Archive for May, 2012

Storytime: Cheap, Slightly Worshipped.

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Dawn crawled over the walls of the great brick-and-mortarless city of Gar, trying to take it by surprise. And for the most part it did – not a bird peeped in its gilded cage, not a baby cried, not a beggar woke up screaming about bats in an alley. But no success is total, and so the conquering rays of the sunrise touched themselves upon movement in the least-fashionable corner of the great bazaar of Gar, where a man was wrestling an enormous tarp with fists and good-natured swearing into a shape that could be called tent-like. After some time, he succeeded, and added a sign to the top of the heap, crudely scrawled on in cuneiform script.
Saidot the priest, formerly-owned gods, lightly used, cheap and effective. It wasn’t really strictly true, but that was pretty good for an advertisement, and Saidot only felt the faintest quivers of anguish in his conscience when he looked at it. He sat down, brewed a suspicious murky sludge that could be passed off as tea so he’d have something to avoid drinking, and waited, surrounded by his wares.
Soon enough, a poor child came by.
“Hello there,” said Saidot.
The child picked its nose at him. “Whassin the pots?” it asked in that wheedling tone used by its kind whenever something puzzled them.
“Gods,” said Saidot. “All kinds. I’ve got big gods, small gods, thin gods, and fat gods. I’ve got lightly used rain-gods, and I’ve got some good worn-in hearth-gods, and I’ve got fresh-as-new earth gods. I’ve got nigh-omnipotence and almost seven-tenths of an entire pantheon. So tell me, small, strange child, do you want a god?”
The child considered this. “Is there a god of poopies?” it asked.
“Shabbling Dingman, the lord of the refuse,” said Saidot. He picked up a dusty and neglected urn, stoppered and sealed five times over with some mysteriously green stains mottling its crack-curved surface. “He reigned over the sewer-pits of Makmori for decades! Only five-“
The child took the urn and left at a run without paying. Saidot shrugged. Free advertising was free advertising, and it wasn’t like he’d been able to get rid of that particular product for a decade.
The city was waking up now; creaks and moans and grunts and the dusty, rambling sound of thousands of sandals waddling out into the streets while their owner’s feet are still mostly abed. Saidot rolled up his sleeves, cleared his throat, and began his spiel.
“Gods! Miracles! Wonders-in-a-jar! Used gods for sale here, lightly owned, lovingly worshipped, set aside only with the greatest of reluctance and available to an eager owner HERE! I have tall gods, short gods, long gods and stubby gods! Buy them, take them home, and worship like you’ve never worshipped before! You sir, you look like you could use a prayer, why not go straight to the source?”
The man who’d inadvertently made eye contact with Saidot tried to back away, but the priest had already shoved a cup of murky quasi-tea into his hand and social discomfort had latched its iron hooks deep into his soul, tethering him to the booth with polite hopelessness.
“Now what’ll it be, sir? A good round-the-home god, to help bless those corners clean? Perhaps a workplace god, to strengthen your hammer and chisel, to knot the ties that bind? Or, ahem,” and here Saidot managed to turn nothing more than the clearing of mucus from his windpipe into a leer, “something of a more intimate nature, for the married man? Bana Ripu was worshipped in Teelo for one hundred years, until they ran out of logs sufficiently sized to construct the ah, prize attribute of his altars.”
“NicetomeetyoulovelydaypityI’vegottogonow,” said the man, politely dropping his cup on the counter, which it fell through. “Oh! Sorry!”
“No harm done,” said Saidot, peering through the rift in the cloth. “It landed on Old Yellow Legs.” He heaved a misshapen, five-times-repaired urn onto the counter, freshly coated in maybe-tea. “He’s seen worse, he has – when you’re the god of faux pas, one grows accustomed to such missteps in your person. Poor old thing,” he said, shaking his head mournfully. “It was a chore to find a proper home for you already; how will I find you a worshipper with tea-stains? Ah poor, poor old thing. I will try harder next time, and scrub you clean, however many hours it’ll take.”
A silence ensued, and the man knew it was over before it had even begun. “I’ll take him,” he said, and sagged in defeat.
“Excellent choice sir! Shall I wrap him for you?”
“No, no, no,” said the man, and looked at the urn again. “Yes, yes, yes. Please.”
“Thank you, and be sure to come again.”
The sun was high in the noon sky now, bright yellow on cool and blue. The great bazaar was full to the point of completely overflowing, as was normal, and Saidot’s calls took on an almost melodic rhythm in an effort to be audible over the crowd.
“Gods! Gods! Gods! All the gods the world could need and more! Gods that can fit in your pocket, gods that could crush the palace of a king with their littlest finger! A god for every man, a goddess for every woman, an imp for every child and a devil to chase the vermin from your door! Found across the world, brought to this stall, and taken home by YOU!”
“YOU!” agreed a man.
“Yes indeed!” said Saidot, and examined his newest acquaintance. He was a tall man grown bent and bearded – no, too formal, grown maned – and he was wearing a decimated cloth sack and an alarmed expression. He was patently a beggar and probably mad, but Saidot had been both in the past and bore him no ill will for such things.
“Greetings, sir of the streets! Would you like a god?”
A single digit was thrust at him with trembling urgency. “The eye! The eye, eye, I, eye, I I see it! It’s in the sky!”
“The eye is in the sky,” affirmed Saidot. “The burning ball that sees by searing, yes indeed.”
“That’s the harm, the seeing slipping sliding everywhere in my hair in my heart all the time of day and the tone of night,” hissed the beggar. “Need answers to keep the bees out of my baskets and the flies from my eyes and the eyes, the eye, and the hand!”
“I think I’ve just the object for yourself, sir,” said Saidot, hauling up an extremely large and scorched urn.
“The eye?” whispered the beggar, shrinking back a little.
