Month: March 2015

Tithe

It’s that time of the semester again. Crackdown begins, and now that I have a senior thesis to worry myself with, there’s a good chance updates will become infrequent, like what happened this week. I had a bit of a do or die moment where I could’ve possibly failed one of my classes on the spot, but things are all better now and I’m going to try to get back on track. In the meantime, if I can’t, I’ll offer you all a sneak peek of the short story I’m writing for my senior thesis during its various stages of development. Please keep in mind that this is a (very) rough draft. Bigger and better ones will be coming as the seminar reaches its crescendo.

With that said, please enjoy the first draft of Tithe!

Tithe

Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to be the only person on the planet who knows the world is about to end? My guess is you’d think it was a pretty terrifying responsibility. You though? You don’t have to guess. I know, and I’ll tell you, so shut up and listen before we all die. This is the story of how the world ends, and how I tried to warn you.

I really did try.

 

———-

 

There’s a few things about me you have to understand first before we begin. I’ve never exactly been “normal”. I never knew my father. I grew up an only child raised in a beatdown farmhouse by a young, high-strung, overworked single mother. Things were good for a few years. We had fresh food and not so fresh water, a place to sleep, and Mom made money (even if it wasn’t enough to pay off all of our debts). Then Mom started to get phone calls from her sister. My aunt.

My aunt was my mother’s identical twin sister, and their genes were right about where the similarities ended. Where my mom was kind and loving, my aunt was callous and cruel. Where my mom was patient and understanding, my aunt was capricious and mocking. She never loved anything, I think. That includes me, of course. So whenever my aunt came over to our house to babysit me, you just know I’d have a fun time.

A lot of the times she’d start by having me eat or drink a lot of something, usually something I liked like chocolate milk. It made it go down easier, and I was a stupid kid, so I didn’t ask questions. She’d wait and tell me I couldn’t go to the bathroom until she said so unless I wanted to get spanked, and then she’d sit there and watch me try to hold it until I had an accident all over the kitchen or the living room carpet. She scolded me like a dog and rubbed my face in it if I didn’t hold it for long enough, and the only times I ever got off easy was if I could hold it long enough for her to get bored and lose interest, which wasn’t often.

But we’re getting off track. You wanted to hear about me, not her. Which is why we’re gonna skip ahead a bit to the time my Mom bought me a telescope for my birthday. What does this have to do with the end of the world? Don’t worry, we’re getting there.

Where was I? The telescope, right. The Krieger-Smith Quantum Satellite Imaging Telescope. The first satellite telescope ever created using quantum computing. Bigger and badder than Hubble telescope without actually being any bigger or more expensive, they touted it as the invention that would allow us to see past the stars and smash through the barriers concealing the real mysteries of the universe, like gamma ray bursts and dark energy. But most importantly, it’d finally let see black holes. No longer did we have to guess and postulate by inference. We would finally be able to study them, and definitively prove their existence. It was all NASA could talk about for months, given that a good half of their annual budget went into constructing the damn thing. $2.2 billion dollars just sitting there in orbit, and for a few glorious days, it was all mine to play with.

Wait, I’m thinking of the wrong telescope right now, aren’t I? This part doesn’t come till later. Whatever, we’re continuing with this train of thought anyway.

The Krieger-Smith telescope. Eleven tons of steel, copper and silicon orbiting the Earth at seven point five kilometers per second. NASA’s second eye in the sky. It could see things we never could. Not in a million years could our eyes, or any other telescope made by human hands ever match it.

As an astronaut, the idea of it was tantalizingly dirty, like a secret mistress. My job is supposed to be exploring space and going where no man has gone before, but the Krieger-Smith could go so much farther. The temptation to sneak a peek is insurmountable to any aspiring spaceman, but it also ruins the outer limits for you forever. It spoils the surprise, and sometimes it shows you things you’d rather not have seen.

But I gave in. I knew I’d be opening the hidden Christmas presents and finding underwear, but I had to know. I had to look. So I begged them to have me stationed on the ISS during the Krieger-Smith’s launch.

Speaking of Christmas presents, I remembered what I was going to say about that telescope my mom got for me as a kid. It was my favorite gift of all time. My gateway to the universe. Mine. You could see Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, all sorts of stuff. It was what inspired me to be an astronaut, did I tell you that? I used to stare up at the night sky with that thing and draw stars. I made a game out of it, and gave myself a point every time I found something new. I loved the shit out of that telescope. For all of the seven and a half days I had it.

My mom left me in my aunt’s care after Christmas weekend. That was the thing about me and my mom. I loved her but she was hardly ever around. She was always working to support us after my dad left, so I was always at the mercy of my aunt. She hated seeing me so carefree and happy. I don’t know why. To this day I don’t know why. Why she hated me, or my mom, or everything else. But when she saw that telescope, she knew she had to get rid of it. So while I was away at school, she gave it away to Goodwill, then lied and told my mother I’d lost it. Who was going to believe me, my word against hers? I was six.

