Storytime: Getting Warmer.

February 15th, 2017

She’d been sitting there a long, long time before the speck came. She’d been sitting there longer still before it turned into a boat, drifting in from the edge of the eyeball’s reach. And it was longer than that again before it finally docked, bumping and bruising and cursing and splashing.
May always did have noodle arms.
“You’re late.”
“Or early,” said May. She scratched at long, pale, sweat-rank hair. “It’s so damned hard to tell these days. Especially up here. Are we at the geographic?”
“No.”
May squinted up at the sun. “Huh. The magnetic, then?”
“No.”
“Are we at any sort of pole at all?”
“No. I had to take what we could get.”
“And what could you get?”
“The last chunk of ice in all the arctic circle.”
May whistled and kicked the bile-speckled surface underfoot. A rotting chunk came off at her heel. “Nice. Real nice. Don’t suppose we could steer it to the right spot?”
“Wherever it is, there’s the spot.”
“Right, right, right. I guess so. You know best, of course.”
“No. I’m just making it up as I go.”
“Well there’s a fucking terrifying thought, pardon me very much.”
She shrugged. “If it works, it works. If it doesn’t work, we make it work. That’s the rules.”
“I don’t remember ever agreeing to any rules anywhen in particular.”
“You’re walking. You’re talking. Breathing. Rowing. Sweating. Arguing. None of that’s necessary, is it.”
“No, guess not.”
“None of that’s free, is it.”
“Maybe.”
“You want to fit into that shape you’ve got to make some allowances for symbolism. And once it’s got its hooks in you, the only way to get out is more of it. And this is it.”
“It what?”
“Out.”
May looked around the world. A blue horizon against a blue sky stretching all the way around in every direction except for the immediate: a miserable little ice floe barely bigger than the dinghy she’d heaved for hundreds of miles.
“My arms hurt.”
“Yes.”
“Will they stop hurting after this, y’think?”
“Absolutely.”
“Well, hell, it’s not all bad then. You do what you’ve got to do, cousin.”

There was a little rise in the center of the rotting berg; a sad mirror of what lay beneath them. They’re always larger where they can’t be seen. What’s that going to mean when there’s none left?
“You bring a knife, or we going to do this bare-handed?”
“Knife.”
“Stainless steel?”
“Yes.”
“Well, fair enough.”
May draped herself over the lump and squinted up at the summer sun.
“Too damned hot.”
“Yes,” said June.

The human ribcage is sturdier than it looks. May wasn’t human, but she was a human idea, and that was close enough. Scratch one of their imaginings and however pretty it looked on the surface, underneath they were all the same.
Wet.
Her heart was warm against the cool air. Condensation forming on its gently-steaming muscle.
It was a tough thing and it took June almost as much sawing and chewing to get down as her bones had.
She stared up at that midnight sun and missed her already. She’d always been closest to her, May had. April had whined, February’d pouted. January had kicked and screamed and raved.
But May had slipped away without so much as a complaint, and she’d miss her the hardest for it.

June washed the blood from her hands in the warm, warm water. And then she stepped away, to see the rest of her world.
It was going to be a long summer.


Storytime: Layers.

February 8th, 2017

We will began at the top and work our way down.

The upper atmosphere is empty.

Below, there are satellites. One of them is much more expensive and silent than its friends. It is watching very carefully.

Down beneath that, where the clouds brew, there is an unusually high-flying bird, on its way up to see its own kind of god. Its wings are clotted with condensation and ice crystals. It is moving extremely quickly and does not wish to slow down.

Under the ugliest clouds and above the scenic ones is an underpriced plane filled with overpriced tickets. One of them is not mediocre, and is watching their phone carefully. It is much more expensive and silent than all the others aboard.

The scenic clouds are billowing in a surprising new breeze coming up at an angle that is very nearly absolutely ninety degrees, stained with burned dust and ashed stone. It’s red and black and is turning them sunset colours far ahead of schedule. They don’t mind. They are peaceful clouds, and will accept this change as they have all others. A restful nature.

Beneath the billowin – no, no, no, they’re BOILING now, surely – underside of the scenic clouds is a scream. It began on the planet’s surface and was followed immediately by several lesser screams, but it is so much larger and faster and stronger that it has outpaced them all by leaps and bounds. Unlike its predecessors, it was never constrained by living lungs and hot dead air.

Rising rapidly comes the shockwave in the scream’s wake, frightening birds, scalding clouds, and burning away at seventeen different frequencies. On one of them, the expensive and quiet satellite can almost detect it as something more than nothing, or less than that.

Rising up is the rubble. Tons of rock now lighter than air, and tons more that’s still heavier but being made to forget it, for a moment, a minute. There is debris in there that’s not natural, crafted by clever little hands. Shovels and spades, laptops and toothbrushes. A jeep, or derivative thereof.

Under the rubble and in the rubble and around the rubble as it floats are the lighter things. The birds, mostly. There are still many more of them around than they are given credit for and they are moving very quickly because they would like this number to increase rather than decrease which it is in immediate danger of doing. As it were. They know what’s at stake here.

Clinging to the remnants of real, solid rock below the wingbeats and panic-song are a few diggers. Most of them are innocuous, as far as scientists can be. The worst they’d planned here was to sneak an extra can of beer if they felt they’d done an extra good job that day. Their heads are full of geological strata and their pockets are full of rock samples. One of them has an expensive and silent phone in their pocket instead. It is not as helpful as the rocks.

Underneath them, trampled by sun and sneakers and a few hundred years of fearsome wind and rain, are the mineral-hardened remains of the carcass of the far-flying bird’s great-great-great-great-ongoing-great-aunt. In her day she was queen of most of what she surveyed, and that’s never quite changed. She’s definitely still the prettiest thing on the mesa. Assuredly. She is dead. Assuredly. She is not pleased. Assuredly.

Farther down is stone, the planet’s abraded, hardened scabs. Rehealing eternally as surely as it is picked over. Shoved into the mantle and born again. Ground down from mountains and built up in estuaries. The kind of immortality that’s more fleeting than being alive at all.

Far beneath is a newer wound, where hot fiery blood burned out and cooled to a smoulder. It was guided there by something more determined than chance. Once-liquid lava, now a casket.

Below that, more basal than the basalt, is the exterior carapace.

Beneath that is the upper epidermis.

Beneath that is the start of the flesh and the blood and the long, slow booms of the heart that drives it.

Beneath that is another heart. Hearts. Too grand a frame for just one.

Beneath that is a long slow dawning confusion and an anger built out of fear.

And just above that, of course, is the scream again. Breaking barriers. Breaking up.

It’s all about to go quite out of order.


Storytime: A Ruckus.

