Edge of the Waves

I’m not sure what inspired this. Perhaps a longing to see something new.

She ran along the wooded path, past towering ancient trees that loomed over her, towards the sea. Ravens squawked as she passed, disturbed by her footsteps, but quieted after she thundered by, though their black eyes followed her till out of sight. It was a cold morning, no snow or frost but as her Gran would say, ‘there’s a bite in the air.’

Despite the chill her face was beaded with sweat when she finally arrived at the sea. Waves threw themselves at the shore like an invading army, grim and unrelenting, at least until the tide changed.

Leaving footprints, she now walked to the large outcropping of rocks that stood at the edge of the ocean. Carefully, because she had fallen into the icy waters before, she climbed to what she called her throne, a niche of rock that she could sit in comfortably, or as comfortably one could on wet cold stone.

Squawks of ravens a distant memory, she watched the gulls circle above the water. Sometimes they sounded sad, other times as if they were inviting her to join them and soar across the sea. Whatever their mood, it always filled her longing.

Are you going to do something today,” the Voice asked.

She didn’t know who the Voice was. A spirit? Maybe even the ocean itself. She could be mad. Hearing voices was not something you shared, it often ended badly for those who admitted it. And yet, her Gran had told her to listen to that little voice inside her head when she was unsure what to do.

The Voice was not little. It was deep and wise sounding and only spoke to her on her throne.

I’m not sure,” she replied.

You are never sure.”

Don’t be cruel.”

With a rumbling sigh, the Voice replied, “I have no wish to be cruel, but you come here often and just stare out.”

That’s doing something.”

I suppose so.”

A wave slammed against the base of the rocks and fine spray erupted, leaving a taste of salt on her lips.

Is there nothing better to do?” inquired the voice.

All my chores are done.”

Good.”

I just like looking out.”

Are you hoping to find something?”

Maybe.”

And what is it you are looking for?”

I’ll know it when I see it.”

Ahhh,” the Voice responded.

Suddenly, the gulls dived to the surface and a feeding frenzy began. As quickly as it started, it ended and they rode the wind again.

There is much out there,” observed the Voice.

Where?”

Across the sea.”

Like what?”

People and places.”

We have those here,” she sniffed.

You want to see what else there is,” stated the Voice. It was not a question.

She sat silent for a while before replying, “I do.”

I thought as much.”

What are they like? All those other people.”

Some are kind, others wicked.”

How can you tell one from the other?”

It’s not always easy.”

It should be.”

Many things should be.”

Frowning she looked back to the woods. They offered no wisdom. The trees never spoke to her.

What else is out there?”

Wonders and disaster.”

If you don’t really know, just say so.”

Were I were to catalog it all, you would die of old age before I would finish.”

Ha! That sounds like a lie!”

It is not.”

There can’t be that much out there.”

But there is.”

Tell me one thing.”

Very well. Far from where you sit is a grand city called Nanthotept. In it, thousands of people live. It is surrounded by a mighty wall, taller than the trees behind us. There is a university where the wise come from all corners of the world to study.”

People travel to study?” she asked suspiciously.

Indeed.”

What else do they have?”

A zoo with animals from distant lands, where people can come and marvel.”

Do the animals enjoy it?”

As with all living things, there is no one answer.”

It seems cruel, to lock up someone just so they can be gawped at.”

Not untrue.”

What else do they have?”

It is a center of trade, it is been said if you cannot find in the markets of Nanthotept, it does not exist. There are lush gardens, filled with flowers and plants of every color.”

They are very boastful.”

Perhaps, though many have sung their praises.”

If you say so.”

At the gates, there are two, enormous statues. One is a man with the head of a bull, the other, a woman with the head of a lion. It is said, if the city is in peril, they will come to life and defend it.”

How many times has that happened?” she asked excitedly.

Never.”

So it’s just a story.”

Maybe. But no one has been foolish enough to try.”

She pondered this as the tide began to retreat, the waves crashing further and further away.

I think that I’d like to visit that city,” she finally said.

Very well.”

But not today.”

It is a great distance from here.”

There are things I need to do.”

Naturally.”

Standing, she looked towards the woods.

I should go back now. Gran will need me to help with supper.”

Of course.”

I’ll be back tomorrow.”

Until then,” the Voice replied, ever patient.

Climbing down she followed her footprints back to the treeline. Just before entering the forest she paused and looked out over the water. The Voice was silent. She never heard it here. ‘I’ll start tomorrow,’ she promised herself as she ran home.

In Our Nature

I had two influences for this story. The first is the artwork of Mœbius, aka Jean Henri Gaston Giraud. Mœbius was a French comic artist well known for his imaginative, fantastic, and absurdist style. If you are not familiar, please look up his work, it will be time well spent. The second was the writer and director, Billy Wilder, but only at the end. Please enjoy and have a happy whatever you celebrate this time of year.

Wind groaned as it rushed through the gaps in the enormous stone tree, in a manner that sounded to Ghent that it was not yet ready to awaken.

“This is a very dispiriting local,” observed T7-U.

