Paying the price

Paul drew in a breath, held it, and slowly let it out. Another, and as he exhaled, he put his eye to telescopic sight. His father had taken him deer hunting during his teen years, and he’d hated the yearly pilgrimages into the forest. But his father had taught him how to use a rifle to shoot from a distance, and the skills had stuck well enough to let him shoot well even years later.

Those lessons had been with a Remington 30.06, but now he peered through the sight of a Barrett 82A1, a much more massive weapon. He’d found it several months earlier by accident. During one of his scrounging patrols, he’d come across the scene of a battle. The remains of several men, all of them lying in twisted poses, and often more than one piece, surrounded by their defeated opponents had made it clear this had been an intense fight. Several of those opponents had huge holes in them, which led Paul to the sniper who’d made those holes. He had been hidden atop a building, but his ‘hide’ had clearly not been good enough. Like those below, his body was in several parts, some of them looking like they’d been partially shoved through a wood chipper. Only the bald eagle shoulder patch on all the bodies had made it clear they were regular military.

Paul had taken the time to collect what he could of the fallen soldiers, giving them what dignity he could before hauling their weapons away to one of his stashes. One of the M16A4’s he’d recovered that day lay beside him, but he knew against the enemy he faced, it would be little more than an annoyance.

He watched that enemy as it rooted around in the ruins of a small house. He’d been sure to leave a clear trail to the structure, hoping he could draw the enemy out where he had a chance to kill another one. The box-like body sprouted four wheels with off-road tires on them. The cabled neck whipped from side to side, the head-like sensor array seeking to find the human that had left the clear scent path to this point. It had no imagination, any more than all the other machines that now hunted humanity. No, it could not imagine a human using a rope to pull themselves into the ash tree that stretched its branches over the remains of a suburban bungalow. Nor could it conceive of the possibility that once they done that, a human would use other ropes to climb from tree to tree so they could drop to the ground well away from where the trail appeared to end. No, the human trail ended here, so the machine knew there must be a human here.

The vents for the machines power supply were easy to see, the low howl it made clear even from 500 yards away. The critical spot should be just in front of them, and that was where Paul had his sight centered. The machine shifted slightly away from him, making the shot harder, and he knew he had to shoot, and now, or he would lose his chance. Slightly to the left, down a bit…a final deep breath, a squeeze of his finger on the trigger, and……

Paul had fired the Barrett over a dozen time before this, but the overwhelming noise, the brutal recoil, still caught him off guard. The huge armor-piercing bullet crossed the distance between Paul and his target before the sound could, and did what it was designed to. The impact lifted both tires off the ground on the side Paul had targeted, and before they had landed, the machine stopped moving. The neck and head flopped to the ground and in the ringing silence after the shot, the howling of the small turbine was conspicuously absent.

Paul waited, watching to see if the machine had a partner, something they had taken to doing. When his hearing recovered, all he heard was the sound of the chill north wind that had been blowing the past two days. Longer, and he heard a squirrel somewhere in the trees around him begin to chitter its complaints about being disturbed. Finally satisfied, he safetied the big rifle and levered himself off the ground. One more thing to do before he moved on.

He approached the wreckage with caution, the Barrett cradled under his arm, a fresh round in the chamber ready to fire as soon as he flipped the safety off. He’d only been forced to make a second shot once, but that had been enough to make him approach the robot with all due care. When a stop just inside the reach of its neck elicited no response, Paul moved to stand beside the wreck. The metal was still surprisingly warm, not unlike a deer or any other large animal that had just been brought down by a hunter. He leaned the rifle against that mass of metal, slipped his pack off, and pulled out his stencel. It was something he’d taken to doing after seeing another smashed machine someone had ‘tagged’ with their name and a number Paul assumed represented the number of killed robots they had to their credit. With no where near the talent to make something so ornate, Paul settled for a stencil he’d made of his name, and a number to mark his own kill total. He’d been using a florescent orange until last week when the can finally gave out. Now he pulled a can of dark red spray paint out, rearranged the numbers to reflect this latest kill, and with a quick shake, marked the side of the wreck.

“Paul Sanchez, 138” he read it aloud with a smile. He laid the stencil aside to dry and pulled a pair of grenades from the pack. These he put under the head, pins pulled, knowing that if another machine found the wreck it would try to salvage the sensors in it. Many of his kills had been accomplished that way, and he had no qualms about bobby-trapping the wreckage. No human would want it, so the only ones that would face danger from the unexploded ordinance would be other machines.

Back to the body of the machine to retrieve his stencil, then a quick flip of a body panel revealed the fuel filler port. The machines might have been the result of a military experiment gone wrong, but they burned the same fuel Paul had once used in his own car. It took barely a minute to shove a strip of old drapery down the fill line to the fuel, then with rifle in hand, he lit the improvised fuse and ran.

Paul was halfway up the hillside he’d come down when the flames reached the fuel and the machine exploded. He turned to look at his handiwork and saw two of the tires already burning. If all four burned, the machine would be a completely useless piece of junk, the delicate electronics already fried by the flames rising from the body. Not for the first time he wished that he’d known the autonomous killers would turn on their makers before he began developing them. Now, all he could do was try to kill as many of them before one of them got smart enough to kill him. It would never be enough to atone for his stupidity back then, but it was all he could do.

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The Haunted Blade: Chap. 2

Chapter 2

Katarina drew in a deep breath and leaned forward to place her ear against her father’s broad chest. Her mother had taught her the trick, and without the sound of her own breathing to interfere, she could hear her father’s breath clearly. What she heard gave her hope. Not two days ago, when she’d done the same thing, the gasping rattle had made it clear the winter fever still threatened her father’s life. Now, he still had a gasping quality when his breathed, the deep rattling noise she’d been taught to associate with the deadly winter disease was gone.

“So, oh wise healer, how fares your patient?”

Hearing that strong, steady voice again told her she had gotten her father on the road to recovery. She sat up, and did her best to put the severe face her mother had always worn to scold a patient who’d done something foolish. “I think, mind you, I think the patient will survive…if he doesn’t do something as foolish as riding about in a pouring spring rain without a cloak or anything else to keep him warm.” Her scolding drew a chuckle from her father, which brought on a bout of coughing. No, he’s better, but far from well. “But you have to stay abed for at least another two days, father. You need to let Turnal carry on doing your duties as leader of the Borders. He is your second, isn’t he? Maybe you should trust him to do what you trained him to do.”

The coughing subsided as she spoke, and it left her father looked drained. He held her eyes, a clear attempt to challenge Katarina’s judgment, but she matched his stare, and lay back. “Ah, how can I face my troops, forced by a mere girl to abandon my duties? The shame may undo me.”

He spoke through a smile, and Katarina did her best to smile back. “Oh, I think they’ll understand. After all, how many of them have I treated this past year and more?” She touched her father’s forehead, felt the slightly warm skin, and shook her head. “Whether they can accept a great warrior being ordered about by a ‘mere’ girl or not, you’ve still a fever. I’ll make up some more willow bark tea for you, and I expect you to drink every drop!”

That drew another chuckle, this time without the coughing, and a broader smile. “I hear and obey, oh wise one!”

Katarina let herself smile as she exited her father’s sleep nook. The return of his sense of humor was a better indication of his returning health than anything else. She took the few steps to the second, smaller nook where the herbs and other items her healing required were stored. The large earthenware crock she stored her stock of dried willow bark stood at one end of her work bench. She pulled it to the center and worked the wooden stopper out of it, ready to set to work pulverizing the main ingredient in her mother’s remedy for winter fever. When her hand encountered only a thin layer of left-over bark, she remembered planning to harvest some the day before. Tending to a nasty ax wound old Salan Tegue had given himself had distracted her from the task.

She leaned the crock over, saw enough to take care of her father, but knew fetching more could not be postponed. She emptied the crock into her mother’s old stone mortar, added a handful of dried spearmint leaves, and began crushing the mix.

“He was able to get to the privy yesterday without my help, so he should be safe while I take care of my harvesting.” she reasoned with herself, and hoped she was right.

Katarina finished her grinding and retrieved the smallest kettle from its place beside the fire. She had filled it when she’d drawn water at first light, so she empty the mortar into it and hung it on the crane before swinging it over the fire. That done, Katarina returned to her work space to collect what she’d need, and the first item she needed stopped her. Her mother had drummed it into her head that a healer never used a knife for both cooking and herb preparation. To harvest the small saplings she’d been taught were the best source of bark, she would need the biggest of her knives…and that knife needed sharpening. The small whetstone she usually used should have been sitting on the shelf where she normally stored it, but it wasn’t.

He couldn’t have, could he…damn you, Tomran! Her older brother had been complaining the night before that his hunting knife needed a fresh edge. It wasn’t hard to imagine him deciding he could get away with borrowing her whetstone to sharpen his knife. The stone wheel he and father normally used would have been too much trouble for him to drag out. No, he’d have used hers, and the gods alone knew where he’d left it after he’d finished. She wanted to climb up and tear through his part of the sleeping loft they shared, but finding something as small as her stone would take time. Then she remembered the blade her brother had recovered from the bandit’s horde. It hung from a peg near the front door, a blade he’d said was too long to use as a skinning knife, but too small to fight with. Her father had recognized it, calling it an honor blade. Supposedly noble women carried them to kill themselves rather than suffer this dishonor of having their body violated.

Katarina retrieved the blade from its resting spot. She had given it only passing attention, having no intention of killing herself rather than being raped. Someone had wiped the scabbard down, but the ornate decorations were still thickly crusted in dirt, like it had lain somewhere for time out of mind. “I wonder, will it still have an edge on it?” she asked herself as she grasped the hilt and drew the blade.

#

The demon had promised Julana sleep, but that sleep was not undisturbed. Often, as if in a dream, she felt the presence of others. Sometimes just a vague impression that someone nearby, like a person had walked into a room and disturbed her sleep. Occasionally, she saw more, almost as if she were looking through someone else’s eyes at the world around her. But the disturbances faded, and sleep once again took her.

This time, though, the feeling of being inside another person was stronger than any she’d experienced. She saw the inside of a small cottage, one a farmer might own, as clear as if she were standing in the room. Then she felt the demon, as if he stood at her side.

“You sense it too, do you not Wielder? This one may be the one we have waited so long for…”

#

Katarina held the blade at arms length and it felt far heavier than it’s small size warranted. The hilt felt strangely warm, almost as if she were touching a living creature. She looked down its length with the sunshine streaming in the door play over it, and saw an edge unblemished. She touched it, only a light caress of her finger, and jerked the finger back, surprised at how deeply blade had bitten. Its more than sharp enough for what I needed she thought as she slide it back into the sheath.

