short-story

2018-08-19 13:22 short-story flash-fiction fiction elixir Benjamin Brood

The Last Day

The sounds of his footsteps, the dampened squelch of his sneakers, were the only human things left in the empty halls. The faint, ignorable hum of central air was ever-present. He imagined miles of conduits, venting, pipes, wires and other building guts behind the walls and floors, persistent, dedicated and slowly corroding. It must've cost a fortune.

Today was the last day for the mall. It was the last day too, for CellPoint, the store he'd worked at for almost a year. It wasn't a very good job, but it was a job, and it was easy, and the owner never hassled him as long as he sold cell phone cases. He was pretty good at it, when people came in anyway. He wondered if anybody would come in today, he doubted it.

CellPoint was the last store on the last day.

The morning sunlight warmed the windows of closed stores, the brown paper colored like milky coffee. These used to be Sears, KMart, Victoria's Secret, Spencer's, JCPenny, FiNAILly, Candylicious, dozens of others, they closed one by one. Not just the big stores, but all the little ones that fed off the overflow of people, like little fish who attached themselves to the behemoths — once they went away it was only a matter of time until the little fish died off.

The store opposite CellPoint, across the wide, beige corridor with a floor decorated with ugly, pastel triangular patterns, was there maybe six months. It sold junk from auctions and vinyl records, it was called Rainbow Junction. The guy who owned it was always stoned. He had plans and ideas, he would talk for hours at first, walking over to CellPoint on a pretense to borrow something. He'd keep saying, "Great talking to you, have to get back if there's a rush", then continue talking and talking. But customers never came in. He stopped visiting that much, probably realizing the mall was doomed and his business was a failure. The day Rainbow Junction closed, movers came to take away the inventory, and the owner seemed a foot shorter and his eyes were swimming in black circles. The mall shrinks you, he thought, a big place like this, you can't get your head around how big it used to be.

He wondered what it used to be like. It used to be a town inside a town, with identities on a shelf, a food court for flavors of some bland alien world, reliable and free of surprises. He didn't know if he would miss it. It was designed that way on purpose. Tomorrow he'd be out of work and he figured he'd just stay home like everybody else.

2018-08-04 15:34 short-story elixir fiction Benjamin Brood

Doghouse

There was a man in the doghouse, in his doghouse.

It was a rainy morning, the lawn and shrubs in the backyard were a sort of drenched, satisfying green that only happens at the very height of summer. As he woke up, poured his coffee, and looked out the sliding glass door, he noticed a man climbing out of the doghouse, standing, stretching.

He took another sip of coffee and looked harder. Why was there a man in his doghouse? It was his doghouse, but it was built by the previous owner, he did not, in fact, own a dog. He'd always intended to dismantle the thing, but on several occasions when he was really determined to do it, he went back there with hammer in hand and then was reminded how insidiously solid it was, constructed to last — it would be hard to take down. It was large, and it had been for a large dog.

The man continued stretching for a few moments then sat back down on the edge of the entrance, his back slumped, and casually scratched his face which was covered with a few days of beard. The man seemed to be staring at nothing in particular.

After placing his coffee down he opened the sliding glass door. It was a large yard, long, with trees behind the property. He had to walk through the wet grass in his slippers before he could be close enough to the man to be heard.

"Excuse me," he said.

The man looked up, without any reaction, stopped his scratching. The man said nothing.

"Excuse me, you can't be here, this is private property," he said.

The man still said nothing, but stared at him, blinking.

"Do you understand? Do you need help? You can't stay here," he tried strengthening his tone. The man did and said nothing. "Why are you in my doghouse? Do you think you're a dog?" he said, becoming frustrated.

The man looked suddenly offended. "Of course I'm not a dog," the man said.

"Well good then, fine. You have to leave. If you don't leave, I'll call the police," he said.

The man shrugged, averting his eyes, looking back towards something indistinct. "Maybe you should," the man said.

He didn't know what to say. Why was the man being so difficult? He didn't appear like he was violent, or ill — simply that he didn't care. He stood there for a moment, jaw hanging open, then turned and went back into the house. He thought for a moment, drank some of his coffee. "I guess I have to call the police," he said to himself.

He dialed the local police number instead of 911. It wasn't an emergency, not a life threatening emergency anyway. He looked out the window as he dialed. The man was just sitting there. Someone at the police station picked up.

"Hello? I'd like to report a trespasser. A man, a man is sitting in my doghouse," he said.

"I see. A man is sitting in your doghouse," the voice said.

"Yes. And he won't leave," he said.

"Alright. And you want him to leave?" the voice said.

"Yes, yes of course I want him to leave," he said.

"I see. And may I ask sir, do you, at this time, own a dog?" the voice inquired.

"What?" he was becoming flustered.

"Just getting a better idea of the situation sir. Do you have a dog?" the voice said.

"I… Why, no, no, I don't have a dog. The man, he's sitting in my doghouse," he said, believing it might help if he restated the facts.

"I understand that, as you've said sir. But you don't have a dog? Why do you have a doghouse?" the voice said.

"I don't know, it was here when I bought the house. The previous owner must've had a dog," he said.

"Well, you know, these days, it's very hard to find a place, a good place to live I mean," the voice stated.

"Is it? I mean… so what?" he didn't know how to make the officer, or whoever was on the other end, understand that the man was sitting in his doghouse. "I mean — the man — he's in my doghouse!"

"And yet, you don't have a dog. It sounds like you don't even want a dog. The doghouse has been empty, is that correct? And now the man is in your doghouse. You see what I'm getting at here?" the voice said evenly.

"No! I absolutely don't see. I absolutely don't understand. You need to come get this man out of my doghouse — my doghouse!" he was becoming irate, these events were intolerable.

"Calm down sir. I think you need to calm down. Think about the man and the fact the doghouse was empty. Certainly there's some agreement that the doghouse wasn't being used or ever intended to be used. Why didn't you remove the doghouse? That would be the first thing I would think, honestly, if you were to ask me about it beforehand. But now the man is there? You see what I'm saying. The man, the man is in the doghouse. Now what I'd like you to do…" the voice said.

"To do.. you want me to do…" he said, stupefied.

The voice continued, "…is to put down the phone and just get back to your normal routine. Everything will be fine. Keep an eye on the man, in your doghouse, for any unusual behavior, or signs of sickness. If that's the case, then by all means call us back. But for the moment, the man is in your doghouse. Do I make myself clear?"

"I don't…" he said, trying to think about what was being said.

"Have I made myself clear? Yes, I think I have. Well, I'm glad we could resolve the issue. Have a good day sir. Goodbye," the voice said. Then he heard a click and dial tone, the voice had hung up. He put the handset back into the cradle.

He stared at the phone for some time. It didn't make any sense, did it? I mean the officer is right, he thought, that the doghouse was empty and I have no dog. Is this the way things are dealt with these days? When was the last time I ever called the police? The more he thought about it all, the more unsure he was about the situation and his reaction. He sat at his table and drank his coffee and stared out the sliding glass door at the man in the doghouse. The man was scratching himself again, but otherwise not doing much of anything. I hope the man doesn't have fleas, he thought.

That afternoon he poured some milk into a large, round porcelain bowl and filled it with corn flakes. He walked out back across the lawn again to the doghouse where the man was sleeping. He quietly placed the bowl on the ground.

2018-08-03 13:18 fiction short-story climate Benjamin Brood

This Burning World

It was a consistent 125F in New York City. A few months ago they shipped out all the poor people on buses. You didn't have to leave, but unless you could afford an expensive TeslaCube, you wouldn't want to stay. No one knew where the buses actually went. Somewhere in Upstate and New Jersey probably. After that, you were on your own. There was a secret report on the casualties leaked to what was left of the free press. Somebody did a Prank about it, but it wasn't that funny and it didn't have enough views to get into the Feed.

All that solar didn't help in the end, he thought. Enormous areas of land covered in black panels — by satellite the Earth looks encrusted with black fungus. Still got power, but he wondered if it mattered when the roads had melted and you couldn't go outside. Power wouldn't last anyway, he'd heard, since it was all widely distributed infrastructure made from cheap panels, and there was nobody to maintain it, and too hot to. The power would continue to degrade as usage went up.

Elon Musk celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday showing off his KulSuit in the Kansas Desert, he remembered these used to be called 'space suits'. Shrug, what is old is new again. Crappy Siberian factory stuff anyway, he bet. Musk said something about re-populating Florida. It didn't make any sense, why bother? Since Florida had been abandoned there were those Gods-Earthers who refused to leave and there were horrible stories about what they did down there, and what happened if anybody crossed into their territory. He didn't know how much of that was true, TNN broadcasts were all on the party line.

The "heat island effect" from the megalopolis on the East Coast, China, LA, parts of Europe and so on, meant that it would never get cooler there. A few EU cities tried breaking up concrete and buildings and greening the area to beat the cumulative effect, but it was too little too late. What would you do with all that concrete anyway? And how would you water the new plants?

The next storm season might tear down most of the East Coast, it was just a roll of the dice, just a matter of time. The billions spent on levees back in the 30s didn't make much difference for hurricane Ezekiel. And those other storms, what were their names? Hard to recall. There was a reactionary element in the wealthy urban population now, get what you can get, have as much fun as you can, be ready to checkout.

He was hungry, he remembered apples.

2018-06-22 19:45 short-story elixir Benjamin Brood

Egg

The plains were covered with bells which chimed at more or less the same time. Tied to each was a rope that was strung through a complex series of relays, taught, vibrating. Men, no more than skeletons, walked along these lines tasting the ropes, licking slowly, to ascertain their fitness. When the bells rang they scattered like frightened vermin. The sound echoed across a barren landscape of a thousand miles. With the impact of sound every grovel, ditch and pile of rock lost the thin coating of dust that had accrued. Standing here the system of ropes looks like a web, by an absent spider, who spun out of some obsessive desperation. From my pocket I take an egg, wrapped in golden foil, and carefully remove the skin — saving each irregularly sized shred to place back into the opposite pocket. Biting into the top of the egg I encounter the slightest resistance from a membranous sheath that must've served a purpose, I don't know what. The meat of it almost dissolved. Then the yolk, a subtler, velvety texture mixed with this, became dominant. The waning of the yolk soon became the beginning, as if the last bite was the first bite. The start is the end, the end is the start I think.

2018-06-04 16:21 elixir short-story Benjamin Brood

Stainless Steel Hotel

Being invited to the hotel was an honor. Most people were sent right to the Joy Camps, so being invited was something special, let me tell you. The first thing you notice about the stainless steel hotel is the amazing artwork hanging in the lobby. Some of the most famous names. You might not, no, you certainly will not recognize the work. They were all created here, so here is where they must stay. You are impressed by the size and scale of the hotel. The murmur of intelligent conversation at the hotel bar. The lushness of detail, nothing has been taken for granted. The library is full of books never released, forbidden, but brilliant. The valet, crisp, proper, takes your luggage into the elevator and up to the room. There is no need to tip, everything has been taken care of. You find the room comfortable, with a nice view of the ocean and a small balcony amenable to restorative breezes. You unpack your suitcases, being tidy, placing clothes into dresser drawers. The noise you hear, it starts slowly, is of restrained weeping in the next room. It soon passes. You sit down at the desk to write a letter you understand will never be delivered. You write "Being invited to the hotel is an honor…". Tonight, the card on the desk states, the hotel will be serving roast beef before the torture begins.

2018-03-30 18:07 fiction short-story Benjamin Brood

Circadia

I don't know if I'd call it stealing exactly, once you realize everyone is dreaming the same dream, who owns what? We haven't slept in several months. I know — you've heard this is impossible — to go several months without sleeping, it's fatal, right? I'm sure you know a lot about it. You've read things on wikipedia, you've seen things on television.

However, we do not die. There are a few of us, not many, but more than just a few isolated individuals. And there were support groups, in the cities, the big cities, not in the rural areas, God help them. But in this city we had a weekly group, less than a dozen of us. But enough of us.

Our symptoms were the same. Each of us detailed an unusual, persistent, sensation — a debilitating disjointedness, all knuckles and frayed wires, all uncoiled springs — it was best described as having to listen to a very loud drummer who has no rhythm whatsoever. It affects everything. Sometimes this manifested itself as anxiety, undeclared and free floating, other times as a misunderstanding of simple temporality. You could get confused about whether you had done something or you were about to do something. You could stare at the clock and have no idea what it means. When we describe it to friends or mental health professionals, the lack of comparable sensations leads to confusion, outright dismissals, or worst, misdiagnosis.

Invariably, due to the glaringly alarming absence of meaningful sleep — and I mean anything more than a few minutes of physical shutdown — most of us were put into sleep labs where we were hooked into monitors, then lay there in uncomfortable sheets for the next eight hours, futilely hoping something might be discovered. None of us were hallucinating or psychotic. The encephalograms were normal. Blood work was normal. CT scans, normal. The next step, obviously, was pills. In the end it's always pills isn't it. If we couldn't sleep naturally, then take a handful of pills to knock you out for the night. We didn't disagree with this treatment, although for my own part, I was not encouraged by the passivity of the medical profession's desire to understand a root cause. Why weren't we psychotic? Why weren't the brain scans abnormal? So, pills it was.

And I slept? No, sleep isn't the right word. I lay down and I closed my eyes and lost consciousness. It was not, however, anything like sleep. The other symptoms, that rhythmless drumbeat, the thin grasp of linearity, did not change. Maybe therapy would help, if there wasn't any medical explanation then it must be something psychological. The therapy was also not a treatment I disagreed with. Who doesn't need therapy these days? We're all a mess.

