fiction

2018-12-06 20:40 photography fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

Penumbra

I believe photographs steal your soul. I slink between CCTV cameras. Every foray into the outside world is a terrifying excursion. I could suddenly be caught in the background of some ubiquitous selfies. I could be captured behind an ATM transaction. I could be doomed to limbo from the tinted window of a passing bus of tourists, patrolling the capitalist battle zone. A single slip and my immortal essence would be ripped from me, uploaded to Instagram or lost in some surveillance database, perhaps exchanged for a ruble in some future data breach. I can't claim to understand the contemporary obsession to record everything, from minutiae to tragedy, from salacious to the mundane, every wink, every faked smile, every greasy meal.

It has seemed clear to me, for quite some time, that what was said in the past, when photography was new, that the capturing of the human image so easily, so mechanically, so absently, is dangerous. To agree you don't need to believe in the metaphysical soul as I do.

I plan my routes carefully. I have considered a disguise, but rejected it as a trick of surfaces. It would be me. I would still be stolen.

One day I saw her, dodging the CCTV, weaving in and out of the camera coverage bubbles with a deft guile that was exhilarating. I saw her adjust then adapt with the abrupt intersection of young revelers, phones in hand, arms permanently thrust out like the stalk of a blind, hungry plant. She weaved into the penumbra, hiding in an invisible shard. I knew the only viable location closest to her was the old camera shop.

Wait, a camera shop? Yes, one of the safe places was an outdated camera shop — the aged owner didn't have video monitors. He sold long since discontinued film cameras and used to do processing. The place was out of the way and nobody went in there anymore. Someone from his generation wouldn't just take a stranger's picture without asking, that would be incredibly rude.

This is where she would go, I suspected.

I was right. She must've known too. She must've had the same surreptitious map. After she entered the shop, waiting for the inebriated selfies to pass, I carefully made my way over. When I entered she looked at me, sharply. It's you, she said. It's me, I replied. You avoid them too, I've seen you, she said. Yes, I said.

We began to meet at the camera shop regularly. The owner sat at the back, quietly. We would pretend to look at cameras, the owner would pretend that we wanted to buy something.

One day she asked, what if we stole each others souls? What do you mean, I said. With this old Polaroid, what if I took a photo of you and you took a photo of me, she said. Would you promise to keep my soul safe? I said. Yes, I promise, she said. And you promise to keep mine safe forever too? she asked. Yes, I said.

We paid the owner for the Polaroid and he gave us his last pack of film.

2018-11-27 10:00 fiction cyclopaedia

Cyclopaedia Chapter Twenty-Eight: Cliffs Of Forever

The man standing between Hedvin and the village seemed to be expecting him. The man was wearing a bird mask. Hedvin had spent an extra week in the woods, lost. He was cold, thin, half starved. He had trouble thinking. The clarity of thought that he started the journey with was now gone, expended through cold nights and exhausted supplies. This man must be expecting him, why else would he be standing there on the path between the forest and the village? Behind the mask he could barely see a set of eyes.

Fox, the man said.

He held the fox mask in his hands, upended, like a bowl. Hedvin noticed it now. Hedvin stepped closer. He could see the fox mask was filled with Vermilion. He didn't know how long it was since he dosed. There were a few awkward attempts on the trail, but with the bad weather and his exhaustion he wasn't sure how successfully. He saw the mask handed to him and the yearning for it was viciously palpable.

But what did the man want? Hedvin hesitated. Did it matter who he was, it probably didn't matter who he was. He was Bird. He remembered now the strange mythical consumption of the village, this is how they behave. They dosed constantly. They were out of their heads. They lived inside this construction, this story, where everyone took shape as visible representations.

It will rejuvenate me, he thought, after being on the trail. It didn't matter who this person was. Was he from the village? He was tall. Was he familiar? No, it was Bird, that must be why. Bird gestured again for him to take the fox mask. Hedvin stepped forward and took the mask from him. He felt a blooming anxiety he couldn't understand, but then he'd wandered in the cold for a long time, days? He remembered trying to gather food, miserable berries and terrible tasting leaves. He'd been sick. Water wasn't a problem, there were plenty of streams and springs. But the cold tore him down—it was becoming winter and the nights were terrible. He wanted a fire and he wanted something to eat. The Vermilion would help, he thought.

Hedvin took the mask and placed it front of his face. Bird grabbed his head and the mask, pressing them together hard, then momentarily lifted his own mask to blow into it, forcefully. A large amount of Vermilion was made into a thick red cloud. Hedvin breathed in. When the dust settled Hedvin lowered the mask. He considered the face he'd seen briefly of the man known as Bird. A man from the city, definitely. This man was not a villager.

Who are you? Hedvin asked. His head swam, he wondered about his own physical weakness and about the strength of the dose he was given.

Bird, the man said.

Did Hedvin know him? Hedvin wondered. The effects were coming on fast, much heavier than he expected. Maybe this batch was very fresh. He smacked his lips and he could taste the grubs. Very fresh.

What's your name, I mean, what's your person name? Hedvin asked.

Eirik, the man said. Hedvin didn't recognize it. Wait, no, he did recognize it. He knew who this was.

You're a Compiler? Hedvin said.

Follow me, Bird said.

Hedvin couldn't claim to know every Compiler, there were too many. But he was certain this man was one of them. Not by name, the name was common enough. It was the movement, the subtle qualities of physiognomy, the features of the face he momentarily saw, a face that had been preoccupied by the structure of the world, and had gained that distinctness. As for the name, he recalled a Compiler named Eirik noted for remote expeditions. He was a Compiler and he'd found the village, and he knew about Vermilion. How long had he been taking it?

Ah, it's too late, he realized. It doesn't matter anymore. How big was that dose? The man, Bird, Compiler Eirik, walked ahead of him down the forking path, away from the village. Not towards the woods Hedvin had emerged from, but upwards. Hedvin held the fox mask in his hands, it was light, like it was made of the visions of green leaves and the sound of rabbits. Bird flew. He had trouble keeping up. The path zigzagged around outcrops of rock, trees becoming sparse. Hedvin was worn out. He begged Bird to wait, while he caught his breath. Bird waited motionless while Hedvin sat, breathing hard, staring at the mask in his hands.

