fiction

2018-10-14 00:53 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

Elixir Vitae

The elixir vitae was handed out on a street corner from a large plastic cooler, an insulated bucket, red and orange, with the image of a phoenix. Dewy with sumptuous condensation. As the two company representatives, young, fit, immortal, quickly grabbed the short, thin cans from the cooler, their inviting body language telegraphed the important, catchy slogans "Immortality In A Can" and "Tastes Great You'll Live Forever". As people passed, a few accepted these gifts, cracking open the can like an aluminum coconut, releasing the sounds of a long sigh and the breath of a new born. Soon they would live forever too. The elixir tasted lite, as clear as the blue sky, with the faint odor of delirium and ginger, of freshly cut grass, of a brilliant full moon, of a box of puppies. The carbonation was subtle. When you drank it the sunken hollows of your flesh filled in as if seraphim jammed a straw up your ass and inflated you with heavenly gases. Your complexion, perfect again. You were thin again. You were strong again. Your tits were perky again. You had a hard-on again. Your hair flowed with the lustrous quality of a thousand muscled sailors on shore leave. And laughter — with each gulp laughter erupts without any provocation or motive, without the slightest hindrances or bitterness or irony. The trappings of the world are no longer of any concern to you, after all, being immortal means never having to be preoccupied by strategies to avoid decay. One can. Only one can a day, to remain alive forever.

2018-10-11 17:17 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

A Thousand Hands

By the slippery rock. Beyond the stagnant pool. After the fallen glade. Consider the orientation of the guiding star. Assume a neutral alignment. Don't worry. As the light is filtered, you will become aware of the various environments, those that co-exist. The rocks that you've left behind yourself as a trail will no longer be necessary. Return will seem obscene. Throw away the glasses, you will no longer need them, they will sink into the earth, rot slowly, mushrooms will grow up from them, wet moss will see through them. Proceed steadily, but not hastily, past the rock wall, being aware that you must never look up. This would be disastrous, you must never, ever, look up at what lives above the rock wall. Then, there, you will find the caves. Descend carefully. You do not need to fear the dark, soon you will adjust. By the images of the hands, a thousand, a million of them, it doesn't matter, these are our hands. We painted them each, to make sure we would be remembered, while understanding the futility of such an action. By the roaring stream. In the cave. It might be difficult, it might have changed through the ages, but you must cross the stream. You will find the entrance, and in that room you'll find the way we went, the final position of the dials, the proper switches, it should tell you where we are.

2018-10-08 21:27 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

Killing Aquarius

They got goosebumps as they rounded the long, narrow chasm. To their left they could hear water. To their right they could feel the sparks. A little farther and they would be out of range. They dragged the sled behind them, the metal chassis against the gravel grumbling and shaking. These ingredients were in demand. The lapis. The infant in the vessel. Scales from the serpent. A twig from the tree. These things would bring a good price. Then they were overwhelmed by the the smell of sulfur. They quickened their pace. Behind them there was a shriek from a bird. As they pulled the sled faster the crackle and pop of the small rocks under them became a hiss of urgency. It was forbidden to be here. The trade was risky, but they'd never been caught, it was too terrible to think about. Concentrate on getting back, he yelled. Under this sky they appeared vibrant, striated with energy, tendrils of life were illuminated from them. Ignore it, he warned. They couldn't stop, even if there was temptation, there was a threat of transformation, absorption into the chaos. They wouldn't be the first to become lost. The traps they'd placed, some a long time ago, had been painstakingly positioned. Not all of these had been fruitful, but enough to make this difficult journey worthwhile. Ahead, they were close, the ground became sand and the sled was easily pulled. Close, he said, so close keep focused.

2018-10-04 23:46 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

Chamber

When he spoke it sounded like it was through a cardboard tube. I'm not entirely here, he complained. Well, you do sound far away, they said. He tried yelling, for effect, as an experiment. They chuckled. See? he said. The captain calmly suggested this could be a real problem. What if this happens to all of us, he asked, sternly. Of course, they said, apologetically. It's some time-space distortion perhaps, he said. They tittered when he said it, so far away. What else do you feel? they asked. As if I could drown, he said, but I'm not afraid. I feel like life is a book whose pages I'm flipping through too quickly, afraid of reaching the end, but also of the beginning, he said. There is a reflection of me that I don't understand, and I know I never will, he said. These are very specific symptoms, they replied. If you put me into the chamber be sure to put both of me, he said. Both of you? they asked. I am an echo, from two places, from both of me. I am a consequence, he said. A consequence of what? they asked. Decay. Fearlessness. He said.

