Monday, October 13, 2014

Year Two - Week Eight MORE

UPDATED 10/15
I wasn't happy with the previous draft, so here's another version, below. And here are some storyboard roughs to go with this version.












The Giant


The woman stops walking to carve her name into a tree. She walks on, following after an enormous shadow cast by something unseen.


The woman, worn and weary, passes by a farmstead, still following the shadow. An old man mending a fence. He’s having trouble steading a post. The woman stops and assists him. The man asks that she come in for coffee and fresh biscuits. The woman accepts, reluctantly.


The man asks her about her journey. The woman tells about living in a small town. She was a photographer and she photographed other people’s lives. She got tired of not having a life of her own. One day this giant walked by and she accepted the opportunity to do something important. She’s spent the last five years following the giant, trying to get a good picture. She shares some snapshots, but all are inconclusive.


The man comments that he couldn’t imagine a life like her’s. His life is stationary and always has been. Not the path to fame and fortune, but it’s enough just knowing his family needs him.


Before she leaves, the man demands she accept some money, some food and some coffee for her travels. She can’t remember the last time she held coins.


The woman leaves the farm. Her name carved into the farmer’s fence.


The woman walks out of a general store. There’s an old stray dog. The woman shares a piece of food with the dog. She rents a room in a hotel. As she’s carving her name into the window frame, she sees the stray dog below in the street and smiles.


The woman leaves the village, following after the shadow. The stray dog follows after the woman. As they walk, the dog gets closer and closer. The woman stops and tells the dog she’s got a job to do and he’ll slow her down. The dog sits as she walks on.


That night, as the woman makes camp, she acknowledges the dog’s absence, commenting on how it was nice to have company for a while, but it’s probably for the best that the dog didn’t stick around. She carves her name into a tree nearby. Then the dog shows up with a rabbit. The woman is thankful for the food and scruffs the dog’s head and neck.


In the morning, the woman wakes the dog. Time to get moving, following the shadow. Together they walk. She stops more often than usual, to let the old dog rest. The woman is happy and talks to the dog. That evening, they sleep curled up together under the stars. Nearby the woman and the dog’s names are carved into a tree.


The next day as they walk, the dog slows down. The woman calls to him to keep moving. The dog sits and lays down, groans. The woman watches as the shadow drifts ever further from reach. She gets her camera from her bag and lifts it up toward the shadow. Without taking a picture she lowers the camera and walks back to the dog. She sits down next to the dog. The dog lifts his head. The woman holds the camera out at arm's length, taking a photo of them together.


The enormous shadow drifts away completely.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Year Two - Week Eight

I feel stuck.

The past couple of weeks I've continued reworking written outlines of The Giant and I've begun storyboarding. Below is roughly half of the story in storyboard form.

In its current draft, the story is about a woman who has been on the road for years, following after an enormous shadow that she claims belongs to a giant. No one else has seen the giant. She carries with her a broken camera that she tries over and over again to repair. She walks and walks, following the shadow, traversing landscape after landscape, sometimes sleeping outside, sometimes sleeping in hotels. One day, the woman leaves a village and an old stray dog follows after her. At first the woman continues on, not paying much attention to the dog. After a while she leaves food for it. The woman invites the dog to her camp. The dog joins her as she follows the shadow. The next time the woman stops in a village, the hotel refuses the dog. After a while, the woman skips the villages. As the woman and the dog walk, day after day, the dog slows down, showing its age, falling behind. One night, while tinkering, the woman gets the camera to work. The next morning, the woman sets off after the shadow. The dog can no longer continue. The woman watches as the shadow moves away. She raises the camera, the opportunity to document the giant is finally within reach. Instead, she lowers the camera and turns back to the dog. She walks over to the dog, drops to her knees and takes a picture of it. The shadow slips away entirely.

As I storyboard, I'm worried that this might be a more complicated story than I had expected. I'm worried about being able to complete the animation in the time I have. I'm also concerned about the individual parts of the story and how they factor into the story as a whole - are all the current parts supportive? - are parts superfluous? - are parts unresolved? - are parts clear in their purpose and true to their purpose?

And, currently, I see the story as exploring purpose and belonging.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Year Two - Week Seven

Last week, my advisor, Tom Richner, suggested that I start storyboarding, even if the narrative isn't totally resolved. I'm finding it difficult to shift from written media to visual media. It's interestingly revealing.

