Bonus Short Story: Lake Morton

The town of Morton, Indiana wasn’t backwoods hickville, but it wasn’t a paradise either. It didn’t have the population of places like Chicago or Indianapolis, or even their high-earning businesses or high-priced residences. It did however, have lake Morton; a four-and-a-half mile wide, twelve mile long, natural lake with all manner of beach houses and cottages along it. These weren’t the typical million-dollar beach-homes, but rather modest, meager places of refuge from the greater part of the world.

In winter, Lake Morton would freeze over deep enough to attract the ice fisherman, skaters, and cold-lovers alike. Conversely, summer brought the regular fisherman, boating enthusiasts, and more than a few getaway seekers that only wished to hide from the work-a-day world they came from.

Nowhere in the town profited more from this duality of attraction than downtown Morton. In the decades since post-World War II growth saw America’s great boons of all types, Morton had grown from a literal one-horse town to a full-functioning modern city with all the usual amenities. Where once there had been nothing more than plains, a few forests, and Lake Morton, now there were supermarkets, suburbs, and even a strip-mall or two. None of those things would’ve been possible if not for that duality; the lake brought the people, the people brought their money, and others followed.

The people of Morton were no different than the town itself, most of modest means that had somehow found a living working the pair of farms, the handful of businesses, or lake-related jobs seasonally and year-round. Some people became city officials, police or firefighters, or took jobs in the comparably small medical field, but it was important to their heritage that each of them care for the lake that had brought them so much fortune.

Enter a company– a small corporation, in fact– that wished to procure a plot of land on the outskirts of town. The CEO, a man in his mid-thirties, pressed and dressed, personally met with the municipal government officials to ensure the transition went smoothly. He wasn’t much different than any of the other types that found refuge on Lake Morton’s beaches. Sure, he had a sort of smart way about him that nearly exuded condescension, but so did most like him. None of them though, he included, ever made those they spoke to feel outwardly offended. The people in Morton just took them as “that kind” of folk.

So of course when the CEO offered them massive sums for the small plot of land, overvalued as a charitable donation, they took it– especially with the promise of more and more jobs to come. No-one was quite sure what the company did, but they knew it promised more stimulation and stability to the local economy. The paper-work was signed, ground was broken, and the small, five-story corporate office was built in less than a month.

Truthfully, it was a kind of an eye-sore on the well-known horizon of low shop-fronts and trees, with only their one, tall hospital to rise above them. Even so, the people couldn’t help but welcome the corporation with open arms. The CEO had promised wealth, more neighbors, and with them, the expansion of Morton’s downtown district and economy. It was a sort of kindness the CEO had granted them, and if Morton’s people were anything, it was grateful for their “blessings.”

The first whispers of something wrong came from fringe-folk learning about the company’s work. It was called Dump-Corp, a waste-management purveyor rented out by large cities when their own, governmental waste-management couldn’t handle their trash-loads. The regular people thought the fringe-folk were out of their minds to be suspicious. Everyone needed to rid themselves of trash, and it wasn’t difficult to understand the need for a company to help.

And it wasn’t as if they were dumping garbage in Morton. The town was, and always had been, clean and well cared for. It was their civic duty, civic-pride even, to keep Morton the getaway-refuge it had always been. Unfortunately, all the goodwill in the world couldn’t change the trucks that started appearing on the highways just outside town. It wasn’t long before the fringe-folk gave the rest a big “told ‘ya so.”

Still, the trucks didn’t mean anything, and in fact the CEO made a very public presentation to keep the people calm, tell them everything was alright, and that those trucks were just driving a caravan of trash to a land-fill a few towns over. That seemed to work for most people, but the fringe-folk weren’t satisfied. They kept their eyes, ears, noses too, sharp for danger or treachery.

The first signs– or rather, scents– of something seriously wrong came the summer after Dump-Corp’s office opened. There was an unusual influx of people that summer, drawn by the advertising campaign the city could now afford. All the same, that influx only helped to spread later rumors.

