Negotiations (part one)

Four people were waiting for me when I walked into the meeting room. The man at the head of the table was also easily the oldest person present. Howard Massey had become ridiculously wealthy selling weapons to anyone who could pay. To his right sat the twins, Tess and Tucker van Auk. They had made their billions in the tech sector, though no one quite understood how. I’m not even certain they knew. Finally, across from them was Leslie Switt. Her financial firm had its hand in nearly every market.

I sat down next to Leslie. I was there because I had inherited control of so many patents, money was always pouring in. Also, I had something everyone else in the room lacked, charisma. I was our spokesperson.

Howard spoke up first. “How are the negotiations going?”

“They have agreed to our terms,” I said. I paused long enough to let everyone relax and begin planning their own celebrations. “But there is a complication.”

The scowl on Howard’s face was priceless. “You just said they accepted our offer.” He didn’t try to hide his disdain for me. Every chance he got, he made clear that only he had ever made anything to earn his money. It was a wonder to me that the others never objected or crossed him in any way. I, on the other hand, was constantly on the lookout for such opportunities.

“They did, but they want proof that the population is docile, that it is as easy to control as we’ve represented it to be.”

Howard began to rise to his feet in order to launch into one of his tirades when Leslie put her hand on his arm. She was the only one he showed even the slightest bit of respect to. She turned back to me. “What did you tell them?”

“I asked them what sort of proof they wanted.”

“And what did they say?” I had seen Leslie be abrasive on countless occasions, but she was only ever pleasant toward me.

“That’s why I called this meeting. I needed your input and agreement. They want us to arrange a mass suicide. At least a hundred people.”

“How the hell do they expect us to do that?” Howard screamed.

“They said it was up to us. If they are as easily controlled as we’ve said, it shouldn’t be a difficult feat.”

“Still,” Leslie spoke again, “that is a rather brutish approach.”

Tucker nodded with more energy than I think I’d ever seen from him.

Tess, who was almost always the one to speak for them both, sounded rather matter-of-fact. “And if we do this, we have a deal?”

I nodded. “Yes. Passage to another planet that meets all of our requirements as well as the resources to live as comfortably as possible.”

“And access to the bio tech they showed us?” Howard had calmed down as soon as he was reminded of what we stood to gain.

I nodded again. “In exchange for Earth, we will have everything we ever wanted. We just need to to prove the malleability of the people. So what do you all think?”

Tucker gave his sister a worried look, but she avoided turning his way. Leslie was chewing the inside of her lip, which she always did when she was weighing out risks and rewards. And Howard, uncharacteristically, was lost in thought.

“I can tell them no. See if there is some other way forward,” I offered.

Howard shook his head. “We would look weak, not in control. They came to us; if we started showing hesitation, they might think we weren’t the people they should be dealing with.”

Leslie indicated her agreement. “No sense getting squeamish now. The planet is doomed. We ought to see this through.”

Tess had to push Tucker off of her arm. “We, too, support going ahead.” Tucker seemed about to speak, but a look from his sister stopped him.

“Okay, so how do we proceed?” I stared at Howard, knowing he would have an idea.

“I will arrange it,” he said on cue. “Tell them to pay attention to this location,” he wrote down a place in China, “Wednesday, 4:00 pm local time. That gives me a little over 24 hours to set everything up through my contacts. Will that satisfy them?”

“It should. I’ll make sure of it.”

“Fine. I have work to do.” Howard stood and left the room without another word.

Everyone else sat quietly for a few moments until Tucker finally found his voice. “I can’t believe you’re all okay with this.”

Leslie sighed as Tess looked him in the eye. “Do you want to stay here? When they take over?”

“Well, no, but…”

“No buts. This is what we have to do, Tucker. This is how we survive.”

Tucker’s courage gave out, and he slumped back into silence.

“Well, as much fun as this has been,” I said, standing up, “I should go update the other side.” I looked at Tucker. “This will all be over soon.” I didn’t bother looking at anyone else as I left.

A Brave New Sunrise

“Gather around, my children. I have a story to tell from before your time. This story comes from the history of our village. From the time before The Great Darkness.”

