted orders, startled screams, the percussive noise of running feet and slamming doors. The excitement was palpable, like the scent of blood in the air, an electric tingling in his bones. No gunfire yet, and god willing there wouldn't be. Though if there was, well, Martinez knew who it was would be doing the shooting.

Word had come down through the local DHS office, a tipoff about a bomb-making facility somewhere in the neighborhood ... Sunny Acres or Shady Vale or some shit, Martinez hadn't really been paying attention and to be quite honest didn't really care. It was just another Jersey suburb, same as the rest. Bunch of same-old, same-old, crappy little houses with pretensions to taste filled with fat whining suburbanites. Of course, not all of them were fat and stupid; some, Martinez knew very well, were radicalized, with too much time on their hands to read bullshit propaganda on the internet and sit around in their basements making pipe-bombs. They needed jobs to keep those hands busy and since they weren't inclined to get one, well, the army always had room in the work brigades.

Some of the guys in the briefing room had rolled their eyes when the DHS attache, a cold little bitch with a slit mouth and watery eyes, had admitted that the informant didn't know which house, precisely, the bomb factory was in. A couple of guys had openly mouthed off. Not Martinez, though, and not just 'cause those lifeless eyes of hers gave him the creeps. What those other idiots didn't realize was that a full-on, house-to-house search meant you got that many more interesting opportunities. No telling what might happen behind closed doors.

Well, that was the difference between Baghdad veterans and newbs like Blackhorn. Guys who'd been in the shit and come out swinging knew all about fighting terrorism for fun and profit.

Martinez trotted up the front steps and into the house, Blackhorn following in his wake. The inside was nothing special, white walls decorated with a few anonymous nature prints, hardwood floors, a couple of couches and an easy-chair all upholstered in fake leather arranged around a plasma screen TV. Everything neat and squared away, but it had seen better days: the hardwood floors were stained, the paint on the walls peeling, the upholstery abraded.

A muffled sound came from the kitchen, and Martinez followed it to find Sergeant Jenkins standing before a middle-aged woman and a teenage girl, both of them sitting with their hands flat on the dinner table. The woman looked frayed, careworn; like the furniture, she was past her sell-by date. Martinez barely glanced at her: he had eyes only for the girl he figured for her daughter. She was staring straight ahead, face empty of any emotion save sheer terror. She was a hot little number, with pert little breasts and an innocent face, her womanhood in full bloom but unspoilt by life and experience.

"This everyone?" Martinez asked.

"Watcher says there's an 18 year old son," Jenkins replied, a little distantly, his attention half on the room, half on the data being piped into his optic nerve by way of his helmet's eyepiece.

"He's not home," the woman answered the implied question in a monotone. She looked up at Martinez. "My husband ... is he.... ?"

"He'll be just fine, ma'am," Martinez answered soothingly. "We'll have to take him in for some questioning, though." He didn't even bother returning her imploring gaze, instead letting his eyes linger over the daughter, at those wonderful titties of hers poking through her tight t-shirt.

"Oh. I, ah, I see. When will he.... ?"

Martinez shrugged. "I'm sure it won't be long," he lied.

Jenkins grunted. "According to Watcher your son's right here at home Mrs. Wilson."

"What? I...."

"Save it. Martinez, Blackhorn, search the house, get the kid in here."

"Sir," they answered in unison. As they left the room Martinez overheard Jenkins saying in that unsettlingly calm tone of his, "Don't lie to us again, ma'am, or we'll be forced to charge you as well as your husband. It won't go well for you."

Martinez replaced the butte of his rifle in his shoulder and proceeded up the stairs, Blackhorn bringing up the rear. "Hey!" he called up. "We know you're in here, kid. There's no point hiding. Come out and show yourself like a good citizen and maybe I won't fuck that pretty little sister of yours in front of you." Blackhorn laughed, a little nervously. Kid wasn't sure if he was joking, Martinez reflected, amused. Well, that was fair enough, Martinez wasn't sure if he was joking, either.

No response. He reached out a hand, flicked on a light switch. "Well, if that won't motivate you, how about I just offer you seconds? Eh, gringo? We got a deal?"

Still nothing. He kicked open a door, into an empty bedroom, walls plastered over with garish crunk posters, the only light coming from a screen saver. Behind him he heard another crash as Blackhorn kicked open another door. He walked in, poked around in the closest, looked under the bed. Nothing. "Clear!" he called.

"Clear!" Blackhorn answered.