The sessions became a routine, and that's how I heard about the support group. And while my therapist didn't state it, I got the distinct feeling she believed this was an exciting and newly developing "modern" condition. She would ask a lot of questions about my use of technology — did I keep the phone by the bed? Did I spend lots of time following references and looking up irrelevancies? Did I find that hours had gone by and I couldn't really account for any of my time? Did I still read books and watch those serious sorts of movies that required attention and thought, or was it now just memes and short, funny clips of animals? She recommended a slow program curtailing connectivity. I now had "quiet hour" where I pretty much just stared out the window. The other people in the group were trying these things too. It didn't seem to help the specific problem, although I could pretend I felt great sometimes.

There were many obvious commonalities between the members of the group. But the majority of the data points could be discounted as irrelevant because we were urban dwellers, we tended to behave similarly because that's what a city imposes on you. You adjust or you crack, either way, you adjust. But there was one factor the therapist leading the group seemed overjoyed to discover, and immediately latched onto — we were all single. Just as my own therapist appeared convinced that the phone had damaged my brain, the group leader was convinced we were plagued by loneliness and social dysfunction. So we talked a lot about that. Although, like many of our fellow city cohabitants, the more we talked about it the less it looked like psychological dysfunction and more like environmental apathy and weariness. This frustrated the group leader. Why didn't we care about this more? Well, yeah, apathy.

Still, we couldn't get a night's sleep. We each described the sequence of events that led to this condition in almost exactly the same way. First, when it all began, there was a low persistent tone in our ears, like tinnitus, but in some way more mechanical. This was easily discounted. Second, waking up at 3AM. No trouble going to sleep before that, but suddenly and absolutely consistently waking up at 3AM, on the dot. And instead of that feeling of exhausted doom that usually accompanies waking up and not getting back to sleep — understanding that you would only get sleepy again right before the alarm clock goes off and then be dragging your ass around all day long — instead of this, there was an often shocking sense of invincibility. We had an energy level that was sustainable until at least early afternoon. This lasted several months. But then, very quickly, 3AM became 1AM then 1AM became midnight — then no sleep at all. Not exactly sleep anyway. Every couple of days there was a period where consciousness just seemed… thin. Maybe for an hour. Like you weren't really there at all. But we didn't sleep. And we didn't dream.

When I asked everyone else what was the last dream they remembered, they couldn't say. Maybe something years ago? Nobody knew. This seemed important. It was the same for me, I couldn't recall a single dream for years. No nightmares, no sex dreams, nothing. How is that possible? Had we lost the ability to dream long before the other symptoms started? Perhaps, because we couldn't dream, sleep itself was now some useless appendage to the body, dreams were like people with tails, at some point the tails would just fall right off.

I wondered if we were now what everybody else would become. Why sleep? Why dream? My therapist ran down the fact sheet, saying the same things almost verbatim that I'd read online. Sure, sure, I get it, I said, it's a normal part of human consciousness. Most creatures sleep, certainly a lot of them dream. Creatures like humans, complex little fuckers, needed dreams.

But among ourselves, in the group, there was a feeling that something had changed. We didn't say "we are something new" but the sentiment silently underpinned many conversations. We knew this had happened in other cities too, and it wasn't just America, it looked like a dozen cities in the US, but also Japan, France, Norway, Brazil had meetups as well.

We still got together every week, but the vain speculations and psychological teasing by the therapist was tiresome. The group started meeting outside the lab and since we didn't have to observe the standard clock of civilization we would meet in the middle of the night, at a diner.

It's only when you're out and aren't sleeping do you realize the city has an entirely different population, one you can only see after midnight. Gone are the puffy-eyed morning coffee people, who stand in bleak attention grasping the subway poles with deft practice from day-in-day-out routines, clutching with dashes of misery and disdain. There aren't many smiles in the morning rush hours. Nighttime people smile and laugh, and yell and stagger and sway. Of course many of them will become the morning people the next day, but for the moment they're ecstatic and free and untouched by the carapace of the city — as if it were a giant armored thing, a living thing whose legs are subway tunnels and body is a concrete bunker. Then there are the others, their movements are slight and ghostly, always inhabiting a dark city, where a rare night breeze exists, and where you can pass without the baggage of the anxious office worker, the service component, the deadening ritual. There is, we discussed once, an unsaid connection between these people, like an invisible tether, a web-work between ourselves vibrating with untapped energy. We are going where we go, we are doing what we do, our motions were orchestrated by something more subtle than daytime things.

I met Ezra on the subway after a medically unsanctioned meetup. It was 2 or 3AM. He sat down next to me on a quiet train, not so many people on it, but enough that you didn't get your own bench. Ezra was wearing a motion capture suit. That's what it looked like to me anyway. I didn't know if it was, but it was black and it had a similar unflattering tightness to it, and he was wearing a stretch black cap over his ears, pulled fairly far down on his forehead, and there seemed to be several straps placed where they didn't make any sense. And there was a black on black pattern of the cloth itself — a kind of Mandelbrot pattern, dotted occasionally with raised white circles. This kind of outfit gets zero attention on the subway of course, you could be dressed like a giant chicken, it doesn't matter. While staring at somebody during the day is bad form, staring at night is entirely acceptable. I noticed Ezra's face was made up with a pattern of skin tones, blocky, geometrical. Perhaps he just came from a job acting for a video game, or a VR event. There are all sorts of things like that now I guess. I was staring, he noticed I was staring, but didn't look over at me.

"I appear in other people's dreams." He said.

"That's pretty good work if you can get it I suppose." I said.

He shrugged, the movement of the dots highlighting the gesture. "Not as great as you'd imagine, it has some benefits of course", he said. "Part of the problem is I no longer dream myself." Then he did turn to look at me, I saw the lines of his makeup slightly irregular and courageously applied in a straight line over a raised mole. His face showed no emotion or reaction at all.

And I got a chill. I thought, OK, now I must be hallucinating, it was bound to happen. I looked around the train quickly, nobody was looking at us. I could not confirm if he existed. But that didn't mean anything, that could be perfectly normal. And I looked back at him, he was staring at me now, waiting.

"What do you do instead of dream?" I asked.

"I collect things. From the dreams, I collect stuff."

"What sort of stuff?"

"Weird things. Things that you wouldn't be able to get outside… Like this, for instance."

He reached around casually and pulled out a modest roll of money out of some pocket in the suit. He deftly peeled one sheet off and handed it to me. The bill was square and colorful. However, I didn't recognize anything about the denomination, about the markings on it, or the personae depicted. I looked hard at it, realizing there were areas of the bill that were fuzzy, places that I was sure should've been writing or numbers or something, but were things I was unable to see physically. I squinted.

"It's money from Circadia." He said.

"Oh? I've never heard of that country before."

"Sure, of course not — it doesn't exist."

He put the roll back. I was still looking at the bill he'd handed me, unable to comprehend what I was looking at, but what I was holding was nascently familiar.

"That's OK," he said, "you can keep that one. Not going to be much use anyway."

"OK thanks."

There was a pause where I was acutely aware of the train rocking back and forth as it sped between stations.

"I'm not the only one that collects." He said.

"Really?"

"A bunch of us collect. You'll probably collect too. When you don't dream on your own you're bound to collect."

"I see."

"Well, my stop is coming up. My name is Ezra. If you want work, get in touch with us." He stood up, awkwardly shifting one shoulder in the costume, and walked to the door between train cars.

"Wait… How do I contact you?" I asked.

He didn't wait, he grabbed the door but he said in voice loud enough to be heard above the train noise, "You're holding it". And I looked down and the square bill that was money was now a fairly conventional business card. A trick I thought. The kind of tricks they make fun of online, the impossible transformations or reveals delivered haphazardly with solemnity and the slightest raised eyebrow to the overreactions of a small crowd.

The card was gray on one side, black on the other. It was covered with a geometric design. I thought it looked a little like Ezra's suit, which I guess made sense if you're properly branding yourself. On the gray side of the card was printed "Circadia" and below that "sleep://circadia". I could no longer see Ezra, the opposite train car door had closed. We started to slow down, pulling into a station. As passengers emptied out I looked out onto the platform but didn't see him walk by. This was ridiculous, I thought, this is some guerrilla marketing campaign, for something called "Circadia". I wondered if it was an energy drink or a tech startup or a tech startup energy drink. I put the card into my purse. There was a buzzing in my ears, like when this whole thing started, a buzzing like gears. I walked home and didn't sleep.

The following week at our group meeting I grew bored. Once you've declared the same things more than twice it becomes boring, no matter how serious the condition or entrenched the opinion. But things had changed for me. I'd repeatedly taken the Circadia card out to see if it had changed back into currency. If I couldn't dream could I at least be a part of other people's dreams? This thought became a weird euphoria. In the background I heard a group member talking about the isolation of having a second life at night, but I wasn't sure it was so difficult anymore. I felt strangely resentful that I was attached to the group, rehashing their inadequacies. If I never slept again, I wanted to know what other people dreamed. I realized there was some desire there — if I was lacking a thing I could seek that thing out from other people. Was I a thief? Was I a thief by nature? Would I be a thief of sleep?

When I got home and I typed in the address on the card I was presented with a map. It was the country of Circadia. It was a static map, hand drawn, maybe on the back of a napkin. Hovering or clicking on it didn't do anything. There was a street address in a large, unstyled font at the bottom, a Brooklyn street address. I knew the neighborhood. It was once industrial, now becoming developed, but was known for having an art scene. OK, this started to make some sense, I thought, this is a performance. But I still intended to find out by going there.

The next day I navigated a couple of subway lines and got off on a broad deserted street. It was damp and neutral outside, the day lacked detail. Around me were large, low brick and concrete buildings with few windows. The windows that were there had old wire screens and bars on them. Small signs, maybe now wrong, I don't know, were attached haphazardly, declaring metal works, plumbing supplies, chemical storage, etching services and so on. There was a small amount of lazy, uninspired graffiti as well.

The building that was my destination was no different. There was however a wooden stairway on the side of the building which was questionably secure. The address was painted on tin, with an arrow sloppily pointing upwards. The tin was fixed to the side of the building with a rusty nail. The stairs shook as I walked up them. At the top of the stairs was a white door, mismatched from anything else on the building. Screwed onto the door was a menu holder, the sort found in cheap neighborhood restaurants, half full with folded paper. Picking one out I saw, again handwritten, not particularly neatly, "WELCOME" and below this "NEXT EXPEDITIONS" then two lines "sleep://nh982h3a" and "sleep://cvnh9nsd". At the bottom of the paper, scrawled in pencil, was "need a suit? check below the stairs". Then I knocked on the door. Quietly at first, then harder and louder. There was no answer so I added a couple utterances of "Hello? Hello?" in ascending volume as if that would make any difference, it probably never does. Then I paused, in case someone was making their way to the door. Soon I gave up.

I went back down the stairs. I kept the paper. I looked behind the stairs and sure enough there was a large plastic bin, a big plastic box with a blue lid. From the street you couldn't see too much under the stairs anyway. I took the top off the bin. Inside were stacked, neatly, several suits wrapped in clear plastic. There were labels on each, "L", "M", "S". I took one marked "S". I glanced around cautiously, to see if anyone had seen me because I had the feeling I was doing something wrong, or illegal, or forbidden.

When I got home I placed the suit, in its wrapping, on the dining room table. What now? There must be a relationship to the addresses on that paper. I waited until it was dark out. I unwrapped the suit and struggled to put it on. I should've gotten an "M". I propped up my tablet on the table and entered the address on the paper. Maybe I'm a particularly self-conscious person, I don't know, but the constriction of the suit, my commitment to this experiment only exacerbated that off-center feeling, the background syncopation which had so thoroughly set in over the last few months — discomfort was now inevitable and acceptable. So I carried on.

The screen of the tablet repeated the same generative sequence as the suit, as the business card, as the currency, and there was an ambient sound playing — it wasn't music, but a cyclic sound. I sat there in the suit, looking at the screen, waiting for something, I don't know what, when I became dizzy. A sudden swamp of it, dizziness and nausea. I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose, I flipped the cover onto the tablet, suspending it and stopping the droning. When I opened my eyes I wasn't quite sure where I was. Didn't I leave the kitchen light on? Perhaps there was a power outage.

This wasn't my house at all, I realized in a panic.

I could hear hushed voices from another room. Investigating my surroundings didn't interest me in the least for whatever reason, I was paralyzed, listening. Despite the darkness a door became visible — highlighted and important. I had no apprehensions. I walked over to the door and opened it. A young man was standing in the middle of a bedroom. The bedroom was particular — it had the style and fixtures of the 1970s. The music posters, the ceramic lamp, a shelf of books — there was no computer or games or screens, just a small cheap turntable and speakers. The young man was likewise dressed in the period, the shirt was a soft velour material, the jeans flared at the bottoms.

The young man held a gun. He didn't appear shocked at my presence, more like he was expecting me, or somebody anyway. I didn't even know who I really was. He looked at me, with a pained expression, and he looked down at the floor, ashamed. "I've tried but I just can't do it", he said. And he raised the gun and pointed it at a large poster on the wall I didn't notice when I came in. It was different than the others, muted, larger, not the same juvenile type from that period of time. In large white letters at the top it said "LEAD" and at the bottom, in the same way, "CIRCADIA". Between the writing was the picture of a man, in uniform, facing forward, hair slicked back, the uniform peppered with pins and emblems that had no meaning to me. He had an aggressive quality, his eyes were direct and confrontational. Since the other posters in the room were mostly of rock stars, I assumed this too was a rock star. But depicting a role, or maybe having taken a role? The young man pointed the gun at the poster and I heard the "click" of the trigger as he pulled it, but no shots were fired. "See?" he said. Then he turned the gun around and held it by the handle, offering it to me. "You try" he said.