It was with a swift wind that kicked up from the South-East that people finally began to see the error of their ways. The scent of trash was so foul it burned their nostrils, made more than a few people retch from bile spurred from their guts.

It was quickly discovered the “land-fill” a few towns over was actually only a few miles away– where county and city-lines converged in a kind of dead zone for several towns. Morton was one of them. That time of the summer, those southern winds always seemed to kick up and through that dead-zone.

But who could’ve known that? Even that CEO couldn’t have. No-one could have anticipated that a freak occurrence of nature that most took for granted would shift the winds at precisely the wrong time– and in precisely the worst direction– to rocket the stench of countless people’s refuse over the natural lake and the town it served.

The next few events happened almost so fast there was no time between to realize it. Someone had left a warning on a travel-review website for Morton about the stench. Then others added their comments and warnings. People pulled their reservations left and right, and in less than a week, Morton’s summer was ruined. Without their main source of income the people panicked– both residents and government officials.

Once more the CEO came to the rescue though, only everyone was so busy being scared they didn’t realize the grand plan he had in the works. When someone on the city-council signed a new agreement with the company, the others followed without thinking or reading it. Half weren’t even sure what had been promised to them, the other half didn’t care to know, they only cared to fix the town. With a final, billowy stench, Lake Morton was simultaneously drained and filled with trash.

Most headed for the hills, took the losses on their once well-valued homes just to escape the stench. The rest shook their heads and plugged their noses and tried to trudge on through life despite the muck. Together, they knew the truth; that the lake had always provided for them. Even now, it is adulterated form, it does just that.

In less than a year, the people of Morton learned not only the value of kindness, but also prudence. They lost their way in an odorous panic that escaped no-one, and when they weren’t sure what to do, they closed their eyes and made a leap of faith– right into a corporate mound of trash.

Bonus Poem: Named Her…

Mythos of war,
cries out for more,
with a viral pathogen,
that afflicts all that’s human.

It is not of this earth,
but sours its worth,
a genocidal concoction,
the worst man-made toxin.

There are but a few,
to save me and you,
but brow-beaten, betrayed,
their world’s been frayed.

With one foot in the grave,
they fight to save,
even hatred’s ferocity,
from unthinkable atrocity.

Fight for what’s right,
but know now their plight,
for we’ve no hope unless,
upon them freedom we bless.

It is a weapon,
insidious to threaten,
the curious nature,
of our genetic paper.

A drop of blood,
with science-like mud,
a dash of forethought,
and by death you are caught.

You need not inject it,
nor take a hot hit,
just breathe in,
or absorb through skin,

And you’ll be brought down.
Your genetics a clown.
For mad-men hath built her,
named her Syphon Filter.

Short Story: Eternal Optimists

I’m sure you’ve heard of the Paris Incident by now. Who hasn’t? It was the sole trigger to the single greatest atrocity in modern history– and I speak as a German whom hasn’t forgotten her history. The Corps may have purged the bombings from the light ‘net and the media archives, but where I’m from, we still live with it. Everyday.

I wake up to a half-leveled horizon outside my window. There’s always frost there when the sun comes up. It doesn’t help that we have no heat in the building. Unless you count barrels of fire as heating. I don’t. After I eat whatever I’ve scrounged up or gathered from the air-drops by neighboring rebels or surviving humanitarian organizations, I head downstairs to the book store I live above.

Funny how some things never quite go out of style. For decades there were people who said that print media was dead. E-readers and web-books were supposed to make the written word obsolete. I can only laugh at the thought– one of few that elicits such emotion nowadays. Those people never realized you couldn’t use e-readers without electricity, or god forbid, the internet.

I miss the light ‘net. All we get around here’s the dark-net, and that’s used for encrypted communications between rebel cells. We simply can’t risk linking the light-net to any of the people here. The few that even have access are lucky. Most of them rigged scavenged-solar cells to old, power-hungry laptops provided by various cells around the continent. Most are grateful, but it makes me feel like we’re a charity case.

