Cow

The boy stared at the cow. The cow stared back. What began as a casual stroll had led him here, face to face with a beast the likes of which he had never seen. He knew only the picture-book shadows of cattle. To him, a cow had always been a smiling, mooing little friend on the page, a lovable oaf coloured in crisp white with clumsy black splotches. The creature before him now could scarcely have been more different. It was brute of earthy brown hair and muscle, dwarfing him in all dimensions. Its face was hung in a bitter, joyless glare, pocked with fat black flies eager to partake of its squalor.  This, he felt, was not an animal that could moo. It would communicate only in throaty, invective lowing, and then only in the event that its mere presence was not enough to terrify. How he cursed the naivety of just minutes prior.

Their eyes were locked. He was trapped in a meeting of minds. Within that massive skull, a brain was seething. Stunted and weak compared to his, but keen enough to have already judged that he was a stranger, an invader. It was surely now observing his weakness, pondering the slightness and fragility of his body. For his part, he had already come to understand his role in this encounter. It was Behemoth, and he the lowly Job, resigned to be ground back into dust should the world will it. The cow could destroy him instantly, just as soon as it chose to do so. He been cast into a world where meat and hoof overwhelmed all human advantage. Paralysed, he dared not proceed down the path or retreat back along it. He could but wait until his conqueror’s blunt mind arrived at his same conclusions. It had the right to kill him, and he the right only to futile protest. This was nature’s own commandment. The greater force has the privilege and the obligation to erase the lesser.

His heart leapt as the cow’s head lurched, before returning to rest. He stood, shivering, for minute upon agonising minute. How stupid and yet how awesome his subjugator was, to have dominated him so utterly but to be so slow in observing it. As time crawled on, a sense of indignation stirred. Could the monster truly not understand the implications of its superiority? Did it not appreciate the nuisance, the competition that he represented if left unchecked? Did it not also see the ease with which he could be removed? This creature was free of humanity’s aberrant, distracting sapience. It was a sage, a prophet, a jurist of the most fundamental code. Its brain was a slate upon which truth itself was etched. All the while mankind resorted to petty glosses and hermeneutics, to moralities and other flights of obfuscation.

Indeed, its blessings were enviable. In both might and wisdom, he was wretched compared to it. And yet, it would not act. Despite having every license and every reason to kill him, it did not. As a missionary of Gaia’s own truth, was it, the strong, not compelled to trample him, the weak, as its own needs dictated? There he stood, an alien, a pest in the cow’s domain. For all it knew of his intentions, he was there to soil its grazing fields and reap its calves. Even now, in his still obedience, he interrupted its rumination. Its continued inaction in the face of such trespasses from such a weakling was nothing if not a heresy, a foul betrayal of the natural order. He felt an urge to scream, to inform this dullard of these errors that were so apparent to him. But he also saw that it would be just as egregious on his part to invite death. Clearly, a life must do all it can to endure.

It seemed he had survived. He was relieved, to be sure, but outraged in far greater measure. His life was forfeit the moment he strayed onto this part of the trail. He had not retained it through any virtue of his own. He was alive only because an adversary, his superior in Darwin’s great contest at that moment, had refused to enact the laws of nature that it embodied. It was a slight, a torrent of spit aimed at the noble face of philosophy. Still, those same laws prevailed, and in his weakness, he was powerless to oppose their desecration.

Feeling i­­mpotent, bewildered, and impassioned, the boy stormed off. He resolved to crush the first insect he saw.

The End

Leukocyte (i)

Somewhere in the middle floors of the city, Inspector Dionne was waiting for her target. It was quiet, especially for lunchtime, and she couldn’t help but feel conspicuous. She was in a booth at a small yassa bar, the sort of spot typically favoured by ageing men looking for a midday drink. Not exactly her demographic, and not exactly ideal. But there wasn’t a good alternative. Half the street was boarded up, the other half even less apt than here. She wasn’t overly concerned about it. It wouldn’t matter if she was made, as long as the right guy walked through the door before it happened.

The proprietor was giving her sideways glances. Given his associations, he had good cause to be suspicious. Whatever else happened, he wasn’t going to be going home tonight. She sipped her tea and watched the headlines scroll by. Residential unit collapses on floor 48. American Federation yet to launch third warhead for the day – the slowest rate in two decades. Ten dissidents arrested in upper floor gathering. New filtering units to reduce cost of clean water by twelve percent in the coming period. Et cetera.

A few minutes passed. This was pushing it. The target was ‘Jefferson’, the latest in a highly select line of Federation infiltrators. Given his calibre, he must have had a good network. He might have caught wind of something, gotten spooked. There was still a slim chance that he was just running late, but she doubted it. These people tended to be meticulous. She moved her hands into her coat. It seemed increasingly likely that the firearm would be necessary. An assassin would be wearing something too thick for the nerve gun to penetrate.

Another few minutes passed. That settled it. She’d apprehend the owner now, try and get some information that way. Just as she stood, a young woman in a combat suit burst through the door. Dionne shot her in the neck before she could fire, training the nerve gun on the bartender with her other arm in the same motion. The whole thing was rather flamboyant. It felt like one of the manoeuvres that the idiots at the academy would attempt whilst failing their evaluations.

“Was this you?”

“What? Please, I…”

“You work with these guys? Federation cell?”

“No, no, no I just… food and drink, that’s all.”

Time for a snap judgement. If Jefferson knew that somebody was after him, he’d almost certainly try to enact whatever plan he had rather than go into hiding and attempt to rebuild. No time to waste on somebody who didn’t know anything. This man didn’t know anything. She fired the nerve gun and started walking. Her cochlear implant rang as soon as she hit the street.

“Mahmud?”

“Correct. What’s the situation?”

“Jefferson didn’t show. Sent a gunman instead. Assailant dead, proprietor incapacitated.”

“For arrest?”

“Yes. Send a unit, but it’s not urgent.”

“Roger that. I’ll add one fatality and one arrest to the file. What now?”

“Jefferson must be about to make his move. Set the internal threat level to critical, get all available resources on the case and let’s see if we can pull a lead in the next ten minutes before it’s too late.”

“Are you certain?”

“Yes.”

“Shit, OK. What’s your next move?”

“I’m heading to the office on this floor, southwest quarter, unless something changes. Dionne out.”

“Got it. Hopefully I’ll buzz you before you get there, or we’re probably fucked. Itani out.”

He wasn’t wrong. It was about a ten-minute walk to the office. If Jefferson had something ready enough to action, and it was likely that he did, he was surely going all-in on it now. She was falling behind. If nothing came up soon, he’d be too far ahead to stop. A device would be detonated, a vital system disabled, a biological agent released… something. She found herself now, suddenly, in the same moment that the greatest of her predecessors had shared. The brief, eternal window in between the die being cast and the number showing. The moment at which all preparation ceases, all relevant wheels are already in motion, and only blind luck makes the choice between certain defeat and the continued possibility of victory. Parts of her brain remained utterly focused, committed only to discerning and performing the optimal sequence of actions given the information available. Other parts flailed in numb panic. She did her best to ignore them.

The implant rang.

“What have you got?”

“Well, it’s something. Some uniforms caught a long-range connection in the northwest quarter of your floor. Not too far from the office. I’ll redirect them.”

“Good stuff, Mahmud. What are the odds on this guy?”

“Well, he’s got virtually no form, but the surveillance algorithm has him flagged from locational data. Must be associated somehow, right? Given the timing.”

“Agreed. Put the arrest on the file. Dionne out.”

“Itani out.”

She passed a beggar, and gave him a sizeable donation without breaking stride. She was back in business. Dissidents respond like bacteria. They thrive when it’s warm, but if you pile on enough heat and pressure, only the extremophiles remain. Those are the hardcore, the ones with serious ties, who truly believe in what they’re doing. The higher-ups had been stomping out long-range internet connections for months, long enough that all the everyday rebels were out of the picture.

She arrived at the office before shortly before the lead. ‘Office’ was generous – they were glorified armouries and interrogation rooms down on these floors. Just two small rooms, and a cubicle for decontamination if needed. She took the opportunity to refresh her equipment, then indulged in a glass of water and a deep breath.

It was a young man, no older than his mid-twenties, skinny and understandably panicked. Pale, which may have been the root of his Federation sympathies. The analysts could unpick that mess later. She took him into the interrogation room, sat him down, and applied a localised nerve gun blast to his legs, paralysing them. This would be ugly. It was the sort of situation that she would go to great lengths to avoid, on any other day. But there wasn’t time for great lengths. She needed a geodesic.

“What’s going on?”

“Shut up. Look, I’m sorry about this. But I need everything you know about a Federation operative. I think you know who I mean. And I really don’t have time to talk you into it.”

“What? No, don’t…”

She attached ‘the device’ to his arm, set the timer for three minutes, and walked out of the room. It was, fortunately, sound-proof. She turned away, shut her eyes, and tried not to think about it. Her own record during resistance evaluation was eight minutes, forty-two seconds. That was considered exemplary. Those tests also served as a reminder that the device was for use as a last resort only.

He was sobbing, caked in sweat when she returned.

“Information. Everything you know. Or that’s going back on and I’m walking out of here.”

“J… Jefferson? That’s what you’re calling him, right?”

“Correct.”

“I, I don’t have m-much.”

“Do you know his plan?”

“He’s going to disable the nuclear defence grid. I don’t really know how. I think he has someone in the NDB, maybe. Disable the grid, let a strike through on the upper floors.”

“Is it ready? Can he do it today?”

“Probably. Probably. He had me put a signal out on the long-range maybe half an hour ago, but I don’t know what it meant. The plan was not today, but I think he’s going to try.”

“That’s it? That’s all?”

“Yes… yes.”

“You’ve met him? Describe him.”

“Um… ah. Only twice. White, of course. You would expect that. About your height, average build. Green eyes… shaved head.”

“Contact details. Implant frequency if applicable, current phone number if you know it. If he’s moving today, he must have given you something.”

