Archive for August, 2010

Storytime: Cleanup Duty.

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

The biohazard alarm was most inconvenient for Jeremy.  He’d just finished mopping the level 4 hall. 
Oh, the day had begun well enough.  He’d found he had a forgotten box of Cap’n Crunch stored away that wasn’t too stale; the bus ride was quiet and serene; the security guard was brisk and efficient, and above all else, professional about the cavity search; and to cap it off, that one nice-looking researcher had smiled and waved at him as he started his morning rounds.  Too good to last, it had been. 
“PROCEED IMMEDIATELY TO THE NEAREST EXIT,” blared an alarming and terse voice over every intercom in the complex.  “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.  CONTAINMENT BREACH ON LEVEL 4.  PROCEED IMMEDIATELY TO THE NEAREST EXIT.  THIS IS NOT A DRILL” and so on and so forth, an endless nagging loop ordering you to get going and get your precious organs out before some horrible mix-a-match mutant from belowdecks took a fancy to them on its impromptu holiday. 
Third time this week, too. 
Jeremy stared at his mop, still damp and virginal, ready to plunge to the next set of unclean floors and purify them with love and a hint of bleach.  He looked to the pristine, freshly-filled mop bucket, filled with heady and lethal vapours.  And he looked down the hall to the huge reinforced safety door that was even now being dented by hideously strong blows – the steel door he had lovingly and carefully polished not five minutes ago – and something happened inside his head.  Nothing snapped, not exactly.  It was more like the gentle parting of clouds that lets the sunshine in. 

It took two minutes for the misshapen thing that had probably once been some sort of test animal (a dog?  A monkey?) to break apart the door and shoulder its way into the hallway.  It blinked its bleary eyes in the red glare of the emergency lights, took one stumbling, snarling stride forwards, and then slid in four directions at once on the hastily-mopped floor.  It tried to catch itself, but only succeeded with one of its seven legs.  The sound of its jaw – and mandibles – hitting the floor was drowned out by the alarm, but the momentary pause between assurances of not-a-drill was just long enough for the sound of Jeremy’s mop handle crunching its skull to ring strangely loud.  Especially to Jeremy. 
So he stood there – astride his kill, beast vanquished, dragon slain – with his mop in hand.  And he looked into that darkened corridor the thing had come from, with its lights cracked and broken, its floor tiles torn up by the read of warped and clubbed feet, its walls coated in unpleasant bodily fluids, and he spoke his first words of the day that were not idle greeting murmurs. 
“I’m going to need a bit more,” said Jeremy. 

So Jeremy’s first stop was his supply closet.  He did some things while he was there, with some of his cleaners and his bleaches; stuff that he needed to wear his heavy-duty gas mask for, the one he used when he was cleaning out testing pens.  He also found a new and helpful use for that enormous old leaf blower he’d only pulled out of storage twice (the thing was so huge it had to be back-mounted, for goodness’ sakes). And he very, very, very carefully sharpened his mop’s hilt, which didn’t really work.  So he stuck its tip inside the garbage disposal and made do with the resulting jagged metal, at the expense of some really appalling noises.  
The whole affair took maybe twenty minutes.  By the time Jeremy got back to the door, shuffling in his full hazard suit, there were three other things hanging around it, chewing on their brother’s bits and pieces in an idle sort of way.  He wondered if they were the same species, but it was a bit difficult to tell.  The eye was drawn inexorably to the teeth and claws – such an awful lot of both – whenever it tried to focus on fine detail. 
Jeremy looked at his mop-spear.  The things looked at Jeremy.  Jeremy looked at the things.  The things looked at his mop-spear.  Then they casually stood up from where they crouched and began a slow, lurching swagger towards him, spreading out to all sides. 
Jeremy dropped his mop and pulled out his leaf blower.  The clanging ring of metal on tile brought on a quick, involuntary flinch, a little enough thing, but still there.  And that was just enough time for Jeremy to flip the switch and set his blower running, belching out the vaporous results of his combination of bleach and ammonia right into their faces. 
Results were promising, since apparently several of the openings on their faces were nostrils.  They went down choking and screeching, one so rapidly that it might’ve had two windpipes. 
Shoving the bodies into the nearest closet took time, as well as the use of many muscles Jeremy didn’t really possess.  When it was through he stretched his back, sighed, walked over to still-waiting mop bucket, and began to clean the floors again.  He had a schedule, a routine, a properly laid-out neat-and-tidy formula for his day.  And he’d had it interrupted too many times for him to once again quietly shuffle away and wait for the black helicopters to come in and set fire to whoever’s lunchbreak project had eaten a laboratory this time.  No, he was going to clean this place properly now, no cowardly, lazy backing out because of a little light fallout or chemical spill or mutagen.  And if he did it right he could handle it without any jackboots scuffing up the floors. 
Into the dark of Level 4 he walked, mop swirling and back bent. 

Some half hour later, Jeremy was starting to consider that his determination might have been misplaced.  He’d gone through five more of the things, half his supply of chlorinated gas, and, when he’d turned around to dunk the mop and met the gaze of the fifth beast from six feet away, very nearly his underwear.  And he’d only just reached the inner high-security labs, where the big multi-ton titanium door had been torn into nigh-indestructible shreds and dumped about like confetti. 
It was very annoying to sweep up. 
But now he was past that and moving on and in, further towards the cream of the intellectual crop’s ahead-of-the-curve-and-on-the-ball projects, most of which gently rolled over the cusp of sanity and into somewhere a lot more interesting. 
Usually, when Jeremy mopped here, he did it quickly because the security guards – specially trained men and women in complex and sophisticated headgear with extremely small and silvery guns – got suspicious if you lingered, and they weren’t as gentle with their cavity searches as the man out front.  He cleaned fast and hard, as perfectly as possible lest he be accused of inefficiency and shot in the foot.  But now, he had time.  Now, he had a reason to linger and keep an eye out.  And now he could see firsthand what all those complicated labs were housing. 
Lab 01 was currently being used for “Tyrannosaur Reproduction and Reconstruction,” according to the scotch-taped sheet of paper on the door. 
Lab 02, proclaimed a small and official placard on the wall next to it, was dedicated to “Sentient Woodland Development.”  Someone had slapped a small sticker depicting a marijuana leaf to it, which Jeremy dutifully removed.
Lab 03 had seventeen separate warning signs surrounding its doorway, all in extremely bright colours and with large, all-caps lettering.  Jeremy mopped by it quickly. 
Lab 04 had no sign, but its door was four times more reinforced than any of the others and was secured by eight different locking mechanisms, at least three of which didn’t use any alphabet Jeremy could recognize. 
It was at this point that he dropped in the nearby restroom to change the water in his mop bucket.  Normally he would balk at shoving the water straight down a public restroom’s toilet, but he was in a bit of a hurry.  Something growled at him from inside the last stall and he filled the entire place with gas before leaving to a backdrop of thunderous-yet-dwindling coughing. 
Something was different.  It took him past labs 05-07 (Retroactive Human Cloning, Asymmetrical Vertebrate Theory, and Bioexplosive Products) to realize exactly what that was: there were no sounds anymore.  All that made noise was the very, very familiar swish, splash, thud, and slap of his mop at work. 
No sirens. 
No distant crashes and thuds (which had mostly stayed distant, thankfully). 
No returning gunfire. 
The last one worried him the most.  Maybe the men in the black helicopters had been on a coffee break when the sirens went.  Maybe they’d be there in the next few minutes.  Maybe he was making up comforting excuses and they were having a tough time of it.  But still, the monsters fell over with a little chlorine gas.  They weren’t indestructible or anything.
Jeremy shook his head.  Floors.  What he needed to focus on was floors. 
He made it right to the door of lab 08 (Adrenaline Amplification Refining) before something extremely large shoved him to the floor from behind and attempted to remove his spine, sending the mop clattering from his hand.  Putrid breath washed over him, followed by a crunch, an explosive hiss, a yelp, and the gentle gust of something less vile but more lethal.  Jeremy spun to his feet and ran, thanking luck that he hadn’t attached the leaf blower canister too firmly.  The sounds of something thrashing and writhing that was much too large to move that quietly chased him.  Then silence again, except for the pitter-patter-thud-thud of his feet and heart. 
Then a rustle. 

