The Dragon Code

The Dragon Code

Baldwin could not help but drag the tip of the broadsword through the dank cavern and over dunes of gold. The sword had belonged to his father and his father before that; it was a family heirloom he hoped to become worthy of. It was almost as big as Baldwin, though, and weighty. A weapon worthy of a king, it had certainly seen more bloodshed than the fledgling knight. Today, this boy on the verge of manhood – this boy just more than half his father’s stature – hoped his heart could help bear the load. For today he was going to slay Black Veritas, the dragon that once every hundred years laid waste to the kingdom. Today his victory over the beast would come before its latest awakening, thereby winning the heart of the princess, Princess Ardel.

Upon summiting the largest mound of gold coins yet, Baldwin held a hand out to stem the glare of treasure as a single ray of light from above bounced around infinitely. He stood in awe of the wealth strewn across the hundred meter cavern floor; pearls, jewels, crowns, even long-thought-lost paintings. He, too, was lit up like treasure, glinting with golden light off his polished metal armor. It buoyed his hopes. He scanned the cavern for something deeper than treasure, though.

There, between the spilled chest of silver and a small sea of trinkets; a burning red eye with a slitted dark pupil – Black Veritas.

If the beast were awake Baldwin did not know. Perhaps Baldwin’s noise had stirred the dragon but it had not yet come to its full senses. The knight figured he best not delay. He would strike before Black Veritas could come around. Taking the beast’s eye would give Baldwin an advantage. He just had to close the fifty or so meters with the heavy sword before the dragon was rousted.

Baldwin slid down the mound of gold precipitating a cascade of coins. The noise would awaken the most slumbering animal! Baldwin thought. The dragon’s eye did not waver, though, and this gave Baldwin more hope as he lumbered toward his target, flagging under the weight of his armor now. The boy-knight gripped the sword’s hilt with both hands, raised the bloodthirsty steel over his head with youthful vigor, and promptly fell backwards unable to counter his own momentum. He crashed down on a bed of silver almost deafening himself.

“Go away. I’m trying to rest, man-child,” a muted voice came from beneath the landscape. The eye did not move.

“Be still, dragon, so I may slay thee and preserve the kingdom!” Baldwin’s voice cracked as he scrambled back to his feet. He struggled to lift the sword much less keep it steady. His heart pounding against his breastplate, Baldwin’s own sweat stung his eyes and clouded his vision, though he could see the beast had not risen yet. “There, keep steady now!”

“I don’t want to kill you, man-child. I merely wish to sleep a bit longer. When I wake, we can battle properly if you like,” the dragon offered. “Besides, wouldn’t slaying me while I slept be less than honorable for an esteemed knight such as yourself?”

Baldwin approached the eye slowly but surely. “I am not esteemed, yet, but I am my father’s child and will see to it that you are vanquished. You will trouble the kingdom no more!” The young man steadied the broadsword with all his strength and let out an unintelligible battle cry as he plunged the sword’s tip towards the beast’s vision.

The sky was engulfed in coin and treasure as Black Veritas rose with lightning speed. The dragon was as large as twenty men, covered in glossy black scales hard as diamonds, with talons and teeth sharper than anything Baldwin had ever seen. The knight’s sword clanked off the belly of the beast, causing a reverberation that saw the weapon leave the hero’s numbed hand. A grimace flitted across Baldwin’s face as he saw his heritage fall short of its mark. Pain streaked across the young man’s face as he was batted away by the flick of a talon, the armored knight no more than a flea to Black Veritas.

Baldwin crashed as junk among the treasure, the impact made worse by being ensconced in metal. Driven by the spirit of his father’s disappointment, the knight spat a river of blood and unlatched his breastplate and tossed his gauntlets aside. He drew a breath as deep as this cavern and lunged for the sword, the only armament he’d brought. Black Veritas swiftly closed a knived fist around Baldwin’s body and laid the young man into a pile of silver coins. The dragon pierced the knight’s left shoulder with a talon, pinning the young man down. Baldwin let out a high pitched scream before throwing his head back in anguish. Black Veritas lashed his tongue in the knight’s face.

“Why are you so eager to die, lad? Did I not say I didn’t want to kill you?”

“I…I was sent by Princess Ardel to dispatch you! It would preserve her father’s reign and for that she promised to marry me.”

The dragon looked at the knight sideways and snorted. He withdrew his talon from the young man’s shoulder as quickly as he’d brandished it. Baldwin’s mouth opened but he made no sound as he clutched his wound. “You’ve been sent on a fool’s errand,” the dragon said. Black Veritas circled round his treasure and curled up like a cat.

Baldwin could barely breathe but he glanced at his sword a few meters away. The dragon was the fool for not taking him seriously. “What do you mean, beast?” Baldwin asked as he noisily inched towards the weapon.

“Take hold of the sword again and there will be nothing left of you, not even ash. Do you wish to be vaporized, knight, your existence erased altogether?” Baldwin rested still. “Good. A wise man seeks to live. A brave man seeks to die,” Black Veritas remarked.

Accepting defeat, the knight must know before imposing exile upon himself. “What is this fool’s errand you speak of?”

“Princess Ardel has no intention of marrying you. She is secretly betrothed to Lord Benningfield. She sent you here to die, no doubt tired of your advancements.”