February 1st, 2017

Smash!
It was good.
Bang!
It was good.
Bing bang clash crunch BAM!
It was VERY good.
The High Mangler walked slowly atop the shaking floorboards, as befitted her station, with her head rotating a little like a tank’s turret. And everywhere her eyes swept, what she saw was good. The production line was bustling today; a cacophony that would not pause, a roar so endless that the notion of it having a beginning was as impossible as an end.
And it was precisely because of this perfection that the error almost escaped the High Mangler’s gaze. In fact – despite her later claims to the contrary – it did so altogether. Rather, it was a single errant footfall atop a discard noise-nozzle that turned the High Mangler’s stride into a slide, then a spin, and finally a desperate clutching topple that slid her to a halt directly in front of a workstation. Still falling, her hands grabbed at moving parts by reflex while the upper functions of her brain screamed at them to stop….
But they didn’t. But she didn’t bleed. But…
This was because the parts were not moving. The screamaphone was muzzled. The grinder was static. The noise-nozzles were disconnected from the thumpers. And the clang – the beautiful, central, loudest of them all – was placed on its side, on its sounding-side, as if it were dead in a ditch.
“WHAT?” shouted the High Mangler at the world, terror replaced instantly by incredulous rage.
“Shh,” said the worker, mistaking the general for the specific.
“WHAT?” shouted the High Mangler at the worker.
“You’re being too loud,” said the worker. “I’m trying to listen to something.”
The High Mangler had worked in the Soundfoundry for all her adult life, and apprenticed there besides. Her shifts were the noisiest, her workers the most furious, her yells the loudest in all of the Clangdom of Clash – not a single throat atop its cliffs could boast as fiercely as her own.
And for the first time, she opened her mouth and was unable to make a sound.

Trials were not common in Clash. Typically everyone was too busy to get up to any mischief, and if they did and got caught usually someone just punched them until they yelped loud enough to make up for it.
This, however, was a matter of a different magnitude.
“TREASON,” yelled the judge from her perch atop the pandepodium. “HIGH TREASON, WITH INTENT TO…” – and here the judge shuddered, fighting the urge to WHISPER of all things “…MUFFLE. HOW DO YOU PLEAD, REPROBATE?”
“Shh,” said the defendant. Her lawyer buried his face in his palms.
The courtroom did not descend into silence. This was impossible. It was located directly about the eighth of the always-beating Upper Drums of the Grand Din and any trial worth having here was worth having in front of a crowd of hundreds, all of whom were encouraged to speculate at full volume.
But there WAS an unusual lull. The judge’s eyeballs expanded during it, and grew slightly bloodshot.
“CONTEMPT,” she hooted. “CONTEMPT OF COURT. CONTEMPT OF COURT!”
“Shhhhh!” said the defendant. “I think I’ve just heard it again! Can you be quiet for a-”
And at the sound of such horrifying prevarications the entire court had no choice but to descend into a more normal, safe and sane chaos. The judge bit the front off the pandepodium in a rage, the prosecutor and the defense lawyer grappled with one another while screeching maniacally, and the jury simply screamed at escalating pitch until their water glasses exploded.
But despite this outer veneer of normality and civility and sanity, the disquiet would not fade. And so when the verdict came, it was of no surprise to see its harshness made manifest.
“I SENTENCE YOU TO EIGHTY DECIBELS,” thundered the judge, “AND MAY SOUND HAVE MERCY ON YOUR SOUL!”
The defendant opened her mouth again, but her lawyer was watching, and as soon as he saw her lips begin to purse again for that awful ‘shh’ he quickly punched her in the back of the head.
“OW!”
The court roared in approval. Repentance was the first step on the road to reintegration.

The orderlies stood outside the cell. Each of them was about one and a half times the height of a normal Clasher, and twice to thrice as wide.
All of them were sweating.
“YOU FIRST,” suggested the head.
“YOU’RE IN CHARGE.”
“RIGHT. WHICH MEANS I’M TOO IMPORTANT TO RISK. IF SHE GETS ME, THEN YOU’LL ALL HAVE NO CHAIN OF COMMAND.”
“I’M YOUR SECOND. I CAN TAKE OVER IN AN EMERGENCY.”
“BUT THERE’S NO EMERGENCY YET. SO OPEN THE DAMNED DOOR AND GET IN THERE.”
The second orderly gave his head a dirty look and cracked the cell door open.
It stuck.
It was a strong door. Reinforced. Padded. Hardened. Reinforced again. It would’ve taken a professional safecracker and a jackhammer days to break it. The burliest maniac could claw at it for decades without so much as leaving a scratch. They were stuck in there, alone with a mere eighty decibels of sound – barely a roar, let alone a din.
Inside, someone had added to it. Torn sheets had been jammed in every crack. The mattress was wedged against it. A pillow had been jammed in the food slot.
And in the corner, with the calm, worried eyes of the truly insane, stood their prisoner.
She looked annoyed.
“Shh!” she said. “I almost had it! You’re being too noisy; shut the damned door!”
The second orderly screamed in terror and slammed the cell shut as loud as he could and quit on the spot in that order. Then he ran out of the Bed And Lament Prison For The Silent so fast his toenails came off.
Unfortunately, his coworkers chased after him. And more unfortunately, no-one had bothered to turn the lock.

Word of the prison break spread like breaking glass through Clash, from the lowest crags to the highest crests of the cliff. In the Grand Din’s Regal Echo, embedded just beneath the foundations of the eight Upper Drums and suspended just above the giant skins of the sixteen Lower Drums, the Lord Yowler consulted with her High Mangler.
“WHAT DO YOU THINK SHE WILL DO?” she asked.
The Mangler considered this, drumming her fingers on the small timpani she kept strapped to her thigh for that purpose, in case the ambient volume dropped too low. “RUN,” she decided. “HIDE. TRY AND FIND SOMEWHERE…” – and she shivered at the thought – “…QUIET.”
The Lord Yowler blanched like overcooked carrots. “WHAT IN GONG’S NAME COULD MAKE SUCH A MONSTER?”
The High Mangler shrugged and accelerated the tempo of her drumming. “DON’T KNOW. SHE KEPT SAYING THAT SHE WANTED TO HEAR SOMETHING.”
“IN THE QUIET? MADNESS!”
“I KNOW! BUT SHE NEVER STOPPED TRYING. STOPPED UP HER CELL. CLOSED THE ENTRANCE. BUT SHE’S OUT NOW, AND PROBABLY LOOKING FOR A HOLE TO HIDE-”
The High Mangler suddenly realized that the drumming of her hands was the only sound in the room but their voices.
They looked down. The Lower Drums were silent.
They looked up. The Upper Drums were mute.
They looked at each other, then looked at the door.
It opened and shut, noiselessly.
And in the room with them stood the worker, the defendant, the prisoner, the maniac, clutching a battered wrench in her hand and trailing noiselessness in her wake.
“Shh,” she whispered.
The High Mangler’s heart skipped, and in that moment of horror, against every instinct that she had, every skill, every belief, every value, her fingers halted.

