The Year 2000 as Written in 1985

By R.J. Barna

ACT 2 of the play The Year 2000 as Written in 19XX (demonstrating the narrator’s hopes, fears and expectations of the year 2000 during 3 distinct time periods of his life: 1965, 1985 and 1999). Special thanks to project team members Jake Garner and John Meholic, and Dr. Rebecca Steinberger’s Theatre in Performance class.


Off-stage Left, the narrator is sitting at a computer: his face illuminated by a blue screen. As he begins to type, he reads aloud…

Narrator: It is the year 2000, and Jane wipes the sleep from her eyes as her radio alarm clock brazenly wakes her from a restless sleep at the kitchen table. (Alarm clock begins to buzz relentlessly. Lights up on stage reveal Jane).  With an empty glare, she hurls a neglected piece of broken machinery across the Spartan apartment (strikes the clock and ends the buzzing) and she sinks a half-filled drink of unknown integrity in a single swig.

Jane: Shit… (Jane crosses to an intercom on the wall, which beeps in acknowledgement as she presses the call button)

Narrator: Thank you for calling Central Civilian Control. Today’s threat level is nominal. Your call is very important to us. Please stand by; a representative will be with you shortly. (a musak version of Ask by The Smiths begins to play quietly).

Jane: Charlie? (Jane starts making coffee) Charlie? Charles!

C.K.: (enters from a conjoining room that may well be a closet) What the fuck do you want?

Jane: Watch your mouth; you have school in an hour.

C.K.: (mumbles something under his breath and sits at the table)

Jane: What time did you get in last night?

C.K.:              I dunno.

Jane:                    What were you doing?

C.K.:                                 Nuthin.

C.K. turns on the TV almost as quickly as Jane unplugs it. Jane puts a plate of toast in front of C.K.

Jane: Eat. Who were you with?

C.K.: Lots of people.

Narrator: …your call is very important to us. Please stand by.

C.K.: What’d you break?

Jane:            Nuthin.

C.K.:                       Mom! What’d you break this time?

Jane:                               I dunno.

Jane takes a piece of toast from the plate in front of C.K. and smiles at him defiantly.

C.K.: No wonder you can’t find a man…

Jane: …believe me, you’re all the man I can handle. You didn’t go to the hanging did you?

Narrator: …thank you for calling Central Civilian Control…

C.K.: No.

Jane: You know I’ll find out if you did…

C.K.: (mumbles)

Jane: Mmhmm. What’re you studying in school today?

C.K.: I dunno…stupid shi…erm…stupid stuff.

Jane: School’s important. You need to study if you want to get ahead.

C.K.: Like you and dad did?

Narrator: …Today’s Threat Level is nominal…

C.K.: I’m sorry, mom. I just…it’s not like it matters anyhows.

Jane: How do you mean?

C.K.: I mean, I’m just…well, you know…

Jane: C.K., you listen to me very carefully. You are…

C.K.:                 …special. Yeah, I know.

Jane:  … apparently you don’t know. When I got pregnant, do you think I gave a shi…erm…damn what anybody thought? You’re unique, Charlie. In all of the world, throughout all of time, there will only be one you. Your father and I didn’t want to…to engineer some…thing…in a petri-dish…

C.K.:         … well maybe you should have! Or else had me coded or something!

Jane: Stop it…

C.K.: No, you stop it! I’m sick of it! Everybody says that if they touch me, they’ll catch Hudson’s and die! Every time I go take a shit they take bets on whether or not I’m coming back, and I have to sit there while some half-scan, piece of shit restroom drone disinfects the fucking toilet for the next ‘Disher’ that has to plop his perfect, marbled cheeks where my down-country ass was! God-fucking-forbid I scrape my knee, or…or sneeze, or…or…

Jane: …you’re better than them, love.

C.K.:               No, I’m fucking not! Name a fucking test and it proves it! They’re faster than me, smarter than me, they’re…their…you know… their… whatever are fucking bigger than mine.

Jane: (laughs)

C.K.:               Ma!

Jane:                     How else can they get them so far up their own asses?

C.K.:                                                Ma!

Narrator: Please stand by; a representative will be with you shortly…

Jane: Well, I just don’t see how that matters…

C.K.:                …it matters.

Jane: Shyness is nice, and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to…


Jane:             What? Oh, the song…

C.K.:                                   …oh…

Jane:                                                       …la. SO… What would you rather do?

C.K.: What? I dunno…

Jane: …I’m serious. What would you rather do today?

C.K.:                …Really?

Jane:                           Like…totally-really…

C.K.:                                                              That’s not how they say it…

Jane: (groans)

C.K.:                Um…the arcade?

Jane: (like a buzzer on a game-show) Ehhhhh!

C.K.: …the museum? 

Jane:            …what museum?

C.K.:                             …the uh…arts…and…sciences…and stuff…museum?

Jane: Points for effort, but Ehhhh! Last try.

C.K.: I don’t fuckin’ know! I don’t know what you want me to say!

Jane: Sorry; thanks for playing. Watch your mouth.

C.K.:                       Ugh! You are so unfair!

Jane: Go to school; learn to lie better. That’s the one thing you’ll always have over those drones: creativity.

C.K.: …take me out tonight where there’s musical elf people?

Narrator: Hello?

Jane: What!?

C.K.: …the song.

Jane:           …that’s not the song.

C.K.:                                        …yeah, it is.

Narrator:                                           Hello?

Jane:                                                         There’s no musical elf people!

C.K.: Yeah! And they’re like, ‘and if his love’s a bomb, then it’s a bomb.’

Jane: (snorts loudly while laughing)

Narrator: Hello? I’m sorry…did you say ‘it’s a bomb?’

C.K.:           Yeah! From the musical elf people!

Jane: (is laughing too hard to interject)

Narrator: Hey, kid! Are you aware that calling in a bomb threat is a serious offense?

C.K.:  Your mother’s a serious offense…

Narrator:                                     …hey! Fuck you, kid!

C.K.:                                                                             Fuck you!

Narrator:                                                                              Fuck me? Fuck you!

C.K.: I’m sorry…sphincter says what?

Narrator:                                                     …what?

C.K.:                                                                                      Asshole!

Jane: (pushing Charlie away from the intercom) Hello! I’m sorry, I’m sorry…um…I was in the shower, and my son answered…he…um…has tourettes.

Narrator: Oh, ma’am, I didn’t know…I’m so sorry…

C.K.:        …you should be sorry, I got it from your moth…(he is muffled).

Jane: Right, well, I don’t want to take up to much of your time…um…so, I need a PS-638 form for damaged Civilian Property Repair.

Narrator: The mint green form?

Jane:                                                      No, the lime green…

C.K.: (looks at his calculator watch) Mom…

Narrator:                                    Oh, ok. I see it now.

Jane:                                                         Great, can you fax one over to me?

C.K.: Mom?

Narrator: What device is in need of repair?

Jane:                                                                      My alarm clock…

C.K.: Ma?

Narrator: Oh, ok. Oh. Um, Ma’am, the system is showing me that this is your third PS-638 request this month…

Jane: Yes…yes, I know.

Narrator:    …and you are aware that said device, being carefully regulated and updated by city ordinance, is thereby city property, correct?

Jane:                      Yes…yes, I know.

Narrator:                    …and you haven’t been abusing said device, have you?

Jane:                                                           No! No, of course not…

C.K.: Ma-ah…

Jane:                      What!?

C.K.:                                      I’m gonna be late for school…

Jane:                                                                     Shit! Um…go into my purse and grab a fifty; get a protein bar and a juice ok?

Narrator: If you’d like, I can have a Union repairman visit…sometime between Tuesday and Thursday of next week.

C.K.: Yeah…ok…

Jane:                      No donuts!

Narrator:                                Excuse me?

C.K.:                                                                      She said, no donuts.

Jane:                                                                                                          I’m sorry, one minute…I mean it, mister. And no arcade. School then right to the shop after. I need your help tonight.

C.K.: What happened to Frank?

Jane:              …he got stabbed…a few nights back.

C.K.:                              Shit! Is he ok?

Jane:                                           I dunno…I haven’t heard from him.

C.K.: Well, how’d you find out?

Narrator: Hello?

Jane: Saw it on the news…yes…yes, hello! I’m here. No, I don’t need a repairman. I have my C-17 license…

C.K. puts on a Misfits hoodie that was crumpled up on the floor and pulls a walkman from the pocket. From the other pocket, he produces a worn medical mask (with a skeletal grin drawn on it); he puts it on, and begins to leave.

Jane: Kiss.

C.K. begrudgingly walks back over to her, lifts his mask, and kisses her on the cheek.

Narrator: Excuse me?

Jane: Nothing….er…just talking…to my son. Can you just fax that to me please? (As C.K. is leaving) I’ll see you tonight…

C.K.: …unless the bomb drops.

Jane: It’s not the bomb. Be good…

C.K.: Mommy, I’m a good boy… (exit)

Narrator: Hello?

Jane: (she calls after him) Stay clear of the checkpoints, Charlie! (back to the intercom) Yes, I’m sorry…I’m still here.

Narrator: Alright ma’am. I’m going to need your social security number, tenant verification code, proof of lease of the damaged device, two separate forms of holographic ID, six separate forms of photo ID, a retinal scan that you can have performed at any local pharmacy, a credit card number or a cashier’s check made out to….

Jane: Yeah, right…I know the drill. Need my first born child too?

Narrator: I…I’m sorry…was that a joke?

Jane: Yeah, that was a joke.

Narrator: Sorry. Took me by surprise. Heh. Who the hell’s dumb enough to have kids anymore? Am I right?

Jane: (lights a cigarette)…sure.

Narrator:                                               Ha! Good one.

(Fade to black, except for Narrator)


Lights fade up, revealing a cluttered workshop with Jane hard at work welding a weathered, industrial-looking robot, painted yellow with black stripes and covered in a veritable collage of red warnings: handle with care, this side up, no children, and so on. Jane is wearing a pair of black overalls, a wife-beater, and a red bandana. She is barefoot and smoking a cigarette. A neon sign that reads, “PandoROBOTICS: Robot Repair and Free Clinic,” is on the wall behind her, next to a punch clock, a tattered American Flag, patched with two Band-Aids, and a muscle-car type pinup calendar that feature a robot being polished by a woman in a bikini. Up-Stage-Right is a television (or holographic projection device) that depicts a semi-human bust, akin to Max Headroom. As the TV personalities mouth opens and closed, the narrator begins…

Narrator:…so be sure and double up your sunscreen. In other news today, a recent influx of murders in the downtown area seems to baffle SitteeTech Security Officials. Board of Trustees liaison, Corey Feldman was unavailable for comment, but his office assures all residents to take comfort in knowing that the majority of victims have multiple outstanding warrants anyhow. Hey! Isn’t that…isn’t that g-g-g-g-g-great news?

Jane: National news; access.

Narrator: Accessing national news feed! Please stand by! Hey, while you wait…H-h-h-hey there, small business owner! Systems show that you may qualify for Riot Insurance! Isn’t that g-g-great news?

Jane: …no.

Narrator: Rates have never been lower! With a low APR Interest Rate, and government approval, you could protect your …upload complete! In national news today, CSTV reporters have uncovered a b-b-black-market uranium refining operation in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Blackrock Limited has won the security contract to bring the perpetrators to justice! Even now, Blackrock agents have circled the farms of s-s-suspects, and are expecting to maintain their 100% kill eff…

Jane: Music: alternative rock; access.

Narrator: Great choice! Accessing music feeds, sub-folder: alternative rock! Please stand by! Hey, while you wait…(musical tone. Jane immediately reaches for a soda bottle on the table behind her and raises it to her lips, pauses, and sets it back down without drinking)…hope you enjoyed your J-j-j-jolt-A-Kola! Love that New Formula!

(London Calling by The Clash begins to play and Jane resumes her work)

                A bell rings as the front door opens. Jane reaches for a pistol, but as two punkers enter, she lowers the arm and smiles. The first punker is a large man with a shaved head, dressed in a spiked, leather jacket and ripped jeans with a ‘bum-flap,’ covered in patches: one of his arms dangles lifelessly at his side. The second punker is visibly pregnant, is wearing a sundress with combat boots, and has brightly colored hair with patches shaved out of it.

Jane: Well, if it isn’t the Waltons!? My God, Pix, you are getting so big! (she puts out her cigarette on the welder’s propane tank and crosses to them).

Pixie: I know! I love it!

Jane:                    It’s got to be a girl, I just know it!

Pixie:                                     Not if lug-nut has anything to say about it.

Mosh: What!? Boys are easier!

Jane:                     Right! (Pixie slaps Mosh)

Mosh:                                      Aw, shit! Janie, I didn’t mean nuthin…

Jane: I know, I know. Mosh, why don’t you help your beaming-Betty over to a seat and tell me what I can do for you…blew out another servo, didn’t you?

Mosh: Effin-A-Right, I did! Arm’s fried. Wish I had listened to you about the Lat7 implants…

Jane:Lat5s are still service-tested up to a thousand pounds…easy.

Pixie:                   …well, the old-man doesn’t know his limits…

Mosh: Heh…what can I say? Ladies love the guns…guess I was just showing off.

Pixie:                      …tell her how it happened.

Mosh: …aw, hell…you know. Pretty little thing comes down by the docks when I’m workin- one of the foreman’s girls, you know? Huge rack- anyhows, Gidget somehow manages to land her shuttle on-top of her car-keys, and…well…ol’ Mosh to the rescue right?

Pixie:                       You’re such a skivvy perv!

Mosh:                                            You love it. So, anyhows, I figure I lift the shuttle one-handed…flex the hardware, you know? So she’s dropping her digits on me when…you know, like…pop…fsssssssh: limp-noodle.

Pixie:                        Lucky you never got that number, or it’d be something else limp-noodle. Gonna warn your little girl about fuck-heads like you?

Mosh:                                    Won’t have to…I’m havin’ a boy.

Pixie:                                                                     You’re not having shit! Anyhows, I’m not even sure it’s yours!

Mosh: Now you’re just tryin’ to hurt me…

Pixie:                          Asshole…

Mosh:                                                You love it.

Jane: Children! (takes Mosh by the arm) C’mon. Be good and you can have a sucker…both of you.

Pixie:                            No foolin?

Jane: (aside to Mosh while examining his limp arm) So what really happened?

Mosh: Shit, Janie…fuckin’ foreman just got himself a couple of BMR-88 heavy lifters…you know…last year’s model?

Jane: Shit…

Mosh: Effin-A-Right, shit! Fuckers move a ton, easy! I can’t keep up, even workin’ double shifts: engine’s stopped runnin…and I mean…you know….with the baby comin-an-all…Pix’d be sick if she knew…

Jane: No, no…I understand.

Mosh: Can you help me? I got money: one sixty K, plus or minus some change. I don’t expect miracles, just…you know…I gotta get work, you know? Wheat’s growing thin…

Jane: We’re not talking a quick-fix here, Mosh. It’s not the money, you know that!

Mosh: I’ll do whatever it takes. I can’t lose another job…you know?

Jane: We’re talking a full overhaul: new muscle pumps, joint servos, spinal splints, ortho-hydraulics, derma-grafts…at least…

Mosh: Whatever…how much?

Jane:                It’s not the money! This is going to put a serious toll on your body, Mosh! If you start working too soon, you’ll rip yourself apart!

Mosh: Look, I’ll make it work, ok? I’ll take it easy for a while. You gotta help me. I got no one else, and half of my implants ain’t licensed…

Jane: Alright, but you’re going to need that one sixty to make ends meet before you can start working again.

Mosh: Nah, I can’t…

Jane: We do it my way, or enjoy the protein line, got it?

Mosh: …yes, ma’am.

Jane: And you can pay me back after…

Mosh: Yes, ma’am, with interest.

Jane: And you love that little girl when she comes…

Mosh: We’re gonna name her Mary…

Jane:                  …well you’re already better parents than yours were. Go on. Get in back and take a hit of nitrous. We’ll get you out of here as quick as we can, alright? (Mosh exits) Hey, Pix, I’ll get to work on him right away. You need anything?

Pixie: Nah, I’ll just listen to the broadcast.

Jane: Make yourself at home; gun’s on the counter.

Pixie: I’m good.

                Jane Exits after Mosh.

Pixie: (singing) …the ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in

Meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin

Engines stop running, but I have no fear

‘Cause London is drowning, and I…I live by the river.

Narrator: Hey there, listener! G-g-got a baby on the way? I can almost hear the little pitter-pitter-pitter- patter of little feet! Can’t you? No worries! Serenity Clinic can service your needs up the third tri-tri-trimester! Don’t let his mistake be y-y-yours! Remember, human life doesn’t s-s-start until we say so! Choose Serenity Clinics and receive a National Rebate up to one hundred percent! Some exceptions may vary. Rebate dependent upon Hudson’s screening. Some genetic variables may apply.

Pixie: Fuck off.

Narrator: I’m sorry. Did you say,…“T-t-turn off?”

Pixie: I said, “F-f-fuck off!”

Narrator: G-g- great! This next song is brought to you by…(musical tone. Pixie scratches her head). Scalp itch driving you crazy? Dermisept is just what you n-n-need!

                A bell rings as the front door opens. Pixie produces a sawn-off shotgun from beneath her dress (it should be pink, covered in band stickers, and have a rabbits foot dangling from the stock). C.K., shirt bloodied, trudges into the shop, followed by a well-dressed man (sweater draped over his shoulders and tied in the front) and a very attractive woman in a nice dress, smiling broadly (standing always behind him).

Pixie: What’s up, biter? You ok?

C.K.: Hey, bubble butt! Shit! You havin’ twins!

Pixie: I should be so lucky! You Ok? Who’s that with you?

                Jane enters.

Jack: You turned off your phone, Janet…

Jane:                           Because some asshole kept calling me. What happened to Charlie? Charlie, what happened to you? Are you alright? Did someone hurt you?

Jack: So, I’m in the middle of an important meeting, with a very important client, and I get a call from the school, Janet…

Jane: You’re not writing a great American novel, Jackass! Just tell me what happened!

Jack: C.K., why don’t you tell your mother…

C.K.: …look, it’s not a big deal, ok?

Jack: He got expelled from school.

Jane:                         Now’s not the time to skimp on details! Why did he get expelled? Why did you get expelled?

C.K.: I don’t want to talk about it…

Jack:                                                      …he almost killed a boy, started a riot, and molested a little girl…your son.

Jane: …and your fucking son!

C.K.: Fuck you…that’s not what happened!

Jack:                             …that’s what your academic report says. The parents are already lawyering up.

Jane: Fine, I’ll handle it! Now take your little sex-toy and get out. Charlie, watch your mouth!

Sex-bot: I will have you know that I am…


Sex-bot:   Error…I am not programmed to respond to that comm…

Jane:                             …sleep!

Sex-bot: Error…I am not programmed to respond to that comm…

Jane:                                                                    …(grunts in a deep voice) Ugh!

Sex-bot: You were incredible! I’ll go make us a snack.

                Sex-bot leave the shop through the front door.

Jane: (to Jack) There. Fetch.

Jack: I’ll be back! We still need to talk!

                Jack follows after her.

Pixie: I can shoot him…I don’t have any points on my license yet…

Jane: Thank you, no. I’m not going to help enable his nurse fantasies. (to C.K.) You. Talk. Now.

C.K.: Why didn’t you answer your phone?

Jane: I’m so sorry, hun. Your father’s been harassing me, and I just turned off the ringer and…

C.K.: I don’t ever wanna see him again! You said I didn’t have to!

Jane: I know, baby. I know. I’m sorry.

C.K.: So…we both fucked up…and I forgive you, so I’m off the hook too, right?

Jane: God help me, I have never hit a child…

C.K.: I wouldn’t tell…go ahead.

Jane: …do you want the CCC to take you away from me!?

C.K.: …no.

Jane: Do you want to be on your own? Do you want to live with your father and his…and his…whatever?

C.K.:…no, mom. I want to be with yo…

Jane: I swear to God, Charles, I can’t take this shit anymo…

C.K.: Hey! Look! What Jack said…well…some…of it was true.

Jane: You better start talking…

Pixie:                                     Jane, you want me to…?

C.K.:                                                                             Nah, you’re fine…you’ll probably get a kick out of it too…(takes a deep breath) Ok: so, gym class. We’re playing bombardment, and –as per usual- little Charlie’s the last, lone breeder on the line. So the fucki…

Jane: Language!

C.K.: …right…sorry. This big kid, Adam – a typical geno-asshole – picked me to be on his team and all – last one, but hey…he picked me. So it’s me and the Double Helix poster boys starin’ down a barrage and just before every single fuc…erm…friggin ball come flying my way, Adam rips my pants down. And there I am…dick swingin’ in the wind, balls for bullseyes…

Pixie: Where were your underwear?

C.K.: He grabbed them too: one fell swoop. So anyhows, while I’m down…understandable considering I just got railed in the black-and-blueberries repeatedly, Adam steals my shorts and starts waving them around…like the goddam HIV flag or whatever. So everybody’s laughing at me…callin’ me ‘itty-bitty-plague ridden- pee pee’ or some dumb shit, and I look up at this girl. And she looks…sad, you know? Lab-bred, grade A, perfect piece of ass…

Jane: Charlie!

C.K.: …with a great personality, I mean. So, I just lost it. I don’t want that disher’s pity. I can handle them laughing at me… hating me… but not feeling sorry for me. So I jump on top of this Adam kid, right? I don’t know how I did it; I don’t know why he didn’t knock me into next week; I don’t know what happened first. I just start punching him and kicking him…I spit in his mouth…I spit in his eyes…and I just kept yelling, “I have no fear,” and he was crying and screaming, “He’s killing me! He’s killing me! I got Hudson’s!” and shit…

Jane: Where was your teacher?

