Saturday, April 15, 2017

Just Another Crucifixion at the Messiah Ward

You're probably going to shrug off the events of yesterday.  I mean, you have every reason to: we crucified another Messiah.

I know!  I don't understand why they keep popping up, either.  It's the definition of insanity, of a whole insane race.  They stubbornly persist in their belief that some day a Messiah will come, and that when they do, their people will be vindicated.  Well, let me tell you some truth: these "Messiahs" will keep appearing, and we will keep crucifying them.  What else are we going to do, right?

I wish I could say that there was some way to differentiate them.  I know their believers certainly believe there is, but damned if I have any way to tell.  But what do I know?  I'm "just" a Roman.  I'm "just" a soldier carrying out another execution.  One in a very, very long line.  You'd think they'd learn.  You'd think they'd care enough about their own lives.  But executions are cheap business.  Line them up all day every day all week long, I say.  It's just a job.  You might consider me a monster, but I say I'm just doing what I'm told.  And what difference does it make, anyway?  They just keep coming, and I just keep crucifying them.

Have you ever seen a crucifixion?  It's grim work, let me tell you.  Not for me.  I've grown desensitized to it.  But to those being crucified?  It isn't pleasant.  It's designed to be unpleasant.  In every sense possible.  It's a long, slow death, and the whole time, you know exactly how it ends.  There are no exceptions.  Ever.  You don't step down from a cross.

Yet they just keep coming.  True, crucifixions can be ordered for any number of offenses.  Insurgency is a good way to earn them.  Rebellion.  The Empire will endure any number of fools.  That's what empires do, after all.  They're designed to withstand chaos.  And the Roman Empire is the greatest agent of order ever conceived.  Before us there was no civilization.  But the best way to earn such a death?  Declare yourself Messiah.

I just don't get it.  I don't even understand the concept.  I admit that.  Supposedly the Messiah was supposed to be a great king.  I haven't seen a great king among those people, ever.  Puppet kings can still be great.  Greatness does not preclude taking direction.  True greatness comes from taking direction, if you ask me.  There was never someone so perfect that they could achieve greatness all on their own. 

Take the latest "Messiah."  He had twelve followers closely associated with him.  Well, eleven.  I'm told one of them betrayed him.  There were scores of others who believed his claims, too, but it was one of his closest followers who turned him in.  Then he was handed over to us, and as I said, there was really only one answer to claims like that.  Messiahs mean insurrection.  Messiahs mean someone truly believes they can supplant the Empire.  Such hubris.  The Empire will endure for a thousand years.  And then another thousand.  And so on.  What could possibly replace it? 

These followers all fled when he was taken, by the way.  Every one of them.  Not a soul of their kind was found at the tribunal.  How's that for support?  These Messiahs all claim the same thing, though, that they don't need help, that they can do it on their own.  That their fate is in their hands.  Funny, I never saw anyone crucify themselves.  I would know.

As I've said: many, many other "Messiahs" have been crucified, and many more will be in the days and years and centuries to come.  It's inevitable.  It would be funny if it weren't so sad.  How does a Messiah die?  Well, let me tell you.  This latest one seemed to endure all of it in silence.  Once or twice he muttered a few things, true.  He seemed anguished one minute, betrayed (well, of course) and then positively exultant the next.  He actually said he forgave us for executing him.  He claimed we had no idea what we were doing.  Yeah, right.

Well, that much made his death unique.  Very few Messiahs are so congenial in their crucifixions.  On a whim, I looked into his life a little.  Seems he made a lot of wild claims, and some of them were actually taken seriously.  So seriously that they asked for volunteers to watch the tomb some rich fool gave him to lie in.  Claimed he was going to be resurrected.  Would you believe that tonight is supposed to be the last night he lies in there dead?


But I took the assignment eagerly, just so I could boast further.  I mean, I've certainly sounded smug about the whole affair already, haven't I?  I'm certainly no believer.  No Roman could be.  This was a provincial matter, a tiny speck in the eye of the universe, if even that.  Barely registered in the grand scheme of things. 

There was some commotion, concerning the moment he died.  Apparently there was some kind of eclipse.  I have to admit that had never happened before during one of these.  And an earthquake.  There was damage to land and property everywhere.  Some of us (I won't name names) freaked out a little, betrayed everything we stand for and started believing.  Ha!  Such nonsense!

As I said, you've seen one dead Messiah, you've seen them all.  This one was whipped like all the rest of them.  Like so many others.  You don't need to be a Messiah to be whipped.  Or to be crucified, as I've said.

There was nothing special about this man.  Let me be clear about that.  He died quickly.  So what?  He babbled to one of the men crucified alongside him something about seeing him again in the afterlife.  Ha!  Romans don't really believe the stuff they say about the afterlife, about the gods.  It's just a good way to maintain order in society, to give it some predictability.  The only thing these guys were going to see after their death was a big black void.  Nothing.  You die, the end.

I found comfort in volunteering to watch the tomb.  It was hotly rumored that some of his followers would attempt to steal the body, to fake the "resurrection."  You don't need a formal execution order on people like that.  They've signed their own death warrant.  They show up and they die at the point of the sword.  Easy as that.

Sure.  You've fallen asleep.  Leaves me alone.  Leaves me to experience...nothing.  Just another night.  Watching the tomb of a "Messiah."  Just another dead body.  Nothing to see here anyway.  They all ran away.  They're not coming back.  They never really believed, either.  Just a way to pass the time, following him around.  Gave meaning to meaningless lives.  Insignificant lives.  They gave themselves temporary significance, is all.

Long night.

And hey, maybe they weren't such cowards after all.  A woman has come.  Rumor has it she's a whore.  If I weren't on duty...Business before pleasure.  Let her be.  All she's going to see is a sealed-off cave.