“He did, he did… fuck. Give me a second.”

“Precisely one second. Go.”

“Try 7431-8011-8019. I think that’s it.”

“Got it. Listen, I’m sorry for that, I am. You’ve been good. Keep it up and things should be painless from here on. Be valuable, they should keep you alive.”

She turned and accelerated to a brisk pace, bordering on a jog. She fired up her implant.

“Mahmud, I’ve left the source at the office. Get a unit to him.”

“Sure. What did you get?”

“Jefferson’s targeting the NDB somehow. I’m heading to the interlayer elevator now. He’s ahead of his schedule, so we may have a shot.”

“You sure? That’s going to cause an utter shitstorm if true. Place should be completely watertight, impossible to compromise…”

“I’m sure. How many of our people are in there?”

“Four.”

“Let them know. Jefferson’s a white man, about six feet, shaven head, green eyes. Average build. Don’t know if he’s going there in person, but odds are good.”

“Will do. Current elevator code for B17 is… 54772. Anything else?”

“54772. Got it. Give our lead a green mark. He was compliant. I used the device.”

“I’ll put those both on the file. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Dionne out.”

“Good luck, Inspector. Itani out.”

She reached the elevator, entered, and dialled the code. High-security floor codes were kept very close to the chest, and changed every hour. Jefferson probably didn’t have it. He was most likely using a maintenance route. Much slower. The difference in speed would erode most of his head start. She afforded herself another deep breath, then signalled Jefferson’s number into her implant. Anything to slow him down. There was a click, and the connection was made.

“Yes?”

“Jefferson.”

“… right, that’s what you’ve been calling me. I like it. An inspector, I presume? Care to introduce yourself?”

He was willing to talk, then. Either he was in transit and could afford to waste time, or he hoped to confuse her in some way. He was making a mistake, she felt. If his plan was at all solid, this was his game to lose. Her best approach was to throw everything at him, hope to shake his confidence, encourage unneeded haste or caution.

“Dionne.”

“Well, I hope you weren’t too rough with my poor comms officer. I know how barbaric you people are.”

“You’re planning to compromise the NDB. You’re heading there now.”

“Oh, you’ve been busy I see. Well you’re correct, but you’re slow. It’s been compromised since a couple of days ago. I’ve got… substantial leverage over somebody inside. Substantial leverage. And I’ll be exercising it very, very soon. Then it’s goodbye Nuclear Defence Bureau, goodbye Pan-Africa. God, my blood’s pumping!”

“Your boy told me that the plan was to target the upper floors. That’s not true, is it?”

“Indeed it is not. You’re surprisingly capable, considering the obvious. No way in hell the Federation is going to waste a window like that putting one warhead into one layer. This whole place is going down, and all of us with it. It’s just hard to recruit people if you tell them that. Not a great pitch.”

“This is an ostentatious plan, Jefferson. More so than your forebears.”

“Oh, look at you with the words, sounding all educated. You don’t fool me! Anyhow, my forebears were worthless jackasses. Dinosaurs. I’m the new shit. Christ, these things are slow. Do you not have engineers on this continent? Well look, I’ve got a few seconds. Tell me that I’m going to fail. Tell me that you’ll stop me. It’ll be funny.”

“We’ll see how it goes.”

“That we will. Oh hey, my stops’s coming up. Be seeing you soon, sugar. We can spend the rest of our lives together.”

There was space for exactly one more deep breath before she arrived. She was about to conduct the most urgent, most critical field operation of the last six years, inside the most sensitive facility in the city. That was how it went. They were locked in a cold war that seemed desperate to ignite. Any assignment could veer wildly into crisis at a moment’s notice, and you just had to keep pace and stay on it. Discern and perform the optimal sequence of actions given the information available. The rest, the difference between nothing happening and nothing surviving, was a roll of the dice. There she was again, trapped in that moment outside of time, where everything is to play for and nothing is to be done. There was a sort of quivering, nauseous frenzy attempting to distract her. It would fail. She couldn’t control her adrenaline, but she would be the undisputed master of her thoughts. The situation demanded it – anything less than perfection in the coming minutes could mean extinction. Her grip tightened, her breathing slowed, and the fog cleared.

The hum of the elevator went silent. She had arrived.

The End (i)

Infant Industry

There was a crowd outside. More accurately, there was a mob outside. But that was nothing new. The Stanton Clinic had grown a permanent skin of picket lines and protest signs, a snug little blanket of eggs (the irony) and death threats (ditto). For all the nuisance that they caused him, Stanton couldn’t help but pity the assembled opponents of his enterprise. They were pouring an awful lot of themselves into their efforts, and they weren’t going to see much return on that investment. Even their detrimental effect on staff morale had lost its edge. The intimidation was a factor, certainly, but that began to change after the first few months of no actual assassinations being carried out. The fear was increasingly replaced by righteousness, by a sense of virtue in continuing with one’s work in spite of the urban barbarians at the gates. Some of the technicians were now comparing the business to the other great, trailblazing victims of intellectual history, fancying themselves the modern-day counterparts to Galileo or Socrates. Stanton found the comparison asinine, but was more than happy to encourage it if it served as an aide to productivity.

No, the crowds outside had ceased to be a cause of concern. They would either fade in time, or a major incident would justify a more proactive approach to their removal. Rather, he and doctor Lindgren were facing a fresh hurdle. The pair sat across a conference table from their first dissatisfied customers. Mr and Mrs Fassburg were here, he strongly suspected, to attempt to coerce a financial settlement from him. Mrs Fassburg drummed her fingers impatiently over the glass tabletop. Her husband wore a face that looked like it was attempting to retreat into itself. It seemed that she would be doing the talking. Between the two parties was the product at question – the two-month old Philip Fassburg. He had been administered with a light sedative following a unanimous agreement that, although the child’s presence was necessary, his consciousness would probably be detrimental to proceedings.

Stanton had the case file. Lindgren had just received the test results. She was sitting with her left index finger over the top-right hand corner of the document. That was their ‘all-clear’ signal for situations like this. Either they weren’t at fault, or there was nothing in the baby’s samples to prove that they were. In all honesty, Lindgren would probably have been able to jargon these two into oblivion if the situation called for it. As far as he knew, and he was confident in the knowledge, this was a strictly no-lawyers, off-the-record affair. If the Fassburgs could afford decent legal counsel, they would have brought someone, and if they were undercover journalists, they would have to be miraculously good actors as well. It seemed that he was in the clear, whatever the complaint was. Even if he wasn’t, it was a bad idea to consider the possibility now.

“Well.” He said. “Let’s begin. Mrs Fassburg, I take it you have an issue with an aspect of the service we provided to you and your husband?”

“Yes. Yes I do.” There was a faint waver in her voice. Either genuine distress, or just nerves. “We do, I mean.”

“OK.” He said, slowly and evenly, as he might address a child or a pet, if he had any. This was a fresh venture, but customers are the same wherever you go. He had developed a number of robust approaches to their handling. “Could you walk me through it?”

“Could I walk you through it?” She replied, forming the beginnings of what was almost certainly a crocodile tear. “Could I walk you through it? Look at him! Look at what you did to my son!” The tear dropped. A nice touch, assuming it was ingenuine.

At this point, all present realised that, having placed the young Philip equidistantly between the two sides, he was out of reach now that they had taken their seats. With an awkward sigh, Stanton half-stood, leaned over, and dragged the crib over to his end of the table.

“What a beautiful baby boy.” He said, laughing internally at the obvious, shameless conceit of the remark. “You should both be very proud.”

“Well we’re…” She stopped herself, presumably before the word ‘not’. “Never mind. Just look at his feet. He’s disfigured!”

Stanton began reaching his hands into the crib, but thought better of it. Better to have the professional take care of this part. Besides, babies made him uncomfortable. He found them to be warm and squishy in ways that did not seem entirely human.

“Doctor Lindgren? Could you…”

Lindgren nodded, and slowly pulled the crib over to her seat. With this done, she hoisted Philip out at a speed that showed supreme confidence in her sedative, and peeled his socks off. The toes were fused together, in a fashion that he would describe as ‘gruesome’, were he feeling uncharacteristically candid that day. He resisted the urge to vocalise his displeasure at the sight. Lindgren moved in for a closer inspection, a quizzical look on her face.

“We paid you and your… your ghoulish little business because you promised us a perfect baby. You said that you could make sure nothing was wrong with him, and… well, you know we wanted to do it naturally, but…”

“You were worried about a history of autism in your husband’s side of the family, and you knew from prior screening that you were a carrier for cystic fibrosis.”

“That’s right.”

“Yes, and that’s very noble of you, If I may say so. It’s cases just like yours that made me want to put my funds into this industry. Let’s see… I have the initial interviews here, along with your specification. In addition to our standard preventative package, I note that you dipped into the cosmetics as well.”

“Yes, well. In for a penny…”

“…in for an additional few thousand pounds. I understand. Look, I admire your commitment to giving young Philip here the best life you could, right from the beginning. And I’m not going to say that blue eyes and blonde hair aren’t a part of that. If I believed that, we wouldn’t offer the service. So please take me at my word when I say that I am heartbroken to see that your efforts have met with this stroke of bad luck.”

“A stroke of bad luck! My son is going to have to spend his life as a freak because of you and this… this scam that you’re running!”

“Mrs Fassburg, please. If we can be calm and think about this for a second, you’ll see that we…”

“You’ll see that our process successfully delivered every element of the specification.” Lindgren had decided that it was her turn. Fair enough. Stanton himself knew almost nothing about how their process actually worked, and so was a sitting duck in the event of any questioning. Lindgren, with her obvious authority on the matter, probably wasn’t even going to have to field any. “Today’s screening confirms that the boy is free of any genetic disorder in our testing battery. My eyes confirm that the genetically implausible cosmetic elements have also been achieved.”

“What are you saying? How can you be saying that you did your job? Look at him!”