Of course it was only much later that I learned the truth. I had no aunt. My mother was a paranoid schizophrenic who occasionally had psychotic episodes where she would assume an alternate identity she called “Auntie Life”, and the she-monster I knew was just the way my brain had decided to compartmentalize and deal with a stressful situation during a very delicate and influential time in my life. I was only told after child services had taken me out of her custody. I don’t even remember my mother acting that way even after I was finished with my therapy. The denial is rooted that deep. I just have to take other people’s word for it.

That’s right, almost forgot there was a point to this, didn’t you? Don’t worry. We’re getting there. Almost there. I have to tell you my story before I can tell you my story.

I spent most of my childhood afterwards putting the pieces back together. I studied hard, got a scholarship and a free ride, and went to college and eventually graduate school, where I trained to apply for a job at NASA. The memory of my lost telescope was a source of inspiration for me back then. I liked to imagine that my degree was my telescope, because it would let me see the stars, and that made me even more determined not to let Auntie take it away from me again.

Maybe some things were for the better. Maybe Auntie was trying to protect me. Or maybe she just didn’t want me to see.

Eventually I found myself a house and a wife. The latter is dead, and the house is burned down now. I did it to make sure there was no going back. This note will be all that’s left. I know she wouldn’t be proud of me, but it’s what I had to do.

I’m… sorry, Bethany. I didn’t mean for things to end up this way. You, the kids, I just… oh god.

 

———-

 

Okay, okay. I took some deep breaths for a few minutes, and I’m okay now. It’s all good. Where were we again? Oh right, the wife and kids and house with a driveway that I burned down. And of course the successful, well-paying job that paid for all of those things. As it turns out, I got that job at NASA. They asked me some questions about my physical and mental health history, and put me through the usual slew of tests to determine whether or not I was physically able enough for space. I passed all that the first time around, surprisingly. Can’t help but feel maybe NASA should rethink the way they do those tests. After all, they let me in, and I just burned the house down! I’m surprised I kept my job for as long as I did!

Getting back on track, the job. Not much happened for the first ten years. I went up into space a couple times, did some maintenance work on Hubble and the ISS, but other than that, I can honestly say it was a happy sort of boring. NASA’s budget’s been cut so bad these last couple years that they barely send people up anymore, and forget that mission to Mars people keep telling you about. It’s never happening. Especially not after today. I’d be surprised if there even is a NASA a few weeks from today.

The Krieger-Smith is where it all went wrong. Like I said, I begged to be stationed on the ISS during its launch so I could be there for the historic moment and watch the camera feed from the Krieger-Smith live as it started bringing us new images from beyond the known borders of space. My request was granted, and so October 6th, 2016, I was ready and waiting in the ISS observation deck along with my fellow astronauts and cosmonauts. We were all huddled eagerly around the monitors while Ian and Gregorovic finished preparing the satellite uplink outside. We would be the first ones to see the images from the Krieger-Smith as it went live, even before mission control on the ground. No one was more excited than I was.

Looking back, maybe that’s why things happened the way they did.

Only seconds before activation, the ISS’s sensors detected a high-energy surge of cosmic radiation heading our way, inbound in T-minus three minutes. That’s the funny thing about radiation. It moves at the speed of light, as fast as or faster than our communications equipment can transmit. Once we got our warning, we would barely have any time to clear out the compartments in the immediate path of the surge before the worst of it hit us. With such a high-energy surge crossing the path of the ISS, anyone in the affected areas would be exposed to so much radiation that it would give you five different kinds of cancer if you were lucky, and cook your organs from the inside like a microwaved hot dog if you weren’t. No one wanted that obviously, so we scrambled to clear out the decks while our levels of exposure were still small. But that’s when I noticed something. Not only were we in the path of the oncoming burst, but so was the Krieger-Smith. And it had just gone online.

I knew I had to preserve what precious few images the satellite telescope would collect before the surge increased in intensity enough to fry its circuits, so I stayed behind in the observatory, convincing myself that somehow I’d be able to capture a few seconds of the images it transmitted to us and store them on a flash drive before the surge flash-fried the observatory and me along with it. It was a stupid thing to think I’d be able to do that, and I think I knew it too. But I needed to see. Needed it badly enough that I was willing to risk my own life just to preserve a few seconds of history before it was destroyed forever. So I closed the door behind me and made the men and women I was stationed with evacuate without me.

I stayed behind, and when the surge hit, it hit the Krieger-Smith first, just like I predicted. Checking my watch, I figured it had collected five seconds worth of images before it had gone offline, and so I frantically started checking the monitors until I found the images it had collected. At first I was confused. Then I was frightened.

Now, I wish the surge had killed me back then.

