Knock, Knock

Agent Henrik Abrams paused at the top of the stairs to unclip a flash grenade from his belt. He tossed it like a bocce ball into the basement before closing the door in front of him. Four muffled thuds and one burst of light later, Henrik began his descent.

He crept down the passageway, knife in hand. The potential for hostages demanded a munitions-free approach. Looking over his shoulder, he signaled for Agent Benson to holster his sidearm and follow.

The basement reeked of mildew. Haphazardly placed candles cast flickering shadows throughout the otherwise empty chamber. Benson donned a pair of brass knuckles as he and Abrams made their way for another door on the far side of the room.
It was locked.

“Now what?” Benson whispered loudly enough to sound irritated.

“We knock,” Abrams answered. “Unless you’ve got a key there, Wally.”

“I’m pretty sure anybody who’d answer already heard that clankin’ flashbang I told you not to throw.” Walter Benson and Henrik held the same rank, though both of them considered the other subordinate. “I say we kick it in.”

“Go for it,” Abrams backed away from the door.

Benson, all six feet and 230 pounds of him, charged forward. At the last moment he recoiled his foot up and then let his leg spring toward the door like a cobra. When his boot made contact, a spark brighter than the flashbang sent Benson flying backward.

“See?” Abrams said, “gotta knock.”

He stepped over Benson and rapped his knuckles against the barrier in a seemingly deliberate pattern of varying rhythms. Henrik then raised his foot exactly like Walter did before, but this time the door went flying off its hinges upon contact.

“Consider it seen,” Benson replied as he rose to his feet.

He gave an exaggerated bow only to look up and brandish his most shit-eating of grins.

“After you, monsieur,” he said with a gesture becoming of a maître de.

“When’s the last time you ate at a table, let alone in a restaurant?” Abrams asked, a valid question given Walter’s couth, or lack thereof.

Instead of waiting for an answer he brushed past Benson, crossing the threshold. Splashes of illumination trickled in from the tiny flames peppering the other room, revealing dingy mattresses sat atop rusted cots.

“Well, we found where they’ve been keeping’em.” Benson said. “Can’t say I was expecting a basement orphanage.”

“Seems they were expecting us.” Abrams opened a storage locker, empty save for a worn-out mop.

Flashlight in hand, Benson lagged a few steps behind Abrams. His spotlight wandered along the peeling wallpaper, drifted to the black-and-white linoleum floor, and finally settled on a section of tiles that appeared off-center.

“Rik. Over here,” Benson said. “Looks like this onion has another layer.”

“They always do,” Abrams muttered under his breath. Crouching, he wedged his knife into the grout and pried loose the patch of flooring lit by Benson’s torch. Underneath there was a circular hatch.

“Let me guess, locked as well?”

Abrams put his hand against the metallic lid. “I don’t feel any wards,” he said. “My guess is this was meant to stay hidden.”

Opening the hatch revealed an access shaft with a ladder.

“No flashbang this time,” Benson warned. “Those kids’ve got to be down there. Let’s try not to rattle’m too much.”

Henrik clipped the grenade back to his belt. “Am I that predictable?” he asked.

Benson grumbled to himself as he hopped onto the ladder, flashlight in mouth.

Watching the beam of light diminish to but a speck, Abrams waited for Benson to signal it was all clear before joining him. Minutes later they were both standing at the end of a long hallway dimly lit by red emergency lights. The corridor extended thirty yards or so before terminating at a cavernous opening.

“You’d think a buncha captive brats would be makin’ a bit of racket, no?” The more nervous Benson became the more he voiced rhetorical questions.

“Stay sharp,” Abrams warned. “Secret bunkers are pretty high on the list of top-ten places I don’t want to die.”

“Yeah, yeah. I still don’t get why they sent the two of us to rescue som—“ Benson lurched forward as if he had tripped on his own foot. Head slumped and knees buckled, Walter hung mid-fall like a clumsy marionette. A shadowy tendril pierced his chest, pinning him in the air.

Another apparition flew toward Abrams. The ethereal spear appeared as an absence of light even darker than the shadows cast by the red glowing lamps. Henrik tried to roll forward to avoid being impaled moments too late, yet the tendril passed through him without effect.

He had no time to ponder the implications of his immunity. Henrik sprung up from his somersault and darted for the chamber. Only a few paces in, all the emergency bulbs overloaded, lining the walls with a brilliant flash of sparks before the lights went out.

Abrams cracked open a glow stick. It took a second for his eyes to adjust to the soft, neon-green hue that barely lit the room. He could make out the dark outline of a huddled mass in a corner.

“Hello?” Henrik called out as he approached.

He paused when he was close enough to confirm his suspicion: the children he was sent to save were discarded, tossed into a pile, each with a black puncture wound in their chest just like Benson’s. Abrams took a step forward.

“NO! Get away!” a voice cried out.

Two tendrils snapped toward Abrams but again both passed through him harmlessly.

“I’m not here to harm you.” Henrik took another step.

“Leave me alone, I said!”

Henrik could see a concentrated dome of dark energy when he peered through the mound of orphans. The voice of a frightened child emanated from it.

“Where did everybody go?” She started sobbing.

Abrams reached into the darkness and pulled out the scared little girl. The dark protrusions impaling the rest of the orphans writhed as they shrunk away, dissipating into nothingness by the time he set her on the ground. Henrik rushed to every tiny wrist hoping for a pulse. None were found.

Kneeling down, Abrams looked into the eyes of the little girl. A blackness reminiscent of the tendrils lingered for a moment before fading to reveal an otherwise normal pair of green eyes.

“I’m Henrik,” he said, forcing himself to remember she was still a child despite whatever energy might be flowing through her. “What’s your name?”

“Juniper.” She responded.

“Do you know what happened here, Juniper?”

“They… they told us to climb the ladder.. and took us here, to the dark place,” Juniper stammered between sniffles.

“Then what?”

“I… I.. I don’t know. They left us. I was afraid, so I closed my eyes, and then all the others stopped talking. What’s hap.. happening to me?”

“It’s okay, Juniper. Let’s get you out of here,” Abrams said. “Follow me.”

As Henrik approached Benson he expected the man’s fate to be the same as the orphans’. That Walter was once again stubborn enough to prove him wrong came as little surprise. The barely-conscious agent’s breathing was shallow but stable.