They went through the rest of the upper floor, but every room was empty. "Shit," Martinez mumbled to himself, staring at a mess of stuffed elephants he'd scattered on the floor in what was obviously the daughter's room. Keying his radio, he said, "Foxtrot Two Zero this is Foxtrot Two Five. Target is not on second floor. There a basement in this dump? Over."

"Foxtrot Two Five this is Foxtrot Two Zero, affirmative, there is a basement in this model, over." Jenkins' tone was mildly disgusted, communicating the sentiment, 'why the hell can't you pay attention in briefings, fuckwit?' without actually having to say it.

"Roger that, Foxtrot Two Zero. Proceeding to basement. Out."

He held up a hand at the top of the basement stairs, halting the private. "Hey, kid!" he called out. "We know you've gotta be down there. Save us the trouble of dragging your ass up and the deal stands." He waited a moment, listening. Again, nothing. "All right, asshole, have it your way," Martinez said, stepping down the staircase. "Tell the truth, I'm happier for it. Give me an excuse to fuck your sister, shit, she's pretty hot, you know?"

He got halfway down and the lights went out. "What the fuck ... ?" he murmured. There was a scuffling sound in the kitchen, but he didn't have time to think about that because all of a sudden he was deaf and a feeling like he'd been rabbit punched by God knocked him from his feet. He tumbled down the stairs, his helmet whacking hard against another hardwood floor, and above him, a long long way away he was aware of someone shouting "Oh fuck!" and the familiar strobelight illumination of automatic weapon fire. Bullets bounced around the room, ripping up furniture and shattering a screen somewhere, and ahead of him someone went down, an object skittering across the floor, and he had just enough time to think, shit, pipe bomb, I'm a dead man, and then hot blood showered his ungloved fingers.

Blackhorn was at his side, helping him up. "Fuck. You OK? Fuck, fuck, fuck...." His hands were groping him, looking for wounds. He cringed as they found the spot where he'd been hit.

Martinez grunted. "M'I bleeding?"

"Uh ... no, no blood."

"Fuck," Martinez stated, picking himself up to his knees. His hands made the sign of the cross involuntarily, the trauma activating an old and deeply buried program. Thank you Jesus, he thought, for giving me the common sense to buy my own body armor. "The fuck was that?" He said aloud.

Blackhorn fumbled in his webbing, found a flashlight. The beam scanned around the room, passing over the kid's dead body and stopping when it found an old, mean-looking sawed-off shotgun. "That," he stated redundantly.

"Christ. That's gonna leave a mark." Martinez shook his head. "What the fuck happened to the lights?"

"I dunno, they just went off and then...."

"Foxtrot Two Zero this is Foxtrot Two Five, over," Martinez said over the radio, and waited for a response.

None was forthcoming.

"Foxtrot Two Zero this is Foxtrot Two Five, over," he repeated, a little more insistently.


"Where's the sergeant?" Blackhorn asked, suddenly a scared kid in the darkness.

Martinez stood up. "Don't know," he said, "Let's find out." Shouldering his weapon again, he clipped a flashlight to the barrel, switched it on, and headed back up the stairs.

The lights were out throughout the house. There was no ambient light coming through the windows, either. "Looks like a power outage," he observed. Blackhorn grunted agreement.

Jenkins was in the kitchen, more or less where he'd been. Except that he was lying on the floor with his throat slashed wide open in the middle of a pool of blood. Martinez bent down, checked his pupils, shook his head slightly and ran his hand down the man's face, closing his eyelids.

"Is he....?"

Martinez just nodded. Who would have thought it? A tour in Iraq, another in Afghanistan, facing down hordes of battle-hardened hajjis, and he got taken out by a girl with a fucking kitchen knife.

It was hard to say what tipped him off next. His ears were still ringing from the shotgun blast, and he certainly didn't see anything in the darkness. Maybe it was just a hunch born of years in the shit, maybe it was divine intervention; whatever it was, he quickly stepped out of the way just as the woman lunged out of the shadows behind him, swinging a chopping knife in front of her like she was trying to dice the biggest carrot of her life.

Once she didn't have the drop on him, it wasn't much work to subdue her, disarm her, get her on the ground. "Where's your daughter, gringo bitch?" he hissed at her.

She spat at him. He replied to her argument with the back of his hand, and ordered Blackhorn to throw her on the bus.

Why, then, should you run away? And how can you resist right then? After all,
you’ll only make your situation worse; you’ll make it more
difficult for them to sort out the mistake. And it isn’t just that you
don’t put up any resistance; you even walk down the stairs on tiptoe,
as you are ordered to do, so your neighbors won’t hear.

