The Ultimate Promotion Telethon

(Quick note: this was part of my master’s thesis several years ago. It never quite lived up to it’s potential but I still find it amusing.)

Outside the studio, protesters were lined up three deep against the barricades, chanting, praying, and waving hand lettered signs. The ruckus could barely be heard through the studio walls. Inside, the television lights made halos burst in Cliff Fontaine’s eyes if he looked into them. Three big cameras were on the floor; there seemed to be black wire snaking everywhere.

“Are we safe in here?” someone asked the floor manager, who’d just walked up, his headset wrapped around his neck. He glanced at the clipboard in his hand and waved in the general direction of the outside.

“Those idiots haven’t gotten past those doors in ten years, kid. You’re safer in here than you would be out there, that’s for sure. Forget about those savages; let’s have some fun tonight. Alright, all you phone monkeys, gather around here!”

Cliff, along with all the other people manning the phone bank, leaned in.

“It’s a long night, and kind of stressful once things get going, so take it easy. We’ve got drinks and snacks available and subs if you need a bathroom break. It’s okay to look at the camera once in a while, just give a nice smile and don’t stop talking. Remember it’s a telethon, it’s all about keeping those donations flowing so look happy, look positive; remember we’re saving someone’s life tonight. Or killing them. So let’s have fun, okay?” He waited for some sort of response. “Hello? Mouth-breathers? We’re having fun tonight, OKAY?”

“OKAY!” the young man seated next to Cliff shouted. His eyes were flashing enough wattage to make Cliff wonder if he’d already dipped into the cosmic cookie jar. “Twenty-four straight hours, dude, I’m so ready for this! You ready for this, huh?”

Cliff didn’t answer. He looked at the black desk phone in front of him and then swung his head around to take in the whole scene. He’d watched the Temple of Harmonious Change Ultimate Promotion Telethon on TV as a kid but now he was behind the scenes. It was exciting and a little bewildering.

Cliff was Green Level 1, having just been hired by the Temple. All GL1 employees were required to work a twenty-four hour shift during the annual fundraising event. That seemed a bit extreme at first until it was explained that they’d be earning standard time and a half after the first eight hours and then double time for the last twelve. That kind of cash shut down any objections; as a twenty-one year old community college dropout, Cliff would do just about anything for a paycheck, even work the phone bank.

Just off the set to Cliff’s right the three employees eligible for the Ultimate Promotion were getting some last minute instructions from the floor manager. Standing near them was a man in a dazzling suit who nodded and smiled at everyone who walked by; he was the CEO of the Temple of Harmonious Change, Charles Stroud. As usual, he’d be the MC during the telethon.

The three lucky employees of the Temple who had been chosen for this honor were dressed according to Temple Dress Code, Casual Friday Style. Stroud turned and motioned towards the three as the floor director finished with them and walked away, muttering into his headset. The three employees huddled with the CEO for possibly the last time; Cliff wondered what he was telling them. Tonight, one of them might be eligible for the Ultimate Promotion and translate to a new and better reality. It was a great honor to be chosen to be one of the three up for the Promotion; Cliff felt a tinge of envy as he watched them prepare.

He knew the process from watching it on TV before; between comedians, live bands, and variety acts Charles Stroud would beg and wheedle and plead for donations to save the lives of his employees.

Not that there was anything wrong with them; they weren’t terminally ill, or in need of an organ transplant. They were, however, willing to kill themselves on live TV by downing a deadly cocktail if the fundraising goals weren’t met.

It was extreme, it was outrageous, it was exactly the kind of thing people couldn’t stop watching, whether they wanted to admit it or not. It raised mad amounts of money for the Temple, despite the highly questionable moral and legal nature of the whole affair. There were numerous court cases pending, accusations of coercion, protracted legal battles with equally determined armies of lawyers on both sides, cease and desist motions approved and denied, and yet every year the show managed to go on.

It was a testament, Charles Stroud would say, to the generous nature of the public that there hadn’t been a single Ultimate Promotion in four years because the financial goals had been met. And when the numbers weren’t met, the consequences were pretty much unforgettable.

Outside, the protesters raised even more racket.

“PLACES, people,” the director screeched as he ran across the set motioning frantically in all directions at once. The candidates moved quickly onto the set and assumed their seats. Charles Stroud stood on his mark beneath the lights, watching the floor manager counting down to zero.

It was time.

“In five… four…”

“This is intense!” whispered the guy with the exploding eyeballs next to Cliff. The house band kicked in, the lights came up on the three Temple employees—looking slightly nervous but smiling gamely—and Charles launched into the first hour of what was known throughout Texas as the Suicide Telethon.

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Reflecting on a Chance Meeting

At the diner this morning
Over coffee and such
I talked with a man filled
With fear of what he didn’t know.

I sensed that in some ways
We were more or less the same
Though our monsters took on
Different forms.

What are these days we spend
Like coins dropped in a fountain
Each one precious and yet forgotten
By the time the ripples reach the edge.

What are we with our scurry here
And there across the face of the clock
Chasing the hands that tell the time
The story finished before it began.

We are the flash in the darkness
Here and gone again
A quiver, a sigh, a blink of an eye
A memory never remembered.

Grandeur is our illusion
Our understanding confusion
Neither here nor there
Creating sense in the void.

What are these days we shuffle
Away and fill with pretense
Fabricated to hold back the dark
Just beyond the edge of the flame.

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An Unexpected Guest at the High Reach

(Authors note: this is a piece of Warhammer 40K fan fiction, and is completely unauthorized. The characters of mine but everything else is from Games Workshop and used without permission. I wrote this because I love their universe and had a story idea that seemed to fit into it.)

 

THE GOLDEN HELMET sat on a shelf in his office. The painted ceramite shell was scratched and burnt, but it had never been repaired.

“Grandfather Brand?” asked the little girl, pointing up at the relic. “Was that your helmet when you were a space pirate?”

“No, child. That belonged to the bravest person I ever knew.”

 

(Many years earlier, 936.M41)

THE DOOR TO the orbital docking station’s hospital ward slid open and Commander Lucius Dhall stepped through with quick but measured steps. He acknowledged the crisp salute from the junior medicae behind the control desk with a curt nod.

“Where is the—,” he paused for a moment to consider the right word, “new patient?”

“Just down the hall, Commander Dhall, in post-op. Follow the—”

“I remember the way well enough; as you were.” Dhall moved past the desk and down the hall. The High Reach, as the docking station was called, had hung far above the planet since long before he was born; as a young man he’d been a patient in this hospital himself, recovering from wounds suffered in action against Dark Eldar pirates or the forces of Chaos.

The guards stationed outside the door snapped to attention when he walked up but he waved them down. “At ease. Is the security chief in there?”

“Yes, sir. And the doctor.”

“No one else enters, understood?”

They nodded and one of them punched in a code on the door. Dhall stepped through the opening and when the door shut behind him, he leaned his back against it. The two warriors outside the door were veterans, crack troops, not just planetary defense trigger squeezers. They were armed and armored with the best tech available, some of it non-human in origin. Dhall had no doubt they could stop anyone from entering the room. However, they could no more stop what was in the room from leaving than a stream of spit could quench a firestorm.

The patient lay on a makeshift bed cobbled together in haste from whatever large objects they could find. The lighting was lower than normal, but the details Dhall could make out from across the room where enough to take his breath away. His eyes roamed over the massive figure, taking in the stunning proportions of arms, chest, and legs. No man he had ever seen could match the dense muscle mass and sheer physicality of the post-human on the bed; the heroic form was clad in sleek body glove; they had not peeled it off when they had removed his body armor.

“Impressive, isn’t it?”

Dhall turned toward the voice. Slouched in a chair, chief of security Lorgo Brand sat with his back to the wall. He held a data slate in one hand and appeared to be unarmed.

“Ah, there you are, Chief Brand. Yes, very impressive. Status?”

“Ask the good doctor.”

