Tuesday, January 31, 2012

282/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "The Plot" by White Rabbits

Joey, wrapped in black bedsheets, stared up that ceiling, his mouth dripping saliva. The bedside alarm clock had been buzzing for the last hour and finally gave it's last shriek before shutting itself off. He blinked and tried to move his fingers, but the sheets weighed down on him as if they were made of lead.

"No," whispered Nox, and the sheets tightened. Joey groaned and closed his eyes. The darkness was irresistible. "You owe me your soul," continued Nox. "You wronged me and I demand recompense."

"I can't stay here," said Joey, speaking in his head and into the darkness. "You can have my nights, all of them, for the rest of my life."

"I will not bargain with you again," said Nox. His eye's lit up in the darkness, gleaming from a non-existent light source.

"I will die..."

"That's not my concern," said Nox. "You had one thing to do, and you couldn't do it."

"No," said Joey meekly. "You asked too much of me."

"You should not have agreed!" screamed Nox. "Humans! What are you? Mere creatures of the flesh. You are a slave to your bodily functions. You let them rule you. I offered you a way out of that stinking mass that walks you around--"

"You are horribly wrong about us," said Joey. "We are not less because of our flesh, just different."

Nox burst into a bright blinding light and Joey felt instantly cold. Then Joey found himself sitting in the crook of an elm tree. Below him were the roots of the tree which floated free of the Earth, above a main sequence yellow star. Its plasma roiled and spat. Joey clung tightly to the tree and breathed in slowly while his heart raced.

"You could do this, anytime you wanted to," said Nox. He was hovering behind the tree as a point of pink-tinged light.

"Nights are enough for me," said Joey.

"You don't understand," said Nox in a condescending voice. "What you can do in your dreams is bound by the flesh of your brain. You are limited."

"Then why do you want to be one of so badly?"

Nox brightened then faded again to darkness.

"Immortality," said Nox. "I want to experience what it's like to die. Just once."

"And my body, the body I pledged to you when you took away my nightmares, is the body you want to do that to. And I will never get it back. That price is too much."

The star was eaten by a sudden shadow and the elm tree dissolved to sparkly dust. Joey slowly floated, and was pulled down towards a flat gray surface that he concentrated to form.

"You're skills have improved," said Nox.

"You are the master of imagination," said Joey, ignoring the compliment. "Why don't you build your own mortal life?"

"It is hollow. Devoid of real experience. I've tried."

"And if you achieve this, taking over the body of a human, what will you do in the time before you die?"

Nox was silent for a long time and Joey wondered if he had gone off and sulked.

"I will unlock the portal from here, then I will open it on your side."

"The wha--?"

"There is a veil between your kind and the higher kinds that live in the universe. I will remove it, and all will know."

Joey laughed heartily.

"You really don't know humans! They may see with their eyes, but they don't always believe facts."

They were both silent again.

"Trade with me," said Nox.

"Why should I? Tell me something other than what it will do for you."

Nox hesitated and hemmed and hawed.

"You will see everything. The universe exploding, the stars forming, and planets spinning. And you would know the whole history of your kind. You will intermingle here with the other higher kinds, because, at that point, you will be a higher being. You will understand things beyond beauty, and you will learn how the human story ends."

"That's not enough for me."

"Then please..." said Nox trailing off. "I beg you."

Joey considered these last words for a moment.

"We have something that you don't," said Joey. "An end. Closure. History. You would throw your infinite imagination away just for that. Without the end, there is no whole."

Nox growled and threw off sparks like a roman candle.

"And you've been reduced to pleading with me, and by starving my material body of food and water." Joey paused and searched his own feelings, to see how committed he was to the decision he would utter next. "Then do it. My death will only make you more envious."

There was a moment of pitch black and silence, then Nox let out a rattling scream and burst into purple flames. The sound and the light slowly faded, then Joey found himself in control of his body again. He woke to a room dimly lit with daylight filtered through thick curtains. He sat up and flexed his fingers and toes, and wondered if he would ever again have a restful night's sleep.

Monday, January 30, 2012

281/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "Yes I'm Cold" by Chris Bathgate

It was early spring when he died numbly in his sleep, on a mountain pass during a blizzard. He had a broken femur and the layers of fur, reeds, and skins didn't deter the onset of hypothermia.

He was unearthed from a melting glacier five thousand years later, his thin frame still intact. Careful hands thawed and preserved him. He was scanned with electrons and his form was stored in a database. His sweat could be smelled once again, briefly, during this process. One hand once caressed his hair back. He was stored in the dark and cold, occasionally rolled out for sample taking and other study.

He remained in his vault for five centuries, until he was bought by a collector. He was removed and vacuum packed and placed on a bed of packing peanuts. He was shipped to Mars and displayed in a glass sarcophagus filled with helium. He passed another century quietly although many bodies in vivid colors danced around him, and at the close of one night his silence was interrupted when a man crashed through the glass membrane and died gurgling his blood upon the furs.

A rescue was mounted by some concerned scientists, and he was purchased again, his damage repaired by careful gloves, and packed away again in cold and dark. Three hundred and twenty six years later he was exchanged again, and shipped forty three lightyears away and displayed in a museum of terran antiquities, several feet away from a faded Van Gogh. Many generations of human children shuffled by and gazed at him with glazed boredom. He was carted away and stored in coldness and a sealed helium chamber for several thousand years, completely forgotten.

The museum fell to ruin, with no humans to care for it. The chamber remained sealed, and became covered in many layers of sediment. An earthquake uprighted the chamber, and he stood for the first time in many millennia.

A laser from a satellite mapped the ruins, and the chamber was discovered. A hole was bored down to it, and the chamber was extracted. It was shipped off-planet and stored again for another decade. Then it was carefully opened by the non-corporeal descendants of humans who lived as minds in a ship that was a solid quantum computer.

His DNA was sequenced. The femur was repaired. His furs were removed. His body was slowly hydrated. An engineered fungus was applied that repaired the muscles and organs and killed off hostile microbes. The brain was regrown based on a model that was stored at the beginning of ancient memory. The structure they used was endowed with the skills he would need to survive. When the brain was complete, it was given a shock in the brainstem.

He finally awoke in a alpine meadow.

"You are the only human," said the descendants, in one voice, in the language they implanted into the man.

"I am," said the man.

"Go forth and live, and do no harm," said the descendants, for they wanted to see if he deviated from their recorded model of their ancestors' behavior. "This world is yours."

"And who are you to tell me this?" asked the man, sitting up, slightly dizzy with his ears ringing.

The descendants hesitated.

"We are your creator--" there was a pause for there was an argument about this, if 'and your children' should be added, but it was resolved, almost instantly, that it would remain unsaid so as not to confuse the man, as simple an organism as he was. There was a further discussion about how to keep him healthy during the experiment. "And obey my command and you will be well."

"You are one...and many?" asked the man, furrowing his brow.

There was another flurry of thought then, "um, yes. We are one and many," for they thought it was of grammatical irrelevance.

"Oh," said the man, his mind heaving. "And you are everywhere and nowhere at the same time?"

"Yes," said the descendants.

The man sighed, breathed in the scent of the meadow, and gazed at the brilliant star light in the sky, grinning.

"I don't think he understands," said some of the descendants collectively to themselves.

"Lets let this play out," responded some others. "Maybe we'll need to make him some companions eventually."

There was a long silence as the man explored his immediate surroundings.

"This is so much faster when we model it," said one of the descendants.

"Agreed," said some more. "But else were we going to do with the body?"

Sunday, January 29, 2012

280/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "TRON Legacy (End Titles)" by Daft Punk

It was cold and there was frost on the bars of the cast iron gates that led into the mill. Martha adjusted her scarf and breathed on her fingers to warm them. The steam stacks billowed and puffed--the boilers were always kept heated during the night even though the mill was not in use those hours. The mill workers shuffled around her, mostly silent, hungry, and cold. There was a lot of coughing. The city had not been spared from the consumption, and the lower classes bore the brunt of its affliction. Martha instinctively pressed her chin down to her throat and buried her mouth and nose in the wool of her scarf. She was far removed now, in her sheep's clothing, from the stately drawing rooms and careful diction of her class. There was no afternoon tea in the ranks of the mill workers, no idle hours spent drawing or stitching or practicing Mozart on the pianoforte. The appearance, smell, and words of the workers filled her with unease even though she empathized with their tribulations. But she was not here for them.

The steam whistle blew. The foreman loped out towards them from the warmth of the front office, keys jangling. The mill workers stood up a little bit straighter, anxious to get out of the cold and looking forward to getting the day over with for it was payday, and in twelve hours the pubs would be filling over, animated with hubbub, chatter, bawdy songs, and joy. Or at least that's how paydays usually went. Martha inhaled a quick icy breath as the foreman attended to the lock on the gate. They flooded in, men and women, marching in to their stations by chomping looms and spinning spools, stacks of bolted cloth, wooden pallets, and the locomotive that owned the only steam engine in the mill that was heated with scarce wood. None of these areas were Martha's destination, and she veered off, when she could out of sight of the foreman, towards the steam generators. The axe under her skirts chafed against her leg.

The boiler room that housed the steam generators was a massive open space. The ground floor opened up immediately to a catwalk, and the air was filled with metal tanks and tubing, leather belts that carried their work off to the loom and spinning rooms, and an oppressive, sulphuric humidity. Martha ripped off her scarf and stuffed it into her coat pocket. There were no men here. The process was completely automated. How sickeningly efficient, she thought. The space continued down two stories into the ground. Martha walked briskly down the catwalk, unbuttoning her overcoat at the same time. She found the metal staircase down to the lower levels. The iron handrails were hot to the touch, so she employed her scarf as protection.

And then she was down on their level, for the first time. There were seven of them, one for each boiler, of the hardy species Mulciber Scotorum. She felt suddenly small and unimportant, the self-important value she placed on her activism newly dwarfed by the creatures who dwelt there, enslaved to progress.

They were an unnatural ashy gray, and skin and bones. Their tails, wings, and claws were removed. Their eyelids were sewn shut, and they wallowed in their own slimy black feces. They were cradled, clamped, and held in place by tined grates and heavy cast iron yokes about their necks. Metal tubes came out of their nostrils, connected to hoppers above filled with a slurry of grains and water that slid down into their stomachs by gravity. It was not anywhere near their natural diet.  And their mouths were forced permanently open with a steel brace. A rod moved back and forth via clockworks above that stimulated the ignis organum at the back of their throats, which in turn caused the dragons to release their flames in regular intervals thirty seconds apart. And that kept the boilers hot twenty-four hours a day.