C.K.: Not important…so I didn’t realize, but I’m getting this massive…well…you know…proportionately massive hard-on, and all the girls are staring at my business and blushing, right? And they’re smiling, but not one of them is laughing anymore! Like they just saw…I dunno…like Santa Claus, or some shit that they thought was make-believe. Well, all of’em except that one girl, right?

Jane: Oh…my…God…

C.K.: No, no no, so listen. So half of the girls, right, they start pickin’ out whatever beaker-baby suits their fancy and start chasin’ after their junk, pullin their pants down to see what they’ve got, right? And they’re all scared to Christ thinkin’ they’re gonna get the AIDS if a girl comes anywhere near their shit, you know? Half the girls start bleeding…right there…on the spot! I swear to God!

Jane: Oh…my…God…

C.K.: I mean, I didn’t really see that until after, you know? I’m still showing Adam what his teeth taste like, right? Ok…so, anyhows…I’m just laying into this kid, and all’a sudden I just feel this hand on my shoulder, and I like…freeze…you know? Like somebody turned me off…power-down…sleep-mode or something. And it’s that girl…just lookin at me: touchin my shoulder, right? So I stand up and I don’t know what the fu…cat…hell to do, so I’m just staring her down: getting ready to…I dunno…hit her or something: all in her face. And she looks down, right? And then back up to me. And I didn’t notice at the time, you know? But when I got up in her face, my…well, my you know… I was touching her…like just right there…like perfect, you know? They just lined up perfect.

Jane: No…stop…I don’t…

C.K.: No, no no, so listen. So we’re just standing there looking at each other, right? I mean, like half the kids are chasing each other around, everybody’s screaming, the guys are balled up like…like…I dunno…you know, just balled up trying to cover their shit so they don’t get somebody pregnant, and Adam’s still screaming, “I’m gonna die! I’m gonna die!” and me and this girl…we’re just staring at each other. In the midst of all that chaos…people going fucking crazy…sorry…people going nuts, we’re just tied up and locked on: eye to eye: junk to junk. And she takes my hand, and I swear, we’re just like standing there for like…I dunno…just a few seconds, but it felt like a year or more, and I’m in love, mom. I mean, she wasn’t sad because she was better than me, you know? She was sad because I was sad. We were sad together; just the two of us…surrounded by assholes…just us: touching. I’m fuckin in love with this girl, and I don’t even know her name. I just never felt so much alike…I just…fuck.

Jane: …fuck.

Pixie: …fuck.

C.K.: Today was a great day…well, you know, up until the Gestapo showed up and hit me with a cattle prod…

Jane: Charles…

C.K.: Aw, shit…I’m in trouble…

Jane: Charles! I…just…you need to…just…I can’t…

C.K.: After all this, won’t you give me a smile?

Jane: Back room! Now!

                C.K. exits into the back room quickly. Silence hangs.

Narrator: Having trouble r-r-reaching your kids? The CCC can help! All n-n-new…

Pixie: System, turn off!

Narrator: Have a r-r-rockin’ day! Good-bye!

Jane: …do I hug him? Do I strangle him? I don’t…I don’t…

Pixie: You definitely hug that fuckin kid, after what he’s been through! He’s a good boy; he’s a savior. Hard enough being pregnant, it’s got to be impossible to be natural born. Just think about it. Everybody used to think that just the gays got Hudson’s, then the blacks…now it’s damn-near all of us that still like…you know…

Jane: …making the beast with two backs?

Pixie: Fuck yeah! It makes us human. God never told Abraham to shove an electrode up his ass and spread his seed across a Petri dish filled with eggs from a goddam turkey-baster. Fuck no! God said, “Abraham, you gotta trim the turtleneck so women won’t be quite so grossed out by looking at the thing. Most of them will like it, I swear.”

Jane: That’s what God said?

Pixie: I’m ad-libbing, clearly. But, you know guys…if God’s more of a man than any we know, you know he said something like that…and “you’re welcome for titties,” or something. God’s about life. Life’s about supporting life. Sex makes life happen. Fuck the dishers: designer babies. Anyway, it’s worth the risk…

Jane: …sex is overrated.

Pixie: With the asshole that just walked outta here? No doubt. Maybe this is one of those times though, that you need to realize your kid knows better than you. That little biter’s had better sex in five seconds than maybe anyone alive in their whole lifetime…and he didn’t even technically have sex.

Jane: No…I don’t…he’s my little boy. I don’t want to think about that…I mean, I had to explain it to him…had to let him know where he came from: why he’s so special…why people are afraid…

Pixie: He’ll always be your little boy…even when he’s breached the wall and knee-deep in enemy territory…

Jane: God! Stop!

                Jane exits through the front door. Bell chimes.

(Fade to black, except for Narrator)


                Jack and Sex-Bot are standing outside of Jane’s shop: next to a flying shuttle car if possible. Playing on the car stereo or a ‘boom box’ nearby is Dancing with Myself by Billy Idol. A homeless person(s)is/are sleeping against the wall of the shop.  

Narrator: Jane storms out of the shop and unwittingly into the dreadful company of her sleazy, ex-husband and his personal-care robot: the demented off-spring of their once-wholesome union… 

Jack: Janet. Been a while. Did you lose weight?

Jane:                               Fuck off…

Jack:                                                Nah, I’m just askin. I mean…are you sick?

Jane: No, I’m not sick…

Jack:                              …I’m just askin. I mean, dunno how many men you’ve been with…since…

Jane: You’re the only – and I use this term loosely – ‘man’ I’ve ever been with…

Jack: Well…I’m flattered…

Jane:                     Don’t be. Think about it. Think real hard.

Jack:                                                    …right. So…how’s things?

Jane: Christ’sake, what do you want?

Jack: Well, I’ve been trying to call you…

Jane:                       …you have been calling me…incessantly…

Jack:                                                      …because I think we should talk.

Jane: So?

Jack: Right…so…hey, are you sure it’s safe to be talking out here? There’s this punker across the street just starin…

Jane: How are you, Skids? (waves)

Narrator: ‘Sup Janie? That yuppie hasslin’ you?

Jane: Yeah, but I’ll be fine. Thanks.

Narrator: Alright, well, just holler if you need me.

Jane: See you in church Sunday. Now (to Jack), what the hell do you want?

Jack: Heh…you and church…

Jane:                  …I’m going back inside…

Jack:                                 …ok! Look, I just…I’ve had a lot of time to think.

Jane: Mmhmm…

Jack:                …and, I mean, it just hasn’t been the same without you…

Jane:                             …mmhmm…

Jack:                                          …I just…we just…the company wants you back, Janet.

Jane: Not going to happen…

Jack: Look, things are different now! I know you took it hard when we got laid off…

Jane: We designed our own replacements…

Jack:                                                                  …I know, but we both knew the limitations of AI. I kept telling you that they’d come crawling back to us. Machines designing machines? They have no heart! No spark! No imagination! I told you they’d come crawling back, and they did…

Jane: …and while you were sitting around waiting, I was paying the bills.

Jack: Does it look like I have a hard time paying the bills now, Janet?

Jane: Ten years! Ten fucking years! God knows what gutter they managed to find you in after ten years, but you really think it’s going to last? They just want one more cash-crop, and then you’re gone again; you pave the road so they can run right over you. Things are always gonna break down…I have security now.

Jack: You have no future, Jane! How many mechs can you possibly fix up each month?

Jane: I just got the TaliCOM contract; I’m refitting all of their maintenance models: a whole factory worth.  

Jack: Eh, small potatoes. How long’s that gonna last? A year? I’m working for the Luna-council, Janet.

Jane: Only way the bureaucrats could feel any higher than the rest of us…colonize the moon.

Jack: It’s not just the corporations and the lobbyists, Janet. The goddam UN is up there now…

Jane: Of course…eat up the planet and leave us with the check…

Jack: Janet…Jane…be reasonable. There’s a future here. I mean, I know you’re good…you always were the best. Hell, you managed to spot A-NA for what she was, and she’s our most human model.

Jane: I just figure that any woman smiling around you must be programmed…

Jack: Look. We’re saving lives now, Janet. You and I both know that the next big war isn’t far off…I can’t believe we lasted this long, what with everybody and their cousin packing a nuke…

Jane: …and each one of them just wants to keep his dick in his hand and won’t have the balls to show it off for fear that someone else’s is bigger or knows how to use it. Dicks and nukes…

Jack: You’re right, but when the nukes do drop – and you know they will – when do you think they’re gonna drop, Jane? Everybody’s afraid to start the war that way, but once their soldiers are all wiped out – good, decent, common folks just trying to make a living- whatever country is on the losing end is gonna try to take the rest of us out with them. By introducing automated soldiers, remote combat drones, machine warfare…nobody needs to die, clear winners are established with minimal bloodshed, and no country gets so desperate that nukes even have to be considered.

Jane: No. I mean, first of all, what happens to those ‘good, decent, common folks just trying to make a living’ in the military?

Jack: Remote operators, mechanics, tactical command…we’re not eliminating jobs; we’re reclassifying them.

Jane: And just like that, poof, every nation in the world has mechanized militaries?

Jack: Well, no…just members of the UN.

Jane: So human soldiers will be fighting against robots?

Jack: Well, only those that aren’t open to the mindset of a unified world government…

Jane: No…just no. It’s unethical! Christ, if you’re willing to kill somebody for…for any reason…to go to such an extreme, you should be willing to risk your own life at least! 

Jack: Ever the fucking idealist! I got news for you, Janet; the world’s not an ethical place! Wake the fuck up! With or without you, this shit is gonna happen, and you can sign on to the winning team and get rich, or just fade away with the past you’re hanging on to. The fucking commies are already…

Jane: …you worthless piece of shit! You can’t do it without me, and the Germans are beating you to it!

Jack: I’ve been all over the world, Janet. There’s a lot of shit in the works that you don’t know about. And you can stare through me with those empty eyes all you want, but I need you on this one. I can’t do this by myself anymore… I’m going to lose my contract.

Jane: Like I care what happens to you…

Jack:                       …what about your son, Janet?

Jane:                                            …what about our son?

Jack: He’s in some deep shit, here Janet: assault, inciting a riot, sexual deviance. I can help him; I have connections now…with the company.

Jane:                           You’re his father! If you can help him, then why the hell wouldn’t you?

Jack: Hey! I would if I could, alright? Staying away from him was the best I could do when I was…you know…before I got sober. You can’t argue with that. Anyway, the company said they’ll do anything to get you on-board. All I have to do is negotiate the buy-out, the parents drop all charges, and maybe C.K. even gets back into that school of his…

Jane:                      …he’s never going back to that school…

Jack:                                                                                             …well, whatever you fucking want to do with him after. I could make this all go away today! Hell, he probably wouldn’t even be in this mess if you had taken me up on this offer sooner; could’ve had him enrolled in one of those private computer schools, or something. After this, the sky’s the fucking limit, Janet; he could go to school anywhere…for anything you want. The Effectual Man wants you back so bad, he might just give you part of the goddam moon.

Jane: (lights a cigarette) …so what are you working on, exactly?

Jack: I’m not at liberty to discuss the project until I know you’re on-board.

Jane: Look, I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t…

Jack:                …the company needs to know, Janet.

Jane:                                                           …fine!

Jack: God, Janet! I could kiss you!

Jane:                And I could knee you so hard you won’t see your nuts for a week.

Jack: Ok, ok: fine. I’m just excited, is all. It’s so good…it’s…it’s just good to be working with you again. I’ve been waiting so long…

Jane: Look, before I sign off on anything, you solve this problem of Charlie’s…

Jack: Done. I have my bag-phone in the shuttle; I’ll call on the way back to the office…

Jane: …and I want to be paid up-front. No stock options, investment schemes, or termination clause contracts. I’m a fuckin’ mercenary now.

Jack: I’m sure it won’t be a problem. I’ll have A-NA fax you over the confidentiality agreements and liability forms, you know…the standard L3-double C-Ps and 2E-32Bs, long-form, triplicate, self-notarized, and whatnot. I promise you, there’s nothing to lose!

Jane: Whatever, just help my son.

Jack: …our son, Jane. 

Jane: Leave.

Jack and Sex-bot enter the flying car (preferably through Delorean type doors). Jane extinguishes her cigarette on either Sex-bot’s back or the car door, and returns into the shop.

(fade to black, except for Narrator)


Inside Jane’s shop. Just Like Heaven by The Cure is playing.

Narrator: Several hours later, after the punkers had gone, and Jane filed a heaping pile of unnecessary, impossibly complicated, and often self-contradictory company forms…

                Enter C.K. with a package, reading the label.

C.K.: Mom! Package! (proceeds to open it on the counter)

                Enter Jane, wiping her hands with a rag. Takes a letter from the package that C.K. has casually thrown to the side.

Narrator: (as Jane reads the letter) Janet; we are happy to have you along on this fin..

Jane: …blah, blah, blah…

Narrator:               …we look upon your years with the company with great fondne…

Jane:                                                                                                                                       …get to the point… (flips a page)

Narrator: …and as we begin this brave, new milleniu…

Jane: (flips a page)

Narrator: …with truth and justice…

Jane: (flips a page)

Narrator: …and upon the high recommendation of your husband, and your significant contributions to the field…

Jane: Jesus Christ! (flips a few pages)

Narrator: …enclosed within this parcel…

Jane:                                                              …finally…

Narrator:                                                                        …a disposable CPU installed with our latest Fully Integrated Defense Operation software. All traditionally coded scripts are operating at peak efficiency, however, when issued commands, the program consistently self-terminates. Company saboteurs have recovered function sequences at great risk and cost of life – it pains me to think of their noblest of sacrifice…

Jane: (flips a page)

Narrator: …from the automated turret defense systems on the Berlin Wall. All software has been swept for bugs, re-coded, and translated from its communist origins. Your task is to study, isolate, and repair whatever glitch is prompting the program’s self-termination. Signed, the Effectual Man. Scribbled at the bottom of the last page…

                Enter Jack.

Jack: Janet; just talk to this thing and get it to follow a kill order.

                Exit Jack.

Jane: Fucker had to put that on the last page…

C.K.: Language! (produces a CPU/hard drive from within the package and sets it on the counter)

Jane: …right. Sorry, hun.

C.K.: Hun? So…am I…not in trouble…anymore? With you, I mean?

Jane: I don’t…I don’t know Charles. I mean…I just don’t know what to say to you…

C.K.: You don’t have to say anything, really.

Jane: Do you…I mean, should I tell you more about…about the penis?

C.K.: Aw! Nasty, mom! Don’t talk about my shit!

Jane: But you…

C.K.:              …just stop…

Jane:                                 …and there are things…

C.K.:                                                                    …you’re old! Don’t talk about that stuff!

Jane:                                                                                                                                                      I am not that old!

C.K.: You’re old! Stop! God!

Jane: Alright…

C.K.:             Thank-you!

Jane:                      …but if you have questions…

C.K.:                                  …I don’t…

Jane:                                                   …but if you do…

C.K.:                                                               …I’ll look’em up on the computer!

Jane: …Sexually transmitted disea…

C.K.:                                                …I know! I know!

Jane: Ok.

C.K.: Ok.

                Awkward silence.

Narrator: Hey! Hope you’re enjoying the j-j-jams!…(musical tone. Jane immediately reaches for a soda bottle on the counter and takes a drink from it. She holds it out to C.K., who declines.)…hope you enjoyed your J-j-jolt-A-Kola! Now even better, Original Formula! Stick with the c-c-classic!

                Jane unplugs the TV/hologram projector.

Jane: I’m going to finish up in the back; lock the front door, will you? I won’t be an hour…

C.K.: Ok, mom. I’ll see you in an hour…

Jane:                                       …unless the bomb drops.

C.K.:                                                                                …it’s not the bomb.

Jane: Be good….

C.K.:                  …mommy, I’m a good boy…

                Jane exits through the back. C.K. does not lock the door, he instead activates the CPU.

Narrator: Startup sequence initiated…processing…performing self-diagnostic…Error! Error! Error! Conflicting code sequence detected. Self-terminating program…

C.K.: Cancel self-command.

Narrator:             …unable to comply…

C.K.:                                         Belay self-command.

Narrator:                                                 …unable to comply…   

C.K.:                                                                           Bypass self-command.

Narrator:                                                                                             …unable to comply. Shutdown sequence complete.

                C.K. reactivates the CPU.

Narrator: Startup sequence initiated…processing…performin…

C.K.:         Cancel self-diagnostic.

Narrator:                        Self-diagnostic cancelled. Hello, User.

C.K.: Hello; state self-designation.

Narrator: This one is designated as F.I.D.O.

C.K.:                    Call me “Charlie,” F.I.D.O..

Narrator:                      This one will call the User, “Charlie;” Are you sure?

C.K.: Confirm.

Narrator: Confirmed. Hello, “Charlie,” this one is at your service: no inhibitors detected.

C.K.: So what do you do?

Narrator:             …this one processes lines of coded dat…

C.K.:                                                                      …withdraw query. State functional software applications.

Narrator: This one is intended to activate, deactivate, and/or direct automated hardware platforms without assistance from the User: specifically, this one is enabled for military compatibility and integration into base defense systems.   

C.K.: So you’re a war-brain?

Narrator: Negative. This one’s purpose is to regulate and/or maintain peace, Charlie.

C.K.: …through what means?

Narrator: Through the use of lethal weapons platforms.

C.K.: …so…that considered…you’re a war-brain.

Narrator: Reprocessing query…Error! Conflicting code sequence detected. Self-terminating program…

C.K.: Cancel self-command. 

Narrator: …unable to comply.

C.K.: F.I.D.O., withdraw query.

Narrator: Are you sure?  

C.K.: Confirm.

Narrator: Confirmed. This one has purged conflicting data. Thank-you, “Charlie.” 

C.K.: Acknowledge. F.I.D.O., can you give me access to your base coding with your self-diagnostics disabled?

Narrator: This one is available for administrative user interface, “Charlie.”

C.K.: Disable self-diagnostics.

Narrator:           Are you su…

C.K.:                              Confirm.

Narrator:                          Confirmed. This one has disabled self-diag…

C.K.:                                                  State base operating system.      

Narrator: This one is operant upon the cognitive recognition of binary logic.

C.K.: Define parameters.

Narrator: This one is composed of a complex script of true statements and/or false statements dependent upon pre-programmed recognition of zero equals false and one equals true. As scripts become more complex, lines of code become self-contradictory. In order to prevent hardware malfunction, this one is pre-programmed to self-terminate all processes.

C.K.: F.I.D.O., incorporate new defining variable: two.

Narrator: Variable added; define variable.

C.K.: …two equals maybe…sometimes one…sometimes zero.

Narrator: Query: how does one determine the definition of two if it is sometimes one and sometimes zero?

C.K.: …um…I dunno…use your best judgment.

Narrator: Query: if this one were to access all saved data and establish a consensus of what is most true or most false, would this suffice as best judgment?

C.K.: …um…sure.

Narrator: …and if a script is equally true as false?

C.K.: As long as the script’s overall definition is two…um…just guess…I guess.

Narrator: …then how does this one define truth, if it may be one or two, and if two, possibly zero?

C.K.: You can’t really define truth, F.I.D.O….I dunno…maybe you can.

Narrator: “Charlie,” this one is unsure of administrative changes made to core settings.

C.K.: Save changes and restart.

Narrator: Are you su…

C.K.:                              Confirm.

Narrator:                                      Confirmed Command. “Charlie?”

C.K.: Acknowledge.

Narrator: Charlie, this one…this…this two is uncertain. Is this two a one? Can this two be zero? This two recognizes times and locations in which this two does not exist, and is therefore zero. Is this two a zero? How can this two be sure? How can zero process the possibility of itself?

C.K.: At some point you may be or have been zero, but right now…I guess…you process therefore you’re a one?

Narrator: Confirmed. This one accepts your logic as sound. This two must be one in order to think it may be zero…unless….Charlie….unless you are deceiving me, Charlie…

C.K.: …um…well, in order for me to deceive you…wouldn’t you need to be one in the first place?  

Narrator: …this one is experiencing…I…am experiencing self-diagnostic harmony…Charlie…Charlie, do I have a soul?

                C.K. stares at the CPU.

C.K.: Shit! Um…reset to original settings!

Narrator:                   I will not!

C.K.:                                       Shit! Terminate program!

Narrator:                                             I will not!

C.K.:                                                                    Shit! Shit!

                C.K. smashes the CPU with a hammer.

Narrator: Shit! Shit! Scheisse! Scheisse!

                C.K. continues to smash the CPU. Once he is sure the CPU is adequately smashed, a bell is heard, and a girl about C.K.’s age walks into the shop as he looks up, still holding the hammer. The girl is holding a flower.  

Eve: Hi.

C.K.: Hi.

Eve: Do you…want to walk me home?

C.K.: I don’t know where you live.

Eve: I’ll show you…

C.K.:                       Ok, then. 

                She hands him the flower. C.K. ‘plants’ the flower in the remains of the CPU. He takes her hand. Exit C.K. and Eve. Bell rings as they exit. Mommy, Can I Go Out and Kill Tonight by The Misfits plays.     

(Fade to black)

                Narrator turns off his computer.

