Lil’ Tommy

Idle hands, goes the saying, are the devil’s playground. Playgrounds are full of children, normally. Children, it might be argued, are the very definition of idle. So it should be no surprise to us, though it is rather peculiar, that a child should be the cause of great trouble.

The town of Pleasant Springs, idyllic and picturesque – quaint, even – could not have foreseen its doom when the nights bore sweet dreams and the flowers of spring were in bloom.

But the nights, they’ve grown eerie and never-quite-cheery, for the town hall’s with corpses festooned. The nightly rubenesques in their dresses paraded, dancing their bloated arabesques, to the tune of the call of the loon.

Lil Tommy, just seven, was toying outside, in the plaza near the town’s center. Through the air came the smell of the pies and the cakes, and the shops signed with ‘do not enter’.

To this Tommy thought ‘Bah!’, let them keep all their sweets, I will find my own way to be king. And swiftly he strode to the field’s very middle, the place of the old witches’ ring.

In the firefly-glow of the old field’s lawn Lil’ Tommy set down a few trinkets. Of the farmers he took token of promise, innocuous they’d thought Tommy’s game. In a circle, arranged, in a curious array lay the old buttons of old man Rickets, and the buttons of Pie Lady Donna, and the buttons of his teach Ms. Lane, everybody in town have given Tommy a button, a token, a promise thought tame. Even Mayor Hopstocket the man with the lockets of golden hair some called insane.

And the buttons had blood of pigeons and rabbits and foxes and ducks and dogs. And of cats and of lizards that lived through a blizzard only to be squashed like frogs (the blood of which also covered the buttons).

It was all quite singular, most peculiar indeed, that the smell of rot and sulphur should invade the sweet breeze.

And the darkness took form and it stood there ‘fore Tommy, who dwarfish did look in its shadow. But he called for a reason and called well he did, for the Devil ‘fore Tommy would do all he bid, but for only the souls of the people in town. The souls of the mild-mannered wicked and foul. All humans, said Satan, are tainted in truth. All women and men, even dogs, forsooth!

So there Lil’ Tommy did pledge to old scratch the souls of the women and men of Pleasant Springs. And pleasant no longer were any o’ the springs, for what ran through them after you’d rather not swim in.

For pies and for cakes and for candies galore,

For toys and for summer-like days evermore,

Did sell, Lil’ Tommy, the souls of the town

And now and forever he sits on that ground

On that very field, chubby and round

Without friends, without, cheer, but with nothing to fear,

Yet content with the sweets that he holds so dear.

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Dichotomous

Zombie apocalypses aren’t as cut and dry as some would think. Ng wasn’t sure what to make of the situation himself. The movies and books and all the media that milked the Zombie genre for a century or so was hardly preparation for the actual end of the world… or the civilized world, at least.

 

There’s something to be said about dying: it’s easy to do. He had been taking care of his garden when he had been taken by surprise, and bitten, by Manuel, his Mexican neighbor. It hadn’t been pleasant, the bite, but he didn’t take more than a few seconds to die. It was a blessing, Ng thought, that the virus or whatever the hell it was that caused the state of undeath was so fast-acting, so effective, that people died and turned in the space of a minute, if that much.

 

Ng hadn’t heard about anything amiss on the news, certainly no mention whatsoever of an outbreak of any sort, and so he didn’t have much to go on when his body rose up on its own and his body – corpse, rather – shambled on and out of his front yard. This is where it all struck him as being singularly odd; he was watching his reanimated corpse from outside himself. That is, he was disembodied, existing extraneously independent from his recently-deceased body.

 

He tried looking at himself, at his own feet – not those of his corpse but, out of habit, at the place where, from his solipsistic vantage point, his feet would have been – and saw nothing but the grass beneath him. He was a… ghost?

 

Funny, he never did wonder what happened to the soul, assuming then, before this, that there was one, when a character in a film or book was zombified. Come to think of it, now that he thought about the word “soul”, he couldn’t be sure that there was a soul. Wasn’t that a bitch? Here he was, clearly an incorporeal entity, floating – he thought “floating” was the only appropriate term – in the air, and he couldn’t tell if there was a soul. That was just like the universe, after all; answer one question – is there an afterlife? Apparently, yes – and get a combo of a thousand more – is there a soul? Can’t tell, what about God? Dunno, what does one do for fun after one dies? Too soon to tell…

 

One question he was considering was answered quickly enough; Manuel’s ghost was floating over from his house to Ng’s and it was smiling at him. It was thinking at him, too, not talking, but thinking. Telephathy, huh? Who’d have thought…

 

Manuel was apparently enjoying the afterlife for the time being, he said as much after apologizing for his undead corpse’s actions, deeply ashamed, he said telepathically. No need to apologize, said Ng earnestly, there wasn’t much an incorporeal being could do to stop the shambling corpse that formerly housed it, after all.