2018-10-02 13:27 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

The Edge

From where the train was they could see the tunnel in the distance. "What if it doesn't go anywhere?" she asked. "Excuse me?" he said. He sat across from her when he boarded, the train was crowded. "Like when sailors didn't know the world was round. Like they could sail right off the edge of the Earth," she said. He laughed a little, "so then the train would fall right off the planet?" She leaned forward slightly, "Worse". "Worse?" he asked. "There's nothing there. Nothingness," she said. "I guess that's bad — although we wouldn't really suffer anyway," he said. She looked out the window towards the tunnel, the train slowly making its way around the bend in a long mountain pass. "We suffer now. Waiting," she said. He didn't know how to respond to this, what started as a casual series of comments had become gloomy. If he said anything more it might prompt something uncomfortable. He sat and stared out the window. They got closer to the tunnel, or the tunnel got closer to them. Perhaps it was the silence, but now he felt fear. He could see nothing in the tunnel. The train became very close, he was certain they were being drawn in. Would the train fall off the end of the world. He could not conceive or accept a reality of nothingness. Maybe the train would float in space, somehow this was more palatable. Just before the train entered the tunnel he said to her, "Well, it was nice knowing you". And he caught his own breath like you do when a roller coaster drops the first time.

2018-09-30 10:00 fiction cyclopaedia

Cyclopaedia Chapter Twenty-Three: Northerly

Hedvin carefully measured the powder. It was inexact. He didn't have his usual equipment. He was in a small, dingy room at an inn next to the train station before his last stop, which was another day up the line. Soon he'd head off into the forest and the real north, where there'd be no comforts at all. Uncertain that he'd be able to get a reliable dose of Vermilion before he made it to the village, he'd have to do it now. He tapped the vial, a discharge of red dust was too much. He didn't have his dosing mechanism, too heavy to carry. And he didn't have his original fox mask of course, not that it mattered since the procedure took two people to operate, in the village tradition. You never took Vermilion alone in the village. He sighed. He tapped the dust out of the vial into a porcelain bowl. What was this bowl? Oh, he realized, it was an old chamber pot. Whatever. It didn't matter, it would suffice. He stared for a moment at the uneven, stained and rotten wood of the window sill, the faint light left from the day showing a yard full of miscellany, chickens, firewood and trash. Dinner was a flavorless stew, punctuated by bits of gristle. He was hungry but he knew he would have to get used to it, this gnawing sensation would be normal, he'd be strictly rationed.

The dust fell into the chamber pot like red snow. He wasn't sure how he'd do this, but the need had become visceral. A towel? He'd wrap a towel around his head.

As the day had plodded along the universe felt more disjointed to him. A depressing disorganization of fickle associations. There was no higher order, there was only incomplete, grubby conceptions. The dirty bedspread. The crooked door. The dim old lamp. The idea of a difficult journey. The memory of the innkeeper's acne. The faint sense of persecution from the actions of the Inspectors. The mundaneness and relentlessness of these wore on him--he felt them draining his life, graying his hair, making dark circles under his eyes. It was really too much, the idiocy, it was really too much.

He looked at the red dust. It was scattered on the pure white surface of the porcelain. As the lamp flickered behind him it became an animated sequence of resolve and relief. He threw the towel over his head. He put his head over the chamber pot. He blew hard, kicking up the dust, a cloud into his face trapped by the towel. He kept his eyes open, he willed them to be open, then he inhaled deeply, as deeply as he could.

He heard things fall into place. The floating misery was diluted, then disappeared. There was order, there was certainty, there was definition. The flux was gone, replaced by a rightness of elements. He would make it to the village and back. He was sure of it. He would move quickly, quietly, and he would get what he needed. Like a fox. He thought of the Inspectors for a moment, their inevitable pinched bureaucratism, irritated that he'd left, wondering if he too had vanished, then no doubt discovering that his trip was approved by the real authorities, the Sovereigns--and that there was nothing they could do about it. Riding the immediate crest of clarity from Vermilion, this thought wasn't one of spiteful pleasure, he merely acknowledged it as fact.

What had happened to Ove?

He didn't believe his own explanations. The Inspectors were right to imply that Ove wasn't the sort of man who would simply leave, or to get involved in a torrid affair, these conditions were probably out of the question. So, then, the Garde. The Director was a vicious fucker, he thought, who had direct connections with the Sovereigns, he could've had Ove killed, because Ove's work was basically done and they didn't need him anymore. Ove was only loyal enough to support his own goals, they must've worried he could take his knowledge with him. That's something he didn't tell the Inspectors. He didn't tell them because it might've further implicated himself. Ove was successful in creating the Master Compiler, it would collect and categorize everything. The fact that Hedvin was violently against such a monstrosity didn't mean he'd ever hurt Ove necessarily. The mechanism, however, he did intend to harm--one way or another he was determined to destroy it. This,too, he'd wanted to conceal from the Inspectors. He didn't know how he'd do it, that didn't matter presently, but the Master Compiler could not be allowed to exist. There would be a revolution in the Cyclopaedia. It would need enough support to counter the Sovereigns' influence. He believed they could be convinced as well, after all, they didn't care about anything other than commerce. Their investment in the Master Compiler was a belief that the future was mechanistic. He was positive it wasn't. In the coming years, he thought, they would be made to understand the differences between automation and intelligence.