#

The vision suddenly vanished, leaving Julana in the darkness again. But the presence of the demon seemed to grow. When it addressed her, it sounded confident.

“Wielder, she is of your blood! The taste is faint, but it is there. She can command me, she may even be able to sense you, if you try to address her. Your wait has not been in vain! She may be the one who grants you your freedom.”

#

Katarina laid the blade aside and checked on the tea. The water was beginning to bubble at the bottom of the kettle, but it had yet to reach the rolling boil she knew it needed. Her long skirt would do for the hike to the river bank, but her boots would better at keeping the biting insects away from her lower legs than the clogs she had on. She got them on and laced up by the time a thick cloud of steam rising from the kettle told her the tea was done. She drew the crane out into the room, wrapping a fold of her skirt around her hand to to shield it as she retrieved the kettle. The big beaker she’d been using to treat her father stood on the counter along the wall, She put a dollop of honey in it before pouring it full of the steaming liquid.

She found her father had propped himself up while she’d been busy. “I’d scold you, but I would have had to get you sitting up anyway. Now, get down as soon as you can, then stay sitting until I get back…this is the last of the willow bark, so I need to harvest some more. I should be back before lunch time, but there’s soup in the big kettle by the fire. So if I’m not back before you get hungry, I will forgive you getting out of bed to get something to eat! Do try not to get out of bed for anything besides that or the privy, and yes, I do mean no getting out of bed if someone comes by to gossip!” Her father opened his mouth to interrupt, but she raised a hand to forestall him. “I mean it! Mother would have skinned you alive for doing something as silly as riding through a spring rain storm without a cloak. All I am doing is forcing you to stay in bed until you’re better, so be grateful for small favors.”

Her father ducked his head, but he didn’t try to hide his smile. “I feel I’ve been ‘skinned’ by that tongue of yours, my daughter.” He lifted his eyes to meet hers as he continued. “There’s more than a little of your mother in you. She could not have delivered a sharper rebuke-and yes, I will stay abed, barring hunger and other bodily necessities. Now go, attend your harvesting in peace, I shall be a good boy.”

“I hold you to your word, Captain of the Borders!” She put her hand on his shoulder and smiled as she squeezed it. “I’ll be back soon, father. Take care.”

“And you too, my daughter.”

#

Katarina sliced a wedge off the big round of cheese, and stuffed it into the smaller bag she carried when she went any distance from home, then added one of the left-over rolls from the night before. Her own lunch taken care of, she slung the bag over her shoulder and grabbed the odd blade, intent on sliding it into her belt. Her fingers began to close about the hilt, but she drew back. Before, the hilt felt unnaturally warm, but now it felt as if the hilt, the whole knife, were quivering. Katarina bent close, peering at the blade as if to see something odd about it, but it looked as it had before. It would take half the morning to walk to get to the stand of willows, though, so she shoved it under her belt, ignoring the odd feeling it transmitted to her fingers. Oddly, once she’d released it, she sensed no vibration from the blade, it was just a weight trying to drag her belt down.

That done, she was out the door and through old gate that closed their small garden off from the road. She let her stride lengthen, knowing it would let her cover ground without winding her. Her house set just beyond the edge of Stoneferd, and she soon passed through the East opening through the low wall that surrounded the village. As every other day, the small huts inside the wall that would have held a guard in times of trouble were empty. But while there were no guards, plenty of people noticed her entrance into town and call out greeting.

The walk from one side of Stoneferd’s enclosed area to the other took little time at al. Ahead, she saw the other opening in the village wall, and beyond it, the graceful stone arch of the bridge over the Sullis. The bridge stood next to the only viable ford over the broad Sullis, which gave the village its name. Next to this entrance also stood the sanctuary to Gorm, and the priest sat outside it scanning those how moved past him like a hungry dog hoping to snap up a choice morsel. She saw his head turn towards her, saw the studied blank look shift to a scowl and saw him rise with growing dread. Her parents didn’t follow Gorm, and she thought his religion harsh, so she hoped to have to suffer nothing more than a misplace blessing. Her luck was not with her today, though, as the priest stepped in front of her.

“Sir priest, how may I help you?”

The followers of Gorm thought women little better than animals, so she kept her eyes down, hoping a demonstration of subservience would allow her to pass.

“Why do you go armed, woman? You know the laws, yet you bear a weapon! Do you desire the death due all women who think themselves fit to bear arms?”

Katarina let her hand brush over the pommel, and again she felt the odd sense that of vibration. “But sir priest, this is no weapon. Know you not the tradition of the honor blade, intended to allow a woman to keep her virtue and honor intact?”

The man snorted, putting more derision into that one sound than he could have said in a week. “You feel the need to protect your virtue? From what, or who?”

“Did not my father, and my brother, wipe out a band of outlaws not ten days ago? What if some escaped, or were not there when the attack took place? Can a woman not worry about such things?”

Perhaps the reminder that her father commanded the Borders, the local militia company, caused the priest to rethink his attitude. Perhaps he felt he’d made his point. Katarina didn’t care, she was glad when he stepped aside so she could pass. He did not, however, let her pass without getting in the final word.

“Go, do whatever it is you intend to do, healer. But know your place, and show the priests of Gorm the respect due them!”

Clenching her jaw to keep in several sharp responses unsaid, she continued walking. Ahead, his head slowly rising above the curve of the bridge, she saw Taris, the smith’s son. Almost the exact opposite of Katarina’s tall, slender build, Taris looked so much like a troll that visitors often accused him of being one. His short, thick legs supported a barrel chested body that seemed to sprout his two long, heavily-muscled arms and a head that looked affixed directly to it. He and Katrina were of an age, though, and had been friends forever. He saw her and his face split into a broad, gap-toothed smile.

“Kat! What brings you into the village?”

They stopped, facing each other, and Katarina extended her hand to shake the one Taris offered with the question. She had seen those hands wield a hammer, folding iron to make steel, for long periods, but his fingers closed gently around hers.

“I need to harvest some willow bark. What takes you away from the forge?”

“Father sent me into town to make a deliver.” He slide a pack off his back, reached inside, and drew out a huge meat cleaver. “The butcher asked father to make him a new one, and we finished it last night. He’s trading us some of his smoked spice sausages, and both of us look forward to enjoying our reward!” He slapped his flat belly with his free hand and licked his lips like he were preparing to feast. Katarina couldn’t help but laugh at him.

“You always did think with your belly! May you take pleasure in your reward, sir smith!” She leaned close so Taris could hear her, but no one else “Just be careful that you have those sausages hidden in your pack when you go back home. Gorm’s priest is looking for someone to extort a ‘tithe’ out of, and I have no doubt he’d be more than happy to send you home with far less to feast on then you’d planned.”

She felt his attention shift and heard him give one of those low, rumbling growls that told anyone who knew him that Taris was angry. “So, that damned greedy vulture is perched outside his nest again today, is he? Why can’t he go back to Par Las so he can be with the king and all the others who follow his blasted religion?”

Katarina laid a hand on her friend’s arm. “You know the answer as well as I, Taris. It’s because the king knows his religion isn’t everyone’s religion, so he sends fine fellows like yonder priest out to spread the ‘joy’ of his beliefs…and to keep an eye on us. Now check that temper, or yours will be the next name he reads in his sermon, and the next one to draw the wrath of the king’s tax collectors too.”

“Aye, I hear you, and I’ll be a smiling lamb when I walk past him, and I’ll smile even wider when I walk past him again with my reward. Stop on your way back, father will be happy to share some of our bounty with you, and so will I.”

They parted, and Katarina hoped her friend would keep his promise. Normally a good person, Taris had a temper fit for a devil. Across the bridge and round the sharp turn that took the road along the rivers edge, she passed the forge. Inside, the din of hammer on metal told her Taris’ father was hard at work. Ahead stood the last building in Stoneferd, the big mill where farmers from days round brought their grain. Her father hated it being located outside the village wall, but the miller insisted nowhere within the village that match this site, and he was a master miller, not someone to be trifled with. He stood behind the half door he used as a counter, arguing with a farmer, but stopped to wave at her as she approached.

“Come for some more flour, Katarina? I’ve some fine wheat, ground this morning if you’re interested.”

“Thanks, Master Miller, but I’ve business up the river at Pertran’s Pool. Perhaps tomorrow?”

“I should have some left, but you know what they say, flour fresh from the stone is best of all. Safe trip to you.”

Waving her thanks for the blessing, Katarina let her stride lengthen again. It had been days since the last rain, so the road was packed hard, any ruts worn flat. Ahead, a week’s walk away, was the capital of her kingdom, Las, and the palace of the king, Regasan. Five days walk behind her lay the border with the neighboring kingdom of Delphina. The two kingdoms maintained a cordial hatred for each other, but both knew the value of the trade that moved along this road. So caravans of goods passed on an almost daily basis, and lone travelers frequently stopped in Stoneferd. But for now, the road was empty, its surface showing no sign of any recent traffic.

Katarina didn’t mind that one bit. The few piles of horse shit she saw were dry, so she didn’t have to worry about picking up a mess when she stepped on them. That meant she could keep her head down and concentrate on covering the distance as fast as possible. Soon, the road parted from the river, the low rush of water fading, leaving nothing but the occasional bird song and the rustling of the grass in the odd breeze. Then she passed the last farm, and the forest closed around the road.

The cloud-flecked sky disappeared, visible only through the rare opening in the leafy canopy. So too, the breeze fell away, now nothing more than a vague murmur coming down from far overhead. In that silence, Katarina heard the sound of horses hooves. They were still too faint to pick out individual horses, but when she leaned to get her ear closer to the road, she could tell they were moving at close to a full gallop. No wagon team moved that fast, so she knew it had to be riders.

Father had made one thing clear long ago: horsemen were trouble. Borders moved as mixed companies, a few riders accompanying the main force on foot. Only the king’s cavalry, bandits and raiders rode as a group, and father made little difference between them. All of them treated ordinary people as little more than objects to be robbed, murdered or, in the case of women, raped. His advice for a civilian forced to deal with them was to never deal with them, but to hide if the chance came, or run away and hope they were too lazy to follow.

Ahead, Katarina saw a stand of thorn bushes, and got off the road to work her way behind them. As she settled in, the sound of of the horses grew distinct enough to her to make out two individual riders, even the slight jingle of their harness. She drew in a breath, even knowing it would make her no closer to invisible, and waited.

“Yandar! Yandar! Slow down! We’ll founder the horses if we keep driving them this hard!”