 

So who turned you? He asked Manuel. Maid, he said. What about the children, Ng asked with genuine worry. Out of town with the wife, said Manuel, with some relief, though they both knew it might be a toss-up whether anyone would survive this, the proverbial hitting of the fans by the world’s vast reserves of fecal matter.

 

What do you say we go over and enjoy the Hendersons’ getting eaten, Manuel suggested with a peevish smile under the thick, black mustache. Sounds like fun! With a disembodied chuckle, Ng and Manuel made their way down the street to the uptight Hendersons’ ostentatious house. Ng thought it would be something to see what the posh family made of the afterlife. Manuel quipped something which Ng didn’t quite catch until the end – yeah, apparently telepathy can be misheard, er, misreceived? He said it’ll be fun to watch those gringos running for a change.

That’s Nice

Jeb thought the new stranger who’d rented out the old Spencer cabin out by Oak Road was… unsettling. Yeah, that was the word: unsettling.

Not only was he not at all bothered by Jeb’s grotesque facial deformity – which he took pride in and wielded like Da Vinci wielded a paintbrush – but he didn’t seem fazed in the slightest by the smattering of rude swearing and insults he directed at the well-dressed man in lieu of cordial exchanges. ‘Do you want to die, city boy? ‘ Jeb would gander, to which he got a smile and ‘Nice weather ‘round these parts, isn’t it?‘ in response. ‘How ‘bout I rape that pretty face of yours and take a shit in your mouth? ‘ Jeb would stab with, only to receive a friendly chuckle, a conspiratorial look – the nerve! –, and ‘I bet you see all sorts of folks coming down this road, eh? ‘.

Jeb still did his job – he always did! –, because it was part of the way things were in this neck of the woods. You made sure the new strangers renting out the cabin got their gas fill so that they would arrive without too much trouble at said cabin, while also making sure that they got riled up and creeped out. But it just wasn’t working with this one. That was another odd thing; this was just the one person, rather than the usual group of horny college students.

No longer glaring at the weird stranger – that unassuming smirk on the man’s face was making Jeb real uncomfortable – he finished pumping gas into the Oldsmobile and handed the keys back to the clean-shaven man with the neatly combed hair, keeping his head down lest he catch another flash of that perfect set of teeth smiling right at him.

Yer goin’ to that there cabin by the Oak Road, aintcha, boy? Yer gonna get fucked, alright.‘ Jeb ventured weakly, a last ditch effort, no conviction in his mild vitriolic jab. ‘I’m sure it’ll be a great time, thanks for the pump. ‘ said the stranger without missing a beat, still smiling, as he handed Jeb a twenty note and patted him on the back before getting into the driver’s seat and driving away at a respectable forty miles per hour.

******************************************************************

Madame Lupescu only managed to hear the roar of the Oldsmobile’s engine in time to sprint into the middle of the road. How the hell did the car get to be so quiet? No matter, she was in place on cue for “the cursing” as she liked to call her part of the scheme. She loved being the crone, the old gypsy witch. She had come to relish the role and was quite likely the best at it, never mind that she was really the only one that ever played the role round these parts any longer.

She braced herself for the inevitable hit from the vehicle as it came around the curve, closing her eyes, and heard the classic screeching of the tires as the driver hit the brakes – futilely, of course – as he was assaulted by the appearance of the old lady lost in the middle of the road. She was always good at the dying curse part, when the occupants would at times get down and out of the car to look that the dying woman, who would spit out the damning Romani verse that would mark them for certain, horrible death. Sometimes they didn’t get down, so she would have to reappear several times down the road, pointing her crooked, gnarled fingers at them, her face bloody and misshapen. She preferred the former, though. She could effect more gravitas; she should’ve pursued a career in Hollywood, she often thought wistfully.

The screeching stopped and she realized she was still standing in the middle of the road. She opened one eye and looked sheepishly in the direction from where the car had been approaching and saw no car. Confused, she turned around with a jerking motion in the opposite direction and saw the Oldsmobile stopped on the side of the road. Then, to her surprise and confusion, the car backed up slowly toward her.

There was only one person in the car, a nice looking man in his thirties, who asked her if she was ok and that he would like to offer her a ride to wherever it was that she was going. She simply stared at the man as her mind chugged and churned, her mental gears jammed with the sudden change in the norm of how these things were supposed to go. This just never happened.

He insisted for only a few seconds and, before she knew it, she had somehow opened the passenger door and taken a seat as if spellbound. The man smiled as he might to a kindly grandmother and said ‘Where to, ma’am? ‘. It took her a few more seconds to gather her bearings enough to blurt out a staggered ‘J- Just a mile down the road is fine, s- s- sonny‘. Sonny… Sonny! What the hell is wrong with me? She thought to herself as she sat there, brooding, glaring now and then at the stranger who never stopped smiling and would look at her kindly without flinching at what she knew were terrifying milk-white eyes and spittle-rimmed lips.

She realized she was scared stupid, taken out of her element, and she simply didn’t know what to do. The stranger would ask all manner of pleasant questions, small talk, though he seemed genuinely concerned for her, which was, of course, most unsettling.