“Far from it, sir! Behold the thousand burning crows – each one an omen, a portent, a sign all its own! Scholars have spent lifetimes, wise men have perished, entire kingdoms have given up trying to interpret their purposes, powers, and portents! The eye will never be able to see you as long as you take shelter beneath their coal-caked wings!”
“Yes!” cried the beggar. He thrust a battered and violently destroyed sandal into Saidtor’s arms, seized the urn, and marched away down the streets, head held high and back straightened to the point of regality.
Saidot examined the sandal, extracted a stray toe that had been left inside it, and shrugged it onto his left foot. “A good fit,” he noted happily. “The day is kind!”
The day was also wearing on, and the walls of Gar were beginning to encroach on the edge of the sun, nibbling away a little sliver of daylight every few seconds. Some vendors – the richest, the luckiest, the laziest – were already packing up and departing for homes and meals, beds and blankets. Saidot was blessed with possessing none of the four, and thus unburdened, was free to continue his sales.
“A little worship puts a little light in your life, a light to read by, a light to see by! And I am a seller of candles in this manner – long-burning, warm-holding! You sir – a god for your troubles? You, ma’am – a deity for your shelf? I have gods for the young, the eld, and the undecided; gods for the mighty and gods for the meek and even gods for the median! Look! See! A temple need not be the only place for you to find comfort, a priest need not be your middleman! Come, and buy, and be the master of your own soul!”
“Do you have anything for termites, young man?” inquired a stooped and wrinkled face.
“Certainly!” said Saidot, fishing around behind his counter. “Would you prefer fire, sword, or terrible hooves?”
The old lady pursed her lips in thought. “All three,” she said.
“Ah, a connoisseur, a crafty one, a customer who thinks past the problem and strikes its heart! Here!” – and Saidot heaved a bronze urn onto the counter with a grunt, its weight troubling his bad back – “This is Terrimac the Terrible, the blazing bull-angel with the head of an ox and the heart of a blazing stone! In his left fist is the bonfire of the ages and in his right is the sword of bright burning and in his other left fist is, well, a fist. With which he strikes down the unrighteous!”
“And termites?”
“And termites.”
“I’ll give you seven coins for it.”
Saidot shook the old lady’s hand, put the urn into a bag, and watched her hobble away with it. “If I were ten years older,” he began, then shook his head. “No, twenty. Well, fifteen. Ach! No matter!”
The day was near done, the shadows eating the courtyards, the sun’s heat fading away from under the feet of the city. Saidot was one of a dozen or so hardliners, and even they were beginning to pack, but his cries remained undaunted.
“Might beyond the realm of man, in the palms of your hands for a fistful of coin at most! Keep the wisdom of the ages, the strength of the seas, the speed of the serpent at the end of time, all on your shelf, all for a pittance, all right here! Right now! All the gods!”
“Saidot the priest?” asked a muffled, annoying voice.
“The same!” affirmed Saidot with what was left of his gusto. “Tea? It’s a bit cold now, but I’m sure that-“
“Come with me.”
The tone of voice was an order, but Saidot was busy rooting around in his tea urn and ignored it. “Just let me find a cup and-” and at this point Saidot lost his train of thought as the bazaar guards picked up him and his entire stall and carried it away. Some time and seventeen bruises later, he was deposited with great force on some extremely nice marble tiles, which he examined with interest. He knew at once from the horrible and marvelously intricate depictions of tortures on them, no two alike, that he must be in the palace of Gar, which took up an entire fifth of the city.
“Saidot the priest,” said a voice.
“Yes indeed,” said Saidot.
“Raise yourself before the council of Gar.”
“I’m afraid that this is impossible, honoured sir, as my knees are presently quite badly hurt.”
“Raise yourself before the council of Gar,” said the voice, in the peevish tones of one who has never been made to feel more than minor annoyance, “or be chopped into a fine mince and thrown into the refuse pits.”
Saidot raised himself before the council of Gar and bowed as politely as he knew how. “Esteemed sirs, how might I help you this fine evening?”
The largest and most physically round member of the council – whose hat was truly marvelous – looked at him through his nostrils. “You sell gods.”
“Yes indeed, sir, of all shapes, sizes, colours and creeds.”
“You boast of their quantity and quality.”
“Please, sir,” said Saidot with a pained expression, “it is not boasting to speak the truth, and the truth is this: these are the finest gods in all of the land, and I have many of them.”
“Then you will not object to gifting the council of Gar with a tithe,” wheezed the eldest councilor. “A merchant of wonders such as yourself can surely spare a single god, in exchange for permission of his peddling within our borders.”
Saidot shrugged. “I suppose not, sir. Although I make no demands of you, you are within your rights entire to request such a thing. What god has caught your eye? I can recommend the Jackal Gheeni, Marmoosk, perhaps Yve-“
“The most powerful you possess,” said the thinnest councilor, a man merely eight times Saidot’s weight. “And the eldest.”
Saidot’s eyes widened. “Ah! Ah! Such quality is requested!” He grinned, just a bit too late and a bit too wide. “I beg of your pardon, sirs, but perhaps it would be, if I may suggest, just infinitely, slightly more prudent if-“
“The most powerful and eldest,” repeated the angriest councilor, whose face was fixed somewhere between a snarl and a sneer. “Nothing less. Not one whit less. This city demands a strong god.”
Saidot’s smile had gone away, but his grin was still there. “Right! Right! All right then! Sirs, that is. Allow me one moment…” He turned his back on the council of Gar, suppressed the urge to glance over his shoulder, and began to root through the wreckage of his stall, not even daring to curse as his fingers brushed over a fresh crack in each urn he inspected. At last he found it, deep at the bottom of the heap, where he’d left it; surrounded on all sides and secure.
He placed the urn – plain, small, round – on the floor. The councilors looked at it.