Various medical tools had been piled in haste around the bed. Doctor Salvek, who had served on the High Reach for as long as Dhall had been in command, looked up for a moment and waved a hand before turning her attention back to the diagnostic machines.

“I think Dr. Salvek has found a new favorite subject,” Brand whispered. “The physiology of our guest has her in a state of giddiness I haven’t seen since we brought her that dead space elf.”

“I see. That doesn’t answer my question, however.”

According to this,” the chief tapped the data slate with his fingers, “our guest is in remarkable health for someone who has been in the warp for what appears to be close to three hundred standard years. All organic systems that can be measured—even the redundant ones—are functioning normally. Brain wave patterns indicate he has recovered from his extended rest faster than anyone could have predicted.”

“So… is he awake?”

“Of course.”

“Then what is he doing?”

“Gathering data, assessing the situation, planning a course of action, and in all probability, deciding who he is going to kill first; I don’t want to brag, but I like to think I’m on top of a short list of you, me and the doctor. We may speak freely; there is little we can say that he will not eventually learn.”

“Any idea what his name is?”

The chief shrugged. “No. Captain Pintado’s crew was in and out of that ship so fast they barely had time to wipe their boots. They thought it was haunted. In their considerable hurry to leave, they failed to gather anything useful except what I sent you in the report, Commander. I assumed that you took a moment out of your incredibly busy schedule to read it?”

Dhall nodded. “Your efficiency is noted, Chief Brand, as is your undying sarcasm.”

“We all have our little hobbies. So have you ever seen one of them before?”

“An Astartes? No, unless you count those corruptions that vomit forth from the Eye, and if I never see one of them again it will be too soon. But no, certainly not, not out here. Even in the worlds of the Imperium, generations of entire sectors could live and die without ever seeing them. I’ve heard the stories, of course. Terribly frightening… seeing one for myself is certainly… enlightening.”

“How dare you speak of me as if I was not here,” the patient said in flawless Low Gothic. His voice, though ragged, was deep and resonate; Dhall fought a momentary urge to snap to attention.

Chief Brand shrugged and sat up. “I suppose the time has come to make contact. Let’s go say hello.”

They took a few steps forward but stopped when the huge man swung sideways out of the bed, planted his feet on the floor and stood up. The doctor stepped back and clicked her tongue in dismay. The Space Marine was half a head short of the ceiling, which was three meters high; he was as broad as three men standing side by side.

“Where am I?” he demanded.

“In the hospital of the orbital docking station above our home plant of Hardoon,” Dhall replied.

“Hardoon… never heard of it. What segmentum is this?”

“On Imperium star charts this is Segmentum Obscurus.”

“Obscurus… the Eye of Terror!”

“Yes, though that blight on reality is several hundred light years from us.”

The warrior crossed his massive arms across his chest. “You are not wearing the uniform of the Imperial Navy.”

Dhall could feel Brand tense up next to him. This was a critical moment. The legendary Adeptus Astartes—the Emperor’s Space Marines—were absolute fanatics devoted to the superhuman being who founded their order more than ten thousand years ago. During the Great Crusade, while the Emperor was reclaiming the galaxy from the Long Night, many worlds that had failed to accept compliance with the new order were crushed by the uncompromising power of the Imperial Army, Navy, and the Space Marine legions. To be outside the Imperium was to be a heretic and subject to extermination.

“That is true, we are not part of the Imperial Navy.”

“Then this planet is not part of the Imperium?”

“No, it is not.”

There was a long pause. The Astartes before them was not immortal; he had superior strength, size, and combat abilities, but without his power armor and weapons that made him a force of destruction the equal of a hundred or more soldiers, he could be killed. It was improbable that he would be able to escape the docking station alive if he chose to fight. Dhall hoped he wouldn’t, but it was out of his hands at that moment. Many of the men and women on the station would die before it was over, and Dhall would be responsible and he would probably pay for it with his life.

The Space Marine lowered his head for a moment and then looked up and met every eye in the room; then, with deliberate slow movements, he settled his titanic bulk on the makeshift bed, which sagged and groaned under his weight.

“As a scout marine, I was taught that making a decision in haste is to invite error, and errors have a way of becoming deadly,” he said. “What is your name and rank, then?”

“I am Lucius Dhall, Commander of the orbital docking station designated The High Reach. This is my security chief, Lorgo Brand.” Both men saluted and the Space Marine nodded in return. “And this is Dr. Salvek, in charge of monitoring your recovery. Sir, the circumstances that brought you here are—peculiar. We don’t even know your name.”

“I am Oban Scia, 4th Company of the Golden Gryphons.” Oban cast a cold eye on Chief Brand. “You were correct in your assumption, Lorgo Brand. My assessment was that your immediate demise was essential to my survival.”

Brand shrugged. “It’s good to be recognized for something around here.”

Oban Scia gestured to the chairs against the far wall. “Sit down. As you appear to be willing to communicate and you mentioned peculiar circumstances, I would hear more of why I am here. What of the ship and the rest of the 4th Company?”

“Do you require any—refreshments?” asked Dhall as he dragged up a chair. “I apologize for not knowing what your physical requirements may be. We have never encountered one of the Astartes in our—unique position here.”

“Water will be fine.”

“Water we have.” Dhall took the data slate from Brand and in minutes an orderly appeared, dragging a barrel of water on a wheeled lift and the largest drinking vessel they could find. It was still dwarfed by Oban Scia’s hand.

“Where are your servitors?” the Space Marine asked after he’d gulped down several liters of water.

“We don’t have them and we don’t use them.”

“Unusual. Why not? They are quite useful.”

“They are considered unethical by our government.”

“How quaint! But we are getting ahead of ourselves. We can dissect your undoubtedly vile heresies later. There are many questions yet unanswered. How is it that I am here?”

Dhall nodded. “Let me explain. We exist in a precarious place, in an eddy of a warp storm that both protects us and puts us in constant danger. We are vigilant and patrol the edges of the storm with our ships, and fend off the attacks of Chaos and others when they come. A few days ago, a frigate on patrol came upon a ship as it emerged from the storm, which was unusual enough. It was an Imperial Navy transport ship but appeared to be derelict and without a crew, which was even more unusual. Yet they detected the weak signal of a power source and decided to investigate and found you in a drop pod; there were others, but they were all dead.”

Oban Scia made the sign of the Aquila, the double eagle. “My brothers,” he intoned. “Emperor, look after them.” He was quiet for a long time but when he spoke again, it was as if he had already put it behind him. “You said something earlier about three hundred standard years. Is that right?”

“As far as we can tell, but time displacement in the warp even under the best circumstances can be very random. Do you remember where you and the rest of your Company were being deployed? Why were you in a drop pod, if the ship was still in transit?”

Oban Scia was silent for a long time. “Strange… but I cannot seem to remember…” he paused. “I was unconscious when found?”

Brand nodded. “That’s what they reported.”

Dr. Salvek had stayed out of the way but now spoke up. “If I may?” Dhall nodded. “It was more than just unconsciousness, sir. When they brought you in, it was as if you had been in stasis, almost as if you were… frozen in time. Quite fascinating from a medical perspective, really; however, there were no signs of trauma, at least not from what I could determine.”

Oban Scia frowned. “That is hardly comforting, doctor. Commander, the best course of action would be to return me to the Imperium as quickly as possible. Segmentum Obscurus is heavily reinforced. There must be a sub-sector station relatively nearby.”

Dhall hesitated and Lorgo Brand spoke up. “That may be the logical course of action, but I’m afraid we can’t do that. We are, as noted, both hidden and protected by the warp storm that surrounds this system. We have no way of getting you out.”

Oban Scia’s face almost creased into a smile. “Chief Brand, I have no doubt you are good at security, but you are a terrible liar. You have interstellar capabilities, warp storm or not. How do you do it?”

“I can’t…”

“An Eldar warp gate?” Oban Scia nodded. “Your reaction tells me all I need to know. Not just heretics, but dealing in xeno tech as well. You deserve whatever punishment the Inquisition decides to mete out. I would not doubt that your planet is tainted with Chaos as well. You may well be facing Exterminatus.”