The hoof beats slowed, became distinct events, and she found she could hear the rasping breathing of the horses. The riders must almost be in front of her. Then one horse stopped moving, and she heard another voice she had to assume was Yandar.

“Aye, we might founder the horses, but if I have to spend one more night in a flea-ridden country inn, I’ll go mad! All I want to do is get to this blasted village, find the person we’re looking for, and get our ‘business’ concluded. The faster we do that, the faster we can return to the capital.”

Katarina caught the emphasis on that one ordinary word, business, and knew without explanation that these men were about something more than buying and selling.

“Well, Stoneferd should be the next village, and we won’t be able to just ride in, take care of the task, then ride out again. I mean, even with a royal warrant, we can’t just walk up to a man and kill him now, can we?”

They were going to kill someone, in Stoneferd? But who? Nobody had been away from the village for any length of time for as long as Katarina could remember. Who could have earned the king’s wrath, and why?

“Jartun, if I knew what this Taris Sigred looked like, I’d cheerfully ride up and lop his head off without stopping. Now, can we get going?”

Taris! Why would the king want him dead? The shock caused Katarina to gasp, and the riders heard the noise. The voice of the one called Jartun called out.

“You, in the bushes there! Come out! Come out were the king’s messengers can see you!”

Katarina froze, hoping silence would fool the men into believing they’d mistaken some forest sound. It didn’t.

“I said come out! We have no argument with you that you do not cause. Just step out where we can see you…step out, and if you can help us in our mission, we’ll reward you for your help.”

Katarina had no intention of helping these men kill her friend. She turned away from the road and keeping as low as she could, ran into the forest.

“There! Headed into the woods…it’s a woman! Stop, blast you!”

Knowing she’d been seen, Katarina abandoned any thought of trying to hide. She straightened and ran as fast as she could away from the road and the killers. Maybe if I can lose them in the forest, I can make my way back to the road and get to the village ahead of them. It was a good idea, but she’d have to get the two men hopelessly lost before she had even a hope of outrun their horse to the village. But it also distracted her enough that she didn’t see the root which snagged her foot and sent her sprawling. When she tried to rise, the wave of pain putting weight on her ankle caused told her she’d at least twisted her ankle, possibly broken it. The broad trunk of an oak rose just ahead, and Katarina drug herself towards it, hoping at least to keep her attackers from slaying her without the chance to see them.

The bark against her back felt good, like sitting against a rough stone wall. So this is where I die? She looked around, taking in the wide-spaced trees, the green-tinted light, and somewhere deep inside of her screamed No! This is not where I’m going to die! At least not without a fight! She knew she couldn’t stand, and wondered what sort of fight she could put up sitting on the ground. She didn’t have long to think about it. A rustling in the undergrowth where she’d tripped told her that those following her were not without skill. As she watched, a tall, heavily-built man dressed in a fine tunic and breeches thrust his way into view. He stood, looking at her a moment, a drawn sword in his hand.

“There you are! Looks like you’re in no shape to run any further, and that’s just as well. Making me thrash about in this forest should earn anyone the death penalty. But making me do that and spying on messengers of the king…that should earn you something a bit worse, don’t you think?” His voice was that of the one called Yandis. He sheathed his sword, then leered at Katarina. “And I think I know what extra ‘punishment’ you deserve. It’s been far too long since I enjoyed the company of one of the capital whores, and even longer since I had something as young as you to satisfy me. Who knows, if you pleasure me sufficiently, I might even be willing to let you live. What say you? Are you willing to earn your life?”

Katarina had never been with a man, but like any country girl raised around livestock, she knew what he meant. She also knew he had no intention of letting her live. Her hand brushed against the scabbard thrust into her belt, and she wondered if taking her own life might be better than letting this man rape, then kill her. Be damed if I let that happen! The anger rose from deep inside her, and she closed her hand around the hilt of the blade. There was no vibration now, no, it was like she could feel joy radiating from the weapon, as if the blade itself wanted to fight. She drew it, saw the light gleam off the weapon, and somewhere inside her head, a voice spoke to her.

“Wielder, I await you command! Tell me what you desire of me, and I will do it!

Katarina’s mother had told her that having someone say they heard voices in their head was a bad thing. She had no chance to reflect on this odd event. Her attacker had stopped when she’d drawn the blade, but the smile on his face told her it wasn’t from fear, but from amusement.

“Ah, you desire to fight, do you? With that?” He laughed, waving his hand contemptuously towards her weapon. “By all means, child, fight all you can, it will just make taking you that much sweeter!”

He stepped closer, and as he came within her reach, Katarina tried to stab him. His fingers closed around her wrist before she was aware his hand was moving, stopping the tip of the blade just short of the center of his chest.

“You have fire, girl. Now, let’s see what fire you have between your legs!”

No! If only the damned blade were a little longer, I could have killed him!

Again, that strange voice echoed in her head.

I hear, my master, and I obey!”

Katarina watched the seemingly solid metal stretch until the blade slide into her attacker’s chest. His eyes wide, he tried to speak, but no sound came from his lips. Then he fell atop her, and his blood began soaking Katarina. She let go of the blade, pushing with both hands to get Yandar’s body off her, but he was far heavier than he looked. Finally, she levered him sideways, causing his lifeless corpse to roll off. Then she saw his face for the first time since she’d stabbed him. Yandar’s eyes bulged in their sockets, and his mouth gaped open as though he were trying to scream. She caught the earthy scent of someone shitting, and saw the front of his breeches go dark as his bladder emptied. She’d been with her mother when patients died, she’d smelled these things before, but this wasn’t the result of an injury or a disease. She had killed this man, and in that realization, her stomach clenched and she vomited her breakfast onto the dead man’s chest. She gagged, felt herself tense to spew more, then the spasm passed, leaving her shaking and wondering if she could do this again.

There’s another of them out there, and I can’t get away from him any more than I could get away from this one. Her hand wrapped around the hilt of the blade, and she felt a warmth, almost a welcome, as she drew it from the dead body. But where was the other man? Katarina heard the crackling of dead raspberry brambles, followed by a man cursing, off to her left, and knew the answer to her question.

“Damn it, Yandar, where did you go to? We need to find this person and deal with them. Where are you?”

From the noise the other man was making as he pushed his way through the forest, and the increasing volume of his voice, Katarina knew he was headed towards her. She’d been lucky and kill one attacker by surprise, but surprise the second one? An idea came to her, and choking back bile, Katarina grabbed Yandar’s dead hand and pulled. He moved, but not enough. She tried again, throwing her entire body into the effort. Yandar rolled atop her, and she grabbed the blade, pulling it close and hiding it as well she could under a fold of her skirt. Another burst of cursing, and she saw a nearby sapling sway wildly. Could she do this? There was only one way to find out.

Katarina began screaming, shaking the dead body as she did so, flailing her legs about as if she were trying to get the man away from her. “No! No! Please, don’t do this! I’m just a young girl, please, please let me give myself to my husband!” A louder crash, and a man pushed aside a stunted maple to step out from behind the tree that had seeded it. Katarina looked into his eyes and saw disgust at the scene. “Please, please sir! Please don’t let this man violate me!”

Maybe Jartun wasn’t a bastard like his friend. He slid his sword into its sheath, and as Katarina kept up her mock resistance, he approached. “Come on, Yandar! Leave the girl alone, or at least leave her what dignity she has.” He leaned down, grabbed the dead man’s shoulder, and pulled him off as Katarina drove the blade into his side. It went in with no resistance at all, and as Jartun staggered back, it sliced out, opening his midsection almost completely. His guts pouring out of the wound Jartun sat down, hard, staring the whole time at the spectacle of his insides hanging out. Somewhere, a blood vessel had been severed, and a tide of red began to flow out of his body to wet the ground about him. His eyes rose to fix on Katarina’s.

“Why? I would have let you go. I would have stopped him if I could have.”

She saw the man meant what he said, and felt tears forming in her eyes. “I’m sorry, but your friend wouldn’t have let me live…and I couldn’t let you kill my friend.”

The ghost of a smile played across his face, and Jartun gave a slight nod towards his dead companion. “You’re probably right, he was a bastard, wasn’t he?” he stopped, and drew a breath that sounded more like a sob than a normal breath. “Could you do me a favor? I’ve seen men like me, too many of them. I don’t want to lay here with the flies buzzing about me while the animals tear me apart. Could you take that knife of yours and kill me? Can you spare me that end?” His hand scraped at the hilt of his sword, like he were trying to draw it but couldn’t get his hand to close about the grip. His eyes shifted towards his hand, and he made another feeble attempt to draw his weapon. When he failed, Jartun focused on her again. “I can’t seem to draw my sword to throw it away, so I hope you’ll trust I won’t try to kill you. Will you help me, please? Will you release me from this life?”

Katarina forced herself to sit up, slid her weapon into its sheath, then pulled herself across the short distance that separated them. She stopped beside Jartun, and put an arm behind his back. “Sorry, but I can’t stand myself, so this is the best I can do.” The lightest push caused his body to tip backwards, and Katarina nearly went over with him. She shifted her weight, caught them both, and eased the dying man onto his back. His eyes were unfocused, but they steadied on her and she saw him smile again.

“Thank you. I didn’t want to come, but when the king commands something….” Jartun stopped speaking, his face twisting, and he drew a gasping breath. “I’ve heard men can take a mortal wound and not feel it. I never believed it, but I do now. Please, make it quick, let me go before I start screaming.” His eyes closed, and Katarina placed her blade against his neck. She’d planned to slice open the big blood vessel there, but the stroke passed through the flesh from one side to the other. Blood fountained everywhere, he gave a final, convulsive jerk, and Jartun was still. His face now slack, Katarina bent her head and let herself weep, knowing she had betrayed her mother’s creed to heal, no matter what.

“When I killed my first opponent, I was so sick I couldn’t stand. But there is no shame in killing to keep yourself alive, child.”

She should have been shocked by this new voice, one which sounded like a woman, but wasn’t. This woman sounded like she’d done what Katarina had, and taken no joy in it either. Perhaps I am going mad, as mother said people who hear voices are. Thinking herself mad didn’t bothered her, it gave her a strange comfort, almost an excuse for what she had done. The new voice was having nothing of it.

“You’re not mad, child, you just decided to fight back rather than be a victim. It shows you have courage, and that is something you should be proud of.”

It can read my mind! That did shock her, and it scared her far more than she wanted to admit. Like it came from some deep well of joy, she heard a laugh in her head, then the voice again.

“Yes, I can hear your thoughts, as you hear mine. Do be afraid! I think we are kin, far removed, but kin none the less. What is your name?”