 

“There!” said the maniac triumphantly, in the wake of that awful, awful quiet…that SILENCE… “D’you hear? It sounds like something creakin-”
And the Clangdom of Clash, in all its sound and fury, fell through its own basements and through the Cliffs of Clash all at once, its vibration-ravaged foundations finally giving up for good.

The dust plume soared for miles, and, to what doubtlessly would’ve been the gratification of its former inhabitants, the noise didn’t die down for days.


Storytime: The Crack.

January 25th, 2017

I’m awake before the alarm, as usual. Awake before a lot of things. If I turn my head right now and look at the clock I know the numerals I’m seeing won’t be Arabic. Probably won’t even be numbers.
Things are like that here. On this side of the crack.
My bed’s trying to eat me again; I can feel it gnawing on my legs past the sweet anesthetic of the covers. The pillow is swelling, smothering. I want to turn and toss once and never move again.
But I can’t. Because I can’t, because I can’t. So I tear myself upright and kick free of warm and soft and stagger over to where my clothes might be if they are.
They are.
That’s a good sign. One of many I’ll need to make it.

The hallway this side of the crack is longer but thinner. Sharp edges, ice-cold bruisers, all waiting for the toes and the heel. You can cripple yourself here if you’re not careful, or in a rush. And there’s always a rush.
The kitchen’s simpler. The food’s there. What it is right now is harder to understand, but it’s there.
So I pounce on the first cupboard to creak and snap open a flapping lid and tear through thick plastic and it’s cereal, hard on the gums but easy on the stomach. Once it’d been flour. Fun day that was.
Down, down to the doormat, stomping boots on sloppily before fumbling for laces. Feet-covering first, then fuss. I’ve already spent too much time with nothing but wool between my toes and this side of the crack. And it’s about to get harder.

The car keys are treacherously tangled with all the others and I lose precious seconds or years fumbling with colt metal and cold fingers. By the time the engien’s on and warm the fuzz has crept back into my brain and eyes and blood. I’m flying blind with highbeams on as everything screams HUSH at me, stumbling round corners and forgetting my lunch, route and name. It’s all pushing down on me as I crest the hill.
And from there, about to be swallowed up, I see the crack.

It’s not quite gold or red. It’s not quite anything; there are no colours on this side.
But it’s enough.
I drive forward. I fall through it.
I hear the world breathe again.

And it’s morning.


Storytime: Naughty.

January 18th, 2017

It’s quiet here.
I’m not used to that. Not after the screaming and the shooting and the fire and the crash.
Not after the shouting and the kicking and the punching and the crackle-hiss-zap of the taser.
Not after the long, slow sirens.
But most of all, not after the last few hundred years. I’ve lived a busy, noisy life in busy, noisy places.
Not like this. I’ve never been somewhere like this.

They feed me. It’s simple food, nourishing food. They didn’t know what to feed me at first, then I wouldn’t eat it, then they stuck a tube up my nose and forced it down me until I threw up and gave up and started cooperating. Anything to not feel the sting of crushed ginger cookies and milk against my sinuses again.
It’s not bad food. It’s my favourite food. It’s what I’ve always eaten and every time I open my mouth to chew I have to try not to cry.

When the meal is over, they bring me in to the calm room. They give me a special, calming treat – a little cupful of fruit-flavoured gelatin – and they ask calm questions, with earnest, open faces. How? When did you how? Who told you to how, when? Why?
Especially the last one, it always comes down to that. It’s the least likely to give them any useful answers, but they can’t stop asking it. Why? Why, why, why, why and z.
So today, I tell them.

It’s a big storm. We seem them a lot, this far north. Billowing and blustering their way over the planet’s balding crown.
But it’s big and WET and warm, and there’s too much water lying around for it to push against, lying bare to the sky when it should be sheathed in ice. Waves are forming. Water is surging. Ice is cracking – and there isn’t much ice to crack.
And nobody’s noticed, nobody’s ringing the alarm-bells, because we’re all too busy inside! Don’t get me wrong, we plan ahead. We plan ahead all year! But there’s always the last bit of loading, there’s always the checklist, there’s always the last-minute additions, the last-minute subtractions, the ephemeral wavering between the lists.
Besides, we’re not blind. We’re not stupid. The workshop’s been equipped with buoys for the last decade and a half. Just in case of what might happen.
Well, it happened. It happened right as I was picking up the reins. The floor shook and then rose, and I slid off my feet and bam, out the front door I goes.
And into the water. I didn’t expect that. It had been snow just an hour ago as we performed the final flight check. But it was liquid now, and I was paddling for my life, swimming to the workshop’s lights until I realized they were below me now, the whole workshop, glittering in the black-and-blue as it sank.
For centuries and more I’ve made things, I’ve seen things. And no matter what the shape or form, I’ve been able to look past it and see the thing inside that made it shine. But I’d never seen anything as beautiful as my drowning workshop as it slipped away from me. And that was what hurt most of all.
The hammers were still ringing. They were sinking and they were still ringing, louder and louder until I broke the surface and it stopped all at once.

They’re asking me why again. Why, why, why. And I tell them I’m telling them why, just leave me alone for a moment and let me finish.

You see, the team had made it. They’d been set and bridled, they must have flown out the roof just after I left through the front door. And they’d brought the pack with them.
I had my pack. I had my team. I had nothing else, nothing else at all. The list was lost.
But I could make one. It would just be much smaller.

It wasn’t very hard, in the end. I only had to visit a few thousand, instead of billions. And they only got one present each, which made it even faster.
Still, they caught on to me as I started my second pass. People pay more attention when something naughty happens to someone important. And they DO something about it.
So the planes scrambled and the missiles launched and I dodged and weaved and laughed until my dimples ached and they didn’t bring me down until dawn, when the night was over and I had nowhere to land and nothing left to fly with.
And then they brought me here, where they’re still asking me why, why, why.
I’ve told them why, but they want more. They don’t want my why, they want a why they can accept and make reasonable and understandable and rational. This is the calm room, it’s where they need to hear calming things.
So I shrug and I chuckle and I tell them this.
“It just wasn’t a very merry year.”

And I sit there and laugh, with my bowl full of jelly.

Ho. Ho. Ho.


Storytime: Ever Higher.