And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been
like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest,
had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-​bye to
his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in
Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not
simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the
downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood that
they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an
ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else
was at hand? After all, you knew ahead of time that those bluecaps were out
at night for no good purpose. And you could be sure ahead of time that
you’d be cracking the skull of a cutthroat. Or what about the
Black Maria
sitting out there on the street with one lonely chauffeur — what if it
had been driven off or its tires spiked? The Organs would very quickly have
suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of
Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt!

If… If… We didn’t love freedom enough.

Alexander Solhzenitsyn
The Gulag Archipelago

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Small Man Complex

"Randy Schafer, we know you're on this bus, put your hands on your head and...." The cop looked around, his expression unreadable behind the smooth black mask of his helmet but puzzlement sounding clear through a mumbled, "What the fuck...." He scanned the bus, hand hovering over his pistol. A dozen sickly-looking people stared ahead, blank and terrified, simply glad it wasn't their name that had been called.

"I, ah, don't see him," me mumbled.

"Didn't copy that, McKellar, say again?"

"The suspect's not on the bus," he repeated. "At least, I don't see him anywhere...."

"Watcher says his cell phone's right there, should be around the middle...."

The officer walked forward, but there was no one sitting there. As he approached, however, he saw a cell phone sitting in an otherwise empty seat. He picked it up, said, "What kind of cell phone was that again?"

There was a brief pause, then, "Motorola Titanium p1040."

"That's it all right." He pocketed the phone as evidence, and said, "Suspect has abandoned his cell phone. He could be anywhere along the route, within an appropriate distance. Set up a Watch around all previous stops." He strode back towards the door, deliberately oblivious to the relief - and silent applause - that accompanied his wordless departure.

Near the back of the bus, crouched down on his knees between the seats, sat Randy Schafer. As the bus had been pulled over to the side of the highway, he'd had to think fast: he'd dropped his cell-phone out of his pocket, slid from his seat, and scuttled to the back of the bus, all the while meeting the eyes of anyone who looked and offering them a silent, implied thank you for their presumed silence. He darted in to one of the back seats, assumed a meditation pose with his shins flat on the ground and his forearms on his thighs, and had gone deep inside himself, reached a point of stillness just as he'd practiced so many times before. Necessity had seemed to clear the way for him, the state he was looking for clicking into place with an almost mechanical ease that he'd never experienced before. The momentary froth of consciousness fuzzed out into a total blankness of mind, and then recrystallized with absolute coherence around a single thought: that he was very, very small, indeed invisible. He'd seemed to disappear within himself, and when the cop had entered the bus he'd been aware of his presence only dimly, as though he were a dream.

When he finally moved, he had no idea what time it was. It had been a while since he'd worn a watch and his only source of timekeeping had been his cell phone, which was gone now and had taken with it significantly more than just a clock. That was something to worry about later, however. For now, he concentrated on easing himself up, slowly stretching out muscles that weren't used to holding such a pose for such a length of time. What had it been, an hour? Hour and a half? Something like that, judging by the Sun, he thought as he settled back into the chair.

At any rate he was well out of the city, by now. Evergreens and open meadows were flying past outside the window, with human habitation thinly scattered. The population density would increase significantly by the time the bus stopped, though, and he knew Watcher would be looking for him there, for having failed to find him in New York, they'd be expecting him in Rochester. He mulled this over while he looked out the window, but not for too long, because in truth conclusions regarding the only possibly course of action
had long ago been arrived at, deep within his subconscious mind, waiting only for the right moment to be acted upon by his conscious mind.

Standing, he walked down the aisle, towards the bus driver. There were a couple of surprised exclamations, quickly hushed; so deep had his invisibility become that even some of those who had seen him crawl back had gradually forgotten his presence. To these he gave voice to a few mumbled thank-yous, spreading some gratitude around him for their help.

He squatted down beside the driver, and said, "Hi there." He was a heavyset man, or had been: flaps hung from his face, flapping with the bus' motion, like the skin of a deflated balloon, and what had once been an imposingly bristling beard wobbled greasily from his multiple jowls.

Thedriver glanced over his shoulder. "Randy Something, right? That your real name?"

"It was," said Randy. "You saw me, then?"

"Yeah, caught it in the mirror," the driver murmured, staring ahead.

"Thanks for not saying anything."

"Seemed like the thing to do," shrugged the driver.

"Could I ask one more favor of you?"

"What's that?" The driver asked.

"Maybe pull over, right around here? I don't really want to be in a built up area right now, you know?"

The driver chuckled, shaking his head. He tapped the screen of his GPS navigator. "I pull over here, kid, they'll know for sure something's up. Then they pull me over, you're not here, and it's my ass. Sorry, kid, I got a family to feed."