“What,” asked the youngest councilor, a twelve-year-old with a high voice and enough jewelry to coat four adult men twice over, “is this?”
“Talminus kel No kal,” said Saidot, carefully pronouncing the words. “And I promise you eighteen times over, sirs, that he is by far the most puissant and primordial of all my wares. I found him in a ruin, sirs, that was by the name of-“
“Good,” said the tallest councilor, a creaking crane of a man whose thigh-bones were nearly as long as Saidot’s legs. “Leave us.”
“Of course!” said Saidot.
“And the city.”
“Naturally,” said Saidot.
“Within five minutes.”
“Right,” said Saidot, and with that he was out the door at a dead run, with the stall slung over his shoulder.
“On pain of slow grating and sieving!” called the councilor after him, but Saidot the priest was already out of the palace of Gar and accelerating. He was a great maker of snap judgments, after so many years in the markets, and he knew that it wouldn’t be more than a few minutes before the largest and physically roundest of the councilors picked up his gift and opened it.
Fearing a thing may grant you wings, but god-fearing can practically strap a cruise missile to each foot, and so despite middle age, physical imperfection, and only one sandal, Saidot the priest was nearly a kilometer out past the gates of the city of Gar when about a fifth of it had an early, rapid, and extremely loud sunrise.
“Good riddance,” said Saidot, eventually. He coughed for another three minutes, then managed a second breath. “God riddance ahahahahahahahahahaCOUGHahaha. Aha. Ha.”
He sighed. Five sales in one day, and only once had he been made to run for his life. That was all right, in the grand scheme of things.
After all, he’d certainly had worse days.
Nighttime crept on, inch by inch belly-dragging itself over the landscape, over the sky, over the head of Saidot the priest as he packed and walked down the roads. But only for so long. Morning was just a stone’s throw away.

Storytime: Repeat Offender.

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

I’ll never forget the first time I saw that guy. Not the face, no – the face is gone, don’t have the faintest clue what it was, well, maybe it had feathers on it – but I remember him. Came downstairs all chained up, brought along by three of the biggest bastards we had, weapons out, all eyes on him. And he’s not moving a finger, not sweating a drop, but damnit if he isn’t grinning like a pumpkin patch come Halloween.
“What’ve we got this time?” I said.
The biggest and ugliest of the guards pulled out the papers and held them between finger and thumb on his second try. “Theft.”
Well, that was new to me – though of course, everything was new to me back then. I didn’t think we’d had theft yet. Universe isn’t but brand new and someone ups and walks away with part of it. “What’d he nab?”
The thumb moved with painful care and delicately flipped loose a second sheet of paper. “The sun.”
“Stole the sun. You know that old guy that lives down there with his daughter?”
“Snuck in with a fancy disguise and a made-up-name and snatched it right outta his longhouse. Moron held it in his mouth, half-burnt out his voice. Now’s all he can do is croak.”
A third flip, done in haste, tore the paper clean in half. “Shit, shit, shit.” The fingers closed in agitation and mangled the remnants. “Just spread the burn – toast ‘im crispy-black.”
“Right,” I said. So we took that sun and burned the thief crispy-black, but we couldn’t undo that crime of his, because down there in the world, that sun was still shining. And we couldn’t take that grin off the thief’s face either.
Now, things got real quiet for a while, as they should. Crime doesn’t pay, punishment prevents recurrence, so on. I didn’t mind all that much; it let me catch up on my paperwork. Well, it let me push my paperwork around on my desk so the piles looked smaller. Same thing. If you actually do any of your paperwork, I’m pretty sure that violates some little universal law somewhere and causes problems. Read it somewhere at the time, I think.
Well, my reading got interrupted sooner than I hoped, because the stairs started thumping with big jackboots again and down comes six of the biggest, meanest bastards we had, weapons out, chains attached to them and the prison, and the grin on that face – whatever that face was, it was on the tip of my tongue – just brought back memories. Although it might have been furrier than I recalled.
“Him again? What happened this time?”
The biggest guard dropped the shredded remains of what had once been some papers on my desk, vibrating with anger.
“Death forever. Little shithead gave us death with no way back. Some of his pals were cooking up a way to put a stop to the whole sordid business, bring back the ghost of their pal and stick it back in the body. Well, this jackass”-a savage kick was directed at the jackass, who dodged it, grinning -“figured that the world without death would get ‘too crowded,” and he locks the door at just the wrong moment and bam, spirit goes back home to the underworld and tells everyone else not to bother. Death’s forever, no takebacks. Sentence is death, before you ask, and good bloody riddance to him.”
“Poetic justice,” I said, and signed it all through. Figured that’d be the last I saw of him, that one. Harsh to put an end to him for good, but making sure everything dies forever’s a lot worse than break-and-enter grand theft. Can’t be soft on murder-enablers, or else the whole system stops working.
Now, the next time caught me by surprise a bit. Clang thud bang, staircase almost rattles and falls apart under the weight of twelve guards, a thousand chains, and the biggest smirking smile I’ve ever seen, so big it seemed like it’d almost make his toga burst.
“Sign,” said the guard. He was smaller than the last few I’d spoken too, but too angry to speak. I had to read the papers myself, a damned nuisance.
“Let’s see….he uh, rigged a meal?” I asked.
“Read. It.”
I read it. “He rigged a meal against the king of the gods, feeding him fatty bones and tricking him into giving the humans the steaks?”
A short nod. “Page. Two.”
I scanned it. Okay, that’s criminal mischief at worst, but seems mostly a private dispute, but…
I read the next page. Then read it again. Then I rubbed my eyes a lot. “So to make it fair and even the gods take fire from the humans, then HE steals it back?”
A nod.
“What’d he use?”
The guard flung down a stalk of fennel, the inside seared crispy-brown.
