Friday, April 28, 2017

Story 217: (Folklore 241) Celtic Mythology in Modern Urban Environments

When she got back from spring break, Stacey wouldn't come into our dorm room.  I played stupid because I knew she would be forced to do the same, but we both knew exactly what was going on.

I had sprinkled iron filings into the carpet.  A lot of them.

You couldn't see it if you just glanced at the carpet, they were deep in the weave, but if you were secretly a goddamn fairy it would make it extremely unpleasant to enter the room.  So she just stood there, smiling, in the hallway.
"You know," she said, "my allergies cleared up as soon as I left town?  I think there might be mold or something in the carpet."  Cute.
"Well you know, carpet in a dorm wasn't the best plan to begin with.  A bunch of college kids around something that can get stained or... moldy?  I bet if they replace the carpet the same thing will just happen again the next day."
The smile slips, just a little.  She nods.
"You're probably right.  I don't think they have carpets in Neumann Hall, I might request a room there.  Nothing against you."
"Of course!  No offense taken."

She's still standing there with her fake smile, fake everything I suppose, holding her backpack and staring past me at her side of the room.
"Do you think any... mold... got on my things?"
I was tempted, but no.  She never actually hurt me, after all.  "I think your things are probably safe."
"Oh good.  Good.  Um.  I really hate to ask for a favor, but would you be willing to box them up for me while I talk to someone about moving?"
There was something about favors.  Never accept a favor from the fair folk, or enter into a bargain without clearly defining what you would owe.  But this was different, right?  I would be doing a favor for her, not the other way around.  I wondered suddenly if I had ever told her I 'owed her one' back before I figured it out.  Just to be safe...
"Sure thing, and then we're even."
She tilted her head, eyes suddenly seeming cold and hard.
"For what?"
"For..." this felt like dangerous territory.  "For anything I might have owed you, for any reason.  Or vice versa.  We're just, totally, even."
She sighed, either in resignation or in relief.  Hard to say.  "Sure thing.  Agreed.  It was... nice.  I hope we can still be friends."
"Yeah.  Um.  Good luck.  With everything."

Stacey left, and I leaned against the wall and slid to the floor.  I was tempted to fall asleep right there, I hadn't slept well since I started planning for kicking her out of the room.  If she had gotten angry... Maggie Glennhold had spilled a smoothie right into Stacey's backpack and everyone saw what happened to her the next day.  Just an accident, of course.  Nobody's fault, and they said her hair would probably grow back.  But it didn't feel like Stacey was going to come for me.

Still... just to be safe, I resolved to do an extra nice job packing her things.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Story 216: The Other Shoe

The terrorists are prowling around the edges of great-grandpa's birthday party, like predators circling a cornered flock of sheep.  I don't even know what they want.  Knowing Great-gramps, he's thinking about offering them some cake and party hats.

Or maybe not.  Something looks wrong with him.

I mean, yes, his surprise birthday party has been crashed by terrorists.  But I've heard all the stories, he should be smiling and telling everyone it's going to be fine while he charms the bomb vests right off these assholes.  Instead he's crying.  I'm the closest, I'm probably the only one that can sidle over and talk to him without getting shot.
"Gramps!" I whisper.
He smiles at me, for a second, then looks even sadder. "Oh, honey.  I'm so sorry.  This is all my fault."
"Dude, Gramps, you didn't even know about the party.  And it's not like you invited the terrorists... did you?"  I mean it as a joke, but he looks away like he's feeling guilty.  "It's fine, Gramps.  You've gotten through worse than this.  What about that time you were on a collapsing bridge in Bangladesh?  Or that thing with the airplane over the Atlantic?"
He shakes his head.  "Those were different."

One of the terrorists is on the phone.  I can't make out what he's saying, but he looks... passionate.  I guess he's making demands or something.  Presumably that means the police or military or whatever are already working on a plan.
"We're going to get out of here, Gramps.  This is just going to be a funny story for next year's 111th birthday party."
"No," he says, "there won't be a next year.  I've killed you all."  Well, Jesus.  Is it possible he's serious?  Could lovable old Gramps have something to do with these guys?  It doesn't seem likely.  I mean, he's lived an interesting life - as evidenced by the enormous turnout for the party - but it's all been basically aboveboard.  If anything he's just one of a hundred targets; among the friends and children (and grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren...) are some very important people.  Politicians, renowned doctors, entertainers, high profile lawyers, military... it was giving me an inferiority complex before I got distracted by the threat of being blown to pieces.

"Gramps, don't be so negative.  We're going to be fine, and this isn't your fault.  I mean, do you even know who these yahoos are?  You couldn't have seen this coming."
He shrugs.  "Not exactly.  But I should have known something would.  I was stupid, of course he's patient.  He had all the time in the world to set this up."
"Okay Gramps, you're officially freaking me out.  Everyone loves you.  Nobody is out to get you."
He sighs, and looks at me with the most crushed, apologetic face I've ever seen on anyone in my family.  "I was young, and foolish.  I was in Turkey, walking along the shore.  There was a place where a cliff was slowly crumbling into the sea, probably had been for hundreds of years.  And there was a spot, it must have been a cave once but by then it was just a shallow alcove."

