Saturday, January 31, 2009

Mindspider, pt. 2, 443 words

After knowing her mind-scream, I found where it flowed backwards, psychic residues left on her from her last few minutes alive. I lifted them carefully, piece by piece, from the body. They were already getting a little worn and faded, like old cloth, but the edges weren't so frayed that I couldn't put them back together. I spun a little mat to lay the pieces down on, so to speak, and went to work. The bits were disjointed, disorganized, like they always are in a murder. Well aware of the possible arrival of the Dusties and the end of my work, I still had to take my time stitching the mindprints back together in order. My fingers danced back and forth over the body like I was working a loom, putting the warp and weft of her experiences back together.

I am walking in the Lower Ward a few hours before anti-peak. Running a few last-minute errands, before heading back to my case. I fear the Signer-hunter that's been stalking the Cage, but I hide all my faction emblems and know this place like the back of my hand. The alley is a perfectly safe shortcut home, and I've taken it a hundred times before. But then, I am startled, and drop my sack, my dried apples and a loaf of bread spilling out, but I barely notice. A large figure, maybe human but barely discernible in the shadows, rises to its full height. Naked steel gleams in its left hand, and it reaches out with its right to grab me. I turn to run but the vise-like grip—

I let go of the lasts, focusing instead on where he touched her, how he touched her. I run over her upper arm with my mind, probing slowly to find the aura traces of her killer. Finally, he got sloppy, touching her with his bare hand instead of through leather or steel. I'd seen the same thing repeated too many times in the past week, visions of shadowy death with no personal skin-to-skin contact. But now I had the taste of his aura, even how he appeared to himself, firmly fixed in my mind. I made sure the guards were reading it off the top of my head, then let go of the deader and then unspun the link to the Hardheads. Glad to finally have this job over and done with, I took my payment then and there and left for my case. The Dusties weren't even in sight of the watch house yet.

-Special Investigator Jerin Ciowyn, Agent of the Court; Investigation Report; Fourth Hive, Sacrilegion, 127th Year of Factol Hashkar's Reign

Friday, January 30, 2009

Mindspider, pt. 1, 415 words

The deader wasn't very fresh, but time spent in the Ditch didn't help. I'd only caught maybe an hour or so of sleep in the past few days, bits and pieces here and there, whenever I could get back to my kip and rest. It had been a busy week, with some piker dead-booking Signers left and right. Verdue was busy with the Cadre job, so I had been dug up. The stench of the body nearly made me lose it completely, and the greasy grub I'd gotten from the Speckled Rat just before didn't help.

At least the Hardheads in their watch post didn't like it much, either. And they hadn't contaminated the body much, though no doubt the Dusties would be coming soon, demanding the corpse for incineration. Thanks to some piking compromise in the Hall of Speakers, they'd get it, too, even if I wasn't done with my investigation.

I had two of the Hardheads sign themselves up as witnesses to my investigation, though they weren't too happy about the idea. They didn't want a spider like me crawling around in their brain-boxes. Tried to tell them they shouldn't worry unless they were the murderers; they didn't like the joke.

As always, I opened up my mind and touched theirs', tasting their auras and psychic imprints. Then I wove connections around their minds, mind-spider with a mind-web, linking the three of us together. They could only receive my surface thoughts – I couldn't hear them, and they couldn't hear each other.

Next I turned to the deader, and extended my mind out to the corpse. I could feel shifting bits of auras and residues left all over the body, mostly the dead Signer's but very faintly those of the guards, now that I knew their taste. I washed the guards' imprints away, and ferreted out those of their fellows. Soon the corpse was as clean as when it was first found. Perfection.

I pulled back after the clean-up, and broadened my net, feeling for the strongest imprint left on the corpse. It was easy enough to find: the mind-scream of her death. I lifted it completely off the corpse, feeling it and tasting it. It was intense pain, shock and fear and even some stupid little regrets in her last moments. I accepted it like an old friend, which it was after investigating so many deaders. But the guards shook and I think one of them even started to cry at it all.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Siege of Tokyo, pt. 1, 569 words

Like the rest of the world, we first heard about them not long after they emerged from beneath the American city of Denver. Why there, nobody knew. And nobody really believed the stories about them, not at first. It was like hearing about one of those silly zombie movies, the kind my father had loved. Who believes those things can be real?

