Archive for February, 2012

Storytime: A Fable.

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Many years ago, there was a youth. The youth asked a question of his elder, and the elder thought about it.
“I do not know the answer to your question,” he said. “But my father’s father was told a fable by his father’s father that may help you deal with it. Would you like to hear it?”
“No,” said the youth.
“Good,” said the elder, “it is called “the Mantis and the Spider.” Now you sit down right there and listen up…”

One day, far away and long ago, a mantis came across a spider in his web. This is all metaphorical, so don’t get too worried about talking animals and all of that. It’s a metaphor.
“Good day,” said the mantis.
“Guess so,” said the spider.
“How is there a doubt in your mind?” said the mantis. “The sun shines bright, without rain to trouble us. The little insects which we both feed upon are abundant and delicious. Truly, it is indeed a good day!”
“Always room for more of a bad thing in any good thing,” said the spider.
“Pessimism, pessimism,” chided the mantis. “Now tell me, what good will that attitude do you? It saps your life of joy and throws away the chance for relaxation, leaves you a nervous juddering wreck! Your nerves will be shot, your eyes will grow dim and fearful, you’ll be dead before you even have the chance to be cannibalized while mating! Put aside your weary doubts and feel the refreshment of happiness.”
“If you always expect the worst, if you’re ever surprised it’s pleasant,” said the spider. “That’s all the happiness I need and more. Why’ve you got the time to go around bossing me on how cheerful I sound, eh? Don’t you have something better to do?”
“I am fed and I am looking for a mate at present, tracking for pheromones left, right, and center. What more is there for me to do?”
“Pshaw,” said the spider. “That’s barely anything. You have too much time on your hands.”
He meant claws, okay? Some idioms don’t translate too well across species.
“Excuse me?” said the mantis.
“That’s nothing, what you’re doing. Everything can do that much, and most of us do more. Look at me, I’m a hundred times busier than you are. That’s why I don’t have the time to go popping off on how danged pretty the sunshine is this morning: I’m doing things.”
“I’m hunting and searching for a mate right this second, and most of us do no less,” said the mantis, who was now getting annoyed.
“Oh sure, you’re hunting alright,” said the spider. “The problem is that you just aren’t willing to put any real effort into it.”
The mantis bristled. It was a natural thing for it to do, being so thin and sharp. At least half of its existence was composed of automatic bristling. “No real effort? Do you have any idea how long I can stand here, in one spot, waiting for a single little tiddly piece of prey? Not a single twitch, not a jot of a snippet of an ounce of a sound, all for hours on end until prey comes. And then I wait more, and more, and more still, and only at the very moment of success, THEN do I strike. Are you telling me that all of that takes no real effort?”
“Oh, it’s effort,” said the spider. It scratched its leg with one of its other legs. “But it’s not REAL effort.”
“I beg to differ.”
“Listen, I hold still,” said the spider. “I keep close and quiet. I can do that fine. But first, I have do real work. I have to build a web, and build it strong, and build it in the right spot at the right time. Got to make sure the breeze won’t rip it, got to make sure the rain won’t spill all down it and wash me out. That’s planning, that’s real effort. Then I’ve got to get down to nuts and bolts and brother-bug, you haven’t seen effort ’till you’ve seen the effort that goes into web building. I have to plan and measure by bodylengths and spin all around ’till I’m blue in the face and red in the spinnerets. Then it’s not over, oh no it isn’t. I’ve got to repair it after every catch, and every meal’s a struggle to wrap it all up before it gets away. THAT’S real effort.”
“Real effort?” said the mantis. “Now look here! I’ve tolerated your tone thus far, but this tripe is simply too much to bear. For your information, each day I must find a good spot to hunt and eat. YOU on the other hand need simply sit atop your spinnerets – which, for your information, are not red in the slightest but are rather of more-than-ample-dimensions – and wait for your dinner to fly into your mouth. Do you think these wings are for show? Do you think that my lanky posture is that of a frame that gives way under the slightest bit of travel? May I ask, oh One of Great Effort, when was the last time you had to subdue prey that wasn’t safely entangled in your silk? Every meal I take must be earned, and I eat my food as tough as can be: bite by bite! None of this faffabout liquification followed by suckling like an infant mammal at its mater’s teat, no sir, not for me! You are a lazy sod, an indolent cob, a selfish attercop without a bite of venom in his fangs but rather poison atop his tongue for those who work harder than he dreams to survive.”
The tongue thing is just another idiom. Pay it no mind.
The spider raised himself up on his web, swollen with indignation. “Indolent cob, is it now?” he hissed, all those hairy little needles on his body rubbing on each other to make a sound like cockroach hell. “Speaks the berk who’s too stupid to mate without getting his head chomped off and taken for his lady’s lunch, that’s who’s talking to me about indolence and laziness with as many pretty words as he pleases!”
“And you’re one to speak of mates that dine on one’s own flesh, aren’t you, my little arachnid friend?” said the mantis, waving his long thin arms around in a somewhat alarming manner.
“That’s for the widows, and I’m no widow, you pompous pinhead! Give me an excuse and I’ll silk your head and have it off before your pretty little friends get a crack at it!”
“With you I won’t have the head off, oh no no no,” whispered the mantis. “You’re too small to be a serious struggle. I’ll just eat you live. Bite by bite. As is only proper.”
They sat there for a minute, tense as lightning.
An antenna twitched. A mandible tweaked.
The breeze let another carefree gust blow through the web, making it whistle at a range just barely too high-pitched for any ear on earth to hear. Startled, the two little invertebrates looked up into the sky and saw nothing above them but that big blue wildness and its moving heat.
“Well, it’s not exactly a bad day, is it?” said the spider.
“Quite nice,” said the mantis.
They looked back down, at each other. Neither was sure what to say next.
Then a very large booted foot tumbled down from the sky, the breeze playing at its dangling shoelaces, and squashed the mantis flat. As it uprooted itself for the next stride it tore a hole clean through the spider’s web, dooming him to face a lingering death of starvation some two days later.

“Is there a moral to this fable that will help answer my question?” asked the youth.
The elder snored, like a gentle breeze.
The youth wandered away, disgruntled, and thought up his own answer. Much as it had been for the previous six generations, whether or not that had been the intended result remained entirely opaque.

 

“A Fable,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2012.

Storytime: CNS 0352.

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

CNS 0352, Full Shipcrafting, Outmoon Semester. Dr. Mannemeul Cirtosh, Phd.
Week 1
Class is small this term, but enthusiastic. Word must have gotten around about the failure rate last year; just as well, to have fewer slowpokes in the hammocks. Four students, three of them all heart and soul in this, one more who’s interested and bright but might just be dabbling in the end. Stencils flying at notes all through the introductory lectures, eyes pinned to the charts, immediate, clear questions from all quarters whenever prompted. This is going to be a good one.
They all should pass, that’s a given, sure as the tides. It’s who makes the biggest splash by the end – that’s the suspense.
Students
-Mafi
-Holliburt
-Gilmer
-Slikes

Attendance’ll be easy to track this year.