“Scandalous liar!” Baldwin insisted. “How dare you say such a thing of a princess! And Lord Benningfield is her cousin. Such a thing could not be!”

“She’s not even a virgin,” Black Veritas said casually. The dragon licked his bloodied talon clean, leaving it gleaming white once more.

The knight wanted to sit up and raise a fist but he’d lost too much life. “Dare you! How could you know such things?”

“I always keep one eye and one ear open, boy. Do the same and maybe you’d hear the ravens talk. They’re more than mere gossips, I assure you.” The young man looked confused. “Oh, did you think before this day only humans could talk? But now you know differently.”

Weak words fell from the knight’s tongue. “I am dying, hallucinating. I’ve lost too much blood.”

“So dramatic,” the dragon rolled his eyes. “I’ll mend your wound,” Black Veritas spoke as he got up and stepped to the young man. Again he pinned the knight down and breathed a narrow stream of flame onto the wounded man’s shoulder, cauterizing the injury. The dragon casually walked away and curled up in a fetal position again. “You’ll live.”

Wracked with pain but alive, Baldwin turned over on his right side, his head slung like a tankard of mead. “Spared by Black Veritas. I am humiliated. I cannot go back now.”

“Why not?” the dragon asked.

Baldwin let loose with a grunt without bringing his head around. “One does not return from battling a dragon unless they have slain the dragon. It is the Knight’s Code.”

“Says who?” Black Veritas asked putting his head down.

“That is the way it is. That is the way it has always been. Who am I to question the wisdom of elders?”

“Indeed, that’s the way your elders and nobility wish you to think,” the animal mentioned. The dragon lifted its head and directed it towards the knight. “I ask you; if I surpass your elders in age does that mean you should heed my every word? Am I wiser than you because of age or station? Perhaps. Perhaps not.”

Baldwin managed to lift his head and rear it towards the dragon. “You speak in a strange way. And you behave strangely. Why have you not killed me?”

“Because I don’t have a ‘code.’ Nor are you ready to face a ‘beast’ as terrible as myself. And so I am merciful. If we are lucky, this mercy will shed light on the darkness that has been instilled in you since birth.”

“Darkness?” Baldwin queried. “You lay waste to the kingdom every hundred years, killing scores of people and livestock. How is it that I have darkness within me?”

“Darkness, ignorance; whatever you want to call it,” Black Veritas answered. “I have never laid waste to your silly kingdom. All the treasure you see here are offers to appease me so as to ensure I don’t do exactly that. Strangely enough, the offerings weren’t even my idea. I’ve never had reason to attack your encampments. Perhaps it is my power they fear and hope to keep me from coming around at all. They don’t realize they interrupt my rest. If anything, this is what makes me want to slay them, though I do not.”

“I don’t understand,” Baldwin simpered.

There is wool that has been pulled over your eyes in order to obscure the reality of your life. Do you know what my name ‘Black Veritas’ means? Part of my name is from the ancient language known as Latin, making my name something of a metaphor for ‘Ugly Truth.’ It is a joke your nobility thinks is clever.”

“Another language? English is the only language other than the mindless chirps and squeals of animals,” the young man stated.

“Do you know what a library is?” the dragon asked. Baldwin’s eyes shifted away and he gave a curt head movement. “It’s where books are collected in large quantities and arranged by subject matter. I’m sure your noblemen and women have a library. At least the noblemen do. Your clergy sometimes likes to speak in Latin; it’s a trick they pull to pretend they have a deeper and greater understanding of English than you do.”

“Why would the clergy engage in such deception?” the knight tisked.

“The same reason powerful people always lie – to maintain their power over you. Let me ask you a question, good knight; why do you fight for them?”

Baldwin needn’t mull it over. What a dumb question from a seemingly intelligent dragon. “It is my station. My bloodline demands it. Just as the blood of our God runs through the nobility, so knighthood runs through my bloodline. I am compelled to perform a duty through both antiquity and fealty. It is the way of things.”

“Again, says who?” the animal wondered observing its talons. “The nobility? Isn’t it interesting that the rules they say you must obey are rules that benefit them the most. This I know, for I’ve been around much longer than any of you think. I am also not an idiot.”

“Your mockery of me does not persuade me, dragon,” Baldwin replied.

“Oh, don’t be so touchy, boy. You were born into ignorance and were never taught to question it. What are you to do but accept a lie you are told all the time? If a big enough lie is told frequently enough, it will be believed. But you do not have to go on being an idiot. You do have a choice.”

“What choice?” the young knight laughed humorlessly. “If I go back wounded they will ask me what happened. If I tell them the truth, that you let me live, they will make me the court jester. I cannot lie and I say I slayed you because they will ask for proof. If I say I never found you and I was attacked by bandits they will say I am unworthy. You may be right, though, that I do have a choice; I can go into exile. They will assume you killed me.”

“Do you not want the princess’ hand anymore?” Black Veritas queried. “I’ve heard she is quite fair, though her deception does leave something to be desired.”

Baldwin looked away and lowered his eyes. “Is it really true, that she is betrothed to Lord Benningfield?”

Black Veritas’ mercy suddenly turned to pity. He sat up. “It is true. The nobility always marry within their family tree. They believe this keeps their bloodline pure. Even they are not capable of telling themselves the truth.”

“What shall I do? All is lost,” the young man bemoaned.