How long have you been here? How long have you been taking it? Hedvin asked.

Bird said nothing.

Where are we going? Hedvin asked.

We need to get there before dark, there isn't much time, Bird said.

Hedvin stood, following Bird. This was wrong, he thought, I need food and warmth I need to be wrapped up comfortably. Instead of the rush he'd expected from his dose he felt the reverse, as if everything was being sucked out of him. Decoherence. Instead of the expected congealing of concepts, he was being dragged along a rocky bottom, a wilderness path by a man wearing a bird mask. He felt powerless to stop it. Regret prickled. How had he ended up here? He asked to stop again. The ground felt moist and soft, as if he could sink into it, as if he would sink down into the center of the world. And what was the world made of if not the same malleable substance, the same temporary fluids he was made from. He was scared of dissolving.

You gave me an overdose, didn't you. Hedvin said.

It's important we keep moving.

Where are we going?

You'll see. It's important.

I want to go to the village.

Not yet. Afterwards. Come on, let's go.

Hedvin didn't know why he followed Bird. There was a logic to it, although no logic really was necessary. There was a rightness to it, although right and wrong were temporary conditions. He was losing himself. He held up the fox mask and looked through it, through the holes that were eyes. He reached behind it and pulled the leather strap around, securing it. His thoughts and worries faded into movement, on the path, trying to catch Bird, the trees thining as they climbed higher, the rocky terrain a game. He could go like this forever, he thought, until he collapsed maybe.

They came to a plateau, wide, relatively barren, covered in short, tough grass. He had never been here before. It smelled like dirt, and there were strong winds nearby. Bird seemed to know where he was going. It would be dark soon, he could feel this in his gut, a tugging sensation, to get close to the ground, to be in the safety of the trees, to watch out for things above in the sky, to be warm.

He wanted water, he was panting, he was so thirsty and there was a terrible taste in his mouth. Like decay. Like carrion.

Water, Fox said.

Soon, said bird, a little longer.

Bird moved lightly. They ascended again, then the world in front of them dropped off with a sudden descent. They were on the edge of a cliff. He could see the valley below, mountains in the distance. The cliff stretched far in both directions. The fading light of day caught along the mountains, streaming rays across the edges, but the valley was already dark.

Fox backed away, the proximity to the chasm was uncomfortable. Bird, though, hovered.

Come here, you can see them just starting to light up, Bird said. He turned and was looking down, over the edge of the cliff.

Fox moved forward, hesitatingly, looking outwards then looking down where he saw faint points of light. The points were birds, whose crests glowed, growing stronger as the light of the day faded. He waited—knowing that the birds too understood the end of the day, becoming excited, each point contributing to a cloud of light that ebbed and swelled. And the longer he looked the more sure he was that the birds knew Fox and Bird were there, near them.

They know we're here, Fox said to Bird.

Bird said nothing. The daylight was gone. Fox could still see, in an impression, the white edges of Bird's mask, the short sharp beak, the prominent delineation of color. Behind this he saw the dim glow of the birds as they swirled above the valley. They flew, they reached up. The pattern was familiar to Fox, he tried to place it—as a sequence, a natural relay, like the blinking lights on that mechanical console, indicating a cognition that was made of a million parts. It was a scattered realization. The sensation was fleeting.

Do you see? Bird said.

The cloud of birds had risen up in front of them. They pulsated. It was obvious what they were saying. This is us, they said.

Yes, Fox replied.

The cloud of birds rose, flying up above them, then slowly sinking back downwards, closer to them. Fox could see individuals now, their eyes and beaks, the movement of wings and their efforts. And they became closer still, he felt the wind from their feathers, he felt the air of their breath. Then around him, their claws were clutching his jacket. Tugging. The lights from their crests illuminated him. He was flying. He could see Bird standing there, under him. And then he could see the valley below.

2018-11-21 10:00 fiction cyclopaedia

Cyclopaedia Chapter Twenty-Seven: Final Report

FINAL REPORT TO THE CHIEF INSPECTOR

We have completed our investigation and present this report as a summary of events and conclusions. We understand that further details and explanations may be necessary given the chaotic nature of this case, a supplementary timeline will also be provided.

Importantly, we are directly responsible for the explosion that took place on the 3rd—we ordered it. We understand the tremendous damage done to the research facility, ends any viability of that structure. We understand what we've done has wide ranging impacts. However, in the interest of protecting its scientists and workers, as well as ceasing the peculiar Electric effects that have caused or contributed to outages in the city and its social consequences, we took action rather than hope some solution would eventually emerge from outside agencies.

We have concluded that the disappearances, and certainly demise, of four individuals, Ove Eng, Jon Orten, Pietr Koss, and Eero Ringen (Director of the facility) were caused by the mechanism known as the "Master Compiler".

After being present for the sudden, unexplainable disappearance of Pietr Koss, a laboratory worker and last remaining technical member of the project, we had the premises evacuated.

We promptly wired the engineering office at the Ministry Of Internals as well as the Ministry Of Statistics under whose aegis the facility was commissioned. Several representatives from each were promptly sent to the Division. We explained what we knew and what we experienced as best as we could with as much technical detail as we understood. There was considerable skepticism, particularly since none of them knew of the existence of the specific project known as the "Master Compiler".

We also wired representatives of the Cyclopaedia, for whom the project was initiated, informing them that the project was hereby terminated in the name of public safety.

We understand this equivocal declaration would cause turmoil. But, by the time all the parties involved, official and unofficial, knew of our orders, we were determined to have destroyed the mechanism.

It should be noted here that the original representative for the Cyclopaedia, a Compiler Hedvin, abruptly left the city shortly before we issued an order for his arrest in connection with the disappearances, and for involvement in the distribution of an unknown drug. Yesterday a search of his apartment revealed the contents of his Compiler's kit—wherever his destination, he had no intention of working. While it is common for Compilers to be sent on assignments, due to other pieces of information we believe the location is related to illicit drug trade. There is no reasonable means for us to apprehend him while he is in his currently remote, unknown location. But we advise, and request to be given a new case, relating to this substance known as "Vermilion". Once Compiler Hedvin returns, assuming he returns, he should be immediately taken into custody, and presumably the drug he is transporting should be seized and analyzed.

