fiction

2019-02-05 10:00 fiction reel

ReeL Friendly

Willm knew he was close to the trailer park because of the smell of rubbish. Since it was comparatively cramped, all the normal things saved and composted, the collected refuse, was piled, scattered and hoarded in great quantities and in close proximity. The inhabitants of the town, many whose grandparents had also lived here, loved the odor because it reminded them of their abundance of resources.

Willm reached the edge of town and was greeted by a half dozen scrawny barking dogs. One might nip at him but it was only bluster. He saw a thin column of black, acrid smoke in the distance, probably someone melting something down. You weren't supposed to do that, the Shrubs didn't like it—at least that's what the provisional government claimed. To his left was a cluster of small log buildings, right at the edge of a sparse forest that they were probably cut from a generation ago. This is where the trailer people did their town meetings, their tax collection, their dispensing of rudimentary justice. In front of him was a level plot of land with a patchwork of muted colors from a couple hundred trailers that had been repaired and re-repaired over the decades. A few people moved around, coming or going. Nobody paid attention to him other than the dogs who had gone from territorial to excitedly jumping and tail wagging.

He was here to see Bug. He knew where Bug lived because when they were little their parents were friends. At least Willm assumed Bug still lived here. Since they both started doing business in ReeLs, they didn't hang out anymore, they met at different places to do business but that was it. This is what it must feel like to be an adult, he thought.

Willm walked down and around the thin streets that once had meandering electric carts but now was traveled by foot and bicycles. He remembered where Bug's trailer was, his memory was pretty good with things like that. He found it quickly. The trailer hadn't changed much—the miscellaneous, old lighting was still strung around the edges of the roof. Bug's father put up Christmas lights one year and never took then down, over the years adding to it, savoring the municipal notoriety it gave him. On the free side and at the small frontage of the trailer there was a common mix of detritus and gardening. Half of it looked like marijuana, the other half maybe badly tended vegetables. He didn't remember Bug's folks being big smokers. The steps and the sides of the trailer were bright green with mildew, several of the windows were cracked and fixed with tape that was now dirty and peeling.

As he went up the steps he listened but didn't hear any activity inside. There was a large spiderweb and a single fat spider in the corner of the awning. He knocked on the door and waited. Then he heard someone inside moving. The door opened half way and he saw Elln, Bug's mother. She was older of course. Her eyes were red and she looked puffy like she was smoking and drinking a lot. They stared at each other for a moment.

"Does Bug still live here?" he asked.

"Do I know you?" Elln squinted at him.

Did she normally wear glasses? He couldn't recall. Bug wore big, thick glasses, always had, and this combined with his bony, ant-like skull was how he acquired the nickname. Willm assumed poor vision must've been genetic.

"My name is Willm, you knew my parents..."

"Oh!" she said, eyes widening with recognition. "I was so sorry to hear about your parents!" She flung the door open wider. "Come in!" She grabbed his arm lightly, pulling him into the trailer.

"Thanks."

"You want a beer? Local, real good," she asked.

"OK."

He knew the beer they made in town, it was strong. Sometimes it was good, sometimes it had a whiff of burning tires.

She reached for a tall, already opened bottle close to the edge of a cluttered kitchen counter. Willm sat at a round table near the window. He carefully pushed at a pile of dishes, paper, and accumulation of little bits and pieces to make room for the beer glass. The place was a mess.

"How's..." Willm suddenly struggled to recall Bug's father's name, "...Jm."

She poured obviously flat beer into two glasses, one dirty, one clean.

"Jm moved out years ago," she didn't miss a beat. "And Bug moved out recently. So it's just me now." She smiled at him wearily. "But tell me about you. You've grown up!"

She sat at the table opposite him, also pushing stuff out of the way. "Hey, you want some weed? Goes with the beer."

"No, thanks, the beer is good," he said. The beer wasn't good.

"So what are you doing with yourself these days?" A wisp of graying hair fell down and she pushed it back behind her ear.

"I do a little business, here and there," he said.

"I see. You work with Bug sometimes?"

She called him Bug too, he thought, calling him by his real name, Alln, would've been strange at this point.

"Un-hunh. You know where he's living now?" he asked.

Under the table he shifted, moving one leg up, bumping into her.

"Oh, sorry," he said. He blushed slightly.

"That's OK Willm," she said, smiling. "I always asked Bug what he did, and he would say the same thing, here and there, that kind of stuff."

Under the table she moved her foot forward next to his, touching with a calculated pressure. He didn't move. He coughed.

"Bug lives pretty far outside of town now," she said. "I don't know if it's a commune or what," she added, "artists I guess. I think they're artists of some sort."

The pressure of her foot against his increased. He coughed again then raised the glass and drained the rest of the beer hoping it would prompt her.

"Want some more beer?" she asked.

"Yeah, that'd be great," he said.

She stood, reaching over to grab his glass but without taking her eyes off of him, then she went to the counter where the bottle was. He stood too, moving quickly over to the counter in pretense of politeness, but really to be closer to the door, ready to leave. She smiled at him.

"So do you know where they live out there? Bug and the rest of them," he asked.

"Well I've never been there," she said, pouring out the last of the beer which looked syrupy with yeast, "but it's a place out by the Shrub fields. I don't know why they'd be out there, it would give me the creeps." Then she lowered he voice, "I was told sometimes you can hear them talking, the plants I mean."