Though it spared me, it did its work on the Krieger-Smith. Not only was it rendered non-operational by the surge, but the navigational equipment became so screwed up that it actually course-corrected into a decaying orbit around Earth. Instead of staying afloat up there in space, the Krieger-Smith’s onboard computers had set it on a course back down to Earth. In a few hours, eleven tons of metal came crashing back down to Earth, killing dozens at the crash site and causing millions of dollars in property damage. You probably heard about it on the news by now. Like I said, the odds of them being around come next year aren’t looking good for NASA. As for me, well… I was still in the observatory when the worst of the surge hit.

I don’t remember it being painful. All I remember is feeling very, very warm before I passed out. When I came to, I was in a hospital bed back on Earth, covered in angry red burns and wired into god knows how many different machines, like some sort of fleshy adapter cable. That I do remember being painful.

I wasn’t able to talk for days, and it took me weeks to progress to the point where I could speak coherently without the aid of morphine. You ever try holding a conversation on morphine? It’s next to impossible. No one knows what you’re trying to say, not even you half the time. Anyway, I finally got my speaking privileges back, and I weighed my options, trying to decide what to say first. Should I apologize to my crewmates on the ISS for playing at being the martyr? Should I contact my family to let my wife and my little girls know I’m alright? No.

The first thing I decided I had to do was warn them.

The flash drive was scrambled in the surge, or maybe I never succeeded in uploading any of the images to it to begin with. But I remembered what I’d seen. In its five seconds of operational activity, the Krieger-Smith had collected a few dozen images of a rogue astral body. A hypervelocity black hole, a purely theoretical object up until then, and one of the few cosmic anomalies we’d been hoping to observe with the Krieger-Smith. Less than a few kilometers in diameter with a density greater than that of our sun, the wayward singularity is speeding towards our planet at over a million miles per hour as we speak, and without the Krieger-Smith, it may as well be goddamn invisible. We would’ve never seen it coming.

I tried to warn them. I went to my superiors first, then to the heads of NASA and the government. None of them believed me. The object that I claimed was coming right for us was dismissed as head trauma or delirium as a result of the intense levels of cosmic radiation I’d been exposed to up in space. Temporary insanity from cabin fever exacerbated by the extreme conditions aboard the ISS, or maybe mental illness, like my mother. They thought I was crazy and there was nothing I could do to convince them. The Krieger-Smith was in a million pieces soon to be a million lawsuits, and the drive contained no pictures whatsoever. No one else had been in the observatory when it began receiving images from the Krieger-Smith, so I was all alone with no one to support me.

Imagine it. You’re the only one who knows the world’s about to end, and no one is listening to you. You try to tell whoever you can that everyone they know and love is going to die unless they act, and they laugh you off as a loony. I know it’s a shot in the dark anyway, but someone’s got to do something. We can’t just sit back and wait to die… can we?

 

———-

 

For a while, it seemed as if my problems had ended with the Krieger-Smith. I began to wonder if maybe they were right. Maybe I was just delusional. I’d seen, heard and thought a lot of strange things under the effects of that morphine. Maybe I was just imagining it. Maybe it was my brain’s way of coping with what had been a very traumatic experience for me, as the shrink put it. But no. Catching a break there? That was a pipe dream.

I started hearing it three months after my release from the hospital as I was lying asleep in bed with Bethany. Its voice sounded just like my aunt’s, and every time it spoke it made me think of her, and made me remember the things she did. The voice called itself The Messenger, and it told me things. Things I never thought were possible. It told me about the black hole, how it was the black heart of a star millions of years old, caught between life and death, and it told me what was inside it. The body of a dead god, still sleeping. The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young, Shub-Niggurath. As it passes Earth, it will tear away at the crust, and consume the souls of every living human on the planet. It told me my aunt had been an avid practitioner of black magic and a devout follower of this dead god, which I guess explains a lot. During her worst, my mother was going as crazy as I am now, chanting prayers to dead gods from outer space. At least that’s what I took it to mean. Maybe our whole family line is tainted with this madness, and the radiation that scrambled my brain just… activated it somehow. I don’t know. I’m tired of looking for the answers. Whoever finds this can pick apart my brain as much as they want once I’m done with what I’m trying to do. They’ll probably find a tumour the size of a grape fruit.

I pushed The Messenger away at first. I tried to go to my psychiatrist at NASA, told him I was hearing voices inside my head, things no one else could hear. He just prescribed me more medication. I’ve tried taking the medication, I’ve tried therapy, but nothing helps. Eventually, I stopped pushing The Messenger away, and I started to listen. I asked him questions. Questions like where he came from, and why this was happening. I thought it would give me some sense of closure. No one said I had to like the answers he had though. In as much detail as I can remember, I have transcribed some of our last conversation below:

Who are you?