January 11th, 2017

“It’s a marble.”
Jen squinted at the near horizon. The sun was already coming down; the days here were just a little bit shorter than her body was insisting they should be.
“Yeah?”
“Yeah, a marble. A big, beautiful blue marble.”
Jen shook her head. “Man, you’ve got to get off that ship and see for yourself. I promise there’s more than blue down here. I swear, these mountains are PURPLE.”
“I’m looking at the big picture, you know. That’s my job.”
“You’re a cargo hauler, Davy, not a pilot.”
“Yeah, and who gets the big picture better than the guy who has to load it, pack it, shift it, and drop it? Trust me, I’ll be down before you know it.”
More lavender, she decided. The foothills, now, they were definitely purple in places. Not an unhealthy glow, though; they glistened with plant life. She breathed in deep and felt that strange, off-tilt taste that was air filled with hundreds of thousands of trees. So strange after the lifetime spent on board Requin. Would it have been stranger still to grandma and grandpa, fresh from the grey smogs and the dead seas?
“That’s old news, Davy. I’m looking at the new big picture right here. All we’ve got to do is assemble the pieces.”
The chainsaw fired up on the third rev, grumbling about it. Well-designed, but it HAD spent more than half a century in storage.
“Alright, alright. See you in a month, jigsaw.”
Jen smiled as the blade bit into the trunk of the tree. “See you in a month, Davy.”
The smell of sap drifted up around her, and the world seemed to grow a little bigger because of it.
A step beyond the cradle.

Item 00001: Chainsaw
Used for logging. The materials science behind this device is far less advanced than that required to reach the planet’s surface, and is similarly at odds with that of many unearthed structures. This, and design discrepancies within this and other retrieved timber-cutting equipment, indicates an overall improvised set of tools, often retrofitted from spare parts for more sophisticated devices.
Item 00001a: Preserved Sap
Removed from the cutting mechanisms of Item 001. The sap is that of the Netterli Allpine, which formed large dense forests over much of eastern Tendyssa at the time of landing. Shortly afterwards, it became extinct in the wild, presumably due to the sudden and enormous pressure placed upon it by land clearance for crops and settlements.

Roiann looked up.
Sparkling lights. Ten million diamonds floating above her head, close enough to see but far enough to sparkle. And hundreds of them belonged to her, floating just above the atmosphere. Beaming news, data, gossip and games and stocks and a thousand imaginary necessities.
Roiann looked down.
A hundred million people, all building, booming, growing, surging, improving, learning, prospering.
Hundreds of thousands of them belonged to her too, although they would’ve put it differently. They put in their hours for her, and that was enough.
And in the middle distance, between Roiann’s two planes of ownership, there was the horizon. Curving gently off beyond her sight.
Not her reach, though. Landing was still humanity’s heart, but she’d been making moves. Expeditions. Research, mining, mapping, whatever excuse could be used and budgeted.
There was profit out there somewhere. Enough for everyone, and why shouldn’t she get first pick?
She turned her gaze back to the object on her desk and smiled.

Item 00978: Office Desk.
A workstation. This specimen is highly decorative in design and likely belonged to a wealthy executive; the drawers and filing equipment are overly diminished and show little use, while the materials used in construction are not only high-quality but show the traces of individual craftsmanship rather than mass production. This was a commissioned sumptuary good, used to display status.
Item 00978a-q: Shards of Allglass.
These microscopic flecks were retrieved from a hairline crevice in the desk’s surface, and are possibly the earliest allglass traces in Landing. There is still no record of the precise date when expeditions from Tendyssa first travelled across the pole to Wender, but this may have been among the first curiosities brought back from those early ventures.

Taddle was a runner. And he was good at it. He’d practically raced out of the crib. He’d nearly become a professional sprinter in his school years. He could tap a friend on the shoulder and be round the block by the time they’d finished turning.
But he’d been a little foolish to hope to outrun bullets.
Now here he was, bleeding out all over his broken nearly-but-not-quite-bulletproof shirt. Lying on his side, watching the world spin and wondering why he’d decided to do it. Yes, his brother had needed the money; he had no legs thanks to their grandfather. Yes, his father had needed the operation; all those years down in the foundries did wonderful things to your body from the outside in. Yes, his daughter would need food; she was already barely eating enough to stay awake in classes.
But now they’d need all that and his funeral bill too.
His back was on fire. Not from the bullets, from something crushed and splintered and eating into his skin like bugs on butter. The package of allglass he’d been hiding down his back had smashed. It was a good thing he was already passing out; if he’d had the energy he would’ve screamed.
A boot came into his field of view, followed by the rest of the mine guard. And then – if not for very long – Taddle realized he could scream after all.

Item 02931: Improvised Bulletproof Jacket
An illegal and improvised item, produced by melting ‘Red Silica’ over heavy cold-weather clothing. This particular specimen possessed two fatal flaws in its manufacture: it was adulterated with low-quality ‘Blue Silica’ to save costs and the base substrate was a smaller, lighter shirt that did not protect the wearer’s extremities. The latter may have been a necessary compromise; the shirt appears to be employee wear from Hibber Air & Earth, one of the larger allglass exploration companies in Wender during the era, and was likely intended to be a disguise first and last-ditch protection later. Bullet damage on the specimen’s exterior, along with massive allglass scarring along its interior, suggest that this plan failed.

The sky was red again today.
Pline had breakfast with what was left in the cupboard that had been her fridge before the last power surge, then dialed her old company.
No answer.
She hadn’t expected one; three weeks with no offices since the downtown floods had crippled the branch; the mills had been completely unsalvageable and every technician with any useful skills had long-ago left the city behind for work in the privateland holdouts. The owners had probably just walked off and vanished rather than deal with the paperwork, and the difficult of finding anyone to manage the paperwork. .
She dialed her best friend, next-closest friend, and then a few more.
No answers.
They’d probably just walked off and vanished. A lot of people did that.
The alarm in the ceiling hissed, and she slipped her mask on before peeking out the window. The air was a thick clot of bloody sand.
Allglass storm, again. The third one this week. Hard to believe in grandmother’s day they’d never seen one dip into the lower atmosphere before.
Her stomach gurgled, and she opened the fridge and realized there was nothing left. It was the end of the day and she was back at last night again. Again.
Pline’s face hurt. It had hurt since she was a little girl and she was used to it, but it was enough.
She took off the mask, put it in the fridge, and walked out the door.
And vanished.

Item 07003: Storm Mask
A mass-produced item of low quality, the many imperfections in this specimen’s design can be traced to many wider disruptions in global supply chains leading to the use of low-cost and inferior local materials. The sealing of the mask’s jaw in particular is badly malformed from use and likely caused extensive discomfort when prolonged use occurred, which was likely frequent at the time. Allglass storms not only increased in frequency as more and more of the substance was destroyed and released into the atmosphere, but were aggravated by even the most minute particle pollutants, which they would aggregate into and subsume. A heavy smog could become a killing clot of sharpened particles, but deadlier still were the long-term physiological and psychological ills brought on by constant low-level exposure to the wear and tear of allglass-laced dust and pollen.