For a second he doesn't look so sad, he's lost in the memory.  To someone that's a hundred and ten I guess 'young' could mean a lot of things, but from that faraway look I'm guessing it was at least ninety years ago.
"I found what seemed like a strange rock - it was the shape, like an egg, that got my attention.  But once I cleaned the dirt and salt off of it I could see it was some kind of pottery.  Not a vase or anything, just a hard-baked lump."
"Gramps, I don't understand."
"I broke it," he says, as if I hadn't spoken, "I was leaving and didn't feel like keeping it, and I threw it against the rocks.  That's when I realized there was something inside.  A container."
Oh my god, nobody could ever get a totally straight answer about how Gramps made his first fortune.  Is this it?  Did he find a lost pirate treasure on some Turkish beach, or... I look at the terrorists again.  The one on the phone has gone from 'passionate' to 'disconcertingly intense'.  Maybe not treasure.
"Jesus, did you find some terrorist drug stash or something?"
"No, no.  Far worse.  It was a container with a Djinn inside.  A genie."

Okay, Gramps is either messing with me or insane.  Probably that first one.  This whole 'upset' act is a con to suck me in so he can have a big laugh later.  That's more in line with the Gramps I know.
"He offered me three wishes for freeing him, and... I thought I was clever.  My first two wishes, they were terrible run-on sentences, mangled things that should have been three or four wishes each.  He looked furious, but each time he just said 'granted'.  After the second one I got scared, I knew that money and talent wouldn't do me any good if the Djinn struck me dead.  So I wished for a long healthy life, and I said..."
He breaks down, full on sobbing.  Shit.  Is he not joking?  What the fuck is going on here?
"Grandpa, are you okay?  Grandpa?"
"I'm so sorry.  So sorry.  This is all my fault."
"Grandpa, no!  We'll be fine."
He grabs me by the shoulders, those old hands still powerful.  His eyes are on fire, staring into mine like he's begging me to forgive him.
"I was picturing a hospital bed, do you understand?  I was thinking of something peaceful."
"Grandpa, you're going to be okay.  You'll see."
"No.  He was so angry.  And I said..."

The terrorist on the phone raises his voice for a moment, screaming Bible verses at the negotiator or whoever on the other end of the line, and then he throws the cell phone against the wall where it shatters into a hundred pieces.

"I said I wanted to die surrounded by my loved ones."

Monday, April 24, 2017

Story 215: Cultural Exchange

The human steps onto the station from her shuttle, and walks into the scanner.  It flashes - no weapons.  I pity her, though there's nothing I can do for her.  By tomorrow she will be a slave the same as me; the Gaunvans collect ambassadors like trophies.
"Hello there!  Amanda Thorn, ambassador for the Empire of Humanity.  You're a Ixian, correct?"
Mimicking human body language, I nod my head.  "That's correct.  Ix Malasan.  It is an honor to meet you."
She smiles, reminding me again that she has somehow modified herself to breathe atmosphere suited to the Gaunvans rather than wear a respirator like myself.  Other than that she appears to be a standard human, something I am led to believe is less and less common as they pursue the bizarre compulsion humans have to alter their bodies.  Changing hair color, adding pigments to their skins in patterns and pictures, growing long tails or ears that mimic other species from their planet.  No other known species tampers with their bodies like this.
"Not to be undiplomatic, she says, "but the Gaunvans enslaved your people.  Why are you here?"
"We... reached a mutually beneficial agreement.  We would have lost in combat and been eliminated, so we chose to preserve what we could of our culture.  The Gaunvans are not naturally skilled at diplomacy, so they bring me along to assist and to show that peace can be made."
She nods.  "Understood.  I can respect that choice.  How much freedom do you have, personally?"
Smart of her, to start planning for her future. "A fair amount.  I have free reign on the ship when we are in transit.  At the homeworld I have reasonably comfortable quarters."
"Have you ever met the Empress, or...?"
"Oh, no.  No, while on the homeworld I am confined to my chambers - but they're quite spacious."
"Shame.  Okay, plan 'A' then.  Let's get this over with."

Despite my attempt at encouraging diplomacy, the Gaunvan commander starts with threats.  I don't know why I bother.  He looms over the human, chitinous plates almost black in the dim light.  His pod of six is posted around the room, for show more than for actual security since she followed orders and came alone and unarmed.  "Failure to surrender will bring the full wrath of our army upon you.  Humanity will be crushed, and wiped from the universe."
To her credit, she looks very calm.  "We live in a post-scarcity society.  Bloody conquest just seems silly, doesn't it?"
"It is for the glory of Gaun!"
"Well, I'm not prepared to get into a religious debate with you," she says, "since I doubt there's anything I can do to change your mind.  Since you're committed to this course of action, what are you willing to offer if we surrender?"
Now he goes back on script.  Maybe I am getting through to him a little?  He talks about the benefits of being enslaved, mainly the protections for up to twelve designated culturally historical sites.  They've been mostly good on their word on my homeworld, though they did use the area just outside of the Hahhn Memorial as a waste dump.

