The Proper Tool

“Concentrate.  Focus your mind.”  Master Rhe’s voice came in irregular intervals, making it nearly impossible to follow her directions.  Of course, that was probably the point.

Marai continued to stare at the ball in front of him.  No matter how hard he tried, it would not move.  Frustration began to well up inside, distracting him further.  He tried to push it down, to no avail.  Master Rhe was sure to notice.

“What is wrong?” she asked.

“Nothing, Master.”

She hit his upper arm with her staff.  “Do not lie to me.”

“I am sorry, Master.  I am getting frustrated with my inability to do it.  I know that I should not give in to that feeling.”

Her staff connected again, in the exact same spot.

“What was that one for?”

“Why do you think you ought to avoid frustration?”

“Such emotions lead to the negative side of the world.”

Another rap on the arm.  This time he held his tongue and tried to discover his mistake.

After a long silence, Master Rhe sighed.  Her sigh always indicated disappointment, and she always made sure that her students would not miss it.  Marai had heard it more than he liked.

“Negative.  Positive.  These are constructions.  The world just is.  There are no good or bad emotions anymore than there are good and bad forces.  What we do is important.  The tools we use serve purposes, they do not define the actions they are made to perform.

“The so-called negative emotions provide a great deal of power, but they are blunt.  They can accomplish much, but when precision is called for, they are a hindrance.  When dealing with narrow margins, calmness of mind is more appropriate.  But it is a mistake to identify parts of yourself as negative and shut them out.

“Be mindful of that which brings you frustration.  Learn from it, do not shun the feeling.  Now try again.”

The lecture over, Marai turned back to the ball.  The frustration he had felt returned, but rather than try to force it away, he accepted it.  This exercise was frustrating.  Now that he admitted that, he could sense the power behind it.  Could he use that?  He let the power flow freely and began to focus it on the ball.  It immediately rose into the air before it exploded into tiny fragments.  A piece stung his eye, blinding him temporarily.  At least he hoped it was temporary.

Another loud sigh.  “Just because you can do something, does not mean you should.  It is important to know the proper tool.  You would not send a bull to do a job meant for a cat.  Emotions are not bad, but that does not mean they do not deserve caution and respect.

“Go.  Attend to your eye.  When you are ready, we will try again.”  Master Rhe turned and left the room.

Silence and Sound

Today the world started out quiet, just as it had been the day before.  And the day before that.  Indeed, I had lost track of when I last heard a sound not created by me.  Outside, no animals chittered, no birds chirped.  The air was still, and there was no water to run.  Even going outside was to risk becoming part of the silence.

Inside, I had everything I needed.  Except for something to occupy my ears.  For some time, I tried talking to myself.  That worked for awhile, but eventually my own voice began to grate.  I felt like a monk who had taken a vow, not just of silence, but of deafness.

I ran water in the sink now and then, just to break up the monotony.  The recycling system insured that none of it went to waste.  I was more careful with the hum of electricity.  The solar panels were still functioning, but I didn’t want to risk running out of power.  I found other ways of making noise, but I had never developed any musical talent, and what I could create was limited in its variety.  Over time, I just went through most of my days in silence.  I still noticed it, but it became more tolerable as the days went by.

Today, however, there was a noise.  A roar and then something slamming into the ground, shaking my tiny world.  I had not used the monitoring system in a long time; the scene outside never changed, so it seemed pointless.  But it flickered to life as soon as I turned it on, as though it had been in use just the day before.

After a few minutes of adjusting the camera, I found the cause of the commotion.  A crater, maybe fifty yards from where I was.  In the middle of it, still smoking from its descent, a metal object of some sort.  A capsule, perhaps?  It looked too small to be a ship.  Nothing stirred from it.

I sat for a long time staring at the screen and wondering what to make of this development.  Had someone found me?  Or was this mere coincidence?  Going outside to investigate meant entering into the heart of silence’s realm.  But there was a chance that I might discover something to break its hold.  In the end, the decision was easier than it might have appeared.  I had to venture out once again.  It seemed I had not begun to tolerate silence after all.

The Happiness Cure

A red light drew her attention, and she called over one of her colleagues.

“What’s going on, Cass?”

“This one is fading.  We need to intervene.”

Kushiel looked closer at the board.  “Who’s on?”

“Maal.  Which is perfect.”

“Agreed.  Get a couple of the lesser host down to his stage, and let him know what is going on.  I’ll go retrieve our patient.”

