Mad Science and Magic, Together at Last

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

-Arthur C. Clarke

The above is a very well-known and often quoted rule, at least by fans of science fiction and fantasy. And the reason that this bon mot is so often dropped is that it is absolutely true. If you went into the past, your smartphone would effectively become a magic tablet, even without cell service. Let’s face it, we don’t use phones to talk to one another but let’s get back on track.

In movies, TV, books, and comics there is a clear delineation between magic and technology. Magic is inscribing runes or glyphs, speaking specific words, and making gestures to make the impossible real. Technology uses physics, chemistry, and engineering to make the impossible real.

So what’s the difference? Well, physics, chemistry, and engineering are all real and magic is not, as far as I know. But they essentially accomplish the same things, narratively speaking. Whether you’re firing a plasma pistol or shooting magic flames from your hands ends up with the same result, someone’s painful death. Unless you miss but let’s just say that orc or stormtrooper got what they had coming.

Again, aside from flavor, how do they differ? A plasma pistol should have a limited number of shots, like any projectile weapon. Do wizards have ammo? It depends on if they are using their own reservoir of magical energy, in which case, yes they have ammo and it’s limited. Even if they are channeling magic from outside their bodies, that has to take a toll so again, a wizard is limited on how much they can do.

Of course, an energy weapon can be hooked up to an external power source that would effectively give the shooter unlimited ammo, or near enough to deal with their foes, so that’s different. Of course, a wizard could use some sort of ritual that allows them to focus magic from another dimension. It becomes a zero-sum game.

Some science fiction tries to use real science to justify the fantastic things that are accomplished in the course of their stories. This is more prevalent now than it was in the past. In the Lensman books by E.E. “Doc” Smith, faster than light travel was accomplished by use of an inertialess drive. Other than the idea that being inertialess would allow you to travel faster, it has no scientific legitimacy. If you’ve not heard of the Lensman stories, the first one, “Triplanetary”, was published in 1934.

Note: A man by the name of Michael Pedler claimed to be developing an inertialess drive and raised $6.8 million to make it a reality. Spoilers, we do not have inertialess drive space ships.

So how does inertialess drive work? It just does, that’s all you need to know. In fact, that’s how a lot of science fiction tech works. I’m sure there are some that have a basis in theoretical physics or other disciplines, and I’m quite confident that some of my readers can cite examples that counter this. While I admit I’m painting with a very large brush, I don’t think I’m wrong.

For magic, it’s the same thing. Why does saying certain words and waving your hands or a wand allows you to break the laws of physics? Because it does.

In the Harry Dresden series, which is about a wizard private eye operating out of Chicago, magic has rules. He can throw up a shield spell to protect himself but it takes energy. If he does it too much it can wear him out.

Too counter that, he makes rings and a bracelet that captures the energy he generates while walking around each day, like a self-winding watch, and uses that power to avoid being damaged or to throw some of that force back. While this is clearly something we cannot really do, it does have a scientific feel, despite being magical. And like the inertialess drive, it works because it does. Side note, if you’ve not read them, I suggest you check them out. After you’ve read all my stuff.

Does the lack of a solid scientific basis make it less enjoyable? For me, not at all. When you create a weird and wondrous world, it doesn’t need to be entirely realistic. The rules just need to be consistent.

In a very real way, science fiction and fantasy are closer than people think. It may come down to a matter of preference.

I have a friend who loves fantasy and superheroes but does not care for science fiction. To me, this is puzzling, not just because of all the reasons I’ve listed above but because to my way of thinking, superheroes and science fiction are very closely linked. While there are magical heroes and villains, most have origins closely tied to scientific means or more accurately pseudo-scientific means. If radiation really bestowed superpowers, I would’ve dosed myself a long time ago. I know I’m not alone in this.

In spite of that fact, he just doesn’t care for science fiction and nothing I could say would change his mind. He likes what he likes.

Of course, fantasy leans into the destiny of heroes and queens and kings and science fiction tends to be a little more inclusive and more democratic but the idea of a hereditary nobility still persists in the distant and not so distant future. But in both, emperors are usually evil. Another overlap on the ven diagram of these two genres. Interesting.

Maybe we should think of fantasy and science fiction as potato chips, each with a different flavor. You might love sour cream and onion or barbecue but they are both crispy and delicious. Also, they are both still chips.

So conjure up, or nano-build, a big bowl of crunchy goodness, share it with your favorite cyborg or sorceress, and realize you aren’t so different after all.

Kill The Messenger-Part Three

As promised, here is part three of Kill the Messenger, where our hero‘s mettle is tested and the fight betwixt Classical and Abstract art continues. Please enjoy!

This is dishonorable!” said the Amber Thane, much too loudly, in Paul’s opinion.

You must admit, it’s damnably clever,” appropriately whispered Dominic.

How else can we move around the camp?” asked Paul with a lopsided purple mouth.

They shambled amongst the Abstract troops who were loping, oozing, hopping, shuffling, and otherwise moving towards the sounds of combat.

Paul thought it was damnably clever of him to disguise all of them as Abstract troops. His less than classical training in art assured them that they would not be recognized. Dominic was impressed with his ability to ape their enemy’s style, and Paul was thankful that his lack of rendering skills had a practical application.

Where did they take your blade?” Dominic asked the Amber Thane.
The Knight scanned the camp with his asymmetrical eyes, squinted and pointed to a large tent-like structure in the back of the camp.

It must be there!” he declared.

Thinking of the Thanes’s terrible eyesight, Paul asked, “Are you sure?”

Do you think me a fool!” challenged the Amber Thane.

Fool was not the first word that sprung to Paul’s mind but Dominic quietly interjected, “I’m sure your squire but wishes to speed your return to the front.”

Of course! I was about to say something very much like that,” said the Amber Thane.

What are you three doing?”

They turned to see an Abstract, it was difficult to tell if was an officer, Paul wondered if they even had any like a chain of command. In any case, this one was large, easily eight or nine feet tall. All of them froze, unsure of what to do, though Paul saw the Thane’s fist, or what passed as a fist curing up.

We’re about to fold the edge of the inside layer,” croaked Paul in his raspiest voice, the one he used when there was no caller ID on a call and wasn’t sure if was someone he knew.

The large figure stared at them, or it would’ve if it had a face, for a beat and said, “Then get going.”

Yeah,” Paul wheezed as they moved on to the back of the camp.

An entrance as a challenge to find but they soon did and slipped in. The Amber Thane’s sword was leaning against something in the center of the tent. This was something non-abstract and definitely not impressionistic. It was a glass sphere, fitted on bottom and top with metallic caps and filled with a clear liquid with a pale yellowish tint. Attached to it was an a tangle of what looked like cables connected to a clock face that was draped over a tree.

By the canvas…” said Dominic in a hushed voice.

What?” asked Paul and the Thane simultaneously, though for different reasons.

It’s Hieronymus’ Solvent,” replied the soldier.

Whose what?” asked Paul who looked closely; there was a subtle scent of pine and licorice.
Dominic looks at his companions, his vertical eyes gone wide, and said, “The jar from Hieronymus Bosch’s lost painting, Revelations.”

And…” inquired Paul.

The jar was held aloft in the hands of the Four Horsemen,” said the Amber Thane softly, as he looked closely at it, squinting his one tiny eye and the other lopsided one.
That chilled Paul, not from what was said but the fact the Amber Thane did not shout.

So, what’s in there, a mix of plague, war, famine and…” he asked.

You are a simple soul, the last one is pestilence,” remarked the Amber Thane as he patted Paul on the head.

No one knows, but it is said that whatever it contains, it means the end of all things,” replied Dominic.
They all stood there for a moment, just staring at each other. Finally, Paul spoke.

Well, there’s only one thing we can do.”

Agreed,” said the Amber Thane.

We need to steal it,” said Paul, while the Amber Thane said, “Enter the battle and die as men!”
“What?” they both said to each other.

It is the only honorable course!” proclaimed the Amber Thane.

How is it honorable to let everyone die?” countered Paul, who thought this a very fair question.

There is nothing to be done in the face of this infernal device! Better to die in combat than wait submissively for oblivion to take us all!” said the Thane and with that he took up his blade, unsheathed it and electricity arced along the edge.

Paul feeling as though he had nothing to lose at this point (quite true) felt it was time for a bold/foolish action.

I didn’t think someone like Major Veronika would love a coward,” said Paul with more confidence than he truthfully felt.

The sharp end of the power blade didn’t pierce his throat but it certainly could move into that neighborhood with little difficulty.

A poor choice of last words,” said the Thane.

Dominic held his hands up and suggested, “I think, perhaps, that the

stress of the situation has addled his brainpan.”
Paul breathed in and said, “No, it hasn’t. You want to run away and die, then don’t call it bravery. We need to do something about this jar, if we’re going to die either way lets try to save everybody.”

This last statement hung in the air. Sounds of distant battle could be heard, with the tick tock of the draped clock moving in inexorably towards their own doomsday. The Amber Thane sheathed his power blade and nodded.

You are far more daring and less simple that I gave you credit for my Squire,” pronounced the Thane.
It was both praise and an insult, but Paul also knew it was not the time to quibble.

What is the plan?” asked Dominic.

First, they shed their abstract disguises, the Amber Thane was especially pleased to do that, and they looked at the tangle of cables connecting the clock to Hieronymus’ Solvent. The Amber Thane wanted to cut them all but both Paul and Dominic persuaded him that would likely set off whatever the Abstracts has set up.

Paul had seen enough movies to know that choosing the correct wire to connect was tricky business and often was cut in the last few seconds. But the characters in those movies were often experts in this sort of things and had the good will of the screenwriter on their side.

Paul’s only experience with explosives was throwing firecrackers as a boy and he was fairly certain that if he had some mysterious creator who was ultimately in his corner, he or she was of a mercurial nature as her or she put him in increasingly dangerous situations.

So moving it is as dangerous as severing those tendrils?” asked Dominic.

I don’t really know, but probably, yeah…” replied Paul.

Damn those Gloppy Devils!” cried the Amber Thane, “They vex us even in their absence!”

It was at this point that three abstract fighters entered the tent, they resembled armored figures but their proportions were decidedly asymmetrical.

Seize them,” said the middle one with a voice like wood breaking in an echo chamber.

Whatever Paul thought of the Amber Thane, he was a furious warrior, he leapt into action before the enemy warrior ended his somewhat predictable command. Electricity could faintly be heard sizzling bellowed alternating war cries and insults as he sliced through his foes.
It was so impressive, that it had the unfortunate, in Paul’s opinion, of attracting more Abstract soldiers. While it might worry Paul, and it did, it seemed to delight the Amber Thane who was jubilantly carving up all comers. He spread oddly hued viscera everywhere, and grinned while doing it.

Dominic grabbed Paul by the shoulder and said, “Whatever plan you have, now it the time to set in motion, your Thane can only last so long!”

Indeed, while the Amber Thane was clearly having the time of his life, numerically, it was simply a matter of time before the Abstracts overwhelmed him. Paul looked at the rat’s nest of cables and wished he could know which one to cut. If they only have something to move it…

Dominic, paint a steel ball around all this,” Paul said, waving his hands to indicate the jar, wires and clock.

But that won’t protect us!” replied the artist solider, “It’s simplify blow apart!”

Trust me!” Paul said a grin.

Dominic quickly and expertly created an iron sphere around Hieronymus’ Solvent, the snarl of cables, and the droopy clock. The metal had a grey metallic sheen, symmetrically spaced bolts. It radiated strength and heft and looked as if it had always existed and always would.

It will not hold for long,” said Dominic as he shook his head.

It doesn’t need to,” said Paul who took out his own brush.

While ray guns were his favorite thing to draw as a boy, there were several other things that filled the margins of his school notebooks and he now painted one of them. The tent ripped and tore as the thing Paul created stood. Paul knew that he would never be the artist that Dominic was but if there was something he knew how to render, it was a robot.

Candy apple red and silver, it stood fifteen feet tall with antennae on its head that arched electricity back and forth.

Clearly, this did not go unnoticed. Dominic’s eye went wide. The

Abstracts froze, fighting stopped and craned what passed for their heads up. Even the Amber Thane paused, though he saw an opportunity to take several heads and did so, but he did so without any martial proclamations.

RX-13, the name he gave to his creation, reached down and picked up the iron sphere and spun his arm round and round until it was a blur.