Dhall threw up his hands. “Brilliant. This is exactly why we can’t just turn you over to the Imperium. You’ll destroy us all. I should have had them jettison you into space.”

Oban Scia did not react but Chief Brand’s face fell. “Uhm, Commander, I wouldn’t suggest using that tone with the incredibly dangerous Space Marine in close proximity to us both. You know? The one who could beat us to death with our own torn off limbs?”

“In fact, he’s right about jettisoning me,” Oban Scia said. “That’s exactly what he should have done. Saving me has doomed this system in one way or another.”

“What do you mean?” Brand asked.

“I believe you were meant to find me and bring me on board; some other hand is at work here.”

The commander shook his head. “I still don’t understand what you’re suggesting.”

Oban Scia sighed. “Don’t be so short sighted, commander. Your enemy—whoever it may be—has cleverly played upon that most human of reactions: compassion. Who else knows I’m here?”

“The captain and the boarding crew; the doctors who treated you; an engineering team that looked you over; the security team. And the two of us,” Dhall counted them off. “Why?”

“You haven’t notified anyone else?”

“No, Chief Brand thought it would be best if we held our report until after we’d met with you.”

“Perhaps that was wise. Perhaps not. There are too many variables at play. But we must assume that my sudden reappearance was a tactical decision, not just an accident of fate.”

Dhall frowned. “Aren’t we assuming an awful lot? This all sounds like paranoia run amok.”

“We have to trust him,” Brand said.

“Why?”

“Because he is an Adeptus Astartes and we don’t have much choice.”

Dhall stood up. “I believe I have a report to file. The government will need to know what we have done and decide on the proper course of action. Chief Brand, will you make sure our guest has the accommodations he needs?” He saluted Oban Scia once more, turned on his heel, and strode out.

Silence settled over the room as the two regarded each other.

“How do you know when I’m lying?” Brand asked.

“I have enhanced abilities that are not merely physical. During the transition and training, my powers of observation and intuition became highly developed. You are like an unlocked data slate.”

“How… useful.”

“It can be.”

“Oban Scia, are all Astartes like you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You seem unusually restrained considering the circumstances.”

“How else should I be? There is nothing to do now but wait and gather more information.” He drank more water. “Many questions are as yet unanswered and now is not the time for fruitless action. There were undoubtedly be time for fighting… there always is.” He stood up again. “Is there an observation deck? I would like to see this planet and hear more about it.”

“Doctor?”

“Lord Scia knows himself better than I do. If he is able, I couldn’t stop him,” she said with a heavy sigh.

Brand nodded. “Let me just get my team to clear everyone out first. No need to start a riot, which is certainly what would happen if they saw you.” He made a quick call on his communicator.

“Why?”

Brand shrugged. “The shadow of the Imperium looms large, Oban Scia. We are well aware of our supposed heresy, we understand what would happen if we were brought under the scrutiny of the Inquisitors, and what the punishment would be if we failed to comply.” He listened for a moment to the voice in his ear. “Follow me, sir.” They left the hospital wing and walked through deserted corridors. Oban Scia assessed the two guards who fell in behind them at a respectful distance.

“It is the way of things, Lorgo Brand. The way of the Imperium of Man.”

“Yes, perhaps. But we have managed our own affairs for too long to be easily drawn back into what is—if you’ll pardon the expression—a decaying dictatorship.” He held up his hand as Oban Scia’s eyes tighted.  “No disrespect intended. However, nothing we have learned or accomplished over the thousands of years we’ve been out here could stop you, the Imperial Army, or the Legions from wiping us clean. It is disquieting to exist between two such imposing forces, Chaos on one side, the Imperium on the other.”

They arrived at the observation deck. Several large windows looked out onto the planet below them; they were in geosynchronous orbit over a large ocean, across which several active weather systems leisurely moved.

Oban Scia nodded as he gazed upon the planet. “This is an unfortunate circumstance, to be sure. There is much about the Imperium I think you do not understand, however.”

Brand nodded and waved at the window. “Agreed; as there is much about life on Hardoon you do not know about, and possibly never will.”

“You are an impertinent creature, Chief Brand. It is an annoying quality.”

“Well, thanks for not killing me so far, Oban Scia of the Golden Gryphons.”

“The day is young. Tell me about how your people came to be here.”

Chief Brand leaned against the bulkhead. “A colony ship, launched thousands of years ago and promptly lost in warp space, an accident which, as far as our ancestors could tell, went all but unnoticed in the grand scheme of things. These things happen, right? Traveling in warp space is not guaranteed to be anything but dangerous. The ship managed to survive the transition out of warp space but ended up far beyond human controlled space. They should have died out there.”

“What happened?”

“Eldar, or so the legend goes; they came on board and directed the ship to a warp gate, on the other end of which was this system. It was habitable and, lucky for our ancestors, not overrun by orcs or any other xenos; there were ruins of a previous civilization but they were long gone. Why the Eldar helped I don’t know. This was so long ago that it is more myth than history. The ship landed and they set up a colony. It was modestly successful over time, as you can see.”

“Space flight, orbital stations—no need to diminish your accomplishments. But I sense there is more to your success than just hard work. Many colonies devolve into a feral, primitive state without, and sometimes even with, contact with the rest of humanity. The self-styled Children of the Stars, the Eldar, barely acknowledge humans and then only with contempt. Why would they help your ship to this place, and then continue to nurture what for them can only be a blight upon this world?”

“How did you know—”

“The guard’s weapons are not so subtle variations of typical Eldar armament. It doesn’t take much extrapolation to understand they have been helping your people.” Oban Scia pressed his lips together in a hard line. “As I suspected, your beautiful world is the product of heinous xeno interference.”

“I don’t understand why that’s so bad. We have had to fight for our existence without the benefit of the protection of the Imperium, and we’re still here. Do you know what it’s like to suffer through outbreaks of murderous warp beasts and incursions of Dark Eldar pirates?”

“I have done nothing but fight my entire life, Chief Brand.”

“Right, okay, you might understand. I get that. But why is it so important that the how of what we’ve done is somehow more important that the fact that we’ve done it?”

“I wouldn’t think you would struggle to come to the obvious conclusion, Lorgo Brand.”

“We’re dangerous, I get that as well. But we are also in the middle of a warp storm which shows no sign of weakening, ever. We are all but cut off from the rest of the galaxy.”

“Except you are not. You know how to use the warp gate.”

“We have limited access to the gate. Using it is dependent on an Eldar being here, and they are inconsistent.”

“The Eldar are using you for their own ends.”

Brand hesitated for a moment but then nodded. “Yes, that’s the only conclusion I can come to as well. They don’t ask anything from us, and we have populated this world and built up a sizeable military presence.”

“Enough of an irritant that one of your enemies decided it was worth killing off my entire Company and planting me here. Tell me—and speak the truth—is this station a key component to your planetary defense?”

“Yes, it is. There are other stations but they all are tied into this one. If we fall, our planetary defenses would be stricken.”

He shook his head. “It’s a fundamental tactical error to have your defense hinge on a single point. Has the High Reach been attacked before?”

“Yes, on several occasions. We’ve had incursions from within—Chaos corrupted who opened portals to hell—and from without, both from the Dark Eldar and forces of Chaos. But it is mostly the Dark Eldar who prey on our ships. Chaos has attacked the planet itself, and we expend much energy rooting out cultists from our population.”

The Astartes nodded. “The eldar have formed a buffer here. The fact that the forces from the Eye of Terror have not simply descended on this planet and taken it, and that the Dark Eldar stay away, should be a warning to you; there is something here. The eldar are unwilling or unable to protect it themselves but they also do not want to give up whatever it is without a fight. You stated there were ruins here when you arrived.”

“We never had the resources to identify them. From what I’ve seen, they’re not eldar. Something older, perhaps. I don’t know. I’m a military man, not a scientist.”

