Problems with Work

“Has anyone ever told you that you look like Santa Claus?”

The man at the bar looked up from his drink.” “All the time. You seem too sober to try to be funny.”

The other man grinned, or perhaps grimaced. “Not for long, I hope.”

“Your job?”

“Yes. Well, no. My wife. She thinks I work too hard, don’t spend enough time at home.”

“Santa” sat listening, stroking his bushy, white beard. “My work hardly ever lets me leave the house. But I can sympathize. First round is on me.”

They sat next to each other for some time, drinking, but hardly talking. Just silently commiserating over alcohol.

Without preamble, the man launched once more into his misery. “She doesn’t know how demanding my work is.”

“Tell me about it. Do you know how hard it is to teach elves to code? Or to reverse engineer some of these new tech devices? And don’t get me started on Intellectual Property and Licensing Agreements. It was so much simpler when kids just wanted wooden trains instead of video games or cell phones. You know?”

The man looked at him. “I think you’ve had too much to drink.”

“I think you might be right.” The fat man with the white beard stood up and walked out of the bar.

The man then decided he, too, had had enough. He could have sworn he heard sleigh bells.

A Cup of Coffee

“She’s cheating on you.”

“Hello to you, too.”

“I mean it.”

“Can I at least sit down and take a sip of my coffee first?”

“Why aren’t you upset? She’s cheating on you!”

“So how have you been?”

“Geezus! Didn’t you hear me?”

“I heard you. So did everyone else in the cafe. I know she’s been cheating on me.”

“You know?”

“Yes.”

“How long?”

“How long has she been cheating? Or how long have I known?”

“How long have you known?”

“About two months. I assume it’s been going on longer.”

“Two months? Why didn’t you say anything? Why are you still with her?”

“I didn’t say anything because I figured you’d act… well, pretty much the way you are right now.”

“But…”

“And I’m still with her because I still love her.”

“But if she’s cheating…”

“So what? I still love her. That hasn’t changed. And she hasn’t left me.”

“I can’t… You should… I… I don’t know what to say.”

“Good. Maybe we can enjoy our coffee now?”

Not Home

Rian knew they were coming for her.  She had tried, in small ways, to help the village. Avoiding overt displays of magic, she provided salves and poultices that seemed to win her the affection of her new neighbors.

But the Terrgat had her scent.  They were coming for her, and the village would hand her over.  Her assistance was genuinely appreciated, she knew, but the Terrgat were feared.  And so, ultimately, was she.  They had to know she used magic.  Disguised as it was, they villagers were willing to pretend not to notice. But with the Terrgat coming, none of that mattered.

Despite her attempts to avoid being tied down, she had accumulated many things since coming here, and had even become attached to some of them.  Ignoring the danger, she had begun to lay down roots.  Deep enough to make leaving hard, but not deep enough to keep her safe. She only grabbed her book inside its case, a few coins she had on hand, and the pouch she had made for this eventuality.  All her tools would have to be abandoned.

Just before she opened the door to leave, there was a knock.  Her heart skipped a beat before she realized it was at the house next to hers.  It was nearly too late, but she left via the back door.

Unfortunately, one of the Terrgat had circled around behind the row of houses.  He spotted her immediately.

“You, there!”

She began to run.  There was no point in trying to talk her way out of this.

“Stop!”

She heard his heavy footsteps behind her.  Ducking between two of the houses, she saw a group of villagers on the street.  As they caught sight of her, one of them pointed.

“There she is!”

And that was it.  The village had turned on her.  She could wait no longer.  Drawing a small gem out of her pouch, she threw it down and stepped on it.  Instantly, a heavy, dense fog enveloped the area.  It would spread over half a mile from this point.  No one could see more than two feet in front of themselves.

She began to run again, thankful she had memorized her path.  Ducking between buildings several more times to confuse her pursuers, she trusted that memory.  However, someone had left a cellar door open that she didn’t see through the fog until it was too late.  Tripping, she landed heavily on the dirt floor of the cellar five feet below.

When she looked up, she saw a girl, maybe ten, in front of her.  Rian recognized her right away.  Her name was Mayn, and she had come to Rian for medicine to help her mother.  One scream from the girl, and the Terrgat would have her.  All of her hopes died here.

But Mayn smiled and placed her fingers against her lips.  The girl would not give her away?  The relief she felt was tempered by the sounds of pursuit getting louder.  It did not matter if the girl did not draw them to her; they would still find her.