“You’re correct that you cannot tell them the truth, for they shall kill you before you can recite our conversation before the public’s ear…” Black Veritas studied the knight from head to toe. He regretted wounding the lad though on the other hand the man-child was quite determined upon the onset of his attack. The situation was not impossible to turn around.

“You believe in the decency of telling the truth, knight. But the truth is that the truth is a matter of perspective. If you are willing to tell a small lie, you can have your heart’s desire. You can become the king,” the dragon offered.

“This small lie sounds like it will be a matter of perspective,” Baldwin chewed.

“You are a quick learner, Baldwin, Son of Halfred. Yes, this I know as I know much. Here,” Black Veritas said as he plucked one of his scales from his hide. The animal rolled his eyes wide as he did so.

“I did not think that was going to hurt that much,” the dragon spoke. “Take my scale and fashion it into a shield. You can say you took it from me in battle and used it to protect yourself from fire, proving your resourcefulness and that you’ve slain me. But do not go back to your kingdom first. Take as well any of the riches you see here and go to Fort Blackwater. There, you can inform Captain Langford of your wish to overthrow the nobility, which he’s been wanting to do for almost two decades now. He’s too old to challenge you for the kingship but he will gladly accept the post of captain of your royal guard.

“When you are king, then you can tell the truth. But with the nobility too powerful right now, your own deception will be necessary to overthrow them. They are too clever in taking advantage of the truth and so you must fight fire with fire, so to speak.” Black Veritas slunk away and buried himself under a mountain of allegedly enchanted runes.

Baldwin took the scale which seemed amazingly light. How could it deflect his father’s sword? Magic, or something more truthful?

“Why are you helping me, dragon?” the sweat-matted blonde youngster asked.

“You are young and your mind is not so corrupted that it cannot change. It is not too late to improve your station and elevate your kingdom in the process. For I do not believe in telling lies unless it is necessary to do so. Your necessary lie will overthrow liars whose lies kill your brethren and cause untold misery. I am sympathetic to the suffering of all animals,” Black Veritas answered from below. “Such is the Dragon’s Code.”

“I thought you didn’t have a code, dragon,” Baldwin remembered as he stood up.

“You are beginning to think independently. Today you have claimed a victory,” a muted voice returned.

The young knight turned and started away, then stopped and cocked his head back. “And why should I trust this lie of yours. Is this game for the throne a joke to you?”

“Some of your philosopher think all of life is but a game. You can play the game and take it for what it is worth or be dead now. Leave me and let me sleep, knight, least I feed on all your cattle the next time I wake.” A single eye opened from beneath the runes. “You are a pawn now but this does not mean you cannot become a king.”

Baldwin nodded and leaned over to pick up his sword. He fastened it to his back and started off. “Thank you for opening my eyes, Black Veritas.”

“May they never rest, o’ noble knight. Be they open to lies that grow like giants in the darkness.”

Baldwin never did become king. He did overthrown the nobility but understood that to hold onto power as king, lies were required to navigate the ever-present but secretive maliciousness of the court. Thus he dispatched nobility altogether and relinquished his title as Sir Baldwin to become instead Baldwin the Wise. But that is a story for another time.

 

All rights Reserved © November 2019 John J Vinacci

Secret Santa

Secret Santa

Stewart dare not touch the cookies. It was tempting, sure enough, what with the warm scent of doughy sweetness pervading the house. Hints of vanilla and chocolate whirled around each other on a carousel of flame that popped out of the fireplace. The cookies were meant for someone else, though, a very special man at that.

As the odd snowflake or two drifted to the ground outside the window in the twilight of Christmas Eve, Stewart tugged on his stocking to ensure it was secured to the fireplace mantle. He glanced at the small side table beside the armchair turned towards the hearth. There, the plate of cookies were flanked by a tall glass of almond milk. (Stewart was looking out for the Big Guy’s health.) The scene was set for Santa’s arrival. Pristine as it was, how could Santa not visit this house? It would be rude to ignore such an invitation. But this wasn’t just about the presents, no sir. Stewart – curiouser than a black cat – could barely disguise his ulterior motive.

“Don’t try to stay up late to see Santa like last year,” Stewart’s mother had warned, “No one has ever seen him. He’s…he’s very shy is all. Just leave him be and you’ll get presents. Stay up too late and his elves will eat you before you ever catch a glimpse of him.” Of course, the boy’s mother was being absurd; elves made the toys Santa brought. They didn’t eat children. And Stewart had heard somewhere that elves probably didn’t even have teeth for there was no dentist at the North Pole.

The seven year old’s mother had been warning the child off trying to catch a glimpse of many things lately, ever since the child’s curiosity saw him walk in on his parents entwined in a very unusual way. His parents should have seen it coming, of course; they were making too much noise and had forgotten the boy’s tendency to investigate the world. While they wanted to instill this trait in their five children, their explanation to Stewart for what they were doing was awkward and made them think he was too young to know about certain things. While the truth always comes out eventually, parents can at least stave off the inevitable. So while it is agreeable that a child is curious, a child also needs to be patient until it is their time to be endowed with certain knowledge. It would be a child’s own fault if they were impatient.

