On Villains and Villainy

On Villains and Villainy

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” – Gerald Seymour in Harry’s Game

When I first heard the Joker movie with Jaoquin Phoenix was being made, I admit I was disturbed in the slightest. Critics of pop culture have long criticized what has seemed like a gradual and unnecessary decent into what seems like an anything-goes mentality for entertainment’s sake. The inundation of sex, drugs, and violence in pop culture appears to be on one hand merely for the sake of titillation. Yet, on the other hand it may be a reflection of the Western world’s dark underbelly it seems the average citizen doesn’t want to concede exists nor accept their explicit or implicit role in.* It is, however, the glorification of the villain that has troubled me the most when it comes to pop culture. I can name countless movies, not to mention countless musical artists, whose villains and villainy outshine their protagonists.

[*Perhaps the same can be said for the world at large.]

To be clear, I prefer my villains to be complicated, for their motivations to be more than evil simply because that’s who the villain cannot help being. Certainly, the new Joker movie is a reflective character analysis in this regard. Even the long string of Marvel movies were part of a story arc that centered around stopping a ‘mad’ Titan, Thanos, from wiping out half the life in the universe. His murderous methods aside – which we assume are wrong – it’s difficult to say what’s wrong with Thanos’ motivations for those of you who are aware of them. I think it’s fair to want interesting villains – the world is not black-and-white after all – but we’ve reached the point where in America’s culture at least, we’re literally rooting for the bad guy.

Case in point; at last night’s WWE’s Hell In A Cell Pay-per-View (I apologize for still keeping tabs on professional wrestling at my age), a character called The Fiend did not win the championship match and fans in the audience were audibly upset. This Fiend character is very popular among the internet wrestling community to the point that fans would rather see him crowned champion than have a face (good guy) retain the gold. I agree that the character is interesting and that the heel (bad guy) needs to win on occasion to maintain the delicate and eternal dance between good and evil alive for the sake of storytelling, but for a crowd to nearly riot when the heel doesn’t win indicates something is possibly wrong with either the Western psyche, the current rules of society, or perhaps a matter of definitions. (It is possibly all of these.) I point to actual current events to make my case.

The election of Donald Trump to President of the United States in 2016 couldn’t make my point clearer, being of the opinion that Donald Trump is clearly a villain. Why; what has he done that is so wrong? I could name a number of things and not be nearly exhaustive: Asking foreign powers to interfere in U.S. elections, accepting the word of despots over his own intelligence community, cavorting with said same despots, backing out of treaties with traditional allies and treating them with contempt, rolling back environmental and civil protections, coddling white supremists and stoking xenophobia, ignoring the U.S. Constitution (this is perhaps because he’s clearly never read it), embezzling from his charities, doing nothing about gun violence, and generally acting like a third-grade schoolyard bully. While I understand the frustration of many modern American voters with the federal government, I was aghast to find out a large swath of the U.S. thought Donald Trump was the answer. In my opinion, I can’t say Donald Trump has never done any good as U.S. president – even a broken clock is right twice a day by accident – but does the good outweigh the bad? No, because all things considered, the person in question wouldn’t be a villain. Inevitably, then, we’re forced to think about what exactly makes someone a villain.

What is a villain? The definition of ‘villain’ is broad throughout various dictionaries, meaning anything from the antithesis of the protagonist in fiction to generally someone doing harm to others in reality. In either case, a villain is typically breaking the law. They are considered dangerous or have behaved heinously towards any given person or group of people. A villain is often considered immoral, and therein lies a problem.

To some people, Donald Trump is a hero, a freedom fighter even. He is a protagonist to all those who feel they’ve been ignored, stepped on, or otherwise aggrieved by the federal government. The current president of the U.S. doesn’t play by the established laws, traditions, or unwritten social contract. This makes him a terrorist to some (in that word’s broadest sense) and a hero to others who feel that the current laws, traditions, and unwritten social contract need to be revised or reset to reflect some unspecified glory somewhere in America’s history. (Possible interpretation: When they felt more entitled.) So if a villain can also be a hero, there must either be something wrong with our definition or perhaps there is no such thing as a villain, objectively speaking.

It’s easy to contend there is something wrong with the definition. Scores of English words are too broad in their definition to be of much use or are outright confusing; ask anyone studying the English language. I contend that in modern U.S. culture, the definition of ‘villain’ is so ambiguous as to be vague to the point that many people would not know when they are behaving as a villain. (I’m not sure which is worse, a villain who knows they’re a villain or one who doesn’t know they’re a villain.) It also seems wrong to label anyone who offends us or that we simply don’t like as a villain, but that does seem to be the manner in which many Americans now operate.