I didn't hear anything.  That's impossible.


That's impossible.

That's impossible.

It's empty.  It's empty.  I was here the whole time.  It's empty.  How is that possible?

Search the whole...It's empty.  There's no body in there.  No body.  Just burial clothes...folded neatly.  They rolled back the rock, stole the body...folded the burial clothes neatly?  This all sounds insane.  I sound insane...I didn't fall asleep.

I didn't fall asleep!

I'm a dead man.  They're going to assume I fell asleep.  The woman's gone.  I have to get out of here.  I did fall asleep.  I did.  That's the only explanation...They came here after I fell asleep, rolled back the rock, stole the body...folded the burial clothes neatly...

It sounds insane.  I didn't fall asleep.  I know I didn't.  I can account for the whole night.  And there you are, still asleep...

Wake up!  You fool!  You foolish fool!  Idiot!  You've condemned us both!  How can I possibly explain this?  I can't.  I can't.

The body is gone.  Gone.  I have no explanation.

His death was different.  Forget everything else.  Nothing else matters.  I was there.  I've been there for countless crucifixions of Messiahs...whole fields of Messiahs.  So many they contradicted each other.  No one ever even believed any of them.  But someone came back for this one...They believed

What to believe?  How do I reconcile this?  I know how the Empire will.  No formal acknowledgment.  Under any circumstances.  To do otherwise would be impossible.  Incomprehensible.  And those who gave up this man will do the same.  For the same reasons.  They will cling to their faith just as Romans cling to theirs.  Empires depend on it.

This is a contradiction, a paradox.  Completely unprecedented.  What do I do?

What else?  What else can I do?  But...believe?  I saw it.  I was there.  I...

I believe.  I believe.

I believe.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

One Size Fits All

The nessa are on the prowl.  If you’ve never encountered these beasts yourself, be glad.  They’re nasty little creatures, to say the least.  I’ve heard stories of them swallowing humanoids whole.  They could just be stories, but you never know.  Anyway, it’s best to avoid them, except here such a thing is impossible.  You learn to make peace with this quickly, or you meet a bad end.  It’s just that simple.  Which again, because you’re here, such a fate is around every corner.  Still, better to be forewarned, right?

     “Here” is the city of Zulu Kendi, where young Emma Haskell has lived for the past few months.  She’s hated every minute of it, but then she doesn’t have much say in the matter.  She’s seven years old.  Her parents decided to emigrate here because of the turmoil on Earth, still struggling to make sense of life in an intergalactic community.  Emma’s parents chose a strange world to move to, however, because it’s Danab, home of the Danab, most famous on Earth as the enemy in the Danab War.  You see where I’m going with this; the operative term is “enemy.”  Still, hard times make strange bedfellows.

     Emma is braving the nessa because her older brother has gone missing.  She adores her brother, idolizes him even, and has just proven that she will do anything for him.  He’s twelve years old, which for some siblings would be a lifetime’s difference, but as I’ve said, Emma has chosen to view things differently.  Elmer (were she a different sort, Emma would probably spend most of her time making fun of her brother’s name) is such a good student that even when they relocated to Zulu Kendi, where most of the students are typically high-achieving Danab, he still managed to excel, inserting himself effortlessly into the lifeblood of the student body.  Elmer fancies himself a writer, and as such immediately signed up to be a journalist for the school paper.  That’s actually where the trouble began, believe it or not.

     Elmer vehemently disagreed with their parents’ decision to relocate to Danab.  He believed it was essential to remain on Earth and take part in the rebuilding process.  When they talked about it, he told Emma he thought it was probably because their dad was an unrepentant idealist, who argued throughout the war for peace, and who no doubt thought bringing his family to Danab would be a gesture of reconciliation between their two peoples.  It’s not that Elmer is racist (Danab are in fact human, taken by the Tikanni in ancient times into space on some wild scheme no one yet comprehends), but that he’s kind of an Earth-first proponent.  Secretly Emma still thinks that makes him racist, but she never felt like arguing the point.  At any rate, their family was hardly alone.  In Zulu Kendi, which like every city on Danab looks like a large cluster of military barracks, there’s a growing population of humans, all of them struggling to adapt to their new life, in the hopes of sharing in the general prosperity of the Danab, a generally far superior culture, at least as most people describe it.  Emma has never been sure about that.  She sees a lot of value in the books she borrows from her brother’s library.

     The problem is, Elmer took his position at the paper to mean something different than what the editorial staff might have expected of it.  They had tasked him with representing the human perspective in an opinion column, but instead he took a more investigative tack.  He became more and more secretive as the weeks went by, until Emma had to beg him for even a hint of what he was up to.  “Ghosts,” he would tell her with a mischievous grin.  “Ghosts and goblins.”  She wasn’t sure if that was a symptom of his personality, or that he might be cracking under the pressure of life in his unwanted new home, but she had already resolved to stand by him, right up until the moment he disappeared.  That had been days ago.

     Officials had come by the Haskell residence, a cramped flat in a tall building like everyone else’s, telling Emma’s parents something she couldn’t quite overhear.  She’d been told to wait in her room.  After the officials left, she’d been told not to worry, that everything would be fine.  Her father always looked on the bright side, and her mother supported him; it was that simple.  Emma didn’t for a minute rest that easy.  She disagreed with her brother about how to accept their situation, certainly.  Even at her age she already understood calm resignation, whereas Elmer frequently exhibited flashes of a temper that was always threatening to get out of control.  Still, she couldn’t just sit there and do nothing.