Oban Scia was quiet for such a long time that Brand began to wonder if he’d fallen asleep on his feet. He’d heard the Space Marines were capable of resting like this, recovering while still conscious. When Oban Scia finally spoke again, it was preceded by something that could almost have been a sigh.

“Lorgo Brand, despite the deep and obvious flaws of the very existence of this planet and all these people, I find myself feeling something almost like sympathy for our plight. You have been toyed with by forces far beyond your understanding. How you have managed to survive ten standard years, late alone several thousand, I cannot imagine, except that it was not by your own doing, given the corrupting presence of those wretched xenos. And now, I am here; I represent your doom one way or another. Pity! You would have made good citizens of the Imperium, after you had been thoroughly cleansed and re-educated, of course.”

“I can’t say that your grim outlook on things is exactly uplifting.”

“It is the way of it.”

“You keep saying that. You know, you’re not exactly what I expected.”

“What did you expect? A mindless killing machine?”

“Well… yes, in fact. There are so many stories…”

“We have existed for more than ten thousand years, long enough for a true mythology to be created. We are revered and at the same time feared. But before we are transformed, before we become this,” he indicated his own massive form, “we were all human. We are not perfect. We are not gods, though we are worshipped as such. We are flawed and on occasion, there is the rumor that we have been known to make a mistake.” Something almost like a smile flirted on his lips. “My brain is not just for fighting; I am well read, for instance. I enjoy quiet contemplation on the nature of the universe and all the incredible things I have seen with my own eyes. But when the time comes, yes, I strike like the weapon I was designed to be. You haven’t truly lived until you bring death from above to some xeno civilization.” He paused. “You appear to be unhappy, Lorgo Brand,” Oban Scia said.

Brand struggled to reset the look of horror on his face. He blinked slowly and looked down on his planet once again. “I have served up here on The High Reach for many years, and before that, I was a solider. I’ve killed my fair share. But I never took any great pleasure in it.”

“Killing is merely the road to the pleasure of victory. One cannot be achieved without the other. Let me ask you this. What do you think will happen next here? If I were placed here—and I believe I was—what’s the next move?”

“Why are you asking me?”

“For a human, you seem to possess a certain duplicitous guile. Indulge me.”

Brand thought for a moment. “If it were me, once I had inserted my asset, I’d want to take advantage of the asset.” He paused. “Uh, I’d want the asset to be as strong as possible before deploying it, to maximize the damage when I did pull the trigger.”

“Good. Continue.”

The chief warmed to the subject. “I’d frame an attack in such a way that the asset would be seen as indispensable, and that giving him what he needs to be most effective would seem like the only possible option. And then I’d…”

Oban Scia nodded. “Yes?”

“I’d unleash the asset… oh, frag. It’s going to be here, isn’t it… because of what else was recovered from the ship.”

“You have my armor and weapons.”

Brand nodded. “You were wearing it; and the pod was loaded with your bolter, a chain sword, and ammunition. The boarding party slung it all onto lifters and got out of there. It never crossed my mind to question why it was all so easily available.”

“It is all quite reasonable,” Oban Scia said. “How did you remove my armor? It usually requires several specialists, trained and well equipped.”

Chief Brand replied with as straight a face as he could manage. “We’ve got some intuitive engineers on this station. They enjoyed the challenge.”

“Tech-priests?”

“Something like that.”

“Interesting. I’d like to meet them. Let’s get back to the impending doom ready to fall on us at any moment.”

“It won’t happen right away,” Brand said after a moment. “They’ll want us to accept you and allow you to earn our trust. And we will do this because…” he struggled to find the right way to say it.

Oban Scia shrugged. “What choice do you have? As you said before, I am Astartes.”

“But I don’t understand. There is nothing about you that would indicate you are anything other than what you claim to be.”

“We must assume I have not merely been floating around in the void of the Immaterium for the last three hundred years. I may have been the guest of enemies not just of the Imperium but of all mankind. In all probability I have been manipulated, and even my own Chapter Librarian might lack the skill necessary to understand what has been done.”

“But I do,” said a voice inside their heads.

Oban Scia growled as he turned. “Eldar. I should have known you wouldn’t be far from your charges.”

Chief Brand turned as well and his eyes widened. He was aware, on a practical level, that there was a certain level of continued cooperation between the eldar and the planet Hardoon; it was quite another thing to see one standing a few meters away from him. She was tall and clad in black highlighted by bone white, her face hidden by the smooth face of a helmet. “A Space Marine and an eldar all in one day,” Brand muttered. “I really have seen everything.”

“She is here on our behalf, Oban Scia.” Commander Dhall stepped forward. “As you mentioned, given the unusual nature of your arrival, it may be best if all parties were involved. She may be able to help.”

“If you think I’m going to let that alien root around in my brain, you are quite mistaken,” Oban Scia snapped. “The eldar are treacherous and deceitful beyond all human comprehension.”

“Oban Scia of the Golden Gryphons,” the Eldar said, “I am Cynbel of Ulthwé. Your instincts are correct; we know your abduction and sudden reappearance near this planet are part of plans set in motion long ago.”

The Astartes crossed his arms over his chest. “Your Farseers have already determined how this will end? Why not enlighten the rest of us mammals as to what is about to happen?”

“Many outcomes are possible, and you are a focal point upon which these possibilities turn. Know this: the mark of She Who Thirsts is upon you, the taint of her manipulations oozes from your mind.”

“I feel nothing of the sort.”

“And yet you have already deduced that I speak true.”

Commander Dhall met Chief Brand’s gaze and rolled his eyes. “Cynbel, is it possible to remove or repair what has been done to Oban Scia?”

“We had hoped it would be so, but now that I have examined him, it could not be done without destroying him in the process. I have been instructed by my Farseer to avoid harming him at all costs.”

“You have meddled with these people for thousands of years, and I demand to know why,” Oban Scia snapped. “What is so important on the planet that you would use humans to protect it? Or will you not tell me?”

“You wouldn’t understand even if I was allowed.”

The giant man scoffed. “Exactly what I expected.” He turned to the two men. “You see? This is what you get trafficking with the eldar; secrets within secrets, lies and obfuscations. They will use you for their own designs and you may never know why.”

Cynbel moved across the space between them. Brand had fought against the Dark Eldar pirates and was aware how fluid their motions were, but this was different somehow. She made a simple act otherworldly. She stood in front of Oban Scia; they were almost equal in height. She reached up and removed her helmet. Brand gulped. She was both very inhuman and very beautiful. Oban Scia stared at her, his face unreadable. Brand wondered just for a moment what it would be like to watch these two beings, one a monument of strength and the other the paramount of grace, both bred for war and destruction, join together in a moment of peace and dance together. The thought made him grin and chuckle, but when the two mighty beings turned and stared at him he shuffled his feet and tried to regain a stern, neutral face.

“Sorry,” he muttered.

The two warriors looked at each other for a long time without saying a word. Whatever passed between them, it wasn’t communicated openly. Dhall and Brand looked at each other but said nothing. Brand glanced out of the observation port at the planet—his planet—turning slowly in the dark of space. He felt a sudden rush of fear and sadness, the grim certainty that whatever was going to happen would determine whether or not they survived.

“We don’t have much time, do we,” Oban Scia finally said.

“Not as you understand it, no,” Cynbel nodded. “We can’t stop what is about to happen anymore than we can stop the movement of the stars.”

“What do we do, then?”

She settled the helmet back over her head. “Prepare for war, Oban Scia, the last warrior of the 4th Company, Golden Gryphon Chapter of the Adeptus Astartes, and make Chaos regret again using your Emperor’s finest for their own designs.”

“What happens when they pull the trigger inside me?”

“That has yet to be determined.” She turned and stalked away.

“And if it is bad?” he asked.

Cynbel didn’t break stride. “Then I will destroy you,” her voice said in Oban Scia’s head. She and Commander Dhall exited the observation deck.

“You can try,” Oban Scia growled. He turned to Lorgo Brand. “Perhaps I should get acquainted with your engineers and see if they can figure out how to install my armor.”