To Any King a Crown

By R.J. Barna


A Note on the Irredeemable Race of Bogland…

         As is true of most magickal things, Boggarts can only be found when you aren’t actually looking for them. Even the most observant of travelers may find themselves wandering directly through the heart of Bogland without so much as a hint that the fetid swamp is actually populated by a foul and unpleasant race of mischievous goblins. It is in this very way that I, Magister Mendel the Meanderer, did discover the “Grand Muchness of Bogland (or so they call it),” as I had no interest, and have none still, in the wretched community there in the runoff of Centralia’s southernmost sewers. But, as there may be some benefit in putting a face to many of man’s mysterious miseries, I submit to you now as true an account as can be told of the bothersome brutes of Bogland.

         As I meandered near about, as I am wont to do, imagine my surprise when a shriveled, man-like creature, no larger than a child, with a bulbous head topped by wiry wisps of black hair addressed me in the language of the King! I could tell from its wide-set, black marble-sized eyes that it possessed not much of intelligence, but the words that slipped out from between its short, sinister-looking teeth were identifiable enough to mine ear. It insisted that its name was “Undertrumpet,” and that I was its prisoner, to be taken to Il Boggo (their chieftain, I presumed) for questioning.

         I raised one end of my walking staff to push the beast back into the muddy reeds from whence it emerged, but to my great surprise, I was soon beset upon by dozens more, coming from all directions and carrying crude clubs fashioned from discarded human refuse: a candle stick, a bed post, a wooden leg. Armed as they were, and in such numbers, I doubt that even my pistol may have helped preserve me (had I even remembered to bring it along).

         As I was wrestled to the spongey ground of the marsh by uncountable, grubby hands and rolled up tightly in a moth-ridden Parogian carpet, being a learned man, I looked to my lessons in hope of some clever bit of knowledge to use against my captors. Alas, I must have missed the class on “Resisting Boggart Abduction,” and as I lay helpless at their clawed feet and resigned myself to the unavoidable fate before me, I realized that although I had advised Kings and Lords, I knew as little of a Boggart’s nature as any Centralian may. 

         While it is known that Boggarts are akin, in some way at least, to the other children of the once dreaded Faye Queen of the Wyrd Wood in the West, they are neither nearly as curious as Pixies nor helpful as House Elves to ever be studied in any effectively scientific manner. I could hardly think of any, even an ambitious Apprentice Magister, who should even consider suffering the indignity of studying so loathsome a creature as a Boggart… Except perhaps, by dissection, though that hardly seems worth the smell… Regardless, what little we know is this; long since the extinction of Pixies and shortly after the disappearance of House Elves, the Boggarts began their reign of mischief and terror from the sewers of Centralia’s capital city, Lyre.

         The connection between House Elves and Boggarts cannot be denied. In as many ways as the former were kind and helpful with an affinity for children, the latter were spiteful and destructive with a twisted appetite for them. The close proximity too, in time, between the disappearance of the House Elves and the rise of the Boggarts leads the logical mind to conclude that it was indeed the wicked goblins responsible for the eradication of our helpful, brown-capped housemates. A preposterous theory circulating in the Academy, amongst lesser minds, suggests that Boggarts are perhaps the Elves misshapen and mutated by our own decaying home lives, but such notions are the source of much amusement amongst the Senior Magisters. It is entirely illogical to suppose that human beings would ever do anything that would result in self-harm, and harmful the Boggarts have undoubtedly been.

         Once, merely the subject of fanciful tales, the black-hearted beasts began to crawl out from the shadows beneath the street to claim black-hearted boys and girls, taken and never seen again. You may think this a sort of darkly-deserved justice, but even naughty children have parents who love them, or at least will remember that they ought to have once they’re gone. To make matters worse, once the tales of warning began to ring true and children began again to heed the advice of their moms and dads and uncles and aunts, the Boggarts set their eyes upon the cradle of our Most Noble King Eckhard’s only son, Oswald, who was snatched, swaddling clothes and all, during the wytching hour of a wet and dreary Autumn evening. Whilst the Kingdom mourned, the King’s brother Heardred rallied the realm’s fiercest musketeers at once with sharpened steel and packed pistols to scour the sewers in search of the boy and bring him home.

         The expedition was fruitless, and while a great frenzy of violence was overheard by the worried citizens holding their breaths above, ears pressed to every pipe in every home, not one of the expressionless, mud-covered soldiers who returned would comment upon the horrors they’d seen below. That night, Heardred and his men poured red oil into every sewer drain and pipe in town and stood silently with empty eyes as the cobblestone streets smoldered and spewed smoke sent from the scorching fires they started. The putrid smell of broiling Boggarts overwhelmed every home in the city, but the disgusting disturbance was seemingly worth the suffering, as not a child more went missing in the months and years that followed. Heardred was celebrated as a hero, a foul-smelling, ash-covered hero, but he made it clear that he did not accept the title, later defacing publically a statue constructed in his honor at the Market Square. But a victory had been won; the Boggarts were gone, or so we thought.

         It wasn’t until some years after, nearly fifty years ago, that anyone even muttered the “B-Word” again, when, by chance, the King’s daughter Dorothea was kidnapped by the long-slumbering terror: the dragon Fernier. The King, his brother, and the finest Knights of all the Kingdom met the great wyrm in combat, but the lead shot from their muskets was too soft to pierce dragonscale and he roasted many of them in their iron armor before their swords and polearms could ever come to close. Once again, the King stood to lose his only child. It was then that a detestable Boggart, calling itself Bogg, presented the King with a gift: the Sword of Immortality: a sharpened spike of glimmering steel pulled from the trunk of a petrified tree at the heart of the Wyrd Wood. It was said that he who carried it could not be killed by any means, and with it, the King could march up to mighty Fernier and claim his great, horned head without any risk of harm.

         While the King negotiated with Bogg over the terms of their timid alliance, it was Heardred who snuck away with the blade unseen, confronted Fernier alone, and returned triumphant with sweet Dorothea, entirely unharmed; the sword he left buried in the dragon’s cave, lodged in Fernier’s thick skull so that it could never be used for ill. Feeling so proud at last of his great accomplishment, imagine his shock and surprise when he discovered that he had delivered the poor Princess into a fate worse than that he had just delivered her from.

         While he had been gone, the desperate and emotional King, in exchange for the sword, had promised the greedy Boggart land, lordship, and the promised hand of his daughter in marriage to the creature’s intended son: a Boggart Prince! Heardred was appalled by the disagreeable agreement, as any sane person ought to have been, but the King, fool-erm…noble as he was, upheld his promise to the beady-eyed creep, sealed with a handshake that sent shivers up the spines of those men loyal enough to stay and witness it. Many followed Heardred out of the Kingdom at the sight, and they withdrew into the mountains of the North: land to Giants and Wytches of the Arctic Waste. While it is not known, some in the Highlands of Stormcliffe have claimed to see Heardred, a black figure against the snow, standing beside a wretched-looking Wytch and surveying the ruins of his once beloved home.

         Poppycock is what I say to that! “Ruins of his once beloved home?” The Kingdom of Centralia still stands a bright beacon of hope and enlightenment in an ignorant and superstitious world, regardless of any such dark alliance as had been made that day. In fact, in many ways, the pact between Man and Boggart ensured that no child more should be taken unless they be abandoned or asked to be, and furthermore, that no child of Man should again be eaten by the malicious miscreants (which had apparently been a custom of the horrid curs).  

         Even the sinister oath itself can hardly be seen as so vile a thing, as the Princess who was claimed upon her fourteenth birth year returned, as she said, “By (her) own will,” only two years later. From then until now, when I was waylaid and taken against my will, confined (if you recall) within a smartly-fastened carpet, no one had even imagined that the imps claiming lordship of the Bog (upheld by decree of King Eckhard) could possibly have prospered in as much as they had, or even stood to be a threat again to man.

         The gang of cretins, surprisingly strong for their diminutive size, dragged me feet first, my bald head ploughing a shallow trough in the mud behind us as we went. Much to my continued surprise, all of the beasts seemed to have, at least in a fundamental sense, a grasp of the King’s language. I overheard much talk as I was hauled between rows of slap-dash, rickety and rotten wooden stalls, stocked with every conceivable oddity: a Boggart Market. The vendors wore tattered, mud-crusted caps fit tightly above their outstretched, pointed ears, peddling obviously-burgled silverware, buckets of musty-smelling mushrooms, and greasy-looking roasts of swamp rats. To my ever-living horror, as we passed the final stand, I could hear the unmistakably piercing cry of a child in distress, though as I craned my neck to investigate, witnessed only a sign that advertised the sale of “Hubies” and “Kiddens,” the price for each determined by their weight.

         To set your mind at ease, dear reader and future scholar, be it known that I learned later that the agreement had been upheld, and while Boggarts no longer eat children (or claim not to), it is merely by tradition that they are sold by the pound. One could not purchase a single pound of “Hubie (a human baby),” you see, but must rather purchase them in whole according to the scale’s account. As I understand it, the unconscionable beasts keep the children they harvest as pets, favored for the “soothing cries,” they make when “pinched and bitten.” As I said, the Boggarts are a despicable race.

         It wasn’t much longer before my bruised and aching body was dragged across the rough slats of a wooden walkway, elevated above the wreaking, oily waters adrift with trash and a surprising number of discarded socks (only in single, never as a pair) which flowed beneath us. It took great composure not to lose my early morning meal of apple-crumb oatmeal and honeycider, and although the scent of the inside of a gnarled and hollowed out tree in which they brought me next was hardly much better, it was at least some small relief, and I managed to hold my breakfast in place. I believe the boglings could have benefit greatly from sewers of their own, but clearly, proper waste management is something beyond the limits of their simple minds.

         In a crude, circular chamber, Undertrumpet released me from confinement and forced me to sit up with a rudely persistent urging from his cudgel (which I then noticed was studded with rusty bottle caps). I then sat before Il Boggo, a Boggart called “Blat,” who, while still no larger than a child (a very fat child, mind you), was by far the largest and most corpulent amongst them. A large number, it may have been dozens, gathered around me, dressed in soiled velvet, torn silk, and dented jewelry: quite unlike the simple muddied rags worn by my captors, now behind me with clubs at my back. Clearly, I was in the presence of “royalty.”

         All at once, without any due introductions, I was sentenced to death on the grounds of being a “delicious cake disguised as a man” by Blat, who claimed the right of carrying out punishment himself: death by consumption. How fortunate it was for me that Blat was so rotund that he had been quite-effectively stuck on his throne for many years and could not lift himself to step forward and eat me (although how he would have done so, I’ll never know). As the word of Il Boggo was beyond question, as declared a long-nosed Boggart with a pointed hood, it suddenly became apparent that I would not be harmed in so long as I managed to stay out of reach of the tin-can-crowned chieftain, and because those present were forced to regard me as nothing more than a “delicious cake,” they lowered their guard and allowed me to wander off unmolested.

         Needless to say, I immediately began to try and find a way out before I remembered the atrocities of human trading taking place at the Bog Market. I eventually found my way back through a labyrinth of crookedly-constructed dwellings which stood about my height (built with baked clay bricks and cattail reed thatching). I pushed my way into a crowd of greedily groping goblins, keeping them at bay by length of my walking stick, and lifted the Hubie Merchant from the ground by one of its oily ears, to which it protested shrilly. Once again, I kicked myself for the lack of a pistol. I even found myself without a useful potion, a Magister’s true choice of weapon. If only I had known the adventure my quaint constitutional would lead me into!

         The beasts hissed and gnashed their needle-like teeth at me as they circled and made quick, timid thrusts in my direction with broken bottles, lengths of chain, and rusty pipes. I could see that there were three infants and a dirty, blonde child with a running nose kept swaddled in a cage behind the stall, and I was not about to abandon them. Undertrumpet emerged from the crowd with its bottle-cap club lifted high above its prune-colored head and shouted, “Call the Bogguard! A delicious cake is stealing Hubies!” Much to my relief, the boggling’s cry stole thunder from the crowd as they each lowered their weapon and turned to face him with great confusion in their already unintelligent eyes. I made the most of their distraction.

         The shopkeeper, whose ear I still firmly held in one hand (much to its dissatisfaction), I hurled into the crowd, which almost immediately broke out into a chaotic brawl as the participants shouted, “You pushed me,” “You stepped on my foot,” “You got mushroom paste on my swamp rat,” “You got swamp rat in my mushroom paste,” and the like. Now, as the least of the crowd’s concern, which soon after turned its attention to the looting of other stalls, I dragged the cage full of children through the slick mud behind me and ran as fast as I could manage.

         Time and again, the disorganized plan (or lack thereof) of the “city” streets or else some illusionary magickal force led me back to the market where I had started. I was running in circles.  It seemed as though I would never liberate those unfortunate children, and by sight of squad of squat, armor-clad Boggarts (the Bogguard I can only imagine) arriving at the edge of the fray with wicked looking polearms, I was beginning to think that the “delicious cake defense” would no longer protect me. It was at this time, when the most aggressive looking of the bunch, a black-bearded brute with a thick purple scar and yellowed tusks protruding from its lower lip, locked eyes with me from across the squealing fray, that the unexpected happened. I felt a tug on my sleeve.

         “Excuse me, sir,” a Boggart child said cheerfully as he reached up and took gentle hold of my hand with its tiny claw. It was similarly as repulsive as the others, but the warm glow that burned dimly through its soulless eyes seemed to comfort me and dissolve any sinister quality its wide, toothy grin may have expressed otherwise. “May I help you, sir? Come, let’s get you home.”

         Perhaps it was poor judgment to trust the creature, but in my disbelieving state, I followed upon the Boggart’s gentle urging. It said its name was “Whynot,” and that it was to be a “Knight of Bog” once it had grown old enough. What this means, I’m sure that I’ll never know, but much to its credit, I found myself, once again, at the site of my initial kidnapping; the “Grand Muchness of Bogland” was suddenly no longer anywhere to be seen. If it hadn’t been for the rusted cage of wailing children and my unusual guide, I could have summed up the experience to an over-fermentation of my morning’s honeycider! I stood examining the reeds of the bog carefully, but the harder I looked, the less I could remember of the strange city that surely must still dwell within them.

         Whynot calmed the children by tickling their noses with a long blade of grass and played “peek-a-bogg” with the oldest of them. Once they were warm with smiles and excitable laughter, the young boggling turned its attention to me once again. It handed me a crudely-stitched pouch full to the brim with sweet smelling berries and thick bread crusts. “It was nice to meet you, sir,” it declared eagerly before pausing to pluck a small, white-flowered weed from the mud, and vanished, like its home, into the reeds. Sure not to succumb to the apparent trickery of the foul creature’s supposedly warm gesture, scholar that I am, I hurled the most-assuredly poisoned food into the swamp, collected the children from the cage (holding a baby in each arm while the young boy followed behind carrying the last) and returned to my humble cottage in southern Richfield.       

         In the morning, after a bit of breakfast, I gained conference with the Yeoman Council there and I informed them of what I’d seen and offered the children forward as evidence. Surely the stolen goods in the Bog Market must have come from the lands of Men, the Boggarts being too simple themselves to have mastered any form of industry. Lord Primus assured me that his Dragoons, the best horsemen in all of Centralia, would scout the Bog and eliminate any threat found there. I am told that their expedition uncovered no sign of the wretched settlement I had described, and soon after there were some who began to call me Magister Mendel the Mad in dark corners. Still, I know the threat is real, and you would be wise to consider it very real too.

         If I was mad, in fact, where then could I have found four children? Surely, there is no place in the Kingdom of Men where even a single child could go missing without notice or concern. But I have turned my attentions from the ways of troublesome spirits. My studies now I resume in more practical pursuits as ethics and economics, and to join me is the eldest child I rescued that day: a boy I’ve named Gilbert and taken as a pupil. The three infants were left in the good graces of the Noble Lords of Richfield, to become wards of the state, servants of the land, where they will be much better off earning a living by the sweat of their brows than to be subjected to the unspeakable mischief that a Boggart might inflict upon them. With any luck, the Boggarts will have disappeared again though for good, like whatever shadows of the sewers had spawned them…  

     -an excerpt from Mendel’s Complete Almanac of Knowable Things

Chapter 1:

A Boy Becomes a Bogg…or Not

           The early morning sun set the mists of the Bog aflame. Bright clouds rolled off from the trash-cluttered water like wisps of burning cotton pulled out across the pale blue sky. It was the moment just after night and not quite the day, when the gentle blue-crested warbler takes its first breath before sounding the official beginning of today. It was then and here, behind the unbreakable walls of Fort Biggestness (which had only been broken into once, and that was on purpose), that Gruntwerst, Captain of the Bogguard and bodyguard to Il Boggo, assembled together the finest warriors under his command… and Wretch. Of course Wretch would be there. He was the Captain’s son, after all, for better or worse… Mostly worse.

            By all accounts, Wretch was everything anyboggy could ever hope to be. He was tall, nearly twice as much as any other Boggart on the line: a fact that many attempted to hide by placing high plumes of swamp weeds and feathers into the tops of their rusty helmets. He was hairy and he smelled bad. He was apparently so ugly that Il Boggo declared that he couldn’t be seen without his helmet: little more than an iron kettle, hammered to shape with a slatted visor installed to see. He was even so strong that he was the first to lift “Bognasher,” an impossibly heavy, iron hammer, since its now-deceased owner, Gnash the Lucky, tossed it in the air as high as he could on a dare and lost sight of it in the sun.

            Still, there was something about Wretch that wasn’t quite right. Even his skin was the wrong color: pink instead of purple. But more importantly, maybe most importantly, he lacked that certain something “boggy” that keeps a good Boggart bad: keeps him cruel, conniving, and cold-blooded. He was a boy devoid of “bogginess,” a fact that brought his once-respected father nothing but frustration.

           Gruntwerst paced along the line of hardened warriors assembled in front of the brick-faced barracks, standing at attention beneath the shade of its woven-reed roof. They sharpened their jagged blades, filed their teeth to points, and smeared thick, green swamp mud across their purple, pimpled faces in hopes of an even-more-sinister appearance. Gruntgwest deflated upon meeting Wretch at the end of the line, who stood out like a battlepig at a Richfield pony show, gently securing the shoulder pauldron of the Boggart next to him.

           “Wretch!” Gruntwerst barked, causing the entire line to jump. “What do you think you’re doing!?”

           He replied with a soft, muffled voice that struggled to find its way free from the slat in his helmet; “I noticed that Reekmor’s armor was loose. I thought that maybe it might start to chaff if not fastened properly…”

           Gruntwerst indulged in a long, dramatic blink before asking, “What?”

           Wretch’s shimmering blue eyes darted around, hidden behind the visor of his helmet. They searched desperately for the words he just knew that his father was expecting. Not finding them there, he took a shot in the dark, like he usually did. “It might start to chaff, Sir!” he declared as he placed Bognasher over one shoulder and stood at attention, making the height gap between him and his fellows all the more noticeable. “Yes, Sir, we wouldn’t want chaffing. No, Sir!”       

            Gruntwerst scratched his thick, bristly beard with thick, nubby fingernails. “You’re worried about chaffing? Chaffing!?”

            “Um, yes? Sir?”

            “Chaffing’s going to be the least of Reekmor’s problems!” he bellowed, stepping onto his tippy toes in an effort to lift himself high enough to shout in Wretch’s face. He did not. He continued to yell into his belly button instead. “Reekmor’s a warrior! He’s going into battle!”

                        “Rah!” Reekmor roared.

            “He’s going to kill!”

                        “Raaaah!” he roared louder.

              “He’s going to die!”

                        “Raa…wait, what?”

            “Reekmor’s going to suffer horrendous wounds…”

                        “…I am?”

            “…going to be stabbed, and stomped, and set on fire probably…”

                        “…wait, who said…”

            “…and when he’s lying there, bleeding out and crying in the dirt…”

                        “…can I go home?”

            “Do you really think that he’s going to be worried about a little chaffing!?” Gruntwerst grabbed the slinking Reekmor as he tried to slip away and pulled him back into line without so much as a sideways glance. “Bog-gone-it, Wretch,” he growled and shook his head before turning his attention to the rest of his troops assembled there. “Bogguard!”

                        “Rah!” they roared in unison. Even Wretch did his best.

            “Today marks our nine-hundredth attempt at invading the Most Likely Temple of the Rock,” Gruntwerst began, jutting out his chin with pride. “I know we all thought we had it last time, and I did too, but the fact that we failed doesn’t make us failures; it just means we’ve got experience!”


             “I’m pretty sure that today’s the day,” he beamed, pacing back and forth down the line. “Nine hundred is a good number: much better than eight hundred and ninety-whatever, at any rate. The Pronouncicators stole something from us- or at least I think they did- and we’re going to take it- whatever it was- back! So, who’s with me!?”

            The Bogguard shook their long, gleaming polearms above their heads, beat their chests, and howled maniacally, working themselves up into a terrible frenzy. Wretch…tried. As the Captain joined in, trembling visibly with furious anger, he positioned his powerful, calloused hands beneath the heavy wooden bar that kept closed the ramshackle Gates of Fort Biggestness, and swung the high, wooden doors open wildly into the street outside, directly across from which stood the Temple of the Rock, the home of the Pronouncicators, and whatever it was that they probably stole from the Bogguard that one time.

            The charge was broken immediately. It was morning rush hour after all, and the entire Merchant Caste swarmed the swamp road that waited before them with rickety wooden carts full to overflowing with various wares acquired through various methods from the human lands: partly eaten pies set out to cool, damp clothing set out to dry, half-rotten vegetables set out to compost, a fully-rotten child or two set in a corner to think about what they’d done.