She nods as she listens.  There was a part of me that was worried she would argue, because the humans are somewhat childlike.  They don't understand the horrors of war.  Certainly they fought in the past, but the last time they had to battle was more than two of their generations ago, so these ones have all grown up coddled and soft.  They play games with each other instead, silly competitions.  They make art, and play pretend, and alter their bodies for fun.  They don't have weapons anymore, and wouldn't know how to use them if they did.
"Well then," ambassador Thorn says, "this is about what I expected.  On behalf of humanity, I would like to formally reject this offer."
Oh no.  Foolish humans.  The galaxy will miss your innocence.  The commander makes an excited clicking noise, looking forward to combat.  He reaches a blade-tipped hand towards ambassador Thorn, but hesitates as every device in the room bleats out an alert - we've all lost communications with the outside.

Like one of the dances humans do, she gracefully pivots around while taking his hand.  She ends up close to him and places her other arm against his thorax, then... oh gods. Gods, what... she's ripped his arm off.  It's not possible.  The commander is clearly thinking the same thing, staring in mute shock at his dripping limb.
"I'd like to extend a counter-offer," she says, and flips the arm around before jamming the bladed end into his neck.  The warriors around the room are fidgeting, uncertain.  They haven't been told to attack, and don't want to dishonor their commander by intervening in a fight with such a small creature.  She's still holding the commander's severed arm in his neck, but she rotates and heaves, lifting him off the ground with it for a moment... and then his head pops off, landing squarely on the conference table.  She allows the corpse to slide to the ground, and straightens her clothes as if they aren't covered in ichor.

I don't understand.

The warriors, now with no orders at all, finally act.  She smiles as they come for her, I suppose because she has done her duty to send this powerful message of resistance.  She can die in peace.  Or... no... She's killing them.  She's smiling because this is fun for her.  Though they're partly killing themselves; if there had been two of them, prepared, strategic, they might have prevailed.  Watching six panicked fighters get in each other's way while trying to stop a smaller, faster, and somehow impossibly stronger foe is almost hypnotic.  At least one is killed by the stab of a friendly lance due to pure confusion.  It's over faster than I would have thought possible, severed limbs strewn across the room.  I've got some fluids splashed across my clothing.  Only one yet lives, and he is retreating.  She seems to be allowing it.

She follows behind, holding a lance.  The wounded and scared warrior scurries down the hallway towards his ship, looking back behind him as he goes.  She's just... walking.  Calm.  And for some reason I'm following.  The last Gaunvan reaches the airlock and the second he enters his code she throws the lance - throws it! - and spears him.
"Come on, we're stealing their ship."  She says it like this is the most normal thing in the world.
"There are thousands more on board!  Thousands!  Almost all warrior caste!"
She smiles again, and keeps walking.  I see errors on the screens that we pass, messages indicating communications have been lost.  They can't tell anyone what is happening here.  Even the communicators within the ship are on nodes rather than being wired, so the warriors at one end of the vessel won't be able to coordinate with the other end.  Do they even know they've been boarded?

We enter the bridge after she kills a handful of other guards with ease.  They're too shocked by her presence to act in time.  Once the door are sealed and she is working on the control systems she starts talking to me again.
"Well, you know, we do like to be prepared."
"But you... you ripped his arm off."
"Yeah, that was super satisfying."  She looks at me appraisingly.  "Oh, come on.  Is it really that surprising?  You knew we were into changing ourselves, right?  Being strong enough to pop an overgrown bug's forelimb off isn't rocket science."
"Your people are so peaceful..."
"Oh, sure, most of them.  But we did that, too.  Tweaked ourselves over the years to decrease aggression and some of our tribalistic tendencies, increase empathy... all stuff that can be undone if needed.  Though for a good cause even the nicest of us can squish a bug or two."
"You bond with Ry'ling devourers!"
"Those are the big fuzzy guys that look like cats, yeah?  Those guys are adorable!  But... look, liking some things that could kill us doesn't mean we'll sit back and get enslaved.  We didn't put up with it well when we enslaved each other, and we certainly aren't going to go for it now that we're... finally... on the same page about slavery being unacceptable.  It was, uh, a longer time than we like to admit before the last hold-outs were convinced of that one."

I can feel the ship un-dock.  We're moving.  "What about all the warriors on board?  They'll break through the doors eventually!"
"Not according to this control panel here.  Take a look."
It says there's no atmosphere in the rest of the ship.  Life signs are negative on all but two of the warriors, presumably the only ones that got to their suits in time.  She disabled all the safety measures, somehow.  She just killed... I check the life signs readout again to confirm the number... three thousand, six hundred, and fourteen soldiers.  Wait, how is it tracking that unless... "Are communications back up?"
"Yeah, I'm calling some friends.  The military is right around the corner, so to speak."
"But Earth doesn't have a standing military."
She laughs.  Not just a little bit.  She's actually doubled over for a moment, unable to catch her breath.  "Sweet Jeebus, you guys actually fell for that?  No standing military.  Have you read about us at all?"