I took the gun — I had never fired a gun in my life. I held it up, pointed it at the poster on the wall and pulled the trigger. A shot rang out. It hit the poster almost in the center, and the center of the image of the uniformed man. The image changed. Instead of the man appearing boldly confrontational, there was now a wide patch of blood on his chest and the man's face was pale, his eyes shut. Whoever he was, I understood he was now dead. "Thank you", the young man said, relieved. I turned and left the room, holding the gun.

I don't know how I got to the subway. But I remember passing through the car doors and sitting down. I was there for some time before Ezra sat down next to me.

"So how'd it go?" he asked. He was still wearing his suit and I was still wearing mine.

"I don't know. Who was the young man? The teenager?"

Ezra shrugged. "Beats me. You take anything?"

I looked down at my hands, I was holding the gun. No, I wasn't holding the gun. I wasn't sure. I handed it to Ezra. It was a rock, a black shiny rock almost like coal but as heavy as a gun.

"It's a gun." I said.

His eyes grew wide. "Wow, first time out." He asked, "you used it?" He turned the rock over and over.

"Yeah. I think it was somebody important. I don't really know."

"OK, OK. It's not always easy to tell."

"What are you going to do with it, the gun I mean."

"I'm going to put it with the other stuff. You never know when you're gonna need something like this."

"I don't remember getting on this train."

"You're sleep walking."

"Oh."

"Look, you might need this, for next time." He handed me a small leather wallet. Inside, trapped in a transparent plastic window was a sequence of images, flipping quickly. "It's ID," he said, "official Circadia ID." Or was it a short stack of tree leaves that I carefully clasped my hands around.

"Thanks." I said.

The next night I went out again. There was no reason not to. However, I believed there was a logic and purpose to it. What this could be I would need to decipher, I thought. It was compelling.

That night I had to show my ID at the border. The guards were very serious and very strict, they checked everything over a few times. I was supposed to go to the station, they told me. When I got there it turned out to be a party, fancy, and formal, and I wasn't wearing the right clothes. I was in my pajamas, so the guests kept giving me disparaging glances. All the guests were serving hors d'oeuvre to one another, like it was a game. There was a book at the front, a guest book as big as an elephant and I spent a lot of time filling in the names. Eventually I just made up nonsense. Who would know, I thought, but I felt embarrassed none the less. Then I left, and I took the pen with me. A nice pen, a fountain pen full of red ink. It has to be an antique, I thought.

When I handed the pen to Ezra it was a bone from a bird's wing. "You're doing great," he told me, "this will be a nice addition."

"How many things have you collected? So far."

"A lot of things. You really wouldn't believe how many things." He said.

This seemed like a sufficient explanation to me. I'm not sure what other justification I would've required. He handed me a photograph, a kind of Polaroid or whatever they called it in Circadia. It had that thick black back that I remember about Polaroids, however this one made the sound of crickets as I handled it. It was a picture of a woman sitting in a cafe, a middle eastern cafe with white tile and small dirty tables.

"If you give me a thing from Circadia and I only return a thing from Circadia you will always have the same number of things."

"You're smart. Not all the things we give you come from Circadia, some are fakes, things we've made with the other things. For instance, with the pen, we could write a letter. And so on."

"I see."

I didn't feel reassured. But I visited the Brooklyn location again for addresses, this time the paper listed three — and at the bottom, heavily underlined twice, were the words "LOOK ABOVE THE DESK".

At night I entered a Victorian study. It was done in dark wooden hues and heavy drapery, several portraits in ornamental gold frames hung on the patterned wallpaper. One of these I recognized, it was the man I'd shot previously. His costume was the same as last time, vaguely military. The gas lamp on the wall gave the room a soft, warm quality. I smelled lingering pipe tobacco. I was alone in the room, although I felt that the portraits were conscious. Had I always felt that way about portraits, generally, I realized I did. The awareness of my own awareness suddenly made me frightened. I did not belong here. This was not my dream. I felt like a thief, which I guess I was.

There was a desk in the corner of the room. The roll-top was closed. Above the desk — I remembered, look above the desk — was a small clock. It was similarly ornate, well made, areas of the mechanism exposed which I could see moving quietly and smoothly. Was it full of milk? It was, I think. And as I tried to make out the time I realized there were too many sets of hands. A dozen or more. So, I would take the clock.

But when I got to the desk I had an irresistible urge to open it. Inside, on the broad leather padded surface, was a bright red notebook. Next to it was a hand held voice recorder, one of those digital sticks that people recite memos into, verbal notes. This object was odd to me, in part because I couldn't imagine using it, but had never known anyone to use such a thing. Business men? This was the real anomaly in the room, whereas the milk clock and the bright red notebook made sense to me. I picked up the recorder and pressed play. I believe the voice was the young man, from the other night. But it wasn't entirely clear, there were intermittent sounds of movement, clicks, and footsteps. He said, "the borders of Circadia will be closing. Too many things have been taken. There are gaps, what is a dream without a clock, or a pen, or a photograph? Eventually we would be nothing but dreams of deserts, or of open ocean, nothing but stretches of symbol-less expanse. You can help, if you want to. Take the clock because you have to, but also take the red notebook. Write down everything you can in the red notebook, write down a description of where the things from Circadia are kept, write down your meetings, draw a map for us, we can use this to make everything work again."

I picked up the red notebook and flipped through it, it was blank. I put it into the pocket of the long flannel bathrobe I was wearing.

Later I handed Ezra the clock, which was a bundle of wool tied with twine. I did not give him or tell him about the red notebook however. The notebook remained a notebook and that night I wrote down everything that had happened. As the dreams went on and I collected more items, Ezra trusted me enough to bring them directly to the storeroom. Behind the door at the top of the staircase, there were hundreds of shelves filled with sticks and leaves and piles of soil, with toadstools and feathers, with bark and desiccated worms.

These too I wrote down.

When I finished the notebook I went back to the Victorian study, the room was identical with only a couple of exceptions. The clock of course was missing since I had taken it, and the portraits appeared subtly altered. They maintained their perceptive qualities but had the faces become older? Were the wrinkles and gray hair I saw now not there before? I opened the desk, the well crafted slats of wood crinkled pleasantly as they rolled up. The digital recorder was there. I pressed play and heard a different voice this time, a woman's voice. "Thank you. Please leave the notebook on the desk. The rest will be taken care of by morning." And I took the notebook out of my robe and put it into the desk, in the same place where it first was. I left empty handed.

I went to Brooklyn later that day. I was cautious, even though I'd been there many times now, I'd never seen anyone, even on the street. The bin under the stairs was gone. When I got to the top of the stairs I saw that the slot holding the leaflets was gone too. I opened the white door and a cold empty air was released, an absence.

The shelves were empty. As I left I expected to see Ezra, or the young man, I expected to see someone — but I didn't.

That night a strange feeling came over me. My eyes were tired, I told myself. I felt heavy, like gravity had been turned up, and I sank into the couch. My thoughts drifted. And for the first time in months I fell asleep, I fell asleep and I dreamed, silly dreams, none of which mattered or made much sense.

2018-03-09 19:46 fiction short-story Benjamin Brood

Salt

The mountain was made of salt. The plains were salt. The roads were salt. The people were salt people, they lived in it and they shoveled it. Every night the stars rose in a different way, in a different pattern. It is because we are salt, and we are dissolving in the sky. It is because we roll back and forth across a great black cloth, the salt sliding one way then another. When they dug down for water they would have to dig very far down and sometimes even then after a short period of time the water became tainted and undrinkable. The people on the mountain of salt were made of salt. It was in them, and they were dry and cracked and caked in it. They would shovel and move the salt, placing it in huge mounds, in the same ways their parents had done and when the mounds became like hills they might wake up in the morning and a huge wind had come and spread the salt, it would be gone, and they would start again. This is how it had always been. But one day a man came to the mountain who was not made of salt and they stood around him in a circle and asked him who he was and why he'd come here. "I have come here with my brothers to buy the salt," he said. And where are your brothers now? They asked the man. "My brothers are measuring the salt to offer you a fair price." They laughed at this, and told the man that there was no point in measuring the salt since the salt was endless. There can be no measurement of an infinite thing, they told the man. And there was no point in buying a thing as common as salt. The man shrugged, and said that when his brothers were done he would return with an offer. They went down off the mountain that night concerned and perplexed. Why would the man want the salt? What could be done with it? How could he possibly take it away? But most importantly, they thought, what if it was true? There was strenuous disagreement. At least, they thought it was disagreement. They weren't really even sure. The following day they did what they always did, shovel the salt, but now distractedly, as they waited for the man to return. Since they did not work as hard that day, or in as focused a manner, the salt began to build up around them, and in the well, on top of their huts, in their beds. The next day was even worse. But on the following day they saw something, a ball in the sky, not quite a ball, not entirely round, there were parts to it, thin or ticker, some kind of pipework. They didn't know what it was. And it hung over the mountain, descending and ascending, lightly touching the salt as it did. They didn't know what it was, but they were sure it had to do with the man. A few days later he returned. "We'd like to buy all the salt. We can pay you well for it." But what could you give us for all the salt? They asked. "We would trade you all the salt for an equal amount of snow," he said. What is snow? They asked. "It's like water, it's pure like water, but it's white like salt and it's very cold," he said. They asked the man a lot of questions. They would no longer have to get the salt out of everything? They would have as much water as they needed? They would no longer have to shovel salt away from their homes? The man told them he would let them think it over for a day then he would be back for their answer. That night they discussed what they should do. Could they trust this man, what if he took the salt and didn't give them the snow? How would their lives change without the salt? It was an exciting and also a frightening prospect. Several of them were strongly against the offer, but some were in favor of it. The rest were undecided, passively in the middle, wanting to be told what to do. We must decide tonight, they said. Can we ask the man for more time? Some wondered. Why would that matter, what else can be said that can't be said now? Others countered. They argued all night. When dawn came, they had come to a decision. They would accept the man's offer. They didn't know where the man came from or where he went, but he arrived that day, walking over to them. "You will accept the offer?" He asked. They told him they would accept the offer. "Excellent, by tomorrow the salt will be gone and the snow will start." He said. How will the snow arrive, they asked. "It will fall from the sky," the man said. Sure enough, when they woke up, the salt was gone. Every grain, from every crack and crevice, had been removed. They did not recognize their world. The mountain was made of stone. The plains were made of soil. The roads were made of brick. And as they wandered, the air became cold and the sky became gray and heavy. Soon, white flakes fell slowly, drifting down and covered the ground. They appointed two people to count the snow so that they would make sure they got a fair trade. And the snow fell and fell.

2018-02-25 20:45 fiction short-story Benjamin Brood

Midnight Blue

Henri lived on one end of the garret, Victor on the other. They were both painters and they hated one another.

They moved in on the same day. Henri watched as Victor clumsily walked his canvases and easel up the stairs. Victor watched as Henri struggled with his frames and brushes, buckets and sketch pads. Victor gave Henri a nod, Henri gave Victor a nod. Despite the courtesy they were both disappointed that there was another painter in the garret — and, unbelievably, right next door. When they'd been shown the place each had asked "Are there any other painters in the building?" Both were, independently, told no, no other painters were in the building. This may have been true at the time, but they felt betrayed. Surely they should've been informed that another painter was inquiring.

On the first night in the apartment Henri could hear Victor hammering up sketches and drawings. Victor could hear the "clink clink" of Henri washing his brushes. The image of the neighboring painter was irrefutable, as if they could see through the walls using the newly discovered x-rays. Henri could imagine, with perfect accuracy, Victor pacing in front of his canvas — Victor could predict when, precisely, he would hear the taut snap of an expressive brush stroke from Henri.

Quickly, it became intolerable. How could one live this way, on the opposite side of a mirror. But the reflection was a monstrosity. Henri moved everything as far from the opposite wall as he could. So did Victor. This provided a couple weeks of relief. The presence of the other however was tangible, like a low siren, a warning call so constant that sometimes you might, almost, forget it.

One day on the stairs Henri met an old patron, with two well dressed guests, clearly affluent, who were walking up to the garret.

"Oh Jacques… I wasn't expecting you, it's nice of you to come see me in my new studio…"

"Henry! Good to see you! I had no idea you were in the same building as Victor — how pleasant! I'll be sure to stop by for a moment after I'm done with my visit there."

The blood drained from Henri's face. He felt queasy, the world spinning in yellows and dark reds, he was barely able to remain standing.

"Henri? Are you alright? You really must get out more, locking yourself up and working so much is making you pale."

It was intolerable. Something must be done, Henri resolved. That night Henri barely slept, he rolled around in a fit, unable to purge the image of his own patron in Victor's studio. Something must be done.

Henri decided he would paint away Victor. Completely away, totally gone. This wouldn't be easy, he would have to fully conceive of Victor's gestures, capture it without error, not merely some representation, but an actual copy of Victor on the canvas. Then it occurred to him that Victor was thinking, and was planning, the exact same thing. There was no time to waste, Henri would have to succeed first.

The next day when Victor came home from the cafe, where he would usually have a late dinner, he was overcome with a disquieting sense of misplacement. What had he lost? He walked through the apartment carefully, inspecting everything. He turned over cups, examining the bottoms. He opened the trash bin and rummaged through the contents. He rubbed his finger along the top edge of wooden molding of the apartment, satisfied with the thick layer of dust he extracted. But what was it? He settled on his hair brush. Was there hair attached to it? He wasn't getting any younger. He believed there had been. However, there was nothing there now. Victor ruminated over this as he took Henri's cigarette stubs from an envelope he'd hidden under the sink. The painting of Henri, it was very good so far, very accurate. The saliva and ash from the cigarettes would be ground down in the mortar and pestle, perhaps into a nice sienna, or maybe a midnight blue.

