Song of the Day – 17/07/2017

Land of Talk is a band whose sound spoke to me at a personal level. From the grimier throwback rock of their early work to the more assured work on later albums, it was all put together on an underpinning of brooding emotional turmoil that threatened to come to the forefront at any moment. And the trajectory of their career, with tragedy lurking behind every triumph, was what every depressed person needs to assure themselves that it’s not worth the effort in the first place. Continue reading

Song (and Story) of the Day – 09/04/2017

[If I’d done a year end review again, this song and this album would have been top of the list. But things are what they are and I didn’t have the time or energy to get something like that done. This song has been haunting me the entire time, though, and exercising it requires letting something of my own out, too. So here we go. And as always, questions, comments, and critiques are welcome.]

There was this feeling that followed Heather like a shadow. An insatiable emptiness lurking at the edge of her thoughts, poised like darkness waiting for the flick of a light switch. She could run, she could even hide, but it was a black hole that held her in an ever-decaying orbit from which she could not escape. Knowing it was out there didn’t always help her see it coming, either.

Each Saturday, when Heather took her place with the other customers in the switchback lanes of her bank, she felt the atmosphere of the place pressing in on her. The queues were getting worse. Not longer, or slower, or in some other sense that could be measured, quantified, and addressed with a series of buzzword-heavy memos and a rallying pep talk from a customer service manager. The bank itself had changed from a place where she did business to her most consistent social ordeal, lingering like a chronic illness as everything else fell away. The methodical space, the way it looked, its distractingly unobtrusive colour palette of off-whites and matte reds and blacks. The way everything that happened there did so to the same never-ending playlist of focus-grouped MOR. Even the air conformed to corporate mandates of temperature and humidity. Despite the self-congratulatory copy and the smiles of the carefully diversified models plastered all over the posters, Heather knew that “valued” actually meant “tolerated.”

As bad as standing in line had become, the end of the line was worse. There waited the bank’s newest, and youngest, teller. A pretty girl, well put together in one of her fitted suits, the teller always had a perfectly white grin at the ready. She was polite, laughed at all the awkward jokes customers made about the weather. And she made Heather want to cry.

It began with the forced greeting. The, “How are you doing today?” It never hurt so much when it came from the mouths of the other tellers, who were middle-aged women so bored by the routine that they would struggle to locate Heather in a lineup though she’d been using the same bank for years. There was something else in the way this new teller would look at Heather when she stepped past the wilted rope barrier and up to the long counter. With her, it was, “How are you doing today, Heather?” and the Cheshire smile that didn’t touch her eyes. Always using her name despite Heather having never formally introduced herself. It was a sort of prying disinterest that scratched at some primal nerve, giving Heather flashbacks to her school days, when an alpha girl might casually single her out for the day’s ridicule.

The teller would roll her wrists and click at keys with manicured nails while she kept the small talk going. Heather tried to keep up, to play it off. Like the bank itself, the process gave her the impression of the overly-deliberate dialogue of a spy thriller, where everyone spoke in mannered code, using words that meant the opposite of what they said. A pretence of obfuscation that hid nothing from anyone, ever. “Getting ready for a big night out?” “Visiting family for the holidays?” “Seen any good movies lately?” All with her eyes on the monitor, tracking the dwindling numbers in Heather’s account. Engaging at what she thought was the minimum amount of effort acceptable for the situation, Heather used short answers to deflect, hoping that over time this girl would get the hint. But it never happened. “Going to any shows this summer?” “A vacation?” Has anyone asked you to the dance yet? Did I miss you at Becky’s party?

“How are you doing today, Heather?”

Over time, Heather felt it digging in further. Maybe it wasn’t the girl’s fault. Maybe she really was trying to be friendly. But Heather was also keenly aware of how even the one person in her life who bothered to ask that question didn’t care about the answer.

Week after week. The teller asked, “How are you doing today, Heather?”

Heather didn’t say, “I just quit my job after my boss tried to defraud me and this is my last paycheque.”

Heather didn’t say, “The last time I had any contact with my family was when I sent my brother a happy birthday text that he didn’t respond to.”

Heather didn’t say, “My last friend moved out of the city to get married and without work, I have no reason to ever leave my apartment or even answer my phone.”

Heather didn’t say, “I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to be touched.”

Heather did say, “Good, thank you.”

A week ago, Heather almost blurted her thoughts out, had actually opened her mouth to explain that the last year felt like falling down a flight of concrete stairs, that she’d resigned herself to tucking and rolling until she finally hit rock bottom. That she had this growing fear now was that she might never even land. But the young teller looked her over with blank eyes, gave Heather a practised smile, and asked what plans she’d made for the weekend. So Heather muttered something about Netflix, initialled her receipt, and left, counting it a small victory that she’d held the tears back all the way to her front door.

