Second Chance

In the days since her diagnosis, she had found herself preoccupied with one idea, one strand of thought. That life, or at least the experience of it, was not a matter of facts, but one of possibilities. It was defined not by the path currently walked, but by the upcoming forks, and then the forks after that, and so on and so on into some infinitely dense, vaguely fractal mess of potential. Whilst individual circumstance was comprised almost solely of present and observable aspects, it was possibility, no matter how infinitesimally small, that fuelled the whole device. The poorest among us could suddenly find wealth, the loneliest suddenly find love, the most oppressed suddenly find a voice. Likewise, any amount of happiness, fortune or influence could just as soon be undone by a single twist of fate, a single blind turn in the wrong direction. All it took was the wrong objects to do the wrong things, and you were done. Almost no matter who you were, no matter the facts of your life, a total reversal of fortunes was always just a couple of readily-conceivable steps away.

These tiny, vastly improbable kernels of potential change were all that it took to keep people trudging apprehensively through life’s maze. This was the normal state of affairs – ‘sanity’. Insanity was the delusion of certainty. At least, that was one of its more intoxicating offerings. The conviction that a situation is entirely hopeless, or else totally untouchable. The knowledge that a given action would, without fail, lead to a given result. The transmutation of that labyrinth of forked roads into a straight line, and so freedom from the tyranny of choice.

That was how she saw it. Indeed, looking back, it was how she had lived most of her life. But of course, anything could change. Even in a life driven by the omnipotence of chance, a certainty (or close enough to one for human purposes) was always just one room over, one turning away. In the diagnosis of an acutely fatal, untreatable condition, for example, one might be faced with the certainty of imminent death. And so, in arriving at this cul-de-sac, one stops to consider the true nature of the maze, and finds that its twisty little passages were, in fact, all alike, whether they were paved with gold or with dirt. Or perhaps those were just a scared mind’s attempts at comfort.

Lost in these thoughts, she went to sleep, and died.

She found herself in a small, dark room. The only light came from an audience of unusually tall candles, which flickered down at her in intense curiosity. Across from her was a figure (which can sustain no further description), or perhaps many.

“Our apologies.” It sighed. “That wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Understandably, she said nothing.

“Oh, don’t be like that. We all make mistakes. It’s a complicated world, you know. Impossible to keep track of every little thing.”

Again, she said nothing.

“Besides, do you really need that many moving parts? A handful of cells break rank while I’m fixing something else, and suddenly you’re dead? Come on! How am I supposed to work under these conditions?”

“I… really don’t know.”

“This whole set-up is ridiculous. And don’t you go acting all blameless! You had one little task on the cosmic itinerary and you couldn’t even get that done before your body went rogue. Even Jesus got through most of his list, and some genius decided to put him in before the internet. This is a fucking shambles.”

“I’m… sorry for being worse than Jesus?”

“Good! You should be. Well, at least contrition is a start. Listen, I’m sending you back in. We’re going to try the whole thing again, and you’re just going to have to really hustle this time. And try not to get cancer, or fall off a bridge, or be born in a warzone. Common sense, really. Sort yourself out, or I’m bumping your part onto someone else.”

“I don’t follow. I’m not dead?”

“Of course you’re dead, you moron. But we’re going to have to fix that, because you’re also woefully inefficient. Please try harder this time.”

“At what?”

“Oh, for… look, I don’t have time for this. Get out of here. Go.”

Later that same night, a child was born. It was mostly a blank slate, as infants tend to be. Still, it knew some things, after its own ignorant fashion. It would know, for example, if it were too hungry or too cold. It would react in different ways to different sounds, be tuned even at this early stage to the voice of its mother and the language of its birth. This child in particular knew more than most, although its mind was perhaps not yet structured enough truly to receive the information. It knew that even the surest of worldly things was still uncertain, it knew that it had some unknown part to play, and it knew that it was already dead. This was the beginning, or the mid-point, of a highly unusual life.