Randy had already thought of that, of course, and addressed the man's concern automatically. "You could tell them I threatened you. They know I'm armed, they'd believe it."

The driver glanced back at him, eyes narrowing with a tinge of suspicion. "Threaten me? What with?"

Randy opened his jacket and drew a long, razor sharp hunting knife a little out of it's sheath, just enough to show what he had, and then calmly replaced it. Seeing fear glint in the man's tired eyes, he hastened to add, "I'm not threatening you, man. Just giving you a plausible story."

This seemed to put him at ease. The driver chewed his lip. "Awright. Grab your bag. I know a place just up the highway."

A minute later, the bus pulled over to the side of the road along a long, curving stretch where the forest came up almost to the shoulder. The door opened and Randy bolted from it, back-pack bouncing with every stride as he ran off into the forest. He had no idea where he was, and he knew the contents of his pack were more suited to a weekend staying at a friend's house in the city than they were to camping alone. That was assuming he knew much about camping....

But, the last place he wanted to be was anywhere he was expected. So even if he wouldn't last two days with what he had on him, well, that was two days to find someone to help him. Two days in which to find grace. Two days before he was taken by the elements, by starvation, by wild animals, by.... He re-directed his thoughts away from such unpleasantness. No good would come of worry, not now, here in the place where hope came to an end and he had no choice but to throw himself on the mercy of the world, trusting that his time had not yet come.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Broken Man

When they finally came for him, he had no idea what time it was. It was maybe days, maybe weeks, maybe even months since he'd seen light spill through a window, most of it spent locked alone in the small, cramped cell, the fluorescent light above coming on and off in unmeasurable intervals.

They'd come a lot for him in the beginning, taking him into a room with masked interrogators who beat him, held him under water, forced him into stress positions for hours on end while they paced about him sneering epithets at his family, his nation, his religion, and especially and always himself. They knew everything about him, oh yes, all of his faults and failings and vices and vile deeds, and they picked every single one of them apart simply for the joy of humiliating him. Then they'd toss him back into the cell, traumatized and shaking, and keep him from sleeping by playing loud music endlessly over the speakers. Always the sort of music they knew he hated, of course, for they knew that aspect of him with perfection as well and they went at him with everything they could.

He'd told them everything they wanted to know, right from the beginning, of course. He had nothing to hide, and didn't believe in lies anyway. He had no use for them. In fact you might say that's why they ultimately ended up taking him.

Well, that and he'd participated in a raid on a work camp out in the forest. Such acts were prone to draw their attention.

At any rate they'd gotten what information he was good for out 0f him early. It didn't matter, whatever he knew availed them nought. He was but a cell in the body of the Revolution, an insignificant part of a gathering swell whose very nature made it's triumph inevitable, for it's strengths were based upon the buckling weak points of the prison planet's control system. So they didn't keep him for information, nor was that why they tortured him. They tortured him because they wanted him to break clear through to the very core of his being, break his very soul to their will, and they did that only because getting that control made them hard and doing it rough made them harder. In this they were the embodiment of the wheezing hierarchical machine that had dominated the planet this past age.

Deep, deep down, he thanked them. So long and with such passion had he thanked them that gratitude for what they were subjecting him to suffused his psyche, for though they knew it not, by attempting to 'break clear through to core of his being', they were opening that same path for him more quickly and surely than he might ever have accomplished on his own. It was wrenching and traumatic, yes, of that they was no doubt: but it was immensely cathartic, as well. The gratitude he felt for this opportunity balanced itself against agony every moment, doing an internal dance within his soul that had long since ignited a fire, as it were, one that burned away at the atoms of his consciousness. The end result of the process - and he knew this well - was to be the crystallization of his etheric body into something that could never die.

His captors did not believe in things like souls and etheric bodies. Save, that was, for a small number who knew very well of such things. He had learned long ago that in a place like this that sort were the very worst. But then that was true anywhere, for those who believed in the soul and concealed that knowledge to use against others were the most dangerous creatures in creation. This place, however, had more than its share of that type. As for the rest of them, though, they didn't acknowledge, nor were capable of perceiving the existence of anything save dumb matter, and that was why they dumbly thought that they could exert their will over anything in any meaningful way, and reacted with such a petulantly predictable escalation of violence whenever their expectations ran up against the incontrovertible evidence that every particle of creation possessed in at least some respect free will.

It had been a long time since they'd last come for him when he at last heard steps pause outside his door. They'd left him there, locked alone in that cell, for what might have been months.