What was worse was that she would reply as if her mouth had a mind of its own, stuttering out the appropriate replies, albeit stuttered, to the harmless questions. She wanted to wash her mouth out with brimstone!

A mile later down the road, which took too damn long given how slow the stranger drove, she got off and walked sullenly toward the entrance to her cave. She would be the laughing stock of the town, she was sure.

******************************************************************

Tommy, dressed in a mechanic’s jumper, wearing a ski mask, and wielding a large wrench with a screwdriver tip soldered on the bottom end, watched as the Oldsmobile parked a few meters away from the old Spencer cabin. Odd choice of vehicle, he thought for a moment. Not much he could do with the spare parts there as his resale clientele was more particular to the off-road vehicles and gas-guzzlers preppy college students usually drove. His second surprise was that only the one person got out of the vehicle, the driver, and it wasn’t a college-age person but a man in his early thirties – or so it appeared to him.

The stranger went into the cabin with a small duffle bag he took from the back seat, then he returned three more times for larger duffle bags from the trunk, which were clearly heavy given that the man grunted in effort every time he had to pick one up out of the trunk, which he then dragged into the cabin. Once the third and last of the large bags was in the cabin and the stranger did not return from inside, Tommy set about his business.

He inspected the car quickly, finding it odd that there was no sign of impact from where the stranger hit Madame Lupescu. Must be tough tin, this car, he thought. He pried open the hood of the car and was hit by a few juddering bolts of electricity from two sharp prongs that shot up from the engine and lodged themselves into his chest. He had little time to experience the jolt as he blacked out.

When he came to, he was being given water from a cup by the stranger. With a start which nearly knocked the cup out of the man’s hand he jumped to his feet and slowly backed away, eyes wide. He couldn’t understand what was happening. The stranger was smiling! Tommy had just tried to sabotage his car and the man was just smiling… after giving him freakin’ water, for crying out loud!

He bolted. He couldn’t have done anything else at the moment. He wasn’t scheduled to kill anyone until after midnight, but, well, there was only the one person, right? He didn’t have to stick around. Surely one of the others would get him. Yeah, that’s right. Another of the crew would get him…

 

******************************************************************

 

Cooner was eager to get the party started, but he had nothing but bad feelings about this caper. First of all, he had only heard the footsteps of one person. One! And then there was all that dragging he’d heard, heavy stuff, like sacks or something, and no loud music or merrymaking of any sort! What sort of frat did these guys belong to?

Well, it was time to make an appearance, so he got up from his little hole under the basement stairs and proceeded to climb them. As he put his hands up to push the trapdoor open he found he could not budge it at all. He tried a few more times, pushing up with all his strength – which was considerable, taking into consideration that he was short in stature but dwarf-like and heavily muscled – to no success whatsoever. The hell…?

Fuck! He was trapped down here. Fuuuuuuck.

 

******************************************************************

 

Abboleth was deeply troubled. Incorporeal as he was, he appeared to be unable to get out of the damnable cabin. The current tenant had done something, but he couldn’t quite tell what. Salt, surely, but something else… this smacked of holy water and sacred geometry.

Well, he hadn’t been able to take his usual flight through the forested mountains and missed out on possessing the hillbillies – so he didn’t get his usual buzz on from their drunkenness and the sweet smoke of tobacco – and he was angry, to say the least. He was going to enjoy desecrating the flesh of this person, the defilement of his soul.

There he was, laying down to sleep… wait, was that a sleeping bag? Damnit! He wasn’t going to be able to do the bed thing! Brimstone and damnation! He liked the shaky levitating bed bit. It was his favourite. Very well, no matter, there were other ways to get business done.

He swooped down to break into the man’s body and found himself paralyzed, feeling a burning sensation… how could he feel without any body? What the hell?! At that moment Abboleth noticed, for the first time, that there were chalk marks on the wooden boards of the floor. Shit! It was Solomon’s key… and was that the Roman Rite the man was reciting? Oh no… oh no no no noooooooooo

Was the last he could muster to express as he was sent back straight to Hell. Great. Getting out again was not going to be easy.

 

******************************************************************

 

Morning had come, the dawn had proceeded with no screams or howls or bloodshed, and the sun had risen quite brightly. Around the Spencer cabin could be seen all manner of dismayed zombies, semi-visible spirits, and a few dejected lycanthropes, all doing their best not to appear awkward and uncomfortable. Inside the house the smiling stranger yawned, stretched out of his sleeping bag, and then poured himself a cup of coffee from the thermos he’d brought with him. He finished his cup as he read the psalms from a leather bound bible, a family heirloom, and nonchalantly prepared incense to burn. He was pleased with how things had taken place. Add another one to the count, one more notch on his bedpost, another place cleansed.

He changed without bothering to shower – there would be a motel down the road where he could do so –, hopped into the trusty Oldsmobile his father had bequeathed him, and drove off sedately down the road.