“But my father says that there was no time before The Great Darkness. He says the elders who have lost their wisdom have made up such stories. Have you lost your wisdom, Eldest of the Elders?”

“No, child. Your father was too young to know anything about the time of which I speak. I tell you this story now because soon The Great Darkness will end, and the world will once again know light.

“In the years when I was young, only a little older than the three of you, there was a great light in the sky. This light was a large Ball of Fire which travelled the sky in Its path after every period of rest. This Ball of Fire spread Its light and heat to the village and the rest of the world. The brightness of the Ball was so brilliant that if It were to appear suddenly high above right now, we would all be without sight. But The Ball did not just appear; It would rise slowly and chase away the darkness. The darkness would run away in the face of the great power of the Ball of Fire.

“One day, our people attacked another village with powerful weapons. Both villages were damaged gravely. He Who Rules Above became very angry with us. He prevented the Ball of Fire from giving us heat and light by sending The Great Darkness. This Darkness was more powerful than even The Ball of Fire. The Ball was afraid to try to defeat the Darkness. So It stayed hidden.

“Soon, however, The Ball of Fire will have gained enough strength to defeat The Darkness and will rise again. Now, my children, return to you families. The sight that will be seen after we wake will be great indeed. You will need the strength from rest, just as The Ball of Fire rests now, gathering strength for Its battle.”

*     *     *

My father would scoff at the tale we had been told. He would be upset that the Eldest had shared it with children. But the Eldest did not act like one who had lost his wisdom. Still, his story was for children, and I was no longer a child. I was nearly a man, almost thirteen years of age. I knew I should listen to my father regarding such tales.

Upon entering my family’s hut, I saw my mother on her straw mat. Sweat ran down her forehead from her brown hair as she waited for my little brother or sister to arrive. In the light of the torch, the sweat looked like blood. The village medicine man did not think she would survive giving birth. Yet she refused to give up the child to save herself. My father was angry that she chose to leave him for He Who Rules Above, but he did not let her see his anger.

I began to shed my skins, but the cold hitting my flesh forced me to retain the coverings. I lay down on my mat and closed my eyes. Frightening pictures invaded my slumber; the Eldest’s story of The Ball of Fire made me restless.

Finally, I woke, ready to prepare the first meal. The medicine man was there. He told me to go outside; my mother’s time approached, and I was not needed.

Taking light with me, I found the Eldest on a hill, facing the lake. I began to ask him more about The Ball of Fire and the things I had seen while sleeping, but he motioned for me to be silent and then pointed to the far side of the lake.

Across the lake, a greyness had begun to spread above the forest. The greyness was pushed up higher by a pink glow.

“They must be on fire!”

“No, child, watch and you will come to know. It is coming to pass.”

The pink grew, pushing higher into the sky. It was the color of my sister’s cheeks in the light of the village fire. As the color reached ever higher, it began to deepen. Soon, it was the color of the blood of a deer. Then it grew yellow, like fire itself. Suddenly, a curve of pure light appeared above the treetops. I had to cover my eyes; never before had I seen such a bright light. As the curve grew larger, so did my eyes. I realized that I was seeing The Ball of Fire make its first appearance in years. Finally, after what seemed more time than I had experienced, all of The Ball was visible. The Great Darkness had been defeated, and it was no longer possible to look directly at the vanquisher.

I heard the cry of a new child ring through the village at that moment.

My sister arrived soon after. “Mother has joined He Who Rules Above. The elders have asked for the Eldest. There is much confusion about the passing of The Great Darkness.”

The water of cowards formed in my eyes, and I turned away so that I would not be disgraced.

The Eldest turned to me. “My son, do not weep for your mother’s passing. Her bravery was given to The Ball of Fire so It would fight the Darkness. She won the battle. You should be proud.”

We turned toward the village, and for the first time, I saw it in its entirety. As we walked, I knew that greater changes than this lay ahead.

Can’t Go Home

The trees gave way to a large clearing, in the middle of which stood a four-story building. It may have been a mansion at one time; now, in the midmorning light, it appeared an empty shell, long abandoned and left to fall into disrepair. Unless you counted the vines and other plants growing everywhere, the place was lifeless.