Martha began to shake with rage. The smell was nothing, the heat was nothing. The sight, their pain was everything. Martha lifted her skirts and unbuckled the axe. She held it high, with both hands, elbows out, and it vibrated with her anger. She approached the nearest dragon, dragging her skirts through six inches of muck. Her foot slipped and slid, but her direction did not waver. The dragon did not sense her. She aimed for neck and the jugular, swung, and barely scratched the tough hide. The animal moaned loudly and tried to face her, but could only move a foot or two it was so tightly caged. The other dragons took notice and started grunting. Martha swung again, this time with all her might, and managed to embed the axe between two scales. The dragon screeched before involuntarily belching out a flame. Thick blood oozed around the axe and Martha tried hard to pull it free so she could finish the dragon off, but it would not budge. The other dragons were screeching now too. There were shouts and footsteps echoing down from the catwalk. She put her foot up against the dragon's shoulder for leverage and pulled again. The axe came free and Martha stumbled into the apparatus that braced the dragon's mouth. Her weight fell onto the rod and fire shot out towards her, engulfing the clothes of her right arm. She did not scream, but pulled on the rod, trying to break it away, but instead she was grabbed from behind and pushed to the ground. The flames were extinguished, her axe was confiscated, and she was take to the foreman's office.

In the office she was forced into a chair by two of the workers who saved her. The foreman stood scowling at her from behind his desk. Then the door opened in a blast of cold and another man walked in. He was tall and a little gaunt, with eyes sunken from worry and sleepless nights. He suit was clean and new, but plain and functional.

"Leave us," he said in a steady voice.

The other men quickly and obediently left the room, closing the door behind them. The man lingered near the potbelly stove that burned cotton trimmings soaked in whale fat, warming his hands. He did not look at Martha, and the hesitation towards conversation bothered her. Finally he sauntered to the desk, and sat down in the chair on the other side. He stared at her for a good minute, and she glared back.

"I could have you hanged for this," he said.

Martha blinked and mashed her teeth together. She said nothing.

"The dragon, thankfully, will live, but the veterinarian says we'll be down a boiler for the next week as it recovers." He folded his hands together on the table. "You are Martha Borden, are you not?"

"Yes," said Martha curtly.

"I have seen your brochures. I hear you hand them out to the workers as they leave the pubs, trying to ply them to your ridiculous cause."

"It is not ridiculous!" Martha exclaimed. She leaned forward and blurted out her words. "The cruelty here is appalling, what is done in the name of profit and progress--"

"The workers only care that the beasts continue to live so that they may earn a living and put bread on their table and clothes on their backs--"

"That may be true, I have seen and heard their apathy, which is why I took action." Her demeanor turned from anger to pleading. "Your employer must know the dire cost of his business. When you see those poor creatures reduced to that state, how can it not break your heart? Do not blindly work for this man that would turn an elegant, lordly creature into a mere cog."

"They are beasts of burden, to be exploited as we see fit, as all animals come under the dominion of man. It is kindness enough to allow them to exist at all after the centuries of predation they imposed upon our species. We have tamed our enemy and put it to useful work. Is it not better to live as we do now, without fear of being eaten in the night, or having our houses burned down?"

"You are blinded by the narcissism of men!" Martha bellowed.

"And you are just blind!" he bellowed back. "You would kill the animal to save it!"

"It is unspeakable cruelty to live in such a way that would be shocking to a sewer rat!"

"You are an idealist who doesn't understand the true workings of the world!"

"Yes, I am an idealist! I'll fight for a more just world where the workings of it reflect the morals that are spoken in church on Sundays!"

The man slammed his fist onto the desk. Martha recoiled and cowered for the briefest instant.

"Do you know who I am?!"

Martha glared at him, trying to keep her breathing steady.

"I confess I do not," she said finally.

"I am Augustus Pelt, the owner of this mill. You have destroyed my property, slowed the mill for a week, and you offend every fiber of my being."

Martha's cheeks grew pink.

"Then you are the man responsible for this situation--"

"That situation is called industry, and I am not responsible. Dragons are used in mines and smelting, glassworks, metalworks, clayworks, and all manner of other factories. They are indispensable."

"They are not."

"This is nonsense--"

"Do we need all those things that the factories produce in mass quantities? Did society not get along without all these things for centuries? Could we not be happy in our agrarian past?"

"Your mind dwells in a pastoral fantasy!" scoffed Augustus.

"It is not fantasy but possibility! How can we live with ourselves with the way we are willing to treat God's creatures?"

Augustus exhaled noisily.

"Do not attempt to spout scripture to me! I know who you are Martha Borden, the daughter of a country parson. You were meant to be a lady, raised with gentle ways, but here you are, dressed as the lowliest, crudest worker in my mill, your sleeve charred and your hem soiled, and sweaty as a rutting pig, and you have the gall to tell me that my business should not exist because I defy God's will! I shall have you sent back to your father in this state and I will tell him that you are intimately familiar with all of God's thoughts and concerns and you will see how your father takes to that!"

"I am not afraid of my father and I am certainly not afraid of you, for I am right, whether God endorses me or not!"

"And who is the narcissist now?" He said this quietly and without expression. There was silence between them. He looked down at his hands. "I do not...I don't wish to shame a lady. Punishing you...or any lady, is not something I would take pleasure in. You must understand...I am a practical man. I must keep this mill running. I have five hundred and thirty eight workers just in this one, and each of them have more mouths to feed at home. If this mill goes down, if my other mills were to all cease operating, this city would starve. You must see that I am not in a position to be swayed. I must defend my business, even if indeed you are the one who is morally correct."

Martha sagged slightly in her chair, not knowing how to formulate a response.

"I will call a carriage for you," he said, rising from his seat.

"There must be some compromise," she blurted out.

"And what would you suggest?"

"The filth they lay in. Have it cleaned out each day. It would be a small start."

"I would have to hire several workers. We are barely profitable as it is--"

"It is the right thing to do," she said adamantly, "and there are always more people in this city who could do with work."

Augustus nodded.

"I will see to it."

He held out his hand to her. She took it in her own and felt the warmth of it. He helped her up in the most gentlemanly and polite fashion. Their fingers parted.

"I wish to apologize," she said, "for my canvassing, my sabotage, and my harsh words. I intended to inflict my rage against an amorphous edifice, but here you are, just a man."

"And a very forgiving one at that."

They both smiled shyly, and he led her out into the winter air and to the carriage that would convey her home.


Okay so I cribbed a bit from the 1855 novel North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (nothing verbatim of course, and there are no dragons in that). It's a decent read but a little tedious (it was originally a 22 part serial). The 2004 BBC adaptation is really cracking though, if you are into period dramas. This was also inspired by PETA videos, but I wouldn't recommend those unless you are already vegan and avoid leather like you have an allergy to it.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

279/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "O Children" by Nick Cave

He walked halfway down the bowling lane in mismatched sneakers--one shoe belonged to his Amazonian older sister and the other he found on the road next to a burnt-out car. He carried a sparkly pink bowling ball in one grimy hand and a handgun in the other. He stopped and dropped the ball. He gave it a push towards the pins with his foot. It obliged to roll a few feet on the leaf-strewn lane then dropped down into the gutter.

"Fuck," he whined.

"Slade, you suck at bowling," said Brittany. She was a rough-looking sixteen year-old with a grating laugh and a long, well-practiced list of generic insults. She was playing cat's cradle with a girl around the same age named Sylvia who had Down Syndrome. They sat in the plastic moulded chairs at the front of the lanes, surrounded by a litter of empty chip bags and soda cans.

"I suck at many things," he said, swiveling around on his heels. He winked at Brittany but she ignored him.

The pigeons roosting in the rafters suddenly decided to take flight and made their way out through a hole in the roof, leaving behind a gentle rain of old feathers and dust that nearly sparkled in the ray of sunlight that came down from the hole. Slade walked into it and looked up to watch the departing birds.

"That's pretty," he said. "We'll be eating them soon."

"I'm not eating pigeons. Pigeons are dirty," said Sylvia.

"We're dirty," said Slade.

Sylvia looked up at him, dropping the cat's cradle to her lap.

"We're people," she said. "People don't eat people."

Slade stared at her with heavy-lidded eyes for a moment, then he grinned.

"Depends on your definition," he said.

"You have a bad mind," said Sylvia, returning her attention to the cat's cradle. Brittany made her next move in the game.

"He already knows that," said Brittany.

Slade smirked then flopped down onto the hard floor of the lane. He laid on his back and stared up at the blue sky through the hole. He sighed deeply then thumped his sneakers rhythmically against the floor.

"Who knew the end of the world was going to be so long and dull," he said. "I thought there would be more running and stuff."

"There was running," said Brittany. "You forget it on purpose because you're an idiot and you like to hear yourself talking about it."

"Why did I have to be young and athletic?" he asked the hole in the ceiling. "All the slow old people got taken out."

"I rode my bike," said Sylvia.

"Yeah, you're pretty good on that thing."

"It's my favorite thing to do," said Sylvia.

"They were the lucky ones," Slade continued.

He rolled over onto his stomach, facing the pins. He aimed the handgun at the one in the middle and squeezed off a shot.

"What that hell?!" said Brittany, jumping to her feet.

"That's loud you idiot!" said Sylvia, her hands clamped against her ears.

"Dumb-ass! You're going to attract the you-know-what with that noise!" hissed Brittany.

Slade shot at the pins again until he emptied the clip. All the shots missed. He sat up and threw the gun down the lane. It came to a rest a few millimeters in front of the middle pin. Brittany burst into her braying laughter. Slade pressed his forehead into the floor.

Sylvia stood and walked stiffly down the lane, her fists tight, stepping over Slade, then the rest of the way to the pins. She kicked them all down with her foot and sending them clattering.

"This is how you bowl!" she exclaimed, then stamped her way across several lanes until she reached the far wall against which rested her bike. She rolled it towards the front door of the bowling alley. She peeked out the door, then opened it wide to let her bike through. "I'm going home," she said loudly. Then she was gone.

"She'll outlast us all," said Slade.

Friday, January 27, 2012

278/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "El Arbol" by Ersi Arvizu"


Dirt and wood splinters sprayed up with the axe.

"We shouldn't be doing this," whispered Francesca. "We'll get caught."