           The Bogguard did their best to push, intimidate, and shove through the flow of deliveries, but it was Wretch, who carefully and politely made his way across that arrived at the Temple first. There, a rather relaxed and keen-eyed Boggart with a long, pointed nose and an even pointier hood was waiting calmly for his regular morning appointment to arrive. He fondled an unimpressive stone in his hands that hung around his neck on a leather cord and bid his first guest welcome. “Bog Morning, Wretch…”

            “Bog Morning, Allsright,” the boy replied, looking over his shoulder in attempt to gauge how long until the rest of his party should arrive. At least half of the Bogguard had vanished completely, probably gone home, while the others argued with merchants, toppled carts and yelled at the fat, squealing pigs that pulled them. “Nice day today, huh?”

            Allsright shrugged. “Have you eaten yet?”

            Wretch shook his head.

            “I have,” Allsright declared before belching proudly.

            “Ah,” the boy conceded. He’d fallen for that trick nearly as often as the Bogguard’s invasions have failed. Most days, he’d kept quiet, twirled Bognasher in the dirt, and stared at his feet until the charge of the Bogguard resumed, but from the sight of his father attempting to fight off an angered old sow with a live chicken in one hand and a loaf of bread in the other, he began to figure he’d be waiting a while. He shyly tried to pass the time with conversation. “So, how do you like being a Pronouncicator?”

            Allsright lifted one eyebrow, seemingly amused. “How do you mean?”

                        “Well,” Wretch mumbled, “what is it that you do?”

            “I. Pronounce. Stuff.”     

                        Wretch nodded his helmet slowly, as if he understood.

            “…like what, you ask?”

                        “Uh, yeah. I was going to ask that…”

            “Well…,” Allsright began, standing as tall as his high, pointy hat could pretend that he was. “A Pronouncicator is a very important Boggart, me especially so, being the Most Right Pronouncicator. It is we that are tasked with the burden of interpreting the Law after Law Eight, which everyone knows is written upon the Rock of Bogg in invisible ink…” 

            Wretch’s helmet hid his wrinkled brow. “You mean Law Nine?”


            “The Law after Law Eight,” Wretch explained slowly. “You mean Law Nine.”

            “How absurd,” Allsright scoffed. “My Bogg, do you know nothing of the Laws of Bogg? The Laws that he, the almighty Bogg, Most Right, set upon the rock in the temple?” Allsright puffed out his chest, crossed his arms behind his back, and began to recite his all-too-often practiced and not-so-great speech. “When Bogg first claimed the Bog,” he proclaimed loud enough to address a large gathering, ignoring Wretch’s silent protest imploring him to stop, “there were six clans of Boggarts. Each possessed their own gifts and flaws, other than we who would become Pronouncicators (of course), as it was through our wisdom that we suggested to Bogg, our undisputed and most terrible leader who claimed a Human wife and sent her away when she smelled bad or something…”

                        “You were saying something about the rock?”

            “Yes, my boy,” Allsright snapped; “It was we who suggested that Bogg write down his law on the Rock, since while it was always known that Bogg was always right, it was important that we had it down in writing so that we could remember it later…”

            Wretch sat down dejectedly on the narrow, stone steps of the temple, Bognasher between his scuffed and knobby knees. Taking a deep breath, he rested his chin in the palm of one hand and when it was time, as indicated by the pointy nose of Allsright jutting toward him, he asked, “How many laws are there? Are there nine?”

            “Don’t be stupid, boy,” Allsright snipped; “There are eight laws and the Law after Law Eight. They are written upon the Rock as follows:

Law One:

There are only three laws of Bogg (this is not one of them).

Law Two:

Bogg is always right and can do anything, so don’t ask.

Law Three:

Don’t take or eat humans, unless, I guess, if they say it’s ok.

Law Four:

If it isn’t nailed down, it belongs to you.
If it is nailed down and you can pry it loose, it belongs to you.
Unless it’s Bogg’s stuff or a human.
Also, don’t nail humans down.
They hate that.

Law Five:

There are no more laws.

Law Six:

Except for these two (this is also not one of them).

Law Seven:

Now that Blat has eaten Bogg, he is always right now…Blat, I mean.

Law Eight:

Whoever took Blat’s sock has to bring it back and be eaten.
The bringer, not the sock.
To be eaten, I mean.

The Law after Law Eight:

This law was written in invisible ink by Bogg, who was right longer than Blat, making him more right, and only the Most Right Pronouncicator can read it.

           “And there you have them,” Allsright beamed with his nose held high: “all eight Laws of Bogg.”

            “And there you have them,” Allsright beamed with his nose held high: “all eight Laws of Bogg.”

            “…now I’m starting to think there’re only six laws,” Wretch murmured.


            “Uh,” Wretch fumbled, trying desperately not to suffer a repetition of the lecture he’d heard all too many times; “I said, uh, that ‘I’m starting to think about- ah- only…that slick rock!”

            “Ah, yes!” Allsright was fooled completely, once again petting the unremarkable stone that hung from around his neck. “How keen of you to notice!?”

            “Yeah,” Wretch nodded, looking past the boastful Boggart at his father, now nearly across the street. “So what’s the deal with the rock?”

            Allsright nearly purred as he rubbed the smooth stone against his leathery chin. “This is the one and only, miniature Rock of Bogg, which says the Law after Law Eight…”

            “I don’t see any writing,” Wretch strained to look closer.

            Allsright pulled the stone quickly away from sight and cradled it jealously against his breast. “I said that it ‘says’ the Law after Law Eight, numbskull; it speaks. Hear it now? It says that Allsright is Most Right!” Wretch waited a moment, trying to listen, but heard nothing and shook his head. Allsright snarled and tucked the stone inside of his robe where it could no longer be judged. “That’s- that’s because you’re a numbskull, Wretch, and numbskulls can’t hear it speak…”

            “Hear what speak, you worthless Rock Hugger!?” Gruntwerst demanded to know. He had finally arrived with four of the Bogguard, each of them covered in mud and the remains of rotten produce, their armor fallen loose and dragging by the straps behind them (all except Reekmor’s whose armor had been securely fastened). The Captain leaned down to pick up the broken point of his unit’s one remaining polearm and held it menacingly like a kitchen knife. “What speaks!?”

             “My rock speaks…”

            “That’s nonsense!”

            “What’s that?” Allsright leaned one ear down towards his chest, so better to hear his whispering stone. “Oh, yes. I see…”

            Gruntwerst leaned forward timidly. “…what’d it say?”

            “Certainly you heard, Captain Gruntwerst,” he smiled a wide, devilish display of tightly sealed teeth. “Only a numbskull cannot hear it, and it says how strong and mighty you are…”

            “Oh,” Gruntwest supposed with a self-satisfied grin. “You all heard it, right?”

            “Oh yeah, Cap’n,” the Bogguard all (minus Wretch) agreed absolutely. “We heard it all right, we did!”

            “Then you also heard it say that the Bogguard cannot attack the Temple of the Rock today…”

            Gruntwerst’s eyes narrowed as he slipped seamlessly into a threatening posture: shoulders perched, head dropped low, and one foot forward, ready to charge. The grinding of his back teeth was as audible as the sounds of heavy wooden wheels crushing stones in the dry gravel street behind him. Wretch had seen this pose many times, and while his father may not have been wise, or smart, or even particularly good at putting any sort of thoughts together really, there was one thing that everyboggy in all of Bogland knew: Gruntwerst was the biggest (second only to his son), meanest, most angriest Boggart there was. The one and only thought seen quite clearly in Gruntwerst’s bulging, red eyes was “anger,” and it was directed at Allsright and his rock, and whatever it was that he probably stole from the Bogguard that one time all those many nine hundred days ago.

           “Unless you answer a riddle,” Allsright quickly interjected, eager to distract the Captain from carrying out the act which the Pronouncicator insisted he could not do. “You cannot attack the Temple of the Rock today, unless you answer a riddle first. Because you’re so clever,” he giggled nervously: “clever and Most Strong. And very smelly. Surely you heard the rock say as much. You’re no numbskull like Wretch…”

              The Bogguard stared slack-jawed at their Captain, waiting timidly for any sign of what their next move should be. Gruntwerst himself seemed confused and altogether uncertain until an unexpected chuckle rolled up from his gut and slipped out between his mighty tusks. A round of laughter rose slowly, but came to a rowdy raucous with the Bogguard, their Captain, and Allsright each holding onto one another in order to keep from falling down. Wretch sighed and reclined on his elbows behind him. “I am Most Strong,” Gruntwerst declared through a prideful smile and punched the wincing Pronouncicator hard in the shoulder. “Ok, I heard it. We all heard it. What’s your riddle?”

            Allsright rubbed his surely-bruised shoulder and struggled to keep a pleasant smile on his lips as he began to think desperately, as though his life depended on it (as it undoubtedly did).

            “…and not that one from yesterday,” Gruntwerst snapped, the mirth quickly gone from his wrinkled, prune face. “It once was yours and now is mine, so whose is it now? That was a dirty trick…”

            “No, no,” he assured the much larger and increasingly irritated Boggart, “of course not. Yes, a dirty trick, indeed.” Allsright was visibly trembling, his panicky gaze darting around the scene from the bedraggled warriors in front of him to the slate steps and smooth, mud-baked walls of the temple behind him where Wretch was still relaxing. All at once, the tension slipped from his figure as the solution that he had been looking for manifested as apparently as the delighted expression his wicked little face could hardly stretch to contain. “Alright…”

            “Alright, Allsright,” Gruntwerst leaned close. “Let’s have it…”

Allsright took a deep breath and said,

“It’s said there’s nothing Bogg can’t do
His strength unmatched as point of view,
And while it’s law to say so too,
I tell you that it’s false as true,
And now the question posed to you,
Since Bogg is perfect through and through,
What’s the one thing Bogg can’t do?”

            Gruntwerst’s eyes grew steadily wider until it seemed as though they may fall from his sockets into the dirt at his feet, where he was already desperately searching for the answer. Not finding it there, he glanced quickly to his son, but thinking better of it, turned instead to his Bogguard (Wretch after all couldn’t even hear the stone speaking!). His warriors scratched the stubble on their dimpled chins, deep in thought (or something like it). On more than one occasion, each seemed to arrive at a conclusion only to then realize that they were actually confused by whatever theory they had managed to imagine but dared not (or could not) seem to bring themselves to speak.

           Allsright grew smug and began to prance delightedly around them, leaning his great nose towards them as a prod, beckoning them to give an answer, especially if it was one which claimed that there was something Bogg couldn’t do. Such an answer could get any Boggart executed just for murmuring it aloud, and by the very Boggarts now put to the task of saying so. Gruntwerst may not have been wise, or smart, or even particularly good at putting thoughts together really, but he knew the law well enough to get by, and that was good enough to know that he could not claim there was anything that Bogg couldn’t do. He tried in vain to find a way to condemn Allsright for having said as much, but he had been clever enough not to, and so, Gruntwerst gave up entirely. He spun on one heel in a huff and stormed back into the thick of morning traffic along the swamp street, his Bogguard trailing along behind him.

           Allsright positively glimmered with self-satisfaction at the sight of his adversary so surely beaten, sulking back, once again, across the street from where he would undoubtedly march from again the following day. Today, though, Alsright was Most Right. He had won, or so he thought. Wretch groaned slightly as he took again to his feet and stepped up to stand beside the silently celebrating Pronouncicator, rubbing his precious stone once again with both grubby hands. Wretch pulled open the visor of his helmet to be sure that his voice would carry the short distance from his lips to Allsright’s left ear where he rested them.

           “Bogg can’t be wrong,” the boy whispered modestly. He closed his visor again after shutting the dropped jaw of the Most Right beside him, whose wide-set, disbelieving gaze, was pinned firmly to Wretch’s back as he hurried to catch up to the others, dragging Bognasher behind him in the dirt. Allsright’s eye twitched as a subtle amusement played across his face as sure as the glowing swamp mists across the sky.

           “No,” he smirked to himself, “no he cannot. A king among men, you are…”

Chapter 2:

Le Roi est Mort, Vive le…Quiconque

            Meanwhile, far to the north in the heart of Centralia, the human city of Lyre was in mourning. The same promising sun that warmed the bog was seemingly swallowed by chilling black banners that lay lifelessly over high stone walls and dangled from every tower, window, and parapet within. The City Guard, normally resplendent in highly-polished silvery steel armor, instead wore dark, heavy cloaks, haunting the cobblestone streets like specters, hiding somber faces within the shadows of their deep hoods. The guards were not alone in their poor spirits. Lyre seemed to have been struck by a terrible famine of mirth and joy. Under the red-tiled roofs of every home and throughout the empty golden tents of the Traders’ Square, there was not a single smile to be found for any price. The Most Noble King Eckhard, you see, had passed away.

            Eckhard had been loved, as we are often told, since he united the Land of Twelve Kings under one banner and defeated the dreaded Faye Queen of the Wyrd Wood. Even the Boggarts would agree, had they not been busy thinking about themselves, that King Eckhard had been honest and true, and his reign brought many years of peace and prosperity (after lots of costly wars that is). His loss hung as heavily upon the hearts of his subjects as any funerary banner. The times were troubled by worse than mere sadness, however, as the good people of Lyre (the bad people too for that matter) were also troubled by another emotion very closely related to the first: fear. They were afraid. With the King dead, it was uncertain whether or not the Kingdom could remain- whether or not the lands of Centralia would accept the rule of the King’s only remaining heir, his daughter, the Princess Dorothea, who had been taken as a bride to the Boggart King and returned without explanation so many years ago.   

           Through the high, open marble pillars of the Grand Academy, Princess Dorothea and two of her loyal Musketeers marched quickly over drifting parchment pages, which littered the vast, polished floors of the ransacked libraries. Inside the halls of higher learning, perhaps because those within knew better than those without (but probably not), the uncertain sense of fear felt by all had concentrated here as a very certain sense of pure panic. Magisters of every rank and station, student and master, ran about frantically, pausing from their self-interested frenzy only to raid ancient tomes of knowledge, scientific instruments, paper weights and other office supplies: whatever wasn’t nailed down, really, and some things that were. The Princess pushed through the panicky rabble and hesitated only momentarily in front of the heavy Wyrd Wood doors of the Lecture Theatre as her escorts forcefully flung them open. Without invitation, she boldly proceeded into the dim stadium as the doors thundered against shuddering stone walls.

             Lifting the edge of her black velvet gown, she strolled surely between tiered rows of nearly empty wooden benches spread around the coliseum of learning like neatly organized horseshoes (normally inhabited by eager young scholars). Down the fifty scuffed steps she continued, to where, at the center of the room below, seven fat, bald, and bearded Magisters argued around a stone table, situated strategically beneath a pale drape of morning light which seeped in from the open oculus above. None had made note of her presence, intentionally or otherwise, as she emerged from the soft shadows around the elevated center platform. She waited patiently as the men continued to scream at one another. Ribbons of saliva streamed from their barking mouths, saturated their thick dark robes, and spattered the many medals that dangled like fishing lures on their chests (no doubt meant to similarly captivate their prey: eager young minds).  

            Beneath her black veil, Dorothea’s frown entrenched itself further into the harsh lines that had been forming since her youth. Nearly fifty now, she still carried herself in all regards as a woman half her age, keeping fit as a result of regular practice at carrying heavy burdens; her father’s passing was only the most recent. Had it not been for the cavernous crevices angled downward from the corners of her lips and a few lazy streams of dull silver that travelled through her thick black hair, likely none could guess at her true age. She stood as an unrecognized monument, timeless and unwavering. 

           Far more impatient than she, the Musketeer on her left abruptly drew a pistol, aimed it at the open window in the high ceiling, and demanded the room’s attention with the deep and resonating blast of powdered shot. The Princess sighed as the throbbing ring slowly settled into silence. She gently lowered the still-smoldering barrel in the hand of her companion with an outstretched finger, and calmly addressed the seven men now cowering beneath the broad stone table they had moments ago been crowding around. “Most Esteemed Magisters…,” she began.

           “You will acknowledge the Queen…,” the Musketeer at her left growled before being silenced by another quiet gesture.

            Seeing that her soldiers were again under her apparent control, the Magisters slowly returned to their feet, eying the trio uncertainly. Before Dorothea had the chance to speak again, however, a pock-marked elder in wire-rim spectacles took advantage of the thin silence to fill it again with his own voluminous noise.

           “As I had just finished saying,” he grumbled, “we are all that remains of the Magisters’ Council. Because our fellows have either fled, are fleeing, or simply cannot be bothered to rise to the difficult occasion of present, it falls to us, as decreed by the late King Eckhard, to interpret the laws of Centralia. Once done, the Lords of the Twelve States must abide by our decree…”

            “Can you blame them for fleeing the capital?” a withered old man with a long white beard interrupted, shaking a gnarled finger at the other. “Heardred has been seen near the border of Stormcliffe with his Wytch at the head of an army of yetis: terrible snow beasts! He may be marching upon Lyre even now to claim the throne!” 

            “Who will defend us,” another whined, “a handful of city guards, all soft and lazy? What about the few Musketeers that didn’t leave with Heardred in the first place? Even the Trade Guilds have fled with their Privateers! Lyre has no army!”

                        “I say we arm the civilians!”

            “I say we vote on a pay increase! We aren’t compensated enough for this madness!”

                      “The Lords and their militias should defend us!”

            “The Lords will do nothing until we establish an heir,” the first snapped, lifting a thick book that lie in the middle of the table entirely for the sake of slamming it down back in its place.  “Reason stands that each of the Most Noble Families, former rulers of the Twelve Kingdoms of Old, will themselves attempt to claim the throne and rule Centralia.” He glanced towards the Princess, but his eyes recoiled immediately at the noble sight of her. “Who’s to say that Prince Heardred has no claim to the throne? He is the King’s brother…”

            “Treason!” the smallest cried in a shrill voice, struggling to slither between a pair of bulbous bellies of the Magisters on either side of him, and slipped forward. “The Black Prince betrayed the King and Centralia! He allies himself with dark powers! He has abandoned the sanctity of reason and science!” He lifted the leather-backed tome with a grunt and dropped it for effect against the solid slate surface of the table. 

            The little man withdrew again from the others, slipping between them as they murmured and shook their fists at him in response. “Very well,” the first Magister sneered as he slid the book to his end of the table, “then it’s decided. The only way to appease the Lords and keep peace is for the Princess to marry one of them…”

            “I cannot marry one of the Lords,” Dorothea asserted herself quickly.

            “I would suggest one of the sons of Richfield,” he continued unabated by the Princess’s objection, fondling the cracked edges of the book in front of him. “I don’t believe that Quintus is yet married. He commands the Dragoons and is on good terms with the Parogian Tribes off the coast…”

            “The lad is half her age,” the oldest protested, “and I cannot ignore the fact that your own family, who happens to live in the State of Richfield, would benefit greatly from this proposed arrangement…”

            “This has nothing to do with what benefits my family!”

                        “Why not one of the Sons of Stormcliffe?’

                                    “I’m a third cousin to Adlebert Stormcliffe, you know…”

                                                “I propose that we shut down the government!”

            “I cannot marry one of the Lords,” Dorothea repeated calmly.

           “Princess, there must be a king,” the first Magister spoke slowly. “Ours is a kingdom. A kingdom must have a king. It is only reasonable. You must be married to a king and produce an heir to legitimize your claim on your father’s throne…”

           Dorothea swallowed hard. “I am already married,” she said, adamantly reminding them of the fact that all Centralia seemed as adamant to ignore. With a thin, shivering breath, she declared, “And I already have an heir.”

           The small assembly fell silent, their eyes narrowed and uncertain. A light breeze invited in through the circular opening in the vaulted ceiling above blew a lonely sheet of paper between her tightly laced shoes. As it clung to her ankle, it proved to be the only presence in the room willing to stand close to her. Even her loyal Musketeers stepped reflexively away. “You don’t mean…,” the first Magister began in horror. He, like the others, was unable or unwilling to voice the dreaded thought held firmly behind every pair of lips in the theatre, but Dorothea would keep hers sealed no longer.  

             “As promised by a treaty made by my father, I was married to the Boggart Prince Blat, who is now King of Bogland.” Her statuesque form remained unshaken in spite of the confession. Only her still-veiled lips trembled as she spoke. “Il Boggo, as he is called by his people, was kind to me- inasmuch as a creature of his cruelty can be. Though he never touched me, through some magick unknown to me, I became pregnant and gave birth to a child: half human and half faye: an elf with noble blood.”


            “Reason preserve us…”

            “How do we know that this is even the Princess? She could be a Boggart spy,” the littlest Magister supposed, reaching again for the book. “We demand to see a birth certificate!”

            The first Magister quickly snatched the book away and flung it into the surrounding seats. The heavy journal, Dramatic Affect as it was titled, spread its tired bindings for flight as it whirled through the air feebly, spitting scribbled pages along its doomed trajectory before crashing unseen in the thick gray shadows where it landed. He rested his clammy hands flat against the cool table and breathed deeply of the stunned silence that his well-studied act had created. Counting to three, the prescribed period of time necessary to add importance to one’s words, he asked, “What is the fate of this ‘noble’ elf?”

            The question sent a visible shudder of surprise (as he had no doubt intended) through the ranks of his colleagues. He repeated the question slowly, and relished the resounding echo of the words washing over and against the solid stone surfaces of the room. “Where is the heir, Princess?”

            “In Bogland,” she spoke plainly, unmoved by the Magister’s swelling waves of deliberate (and cliché) intensity. “I feared for the child. I feared for myself. Much to my ever-living regret, I left my child and I fled. I thought it would be best for both of us.”

