“Homo sapiens is the ultimate anti-nature species.”

Vignette inspired by: Henry Rollins: America Is Not Designed to Be a Nation of Healthy People, L.A. Weekly, May 23, 2017

 

“How many people are likely to die if we shut down San’cane now, Misch?” Representative Paury asked. She cast a look down the length of the table at the woman with opalescent eyes scanning the tablet computer hovering in the air a few inches over the surface of the table.

“Our best estimate is roughly 3,200,000,” Misch replied. She tapped the screen and eased out a labored breath. “But that’s a conservative guess. This substitute magic system might shut down sooner than we think.”

A man with platinum hair arranged in a business cut over a lightly wrinkled face interlaced his fingers on the table surface. “That’s why we need to initiate the transition as soon as mystically possible, get back to using Nuan’cane.”

“Rubare, most of the citizens in your district can easily afford the new runes and sigils required to use Nuan’cane.” Paury pulled off her glasses and massaged the bridge of her nose. “If you represented people from less wealthy districts, or if you even took the time to learn about people outside of your borders, you would have a firm understanding of just how hard pressed other people are to afford basic health blessings let alone brand new sigils and runes for the same magic system they bought runes and sigils for several years ago.”

An orb of ivory light sparked into existence over the middle of the table, flaring with a glaring, hot pulse that cut off Paury’s next words.

The male with a thick froth of chestnut brown curls streaked with brown-blond pulsing through every strand leaned forward in his high-backed leather executive chair, easing his elbows onto the edge of the table as he curled his fingers into loose fists. “We absolutely cannot afford to get sidetracked digging up old wounds.” He traded a glance between Representatives Rubare and Paury. “Ones that are highly unlikely to be resolved before the end of our current crisis. Now, our best guess puts us at approximately two and a half years before we burn out San’cane. When that happens, all mystically fortified structures in Rallenthou will start to essentially collapse in on themselves. All spells, charms, and blessings will fail; cities lose power; aeromobiles will fall out of the sky; and there will be a massive general panic throughout the entire country.”

“Dominici, Dr. Worth and her team of mysicians informed me that even if we use the entirety of our reserves to pay for the runes and sigils we need manufactured by Centurion Industries, it still won’t be enough to afford all the mystical materials we need to make sure every citizen can go back to using Nuan’cane.” Misch paused and held the man’s gaze. “People are very likely going to die even if we are ahead of that two and a half years deadline.”

Rubare held up a hand, holding back the possibilities inherent in the woman’s words. “Can’t we, I don’t know, set up a payment plan or something for those who can’t afford the new materials?”

Paury opened her mouth to fire off a heated response, stopped when she allowed herself to process his words. Lips pressed closed. She blinked and tried again. “That’s actually not a bad idea.” She turned to Rubare. “I guess I was wrong in thinking you’d lost your heart to a curse.”

The man scoffed, waggled a finger at her. “Don’t think too highly of me, Ariana, payment plans come with taxes.”

“Wait, why would we need to dip into our reserves?” Dominici tapped and swiped at the tablet floating in front of him. Eyes scrolled back and forth. Eyes stopped. “Oh. We spent a great deal of our resources researching a cure for Nuan’cane.” He eased back in his chair, elbows perched on the rests at his side. “Sorry. Seems as though I missed a lot while I was campaigning in Hiwatha. Still catching up.”

Misch glanced up from her tablet. “We also have to think about the fact that while there are more affordable alternatives to Nuan’cane runes and sigils, they might not be fully compatible. And unfortunately, there’s no way to determine the level of compatibility until spells or rituals are attempted, which could end in a disaster.”

“Such as Nuan’cane becoming re-infected,” Rubare pointed out. “I’ve also heard rumblings of the League of Falanfae selling purposefully corrupted sigils in their continued efforts to wipe out all magic in existence.”   

“I hate to heap more bad news on a plate that’s already full, but there’s something else we need to discuss.” The other four Representatives looked down to the end of the table at the woman who had been silent up until now. Her form was concealed within a thick haze of emerald green mist and golden motes that undulated and swirled about her, leaving only her face visible.

“What is it, Kampartinia?” Misch asked.

A hand extended from the hanging haze, an hourglass appearing levitating over her palm. Rich golden sands trickled from the nearly-empty top half to collect on the bottom, particles sparkling and glowing as they caught the light. “Rallenthou’s one-thousand years are almost up. The goddess Cascankari will demand her payment of 1,008 souls for allowing our country use of the Ajin’n Causeway during the Reigning Conflicts.”

The four Representatives held a collective breath, none of them moving or blinking for a handful of seconds.

Dominici was the first to speak up. “As dire as that news is, I’m guessing you have a plan formulating, something that will be of great benefit to us all I hope.”

Kampartinia swiveled her attention to him. “People are likely to die as we transition from the new magic system to the old one, people who were born on Rallenthou soil and are considered acceptable for the debt.”

The remaining Representatives batted glances back and forth, each of them willing the others to break the silence first and speak into existence the idea buzzing in the core of their brains and burning at the tip of their tongues.

Misch was the one to say it: “You want us to purposefully allow people to die to pay a thousand-year-old debt.”  

“Yes,” Kampartinia replied without hesitation, burnished hazel eyes steady and unblinking.

Rubare rubbed a hand over his mouth. “I don’t suppose Centurion Industries can manifest 1,008 souls and add it to our final bill.”

The others looked over at him with expressions wrung dry of all traces of humor.

“I apologize.” Hands lifted. “I often resort to humor in response to such situations.” He closed his eyes and gave his head a slight shake, swallowing the lump in his throat. “We knew we’d have to make choices like this when we accepted our positions as Representatives on the Quintessence Quorum, so we don’t have the right to balk at a decision such as this.” He turned to the others. “How do we willingly allow 1,008 people, possibly more, to die in a way that historians will look back on us and agree we made the best decision possible under our circumstances?”

Paury looked at the images of her district’s citizens floating across her inactive tablet screen. “Not in any way we’ll be proud of.”

“We can use people on death row,” Rubare suggested. “I know some will complain it’s a violation of the prisoners’ civil rights, but we can offer them compensation.”

“Not with the money we need to pay for runes and sigils I pray.” Misch’s eyes glimmered in the overhead lights as she spoke. “Maybe we can see if a few High Mysicians can create golems and switch them out with the real prisoners. It’s far from ethical, but I think we can all agree it’s among the least damning of options.”

Paury shook her head. “We should at least be willing to do that ourselves; no need to drag others down into the tar pit.”

Dominici furrowed his brow. “I highly doubt anyone at this table, other than Kampartinia, perhaps, has the medical sorcery training necessary to create fully functional golems that are exactly identical to their flesh-and-blood archetypes, down to their blood type and DNA. I know I lack the finesse required to wield such intricate magics.”

Kampartinia allowed the hourglass to shimmer out of sight. “Much like the more dangerous circuits of Nuan’cane are sealed from public channeling, the true difficulty tier of medica magicka has been twisted to keep it out of the hands and mouths of the unwary.”

Silence descended, settled and steeped deep in the throats of everyone at the table. Paury was the first to speak up. “Now that we know it’s possible, are we still willing to go through with this, to sacrifice convicted criminals on death row?” She upturned an empty palm. “Even if it turns out some of them are innocent?”

Everyone except for Kampartinia lowered their eyes to the table. Dominici batted out a series of blinks. Rubare tugged at the sleeves of his dress shirt underneath his ivory suit jacket striped with alternating stripes of azure and gold. Paury adjusted her glasses, squinting behind her lenses. Misch divided a glance between her fellow Representatives.

“I can’t conceive of any other viable alternative,” Rubare confessed. “At least not with the timetable we have.”

Misch leaned back in her chair and folded her arms across her chest. “So we use a combination of convicts and marginalized citizens to balance the scales.”