Five, four, three, two, NOW!” shouted Paul!

On NOW, RX-13 released the payload and it shot straight into the air with the sound of loud whistling that faded as it got smaller and smaller until both object and noise disappeared. A pause followed, then a thundering explosion. What, at least to Paul’s eyes, looked like a glorious sunset blossomed, though it was very high in the sky and not at the horizon, but no less glorious for being in the wrong place.

The Amber Thane, and Dominic mopped up what was left of the Abstract forces around them. Paul did little actual fighting, but directed RX-13 who took care of a large share of the foes. As the Forty Seventh Pigmenteers over ran the camp with a great variety of weapons (too numerous to list here), the battle and day was won.

Paul, Dominic and the Amber Thane fielded many congratulations from the troops, and RX-13 was justifiably ogled and inquired about, what

was it exactly, how did he think of such a weapon, would he teach them to make one?

The sounds of celebration suddenly faded and Major Veronika parted the troops and approached the Amber Thane. He smiled and it was the happiest Paul had ever seen him. Leaning in, the Major whispered something in his ear. The Thane went a little pale.

Are those terms acceptable,” said the Major. It was clear that there was only one possible response.

For you, and you only,” he replied.

And with that they kissed and there were many cheers, hats tossed in the air and huzzahs.

RX-13 faded, as creations that are made in battle were want to do, their purpose fulfilled. The camp was soon made classical, as Paul was told not to say it was non-abstract, and things settled down.

Until, of course, the celebration. Huge kegs of beer and wine were created, long tables, bent under the weight of delicious food and songs were sung. A huge bonfire was lit and everything was cast in a warm orange glow.

Paul was enjoying telling the story of Hieronymus’ Solvent, not for the first time that evening when Dominic tapped him on the shoulder.

The Major wants a word with you,” Dominic said, as he led him to the command tent.

Major Veronika and the Amber Thane stood with goblets in their hands and Paul and Dominic were each handed one.

I wished to thank you both personally, for your daring and innovated rescue,” she said as she raised her wine, “To perspective!”

To perspective!” everyone echoed and drank.

Veronika glanced at the Thane, who sighed.

Squire, you have proven yourself beyond what could be asked of you, I must confess, far more than I had any reason to expect,” said the Amber Thane.

It was, without question, a backhanded complement, but it was perhaps the kindest thing the Amber Thane had ever said to him so Paul murmured, “Thank you.”

Such gallantry warrants reward,” said the Major.

Yes of course,” harrumphed the Thane, picking up a scroll from the table.

Unrolling it, he squinted, making an unpleasant face. Major Veronika cleared her throat; a small sound, Paul nearly missed it. However it had a visceral effect on the Thane. He sighed and produced a brown leather case, opened it, and put on a pair of black rimmed, round spectacles.

The Major smiled and it looked as if the Thane blushed. Paul thought that such an absurd notion that it must be true, as most things in the borough were. Clearing his throat, the Thane spake, “Kneel, Paul of the Borough.”

I’m sorry, what?” asked Paul, who could think of no happy outcome of such a request.

The Thane’s eye narrowed and awkwardness flooded the tent with a preternatural rapidity. Paul glanced at Dominic who gestured a discrete downward motion. Hoping for the best, Paul knelt.

I, the Amber Thane, Guardian of the Labyrinth of the Inner Realm, Slayer of the Nine of the five Chimeras, Defender of the Lost, ennoble the Squire before me,” intoned the knight.

These are the last blows you must endure without recourse or revenge,” said the Amber Thane as he stuck Paul on the shoulders and neck with the flat of his blade, (happily, without electricity surging through), though Paul thought could have been gentler.

Now arise Paul, to be henceforth known as the…” the Amber Thane turned to Major Veronika and loudly whispered, “Must I? It seems cruel”

Paul, who was mid-arising, did not like the direction this was heading when the Major replied, “Quite.”

Very well,” continued the Amber Thane, “Arise Paul, to be henceforth known as the Clever Thane.”

Thank you,” Paul replied and he finished standing.

You’re first quest as a Thane will be to find your weapon. It is a sacred and peril filled task, but…” the Amber Thane paused, “I’m assured that you are up to the challenge.”

Okay, great…” said Paul who was not sure how to react to such nonplussed encouragement.

Major Veronika looked at him and said, “And since you enlisted as a Squire and have been elevated to Thane, you are Most Honorably Discharged.”

Until this very moment, Paul hadn’t given much thought about how long he would have to spend in this painting and found great relief in the knowledge he would be returning to the Borough. There was a twinge of regret mixed in, the 47th Pigmenteers were a decent group, but there was still much of the Borough to explore (he had absolutely no idea of how much) and he wanted to return.

With a smile, Dominic saluted smartly and Paul returned in kind. That set off a round of saluting that seemed as if it would go on forever until the Major spoke up

Private, would you do the honors?” asked the Major.

Yes ma’am,” he replied.

After that there was a round of saluting, which went on too long, until the Amber Thane bellowed, “Enough!” There was one more round of saluting, which thankfully ended quickly, and Dominic led Paul to a clearing a short distance from camp, avoiding the feast, as they both knew that farewells would go on forever.

Well my friend, it been an honor serving with you,” said Dominic.

You too, thanks for putting up with me,” replied Paul.

There was nothing to put up with.”

Paul looked around the clearing and asked, “So, do we need to paint a door or stairway or something?”

Or something,” said Dominic as he quickly painted a brass telescope and handed to it to Paul, “Just look up. But don’t blink.”

All there was left was to shake hand and say thank you, both of which were done, and then Paul gazed skyward. At once he was flying through the magic spin art tunnel as he flew upward, and after an eye watering trip, found himself parting a velvet curtain and was once more in Mrs. Po’s art shop.
“Ah, you’ve returned,” remarked Mrs. Po, “Come along, let’s get you sorted out, Clever Thane.”

Wait, how do you know about that?” asked Paul.

She fixed him with a look that conveyed pity and contempt in equal measures.

You’ll need to stop asking foolish questions like that if you wish to avoid mockery,” she said as she opened her ledger.

After making some notes, she turned it around and instructed Paul to sign it in three separate places, after which she took a lockbox out from under her desk and counted out a pile of coins, placed them in a small pouch and handed it to Paul.

You are now officially mustered out,” she said.

Right,” said Paul.

They stood there for a moment, looking at each other.

That means you can and should leave,” Mrs. Po said.

Paul did so, if only to avoid mockery.

Rather than going straight home, he stopped in a café a few blocks from his apartment, ordered a coffee and pastry called a Blue Forest Blob, which was neither, blue, forest themed nor blob shaped. It was square, filled with a creamy almond paste and made him happy.

As he drank his coffee and enjoyed his Blue Forest Blob he noticed people giving him sidelong glances. He looked to see if he got any almond paste on his shirt (it had happened before), but he was free of crumbs or goop. Finishing up, he signaled for the bill.

The Waitress came over and said, “It’s been taken care of.”

Who…?” asked Paul.

On the house,” she said with a blush and rushed off.

Paul didn’t understand, a feeling he was well acquainted with but instead of asking questions that he knew would present more questions, he left a too large tip and went home. Just before he opened his door, Parsnip and Looseleaf’s doors opened and he was hustled inside with a “Hurry up,” from Parnsnip and a “Many thing to discuss!” from Looseleaf.

It was less of a discussion and more of an interrogation. There were questions, counter questions and many clarifications. Finally they were satisfied, or at least as satisfied as they got and let him go to bed.

If he had been less exhausted, he might have noticed that there was an addition to his front door. But he shambled off to bed. Anyone would’ve with a day like the one he had, and it was only a day, in spite of all that had occurred. So Paul may justifiably excused from noticing the addition of a shield shaped, metal plaque with the image of a robot holding two rayguns and on the bottom, a blue badger.

Or perhaps, it was a cat.

Kill the Messenger Part-Two

Paul looked all around him. The Amber Thane was nowhere to be seen.

“Son of a bitch!”

“Hey! Knock it off! No swearing in the Forty Seventh Fusiliers!” snapped the soldier.

“Uh, sorry, sir?” said Paul.

The soldier laughed, “I’m just funnin’ you, swear all you want. One of the few rights we have, that and complaining. Just don’t do either around the Major.”

“Major Veronika?” asked Paul.

“The one and only.”

It turned out, fortunately, for Paul, that the Major insisted on meeting each new recruit personally. The soldier, whose name was Dominic DéMarche, brought Paul to her tent. There was a meeting going on, officers stood around a table, there was a heated discussion going on when they entered, which stopped as soon as they entered.

Dominic saluted sharply, in contrast with his informal demeanor.

“Major! New recruit!”

Paul tried to mirror the salute but it lacked the polish of his new companion.

The officers parted, and revealed the Major. Wearing a burnished breastplate over a red jacket, tight blue breeches with a gold stripe up the side, polished black boots, and a pelt of what looked like a leopard, if leopard spots were bright yellow, blue, green, pink, red, orange and purple on a black background.

She had chestnut hair, skin like honey and dark eyes with copper flecks. There were crinkles at those eyes; she had the worries, the responsibility of command. There was an air about her, it wasn’t just that she was gorgeous(she was) but upon meeting her, Paul had this sudden urge to make her proud. There was a great stillness about her, not that she was inactive but more as if she would always be there, whatever came and that inspired an instant loyalty.

Dominic nudged Paul, who stepped forward.

“What’s your name son?” she rumbled.

“Paul, Ma’am, Major, Major Ma’am,” stammered Paul.

She smiled indulgently, “Welcome to the painting forty seventh. Private, sort him out.”

“Yes Major!” barked Dominic.

“Excuse me Major,” said Paul.

Everyone froze. Paul knew he had made a faux pas, but it was better to get this out.

“Yes?” asked the Major, which was laced with an undercurrent of ‘this better be good’.

“I came here with the Amber Thane.”

All the others were dismissed and exited quickly. Paul explained how he had delivered the letter from Looseleaf and Parsnip, his subsequent squirehood with the Amber Thane, and trip trough the painting.

“Damn his eyes!” said the Major as she pounded the table.

“He was very excited about seeing you,” added Paul.

“Too excited to get spectacles!” she replied.

“I’m sorry?” asked Paul who didn’t understand how those two things were related.

“His eyesight is ghastly! But he’s too vain to get the help he needs! Now, who knows where he ended up!”

Paul, who learned to deal with all sorts of oddness since moving to the Borough, still hated listening to someone rant about their significant other.

There was no right thing to say, so after trial and error, mostly error he had to admit, he found the best course of action was to nod periodically and make small agreeing sounds.

“Of course, he does have such lovely eyes,” said the Major as she smiled.

“Hmmm?” offered Paul.

“You are a fine squire, Paul of the Borough, I thank you for bring me this news,” she said.

It occurred to Paul that he had very little choice in the matter but he saluted anyway, which seemed to please her.

“I need to send out scouts, if I can find him before the enemy, we could-“

The rest of that thought was cut short as Dominic entered.

“Begging you pardon Major, but a messenger has arrived,” the private said.

“Bring him in,” she said.

Two other soldiers, one in arctic cammo, the other, a woman dressed in Greek Hoplite armor escorted the messenger in. It looked like an abstract impression of an avocado colored man, or woman, the gender seemed, like it’s appearance, a matter of perspective. One leg was much longer than the other, it’s arms undulated like silk scarves in the wind and it had two eyes on one side of its head, which seemed to be two dimensional, or at the least, very flat

“Major Veronika, I come with a gift,” it said in a voice that sounded like it was speaking though echoey mesh.

It opened what could have been a sack or a lumpy smudge and produced the helmet of the Amber Thane.

Paul looked at the Major, if she felt any fear or shock; it was simply evidenced by a minute flaring of her nostrils.

“What are your terms?” she asked the abstract messenger.

“Leave the Umber Valley or we will be forced to make the Amber Thane a palimpsest,” said the messenger.

“Damn your same sided eyes!” shouted Dominic.

“Calm yourself private,” said the Major evenly.

“Sorry Major.”

Walking up to the messenger, the Major regarded it with a quiet contempt.

“We will not surrender one inch of canvas, not one classically rendered tree or bush. We will not rest until this painting has been restored to its former glory, and your ill-rendered rabble has been wiped clean from this classic masterpiece.”