“I thought we agreed that was the last thing we wanted?”

“The eldar said to prepare for war. I’m not going into battle in this.”

 

THE ALARMS began to sound as they adjusted and bolted the last pieces of plate armor into place. Oban Scia stepped forward and flexed his arms.

“Impressive,” he admitted. “For mere humans, of course. How did you know?”

“The attachments and interface beneath your skin are ingenious, but also quite intuitive,” said Laurant, the main engineer. “I wish we had more time to study it. But I could suggest a few improvements…”

Oban Scia narrowed his eyes. “I’m sure you could. Keep your ideas to yourself.”

The engineers inclined their heads and stood back to admire their work. In his full plate, painted gold and black, Oban Scia was unlike anything they had ever seen. He picked up his chainsword and cycled the power; the vicious weapon snarling to life as he cut the air with it.

“Is my bolter cleaned and ready?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.” He powered down the chainsword and attached it to the clips on his back, listening to the alarms going off.  “It sounds as if it’s time to use it.”

 

“WE’VE HAD incursions on decks eight, twelve and fifteen, mostly just imps but a few of those flame belching horrors as well,” Brand said. “So far my squads, with some help from Cynbel’s Guardians have been able to handle it.” The two men were in the High Reach’s control room, surrounded by screens that showed a station on lock down on the inside and high alert in the space around it.

Dhall nodded. “What about Oban Scia?”

“We’re holding him in reserve for now, as agreed. He’s spoiling for a fight, though; it’s going to be hard to hold him back if it gets worse… when it gets worse.”

“How are they getting in?”

Brand sighed. “Chaos finds a way, doesn’t it? A few of the new crew, just up from Hardoon, were cultists. Portals opened… well, inside of them. At least we won’t have to worry about them, they disintegrated as the demons came out.”

Dhall nodded. “The fleet is assembling as ordered. I don’t think we’re done here, not by a long shot. But if they send those giant battleships, I don’t know if we’ll be able to hold out for long without help. And as it has been explained to me, help isn’t available.”

“I don’t get it. How can they navigate through the warp storm?”

“They can’t, at least not very well, no more than we can. It’s been hundreds of years since one of their big ships made it through, and we barely handled that one.”

“What does the government say?”

Dhall shrugged. “They’re sending up troops but we shouldn’t expect them for at least a day. Until then, they reminded us of our duty and told us to serve with honor,” he said.

“That’s cold comfort.”

Dhall nodded and pointed to one of the screens, a display of the ships protecting the High Reach. “Massive warp signature detected.” He spoke to his captains. “All ships, key in on whatever comes through. Don’t let it through to the station.”

Brand talked to his captains on the micro-bead communicator. “High alert, all stations prepare to repel boarders.”

 

CAPTAIN PINTADO cursed. He couldn’t see the ship coming out of the warp, and from the readouts he saw, he didn’t want to. It was huge, at least a cruiser, maybe a battleship.

“How soon before we have a firing solution?”

“Working on it now, sir; it hasn’t even finished translating into real space.”

“Let me know the second we’re ready to fire.” Captain Pintado flicked a switch. “All ships of Hardoon, this is Captain Pintado. Target is emerging from warp. You can’t miss it. If you do, we’re all dead. Shoot straight and let’s give these bastards a reason to remember us.”

“Sir! The warp hole collapsed!”

Captain Pintado turned back to the screens. “I’ll be damned!” he roared. Three quarters of the ship had come through but the rest of it had simply vanished. “It’s got no engines! It’s dead in space! All ships, fire at will! Fire at will!”

The smaller ships of the Hardoon Navy circled around the stricken ship, reactive shells and missiles smashed into the collapsing shields and then into the hull. There was plenty of bite left in the Chaos ship, however. It launched its own missiles and shells, and Hardoon ships shuddered and broke apart, sending men and broken parts of the machines tumbling into the cold of space. Smaller ships launched off the flight deck of the Chaos vessel, twisting and sliding between incoming and outgoing salvos.

“Captain!”

“I see them,” Captain Pintado said. “Concentrate fire on the big ship and warn the High Reach that they’re about to have company.”

 

THE ONES that got through the station’s defenses locked and sealed onto the station hull in a dozen places; as they cut through the walls, some of the seals failed and explosively decompressed, sending the ship and the contents of the deck spinning into space until emergency hatches sealed off the compromised areas. But what poured through the holes they cut was the stuff of nightmares, the Legion of the Damned. What had once been humans, still wearing the remnants of their Imperial Guard uniforms but twisted and grotesque caricatures of life, came out dealing death. They surged down corridors and through the docking bay, faces distorted in the flickering emergency lights, killing anything in sight.

Yet on every deck, the inhuman surge broke against a wall of superheated plasma, pinpoint laser fire, and clouds of subsonic shuriken, the Guardians of Ulthwé working with Brand’s defenders. The Legion of the Damned were cut to pieces and still they came, bodies fueled by hellish energies, unwilling to go down even as the flesh was scoured from their melting limbs.

Brand monitored the fight from the control room. “It’s a stalemate, but we’re killing more of them than they are. They’re contained.”

Dhall shook his head. “I don’t think so. They’re just being used to set up something else.”

Cynbel nodded. “The commander is right. Something else lurks behind these meat puppets. Something is driving them but is staying out of our sight. It is on the station and looking for something… where is Oban Scia?”

Chief Brand checked a data slate. “The tracker we put on his suit is no longer functioning. Alpha, this is Brand. Alpha?” He looked at the eldar. “The squad I assigned to him is not responding.”

“We must find the power behind this attack There we will also find our Astartes.” She was gone in seconds, her squad of black-clad Guardians just behind her.

Dhall shook his head. “What are you waiting for? Go after her!” He paused. “Do you hear that? What is that… it sounds like…”

Brand blanched. “It sounds like pain.”

 

THE SCREAMS seemed to come from everywhere. Throughout the corridors and decks of the High Reach, men and women shuddered and moaned, desperate to stop the hellish chorus.

Cynbel and her warriors methodically searched for the source, wiping out any resistance they met as they moved from deck to deck, until they reached the hospital ward. Brand and his men were shaken but still functional; they crouched behind the eldar and covered the rear.

She led them inside. The stench of death and decay, rot and ruin, was overwhelming. They cleared room after room until there was only one left, and it was from there the terrible screams emanated.

“What is that?” Lorgo Brand asked, fighting the physical revulsion brought on by the sound.

“It is the Choir of Aberrance,” Cynbel said. “They follow their master into battle.”

“Their master… what is that?”

“A worshipper of She Who Thirsts, a degenerate warp creature you would call a Noise Marine. You and your men are not prepared for this, Lorgo Brand. You will be torn apart by what is inside. That you have come this far is a testament to your courage but you should return to command and wait for our return.”

Brand was about to answer but the doors slid open and a walking nightmare was upon them. Brand scrambled backward as the massive figure, clad in armor garishly adorned with nauseating symbols and patterns painted in purple, pink and black, launched into the eldar host.  The noise that came from it was not just debilitating, it was deadly. Several of Brand’s men erupted in fountains of blood, their organs ruptured and bones breaking by the sonic assault. Behind the terrifying Chaos Marine, pulled by chains attached to him, was the Choir of Aberrance, slaves of different species, their bodies pierced with multiple hooks and their unholy screams of abject pain and agony amplified by vox speakers to unbearable volume.

The remaining humans retreated but the Guardians and Cynbel stepped forward. Brand felt the air shift as she unleashed her psychic fury, staggering the mutated giant and momentarily silencing the howling that seemed to come from its helmet. The Guardians circled behind and filled the air with wave after wave of shuriken that methodically slaughtered the choir, silencing them for once and ever. Enraged, the Noise Marine swept his sonic blaster over them, and several eldar were broken and torn apart. The others fell back.

Cynbel kept the giant off balance with successive psychic attacks as they dueled, but the beast of Chaos showed no signs of weakening. Every moment they fought, the energy unleashed shook and rattled the entire deck.