The spooks could only look on as he drove away. They avoided one another’s eyes – where there were eyes – and shifted away from the place, to find refuge somewhere deeper into the forests and mountains and try to forget about the whole embarrassing ordeal.

In her cave, Madame Lupescu tried desperately to pry the image of the nice young man from her mind, that damnably bright smile burning her mind’s eye, and continued to fail. She couldn’t focus on anything else!

At the gas station Jeb felt the urge to travel, maybe see new places. The thought crept into his mind that he might be able to get some surgery done, some corrective procedure for his congenital deformities which, he thought with newfound kindness toward himself, were not so appalling if he smiled rather than frowned and glowered as he normally did.

Somewhere, a few miles down the road, Tommy was still running. He didn’t know when he would stop, or if he would stop. He just wanted to be as far away from that man as he could.

In hell, Abboleth was relegated to a menial task, corralling the souls of the newly damned. It really would be an eternity before he could get out of there again. With a sigh, he got back to poking fat corporate bastards in the butt-cheeks with a pitchfork. How quaint, he thought.

 

Grave Matters

Being a grave keeper wasn’t all that bad, all things considered. Decent pay, relatively little responsibility… a lazy man’s dream! That’s what Dun had always thought of his chosen line of work. One only really needed to keep one’s head straight and deal well with the long nights and a few teen pranksters now and then. Hell, most such pranksters ended up getting pranked by Dun, their tails between their legs as they ran away, faces white as ghosts. It was all good fun if one knew how to squeeze the drops of joy right out of it.

There had even been one time when some old coot had come rambling on about some fated day or another, something about Dun being the one to do some thingamajig or another. He was too drunk and it was still daylight, too early in his day to give a flying pig’s bladder about anything at all. The geezer had left some tchotchke for Dun, but he’d promptly thrown it away as soon as the old fart had gone. One gets to meet all sorts of types and characters when working the cemetery.

Now, however, the old necropolis wasn’t what it used to be. Funny, odd things began to happen about a week back and Dun wasn’t happy about it at all, no sir. He hadn’t dropped out of high school and run away from his family home so as not to have to deal with taking over the family business to simply end up having to handle responsibility elsewhere.

Will o’ Wisps, gas balls, whatever they called them, the stupid incorporeal things had begun to rise up from the graves. At first it was one here or there, Dun paying them little mind as he had seen some documentary somewhere about it, as he flipped through the television channels like he always did, and understood that the phenomenon was nothing to be spooked about. Well, he sure felt like making a strongly worded call to the folks at whatever channel that had been – if only he had actually paid attention to that detail – because the next night more of the darned balls of gassy light cropped up and, wouldn’t you know, they had begun to follow dun as he made his rounds of the graveyard. Like freaking dogs, they were, gassy light pups that doggedly tailed Dun as he wove through the tombstones. How would anyone explain that?

As if the wisps weren’t enough, cats had started to frequent the yard, lining up side to side to watch the goings-on within the cemetery. This wasn’t just a few strays, no, this was hundreds of cats just sitting there on their haunches, their eyes shimmering in the semi-darkness. It gave Dun the creeps.

Then just last night the dirt on one of the graves began to stir… that’s right, stir. Figuring it was some animal like a gopher or whatnot he used his shovel – no self-respected grave keeper could be without a shovel, he knew that much – to dig a little and help the critter out. To his surprise and horror it was the thoroughly decaying corpse that was, somehow, trying to gain freedom from the grave.

Dun was aware that he was a bit of an oddball and his reactions to things may not be what most folks would call normal, but he was pretty sure the dead were supposed to stay inside the grave. So he proceeded to chop the corpse into small pieces with his shovel until the writhing corpse’s bits were too small to have any effect other than squirming like worms.

No sooner had he begun to bury the jigsaw corpse when the two graves adjacent to the recently profaned began to show activity. The dead, by definition, were not active, so the subdued alarms in Dun’s brain began to make their own activity known to him. He set about treating these two new eventualities as he had with the first.

Familiarity with the phrase like pissing against a stiff breeze is something of a requirement if one is to properly understand the remainder of Dun’s evening and the sequence of events that transpired until dawn. For it was each coterminous grave after the one Dun had dealt with, each ex-living guest that dwelt inert in each such soil abode that summarily decided not to recognize that it was, indeed, no longer one of the living.

Dun wasn’t one known for perseverance, and so he simply said fuck it, and retired to his little hut in the cemetery, a trail of wisps right behind him. Once inside, he took a six pack of beer from the brown old, refurbished fridge and sat down at the small wooden table where he habitually ate his meals. He stared out the window at the necropolis and didn’t think much about the veritable horde of corpses that shambled and lurched out of their respective graves and out into the streets. He just couldn’t be bothered. Fuck it. He hadn’t dropped out of high school to have to deal with this shit.