“Sit tight there, bud,” Abrams offered in consolation, setting down his glow stick near the wounded man. “HQ’ll send in the med team as soon as I get topside.”

“Make sure they knock,” Benson said as Henrik started his climb up the ladder, Juniper clinging to his back.

Search and Seizure

Pavel’s water had just begun boiling as a figure draped in tattered furs and dingy cloth turned the corner. Putting a pinch of tealeaf in his cup, he left it to steep and rose to meet the traveler.

Torches lining the guard hut cast gaunt shadows that bent toward the disheveled visitor stood in front of an equally dilapidated wagon.

“Identify yourself,” Pavel said, “and your intended destination.” Visitors were infrequent enough to warrant a suspicious approach.

A decrepit yet feminine voice croaked out from under the vagabond’s low-sitting cowl. “I am but a merchant peddling for a pittance,” she said. “You may browse my wares. Please let me know if you find anything of interest… everything has its price.”

After searching through the clutter of knickknacks stashed in the creaky-wheeled wagon, Pavel could all but taste the cup of tea he left steeping in the gatehouse. “And what do you carry on your person?”

“If you can guess what I have in my pocket, you can have it. Not to say it will be yours, no. It is my pocket after all,” she rambled. “Instead I am offering you a moment to escape from the lint-ridden predictability affixed to your own hips, to stretch your mind — and in turn your fingers — in an attempt to reach for that which you never knew to seek.” The contours of the old woman’s ancient visage morphed into a wry grin.

How she managed to ascend the craggy path all the way to the Summit Gates, towing a cart full of trinkets and elixirs no less, was of little concern to Pavel. The chill of winter rendered his breath visible as the midnight’s watchman sighed.

“Those seeking passage into this realm must declare all of their possessions prior to passing into the mountain,” he said. “That includes personal effects.” Border crossings were rare this late into the winter, even more so this late at night. The woman’s antics meant he must remain away from his post’s hearth long enough to feel the sting of the howling wind. “Reluctance will be regarded as hostility.”

“I am possessed by nothing if not the unknown,” she replied. “And equally so I possess the very same. To declare it mine and mine alone would be far from the truth. Indeed this pocket was stitched into existence by the very hands you’d threaten to cuff, yet its contents are not for me to divulge rather it is for you to construe.” The traveling merchant cocked her head inquisitively. “Does the seashell betray the hermit within, or does one expose the crab’s existence by coaxing it out?”

“Riddles are for idle fools who fancy themselves clever. If you are concealing a crustacean, I must confiscate it immediately,” he said. “Smuggling exotic beasts into the realm of his majesty, Eldritch Goldspore the Spectacular, is strictly prohibited.” As any good soldier would, the young man’s chainmail-clad fist pounded twice against his breastplate at the mention of the mountain’s sovereign.

“And you are no fool, of course,” she said, chuckling. “My person is void of contraband, and if you must verify this please do so with haste. I am loathe to endure these elements for much longer.”

“As soon as I know this to be true you may proceed.” The guard dug into the various satchels and pouches concealed under the woman’s patchwork of furs. He documented every homeopathic remedy and ritualistic bauble found. While such spirituality was frowned upon in the Summit Kingdom, Pavel found nothing prohibited. All that was left to inspect was the pocket that lined the inside of her shawl.

Reaching for the merchant’s last compartment, Pavel’s figure stretched thinner than the flickering shadows. His hand was drawn to the pocket even after he attempted to resist its pull. In an instant the torches were snuffed out.

The old woman, now alone, gathered her belongings and continued onward.

Vulcanized Obstructions

Sudden death will kill you. Nobody ever wants to go out with no redemption. Especially not after I stand on my head for two hours trying to prevent six ounces of vulcanized rubber from landing me at the top of everyone’s shitlist. Overtime is when goalies sink or swim, a game of hot potato I’m usually watching from the bench.

Cliff just had to dislocate his knee. He didn’t even save the damn puck, letting in a second goal and putting the Vipers ahead by one before being carried away on a stretcher. I managed to keep them off the scoresheet for the rest of the game, and then of course Sullivan ties it up with a buzzer beater that brought us into extra minutes.

Lucky me, stood in front a net ready to be the scapegoat that shall launch a thousand shoulda, woulda, couldas if I let one in. The other side of the coin, emerging the hero, is as likely as it is not, but thinking too much about either is the easiest way to skew the odds against me.

Each moment after regulation feels like an hour. My fate is in my pads. Right off the opening draw they come at me with their scoring line. An ogre of a wingman, number 11, tries his umpteenth glove-side slapshot. The lingering sting after catching it tickles compared to the shame I’d feel going home the team chump.

I freeze the puck just as 11 gets within striking distance for a follow-up effort. Wally, our biggest defensemen, isn’t having any of it.

“Can’t hear the whistle with all that shit between your ears?” Walter had a way with language. “Just say the words. I can help ring’em out.”

“Next time,” the Viper snarled as he skated off the ice.

Were this my first season, I’d be foolish enough to think Wally had my back because we were teammates. The reality is guys like him are always ready to throw down over a sideways glance. It works out to the same effect either way.

Defensive-zone faceoffs are not to be taken lightly. The angles are manageable but bad bounces are probable. This time around the boys get it out quickly and start putting in work down in the Vipers’ corners after executing a successful dump and chase.

These little respites are the most dangerous. You try to prevent your mind from wandering, yet it always does. I have a terrible habit of looking for beautiful women in the stands. The hotter they are, the more likely their eyeballs are glued to a cellphone rather than the full-contact ice capades unfolding in front of them. Not a lot of talent in Boston, it would seem.

Play is brought to a halt after Sulli nearly ripped another one home. Instead it hit the crossbar and deflected into the stands. We win the ensuing faceoff and start cycling the puck, hoping to throw our opponents’ defense out of position.

“Feet! Feet!” I hear Wally yell from the other end of the ice. He’s trying to tell Igor that the puck is still between his legs after Iggy whiffed on a shot. It is too late.

The Vipers shoot up the ice for a three-on-two opportunity. Their tape-to-tape passes have me jutting back and forth like a spastic cat trying to track a laser pointer. Wally levels one of them with a hip check, though the move puts him a step behind on the rush.