“Great. Another break-and-enter, and sacrilege in the second degree, plus knowing contempt of omnipotence.” I shook my head. “You’d think he’d have learned after the first time. What’re we going to do about this guy? We already killed him once.”
“Page. Three.”
I looked at page three. “Jesus. Isn’t that a bit…no I suppose it isn’t.” I looked at page three again. “Still…an eagle, right?”
“And the liver?”
“Every day forever and ever?”
The guard’s lips had compressed themselves into a tiny, utterly bloodless smile. “Yes.”
“Well, this ought to teach him a lesson if nothing else will.” I signed it. “Go on.”
I watched him walk away, wrapped in chains. He was still smiling, all the way down the hall.
There was a quiet bit there, for a while, when everything was routine. A little damnation, a little repentance, a few curses and some imprisonments. And then one day I hear this metal scream and the staircase bursts in half, spilling twenty-five guards and the head warden down the stairs cursing in a heap, with that smile on top of a face on top of the whole pile. It seemed more crooked than I remembered, and a few new scars were on it.
“Well?” I asked.
The warden struggled to his feet, put on his left shoe again, and spat out someone’s moustache. “Well what?”
“Well what now? I thought we’d locked him up for good. What’s going on?”
The warden’s eyes narrowed. “What’s going on is that the little weasel got clean away at least a thousand years ago. Under your watch.”
“What’s going on,” said the warden, talking just a little more loudly, “is that before we found him again, he’d stolen fire at least three more times on damn well every continent. Gave it to humans each time, too, damned if I know why.”
“WHAT IS GOING ON,” yelled the warden directly into my face, “is that at SOME point he got a bit bored of all of this and stabbed the bright god to death with a piece of cursed mistletoe, THEREBY dooming the whole lot of them to apocalyptic battle and defeat and forcing the rebirth of the world.” He slammed a single sheet of paper on top of my desk one handed with violent force, then smiled pleasantly. “Sign here.”
I signed the form, which condemned the individual concerned to be chained up by the guts of his children in an underground chamber and have a poisonous serpent drip excruciating venom directly into his eyes. “Signed.”
“Good.” The warden tipped his hat, the guards went on their way, and I swear I saw that smile break into a snicker before its bearer passed on his way.
That was a thousand years and more ago, and it’s been quiet since. But I know too much to stay calm now, because how often does anyone go down there and take a look in that cave? Oh, they still hear the earthquakes now and then, but who checks, and how often?
It’s just a matter of time. Some people just never damned learn.

Storytime: The Bystander

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

The world was cool, a dark shell of rock, a cliff overhead, a shelter from the scalding gravel masquerading as sand. It faded into reality in a billion pieces, one after another, faster than anything, slower than footsteps, which were the first sounds that he heard when he woke up.
He doesn’t have a name. He doesn’t know what a name is, and never will, because his brain is small and blunt and doesn’t need to be particularly powerful to keep him alive. As far as he can comprehend himself, he is big. A unrelated but currently important fact: big is also old, and a heavy sleeper because of it, which is why he just let what smelt like…. four meals walk right by his sleeping nook. Their feet couldn’t have landed more than a whisper from the blackish grey scales of his snout.
This has annoyed big. His personal space has been infringed on and he’s missed an easy (and welcome) meal. Well, he’d better get going. He’s not going to fall back asleep anytime soon, and the food’s walking away down the tunnel. Big doesn’t usually go down there, because it’s so very cold, much more than the calm shade of the nook at its mouth, which is juuust right to keep him from cooking during the height of the day, when the sun’s burning a hole through anything that steps into its sights out there on the black hot rocks.
If big could understand the sounds the food was making farther down the tunnel, he’d know they agreed with him. But he can’t, so all he hears is noise, noise, noise. Worse than monkeys and birds rolled together.
“Shit, I think I’ve burnt me goddamned toes off.” A sound made for wheedling; not high-pitched, but mostly emitted through the nose.
“Shut your griping.” A phlegm-thickened, short-set voice that brings to mind rotten oatmeal, grit-covered clothes, and bloody knuckles.
“Come off it, ye were bitching at the oars so hard I’d thought they’d break off.”
“Jack was rowing.” Soft and deep, with a little edge that suggests it’s almost running through its stock of patience. “Harping about how much you burned your foot is the most work you’ve done since you stepped off the boat. Now which way?”
Fluttering, scraping noises, as of something unfolding.
“Good. Keep it to that volume, eh?”
Big shook himself once – lazily – and set off after the sounds, slow and deliberate, one foot at a time, a back-and-forth bent-kneed swagger that dragged along all of his hundreds of pounds with all the ponderous pomp they deserved. He came to a fork in the tunnel, flicked his tongue, tasting, and set off down the correct route. More noises filtered their way into his head.
“Much further?” said Jack.
“Not much,” said the noise that was Isaac. “Just a wee bit. No more turns from here.”
“Oh, no more turns, is it?” said a peevish, ragged thing that sounded like it was being throttled through a ruptured chimney.
“Good thing we’ve got you along with us to guide us all those treacherous ways. We could’ve got lost on our way to the cave that we could see clear from the boat. Or we could’ve taken the wrong turn out of two paths. Or we-“
“Will ye shut the hell up, Matthew? If it weren’t for me and me map ye’d be sitting in an alley somewhere waiting for a bloke with wallet, whisky, and no brain in his skull to mug himself next to ye. Instead, ye’re less’n a few hundred feet from the biggest pile of gold ye’ve ever dreamed, a pocketful with your name on it? That’s enough to buy a damned pub and drink yerself to death before yer next birthday, and bitching yerself silly about it.”
“And if it weren’t for us,” said Jack, “you’d be still sitting on a pier waiting for passage to this burned rock.”
“Just shut off, will ye – ALL of ye! Look, we can all argue after ye’ve got your fifth-”
The footsteps stopped, as did big’s, in perfect synch, one claw frozen just before hitting the ground.