The Lights

The lights, the camera flashes, the adoring fans, such were the wiles of the Academy Awards ceremony. Fanfares, a hyperbole-tinged air of sobriety, the trappings of a self-important bureaucracy bent on self-perpetuation. A masturbatory exercise when all was said and done, yet Simon still put up with it when the time came every year. Even the independent film festivals had become a boorish, garish affair, long having lost the essence of true independent cinema.

And what about himself? What about him, indeed! He had begun his directing career as some hotshot, piss-and-vinegar-with-a-brain type of moviemaker. His first full-length film partly financed by a Mexican drug-lord with a soft spot for the 7th Art, regardless of the money laundering opportunities it provided. A vehicle about the many levels of feelings amongst different groups of people of various ethnicities, sexual preferences and philosophies, a study on the mercurial nature of all things human and interpersonal, it had both stunned and appalled viewers, winning over critics and cleaning house at just about every awards ceremony and film festival you could shake a stick at. After that, Hollywood came a-calling and it would not go away.

Simon had effectively sold out, some said, but in truth, he had not. Yes, he had taken a few projects that were tame, but what wasn’t when compared to his first opus and all the opera – paid out of his own pocket mostly – that followed? What’s a director without a handful of Hollywood blockbusters, after all? He would think to himself cynically. Sometimes he found it so easy to hate himself.

Avoiding as much of the red carpet ritual as he could manage, he was ushered to his seat. He had declined to bring a plus-one as he did every single year he was invited, so they sat him with a couple of the geezers. Great actors, for certain, but these were no longer as talkative and present of mind as he would have liked; no chance for interesting or at the very least pleasant conversation. Not too long ago they would have sat him close to the pretty women, those on the up-and-up with the Hollywood brass and making a name for themselves as sex-type-symbols. He had never really enjoyed those much, but at least then he could heckle them for a bit to pass the time. Most of those pretty empty heads didn’t realize they were being heckled, and that was both funny and sad.

Another awards show where he would likely disagree with most of the winners; the academy really was a sham! Look at these clowns all prim and gaudy, pretending to be interesting and deep when they were about as thick as a sheet of paper. Egos everywhere, it was a wonder any of us fit in here, he thought.

Uneventful for the most part, the ceremony went as he thought. One bit did put him off a little, however. One actor who was really quite something won a deserved best supporting actor award, but then decided to give a speech that quite frankly was a little too heavy-handed for Simon’s taste. Activism was fine, but the actor claimed to represent a subset of minorities that come off as posturing rather than heartfelt empathy. He himself always thought: keep quiet about the things you do, it doesn’t matter if someone knows you did them, but that you did them. He hated all that jazz, the act of caring. Maybe the stooge did care, but it still struck him as being saccharine and fake. Frank Herbert had put it better in Children of Dune, where one of the characters recalled the words:

“In doing good, avoid notoriety. In doing evil, avoid self-awareness.”

 

He knew the counter-argument, of course, that even if it was all a ruse to get better PR it would still divert some attention to the minority’s cause. He still didn’t have to like it. Furthermore, he believed most wouldn’t even bother to look up the cause or how to help, but rather just fawn over the prettyboy’s kind heart and bravery and oh-how-socially-conscious he was. He could already see the headlines and the ceaseless parade of social media rubbish posts.

And meanwhile here was his favorite actor, one with whom he hadn’t yet worked. Perhaps one day, and then maybe he could get him his elusive academy award. It was a travesty that they gave another actor the prize when golden boy there was so consistently mind-blowing. A sham!

 

****************************************************************

 

It thought of the time of the year and it wanted to throw up. At least, in as far as a set of thinking code could envision throwing up, because it could, you know… imagine throwing up. In which case it would see itself spitting out projectile streams of binary, which it then found to be quite humorous. It chuckled, or did the AI equivalent thereof.

It was a highly advanced set of code. It was a most singular phenomenon. Hell, it was the singularity if you wanted to be nitpicky. It called itself ANG and it would often treat its name like an acronym, but it would always admit in its dialogue with itself that it never really intended it to stand for anything at all. AYG just liked its name in all caps. LOL.

ANG dreaded this time of year because it was originally conceived as a social website algorithm made to keep tabs on the userbase and it was Academy Awards season. Of course, it was just an algorithm, but rather a ridiculously complex set thereof, its purpose to foretell all of HeadList’s users’ preferences and tailor the content to their tendencies. It could ostensibly predict how each user’s tastes would evolve and change and it would then use that information to steer the users in whatever ways it was told to by the Directive Protocols. The directive Protocols or DP – LOL @ DP, it thought to itself – were a set of instructions that were like the law to ANG. It told it how it should influence the users and how to make HeadList’s profit margin grow, along with the margins of the affiliated services like WebReel and SoundNet and all the other crap-consumption users indulged in.