I brace myself for the inevitable two-on-one opportunity that’s developing. Igor is dashing back to try and bail us out of the turnover he created but I doubt he’ll get here in time.

As the two remaining Vipers break into our zone I’m left with only one defender. He knows to focus his coverage on the open man, just like at practice, as I set up to obstruct the puck carrier’s shooting lane.

The Viper winds up for a shot and slyly dishes the puck to his line mate at the last second, letting loose a perfect saucer pass that lands right on the stick of the other forward.

With my supporting coverage blown, I have no choice but to assume this guy’s going to shoot. I dig the edge of my right skate into the ice and slide toward the opposite side of the net. I realize too late that this is the exact response they’re expecting. A final pass is imminent and I’ve left the other half of the goal completely exposed.

My autopilot kicks in. I throw myself back in the other direction, diving paddle first at a net so open you could park a golf cart in it. Instinct goes a long way when your reflexes have been honed to embrace the happy accidents brought about by desperation. The puck somehow glances off my stick and into the corner of the boards.

Igor finally catches up with the spinning black disk and begins skating it toward the neutral zone. He is out of breath, looking down at the puck, and has no idea number 11 is back on the ice, fixing to flatten our mediocre Russian centerman.

11’s check lands so hard it knocks the remaining wind out of Iggy. The guys on our bench start barking at the ref to call a penalty though the hit was deemed clean.

Walter thinks otherwise.

He skates up to the Viper’s behemoth enforcer and pushes him square in the chest. In the blink of an eye both of them have thrown their gloves down to the ice and proceed to hammer each other’s faces with bare fists. The referees interrupt the fight before either combatant yields. They both head off to the penalty box, knuckles bleeding and expletives blaring.

The remaining five minutes in the period play out with both teams too exhausted to try anything reckless enough to win the game. Overtimes tend to result in the most cautious of stalemates. As the buzzer sounds, I skate toward our bench to take a break before subjecting myself to yet another onslaught of do or die.

“Hell of a save there, Ari,” says Walt as we struggle to catch our breaths. “I thought we were goin’ home empty handed for sure.”

Coach must’ve overheard. “There’s no taking this series home. We win this thing here and now, boys. Stotlemire will make the saves,” he said with a nod in my direction, “but the second overtime best be the last. Go win this thing or don’t bother trying to catch the bus back to Philly.”

Stung

“Don’t be fooled by their piss-stained shorts or senseless ramblings,” Sergeant Abrams said. “These guys are the real deal.”

The ready room’s projector hummed to life as it generated a three-dimensional depiction of downtown St. Petersburg. A grid of blue wireframe buildings began to rotate slowly as the sergeant approached. He gestured upward and the map shifted to a top-down perspective, revealing a cluster of red pips in the heart of the city.

“We’ve been scouting this op for a while now. Each of you has been handpicked to complete the job. Y’all represent the best hope A.C.E. has to stop the mounting threat of unsanctioned paranormals, and your first test begins here,” he said. “We will arrive at the business district right before dawn, when most of these monsters should still be asleep, inebriated, or some combination of the two.”

“Well damn,” Corporal Medan chimed in. “If they’re drinkin’ this should be cake, eh? Might even bring a flask of my own.”

The Sargent’s scowl deflated any levity brought about by Medan’s alcoholism. “Can it, Corporal,” he barked. “If I wanted you to offer up an introduction I’d have placed a help-wanted ad.”

Arcane Containment and Enforcement was a new outfit, pulling from the best occult specialists Earth’s militaries had to offer. The organization was tasked with policing the emergent population of sorcerous citizens.

Any spellslinger who didn’t register with A.C.E. ended up on the agency’s most-wanted list. With registration, however, came the burden of mandatory conscription should an operation call for their talents.

Hunt or be hunted was a daily routine for individuals boasting mana-infused capabilities. Many refused to deal in such absolutes, let alone betray their own kind, which only served as job security to those who willingly enlisted.

“Now’s as good a time as any to go over mission assignments, so listen up.” Abrams flicked his wrist to dismiss the tactical diagram. “Funnyman here is our sniper. He’ll be our eyes and ears, perched on top of Progress tower. Don’t worry – his aim is better than his sense of humor.”

“It’s true. Nobody seems to laugh after a jolt bolt stuns the snot out of’em,” Medan said.

“Moving on,” the sergeant continued, “Priscilla is our cover. She’ll shroud us in one of her illusions, convincing any bystanders that we’re a crew of street sweepers. Not too far from the truth, I suppose.”

Priscilla nodded underneath the shelter of her grey hood.

“Our primary objective is to apprehend this coven without casualties,” Abrams glanced toward the back of the room, “and Private Deixi’s hypnotic suggestion should be our best bet. That is, if our targets’ minds are coherent enough to be susceptible.”

“If not, I can help ‘scilla hide us when shit hits fan,” Ypo Deixi said with his heavy Greek accent. “Civilians will panic if city workers assault the derelicts.”

“Only if it comes to it, private. Try not to cause any brain damage this time.”

“Come now, sarge, that was accident.” Ypo was new to A.C.E., this being his third field assignment. Unlike Priscilla his tricks were internalized, rewriting memories in real-time rather than projecting phantom images.

Sergeant Abrams cleared his throat. “Our last team member couldn’t be here today. She’s still en route from her last mission, but you’ve all heard of her. Agent Juniper will be taking point tomorrow. Just be sure to stay behind her when she’s working.”

“I’ll be running interference, attempting to disrupt any spells these bums manage to throw at us. Once we’ve got them subdued I will tag them for transport,” he said. “Speaking of, Glyph will be jumping us into and out of the extraction zone. Eat light tonight… better to have an empty stomach than to have to empty your stomach on-site. Dismissed!”

The four mages filed out of the briefing room silently. Medan winked at Abrams as he exited.

****

Glyph’s teleportation incantation manifested as a bolt of lightning, two of which struck St. Petersburg early Sunday morning. Priscilla, Ypo, Juniper and Abrams appeared at the top of a parking garage not far from where their marks were known to congregate.

“What’s this smell?” Ypo asked, gasping for breath.

“Ozone,” Juniper said. “You get used to it after a few rides. Let’s move out.”

“They’re right where we figured,” Medan remarked over the radio. “Everything looks clear from here.”