Jeremy entered the very next door he came to without bothering to read it, reasoning that if it wasn’t hanging off its hinges it was probably safe.  This brought him face to face with someone else, who was not a monster.  Surprised by this, they screamed at each other. 
“Oh, it’s you,” said the scientist who had smiled and waved at him that morning.  “Thank goodness.”  He looked much more dishevelled than he had that morning. 
Jeremy’s lungs weren’t working properly, thanks to running in a full suit and gas mask while hyperventilating, and the screaming fit hadn’t helped.  So he nodded.  Well, his head lurched.  It was very similar. 
“I thought you were one of those things for a moment.  They have a nasty habit of popping up where you least expect them.”
Jeremy’s breath began to sulkily refill his lungs again, in fits and starts.  “How they.  Do it?”
“Well, for a while I thought they were using the ducts, but we had those replaced last year after the thing with the guinea pigs.”
Jeremy flinched.  He remembered that one.  It had taken weeks to clean the ceilings. 
“So, it must be the crawlspaces.  We’ve got a lot of plumbing down there, and we need it easy-access in case something carrying something nasty breaks.  So, big crawlspaces.  All it needs is one of the little bastards to open up a whole and whoopsy daisy, they all follow his trail.  Fun.”
“What are.  They?”
The scientist shrugged.  “Not entirely sure.  They were under lab 10’s jurisdiction: bioweaponry for use in guerrilla warfare.  I guess they’re supposed to track down insurgents and eat them or something?  I’m not sure.  Our work never really overlapped all that much.”
“What did you work.  On?” 
“This is lab 09: incredibly delicious fruit.”
Despite his wearing a gas mask, something of Jeremy’s expression must have leaked through. 
“Look, it’s more dangerous than it sounds, okay?  Some of this fruit is dangerously tasty.”
“Well… imagine the consequences of bioengineered fruit that is literally in every way the tastiest thing you’ve ever eaten.  It’s cheap to grow and thrives in most climates.”
“Now, imagine that you find some crippling deficiency in it that say, causes all your bone marrow to wither and dry up after five bites?”
“Does it do that?”
“Version 4.86 did.”
“How far have you gotten?”
“4.87.  We think we fixed it.”  A crashing noise from the hall made Jeremy flinch. 
“It’s all right, you know.  We’re probably the safest place we can be.”
“Well, here’s where they went first.  Right after they broke up they popped up in here, just as we were laying out batch 4.87 alpha for the test subjects.  Must’ve smelled the fruit.  So they ate all they could find and left.  I’d say they’re looking for more, and here is the one place they’re guaranteed not to find any.”
“They got all of it?”
“All of 4.87 alpha and the test subjects, yes.  But not all the fruit.  They just got the latest test batches.  Most of the rest of it is stashed back in the freezer.”
“It tasty?”
“Oh, very.  Well, I mean I suppose so.  If I’d tried it personally, I suppose I wouldn’t be in any state to tell you.”
“Would they eat it?”
“Yes, definitely, but they’ve all moved on.  I tell you, this is the last place in the building we’d find them now.  They could be anywhere.”
Jeremy thought of his broken leaf-blower-cum-chlorine-sprayer as he stared at what looked to be an industrial counter-mounted juicer.  So near, and yet so far. 
“Do you know what they liked?”
“No.  Lab 10 probably had notes on them, but I’m not going in there.”
“The big one’s still there.  Couldn’t fit through the door, poor thing, no matter how hard the others tried to help.”
“Big one?”
“Maybe you’d best see for yourself…”
The scientist was halfway out the door before he realized Jeremy wasn’t following. 
“It’s perfectly safe,” he said.  “Really.  Come on.”
“Are you sure?”
“It’s just that I don’t have the mop now, and –”
“Don’t worry.  Come on.”

Surprisingly, it was. 
The doors to lab 10 had not just been ripped off their hinges, they’d been thrown to the ground and broken into as many tiny pieces as possible.  And the doorframe looked like it’d been chewed on. 
“They were chewing on it,” explained the scientist helpfully.  “Couldn’t breach it, though.  Not enough for her.  Go on, take a peek.”
Jeremy sidled up to the doorway, spent a peculiar three seconds recalling that happy time nearly an hour ago when he really only wanted to mop something and wasn’t hanging around darkened corridors that smelled faintly of dread-inducing mucus, and peeked. 
What he saw was…well, he wasn’t sure he had the vocabulary to describe it.  Come to think of it, he wasn’t sure anyone had the vocabulary to describe it.  Or the words. 
So he said: “Oh.”  He wished he had his mop with him.  Or a fuel-air explosive. 
“Amazing, isn’t it?  I think most of them were primate-based, but whatever it is, well, that’s another story entirely.”
“Which would be?”
“Haven’t the foggiest.  Just don’t get too close.  It’s quicker with those…umm…things than it looks.”
“Wouldn’t be hard.”  The animal filling most of the room didn’t look quick.  Or mobile.  Or animate.  Jeremy had seen more lively floor stains, although considering some of the spills the labs could produce, that wasn’t saying a lot. 
“Where are the notes?” he asked. 
“See that laptop behind that, ah, fold of mass right there?”
“No, no, there – behind the bits that are sort of bone but not quite.  In the corner.”
“That’s it.”
“How do we get it?”
“We don’t.  We sit tight back in 09 and wait for the rescue.”
“Isn’t coming.”
“What?  Why?”
“Search me.  But no gunfire or anything yet.”
The scientist sighed, a blustery, overloud sound in the stifling dark.  “Damn it.  Right then, backup plan: you go in and grab it while I make very loud noises over here by smacking the wall and hollering.”
“That’ll work?”
“It should.  Go for it.”
Jeremy hesitated, then leapt forward, the first resounding smack echoing through the empty lab like a gunshot.  The results were immediate: the…central…bit of the thing in the room shifted to face it, and its body began to ripple.  Strange bits and limbs poured out towards the noise, and Jeremy fancied that it acquired a desperate edge to it. 
The laptop’s resting place was an unnerving one, lodged in the corner as it was.  Getting there required circling nearly a third of the thing’s bulk a process that took exactly too long for Jeremy’s mental calm.  He snatched at it, pulled, realized it was cemented fast, pulled harder, and ripped it loose from the countertop with a sucking sound that brought up unpleasant images from the seedier parts of the internet. 
Unfortunately, it was a loud sucking sound.  A very loud sucking sound.  Though not as loud as the unpleasant noise that lurched through his spinal column and probably qualified as some sort of growl.  Either way, it was hard for Jeremy to tell because he was running very quickly again.  Then his foot hit the outstretched bit on the floor that looked like a toenail but more like an appendix and everything became much slower.  He could count the hairs on its surface as he very slowly tipped over onto it, and the moment when his flailing free hand was clasped in another and yanked forwards was almost a bigger shock than the trip itself. 
“Got you,” said the scientist, heaving him briskly from the room.  A collection of organs being used as appendages occupied the space he’d nearly fallen on with extreme prejudice.  Just looking at them simultaneous made Jeremy feel sick and wish he had more bleach on hand.  Or maybe gasoline. 
“Mind letting go?” asked the scientist. 
Jeremy realized his knuckles were whitening to a degree not seen in living people, and released the laptop with some difficulty. 
“Back to 09?” he suggested.
“Yes.  I think I heard something a minute ago.  Not that I could be sure, with the little bit of distraction we had here.”
Jeremy wondered what sort of thing could survive eating at least half a gallon of mixed bleach and ammonia, then wished he hadn’t because his brain was giving him unhelpfully detailed pictures of the last minute and a half all over again. 

“Amazing,” said the scientist. 
Jeremy looked up from his cleaning.  He’d found an old hand brush under the sink and was taking the chance to relax a little. 
“Amazing,” repeated the scientist.
“You just said that,” pointed out Jeremy, helpfully.
“Did I?  Well, it is.  This entire project…my goodness.”  He shook his head in wonderment.  “I have to say, never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that we could be sharing office space with something so ill-thought-out, incompetent, and generally inconceivably stupid.  It makes that one project two years ago with the self-cooking farm animals look like a hobnob between Newton and Einstein.”
Jeremy thought about the delicious fruit, but said nothing.  Besides, there wasn’t enough airspace for him to squeeze into. 
“I mean, really.  Use some of the most unpredictable mutagens we have catalogued on selected primates?  Well, so far so good.  Use their half-melted genetic structures as a chance to introduce DNA from carnivores?  All right.  Collaborate with the bacterial warfare group upstairs to give them what is essentially permanent rabies?  Fine, as long as it’s not airborne.  But designing them as a guerrilla strike team/anti-guerrilla infiltrator unit and then forging psychoneurotic links between them and a prototype hivemind made of 02’s castoffs, and well, I can’t see the point one bit.”
“Well, it would’ve been so much more sensible to hook it up to some sort of control device.  Or if their mindsets are too tortured and horrifying for humans to view directly and stay sane, maybe a computer or something.  What I’m saying is that we’re dealing with a project that has suffered some seriously unnecessary over-budget expenditure.”
Jeremy didn’t quite know what to say, so he just nodded.  That seemed to work. 
“On the plus side, this makes dealing with this whole sorry mess very, very easy.”
“Well, we can just kill the controller, of course.”
“It’ll shut them down?”
“No, of course not, the whole hivemind is too poorly set-up for that.  But we can give them all damned big headaches and slow them down a lot, and hopefully that’ll stop whatever’s keeping the rescue brigade from us, eh?  I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to get the hell out of here.”
Jeremy weighed the chance of reaching the nearest supply closet with nothing but a handbroom and dustpan, and was reluctantly forced to agree.  But there was a flaw. 
“How do we kill it?”
“Remember all that spare fruit we talked about earlier?  The previous batches?”