“I’d call it more melancholy,” replied Ghent.

“You’re far too romantic for a Xeno-archeologist slash sociologist.”

Ghent smiled, then said, “I’d say I’m about the right amount of romantic. You’re quite mopey for a Mobile Artificial Intelligence.”

The floating MAI, currently shaped as a sphere, glowed an ocherous hue that suggested that if it did have eyes, they would be rolling.

“Let’s take a closer look,” said Ghent as she trotted towards the edifice.

“You know I’ve already scanned it and have a thorough holo of both its exterior and interior. If we went back to the ship, you could examine it at your leisure.”

“We didn’t come all this way to look at a holo.”

“Maybe you didn’t,” muttered T7-U.

“It’ll be fun.”

“You say that but it never is.”

Ghent discovered that there were a series of platforms on the outside of the tree, which would allow her to climb around and up it. She ran her hands over the stone at the base. It was rough and mimicked tree bark. Taking out her portable analyzer she scanned the rock.

“This appears to be petrified wood, very ancient!” she exclaimed.

“I already knew that,” interjected T7-U, “I can even tell exactly how old it is.”

“Go on then.”

“One hundred, seventy-three million, five hundred and thirty-eight thousand, two hundred and sixty years, eight months, four days, seventeen hours and eleven seconds old. And counting.”

“Remarkable!”

“Not really, atomic dating is actually very easy. For me.”

“I meant that this is still here.”

“All it had to do was exist. Not challenging for an inanimate object.”

“Maybe, but no natural disaster toppled it, it wasn’t eroded by sand and wind, it stands here, just as it did so all those centuries ago.”

“It used to be alive, so maybe not exactly.”

“You seem especially glum today T7-U. Is something troubling you?”

“Other than you frittering away your time, no,” remarked the MAI.

Ghent gave her companion a meaningful stare but it didn’t blink. Of course, technically, it couldn’t do that, but it seemed unperturbed by her gaze.

“Very well then, let’s get exploring!” said Ghent with enthusiasm.

The steps were designed for a longer stride than a standard human had, indicating perhaps a taller species, so Ghent adjusted her localized gravity field so she could leap from one platform to the next. T7-U floated alongside her. After circumnavigating one and a half times they arrived at an opening, three meters wide and five meters tall.

Before entering, Ghent looked out over the plain that the structure sat on. To the north-east, on the horizon, were mountains, little more than tiny bumps at this distance.

The two suns, one a G-type star and the other a blue O-type, had passed each other and were slowly heading to set on opposite sides of the planet. Ghent recorded images, not for science but because she found it beautiful.

“Let’s see what’s what.”

They entered the tree tower. Sunlight streamed through both sides of the multitude of gaps in the stone. With the dust that blew in, it created a lattice of light.

“This reminds me of the Living Cathedral on Banvoc Prime,” said Ghent, “Utilizing nature for art.”

“My scans indicate that the species that made this place, genetically altered the plant life to grow in this precise layout,” added T7-U, “So unlike the Living Cathedral, this was engineered, not utilized.”

“It might be argued that both are utilized in the broadest sense of the word,” Ghent pointed out.

“Galactic Standard is a very sloppy and imprecise language,” snarked the MAI.

Ghent shrugged and replied, “You are technically right-”

“The very best way to BE right,” interrupted N7-U.

“But,” continued Ghent, “like great art, it can be subject to interpretation.”

N7-U said nothing in a very pointed way.

“Look at the tile work on the floor,” exclaimed Ghent in an attempt to distract the MAI, “The glyphs are similar to the kind found on many Harbinger sites, especially because of the circular pattern.”

“You are correct, it seems likely the natives had contact with them.”

Looking about the vaulted chamber, she saw carvings. Then again, not carvings precisely, engineered artwork? The native species seems to have tri-legged mobility, with long muscular legs and a humanoid torso and a horizontal head. It was representational, as best as she could tell without seeing a live being or a mummified corpse.

“Let’s see if we can translate this. Link up to my scanner, if you don’t mind,” Ghent asked.

“Linked now.”

With a dance of light and an almost imperceptible hum, the two transcribed the glyphs and the matched them to other examples of the Harbinger’s language.

“I’ve detected an energy surge,” warned N7-U, “Please retreat at least thirty meters and find shelter.”

Ghent moved rapidly, some of the places she explored had a habit of being dangerous and she trusted the MAI. Safely tucked away behind a pillar, she waited. Seconds passed then she heard it. A beautiful song, though she couldn’t understand the words.

“You should come out now,” she heard N7-U say.

From the center of the glyph tile-work came a projection of one of the natives. They did have three legs and an elongated head. The eyes were large and had a double, brass-colored iris. They moved in what seemed to be a graceful dance, and their skin seemed to be covered with a very fine fur. Both Xeno-archeologist slash sociologist and MAI stood and watched this performance until it faded.

“The light from the suns powered a projector set into the middle of the pattern,” stated N7-U, “It must start when enough energy has been harvested.”

“What a gift, to see a species that may not exist anymore,” she said with a smile.