At least it seemed that way. All the windows and doors were shut or boarded over, and there were no holes in the exterior anywhere. It looked much as it had the last time he had been here, over a year ago. The state of the outside had been intentional, in order to suggest that nothing of value or interest remained in the building. Having been gone so long, he had no idea if it was still just a facade, or if reality had finally caught up.

He stayed at the edge of the clearing, watching for any signs that it was safe to go inside. An overgrown hedge protected his position from every direction, so he could observe without being spotted himself. As eager as he might be to rush to the door, years had taught him the need for caution. The only smart move was to wait and watch.

He sat for hours, but no signs of life became evident. Perhaps that meant that everything was fine, and they were simply staying safe by keeping things quiet. Or perhaps it meant that everyone was gone.

As night began to fall, he became even more vigilant, keeping his eyes more on the woods than the house. The monsters that lived in the darkness would begin to stir soon. Before that thought even fully formed, two of the beasts entered the clearing from the right. They walked on two legs, and in the darkness, it would be understandable to mistake them for human beings. Understandable, but deadly. Their joints bent at odd angles, giving their gait an unsettling quality.

He gripped his machete tightly, muscles taut, waiting to attack or defend. The creatures, however, didn’t come towards him, instead approaching the building. They made no sound as they walked and constantly adjusted the tilt of their heads to better hear their surroundings. Next to the walls, they sniffed the air for traces of prey. He spent several anxious minutes breathing as softly as he could. Finally, one of the creatures lifted its head to the sky. Terrified, he quickly covered his ears just before a nerve-shattering screech filled the air. Had he not been prepared for it, he would have run away as quickly as he could.

That would have been exactly what the creatures wanted. As the one stopped its screech, the other listened intently for any panic nearby. Minutes passed before they appeared satisfied that no prey was in the area. They reentered the woods opposite from where they had first arrived, and disappeared into the darkness. He waited even longer before he allowed his body to shake from the flood of adrenaline it had experienced.

Nothing in the building changed. If someone had been inside, surely that cry would have created some panic, and the creatures would have reacted. But they left. It seemed increasingly likely that no one was there. Still, now was not the time to leave his hiding spot. He would stay put until the sun rose; only then would he investigate.

Time passed slowly, and the wait was made even more painful by the scenes his imagination conjured for him. The deaths of his friends inside, the only people left he even knew. Killed by those creatures? Or perhaps by some other humans who wanted the place for themselves? Maybe it wasn’t as dire, and they simply left for other shelter. That was unlikely, he had to admit. Silent grief, mixed with guilt about not having been there, caused the night to go on forever. By the time the first sliver of the sun broke the horizon, he had resigned himself to the tragedy that waited inside.

As he prepared to approach the building, the large front door opened. Out walked a woman who was instantly recognizable. She moved to examine a spot on the wall near the door. He knew it was a camera because he had installed it several years ago, when together they first set up this place.

His greeting caught in his throat. They were still here, still alive, but would they accept him back? He had been gone a long time. When he had first resolved to return, he thought he was prepared to face them all. Now, however, after a night of needless mourning, his courage failed him. He did not know what he could say to them. To her.

Finished with her examination, she quickly retreated back inside. He watched the building for several more minutes, but no one else emerged. Then, he left the protection of the hedge and slipped back into the trees, walking away as quickly as he dared.

Character

I knew I should be working, but I was on my computer, scrolling through the same Facebook stories I had already read several times that day. It was then that a person walked into my office and sat down in the other chair. Their features, really any distinguishing characteristics, were difficult to make out. They just sat there, waiting.

“Who are you?” I asked after a moment.

“I am waiting for you to tell me.” The voice, too, was indistinct, as if the words were just there without having been spoken aloud. Neither young nor old; neither soft nor harsh.

“How should I know who you are, if you don’t know yourself?”

But the figure did not respond. It merely looked at me with eyes I could not clearly see. I wanted it to leave, so that I could go back to doing nothing. It stubbornly refused.

Exasperated, I said, “Fine. You are a young woman, around 20.” And she was. “You are five and a half feet tall, and thin. Sharp, almost regal features, with a fierceness behind them, yet a kindness, too. Shoulder length brown hair, and hazel eyes.” Those eyes looked back at me.