Three ships appear seemingly out of nowhere, and one docks with the Gaunvan vessel.  Once the atmosphere is restored we head to the airlock to meet them, and I'm surprised by an entire platoon of Gaunvan warriors.  Speaking English.
"Okay boys, send your last goodbyes!  This is in all likelihood a one way mission.  Commander Thorn!  It is an honor to see you again, and might I say you look exquisite drenched in the blood of your enemies!"
She bows to him, blushing, and then salutes the Gaunvans.  Or... humans?  Can they change themselves this drastically?
"You've got two holed up in here somewhere.  Bridge is clear, have the techs bring the new brain on board."
"New brain?"
She looks at me like she's forgotten that I'm here, and then turns back to the others.  "Men, this is our new friend Ix Malasan who has just been liberated from his captivity.  He's going to be helping with our intel.  Malasan, yeah, a new brain for the ship.  Once this vessel is cleaned up and back in service with a new crew we'll be able to take it over whenever we want even if all of our boys get killed.  We cooked up a really sadistic AI for it."
"But how do you know the protocols?  This was your first contact with the Gaunvans, they've never lost a ship anywhere near here!"
"No?  There wasn't a mining colony disaster two years ago?"
"But that was just an accident... and you weren't even involved in the war yet... and..."

The faux-Gaunvans have finished boarding.  The one that was talking to them before puts a bladed claw on ambassador - commander - Thorn's shoulder.  "You coming with?"
"Naw.  Orders said I could only come if they allow ambassadors near extremely high value targets.  Malasan here says they don't, so I need to wait for my next mission back on Earth."
"It would have been nice having you with us, Thorn.  Well, maybe we'll see each other again.  Suicide mission or not, I think I've decided to live through it."
"Bold choice," she says, and kisses him next to his lower mandibles.
He nods at me, then turns back to his men. "Okay everyone, we are now officially on the job.  And what is that job?"
In unison, they start chanting.


For a moment I nearly feel pity for the Gaunvans.  Nearly.  Commander Thorn leads me off of the ship, and I start thinking about what useful information I can provide the 'harmless' humans.  Fuck shit up, indeed.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Story 214: I Traveled to the Land of the Dead and All I Got Was This Lousy Pun

Harkhuf took another sip of water as he looked out over downtown Duat.  It had taken some time for him to get used to the perfectly black void hanging over the city, but everything else had been a pleasant surprise.  In the distance, across the river, he could see the towering residences of the Gods - they were a bit tacky, but he supposed if anyone was allowed to flaunt their status it was an actual deity.

 Harkhuf knew he should be meeting with those Gods rather than some over-eager merchant, but he wasn't looking forward to the journey.  As if reading his thoughts, Qenna started talking again.
"So now you come to the twelfth gate, and He-Who-Dances-In-Blood finds you wanting.  You could let him dismember you and throw you into the river to be devoured by crocodiles, or you could give him an offering."
"And what is this offering you wish to sell me?"
"No!  That's the beauty of it.  I don't need to sell you anything.  You see, what He-Who-Dances-In-Blood wants is your liver."
Harkhuf glanced down at his bag, where he was currently storing his organs.
"But... I need my liver."
"Indeed!  Giving him your liver would put you in an awkward situation, as you would escape but be unable to stand before the Gods even if you passed the twelfth gate on your next attempt."

 Qenna was selling something, no matter what he said.  Harkhuf wished the merchant would just get to the point.
"What if I told you there was a way to get a spare liver?  And not just a liver, but all of your organs - save your heart, of course."
Spares? "My body has never had spare organs.  How would I get them now?"
Qenna's grin became almost predatory.  "I can teach you.  I have, in my possession, an expanded edition of the Book of the Dead with a spell that will allow you to transfer ownership of your organs to me - and I am prepared to teach you that spell!"

 "Wait." Harkhuf put his water down and narrowed his eyes at the merchant, "Did you just say the spell lets me give my organs away?"
"Just so.  In return for learning the secret of the spell, you would cast it and gift your canopic jars to me."
A chorus of gasps erupted from the streets below as Thoth, god of wisdom, thundered past in the form of a baboon.  Harkhuf and Qenna both bowed low until they felt sure he was out of sight.
"Where were we," Qenna muttered, "... you would cast it... gift your canopic jars..." he straightened up, back on script, "And then you would be free to teach this spell to others!  For each person you help to learn the spell, you would collect their four canopic jars and pass three on to me.  Then as they teach newcomers they will do the same!  Soon, you will have more organs than you know what to do with.  Imagine coming before the Gods with a wagon full of intestines, the spirits that had been guarding the gates having cast their knives aside and gorged themselves on the lungs and stomachs of others!  Truly, this would be the way to show the Gods how powerful and clever you are."

 Harkhuf nodded.  His canopic jars were not particularly ornate, either.  If he obtained some more impressive ones, surely that could help his cause.
"So... I give you mine.  Then when I get others, I give you three of the four.  Then when the ones I train get organs they will give me three, as I gave you?"
Qenna nodded, "And you will in turn pass two of the three to me, then likewise you will pass one of the two from the next source down."
"What?  Why should you get so many?"
"Harkhuf, my dear friend.  Don't you want to have riches here in the afterlife?"
"Yes, of course."
"Then you should be thrilled to give so much to me!  Whatever you give to me is what others will give to you!  You have only one Qenna to answer to, but will have multiple people gifting jars to you!"