He remembered a passage from one of his Forbiddens, which one was it? An Atlas Of Freedom? A Tyranny Of Bread? It didn't matter--written as a fiction, with obvious subversion, and without ever saying the word 'Sovereign', what the author called The Free Society:

The measurement of wealth was not in monies but experiences. The wealthy did not exert oppressive authority to maintain their wealth, but create experiences and culture that spread throughout society.

True, it was an idealistic book written in another age. He didn't believe the Sovereigns would ever be removed. Would the Cyclopaedia exist at all if the Sovereigns had not? This was idle speculation. He knew change was coming. He couldn't see it precisely, but soon he would.

It was cold in the inn, he had a small stove and a few handfuls of wood thoughtfully provided, cut too large for the stove, so he struggled to break pieces off or in half. He realized he missed the street bustle and hallway noises from the city--the silence up here, he wasn't used to it and so he focused on the crackle of the fire. He hoped he could keep it burning. The next night would be even more difficult on the trail. He recalled a time years ago when he was traveling somewhere up here, being unable to sleep because he was so cold, it permeated him. This too, he anticipated. He prodded the fire with the rusty metal poker. He wrapped the quilt from the bed around himself, it smelled bad, like an old, sour horse. The initial rush of the Vermilion had worn off, to be replaced by a steady calm, as if there was a fine crystalline lattice in his head, any conclusions that could be reached would be reached again in the same way and in the same path.

Ove must've had this experience too. Everyone who took it did. Hedvin remembered the paper, with Ove's formula, the promises of a completely generative solution. But then he wondered if he'd gotten it wrong. He wanted it to be an answer so strongly he misinterpreted it. Was it something prone to misdirection? Was it purposefully evasive? If it wasn't generative, it was descriptive of something. The diagram, the map Ove left behind... A map. Not a formula. The map may have been about Ove himself not the world or the Cyclopaedia. As Hedvin sat in front of the small fire, watching the pulse of the flames, he realized this was the answer. Ove was no longer building the Master Compiler for the Sovereigns or the Cyclopaedia, he was building it for himself. Yes. Hedvin laughed. Why shouldn't Ove be like other men? Afraid of death. Self centered. Not, then, the stereotypical rational and detached scientist. The map on that paper was an illustration of himself, it would be a reflection of himself in the Cyclopaedia. He was using himself as his own test subject. Capture himself, categorized and placed in the proper place in the tree--immortalized in the Cyclopaedia, the same way other specimens are. It would be an act of incredible arrogance, to use oneself as a template for all other Things. Hedvin corrected himself, but wait, was it arrogance? How different was a person be from any other specimen? When reduced to points of data and measurable events a person could be a feature of the landscape, a person could be a tendril in the forest, a person could be an example. To generalize a person you would have to start somewhere. He wondered if this is what Ove was attempting, to digest himself or become a reduction. The formula would indicate this, and it would explain why Hedvin had interpreted it as a kind of generalization, but one that he didn't understand. Hedvin's mind was working the idea over and over.

But what actually happened to Ove?

He needed to ask Jon something. Only Jon would know for sure if it was possible. Hedvin remembered there was a wire office at the inn, small, probably the last he would see in a long time. He would wire Jon.

Hedvin walked out into the hall and down the stairs still wrapped in the smelly, old quilt. There were spots of red Vermilion dust in his hair, eyebrows and around his nose. He was determined. He must reach Jon. It was late now and there was no one in the bottom floor, the front door was locked for the night. What time was it? He looked at the clock over the front desk. Not so late. Not late by city habits anyway. The wire office was a little room to one side. The door was open, but it was dark. The whole floor was dimly lit. He considered going into the room but he had no idea what to do, how to operate the equipment. I should learn how to do this, he said to himself, as soon as I get back.

He would have to wake up the innkeeper. There was a back stairway, half way up was a door. He knocked on the door, rapidly, "Innkeeper! Innkeeper! I need to send a wire! It's urgent!"

He knocked again, then heard motion behind the door and the innkeeper say, "Just a minute, just a minute". The innkeeper opened the door, appearing sleepy and confused, seeing Hedvin there, manic, wrapped in the quilt.

"A wire? Now?" the innkeeper asks.

"Yes, now," Hedvin stresses.

The innkeeper shrugged with resignation, pulling his robe tighter around himself. They walked down stairs to the small wire office, Hedvin staring at the back of the man's greased hair, the way they do it around here, he thought. He wondered if all their pillows were permanently stained. The innkeeper sat at the desk in front of the wire apparatus, which was a tall, thin metal casing with exposed and tarnished internals, strips of brass as well as alternating rods and springs. At the bottom edge was a long area with familiar characters printed with a series of metal taps accommodating the size of a fingertip. The innkeeper reached behind the apparatus and twisted a knob, while shaking his head. A light inside the apparatus blinked. He leaned to the right and looked over a long paper roll. He shook his head again.

"What? What is it?" Hedvin asked demandingly, seeing enough to know there was a problem.

"There's an outage in the city. There's no signal at all. Hasn't been for hours," the innkeeper said.

"How can you tell?" Hedvin asked.