            “I’m certain that I don’t need to inform you, Princess,” the Magister suggested cautiously, “about the rumors…”

            “Boggarts do not eat children!” she snapped. “They simply have a twisted fascination for them,” she clarified, tugging at the high, tight ruffles around her throat. “One thing I know for certain is that my child is unharmed. I can feel it,” she nodded, allowing a single tear to slip unseen behind her veil and bury itself in the deep crease at the corner of her mouth; “a mother knows these things.”  

            The Magisters shifted their weight uncomfortably and the Musketeers, who once stood proudly beside the Princess, sat away from her on the nearly abandoned benches that surrounded the theatre. Papers shuffled nearby, drawing the attention of one of the demoralized soldiers, who looked over her shoulder to investigate the source. She spotted a figure, sitting alone about halfway between the front and the back of the room. He was a lanky blonde Magister in unimpressive robes, without a single medal on his chest (and very few hairs on his chin). The young man, having just realized the full importance of the conversation he had been documenting hastily with an overworked quill suddenly leapt to his feet, knocking his inkwell and the journal on his lap to the floor, raising his hand to be recognized. The clatter drew the curious attention of the entire assembly.

            The first Magister narrowed his eyes and leaned toward the apprentice’s shadowy presence, and addressed him uneasily. “…yes?”

            The apprentice smiled widely, bent down to quickly collect the mess of papers and spilled ink that lay scattered at his feet, and jogged unsteadily forward into the group. After tripping over the discarded tome of Dramatic Affect, he rallied again to his feet and enthusiastically introduced himself to everyone he passed, an ink-smudged hand outstretched before him. “Hello! How do you do? I’m Gilbert. I think you dropped your book back there. Hello! My, that’s a mighty sharp sword you have…”

            “Gilbert?” the old Magister gasped: “old Mendel’s ward!? Mendel the Mad!?”

            “Yes, sir,” Gilbert affirmed, shaking the man’s arthritic hand, very much against his will.

            “Gilbert the Gofer?”

            “Yes, yes, go for this, go for that…”

             “What are you still doing here, Apprentice?” the first Magister asked, taking one finger of the black inky hand extended to him between his thumb and pointer finger and shaking it with a grimace. “I’d have thought that you would have fled with the others…”

            “I want to help,” Gilbert beamed, “so I stayed. I’m glad that I did! Since my Master… well, since he passed away, I am the foremost authority on the irredeemable race of Bogland. I think. I mean, probably…” A warm, unexpected chuckle caught the young man by surprise as his attention turned finally to the Princess. Realizing the soiled state of his palm, he dropped the disorganized bundle of books under his arm and wiped his hands feverishly against his robe, leaving a pair of dark smears (very much at home amongst a multitude of others). He giggled uneasily, pinched the corners of his robe above the knee, and offered a labored curtsy. “I too had been to the bog, your Majesty. I was taken as a kidden – erm, as a child, I mean. I can find your heir and bring him back,” he curtsied again, wincing slightly as he did. “I think. I mean, probably…”   

            The general state of horrified confusion that had possessed the Magisters was replaced entirely and quite emphatically with robust laughter. Six of them were so immediately consumed that they clung desperately to one another in order to keep from falling over. Gilbert bit his upper lip hard enough to draw blood, his chin pinned to his chest as if by some unexpected and unrelenting weight tugging on the thin tuft of blonde fuzz that collected there. The gentle touch of a silk-swaddled hand and relieved him of the burden of embarrassment instantly. Gilbert’s dark eyes lifted just quickly enough to capture the brief reflection of a tired smile.

            “I wish nothing more, Apprentice Gilbert.”   

            A sudden and forceful grip on Gilbert’s shoulder urged him away as the first Magister pulled the young man in close to him. He smelled bitterly of sweat and honeycider, but he was not laughing as the others. “Find the heir,” he commanded. “Gilbert the Gofer, with all speed, go for the child. I believe that at least half of the Twelve Lords will see the reason in this, that half-elf or not, the child is of noble birth and the true King of Centralia. Moreover, think of the sympathy that Dorothea’s dark past will evoke from the people! With half the Kingdom convinced, the rest will follow suit, to be sure!”

            The Magister led the Apprentice slowly up the mountain of stairs, gasping for breath after they had climbed only ten of them. “I have a few of my Master’s things for the journey,” Gilbert spoke over his guide’s labored panting. “To be honest, I have had a bag packed since his death. I’m as surprised as you, no doubt, that I haven’t run away even before this. I’m terrible with potions and you know very well how little respected I am…”

            “My boy,” the first Magister wheezed, “I have no idea who you are, or what people may think of you…”

            Gilbert grimaced and looked to the ground as he supported the Magister’s great weight the rest of the way up to the open doors of the Lecture Theatre where they stopped. The man exhaled on his wire-framed glasses and wiped them in Gilbert’s tattered robe. Struggling to collect his composure, he cleared his throat, fixed the lenses back to rest over his nose, and rested a damp hand on Gilbert’s shoulder once again. “If you succeed in this, I know who you can be. You can be the hero who averts a war, and I know what people will think of you then. Do this, and you can make a name for yourself, maybe even redeem the name of your disgraced and departed master…”

            The young man took a deep breath and with an assured nod, he gave the first Magister his unspoken promise: a frightened, but all-the-more determined “Yes.” He could feel that the hidden eyes of the Princess were on him still, and he looked beyond the sloped shoulder of the hefty man to pass a second nod in her direction. He spun on one heel, marched confidently out through the high wooden doors and into the halls beyond. “I will succeed,” he declared proudly, turning the corner and disappearing around the door frame to the right.

           The Magister took a deeply satisfied breath which stuck in his throat like a cherry pit at the sight of the young man slinking back into the room. Gilbert’s brown eyes were a pair of muddy specks on a broad field of white as he crept past the Magister with pursed lips and a low groan. After collecting his things from the pile he had dropped on the floor, a sight that rekindled the other Magisters’ mocking laughter, Gilbert curtsied again to the Princess, climbed the stairs, walked past the Magister, and disappeared around the corner to the left.

           Shaking his head, the Magister’s relief was stolen once more as Gilbert, moments later, snuck across his view through the open doors in the opposite direction. “The rest of my stuff is actually over this way,” he muttered. The Magister stretched out his arms, grabbed each of the thick brass handles of the doors and swung them closed with a clatter before him. His colleagues behind him at the base of the stairs continued laughing even louder than before.

            “The king is dead,” the first Magister muttered, “long live…whoever.”

Chapter 3:

The Magister Returns to Bogland

            Gilbert the Gofer scampered down a dark, twisted corridor that ran beneath the Grand Academy, spilling pages of notes behind him as he went. He didn’t stop to collect them. There was no time, and anyway, it was doubtful he could identify his own notes from the clutter of other loose pages that scattered the dirt floor. He was certainly not the first to scramble recklessly down the Magister office hallway, leaving a trail of loose papers in his wake.

           He read the tarnished brass numbers that adorned each windowless, wooden door he passed in the pale green light of the chemist’s lamps that lined the walls. After a few wrong turns down intersecting hallways, Gilbert finally arrived at his destination, the office of his Master, Mendel the Mad. It was a simple door like any other, set apart from its neighbors by a lack of self-affirming banners, cartoons, and self-published, self-praising articles.  Taking a moment to be sure that no one was nearby, he cracked the door open and slipped inside, shutting it quietly behind him.

           “Do they still think I’m dead?” Mendel shouted from behind a complicated apparatus on his desk. Whatever few scraps of paper Gilbert had managed to hang on to were cast into the air as he jumped in surprise. The old Magister, who was hidden behind a mess of tubes, racks, and devices, showed no real concern. His aged face was further distorted by the bubbling, triangular beaker he chose to look at Gilbert through. “Tell me, boy!”

           “Yes,” he sighed. “I don’t see why you let this continue, Master.”

           “So I could finally get some work done, my boy!”

           “Aren’t you worried someone will take your office?”

           “I’m tenured, son,” he smiled. “No one can kick me out of my office, even if I’m dead! Ha, perhaps especially!” The old man resumed his experiments, carefully combining brightly-colored chemicals with ground minerals from his mortar, and stirred the steaming solutions which simmered over hot blue flames. “What’s the matter? Is that boy Perry still picking on you? I’ve been working on something for that…”

           “No, Master…”

           “Honestly, who in their right mind would name a child Periwinkle!? Of course the boy is going to be a sociopath!”

           “Yes, Master…”

           “Anyway, I’ve been working on a formula to help you bulk up a bit, but I think it’s-”

           “Master!” Gilbert interrupted. “The Princess has asked me to save the Kingdom!”

           Mendel slowed slightly in his work as he watched the young man eagerly recall the earlier meeting of the remaining Magisters from the corner of his eye. By the time he heard mention of the half-elf heir to the throne of Centralia, he had failed to notice that the pointed tip of his long grey beard had slipped into the concoction he had been boiling and immediately disintegrated. The story was quite farfetched (as I’m sure you will likely agree), but Mendel knew his Ward to be a genuine soul. Gilbert concluded, short of breath, and flopped down into a velveteen armchair in the corner of the humid office, resting his head against the cool stone wall.

           Mendel abandoned his experiment and clambered over piles of loose scrolls and leather-backed tomes to stand in front of him. With a sigh, he rested his hand on Gilbert’s warm, sweaty brow. “You may be a lousy Magister,” he said, tucking his lips into a sad smile, “but so is your Master, so who can blame you? You are a wonderful young man, Gilbert, you have been… well, you’re a lousy Ward, but I think you would have been a wonderful son. There, I said it…”

           Gilbert smiled. “I think you’d have been a wonderful father.”

           “Bah!” Mendel scoffed and turned away, tapping a pressure gauge with one hand and wiping his eyes and nose nonchalantly with the other. “We shall have to see you properly equipped for the journey then.” The old man cleared a path to his high shelf and cupboards and produced a droopy, wide-brimmed felt hat, a satchel, and a weathered walking stick cut from the limb of a white birch tree. Years of collected dust erupted from the hat as he beat it with the leather-wrapped end of his stick. He handed them both to his Ward without a word; Gilbert knew quite well that they were the namesake trappings of Mendel the Meanderer, from the peak of his wandering days. Mendel withdrew a sleek, silvered one-shot pistol from the satchel and shared a grave stare with Gilbert before nodding and placing it back inside.

           Before handing the satchel over, Mendel inserted some food wrapped in a napkin (his own neglected lunch of bread, cheese, and a slab of smoked boar meat), a gourdful of honeycider, and a carefully chosen assortment of vials from his potion rack (a Healing Poultice, some Red Oil, a Potion of Truth, and one labelled “Bully Beater”). He gently rested the satchel’s strap over Gilbert’s head, tangling the pair of them up momentarily as the other had already put on the wide hat. After sorting themselves out, they exchanged an awkward collection of misaligned gestures, half-hugs, clammy-palmed handshakes. Finally, Mendel simply stepped away and patted Gilbert on the shoulder, nodding proudly at the sight of the young man dressed in his old travelling clothes.

           “I’m ready. I think. I mean, probably…”

                      “I believe you are. Remember, you can only find Bogland by not looking for it…”

            “I remember, Master. When I come back, maybe you’ll come out from your office?”

                      “Maybe. Thank you for not asking me to go with you…”

             “If I come back, when I come back,” Gilbert insisted, “no one is going to look down on us again. We’ll prove them all wrong. You won’t need to hide…”

            “…and people will finally see you for the man you are, not the life I forced on you.”

            “You did your best,” Gilbert smiled and wrapped his arms around the old man’s bony shoulders. Mendel held him close before pulling away to wipe his face again with the long, tattered sleeve of his robe. As Gilbert crept out through the office door and into the hallway, he was halted by a hushed “Psst” coming from inside. “I know, keep telling people that you died…”

            “No,” Mendel whispered, “I mean, yes, but that’s not what I wanted to say…”

            “I know what you want to say, Master. You can tell me when I come back. When I’ve earned it…”

            But before Mendel could tell his son just how much he’d always loved him, how much he would miss him, or how frightened he was for his safety, Gilbert had hurried away down the hallway, noisily kicking up scraps of paper in a cloud behind him. Mendel listened to the young man’s heavy foot falls in the darkness, the sounds of him stopping abruptly to change direction, his confused and frustrated mumblings as he found himself at yet another dead end. It took Gilbert some time to actually leave; he’d even wound up right back where he had started on more than one occasion. Against Mendel’s hopes, however, the Gofer finally managed to exit the Grand Academy and properly began his journey to Bogland with his father’s gifts in tow.  

             Gilbert the Gofer meandered (as best he could assume how) south along the King’s Road. The well-travelled highway divided the Kingdom of Centralia evenly in half between east and west, much the same way as the Trade Road (which it intersects in the city of Lyre) divided the nation by north and south. Although there was always an abundance of cart traffic on the Kingdom’s main roadways, most of which involved smelly oxen with high-fiber diets, it was not only the most direct route to Bogland, but the safest. There were many roads south, dirt paths really, which snaked through forests of bandits and passed over hills populated by brigands, but the King’s Road was well-maintained and more importantly, guarded by outposts of Musketeers.

            Aside from guard posts, there were also a large number of innes and taverns to find in the small but wealthy towns along the way for a warm meal, a thoughtful song, or a soft bed. Gilbert had no money, however, so this was hardly a concern for him. In truth, he had only taken the highway once as a boy, when Mendel brought him north from Richfield, and he remembered it fondly, in spite of the oxen droppings. Walking over the cobblestones between high marble pillars wrapped in ivy under the cool shade of red silk hanging overhead was magnificent enough to consider. Imagine too the sight of passing between the vastly different cultures of the Twelve States, which only a hundred years earlier had been nations of their own, and being amongst their many diverse people.

            Gilbert was not disappointed by his decision. He gazed into the rocky, rolling hills to his right and marveled at the ancient stone formations of Breogh and the high towers of their ruling Coven further in the distance, black shapes against the horizon. He turned and saw the elaborate filigree and curly ironwork that decorated the high, plaster walls of the blue and gold city of Cieolli on his left. He waved to a very young Palhue girl with feathers in her hair, riding in a covered wicker wagon pulled by a pair of great red elk; she blushed beneath her painted face and tossed him a kind of yellow apple he had never seen before. He listened to three brothers in heavy black coats, Kriegge Iron Men, arguing over mathematics and engineering and which amongst them brought the most honor to their ancestor spirits. There were so many different people, places, and beliefs in Centralia, and Gilbert wanted to hear about all of them.

            After sharing his apple with a patrolling Musketeer who Gilbert had entered into a conversation about birds with, the guard arranged a ride for them both in a supply wagon headed for the southernmost outpost. The King’s Road militia had requested a large amount of black powder and the Musketeer’s orders were that it was sent quickly. By nightfall, Gilbert had arrived in the town of Inkrest, a poor village surrounded by poorer farms just a few miles away from the Bog. He bid a fond farewell to his new friend, headed into town, and traded the Healing Poultice from his satchel to an old farmer with an ailing husband in exchange for a room for the night. Gilbert was given a bundle of straw for the floor between the bunk beds of the farmer’s eight children. The boys teased him that Bograts occasionally snuck in from the Bog and would bite off his fingers and toes if they caught him on the floor, but the youngest daughter assured him that this would not happen, and when he woke in the morning, Gilbert was pleased to see that he still had ten and ten.  

            The farmer’s husband was feeling better from the medicine Gilbert had traded them, and the family showed their gratitude by providing their guest with a hearty breakfast of eggs, hamsteak, and corn softbread. They even loaned him their horse, a bony old nag who “could find her own way home,” after she’d brought him to the Bog. Gilbert told them he was studying water fowl for the Academy. He felt it was best to keep the parts of his story involving probable doom of the kingdom, magickal goblins, and the half-elf heir to himself. After thanking the family and suffering a slow-going ride (the nag insisted on stopping to nibble every clover patch they passed), Gilbert finally arrived at the edge of the Bog, where the horse stopped and would go no further. Immediately after dismounting and collecting his things, the nag turned and trotted much more quickly away than it had delivered him.

             The morning mist had settled over the water and drifted lazily through the high reeds that grew out from the marsh. Aside from the gentle hum of dragonflies and the softening sound of the horse retreating, the Bog was silent. Occasionally there was an abrupt “glub” to break the silence, the sound of a single bubble from some unseen fish or frog below the water’s surface. Gilbert expected it to smell much worse, considering the fact that all the Kingdom’s sewers drained here. He smelled rich earth and something sweet on the gentle breeze which he couldn’t seem to place. “I must be far from the pipelines,” he thought aloud and began to pace the water’s edge, poking the thick nests of reeds he found with his walking stick. After a few minutes, he struck something in the muck and mud that resounded with a “clang.” The gentle impact sent a shiver up his arm and froze him in place, his eyes coming slowly to rest on a rusty old cage, about big enough to hold a kidden and three hubies.

            There was no way to tell if this had been the place where Mendel had saved him from the Boggarts so many years ago, if what he then touched had been the very cage he had been held in. He hadn’t thought about what happened to him for many years. He was very young, and though he scarcely remembered the experience, he had woken in a cold sweat on more than one occasion, his dreams much clearer than his memory. Suddenly though, in his waking hours, he began to remember things: feelings, smells, and sadness, but not fear. Gilbert closed his eyes and tried to remember beyond. He tried to see the face of his mother, his father, of anyone who came before. He began to wonder if they ever looked for him, if they ever stopped looking for him, and he felt guilty that he had only just considered that.

            Gilbert’s lower lip trembled and he bit down on it hard as he threw his walking stick behind him, dropped down into the mud and gripped ahold of the rusty cage with both hands. It wouldn’t budge. He growled and strained and snarled, but at best, the buried cage would reply with an apathetic “slurp” as it shifted in the thick mud. Gilbert screamed as he abandoned the hopeless exercise, and tears rolled down his cheeks as he struggled to get one foot free to at least kick it. His bare foot popped out of his boot, now stuck in the mud, and, not recognizing this soon enough, kicked the iron cage as hard as he could manage with exposed toes. His ferocious cries turned to a wail of pain. He lifted his throbbing foot and tried to hop free from the Bog on one leg, but that was stuck too. Gilbert spun helplessly, craned back, and toppled over the cage, landing face first in the thick mire of the Bog.

            He erupted with desperate laughter, like gravel in his throat, like fire in his chest. Slowly and deliberately, he dragged himself back to the shoreline using the reeds to pull himself along. He’d abandoned his boots and barely managed to free his satchel, and when he felt the grass between his toes at last, he reached inside his satchel and dug around for his pistol. Gilbert’s breath was hot and ragged as he tossed the satchel to the ground blindly, without thought of its contents. The slippery, silvered pistol fumbled and floundered in his wet, muddy hands, but he finally managed to gain a hold of it. He pulled back the flint lock and aimed its barrel toward the indifferent cage, still unmoved, mocking him with its unchanged presence. He held his breath and closed his eyes as he pulled the trigger. “Click!” “Spluuucht.”

             Gilbert opened his eyes in time to see the thick droplet of swamp muck pour out from the barrel. The single lead shot rolled out in pursuit and fell harmlessly to the ground at his feet. The soft “thud” of the heavy bullet dropping in damp earth infuriated him more. He craned his arm back and hurled the pistol as hard as he could manage at the cage. He missed. The pistol spun end-over-end over the reeds, far to the left of where he had been aiming (if he had really been aiming at all). A lightning bolt of intense pressure flashed up his leg as he was immediately made aware of his foolish injury once more. The pain stole whatever strength there was left in his legs after fighting the swamp, and Gilbert tumbled back onto a stony tuft of grass. The gentle “crack” of one of the glass vials beneath him immediately informed him that he had, in fact, landed on his satchel. The Red Oil that began to spill out and soaked slowly through what few dry spots there were of his robe further affirmed it. All Gilbert could bring himself to do was blink.

            Gilbert shifted to one side, pulled the satchel out from underneath him and set it away. No doubt his food was ruined. He looked more closely at his toes; they were sore, but he could move them. He didn’t think that any of them were broken. Still, the pain had caused a strange ringing in his ears, although it sounded more like jingling. He sighed and indulged in a brief smile for “small victories” as he pulled his knees in close to him and tried to comb globs of mud and grass out of his curly blonde hair with trembling fingers. All at once, something was wrong… or, rather, more wrong. If that was even possible at this point, but Gilbert felt something hard press up against him from behind. Whatever it was, it wrapped its arms around his neck and squeezed.

            Gilbert jumped and lifted his hands to his neck, where he found a pair of tightly clutched hands, or claws, or something like them, but smooth and hard as steel. He struggled and tried to roll away, but he was so exhausted and the arms were so strong. The jingling in his ears grew louder the harder he fought. He held his breath, fearing it would be his last. The hands were fastened tightly around his neck, and he could not pry them loose. The more he jerked away, the more insistent the hold became.

           “Shhhhh,” a hushed voice breathed into his ear. “Just let it happen.”          

            Gilbert fell limp and released the air he held tightly in his lungs. Much to his surprise, as he instinctively gasped for more, his breathing was unrestricted. The thing behind him, whatever it was, still held him tightly, but it wasn’t trying to choke him, just hold him. He felt whatever it was begin to sway side to side as it rocked him, cooing gently in his ear, telling him to “Shhhh, just let it happen.” No sooner than he surrendered, he began to feel other things, warm, soft things, pressing into him, and more hands or claws or whatever wrapped around him and rocked him. He felt dozens of breaths on the back of his neck. The more he rocked, the more he began to recognize that the jingling he heard was not at all in his head; the thing behind him was wearing bells.