     That was why she snuck out one night and went in search of the one friend she’d managed to make since they came here, a funny little boy named Fax.  Fax was a Puck, a species generally considered spineless, less interested in exerting themselves and more in assimilating whatever cultures they happened to come across, so obsessively they seemed to lose their own identity in the process.  Puck had bug-eyes and pale skin, which to humans could appear disconcerting, giving them an almost pleading, wounded puppy look.  The Haskell family used to have a dog, but dogs weren’t allowed on Danab, something about environmental contamination.  (As far as Emma could tell, the Danab themselves had no pets.) 

     As usual, she finds him loitering in the exercise field, watching as Danab athletes (which describes all of them) practice various physical-contact sports, with a few enterprising humans in the mix.  Fax never plays; he’s too frail for something like that.  As usual, he has a book with him, a personality quirk that had first led Emma to introduce herself to him, a common interest that allowed her to indulge her curiosity.  On Earth, in her small Maine hometown, there were few enough aliens running about, and none Emma had ever met personally, certainly not at school.  “Welcome to Voodoo Kendi,” he’d said at the time, a pathetic grin plastered across his face.  “I’m sorry,” she’d replied, “I thought it was Zulu Kendi?”  “Oh it is,” he’d said, “but some of the locals like to call it Voodoo Kendi.  The humans, anyway.  My name’s Fax.  I’m a Puck.”  They’d become fast friends.

     The book Fax has with him this time is one of the mysteries he loves so much, a Florian Linden, something Emma had introduced to him, obscure enough on Earth that even the Puck wouldn’t have heard of it, no matter how much scouring they’d done of human culture.  She doesn’t have much time for it, but her mother had enjoyed the books, and always has them around.  The one Fax has now isn’t one of theirs, but rather something he must have found on his own.  It’s exactly this trait that Emma now hopes to exploit.

     “My brother’s in trouble,” she says without preamble.  Puck tend to be impatient, so it’s something Fax will understand.

     “The ghost story,” Fax says knowingly.

     “Don’t call it that,” Emma says.  “This is serious.  He could be in real trouble.”

     “We’re all in trouble here in Voodoo Kendi,” says Fax.  He’s learned to grin with more authenticity.  Puck don’t usually grin.  It’s something he’s taken up to try and impress Emma.

     “Stop calling it that!” Emma nearly yelps.  She finds him endearingly exasperating.  Many of the things they say to each other are somewhat ritualistic, as with any friendship.  She doesn’t really mean to scold him, and she hopes he understands.  Thanks to him, she feels much older than seven.  She’s spent a lot of time trying to decide if he’s seven, too, or just looks it.  “You need to put your helmet back on, Fax.”

     At this point it should be noted that the Danab, and everyone who comes here to live, wear battle helmets all day long.  Even the children are required to wear them.  Emma thinks they’re horrifying; the tops of them have what someone being generous might call a crown, but she’s always considered horns.  They cover the entire head, and when she wears it, outside of her home, she feels like a monster.  Fax calls her “the Princess of Voodoo Kendi,” which is one of the many endearing things he does, and it at least makes her feel better about it.  However, he always slips his off, even knowing the regulations aren’t above going one step above reprimanding him for doing so.  They’ve speculated what “one step above” means, whether it means prison, or worse.  Fax always insists the Danab would go easy on immigrants, but Emma isn’t so sure.  If anything, she fears they’ll be worse, which is her brother speaking, and she knows it.

     “It itches,” he says, unconvincingly, for the hundredth time.

     “Put it on,” she insists, for the hundredth time.

     “Sure thing, your majesty,” he says, for the hundredth time.  Emma only just notices that he’d been sitting on his helmet.  With all those spikes, she can only imagine how.  She wonders, not for the first time, how horrible she looks in hers. 

     “Ready to play football!” he laughs as he slips it on, which is another thing frequently uttered between them.  The Puck have no concept of football, and would never be able to play it even if they did.  The old human game’s too gentle a sport for the Danab, so he’s not likely to see it played in Zulu Kendi, either. 

     “Okay, down to business,” Emma says.  “Tell me what you really think.  No more joking around.  Should I really be worrying?”

     They both take a moment to witness a vicious takedown between two Danab players.  Neither has a clue what’s actually getting played.  Neither player’s helmet falls off, at any rate.  Emma reflects for the hundredth time that she’ll never get used to these Danab helmets, no matter how ubiquitous they are.  She wonders if she would even be able to identify her brother if she saw him, which she supposes is half the point.  She adjusts hers again.  She can barely see out of it.

     “You worry about everything,” Fax says.  “That’s one of the things I like about you!  Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re very human that way.”

     The only response she can think to make to that is a curtsy.  She imagines that she looks stupid, or very grave, like any Danab. 

     “It’s not uncommon for this sort of thing to happen,” Fax continues.  “I’ve been here longer, remember?  I know these things.”

     “That’s not very reassuring, though,” Emma says.  They watch as the Danab who was crushed into the ground gets back up, without a helping hand from his opponent.  No one else is paying them the slightest attention.  “I’m just so lost, Fax,” she finally admits.  For once she’s grateful to have the helmet.  It hides her tears very well.  “I don’t know what to do.”

     “Do what I do,” Fax says.

     “That is literally the least helpful thing I’ve ever heard,” she says.

     “I bet your brother says that all the time,” Fax says. 

     What might otherwise have come off as an insensitive comment actually helps relieve the tension they’re both feeling.  They’re seven, after all, one of those ideal ages.  All things are possible, in ways that might never happen again.

     “Prowl the streets, Emma,” Fax says.  “That’s what I do.  That’s what all Puck do.  We’re constantly absorbing information.  Most of the time it seems pretty useless, I know.  But sometimes you learn things.”

     “What about the nessa?” 

     “Oh, right!”