“We can encase any souls that transition from now until Cascankari’s arrival in a Flux, much like we did with Nuan’cane when it first became infected,” Rubare said. “Of course, that means they don’t ascend to the Eicher Fields or descend to Tytyr, but some might feel the sacrifice is worth it for the good of their country.”

“If they knew the sacrifice they were making,” Paury scratched at her forehead with a grimace wrested from the corners of her eyes and mouth. “I’m guessing we avoid any level of disclosure about why we’re willingly allowing people to die. Asking for someone’s life is one thing, but these are souls we’re talking about.”

Dominici reached over and put his hand over hers, squeezing it. “We’re either responsible for the sacrifice of 1,008 souls or every soul in Rallenthou. I’m sure Cascankari won’t take kindly be being denied her rightful due.”

The woman’s jaw flexed as she gnashed down on the bitterness thickening inside her mouth. “It’s not about the numbers, Victor.” She slowly pulled her hand away. “It’s not about the damn numbers.”

“What guarantee do we have that this will be enough?” Kampartinia asked.

“What guarantee do we have that it won’t be too much?” Rubare looked down the table at her. “It already feels like it’s too much. Entirely too much.”

“That’s undoubtedly true, but can you think of anyone better equipped to decide this?” Paury asked him. “Left in the hands of others, the situation might be much, much worse.”

Rubare wiped his hands on his slacks. “Sometimes I wish I’d listened when my father suggested I become a stock magus.”

“Stock magus or Representative,” Kampartinia said, “the bruising wheel of circumstance spares a care for no one.”

“Perhaps, too, exposing Nixon would mean revealing that Johnson had used the FBI to wiretap a presidential campaign.” FINAL PART

Vignette inspired by: When Presidents Are Accused of Crimes, The Daily Beast, April 11, 2017

 

THE FOUNDATION’S BASE: AUDIO CAPTURED FROM SMARTPHONE AND LAPTOP MICROPHONES, VIDEO CAPTURED FROM SURVEILLANCE CAMERAS

[Ken leans on the kitchen island as Nathan walks in]

“Hey. How’s your new sword coming?”

[Ken unlocks his phone, taps the screen a few times, replays the recorded phone conversation]

[Nathan whirls around from the fridge]

“Where did you get that?”

[The conversation plays on]

“…gotten worse. Now I can’t even look at Ken without this–this punch of guilt to my stomach. I told myself I broke up him and Johnny so he could put his focus back on the…”

[Nathan hurries over to the phone, tries to stop it, but can’t. Locked, likely. He uses his power to shatter the device]

“I’m sorry, Ken. I am so sorry.”

“Were you ever gonna tell me? Honestly?”

[Nathan looks at Ken, looks down at the remains of the phone]

“Well, now you don’t have to.”

[Nathan walks over to him, starts to reach for him but drops his hand]

“This wasn’t an accident, someone’s listening in on our phone conversations, trying to make us fight each other.”

“But it’s obviously the truth, you aren’t denying what you did, what I heard. You know what I had with Johnny was my first real relationship, the first time I felt at true peace with who I am.”

“And we’re all glad you had that experience, Ken, but it was impacting your performance in the field.”

“Then you should’ve kicked me off the team! I told you I never intended to do this for the rest of my life!”

[Nathan seems to grit his teeth]

“The team needs someone with your unique skillset.”

“That still does not excuse your actions!”

[The rest of the team steps into the frame]

“Every member of The Foundation is here because they want to be, Nathan, you know that. We don’t force anyone to join the team or remain on the team if they don’t want to.” [This from The Givetaker]

“Now I can’t help but wonder if you made a genuine effort to disable King Kaboom’s bomb. Maybe you knew my powers were enough to handle the explosion and didn’t want to take the risk. You might even have known I’d suffer from X-radiation poisoning.

[The Void hugs his arms tight to his chest as he speaks]

[Nathan turns to him, eyes wet]

“Trent, I tried the best I could that day. I’m sorry about what happened to you, but I had no idea things would end up the way they did. I swear.”

[The Suit steps to the other side of the kitchen island]

“With this revelation, we find ourselves questioning your every decision, your every action. We aren’t overlooking the fact that someone sent Ken this information on purpose, the fact that our security has been compromised, but what’s more is we can’t overlook the fact that this team seems to have been compromised long before now.”

[Nathan looks at the others]

“So where does that leave us?”

[The Suit looks at the rest of the team]

“You’re no longer a member of The Foundation. Your security clearance has been revoked.”

[Nathan touches a hand to his pocket]

“And that’s very likely a text message informing you that your Foundation account’s been frozen. I do hope you took my advice when I suggested you siphon some of your earnings into a personal account.”

[Nathan braces himself up on the island by his arms, speaks with his head hanging]

“The Foundation has to have five members.”   

“And it will. A new hero named Octo Seven recently arrived in the city and reached out to us regarding membership. I told him what you just told me. Now I can tell him there’s a place for him.”

[The Suit turns and starts to walk away]

“But there isn’t one for you, Nathan.”    

 

The next time Wra and I met it was in a downtown lounge and tapas bar. She allowed everyone to stay this time, sitting down across from me dressed in a mauve affair trimmed in lace cream. “I appreciate the superior results you delivered.” Another indifferent smile pressed across her lips. “Such a genuine pleasure to find professional competence in this day and age.” She paused to order a gin and tonic, settling back into the cushions. She picked up on the curiosity scrawled across my face. “You have an inquiry itching at the back of your head?”

She was more observant than she let on.

“Octo Seven. He’s one of yours, isn’t he?”

Wra tilted her head back a bit. “Your insatiable desire for knowledge is like an irksome infection.” She blinked. “After the work you’ve done for us, I decided it could be beneficial to consider more outsourcing; I’m working on whittling down my stubbornness. Mr. Seven has been tasked with exploiting the weaknesses you’ve laid bare. You operate from the outside, him from within.”

“A mole.”

Her drink arrived. She thanked the server and took an easy sip before responding. “Exactly.” She touched the edge of her index finger to her lips and swallowed the chilled liquid. “If you’ll permit me a bit of social indecency, is the reason you specialize in people with superhuman abilities because you hate having them yourself and seek to find reconciliation through inflicting misery on them, or is it simply a matter of financial stability?”

The razor sharpness of the absolute surprise coating her question made my forehead muscle twitch once, conversational acupuncture.

She pivoted her head to the side a few degrees to assess my expression, edge of her mouth pulled and the corner of her eye narrowed. “You mean to tell me you never thought the things you do and the near obsession with which you do them never seemed like a superpower to you?”

Stay in control. Act, don’t react. Keep the expression off your face. Whatever it is welling up, keep it tamped down with everything else. Slow blink. Empty eyes. Even breathing. No exposed vulnerabilities.     

“It’s entirely possible that what I can do might be considered a superhuman ability, but how many people do you know who do what I do?”

She threw my trick back in my face, but where my expression was blank, hers was full of amusement and guile. “You’re quite skilled at verbal deflection. You have your way of planting seeds, and I have mine.” She pulled out her own phone, slim and black, tapped and swiped for a few seconds before lifting her stormcloud gaze to me. “I guess a bit of mystery about who we are keeps life exciting. I do hope we’ll cross paths again in the future, Miss Eva Betsy Broker. Or whatever your true identity is.”

A buzz in my hand drew my attention. My final payment. With a generous bonus. I polished off my lukewarm tea as I stood. “I appreciate the opportunity.” I left her laughing. It felt like needled chimes vibrating across my skin along with the implications of her question.

Had I become what I’d beheld? Had I always been what I’d beheld?

 

A few months later, The Fencer/Ken and Johnny moved in together, and The Void succumbed to X-radiation poisoning when he eventually ran out of hectasoboclapin along with everyone else who had been taking it when Platinumgate Pharmaceuticals, Inc. was unable to keep up with the demand of those who had been exposed to the residual antimagnetic cosmic waves from King Kaboom’s failed bomb explosion.