"The log, this paper roll here, every few minutes will record a signal and the time it happens. See?" He pointed to a spot on the paper, "Nothing's happened for hours."

"Couldn't this be a problem here, with this machine?"

"Nope," the innkeeper said definitively. "Light wouldn't be blinking if this end wasn't working."

"This is important," Hedvin said.

"I get that. That's pretty clear," the innkeeper reached back into the machine again, to the knobs.

"So what do we do?"

"Nothing to do. Wait til morning. Probably will be up by then. They've had outages in the city recently. Usually lasts a few hours or so."

Hedvin felt himself turning red, anger rising. But he believed the innkeeper--there was nothing they could do. It would be unfair and detrimental to push him any further. Hedvin groaned. "Morning. I'll talk to you in the morning," he said.

The innkeeper responded with relieved acknowledgment. Hedvin would have to wait. He hated waiting. Although it wouldn't really matter if he wired now or in the morning. Not really. He couldn't explain his urgency. It passed like a storm. He went to his room and flopped down in front of the fire, which had almost gone out. He had to concentrate on the necessary traveling, he had to put these distractions of Ove and the Master Compiler out of his mind. After all, there was nothing he could do about it. And the Master Compiler had been shut down by the Inspectors when they sealed the room, so it was no longer a danger to anyone.

The next morning he gathered his equipment. When he came down the stairs he saw the innkeeper. "Still an outage," the innkeeper said.

"Oh? Well, anyway, I don't think I need to send anything," Hedvin replied.

The innkeeper nodded, an implicit acceptance. "Never been an outage this long," he said, shrugging.

Hedvin nodded. None of it mattered to him this morning. He began to think about the next few days and not being able to reliably dose. Perhaps I could snort it, maybe that would work. He thought. But transfer is through the eyes? Maybe he could dilute it with water and drop it in. He'd considered, some time ago, simply eating a portion of it. It might be effective on an empty stomach. The innkeeper was saying something, Hedvin went through the paces of the transaction. Rubbing it into a wound? Or creating a suppository? There had to be a better way than this arcane ritual he'd been suffering. After all, if Compilers were to take it, could they be expected to carry around ornate, cumbersome devices to dose with? It was a problem that had to be solved, he'd have extra Vermilion to experiment with soon. Maybe an emulsion. Rolled into a cigarette?

Then he stood on the platform waiting for the train. It appeared in the distance, a great, imposing black shape against a frost and bleached landscape, exuding clouds of gray smoke. It looked like an unstoppable monster. As he watched it approach with a bit of discountable fear, he thought about the contradiction in the idea of their revolution--if he and his allies were willing to stop the Master Compiler, but they were also willing to discard the archaic rituals of some northern village, what would be left? How deeply did superstition and belief go? It might be at the bottom of everything, and the thin cover of his civilization could be peeled away easily.

2018-09-25 20:09 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

From Trees

He waited twenty-seven years. He'd planned on waiting thirty, but into the beginning of the second decade he decided he would stop being so hard on himself and allow some satisfaction from curiosity. He thought about it a long time, twenty-seven seemed to be a good compromise. Why not twenty-six? He nagged himself. No, it had been decided. On that day he checked the ladder, making sure it was solid, and lowered it to the ground. Lichen fell from it.

He waited, staring at the earth far below him, uncertain he could finally leave this tree which had been his home. But he had to know. Not a day went by in all that time he didn't think about it. He stopped hearing airplanes in the first decade. It had been that long too since he heard the sound of people, hikers possibly, moving through the forest. He'd chosen a remote location. Humanity would thrash and struggle finally, and he didn't want to get caught up in it, he wanted to be in his forest, he wanted to be in his tree. And so, twenty-seven years ago he went up into the house he'd built and he didn't come down. It was difficult, of course, there were trials, and failures, but he didn't regret it, no, not a bit. But he'd wondered, had he doubted — that wasn't exactly it. Was there anyone left? Maybe someone like himself. After being in the tree that long he couldn't help but think, was there anybody else. They didn't have to be in a tree, maybe they were in a bunker or something.

Walking was difficult, he'd tried to keep himself in good shape, but walking was difficult on the ground and it was true he was no longer young. This is what sailors must feel like after being at sea, walking back on land again, the queasiness of it. The tree was always swaying, like the ocean.

He would walk back to the road and see if there was anybody left. It would take a while but he remembered where it was, he'd thought about this a lot, he made his way, he rested, he made his way, he rested. He could feel it getting closer, he heard nothing but there was a sensation in the center of his body. It would tear him apart this feeling, when would the road appear?

Then he was there. He stepped out of the trees and the road, now full of heaves, old and cracking and weedy, it was right there. But on the opposite side of the road, he couldn't understand it. There was a fence, a very tall fence, it went in both directions as far as he could see. Beyond the fence, he stared and it didn't make sense to him. There were people, standing around looking at him. They had cameras, something like cameras, they would raise them and lower them in some sort of ritual. And there was a child holding his mother's hand, the child pointed at him and laughed.