The full moon shone from her dark eyes. Vanessa smirked at her as she readied the axe for another blow against the coffin lid. The wood came apart easily, which was not a surprise since the coffin was the cheapest available. The sisters were poor and took the least expense in burying their father. They worked another half hour to drag his body up to the surface. Both women filled in the grave, then they started their long walk with their father curled up in a wheelbarrow.

"Someone's going to see us," fretted Francesca as they passed through the cobbled streets of their tiny town.

"If you keep talking, that's exactly what will happen," said Vanessa.

"Oh, the forest is dark and dangerous at night," said Francesca as they approached the dirt path into the trees.

"Only a little more so than the day, sister. Now hush."

They walked for three hours, past the blood owls and their saucer eyes, past the moss wolves that lurked in pools of fetid water alongside the path watching with their snouts and eyes just above the surface, and past the arboreal panthers that looked down at them from above. Nothing attacked because the creatures knew that the sisters were protected by their offering.

Finally they arrived at the black tree at the heart of the forest. It was once an oak, charred by fire yet still growing. It was restless, swaying and cracking even though there was no wind. Its charcoal bark crawled with shiny, segmented, black centipedes as thick in girth as a baby's arm. The branches were decked not with leaves but with purple veined black flowers. The petals were thick and waxy, with edges frilled with velvety hairs. The stigmas of the flowers were large and red, and were surrounded by a coterie of dusty white anthers. The flowers smelled of decay and methane and a heady spice that was somewhere between fresh tobacco and nutmeg. Francesca covered her mouth with her scarf but Vanessa breathed in the aroma with pleasure.

"What do we do now?" asked Francesca, cowering slightly, with the branches of the tree inching closer to their heads.

"What have you brought me," bellowed the tree in a voice that sounded of steel guitar strings scraped across slate.

Francesca immediately prostrated herself and quivered. Vanessa straightened her hair and smoothed down the front of her dress. She put on her most alluring smile.

"We have brought...you...an offering," she said, gracefully gesturing towards the body in the wheelbarrow.

"He is your father," said the tree.

"He was," said Vanessa. "He is dead now."

"Did you kill him?" asked the tree.


"A shame."

"He died of cancer--"

"Cancer! Cancer you say?" asked the tree eagerly.

"Yes," said Vanessa expanding her smile.

"Was it removed?"

"No. It could not be."

"Ah, you have brought me a treasure!" exclaimed the tree.

Several branches reached down and caressed the edges of the wheelbarrow.

"Not yet," Vanessa cautioned.

She moved herself between the tree and the body. The tree withdrew it's branches.

"I suppose you want something," said the tree slowly.

"I do," said Vanessa.

"The things one two legs always want something."

"That's true," said Vanessa. "People spend a lot of time wanting things. Few make the effort to get them."

"What you think you want, you might not."

"That's for me to decide," said Vanessa.

"What are you doing?" whispered Francesca. "Let's get this over with!"

"As payment for our offering, we would like a flower for each of us," said Vanessa.

The tree was silent and motionless for a moment.

"My flowers are very potent. Very dangerous. What will you use them for?"

"I want to be young and beautiful forever," said Vanessa.

"Ah. Such a preparation can be made from the juice of the petals that will grant you enduring long life."

"And I, uh, want a house of my own," said Francesca, peeking up at the tree. "With servants."

"What?" asked the tree.

"We are poor you see," said Vanessa. "Our father left us with nothing but debts. We do not blame him for leaving us this burden, but he led his life in an unfortunate way."

"That is of the vaguest interest to me," said the tree. "What I am curious about is how you will use my flower as a house."

Francesca snorted into the leaf litter.

"I will sell it of course," she said.

"I see," said the tree. "And you do not want immortality for yourself?"

"What good is it if you are poor? Besides, life is misery. Who wants more than there fair portion of it?"

"Ah, I love misery...it invigorates my roots," said the tree wistfully.

"So...do we have a deal?" asked Vanessa.

"Your offering is delectable," said the tree, poking a branch against Vanessa's shoulder to push her away from the wheelbarrow. "It is a deal."

The tree bowed down a branch that was thickly laden with flowers. The sisters each plucked a flower, then they dumped the body of their father out onto the loam in front of the tree's trunks. The roots of the tree creaked and moved up through the soil, then snatched the body, pulling it down into the dark earth by the face and chest. His bare feet were the last of him to disappear.

"Be gone now, and leave me in peace," croaked the tree.

"Thank you," said Vanessa. Francesca bowed low. They turned and ran back down the path, hand in hand and laughing, past the arboreal panthers, the moss wolves, and the blood owls that were all now sleepy from the dawning day.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

277/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "Mystery Zone" by Spoon

"You have to be the wife," said Ted. He was my second cousin--one of the pitfalls of living deep-rooted in a small town, you can never quite avoid the relatives--and slicked his hair back with gel and he always touches it to make sure it's thoroughly adhered to itself. Every time he does that I want to smack his hands. We were in his basement, which was finished, but still had that dank basement smell--which also happens to be the same odor that happens in cars when you go to the beach and leave your bathing suit in the back seat for a week.

"Why?" I asked. "What's the point?"

Ted squinted at me, then tapped his temple with his finger.

"Because you're a woman," he said. Man, he could be clueless. At first I was shocked that he could hatch a plan as complex as what he was trying to get us to execute, with thinking that primitive.

"So? These are avatars? Who the hell will care?"

"Yeah, why?" asked Caroline. She was our third. In real life she wore thick glasses and thicker sweaters, even in summer, claiming to be perpetually cold 'inside'. She worked with Ted for a few months at a gas station until it was robbed and then they both quit the next day. They won't tell me what happened, but they must have bonded over the experience because they sure spend a lot of time together as platonic friends. As far as I knew, neither of us was related to her.

"There has to be a wife! That's the game. You make a family and play it. There's always a man, a wife, and kids. Me, you, and her." He pointed to himself then us.

"Why is it man and wife?" asked Caroline. I grinned.

"I just said that's the--"

"No, I mean, why not 'husband and wife' or 'man and woman'?" said Caroline.


"She's right, that is weird," I piled on.

"And you could be the wife, if you want to play it that way," said Caroline.

"I don't know how to be a wife!" said Ted. His cheeks were getting a bit red. He swiveled around in his chair to face the screen which showed a slowly spinning avatar that looked a lot like Andy Garcia but I assume Ted was actually trying to create a reasonable facsimile of himself instead.

"We could all be kids," I said.

"Kids are hard to control in-game," said Ted. "We have to build up these characters fast. We need to be adults that can hold down jobs and generate income."

"Oh, this is going to be soooo boring!" I flopped down on the sofa and picked up my laptop and laid it on my stomach. "Why would anybody play a game where they have to work for the man? In real time?"

"There's no unemployment in-game," said Caroline. "You can change jobs if you don't like what you're doing. And it's not like you're doing any actual work."

"Oh that's great. Isn't there a cheat code or something?"

"No," said Caroline.


"Can you just stop complaining? I mean I'm in charge. I'm paying you to do this! If you don't like it, I'll get someone else." Ted glared at me.

"You're not going to find anyone to do this for you. No one is going to want to waste their time for you. I'm only doing it as a favor." Actually I was doing it because I had nothing better to do for the next month. "This is a crime Ted, you know that? You're not going to find a lot of willing accomplices."

"It's not a crime!" cried Ted.

"I don't know, it could be," said Caroline.

"There's no way! How is it a crime? I'm not murdering anyone. I'm not stealing anything. I'm not robbing money. It's completely harmless."

"You're going to blow up Ashley's virtual mansion, with her in it," said Caroline. Ashley was Ted's girlfriend until he found out she was also his brother's girlfriend. I met her once at a barbecue. She seemed nice, if a little blank.

"It's virtual!" Ted threw his hands into the air.

"We're going to weasel into her circle of virtual friends, plant a bomb in her bathroom and boom," said Caroline flatly. "Sounds a bit crimey to me."

"It's part of the game." He rustled around on his desk and found the box the game came in, then shoved it in Caroline's face. "Look what it says--'Mayhem is part of the fun!' There's no way this is a crime."

"God the game is lame," I said. "It comes in a box."

Ted threw the box back onto his desk, sighed, then folded his arms across his chest.

"You two are taking all the fun out of this," he said.

"If Ashley finds out we're stalking her, can't she put a restraining order on you or something?"

"It's not stalking! It's all virtual!" He gestured his hands in a circle, as if that somehow denoted the concept of 'virtual'.

Caroline and I looked at him blankly. Ted stared back at us in turn, then bowed his head and rolled his chair closer to his desk.

"I don't want to be a kid," said Caroline.

"I'm not going to be the wife," I said.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

276/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "Making Me Nervous" by Brad Sucks

The floor was white, vast, and gridded, the ceiling was black, suspended just seven feet or so from the floor, and the space was studded by low walls of ancient humming, reeling, chattering computers.

"What is this?" The man who asked the question was an androgynous looking twenty-year-old mathematician from somewhere deep eastern Europe by the name of Matvey Genadiev.

"Did you sign the non-disclosure agreement? Did he sign the non-disclosure agreement? Yes, let me see that, okay. That looks good. That's great." The second man, named Mr. Black was fidgety, always playing with a pen cap or a stress toy or his watch. He was short, pudgy, and pushing forty-seven. With them was a woman who kept her face expressionless except when it was time for her to leave her shift at the facility. She held a clipboard with the signed non-disclosure agreement. Her name was Magenta.

"What do you do here with all this?" asked Matvey.

"Ah yes," sighed Mr. Black as if working up his courage. "I have to get to it, don't I?" He chuckled nervously. "Well, this will blow your mind, Matvey. Can I call you Matvey? May I..."

"Yuh. Sure," said Matvey, squinting his eyes at the little man. "What is wrong?"

"Nothing. Nothing at all. Okay so, this is called the Predictor Room. We usually capitalized that, although we don't usually write it down, ha! Yeah. Yeah."

"So? Why the old reel to reel computers? This junk must be from the seventies. Maybe late sixties?"

Matvey slowly walked forward, inspecting the old equipment.

"Yeah, well, it is. Don't touch it. You'll be able to, but just not now."

Mr. Black mopped his brow with the back of his hand. Magenta walked up to Matvey, put her arm around his shoulder, then turned him to face Mr. Black.

"Focus," she said quietly. Matvey shivered.

"Yes, thank you, Magenta."