They weren’t really zombies, though. They spread out, and everyone stopped laughing at the stories of the “living zombies” as they soon ranged out of control. We tried for a while to keep laughing it off, me and my friends, since they were on the other side of the world from us, but our laughter grew ever more hollow with each new day.

Their military forces, the hordes pouring out of Denver and capturing or killing everyone they came across, those were the feint. While the world’s eyes were on the ragged front they kept pushing back further every day, many of them were secretly already amongst us. We felt, somehow, secure in the knowledge that they were a definable, visible horde that could, with enough effort, eventually be held and then pushed back. Even if they knew how to use our weapons and some simple combat tactics, they were a known quantity. Once the Americans got over their stubborn pride and called on the other nations of the world for help, the invading army would be pushed back. Lives would be lost, yes, and it would be a tragedy… But it would be one we would survive.

We forgot that the most frightful defining feature of any zombie is that it makes us into them. They replenished their fallen numbers with those they captured and changed. That was horrible enough. What we didn’t know was that they didn’t have to act like a ravening, mindless horde. They’d been amongst us secretly for years now, sleeper agents made to go about their normal lives until this day when they emerged in force, where the sleepers would then awaken and hinder or cripple efforts to fight back. At one point, the Americans tried to launch one of their own atomic bombs upon Denver, in hopes of somehow stemming the tide by cutting out the heart of the horde. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. It would have played like a comedy of errors if it hadn’t so sharply underscored how deeply they had actually penetrated the halls of power in the United States. It also meant they could have done it anywhere.

Suddenly, anyone could have been one of them, pretending to be a normal human and even carrying on friendships and relationships while plotting our downfall. Any error, any mistake by anyone in power or at a critical position, could be in truth an act of sabotage. As the cancer ate away at the heart of the United States, the government grew paranoid and more fractious than usual. Accusations of treachery flew soon and swift. The same terror gripped much of rest of the world. Most every nation committed purges of some kind or another, whether locking up anyone suspected of being a sleeper agent until a reliable test could be developed, or simple execution. Many leaders who escaped the purges were assassinated by common men and women who had taken to heart the accusations of treachery made by demagogues seeking to eliminate political opponents.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"Never Special," City Music, 348 words

I hate living in the city, actually. Grey is nicer than a lot of other cities, especially the dingy gray ones that predominate the Eastern Seaboard, but I still hate it. Cities make me uncomfortable, the sheer density of people. I find I'm especially nervous during storms, far more so than when I lived out in a small town while in high school. I think it's some instinctive fear that, with all these people packed in together, a natural disaster has the potential to cause a lot more suffering and death than if it struck out in the countryside. Most days, the only thing keeping me here is my tight bank account and my lack of prospects elsewhere.

In other words, nowhere else is any better for me.

Still, sometimes... Sometimes living in a city has its moments. Sometimes, the low roar of traffic suddenly dies down, a minor street vacated, and I can hear the music.

Now, it's not like I've become some kind of neo-hippie mystic who thinks cities have a pulse and soul, a song they sing to each other across the highways and power lines. I wouldn't deny that Grey City might, but I don't actively believe it, either. I mean the music of the people who live here, because we all seem to be playing music of some kind now.

A small band, in some apartment above a store, their drummer crashing out a beat and the guitarist strumming along, while the singer lets loose with a wordless call, instruments and voice following their own paths but complementing each other smoothly.

Two college kids, a boy and girl, sitting at an intersection in the dead of night and singing "American Pie" to each other, neither a very good singer on their own but their voices wending together into something sweet and beautiful. Young love, for everyone to hear. I hope they stay in love forever.

A guy standing in a park by the river, late at night, playing a saxophone for nobody in particular.

Some days, I never want to leave the city.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pomegranates, pt. 3, 349 words

Persephone, half-alive but determined, strove for the surface and broke out into the dead of winter. She searched far and wide for her mother, until she found her weeping still in the home Demeter had set aside to keep Persephone safe from the other Olympians.

"Mother," she said, "I live again. For a time."

"How," Demeter asked, shocked and unwilling to believe her daughter was not a spectre come to taunt her.

"Hades fed me the seeds of the pomegranate while I languished in his realm, and so I have only a part of a life. Mother, do not despair, do not kill the world with your grief. Hades loves me, in his cold way, and if I cannot live then I shall at least be at his side."