Then she remembered her pouch.  She drew out another gem and quickly crushed it between her fingers. Then she threw the pieces out of the door.  An image of her sprang from them and began running away.  Soon, the sounds of pursuit receded after it.

Mayn walked over to Rian and hugged her.

“Thank you for my mother.  Now run.”

Rian squeezed her back and quickly stole away.

…Or Is It Memorex?

“This is it.  You don’t get another chance.”  She pulled the trigger, and he took a blow to the chest, all the air knocked out of him.  He collapsed as the world went black.

His eyes flicked open to see a sterile white room, made even more impersonal by the overhead fluorescent lights.  A clerk ran over and tipped his table so that he was nearly upright.  “Sir, we weren’t expecting your extraction so soon.  Is everything alright?”

He shoved the young man away.  “No, everything isn’t alright.  Everything is a mess.  Somebody shot me.  I don’t know how much progress I lost.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, sir.  Would you like something to eat?  It’s morning, and I can have some breakfast…”

“Haven’t you been keeping the nutritional regimen running?  I eat inside.  No need to waste time eating out here, too.”

“Of course, sir.  My apologies.”

He looked over at a woman on the other table.  Her eyes were closed; she was still plugged in.  “When is she supposed to come out next?”

“Not for another hour or so.  Shall I arrange for you and your wife…”

“She’s not my wife.”

“Oh?”

“I mean technically, legally, we are married.  But that’s really just a matter of convenience.  My wife is inside.  And probably wondering where I am.”

“I see.  Another player, then.”

“Don’t you dare use that slur in this house.  I will have you fired.  We aren’t ‘players.'”

“I apologize, again, sir.”

“Fine.”  He shook his head.  “Anyway, no, she’s not another eperson.  She’s an AIE*.  As I said, she’s waiting for me.  I’ve got to get back in there and explain the situation to her.  She may be able to help me undo this loss.  I only need a few minutes.  Have the connections clean and the processor cycled before I get back.”

“Yes, sir.”

 

*Artificial Intelligence and Emotion

One Man’s Truth…

Noises and stench filled the subway tunnel. The sounds of hundreds of people rushing to get somewhere, anywhere else. The roar of the trains that take them away. The smell of the trains’ exhaust. And the odors of those people not rushing anywhere. Not going anywhere at all. It’s their world that the others rush so hard to avoid. People moving so fast so that they don’t get stuck. Stuck here in the subway tunnel.

One of the people that got stuck hunched down against the wall, watching. Watching a small portion of the perpetual motion lives the others led. His clothes, all much too large for his scrawny frame, had seen much better days. So had he. But no one looking at him would have seen any traces of those days.

The point is moot, though, since no one looked at him. Obvious, from both his appearance and his odor, that he hadn’t showered in some time. A thin, unkempt beard hung from his sunken cheeks and worn face. His eyes were little more than slits peering out from the brim of a badly used hat. No one looked at him. But he watched.

He knew someone would come for him. It was just a matter of time. Truth had a way of attracting attention. And he had seen too far into the truth. Someone would notice him and realize the threat he posed.

But for now, they let him be. Occasionally someone would notice him long enough to give him some spare change. He would then buy some food, or, more often, a bottle. Usually, though, people ignored him.

He didn’t care. If someone noticed him, they might find out that he knew things that he shouldn’t. Things no one should know. And if anyone found out, they would come for him. He knew that all too well. So he kept the brim of his hat pulled low and watched, hoping to discern the answers to mysteries in the frantic, living pattern acted out by the people rushing by.

Soon, the rushing people dwindled in number. Fewer and fewer people got on and off the trains. The trains themselves came less frequently as evening wore on into night. He moved around enough to avoid the people who tried to chase him off. They tried to keep him from being around to remind those that were rushing that some people never went anywhere.

When the patterns became slower, fewer answers were likely to reveal themselves. He also knew that there were people, not themselves stuck, but not rushing either, who would try to take the few dollars he had gotten that day. It was time to go back to his hole off the tunnel and take a few hours to think about what he had seen that day. Learning more put him in more danger, but he couldn’t help himself.

As he shuffled out of the last station he had found himself in, a little boy came running up to him and tugged on his coat. He tried to shove the boy away, but the boy was insistent. Tears ran down the boy’s face and words came spilling out of the boy’s mouth. Apparently, the boy’s mother had been mugged. She was unconscious and bleeding from the head. The boy was worried about her and afraid that someone else would hurt her or him. Would the man help?