Do villains exist, objectively speaking? Not if all cultures are relative, something we have to assume if not all cultures can agree that murder is wrong. (There’s always a caveat.) Villains can exist within a given culture, certainly, as there is no doubt that people have existed that have flouted the laws of a society they are seemingly a part of. Again, though, this allows a villain to be a hero to society’s downtrodden or anyone outside of a society that would like to see that society fail. So it’s hard to say villains actually exist anymore than we can now say heroes exist. Now we can see that heroes merely prop up the rules of society, and this would make them villains in someone’s eyes somewhere.

My original feelings towards the Joker movie have to be misgiven. After all, what does his nemesis Batman do but prop up the rules in Gotham City? Imagine Batman having grown up in 1930’s Germany; what would he have been but a Nazi superhero come WWII? Thank goodness he’s not, but Batman must be seen as a villain by some law enforcement agencies; there are procedures for catching and detaining criminals and subsequently putting them on trial. When this sense of fairness is broken can we agree this is something villainous? In the Joker movie, the central figure that is Arthur Fleck is driven insane by a thousand unfair psychological cuts, so can we blame him for the anarchy that ensues?  Can we blame a mass shooter who goes on a rampage because they think they’ve been treated unfairly?

Hopefully you are saying ‘yes’ because you agree that murdering innocent people, people who have not directly affected the shooter, are being murdered and we have to agree this is wrong no matter what society we belong to. Breaking two fairness rules – making two wrongs – does not result in a right, correct? Unfortunately, any given mass shooter or lawbreaker will have sympathizers. (To say nothing of laws that should be broken either because they are apparently unethical or quite ridiculous.) It would make more sense for a mass shooter to only kill the people that have affected them assuming the punishment fits the crime against them and we’ve never seen that.

If we invoke this rule of fairness which we, Western culture, seem to have forgotten as of late it might be easier to gauge who the villains are when the doctrine of fairness is broken. Given the current impeachment inquiry regarding Donald Trump, his proponents can argue for an investigation into the Bidens ad nauseum, and I’d be okay with that, but so should there just as well be an investigation into Trump. The fact that Donald trump obstructs justice in a manner that most of us cannot violates the fairness doctrine. I think it therefore reasonable to construe him as a villain. Then again, his proponents see this ‘unfair’ characterization as exactly what’s wrong with current American culture (despite these same people not wanting to do anything about solving the problem of mass shootings, which I view as villainous). I can’t imagine asking a Donald Trump supporter what they think made Obama such a villain because it seems like their definition is going to wind up being arbitrary. In fairness, though, I am willing to hear them out. Villains on the other hand hear no one out and simply assume they are entirely in the right.

All Rights Reserved (C) October 2019 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

Barton Saves The World

Barton Saves The World

“Vern? Vern. Vern! Help! I’m being sucked into the light. I think them aliens got me!”

Barton, as a tractor beam tugged on his red-and-black plaid shirt and soil-strew faded blue jeans, pleaded to no avail as he sailed up and away on a stream of blue energy. Though unable to move, Barton felt like he was swimming in the ocean of the evening’s stars. After a few moments, the feeling was peaceful, though Barton worried his brother Vern would pop off his shotgun in his direction in an effort to shoot the flying saucer that seemingly stalled their vehicle. Barton looked down towards his feet and watched as Vern and their Confederate flag decorated pick-up truck shrank.

“WhereamI?” Barton blurted with a sudden shift in consciousness. His soothing ride ended abruptly, his feet landing him on the deck of an extraterrestrial craft. Except, the deck appeared to be made of some translucent material through which Barton could see the lights of his town far below.

“Shoot. I can see Springfield next door, too,” the country boy observed. Then Barton looked around.

Standing on either side of him were four ten-foot tall lanky humanoids with bulbous grey heads and dark, almond-shaped eyes. They had slits for mouths and noses and were draped in long, flowing technicolored capes. The creatures reminded Barton of a gay-pride parade he’d seen on cable’s number one rated conservative news channel.

“You ain’t gonna do no anal probe on me, ya hear,” Barton punctuated with narrowed eyes. “That’s an abomination to God, ya see,” the stubbly bearded Georgian felt like adding, nevermind what he got up to with Vern’s best friend that one night in the hot tub. They was drunk, ya understand. A man ain’t really responsible for what happens when he’s drunk. That’s what Father Charlie always told the brothers. That man always did have a bottle in his hand, though…

“Barton Winchester, you have been chosen.” The aliens simultaneously lifted their four-fingered hands and pointed at their captive audience.