Week 2
Students made a bit more of a mark this week. As I thought, the planned pace is too slow; all of them have already made preliminary blueprints and have crafted prototypes on their own time as pre-coursework. Agreed to grade them as their first assignments, next class we’ll begin drafting work on their final projects. More time can only mean higher quality.
-Mafi, she’d designed a skirmishing warship with a specially crafted hull that shaped its wake with adjustable settings in the form of all kinds of flaps and ridges. You could erase almost all trace of your passing, and in combination with a muffled engine and a low profile, you can slip through places a rowboat would be tricky with. Great in theory, a nightmare in fact. Originality’s worth a lot of points, even if the breezy math’s going to take them right back. But the detail on the armaments keeps her mark high. The lady knows weapons. If she wants a recommendation for navy work when she graduates, I’ll sign her off before she can finish the sentence.
-Holliburt had put together a novelty. A damned interesting novelty, but a novelty; a fishing boat whose sails could be converted to soak up moonlight in a dead calm. You could see where he’d thought “this would be a good idea” and then where he stopped. Good draftsmanship on the papers, a nice concept, but no follow-through, no thought put past his one idea. If anyone stops at the end of this course, it’ll be him.
-Gilmer’s father owns one of the industrial shipworks out in Motash. Shows through the freighter sketches he gave me: artsy as anything that could be dreamed up from past midnight, but built to survive a blast from God’s own broadside. Seeing all those big prefabricated tankers get hammered out all alike all day, every day, from childhood to youth, that just sets a creative mind squirrelly with thoughts on what to do different.
-Slikes’s proposal was the farthest out of mind: a ship that ran almost entirely underwater, with just the solar sails sticking above the waves, designed to be quiet, unobstrusive, discreet, and blend in with the colours around it, so nothing took it for lunch. Crazy, but thought out thorough, and the math she’s got scribbled out there in the corners has stuff I’d use a calculator for. Top marks for her.
Good stuff overall. Too many big ideas with not enough fine print, sure, but we can work on that. Build the things piece by piece, I always tell them. Piece by piece.

Week 4
More theory this week, and had all their assignments graded out before it was done. Another perk of a small classroom.
The main objective for the first session was to get their brains humming. Think about the whole ship and all of its parts, don’t tie yourself too hard to one big idea – but don’t confuse one big idea with the One Big Goal: the thing you’re making this ship to do. Keep that goal there in your eye at all times, and make sure every single thing you do reaches it. Then you’ll be alright.
Day two, all four of them have a pretty good clue of what they’re working on. Gave the go-ahead to all of them.
-Mafi’s doing a heavyweight fearbreaker. I guess she figures that if she can design whatever she can dream up, she might as well dream big. Can’t wait to see her choice in cannons for that thing, there’s going to be more guns than rivets.
-Holliburt’s going to try and run off a midweight storm skiff. Ambitious choice with a good rate of failure; must be trying to impress me. Making ships that’ll keep afloat in a bad sea is tough. Making ships that thrive in a bad sea is downright nasty.
-Gilmer has a mind to stretch himself out of his comfort zone; no tankers from him, but a roly-poly coral rover, all belly and all living space to hold a full-sized clan from grandparents down onwards. A craft made from pure practicality, but I’ve a hunch he’s going to make it pretty.
-Slikes, she was almost too busy scribbling away to even talk to me, adding between sentences. Said she was working out her idea as she went, and the endpoint could change a bit as she goes, but one thing’s for sure: it’s going to be travelling below the waterline.

Week 5
Piece by piece started up this week with the hull. Started off with information: gave them the full story of all the golden oldies, a rundown of the latest tricks that haven’t made it into catalogues yet, and encouragement to look up as much as they could.
-Mafi’s gone with a mix of old and new that both the crustiest admiral and the scrawniest techman’d approve. The hull’s good-old-fashioned triple-plated fearbreaker steel, forged through the lens of the innermost moon for that unbending tenacity that soaks up an impact and spits it back out at you; but shaped to a setup of her own design: strange wavy patterns and ripple-soft swirls that according to her should give the thing an unbeatable amount of forward momentum. Asked her about stopping, she just said “don’t.” Pithy, but I’m not so sure it’ll sell to an accountant.
-Holliburt took Mafi’s plan, but in reverse: a design not too far off the classic storm skiff, with all those outriggers and the twin hulls. But the material, now, that was new. Sharkwood, they called it; special stuff that was successfully created in a laboratory in the last decade and only fabricated non-commercially even now. Took forever to get the saws working right, took longer to get just the right size on the trees, but the natural grain on those planks lets them just slide through water without even a twitch, like the boat was greased by angels
-Gilmer’s hull is out of its norm. Round, sure. Made of living coral, it goes without saying. Bloated, a bit, if a tad sleek for something of its sort. But it’s smaller than any coral rover I’ve ever seen by about a third. He’s up to something, I can guess it, and what’s more, I trust him to make it all play out fine. Can’t wait for the interior plans.
-Slikes’s plans…well, for a minute there I’d thought she’d handed in her biology work by mistake. Long and lean, thin as an eel’s blood and sleeker than sin. But then you look closer, and it all makes a bit more sense. She’s making something that’ll travel under the surface, yes. All the way under. For that, there’ll be no wind power, no moonlens, no nothing. This girl has to solve energy problems that’ve beaten half the engineers on the planet hollow for centuries.
I talked to Odarrion, the unlucky man stuck with physics this term, about her chances. He says to just wait and see what happens. I don’t know if I trust a man with that laugh of his, but we’ll just wait and see.

Week 6
Propulsion’s turn to shine. Same routine as always: I give them the lowdown on the old, the new, and then they go out there and come back to me with the strange and beautiful. That’s the theory. Hasn’t failed us yet.
-Mafi’s moonblend-fuelled turbines are on the oversize even for a heavyweight, and there’s five instead of the standard three. She’s tripled the fuel compartment size too. A hunk of steel this big is going to take a minute or eighty to get going, but once it does, it should move faster than a cork in a cannon. And maybe as smoothly; the crew on this had better have seasoned stomachs.
-Holliburt’s going with wind power to keep the storm skiff lightweight. The sails are like the hull: just a little bit different. They’re made of the toughest lyreweeds, like the old days, but with triple the density. Only high-powered industrial equipment could set the weave that tight, and they’ll need special calibration for it. This boat sees water at all, it’ll only be in small numbers crewed by canny men: high-grade or go home. The mast is an old plynth pine, hard to come by these days, but they’d rather bend double than snap in any gale. More’s to the point, they’ll spring right back upright once that gale’s moved on.
-Gilmer’s opted for a inmoon diesel. A solid, sturdy, slow-moving thing that’ll keep going long after the rest of the ship has bloomed its last, sloughed off, and ground itself down to seafloor slime. Though with that hull he put on it, it’s going to take a while. I took a second or third look at it over the last few nights, and he’s got the coral layered with precision a master gardener would envy. Got space to grow for decades before anybody on board needs to raise a trimmer to it.
-Slikes has a, well. A thing. She gave me all the data for it, but it’s seventeen pages of pure mathematics and the citations include twenty-nine blackwater biology periodicals. Got halfway in and stopped for the night; it was accurate as best as I could see and there was something going on in there. The only recognizable part of the whole mess – and it’s a downright real mess, it’s going to fill at least half the hull of the damned thing – is a little outmoon chugger. Not the most common lensblend, but it’s got a damned powerful kick to it if you can get the finicky tweaked out of it. But Slikes’s plans are going deeper. This little engine’s just the primer for whatever’s lurking in those notes of hers.
I’d show Odarrion them, but what if he calls it off? Man doesn’t know the first thing about shipcrafting. Never could appreciate the sort of risks creativity demands. No, she deserves all the trust she can hold.