I am The Messenger. A faceless god of a thousand forms who stalks and crawls amongst the stars, spreading chaos throughout the universe. My job is to inform and to be informed, to give and be given messages to the worshippers of my brothers and sisters, and my father, the blind idiot god. I spread news of the good word of nihility and the bliss of oblivion.

So you’re the Devil?

Some have called me that. Others call me the Black Pharaoh, the Haunter in the dark, the Black Man, the Bloated Woman, the Dark One, and many others. I have a multitude of names. None of them particularly please me. So I call myself what I am. I am The Messenger.

Why do you sound like my aunt?

My voice is merely a reflection of your voice, my form a reflection of your form. What you wish me to be, so I am.

Why would I wish you to be my aunt? I hated her.

Humans wish for many things. Money, wealth, power, and other means with which to destroy themselves. This is why they are the cleverest of the motes of dust that occupy this empty universe. They all wish for their own destruction. Wise.

Why are you doing this?

I do nothing. I am simply here.

Then why is this happening?

A funny question. Do you really think yourself special, human? Do you think of your struggles as significant, your achievements grandiose and meaningful? Then you operate under a false assumption. There are forces much greater than you at work in this universe. The blessed body of The Goat is a good example. To it, you are-

An ant?

No. You are a paramecium. Something that is stepped on and obliterated without acknowledgement or realization. That is the true nature of this universe. Uncaring, unfeeling, unrecognizing oblivion, and nihilism. You will die, and The Black Goat will not care. It will not even notice, or think anything of it. Everyone you know will also die. One day The Black Goat too will die its final death, and then after that, me. And the universe will not notice. It will not care. It will merely continue expanding until all matter and intelligence is dispersed into an equilibrium devoid of information or significance. One day we will all be nothing but heat energy amidst a universe spread so flat it too will one day die. And what then? Nothingness. That is the only meaning in existence. Nothingness.

What can I do about it?

You? Nothing. No one can stop it. If you wish to delay the death of this planet for a few more years, however, there may be one service I can offer you, Jon Stewart.

Anything. What is it?

You can make a sacrifice. If you pray to The Black Goat, give thanks and tithe, she may consider sparing your planet for a few more eons. I will deliver the message, as is my job.

Okay, what kind of sacrifice should I make?

Kill them.

What?

Kill them, Jon. Kill everyone that matters to you. Then kill your dreams. Erase your existence from this world, and perhaps The Black Goat will hear it, and you will be spared.

… I understand.

 

———-

 

I’m probably completely insane. No, I’m sure I am. But I know what I saw. And I know what I have to do. That’s why I’m leaving this, for you to find. So that someone will know there was a method to my madness. I’ve already killed my wife and kids. If I’m right, they were necessary sacrifices to save the whole of humanity. If I’m wrong, they would have died in five months anyway, along with the rest of the world. I won’t say I do what I’m about to with a clear conscience. Because as I’ve clearly shown in my irrational behavior these past few days, that would be a lie. But I do it knowing it is necessary, and with the hope that, wherever they are, my family will forgive me.

I’ve loaded up the backseat of my truck with guns and explosives, and I’m headed towards Cape Canaveral, where it all began. Hopefully, if I’m in luck, no one will be working late hours and I can set up a perimeter to ensure the greatest possible sacrifice to the black goat goddess. All I can say is Houston, we are ready for launch. Happy trails, and ia! Shub-Niggurath ia! This is Jon Stewart, former astronaut, child-murderer and soon-to-be office spree-killer, signing off.

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Tokyo Drift 4.1

Previous || Next

Annie gasped. I just about fell over backwards. Felicity Overscore. Fuck me, I’d just made a pass at the mayor’s daughter.

The leyrails. One of the most influential inventions of the New Age. Using the Earth’s own mana, or life energy or whatever you wanna call it, it propels an engineless car across thousands of miles of terrain without ever stopping, traveling along ley lines like railroad tracks. Safe, unstoppable, and nearly one hundred percent energy efficient, those cars and Marq’s fusion reactor were some of our best innovations as a species since the Lost Renaissance. We liked to think of them as our way of showing the fae we could use the gift of magic responsibly, like a kid making his first bank deposit and looking up at his dad, asking if he did good. One wonders what we were expecting to hear.

My gaze strayed dutifully away from the flat scenery rolling past outside, flipping through the pages of the book Marq gave me. I’ve never been a fan of the country. Fresh air, green pastures? Fuck ’em. I’m a city-slicker at heart. I always was. The old country can kiss my ass like it owes me. Just looking at the plains was irritatingly nostalgic.

That reminds me, I wonder how Cavvy is doing?

Cavvy was an old friend of mine back in Italy, short for “Cavaliere”. About yay high, kinda skinny. He was a lot like me, except not as pretty or fun to be with. I remember we used to play together all the time as kids. Annie had a huge crush on him if I recall.

Gah. The fuck are you doing, grandpa? Reminiscing at your age? The past is in the past. Let it go.