"You don't know which house do you?"

"You're too young to remember, but I'm pretty sure it's what used to be Ynder Farms. The family disappeared around the time of Surrender."

"Probably got melted by Shrubs for those fields," he said.

"Probably, yeah," she said. She looked a little sad, staring at the beer in her glass.

"OK, it was great seeing you again," Willm said, slugging down the rest of the beer and suppressing a grimace.

"Aw, gotta go? You sure you don't want any weed?" she said.

"I'm good, thanks."

"Come here," she said. She held out her arms. Reluctantly he stepped in and she hugged him, saying "All grown up." He let her strenuously squeeze him for a few moments then he shifted his weight forcing her to let go.

2019-02-03 15:00 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

Recruiter

When he woke up in the middle of the night the devil was there, on the couch.

"I was thirsty. I had a strange dream in which I was very thirsty. So I decided to get up and get a drink of water," he said.

The devil nodded, acknowledging this as a reasonable course of action.

"What are you doing here?" he asked the devil.

The devil was red of course, but always a paler shade than he'd expected. And there were the horns — but they were understated, even manicured. He wasn't wearing a robe, or intimidating, perhaps suggestive leather accessories, but quite ordinary clothes. The pants were slim, in a tan, cotton twill. The shirt was a quiet checkered pattern with the top two buttons undone and the sleeves rolled up to the upper third of his forearms. He was wearing an apple watch. The shoes were Clarks. And the socks, which he saw about an inch worth, were predictably scarlet.

"I'm just checking in. Touching base," the devil said. "Have you considered the opportunity?" he asked.

"I'm not sure it's a good for for me right now," he replied.

"I hear you, I hear you," the devil said, "although the perks are amazing. Really top notch."

"Yes, so you've said."

The devil shrugged. "I mean, you don't have to take my word for it, just ask Lewis, in your bathroom. He'll tell you."

"Lewis? In my bathroom?"

"Right," the devil nodded enthusiastically, "in your bathroom. You had to piss anyway, yes? While you're up? I figured you and Lewis could talk about the position, about the culture. No matter what you decide it never hurts to keep networking, right?"

"Yeah," he said.

The devil sat and smiled. He did have to urinate. He could also get a drink from the bathroom sink, although this is something he generally eschewed, but given the circumstances he'd make an exception. He walked a few feet to the bathroom, reflexively hitting the light switch without looking as he stepped in. There was Lewis, he assumed, standing in the bathtub.

"Hi, I'm Lewis," Lewis said.

"Hello Lewis. You don't mind if I pee a bit do you?" he said, lifting the seat.

"No, no. Go right ahead," Lewis said cheerily.

He began to pee.

"I mean, look, I don't want to seem like I'm trying to sell this to you," Lewis said.

"OK," he replied.

"I'm not the kind of person who normally tries to recruit people," Lewis added.

"Sure," he said. He urinated more forcefully.

"But this is really a unique opportunity. I had my doubts too, but it worked out great. Nice folks, smart folks, very supportive. And the perks–"

"Yes, the perks are amazing," he said, finishing up then hitting the handle.

2019-01-25 10:00 fiction reel

ReeL Star

The seeds came out of the bag with a pop. She sawed back and forth with the bow, which spun the distributor at the bottom of the bag. It was inelegant, she thought, this walking and swaying, like a drunk, invariably she moved her head with the sawing of the bow, like she was listening to some invisible ground song. She would glance occasionally at the seeds as they landed. Soon they would sprout, maybe, if they weren't eaten by birds, if they fell onto amenable land, with sufficient sun, not too much, and the right amount of water. It was a matter of odds, put down enough seeds over enough time and the plants would grow, they would grow everywhere. Once there were plenty of them, across every town, lot, vacant road, and next to every Shrub field, then they would flower. Not until then.

She started to sweat with exertion, pausing to tie a bandanna over her head. Her canteen was almost empty. In the distance she saw the rusty carapace of a house roof. She'd ask them for water, if anyone was there, she'd done it before. Likely the house was abandoned. She was pretty far out, the town was miles behind her, she didn't know how many. She was always careful. But she believed there was a recognition of her ordained task, that down deep, wherever it was people knew these things, they would realize her and she would be safe.

She slung her seed bag back and started across a rolling, wild field. As she got closer she sensed activity, although not yet seeing anyone, she vaguely felt movement, the way birds and cows can feel true north, she thought. Her mother taught her this, her mother-sister, the older her, the other her.

There they were—she saw people come around the corner of the house. She was some distance away, and she crouched behind a low bush. The people were a little older than her, but young. There were six of them and they each carried a piece of equipment—black and boxy things, a few with dangling wires like spilled innards. This was technology of some sort, it had to be expensive since nobody made that stuff anymore. They were taking these things into the house. Then a seventh person came around the corner. He was wearing a contraption. It was a kind of black cage around his torso with bars that went up above his head and curved outwards, each terminating in a small glass orb. Instead of walking into the house he stood for a moment, turning, looking out over the fields. She remained absolutely still. She wondered what he was doing, was he looking for her? No, he moved on, walking in an arc around the house. He was looking, in a special way, technological witchcraft maybe.