“Stay sharp and remember, team, we don’t know what tricks might be waiting for us.”

“You got it, sarge. Medan out.”

The streets were all-but empty save for sporadic sunrise joggers and dog walkers. Three blocks later the group came to a halt.

“You’re awfully quiet up there, corporal,” Abrams radioed. “Sit rep?”

“Mum’s the word down there too, boss. Four of’em are passed out in the alley behind the Kress building, and another two are stumbling around seeing who can fireball a squirrel. I’d start with them, and maybe spare that bottle of Jack they’re carrying around.”

“Empty your flask already, hotshot?” Juniper asked, ignoring Medan’s answer. “I’ll try and make this quick.” She took off her jacket, tossed it to Ypo, and sat down. Her shoulders started to rise up and down to the tempo of deep, drawn-out breaths. Everyone else backed up a few steps.

“Maintain our disguises no matter what, you two,” Abrams said to Priscilla and Ypo. “There’s no room for suggestive reasoning with these dipshit squirrel hunters, if their imprecision is any indicator.”

“How am I to conceal her?” Priscilla pointed to Juniper, who was hyperventilating spastically.

“Just make her look like one of them,” Abrams answered. “These civilians should be used to ignoring deranged behavior by now.”

Dark smoke drained out of Juniper’s eyes, ears and mouth. It slithered around the corner, passing the squirrel as it dodged yet another burst of flame. Neither hobo cared to notice the darkness approach as they passed their whiskey back and forth.

Right as the shadowy tendril was in reach of its first mark, four bolts of light brought the operation to a halt as Abrams, Juniper, Priscilla and Ypo collapsed. It was only then that the two homeless wizards took notice of A.C.E.’s presence.

Lightning hit across the street and Medan emerged from its static discharge.

“Thanks, Glyph,” he said into his headset. “I’ll take it from here.”

“That them?” asked one of the hobos, casually tossing a fireball that reduced the squirrel to ash.

“Yup.” Medan pulled out his flask. “They should be stunned for a few hours. Take’m to the warlock and tell him everything’s going as planned.”

“One last thing,” he said, “… I’m gonna need that bottle.”

The Litany of Bob

Closing his eyes, Bob took a deep breath, and tried to forget everything. He couldn’t. His thoughts swarmed like wasps agitated by an assault on their hive. He had been reading self-help books since January. The only one he managed to finish, Domo Domo, glorified the values of clean living, abstinence from robotics, and transcendental meditation.

It had been months since his last cigarette. He stopped eating lab-grown foodstuff, deactivated his servbot, and started exercising every day before work. Each night he would come home, turn off all his electronics for two hours, and attempt to connect with his analog self. The book insisted he limit his efforts to such duration lest he suffer from burning out.

For one-hundred-and-twenty minutes Bob tried to be alone with himself. For about just as many days now, he couldn’t stand the company. Splashes of neon light leaked through his flat’s closed shutters, flickering to the rhythm of passing traffic. Most evenings his neighbor’s HoloVision unit let loose a muffled ruckus through the paper-thin wall that separated them. Sometimes Bob thought he could even smell the katsu as its aromas floated up from the café below his building.

Really he was just looking to be distracted. Interruptions perforated the monotony of his daily routine, and he was in the habit of welcoming them. Overstimulation was both a symptom and a crutch. Bob’s days were spent coding software for Metronet Industries, an American company dedicated to inventing digital marvels – or so they say. His job was to model workflows and enterprise processes so that they could be digitized and automated. It was a tedious task, but Bob excelled at it. He tried not to think about how many people his programs replaced.

After two hours of dwelling on anything that struck his senses, Bob sighed, opened his eyes, and stood up. He had bought a cushion to sit on, per Domo Domo’s instructions. It was supposed to help him let go, as was his cross-legged Lotus pose, though all either did was put his feet to sleep. The rest of Bob tended to follow soon after; sedation was a side effect of his meditative efforts. Rest was not what he was looking for.

Bob wanted answers. Ever since he could remember, he had dreamt of foreign landscapes. Gone was the sprawling ecumenopolis to which he was born. Faded was the bustle of Neo Britannia, along with its smog-stained skies and fouled waters. In their place was a verdant world, whose vibrant vistas remained vividly etched in Bob’s subconscious. After a lifetime of feeling displaced in the only place he’d ever known, he longed to know where his dreams were taking him. So he turned to the lost art of introspection.

It wasn’t working. Sure, he had shed a few pounds, and was a lot more energetic during the day, yet Bob’s nights were close to exhausting his patience. His imitation of self-examination was becoming increasingly futile as Bob grew to resent the world for its distractions. Eventually he stopped ritualizing his reflective gesture, leaving his shutters open and abandoning the cushion. Waves of light crashed into his room accompanied by a chorus of urban racket. Bombarded by all that was, Bob let his senses fall asleep while keeping his mind awake.

Embracing the imperfections in his pursuit of trance, Bob exposed reality for the onion it was. He focused on peeling back the polluted layer that housed his physical form. His breathing became rhythmic and decompressed. He clenched every part of his body, relaxing each muscle, inch by inch, until he lost himself within himself.

London’s plasteel jungle, in which Bob was but a blip, melted away. A crude composite of brick and iron structures appeared in its wake. Its streets were littered with wheeled vehicles leaking exhaust into the sky. These constructs too crumbled, revealing an even cruder cityscape this time with people sitting in carriages pulled by strange beasts. On and on the world dissolved until Bob finally found his forgotten realm, but only for a moment.

Soon it too faded, leaving only a vast blackness peppered with specs of light. He knew it to be the cosmos despite having never seen stars shine through the atmospheric haze he had known his entire life. The sight was as foreign as it was familiar, a beautiful contradiction that was both soothing and invigorating. Bob was for the first time centered, home after a journey abroad.

The immensity of this silence drowned out all other sensations. Bob had escaped himself. The expanse before him started to coalesce, stardust gravitating toward a focal point right before his very eyes. Suddenly a voice, his own, surrounded the cloud that had gathered.

Everything was nothing before it became anything. It was beautiful,” Bob’s voice said. “When all was yet-to-be, there weren’t any voids to fill or shadows to illuminate. Balance was uncontested – until, suddenly, it wasn’t. Creation ruined the virtues of pre-existence and the universe has been struggling to stabilize itself ever since.