Mrs Fassburg paused for a breather, managing to generate another tear in the process. Her husband placed a supportive hand on her shoulder. Stanton was not convinced.

“I am saying that the defect did not occur within the scope of our procedure. This must have been a developmental issue, during gestation. Perhaps just bad luck, perhaps something to do with the womb environment, or diet, or substance intake. That sort of thing.”

“You’re blaming me? You are actually blaming me? Oh, I’m sure the press will be very interested to hear about that.”

“Well, to the extent that blame is relevant to the situation, I would say that…”

Stanton panicked for a split second, and then jumped in.

“…that the blame doesn’t fall anywhere. But that it certainly doesn’t fall with us.”

Good save. Mrs Fassburg stared daggers into the pair of them. Mr Fassburg stared far, far into a distant nothingness.

“May I have my son back?” She growled.

“Of course.”

This time, he was able to slide the crib back across the table in one smooth motion. It felt strangely satisfying, in a tactile sort of way.

“Look, Mr Stanton, Doctor. All I’m saying is that me and my husband are at the very least entitled to a full refund. At the end of the day, what we got just isn’t what we paid for. And believe me, we really went out on a limb to make the payment. To try and make sure that our child would be healthy. We want a refund, and we want some sort of compensation for all the distress you’ve caused us.”

“And I do feel for you, I do. But our service is embryonic screening and modification. That’s what you paid for. And our tests demonstrate beyond any doubt that this service was adequately rendered.”

“Perfectly rendered.” Added Lindgren.

“Well, would that stand up in court?” She asked, with a hint of menace. Stanton thought to himself that it would soon be time to change gears from ‘patronising’ to ‘threatening’.

“I would stake my professional reputation on it.” Replied Lindgren, unfazed.

“Fine. Then we’re going to the press. I’ve seen the crowds. You’ve got a target on your head, and I’ve got a bullet.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t advise that.” Said Stanton, gear change in progress. “We’re prepared for hate. Been dealing with it since day one. You, on the other hand… well, you’re not going to come out of this smelling like roses if you want to start flinging shit.”

“And how’s that?”

“Firstly, you came to us in the first place. That lot out there aren’t going to forgive you just because you’ve got ammunition for them. They’ll take what you’ve got to give, but they’ll still be slashing your tires and spamming your Twitter, mark my words.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Secondly, we have solid evidence that Philip’s feet aren’t a result of our process.” Lindgren had observed the change in mood, and seemed more than happy to follow suit.  “Moreover, we’ll be happy to point out that we have a staff of in-house, professional surrogates, whose services we offer free of charge to all clients at your purchase level. We do this precisely because it massively reduces the instance of congenital anomalies such as Philip’s. This is because the development can occur in a controlled, monitored environment, completely free from deleterious factors…”

“… such as cigarette smoke, alcohol, substance abuse, dietary imbalance, impacts, other physical stress, or, God forbid, traces of anything that could be perceived as a deliberate attempt to engender a malformity in the hopes, say, of strong-arming a settlement from us.”

“We would of course be loudly, obstinately insistent on a blood test from you in the event that this story reached the general media. It would be vitally important to us as an organisation and to me as a scientist that we spare no effort in getting to the bottom of this tragedy.”

“How dare you!” Snarled Mrs Fassburg. Mr Fassburg nodded in approval. “Not only do you threaten me, but now you’re saying that I… that I could even possibly have deliberately done this to my poor Phillip?”

“Look.” Now was the time to dial back down to ‘conciliatory’ and polish this business off. “I didn’t mean to imply that. And I’m not saying that you mishandled your pregnancy. Well, not any more than any ordinary person does. All I’m saying is that nobody here wants to get into this. You know it. We know it. You’re not getting anything from us beside what you already have. And that’s a son. A blue-eyed, blonde-haired son with impeccable genes and some unfortunately misshapen feet. Maybe by the time he’s ready for school you’ll have enough in the bank to get that ironed out, maybe not. Either way, you’ve got something worth a lot there. You should be happy about that, for his sake and yours.”

That seemed to do the trick. There was a series of awkward, angry glances across the table, and some half-hearted promises of continued pressure. Well, he’d heard plenty of those in his time, and had not once regretted the decision to ignore them. Security could see them safely to their car.

“I think that went well.” Said Lindgren. “But it was quite frustrating. You can deal with the public on your own from now on.”

“Oh, you get used to it. I don’t know how things go in your world, but in mine, people are pretty much all talk. The key is not to take it at all seriously, and just hit the right notes at the right times. Like a really half-assed piano recital.”

It was at that point that a brick crashed through the window, passing within an inch of Stanton’s head before landing violently on the table. Trailing from it was a banner bearing the word ‘abomination’. He sprang out of his chair in shock, then stifled a tirade. Lindgren seemed amused.

“I suppose that’s a kind of talk. Lunch?”

“Rain check. I’ve got meetings. Something about a government contract…”

The End

Truce

A lone tent stood on a field between nations. Without, an emptiness watched by scores of hidden guards. Within, two of the most powerful names and four of the bloodiest hands in history. This was the first moment in generations for which the swords had been sheathed and the dialogue opened.

The two men were silent. They sat cross-legged, in the old style, separated only by a steaming bowl of mulled wine. For as bitter and fractured as their people had become, they still shared this tradition.

“It tastes like your people’s.” Sighed Ing of the North.

“Funny.” Said Lok of the South. “I was going to say the same.”

This struck both men as a fair exchange. The talks could continue. Lok was first to make his offer.

“I propose… I propose a mutual surrender. You keep your half of the valley, I keep mine. We leave it at that.”

“No. My people will starve.” Ing’s response was immediate. He was not wrong. Both North and South had grown beyond their means.

“As will mine. But the war is a heavier burden. Our peoples have slim prospects without it, none with it.”

The torchlight played across Ing’s sooty eyes. In this moment of calm, pensive tension, Lok could not help but ponder the hate that those darker irises stirred in his people. At last, Ing spoke.

“Let me tell you a simple nursery story from the north of the valley.”

“Very well.”

“There was a village, its champion, and its cow. One day, a demon came from across the valley and took the cow. So, the champion left the village and went to the lair of the demon. They fought, and the champion was badly hurt, but eventually slew the monster. He was bleeding, and hungry, and he knew that he would die if he did not eat the cow. But, of course, the villagers would die if he did not return it. The choice was easy. The champion used all of his strength and led the cow back to the village. He was given a hero’s funeral.”

“And how do you interpret this tale, Ing?”

“It is simple. The meaning is that a true champion will make any sacrifice for their people.”

“Even however many more centuries of war against us demons?”

“Even that.”

“You know, we have the same story in the South. Only the end is different. In ours, the champion dies halfway along the road back. The cow wanders off into the forest, and the villagers starve.”

“Typical of the South. Ignoble and depressing.”

“If you say so.” Said Lok, unfazed. “To us, it stands for discipline. It teaches that it is pointless to reach beyond your means, even for a good cause.”

“In neither tale do we allow the demon to eat the cow.”

“Correct. But here we must diverge a little from the realm of fable, and concede that what we really have is two villages – or two demons.”

“What are you getting at?”

“In the tale, we know who deserves the cow. In reality, it is both of us, or neither.”

“Both or neither being the same, of course.”

“Yes.”

“Then make your point. I’m eager to hear the specifics of your folly.”

“That did not befit the occasion, Ing.”

“… I apologise. Continue.”

“In the story, for all our options we have the power to save only one thing – the village, the champion, the cow, or the demon. I argue that we must save the cow. Let there be no conflict, even if we both fade painfully from nations back to villages. We cannot determine which of us, if either, is the virtuous party, and so it is only equitable that neither of us be privileged. It is the only fair way.”

“You would lay down and die rather than believe in your own virtue?”

“Do not mistake me – I will fight for as long as you fight, and my sons for as long as yours, just as my father fought your father until the dying breath of both. But the time for virtue is long past. Perhaps one of our forebears was more aggressive, greedier, less noble.  Who can say? Now we are just two armies, alike, at a stalemate, fighting for two nations that suffer equally. Let the land win, while anything still can. Let us both suffer in peace.”

“Your argument is sound, going from the southern tale.”

“Thank you.”

“But you have forgotten ours. The champion must sacrifice everything to bring back the cow. I will cast aside every moral. I will cast aside even reason itself. I know my role, and I know what it demands.”

“Typical of the North. Rigid and ill-conceived.”

“Proudly so.”

“It is a fine argument, after its own fashion, but only if you can be certain of victory. You cannot. Rather, I would say that a conclusive victory is beyond either of us by now.”

“I see that you praise my argument without understanding it. When we lack certainty, it is only because we have failed to shed doubt. When we lack a path to victory, it is only because we have failed to shed weakness. One of us is a truer champion than the other. One of us can sacrifice one shred more, climb one hand closer to being the archetype. That man will win this war.”

“I would not be so sure.”

“Then you give me confidence even now.”

Lok sighed. Were he alone, he might have allowed himself a tear. He could not debate with a man capable of priding himself on the absence of reason. He would meditate on it, but he saw no path open to him but that of violence. Ing stared silently at his lifelong adversary – a fairer, slighter man than a northerner, but not by much. There sat a man, trusted to lead his people, who would choose mutual doom over any chance at victory. A man who would drag the North down with him no matter what path was chosen.

For a while, nobody spoke. Outside, the assassins in wait finished killing each other. A formality, really. They could have simply kept each other in check.

The wine-bowl ran dry.

It occurred to them in that moment that a single move could settle things, one way or another. But neither man would take the opportunity. Blood and wine don’t flow together – the unbreakable custom that both peoples shared. Guests at a wine-meet cannot harm one another until fully one day has passed. This tent was the one part of the land that was at peace.

“I thank you for your time, Ing of the North.”

“And you for yours, Lok of the South.”

“We will meet again, I think.”

“Yes.”