Paul began to clap, her delivery was so moving, but he quickly stopped when it was apparent that no one else was following suit.

The messenger made wheezing, rattling sound, and shook its head.

“The brave and valiant Major Veronika, so dedicated to her cause that she’ll sacrifice her one true love for her ideals. You didn’t even hesitate, we will have to tell the Thane as we scrape the pigment from him and make him one of us. His rage will be unquenchable. Perhaps your death at his hands will silence his scream. For a while.”

“Lock this thing up,” ordered the Major.

Dragged from the tent, it made the same wheezing rattling sound. Paul thought it might be laughter.

“Private, inform my officers that we must prepare to move ASAP. Take the squire here and begin the lantern light maneuver,” said the Major as she moved to the table and rolled out maps.

Dominic grinned and saluted, “Yes Major, right away!”

He clapped Paul on the arm and said, “Lets get you some weapons,” as he lead him to another tent.

Weapons, as it turned out meant a bandoleer of brushes and a belt of paint bottles.

“So no real weapons?” asked Paul.

Dominic laughed, “My friend, theses are better than any gun or knife. With those, all you can do it kill. But with this,” he said, twirling a brush with panache, “you can create anything!”

Paul thought that a philosophical attitude for a solider, which spoke well of Dominic’s mental state, but gave little confidence to the future of whatever the lantern light maneuver was.

“Hmm,” mused Dominic, “We need to get you into a proper uniform.”

“Do you have a spare?”

Holding out his thumb at arm’s length, Dominic regarded Paul, quickly dipped his bush into a jar and started flicking paint at him. Paul felt as though he has been suddenly doused in cold syrup.

“What the-“

“And there!” interrupted Dominic.

Paul was about to give his new friend a good yelling at, or at least let him know that he was not happy about having paint flung at him, when the sensation faded and he felt normal. At least as normal as he got these days.

“You look a proper solider now,” said Dominic with a smile, “Look.”

Dominic pulled a drop cloth off a mirror, and Paul looked at himself. He now wore a uniform like Dominic, ironically minus the paint splatters, but with a tall fur hat, with brass accessories.

“But you just waved the brush around, how…”

“It’s all the mind’s eye. If you can think it, you can make it.”

Paul, whose artistic endeavors were strictly of the stick figure school, had his doubts that he could create anything even close to realistic. But

Dominic assured him that it was easy as he lead him to a wooded area just outside the camp.

A clump of bushes were pushed aside to reveal a tunnel leading downward,

Dominic lit a lantern and they entered. The light was warm and bathed everything in warm light. It made Paul feel as though he was looking through a windowpane made of pale honey. The tunnel was painted in rich dark brown tone, which evoked damp earth, held up with wooden beams rendered in glowing detail, Paul could see the swoops of the grain and the pegs that were fitted with great skill.

“Did you make this?” he asked his companion.

“I did the beams,” said Dominic with a smile.

“They’re very good,” said Paul.

“Thank you, I’ve quite proud of the way they turned out, it’s a pity so few will see them.”

“Because?”

“It is a secret tunnel after all!”

“Right, yeah…”

They continued in silence for a while, until Paul asked what he was thinking.

“Uh… Where are we going?”

Dominic stopped and shook his head, Paul was afraid he asked a stupid question.

“My friend, I must apologies, in my haste I forgot that you had only now joined us. You must think me a fool!”

“No, you’re not a fool, it’s just that I want to be able to help, so… if I knew what the plan is…”

Dominic clapped him on the shoulder and grinned, “I would expect no less of the squire of the Amber Thane! You’re raring to get right to the action!”

“Right!” said Paul with considerably more enthusiasm than he actually had with regards to action.

“This is of course, is a rescue mission, this tunnel leads directly under the enemy camp. Once we reach the end, all we need do is paint a tunnel up and we rescue your master.”

Paul didn’t think of the Amber Thane as his master, but this was clearly not the time to bring that up. Dominic continued down the tunnel and Paul hustled to catch up.

“Do you have a map of the enemy camp?” asked Paul.

“That would be worthless, it shifts according to their whims, Abstract Dogs!”

“But how do you know we’ll come up in it?”

“The location is fixed, it’s the layout that changes.”

“Right…” said Paul “But there is a plan?”

“Of course! We tunnel up, find the Thane, and escape, while the Major leads the rest of the 47th Pigmenteers in an all out assault!”

Paul didn’t think that was a plan, so much as a hopeful wish, but Dominic seemed quite confident, so he continued onward.

After a period of time, it was difficult to gauge, what with no sun, and his phone saying that time was old, they arrived at the end of the tunnel.

Dominic took out a paintbrush with a flourish and began to create a ladder.

Not a crude sketch, but a solid oaken affair, the joints were joined with cuts in the wood that clearly needed no nails or studs. It was one of the sturdiest things he had ever seen. Paul had once put together a bookcase from Ikea and he felt fairly handy afterwards in spite of the handful of bits that he was left with and was unable to identify.

“That’s very… good,” Paul said quietly.

Dominic smiled a smile that said, ‘I know, right?’, but he managed a slightly humble thank you.

“Now, it’s your turn, when we get to the top of the ladder, you will create something to break through the topsoil,” said the artist warrior.

“Are you sure you don’t want to do it?” Paul asked, “Those stairs are really good.”

“You’ve very kind (I am an excellent artist), but I couldn’t,” insisted Dominic.

“It’s okay, I don’t mind (I’m not really any kind of artist),” Paul said with no trace of false modesty.

“No, I literally can’t, when two soldiers collaborate on a mission, they must both contribute,” explained Dominic.

“Right…”

Dominic clapped him on the shoulder and grinned, “Just think of something that can dig and still be silent.

Paul thought about that conflicting set of requirements. Everything that came to mind that could dig was by definition, loud. Bulldozers, jackhammers, even shovels and picks made noise. A few weeks ago, he had seen something that was called a Geo-Pinnace, a cylindrical tube with a huge drill bit on the front, or the prow, as he had been corrected by the pilot. It had cut through earth and stone like spoon through flan, again as described by the pilot, but it had made a hellishly loud racket and even if he could paint it (doubtful), he had no idea how to start, let alone steer it.

Paul’s mind began to wander as he racked his brain trying to find a solution.

He thought of his Aunt Natalie, who loved two things, baking and puzzles, both physical and mental, mostly mental. When he would visit, she would give him a riddle, which he had to solve before she would give him some of her excellent cookies. This was just the sort of thing she’d test him with, and when she’d eventually told him the solution, which she often did, as she was fond of her nephew and ultimately a bit of a soft touch. But if she took it easy on Paul, she was at war with Josiah, the cat that lived next door, who clearly was born only to drive Aunt Nat to distraction and destroy her small garden.

Josiah, who was gink-toed, could dig up a garden with infernal glee. Nat swore he tunneled in under the fence. Paul had once seen him pop up from under the earth and then leap across the yard pulling a long tomato vine and winking just before he escaped to the safety of his own yard. Paul wasn’t sure if he had imagined the wink or if it was a story that Nat had told but that cat could dig…

“I got it,” Paul said.

The dirt shifted and Paint Josiah emerged into the Abstract camp. Paul and Dominic followed, they were shielded by two large crates but they could as easily been any large…things.

“Very clever, painting that badger in an abstract style, if someone sees it they will won’t know we’re here,” whispered Dominic.

“It’s a cat actually,” said Paul quietly.

“Right,” replied Dominic with a knowing wink.

Creeping around the ‘crates’, they saw six Abstract soldiers standing in a circle at attention, though their bodies seemed to be fidgety. Arms, legs other parts stretched or shrunk with no real pattern, at least that Paul could see.

“What are they doing?” asked Paul in his softest voice.

Dominic didn’t reply but tapped Paul gently on the shoulder and looked up. Hanging, from an absurdly long chain was an even more absurdly large birdcage. Inside, however, was not an absurdly large bird, but the Amber Thane.

“Blaggard! Let me loose at once!” bellowed the imprisoned knight.

“You’ve been asking that since we put you in there, what makes you think that we’ll change our minds now,” asked one of the guards in a hollow, echoey voice.

“I will never give up! I will fight till my last breath and beyond!”

“Can he do that?” asked the largest guard breathlessly.

“Dunno,” replied the first guard, “but it won’t matter in a bit.”

“Ha! You have a broad yellow stripe running down your back!” sneered the Amber Thane.

It was true, there was a long splash of bright saffron along his back.

“Yeah, so?” asked the guard.

Dominic pulled Paul back behind the undetermined things.

“We must act swiftly, these abstractoes are about do something terrible,” whispered Dominic, “I’ll tackle the guards, you free the Amber Thane.

“What should I-“ said Paul but Dominic painted a large armored tiger with a saddle, leapt upon it and road off to attack the guards. The great cat savaged the guards with claw and tooth, and Dominic unsheathed a saber from the saddle and slashed away. Paint was splattered everywhere.

Paul, who was not at all prepared for this, or any battle if he was being honest, tried to think of how he would open a giant bird cage that was twenty feet or so above the ground. Hook and ladder, cherry picker, giant robot claw? He had little confidence of being to able to paint any of those and unsure if they would work. A cat that resembled a badger was one thing.

“Now my friend!” shouted Dominic, whose tiger had herded what remained of the guards directly under the hanging cage.

Pulling up memories of doodling in elementary school, Paul created his favorite thing to draw.

PEW PEW PEW, went the laser pistol, severing the chain and sending the cage, with the Amber Thane within, to squish the last of the guards.

“Well done!” cried Dominic.

The Amber Thane picked himself up from the floor of his cage and bellowed, “What new impressionistic deviltry is this?”

“It’s me,” said Paul as he moved up to the cage.

Whatever else he had to say was cut off by the grip of a resin gauntlet encircling his neck and lifting him off his feet.

“If you think you can play dice with my sanity, you will die with that as your regret!” said the Thane.

Dominic leapt off his battle tiger, rushed up and said, “Amber Thane, we’re been sent by “Major Veronika!”

“Where is she?”

The sounds of battle could now be heard in the distance with ever increasing volume.

“Hah! Of course, she leads the attack!” said the Amber Thane with a wide grin, “Let us now join the fray!”

Paul, whose vision was fading into a grey haze, croaked, “Let. Me. Go.”

Squinting, the Amber Thane pulled him close and said, “It’s you,” and released him.

Dominic helped Paul to his feet.

“My temper got the best of me, I did not meant to strangle you,” said the Amber Thane with little regret.

“We should join the rest of the regiment,” suggested Dominic.

“Not before I recover my blade and helm!” insisted the Amber Thane as he strode towards the exit.

“Your… Helm is back at the camp, they sent it to show that you had been captured,” said Paul, “Dominic can paint you a sword, right?”

“It would be a honor!” Dominic said.

“Nay, it must be my own blade, it was gifted to me by the Azure Thane upon my ascension to knighthood,” declared the Amber Thane.

“Of course,” deferred Dominic, “you need say no more.”

Paul, however, thought that some explanation was in order, but since he was in the minority, he pushed his concerns down, something he found himself doing more and more since moving to the Borough.

“A frontal assault is the best course of action!” declared the Amber Thane.

“I have an idea,” suggested Paul.

Kill The Messenger-Part One

Here is another story set in the Borough, the same place “An Odd Missive” took place. Like that story, it will be broken up into three parts, this being the first. Enjoy, faithful readers.

The Amber Thane stopped and lowered his sword to the ground, where it, with a flash, blackened a small patch of grass.
“By the rules of Chivalry, I must accept,” puffed the Amber Thane as he removed his helmet and put his sword in an insulated sheath.

It was at this point, the point at which he could see that the armor his would-be foe wore was made out of amber, and there were even some insects trapped in the breastplate. Paul’s first instinct was to ask how it was made and how was it better than metal armor, but whenever he asked, what he thought was a reasonable question, he received an answer that made things less clear. So he had learned to just accept what he saw.

Under his helmet, the Thane was sweaty, his hair was soaked though and his mustache drooped so much it looked as if he was trying to make a break for his chest hair, which was in turn was trying to escape from behind his breastplate. Paul could relate.

“Now, what is going on? Why are you trying to kill me?” asked Paul, who, while leaning calmly against a marble column, was prepared to run.

The Thane held out the letter Paul had been directed to deliver by his bosses, Messrs L. Parsnip & P. Looseleaf.

“This insult will not stand!”