"No," Demeter protested, "I cannot let you go. I cannot lose my daughter again."

"You must let me go, Mother," she said. "I am already more than half dead."

"No," Demeter said again, and went searching. Before long, she returned to Persephone and pressed another pomegranate into her hands, the last pomegranate yet alive in the world. "I can abide losing you for a little time each year," she said, "but not for so much of it. Take this into the underworld with you. It will not die. Plant its seeds, and grow more pomegranates. They will be pomegranates of the underworld, and they will not die, but nor will they give you a true life. Eat of them each winter, and you will be strong enough to come out again each spring and stay the summer with me. In the autumn you will weaken, and then must return to your Hades. I will hold back my grief as much as I can, but I will miss you, daughter. I do not wish to see you dead, even if only for a time."

"Thank you, Mother," Persephone said, and kissed Demeter on each cheek. "I must go now, Hades is expecting me. And I must plant this pomegranate in the underworld. I will see you again, in a few months."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Pomegranates, pt. 2, 431 words

In her rage and despair, Demeter closed her heart to the world, and the world grew cold. She wept bitter tears, and each one froze as it fell until the world was blanketed in snow. Plants died, people died, the world began to die as she mourned her dead daughter.

Zeus, at last, came to Demeter and asked her what had happened. When he learned the tale that Hades had stolen away Persephone, he sent a missive to the underworld god, saying that Persephone was to be released immediately or Zeus would shackle him in Tartarus with their cruel father Cronus.

Hades panicked, in his own slow, dark way. He had no wish to be thrown down to Tartarus and share eternity with the Titans, but nor could he release Persephone – a god is harder to release from death than a mortal, so it was no mere matter of releasing her shade into the world above. But there was one way, though he had little time for it. The pomegranate, fruit of life and abundance, could restore Persephone to life if she but ate thirteen of its seeds, one for each turning of the moon in the year. But the pomegranate did not grow in the underworld, for the place of death could not support the fruit of life. So, desperate, Hades sent his minions forth into the world above, to find any pomegranates that might have survived Demeter's cruel, bitter winter.

At last, one of Hades's servants returned with a pomegranate. It was a poor, withered thing, half-grown when Demeter had blighted the world, and was growing weaker still in the underworld. The servant rushed to Hades's side, presented him with the pomegranate. Hades took it and broke it open even as he ran to find Persephone. Inside, a dozen and one lonely seeds died, one by one. Only six yet lived when Hades found Persephone, and only four when she could finally be stirred enough to consume them.

Persephone wept as life flowed through her veins once more, for it was only a feeble life, hardly enough to live. But she wept all the same, out of joy for even so much, and clung to Hades for getting it to her. "My love," she proclaimed, "I must return to my mother. Even if I have only a portion of a life, she must know I have at least that much, and perhaps she will grant the world the same. Wait for me here, my beloved Hades, for I expect it shall not be long before I see you again."

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Pomegranates, pt. 1, 393 words

Persephone was the most beautiful of the Olympian goddesses, innocent and pure and beloved (or lusted after) by all. Many tried to woo her, but her mother Demeter would have nothing of it. Demeter raised Persephone well away from the other gods of Olympus and their over-dramatic habits and ways, hoping to protect her beautiful daughter from being taken to bed against her will and well before her time, as Zeus had done to Demeter herself.

So it came to pass that Persephone and two nymphs were taking a warm late-summer day to wander the fields and gather flowers. The only one around to see them was Helios, the sun, who could see everything from his lofty place in the sky. He looked down and espied the beautiful women, and was especially taken by sweet, lovely Persephone. In his lust, Helios abandoned his charge and dove to the earth. The nymphs fled before the falling sun god, but Persephone stood her ground, unafraid and curious of her cousin god which she had been kept from.

Her curiosity proved her undoing. When Helios landed, he hardly spoke his greetings and pleasantries before he tried to have his way with Persephone. She resisted, but the young goddess was much weaker than the sun, and in their fight and his raging passion she burned up and died.

Hades discovered her in his realm, a broken shade of a goddess. She had not even the power or coin to compel Charon to bring her across the Styx into the underworld. Pitying her state and nursing his own deep love for her, Hades brought her into the underworld and housed her in his own home. She was despondent and barely more than half aware, however, and could only sit listlessly by and while away the deep, gloomy days of the underworld.