When he passed she quickly moved out from behind the bush to a corner by the porch and the slanted, rotting basement doors. She heard voices down there.

She was thirsty. She looked for a spigot on this side of the house but didn't see one. She'd have to chance going into the house, there was probably a bathroom near the front, there usually was. She'd be in and out before anyone knew she was there. It would be easier that way, they seemed busy.

The front door was cracked open. The handle and lock were broken a long time ago. The house had a familiar smell like most of them did—emptiness, mildew, mice, maybe the tang of a dead thing. This one wasn't bad though, and it might not even leak much. But why were these people here? If they could afford tech like that then they had to be rich. Or maybe they stole that stuff. Perhaps she should've been scared, but she wasn't.

There was a bathroom, the door didn't open all the way, she squeezed in. She took off her old army-green canteen from the place on her belt. There was a slight sloshing sound from the tiny amount of water left in the heavy plastic container. She looked at the sink. If she turned on the faucet they would hear it in the basement. But, she thought, they would assume this was their friend, the one that went around the side of the house.

The window next to her in the bathroom looked out across a Shrub field, closest to where she was seeding. She was seeding along its edge, that's what she always tried to do. In the Shrub field she saw tall, studded stalks ending in clusters of large, sharp leaves. There was no comparison with anything from the area—in fact there was no comparison with anything from Earth. These plants were from somewhere else, maybe where the Shrubs came from, no one knew. People had eventually come to identify the purposes of Shrub field, there were different kinds—one species generates power, one generates fruit, but this one nobody really understood. She knew that in the autumn, before the Shrubs took the crop away overnight quickly and quietly, these plants uprooted themselves and milled around in groups making a low, wheezing sound, as if they were compressing air in anticipation. It was only then that they were dangerous. If you happened into the field you would be cut to pieces by the razor sharp, stiff leaves which they collectively lowered to protect themselves.

If the farmer and his family who used to live here weren't killed by protein bombs, they certainly would've fled after the Shrubs started growing their crops here. That doesn't explain these people, she thought, why were they in the house?

She turned the tap on slowly, hearing gurgling from pipes below. Water suddenly evacuated from the faucet, then became a predictable stream. She waited a moment for the water to clear the pipes then she put the canteen under it. When it was full she capped it and turned off the tap which squeaked.

She moved to leave the way she came in. She paused. She could hear voices in the basement through the door in the hallway. Creeping up next to the door she leaned in and listened. They were setting up equipment. Hand me that wire, someone said. That doesn't go there, someone else said.

She walked down the hall and left the way she came in. She'd go back to seeding. When she was past the stairs and walking towards the brush she'd previously hidden under, she heard a voice behind her. She turned.

"Hey you!" It was the guy wearing the black metal cage.

She didn't say anything, she stared, feeling the fresh weight of the full canteen hanging on her belt.

"I know who you are, you're that girl, the resistance farmer," he said. He flipped a couple of latches on the cage and took it off himself more nimbly than she expected.

"Yes," she said. She didn't move any closer. There was no point in lying, everybody knew who she was.

"See this thing here?" He crouched down pointed at the black contraption. "Know what it is?"

"No," she said.

"It's a rig, to make ReeLs," he said.

"Oh," she said. She didn't know what that was, although she'd heard the word before.

He stood there smiling, looking at her, and said "How would you like to star in a ReeL?"

2019-01-12 10:00 fiction reel

ReeL Market

"There has to be more than one girl. It can't be the same one we saw here in the market years ago, she was so young," Taryn said.

Millr straightened some of the things on the shelves behind them. All of it antique. Radios, miscellaneous appliances, a few tools like drills and popular repair kits, manual typewriters, some cleaned up, early era electronics, eye glasses, and an array of worn, weathered boots. If you wanted a ReeL, which many people did, you had to ask, all of that was done in the back.

"I can't explain it, it's her though," Millr said.

"I'm not disagreeing with you," Taryn said.

"Maybe mothers and daughters? I'm at a loss to explain it. You remember her, at the market, with the bag, the what do you call it—"

"A seed fiddle. A newer kind of seed fiddle anyway," Taryn said.

"And there was a bounty on her," Millr said.

"I'm surprised she showed up here, everybody knew she was wanted," Taryn said, "maybe she needed to be seen."

"I'm even more surprised she showed up in a ReeL," Millr added.

"Where'd you get it from?" she asked.

"Usual place. That kid Willm. I guess he has a new source. He seemed excited about how much he could get for them," Millr said.

"There's more than one?" Taryn asked.

"Yeah, but I haven't brought it in yet, I wanted to see how the first one did to figure out if I could charge more," Millr said.

"And you haven't watched it yet?"

"Not yet," he said.

Millr and Taryn heard a large crash, then the descending clattering of objects settling. They stuck their heads out of the kiosk, looking down the lane which was crowded with shops on both sides. Deputies were hovering over the contents of several shelves of stuff from Mr Wlkrsun's place. The sheriff stood in front of Mr Wlkrsun, between him and the deputies, with his hands on his hips, his uniform a bit grubby, a bit ill fitting, his gun belt drooping drastically, held up perhaps only by stubbornness.

"They're early this month," Millr said.

Taryn groaned. "How much will it cost this time?" she said.