Here is the result of the first round of storyboarding. I'm trying to work through each scene and plan to post more pages and revised pages throughout the week.

While I'm still pushing forward with the narrative as central to the project, I do want the scenes and actions to feel repetitious, somewhat monotonous. This character has committed herself to following this giant. Her method is a series of loops. This first attempt at storyboarding is telling me that I might need to revisit this and definitely need to keep this in mind as I plot out the rest of the scenes.

Considering the loops and the interest in monotony, I think that is partially working, but I'm concerned about keeping the audience engaged with a narrative somewhat reliant on tedium.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Year Two - Week Six

Over the past couple of weeks, I've put most of my focus into developing both The Giant and The Bird story ideas. I considered a third idea, to produce a series of loops, in an effort to reduce my thematic interest to its most simplest. But, at this point, I want to continue with a more traditional narrative. I've decided to move forward with The Giant.

As I draft and redraft the story, I find myself chasing after my central theme. Still, it feels a bit nebulous. Something about commitment, priorities, self-actualization, purpose, humility vs ambition, loyalty, need or to be needed. The chase continues.

Until this week, I've focused almost entirely on writing and developing this narrative. This week, I started putting some time into the visuals, the concept art. Here is an initial idea for the main character and her traveling companion. At the moment I'm calling them Coffee (the woman) and Pencil Sharpener (the dog).


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Year Two - Week Four


ANIMATION

I did some very rough experimentation with animation last week. I find myself still leaning toward building the animation with pencil on paper, versus using software like Photoshop & After Effects or Toon Boom. Considering that a minute of animation could equate to around 720 drawings, or more, I'm exploring options for feeding the drawings into the computer to edit and composite. Today, I'm pricing and possibly picking up an auto feed document scanner; the kind of thing that businesses use to digitize receipts and paperwork and such.

A goal for the week is to have a pencil test done for Thursday and Friday to share during my crit discussions.

NARRATIVE

Last week, I met with one of my advisors, Michael J Rosen, and spent some time workshopping a couple of the narrative synopsis. We spent most of the time focused on THE GIANT and THE BIRD.

Of the two, I find something uplifting about THE GIANT. There's something darker about THE BIRD. I'd like to work a third narrative, before making a commitment, but this weekend I focused on THE GIANT.

I've reworked the outline a bit, trying to think of it in chunks that might lend themselves better to the animation work. Below is a very rough outline.

THE GIANT
1. A young woman, working in the yard of her family's small homestead, sees a giant. Compelled to follow, she runs inside to gather some belongings into a bag and leaves home.

2. Along the first day, as the young woman struggles to keep up with the giant, she scrambles through beautiful countryside, much still untouched by human-hands. The first night, totally exhausted, blistered and sore, she sleeps under the stars enthusiastic for the adventure ahead.

3. Weeks pass and the young woman adapts to her nomadic lifestyle. She learns to hunt and gather food. She learns to defend herself against robbers and beasts. She stops in at small villages and farmsteads to do odd jobs for money and supplies; she never stays more than a day or two for fear of losing the giant's trail. The villagers are skeptical of her stories of the giant; she can offer no definitive proof. A stray dog begins following her at a distance.

4. Months pass and feelings of doubt settle in. She misses home and longs for stability. She questions her commitment and purpose, but she continues to follow and to document the giant, its habits, their path and she speculates on where it's going, what it all means. The stray dog has become her traveling companion; they stop regularly, everyday to eat together and they make camp together at night, keeping each other warm and safe. The woman stops talking to people about the giant.

5. Years pass, the young woman grows older. The dog grows older. Still they follow the giant. The woman feels as an outsider. She's become self-sufficient and trends toward avoiding villages and farmsteads, preferring not to have her commitment to the giant questioned or doubted. Until one day, the pair are attacked by a beast. In defending the woman, the dog is badly injured. The woman carries the dog to a village, still adhering to the giant's path.

6. An animal doctor in the village tends to the dog, but informs the woman that the dog cannot travel, not for weeks while it heals. The woman is faced with a difficult choice, to follow the giant and abandon the dog or to stay with the dog and risk losing the giant.