Why had the boy come to him? He couldn’t afford to get involved. Someone would be sure to notice him then. But the boy hadn’t realized, hadn’t learned, that he was supposed to ignore the people who were stuck. So the boy had come to him for help. The man mumbled that there was nothing he could do, that the boy should ask someone else for help. That the boy had to leave people like him alone. That the boy had to go away. And the man began to stumble away again.

But the boy stayed right behind him, pleading. What was worse was that the mother’s unconscious form lay between him and the small room he had secured for himself down the tunnel. She lay at one end of the platform. He couldn’t get around her unless he lowered himself off the platform down among the rails.

He knew he shouldn’t stop. She and her son might get stuck in his world. They had to rush on. But they couldn’t. And there was no one else on the platform. If he didn’t help, anything could happen to them. And they might get stuck in this world anyway.

The boy was kneeling next to his mother, cradling her head in his lap and crying. He knew he was putting himself in danger, but he found he couldn’t just walk by. So he bent down and picked up the mother in his arms. He hadn’t eaten in a while and was weak, but the woman was not heavy, and he managed to carry her. The boy, still crying softly, hung on to the man’s coat as they walked from the platform into the tunnel.

The ledge above the tracks wasn’t wide, and weakness combined with the awkwardness of carrying the woman threatened to topple him downwards. But he walked slowly and the boy’s clinging actually provided an anchoring weight. Still, it was a long while before they reached his makeshift hovel.

It really wasn’t more than a hole in the wall. There was old clothing which he had arranged in a mat, to provide a place to sleep. A few odds and ends, things that had once caught his eye, were scattered about in a futile attempt to personalize concrete. None of this was visible until he lit a small fire in the center of the room. Paper, scraps of wood from beams, whatever he could find he used to feed the fire. Usually, he didn’t even bother, but he was determined to find out how badly the woman was hurt and get her out of there as quickly as possible.

The boy had stopped crying, though he continued a little sniffling. He looked about the room. He asked where they were and shouldn’t they go to a hospital. But the man just shook his head. It was too dangerous, he knew. But he didn’t bother explaining why. The boy was too young to understand the sort of danger the man was in. If he took the woman to the hospital, too many people would see him.

During heavy downpours, rain would seep through the walls. Under one particularly large crack, the man had placed a bucket to collect water. He dipped a rag from his bed into the bucket and wiped some of the blood off the woman’s head. He had no idea whether it would help her, but he really didn’t know what else he might do.

As he was cleaning her wound, she began to moan a little, but she remained unconscious. Nothing other than the gash in her head was visibly wrong with her. Whether she survived the night was out of his hands now. He had done what he could.

Moving her over a little, he made room for the boy to lie down next to her. Once he had snuggled up to her, the man placed a tattered blanket over both of them. He sat down across the fire from the bed of clothes. The fire wouldn’t last through the night, but he was determined to keep it going as long as he could. He did, however, save a few scraps of wood so that he could start another fire in the morning to see how the woman was.

The fire lasted for awhile, but eventually it died. The man sat in the dark, listening to the sounds that the tunnels brought to his ears. After a time, the darkness in the room became the darkness of sleep. Dreams came to interrupt, but he had learned to ignore them.

Noises of stirring woke him. It wasn’t the woman, though, but her son. The boy was hungry and distressed that his mother was still unconscious. The man started the fire going again, but he knew it wouldn’t last more than an hour or so. The woman was still alive, and she looked better than the night before. But she was still unconscious.

He told the boy to stay with his mother, keep her warm and try to keep the fire going. He would be back with some food and some more wood. Then he left them to go back to the tunnels.

He still had some change in his pocket from the previous day. It had been meant for a bottle of whatever, but bread seemed the better purchase. There was a little store just outside the subway station. The owner would sometimes sell him stale bread cheaply. The real advantage, of course, is that he didn’t have to be out in the open for very long.

The platform was again busy with people rushing about their lives. No one noticed him as he made his way to the exit. A steady drizzle dominated the outside. A wind sent a chill through his badly used clothes. He managed to buy two loaves of bread and then returned to the subway. At least he and the boy could eat. If the woman woke up, she would need something to regain a little strength.

The people rushing still ignored him. But one of the others had noticed him. He came up to the man, and noticed that he had been moving around a lot. The man didn’t want to explain his actions and so ignored the other.

The man slipped from the platform without any other encounters. Everyone else was perfectly content to ignore the disheveled individual in their midst. After all, none of them could see the truth he held in his heart.