“Katarina….umm, Katarina Agberand” she blurted out, forgetting for a moment that the disembodied voice didn’t need her to speak.

“I do not know your family name, Katarina, but I am glad to meet you, my distant relation. I am Julana, daughter of Kerman.”

Paul Sanchez gets lucky (or does he?)

Sometimes the greatest disasters happen because people don’t realize just how stupid what they’re doing is. Anon.

Humanity’s extinction nearly happened because one man let his hatred blind him to his own stupidity. Upon being passed over for promotion at Dante Pharmaceuticals, Dr. Carl Sundersen decided he knew the cause. It wasn’t that he was a second-rate researcher who often skipped vital steps in his research (which he was, and yes, he did). No, the real reason he’d been passed over was because Kamala James had ‘gamed’ the system and used her status as a minority to cheat him out of the position. The fact that Dr. James had twice as many published works as he did meant nothing to Carl, nor did the fact that her work on DNA resequencing for cancer treatment had real promise. No, ‘that woman’, as he so often referred to his rival, had cheated him out of his due, and he would have his revenge!

For her part, Dr. James had no clue how much she was hated by Dr. Sundersen. She treated him no differently than any of the other people who worked with her, even speaking of how, now that she had a secure position in the company, she hoped to finally start a family. In that revelation, she gave Carl his avenue for vengeance. The company had been researching different viruses as delivery mechanisms for genetic material to cells, and Carl saw this as the perfect opportunity to strike back. In his spare time, he cobbled together a virus using one of the oldest to attack humanity: chickenpox. His decision was simple, because he remembered how, in adults, the disease could sterilize men. Carl planned to infect Dr. James, and through her, sterilize her husband. His virus would show none of the other external signs of it’s parent disease, thus masking it from effective treatment. It was the perfect plan…or so Carl thought.

Carl never thought to test his new virus. So he had no idea that what he’d brewed up in his lab was far more virulent than the original disease, nor that it was resistant to all existing anti-virus drugs. He had the pleasure of watching Dr. James become increasingly sad as she and her husband tried to conceive, but within a year, he shared in the shock of reports of a world-wide drop in birth rates. In less than two years, the birth rate had dropped to nearly zero…and the culprit was Carl’s virus, now out in the population worldwide. Tracing the disease back to its origins was basic epidemiology, and Carl knew it was only a matter of time before he was found out. When the authorities came to his lab, they found it locked, and Carl inside, dead by his own hands. All he left behind was a note, telling everyone how sorry he was, but blaming the disaster on Dr. James and the ‘unfair’ system.

But all was not lost. While the disease was spread through the entire population, and there was no indication that it could be wiped out, the birth rate did not drop to zero. Researchers found those women who were becoming pregnant, and found they too had been exposed, but their sexual partners were immune to the virus. The immunity traced back to a single genetic mutation, a mutation that passed down to the children fathered by those who carried it. But the number of people who carried the mutation was tiny, less than .001% of the population. Humanity’s continued existence, it turned out, hinged on these few men……..

#

Paul Sanchez had grown up wondering if he’d die single. He wasn’t tall, had been called “hefty” by even his parents (and any number of other, less flattering things by the children he’d grown up with) and knew that calling him clumsy would have been a compliment. Girls avoided him, even the plainest, and by the time he graduated high school, he was sure the only sex he would experience would be confined to him relieving himself to whatever porn he could find on the Internet. He settled into life as a cubicle dweller in an insurance claims department, content to the fantasize about the few desirable women who worked with him.

Then, with every other human, he’d been shocked to learn the existence of a disease that had swept, unseen, through the entire population. The news that a tiny handful of men were immune to the disease wasn’t important to him. He was sure that, like every other man, he was now sterile, not that it made a difference to him. But when it was announced that a genetic test had been developed to look for more men who possessed the mutation, he like every other man was expected to take the test so humanity might continue. Paul had no brothers, and his father had been dead since his teenage years, so until the moment the results came in, he had no idea he was one of that select few men who would serve as the basis for the continuation of humanity.

Overnight, Paul went from being regarded by women as a “Who?” to being one of the most desirable men on Earth. Losing his virginity had happened when when one of the most attractive women in the office had cornered him in a storage room and asked him to have sex with her. As word got around, more women came to him, sometimes more than one at the same time, leading to ugly scenes and open fighting.

It got worse. Given the low number of men available to produce children, the government moved to recruit those men into programs that would have reduced them to little more than living sperm banks, hooked to machines to extract the maximum ‘harvest’ possible. There were riots, chaos, and the plan was dropped. But the government did establish a data base of men who could father children, and it made those names available to the public. For Paul, it wasn’t as bad as being hooked up to a machine, but the improvement wasn’t all that great…….

#

The soft knock on the door was expected. Paul took a deep draw on the energy drink he’d opened and spoke. “Come in.” He sat on the rumpled bed he’d only been out of to go to the bathroom or eat for the last ten hours, watching the door open with exhausted indifference. The woman who entered wore one of the plain white terrycloth robe furnished by the spa. Her hair, a painfully bright blond that had to have come from some bottle, hung down past her shoulders. He looked at her face, noticing with a small amount of gratitude that it wasn’t ugly, and watched as she untied the robe and slipped it off. Paul noted with some satisfaction that his guess about whether her hair was its natural color or not was correct, but beyond noting that she wasn’t grotesquely obese, the other details of her body didn’t even register. She opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it again to speak.

“I want to have a child, but my husband isn’t…”

Paul raised his hand to stop her, he’d heard the explanation too many times before. He grabbed the pillow he’d used with the last woman, saw it was still wet and flipped it over to find an ugly stain on the reverse side. He threw it on the floor, grabbed one of the remaining pillows from the head of the bed, and slapped it down beside him. Paul patted the pillow and waved the woman over. “Come on, get over here and plant you ass on this so we can get this over with.” He saw the shocked look this off-handed treatment elicited and didn’t care. “Well, do you want me to try fucking you standing up, or are you going to get your ass over here so I can take care of you? Make up your mind, lady, cause once I’m done with you, I get to home and get some sleep.”

She clearly expected to be treated differently. Her back went rigid, and her face set in a scowl that probably intimidated her husband. Paul didn’t give a shit, he just matched her angry stare with a well-earned indifferent stare. She was the one who looked away first, and with eyes still averted, she walked to the bed and positioned herself to Paul’s satisfaction. He gave her genitals a quick look and reached for the bottle of sexual lubricant sitting on the night stand.

Paul squirted his palm full of the cool liquid, smeared it over the woman’s vagina, then shoved a finger into her to start working the lubricant into where it would be needed. She grabbed his wrist, trying to stop him. He turned his face towards her and put his displeasure into his voice. “Lady, if you like pain while you’re having sex, get your kicks with your husband. My dick’s already sensitive, and I’ve got no desire to wear it raw getting you taken care of. So you either let me get you ready, or you can get the hell outta here!”

She released his wrist, and Paul took a small amount of pleasure in not being gentle while he finished lubricating the opening. Satisfied she was as ready as possible, he grabbed his penis, gave it a couple of quick strokes to get himself as hard as possible, and got between her legs. Six month ago, Paul would have been thrilled by what he did next. Now, after so many women, it was little more than ‘Put Tab A into Slot B, then move until finished.’ And finish he did, as quickly as he could. Duty done, he rolled off the anonymous woman and ran his clean palm across his face, wiping away more sweat than he’d expected to find. He felt the woman move, but not to get up and go. No, she was sitting up, and when he moved his hand, he saw she was scowling at him like he’d just mortally insulted her.

“What? Did you expect me to ‘make love to you’? Get over yourself. You’re the sixth woman I’ve had sex with today, and you’re no different from any of the others. Now, you’ve got what you wanted, and unless you’re an idiot who thinks she can just come in here anytime during her fertility cycle, you should have the makings of a baby inside you. I’d suggest using a tampon or something else to keep it all up inside, but that’s up to you.” Paul levered himself up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. He was thinner now than he’d been in his entire life. He wasn’t skinny, or even ‘cut’, but all the sex really did burn the calories off. He didn’t feel the bed move and glanced over his shoulder. She had gone from scowling at him to staring daggers at him. Paul didn’t give a shit. He pushed himself up, grabbed his own robe off the chair he’d draped it over a couple of hours ago, and wrapped it around himself. He tied the belt, looked back at the bed, and saw her face had gone an ugly crimson color. Who cares he thought to himself as he headed for the door. His day was done, and he had a day’s rest tomorrow before he was back her to screw more women. He had no interest in missing a second of his time off, and when she started screaming at him, he just kept going intent on getting home.

Chapter 1- “The Haunted Blade”

Chapter 1

Nations rise and fall. What is becomes what was, and what was becomes history. History fades to legend, and legend degenerates into myth. Nothing remains constant but humanity. It’s greed, it’s jealousy and it’s desire for power…all of these remain the same through all of humanity’s existence.

Brother Slagger, first chronicler of Gorm the Prophet

“General, the…the king requires you!”

Julana didn’t need to look up from the document she’d been reading to know who was addressing her. “A moment, Hostis, and I’ll be free to tend the king’s request. I don’t suppose His Majesty told you what he needs to talk to me about?”

When Hostis didn’t respond, Julana put a finger down on the document and glanced at the man standing in the doorway. Hostis had been with her for years beyond memory, and he had never been one to remain silent when she asked him something. Now he stood, face averted, like a boy caught stealing apples from a prize tree. Perhaps he sensed her attention, for Hostis faced her full, straightened, and addressed her directly.

“I’m sorry, General, but the king was very specific. He desires your presence immediately, and he commanded me to escort you to him.”

Julana sensed something off with her subordinate, that he was under pressure, and had no desire to add to a good man’s discomfort. “Then let me mark my spot in this interminable mess, and I’ll be with you. There is no document more likely to confuse a mortal than the pay book of a legion.” Julana picked up the small carved bone page marker she’d had since becoming commander of the Kingdom’s armies and laid it under the line she’d been reading. Confident that she could find her place again after the meeting, Julana, Commanding General of the Kingdom of Lonsa’s armies, rose, stretching as she did.

She didn’t have much to stretch. Julana didn’t lead like many of her male subordinates by intimidating those around her with size. Hostis was considered short among her troops, but her head barely over-topped his shoulders. No, she knew they followed her because she could be a demon when fighting, and that she’d never desert a fellow soldier. Rounding her desk, she approached Hostis before addressing him.

“Where does the king demand my presence, Centus Hostis? Or has the king ordered you to keep me in the dark?”

“General, he awaits you in the throne room.”

