Eyes of the Stars
The result of my third #bookstorewindow fiction writing exercise, inspired by the late Harlan Ellison, based on writing prompts supplied by Colchek, entropymanor, and nickpalaz0123. Wrote it live on our Slack site in about an hour:
The discovery, like so many before and since, was an accident.
Every 87 years, the six moons in the sky above our world form a perfect alignment with each other. However, it turns out that once every 261 years, that alignment causes a total eclipse of our sun.
And, on that day, something truly wondrous happens.
It was 1,044 years ago that my great-great-great-something grandfather, Helefont Shawmel, left a goblet of clear liquid on a column in the Honor Temple, on the outskirts of what today is Fastheld’s Forest District. Long before the powerful mages of the Shadow Council raised the Aegis as a defense against the Wildlings.
Helefont passed out drunk, but awoke just in time to see the eclipse in progress – one moon sliding in front of another, and then the sun settling behind them all, blotted out and leaving bright coils of light like shining tears brimming.
He stared into the clear liquid of the goblet and it was then, legend holds, that he saw one of those moonshine droplets falling from the eclipsed star and into the drink. He swore to any who would listen that the surface of the drink actually rippled.
Helefont Shawmel then sipped once more from the goblet. What happened next, some say, was a descent into madness. Others called it the blessing of prophecy. Regardless, he went blind for six weeks and wouldn’t stop screaming about the Wildling threat.
So our family tradition was born.
Now, once again, the moons creep toward alignment: the blue moon called Herald, the crimson Dayhunter, the green moon Stormwatcher, the violet Serpent’s Eye, and the twin white-gray moons called the Torches. Once again, the time has come for a total multiple eclipse.
Normally, the honor of seeing with the Eyes of the Stars would fall to our father, Yancey Seamel. However, he died a few years ago in a duel with Jaswiv Zahir. In his stead, by right of succession, the goblet should pass to his eldest son. I, however, am untouched by the Gift.
So it falls to my younger brother, Emmot.
“I don’t want it,” he says, staring at the golden chalice on the squat column in the ruins of the same temple where Helefont took the first sip.
“The honor is great beyond all reckoning,” I tell him, but how can I convince him if I can scarcely convince myself?
“What if I see the end of all things?” Emmot asks.
“Then we prepare for the end and make the best of what time remains to us,” I say. Although what I do not say is that perhaps, if that is his vision, I should smother him with a pillow as he sleeps before panic tears across the realm.
“What harm is there in not doing a thing?” he asks. He gestures at the goblet. “Could we not just let the night pass without compliance with tradition? Can I not leave the drink untouched?”
Maybe we could, I think. But the Emperor has certain expectations, and his Hawk would arrive soon enough for the latest tidings of the stars.
“It falls to you, Emmot, and none other,” I say. “It must be done. It will be done. None in our line has refused it before.”
He frowns at the moons as they continue their relentless geometry toward the waiting sun. “I will go mad,” he says.
I do not disagree. “Certainly possible.”
“When we were children, you always swore you would protect me,” Emmot says.
“Do so now!”
“Sometimes, I must protect you from yourself,” I say. “Watch the goblet. Await the moon teardrop. I will not leave your side.”
Unhappy about it, Emmot takes a step closer to the column with the cup resting upon it. He scowls at the reflection. “I wish father were here.” Not plaintive. Accusatory.
“Yes,” I say, softly. “But he’s not.”
The moons align, taking their place ahead of the sun for the first time in more than two centuries, and I watch the strange shadows and slivers of light dance on the stone floor.
Emmot waits. Waits. The moment of the brimming starlight tear comes, and he gasps in awestruck wonder. In his amazement, perhaps, he finds lost courage. He takes the goblet. He drinks.
“Brother,” he says.
I look to him. He gazes at me with eyes of void and nothingness. “Are you well, Emmot?”
“I see everything,” he says, his eyes now swirling with scattered stars. “What has come before. What is yet to come.”
I step toward him, placing a hand on his shoulder, and I ask: “What should I tell the Emperor’s Hawk?”