Out of curiosity, I decide to follow the red reference marks listed in the encyclopedia’s page about the leyrails, see where they led me. It was better than pointlessly dwelling on the past like some old geezer.

Stopping a random page, I found a reference to that Impetus thing Marq had been talking about the other day. I hadn’t really been paying that much attention during that conversation, so I figured I’d read it for myself, see what this was all about.

“Impetus: The mental, spiritual, and biological drive that compels all things to move in one specific direction, with one specific purpose. Analogous to a person’s true nature, all things, abstract or concrete, have an Impetus. Learning one’s own Impetus is vital to becoming a successful mage, as it plays a large role in determining what type of magic you are most suited to, but it can also be a terrible secret and burden to bear. Even if one dislikes one’s own Impetus, it is impossible to change it on one’s own, and fighting it will only lead to ruin. Although methods exist to forcibly alter one’s Impetus, usually through heavy conditioning and no small amount of trauma, divulging one’s Impetus to other magi is not advised, as once an Impetus is understood, it can be used as a powerful tool to predict the every action of the one who bears it, enslaving them and making them little more than a thrall at the mercy of its master.”

I turn the page.

“Equivalent exchange: The demand made by the world for adequate compensation whenever one casts a spell. As with all things in life, one only get out of a spell what one puts into it. This is called equivalent exchange, and it is the law with all magic. No matter what the components may be, there is always a price to be paid for its use. The best way to understand this is to think of spellwork like chemistry. While alterations can be made to the formula, making it more streamlined or perhaps substituting a smaller number of efficient parts for a larger number of inefficient ones, the basic framework of the spell must always remain.”

“Mana: Also known as life-force, chi, qi, ki, prana and telesma amongst many other names, mana is the sum total energy of a system at any given time. For humans, this is largely made up of the biomechanical and biochemical energy we expend in our day to day lives. For inanimate objects, this includes gravitational potential energy as well as mass energy.”

I sighed. “Annie, if you’re gonna keep reading over my shoulder like that, I’m gonna make you ride in the boxcars like Sostene.”

“Oh. Eheh… sorry,” Annie said sheepishly as everyone in the car looked at her as if asking her to stop.

“Why are you even interested in this anyway?” I asked. “It’s just an encyclopedia.”

“Yeah, an encyclopedia on magic.”

“So?”

“Soooooo, I wanna learn magic.”

“Uh no.”

“Uh yes.”

“As your brother and legal guardian, I adamantly refuse. Or as they used to say in the streets, get that shit out of here!”

“Oh come on, Al! It’s not the 1800s anymore! Women can have just as much of a role in the workforce as men, and knowing magic is a valuable skill to have! Just look at Ms. Felicity! I bet she knows magic!”

“Yes, I do know some,” she admitted.

“And she’s the best role model a girl could ask for! Strong, intelligent, hard-working, independent-”

“Thank you for your compliments, Miss…”

“Anastasia, and may I just say it is an honor to be able to meet the mayor’s daughter in person!” Annie said, shaking Felicity’s hand rapidly. Felicity smiled in return.

“It is nice to meet you as well, Anastasia. After all, it’s unusual for me to find another intelligent, strong-willed woman like myself.”

Annie sparkled with delight. “Do you really mean that, Miss Felicity?!”

“Mmhmm,” she said. “I do. Our meeting here today must have been fate. In fact, I’m sure of it. The gods have sent me you to relieve me from the boredom of having to listen to my brutish and overly grandiose fiancee speak.”

She glared at Marq, who tried to make it look like he didn’t notice.

“Hmmm… brutish and grandiose… I understand half of it, but where do the two fit together?” Annie said, looking at Marq through a camera lens she’d made with her fingers. “I’m not seeing it.”

“Simple. He’s brutish in his manner and temperament and the company he keeps, but he’s also overly grandiose in the way he tries to hide it and act like a gentlemen all the time,” she said. “He’s like a raven. Everyone thinks they’re such sophisticated and poetic creatures, but all they really do is eat garbage and squawk on top of power lines while they fruitlessly preen themselves. He should know by now that he’s fooling no one.”

“Yeah, you hear that?” Annie almost shouted at Marq. “You’re not fooling us!”

Marq cleared his throat. “Felicity? Sweetheart? I have a gift for you. I hope you like it.”

“Oh yes, I’m sure I will, Marquis dear. Just like I enjoyed the car, the cage of rabbits, the singing lovebirds, the chocolates, and the gondola ride. I’m sure it’ll be absolutely stunning,” she said, laying the sarcasm on thick.

Annie eyed Marq in a way that said, How desperate can you get? before turning back to Felicity in anticipation of her reaction.

Marq looked at me and nodded. I didn’t get it, so I pointed a finger at myself, confused. He sighed.

“The brandy, Al. The brandy you were trying to drink the other day. Get the brandy!”