And with that, they parted. In the nascent, twilit chill they turned their backs to one another and walked past the bodies of their men. Perhaps Ing is right, thought Lok. Had I been able to shed my honour, I could have cut off the head of the snake. Tried to subdue his followers in their shock. Perhaps Lok is right, thought Ing. Perhaps I can only be so strong. Perhaps my efforts will serve only to put more bodies on the pile and more grief on my people. Still, they shared a common certainty. The next time they met, there would be armies between them.

 

 

The End

Vexed

Dr. Coan lived a quiet life. It was a life so quiet, in fact, that anybody choosing to observe it would find themselves rapidly crippled by boredom. Fortunately, nobody to date had made that mistake. Coan’s carefully preserved set of routines and hobbies was thus safely contained, radiating only into the life of a man who was, for some unknown reason, content with these choices. As it happened, he rather liked his life.

He did not, accordingly, like surprises, nor was he fond of disruptions. His hatred for anything truly exceptional, needless to say, was the stuff of legend – or at least, it would be, if the cultural standards for legendary status were in a deep, traumatic decline. It was an irony of similar proportions, then, that his later years came to be so utterly dominated by exactly one such aberration.

It began one Saturday morning. This was a Saturday morning that itself began at the predetermined hour of nine o’clock, with the long-since-planned expedition to the front door for the retrieval of that morning’s newspaper (the digital world and Dr. Coan were not on speaking terms). Sadly, or perhaps mercifully, that was as far as the day’s schedule was to advance. Resting on top of the expected item was the stuff of nightmare – a squalid, nasty little symbol of life’s unpredictability. That symbol came in the outwardly mundane form of a letter, which, by virtue of the hand-written address and recipient (one Dr. Coan), was impossible for him to ignore or prejudicially destroy. Only two stops into his morning, and he had been derailed. This was one of the worst Saturdays on record.

There was nothing for it. Loathe though he was to deviate from his plans (and he was intensely, almost indescribably loathe), this letter demanded his immediate attention. Moving to his writing desk, he suppressed the twinge of boyish glee that he experienced whenever he had occasion to use his father’s letter opener. It was, admittedly, a nice letter opener. He prised the envelope open with a gentle, professional hand, and took just as much diligence in extracting its contents. There were two items. The first, a note:

Good Morning Dr. Coan”. It read. “Here is a riddle for you. I hope you enjoy it.”

That was it – nothing on the reverse. Certainly mysterious. It was written in the same hand as the front of the envelope – an ambiguously flowery, yet confident script, marked out by a black ballpoint pen. Coan fancied himself something of an amateur graphologist, but this self-perception was generally not borne out in practice. Realistically speaking, the most he was likely get from a sample of handwriting was guesswork notionally disguised as reasoned analysis.

The second item was a bundle of perfectly regular squares of card, about the same size as post-it notes (those being, of course, a mnemonic crutch that imperilled the noble art of proper study). They were bound together by a neat bow of string, which was a nice touch, such that only the blank, white faces would be visible unless he opted to untie it. This was not a light decision to make. In doing so, he would be acquiescing to the will of this stranger, casting aside his beloved routines in favour of the new, unproven directives of another mind.

It remains unclear as to why he took the plunge. Perhaps a deeply-hidden spontaneous streak had chosen that precise moment to make itself heard from beneath stratum upon rigid stratum of conscious structure. Perhaps one of Dr. Coan’s many rules simply demanded that he fully engage with any messages sent his way, and the total absence of any such communication had been saving him from exactly this sort of situation for years. Perhaps the tactile joy of opening a letter had inspired a rush of physicality that now filled him with a lust to cut string. Whatever the reason, the string was cut and its contents unleased upon the world.

Those contents were:

  • On separate cards, the numbers ‘48’, ‘3’, ‘12’ and ‘20’.
  • A sketch of a flag. A brief recourse to his bookshelf revealed it to be that of Guatemala.
  • The letter ‘D’.
  • Another sketch, this time of a flowerbed.
  • A diagram showing the keys of a piano. The B-sharp was labelled as such.
  • A card that was entirely yellow.

Needless to say, Coan was perplexed. This was presumably the promised riddle. His first and most reasonable impulse was to discard it and move on with his day. Indeed, he made numerous attempts to do so, following through on his planned activities (breakfast, a short walk along the river, a cup of tea in his reading room…) with what he felt to be stoic determination. Still, he was unable to derive his usual, delightfully neutral enjoyment from the routine. Put simply, he was distracted, pulled away from his isolated pleasantries by stray, vandalistic thoughts of the letter – its sender, their motivation, the puzzle contained within, its possible solutions. His was a life comprised of secure, contained certainties, and some stranger had thrown a monkey wrench into its delicate machinery. It was an affront to his way of life, to basic good manners, and to his intellect. It would not stand.

With quiet, meticulous wrath, Dr. Coan spent much of that afternoon and evening slaving over the riddle. For a man who wore his technophobia as a badge of honour, this was a time-consuming business. Fuelled by tea and indignation, he leafed through books and rifled through the dusty old pigeonholes of his brain. The hammer of his inquiry soon came to be focused on the most readily available nail, namely the puzzle of the nine cards. Considerations as to the sender’s intent, the purpose of solving the thing, or indeed anything else fell to the wayside as he poured his energy into this exercise.

It was not until the Sunday afternoon, following a reluctant but necessary pause for sleep, that he arrived at a solution that he felt was satisfactory. This placed him firmly before the implacable brick wall of working out what to do with this success. Tired, and having experienced a full cycle of venting and resolution by this point, he conceded that the many further questions relating to this event could go happily unanswered. His quiet, ordered life could continue untarnished.

It could continue untarnished, until the following Saturday.

There, at the foot of the door, at the pre-determined time, at the end of the long-since-planned expedition, was another letter. Inside, a note, and a bundle of seemingly arbitrary words, images and numbers. There was a minute or so of disbelief, followed by perhaps ten minutes of inarticulate fury, followed by perhaps ten hours of dedicated puzzle-solving. Then, most insidiously, came the days of trying to discern his tormentor’s identity, of holding a magnifying glass to letters in an attempt to pick out details in the ink, of staring down passers-by on his road, of cross-referencing the two sets of cards in a hunt for synthesis. All of which served to keep him fastidiously occupied until the next Saturday, and the next letter.

This went on, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, for some number of years. Whenever it was that the real tipping point came, nobody was around to see it. Dr. Coan’s withdrawal into complete obsession went utterly unnoticed by a public and social eye from whose line of sight he had long since disappeared. Being that his life was so deliberately and thoroughly self-contained, he must have felt each further step he took to be a natural and reasoned one. Even as his home was consumed by networks of card and volumes of notes, even as he spun hours away in the consideration of small pictures of fish, sequences of roman numerals, dots, dashes, diagrams, definitions…

With shocking alacrity, he became fully submerged in a world of only two parts. Each week, the same note arrived, written in the same hand, with the same pen, bearing a fresh batch of unrelated stimuli. Each week, he slaved fastidiously to meet the challenge set by this mystery quizmaster, and then to assemble the larger, unifying solution in whose existence he had become so faithful. With nobody to stop him, to provide some words of reason or mere distraction, the only way to break the loop would be if he willed himself to do so. And this, he would not do. His commitment was well and truly escalated, his costs well and truly sunk. A person possessed of the wherewithal to escape such a trap would likely never have fallen so deeply into it.

No, Dr. Coan’s story was not told in his own time. In fact, only he and one other uniquely disturbed individual knew a thing about it – until the bills stopped getting paid. They found him at his desk, fingers wrapped around the antique letter opener, its tip halfway through the seal of another riddle. He was perhaps fortunate not to have lived to see his mystery dismantled by uncaring hands, packaged away into the obscurity it most likely deserved. It can be hard to see that not all questions have answers.

The End

 

 

 

Maculate (iii): Noodle Soup

Theo dropped his cup of ramen. Steaming, greasy broth rushed over his lap, turning much of his lower body into an agonised, lightly spiced floodplain. He closed his eyes, gritted his teeth and breathed ferociously through his nose until the scalding sensation abated. So much for breakfast. A deeply ingrained frugal instinct stirred, offended at the loss of a perfectly good meal (in the most relative of terms).­ Somewhere, his parents were turning in their wrongly impecunious graves. Even the notion of consuming instant noodles would have sent them into a frothing rage, prompted hours of blue-faced, fiery-eyed ranting about the great injustice that had been enacted upon their line of the family. Theo rarely payed close attention to these diatribes, and indeed they did little to demand it. The coherence of the narrative had flagged somewhat as its tellers progressed through their twilight years, but the basic elements were the same. The death of Theo’s great grandfather had prompted a rift in the family, and his grandfather had been on the losing end – dramatically so. As it transpired, total dependence on the family business was not a synergistic combination with intense, venomous animosity from the holders of said enterprise. His grandfather’s line was left to its own devices, deprived to the fullest possible extent of the social and material benefits that their surname would otherwise provide. Those devices were not particularly good. Living the American Dream in reverse, Theo’s parents had been born somewhat wealthy, to a father who was once much wealthier, and were bordering on poor by time of his earliest memories. From there, they had continued to bleed wealth and prestige, until this exsanguination had arrived at its natural conclusion – their son, sitting in a cheap motel, weeping over lost ramen.

“The best revenge is a good life.” – that’s what they always used to tell him. It was a message that was lost to both sides of the dialogue. He had never shared their bitterness, their need to spit back at those who they felt had wronged them. He was perfectly well motivated to live a good life purely by virtue of its clear superiority to a bad life. No revenge needed. His parents, on the other hand, had been so preoccupied with the idea of succeeding out of spite that they completely sabotaged any chances they may have had at doing so. The past was the past, if platitudes were on the menu, and it was best to leave it there.