In his eyes, this time, I see twin stars, blazing red and plummeting through the sky. “The end comes,” Emmot says.
And in that moment, I realize, there’s no time to wait for a pillow and merciful slumber.
The Cliche Game
The result of my first #bookstorewindow fiction writing exercise, inspired by the late Harlan Ellison, based on a writing prompt supplied by Entropymanor. Wrote it live on our Slack site in about an hour:
“Nobody drives in New York, there’s too much traffic,” she said.
I rolled my eyes, but she probably didn’t notice in the dark. Hugged myself hard. Three layers of Goodwill-scavenged Army jackets offered negligible comfort against the chill. “Next you’re gonna tell me it’s a dry heat.”
She got to her feet, grunting at the effort. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” She took a couple of limp-drag steps toward the sliding glass door that opened onto the balcony.
“When you gotta go, you gotta…” I let that thought go unfinished as she pulled the blackout curtain aside to show the swirling flurries of another Manhattan summer blizzard. Nothing new to see out there. Same storm. Same dark buildings. Same inert hulks of cars and trucks abandoned in the streets, up to their rear-views in noxious East River water.
“It’s not the fall that kills you,” she said, left palm against the glass door, fingers splayed. “It’s the sudden stop.”
“Hey,” I said. “Clarity. C’mon. Don’t even joke.”
“All that glitters isn’t gold,” she said, still playing the game with that damned dreamy singsong voice. Her head tilted, the bristles of her buzzcut catching the pale moonlight.
“Just don’t go out there, okay?”
She straightened. Didn’t look back. Her left hand remained on the glass. Her right hand, though, I could hear it fiddling with the lock lever on the sliding door.
“Hey, wait,” I said. “Every cloud has a silver lining.” Maybe if I kept playing the game. If nothing else, it distracted me from the nagging rumble in my stomach and the burgeoning ache in my head.
“The writing’s on the wall, Maddie,” Clarity replied. I heard a faint thump as she rested her forehead against the glass, gazing out into the bleak condemnation of a dying world.
“The city that never sleeps,” I said.
“A diamond in the rough.” So maybe she agreed? Her right hand fell away from the lock. With her left, she pulled the curtain closed again. Still, she didn’t turn my way.
“Just a matter of time,” I said.
She countered with: “At the end of the day.” I watched her shadowy form moving with that trudging gait – that battered leg, thanks to a fall through a gap in a crumbling skyscraper stairwell. Heard her rustling around in the kitchenette.
“When life gives you lemons,” I started, and then tried to remember the last time I’d actually seen one. Gilberto’s corner bodega hadn’t stocked decent food and produce in more than a decade. Might be able to catch a striped bass with my bare hands in the snack aisle, but would the mercury poisoning be worth it?
“What goes around comes around,” she said with a sigh. She moved through the apartment again, toward me this time (thank God), and settled on what was left of the threadbare blue couch. Dropped half a Ritz cracker on the concrete floor in front of me.
I snatched up that cracker before the roaches could beat me to it. Not much value to it, really. Wouldn’t do more than fill a fraction of my stomach. Fundamental nourishment was a luxury enjoyed farther down the food chain. But it might fool my headache into fading, even if just for a little while.
“And they all lived happily ever after,” I said.
A Man with Many Plans
As a reward for our players posting 50 Steam reviews about the game, I wrote a bit of Knee Deep fiction.
(A note, scrawled in pencil on the back of a twice-folded Hungry Chief’s paper placemat. The handwriting appears jerky, as if written while on a bouncing knee:)
I’m developing a recipe for hickory-smoked salted head cheese. Sounds tasty, yeah? You know it! I think this would help shake up our rather mundane menu – a nice change of pace from the usual Scout Burgers and Dervish Dogs. We’d probably get coverage on one of the big food networks or maybe a write-up in the Cypress Knee Notice. How’s that sound?
Eager to hear your thoughts.