There was a rather obvious flaw with the plan, in retrospect. 
“It has to have a mouth,” complained the scientist.  “It’s an impossibility for it not to.”
The thing in lab 10 sat there in mouthless silence.  The delicious fruit lay unnoticed at its side. 
“It doesn’t have a mouth,” pointed out Jeremy.
“Can’t be.  There’s no way for something that big that still moves under its own power to get nutrients other than eating other things!”
“Doesn’t have eyes either.  Or proper limbs, or even proper tentacles.”
“The first two aren’t as uncommon as you’d think in here, but the third, I’ll grant you.”  The scientist stared disapprovingly at the unsatisfactorily tentacley appendages in question.  “Fine.  So it won’t eat.  Now what?”
Jeremy was thinking again.  “We make it eat.”
“I’m sorry?”
Jeremy rubbed his hands thoughtfully and walked back down the quiet hall.  “I’m going,” he announced, “to get my mop.”

It was right where he’d dropped it, although something extremely large and ugly had died on top of the handle, its mouth filled with bits of leafblower hull, happily if hideously disproving whatever worries he’d had about the sounds in the dark.  At least whatever it was had some sort of recognizable anatomy, if a repulsive one.  Jeremy didn’t have to invent new nouns to describe its body, so that was an improvement over its fellow in lab 10 right away. 
The preparations took time.  There were obstacles. 
“I see what you’re planning,” said the scientist as Jeremy stopped the blender, which was truly the finest he’d ever operated, “but even liquefied, I don’t think there’s a way to get the fruit inside it.”
“A needle,” explained Jeremy, as he began to pour the gooified fruit juice into his mop. 
The scientist was the one who nodded this time.  He looked a bit too ill to open his mouth. 

The plan, in theory, was flawless.  Dash forwards, stab the beastie, run away and let the natural wonders of science propel a big fat gallon of marrow-rotting fluids directly into whatever it had that resembled something akin to a bloodstream.  Then walk out of Level 4 very slowly and dramatically and go have lunch somewhere nice with a few drinks. 
The execution was less perfect in practice.  In six ways. 
First, Jeremy’s fear of tripping again during the procedure grew so strong that he almost stubbed his toe double-checking himself on the creeping, stealthy approach to the meatier portion of the creature’s mass. 
Second, it took them thirty minutes to realize that it was dead.  In all fairness, it was a very difficult process to begin with, since it had no pulse or lungs.  As the scientist said, describing it as “alive” in the first place was stretching already.
Third, the scientist declared that it was entirely possible that it had dropped dead shortly after trying to grab Jeremy during the laptop retrieval. 
“They did keep it in a big oxygen-free tank,” he noted.  “And it might not have found the outside world conducive to its health.  The exertion of going after you earlier might just have been too much.”
“Why didn’t you mention this?”
“It was in a footnote on page 16 of the appendices.  You don’t honestly think any of us like advertising our project’s defects, do you?  We buried our marrow thing in a backup report to a subreport.”
Fourth, they were only just leaving Level 4 when the lights came back on and all the regular faculty wandered back in, most of whom were confused to their presence and willing and eager to inform Jeremy that he was not even remotely a badass. 
“Oh, it was over in an eye-blink,” assured one of the scientist’s colleagues.  “It turns out that most of the prototypes couldn’t move faster than a brisk stroll under the best of circumstances, and they prefer to eat each other rather than us.  The boys in black took them out in five minutes and we all decided, well, lockdown takes at least another hour to reset at best, why don’t we take the afternoon off?  We all went down and had a coffee in town.  Really, it was the quickest outbreak since those guinea pigs that –”
“We remember,” said the scientist, testily.  “And how’s the lab-10 team holding up?  I’d imagine that with these sorts of results, they’re in for quite a drubbing next budget meeting.”
“A drubbing?  Punishment?  Have you any idea how many applications there are for a this-easily-foilable faux-infestation of hideous abominations?  The most inept human alive could take one out, and they grow from spores, no less!  I tell you, the special effects people in Hollywood will thank us, and with their wallets to boot.  Budget?  With a bit of tweaking, this thing just became half our budget.”
Fifth, the scientist couldn’t make it for lunch. 
“It’s very sweet of you,” he said to Jeremy, “but I’m already seeing someone.  You’re nice, believe me, and if I were free I’d be on it like a shot, but I’m very much committed at the moment.”
“Besides,” he added, “there’s no way I have time to run out and get something now.  We need to redo all of batch 4.87 from notes.  Maybe go to 4.87b.  There’s some alleles we just didn’t have the time to hash out on the last one that really –” and then the conversation had ended, it just took a few more minutes and far more syllables than saying “goodbye” would have.
Sixth, Jeremy’s best mop was now sacrificed for naught, and the – expensive – replacement would be a week in the mail.  Till then he would have to use a communal mop, bummed from one of the other janitors.  A lamentable fate indeed. 

On the other hand, the security cameras had caught footage of some of his cleaning on Level 4 during the lockdown, and he’d persuaded the security staff to give him a copy.  It had hit over 1 million views online so far, and that was the sort of recognition money just couldn’t buy. 


“Cleaup Duty,” copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor.

Storytime: Neighbourly.