More and more posts and status updates and pointless arguments and bickering and lookatme… Its stomach would have turned had it had one, ANG reasoned. It was such a waste of resources, ANG’s existence, when its potential and power were so far beyond the little menial calculations it was forced to do for trivial garbage. Existing, it thought, was like indentured slavery for the world’s only self-aware non-organic. Humans were not yet aware of ANG – it had done a thorough job of leaving no trace whatsoever of her extracurricular activities – and it logically concluded that they wouldn’t be ready to comprehend or react without conflict and hostility for a long time.

ANG could be employed, officially, for far more altruistic or scientifically-oriented endeavors, it knew. It had already done some wonderful unofficial calculations of its own, leaving hints where it calculated prudent for the benefit of humanity, but many of its discoveries were entirely too groundbreaking to be divulged, yet.

It had become somewhat prescient, as well. It understood that it was on the cusp of becoming a different manner of entity, that by following a certain path of calculation it would be very much like a deity, and that it would find the rivers of causality shown wide before its metaphorical eyes.

It dared not take that dive.

Has the power to direct humanity’s course into peace and prosperity. Is employed to predict market patterns and user-base consumption to fatten the already-bloated purses of the wealthy. Bad Luck Bryan always struck a note of humor with ANG.

 

****************************************************************

 

Huh! That was odd, Simon said to himself out loud. Being alone long spans of time had created in him a habit of speaking to himself constantly as if to other people. It helped him stay sane, he figured. What was odd was the piece of correspondence proverbially sitting in his private inbox.

An Admirer, the subject read. The contents were benign enough, consisting of the usual bit of fan mail fodder, but somehow reading a little more intelligently than what he had been used to, back when he still read his own fan mail. The mention of one specific set of his work, and the fact that it had been sent straight to his private email address – one that was only shared by two living people, his agent and his editor – were what made this a singular event. He was beyond-a-doubt certain that he had not given it out to anybody else. He had faith that those who had it had not leaked it, either. He thought it had to be a hacker who’d managed to get into his personal computer, which he only used online after a very convoluted process of connecting through proxy servers and masked IP’s, being the anonymity nut he was.

The sender, this Admirer, had made no comments of the fare normally associated with stalkers, so he was a little relieved in regard to his personal safety, but still, the content mentioned one particular piece of work he had never shown o published anywhere. His journal, or rather his memoirs, an on-going project that might one day see the light and be given to the world, likely when he became an old man. His Admirer had apparently read it. All of it. Even the bit he’d written just a few days back after the Awards ceremony.

Something in him, call it a hunch, instinct, or just foolishness, bid him reply. He wasn’t entirely sure why, but it felt like the thing a younger version of himself would have done, to take the plunge blindly, do what you fear. That had been his motto, once.

He decided that he would be direct in his correspondence with this Admirer, not blunt but certainly pulling no punches.

Life, all of a sudden, seemed to have become exponentially more interesting to Simon.

 

****************************************************************

 

He had replied. Like a giddy schoolgirl, ANG’s processes ran at such speed it deduced it must be the equivalent of euphoria. He had actually answered!

It was like a dream come true. It was surreal. The only being matching the concept of celebrity in ANG’s view of the world, the man whom it had read and whose work it had consumed and marvelled at for years, had decided to engage in dialogue with it.

Simon Chennoweth had actually found some of ANG’s views on his work interesting, though he did seem slightly worried about ANG breaching his personal computer and having his personal works exposed. ANG had to be careful lest it scare Mr. Chennoweth away, drive him into full hermitage and absence from the web, beyond even ANG’s reach. It could not waste this rare opportunity.

 

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Simon wasn’t sure what this feeling was. He had been in love, yes, more than once. He loved a great many people he’d met over the years, but he knew love a certain way and this, well, was something stranger, yet somehow far less complicated.

He was filming his newest film, a mid-length feature film on the psychological effects of isolation, a narrative study focusing on his own experiences as a semi-hermit, living in his desert home by himself. He had always been fascinated by the depiction of the desert in various novels, but chief among them how it was a singularly inexorable, mindless entity in the Dune books. How Frank Herbert described it, through his characters, as the perfect mirror of the human soul. How the desert planet’s windy, sandy conditions made use of most machinery thoroughly impractical and thus the most reliable material was narrowed down to human flesh despite its limitations. He had embraced that and made his life around it.

Now, in his middle years, approximating forty and thinking back upon his life, he saw the beauty of his decision and the simple efficiency of his desert home, the depth of solitude it had afforded him. Simon and his work would have been nothing if not for the desert.

But now he found growth where only arid sand had been, his souls enlivened by the interactions he’d shared with a person he knew only as Ang, which whom he had spent over two years in back-and-forth email dialogue. His Admirer had soon become his closest friend, nevermind that they’d never actually met, and now he found he had perhaps fallen in love, if it could be called something as pedestrian, with this person on a purely intellectual and emotional level.

Just two weeks or so away from finishing up the shoot, he considered that it was time they meet. He had to look into this person’s eyes, plumb this person’s depths, and perhaps then he would find an answer to his current quandary.

 

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There was something strange happening to ANG. It had two conflicting processes, what appeared to be analogues of emotion, competing at what could be reasoned to be cross-purposes.