He made his way through the tunnel once more. It was much easier without the weight and awkwardness of the woman in his arms. However, trains were more frequent during the day, and it was disconcerting to have one go roaring by only inches away. He did manage to pick up a few pieces of wood along the way.

His room was just around a corner when he heard noises other than the trains. Laughter. Not a sound that was often heard near the tunnel. Worse, though, this was a sinister sounding laugh.

He turned the corner, and, in the dim light of the dying fire, he saw two forms. One held the boy tightly. The other had a hand clapped over the woman’s face and was bending over her. She was awake, and the man could see fear in her eyes.

The man never stopped to consider what to do. He had hidden himself down here, away from those who rush. Away from those who might be threatened by the truth. But he could not deny truth forever. And it drove him to act now.

Dropping the sack of bread, he smashed the pieces of wood into the head of the one holding the boy. The form crumpled immediately. Then he grabbed the other form by the collar and threw it against the wall. He never wondered where he got the strength for such actions. He just did what was necessary.

The second one did not stay down. It rose up again and brought its forearm down against the man’s chest. He fell to the floor and heard a masculine voice tell him to stay down. It then went back over to the mat of clothes.

He didn’t listen, though. He had brought her and her boy to this place. He had risked them getting stuck here. He couldn’t allow this. If he did, it would make everything he believed false.

So he rose up and straightened his back. He grabbed the other off the bed with one hand and began to beat it with his other. Finally, it went limp in his grasp, and he dropped it.

The boy was crying on the floor. The woman was huddled into the far corner of the mat. He picked the boy up and put him next to the woman. She hugged him and looked, not a little frightened, at him. It was obvious that she wanted to know who he was and what he would do next.

But he didn’t bother answering her unspoken question. He simply told them to get up and follow him. The two might wake up. Or perhaps others would come to try to take his truth from him. And they were dangerously close to getting stuck.

He led them out to the tunnel and back to the station where he had found them the previous night. It was then a simple matter of losing them in all the crowds of rushing people. He stayed close enough to see them find a police officer who led them away.

Then he shambled back to a wall and hunched down against it. The other who had talked to him earlier came over and sat down next to him.

“No one’s coming, you know. They won’t come for you. They don’t care about your truth.”

The man simply nodded and started watching the rushing people once more.

Running Late

“You are going to be late.”

“I’m not going to be late.”

“You know the clock is two minutes slow, right?”

“It’s…  Of course I knew that.”

“Why are you bothering with that outfit?  What was wrong with what you were wearing?”

“It’s tradition.”

“I think it’s even more traditional to be on time.”

“Listen, cat.  What do you know about it?  You sleep all day.”

*     *     *

Nathan saw the car headed towards him too late to get out of the way.  The force of it knocked him several feet before he landed heavily on the pavement.  The only thought running through his mind was “I’m dead” repeated over and over.

But he wasn’t.  He stood up, stunned, but apparently unharmed.  That was impossible, though.  He knew the blow from the car would have killed him.  It certainly should have.  So how was he still breathing?

People around him seemed just as confused, but they expressed relief that he was alright.  The driver had even rushed over to make sure he wasn’t dead.  It appeared to be a miracle.

“Damn it.  That stupid cat is never going to let me live this down.”

Nathan turned around to find the owner of the voice.  There was no doubt it had come from the tall figure in the hooded, black robe.  No one else in the crowd even noticed it.

“Who are you?”

The crowd turned a collective puzzled look in the direction of the space he was addressing.

“I’m sorry I’m late.  Thought I had time to get here.”

“But I’m not dead, see?  So there’s no need for you.”

The crowd backed up several spaces.  Maybe he had hit his head and was hallucinating.

“Ah.  That’s where you’re wrong.  You died.  But since I wasn’t here to sever the connection, your soul is still dragging your body around.”

“So I’m really dead?”

“Yes.  I can cut you free.  Do you want to lay down first?”

“And if I don’t want you to?”

“You don’t get a choice, I’m afraid.  I can finish this with or without your cooperation.”

Nathan turned and ran from the robed figure.

“Dammit.  Why do they always run?  I’m not wearing the right shoes for this.”

But it did not take long before he caught Nathan and severed his soul.  Nathan went quietly after that.

The coroner suggested that a rush of adrenaline had kept him alive for a few minutes before the extensive damage shut everything down.  While very unlikely, there had been a few cases before.