They could hear the sheriff progressing up the lane, small rustling, a few tense words but no more torn down shelves.

"Millr," the sheriff said as he and his deputies came to his kiosk, the last on the end, before they would proceed up the opposite lane.

"Dck," Millr said. He'd known Dck since high school. They didn't get along then, and they didn't now, however time and age siloed their dislike of each other into relatively moderate exchanges. Dck never addressed Taryn, this would've jeopardized this sufficiency.

"Governor's undies are in a twist," Dck said.

"Well ain't that sumptin," Millr said.

"There's a ReeL going around that has people worried. Inflammatory. Anti-Shrub," Dck declared.

"An illegal ReeL?" Millr said, mocking surprise.

"You wouldn't happen to know where something like that comes from, would you Millr?"

"No sir, I would not." Millr slid a billfold across the counter towards the sheriff. Dck reached out with familiarity and confidence, examining the contents of the wallet. A deputy behind him yawned.

"Good man. I can always count on you Millr," the sheriff said, removing the bills and stuffing them into his pocket. "But let's just say, if I was the kind of guy distributing stuff that gets the governor agitated, I'd probably try to avoid it and go back to selling Heckle."

"That's good advice," Millr said.

The sheriff gave Millr a final noncommittal glance then summoned his deputies with a lazy wave and moved around the corner.

"He's going to start asking for more," Taryn said.

"Yup," Millr said.

"Because of that ReeL," Taryn added.

Millr said, "If it wasn't that, it would be something else, he won't change."

That was it, he thought, people needed to see the ReeL because it would change them. He was sure of this, but without precisely understanding why. Instinct, he supposed.

"You're not going to stop selling them are you?"

"Nope," he said.

2019-01-02 10:00 fiction reel

ReeL Popular

"You got any ham today?" Willm asked.

"Yup," the owner said.

"Ham and cheese sandwich. Mustard. No mayo," Willm said.

"Good, we're out of mayo," she replied.

Finally, what has it been, two months? Willm thought. As he waited for his sandwich he heard the door open behind him but he didn't look around. Two men sat down, one on either side of him. He knew one better than the other.

"Willm," Mrko said.

Mrko was only slightly older than Willm but he got the sense that Mrko had lived hard. Mrko ran one of the smaller ReeL teams.

"And you know my associate Lrz," Mrko said, gesturing to the large man on the opposite side of Willm. Lrz said nothing, he did not smile.

Willm looked around nervously.

"Don't worry, don't worry, no exchange of goods today. We would never do business here. This is more of a social visit," Mrko said.

"Oh?" Willm said. The owner of the diner put a plate with a ham sandwich on it down in front of him. He looked at the sandwich with regret.

"Yeah," said Mrko, "so how's the ReeL trade these days—you sell stuff to that guy at the market? Millr?"

"That's right, Millr," Willm said.

"Newest ReeL is popular, very popular I hear," Mrko said. He ran his finger down the five or six items on the menu in front of him.

"Oh yeah? Didn't know that," Willm said, glancing sideways at Lrz, who remained expressionless.

"That's the word. Problem is, from my point of view anyway, is that it's not one of ours," Mrko was grinning.

Willm felt uncomfortable. Lrz reached over and picked up half of Willm's sandwich. Willm didn't look but he could hear Lrz biting and chewing.

"Lrz is hungry I guess," Marko said offhandedly. "I'd love to meet this new ReeL maker, something this popular. There are probably a ton of things I could learn from them. Who did you get the ReeL from?"

"Bug," Willm said after a brief pause. He considered lying, but realized it was futile. Mrko would find out eventually, and if Willm lied he'd get a bad rep. Everybody knew what everybody else was up to.

"Bug," Mrko repeated.

"Yeah I'm guessing he knows the makers, he seems to know a lot of people," Willm said, glancing down at his plate.

"He does. We know Bug too," Mrko said. He tapped the menu absentmindedly. "Well, thanks Willm. We'll ask Bug about this rising star. There aren't many of us that do this, you know? We've got to stick together."

Mrko stood, slapping Willm on the back. Lrz stood, and placed unfinished crusts from the sandwich back onto Willm's plate.

"Lrz thanks you for lunch," Mrko said. "Alright Willm, we'll see you soon I'm sure, have got some great stuff in the pipeline."

"OK, see you," Willm said.

After they left he mechanically ate the remaining half sandwich and paid. The owner raised her eyebrows at him.

He knew that ReeL was something special, just like he told Millr. The price would go up, maybe a lot. He wondered if he could find Bug before Mrko did. He'd see if there were any more ReeLs, he didn't have any idea about how quickly these new makers worked. And he wondered what Mrko would do. He had resources, maybe he'd buy all the new ReeLs that he thought were competition and sit on them. Certainly wouldn't be the first time something like that happened. But this one was special. Willm couldn't explain it. He wanted everybody to see it. He didn't want these kinds of ReeLs to disappear. He didn't know why it was important, but it was important.

Outside the diner he sat on the stairs and retied his sneakers, securing the laces tightly.

2018-12-31 10:00 fiction reel

ReeL Machines

Millr lowered the heavy, slatted wooden partitions over the two exposed sides of his kiosk, then secured them with several thick, weighty iron locks. He was lucky to have gotten this kiosk at the end of the block—a triangular space where the two major foot paths merged. He'd won the space in the lottery, and he'd won the lottery by a very generous payment to the man running the lottery. Business was good.