Somehow they still go through with Fax’s idea.  They can hear the snarls all around them, and Emma has to stop herself from snatching Fax’s hand, fearing that if she did she might crush it.  She has to be brave.  Her brother is no doubt depending on her.  They’re headed in the direction of the Zulu Kendi security checkpoint.  The Danab take security very seriously.  There’s a reason why the war never reached here.  As always, it gets hot under the helmet.  Since neither of them has ever needed, or wanted, to go to the security checkpoint, they don’t really know where it is.  Emma’s mind begins to wander.  What if the Danab consider the nessa to be pets?  What would that say about them?  She’s never seen a nessa, only heard the stories about them.  Danab schoolbooks surprisingly talk very little about wildlife.  Most of this world seems to have been developed into the kind of city that leaves very little of nature left to it.  Certainly there are no parks.  The exercise field doesn’t have grass.  Emma hasn’t seen grass, or a single tree, since she’s gotten here.  Strangely, there are flowers sprouting in odd locations.  Her mother used to be a botanist.  She still keeps a vase on the dining room table, which if their home were inspected would probably be considered a violation. 

     “Tell me a story,” Emma says, her nerves starting to get the best of her.  Howls echo through the air. 

     “I couldn’t do that,” Fax says.  “I’m not any good at storytelling.”

     “What’s the point of collecting cultures if you can’t tell stories about them?” Emma says.

     “I didn’t say no Puck at all could tell stories,” Fax says.  “Just me.  That’s not the way my brain works, I think.”

     “It would have been helpful,” Emma says, after a moment.  Every street looks exactly the same.  The Danab don’t value architecture, or at least the art of it.  Everything is made to follow a single aesthetic: to be imposing.  Emma definitely feels imposed.  Then she sees her first nessa. 

     She could feel their presence all around them the whole time they’ve been walking (slinking around like cowards, she’d call it), but it’s one thing to know they’re there, and another to finally see one.  They’re deceptively small.  They even look completely harmless.  The nessa are hairless, it turns out.  They look not unlike cats.  Then she sees it open its mouth, and two jagged rows of fangs reveal themselves.  If it were a cat, there were only be a few fangs, but this is a mouth full of fangs, no doubt about it.  Then she realizes another key difference between nessa and cats: Emma has just looked at the paws, and saw that the claws are longer and sharper, too, and they are no doubt permanently extended.  So: a nightmare after all!  These can’t possibly be pets, not even for the Danab!

     She slowly slinks away, realizing that she’s inching behind Fax, and all at once Emma feels miserably guilty.  Little human girl that she is, she’s still more capable of defending them than a frail Puck boy, who might as well be made of wind right now.  She screws up her courage, slips off the helmet, and then lets loose a mighty scream.  It’s the only action that comes to mind, but incredibly, it works.  The nessa stalks away, licking its chops suggestively. 

     A hand immediately clamps itself down on her shoulder, and Emma jumps.  She slowly turns around and sees the imposing figure of a Danab security officer.  The hand digs into her, and she becomes aware that the officer would like her, and Fax, to follow him.  After a short, almost embarrassingly short walk, they’ve arrived at the security checkpoint.

     For several silent moments, after the officer has let go of her, Emma and Fox are made to stand (not sit!) nervously as they await whatever verdict for their unauthorized activities they’re about to get.  Finally, the officer turns back to them, and hands Emma’s helmet back to her.  “One size fits all, young lady,” he says, his tone mirthless.  “Try not to lose it.”

     She hadn’t even realized that she’d lost it.  Everything happened in an instant.  Emma blinks back her confusion.  “I was looking for my brother,” she stammers.  “Elmer Haskell.  Twelve-year-old human male.  Was looking for ghosts,” she adds, stupidly. 

     “We know all about Elmer Haskell,” the officer says, his tone remaining neutral, dull, somehow threatening (but that could just be her imagination).  “We found him, too, wandering the streets.  He’d been bitten.  He wasn’t as lucky, or resourceful, as you.  Lost quite a bit of blood, according to the medical reports.  He’s fine.  He’ll be returned home shortly.”

     “You could’ve just told us!” she finds herself shouting.  “You don’t have to be so cruel!”

     “Cruel?” the officer says.  “Sorry, allow me to introduce myself: Truant Officer Antenor.  We find a lot more strays these days,” he adds to no one in particular.  “I wonder if you even asked your parents about your brother’s whereabouts?  Sometimes the answers we seek aren’t so mysterious, young lady.”

     “Told you,” Fax whispers in her ear.

     “You did no such thing!” Emma says, shouting again, for reasons that are now beyond her, possibly for consistency’s sake.

     “Run along,” Truant Officer Antenor says.  “Try to be careful.  Try to convince your brother that we aren’t the enemy, when he returns.  And tell him ghosts aren’t real, on this or any other world.”

     Emma and Fox are already trotting out the door when the Puck, again whispering, says, “That’s not true.  I can think of a dozen worlds off the top of my head!”

     “Good for you,” Emma says.  She’s crying again, but it’s okay, since she’s also slipped her helmet back on in the meantime.  “Do you think that man was right?  Was my brother wrong?”

     “War isn’t the only thing that makes enemies,” Fax says.  “We can do it in peacetime, too.  How do you think wars happen?”

     “It was totally unprovoked,” Emma says, almost in a whisper.

     “Maybe,” Fax says.  It’s the most thoughtful she’s ever seen him.  She takes little comfort in it.

     When they reach the exercise field again, Fax begs off, claiming there was a game he wanted to watch, but Emma knows he’s hopeless with sports even as a spectator.  It’s just not something he understands.  She doesn’t protest.  Instead she finishes the walk as she began it, alone, and spends the rest of it lost in thought.  Such things don’t normally come easy to seven-year-olds, you understand.  The world is supposed to be uncomplicated, for the last time, at that age; innocent.  Right? 