“Chosen for what?” Barton asked as he stroked his rough chin. He wanted to ask how they had asked him since he didn’t see their mouths move but figured they were using that newfangled technology. What was it called? Bluetooth, he remembered.

“You have been chosen to represent your species. As Earth’s representative, you will now choose.” The aliens pointed from Barton to a set of spheres in front of him. One was red and one was blue.

“Choose the blue sphere and we will give your species the knowledge to combat global warming. We will also tell you how to end income disparity and poverty. And – today only – we’ll tell you how everyone on your planet can have access to clean water.”

Barton was silent for a few moments. “And the red sphere?”

“Choose the red sphere and 99.9% of all the people on your planet who share 99.9% of your DNA will perish when we use our mega-ultimate extreme death ray. If you do not decide, we will disintegrate you and choose another representative. You have one minute.”

Barton was silent a few more moments. “99.9% of 99.9%, huh?”

The country boy stroked his chin some more. For one thing, climate change was a liberal conspiracy concocted by rich scientists trying to scam more money out of decent, hard-workin’ folk. Barton knew only rich businessmen who knew the truth had the power to stop the scientists, so ending income disparity was out of the question. And everyone already had access to clean water. Shoot, all ya had to do was go down to Wal-Co and pick up a 24 pack of bottled water.

Now the red sphere; the red sphere would stop all those illegals from crossing the U.S.-Mexican border and taking away all them American jobs Americans want so much. The red sphere would also take out the Chinese and force everyone – even liberals – to buy American. And, by golly, if the red sphere eliminated 99.9% of all the people who shared a measly 99.9% of Barton’s DNA, the U.S. could annex the land of those pot-smokin’ hippies, the Canadians.

Communicating telepathically, the aliens let Barton know he was on the clock. “40 seconds lef…”

“I choose the red sphere, y’all.” The aliens stirred and looked at each other, then back to Barton.

“Are you sure?” they asked.

“Oh, yeah, yeah,” Barton nodded. “Git on with it.” He poked the red sphere. “This one. This one right here.”

The visitors to Earth shrugged. It had been decided. There was a blaze of light, as if a million smartphone flashes had gone off at once.

Barton found himself standing beside his pick-up trunk. As quickly as he’d been taken away, he’d returned to terra firma. Vern was nowhere to be seen, though his smoldering work boots were left beside the vehicle next to Vern’s shotgun laying on the ground. Barton spat some chew hard at the boots.

“Dammit! Knew them gay aliens were gonna get carried away and screw that up!”

Barton grabbed Vern’s boots and threw them in the truck’s bed. He drove back home to find his wife’s empty gown draped over her McDonalds value meal. At his old man’s house, his father’s overalls and suspenders swayed in a rocking chair on the front porch, the pages of the man’s favorite newsletter, Info Wars, flapping with the breeze. Wherever Barton went in town, there was no one to be found. He even drove next door to Springfield. No one home there either. Them stupid gay aliens, Barton thought over and over.

Trying to find someone, anyone, Barton drove down to the U.S.-Mexican border in Texas. There were always people there flooding into America. But there was no one; no immigrants, no border patrol – no one.

Barton was about to turn around and head back to Georgia when through some wind-swept dust the county boy spied a brown-skinned boy – maybe all of six years old – walking into Texas from Mexico. The young kid was dragging his feet and his lips looked like paper. Barton gasped, jumped out of his truck and lunged for the supplies in the bed of his pick-up. He grabbed Vern’s trusty shotgun and leveled it at the other survivor.

“Not today, boy!” Barton shouted. “America’s full and we ain’t talkin’ no more. Now git! Git, ya hear!”

 

All Rights Reserved © 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

The Lottery 2040

The Lottery 2040

“You are now and always will be my friend, Aston, no matter what happens,” Mercedes soothed. “No matter what happens, I know in your heart that you’re one of us.” The words streamed off the raven-haired beauty’s tongue like a gentle brook.

Aston wasn’t convinced. And the lithe hand on his shoulder might as well be making things worse, not better. They weren’t kids anymore; they were nineteen now and had to register for the Lottery last year in accordance with their laws. Now that that they were entered, well, what if he won? Could they really remain friends?

“Excuse me while I worry anyway, ‘Sadie,” Aston muttered as he shook the young woman’s delicate hand off his shoulder. His fine blonde hair whipped on the wind as he skewed his chiseled jaw.

“Two babies were born last year and only one person died,” Aston continued in his crisp English. “Of course there’d wind up having to be a Lottery this year, just one year after we registered. What are the odds? Dammit.”