That being the case, why was he thinking about all this now? Part of it was nostalgia, of course. For all that he disagreed with his parents’ stubborn misgivings, they were part of the backdrop for all of his formative years. He had an aversion to dwelling on the past, but he would have to admit that childhood influences and their bearers are bound together in a Gordian knot – no way to separate the two without recourse to a sword. The main reason for his sudden train of expository thought, however, was that he was about to attend a memorial ceremony for his great-grandfather: Lucas “Senior” Weaver. For whatever reason, the family had gone all out this year. Gone were the small, cigars-and-whiskey gatherings of the men that knew him, or who used to be the sperm of a man that knew him.­­ This year’s event was to be a veritable matinee, a festival of worship – both to one’s ancestor and to the ideology of wealth. Women and children were allowed, even encouraged, to attend (although Theo rather doubted that either group would have a representative at the podium). The whole aim, he was led to understand, was to put on an indisputable show of reverence to a man who would doubtless have appreciated it. As such, the net had been cast wide, wide enough to snare even Theo, living heir to a pruned branch. A suitably chintzy, faux-renaissance invitation had found its way to him. Stapled to it was a surprisingly candid note acknowledging that almost nobody present would know who he was, that those who did would resent his attendance, and that there was no way that he would be able to muster up the resources, financial or personal, to fit in with the rest of the assembly. All true enough. But life, he felt, was best spent steering towards oddity rather than away from it. He didn’t have a whole lot going on, and if you might as well do something, you might as well do it.

First, however, he would have to change his clothes. He was going to be drastically underdressed for the occasion (partly by necessity, partly by design), but a pair of jeans soaked through with cheap, salty broth would probably be pushing it. He was going with something more like business-casual, in a field that he expected to consist largely of business-exorbitant. Farewell for now, moth-bitten motel room.

Twenty minutes later, he was in a cab bound for ground zero. The event was to take place at the aptly, appallingly named Weaver Legacy Hotel – a building so overt in its purpose, so keen to display its gaudy bluster that it bordered on parody (and yet, remained tidily profitable). Theo had never stepped foot inside, of course. He would probably have been kindly escorted from the premises on any other day, unless the staff mistook him for some nouveau-riche Silicon Valley asshole. Today, he had a piece of paper. As was so often the case, that made all the difference. The driver was pleasantly quiet, leaving Theo with time to ponder his opening move – the manner of his arrival. This event was an exercise in pageantry, and under such circumstances these things mattered more than he would ever understand. The first option was the default. He would have the cab tuck away into a nearby street and walk the rest of the way. He wasn’t there for attention. The second option was to indulge his vandal’s instinct, if just a little, and to take the cab all the way to the castle gate – strut out, puff his chest out and show that he just didn’t give a fuck. Unfortunately, loathe though he was to admit it, he did give something – at least a shit. Plan A prevailed.

His initial impressions of the place and the people were blandly negative. That much was to be expected. The men wore suits, the women dresses, all plainly the output of brands of which he had never heard. The boys wore suits, the girls dresses, eerie little homunculi whose overwrought mannerisms betrayed the fact that their moulding was not yet complete. People looked at him, of course, although they were at least kind enough to wait until they thought he was out of earshot before discussing him. The situation concerning his attendance was a known thing, a little pocket scandal to keep people entertained. He did not engage. He was in a foreign land, didn’t speak the language, and had little to no interest in integrating with its people. Moreover, being fully honest with himself, he was intimidated. He wouldn’t exactly say that he was swimming with sharks, or wandering into the lion’s den, but he found himself at the very least surrounded by cans of worms that he did not wish to prod for fear of opening them. The ushers, powerless to resist his piece of paper with words on it, directed him to the hall where the main event would take place.

The room was… nice. Or, it was making a reasonable attempt to be so. There was a crisp, marble sort of aesthetic, with pervasive, heavy accents of red and gold to everything (very regal). The chairs were aligned at a comfortable distance from one other, fanning out from a stage of sorts at the far end of the room. A chamber group was nested away to one side, its members wearing professional expressions that indicated that this gig was probably going to be more exciting for them fiscally than it would be musically. Taking pride of place was an almost comically large portrait of Lucas Sr., commissioned for the occasion. If his parents’ frequent indictments were to be believed, the man would have loved it.

Theo placed himself towards the back of the hall, and watched as people folded in towards the front. He had the luxury of being the last person that anybody present would want to sit near, which afforded him the perfect little crow’s nest from which to observe things. This isolation made him stand out all the more, and indeed he was at this point keenly aware that he was putting on a sideshow no matter what he did. Every little mannerism or shuffle had become another pratfall. Well, there was no way around that, given the circumstances. There are many, many people who would rather see a fish out of water than in it.

A watery chord from the string section heralded the start of the proceedings. Theo knew almost nothing about classical music (nor, he suspected, did anybody else present), but the musicians did their best to conceal this fact – every piece was something he recognised, performed such that there was no fear of bewilderment, no risk of unplanned artistic expression. If he were feeling cynical (he was), he would have suspected that the programme had been chosen specifically to allow the attendees to feel erudite without ever actually challenging them to be so. To this backdrop, a series of speakers took to the podium to deliver their speeches. These were gestalts of second-hand anecdotes and thinly-veiled self-aggrandisement, chimeras of purported virtue and historical fact, flowery border skirmishes between worship and envy. He drifted in and out throughout this process, catching snippets, sometimes entire passages before once again ducking back behind the sturdy parapet of inattention.

“Lucas was a man who could somehow put both business and family first in every decision that he made.” Went one eulogy. “He despised indolence, but not as much as he adored industry. He was the very model of a kind of businessman that was rare for his day, and still rarer now. His example is one that we should all take to heart, and I’m proud to say that I do my best every day to follow his lead.”

“The history books are going to have a lot to say about Lucas Weaver.” Went another. “Both of them, in fact. But I don’t exaggerate when I say that one day, Senior is going to be in the same conversations as Morgan, as Rockefeller, as Ford. Now, those men may have been wealthier, they may always be more famous, but at the heart of it is the same fire, the same drive to acquire and to expand that defined Senior. Some of us here today may have a higher net worth, may be better known in our particular spheres of activity that Senior was in his, but I can say for sure that not one man present has that vital spark the led Senior to build what he built. The man, to put it frankly, had spunk. Hell, look at how old he was when he had kids. And what fine young boys they were, although we all know how that went…”

“Senior was one of the last generation of American greats. One of the last men from a time that truly embodied the spirit of this nation, the spirit that I believe in so strongly. He did things in a way that just isn’t done today, and I think I speak for a lot of us when I say it’s a damn shame. We’re here in the Weaver Legacy Hotel, a great building and a great business, and yet even as we celebrate the life of our great forbear, the questions can hardly be escaped: where are the monument builders now? Where are the men who are willing not to just to build, not just to optimise, but to conquer? Where are the men who are willing to stand in the light of day and express themselves in the universal language of deeds and capital?”

Etc. etc.

It was… interesting, in its own way. A sort of anthology piece, the themes and elements staying the same throughout, but with each variation being coloured by its author’s particular hang-ups. And as he heard one story about a tough but magnanimous patriarch, another about a shrewd yet unpretentious man of industry, a third about a fiery pitbull who could not be suppressed, he came to wonder at the extent to which the actual subject matter was informing any of this. A no-frills biography of his great-grandfather, by any account an interesting figure if not an admirable one, would have a certain appeal to Theo. This was something different entirely.

These formalities were followed by a wine reception. This was a good thing for a number of reasons – the speeches were over (although the musicians continued their chores), there was free expensive wine, he could stretch his legs, and the possibility of either hiding or leaving entirely was now much more open to him. He wasn’t planning on taking it just yet, mind. Having recently observed these strange, ordinary creatures in monologue, it would be remiss of him not to listen in on some dialogue as well. He drifted about, doing his best to act as a fly on the wall. This was a challenge, since in this case the fly was six feet tall and everybody present wanted to whisper about it behind its back.

Despite these unpropitious circumstances, he achieved some measure of success. He found, much to his surprise, that these people were just that – people. These were conversations he had heard before, an arbitrarily large number of times. The topics and the archetypes were all familiar to him. There was work, leisure and family. There was the loudmouth, the lackey, the smartass. Old skeletons with new skin. The only difference, of course, was status. And it was not an insignificant one. When he had seen these patterns at school, at college, at work, they were defined always in three directions. It was an old oversimplification of his, but he had found it consistently applicable enough to hold on to. A bully, for example, wishes to oppress those below him, impress those on his same level, and spite those above him. This elite were constantly starved of that last element, and so the whole structure became somewhat precarious. Born better than almost everyone (by the rules of their chosen ideology), they had precious few figures to prop up those missing struts, precious few outlets for that upward-facing energy. Their parents, perhaps, or by fabricating legends out of people who were no longer alive to disprove them.

Content with that conclusion, Theo moved to leave. It would perhaps have been entertaining to go hunting for particularly appalling people and phrases, but he didn’t feel any real need to do so. It wasn’t hard to disengage from a social gathering where nobody wanted anything to with him. If anything, he was charitably gifting his absence – no more need for whispers. As he walked away from the assembly, looking (in his mind) like a flea jumping from a pedigree cat, he heard his name. For the first time that day, it was loud, clear, and directed at him.

“Theo? Wait up!”

He turned to see one of the few faces present that he would recognize – Leon Weaver. The heir to the empire, so to speak. The young man who would be next to take the helm, to the extent that there still a single helm left to take. The most privileged among a privileged few. Theo was immediately shocked by how closely this man resembled him, behind the unpronounceable Italian tailoring. For all the vocational and genetic gulf between them, they may as well have been brothers. He had no time to chastise himself for that pathetically sappy thought before he found himself engaging in a handshake.

“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” Said Leon. Somehow, he did not even appear to be lying. His face and voice betrayed intellect, decency, and a few hints of fatigue.

“…is it?”

“Probably. Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

“What do you think of this?” He motioned in all directions. “The Weaver Legacy Hotel.”

“Honestly?”

“Please. And actually honestly, not business honestly.”

“I think it’s ridiculous.”

Leon smiled.

“Theodore Weaver, you and I have many, many things to discuss.”

The End

Maculate (ii): Chocolate

Champagne truffle.