It was too dark.
Hobb held his breath and held still and his nose tickled but he did not sneeze not even a little because it was too dark.
The other people were out there arguing, yelling in their strange voices, brandishing their rust and plastic and shouting and trying their hard to be the scariest possible because if they did they wouldn’t have to kill each other the way they’d killed Hobb’s family and nothing made them more worried than that.
Hobb was trying not to think about what they’d done, but there it was again, fresh and red in his mind as it hadn’t been in reality. All the blood was red and bright and clear and shining and the wounds showed great gouts of colour inside, oozing and glistening.
Not like this. Not like it had been, with dark liquid and grunts and screams in the black. Because it was too dark.
The other people were still shouting. Didn’t they know it was too dark? They’d stood on the fire, they’d thrown Hobb’s uncle into it. Why? Were they crazy? They’d been outside, in the storms. Only crazy people did that. And they dressed crazy, with all those heavy coats and clasps and the masks. And they’d come from the privlands, on foot, in the day.
They didn’t know anything.
One of them shouted, loud enough to hurt ears, and they all stopped talking at once.
Hobb sneezed, even though it was too dark, and that was that.
He never had a chance to tell them about the Deepmakers. They never gave him one. And so, when they were sleeping, it came as a very large surprise.

Item 07991: Security Helmet
Although for a time complex international society persisted in the form of communication passed between fortified compounds in the heavily-guarded holdouts and refuges of what the common folk called the ‘privatelands,’ several centuries without maintenance destroyed the satellite communications networks necessary for any real cooperation, along with mutual distrust and competition. Lacking trade networks for resupply and repair, each individual stronghold lived and eventually died on its own. Many were abandoned when vital survival systems broke down, their inhabitants dispersing into the new wildernesses, but few of these voyagers integrated successfully into new communities. This particular specimen is an example of a typical though well-illustrated story: an aging but almost pristine security helmet that suffered several months of intense weathering from brutal allglass storms before being abandoned in a secluded cave. The culprit behind this last event is particularly evident: the bite marks lining the inside of the skull are undeniably those of the Tendyssan King Walleater. The eusocial burrowers ate the privateland exile from the inside out.

 

 

Item 08200: Patella
This skeletal fragment is the youngest evidence of Lander civilization on the planet. It belonged to a subadult in poor health, who likely received little care from family members shortly after weaning, which she did early. It is possible, although not confirmable, that she was the very last Lander alive; certainly the nearest archaeological site to her grave is notably older. If she was not the last in fact, her existence was nonetheless very similar to that hypothetical other, unknown Lander. Each would have never known the difference, and if they had met would possibly have not even as recognized the other as kin. Landers were socially intelligent animals, and without any prior contact with their own kind, their existences must have been intensely uncomfortable. Even without malnutrition and the hardship of the changing environment, it is unlikely this nameless child would have lived long alone.


No Swimming.

January 4th, 2017

The beach is closed.
Why? Who knows.
It’s nothing that I’d know about.
Was it the sharks? The dogs from the parks?
They did shit a lot, the louts.

The beach is closed.
Well, so it goes.
Never much liked to swim here.
It could’ve been the needles, or the carnivorous beetles.
Maybe both, I fear.

The beach is closed.
No more sand ‘twixt my toes.
Not that there was much left, sad to say.
Half of it was rock, the rest was just blocks
Of compacted refuse, from back in the day.

The beach is closed.
Where will seagulls doze?
Half-filled with trash, half with spite.
That look in their eyes as they came for your fries.
Jesus, that’d give God a fright.

The beach is closed.
Well, that just blows.
There go my plans for the summer.
Where will I go, where E. Coli don’t flow?
Man. What a bummer.

The beach is closed.
Could’ve been the glows
Of strange light, down past the pier.
The places they say, where the fishmen did lay
in wait, to rip, gnash and tear.

The beach is closed.
Well, go with the flows.
That’s what all the others did.
Grabbed by riptides and taken for rides
Down deep, where dark things hid.

The beach is closed.
Unfair, I knows.
It was homely, safe, and cool.
What was the harm, I say, if children did play
A bit close to the sewage plant pools?


Storytime: New Year’s Resolutions from 325 Sherman Lane, Apartments A-F.

December 28th, 2016

As of this year 2XXX, I, Elizabeth, do solemnly resolve:
-to brutally pulverize the fat, oafish face of Tommy beyond all recognition.
-to drop-kick each and every one of Christine’s fuzzy little ratbags through her window and eventually her face.
-to shatter Donovan’s feeble, half-repaired skull in my bare hands.
-to smash through Samantha’s ribs and tear out her diseased, Grinch-grade heart and eat it in front of her.
Also I will punch Steve.

To-do 2XXX:
Steal ‘the murder weapon’ from Donovan’s gun locker
Write ‘the confession’ using Christine’s signature
Plant ‘the evidence’ on Elizabeth’s phone
Set up ‘the victim’ by using ‘the murder weapon’ described in ‘the confession’ and ‘the evidence’ on Samantha’s smelly, insane, morbidly morbid, certifiable face
And get Steve to phone the cops

MEMO: OPERATION TIMES SQUARE
Perform a clearing sweep on room A first where the leaderman head captain officer resides TARGET IS ARMED WITH ARMS USE SHOTGUN BE PREPARED TO BAYONET
Advance through front B exterminate all witnesses no civilians here they are all insurgents i have heard tommy doing it late at night it won’t goddamned stop
Take a breather and the meds actually no just a breather no wait no time to breathe PUSH ON
Target Charlie aka ‘BACKWOODS’ aka ‘SAMANTHA’ is versed in GUERILLA TACTICS and also may or may not be a GORILLA they are cunning and have infiltrated us do not be fooled by her BRACHIATING or EATING POUTINE or laying of BEAR TRAPS
Entrench through the ceiling and drop down on top of target Delta Christine and kill her immediately to establish DOMINANCE over her WILD BEASTS
Leave building to confront cops and EXPLAIN MYSELF in a BLAZE OF GLORY
Remember to demote Private Steve before leaving building for insubordination and delinquency in the line of duty

Samantha Cote’s 2XXX Resolutions
-I shall go to Donovan’s room and wish him a happy new year and then I will skin him.
-I shall be more open and honest with Elizabeth by jointing and gutting her.
-I shall apologize to Christine for repeatedly attempting to trap her cats by trapping her in a deadfall just inside her apartment’s door and leaving her to be consumed by them.
-I shall smoke Tommy out of his rank den with my largest cigars and shoot him when he emerges on general principle and fairness.
-I shall give Steve a scarf.