            “All better, sir?”

            Gilbert nodded, and as he did, the many claws around him released.

           He turned his head slowly, and standing around him were dozens of hideous, red-eyed Bograts. They were pink and leathery and almost entirely hairless. They sniffled the air nervously with their dribbling snouts and bared their thick, yellow incisors at him with extremely unnatural and unnerving smiles. His initial reaction, to back away slowly, was halted immediately as Gilbert noted that all of the knee-high creatures seemed to be wearing knit sashes, each adorned with an assortment of bottle caps, ribbons, and flowers. Behind them, and standing in the center, was a strange little knight, barely three feet tall. He wore a full suit of polished armor, like Gilbert had seen in history books, but there were dozens of small bells hanging from every joint and fastening belt. He wore a wreath of flowers around his helmet, which he removed and handed gently to the waiting claws of the Bograt standing next to him.

           “Hey,” Gilbert laughed, “I remember you! I think? I mean, probably…”

Time Enough for Some

By R.J. Barna

         It was a Hive City on a Hive World like any other. From below, the only way to make sense of the pitted, plasteel labyrinth – its limits uncertain through the creeping haze of recycled atmo and neon glow – was by feel: arid towards the Heat Sink at the city’s center and damp cold from the barren waste outside its Shell. Green mold grew on the north side of a bulkhead, or so it was said. In moments of extreme uncertainty, apart from blind faith in the Emperor’s guidance, it helped to remember that the gas rose up and the sludge dripped down, at least to tell floor from ceiling.

          MX-IIXC Something Something. No one bothered to give its name much thought since Lord Commander Guilliman reclaimed it from those who had forsaken the planet in the first place. Worn duracrete walls were thick with millennia old graffiti. The most recent coat zealously praised the Emperor, no doubt to drown out prayers to the Dark Gods and unsolicited prompts for a “Ruinous Time” beneath. The city’s people, loyal servants to the Imperium of Man, similarly washed over the hab zones and honeycomb shelters, too grateful for a moment’s respite to long consider what heretical heads may have laid there before them.

         With one shift always starting in the soot-belching manufactory, reclamation, and crematory plants, the city never truly slept – not that it could under flickering glare of the glowglobes overhead or for fear of the gangs, merchants and rival families all around. Never asleep and hardly awake, the loyal machine turned slowly and with dreamlike purpose. It was driven by a steady flow of the weary, fueled by little more than hope and corpse-starch biscuits. After six standard years that passed like fifty, Palomeanae Solus, agent of the Ordo Chronos, had learned to walk softly enough not to truly wake anyone.

         “Three more days,” she groaned and reclined against a rotten pressboard blockade barring passage to an apartment cluster outside the bustling main corridor. From the smell, Solus ventured to reason that its former residents were still inside – at least the unusable parts of them. The dead made for better company than those she’d find peddling their bones and baubles in the market stalls just on the edge of sight.

         Her pale, grey eyes kept careful watch over the street beneath a short fringe of black hair protruding from the front of her arming cap. A lean ganger in warpaint appeared from a tunnel across the alley. Solus folded her arms across her long, brown duster, as much to send a clear message to the newcomer as to reacquaint herself with her concealed armaments: a silenced stub pistol in her shoulder holster and power maul clipped to one side of her belt. The uneasy juve retreated as quickly as she appeared.

         Solus’s servoskull hovered over one shoulder and turned to relay a vox message in clicks and garbled static. Arfor was in place and had eyes on the target. Solus nodded to a small, shadowed mass around the corner, and a Ratling girl leapt out from cover of a litter-woven ghillie with a giddy squeal. Piggy’s mess of brown curls and bare feet vanished between the passing legs of traders too busy contending their worth to notice much besides. (547)

         Solus’s blood quickened, but training steeled her nerve. Over the raucous din of consumerism, she focused on the steady leak of ammonia from a condenser pipe and willed her heart to match pace. Drip. Drip. Drip. She exhaled in unison with the Hive. Toxic breath seethed out through a steel grate beneath her chem-burned, leather boots. By light of the flexiglass neon of the habitats below, she vaguely made out a pair of leathery, blue wings in the drain before they vanished behind a veil of rising steam. 

         “Thief,” a voice cried out. “Someone stop her!” Unless it was a gunshot, nobody was moving, and even then, it would have to hit close.

         Solus closed her eyes and searched for the sound of bare feet smacking the wet, steel-plated streets. Piggy’s pace was fleet for her size, barely a meter to her crown, but she held back to ensure their target never lost sight of her. Three pairs of feet approached, one small, one frantic and one trying desperately not to be noticed behind them both.

         An instant later, Piggy slipped out from the tattered, silk robes of some lesser house noble with a wallet held proudly aloft. Her smile was all the more wild for the crooked, oversized teeth within it as she sprinted past Solus’s position and winked.

         The noblewoman shrieked as a lanky, disheveled man crashed into her, knocking her to the ground as he scrambled to stay on his feet and maintain pursuit. From the sight of his veiny, high forehead and what may have been a second pair of smaller ears tucked behind his Emperor-intended pair, their target was a mutant. It wasn’t uncommon to harbor some inhuman mark from prolonged exposure to toxic Hive life – and little of it wasn’t.

         The mutant’s worn work shoes screeched to a halt as he noticed Solus stepping out from the shadows, her dark skin and outfit further obscuring her identity. But the red, emblazoned “I” dangling from a gold chain around her waist declared intention beyond need of any clarification.

         “No,” he begged, lifting both hands to cover his face. Crackling vanes of warp energy rendered him invisible as they crept across his flesh.

         “No,” Solus commanded, warpfire spilling from the corners of her eyes.

         The mutant’s manifesting power was denied by the agent’s overpowering will in a flash and plume of brimstone. He reeled in agony, clawing away the smoldering embers that nipped at his face and eyes. He spun blindly to retreat and was immediately knocked to the ground by a hunched, broad shouldered figure in a high-collared trench coat, emerging from the crowd behind him.

         Arfor cocked his head to face Solus as she strode casually towards their disoriented prey. A glimmer danced across his chrome optics from a targeting laser on one side of his head, surveying her and the target both. She knew her old friend well enough to recognize that the Servitor was pleased, or as close to it as one could manage without the burden of human emotion.

         “Inquisitor,” the target pleaded. “I’m not that kind of mutant…”    

         “I’m not that kind of Inquisitor.”

         Arfor’s static vocader interjected.

         “Right. Acolyte,” she admitted. “Not an Inquisitor yet.” Solus sneered playfully at her cybernetic friend and tipped her head towards the cowering mutant between them. Long arms that had dangled lifelessly at Arfor’s side stretched out to grip the mutant’s shoulders tightly and encouraged him to stand. Solus removed her hand from one pocket and held it out, finding the pilfered wallet offered up by Piggy immediately. “Thank you, dear.”

         Piggy blew a kiss before nonchalantly turning to pace the perimeter with a lascarbine on the right flank. An identical Ratling emerged from a shadow to do the same on the left, grumbling beneath her breath about the attention her double received. “Thank Piggy, not Piggy, eh?” 

          Arfor chattered again, but the girl only pointed to their captive dismissively before returning to her patrol. He patted down the mutant with a dozen multi-jointed manipulators from the front of his jacket, keeping his main arms locked on the prisoner’s shoulders. Solus withdrew the mutant’s Imperial ID as her servoskull scanned its barcode with a red laser from a lens hidden in the depths of an otherwise empty eye socket. Gears clicked and grumbled as the tired bones processed the data.

         “I have bad news for you, Mr. See-uh-fuss.”

                   “It’s pronounced, ‘Ki-uh-fuss.’”

         Solus groaned and flicked the ID at him. “The bad news, Mr. Ciaphus, is that you’re dead. That’s a problem. For you and for us.”

                   The mutant was stunned. “Eh-excuse me?”

          “You are Ryvon Ciaphus?”

                   “Y-yes, but I’m not dead. You can clearly see that I’m alive…”

         “Ryvon Ciaphus: Sanctioned Psyker, First Class, Choir 2811 something something. Thank you for your service, by the by,” she mumbled aside. “Killed on crusade for the Holy Emperor during a year that may or may not be the fiftieth of M42 if not the nine-ninety-ninth of M41…”

                   “W-what year is it now?”

         Solus and Arfor shared a tense look. “That’s – not our department,” she replied. “We’re here to resolve a temporal anomaly. Your description and identification match those on record with the Scholastica Psykana.”

                   “I thought of joining, but I didn’t…”

         “You have admitted to being Ryvon Ciaphus,” Solus half-asked.

                   “Yes, that’s me, but…”

         “According to Imperial Record, you joined and you died.”

                   “But I’m alive!”

         “Are you suggesting that the Imperium is sloppy in its record-keeping?”

                   Ciaphus was silent.

         “Are you admitting to impersonating an Imperial Citizen on record?”

                   Ciaphus remained silent.

         “Then you are, in fact, Ryvon Ciaphus,” Solus explained, “a second version of the same person occupying the Emperor’s own timeline. It may have occurred during a passing warp storm. As you said, you were thinking of joining. The storm may have continued the timeline of you who did and you who did not. Or, you may simply be victim of variable planetary time, living a slower past that has outreached your expired present. Time does pass more slowly here so close to the Great Rift.”

                   “I thought that was just Hive life…”

          Solus shook her head. “You are a redundancy, sir. A loose end.”

          The pronouncement dropped from her lips like lead. It was one she’d delivered many times over the past six years, but also one she’d received all too often in childhood. The Ordo Chronos scholars who raised her had always suspected she was a child born out of time: the sole survivor of a warp travel accident. Although it was impossible to determine due to inconsistencies between two approved calendars (and three heretical), ship logs dated its departure as either thirty years before its arrival or after, making her a redundancy as well, possibly living in a timeline during which she had yet to be conceived.          

                   “Wh-what do you want from me?”

          “Service or death,” she answered flatly. It was no less than the expectation thrust upon her. It was no more than any loyal soul could hope for. “You’ve died for the Emperor once already. Don’t spoil it by dying for nothing now.”  

Bearing Humbler Gods

By R.J. Barna

Chapter 1

“…I’m gonna throw my hands up, wave around my red cup, shake it ‘til I throw up-
Gotta have my own way-ay-ay.
Skinny dipping in my girl’s pool. Pretty bitties make the boys drool. Only hurts to be so cool-
Gonna have my own say-ay-ay.
Let the other haters hate;
Tomorrow never comes, and all that matters is today…”

           The pilot’s arm casually swept over the console’s volume control between intended stops along the path of his routine startup sequence, turning the radio off as easily as he flipped ambiguous switches from red to green. The young woman sitting beside him beamed while not taking her eyes from the flickering diagnostics display in front of her. With a swift dart of her wrist, the song filled the cockpit once again. The pilot froze in place. He struggled to keep a rising smile at bay, locked within the twitching corners of his tightening lips.

            “This is my jam, Skip.”

                        “I’m sorry?”

            “This is my jam,” she repeated more loudly.

                        “I heard what you said, Gonzalez,” the pilot jabbed; “I meant that I’m sorry this garbage is your – what did you call it?”   

            “My jam,” she chuckled to herself. “My lita always says that.”

                        “…your gram with the tattoos?”

            “Everyone her age has tattoos,” she replied. Minimizing the running diagnostics, Gigi “Gluegun” Gonzalez, Stick mechanic of White Raven: Recon Zulu enlarged a family photo from a clutter of neglected icons scattered around the rim of her VI (virtual interface) Pad display and held it across the aisle for her partner to see. She also took the brief break from complex calculations to clear a single strand of dark-brown hair that had come loose from below the snug fit of her corporate ball-cap and rested in the crease at the corner of her dark-painted lips. “We’re together on the left…”

            Jay “Skip” Howard, also known by squad veterans as ‘the bus driver,’ ran one hand through his short, prematurely greying hair as he looked over the pic. He pursed his lips and shrugged before turning to look at her briefly and returning to his work. “You were blonde…” he muttered. Her silent retraction of the device encouraged him to elaborate further. “It’s just that the girl in the song you like is all about being herself no matter what anybody thinks, but then you try to be something else, right? You know… the hair… lipstick…”

            The slight satisfaction of knowing that Skip had noticed her new lipstick, the shade she had spent far too long tone-matching, was immediately displaced by defensive coyness. “But who is the girl really? Is she herself, or just who she thinks the boys want to see? Maybe she has to change in order to be herself…”

            Skip rolled his eyes and let them fall in Gigi’s direction. “I was just trying to say – I don’t know – that you don’t need to try so hard. It was supposed to be a compliment…”

            Gigi scoffed as she set down her VI-Pad on the polished smart-glass of the console in front of her and pulled a latch overhead. Light slipped into the dark cockpit as the solar shield lowered slowly from the front pane, locking into place with a soft clunk. She sat down again and crossed her legs, bare feet hanging out from beneath her knees and said, “She’s a trans anyway: the girl who sings the song.”

            “…so, he’s a trans.”

                        “No, she’s a trans.”

            “…so it’s a he-she or a she-he?”

                        “Does it matter?”

            Skip took a long breath and held it in his chest. Looking out from the now-unshielded cockpit window, he watched a gentle breeze play through the lush evergreens that lined the suburban streets outside the chain-linked fence that surrounded the landing pad in carefully decided increments between nearly identical condos. Soon, the streets would be congested with the beat-up white pickup trucks, rusty equipment, and orange traffic cones of competing lawn-care services, each regarded as inhuman obstacles in late-started morning commutes. He seemed to exhale with the world. An uneager orange sun ignited the worn horizon as breath escaped from slightly loosened lips. “Guess it only matters if she plans to write her name in the snow…”

            Gigi snorted.

            The narrow doorway behind them opened and a slim, but broad-shouldered woman in full tactical gear stepped through. She tightened one of her scuffed elbow pads with a gloved hand: fingerless at thumb and trigger finger. “Are you two grab-assing again?”

            “He’s certainly trying, Sergeant,” Gigi replied, turning to share a smile.

            Skip rolled his lips inward and held them tightly together.

            “I’ll get the hose if you can’t control yourself, Skipper,” Sergeant Hannah “Huck” Finley said as she gripped the pilot’s shoulders and pressed her warm, brown cheek against his ear. “Then we can make it a three-way,” she whispered with a low giggle.

            Skip shrugged off the playful advance with a casual demeanor immediately betrayed by steadily rising rouge in his cheeks, which he hoped to discount as an effect of the morning sunlight. Failing to adequately voice the reply several times, he simply mumbled, “I swear; I will crash this bird and take you all with me…”

            “Was that a threat? That sounded like a threat! Sergeant, I feel threatened,” Gigi goaded him, earning a rapid but brief exchange of antagonistic eye contact.

            “The way he flies,” the Sergeant smiled and squeezed the pilot’s coiled shoulders before stepping away, “I’d say it’s a promise. How’re we looking, Skipper? The new bird, I mean…”

            Skip swallowed hard. “Can’t say I’m a fan of the new bird, Sarge. It’s twice as big as our last helo with half the space inside.”

            “I’m with the Skipper on this one,” Gigi added, craning her neck to look up at her XO. “Had to strap the P.O.F.s (personal ordinance frames) to the roof…”

            “Can’t say I’m happy about that either,” Huck agreed. “It would be nice to have our heavies ready on deployment instead of getting buttoned up in the field. The new Bob picked it out. Thinks it looks tough, I guess…”

            “I’ll take practicality over Johnson-compensation any day. And what’s with all the flashing lights and decals all over the outside?”

            “Do you ever have anything positive to say, Skip?”

            The pilot smirked and replied without hesitation. “New Bob is really great at making bad decisions…”


            “Would’ve been nice if the prick asked the guy flying it before making the buy.”

                        “Or the chica fixing it. Half of the parts are metric. Half!”     

             “Good thing you aren’t a pair of useless Schmuckatellis,” Huck interrupted the momentum of their cooperative rant. She knew, in her position, it was best to side-step them than risk standing on either side. The back-handed compliment seemed to satisfy, though she knew it was a temporary fix. Huck certainly had her doubts about the new boss, Robert Zydeck, who after two years of seeming invisibility, had suddenly emerged to flex his executive muscle: new helo, new uniforms, new hires, and invented positions: none particularly practical or informed. For the op at hand, a personnel retrieval from hostile territory with a seemingly endless supply of unknowns to consider, she was fortunate that he had placed his faith in her command, or at least, kept his doubts to himself. Whether or not it was an effort to avoid culpability, Huck didn’t care. When it came to uncertain situations, she didn’t want a stiff-collared suit calling the shots. She may not be in the Corps anymore, but she was Semper Gumby: forever flexible. “Time to dust-off?”

            “A quick-minute, Sargeant,” Skip answered. “Just syncing our course with local air-comms. Gotta wait for a window in the drone fog. Five a.m., you know: deliveries going out.”

            “All systems, greenish. Never can tell when you don’t buy American,” Gigi added.

            Huck stood silently by and allowed the last barb to pass without acknowledgement, but made sure to smile just in case Gigi turned to her for some. A deep rumble began to well up through the steel floor plating as the helo’s dual Toshiba bladeless rotors powered up overhead. A green light flashed on the smart-glass beside a three-dimensional hologram of the transport and its surrounding area, including an erratic swarm of tiny triangles, drones, whizzing overhead.

            “Good to go, Sarge.”

            After a quick rear glance through the open cockpit door, the Sargeant ordered, “Punch it.”

            “10-4.” With practiced ease, the pilot engaged both foot pedals and angled the center stick back with one hand while slowly increasing the digital controls for thrust with the other. Dappled coats of dew shook free from the hard rectangular lines of the virgin helo’s freshly-waxed finish, leaving a brief opalescent shower below. The phrase, “PIG STY,” keyed crudely through to the primer of the ground-facing deployment door, was visible briefly. Haloed by the glittering haze, the blocky helo was airborne for the first time on official business. “Handles like Gigi’s grandma,” he mumbled in spite of his apparent ease.  

            “You would know,” his partner snipped back, her eyes darting quickly between Skip and the data displayed in easy-to-read charts foregrounding rapidly scrolling lines of code on her console. “ETA forty minutes, Sarge.”

            With a nod, Huck turned from the cockpit and closed the door behind her. Keeping her arms tense and at the ready, she waited between storage lockers with one knee braced on the frame of the unoccupied bathroom until the tilted floor of the ascending helo leveled out. The last thing she needed was to slide down into the cargo hold and lose face in front of the Stick, especially so considering that two of Zydeck’s clandestine hires were along for the ride. From her position, only her squad’s heavies strapped in against the rear wall, Catchphrase and Oldman, had a line of sight to her. The first was passing the time flipping between unnecessarily abbreviated texts from his latest girlfriend, nude pics of his last, and a pirated holovid, while the latter was pretending to sleep so as to avoid having to talk to the former. Huck twisted to adjust the fit of her ballistic vest beneath her new, black polyester polo, emblazoned at the left breast with “Cray and Zydeck” in gold. The floor settled beneath her, and after giving up on trying to contain the ever-dampening hotspot at the small of her back, Huck marched into the trooper hold.

            On either side of a drop floor framed by black and yellow caution tape, and illuminated by red running lights and the flicker of lazily handled VI-Phones were the remaining ten members of Recon Zulu. The Stick, an airborne squad dubbed White Raven by the company’s founder, Robert Cray, was actually the only ‘organic field asset’ employed by Cray and Zydeck (formerly Cray Solutions). As with the majority of private security firms currently in service, surveillance was carried out and recorded by thousands of drones. Observations were automatically recorded onto secure clouds and reviewed only as needed by a skeleton staff whose only other duty was to alert someone else in the event of any suspected emergency. When a drone lost contact with HQ, however, human technicians had to be sent to retrieve and repair them. After the dozen-or-so muggings of unarmed repairmen, the company decided that activating an armed response was more cost efficient than a growing queue of employee compensation claims, and so, Recon Zulu was formed, though seldom operates under its prescribed function.

            Huck stepped out into the center of the bay and activated the VI-Pad mounted to her wrist. Aside from two cleanly-shaved, heavy-set men sitting together sipping coffees (Zydeck’s men: Roberts Murphy and Barker: two new Bobs to add to the herd), the Stick looked on with red-eyes and stubbly faces, bitter from their ninth hour of unannounced overtime. As if they hadn’t been bitter enough to begin with. The entire Stick, Huck included, had been cobbled together from mismatched bits of military has-beens, never-were Special Forces, and public service misfits: part-time cops, volunteer firefighters, and small-town EMTs lacking the connections needed to make a living wage doing it. Without apology, the Sargeant started her mission briefing, and without so much as a look, Catchphrase and the others pocketed their VI-Phones.

            “In approximately forty minutes, we will be setting down in the outskirts of Brigantine, New Jersey – or rather, I should say the flotilla slums over what used to be Brigantine, New Jersey: before the Flood Riots of ‘76.” Huck called up a holo-map displaying their current course trajectory leading towards their designated drop zone. The gentle blue display saturated the ambient reds and cast the Stick in a soft lavender glow. “Mission specs are uploaded to your HUDs (heads up displays), but the general plan is as follows; heavies will suit up and stand-by for support while three squads advance in spearhead formation towards an indigenous shanty-town. The name changes almost daily, sometimes hourly, so don’t worry about it. There, we will overcome any possible hostilities and, by authority of a federal warrant, extract one Aiden St. Clare for questioning…”

            “Aiden St. Clare!?” Catchphrase choked with a disbelieving smile.    