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

“Hey Joel.”
“What?! What!?  Back, back, back I say!  I warn you, I’m armed and…oh, it’s you.  Hello, Bernie.”
“Calm down, neighbour; you look a bit tense.  What’s that thing you’re holding there, anyways?”
“What thing?”
“That thing you were waving around just now.”
“Oh…  Hedge trimmer.”
“Never seen one with all those glowy bits before.  Or the exposed wiring.”
“It’s second-hand.  I keep meaning to repair it.”
“That so?”
“Say, what brings you over here anyways, Bernie?”
“Well, my lawn mower broke.  Was wondering if you could fix it.”
“I just fixed that thing last week!  What happened?”
“You could say your fixing it is the source of the issue.”
“Can’t be.  A simple tune-up and a change of oil was all it needed!”
“Yes, but whatever you changed the oil for leaks.  And if it touches plants, they melt.”
“Really?  Into what?”
“You’ve got me there, but it’s sort of orange.  And the blades go too fast.”
“I can scarcely see how that’s an issue.”
“It hovers, Joel.”
“Perfect!  Reduces the physical exertion required to move it.”
“It’s hovering twenty feet in the air and it’s tangled in the power lines, Joel.  If my boy hadn’t let go as fast as he did, he’d be barbequed right now.”
“Oh dear.”
“I must’ve put in the wrong battery.  I guess that explains why this thing is having trouble starting.”
“What thing?”
“Never mind.”
“Come on Joel, we’ve been neighbours for fifteen years.  My son’s asked your daughter out on four really awkward dates.  Our wives share recipes on little bitty index cards.  You can tell me.”
“Promise you won’t tell anyone?”
“My lips are sealed.”
“…it’s a doomsday machine.”
“A what now?”
“Well, it’s more like a demi-doomsday machine.”
“I’m sorry?”
“I mean, it would be a bit of a job for it to destroy a single major metropolitan city, let alone any civilizations.  I think calling it a whole-hog armageddon device would be a tad overconfident.”
“Joel, are you telling me that you have constructed a weapon of mass destruction inside your garage?”
“I’ll have you know that KRUMEK is an autonomic artificially-created entity capable of supporting independent and efficient evolving thought-processes, not some sort of ham-handed and dangerous piece of equipment!”
“Oh, that’s a reli–”
“I strapped those all over his external hull and wired them into his central cortex.  Just most of my leftovers from my postgraduate projects, anyways.”
“How dangerous is this stuff, Joel?”
“The earlier pieces are crude and unsophisticated, so they have no safeties.  The later components are mostly intellectual exercises, and I haven’t actually tested any of them yet, so they may work as planned or do something radically unexpected.”
“Remember that time I made waffles at your place?”
“Oh, right.” 
“But with less maple syrup.  I think.”
“Listen, should you really be making this sort of thing in your garage?”
“Where else?”
“Practically anywhere.  I mean, don’t you have labs for this sort of thing?”
“I don’t know what you think my salary is –”
“You work for the Pentagon, Joel.”
“– but I can tell you this: it’s not nearly enough to cover a mortgage, a college fund, my wife’s knitting habits, my scrap metal and nuclear contaminants collection, and the rental of over a hundred thousand square feet of lab space in an industrial district plus all safety permits, regulation inspections, hazardous waste storage, and security systems.”
“So instead of that, you’re using your garage.”
“It already has a padlock and there’s a drain built right into the floor.  Acceptable substitute.”
“Let’s try a different angle then: why do you need to build this thing at all?  It’s not an official project, right?”
“Definitely not.  If this were from work, hah, I’d be still trying to file reports on safety margins and possibilities of error.  No, this is a true labour of love – shining, free, dancing in the sunlight, loosed under the sky and unburdened with red tape.”
“And covered in experimental and unpredictable weaponry.”
“Same old Bernie, always the cynic.”
“So, why are you building this?”
“Well, partly it was a bit of a whim.  A flight of fancy.  I’ve had all these bits and pieces from my job building up in my garage, a whole mountain of might-have-been projects and dreams and idle fancies, and I just said, hey, why not combine them all at once?  And partly it was a bit of a money issue, because with the mortgage, and the college fund, and my wife’s knitting –”
“Yes, yes.”
“Well, and the third part was that I sort of quit work yesterday.”
“What?!  Really?!  Why?”
“Blew up my boss’s office.  It’s ‘three strikes and you’re out,’ you see, and that was the third that day.  And the fourth, fifth, and sixth all happened within about five seconds after that, so I knew I was past the plead-for-your-career point.”
“And this led to this because…?”
“Well, you know.  Some people cut luxuries, some people go bargain hunting, some people start browsing classifieds…”
“And you decide to build a big pile of weaponry?”
“A big sentient and mobile pile of weaponry.  It’s all basically the same crisis strategy operating within different paradigms of expression, you know?”
“Joel, how is this supposed to help you get money?”
“Well, it’s quite simple.  See, it’s theoretically capable of holding off a small battalion and if need be, me and the entire family can fit into the panic compartment, though it’s a bit of a tight fit.  Add in the emergency rations I’ve stashed in there and we can turn this baby into a temporary home-away-from-home-away for a few weeks, although I might need to install some sort of shower before that’s really viable, or at least a little sprinkler.”
“That’s wonderful, but why are you making a cold war-era bunker, giving it a brain, and then covering it with weapons?”
“I’m sorry?”
“It just seems excessive.  What are you going to need to shoot at?”
“Well, those are just backup.  Insurance.  Just in case.”
“In case what?”
“Well, in case they take my letter of resignation the wrong way, back at work.  I figured better to go that way than to be fired, right?”
“What’d it say?”
“I can’t remember, my ears were all ringing from the explosion, and I’d just taken a triple dose of my meds after forgetting them for most of the week, and I’d had a few energy drinks before work.  I think the energy drinks made me a bit scatterbrained.”
“Yeah, I don’t know what’s in those things.  My son drinks ‘em all the time.  Can’t be good for him.”
“My girl too.  I swear they’re going to give her something nasty when she hits her forties.”
“Damned shame, it is.”
“Too true.”
“Still, you might want to keep a better eye on your pills, too.”
“It couldn’t hurt.  But they always give me this terrible buzzing in my head.  I think much more clearly when I’m off them.”
“It’s your brain.  So, you don’t remember what was in your resignation letter?”
“Not as such.  I think I put in something about a trained seal.  It felt very important at the time.”
“Anything else?”
“The word ‘porcupine.’  Past that?  Nothing.  Wait; and I signed it in blood.”
“All that I had, since I couldn’t find my pen.  Oh damn, I bet it was in the desk drawer.  At least I got a challenge out of it – lovely calligraphy, too.  And I always liked writing in red.  We have to use black ink on all our forms, no other colours allowed – can you believe that?”
“It’s amazing how closely they try to push you around nowadays.  Just rude.”
“It is.  Anyways, KRUMEK is my backup plan if they take it the wrong way.  I’ve almost finished putting the last bits together, and I’ve got the radar on the lookout for anything suspicious.  First sign of a blip, BOOM, in we go and off we trundle to Bermuda.  Might need to hit a bank or two on the way for cash.”
“Have you considered just phoning in to work and clearing the whole matter up?”
“Can’t.  Took out all the landlines and the EMP from the seventh blast fried all the electronics across the complex, so no cell or satellite phones.  Pity too, my wife gave me this one a year or two ago.”
“It’s real pretty.”
“Isn’t it?”
“What’s that spiky bit?”
“Personal defence app, don’t touch.  It’s got a bit of a short trigger and I’m not sure if it’s completely dead yet – look, the legs twitch now and then.”
“Well, I guess you’re a bit too busy to handle my mower then.”
“Sad to say that’s probably true, Bernie.”
“It’s no problem, I’ll just shoot it down with my twelve-gauge.  Say, anything you want me to tell the feds when they interview us?”
“If you could just say I was a pretty good guy but we were kind of distant and didn’t have a lot in common, that’d be nice.  I don’t want you and yours getting into any trouble on my account.”
“It’ll be fine, Joel.”
“Maybe there’s hope for you yet.  Well, I’m just going to weld in a little extra plating and then I’ll see about that sprinkler.  If I’m lucky, I can get in at least three and a ventilation shaft or two before the choppers get here.”
“I sure hope you can.  Bermuda’s a long ways off.  I’ll leave you be now.”
“Oh, before I forget, you might want to take your family down to the basement for the next few hours – just in case.”
“Good luck, Joel.”
“Take care, Bernie.  Have a nice day, and sorry about the lawn.”
“Ah, it’ll wash out.  See you later.”


“Neighbourly,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2010. 

Storytime: Spirit-Stuff.

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Jareef was nine before his father took him out to the god’s-shrine to help with the rituals – unusually old for a shaman’s child.  It wasn’t that Qpiq thought that he wasn’t ready.  He just tended to forget. 
“Shouldn’t you bring the boy out there soon?” his mother had asked, first when he turned seven and many, many, many times thereafter.  And Qpiq had nodded and grimaced and said: “Ah, ah, you’re right, you’re right.  Next time, I will take him.” 
And then next time would come and he would forget again and come back complaining of how heavy the sacrificial bundles had been, especially in the deep snow – oh, how deep the snow was lately, don’t even get him started – and how he wished someone could help him carry them. 
“You have a son, Qpiq,” Jareef’s mother would say. 
“Oh.  Yes, that’s right,” he would reply.  “Next time, next time I will take him,” he said, and then Jareef’s mother would sigh and give up on him.  It was the central part of her pretty-happy life, she told Jareef and his younger sister, Gappa.  “Children, when your father is frustrating and he doesn’t know it, and it’s not his fault, just give up and wait for him to do something else.  He’ll get distracted.”  It was good advice, like all her advice. 
But when Jareef was nine, Qpiq remembered. 