Christine and Booboo and Huggles and Tabitha and Mopsy and Daniel and Boojum and Siberius and Jim-Bob and Gareth’s Big Plans for the New Year
-Buy a new litter box because poor old Mopsy’s legs are giving out aren’t they sweetums?
-Give tuna more regularly, so the mercury puts Daniel into a coma and he doesn’t yowl from 2-8 AM as often, the silly thing.
-Get more precious babies; the gene pool’s getting awfully thin in here and Gareth’s such a funny-looking thing I don’t even know what his babies would look like, if he had genitals.
-Put a knife through the heart of every last one of my gormless, furless, loveless neighbours and feed their smelly carcasses to my adorable children.
-Ask Steve to pick me up some more milk now and then.

Stephen, 2XXX
you know I sure would LOVE it if I made more pancakes


Storytime: Safer Than Sorry.

December 21st, 2016

On the three-hundredth and fifty-ninth year of the Second Regime of the Second Age of the Highly Noble Realm of Nonbec, two great and significant events occurred.
First, the census reported that the Highly Noble Realm had attained, at last, a population of one million free and fine and flourishing citizens.
Second, on the day of the grand parade to commemorate this occasion, Tigly, the Grand Marshall of Nonbec, had his pocket most audaciously picked. Were it not for the keen eyes of his Upper General at his side the thief would’ve escaped; as it was the scoundrel was apprehended after not more than a dozen paces, and after the parade she was brought before the courts to stand trial, be sentenced, and be imprisoned, in something like that order.
Tigly himself stood in witness, from behind a discreet and unobtrusive bit of panelling, for he was most surprised at the events that had unfolded.
Was this not the day that Nonbec had swollen to one million free citizens? Was not this cause for all to rejoice? Was not he, himself, Grand Marshall Tigly, the most beloved to ever hold his post? With baited breath he awaited the thief’s explanations, their rationale, their motive, their defense.
“Defend yourself,” intoned the judge, ceremony and boredom mixing into a rich porridge of indifference.
The thief remained silent.
“Defend yourself,” repeated the judge. “Defend yourself. Defend yourself!” and sixteen times more the judge repeated those words, until the prisoner was taken away with defense still unuttered.
It was a scandal. It was a wonder. It was unheard of. A criminal’s explanation could not harshen their sentence, only soften it. Lies might be spoken, but if uncovered, could not change this. It had been long centuries since a common pickpocket had been imprisoned – the fate of the despicable and uncontrollable only, now used for a mere thief.
If a doctor had been consulted, the explanation for this turn of events, unprecedented in all the years of the Second Age, might have been rendered visible: the thief was deafer than a post, and dumb to boot. But there was no doctor present, and so the Grand Marshall was left to his own bewilderment, and his own doubts.
“Tell me, my Upper General,” he asked the next morning at breakfast, “am I not loved?”
The Upper General’s face creased with downright geological thought as she consumed her first hard-boiled egg of the day; whole canyons carving themselves through her face. “More than some,” she said at last. “Less than others.”
“What?!” exclaimed Tigly. “But I have led Nonbec into the greatest flowering of free citizens ever to live? One million within our borders!”
“No one can be loved by everyone,” she said with a shrug.
“And would those who do not love me, harm me?” he asked.
The Upper General thought about this for three more eggs. “Maybe,” she decided.
“Do you know who these persons may be?”
“Maybe.”
“Would they set a pickpocket upon me, in the time when all were expressing their greatest love for me?”
“Maybe.”
The Grand Marshall fiddled with the shards of her last egg.
“Maybe. It is a wide world, and a full country. All things are possible, none unthinkable.”
The Upper General had been appointed to her post on account of her two qualities: unflinching determination in war and a ruthless commitment to absolute honesty. Many things might have been kinder, later, if she had been just slightly less scrupulous.

In the evening the Grand Marshall summoned his Head of Servitors. It felt wrong, to make the request he spoke under a full blue sky.
“There may or may not be plotters against me plotting uncertain things of unknown magnitude and unverifiable malevolence or malice,” said Tigly.
The Head of Servitors bowed. He always bowed. It was the only manner of communication permitted to the Head of Servitors, and in the nuance and flow of his bow there was much information – some of it graspable by the most unlettered farmhand, some of it interlayered meaning instructed only to the Grand Marshalls in their hidden and illuminated manuscripts. Nobody knew how the Heads of Servitors taught each other. Perhaps they had their own books, unknown even to the Grand Marshalls. Perhaps they simply got the hang of it.
The particular bow of this particular Head of Servitors relieved Tigly, who slumped happier in his chair. “Good. Please. I ask of you, find the guilty ones. Find them and halt them. Please. And do not kill them! We must know what is causing this.”

By morning there were seven trials running, whose defendants ranged from petty nobility to ostentatious nobility to a single highly disgruntled Servitor still in his blackened night-shift armour. All defended themselves in a most vigorous manner and specifically and thoroughly rebuffed the very inkling of a notion that they would ever hide and plot against the Grand Marshall in the shadows.
And Grand Marshall Tigly watched from behind his discreet and unobtrusive panelling and despaired, for in their eyes he saw the sullen embers of resentment and disgruntled tempers, and he knew that they wished him ill. By his hand he wrote, by the Head of Servitors it was carried, by the judge’s eyes it was read, and by evening all seven defendants were down in the cells. The one and only Highly Noble Prison of Nonbec was completely full, a situation that had not held sway since the Wicked Birthday of Grand Marshall Hom in the First Regime of the Second Age.
This caused many murmurs, which, like ripples, spread quicker than they look. They started in the courts and they seeped through the streets and they slid out to the very borders of Nonbec where they rebounded and reverberated backwards through the country over and over, a growing mutter and fearful fuss.
That month, as the Grand Marshall presided over the launching of Nonbec’s newest ship, voices mocked him from the crowd.
That night, as the Grand Marshall spoke to the Head of Servitors, quiet feet slipped into the city.
The next morning, as the Grand Marshall worried over his breakfast again, the cells were double-filled.
“Tell me, my Upper General,” he mumbled. “Am I not loved?”
“By some,” she said. “But fewer than before. There are rumours.”
The Grand Marshall turned paler than his omelette. “But I locked them up!” he wailed. “The Highly Noble Prison of Nonbec is double-filled! How can I fix this?”
“You can’t lock up everyone,” said the Upper General.
“No,” said the Grand Marshall miserably. “No.”
But he thought about that. And that very evening, the Head of Servitors fetched the Head of Construction, and soon the sound of fresh masonry became common throughout the palace. Nonbec Castle, like Nonbec, was growing. Downwards.