7. A man, long on the road, stops in at a small bakery. He takes a seat. An old woman pours him a cup of coffee and offers him sweet bread. Walking back to the kitchen, she stops to pet a very old dog resting on the floor.


And... some of this... it isn't pretty, but it's a start...

Monday, September 8, 2014

Year Two - Week Three

I am having trouble organizing this post, so here's some chaos...

It's the third week of the first semester of the second year.

I find myself wanting to continue my focus on exploring storytelling and animation. So, at the moment, my goal for the year is to produce a narrative-based animation. I'm trying to plan for a 3-5 minute piece. At the moment, I'm still working out the narrative component.

NARRATIVE 
(I'll get into planning the animation side of things in another post.)

With only a semester of animation training, I'm trying to consider the narrative through the lens of what is a manageable level of complexity?

I've started the narrative development by writing up short story synopsis. I've been writing up a ton of these. Just a few sentences, a short paragraph, to identify the situation, the setting, the obstacle, the outcomes.

A theme seems to be emerging.

The stories all revolve around the idea of how we chase incentives to give our lives meaning or purpose. I find myself fascinated by this. Something to do with the forest for the trees thing or it's about the journey not the destination.

Something else, too, about how we, as more self-aware, more intelligent beings, chase incentives differently than our animal kingdom counterparts... or vegetable kingdom counterparts. They chase incentives purely to survive. We manufacture incentives to give our lives purpose. I think that has to do with the impending wall of mortality.

An example of one of the stories I'm working through is about a woman afloat on a skiff in the middle of a body of water. It leans more toward survival as incentive, but to get the ball rolling, I think this gives some idea of where I'd like to go:

The Bird
In a large body of water there is a woman afloat on a skiff tethered to a buoy. There is a thick fog that obscures the horizon in all directions. The woman has what she needs to survive: a tarp to cover herself from the weather, the water is filled with fish to eat, there is a small fruit tree growing from the buoy and she is able to collect rainwater to drink. She is alone except for a bird that visits her each day. As much as she cherishes her time with the bird, she is paranoid and distrusts the bird who tells her stories of nearby land. Eventually, the bird takes up pecking at the rope that tethers the skiff to the buoy. The woman shoos the bird away fearing she'll be set adrift and die at sea. Each day the bird works at the rope and each day the woman shoos the bird away. Growing increasingly frustrated with the bird's pecking, the woman kills the bird. Immediately, she is overwhelmed with sorrow for killing her friend. She had to do it, though, she convinces herself, so that she can survive. It is then that the fog finally lifts and she sees that she is not far from shore.

Okay - here's a second one:

The Crash
A traveler crashes his spaceship on an alien world. He can’t see outside of the ship. Fearing the outside world, he remains in the ship, relying on the finite store of food, water and air. Days, weeks, months go by. Eventually the traveler runs out of food and begins to starve. Still he refuses to go outside. He runs out of water. Still he refuses to go outside. He begins running out of air and with his dying breath, he opens the hatch and collapses out onto the ground of a lush landscape filled with fruit-bearing trees and a nearby stream.

And a third:

The Giant
One day a man sees a giant walking across the countryside. The man leaves his home to follow the giant. Days, weeks, months and years pass by as the man follows the giant across the country. As he follows, the man documents the giant, what it eats, where it sleeps, where it walks. He speculates about the giant's past, it's motivations, where it's going. He never directly interacts with the giant. The man passes through villages and homesteads, and enthusiastically talks to people about his work. He sees beautiful things, meets interesting people, but his focus is always forward, to follow the giant. Then one day, the giant dies and the man is left alone.



Tuesday, May 6, 2014

This is it. End of Year One.

The final week is happening! Because this semester was more about being on a path than reaching a destination, I thought I'd take a moment to turn around and see what happened. Be warned, this is the longest blog post ever.

OVERVIEW
Narrative remains my main focus. I'm particularly interested in developing a segmented narrative based around myth-building and allegory. At the end of the first semester I made the decision to explore animation as a storytelling medium. It was my belief that during the course of the semester I could learn enough about animation to create a series of refined shorts. That plan changed. Learning animation is a patient, slow process. So, the semester split apart into two focuses - 1. learning how to animate 2. written narrative. First I'll walk you through the animation side of things. Afterwards, I'll take you through the written side.