Kafkaesque

Two of my favorite authors are Franz Kafka and Philip K. Dick.  I suspect each has had an impact on my own writing.  I know that I like crafting stories that leave characters and readers wondering about what is going on, that leave room for the reader to speculate.  I hope I am effective when I attempt this, but I know I set out to achieve it some of the time.  I’d be in denial if I didn’t acknowledge the impact that Kafka and Dick have played in developing my own voice.

(Usual caveats apply.  All garbage is still my own, not to be blamed on others.  And further, my understanding of their works comes from my reading of them for pleasure, not from formal study.)

One of Kafka’s short stories has had a particularly marked effect on me.  “In the Penal Colony” is a wonderful and horrible story. In it, a man seeks to understand his own crimes by subjecting himself to the execution machine he has used on others.  Instead, his machine malfunctions and just slaughters him without revealing his crimes.

We seek meaning in life and in death.  We want to know why, or at least that it is all part of some larger plan.  Unfortunately, that knowledge – even if true – often escapes us.  Tragedy happens, and despite our wishes, we don’t often find out why.

Perhaps Kafka is too bleak.  But even if so, we are often left in the dark by an incomprehensible world.  Some of my stories attempt to articulate my own bouts with confusion, the times when the world has confronted me with its senselessness.  And sometimes we don’t need fiction to demonstrate the inscrutable nature of the world.

Today we wonder at the world.  Not for the first time, and not for the last.  Our hearts go out to the people of France, and human beings all around the world.  Even if the world doesn’t make sense, we can still act with compassion for all who share it with us.

Winter’s Eve

Winter’s Eve

I left a candle burning in the window. It shed very little light into the darkness outside, but it would serve as a beacon home. As I stepped outside and closed the door behind me, a sense of excitement shot through me, carried to my skin in the chill of the December air.

The world I knew had been obliterated and replaced by snowy dunes. The ground reflected the whiteness held aloft in the branches of trees. Color had been erased on this night, except for the flicker of yellow light in the window behind me. A few feet away from the house, and even that meager splotch of color ceased to break up the stark black and white world I found myself in.

Points of light shone overhead, and though their illumination was cold, there was comfort in their familiarity. It is impossible for a snowy night to be completely black. Even starlight is magnified by the white flakes. Instead, darkness and light are mixed in a strange dance, mingled in a way that speaks magic and mystery to any witnesses.

Any mundane sounds that might have intruded on the night were carried away by the wind blowing over the land. Occasionally, it would disturb a branch just enough to knock loose its burden and create a new pile of snow at the base of the tree. While these minor avalanches were nearly soundless, the wind itself spoke to me with unearthly and electrifying noises.

Tales long since forgotten, spells that had not been uttered for ages, and mysteries hidden for generations were all there to be heard by one who knew how to listen. Hints of power, echoes of sadness, and songs of the dead could be found in the wind of such a night as this.

Winter was upon me that night, and it was clear why so many religions had sacred days around this time, though it may not have been clear to them. There was power in the air, all around. Magic threatened to rise up out of the night in some general expression of brilliance. It was waiting only for an occasion.

Locating the star at the top of the world, I sat facing it. The huntsman was behind me in the night sky. Watching over me. I folded my legs over one another and faced the soles of my feet towards the heavens. Closing my eyes and slowing my breathing, I summoned the fire and waited.

The fire burned white to match the snow. Despite its heat, it flowed through and around me without burning. I simply sat in the middle of the conflagration and focused on my breathing. The quiet crackle of the flames seemed to be talking with the bluster of the wind. After a time, a voice emanated from those sounds and whispered to me.

It spoke of things I knew yet had forgotten. Of things I needed to learn. Of things I had noticed around me. It was the voice of my mentor, of me, and of my pupil. And on a night like this, our conversation was lengthy and intense.

I joined the stars above. We exchanged stories. It was difficult to follow their tales, which stretched eons, and they seemed confused at the brevity of mine. But each of us enjoyed the company of the others. And we never stopped learning.

Off in the distance, far below us, I noticed a small yellow light. I drew closer to investigate and recognized the candle I had lit. It seemed like a wasted effort now, since I could not imagine ever wanting to return. The mystery solved, I went on to speak with the ocean.

The language of water was harder for me, especially with flames flowing through me. Still, we both understood quickness, violence, and beauty. While she brushed the back of my neck with her waves, the ocean and I did our best to talk.

Well into our conversation, the water’s texture changed. It began to feel rough, almost as though sand permeated the waves. After I few moments, I felt as though my skin were being ripped away.