Hostis led the way, taking the shortest route from her office to the central part of the palace across the small open parade ground. Normally, the latest crop of new soldiers should have been drilling here, but the area was deserted. Where are they? Have the drill instructors taken them on a route march without telling me? she wondered as she entered a small side door that would take them by discrete back halls to the throne room.

Julana stepped through the small side door that opened into the vaulted expanse of the throne room. She had always thought it the most beautiful room in the palace with it’s high ceiling and vast windows filled with glass. Now, it was empty but for a two lines of the King’s Own Guard lining the approach to the dais where the king sat. King Zerus, the man she had helped raise to his throne, sat upon his magnificent throne, his shoulders hunched forward and the Crown of State resting atop his head. She moved to approach the throne down the avenue of waiting guards. The room seemed almost stifling silent, not a single person murmured as she moved forward. Julana had not covered half the distance to Zerus when she heard him cry out.

“Ring formation!”

The Guard troops moved, those behind and in front of her jogging to close the circle around her. By themselves, any one of the Guards was a formidable foe. Julana knew they had all sworn to give their lives to defend their king, but she also knew she could take any two of them, even unarmed. But surrounded now by a bristling ring of a dozen drawn swords, she halted, knowing any resistance would be suicide. She turned her attention towards the king, and found him glaring at her. He held her stare for a moment, then with a wave of his hand, summoned his chamberlain.

Like Julana, old Loust had been with the king since he was a dispossessed bastard trying to claim his father’s throne. Now the old man refused to meet her eyes, or even to acknowledge her presence. He began to speak in his deep, sonorous voice, and Julana could not believe what he said.

“Julana, daughter of Kerman, you stand here charged with treason against the realm, and against your sovereign lord, King Zerus. How do you answer these charges?”

“I answer that they are false! I have been, and will always remain, loyal to my lord, King Zerus! How brings these charges against me? I claim the right to know who so slanders my good name!”

The room went silent again, and more than one of the soldiers around Julana turned their faces away, like they were ashamed to be present. Then a figure stepped from behind the throne. Julana didn’t immediately recognize the man, his dress and demeanor had so changed since the last time she’d encountered him.

“I Gorm, accuse you! I accuse you of leading men astray, of forcing them to follow the orders of an inferior creature, a woman, and of turning the army against the will of your rightful liege lord, Zerus!”

Julana remembered the man, a self-described prophet claiming to speak for the obscure god he followed. He’d come to the army when it had been camped outside the citadel of Orsmon, claiming the siege offended against his god. Julana had suspected he had been sent by Petran, the king who ruled from Orsmon, to disrupt the camp and had him run off. That was when she’d learned there were members of her army who listened to his rantings. Several had come to her attention when they’d been foolish enough to speak openly against the order. Then, he’d been an unshaved vagabond of a man in a filthy, ragged cloak. Now, Gorm stood, a sleek and cultivated-looking creature, clearly comfortable to be next to the king.

The king sat silent as the stones in floor through this absurd statement, but now he spoke. “Julana, you have heard the charges, and you have seen he who accuses you. How do you answer these charges?”

“Majesty, I say again these charges are false! You know better than anyone that I have served you faithfully all these years. Was I not the first to rally to you, to support you when you chose to rise against the rule of your fool of a half-brother? How can you believe such mad charges?”

Gorm leaned close to the king’s head, and Julana saw Zerus lean towards the priest.

“You see, Majesty, it is as I told you! She will lie, even when the truth of her actions is presented to her! She still hopes to use you as a puppet to seize the kingdom for herself! She would supplant you on the throne, using the power of the army she commands to make herself ruler of this kingdom.”

“Majesty, no! This is madness! I have never….”

“Silence!”

The shout, nearly a scream, from Zerus’ lips stunned Julana more than any blow could have. The king focused on her, and she saw nothing but hatred in the eyes of the man she had served. He leaned forward in his throne, and there no friendship, or even respect, in his voice.

“Do no lie to me, woman! You command the army, and I have long suspected my army respects not their liege lord, but you. But I will not be overthrown as my half-brother was! No. With good Gorum’s advice, I have seen through your treachery, and I will put an end to it, now!

The king stopped, and drew a breath as he leaned back. When he spoke again, there was no anger in his voice. No, he was a man saying something he had already decided long ago.

“As lord of this realm, I find Julana, daughter of Kerman, guilty of treason to the kingdom and to your sworn liege lord. You are hereby stripped of command, and as these charges are punishable by death, I so order your execution. But because of your service to this crown and kingdom, I will not condemn you to the humiliation of the block or the rope. I hereby order that your soul be stripped from your body by the court mage, and imprisoned within the magical blade you have so long carried. Your body shall be burned at the stake so there is no chance of your soul returning to it. This will also serve as a warning: no one will take this kingdom, nor any part of it, under their power. I also declare that, from this day forth, any woman who learns the arts of war, and anyone who teaches them those skills, shall be put to death! I, Zerus, king, do so decree it.”

#

Julana had dealt with Castros, the court mage, many times, but she’d never once been to his workshop. Her imagination had supplied several fanciful locations for the old man’s work space, but the building she now approached looked more like an old stable than anything else. It even possessed a pair of high, broad doors that stood folded back against its rough stone walls. Inside, lite by high-set windows, she found a broad, flagged floor dotted with benches and a forge stood against the far wall. Above it all rose a high timber-framed roof. Her escorts stopped her in the middle of that empty space.

One of the Guards moved off, returning, almost dragging, the old mage through a side door. Like the soldiers in the throne room, Castros wouldn’t look her in the eye as he approached. He addressed the man who’d brought him in a voice loud enough for his fellows to hear.

“If you want me to do magic, especially the type the king demands, you’d do well to stay back. The lot of you, go stand by the wall so I can do what needs doing.”

As they moved away, Julana tensed, ready to run for the open door. Castros raised his hand and her limbs froze. The mage came to stand in front of her, and for the first time, looked her in the eye. Those old eyes filled with tears as he did, and in a low whisper, he spoke to her.

“I am so sorry, my old friend. Even I did not know how mad the king had decided act against you until this morning. I do not want to do this! I know you are an honorable person…but that foul creature Gorm has my granddaughter! The things he threatens to do to her, a child of only ten summers… So I must do this, to save her, and in the hope I can persuade the king to abandon the folly of following such a creature as Gorm!”

Julana tried, and found she could still speak. “Castros, I never knew Gorm was in the palace! How did that he come to be here, to have the king’s ear?”

“I don’t know. I’ve heard some of the troops who took to listening to him spread his mad ideas to others. Some say he gained the ear of one of the king’s guards, and used that to gain the in king’s attention. All I know is that now he stands at the king’s right hand, and anyone who speaks against him is either banished from the palace, or put to death.” Castros stopped, shook his head, and continued almost as if speaking to himself. “I always suspected the king harbored a deep jealousy towards you, that he feared being deposed as he had the previous king. But this…this I never foresaw.”

Footsteps behind her, and the suddenly rigid stance of the Guard troopers, told her that the king had entered the building. Castros stepped back, bowing as he did so, and the king came into view. He had put aside his grand crown, and stood bare-headed before her, holding Cleaver, the magical sword she had carried through hundreds of battles. He ran his eyes over her, a cold sneer fixed on his face.

“So, oh mighty general, how does it feel to be brought to justice at last? To see your plots brought to light?”

“Majesty, I tell you again, I have no designs on your throne! Your mind has been poisoned by that vagabond priest. I swear, on my honor and my life, that I have no desire to rule this kingdom!”

A cold, soft chuckle came from behind her, and Gorm moved into view. “See, Majesty, she still lies, even at the hour of her death! Listen not to her, Majesty, for she will say anything to save her miserable life in hopes of supplanting you on the throne.”

“You speak the truth, Gorm. She would plant the idea that she, or any other woman, is as good as I or any man. That idea must die, today! Here, mage, is the sword you forged for her. I command you to place her soul within it.” The king stopped and a smile spreading across his face. “But I think, mage you should command it to transform one final time before you do so. A traitor does not deserve to be imprisoned in such a magnificent weapon.”

The king held out the sword, and Castros took it with unconcealed reluctance. He held the weapon high, and in a commanding voice, addressed it.

“Cleaver, sword of Julana, general of the armies, I Castros, your maker, command you to respond.”

The space echoed with the voice Julana had heard in her mind as she’d wielded Cleaver.

“I hear and obey, my maker! What bid you me to do?”

“Transform, my creation, into an honor blade, and remain in that shape until another may come to command you otherwise.”

“I hear, my maker, and I obey!”

Even as the voice echoed off the walls, the sword seemed to twist, shrink, and with it’s sheath, assume the shape of that least of all weapons a soldier carried, the blade of honor, intended to take life when wounds meant life could not continue. The change complete, Castros stepped close to Julana and laid the blade upon the floor before her, then he addressed Zerus and Gorm.

“Majesty, sir priest, please stand by the guards so you may be safe when I cast the spell.”

The king moved to step away, but not Gorm. He moved closer the mage, leaning in speak to him. “Remember, mage, my followers hold your granddaughter. You would not wish for them to take their vengeance for the sin of this creature on her, would you?” The old mage glared at the priest, then lowered his eyes and shook his head without speaking. “Good. Now, I have consulted with our experts in magic, and they have contrived the curse to bind this woman’s soul to your blade.” He produced a small sealed scroll from inside his robe and handed it over.

Castros broke the seal and scanned the parchment, his eyes opening wider as he read. He raised his eyes and looked directly at Gorm. “I know not who you consulted for this spell, but they have a deep grasp of dark magic. You should be careful in your dealings with them, for a person who could conceive of such a curse would not hesitate to kill you or anyone else.”

Gorm chuckled again, and Julana knew he’d no need to consult a mage to draft the curse that so shocked Castros…no, he’d formulated it himself. Is that how he drew the king under his influence, by magic? If that’s the case….

Julana had no chance to finish the thought. Gorm took two surprisingly long stride to take up a place beside the king. The moment he stopped, Castros raised his hands and spoke in a voice that filled the space like a thunderstorm.

God and spirits and all things magical.

I call you to my bidding!

Take from this body,

the soul that gives it consciousness and life.

Julana went from staring at the mage to seeing her own body slump forward as if she were floating above the scene. She felt no pain, just a disorienting, disembodied feeling of looking down upon the folly of humanity. Then Castros began speaking again, and the pain came.

I Castros command the soul of Julana, daughter of Kerman,

To join with this object

Cleaver, sword of my making!

I join you with this blade,

until the day comes,

when a woman of your blood may rise,

and with this blade,

frees a kingdom from a tyrant.