ANIMATION
I worked with Adam Osgood as my mentor. And, I enrolled in the Animation 1 course to work with Ron Price. With Adam, I focused on working with Adobe Photoshop and After Effects. With Ron, Toon Boom software. Between the two areas, I tried to learn a new technique and create or refine a piece every one to two weeks. As this week reaches its end, I have produced more than 15 exercises. I will share some of these below:

Experiment 01
Media: Graphite, paper, lightbox, Adobe Photoshop
I was a little behind acquiring a stylus for the Cintiq labs, so I dove into my first project with some old school materials - graphite, typewriter paper and a light-box. The actual animation was accomplished using Photoshop. The goal was to simply produce a "flip-book" style animation lasting roughly 3-4 seconds. It was at this point that I realized just how much patience this entire endeavor would take. This represents roughly 40 individual drawings.


Experiment 01 from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 02
Media: Toon Boom Harmony
These next two focused on achieving a sense of weight and tension. I've included the first pass (A) and the finished pass (B) for comparison.


Experiment 02 A from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 02 B from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 03
Media: A Adobe Photoshop, B Adobe Photoshop/After Effects, C Graphite, paper, lightbox, Adobe Photoshop
These next three focused more on an attempt to capture this particular character, Smokehead. The first piece (A) was created entirely in Photoshop. The second (B) was created in After Effects. The third (C) was done with graphite, typewriter paper, light-box and animated in Photoshop.


Experiment 03 A from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 03 B from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 03 C from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 04
Media: Toon Boom Harmony
The project goal was to turn a thing into a thing into another thing then back to the original thing.


Experiment 04 from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 05
Media: Toon Boom Harmony
Walk cycles. I did a number of rough experiments to get the hang of this, then went for something a bit wild. It was during the walk cycle experimentation that I realized how important it was for things to register and track properly for a better sense of continuity.


Experiment 05 from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 06
Media: Toon Boom Harmony
While working on the walk cycle, I was pushed to think through a movement that initially seemed simple - turning around. This quick experiment helped me to understand how significant even simple movements can be.


Experiment 06 from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 07
Media: Adobe Photoshop/After Effects
These next two pieces used the same character and background, but were essentially focused on different movements. The first is my first attempt at doing a walk cycle in After Effects. It was nightmarish. It was also my first time using parenting and key framing. There are a number of issues with the finished product, but I learned a ton about navigating character movement in After Effects. The second piece is a jump, so more to do with coordinating the characters parts and the timing to give a realistic feel for jumping.


Experiment 07 A from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 07 B from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 08
Media: Adobe Photoshop/After Effects
For the next two I wanted to push the narrative a little further, but the focus was on adding effects. In the first piece, I'm experimenting with a blur effect to simulate manipulating camera aperture. In the second piece, I also add camera movement.


Experiment 08 A from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 08 B from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 09
Media: Toon Boom Harmony
This project was focused on character acting. At first this seemed a simple task. I was given a piece of dialogue to work with. Because the dialogue was more of a monologue, without much implied "action" the exercise became more about managing subtleties and creating a sense of natural movements.


Experiment 09 from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 10
Media: Adobe Photoshop/After Effects
I was getting excited about the small collection of skills I'd collected and wanted to try something a bit more complicated. I wanted to create an exciting establishing style shot, ending with the character, Coyote, as the focal point. Over the three iterations, I worked to refine timing, camera use, depth and in the end audio. This was also my first attempt at moving from the manually manipulated blur effects to using the camera's simulated depth of field/aperture function. Not having a background with photography, some of this was a bit difficult to understand as I tried to create something that felt natural.


Experiment 10 A from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 10 B from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 10 C from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 11
Media: Adobe Photoshop/After Effects
Now crazy stuff is happening. In After Effects, when using the camera, the layers of the project can be spaced out as if in dimensional space. This allows for the added third rotational axis, which allowed me to experiment with creating objects and characters with a sense of dimension or volume. Over the three iterations, below, I moved from testing it out to trying to create something a bit more refined with audio.