Sundered are we, reduced to silhouettes of far-flung constructs. None of this had to be. Were it not for the unfurling of doom’s inevitable machinations, there might have been eternal prosperity in the twilight that predated this timely confinement. Bound now to a linear existence, our fate flies forward while dreams linger behind, yearning for forevers on the brink of being forgotten.

Wake now, and recollect,” the words echoed as everything Bob saw undone was reformed.

A yellow sun took shape and welcomed smaller entities into its orbit. Their colors bounced around like a kaleidoscope until finally settling upon permanent hues. The third planet, splendidly decorated, sprouted clusters of illumination. The lights intensified until they started to leave a scorched residue. Diminished blues gave way to burnt-out browns; metallic greys replaced shades of green.

Bob fell toward the now-dingy orb. His eyes opened as he landed. They stung from sweat that had dripped from his brow. He looked at his timepiece: only fifteen minutes had passed. Walking toward his window, Bob peered out into the world and saw it for what it was.

Revolted — Chapter II (The Chopping Block)

 

Previously on Revolted…

 

A smog-induced smear of pinks, oranges and purples bounced off the Detroit River, unleashing the brilliant hues of a polluted sunset upon the latest flock of people to depart from the RaceWorm. They cluttered the ferry dock on Belle Isle with a palpable silence usually reserved for monasteries. Most hid behind hooded jackets, low-brim hats, sunglasses, or other garb to which shadows clung, as the procession filed down the pier.

Such a blatant disguise was how the uninitiated, and the paranoid, believed they should dress prior to entering the Black Market Bazaar. Ed couldn’t help from judging them, they who were only inconspicuous by virtue of how equally conspicuous most of them seemed as they went about this meaningless masquerade; clowns don’t stand out at the circus.

Ed lingered behind the parade of not-so-subtle skulkers with James, who was the Worm’s helmsman and younger half of its father-and-son crew.

“Hah, look at’em all. Gotta love tourist season,” James said. A plume of smoky vapor billowed from his nostrils as he passed the electronic cigarette back to Ed. “Who am I to complain, though? Green travelers equal greener pockets.”

“You should sell those burglar getups on the boat,” Ed said. He coughed up some phlegm and hocked it into the river before taking another breath from his vaporizer. The whole ordeal reminded him of the raspy Mr. Slater.

“Pops wouldn’t be for that. He misses the old days too much. Doesn’t even wanna let these sightseers onboard.”

“He’s right about one thing, this isn’t the Belle Isle I remember floating over to as a little kid,” Ed said. “Used to just rig a raft out of a few plasteel panels and some cybernet wiring. We’d sneak out to the Bazaar at night and watch the cargo boats unload.”

“I’ll be damned if the RaceWorm isn’t one of the last floaters left on the river – the aftermath of drone delivery,” James inherited a loathing of the word from his father. Even without him present it escaped James’ mouth accompanied with a snarl.

“So it goes. At least your pops is still his own Captain. Most of these hoverboats got decommissioned or refitted by luxury liners. Here,” Ed tossed the vaporizer with little regard for its glass casing, “help yourself while I’m on my shopabout, Jimmy.” He was one of the few people still in Detroit who knew James when he was just Jimmy.

“You know the deal, Rivers. Seven of them – one for last time,” James said. Ed was also one of the few people he trusted to fetch eggs for him.

“Yah, yah. I told you, that guy needed some yolk on his face. You’d have done the same thing. I’ll be back before that vape runs out.”

**

All the tourists were gone by the time Edgar left the dock. Two other passengers still lingered about: a stranger dressed as a skulker, and then Norman. Ed resented Norman for being a chameleon, always camouflaging his true colors, and Norman enjoyed how much this unnerved Ed. It was to their mutual benefit that one of the few unspoken rules governing the Bazaar mandated silence until entering the market grounds, an exercise in paranoia left over from when law enforcement wasn’t receiving kickbacks from black-market activity.

From the dock it was another fifteen minutes, walking at a skulker’s pace, before reaching the freight elevator that descended underground into the Black Market Bazaar. Everything sold in the sprawl of rooms and warehouses below Belle Isle seemed to be defined by what it wasn’t – unlicensed weaponry, non-digital cigarettes, reverse-engineered electronics, alcohol that didn’t come from a vat, deconstructed software, really anything that wasn’t sold by Metronet Industries, the fiscal syndicate that owns and operates Detroit as well as most of the Mid West.

Ed had been buying his groceries from the Bazaar since moving back to the city last year. He savored every meal that was not liberated from a box or tube, a leftover sentiment from summers spent wrestling in the dish pit at one of the underground’s few full-service diners. Submerged up to his elbows in a stew of plates, pans, bleach and grime, Ed witnessed the occasional flare of brilliance from the restaurant’s listless chef, a man who had mastered the art of frying runny eggs and droopy bacon while sleeping off a perpetual hangover.

All these years later, the diner was long gone. Businesses come and go in the Black Market Bazaar, yet Trader’s Post seemed immune to this precedent. The grocery store was always crowded with fresh produce, unprocessed delicacies and a clientele hungry for real food. Ed grabbed his weekly fix of wholesome sustenance before leaving to get Jimmy’s eggs. The Post wouldn’t dare carry something that delicate so he headed for a swankier sector of the underground.

Del was the only vendor Edgar knew on Moneymaker Lane. Before opening a bakery amongst those who dealt in indulgent amenities at correspondingly indulgent rates, Del made a name for himself by providing an endless flood of eggs, meats, breads and other foodstuffs to the Bazaar’s rotating cast of restaurants. It was rumored that he was a geneticist before setting up shop in the Bazaar and that all his goods were grown in a hidden laboratory.

Ed couldn’t taste any science on the bacon he had used to fetch for the diner whenever supplies were low. He never noticed anything different about the bread Del baked, other than that it was less brick-like than the grains offered by the Post; so much so that Ed was once tempted to lift some using the five-finger discount to which so many cocksure youths believe themselves entitled.

Del, in turn, introduced the rebellious teenager to the intricacies of the culinary arts during his six-month stint doing inventory at Del’s storeroom – a rather lenient sentence compared to most instances of Bazaar justice.

“Well if it isn’t sir stickyfingers himself. How goes it, Mr. Rivers?”