Week 7
Time we gave steering a bit of a shot. Some of these kids have put a lot of power behind these hulls of theirs, but that isn’t to say they’ll go where they point them just yet.
-The controls and mechanisms on Mafi’s fearbreaker are all normal as far as they go, up until you get to the rudder. That rudder on Mafi’s baby girl is as outsized as her engines, reinforced from the inside out to put the armoured plating to shame, and has the mechanical muscles behind it to heave against the bad edge of a tidal wave with grit to spare. At the speeds she wants that thing going at, it just might be enough to steer it. Barely.
-Holliburt’s rudder is dreadnought-quality moonblend steel. Not something you see very often in a storm skiff, heavy metals like that, but he’s got a real fine cross-hatched build on it that should keep as much of the strength as it can while shedding most of the weight. And this is one rudder that’ll never snap in any gale, let the winds blow how they want. The strength of its attachment to the hull and the tiller atop it worry me, though. Sure, the rudder won’t break until the ends of the winds, but what good does that do if it’s been shaken off the boat forty leagues back?
-Gilmer could be a lensman if he wanted, his circuitry is so fine in the details. The controls on his rover’s steering are so simple they could be operated by an untrained child, and that takes a complexity that makes your head whirl. He even put in a rough sketch of a new-age autopilot, runs off a sensor system that checks currents to estimate the depth. First-draft, that thing is already patent-worthy. This boy is going places, and if his daddy isn’t proud of him for it I’ll pay him a visit and make sure he is by the end of it.
-Slikes has no rudder. She’s got fins though.
Yep, checked again. She’s still not handing in her biology work by accident. Flonis says she’s the most enthusiastic pupil she’s ever had though, so the girl’s obviously bringing some inspiration along with her. That’s fine. We only have the moonlens and all that comes with it because Berramont Tury thought to ask herself why and how a kraken’s eye glowed so brightly under the blackest waves. The pricklemine, bane of many a warship, that only bobbed in the tides thanks to the day Varn Nurris spotted a jellyfish and wondered what would happen if you substituted concentrated electric shock for the venom, and set your sights on what rode atop the sea’s surface instead of beneath it. And of course, who could forget the coral rovers, where some bright soul in centuries past thought that the only thing that stopped a reef from being the perfect home was that you couldn’t make it float. Well, they were all made fun of in their time, and they all came out just fine. No reason Slikes isn’t sipping from the same cup as all those geniuses of time ago.
But still…fins?

Week 8.
Time to work on the guts of these beasts, get them all tuned up and worked out. We’re getting closer to the time of construction now, where we make our votes, make our choices, call up the university shipyard and tell them we’ve got our orders ready. Only so many ships can see the open sea based on a single student’s dreaming. Even when the dreamers are these four.
Damn, but I’d build them all if I could, with my own hands.
-Mafi’s edited her hull a bit more with this week’s work: it’s double thick now, especially at the front, and the bow is more like a fist than a knife-edge. “Should set the spray flying,” she said, and told me not to worry about the speed, that’s what the engines were for, she’d done all the math. And she had, and she had. It’s just the question of “why” that’s got me all interested here. Anyways, for this week’s work she’s got triple redundancies and a hell of a lot of leak controls. Crew’s going to be smaller than your standard heavyweight with that much space taken up on safeties, but she says she wouldn’t trust anybody but seasoned professionals on this thing anyways. Too strange for the fresh ones. Pretty funny to hear that coming from someone her age, but I’m not going to laugh until I hear the punchline.
-Holliburt has four or five run-of-the-mill storm skiffs inside his storm skiff. The bunkroom’s in the old sprawling Halteen style, the catch hold is more streamlined and Arbesque, and the storage compartments for line and patching are the tight-packed Nashy method. Interesting. Maybe even effective. But nothing really new, not even in the old-made-new way. Good, but not great. Sure, novelty alone won’t set your name on fire and douse you in moonlight, but neither will rehashing last century’s tricks.
-Gilmer, well, he’s been shaping this girl for months, and only now does he tip his hand and show us that she was a queen all along. Look inside that coral rover’s tubby little frame, and you wonder why it’s so small?
Detail. Everyday, ordinary, perfect detail down to the last knothole in the final plank of old ommery ashwood. He’s got every single necessity that a rover should have, but packed into half the size it should be. Even the food’s shrunk down small, with a miniature cannery to keep the storage hold packed tight and neat. Half the mechanisms in here are brand new, and the other half have had so many parts stripped out to make room that they might as well be. I changed my mind: the boy wouldn’t make a fine lensman. He’d be a jeweler the likes the world never dreamt of.
-Slikes’s baby is tight inside. A cabin over the bow, with a little class viewing port, but most of the steering information is going to be coming in through sensors, second-hand. It’s packed tight with machinery, all unrecognizable, all low-energy stuff. She said she’d make it all clear soon.
Still no idea where the power’s coming from.

Week 9
Time for the superstructure and any other gewgaws that roll up at the last second. Next week we all tip our hands, and we decide who’s getting built and who’s staying put.
-The guns on Mafi’s fearbreaker are the heaviest the lady can carry. A bit heavier than anything we’ve got currently, actually – but then again, we’ve never made a fearbreaker with muscles in it like this one. The bridge is so armour-plated it’d put a bunker to shame, and it’s slung real low in the hull. There’s a communications mast, but it can be lowered straight down into the deck to streamline the whole ship. The final touch: a pair of outriggers that can be dropped down on either side of the hull. Between those and the bow, this thing’ll lift more of a mist than a hurricane once it gets up to speed.
-Holliburt’s followed old storm skiff doctrine and kept the deck as clear and clean as possible, with a minimum of durable, tough rigging. Good solid stuff though, and the cables he’s using may be old state-of-the-art, but the synthetic coating on them to ward off any manner of moisture is brand new, and should last for decades before replacement. Beats the bi-daily application of schutz juice of the latter days, or even that weekly oiling they’ve used for the last few decades.
-Gilmer’s got four moonlenses up on deck in a tight array for open-sea recharging, all of them convertible jobs that can soak any of the three moons’ rays without too much of a hitch. Sure, they aren’t going to be the most efficient tools for any one job, but with all four doing it they’ll make sure the fuel never stops coming. The deckhouse is sprawling and takes up most of the aft, but there’s room on the bow for dozens of lines to hang laundry or air-dry catches or whatever you mind. Not an inch wasted, and many more saved.
-Just a single hatch for exit and entrance on the back of Slikes’s little experiment, along with a completely retractable antenna that can poke just up above the surface if it sidles real close to it. No exterior drag, she says. Where she’s going, nothing can afford to get damaged. Not with miles up to go to get where it can be fixed.