"What do you do here? Can you explain?" asked Matvey.

"Well, as you might guess, the Predictor Room makes predictions, and has been doing so since 1972. It is extremely accurate."

"What kind of predictions? Financial analysis?"

"A little bit of that, yes," said Mr. Black, nodding.

"Why won't you upgrade the equipment? Surely this would be better--"

"No!" shouted Mr. Black a little too loudly. "I mean no. This is, this untouchable. It is finely calibrated. It is...haha...in tune with the universe you could say."

Matvey blinked at him several times.

"Nonsense," he said finally. "Superstition."

"No, no it's not," said Magenta.

"I know that might seem ridiculous, but this room can predict anything."

"Then you can predict my answer to your offer of employment."

"Why do you think I'm sweating so much!?" yelled Mr. Black.

Matvey stepped back into Magenta's strong hands. He looked up at her.

"We knew what you would think," said Magenta calmly. "But we would hardly need to make a formal prediction about it. You are a man of science. A rational being, are you not?"

"Yes," said Matvey, shrugging out of her grip.

"We need you," said Mr. Black, wringing his hands.


"The Predictor Room is only accurate for a six month window. Completely, amazingly accurate. Predictions beyond that are complete gibberish," said Mr. Black waving his hands.

"We've looked into your work on fractals and we think you might be able to help us extend that window," said Magenta. "Actually, we know you will be able to extend that window."

Matvey looked at her with disdain.

"There's something different about you, isn't there? You're not like Mr. Black here, are you."

"No," said Magenta.

"You read the predictions," said Matvey, shaking his finger at her.

"That is correct," she said. "I use my discretion on whether or not to reveal the answers. Foreknowledge can be dangerous."

"Why is not dangerous to you?" asked Matvey.

"Because I don't care about anything. I am a nihilist."

"Really?" asked matvey, his hands on his hips. "Isn't that more of an affectation that angry teenagers assume?"

Magenta looked at him impassively.

"You can't insult her," said Mr. Black. "I mean, not that she finds it rude or anything, well it is, but insults just don't register with her."

"You are both ludicrous," said Matvey. "I need a cigarette."

"This is a non-smoking facility," said Magenta.

"I'm not quitting," said Matvey.

"Then you'll consider working on our problem?" asked Mr. Black.

"It will take less than six months to solve," said Matvey. "Isn't that right? I can waste six months of my life on this. Apply the rational to the irrational."

"Excellent!" said Mr. Black beaming and clapping once.

"The issue I have with this though, is whether it's the right thing to do, to extend this prediction window you talk about. What do you do with the predictions, anyway?"

Mr. Black looked down at his shoes.

"You've already agreed to help us," said Magenta.

"And I can't back out?" asked Matvey. "Have I no free will?"

"What do you think?" she said.

Matvey looked over her face, searching for any indication of emotion, any tell.

"Well, that's an interesting question..." Matvey smiled.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

275/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "Requiem for a Tower" by Escala

The dog didn't bark as Thanh unlocked the door with the stolen keycard. She slipped into the dark with a bag slung over her shoulder. The dog slapped its tail against the hardword floor. Thanh pressed her finger to her lips but the dog did not recognize the gesture and only wagged harder. Thanh rolled her eyes and walked quietly past. The dog got up and padded along.

She found the bedroom, with clothes strewn on the floor, and a man, about seventy, sprawled in the middle of a king-sized bed, snoring. Thanh placed the bag on the floor and the dog sat next to it, watching her eagerly. She pulled out a small dart gun, armed it, then shot the man in the chest. He woke up, grunting and disoriented, then screamed when he saw Thanh at the foot of his bed. The dog ran around to the side of the bed, hopped up onto the man and started licking his face with concern. The man struggled to get up, but quickly became quiet.

"I have given you a muscle relaxant," said Thanh. "You will be awake for the next five minutes or so. Then you will sleep deeply. You will remember that I was here, but you will not be able to find me."

"Hurnnng," gurgled the man.

"It will be best if you keep quiet. Because I have a story to tell you."

Thanh pulled the dog down from the bed, then sat next to the man and pulled the dart from his chest. He was starting to slobber from the medication.

"Shall I begin?" she asked. "Yes I will. This has taken thirty years of my life. You do not know this. It is not revenge, precisely. I merely want you to know what I saw. What you did and you probably don't even remember. Not the specifics anyway. Do you remember Can Tho? March 2023. You were there, in spirit. I was there, all of me. I was six years of age. I was playing by myself in a grassy field next to our house. The metal men fell from the sky, all curled up in their boxed form. They had red parachutes. They were like flower petals. It was beautiful. Then my grandmother screamed for me from the other side of the field. She ran towards me and her hat fell to her back. She had lived through the Vietnam war when she was herself a girl. I didn't know what she was screaming at me for.

"Then the metal men began to land, and the ground shook. They unfolded, and stood on all fours, their backs bristling with guns. They targeted my grandmother because she was moving. She was cut in half by the bullets. I did not know what was happening, even though I could see it plainly. Then they converged on her, with their flamethrowers and burned the ground around her."

The man in the bed began to cry silently. Thanh wiped away his tears with a gloved hand.

"Yes. You have correctly surmised that you were the controller for one of those metal men. There is more to tell you. One of the metal men ran to me. Its cameras looked at me; examined me up and down. The guns pointed at me. I was frozen, but I could see. I saw the worn edges of the armor--the signs of the metal man's previous use, in what I later found out to be eighteen incursions. Drug busts. Insurgent captures. Crowd control. I did not know this at the time. I also saw a stenciled image. A white dove, with its wings outstretched. To me it looked like it was dead and pinned down, but that's not what you intended, was it?

"No. You painted that stencil, not as an ironic statement of the futility of seeking peace with a weapon of war, but as a genuine statement of how you saw yourself. A peaceable man. An officer of the peace. You believed yourself to be good. At that is why, behind the metal man, behind the signal, behind your distant bunker on an aircraft carrier out to sea, you decided to not shoot me. You turned and ran off, and left me in the field as you helped your fellow soldiers burn my house down, and then the houses of my neighbors, in an effort to smoke out a drug lord. But what you didn't know, or didn't care to acknowledge, is that you sought out a drug lord who didn't even exist. You burned our town for nothing."

Thanh shifted her weight and turned away from the man. She bent down and patted the dog.

"I lost everything I loved. My grandmother, my parents, my siblings, my friends. Even my school teacher. All because you were given some bad data."

Thanh stood and looked down at the man. He was breathing evenly, but his eyes were wrinkled up in fright.

"To have revenge," she continued, "I would have to destroy all that you love. This ridiculously large house perhaps. That fat car outside. Your dog here. Maybe your two ex-wives and the child who hates you and only calls you on Christmas. Yes I know all that. I do my research. You are the last of the metal men I have visited. The others got revenge."

She walked to the foot of the bed and picked up her bag, then went to the doorway.

"You however, will not get that. I wouldn't call it a reprieve though."

Thanh left the room and closed the door behind her. The man gasped, then fell into a tormented sleep.

Monday, January 23, 2012

274/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "Throw It All Away" by Zero 7

The sun was high, crickets were chirping, and the air was thick with pollen. Maybelle strode with angry purpose between the wheel ruts on the dirt road towards the next town. She wore boots, caked in mud, that had belonged to her dead father and were far too large for her. Her arms swung like clock hammers, with fists balled. Her face was scrunched, and her nose was red with allergies. Under her disheveled skirts and a concealing sweater her belly was six months in bloom.

She marched along until she came to a rock bridge that had partly fallen into the stream it covered. She stopped and looked around, then scrambled down the embankment until she was ankle-deep in cold water.

"Hello?" she said in a commanding voice. "Is anybody here? Now don't waste my time. I was told there lived--"

"I am here," came a reply. The voice it belonged to was raspy, phlegmy.

"Where are you?" Maybelle turned around and back again.

"I am here," said the voice again.

"Show yourself then!"

The shadows under the bridge shifted and a large, misshapen form appeared. The rocks in the bridge cracked and scraped each other until the figure completely detached. In the light the creature was tall but bent over, with fat thighs, big feet, gray mottled skin, sparse hair sprouting from various patches of its body, and a wide head with an equally wide mouth slit that lacked lips. Its eyes were mismatched, as if one was taken from a sheep and another from an owl. Maybelle furrowed her brows and folded her arms across her chest.

"What is this? What are you?"

"It does not matter," said the figure. "All you need to know is that I am of magic. That is why you came? Didn't you? You need my magic."

"That I do," said Maybelle quietly, glancing down at her belly. "I need you to take my shame away."

"I see. And how did you come to know of me?"

"The old woman in the village. The one that reads cards for eatin' and drinkin' money. She said that one dwells here under this bridge that could help me."

"Ah her."

"Can you help me?"

"Do you want me to help you?"

"Wha--of course I do! What do you think I walked four miles here for? It certainly wasn't to bask in the aura of your beauty. And I gotta walk four miles back too! I haven't got need or want of it, and not enough food for me, let alone another mouth. My word! You magical critters are all alike, all cryptic and wantin' to make everything a complicated puzzle! Why can't anything ever be straightforward with your folk?"

"Well, if you're going to talk to me like that, maybe I won't help you," the creature sniffed.

"Oh for--would you just get this done with?"

"What I meant, is are you sure? Are you completely sure and free of doubts?"

Maybelle rolled her eyes and slapped her thigh.

"Fine, fine," said the creature quickly. "But I do need to know how you came to be in this state?"

"What for?"

"It matters to me. The being inside you must be...compatible with my constitution."

"Well--" Maybelle looked at the creature with heated exasperation. "It happened the same way any of it happens!"

"I need details. Specifics."

"Goodness, you're a prying one!"

"It's important. Come on now," urged the creature. "I cannot help you otherwise."

"If you must know, it was by a man claiming to be a prince. He was well enough dressed to be one, that's for sure, but now I think he was a rogue or a successful highwayman. I was picking nettles by the road to make a soup, and he came up to me on horseback. He got down and complimented my hair. I smiled at him and bid him a good day, and mostly looked down at the dirt because he was my better, or I thought he was, and I shouldn't ever look my betters in the eye, or so my ma always said, bless her heart before she died--"

"Get on with it!"