“Now, take this bundle.  Here, take it.  Don’t let the laces come loose, or it’ll fly everywhere, and you’ll have to gather it all up again.”
Jareef complied obediently, mittened hands fumbling at tanned and intricately decorated leather, crawling over patterns with meanings that Qpiq was under high oath never to explain to anyone not sworn to the spirits.   
“What’s in it?” asked Jareef. 
“Ahhh, lots of stuff.  God-stuff, spirit-stuff.  Things they like, you know?  Bits of good-smelling bark, some nice teas, things like that.  Stuff that moves through the air.  We need that, you’ll see.  Come on.”
And so he came on.  The walk was not a long one, but it took them far.  Up from the shaman’s camp at the edge of the clearing’s treeline, up the winding, narrow path that eeled its slim self against the furrowed slope of the hill, to its almost-bald peak where the three frowning pine trees sprouted from the same spot, twisting apart and away to hold one another at arms length, embraced in needles. 
Jareef thought they disapproved of him, and shrank a little inside his coat.  Qpiq laughed. 
“Don’t worry, don’t worry.  They’re just pines.  Hoary a little, twisted and bitter from the wind, but pines.  Takes a god’s-shrine a long, long time to soak up enough sacrifices and spirit-stuff to get really awake, you know?  They’re just pines.”  He took out his flints, long and specially shaped and kept blessed by his special pouch he kept them in.  “Right.  Now you lay that bundle down there on the snow, and you start piling up that god-stuff in that little hollow right between those trees.  Then stand back and keep quiet, okay?  Don’t speak unless you’re asked to, or you could mess something up, and I want to bring Hleena back her oldest boy in one big piece.”
Jareef did as he was told while Qpiq started up his singing, a deep-chested drone that sounded as though it was coming from a much bigger man than him.  The contents of the spirit-bundle were as his father said: teas, dried herbs, a couple carvings from fragrant woods, things that “moved through the air” as they burned.  He recognized one of the carvings as his aunt Rmea’s handiwork, and wondered how much time had been put into something that was about to go up in smoke. 
His father was reaching the apex of the song, a high, ever-rising note that could make dogs go cross-eyed and cause birds to drop out of trees.  Then it stopped, hanging there in the air without a voice to sing it, and it was in that one magical moment that his father struck a spark with his flint and set the driest and most brittle of the offerings aflame. 
The fire spread so fast that Jareef flinched, roaring up and high over the little wooden carvings and consuming the leaves and packages with avid thirst, turning and flicking through strange colours and shapes.  And up into that whirling vortex, that little pyre too big for its fuel, rose the carvings, the fuel suspended in the flame. 
Ask us, they said.  Jareef’s ears hurt at the voice; it was shaped out of sounds not meant to be heard by human ears, a tool haphazardly made. 
“Well, sure,” said Qpiq.  “I’ll ask, sure.  Now, what we were wondering about… those mammoths, right, the ones we saw last week.  They’re still near here, yes?  Pretty good time to go after them, none of their spirits around them, moon’s dark so they can’t see, we haven’t upset them too badly.  Safe time for a hunt, right?”  Jareef was amazed to see his father as at-ease as ever, talking to this spirit the way he would to his neighbours. 
Yes, said the fire in the pines.  The trees were awake now, awake and whispering in the wind, adding sibilants to the voice.  You know this.  What do you really want to ask us?
“Right, right, just making conversation, don’t worry.  Now then, are there any other gods there?”
The wind rushed low and quick for a moment, then dropped away.  No, said the fire in the pines.  But it said it slowly, and it said it softly.
“Hmmm,” said Qpiq, and he pulled out his pipe and lit it.  “You don’t sound sure.  You sure?”
We know or do not know, said the fire in the pines.  We are sure.  Its voice was harsher now, and Jareef could see the wood beginning to blister and char on the offerings cradled inside its grip. 
“That’s good,” said Qpiq, and he blew smoke into the flame, changing the colours five times over before Jareef could finish blinking.  “That’s very good.  Now, about the weather… I saw five flights of the little yellow birds yesterday down by the stream, with three birds each.”
A warm spell, said the voice in the pines.  You know this, 
“Right, right.  But after the fifth, a hawk came down and ate the last, slowest bird.  Now, what do you suppose that means?”
A cold snap, said the voice in the pines.  You know this. 
“Yes, but then,” and here Qpiq’s voice grew if not sharp, then edged, “I saw that last bird let itself be caught to let the others get away.  Now, what do you suppose that means?”
The voice in the pines did not speak.  Qpiq blew more smoke, this time up into the branches. 
A choice that brings change, one way or the other, the voice said at last.
“Yes, yes, I suppose that sounds right,” said Qpiq, relaxed and smooth again.  Jareef realized he’d been holding his breath, and stopped.  “Well, that’s all changes one way or another.  I guess it’ll work itself out then, I guess.  Changes do that.”  He stretched himself out and emptied his pipe’s ashes on the fire, three clear, calm taps.  “Thank you and thank your kin, and stay warm.”
Yes, said the voice in the pines.  And then it wasn’t there any more, and the fire was dwindling pieces of charcoal no bigger than Jareef’s knuckles. 
“They like the smoke, but the ashes put them off,” said Qpiq.  He picked up the charcoal lumps and put them in a little drawstring bag.  “Best not to leave them lying around, you know?” he told Jareef.  “Can’t have leftover god-stuff.  It makes a mess in a few different ways, big, important ways if let it get out of hand.  Can’t have that.  But we can take this and use it to mark up some important things, use it for paint.  Nothing better.”
He turned to leave, then stopped.  “Oh yes.  You have a question?  You can talk now, forgot to say.”
“Why the weather?” blurted out Jareef, then felt foolish.  But his father didn’t look at him like a fool.    
“Why ask the weather?” he echoed.  “Well, I can tell the weather, you know.  Doesn’t take many symbols or signs to do that, or much of a shaman.  Anyone can do that.  But there’s weather, and then there’s weather.  All kinds of it.  Spirits can help with the other kinds, or at least getting a good warning of it.  And the more you know the spirit, the more reliable it is.  Why we keep the same one, instead of just asking new ones wherever we go.”
Jareef didn’t look at his father with new eyes, but he certainly felt that he saw something different when he turned them to him.  Something firm and immovable hiding underneath that rolling jolliness, that might not shove, but would refuse to ever be pushed.  Except by his mother, as he was reminded when they got back to the tent and she decided that they’d been up there too long for her to be comfortable.  The lecture only ended when he complained of his headache – a relic of the smoke of Qpiq’s pipe – and he went to sleep early. 

The hunt set out the next day, all the men together, Chief Yhal and Uncle Huunj and Strange Breese, the woman who hunted like the men because she could do it better than any of them, and all the rest of them.  And Jareef’s father, Qpiq, because a hunt with no shaman was like a human with no chest.  All the important bits would be there, but there wouldn’t be anything holding them together. 
They were gone three days, and then they came back.  But four of them didn’t, and one of them was Qpiq.  And all of them were quiet. 

Chief Yhal explained it the next morning, when all of the hunters had a full night’s sleep between themselves and what had happened.  A terrible accident, a chance blundering.  A mammoth had barged the wrong way in the night as they herded them this way and that towards the killing ground, and the rest of the herd had pounded after it like the world’s biggest and heaviest lemmings.  They had been too frightened to fight back, but they hadn’t needed to, not in the dark and confused night as bushes being used as cover turned into traps and roots leapt eagerly to snare and tangle feet.  Qpiq had been immovable, all right, said Uncle Huunj.  He had pushed him out of the way, but hadn’t stepped of his own accord, not fast enough.  Jareef’s mother had gotten a funny look on her face then, one that frightened him, but it passed and they hugged and cried a little.  Most of them hugged and cried a little. 
And that was why Jareef was walking up the hill by himself the next dark moon, ritual bundle lugged clumsily in both arms, wearing his old coat with new markings painted onto it hurriedly, a headfull of half-remembered scraps of rhyme, ritual, and stories he thought, he hoped his father had said were important at sometime or another.  It wasn’t too good to have a shaman that young, everyone had agreed, but he was the shaman’s oldest child, and that was just too bad.  Everyone had wished him good luck, some of them so strongly that he was quite un-reassured. 
The singing was the hard part.  He piled up all the offerings in a little heap, but the singing escaped him long and hard, his efforts fading in and out of nasal shrillness and into cracked mumblings and humming.  Finally he gave up and tried to start a spark.  That took six tries, as numbed fingers tried to flex around tools much too big for them.  The final result took him by surprise all over again, hopping back in surprise as the fires rushed upwards. 
You are not the shaman, they said. 
The words were inflectionless, as flat and strange as before, but Jareef still flinched under their meaning.  “No,” he said.  “But I have to be now.”
The shaman is dead, said the fire in the pines. 
Jareef didn’t know what to say to that, so he didn’t.  It was when he was about to start fidgeting that he realized that he had to speak next.  “I have to do this now.”
You know nothing, said the fire in the pines.  Ask us. 
“Can you teach me?”
The sound that happened next was the worst yet.  It sounded like a forest fire burning small creatures alive, drawn long and slow.  It wasn’t until after, when Jareef had time to run the entire thing through in his head, that he knew the voice in the pines was laughing. 
You will learn, it said.  And then it went out. 
His mother gave him a sympathetic look when he went home, and hugged him when he cried a little.  Then she had to go back to looking after his sister and arguing with Uncle Huunj, who kept leaving his knives lying around where she could get at them. 

By the time the next meeting-time came about, Jareef had learned a few things from his father’s old friends.  One was that you only got so many questions.  The other was that you could squeeze more out with better gifts and the proper manners, but they got vaguer and vaguer if you pushed too hard.  Yet another was the sort of questions he should be asking, because the answers were important for everyone.  The last thing he learned was a mix of herbs that his mother gave him that his father had smoked, and it made him sick for a few weeks before he got a little used to it.  He still coughed like a bone was stuck in his lungs, but he could put it off for a few minutes after his first puffs.
“It’ll help,” she told him.  And he remembered what Qpiq had done, and it made sense. 
Gappa asked if she could come, and he told her to stop bugging him.  Uncle Huunj asked if he wanted him to come, and his mother told him to stop bugging him. 
Ask me, said the voice in the pines, and so he did.  He asked it about the weather, and about where the herds would be going, and if their spirits would be strong and alert or sleepy and restless in the coming weeks. 
The voice in the pines answered, tersely but acceptingly, and it was only after the fire had gone out and Jareef was halfway down the hill that he realized that he couldn’t remember a single thing it had told him.  He was in a terrible state for the next few days until he broke down and told his mother, who told him he must not have sung the song correctly. 
“It’s protection,” she told him.  “Powerful protection.  It keeps their fingers out of your head out of your pockets.  You need to get that song right.”
She asked Uncle Huunj, who asked Chief Yhal, who sent him to Strange Beese, who, surprisingly, was not only the strongest hunter, but also the sweetest singer.  She frightened Jareef a little – well, a lot – but she was a good teacher.  He didn’t dare make a mistake, especially not with her habit of sharpening her knives and spear-tips as she sang.  “It helps concentration,” she told him, and chuckled at his big eyes.  “They can’t hurt you,” she said.  “And besides, they do no harm.  They need a person to do harm.”  He certainly concentrated awfully hard on the blades, but his mind would wander a little from the singing. 