2018-09-23 19:47 fiction flash-fiction science-fiction Benjamin Brood

The Sun Is Gone

When did the sun go away. One morning it didn't rise. This is impossible, the smartest of us said, without it we wouldn't exist. Something must be blocking it, the second smartest of us said. This is a theory we agreed with, true, something must be blocking the sun. What if it was stolen? I suggested. Everyone laughed. Ridiculous, to steal a sun. I flushed in embarrassment. I went back to my duties as they discussed the situation. We must preserve resources, we must create a way to unblock the sun, we must create a second smaller sun, we must be ready to act. There were many suggestions, all of them vigorous. But the sun is gone, I wanted to say. Look for clues. Maybe there's a trail. Can you drag away a sun without leaving a little something behind? It's like a jelly, I thought.

It began to get cold. The sun is missing they said, we can tell because it's getting so cold. Finally, I thought, now we're getting somewhere. They discussed what to do next, the talking became tense. We should go, several of them said. I didn't know how they planned to do that, I mean why were we here in the first place? Why hadn't we already left? The temperature continued to drop. There is no sun, I reminded them. Yes, yes, they said, we know this, this is what we are discussing. I returned to my tasks.do that, I mean why were we here in the first place? Why hadn't we already left? The temperature continued to drop. There is no sun, I reminded them. Yes, yes, they said, we know this, this is what we are discussing. I returned to my tasks.

2018-09-18 13:37 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

Assignment

He took the pack of cigarettes out of his front shirt pocket. He habitually tapped twice on the pack then deftly extracted a single cigarette. He didn't offer me one.

"Terrible for you," he said, lighting it, "but I can't seem to give them up." He coughed once, sharply to punctuate the statement. "What do we have today to look at?"

I pulled the book out of my bag, the slips of paper used as page markers undulated like multicolored cilia. I placed it on the table and flipped it open at the first marker. There was a black and white picture of a middle-aged man, heavy set, unshaven, bad skin, with an exhausted, mean look in his eyes.

"This the guy?" he asked, pausing on the cigarette long enough to look at the photograph.

"Yeah," I said. Of course it was him.

"When we're done he'll have no idea who he used to be," he said, reminding me of the obvious.

"Which world?" I asked.

"Does it matter? I mean do you care? This guy special?" he puffed.

"No, I don't care," I said.

"Don't worry, it'll be far away, and the assignment will be long and not very much fun," he grinned, he liked his work.

"Good," I said.

"OK, what next?" he asked.

2018-09-17 14:29 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

Hunting

Hunters come and go from The Lodge. The season is busy, the game is rich and plentiful. Hunting permits are prized, being traded for treasures or experiences. Nothing is worth more than hunting. The Lodge has an air of muted festivity. It's an important time, so demonstrating brashness or being jarring or loud could alter the mood, leading to abrasive reactions — the fabric of intonations could be polluted, the necessary temporal portals unintentionally dispersed. In the woods you must be careful, a circle should be circumnavigated. Lazy wanderings are discouraged. Of course wearing an emblem, patch or cloak with the correct combination of symbols can prevent needless accidents. The season will be short this year, and the hunters are eager, you must go carefully, tread lightly if you go into the mountains. Respect the hunters' cairns placed skillfully to entice sprites and spyryjyon. Ignore the hunters' singing and dancing in open fields, they are not always successful and the distractions of their prey can overwhelm them. The Lodge will be shrouded in mist, this is normal and to be expected.

2018-09-09 17:18 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

A Poetic Tether

We don't know where it came from, we can't imagine where it goes. Descriptions of it will be inadequate. However, to glean what it might be, we need to attempt an approximation. No photography, digital or otherwise, is possible. When our team gathered, we sat around it, cross-legged, mildly awkward and anticipatory. We didn't know what we waited for. We didn't know much, but at the time it seemed to make sense. It had grown from the soil. It had coalesced. It had formed from the hopes and dreams, or it had congealed from fears and nightmares. We would find out, one way or another, our duty was exploration. We carried objects with us that were personally and socially important. A tennis racket. A crucifix. A cookbook. An attractive handbag. A new toothbrush. An out-of-date train schedule. Things like this, objects that would tether us. This would be a difficult task, we told ourselves, but the demand was obligatory. As our physical discomfort grew, so did our certainty, and then there was poetry.

2018-09-02 10:00 fiction cyclopaedia

Cyclopaedia Chapter Twenty-Two: Turning Back

Turn back, the Hare said, or you will miss Fox.

Eirik stared at the stones he'd placed around the fire, the fire out, the cold morning air made him shiver slightly. There was frost on his thick wool blanket. The crystals melted instantly when he touched them. Likewise he habitually wiped the frost off his kit. He shook his hand to get get the cold water off. The forest was quiet. He'd heard birds announcing dawn, but afterwards they became silent. He thought about doing a quick drawing of the mountains he saw from this point on the ridge, which he'd ascended the better part of the day before. The view was familiar--he'd seen this vista on his way to the village, so he was relieved that he hadn't gotten himself lost.