Henry frowned inwardly. Champagne truffles were a bullshit chocolate, and he resented their existence. Still, it was in his mouth now. He was more or less committed.

“You hate those ones.” Deadpanned Lucas.

“Fuck off.”

How could he even tell what kind it was? Smartass. As he lay, sprawled along the pool chair, Henry conceded that he could probably have actually looked into the box of chocolates on his groin before picking one. That, however, would have been totally contrary to his purpose. He was idling, damn it, a pursuit that he took incredibly seriously. It was his artform. A lesser practitioner might have moved their neck to see the box, or moved their shades to be able to see the chocolate as it meandered towards the mouth. A true amateur might even actually venture into the pool.  Henry would not be moved. For today, he was a virtuoso of sloth, a doyen of indolence, an imperator of inactivity.

Salted caramel. For fuck’s sake.

“You hate those ones, too.” Lucas was still there. Great. “Honestly, I’m beginning to question your whole plan of action here.”

“It’s a plan of inaction, dipshit. Now leave me alone. The wife’s out sleeping around, so I’ve got the pool. We take turns.”

“I’m not going to do that. We have business to discuss.”

“No, we don’t. We absolutely do not. That’s your thing. Go home and have a little finance party with Martha, or whatever it is you two do.”

Lucas sighed. After the first sigh, it was pretty much plain sailing to all the way under his skin.

“Fine. Let me lead with the part you’ll like – dad prefers you to me.”

Well, obviously.

“Well, obviously.” Henry took a brief pause to radiate smugness. “And you’re right. I do like that. But what does it matter to you?”

“It matters because he’s planning on leaving all of his assets to you when he dies.”

That almost made him sit up. So strong was the instinct to move that he was forced to quell it with another chocolate.

Hazelnut praline. Dreadful.

“And none…” he smirked, flecks of gooey, half chewed milk chocolate in his teeth. “… to you?”

“That is correct.”

“Well? That sounds perfect to me. Please leave.”

“I know this is going to be a struggle for you, but please stop and think about this. Dad dies. Everything goes to you. You keep waddling about like you always have done. You end up broke. I’m still rich. You lose.”

Lucas must have thought he was a genuine idiot. Still, it was worth humouring the poor sap, for entertainment if nothing else.

“You’re right. No way in hell I’m giving that pile of musty old papers a moment of my time. I take it you have a suggestion?”

“Correct again. You cede the whole estate to me. I take care of the boring end of things, and you get a cut. A bigger cut than you’re getting now, because dad is incompetent. You get to keep… having sex and failing to enjoy chocolates. Or whatever it is you do. I don’t care, honestly.”

“That so?”

“Yes. Dad wants you to take the business because he knows you won’t do anything with it, and he’ll get to enjoy his chain of posthumous phallic monuments in major cities. I’m just going to make money, pure and simple. Well, it’s actually rather complex, but you don’t need to worry about that part. If we leave all the other arrangements in place, we both come out on top. Everyone wins.”

His elder brother seemed to think that he would be willing to leave his money in the hands of somebody who both openly loathed him and openly loved the acquisition of wealth. Poor Lucas. The fact that he was genuinely quite good at some things had been shockingly effective at blinding him to the many, many things at which he was risibly poor. Henry held no such pretensions. He was arrogant, true, and proudly so. But his air of superiority did not come from any heightened perception of his own abilities. It came from the fact that it simply didn’t matter how competent he was. Whatever he did, be it a stroke of genius or a feat of dazzling idiocy, the outcome was the same. He would still find himself laying in the sun, with another fond memory in his brain and another box of chocolates on his lap.

Almond praline. Ridiculous.

“Well?” Asked Lucas, impatience straining through the sieve of his demeanour.

“Hmm? Oh, I drifted off. What do you want?”

“I know you heard me the first time.”

“… fine. I refuse.”

“What.” Lucas was being confronted with his plan’s failure. His outward features grew all the more staid, which was a sure indicator that he was internally distraught. At times like these, Henry found imitation to be the highest form of mockery.

“I know you heard me the first time.”

Walnut praline. At this point, it was clear that he was the victim of some grand cosmic joke.

“Of course I did.” Lucas’s voice was at a half-snarl. “I’m taking this seriously. Perhaps you should do the same. I’m offering you large profits for no labour. That’s the holy grail. I appreciate that your mind is about as rancid as your personality, but even you can’t be that stupid.”

“Large profits for no labour? You mean… like this?” He made a floppy waving gesture with his hand, to indicate all the chintz and splendour of their surroundings. “Sorry, Lucas. Already got that. You’re coming at me with an offer that I can easily, easily refuse.”

Lucas sighed again. The second sigh was the finishing line. He had given up on attempting to regulate his emotions, even if he was yet to realise it himself. As he always did, he had lost both his cool and his negotiating position.

“Henry, there’s something wrong with you. I swear to god. You must be the only person I know who took their silver spoon and cashed out on day one. Look at you! You’re completely inert. You don’t create anything, say anything, do anything. You’re not real! You don’t exist. You’ve got no…“

“Ambition? Ambition, dear brother, is for people who don’t already have what they want. If you actually want ambition, you’re screwed.”

He picked an insufferable grin from his repertoire and made sure to hold it for long enough that Lucas had time truly to appreciate the craftsmanship

“Well, it’s been working just fine for me so far.” Lucas’ attempts to regain his idea of a strong, composed persona were frankly adorable. Ever since they were children, he’d made a big show out of being above it all. Henry had a lifetime’s experience of deconstructing those particular sleights of hand – not that it was really needed. “Care to look at my portfolio?”

“I think I’ll pass. Tell me – you really think you’re happier than me?”

“Of course. I have purpose. Dignity. I’m a model citizen, a model businessman. You’re… you.”

“And yet I’m the one sitting here, having a nice time. Lazing, you could say, on this sunny afternoon. And you’re the one who came all the way out here to try and con his brother out of an inheritance that you don’t even need.”

“That is not…”

“Yes, it is. I get it. You’re smarter than me. You could easily outmanoeuvre me, but you’ve convinced yourself that it would be so easy that you don’t even have to try. Leave the not trying to me, man. You’re clearly not cut out for it.”

Time, he felt, for a victory chocolate.

80% cacao. The absolute worst. The snake lurking in the confectionery-themed Garden of Eden. This was no mere champagne truffle, no trifling praline. There was simply no way to endure such torment. He spat the partly-chewed mess out with such force that it arced gracefully over his shirt, leaving a trail of dark, brown rainfall from his chin to his knee before reaching its final rest in the shallow end of the pool.

At that point, quite unexpectedly, Lucas’ entire form seemed to pulse with rage.

“That…” rasped Lucas. “That right there is everything I hate about you and your shameless little world. You’ve got no tolerance for anything with character, anything with substance, anything even a little bit bitter to go with the constant, nauseating torrent of saccharine bullshit that you insist on guzzling down. Saccharine bullshit that you don’t even like! Your whole lifestyle is based on the idea that everything needs to be sweet, fluffy and free of substance, except, of course, for whatever substance you’ve chosen to abuse that day. The idea that whoever is living with the fewest savoury notes in their life is somehow winning. And you all just play along with it! What? Who made the decision and why are you all so content to eat it up?”

Henry was forced to raise an eyebrow. This really was a step or two above the usual results for baiting Lucas.

“Let me give you a quick history lesson. Your favourite little treat there started life in central America as a vessel for heat and bitterness. Something that was thought of as medicinal, spiritual. That’s the world people used to live in. And now look! We’ve built ourselves a world of glittery champagne truffles and people like you are tricking yourselves into thinking it’s paradise. Well fuck that, and fuck you. I’m done trying to communicate with you and your gaggle of selfish imbeciles. Dad’s going to give me the assets anyway if I give him a token show of filial piety. Then we’ll see how much allowance I think you deserve. Have a nice day.”

With that, he stood, turned, and stormed away, in the manner of somebody who wasn’t at all accustomed to putting on such displays. So, Lucas had another way of screwing him after all. To Henry’s mind, that fact made the whole song and dance preceding it seem a little pointless, but he had never claimed to understand his brother’s perspective. Perhaps it would work, and he would be left destitute, broken and alone. Lucas almost certainly hoped so, moral titan that he was. Perhaps it would fail, and business would carry on as usual. Either way, he wasn’t about to do anything about it. He had his principles, and he would not be moved.

The End

Maculate (i): Blood

The table across from them placed their orders – wagyū, well done. Both Lucas and Lucas Sr. sneered, the derisory curl of their lips almost identical.

“People shouldn’t be allowed in here if they’re going to ruin the product.” Growled the father.

“Well.” Said the son. “I expect you’re happy to take their money either way.”

Senior grunted and made the first incision into his own steak (rare, of course). Lucas sat and watched the old man chew. That had always been the rule. Father wins the bread, and so he gets to break it first. Senior swallowed with a coarse, disinterested motion that seemed entirely disrespectful of the exorbitant prices that his hotel charged for the cut. Everything’s free when you already own it.

With that little ritual observed, Lucas was free to start. He sliced into the meat, immediately releasing a juicy slick of myoglobin onto his sleeve. Swearing all the while, he made a series of hurried, futile attempts at applying a napkin to the stain.

“Two left hands.” Grunted Senior. “Same as ever.”

“Two right hands.” He quipped. His father looked momentarily confused. “I’m left handed.”

“It’s an expression, dipshit. Don’t get smart.”

Lucas took his bite, giving particular attention to the mouthfeel, the structure of the meat. It really was a good restaurant. Shame about the owner.

“That’s interesting.” He replied, eventually. “That’s pretty much all Henry does, and you don’t seem to mind.”

Henry was the younger son, Lucas’ brother.

“Henry’s a playboy. It’s his job to be disrespectful. You don’t have an excuse.”

“You say playboy, I say profligate.”

Senior plunged his next bite into the jus. “Profligacy.” He said, bringing the fork to his mouth. “Is good business.”