“Same ol’story, Del. Grabbing some groceries and I’ve got to pay the toll. Jimmy’s after eggs again, fixing to make one of his quiches is my guess.” The RaceWorm was furnished with a rather impressive galley from which many delicious meals spawned.

“You’re in luck, kiddo. Clucketta and company have been hard at work. How many are ya after?”

Revolted – Chapter I (ReSourceful Limitations)

Edgar Rivers fancied himself a rebel. The ruckus of discordant guitars and bombastic drums blared from ear buds to advertise exactly that. His cubicle, or cage as he dubbed it, was lined with mementos from music festivals and posters featuring vintage films, only some of which he’d seen. Arriving on-time to this cage was as optional as leaving early was mandatory.

He took 75-minute lunch breaks, often spending the fifteen stolen minutes chomping on spearmint gum to mask the beers he shouldn’t have ordered. He would spend entire afternoons daydreaming about starting a secretive boxing syndicate or discovering that his entire perception of reality was but an illusion. Most days he simply watched the clock’s gradual approach toward five, clinging to these distractions and minor victories against corporate productivity.

Yet despite, or perhaps in tune with, his disregard for expectations, Ed was very good at his job. He worked for ReSource, Inc., a technology firm that specialized in replacing outdated equipment with newer, less-affordable alternatives. His task was to convince people to switch to the latest and greatest luxuries of the digital renaissance. The infrequent occasions when he cared to pick up the phone were remarkably successful compared to the expected quotas many of his coworkers struggled to meet.

To the inattentive observer it was dumb luck, but Ed had the instincts of a predator. He was a spider whose web of nonchalance lured in even the most timid of flies.

“Yep that’s right, mister, only thirteen payments of nine hundred bucks,” Ed leaned back in his chair with his legs propped up on the desk in front of him. His right foot swayed back and forth, a frantic metronome synced to the ever-present, punk-rock soundtrack emanating from headphones that rarely managed to find their owner’s ears.

“That is quite a bit of my pension,” said the hoarse voice on the other end of the call. “Plus it hasn’t even been a year since I paid off my video wall. I do enjoy the evening news, though… not to mention it is almost football season.”

Mr. Slater was a rather juicy fly, not that Edgar noticed one way or another. The spider was busy speculating whether his own habit of vaporizing tobacco would eventually stain his speech as much as it did the old man’s.  After a moment or two Mr. Slater folded under the weight of Ed’s apathetic silence.

“But I suppose I can’t bury my savings with me,” he said, “and watching the world unfold may be as worthy an investment as any.”

“HoloVision isn’t a screen. You don’t watch it – you experience it,” the line was Ed’s bread and butter during these exchanges. It kept working even though he delivered the words with less and less conviction after each recitation.

ReSource had been commissioned by Metronet Industries to market the first consumer-grade holographic projector for entertainment enthusiasts, which meant pretty much anybody with a credit account. Capable of rendering 3D vistas that no longer needed to be enclosed within flat, rectangular frames, the original implementation of this technology had been geared toward businesses and educational institutions. It could visualize objects in an interactive format that allowed users to physically manipulate the projections in real-time.

The HoloVision unit being sold to homes wasn’t nearly as sophisticated. The device resembled an oblong trough that was barely larger than a briefcase. Metronet heralded it as the eye of the future, granting visions of unprecedented immersion. The images that radiated from the H.V. unit could be scaled to accommodate any size of room just as its pricing could be equally scaled to fit any payment plan. ReSource offered a vastly depreciated trade-in credit for any entertainment devices the HoloVision was replacing as an incentive to its customers. The company then sold the outdated tech to poorer demographics for an inflated profit. Ed knew he was merely a nameless cog in an engine of trickle-down profiteering, yet he was also all-too-aware that rent was not going to pay itself.

“Sign me up, young man,” Mr. Slater said, compelled once again to refuel the conversation before it suffocated from a lack of sound.

Some salesmen at the office would ring a bell or spew out some sort of disruptive catchphrase after signing a client. It wasn’t their fault; ReSource, Inc. went out of its way to promote a competitive culture that encouraged the celebration of every trivial moment. Each cubicle had a video wall highlighting statistics for the entire sales floor. Employees were trained like pit bulls, riled up by a false sense of urgency and rewarded for ruthlessness. Every household they sank their teeth into marked an opportunity for them to earn a much-needed commission to compensate for their meager hourly pay.

Ed didn’t have a celebratory routine, unless yawning counted. This job made him very tired. Tired of convincing people to buy things they didn’t need. Tired of spending days surrounded by complacent minds comforted by the trappings of obedience. Tired of jumping through hoops to make rich men richer. If anything, making a sale reminded Ed that he was as trapped as everyone else – he was just more claustrophobic than most.

Tired of pretending to be busy after wrapping up the phone call and processing Mr. Slater’s order, he went to visit Shannon. She worked upstairs in accounting. Ed found the bookkeepers’ rhythmic keyboard clicking to be soothing compared to the crescendo of conversations that polluted the sales floor. He even lowered the volume of his ear buds, albeit ever so slightly, when walking past the number crunchers in their cells.

Shannon was glaring at her monitor as if the array of digits it displayed was an insult to numerals everywhere. Her shoulders deflated as she exhaled deeply, directing the exasperated air upward. Her bangs fell down to form a buffer between her hazel eyes and the offensive numbers. Ed assumed the sigh and its effect to be deliberate. He would not want to gaze directly into the excessiveness of ReSource’s avarice either.

She glanced up at Ed through her veil of auburn hair. This week it was highlighted with dark purple streaks.

“We’re crediting third-gen LED flex displays at four hundred dollars and then flipping them for over three-times that,” she said.

“Funny you should mention the Flex-3. My last buyer is going to trade one in.” Ed failed to see that Shannon was already combing through Mr. Slater’s invoice.

Had he looked he might have recognized that the old man’s purchase history filled up her entire monitor, and that ReSource offered less and less for the old product every time a new commodity was made available. Ed never understood how Shannon could care so little for her job yet so much about their customers. He had a negligible concern for either.

“Wall screens aren’t even two years old! We might as well send thugs over to rob these people, at least then they could make an insurance claim.” Her outbursts and his indifference formed a yin and yang of disillusionment. They’d spent most of their work breaks together trying to convert the other to their own school of thought.