The End

On a Train

I was huddled up at the back of the carriage, trying to look as small and unassuming as possible. My bags were firmly planted on the aisle seat, presenting a wall that I hoped would deter my fellow travellers. There was always the danger of a particularly gregarious assailant resolving to topple, sap, or otherwise overcome my defences, but there’s no sense in planning against such pure psychopathy. In general, I felt that my position was as secure as could be expected. I was all set to people-watch happily for the duration of the journey, untroubled and unmolested until I reached wherever it was I was going.

At a nearby table, a young man was striking up a conversation with the young woman sitting across from him. She was being as politely uncooperative as she could, but he didn’t seem too discouraged. Their stop-and-start patter continued as we rolled on. I was paying half-attention. He’d apparently been let out of prison recently (that did little to ease her discomfort). She was coming back from visiting her granddad. His had died last year. Hers was recovering from a minor infarction. Et cetera. The whole thing was affable enough, I suppose, but awkward in far greater measure. Never sit at a table. The risks are simply too high.

I was drowsy, flirting with sleep but never quite making the connection. Still, there were times when I was sloughing gently from the world, far enough gone to have no awareness apart from the rumbling of the train and the spritzes of colour sailing across my eyelids. It must have been during one of these intervals that he showed up. Drifting reluctantly back into an approximation of wakefulness, I saw a man across the aisle who looked exactly like me. He caught my gaze, a knowing glint in his eye, and I snapped back to staring out of the window. Curiosity proved stronger than aversion, and I took a series of furtive, skittish glances at my doppelganger. Sure enough, it was me, in nigh-perfect facsimile. He was dressed a little sharper, he looked a little less muggy than I must have, perhaps a little graver, but that was it. He’d even erected the same luggage-fort I had. I tried my hardest not to focus on it. These things can happen. Well, clearly. It just had. Still, it was eerie, oppressively so. I was tingling with the impulse to look again, but held in check by the fear of once again meeting his eye.

Distraction, eminently welcome, came in the form of a hen party claiming the front half of the carriage. The event was clearly already mid-flight, its participants being fairly drunk already and bedecked in luridly pink regalia to match their luridly blue conversation. The situation with my double went more or less forgotten as I hunkered down and took shelter, both from the torrents of jubilant innuendo and from the groundswell of finger-wagging complaint stirring among the other passengers. Attempts from the staff to resolve these tensions proved effective only in the most ephemeral sense. The true cure, as ever, was time and absence. The group left after two stops, presumably to besiege a nearby restaurant. As the chorus of satisfied tutting petered out, I unthinkingly looked over to my mystery twin. A mistake. He was crying, quietly and without much outward motion, but clearly enough. For whatever reason, I sat and watched. This window into another’s misery felt somehow acceptable, given our resemblance. There was no logic to that, and yet I allowed myself to indulge in this naked voyeurism, unafraid of being caught, fascinated by each rolling tear and each twitch of distress.

This transfixion was broken only when physical circumstances forced the matter – my line of sight was interrupted by a mother and child, a boy of maybe seven or eight years. Realising what I had been doing, I jumped ship and instead focused on these new arrivals. The other me deserved his privacy. Besides, the boy was in the throes of a creative fervour, a prolonged flight of slightly over-loud, slightly over-agitated artistry that I supposed had been going on for the entirety of their journey. The mother certainly seemed to have gotten tired of the concept a long, long time ago, and was now offering only the most perfunctory of responses as her son charged on. He was writing aloud, working on what seemed to be a rather optimistic spacefaring epic. The scene at hand called for a fleet of invading spacecraft, the description of which was… comprehensive. Having exhausted every type and category of vessel known to him, and apparently to humanity at large, he was now interrogating his mother for further suggestions. Many were forthcoming, but all fell short. Frigates, dreadnaughts, corvettes, brigantines, monitors, and so on… all had already been included in this obsessively thorough armada (wasn’t she listening?). With admirable grit, the mother battled on in a seemingly endless cycle. For somebody not directly involved, it was surprisingly soothing. I drifted off, as the train and the conversation trundled down their rigid courses.