"Ugh, well, he wouldn't go away and offered me an apple. I took it out of politeness. I figured it was for his horse, so it was probably good enough for me to eat and I took a bite, and suddenly felt weak.  He caught me in his arms and conveyed me to the ground. I don't remember much after that. I woke up come evening time, with my skirts over my head, and I had a notion then what happened. The prince or whoever he was, was nowhere in sight. I few weeks later I got sick with the shame of it. The shame."

Maybelle shook her head and sighed.

"Is that all?"


"No dalliances with the local farmhands or the village idiot or your brothers?"

"What?! No! I never! Just what kind of imbecile do you take me for?"

"There are all kinds that come to me for my magic. You might be shocked. And you never saw this prince before or after?"

"No, never."


"Well? Is it, how'd you put it, compatible with your constitution?"

"Well yes. They mostly are, and you look ripened enough." At this the creature's thin tongue whipped around the orbit of its mouth. "But there might be magic at work here too."

"Huh? How'd you figure that?"

"The apple of course. The poisoned apple is the simplest curse of all. Even you should know that."

"Well like I said, I thought it was for his horse. Now can you do this or not? I don't want to be nattering here into the night."

"Yes. Yes I shall," said the creature, sloshing forward in the water towards Maybelle. "Lift up your skirts so that your belly is exposed."

Maybelle did so. The creature skulked into the full daylight and its skin shone with a slimy sheen. Maybelle swallowed hard. The creature extended a bony finger and poked at her navel. Maybelle flinched by stood her ground.

"Will this hurt?" she asked.

"My magic carries no pain." The creature exerted more pressure until her navel gave way. The finger plunged inside. There was no blood or gore.

The creature's eyes rolled back, and it opened its mouth panting. Maybelle shied her face from its rank breath. She felt a tugging from inside her, and her belly slowly became less and less swollen. When it was mostly flat, the creature sighed deeply and withdrew its finger. Maybelle looked down and saw that her navel was completely intact. She felt her stomach with both hands, pressing in and feeling at various points.

"That's it?" she asked, astonished.

"Your shame is gone," said the creature, looking bored and retreating back to the shade of the bridge.

"What payment do I owe you?"

"That was it. Quite lovely, thank you."

"Oh," said Maybelle. "Thank you."

She turned and climbed back up the embankment, and began her four mile march back to the village.

A few days later the creature re-emerged, its magic replenished, transformed this time as a rakish, handsome, itinerant farmhand. He walked, whistling, towards the village in search of a young woman fertile and able enough to prepare his next meal.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

273/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "Complication With Optimistic Outcome" by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross from The Social Network soundtrack

A calculation was off. It might have been the atomic clock miscalibrated by a fraction of a fraction of a second, or a few extra protons from the interstellar debris attached to the hull of the ship like barnacles, a quantum error in the navigational computer, or a misaligned gravitational sensor. Perhaps even it was sabotage. The detail of the fault was irrelevant.

The ship dipped a micron too close to the singularity and was captured. The mission was to fly as tight as possible to create a time-dilated slingshot trajectory out of the galaxy and towards Andromeda and establish an information seed point. A light bridge was to be built to convey information back and forth in order to enrich each galaxy with the life in the other. The mission would succeed without the ship.

The ship stretched and began to be eaten by a velvet, darkling black as visible light shifted through a rapid rainbow to senseless radio waves. The metal and plastic screeched as it warped, suctioned, and convulsed, but the sounds were so slow they were quiet to all ears. The small crew couldn't feel the pain conveyed by electrons too slow to reach across organic nerve fibers and inorganic conductive carbon nano-wire to deliver their signals.

Two of the crew reached towards each other instinctively, fingers almost touching, millimeters apart. They were friends, deeply so. Born on the ship during its long voyage, raised and trained together, they were virtually inseparable. They shared in whispers, thoughts, and actions. The ran the corridors during artificial night, laughing. The sat together for hours watching the stars, hands entwined. They cried together when the cruelties of their world carried crushing weight.

And just before the dark closed in entirely, they touched one last time. They could not feel it or see it, but in the instant before their atoms tore apart they knew they were embraced.
I didn't really pay attention to the song title until after I came up with the idea of the story, so its rather amazing how well the music itself fits the title.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

272/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "Yellow Sun" by The Raconteurs

The stone cottage stood in a clearing in the forest, with gardens unkempt for the past two winters. The roof leaked and mice infested the eaves. The old woman who lived inside wailed in pain during the depths of the night. Her granddaughter stayed with her most nights, trying to comfort and care for her.

The watcher observed the cottage from behind a shield of sapling pine trees. He panted out hot breath and listened to his stomach rumble in response to the exquisite smell wafting from the cottage. He looked up into the night and saw that the moon was not quite full. The fur on his back bristled up, and then he turned and padded off into the forest. He would wait two more days.

The night that the moon was full, the watcher returned to the cottage. He sat and tried to calm himself. The old woman's screams cut back and forth through the night. The watcher shivered and shook each time, as each scream furthered his transformation. When the moon was at it's zenith, the transformation was complete. The watcher stood slowly on his hind legs. His paws had become hands, and most of his hair was gone. He flexed his fingers and felt the cold bite through his naked body. The wails of the old woman stopped.

The door to the cottage opened. The granddaughter, dressed in red, crept out, closing the door quietly behind her. She was still a girl, not yet sixteen. She collapsed to the ground in a heap and started sobbing silently.

The watcher stepped out into the clearing and walked towards her. His stomach burned inside him and he clutched his abdomen. The granddaughter heard his footsteps and stood quickly with her arms in front of her.

"Who are you?" she whispered.

"I don't know anymore," he answered quietly.

"Stay where you are!"

The watcher stopped and dropped his hands to his side.

"You...you look sad," she said, dropping her own hands.

"I am," he said.

She looked him over.

"Why are you not clothed?"

"I only have a few hours. Until the moon sets."

"What?" she asked, squinting her eyes.

"I have been cursed," he said, "by her." He pointed to the cottage door, his lips curling up.

"You must have deserved it," she said, putting her hands on her hips.

The watcher looked at her, boring into her with his eyes.

"Maybe you're like her," he said in a low voice.

"Maybe I am. Maybe I'm not. Why don't you tell me your crime?"

"It was not a crime," he said. His chest heaved up and he bared his teeth. She stepped back against the wall of the cottage, and felt the cold stones. "I killed a wolf. It was out of its mind and foamed at the mouth. My life was in danger."

The girl put her chin up and exhaled loudly.

"My grandmother has always cared for the forest creatures. They don't get sick under her protection."

"This one was."

They looked at each cautiously for a long interval. Then the girl looked down.

"My grandmother is ill," she said.

"I know," said the watcher. "That's why I need your help."

"I don't understand how she can be sick. She commands nature itself."

"I have a feeling there is a deeper sickness...one that runs through nature itself. Our world is changing. Dissolving. Soon there will be no magic left at all."

"That's blasphemy," said the girl, looking at him intently.

"And yet it's the truth."

"Leave this place!" she hissed.

The watcher growled and threw himself to her, pinning her arms to the wall. She kicked and struggled but he leaned in, exhaling acrid breath in her face. She gagged and turned away.

"Let me go!"

"You will help me," he said calmly.

"I will not!"

"You have to. I am only a man during the full moon. All the rest of the time, I am beast. If you do not help me, I will hunt you down and eat you."

"Do you think threatening me will make me want to help you?"

"If I cannot appeal to your base instinct, then I will appeal to your intellect. You have a chance to right an injustice. Will you be fair?"

"Let me go," she said.

He gripped her wrists tightly, then gently let go. He slowly walked backwards three paces, and held his arms out to his sides.

"You are free," he said.

"I cannot undo your curse," she said, rubbing her wrists.

"No, you can't. But she can." He nodded towards the cottage door. "You must convince her."

"She is barely able to speak now."

"She is dying then," he said. She nodded. "I thought as much. Then there is no time to waste. If she dies when I am beast, I will be beast forever. The curse must be undone tonight."

"I will ask her, but I cannot make any promises."

The watcher's eyes brightened and he grinned, showing wide rows of teeth.

"I have one condition," the girl continued. The watcher's smile faded. "You must prove that you are deserving of redemption."

"And how can I do that?"

"Kiss me." There was a small hint of threat in her voice.

"There is some trick here," said the watcher. "You say one thing and mean another."

"You can believe what you want," said the girl, "but it is the only way I will help you."

The watcher flexed his fingers nervously, then approached her. He gently took her hand in his, then kissed the back of it, while keeping his eyes fixed upon hers. She chuckled briefly, then withdrew her hand.

"I have done it. Will you help me now?"

"Come inside," said the girl, as she opened the door to the cottage and slipped inside.

The watcher followed, cautious. He had spent many nights observing the cottage, but never in his life had been inside, and what he saw inside shocked him. The interior was one large room, with a lit hearth. A four-poster bed dominated the center, but instead of bedclothes, it was festooned with heaps of dry, dead leaves of all colors. Ivy wound up the posts and connected to the ceiling. The rafters were filled with birdnests and birds flitted around room; some of them were engaged in battles with mice wanting to raid the nests. The floor was made of weedy grass in bloom with wildflowers, crickets, snakes, and frogs. And on the bed was a figure shrouded in a thin sheet of black muslin.

"What madness is this," said the watcher quietly, unbelieving.

"Not madness," said the girl with a controlled fierceness. "Magic."

"And you have lied. She has already passed."

"Not quite yet. The body still breathes. The mind is gone from her."

"Then I have no hope," said the watcher.

"Her mind has gone from her to me, as it was passed from her grandmother to her, centuries ago."

"What?" asked the watcher.

The girl smiled at him and the birds and the mice and the other creatures all became silent at once.

"I am the Red Witch, the protector of the magic that inhabits all of nature. I am older than the Earth itself. And yet I am dying, even in this young, new body. It is because of you."

"How?" asked the watcher. "How did I ever harm you!?"

"You murdered the wolf with a gun," she said sternly. "A hundred years ago it would have been an arrow. Before that a spear, and before that, a rock. You steal away the magic of nature with increasing efficiency."

"I am not of those past ages! How can you accuse me of such actions?"

"Not you. It is your kind that is ancient. You are like flowing water against a stone. In enough time, you will dissolve me and all that I protect. Do you wonder now why I transformed you into a wolf?"

"It is a cruel punishment! A horrible curse! You have--"

"Is it? Is it?!" she suddenly screamed. "I made you into a beast not as a curse but as a blessing, so that you would come to know compassion. It is your twisted soul that sees it as a curse."

The watcher shook his head in disbelief.