     Later, when her brother at last shows up, Emma throws her arms around him in the warmest hug she’s ever given.  Things are changing.  They changed years ago, but she’s only now starting to catch up.  Suddenly it doesn’t matter what Elmer believes, but she’ll still love him anyway.  In the distance, she hears nessas, but for the first time she doesn’t even flinch.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

My Favorite Thing, Part 2

For several years, but what seemed like many more, the girl, who had once been a princess, in another lifetime, existed on the frozen planet that as far as she knew never even had an official designation.  It was at the farthest reach of the galaxy, and so she'd taken to calling it Galaxy's End.  Astrid's only companion in all that time was an android, Etienne, who seemed to have lost his mind.  Constantly, he babbled.  She thought he was stuck in some nervous condition.  He always seemed to be trying to process some unknown algorithm in the circuits that made up his brain. 

Once, they stumbled upon an old man named Ledger, whom Astrid immediately recognized as the mentor of her arch-nemesis, Mogor, whose pursuit of her had led Astrid to the bleak landscape of Galaxy's End.  Etienne claimed not to know him, but the old man's behavior betrayed otherwise.  Ledger explained that he had been banished there for practicing the dark arts, and Astrid knew that he was telling the truth, at least to a certain extent.  The truth was that he and Mogor had had a falling out.  She considered them within the same breath, and as soon as possible, she left his makeshift workshop, and journeyed with Etienne back to her crashed ship.

Ledger's workshop, it should be noted, had been modified from the remains of another ship, probably his own.  Astrid had not failed to observe this.  She had also noticed the prototype androids tucked away in dark corners.  She began to suspect the truth of Etienne's existence, even if the android himself remained oblivious, chattering away about utter nonsense.  Most people would have found him very difficult to take seriously.  Astrid was in a unique position.  He was her only company, and in the beginning, that had been enough.

There was no way Ledger could know who she was, how she had run afoul of Mogor's dictatorial grip on Brinier, a world that had once been a vibrant utopia, or at least as her contemporaries now viewed it, in comparison.  This was where Ledger had learned his arts, presumably at the behest of Mogor, who was otherwise powerless, dependent on the large retinue of experts who surrounded him.  If Ledger had agreed to cooperate with Mogor, that would surely have been the end of them all. 

In a way, Astrid's defiance had been much the same.  She was the last of the royal family that had preceded Mogor's reign of terror.  She had known Ledger in earlier days.  He had served in her mother's court, until the day his son died, a youth named Aldan.  After that he completely fell apart, and turned his interests in new and perilous directions, in the hopes of resurrecting him.

Here on Galaxy's End, he seemed to have succeeded.  He had no doubt been here before.  Etienne remembered, the one lucid thought he continuously returned to, Ledger's second landing, which her own had so vividly echoed in his addled mind.  He had always claimed to remember a time when his circuits processed things more clearly, but never well enough to identify his own origins.  Clearly that had been a deliberate move.  In the end, Ledger couldn't bring himself to confront what had happened after all, much less meet his son all over again. 

Somewhere in Etienne's circuits were the memories of Ledger's son, Aldan.  Astrid's arrival had forced their resurfacing, and then a short circuit.

She'd puzzled out all of this over time.  Time was all she had, after all.  Etienne helped her survive, not the least because of the company he provided, but because he helped repair her ship, as much as possible, over time.  The problem that loomed over them all was the prospect of Mogor discovering they all still existed, here on Galaxy's End. 

Astrid decided that this was a possibility entirely out of her control.  She instead chose to reunite father and son.  Returning to Ledger's workshop was the most difficult thing she ever did, no doubt because of certain charms he'd put in place, as it didn't appear to be in the same place she and Etienne had originally found it.  With Etienne's help, naturally, they succeeded. 

Ledger was livid.  This time he offered no pretense of ignorance, and instantly Astrid knew she'd been right.  "How dare you," he shouted, not at her, as she might have expected, but Etienne.  He had come to blame his son after all.  It was a simple coping mechanism.  Or he'd simply gone crazy after all these years.

Astrid refused to give up.  "He deserves better than that and you know it," she said.

Ledger stared at them for an interminable amount of time.  Etienne remained oblivious.  "Excuse me," he said, "but I believe we have come quite a considerable distance.  It would only be fair to treat us better than that, as a host."

Completely clueless, as always.  "What my friend means to say is," Astrid found herself interjecting, "we just want to say how much we appreciate what you've been doing."

"Excuse me?" Ledger replied, incredulous.

"The charms," Astrid said.  "I just realized it isn't just your workshop you've been shielding, but this entire planet.  Whatever else you may be thinking, we appreciate that.  All of us."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Ledger said.

"The man I knew would have been dead decades ago," Astrid continued, ignoring the old man's protests.  "You were already old when I last saw you.  Frail.  You know who I am.  Let's just put everything on the table.  I'm not asking for anything more.  I'm not asking you to forgive anyone, least of all yourself.  You know what you've done, what you could've done.  All of it.  You owe Etienne better than you've given him, and you know it."

For a moment, after silence once again consumed the workshop, Astrid thought she had pushed things too far.  Then Ledger pushed her aside, and grabbed Etienne in an embrace.  He began to cry.  "My favorite thing," he muttered.  "My very favorite thing."

Then he seemed to have pressed a button, because Etienne jerked a little, and then went limp.  Ledger had turned the android off.

"It's for the best," the old man said.  Astrid thought for a moment, and then she decided she agreed.  "I'll try again," Ledger continued.  "Some day.  Not tomorrow."

The android collapsed into a heap.  Astrid thought she'd be horrified, seeing Etienne like that, but it actually came as a kind of relief.  Somehow she knew it would end like this.  Some day, he would be switched back on, but his mind would be different.  In another body, probably.  But he would be the same, wouldn't he? 