Soon after that, the remaining original members of The Foundation were ambushed and killed by The Suspense while responding to a chemical fire at the edge of the city, one that burned a bit too perfectly to be an accident. Only Octo Seven survived.

I gathered the online news articles I’d read and compiled them into a computer folder labeled RIPPLES along with other bits of information related to the results of my past work over the years. I like to make myself well aware of what I’ve done and the acts I’ve contributed to.

Before you can start to build your version of the truth, you’ve got to have the right foundation.

“Perhaps, too, exposing Nixon would mean revealing that Johnson had used the FBI to wiretap a presidential campaign.” PART TWO

Vignette inspired by: When Presidents Are Accused of Crimes, The Daily Beast, April 11, 2017

 

That night I grabbed a car2go (harder for someone to gather intel on me in case I was being monitored) and followed the tracer signal to 4233 Erickson Lane, a commercial building called Penn Gardens Office Space.

“The city’s leading superteam is based next to a temp agency?” I’d brought along Macklin, an infil/exfil expert who could interface with most forms of technology. He rested an elbow on the SUV door and poked his head out to glance up at the glass-and-concrete construction. “Seems about right, though; I’m sensing an abundance of electrical activity, much more than you’d expect for a building this size.”

I pulled out my laptop and the small work surface that mounted to the steering wheel. “I just need you to hook me up to their wi-fi signal and any surveillance systems and phones they might have inside.” A pounding rapped hardened knuckles at the front door of my skull, begging to bust out from behind my eyeballs and leak out of my ears. I reached for the aspirin in the console, downed two with a swing from a water bottle.  

Macklin talked while I clacked, swiped, and tapped away.

“You know, I realize now we’ve worked together three times, four if you count tonight, and I’ve never asked you how you got into all this.”

“How do you know I won’t just lie to you?” I told him, blinking eyes clung to the screen.

He shrugged. “I damn near expect you to lie to me. I just want to know what kind of lie you think will satisfy my curiosity.” He reminded me of shades of myself. My headache was too insistent to delve deeper into that great lake of implications.

I tapped out commands as I talked. “My parents were librarians, taught me how powerful knowledge is, how it could be used as a weapon. I took that lesson to heart, maybe a bit too much. After college when it came time for me to look for a job, I had a hard time finding anything that really resonated with me, so I become an information broker. Nothing you would call legal, but that’s where all the truly good jobs are.”

Macklin braced the side of his head on his knuckles, nodding. “I can relate to that.”

I waited as all the nearby wifi networks loaded onto the screen. HOME-A083D-2.4. Gnosh Bakery. ICBC-B31B-5. Renaissance Temp Agency. The Bedrock.

A winner.

I tapped on The Bedrock. Macklin’s cheek twitched. “Mm. Think you just ran into some kind of honeypot. Do you need me to bypass?”

I shook my head as my fingers flew over the keys. “Nah, this is the easy part. I just need you to handle the data encryption and decryption, if you’d be so kind.”

“Got it.” He went still for a few seconds while he did his thing and I did my thing. “So you become an underground dark web freelance information broker. How’d you start specializing in cracking people with superpowers?”

Eyes scrolled and scanned. “By accident. Someone who was a henchwoman for The Cloaked Caper wanted to move up the ranks and knew someone who was familiar with my work. She reached out and asked me to dig up some dirt on Dragonlace. It was a challenge at first, with him concealing his identity and never using the same route in or out of the field. Instead of worrying about following him back to his base, I kept an eye on social media; people always upload posts and images whenever they spot a superhero or villain in their area.”

Macklin grunted out his approval. At least it sounded like approval.

“One of the many reasons I’m not on social media, at least not the real me: too easy for someone like me to hack your life. Eventually, someone posted a selfie they took with Dragonlace. I noticed he had a mark on his neck, something that looked like he’d had a mole removed.”

“How do you know what a removed mole looks like?”

I smirked. “You learn a lot on this kind of job.” I studied the screen and saw that at least four people using The Bedrock’s internet connection also used Project Tri as their phone service provider. That would made things a lot easier. “Anyway, I did some digging and found out someone fitting Dragonlace’s physical description had had five moles removed at a local clinic. One of them was cancerous.”

A low whistle from Macklin.

“Pretty much. I sold the information to The Cloaked Caper’s henchwoman after I’d dug up a bit more.”

Macklin readjusted himself in his seat. “Dragonlace suddenly disappeared a few years ago. Hasn’t been seen in action since.” He paused, waiting for me to fill in the blanks maybe.

I remained focused on the information streaming across the screen.

“Usually I can tell when a person is lying or smudging the truth by the electric signals flicking through their brain, even if they don’t say anything.”

I clacked out a few commands. “And with me?”

He shook his head from the corner of my eye. “Nothing but resolute focus.”

“Guess that means I’m telling the truth.”

He scoffed. “At least your version of it.”

As if there’s any other kind of truth.

 

Over the next week I kept myself hunkered down on The Foundation’s internet and phone activity, piecing together information to determine what activity, emails, texts, and phone calls belonged to which member.

Research about the side effects of a drug called hectasoboclapin. A series of texts about a new katana saya. Phone calls between two women regarding the upcoming SpaceX shuttle launch. Online journaling about wanting to get back together with an ex-boyfriend. An internet search for reasons to not start a family. A series of sites related to starting a flying messenger business.

My burner phone buzzed.

The Wife of Wrath.

I tapped the green icon and lifted the phone to my ear as I reached over the for the reporter notebook and pen on my left, flipping through a few pages. “Betsy Broker speaking.”

“Mmm.” I could hear her grin over the airwaves, see it in my head. “Excellent codename. I surmise you’re fully aware of who this is?”

“I’d be God if I were any more aware.”

“Such charm you have, and a soothing phone voice as well. How’s my job coming along.”

I consulted the bullet points I’d written down just for this occasion when I knew her impatience would start to gnaw away at her. “I’m still untangling their online activity patterns and texting styles. I think I have their voices sussed out from their phone calls. I’m pretty sure The Void has become accidentally addicted to a drug prescribed for the effects of X-radiation poisoning.”

“Ah.” In my mind’s eye I could see her perfectly arched eyebrows lift. “That would make sense. He absorbed antimagnetic cosmic waves from a bomb planted by King Kaboom a few months ago.”

I inked a small dot next to the tidbit of information to let me know I’d fed it to her, tossing a dog a ball to keep itself entertained. “One of them is struggling with a breakup. So far I’ve narrowed it down to either The Givetaker or The Fencer.”

“Were you able to discern the gender of the ex?”

“Male.”

“It has been suspected The Fencer might be bisexual. Anything else?”

I flipped a few more pages, skipped over notes about The Vibe’s worsening arthritis and The Givetaker’s steadily deteriorating financial situation with the IRS. “The Suit’s family is coming into town for a three-day visit next week. Could be a good opportunity for a kidnapping situation, if that’s something you guys do.”

“The Suspense is an equal opportunity band of malefactors.” Her words resonated with ominous humor. “Very good, Miss Betsy Broker. I eagerly await your final report.”

“And I eagerly await my final pay.”

Just business as usual.

 

I was listening in on The Vibe’s phone conversation when I heard it:

“I know my next appointment is tomorrow, but I’m not sure I’m in a place right now where I can contain this.”

“It’s no problem at all, Nathan. This is the exact reason I gave you my personal number. What can I help you with tonight?”

I made sure I was recording, made note of The Vibe’s real first name, or at least an alias.

A world-weary sigh. “It’s gotten worse. Now I can’t even look at Ken without this–this punch of guilt to my stomach. I told myself I broke up him and Johnny so he could put his focus back on the team and the mission.”

Ken. The Fencer? I made a note.

“As we discussed previously, it’s beneficial you feel such guilt about your actions; it’s part of the process, helps brings you to a healthier space where we can better sort things out.”