“Fifth?” said that deep voice. “Now then Isaac, that’s not how I count us. By my eye, I see three men. And yourself.”
“Five pocketfuls, and that’s just the right size. Ye get a fifth, Jack gets a fifth, Matthew gets a fifth, I get a fifth, me map gets a fifth. Without it, there’s no money at all. And I’ll be having to carry it, on account of me having two pockets.”
“Really? With it ‘a few hundred feet’ away?”
“Look, if ye-“
“Quit baiting the little bastard, Benson. Open ‘im up.”
There was a gasp, a shuffle, and a shriek that ended in a few sharp sounds. Big’s tongue flicked, and came back with the smell of blood.
“Four ways, then. Come on.”
“Took your time, didn’t you? Should’ve slit him a new throat last week after he wouldn’t shut up about the storm.”
“The rest of the crew wouldn’t be as understanding as you two. Now quiet.”
The muttering trailed off and the footsteps started again. Big’s long-suffering claw touched ground, and his pace quickened towards the blood. Maybe the food would come easy this time.
“Understanding of what, exactly? A bit of murder? Because if they were going to look funny at the story of ‘oh gosh he fell overboard in the storm, you saw how he was staggering about’ I don’t think they’re going to be fond of ‘there was a cave-in that killed exactly one person.’”
“We’ll blame it on the lizards. You saw them. He tripped on one.”
Big nearly tripped on the corpse. It was scrawny and insubstantial, more bone than body, and altogether puny, not nearly the right size. He’d have been more pleased to eat a seagull. A small hiss escaped him, and his steps quickened, the faint whisper of his tail on the stones growing to a murmur.
“Oh yes. The lizards. Of course. How big were they again, five foot?”
“You keep saying that-”
“And I mean it.”
Nothing much then. Running water flickered across big’s ears, glided on his tongue.
“Oh bloody wonderful. An underground stream? Really?”
“Crossable.” A large splash followed the proclamation.
“Doesn’t mean we have to enjoy it.”
Splash. Splash.
“You’ll feel warmer with gold in your pockets.” Footsteps sounded on stone again.
“Not warm enough.”
“You are determined to make a nuisance of yourself, Matthew.”
“Well aren’t we feeling menacing today, Benson.”
“It is a statement of fact. Here is another: there is a great deal of gold just past us, and if you persist in your petty complaints, myself and Jack will be splitting it into two pockets instead of three.”
“Facts, facts, facts. Jack, give Benson his facts.”
Benson froze again for an instant as the footsteps ceased, then resumed under the cover of the quick scuffle that emerged, punctuated by two hoarse shouts and a wheezing screaming that turned liquid, ending in a much, much larger splash than heard previously.
“Good job. He was right about two pocketfuls being better than three, just came to the idea later than we did.”
“Shit. Shit.”
“Oh, he didn’t get you that badly.”
“Got my leg. My good leg.”
“Right, right. Look, just tie it off and we can fix it back on the boat. I bet that cave-in line would work now, you know. Two casualties work better than just one.”
“Hurts. Give me a hand…”
“Later, first-“
“NOW, bastard!” A sigh. “Fine, fine. Hold still.” Scruffle. Bang. Bang. SPLASH.
And then quiet, with nothing but a rush of footsteps.
The creek pulled itself within range of big’s shoddy night vision, a creek run lost inside the island’s guts, winding its way down nowhere good. Blood was in the air, on the rocks, and lost to the water – along with both the corpses he could scent, prompting another irritable hiss, larger and louder. He lunged across the fast-flowing current with angry haste, claws touching the far side before the tip of his tail was wetted, and moved down the hall at a fast crawl, the scent of blood and food held firm in his tongue-tip’s grasp.
Light ahead, and a strange gibbering, a laughter, a sound that big didn’t understand and didn’t care about. Big broke into a gallop, all of him dragging behind his legs, a deadweight on a set of furious pistons fronted with serrated teeth.
There was a bright light and a loud noise ahead. There was a chamber, as big entered it. And in its center, a single massive, glittering, golden thing that a species more attracted to bright colours than big’s might have found wonderful. He had no eyes for the statue; his treasure stood before it and was dwarfed against it, meat and flesh, arms outstretched, one hand shining with mechanical sunshine, head tipped back and laughing, laughing, laughing.
“All in one piece and all the wrong size… too big for any one man’s pocket!” said Matthew, as he turned around, face locked into a grin that was all teeth and no mind. “Too big! It’s too big!”
And he was just the right size.

Storytime: Avoidable.

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

It was on a Tuesday that it showed up – no, wait, that’s not right. It was a Wednesday, and a typical Wednesday too: dead in the water, limp-legged, slouch-backed, and tepid. That was when that big old meteor went and turned itself into a meteorite, cratered right hard right in the middle of the country where the wind blows straight and the horizon’s all around you. Left a pretty big hole, too, but after a few reporters took a couple of pictures and some men in the battered, lackaday clothes of serious science took some samples of soil and rock, that was it for interest. It was just a rock in the end, even if it’d come a million trillion miles to land on our planet and make a hole in it.
Now what grew down in that hole, that was the big business, even if it started as small business. Just a little tuft of white stuff at first. Cream-coloured, if you’d like to be specific, but it was so small it was hard to tell. Real small. Josh Macintyre saw it sprouting there, and some little bit of the back of his brain made him swerve his tractor an inch or three to the right and change the course of history.
So history happened. That little white tuft bloomed and blossomed and ballooned and it got bigger and bigger. It sucked up all the fertilizers on the plants near it, and then the plants, and then the field. It was halfway through sucking up Josh Macintyre’s barn when he called the police down.
“Interesting,” they said. And then they set fire to it.
It sucked up the fire, and then it finished sucking up the barn.