Assistant Manager of Retail and Cuisine
Chief Roadside’s Wonderland
(The memo returns two days later, hand-delivered by janitor Jim Larman, crumpled into a sloppy ball. Larman’s not thrilled playing courier. Not like he can complain much, though. Not a lot of decent jobs out there for disgraced college professors who mix drugs with underage girls. A new message, written in black ink, appears below the original commentary on the menu:)
NO. AND YOU’RE NOT ASSISTANT MANAGER OF ANYTHING EXCEPT HEADACHES.
(Next time, the message comes to Rutledge Silloway on a Mohawk Inn postcard clutched in the fangs of a plastic Gator Chomp toy. The toys cost about 15 cents each to produce in China. They sell for $5 in the Fun N’ Fuel at Chief Roadside’s Wonderland. The message is in pencil again:)
Maybe candy-coated anchovies? A treat for children of all ages!
Enthralled for further discourse.
Indeterminate Title With Indefinite Authority
Chief Roadside’s Wonderland
(Larman brings the card back an hour later, with red ink block letters covering Remy’s writing:)
NO. GODDAMNED. WAY.
PUT THE CHOMPER BACK ON THE SHELF. IDIOT.
(Another memo arrives in Silloway’s motel office scrawled in permanent ink marker on the back of a diaper:)
I’d like to suggest dollar-movie days in the old Digital Smoke arcade at the base of the Wonderland tower. We could show classic movies from my DVD collection. I’ve got both Clerks movies, Pineapple Express, and Requiem for a Dream. We’d pull in movie buffs from miles around!
Curious to hear your viewpoint.
Director of Entertainment for Chief Roadside’s Wonderland
(The diaper’s used by the time Larman delivers it to Remy in a tall kitchen trash bag.)
(One more memo. Back to pencil, written on a faded yellow page from a Mohawk Inn motel room notepad:)
I’m disappointed by the swift dismissal of my ideas. What gives? I just want to do my part to bring more visibility and notoriety to our little gem along Interstate 95. Sad to think you don’t share my enthusiasm for the future of Chief Roadside’s Wonderland.
Now, what if we host trivia night at Hungry Chief’s every other Thursday?
Undoubtedly devoted to the cause.
Loyal Patriot of Chief Roadside’s Wonderland
(The reply doesn’t come back for a week. When it does, Silloway’s bloody red scrawl reads:)
I WAITED. ANSWER’S STILL NO. ASSHAT.
The Long Haul
As a reward for our players posting 75 Steam reviews about the game, we’re sharing a bit of Knee Deep fiction. Enjoy!
The agent sitting across from K.C. Gaddis sips his coffee. He sets the cup down next to a manila folder. His partner, the woman with the no-nonsense ponytail and short-clipped fingernails, presses her hands on the table in the interrogation room.
“Tell us more about your father’s dealings with the Church of Us,” she says.
Gaddis doesn’t look at her. Keeps his eyes on the gray porkpie hat resting on the table in front of him. “No,” he says.
“C’mon, Mr. Gaddis,” the male agent says. The cup’s got a motto on it: WORLD’S BEST WAFFLES. “It’s relevant to our investigation.”
“Is it?” The private investigator gives a dark chuckle. “Dad’s dead. Been dead a long time.”
The female agent stands straight, crosses her arms, and paces behind the detective’s chair. “Motive, Mr. Gaddis.”
Gaddis rolls his eyes. He sees her in the mirror on the wall behind her partner. She’s stopped now, scowling down at him. “Oh, give me a break. I didn’t kill the guy. Certainly not over Dad.”
The manila folder opens. Slender fingers pluck out a photocopied page. The male agent says, “We’ve got the incident report from 1980, when he killed himself.” He slides the paper across the table to Gaddis. “You talked to Cypress Knee’s police chief at the time.”
“Chief Groves,” Gaddis replies. He moves the porkpie so it’s on top of the paper. “So what?”
The male agent shrugs. “Your father sank a lot of cash into the Church of Us. Nearly cost your mother the house. You’d taken, what, two part-time jobs to help the family survive?”
“Three if you count the paper route for the Notice,” the detective says. “But that was decades ago. A long time before I met the vic. As far as I know, the church reps who got their claws into Dad are still out there, scamming people left and right with their crazy cult religion.”