Brand was still backing away when one of his men went down, hit from behind. He wheeled around and found himself face to face with a corrupted servant of Chaos. They fired simultaneously and Brand felt an impact on his shoulder, but the face in front of him vanished in an explosion of blood and bone.

“Behind us! Turn and fight!” he screamed.

There was nowhere to go. The Sonic Marine pushed Cynbel steadily back and the Legion of the Damned kept them from retreating. They were caught between two forces who wanted nothing more than to see them dead. Brand and his men battled with the intensity of men with no options left to them but fight or die.

The far door to their rear exploded inward and a massive shape in golden power armor charged through. Oban Scia crashed into the rear of the former Guardsmen like a whirlwind of death, chainsword in one hand and bolter in the other, the eyes of his helmet glowing green in the half light of the hallway. He swept through them in moments, a river of blood and broken bodies in his wake.

“Hold fire! Hold fire!” Brand shouted, one arm dangling useless at his side. The Astartes stalked past them and the remaining Guardians to smash with full force into the Chaos Marine, the impact so forceful it knocked Brand off his feet. Cynbel and her Guardians stepped back; her armor was shredded and she bled from several wounds.

Oban Scia hammered at his foe with his chainsword, the whirling blade striking sparks off the corrupted armor with every blow. The Chaos Marine blocked and struck back, an insane howl coming from helmet and vox speakers attached to its shoulders. Oban Scia forced it back, step by step, until it was forced to kick aside the ruined bodies of the hellish choir.

Chief Brand winced as the pain from his wounded shoulder seeped into his consciousness. He wanted nothing more than to run. Every instinct in his body begged him to flee. The noise coming from the Chaos warrior was beyond anything a normal person could stand, a cacophony so demented it ripped at his sanity.

Cynbel’s voice spoke in his mind. “Lorgo Brand! Flee now! Whatever is going to happen to Oban Scia will happen soon!”

“But he’s winning!”

Oban Scia had the Chaos Marine on the defensive, blow after blow chipping away at the armor. The wretched horror stumbled on a body beneath his feet and his guard dropped; Oban Scia swung a mighty blow sideways across the helmet, biting into it with a terrific screech of metal against metal, cutting through the adamantium and plasteel to the corrupted flesh beneath, until smoke poured out of the tortured blade and it could do no more. But the damage to the helmet was enough to shut off the bizarre howling and expose part of the face beneath. As the noise sputtered out, Brand’s head began to clear.

Distorted laughter filled the sudden silence.

“Why… why is it laughing?” Brand whispered.

“Go ahead, so-called Space Marine, slave to the corpse of the Emperor,” the beast screamed, the words spit from a twisted, fang filled mouth, “you think you can end me? I cannot die! If I fall here, Slaanesh will open the gates of the Palace of Pleasure and Pain for me! Do it, if you dare!”

Oban Scia shoved the hot barrel of his bolter into that offensive mouth, flesh sizzling. The Noise Marine reached up with both hands and locked them around the wrist and forearm of the Golden Gryphon, making it impossible to pull the bolter away.

Brand crawled forward. He saw something, something in the exposed eye beneath the shattered remains of the helmet, something unexpected from a thing so horrible: a desperate pleading. “Cynbel! He must not… that thing’s death is the trigger!”

She turned away from the scene and removed her helmet. “Yes. I can do nothing to stop him,” she said, so quietly Brand almost couldn’t hear her. “This is the moment around which the future of this planet and the secrets it holds turns.”

“Cannot or will not?” Brand yelled.

The look on her face was impossible to read. “Is there a difference?” she asked.

Oban Scia raised his other hand, encased in a ceramite gauntlet, made a fist and smashed it down on the wreckage of the helmet, again and again, until the hands wrapped around his gun arm loosened. He ripped the bolter out of the thing’s mouth and dropped it. He bent down and wrapped his arms around the Chaos Marine. His feet began to move, pulling his semi-conscious enemy across the floor, the Choir of Aberrance dragging behind, still chained to their master.

“Brand!” Oban Scia’s voice hissed in the micro-bead comm unit in the Chief’s ear. “Air lock! The nearest air lock! Have the engineers met us there!”

Brand staggered to his feet. “This way!”

 

THE FLIGHT DECK was damaged, bodies and blood spattered across the floor and walls. But it was still intact.

Laurant and his engineers, along with Commander Dhall had assembled by an air lock and their eyes widened as a strange procession entered from the far side of the deck. Security Chief Brand, wounded and barely able to stand, came in first. A medicae ran over to him but was waved off. Behind the chief was the golden form of Oban Scia, who dragged the Noise Marine and his entire dead and damned retinue behind him. Trailing behind them were the tall, silent eldar Guardians and their leader, the warlock Cynbel.

Oban Scia paused to pummel the wounded Chaos Marine, who had started to struggle, before taking the last few steps. He refused to loosen his grip on his foe, forcing him to his knees.

“Remove my helmet,” Oban Scia said, and the engineers scrambled to release the connections and pulled the golden helmet free, careful to avoid touching the other creature.

Brand gasped. The once noble face showed an incredible strain and appeared to be distorted and changed.

“I can feel it inside me,” Oban Scia grunted. “Every punch I land, as I bring this unholy bastard closer to death, whatever is happening to me accelerates. It won’t be long now.”

“Is there no other way?” Brand asked.

“No. And you know this to be true. Open the inner door.” He waited patiently, face contorted with pain as the crew cycled open the door. “Cynbel of Ulthwé? Will you tell me now?”

She shook her head. “I cannot. She Who Thirsts is in your head. She must not know what we know.”

“Eldar bitch!” he roared, then gasped an apology. “There’s just something inside my head, that’s all. It’s time,” he said. He hauled his ghastly cargo into the lock. Oban Scia stared for a long moment at the humans and eldar on the other side of the heavy door. “Lorgo Brand, I enjoyed our discussion,” he said. “I hope, for your sake and the world you love, that this is worth it. Close it. And Brand…?”

“Yes, Oban Scia?”

“Explosive decompression; it’s the only way to get far enough away from the High Reach.”

The inner doors cycled shut. The engineers made some adjustments and overrode several emergency protocols before they turned to Commander Dhall and nodded.

“Do it,” Dhall said.

The outer doors slammed open. Everything inside the air lock shot out into space above the planet: two armored giants and a gaggle of corpses chained together. Oban Scia, his lungs empty, stuck his bolter in the face of the Noise Marine and pulled the trigger until the clip was empty. There was no sound as the explosive rounds hit, blowing apart the heavily wounded head, the recoil causing Oban Scia to change direction. His body began to expand, an unnatural mass that split apart the golden armor, pseudopods and tentacles exploding into existence, a writhing horror that grew so rapidly it could soon be seen from the High Reach.

That was inside him?” Brand turned to Cynbel, who nodded.

“It would have consumed this whole station and taken down your defense grid,” she said. “In the end, he knew this.”

Dhall was on the communicator with Captain Pintado. “Blow that unholy thing to pieces,” he ordered. Within minutes, missiles streaked in and impacted the every growing monstrosity until all that was left was shattered shards of flesh.

Cynbel walked over to where the golden helmet sat on the ground. She picked it up and stared at it for a long time before she turned to Brand, who was seated on the ground and finally getting his wound triaged. With the slightest bow of her head, she extended the helmet. Brand accepted it with his good arm and immediately set it down next to him.

“It’s heavy,” he said, though the words seemed completely inadequate.

“That’s the burden of courage, Lorgo Brand,” she said. “Pray to whatever gods you worship that you need never lift its weight again.”

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Back on the Bus

Against all odds. A million to one chance. I will never drink again. These are the kinds of things that once said or thought almost guarantee I’ll be doing whatever it is I swore I wouldn’t.

And so it was that I found myself stepping up onto the crosstown express to go back to the old job (temporarily!) I had quit back in April. Before you get all sideways with me, allow me to offer a full lineup of fantastic reasons and excuses.