He took a couple of small bags of trash and placed them in the cart attached to his bicycle. Everything would be reused, recycled or composted. He said goodnight to his neighbor who responded without turning around, thrusting a waving hand up into the air.

There were plenty of shops that stayed open at night. The market lit up with paper cages full of fireflies and strings of recycled diodes that lacked any consistent hue. Big, graphic banners offered food and drink, or semi-legal repair jobs, or black market recombinations.

You will not create more machines. The third Shrub law.

Recombiners brazenly ignored the thousands of pages of guidelines by the provisional government about how to follow the law. Their argument, when they were occasionally arrested, was that nothing new was invented, nothing new came into existence, they were merely swapping, repurposing, reconditioning. And yet there wasn't much they couldn't make if the parts were available.

The slabs that ReeLs were put on were different—complex micro-circuitry built by a multi-national before Surrender and designed with every intention of thwarting reverse engineering. But it was only a matter of time, Millr thought, before the Recombiners make something that works out of old broken toasters and antique handsets. It won't be pretty but he bet somebody would get it done. Then what would he do? He made a nice income this way, everybody came to him, maybe he'd have to start over, maybe he'd have to negotiate with the Recombiners and that little shit Willm. That kid was viciously smart, and maybe nuts, but that could just be age talking. He didn't know what would happen, but he knew he had to expect change. Twenty years ago he thought he had it all planned out, then the Shrubs happened.

Millr pulled his bike, hauling the trash, up to the market bins. This was part of the agreement of market business, you gave them your trash and they got everything out of it they could. Trash was gold. There was always someone watching over the bins, the people in charge doled this job out as a coveted reward to the low level denizens of the system. It was an easy job and you could get first pick.

Today Blly was the guy watching over the bins. Blly had no front teeth and consequently tended to spit on you if you were standing closely, particularly if he was worked up by any number of constant inequities.

"Millr," Blly said.

"Blly," Millr said.

"That new ReeL, Millr," Blly said.

"Yes, Blly," said Millr.

"Anymore like that?" Blly asked.

"Oh, I don't know, I get what I can. You like it?" Millr said.

"Yeah. I like it. A lot. You seen it?" Blly asked.

"A couple minutes. Pretty busy, can't see them all," Millr said.

"A lot. I liked it a lot. You should see it," Blly said.

"OK Blly, I will."

Millr emptied the cart with Blly's help.

As he rode home he thought about this brief exchange. Blly wasn't, how you'd say, a connoisseur. He preferred guffawing at Heckle, those short ReeLs with dumb, repetitive jokes or footage of people doing painfully stupid things. Often Heckle was simply a rearrangement of stuff already in other Heckles. They were very popular. Millr was surprised Blly had this latest ReeL, he was even more surprised Blly liked it enough to say something. Millr told himself he would watch the entire thing when he got home.

As he neared the outer edge of the market he had to navigate through clusters of incoming crowds. Night people coming in, day people going out. He walked his bicycle and tried to keep the pedals from snagging on other bicycles or peoples' bags. Yeah, business was good, plenty of people came to the market. When he was a child there used to be shopping malls and his memory of them was of strange, vast sterility, places that were abandoned financially but had yet to become actually decrepit. You could wander in the large, climate controlled halls and hear the echo of your own footsteps, maybe punctuated by an electronic ping from a lonely, nearby machine. These places would've disappeared one way or another, Shrubs or no Shrubs, he thought.

Once the market faded behind him he could get some more speed on the bike, feel the wind in what was left of his hair. There were copious properties on either side of him, empty, vines and trees having taken over the land and the buildings so that they looked like noble, ancient creatures, moving slower than could be perceived, towards spawning grounds somewhere far up the street.

The buildings thinned out and there were fields. Probably houses were once here, he thought, but now the land was used to grow food. He passed a few then turned off onto his road.

At the front of his own house was ample evidence of at least three unfinished projects. He saw Taryn in the back, moving compost. Trash was gold.

He went into the house and put his bag down. He'd traded for a decent bottle of wine and he opened it. He had work to do, to prepare things for market tomorrow, but he was eager to see the ReeL, the newest one he'd gotten from Willm that Blly liked. He took the bottle of wine to the basement. In the back, next to his work bench, he stooped down and removed a section of the uneven flooring. Inside were dozens of ReeLs, leaning together neatly. He extracted one at nearest edge. Yup, that was it. He always copied the latest ReeLs that came through, for himself. Copying was relatively straightforward. You placed the source at the bottom, then an identically sized, proprietary copier slab on top of it, which was black, not gray. Then the destination slab was put on top of that. Press the appropriate corners and the top slab will match the bottom one—whatever ReeL that was on top will be replaced, gone. Copier slabs were uncommon. He had two. One he kept locked in the kiosk, the other here. He constantly worried about losing them or them breaking.

Of course the harder part was producing the ReeLs in the first place. You needed special, old, pre-Surrender equipment for that. It was still a mystery to him who did actual production. He knew there were three, maybe four, crews that produced the black market ReeLs. The ReeLs created by the government weren't worth consideration, they were consistently terrible, laughably awful.