“That’s one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard you say. And believe me, the competition is stiff.”

“Oh? You’re giving me business lessons now? I don’t think you know whose world you’re stepping into, kid.”

“Sure, dad. You’re the big-dick magnate, Henry’s the untouchable bon-vivant, and I’ve got more assets to my name than both of you combined. If we’re talking business sense, you’re both microbes compared to me.”

Senior laughed. A thick, nostalgic, malicious chuckle, like honeyed toast and poison.

“There’s your problem, my boy. You’re narrow minded. Only looking at one thing. You think I give a fuck about money?”

“I think almost every fuck you’ve ever given has been about money.”

“Then you’re wrong. And watch your mouth. Money’s a stepping stone, not a destination. I’m in it for greatness. For dynasty. You boys are extensions of that. And frankly, only one of you is pulling your weight. It ain’t you.”

That remark came dangerously close to getting a rise out of him. He squashed the urge. Pettiness and emotivity had always been the biggest constraints on the family empire. That would change, under his guidance.

“Henry’s a millstone. You’re a dinosaur. I fail to see how I’m the one failing to meet expectations. Fuck, any random handful of items in my portfolio is worth more than this hotel that you seem to think is such a big deal.”

“Uh-huh. Truth is, this hotel, or any of the others, has more value than you do. Wanna know why?”

“Oh, by all means. Please enlighten me.”

“Because people can actually see it. It’s real. It’s got my name on it – our name on it. They can look at it and think ‘gee, whoever owns that fucking matters’.”

“Sure. Or they can look at the numbers and realise what’s really going on.”

“They can. But they won’t. The hotels have presence, legacy. They mean something. Your little numbers games don’t mean shit outside of their own bubble. And hey, the people in that bubble think you’re hot stuff. Nobody else does. Henry, on the other hand…”

“The entire world thinks that Henry’s an incorrigible little prick!”

“And they’re not wrong. But they think that he’s a rich little prick. And they know he exists, and they know he has our surname. Dynasty, junior. By your standards, heck, even by mine, he’s throwing around chump change. But that’s pocket money that makes the world look, makes them think that this family is powerful, relevant, and can do whatever it wants. There are quite literally millions of people who read about him every week but couldn’t pick you out of a line-up. When it comes to respect, the kid’s doing his bit.”

“Respect? They hate him! I don’t know how much of a brain you had to begin with, but you must be running on scraps by now. There is no world where Henry draws more respect to the family, to the ‘dynasty’, than I do. I’m eminently respectable. He’s openly loathed.”

“No world? You’re sitting in it, asshat. Every time Henry cheats on his trophy wife, it’s worth more to us than your whole marriage, every time -”

“You mean my stable marriage, founded on ten years of mutual love and respect?”

“Yeah, that one. Nobody cares. Nobody even knows what your wife does.”

Martha is a professor of economics.”

“See! How dull is that? People don’t know who she is. They know Henry’s wife. They know every prostitute, every drug-fuelled misdemeanour, every ostentatious display of idiocy. And that shit’s practically free.”

“All you’re doing is reminding me of how much of an animal he is. No dignity whatsoever. If that’s the flag you want to fly, you’ve got less self-respect than I thought.”

There was that laugh again. Some people spent hours every day stoking their own resentment. Lucas only needed the memory of one sound.

“Oh, he’s an animal all right. Of course he is. But he’s an exotic one. A showpiece. The crown jewel of the family menagerie. Point is, the little peacock splashing money around in public does far more than you accruing it in private. Come on, now. You know it. You’re a dumbass, but you’re smart.”

They ate in silence for a while. Quietly and inexorably, Lucas’ emotions got the better of him. Powerless, frustrated anger rushed through his skin and muscles, easily overwhelming his inner stoicism but being mostly contained by its outer counterpart. His father smirked.

“Look.” Said the old man at last. “Let’s get down to business. As it stands, you ain’t getting shit when I’m gone.”

“What.” Lucas’ face contorted into the briefest of snarls, a microexpressive lapse. Regaining his composure, he still found himself with nothing more to say. “What.”

Lucas Senior laughed, once again – treacle, whiskey and thumbtacks.

“Thought that might put a little fire in your belly.”

“Then you were wrong.” He retorted, unconvincingly.

“Point is, there’s no point me leaving any assets to you. You’d just chew them up and shit them out as bonds and funds. You’re a fucking tardigrade, kid.”

“A tardigrade? That’s a… creative insult.”

“Who said I can’t innovate? Besides, the glove fits. In financial terms, you’re practically invincible. But nobody can see you and nobody’s ever heard of you. Henry’s like a… a panda or some shit. A pointless wreck of a lifeform that can’t survive on it’s own, but draws crowds like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

“And you want to give your money to the philandering, criminal, piece-of-shit panda?”

“Correct.” Senior was plainly enjoying this. “The tardigrade does nothing for me, and doesn’t need any help to do it. The panda shows the world that my empire is capable of sustaining a panda. Pretty clear choice, if you ask me.”

“I’m the eldest.”

“Also correct. Always were the sharpest hammer on the rack.”

“That doesn’t mean anything to an old dragon like you? Primogeniture?”

“You learn that one at college? Anyway, it does mean something. If you were even a little bit less pointless, I’d reconsider. But, as it stands, you’re not.”

Lucas took a deep, growling breath. His father, in his own fundamentally wrong way, was right. He didn’t need the assets. He could generate equivalent wealth in a few short years. And if a self-indulgent desire for legacy was Senior’s concern (as it clearly was), then he was right to be cautious. Lucas didn’t know all the details, but he could be pretty sure that most of these flashy holdings would be better off dissolved.

“Sounds to me.” He said, with a mixture of feigned trepidation and genuine uncertainty as to how the situation would unfold. “That you’re willing to make a deal.”

“There’s my boy. Smartest ant in the farm.”

“Fine. Let’s get it over with. What do you want?”

“Haven’t you been listening? I want you to go out there and make a splash. Make the world know who you are. Show ‘em that our name does whatever the fuck it wants, consequences be damned. Stop being a tardigrade, start being a dancing bear.”

It would have been tempting to attribute that rather unflattering metaphor to Senior’s poor grasp of rhetoric, but Lucas knew that it was probably intentional. His father wanted a public display of bravado, but a private one of subservience. In the more rational corner of his brain, Lucas told his father where he could go and what he could do while he was there, then proceeded to walk away. In practical terms, he had nothing to gain from this arrangement. He had worked very hard, and very shrewdly, to become a tardigrade. He was immensely proud of it. Lucas was not currently residing in that rational corner. He had gone walkabouts. There was a throbbing pain in his hand, a result of having gripped his knife so hard that its handle had broken the skin on his palm. Images of Henry’s consumingly smug face filled his mind, the sound of his permanent and unmerited condescension forming a melody of call-and-response with his father’s  mulled, acidic chuckle.

“Fine.” He said. “Have it your way.”

Rubens saturn.jpg

The End (i)

Bretwalda

Seventeen cycles of revenge, seventeen chapters in the blood feud, and one man left on the throne. One man, old in years and aged beyond them, tired and victorious.

And so he sat, the king, in his court where nothing changes. Peace is stillness, conflict is motion. He had conquered the last attempt at motion. The kingdom lay in pale, breathless calm, not even a twitch or a whimper to disturb his triumph.

The flames of the hearth danced in his eyes, messengers of warmth and comfort wreathed in unfitting livery. His skin roiled at the sight. Memories of hot, pillaging fire came roaring through his mind. In the solitude of the hall, he saw an axe in every stray glint, heard the beating of shields in every creak.

Outside, the wind was picking up. Through the beams, it howled its sombre chants. He wondered briefly if they were those of the old Father or the new. Drums of thunder pealed in the distance. He recalled how, as a boy, he would fear that sound. Those memories had grown strange to him, milky and ephemeral – a fiction.  Those times had passed. He now sat upon the very object of his hopes. His fears had been lashed and scalded into numbness. A false king still feared betrayal. There was nobody left to betray a true one. His old heart would never again beat faster.

He had lived his life. He would die his death. All that remained was to bathe in the nothing in between.

His grey eyes watched, impassive, as a sparrow darted through the hall. From storm, through calm, to storm again, in the space of an eye’s swiftest repose. He sat, unmoved, in the epicentre of his regnal calm. He traced the bird’s path, now empty, from window to window. For a moment too brief to name, the oldest human fear stirred. In the next it was refused, and peace regained its dominion.

The Tomb of the Wrestlers, 1960 by Rene Magritte

The End

Lex Talionis

Apartment 17 – this was the place. There were disconcerting patches on the hallway carpet, with small, many-legged creatures running across them whose names Erin had never bothered to learn. These were one of the particularly ugly sorts. The door to her client’s home would have been utterly charmless even if it were pristine. It was not. The whole affair looked, in all honesty, like a bit of a shithole. The internet had done wonders for the pace of business, but the quality of clientele had taken a correspondingly drastic hit. Probably just another stray failure looking to feel a moment’s power. A sale is a sale, but she was planning on making it a quick one. No point in wasting too much effort on small-time buyers. She gripped her briefcase, straightened her tie, and knocked on the door.

It croaked open. Her initial impression of the client did little to assuage her doubts. About thirteen pounds underweight. Skin pallid, but oily – like a maggot, or one of the other baby many-legged things. Hair slicked in a poor approximation of a style she had seen elsewhere, the excess of product adding nauseous redundancy to the scalp’s own grease. Plastic-looking blazer over a t-shirt with some words on it that she couldn’t be bothered to read. Eyes small, nervous, sad, and feeble.

“Hi.” He said.

“Hello.” She replied. “Mr. Neumann?”

“Yes.” He shuffled awkwardly on his feet. She riposted by remaining almost completely motionless. She wasn’t coming in until invited. He was not obliging. “Erin?”

“You’ll need to invite me in.” She said, pitching her voice with just the desired level of mockery. “It’s a matter of professionalism.”