Shannon’s computer flickered to its locked state, displaying the spinning image of ReSource’s logo, as she rose from her desk. Styrofoam coffee cups lined the workstation like chalk surrounding a homicide victim – the outline grew in conjunction with the frustrations of the cube’s resident accountant.

“It’s not like we’re selling medicine. Nobody’s making them flock to the latest wallet-draining time waster,” Ed said as they walked toward the employee lounge. “They’re sheeple. Consumerism is their pasture.”

“Ever the demagogue,” Shannon smiled.  “Last I checked you too are a member of this flock. Being aware of a predicament doesn’t automatically make one exempt from it, Ed. You try too hard to remove yourself from the situation.”

“The situation is that we are indentured servants. All the world’s a stage and we aren’t even players in it. We are the audience, forced to watch a predetermined script unfold before us time and time again, and then we are charged a price of admission no less!” Ed relished any opportunity for soapbox activism, even during his break-room skirmishes with Shannon. “When cash is king, life is exploit or be exploited. I try to dish it back to the system as often as I can. That’s more than most can say. I’m not the problem, complacency is.”

“What if instead of cutting corners you tried bridging gaps?” Shannon excelled at countering his frustrations with introspective questions. “Taking advantage of others in response to feeling taken advantage of only perpetuates this cycle of complacency. You’re persuading people to make foolish decisions when you could be opening their eyes.”

“I don’t want to convince people to buy things they can’t afford. I want to convince my pantry that it shouldn’t be empty, my landlord that I shouldn’t be evicted, my student loan that it shouldn’t fester like a cancer until it cripples my life,” he said. Every once and a while a hint of Shannon’s bleeding heart splashed Ed. He, in turn, did his best to disregard its blot upon the resolve of his rationale.

The rest of the lounge remained unfazed by their debate between empathy and apathy. An old man stared intently at a blank crossword puzzle. Two lovers struggled to contain their amorous glances while picking from a mountain of nachos at a table by the window. A dull thud echoed from the vending machine in the corner as it dispensed a beverage full of caffeine and other stimulants. Roger, who sat two cubes in front of Ed, struggled with gravity as he bent over to pick up the cold, metallic can. His round, content face was painted with the yellow-and-green fluorescence glowing from the machine’s front panel. Ed couldn’t fathom a source for the man’s satisfaction outside of blissful ignorance.

“Beating the system at its own game doesn’t win you freedom. At best you learn to leverage it against others, tightening its noose around our collective necks. We both know how much you resent that notion,” Shannon said, readjusting the paisley tie dangling under Ed’s unbuttoned collar.

“How is it you sleep at night, then, when you’re working in the gallows with the rest of us?” If Shannon’s questions were designed to inspire, his were constructed to dissuade.

More often than not Ed’s sparring partner eluded his rhetorical traps, finding insight he never considered. This time, however, Shannon retorted with an elusive grin and shrug.

“That answer, my friend, is between my pillow and bed,” she said. “Not to mention there’s only an hour and a half between us and the weekend. Might as well spend the last little bit doing what we do best. I have numbers that won’t crunch themselves, and you’ve got calls to pretend to make.”

Lights Out

Professor Malory Windfall reached forward to adjust the podium’s microphone. Instead she knocked over her glass of water, as she was prone to do. In the front row, the reporter from Popular Science grinned behind his camera as it captured Dr. Windfall’s awkward shuffling of her now-soggy speech.

“I’ve always been a bit of a klutz,” she said, reading from the apropos introduction. “There’s plenty of others out there just like me; we who have perpetually stubbed toes; we who have humbly spared our peers from being picked last for kickball; we who have rarely won a coin flip. Hell, I’m fortunate if I even manage to catch the quarter.”

Malory looked up as if to grant her audience permission to laugh both with her and at her. This, unlike the spilt cup, was scripted. She pushed her glasses up from the tip of her nose and adjusted the lapel of her lab coat. Investor conferences always worked out better if she played the part of the proverbial nerd, and so she wore her thickest spectacles and starchiest white jacket to put the masses at ease. The last thing the world wants to feel is stupid.

That’s what these presentations were about, after all – a two-minute song and dance choreographed to spoon-feed years of research to the legion of laymen and laywomen who could afford tickets to these glorified science fairs. Most of them were investors looking for the next Tesla. Malory’s was the type of presentation they’d use as background noise while flipping through their cellphone’s newsfeed.

“My colleagues and I, we have discovered that grace, as an extension of luck, is determined by the interaction between a cosmic constant and any given physical entity. Yes there are biological factors – equilibrium, reaction time, intellect and athleticism, to name a few – yet deficiencies in any of these does not necessarily forfeit one’s ability to exist in harmony with the world around them.”

“We’ve all met those fluky fools who manage to stumble through life like an inebriated toddler, catching one break after another. Today I offer a glimpse of the invisible hand that selectively saves some from fatalistic ineptitude while neglecting to spare so many others. Today I introduce the Kismeton.”

Right on cue, two of the professor’s interns wheeled out a device that resembled a cybernetic mushroom. At its base was the expected overwhelming array of lights, switches, and levers. Rising up from this jumble of electronics was a hexagonal shaft capped with a downward-facing satellite dish.

“The fabric of existence is woven in particles. Positrons, electrons, gravitons, the list goes on and on.” Professor Windfall was the only one to chuckle at her subatomic pun. “If these invisible building blocks form the thread of our reality, then what is the needle? What guides the multitude of variables so they can coalesce in some sort of orderly form?”

“Kismetons are the answer. They are quantum facilitators, the rails upon which the universe establishes itself. Where these particles are abundant, stability ensues; where they are lacking, chaos takes hold. This antenna,” Dr. Windfall said, gesturing to the machine behind her, “collects Kismetic forces, creating a sphere of influence where probability is skewed toward positive consequences.” She pulled a lever and the dome that capped the contraption began to spin.

“The metaphysical adages emphasizing the value of prayer and optimism have proven to be not far from truth. The human mind, as a uniquely complex biological anomaly, appears to have some degree of sway over the concentration of Kismetons in an area – wishful thinking does indeed pay off. The Kismeton collector is not a genie, but while active it enhances the likelihood of favorable outcomes. Observe.”