Stewart hadn’t considered any of this since his intrusion and subsequent lecture about – What was it? Birds and bees? – and purposefully set out to expose all the world’s secrets. Why are mom and dad always trying to hide stuff from me? I’ll show them, the lad thought as he glued a fishing line to a cookie before he had topped off the stack. So what if I see Santa? What does he care? Stewart had run the fishing line down the leg of the table, behind the Christmas tree, behind the sofa, around the corner and all the way to his bedroom where he tied the other end of the line to a small bell. As soon as Santa took the cookie, Stewart would know the jolly old man was in the house. Then he’d know if Santa was for real. He’d been hearing things at school…

In the two minutes since he last looked at the time, a heavy blanket of fog fell gently upon Stewart’s eyes. He fought the sands of sleep as if it were some wicked witch, chomping his bottom lip just short of drawing blood. As he bit the third time to ward off the Sandman, the bell jingled. The boy’s eyes flew open as he threw his beloved stuffed bear, Grimm, aside. A clever boy, Stewart stopped himself from setting his foot on the floor with too much fervor least Santa bolt like a reindeer. A ninja in a white forest animal print onesie, Steward slid his own little hooves down the hall.

Stewart peeked his head around the corner into the living room and there he was in the glow of the tree’s lights – Santa Claus. His back turned to the Stewart, Santa appeared taller than the child expected, though rotund enough for the occasion. With a cookie in one hand, the old man seemed to be taking stock of the Christmas tree, titling his head back and forth as if judging if the tree were worthy of having presents underneath it. Santa brought the cookie to his mouth, took a bite and quickly dropped his hand to his side. “Store bought,” he muttered without pleasure.

Steward had heard that tone before; his parents used it all the time. He stepped into the living room with no further hesitation. “Sorry, Santa. My parents won’t let me use the stove.”

Santa turned around without hurry and squinted at the young man. To Stewart, the man’s garb didn’t seem so much as red as soiled grey underneath a coat of blotchy red paint. The boy would have taken Santa to be a little tidier but who really knows a person? This is exactly why Stewart had tried to catch Santa Claus putting presents under the tree.

“Hello, little fellow,” Santa said, “I’d ask you your name but you know that I already know what it is. Why are you up so late, Stewart?”

“I…I wanted to meet you Santa. Some kids at school have been saying you don’t exist. So, I just wanted to see for myself.” Stewart placed his balled up hands on his waist. The doubters were wrong.

Santa stroked his wiry white beard. “Mmm, to them I might as well not exist. They’re bad children for saying that and that’s why they don’t get presents. Not from me anyway. That sad fact is that because they don’t believe in me, their parents have to work extra hard to buy presents for them.”

“I’m sure my mom and dad are relieved that their kids are true believers. Especially me!” Stewart closed his eyes and grinned from ear to ear. There’s nothing like being right.

“That’s all well and good, little Stewie, but you haven’t followed the rules.” The boy opened his eyes at Santa. Saint Nick waved at the cookies and milk. “You sure did a good job of inviting me in. You’re up too late, though. Don’t you think there’s a reason you’re not supposed to see Santa Claus?”

Stewart scrubbed his chin. “Gee, I didn’t think much about it. Mom says you’re shy but I don’t see how that could be.”

Santa let out a big ho ho ho and slapped his belly. “Oh, it’s not that I’m shy.” Santa leaned in towards the boy and that’s when Stewart saw that Santa’s eyes were a fierce deep yellow. “It’s because whoever sees me must die.” The jolly old man raised his hands to the sky and whipped them back down. Christmas lights, garland, and streamers came out of nowhere to snake around and gag the lad before he could make a peep. Stewart fell on the floor bound up like a damsel on the train tracks. Santa licked his lips and glistened his sharpening incisors with saliva.

“You see, Stewie,” Santa half-giggled, half-growled, “I can only come to people’s houses who invite me in. That’s been a rule of vampires for…quite some time now. Inevitably some little boy or girl stays up too late thinking they’ll get to meet Santa Claus. Your parents tell you to go to bed for your own good. Your parents tell you to do lots of things for your own good. When you don’t do those things? That’s when other things happen. Bad things.”

“Yourph uh phamphire?” Stewart muffled in wide eyed surprise.

“Of course, Stewie! All the clues are there. Let’s see,” Santa said as he counted on fingers. “Been around for much longer than anyone has a right to be; the red outfit; telepathic; only comes out at night; flies, though I guess the reindeer help with that…”

Santa turned around and placed some presents under the tree having grabbed them from seemingly thin air. The presents were for the family but were any for Stewart? The boy didn’t know. He wasn’t thinking about that now as he wiggled and wormed and tried to scream for his parents. The old man from the north eventually turned back towards the child and picked him up with one hand. Santa slung Stewart over his shoulder like a sack of toys. Stewart struggled but the soul-sucking vacuum of coldness surrounding Santa sapped his strength.

“Between you and undoubtedly several more children that pull this stunt every Christmas, I’ll be fed for another year,” Santa spoke cheerfully. Unnaturally nimble for his age and size, Santa slithered silently out the window he’d come in through. The window closed itself with a light thunk courtesy of some magic vampiric-elf dust.

Stewart’s mother’s head popped around the corner a moment later. She’d just checked in on all the children and noticed that Stewart wasn’t in bed. Maybe the talking she thought she heard had come from the living room? Perhaps it had been Santa seeing how there were presents under the tree now and a cookie was missing. With Stewart unaccounted for, yes, she could only conclude it must’ve been Santa. The matriarch shook her head as she walked over to the glass of almond milk and took a sip.