He placed the ReeL on the table, turned it on and sat back. He'd seen the first minute or two when Willm gave it to him. His initial impression was negative because the lighting was so dark, he preferred ReeLs that were big and bright. But as he watched, there was something about this one, a closeness, a richness. It quickly drew him in. Perhaps it was relative contrast but the few colors here were intense. He suspected immediately that they had shot this with a different rig. A couple minutes after this, he was positive. His pulse quickened. Where had they gotten it? Was it one of the old indie rigs or had they actually figured out how to make their own? Visually it was more impressive than anything he'd seen in forever. And nobody else would've seen anything like this in decades. He remembered the early ReeLs, the ones that were art, the great ones, but that kid Willm wouldn't know about anything like those, they were all gone, almost all gone. Only the most insipid, crowd pleasing junk had survived on the dwindling set of hardware, an unfortunate devolution.

The atmosphere here is dense, I can taste it, I can feel the texture of it. And where was it set? It looked like they were in a Shrub field. A power field. The rocking motion of the tall, huge solar leaves created an oscillating effect, giving it a disquieting impression of being underwater. Things swooshed, back and forth. The sound, he realized, was loud, but in the background almost pure droning.

We followed a girl through the field, at dusk. Was she running from someone? There was an urgency in her movement, she weaved and dodged. She came up out of the field onto a hill. The ascent had a revelatory feeling. In the distance he could see a Shrub citadel—the green, jagged, amorphous mound likely a hundred feet high at its peak, as if a giant gardener had dumped a huge pile of sticks and leaves on the horizon. Parts of it glistened with wetness. Other parts seemed to move slowly, a time-lapse of creeping vines, the slow motion of an opening flower which you're internally aware of but hesitant to declare as motion. It changed, it shifted.

The girl stood there. We were standing to one side of her, but slightly behind. So far we haven't seen her face. The human dwellings around the citadel stretch almost to the hill. The girl raises her arms, holding them to the sky, which has become darkly clouded. In the distance we can see something on the Shrub citadel. A spark. Then fire. The citadel begins to burn.

When the ReeL ended Millr realized he was covered in sweat. He heard Taryn's voice at the top of the stairs.

"You down there? Awful quiet," she said.

"Yeah," Millr said.

"You OK?" she asked.

"Yeah," Millr said.

"Ah. OK. Really?" she asked.

"I think you should see this," Millr said.

2018-12-26 14:43 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

Beastie

Directly above the metal edge he saw a single moist, dark eyeball, set in a broad, furry cranium. The truck pulled away rapidly, acceleration caused the eye to reflexively widen.

He didn't know where they took the beasties. They were harmless really — massive, shaggy, passive creatures. Except that they started appearing in huge numbers. Certain areas of the city were brought to a complete halt. Major roadways closed down. They would stand there, thousands of them, calmly, still, stubbornly resistant to any common coercion. Scientists said they were a new species, but they didn't understand why or how the beasties had gone unnoticed until now, or why they were suddenly drawn to major population centers, highways, office parks, shopping centers. Anywhere, it was said, they were most unwanted and most in the way.

Collectively they emitted a sound in a subtle frequency that had peculiar effects on some individuals. A tranquilizing reaction. Almost everyone could agree that the purr of the herds was pleasant, like that serene fugue you might slip into as a child, while you absentmindedly hum along in the same tone as a mundane appliance like a vacuum cleaner. An audio simpatico maybe, a lazy resonance.

He watched the truck pull away. Where would they be brought? The public distaste for violence against the beasties was clear. So often municipalities would, at night, laboriously ship them out. They didn't resist. He wondered, would they be loaded onto ships and sent to a distant, barren island? There were too many of them now for this, there were more and more every month. He was drawn to them.

He decided instantly, impulsively, to find out where they were going. Several more trucks were lined up for departure. He ran to the back of the line and the back of the last truck. He pulled himself up the gate and then squeezed in over the lip. He could tell they were close, all around him. They were warm and the fur smelled like wet grass. He pressed himself against the side of the truck and the shoulder of a one of them. He couldn't move or twist upwards to see the face above him but he soon felt a wide, rough tongue gently licking the top of his head. With a jolt the truck drove forward.

2018-12-25 10:00 fiction reel

ReeL Blank

Willm darted around the corner, the crunching sound of dry scrub and gravel from this his shoes dampened by the building's white-washed wall. He built up some speed and made a running jump at the tall wooden fence next to the building, flinging himself up and over it. This was a game he would play when he was little, navigating through town by unusual paths as quickly as he could. He didn't want to be seen coming from Millr's. He didn't necessarily think anybody was following him, who would really. But it was fun, he could move across obstacles faster than he ever had, he was bigger and stronger, the patterns he'd performed a thousand times came naturally. Up, over, under, across. It made him feel alive.

He emerged, sweating, onto the street near the center of town. It was almost noon and the sun was hot. Weeds coming up through the cracks in the pavement carpeted the lesser traveled areas in lush green. A few trees had grown up through the rusty skeletons of dumped, broken cars. Since the surrender they weren't allowed to build any new machines so year by year there were more that couldn't be repaired. Always more car husks.