“Try the national guard,” the police said.
The national guard came down, and it brought some more badly-clothed people of science. They scraped and chipped and analyzed, and they said something or other but by then the issue was being voted on by some very important old people and they had no time for pencil-pushing slide-ruling egg-headed science-types. So they voted that the army shoot it until something happened.
The army showed up in some really big machines, pulled out some much smaller but even more dangerous machines and all their little lead snacks, and then they shot it. It sucked up the bullets, expanded out to the highway, and started chewing its way off in all directions, following the asphalt and worrying it like a dog on a bone.
“Maybe we should,” said one of the science people, and he was told to put on his lab coat and go away because we’re BUSY here professor. The thing, whatever it was, was voted on three more times, and after two splits on partisan lines it was agreed that it would be bombed until it was reduced to many small pieces not exceeding three centimeters in diameter. These would be pureed and charred and used to flavour a very lucrative new kind of ice cream sandwich.
It was bombed, duly, and expanded fifty-five times overnight, by which point it was crowding into every major city on the continent. The highways were overgrown lumps of fluffy, puffy white matter, a cross between a marshmallow and a mushroom.
“This is obviously some sort of conspiracy against us,” agreed some of the very important old people, and they voted a bipartisan consensus to find out whose fault it was. For a while it was argued that it could be because of those young people, but it certainly wasn’t any of THEIR grandchildren, THEIR grandchildren knew how to behave properly and respectfully, so it was probably some other country.
The other countries said this probably wasn’t the case, and maybe this was some trick they were trying to pull here, unless they were just mistaken and being silly gooses.
“Up yours,” voted the very important old people.
Take a long walk off a short pier, suggested half of the other countries. No, they make sense, argued the other half.
You and whose armies?
Well, OURS!
Ours can beat up yours.
By this point some of the puffy white stuff had punctured its way to the other side of the ocean, running along old undersea cables and such, and everybody was getting fed up with it.
“Obviously,” advised the very important old people of the first country, who were experts at this by now, “the solution is to bomb it harder.”
Right, agreed the rest of the world. And an awful lot of bombing happened, and an awful lot more of the white stuff spread everywhere. It crawled up skyscrapers, it ate up roads, it turned houses into puffy, plumpy caves. It clogged gun barrels, smothered missile stockpiles, and sunk bunkers into big squishy pits.
This was obviously some sort of plot against someone by someone else, so the countries all did the sensible thing and accused each other of harbouring a nasty plot again, especially the ones who’d asked whose armies, because the answer was quite obviously their armies and nobody likes a smartass. So the countries all took a break from bombing the white stuff, which was an unrewarding chore at best anyways, and started bombing each other, which was a lot more satisfying, fun, and traditional. Besides, nothing they tried slowed the damned thing down. It ate the spent munitions, and the exploded bomb shells, and the ruined husks of buildings, and everything worthwhile. And the more they fought the more there was for it to eat. It was getting tiresome in the extreme.
What we need, all the countries decided, separately, independently, and privately, is a bigger bomb.
Luckily, quite a few of the countries had really big bombs, so they broke them all out all over the place, hoping to get rid of the white stuff or maybe at the very least do in its food supply. And that was how most of them vanished overnight in a series of startlingly huge explosions that filled the atmosphere and soil with a lot of really nasty stuff. Luckily, it turned out the white stuff liked to eat it, so the world was only partially unlivable for about a decade.
When that about a decade was over, the white stuff covered a nice big chunk of the planet’s land area, but wasn’t growing too much anymore. No more food for it to expand with, and it was actually shrinking back a bit on the edges. Too much too fast, overreached itself a mite. And down the road came a few people to see what was making it fade away, falling back, to look at all those thousands of miles and millions of tons of matter just shrinking away into nothing.
And just as they were packing up to walk back home, the youngest person there asked the white stuff, “now why’d you do all of that?”
And the white stuff said (in a very small but clear voice, all fibres and filaments): “No-one ever asked me to stop.”

Storytime: The Samaritan.

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

Maude was bored.
This was entirely normal, especially in deep space, especially especially if you were a penniless matter-panner sitting besides a black hole so old and worn it didn’t suck so much as slop, waiting for weeks and weeks on end for something worth taking home to drift through the sieve-and-pan of your un-reality net. Maybe some uranium, maybe some platinum, maybe diamonds, maybe a big ol’ chunk of iron the size of a city-state.
Maude had been here for three months. So far, she’d found a fragment of ice the size of her torso. She’d watched all her old sensetanks three times over and her new ones six, she was starting to run out of meals-u-eats that had organic matter in them, and although she’d brought no mirror on board, she had a strong suspicion her chin was starting to boast more hairs than Harold’s.
So Maude was bored. Very bored indeed. This was why it was such a large surprise when her grungy old un-reality tethers snagged something that that she wasn’t surprised at all. She looked at the instruments: anti-matter, ten thousand tonnes, blah blah blah, and was fully nine-tenths of the way through the procedure to lock the catch into place before exactly what she’d just done sunk in.
“Huh,” said Maude. She did the math. Assuming the demand in the market had – oh, let’s say been cut in half, then half again – she was now richer than all of the last ten governor-generals of her system.
Maude considered this. She could afford to pay off her and Harold’s mortgage. She could afford to pay off her grandchildren’s mortgages. She could afford to buy her planet and most of its neighbours and maybe a luxury palace on Earth for retirement, which she could afford to do right now.
“Well,” said Maude, because that’s all she could think of, and she locked the anti-matter into place, set coordinates for the long chug-a-chug homewards, and did a little hooting, yelping, skipping dance in the middle of the floor. She bruised her elbow on a cupboard and didn’t care in the slightest, and she stuck her head into the longest and most tedious of her sensetanks (Pride and Prejudice and Pirates and Penguins and Prosecutors in Paris, IIV) and paid not the slightest attention to anything that was happening.