“Some kids don’t know when to listen,” she said flatly. “Oh, well,” she shrugged. “This is why we’ve got four more of ‘em.”

 

All Rights Reserved (c) October 2018 John J Vinacci

The Simulation

The Simulation

“What if we’re living in a simulation, Adama?” Eva asked, sliding the hookah back towards her boyfriend. “What if we’re something like The Sims, doing only what our programs allows us as our ancestors try to get a better idea how their forefathers lived? Or what if we’re a holographic projection, sort of like shadows of Plato’s forms?”

“I hate it when you get bombed, girl,” Adama responded. “How would any of those things being reality change how you live? If you’re a simulation, you could only do what your programing allows. You’d be bound by the limits of the world laid out for you. You’d never escape the simulation, so what does it matter?”

Eva frowned and reached for the hookah since her boyfriend waved it off. The haze that clothed the upper half of the room’s atmosphere seemed to be enough for him.

“Don’t you think any potential programmer would have a moral obligation to create the best possible world for us?” Eva pondered before making the hookah gurgle.

“Do you think that’s what people do when they play The Sims? No, that’s boring. The program dictates you make them find jobs, dates – all the same things we do, I guess for the sake of doing something.” Adama leaned back on the couch and tilted his head up. The hazy air slipped into his nostrils like a gentle brook.

“You’d be lucky to be an avatar in a game like The Sims,” Adama continued, talking to the ceiling. “Imagine you were in a game like Fortnite. Do those programmers live by a moral code to make the best possible world for their program’s inhabitants? Don’t think so. All the inhabitants of that world do is kill each other.”

Eva blew a cloud of smoke Adama’s way. “You don’t think our ancestors could be trying to figure out what their forefathers were like?” she said with the last remnants of air in her lungs.

“Nah,” Adama replied. “Our records are pretty good going back to at least the turn of the twentieth century. It gets murkier the further we go back, of course, but then we’d be part of some ancient civilization and not inhabiting the twenty-first century. Assuming our records survive into the future. Even if the records didn’t, we’d just be guesses, approximations of their forefathers, and I don’t see how that would be helpful to our ancestors.”

“Okay, so what if we’re projections or afterglow of some real universe?” Eva continued. Adama was regretting talking his girlfriend into taking the Philosophy of Mind course with him at college. She only talked about the class when she got high.

“Are you saying that because we’re a projection that what we experience is somehow devalued by not being the real thing? How would we know we’re not experiencing all the same things, the same feelings, as our real selves? Whether or not it’s the reality of our situation would be pointless. Even if we were projections, how does that change anything? We wouldn’t be able to change our being projections. It wouldn’t change how we behave. We couldn’t change how we behave because only our real selves could do that, right?”

Eva looked down. “Could you smoke a little bit more, babe?”

“Eva, baby, I don’t need to alter my reality that much. I’m good right now,” Adama argued. “Why do people want so much to believe that this reality isn’t real anyway? You want to believe you’re a brain in a jar somewhere so that, what, you can escape responsibility? Find an explanation for why people can be so crazy? Believe that beyond this false reality the universe does in fact care?”

Eva was beginning to see the apple and laid back in the recliner across from Adama.

“I guess you’re right,” she said ad looked away into the recesses of darkness the apartment’s thick curtains threw. “What kind of world would our simulators be living in? Probably the same, huh? I guess it doesn’t matter if we’re simulations, holograms, or if this is as real as it gets. We can only do what we do given the laws of the universe we live in. The truth, whatever it is, doesn’t change much of anything.”

Adama leaned forward and opened his reddened eyes at Eva. “The truth isn’t even the truth. And that’s the truth. I still love you, though.”

“If that’s what either one of us want to believe,” Eva spoke into a shady corner.

“Is it possible for them to say that?” Dr. Amada asked his colleague about the holographic simulation.

“The parameters of their programming appear to allow for it,” Dr. Ave responded.

“What do you think it means?” was Dr. Amada’s next question.

“It confirms what we already know. It means whatever we want it to mean and that’s the truth,” Dr. Ave reminded.

“It hate that the truth is subjective,” Dr. Amada said as he reached for a modified beaker. He took a hose by its mouthpiece and puckered his lips around it.

“If the truth were objective, wouldn’t that be worse?” Dr. Ave rejoined as she waved the smoke away.

 

All Rights Reserved (c) July 2019 John J Vinacci

All Possible Worlds

All Possible Worlds

7:00am. Gilliam’s phone vibrated itself off the nightstand while the sound of the phone’s alarm steadily increased. He rolled over towards his side of the bed and reached for his phone with no luck. It was still dark and he could turn on the lamp but he didn’t want to risk anything else waking Celia. They’d been up most of the night talking, a conversation Gilliam kept going at all cost in case The Moment should occur – that awkward pause where the next thing you say isn’t said at all but still required your lips. And The Moment had indeed occurred. Gilliam waited eight years for it, since they were fifteen. So much anticipation, the thunderbolt of The Moment’s arrival had electrified his entire being so thoroughly, he was exhausted after their first kiss.

The young man’s hand eventually found the phone and silenced the ringer before it could wake Celia. Now the choice was whether to go to work and he was thinking he would not. Gilliam rolled himself back towards Celia who was laying on her side and facing the other way. He spooned up behind her and draped an arm over her. As he breathed in the scent of her hair, he thought, This is the best of all possible universes.