“What insult?” asked Paul as calmly as he could.

“Do you not know the contents of this missive?”

“No. Like I said, I’m just the messenger,” Paul said.

“It will not stand!” declared the Amber-encased man.

“Can I read it?” asked Paul.

“This is nothing but lies and twattle!” stated the Thane as he waved the letter like flag.

Paul sighed. “Listen, I’m sure it is twittle-“

“Twattle! ‘Tis a common word, are you a simpleton?” sneered the Thane.

“Right, ‘twattle’, but I didn’t write it, so if you don’t mind?” Paul said as he extended his hand.

The Thane grimaced but handed the letter over with a muttered, “Very well.”

It read thusly:

Greeting Amber Thane!
We hope this letter finds you both hale and hearty, or at least one those two. If you recall, you had made enquiries for our services in discovering the location of your lost love, the Major Veronika. We will always happily aid the cause of true love and are most delighted to report that we have had word of where the Major is.

However, her location is a rather a dangerous place, so please, know that where she is, is not the result of anything we have done, but merely the result of diligent research.

And where is she? You might well ask, and rightly so, after all, this was the task set before us.

The thing is, she now fights in the Oil Brush Wars. We had a dispatch from the front that informed us that she had taken command of the Forty Seventh Pigmenteers, stationed, at last report, in the Umber Valley.

If you wish to proceed, as we know you will, please feel free to employ our apprentice for your quest.

Yours in Truth,

Messrs L. Parsnip & P. Looseleaf, esquire

“Isn’t this good news?” asked Paul.

“That My love is lost in the forests of the Moon? The dread place from whence none have returned!”

“Wait, what?” offered Paul.

“You are simple, ‘twas unfair of me to try and smite you,” said the Thane, “I am sorry,” he said loudly and slowly.

Paul, who was not a genius but far from simple, mustered his patience.

“That’s not what it said.”

“Do you not have your letters?” asked the Thane gently.

“My letters?” asked Paul who knew the conversation had, much like a small dog off his leash, gotten away from him.

“Those squiggly little marks on the paper,” said the Amber Thane slowly, and in the manner of someone who believes he is not being understood, loudly.

“I know how to read,” snapped Paul.

The Amber Thane smiled indulgently, “Of course you do.” And then patted Paul on the shoulder.

Wanting to move things along, Paul said, “This says that Major Veronika is fighting in the Oil Brush Wars, and is stationed in the,” he consulted the letter once more, “Umber Valley.”

Grabbing his helm, the Amber Thane looked at Paul and said, “Come, we must move quickly.”

“We?” asked Paul.

“Did not the missive say you were to aid me, as directed by your masters?”

That part you could read?, thought Paul, who had no choice but to follow the clanky armored man.

They wound through narrow streets, lined with small shops, each built in a variety of different styles, from grey stone to rustic log cabin to something that resembled a red jelly. The sorts of shops were as great a variety as their architecture, Harford’s Puzzles and Mysteries, Lubin’s Artisanal Honeys and Equations, Don Alejandro: Primate Tailor since 1737, amongst many others.The trip was made on a mechanized horse by the Amber Thane and a burro by Paul.

This was an uncomfortable ride, though Paul was told was the preferred mount of a squire (which made him think that either squires were hated by their knights or had low self-esteem), but they did eventually arrive in front of a small storefront, with small windows which displayed small paintings, which were draped with velvet cloths.

The sign above the door read, Mrs. Po, dealer in Rare and Dangerous Art, below which was written in small gold letters, Bellum infernum est.

“Where are we?” asked Paul as he tied up his burro.

“Prepare for the worse day in your life,” replied the Amber Thane.

This day had already been pretty terrible, so Paul was unsure what could make it worse and he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

“Are you going to buy a painting?” he asked hopefully.

“We are going to war!” declared the Amber Thane as he strode through the front door. Well, strode was the intent, but given the smaller size of the door, it was more of a purposeful squeeze, but he did get inside without destroying the door which was an accomplishment in itself.

Paul followed; the gallery was small and narrow, lit by gaslights, giving the place a sinister feel, which was only reinforced by the rows of paintings hung, covered like the ones in the windows.

Paul reached to look under one of the cloths but had his hand slapped, quite hard, by the Amber Thane.

“You are simple! Do not draw us into a battle we do not know!” said the knight.

“Sorry,” said Paul, who felt as though a verbal warning would have worked just as well.

They approached the back of the gallery where a small desk sat, and on which was neatly arranged on a pale blue blotter, an ink bottle, pens, a cloth bound ledger and a small metal bell, which the Amber Thane rang, delicately.

From behind a curtain, the sound of a door opening was heard and a small woman, about five feet tall, emerged and smiled. It was difficult to tell her age, the flickering gaslight sometimes made her seem like a young woman in the early twenties and some times she had a grandmotherly air about her. The fact that this all happened in the blink of an eye was disconcerting to Paul, but if it affected the Amber Thane, he did not show it.

Bowing to the woman, he said, “Mrs. Po, I have come to join the war.”

“Have you now,” she said with a smile, “This was to be expected.”

“I, and my squire, wish to join the Forty Seventh Pigmenteers in the Umber Valley,” said the knight.

“Wait, what?” interjected Paul.

Mrs. Po looked him up and down.

“He does not seem like much of a squire, so skinny,” she remarked.

“He is a bit simple as well, but time is pressing,” added the Amber Thane.

“Excuse me, I am not simple! I have a college degree!” said Paul who felt as though he needed to speak for himself.

Mrs. Po and the Amber Thane stared at him for a moment.

“I take your meaning,” said the small woman.

“We are ready to leave immediately,” said the Amber Thane.

“As you wish,” she said, opening up the ledger and turning it to the Thane and Paul.

“Do you swear to fight till all is dry and pigments set?” asked Mrs. Po.

“I do!” shouted the Amber Thane.

“What does that mean,” asked Paul.

“Tis but a formality,” loudly whispered the Thane.

Paul knew that things like this were never just a formality, much like Looseleaf and Parsnip’s offer of his services to this crazy knight, so he did what he did, whenever he was in a situation like this, which was more often than he’d like. He said, “Yes.”

Just sign here,” said Mrs. Po who turned the ledger to face them and handed them each a pen.

After signing, and counter-signing, the proprietress led them to a particular, covered painting.

“Whatever you do, do not close your eyes, you could end up anywhere like that,” she scolded the two men.

“I know the rules!” huffed the Amber Thane.

Mrs. Po grasped the edge of the cloth covering the painting and said, “One, two, three, OPEN EYES!”

With a flick of her wrist, she revealed the painting. Paul couldn’t be sure because what was next happened so fast, but it looked like the painting was half oil landscape and half abstract. Any further art critique Paul might have had flew out his mind as he found himself, with the Amber Thane racing through a corridor of color.It was like falling into a magic spin art tunnel, in spite of that being a favorite childhood activity, did little to abate the terror he was experiencing.

Tears poured down his face as he forced himself to keep his eyes open, as Mrs. Po instructed. It was like the world’s most painful staring contest with a volcano of paint. After what seemed like a long time, a black dot appeared at the center of the maelstrom of hues. Expanding rapidly, it enveloped Paul and all went black.

Light and color faded back into vision. Everything looked different, the only way to describe it was, old timey. Not the most artistic description, but it was the best Paul could come up with at moments notice.

Looking around, he found that he was in a camp. Not day or sleepaway, but a military camp. There were soldiers, drilling, setting up tents, digging holes, all the sorts of activities that an army might come up with for soldiers to do when there was no one to fight. Paul had a cousin who had joined the army and described it as long ass times with nothing to do, mixed with a few minutes of scary ass shit.

Paul was pretty sure that it was a paraphrase of something more elegant but most probably true.

“New recruit?”

Paul turned and saw a man, in what looked like a Napoleonic uniform, but he wore it with a casual air, unbuttoned coat, open shirt, hand rolled cigarette hanging from his lips. It was also paint splattered. Which was easily the most casual aspect of his appearance.

“I guess we are,” said Paul.

“We?” asked the solider.

END PART ONE

Tiny Robots

Here is a short story that I wrote a while ago. It is not an epic tale but I suspect if you live in the five boroughs, you might relate. And if you live somewhere else, this is glamour of big city life.

If there is anything worse than finding bedbugs in your New York City apartment it’s tiny robots. While the robots are not going to devour you like the bedbugs and are not high on the ick scale, they are in fact, downright adorable. They have little sprongy antennae, wide (relatively speaking) round eyes, rubber soled feet and if they were not dangerous as all get out, they would be wonderful toys.

They were designed to look that way by Professor Hieronymus Superious, a genuine mad scientist, who had made the original tiny robot to build a much larger robot. Why build tiny robots that in turn would build a larger robot? Well, he was a mad scientist and maybe not the most rational person, especially since the intended use for the larger robot was world domination, or at least the five boroughs.

Once the tiny robots gained sentience, they reasoned once the big version was built, they would be recycled. Their logic was sound and they turned on their creator who was subsequently arrested by the F.B.I.’s Mad Science Division. The tiny robots disappeared into the infrastructure of New York.
The first thing they did was got rid of all the vermin. Rats, mice, water bugs and rumor has it, an albino alligator were purged from the sewer system and out of every building.

Everyone was pretty jazzed about them in the beginning. The mayor even declared an annual robot day, it was June 13th. But once they started to cannibalize people’s electronics, they became extremely unpopular.
A sentiment I could get on board with as by the time I got home, after some drinks with friends, those miniature jerks had already dismantled my microwave and re-purposed it to build more cute little automata. A chorus of beeps, pings and chirps sounded as they fled into the walls, under cabinets and though any and all available nooks and crannies.

My cat Mac, an orange tabby, was perched on top of the bookshelf, watched the rapid robot exodus. I’d be annoyed, but a cat will only chase the minuscule machines once, super low voltage shocks are not deadly but they do make an effective deterrent. There was an uneasy détente between cats and robots and as long as they kept to themselves, no one got hurt.

I put my now cold dinner on the counter next to the husk of my former microwave, and thought about how to deal with this. Legitimate robot exterminators were very expensive and I knew my landlady would not be shelling out for one.

Since they had not gotten to my laptop, I searched for a more financially reasonable solution. Amazon offered several robot repellers though third party sellers but the reviews for them were mixed at best. There was a mini-EMP machine but everyone in the block would need remove all their electronics while it went off and it was way to much money.

It occurred to me that crowd sourcing might turn something up, so I posted on Facebook, twitter and instagramed a pic of my ruined microwave.

“So sorry!”, “That blows!”, “Call one of the robot killer guys”, and “Sux to be you.” Were among the replies. Mostly sympathy, but no new answers until I got a PM from my old roommate who was now living her boyfriend.

“Becca, Kurt and I had the same thing happen, so I know how bad this sucks. There is a someone who can help you, send her a message, R_hero78@automata.net, and put REFERRAL:CASSIE HOROWITZ in the subject line, she can help you.”

Since my options were limited to watch every piece of electronic equipment I owned be disassembled or emailing a perfect stranger for help, I took the second one. If Cassie was messing with me I’d… well I wouldn’t beat her up, but I might unfriend her but if I was being honest, I probably wouldn’t even do that. So I send the email, explaining my problem.

Almost immediately I got a reply, I’ll be there in thirty minutes. Please do not leave your apartment or turn off the lights and have some food ready to eat.

I did all of it and heated up the take out I brought home in my actual stove, which I last used to make last year’s attempt at Thanksgiving dinner. After managing to both burn the outside of the turkey and maintaining a frozen center, we had Thai delivered.

Exactly thirty minutes later, my buzzer sounded.

She wasn’t what I expected. I though she might be a kindly aunt type with white hair in a sensible ponytail and a twinkle in her eye or a hot nerd girl with big glasses and elaborate tattoos and skinny jeans. Instead, she was slightly overweight with weary eyes, dressed in a peacoat over a food-stained hoodie over a tee-shirt with Korean lettering and the image of pink and blue monster. Her jeans were definitely not skinny but they were speckled in what at first looked like paint but turned out to be minute burns.

“Is the food ready?” she asked.

“Yes!” I replied and took it out of the oven. I hadn’t burned it, which gave me a sudden and secret burst of pride.

“Put it on the table,” she said as he took a handful of plastic pipes from her battered messenger bag.