Julana felt as if her body were being immersed in molten metal. She tried to scream, but found no voice to scream with. Then the heat faded, leaving a complete loss of all senses as if she floated in an all-encompassing void.

Then, like a hint of a breeze, Julana felt a presence. She heard, as if someone were whispering inside her head, the voice of the sword’s demon.

“I know you…you who once commanded me. How come you to be here?”

Julana had no sense of how to speak, to express herself, to do anything more than listen. The demon spoke again, addressing her as if she had voiced her fears.

“I can hear your thoughts, just as you can hear mine, Wielder. I ask you again: How came you here?”

Julana had no sense of anger in the demon’s question, just an honest curiosity. She tried to frame what had happened to her into a statement, but again the demon read her thoughts.

“So the Wielder was herself just an instrument, a tool to be used by someone else and cast aside when no longer needed? I pity you, human soul. I at least knew what I would become, and accepted the bargain gladly. You did not even see your own nature until this moment, nor comprehend your fate.”

Julana had known her sword’s ability to transform into any weapon she desired came from the demon trapped inside it, but had never known that a bargain had been struck with that creature. Now, she framed her thoughts into a question. “What is this bargain you speak of?”

After a moment of blankness, as if the demon could not believe what she’d said, it spoke again. “The mage never told you, did he? What I had demanded to serve him, to serve you? Oh, human child, you have been deceived at every turn. I served you because the mage granted me the soul of every person you killed with me. As they died, I drank their souls and grew strong on their fear, their pain, their regret. Did you never wonder at my eagerness when you drew me in battle? I knew every one of those battles would be a feast for me!”

Julana found herself stunned into silence by the revelation. Could it be true? Had every warrior she’d ever vanquished become nothing more than fodder for a demon? And if it were true, what stain did her own soul bear for being part of such a thing? The voice addressed her again, not the voice of the demon ready for battle, or the servant waiting for command, but the voice of pity.

“Wielder, worry not. You struck down those who opposed you out of loyalty and duty, which brings no stain to your soul.”

“But how can you be so sure? Won’t my gods hold me as guilty as if I knew what would happen to those people’s souls?”

Julana had never heard the demon laugh, but she did now, and wished she’d never heard that cold, heartless sound. “Mortal child, if the human soul were to bear the weight of the sins it had committed without thought, Hell would be full and Heaven empty. Humans trespass against their gods in every act, with no thought of wrong or right until they are forced to see their errors.”

Julana wanted to dismiss the demon’s statement, but as she thought about it, knew it to be true. She had done things in war that would be an abomination any other time, and felt no guilt for her actions. As she mused over the idea, she sensed a disturbance, like the way the air feels when someone had entered a dark room. Then she heard a voice she had no wish to hear, that of Gorm.

“So, woman, how do you like your prison? Do you enjoy the company? If not…good! This is where you will reside for eternity. I will see that no woman will ever dare to rise up against man. The king has already ordered the women you contaminated with your ideas rounded up. They, and anyone who dares speak for them, will die. All this will serve to wipe the stain of your perverted life from history. Now, suffer a life eternal, with nothing to keep you company but a demon!”

Then, the presence vanished, and the light less night enfolded her. Into that terrible silence, the demon’s voice came again.

“Do not despair, Wielder. You are free, prisoner only to the magic that binds you to the substance of this blade. If the curse be broken, if another woman of your blood wields us and frees a kingdom, you will be free.”

She wondered at the demon’s statement. “A woman of my blood? How can that happen? I have no children, how can one of my blood arise?”

“Blood is blood, Wielder. I can be commanded by any woman who shares your blood, no matter how far removed.”

“But why must it be a woman of my blood?”

“Remember you not, the day I was given to you?”

Like a vision, the moment came to her. Kneeling before Zerus to receive the dreadful weapon he had commissioned for her. Castros speaking of the bond between warrior and weapon. The final act, taking the naked blade in her hands, her surprise at how easily the edge had sliced open her calloused palms…

“Yes, Wielder, in that moment, I tasted your blood, and we were joined. I know the taste, the very essence, of your blood. Any woman who shares that blood can command me. So have patience, Wielder, and hope your gods know mercy. For if they do, you may yet escape this prison and know the afterlife.”

“But how long will it be? How long before someone of my family finds us? And how can I survive so long here, in this place of nothingness?”

“Wielder, will you trust me now as you trusted me on the battlefield? I have the power to make your soul sleep, to make the years pass as if in a dream. But to do this, you must trust me, for I cannot force you into the state of slumber. Will you place your trust in me now?”

It was a thin thread to hang her hopes upon, but Julana clung to it, hoping against hope the day would come when she could escape from her dark prison. “I will. Help me, faithful servant, to bide the time until I may be set free.”

“Human child, you have never lacked courage. Now, sleep. I will awake you when the time is right. Sleep, and hope for freedom.” As the demon spoke a song arose, made not of voices but pure sound. It washed over Julana and the sense of being trapped faded. Her soul seemed to float away, carried on that tide of sound to someplace far from her prison.

To cross the final frontier

“Doctor Sanchez….Doctor Sanchez, can you hear me?”

Why the hell is it that every public address system ever made produces that tinny, ready-to -squeal-in-feedback, ear-grating audio….how did they get all of them to sound like that?

I stop entering commands and key the mic.

“Yes, I hear you, but I’m busy. Do you think you could give me a few minutes?”

I hope the reply will buy some time, but no such luck.

“I’m afraid not, you have all the entrances to the control chamber sealed, and the safety systems on the ring are disabled. Could you please explain what you’re doing, and why you want to keep everyone else out of the room?”

I recognize the voice now. It’s Don Linster, the self-important twit who manages operations of the Superconducting Super Collider.

“Well, Don, I’m getting ready to make an experimental run, and if you can let me finish the coding, I’ll be able to start the run. Who knows, I might even get some science done…you know, the reason why we have all these neat toys.”

Linster might hold a PhD in particle physics, but I know he hasn’t done any research since he got his degree. I also know he hates to be reminded of that fact. Even with the crappy audio, I can hear the edge of irritation on his voice.

“Yes, Dr. Sanchez, I know what the SSC was built for. I also know that you haven’t submitted a proposal for time to do any runs. It is also very unusual for a researcher to make a data run without any assistance. So I’ll ask you again: What are you doing?”

Ah, fuck it. May as well tell them…it’s not like they can do anything at this point.

“Okay, Don, then I’m planning on gathering data to solve the problem we’ve been having with the most recent runs.”

“What do you mean, ‘solve’? We’ve been getting nothing but garbage out of the latest high-energy collisions. No clear particle tracks, and no definable cause for the lack of results. There’s some sort of problem with the sensor package or the data collection software. We’re going to have to take the ring down and run diagnostic tests on everything.”

I start keying in the command string I’d been working on. Even typing one-handed, I can get the software ready to run while I keep my moron of a boss busy.

“That’s where you’re wrong, Don. There’s nothing wrong with the sensor package, or with the data collection software. We’ve been getting data, we just didn’t recognize it.”

That caught him off-guard, because the pause is obvious. Probably asking some of the real scientists what I’m talking about. The speaker squawks again, but this time, the voice is different. It’s Amber Strong, my associate and one of the few physicists who might understand what I’ve found.

“Paul, what are you talking about? We’ve both been over that data, and all there is in the output is a cloud of random tracks. Nothing that makes any sense, nothing that even looks like it might relate to the sub-quantum particles we’ve been trying to find.”

“Hi Amber…yeah, well, neither of us knew what we were looking at, that’s why we couldn’t make any sense of the data. We weren’t seeing our results…well, we were, but we were also seeing the results of a bunch of other collisions as well.”

“What? How is that…”

“Amber, you remember what we were searching for? Evidence of the particles that make up what we think of as the basic quantum building blocks? Well, we found it! Our collisions were energetic enough to not only produce decay particles, they caused tiny openings in the quantum barrier!”

There was another pause, and I knew this time it wasn’t because some idiot couldn’t understand what I was talking about, but because a kindred mind was struggling to grasp the implication of what I’d just said. I go back to typing with both hands while I wait for a reply…just a few more lines. Give me the time, Amber, give me the time!

The speaker actually squeals this time, Amber now speaking far too close to the mic on her end. “Paul, that’s an interesting idea, but are you sure? Are you sure it’s not just a data collection error, or some sort of scrambled data set caused by a software error?”

I finish the line of code I’m typing in, leaving me only two more to enter before the program is ready to run. I grab the mic, wanting to share my discover with my colleague and also to keep anyone from interfering.

“Yes, I’m positive. I couldn’t understand it at first, but then one night I was looking at the data and I realized that what I was seeing were a series of identical tracks that are slightly out of phase, and that some of them were identical but arriving at the detector at slightly different times. What we saw was the mess that popped up on our display. Do you understand what I’m driving at, Amber?”

Another pause, and I attack the keyboard again. I’m reaching to hit “Return” to execute the program when Amber’s voice interrupts me.

“I understand what you think you saw, but why would the signals present like that? Why would they be out of phase…and why would they be arriving at our detector at a slightly different times?”

“Amber, you’re not a desk-riding fool like Don, think about it! On the quantum level, no two rings will be the same! Those subtle differences will cause a phase shift in the beam, and that shift will be reflected in the particles those other rings produced. As for the time difference…I ran a spectrum analysis and found that the signal’s the same, it’s just coming from a collider somewhere else in the world! There are at least a twenty other rings that I can find. Over half of them are right here, but the rest are scattered all over the world. A couple of them are located in the USSR, at least one is in China, and the rest of them are scattered all over Europe. Hell, one of them seems to have been built in Switzerland, if you can believe that!”

Amber was always quick on the uptake, and she caught the implications at once. “Yes! I see why you’re convinced of you conclusion. But how can you prove it? Is that why you want to make another data run?”

It’ll take at least ten minutes to charge up all the capacitor banks so I can fire the beam. And I need to keep them from over-riding the start sequence. Better keep her talking. I hit “Return”, and the screen displays the charge timer. It begins to count down, and I grab the mic for what I hope will be the final time.

“No, I’m not going to use this run to prove my theory, I’ve already done that! After I realized what I was seeing, I made another run, but I made a change to the software that controls the current to the ring magnets. I figured that if I could vary the strength of the current, I could cause the intensity of the beam to vary…in short, I could generate an old-fashioned AM signal. All I had to do was figure out what I wanted to modulate the beam with.”

The control computer flashed a message showing an attempt by an external source to access it. I type in the command to block the attempt and isolate the machine from outside input. Now, they’ll have to literally short out the capacitor banks to stop them from charging.