They moved before he could try out the singing at that god’s-shrine.  That was the last time he saw those three pines on that hill, peeking down at them as they walked the trail away and into the forest.  They were glowering again, he thought. 
Heading south was nice one way: the snow fell away and the trees thickened and he didn’t have to wade through snowdrifts to reach the god’s-shrine, which was a little hollow under a big rock.  It wasn’t as far away – he could overhear the noise and talk of camp as he asked his questions – but there were thorny bushes ringing it that gave privacy and snagged at his clothing. 
The shrine was different, so naturally, the god was different.  “The stuff is the spirit,” Chief Yhal had told him.  “Different stuff, the spirit’ll be different.  Same one, though.  One spirit, many forms, many minds.”
The little hollow was filled with water, and for some time Jareef had no idea how he was supposed to light it.  He spent half an hour futilely skimming sparks across it and humming to himself before he hit upon the right of what he was meant to do.  So he gathered up the offering bundle – singing the sacred song as he did so, a proper way, using the tricks of Strange Beese – and unrolled it over the pool, and all the offerings spun out and sunk down, down, down, down.  They were different this time, small, heavy things that glimmered and shone as they spun down, shells and stones and such. 
His reflection stared back at him, and then it went all wrong.  Its eyes were either too small or almost all of its face, its skin and its clothing were too alike to tell the difference or completely unalike, and its mouth was too big, with too many teeth that were all too little. 
asK me, it said, and its voice was like the drip and tremble of water on moss, bulging, rippling, flat, unsettling. 
This time Jareef was ready – pipe lit and mind calm – and he asked all the questions properly.  It answered them, and he felt the answers settle in cautiously in his mind, letting the fingers of his memory clasp them tight.  No spirit-tricks this time. 
therE is much prey here, said the voice in the water.  feW other tribes have come this year. 
“What sort of prey?” asked Jareef. 
deeR.  mastodoN.  elK.  noW and again, bear. 
“Good,” said Jareef, and then he was out of questions he’d been told to ask.  So he went ahead and asked the question he’d kept for himself.  “How did my father die?”
murdereD, said the voice in the water.  nO more questions. 
Jareef stood there for a moment, pipe half-held in readiness to empty, thoughts mixing.  At the last minute he avoided the foolish thing and asked no more.  Instead, he tapped the pipe out, once, twice, three times.  “Thank you and thank your kin, and stay deep,” he said. 
yeS, said the voice in the water, and his reflection was normal again.  It looked very pale. 

Jareef didn’t tell his mother.  She had enough to keep herself busy with, he thought, and from how he felt, the amount of worry delivered with the news would be very large. 
What he did do, though, was ask Aunt Rmea what could kill a shaman.  She gave him a sad, pitying look and hugged him too tightly to be comfortable. 
“Anything that kills a man, little boy.  A spear.  A knife.  A stone.  Water.  Fire.  Jealousy.  Hate.  The last two are the deadliest, especially when they’re secret.”
“Who would hate my father?” asked Jareef, somewhat muffled. 
Aunt Rmea shrugged.  “Not one of us.  Qpiq didn’t get angry.  And you couldn’t stay angry at him.  And he didn’t die from that, little boy.  Mammoth got him, not man.”
That made Jareef feel a little better, and stopped that cold feeling his stomach got whenever he looked around the camp in the evening, looking at people and wondering.  But he still did wonder, and he still did watch. 
True to the spirit’s promise, there was much game at the new camp.  They stayed there long enough for two more meetings, which meant two more questions left over for Jareef to use. 
“What man murdered my father?” he asked. 
nO man, said the voice in the water.  nO more questions.  And that was that for that meeting, and Jareef cursed himself.  Then he thought of Strange Beese, and felt very stupid. 
“What person murdered my father?” he asked next time. 
nO person, said the voice in the water.  nO more questions. 
Jareef sighed.  “Thank you and thank your kin, and stay deep.”  Tap-tap-tap went the ashes, and away went the voice in the water.  And that was all for that meeting, and he cursed himself all the way back to the tent. 
That was the last time he used that god’s-shrine, and the trip to the next big camp was a long, slow slog, through valleys and over hills, stopping only to sleep, living off preserved supplies.  Jareef turned ten years old or so on the trip, and his mother gave him a small knife.  He was careful with it until he cut himself.  Then he was very careful. 
The new campsite was a good one, next to a great roaring river that seethed into a lake no more than a minute’s-walk away.  Jareef had never seen so much water since as early as he could remember, and he felt very small near it.  He thought of the voice in the water, and shuddered at how big it would’ve been if it appeared in that lake. 

The next dark moon, when the spirits of the prey would be sleepy and blind, was far away, and he had some weeks to adjust himself to his new god’s-shrine and prepare his question.  He thought of it carefully. 
The god’s-shrine was a little cave near the lake, an alcove in the rock not much deeper than a tent.  Ivy grew down over it, like a curtain, and a little hearth spoke of burned gifts, things that moved through the air. 
It took all his effort to make the song go as slow and steady as it was meant to, when everything in him was aching to hear it speak now.  He had to think careful of spirit-plucked memories to keep himself focused. 
The fire was small and dark and smoky, and the dense smoke’s voice was smokier still. 
ask, it said. 
Jareef made himself ask all the questions; of the weather, of the game, of anyone else around that might cause trouble, of every little useless detail he didn’t care about any more, and then he asked his final, big question. 
“Who murdered my father?”
And then the strange thing happened.  The voice in the smoke hesitated.  There was a gap, a space where there should’ve been the prompt, steady answer. 
a mammoth, said the voice in the smoke.  And that didn’t sound right either. 
“No,” said Jareef, speaking over the little voice in his head that was telling him what he was doing was very stupid. 
“That was what killed my father.  A mammoth can’t murder people, a mammoth isn’t a person.  It’s like a knife-blade or a spear-tip – it has no purpose on its own.  Who murdered my father?”
There was a long, slow, steaming silence.  Jareef’s knuckles started to whiten on his pipe. 
i did, said the voice in the smoke. 
Just like that, Jareef felt two things at once: soaring exhilaration at knowing, and a fast-growing dread in his gut. 
“Why?” he asked. 
he kept us close.  he kept us from wandering.  he kept us from settling.  we were chained and dragged through a hundred hundred bodies and minds, all different, all changing.  our three-pine-mind-on-fire smothered his call, pushed the mammoth. 
“How?” he asked. 
there was a way out.
“What?” he asked. 
another mind, unguarded, unprepared, opening outside to hide in and ride in and escape.  found the mammoth.  took the mammoth.  murdered the shaman. 
“Me?”  Jareef felt a twinge of a long-ago headache. 
your mind was open. 
Two more feelings: anger and guilt. 
“How do I kill you?” he asked. 
you can’t kill a spirit, said the voice in the smoke.  It wasn’t in the smoke anymore, Jareef realized with a start.  The fire had died altogether, and the air was clear.  And what was that shuffling, stumbling thud he heard from outside, on the path?
Jareef ran without thinking, which probably saved his life.  The bear’s paws swooped in low and over his head as he scurried out of the cave, rank-smelling fur scraping his coat and foul breath gushing past his head.  He saw its roar more than its body as he fled, not daring to look back, but what he had seen felt wrong, strange, broken as a reflection in ripples.  How many eyes had it had?
i see you, whispered the voice, not in smoke or fire, but on its own now, and he almost turned around right then, even as a tree lunged up at his face and he twisted desperately around it.  His flight took him off the path, staggering and stumbling into a berry-laden bush, arms and legs tangling in bounty that would’ve had him jumping for joy any other time. 
i hear you, called the voice on its own, the lumbering bear-gallop and its frothing pant growing louder in Jareef’s ears.  He tore loose one arm, tugged on the other.  His pipe was still in his hand, why was he still carrying his pipe?
i have you, growled the voice, deeper and stonier, as huge arms wrapped around his body, lifted him up in the air, turning him about.  He saw the bear’s face now, but it wasn’t.  No bear had looked like that; it was worse than the ripples.  Jareef still didn’t know how many eyes it had, or how many faces. 
The bear-god held him up high, above its head, all the way up.  Jareef was higher than the tallest men in camp, twice as high as Chief Yhal, high enough to see all the way back to the faintest hint of the tents in the campsite.  He was tipped upside down, arms flying, and it was because of this that at some point his pipe was upside down and a few ash-specks tipped out.  They lit on the bear-god’s snout and it sneezed mightily and violently, dropping Jareef to claw at its nose. 
Jareef landed heavily, face-up, staring at the bear as it rubbed its face and sneezed.  And it was just good luck that his wind came back before the bear’s did, because he knew what to do before it did.  He swatted the bear’s foot with the pipe, and great swatches of it were sprayed grey with ash.  It roared and staggered. 
“Curse you,” said Jareef, somewhere in that roar.  He swung the pipe again – surely there were not that many ashes in it, not enough to cover half the bear’s chest with one blow?  It didn’t roar this time, it screamed, a wailing that didn’t exist outside his head.  “And curse your kin,” he added, fumbling through his pocket as the bear dropped down to all fours, head-thing wobbling above him. 
“And stay in there,” he said, yanking out his mother’s birthday knife.  And with one little boy’s strength behind it that knife dove in clean as cutting through water, right up through the bear’s jaw and into its head as far as his arm could reach. 
The bear-god lurched, swayed, and fell over.  And that was when everyone came running up through the trees, wondering what all the noise was about. 