This elated state of non-boredom lasted for approximately three days, which was when Maude was stirred from her newfound hobby of calculating the highest rank of politician she could bribe (three presidents at once and the vice-president, plus their lawyers) by the peevish beeping of her proximity alarms.
“Meteor belt,” she decided. Then she looked at the display, and changed her mind because meteors didn’t have that many spikes, or mass launchers.
“Hello, tiny scrap-panning vessel,” hailed the nearest and largest not-a-meteor. “This is High General and Executive Gunner Killowac Murgatroyd of the Scram III.”
“Hello,” said Maude. “Maude Hanover, on the Sally. Whatcha want?”
“Not want, sad to say,” said the heavily armed person on the enormous dreadnought, “but need. A trifling engagement with a patrol destroyer seems to have put a dent in my flagship’s fuel tanks, and I’m afraid my invasion of the sector here could be postponed. You wouldn’t, by chance, have five thousand tonnes of anti-matter to spare, would you?”
Maude considered this, along with the mass launchers, along with the matter disruptors, along with the hyperspace laser batteries.
“Sure,” she said.
“Wonderful,” said the galactic warlord. “A pleasure doing business with you. Goodbye.” And with that, he and his fleet of war machines seized half her anti-matter and dove briskly into hyperspace at ten times the speed she could ever hope for.
“Drat,” said Maude, compressing several times the normal swear-weight of emotion into it. And she went on her way, cussing once every hour like clockwork, doing some revised math. It wasn’t so bad, anyways. She could still afford to bribe the president to go on a manhunt for High General and Executive Gunner Murgatroyd and have enough left over for a nice comfortable planet for her and Harold to retire on. They could bring the rest of the family too, especially if it had some nice beaches. Kids love beaches.
A little more than a week later, she was jolted out of her latest sensetank rehash (The Sun Goes Round the Moon, starring Platt Manderson – she could probably hire him as a masseuse, but Harold would be put out) by the high-pitched wailing on the communicator of a man with nothing left to lose. Sure, the man was a Treeblik, and they don’t have genders, but it was close enough.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I am ruined!” lamented the Treeblik. “Here I am, an honest merchantman-” he caught himself, feeling the touch of skepticism (the only known force in the universe to exceed hyperspace in velocity) “-a reasonably forthright merchantman of limite – adequate means, caught up in ruin and bankruptcy by the plundering and voracious greed of one Killowac Murgatroyd!”
Maude winced a little at this.
“I am plundered and my hold emptied, my years-long pilgrimage of goods-gathering for naught. My assets will be seized, my name disgraced, my company stricken from the registers, and my wife won’t give me hugs anymore.”
Maude drummed her fingers on her armrest and started doing math again. “How much was your cargo worth?”
“A million billion,” said the Treeblik. “Not a penny less!”
“How about I give you five hundred tonnes of anti-matter?” asked Maude.
The Treeblik performed an elaborate and ancestrally practiced double-take, which took up twenty seconds and two-thirds of his bridge. “Please,” he managed at last, in a strangled voice that suggested most of his vocal chords were absent.
“Done deal,” said Maude. She transferred it over and got out before the Treeblik could start to sing one of his maternal victory cadenzas. “Not so bad,” she said to herself. “Not so bad.” She’d just have to rent out a continent or two to make ends meet, and maybe bribe the vice-president instead. “Not so bad.” Then she decided she’d done enough math, and plunged her head into the sensetank for The Joy of Art History, coming up for air only two weeks later, when she almost ran straight into the leading ship of a million-strong fleet.
“What’s going on?” asked Maude.
“Refugees seeking refuge,” said the leader, a dour and muscular Murmosap with forearms that could consume sharks in three bite-and-shakes of their jaws. “A manic moron calling himself the High General and Executive Gunner shot out of hyperspace, ordered everyone off-planet, blasted it open down to the core, took all the mineral resources, and shot off again.”
“Mmpph,” said Maude, trying appear sympathetic while wincing so hard her jaw hurt.
“And to top it all off, we’re in whatever we could grab and fly,” said the Murmosap, the pessimism seeping in through his eyeballs more throughly still, “so half of us are having to push the other half around by now on account of idiots driving no-account pleasure craft with the fuel efficiency of a paralyzed jetliner. And we’re all running low again. Doom rides abroad and the end is nigh.”
“How nigh?” asked Maude.
“About a week. I did the math.”
Maude did more math herself. She was beginning to dislike it. “How many of your ships can take antimatter?”
“A lot, probably. We’ve got enough mechanics to jury-rig something in the bigger boats anyways.”
“Would a sliver each help matters?”
A sliver each in a million ships came up to a thousand or so tonnes, but by the time the refugee fleet was fading in Maude’s sensor range, it was already accelerating again. And it was okay. She could still rent out a continent on a nice, sensible, stable planet, bribe the governor general to lay it easy on the taxes, eat out at ridiculously fancy restaurants once every month, put the kids through nice stable schools. It’d be fine. It’d be fine.
“Hello?” asked a high-pitched voice over her communicator. “Help?”
“Problems?” asked Maude.
“Baby problems,” said the voice.
“Ah, been there,” said Maude.
“Oh good. I was hoping I’d get someone who understood. Tell me, can you spare a few thousand tonnes of anti-matter?”
Maude blinked. “Baby problems?”
“Yes, she’s starting to teeth in there, and if I don’t feed her soon, she’ll eat her way out through my left ventricle. I wouldn’t mind so much if it wouldn’t kill her too – she’s not ready for raw cosmic radiation yet, poor dear. Needs another few years.”
“Oh,” said Maude. “Sure. Take it.”