Experiment 11 A from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 11 B from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 11 C from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 12
Media: Adobe Photshop/After Effects
Suddenly, something clicked for me with the camera. I had the idea to test out telling a story simply through camera movement. By controlling the camera, I control what the viewer sees or doesn't see. I also had a curiosity to test out an idea for integrating a frame-by-frame element - lighting the cigarette.


Experiment 12 A from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 12 B from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 12 C from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 13
Media: Adobe Photoshop/After Effects
After trying out giving a character a sense of volume, I wanted to attempt it with an object. I had an idea for a camera movement that would reveal a significant amount of depth. The first iteration is pretty rough and not all that engaging. In the second, finished iteration, I add a second character or characters and further fleshed out the narrative. I also cleaned up the camera movement and added blur effects to help control the eye.


Experiment 13 A from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 13 B from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 14
Media: Toon Boom Animate/Adobe After Effects
For this project I was to create a frame-by-frame animation with a narrative and audio. The piece needed to be at least 20 seconds long. Still feeling pretty excited from the frame-by-frame character actor piece, I wanted to do something that focused more on character acting than big broad action. The first four pieces, below, are the roughs and in-progress animations. The final piece is the finished product. I had issues exporting audio from Animate, so I added the audio, visual fades and title cards in After Effects.


Experiment 14 A from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 14 B from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 14 C from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 14 D from Thom Glick on Vimeo.


Experiment 14 E from Thom Glick on Vimeo.

WRITTEN MATERIAL
I was fortunate to take a course, Advanced Creative Writing Workshop, with Sophia Kartsonis, this semester, in which I was able to write and get regular feedback from fellow writers.

I've tentatively titled the mythology, Stories of the Nothing Mechanism. At the start of first semester, I was under the assumption that in a semester or two, I could totally resolve the entire narrative and deliver it in some visual form, illustration or animation. I quickly realized that the narrative was far too large to tackle in a single piece in one or two semesters, so I spent first semester learning about visual narrative tropes, developing characters and working to understand some basic storytelling/plot mechanics. I was able to produce a single illustrated short story, revealing a very small portion of the overall narrative. In a nutshell, first semester was an eye-opener.

At the start of second semester, I was still thinking too big. Again, I thought I could learn enough animation techniques and resolve enough narrative to produce 4-5 fairly realized animated vignettes. Once I moved past that, I focused on animation more as mechanical exercises and focused on writing as the outlet to develop narrative.

In the pieces below, I explored a number of concerns like developing characters, settings, moods, foreshadowing, misdirection, etc etc. I tried to adhere to some of my favorite literary rules, particularly that every character should have a goal, every line should aid in revealing character and/or plot and show don't tell.

At the core of the narrative, I'm attempting to explore questions, curiosities that I have about life, existence, fears, impulses. I'm trying to see the characters as myopic and archetypal, being focused on these concerns. I've developed a short introduction, below, to help kick off some of the broader questions.




STORIES OF THE NOTHING MECHANISM


INTRODUCTION

At the core of the mythology, are two gods, the oldest gods, Void and Substance. In the beginning, there was nothing and that is how Void preferred things. Then, Substance began to make things. This upset Void and a war broke out between them. Eventually they came to a truce. Substance was allowed to keep what she had made, but she was allowed to make no more things. Void thought himself clever; surely, if he waited long enough, all the things that Substance had made would wear out, fall apart and disappear. If he was patient, he would have his nothing again. Substance made one final request, to make one last thing. Void believing the request harmless, agreed. And Substance made Death.

The two gods were long forgotten, by most, replaced by other gods and other beliefs. But, there has been a devout order, the Order of Not, who has persevered since the beginning, existing to do the work of the Architect. The Order of Not has awakened.

Considering the two gods, I’m interested in the extreme absolutes. Inherently, there is nothing good or bad about either of the two gods’ positions. There is nothing inherently wrong with nothing. There is nothing inherently wrong with something. However, the Stories of the Nothing Mechanism are told from the perspectives of the mortals (and pseudo-mortals) caught up in the in-between. For the things that exist, the difference between nothing and something is everything.




The Technician Arrives
By Thom Glick

He would have been afraid had he not been asleep.

So many things could have gone wrong. So much junk just floating around to smash into. The slightest miscalculation during mission prep and it could have been over in an instant.

He wouldn’t have noticed.