Harkhuf thought through the process once more, but he had to admit it made sense.  Reaching out, he shook Qenna's hand.  This was going to be a very lucrative business.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Story 213: The Welcome Committee

The mound of strange electronics on the table, with its tangle of wires and tubes, reminded Mayor Cynthia Green a little too much of the abomination.  She adjusted the grey knit cap she had been told to wear and tried to think of something pleasant.  She failed.

Her brain was entirely occupied with the colossal twisted mass of tentacles and eyes ten miles away on the beach.  Her beach.  It had appeared without warning, unfolding in the air while emitting a glowing light of a color she had never seen before and never wanted to see again.  Everyone could feel it inside their minds, this disgusting otherworldly presence that Mayor Green could only describe as "like a crusty boat oar made from living cockroaches being driven through my skull" when the mysterious agents arrived.

They said they were with the government.  She wasn't totally convinced, but the hat they had put on her head made the feeling go away - it had weakened after the initial rush, when the thing finished appearing and collapsed into an unholy pile on the sand, but it was still there in the back of her head until she put that ridiculous beanie on.  And the special agents had helped with the evacuation, too, so whether or not they were with the government wasn't her top concern.

"Will this thing kill it?" she asked, looking again at the electronic parts.  Some of it reminded her of medical equipment as well, like an ambulance had crashed into a Radio Shack.  The agent nearest her looked around as if trying to decide if he should ask for permission to answer her, and when he didn't see whoever he was looking for he gave up and replied.
"No.  Actually, this should help us talk to it."
"Why do you want to talk to it?  It's pure evil!"
"Yes, ma'am.  We're aware.  I assure you we don't intend to make friends with it, but we may still be able to learn something.  You felt what it was like to have psychic contact with it?  Well, this will let us talk to it without letting it actually touch our minds."

Cynthia felt it would be better to just drop a bomb on it, even if it did mean she ended up being mayor of a toxic crater, but she didn't feel equipped to argue about it.  She settled for shrinking away into a corner until suddenly the device squawked to life.

"Gnípla philka bladíl am seiubn? Oup philka xsclant? Dhur líthult uyg tiu lírd dhíck."
The voice came from speakers sitting at one end of the table, and despite the bad sound quality the alien syllables made Mayor Green shiver.  Agents swarmed around the table adjusting knobs and looking at readouts.
"Can you hear me?  I'm here representing the inhabitants of this world and would like to talk to you."
There was some crackling, and a sound like walking through thick mud, and then a deep voice.
"Yes.  Hello?  Is this better?"
Everyone around the table shared a look, though Cynthia couldn't tell if it was a good look or a bad one.
"Yes, much.  Thank you.  Can we ask what your intentions are on our world?"
"Ah.  Well at the moment I'm actually having some difficulty.  I could really use your assistance."
This had to be wrong, Cynthia thought.  This couldn't be the voice of that unnatural thing on the beach.
"And how would we be able to assist you?"
"Well you could send some sacrifices, for one.  I got distracted, and all the mortals ran away.  They're all out of range, sadly, and so I can't make them come down and climb into my mouth.  I could chase them down if I weren't so hungry... so you see my problem.  I just need a little something to get me going, and then I'm sure I could take care of myself."

Cynthia revised her prior assessment.  That sounded more like a hideous monster from outside of time and space.
"We aren't prepared to let you eat anyone.  That's really a deal breaker for us."
"You should be coming down here yourself!  Why aren't you feeling my... am I on speakerphone?"
"Er... so to speak?"
"Well it's your word, not mine.  I don't even know what a 'speakerphone' literally is.  Just.. look.  This would go so much better with a direct mind to mind contact."
"We aren't prepared to do that either."
"COME ON!" the voice whined, sounding a little scary but mainly like a petulant child.  "I tried to do it right, tried to show up looking like something that would strike fear into your pathetic mortal brains.  But - and this is in no way my fault - you people have no concept of your own physics!  You think something this big and slimy can just scramble around eating you?  Obviously not!  I'm structurally unsound!  My physiology is absurd, frankly, and now I'm too weak from falling all over myself to change shape!  Couldn't you have pictured something with a better design?  What's with all these tentacles?  And the eyes!  They're just... sprinkled around!  I'm staring at parts of myself I can't even locate.  What possible purpose do they serve?"
"I see your problem.  Hang on, we're going to see what we can do."