“But the way I used my powers to alter Johnny’s brain chemistry, it drove him into a mild depression.” A choked sob cracked through his pause. “He broke up with Ken like I wanted him to, but lately I’ve been wondering what else he did because of me. I’m realizing I might have altered more of his personality than I realized.”

“The human brain is quite resilient to trauma, has a way of using cerebral partitions to protect itself. I highly doubt you altered Johnny’s personality, only manipulated his emotional state. Have you tried using that particular ability on anyone else?”

A beat passed. “Only a few times in the field to get information from criminals.”

“And did you monitor them afterward to see how long the effects lasted?”

Another pause. “No.” The word was eased out in a tone burdened renewed guilt.

“Then for all we know, the effects might not last very long.”

“But I–I dosed Johnny for two months straight!”

“Nathan, this is likely going to be one of the hardest things you’ve done in your life so far, but I need you to step outside of your thoughts for a moment and stop overanalyzing your actions and their repercussions, it’s a series of dead ends. What I want you to do instead is focus on what you can do to make amends, balance the scales.”

I knew the perfect way to balance the scales and help The Vibe/Nathan better deal with his guilt. Now to find The Fencer’s/Ken’s email address.

 

TO BE CONCLUDED IN PART THREE

“Perhaps, too, exposing Nixon would mean revealing that Johnson had used the FBI to wiretap a presidential campaign.” PART ONE

Vignette inspired by: When Presidents Are Accused of Crimes, The Daily Beast, April 11, 2017

 

People look up at them and see gods, miracles, and impossibilities entwined with flesh and blood. I look at them and see vulnerabilities, anomalies, and genetic glitches programmed to persist and resist the only way they know how: by existing. But I guess some people would say the same thing about me and my…addiction to information.

It was raining the day I was riding the light rail D line to met The Wife of Wrath, leader of The Suspense. The passenger car cleared out before she stepped in, people streaming out the doors around her as the pleasantly computerized voice announced we had reached Hemingway Station. When you’ve spent years watching anorexically thin men and women lift 747s over their heads, mind control is about as mind-boggling as a baby’s first steps.

She wore her black hair caught up in an elaborate bun, pale skin molded from luminescent moonlight with a glaze of cream. Gray eyes, pink lips, long neck with the rest of her body wrapped underneath a long-sleeved dress that almost brushed the floor. Her attire might have been an attempt to hide what was underneath. Or maybe it proclaimed everything you needed to know about her. She eased down in the seat across from me, edges of her mouth pulling in a genuine imitation of a smile.

The doors are now closing

The doors slid shut and the light rail resumed its path along the tracks.

“Good evening, Eva.”

I glanced down at the onyx triple lightning bolt pendant around her neck. I made a mental note to research it later. Might need to use the information against her in case she truly lived up to her name and tried to turned her wrath on me. Speaking of which… “Should I call you The Wife of Wrath, or just Wrath?”

She swayed a bit with the motion of the light rail as it churned forward. “Wra is fine.” She folded a leg over a knee and rested her hands in her lap. “I’ve got another engagement tonight, so I’ll be succinct: I’d like for you to start chipping away at the foundation of The Foundation.”

Darkness swallowed the world outside whole as we flashed through a tunnel. I nodded. “Anything in particular you’d like for me to do?”

Insouciant shrug. “Nothing too…combustible; the folding of the team should look like it was the result of natural causes. I would do it myself, but I’m heavy-handed where you’re delicate, feverish where you keep a cool head.” She looked out the window at the city as the passenger car was pulled from the stretch of black. “No one in my organization has the patience to sow the seeds of discord and wait for the poisoned fruit to mature.” She swiveled her attention back to me. “I heard about the job you did for Mr. Mutiny. Every member of HEX was arrested, killed by the public, quit the team, or committed suicide.” Her genuine imitation of a smile blossomed into something a degree more sincere. “Your work is absolutely exquisite.”

Now approaching Driver Station

I stood. “Thank you. I’ll keep you updated on my progress.”

“You don’t know how to reach me.”

The doors peeled open. “Eventually, I find out how to reach everyone.”

The doors are now closing

 

Like 911, there are specific situations The Foundation will respond to. A guy I know named Range specializes in putting together teams for odd jobs. And by “odd jobs” I mean robberies, assassinations, kidnappings, attacks, and the like. I had him arrange an attack on the Triermain Medical Center. The Foundation can’t pass up the opportunity to stop a group of superpowered radicals intent on freeing one of their own who had been injured during a recent “demonstration” and was under police watch while recovering.

They showed up in a black delivery van with out-of-state plates that rocketed through the parking lot, curved out a hard turn, and screeched to a halt with the back doors facing the building. The seven of them flooded out in ski masks and fatigues, traditionalists in radical militant fashion. One crouched down and interlaced thick fingers down near equally thick ankles, making a foothold. Another took a running leap forward and planted a boot sole on gloved fingers, propelled upward by thrusting arms that flung him/her clear up to the fourth floor at an angle. The radical drew an arm back while flying through the air, fist consumed by burning red fumes. Fist and fumes flew forward at a glass window. Instead of shattering, the window instead disintegrated into a storm of glittering pixels that floated through the air. The masked figure latched onto the edge of where the window used to be and crawled inside.

From my SUV, I watched as the strongarm of the group hoisted the others upward. I pulled out my directional microphone, camera, and pneumatic air rifle. People scattered from inside the medical center, employees, visitors, and able-bodied patients alike. I glanced at my watch. Three minutes and twenty-three seconds had passed since the beginning of the operation. After I set up my camera on the dash, I made a note of the time in one of my reporter notebooks.  

A minute later a streak of dark blue blasted across the parking lot, stopped, and resolved into a woman dressed in an navy power suit, pixie-length blonde hair slicked back on her head. The Suit. I set the camera to record the action and aimed the microphone at her as she put a finger to her ear.

“–ere. Looks like they arrived in a van on the–” She glanced up at the sky. “–south side of the building.” I listened as she listened. “I can streak up and see how many of them there are at least.” More listening. She nodded and blasted up the side of the building in a blur. I wondered if she suffered from eye irritation moving at such great speeds without eye protection. Might have been invisible.

Seconds later, the remaining four members of The Foundation showed up riding one of The Givetaker’s repelling waves that buoyed the rest of them twenty feet in the air, air rippling around them in concentric waves. I traded the mic for the camera and snapped off a series of images as they were lowered to the pavement, dropping the last five feet.

I reached for the air rifle and shuffled through my options. The Void’s powers would likely disrupt the tracker signal, same with The Vibe. Fencer and Suit were inside. Leaving me with… I rested the rifle on the edge of the door, squinted one eye closed and sighted through the scope at The Givetaker. Just needed to find out where their base of operations was located; shoe would probably work best. I lowered the barrel, aimed where she was going to be rather than where she was, and squeezed the trigger. The small tracker was pumped from the barrel with a tiny hiss of air. I withdrew the rifle and looked down at the small device on the dash. The screen blipped once, a clear signal pinging out.    

The Fencer, a man with a sheathed katana in a half-gloved hand, lifted his head to the disintegrated window. “Suit, how we doin’ in there?”

She responded by tossing out one of the radicals from the building, the strongarm. The body twisted in the air as it plummeted, slamming into the newly repaved parking lot and sending out a spiderweb of cracks where it landed. The mask had slid up during the fray and fall, revealing a woman’s face before she yanked the fabric down. The Fencer sprinted toward the woman. She threw out a jab that he easily juked around and continued forward.

“Boost me up, GT!” He lifted a knee high and his next step sent out a surge that furrowed the air and launched him skyward. As he rose, another extremist came tumbling out the medical center, this one with his mask ripped from his face and a silver shotgun in hand. He aimed the gun at The Fencer as he fell. The swordsman drew his blade free of its sheath and slashed at the air in the same silken motion, sending out a crescent of neon blue energy that sliced clean through the silver shotgun and reduced it to a burst of ivory light. The Fencer landed inside the hospital in an easy crouch. Was it magic or advanced technology that powered his sword? Something else entirely maybe.  