“You’re a kindly dear,” said the high-pitched voice. Something composed of what Maude’s sensors refused to consider as matter stirred centimetres off her port bow, and there it went, two and a half thousand tonnes of anti-matter, chewed away in a flash. “I wouldn’t impose like this, but some wicked man took a shot at me while I was feeding, and I had to flee all the way out here away from proper dining locations, and you’re the first person to come by with a proper meal.”
“It’s all good,” said Maude. She could probably bribe the planetary senator now. It was likely. Not that she’d need to; she could afford the taxes on a city-home without a blink for the next couple generations.
“Oh you modest little thing. Thank you so much; I’ll drop by when she’s due and let you meet her. Take care now!”
Maude cruised in idle for the next month, taking in everything, letting the sensetanks lie, keeping her mind lazy. And there went the sensors again. Bip. Bip. Bip. Something sitting still in space, idling there as she mosied closer. It was a few miles long and a few miles wide and most of it was built around and outside a big complicated prong that looked a lot like a cannon. Huge and beautiful (now half-obliterated) murals on its side marked it as a Steed-ship of the Non-Holy Siblingdom of Secularism, operated by a single knight.
It wasn’t moving, and large chunks of it were missing.
Maude sighed. “Good Samaritan,” she said, in a very uncomplimentary way, and then she punched the communicator until it worked.
“Greetings,” said the ship’s occupant. She was a spectacularly large and fit Heronius Zach, at least sixteen inches tall, possessed of a prize-fighter’s physique and sensitive, soulful ears that stared firmly at Maude with a perfect openness that would’ve obliterated a politician’s soul.
“Hey,” said Maude. “Problems?”
“A little,” admitted the Heronius Zach. “I am Knight-Questor Iz. Is the madman known as Killowac Murgatroyd still afoot?”
“Probably,” admitted Maude. “He’s pretty mobile. Which is my fault.”
“I’m sorry?” said Iz.
“It’s a – well, not a long story. Listen,” and Maude told her.
“You didn’t have much of a choice,” said Iz. “What is done is done, and would’ve been done whether you allowed it or not. ‘Where there is no choice, there is neither shame nor pride.’ That is a quote and also a fact.”
“Mmm,” said Maude.
“Don’t mmm me, please. Ambiguous denials are purposeless and cause premature mental fatigue. Now, which way would you say Murgatroyd was traveling? My drives are online again.”
Maude told her.
“Straight towards the system capital,” said Iz, and gave a little wiff that was the sigh of the Heronius Zach. “Of course. Plunder the most there. I can catch him before he makes it, I expect.”
“That going to be enough gun to stop him?” asked Maude.
“Ordinarily?” said Iz. “Yes. He punched a hole through my magazine, though, and I had to eject about a third of the ship to save the rest. I have enough fire for one fairly solid shot, and ambiguously defined concept of hope be willing, that should be enough to take out his flagship if placed correctly.”
Maude thought that was the longest possible way of saying ‘no,’ she’d ever heard, and she lived with Harold, a man so shy that he swept up after the rats and politely suggested that maybe they should look into moving along soon and getting their own place.
“What kind of ammunition does that thing take?” she asked.
“Just about anything that can explode – I make due with what I have. It consumes so much in each volley, though, it has to have a good deal of it.
“How about one thousand tonnes of anti-matter?”
Iz scratched her left nose. “Yes, that would work very nicely. Close to perfect, actually. Is it refined?”
“Inspected for potentially lethal impurities?”
“Not even a little.”
“Yes, that should be absolutely perfect. Thank you.”
It wasn’t more than mere minutes after the transfer took place that the Steed-ship’s cannon began to warm up again, and it was seconds after that that the Knight-Questor took off at a lot over the speed of light, with a fare-thee-well and thanks-again.
And after that, Maude went home, home, home, just her, the Sally, and a piece of ice the size of her torso. It took a few more weeks, but she was in no hurry now, and when she got there the first thing she did was put her feet up as high as she could and then have a shower and also sleep somewhere that didn’t smell like meals-u-eat.
When she woke up, Harold was waiting with a large drink that was about fifty-percent ice cubes.
“You brought it home, you get a slice,” he said.
“About all I got this time.”
“Not true, not true,” said Harold, “not true at all.”
Maude was too tired to dispute it, so they watched the news instead. It was dull as dishwater; nothing much had happened since the firefight just over the atmosphere last week, where twenty rogue dreadnoughts had been blown into little pieces and sold off for scrap.
“Huh,” said Maude, and kept watching. At some point this smoothly transitioned into snoring.
Harold carefully draped a blanket over her feet, then got up to silence the shrill beeping of the communicator, jumping quite violently as he came face-to-teeth with the forearms of a Murmosap.
“Sorry,” said the Murmosap. “Is she home yet?”
“Oh! Oh yes. But she’s put her feet up for now. Could you call back tomorrow?”
“Right, right. But these scrap options aren’t going to hold themselves together forever. Sure, we hauled it – and did a damned fine job in a hurry too, for civilians, if you ask me or anyone else – but there’s enough lawyers around that I don’t trust that particular fact to stay relevant forever.”
“Well, why don’t you get that nice Treeblik gentleman to talk to them? He’s your agent, he’s meant to do this sort of thing.”
The Murmosap wearily moistened his eyes against his forearm’s tongues. “Christ in a crater, he’s done enough of that for two lifetimes. He practically THRIVES on it. Much more of this, and they’re going to sue him out of spite. Nobody likes to see a happy face in a legal procedure, you know?”
“Oh, you worry too much,” said Harold. “It’ll be fine, fine, fine. At least until tomorrow. You’ll see, she’ll know just what to do. And she can probably help you lot decide what planet to buy. She’s always liked that sort of thing.”
“Not an easy choice to make, help or no,” mused the Murmosap.
“It’ll be fine,” said Harold. “She’s good at choices. She should be proud of that.”