“Oh.” He seemed sheepish (bad) and resentful (good). “Come in, then.”

The apartment was small, dim, and generally much worse than expected. There was a mound of dirty clothes in one corner, and in the opposite a mound of what she supposed passed as their clean counterparts. Media of various kinds had been hastily ushered into irregular piles, their arrangement revealing that a vain attempt had clearly been made to conceal the more tawdry and disturbing elements of the collection. The air, and everything she touched, seemed to prickle uncomfortably on her skin. It stank. These sorts of living conditions were neither a good omen nor a bad one, business-wise. The specifics of the pornography would probably be elucidating, but she found that asking to look generally ruined the sale. People became either very shy or very excited, and neither was ideal. Neumann had cleared some room at his table, and they sat.

“You’re very pretty.” He said, apropos of nothing. “And you smell nice.”

“Thank you.” She replied. “You’re not, and you don’t.”

The ghost of a snarl played across his face – a hot, shameful twitch of anger before it resumed its default state of vaguely pathetic anxiety. Good. It always helped to identify some buttons to push, and this one was common, sore, and easy to reach.

“May I ask what you understand about my business, Mr. Neumann?” Again, she laced her approach with a calculated strain of condescension.

“You sell revenge, right?” He asked. “But, like…. weird stuff. Occult.”

His small, nervous, sad, feeble eyes looked at her with a mix of pleading and resignation, at once expecting her to laugh and begging her not to.

“Correct.” She said, with only the faintest, homeopathic trace of a smile. “Would you like to see some items?”

“Yes.” His breath caught.

She unclasped the briefcase and set it on the table, opening it such that the lid blocked Neumann’s view. She noted his greedy attempts to steal a glance. At a deliberate, theatrical pace, she began to extract a number of her curios. As she did, she ran through a variant of her standard preamble. It was important to cover the basics.

“There are three fundamental dimensions of payback, Mr. Neumann.” She purred. Here, it would pay to sexualise every word. “Intensity, longevity, and intimacy. We’re going to try and find the right mixture for your needs.”

“All three, please.” He practically vomited the words. Perhaps he would be a big spender after all.

“That can be arranged. Normally, you’d have to compromise. But it depends on how much you want it.”

“What will it cost me?” His lust for revenge was quite heady, pungent even over the stench of the room.

“We can discuss payment once we’ve found what you want.” His eyes were fondling the goods, at once confused and spellbound by the strange collection. “Anything stand out? Use your intuition.”

“What about this?” He pointed to a glass jar. Inside was a squirming mass of thick, long, soot-black limbs. It was not unlike a particularly frantic, particularly bulbous specimen of one of those many-legged things that everybody seemed to dislike more than the others.

“Living curse. You give it a name, and it attaches to them. It feeds on good luck, happiness, and so on. Not very intense, not very intimate, but lasts a lifetime.”

He looked disappointed. People normally underestimated that one.

“This?” A small phial of angry, crimson liquid.

“Bottled trauma. Manifests as something intensely painful – but you’ve got to get them to drink it somehow.”

The second part looked like a deal-breaker.

“This thing?”

“Assyrian ceremonial knife. You can stab somebody with it.”

That one was admittedly a bit entry-level. She only really carried it around because she liked the design.

“None of this is any good.” Cracks were forming. Ugly, petty, profitable rage was seeping through. “I need to really hurt people.”

Erin found that asking customers to pick blindly was an easy way to convince them to relinquish control of the transaction to her. Any feelings of ignorance or submission were a welcome bonus.

“Well, let’s try some more advanced items, then. May I ask who we’re shopping for?”

Neumann eye’s darkened, and shifted to avoid hers. “… them.”

“That’s not very specific.” She cooed.

“Them.” He reiterated, in way that seemed decidedly too plural to be a simple product of relationship woes or bullying.

“So, I expect you’d like something a little more intimate?”

“Yes.”

“A little more intense?”

“Yes.” His nostril flared in some mixture of agitation and arousal.

“Something that keeps going until you’ve had your fill?”

“Show me.”

She curled her finger through the hole of a keyring and jingled it enticingly.

“Keys to your private hell. Room for two. Bit of a double-edged sword, but it’s as nasty and as personal as they get.”

Neumann closed his eyes for a good few seconds, lost in imagination. This idea spoke to him, whispered his own fantasies straight back into his ears. Or at least, his interpretation of it did. People had a tendency to assume that they got to be Satan in this arrangement. They didn’t. Still, when you’re in the business of selling monkey’s paws, you don’t tend to go into the fine print. Whatever he was thinking about, he was clearly enjoying it. She could hear the blood rushing, the proverbial purse-strings loosening, the will becoming ever more pliable.

“It really works?” He asked. Not a particularly probing question, and so one that she was more than happy to answer.

“Oh, yes. Needless to say, nothing’s off the cards in hell.”

Just when it seemed that Neumann was about to take the plunge, one of many possible pennies dropped. She could see the sinking feeling all over his face. Regrettable.

“It’s just for two people?”

“That’s right. You and one guest, permanent or otherwise.”

“Then it’s not good enough.” He looked disheartened, frustrated. “I need to hurt them all.”

“Hmm.” The indecision was, of course, feigned. She extracted two sheets of paper (well, a paper-like substance, the specifics of which are more easily left unexplained). They were covered in a squirming, vermicular text that must have looked like utter gibberish to Neumann. “Contracts of enmity.”

“… what do they do?”

“Well, they’re a bit like cupid’s arrows, but the exact opposite. You choose two groups, I forge their signatures, and they are bound by fate into a bitter, tortuous conflict for the duration of the contract. These ones are drafted up for seventeen million years.”

“I don’t follow. Two groups?”

“Yes. It’s quite simple.” She said this tauntingly. Always room for another jab. “Two groups. Anything that you could reasonably delineate as a faction or category of some kind – I’ll sort the legalese out for you. Rich and poor. Old and young. Men and women. Dogs and woodlice.”

She felt a moment’s pride for having successfully remembered one of the little many-legged things. She was not at all concerned by the fact that their opposition to dogs would make no aesthetic sense to the client.

“And it hurts?”

“Oh, it’s quite literally atrocious.” She gave him her most carefully wrought knowing smirk. Not too knowing, not too smirky, but just enough of both to taste. “Remember the crusades?”

This idea clearly hadn’t appealed to Neumann’s more visceral instincts in the way that the previous one had, but it had certainly caught his attention. He sat back in thought. Erin couldn’t guess the specifics of his cogitation (too primitive), but the basic scent was easy enough to pick out. He was trying to find the right line of division among his hazily defined enemies. One problem with the contracts was that, by necessity, they forced the buyer to think. Neither of them wanted that.

She chose not to employ any of her usual interjections. Neumann didn’t strike her as particularly sharp. Best to let his mind go through its slow motions. Suddenly, and to Erin’s surprise, his small, feeble eyes sprung wide in fear.

“What…” He quivered. “What is that?”

He motioned to something that had not been there before (at least, not from his perspective). Erin turned to look. This particular item took on a different appearance every time she had the chance to sell it. To her left, there was now a huge, jet-black cuboid. It dwarfed both of them, looming from floor to ceiling, and was wrapped in a thick weave of chains, their material unidentifiable. The whole ominous structure rattled with a slight yet constant trembling.

“Oh.” She muttered darkly. “I don’t think you’re going to want that.”

“Try me.” He sounded a little feisty, in a petulant sort of way.

“Well, inside that thing is… I suppose I’d call it a pet. Something one of a kind, and very near to my heart.”

“Whatever. What does it do?”

“Ah… how do I put this in a way that you’ll understand? It’s a thing, an entity, I suppose, that gives exact, exacting retribution to everyone and everything.”

“How does that work?”

“Well, I couldn’t say for sure, and if I’m being honest, even the basics would be lost on you. ‘Weird stuff’, right? It takes something into itself, and then it delivers a precise facsimile of all the hurt that thing has ever caused. Physical, mental, whatever.”

Neumann’s eyes (and pores, and glands) lit up, flaring brighter and more repugnantly than ever before. That was the ideal response. This was her top-of-the-range, luxury item. It simply couldn’t be sold to somebody who was thinking straight.

“It gives everybody exactly what they deserve?”

“Correct.” She tried to put a touch of warmth into the response. “All of them.”

If Neumann stopped to think about how the entity would apply to him, he wouldn’t buy it. If he stopped to think that there wouldn’t be anything left for him to crow over, he wouldn’t buy it. Flawless, universal talion was an idea that required no small print. Its incompatibility with existence was plainly apparent – to somebody who was thinking. Many of her wares were ‘apocalyptic’, in the popular sense of the word. This was the only one that was worse. Time for the hard sell.

“Well, Mr. Neumann.” She said, producing a contract from her sleeve, locking eyes in a way that was both supportive and sultry. “It’s been a pleasure, let me tell you. This isn’t normally for sale – more of a showpiece – but for you, I think I’ll make an exception.”

Neumann was bewildered. Fortunately, it seemed that he was considerably more bewitched by the sum of her sales process than he was bothered by the specifics of the item.

“If you could just sign here.” She motioned, velvety, over the contract and the pen, never breaking eye contact.

“It really works?” He was reaching for the pen.

“Better than you could ever hope.”

“On everyone?”

“That’s right. All of them. Even me.” Well, that second part was an outright lie. Luckily, there wasn’t going to be anyone to call her on it.

With languid, yet plainly excited trepidation, Neumann signed. Erin indulged in a long blink and a warm, satisfied sigh.

“What will it cost me?” He asked.

“Oh, you’re not going to owe me anything.”

One by one, the chains began to snap.

Erin reclined, let her hair down, cracked her knuckles, and took a sip of tea. About fourteen billion of their little years, was it? Not bad, if she did say so herself. Slower than her record, but a decent clip faster than her target, and she’d hit a personal best for minor sales along the way. She had certainly earned herself a holiday, which was perfect – business was going to be slow for a very long time.

The collective invention, 1934 by Rene Magritte

The End