Amber cut in while I was stopped to type. “Yes, but you’d have to modulate it with something clearly artificial, something that couldn’t possibly be a random noise. Did you use your own voice?”

“I thought about it, but the collision only takes place for a few seconds, so how much could I say? And how could I be sure any other versions of me doing the same experiment wouldn’t think it was just more random noise? No, I had to use a signal that would be short, yet stand out. So I chose music…in my case, the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”

“Why do you say ‘the other versions of you’, Paul? You can’t know who’s running those experiments.”

“Know for sure…maybe not, but when I made the run, over a third of the signals I saw had picked the same four notes. Another third didn’t have a signal riding on the beam, which I’m guessing means those versions of me didn’t figure out what’s going on yet. But of the rest, I recognized every piece of music picked, from the opening guitar riff for “Johnny Be Good” to the bagpipe solo at the beginning of “Amazing Grace” I love. One or two that I knew would be a possible coincidence, but all of them? No, it’s another version of me out there in the multi-verse conducting the exact same experiment.”

Another warning blinked on the screen, this one indicating that the gate on the capacitor cage had been opened.

“By the way, Amber, I’m getting indications that someone’s in the capacitor cage. I don’t think you’re stupid enough to send someone in there, but you might want to remind Don that if those things are shorted, odds are that they’ll either catch fire…or they could just explode. Either way, whoever is in there is going to get hurt, maybe even killed.”

Silence, and I glance at the screen. The charge count-down is now under five minutes, and as I watch, the alarm on the capacitor cage goes out, indicating that the cage is closed again. No more chances that the run can be stopped now, barring someone breaking down the door and storming into the control room. The speaker comes to life, and Don’s annoyed voice is loud enough to set it squealing with feedback, rendering whatever he’d shouted into the mic unintelligible. He pauses, probably to take a breath so he can shout some more, but he doesn’t get the chance. Amber’s voice is the next out out of the speaker.

“Thanks, Paul. Harry Chin was in there, getting ready to try to short the bank out. Director Linster had ordered him to try, and I’ve asked Security to restrain the director in their office so he can’t put anyone else in danger. So….you said you had evidence that these other signals were from parallel universes. Good, but if that’s the case, why are you making another data run?”

It takes me a minute to finish geting my hand into the pressure suit, but Amber seems willing to wait, so I don’t rush. The less time she has to stop me, the better.

“Oh, I’m not going to make another data run, I’m going to test my theory in person.”

“Ummm, Paul you can’t test your theory…wait…you can’t be serious! Paul, if you do that, you’ll…die.

I’d been pulling on the helmet, and I gave ring seal a twist to engage it before check the face plate. Satisfied, I answer. “I know that, Amber. But it’s not like I’m losing a lot. Do you know why I’m willing to do this?”

“Paul, I can’t imagine why…”

“I’m willing to do it, Amber, because I have nothing. I’m three years from being forced int retirement, and I have nobody at hone, or anywhere else, to share my last years with. And that’s why I’m willing to try this. Because if there are other versions of me out there, at least one of them has to have found someone to love. So I’m going into the target chamber, and I’m going to put my head in target area, in hopes that in the instant between the time the collision opens the gateway and the time the radiation kills me, I’m hoping to experience something of those other lives. It might be just an instant, but if I can experience that happiness, if I can know, if only for a heartbeat, what it’s like to be loved…it’ll be worth it.”

There was silence again, and when Amber spoke again, I could hear her sobbing as she spoke. “Paul…I don’t know what to say. Don’t…you can’t think like that, you can’t think your life will be over once you’re retired. You’ve just made a discovery that will earn you a Nobel nomination, if not the prize itself! Don’t you want to be there to collect it, to make people like Don eat their words?”

I smile at the speaker, wishing Amber could see it. “You’re a sweet kid, Amber, but even if I did win the prize, what good will it do to an old man? No university is going to hire me, even with that sort of award behind my name? No, I sent out my preliminary paper this morning to “Physics Reports”, and I listed you as co-author. You’ve done more than anyone else here to help me with this, and you’re young enough to benefit from the boost a Nobel will give you. My data’s in your inbox. You’re smart enough to crunch it and draw up the underlying theories. So do it…and be happy. Goodbye.”

The charge timer is down to one minute. I close the visor, turn the oxygen tank on, and let myself into the airlock that opens into the accelerator ring and the test chamber. I know Amber, and I know she’ll try to stop me. I look at the entrance as I close the inner airlock door. The file cabinets I’d moved in front of it would slow them down long enough for the beam to fire, and for me to carry out my final experiment.

Would it work? I close the door. Work or not, it will be over soon.

A winter’s day

Kevin Smith drew in a breath of air so cold it burned his lungs and pivoted his hips, driving the shovel into the accumulation of powdery snow covering his back walk. The standing temperature hovered somewhere between ‘too damned cold’ and ‘freeze your balls off in an instant’, but he was glad the air was that cold. He’d been born in Carswell’s Corner, and knew that if the ‘Alberta Clippers’ that had moved through overnight hadn’t generated the snow, it would have been ‘heart attack’ snow. It took something approaching hurricane-force winds to cause that stuff to blow, but once it had landed, getting it to move took serious effort. Shoveling it was something anyone with sense dreaded. A scoop of that dense white crap the size of the ones Kevin was now slinging out of the way with ease could task even him.

Another scoop flew, and Kevin stopped to survey his progress. He was just over halfway down the walk, but the real task had yet to be addressed: digging out around the his car and his wife’s SUV, then clearing the short lane from the family parking space to the alley. He could see the alley beyond the vehicles, still unplowed and as free of tire tracks as if it where a country field.

The scraping rattle of a snowplow drew his attention. Could the city street department be coming to take care of the street out front, or even the alley? He focused on the sound, listened closer, and shook his head. No, the city was doing what it always did after a snow storm of any magnitude, it was plowing the streets on the ‘right side of the tracks’ first.

Carswell’s Corner had once been a hub of manufacturing. It had been founded as a place farmers all over southwestern Iowa could bring their harvests. Small manufactures followed, and those had grown to be large companies. All those goods, needed access to the rest of America, so one of the railroad had stretched out a tentacle of steel to proved that service. When the manufactures had gone bust in the Great Depression, the rail line had stayed, but the harvest wasn’t enough to keep it in town forever. Before Kevin was born, the railroad had abandoned the line. He still had memories of it from his childhood, but those memories were of rusted rails standing on rotting ties set in a weed-choked right-of-way. A scrape company had eventually bought the line, tearing it up and hauling away anything of value when Kevin was in junior high.On the East, or ‘right’ side of the old right-of-way was where the ‘leaders’ of the town lived. These were the oldest families in Carswell’s Corner.

Kevin dropped the shovel to the sidewalk and took another scoop as he reflected on how his town worked. What was left of downtown Carswell’s Corner was also located East of the old tracks, but the town’s few bars were located West of the former rail line. West of the tracks was also where the old manufactures had stood, and where the people who worked in those plants had dwelt. Their descendants still lived there, and like their ancestors, they too got the short end of the proverbial stick when it came to city services.

The city still owned the power lines that ran through town, and as surely as the Sun would rise in the morning, after one of the thunderstorms that routinely rolled across town, the first places to get power restored would be East of the tracks. Streets on the ‘right’ side of town were repaired and resurfaced far more regularly than those on the other side too. Everyone living West of the tracks complained about these and a thousand other slights done to them, but to little effect. The town council was voted in ‘at large’, with no real requirement that they represent a particular part of town. So, with the generous backing of the ‘leading families’, the city council served as a rubber stamp to whatever those influential people wanted.

Kevin stopped again as the rattling scrape of the snow plow grew in volume. Turning, he saw the orange hazard lights of a plow strobing off the snow-covered limbs of the trees across the street from his house, then caught a glimpse of the plow itself as it rumbled past.

“About fuckin’ time you assholes showed up!” Kevin muttered as he turned back to his own snow removal. The big plows like the one that had just passed couldn’t navigate the narrow allies so common in his neighborhood, so he’d still be fighting his way through any drifts that might have formed overnight. But at least once he got to the road, it should be just another slick, messy drive to work at the Big Box.

It took Kevin almost an hour to get all the shoveling done, and before he left, he poured himself a final mug of coffee in the hope that it would warm him after the frigid temperatures outside. Hannah, his wife, was up, and she moved to give him a peck on the cheek which he turned into a proper kiss by putting an arm around her waist. That moment of shared intimacy helped warm him more than any coffee ever would. When their lips parted, his wife asked the one question any practical inhabitant of the Midwest would ask on a day like today.

“You think that cars will start?”

“Yeah, it’s cold, but nothing special. Unless your Jeep’s been having trouble turning over, it should start fine.”

“No, it’s been starting without any problems, I was just worried about your car.”

Kevin drove the family ‘hand-me-down’ car, an old four-door sedan that had hauled his family everywhere. With the boys away at college, and their daughter in the Army, there was no need for such a large car. His wife, who worked at the state college the next town over, had a real need for something that could handle winter roads. That’s why she had the newer Jeep while he made do with a car that had seen better days.

“Oh, I’m not worried about that old monster! I think the air would have to freeze solid before that thing refused to start.”

His wife cocked her head to one side as she looked at him, a clear indication that she wasn’t as confident as he was, but said nothing. He smiled at her, gave her a quick kiss on the lips, and letting her go, stepped back.

“We both need to get around, so I better get my lunch packed and get on my way.”

Kevin moved to the fridge, pulled out the covered plastic dish of leftover rigatoni from the night before, and retrieved his lunch cooler. A fork from the kitchen drawer and a cooled block from the big upright freezer in the corner finished joined the dish, completing his preparations to leave. Hannah was busy spreading butter on her toast, so Kevin didn’t interrupt her.

“See you tonight.”

“Yeah, you too. Take care.”
“This from the woman who’s got twenty miles of two-lane roads to drive! You be careful…love you.”

“Love you too.”

After the time spent in the house, the air seemed even colder than it had while Kevin had been shoveling. In typical fashion, the lock on the car door was stiff, and it was a struggle to get the key to turn. The interior of the car, which had soaked in the chill from the air around it all night long, felt even worse. He shoved the key into the ignition, stepped down hard on the gas peddle, and muttered his usual prayer before trying the car on a day like today.

“God, please let this pile of junk start.”

The starter groaned, then began to spin the engine over. There was a loud ‘chug’ as the engine tried to start, another period of relative silence as the starter cranked away, then the engine coughed, sputtered, and began firing regularly. Kevin gave the steering wheel an affectionate pat. “Thanks, old son. I should have known I could count on you.” he muttered to the car, happy to have it respond when he needed it to.