He knew, somehow, after the last beating, that for him there were only two ways out. He might, perhaps, be freed, should the Revolution reach him in time. Ah, but that would be a slow-burning affair, the last embers of which would not be extinguished for some years, and his captors would hang on, he knew, until the bitter end. So if not that, the other - much more likely - route out was his eventual execution.

The door slammed open, light spilling into the room. He sat in the center, in full lotus, hands that had been repeatedly broken and clumsily re-set holding a simple mudra, just as he had been sitting for hours. His eyes opened as the door did, directly on to those of a guard, the rest of his face obscured behind a ski mask. Before the guard could grab him and haul him to his feet, he stood up freely, fluidly, his limbs unknotting themselves with a grace that had been painstakingly regained through a faithful and deliberate yoga practice he'd kept up while in the cell. It was amazing the injuries one could recover from, if you but knew your body well enough, and had the patience and the will to coax it along.

Pre-empted, the guard hovered in the doorway, uncertain. The skin around the guard's eyes was a youth's, smooth. The eyes themselves were a little bloodshot and jittery; he was wired on something, energy drinks or meth or maybe even coke, something his superiors no doubt allowed or maybe even encouraged because it kept him frosty and a little more psychotic and brutal than might otherwise have been the case. But beneath the mask and the drugs and the errors of belief, he wasn't a fundamentally bad type, the prisoner judged. Not born that way, not like some were. He smiled. "There's hope for you yet, you know. Help is there if you choose to accept it."

This seemed to startle the young torturer into remembering his roll. "Come with me." He put his hand on the tazer holstered at his belt, for emphasis.

"Of course," said the man, as though assenting to a reasonable request.

The guard stepped out of the doorway, jerking his head down the corridor.

Together they proceeded to the end of the corridor, took an elevator, walked to the end of another hallway, another elevator, and into a wide, empty garage with stripes painted on the floor that were too narrow for cars but just right for lines of people. It was hard to tell in the dim flickering light of the ceiling's single fluorescent bulb, but the concrete at the head of the line seemed to be stained by something conspicuously dark and permanent.

A single man stood just outside the bulb's halo of thin light. The prisoner couldn't really tell, but in the shadows, if he looked around the man with his peripheral vision, he thought he saw a vaguely reptilian shape clutching the man's head.

The guard led him towards the illuminated patch. Or, rather, walked behind as the prisoner strode towards it, as fast as his weakened legs might carry him. "So this is it, then?" he asked, as he approached the man. If man he was.

"Shut him up," the man said, and stars exploded inside his head as the guard's fist came smashing into the back of his neck. "Speak when you're fucking spoken to. Shit, haven't you learned that much, yet?"

The prisoner rolled himself into a kneeling position on the ground, shins flat on the floor and forearms flat on his shins. Mouth closed, he looked up, regarding the man.

They stared in silence at one another for a few moments. The prisoner used the time to study the thing he could see pulsing, or perhaps scuttling was the better word, around the man's head. It seemed agitated, as though hungry and anticipating a meal. A mocking chuckle broke the silence. "You people. You all think you can't be broken. Everyone does, at first, but you guys...." he shook his head, pausing, and for a moment the kneeling prisoner saw the man's face illuminated in the flick of a lighter. It was the face of a vampire, drawn taut by its own evil. The thing above the man's head disappeared in the light; another might have taken it to mean it had been an illusion, but the prisoner took it as evidence for it's reality. "You guys," the man exhaled, "You're a real challenge."

The prisoner merely sat, awaiting whatever might come next.

"So I read your file, yeah?" The executioner said, "And apparently we caught you after you raided a work camp outside Chicago. Something like, what, a dozen of the ugly skanks got out, right? And among them was this pretty slut," he threw an 8 1/2 x 11 on the ground for his charge to look at. The woman who had during the heady days of the Revolution's beginning become his lover, not just of his body but of his soul, stared back at him, open eyes above a vacant mouth, slumped against a broken concrete wall with a bullet in her chest. "Got 'er!" The man said, with undisguised glee.

"Maria." It escaped his lips as a choking sob, the pain of it stabbing through his chest, piercing clean through to that core they'd been trying to reach so long. It was like white fire in his mind, the loss, not so much the thought that he would never see her alive again but that her own time on the planet had come to an end in such a brutal fashion. All the things that could have been but now never would spread out before him, and he let the grief choke him, swallow his being like a nuclear bomb at the back of his brain. For just an instant, deep inside, he ceased to be.