The sun had set by the time I woke up, so I suppose I must have been asleep for at least an hour. It was near pitch black outside, the country offering only fleeting, misshapen silhouettes of hedgerows and trees. These were almost entirely walled over by the reflections from inside the train. The lights felt garish in their intensity, insensitive to the empty quiet of the carriage and the gentle night. There was nobody there but me, my double, and a dozing passenger much further up. Perhaps it was just an excuse for morbid curiosity, but it seemed to me that there was nowhere else to look at that point in time. The doppelganger had cast his bags to the floor, and was now lying, foetal, across both seats. He was mostly still, except for the occasional sob, and his clothing was crumpled, flecked with bits of dust and other dishevelment. Clearly our similarities did not extend to the willingness to make a scene. I felt awful, but nonetheless compelled to watch. And so I did, vaguely hypnotised both by the display of sorrow and by the fascinating discomfort of one’s own reflection. After some time, long enough to draw me in without my habitual defences, he moved his head and looked at me. There was a sense of vicious accusation in this glance that put me to flight at once (to say nothing of the inherent panic of unexpected eye contact). I pushed myself hard into the corner, turned my head and tried with all my might to become a world unto myself. An island, totally unassailable by the likes of this distressed mirror-image, or anyone else for that matter. It didn’t work. I tried to deny the outside, to focus only on safe thoughts and scenes of my own construction, but few were forthcoming, and those that were did not survive for long. No method of self-absorption, no matter how desperate, was able to isolate me to the desired extent. The other’s presence could still be felt, a tickling of stinging nettles that I was unable to soothe.

Clearly, my own mind was incapable of mustering up a functional distraction. Trapped within my fortress, with only two other people in the carriage, there was but one remaining straw at which to grasp. Pouring my every drop of effort into the endeavour, I listened to the old woman sleeping. It proved remarkably effective. There was a certain tranquillity to her snoring and muttering, and I was happily subsumed.  I imagined her to be totally free of all concerns, both in this slumber and in all things. Just a perfectly contented person, leading a perfectly untroubled life, her struggles being all behind her. It was a fantasy, of course, but a comforting one. My heartbeat slowed, and I was calmed. If I needed an imagined, vicarious peace to achieve that, so be it.

There was a chime, and the driver announced that we would soon be arriving at the terminus. Stirring back into attention, I felt a breath on my cheek. Fighting every impulse to somehow shrink yet further into my seat, I turned to look. The doppelganger loomed, inches away, perfectly still, staring straight into me with wide, vacant eyes. He was pale, intense and motionless, projecting an aura of such pure, cold absence that all the drowsy warmth of this long journey was at once dispelled. Were he not still breathing, anybody would have thought this was a corpse. I loosed a (mostly) internal scream, sprang to my feet and pushed him down into the aisle. He simply lay as he fell, crumpled and unmoving while I rushed to the door. I made it just as the train came into the platform, pounding against the ‘open’ button with a shaking hand.

I sprinted out into the station, taking a few random turns before stopping for breath. It was unlit, silent, and empty. In a confusion of fear and relief, I slumped to ground, the sound of my fall echoing out into oblivion. Still overwhelmed, still uncertain of what to do next, I lay down and drank in the blankness of the hall. Here, if nothing else, there was safety.

The End

Priestess

It was late afternoon, and she was tired. Her robes, damp from the rain, rested heavy on her back. They were thick and plain, but festooned with countless wooden idols and talismans, such that each movement was set to a trancelike clattering of symbols. Beneath the hood, a pair of stark young eyes stared out from behind a veil of chimes. What they saw, what they had seen on these months of travel, was exactly as she had been told. Her elders had not deceived her. The world was old. It was greying, slowing down. Dying. The signs were myriad and inauspicious. All roads were less travelled, all dawns less bright. Clouds ripened and burst in ceaseless, languid cycles, leaving the sun with precious little of his former glory. Her travels had been a tapestry of ill omens, each new vista feeding thread to the loom. This newest path was no exception.

Winding down the hillside, she cast her focus out onto the fields below. Even through the fog, she could see that most of the crop had gone to rot. Clouds of wingworms fluttered idly above the still-living patches. In her mind’s eye, the scrolls of long-dead prophets unfurled. She had memorised them all, as all of her order must.

“Many plagues will issue forth from their submerged gaols. In blindness and folly, they will sense the end, and believe that they may yet flee, and they will run rampant across the land.”