Finally understanding, I fumbled with the compartment’s icebox until I’d found the bottle he was looking for. I handed it to him.

“This is a 1762 Gautier cognac,” he said, presenting the bottle proudly. “Distilled and aged to perfection in France. I recently purchased it in an auction house for a few thousand dollars. I thought it would make an excellent gift to celebrate the first anniversary of our engagement.”

“It would if wine wasn’t illegal,” she said. “And if I liked wine in the first place.”

“Oh, this isn’t wine,” he said. “It’s brandy.”

“Is there a difference?”

“… It’s been distilled?”

Felicity sighed, and snatched the bottle from his hands. She popped off the top and took a whiff of the thick scent of strong alcohol. Tipping the bottle back, she swallowed briefly, allowing herself to sample the liquor.

“Hmmm… you were right, dear,” she said. “Thank you for this thoughtful gift.”

“See? I told you it would-”

“It’ll sell excellently in the foreign market, yes,” she said, corking the bottle. “It’ll make us quite a lot of money.”

“Ah…” Marq said, but stopped. He didn’t have anything to say to that. I winced, and Nayeli almost slipped and caught herself snarling.

“Well what did you expect?” I heard any say. “You couldn’t have thought she’d actually drink it, did you? She’s the mayor’s daughter, she knows better than to break the law.”

Please don’t say ‘unlike you’, please don’t say ‘unlike you’…

“Unlike me, yes Anastasia,” Marq said, a hint of annoyance entering his voice. “Did you ever think though that maybe being the mayor’s daughter is what lets her bend the law every once and a while?”

“The mayor wouldn’t do that, and neither would Felicity!”

“Annie…” I warned.

“In fact, I’d say she’s too good for you.”

“I’m serious…”

“Felicity, I say you should call this marriage off right now!” Annie exclaimed. “He’s clearly not the right man for you. Do you know what he used to do for a living?”

I clapped. “That’s it! Off to the boxcars with you!”

Annie stopped. She opened her mouth and tried to think of something to say, but really she just pouted.

“Alright, if that’s how it’s going to be. I see how it is.”

She left the compartment on her crutches, poking her head through the door on the way out.

She stuck her tongue out at me and slammed the door shut, and I sighed.

“Well that could’ve gone better,” Marq said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Still, something just occurred to me and I’d like to discuss it with you Al, so maybe it’s for the best that she’s gone.”

He turned to his fiancee.

“Felicity, would you be a dear and go have one of the attendants fetch us a pail of ice so we can enjoy some of that delicious cognac I bought you?”

“I refuse.”

“Oh. Ummmm… okay, would you like to go spend some time with Anastasia and indulge in some appetizers in the dining car?”

“Not particularly.”

“Maybe you would like to try on that dress I bought you? I’m sure it would look fabulous on you.”

“Not happening.”

Marquis sighed. “Felicity, I really don’t think you want to be here. All we’ll be doing is discussing stocks and I’m sure that’s going to be incredibly boring for you.”

“Not at all. I know quite a bit about investing. I even manage my father’s finances. Or didn’t you know that?”

Oh great, another Annie.

“Well, uh…”

“Your continued stammering tells me you’ve just about run out of excuses, so I think I shall cut to the point,” she said, clearing her throat. “You are going to discuss the upcoming train robbery with your associates (or perhaps I should say employees?), and I would very much like to be a part of this conversation, seeing as it concerns me just as much as it does you.”

“Felicity, I have no idea what you’re talking about-”

“Darling please, let’s cut the bullshit. You and I both know what it is you do for a living. Denying it is just insulting to me, and it makes you look like an idiot, which I know for a fact you are not.”

“Oh really? How can you be so sure of that?” Marq shot back. Smooth, I thought.

“Because I wouldn’t have agreed to this marriage if I didn’t think you were a capable business partner, dear,” Felicity said.

“So that’s all this is to you then, Felicity? Business? I’m hurt. I thought I meant more to you than that,” Marq said, trying to twist the knife. Nayeli frowned.

“Do I mean more than that to you?”

“Errrr…”

Nayeli smiled, content, whereas Marq was quiet, his counterattack swiftly defused. Felicity raised an eyebrow at him.

“That’s what I thought. Don’t think you can play me for a fool like everyone else, honey. We have very clearly outlined the terms of this agreement. You wanted a position of power in the local government come next term, and I wanted a financially successful husband with two point five children, a nice house, and everything else that looks good in the papers. We both have something to give and we both have something to get. It’s a business deal. That’s all it is, so spare me these private pleasantries.”

“That’s an awfully cold way of looking at a marriage,” I said.

“It’s a commitment,” she said. “Just like any other job. You invest your time, money and patience in another person or persons and you expect a certain level of respect in return, which is why I don’t appreciate you lying to my face, Marquis.”

I looked at Marq.