Today, as she stood in the bank’s lobby, some spunky mall-punk trying desperately to imbue the place with a fun (but sanitized) weekend spirit, Heather saw the teller’s familiar creased suit, her over-complicated new hairstyle, and knew she couldn’t go through that again. Couldn’t play the unwinnable game of trying to decide whether the mocking subtext in the girl’s uninterested banter was real this time or imagined. Sandwiched in the middle of the line, Heather turned away, head down while she forced excuse mes past tight lips.

Heather drifted into the bleary winter afternoon, walking as she watched the other people move around her. Groups of individuals who shared connections, shared each other. Children holding hands with parents, young lovers bundled up in thick scarves and puffy jackets, friends taking up too much space as they laughed and lived in their own small worlds. And Heather moved through them all, feeling like some Dickensian orphan stumbling through the snow, peering in through frosted windows at the warmth inside. Only, there was no snow. Mid-December and it got cold but never snowed anymore. Even the weather had given up.

Later, Heather found herself in a small coffee shop. She didn’t like coffee, but it was getting colder as it got darker and she needed a break from that. Standing in line there almost felt normal. It was a thing that normal people did, after all, they lined up next to the kitschy exposed brick walls, pretended to like the smooth jazz murmuring out of the cheap speakers. She saw them all around her, those normal people, and tried not to appear the imposter that she was, keeping her eyes forward as she used her sweater to wipe the condensation off the lenses of her glasses.

“I hate it when that happens,” said someone next to her. Heather checked the lenses, saw they were still smudged at the edges and that her rubbing at them was only adding more. She put her glasses back on. “When my glasses fog like that,” the voice continued. “Used to be even worse when I had metal frames, you know? I’d get headaches when it got cold.”

Heather turned to track the voice and only when she saw a man looking back did she realize that he’d been talking to her. “Oh,” she said. “Yeah.”

He smiled. A real smile that showed in his dark eyes. “I was going to ask,” he said, “if you can read the prices on the menu from here. I just got new lenses, not sure if they’re actually working.” He touched a finger to the side of his own glasses.

Adjusting the way her frames rested on her nose, Heather squinted at the mirrored wall behind the counter, focused on the small, red numbers that appeared to be written out in lipstick. “Sorry,” she said after a few seconds of concentration. “But I need a new prescription anyway, so I’m not the best person to ask.”

“There’s never any harm in asking,” he said.

Heather said, “I think there’s a nine. Does that help?”

He laughed, a bold sound that he clamped down on immediately. “Sure.”

It was Heather’s turn to order. She asked for a hot chocolate and gave her name, speaking it clearly and emphatically without looking back at the man standing behind her. She paid and moved to the end of the counter where she realized she didn’t know what she was doing or why. The man ordered his drink, giving a name that Heather didn’t hear, and had his phone out almost before he’d handed over his cash.

This was all normal, she told herself. Normal people doing normal things. I’m not a freak and there’s nothing wrong with talking to a stranger in a coffee shop. It had never happened to her before, but that didn’t mean anything. You don’t drink coffee, remember? But other people did and other people talked to each other.

Normal people didn’t stare, either.

The barista called her name and Heather stepped forward to receive her drink. She found an empty seat, a bar stool that was too tall for its table–a polished tree stump–forcing her to bend down so she could set her drink precariously on the uneven surface. By the time she’d figured out how to balance it without anything spilling, she looked up to find that the man with the dark eyes had disappeared.

Over the bitter thump of her heart, Heather reminded herself that normal people don’t take a casual conversation as the first step toward, well, anything, really. It’s just a thing that happens. Shoulders falling as she sank into herself, Heather took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to expel the feeling with it, to force the moment to pass. The world doesn’t owe you a damn thing, she told herself. You sit there still to this day playing the waiting game, and for what? What are you waiting for, anyway? For this sudden realization that you are a real person? Where is that going to come from?

Heather wondered when exactly it was that she became the worst person in her life and if her inability to pinpoint a date meant that she’d always been.

The swirl of whipped cream sloshed over the rim of her cup as someone in line bumped a foot against her table. Heather stood to find some paper napkins, turned the corner at the end of the counter and ran into someone coming out of the washrooms.

“Sorry,” she said.

“You okay?” he said at the same time, and then Heather looked up and saw the stranger with his dark-eyed smile.

“I, uh–” Heather waved a hand in the direction of her table. The cup was gone and a small pond of brown hot chocolate had appeared under the barstool. “–lost my drink.”

“I think there’s a reason that seat was empty,” he said.

“Probably,” she agreed.

“I’m sure you can get another,” he said.

“It’s fine.” She wanted to go home, where failure and regret had the decency to be unambiguous. The buttons on his jacket began to blur.

“Hey,” he said. “Are you okay?”

A single breath shuddered through her and Heather knew she’d lost. She shouldn’t have been out here pretending to be anything other than what she was. She wanted to turn and run. She wanted to scream. She wanted to crawl back into her hole and never come out again. She wanted to stomp through puddles and feel the rain on her face. She wanted a hug. She wanted to send all the emails to all the people that she had promised herself she always would and never had. She wanted to explain exactly what had happened, somehow, and she wanted someone to tell her that it made sense.