We are unaware of any formal recognition in this matter from the Cyclopaedia, however we believe that, unofficially, Compiler Hedvin's actions have been sanctioned by several parties.

We brought the engineers and scientists we consulted with to the laboratory. We were still concerned that the mechanism would, or could, compile other subjects. But our supposition, which we expressed to the technical team, was that previously only those directly connected to the project had been in danger. Among Ove's papers we found evidence, in the form of a kind of formula, an antique indexing notation of the Cyclopaedia, that he was using himself as a compiling sample. He was training the Master Compiler to categorize and contain himself. We do not know how literally his intent was, since he created the passive Electric power source, we feel he was aware of the danger. Also, there appears to have been incentive provided by Compiler Hedvin's supply of drug as well as a radicalization process through Compiler Hedvin's philosophy and influence that a disparate set of data fed to the Cyclopaedia would later poison, or alter, the political and ideological direction of the institution. We believe that, for all intents and purposes, the mechanism contains a copy of Ove Eng.

While we didn't find examples for the other three victims, we concluded that their proximity to the mechanism, to Ove Eng, and to the programmatic aspect of the device subjected them to the same effects. Since no bodies were found, and since we witnessed the compiling of Pietr Koss this conclusion seems inescapable. We do not fully comprehend what criteria the Master Compiler would have used to target these individuals, and given that all expertise on the workings of the mechanism no longer exist, we believe personal proximity, or what the scientists called "contextual proximity", was the primary factor.

Our suspicions about the mechanism being related to the Electric outages were quickly confirmed by the engineers. Strong opinions were expressed. But the consensus was that the machine needed to be discontinued. Given our initial attempt to turn the device off, and subsequently the disappearance of Pietr Koss, we decided we would disable the machine from the bottom of the well by force. Since we did not, and do not, understand precisely how the independent Electric system works for the device, the engineers concluded that they would bluntly, physically cut all wiring and cabling as close to the surface of the machine as possible.

Much like dangerous work in a mine, a series of engineers stood arms length apart and always within sight of each other. Observers were placed at the top of the well with ropes and mirrors designed to work in treacherous shafts. While there was some concern about the risk of Electrical discharge, the engineers volunteering for the work had ample experience with difficult Electrical situations. We felt confident.

The mechanism would then be totally isolated, without connection to any outside Electric, or any unknown Electric device, and the consoles on the laboratory floor. This should contain any issues related to outages, we believed. Once everyone was in place, we gave the order to cut everything off.

When the lines were cut away there was a cessation of activity. Then, as we witnessed previously, operations began again—this time without any obvious output at the consoles since they'd been disconnected—but the apparatus was in operation. The engineers were baffled. This unusual Electric source, they said, must be part of the column, the three story tall mechanical installation itself. They explained a kind of ambient field surrounded it, energized by activity of any sort. The more of us there were, and the harder we worked, the more strongly it would react.

It was then we ordered the device to be destroyed by any means necessary. There was strenuous disagreement on this point. Several of the scientists argued that the technological loss would be too great. The engineers involved with Electric for the Capital felt that destruction was absolutely necessary, given the changes of another catastrophic outage. It was likely, they suggested, that the Master Compiler was passively consuming Electric remotely, from the Capital itself.

This was confirmed soon after by a messenger from the city who we'd instructed to tell us if any outage occurred, since we could not independently or reliably determine that from our location. An outage did begin about the same time we tried to disable the machine. Arguments were then made for ways and means of destruction. Placing explosives on the mechanism directly was an obvious thought, one we proposed, which produced a howl of disapproval. If the explosion wasn't strong enough, who knows how the passive Electric would react, perhaps consuming all of the energy. Since there was no clear understanding or agreement about how much explosive power would be needed to destroy the device, another proposal was made—to bury it.

But for this to be effective, the engineers and scientists agreed, there had to be a layer of shielding. A dense, heavy metal. Since the mechanism was already situated in a tall metal-lined well by design, they decided that filling the well with a mix of rock and metal filings would suffice as long as the top, exposed, area of the machine were covered completely with thick metal plates. Then it was suggested that the lab around the mechanism be imploded in place, to increase the dampening effect and to make sure these actions could not be easily reversed. Preparations were made with great urgency.

Meanwhile, with the knowledge they'd gained at the laboratory, the engineers made adjustments to the Electric in the Capital. They were able to rotate the outage, enabling power in one neighborhood, disabling it in another, in schedules, thereby avoiding a period of social upheaval like was experienced previously.

The walls and roof of the laboratory were set with explosives after the well had been filled in and covered with shielding. Reports said the blast could be seen from the city. The collapse of the building was complete, resulting in a pile of rubble that buried the device.

Given that we believe, and were advised, the situation was dangerous for both individuals nearby, and the condition of the Capital, we proceeded with a measure of necessary autonomy and secrecy. Our apprehension that involvement by external agencies would cause indefinite delay is not unfounded. The conclusion of any investigation gives Inspectors the prerogative to pursue judgment we determine appropriate, knowing fully that these actions may cause the displeasure of other agencies. We understand this may effect our standing in the Division, but we maintain that our duties were clear and irrevocable.

INSPECTORS SLV AUNE/ELIN BEITO

2018-11-18 15:56 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

Elemental

I tried, but I keep returning. The first time I threw myself under a bus. It had been a tedious day, I recall, every casual comment was a stab to the soul, every cold glance a territorial insult. I do not consider myself so sensitive, but sometimes retreat is appropriate.

No, this is incorrect. The first time was very long ago. I sat on a stone wall. I watched a wagon full of hay, its wheels churning with loud frustration through muddy village roads. The eyes of the horses were perfect exclamations of an imprisoned struggle, a slavery to conditions. It effected me deeply. I tied a mill stone to myself and walked into the lake.