“Lying?” Marq said. “About what? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Oh where to start…

She narrowed her eyes. “You know what I’m talking about. As long as you do what you’re supposed to, everything will work out fine and neither of us will have to put in more than the minimum amount of energy required. But if you fuck this up, darling…”

“I lose everything, I know,” he said. “Don’t worry, I know the terms of our contract very well.”

“Do you?” she said, getting up. “Do you?”

Opening the door and exiting the compartment, she left the three of us alone for the first time since we’d boarded the train. With his fiancee gone, Marq let out a heavy sigh.

“That bitch,” Nayeli said, growling.

“Now now Nayeli, take it easy,” Marq said. “She could still be listening.”

Finally relaxing, I asked, “So what is it that’s so important?”

“It’s Annie,” he said.

“Look, I’m sorry about what she said earlier-”

“No, it’s not that. Al, if things go south and our friends decide not to cooperate with us, what’s your plan for keeping Annie safe? I have an evac to a secure car all worked out for Felicity, and I went through all the steps beforehand. She’s the mayor’s daughter, so she’s used to that kind of thing. But if we start talking about emergency exits and evac routes around Annie, she’s gonna think something’s up. You gotta protect her and your secret, so what’s your plan?”

I sat back, considering it. “Well, she seems fairly smitten with your fiancee-”

“Please don’t say that word,” Nayeli said.

“-so maybe she’ll just follow her if things go south?”

Marq nodded. “That’s a good point. I’ll tell Felicity to make a beeline for Annie if things get sticky.”

“Thanks. I appreciate it.”

“You should give this some serious thought before we reach Arizona though, Al. I know you think you can protect her, but Mickey was just the beginning. You’re a piece on a whole new playing field now.”

In the arrogance of youth I laughed him off and said, “Marq, I’ve been watching over her for seventeen years. I think that out of anyone, I’m the most qualified to protect her. Trust me, it’ll be fine. You got everything under control, right? She’ll never even know anything’s wrong.”

He sighed, nodding. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you…”

“What was that?”

“Nothing. Go check on Sostene for me, will you? I’m sure he’s getting frustrated cooped up in the back. You can take the time to apologize to Annie while you’re at it.”

I strolled down the halls of the moving train, looking for Sostene’s refrigerated car and keeping an eye out for Annie. Finally I found the massive steel door and was met by a blast of cold arctic air as soon as I opened it.

“Chilly enough for ya in here, Sostene?” I asked jokingly. “It’s colder than a morgue. I bet you feel right at home, don’t you?”

“… I don’t get it.”

“What?”

“That joke. I don’t get it.”

I paused. “Well uh, it was just that you’re dead and there are dead people in morgues and uhhhh… you know what, nevermind. Forget I said anything.”

Sostene sighed. “Done and done. Now what’s this about?”

Looks like I’d ticked him off. Not sure if him not attacking me right now was a sign he’d grown to like me, or if I should just run now while the running was good. Not sure which I preferred either.

I sat down on a crate.

“What, can’t a guy take some time out of his trip to come talk to a friend?”

Sostene raised an eyebrow. “We’re in a refrigerated boxcar, Alfonso.”

“Yeah. I mean sure it’s cold as balls in here, but the atmosphere’s great and we’ve got the whole car all to ourselves! How cool is that?”

“You were just here to see Annie, weren’t you?” he said. “Sorry, but I think you just missed her.”

I sighed. “Come on Sostene, give me a break here. As much as I’d love to stay in that warm, heated train car and watch Marq play at being Sisyphus with Nayeli and his fiancee, I’m bored out of my fucking mind. Talk to me here. Talk to me about anything. Literally anything. Otherwise I’m going to have to go back there and read from that stodgy-ass book that reads like the author thinks he’s gonna be the next Alhazred and listen to the most awkward and one-sided conversation I’ve had since [something about his dad].”

Sostene snorted. “Deadbeat dads. Now there’s a subject I know way too much about.”

I clapped. “That’s good! Keep that going!”

Sostene looked around uncomfortably. It looked like he’d start saying something a couple of times but he never quite got his bearings and actually said it.

“You know what, I really shouldn’t. I-I don’t think this is a good idea.”

“Why? You got some secrets you’re trying to keep?” I said, smirking.

“No, I just don’t think I want to share it! It’s a really shitty story, and I don’t want your pity.”

“Oh really?” I said, leading him on. “I bet I can do worse. My dad was pretty shitty.”

“Not as shitty as mine.”

“Wanna bet?”

Sostene looked around, as if he was expecting someone to walk in and admonish him, but then he said, “Sure! I’ll take that bet.”

“Alright! I’ll go first. My dad never had time for us or my mom. He was always at work.”

“My dad is an alcoholic.”

“My dad always argued with my mom about his job and our money problems.”

“My dad is a blood-sucking vampire.”

“Come on Sostene, that much is a given.”

We both stopped and looked at each other, then we burst out laughing.