Week 10
It’s all over with now, the project we make a reality is laid out flat. And I’d be lying if I said it were close. There wasn’t a single really weak chart out there, but the winner was plain the moment it was laid out for us.
Mafi spelled it all out for us. The contours in the hull, the outriggers, the bow, the engines… her heavyweight will kick up a mountain of spray when it moves, making its own fog. Between that and her engines, this lady’ll come to close blows faster than anyone could count on, and once she gets there, those guns and that hide of hers will keep her safe and her enemies blasted clean. If she gets close enough, Mafi said, she even built the prow sturdy enough to take a full-on ramming at top speed. Her numbers don’t lie: the lady could punch straight through another fearbreaker. Make a hell of a racket and need one big dry-docking afterwards, but if you land the punch that ends the fight, you don’t mind too much. A frightening machine, but a damned interesting one.
Holliburt, well, he didn’t have much to say. An updating of the storm skiff to match modern times, he said. Well sure. That can be done. It has been done. You’ve got the latest model, but it’s got no personal touch to it. It’ll sell, sure. You’ve got a job on your hands here Holliburt, you’re good, you’re right on the money. But you’re no artist, and it pains me to say it so blunt. If there’s one certain no-winner here, it has to be you, pretty as you’ve made your case.
Gilmer’s design is what it is: the perfect coral rover. All of the long list of needs and wants and structural demands condensed down into the smallest package I’ve ever seen, doing the job of a ship twice its size without a moment’s stress. Here’s what you could’ve done, Holliburt: refining an old job in a new way until it shines like a kraken’s eyeball. There’s love in every line.
Slikes finally laid it all out for us: this baby of hers goes deep, yes. And it stays deep, yes, all the way down in the blackwater, where every scientist wants to go and nobody ever wants to stay. And it all works out just fine, all of the weirdness. The fins, the streamlining, the powerful lights, but it still doesn’t explain her fuel problem. Krakens surface three times a year to fill their eyes, and they have to stay up for a week – Slikes says she wants this thing to stay down for as long as it needs. Forever, if need be. And that’s where her biology and physics come into this, because Slikes has given her submarine an honest-to-god gut, from mouth to stomach to waste vents. Suction pulls prey into that razor-edged maw at the prow and pipes it into a chamber, where a sort of chemical soup kicks in. All sorts of acids in there, nasty stuff. Once the digestion’s over, all sorts of heat’s been kicked up, and that’s what keeps it cruising. Streamlined down to the last inch, a single burst of thrust and proper current use can keep it rolling onwards for weeks – and with the autopilot she’s rigged up, built on the back of the brains of softline eels, it’ll find a path through the heart of a whirlpool.
Well now, it just wasn’t even a contest after that. Build order went out this evening. Let’s see what the shipyard makes of it.

Week 11
Grades went out.
-Mafi 93%. I showed her charts to an admiral I know. He said she’s crazy. Also, he has a job for her. Well, more of a career.
-Holliburt 85%. Not half-bad. He’ll have no trouble finding a place for himself out there at all. But it might not be as a shipcrafter.
-Gilmer 94%. His father will know men who know men that want this kid. He could walk into any shipyard on the planet and use this one project as his entire resume and get put in charge of half the new product lines on the spot.
-Slikes 99%. The 1% is excessive secrecy. The 99% is all hers. They laid down the foundations for her baby this evening, and they’re going to work fast. Should be up by the end of midmoon break, and first voyage right after the fact.

Midmoon field results for CNS 0352, Full Shipcrafting, Outmoon Semester. Dr. Mannemeul Cirtosh, Phd.
All right. Now the important thing is to consider what we’ve learned here.
First: softline eels are tenacious creatures that are almost impossible to discourage, and so are their instincts.
Second: softline eels will eat anything smaller than they are, and they’re pretty generous about estimating body length.
Third: experimental systems should always be tested, then re-tested, then tested a bit more. Especially if they’re auto-piloting subsystems that are intended to edit overlying manual control. No matter how good the math turns out.
Fourth: math lies. I don’t care what your teacher told you, math is a damned liar.
Fifth: legal immunity to prosecution doesn’t do a damned thing for your professional reputation.
Sixth: perspective in kind, this was still a hell of a good field test for the effectiveness of public safety standards in the average harbour.

See? As long as you learned something, it wasn’t a waste. And I think we all learned something.
I think I’m ready for a bigger class again come inmoon semester. Failing kids is hard, but it’s a hell of a lot less work than dealing with success.

 

“CNS 0352″ copyright Jamie Proctor, 2012.

Storytime: Spare Time.

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

Now, there were some people later on who would say that it was all Simon’s fault. Which was unfair, because it clearly wasn’t. Stuff just sort of happened to him, that’s all. And the first thing that happened was his mother told him he’d better help out and shovel snow Thursday morning, before school.
“Why?” asked Simon.
“Or I’ll disown you,” said his mother.
“Okay, okay, fine,” said Simon. And he made a little note on his schedule there.
The second thing that happened was he went into school and found out that he had three extra-length exams at once on Thursday due to a last-minute rescheduling. Chemistry. Computer science. Some really complicated stuff with math in it.
“Any questions?” asked the teacher.
Simon stuck his hand up.
“Good. See you tomorrow.”
Simon made another note on his schedule, along with some other words.
The third thing that happened was that Simon’s girlfriend texted him about how they would be spending their Valentine’s Day. Which was Thursday. She had a restaurant.
“k” said Simon. And he made another note. His calendar was now full, and he went home making lists in his head over and over again.
Then the fourth thing happened. Simon walked into the house and was informed by his mother, as she juggled the laundry in one hand and the cat in the other, that he had to feed the dog dinner.
“Can’t Susan do it?” asked Simon.
“No,” said Simon’s mother. flipping the contents of each hand into separate baskets. “Don’t be dense.”
“Okay, all right,” said Simon. He made a note on his schedule as he walked to his room, then looked twice.
“Hey,” said Simon’s dad.
“Huh?”
“We’re moving the fridge tomorrow night, remember?”
“Whuh?”
“Great!” said Simon’s dad, and he gave him a friendly whack on the shoulder and went downstairs.
Simon made another note, then looked at his schedule. He thought about meals and sleep and studying and school and then he did some math. And did it again. And then he triple-checked it on his calculator.
“Well FUCK,” said Simon, and he meant it.
“Fuck in a bucket with fries,” clarified Simon. And he meant that too. Because he’d checked three times and it all added up: he was an hour short on Thursday.