“Still,” the female agent says, “you’ve clashed with him before. Maybe he just made a convenient target for a lot of pent-up rage.”
Gaddis shakes his head, letting out a sigh as he laces his fingers together. “You’re fishing, lady. Maybe it makes a convincing story for you two, but I don’t have much stomach for killing, even in anger. I just want to do my job and get paid.”
“So you must really be mad about your gig going south,” the guy with the waffle cup says.
“How does that go to motive?” Gaddis asks. “That was after our pal died. Donovan Miller delivered that news. Wouldn’t it make more sense for me to shoot the messenger?”
The woman rounds the corner to the other side of the table to stand next to her partner. “Crimes of passion don’t always make sense. You’re an ex-cop. You know that.”
“Wrong,” Gaddis says. “They’re usually pretty clear, unless the perp’s a nut. She left me. No one else can have her. He called me a chicken. He cut me off in traffic. Everybody’s got their reasons. And even if the killer’s a lunatic, they’ve got some kind of twisted logic at work. So let’s cut through the bullshit, all right?” He slides the chair back, stands, and picks his hat up off the table. “I’m done answering questions. I’m done listening to you accuse me of a murder I didn’t commit. It’s been a long goddamned couple of days. I doubt I’ll ever get this swamp stink out. I want a shower. I want a lawyer. I’m done here.”
The man clears his throat. He rests a palm on the folder. Looks toward his partner. She shrugs. He says, “That’s the thing, Mr. Gaddis. You’re not done here. Not by a sight.”
“Excuse me?” Gaddis frowns. He jabs a finger at the agent. “I know my rights.”
The woman offers a thin smile. Crosses her arms again. “They don’t apply here,” she says.
“That’s kidnapping,” Gaddis replies.
“More like protective custody,” the man says.
“Bullshit. I don’t need your protection.”
“We’re not protecting you,” the woman says, her smile fading.
“So you might as well get comfortable, Mr. Gaddis,” the man suggests. He raises the waffle tribute cup in a grim salute. “We’re in this for the long haul.”
The Journal of Doctor Patrick Haskins, Town Physician, Depot 66
Farkas brought another addled CHOTA into the clinic. The savage, a female, resisted all attempts at treatment until we bound her to the gurney with restraints. Patient broke three pairs of leg restraints before we could still her long enough for sedation.
Cause of dementia is unclear. Patient is non-communicative. Differential diagnostic suggests it could be reaction to chemical exposure during scavenging runs or possibly a severe reaction to venom from some of the arthropods in the caves surrounding Depot 66. However, none of the customary treatments for either prognosis has yielded positive results. Patient remains in critical condition.
Treated two more citizens for amputated toes. Must talk to Cranston about his excessive use of violence for persuasion.
Considering the establishment of a fertility program. Birth rates in the Central Plains seem to be declining.
CHOTA patient, now identified as Anami thanks to further information from Farkas, appears stabilized. Remains non-communicative.
CHOTA patient regained consciousness early this morning. Patient was briefly communicative and appeared lucid. She identified herself as Anami. She recognized that she was in Depot 66. She could remember nothing about what happened to put her in this state. Before I could ask further questions, she suffered a violent seizure, broke her restraints, and then lost consciousness and slipped into a coma.
Patient died by sundown.
Received another visit from one of No Toes Cranston’s repeat customers. Apparently, he ran out of toes. Cranston took off a foot at the ankle. Must ask Cranston to leave delicate surgery to the professionals.
Waiting for Brock Dundy to return from the caverns with an arthropod specimen. Need to test venom for any new potency or mutation that might cause the dementia and other neurological mayhem suffered by the CHOTA patient, Anami.
Received general approval from Enzo Scarpelli to initiate fertility program within Depot 66. Must also gain support of other towns in the region.
Later in evening, received visit from Mitchell France. (NOTE: Overdue for checkup. Must follow up on this.) Was informed that guards outside the old LifeNet bunker required my assistance. I had been trying to get a nap before Dundy’s return with the arthropod, but it was not to be. I followed France to the bunker.