Skin? I have skin? A meow in my ear finished the job he had started. I was myself again. Physical. Mortal. Limited. Poe had done the work the candle in the window could not.

At first I was furious with the cat. For a moment, I even considered hurling him down the snowy lane. But he was only doing what I had told him to do a thousand times. If I had not wanted him to disturb me, I should have made sure he was inside.

Another meow told me Poe was cold. He enjoyed my company, but it was time to be heading inside now. Fully back in the mundane world, I found I agreed with him.

I scooped up Poe, and he found his place on my shoulder. Turning, I saluted the Hunter, thanking him for keep watch. I glanced around the black and white world once more, now considerably more white. I had a few more weeks, but no night would approach this one for sheer power and beauty.

Plodding up the walk and inside away from the cold, I blew out the candle. Poe jumped off my shoulder and crept away to stalk mice. I sat by the window, keeping a vigil over the evening, until the sun rose to steal it all away.

A Friendly Game of Cards

Two of the group were already present when he entered the back room.  “Hey, guys.  Where’s Vlad?”

“He couldn’t make it tonight.”  The only light came from the fixture hanging above the table, but he could easily make out Gabriel’s sharp features.

“Hi, Jack.”

Jack nodded at the other person at the table.  “Hiya, ‘Mode.  How are you?”  Sitting down at his place, Jack absently ran his hand over the familiar, worn green felt.

“I wish you wouldn’t call me that.”

“Sorry.  You’re name is just so long.  Easier to give you a nickname.  Gabe doesn’t mind.”

“Yes.  I do.”

“And Asmodeus isn’t that long.”

Jack threw up his hands in capitulation.  “At least Vlad doesn’t mind.”

“Yes.  He does.”  Gabriel wasn’t smiling.

Jack decided to change topics.  “So how are going to play without Vlad?  Three person euchre isn’t nearly as much fun.”

“He brought someone.”  Gabriel used his thumb to indicate Asmodeus.

Jack gave him a stern look.  “You didn’t break the rules.”

“No, no.  Nothing like that.”

“So why is Gabe upset?”

“Oh, he’s always cranky.”

“No, I am not.  He brought another human.”

Jack relaxed.  He hadn’t realized how tense he’d gotten.  “Well, that’s okay then.  Isn’t it?”

Gabriel turned his disapproving look to Jack.  “You think it is okay to bring another human here?  A normal human?”

“Well, it could be worse.  A human keeps the balance, at least.”

“See?  Jack understands.”

“I still don’t like it.”

“I still don’t understand how you manage to come here at all, Gabe,” Jack shot back.

“No one had told me not to come.”

A man walked into the room.  “Oh, our fourth is here?  Great!”

Jack looked back at him.  Average height.  Not fat, but not thin either.  Short hair.  Glasses.  Nondescript in nearly every way.  He turned back to Asmodeus and whispered, “Where did you find him?”

“Oh, just on the street.  Vlad let me know he couldn’t make it, so I figured he could fill in.”

“Hi, I’m Robert.”  The man had made his way to the table and sat down across from Jack.

“Jack.  Nice to meet you.”

“I hear you guys play some mean euchre.”

“I guess we do.”

Gabriel produced a deck of cards and began shuffling.  “Everyone ready?  First Ace deals.”

“Isn’t it usually the first Jack?” Robert asked.

Asmodeus laughed.  “Yeah.  But then he always insists on dealing first.”  Asmodeus indicated Jack.

Jack smiled at his new partner.  Gabriel turned over an Ace in front of Asmodeus and handed him the cards.  He shuffled a few times, offered Jack a cut which Jack declined, and began to deal.

“It’s funny you guys play euchre here.  Seems like it would be better for poker.”

Gabriel spoke up.  “We tried poker once.  But we could never agree on the stakes.  Our usual fourth, the person you’re filling in for, kept coming up with…”  Gabriel stumbled trying to find the right words.

Jack jumped in.  “Some odd ideas.  We decided to avoid gambling.  Better to just play for bragging rights.”

“Oh.  How long have you guys been doing this?”

“A little while now.  Maybe a couple of years.”  Asmodeus smiled.

“It has been much long…  Ow!”

“Oh, sorry, Gabe.  My foot slipped.  No need to go into the details.  ‘Mode has it covered.”  Jack flashed a grin at Gabriel, but his eyes were not smiling.

“Fine.”  Gabriel sat, sullen, while Jack collected the last trick of the hand.

“I believe that’s a euchre.  Two to nothing.  Your deal, partner.”  Jack handed Robert the cards.