Now, this was a problem. And not even the kind where the solution was “get up earlier.” No, Simon had things that had to be done at the same time as other things, things that were unskippable colliding with things that were unskippabler, immovable assignments colliding with unstoppable dates. He was as trapped and timeless as a mosquito in amber, and he could see only one way out: through the dinosaurs.
So he phoned grandpa.
“Hey grandpa,” said Simon.
“Well hello there how are you doing my how you’ve grown you look just like your mother nice weather isn’t it why back in my dad it was much nicer,” said Simon’s grandpa.
“Yeah,” said Simon.
“Good! Now that THAT’S all out of the way, what’s up?”
“I’m short an hour on Thursday,” said Simon.
“Shucks and much stronger language,” said Simon’s grandpa. “You sure?”
“Yeah.”
“You checked? Double-checked?”
“Yeah yeah.”
“Checked with a calculator?”
“Checked with a calculator.”
“Well hell.” Simon’s grandpa clucked his false teeth, juggling them idly against the tips of his lips in a way that had always made his wife poke him in the ribs. “I guess I can spare an hour or so. Not like I was planning to do much come Friday evening anyways.”
“Thanks a ton, grandpa.”
“Ah, don’t mention it. You have a good Thursday now, eh? And get some rest on Friday.”
“Got it.”
Click went Simon’s phone, and Simon felt like he had a good handle on Thursday now. Click went Simon’s grandpa’s phone, and just when he felt like he had a good handle on things ring ring it went.
“Hello?”
“Hey there, it’s Edna.”
“Well hey there Edna. What’s going on?”
“Poker night is what’s going on. Friday night is poker night, and that means time for some beer and time for some bad grease and time for you and me to play darts after the game until we’re both sick.”
Simon’s grandpa swore very loudly.
“Sorry now?”
“Aw hell Ed, I just gave away that hour to my grandkid.”
“Now why would you do that? You know those kids don’t appreciate a good hour like they should.”
“It doesn’t matter. Listen, can you cut me an hour off’ve your Sunday? I know you’re never awake in church around then anyhow.”
“Well sure I can do that now for you Gunther, don’t you worry.”
“Ah, you’re a peach.”
“Sure am. But I’m gonna have to cut into my breakfast for that. Unless…wait, it’ll be fine. Sure, take the time.”
“Thanks a bunch Ed.”
“No problems.”
Edna hung up and gave herself a few thoughts. She was going to have pancakes Sunday morning. That was worth lingering over, worth fighting for. Even if she had to call in a favour…
So she called her son-in-law.
“Hello?”
“Horace, it’s your mother.”
“Ah. Hello.”
“You listening to me Horace? You sound a bit distracted.”
Horace Sweet had his left hand slipped inside a tiger’s guts with a velvet touch as his other stroked the big cat’s velvety nose with all the tenderness of a nursing mama. The phone was wedged between his cheek and shoulder, the sheets of surface bone supporting it with such tenseness that the keys were in grave danger of snapping in.
The tiger’s eye was still dilated, despite the half-empty syringe. When this was over, he and the pharmacist were going to have words. “No, no. What is it?”
“Can you give me an hour or two?”
“Maybe. Maybe.”
“Only I need them for Sunday morning. Pretty soon rather than later, is what I’m getting at. Hey, you sure you’re not busy?”
The tiger twitched, exposing a canine for a glimmer of a second’s reflection. Horace’s stroking became a tiny bit infinitely more soothing. “No, no.”
“Mind if I just take ‘em off your hands right now then?”
Horace Sweet thought about what the next hour could contain and weighed the odds.
“Sure. Sure. No rush.”
“Awfully fine of you, Horace. You give Mary a kiss for me now, you understand?”
“Absolutely.”
Edna hung up and Horace’s next hour was mercifully over in an instant, down to the very last stitch.
“Bit rough on the knots, though,” commented his doctor.
“Couldn’t be avoided,” said Horace.
“Looks worse than it is, anyways. Get some sleep is what I recommended. Twelve hours minimum.” He caught Horace’s wince. “What is it?”
“I’m down two hours. Mother-in-law.”
“Say no more, say no more. Got a few to spare from my vacation coming up Sunday. I’ll just take them out of the snorkelling. Kids insisted on it, but it’s not really my thing anyways.”
“You’re a lifesaver.”
“My job.”
And as Horace slept that evening, as peaceful as a baby, his doctor went home and made dinner and performed a quick, expert diagnosis of a common cold on his youngest.
“Mostly in the head,” he opined.
“Icky,” said Tina.
“Yup. Just keep a bunch of kleenex at hand, take these decongestants, and all’s well.”
“What if I get water up my nose?”
“Doesn’t matter.”
“Will it feel gross?”
“Nah.”
“It’ll feel gross.”
The doctor could feel what was coming next in his marrow, superstitious bastard of a tissue that it was. “No baby, it’s not-”
“It’s gonna feel GROSSSSSSSSSS!”
And after a while it turned out that they wouldn’t be snorkelling, they’d go to the zoo. It was on the doctor’s mind anyways, after the veterinarian incident.
He liked the zoo. So he phoned up his stockbroker.
“Clarence?”
Clarence put down his ping-pong paddle and held up a finger to the heavily-armed man across the table from him. “Doctor Ramesh, man, what’s up your face tonight? Ain’t the kids gotta go to bed in a coupla minutes?”
“Five minutes ago. Probably get there in an hour.”
“I’m tellin’ you Doctor, I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a nanny who could just solve this whole issue for you right-”
“Can you get me two hours for Sunday?”
Clarence risked sucking in some air over his teeth, and managed to avoid choking on the fumes. “Tough call Doctor, tough call. You’ve got solid credit, but that’s a bit hard to shake on a nice weekend like this. I’ll have to pull some shenanigans.”
“Not up for shenanigans, Clarence?”
Clarence laughed and spun his chair around in a little circle. “Ah you got me up and down there Doctor, you got me. I’ll do it. Just expect my fee to take a little kick-over next time around, okay? You’re buying grey hairs off me by the fistful, man, and they ain’t all on my head if you know what I mean when I say what I mean.”
“Too clearly.”
“Aw you take care of yourself.”
“You too.”
Click.
Clarence let out a whistle from one lung and sigh from the other and forced the resulting crossbreed alone and friendless into the world. “Right, right,” he said. “Right!”
He looked at the man opposite him, absently tried for the fourth time to count the number of probably-legal firearms he was holding, and lost track. “So! How’d you like to diversify that portfolio a little?”
“I’m listening.”

And that was how twelve hours of April ended up being sealed inside a condom and stored in a man’s gut as he headed through customs, safe and smooth and without a hitch. It was retrieved in California, sold for a pittance on a market that had grown unexpectedly inflated, and prepared for use in prolonging pre-production on a major blockbuster, all in less than two hours.
“Looks good,” said the accountant.
“Damn straight,” said the producer.
“Where’d you get that time from?” asked the acountant.
“Um,” said the producer. He drummed his fingers on the table. He coughed nervously. He adjusted his collar. He whistled lightly and laughed nervous. Then he leaned back in his chair, gave the accountant a wink, and hurled himself through the window and into a dumpster. They caught him five months later, living in a tent under a different name on Santa Carolina, Mozambique.
In the meantime, of course, the film had gone bust. All that time sitting around had to go somewhere, and it went on auction, where, as happens with most things, a man bought it cheap and sold it dear. Some forty-five minutes later, an investment set of forty-eight hours had changed hands eleven times and was safely stowed away in the guts of a package being tended in the careful nest of Walton-Meyers insurance, Ltd.
Leasing took place. Investment. Diversification. Perhaps…loans.
And then it all ended up in the lap of Wendy Chalmers, at eleven minutes to midnight. Wendy was tired. Wendy was feeling like the suit she was wearing was worth more than she was. Wendy was sick and tired of other people’s money and other people’s time and she had just about had enough.
She looked at her keyboard. Seventy-two billion hours of other people’s time was dancing out there. A hundred thousand and twelve hours of mixed April time was on her desk, the last of a workload that had been ten times too large six Fibonacci sequences ago.
Wendy picked a random number, then picked the first stock that came up on Google.
“Hell with it,” she said as she hammered enter and turned her back on her office. “Not like it’ll make a difference.”