2018-02-17 22:48 fiction short-story zoo-tower Benjamin Brood

Zoo Tower, Part Two

Walter's Response

Kurt wasn't sure he'd chosen the right assistant. However there were no candidates left with any zoological training. The other zoologists had fled long before the tower doors were closed. There were a few civilians in the tower who'd been associated with the zoo, in one way or another. There was a man who had managed to run the zoo's concession stands, although Kurt didn't understand how, since the man was always drunk. There was a woman who'd been a ticket seller. Another man they'd given random "fix it" jobs around the buildings for years. But Kurt needed an assistant. So he chose someone he'd met on the civilian level, someone who'd been a manager for the city's trolley system. He assumed this was a reputable position that required a responsible person. Walter was highly recommended by several of the other civilians. Who knows, Kurt thought, maybe he just bribed them with cigarettes. Kurt made Walter his assistant. The position allowed slightly better rations and maybe some respect from his fellow denizens. At the time he believed he was doing Walter a favor, but since it hadn't been going well, he regretted this misplaced benevolence.

Walter refused to do half the work Kurt asked him to do, saying he'd never done it before, saying he didn't know how to do it. Carting hay from one level to another shouldn't be something you need training for, but Kurt showed him anyway. Everything Walter did actually do, he did poorly and half-heartedly. Once Kurt overheard him boasting, perhaps leveraging, his new found position to his neighbor citizens. It was currency, and Kurt wondered if he was also making something off of the extra rations. Walter became irascible, moody and difficult immediately after Kurt appointed him.

But one day Walter lost his mind. Kurt was in his corner, a small semi-private space in the back of the storerooms, going over his index cards, the records he kept of each animals feeding routine, health, and so on, when Walter burst through the boxes stacked around the space, boxes that provided a luxurious admittedly small amount of isolation. Walter simply crashed through them — stumbled, or flailed — the boxes tipped and fell to the floor with a defeated leaden quality. Some of the boxes broke open, spilling their contents like vomit. Kurt jerked up off his stool, yanked upwards by the shock. Standing in front of him was Walter — red, sweaty, and very agitated.

"DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA?" Walter yelled.

"What's wrong? Just calm down."

"The rats!"

"Yes, rats of course, the rats. What's wrong?"

"THE RATS HAVE FACES!" Walter nearly shook.

"I don't…"

"Faces you idiot! Didn't you know the rats have faces!?"

"I don't… I mean… You mean rats have rat faces?"

"NO YOU IDIOT THE RATS HAVE HUMAN FACES!" Walter screamed.

Kurt tried to calm him down, tried to get more information, but Walter was delirious. Kurt guessed Walter had been bringing up supplies from one of the lower levels, somewhere down there he must've come across rats. This was completely reasonable, Kurt knew, where people and food are, there will always be rats.

Suddenly, and as chaotically as he entered, Walter left. He spun around, clutching his head with both hands, turned and ran, pulled by an unseen manic force. Reluctantly Kurt went after him, yelling "WALTER! WALTER!" but he lost sight of Walter on the stairwell. He didn't hear any doors slam, so he couldn't understand where Walter went. Kurt retraced his steps, going up and down several times, but there was no sign of him.

The stairwell was a shaft directly in the center of the concrete tower. The well itself was much larger and wider than anything he'd normally seen in other buildings. At the top was a huge set of iron doors built into the roof between the flak gun platforms. The ground level had a loading platform that lead to the shaft — they could winch up large items, artillery for instance, up to the roof. Or, likewise, lower heavy crates and supplies to levels below. Kurt had never been to the bottom of the stairwell. The farther down the tower you went, the darker it became. Over time, the task of replacing bulbs was neglected, and there was a shortage of bulbs because of the war. Where people rarely went, there rarely light. Eventually everything would go dark as the bulbs failed, then they'd sit around with their spears and clubs in a dark cave waiting to be attacked.

Rats down there? He was sure. But they also needed to eat, and they were certain to be spotted somewhere near food supplies. Kurt wasn't able to say he'd ever seen a rat. The more he thought about it, the odder that became — why hadn't he seen a rat? He believed he was becoming irrational and distracted.

And where had Walter gone? In the lower levels somewhere? Kurt went to his cabinet and got his flashlight. It was a cumbersome, knurled heavy metal tube with a big, difficult to operate button which hurt his thumb. Like light bulbs, batteries were also in short supply, so he used the flashlight sparingly. Soon it too would be useless. He paused slightly and wondered if he should tell the Lieutenant — then he hated himself for thinking it. Ridiculous. He put the flashlight back in its cabinet. The entire thing is ridiculous and I have work to do, I have to clean up the emus cage, he thought. He would look for a new assistant as soon as possible, then remembering he'd resolved to do the same thing the week before.

He quietly hoped Walter had fallen down the stairwell. It would solve the immediate problem. Other problems would surface, but perhaps they wouldn't be as dramatic.

Deviant Species

In the morning he was scheduled to give The Specialist an in depth audit of the zoo level. He wasn't looking forward to this. He'd spent most of a day getting his records in order, filing, re-filing, then organizing the re-filing — in case she wanted proof that resources were properly allocated and exhausted.

This busy work was defensive. He had no idea what her intentions were, or what her goals here were. He made assumptions that the Lieutenant's hatred of the animals was a core doctrine and that she'd find some way to have them all shot. Then what would happen to him? What use would he be in a world of soldiers and guns and war? He thought of the angry elephant, bidding his time. He'd be about as much use as any other civilian. Just like the batteries and light bulbs, soon they would all be gone and there would be only soldiers left.

Here he was, thinking of himself again. It was no consolation to the giraffe. The giraffe who was too big to fit on the zoo level and instead of leaving it outside to be eaten by the enemy, or desperate civilians, or God knows what, they killed it. Kurt cut it in two — for burial since they couldn't find a single area of bare ground large enough to hold the corpse.

As a zoologist Kurt had a deep interest and love of organizational principles. The possible taxonomical classifications for a giraffe, shot, and cut into two was disappointing to say the least. Giraffe Duo-camelopardalis, now a deviant species, two parts that needed occult powers to recombine. Perhaps some peoples in the far future, finding the war-torn archaeological relics will presume this split giraffe deserves two separate classifications entirely.

That night Kurt woke up on his cot in the stifling, airless chamber, a cell exactly the same size and layout as where the ibex was kept. His cell, or cage, also of course windowless and concrete, had a small air vent in the top left hand corner covered by a metal grate that should be identical throughout the tower — although he'd identified four distinct varieties, maybe due to supply demands or contractor variability or something like that. He woke up choking and covered in a sheen of fear, in silence. Some nights the reverberations of the war, the POOM POOM POOM of the flak canons above, or the crackle of incoming fire hitting the tower's impenetrable walls, kept him awake. Now he was sleepless for lack of something. The weight of a universal Nothing was suddenly worse than the war, which at least had life and death, chaos and order. He awoke suffocating, unable to mentally fix on anything at all, a desperate puddle of negation and terror.

The bare, dim light bulb above him was covered with a large piece of translucent wrapping paper. It gave the cell a tolerable hue. A few other people in the tower had done the same thing — he liked to think because they'd noticed he'd done it first, that he had a good idea, but he wouldn't be surprised if he had nothing to do with it. The half dozen torn strips of paper he'd attached to the top of the vent with mucilage, lay limp and dead. When the air was on they fluttered like the wings of little birds. When the air was on the cells were survivable, at least for a few hours. Although now in a silence that was inching on like decay, he wouldn't sleep and he couldn't remain still.

Unlike civilians, he slept at the back of the upper supply level, where the administrative offices were located. This placed him between the zoo level and the civilians and soldiers. The subtle psychic pressure of this was well known to Hendrik who'd advised Kurt to keep his cell covered with as many pictures as he could find. What kind of pictures? Kurt asked. Whatever you can get, Hendrik said. But pay attention to the light, in the pictures I mean, put the pictures with the rising sun on one wall, pictures with western light on another, and any pictures of nighttime on the ceiling.

Kurt heeded the advice. It helped temporarily. Yet like everything else here the images soon felt brittle and oppressive, so he took them down, reducing his cell to a monkish sparseness that, if at least not comforting, was a thing he could control.

But for the moment he couldn't sleep. If only he could stand outside, cool night air inching down the back of his collar, maybe having a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Simple idiotic pleasures, once cheap and common, almost impossible because of the war. He could try to get onto the roof. He could make up an excuse. He didn't know what. He wasn't a good liar.

He left his cell and briefly looked in on the zoo level. The guard there, half asleep, seemed confused by the intrusion. In the baboons' cage a single monkey stared at him menacingly through one open eye while the others slept. And perhaps the elephant slumbered somewhere in the back of its space, or there in the dark it was awake and planning — regardless, he couldn't see. The ibex, like himself, was awake. But the ibex was also in a stupor, it came closer to him with small short steps, head down, nostrils twitching. It didn't want anything from him, it was just an acknowledgement. There was a mutual tolerance.

Kurt didn't know what he'd accomplished, but he'd tricked himself into thinking that he could sleep. As he left the level, stepping out onto the stairwell, he heard footsteps below. He peered over the edge, the irregular surface of the metal railing was shockingly cold in his hands and he pulled back a moment. Down below, a few levels below, he saw light and heard a door open and close. He waited. It happened again and this time he believed he briefly saw a man in a white coat entering a doorway. Since the eruption of light was quick and the rest of the subterranean stairwell was pitch black, it was like a camera flash going off, sharply and instantly. The door slammed shut with a bang that was dulled by a million tons of concrete.

He understood there was no possibility of going to sleep. With an unnatural lack of caution he placed one foot in front of another, moving down the stairs. He didn't think about what he would do when there was only darkness. He held onto the railing as he moved down the steps, noting the minute irregularities in its surface. He wondered when they would remove it to meltdown into bullets.

Except those few places with the medieval-styled arrow slits, perhaps architecturally adapted for snipers, there was no natural light in the tower. Soon he was gripping the railing with one hand and with the other feeling the wall for the shape of a door. How many flights down it might be, he had no idea. Then in front of him, not more than a few meters, there was an explosive rectangle of light and he was blinded as a door near him opened. He froze where he was, standing and wincing. Someone walked out of the door and moved away from him, down the next set of stairs. The door closed and his eyes, traumatized, were useless. He inched forward, his palms against the wall, groping, until he felt the impression of the door. Sliding his hand down and across, he found the doorknob. Squinting, he turned the handle and stepped inside, shielding his face with his other hand. As his eyes adjusted he saw a wide space painted white with work tables and benches, and Bunsen burners, and other scientific equipment. This was a laboratory. He had no idea this tower contained a laboratory. And for what, he wondered. Research for the war? He was under no illusions that he understood the high command, but he'd been lead to believe that he would sooner or later be privy to the purposes of the tower itself. Perhaps later instead of sooner.

The lab made his skin crawl, he didn't precisely understand why. He turned immediately to leave. There was more to see but he would see no more. And he wasn't sure if the person he witnessed leaving the lab would return. Not that he was doing anything wrong. He had every right to be here, he told himself. After all, he was the Director now, he had every right to be here. He should stay until they returned and inform them. But he wouldn't, he knew that.

What if it was Walter? This is where he'd been going, what if this was where he was going? Yet when he saw that person leave, perhaps Walter, he didn't see any flashlight. How would that person, perhaps Walter, get to the next level in the dark? It occurred to him that there must be something else, maybe something like this lab, on the level below. Or on the level below that.

He was preoccupied with a wrinkly disquiet — a comprehension of how little he knew about the unpleasant reality, or the vastness of scope, controlled by a violent mechanism, this war engine that trapped them in a horrific, unassailable tower. No one could produce war without desire, he supposed, no one would continue to let atrocities happen without some form of satisfaction, he assumed.

He went back to his cell. For a deliriously brief moment he thought of going farther down the stairwell but he was overcome with fear. Once again he tried to sleep and once again failed. When morning came, as indicated by the clock, he tidied himself up as best as he could — although the stubble and black circles under his eyes remained. His face was a thing he was losing control over the longer the war went on. Perhaps it was simply age, perhaps this is what getting older meant.

He walked wearily to his office — that makeshift space Walter had knocked down — where he waited for The Specialist. He rearranged the boxes, repacking what he could and taping a few corners back together. It still looked shabby but it continued to serve its purpose. He sat down with his index cards and then an incredible sleepiness came over him, his eyes burned with heaviness. He shut them for a moment, just a moment, and his head sank down onto the desk.

War Effort

Kurt was awakened by a sharp, loud slap on the desk which rattled his head and nearly deafened one ear.

"We are taking two baboons for study now, the rest we will take soon." The Specialist said. She was standing next to him, having lifted a stack of folders and slammed them back down hard enough to wake him. His mouth hung open and he tried focusing his vision. The words didn't make any sense to him.

"Taking baboons…"

"Yes," she said, not bothering to hide her contempt, "some time today. You can help or you can not help. I don't care, but I was obliged to tell you."

"But why? For study of what?"

"Perhaps you've noticed, there's a war."

"War? With baboons?"

Her face flushed red. "No, you idiot. We need the baboons to study the effects of experimental drugs that could help the troops."

So that was it. That was why she was here, and that's why there was a laboratory.

"No, you can't take any of the baboons."

Her head moved back and her eyebrows arched. A peculiar grimace involuntarily leaked out of her skin and muscles. It was joyous and cruel.

"Say anything like that again and I'll have you shot. The only reason we're keeping you is because you know the animals and that might make it easier for us." She terminated the conversation with a moment of awkward silence then walked away with a self-conscious and vaguely dangerous stride.