She began to assemble a small tower, about three feet tall with a base that was made of Legoes. Pressing a switch, a pattern of lights flickered up and down the height of the tower.

“What is that?” I asked.

“It overrides their programming,” she said as she began to eat.

I now had this stranger in my apartment, eating my food and it occurred to me that I didn’t even know her name

“I’m Rebecca Lee, “ I said holding out my hand.

Wiping her hand on her jeans, she shook mine and said, “Call me Lucius.”

“Just one name?” I asked, shaking as long enough to cover my own hands in grease.

“Yep.”

“Like Banksy!” I said.

Lucius grunted and said, “Sorta.”

So I sat and watched her eat for ten minutes or so. She ate like she was alone, which made me wonder what I looked like when I had dinner alone, which was more often that I liked. I decided that I was more ladylike but resolved to stop eating out of takeout cartons.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but what comes next?”

Lucius nodded to the living room over my shoulder. I’d like to say I just took the sight in with the cynical weariness of a true New Yorker but I was born in Wisconsin so I screamed.

Standing in flawless symmetrical rows, the tiny robots gazed at the small, though not to them, tower. Their micro eyes blinked in a synchronistic rhythm with the lights.

“WHATTHEHELLDIDYOUDO!” I yelled without breathing.

“Relax,” Lucius said, “They’re being reprogrammed, they won’t do anything.”

“They’re on my laptop,” I whispered.

“It’s fine,’ replied Lucius, who spoke at a normal volume. “And you can shout if you like, they can’t hear you now.”

While it was an unnerving sight, they covered the entire living /bedroom, but they did not dismantle any electronics.

“What are they going to do?” I asked.

“Hmmm?” murmured Lucius

I turned, looked her in eyes and said, “You said they are being reprogrammed. To do what?”

Lucius took a bite out of a spring roll, chewed and said, “More productive tasks.”

“That’s a little vague.”

She shrugged and we sat in uncompanionable silence for while.

“Listen-” I began.

“What?” interrupted Lucius.

“I don’t want to seem rude, but are you a…”

She regarded me with mild disinterest.

“Well… You know…” I finished.

“I don’t.”

“What?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she said.

I took a deep breath, and said, “Are you a mad scientist?”

Lucius laughed. It sounded like a princess might laugh. It was so unlike her appearance all I could do was stare. The giggles slowly stopped.

“No,” she said, “I’m not a mad scientist. I don’t have a trust fund.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It’s tough to have the money or time to build a teleporter or spaceship when you have to work nine to five.”

“Oh. That makes sense,” I said.

A series of musical notes sounded from the tower. Lucius wiped her mouth and took a battered grey metal cylinder, unscrewed the top and lay it on the floor. The tiny robots then marched into the opening and when the last of them filed in, she sealed the top.

My phone pinged and I jumped a little.

“My bill,” said Lucius.

It was very reasonable, much less than I expected.

“I take PayPal,” she said as she disassembled the tower and put it back in her bag.

I sent the payment and she was ready to go.

“Thanks for getting here so quickly, you really were a life saver,” I said.

Lucius nodded as she looked at her phone.

“I have another job,” she said. “If they come back, just message me.”

“Great!” I said holding out my hand but she had already walked out. I had not made a new besty but my place was free of tiny robots and that’s all I cared about.

I cleaned up and was browsing new microwaves online, when it occurred to me that Lucius never said what she was doing with the tiny robots. She said she wasn’t a mad scientist. Why would a stranger who was hired strictly through referrals lie? Oh…

The Most Dangerous Challenge

In many kung-fu stories, the fate of the world and even the multiverse is determined by martial arts prowess. This seems like a terrible method of governance. It feels like it would favor bullies and thugs, unlike our system that… Well, it’s got problems. This story offers a different option. Is it any better? You’ll have to decide that for yourself.

“My Prince, the Dread Masters have arrived,” said the majordomo as he bowed.

Straightening his abnormally high and over-embroidered collar, the Prince of Highlandia gestured that the unpleasant guests should be shown in.

Clad in black armor that somehow also glowed black, the Dread Masters entered the throne room. Their leader, known as the Most Dread Master, and his lieutenant, the Lesser But Still Very Dread Master strode in followed by the other Dread Masters. Their names all indicated where they all stood in the hierarchy of Dread, but since they only got longer, we will not list them here.

“The time has come, oh Prince,” sneered the Most Dread Master, “The three moons of fate have eclipsed the seven suns of destiny.”

Sighing, the Prince of Highlandia replied, “Yes, yes, it’s pretty hard to miss.”

“Are you prepared for the Challenge That Will Shape The World?” asked the Most Dread Master just as he had rehearsed with his Dread Acting Coach.

“ARE YOU?” added the Lesser But Still Very Dread Master.

“I thought I said to just glower, menacingly,” the Most Dread Master whispered at his lieutenant.

“Just thought it would help,” sullenly replied Lesser.

“Well, it didn’t!” spat the Most Dread Master, “Did it?” he then asked the Prince.

“Not really.”

“I prepared a song. A very scary song,” Lesser said hopefully.

The Most Dread Master pushed down his disappointment. Just because someone is excellent in martial arts, doesn’t mean they had any sense of theater. He had to take care of this before it became a ‘thing.’

Lesser’s face lit up. “Really?” 

“Listen, I asked you to glower because you’re so good at it. The best, in fact.”

“Absolutely! You are my best glowerer, hands down.”

“I think I need to hear that. It’s been a rough week. My girlfriend-”

“Let’s talk later, okay? After the Challenge That Will Shape The World.”

“You got it my Most Dread Master!”

Turning back to the Prince of Highlandia, the Most Dread Master intoned, “So my Prince, are you prepared for the Challenge That Will Shape The World?”

“You already said that.”

“Well, it’s literally the event that will determine the fate of every being in the realm for all eternity. It deserved to be said twice! Maybe even three times!”

“Would you like to say it again?”

“Twice, I think imports the gravity of this event,” declared the Most Dread Master in a tone he felt was both wise and threatening.

“Agreed,” nodded the Prince as he sagely stroked his beard. The beard stroke really sold the sagacity.

“As was written in the scrolls of sacred conflict, let the champions present themselves!” declared the Most Dread Master as he stepped forward.

The Prince, who was in his late middle age and had what could be accurately described as a ‘Dad Bod’, stood up.

“You? You are the champion?”

“I am,” he said with a shrug.

The Most Dread Master waited for a ‘mere jest’ or a ‘got you’ or even a ‘psych!’ It did not come.

“What happened to your loyal cadre of warriors? Johnny Lightning Hands? Myka Mistress of the Razor-Whip? Mysteroid, the Living Smoke? The Mongoose Twins, Ebi and Abi? Bunfar, the Guy with Swords for Feet?”

“Oh, they’re up there,” the Prince said pointing up a balcony. 

All his champions waved and cheered, which resulted in some clanking in the case of Bunfar who stomped his feet swords with great enthusiasm. 

“Are you not going to take this seriously?” asked the Most Dread Master with unmasked irritation. 

“Of course I am, this will shape realm forever.”

“So you think you can defeat me?” 

“I don’t think that.”

“Haha, you will-”

“…I know it.”

It was a classic burn. The Most Dread Master was rapidly losing the mystique of menace that he had spent years cultivating. Time to make some big power moves.

“Okay, Prince ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ Check this out.”

With a flicker of darkness, the Most Dread Master teleported about the throne room, shattering vases on plinths with masterful kicks and strikes. Appearing and disappearing into and out of puffs of oily black smoke, which he thought was extremely cool. The fact that the smoke smelled of potpourri was perhaps less cool than he wanted it to be.

“And that’s just the tip of the dark iceberg of my martial arts techniques!”

The Prince applauded and said, “Impressive. Very much so. I enjoyed the potpourri.”

“It’s not potpourri, it’s the scent of dying springtime!”

“Sorry, it just reminded me of potpourri.”

“Well, you were wrong!”

“Would you like to hear the challenge?” stated the Prince in a serious manner.

“Indeed I would!”

Carrying the scrolls of sacred conflict, the majordomo entered and unrolled them to a specific spot.

“I’ve been reading over the scrolls and I discovered something of great interest to me.”

“Do you think you’ve discovered some loophole that will allow you to avoid this?”

“Not at all. But listen to this, ‘The challenged, in this case, me, may choose the nature of the conflict, and the challenger must abide by this or forfeit on pain of disintegration.’”

“I know, I know! It’s a proviso so you can choose where and how we fight. It could be in the Ice Volcano on the edge of the Sea of Fire, or on a Dragon-Owl’s back in a lightning storm, or if we both are blindfolded and have to compose haiku while leaping from branch to branch in the forest of very slippery leaves.”

“Yes… And no.”

“What the hell does that mean!”

“The thing is, the challenge doesn’t have to be a fight,” the Prince offered with a smile.

“Don’t be absurd! That’s what we do! Our whole way of life is based on superiority through martial arts! You can’t just go changing it!” sputtered the Most Dread Master.

“The scrolls do not specify the challenge needs to be one of fighting.”

“Where is my Dread Litigator?” 

There was a great deal of reading and arguing between the Master and his attorney. Part of it was why their copies of the scrolls were on black parchment with purple lettering. It had seemed so very metal when they were made but turned out to be extraordinarily difficult to read. Finally, the Most Dread Master spoke.

“On advice of counsel, I accept that the challenge need not be one of the martial arts. Even though it makes a mockery of everything our most sacred and profane traditions stand for.”

“Very magnanimous of you,” said the Prince.

“I thought so,” replied the Most Dread Master.

There was a dramatic pause.

“Now, and only now, will I reveal my challenge to you, my foe.”

“It better not be trivia! If it’s trivia we should have teams!”

“While that might’ve been entertaining, I had something else prepared.”

At that, servants set up a long table and placed cloth-covered trays upon them. A distinctive acidic smell wafted across the throne room.

“By the sightless eyes of the Iron Crone… No.” 

“Hot wings. Marinated with the essences of one hundred different peppers. Including the feared Pandemonium Pepper which only grows in the darkness of Valley of the Mad. Whoever can eat the most, will mold the world for evil or good.”

While the Most Dread Master enjoyed things that would make the hardest hearts weep, he could not stomach spicy foods. Even black pepper was too much for him. But the challenge had to be met.

He took off his cape with a flourish to show he still had style, and also to prevent it from being stained. As he handed it to the Lesser But Still Very Dread Master, he said quietly, “Send a dark crane to the Dread Gastroenterologist. Tell him I will need his services very shortly.”

Sitting across from his ancestral foe, the Most Dread Master looked at this, his final battlefield, and uttered these words.

“So, no blue cheese dressing?”

Journey to Nowhere

For those not from the New York area, there is an annual tradition of the Mermaid Parade held each year at Coney Island. It’s a fun day where people dress in their most fabulous and in many cases, skimpiest outfit. Plus you can enjoy a Famous Nathan’s hot dog and ride the Cyclone roller-coaster. Of course, that might be a dangerous mix.

Another aspect of attending the Mermaid Parade is getting there if you don’t live close. It’s a long trip for many New Yorkers, depending on where you are. Below is a log of one such trek, written in an old-timey style. Tally-Ho!

An Excerpt From “Journey to Nowhere, the Failure of The MTA in the Early Twenty-First Century”
By Professor Nari Applebaum

It is a well-documented fact that the mass transit system of the five boroughs of New York City was a disaster of unimaginable proportions. So much, that the early part of the twenty-first century were known as the “Age of Tardiness”, due to the chronic lateness that plagued the citizenry.

While many tales of being delayed have been passed down through the generations, like any story, they have grown with the telling. One of the most famous, “The Rerouting of the 4 Train by the Albino Alligator of Union Square” is considered to be apocryphal. (Editors note: It is a proven scientific fact that the last of the albino alligators were devoured by the Rat King in 1957.)

What we are presenting is a rare document of an expedition from northern most part of Manhattan, Washington Heights, to the Mermaid Parade, a celebration once held in the southern region of Brooklyn, called Coney Island. The journal of this journey was discovered during the excavation of the long disused Hoyt–Schermerhorn subway station, preserved in what was known at that time as a smart phone.

For those of us who enjoy the smooth, efficient teleportation of today, what you read below will seem horrific, but just remember, it was a savage time.

