REPORT A PROBLEM
Chris Van Dyke
If you cross the Madjiporyani mountains just north of where the clear waters of the Desetyani tumble frothing from their subterranean source, at the pass that in Lssarth is called Es-Solibar but in Neo Grandis is Kybant, you will stare down the granite slopes across the endless golden sea of the Talagani Plains and as the dark cloak of night settles across the horizon you will just catch a glimpse of the diamond sparkle of the lights of Paraseti. Paraseti, city of a thousand thousand plots and poisons; Paraseti, where dark palaces rise above dark streets there on the plains.
If you believe the writings of Michelle St. Ustan, the nomadic tribes of Trirgon are held in the thrall of their shamatic priest-kings, known as the Bevurgodlir, roughly translated by St. Ustan as "those who drunk the god-liquid." According to the famed anthropologist, who credits her report to "highly reputable sources," the Bevurgodlir consume the fermented juices of the Prairie Martin liver, inducing in themselves a highly hallucinogenic state which the Trirgon attribute to divine possession. Since all order and governance thus extend directly from fits induced by psychoactive stimulants, one can imagine the chaotic and senseless society that results.
If someone would have asked him he could never have given a rational explanation for why he suddenly started walking past the "Do Not Enter" signs and wandering the darkness of the subway tunnels. It was an impulse that had built up within him, slowly, slowly, over the years. He would stand on an abandoned platform in the middle of the night and stare into the yawning darkness, into a void so familiar and everyday and yet forbidden, unknown. One day he simply walked towards the metal gate and did not stop. The scream of rusted metal hinges followed him.
"Horror be the void." "Abhorred and cold forever," Illyasa responded to her teacher's customary greeting, pressing her palms together and inclining her head slightly to show the correct deference to the Prefect's class status. The angle of her head, her steeped fingers, the words, even the intonation of her voice and the flickering sweep of her gaze were all choreographed precisely according to the timeless traditions of the Elder Code. Each greeting changed based not only on who was being greeted, but the status of the greeter or well – their exchange was the confirmation of their relationship to one another.
He listlessly skimmed the mail, which contained the usual mélange of credit card offers, student loan refinancing deals, and bills from various monopolistic utilities. He stopped at a large envelope that bore the New Jersey State steal. "Official Court Notice" was stamped across its broad face in red ink; frowning lightly, he removed the security perforations and slid the carbon dusted notice out of the paper sleeve. "You must appear in court for arraignment/conference on charges of murder." He checked again – yes, that was his name and address below the charges, but he had no idea what was going on.
At dusk he settled into his chair in the scrying room. For a moment he sat in the darkness; then the monitors blazed into blinding life, instantly encasing him in a closed cocoon of flickering white and stark colors, his body bathed in an ever-changing wash of senselessly overlapping patterns. But in the chaos there was order, whispered rumors of forbidden secrets – the women happily discussing yeast infections over coffee juxtaposed with the falling NASDAQ, famine in Sudan, and a rerun of Buffy: together the informancer heard their coded chorus, and they spoke in hushed tones of things to come.
He sometimes saw palaces beneath the city. He would press his face against the window and stare at the shadowy images of service doors utility pipes and the latticework of steel support beams flicker past in the gloom. But when the tunnel walls would suddenly fall away into wide cavernous gloom he would see other ghostly shapes moving at the extremity of his vision: shadows of unseen towers cast by the dancing red glow of a fire, half-lit windows darkened by obscure silhouetted forms, the shadow-washed faces of ghostly ladies on insubstantial mares that were unseen by any but himself.
The line snaked through the heart of Central Park for as far as the eye could see in both directions, stretching off until a rise in the land or a stand of pines obscured it. Occasionally someone would happen upon the line, and, curious to see what event could be gathering such a large crowd, the person would ask one of those waiting what the line was for. The person on line would shrug without answering, and, overcome with curiosity, the newcomer would follow the line to its termination and join those waiting. All day long the line grew longer.
The tattoo of the dragon begins at the base of her neck, curving in serpentine grace over her shoulder, following the curve of her breast until its tapering tail fades into the slight shadow that clings to the soft folds of her chest. The deep, iron-rust red of the wyrm seems to writhe sluggishly into life as taut muscles move beneath skin, the glow of the torches glistening against her tight flesh. It is a thing of fire and shadow, a thing alive. Suddenly you realize it is not merely a trick of the light – it moves on its own . . .
"Last stop, last stop!" The conductor's voice echoed through the empty train car, disembodied by the gravel filter of the intercom. Simon raised his head and waited for the announcer to repeat himself. Surely he'd misheard; the train was clearly stalled in the claustrophobic dark of a tunnel. The conductor must have said, "We apologize for the unavoidable delay." That had to be it. He cocked his head as the speakers cackled back to life. "Last Stop! Everybody off the train! Last stop!" With a chime and a rush of musty air, the train doors opened onto the subterranean gloom.