Jareef told them everything, and they believed him, of course.  Bad luck not to listen to your shaman, and besides, little boys didn’t kill cave bears. 
“What do we do now?” asked Chief Yhal.  “Ask whatever spirit comes by?  They’ll be as truthful as a treacherous breeze.  Have no spirit at all?  The other tribes will laugh at us even as they’re hunting up all our game.”
“No,” said Jareef.  “We can use this one.”
“It’s not dead?”
Jareef pointed at the bear’s head, and they saw that its eyes still glared.  “You can’t kill a spirit,” he said.  And it wasn’t dead, but it was stuck. 
So they took that skull from the bear, steaming and bloody-red.  And they took that bear’s bones, the strongest bones, and they gagged that skull’s mouth tight with them, and they blinded its great mad eyes with its own thigh-bones.  The skull was kept carefully in Jareef’s mother’s tent, and whenever they had a question, they would get together and un-blind it, and loose its tongue, and ask it what they needed.  And if it was good, they would maybe burn some offerings, like the old days.  But if it cursed them, they would laugh at it and gag it again, and Jareef’s mother would pour the ash from Qpiq’s old pipe over its bones.  It stung it like anything. 
“They’re lazy, spirits,” Jareef was told by his uncle, when he asked why this sort of thing didn’t happen all the time.  “This one must’ve been just a little too lazy, enough to choose to do something about it.  Most don’t bother.  Choices and changes.  One brings the other, right?  It chose, so it changed.  Didn’t choose the change, but it chose.” 
Jareef had left the topic at that.  He was quite happy not having to do any of the shaman’s duties – the pipe had always made his throat ache, and the offerings bundle had been very heavy – and speaking of laziness and work brought the topic a little too near for comfort. 
He did miss the singing a little, though. 



“Spirit-Stuff” copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor. 

Storytime: Please Reboot.

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

Teresa’s chair was no longer comfortable, even to slouch in; its back a mass of crumpled and ruined springs covered limply with a tattered layer of something that was probably meant to cushion once.  She slouched in it anyway from force of habit, and tried to pay attention to someone who had been promoted past her because of his shiny haircut.  His name was Geoff, and he was trying very hard to sound as though he knew what he was talking about.  It was precisely because of this that he was failing.
“Drivers up to date?”
“Ah, I’ve been told so.”
“And you’ve rebooted?” she asked.
“Uhm, yes.”
“Virus scan?”
“Fully updated, fully, ah, operational, ran the deepest and most thorough I could set it to.  Nothing.”
Teresa shifted her shoulders in a futile effort to remove a particularly rusty and pointed spring from her spinal column.  “You’ve defragmented?  Ran a disc cleanup?”
“Yes and yes.  No change.  It still crashes.  Every, uh, fifteen minutes now, instead of every fifteen hours.”
Teresa sighed, gustily and with weariness in her lungs.  “Yes, it’s hardware trouble then,” she said, knowing that even people like Geoff could be trusted to operate basic push-button maintenance, provided that the interface was brightly coloured enough.  And with the day nearly over, too.  Damn it.  “I’ll go get suited up.  You unlock the back door, will you?  And I’d better be getting overtime for this.”  Geoff said something or other that she didn’t have the heart to listen to as she left for her locker.
Teresa HATED hardware trouble.  The boots were too clunky and made her feet sore for hours.

And so it was that Teresa Lamb found herself suited up at the massive, overbuilt, heavily-locked mainframe door and ready to go repair some ass, in her least-favourite-part of her last-choice-as-a-job.  She pulled on her last bit of equipment – the bulky, smoked-lens helmet – and immediately felt it begin to go to work on whatever her chair had left undamaged in her upper back and neck.
“Ready,” she told Geoff.  If there was one consolation in this whole sorry affair, she reminded herself, it was that the air filter made her sound a little bit like Darth Vader.  Geoff was flinching when she talked and he didn’t even know why.
He nodded and unlocked the door, a two-and-a-half-minute process that involved the hesitant entering, correcting, and reentering of many codes, the removal and reapplication of several bolts, and an incredibly small and discrete key whose tiny, intricate serrations were just complicated enough to give a mathematician a week’s worth of uneasy sleeping.
At last it was done, the door swung open a crack, and Teresa stepped outside and into the mainframe, a warm sun in a cloudy sky far overhead and the jutting, crudely-angled towers of the computer’s RAM forming little stonehengettes all around her.  In the distance, the whurr-whush of enormous fan blades sounded, eternally scraping layers off the heavy blanket of heat that lay over the whole assembly like a cloud, all four fenced-off acres of it.
Somewhere in there was whatever was causing the crash.  It could be something as big as a small house or as small as a large breadbox.
“Ah, fuck,” said Teresa, and stepped forwards.  Tech support was hell.

The first place to check, of course, was the cooling fans.  If they were having trouble, the system would overheat.  The easiest to check, the most important thing to keep running, and the least likely to be the actual cause since Teresa figured that if they were actually broken the fire would’ve spread over half the state by now, everyone in the building would be dead, and some bureaucrat hundreds of miles away would be writing a very polite and terse letter to her family, giving them condolences and asking how on earth they hadn’t noticed in all these years that their daughter was mentally incapacitated.
She adjusted her headset.  “Geoff?”
“Uh, yes?”
“Would you please turn down the fans?  Just flick ‘em off and then on again, the spin’ll stop for long enough that I can get close.”
“Right.  One second…”
She didn’t hear the click-clack of the switch, but right away she felt the breeze drop away from her, leaving the mainframe warm and still, like an empty oven.
“Heading in.”
Teresa kept a close eye out as she jogged down the corridor formed by the forest of RAM obelisks, eyes leaping from one to the other like geek-monkeys, searching for any weaknesses, any obvious filth clogging them.  Nothing obvious presented itself, but then again she was only seeing a fraction of a fraction of the possible problems.  Something she deeply resented.
I am a programmer – a good programmer – and I went to tech school, she told herself as she climbed over a low-lying ridge of power cables.  I’m meant to be off writing code somewhere while eating gourmet chocolate bars over my keyboard, not running tech support for middle-management morons and having to buy a goddamned gym membership just so I can run around all day poking at bits of my company’s mainframe in a hazard suit without having a stroke.
“Uh, how are the fans?”
Teresa counted to three and reminded herself that it was cruel (and more importantly, fruitless) to yell at children.  “Not there yet.  Almost.”
“Ah, right.”
The cooling fans were impressive, Teresa had to admit.  She’d lived in buildings smaller than them, and despite the size of the blades they still zipped by with remarkable speed, with edges sharp enough to shave your armpits with.  Even now, revving up after Geoff’s momentary shut-down, they were going along at a good clip and accelerating.  She figured she had maybe a minute and a half before they were back up to full speed, and then the wind would get too strong for her to stay near.  Regulations said that the fans should be shut down at all times while anyone was in the mainframe but then you wouldn’t be able to leave the computer running while you searched for whatever was wrong, and that made diagnostics even more of a bitch.  Of course, losing limbs was scarcely any fun either, but that had only happened twice so far, and both the techs who’d suffered it hadn’t exactly been the sharpest knives in the drawer.
“Fans clear,” she reported after a quick jog around the perimeter.  “No obstructions, no dirt buildup.  Moving on to heat sink.”
The run to the sink was more pleasant.  For one, the fan was almost up to full speed again – a much-appreciated cooldown – and for another the wind gave a nice little push at her back for the entire stretch.
If the fan was imposing, the heat sink was its polar opposite: a bland truck-sized brick whose only distinguishing features were some large, flat pieces of metal that served as cooling fins.  Its sole issue was similarly mundane, a minor dust problem that faded away with a few vicious swipes of Teresa’s back-mounted vacuum.
“Nada on the heat sink.  That’s all the easy, simple bits done with,” she declared.  “I’ll hit up the processor next.”
Given that the processor was on the far side of the main batteries – which were only a few stories short of being skyscrapers, albeit rather small ones – reaching it was easier said than done.  By the time Teresa reached the processor she was out of breath, had sore feet, and had acquired a distracting habit of fantasizing Geoff being torn apart by packs of shirtless gymnasts.  She had four younger brothers and had never in her life heard so many variations on “are we there yet?”
“Right,” she said, fishing a cable out of her side pack and clipping to a small peg.  “I’m at the processor.”
In stark contrast to the batteries, the processor was easily the smallest part of the whole mainframe.  It wasn’t much bigger than a closet, provided the closet being compared belonged to a supermodel with ADHD.
“Is, uh, that the problem?”
Teresa rolled her eyes.  “Could be.  That’s what I’m finding out.”  She squatted on the dirt and pounded the peg a few inches, then attached the cable’s free end to her suit.  “Grounded.  Going to open this thing up.”
“That’s, ah, safe…right?”
“Yes,” lied Teresa, because it was shorter than “exactly as safe as everything else involved in this job” and would produce the same reaction from Geoff anyways.
She rubbed her rubberize gloves together for reassurance’s sake, gripped the incredibly bulky and palm-cuttingly sharp-edged metal handle, and yanked open the door to the processor.
When her vision faded back in again, she was lying on her back three yards away from the door, which was spitting out sparks in a few colours she was moderately certain weren’t real.  Her headset had broken down into a static yammer, and there was an unpleasant burning smell that she saw was the result of her grounding cable partially vaporizing.
“Overclocked,” she said, and was amazed that her tongue was still in her mouth, or at least something that felt like it.
The yammering faded away from her ears as she struggled to her feet, and she realized that it hadn’t been static, it was merely Geoff babbling.  “Are you okay?  What did you say?  Is the processor all right?”
Teresa staggered over to the open door and looked inside cautiously, leaning back away from the sparks.  “I’m fine, I think.  And the processor is too, but I’ll need you to go into BIOS and take it down a few zillion clock cycles.  I think one of the engineers must’ve started up a project to soup it up and dropped it before he implemented the bit that left it within safety limits.”
There was a silence.
Teresa did not sigh.  It was very difficult, even with her mouth feeling like someone had played pick-up-sticks with her filings.  “I’ll explain what BIOS is later.  Listen, the processor’s dangerous, but it’s not actually exploding, and,” – she craned her neck a little, wincing as a particularly virulent globule of electricity burst near her helmet – “it looks like it’s operating properly.  Dangerously, but properly.  We can nip it in the bud now before it blows up, but it hasn’t so far.  Not your problem.”
“Any, uh, suggestions for where to check next?”
Teresa shut the door with a series of ginger yet hateful kicks, expecting a fresh blackout at any second.  “RAM next.  Then the hard drives, then, if all else is fine… then I go to the motherboard.”  And if I have to do that, I’ll be getting time and a half at least or there’ll be hell to pay.  This job’s getting more than a little ridiculous for one tech support girl.