Robert shuffled the deck and offered Asmodeus a cut.

“Don’t.”  Gabriel shook his head.  “He doesn’t need to cut.”

Asmodeus looked surprised.  “Why not?”

“Because this is a friendly game.  And I don’t trust you.”

“Oh for pity’s sake.”  Asmodeus rolled his eyes.  “Haven’t we gotten past this?”

Robert looked confused.  “Why don’t you trust him?  He’s your partner, after all.”

“He is a liar and a manipulator, and I…”

Jack cut him off.  “Enough.  You two know better.  Knock it off, or this game is over.”

Both of them looked at Jack, the air between them still tense.  But neither argued, and both slumped back into their chairs.

Three more hands passed in relative silence.  No one spoke unless necessary for the game.  Finally, on Asmodeus’ next deal, Jack took the bid and went alone.  With the success of the hand, Jack and Robert won the game, ten to two.

“You threw the game on purpose,” Gabriel said to Asmodeus, accusingly.

“What?”  Asmodeus was incredulous.

“You heard me.  You gave Jack a good hand and let him win to get back at me for calling out your true nature.”

“That’s ridiculous.  You know he’s better at this game than either of us.”

“Nevertheless.”

Asmodeus’ anger was becoming more evident.  Soon, horns began to grow from his forehead.

“Enough!” Jack interjected for the second time.  “Asmodeus, don’t you dare.  And Gabriel quit provoking him.  What has gotten into you?”

Gabriel looked chastened, and Asmodeus returned to normal.  A look of terror had gripped Robert’s face.  Jack turned to him.

“You should leave.  Sorry for the short night.”

Robert stood and began to hurry out of the room.

“Oh, one more thing.”  Robert stopped and looked back at Jack.  “Forget.”  Robert nodded, terror replaced by confusion, and left.

Jack turned to Gabriel once more.  “Now what is going on?”

Gabriel sighed.  “Now I have been told not to come back.”

“By whom?”

“Not the One.  But you can probably guess.”

“Oh.”

Asmodeus finally chimed in.  “Time for you to leave.  I told you that you didn’t belong there anymore.”

Gabriel shot him an angry glare.  “I don’t like it, but it’s not grounds to turn my back on the One.”

Asmodeus gave an exasperated sigh.

“So this is it?” Jack asked in a more sympathetic tone.

“I’m afraid so.  They don’t want me to see any of you again.  You’ll have to give Vlad my regards.”

“I’ll be sure to tell him you called him that.”

Gabriel gave a weak smile.  “Please do.  I hope he laughs.”  He stood to leave.

Asmodeus stood, walked over, and embraced him.  “I’ll miss you brother.  Look me up when you come to your senses.”

If I ever decide to follow your lead, you’ll be the first to know.”

Jack extended a hand.  “You know you won’t be able to avoid me forever.”

“I suppose not.  Just try not to step on too many toes.”

Jack nodded.

Without exchanging any more words, Gabriel walked out of the room and into the night.

First-Born

The flaming sword blocked his path.

“Let me pass.”

“Turn aside, son of man.”

“I must enter here, there is no other gate.”

“This place is no longer open to your race. Your father sacrificed his position. His choice carries weight for all of his children, even you First-Born.”

“And you will keep me out?”

“I am commanded thus. You and all your kin will forever be denied entrance. I am the guard set to deny you such.”

“Why?”

A pause. “I do not understand your question, First-Born.”

“Why? Why must we be kept out? Why are you the one commanded to such a task? Why are you obeying? Why?”

“These questions mean nothing. Your father’s choice led to his banishment. It is commanded that his children share in that banishment. I am commanded to enforce the banishment.”

“And never a reason asked for or given? Do you not wonder about the commandments?”

“Everything is full of wonder.”

“No. I speak of reasons. Are there no reasons for the things done?”

“It is not my place to ask these things. Neither is it yours, First-Born.”

“So we must simply obey? Then why are we able to choose our path, our actions?”

“Why. . . why . . . why. You remind me of someone, First-Born. You remind me of the Light-Bringer. Just before the war. He, too, often asked why. In the end, it brought him nothing but misery. And, finally, it led to his Fall. The same lesson that your parents would learn. And,” eyes glared at the man, “the lesson I would have thought you would have learned already. For I know of your Fall, First-Born of the First-Man. Yet you persist. I think I shall never understand you.”

“I care not whether you understand me. It would give me hope if you cared to try to understand me. How can you follow commandments so unquestioningly?”