The sergeant hadn't answered the few questions that his men had asked, merely handed out the rifles and the high-caliber ammunition and repeated their instructions – highly mobile, believed highly dangerous, approach with caution, meet with lethal force. A few of them made crude jokes which everyone responded to with laughter that reeked of nerves. Then a squadie threw open the sewer access hatch and the first soldiers rushed into the gloom. As their headlamps cut into the darkness there was a scream that the burst of gunfire could not mask. They had, after all, expected their foes to be human.
The man sitting across from him on the subway wasn't particularly handsome, so there was no reason Richard should have noticed him the next at a screening of Owell's The Third Man, but he did. The next morning he was having coffee and eggs florentine two tables down at Café Trocce; that afternoon in was the checkout line at Fairway. Richard began seeing him everywhere; even when he didn't see him, Richard knew he'd just missed him – he'd see the back of his head disappear into a crowd, see his footprints in the grass, feel his echo haunting a room.
The saying "It's not a matter of life or death" doesn't exist in Corzican. There everything is a matter of life or death, or at least of life altering importance. Insignificant decisions – choosing non-fat over full-milk yogurt, attending a Sunday operetta – might result in sudden wealth or else instant enslavement in the cobalt mines. One might expect the populace to be paralyzed with such weighty consequence hinging on every movement, but the exact opposite is true – every action, from sneezing to murder, is treated with the same caprice, as fate will change again with the next breath . . .
The first thing he noticed wrong was the nearly overwhelming silence. He lay in bed, still floating in the anesthetized cloud of his recent awakening and felt that something was wrong. Not that he could quite put a name to what it was that was bothering him; there was simply a constant nagging voice in the back of his skull, whispering, whispering. Then he realized it was the silence – there was absolutely none of the myriad of noises that one took for granted as part of city life: the sirens, distant bass, laughter, curses, horns, brakes, airplanes, motorcycles, car engines . . .
It was along Grand Concourse in the Bornx, just south of Mishula Parkway, that I came across Don Quixote selling fruit ices out of a battered handcart: pina, mango, tamarind, coco, fifty-cent or a dollar for a large wax paper-cup of frozen slush and a napkin. "It's a grand quest of economic prosperity, my dear Sancho," and he flashed a crooked-toothed grin over a handful of change. "My dear senorita Dulcenea, she must be wooed with, with diamond studded tiaras and vials of sweet perfume." I left Senor Quixote to his fever dreams, and went to joust at windmills alone.
Sir Galahad at last comes to the island of Manhattan. He searches the boutiques of fifth-avenue and bodegas of Spanish Harlem, but it is in Times Square that he at last glimpses the Grail – resting in the seat beside the driver of a yellow taxi stopped at the intersection of Eight and 42nd. Then it is gone into the countless anonymous masses and Galahad is no closer than he had been before. He will spend the rest of his days vainly searching apartments for a Grail impossibly hidden within a half-dozen miles, lost in a labyrinth of architecture and humanity.
The man and the young boy stood at the peak of the dune, their ankles covered by the silken sand, the shadows of their kites flickering across them from time to time. The wind was strong but not overly eager, pulling the box kites into short dives and gentle spirals which required no more than a slight tug of the line to correct. The man and the boy stood as marble statues in the startling light of the moon, the endless sea of sand washed with the same blue and charcoal tones, their shadows stretched into towering giants before them.
He was waiting for her. She did not seem surprised or frightened, not even resigned – merely accepting, as if she had known all along that he would be standing under the awning and had arrived precisely on time in order to keep an appointment. Neither of them smiled or spoke. He held out one black-gloved hand, and she placed her pale, delicate fingers into his. For a split second she could not suppress the look of terror and revulsion that spasmed across her face, but in a heartbeat it was gone, and he gave no indication that he had seen.
My family moved to Anodyne the summer after I finished sixth grade. The cobalt mines in Corzican had gone bust, leaving thousands of miners suddenly out of work. My father was one of the anonymous hordes who loaded his family and worldly possessions into the back of a battered steam cart and headed West to find employment. Since our family had distant oath-relations in the priest-caste we were not as bad off as most, though we still had to cram five of us into a one bedroom apartment on the edges of the Midge Sector Slums near the Slobgollian Wharves.
From the first few days, even before it became increasingly apparent that the weather system was unlike anything anyone had ever seen or even heard of, the rain was remarkable. It came down in thunderous torrents of unflagging intensity, hour after hour, day after day, solid sheets of water that caused flash-flooding all across the country. The flash-floods soon became regular rivers, and towns became permanent lakes as the weeks, and then months, passed under the unceasing downpour. Crops rotted unharvested in the field; entire regions were cut off as bridges washed out and roads were submerged. And it rained . . .