Strongarm caught her falling comrade in her arms, spun on a foot shoed in leather, and hunched over him, shielding them both from The Vibe’s blast of sonic vibrations that rattled the air in a high-pitched punctuation of sound.

The next few minutes played out like a typical superpowered clash: The Void conjured up various forms of energy from his pocket dimension, blasting bodies back and turning fired bullets into liquid. The Suit slide teleported from inside the medical center in time to catch the radical with the glowing hands and deck him in the mouth, snapping his head around and his mask askew. The Givetaker yanked one arm back and drew two bodies toward her before directing them through the open doors of the delivery van with a shove at the air. She lifted her other hand and repelled the van upward from the pavement. The Fencer flicked his wrist, whirling his sword in circles to create an iridescent corona of blue light that deflected bullets chugging from silver handguns.

I changed the cartridge in the air rifle from tracker to listening device, firing one off at the bottom of The Fencer’s sheath. Missed. My eyelids batted out a series of blinks to clear the smudges from my vision (too much time spent staring at a computer screen) and tried again. Success.    

Two minutes and twelve seconds later, all seven opponents had been taken care of. Wra’s technological seeds of discord had been planted.

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART TWO

“Criticism is an inevitable part of working life “

Vignette inspired by: The Workplace Inequality That Has Nothing to Do With Pay, BBC, November, 23, 2016

 

The room looked like more of an interrogation room than an office, all plain white walls, functional furniture free of aesthetics, and bare surfaces swirling with privacy enchantments scrawled in ivory ink. He felt like he was being charged with a crime rather than completing his bicentennial review.

He stepped into the room with muted clicks of his polished dress hooves, grazing thick fingers over his curved horns and smoothing his palm over the heft of the platinum ring pierced through his nostrils.

The being across from the table sat with a lean leg slung over a knee, tablet computer held on a lap covered in a silk suit. Androgynous facial features worked themselves into a polite smile, dark eyes burnishing with twin sunbursts of gold striated with amber. “I appreciate you being on time, Mr. Torro.” Alto tones warmed over with professional politeness. The dark skin of the extended hand was washed out underneath the glare of the light seeping from the edges of the ceiling. “I’ll be sure to make a note of that in your review.”

Their shared handshake was one part smooth confidence and two parts clammy unease.  

Majestor withdrew his long-fingered hand and ran his palm down the front of his suit jacket as he eased himself into his chair. “My thanks.”

Three-toned eyes scrolled down to the tablet screen. “My name is Avery. I’ll try to make this review quick so you can get back to work.” Quick head lift and another cordial smile before the eyes returned to the tablet. “In your 224 years as a security guide with Olympus Enterprises, you’ve done exceptional work.” Eyes flitted back and forth, fingers tapped and swiped. “For the most part.”

Majestor scratched a thumbnail over the thickness of his lightly contoured eyebrow. “Every day’s an opportunity to improve myself. After all, I’m a minotaur, not a god.” Disarming chuckle.

Avery’s head tipped to the side, a solitary strand of sea-blue hair coming loose from the tight warrior braid worn high on his scalp. “Quite true.” Head lifted once more, attention pressing against Majestor with near-tangible force. “I won’t mince words or waste our time: Mrs. Tauryn feels you exceed in the most essential capacities of your position; you’re habitually punctual, cordial to guests and coworkers alike, contribute solid ideas and suggestions for company and department improvement, go well above and beyond your job duties.” A pause; the birth and death of a world held cradled in that empty stretch of possibility. “But Mrs. Tauryn and most of your other co-workers feel that as a minotaur of your maturity and social background, you aren’t aggressive enough when it comes to safeguarding the Hallowed Halls.” Quick inhale. “Rather than casting out dimension-hoppers through the etherlock on their trespassing rumps, you instead gently escort them through the Marvelous Gates as if they were invited for an afternoon ale.”   

Majestor’s jaw muscles bunched as he gritted his teeth. He bobbed a knee and smoothed his hands over his slacks. “I feel like I’m only as aggressive as the situation demands.” A puffed-out scoff.

Avery unlooped a leg from knee, touched fingertips to lips, reversed leg over knee. “Quite understandable. But I’m sure you’ve noticed that Olympus Enterprises is–” Eyes ticked to the side in consideration, hands opened for the right words. “Not necessarily changing its image, but instead reinforcing it.” Composure regained. “And that image is one of strength, ages-old influence steep in prestige.”

Majestor nodded his understanding.

“The specific issue we’re rubbing against with you is that you aren’t quite solidifying that image.” Eye flick over the minotaur’s well-toned form that strained against the shoulders and thighs and merely grazed against the suit’s furred material at the arms and waist. “Another concern is your current physical stature.”

The minotaur furrowed his thick brows and flicked a glance down his body before snatching it back up.

Avery continued. “You’ve lost considerable muscle tone in the past few months.” Another quick scan of his form as if to confirm it, compare it with whatever information was available on the tablet screen. “Mrs. Tauryn and the other supervisors were hoping you would gain it back, but…unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

Majestor took a quick tug of his nose ring, sniffing.

The emptiness and the lapse between them blossomed into an almost-palpable chasm that kept them rooted in place, heavy gravity waves rolling in from a distant interstellar shore.

“I was diagnosed with Herd Culler five months ago.”

Majestor’s words doubled the weight in the air, wrested a gradual expression of fully-concentrated shock from Avery’s face that lasted for a few pinched seconds before being ironed over.

The minotaur reached up with uneasy hesitation for his platinum tie clip shaped like an infinity symbol. Exhale. Deep inhale that puffed up his chest. He grazed his middle finger over the symbol three times.

His left horn blurred for a moment, pixelating out of focus. It blipped out of sight to reveal a cleanly sheared horn stained a withered indigo at the edges.

Avery lowered his eyes from the stubbed and stained horn and noticed the tarnish bleeding across Majestor’s nose ring. Lips parted, jaw worked for words that were out on break. After a moment they returned for their shift, glazing the tongue. “I deeply admire you for continuing to work through such a difficult time.” The tablet was laid down gently on the table. “Do you mind if I ask how you contracted it? I thought the Herd Culler curse had been fully shattered during the Great Minotaur Exodus after the Kindred Shepherds gave their millennial offering to the Elysian Fieldmasters.”

Majestor dropped his brown eyes to the table. “A few centuries ago the World Health League discovered that it’s become hereditary.” The gravelly bass of his voice took on more grit as he dropped his tone, the charm seemingly dissolving a glamour of health instilled in his voice. “My father had to sever my connection with my ancestral war ax.” Shoulders rippled. “Was afraid I might active any other curses lying dormant in our family.”

Avery curled an elegant finger over pursed lips. “That’s why you’ve lost so much of your mass, you can no longer draw on the strength imbued in your war ax.”

The minotaur nodded. “The curse also makes it so that I can’t use my horns to locate my soul- or blood-bound herd.”

“Is there–” Hesitant hitch. “Is there any way to remove the curse? Block it off and isolate it like you would a virus, perhaps?”

Majestor responded with a bitter laugh that rubbed like raw rock salt in a wound. “I’ve been to nearly every mystician who accepts my insurance. More than a few who don’t.” He reached up to scratch at the skin underneath his whole horn. “They all tell me there’s a unique strain in the curse that indicates it was cast under the light of an Effulgent Nectar Moon.”

Avery’s lips parted, head bobbed once in understanding. “So the opportunity to unravel it comes only once every one-hundred years.”

Majestor lowered his hand to the chilled smoothness of the marble table. “Even then I have to be at the right place at the right time to harness the event’s full power.”

The reviewer tugged a tailored suit jacket sleeve back to glance at the timepiece on his wrist. “Would you rather I keep this between you and myself?” His voice was back to all-business crispness.