She wanted to say something. Anything. To anyone.

“No,” said Heather. “I’m really not.”

[to be continued.]

The End of the World as We Know It

Quin once told me, “You know, Sennet, there comes a time when throwing the first punch is the only way to avoid being on the receiving end of it.” That was maybe a year before he caught religion, but only about ten minutes before he himself got caught with a pair of dice that kept rattling after he’d stopped shaking them. Personally, I never saw the angle in showing up expecting to get found out, but I’m the right size to fit through doorways and stand up straight in most rooms. I figured things must look different when you’re craning your neck all the time to see them. Or when you’ve stopped caring about what you see.

Later, Quin called that night the turning point. Not that he learned some divine lesson as a direct consequence of cheating because he did not. And how could he have? If the gods wanted to help karma catch him they needed to send more than half a dozen itinerant drunks pumped up with righteous indignation about a con they were too lazy or stupid to work themselves. No, back then he was already proving his worth as a prophet. When the first gambler barked his accusation, Quin lifted the man by his collar and gave him a single gut-shot so hard I thought the poor guy’s eyes might pop out of their sockets and hit the far wall. That was the entirety of that fight, and while the other men carried their friend out of the bar, Quin turned and began shouting for drinks.

Yet, as Quin was also fond of saying, the gods work with the unorganized determination of a wino. Their logic might be scattered and indecipherable to a sober mind, but results were results. By the time he stumbled out of the bar the next morning, Quin was the sort of rubbery drunk that stares too long at the sun, wondering why it hurts, and then runs headlong into a low-hanging tree branch hard enough to knock himself unconscious. He lay on my bed for three days, sweating and mumbling, while I watched a fist-sized lump on his forehead rise and fall like a geological formation. The Quin that came out of the coma was a different person. No less violent or prone to fits of half-cocked hubris, but a holy theme worked its way into his slow aphorisms. He’d found a purpose in that fever dream and a week later he left town on a pilgrimage. Eighteen months after that, he returned riding on the back of an auroch and draped in the gold-flecked robes of some firebrand cult that moved up and down the far coast spreading tales of an oncoming apocalypse.

After he wrapped me in his bear hug and said, “We’re all going to die, Sennet,” Though it wasn’t a whisper, I’m sure nobody else could hear him. For a moment, I thought it must be another of his sappy come-ons, but he left it at that. The embrace ended and he had his square smile back in place as he threw himself into the small welcoming party.

I’d known Quin all my life, knew the boy who turned into the man. I knew the Quin that existed behind closed doors as much as anyone could, and I’d seen him in real pain before. I had vivid memories of the origins of many of the scars on his slab of a body, including the pale gashes the slaver’s lashes had left across his back. I’d seen him bleed. I’d seen Quin frustrated, I’d seen him angry. I’d seen Quin weep openly while holding the tattered flag of his mother’s sunken slave barge. But I had never seen him scared before, not until that day. And not again until the night the moon died.

Which isn’t entirely true, but it took the power of hindsight to recognize the first time I’d seen Quin truly frightened. Or maybe it was my own shame that kept me from recognizing it.

Owning a bar, I’m used to hearing people talk about their problems, telling me slurred stories about how everything went wrong. About how they’d been wronged. Some only want to vent, but more often they expect input, which I tried to give if only to hold up my end. I wasn’t exactly in a position where I could tell my customers to piss off if I wanted to have any customers left. Before his trip to the coast, Quin liked to sit and eavesdrop, leaning over the bar in a way that reminded me of an overfed cat, watching with his smile that was too big to be sly.

One night, while I pushed his elbow aside to wipe the counter down, Quin said, “Your trouble is that you’re giving them reasons when what they really want is logic.”

“My trouble is that Gowan is as stupid a man as I’ve ever met,” I said, wiping up the rest of my latest advice recipient’s accidentally-on-purpose spilt drink. “And that’s saying something because my father was the one who decided to build this pub in about the worst place possible that isn’t also at the bottom of the sea. Nothing you say to him gets through anyway.”

“Still,” said Quin. “You know people always have reasons. For doing what they do. It may not make sense, but they do.” His voice trailed off and he took another pull from his glass.

I knew exactly what he meant. I said, “You’re telling me that Gowan’s reason is that he’s an idiot.” Which wasn’t what he meant.

“Sure,” said Quin and shrugged. He finished his drink, paid, and left without another word. I locked up behind him.

He was right and we both knew it. Knew it then, and knew it still when he came back to set up his apocalyptic enclave of hedonism trying to outpace his vision of the end of the world. I knew his logic, that for him the world had already ended. And I knew the reason, too.

I made the mistake once of bringing it up. After that fight over the dice, after he’d screamed at me for yet another bottle, I slammed it down and asked, “What would Durand think of you now?”

And Quin had stared at me, not moving, not blinking, while his knuckles turned white around his glass. In the moment I tensed for his outburst, he sagged, shoulders going slack, and when he looked back up at me his eyes were red-rimmed and wet. “If I knew what Durand thought, I’d know why he left.”