7:00am. Gilliam’s phone vibrated itself off the nightstand while the sound of the phone’s alarm steadily increased. He rolled over towards his side of the bed and reached for his phone with no luck. It was still dark and he could turn on the lamp but he didn’t want to risk anything else waking Celia’s friend, Questa. They’d been up most of the night talking about their mutual friend, a conversation Gilliam had tried at all cost to end in case The Moment should occur – that awkward pause where the next thing you say isn’t said at all but still required your lips, just to fill the void. Fortunately, The Moment eluded them, perhaps because Questa knew Gilliam would never truly be hers because of Celia. Gilliam’s been waiting for Celia for eight years for it, since the two were fifteen. With little fanfare, the two had drifted off to sleep in Gilliam’s bed, after Questa solidified a plan for Gilliam to secure Celia’s affections.

The young man’s hand eventually found the phone and silenced the ringer before it could wake Questa. There was no choice but to go to work now. Gilliam rolled himself back towards Questa who was laying on her side and facing the other way. He spooned up behind her, gave her a respectful peck on the cheek, and whispered, Thank you. As he gently rose out of bed, he thought, This will be the best of all possible universes.

7:00am. Gilliam’s phone vibrated itself off the nightstand while the sound of the phone’s alarm steadily increased. He rolled over towards his side of the bed and reached for his phone with no luck. It was still dark and he could turn on the lamp but he didn’t want to risk anything else waking Celia’s friend, Questa. They’d been up most of the night talking about their mutual friend, a conversation Gilliam had tried at all cost to end in case The Moment should occur – that awkward pause where the next thing you say isn’t said at all but still required your lips, just to fill the void. And The Moment had indeed occurred, despite Questa knowing Gilliam would never truly be hers because of Celia. Gilliam’s been waiting for Celia for eight years for it, since the two were fifteen. But Questa couldn’t help herself; it was Celia’s fault after all for speaking about how wonderful Gilliam was despite Celia’s own boyfriend. After much physical affection, the two had drifted off to sleep in Gilliam’s bed, after Questa destroyed a plan for Gilliam to secure Celia’s affections.

The young man’s hand eventually found the phone and silenced the ringer before it could wake Questa. He wanted to rush off to work and figure out a way to excuse what had happened last night. Maybe there was a way to still be with Celia, some day. Gilliam rolled himself away from Questa who was laying on her side and facing the other way. He rose slowly from the bed and cursed himself under his breath. He thought, This can’t be the worst of all possible universes.

7:00am. Gilliam’s phone vibrated itself off the nightstand while the sound of the phone’s alarm steadily increased. He rolled over towards his side of the bed and reached for his phone with no luck. It was still dark and he could turn on the lamp but he didn’t want to risk something blinding the memory of a dream he’d just had. In his dream he’d been up all night talking with Celia, a friend he’d fallen in love with and he’d kept the conversation going at all cost in case The Moment should occur – that awkward pause where the next thing you say isn’t said at all but still required your lips. And The Moment had indeed occurred. Gilliam waited eight years for it, since they were fifteen. So much anticipation, the thunderbolt of The Moment’s arrival had electrified his entire being so thoroughly, he was exhausted after their first kiss. In the dream they fell asleep together shortly thereafter.

The young man’s hand eventually found the phone and silenced the ringer. Now it was time to go to work when all Gilliam wanted to do was linger with the memory of the dream a bit more. Then he thought it didn’t matter; Celia had announced her engagement to her boyfriend of three years last night. The dream faded with his rise out of the bed and the young man couldn’t help but think, I hope there is a universe in which we are together.

 

All Right’s Reserved © April 2019 John J Vinacci

Grimore’s Question

Grimore’s Question

“Why should I let you live?” That’s what he asked everyone at the end of his pistol.

Grimore never thought about what it was like to answer the question under duress. All he knew was that if it were him – beaten, bloodied, on his knees with a gun in his face – his answer to the question would be, “You shouldn’t.” Not because he would avenge the situation; he wouldn’t. His question was philosophical and if you didn’t have a philosophical answer this wasn’t good enough in Grimore’s head.

The question was not his to answer, not today. Today the question fell to another Survivor, someone else scratching out a bare-bones existence on their scorched earth. This man’s name…his name was irrelevant less Grimore was given reason to remember it. So Grimore asked the man again.

“It’s important,” Grimore said, “Tell me why I should let you live.”

The man looked up from his knees down the barrel of the gun through the dirt and blood that marred his existence. He was exhausted having left his shelter a week ago, scavenging for scraps for his family when Grimore caught him off guard. The man had been hit in the face from out of the shadows and kicked mercilessly until he’d been pulled to his knees by his scraggly hair.

Grimore had always waited patiently in places like this, convenience stores, knowing that although everything had been pilfered by now someone would eventually come along hoping that something was still left. Grimore, he was all that was left, a vulture waiting for the scraps of humanity searching for scraps of sustenance.

Fear, hunger, exposure to the elements – the man was quivering as Grimore pressed the gun to his forehead. Though his eyes were fixated on the gun his ear picked up Grimore’s voice softening. Maybe he had reached delusion. Maybe Grimore is what you see when it’s already too late.

“I don’t want to kill you. I need you to answer the question,” Grimore sighed. He sounded bored, the sound of inevitability.