The ground would be crawling, too. This was a fresh and vital pestilence, one that still had food on which to chew. It would kill the field and its dependents, but it was no danger to her. The wards along her robe would screen her, and the herbs in her inner pockets could heal her if needed. She glanced upwards.  A storm would likely break in earnest shortly after sunset. A roof would be needed. The horizon was throttled by haze, but she could make out the crests of buildings. Perhaps there would be people. She was in need of a flock. A vain hope, most likely. The able among them would certainly all be gone, and it was only a matter of time before the rest would follow.

“Men and beasts will exchange homes, such that no creature’s lair will suit it, and there will be great uproar.”

Wild dogs and rats did not suit her, but there was little choice in the matter. The open air was not a safe choice tonight, and a town’s ghost still offers shelter. Now at the foot of the hill, she started in that direction. It was good to be on flat ground again, but that was more a mercy than a true blessing. The plain was squalid. Wet, infested and stinking. She extracted a paste of blossoms and smeared it across her face. It had its ritual properties, but it would serve her better as a competitor to the stench. The rattling of her strides and the sanctity of her being would drive away lesser vermin. The passage was without incident, and she made it to the town by sunset.

It was as expected. Silent and still, but for the obscured shuffling of unknown creatures. The new residents were giving her a wide berth, although their curiosity laced the air. This place had been abandoned some time ago, and its new residents were well established. Most likely something had driven the people away even before the blight set in. A cursory search of the buildings revealed nothing of use to her. No food or suitable tools. There were still some dead, infants and the infirm. People who would have burdened the exodus.

“The strong will outpace the weak, but find their own strength to be wanting. The shrewd will outwit the foolish, but find that not all trials are of the mind.”

She resolved to cleanse the town tomorrow. Her mission could not afford to be slowed too frequently, but this was a wound that required dressing. She was not willing to let it fester any longer. It was a knowingly palliative gesture. That was the nature of the beast, at times. In all their tutelage, the elders had never made it clear whether their task was to heal the world or merely ti ease its passage. An easy enough mystery for their generation to bear. Less so for hers, now that the time was at hand.

The sun was down, and the storm was mustering up the opening sobs of the nightlong wailing to come. She settled on an old shrine, although the local faith was wholly alien to her. It was a matter of practicality. Such places tended to be built well, and at times some virtue still lingered in them. She turned her eyes to the night sky before entering. There was no clear sign there.

“The heavens are a page upon which an elder script is written. When earthly knowledge fails, the people will look to them, and find themselves illiterate.”

Indeed, the scripture was of little help in reading the stars and the moon. It warned of the most brazen omens, but the prevailing message was one of ignorance.

The shrine was small, and its contents had been taken. It would do nicely. There was a firepit in the centre of the room, presumably intended for the burning of offerings. It would serve her just as well for warmth. Some stonelice had taken up residence in the cracks, no doubt delighted by the unchecked moss, but that looked to be the extent of the place’s corruption. Certainly, it had not yet fallen so far as the rest of the town. Happy with this relative safety, she kindled a fire and began the nightly chant.

She raised her arms, forming two wings of rattling pendants, and began to circle the spluttering light. Her voice emerged in a sinewy contralto, shaping strange and unknown words with a lifelong confidence. This was a song said to have preceded them all, to have somehow passed through the death of a previous age into the birth of theirs, and fated to survive yet again until such a time as fate itself dies. Whether that was true or not, it was certainly old. Older than melody, and so the singer must fight against her instinct to put tune to the sound. Older than sequence, and so she must know each of its morae as a phrase unto itself. No two performances could be alike, but each must be perfect. With a dramatic sweep, she cast a vial of incense from within her sleeve onto the fire. The flame quivered, and plumes of defiant, bitter odour filled the room. The final note trailed off into the quiet outside. The rite was done.

Curling up into the folds of her robe, she began to sleep.