Cue the drinking that lead to his divine inspiration.

I could have pushed him out early but I saw it then, too. Wide-eyed terror at the world he’d crashed down into since Durand walked out of his life the year before. At what kind of a man he must be, deep on the inside, for that to have happened in the first place. I didn’t need that Quin loose on the streets–or street, because that’s about all we had then–not with people out there who might want another shot at him.

Logic and reason. Thinking logically, sane people–and that grouping still included Quin even after he’d come back from the coast–would ever allow Gowan to rope them into one of his schemes. But for the right reason, people are capable of all sorts of surprises.

He came to both of us with his plan. “I got myself a guard post on the very first train into this shithole,” he said, his big nose giving him the look of a proud rat. “I’ll have the keys, you see? We can get it all.”

“All what?” I asked.

“All the cargo, woman,” said Gowan. “You run a bar, right? We’re standing in it, aren’t we? You need booze, don’t you? Well, they got booze on the train. Crates of the stuff.”

I sighed. “I know they have crates of booze on the train, Gowan, because I’m the one who ordered those crates of booze.”

With slow blinks, the usual brain power needed to work his muscles suddenly co-opted to figure out what I was telling him, Gowan turned away from me and toward Quin, who sat a couple stools over at the bar. “How about you, then, big guy? Word on the street is you could use some party supplies.”

“I could,” said Quin, speaking to Gowan while he looked directly at me. “It won’t be long now till it’s all over.”

“You got that right,” I said. “We start getting trains coming through and I’ll be getting some real clientele for once. People who aren’t just drinking to fuel another orgy, you know?”

“It will be over soon either way,” said Quin. He turned to look down on Gowan. “And you are willing to make this a charitable donation?”

Gowan squinted back. “Whatever that means,” he said. “Sure, you can keep that stuff. I’ve got something else I want.”

“Does it still count as the end of the world if it’s only you two idiots going out to get yourselves shot?” I asked. “Because I’m beginning to think it would be the opposite.”

I’ll say the reason was to protect my investment and there’s some truth in that. But that’s not what I thought about during the breaking blue dawn on the day the train was supposed to roll into town. That day, that hour, that minute and second, I thought only that maybe Quin really did know something the rest of us didn’t. It came in one of those singular, stark instances, so picturesque that in the moment they feel surreal to the point of being unnatural.

But I was already buzzed from half a flask of good rum, so, you know, not the best candidate for nuanced self-reflection.

I remember standing there in the cold, the winds of the plain whipping grit through the air like illusory waves. The train tracks ran as parallel lines of silver off into the horizon and Quin stood astride them, legs splayed, arms up to embrace the distant, fading moon. The last moon any of us would ever see. I got the impression of a statue, a fixture, as if Quin had always been there and always would be. And the same gust that caught his robes brought the edge of his murmured prayer to my ears while a dozen of his half-naked followers took up the chant from all around me.

Like I said, it was weird, even for a train robbery.

His followers dropped to their knees as Quin’s voice rose. “On the final day, we give ourselves completely to oblivion. Come what may, our dedication will not waver.”

The train appeared as a shimmering speck at the edge of sight, a single reddish dot trying to break through the dirty haze. I felt the vibrations through the track before I heard the steady pulse of the steam engines. In my slightly inebriated state, it felt monolithic, like civilization itself chugged toward us. One way or another, Quin was right. Things would never be the same. I hurried away from the track to the cover of a nearby tree trunk.

“There,” bellowed Quin. “There.” When I peaked out he wasn’t pointing to the onrushing train, but toward the sky. At the moon.

A hush fell over his small congregation. I reached for my flask.

“What is it?” someone asked. We watched as a growing black corona appeared around the moon like a smudge of night coming back through the morning sky. I got this tingle down my spine, the sensation of someone–something–sneaking up behind me. I turned and saw nothing. I tasted the sweet burn of my rum, drank with my eyes open. Drank while I saw the moon move. Saw it shudder as if from an impact. I didn’t understand any of it, but I knew with all the well-honed instincts that generations of drunkards in my family had passed down to me that it was not a time to be sober.

Putting the flask away, and feeling the effects, I registered another sound. A great horn pounding at my temples, a hollow note over the steady percussion of the rail wheels. “Train,” I said to nobody in particular. By now, I could make out the machine’s other dimensions, could see the trailing length of it as it moved, got a better sense of the sheer weight and speed involved. “Train,” I said, louder.

Quin stood his ground, still staring at the moon. “Are you kidding me?” I asked aloud. That’s how I get with too much drink and in the moment it didn’t seem to matter if anyone noticed. Taking a few long steps forward, I got a profile view. “Are you kidding me?” I repeated. His eyes were closed.

“Quin,” I screamed over the ever increasing noise, the jaw-tightening screech of the brakes. “The train.” But he either couldn’t hear me or he wasn’t listening.