He felt the slight weight of the blank ReeLs in his bag. He would deliver them today, after he had lunch. He walked towards the diner, he walked down main street because there was no traffic. There was rarely traffic anywhere. Sometimes trucks. Although in the distance he saw a bicycle. Was that Jynes? Looked it. Men withered in the noon day sun, old Jynes was still hale and hearty though. Some curmudgeonly secret of longevity.

The door of the diner clanged loudly behind Willm. He went to the counter and sat down. The owner, a gruff middle-aged woman with tattoos covering both arms, gave him a customary, muted greeting then asked what he wanted.

"Got any ham yet?" he asked.

"No, no ham. Chicken. Just chicken," she said.

"It was pigeon last time," he said.

She shrugged.

Muscle can eat muscle. The second Shrub law.

"OK," he said. He was ravenous. Pigeon was fine.

As he ate he kept the strap of the bag across his arm, protecting the blanks. Of course nobody knew what was in his bag, or that Willm even dealt in ReeLs, but if he was careless, he thought, he could fuck up a nice business. Like Millr kept telling, once they were gone, they were gone for good. He ate his sandwich bite by bite, it wasn't great, it was tough and had an aftertaste. French fries though, he savored them. Even with the Shrubs there was still plenty they could grow, although not enough for all the animals they used to keep and slaughter.

You must never eat from our fields. The first Shrub law.

He finished up, clearing the plate of every crumb and believing he could eat another sandwich. He paid. He was making decent money these days, he'd become used to the expense of the diner. Not like growing up, things were harder then. As he left the diner he looked over his shoulder. Who was there when he arrived and who was there when he left? The same cast of characters from town. He liked to keep track of these things. He liked to keep an eye out for change.

Being caught with blank ReeLs would be a mark against him. It was illegal to alter the slabs in any way. Only official provisional government programs could be put on them. You were supposed to bring them back to the local programming office where the new content could be imprinted. But of course there was the black market. It was too large for the government to battle, and most of the people in those offices watched illegal ReeLs off hours anyway.

He walked around the side of the diner to the back, past the garage, through the vacant lot, past the ancient gnarled tree. He started down the dirt road, fields on both sides of him. That's the way the Shrubs usually did it, cluster the undesignated fields around towns. Deep in though, far in, where the real industrial farming used to be, it was all worked by the Shrubs for themselves, for whatever they wanted to grow.

At the place where the fence looked collapsed, maybe from a car accident, Willm cut off the road and went into the field, jogging down off the shoulder, momentarily kicking up dry dirt behind himself. Even if there was traffic, they wouldn't see him. He was in a little ways and he could see the house from here. It was a brick house with wood trim once white, now rotting and abandoned. Some of the windows were intact, some weren't. He didn't know anything about who used to live there, he bet it was already abandoned before Surrender.

He avoided the front, with the leaning, cracked door and went around to the back. Wisps of torn screening dangled like flaps of skin on a sagging porch that must've once contained the usual summer activities. The porch was missing its door, and the house door was hanging open on one hinge. Willm wondered how many animals must come through the place. Maybe people did too, like himself, but they didn't stay. There was no shortage of housing. The green-skins said everybody was better off under the Shrubs, he wondered if that was true.

Willm walked through the hall to the front stairs. He heard a voice from the second floor. "I'm up here." It was Thmpsun, he was the blanks dealer.

Willm went to the top of the stairs, avoiding several treacherous gaps and saw Thmpsun in a large room to his left, the copious dust illuminated by the sun.

"Probably used to be pretty nice here. Big house," Thmpsun said.

You had to be a slightly weird to deal in blanks, Willm thought. Thmpsun dressed the same way people used to dress, his suit though had deteriorated over time, becoming a haunted kind of shabby. There was an uneasy ghostliness about him. Willm wondered if this is what Thmpsun was wearing on the day of surrender—time had stopped in his head, he was still a younger man.

"I used to do real estate," Thmpsun said.

"Yeah, you told me that before," Willm said.

"But you have to keep on top of new opportunities," Thmpsun added.

"Un-hunh."

"How many blanks do you have for me today?" Thmpsun asked.

"Two," Willm said.

"That's all?" Thmpsun sighed. "Seems like there are less in the supply these days."

"Maybe you should go back into real estate," Willm said.

Thmpsun ignored the comment, it had never been said. Willm took the two slabs out of his bag as Thmpsun futilely tried to get dirt off the lapel of his jacket.

"Thank you," Thmpsun said, taking the blanks from Willm and putting them into a large, fat, worn leather satchel. "I can give you one for both this time," he said.

"But aren't there less? You just said there are less now," Willm said.

"Ebb and flow. There are probably more ReeLs in production right now. One for both this time, more next time."

Willm frowned tightly, letting the moment of uncomfortable silence linger as evidence of his displeasure.

"Alright," Willm said.

When the exchange was complete Willm walked out into the weedy, overgrown back yard, past remnants of a metal swing set, a collapsed shed, back through the fields. Next week he would pick up new ReeLs from production, the good ones, the crazy ones.

2018-12-22 23:01 fiction flash-fiction science-fiction Benjamin Brood

Listen

— The wind at the door, she said.

— Oh? he asked.

— Howling, she said.

— Angry? he said.

— Insistent, she replied.