Ten minutes later, the clocks of half the planet ticked that last second of Wednesday off their to-do list, some really complicated stuff with math in it happened, and then they moved straight on to Friday.
Saying it twice now: it made no sense that those people said it was all Simon’s fault, because he explained everything. Stuff just happens, and it tends to happen more and more the farther it goes.
So failing him on those exams for being ‘late’ was just plain out of grounds.

 

“Spare Time,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2012.

Storytime: Some Things.

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

This is the Duke of Urr’s gauntlet.
It weighs twenty pounds and has four big spikes, one for the knuckle of each finger. The Duke of Urr has used each of these spikes five-hundred-and-twelve times each, except for the littlest one, which has been used an extra five times to pick the noses out of people’s heads.
It has the last of the Duke of Urr’s baby teeth sewn into its palm, for luck and protection.

This is the Duke of Urr’s helm.
It has a narrow slit for vision that wraps around most of its front, and you can just barely see his eyes in there when he wears it. They glisten red because of all the reflected light from the fires. His eyes are brown.
The top of it looks a bit like a crown, but beaten black without a gleam of shine. It is showy, but will not gleam in the night-time, until the fires start.

This is the Duke of Urr’s banner.
It is his three hundredth. The others caught fire and burned on the pole as he fought underneath them. They do that because he lights them as the first arrows fly, to show his enemies that he does not care if they know where he is and to fill his men with reckless courage. At the end of each battle, he plants the charred pole in the body of the enemy commander and has a new one made, with the skull of his adversary topping the shaft.
It is a red field, with a dark horse rampant. The pitch makes its borders black.

This is the Duke of Urr’s best dagger.
It is very long and very thin and it has been well oiled and carefully stored for many years. The Duke loves it very much. He has owned it since he was a young boy, when it was given to him by the big stupid man who threatened him with it. His grip was lazy, his thoughts arrogant, and his surprise paralyzing.
There is a bluntness at the blade’s tip that the Duke has never had repaired. The big stupid man’s breastplate had been nearly as well-made as the blade. But not quite.

This is the Duke of Urr’s mind.
It is a long, dark, broody thing that simmers and lays low when nothing of interest is occurring. The moment something interests it is the moment it rises up in a lather, already angry without knowing why. If it were a creature it would be fire and malice and frightfully sharp-edged.
It is quiet at the moment.

This is the Duke of Urr’s horse.
It is a large horse, a trained warhorse. It has trampled several men to death recently, but it did not particularly enjoy it or dislike it.
There is nothing much special about it.

This is the Duke of Urr’s latest conquest.
It was a small kingdom, but not a quiet one. Just another one of the little fiefs-grown-boisterous that riot and wrestle with one another that sprung up in the wild bits of the world. The castle has been plundered liberally. The king has been thrown into his moat, headless.
The peasants haven’t really gotten involved.

This is the Duke of Urr’s sword.
There is no count of how many people it has killed; its notches and nicks and chips are beyond counting, beyond polishing, beyond repair. The little groove near the mid-point marks the head of the man who granted him the title of duke. The dent on the pommel is the crushed skull of his uncle, whose blade it was before him. The wear and tear on the crossguard shows where it was used to crush a man against a wall in a hilt-to-hilt struggle and drove right through his body.
It is still very, very sharp.

This is the Duke of Urr’s arm.
It is mostly scars, and the scars have somehow become muscles. It is as thick and muscled as a blacksmith’s, though it swings the sword rather than the hammer by habit. In practice, it has swung hammers, swords, axes, knives, daggers, chairs, tables, limbs, and once a throne with the lord still sitting on it.
The first scar is from when the Duke fought with his older brother at age maybe-five. It runs from elbow to armpit.

This is the Duke of Urr’s tattoo.
It runs from the backs of his ears down to the base of his spine, curving and weaving and forcing its way through folds of muscle and rippling forests of hair and the criss-crossing-hatching of scars. Red and green and black and anger, all woven together by an old, old, old woman who said she was a witch and never spoke of any payment.
It is impossible to tell what it looks like.

This is the Duke of Urr’s latest victim.
He is a servant who yesterday was a prince, and who raised a hand – with a knife in it – to the Duke as he feigned to fill his wine cup, which was made from a skull. The skull had been inside a king’s skull the day before.
The servant’s head should not be pointing that way.

This is the Duke of Urr’s stomach.
It is full, and is currently working away at its supper. Supper contained some roast pork, and pork that maybe hadn’t been roasted as long as it should’ve been. The Duke would’ve noticed it by the smell, maybe, but assassinations, even ad-hoc ones, make him hungry enough to not be put off his meal.
There’s a lot of dead meat in that pork, but there were a few little tough living things, too.

And that is the Duke of Urr in his whole and his parts, here and now and for the last time all in one place. Because his stomach will be the somewhat uncomfortable death of him in five weeks and four days.

 

“Some Things,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2012.

Storytime: Out in the Cold.