He lifted his eyes, fully bridging their gazes for the first time since he’d stepped into the room. “Would it negatively impact my review if you did?”

Avery considered for a moment. “Well, telling Mrs. Tauryn about your mystical affliction would probably make her much more understanding of your current physical and professional state.”

Majestor leaned his elbows on the table and bent forward a bit, wrapping the fingers of one hand around the fist of the other. “Do whatever you need to do to increase my chances of keeping my job.” Fingers unfurled and palms tilted upward in near-supplication. “Maybe even get me a slight bump in pay.”

Avery’s thin eyebrows laced together. “You wish to remain here at Olympus Enterprises? Even as quickly as the curse is advancing?”

The minotaur leaned back in his seat, breath easing out of him. “I’ve been picking up any extra shifts I can so that I can help pay for my brother’s wedding nose ring.” He rubbed a hand down his face, absently massaging at the weariness etched into his features.

“He’s marrying outside of his race.”

“A sylph.” Majestor paused. “A male sylph.”

Avery glanced at the time again.

“How much time do I have left?”

The question visibly disarmed Avery. “I think you would know that better than–”

A chuckle. “I meant for the review.”

The answer visibly relieved and embarrassed Avery. “Oh, of course. You–you’re my last review for the day.” Fingers tugged smoothness into the suit jacket, trailed over creases in slacks.

“But to answer your unasked question, I don’t think I have much time left, doesn’t feel like it at least.” Majestor stared at the wall behind Avery but didn’t seem to notice its solid existence. “The mysticians aren’t able to give me anything solid on when the curse will kill me.” Shrug. “But I don’t think it would make much of a difference even if they did. I mean, I could use the time and resources I have left buying information on the time and location of the next Effulgent Nectar Moon.” Eyes focused on Avery. “But I’ve decided to take advantage of the fact that I work with one of the most powerful, lucrative and well-known deified-pharmaceutical companies in this dimension to do my older brother a favor so he can live a long life with the man he loves.” The edge of his smile caught the tear trailing from the corner of his eye. He sank his head to hide the reaction.

Avery uncurled a hand, inched it over the table towards Majestor’s, dragged it back. “Does your brother have any idea of your condition?”

He lifted his head and shook it, swiping a hand across his cheek. “I asked my parents to keep it from him, at least until he’s married; already enough for him to worry about.”

“I can imagine. I’ve read that the process of receiving a wedding nose ring can be quite taxing both physically and psychologically for minotaurs.”

“And making sure his marriage is legally recognized is just as strenuous, emotionally and financially.” He looked down when Avery finally grasped his hand with a smooth motion powered by purposeful intent.

“You’re doing magnificently well for someone in your condition, Majestor.” Hand retracted, expression sobered. “Unfortunately, I’m not sure if I’ll be successful in convincing Mrs. Tauryn to let you remain in your current position. I’m sure you understand how vital it is to your current career and Olympus Enterprises that you’re able to adequately fulfill the duties of security guide, duties for which you were originally hired because of your ability to carry them out without mental, mystical, or physical assistance.”

The minotaur swallowed the sudden lump in his throat. “What else, ah…” Another hard swallow. “What other position could I fill. And would it pay as well?”

Avery consulted his tablet, taking a moment to swipe, read, and tap in search of satisfying answers. “There has been talk of hiring a liaison who works with the security and IS departments. I might be able to convince Mrs. Tauryn and Mr. Cyceus to hire internally rather than externally.”

Majestor’s expression curdled to one of doubt. “I don’t think I have the professional qualifications to work Information Sorcery.”    

Avery patted the air. “IS really isn’t as complicated as you might think, Mr. Torro. While you may no longer have your connection to your ancestral war ax, you still have an intimate and natural understanding of how it works, which is more than most IS freshmen can claim.”

Majestor pondered the possibilities. “Mind sending me more information?”

Genuine smile. “Already digitized on your company scroll.”

The minotaur brushed his fingers over his infinity clip, conjuring up his glamour of vitality once more. “Thank you. You’ve got my deepest gratitude. Are we all done here?”  

“Yes, I do believe we are. Thank you for your time. And for sharing.”

Majestor stood, reached across the marble table for an appreciative handshake, turned to go.

“I know of an ethical soulringer who might be able to help you.”

He stopped, turned back around and shook his head. “I truly appreciate it, but…that’s okay. In a way, I feel like I’ve already healed. I’m slowly learning how to wrestle my curse into a blessing.”   

“But that’s a deliberate attempt to confuse the issue”

Vignette inspired by: The Plague of Fake News Is Getting Worse–Here’s How to Protect Yourself, CNN, November 1,2016

 

“Is this the reason there’s so much false news proliferating the human world?” Decilbante, the God of Music, looked down at the neon blue veins etching their way across the exposed flesh of the young woman floating in midair, flowing dress patched with images of newscasts, new stories, news blogs, tweets, social media streams, and scrolling news tickers. Each fragment flickered and fractured with the same blue neon lightning overtaking the woman’s skin.

The mauve-haired male next to him, Demidant the Mender, nodded his head. “Yes, it’s some kind of mystical virus. I’ve never seen its like before.”

“I have.”

Both men looked up at the ebon-skinned woman at the top of the stairs with thick curls of golden fog wafting and flourishing round her head and shoulders; Oriana, the Sentinel of the Storm. “It’s the Godhead Guillotine.” She floated down the steps.

Decilbante’s brow twitched as he looked down at floating form. “Are you quite sure? I thought we overcame that eons ago when it struck down our kind for the second time.”

She nodded. “I was a young wisp when The Heartbroken Romancer first devised how to turn the ailment back on itself, but these blue veins here–” She pointed and shook her head, setting her intangible locks to drifting. “They’re not something you forget.”

“Why is Mediateza the only one who’s been infected?” Demidant asked.

“Likely because she’s a young goddess.” Decilbante reached out and placed his palms on the sides of her head and his thumbs on her forehead. “She hasn’t yet built up an immunity to the old infections and maladies.”

Demidant glanced at the images on Mediateza’s dress, watched as inaccurate news stories were shared with thousands of people engaging in heated debates over their falsely-won conquests or writing up their own reactionary posts or articles inspired by ill-reported events. Accurate news stories about violence and hate crimes ignited by erroneous news articles and broadcasts shifted public opinion and the course of the media.  

“This unchecked chaos is bound to act as quite a potent tonic to Asid’hu’hwei.” Demidant shook his head. “Now is not the time for the Rex of Bedlam and Deceit to assert himself even deeper into the soil of humanity. His fruit is sour enough as is.”

“Right now I’m a bit more concerned with who infected Mediateza in the first place,” Decilbante said. “The last strain of the Godhead Guillotine was rooted in the Dreadforest. Only Penvayne knows how to unleash it, and she has hands, eyes, nor tongue to reveal the mystery of it.”

Oriana’s eyes occluded to silver-white for a handful of moments. “I’m not seeing anything or anyone of great concern on the Grand Scales or on the human world.”

“…What about Enlightenment’s galaxy?”

The woman’s eyes faded back to their normal granite gray. She turned to Demidant and frowned at his notion. “You honestly think Enlightenment did this?”

The Mender gestured at splinters in the Goddess of the Media’s dress. “He’s steadily lost power to Mediateza the more humans have come to rely on the media and less on their own intellectual devices. He’s grown weaker, his galaxy smaller and darker. Only those on the fringes of humanity’s society still seek him out, and that’s nearly all that sustains him.”

She dipped her head to the side, released a slight scoff. “Enlightenment is above such abhorrent acts. He’s too consumed with stretching his intellect to the neverending beginning of existence.”

“As long as he remains in that bottomless well of an infinite galaxy,” Decilbante said, “he’s beyond our sight, our touch, and our speculations.”

“As far as he’ll know, we’re just checking up on him.” Demidant crossed his arms over his chest. “There’s no harm in that.”