Shoving one of the grovelling disciples aside, I scrambled up the shallow slope to the track and reached for Quin’s sleeve. He turned to me, opening his eyes, and showed me a toothy smile. I know I was still shouting at him but by then I couldn’t hear myself over the screeching brakes. Quin mouthed something back. “Don’t worry,” or, “No hurry,” I couldn’t tell. I pulled and he didn’t move. I pushed and he didn’t move. I aimed a knuckle at his ribs. He flinched, he looked up at the train. He moved.

Lying in the dirt, feeling something sharp digging into the space between my shoulder blades, my eyes tracked the passing cars in dizzying back-and-forth pans. I had to shut them to keep nausea from overwhelming me, but couldn’t block out the shattering din even with my hands clamped over my ears. In that whirling darkness, I had a single image coming in and out of focus, that of a pale face staring out from one of the train’s open windows. A familiar face. A face that had promised me I would never see it again.

Somewhere nearby, Quin had started screaming.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” said Quin.

I finished my flask off. It didn’t help with the sour taste on my lips, nor did it do much to wash away the hard sand coating my tongue. But under the circumstances, I didn’t have much else to do except what came naturally.

“They promised me,” said Quin. “They told me I’d never see him again.”

The face in the window.

“I saw everything else,” said Quin. “I saw all of this.”

Red streaks in the sky, ribbons of fire rolling out over that great canopy. I had my eyes open and knew it wasn’t a dream. I heard soft sobbing from somewhere on my left. The train must have stopped, though I wasn’t about to strain my neck to look for it.

“They told me he was dead,” said Quin, and I heard it. “I can’t do that again, Sennet.” The quiver, the hesitation. The fear. “I can’t lose him a third time.”

I felt a rumble against my spine, something so slight. It spoke of distant power. Wincing, I propped myself up on my elbows, shifted my gaze past the still train, the gleaming tracks, at the horizon they’d come from. Now the terminus of one of the falling fireballs, I saw what I knew had to be the distant capital city of Sloan. Not itself, as its bent spires and mazes of curved roofs were far too distant to see from where we were. But that spot became a singular point of destruction, a slow-motion eruption that reminded me of a flower in bloom. Something that big, there was nobody and nothing walking away from it. In the time it took me to reflexively pull from my already empty flask, Sloan, and everyone who lived there, no longer existed.

“Wow,” I said because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Collapsing back to the ground, I watched more of the missiles soaring past overhead. And the moon itself, or what was left of it, now hanging in the sky like a crude mobile, a half-finished sculpture of what had always been there. Behind that, the huge, dark thing loomed still, now more obvious but no more detailed that before.

“What is that?” I wondered.

“I don’t know,” said Quin.

I must have drifted off as the next thing I knew, Gowan’s pointy face hovered over me and I felt something smooth and hard pressed against my forehead. My eyes crossed as I tried to focus on the barrel of his rifle. “Really?”

“Get up,” snarled Gowan, pressing the rifle down harder so that I couldn’t move at all.

“Where’s Quin?” I asked.

“The train,” said Gowan. “This is your fault. Get up.”

“How about you ease off, then, kid?” He did, and I pushed myself to my feet so he could jab the rifle into my back instead.

There were smaller metallic objects in the sky now, amongst the rain of fireballs. They moved like flies, flitting back and forth with clear purpose. As I watched, one veered off from its formation, soaring down and banking toward us. I heard a whine coming on the wind, the sound of ten million wasps buzzing in our direction.

“Shit,” said Gowan. “What the fuck is that thing?”

The thing came straight at us like a poorly-thrown dart, hitting the ground behind the train, skipping up and flipping through the air before smashing into the locomotive and sliding to a stop against a desiccated tree. The locomotive flew off the tracks as if kicked by a giant foot, twisting the train along with it. It tumbled a few times and exploded as the engine ruptured.

“Quin,” I said, taking a step and running into Gowan’s rifle. Around us, the disciples began to wail. “Get that thing out of my face.”

“No,” said Gowan. “You’re not going anywhere until you tell me what happened.”

“That happened, you moron,” I said, pointing up at the broken moon. “And unless you think my bad attitude did that, how is this anything to do with me?”

Lowering the rifle from my face to my stomach, Gowan said, “But she’s in Sloan. She’s waiting for me there.”

I wanted to say something, but the name that slipped out wasn’t Gowan’s on-and-off sweetheart that he’d pined for so often in my bar. “Durand,” I said, and ran–well, stumbled–toward the twisted wreck of the train.

Gowan followed, and we found Quin as he heaved himself through a broken window, a limp form cradled in his arms. He saw me approaching and said, “It’s really him.”

Different uniform, different hair, face smudged with soot and blood, but it was definitely Durand.

“He came back to me.” Quin nearly choked on the words. “The end of the damned world, and here he is.”

His disciples had gathered around us, but kept their distance. They all had the droopy-eyed looks of disappointed dogs. The apocalypse was here, yet they were all still alive. When Quin came near, they gave him extra space, mumbling to themselves as their prophet lay the body of his former lover on the ground.