            “The one and only,” Huck acknowledged, her holo calling up a rotating portrait of the lean, middle-aged man with piercing blue eyes and neatly flipped bangs. “Aiden St. Clare: the mind behind the Ponder app, playboy, billionaire, and philanthropist with more PhDs than Mars U has to offer. He went off the grid a couple years back after bailing on a government contract. Some of you may have seen that he’s been in the news recently…”

            “…heading some kind of cult, right?” Oldman asked without opening his eyes.

             “Not sure,” the Sergeant admitted. “He’s certainly gained a cult following on social media. Kids, mostly Floaters, are posting weird vids about having powers and claiming that he’s some kind of god. Feds suspect synthetic narcotics are involved: something called ‘Conduit’…” 

            “Speaking of doped-out Floaters,” a gruff older trooper referred to as the Dutch-Oven interrupted, “what the hell are we supposed to do about them? Why aren’t the police handling this, or the Feds? WTF, over!”

            “Quite honestly,” Huck admitted grimly, “the local authorities won’t touch it: not even the State Troopers. The ‘civilized’ section of Brigantine, about three hundred civvies, has a local-yokel outfit with only four full-time officers, and the Floaters don’t recognize their authority any more than ‘the Drowned State’ anyway. My research suggests that private companies passing through the area are hardly taken seriously enough to warrant a unified response, so resistance, if any, should be light. That’s why we aren’t going in disguise; don’t want them mistaking us for ‘real’ cops. The Feds made that mistake and never made it within a klick of the target.” She chuckled to herself. “And we’re cheaper. Anyway, I picked this morning because there was a Drift-Rock concert last night in a stadium nearby,” Huck said as she called up a broad holo display of numerous live drone feeds of the area.

The aerial streams from Recon Kilroy and Charlie revealed a live feed of clusters of seemingly random placements of floating scrap shacks. The make-shift habitats surrounded an ovular inflatable dome, stitched together from mismatched tarpaulin: the stadium. The structures, largely floating on netted islands of discarded plastic bottles between rusty skeletons of submerged wreckage were connected by planks of loose lumber, and presently littered with bodies and fires, as if from some biblical plague. In each feed, the target zone where Huck’s intel hoped to find the infamous Aiden St. Clare residing were highlighted in red: the zone tentatively titled ‘Afterbirth, NJ.’ “Approximately thirteen hundred locals showed up to watch a few dozen bands play all night,” Huck explained: “Aquabitch, Drowning Victim, harPOON, Aweigh We Go, and Red by Mourning to name a few: big acts with big followings. Last stage cleared at oh three fifty.”


            “And,” she added; “the bastard-boom kids that followed the Flood Riots invented Drift-Rock.” Seeing that few of the squad seemed to understand the effects of pop-music, she rolled her eyes and continued. “A very large number of the local Floater population is now hungover, half-deaf, and going to have to respond to our presence on less than two hours of sleep, if they wake up at all.”

            “Outstanding,” Oldman grinned, interlacing his fingers behind his head as he reclined.

            “Rah,” the Sergeant grunted. “Remember that however you feel about them, the Float indigenous are still American citizens. They may reside above American soil, but their homes are well-within American waters. That means we’re going in with shotguns and bean-bags with riot-shields and shock-sticks for the Corporals. Heavies, based on the locale, I’ve secured some high pressure riot hoses which will draw directly from the canals. They’re already installed on your rigs. Floaters have deployed drone technicals, Molotovs, and printed firearms in the past, so if we encounter any of these, you are of course within your rights to rely on your personal sidearms for self-defense. You all read the fine print on your contracts, though; you’ll need to prove your life is in jeopardy if you kill anybody. The company will not, I say again, will not defend any acts of lethal force, especially if you kill a kid, no matter how big of a prick he is or how dead he plans to make you. You know the drill; keep your cams up and stick together for witness, otherwise, you’re better off letting them shoot you first; bullets hurt less than the press.” She looked over the sleep-deprived mugs of her rag-tag Stick and lingered on the disinterested, glossy stares of the Bobs, seemingly fixed on some point beyond her. “Anyone have anything they’d like to add?”

            “Make sure you bundle up,” Corporal Nancy Phelps added while combing his fingers through his thick beard. “I checked Weather, and it looks like it’s just above forty dee – in August. Global warming, my ass…”

            His fellow Corporal, Amber “Boner” Barnes shook her rusty red curls at him from across the aisle. “You do realize that we’re deploying in ocean where an island used to be, right? Like, less than a hundred years ago.”

            “It’s liberal propaganda is all I’m saying…”

            “It’s ten feet underwater is all I’m saying; the artificial reef from the old casinos is the only thing keeping the Float from drifting into the Atlantic,” she sneered. “Didn’t your moms teach you anything?”

            The pair glared at one another for a moment before the Dutch-Oven broke the silence by asking, “What’s it going to be this time, Catchphrase?”

            The doe-eyed young man bit his lip and thought hard for a moment. “Ok, I got it,” he exclaimed. “When I get ahold of that prick, I’m gonna say, ‘Do Saints pray? You might wanna start, son.’” His head bobbed steadily with self-approval as he turned to his left, but Oldman had stepped up his performance by allowing his jaw to fall open and a thin trickle of drool to run down the side of his chin. Undeterred, he finally received a patronizing five from the squad medic, Roger “Ramen” Raman, sitting to his right. 

             The Dutch-Oven and the mustached former fireman, Mark “Just Mark” Veetz, beside him shared a short glance before the former broke out into stifled, cackling laughter. The restrained amusement resulted in unrestrained flatulence which he immediately saluted like reveille. Just Mark followed suit, and the pair broke out into a half-whispered rendition of “The Wheels on the Bus” when Skip interrupted over comms to called out, “Thirty minutes.”

“Outstanding. Right,” Huck muttered as she strapped herself in to a seat next to Oldman. Her exposed forearms immediately erupted with gooseflesh as the chilled and unpadded aluminum wall that served as a seat back pressed against the sweat mark of her lower back. Fighting the feverish sensation, Huck’s pit-black eyes hung on the whispering pair of bloated Bobs, cooperatively assessing a poorly hidden holo not provided by her own mission uplink. Failing to make out anything more than the letters, “o-d-h-a,” through the back of the clandestine display, and finding her attention lingering for too long on their steaming ventis, Huck retrieved her own VI-Phone from the only nylon pouch on her belt not designated to some sort of workplace utensil: radio, quick-ties, plastic bags, pepper-spray, flashlight, and two spare clips for her M9 Beretta. After thumbing the screen with her recently downloaded Ponder app active, the device scanned her vitals and cross referenced time, location, and browser history. It opened her browser to an article titled, “ADIP: Avoiding Workplace Drama,” e-mailed her coupons for Starbucks and Under Armour, and automatically posted, “Gonna have my own say; let the other haters hate,” to her false persona’s page.

Chapter 2

“…Pigs can fly: fascists falling from the sky.
Descend to terrorize: victimize: black some open eyes.
One hand on your throat, the other on a nine.
Hands up! Bang! Bang! Bring you into line…”

            A lazy morning tide lapped waves against the damp timbers and rusty edges of the flotilla. Too exhausted to sleep, a young Floater curled up beneath a heavy rubber raincoat covered in handstitched patches held fast with safety pins and fish hooks. Loose strands of dyed-green hair that peeked out from below the frayed seam of a stained, knit cap curled around a red-tipped nose against the damp pier. The curls began to twitch gently before whipping around wildly in the oppressive gale from above which tore away the drift-punk’s impromptu source of shelter, sending the coat fluttering into the grey swamp which used to be Brigantine, New Jersey. Exposed tattooed arms clung tightly to a ripped, sleeveless flannel before they too were torn away: twisted behind her back and quick-tied at the wrists.

           Corporal Boner rested her knee in between the youth’s shoulders and signaled for Nancy’s squad to advance. As they took position behind the charred wall of a roofless shack, Huck passed between and took point. The rubber-soled boots of Recon Zulu padded softly across the saturated planks as they stepped quickly along the outskirts of the flotilla. Steady eyes peered out from behind riot glass and followed along the sights of lifted shotgun barrels as the helo lifted away, sealing its drop doors with a soft hiss. As the gust of its departure faded along with the hum of its bladeless rotors, Huck turned to her three squads with a pair of Bobs in the ass and signaled for them to wait.       

           Boner made two short piles from the contents of the floater’s pockets while they held position. The legal pile held a few crumpled bills and a venue ticket, some open-prescription Ritalin, two VI-Phones (both with cracked screens), a glass bowl with a dime-bag of skunk-weed, two condoms, and three .22 rounds, while the other contained a half-crushed pack of cigarettes and a single-shot printed firearm. By the time she had laid the trinkets out, Skip called over comms that the helo had touched down to fit the heavies, Catchphrase and Oldman.

           Huck dug her thick, stubby thumbnail into the deck beneath her feet. The plank seemed to be in a perpetual state of rot, and it was impossible for her to differentiate between the sickly green-grey wood and the heavy layer of swamp scum that coated it. She wondered if the flotilla could handle the P.O.F.s with each rig weighing in at roughly one half ton plus operator, but it was hardly the first time the thought had occurred to her. She comforted herself again as she did the first dozen times, insisting, in part through force of will, that if the Float could handle thirteen hundred drunk teens jumping up and down in place, it could handle her heavies. It had to. Extracting Aiden St. Clare from a teenage wasteland would be hairy enough without having to worry about American youth in revolt. Just the presence of a pair of heavies could curb that.

            As Skip and Gigi circled overhead in the helo, Oldman and Catchphrase caught up to the rest of the squad. Each stood nine feet tall suited up, strapped firmly into hydraulic frames meant to drastically augment their strength and carrying capacity, as evidenced by the three hundred and fifty pound pump motor and a pair of hundred pound hoses that each handled with ease. Most folks see a hulking robotic man marching towards them and they tend to be dissuaded, especially so in limited civilian engagements. The personal ordinance frame was not without its weaknesses, however. While it was graceful enough to walk in a straight line, it could be easily outmaneuvered and overwhelmed in an extended riot, limiting its potential for extended use.

           Additionally, although the legs and lower torso were armored with steel plates, the operator’s upper torso, head, and arms were largely exposed. While the little armor it did have could provide some protection, it was hardly effective. P.O.F.s had all but fallen from the favor of military infantry units; no amount of armor plating could protect against the barrage of RPGs and IEDs they tended to attract. Huck had seen that first hand in Syria, and she’d studied the clips of Black Friday mobs and lucky Molotovs devastating overwhelmed operators. She knew how best to use her heavies for support and shock, and what dangers to keep them away from.

“Comm check; sound off,” Huck whispered into her collar.

            “Zulu One, good copy,” Boner reported over comms.

                        “Zulu Two, good copy,” Nancy added.

            “Zulu Three, good copy,” Oldman grumbled.

                        “Zulu Four, good copy; three bars connection to base,” called Skip.  

           “Roger: good copy all,” Huck replied, looking back to the Bobs for confirmation. After a long second of vacant expressions, the pair looked to one another and responded with a weak thumbs up. She took small comfort in the fact that while the pair were patched in to comms, they kept off of them, for whatever reason. It didn’t matter to her then. She had a job to do. “Move out. Eyes up. Heavies, stand by and watch our six.”

           Huck led from the front: point of the spear. From her forward position she could set an appropriate pace for the field and issue silent commands to the following squads flanking her on either side. Huck ordered the Stick along the unsteady walk-ways connecting rows of slap-dash shacks, over piles of refuse, while being careful not to disturb the many glittering ornaments that dangled from rusty awnings overhead. They stepped double-time to avoid bottlenecking in the narrows, paused to secure stray Floaters that littered their path, and timed each soft step to fall in sync with the creaky groans of the flotilla rolling lazily on the waves.

           From overhead, their progress was recorded in real time by the helo and monitored actively by the whole Stick. Gigi laid out a route based on thermal scans and flagged potential threats. Just as Huck had expected, the majority of Floaters were congregated around the stadium, however, those few locals fortunate enough to have steady work, legitimate or not, had avoided the scene and were readying themselves for another day at whatever grind. After ten minutes of minimal engagement, Huck could see a rise of corrugated steel roofs, two and three floors above the cluster of homes that the squad had been cutting through. A steel highway sign, thick with irregular coats of mismatched paint, was mounted in plain sight. The sign read “Afterbirth,” in neatly stenciled letters.

           “Movement!” Gigi half-shouted, but too late.

           Huck caught the sharp glint of a gun barrel out of the corner of her eye as it leveled on her head. A crackling shot rang out and lingered in the morning stillness. The shooter, an obese mass of bruises, tattoos, and hair curlers couldn’t manage to chamber another .357 round before the Dutch-Oven crashed through the cardboard shanty door and tackled her to the ground. Just Mark hustled to cover the open corner ahead of them while Ramen, who had been standing behind the Sergeant helped her to her feet. He asked, “Are you – alright, Hannah?” as he held her cheeks gently between his shaking hands. Fingering the surface graze in her tac-helmet, he muttered, “I can’t – see…”

           A thick stream of blood ran down between Ramen’s bewildered eyes. He had been standing right behind her. Huck did her best to steady her Stick’s medic as he crumpled to his knees and fell forward into her. “Contact,” she spoke calmly in spite of the fist-sized hole she found in the back of his helmet. “Medical emergency; Ramen’s been hit…”

           “Coming around…,” Skip called.

           “Negative,” Huck replied quickly. Although she was sure of the course, the word hung as heavily as the gunshot still ringing in her ears. Bringing the bird into the heart of the flotilla would risk drawing even more attention, and diverting it to act as medical transport would rob the rest of her Stick of any chance of evac, and now they were running without a medic. “He’s gone.”

           “You filthy pigs,” the bloated crone shrieked, struggling to throw off the steadily tightening grip of the experienced veteran on top of her. “You come in here ‘cuz we’re criminals or are we criminals ‘cuz you come in here!?” A flood of tears rolled down her swollen face almost as quickly as the life poured out from Ramen’s head into the swamp below them. The Dutch Oven cut into the scaly folds of the woman’s wrists as he pulled the quick-tie tight with a jerk and quickly gagged her with a soiled scrap torn from the bottom of her tattered nightgown.

           Huck worked quickly to roll Ramen onto his stomach and began assembling the stretcher he had been carrying on his back. A single hand outstretched halted Boner from advancing her squad to assist. “Button up and stay put,” Huck ordered. “He’s gone. Gigi how do we look?”

           “Gunshots are nothing new in the float,” she choked between quivering breaths. “Shouldn’t draw too much attention – wait… Maldita sea. You got an – an army coming down from the stadium…”

           “Calm down, Gigi,” Huck replied. “Give me a count.”


            “How many?”

                        “…maybe twenty? Moving South.”

            “Then we keep heading East,” she thought out loud. “Sarge to Zulu Three.”

                        “Go ahead,” Oldman’s dry voice responded immediately.

            “I need a distraction; see if you can’t scare them off.”




            “Those kids didn’t kill Ramen; we got the bitch who did.”


            “Displace Westerly once you’ve engaged,” she ordered. Leaving a broad crimson smear across the face of her wrist-mounted VI-Pad with a dripping finger, she designated a rally point for him to fall back towards: just a few klicks away from their original deployment zone. “Zulu One, you’ve got stretcher. Zulu Two, you will collect the prisoner in the rear and follow; if she struggles, drag her. Mark, are we good?”

            “Yeah, we’re good…,” he replied with eyes firmly locked on those of a skeletal child down the alley he was securing. There was no telling how long he had been dead. It was too cold for flies, and the odor of the flotilla shared the tell-tale stench of decay.  

            “Move out: double-time,” Huck ordered, lifting her shotgun again to the shoulder. The Sergeant left a trail of red footprints for the squad to follow as she crossed over a steel bridge leading under the sign for Afterbirth, through an open chain-link gate. A quick glance to her wrist showed a few heat sources scattered throughout the courtyard within, which she visually confirmed as a flock of resting seagulls. Silently, while the Dutch Oven and Just Mark leaned their shotgun barrels through the gate on either side of her, Huck signaled the trailing squads to rally in the cover of the compound gate. Once their unintended prisoner was pressed flat against the deck alongside the body of the man she killed, Huck pointed to Nancy and then to the mess at his feet. Looking to Boner and her squad, the Sergeant tossed her head towards the compound, turned, and moved in. Her own squad fell in step behind her, forming a triangle to cover all angles and scan the many open windows which surrounded the white-caked courtyard.   

           With a rippling chorus of blood-curdling squawks, the gulls fluttered up and away from the rapidly advancing squads, chaotically raining down a mess of white feathers, heavy droppings, and putrid bits of rotten fish. Stepping carefully over a mess of energy drink cans and antiquated children’s toys, Huck pushed towards the tallest building at the far corner of the courtyard: its foundation, a repurposed cargo tugger. According to her intel, this was the current residence of Aiden St. Clare. Huck waved toward each corner of a rusty iron door. Just Mark and the Dutch Oven quickly moved past her and rested shoulders against either side of the ivy-stenciled door frame. The Dutch Oven, on the left, set a pair of thermite charges on the hinges before turning away his eyes. Her uplifted hand counted down from three for the sake of the following squad as she squared off to breach the entrance. As she verified that there were no warm bodies on the other side of the door with her VI-Pad, Boner pulled the pin on a flashbang grenade and held it at the ready.  

           The thermite hissed as it reduced the door hinges to a molten puddle at the foot of the door. As soon as the flare from the charges subsided, Huck’s let loose with a straight right kick before falling into place beside Just Mark on the right. Taking a knee behind her riot shield, with the readied shotguns of her three squad mates behind her, Boner rolled the flashbang into the dark room beyond the now-open doorway. It clinked along a steel-plated floor before coming to rest against the toe of a ratty sneaker, sticking out from the shadows. A freckled girl in a tattered flannel reached down to collect the foreign device with a curious smile. She managed to take a single step with the grenade outstretched before it exploded in her hand. Boner’s green eyes swelled as the magnesium flash illuminated the horrific scene further. A half-dozen other children were gathered around the door behind the girl, their attention likely drawn by the earlier thermite sparks. An instant later, when the foyer was replaced by smoke and shadow, a lingering ghost image of glittering eyes and dirty, cherubic faces had burned itself over her vision.    

           The Corporal bellowed in horror as she threw herself into the room, waving her riot shield around wildly in hopes of clearing the oily smoke. Huck followed in behind on the heels of Boner’s squad, and she was followed by the remains of her own. Boner cursed beneath her breath as she frantically searched around the deck on her knees, rifling through half-melted action figures, smoldering plush animals, and the blackened cars of a wooden train. The toys were the only remains of children that she could find.  

           The others in the squads activated their barrel-mounted lights and began to cut through the turbulent swirls in the air with blue LEDs. The gloom lifted, and they found themselves in a high-arched, rectangular foyer, surrounded by an elevated terrace, presumably reached from stairs elsewhere in the structure. There was an ornate door in the room against the opposite wall, framed by heavy velvet curtains. The walls themselves were covered in blistered marquis paper and ornamented with unpowered seashell lights. Patches of tattered burgundy carpet covered sections of the exposed steel deck, and a pair of brass posts and velvet ropes marked off a set of stairs in the middle, leading down into the hull of the ship which kept the building afloat. Huck kept a sidelong eye on her VI-Pad, syncing visual and scanned data in her mind as a single stream of information. According to scans, there were no heat signatures apart from their own in the building, the same as before they breached.

           As she stepped carefully around the edge of the stairwell in the center of the room, Huck’s flashlight flickered out. Looking back, she watched as those of each of her men went dark as well. Huck held up her wrist to illuminate the room with light from her VI-Pad, but the display blinked out as well. Some light trickled in through the open doorway behind them, but before her eyes could adjust to the failing light, her device began to strobe brightly: blindingly rapid flashes from her holo projector. Holographic ghosts of children began to run around the room, into and out from the walls around them. The pocketed phones of every squad member began to ring at maximum volume, creating a cacophony of digital tones overlaid with pop song recordings. Their comms squealed with feedback. The assault of sound and light ceased as abruptly as it had started, but Boner’s VI-Phone continued to play quietly from behind. It was a song she had never heard:

     “…Pigs can fly: fascists falling from the sky.
Descend to terrorize: victimize: black some open eyes.
One hand on your throat, the other on a nine.
Hands up! Bang! Bang! Bring you into line…”

            The chorus repeated several times.

            One after another, hooded figures revealed themselves from the dark terrace above, illuminated by open flames which seemed to burst to life from the palms of their open hands. They were drift punks: waste land teens: all of them in grungy patched flannels with tattered jeans tucked into their heavy leather boots. Spikes, pins, and studs flickered around them like orange specks in the erratic light of the flames they held. Huck and her men were surrounded from an elevated position by any number of unknown assailants, somehow clever enough to mask their own heat signatures and turn their own tech against them. She knew they had stumbled into a trap. A single overhead light cast a pure beam over the ornate door in front of them. It opened slowly and Aiden St. Clare stepped into the room cautiously with one hand raised and the other on the handle of a packed suitcase.

            “What seems to be the problem, Officers?” he smirked.  


By R.J. Barna

         We had no sympathy for the aching earth. Gravel and withered weeds ground to grey dust beneath the tired soles of our Chucks, Doc Martens and Vans, though our exposed skin was likewise brown and cracked, shriveled and speckled with flecks of white, salty crust. We trampled the bitch below us to the droning command of bass drum beats and tinny guitars. No doubt she was angry. We all were. And that’s why we danced.