“There is no evidence of current sentient life on this world,” added N7-U.

“It is possible that they left, and found a new home.”

“Would you like to hear the probability of that happening? It is low. Very, very low.”

“But not zero,” Ghent countered.

“No. Not zero.”

“There you go!”

As they explored the rest of the petrified tree tower, Ghent delighted in all they discovered. The images on the walls, containers made of some variety of ceramic steel, tools, and more advanced machines, long drained of power. Each one cataloged and samples collected.

After several hours, the suns began to set, the yellow one first then the blue. N7-U glowed so Ghent could see.

“Would you like me to summon the ship?” asked the MAI.

“Not just yet,” she replied, moving to a small balcony, “The moons are rising and I want to see that.”

N7-U followed her and radiated heat to keep her warm.

“Thank you.”

“You are welcome.”

The two of them stood watched the three moons rise into the night sky, each of them a different shade, red, green, and blue.

“I would like to ask you a question,” stated N7-U.

“You would?”

“Yes. If you don’t mind.”

“Please, ask away.”

“Why do you care about the past of others so much?”

“There’s not just one reason. Part of it is curiosity, other worlds are filled with new and fascinating things. Art, and if we’re lucky, music, and stories. We can learn so much from what has come before. We still only know very little about the Harbingers. What did they want? Why visit so many worlds? Where are they now? So many unanswered questions.”

N7-U floated silently for a moment then said, “And yet, it’s all the same.”

“How can you say that? The inhabitants of this planet are very different from humans or the Juntu, or the Bantakians, just to name three.”

“Whoever these people were, they are now gone, and until today, forgotten.”

“Exactly, they live again.”

“Do they? After many years of research, you might have a slight idea of who they were, but hardly the full picture.”

“True, but no one can know everything. Some knowledge is surely better than none?”

“As one of your people once said, ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’”

“Ha! Laying some ancient human wisdom on me! Well played sir,” Ghent conceded.

“The odds of truly knowing this species is five trillion, nine hundred and seventy-nine million, three hundred and-”

“You’ve made your point! I know we’ll only get a sliver of insight into this species. However, we might gain more knowledge of Harbingers.”

“How do you know that the Harbingers are even still alive? Or if they have your best interests in mind?” asked N7-U.

“One, we don’t. They could all be dead or ascended to the next plane of existence or something more incomprehensible. Two, every place we’ve seen evidence of their presence has been positive. And if they are even half as advanced as we think they are, it would be easy for them to conquer the Concordance of Worlds. Why would they make us work this hard to find them, and why leave clues if they wanted to attack?”

“Your reasoning is… sound.”

“Thank you. Did you translate the song or the glyphs yet?”

“I have.”

She stared at the MAI.

“It seems to be a prayer of thanks. To the Harbingers. Though they use a different word but it is clear from the context.”

“How dangerous! We must flee at once!”

“Please do not mock me!”

“Sorry, I apologize. I wasn’t making fun of you. Just what you said.”

“I do not see the distinction,” observed N7-U.

“I was doing it with affection.”

“Understood. I do accept your apology then.”

They stood for a while, Ghent watching the moonrise, N7-U possessing thoughts.

“I wish you would allow us to explore for you. MAIs are extraordinarily resistant to damage, we can go places biological beings cannot, our memories are flawless,-”

“You are an outstanding being, but humans have the need to do things for themselves. Obviously not everyone, we’d be tripping over each other if that were true. But enough of us want to see what’s over the next hill, so to speak.”

“It would be safer for you if you did not.”

“In our nature,” Ghent said with a shrug.

“This seems to be the truth,” N7-U replied with resignation.

“There is something to be said for boots on the ground, if we hadn’t explored first hand, we never would never have heard that alien song.”

“Very true. But it might have been dangerous, even fatal.”

“No reward without risk.” Ghent countered.

“While that might factual, however I must insist on protecting you.”

“Even when I don’t want you to?” she asked.

“That is when you will need it the most,” N7-U pointed out.

“Agreed!” Ghent accepted, “We complement each other well, don’t you think.”

“According to many philosophical theories, the balance of opposing viewpoints has merits.”

“I’ll take that as a yes. If you don’t mind, it is getting very chilly, could you please summon our ship?”

“It’s on its way now.”

“Thank you. You know, I think it’s very sweet the way you look after me,” she said.

“As it is your nature to put yourself in possible peril, it is in my nature to protect you,” answered N7-U.

“I love you too.”

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 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

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.

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.

[Travels and Fun Times] 4 Underwater Adventures to Add to Your Bucket List

Why not turn your next trip into an underwater adventure?

Escape to this archipelago nation, where vanilla-sand beaches glitter like amber jewels at sunset, and coconut-scented breezes cascade through palm trees and turquoise seas. But on these islands, the best-kept secrets lie under the sea.

Dive into the ocean, and you’ll find five-star spas, seafood restaurants, and other surprises. Sip champagne at clam-shaped bars, and twirl on underwater dance floors bathed in cobalt light.

But don’t go home yet. The night is just starting.

See full post here.