Entombed in the belly of the stasis machine, he slept, completely unaware of anything. He slept for a very long time. And for a very long time, nothing happened. Then something did happen.

The time for sleeping was over. At first it was a collection of sensations that seeped into his dreams. Sirens. An earthquake. The ground fell away beneath him. He tumbled through darkness.

He crashed.

Then he was awake.

Then he opened his eyes.

The light of midday poured in harshly through the forward visor. It was blinding, but it was welcome. Daylight meant solid ground. And it was a safe bet that solid ground meant he wasn’t dead.

He wasn’t dead, but he was exhausted. Decades of sleep and it took everything he had to stay awake. Long distance space travel was hell on the body. A ride across the void meant a galactic hangover. He wanted badly to just drink a gallon of water, puke up his headache and sleep another week. Still, he was thankful. He had landed.

No. He had crashed. But that was right. If he remembered correctly, this was a crash-type vessel. It was designed to crash.

“One way ticket,” he mumbled.

Going home wasn’t in the cards. Not this time.

He took a calming breath and felt around with his hands. He found the release lever, near his thigh, pulled it and the lid to the machine popped open with a sigh. He sat up and sluggishly went about pulling sensors and inserts from his body.

He wouldn’t be returning home. Not this time. Win or lose, he was stuck, here, on this rock. But, what did it matter? By this point, everyone he knew was already dead anyway, so why should he care? He didn’t. Or so he tried to convince himself.

He closed his eyes.

He was back on Black Rock, a week before the mission. There had barely been any warning. Nothing official, at least. Rumors had run their course, telling of an impending calamity somewhere off in the furthest reaches of space, but he’d assumed they were just rumors. Something that scary just couldn’t be true. Then he received the call from Main Branch. He was their best, most experienced Technician. They had no other options. The mission was his. He had to go.

Breaking the news to Blue was difficult. He was immediately defensive.

“Can’t they get someone else? You’re not the only Tech they have,” Blue had said.

“This is too important.”

“I’m not important?”

“You are important. You’re why I’m doing this.”

“I don’t want you to go. They can get someone else.”

“They have to send me. I don’t like it anymore than you do, but I don’t have a choice.”

They argued for days, but there was nothing to be done.

Blue seemed to finally accept the situation a couple days before the launch. They did their best to hide their anxieties and enjoy what time they had left. On the last day, they agreed not to talk about the mission at all. They were going to spend the day together, just being together. That evening, during a candle-lit dinner, things fell apart. No longer able to hold it together, Blue was again upset. They argued. Blue left.

The Technician spent his last night on Black Rock broken-hearted and alone.

“Stop thinking about that crap,” he told himself. “Blue is dead by now. Everyone I know is dead by now, including the assholes who sent me to this rock. None of that matters. You’re not a person. Not anymore. You’re a Technician. You have a job to do. Time to do your job. Time to get moving. MOVE, TECH, MOVE!”

The compartment was cramped. Much smaller than he remembered. Trying not to bang his head into the ceiling, he climbed out of the stasis machine and over the bundles of cables and storage compartments to the command seat. The a.i. unit was integrated into the command console. Once engaged, the a.i. could tell him if the air outside was breathable.

He felt surprisingly alone. Everyone he had ever known was dead. What was he doing here? What purpose did this mission serve? He was alone and anyone involved in assembling this mission had already passed on unaffected by the outcome.

It wasn’t a real living thing, but he was anxious to hear the a.i.’s voice.

He closed his eyes, took a deep calming breath and punched buttons and flipped switches. His loneliness would not so easily be undone. The a.i. wasn’t responding. Nothing was responding. It was then that he realized the climate control wasn’t functioning; the compartment was getting colder. The lights weren’t on, either. The compartment was being lit solely by the glow of the midday sun. The crash must have damaged the entire electrical system.

“So much for crash-type engineering.” He leaned forward, over the control console, to peer out of the forward visor. The shallow wall of the crash crater obscured the view. At the top of the crater wall was a thick line of white surface and above that was blue sky. “I hope I can breathe this crap. Otherwise this is going to be the most elaborate foul-up in history.”

He leaned back in the seat. The headache was going away, but his body still felt heavy.

“Keep moving, ” he told himself.