Oriana swiveled her attention on him. “Enlightenment has existed almost longer than all of us put together; surely he knows what’s going on down on the human world and here with Mediateza. He won’t fall for the ruse that we’re just checking up on him.”

Decilbante blinked as he looked down at the vein-ridden goddess. “It’s either this or allow Asid’hu’hwei to claim more power.” He shook his head. “And we can’t allow that to happen again. Even the smallest of flares from him is enough to cause pandemonium that spans from one end of the horizon to the other.” He lifted his head. “We bring in The Intermediary, he’s the only one whose senses won’t be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of Enlightenment’s wisdom and insight. Mayhap, he’ll be able to bring about a solution that soothes everyone; there’s no one of us who isn’t essential to maintaining harmony.”  

Oriana looked from Decilbante to Mediateza to the fragmented mirror. “I’ll summon him now. Perhaps he’s not currently engaged.”

Enlightenment’s galaxy was effused with golden bands and waves glittering and undulating with unhurried ease into the depths of eternity. Motes of wan yellow light sifted and swirled in the glorious expanse. Clouds of gas seethed with a luminance that bent, swelled, spiraled, and twisted of its own accord.

The Intermediary, a man dressed in a light blue silk suit with tails sweeping down to the backs of his knees, stepped out of a braid of light, dress boots sending concentric ripples along the solid surface of the body of water stretching across the galaxy. Light shifted in a vibrant-hued panoply around him, glowing platinum, neon purple, light green, and bruised red.

He walked up to the giant humanoid form with translucent skin that revealed organs, blood vessels, bones, muscles, chakras, and energy meridians laced with the same light bound to the pocket nebula. A golden mandala pooled around Enlightenment’s bald head, pulsing and rippling as s/he sat in a lotus position.

The god lifted his/her head to reveal ivory white pits for eyes. “Intermediary.” Lips lifted, muscles flexed under half-formed flesh. “You’ve come to ask me about the virus, haven’t you?”

The Intermediary opened his mouth, closed it, and replaced it with a smile. He soared up from the water until he was eye-level with the deity. “I guess you wouldn’t be very enlightened if you didn’t already know that.” His coat tails wafted around him. “Yes, I’m here to ask if you know of who or what might have released the Godhead Guillotine; it’s struck down Mediateza.”

Enlightenment brought her/his head and burning orbs forward, peering at, through, and into the arbitrator. “You’ve regurgitated most of the truth, but there’s still a bit left in your gullet. You should release it before you choke on it.”

The Intermediary lifted his hands from his sides, then he released the rest of the truth. “Did you infect Mediateza?”

The glowing god stared at him, or maybe he/she was simply piecing together the equation to the meaning of life. Finally, a response: “Yes.” No evading. No half-truths. No doublespeak.

The Intermediary continued to float in the air. “I appreciate your honesty, but you know very well that gods aren’t allowed to manipulate or control each other.”

Enlightenment leaned back. “Is sickness truly a form of control or manipulation, or simply a natural debilitating condition that befalls every being in one way or another? She won’t die if she hears the Major Key of Karthis within seven hours, and afterwards, she’ll be just as she was before the sickness.”  

“Would you mind telling me why you did it?”

The deity lifted his/her hands to encompass the stretch of infinity around them. “This space should be blindingly brilliant, a magnificence that pierces the eyes and scorches the mind. While it might dazzle and delight now, it has yet to fulfill its potential. And the same is true of humans.” Massive radiant hands lowered.

The Intermediary cast a glance at the self-contained galaxy around them. “Are you saying you purposely infected Mediateza to draw human focus back to you?”

The crowning energy around Enlightenment’s head wavered as s/he shook it. “Nothing so self-indulgent. I did it for the humans’ mental and spiritual self-awareness. To keep from overwhelming them as I do my brothers and sisters, I have to communicate with them in epiphanies, realizations, revelations, and ways that don’t immediately seem very significant. I’d love to speak with humans as I am with you right here, right now. The media gives them information on a platter, which doesn’t require much in the way of critical thinking or soul-searching. There’s room for doubt, but most humans are terribly keen on keeping their mental houses quite full.” The entity started to float a few inches from the quicksilver surface. “It’s not just Mediateza who has laid them low, Innovatia has played a part in this as well.”

The smaller being let loose a slight puff of amusement. “I won’t argue that the Goddess of Growth and Fertility hasn’t had a hand in the subjugation of humans with technology, but it’s their own knowledge, insight, and enlightenment that truly allowed them to harness that technology, and I daresay you would agree.”

Enlightenment took a deep breath, drawing light into visible lungs, holding it before exhaling violet shimmering mist that rose and mixed with the clouds. “Insight brings a type of harmony, one that is felt rather than heard. Mediateza and Innovatia have lifted their voices, their influence, above all others, turning the harmony into dissonance.”

“You don’t think humans should maintain their free will, their option to choose?” The Intermediary narrowed his eyes and turned his head to the side a bit. “Or maybe it’s the Elder Gods you don’t trust for their decision to give humans free will in the first place.” He brought his hands behind his back.

The god lifted a graceful diaphanous finger, waved it back and forth. “Not at all. Humans just have a tendency to leave the past and the wisdom it provides them tucked in the pages of history like a bookmark rather than bring it with them into the present and beyond. They can certainly apply the past to the present, but they do so with past knowledge rather than past wisdom; there is a difference between the two.”

“And for that difference you’re willing to kill one of your own kind?”

Enlightenment looked down at The Intermediary. “And for that difference you’re willing to let mankind blindly text and swipe its way to its own eventual glorious demise?”

The Intermediary lowered himself to the glass-like surface beneath him, the simple movement laced with casual finesse. He tilted his head back and looked up at the god, took a single step toward the tower of phosphorescence sculpted into human form. He stood there for a moment regarding Enlightenment, who blinked at him in return. The smaller being spoke. “I don’t even think this is about bringing humans back to their roots, planting them in their original soil.”

Enlightenment canted his/her head to the side as s/he looked down. “You should’ve stayed fluttering in the air if you wish to pluck fruit from the tree of my mind, Intermediary.”

“You feel abandoned, forgotten.”

The divinity burnished a deeper shade of gold. The galaxy burned brighter, motes scattered in the air. “I am the fundamental embodiment of abandonment and forgetfulness. To know the way is to be both and neither at once.”

The Intermediary pressed on. “Your brothers and sisters can’t visit you because your essence overloads their divine senses, even they struggle to process the abundance of information and instruction woven into every strand of light here. Humans still seek you, but do so through devices provided to them by Innovatia, diluting the experience for both you and the humans.

The radiance surrounding Enlightenment was rubbed and robbed of its sheen. “I can sense that I’ve almost felt, heard, learned, experienced, and tasted everything in the known as well as the unknown universes.” A pause. “I’d rather not find out what happens to me or the human world when that happens.” Another pause. “If that happens.”

The Intermediary looked to the side for a moment. “Are you open to the idea of meeting with Mediateza and Innovatia?” He pivoted his attention back. “Perhaps the three of you can come to an agreement on how to balance your shared influence on the human world.”

The galaxy shivered around the two as Enlightenment chuckled. “Innovatia is forever in her laboratory, and were Mediateza not stricken with a divine virus, she’d be scattered across the airways or spread across a host of spectrums.” Head shake. “You would have an easier time convincing Demidant to change the hue of his hair than you would gathering the three of us together, and that’s even if I were able to leave my galaxy.”

The Intermediary exhaled a deep breath of air that failed to glow. “I thought you would say something like that, but was willing to see if you’d open your mind enough to accept the impossibility.” He blinked. “Are you willing to at least tell us where the Major Key of Karthis is heard so we can lift the virus from Mediateza?”

Enlightenment gave something akin to a smile that pulled at the translucent muscles under his/her skin.

“I thought not.” The Intermediary finally released his hands from behind his back and slipped them into the side pockets of his suit jacket instead. “How about if you lifted one virus and implanted another?”