Was that the first time? No, I don't think it was. However, it doesn't matter. I keep coming back. The process is opaque to me. I approach it with varying degrees of either desperation or creeping resignation. Sometimes I will go an entire lifetime, relaxed, conjoined with the temporary purposes and desires of a human life, and then a sudden, brutal succession of violent demises — as if I were declaring to whatever cruel master keeps us bound to this existential wheel, that I will not be quiet, that I will not accept these circumstances. With a rope. With a knife. With a gun. I know these expressions are relatively obscene. But what is obscenity in the face of an eternal process? It is screaming up at a sky full of stars, imaging resurrection upon each new world, the same profane rules across the entire swath, like a universal tyrant.

I once constructed a large, steam powered machine that dissected my physicality, cataloging each humor and duct, every gland and synapse, vaporizing as it proceeded until I was nothing but a measurable series of operations. And still, I came back.

For every clever method there was another equally, spitefully primitive. Some public, some private. There were periods of attraction to basic elements, Earth, Wind, Fire. Although in that age I was preoccupied with the alchemical principles that I believed anchored my curse. I spent an inordinate amount of time wondering how and why I occupy this position. I wondered how long it would continue. I wondered if any variation were possible. Then, realizing the futility of this woolgathering, I stopped thinking about it entirely for several lifetimes, amazed and disappointed with every return.

My current fascination is this digital era. I began to think that I needed to collect more data, since data is the spiritual currency, that if I record every action, every lifetime, and certainly every demise, I might detect through careful analysis a meaningful pattern. It will take a while, but then I have plenty of time. I am convinced the scientific method is the answer, no more of that archaic mumbo-jumbo. Gone are the literally fuming cucurbit and retort. It's me, I am nothing more than an experiment.

Today I go to that candy factory in the industrial zone. The security is lax. The equipment they use to pull, twist, knead and roll the mountains of candy, I hear, is powerful and deadly.

2018-11-16 16:20 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

Town Below

After they'd gone below they wondered how long they might stay there. One generation or two? More? Everything above would've been taken care of by then, surely. People would have to fix things. It would take time, obviously. But there was no choice, one way or another. Do or die, really. Until then the town would continue as it always had. But deeper below. There would be artificial light that mimicked the sun. The town square, on a summer's day would still be green and grassy, children playing around the bandstand, the town elders sitting in lawn chairs, a couple barbecuing, dogs chasing one another.

Their last meeting in the town hall was bittersweet. But the new town hall, directly beneath them a few hundred meters, had been reproduced exactly. Even the flaws were recreated, like the cracked baluster. And they knew, the next morning, they would all be gone from the surface of the Earth. There would be no announcement, nothing official. Shops would be closed.

Initially they were anxious that others would worry about them — the neighboring town for instance. What would they think when they drove through tomorrow and there was nothing but silence? What would their dark, abandoned town at night, devoid of lights in the windows, mean to those passing through? A warning perhaps. A statement. Better that the town be burned to the ground, as if struck by some uncontrollable wild fire, several citizens suggested. No, the mayor responded, we have abandoned the surface, the silence should be worrisome, it should be portentous, it should make them stop and wonder 'What have I done to cause this? What have I done wrong?'

And so, early in the morning, they lined up with their suitcases in front of the old barber shop. In the back, past the big, swiveling chairs, and the rarely painted wall covered with photos taken over a hundred years, the cramped wooden staircase led down to a heavy, modern door secured with huge metal bolts. One by one they went through this door, until the last of them, the mayor, entered and sealed it behind himself with a resounding clang.

2018-11-12 21:27 fiction flash-fiction science-fiction Benjamin Brood

Across The Field

When the boy got to the edge of the field he could see the outlines of the power stalks against dusk, and the thousands of small green lights spread out far in front of him, cast like a net. An evening breeze made them moan slightly, as the fibrous tension adjusted their sway to maximize the kinetics.

He wasn't supposed to be in the field. If he got caught it would cost him six months social credit, he should care more about his credit, they said.

He stepped down off the road, stumbling over an exposed root. The nearest stalk reacted slightly to the energy, sending a wave of micro-movements rippling across the field, and creating a delicate sound of descending frequency like water drops from a shut faucet. Once he was far enough in, the loose canopy would hide him from the road.

On the other side of the field was the quarry, and he knew there was a hole in the fence because this wasn't the first time he'd done this. As it became darker he turned on his headlamp, the dim red beam delineating the gently swaying stalks around him. It reminded him of the new Reel. He guessed it was easier for them to make it like that, only build as much environment as you could see in low light. Sometimes he wondered if reality was like this too.

He came to the fence suddenly, it rose out of the darkness, startling him. He would have to navigate along the edge of it until he found the hole. Left or right? He guessed left, knowing he might have to backtrack. By now Bug would be waiting for him on the other side, in the quarry. Everyone had always called him Bug because of the ocular slots, some kind of genetic condition. Bug was a few years older than himself. Bug had bought the last few Reels from him. He'd promised to buy more, and this one was good, something special. He'd continue in this direction another minute or two. When he didn't find the hole in the fence he swore and then turned around.

That's when he saw lights from the direction of the quarry. A dozen of them? White lights moving quickly. He abruptly turned off his headlamp. He heard shouting. Bug was shouting, he believed. So, they'd gotten him.

He didn't know what to do, maybe running was a bad idea, they must have ways of seeing. He didn't move. But then he heard their little feet. He imagined them springing forward awkwardly like birds running. He had to move — he turned and bolted back into the field. Without the headlamp he careened into stalks. The impacts caused the whole array to shudder, echoing outwards across the field with enthusiastic clanging. From the road the net of indicator light must be undulating now, he thought.

He ran several more yards, bumped into another oscillating stalk, then paused, listening. He didn't hear anything other than stalks happy with energy. Maybe it was good he'd done this, he wondered, there wasn't much chance they'd find him now under this loud canopy, no matter how well they could see. He just had to make it over the road. The other side of the road was another zone, he knew, maybe they can't even follow me in there. He grabbed the nearest stalk and shook it as hard as he could for a moment. Then he ran straight as hard as he could.