That's what she chose to believe, as she made her way back across the frost, to her ship, the one Etienne had repaired long ago, made it flightworthy again, and blasted off, gone from Galaxy's End at last. 

Ledger's charm wouldn't be broken that easily.  She was free to go anywhere.  Mogor's reign would end, and maybe she would play a part in that.  All things seemed possible.

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Many Lives of Oliver Row (Monster/Frankenstein) Chapter 3

The one consistent element of the books that somehow changed their content every time he read them, Henry realized in the dead of night, when he had been struggling to find sleep, tossing for hours (it seemed to little avail), was the presence of the name Oliver Row.  This was impossible, or at the least highly improbable, because Henry happened to know a man named Oliver Row, and as a quick Google search confirmed, Oliver Row is not a common name now, and so to have found another man called that, two hundred years ago, at the time Victor Frankenstein was writing these elusive journals...

He poured over the books again, at random, just to be sure, so that it couldn't be dismissed as the trick of an overly tired mind.  And yet there he was, in a thousand references, sometimes in a kind of conspiratorial role, sometimes offhand, sometimes as the main thrust of whole paragraphs, as if he'd stolen the focus of someone else's narrative.  He was always there, and his presence alone wasn't the sole continuing element, but how it was represented, again and again, shifting from book to book, to be sure, so that passages were the same but found in different places.  It was deeply unsettling, to say the least.  Everything else changed, even the general thrust of what Frankenstein was trying to say, to accomplish, the experiments he wished to perform.

He was forced to consider something truly outrageous, that the man he knew was the same man his ancestor wrote about, and if he was going to get to the bottom of this, Oliver Row was going to have to tell him personally.  Henry couldn't bring himself to breach the topic with Sabin, whom he rarely saw these days, occupying the same spectral aspect his employer had occupied in the days before they finally met.

Of course, there was a problem with this conclusion as well: Henry hadn't actually seen Oliver in more than a decade.  In fact, he couldn't even be sure they were still friends.  Oliver was the kind of man who lost and gained friends easily, as if it were a sport.  When Henry first met him, Oliver complained about losing his previous circle of friends, feeling incredibly isolated, and yet the one thing Henry knew best about him was that Oliver was so desperate that he made it incredibly easy to alienate those around him, a classic vicious circle if there ever was one.  In these days of social media, it would be easier than ever before to reconnect with Oliver, but the trick of social media is that it makes friendships more superficial than ever.  Even if he were successful, it would be incredibly unlikely for Oliver to be particularly forthcoming about anything, much less dark secrets of the past.

Still, Henry made the effort.  He was what he still considered a relatively young man, in his thirties, an age when people are still capable, or so he hoped, of establishing themselves with the prospect of many productive years ahead.  He was innocent and na├»ve, obviously.  He waited around for minutes and then hours and then days, and finally Oliver replied with a flippant response, something designed to evoke their past relationship but brook no further conversation, nothing meaningful, at least.  So Henry became desperate.  He went to Sabin and told him what he'd discovered.

At first, the large man, whose features seemed to have been borrowed from someone else's body, only frowned at Henry.  Then he let loose a belly laugh, the first time Henry had seen any form of merriment from him.  It reminded Henry that everyone called Sabin the Monster.  Everyone seemed to have a different reason.  Henry's was beginning to be that Sabin never took the human element into account, which is to say he lacked any visible form of empathy, which is common enough among people, but not to the extent Henry had observed in Sabin. 

"You have no idea, even now," Sabin finally said, after regaining control of himself.  "You don't know what you've gotten yourself into.  You still haven't guessed.  Very well.  Oliver Row is not a single person but many persons.  There have been many people who answered to the name over the years.  The reasons are no longer important.  The man you call your friend is no doubt the current incarnation, assuming he hasn't already been replaced.  It's a dangerous occupation, being Oliver Row."

This didn't really clarify anything for Henry.  He said as much.  Sabin scoffed at him, and then said, "You poor miserable idiot.  Finish your genealogy.  Then try mine."

With that, he walked away, not even bothering to exchange pleasantries, which for him was perfectly normal.  Henry wondered if there would be an end to this. 

At this point, you'll no doubt have guessed that in this strange world where Victor Frankenstein was a real person and not a fictional character, where a man named Henry Grenoville was his descendant and still had no idea what the doctor had accomplished two hundred years earlier...Sabin was the Monster.  Pop culture has forgotten, because of the classic horror movies, that the Monster was not only intelligent, but exceptionally so.  His unnatural life put him in a curious position, which he chose to exploit near the fringes of society, in the most mundane way possible: at a university, where he gained tenure long outside the memories, as I've said, of the current faculty. 

What Henry doesn't know is that Sabin is about to lose his tenure, because his department is being eliminated.  What he's about to find out is that his friend Oliver Row, who has indeed been replaced since he last saw him, who in fact is Olivia Row now, has been hunting the Monster for two hundred years, at the behest of Victor Frankenstein himself.  How they put the charm on Frankenstein's books is a story for another time. 

When Henry returned to his research, trying to find something he'd overlooked, Olivia became alerted to his work.  The irony about Olivia Row is that she's dying, a tumor choking the life out of her brain a little bit at a time.  To know her is to have experienced her seizures, at which time she is totally incapacitated, but otherwise she's perfectly formidable, thank you.  Her wits work perfectly well, while they still exist, while she still exists.

Henry believes no one knows what he's been doing, but that isn't the case.  He thinks he shouldn't be paranoid, but he should.  Olivia is about to set a trap for him: the honey trap.  It's the best con in history, the one that caught Victor Frankenstein, too (history is always repeating itself).  Olivia should know.  She was there, after a fashion, right?