“How can you question these commandments? You are constantly asking for reasons, yet you ignore the fact that you are the minority. What reason have you for asking for reasons? Why should you ask for reasons? Why should you be given any? From the beginning, commandments have not been questioned. Not until the Light-Bringer. And not until your family. What reason have you for demanding to know why?”

“Have you no desire for knowledge, guardian? Perhaps that is the problem with knowledge. Once you get a little, you desire more. I have a thirst that water cannot quench, guardian. I need to know. And I must endeavor to learn until I pass from this land. It is not enough to be commanded. I will know why.”

The guardian’s head shook slowly back and forth. “First-Born, your only hope is to renounce this mad quest for knowledge that is not meant for you. Has not the knowledge already stolen by your father taught you that? Is that not what brought on this thirst in the first place? Why do you not use that knowledge to see that what you propose is wrong? If it would be good for you to have this knowledge, you would have it. As it is, you will either fail in your search, or bring only more harm to yourself.”

“Ah, but I have a thirst to quench. Since I have been given that thirst, is it not good?”

“Trickery will avail you nothing except self-deception. You were not given this thirst. You acquired it through your own disobedience and that of your father. This is not a gift freely given you, but something stolen. If believing it is a gift makes your punishment easier, that is up to you. But you cannot fool me, First-Born.”

“So I see that it does not matter what I say. There is an answer for everything. I am wrong. You are right. And you cannot be moved from your position. Am I that blind, I wonder? Or are you that stubborn? Your responses keep coming, and I have run out of my own. Yet I am burdened with my conviction, my thirst. How can I recant?”

“I know not how you are to proceed. Except that is not through this gate. However, I may pass on to you this one suggestion. Perhaps you should look for strength to overcome your burden from the One. It is from the One that this burden was stolen, after all. It may be that IT can take it from you, if you but let IT.”

“Your words are almost comforting. Would that I could heed your advice. However, I will not forsake what I have gained to return to your blissful ignorance. To blind obedience. I have been given the ability to choose. I have been given a heart. And I choose to follow my heart where it leads, guardian.”

“That is your folly, First-Born. And none of my concern. I think you a fool, but I care not whether you choose to better yourself. I, for my part, choose to obey my command. Your heart may lead you here, but I will not permit you to enter paradise.”

“And how will you stop me, guardian? If you choose to obey commandments, you find yourself in a difficult position. For you are commanded to refuse me. Yet, you also must not hurt me. For my punishment, as severe as it may be, also comes with a blessing of sorts. For I am secure that revenge will be visited on any who lay a hand on me. If you know me, and my Fall, then you also know that you are commanded not to harm me. A strange blessing for one who has disobeyed as I have. How do you propose to stop me from entering? These two commandments conflict, as long as I intend to enter. Does this, at least, make you question the commandments? Now you must think for yourself and make a decision.”

“First-Born, you have posed an interesting problem. Perhaps there is something to what you say, though I doubt you grasp its full import. Bide a moment, and allow me to consider your words.”

The man smiled at his victory. Having given the guardian pause, he was content to wait for a response.

After a long silence, which was broken only by the crackle of the flame surrounding the sword, the guardian spoke again.

“You have nearly convinced me, First-Born. Or perhaps I ought say, you had nearly convinced me. However, I too have some freedom, and I see a way out of your difficulty.”

The guardian turned and entered the gate. Touching the sword to everything it came to, the guardian began to burn paradise.

Once more the guardian spoke to the man behind him. “Now, First-Born, I neither harm you, nor permit you to enter. For soon paradise will be gone from this land. If you choose to enter, I have not laid a hand on you; rather, you throw yourself into my arms.”

The man stared in disbelief. A moment later, he ran as quickly as he could to the middle of paradise. The guardian and its fire had not yet reached the tree which held the Fruit of Life. He clutched a Fruit from that tree and ran as quickly as he could through the flames. Once free, he turned and spoke one last time.

“Guardian, you impress me. You did indeed find a solution to the problem I posed. It is unfortunate that you were not quicker. For you have failed to keep me out, and you have destroyed that which you were set to protect. Now I may share in eternity and use the seeds of this Fruit to sow paradise for my people elsewhere. Outside of your reach. Strength does not come from the One who give commandments. Rather, it comes from the one who is willing to come up with his own answers. And this Fruit is my answer to you and to the One you follow.”

As paradise burned, the guardian watched the First-Born of the First Man walk away. It felt something it never had before. It would, in time, learn to call that feeling Doubt.