2018-11-08 19:06 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

Everything That Will Happen

The bottle was thrown overboard with apparent disregard. It may never be seen. It may never wash up. It could be swallowed by some leviathan. It could be smashed on the rocks. What was the message in the bottle? she asked. Everything that will happen, he said. What? Everything? she asked. Enough anyway, he said. That's a lot to fit on one piece of paper, she said. They could still see the top of the bottle intermittently as short, angry waves dodged back and forth, the bottle spinning in distress. But who will rescue us, the rescuers? she asked. Perhaps the bottle will float out into space, he said. Perhaps they will be sympathetic, he added. In three days the ship would arrive and they had no idea what they would find, the outpost was remote. For a while it looked like the bottle followed them. The wind chewed into their exposed faces as they watched it. The horizon was nothing but a gray line, unvariegated clouds filling the firmament. Then the bottle became more distant, turning its attentions to the curve of the Earth, to somewhere that might lay beyond this damp gray sky. Well there it goes, she said. There was nothing left to look at except the seascape, bubbling with a kind of natural eternity that both knew could easily become sorrow if you thought about it too hard. Coffee? he asked. Coffee, she said.

2018-11-05 21:11 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

Mr Black

She believed at night that Mr Black crawled inside the bag. There was no other explanation.

She'd rented her rooms to lots of people over the years, so she'd seen some things. Nobody ever said boarding houses attracted the best and the brightest. When she inherited the house taking on boarders was an obvious way to make ends meet. And it wasn't all bad, she'd made some good friends, some were like family.

Everyone would sit after dinner around the radio, Mr Black too, listening to a show or Eisenhower or music or whatever. Mr Black always seemed to laugh at the wrong time, as if he was listening to something else entirely. That didn't bother her much though, she'd had some real oddballs in the house before. There had been one woman who began shrieking whenever there was an advertisement for Lucky Strike cigarettes, then would run to her room, sobbing. There was a man who brought his own plate and utensils down from his room every night for supper, and bring them right back immediately afterwards. She never understood how he got them so clean up there. So the irregular bit of laughter wasn't awful. And Mr Black wasn't a bad sort actually, maybe some of the other boarders thought he was aloof, so what. He'd been quiet but generally polite.

But then there was that night with the phone call. It was maybe an hour after radio time. The main phone rang. The one the boarders used, in the hallway. Usually she didn't bother with the phone so late. If it was important they could call back tomorrow. Civilized people didn't ring so late anyway. But she was down there, tidying, so she picked it up. The voice on the other end asked for Mr Black. It was a terrible voice, she thought, a woman's voice she supposed, but raspy. Strained. And there was a far away quality to it. In danger? She couldn't place the uneasiness of it. She told the woman she would get him, and who may I say is calling? She asked. "Mrs Black," the woman said. Oh my, she thought. When I agreed to rent the room I asked Mr Black if he was married and he said no. And he wore no wedding ring. She told the woman to hold on, she would get him. Normally she didn't disturb tenants this late, but she'd make an exception. They must be divorced, she thought.

At the top of the stairs she knocked on the door to Mr Black's room. Silence. No answer. She kept track of who came and went. After listening to the radio Mr Black did go up to his room. He didn't leave the house. She would know this. She always knew who was in or out. She knocked again, believing that, since it was Mrs Black, it could be urgent or an emergency. If he were asleep she would have to wake him. Before she opened the door she knocked again and told him that Mrs Black was on the phone and that it might be important given the way Mrs Black sounds. Then she turned the doorknob, the room was unlocked, and she opened it enough to put her head inside.

There was no one in the room. The light was on. The room was clean. There was nothing of Mr Black's to be seen except the bag she remembered him bringing, a large kind of gym bag or carryall, very plain looking. But it was now full, very full, almost bursting. It horrified her. Did it move? As if something inside it was shifting its weight? The rough cloth rippled, expanding and contracting slightly. Revulsion paralyzed her momentarily, then she pulled her head back into the hallway and slammed the door shut.

She rushed back downstairs. She waited just inside the kitchen, listening. A moment later she heard footsteps coming down the stairs. She heard the phone handset being picked up off the shelf where she'd left it, and Mr Black's voice, giving a series of responses. Yes, No, No, I don't know. And so on. Then the phone was hung up and she heard him go back upstairs.

She wondered what to do. She was perfectly in her rights to ask him to leave. It was just too strange. But how could she even face him now? What would she say?

She tried to sleep that night but, not surprisingly, she had disquieting dreams. In the morning she had a sense of vague anxiety, as if the things around her contained hidden intentions. What was once familiar and comfortable was now threatening. The next day she avoided him, until dinner, which was inevitable. Mr Black acted no differently. He made no surreptitious glances, he let on to nothing, he was his usual self in every way. And then the time in the living room in front of the radio, she watched him, as closely as she could without being obvious, and his behavior hadn't changed. She was relieved when he said goodnight and went up to his room.

And she waited. She waited at the edge of the kitchen, prepared to have an excuse if she were caught waiting. Would Mrs Black call again? How long would she wait? She felt an rising degree of resolve building in herself.

Then the phone rang. She answered it, it was Mrs Black again, asking for Mr Black. Mrs Black sounded the same. Hoarse voice, far way, as if something was between her and the phone. Again she told Mrs Black she would get Mr Black.

At the top of the stairs she knocked several times on his door. There was no answer. This time she opened the door and walked in. She'd given him plenty of warning, she said to herself. The room was the same as the previous night, empty except for the bag. She stared at it. Was it somehow different than last night? She was frozen in place, but something unknown motivated her, she had to know what was in it.

She stepped forward, to the side of the bag. The pull on the zipper was a large flat piece of brass. With two fingers she grabbed it tentatively. She pulled steadily, the zipper smoothly opening. Her heart pounded. What was that, was it feathers?

2018-11-01 21:58 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

Rain Stones

Always rain, always wet. Damp to the bone. Mildew along the edges. Worms cover the ground gasping for breath. Half drowned birds shake their feathers with miserable frequency. Pools of water are alive, choked full of creatures waiting to hatch. Always rain. At night it pummels metal roofs, a staccato that promises leaks and drops, moisture then rot. The rest of the world is bone dry. Not a single cloud, not one rain storm. It's all drawn here, by the cloud catcher, a colossal henge that reaches up into the sky, built by a forgotten race, peoples that gathered these monolithic stones and somehow placed them together in accordance with ancient principles of the ground and air, magnetic secrets, powers of planetary alignments, and conjunctions of divination and sacrifice. To bring the clouds, to call the rain. But something changed. What once was magic to keep the fields fertile and free from drought, has radically overcompensated. Or perhaps this is punishment. Even, simply, spite. Always rain. The swirling clouds above us centered around that field and those stones, with a torrential downpour. While the rest of the world looks on with envy, we hunkered beneath impromptu shelters waiting for the rain to stop — but it hasn't, the rain comes down.