In the lead-off spot: as a freelance writer, I certainly had the time for it.

Batting second: as a freelance writer I’d made $75 in three months. If it weren’t for my loving and gracious wife I’d have already eaten my shoes and be working on my own big toe.

Hitting third: a break from the routine of writing science fiction would recharge my creative batteries.

At the clean-up spot: I signed a 90 day contract; there will be NO renewal.

Batting fifth: I needed to be reminded of how good I have it as a freelance writer and domestic goddess.

Swinging sixth: it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

Lucky seven spot: bagel Thursday.

Double clean-up: it would be nice to reconnect with my friends.

And in the pitcher’s spot: there is a Barnes and Noble in the mall I can walk to at lunch.

Now two weeks has gone by and I’m… well honestly I could quit any day. The reasons I left are still there and there are even NEW reasons that make it a weird place for me to work. But I’m hanging in there for now and will make good on my promise to help them out of this (temporary!) staff flow issue.

I can’t wait to get back to my novel. Del is editing the eleven chapters I finished so when I do delve back into it I’ll have plenty of changes to help build my momentum.

I don’t even mind being back on this damn bus. I wrote quite a bit while cruising the freeways of northern Virginia (the collected musings of that time are being formed into another book) so in a way, this is a return to something I know well. I even struck up a conversation with the new owners of the coffee shop where the bus picks me up. The circle is complete, and I am both the master and the teacher now.

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Post-Afternoon Storm Thunder

It blew in from the west,
Across the bumpy Appalachians
Headed for the coast and out to sea,
One of those late afternoon boomers
Fed by sunlight and air so moist
It could be slathered on soft bread,
Storm blossoms piled high under
The brilliant azure of the summer sky.
I walked outside and watched the rain
Darken concrete sidewalks and streets,
Soak roots and leaves of parched trees,
A Lazarus rain, bringing life to the
Nearly departed.
But the storm had other places to be,
The big water beckoned, where it could
Become a squall and complete a cycle
Older than the oldest living thing.
And then, as I watched leaves guide the
Last of the rain to the ground,
An unexpected roll and boom of thunder
On the wrong side of the front
Made me jump as it tore the sky,
The slow rhino catching up to the herd.
As the last mutters of thunder slipped
Beyond my hearing I felt sudden affinity
As it seems I’m always chasing life
Down from behind, grumbling about
Opportunities missed, things undone,
Never to be part of the main event but
Still loud and unruly as I try to keep up.

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Internal Politics

Should I listen to that voice
Insistent and cajoling
That tells me I’m no good
A worthless piece of human trash
Because I can’t field a grounder clean
Or fix the washing machine?
Should I listen to the inner monologue
That speaks with shambolic elegance
As it details every moral failure and
Catalogues insensitive actions taken
As I wrestle with the desire to do right
Versus the urge to set the world alight?
I’m not sure which is worse.
I fail and in that moment of failure
I am petrified by consumtive doubt
A cracked vessel unworthy to hold
The dark red wine of my soul.
To hear and to obey is the ingredient
For loyal service but what if the orders
Detail no less than self annihilation?
How loyal am I to the voice in my head
That insists the world would be better
Off if I were dead?
This push me – pull you spirit is
Exhausting and debilitates my
Efficiency as a cog in the social machine.
What to do when the static drowns
Out all the good and right in the world?
Gird up and buckle down and accept
Failure with grace and humility
Ask forgivness from those I wronged
And listen to the voice of reason and
Not the one of dread that beats like a
Drum forever in my head.

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The Empty Spaces

When we were kids, Mom ran her kitchen like the galley on a ship crewed by perpetually hungry sailors.  On her way back from shopping the car horn was her call to arms; the back bumper would scrap bottom as she bounced her station wagon into the driveway, horn blaring.  Dad would muster the troops for one of two jobs Mom sort of trusted us to do right.  He’d march us down to the open tailgate and expedite the transport of the sacks, cartons, boxes and bundles of raw food up the steps, through the back door and into the pantry. We stacked and stored it in accordance to Mom’s elegant but simple organization system, based on her knowledge of library science.

She’d get her kitchen up to full sweat, four burners blazing, grill sizzling, both ovens fired up, a light dusting of flour on everything, the special exhaust fan Dad installed pumping tantalizing smells across the whole neighborhood.  The eye of this aromatic hurricane was the swinging kitchen door; out of it came an endless bounty, satiating the appetites of her husband and three children, their various friends and relations, dinner guests, stray puppies, and anyone else who happened to be nearby when she rang the dinner bell.

Our other job was cleaning up.  I was the youngest and took my place in line as soon as I proved I could carry a dish without dropping it.  Dad managed KP like he did a job on one of his construction sites, while Mom sat out on the screened in porch and smoked one of the three cigarettes she allowed herself and drank a martini so dry it absorbed any tears that may have fallen.  The sweet reek of her Virginia Slims and the sharp, chlorine smell of Comet is mingled in my memory; the sounds of my older sisters splashing each other with soapy water when Dad wasn’t looking; the darkness inside the cabinets where I’d try to hide.

Denise moved out first; she went to college in Chicago only to cycle briefly back into the house post-graduation but left for good when she married Bard—I know, but that’s his name—and moved to California.  Lindsey wasn’t far behind; she married a local boy and had two kids by the time Denise finished school.  Mom helped raise my nieces until Lindsey joined the Army and her little family became military nomads.  The day after I moved out, Dad said Mom stopped making everything from scratch and the kitchen rarely got up to full sweat unless we were in town for the holidays.

I’d been away from home for years when Dad passed.  Mom was there with him at the end and I thought—we all thought—that part of her went with him in his moment of transition; after all, someone had to cook for him.

“You don’t just get over it,” Mom told me one night, on the screened-in porch.  The curling smoke from her cigarette revealed invisible currents swirling around us.  Her hospital bracelet was still around her wrist.  “Your father passed on years ago and I can’t stop talking to him.  He’s with me here, and here,” she said and pressed her long fingers against her chest and forehead, then smiled and in that smile I glimpsed Virginia, before she was Mrs. Carraway, before Denise and Lindsey and me and even Dad; the girl I’d only seen in scrapbook pictures; the girl from Floydada, Texas in her 4H jacket waving a string of trophy ribbons, a smile like pure lightening igniting her face.

After she’d gone to bed that night I sat in the kitchen.  The light above the stove barely pushed back the darkness.  Everything in here felt alien and yet familiar; the same space but somehow sterile, a museum kitchen missing all the essential smells and sounds that without my memories wouldn’t exist at all.

Denise answered on the second ring.

“You said you’d call when you got there.”

“I know, but it was impossible; this is the first I’ve had a chance to catch my breath.”

“Is she home?  How is she?  What did Dr. Li say?”

I sat back in the dining room chair.  “She’s sleeping downstairs.  The ever inscrutable Dr. Li say, ‘Mother in good health and will live long time, dragon sign very strong, you treat her nice or I judo chop your neck!’”

“Oh for God’s sake, David, grow up.”

“I don’t know, Denise, that was pretty much what I got out of it.  You come over and deal with Dr. Li and the health insurance customer service line and all the rest of this crap.”

“Just tell me what he said, minus your infantile racist stereotyping.”

“I’m serious, he said Mom is lucky to be as strong as she is; I think her ego is bruised more than her tailbone.  Dr. Li says what you’d expect him to say: her mobility will continue to decline and she might fall again.  But she’s still Mom; she got in an argument about politics with one of the nurses before I could get her out of there.”

Denise chuckled.  “Did she win?”

“Snapped her like a toothpick.  What do you expect?  I was mortified and proud at the same time.”

“When are you leaving?”

“Sunday.  I’ve got to get back to work; and Molly, if she’s still there.  When are you flying out here?”

“The kids are out of school in two weeks; we’re coming through there on the way to Disney.”

“I heard from Lindsey.”

Denise paused.  “I did too.  She sounded… stressed.”