Cassiel nodded and began typing out the orders to be sent out.  Kushiel went from the control room to one of the adjacent antechambers.  The identity of their patient popped up on a screen, and he entered a few commands.  Almost immediately, the man he had summoned appeared in the chamber.

There was a question on his face as he looked at Kushiel.  “You asked to see me?  I hope it won’t take long; I was at choir.”

Kushiel smiled.  “We will get you back as soon as possible.  As you know, this place is for your benefit, a reward for your life of service and faithfulness.  As such, your happiness, as well as that of your brothers and sisters, is of paramount importance to us.”

The man nodded.  “Yes, I know.”

“Your happiness, however, has begun to wane.”

“I suppose it has, but singing helps.”

“Yes, but it is still below acceptable levels.  That is why I’ve asked you here.  You may recall from your life that happiness requires suffering.  Thus we find it important to occasionally remind our residents of what suffering is so that they can rejoice once more in the benevolence of Our Father.”

“You mean to torture me?”

“Goodness, no!  No, we simply show you the suffering of the damned.  We find it is very uplifting.”

“Oh.  Okay.”

“Good.  Have a seat on the couch.  Past this curtain, a screen will show you a vision of their suffering.  Would you like anything while you watch?”

“Actually, I haven’t had popcorn in forever.”

“Very well.”  A tup of popcorn appeared in front of him.  “I will leave you to your viewing.”

The curtain opened.  Two men were tied to posts as flames from the rocky ground beneath them licked their feet.  A demon, horrifying in appearance, walked into view.  His smile dripped evil as he sharpened a wicked looking blade.

Kushiel left and reentered the control room.

“How is it going?” Cassiel asked.

“Fine.  He was already engrossed.  Any effect yet?”

“Starting to tick up.  Probably won’t take long.”

“Good.”

After nearly half an hour, the red light turned yellow and then green.  Cassiel nodded to Kushiel, who went back into the antechamber.  Cass threw a few switches, and the lights in Maal’s theatre turned from red to green.

Maal immediately shed the appearance of a demon to return to his normal robes.  The two principalities stepped down off the posts.

“I’m glad that’s finally over,” one said.  The other agreed.

“You both did well.  Another soul uplifted,” Maal said.  “Please return to your other duties.”

They left, and Maalik began cleaning up the stage.

83.7 Percent

“Well, that’s most of them.”

“How is that most of them?  There are still a bunch of boxes on the truck.”

“Yeah, but this is more than half of them.”

“Most isn’t just more than half.”

“Yes it is.  What do you think it is?”

“It’s…  I don’t know…  Most.  Like, nearly all?  Certainly more than just more than half.”

“So is 60 percent most?”

“No.”

“70 percent?”

“Look, I don’t know.  75 percent maybe?  Or 90 percent?  It’s not a hard and fast number.  I just know that it’s more than 51 percent.”

“You’re crazy.”

“No I’m not.  Ask anybody.  They’ll tell you that most is more than just 51 percent.”

“Talked to everyone, have you?”

“Of course not; it’s just common knowledge.”

“How is it common knowledge if I don’t know it?”

“Well, maybe you just missed that day in school.”

“I repeat, you’re crazy.”

“Well, then, if most of the boxes have already been moved, you shouldn’t mind getting the rest yourself.”

“Ha, ha.  Nice try.  Let’s get back to it.”

“That’s what I thought.”

Summertime

The sun hung high overhead in an otherwise empty sky.  The air was still and heavy with heat.  He made his way down the street looking for some sort of reprieve, but there were no trees and no obviously open businesses in which he might seek shelter.  The sun seemed determined to melt him.  As the sweat dripped down his back and off his forehead, he became convinced it would succeed.

A single car drove past him, kicking up dust and making it even harder to breathe.  He hated the world at that moment.  There was nothing about it that was good.  Nothing he could think of, anyway.  Something cool, something wet.  He didn’t want much.  Just something that could break up the oppressiveness of the day.

Despite his willing it, no cloud appeared that might produce rain, or even hide the sun for a few moments.  All he could do was keep walking and hope he might come across something to provide some relief.  Above him, the sun continued to beat down, refusing to show even the slightest mercy.

The Apocalypse

The apocalypse was supposed to be more fun.  A band of plucky survivors, odds stacked against them, find a way to persevere in the face of constant danger.  Nobody ever talks about the loneliness and endless boredom.  Of course, in the stories, most of the survivors eventually end up dying anyway, so maybe this is better.