As I have noted in this journal before, the bunker has long been a source of fascination for me. It represents a time of great technological wonders, before the Fall of Earth. I have tried several times (in vain) to get permission from Bad Jack Badham to enter the bunker. I do not know with any certainty why he will not permit entry or under what authority he acts, but I am an old man and no match for those who watch over the bunker.
Other bunkers exist throughout the Province. I have visited the sites of several during the rare opportunities I am able to travel. Each site is heavily guarded. All guards are under orders to prevent entry. No exceptions. Initially, I thought this was all Badham’s doing, but over time I have come to understand that leaders in other factions – and some unaffiliated town leaders – appear to operate under similar cryptic and unyielding orders.
Tonight, however, something changed. The machinery, once inert, came back to life. One of the guards, Reggie, led me through the doors into the bunker.
It is a remarkable place, built of concrete and filled with what can best be described as a row of strange metal booths linked by thick power conduits to an elevated platform. The platform contains several panels that control the booths and the antiquated generators that run them.
A young woman cowered in one of the booths. She had a metal collar around her neck. The collar bore several blinking lights. Reggie explained that he had seen her materialize in the booth, as if from nowhere. I first considered the possibility that these booths were used for teleportation. Perhaps she came from a pocket of civilization beyond the dead zones surrounding the Province.
Rather than ponder this any further, I deemed it prudent to get her back to the clinic for questioning and examination. I gave her my robe to protect against the cold. We departed the bunker.
She seemed too exhausted to talk once we reached the clinic. Perhaps this is an after-effect of teleportation. Letting her sleep now. Will try to learn more tomorrow.
Spoke briefly with No Toes Cranston about the upswing in podiatric injuries in Depot 66. Cranston indicated he would opt for thumbscrews instead. Although I do not consider this a dramatic improvement, it should be less problematic for fingers and thumbs to heal. I explained that this choice would be acceptable, if not optimal.
Patient awoke shortly after Cranston left clinic.
Patient’s name: Difficult to discern. About all I could determine was that her name might be “One” or “Ona” or “Own.”
Patient’s age: She appears to be in her late teens or early twenties. However, when pressed for a date of birth, she could not recall.
Patient’s origin: Another gap in her knowledge. She does not know where she came from. She cannot remember where she may have been born or where she grew up. She repeats the word “LifeNet,” but does not seem to understand the purpose or technology behind the bunker where we found her.
Patient’s collar: Received painful shock when trying to remove this. Will consult Buzz Godfrey about possible workaround.
Lyle Dundy returned from Oilville this morning with word that others like our patient materialized in that town’s LifeNet bunker during the past few days.
And another showed up in Depot 66 this morning. Male this time, early 30s, with the collar.
Godfrey refuses to assist in the removal of One’s collar. Irksome man. How he can truly consider himself a man of science when he expresses such disinterest in the pursuit of knowledge, I am at a loss to understand.
Further examination of the equipment in the LifeNet facility outside Depot 66 indicates that the newcomers are not teleported from another region. Instead, they seem to be generated on-site based off of a database of genetic information stored in the computer system.
Later, I studied the venom of the arthropod acquired by Brock Dundy during his recent hunt. Tested the substance on two rabbits and a goat from Annette Mull’s farm. I detect no changes in the behavior of the venom that would explain the reaction suffered by the CHOTA patient.
Today, One called me by name.
I took One on a walk around town this morning. She seemed quite intrigued by the juggling, singing, and dancing of Terance Bonaventure’s “Act Surprised” troupe on the main road through town.
We could see a few other people in town with collars. I asked One if she recognized any of them. She did not.
Another “collar” emerged from the LifeNet bunker on the outskirts of town as we talked to Pete Povish. The magician made a white poker chip materialize from behind One’s ear. She seemed astounded and amazed, as if this were a trick far more difficult than creating new human beings from a collection of old computer files.
Ironically, I find myself concerned about overpopulation now. How many can we expect to emerge from the pods in all these bunkers? How soon might their numbers overwhelm our already stretched resources? Perhaps a fertility program is premature at this point.