Imagine that, all of Berlin, once a powerful seat of progress in a technologically-minded country like Germany, groveling for scraps and hand-outs. There are probably only a few thousand of us left now. The corp-bombings saw to that. When Lemaire fell, and Paris burst into flames, London and Berlin were next in line. There were other places too, but most were small– too small to notice when they were wiped out completely.

But as a haven of technology and free-thought, instilled since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we had the greatest concentration of Augs– that is to say Cybernetic or bionically augmented humans. Whoever wasn’t directly an Aug, was an “Aug-sympathizer.” Everyone knew that, including the corps. So when the proverbial sheisse hit the fan, everyone was splattered with it. When I say that, what I mean is; after two weeks of battling on the streets in major cities around the globe, the offended players banded together to bomb the rest of us back to the stone age. Literally.

Berlin got the worst of it. If there’s any solace to be take from our fate, it’s that we managed to wound the corps’ bottom lines enough to push them out of Germany altogether. We’d taken over most of their buildings, destroyed the rest, cut down those whom sided against us in the fighting. Most were slayed by the waves of bodies that filed through the burning streets.

We Germans have a way of being ruthless to a point of barbarism at times– not from a lack of humanity, quite the opposite in fact. We care so deeply and passionately about things that our natural ambitiousness makes us too strong-headed and hardhearted at the worst of times. Maybe if we weren’t so consumed by our ambitions then, we’d have stopped to look around at what was happening, or sensed what was about to.

Maybe if we weren’t so enamored with listening to our hearts we’d have heard the Raptor-cries. Maybe even, if we hadn’t been so loving of our augged brothers and sisters– whether literal or figurative– we’d have been righteously hardhearted enough to save ourselves.

But we weren’t. We were eternally the optimists. The same people whom, even generations later, were socially guilt-ridden for Hitler’s actions and determined to make up for it. Each of us felt the shame of World War II, promised not to repeat the mistakes that led to it. Somehow, we still let the corps take charge, and until they began their Nazi-esque campaign of extermination against the Augs, we supported them.

That was the issue though. It always has been for us. We let the evil into our hearts with open arms, ever-believing in the good of Humanity. Instead, we’re soon shown to have been manipulated, our love used against us and those that would otherwise truly deserve it.

The first bombs that fell over Europe targeted three, initial cities; Paris, where it all began; London, where the revolution looked to spread most violently, and Berlin, where the Augs that wouldn’t or couldn’t fight were likely to find sanctuary.

Raptors screamed over Europe with their hard-angled noses spitting chain-gun fire and their rounded bellies splitting to unleash hell. In minutes, any hope for a life in Berlin– for Aug or otherwise– was exterminated, burned to dust in the fires of evil. Before the sun rose the next morning, tens of thousands were dead or dying. Those not killed or critically wounded– and even then some– were distraught, chaotically confused. They tried to save what few they could. Everywhere you went it was like standing in a crowded metro whose noise and movements made you want to cower and weep. Many did. A few couldn’t take it, led themselves out.

I was eighteen when the bombs fell, just into university. I was just old enough to drink, and just young enough to feel the last of my innocence dissected from my heart. It was like I’d been given bypass surgery without anesthetic. The sharpness of grief in my chest was omnipresent in those days, punctuated by the stabbing sounds of rubble as we combed for survivors and dead alike. Most found were the latter.

I remember the worst of it, not because of the grisly scene, but because it was the first time I felt hatred. Hatred is something humans speak of out of anger most times. It is often despair masked by the ego to keep one’s image intact. This was different. This was real, pure hatred; a feeling that filled my mouth with a wetness as though I were goring the throat of a foe with my teeth. From there, it infected my being with a sharpened determination, a strength I have not lost since. It has kept my muscles taught when they should have faltered in fear, steadied my hands when they would have trembled with terror.