“Now what?” someone asked.

Straightening, Quin looked them over. He seemed to come to a decision and opened his mouth to speak.

Which is when the crashed object burst open with a hideous crack like a breaking bone and we learned that dropping the moon on us was only the first stage of the apocalypse. What came next soon made me envious of the former citizens of our great cities and their quick deaths.

[Note: If you made it this far, good job. This is another first chapter for an imaginary work, this time thrown together at the last minute to meet the deadline of a small contest. It ain’t much, but I’ve a bit of personal attachment to it now as my life, moods, and thoughts completely changed halfway through writing and it became something I’d not intended by the end. Character-wise, I mean, as the overall plot, such as it is, remains relatively consistent.

If you’re at all curious, this obvious prelude to an alien invasion of some imaginary steam-punkish world would soon centre around the invaders being so beholden to the godlike oders of their worldship’s supercomputers that they’d long ago devolved into Morlock-inpsired cretinous brutes. I don’t know, flipping the premise on the usually superior invaders seemed like a fun idea at the time, and I liked the characters.]

Feel free to comment and critique and like and subscribe and all that fun stuff.

Life in the Legionnaires

The boy died with a scream and Allam knew he had made a mistake. But as he stood by with clenched fists, listening to that final, wordless expulsion flee into the night, he wondered what choice he’d had. Everyone heard the coughing, they all knew what it meant. Right up until he’d watched the trio of Loyal Officers, each decked out in their full battle dress despite the lingering heat, frog-march the kid out of the barracks, Allam entertained the idea that maybe his intervention was saving a life other than his own.

When the Captain himself drew his ceremonial blade, the reality of the situation hit Allam with the scouring force of a sandstorm. He had known from a young age what the Legion did, what it was, had learned the rules firsthand during his perfunctory recruitment phase. In an odd way, the Legion represented a kind of hope for the truly damned. Now, confronted with the consequences of failing that second chance, Allam wondered if there was any truth to it at all.

He felt the eyes of his fellow Legionnaires boring into his back, their silent judgment telling him he had exposed himself. And by doing so, Allam squandered what little planning for getting through this tour he’d actually done.

It was just a cough, the result of spending too much time down here in the Glass Desert. This place got into the lungs, they all knew it. Allam felt it starting in his own chest, the added resistance, the slight shudder of the deeper breaths after a long march. It would get him, too, if he couldn’t find his way back to the cool, clean air of Helmis City before it was too late.

The Captain used a rag torn from the body’s stained robes to wipe the blood away from his black blade. He said nothing, and though Allam couldn’t bring himself to raise his gaze above the old man’s knees, he knew the Captain watched him along with the rest. And damn him for that, thought Allam. He didn’t have to wait until everyone gathered for the evening’s motivational sermon before acting, he didn’t have to make a spectacle of it.

What would happen to Allam when his own cough left the same freckles of blood in the palm of his hand? Who would rat him out? As it was now, who wouldn’t? How could he keep his head down when he was busy looking over his own shoulder? Prying his eyes away from where the kid’s skeletal body slumped to the smooth, hard ground, Allam found the distant glow of Helmis City hanging in the dark sky above them. They hadn’t even escaped the sight of the place yet and things were already falling apart.

I really am going to die down here, thought Allam.

“A dignified death,” said the Chaplain, the words too loud for the vast and brittle silence that had come over the camp. After a long exhalation, he continued at a lower volume. “The boy retained his essential humanity, and can be proud of that.

“He had a name,” muttered one of the Legionnaires.

Something small and soft hit Allam in the back. He did not reach for it. It wasn’t the first time he’d been spat upon and he expected that was the least of what he had coming to him now. Watching the Captain’s face, Allam tried to spot a reaction. For a moment, he thought he caught a slight head movement, maybe a nod, but the craggy features never changed and Allam couldn’t be sure it was anything more than shadows dancing in the firelight.

“We all have a choice,” said the Chaplain. “Because the options are not pleasant does not change that. Really, those are the most important choices we can make, yes? Think about that tonight. Reflect on your own nature as human beings–our own nature, for we are still one and the same. Your own ability to make choices. Free will is what separates us from them.” The Chaplain shook his head, “No bad thing happened here.”

During the customary response period, Allam heard a few of the men behind him whispered to each other. Their words were unintelligible but clear enough in intent to start a cold sweat on the back of his neck. No bad thing had happened here yet, he amended. There was still the rest of the night for him to get through, and there were fates worse than death. That was the point of the Legion, after all.

“I take your silence as agreement,” said the Chaplain at last. “Go now, and continue to strive for the better tomorrow.”

“The better tomorrow,” repeated Allam and the other Legionnaires.

The men began to drift away. Still used to city crowds and enclosed spaces, Allam’s instincts told him he needed to blend in, let the human tide carry him along to the safety of anonymity. But besides the low, twisted shell of a building that served as the camp’s overnight barracks, the same flat, desolate terrain surrounded them in every direction. Beyond that, the black ring of night waiting at the firelight’s edge, serving better than any cage at keeping him trapped. There was no escape route in that darkness. Even if he did get away, did survive until morning, and the morning after that, he couldn’t go back home, back to Helmis City. Not as a deserter.