"I was always a good man," he said. "I want to be wholly a man again. Do not hold me accountable for what you see is an evil by all mankind."

"If not you, then who?" she asked.

"I cannot answer that," he said with tears beginning to roll down his cheeks.

She looked at her hands, then slowly raised them in front of her, with the palms facing outward.

"There is beast already in man," she said. "More savage than any creature of the forest. It lies quietly within most, sleeping. Few speak of it. The beast I have imbued in you satisfies its needs without artfulness, meanness, or largesse. It is the beast in balance with my magic, one that cannot steal. If I remove it, you will be left without constraint. And yet goodness already exists in you. It is a difficult decision."

"Please," said the watcher, falling to his knees. "I beg you."

She looked at him, with her arms outstretched, at once pushing him away and reaching towards him. Tears welled up in her eyes too.

"As you wish," she said, her voice tremulous.

She clapped her hands together, producing red sparks. The fire behind her suddenly bowed low and the room went dim. The birds began to chatter their loudest songs, and the body on the bed moaned out its last rattling breath. The girl drew her hands apart and a  glowing red yarn of light grew from the space between. The yarn looped and vibrated and became longer and longer. It wavered in the air and then sought out the watcher. He was frozen in fear, staring with large eyes at the live yarn. It encircled his head at the level of his eyes, looping around, then it pulled tight and knotted itself.

"Run!" yelled the girl, and the door to the cottage flung open. "I curse you to be man for eternity! Do not ever return to this forest."

The fire in the hearth raged up again and the room was thrown into flickering, shifting shadows. The yarn dissolved, and the watcher found his feet. He ran from the cottage, down the forest path and into the night.

The Red Witch stood in the doorway, watching him pass from her sight. She looked up at the full moon and wiped the tears from her face.

Friday, January 20, 2012

271/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "Grand Luminaire" by Etienne Charry


"Don't answer the door!" hissed Winston from behind the sofa.

Vera stood in the middle of the living room, absentmindedly wiping the raw chicken juices from her hands onto her skirt.

"Get out from back there! Get up on your feet," she said. "You're embarrassing me."

"No! It's them!" He pointed towards the gray forms swaying behind the frosted window by the door. "They're here to convert us."

"Oh for crying out loud Winston. Grow up. We can't hide in our house forever. You're paranoid, that's what you are." Vera strode towards the door, her hand slowly extending out towards the doorknob. Winston watched as if she were progressing in slow motion.

"Nooooooo!" he wailed.

"Shush! They'll hear you."

She turned the doorknob as she unlocked the deadbolt with her other hand. Winston jumped up from behind the sofa and ran to the door, hands outstretched to push it closed, but she flung it open wide to spite him.

Winston stopped as soon as he saw them, and tripped on the carpet. He sprawled backwards, his eyes fixed on the visitors.

"Hello," said Vera slowly, trying not to gag at the sight. "How can I help you?"

The visitors stood a foot taller than the average for humans, and wore gray robes with vertical colored stripes. The colors apparently meant something about the level of learning the wearer had achieved but no unconverted human had yet figured out in what order the colors progressed. It was fortunate that they wore the robes because the flesh of the visitors were translucent. Organs and a sort of slow flowing clearish blood could be seen. Worse, the stomach was contained in the head stalk (which did not contain a brain, that was somewhere lower under the shade of the cloak) behind two sets of black beady eyes, and usually showed a recent meal in the process of digestion, with all the hair and bones and gristle that implied. The visitors usually smelled strongly of mint and vinegar, although some had adopted the practice of applying human cologne or perfume in a failed effort to blend in better.

"Shut the door Vera!"

"That's just rude," she said, then smiled at the vistors.

One of the visitors held out an appendage with long fingerlike protrusions that held a small recording device. The visitor pressed a button.

"Thank you for inviting us to your lovely home," said the slightly saccharine voice of a young woman.

"Oh, God, please, just no..." Winston whimpered.

"We would like to share with you the revealed truth. Only through the revealed truth may you be accepted into the galactic realm."

"Thank you, for coming by--" started Vera.

"May we come in?" continued the recording.

"No, I don't think so. We're really not interested," said Vera.

The visitor clicked the button twice.

"That is acceptable to us. May we leave you with some literature and complementary thought lotion?"

"Um..." Vera started to close the door.

"It is completely free. There is no obligation."

The other visitor produced a pamphlet and a small, dark bottle.

"Don't take anything from them!" yelled Winston.

He stood up and leapt towards the door. He pushed against it but Vera pushed back. She reached out and grabbed the bottle and the pamphlet.

"Thank you! Good bye. I hope you've enjoyed your stay on our planet!" said Vera.

The visitors started to wave, but Winston finally pushed the door shut.

"Get rid of that!" he said.

"I'm sure it's harmless," said Vera. "We have to be nice to them. You're never nice to them."

"They don't belong here!"

Vera walked back into the kitchen. Winston hastily deadbolted the door and tried to look through the frosted window at the receding figures. Then he followed Vera into the kitchen. She was busy stuffing a chicken.

"You're not supposed to cook the stuffing in the cavity," said Winston.

"Leave me alone," said Vera. "I've always done it this way. I've never gotten sick. My God, you're always trying to tell me what to do!"

She slammed her hand down on the breast of the chicken. Minuscule droplets of liquid sprayed out over the counter.

"You're getting listeria all over the place!"

"Stop it! Stop it or I'll come over there and wipe my hands on your face!"

"I don't want to get sick!"

"You're paranoid Winston," sighed Vera.

"I'm not paranoid! I'm reasonably cautious."

"You've got to relax. You think everything and everyone is out to get you. From bacteria to our new friends from outer space."

"They're not our friends!" Winston sat down heavily on one of the stools by the kitchen counter. He pressed his hands together, interlocked his fingers, and squeezed nervously. "They are blatantly trying to convert us to whatever religion, or...thing they do."

"They just want us to have a better life. I mean what would you do if you visited another planet and saw the dominant species tearing itself apart? You'd want to help, wouldn't you?"

"I wouldn't go in the first place! It's none of my business."

Vera punched the last scraps of stuffing into the chicken. She covered the roasting pot, then opened the hot oven with a stuffing encrusted hand (Winston cringed but said nothing), then slid the pot in. She closed the door then finally went to the tap and washed her hands.

"You have such a small mind Winston."

He looked at her with contempt. She picked up the little bottle of lotion.

"Don't open that," he cautioned.

She unscrewed the lid.

"Don't smell it," he said.

She sniffed.

"Mmmn. Smells like chocolate. That's quite pleasant actually. Here Winston, smell it!"

"No!" he held his hands up in front of him. "Don't touch it!"

She poured a dab out onto her palm. She rubbed it in with her other hand, then she bent down and sniffed it again, then licked it.

"Why would you lick it?" asked Winston in horror.

"I thought it might taste like--" Vera stopped abruptly. Her eyes glazed, then she collapsed to the floor.

"Vera!" Winston leapt from his stool and ran to her. "Vera, are you okay?" He shook her shoulder.

"I'm...fine," she slurred.

"No you're not!"

"It's...utterly...amazing," she said.



"I need to get you to the hospital," said Winston. He stood and ran for the phone.

"No," said Vera.

She sat up clumsily. Winston stopped and looked at her suspiciously.

"It was like the whole universe was...inside me. I was one with all things."

"For a couple of seconds?"

"For...infinity Winston. In-fin-i-ty. You've got to try it."

She held out the bottle.

"You're joking or something," said Winston.

"It will tell you all the answers to everything you've ever asked. It will show you what the love of the entire universe is like."

"There's no such thing. There's no way you could have a psychedelic experience in that short of a time."

"How would you know Winston? Your idea of a wild trip is an extra glass of prune juice in the morning."

Winston sat back down on his stool.

"Yes, nice joke. Haha, you're very witty."

Vera circled around him with the bottle then sat next too him and placed the bottle between them.

"As you can see, I'm perfectly fine, whether I experienced the universe or not. So try it. Give it a lick. You'll be alright either way. What have you got to lose?"

"No," said Winston. "If I try it, then I fall for your ruse."

Vera nudged the bottle closer.

"It's no ruse. It's the real deal. Enlightenment in a bottle."


"Then you're a fool."

"Then I'm a fool."

"You seriously would not accept total enlightenment if it were offered to you for free?"

"Not under these dubious circumstances."

"Fine," said Vera.

She stood and picked up the bottle, then walked it over to the trash can and dropped it in.

"Never mind," she said.

She walked back to the counter and started peeling a potato. Winston looked at his hands, then at the trashcan. He sat for a few minutes contemplating while Vera worked.

"What are you, from the sixties? Why don't you help me?" said Vera.

"Yes, of course," said Winston. He joined her and started cutting up the peeled potatoes into cubes. "I'm sorry for getting bent out of shape," he said.

"I'm used to it," said Vera.

"They just have the temerity to come to our planet," he voice was quickly getting louder and faster, "and try to make us like them. I meant the gall of--"

"Winston, don't start with that again."

"Alright. Okay," he said. "I mean I know you're right. I'm just in the process of coping with all this."

Vera sighed deeply.

"Yes, you're right."

Vera placed a hand atop his. He stopped cutting.

"I understand dear," she said, looking into his eyes.

He nodded, then reached towards her and kissed her on the mouth. He promptly collapsed to the floor. Vera watched placidly as he recovered.

"Wow," he intoned slowly. "That was...wow."

Vera smiled.

"Converted now?" she asked.

"I think so," he said, smiling back at her.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

270/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "On My Way Back Home" by Band of Horses

At noon, during the fifteen minute lunchbreak, a man jumped from the sixth story of the computation building. His impact with the pavement did not result in his immediate death, and the passersby watched his wretched gurglings with an exhausted and not-so-surprised sort of horror.

"That's one way to get out of your contract," said Oscar. He was an average-sized man with deepset eyes and a burning resentment of his employer, the ubiquitous Mother Nuture Corporation, which produced analyses of global consumption trends, security force subcontracting, trademarked foodstock seeds, and implantable consumer electronics (including the government-mandated sleep regulators).

"I wish I were him," said Slobodan, who was significantly shorter than his companion, overweight, and wheezy.

Both men wore generic jumpsuits that signified they were in the analysis division. The man dying on the pavement was naked.

"Good for him," said Oscar. "He's not dying an owned man." He leaned down to the man's head and said overly loudly, as if speaking to someone who spoke in a different language, "I see what you did there, taking off your uniform! Good for you! Sticking it to the corp!"