“It’s the price we pay to live the way we do. You know that,” Mercedes confirmed as she stroked her diamond necklace. She replaced her hand on Aston’s shoulder and turned him about with all her meager strength. She stared wide-eyed into his.

And the young man was soothed. Those clueless, doe-wide brown eyes of hers; they always got him. She just believed in it so much. His beliefs weren’t quite on the same level.

“I suppose,” Aston relented a touch. “At least your ex, Jaguar, is in it, too.” Aston never liked Mercedes’ ex, at least not since the pair hooked up about this time last year just when Aston began to have feeling for Mercedes. Mercedes and Jaguar broke up shortly afterwards, Mercedes saying they had different perspectives on things though she never said exactly what the difference was. “A good twist of fate will see to it that he wins,” the nineteen year old said dryly.

“Spoken like a gentleman,” Mercedes nodded softly.

Did she even hear me or is she actually that stupid? the young fair-haired man wondered. He didn’t really know why they were friends or why he liked her so much. Maybe she was the necessary antidote to his intellectually induced pessimism. Ignorance is bliss, after all. Or maybe it was biology; they were both young and hot. But then so was most everyone in their community. Aston turned back around towards the stage and tried concentrating on determining the future.

“There he is! The minister is approaching the podium,” Aston popped. He reached back to grab Mercedes’ hand and nearly crushed it with equal parts fear and excitement. She winced, then smiled, then brought her lips near Aston’s ear while the baby-faced officiant took up the stage.

“Aston, have you thought about what will happen if I win? Will you still be my friend?” Mercedes was forced to step back as Aston shooed her with both hands and said something like ‘sure, sure.’ His ambivalence went unnoticed by the young beauty’s naivety. She shrank back as the minister approached the microphone. Aston rose to his tippy toes and obscured Mercedes’ view.

“Bugatti Venyon…” the priest dribbled.

Aston’s fist rocketed into the sky, self-preservation assured. Best tp lay the part at any rate. “Wooo! Yeah! Bugatti! Get out of here you miserable slumdog!”

Aston’s theatrics were infectious to the point of violence. The prim-and-proper crowd of elitists began to boo and hiss like snakes. Like wolves, they began tearing at the tuxedo of the man whose name was announced.

The minister raised his hands simultaneously and scowled. “Settle down! Everyone settle down! Mr. Venyon forgot to sign his Agreement to Disperse Property form, that’s all. Settle down!” Aston and the crowd slacked back, fixed their ties and smoothed their dresses. Everyone raised their eyebrows and shrugged their shoulders at each other. No big deal.

Mr. Venyon, checking a scratch across his cheek with a white handkerchief, approached the stage, signed the form handed to him by the minister and settled back into the crowd, his eyes leery of his neighbors.

“Alright then,” the minister said as he placed the form on top of a large stack beside him on a table, “Let’s get on with the business at hand.” The smooth-faced magistrate reached into a bowl, whirled his hand, then quickly withdrew a folded strip of paper. He unfolded it, squinted, confirmed the name with the priestess beside him and approached the microphone once more. The crowd before him was silent, their mouths gaped like fish with hook in mouth.

“And the winner of this year’s lottery is…” A pin dropped but nobody heard it, “Mercedes McLaren. Mercedes McLaren.”

Aston spun around to find his best friend pale as a ghost. Her arms were folded across her chest and her chin brought low. “Aston?” she barely spoke. “You’ll still be my friend, right?” her broken voice and crooked brow asked. “You could come visit me. It’s allowed.”

He was trying to stare into her eyes but her eyes were closed to the dark energy reaching out to grab her, assail her, to reject her. In Aston’s peripheral vision, a score of hands emerged to blot out the sun. A sack of coal lodged in his stomach while his mind scrambled for something to say.

His thoughts were interrupted by the clarity of a memory though, of him sitting at his desk at home in the early evening with an ancient quill and ink well, spokes of sunlight piercing the thin white drapes, drafting his high school graduation essay on why the lottery should be abolished. The lottery wasn’t fair – an accident of birth landed the citizens of this community in their privileged society. So what if everyone agreed to participate? The choice not to got you sent off to the slums anyway. Who wouldn’t agree to stay? Then there was the matter of all people being created equal…

The lad remembered dotting the final sentence of his essay by driving the wet quill through the paper. Aston remembered staring at the essay for a long time after that, until well after the sun went down. Alone in a dark room, he carefully shredded the paper into small pieces. He tore it so slowly he could hardly hear it. He had to be gentle with the essay. Aston imagined there was a time ideas were respected and not blindly followed. As he swept the paper bits out his window onto a light breeze, a metal taste swept through the young man’s mouth when he realized his cowardice. He couldn’t blindly follow his own ideas, could he? At least he could defy them all somehow with littering.