Enzo Scarpelli doesn’t think the “collars” are a threat of any kind to our resources. If anything, he considers them a new and valuable asset that can be used to increase our available resources. Given proper training, they can work in our farms and mines.
I cannot – and will not – argue with his logic.
Tomorrow, One will go with Brock Dundy to the caverns to begin her training as a miner.
During her first foray into the caverns, One was set upon by the giant scorpions that dwell there. Brock managed to kill two of them, but the third impaled her with an envenomed spine and gutted her with a claw.
And then something most unusual happened.
As Brock described it, the collar sparked and beeped before some kind of energy field encompassed One’s body. The corpse vanished.
He was on his way back to town from the caverns to break the news of her demise when he passed the LifeNet bunker and saw One walking groggily up the steps into daylight.
The “collars” are apparently capable of resurrecting. Upon examination, she bore no evidence of wounds from the claw or any effects of the venom. She was fully healed. She remembered what had happened. She remembered where she was.
And she remembered my name.
A blue-white coil of smoke rose from the tip of R.J. Elliston’s cigar as he swished the brandy around in the squat, chipped glass. He peered through the bevels and the reddish-brown liquid, using the drink as a filter through which to view the sun setting over the town of Shackleton. He savored the mingling scents of vanilla and seasoned tobacco.
Elliston listened to the chugging of the printing press as it generated tomorrow’s edition of the Shackleton Endurance.
Tomorrow’s newspaper would showcase a headline article by a freelance reporter named Kincaid Bellows, blowing the lid off a series of “accidents” in New Flagstaff that led to two deaths and six serious injuries after the Vegas Family failed to sway the populace against their allegiance to the Union.
They had warned Elliston before not to meddle in Traveler business, but the man just couldn’t turn down a good crusade.
Janitor didn’t think killing R.J. Elliston would solve anything. After all, someone else would just take Elliston’s job once he was gone. Why not destroy Blackhand Pete’s printing press instead? It’d be much harder to replace. But Shine Perron, matriarch of the Vegas Family, considered the paper a valuable asset with the right person in charge. Information could be as valuable as currency as old poker chips, she reasoned.
So, the order was given: R.J. Elliston must die.
“Helluva story, Bellows,” the editor grunted, tapping cigar ashes on the balcony floor as the Janitor stepped out from Elliston’s office. He took a sip from his glass. “Drink? Help yourself.”
“No, thanks,” Janitor said with a taut smile, clasping his hands behind his back as he walked to the railing.
“You outdid yourself on that article!” Elliston puffed on the cigar. “I’d give anything to see the look on Shine Perron’s face when she reads it.”
“Anything?” Janitor asked.
It must have been something – or nothing – in Janitor’s tone of voice that made Elliston tilt his head. The editor was a creature of habit, much to his misfortune, but he was not unobservant. “What’s on your mind?”
“Nothing,” Janitor answered. “Enjoy your brandy.”
Twenty minutes later, the smoldering cigar tumbled from Elliston’s twitching fingers and rolled across the balcony toward Janitor’s left foot. A clumsy rookie might crush the cigar with his boot, raising the question: If Elliston dropped the cigar when he died, how did he get up to stomp it? So, instead, Janitor stepped backward and allowed the cigar to trace a lazy circle until it stopped.
The editor just got over-excited by the impending article and suffered a heart attack.
No one could argue otherwise.
# # #
“What is this shit?” Perron asked. She shook the newspaper in Janitor’s face. The headline proclaimed: TRAVELERS TERRORIZE NEW FLAGSTAFF.
“Smoke,” Janitor said.
“I wanted him dead to stop articles like this.”
“And they will stop, now.”
Shine gave Janitor a look. The tone of voice again, probably. Her green eyes widened a little as understanding sank in. “Looks less suspicious if the damaging article comes out when he dies.” She furrowed her brow. “Doesn’t come back to the family.” A sly smile edged onto her face as she tossed the paper onto the desk in front of her. “All publicity is good publicity, I suppose.”
# # #
Janitor didn’t handle many spills anymore. Most went through the Cleaning Crew – the numbers who reported to Janitor through intermediaries in the various Traveler families.