2018-10-31 10:00 fiction cyclopaedia

Cyclopaedia Chapter Twenty-Six: The Knife

"This has become more complicated than we expected," a voice behind him said.

Konrad was standing exactly where he knew it would happen. He'd run through the scenario a thousand times in his head, he'd be standing out back, in the alley, at the bins, with a bag of trash in his hands. It would be dusk. The daylight was gone but last light would let the boundaries of the alley become indistinct, perfect for the Garde. Not that Konrad's eyes were any good anymore. But this is how the Garde were—sneaking, obfuscated, elements of the background, until it was too late.

Konrad turned. So far it was just the way he'd imagined it would be.

"Isn't it always complicated," Konrad replied.

He could see the Garde clearly, there was no trickery this time. That took him by surprise. He gasped slightly, he tried to catch his breath. And he knew this man. It was the Garde he'd helped convict all those years ago. How was it possible?

"You have no idea how many miserable years I spent in that prison," the man said, the Garde. Konrad said nothing. "But a drop in the bucket. The years I mean. For me those moments were important lessons. They made me stronger. You have to understand how strong we are now." The Garde stepped up close to him, Konrad was too slow to avoid his grip.

"Your Inspectors have really fucked things for us, you know that?" What was it Konrad smelled on his breath? Something bitter. He was close. And he had a knife. Konrad didn't even see him pull it out. In this scenario Konrad imagined he would be stabbed in the back, a fairly quick end by a competent assassin. But the knife was at his throat. The knife was colder than he thought it could be. Still, he was ready, the details were inconsequential.

"Your Inspectors have ruined a tremendous amount of work. You have no idea what the possibilities could have been, all gone, in an instant, all gone."

The knife pressed closer, but it was so sharp he didn't know whether it cut into him or not. Was it already slicing into him? The slight pressure. There was nothing he could say, he could only stare at the texture of the man's skin, the islands of hairs, the folds, the fields of red, it was the whole of his final world, this landscape. This too, he hadn't expected.

"But we need you to know this—and we know you'll tell your Inspectors—the agreement, the truce, is over. We'll be hands on now. Not hiding. Much more the way I used to be. You remember. This is the correct response to this new age."

The knife descended. Konrad's throat was not cut, he was alive. This too was unexpected.

"Tell them," the Garde said, "that there's a price to be paid." The Garde backed away.

Why am I not dead? Konrad thought.

"You'll live as long as you're useful," the Garde said, "there's a lot to do."

2018-10-30 16:02 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

Wares

There were the sounds of frogs. And the pop of cracking branches, from various nomadic creatures that had broken through the fencing, determined to cross rather than go around the enclave. Adjacent to them the airfield was quiet, abandoned after the Surrender. Several vehicles, now covered in weeds and vines slowly disintegrated right where they'd stopped when the Protein Bombs went off, their drivers having just melted right away. It doesn't take so long for nature to reclaim everything, they said to one another. It was a beautiful night, the absence of air traffic and the closed motorway let delicate sounds emerge from the warm night breeze. They had the windows open most of the year. The bat hive at the corner of the property sometimes fluttered, a sortie flying out into the yard to catch bugs. Once in a while, during a good moon, they would sit and throw pieces of bio-cake up into the air and watch the bats grab them right out of the night sky. In the morning the Recycler would come up the hill, rattling, the dogs pulling the wagon yipping and snapping excitedly. Then, when the shadows became shorter, they packed their bicycles — the large pockets and bladders stuffed with wares — and rode down to their shop at the Market. Soon smoke from the various open stoves drifted through, the owners preparing for the nighttime crowds. They lifted the broad, rough wooden shutters and put out their sign — a tall, brightly colored banner with two characters written boldly, meaning "STORIES FOR SALE". It was illegal, but then most things at the Market were.

2018-10-29 10:00 fiction cyclopaedia

Cyclopaedia Chapter Twenty-Five: Master Compiler

Slv&Elin moved into the Director's office, since the noise and peculiar sensations from the Master Compiler was disconcerting—there was a slight dizziness, a little disorientation, as if you were far away from yourself. Could there be permanent harm? They didn't know. They examined what they could—the offices, the consoles, the bottom of the well of the mechanism itself. Other than the Director's coat at the office table, placed in front of a half consumed drink, there was nothing of note.

"Must've been important–"

"–getting up in the middle of your drink."

"And leaving your coat."

They waited for the second of Ove's assistants, Pietr, to arrive at the lab. They'd sent a priority wire to the Division to have him picked up and immediately brought to the laboratory. They knew this might take several hours. Until then they could rest briefly. And they had to discuss these last steps in the investigation regardless. The conclusion had to match the procedures, there had to be certainty.

"Although we seem to be in new territory with the situation–"

"–if what we suspect is true."

"Or possible."

"There won't be a conviction."

"In that sense the investigation would be a failure."

"However–"

"–we have to move forward."

They would have Pietr examine the mechanism to see if they could tell who, and more importantly when, it was turned back on. This would be a crucial piece of information.

"Would the Director have the knowledge."

"We didn't believe his attempts at false humility or false ignorance."

Even though they didn't understand the internals of the mechanism, there was no doubt that it was operating, and doing so at full capacity. The consoles were steady patterns of lights indicating frantic activity. There was frenzied operation of the punch cards in their slots. And the paper at the other end had, probably days ago, overflowed its bin and now piled up on the floor, each new printed line pushing the mass of paper farther out into the floor of the laboratory. Yes, they could tell the Master Compiler was busy. When they'd first sealed the lab the mechanism was silent. Given the evidence that the Director had been sitting in one of the offices drinking, he must've started it. But why. And did he do it alone? Was Jon with him?

"What the Garde said."

"That this work is important."

"More important than we can understand."

"The Director turned it back on."