The new cells were barely built before they were overflowing. The markets in particular were rife with rumourmongers, all in the sway of the mysterious forces that spoke against the Grand Marshall. Servitors lurked there day and night, hiding in the shadows, under carts, on roofs. People hunched in the streets, eyes darting, hiding something and not sure what.
The Grand Marshall made his yearly address to the city, making much of the historical one million free citizens, of the fine new work being done in Nonbec Castle, of the fine harvest, of the orderliness of the markets. Nothing was said of the rumours.
The rumours, however, spoke for themselves. An old woman laughed at him as he finished his speech, too elderly for anything as silly as decorum.
“They will rise up!” she told him. “They will rise up together! Idiot! Dolt!”
Grand Marshall Tigly made no reply, so aloof was his dignity and majesty and also his hands were shaking. The servitors were already in motion as he quit the balcony.

Cells could not be constructed fast enough. Old chambers were repurposed. Wine cellars. Basements. Ancient nooks and crannies where foundations had slipped were hollowed and expanded. Some of the deeper rock was porous, and the caves were utilized. And overutilized.
Nonbec was growing emptier. Nonbec Castle, however, was overflowing. In its guts.
“Tell me, my Upper General,” asked Grand Marshall Tigly, “am I not loved?”
The Upper General considered this, then stood up, three eggs left uneaten. She took Tigly by his arm and led him out of the room, up to the stairs, up to the very highest room in the highest tower of Nonbec Castle, where she began to point.
“There, in the south streets, you are feared. You locked away their governing council. There, in the north ward, you are hated. You imprisoned the patron of the orphanage. There-” and she pointed beyond the walls “-in Kensilwalk, you are despised. Every mason was jailed, for not working diligently enough in your prison. There, in East Elsin, you are loathed. The doctor was taken, and his surgeon. And there, in Manymaps, there is no one there to love or hate you at all, because every single one of them is imprisoned beneath our feet.”
The Upper General then left Grand Marshall Tigly and his terror, and never again had breakfast with him. The Head of Servitors found her before noon.

The anniversary of the census arrived. One million free and fine and flourishing citizens. What more would this day bring?
The answer, as presented to Grand Marshall Tigly upon a clean wax tablet by the clean, waxen hands of the Head of Servitors, was less.
“Six hundred thousand?” he whispered. “Where have the others gone? Have they hidden them away? Have they left, betrayed us to our neighbours? Where have they gone? Where are they plotting? Unless. Unless.”
He bit his lip. He dared not ask questions of the Head of Servitors. He dared not ask questions of anyone, not since the Upper General’s answers had seared him so very badly.
But the questions asked themselves, and they asked them fiercely and unendingly and so very hotly that he would wake up sheathed in sweat and screaming.
So he ordered, and it was done.
It was not done neatly, but it was done.
It was not done quietly, but it was done.
It was not done quickly, but it was done.
It was not done easily, not at all, not even a little, not by the end.
But it was done, and in the end, Grand Marshall Tigly stood at the doorway into darkness, staring into the gaping throat of the quarry that had swallowed all that malice and resentment and spite, the Head of Servitors at his side, and he felt… better.
Almost.
“You have performed your duties admirably and fully,” he said.
And the Head of Servitors bowed most deeply. And with a little nudge of Tigly’s foot, there was one more.

The Grand Marshall woke up.
There was no sound.
There was never any sound, that was the beauty of it. No mutters. No mumbles. No rumours. No whispers.
He was alone and he was loved.
But…
He’d woken up. In the middle of the night. Alone.
And his hands were shaking again.
Grand Marshall Tigly followed the shaking of his hands with the soft slapping of his feet, all the way up they took him, high above, high above. To the tallest tower. To the highest room.
And there he looked, and everywhere he looked, everywhere he saw, he knew the answer to his question.
But his hands wouldn’t stop shaking.
He stuck them in his armpits and hissed, turning his back on that happy, empty view that did not ease his worry. No, no, no. They were all gone now. They couldn’t hurt him anymore. They were in the dark, packed together, packed under stone and crammed in crannies and gone, gone, gone, gone.
“Am I not loved?” he asked, for the first time in how long.
“No,” said the Upper General.

Grand Marshall Tigly did not want to turn around. But in some things, the mind has no say.
Three hundred thousand had gone into the cells after the Upper General, and four hundred thousand before her. Then three hundred thousand atop them all.
A million free and fine and flourishing people, packed together, down there in the dark. Growing mad, growing together.
He recognized the Upper General, he was surprised to see. Not her face, not her body – both had run together with a million others – but her geology. The thing before him was a stratigraphic nightmare, in flesh.
(Average age of Nonbec Citizen: thirty; thirty million years of history)
It was taller than his tower.
Grand Marshall Tigly opened his mouth to say something, or anything, or everything.
But for some reason, no matter how long the moment seemed to stretch, he couldn’t speak a single world.

And they rose up. From below.

The Third Age of the Highly Noble Realm of Nonbec is most easily distinguished from its predecessors by a simple metric: from that night onwards, the measurable population of the country has never altered from ‘one.’


Storytime: Once Upon a Timetable.

December 14th, 2016

Once upon a timetable, in a faraway area of operations, atop a slender, majestically expensive real estate holding, there lived a great and power CEO and Chairman of the Board who crushed their friends with an iron fist and made great peace and merriment with their enemies. In this way they were the objects of much envy and spite, which for them was the greatest of compliments and a panacea and balm to the very soul.
They were also having a baby; or, as they preferred to phrase it, ‘merging their genetic options.’
The delivery was smooth, swift, and medically spotless. The child was pasteurized, cleaned, tagged, swaddled, and delivered to his room without a moment’s pause. But as the proud parents were tidying up their suits, the doors to their room burst open. Only one employee of the company could afford to show such ill respect: it was the aged and venerable General Counsel and Secretary, for whom no thing other than analysis mattered and no thing other than poor math feared.
“Sir and Madam,” he creaked, “I bring the gravest of ill forecasts! I have consulted the auguries and forecasted the consultants, and I bring to you a spreadsheet that confirms this memo that will back up my own words: your child has a CONSCIENCE! See? It’s very small, but it’s there.”
And the CEO and Chairman of the Board hissed in great shock and alarm, but the memo and the spreadsheet both confirmed this to be true.
“This cannot possibly be a matter subject to my supervision,” said the CEO. “I am medically sociopathic.”
“As am I, as you are well aware,” said the Chairman of the Board.
“These things can happen, under ill tidings,” said the General Counsel and Secretary. “A bad budget in one’s youth, for example, can result in this. Or a childish flirtation with activism. In rare cases, even a single encounter can lead to this outcome. But fear not: I have prepared a five-point action plan.”
And the two Named Executive Officers listened to their esteemed General Counsel and Secretary and they knew his advice to be sagacious and acted upon it immediately.
First, the child was brought to the delicate, bloody fingers of the EVP, Human Resources, who severed the little conscience from his body with the utmost empathy, warmth, kindness, and people skills, despite the sheer amount of screaming involved.
Second, the little conscience was borne away, into the hinterlands of the corporation’s reach.
Third, the General Counsel and Secretary and EVP, Human Resources were unanimously fired without compensation for reasons of gross misconduct by the board and blacklisted from the industry. Wayward words puncture profit.