Mercedes’ whimpers stirred Aston. Fingers, claws, were inches from her, ready to cast the lady down. Aston swelled with adrenaline; he knew he was strong enough. He could fight them off; break their fingers, rend their claws, frighten them into backing down. Only he’d never actually been in a fight, not one of them have. There was no fighting here; that’s what the poor did. Violence was reserved to give notice to those who’ve been outcast, to let them know they were unwelcome now. Those were the rules and they made sense to Aston, insofar as the lottery could make sense.

Aston, an unusual boy, saw his action potential stymied by his need to reason, to think things through. He saw it was too late to save Mercedes who – clawed dress and all – was hoisted above the seething crowd. This was the rule, there were no except…

“Proxy!” Aston shouted as loud as he could. The crowd froze and craned their necks back in the young man’s direction. “The rules state a proxy can take the winner’s place.” He said this knowing this had never happened before; no one had ever brought it up.

No one made a sound; not Mercedes, not the crowd. Everyone just kind of looked at each other. One man, almost 35 and soon too old enough for ritual death, finally broke the still. “Are you saying that you want to take her place?” he asked politely.

Aston stammered. “I…I’m just saying that’s the rule. I…” Mercedes, high is the air, hung her head upside down and shot her big brown eyes at him, wider than ever. Her mouth lingered just a touch open, waiting for her friend to come through. “It’s just that…that’s the rule. It’s a thing. I just wanted to remind everyone of that.” Mercedes’ eyes went super-moon as the crowd erupted.

“I will proxy for her!” a suave young Hispanic man with short, shaggy black hair roared. Not an ounce of fat on him, Jaguar’s muscles rippled from out his unbuttoned shirt. The conviction in his voice was as tall as he was. Mercedes was carefully placed back on her feet and the crowd lingered, thinking long about making a move on Jaguar.

“Step aside and I will leave this place quietly. None of you have to get hurt,” Jaguar spoke. The crowd parted like the Red Sea to either side of Mercedes. The Hispanic moved on air passed a dumbfounded Aston. He approached Mercedes and looked down on her, radiating love, burning her with sacrifice.

“I wouldn’t do it for you,” Mercedes whispered and turned away.

“I know, bomboncita,” Jaguar squinted. “But I could not live with the thought of you in the slums, dirty and scratching to survive. You don’t put up a fight against the rules, thinking you stand so little chance of winning the lottery and then winning anyway. Will you really go to live among those you’ve been taught to despise so that the rest of us can eat caviar? Do you know what really happens out there? You grow old if you are lucky, bombon, but if you are lucky you will lose your sweetness. I could not bear that in my heart. Besides, you know how I feel. I will still be the same man out there as I am here. Everyone is created equal no matter where you are from. Out there I will die with honor. Here, I cannot go into ritual death having never stood up for what is right.”

Aston throat burned with acid. Jaguar was taller, more muscular and better looking, and he’d slept with Mercedes. In what other damn ways could Jaguar be superior to him? Jaguar could love. Jaguar could sacrifice. All this superiority was intolerable.

“No! I will proxy for Mercedes,” Aston announced stepping towards the former lovers.

“Nooo,” Jaguar immediately lulled. “I do not think you will survive out there for long. I am stronger. I will do it. For Mercedes.”

“I, Aston Martin, will proxy for Mercedes Pullman. I volunteer to go to the slums and preserve your society. There, in the slums, I will be as equal among the people as I am here.” The whole town could hear Aston rev. “I won’t have your riches, your security, but I will have a dignity you could never take away from me!”

The young minister nodded and two men grabbed Aston by his arms. They fast-tracked him towards the town gate before he could spew any more nonsense. Jaguar winked at the hero and patted his shirt pocket as he was dragged by causing Aston’s face to curdle. With one hand around Mercedes’ waist, Jaguar’s other hand lifted a folded and heavily taped paper from the pocket and kissed it. Aston’s heart hollowed out. His head throbbed for an explanation. Thrown into the dirt outside the town’s gate he finally figured it out: Jaguar was smarter than him, too.

As Aston staggered away he thought he could hear Mercedes’ angelic voice. “You’re the best friend I ever had. You’re still my best friend.” Maybe she’d come visit him in the slums. Would Mercedes waste what little time 37 years gave her though? He wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t.

 

All Rights Reserved (c) January 2018 John J Vinacci