Someone always had a mess that needed cleaning. The Cleaners were always ready with the mop and bucket.
Janitor only took the most important cases; the toughest stains.
# # #
High noon in Fairground found him walking past the wreckage of a lost world of whimsy and hope, when commerce and prosperity could outspend desperation and regret. A warm, comfortless breeze blew in from the Parched Plains, coaxing a faint creak from the rusted cars of the Ferris wheel.
Eli Finney walked down the steps of the old World’s Fair corporate office building in the shadow of a battered geodesic dome. A scrawny man with wiry gray hair, thin and balding, about a foot shorter than Janitor, decked out in a pair of fancy brown trousers, a gray tweed jacket, and white button-up shirt. He poked a hand-wrapped tobacco cigarette in his mouth and gave a jaunty wave to the Cleaner. An executive of the Brenhauer Family, Eli spoke for that family’s leaders on most matters. Janitor stopped, offering a curt nod in response to Finney.
“Got an interesting enterprise for you,” Finney said, lighting the cigarette with a cracked wooden match. “Small farm over in the Grainway. All assets terminated.” The Brenhauer exec reached into his jacket pocket and plucked out a wrinkled manila envelope, which he gave to Janitor.
Janitor examined the envelope, which was addressed from Publishers Clearing House in Port Washington, New York, to Eunice Bagwin in Flagstaff, Arizona. Postmarked March 2031. Faded red letters proclaimed: YOU MAY HAVE ALREADY WON! Janitor opened the envelope. He found a set of black and white photographs inside. The lack of color didn’t mitigate the visceral impact of the brutality displayed in the images. A middle-aged man and woman. A teenage girl. A boy, no older than six. Two dogs. All slaughtered. The photographs could have been taken on the killing floor of a meat packing plant.
“Friends of the family?” Janitor asked.
Finney nodded. “Kin of Max Brenhauer’s wife.”
“Someone sending a message?”
“CHOTA, maybe,” Finney said. “They didn’t leave a note or anything, of course, but we do know that some of them are bent out of shape over the whole Storm debacle. Max thinks his brother-in-law – the one with his head cleaved in the first picture – was distilling chemicals for Eliot Moros. If that’s the case and the CHOTA got wind of the source…”
“They’re pissed,” Janitor replied, “but this looks too savage, even for a bunch of savages.”
“You’ll look into it then?”
Janitor flipped through the pages one more time. “Tell Max that I’ve put it on the clipboard.”
# # #
A blood-spattered teddy bear on the fireplace mantel leaned against a dusty snow globe that showed a spindly tower topped by a plastic disc. The base of the snow globe read: SCENIC SPACE NEEDLE.
Rain thrummed on the reclaimed tin roof as Janitor swept a flashlight from the mantel to the walls. Splashes of crimson were everywhere, a mindless pop-art creation.
Not all the shapes were random, though. On the floor, Janitor’s light caught a clear bloody footprint amidst all the smears and splatters – too big for any of the victims. Too big for any human Janitor had ever met.
He stepped back onto the porch, allowing the beam from his torch to swing left to right along the ground. Raindrops glittered and splashed in puddles. Any more prints had been lost to the elements.
Janitor took another glimpse at the sticky footprint inside the house and at the gaping slashes in the drywall.
He couldn’t tell who, exactly, had done this. That left him frustrated. The only witness to the incident didn’t help much – all it could do was crow the coming of dawn.
Janitor awoke the next morning on a porch bench upon hearing the rooster’s call. He walked a mile and a half to the nearest town – a Tech outpost called Bountiful – and flagged down a Franklin’s Rider whose route would pass through Fairground.
Janitor took an inch-long chunk of Burnt Sienna crayon from the compartment in the hilt of the combat knife stashed in his right boot. The faded “Greetings From Grand Canyon, Ariz.” postcard came from a pocket in his gray burlap traveling sack. He scrawled a message on the card:
NOT CHOTA UNLESS GROW BIG THIS SEASON.
# # #
“Max doesn’t want a mystery,” Eli told Janitor a week later, upon the assassin’s return to Fairground. “He wants results. His wife’s furious about this.”