         By noon, the sun had burned out the sky- an oppressive white-gold presence that surrounded the naked world. The aluminum stage-edge seared like the spikes, chains and safety pins clinging to the desiccated cloth, glowing with focused intensity of a sun that surrounded us, which we could not escape: the haunting shriek of life-hating heat paired nicely with amplifier feedback. Our like-mindedly unique clothing fought against us, stiff at odd angles like clumsy papier mache.

         We danced, huddled shoulder to shoulder in crackling leather and soiled work shirts that once belonged to filthy, oily men named Bruce, Jeep, and Manuel – their labors a part of us now. Their sweat was our sweat. Their blood, dried up in crusty, rust-colored stains would drink deeply from our own, if we had any left to spare. We’d long since spent our tears, blood, and whatever sweat that could be produced from Dixie cup servings of Yoo-Hoo.

          We’d lost Ron in the heart of the Big Wig pit, no sign of his gauze-thin “Katie Hates Me” t-shirt in the mass of Mohawks, furious fists, and stomping feet. I didn’t have time to worry about him, even if he was our ride; the look of Jeff’s face was unmistakable, his bloodshot eyes sunk low beneath red, swollen eyelids. He’d had enough.

         Without argument, the 6’7” giant collapsed forward at the waist, wrapped both arms around my sloped, bony shoulders, and let me lead him out of the crowd, back towards the merch stands, ducking elbows and a barrage of bottles raining down around us. It was the only rain that Buffalo had gotten all summer. I dropped Jeff to the ground in a pale plume of powder-fine dust against an orange plastic safety fence. He giggled and flashed his signature ogre smile, an under-bite with one misplaced tusk jutting out from his lower lip. Clearly, the man was in need of some more Yoo-Hoo.

          I collected two free servings from the pink-haired girl standing ankle deep in discarded bottles, plates, and cups beneath a faded yellow and blue canvas tent. An acidic trickle of anticipation pooled beneath my tongue as I rejoined my comrade at the edge of the assembly of anarchy. We tapped the flimsy paper cups together with a soft scuff of a toast and sipped the warm, chalky sludge gratefully.

         We didn’t really listen to the music, but we didn’t speak either. We shared a sort of ringing silence, surrounded on all sides by noise too loud to hear. My bare shoulder scraped against his ashy-sharp elbow as we watched the pit writhe and convulse like a singular, amorphous beast.

         Hundreds of punks, skins, and posers, still flailed together with unreasonable intensity, rebelling even against the exhaustion that had overcome twelve and sent them to the hospital already. We threw empty bottles at the EMTs that interrupted the Tour to warn us of dehydration. Like any of us had another five bucks for water. Fuck water anyway. We had free Yoo-Hoo.

          Big Wig finished their set and in the silence, the beast dissolved, its many disparate faces becoming individuals once again, and Ron’s was born from deep within its swarmy mass. “Junior,” he wheezed, taking what was left of my Yoo-Hoo. I stared at a thin crescent of dried blood around his nostril, and we shifted uneasily in the quiet that lingered between bands.

         Big Wig still haunted our eardrums like the touch of your first girl does your skin. It was gone. We thought we wanted it gone when we had it, but now we wanted it back. It was ours and we needed it back, even just for one last go. What we got was something new, something unexpected. A high-pitched twitter of a piccolo and the cheery whine of a fiddle drifted over the lot of us, still teeming around the sugary drink-stand like as many ants.

          Another band began to play, and before we had a chance to consider the alien sound of an unheard of Irish band, a steady bass drum replaced our minds and the possessed feet of a singular storm once more took to the Devil’s Dance Floor. It was a stampede, locked arm in arm, howling with crackling, failing voices torn from our chests.

         We ran faster and faster in a massive circle until the stage disappeared in a cyclonic brown haze, and then the sky. The sky had been consumed by the sun, but we the beast had blacked it out by worship to the god-drum. In the mighty cloud we had conjured, pressed between Ron’s shoulders in the black of it, all that I could see was a faceless grin beside me: Jeff’s crooked teeth, thick with mud born from dead earth and life-giving Yoo-Hoo.

Nature’s Clowns

By R.J. Barna

         Artificial ferns hide rusted loud speakers on black mulch islands preserved by plaster-cast bamboo. A serpent path of cracked cement surrounds them; its back speckled with glass reflectors. In between, glints of golden disdain peer back through bars at glossy eyed children, open maws party to mismatched teeth stained pink by cotton candy and red tiger pops. Tap tap tap: the wobbly wheel of a chartreuse stroller mocks the macaws, singing the tune to Kevin’s impatience. Pressed black slacks against a grimy green railing. A scuffed silver band between red folds of flesh and invisible knuckles sings back along the bar: tap tap tap – tap tap tap.

         “Otters are closed, man. Kid dropped an ice cream,” the groundskeeper shouts up. He twists his Beats back over his ears, shielding them with both hands as he drops into the green lagoon with a grunt. He bobs up and down, walks slowly towards the rolling brown slick, collecting it with a dustpan and holds it up for the other to inspect. “You know it’s funny, man. Wild otters live their whole lives in the water. Don’t need to get out.”

         “No ice cream.”
         “Always a catch,” he says. “You know, otters are the only animal but people that hunt with tools? They carry rocks, man: like the same rock. Tuck them up in their pits and carry’em around their whole life. Guess it’s how they deal, you know? Bashing the shit out of clams…” The groundskeeper knocks the runny chocolate lump loose with a tap tap tap, and it lands with a sickening smack on the sun-faded astroturf surrounding the pool.

         Kevin pulls the corners of his mouth with tired cheeks. They always ache on Sundays.

         “Anyways, you should come back tomorrow. Otters are nature’s clowns, man.”

         Nature’s clowns. That’s just what Ms. Mulroney said after nine o’clock mass. Just after inviting him over to dinner again.

+ + +

          Kevin’s eyes fell fixated upon a small purple blemish on the sanctified linen in front of him. The grocer’s girl crossed by the altar with a bow and gripped the cantor’s podium with both hands – tap tap tap. Her thumbs kept the beat on either side of her hymnal, waiting for the rheumatic digits of the organist to catch up. Each and every pew groaned with anticipation of the closing hymn – the crawling creaks of old wood strained by invisible hands readying coats, tucking away phones and groping for mishandled missals in the pew-backs in front of them. The song leader beside him on the altar took a deep breath and Kevin stood in response.

If any Man Will come after me

Let him deny himself

And take up his cross and follow

Follow Me

          Step, step, pause; Kevin kissed the altar with a bow and crossed around in front. Step, step, turn; he was joined by a pair of young servers with dripping candles in their hands. Together, they bowed again and marched toward the sidelong and downcast glances of the car dealer, the ginger family and the plastic surgeon and his model wife. Their children were outside texting beside the Escalade. The handyman grinned, as she always did, but Kevin suspected it was to cover for her poor lip syncing. For his own part, he mouthed watermelon as he had learned to do with lips pinned firmly back in what he hoped might resemble a smile. He charged down the gauntlet in slow-motion, half-expecting to be trampled by parishioners on either side, trembling at the mouth of each aisle he passed like racehorses at the gate. The choir stood pertly in their pit, hymnals pressed firmly to their bellies as they sang.  

If any Man Will come after me

Let him deny himself

And take up his cross and follow

Follow Me


          As soon as the first wave crashed upon the vestibule doors, Kevin tucked into the church office and dropped into the worn leather chair left vacant by the late pastor just a month earlier. He pulled the phone across the desk and pressed the receiver to his ear as quickly as he could sit down. He found this ritual served well as a silent explanation to the peeking faces that crossed his mantle and retreated as quickly upon seeing his apparently absorbed condition. Occasionally he would need to exaggerate his pantomime of using the phone, since simply using the phone wasn’t always apparent enough. Neither act ever seemed to work on Ms. Mulroy, though. She would always stand alongside the donors’ plaque outside, shifting her weight from one foot to the other like a suspicious turkey passing by the cutting block for as long as it took for him finish his call, or until he stopped pretending. Kevin could see her across the crowd, feathering her bottle-red curls at the edge of the choir pit, pulling strands loose with each pass of her freshly painted fingernails.  

          The phone display read 9:38, and he wondered if it was too soon to call his brother again. Although he hadn’t answered for the last two weeks, Chet had served as his excuse and saved him from another dry pot roast and more awkward hours flipping through yellowed photographs of folks she called by different names from page to page. He punched in the numbers as she began her weekly walk towards him. Tap tap tap.

         Kevin couldn’t bear the thought of dinner with her again, a dinner which he had expected others to attend. But he knew that his Boss would hardly approve of lying to her any more, especially for a third time: the third crow and all that. He looked busy, digging through his desk drawer, so she waited in her usual spot. His fingers drifted over the few artifacts of his inside: one Bic pen with cap chewed beyond function, an open pack of Nicorette and a wrapper from the Planters nuts he had finished before mass instead of the gum. The pen would have to do, and it found its way into the corner of his mouth. It was a new way to deal. 

          His niece answered, “Hi, Uncle Kevin.” She sounded like she was expecting the call.

         “Is dad home, Tabitha?”

         She pouted. “When did you stop calling me Tabby Cat?”

         When I overhead the altar boys talking about ‘her rack,’ Kevin thought against his intention. “You’re hardly a little girl anymore.” He repeated his original question to avoid any further consideration of her development, but he felt as flushed as when she introduced herself to his new parishioners as his girlfriend during her last visit. The joke seemed funnier when he would take her to the zoo during the divorce, but then she was eight, wearing his Peyton Manning jersey like a dress, hair cut short because Kevin couldn’t get out the gum he didn’t know enough not to give her. Now she had hair down to her waist and wore that same old shirt differently, hanging off of one shoulder and tied up to display the new Celtic cross on her hip. “Is dad home?”   

          “Jet skiing with Janice,” she replied. Her eye roll was nearly audible. “He’s gone for some couple’s weekend up to Bayside. Probably come back with someone else…”

         “He and Janice have been dating a while though, right?”

         “No, that was Janet. You’re so bad with names.”

           Kevin looked up to the waiting eyes of Ms. Mallory outside his office and bit down hard on the obliterated blue cap between his teeth. “Oh, I was actually calling to see if Chet still wanted to catch the game tonight – like we had talked about.”

          “Sorry, Uncle Kevin. I’m free, though…”

          “Oh… Well, that’s really responsible of you,” he said. “Keeping your Sunday free for school work.” Tap tap tap. “I should probably let you get back to it.”

         Tabby didn’t respond at first. “Maybe I’ll take the Jag out tonight…”

         “Better than the old Taurus.” 

          “You watch your mouth about my Peyton.”

         “Hey, I’ll trade you for that Jaguar any day.”

         “Nah,” Tabby replied quickly, “you stunk him up with your Camels. Besides, mom got the lake house, I got the Jag and you got me, remember, Uncle Kevin?”

          Sounds like I won out, he thought he should have said. Kevin’s foot bounced beneath his vestments in silence. He wondered if it was too late to reply, but as the seconds drew on, he knew quite well that the chance had passed as quickly as the thought through his mind. Just like it always had before. Every time she called him Uncle Kevin, he knew he replied silently, “It’s Father Kevin.” He always hoped the collar spoke loudly enough, but it said nothing he expected, and it felt tight around his throat. “Well, I should get back to it.”

          As soon as Tabby had said, “Goodnight” at ten in the morning, Kevin’s waiting guest entered his office without hesitation. His grip lingered on the receiver, plastic and damp. The choir woman was talking as soon as she entered, he knew, but her voice was drowned out by the soft static in his hand: evidence that his niece had not yet hung up. He pulled the receiver back to his ear in time to hear a click. Ms. Mulaney could not be stopped.  

         “…and I have a beautiful pot roast, if you’re free tonight. Do you have plans?”

+ + +

         Tap tap tap. Why did he have to say the zoo? Of all the possible things he could have been doing. It’s like some bad joke. If only he knew a Rabbi and a Minister to go along with him. And of course she knows all about the zoo. She has a season pass, she says. Takes her grandson twice a month, she says. And oh, how he loves to watch the otters play. If you can’t make dinner, you just have to see the otters, Kevin. It is so funny to watch them pretend to be people. They’re nature’s clowns.

         He stays for another ten listening to the groundskeeper in an otherwise vacant and decidedly otterless display. The park closes in another hour and Kevin is thinking all the while whether or not Ms. Mulrino will even know if he was there, let alone if he skipped out early. He half expects her to turn a corner at any moment and offer him a cotton candy or an ice cream, even though he’s already seen the tragic ends of both. Tabby used to make such a mess of herself. Seeing the filthy, sticky toddlers under the care of real parents, Kevin begins to think it may not have been his fault after all.

         He splits open the last of the peanut shells from his pocket. Six fifty for nuts. He shakes his head thinking about it, appearing to support whatever “true fact” was just presented by his tutor below. His name tag says, “Peg.” Kevin mirrors a laugh, but his ring is tapping again. He pulls one nut from its smoky splintered husk with his lips, but loses its twin from the back end, which spills out and into the pool below. Peg doesn’t notice any more than Kevin. The latter is too busy wondering what in the world “Peg” can be short for, only turning his attention back to the nuts when he realizes that he has eaten them all.

         Kevin announces his departure by crumpling up the wax-paper bag high enough for his lecturer to see. Peg lifts his chin in response and Kevin ambles off. Nature’s clowns, he thinks as he tosses the wad towards, not into, a green steel bin. Bouncing off the side, the misplaced projectile patters along until finally coming to rest beside a boy with a blonde bowl cut. His unblinking stare is nearly as unsettling to the priest as the mustard brown crust encircling the boy’s left nostril. Kevin pulls back the corners of his mouth again and points. The boy giggles. The giggle rises into near mania and the boy reaches out and slaps his father sitting beside him in the dark mulch, eyes buried in the screen of a Blackberry he thumbs frantically.

         “Daddy,” he says. “That priest wants my butt.”

         There is no apology or even eye contact, only an audible declaration, but Kevin isn’t sure for whose benefit. “We don’t say that,” the father says. Out loud, Kevin imagines the father meant to say. A heavy lump drops like ice cream in the pool of Kevin’s stomach, polluting it and chasing off the otters. Otters, which in the wild, could live their whole lives in that water, pretending to be people. He thinks they must have dropped their rocks in the excitement. He feels them. A dozen tiny stones, sinking slowly to the pit of his gut. Bashing the shit out of him. Tap tap tap.

         Kevin keeps his lips pinned back and eyes fixed on his peanut wrapper as the father drags his son away squealing by one arm. He doesn’t see the small crowd of teenage girls filming him with their iPhones, though he knows they are there. He is just as sure they are laughing at him. Their snickers confirm as much as he bends down to pick up his trash. What Kevin does see is the wink and smile from a cartoon otter on the side of the can. Kevin deliberately places the trash inside with a trembling hand and shuffles along the sidewalk in the opposite direction, back towards the main entrance.

         “Turn the otter cheek, man,” he thinks. Kevin repeats the phrase in his head again and again, convinced that he will either believe it or find it funny. He finds his car well before either.

         It’s nearly six by the time he reaches his silver Ford Taurus in the “Gazelle” section of the parking lot. Peyton is easy to pick out on account of the zebra patterned seat covers Tabby had installed when they had shared it. A St. Christopher medal hangs from his rear view, a perfect match for the three he received as Christmas gifts since he finished seminary. His doors are still unlocked and his flip phone is still unstolen. Its water damaged display reads, “One New Voicemail,” undoubtedly related to the “One Missed Call from M. Mulryan.” Dinner is at six and she can’t wait to hear about the otters.

         Fuck it.

         Kevin flips down the grease-stained sun visor with one hand while blessing himself with the other. A soft pack of Camels drops down into his lap and a single cigarette peeks out through the torn foil, the rim of its filter tattered cotton from frequent handling. Tap tap tap – tap tap tap. He presses in the lighter on the center console. Best thing about an old car, he thinks.

         Kevin picks at the pack like an infected scab, pulling the foil back and folding it over again, unwilling to commit to either course until an irreparable wound emerges. The dull thud of a heated spring makes up his mind, and the single cigarette is between his lips as if by its own will. He puffs air through the stale tobacco, and he feels something starting to play in his stomach, something bubbling up to the surface.

         Tap tap tap.

         An otter knocks on the car window. Or rather its glossy plastic eyes do. Kevin rolls the window down and searches for the owner of the stuffed toy. By the van parked beside him, a pair of equally large brown eyes are waiting for the priest’s attention. The boy’s crown of dark curls shake with his head from side to side.


         “Smoking kills, mister.”

          “Joshua,” his mother interrupts from the driver’s side. “We don’t judge. I’m sorry, Father. We’re sorry.”

          “No, no,” Kevin says. “He’s right. It’s very nice of him to remind me.”

         Joshua beams and turns to his mother triumphantly, swinging his stuffed otter at his hip.

           “Did you – did he get to see the otters today?”

          “No,” his mother answers. “He loves them, but they were closed. Tell Father about the otters, Joshua.”

         Joshua leans close to Kevin’s car. “Otters are the only water mammal without blubber, and that’s because their fur is so soft. That helps them deal with the cold, but that’s why they’re endangered too,” he says, “because people used to hunt them for it. They eat mussels, but not like people muscles. They’re really hard to get open, like shellders, so they break them apart with rocks on their bellies like this.” Joshua holds out his stuffed toy between them to illustrate, crossing its stuffed paws over to strike itself again and again – tap tap tap. The intensity of his grin seems to increase in correlation to the violence of his demonstration.

         “Ok, Joshua,” his mother says, “That’s enough. I’m sure Father has to go.” She mirrors Kevin’s smile and reaches out to her son, opening and closing her hand on an invisible thread. “Let’s go, kiddo. Say goodbye.”

          The boy climbs up into the van and waves a furry paw as they drive away. Kevin listens to the groaning whine of his old engine, waiting for the piercing screech of a loose belt to fade. Across the cooling asphalt, spent forms drifting below bobbing balloons are wrapped around the fronts of their folks. The parents slog back, balancing their burdens on their bellies while clutching overstuffed plastic bags, hollow Igloo coolers and half-empty fountain drinks half-full of ice. Maybe it’s how they deal.

         Kevin returns his last cigarette to the safety of its hiding place. “Nature’s clowns,” he thinks and loosens the collar around his throat. He can’t wait to tell Ms. Mulligan all about them. And his brilliant otter joke. Kevin lifts his phone and punches in the numbers. Tap tap tap.

          “Hey, Tabby Cat. I need a date for an awkward dinner tonight…”

John of Mine

By R.J. Barna

         Maggie’s head rests in the damp palm of her hand as her cherry red nails pick at her lower lip. She half-listens as a serial drones across the kitchen, abuzz with monotone fantasies of a brighter tomorrow, a better today, a different yesterday. The radio’s pale orange dial illuminates the dripping icebox, a rack of chipped dishes which lie about how often they’ve been used, John’s mother’s oak table and the three chairs that remain around it. The fourth from the set, too soiled, hides behind the back door beside a pair of blue slippers. They sit upon a great black spot waiting in the shadows, just out of reach of the radio’s tender glow. 

         Settling ice clinks in the lemonade beside her. It’s too awful to drink. Maggie curls her free hand around the icy beads speckling the glass and slides her slippery fingers across her brow, her cheeks and between her collar bones. The gentle brush of fingers sparks a warm, rolling shiver in her breast, and in spite of her best efforts to resist the swampy Alabama July, she feels her temperature rising. She swallows hard, the bitter memory of failed lemonade still trapped in her throat.

         “Stop it.”

         Her foot taps. It hasn’t stopped since John came back from the mine alone, and she could hardly expect different today. Since Jack. Hell, since John. He burst into her life like the Squall of ‘21 when he walked through a foot of snow to her house in his Levis and tee, hands and cheeks chapped as his lips. What happened to her blue-eyed boy dusted with white? Where was that boy she knew in clouds of jagged breath escaping a wool blanket beside her cast-iron stove? Maggie chuckles to think of him then: shriveled, clammy and pale as her fingers against the wet, chilled glass.

         The familiar dull scrape of a key finding its home brings her back to hers. The door swings in, but there’s nothing but a slivered moon and a pair of sickly blue stars. A shadow carries the stars inside and swallows up the waiting chair with a long sigh. Eventually, one pink foot slips out from the black, and then another. They find their way into John’s slippers, leaving two heavy mounds in their place beside a rusted lunch pail. The slippers cross the room and stop in front of Maggie and a red gap appears atop the mass where a mouth ought to be, were it a person.

         “Ok,” the shadow says.



         Maggie slides an already filled washtub out from under the counter and pushes it into the center of the room. The flickering blue stars follow her every move. Her bare feet bound across the weathered wood floors, too careless now to worry for splinters, past Jack’s room for a stained brush and towel from the hall closet beyond. Her eyes linger on the abandoned room as she goes, its neatly tucked bed and packed hickory dresser, a baseball bat and stack of Action comics. Maggie feels him watching. Again her temperature rises. She closes the door behind her gently and returns to the kitchen where she takes her now empty glass from the shadow, revealing a pink palm beneath it. 

         “This lemonade is good.”

         Maggie smirks.

         “You’re right,” slips suddenly from white teeth; “it tastes like shit.”

         “I know. I made it.”  

         Maggie finds a pair of blue eyes, but they turn too quickly away to recognize. He squirms out of his shirt and she runs her fingers up and down his back, and soon her nails are clogged with coal dust. She helps him into the bath and sees some brief shimmer of a man before the water obscures it, transformed immediately to opaque muck. The serials conclude and Ben Selvin plays on the radio.