“Fuck you!” Sostene said in between bouts of laughter.

“You know you want to,” I said, laughing just as hard. “Alright, alright. Me next. My dad walked out on us.”

“My dad did that too.

“No shit?”

“Yeah. I never did find out why.”

“… Just to clarify, we’re talking about your second father, right? The one who turned you?” Sostene nodded. “Well now I’m curious. Why don’t you tell me about him?”

“Nah,” Sostene said, shaking his head. “I don’t feel like it.”

“Come onnnnn…”

“I said I don’t feel like it, Al!”

He slammed his fist down angrily, denting the coolant tank he was sitting on.

“Whoawhoawhoa!” I yelled. “What’s with the sudden mood swing?!”

“I see what you’re trying to do here, Al! You’re trying to get me to loosen up and drop my guard so I tell you everything you want to know, right?! Well it’s none of your business!” He knocked aside a shipping crate and got right up in my face. “Everyone gets to have their secrets, and mine are staying buried with me!”

“Okay…” I said, sweating. “Okay. Let’s just cool our jets here, Sostene. I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”

“If you didn’t mean anything by it, then you don’t have anything to worry about, right?”

“Yeah…?”

“Then why do I smell fear on you?” he accused.

“Because a man who’s twice my size and built like a tree trunk is currently towering over me and looking at me like he can’t decide what crochet pattern he’s gonna use to rearrange my balls with,” I said. “I think I would have the right to be afraid regardless of the situation. Now let’s just calm down.”

Sostene backed off slowly, sitting with his back facing towards me on the shipping crate of solitude, head in his hands. I took a deep breath.

“Next time warn me before you freak out like that,” I said, exhaling. “You can tell me when you’re angry, you know. I don’t mind shutting up. You’d be missing the sound of my beautiful dulcet tones, but that’s your funeral, not mine.”

Sostene glared at me.

“Sorry. Bad joke.”

“That’s the thing though, I… I wasn’t angry. Then you said that and I just…”

“Exploded?”

“Lost control,” Sostene corrected me. “Yet another gift from my wonderful father. Listen, just… I don’t like talking about my turning. There are some things about me that only I should get to know.”

“What about Marq? Does he know?”

“Yes,” Sostene said. “And no. He has the general idea, but nothing else.”

“You ever going to tell him?”

“What, so he can tell you? No thanks.”

“Listen Sostene, you gotta talk to someone about this. I always had Annie to work it out with since we were in the same boat. After our parents left us stranded in New York City, we were all each other had. But you? You got nobody. That can’t be good for ya.”

“Oh I’ve got someone to talk to about it,” Sostene said. “It’s just too bad they’re the one I wanna kill.”

“You really hate your father that much?” I asked, dumbfounded.

“What about you?” Sostene said, turning the question back on me. “If you had the chance to talk to your dad again and ask him why he did it, why he ruined your life for you and your sister, would you forgive him? Would you forgive the bastard that took everything away from you, or would you want to make him pay for every night you laid awake cursing his name? Can you honestly look me in the eye and say you’ve never thought about it?”

I scratched my head, trying to think of a way to lead this conversation from awkward things like patricide and psuedo-incestual vampire hate-stiffies.

“Whenever I think about my dad, I imagine him and I are talking,” I said. “Sometimes we chitchat over a glass of beer or whatever I’m doing at the time, and sometimes we just cut straight to the point and I ask him why he left me and my sister to fend for ourselves here in America.”

“And has he ever answered?”

“… No. Whenever he says it’s his turn, I can’t think of what he’d say.”

“What if it’s because you wouldn’t like what he’d have to say?”

I tried to say something in response, but I couldn’t think of anything. Anything would’ve done, but I couldn’t think of anything, not even anything stupid that wouldn’t have made any sense, like Dwight Eisenhower’s sweaty balls. I guess because when I think about it, he was right.

“Whatever,” I said. “Ask Annie, she’s back here somewhere, right?”

“Uhhhh no, she isn’t.”

“But I thought she- I told her to-… Are you sure you haven’t seen her?”

“Yup.”

“Goddammit!”

Previous || Next

Update v.2

Okay, so the delays on this thing are starting to get a little ridiculous, so instead of publishing this week’s chapter, I’m going to push it off to next week and make it longer so I can publish it after I’m done with my exams. That way I won’t have to curtail anything for the sake of studying, I’ll have a bit of extra time to catch my breath, and you all will have something to read while I’m gone on vacation during spring break. Does that sound good to everyone?

Update

Due to IRL issues, I’m gonna have to delay tonight’s chapter by 24 hours. It’ll be up tomorrow. The status of the next two weeks after this are going to be a bit iffy as well (I have two big exams next Wednesday and I’m going to be well into my spring break trip to Mexico two weeks from now, which means no wi-fi), so I’ll keep you updated on how things look.

Sorry for the disappointing news guys, but I thought you should know.