“Good to know some of us can still keep our heads up,” said the Chaplain as he came up beside Allam., who found himself staring at that distant light again.

Seeing the slight smile on the younger man’s lips, Allam shrugged. “There’s not much else to look at.”

“No, I suppose there isn’t.” The Chaplain chuckled. “Tell me what you see, Legionnaire.”

A falling star temporarily frozen in its death plummet, thought Allam. He said, “My better tomorrow.”

“No doubt,” said the Chaplain. “You’ve proved your devotion, Legionnaire. The others will realize that as well, in time.”

“In time for what?” Allam asked, unable to keep a bitter tinge out of his words.

“It’s as bad as all that?” The Chaplain shrugged. “You underestimate the resolve of your comrades. Do you think this is the first Blighted body they have seen?”

Allam looked away and watched a pair of men roll the kid’s body onto a cot. “No,” he said. “But it would be mine.” He frowned. Why had he said that?

“Ah,” said the Chaplain. “That abiding doubt, yes?” Before Allam could reply, the Chaplain called out to the men carrying the body, gesturing for them to bring it closer.

“Sir?” one of the men asked.

“You are taking the body to the burial pit, yes?” asked the Chaplain.

“Yes, sir,” said the man.

“Good,” said the Chaplain. “But would you mind if we inspected it first? Legionnaire Allam would like to make sure, and so would I. That’s only sensible, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes, sir,” said the man while he offered Allam a flat expression. His partner muttered something under his breath as well, but Allam didn’t catch it.

Taking out his own black knife, smaller than the Captain’s but as razor sharp, the Chaplain slashed lightly across the kid’s chest, cutting a neat line through the robes from hip to shoulder. “Would you please do the honours?” he asked Allam.

Hesitating only a moment under the glare of the Legionnaires, Allam reached down to pull the fabric away and reveal the kid’s bare chest. Then he nearly fell over in his reflexive need to put distance between himself and what he saw.

The pallbearers sniggered while the Chaplain clucked. “Do you see now?” he asked.

The Chaplain’s blade left a shallow, bloodless line across the pink torso, and almost parallel to that ran a much deeper cut, a valley of open flesh that split the rib cage. A smell of rotting, festering flesh hit Allam’s nose and he knew that second wound was days, if not weeks, old. An injury like that should have been fatal, yet, aside from the coughing, the kid has shown no signs of even minor pain.

“Self-inflicted, as you know,” said the Chaplain.

Inside the thick walls of brown bone and muscle were rows of small protuberances, stubby grey and yellow things shorter than a thumb. Allam imagined them closing up the chest cavity, knitting together like soft teeth as they held the kid together from the inside. Like everyone else, he’d grown up with the stories of the Blight, of the monsters it created. But he had never seen someone so far gone, not even in the sunless guts of Helmis City.

“The price one pays,” said the Chaplain. “The reason he had to die. Proof enough, Legionnaire?”

A few of the small things moved, limp convulsions as they died with their host. Allam turned away, the back of his throat burning with the taste of bile.

“Get yourself a good eyeful,” said the lead pallbearer.

Allam said nothing.

“You may go about your business, Legionnaires,” said the Chaplain and the men took the body away.

It was an odd thing, Allam thought. He’d called the boy out, knew why he’d done it, but confronting the reality didn’t help ease his mind, the tingle of guilt already replaced now by a thudding realization of the situation he was in. The fate he’d been dealt. And the lights of Helmis City kept on shining down at him.

“You think that you were only saving yourself,” said the Chaplain and when Allam still didn’t respond, he continued. “Who is worse, the man who does the wrong thing for the right reasons, or the man who does the right thing for the wrong reasons? Perhaps you will always consider it selfish, but you contributed to the lesser of all possible evils by, as they will inevitably call it, ‘snitching.'”

The Chaplain watched Allam with wide eyes devoid of judgment. An open face, an earnest face. One that wanted him to trust, to confess “He did that to himself?” asked Allam.

“Yes,” said the Chaplain. “It’s the choice everyone inflicted with the Blight comes to in the end. Man wants to survive above all else. We know that. But he is short sighted, and we know that, too. Those little voices, yes? They feed on that insecurity.”

Only the Loyal Officers carried the black blades, with the rank and file Legionnaires issued blunt maces and clubs. Now he understood better why that was, but the Glass Desert did not lack for sharp edges. The image of the boy wandering off during the night to impale himself on one of the crystal dunes filled his mind. Allam shuddered.

“Unable to see the consequences of his own actions–or maybe despite them.” The Chaplain bowed his head. “Confronted with oblivion, he is prone to bargaining with powers that he cannot fathom, let alone control. They only need a way in, you see? Another week and he’d have lost what little humanity he had left to the Blight’s influence. They say it’s like falling into a dream. When it’s that or spitting up chunks of lung under the withering sun, who wouldn’t be tempted?”