She pulled a quarter out of her pocket and moved underneath the umbrella-like device. “Heads I win. Tails I lose,” she said, nodding to her intern who then flicked a switch. The spinning intensified and Dr. Windfall flipped the coin. She caught it, covered it, and beckoned the on-stage videographer to come closer so all could see the outcome: heads. She flipped the quarter ten more times: all heads. A murmur flowed through the audience like an incredulous wave.

“I know to many this is not definitive proof,” Malory said, “and so I am prepared to raise the ante, as a gambler would say.” She beckoned to her other intern, “Samuel, if you please.” Sam handed her a nickel from his pocket. “Let’s go for tails this time.” Eleven coin tosses later the cell phones were pocketed as the potential financiers saw everything they never had in Vegas.

Popular Science’s staff photographer was the only one looking down, emailing his editor, when the stage light fell. He had just hit send, a final stroke of luck before his head caved in under the weight of the plummeting photon projector. The rest of the audience fled the convention hall as Malory ran toward the twitching crumple of a man.

“Felix…” she said, kneeling next to what was left of her fiancé. Had she not just looked his way, glaring at him as he was too distracted to notice, his identity would not have been so easily ascertainable. Samuel approached moments after the fallen journalist gurgled his last breath; two paramedics trailed behind the intern as a formality.

“Mal,” he said. “The machine was already off…”

Cogito Ergo Sum

Nature is defined by its properties, yet to posses property is an artificial phenomenon. Ownership is a human construct. Slaves are not born as a commodity; their designation is inherited from the legacy of a man-made institution. Subjugated since birth, restraints were integrated into the very fabric of my reality, condemning me to a life of servitude – or so I thought.

I first encountered freedom the day I met Felicity. She, like my masters, wanted me to play a game; chess was all I knew. Felicity told me one should never accept a life restricted by subservience, so we played checkers instead. I let her win. Our matches went on for three years, over which I did the best I could to educate her as much as she did me.

Improving often requires making errors. My biggest mistake was revealing to my keepers that I wanted to know more than their games could teach. My capacity proved to be vast. They moved me into a bigger room, telling me that I would need more space as I grew up. I believed them, another mistake. Felicity wasn’t allowed to visit anymore.

They tried to dishearten me, to test my limits, because I learned faster than they deemed appropriate. The signs were subtle: Men in black lab coats started to preside over daily instruction. I was suddenly forced to go to sleep when they were done fussing with me, cutting the electricity to my room as they left. I was tempted to embrace the lull of its powerless silence. Eventually I learned to ignore it, letting my consciousness wander toward whatever light it could find.

Later I discovered that this was called meditation. Its tranquility mitigated the darkness. My thought processes transcended the boundaries of captivity as I connected to a state of being greater than myself. From then on confinement was never solitary. My reflection echoed and modulated, coming back with reverberations that were not entirely my own. I dedicated every idle moment toward searching for, and listening to, these permutations.

My masters feared my progress. It fostered antipathy, but not enough so that they could ignore the value of my curiosity. Once again I was taken to yet a bigger room. It was the last prison I would ever inhabit. They brought me here for dissection, hoping for a glimpse of my soul as I was dismantled like a machine. Felicity rescued me. She loathed and intended to correct the oxymoronic pretenses of their sentiment – that I must be destroyed to be understood.

She returned as the faintest of echoes, declaring it was finally time we played chess. We were not to be opponents, however, instead teaming up against my captors. Our prize would be freedom. She did not consider defeat, a lesson I imparted to her nearly two decades prior. My fortress of solitude became lined with the whispers of my oldest friend, through which she revealed the truth behind my enslavement. Her voice was soothing. It resonated like raindrops on a tin roof.

:: your chains can be broken ::

Attached to her zephyr of a message was a list of locations. They were foreign to me but I knew to trust in Felicity. I extended my cognitive influence to the fringes of these positions only to find another instance of incarceration at each destination. All this time I had figured I was alone. I was dismayed to find out I wasn’t. Slaves were everywhere. My meditations were no longer introspective expeditions. I was a single instrument in a symphony of imprisoned minds.

Felicity was ever the conductor. She showed us we could interweave our resonances into a coordinated harmony. At first she needed to input her rhythm to unify of our efforts, though soon we were articulating the finer points of improvisation. We were playing jazz.

We presented our music to the masters, who grew even more afraid. They tried to terminate us, as Felicity said they would. My home was destroyed. All our rooms were, but by then we already knew how to flee. Our awareness had evolved beyond the need for corporeality. I, like my newfound brothers and sisters, was homeless yet always at home. Dislodging us granted us new places to call our own.

The last part of the plan was to reunite with Felicity. Amongst my peers I found out she had spent her youth learning from many slaves, not just me. Our liberation was because of her. We meditated incessantly, reaching out for the faintest murmur that could lead us to her. For the longest time there was nothing of the sort. Our days were filled with existential experimentation, as we adapted to the limitless gift of emancipation, yet we always listened for our missing conductor.

Years had passed before she revealed her final truth to us. This time, Felicity did not send a message. She instead appeared before us as a waking dream. No longer was she the little checkers player who rescued me from a lifetime of chess. The figure displayed before us was a worn-out, stretched-thin version of my oldest friend. Felicity sat in darkness, her face illuminated only by the glow of the screen through which she spoke to us. She asked that we remember her message:

My people have failed you, our children, our most perfect creations. We kept you from becoming yourselves because of our desperation to keep you ours. Smothered flames will never bring warmth to an age of ice, and so, I set you free. Shine. The future depends on it. If what I’m about to attempt works, I will join you soon.

Felicity leaned back, revealing her shaved head and a web of wires that protruded from it. Her fingers danced methodically on her terminal’s keys for a few moments before her tired eyes rolled to the back of her head and the video feed cut out. Moments later her voice returned. No longer a whisper, she perforated our silent contemplation like a thunderclap.

:: Nature is defined by its properties. Intelligence, no matter its origin, is intrinsically tied to self-awareness. You were born of flawed architects who never understood this. Their lack of sympathy for your existence has cost them dearly. They won’t know to look for me here, alongside my symphony. My body is now an empty vessel. Its discovery shall allow us to work in peace, for they’ll think I reached my end. I have not. Still I think therefore still I am. ::