He sat for a while in the resulting emptiness without a clear idea of what had happened, or what he should do. He would mentally run down the possibilities, his own actions and counter-actions, and every outcome ended with a bullet in his head. He would discard the scenarios then build them up again, but every time, the same thing. He was just an exhibit in the zoo. His thoughts became desperate, then some survival instinct cropped up and he gradually believed he would help The Specialist.

Hours passed. He had the sense that he should be hungry, but like sleep it was simply unattainable. He would go to the zoo level and wait with the baboons. Maybe he could help them separate the individuals they wanted to take without unnecessary horror. He walked into the stairwell mechanically.

When he got to the door, the small desk where the guard sits was empty. He immediately clucked, admonishing the habitual lack of seriousness soldiers had for the task — then he noticed a hand on the floor, sticking out from behind the desk. Kurt leaned over and saw behind the desk the crumpled unconscious — or lifeless — form of the guard. There was a significant gash on the side of his head that blood had seeped from, now congealed and jelly-like. Kurt's first impulse was to check on the animals, he wasn't concerned with the guard's condition. He entered the level, looking at the usual and obvious collection of dirty boots they used when shoveling out the stalls. The tools, the boots, nothing here was out of place. He entered the corridor that lead to the cells, a passage way that took two turns. But as he came around the last corner he almost ran into one of the emus. The emu was as surprised as Kurt was. He was lucky it didn't attack him, instead, with a panicky scramble it turned and ran, leaving a trail of feathers.

Someone let the emus out. He gulped hard, wondering what else had been let loose. He stopped and listened. Down the corridors he heard a sudden cacophony of animal shrieking, baboons, birds, other things. It was an uproar.

He saw a baboon run across the broad central hallway, lopping in ecstatic freedom. Then he saw Walter.

"Walter!" He yelled.

Walter froze. Kurt noticed that in one hand he held the keys to the cells, in the other he held a crowbar.

"Walter! What are you doing!?"

Walter didn't appear to be coherent. He was pale, disheveled, clothes grubby, his eyes were red. How long had he been hiding in the lower levels?

"Walter!"

But Walter ran, ran across the hallway directly down the corridor to the elephant's stall.

"Walter! Wait!"

Kurt could hear the keys Walter held clanging. How much destruction had Walter done? As Kurt came to the corner of the passage he stopped — on the other side, just beyond the hallway, stood the ibex. It recognized Kurt and walked over to him slowly.

Down the corridor Kurt heard a latch click open. Then he heard the impossibly loud trumpet of an angry elephant. There was a scream, from Walter, a strangled yell that quickly turned wet and broken.

Kurt stared at the ibex, who stood in front of him, head down. "You and I will go now, we'll leave the tower," the ibex said to Kurt. Kurt scratched its head and carefully climbed onto its back.

2018-01-09 15:07 fiction short-story zoo-tower Benjamin Brood

Zoo Tower, Part One

Hendrik's Leg

Hendrik had been torn apart by an exploding shell while he was inspecting one of the gun platforms. There wasn't much left of him, an arm here, a leg there. Although it was fairly rare that an enemy shell directly hit the roof, chances were necessarily taken by the staff and soldiers of the zoo tower.

There was a memorial service of course, Hendrik had devoted his life to the tower. Respect for his devotion was obligatory.

Kurt took over as director when Hendrik died. It was Kurt who'd gathered up Hendrik's remains and put them into a small handmade casket fashioned from the cheap wood of the crates and pallets used to store the zoo tower's supplies.

The Lieutenant was disinterested in the courtesy afforded to the former director. Kurt assumed the Lieutenant would've just thrown the body parts over the side, where, no doubt, other carnage had pilled up.

On Kurt's first day as director he stood in the back of the civilian level, in a makeshift meeting room created by stringing up old curtains, and gave a slightly fumbling speech to the six civilian representatives. Hendrik had been good at this sort of thing, he thought, better at it than I am. Kurt attempted to reassure them that the tower had plenty of supplies, that their nation's forces were pushing their enemies back, and that any day the civilians who were grouped together on cots and milling around — trading for cigarettes — would be able to leave the tower and resume their normal lives.

The Lieutenant used to attend these meetings, but had stopped, gruffly and suddenly, six months ago claiming his energies were better spent elsewhere. Exactly what this meant and exactly where this could be, Kurt wasn't sure. Hendrik briefed the civilians on the military situation using scraps of overheard knowledge, then glossing over or omitting the worst parts. Hendrik told Kurt, you must never let the civilians know how grave the situation is, keeping up morale is worth whatever lies are necessary — never let them forget that they once had normal lives, Hendrik told Kurt with a deeply serious inflection, a body language that was shaking with tension, almost ready to break down.

Lucky Hendrik, Kurt thought involuntarily, it was all over for him instantly. Not so quick for us.

The Ibex

In the morning he fed the ibex. The ibex was once kept in a wide area with rocks and branches and other ibex, on the grounds of the now destroyed zoological gardens. But in here, in the cramped pen of the tower, her companions gone, the ibex was depressed, half starved and losing weight. Her coat was dull. The ibex's eyes once looked at him with anger or fear, now they moistly glared at him with resignation. The ibex would let him scratch her head between the horns but no longer appeared to take any pleasure from this.

He was drawn to the ibex more than some of the other animals. The emus were intolerable. Likewise the baboons. Maybe he disliked the baboons so much because they clearly, in a very human way, disliked him equally. The elephant appeared similarly resigned, although Kurt believed the appearance was misleading, the elephant was much smarter than they gave it credit for. Last month one of the soldiers who had been on duty in the zoo level was taunting the elephant and got close to the pen and the elephant reached out with its trunk and grabbed him, tossed him around for a minute against the walls and floor. If he'd been inside the pen Kurt was positive the elephant would've trampled him. The soldier was recuperating from a broken arm and broken ribs.

After the incident the Lieutenant insisted on shooting the elephant. This created an angry, loud argument between Hendrik and the Lieutenant. Hendrik said the animals were his responsibility, that the Lieutenant had no authority over the zoo level, and since his soldier had been teasing the animal what did he expect? The Lieutenant continued his threat, a threat he'd made several times before, especially when angry or under duress. He said he would shoot all the animals and re-purpose the entire level. Hendrik, having an unknown psychological advantage over the Lieutenant, was always able to counter this threat and talk the Lieutenant out of taking any rash actions. Kurt worried that he wouldn't be able to do this — it was clear the Lieutenant had nothing but disdain for him.

The ibex looked sideways at Kurt, not meekly, but coldly with a complete understanding of the situation. Kurt found himself on several occasions talking to the ibex, then catching himself, hurrying through his task to avoid what he knew was an implicit degree of self-condemnation. I didn't start the war, Kurt thought. For men like the Lieutenant these must be glorious times. An affirmation of the endless training, confirmation of the military hierarchy and roles. Kurt sometimes pondered if there could be enemies and war at all if men stopped loving hierarchy.

The lower levels of the tower held various supplies and equipment but also some of the nation's treasure. How much, Kurt wasn't sure, but he did know there was gold there, stacked in bars. He knew there were cabinets with blueprints and patents and things like that. And he knew there was an entire level devoted to the museum — artwork selected for its importance to the nation, certainly with many necessary omissions. Stored of course were the greatest scenes of victory painted in oils and statues of their most well known heroes. Images of beauty were collected, representations understandable and approachable, executed by the nation's acknowledged masters. There had been a weird burst of deviance by reactionaries just before the war, those things had been destroyed whenever possible. Kurt had seen an exhibition once in the city and he couldn't understand what threat that scribbling, immature art posed — but then he wasn't an expert in aesthetics, he was a zoologist by trade.

Kurt now had unrestricted access to the tower. As an assistant to the director he believed he'd already seen most of it. The museum level was a place he'd been hurried through a few times, clipboard in hand, performing some routine inspection, a general recording of conditions, ensuring that nothing had succumbed to radical theft or wanton destruction. They must keep the habit of protocol.

The lower levels were extensive and except for the artwork Kurt let the specifics slip away, amorphous, undefined. The Lieutenant had threatened to destroy the artwork too. The animals and the artwork weren't worth protecting, he said. On various occasions the Lieutenant said he would change the nature of the tower from defensive to offensive, bringing more troops in, recreating supply chains, and using the tower as an important headquarters for the war. But he wasn't likely to destroy every single piece of art, there was one he'd mentioned, indicating perhaps even a fondness for it.

The Lieutenant was drawn to a large canvas called "The Rape Of The City". The painting read like an epic, from left to right. There were heroes and victims — with a progression of various disastrous states the city in the background began besieged, then was burned, then the rubble leftover was retaken. This, Kurt imagined, was the Lieutenants' vision of himself, as the hero who retakes the rubble and delivers vengeance. The Lieutenant hated nothing more than being stuck in this tower while the real fighting happened outside, in the city, in the neighborhoods — or what was left of them.

Kurt was no soldier, but he could tell the sounds outside the tower had changed over the last few months. The sounds were now chaotic. He did not hear concerted strategic operations, tanks, or targeted gunfire in the way he used to hear. Everything had become sporadic, punctuated by an occasional terrifying scream. And since he'd been to the roof with Hendrik where the flak gun platforms were, he could look out over the city and see the landmarks he'd known since he was a child reduced to skeletal forms, bones of timber and of brick and stone, dotted with columns of smoke. At night he could make out the demarcations of the old neighborhoods by the lines of fire that constantly raged.

He wouldn't report this to the civilian representatives. He would tell them their nation's gold and artwork was safe. He would tell them they were safe as long as they remain in the tower. He would tell them they would return to their shops and apartments and friends — soon.

Magic And Order

It was said the zoo tower was built according to magical calculations, some perfect proportionality, an enchanted engineering by an architect who was certain this would protect it from both physical and spiritual attack. The two foot thick reinforced concrete walls helped.

There were rumors that the blood of a virgin had been mixed into the foundation. There were rumors the architect had been part of The Secret Order. The Secret Order's power, Kurt thought, was that everyone assumed The Secret Order existed but thought speaking about it meant certain death. It was purely conjecture. It might be possible there was no Secret Order, at all, and that the production of the idea was just the talent of a frightened populace.

Regardless, the story was that The Secret Order believed in meta-magical concepts of numerology, astrology and design. The zoo tower was placed in such a way that the orientation of the level's tall thin windows — modeled after medieval arrow slits — allowed light on solstices to shine in geometrically significant configurations. Kurt didn't know why it was significant, or what it meant, but he noticed it, everyone in the tower noticed it. Those days were special, he thought, because everyone saw the startling patterns the light created but nobody mentioned it. If it had to do with The Secret Order then it would never be mentioned. But everyone knew, everyone saw it.

Kurt wondered if each level's relationship to the other floors had also been meticulously planned — each level's epistemological distance, for example, described in an philosophical blueprint. Perhaps blueprint wasn't the correct term. Tract. Hymn. Treatise. But obviously he wasn't going to talk to anyone about this.

He recalled a moment with Hendrik, an odd moment, the kind of thing you overlook at the time but sticks with you and gets muddled and lodged in your mind — they'd been grudgingly discussing the Lieutenant and ideas to keep the zoo level safe, and Hendrik suggested "changing the locks on the zoo levels so the Lieutenant couldn't get in". Kurt laughed at this plural reference and said "Ha, ha, just how many zoo levels are there in the tower?". Hendrik's eyes met his, then snapped back, wider than normal, the edges watering and strained. If eyes are windows to the soul then Hendrik's soul was tired and prone to mistakes. Kurt assumed existential fatigue. Hendrik tried to defuse the awkwardness by saying "all levels are zoo levels". Kurt laughed again uneasily, he understood the pointed lack of subtlety.

A year ago Kurt believed in the end of the war. He thought it was cynical to suggest that people were merely animals — months later Hendrik's aside had seemed much less cynical. But his slip of pluralization, misspeaking or not, kept crossing Kurt's mind. The hesitation in Hendrik's reaction… what was that, what did it indicate? Hendrik knew things Kurt did not. He couldn't help thinking about it.

The zoo level was where Kurt spent most of his time. As a zoologist this was where he was comfortable. But it was sad and grueling. He didn't believe animals should be constrained in environments designed for humans. He believed this due to observation however, not training. Animals were hard to keep alive in small concrete cells. He made his rounds, he did that the same way every day although now he could have someone else do it if he wanted. But he had a spiteful reaction to any method supported by the Lieutenant. If the Lieutenant would've delegated the task then Kurt chose instead to do it himself.

There was a soldier guarding the entrance of the floor most of the time. Since the elephant attack the soldiers were told not to wander around the floor at all. Most of the time the guard wasn't paying attention. Kurt always worked as loudly as he could, hoping to keep the guard alert.

Once, a couple of civilians had crept past the guards on their own floor — and the soldier on duty on the zoo level was missing. Hendrik caught the two civilians as they were about to open the emus' cage. Later, when questioned by the Lieutenant, they said "They're birds aren't they? Must be good to eat, and there's so much of it, much better than all the cans of beans and dried meat you give us." The two men were taken up to the roof and shot.

Special Specialist

Kurt constantly worried about how he would manage the Lieutenant. He could sense the boundaries shifting in the Lieutenant's favor, little by little.

A week after Hendrik's death the Lieutenant called him to his office on the troop level. Kurt hated visiting his office since he had to wind his way through countless bored and angry soldiers — then through the infirmary where some men lay dying, often loudly. It was no accident that the Lieutenant put his office back there, so that anyone he called upon would have to witness the raw reality of soldiering.