Janitor nodded. “If I find out who or what was responsible, I will see to it that justice is done.”
“Max doesn’t want justice, either. He wants his wife to shut up,” Eli grumbled. He caught Janitor’s arched brow. “Not like that. He doesn’t care who pays for this, just as long as someone pays, so Arlene will get off his back.”
Janitor frowned. “That doesn’t solve the problem. You saw the pictures too. Whoever did it is still out there. Just a matter of time until it happens to some other settler family.”
“It solves Max Brenhauer’s problem.” Eli shrugged. “Just expedite the matter before Max starts blamestorming. Pick a CHOTA. Put them below snakes. Don’t get caught. Everybody’s happy.”
The Cleaner sighed, shaking his head. “It’s not a good idea. In fact, I’ll go right ahead and say it’s a patently stupid idea that will come back and bite us on the ass.”
“That’s a possible outcome,” Eli replied. “But it’s a definite outcome that Max Brenhauer will make my life a living hell until Arlene gets a pound of flesh or ten for those killings.”
Janitor gave it a few long moments of thought. He watched vultures loft in the clear blue morning sky above the town. “Trouble costs double, Eli.”
# # #
Double’s not enough, Janitor thought as she pummeled his solar plexus and sent him sprawling in the dirt beneath a moonless sky.
He’d nearly had her, slipping the garrote around her neck while she’d been staring at the campfire. But she was alert, quick, and strong – and didn’t care how much it made her bleed to put a hand between the wire and her windpipe.
She wasn’t even the one he planned to kill. Anyone with a lick of sense would doubt this CHOTA woman could carry out the farmstead atrocity. His feet were bigger than hers, and his were like a petite dancer’s compared to the beast that cleaved Brenhauer’s brother-in-law and butchered the wife and kids. But she was on watch, so Janitor followed standard operating procedure, eliminating any liabilities for the operation.
Now she had the garrote. She stalked toward him, face gone feral, snarling. Janitor struggled for breath as he got back to his feet. She shrieked in fury and barreled toward him…
…but then paused, abruptly hesitant. She and Janitor backed away from each other a couple of steps, hyper-alert, unwilling to look away but straining to hear.
The ground shook again. A roar sounded out, echoing off the canyon walls, a roar so deep it sounded more like the grinding blast of an avalanche than anything produced by a living creature. A knife had appeared in Janitor’s hand, but he was barely aware of it as he turned his head, following the CHOTA’s line of sight.
His eyes lifted…lifted further…his neck craning as he took in the thing standing twenty feet away, its eyes blazing in the darkness.
Then he and the CHOTA sprang apart as a blade longer than Janitor’s body sliced through the air and dug a trench in the ground at the spot where he’d been standing.
“More…” the inhuman voice grated out. “More to kill…!”
Miscellaneous Fallen Earth Text
Archived emails discovered by players in post-apocalyptic setting:
It has been six months since the last security code scramble for GlobalTech’s scientific research lab in New Flagstaff. The new code is: LHCD287A3*Q. DO NOT LOSE THIS CODE. MEMORIZE IT.
Is it so much to ask that people clean up after themselves in the restroom? If you make a mess, wipe it up. If you want to avoid germs, feel free to use the paper aprons, but REMOVE THEM when you are done. Also, gentlemen, it is customary in most civilized cultures to LIFT THE GODDAMNED LID WHEN YOU’RE TAKING A LEAK!”
The handicapped parking spaces are for handicapped drivers ONLY. The visitor spaces are for visitors ONLY. The sidewalk is for walking ONLY. It does not count as extra parking.
Several item descriptions:
- Cold Lukewarm Beer: A cold mug probably wouldn’t help much.
- Green Lightning Beer: You don’t want to know how it got the name. But you’ll find out.
- Woodbuyser Beer: Like revenge, it’s best served cold. As revenge.
- Hillbilly Beer: If you can still shout “Yeehaw!” after drinking this, you’re doing it wrong.
- Sour Beer: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
- Bottle of Greenish Milk: Maybe it looked better coming out of the cow.