“She’s not on holiday in Afghanistan, Denise.   I told her Mom fell, but I spared her the details over the phone.  I’ll email her the grim details soon.  She did say she was happy I could be here for her.”

“We all are, David.”

 

Six months later I pulled the rental car into the driveway of our old home.  The air was cold and wet, an early snow covered the ground and flakes scattered under a flint sky as I shut the car door and started toward the front porch.

My nose twitched.  A strong whiff of something smoky and meaty was in the air.  I stopped and looked around; the street was quiet and still, the inside of a gently shaken snow globe.  But then a rush of smells; eggs and grease, ham and bacon, coffee and biscuits and hash browns; I stood motionless, dazed by memories that bloomed under the influence of the intoxicating smell of breakfast coming from Mom’s steaming kitchen vent.

I walked around the house to the back and up the three red concrete steps.  The screen door creaked; the kitchen door glass was slightly fogged.  I knocked on the glass and tried the knob; the door swung open, so I stepped in and kicked off my shoes.  I could see the kitchen was in full sweat, as it were; though I didn’t see Mom anywhere.  But then I heard her laughter coming from the other side of the kitchen door.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get you some more,” her voice rang out, confident and proud.  “There’s always more, Jacob.  I’ll be right back—more tea, anyone?  No?” she said over her shoulder as she walked through the swinging door, a red kerchief holding up her spackled hair, the old apron wrapped around her thin body, a plate full of uneaten breakfast in her hand.  She saw me and froze and for a moment I thought she was going to fall over, like those sheep that go rigid when startled.

“Hi Mom!” I glanced at the pots and pans simmering on the stove.  “Sorry, I didn’t know you had company—sure smells good though.  Smells like chicory, is that French Market coffee, remember how Dad always hated that stuff?  ‘Leave it to the Cajuns to tart up my coffee with nuts’…”  I trailed off, Mom’s eyes were wide.  “Mom?  It’s me…  David?”

“David.”  She blinked.  “Of course, you said you were coming on the phone.  But you can’t stay here.”

“Why not?”

“Because Jacob Valverde is in your old room; you know, since this isn’t your home,” she paused, “anymore.”

“Right, of course, Mom.  But who is Jacob Valverde?  When did he move into the house?  Is he paying rent?  Are you being taken advantage here?  Why didn’t you tell me about this when he moved in?”

“Excuse me,” Mom moved past me and dumped the plate into the sink, flipped on the disposal and jammed the food into the whirling maw with a fork.  She rinsed off the plate, dried it with one of her special kitchen towels, and loaded it up with eggs, ham, bacon—the works.  “I was under the impression that this was my house.  I’m perfectly capable of making decisions regarding my own house.”

“I never said that you weren’t—I’m just wondering what the hell is going on.”  I got a cup down from the cupboard, filled it with coffee.  “I’m thinking I need to meet this Jacob person.”

“Don’t you dare disturb their breakfast!  You just have a sit, I’ll be right back,” she said.  “Fix yourself a plate if you want.”  She marched back through the swinging door.  “Here you are, Jacob, just what the doctor ordered!”

There was real cream in a little ceramic cow on the table; I stirred in a few spoons and added a pinch of sugar.  Curious now, I opened the fridge; it was packed with carefully packaged and dated leftovers.  I sat back down in the same chair I’d sat in months before, the same chair I’d sat in forty years ago and watched Mom perform her daily food miracles.

Mom swung back into the kitchen, plates piled up on her arms like a veteran diner waitress.  “Whew but they can sure put away some chow.”  She scraped the food into the disposal and stacked the plates in the sink.  “Jacob—he’s from Ohio—he’s got a hole in his stomach and a hollow leg; and Kaysa and Fabian—they’re Swedes here on work visas—I swear those two are just horses in human form.”

“So there are three people staying here?”

“Four.  Linda is a little down on her luck and just needs a place to stay until she’s back on her feet.  But breakfast is over and they’ve cleared out.  Come sit with me on the porch, I need my morning smoke.”

The flower patterns on the vinyl cushions were faded yellow-white.  My breath condensed in the air, mingled with the acrid smoke from her cigarette.  A soft wet sizzle filled the heavy air.

“You hear that?” I asked Mom.  “It’s so quiet I can hear the snow hitting the ground.”

Wrapped in a heavy shawl, she nodded and tapped a short column of ash onto the porch, then smeared it with her shoe.  “You remember my friend Mrs. Paulson?”

“Sure I do.  She lives down the street, I dated her daughter.”

“She died.  Cancer.  She was the last one of the old crew on the block.  Two men moved into her house last month and I don’t think they’re roomies, David.  You know what I mean.”

“I’m sure they’re perfectly nice.  Sorry about Mrs. Paulson, she was a nice lady.”

Mom took one last drag and snuffed it in the ashtray at her elbow.  “That’s what she wanted on her stone—‘Here Lies a Nice Lady’.”

I glanced at her and caught the hint of a smile.  “Did you just make a joke, Mom?”

“Just a little one.  Alright, come help me clean up; you do remember how to clean up, don’t you?  Then I might take a little nap.”

 

I checked on Mom; her small body cocooned in her favorite blanket, her breathing steady.  She turned slightly as I watched, burrowed into the folds.  Her breathing deepened.  I turned away and headed for the stairs.

Room promotions had been a big deal.  The first door had been the Domain of Denise, became the Land of Lindsey, and was finally the Den of David.  I stood in the hall at the top of the stairs, a stranger in the house of my youth and memory.

“Ah, hello?” I said and it came out like I was being strangled.  “Jacob and uh… the others?  My name is David Carraway, I’m Virginia Carraway’s son?”  I waited.  “Okay I’m just going to ah, look around—if you don’t mind?”

Only the creaking joists, adjusting to the weight of new snow, answered.

The door to my old room was cracked open; I leaned against it and peeked in.  The bed was made; I stepped through the door.  My old desk had been refinished; the stains and spills that gave it character varnished away.  There were two framed photos on top of the dresser, a handsome, dark haired guy—vaguely familiar—and a portrait of an older woman.  I opened the drawers from top to bottom; t-shirts, shorts, underwear, socks.  In the closet where five pairs of worn jeans, five button down work shirts, two slacks, dress shirts, a tie.  A suit.  Sneakers and loafers on the shoe rack.

I sat down at the desk.  There were no papers, nothing personal; pens and pencils in a brass holder, a drawer full of blank paper.  And in the upper left hand drawer, a Bible.  I pulled it out of the drawer and flipped through the gold-edged pages.  On the flyleaf was a “Property of” stamp and there was his name, Jacob Valverde… written in Mom’s careful, perfect script.

I closed the Bible, put it back in the drawer, and went to inspect the rest of the rooms.

 

Mom was still sleeping so I turned on the TV in the living room, which was nothing but static.  It took several minutes for me to realize Mom had ignored the upgrade to the digital TV signal; she still had the old rabbit ears with a bit of tinfoil wrapped around the top.  I turned off the static and sat on the couch, which had served me well as a frontier fort, a Viking long ship, and a space shuttle when I was a kid and a bower of earthly delights when I discovered girls and Dad wasn’t around.

Dad’s chair, the leather worn in the seat, sat opposite.  The seat of the oracle, my sisters called it.  If he was sitting there—and there wasn’t a Red Wings game on TV—you could ask him anything.  And what would I say tonight, if he were sitting there smelling like sweat and concrete dust, a Schlitz can in his hand?  How to ask him about someone he’d once told me was the heartbeat of his life; how to say she’s not well, Dad, she’s going to need care and support and Denise is in California and Lindsey is somewhere in Afghanistan and my own marriage isn’t exactly the rock I’d want to run to for shelter.

I looked up from the chair; she stood in the entrance to the living room, clutching the picture of the dark haired boy—I recognized him now, a minor movie star—and the Bible.  I stood up and I was boy learning to walk; as I crossed the room I matured; as I wrapped my arms around my mother and hugged her tight, I was a man again.

I whispered, “Dad says to give you this.”

 

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