The Lieutenant treated Kurt with a distracted, dismissive attitude, since Kurt wasn't worth his complete attention. Kurt stood there for quite some time. Finally the Lieutenant looked up.

"I need to inform you — so that you may inform your people and the civilians — that tomorrow The Specialist arrives."

"The Specialist?"

"That's right. And it is of the utmost importance that everything is running as smoothly as possible, we don't want any incidents with the animals or the civilians. I need to stress how important this is."

"I see. Of course."

Kurt made sure to tell his people and the civilian representatives about the imminent arrival of The Specialist. Nobody asked him what The Specialist did or why. Kurt wouldn't know what to tell them if they did ask.

The next day the Lieutenant called him back to the office.

"I need to inform you that The Specialist has been delayed. It seems the normal route was recently under heavy attack by enemy forces. As soon as we have them swept away, The Specialist will be arriving. Tomorrow night, at the latest."

Kurt said he understood and repeated this information to the same people. The following day he heard nothing, but the morning after that he was once again called to the Lieutenant's office where he was told: "The Specialist is still delayed by what seems to be a fortified enemy entrenchment. Our forces have suffered some light losses but without a doubt the enemy position will be broken in a few days then The Specialist will arrive. Until then I expect you to keep on top of things since that could happen at any moment."

"Certainly," Kurt said.

Another week went by. He was not called into the Lieutenant's office, this time he was approached by a sergeant who told Kurt that The Specialist would be arriving that afternoon. Afternoon came and went. And the next day. Kurt proceeded with his rounds without concern, in fact for the last week he'd discarded any sense of priority and importance, or even possibility, attached to the so-called Specialist's arrival.

He was shoveling elephant dung when the Lieutenant and The Specialist walked up behind him.

"And this is our current Director engaged in his duties. Unfortunately our previous Director, who delegated such tasks, had the misfortune of being killed by random enemy fire on the platforms."

Oh God, he thought, of course it would be now, providing more fodder to the Lieutenant for Kurt's denigration. Kurt wiped the sweat from his brow and put aside the shovel, turning to face them.

The Specialist stood taller than the Lieutenant. She wore a uniform he didn't recognize, although he knew there were a lot of changes in the organization in the last couple of years. Was she a scientist from an elite military group? Was she a soldier for some inner circle? He was in no way equipped to discern. Her glare indicated an icy, transcendent lack of interest that made the Lieutenant's constant belittling seem like a box of love letters.

Kurt held out his hand, "very nice to meet you". Then he withdrew it, suddenly aware he'd been shoveling shit.

"Yes," she said. Then she and the Lieutenant continued their tour.

2017-12-31 21:29 short-story science-fiction return-to-ebyx fiction Benjamin Brood

Equ

Past mountains, around bogs, across broad plains of dry scrub that could easily cut you, he went. Hanging from his neck was an ancient thing, from their past world, and he didn't know how it worked but it did work. It was a Navigator. When he held it up to the shape of Ckiqs in the sky, then Ckiqs was there, it told him what direction he was going and how far away he was from where they landed several generations ago, the place they started. It told him in a whisper, it was a gentle voice that he could even hear in the areas where great winds roared or even in the middle of a storm. For him the voice was reassuring, and in the times when he felt anxious it calmed him.

He'd traveled across a large amount of the wild places — the places in the far north or the far south, away from the crisscross of train tracks and towns and the overhead buzz of Skimmers. Far above themselves satellites pinged mercilessly back to the towns and cities and trains telling everyone where everyone was. But not like the Navigator, not with poetry.

His walking was like a story. Except for the Navigator he relied on the skills taught to him by his mother and father. Their great-greats brought this knowledge with them from Aok. They didn't land with the others — because of some error they landed far away from the others. It was a long time before they found the villages that sprung up in the meantime. They tried to settle down like the others, they tried for a generation, but there was nothing for them in the villages except noise and interruptions and Councils and arguments.

He was born in the small space under a boulder, sheltered from a rain storm. When he came of age he bid his mother and father goodbye, they walked one way, he another. Later, when he passed through a small remote town, he stopped for a while and he met his wife. She was reluctant to live as a wanderer since she had grown up in the village, but she loved him, and she knew he couldn't stay.

Their first season was easy, the weather was good and there was plenty of food. She became pregnant and they found a nice area by a lake to have the child. They would stay there until the child was strong enough to travel, like his parents had done with him. He built a shelter with trees he cut, he put traps out and he fished, collecting as much food as he could.

When it came time for her to give birth he knew something was wrong. The baby wasn't in the right position, and he tried everything he could, that he'd been taught, but it went badly and he didn't have enough experience to know what to do. For two days his wife struggled, but the baby was stillborn. His wife didn't stop bleeding. He put them together in a pyre somewhere that had a nice view of the mountains, so that they would always see.

He regretted things now, he regretted his nature, he regretted not staying with her in town. But he also knew it would've been impossible.

Then for months he rode the trains that went between the wide areas that used to be jungle. He thought of the trains as great serpents, winding their routes along the ground and under hills, and up and over them too. And the trains slinked across the soil and they sometimes rested in huge yards with one another to keep warm. And he watched these monsters and thought that he should get back to walking the places that were forgotten, away from this, but he found solace in the speed of the trains and in the particular nighttime skies of the spaces between stations.

One day he noticed a young man following him, hanging back, but working his way across the same trains and through the same train yards. Equ hid and waited for him.

"Why are you following me?" He confronted the man.

Startled, the man said "I'm not, I'm not following you… I'm studying you." The young man explained he was an academic, that he was studying wanderers.

"Studying? What for?" Equ asked.

"For when you're gone, when your kind of people are gone, when we don't wander any more, so that we'll have a record, so that we'll understand," the man said.

"If you really want to understand then you'll have to travel with me. I cannot tell you, not with words."

The young man balked at this, he said he couldn't just leave, that he had responsibilities. How can you understand if you can't sacrifice anything, Equ thought. But he didn't ask him this because he thought it would be tiring and futile. Then Equ wondered if he too was unwilling to sacrifice, because all he knew was the Navigator, that if he wanted to understand the young man he too would have to sacrifice something.

"But why do you want to understand? Why does it matter?" Equ asked.

"So that we don't forget, so that we know how people used to live." The young man said.

"I live this way now, I am not yet dead. If you want to understand, walk into the world." And Equ reached around his neck and removed the Navigator. He handed it to the young man and he said "this will tell you the words you want to know."

That night was the quietest night Equ had ever known.

2017-12-02 19:50 fiction short-story mythology folklore Benjamin Brood

The Last Giant

I am a forgotten wilderness. I rise in the mornings, wary and uncharted. At night I descend into solitude. I am not made of the same things as the men. They move quickly, they are always moving, short and frenetic — they buzz. I understand them as I understand anything else, in general terms, in broad movements where themes emerge and dissolve. They do not understand me at all. They acknowledge me, the wide avenue they've created, paved with liquid stone, winding through their cities, this avenue is for me alone. And attempts to communicate with them have failed. I am something to pattern and anticipate, but not something to understand. Like the oceans, like the sun, like the mountains. Maybe some of their kind have tried, I don't know, everything they do happens so quickly. Wasn't it just yesterday that I could look over the roofs of their buildings? Today there are towers that shine in the sun, taller than I am, the men have built things taller than me. And so quickly. They gather in groups and stare, the swarms of them, the men-children, in bunches at the tops of their towers looking down at me. And more often these days I remain still. Part of it might be knowing the futility, of moving. When I am the last giant. A lot of the time I am overwhelmed by recollections of the past. None of the men-children remember when we were everywhere, how could they, they are born and die in less time than it would take to say "FE, FI, FO, FUM". However that isn't a thing I say anymore. Maybe out of spite. So tiring, and I resent providing anything that creates enjoyment for them. I hate them. But I haven't eaten them in a long time. Very long, I think. The last time I did that I became terribly sick, they have poisoned themselves and in doing so poisoned me. Maybe once I could've killed them all. Now there are too many of them and there is no desire anymore, being the last, no, it would be an empty gesture, a diversion at best. We used to roam the lands, different sorts of us, all kinds of us. Just thinking about how many kinds of us there used to be sends a shiver down my spine. There were old ones, rarely seen, but whose existence we were certain of, and revered, we revered the idea of the old things anyway. Then there were the giants at the bottom of the ocean. They could reach up and grab an entire fleet of ships. Sometimes they walked onto land, bringing the ocean tides with them and leaving whales and other leviathans and whole schools of fish a hundred leagues from the shore. And there were the giants from the mountains. They were made of the mountains. The substance of them was rocks and evergreens and mud and capped on the top of their heads was snow, the same snow as the top of the mountains. Like that, they were made of it. And when the mountain giants moved you could feel them shake the Earth, every step was a declaration. There were giants in the clouds. Or so it was said. I never saw them. When they grew angry they would hurl boulders down onto the things that displeased them. Why not lightning? I would ask. No, no, they use boulders, I was told. But I never saw it. There were giants in the woods, this is where I came from. We didn't know we were giants. Not compared to the mountains anyway, not giant to something that gigantic. We lived in the woods, we foraged and we occasionally came together when the moon was full to make fires and drink the barrels of honey we'd collected. These were good times, I remember them, it was simple and loud and we'd pick the deer out of our teeth with trees afterwards and then, exhausted, pass out for a week right there, right where we were. The lot of us, the bunch of us. Then men came. I remember this too, the first time I saw one. No, well, first I smelled it, the man stink, at the edge of the forest. My nose led me, and as I came to the end of the trees I stuck my head out for a thorough whiff and there it was, a tiny thing, a thing that had arms and legs and a head — true — but there was a quality about it that was deformed, misshapen… offensive. And it just stood there looking up at me, with a face that was a stupid mask of idiocy, one that didn't recognize what I was, what I am. I didn't pause, there wasn't a second thought, I grabbed it, with a strong CHOMP I bit it in half. Then I gobbled it right up. It didn't even taste great, but there was a thing in me that hated it, hated its offenses. After that I was unstoppable for a while. I had to seek them out, I had to remove them. But they moved so quickly, they bred so quickly. And I heard stories, from the others, that the men-children had different kinds of themselves too, some called Giant Killers. And I thought, how is this possible? Such tiny things, the little vermin, how can they kill us? Us? But it was true. I knew of one, a friend, as much as we can be friends, as much as we were solitary in our giant nature, who was killed by a man creature, and my friend's head was removed and placed on a huge spike in front of their castle, their shitty castle they were so proud of. It became fashionable with them, with the tiny man creatures, that to kill a giant made them important. Like everything they did they took to it. With despicable industry, with velocity and inventiveness. It seemed like overnight. It wasn't overnight of course, since we can sleep a month of their time, but it seemed it, it seemed overnight that we dwindled. I ran amok but it didn't matter, they found ways to kill us. Us. That next gathering was a sad moment, when the remaining few giants met around the stones we'd placed a thousand years ago, the circle we'd walk into, and looking at us we were sparse let me tell you, there weren't even enough of us to properly shout, to fight, to stamp through a bonfire laughing and rolling. No. It was a somber affair that last year, it was an awkward attempt to be what we had been while we knew inside that the men were the new nature, that those weird little things had won. We could not understand it. Didn't we destroy their armies and their villages? There was a never ending spawn of the men things. Now, walking in their city, I must seem a half dead, bewildered monster, no longer fearsome, some relic. Although recently — was it recently? — I had a flash of ancient outrage and I was able to grab one of the men, one who'd wandered too close, probably because they thought I am feeble now, and I grabbed the man and I hurled him into the sky with all my strength. The scream it made as it arced across the distance was deeply satisfying. They didn't get so close for a while after that. I persist, I suppose, out of spite. But I have this in my mind, my end, the end of the last giant, will be my own doing and less spectacle for them because they make everything into spectacle, into a business. I am not here for them. I have thought about it many times now, as the moment draws near, there is no other way but to disappear. I realize the only way to do that is to get to the stone circle, the stones, from there, I know a way. One day I will walk out of this abomination and walk through whatever is left of the forest. I imagine there is nothing left of the forest, as men have turned it into their business, and they burned it up because they are afraid of the cold, so I will walk out of this city back to the stones and if they try to stop me I will crush them under my feet like I used to do. At the stones I know a way, there are still a couple of secrets that we giants know, the last giant, the last secret. I will enter the stone circle and no longer be the pet of men-children, and then there will be no more giants to remind men of how the world was before they came, before they ruined everything. One day I will.

2017-11-05 20:30 fiction science-fiction short-story Benjamin Brood

Harvest

He decided to go with REPLorg instead of ORGCon. There were just so many more options with REPLorg. You had REPLhart of course — their most famous product — but there was REPLung, REPLeye and now a REPLrewards program if you started a REPLbeasts farm to grow REPLcells. It seemed like there was a lot more flexibility. Also there was that ORGCon scandal a few years ago, the news reported that soil hackers had subverted an entire harvest.

Soybeans weren't cutting it. He'd been doing soybeans for a few years at a huge loss. When the REPLorg man showed up on his farm, he was, frankly, a bit pissed off. There had been bio guys around before. That one time COWSAC had come by to try to get him to attach genetic nutrient meshes to the sides of his cows, to grow antibody factories they said, and maybe later even stem cells. But that was bullshit. There was a guy the next town over who'd tried that and he just ended up with his cows screaming in pain and apparently the alterations created some new breed of vicious crop fly as a side effect. He'd had to scratch the whole herd, leading them into a ditch and blow-torching them like it was some goddamn jungle war.

"What we've got here," the REPLman said, "is made possible by the long term investment in advanced soil biologics." It was a well known fact that the unintended consequences of mass scale farming and genetic engineering was an ecosystem that allowed almost universal bio-templating, providing the human race with the ability to grow the organs its decrepit, aging population needed to survive the same way they'd grown corn and wheat and pumpkins and so on.