"He must've done so because he was ordered to."

"But what would it be working on, what is it compiling."

"There's someone else who knows–"

"–Hedvin."

In a couple of hours Pietr was delivered by Division agents, shaken, unshaven, smelling like a dingy bar. They sat him down in one of the nicely upholstered, expensive chairs in the Director's office. They told him not to worry. This didn't seem to alleviate his nervousness.

In the hallway Slv&Elin instructed the Division agents to arrest Hedvin.

"Bring him in–"

"–tell him he's under arrest."

"He's to be detained, and isn't allowed any outside communications."

"Be aware, he's a Compiler."

The agents raised their eyebrows. To arrest a Compiler would certainly mean the involvement of legal council from the Cyclopaedia. It would certainly mean attention from the heads of the Division, and it would certainly mean energizing back channels.

"Take him in, arrest him, be sure to hold him until we get back."

"Resist pressure to release him. He is being held under our orders."

"There is no legal recourse."

The Division agents acknowledged this earnestly then left the complex. Slv&Elin knew they could be counted on. They wondered how much the Cyclopaedia was willing to invest in its rogue Compiler. They bet it would be very little.

"But if the Sovereigns step in, then we'll know–"

"–that they have a significant interest in this drug Vermilion."

"The Garde might become quarrelsome."

"They haven't in a long time."

"We have our allies. We have the Division."

"We can diffuse the situation if necessary."

"Hedvin might be released by our superiors–"

"–then at least we'd know."

They took Pietr from the office and escorted him to the lab. They explained to him that he wasn't under arrest. He accepted this quietly.

"I don't know what's happening," Pietr said, "none of this makes any sense. All I know is that we were working, now I'm the last one."

It's alright, they assured him, we need your help. As they entered the lab, however, he became agitated.

"What's this? Everything is on, everything is running at full power." He moved quickly to one of the consoles, examining the bank of rapidly blinking lights, then to the other to read some of the consistently expelled paper. The clacking of printing was constant.

"When we sealed the laboratory the Master Compiler was off, correct?" Slv&Elin asked.

"It wasn't operational," Pietr said without looking up at them.

"So... off?" Elin restated.

"It still has Electric in that case. Essentially off." He began to tear the paper, placing the pieces out next to one another on the floor by the console.

"And where does the Electric come from?" Slv asked Pietr, moving closer to see the papers he was laying down.

"The mechanism has its own Electric source. It is however also tied into the Electric for the city, to either pull or push power in that direction." He moved back to the front of the console, and pointed down at several fluttering needles. "And right now, given the amount of work its doing, its drawing Electric from the city. A lot of Electric," he said, clearly concerned.

"How do we turn it off," Slv&Elin asked him.

"Off off," Slv said.

"Really off," said Elin.

Pietr groaned.

"Is it difficult?" They asked.

"Yes. Well, more than that. It was designed to be calibrated, to keep a certain state. It took us months to get to that point, fine tuning. Disconnecting it would mean starting all over. That's one of the reasons it has its own Electric, which makes it almost impossible to do that—to turn it off. Off off."

"We need to turn it off off," said Slv&Elin.

"Now," Slv added.

"No matter how difficult," Elin said.

"But all that work..." Pietr protested.

Slv&Elin looked at him in a manner that indicated they were extremely serious.

"There's something else, that you should be aware of," Pietr said as he was staring at the sequence of papers he'd carefully placed on the floor. "This logging is very unusual, I don't know what to make of it." He picked up a piece of paper, the striated sides punched with holes now dangling like innards. "I don't understand where this string came from."

"String?"

"The output of the Master Compiler is, line by line, a series of strings, of letters, that indicate what it's working on, or errors—those are strings that we programmed into it. It should only ever use those, the letters we gave it. But it isn't. Here, for instance," Pietr pointed to a line on the paper.

"FOX, it says," Slv said.

"Yeah, and this one," Pietr pointed to another place farther down.

"BIRD," Elin said.

"What do these mean?" Slv&Elin asked.

"I have no idea what they mean. It has either been programmed without my knowledge, or the Master Compiler came up with this on its own." He continued to hunt through the paper output, frowning.

"How would the Master Compiler do that?"

"Come up with that on its own?"

"I suppose from the large amount of information the mechanism already has in the data drums. It doesn't contain the Cyclopaedia exactly, but it contains a vast amount of information to extrapolate the Cyclopaedia—this phase of the project was to generate an alternate Cyclopaedia and then understand where the deviance is. We'd evaluate whether that deviance is, positive or negative—it could be creating new strings that reflect the state of itself and its collection."

"But these strings don't really make sense."

"Yeah, I guess they don't." He looked worried, and Slv&Elin believed there was something else Pietr wasn't telling them.

"It has to be–"

"–shut down."

"Alright," he said. He took his eyes off the logging he'd dissected.

"What else?" Slv asked.

"There's something else happening here," Elin said.

Pietr winced, "The Master Compiler doesn't only get its Electric from the city."

"It has its own source," Slv said.

"We're aware of that," Elin said.

"The construction is unique," he hesitated, "it draws Electric from the air, from the ground, from everything around it. This is Ove's design. It's brilliant. But now I wonder about it, it's passive, or it's supposed to be passive," Pietr looked back down at the papers, putting his finger across several lines.

"Are we in any danger right now?" Slv asked.

"I don't know. It seems to be consuming tremendous amounts of Electric."

"Shut it down," said Elin.

"Off off," Slv added.

Pietr moved to one of the consoles and began working switches and buttons. Slv&Elin stood by him, watching.

"This might sound naive–"

"–but isn't there a big switch somewhere, a master switch?"

"I'm preparing it, things have to be done first, so that there will be the least amount of damage. Then I can go into the well and terminate the mechanism."

A few minutes later he indicated he was ready.

"I need to complete this inside the well," he said.

"I'll go with you," Slv said.

Elin looked at Slv looked at Elin. Pietr and Slv went to the elevator that accessed the bottom of the well. Elin went to the guard rail around the perimeter of the machine well.

"Are you down there?" she yelled.

"Yes!" Slv replied.

"I'm pulling the switch now," Pietr said loudly.