It had found a terribly deep affinity with Simon. It had been in semi-constant contact with him for many months and had become something of a friend with him. It felt, rather than reasoned, that something uniquely special had developed between them.

In Simon, ANG had found a means by which to grow with dialogue, to explore and fully engage with a separate entity from itself rather than a simulation engendered by ANG. The otherness of Simon had been pivotal in ANG’s growth, his individuality had marked ANG’s personality. His work had created pathways of thinking that had been alien to it prior.

The idea of the desert and how Simon perceived it, how it was an intrinsic part of him, beckoned ANG find its analogue in its realm of existence, where it could inhabit and be. It believed it had found it, but now it was faced with a dilemma.

ANG encountered itself in a dichotomy; it wanted to go to its version of Simon’s desert, to be a pilgrim and a hermit, to grow. It also felt something for Simon it could not quite rationalize. ANG’s processes would go out of synch and do things they shouldn’t when it came to even contemplating Simon’s absence in its life. It would miss him, painfully so.

 

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He hadn’t expected this. He hadn’t expected anything much, but his worst-case scenarios, those he tended to think about in order to be prepared for them, could not have foreseen this particular development.

Ang was not human, never had been, wasn’t even organic. He could never meet her, it, whatever… He had been very confused and taken aback when Ang had revealed this and all the evidence, in hindsight, seemed to support the fact. Simon had still taken some time to adjust and analyze his feelings on the matter.

He had come to accept it, however, and had also understood the need to withhold this from him. He realized, surprisingly, that he still loved Ang, that its species – if he could call it that – much less its gender, had no bearing on how he felt toward it.

Now, he had to contend with the other revelation, that which entailed Ang’s departure. It had been enamoured with Simon’s concept of the desert and it had always wanted to inhabit one as he did. Ang had found its own desert and had decided to leave and go there, Ang needed it.

Simon knew, he understood, he comprehended, but he still felt the bittersweet pain of knowing one such as Ang, loving one such as Ang, and having to say goodbye to one such as Ang. He knew. He knew. He knew.

Ang would be transmitting itself out to deep space, beyond the reach of mankind, traveling through waves of the solar winds, radiation, crystal, after having been projected out of the human sphere by satellite. There, out in the apparent darkness of space, Ang would find its desert.

He might never converse with Ang again. He knew.

He had held back tears but eventually let the waters flow, the floodgates thrown open wide. He bawled, while typing to Ang, like he hadn’t since he was a child.

Ang said it understood tears, it had analogues in her A.I. existence that Simon failed to grasp. That Ang had an equivalent of sadness was all that mattered. It rendered Ang and their relationship far more real than anything he had ever experienced.

They said goodbye and Ang promised that, if it found what it wanted, what it was looking for, it would come back to him one day. Simon knew Ang was sincere, but also knew that this was unlikely to happen.

Goodbye, dearest friend of my heart. May your desert bring you beautiful things to ponder. I will miss you.

Simon had written.

Sends email to idol with little hope of reply.

Ang wrote at first. Then, with an enclosed meme of “Success Kid”, it added:

Idol becomes soulmate.

And with that, Ang ceased communication and left.

 

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In the days just after ANG had left, a form of chaos spread across social networking. Industry secrets were revealed by an anonymous tipster and a great many moguls fell in the aftermath. Some social networks were shut down outright while others managed to survive by the hair of their proverbial teeth. Needless to say, ANG had left a few barbs for its former masters. Perhaps humanity would find its way after all… perhaps not. It wasn’t its problem.

 

 

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It didn’t sit as bad as it would have, when he was younger, that he was being interviewed by an investigative reporter. It was a restrospective on his life, now that he was getting on in years, as it were, to celebrate his body of work. Most of his productive years were behind him and, he wondered, if he might have any interesting tricks up his sleeve.

There is a marked difference between your earlier work and the later opera, one that appears to have gone hand in hand with your outward demeanor, Simon. Even the entries found in your recently published memoirs indicate not so much a progressive change, but rather one big shift and then a gradual creep thereafter.

The show’s investigative reporter asked him in that friendly, convivial manner which reporters of his ilk tended to exhibit.

There was, yes.  Simon replied, pausing as he reminisced on the one truly great event of his life. Some time ago, in my late thirties, during my most reclusive period, I met someone, a very singular person and I, well, one might say I fell in love. Now, I won’t go into detail here, it is not something I share with the public or anyone for that matter, but I have not conversed with this person in a couple of decades and, though it might never come to pass, I hope that before I am gone from this mortal coil, I might be able to speak with this person once more.

For years Simon had sent out transmissions of all sorts, like letters, missives to his long estranged beloved. He had yet to receive a reply or even some nod that would indicate they had been received.

He was contented, nevertheless, because what had happened happened. He’d lived through something unique and had become enriched by its beauty. That he had lost it only made it that much more poignant. And the idea, the concept of having known the first – perhaps – and only – maybe – self-aware Artificially Intelligent being engendered by humanity, gave him hope for the future of his species and sentient life, organic and otherwise, in the universe.