The man tried to wet his tongue with what little water was left in his body. He looked down, then up, then down again. “I…I have a family. I have a wife, a son, and a daughter. They’re counting on me to bring some food back.”

“So they can starve a week from now? A month? A year?” The man could see Grimore squint at his from underneath a weathered flat-brimmed hat. “Tell me where they are and I will help them.”

“No, you’re going to kill me,” the man cried with dirt out of his eyes.

“Not if you give me a better answer,” Grimore rejoined. “Why should I let you live?”

“If I die, my family dies, that’s why,” the man choked out.

“Do better,” Grimore grunted.

“I don’t know what you want!” the man shouted as he pressed forward into the barrel.

A shot from the pistol rang out. The man fell, and fell silent. Grimore lowered the weapon to the side of his ragged, dusted cargo pants and looked upon the fallen. “What I wanted from you was something more than survival. A want for survival is no reason to let you live. Even an insect wants to live. What did you think you were going to do with the life I spared you?”

The disheveled traveler holstered the gun on his hip. Drawing a knife from his boot, he took the tip and etched another fine line into his belt. 213 Survivors, he thought. Grimore never remembered their names – he hardly ever asked – he just remembers how many. How many here on Earth, that is; he didn’t add those 213 to the exactly one-point-three billion he killed when he sabotaged The Womb.

Grimore knelt beside number 213 and patted him down; a few rusty knives and a revolver whose barrel was so dirty it probably would have misfired had the man tried to use it. There was only two rounds in it anyway so unless the man were a good shot… There were four cans of long expired beans in the man’s backpack. He also found a map in the man’s back pocket, a map that carelessly noted the man’s way back home to his family, assuming he hadn’t lied about them. Grimore would check it out. Whomever he found there, Grimore would ask them The Question, too, Why should I let you live? If he didn’t like what he heard, well…

Only two people had ever given him an answer to his satisfaction. Someone recently, upon realizing Grimore was going to kill them, asked what gave Grimore the right; what gave Grimore the right to kill anyone when there were so few people left? His immortality, he’d tell them. He wasn’t really immortal, of course, but his nanobots made him seem that way. They made efficient use of all nutrients, recycled waste in his body, and healed him quickly. It was a long involuntary life, the often overlooked curse of demi-godhood. When the time came, when he’d hunted down the last human, he’d find a way to break the curse. In the meantime, his victims will sometimes accuse him of entertaining himself, of having the nerve to play god.

The rag-tag hunter looked up at the rusted sky. Sand pelted his face went a wind kicked up and wound its way through the store’s broken window.

They brought this upon themselves, went his inner dialogue, They separated themselves from nature and each other, never understanding the necessity to survival of acting as one. They raped and murdered the planet then thought they could throw it away like any other piece of trash with no fear of consequence. Humanity thought they would walk away from their crime scot-free. They do not see, gods do not entertain themselves, they judge.

Grimore took three cans of beans from 213 and put them in his own satchel. The fourth can he opened with an old-school army tool; the smell was off. He slung the beans back down his throat anyway as if he were finishing of a tankard of beer.

“Tastes like shit,” he muttered, “Tastes like consequences.”

 

All Rights Reserved (c) February 2019 John J Vinacci

The Winter War (Part One)

The Winter War (Part One)

He slipped a foot onto the temple’s polished stone floor without a sound. A hundred feet ahead of him lay an inconspicuous blade, a thousand names throughout the ages upon it, on the gold adorned Alter of Kashima-no-kami. Its age was unknown but thought to be ancient enough; the Japanese-styled katana glimmered with the light of hundreds of temple candles. Waxy white, the nightlights radiated from behind a dozen scarlet-robed, yellow-sashed monks. They lined the hall on either side, sitting crossed-legged, arms folded, their heads bowed in prayer. Beside the alter itself, another monk in a yellow robe and scarlet sash stood in deference of the weapon. The monk did not hear the intruder’s footstep but he sensed it nonetheless. As the unwelcome visitor glanced another foot forward, the monks flanking the polished stone floor stirred from prayer and began to draw swords from the scabbards at their waists. Their uninvited guest withdrew his foot and the monks sheathed their weapons in synch.

“What god is so bold as to enter the Temple of Hachiman?” the chief monk asked in a forgotten ancient tongue. He raised the rim of his pointed kasa to see.

“What is a god?” the stranger asked flatly.

“No mortal can step in here and live,” the holy man notified.

“I was mortal once,” flat words came again and trailed off.

“You are something else then, a demi-god perhaps,” the monk smirked. “What do you think you are doing here?”

“I have come to claim the Blade of…whatever name it goes by now,” the stranger clad in earthly, medieval black leather armor said. Two short wakizashi within an overhand’s reach were strapped to the man’s back. Automatic handguns were strapped to either thigh.

“Only two beings lay claim to the blade. Are you Shiro Winter or Noira Winter?” the monk asked.

The man stepped forward anew and again the praying monks began to draw their weapons. Their heads lifted up, flickers of flame now in their eyes.

“I am Shiro Winter, the founder of this temple and your order. You will stand down and let me possess the sword.” These were orders, not a suggestion.

“We are bound by oath to slay whomever comes for the sword, whether they own the sword or not. Or has it been so long you have forgotten your own edict?” The yellow-clothed monk drew an impossibly long broadsword from behind his back, too large to have been concealed by his person. Shiro knew that the weapon had been hidden from view somewhere in time and was now brought into the present.