Up above, in the world of the living, Helios came to his senses and realized what he had done. He flew away to find Demeter and, knowing Persephone was dead, told how she could be found in the underworld.

"Why?" Demeter asked.

"Because," he said, "Hades came and abducted her from the summer fields. I saw everything from above, and descended in my wrath to stop him – but I was too late, and succeeded only in burning grass instead of the deep dark god of the underworld."

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Nightmare, 784 words

Odeda groaned and rolled over – or, rather, tried to roll over. She couldn't move.

She tried to yell, but choked on something plastic and hard. It was a length of tubing... The mask! The air mask they'd fit on her as she lay down in the tube, driving a lifeline of oxygen down her throat, gagging and choking as it went down...

Her eyes opened, and through the small plastic visor they'd all been fitted with, to protect their eyes from the pressure of the suspension gel, through the visor she saw she was still in the cryogenic tube. The suspension gel still encased her, held her immobile. The gel was a translucent blue, casting everything visible through the tube's windowed doorway in cerulean distortion, like seeing everything from underwater. She could see the bank of tubes across the room, and—

One of the tubes was open.

Odeda squinted and wracked her memory or whose tube it was. Anna, that was the name. Anna Caston. The aloof woman who had been sent along because she knew the secrets of magic.

Oh God. Her tube was open. Anna's tube was open, and she was still dormant inside. She would die soon, if she wasn't dead already. Had to get out, get out and help her, but the gel was solid and unyielding as a five-ton weight over her whole body.

She couldn't move. She couldn't raise an arm, lift a leg, nothing to help Anna. She couldn't even turn her head away, just close her eyes and... and wait for her own death, she realized.

Held fast, nutrients pumping into her through a needle in one arm, air forced down to her lungs, a catheter and hose carrying away her waste... and awake. No longer living at a ten-thousandth of time's normal flow and asleep for all of it, she would live stuck here for months, years, even decades, unable even to move enough to bite her own tongue and bleed out...

When the panic attack finally subsided, she noticed something new in the room. A figure, humanoid but not human, naked and muscular and scaly. It crouched near Anna's open tube, and even as Odeda watched, it plunged one arm into the gel of Anna's tube, almost solid in the cold chamber, and grasped one of Anna's arms. With a sharp yank, and a sick, wet, tearing sound audible even to ears full of gel, the creature tore Anna's arm off at the elbow and pulled it out of the tube.

It scraped the arm clean of gel, then set to with relish. It gnawed at the meat of her arm, sucked on the ragged, bloody stump of the elbow, and slowly cleaned all flesh off the bones. Casting the bones aside negligently, it reached in and took another piece of Anna. And another. And another...

Odeda tried to turn away, turn her head at least, ultimately could only close her eyes. But she could still hear, as if from a great distance, the foul wet sounds of the creature's feeding -- the shred of flesh, its sloppy open-mouthed chewing and slurping and sucking, the clatter of damp bones on the floor and each other.

There was a long silence, and eventually Odeda risked a peek.

The strange, inhuman creature had finished its grisly feast, finally, leaving nothing but bare bones piled on the floor. And then – as Odeda watched – it plucked up each bone, one after another, and put them back into the tube.

Not haphazardly, but with utmost care. Each bone was placed neatly in the suspension gel until the skeleton was reassembled whole. As if Anna Caston hadn't been torn apart and extracted, as if her flesh had simply faded away to leave her skeleton behind. After maybe 20 minutes, it was perfect.

The hideous monster, its belly distended and fat from its meal, lurched over to Odeda's tube. Odeda feigned sleep, suspension, anything to not have to stare at the grotesque, hungry cannibal. Eventually, she opened her eyes again – and the creature was still there, rigid and unmoving as a gargoyle.

Its eyes arrested hers, cold and reptilian, and its toothy maw hung open in a sick, leering grin. After a few seconds, the creature leaned close and licked the tube with its bloated purple tongue, smearing bloody spittle across the transparent plastic just inches from Odeda's nose. The stuff was viscous, phlegmy, and clung to the side of the tube.

Then, with a delicacy of motion entirely at odds with its brutal, monstrous nature, the creature ran a claw through the blood-streaked phlegm, writing backwards for her to read, and licking the claw clean afterwards.

Wake up, little girl.