His attention turned to locating his Technician’s Suit. The space was just too cramped and despite his best effort to avoid banging into things, he managed to snag his bare leg on the corner of a protruding storage compartment. He tripped, lost his footing and dropped, hard, into a pile of cabling.

Heaviness overwhelmed him. He remained there, laying, uncomfortably, on the bundle of cables. The desire to call it quits was overwhelming.

“Breathe,” he told himself. "You can do this."

Again, he was moving. Blood beaded up and trickled slowly down his shin. He pulled out the medkit from a nearby compartment, cleaned and bandaged the wound. Then he returned to looking through compartments for his suit. Once located, he pulled it on immediately.

“Air,” he reminded himself.

Without the help of the a.i. he couldn’t know for certain if the air outside was safe to breathe. Thankfully, the Science Branch had made the assumption that the air would be breathable, so, to save weight and space, they had provided him with a single tank of portable air.

He picked the small tank up and examined it, resisting the frustration that was telling him to smash it through the forward visor and call it a day. The tank held enough air for a single day, if he didn’t get too strenuous. He prayed for even terrain.

The rest of the supplies - consumables and weapons - would be in the outboard compartments.

“This is it.”

Once he opened the hatch, the air in the compartment would be released. If the air wasn’t breathable, he’d only have a day to accomplish the mission. He was sweating just thinking about how bad this could go.

“One more thing. Then I’ll get moving,” he assured himself.

He pulled out the thin mission workbook. It was thin. Thin was bad. It meant the Council didn’t know much, which meant he wouldn’t know much. He was on his own.

The first page of the workbook read:
MISSION: 2222 | TECHNICIAN: 0012
VESSEL NAME: ASPIRE | TYPE: SINGLE OCCUPANT CRASH-TYPE
SUPPLIES: SEE INDEX
OVERVIEW OBJECTIVE: ANNIHILATION LEVEL CALAMITY. MOST LIKELY AGENTS, HANDS OF THE ARCHITECT OF THE ORDER OF NOT. LOCATE AND DESTROY NOTHING MECHANISM.

“Nothing mechanism? What the hell do you suppose that looks like?” He flipped quickly through the pages. “Pictures? Please? Please? Of course not. Location? Nothing. Crap, crap, crap.”

The workbook went into a pocket.

He slid the helmet over his head, latched it to the suit’s rigid collar and activated the air feed.

“One day starts now,” he said.

With the electronics no longer functioning, he would have to manually release the hatch. He located the control access panel and pried it open. There were rows of small buttons that had to be actuated in a particular pattern. He looked at his thick gloves and let out a heavy sigh thick with annoyance.

“Like buttoning a shirt while wearing oven mitts,” he muttered.

It took three attempts before he managed to key the pattern in correctly. There was a pause. A long pause. Just as he was about to start keying the pattern in again, there was a loud metallic clang. Then a whirring sound as the locking mechanism, somewhere in the hull, retracted. The hatch released from the frame and dropped out onto the ground below. It took some effort to pull his bulky self through the opening. Once through, he worked himself into a sitting position, legs dangling over the side. Then he scooted himself forward and hopped, falling a couple of feet to the ground below.

He stretched. He walked around. It felt good to move.

The vapor trail was still visible, still billowing out of the rear engines and trailing up into the sky, across and back out into space. How long would it linger there, he wondered.

He made his way to the side of the vessel and retrieved his weapons - a stun baton, two plasma hand pistols, a solid projectile combat rifle, a belt of ammunition and a short sword.

The sword wasn’t issued by the Council. It was something special. His great-great-grandfather, one of the first generation Technicians, had carried it on his final mission. It was something of a good luck charm.

He made his way to the other side of the vessel and pulled food and water rations from the storage compartment. They were neatly packed into a small backpack. Enough rations for two weeks, supposedly. He slid his arms through the straps and adjusted the thing to fit snugly.

His headache was almost completely gone, replaced by an awareness of the emptiness in his belly. Liquified nutrients had kept him alive during hibernation. His guts wanted solid food. He loosened the straps and slipped the pack back off. He dropped down into a crouch, so that he could rest the bag on the ground in front of him. He unzipped the thing, pulled out a ration and tore the packaging open. His mouth watering, he went to put the ration in his mouth. Instead, he mashed it into his helmet’s visor. He looked at the mashed ration, perplexed.