The child grew up to be a preteen, teen, young adult and prematurely bald in that order, possessing that most terrible and great combination of traits a Named Executive Officer could hope for: a tireless drive and an absent conscience. He was a Director by age eighteen; the new Chairman of the Board by twenty; and at the age of twenty-three he assumed a hostile takeover of the corporation and threw his parents screaming into the great unwashed, their golden parachutes in beautiful tatters.
They sparkled as they fell, and he laughed all the way home to the penthouse.
By age twenty-five he was nefarious; by age twenty-eight infamous; and on the day of his thirtieth birthday he was hailed far and wide by all and monied the most heartless and profitable CEO and Chairman in all the lands. Many were his holdings; prolific were his hidden bank accounts; feared were his double-reverse-takeovers, and for sport he would broadcast live feeds of him firing twenty employees at once in the great lobby of his palatial head offices.
Indeed, it was that very sport that was preoccupying him that fateful morning. He had just dodged a fearful plea for pity and was cutting down another ill-fated janitor when his most trusted Senior Vice President, Exploration tugged at his elbow and brought his pale flabby lips to his ears.
“Sir,” he whispered, through the wattled, mottled skin of his blotted face. “A Matter.”
And that degree of capitalization warranted interest. The CEO and Chairman nodded, eviscerated his sad opponents’ hopes and dreams with a flourish, and retired to the boardroom with his advisor, where he was shown a most alarming graph.
“As you can see, the generator surged here. To provide power to the doors. The doors that lead into the lobby that leads into the elevator that leads into the basement that leads into-”
But the CEO and Chairman was paying him no heed; his mind was whistling like a canary. He silenced the man with a hand, summoned his personal helicopter with the other, and gestured for his board of directors with his eyebrows.
“We fly to my holdings at the Buyin Tower,” he said. And they all wondered at this, for Buyin Tower was at the very backwaters of their master’s reach.
But they dared not wonder aloud, for they knew – constantly – that there had been two more of them at the years start than presently existed.

The flight to Buyin Tower was long and perilous, and many a distinguished Director lost their lunch to choppy air currents. Only the distinguished CEO and Chairman remained unphased; eyes fixed on the horizon. Yet a close examination, one that no one present dared, would have revealed a surprisingly thick film of perspiration coating his forehead and palms.
They landed at the door and ceremonially disemployed the pilot, so that no low ranking man might know this location and live. The CEO and Chairman would fly them back himself.
“From this point onwards,” he instructed his board, “do as I say, or perish.”
And they were used to this and thought it strange that he would remind them so, as if to say ‘eat regularly,’ or ‘breathe, even when asleep.’
The doors were automated, and slid smoothly apart without a hand to be lifted. A trickle of power from the building’s guts, which made the CEO and Chairman recall that awful graph. He shivered, and not from the air conditioning.
The doors shut quickly, quietly, and firmly behind them. Not quite behind them. The most senior member of the board had lagged a little, and the doors snipped off their leg with a mild chunk. Their hysterical bleats were ignored by the CEO and Chairman, and so too by his colleagues.

The elevator was huge, a great baroque monstrosity well out of place within the sleek polished glow of the lobby walls. No amount of recessed lightning could hide its ornate grotesqueness, or diminish the girth and bulk of its doors.
They all proceeded within – all quickly, this time. Just because nobody had noticed their former colleague’s pain didn’t mean they wouldn’t learn from it.
There was a slight jolt, a big bump, and a gradual drop. The elevator began to descend.
And as it descended, the silence, which until then had been regulatory, thickened. Hardened. Cemented.
A director shifted their weight from one leg to the other.
Another cleared their throat.
A third coughed far too loudly, muttered hasty apologies, and was crushed instantly under the sheer weight of awkwardness, their blood spattering as if from a mishandled gravy boat. Their nearest colleague’s pantleg was drenched, and as they pawed frantically at it, mouthing imprecations against dry-cleaning bills; they too were mushed under the weight of a thousand tons of social embarrassment.
Ding, went the doors.
And they all exited in orderly fashion, although not too slowly.

The basement was unlit. The CEO and Chairman produced a lighting app from his personal phone; the rest of the board trailed after him like a lost line of ducklings. The closest space to him was silently fought for; the illumination a greater trophy than any face time. The darkness was unhealthy here, and thick with menace.
This was no illusory fear. Hardly had they passed out of sight of the elevator when the farthest-lagging – a junior director who had been wide-eyed since the implosion of two of their colleagues – shrieked and was silent.
A minute later, another followed suit.
And finally, as the party reached the great steel door in the basement wall, they found themselves short a third. A chance sway of the CEO and Chairman’s phone as he fiddled with the lock shone over the path they had walked, and although he paid it no mind his directors could not restrain themselves from observing the frightful fates of their colleagues.
Careless janitorial supplies littered their path, so thickly that it was a wonder they had made it at all. One former board member lay bleeding in a bucket; impaled upon a mop-shaft; another sprawled in a heap of spilled containers, amidst mixed bleach and toilet bowl cleaner and chlorinated fumes. The junior director who had lagged the earliest was the most grisly sight, of what could be seen. One foot had become stuck in a dustpan, and they’d fallen head-first into the mouth of an industrial vacuum.

Three walked through the great steel door.
The second was decapitated by a carelessly swinging light fixture.
The third was dragged to the end of the room by the sheer force of his CEO and Chairman. There, atop an ordinary, innocuous desk, awaited a tiny, unremarkable folder.
“Open it,” said the CEO and Chairman, the first words he had spoken since their arrival at Buyin Tower.
Hands trembled, mouth quivering, the director did as they were bid.
Inside, there was nothing.
The director gasped in shock, picked up the folder to be sure, and was struck stone dead in an instant by the sheer razor-edged sharpness of the folder’s edges, paper cut to the very bone.
The CEO and Chairman stepped over the warm, leaking body of his final employee and picked up the folder that had been underneath the folder. He shut his eyes, held his breath, prayed to himself, and opened it.
There, pressed like a butterfly between two sheets of glass, lay his conscience. Untouched. Unrevealed. Untaken.
And so great was the CEO and Chairman’s relief, so vast his overwhelming joy, so huge the weight removed from his soul, that he laughed outright.
And as he laughed, his hands trembled.
And as his hands trembled, his smallest finger – on his left hand – brushed the very rim of the tip of the edge of his conscience.

It was only a very small conscience. But it did its best.

Three months after the shameful and horrible vanishment of their esteemed CEO and Chairman, along with the entirety of the board of directors, the SVP, Exploration was unanimously elected CEO and Chairman and Boss.
It had been the most effective graph he’d ever designed.