But the Hare said he should turn back. It was the third consecutive night that the Hare sat with him by the fire, eyes like brown jewels, nose twitching, sitting alertly on his haunches, then eventually relaxing a little and carefully distributing his weight, still ready to run.

Would the Hare travel with him the entire way? Sometimes Eirik stopped on the trail, a sound of movement in the leaves to this side, and he would catch a glimpse of ears or a patch of fur. Was it the same hare? At night it was. He'd spent a good part of this life noticing distinctions, cataloging specifics, it was the same hare.

These journeys were methods of adjustment, to realign oneself for an environment like the capital and modern civilization that had created him. Even with a long trip it wasn't enough time to transition and he worried that he might be one of those Compilers who doesn't come back. They become embedded in place. Through love, or fear, or exhaustion, they give up on the capital and on civilization, they chose to remain where they explored, discovering some revelation of themselves. He wondered if the could spend the rest of his life in the village. What about his place at the Cyclopaedia, could he so easily discard it? He didn't think so.

But he had to turn around and go back to the village. The Hare was right. He couldn't let Fox change it. He sighed. Maybe he'd cut enough of a path here that the way back would be easier. He rolled up his blanket. His kit felt heavier. He looked around casually for any sign of the Hare, he saw nothing. The sky was becoming gray, he worried about snow but took a deep inhale of air while vigorously sniffing, assuring himself that it didn't smell like bad weather.

2018-08-30 12:20 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

Relics

She was in the settlement again. The burned smell and the tinders, the stone rubble and the craters. She came here because sometimes she found things, little treasures or maybe they were relics, she thought. It wasn't safe here, she was told. You'd get eaten up they said. You'd catch the melting they said. She didn't believe any of it and she'd been doing it for quite a while now, hunting, she said. But it wasn't hunting for physical sustenance, it was for temporal strength. It was reconnaissance through history. Everyone else preferred to believe the settlement never existed. Not her. She required, she believed, it existed for her no matter what. Sometimes she would have help, a friend or an acquaintance, interested in what was there, and what she might find. She was good at that. But the help never lasted very long, not more than a couple of trips anyway. They didn't see what she saw. It was peaceful, she thought. It was horrible, they thought. Ruins they said. She'd dig out an old metalrind, a geerwerk, a limbshank, a millmind, a glassgee, a snaketree, from their burials in the great rubble, lovingly extracting them. She'd bring these things back and refurbish them, not entirely sure what they were once used for, or how they were supposed to work, still she patched them together as best she could, cleaning them, and occasionally combining them if their union felt warranted to her. They had their own wants and needs, these relics, and she was hesitant to impose.

Today she had a special feeling. There was a treasure out here for her, she could tell. It was a shimmer, a glint, that she could feel, she just knew. But she didn't tempt the sensation, she didn't rush it. And she went about her normal routine, jumping from one pile to the next, lifting the corner here and there peeking into crevices of the past. Then she could hear it, a trilling. And raising one more slab, there it was. It had a long thin handle with slats or steps and ended in a curving, multi-colored section. There were wires on it going from end to end. And she ran her hands across the wires and the sounds made sense to her, like she'd heard them before.

2018-08-26 22:52 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

The Anonymity Museum

The Museum contained only anonymity — anonymous paintings, anonymous sculpture, anonymous photographs. The work was also entirely untitled. Placed next to each exhibit was a small, white placard, tidy with sans-serif lettering that said only the following: "Untitled. By Anonymous. Date unknown."

Patrons strolled through the Museum, with headphones over their ears, listening to a recorded tour, delivered by a calm, professional voice, saying things like:

Little is known about this period of the artists life, perhaps it was one of great strife and suffering, as the imagery suggests. And while we can't be certain where or when it was created, this magnificent example certainly must be considered the core of his, or her, or its, oeuvre.

Occasionally new work arrived at the Museum. These were delivered through the back — invariably wrapped in plain paper, fastened with twine, with an attached card that stated the work was "untitled" and so on. These new works were accepted by the Museum staff, entered into the registry and prepared for display. Scholars arrived to closely study the artwork. Their results were often presented at conferences in an awkwardly redundant academic flourish.

One day the Museum began receiving a newer style of work — still anonymous and untitled, but instead of paintings, sculpture, photographs, the work was consistently a 12" by 12" card describing what was meant to be evoked.

"Imagine a lake with a shadowy figure."

"A large round ball made of lint and wood shavings."

"A pair of hairy, human feet."

"A swirling color field that produces nausea."

"Portraits of ants in skirts."

Membership to the Museum increased, it was a new age of expression, critics said.

2018-08-25 10:00 fiction cyclopaedia

Cyclopaedia Chapter Twenty-One: Reflection

Slv looked at the paper. Elin looked at the paper. The paper Jon had given them, the paper taken from Ove's office. They handed it back to Torben, their Bureau consultant on the Cyclopaedia.