“Your name is Cassandra, but only your parents ever called you that. They passed away many years ago.” An old sadness, deep inside, could only be seen by those who knew her well. “You have studied under a mage, a strange old man who calls himself simply ‘Ice.’ You want to find your own path now.”

Cassie smiled at me, a look of gratitude. “Thank you. Now, please, write my story.”

Unable to deny her, I shut down my computer and picked up my pen.

Safe

The dragon warily eyed the man dressed in iron. “Why have you come to the mountain, to my home?” The dragon’s voice carried the weight of age and experience. It commanded an answer.

“I am here to slay you, fearsome beast.”

The dragon did not laugh, for the seriousness in the man’s words was evident. “And why do you seek my death? How have I wronged you that only my death will sate your anger and grief?”

“You have done nothing to me, fiend.”

“Yet you call me ‘beast’ and ‘fiend,’ and you propose to end my existence.”

“Just so.” 

“Are you simply another example of the cruelty of humanity? Or is there some other reason I must die?”

“You have terrorized a village just a day’s ride from here. They have implored me to end your threat.”

In spite of itself, the dragon scoffed. “I know the village of which you speak. It was founded over a hundred years ago. I have lived here for over a thousand years. They have never received harm from me. As long as they leave me alone, I am content to suffer their presence. You are misinformed.”

“Do you not breathe fire? Do you not fly on your hunt? How long before you turn your attention to their livestock? Their children?”

The furnace inside the dragon became hotter, and smoke began to spill from its nostrils. “What foolishness. They wish me dead because one day I might threaten them. And you have agreed to this plan. The depraved nature of your kind reveals itself once more. I should end you and the village. Leave now, never return, and I shall forgo my just vengeance.”

“I think not.” As he spoke, the man threw a pouch into the air. It traced an arc towards the dragon’s face, and the dragon breathed once to destroy whatever it might be. As soon as flame touched it, the pouch exploded in a blinding flash. The dragon, blinded by the searing white light, could not see the man approach. It’s vision cleared just as the man thrust his sword into the right eye and deep into the brain.

The dragon deflated where it lay. The man attempted to pull the sword free but could not move it. Looking around the piles of treasure, he found another sword, simple in its appearance, and strapped it to his waist. Now all that remained was to go back to the village to let them know they were finally safe.

Bad Timing

“What do you think happens to us when we die?”

“Are you kidding me?”

“No.”

“Well, if I’m really lucky, I won’t have to have these kinds of conversations when I’m dead.”

“Come on. Be serious.”

“I am. Why do you always bring up such morbid topics?”

“Aren’t you curious about what comes next?”

“Sure. I mean, I guess. But who knows? There’s only one way to find out, and I’m not very eager to do so today.”

“But what do you think?”

“Look, I get that you are stressed out; I’m stressed out, too. And I know that talking – a lot – is how you deal with stress. Right now, though, we have to defuse this bomb. So maybe we can put the topic of death on hold until we’re finished here, yeah?”

“Fine.”

Superpowers

“If you could have one superpower, what would it be?”

“You mean like flight or invisibility?”

“Exactly.”

“Hmmm…”

“Haven’t you thought about this before?”

“I suppose, but…”

“So what power would you want?”

“It’s kinda stupid.”

“There are no stupid answers. It’s just a fun game.”

“Okay, well, you know how when you have to park a long way from the entrance to a store, and, as you’re walking in, a spot a lot closer opens up?”

“Yeah.”

“I would want to be able to teleport my car to the closer spot, so I wouldn’t have to walk as far when I leave.”

“You want to be able to teleport?”

“No, not teleportation. Just the ability to teleport my car to open parking spots.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it. It would make trips to busy stores less annoying.”

“I might need to rethink that whole ‘no stupid answers’ thing.”

“Think about it. If you had the ability to teleport yourself or anything, someone would eventually ask you to be on their superteam. That seems like such a hassle. This is a practical power, but not so much that anyone expects you to be a hero.”

“So teleporting your car – just your car – to open parking spots?”

“Yep. I have some other ideas for superpowers. Warning Label Man is one I came up with years ago…”

“You know what? I’m good. Let’s talk about something else.”