Allam tried to think of an answer that didn’t feel like an admission of guilt. Unable to, he shrugged.

“A quick, clean death is all the mercy we have to offer,” the Chaplain said.

Allam said, “They will still hate me for it.”

“You Legionnaires have your own ideals, as you will learn,” said the Chaplain. “A certain pride is necessary, keeps the Legion going, but it is double-edged. Disappearing quietly into the night, sparing your comrades that final, tortuous choice, that is how it’s meant to be done. A communion with your conscience in the wild, a test of the limits of honour. It’s admirable, but flawed. Were the stakes not so great, things might be different.” Turning to look up at Helmis City, the Chaplain said, “Down here, all we have are each other, yes?”

The Chaplain left Allam with an offer to bed down in the officer’s quarters, the only room in the barracks with a lock, if he still feared retaliation. But also reassured him of the unlikelihood of anything more than insults and dirty looks. Though he was a new recruit, Allam was still a Legionnaire.

Stars filled the sky and cold crept up from the hard ground. Allam found a spot on one of the sharp dunes to watch the watchers. He considered that, the way threats were external right up to the point where they weren’t. There were no enemy armies out there, no other civilization for as far as any of them knew. But they still posted sentries every night, still had men straining against the dark, listening for what might lurk outside their tiny blip of humanity. Because they were out there, the Blighted. The ones banished from Helmis City, that impossible choice a birthright handed down from generations lost in the distance of memory.

And now Allam was amongst them, cut off from the only world he’d ever known. His comrades watched the night for him, and he was grateful for that, yet how could he trust them? Trust what hid under their robes?

A low, droning hum filled the camp as the generator crew began to crank up the ancient machinery. Pilot lights appeared on the high wires above the camp, a line of elongated stars running out and over the dunes and out of sight. Allam washed his hands three times then found the Chaplain. The small comfort of a locked door bought him a few hours of restless sleep full of formless shapes whispering from the abyss at the edge of his mind.

Allam woke to a commotion, a frantic energy in the camp that he sensed before he’d dressed. Still pulling his belt into place, he emerged into a day so bright and blue it stung his tired eyes. “What’s going on?” he asked the first man who passed.

Without stopping, the Legionnaire called out, “There was a message last night.” Before Allam could find out more, the man disappeared around a corner and a nearby Loyal Officer began to shout orders at Allam.

Fifteen minutes after rolling out of his cot, Allam took his place in the formation. Breaking the camp down for the day’s march took priority over breakfast, so he and the other Legionnaires chewed dry breakfast rations while the Chaplain gave a hurried morning service.

“We press on for the good of mankind,” called the Chaplain from the rear of the column. “The answer is out there.”

During the response period, news spread through the men. The forward camp, the last emplacement before the ruins, sent word of a siege. “That’s where we’re supposed to be,” said a man in Allam’s row. “We’re the relief force for the garrison there, so no wonder the Captain is so pissed.”

“But why are the Blighted attacking?” asked another Legionnaire.

“Fucked if I know,” said the first man.

“Maybe the Legion found something,” Allam said. Nobody replied.

More shouts. “For the better tomorrow,” they all called back, and then the march began.

They kept a double-time speed all morning and for hours the only sounds were the Legion’s crunching footsteps. Allam concentrated on breathing, on keeping his legs moving, letting his mind wander back, looking for memories of cool breezes from his youth. They didn’t stop the heat from soaking his torso in sweat and left him with the strange feeling of something foreign, as if they had happened to a different person, in a different life.

During the quick stop for lunch, Allam crouched in the shade of a high dune. Another rumour swept through the men as soon as they had breath enough to spare. The boy’s body disappeared during the night. Allam chewed more dried rations and struggled to find a comfortable position, but even with his back pressed against the rigid wall of the dune, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was completely exposed. He wondered if he would ever feel safe again.

[Note: This is a simple story based on a simple prompt and the idea that I might write some first chapters for imaginary books to help break open the dam. It shouldn’t require explanation, but the prompt was to write a story set in a world where magic is considered a congenital disease. And it was fun, which is important.]

As always, questions, comments, and critiques are welcome. And you’re also welcome to explore the prompt on your own terms.

Song (and Story) of the Day – 15/09/2016

I have always avoided silence more than the dark. The spaces I grew up in were safe enough, stable enough, that I knew with the certainty of consistency that nothing lurked in the shadows. There was no fear of the unknown keeping me up at night. The things in my head did that. Consequences of being an introvert, I suppose.

The silence was a void, an endless distance without the friction of distraction to slow my thoughts down, without fences to keep them from escaping. In the silence, my thoughts were not under my control, and they seemed to know it. Unchained, they picked up momentum until they were crashing around my head like a physical force, building and building toward a disorienting crescendo that left me reeling and dizzy.

So I knew what waited for me in the silence, and I looked for a way to keep it away. Continue reading