The cabins at Westwind Vacation Resort just outside the small town of Franconia in northern New Hampshire were set back from the road near the edge of the forest. They were secluded enough to give the illusion of near total isolation, though when a car passed along rural route 18 the sweep of the headlights would pierce the night and send sweeping arboreal shadows slicing across the campground. Few guests noticed that each cabin was fitted with bulletproof windows and a direct telephone line to the National Guard in Littleton, but there were reasons that no local ever stayed there.
Most people, when they think of New England, think of cultivated gardens and long populated hamlets; even the forests and mountains have long since been tamed by the trappings of civilization, as most peaks and valleys are never far from some trail-head or cozy mountain retreat. But there are still pockets, dark remnants of prehuman antiquity that somehow the countless trail-guides and BLM surveyors have missed, groves and cliff sides never tainted by our footsteps. These are the places that locals attempt to explain away through folktales and urban legends, the places no one goes because it just feels wrong.
The Tower dominates the northern end of the City – a monolithic slab stretching blasphemously towards heaven above the sprawling warrens of brownstones and bodegas littering the latticework of streets that surround it. The Tower's immense foundations span the highway to allow the ceaseless drone of traffic to pass beneath, while near its peaks airplanes fly through cavernous aeroducts that bisect the Tower itself. The Tower shares its roots with the City, but that is all – it has its own restaurant and police force. The only time that citizens of the City enter the Tower is to dispose of its garbage.
At first glance the world seemed to be in perfect order: the cream swirled in thick tendrils on the surface of his coffee; the spoon released muted chimes as it struck the sides of his mug; the toast leapt an inch above the lip of the toaster when toasted. Still he sat, tense and alert, unable to accept any of it - something was wrong. Did the shadow from the salt-shaker always fall that way across the placemat? Had the type face of the Times mast-head been that exact size the day before? He wasn't sure of anything anymore.
He found the map crammed between the seats on the subway. The thick, dark paper caught his eye at 59th Street, and by Rockefeller Plaza he had managed to ease out the packet of folded paper. The creases cracked with age in protest as he unfolded them, and he stared in bewilderment at the faded ink scratched lines and letters. It took him a moment to realize it was a map, but that line seemed to be sixth Avenue, that patch of hash-marks Central Park, and the thick "X", labeled "Baried Treshur" appeared to be directly over the Great Lawn.
I fought in a war and the people lined the streets to see us off, tickertape and speeches and a banner fluttering behind zeppelins. They issued us the newest needle-guns and steam-powered combat automatons and told us it was the war to end all wars. We strung barbed wire for hundreds of miles and dug ditches which filled with mud and rats and then we shoveled coal into our automatons and sent them staggering across no-man's land packed with nitroglycerine to scar the countryside with craters. We died by the hundred of thousands, and it ended nothing but our lives.
Later historians would trace the origin of space flight back to that simple one line message – "What hast god wrought?" – that Morse telegraphed to Baltimore from the old Supreme Court House one day in May. Ether travel itself didn't begin in actuality, of course, until the Ford Corporation launched the first primitive aether screw orthocopter in 1899, but Morse was the first person to irrefutably prove the existence of aether, and nhis later research into the properties of the field would provide the foundations upon which the Wright brothers, and later the Ford Motor Corporation, would base all their work.
As a child, I was raised by the Roma. I was an orphan, as my parents died in the Great Fire that ravaged Prague in 1672. My earliest memories are of flames and smoke-filled nights. I was two at the time, and in the chaos of neighborhood after neighborhood disappearing in flame, it was impossible for any of my relatives to locate me. The Roma found me huddled in a burned out synagogue; they healed my burns with potions, poultices and spells, and like a phoenix, I rose from the ashes and smoke stronger than I ever would have been.
There were days when he woke up as someone else. He was pretty sure it happened while he was dreaming – on the nights before those days he would dream of the stranger coming up to him and taking him by the hand, leading him away into a forest that was thick with brambles and spider webs and mist. The stranger would leave him there, somehow unbound but still unable to move, dissolving into the marble flagstones with a mockingly patient smile. That was when he always awoke, the same tight, triumphant smile on his face. Those were never good days.
It was dead again – it served him right for wasting so much time and lavishing so much care upon what was, when it came down to it, merely a mass of metal wires and silicone chips. He stood there almost awed by the vacuum that remained, all the care and love and devotion suddenly reduced to this, this squat and unattractive beige cube. The vast vistas it had contained, gone; the people it had embodied, no more; the other personalities it had offered him, the other lives, vanished now into the mere memory of smoke and mirrors that they actually entailed.
At night, when the King dreamed, the weight of the crown dissolved from his brow. Gone were the endless quarrels between the Wood Elves of Evermoot and the Dwarves of the Ironhill; gone the reports of warg-riders massing near Spine; gone the countless idiot knights seeking the hand of the princess. The king dreamed of a small house on a cul-de-sac northwest of Philadelphia - he mowed the lawn with his shirt off on Sundays, then sat on his porch and watched the humming-bird feeder until his wife called him to a dinner of tuna-casserole. Every morning, the king woke smiling.
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