Short Story: Schokolade Mit Liebe

A lone match struck in the darkness, flared to strength and cast an orb of dim light on an aged, graying face. It leaned into spark a cigarette off the sulfuric flame, extinguished it with a breath and a hint of a putrid stench. The darkness returned save a lone, glowing ember at the cigarette’s end.

A thick German accent sounded over a high, aristocratic voice, “You’ve no idea who I am, do you, Herr Butler?”

The man across the darkness swiveled his head, struggled against the binds that lashed his arms and legs to a metal chair. “What the hell’s going on?” He asked through panic-breaths. “Who are you? What do you want with me?”

The cigarette glowed brighter from a deep drag as a third man in the darkness struck Butler with a heavy fist. He yelped, almost toppled sideways from the force. He went silent. Tears welled in his eyes. The German gave a breathy exhale, enunciated each word as though chocolate meant to be savored, “You have stolen something very precious to me.”

“I-I don’t know what your t-talking about–”

He shouted over Butler, “Betrüger!

Another heavy blow flooded his mouth with blood and salty sweaty. He did topple this time. It was slow, or perhaps instant, but he felt himself hang on two legs for then tumble to his shoulder like some kind of stunned droid.

The German sighed defeat as he rubbed his forehead between his eyes, “Herr Roke, erhohen mein freund, bitte.”

A primal grunt stuttered with amusement. Then, with an effortless stoop, the monstrous creature lifted Butler and the chair, flipped them in mid-air to right them on the floor with a singular motion. Butler felt the beast’s presence span twice the size of a common brick-wall over the scent of a back-alley ashtray soaked in stale beer. Butler would have dry-heaved were he not too occupied by fear.

The German spoke graciously, “Danke, Herr Roke.” He leaned forward so that the cherry of his cigarette inflected a minor light across his Aryan features. “Now, Herr Butler, I say again; you have stolen something precious of mine and I would like it back.” His voice lowered venomously, “Where is die zeitsteuereinheit?”

Butler was lost; he knew no German, let alone whatever the hell a Zeiten-heimer was,“I d-don’t know what you’re talking about?”

The man mumbled German at the ceiling with defeat that apexed into a clearer phrase, “Herr Roke?”

A heavy thud thumped the back of Butler’s head, meant to jarr his thoughts. He was pretty sure he felt marbles roll around in his brain when the world started to spin. His head fell forward in a daze. Another German mumble, almost cheerfully annoyed, and the cherry flared up, gave way to a bright flood-light on the wall to the left. It blinded Butler as his head rose again. There was nothing but the light– and darkness on either side of it– as loafers shuffled over concrete.

A metal clinking began somewhere in the room’s depths. Given the pungent smoke’s ailing waft, Butler guessed the German had displaced himself. A moment later, the metal sounds gave way to the scuff of loafers that approached through the shadows.

The German was merely an average-sized silhouette with something small in its hand. Identification of the object was impossible through the watery spinning of Butler’s vision. While his eyes welled wet, his mouth dried. The German leaned toward his neck, protuberance in-hand over the reek of a recent, expensive cologne bath. He injected something into Butler’s neck. Heat crept through him, small and insidious, as if his internal thermostat had been jacked all the way up. He felt his brow grow wetter, mouth drier, his t-shirt cold around his armpits.

“Now, Herr Butler,” the German said as he turned back for his seat. He sank into it with the satisfied groan of an old man, “Nature is a beautiful thing, is it not? It has lived longer than anything in the universe– it is the universe, in fact– and especially on Earth, it is a wonderfully complex and varied organism.”

Butler felt his tongue fatten. Sweat flowed like a leaky garden hose. He wanted to cry harder, but wasn’t sure how to. He didn’t know what the German wanted, nor why he seemed to so presently hell-bent on his ecology lecture. All he knew was small, throbbing waves of heat turning to molten lava with each second.

“As with all great organisms,” the German was saying. “Nature has found a way to take something simple, and build off it, as a foundation if you will.” He made a small, refined gesture. “I have just injected you with Formic Acid, Herr Butler. In moments your innards will feel as if they have been held to the core of the Earth.”

Butler already felt that, couldn’t imagine it getting any worse– in fact, he didn’t want to try, “B-but, I’m j-just an average guy. I d-don’t know about your Zeitenheimer.”

The German sighed, “Herr Roke, have you ever known a man to survive the Formic Acid?”

“Nein, Herr Schmidt,” Roke said with a bestial rasp.

“Believe him, if not me, Herr Butler,” Schmidt said.

The acid increased its toll; Butler trembled, shook more with each breath, “B-but I s-s-swear, I d-don’t kn-know anything.”

The German seemed disappointed rather than angry, “Perhaps, then, your wife will tell us.”

Wife? What wife?I don’t have a wife.

“W-wife? Wh-what wife?” Butler asked. “I d-don’t h-have a wife.”

“Herr Buttler, we know all about you, you need not lie; you are Roger Butler, your wife is Penny, und we know where she is,” the German warned casually “If you do not tell us what we want to know, we may have to escalate our interrogation.”

“B-but I-I’ve n-never b-been married!” Butler shouted through the pain.

“Herr Schmidt!” A new voice said from across the room.

“Ja? Excuse me for a moment,” he said politely as he passed the flood-light for a door behind Butler. There was a hushed whisper, then Schmidt’s voice, “Und you’re certain?” Another hurried whisper, then, “Very well.”

Schmidt passed through the floodlight again for the opposite end of the room. There was a shuffle of loafers, another sound of rifled metal, and Schmidt reappeared to inject something else into Butler’s neck.

Schmidt stepped back as Butler felt the pain lessen, “Herr Butler, I must apologize, you are… uh, the wrong man.” He nodded at Roke behind him. A grunt sounded before massive, meaty hands tugged at the knots that bound Butler to the chair. “Please accept my sincerest apologies.”

Roke pulled the last of the binds free, yanked Butler up. Schmidt maneuvered him toward the door, “It would be best if we parted ways– perhaps better if you spoke of this to no-one.”

In the daze of pain, drugs, and the acid’s antagonist, Butler hardly comprehended his surroundings as he was ushered into the hall. When his mind focused again, he was turned ’round, facing Schmidt from the far-side of a doorway, and half-blind from the bright hall-way around him.

“Guten Abend, Herr Butler, pray we do not meet again,” Schmidt said.

The door shut. Butler stared at it a moment longer than he ought’ve, his mind ablaze with questions. They’d obviously had the wrong man, he’d known that from the start, but what convinced them? He suddenly recognized a gift horse’s mouth and bolted in terror. The exit signs along the bright hallways led him into a city’s back-alley in late afternoon. He kept running, faster than any software engineer could or should, all the way through town to his apartment, and inside a closet at its rear. He cowered there in fear, terrified into sleep atop his hugged knees.

He was awoken by heavy knocks on the door that pestered him incessantly. He crept from the closet, hugged the walls along the bedroom, inched out, then sprinted to the door’s peephole. A delivery-man stood on the other side with flowers and chocolates.

He cracked open the door, “Y-yes?”

“Delivery for R. Butler,” the man said casually.

“Wh-what is it? Who’s it from?”

“Cards in the flowers, sir, I just deliver ’em.” Butler hesitated, inched the door open enough for the delivery to slide through. The man passed through a tablet with a stylus, “Sign, please.”

Butler’s shaky hand scrawled a signature, passed it back. A moment later the door shut, the delivery on the kitchen table. Butler lifted the card that read, “Sorry about the torture. Schokolade mit Liebe, H.S.

Butler’s eyes rolled back into his head as he passed out.

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.