The problem is I never found another survivor.  I’m sure there must be others.  After all, what are the chances that I’d be the only one?  They have to be small.  I just haven’t come across any.  It is a large world.

To be fair, I haven’t gone anywhere.  Everything I need was right here.  Food.  Shelter.  Nothing was around to threaten me.  For all I knew, the rest of the world was a hellscape full of monsters or cannibals.  Traveling, just to find another person, seemed like an unnecessary risk.

The research base I had been stationed at was restocked just a week before the world went dark.  By the time I ran out of supplies, I expected to be too old to care.  The only reason to leave was boredom.  And that was not yet reason enough.

I wished I knew what had happened.  Abruptly, all communications had gone silent.  That was not supposed to be possible.  Before that moment, there had been no indication of a war, or a natural disaster, or some other catastrophe that might have been the cause.  There was just no one out there to talk to.  I was alone and didn’t even know why.

So when an alarm went off signaling someone at the external hatch of the station, I was understandably nervous.  The best case was that someone else who had survived had found this place and was looking for survivors.  The worst case…  Well, I didn’t want to think about that.  The camera showed someone in a parka.  Perhaps another member of my team, hoping this place was still safe?  Or someone who had killed someone on my team, taken their clothes, and now come to take from me as well.  I couldn’t know.

I sat, staring at my monitors but not really seeing them, wondering what to do.  If I didn’t let the newcomer in, they could die in the harsh environment outside.  But if I did, they could kill me.  Or worse.  What was the right thing to do?

My indecisive paralysis ended when I noticed the newcomer was gone from the door.  I hadn’t seen them leave.  They couldn’t have gotten in, I was sure.  Unless the security had failed.  I started scanning through the internal cameras.  Before I got halfway through them, the door to the operations room slid open.  Frantically, I looked for something to use as a weapon, but there was nothing obvious nearby.  I froze when the newcomer yelled.

“Mathis!  What the hell is going on here?”

After a stunned moment, I recognized one of my team members.  “Jackson!  Thank god.  You survived.”

He scowled at me.  “No thanks to you.  Why didn’t you let me in?”

“I wasn’t sure who it was.”

“Well why have you been offline for the last month?”

“What do you mean?”

“You haven’t reported in.  You haven’t responded to requests.  Are your comms broken?  What about the backup?”

“What are you talking about?  Everyone’s gone.  There’s no one out there to talk to.”

“What are you talking about?  No one’s gone.  Except you.  You just went silent.”

“That can’t be…”

He pushed past me and looked at the control board.  After a few moments, he got on the floor and pulled a panel off the underside.  “Here.  There are a couple of wires fried.  Let me just…”  Another minute or so, and he got up.  “Now try it.”

I flipped the switch and radio chatter flooded the room once more.

“See?”

“I just thought…”

“You didn’t bother to check?”

“Well…”

“Unbelievable.  You better call in.  You’re going to have explain all this.  Good luck.”

Delivery

The scuffing sound was nearly continuous, only the briefest of pauses to indicate the start and stop of footsteps.  It was a heavy object being dragged across rough stone.  The cave was damp and dim, with shadows everywhere and only the occasional torch upon the wall.

The hunched figure – its back severely bent, and its limbs thin and long – pulled a large sack behind.  It is best not to think about what might be in the sack.  The smell coming from it was warm and sticky.  The person, for lack of a better term, seemed unaffected by the odor, but it was weighed down, either by its load or the air in the cave.

It stopped next to a large stone that sat off to one side on the floor of the tunnel.  After a brief pause, it moved the sack to the far side of the rock and then leaned against the wall.  Its hands fidgeted with the air, as though remembering some tool or toy it once used.  The closest torch was twenty feet back the way it had come, and nothing but inky blackness lay ahead.

The wait stretched on, only the flicker of the flame indicating that time had not stopped.  At one point, the sack started to move, but it quickly went still again after a few heavy kicks.  Finally, the light dimmed even further, and the air got warmer.  The figure moved away from the wall, standing up as straight as it could.

The darkness itself began to move, taking on the shape, ever so vaguely, of a human being.  It reached out with one large hand and took hold of the sack.  Drawing it close, it paused briefly to nod its nearly shapeless head at the figure who stood.  Then the shape, and the sack, disappeared, leaving only the darkness behind.

The figure smiled, a grin with too few or too many teeth, and began slowly to retrace its steps.