The agents flipped a switch and went into a huddle, whispering furiously.
Cynthia cleared her throat.  "I know you already said this, but… you're not planning on actually helping it.  Right?"
They seemed to come to some kind of conclusion, and flipped the switch again.
"Thanks for waiting," one said, "while we can't send humans down there right now we do have some other life forms.  Could you eat fish or dogs or something?"
"Maybe.  I suppose it could tide me over.  It should really be something with language."
"Gotcha.  Good to know."  They all took turns nodding, and then one looked at Cynthia and winked.  "If your body is causing problems, would it help to chop it apart?"
"It would be difficult for you to cut, and you'd probably melt your skin off with my ichor."
"What about burning it?"
"It's pretty moist.  And that seems reckless."
"What do you mean, reckless?"
There was a string of alien syllables, and then a sigh.  "Look, just come and climb into my… one of my mouths."
"What's wrong with the burning plan?"
"Well I think my internal fluids are flammable.  You might not be able to stop it, and if it gets out of control before I consume a few of you I might perish."
"And you would die entirely, or just go back to where you came from?"
"Well I don't know.  Possibly die for good, like some stinking mortal.  Why do you ask?"

Cynthia watched the agents' van hurtle down the street towards the thing.  The cell phone towers were overwhelmed, but she was sending runners with notes:

Monday, April 17, 2017

Story 212: And Ye Shall Receive

"Next!" a priest bellowed, and a ragged young man with a fishing pole in his hand stepped forward.
"Hmm.  Hmm, Dan.  Your, hmm, holiness.  Dan Fisher.  Hmm.  I was here, hmm, yesterday?"
High priest Ozwick remembered, because the boy's vocal tic drove him insane.  He considered asking the Goddess to fix it, but decided it would be too frivolous, and not really in her wheelhouse anyway.
"Yes, yes.  You had earned a favor by saving a holy relic that thieves threw into the ocean." That had been embarrassing.  It wasn't even truly thieves, not professional ones.  It was just some drunken locals that thought the finger bone of a long-dead high priest would be a funny thing to take with them on a night on the town.  Frankly, the Goddess had probably helped them out in the bar fight they caused after leaving the temple.
"Hmm.  Yes.  Hmm.  Yes your holiness.  I, hmm, hmm, asked for a hmm, favor to help with my, hmm, fishing."
"And you've come to thank the Goddess again?"

The boy looked nervous.  He made that infuriating noise several more times, and then finally spoke, quietly.  "No.  Hmm.  I'd like to give you the fishing rod, hmm, because I don't - hmm - want it anymore but it's hmm blessed by the Goddess hmm, hmm.  So throwing it hmm out seemed... hmm... disrespectful."
Ozwick nodded.  He was really only nodding to agree that throwing the thing out would have been insulting, but the boy took it as total agreement and handed the rod to the closest priest before bolting for the door - leaving a trail of faint 'hmm' noises in his wake.
"Next!" the priest by the door bellowed.

Hierophant Stephanidis looked down at the fishing rod he had been handed.  He managed to nonverbally signal to the high priest that he was taking it somewhere, and walked out.  It had been ages since he had tried fishing, and the pole caused a warm feeling of nostalgia to well up in him.  As he walked into the courtyard, however, he frowned.  The fisher boy couldn't have a lot of money. Giving up a fishing rod - especially a blessed one - would be a large sacrifice.  What had he asked for?  Something about never failing to catch fish.  A logical wish.  On a whim, Hierophant Stephanidis loosened the hook and flung the string forward into the ornamental pond.  There were no fish kept in the pond this time of year, and yet he immediately felt something pull on the end of the line.  The potential this blessed object held bloomed in his mind.  The church had a facility on the East side of the city meant to feed the homeless... they just needed to put a tub of water out back and they could get all the fish they needed for free!

He pulled the line sharply, and a very angry tiger emerged from the small ornamental pond.  Well, nobody had ever said his job would be a boring one.  Taking careful steps towards the closest doorway, Hierophant Stephanidis thought back to the day before.  Had the boy specifically said 'fish'?
"Haha, no.  Good one," he said as he backed away, "Praise Eris."

Friday, April 11, 2014

Story 211: Home Repair

Steven grunted as he finally managed to pull the outer covering open.
"Are you sure you had to rip it open like that?" His wife asked, "Are you going to be able to seal it up when you're done?"
Steven dug through his toolbox for a wrench, wondering why he had twelve flathead screwdrivers and no Phillips. "Janice, honey.  I told you, there's no other way to replace the pump - this thing wasn't made to be fixed at home."
"Well, then... should we call someone?  A professional?  Or at least your brother - you know he's always been the handy one in your family."
Steven held the wrench aloft triumphantly. "Got it!  No, I can figure this out myself.  If we call someone they'll charge me three hundred dollars and then say that they don't carry parts for the older models."  Locating the pump, Steven sighed and put down the wrench.  The replacement part he had purchased had easy-connect valves, but the original didn't - meaning there was nothing to easy-connect to.

Janice looked around the kitchen, at the usual mess that Thanksgiving preparation always generated interspersed with tools and yellowed instruction manuals and plastic packaging from parts.  It was a disaster area.  "We could order out.  Get Chinese food.  We could even have Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow, Grandma won't know the difference anyway.  She'll wake up tomorrow and we'll tell her it's Thursday, and by the time she realizes she's a day off she won't know or care when she got confused."
"No." Steven was digging through a pile of connectors, most of which were the identical copies of the same wrong part. "I can fix this, and we can still have a nice dinner.  Go... reheat the stuffing or something."
Janice resisted the urge to dump a bowl of cranberries over his head and busied herself tidying up.  She managed to get the worst of the mess contained at least, and did an admirable job ignoring the occasional sounds of grunting, dripping, and snapping.