The man uttered something that sounded like "URGH" then his eyelids fluttered and he was still. Oscar stood up and squashed his mouth to one side of his face. Other people in the crowd murmured, and looked around for any encroaching security forces.

"We should go," said Slobodan, looking nervous. "Break is up in a few minutes, and we haven't even gotten our pho."

"Let's skip the pho," said Oscar "I think I could stomach a state sanctioned broccoli smoothie on a day like today."

"Urghah," Slobodan shivered. "But I've saved up all week for the pho--"

"Smoothies are free. Wouldn't you rather spend your extra earnings on sleep?"

"Yeah but--"

Just then a woman with frizzy, unkempt hair, who had been milling in the crowd started yelling.

"I've had enough!" she screamed, pointing the body of the jumper. "They can't keep pushing us! I want to sleep! The CEO gets to sleep eight hours every day! Every day! Can you believe that? We're lucky to get that much each week!"

"Shut up!" said Oscar. "You'll bring security for sure."

"I don't care! I don't! Not any more. They can take me. They can torture me, but the human mind was not made to be abused like this. That's right! It's abuse. Exploitation."

"For the love of--shut up woman!" said Oscar.

More people began to collect, egging the woman on.

"We should go," whispered Slobodan.

"I won't shut up!" said the woman, smiling acidicly.

"They don't need to torture you," said Oscar. "They'll just dock your sleep allowance."

"We can take a stand!" shouted the woman to the gathering crowd, ignoring Oscar. "If we all walk out, refuse to do their work, we can demand more sleep for the work we do! We can roll things back to the way they were a decade ago!"

There were more shouts in the crowd as the people got worked up.

"We should get rid of the stupid system altogether," whispered Slobodan. "It was never meant to vary with fluctuating economic conditions. Or greed."

"Ugh. It would have worked if sleep could have been effectively replaced with the sleep regulators, but they never worked as intended and should never have gotten medical approval."

"Let's just go," said Slobodan. "This crowd's getting a little crazy."

The sound of boots slapping pavement echoed around the building walls.

"Ah jeez," said Oscar. "Security's coming!"

Oscar and Slobodan started running down the mall of the campus, followed by a handful of others in the crowd, but the bulk of the workers stood their ground.

The security forces flooded into the mall and surround the workers, including hundreds that weren't in the crowd around the body.

"Their going to zap us," wailed Slobodan. "I saved up all week!"

"Duck down you idiot!" said Oscar.

They did but did not escape the shutdown signal to their sleep regulators.

Oscar woke up the next day on his bunk, atop the blankets and fully dressed. His vision coalesced on the slats of the bunk above, Slobodan's, as vertigo gripped him. He clasped his hands to his mouth to keep from vomiting over himself. Slobodan leaned over his bunk and spilled sick onto the floor, spattering some up onto Oscar's clothes. Oscar leaned over and released what little content was in his stomach as well, then kicked the bunk above.

"Did you lose all your spare sleep too?" asked Slobodan.

"Yeah," said Oscar.

"They made me dream of black lions with red eyes. Is that what passes for a nightmare now?"

"I guess," said Oscar, wiping his mouth. "Did they try to chew on you?"

"No, they just roared menacingly. I actually don't mind black lions with red eyes. What did you get?"

"Drowning. With seaweed I think, or tentacles."

"That wouldn't bother me either. Do you think they were letting us off easy?"

"No," said Oscar, sighing. The vertigo was subsiding.

"They should have me programming the nightmares, if they wanted to be really effectual about it," said Slobodan. "I'd have big buzzsaws taking off the tops of people's heads. Earthquakes that go on for hours. Anthropomorphic hypodermic needles. Sometimes I think they water down the nightmares because they don't want people complaining about them being too graphic."

"Would you just stop about the nightmares?" blurted Oscar.

"I'm just saying..."

"You say the same thing every time this happens. Like it matters. We have to be at work again in half an hour. Just let me rest for a couple of minutes."

"Sure, sure, Oscar," said Slobodan. He remained quiet for about ten seconds. "You know," he said, "they're going to dock sleep again for this. I think we're down to twenty minutes for every three hours worked."

"Oh for the love of--"

"Sorry. I'm sorry."

They lay on their bunks in silence for a few minutes, then Oscar started laughing.

"What?" asked Slobodan, leaning over his bunk, his hair flopping down. He peered at Oscar.

"The nightmares are sleep!" said Oscar.

"Yeah, but it's not restful sleep! We got maybe an hour--"

"Physiologically, it's still sleep." Oscar looked reflectively at the slats above him. Slobodan creaked back up. "Come on," said Oscar.

They walked back to the mall and found themselves among the others from the crowd, some of whom were sobbing, on their way back to work, as work was the only way to earn back the lost sleep.

"You're not thinking of inciting another riot, are you?"

"No. Besides, I don't care what these other people do with their lives," said Oscar.

"You have a plan for something, I can see it on your face."

"Of course you can," said Oscar.

They walked quickly to the entrance to the computation building. The doors slid open obligingly, and the pair made for the main staircase (elevators had been outlawed several years ago as a way to encourage physical fitness).

"You're not thinking of jumping yourself, are you Oscar?"

"No!" said Oscar, scrunching up his face. "Good grief, no."

"Then what?" pleaded Slobodan.

"Jeez, if you must know," Oscar paused and looked around for security forces, but there were none evident, "I know where the source code for the nightmare signal is stored," he whispered.

"What, really?" asked Slobodan, his eyes widening.

"Yeah," said Oscar.

Slobodan was panting by now, and they climbed up to the fourth floor in silence. They found their way to their adjacent desks, and sat down. Their terminals lit up, waiting. Oscar watched Slobodan try to steady his breathing, anticipating the question to come.

"How?" Slobodan asked finally.

"I worked on that project a couple of months ago. Had to write some unit tests."

"You took the code?" asked Slobodan, breathless.

"No, of course not. That would be idiotic. All our stores are automatically scrubbed."

"Yeah, but then how?"

"I copied the code, and reversed it. Simplest encryption you can imagine. Then I used it as fill for another test. Like lorem ipsum. The test got saved, and I have that."

"You stole it months ago? You were planning it?"

"No, no, no. Even I'm not that crafty. This was just dumb luck. I'm just lazy with my fills. I should write better tests, but it's usually the minimum I need for the tolerances we have."

"So you just happen to have the nightmare code--"


"And you want to use it on your sleep regulator."

"Yours too. I don't forget my friends."

"More like you want to drag me into this!"

"Well, think of it," said Oscar, leaning forward in his seat. "Unlimited sleep. Sure, black lions with red eyes sleep, but sleep. We could sleep like CEOs!"

Slobodan looked unconvinced, but he offered no argument.

"We all know this system is unfair," continued Oscar. "So we take back what's rightfully ours. No tragic mess on the pavement, no nastiness with security, and no sleep docking. What the corporation doesn't know, won't hurt them."

"Yeah," said Slobodan long and skeptically, "but we'll have to take unscheduled leave in order to fit in more hours of sleep. They'll notice that."

"And who's they in this instance, Slobodan?" asked Oscar.

Slobodan looked confused for a few seconds, then his eyes lit up.

"Us!" he exclaimed. "Our department. We can't alter our records though, just the group totals, just by adding a few extra phantom workers who work all the hours of the week--"

"Yes! That's brilliant actually. I was thinking of something different but--"

"Well the averages are the only thing anyone ever looks at."

"Yes," said Oscar, smiling. He gently punched Slobodan on the shoulder. Slobodan smiled too, then it faded.

"We don't have a delivery system. Unless you're planning on stealing a signal gun from security."

"No, not at all. That's actually the easy part," said Oscar. "Remember when we all had cell phones--"

Slobodan laughed abruptly, then quieted himself.

"We must have all looked like idiots back then--"

"I still have one of mine--"

"You didn't turn it in?"

"Of course not! I paid good money for it."

"Money..." said Slobodan wistfully.

"Well, the signal is much weaker, but I think if we reprogram it with the nightmare code, and activate it close to our necks, we can activate our sleep regulators."

"Oh, Oscar, that would be absolute heaven. To sleep like we did as children."

"I know, right?"

"What we are doing is so bad, and all kinds of illegal, but I'm in. I am so in."

Oscar, smiling, held out his hand. Slobodan looked down at it, spat into his own hand, and slapped it into Oscar's, then shook vigorously.

"You didn't need to spit," said Oscar.

"Yes I did," said Slobodan. "If I'm going to commit to doing a crime, I want to commit all the way."

"Well then," said Oscar, wiping his hand on his pants, "Let's get started."

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

269/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "Arena" by Daft Punk from the TRON:Legacy soundtrack

Atahua fought to stay awake. She bore several wounds; her muscles periodically shook and her skin shivered. She was dressed in a thin skin, her jewellery absent--it was bequeathed to her younger sister in case she did not return.

Her trials had lasted three days and she sat cross-legged on a flat rock in the middle of the stream near her village to await the passage of the most dangerous hunter-beast in the forest. She wore mud from the stream to disguise her scent and she blended into the moonless night. The red chiggers and wet rock hoppers sang in throaty croaks and hooting calls. The moss-lichens at the edge of the stream glowed pink and purple. The breeze was thick with tree spores, red diaphanous spirals that spun and lifted and zagged on their way to new grounds and new life.

Her nose twitched. The breeze carried a new odor, strong and musky, with an accompaniment of rot. A hunter-beast was near, carrying its meal on its back, coming to the water so it could wash its food down. Atahua slowly reached up and grabbed one of the spears strapped to her back, sliding it out silently, and held it poised above her shoulder. The foliage rustled. Atahua hopped to her feet and crouched, with one hand on the rock. The hunter-beast emerged and flung it's meal down, grunting. Atahua recoiled and struck.

The spear-tip penetrated both of the hunter-beast's eyes and it fell dead without a cry. Atahua keep silent and composed. She slipped down from the walk and waded through the water to the body of the hunter-beast. Its head was partially submerged in the water, with a ribbon of its oily, iridescent blood trailing into the flow next to the pink of the moss-lichens. Atahua put her foot on the head and extracted the spear, then rinsed it off in the water. She pushed the body back up onto the embankment, then looked at its meal.