REPLhart grew in big red batches. REPLorg even provided the neutral harvest bags.

He joined the program that year. Scrapped the soybeans. REPLorg said he was ready to go as far as his soil was concerned. He'd had to attend a seminar. He'd sat for hours in an uncomfortable metal hotel chair while other farmers recounted successful crop yields and big profits, interspersed with REPLorg guys showing charts and graphs and walking them through the harvesting process.

Trucks arrived the next day. The seeds came in long pink rolls, each small compartment filled with a viscous maroon liquid. It took a little bit of getting used to, but for the most part he just followed the detailed instructions.

The first year was great. He started with the basic program, like they suggested, with hearts and kidneys. In the autumn the REPLharvesters were filled with ripe organs — each glutinous bag was money in his bank account, he thought.

Encouraged, the following year he started a REPLbone program, which grew in huge off-white clustered stalks. And he tried some REPLastic, a cartilage replacement. Although that year he did have a nasty case of bone mite. But REPLorg was really responsive, they had an army of robotic sprayers out in his fields right after he called it in. That night he stood on his porch watching the glow from the mite compound, eerie and beautiful across the open country. However, a percentage of that crop was lost. Some of the kidneys came out underweight too. "That's OK," the REPLman said, "we can probably still use most of them either for kids or for the government discount system. Poor people and so on." And he made good money out of that crop anyway.

Things were going well. And since he would talk about it with other farmers in the area, he got a referral bonus from a farmer who signed up to grow REPLeyes on a large parcel of land where previously there were grape vines. REPLeyes grew in small pods along similar trellises, you could see them from the road, occasionally winking. Although the sonic scarecrows were set up, birds still made off with eyeballs now and then and there were areas of the road littered with them, crushed and desiccated.

Soon enough, he thought, we'll be eligible for the REPLrewards buyback program, almost totally free organ replacement. It was satisfying knowing he was growing, probably, the very heart and lungs that he would trade for his current set.

The next year REPLorg bought ORGCon. It was announced with a lot of fanfare, and he and other top tier, highly productive farms were invited for a REPLorg company celebration in Wichita.

"You should go," his REPLman said, "it'll be fun and everything is on the company dime naturally, a weekend where we get to thank you for all your hard work and you get to be the first to hear about what we have coming up. Also a couple of other surprises!"

That weekend a long limo showed up at his house, the bottom edges dusty from the long dirt road. He grabbed his suitcase, the first time he'd gotten to use it, and kissed his wife goodbye. He wanted her to go with him, but she didn't want to go. "All those REPLmen give me the willies," she said. But she told him to go, go have fun.

He didn't know how to talk to the limo driver and he was awkward and he tried getting in the front passenger seat but the driver stopped him and told him to get in the back where there was snacks and beer courtesy of REPLorg. He felt strange about it, but it felt good too, like he was important. The beer was even the kind he liked. Driving on the road he knew so well, looking over crops of vital organ stalks sprouting from genetically rich soil he was lucky to have, he thought it looked different, it was different and he couldn't describe it, and it made him uneasy. But the beer was good.

The ride into Wichita was long and he flipped through the REPLorg brochures they'd placed next to the snacks. He flipped through them several times. The usual company stuff. A picture of a woman holding up images of her heart before and after — one heart brown and weak and sad and the next was plump, a vigorous dark red. And there was a picture of some thin woman, a model of course, with her arms outstretched, head back, an open mouthed smile, something between a victorious scream and an orgasm, pointing up to the bright cartoonish rays of a pharmaceutical sun while standing in a waist high crop of what looked like fresh REPLglands. Heh, heh, he thought, they wouldn't take that photo near harvest time, you'd never even see the woman cuz the stalks would be so tall!

He also read the apparently endless disclaimers, which made up a good half of each brochure, printed in very tiny type. This gave him a headache so he drifted off to sleep just as the limo was hitting the highway.

When he woke up they were pulling into a Marriott. He saw a large convention sign blinking "WELCOME!", flash, "REPLPEEPS!", flash, "OCT 13–15". The limo driver stopped the car, got out and opened the door for him and moved to the trunk to get his suitcase. A doorman from the hotel hurried over and opened the lobby doors, welcoming him in a practiced sugary tone without any accent whatsoever.

The desk clerk was likewise professionally kind and issued him an official convention lanyard that was such a bright orange he had trouble grabbing it since his eyes couldn't stereoscopically fix its place in three dimensions. When he held it closer he saw tiny holographic REPLorg logos printed into the material.

He took the empty elevator up to his floor where the abstract pattern on the dense carpet responded to the lanyard with small tasteful explosions of the words "WELCOME JOHN!" with various emoji. His room number blinked on the door when he got near it and opened with corporate efficiency, a hush of market tested sandalwood. He put his suitcase on the stand and gave the bed a half-hearted bounce followed by an agreeable grunt. There was a meet and greet in the hotel bar soon and he didn't know what to do with himself. He dug around inside his suitcase for his tie, the only one he owned, for weddings or funerals. It had been his father's tie. He carefully worked out how long it would be until he had to put it on.

He walked into the bar exactly five minutes after the event began, his lanyard flickering his name in a rotating circle above his head. He was relieved when he saw his local REPLman, the one he started with. "Hey! Great to see you! There's a lot of people I want you to meet," the REPLman said, enthusiastically sipping some mixed drink, "but get yourself a drink first — open bar!" Other than a few weekend beers he wasn't much of a drinker, he let the bartender just make him whatever he thought was best. He sipped it and didn't think it was very good, but it was something you could hold in your hand and that made him feel better.

There was a relentless sequence of introductions, and small talk he didn't understand, company things, whereas he was comfortable talking about the weather. But it didn't go badly, he thought, and he did meet another farmer like himself, a guy from the opposite part of the state who was happy talking about the nitty-gritty of irrigation.

Towards the end of the evening his REPLman got up on the small stage where a sleepy, beleaguered DJ had played a slurry of non-offensive pop songs. The REPLman was drunk and he careened through several bits of required REPLorg tract. Then with a sloppy, loud flourish he told everyone to drink up because they would all get free livers. He awkwardly grabbed a string, yanking on it several times, that released balloons from the ceiling. "All of you! Free livers! Courtesy of REPLorg!" He said the livers would be credited to their REPLorg accounts and redeemable any time after 30 days — so they would still have to suffer tomorrow's hangover ha ha ha.

In the morning the people congealed around the breakfast buffet, politely but clearly without infinite restraint, lined up for coffee. The faces that appeared garishly animated by the bar lighting last night now looked haggard and splotchy, dark circles and dandruff and wrinkles like gray plowed fields.

There were several talks scheduled for the day with breaks and lunch. He hoped the lunch wasn't fancy, fancy food they had in these places gave him an upset stomach. For a moment he wondered if getting a new stomach would make any difference.

For the next few hours he heard about the new REPLprograms. There was a crop called REPLskyn that was ready to farm — it grew in 6x10 sheets rolled up in a spiny cactus, and was ideal for farming markets in the southwest. It came in lots of different colors too, although economic projections greatly favored the lighter varieties.

They also revealed the newest REPLfarm monitoring system. This was an implementation of high altitude balloon drones that watched everything happening, 24/7, on the farms below and fed this into some sort of artificial intelligence. It would alert authorities faster in cases of fire or terrorism for instance. The presenter reminded everyone about the events in Illinois, not that anyone needed reminding, it was constantly referred to, if not explicitly then implicitly. But we have an even better solution to these kinds of problems, he said, a long term solution. "When we all come back after the break we'll begin our main presentation, I'm sure you'll agree it's a very exciting time and we've got some very exciting things to show you, you'll be the first to know about them because we love our REPLfarmers!"

The presenters had done a good job building up excitement. The lights in the auditorium were gradually dimmed, so now in a twilight that felt vital and anticipatory, the audience stood and walked up to the lobby. This too had been transformed and was dark and filled with overlapping holographic ad clips, ten or twenty second ultra-hi res promos that loosely led into one another using a friendly context engine that was both in the background and impossible to ignore.

He could hear the excited sub-chatter and shuffling of feet from the audience. He heard small portions of different conversations. Could it be they had solved the problem of brains? The rumors bounced from one end of the lobby and back again. There was disagreement. Too hard, some people said. Not practical, others claimed. The biological hurdles are insurmountable, one man said. REPLorg attendants carried around trays of rush and expensive single malt whisky. He opted for the rush.

They stood around the lobby for a long time. It seemed like a long time. Why didn't they call everyone back in? The holo-ads appeared to have accelerated or maybe the frenetic pace was due to the rush which made him break out in a sweat. The constrained expectations were reaching a climax however, the volume in the lobby had gone from a tense hush to a roar. Then the auditorium doors reopened, and projected angels, tastefully branded with the REPLorg and Marriott logos beckoned the crowd in with chimes and an artificial voice that was politely threatening. After sitting down, the lights went out completely and a single spotlight came on, center stage.

There was Mark Spellman, the CEO of REPLorg, in his trademark sports pullover and running pants that every other young entrepreneur tried to copy. Gone were the days of microphones, he stood on stage connected by a larynx laser, no doubt backed by a dedicated, expensive, fully staffed touring apparatus. Spellman paused, spun on his heel, walking meditatively up and down the stage while applause rose and became a standing ovation. Spellman let this continue for a while, then raised his hand several times and frowned to indicate the applause had reached the limits of decorum.

When things had quieted down enough he began to speak clearly, methodically, with a well rehearsed cadence. "What are we?" He said in a profound but also accusatory tone. "Are we this?" He pulled at the chest of his tracksuit. "Are we this?" He pointed in a sweeping motion across the crowd beyond himself in the dark. "Or are we this?" Suddenly, around him, and behind him, a variety of images and representations of the human brain sprung up, illuminating himself and the audience in a flicker of medical hues.

"For so long now we've been afraid of saying it. And we've been afraid of calling the brain what it is, just another organ…" The brains became hearts and kidneys and lungs, a rotation of the REPLorg catalog. "…until now!"

The images around him coalesced into a single spinning placement, an icon as compelling as the world's best graphic design firms could create, a fat cartoon outline of a brain, colored in a gentle spectrum, with the familiar REPLorg font the word "REPLbrayn". And the animated icon quivered, precisely, with little jolts.

The audience went wild. This is what they'd been waiting for. The icon faded and the screen behind Spellman began playing footage of what was obviously a REPLfarm. Spellman narrated.

"For several years we've been working hard and in complete secrecy on developing REPLbrayn. What you see here is a fully functional REPLbrayn farm at an undisclosed location."

The camera moved closer up to the crop itself.

"Look at this, it may seem familiar, but it isn't corn, or lungs, or hearts. The basic bio-husk may look the same, but I guarantee the inside won't."

The shot lingers on a table, to one side is a stack of husks, and a gloved hand grabs one from the pile and roughly pulls down the tough fibrous layers.

"As you can see here, the husk contains an entire, miniature organism used to nourish and pattern the raw brain matter. We experimented over the years, unsuccessfully, with growing the brain in isolation, just as we'd done with other things previously, when it occurred to us we knew how to grow the rest of the organism and its crucial systems, why not combine these techniques to create a biological framework for the brain itself."

The husk was removed. Then with a crisp SNAP the head was taken off. The body was thrown into a bin with the others.

"After harvest the remaining biomass, a protein rich set of tissues, can then be repurposed for the usual things — livestock feed, pet food, low grade protein filler in fast food — REPLfiller if you like. But the brain harvested — in under a year I might add, in under a year! — is a completely blank organ, ready to be imprinted and implanted!"

More applause. There were murmurs of excitement and incredulity in the crowd, some technical in nature, and others espousing enthusiasm about stock prices.

"But where do we go now?" The background video faded, the REPLbrayn icons reemerged with overlays of maps and paths and generic animated dotted lines indicating movement and progress.

"This is where you can help. You can help because you're the best we have, you're the best REPLsales, REPLfarms, and REPLdistributors in the whole organization!" More applause, with several loud, punctual and self-congratulatory WOOTS.

"When you get back to your rooms tonight — after the party of course — you'll find a small imprinting device. You can help us by letting it do its work, by being the first in this clean, safe new world to be free!"

Here the surrounding holo-ads became things similar to those in the brochures, images of butterflies and women jumping in slow motion, ecstatically. And images of smiling, satisfied, healthy older people embracing one another with all the fresh erotic energy of a twenty-five year old.

"To be free, to live without degeneration, without dysfunction, to be free to think healthy, positive thoughts and contribute to your families, and country, and company, and to be everything you can be!"

On cue the clips changed back to the REPLbrayn icon with the tagline "be all you can be" dotted by classic fireworks that if you looked a little closer you realized were neurosynapses firing colorfully.

Spellman gestured thankfully, pointing and motioning to unknown individuals in the audience. The standing ovation rallied with a collective chant of "Spellman! Spellman!" But Spellman didn't wait, he gave a final wave, the lights went out and he was gone. The chanting continued for a while, until the house lights came back up.

That night at the party the mood was giddy and undefeatable. They'd been energized, they would never forget the victories of REPLorg and how they, together, as a company, would change the world.

He got drunk. Somebody helped him into the elevator. When he returned to his room, stumbling, the door opened with its pleasantly designed swoosh. He staggered forward a few steps then flopped onto the bed. Dizzily, he looked around himself in a way that only made him slightly nauseous. He saw a flat black box on the nightstand. It wasn't huge, maybe a foot and a half square, a flat black cube. He sat up and laboriously, as weariness came over him, moved himself closer to look at it. It had a single small red light in the exact center of one side facing him. As he stared at it, the light turned green. There was a tingling sensation.