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

An early cold sky cuddled up to the new-risen sun for warmth as Richard rose from his tiny, tattered bedroll in his tiny, tattered tent, all alone with just him and his beard.
“Here we go, here we go again,” he grumbled and fussed as he got dressed. “The same, the same as the day before, the same as it’ll be again,” he said as he ate his bannock still-hot and with the tiniest sliver of butter (such luxury!). “Ah well, ah well, oh well, here we are,” he said, and with ice axe and shovel and plenty of spirit he took himself up and walked towards his work.
Richard’s work was more square miles than he’d care to imagine and more thousands of tonnes than you could shake a tree at, and it was made almost entire of old, raw ice that was older than the concept of sin itself. Walking towards it, you could feel the air grow ancient and chill on your tongue, taste the tang of water that had almost forgotten what it was like to be a liquid. Richard was used to it by now, and thought it was the finest drink to be had in the world, once your teeth quit chattering.
But pleasure was merely a part of his experience. There was work to be done, and judging from the dark shadows in the ice, work none the sooner. Richard unslung his ice pick and took to a trot, hurrying the slippery, stony way all the way up and over to the creeping edge of the glacier, the tip of a slow-grinding ice river. It was all colours inside, if all colours were blue and white and frozen.
Also, there was something very green. Richard was particularly interested in that something that was very green. It was his job. But what he’d seen, that wasn’t the green he saw now. No, no, that wasn’t it at all. Still too deep inside to have been what caught his eye. No, no, oh there, there it was!
There it was, hanging half outside the ice and half in, made of frozen flesh and weariness and too many limbs, greener than a fern, than a gangrenous cut. One of those things that tickled that little nerve at the back of your mind, that saw something that wasn’t right, wasn’t the sort of thing you saw outside of bad dreams.
It meowed at him.
Richard gave it a cheery smile, a quick whistle, and brought down his ice pick as close to the center of what he could call its body mass as he possibly could, as hard as he could. It creaked and cried and sprayed itself all teal and vermillion across the ice, staining it sticky-warm for an instant before it freeze-dried black. A thing with claws on it (a limb? a head?) reached for nothing, twitched, and went boneless.
“Nasty, nasty,” said Richard, clicking his tongue. “Too close these days, they come too close. A bit farther and your left leg would’ve been out, and a bit farther than that and your other left leg would’ve been out, and then you could’ve tugged a bit and come out and oh my oh my would we have some troubles then, so many, so much. Yes indeed.” He shook his head, and used the blade of his space to chop the thing to pieces, a laborious, lengthy process. Burial was out of the question, of course, not with all that permafrost, so he poured a little gasoline on it from a can he kept for that very purpose, set it alight with a match, and moved on before the smell arrived.
“Too many,” he told the man he met as he came around the curve. “Too many of them nowadays. Why, I barely have time to sleep as it is, and there are at least half a hundred more due within the month. Good day to you, and a good morning! What’s your name?”
The man Richard had met blinked an unnecessary amount before replying. “Uh, Trevor.”
“Nice to meet you, it is very nice to meet you! Not so much company up here, you know? A bit lonely, very much so. Tell me, why are you here?” Richard saw no reason to stop walking as he spoke, and Trevor broke into a brief jog to catch up with the question.
“You’re here to hike, of course!” Richard answered for him.
“Yes,” said Trevor, “and,” and Richard was talking again.
“A good walk, absolutely. Without a shred of doubt the finest exercise known to man. As am I! But my walk, it is for business and pleasure both. Come, walk with me! See what I see, what I do!”
“I’m here to take some measurements,” Trevor finished, but Richard was walking faster now and soon both their lungs were too busy with that to go about talking. Besides, there was plenty to look at. Fresh, deep green pines. Rolling, rocky hills. Shining, clashing streams that leaked from the glacier’s innards all over the place. A bird made a bizarre noise somewhere.
It really was very lovely.
“Wonderful, isn’t it, it is,” said Richard after a time, slowing down to a pace that let both feet touch the ground again. “Just wonderful. A breath of air here is as good as a feast. What did you say you were here for again?”
“Measurements,” said Trevor, with some difficulty. Richard’s legs looked like driftwood coated in sheepskin, but they moved like windmill blades. “Measuring. The glacier.”
“Hmm? There was a man just up here a while ago, doing that. A man just a year or so ago I think. Yes, he was the last person here. Why are you here then? They can’t have moved all that much, can they, can they now?”
“He never came back,” said Trevor.
Richard tsk-tsked. “Terrible thing. Dangerous things up here. Treacherous, nasty place, as pretty as it is. A rock looks sound, and then whoops it slips and down you bump down down down three hundred feet of cliff face, just like that. Terrible. Oh, and speaking of which, here we are, here we go! There we are!”
‘There’ was a deep crevasse in the glacier’s side, but thin, thinner than a man no more than twenty feet in, with a brief bulge before that formed by unknowable pressures. The ice was too cold to register as such; Trevor’s palms brushed it on the way in and his fingers vanished from his nervous system’s radar for some thirty seconds before brisk rubbing could restore them.
“You see that green? You see that sheen, down there, twinkling?”
Trevor looked. “Yes.”
“Well, that’s a problem, that is, that will be. In…oh…a week. Yes, I think a week.” He produced a ragged piece of paper and added to the scribbled ink that already coated over half of it. “Yes, I’ll have to come back here in three weeks. But here” – and he jabbed at a subtly different, nearby portion of the map -”here’s where we need to be now. Just checking here, just checking. Tell me, what do you see on the north wall?”
Trevor looked at the north wall. There was something hanging loose from the ice, and he said so.
“Yes, yes, that’s how it always is. Go take a look! Go on! Come on now.”
There was no drama to it, no sudden gasp of realization, no shock. Trevor was no closer than halfway to the dangling arm before he knew what it was, and before that he had suspected. An arm was an arm was an arm, after all, even if this one was a cartoon-froggy green and had too many joints in it.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” said Richard in his ear. “They always are, before they wake up.”
Trevor looked at it. “They wake up?”
“Yes, yes, yes. Unusual, isn’t it? I understand most life isn’t very happy after it gets frozen for a hundred thousand thousand years, not at all, but they don’t seem to mind.” Richard thought it over. “Well, they don’t seem to be in that bad shape, considering. They might mind. It’s hard to put any sort of meaning to the sounds they make, you know?” He shrugged and pulled out his shovel. “Should bleed out by the time it’s through, with any luck.”
“What’s that for?” asked Trevor.
Richard gave him a quizzical look. “What now?”
“The shovel.”
“Oh.” Richard looked at it. “I’m going to cut its arm off, knock it right to pieces. Blood flow’s sluggish when they’re mostly still frozen, but it should drop before it thaws. Most efficient way about it, you know, much better, much better than coming back in a few days to deal with it that way.”
“Why would you do that?”
“I just told you!”
“No, I mean why did you kill it? You’ve got something here that, that can live through whole-body freezing and come out again still moving! And you just chop it to pieces?”
“Oh yes, yes. Got to burn it too, mind you. Just a waste if you go to all that chopping and let the pieces sit there. Do you want to know what happens, what could happen, if something fancies a nibble or a snack from one of these misplaced limb-bits? I don’t.” Richard adjusted his glasses and shouldered his shovel, jiggling it absently as he felt his way through his sentences. “See, you’re thinking of this all wrong, Trevor my friend my buddy. This isn’t a study here, this is just disease management. Preventative medicine. Amputation, if you can grasp the abstract metaphor that I’m using, which I’m using.”
“They’re animals, not microbes. What, are you afraid they’re going to just pop out of the ice and sprint for it?”
Richard gave him an annoyed look. “Okay, Trevor, my buddy, my companion of the hike, we will see. We will try it your way this time, understood, all clear?” He shrugged the ice pick off his shoulder and tossed it to Trevor. “There you go, now just chippy-chip-chip your way in, no worries. Be careful though! It’s sharper than it looks, and we don’t want to bruise the poor dear thing with its poor dear self.”
Trevor took the pick, gave him a look right back, and started at it. The pick was old and the handle was worn near through, but the ice was strangely soft and pitted around the limb and came away like rotted cheese. Bit by bit, a form was coming clear. Another leg. A torso. A head. An eye.
The eye rotated, then the head moved, and the torso heaved, and the whole thing wheeled drunkenly out of its hollow, half-coated in slime and making noises like a loose fan belt. It reeled onto its side and lay there, legs kicking at the universe in general, arms askew.
“There,” said Trevor. He dropped the pick and stretched, wincing as he clutched at his back. “Damn, that puts a real -”
The frozen thing lurched itself to all five limbs with a drunkard’s grace, all coltish limbs and whinnies. Then it hurled itself teeth-first at Richard, its mouth opening maybe twice as wide as its head. Richard yelped, swore, and went down with it in a stumbling tumble of shovel, slime, and legs as Trevor snatched up the pick again and tried to aim for someplace that wasn’t Richard. For an instant, just an instant, the rolling stopped, and he sank the pick home, sending it straight through strangely soft tissues and straight into ice.
“Don’t worry, hold back now,” came Richard’s muffled voice. “I’m here, I’m me, I’m fine. Your friend isn’t, though.”