It was a boy, about three years of age and probably from a neighboring village. He was wrapped in an enzymic casing produced by a gland on the hunter-beast's chest. She unsheathed her knife and cut into the casing, then unwrapped him. She threw the casing into the water where it foamed and sparked and quickly became acid. She felt for a pulse and found one. He was just unconscious.

She returned her attention to the body of the hunter-beast. It had legs and arms much like a human, but no hair. Its skin was slick with an oily sheen--their blood leaked from lines of pores that spiraled around their bodies, and they spent a lot of time rubbing their paws around themselves, spreading the small amounts of blood evenly. It kept their skin lubricated and healthy, cooled them in the heat of day, and disposed of ingested toxins. They had little technology. They could speak to each other in a language of grunts and clicks and howls, and knew how to throw rocks at prey. They were fascinated by fire and stole it from humans when a fire went unattended, but were unable to create it for themselves.

Atahua plunged her knife into the hunter-beast's chest, and cracked open it's thoracic plate. Blood geysered out. Atahua cupped her hands, collecting it, then drank of it. It was bitter, thick, and salty and she gagged, but managed a full handful.

"I take your life, noble hunter-beast," she said reverently. "I take your memories, and make them mine. I take the prey you have killed, and make them mine. I take your powers, and they make me stronger. I take your blood, and it becomes my blood. I release you back to the soil and the water and the air, and I thank you."

She continued with the knife, and skinned the beast, cutting around the dangerous chest gland, then cutting off its head. She extracted the skull bones and the sweetmeats inside and flung them to forest. There would be no time to dry the skin, so she bundled it up under one arm. She picked up the boy and slung over her shoulder. She walked back to the village.

"Atahua's back!" screamed her sister, in shock and relief. Atahua passed her the boy and she carried him back to their hut.

The wisewoman came running, her long black robes flapping. She was a large woman, well-fed and hips wide from birthing seven children. Her hair was long and braided and white. Her eye-sight was still sharp. When she arrived she observed Atahua. Atahua unfurled the hunter-beast skin and showed it to the wisewoman.

"I have taken its life, and its life is now in me," said Atahua.

"You have completed all of the tasks, and you have rescued a human."

"It was incidental," said Atahua, shaking with exhaustion.

"Nothing is incidental," said the wisewoman, smiling. "The star ancestors have singled you out. The tasks I have set out were not adequate. In the five tasks I gave you, I tested your endurance, your bravery, your intelligence, your skill, and your ingenuity. They gave you another that would show your empathy."

"I had no other choice but to save him from the hunter-beast," said Atahua.

"Exactly. That you saw only one option shows the degree of your empathy." The wisewoman smiled. "Come now, Atahua. I know you are tired, but I must show you something."

The wisewoman put her arm around Atahua walked her to the center of the village and the entrance to a forbidden cave where only the wisewomen and medicinemen were allowed to enter.

"Here?" asked Atahua.

"Yes," said the wisewoman. "You said when you started your trials that you did not know what you wanted to do for the community."

"I still don't, but I will do what is asked of me."

"The star ancestors have determined that you are fit to receive their knowledge. Would you like to become a wisewoman?"

"I am too young!"

"It is not unheard of to start at your age."

"It's not my ambition."

"Perhaps it was, but you thought yourself unworthy."

Atahua cast her gaze downward and nodded. She started to cry.

"You are tired," said the wisewoman, hugging Atahua. "You are able to admit the truth easily. That is a good trait that will serve the village well. Come now, let's go inside."

They walked into the cave, which was lit by a heavy encrustation of moss-lichens. The entrance was perfectly cylindrical, and sloped downwards a few degrees. It was only a few meters before they came to a wall with a wheel. The wisewoman turned the wheel and the wall started to slide open. Atahua could hearing quiet singing. The chamber on the other side was much darker, but some moss-lichens had been spread on the walls by the many ancient hands of generations of wisewomen and medicinemen.

"This is not a cave," said Atahua.

"No, it is not," said the wisewoman. "This is the vessel of the star ancestors."

"This?" asked Atahua breathlessly. "This was in the sky?"

"A long time ago, yes. It traveled from the stars themselves."

"No wonder it is forbidden! Why is the village not told of this?"

"To preserve it. To keep their curiosity contained. Sacred things should not be exploited. And to keep our village safe from other villages. This is where our society started. The very spot of our birth. Now step through. There is more to show you."

Atahua stepped through the hatch, and the wisewoman closed the door behind them. They continued down the slope. There were more hatches on either side of the corridor, and one at the other end. When they reached it, the wisewoman again turned the wheel and opened that hatch. The sound of the singing was louder, and when the door was fully open, Atahua could see the medicineman sitting cross-legged in front of a sculpture of some kind, with burning twigs held in his fingers, singing a song of the star ancestors. The air was thick with smoke and it was difficult to breath. Atahua coughed.

The wisewoman left the hatch open and the smoke began to dissipate. The medicineman stopped rocking, then stopped singing. He extinguished the twigs with the tips of his fingers then stood. He was wiry but young, only five years older than Atahua. She knew him from the village, but only talked to him once when he administered to her mother when she lay dying. Atahua bowed her head slightly in deference.

"This is Atahua," said the wisewoman.

"I know," said the medicineman. "I know all in the village that I care for."

"She has just become a woman, having completed all her trails successfully. She was also given an additional task by the star ancestors that proves she is able to take on the role of wisewoman."

"What did you do?" asked the medicineman.

"I saved a boy from a neighboring village. He was to be eaten by a hunter-beast. He is alive and strong and being attended by my sister in our hut."

"I will go to him," said the medicineman.

"Before you go," said the wisewoman, "do you agree to help me train her?"

"If the star ancestors have decided, I cannot object," he said. He smiled and bowed, then quickly left.

"What does he do here?" asked Atahua.

"He prays to the star ancestors at their altar of knowledge, here." The wisewoman pointed to the sculpture, which was of no human or creature, and of nothing found it nature. It was angular and odd, made of metal and rare, perfect glass, and resisted colonization from the moss-lichens.

"Does he receive knowledge from the ancestors?" asked Atahua.

"We both do. The altar comes alive at regular intervals. It glows, the face of a star ancestor appears and dispenses sounds, words, and if we are very lucky that day, whole sentences. When add that knowledge to ours by memorizing what is said. It will take you several years to learn all of the knowledge of the star ancestors that has been passed down through countless medicinemen and wisewomen."

"That is what I will learn here? I will not spend my days hunting or caring for children or gathering roots or making clothes and tools? I will just be here learning words?"

The wisewoman looked suddenly stern.

"Do you question my value to the village? Do you question the medicineman's value?"

"No, that's not what I meant..." said Atahua, looking down again. "It's just that, why do the star ancestors speak to us so little? Wouldn't it be more helpful if they told everything to us once, at the beginning?"

The wisewoman squinted and sighed.

"I don't know the motivations of the star ancestors. We have learned from them how to build things, and to heal our people. They have told us stories of their home, and they often speak of love. You will learn all of this in time, and you will quickly understand its value."

"Yes," said Atahua. "It's just..."

She moved closer to the altar, running her hands across it.

"What are you doing? It's not meant to be touched!"

"I think it is," said Atahua. "It looks like it is meant for a human to be near it. I think the altar is a tool to be used."

She bent down and felt around the space under the altar. Her fingers came across a thick rope covered in dust and grit. She wiggled it, and the altar glowed briefly.

"What did you do?" asked the wisewoman, her eyes wide.

"There's something not quite right here," said Atahua.

She pulled on the rope and it came loose. There were four metal prongs on the end of it, covered in rust. Atahua unsheathed her knife and scored the rust, flaking some of it off. She looked at hole the rope had fed into, and found the prongholes. She re-inserted the prongs and pushed until they fit snugly.

The altar chimed.

"Please wait while terminal five reboots," said the altar in a tinny voice.

"What have you done," whispered the wisewoman, her eyes wide.

"I don't know," admitted Atahua. "It never does this normally?"

"No," said the wisewoman. "Never."

The altar suddenly glowed bright white. Both Atahua and the wisewoman shaded their eyes from the glare.

"Power levels are at five percent," said the altar. "Entering into safemode. It is determined the ship is no longer in flight. Terminal five will be continuously operational for forty thousand, twenty six days. Reigniting the engines is not advisable. Engine lock is activated."

The altar went dark again, then displayed a series of symbols.

Atahua moved closer and touched one of the symbols. It showed up in a box above the symbols. The rest of the altar filled with clusters of symbols.

"What do they mean?" she asked.

"They describe our language," said the wisewoman. "They are words, but not spoken."

"What do they say?"

"Would you like to activate accessibility mode?" said the altar.

Atahua looked at it quizzically.

"Yes," she said slowly.

"Accessibility mode activated. You may state your queries verbally."

"What is a query?" Atahua asked the wisewoman. She shook her head.

"A query is another word for question," said the altar.

Atahua grinned. The wisewoman looked at her with awe.

"Will you answer my questions?" asked Atahua.

"Terminal five will answer queries verbally when in accessibility mode," said the altar.

Atahua placed her hands on the altar surface, and began to speak quickly.

"Why do the hunter-beasts hunt us?" she asked.

"No results for the search term 'hunter beasts'. Wider results show that humans have been hunted by a variety of predators during the course of human evolution. Humans are an integral part of the ecological food-chain, and while predators themselves, they are also hunted. Much of the development of human civilization can be attributed to the desire to secure humans from the threat of predators."

"Why must I drink the blood of prey in order to obtain their power?"

"Hemophagia can lead to indigestion and iron toxicity."

"I can't believe it!" wailed the wisewoman. "It is a miracle!" She flung herself onto Atahua and hugged her tightly, beginning to sob.

"There are no known miracles," said the altar.

"Wha--" said the wisewoman.

"Miracles are events that occur without sufficient information to explain their origins. With enough investigation, their origins are inevitably discovered."

Atahua smiled, then she giggled.

"Who are the star ancestors?" she asked slowly.

"No results for search term 'star ancestors'. Would you like results for star, and or ancestor?"

The wisewoman stumbled backwards, her hands over her mouth.

"It's okay," said Atahua, looking back. "That is the name we gave them. They didn't know it at the time."

"We can know everything now," whispered the wisewoman, trying not to trigger a response from the altar.

"And it's not a miracle," said Atahua smiling. "Come closer, don't be afraid," she said gently, and the wisewoman complied.

"There will be so much to memorize," said the wisewoman, looking suddenly worried.

"Somehow, I don't think that will be necessary," said Atahua.