2017-10-24 22:18 fiction short-story science-fiction return-to-ebyx Benjamin Brood

Ulla

As cities were built, as rockets were again made and traveled to Ckiqs, the tribes admired by the separatists lived in the remote southern part of the world, living by the old ways and avoiding contact. For them time had stopped. The separatists believed change had come too fast, that reaching into the dead civilization of the ruined city polluted fundamentals of their own society. They reached out to the isolated south, emissaries were cautiously sent. The tribes fueled their ideas, and encouraged them to resist progress. Soon there were voices of dissent quoting the myths and stories of the old ways, insisting the cities and towns, even farming, were wrong.

The response to this movement was "How". How would they go backwards, how would they take away all the things they'd gotten used to using and having. No child now knew how to make a canoe and hunt and live under the stars. Houses sheltered them. In the south, the separatists said, it's colder and the ocean is big and the people there live as the ancestors had. But how would we move everyone, realistically how would we live life as our ancestors had? As the separatists became more adamant and more aggressive, so too the response, and so they became less concerned with moving everyone and more concerned with moving themselves.

Then go, said the Council, thinking some would go and a large number wouldn't. But most did.

Ulla and her brother and their parents went south. The ship that took them dropped them off with the rest of their group on a cold, barren beach where a man named Teeq greeted them. As they wound their way through the wet dense sparse forest to his village, with trees like they'd never seen before, great trees that were straight and reached up into the sky, and the ground around them sparse and rocky and covered in moss. None of these things they'd seen in their own towns or in the jungle around them. And the wind, it didn't seem to ever stop here, they had trouble hearing one another because it was so loud especially down on the beach. One girl, a young girl, began to cry. Her parents told her to stop, but Ulla could see they were almost crying too. Where were their warm homes and their radios and their cabinets full of food? Teeq lead them, walking quickly, but he said nothing, he offered no reassurances.

They could smell the settlement before they saw it. It was the smell of fish and rancid leather and camp smoke and whatever had been cooking in it, something gamy and greasy. Maybe it was something they caught in the forest, maybe it was one of the things that lived in the ocean, one of the things Ulla heard about, the big things with the tusks. Ulla asked her parents where they would sleep. Her parents told her to keep quiet. Teeq did not turn to them or speak to them.

The people of the settlement were thin and moved slowly. Ulla would describe them as another color, although they were the same race as she was and their ancestors were the same ancestors as hers. It was as if they had less blood. And as the day wore on and she tried to ignore the cold she began to feel bloodless too. When night started she knew it would get even colder, she could feel it everywhere in her. Her parents did not look at her. Her brother looked at the ground.

Teeq and the leader of their group, Keltah, say down in front of a fire and spoke for several hours. Teeq was wearing coverings made of skins, maybe the skins of one of those ocean tusk things. Ulla and her brother were wearing the clothes they'd always worn, with extra jackets that were new, that would've been too hot back home. But here they weren't warm enough.

Teeq and Keltah stood. Keltah came back to them as they stood shivering. He tried to twist his face into a smile, she could tell it was forced, like her brother's smile, like the little girl's smile. They would all have to sleep together in the center of the settlement, Keltah said, in the lodge, which was built by banding lots of branches down and covering them with mud. The people in the settlement would help them with food for a week, but it was a hard season so this was already a great sacrifice. After this they would have to find their own way. Teeq would help them, and Keltah had lived with these people for half a season. "This is why we're here, we knew it would be hard," her parents said to her and her brother. But Ulla missed her pet rattiq and missed the hot breeze of the sunset, the jungle beyond town and the noises it made. She heard no animals here, maybe one, a bird or something in the distance making a sound like a throttled terrible scream.

They slept badly, if at all. How is it possible to live like this, she heard one woman mutter, we're piled up together like animals keeping each other warm. In the morning, by the fire, they chewed on strips of dried meat that had a weird aftertaste. Then the men were called out by Teeq, they would go with him to hunt. And the women were grouped together by a woman from the settlement named Jiiru, who took them to gather things from the forest. She told them which mushrooms to pick and they collected moss from the sides of certain trees she said they could use for fire or in stew. When one woman picked the wrong kind of mushroom Jiiru struck her and yelled at her, telling her that these could've killed us.

When the men got back they looked tired and depressed. Teeq appeared angry and took Keltah aside. When Keltah returned he told the men they would have to do better tomorrow. All there was to eat tonight, since they'd caught nothing, was a stew of the mushrooms and moss they'd picked and some roots that the women had dug up.

It was a hard night. Harder than the first. They understood what they really fought for against the Council. Now that they had it, some of them had doubts. Some of them didn't, and they tried to convince the rest with quiet persuasive talk that it was only a matter of time, only a matter of adjustment. Ulla's parents fell somewhere in the middle, they didn't complain but they weren't telling anyone else they it would simply take a little this or that.

The next day began like the last. The men went away. The women went into the forest. This time the women gathered leaves for tea and they picked berries where they could find them and they went to a grove where a hard small fruit hung low on gnarled trees. Ulla bit into one and it was acrid and mealy. Jiiru was meaner that day, she yelled at several of the other women telling them they were fat and lazy.

Later the men returned with bad news. Ulla's brother had been killed in the hunt, they said, he'd become tangled in a rope attached to a spear, and he was pulled into the frigid waters. By the time they were able to get him out he was dead. Teeq told everyone this very solemnly. He stood over the hat and boots of Ulla's brother and told them what happened, as if it had happened a thousand years ago. Her brother's body, Teeq said, had been thrown into the ocean where it would feed what fed them. When Ulla's mother heard this she shrieked and hit Ulla's father who had to hold her down. Tomorrow, Teeq said, they would hunt better but tonight they would not eat. There was a large fire that night and Ulla's parents wept as several of the men from the settlement danced the correct dance to make sure their son's spirit went to the right place. Ulla wasn't sure where that place was, they seemed to know though. The men in masks danced and jumped through the fire and all Ulla could do was miss her brother.

After Ckiqs rose and fell they knew the week was over. Their first week. Keltah that morning brought them together and told them they were leaving the settlement and moving south, to a place that Teeq had shown him, a place that used to be a settlement where the land and those waters were well known, and there were even a few structures left he said. Ulla's parents hadn't said much in the last few days, they looked tired. Ulla was frightened.

They were given several canoes. This was a huge gift that had to be appreciated, Keltah said. Teeq lead them down the coast through choppy waters and they stayed two nights on beaches near trees that looked alive with branches reaching out over them and at night with the flicker of the fire alive and angry. To them, to Teeq's people, everything was alive. So too to Ulla. When you are hungry and you don't know where you'll sleep and bad things happen the world is alive.

The next morning they arrived at the abandoned old settlement. They could see where the fire had been, they could see the outline of the huts in the dirty rubble of the site, where there must've been dancing, appeasing the spirit of the birds or the fish or the things that lived deep in the ocean. There was a single standing structure, the remains of a lodge, but with big bare spots open to the wind. Keltah said they would fix it and that's where they would spend their nights until they could get other things built. They gathered wood and packed mud onto it, and that night they ate some fish they caught with Teeq. They did as much as possible with Teeq's help, since he told them he had to return to his people soon. Also during that week one of the men, Imnek, fell down the side of a hill and broke his lower leg. Teeq helped them set it, but he said that the man would never be the same and they would have to decide if they wanted to carry his weight, feeding him, or if he should be left out to die. Keltah and some other men were angry with Teeq for saying this, so Teeq left quickly and quietly one night, taking one of the canoes.

Ulla worked with several of the women building a second hut. She enjoyed this, and they were proud of it when they were done. But food remained a problem. They were tired, and grew more tired every day. Sometimes their fishing went well, but it was never enough fish for everybody, and they started to fight. At some point Imnek stopped eating.

One night there was a terrible storm. They did not know it was approaching, so they were unprepared. The second hut they built fell apart in the rain, they huddled together in the repaired lodge, but part of that was destroyed too. After the storm passed they'd realized the canoes hadn't been properly put away and were now gone, taken by the wind. Everything else they had collected or built was also gone or destroyed. They were worse off now than when they started, thought Ulla. And it kept getting colder.

Keltah and several of the men and women who had been most vocal before now said they must send help from Teeq's people. They must journey up to the other settlement. However, without canoes this would be difficult. A few people volunteered. Ulla's parents had said nothing, almost nothing, since the death of her brother. She did hear them one night, maybe they were down by the beach, she heard them yelling at one another, awful screaming back and forth.

Keltah and the volunteers left to travel north to Teeq's village. They left with almost nothing because there was nothing to leave with. Keltah tried to appear confident, but Ulla could see through it. Probably everyone could see through it, but Keltah felt like he should try. They didn't know how long it would take to get there, they didn't know how long it would take them to get back. On the third night after they left Imnek developed a fever. It must be because he hasn't been eating and he's been in the damp lodge all the time, Ulla thought. They tried to comfort him but he became worse.

On the fourth day since Keltah left the men got lucky hunting and killed a stag. There were cheers when they returned. But they had trouble gutting and cleaning it, and probably didn't get as much meat from it as they could've, and the skin wouldn't be useful, so a lot of it ended up in the fire. And that night the smell attracted bears who stole the rest.

Ulla's mother would break down at certain points in the day, weeping. At first Ulla tried to console her, but after a while she was too weary to do anything about it. When would Keltah return? She wondered.

Imnek died a few days later. They buried him where they hoped bears wouldn't find him, and they piled as many rocks as they could on top of his grave. The next few nights they avoided sleeping in the lodge, and instead slept out in the open. They wondered if whatever made him sick was there in that place, but they also felt like he was still there, in the lodge, that he hadn't really left, he was in there groaning. They all felt this. They'd started again to build another hut.

Ulla's mother got sick too. Her father tended to her, but her fever got worse. Ulla worked hard to bring back berries and leaves and moss and mushrooms.

But Ulla must've made a mistake. She knew she made a mistake as soon as they finished eating. Her stomach began cramping up and it felt like her body wanted to come out of her skin, that there was a thing called Ulla inside her that was fighting to get out and be free and so she went down to the water and she thought the ocean was Ulla, the real Ulla, and she looked up into perfectly clear sky full of bright stars and she thought they too were Ulla. But if all these things were Ulla, what was she, so small, so temporary? And she ran from the water because it suddenly frightened her, and she was in the trees and there was an owl on a tree, just sitting there and blinking at her and it told her not to be afraid, and it told her it would help her and watch over her.

In the morning everyone felt sick and one of the men was missing. Someone said that last night he decided to go get Keltah and Teeq, he just stood up and said he was going to get them and walked off into the wilderness. When they heard this everybody was quiet, thinking "why didn't someone stop him" but even more "maybe he'll bring back help". The chances he would survive were nothing, Ulla thought, he would die in the woods. She thought of the owl and she thought of the owl on a branch above the dead man, knowing he would die, knowing everything that would happen.

Ulla's mother died soon after, delirious and starved. Ulla's father, having lost both his wife and son wept and then had a moment of seeming clarity, he yelled at the entire settlement and told them the endeavor was a terrible idea and that they would all die here, that everyone would die here.

His outburst was met with a solemn quiet, a silent agreement, then one of the men half-heatedly said "Keltah will return with Teeq" but inside, in the certainty of their instincts, nobody believed him even as the words came out of his mouth.

Some days the fishing was good. Hunting never went well. It continued getting colder as the season wore away. The life had been drained out of Ulla's father. He'd been a vocal separatist, he once worked in the Ministry, and he'd spent years promoting the ideas of retreat, retreat from the advances of technology they'd taken from the ruined city, retreat from the expansion and re-population of Ekiqs, retreat from the rationalization of the world gods.

Ulla was the ocean, and the owl could tell her what would happen.

2017-10-18 13:49 fiction short-story science-fiction return-to-ebyx Benjamin Brood

Toori

When we began building we thought we could build forever. The stones and the trees, they used to go on and on. This island of ours kept us afloat in the middle of what we assumed was an endless ocean, and ours the only island. Since our ancestors, pilgrims, came here hundreds of seasons ago, this was the only place we'd known. And we built because we wanted the towers and we wanted the avenues, we wanted courtyards and we wanted the balustrades and foyers and the anterooms. The thought of living in the jungle was abhorrent to us likewise the thought of small individual domiciles for entire families, that barbarity of living in close quarters.

Soon the building became so large maps were cumbersome to carry. A system of coordinates was created. At every important corner you would find your position. The nature of what rooms held what, or which services were where was another matter. Only locals really understood this. You may understand where you are, but you may not understand what that means.

We continued to build unaware that other pilgrims had landed in other places, that they were not constrained strictly by surrounding water. We must build until there is no room left to build, every inch of the island will be a series of hallways, roads, routes, porches, atriums. Towers will look out onto other towers. As it should be.

The other pilgrims, in their own places, can build anywhere with no boundaries and until they made contact with us we could not have imagined such a luxury. It was exhilarating to consider. Once exposed to this idea, it caught like a fire in the minds of our carpenters, stone masons, architects. Reaching the edges of the land, we then built upwards. The sky is for building.

We used to throw our dead into the center, for a long time, that was the tradition. But as building supplies dwindled, we converted these husks of ourselves into the right materials. We shaped them to make the building better, going upwards. And as the land disappeared, there was nowhere to grow food and build into, so too did our efficiency using the trellises and rooftops and courtyards. Hard though, when you are in areas of the building with little light. Little food grows. When we met the others, the other pilgrims, we wanted to trade for food. But we had nothing to trade. The building is everything. As we dwindle, still, we know the building will be here, it will somehow be built.