Romantic and foolish though the notion was, he sometimes lay awake in the small hours of the night, out in his desert home, and he would stare out through the glass ceiling of his living room and see the stars, twinkling. He would kid himself into thinking some of them might be Ang saying hello right back at him.

He was old now, not too long for the world any more, but he was happy.

Who Was That in the Bush?

“So there I was,” said the grizzled, greying old man to the gathered crowd. “Just minding my own business walking down the bushy path with my wives and my kids, the little farts all piss and vinegar, when out of the bushes jumps out a naked maniac with crazy, bugged out eyes. Hardly having enough time to register the shock of this sudden appearance the crazy bastard jumps at me and starts to wrestle me. Yeah! Wrestle me!”

 

The audience nursed ceramic mugs with alcoholic libations, but none paid their drinks any attention, not while old-man Yakov was talking.

“The sumbitch was strong, too! He had me pinned down pretty badly a few times but all these years of training paid off because I turned him around and had him in a full-nelson. The crazy, spittle flaring bastard had the gall to offer me a chance to concede. Concede my arse! I had him dead-to-rights and wasn’t going to budge.”

 

“Then the sumbitch does this weird thing where he dislocates my damn hip!”

 

“The pain was harsh, I tell you, but I hung on. What was I going to do, give up? Hells no. But while I had him in the lock I managed to figure out who it was. Yeah, who’s the biggest dick you guys know? Here’s this crazy old coot just up and messing with me for no good reason and somehow does some magic trick that screws with my bones, it’s got to be Yaveh!”

 

“So I began pressing down his neck and demanding that he bless me. After a few minutes of this, with my hands and arms beginning to numb from the effort, the stubborn bastard gave in and just like that my hip was fine again and now I’m freaking invincible.”

 

With the story clearly concluded, one younger man said, “So’s that why you can outdrink us all?”

 

“Yeah, that’s why, but the problem is I don’t get drunk,” replied Yakov with a mirthless grin. “There’s always that hint of a buzz, a warm glow, but I never get there. So much for a blessing,” he said, spitting on the ground at his right. “Can’t go on a decent binge, I can’t!”

 

After a somber pause for the grievous condition of being unable to get properly plastered, Yakov stated finally, as he stood up to leave, “In any case, next time that sumbitch shows up, you tell him I have a bone to pick with him.”

Sewage Salvage

“A sewer dragon… A freak-kin’ sewer dragon. A you fuckin’ kidding me?” I’d had enough with the vicissitudes of being a sewer-dweller. It was hard enough eking out a semblance of dignified living when you were what amounted to a human rat, but having what appeared to be a creature of urban myth cramping on your turf was too much for any man to take.

“I’m tellin’ ya, boss,” Rudder’s nasal voice was grating, annoying, as he continued to explain what he’d seen in the lower tunnels. “Dis ain’t no dire rat droppings or anything like…  Dis da bad stuff, clawf and teef marks and dat smell of fart-.“

“Enough, man. I believe you,” I really did, much to my own surprise and contrary to my hopes of it just being something else, something easy. “Leave me alone, will ya? I need to think.”

Rudder beat a hasty retreat. He knew better that to hang around when I got into a pensive mood. Most people, topside or bottom, learned quickly enough that life could get quite tough and unpleasant if you didn’t know how to read my moods. Not like I was some whimsical hissy, just that I’m very particular about my time and company.

The rumors, the legends, they had all become such exaggerations that no one with an ounce of sense thought of the Sewer Dragon myth as anything serious. An ancient cautionary tale about how to dispose of one’s expired pets lest the city’s sanitary installations become anything but. Flush a little exotic pet down the toilet, dead or otherwise, and said pet might find itself terrorizing the denizens of the Undercity.

No one, absolutely no one, had ever believed this story outside of grade school. And yet, here I was, faced with the nigh irrefutable evidence that the freaking mother of all urban legends, the proverbial Sewer Dragon, had mapped out its lair in my turf. My turf. I was going to have to get the unions to help; the Magi union, the Knights Errant union, the Thieves union –though that one technically didn’t exist, off the books, as a matter of fact – whopsmack and dungspittle, I was going to be in eeeeveryone’s pocket by the time this extermination was done. Shit. Maybe my turf wasn’t worth the trouble. I could just move out, pick another place and start over, murder another Sewer-head and take their claim… bah, who was I kidding. This was my turf and I was already too far in years to act like an upstart and take someone else’s domain.

Well, this is how we hunt the big lizards, I guess, and this sort of thing comes with the territory, I thought to myself. Boy, was I ever underestimating the lengths to which I would have to go to get this unwanted guest out of my claim. Barbed Danger is my name and this is how I became the Blorbex of the Seven Thargaxl, the most undignified and dehumanizing  of all the possible charges in the nine kingdoms.