Friday, August 12, 2016

St. John Talbot Meets Sybok's Brother, Spock

“It’s been a long time,” St. John Talbot says.  He grins as he says this, for reasons his visitor can’t possibly appreciate.  In fact it’s only been a few weeks since they last saw each other.  St. John has been trying to pick up the pieces here in Paradise City, getting the replacement delegates up to speed, and himself at the same time.  Moztar, the Klingon representative, is here only for the short-term, and he’s made sure everyone knows that.  His Romulan counterpart, Tavol, hasn’t exactly been forthcoming, but in St. John’s experience, that’s perfectly typical for Romulans, and so he’s okay with that, for now.

“I admit, I am intrigued,” says Mr. Spock.  “I was curious about the nature of Nimbus III.  I had not had the opportunity to speak with my father about it before I came here.  As I understand it, he was involved in the original negotiations that made it possible.”
“Sarek has been involved in all the negotiations I have ever been a part of,” St. John says.  “Can I offer you a drink?  I’m afraid the bar hasn’t reopened yet.”
“No, thank you,” says Mr. Spock.  “My father has indeed kept himself busy over the years.  I hope his presence has not caused you discomfort.  I know it is the human predilection to receive credit for your efforts; that is, for those who have not been canonized.  I assume it may be different with you.  I offer my apologies if I have offended you.”
“Not at all,” says St. John.  “The truth is, I never got the handle of being a saint.  Until me, none had ever lived to be christened in their lifetime.  Such are the times.  I always appreciated Sarek’s presence.  You could say he was my inspiration.  What is a good Catholic but a poor Vulcan?”
“I offer no thoughts on the matter,” says Mr. Spock.  “As I indicated earlier, I do not wish to offend.”
“You couldn’t possibly, my friend,” says St. John.  “I asked you here because the matter with your late brother still troubles me.  It keeps me up at night.  Sybok had a curious way of breaching insecurities.  He claimed he was only trying to strengthen people, but his were predatory motives.  I never met a Vulcan like him.  I never even thought the like existed.  The whole thing baffles me.”
“Indeed, as it does for a great many others,” says Mr. Spock.  “Federal scholars will be fielding these events for some time to come.  I knew my brother from when we were young men, and I still fail to comprehend him.  His was always the questioning mind.  It is often a mistake among outsiders to believe all Vulcans analyze the whole world around them.  Yet with the discipline of logic comes a need for focus, and so we are taught at an early age to limit ourselves, for the benefit of the whole, so that the few will always count for something, because the many are made up of the few.  I understand that this may be confusing.  It was the very principal humans embraced when they conceived of the Federation, perhaps the first concept they found in common with us.”
“That’s the idea behind this planet as well,” says St. John.  “The unique challenge is, we try to reconcile active differences rather than passive similarities.  That’s the only way someone like Sybok could have so easily manipulated our citizens…including me.  We’re lost souls.  Damaged.  We’re here because we’re looking for answers.  Someone comes here and claims God spoke to him, we tend to listen.  Personally, I have always had an affinity for the divine, something bigger than comprehension.  It’s what made me an ideal candidate for the diplomatic corps, negotiations with Klingons when everyone thought it was a waste of time…But it also makes me vulnerable.”
“My brother merely exploited weakness,” says Mr. Spock.  “Everyone has limitations.  It’s the very flower of our yearning.  It’s not something to be ashamed of.  I, too, was swayed by him, for a time.  As a child of two cultures, I have often been torn between impulses.  So, too, was my father.  It has made him the ambassador he is today, and it has also compromised his role as a father.  It is always harder to be objective at home.”
“That may be the weakness of this concept,” says St. John.  “Perhaps we were always asking too much.”
“I would not give up on Paradise City too quickly,” says Mr. Spock.  “There is a time for everything, but not all things are appropriate for their time.  Your work here is important, no matter how difficult it may be for others to appreciate it.  Mistakes are a part of every process.”
“I appreciate your faith in me,” says St. John.
“Was that a joke?” says Mr. Spock.
“Not that I’m aware of,” says St. John.  He can’t help but grin again.  “Say hello to Jim for me.”
“That I will do,” says Mr. Spock.
“And Dr. McCoy,” says St. John.  “I always thought he and I could have some interesting conversations.”
“That is most likely a certainty,” says Mr. Spock.  “I will endeavor to prevent such calamities from occurring.”
“Now that was a joke,” says St. John.
“Was it?” says Mr. Spock, raising an eyebrow.
“Live long and prosper,” says St. John.
“You as well,” says Mr. Spock.
When his visitor departs, St. John has himself a good laugh.  It feels good.  There was a time he took himself too seriously, but he decided that he could let others worry about such things, and he could simply go about his business.  Wasn’t that what Cochrane decided, all those years ago?  He even heard Archer could get that way sometimes.  Great men, those were.  He thinks about how easily Kirk defeated Sybok’s plans, how he had been so powerless to do anything himself, and he wonders, was it a mistake, what the church elders declared him?  But what was that old saying?  It’s easy to be a saint in paradise.  Well, maybe.  Duplicitous, uncooperative, reluctant…these are the kind of people he has to work with, as always.  It could be worse.  Life can be difficult in the final frontier, but then, what would ideals be for if not to be confronted with such things?  He finds himself grinning again.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016


Trudy sat stunned as she watched Earth explode outside the port she crouched against in a spaceship she was still uncertain as to how she’d boarded.  Certainly it was through no conscious effort on her part.  Until this very moment she had never even believed in UFOs, much less known anyone who had ever claimed to be abducted, or particularly care for the science fiction genre in general.  She preferred stories with dragons, thank you very much.