As the building shook they feared for their lives. Like last night. Like the week before. They survived each attempt. And the wind tonight tried very hard, blasting itself against their bricks, inundating every corner, until it was a whistling roar, a ghostly edifice that would erode even stone over time. The tense wires connecting them to the outside world were stressed then broken, adrift on the torrent, philosophical sails fluttering until they were torn asunder.

— We may need to reconsider, she said, the bulwarks and doors, the lintels, the sacred seals.

— We knew this might happen when we built inside the ancient skull, the wind collects inside, this head is a cavern and while we're protected from the rains and the radiation the winds might do us in, he said.

— But where else would we go? To the thorax? To the indelible cistern? To the tree people? Do you know what it's like living in the trees?

Once again, he thought, I have to hear about living in the trees and how awful it was, and how her aunt died out on a limb.

But the wind was fierce and they had to shout above it.

— If you listen carefully, he said.

— What? she said.

— If you listen carefully, he yelled.

— You what? she yelled.

— If you listen carefully, he yelled, you can hear the great thoughts of the ancient empty head roaring back and forth.

— That's stupid, she yelled.

2018-12-15 10:00 fiction reel

ReeL Fresh

Willm took out two, thick, gray slabs from the old military bag slung over his shoulder. The slabs were identical in size, but each had a messy strip of off-white tape along the edge with varying handwriting in black magic marker.

"Two? That's it?" Millr said.

"Yeah," Willm said, "but they're fresh. Good. Special."

Willm, a lanky teen, held out the gray slabs with arms delineated by prominent tendons. He was covered with scratches from recent salvaging.

"Like those other ones? People complained about those," Millr said.

"No, really. New crew, new production. Very slick." Willm handed Millr the slabs.

"OK, let's see what these ReeLs have got." Millr took one and turned it sideways, he pressed with his thumbs on both ends of the colorless slab. Then he put it down on the rough, cluttered work bench in front of himself. A light inside the slab flickered, irregularly, but grew so that the entire surface glowed.

Millr stared for a few minutes, motionless, rarely blinking, looking at the ReeL playing somewhere in his head, the light from it illuminating his face. Then he placed his thumbs again on the corners, repeating the movement, until the light dimmed and disappeared.

"Yeah, it's good. Different," Millr said. "I think people probably want something different these days, whether they know it or not."

"Did you get to the part about the Shrubs?" Willm asked.

"Yes, I mean, Shrubs don't care if we make fun of them. Shrubs don't care about anything except growing," Millr said. "Was good though. I'll give you one and half each for them."

"No way, two each," Willm replied strongly.

"Come on. I'm not doing this for free. Look, you keep getting these, good ones, and they build up an audience, then I'll raise my prices and I'll give you two," Millr said.

"Alright," Willm said after a pause. He folded his arms resolutely. "But next time, two." He tried scowling but it was clear he liked the offer.

"If there's an audience." Millr took the two ReeLs and put them into a large felt pouch clearly designed for this purpose. "Also, and I've said it before, you gotta be careful with these—if you break any that's less we have in the pool. The Shrubs won't let us make anymore." Millr reached over to the side of the bench for another bag, opening it, and from a selection of seemingly identical slabs took out two and handed them to Willm. "Here's the blanks," he said.

Willm took them, mocking delicacy.

"Arsehole," Millr said, "you don't remember what it was like before Surrender."

Willm rolled his eyes. "I remember," he said.

"What? How old were you?" Millr asked.

"Five, six. I don't know," Willm said.

Millr grunted. "Things are going to fall apart. Someday soon. Won't be able to fix everything anymore. No more machines. No more ReeLs."

"That why you collect on the side?" Willm said.

"Damn straight," Millr asserted.

"I don't think the Shrubs will be here that long."

"Oh, here we go," Millr shook his head.

"Think about it. Why'd they come here in the first place?" Willm asked.

"I dunno. To grow. Cuz they couldn't grow where they were before. Nobody knows. It doesn't matter much at this point."

"Maybe they're gonna grow enough here to keep going, maybe they've got a home to go back to. Maybe they're gonna, like, flower. And then they won't be Shrubs anymore. They'll be something else," Willm said excitedly.

Millr laughed a little, "You're talking crazy."

Willm appeared offended, roughly readjusting his shoulder bag with the blanks inside. "You'll see, not always gonna be like this." Willm went to the stairs, huffing.

Millr shouted after him as he left, "Just keep getting good ReeLs."

2018-12-12 01:08 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

Borned

They sat around the table, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, ashes piled up in several tea cups and plates, arguing about who came first.

I was, he said, I am certain of it, I was borned, the same way people have always been borned.

No, the next one said, it was me, I know this is true, I have proof.

There was laughter.

Show me your proof, the other one said.

He raised his shirt, showing off a belly button full of lint. The other two, successively, lifted their shirts, showing their navels as well. They were identical in every respect despite the variety of lint.

This proves nothing, he said, we each have navels, they could've engineered the navels, don't you think?

The other one shrugged.

What do you know, the next one said.

I know everything you know, and more, the other said.

Shut up, he said, we've been through all of this before.

What if there are more, the other one said.

So what? Millions, there could be millions, the next one said.

But if there are millions, I am the one borned, he said. He lifted his shirt and showed his navel.

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, he wasn't 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 Electric discharge, the engineers volunteering for the work had ample experience with difficult Electric 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 similar to the one previously experienced.

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 affected 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.