The instant faded. He came back to himself. Tears welled in his eyes, then spilled freely down his cheeks. He wept silently, letting himself free the pain, thinking all the while of his every moment with her, the joyful and the terrifying, the triumphant and the abject, the passionate and the tender. Their life together flashed before his eyes, and pain at the perceived theft was redirected into gratitude for every moment they'd had together. "Thank you," he whispered aloud, a short prayer to her departed soul accompanied by a blossom of love from the deepest part of his heart, and smiled even as tears streamed beside his lips.

Under other circumstances, he might have said more. This, however, was not the place; speech would indeed have been wasteful. There was no one to hear fine words who might appreciate them, and so language was best bypassed and thoughts composed of pure feeling offered in its stead, a prayer that emanated out of his heart into the ether, broadcast with all the force that could be drawn from the wound.

"'Thank you'", the executioner said, shaking his head. "You've gotta be fucking shitting me. Hey! Your girlfriend just died. We fucking shot her. Now she's dead. And you're fucking thanking us?" He walked over, sucking hard on the cigarette to get it good and hot and then jabbing it into the prisoner's ear with one deft twist of his hand.

He collapsed sideways, away from the raging burn inside his ear, allowing himself an animal scream that eased into a long, indrawn gasp. The cruelty seemed to calm the executioner down, and he squatted beside him, addressing him in a conversational tone, "You know, I wasn't just being idly offensive when I called her a slut. It's tragic, bro, really it is. You risk your neck for her, let yourself get captured by us, for Christ's sake, just to bust her ass out of some piddly little work camp. And do you know how long she waited before jumping another man's bones?" He leaned closer, and hissed. "Three weeks. Faithful of her, eh? So what do you got to say to that?"

Three weeks could be a lifetime when you lived as they did, thought the prisoner. She would have grieved in full within that period, with an intensity that gave the experience it's full due, and then she would have moved on, healed. There was no hope of his ever being busted out the way she had: it was one thing to raid a low-security work camp whose location was open knowledge, quite another to track down a man who'd taken so many flights to so many secret prisons even he had no idea what country he was in. She would have reconciled herself to the knowledge that he could not be saved, and done so as quickly as possible. He would have done the same, and he'd long since reconciled himself to the likliehood of her meeting and continuing through life with another man.

His gasping turned into a chuckle. "You know you've got a lizard sitting in your head with his tail wrapped around your soul-line, right?" The prisoner asked.

"A lizard?" the executioner said with convincing incredulous. ".... the fuck!? You are fucking crazy, man, you know that? Hey, sergeant, isn't this guy a nutjob?" He emphasized the final word, and an instant later the guard's steeltoe boot rammed into the prisoner's testicles, ending forever any chance of the man having children.

He doubled up, giving himself up again to the pain. Mastering it was easy by now; after what had just happened inside his head, staring at the corpse of the woman he'd given himself up to save, mere physical pain was like a house fly landing on his arm. He lay on his side, quickly letting the grunting subside into short breaths, and went on, "Of course, you wouldn't know that yourself. That part of you's hidden. It has to be, to stay in charge. You? The old you, the you on the outside that everyone sees? You're just a robot being run by a goddamn ugly reptile."

That earned him a kicking that cracked some ribs and bloodied his face, following which the guard grabbed him by his neck and hauled him to his knees again. The executioner was shaking his head, smirking. "Still think you can't be broken." There was an emptiness in the smirk, as though it were a parody of genuine emotion. No doubt the lizard pulling his strings was not amused.

"But you have broken me," the prisoner said. "You've broken me all the way through. Congratulations. The beatings are really quite unnecessary now." He paused, considering. "Of course you can continue if you want to. I can't stop you, after all."

"Enough of this shit." The executioner stepped in front of him, took a pistol from inside his jacket and cocked it. The prisoner could feel the dark presence flowing down the man's arm as though gathering to pounce from the end of the pistol. It paused there, hovering at the edge of visibility. So great was it's hunger, and it's desperation to inspire fear, that it was willing to expend a great deal more energy than it's skulking nature was usually willing to part with.

The prisoner watched it writhing on the end of a gun, like a flickering black cyst in reality, a hole sideways through space into a being whose stomach was the first gate of hell.

All the reptile needed to drag him into its awful mouth was to inspire a moment of real, over-powering fear. It was a predator of souls, with claws made of terror.

Few people were granted such a sight, not while still alive. The prisoner reflected upon this, the great privilege of it, and felt a warm throb of gratitude swell out from his heart as the muzzle was placed against his sweaty head. The being flowed over the barrel and slithered about his head, searching for purchase on his soul-line, and for one brief glorious instant his awareness expanded around him to encompass the entirety of the moment.