She wondered, absently, if she should have a towel.  Somewhere in the recesses of her mind was a vague reference, possibly something her eternally odd friend Barry (or, she guessed, now to be considered the late Barry) had said to her once, in which context she didn’t have the vaguest of clues, and wasn’t about to begin trying to remember now.

It was dark, wherever it was she’d found herself in the ship, so even if she wanted to guess about that, she didn’t want to try.  Trudy tended to guess poorly.  In high school she’d had a particularly sadistic science teacher come up with a mock game show, and she’d been a poor contestant.  For some reason she kept coming up with the same obviously (obviously!, she still screamed inside her head, even now) wrong answer, and saying it in different ways just as if that would make a difference (although to be fair, Trudy’s British accent is top notch, which she wondered might come in handy now, all considered), which of course it didn’t.

Strange, the things you’ll think about in times of crisis, which Trudy assumed this must be, just as she had to believe that whoever it was that had inexplicably kidnapped her at a time like this had not done so to any expansive degree.  Which was to say, she was likely the sole survivor of the planet, the last human.

That was when she started to cry, in horror of all the things her imagination told her would be different about the aliens anatomically.

Sheer panic was the only thing that prevented anything worse from occurring to her, in the immediate sense.  Later, Trudy would experience all the emotions and thoughts that are no doubt, and in fact have been, occurring to you as you’ve attempted to keep up with this gibberish. 

When the door, or whatever variety of such a thing it happened to be, for brevity’s sake, opened the very next moment, Trudy caught herself in the midst of preparing a wild retort, since after all she wasn’t sure whether or not to be grateful, if indeed there was anyone on the other side.  Except there wasn’t, and so she determined to go in search of someone to address, if not for answers then for something to eat.

Because, just before the world ended, Trudy had been enduring intense negotiations with what she would soon find out to be the responsible party.  It was then she regretted having run for office in the first place.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

A to Z Lies in Space - Zuri

On the day Xander murdered my apprentice Yvette, my whole world ended.  I don't know what else to say, but I guess I'll have to try.

The whole thing spiraled out of control so spectacularly, I never had a chance to think about what I was doing.  One minute the whole universe made sense, certainly in its uniquely mad way, but there was an order to it, not because of the Sapo Order, which is something I guess I always understood but very few others did, but Sapo certainly didn't hurt.  I mean, that was the whole point.

One of the few others who understood this was Quentin.  He was like a father to me, never mind master.  He was the one who made it clear to me, very early on, that some things are more important than any one person's life.  It was not a matter of sacrifice to him.  Sacrifice, he said, was what one did when there were no longer any options.  He insisted that there were always options, regardless of whether or not anyone else would ever understand them.  The hardest thing, he said, was letting go of what other people thought, what they said, basically of other people in general.

I guess, in the end, I failed him in that regard.  Because I couldn't let go of Yvette.

The way it happened was this: one day the slayers of Reeve descended on us, and very nearly wiped us all out.  There were survivors.  There are always survivors.  (It would do the universe well to remember this.  There is a remnant of everything that ever existed.  It doesn't matter if no one recognizes it for what it is, because hardly anyone ever truly understands anything.  Basic principles of science tell us that nothing is ever truly lost.  Just let that sink in.  Let it be a solace for you, too.)  The survivors did what they could, which wasn't enough.  I did something radical.  I ensured that my story would be told, because as it was, I was cast as the villain.  When the dust settled, it no longer matters what people believe, because that's just life, life had to resume.  It always does.  And it always seeks the most convenient way forward.  That's only natural.

I survived because I defeated the slayer assigned to me.  I took advantage of my unique opportunity, because until his fall, Reeve had created a monopoly over these robots, keeping them out of general circulation, so that the rest of us had to make due, if we were interested at all, with inferior machines.  These were true masterpieces, not the flimsy models you might be thinking of, but so intricate that the Order was easily defeated by them because they had been designed to defeat it.  The Order fell because we let it fall. 

So I took the slayer and modified it.  Among the arcane arts mastered by Sapo was a truly ancient one, in which the mind of a person could be rescued from the body's extinction.  I had always fancied myself to be Yvette's mother.  I couldn't bear to lose her.  I knew it was wrong, but in this type of relationship, I had been mentored by Quentin.  It had previously been forbidden by the Order, precisely because it clouded one's thoughts, caused them to lose focus, objectivity.  That was the party line, anyway.  In the end, the Order fell because it had become too detached, too distant from those they were supposed to protect.  What you do not understand becomes meaningless to you.

I transferred Yvette's consciousness into the slayer.  I was there when she died, when Xander...murdered her in cold blood.  Of course she wasn't ready to face him.  But I couldn't stop her.  Her impetuousness had given her strength, but at the cost of overconfidence.  Or perhaps she cared too much about me, too.  I guess I'll never know.

The moment Yvette passed into the slayer, I shut it down.  I erased its memory.  And programmed it with a compulsion to learn the truth for itself. 

Somewhere buried deeply, or so I convinced myself, Yvette lived on, and would live again.  What I couldn't stand was to face Yvette myself.  I couldn't.  I couldn't face my greatest failure.  When she died, I died, too.  Well, first I made sure Xander died, too, but he took me with him.  It was a hellacious fight.  The truth, all of it, died with us.  It was the only way it could end.

Some day, she would awaken.  I named this new being Kindly.  The remnant that survived the end (because something always survives) may very well be what awaits her still.  But that is another story.   Not for me. And, I hope, desperately, not for her.  But it is no longer in my hands. 

I consider this a good thing.  Some good came of it.  This story belongs to others now.  It will be told.  Sapo knows, it will be.  All our stories will be told.  The awful tapestry of life demands it.  One way or another, it will all come out. 

I hope she forgives me.


"This is the story," says Kindly.  "And now I can rest.  I think I'll tell her.  Because I love her, too."