fiction

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

Mr Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rain Stones

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

2018-10-31 10:00 fiction cyclopaedia

Cyclopaedia Chapter Twenty-Six: The Knife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why am I not dead? Konrad thought.

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

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

Wares

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

2018-10-29 10:00 fiction cyclopaedia

Cyclopaedia Chapter Twenty-Five: Master Compiler

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

"Must've been important–"

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

"And leaving your coat."

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

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

"–if what we suspect is true."

"Or possible."

"There won't be a conviction."

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

"However–"

"–we have to move forward."

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

"Would the Director have the knowledge."

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

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

"What the Garde said."

"That this work is important."

"More important than we can understand."

"The Director turned it back on."

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

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

"There's someone else who knows–"

"–Hedvin."

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

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

"Bring him in–"

"–tell him he's under arrest."

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

"Be aware, he's a Compiler."

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

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

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

"There is no legal recourse."

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

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

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

"The Garde might become quarrelsome."

"They haven't in a long time."

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

"We can diffuse the situation if necessary."

"Hedvin might be released by our superiors–"

"–then at least we'd know."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"So... off?" Elin restated.

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

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

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

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

"Off off," Slv said.

"Really off," said Elin.

Pietr groaned.

"Is it difficult?" They asked.

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

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

"Now," Slv added.

"No matter how difficult," Elin said.

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

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

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

"String?"

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

"FOX, it says," Slv said.

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

"BIRD," Elin said.

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

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

"How would the Master Compiler do that?"

"Come up with that on its own?"

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

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

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

"It has to be–"

"–shut down."

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

"What else?" Slv asked.

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

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

"It has its own source," Slv said.

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

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

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

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

"Shut it down," said Elin.

"Off off," Slv added.

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

"This might sound naive–"

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

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

A few minutes later he indicated he was ready.

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

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

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

"Are you down there?" she yelled.

"Yes!" Slv replied.

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

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

"Fuck," Pietr exclaimed.

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

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

"How do we disconnect that?" Slv asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Pietr!" they yelled again.

There was no response. Pietr was gone.

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

The Tourist

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

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

At Dawn

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

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

The Song

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

2018-10-16 21:50 fiction flash-fiction Benjamin Brood

The Hill

When the trees came down they saw the hill wasn't a natural formation. But it was no forgotten step pyramid. And it didn't exhibit the qualities of a traditional burial mound. The measurements were eerily precise. The orientation was fascinating but created only wild perturbation for scholars and academics. It was also impenetrable. Not only to technology, but to brute force — no shovel could unearth it. A variety of ideas, or suppositions, surfaced. That it was a druidic monument made of ancient power. That it was a relic from the war, created by a secret, occult R&D division. That it was an example of peculiar formation of some rare, extruded element. Or that it was an alien craft, crashed and buried. Not surprisingly this last explanation generated the most attention. Quickly a group gathered and grew around the hill. Their camp of tents soon transformed into semi-permanent shanties, but the high security fence erected around the hill prevented them from living on it. As the climate continued to decay, driving populations out of areas where they once flourished, and as the geopolitical situation became volatile, more people wondered about the hill, and more people came to believe it was an alien object. Soon there were pilgrimages. Many waited for it to broadcast a message. Just like in '2001: A Space Odyssey' some said. Others believed the hill would open, allowing an exact number of believers inside where they would be transported instantly to a new world — presumably a better world without heat death, pollution, and rampant fascism. Another, smaller sect, believed these kinds of Hollywood scenarios were tools created by corporations to keep the population docile, and that the hill was an unknowable, irreducible alien construction without any human purpose whatsoever, at least none we could possibly understand because the beings who built it were so advanced, and so different from ourselves. But the crowds of people around the hill swelled. There were riots regularly, where the military reacted violently. Eventually, however, the pressure was too great, and after a final, bloody push, the fence was torn down and the believers, the Two-Thousand-Ones, the Transported, the People Of The Chariots, the Hollow Earthers, the Mole Men, the Panspermians, the Inflatable Gods, the Matricians, the Neo-Druids, all of them, they all swarmed onto the hill in a frenzied celebration. This was it, the time was now, the hill was theirs once again.

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-Four: 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, discharging too much of the red dust. He didn't have his dosing mechanism, it was too cumbersome to carry. And he didn't have his original fox mask of course—not that this mattered since the mask took two people to operate, as per 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. For a moment he stared at the uneven, stained and rotten wood of the window sill, the faint sundown 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 began to feel disjointed to him. A depressing disorganization of fickle associations. There was no higher order, there was only incomplete, shabby 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 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. He thought of the Inspectors for a moment, their inevitable pinched bureaucratism, irritated that he'd run away, wondering if he'd vanished too. Then they'd discover 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 scenario wasn't one of spiteful pleasure, he merely acknowledged it as fact.

What happened to Ove?

Hedvin didn't believe his own explanations. The Inspectors were right to imply that Ove wasn't the sort of man who'd simply leave, or to get involved in a torrid affair. These situations were completely unlikely. 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. And Hedvin suspected Ove was only loyal enough to support his own goals, they probably worried Ove 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. But the fact that Hedvin was violently against such a monstrosity didn't mean he'd ever necessarily hurt Ove. However, he did intend to harm the mechanism. 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 couldn't 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, all they cared about was money and commerce. Their investment in the Master Compiler was created by 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. The author described a future society where

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.

Another idealistic book written in another idealistic age. But he thought of it, it kept resurfacing. He didn't believe the Sovereigns would ever be removed. Would the Cyclopaedia exist at all if the Sovereigns hadn't? This was idle speculation. He knew change was coming. He couldn't see it precisely, but it was coming.

It was cold in the inn, his room had a small stove and a few handfuls of wood thoughtfully provided, but 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 was intense, he wasn't used to it. 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 that years ago when he was traveling somewhere north, 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 manner.

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. It was a map. The map may must 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 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. Eternally referenced. Knowable. A transparency of clear intention. It would be an act of incredible arrogance, to use oneself as a template for all other Things.

Quickly Hedvin corrected himself—was it arrogance? How different was a person 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 of any bit of life. As temporary, as fragile, as desperate. 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 map would indicate this, and it would explain why Hedvin had interpreted it as a kind of generalization, but one that Hedvin didn't understand.

As Hedvin worked the idea over and over, and the more sure he became of it. But what actually happened to the physicality known as 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 wire office he would see. 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. Anyway, not late by city standards. The wire office was a little room to one side. The door was open, but it was dark. The whole floor was dimly lit by lamps. 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 asked.

"Yes, now," Hedvin stressed.

The innkeeper shrugged with resignation, pulling his robe tighter around himself. They walked downstairs 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 about all the stained pillows.

The innkeeper sat down 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 elongated area with familiar characters printed into 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's wrong?" 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, "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 any harder.

Hedvin groaned. "Morning. Until 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. Knowing now or knowing then. 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 was almost out. He had to concentrate on the fire, 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 lab, so it was no longer a danger to anyone.

He slept poorly. 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 expected acceptance. "Never been an outage this long," he added.

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, ponderous 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 obsidian shape against a frost bleached landscape, exuding clouds of black smoke. It looked like an unstoppable experiment, a kind of monster. As he watched it approach with a degree of discountable atavistic fear, he thought about the contradictions of revolution. If he and his allies were willing to stop the Master Compiler, but they were also eager to discard the archaic rituals of some northern village, what would be left? How deeply intertwined were superstitions and beliefs? He wondered how dangerous his position was, whether the thin cover of his civilization could be easily ripped away.