As the executioner's finger tightened on the trigger, the prisoner's eyes went up to meet his, the beginning's of a smile touching the edge of his lips. The fear seemed to rebound off that smile, echoing instead within the executioner's eyes. Which was absurd, of course, that he should feel the cold touch of his own proferred terror.

So it was with inner laughter that a sweeping and precise appreciation of the scene coalesced in his mind; the moment dilated, and for the first time he did not glimpse but saw the infinite within an infinitesimal span of time, and he....

His clothes fluttered to the ground, as a bullet ricocheted off the pavement behind where he'd just been and bounced around the garage. By some freak, it hit the solitary light bulb, which quickly flickered off as toxic fumes exhaled out of it and darkness engulfed the room.

The New Weed

Snow whipped through the air in great blinding sheets, illuminated now and again in conic sections under the intermittently working street lamps. The roads were all but deserted at this late hour, save for the occasional taxi that forged its way through the growing drifts, as yet un-cleared by the city’s plows. On the sidewalk – or where the sidewalk might be, were it not covered over by several inches of compacted ice and slush – a solitary figure trudged forward, identity and even gender hidden under several layers of dark winter clothing.

The casual passerby might have no idea whom the figure was, but she wasn’t so foolish at to imagine that her identity was hidden from anyone who actually mattered. The cameras were everywhere, encased in black globes that hung from the lamp posts and hydro poles like engorged tumors, and even if they couldn’t make her out the AI would most certainly have noticed when she left her apartment, and tracked her progress since. Not because she was doing anything suspicious; everyone was watched.

Up ahead, on the street corner, light spilled from the windows of an all-night 7-11. Her pace hurried as she neared it, eager to get out of the cold. Inside she was confronted by several aisles of gaudy magazines and brightly packaged junk food. The door to the bathroom opened, and a careworn older woman stepped out. For a second their eyes met, mutual recognition of their common humanity flashed between them, then the old lady dropped her gaze as though the contact had burned her and she hurried out the store.

She grabbed a bowl of instant ramen that purported to have real vegetables. She didn’t take that claim too seriously, but the hungry will eat anything, even if they know it to be poison. And getting real vegetables was almost impossible, these days, anyhow … at least, if by ‘real’, you meant ‘unadulterated’.

There was a tall, middle-aged man behind the counter, of Indian or Pakistani origin, with eyes that had seen much and a lined face that betrayed nothing. She approached him, placing the bowl on the counter. “Will that be all?” He asked tonelessly, waving the package over an RFID scanner.

“Um….” She started, and finding her voice missing, coughed to clear her throat. “‘Compassion is the Light that binds all Virtue,’” she murmured.

“I’m sorry?” the man said, the question polite but giving no hint that he might know.

She licked her lips, feeling her stomach twist as the man’s calm gaze regarded her like a bug, giving no clue one way or the other whether the phrase meant anything to him. Young and attractive, she wasn’t used to being looked at in such a fashion, and she had to dig into her emotional reserves to find the courage to repeat, “Compassion is the….”

“Yes, I heard you the first time. That’s very poetic,” the man said.

She laughed, nervously, suddenly certain that she must have the wrong place, that this whole expedition had been an exercise in futility. Had Shankar given her the wrong place? Or had she misunderstood the directions? She hadn’t dared look them up online: no one googled a convenience store. Doing so would have set off red flags. Way too much of a heatscore.

“Do you mind if I use the bathroom?” She asked, though she had no need of the bathroom.

“Yes, go ahead,” the man said. “Would you like me to heat this up for you?”

“Yes, please,” she murmured, and hurried off towards the door.

The stall was large and modern, made to accommodate a wheel-chair, with a folding changing table on the wall. The tiles were cracked, with graffiti carved into them. The smell of spilt urine filled her nostrils. She scanned around, looking for some clue to the hidden doorway that Shankar had said was to be found here, and seeing no sign of it felt again the sense of failure and despair rising within her like a black tide.

There was a soft click. A crack appeared as a small hatch opened, it’s edges cunningly disguised by the tiles. Biting her lip, she pushed at it, and it swung open silently on well oiled hinges. Rough wooden steps descended into the darkness.

Relief flooded through her. She’d found the right place after all. Steeling herself, she crouched down to get through the hatch and made her way down, stairs creaking under her feet. “Hello?” she whispered. There was no response, until she got to the bottom of the staircase and sensed more than heard a quick motion behind her. Before she could turn around to look, she felt cold metal pressed up against her temple. She froze.

“Easy, now,” said a quiet, gravelly smoker’s voice, the gun’s owner.