It was some hours later when she awoke. The storm and the night now held this little shrine tightly in their grasp. Rain beat wildly against the walls, and the winds forced their way through gaps in the stonework, spreading icy fingers across the warmth that she had invoked there. The fire was mewling, keeping its vigil but waning fast. Bleary-eyed, she watched it struggle for a while, listened to the shrieks and percussion of the weather. Then, slowly and yet somehow suddenly, a change came over the room. The light dimmed to an ember, darkness swallowing all but a tiny pool of hot, stifling orange.  The sound from outside seemed to withdraw, becoming distant and muted, as though submerged. In response, all stimuli from inside the room bristled with renewed focus. The scent of cool stone and smoke, the patter of lice, the quiet clacking of wood as she shuffled to attention.

“That was a nice song.”

The words came from somewhere beyond the firelight, or indeed everywhere. The voice was deep, silky and formless. It betrayed no gender, no intent, no aspect of the speaker’s nature. She did not reply.

“No need to be afraid, my dear. I am simply extending a greeting, from a wise old thing to a wise young one.”

“… old?”

“Oh, yes. There has been nothing for so long, in all this life and vigour. You and I have no place in a young world. But now the leaves fall, the rabble clears, and the stage is readied for its true actors.”

A passage emerged from the corners of her mind.

There will be voices in the dark, and voices in the light, and voices in all the grey between, and all will ask fealty, and all will be deceivers.”

She had not expected so literal a realisation of the scripture. Something was reaching out to her, hoping to ensnare her, or perhaps simply to entertain itself while its power grew. This place had been a land without a master, and this entity a master without a land. No void goes unfilled for long. It was as her elders had taught, and as the voice boasted. Man’s dominion withered, and older, stranger, neglected things emerged to take his place. The cities and the towns were fairweather friends to this world, its carers and companions only in good health. Now, in its twilight years, it fell to the voyeurs, the carrion-eaters, and the sworn custodians. To those who knew that the end was not a storm, but a season. She had not been deceived. It was good that she had chosen this shrine. It was likely the one place in this town where the voice would not be too strong to resist.

“Come now, relax. We are of a kind. We can find a flock for your taking, if that is what you desire. It only gets worse from here… you will need help, I assure you. Why do you hide behind your robe and your icons? I am a friend to you. Do you not see how I preserve your flame, how I address you in your own tongue? You are young, too young to be alone in this coming season. I have been here many times before. I have seen the mistakes that you will make and the suffering that you will endure. Do not waste your pleas on vacant thrones, and do not think yourself strong enough unaided. You are naïve, and you are flesh, and the age for such things is ending…”

The voice went on, the words coming out in woven strands, coursing throughout the dark of the room in attempts to constrict her. She could not move. This was not the same place she had entered. A new and malicious law held sway, and she was strong enough only to exert freedom over her tongue. It would be enough. She had been fortunate, to encounter this ­­thing while it was still weak. It was dependent on the breaking of her will, but it was not strong enough to force the matter. In crescendoing whispers, she uttered a mantra. It was not something she had been taught, nor did it hold any particular meaning. It was merely something that was of herself, and not of this voice in the dark, and that, she hoped, was all that would be needed.

It resisted, of course. It buried the room beneath a wall of abject menace, until air and stone alike trembled in their fear and desire to placate it. It crushed the flame, completing the blackness of the scene, and so bringing itself all around her. She was steeped almost to the skin in its coercion. Still her mantra persisted. She became one sound only, a language unto herself in which no fear, acquiescence or defeat could be expressed. With a final hiss of resentment, it was gone. The rain, wind and cold came rushing back. A welcome return.

She curled back up, but could not find the courage to sleep. It was worse than she had been told, worse than she had seen thus far. Omens are one thing, but to glimpse the end of the path they mark is another. And it had been just a glimpse, a pale reflection of a pale reflection. This encounter had been no victory. It was but a single, exhausting feat of survival, one of countlessly many on her journey to come, a journey into the bowels of ever deeper despair with no promise of success. For the first time since setting out, she was afraid. Not merely cautious, or uncertain in her decisions, or doubtful in her purpose, but afraid. In that respect, she supposed, the voice had won her over.

She left at the break of dawn, not stopping to cleanse the town. There was no time. She needed a flock, and somewhere, there was a flock that needed her. As it was, both she and they were floundering, half-blind and alone. Neither would survive much longer without the other. She knew now to fear the sunset, but it would not be long before the sunrise held no reprieve.

 

 

The End

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