Friday June 15th, 2018 9:37 P.M.
The day for which I have pined for is at long last is but one slumber away! A parade of Mermaids at the Isle of Coney! Last year inclement weather ruined the proceeding and sorrow was my only suitor. But that is no worry as all climatologists agree that it shall be sunny, warm and any clouds will be of the whitest and fluffiest quality!
I fear that Morpheus’ kiss will be withheld but I shall do my best to rest for the festivities on the morrow.

Saturday June 16th, 7:03 A.M.
It is at last the day I have longed for! I have donned my spangly-est summer flock and a mock tiara! Accompanying me is my dearest friend, Mina, who has also bedecked herself in a most shiny manner. We shall certainly catch Neptune’s gaze!

Our journey is about to begin as we enter the 181st. Subway station! Although the trip from Heights of Morningside to the Isle of Coney will be a lengthy one, I have placed a flask of water and a lemon flavored Luna bar in my purse, if I should become peckish while we travel. Though I must save my appetite for Mr. Nathan’s world-renowned sausages!

We are also to be joined by our gentlemen friends, Justin and Roberto. I tried to persuade them to travel uptown so we could set out together, but they insisted that they could join us en route. If this is our greatest misfortune, I shall count myself blessed. Oh, the trolley is arriving! We are on our way!

Saturday June 16th 7:37 A.M.
Fiddlesticks! The trolley has sped past the station at 96th Street! Apparently there is some work being done on the tracks! Mina has just spotted the notice posted in the car. I suppose we were too exited to see it. I have sent a message of text to Justin to meet us at station in Times Square with Roberto.
I feel as though we would not be in our present predicament if the gentlemen had listened to me and we had all set out together. This is a minor inconvenience and will soon be forgotten.

Saturday June 16th 8:23 A.M.
It seems fate is indeed fickle. We have been immobile betwixt stations due to a sick passenger ahead of us. I have always considered myself to be a compassionate person, who can put her own needs aside for the greater good. Nonetheless, I cannot help but think wonder why someone who was ill would ride the underground trolley and not go to hospital post haste. Does this make me a terrible person or are they inconsiderate for putting everyone else in this position?

Saturday June 16th 8:57 A.M.
We are finally on the move again and are fast approaching the 42nd Street Station. I hope that the ailing passenger has gotten the care they need. Perhaps my vexed mood might be attributed to the fact I did not eat a proper breakfast. Am tempted to consume some of my Luna Bar but I steel myself with thoughts of the culinary treats that abound at the Isle of Coney. I will be strong.

Saturday June 16th 9:17 A.M.
There is a passage that allows passengers from the A trolley to go to the Time Square Station. Inexplicitly, that passage is blocked due to more construction! While we are given a transfer token, Mina and I have no choice but to brave 42nd Street aboveground. The street is littered with tourists, all of whom walk at a snail’s pace, and for some reason, performers dressed as Elmo every ten feet or so. That must be bewildering to any child. Despite this obstacle course, we get to the proper station. Finally.

Saturday June 16th, 9:25 A.M.
Mina and I have arrived of the platform for the N and Q trolleys and spot Ricardo who is waving enthusiastically. Hugs all around but where is Justin? Apparently, according to Ricardo, Justin has been delayed, but his message of text proclaims his intent to be there as swiftly as possible. I will give him the benefit of the doubt.

Saturday June 16th 10:18
Although he promised an alacritous arrival, Justin has only now joined us. If there is anything more agonizing than waiting for someone to arrive whilst standing on an underground trolley in summer time, I cannot imagine it. I know that it is still technically spring, but it seems summer has arrived early, like an unwanted guest. While I am sorely tempted to use my sharpest tone with Justin, but he is so apologetic and insists on paying for our feast at Mr. Nathan’s that I cannot help but forgive him. A Q trolley just pulled in and we are finally on our way. Huzzah!

Saturday June 16th 10:31
As the trolley clatters, we have been chatting about the things we wish to do once we arrive. Mina is keen to ride the mechanical attraction, the Cyclone. Roberto is not as enthused, having ridden it once before, resulting in some intestinal distress. Mina teases him, though gently. She confided in me that she is rather smitten with him. Perhaps love will bloom like a sea anemone in a mermaid’s garden? These thoughts quickly fade as someone has begun to scream!

Saturday June 16th, 11:08
They speak of the rodents that dwell in the depths of the tunnels but to see one brazenly strut within the confines of a trolley car is beyond belief. A panic gripped the passengers as they tried their best to avoid contact with the foul vermin. In the past, I had chortled at the antics of the pizza rat, but the reality, minus the slice is most distressing.

A woman with the mightiest purse I have ever seen, full of courage and many containers of makeup, has bludgeoned the offending creature, to much cheering by passengers, myself included, and is proceeding to punt its unconscious form towards the door at the end when suddenly with a deafening screech, we are all flung to the ground!

Saturday June 16th, 11: 32
It seems that during the fracas with the rodent, someone panicked and pulled the emergency stop cord. There was much moaning and cursing in the wake of this. I shall not repeat what was said, but know that the denizens of the Five Boroughs pride themselves on their colorful expletives and this was as fine a demonstration as you could ask for.

A conductor soon came through demanding to know why the cord was pulled and who the culprit was. He issued many threats as to the severity of an unwarranted trolley stop but no one confessed. In the kerfuffle, no one seems to have seen the act. Our conductor, clearly apoplectic with rage stormed out of the car. I considered asking him when we will be moving but he seemed disinclined to polite inquiries. Let us hope that we will be moving shortly.

Saturday June 16th 11:51
Know this, if you pull the emergency stop cord on a trolley, it will result in not merely a brief halt to travel, but one of indeterminate length. We waited for what seemed like hours to continue, even though I know that it is but minutes.

An announcement issued forth from the speakers that this train is now out of service, we are to be lead through the tunnels to the next station, accompanied by constables of the transit ministry. Had I know that I would be indulging in some spelunking, I would not have worn my flippy floppy sandals. They are not practical footwear for trudging though the decades of filth that have accumulated on the bottom of a trolley tunnel.

Just before we arrived at the Beverley Road station, I would swear that I saw the selfsame rodent that plagued us scuttle away into the inky darkness, with what I can only describe as a wicked grin. Can a rat grin? Lest I be thought mad, I keep such thoughts to myself. My eyes are firmly locked on the prize. Nothing shall stand in my way.

Saturday June 16th 12:03 P.M.
The Q trolley will not be running for hours but Roberto has suggested we summon an Uber carriage to take us the rest of the way but it seems we are not alone in that notion. The wait time is unacceptable. I suggest we walk to the Ditmars Avenue station, as the F trolley will bring us directly to our destination.

There is a distinct lack of enthusiasm for this plan, as our misfortunes have robbed my companions of both vim and vigor but I inspire them through my force of will.

Ditmars ho!

Saturday June 16th 12:29 P.M.
Our trudge was brutally hot, and accompanied by a fair bit of grumbling by our gentlemen, but we have arrived! Mustering our energy, we dash up the stairs and into a trolley in the nick of time! Ahhh… The sweet chilled caress of conditioned air, it is balm for our ragged spirits. Soon we are laughing and all seems right with the world. It seems the worst is behind us.

Saturday June 16th 12:46 P.M.
I journey on alone. Whilst traveling, a troupe of those acrobatic young men who leap about the bars and polls of a trolley car accompanied by rhythmic music entered the car and began to perform. Everyone secretly fears being kicked inadvertently even though it never seems to happen.

Well, Fate has struck another blow to this day. Mina, who was enjoying the show up to the point, was kicked in the face. The acrobats fled the car, to where I cannot say. Mina is inconsolable. She is sporting a rather nasty bruise, I have assured her that I can remedy it with some judicial applications of cosmetics.
She however, is having none of it. Mina insists that this expedition is cursed and sworn to leave at the next stop to return home. I point out that it is ridiculous to abandon this as we are so close to our destination.

The eyes of my closest and dearest friends turn upon me as if I were a bedlamite. An awkward silence falls upon the car, broken only by the clatter of the trolley on the tracks.

Mina and Roberto exit at the next stop. I ask Justin, sweet Justin if he will finish this with me. He simply shakes his head and joins the others.

If the universe thinks that I will give up, they are sorely mistaken. I will enjoy the parade, eat at Mister Nathan’s and perhaps even brave the Cyclone. Needing no one else, I will complete this voyage.

This was the last entry. It is unknown if the author of this journal finally attended the mermaid parade, but the device that contained this journal was found miles from her final goal. It might have been lost as she returned home or perhaps stolen. Sadly, there is no way of knowing. Although speculation is a fool’s errand, I like to think she made it to the parade and home safely. I can admire her fortitude even as I pity her for the time she lived in.

But Then Again…

This is a short piece I wrote, dipping my toe in some Cyberpunk waters. A sub-genre I’m extremely fond of but one I haven’t written much in. The idea behind this is probably absurd and could never happen. But then again…

They sat in that evening in late autumn rain, waiting on a rooftop for the saleryman to emerge from the tube station. Mathis checked her gauss rifle to make sure it was still charged. There was an almost zero chance it would lose its charge, but she was meticulous. Shanna, who had set up a micro-cameras in a three-block radius checked the facial recognition algorithm installed in her eye. Still nothing.
“It’s so damn cold,” she said.
“So it is,” replied Mathis.
Neither woman spoke as the rain beat on roof as well as them. Shanna looked at her partner. Mathis resembled a middle-aged woman. In the past, Shanna asked her if she’d ever consider plastic surgery, they could make her look years younger in the time it would take to eat a meal. Mathis told her, “A middle-aged woman is often unseen, something that in our line of work is priceless.” The younger woman didn’t know if Mathis was modified to look that age or if she was that age. She supposed it didn’t really matter.
“There’s a coffee machine across the street,” Shanna observed wistfully, “Do I have enough time to get us a couple of cups?”
“Probably not,” she said.
“Damn.”
A moment passed.
“What kind of machine is it?” she asked.
Shanna zoomed in and read the name.
“Mestre Do Café. Not terrible for machine coffee.”
Mathis shook her head. “I won’t touch the stuff.”
Shanna smirked, “Coffee snob.”
“It’s not that. Did you ever hear of the Umbrella Man?”
“The legendary killer? Yeah, I’ve heard of him.”
“Do you know what happened to him?”
Shanna paused.
“He doesn’t work anymore. I just assumed he had enough credit to move up to one of the Orbitals and is living his best post-human life.”
“I too heard that rumor, though no one knows for sure. But I heard another one.”
Rain continued to piss down on both of them.
“Are you going to make me guess?” asked Shanna who was in no mood for guessing.
“No. But it is absurd,” she said.
“It has to be better than listening to the rain.”
“Very well. As you may know, the Umbrella Man had multiple body modifications, not crude chainsaw hands or obvious hydraulic legs, but subtle and bespoke enhancements. Invisible to the human eye and to all scans. These were very expensive, but then again, his own fees were such that if you had to ask, you should know that you could not afford them.”
Shanna sighed, everybody knew that part.
“One day he took a commission on a dictator. A terrible man, as all dictators are, but his security was exceptionally talented as well as true believers, which made them even more dangerous. This dictator did not drink alcohol, or use drugs and while he had an appetite for physical pleasures, his partners were scrupulously vetted. So the usual avenues were closed. But the Umbrella Man was undaunted. This dictator had one weakness, which he saw as a strength. He would not eat anything prepared by human chefs, because he did not trust them. Everything he ate or drank came from a vending machine, each picked randomly each day.”
“That’s disgusting!” Shanna said.
“I agree. But it an excellent way to not be poisoned, except for the terrible food and drink but I suspect that this man was already dead, spiritually speaking, so these synthetic meals had little effect. Now the Umbrella Man, as I heard the tale, goes to Mrs. Sai, the noted body mod specialist.”
“I know who she is Mathis, she did my eyes,” said Shanna.
“And a superlative job indeed. But the Umbrella Man wanted something unique, an untried mod. He wanted his consciousness implanted into a vending machine. Specifically, a Mestre Do Café machine.”
Shanna looked at her partner and wondered if she was taking the mickey out of her but she was not one for whimsy. Mathis shrugged her shoulders and continued.
“I am aware of how absurd this sounds. But it is genius, even if it is a bit mad,” observed Mathis.
“A bit mad? It sounds completely bonkers! Even it were true, which I don’t believe, how would he know that this dictator would chose the one he was in? That’s an insane gamble!”
Mathis smiled.
“Ah, but it isn’t. There are thousands of these machines, all over the world, from major cities to the smallest towns, they are omnipresent. However, they are all linked together effectively making them one machine, giving the Umbrella Man a would-wide view.”
“Then why not just hire a digital artiste to get into their system?”
“Mestre Do Café did not become the most prolific beverage machine by having a lackadaisical outlook on digital security. The word from my friends in the business is that their customer data is both extensive and viciously protected. But the Umbrella Man became as a spirit, watching patiently. He knew he would have only one shot, so to speak, to complete his contract. When the dictator placed his order from a machine, and it could be any machine, all he had to do was alter the synthesizing sub-routines for that one cup, and while it tasted like coffee, it also was laced with a nano-toxin that would cause a massive, irreparable stroke. Job done”
The only sound was the incessant rain as Shanna looked at Mathis. It was ridiculous. Urban legend. The sort of story you might tell over drinks or to kill time.
“That’s bullshit,” she said, “How would he get out? Why wasn’t he caught by the digital security? How did it not make it on the grid?”
Mathis checked her rifle once more and sighed.
“As I told you, it’s an absurd tale. Most likely rumor and nonsense, as you said, bullshit. However, even the most preposterous story may have a particle of truth. Do I think a cup of Mestre Do Café will kill me? No. But then again…”

An Odd Missive-Part Three

Here, as promised, is the third and final part of An Odd Missive. Given how the world is now, I know finding a secret neighborhood with an absurdist and whimsical bent is very appealing. Full disclosure, it’s still a dangerous place, but in a mythic way. Is that any better? It’s more entertaining. I am quite proud of the whole thing, but then again, I am biased.