I saw a young girl curled in her bed. We’d dug a path to her grave from beneath the collapsed upper-floor of her apartment building. Everything around us was charred black. We were forced to don respirators from the dust and stink of days old, immolated flesh. Then I saw her; curled in her bed as if sleeping peacefully, but where her skin should be was the marred, blackened flesh of a war-crime. She was like one of those Pompeiian victims, forever frozen in her death-pose.

I am a healer, a medic, a surgeon and I feel no shame in admitting I have a strong stomach. I have seen things that could bring the strongest men and women to tears and pained retching. Most of the time, I’m forced to power through them for the sake of the victims– my patients– and I do so. This was so awful I stumbled away in tears and vomited all the grief that I’d held back since the attacks.

Every morning I wake up she occupies my thoughts. Even as I go down through the bookstore, and out into street I think of how she was stolen from this world. She could have been my daughter had I not been more careful. At that, she could have been me if the bombs had been dropped only a few years further beyond than that.

So I walk along the street, largely clear of its debris, and watch the city around me with her in mind. It still has the look of the blitzkrieg turning in on itself. Full, corporate towers are replaced by mounds of rubble, steel and concrete land-fills. Nature has done its best to reclaim the rest while we keep it enough at bay to carry on in our missions.

To that end, my part is simple; keep people alive. I do it for her. Most that come to my clinic down the street are badly injured, either from work-accidents, refugee status, or as acting rebels for the cause. Germany is not without its remaining corporate outposts, but even they steer clear of Berlin. I guess it’s to pick their battles. They already took our government away, any representation or sympathy therein gone with it. Maybe they let us live just to remind the world that, while there may be a place for Augs to hide, it is still due to their good graces.

All the same, every morning I rise for her. The hatred of her image never falters or fails to arouse my determination. So I leave, patch up those whom may one day lead us from darkness and into light. While Lemaire’s death may have caused everything, an unwitting catalyst to a global revolution, it was us that let it happen– the survivors. Whether from our own convictions, or a greater cause, we can not allow ourselves to fall again. At least for us Germans, we’re eternally optimists, believing in a better world with heads even stronger than our unshakable hearts, and finally working toward it.

Bonus Short Story: The Legend

The curved fingers of his left hand formed quarter-notes in andante while his right hand thrummed eighth-note cut-time against it. Ebony and ivory gleamed between shadows thrown from the spotlight in the rafters. His eyes were closed while he crooned a painful symphony of blues-like harmonies. They rumbled from his throat to tell a story of love won, lost, emptiness without it, and finally the love’s return. All the while, the empty opera hall filled with a phantom audience to his side behind his closed eyes.

The sound men readied their mix while their board-lights spiked red. Someone cut the gain on a mic and the mix was perfect. The Legend played on, oblivious to the technical orchestrations. He’d become too enamored with the crowd streaming in through the doors in his mind. His vocals were crisp, clear, perfectly overlaid beneath the piano that accompanied it. Breaks in verses were accented with hard dynamics that would bring even the hardest of heart to tears.

The sound crew gathered near the curtain to watch The Legend, lost in his world. Across the hall, the lighting crew gathered on a cat-walk. They hung in half-hunches on the railing or else dangled their feet through it, heads and eyes fixed as they watched along either side of spot-lights.

As if with the fade of one falling into sleep, the stage-lights dimmed. The lighting guys thought to get up but something held them in place. The Legend launched into the first chorus, his throat rumbling and crooning the highest notes as even his younger-self could have never done. The phantoms suddenly appeared below. Silhouette people streamed in from the doors, shuffled to their seats; a faceless audience that didn’t exist.

The crews wished to look to one another, express some disbelief, but the Legend had captivated them. Instead, they merely listened, mouths half-open and drying against open air.

