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