"Okay.  I got it.  The new pump is in, everything is flowing right... and I don't see any leaks.  Thanksgiving is saved!"
Janice put down the pot she was rinsing out and gave an almost entirely non-sarcastic round of applause.  Steven set to work getting everything reassembled, resorting to the use of a mallet to get the outer cover back in place.  When he was done, he stood and admired his work.  Janice put an arm around him and was about to thank him when she saw something on the floor. "Sweet heart, what's that?  I think something fell out."
"It's fine," Steven said. "That's... it's just an extra part.  You always have parts left over."
"I really don't think you're supposed to have bits just laying around."
"Well, I'm not prying the old thing open again.  Here, let's just try it."
He reached down and shook Janice's grandmother, who slowly opened her eyes and looked around.
"Where am I?  Is dinner over?"
"Grandma," Janice said slowly, "you had a little heart failure.  We think it's all fixed.  Do you feel okay?"
There was a troubling pause, and then she nodded.  "Y... yes.  But maybe a little tight in the chest?  And... do you smell potatoes?"

Janice and Steven both looked at the counter directly above where Grandma had been laying.  One... two...
"Steve, weren't there three baked potatoes up there?"
"Oh, damn it."

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Story 210: Back to the Multidimensional Drawing Board Analogue

"Okay, so picture a room.  There's a control panel with a ton of dials and a big red button, and - sure - a cute poster of a kitten and some stale coffee in a mug and whatever else would be in a control room.  The dials are different sizes because some of them have different numbers of settings, and each one is for some basic law of physics.  There's more dials than you might think, because some of them are set to 0 in your universe so it would be hard for you to even figure out they exist.

"So now imagine that someone has the job of sitting at this desk and adjusting dials, and then pressing the button to send the settings to the production floor.  He's on duty until he has churned out every possible combination of settings, which is some absurdly large number that I don't have time to calculate.  It's big enough that describing it as big isn't really sufficient.  He doesn't get overtime for this.

"When the production floor gets a full set, one of each combination, they make each one into a universe.  This all happens at the same time but for the sake of this example let's pretend they churn them out on a conveyor belt.  So there are some, actually quite a lot, that sort of fizzle and collapse on themselves instantly.  That's fine, that's expected, nobody freaks out.  Then there are some that are more stable but still not self-sustaining, and those get some sort of red mark from the quality control guy as they slide past on the conveyor, shrinking or crumbling or whatever it is they do.

"If the person at the control panel could see this he would cry, he would threaten to quit out of frustration because it would be obvious that a huge number of the failures were predictable.  He could watch for a bit and then draw some lines next to some of the dials with a permanent marker because any universe, any at all, with a setting of more than N on this dial will fail.  There are other rules that are more complicated but still pretty observable, and he could make a technical manual talking about all this but he won't because it wouldn't change anything.  They'll make all of the universes every time.

"But despite this wasteful behavior, they get a lot of useful universes.  There are so many, even with all the failures, that it would still be a stupidly large number.  Many of them can't support life as you know it which might make you think that they're pointless but that's only because you have a sadly limited view on the business end of the whole multiverse thing.  Others have plenty of life, and one of them is your universe.  That's obvious, of course yours is in there somewhere - but what isn't immediately obvious and causes some people a lot of distress is that there are other universes nearby with such a tiny difference in settings that you're in there, too.

"This has to be a small difference.  Really small.  In most cases, even the smallest difference there is would keep you from being born because over time, from the conception of the universe to the present, that difference is magnified.  Picture our control room guy getting bored and removing two dials, nearly the same size.  Roll them once on the floor and they both end up in the same basic place.  Roll them ten times and you may see some difference.  Roll them a thousand times and they're pretty far apart.  It's like that.

"But that's partly a function of time, and guess what one of the dials is for?  What I'm saying here, is that the smallest unit of time is still a discrete unit, and if you change the size of that unit you get universes aging at different rates but with the same events taking place.  I could talk here about quantum stuff, things being truly random, but the short version is that they're not random they're just seriously complicated and when you think you see something that's in an unresolved quantum state there's still no actual chance involved in which way it resolves.

"So you could be out there, somewhere, although not an infinite number of you because as I said even the smallest difference grows, like the space between dials as they roll across the floor.  If your quantum of time is 1, and mine is 2, and the next guy's is 3 - these being incredibly small differences, you understand - then after one objective external unit of measurement the times are 1, 2, and 3.  But next they're 2, 4, and 6.  Then 3, 6, and 9.  The gaps get bigger all the time, and after billions of years when you come on the scene you can imagine that there aren't going to be a lot of other universes that currently have a you living there.