The Legend’s gray hair began to darken to its youthful chestnut. His wrinkled face tightened, its smatter of salt-and-pepper five-o’-clock shadow darkened too. He unripened from the old, grizzled troubadour to the young, boyish song-poet he’d been. He almost shriveled in place from the change. The room merely watched in awe.

He started the first verse over inexplicably, crooned with less gravel, though its presence was undeniable. All the same, it was the least of the crowd’s focus– phantom or otherwise. The stage had darkened to a lone spot-light across he and his piano. His rhythmic melody thrummed and sustained with ear-warming vibrations, filled the audiences’ hearts with a curious, sharp pain.

Beside him, the Legend felt his thoughts and memories project across the black curtains. The heat of the light dissipated and the spot-light died out.

He sang of love won: the projection shone like an eight-millimeter reel. It even shook and bucked with the same, hand-held framing and fast-motion movement of the era’s film quality. He stood before a woman on a platform, their unceremonious wedding officiated beneath a banner that said “Cinco De Mayo” in a dingy looking bar. They wore day-old street clothes, her hair golden as it cascaded down her shoulders with fatigue.

He sang of love lost: The projection jumped through time with the eight-note thrum as its beat. The two people aged a decade in half a phrase. Through the verse, his hair and face grew heavier, longer, her more angry, fierce. At the second half of the verse, he stood alone on a road, began to walk it toward a setting sun. The wandering continued over the rise and fall of more suns. The city he’d left turned to woods, plains, then more city until he hunched over a scotch in another bar.

A man approached from one side, a cigarette in his mouth, put a hand to the Legend’s shoulder to impose for a match. A short conversation took place. The Legend began sang of desolation, sadness. He and the other man took off in a truck. The sun gleamed off its dirty windshield while he stared off at the road, his mind elsewhere. The scenery turned colder, became filled with snow while canyons encompassed the truck. He gave a pained wince, his eyes telling of an obvious longing for the woman.

When he sang of emptiness, the cold truck turned to the cold innards of a darkened cabin. He and the other man were now beneath piles of blankets on chairs before a roaring fire. The man gave a few hacking coughs into his clenched fist. His body heaved. There was a hesitation in the young Legend before he rose from to help his comrade. The emptiness in the elder Legend’s voice apexed as his younger self stood before a filled grave, his face pale and body hunched against cold.

He muttered something beneath his breath, then turned away. The cold scenery wandered past again, the Legend ambling along snow-laden streets. He stumbled drunk most times. It was obvious in the sad droop of his eyes, but bleak grays and drab blacks suddenly began to recolor as the roads turned rural once more. The weather visibly warmed, his posture straightened. Trees budded with beauty that fanned out in stop motion across the road. It lined the edges of an asphalt horizon as the eight-millimeter film shook and bucked more than ever.

He wandered almost endlessly, aimless until he sang of love’s return. The younger visage of himself watched his feet as he walked through a verdant forest. His downcast eyes were prompted upward by a shadow and the face of the woman he’d long ago married and left. They were older now, both more slacked and their eyes heavier than before.

He approached with a cautious, slow gait. She dangled her feet off the edge of a dock, her arms locked behind her to prop herself up. He stopped a few feet away. She seemed to sense his presence, but made no protest. He continued and sank into place beside her.

The last verse cried out over the two once more falling in love. Time passed while the Legend and his wife were hobbled by age. Until at last he stood over her bedside, as weathered as he had first been on stage. She held his hand with a smile, then closed her eyes. The Legend’s last lyrics were echoes. The piano faded out. The crews watched the lights fade up and the phantom crowd disappear. With them, the Legend had gone too, the piano now vacant in the spotlight’s center as its last chords echoed into silence.

No-one was quite sure what to make of it, but neither were they willing to speak toward speculation– or anything really. The Legend had given his final performance to an empty room– yet somehow it was more full than any over-sold stadium. Whatever had happened, the Legend had not died, merely faded out, and that much would forever be certain.