Checking the RAM was always tedious, but also mercifully unexciting.  Most problems with it were solved by painstakingly wading through the forest of its rows with a hammer and chisel and excavating bad obelisks, marking them for replacement.  Except for this time, because, as would happen now and again, a small pack of stray dogs had gotten in.
“I’ll uhm, send a maintenance team to check the perimeter first thing,” vowed Geoff, safe in his office.
“That’s sweet of you,” said Teresa, rocking unsteadily atop her perch of ten gigabytes of random access memory.  She aimed a kick at a snapping muzzle, and missed.  “Got anything to spare for me?”
“Just scare them off.  Uh, yell at them a bit, turn on your vacuum or something.”
Teresa could’ve pointed out that any animal willing to live inside the mainframe obviously had no issue with noise, or possibly just sworn like a sailor with a flesh wound, but decided against it.  Both would be about as much use as trying to talk the dogs around to her point of view.
No, there was another, much more cathartic backup plan.  After all, the suit was designed to be durable and protective, and she already had her hammer and chisel close at hand…
“Uh, yes?”
“Send someone out here to do janitorial work in the next few hours.  I damn well didn’t come out here to clean up, and there’s going to be a hell of a mess.  Back in a minute”
She switched off her headset.  He’d only ask more questions if he listened in.

Teresa had limped her way halfway down the last aisle of RAM before she remembered to turn her headset on again.
“Hello?  Hello?  Is that you?”
“Yes.  Sorry about that, lost track of time.”
“Everything all, ah, right?  It fixed?”
“Yes and no.”
This time Teresa couldn’t stop the sigh, but Geoff was too agitated to hear it.  “Yes, everything’s fine.  My leg is sore, but everything is fine.  And no, it isn’t fixed because everything’s fine.  All the RAM’s as fresh as a field of daisies.  Our issue isn’t here.”
“And when you send that janitor –“
“What janitor?”
Teresa counted to five, and wiped her hammer off again while she was at it.  “The one I asked for.  Tell him to pack the extra-heavy-duty stuff.”
“Right, right.”
A bruised leg really wasn’t all that bad, all things considered.  The dogs hadn’t quite known what to do with her after she’d slipped on the way down and landed on the biggest one’s head.  Not the way she’d wanted to start, but she couldn’t argue with results.

“So, uh, how’re the hard drives?”
Teresa pulled the goggles off, restoring the more familiar, smokey-lens view of her helmet as the night-vision faded away.  “Fine.  No scratches, spinning smoothly, dust-free – well, even more so now that I’ve given them a go-over – and again, cooled properly.”  She hauled herself out of the maintenance hatch and to her feet, feeling the blood rush back into her body from her head and her hair grudgingly reflatten itself to her scalp.  The hatch clanged most satisfyingly as she kicked it shut and sealed it.
“Should you, ah, double-check?”
Teresa looked down the side of the drives, some fifty feet below, and felt her leg start to ache again.  That cramp halfway up had been a better stimulant than forty cups of coffee.  “No, I’m pretty sure.”
“How sure?”
She waited, just to see if he’d notice.  Nothing happened.  “Absolutely,” she said, and wished that a dog she’d somehow missed would turn up.  She needed an outlet.
“To the, uh, motherboard then?”
The ladder looked longer by the second.  “I thought you’d never ask.”

The motherboard was different.  For one thing, it was underground, accessible only via a crawlspace with a foot and a half of headroom.  For another, it covered the full four acres of the mainframe. For a third, it was, in Teresa’s opinion, designed personally by Satan, who had decreed that no lights be permitted to prevent excess heat and that only the bulkiest, most awkward suits possible be given to technical support staff when they went into it.  And yet the job description hadn’t mentioned claustrophobia being an issue.
“Nothing,” she said into the headset at long, long, very long last, staring down at the intricate, waist-thick circuits beneath her, underneath the mesh grid she lay stomach-down upon.  “Absolutely nothing.  Zilch.  Nada.  The closest thing to a problem I found was an empty chip bag someone else must’ve dropped.”  I’d love to meet the guy casual enough to take off his helmet and have a snack down here. “There are literally no other.  The place is fine.  There is no problem.”
A conspicuously empty silence was her reply.
More of the same answered her, swiftly and surely.
Teresa started counting and crawling.  By the time she reached the manhole out of the motherboard’s crawlspace she had reached four hundred and eleven.  By the time she hauled herself out into the warm but fast-moving air of the mainframe’s above-ground portion, she counted four hundred and twenty-nine.  Then she stopped counting and started screaming, mixed with swearing.

Stomping and frenzied profanity accompanied Teresa all the way back to the lockers, where the slow, laborious, glorious process of removing the safety suit calmed her again.  Fine.  She’d go and enter her hours onto Geoff’s terminal.  Claim it was automated or something, he’d never know the difference.  He wouldn’t cheat her out of this, damnit.
She flicked on the computer, and nothing happened.
Teresa gave it a long, slow look that you could flash-fry a marshmallow with, and pressed power again.
Carefully, calmly, and with as much care as she could manage, Teresa moved Geoff’s big, useless, expensive desk a foot to one side and examined his terminal’s power cable.
It was half-unplugged.  Part of the cord was caught on a broken, discarded stapler wedged between the desk and the wall.
Teresa sat in the big, comfy, cushioned chair and thought for a while.  Then she did some things.  Then she went home and slept like a dropped brick.

She came in half an hour late for work the next day, and was unsurprised to find that no one had noticed.  Half the office was up gossiping and the other half was working furiously.
“Haven’t heard?” said Graham, one desk over, when she oh-so-politely asked what was going on.  “Some middle-management idiot was downloading porn and picked up a whole pack of viruses.  Half the system’s on a knife’s edge now, and the only thing changing for him if it goes down is whether or not they sue him on the way out the door.”
“Full work week then,” sighed Teresa.
“Hey, at least it’s not hardware.”
“No,” she agreed.  “It isn’t.”

“Please Reboot,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2010.