"Back to the factory - and I haven't forgotten that beer, I'm picking up the tab so just stay with me - so, right, these universes don't get made just the once; they get churned out every time the guy in the control room completes a set.  If your universe gets made a hundred times, since there's no random stuff going on in it you'll be born and live and die the same way in each of them.  But this example, this is where it would seem to fall apart.  Because in a factory mistakes get made.  Someone drops a screwdriver into the gears, the machine needs to be oiled, a universe gets dropped off of the conveyor, whatever.  Can that happen here?  If so, we're talking about some sort of meta-universe with the other universes in it, and that leads to the question of whether or not the factory was made in a factory, and where that meta-factory was made, and so on.

"If there's no meta-universe it gets a bit foggy talking about relative ages and locations of the universes, and the concept of more of them existing in the same way... it's kinda messy.  Fortunately, there really is a factory.  Like, actually, a literal factory.  And it doesn't need a meta-factory because it's on a complicated sort of self-causing loop, which doesn't violate causality because of the rules of the reality it exists in.  It's not a satisfying answer, but there you go.

"And - no, hang on, we're almost there - you worked there, or someone that was essentially you.  And you've recently had a bit of an accident and been sort of pulled into the machinery, that being in this case an impossibly small space containing enough raw materials for a few decent-sized universes, and as such your position is now open.  And here you are, one of only twelve of yourself available and one of only three that are the ideal age and frame of mind and whatnot, and what I'm asking is if you would like a job.  Yes, yes I'm serious.

"Oh, come back.  Please?  Look, a nice fresh beer just arrived!  Come on, I'm going to be in a lot of trouble if you're not there when they realize you're not there.

"Well, shit."

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Story 209: A Worrisome Plot Hole

On Tuesday it was still there, and Sam couldn't resist any longer. He looked around as if feeling guilty even though it clearly didn't belong to anyone anymore and the street was, as always, empty. Jay's words the previous Saturday sprung to mind. "Dude, leave it. It's probably covered in herpes."

It seemed likely that if Arizona's climate was good for anything it was sterilizing things though, so this warning only made Sam hesitate for a second.  The bag was made of clear plastic, and had PATIENT’S BELONGINGS printed on it along with a space for a name and room number – both left blank.  Resisting the urge to open it there on the street, Sam hurried back to his car and drove home.  Jay wasn’t there when he arrived which was a relief, and Sam started up the washing machine.

An old grey hoodie, nothing in the pockets.  Into the washer.  A pair of well-worn jeans with a dollar bill and a nice looking lighter.  Jeans into the washer, dollar and lighter set aside.  No shirt, shoes, or underwear.  No wallet, or any other kind of identification.  Sam picked up the bag and realized there was a folded piece of paper at the bottom.  He was opening it when Jay walked in.
“Hey, are you washing clothes?”
“Yeah, there’s room if you want to add some stuff.”

Sam crumpled up the bag before Jay could see it and threw it into the kitchen trash.  Once Jay was busy with the washer Sam unfolded the note.
REMEMBER! Your name is Jasper Reynolds. You were born in 1972. Your injuries were caused by a dog. Keep this story straight. Don’t give them reason to lock you up. Recharge time is three days. Just hang on until then.

Sam turned it over in his hands, but that was all there was.  He couldn’t decide if that was interesting or a disappointment.

“Dude, nice lighter. When did you – “Jay’s voice cut off abruptly, and Sam heard something clatter against the tile.  He stepped out of the kitchen and saw the lighter laying on the floor.
“Jay?” he called, but he knew there wouldn’t be an answer.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Story 208: Same as it Ever Was

Tasia stretched and wandered over to the ladder, still groggy from her usual night terrors.  The war had been over for years but the few scattered survivors got to watch reruns every night, bombs falling in their dreams as the entire world burned over and over again.  Tasia told herself that she had gotten used to the nightmares, but she suspected that if that were really true they would have stopped.

As she climbed the creaking ladder from the basement to the main floor of the house she heard a fluttering of wings above her; the pigeons were getting to be a serious menace again.  She looked up and saw them there, nesting in the gap between the ledge formed by the old roof and the new section placed over it in order to cover the massive hole that extended all the way down - which was, of course, why Tasia could use a ladder to get upstairs.  She could have patched the floor like she had for the roof, but something about the indoor crater appealed to her.

There were some things she did plan on repairing, however.  Three of the salvaged solar panels weren't actually hooked up yet, and the water pump still needed work if she was going to take any real showers.  Tasia missed showers.  She started to make a list of parts in her head and was just debating which side of the ruins to search when she nearly tripped over something on the front porch.
"Oh, not again."

She stared at it as if worried it would bite, and then carefully lifted it from the cracked concrete and examined it from all angles.  Benign, inert.  Just a bunch of paper, dye, and toner.  She took a few steps into the front yard and looked in both directions, noting that there was one for each house even though most of the actual buildings had collapsed or burnt down.  She had vowed to find out who was behind this back when it happened the year before, but without any need for a calendar the whole thing had slipped her mind.

"It's just not possible." she said to nobody in particular.  She flipped through the pages of the phone book for a moment, looking at all the numbers that were certainly not in service anymore, and then dropped it back onto the porch with the others and headed off into the ruins in search of something more practical.