A pair of hands came out of nowhere, frisking her and waving a wand over her body. “She’s clean,” said a second voice, so deep she felt it in her bones.

The pistol dropped away, someone flicked a light-switch and she found herself in a narrow basement, cracked concrete floor and cinderblock walls unadorned save for row upon row of steel shelving, densely packed with a profusion of dried greenery wrapped in plastic baggies. There were three people around her, two of them obvious gangsters wearing black leisure suits, one a wiry man pocketing the pistol, the other a massive body-builder. The third was a short woman, middle-aged, with lines of grey in her hair and laugh lines around her eyes. The woman regarded her visitor with a look equal parts sympathy and suspicion, and asked, “How did you find us, dear?”

“Through a friend,” she said. “Um, he said to tell you his name was Steven.” Which wasn’t Shankar’s real name, of course, but then he’d been very clear that under no circumstances was anyone at this establishment interested in knowing any of their customers’ real names, just as they were especially uninterested in their customers knowing who they were. ‘Steven’ was another code word, just like the pass-phrase she’d used to get in.

The name seemed to work. The woman relaxed a bit, nodded and said, “What brings you to us, then, dear?”

“Cancer,” she blurted, and as she said it the word rolled through her with all its terrible force. “I, ah, I’ve been diagnosed with an inoperable tumor,” she lifted her hand, touched a spot behind above her ear, “Right here. There are no symptoms yet, but they want to start chemo sometime next month, and….”

“And you don’t want to let them poison you,” the woman nodded, as though she’d heard it all before. Which, her visitor reflected, she doubtless had.

The woman cocked her head. “From the placement of the tumor, I’m guessing it’s from your cell phone. Do you have one?”

She nodded. “Yes, and I….”

The woman held up her hand. “Spare me. Those things are deadly. I’d say get rid of it but then how would you survive? Do you have a silk scarf? No? Get one. Keep it wrapped about your head and neck at all times, like a hijab. Ever notice how few Muslim women get brain cancer? No? I sure have.” She sighed. “Well, then. Enough with the free advice. You didn’t come here to chat, and if you stick around too long the Watchers might wonder what’s taking you so long in the bathroom.” She stood up, walked towards the wall, her hand moving along a shelf until it found what she was looking for, a plastic baggie about the size of her fist, containing a mixture of crushed, dried plants. “Here,” she held the baggie up, “This is a preparation of aloe vera, echinacea, lantana, violet, pau d’arco, and blood root. Mix in about a teaspoon a day, three times a day until it’s all gone, which should be about three weeks.”

“And that will kill the tumor?”

The woman shrugged. “It’s more likely to work than whatever they’ll do to you in the hospital. With the added bonus that it won’t, itself, make you sick.”

“And … how much should I….” she reached for her wallet.

The woman shook her head, pressing the package into her customer’s hand. “We don’t take money here. Too easy to trace, these days.” She smiled, seeing the surprised look on her visitor’s face. “Oh, don’t worry. We’ll collect, one way or another. If you live, that is. If it doesn’t work, well,” she shrugged, “It wouldn’t be right to ask payment. But if you do, you owe us. We will find you, someday – we have our ways – maybe in a month, maybe in a year. But we will be in touch, and we will expect a favor.”

“A favor?”

“Yes. A favor, a service, call it what you will. Was this not explained to you?” Annoyance flashed over her face, clearing away like a summer storm. “I can’t say what it will be, exactly, there’s no way of knowing in advance. It will likely be something illegal, if not immoral.” The woman sighed, again, and for a moment her visitor saw through the hard exterior life had forced her to develop, saw the deep well of compassion that motivated her, at war with her frustration at the stupidity and malevolence of a world that had made medicinal herbs that had been used for thousands of years illegal, forcing healers like herself into the company of thugs and criminals. It was not so long ago that those men would have made their living growing and dealing weed; now, with the list of illegal plants greatly expanded, they grew and dealt weeds.

“Thank you,” she said, cupping the bag of precious herbal tea in her hand like an offering. Tears brimmed in her eyes. “Thank you….”

“Save it,” the woman said, the shell snapping closed like the wings of a beetle. "One more thing. If you meet someone who wants our services, tell them to say to the counterman, 'The light of heaven shines from logos'. Repeat that, please. Thank you. Don't forget it, that's the next person's pass-phrase. If they say it the guy at the counter will let them use the restroom, otherwise it's employee's only. And tell them ... Maria sent you."


"That's right. You’ve been down here long enough, Maria. Get away before you the AI catches a bad case of the suspicions.”

Maria hurried back up the stairs.