He and Slv stood next to the edge of the mechanism itself, he grasped a large, solid lever recessed into the machinery, a lever that had been invisible given the surrounding complexity. Pietr held it, looking upwards to the top of the well and listening—the chatter of the millions of intricately fabricated and assembled parts was clear. With exertion he pulled straight down on the lever, it providing significant resistance particularly at the end, where the lever fit back into the mechanism, invisible again. Pietr still looked upwards and listened. The noise had stopped. He didn't move, Slv didn't move. Then, just as suddenly, the noise continued. Was it even more harried? She wondered, like desperate buzzing, like angry bees?

"Fuck," Pietr exclaimed.

"What is it? What's happened?" Elin yelled from above.

"The internal Electric has taken over automatically somehow," Pietr said.

"How do we disconnect that?" Slv asked.

"This should've been enough to shut it down. But it looks like Ove has a failsafe. A failsafe to the failsafe." Pietr moved around the machine to another section of the column.

"What you'll need to do is go above and cut the cabling while I eject this calculating core." He pointed to a square area on the column that he indicated was distinct.

"Don't worry, you won't need to actually cut any cable—there are securing bolts on both sides, remove them, then pull hard on the cabling when I say so, it's simple, it should come right out. But we need to do it at the same time, up there, down here," he said.

Slv told Elin she was coming back up. She went to the elevator, watching Pietr manipulating the fasteners on the mechanical column.

When she was on the laboratory floor she quickly found the cabling, it lay fat and heavy, stretching from one part of the floor over the gap into the well and into the mechanism.

"Do you see it?" Pietr yelled from within the well.

"Yes," Slv said. It was impossible to miss.

"Remove the securing plate on the floor. It's there to prevent accidental disconnection. You can see it twists off. Then be ready to pull the cable, it will take both of you. But only when I say so. Be sure to pull hard," Pietr said.

When they'd twisted off the plate they told him they were ready.

"On three," he yelled, "one... two... three!"

Slv&Elin yanked the cable upwards and backwards, making a satisfying THOPP sound as the pins let go of the sockets in the floor. The lights and noise around them instantly ceased, plunging the laboratory into darkness. The sudden silence was jarring, even painful.

But then, in quick stages, starting with the consoles, lights came back on. Then the whirring of the mechanism, spinning as if from a distance to become a close, persistent roar. It was soon working as hard as it ever had.

"Pietr! It didn't work!" Slv&Elin yelled down into the well.

"Pietr!" they yelled again.

There was no response. Pietr was gone.

2018-10-25 14:44 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

The Tourist

The lesser known city streets led nowhere, they circled around the museum like they were shy, or worse, like they were predatory and waiting for a moment of weakness. If you got caught in them you might never find your way out. As the museum was full of ancient things of beauty, those streets were dotted with ugly impossibilities, the stunned and the invisible, great works out of spite or desperation. And tourists, seeking the renowned museum, driven astray by subversive guides, are caught up in this vortex of streets, ancillary roadways and walkways paved with cobblestones from the previous empires, each a minor sacrifice. Tourists would warily take a couple of photos, standing in front of a burned out store front, or next to a decapitated statue, forcing the required smile onto their faces, then abandoning the traditional snapshot with shame as the nature of their situation became defined and portentous. They would never get to the museum. They would stare at their snapshots again over the following years for any signs of escape or any indications of premonition in their own faces. And who was that man in the background? Is he the man we sold the kidney to? Is he the man who stands on the overpass yelling at traffic every night? From the shelter they created out of discarded shipping pallets and plastic tarps, they could see the columns of light around the museum, adorning a gala or opening. They would fold and unfold the maps sold to them at the airport, yes, certainly the light came from the museum. Perhaps these few photographs they'd taken, which they now perceived as alien and obscene, were there hanging on the walls, being seriously contemplated by serious, well-dressed people. The streets inside the perimeter were impenetrable, but maybe they could go outwards, back towards the airport, admitting that their travel agenda would never be satisfied.

2018-10-23 14:41 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

At Dawn

At midnight they stopped at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. Although it was pitch black they imagined that opposite the station was a vista of great magnitude. A landscape that was indelible and American, a big sky and dramatic, worn crags of rock dotted with a tough, stubbly brush. They stood there in the cool night air and remarked on it. You see the way the sun creates shadows off the buttes, like solid splashes of ink. And the ground, she said, the rippling, tan expanse has something in common with the ocean — it feels endless and a little dangerous. They stood this way for quite a while, staring out into the darkness. Occasionally someone would drive up and walk past them into the mini-mart, wondering what they were doing, why they were standing there. Should we stay until dawn? he asked. I'm not sure, she said, we might ruin it by staying. What if it were an abandoned factory that was there, an ugly factory? he suggested. What if there was nothing but pavement? she said. It's best the way it is right now, he said. Shortly before dawn they went into the mini-mart for supplies and to pay for gas. Where are you headed? the attendant asked. Forward, not back, she replied. Mostly west, he said.

2018-10-21 21:12 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

The Song

Singing settled into the valley. It washed over those houses and hamlets, a series of voices that came from everywhere, from the sky, from the trees and rocks and river and from their own tools and even their own children. It was a harmonious confluence, this steady group of voices, which they attributed to ancient ghosts or gods or spirits. That each of us can hear them, that each of us is in connection with this world of voices — it was at first an amazing revelation. Then over the weeks and months they wondered why such a power would be so relentlessly beautiful. Mean, unforgiving, punishingly beautiful. It was gorgeous and transcendent, how was it possible a thing like this existed? Perhaps it doesn't exist, some said. If we deny the every-present voices, maybe they will subside. The weeks and months turned into years. Why are we being tormented? Over time the voices washed away the houses and hamlets. They were worn down into smooth obliterations, a kind of polished, perfect beauty that no man or woman could withstand. The few remaining wandered through the valley hoping to escape this song. The ever present, ever changing song. They put their heads into holes in the earth. They stuffed copious feathers and mushrooms into their ears. They hid themselves in hollow tree trunks. They crawled on the ground looking for relief. They shrieked and howled as they ran naked across the now dry river beds. Without homes or villages, without clothes or tools, they became animals who heard only those voices and the singing which would never stop.