Torben was kept on a retainer by the Bureau. He was a former Compiler who'd washed out, early on, but who'd been swept up into the business around the Cyclopaedia, and inevitably the informant economy. So far they'd avoided consulting him about Hedvin since they were sure he and Hedvin operated in the same social circles, and they wanted to postpone revealing this, or putting him in danger of being exposed. This was how their relationships worked, careful management to obscure, or in some cases trigger knowledge. The scope and business of informants was sizable. It had unofficial leaders. It had customs and unspoken rules. They were aware that nothing they asked for from this industry came without two prices--the first, monetary of course, the Bureau took care of this from a meticulously managed shadow budget like every other office. The second was social. If you made a mistake with your informants, or consultants, if you offended them, if you gave away too much, or you offered too little, it was kept forever in a collective memory, a perpetual ledger that existed somewhere and nowhere--a chain of whispers passed down from generation to generation. And if there was a mark by your name, everyone would eventually know why. Everything they said to Torben was said with this understanding. There was no chance of being casual and unguarded. It made them nervous to bring him in to look at the paper. But they were at a dead end.

The paper meant something, something important to Ove, to Hedvin, to Jon, to the Garde. The schema drawn on the paper was at the center of Ove's disappearance, and by that extension, Jon's disappearance. They had to understand what it meant. They'd already fallen behind, Slv&Elin felt, they had a box of concepts and occurrences, and they didn't understand half of them. It was time to become aggressive.

The paper was written in a foreign language, a specialized language. They'd need specialists to translate it for them. But they didn't want to give it everything about it away. So they'd taken the paper and printed a fairly poor and incomplete copy. The lower third was obfuscated. They didn't give Torben any indication about where it came from. Given Ove's importance to the overall organization, they believed that news must've already leaked into the informant networks, who would look to capitalize on it.

"This is interesting," Torben said, "I see some familiar elements of notation used in the Cyclopaedia, organizational notations, a kind of shorthand that was invented by the creator and used by the early Compilers. None of them use it now, it's a language that's taught, though, just because you will encounter it in the old meta stuff."

"Meta stuff? Like MetaCompilers?" Elin asked.

"Yeah, I guess. It wasn't called that back then of course. But you've got to understand, there's tremendous amounts of work and consensus that goes into categorizing the world, right? Collecting everything we know and understand--it can't happen without some agreement about where to put things. And those decisions, about what goes where, often involve people or institutions or, um, powerful individuals with authority. The strange little notations, symbols, almost equations you see here were invented to make these ideas and decisions clearer because the guy who created the Cyclopaedia, Quiddity, thought that the written and spoken language we use is clumsy and ineffective."

"So what does this equation mean? If that's what it is." Slv asked.

"I'm certain it is. There are experts in this, most of them old men living out their last days in sad, supplemental housing around the Cyclopaedia, who wrote in this kind of script--but I doubt you'll find anyone younger who can give you a definitive answer--myself included."

"I see. Any good guesses?" Elin said.

Torben shrugged. "Yeah. I mean, the tone of it. Without seeing the whole thing I can't be sure, but it looks like a very complex reflection." He said this in a way that meant he knew they'd kept the rest hidden from him.

"What do you mean by reflection?"

"...Just as you look in the mirror. You see yourself, but you see yourself reversed. It's you but it isn't you, right?" He smiled wryly. "I guess I'm not explaining that very well. The symbols on the paper appear to describe a complex power relationship of some sort, a way to generate something. Then, here," he pointed to an area about half way down the page, "we see the reflection. Like the first half is reversed, but is equally complex, equally powerful," he scratched his head tentatively. "Honestly, I don't know what it all refers to. It's odd. And again, I'm not an old timer. I can't imagine what it refers to actually... other than itself."

"How is that possible?"

"Hey, it was just a thought. That's my impression with the amount I remember. This is over my head. But usually this ancient script would build up 'Things', I mean the idea of 'Things', information that makes up the Cyclopaedia. Like birds, and foxes, and snakes, and trees and mountains. That's why the script was invented, to make descriptions and organizing the world easier. But this paper only describes itself as far as I can see, that's what's really odd about it. It creates a Thing, then it creates a Thing that's opposite."

"Thank you, that's very helpful."

It was time to pay the Director another visit. There was no need to tell him how they obtained the paper. They would've been able to take it from Ove's desk themselves instead of Jon, they had all the authority they needed. No doubt the Director would threaten them with reprisal of some kind, that the paper was integral to an important and highly secretive project, but they knew there was nothing the Director could do other than complain to the Garde or Sovereigns.

As they drove out to the laboratory they considered their next steps. One of their informants discovered that Hedvin kept an office in Old Town. They would need to search this location, although they doubted it would result in directly pertinent information, perhaps something regarding Hedvin's drug trade. The scale of their investigation was becoming larger. They would let the Director know they understood he was a servant of the Sovereigns. This would irritate him, which might be useful.