The thing was soft and brittle simultaneously, a freeze-dried sack of organs. During the tussle, as Richard called it, its own weight had crushed its chest through the handle of the shovel , tearing something important and spilling strange bloody fluids all over Richard’s shirt.
“Don’t lick it,” he’d advised. “It tastes like tin, it does, it really does. Or maybe copper, or nickel.” He’d stared at his fingers. “Maybe I should try it again, just to see, just to test.”
He had. The results hadn’t been revealed to Trevor.
The rest of the day had been educational. Trevor had walked around the glacier taking measurements, and Richard had walked around with him pointing out areas of “future developments” and “emergency zones.” The latter he tended to immediately, with Trevor standing witness.
The ice pick, he’d learned, was usually reserved for excavation. The shovel was the execution tool, as long as too much of the target wasn’t protruding. In that case out came the pick for a one-swing kill, as clean as any of that sort of thing could be said to be.
Which wasn’t very. Richard performed the taste test twice more, just to confirm his hypothesis, but the rest just had to be scrubbed. Poorly.

“How long have you been doing this?” asked Trevor. Camp had been increased in size by one tent, one man, and a shared package of marshmallows
Richard frowned. “Not sure, not totally, not at all. A while?” He shrugged, the motion like a dog shedding water, and popped another marshmallow into his mouth. “A while. The days don’t matter, you know, it’s true. Just the process. How long ’till the glacier’s melted, eh? How long ’till it’s all gone?”
Trevor looked at his notes. “I don’t have the rest of the data all in one place, and this is going to take a lot of work, but -”
“A while?”
“A while.”
Richard nodded, his stuffed cheeks jiggling like water balloons. “I’ve been here that long, I can be here longer. They’re getting denser, you know, it’s true, it is. The deeper in you go, the thicker they lurk. Barely any at all on the outer crust, none at all, but now there’s dozens and soon there’s scores, SCORES! Maybe there’s no center to it all at all, you think?” He laughed, spraying marshmallow splinters. “Just a big ball of slime and legs and eyes and gasping mouths and grasping hands. Such a sight that’d be, it could be!” The laughter broke off in a coughing rattle as the marshmallows ventured down the wrong pipe, and the rest of the evening’s conversation trailed away as both parties lost the taste for talk and headed to bed.
Trevor woke up first, five minutes later, because he’d carefully planned that to happen. He waited there for a second, ears wide open, and only began to move when he confirmed the faint sighing gasps of Richard’s lungs working overtime to turn air into snore.
In five minute’s time he was out and walking, heading to the glacier with his flashlight on its very lowest and least obnoxious setting. In less than a minute’s time he turned that off too; the stars and moon were out in full force, each trying to outshine the other. It was a different place at night, the world up near the rim of the glacier. Quieter for sure, but oh how that quiet turned the little sounds loud.
And that was out there, out in the world, where the trees and the sky lived. Up here, over there, where Trevor stood at the mouth of that icy little gap in the glacier?
Well a tombstone’s breath would ring like the end of the world.

Deeper in was better, easier on Trevor’s nerves, more reassuring. Being surrounded by creepy, scary things is much better than having those creepy, scary things happen within spitting distance of something nice and friendly and normal.
Not that it was creepy or scary in here, it was just
dark
and quite a bit
cold
that was all that it was. Even with that one eye staring at him at the back of the cave.
A week. That was how long it’d been, hadn’t it? A week, that’s what Richard had said. And Trevor trusted Richard, which was why he was out here with Richard’s ice pick getting ready to dig free another one of the things that had just jumped on Richard’s head and tried to eat him.
Because he didn’t trust Richard, or his aimless smile, or the way his sentences repeated themselves inside themselves, as if he were trying to persuade himself. And because if he were trapped inside a wall of solid ice and saw someone who was getting ready to hit him with a ice pick, he’d damned well jump him first too, brittle bones, brittle body and all.
It took a long time, but the sun was still down when that one eye was open to the cool air and it blinked. Just like that, after how many million years, that eye blinked like it wasn’t a thing.
It took another time, but less of a long one, for the face to come free, along with most of one side. It was not a nice face. A face with too many jaws, for one thing, and not enough flesh. Its skin looked to have been mummified three times over, and a faint slime coated the ice where its body had lain.
Trevor looked at it. It looked back. Then its jaws worked, its mouth cracked open and shut with a sound like crumbling cockroaches, and it wrenched its face open wide and let out a shriek that could wake the dead in Chicago. One arm ripped its way free of the wall and jutted a single claw outwards, stretching towards something.
By the time Trevor realized it was pointing behind him, Richard had grabbed him and clubbed him to the ground and was hunched over him with his hands buried in his coat, reaching for neck.
“Now that’s not good, not nice at all,” he mumbled, breath whistling past yellowed teeth. Trevor writhed, but those arms, bone-and-nothing but they were, were surprisingly, frighteningly solid, locked into place with tendons made from steel rods.
“It’s no fun at all,” said Richard. He made a sound in his throat that had come from somewhere deeper down, somewhere that gurgled and hissed. “Not a bit. So lonely, you know, all so lonely, all shut out in the cold, because no one cared, because no one waited.” He wheezed out a sickened giggle and shook Trevor by the scruff like a puppy. “No, oh no, they all left me behind, left me out on the edges to spend all the days until the end of it all BY MYSELF and NO ONE CARED until good Marcus, sweet Marcus, my friend, my friend, my friend indeed I was a friend indeed.”
Trevor’s hands found something at the edge of their grip, and he swung it. It turned out to be the ice pick, which bounced away, split in two from the hardness of the human skull after it hit…
After it hit…
Several things made sense at once, in a way that made no sense.
“…Marcus?” asked Trevor, hauling himself up on his elbows.
Richard glared back at him as he scrambled upwards, winched up as much by knees as anything else, then he was blank where he stood, eyes open wide, shovel gripped in one mitten. And with those wide eyes and that far-off look, there he was, there was Marcus, gone for a year and missing since he walked off to do the job Trevor had done.
“Marcus?” he said. “Me? I was Marcus….” He shook his head and the shovel clenched into his fist. “No. That wasn’t me now. I’m ME now, and. And ME is RI-”
There was a crumble and a rattle and a shivering crack-crak of ice, and then the ice pick’s head and handle returned, each clutched in a claw of the thing in the wall and travelling at what felt like a thousand miles per second. Richard’s shovel came around, a rusty, broken blade, but slow, too slow, and the broken pieces of pick arrived like a hammer and chisel; first the handle, and then the blow that sent it shivering into his heart.
It went THud. Just like that. All hard at first, then meaty-soft. And then a tiny, chittering wail that rose and died away again almost before it began.

Marcus was Marcus again. All that leaked out of the hole in his chest was a green, fine powder, a busted and cracked shell of thin legs and brittle bones, a mess of ruin that matched the ruin the thing-in-the-ice had transformed its arm into when it killed Richard.
It was still sitting there, hissing softly, moaning a bit, rubbing its brokenness. And then, bit by bit, bone by bone, it lurched itself up until it was face to face with Trevor.
It blinked, which was strange to watch with five eyes. It dropped the bits of the pick.
And then it hugged him, careful and slow, making sure to avoid his bruised neck and its own injured arm.

It took two hours or so for it to seal itself back in the little ice burrow it had made. Trevor helped. And when he went back home with his measurements, he made special recommendation that the area be left alone. It could be unstable. Or something.

 

“Out in the Cold,” copyright 2012.