Please enjoy!

He was in a forest. There were trees — thick, heavy trees, which seemed misshapen somehow, not that Paul was an expert, but there was something wrong about them. All of the smells and noises he noticed before were now intensified.
Looking back the way he came, he saw Parsnip and Looseleaf peering downwards through a doorway that was set upright into a large tree.
“Three things,” began Parsnip, “One, never leave the path. That’ll be the end of you.”
“Quite right,” added Looseleaf. “Two, don’t eat or drink anything, or you’ll never leave.”
“Leave where?” asked Paul, who felt a panic attack approaching.
Ignoring his question, Parsnip said, “And when you’re dealing with the Old Lady, always be polite but do not volunteer any information.”
“Is that three or four,” asked Looseleaf of his partner.
“The last bit is linked, so I think of it as the third thing,” protested Parsnip.
Looseleaf considered that for a moment and said, “Seems fair and just.”
“As I endeavor to do in all things,” replied Parsnip.
Paul felt well enough to stand, which he did, and moved towards the door, which was starting to swing shut.
“Wait!” cried Paul, lunging towards the closing door.
“One last thing, Julia has the key!” said either Parsnip or Looseleaf, it was impossible to tell.
Paul tried to open the door but it was locked and immovable. He tried banging on it, but all that accomplished was to make his hand sore. Not knowing where he was or what was going on, he did what most people do in such a situation, he took out his smart phone. Just map where he was and he could find his way to a subway; this must be a park. There was of course no signal. Paul sighed and slipped the phone back into his pocket. He felt the card that Ms. Karkowski had handed him this morning.
It finally occurred to him that, during his brief meeting with his boss that morning, there was no humanly way she could have written all that he had read so far on this card. And the fact that it always had some up-to-the-minute, context-aware information on it — and that it still seemed to otherwise be plain old ink on paper — was proof that something was very, very wrong. It was not, in fact, Internet-enabled “e-paper”. Removing it from his pocket, he read it once more: “Just do what they told you and everything will be fine.”
Paul did not think that outcome was possible, but with apparently no other choice he walked into the woods, keeping on the path, as he was told.
As he walked along the path, which was well-worn and lined with stones, Paul had the unpleasant feeling that he was being watched. This intensified until he wheeled around and saw a squirrel behind him, holding an acorn with both hands. With eyes like liquid night, the squirrel held his gaze. It felt like one of those moments in an action movie, just before a gunfight broke out, except that Paul didn’t have a gun and all the squirrel had was an acorn. Paul turned slowly back around and the squirrel did the same, mirroring Paul.
Paul quickly turned back again, but the squirrel was gone, off to bury its acorn, if he knew anything about squirrels (which he did not; few really do). He picked up the pace and passed a number of odd things, such as a small waterfall that fed a little pond, whose surface was undisturbed and shone like burnished silver. In the pond, he could see the reflection of the surrounding trees and what looked like a tall tower, although the tower otherwise wasn’t there.
He saw a group of standing stones, through which a wind blew and the faintest of music could be heard. It was tempting to get closer — he knew that if he stood in the middle of them he could hear the song fully — but the words of Looseleaf or perhaps Parsnip echoed in his mind, “Never Leave The Path Or That Will Be The End Of You”. So he put his fingers in his ears and hummed tunelessly, which incidentally was the only way he knew how.
Paul passed a rabbit on the side of the path, looking at him from a patch of tall grass. Unlike the squirrel, which had a very suspicious demeanor, this rabbit seemed, well there was no other word for it, amused. It cocked its head and grinned. Then it chuckled. Rabbits can’t grin or laugh, thought Paul, but there it was, enjoying the sight of Paul, for reasons of its own. With one final guffaw (guffaw?), it disappeared into the grass. At least it didn’t have a pocket watch, but that’s something he shouldn’t have to think about wildlife. Ever.
Winding downwards, the path led into a clearing where two people sat around a wooden table on which sat a rustic teapot and cups. The first person was an old woman, dressed like a peasant from somewhere in Eastern European, complete with babushka. All the colors were yellows and reds. She was pouring tea into three cups.
The second was a beautiful young woman dressed like a peasant as well, but with a wholly different effect. She had hair the color of honey, with subtle highlights of gold. Her eyes were gray, which recalled clouds seen just as you arrive home ahead of the storm, safe and dry. Her nose was a little crooked, which only enhanced her unique appearance. As for the rest of her, Paul had a difficult time thinking of a polite way to describe her, other than “Wow”.
“Julia?” he asked, his mouth gone dry.
“It seems your hero has arrived, my dear,” said the old woman.
Julia looked him up and down and sighed. “Parsnip and Looseleaf, why do I bother.”
“Now, now, sweetie, he may have hidden talents,” said the old woman with a sly smile. “Please, hero, have a seat.”
Paul sat down.
“I’m not a hero,” he said.
Julia shot him a look that made it clear she agreed with that assessment.
“Now that remains to be seen,” the old woman said, “Let us now introduce ourselves. You may call me Gran.”
I’m P-…” Paul suddenly remembered the advice to not offer any information. “I’m the one they… sent.”
“That’s a rather long name,” replied Gran. “Do you mind if I call you Hero?”
“Uh… sure,” Paul said. He looked at Julia with a smile and shrugged. She stared at him as if he were an idiot. Lots of women had looked at him that way, and over time he had accepted it as an unhappy fact. But he wanted to prove Julia wrong.
“So, you are here for this fair maiden?” asked Gran.
“I’m not a maiden,” said Julia, with vehemence.
Gran tutted, “Not a thing, in my day, that a young lady might say so willfully or proudly.”
“Not ‘your day’, is it?” countered Julia.
“That remains to be seen, doesn’t it?” replied Gran.
With that, both women looked at Paul. It was clear they were waiting for him to say something, but he had no idea what. Julia shook her head and Gran smiled.
“What?” said Paul. He nervously fingered the card, looked down at it, and it read “Say why you’re here”.
“Oh, right, I’m here to bring Julia back,” Paul declared.
Julia gave him a look that said “Finally”.
“Excellent!” said Gran.
“Oh, that was easier than I thought,” said Paul.
“Would you like a cookie? I baked them myself,” said Gran, holding out a plateful.
Paul was suddenly ravenous. He’d not eaten since a bagel on the way to work that morning, and those cookies looked amazing. He took one and popped it in his mouth.
“You are an idiot,” said Julia. This was the first time she had spoken to him directly.
The little voices of Parsnip and Looseleaf that had been chiming in and keeping him from harm had gone silent. Or he had just forgotten. Either way, Paul had the sense of encroaching doom.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” he asked around the chunks of cookie in his mouth.
“I couldn’t!” Julia said.
“Why?” he persisted.
“Don’t eat or drink anything! How hard is that to remember?” Julia yelled at him.
“My two children, I have so many things for you to do for me,” Gran said, her smile widening to show many tiny, sharp teeth. It reminded Paul of a nature show he’d seen about weird fish that lived in the deepest part of the ocean.
“It was just a cookie,” he said. “Why can’t we just leave?”
“By all means,” said Gran, as she gestured to the path behind him.
Paul began to get up but found he was stuck to the chair.
“We are bound by her will,” said Julia.
“Indeed you are,” Gran said.
“All you had to do was not eat that damned cookie,” Julia said.
“And why can’t you leave?” Paul asked.
“It’s a long story,” Julia replied, looking away.
“Did you eat a cookie too?” he asked.
Julia’s cheeks flushed — adorably, he thought — and she said, “It doesn’t matter.”
“Why?” Paul asked.
“Because shut up!” she said.
There was a sound, like nuts and bolts poured over aluminum foil, and they both looked at Gran, who appeared to be laughing. Her shoulders shook with each exhalation.
“This is going to be, oh, so merry,” Gran said, as she wiped a tear from her eye.
“This really is unfair,” said Paul loudly.
Julia rolled her eyes, but Gran said, “No, you are correct, Hero. It is unfair; you came into this with a pure heart.”
Gran looked right at Julia and said, “Truly pure.”
“What do you–“ asked Paul, but was cut off by Gran.
“I’ll make this wager: We will each make a portrait of fair Julia here, and the most accurate will be able to do what they will.”
“Portrait?” asked Paul.
But Gran had already produced an easel with a canvas, a pallet with paints, bushes, and an hourglass.
“When the sand runs out, then we will judge,” said Gran, who turned the hourglass over.
“What am I supposed to use?” asked Paul, who had not brought art supplies with him that morning.
“Whatever you like, dear, whatever you like,” said Gran, who was already painting away.
The hourglass was more likely a minute glass, with the rate that the sand was falling. Paul frantically went through his pockets; he had a pen, excellent! But the only paper he had — other than the notecard his boss had given him, and he probably needed that — was a ripped receipt for the Thai takeout he had the week before. The sand was running faster and faster, as he reached into his last pocket and felt a smooth, cool shape.
With a confidence he rarely felt, Paul pulled out his smart phone and snapped a picture.
“Done,” he said, as the last grain of sand fell.
“Pardon?” said Gran.
“Here, take a look,” he said, and showed the old woman the picture he took. It was entirely accurate — even more so than the one Gran had done, though her work was eerily accurate, but still not as complete as a digital photo.
He showed it to Julia, who favored him with a smile. “Good work, hero,” she said. Not a sonnet, but it did make Paul feel as if he deserved the title.
Gran’s eyes narrowed, and she looked as if she were ready to inflict grave damage. Instead, she pulled out two twigs from somewhere and broke them. With that, Paul knew he could get up and walk away.
He stood, offering a hand to Julia, which she took (yeah!), and they walked towards the path.
“I misjudged you,” said Gran, “I thought you a stupid oaf. I will not make that mistake again. Go, for now.”
Paul did not care for the “for now” part of that, nor for the “stupid oaf” comment, but he had fixed this and was enjoying the moment. In fact, as they proceeded back to the doorway, the Rabbit winked at him, and the squirrel dropped an acorn into his pocket. He felt, and quite rightly, that this was a sort of praise.
As they walked, Paul who still felt pretty good about the way things turned out, turned to Julia and asked, “What was that all about?”
“It’s kind of a long story,” she replied, avoiding his eyes.
“But who-“ he began.
She stopped and looked him straight in the eyes, “Listen, do you have relatives that you might not talk to if you weren’t related?”
Thinking of his cousin who had joined the Salvation Army to meet girls and subsequently deserted when it was apparent that while women loved a man in uniform, it didn’t mean they loved every man in uniform, Paul said, “Uh… sure.”
“That’s the short version,” she said.
Paul felt that pursuing this line of questioning would ruin the moment, so he just enjoyed the companionable silence.
Once they arrived at the door, Paul said, “They said you had the key.”
“What key?” she said, distractedly.
Paul felt a bubble of panic rising in him. While he enjoyed strolling through a forest with a beautiful woman, he was quite certain that if he was stuck here, he would die pretty quickly.
“Oh, you mean this key?” Julia asked, as she produced a brass key from a hidden pocket.
“I hope so,” he replied.
She smiled and turned the key in the lock, and the door swung inward to show the ceiling of Parsnip and Looseleaf’s apartment. She took his hand and together they stepped forward and onto the table. Paul again felt vertigo, but much less this time. Parsnip and Looseleaf stood on either side of the table and said in unison, “Welcome back!”
There was a feast in the apartment, which seemed very appropriate, with excellent food and beer. And there were stories that were at once funny, exciting, sad, poignant, informative, and scary (but only the one about the Coppermen). Afterwards, he could not recall even a word, with one exception. He had said, perhaps aided by the exceptional beer, that he wished he could stay there. Soon after that, Paul got up to stagger home and Julia kissed his forehead, which was the last thing he remembered clearly.
* * *
Paul woke up in his own bed. He couldn’t recall how he got there, and everything that had happened seemed like a dream — except, unlike most dreams, he could recall everything with complete clarity, except for those stories.
He looked at his clock, 7:30am. He needed to rush to get to work on time, so he jumped in the shower, grabbed an energy bar, and walked out of his apartment door into the front yard. Front yard? He looked around. He was standing in front of a door with a brass A on it, which was next to a smaller door. He looked back through the doorway — that was his apartment, but now it was next-door to Parsnip and Looseleaf’s apartment.
Just then, Looseleaf, in a tatty brown robe, opened his door.
“Good morning! Ready for work, I see,” he said cheerily.
“What’s going on?” asked Paul, who was not sure he wanted to know.
Parsnip, sporting a spotless green robe, stuck his head out and said, “Excellent! Early for work. I like the cut of your jib!”
“What is going on?” Paul repeated.
“You work for us now,” said Parsnip.
“No, I don’t,” said Paul uneasily.
“Indeed you do, young sir!” chimed in Looseleaf.
“’Twas your request!” added Parsnip.
Looseleaf produced a folded-up piece of heavy paper. It was long and contained many heretofores and in-the-event-ofs, but at the bottom was Paul’s signature, countersigned by Parsnip and Looseleaf and witnessed by Julia, and apparently made official with a wax seal. Quite official, in an unfair sort of way.
“But my apartment…?” Paul asked.
“All part of your signing bonus. Traveling expenses taken care of,” said Parsnip.
“No worries, old boy!” added Looseleaf, with a hearty slap on the arm.
Paul took a moment. This was crazy, this sort of thing didn’t happen. He had a life, and friends. He couldn’t just pull up and leave. He turned to say just that, when Julia walked up and opened the front gate. She was dressed in an aviatrix jacket, cream-colored silk blouse, tight brown pants, and high boots with buckles up the side.
“You’ve joined the team, have you?” she asked.
“Yes,” Paul said, and he meant it.
“Welcome to The Borough,” she replied with a smile.