There were two people missing, and there were two people who had hidden information from them. There were two organizations that were involved in these events to a degree, organizations that essentially controlled the world. Slv&Elin weren't without ambitions. They wanted a place in the Bureau leadership, eventually, they wanted respect and they wanted to be known as skillful, successful Inspectors--beyond this, they maintained copious skepticism. They could of course use their role as Inspectors in this case for some advantages but it felt sordid and polluted. Why would they seek favor from the Sovereigns? Why would they seek financial gains from The Cyclopaedia? These were prizes sought by people with untenable ideas of the world. That path would lead to total consumption by people and mechanisms that had existed long before them, and would exist long after they'd been expended. This rejection of rewards was personal conservation.

"I guess we're not exactly idealists. Like Konrad was." Slv said.

"It's good to be practical." Elin replied.

"We don't have to answer to many." Slv said.

"We'll finish the case. That's the only real goal." Elin said.

"Perhaps it is the simplest scenario."

"That Hedvin killed Ove and Jon over drugs."

"If we were less critical, less concerned about being right we could arrest Hedvin and close the case."

"But it isn't simple, and we would be wrong."

At the front desk of the laboratory they told the guard they wanted to see the Director. They'd arrived unannounced. The Director was a person who relied on presentation and an idea of control, they wanted to put him off-center.

"The Director isn't in. He hasn't been in for a few days," the guard said.

"Really? Is he ill or on leave?"

The guard didn't know. Slv&Elin asked to see his superior. The head of security arrived soon after, his face drawn and gray when he saw Slv&Elin.

"The Director hasn't been to the laboratory in three days including today. Yesterday we wired his home, but we haven't received an answer," he said.

"Why didn't you inform us of this? Why didn't you contact the Bureau?" Elin was angry, her voice unusually sharp. The head of security had no good answer, simply convolutions. It was typical, she thought, they would try to deal with problems themselves to avoid embarrassment. She bet they even had their own informants, everybody did.

"When did your people last see him?" Elin asked.

"Inside or outside the laboratory." Slv added.

They asked to see the security logs. And they demanded, this time, to see all of them, including the private security work, informants, and so on.

"If you resist this order we will have you arrested for obstruction." Elin told him. Without the Director's political considerations, they no longer had any reason to inquire cautiously, or even to be polite. The head of security complied morosely. It was true, the laboratory had been monitoring everyone there. But, to Slv&Elin, the surveillance appeared amateurish. They didn't utilize any surveillance best practices really, they threw resources at a target and ignored practical analysis. They maintained informants, but they didn't seem to ascertain or manipulate the informants' loyalties. They were, in fact, easy money for the informants. And they must've leaked large amounts of sensitive relationships into the system.

Quickly they concluded that the Director's circumstances and Ove's were effectively identical--they both signed into the laboratory, however they did not sign out. This wasn't the case with Ove's assistant, Jon, who hadn't been anywhere near the lab at the time of his disappearance as far as they knew. That wasn't some outlier--it was a major exception.

Elin lambasted the security officer again for not contacting them. The guards had checked the Director's office, but said they stayed away from the lab since it had been sealed by Slv&Elin.

"We are going to check both immediately," Slv said.

The head of security could offer no possible resistance. He handed Slv&Elin the keys to the offices, and the laboratories, pointing out which were which. It was a serious offense to refuse anything to an Inspector.

As Slv&Elin walked through the hall to the Director's office they reflected on the nature of aggression, and wondered if the methods of the Garde weren't actually more efficient. If they'd acted like the Garde at the beginning of the case, would it have yielded different results at a different rate? This sort of examination of their own procedures and instincts, under doubt, wasn't natural to them. It put them in a position of tension, it stressed their pairing.

The Director's office was tidy. There was nothing indicating a change of routine. There was, in fact, nothing of a personal nature whatsoever in the office. It was a professional chamber, it was an element of a persona.

As they left the office Slv took out her white chalk and sealed the door with their image of a circle and a hare. They discussed sealing the entire complex. But they'd start here. They'd seal it piecemeal, then they'd seal the front and the entire security staff would be told to go home. They knew this would anger the Garde and the Sovereigns.

Then they went to Ove's lab. Immediately they could see their seal which they'd placed at the beginning of the case, had been broken. There was a red chalk drawing in front of the doors, some primitive figure, was it a snake, canceling their own seal on the doors themselves. They stood in disbelief. The seal of an Inspector was considered inviolable. Had this ever happened before? They'd never heard of this happening.

They opened the doors and were greeted by a stale, metallic breeze. Before they turned on the overhead lights they watched the frenetic blinking of the consoles near the center well, where the machine was housed. And they heard a clicking, spinning sound, low but vibrational. The hair on the back of their necks stood up from some kind of intense power field. This was not what they expected to see. They had sealed the lab and ordered that the machine be turned off--both directives had been brazenly ignored. It was their right to arrest anyone they believed responsible. But the Director was the priority. They turned on the lights, but the lights seemed dim, as if something was draining them. The sounds of activity were more intense the closer they came to the machine well.

They looked into the offices. One of these was untouched. But the second, Ove's office, had an open bottle of aquavit and a half full glass on the desk. And slung over the back of the chair was a coat. Looking into the pockets they found identification--it was the Director's coat.

"We need to get the second assistant here."

"This machine needs to be turned off."