“Hmm.” The sound skipped out into the air like a ripple from the god’s chest. “What scheme are you sketching together?”

“Simply that you infect both Mediateza and Innovatia with your essence. Since I’ve been here, I think I’ve figured out how to pierce your system here so a bit of it can leak out into the rest of the Grand Scales. The tip of a Bjornik Javelin can be dipped into a Sanguine Flask, the resulting chaotic infusion should be enough to puncture at least one golden band.”

Enlightenment became puzzlement for a handful of moments. “Apparently being in my presence has overtaken your senses as well. You just reminded me that compromising another god is verboten.”

The smaller being shrugged. “Think of your essence as an ailment, one that alleviates instead of debilitates. Rather than overwhelming the senses of Innovatia and Mediateza, you instead underwhelm them. Slowly scatter the seeds of enlightenment with a deft and measured hand until you’ve planted a secret garden. Over time those seeds will grow into gentle buds, buds that flower ideas, insightful ideas that reveal to the two of them that maybe they should work with you, and with each other, to strengthen and improve the human race while they do the same to themselves. After all, enlightenment, technology, and information are inextricably bound to each other; you all need each other”

The God of Awareness and Understanding paused for a handful of eternities before responding. “Something like this shouldn’t be done.”

“That’s not an outright refusal to what I’ve proposed.”

The galaxy seemed to shift on its axis. “No, no it’s not.”   

“It’s this lack of caring that James says is what doomed him.”

Vignette inspired by: Can a DNA Test Really Predict Opiate Addiction?, The Daily Beast, October, 16, 2016

 

The woman in the lab coat scrolled her eyes across the tablet screen, pausing on a string of words.

“Are you sure, Dr. Cain?” The young girl sitting on the other side of the mostly bare desk leaned forward a bit as she asked her question.

Dr. Cain lifted her gaze from the tablet. “We’ve checked the results at least seven different times.” She set the device down on the desk. “We like to be thorough about this. There have been mistakes in the past that were…well, a lot of people died and a lot of resources were lost, both unnecessarily so.”

“So my body has the potential to act as an incubator for a virus that can give birth to the next stage of human evolution?”

Dr. Cain nodded. “Kendra, if you agree to act as a host, the New Horizon virus will prolong your natural life for at least a hundred years while it…I guess gestate is the best word to use here. While it’s inside you, it will continue its mutation based on the information it receives from the unique blend of ancestries encoded in your DNA. Once that gestation period is complete, it will release itself into the world and infect everyone it comes into contact with. Only instead of making them sick, the infection will make them better, much better.” She lowered her eyes, blinked.

The massive grin on Kendra’s face curdled a bit at the edges. “Dr. Cain, this is good news, isn’t it?”

The doctor swallowed and looked back up at the potential savior of the human race. “It is, but we noticed something else in your DNA.”

The older woman’s concern trickled across the desk and began to soak its way into Kendra’s expression. “Oh, God, do I have cancer or something?”

Dr. Cain lifted a hand. “No, no, it’s not that, nothing at all like that.”

“Then what?”

She paused, looked back at her tablet. “Kendra, is there a history of addiction in your family?”

Kendra’s brow knitted together. “I don’t–Wait, I think I had an uncle who died of a heroin overdose.” Her eyes went distant as her mind plunged into itself for the right information. “And I…I think I remember my mom telling me about a cousin or something who had a problem with codeine.”

“Anything with your parents, siblings?”

Kendra started to shake her head, dissected the unwilling thought blipping in her brain. “My dad was injured at work about five years ago. I think he still takes pills for it. He tries to hide it, but sometimes I can hear him tap a couple out of the bottle.” She glanced up at the older woman. “Is that a problem?”

Dr. Cain said nothing for a moment. She gave a slow blink as she interlaced her fingers in front of her. “There’s a strong chance that you’re at a high risk for addiction.”

Kendra squirmed in her seat. “But I’m not–I mean, I don’t do drugs, legal or illegal. I don’t even drink.”

The other woman nodded. “We could see that from your test results too. In order for us to successfully incubate you with the virus, we will have to administer a cocktail of drugs, some of which can be habit forming.”

“And you’re afraid that might, what, like trigger my addiction gene or something?”

Eyes flicked to the side. “Well, I most certainly wouldn’t put it in those terms, but, yes, essentially.”

“So what are my options? I mean, you just told me that my genes can either activate the next stage in human evolution or turn me into a strung out junkie.”

“Not all addicts fit the stereotype of a filthy homeless person lighting up crackpipe.”

“Does it really matter what brand of addict I might be? Kendra slumped in her chair.

Dr. Cain opened her mouth, swallowed whatever it was she was about to say, started on something else. “Fair enough. At this juncture, our options are to start you off with a small dosage of the cocktail and monitor you.”

“I don’t have your education or experience, but I’m guessing that going at half speed won’t give you the results you’re hoping for.”

The doctor’s eyebrows shrugged upward, searching for an answer that would satisfy more than terrify. “Honestly, there’s no way to tell.”

Kendra mulled over the implications. “Are there any other candidates?”

“The Progress Principle is scattered all over the world in search of people whose DNA is compatible with the New Horizon virus. We’ve had several near hits, even a few cases where we thought we’d found the perfect host, but time had a different ending in mind.”

“So I might not even be who you think I am?”

Dr. Cain nodded.

“And if you administer the cocktail and it turns out I’m not what you’re looking for…” She let her words drift off, form a hole for the other woman to fill with a shovelful of the truth.

“Then we run the risk of turning you into an addict.”

Kendra rolled her lips over and under her teeth, letting the words work their way deep into her reality. “But if you don’t administer the proper dosage you also run the risk of the virus not…taking hold?”

Dr. Cain nodded again, the motion heavier this time.

The young woman let her head rest on the back of the chair, allowed a sigh to barrel past her lips. “This is…I mean, damn.”

Dr. Cain leaned forward, interlaced her fingers. “The decision is entirely yours, Kendra.”

A brown-eyed gaze collided with a green-eyed gaze. “You’re seriously telling me that if I refuse I can just walk out of here? You aren’t going to hit me with a tranquilizer or anything and force me to accept the cocktail and the virus?”

The doctor rubbed one thumb over the other. “While I do think the survival of the human race is essential, I have thought about the fact that it wouldn’t do us much good to evolve and continue on if we don’t address the ways in which we’re hastening our own demise.”

“So what you’re saying is that you might feel more strongly about hitting me with a tranquilizer and forcing me to accept the cocktail and virus if we did a better job of recycling, reducing CO2 levels and using more efficient forms of transportation?”

Dr. Cain allowed herself a smile. “I’m saying that there’s no need to open the curtain if the actors aren’t ready for showtime.”

Kendra rolled her head to the side to look out of the window. “Am I to understand that there’s just as much of a chance of me not becoming an addict as there is of me actually being an addict?”

Dr. Cain leaned back in her seat, draped her wrists over the arms. “Yes.”

“Just like there’s just as much of a chance of me being the perfect incubator for the New Horizon virus as there is of me not being a viable candidate.”

“Exactly.”

The younger woman pulled her gaze away from blue skies, towering buildings, and the majestic sprawl of mountains in the distance. “What would you do?”

The doctor looked down at the unadorned surface of her desk. She inhaled…exhaled. “I would risk it.” The words eased out in a whisper.

“I can’t be sure you aren’t just saying that.”

She lifted her eyes. “Just like I can’t be sure you haven’t already made up your mind about your decision and are just prolonging what might be the last few moments of a normal life.”

Kendra’s lips tugged a bit at the edges. “There’s a chance the human race might evolve without the virus. There’s also a chance the virus will corrode our evolution’s…natural programming.”

Dr. Cain became a statue for a handful of seconds.

“I’m sure that little thought pitter-pattered its way across the marble floors of your massive brain.”

The older woman opened her mouth, mulled over what she was about to say. “Kendra, how much do you know about human cloning?”