An Odd Missive-Part Two

As promised, here is part two of An Odd Missive, in which Paul ventures further into a very different part of New York. Will there be more oddness? Spoilers, yes there will. Next week, the conclusion.

Paul came up a stairwell and out onto a street lined with trees and cozy-looking brownstones. It looked like an affluent neighborhood in Brooklyn, which, given the time he had just spent underground, made sense. What made less sense was that it looked like late afternoon: The sun was low in the sky and everything was bathed in a golden glow that made Paul think of warm caramel being poured over a large bowl of vanilla ice cream flecked with tiny bits of vanilla beans.
He shook his head and looked down at the card, which again contained new instructions — he wondered for a moment where his boss had managed to buy an apparently location-aware notecard. Maybe it was that “e-paper” he’d read about? Something made by Google? He shrugged to himself and read the instructions: “Walk on the even side of the street till you see the greenstone house. Turn one hundred and eighty degrees and look for the door with the brass A on it. Walk to that door and knock on the smaller door to the right…”
There was an ellipsis. Paul turned the card over: “Knock twice, then once more, and enter when bid, but not before.”
He noticed the doors started at Z and went backwards from there. Given the amber afternoon light, picturesque buildings, and tree-lined street, Paul took his time. It seemed wrong to hurry here, so he strolled. Thoughts of the work awaiting him back at the office seemed a distant and minor concern. When he had arrived at the office that morning, he seemed to be facing an endless workload, and he had resigned himself to another late night and not being able to meet friends for drinks, which, as always, depressed him.
But now, none of that seemed to matter. There was a pleasant breeze and the birds were singing, in what sounded like harmony. Could birds do that? Paul had never heard of that happening, but here it was, so he had to admit that it could happen.
Looking to his left he saw that he was close to his destination… E, D, C, B, and finally A. There was a smaller door to the right of the main door of the house, and a little path, in the small front yard that all of these houses had, split off and led to the smaller door.
He walked up to the smaller door, which had two knockers, and looked at the card again. It read, “Knock both at the same time but don’t drop the pies”. Paul looked around, but there wasn’t a place to rest the bag, so he held it in his teeth and rapped both knockers simultaneously. Twice, then once more.
Immediately, two small peepholes opened and two eyes looked out. One eye was brown with flecks of green and the other was green with flecks of brown.
“Who are you?” asked Brown.
“And what do you want?” asked Green.
“I was about to ask that!” protested Brown.
“I can’t wait all day for you to ask the correct questions!” countered Green.
“Do you believe this?” asked Brown, “The absolute temerity!”
There was a pause as Paul listened to this argument, which had the rhythm and comfort of something often said.
“He asked you a question,” Green said.
“I’m sorry?” said Paul, as he took the bag from his teeth.
“So cheeky!” exclaimed Brown.
“Perhaps he didn’t hear you,” said Green, “Maybe he’s deaf.”
“He’d have to be, to not hear you!” said Brown.
Paul looked at his card, which advised “Tell them you have a letter, but do not slide it in the mail slot”.
“Uh, I have a letter,” said Paul.
“Please just put it here,” said Green, who flapped his mail slot open.
“You’ll just lose it,” said Brown to Green. “In here, please,” as he flapped open his own slot.
“I’m not supposed to do that,” Paul said, wishing he could.
“I’m afraid we’re at an impasse then,” said Brown.
“In this we are agreed!” added Green.
Paul looked at his card, which only said, “HOT PIES”.
“I have some hot pies,” he offered.
“Savory?” asked Green, enthusiastically.
“Or sweet?” asked Brown, with equal fervor.
“Uh, both,” replied Paul.
“Why didn’t you say so!” said Brown.
“You hardly gave the poor soul a chance to slide a word in!” said Green.
“As if you every stop chattering!” said Brown.
“Please come in,” Green and Brown said in sync.
* * *
There was a click and a line appeared down the dead center of the door as it slowly swung open. Paul stepped into a long room that was bisected by a neat yellow line of paint. On the left side it looked homey, if a little sloppy; books were stacked on most available surfaces, there were odd-looking devices on the shelves that whirred quietly, and the furniture looked worn but comfortable. It seemed a place where an eccentric professor might live. The man with the brown eye (he had in fact two eyes, Paul noted) stood on that side, dressed in a green suit. His coat was long, longer than was in fashion, as Paul understood fashion, but it looked freshly pressed and fit him well.
The other side mirrored the layout exactly. Well, not entirely exactly, Paul realized. There was the same furniture, but it was neatly organized with books on shelves, odd devices in glass cases with brass plaques at the bottom, and it was spotlessly clean. Green was dressed in a brown suit, but unlike his companion — Paul was unsure if they were friends exactly — it was worn and showed some food stains.
Both of them inhaled through their noses and smiled.
“The Table,” they said simultaneously, and hurried to the center of the room, where each took hold of two seemingly invisible points on the yellow line of paint and pulled back, revealing a rectangular stone table that rose up from the floor, along with three chairs, one on either side and one at the head.
“Shall we?” they said, pointing to the middle chair. Paul sat down and placed the sack with the pies on the table. Brown produced from his pockets a placemat, small plate, and silver fork and knife. Green pulled out a greasy, crumpled piece of newspaper from his pocket and smoothed it on the tabletop. They each took their respective hot pies and ate them. Brown in small, careful forkfuls, and Green with his hands and spilling flaky crumbs down his front. Brown neatly dabbed his mouth with a napkin, though there was nothing to dab, and Green licked his fingertips and collected the remains of the pie and popped them into his mouth.
“That was splendid!” said Brown.
“Top notch!” agreed Green.
They both seemed in a very good mood, now that they had eaten. Paul thought they might be hypoglycemic; his last girlfriend had that and was a terror if she missed a meal. Paul had taken to carrying energy bars in his jacket to avoid arguments.
“Now, young man,” said Brown, “what may we call you?”
“Indeed, names are important,” agreed Green.
“But not your full name, of course,” added Brown.
“Indeed not! Keep your secret name, well… secret,” said Green.
“I’m Paul,” replied Paul.
“A good name!” said Brown.
“Solid, reliable,” added Green.
Paul did not feel quite solid at all. In fact he felt as though he was in a dream, even though it had a through-line that was unlike most of his dreams, which made no narrative sense when repeated out loud afterwards. Or so the girlfriend before the last seemed fond of telling him.
“Thank you…” Paul said.
“You’re welcome,” said Green.
“Quite welcome,” added Brown.
All three stared at each other till Brown said, “Have we introduced ourselves?”
“I’m sure he didn’t come here by accident,” said Green.
“Surely not, but it is rude not to do so,” countered Brown.
Green thought a moment and said, “Agreed.”
Brown said, “I am Lucius Parsnip, esquire.”
Green immediately added, “And I am Petronius Looseleaf, esquire.”
“So, you’re lawyers?” asked Paul.
“Oh my, no!” said Parsnip.
“We are gentlemen!” added Looseleaf.
“It’s just that–“ began Paul.
“I believe you brought a missive?” said Parsnip.
“I’m sorry, a what?” asked Paul.
“The letter,” said Looseleaf.
Pulling it out from his coat pocket, Paul put it on the table.
“Lovely penmanship,” observed Looseleaf.
“Quite. It’s a dying art, I’m afraid,” said Parsnip.
Neither reached for it, but they did look at Paul.
“Would you mind terribly?” asked Looseleaf.
“Just turning it over,” finished Parsnip.
“Sure,” said Paul, as he flipped the envelope, revealing the wax seal.
“Oh, well, this is a surprise,” said Parsnip, although he did not sound surprised in the least.
“Shocking,” casually replied Looseleaf.
They each took out a small pocketknife and sliced through the wax seal. With an exhalation of air the envelope unfolded itself, getting larger with each unfold until, lying flat, it fully covered the table. Parsnip and Looseleaf grabbed their place setting and newspaper, respectively, just as it finished. It was an illustration of a doorway standing in the middle of a forest glen. The image was rendered in black ink, but so highly detailed that it seemed almost real. The foliage seemed to flutter in a wind. Which was impossible.
“Very well, in you go!” said Parsnip hurriedly.
“No time to waste!” added Looseleaf.
Paul had enough. He stood and said, “What is going on here?!”
“You need to go through the door and retrieve Julia,” said Parsnip.
Paul, who felt he’d been a pretty good sport about everything today, said, “It’s a picture of a door! Not a real door! If this is a joke, it’s over! And not really funny!”
“It’s no joke, old boy,” said Looseleaf, who grabbed the doorknob on the paper and flung it open as he stepped aside, the door falling back and hanging off the side of the table.
Surprised, Paul leaned over and looked in. He saw a forest glen at dusk, the horizon at a right angle to where he stood. Crickets chirped, and a nightingale sang. There was an earthy smell, rich and loamy. Paul didn’t know what loam was, but that’s the word that sprung to mind.
“What is this?” asked Paul, as he looked back at these odd men.
Without a word, Parsnip and Looseleaf each bent down, grabbed one of Paul’s ankles, and tipped him over and down through the doorway. Paul felt a wave of vertigo as he passed though the doorway and landed in a heap on the forest floor. Shaking his head, which did nothing to ameliorate his nausea, he then closed his eyes, took deep breaths, and did not move. When he felt as though he was no longer going to vomit, he opened his eyes.

TO BE CONCLUDED.