Shiro lowered his head. A cool breeze passed out over his lips. “I have not forgotten. I was hoping you had,” the founder replied. He tossed his long black hair back and burned a look across the hall. “I don’t want to hurt any of you. You know what I can do. It is probable that I can take the sword and be gone before any of you can strike.”

“Probability does not equal certainty,” the high monk replied. “We have had much time to study you and your sister and have prepared accordingly. The zealot tilted his head. “We have already begun our defense. Did you not notice?” the holy man broke across the still air.

A trio of red-robed monks clashed their swords together in front of Shiro’s face as he whipped his head back. One of the monks had come uncomfortably close, shaving a few atoms off their intruder’s nose.

After a momentary blur, Shiro drew a hasty breath and leapt towards the alter with a speed invisible to mortals but not the monks. They were fast, already in midflight, in mid-fight, blocking his path to the alter. The demi-god spiraled, contorted, and crooked his body like a flickering bat to avoid eight sharpened edges of death. A ninth monk, in position high above the alter, could not be avoided. The defender’s sword pierced Shiro’s heart and exited his back. He grunted in pain as his body slammed into the monk and the pair landed on top of the high monk’s sword. The sect’s leader wrapped a hand around the back of Shiro’s neck and pulled him and his fellow monk towards himself; the tip thrust through the two entwined combatants entirely.

His eyes wet, the temple’s founder drew a handgun and pressed it against the high monk’s head. “You’ve fulfilled the task I’ve required of you. Thank you. Now stand down before you force me to kill you.” The highest of the temple order, three-thousand years old himself, opened his mouth to speak but took a bullet to the head instead.

“I saw you refuse,” Reyson mumbled as he shoved the two monks away from him, their swords with them.

The demi-god turned towards a score of charging monks with a grimace as blood poured out of his body. They were too fast. He could use his ability to manipulate time and cut them down or slow down the damage to his organs, but he wouldn’t be able to do both simultaneously. He opened his arms wide and motioned for the temple’s defenders to attack. Shiro was run through with nearly a dozen swords. The monks pressed their gnarled faces against the intruder’s, intent on watching him die.

Shiro’s lips rimmed with red life. “Do you have it?” he asked weakly.

“I’m here, brother,” Shiro answered solemnly from the alter. Shiro, pin-cushioned, could only nod in response. “Yes, I have it,” Shiro at the alter confirmed.

A few moments passed as the monks that impaled him with their swords slowly withdrew. Their task was not to be surprised but to kill anyone, everyone, who came for the sword no matter how many of them there were.

“It…hurts,” Shiro, falling to his knees dying, managed.

“Without the sword, the Order of Time will cease to exist,” the high monk, a quarter of his skull missing, mumbled looking up from the floor. The chief clutched the demi-god’s leg as Shiro reached for the long, slim sword sitting on the alter top. “If you take that you know what you must do,” the priest, failing, murmured.

“It is the only thing that will kill Noira,” Shiro shook his head but acknowledged. He clutched the hilt but could not pick the blade up; it was infused with collapsed star matter and therefore too heavy to wield without his full powers. He displaced it in time to recall later, just as the high monk had done with his weapon.

“Noira…” the highest echoed, though it sounded more like a question. “You know what you must do. First you must kill Rayu Nomura,” the monk said at his last.

Reyson lowered his head again and said nothing. His ‘brother,’ his doppelganger created just a minute ago when he jumped back in time so fast all of his atoms split into two, laid in a heap on the ground. The demi-god’s eyes twitched at his slain self. Watching yourself die. I hope this is not a sign of things to come, Shiro thought.

He rerolled the dice, casting his eyes at the remaining members of the order charging him. They were barely moving, though. Slow, much too slow now, even at their fastest. Eleven swords minced thin air. Shiro was already gone.

In possession of a terrible sword, the sullen, wired-haired warrior took a seat on a crop of rocks overlooking the Temple of Hachiman in the dark green valley below. The sky was royal blue with a faint red glow that sailed like a stream though the middle. Countless stars penetrated the darkening cloth. He frowned; he hadn’t wanted any of the monks to die but their job was to ensure no imposter got their hands on the ultimate weapon. They knew the risk. They took the vow. Still…

Shiro slumped a bit, quivering down to the bone, weary from pulling that stunt back in the temple. It’d cost him half his energy and half his life, figuratively and possibly literally. He was going to need to sleep soon, a few centuries perhaps, to recover. Whether it was worth it wasn’t relevant. It had to be done. Noira had to be stopped, even if it meant enduring the nightmarish vision of himself dying over and over again while he slept.

He slipped a handgun from its holster and unlocked the clip. Still twelve rounds in it. He hadn’t used a bullet himself. Alone for an epoch, he’d resolved long ago to die for what needed to be done though he hadn’t needed to do so until now. But he would die again and again and again if it meant getting the arrow of time right, right until the absolute, very end.

 

All Rights Reserved © January 2019 John J Vinacci

52: An Anthology Of Strangeness

52: An Anthology Of Strangeness

My new book, 52: An Anthology Of Strangeness is out on Smashwords right now. I’ve taken most of my short stories and poetry from my blog, cleaned them up, edited them, and in some cases reworked them for your enjoyment. It like my Christmas present to you. Have a very merry – and strange – new year.

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/914336

side of the cycle