After letting the engine warm up enough to settle into a steady idle, Kevin flipped on the headlights and slipped the car into reverse. The headlights showed no tracks beyond a few animal tracks, probably made by one of th feral cats that haunted the neighborhood. He eased the car into drive and turned the defroster on. He knew the air it blew would be just as cold as the air outside, but it would serve to keep the air near the front windshield moving and (hopefully) keep the moisture from his own fogging the view too badly.

Near the end of the alley, Kevin saw the only sign that another human was up and about in the pre-dawn darkness: a pair of broad tire tracks leading out of Bill Carstairs’ garage. Bill liked to describe himself as a ‘redneck’ because he drove his huge pickup with dual rear wheels. He too worked at the college, but his job in the ground department meant he was probably already hard at work clearing sidewalks and parking lots for the students. It was a good thing he’d already left, because while the city plows had scraped the snow off the road, that snow had been left behind in a broad mound across the entrance to the alley. Even with Bill’s passage, Kevin had to speed up as he exited the alley to be sure he didn’t get stuck.

The road was worse than Kevin had imagined it would be. The new snow had mostly been moved off the pavement, but the slush that had been on the road since shortly after the first snowfall was still there. Unfortunately, the sub-zero temperatures had frozen it solid, and all the snowplow had done was to smooth off the rough surface it should have had. Kevin hit the first patch, and found the car slipping and attempting to fishtail.

“Steady, old son, steady. Don’t go trying to pass yourself.” Kevin whispered as he got the car under control. A light coming up a side street ahead brought his attention back to the world outside. As he watched, a car came to a ‘rolling’ stop at the stop sign, then pulled out onto the road in front of him going the same way.

Well, it tried to pull out. Whoever was driving it tried to accelerate too quickly, hit a slick spot, and as Kevin watched, the car executed a quick, complete spin before slamming into the snow berm along the roadside.

“Holy shit!” Kevin swore as he slowed down to come to a stop beside the car. He saw that both front wheels had been lifted as the snow had compacted under the front bumper, leaving neither of them in contact with the pavement. As he watched, the visible wheel spun, and he heard the engine gun as the driver tried to back out of his predicament. Kevin put on his emergency flashers and climbed out of his car to see if he could help.

Coming around his car, Kevin got his first really good look at the trapped vehicle. It was an Audi, an A6 no less, and either a new one, or nearly so. What the hell is a car like that doing around here? He wondered as he approached the drivers side window. It came down, and Kevin was surprised to recognize the man behind the wheel. It was Nick Patterson, oldest son of the Patterson family and his former high school classmate. The Patterson’s were as close to a founding family a town like Carswell’s Corner could have, and they had the money to prove it. Nick had also had the attitude to prove it. He’d been one of the ‘jock’ crowd that made sure everyone knew they ruled the school, and Kevin had gotten on his bad side more than once. Now, though, Nick aimed his friendliest smile at Kevin.

“Kevin Smith, is that you? Man, I’m glad to see a familiar face! Can you give me hand? I hit a slick spot and the car got away from me. I need to get going…got places I’ve got to go…”

Maybe Nick wasn’t as dense as Kevin had believed him to be, because he slowly stopped talking as he saw Kevin’s face split into a grin that had nothing to do with friendship. Kevin pulled his cellphone out, opened it, and dialed. Nick might have been smart enough to know Kevin wasn’t going to respond a friendly approach, but he wasn’t smart enough to keep his mouth shut.

“Umm, Kevin, who you calling? I just need someone to get out in front of my car and give it a shove, help me get it out of this snow.”

“Well, Nick, I’m calling for some help. I’m calling the police to report that I saw a man driving recklessly run his car into a snow bank. You can be sure they’ll come down here and give you all the help you need. I mean we can’t have a car obstructing traffic or the snow plows if they decide to come back now, can we?”

“Hey, wait a minute! I wasn’t driving recklessly, I just…”

“Nick, you need to learn to shut you mouth. I saw everything you did from two blocks down. Hell, you didn’t even stop for the stop sign, then you come barreling out of a side street like you were racing…by the way, why were you coming out of a side street, in this part of town, at this time of the morning?”

“I’s none of your business, but I was just down here to see an old friend!”

Kevin hadn’t tapped the phone yet to make the call, but he did now as he addressed his old nemesis. “Yeah, Nick, and who are you going to see at 4:30 in the morning?” A thought occurred to Kevin. “Wait….Lori Leleki still lives down here, doesn’t she? Are you still hitting that? Shit, I heard you and the rest of the football team passed her around like a sex toy. I can’t imagine your wife’s going to be happy to find out you’re still screwing the biggest slut in Carswell’s Corner. Is that why you don’t want me to call the cops?”

Nick wasn’t smiling now. His face had first gone pale, then blotched an unhealthy reddish purple. Now he screamed his anger at Kevin. “Don’t you even think about calling the cops, you little son of a bitch! I’ll bury you, you hear me, I will bury you!”

Kevin put his phone to his ear, heard someone on the other end, and spoke to them. “Yes, officer, I’d like to report a traffic accident I witnessed. A driver ran a stop sign, lost control of his car trying to make a turn, and he’s now stuck alongside the road.”

“Where are you located at, sir?”

“Let me see…I’m located on the 1200 block of North Sixth, north side of the road, about two houses down from the corner of Sixth and Oak. Can you tell whomever you send to hurry, the driver is threatening me for stopping to report that accident and I’m afraid he might decide to follow through on those threats.”

“Sir, if you could get in your car and lock the doors, a car should be there shortly. Don’t get into a confrontation if you can avoid it.”

Nick, who had been listening to the exchange, decided that this was the perfect moment to prove his stupidity. “I told you, damn it, not to call the fucking cops! I’m going to get out of this car and beat the shit out of you!”

“Did you hear that officer? I’ll get in my car now, but could you tell the officer responding that this guy is acting like he’s high or something…seriously, this guy is acting like he’s on PCP or something.”

“I heard it, sir, and I recorded it too. Now, get in your car, one of our officers should be there in less than a minute.”

“Thanks, and tell the responding officer I’m be the person in the car with the emergency flashers on. I don’t want to be confused with the really dangerous person, after all.”

“Yes sir, and thanks for being a responsible citizen.”

Kevin fought to keep from laughing as he replied. “No problem, sir, no problem at all. I’m just glad I could help put someone truly dangerous behind bars.”

Interests

“…and the next order of business is the special financial district agreement with Big Box.”

That caught my attention. I scanned the agenda for the meeting again, just to make sure my memory was right. I was…there was no mention of the agreement in it.

“Excuse me, but why is this agreement even being discussed? There’s no mention of it in the agenda.”

The city council secretary, who had opened his mouth to read whatever was in front of him now directed his attention at me.

“The item is on the agenda. It is clearly listed as…”

“But is isn’t on the agenda. I have a copy of the ‘official’ agenda, the agenda published in the town newspaper, the ‘Carswell’s Corner Gazette’. That is where the ‘official’ agenda is supposed to be published, at least that how I understand the city council’s open government rules.”

That seemed to catch the secretary off balance. “Well…we submitted the council meeting agenda to the paper. It’s not the city government’s fault that a clerical error occurred at the paper.”

“A ‘clerical error’? Is that the excuse the council will use to brush this under the rug? Besides, as I understand the rules, it makes no difference whether the paper gets the agenda right, only those items published in the paper can legally be voted on by…”

I didn’t get a chance to finish my sentence. The town mayor, who had tensed up at my first question, picked up his gavel and hammered the block in front of him hard enough that I could see it rattling around on the rostrum.

“You, sir, are out of order! The council meeting rules also clearly state that public comments are to be made at the beginning of the meeting, not in the middle of it. Now, this meeting will continue.”

“I’m sorry, your honor, but you can’t do that. This isn’t a ‘public comment’, it’s a citizen pointing out that the city council is about to violate it’s own rules! The council can not…”

The mayor’s facial color went from a bad indoor tan to something approaching a beet red as he hammered his gavel again. “I said you are out of order, sir! Now you will sit down, or I will order you removed from the council chambers! Is that clear?”

I stood my ground. “You can rule me purple with pink polka-dots, mayor, but you can’t just pretend that the council is not breaking it’s own rules. What’s the hurry? There’s no way a delay of two weeks, until the next council meeting, is going to cause Big Box to drop their plans to built a ‘super-center’…or is it that if the council votes on the agreement now, there’s no chance for anyone to express their opposition?”

“How dare you suggest that this council is engaging in an illegal act, sir, how dare you?” The mayor’s color was now approaching purple, and between that and the hoarse shout he delivered his reply in, I was wondering if he was might keel over from a stroke. But he didn’t. After taking a breath, he continued in something like a normal voice. “As the secretary has already said, the council is not responsible for clerical errors made by the newspaper. The agreement is on the official agenda, the one before each council member, and unless there are any objections from the members of the council…” he stopped and glared at the other members of the council. None of them was willing to meet that scowling visage, nor to speak up. Silence ruling, he continued. “…this council will vote on the agreement. Does any member wish to discuss the agreement?”

Another moment of silence, one or two of the members looking uncomfortable, but none of them were willing to object. The procedural niceties having been dealt with, the mayor continued.

“There being no discussion, and no objections from the council, I move that the agreement be put to a vote.”

“I object again! You can’t…”

One of the advantages of being a council member, or the mayor, was the public address system only picked up what they said. The mayor just spoke over me.

“Is there a second?”

Sam Reggis, a long-time council member and an old crony of the mayor, spoke as soon as the mayor had finished his sentence.

“Seconded, and I move for an immediate vote.”

“This is outrageous! The details of the agreement haven’t even been released to the public! How can this council, in good conscious, vote on an agreement that the citizens of this town haven’t had a chance to have their input on?”

Nobody on the council seemed to hear. Each one, in turn, voted in favor of the agreement. When the last puppet had raised their hand and indicated their acceptance, the mayor gaveled again, a smile on his face.

“The vote being unanimous in favor, the agreement is approved. The secretary will read the next order of business.”

And so the city council of Carswell’s Corner voted to give a multi-billion dollar corporation a tax break …and to spend taxpayer money to build a new road to service the new store…and to fully fund the extension of water and sewer lines to the new business at the taxpayer’s expense. No one was really surprised, any more than they were surprised to learn that the company that had sold the land to Big Box for the store was the same company that had sold the school district the land for the new grade school. It was just business-as-usual in Carswell’s Corner.