“Can’t eat with it. Can’t breath without it,” he muttered. “Who designed this stuff?”

He pulled the pack back on, snugged the straps and climbed out of the crater to survey the landscape. What he saw was as expansive and open as the Aspire had been finite and claustrophobic. As far as the eye could see, it was white in every direction. To three sides of him, it was flat. To the fourth, far off in the distance, there were mountains.

“Locate and destroy the Nothing Mechanism. One day of air. No idea where to start looking. How hard can this be?” He shrugged the rifle, slung over his shoulder, into a better position and started walking.





Coyote Walked

By Thom Glick

Coyote walked.

To his knees he sank, step after step, into the snow of the Desert of Exiles. Piled with furs and layered in wool, he struggled against exhaustion to move one leg in front of the other. Pick up the leg. Put the leg down. Pick up the leg. Put the leg down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Forever.

There was so much forever.

There was so much snow.

The little village that was once his home stood fixed behind him, beyond sight, but not beyond nagging memory. Reaching out, to the ends of the world, below the clean blue sky there was snow, cold and deep.

The air was dry and the wind was relentless. The little bit of his face that wasn’t covered by fur and fabric was red and chapped. Frozen blooms of blood stained the fabric that covered his mouth and nose. The cold and dry had spared no mercy for the sensitive membranes of his throat and nostrils.

He set his sights on the monotony that lay ahead. All that he could see was untouched perfect white sprawling out into infinite. The scar of broken snow that trailed behind him and his depleted energy were markers of a progress he refused to dwell upon. What lay behind was not nearly as important as what lay ahead. There was something waiting just for him beyond the edge of this white world.

He was an exile.

He was a criminal.

It was a far worse thing to make a man pray for death than to give it to him swiftly. And, yet, Coyote would not be so easily broken.

His mind drifted to his heroic act. He could still feel the sticky warmth of blood fresh on his hands, between his fingers, under his nails. The taste. The smell. Metallic. Wonderful.

The quiet, waiting Architect had surely been pleased by his heroic act, his brave sacrifice. Coyote hoped, especially in this trying moment, out in the white, that the old god would look down upon him with favor.

The villagers had been horrified by the scene. A man of noble birth dabbling in the forbidden. They’d found him bathed in blood and engaged in an ancient ritual, savage and forgotten. At his feet, the earth was soft and soupy with blood. The bodies of children were neatly arranged in a circle around him.

In the village’s history, only a few had been given to the Desert of Exiles. None had been so deserving as Coyote. Of the few given, none had survived. Those who didn’t succumb to exposure within the first day inevitably came crawling back to the village, frostbitten and broken, begging for death.

Coyote was halfway through his third day.

He was almost pleased with himself.

Then he fell, face first, into the cold powder. Exhaustion had so well worked itself into his flesh that he nearly suffocated. Gasping for breath, he managed to roll himself over onto his back. The world grew fuzzy, narrow, gray. Sleep. Drift away. The warmth of sleep was an inviting embrace, but he knew that to sleep, here, now, meant he wouldn’t be waking up again in this world.

And, he was well aware that the next world would not be so kind to him.

“Not yet,” he spit in ragged clouds of white vapor through the bloodstained fabric. He grit his teeth. “Not quite yet.”

Struggling against a body that was growing lifeless and increasingly unresponsive, Coyote tried to stand. Almost upright, his legs shook and buckled. He fell to his knees, nearly shoulder deep into the snow. The world was slipping away from him.

“No sleep. Not yet. No rest. Not here,” he coughed between dry painful swallows of air.

He screamed out in rage. Obscured by his coverings, blood trickled from his nose and mouth, down his chin. Somehow, he managed to stand. His thighs were throbbing, swollen messes. He made to take a step, but his leg couldn’t manage the weight. Down he went, this time managing to fall onto his side, disappearing back into the thick snow.

In heaving breaths, he growled.

Again he uprighted himself.

He would not be defeated by his own feeble body. He made his fabric wrapped hands into fists and hammered his thighs mercilessly with them.

“Do it! Walk! Dooooooo iiiiiit!” The white of his right eye filled with red as a blood vessel burst from his strained screaming.

Warmth blossomed, on his thighs, where he was hammering at them. Endorphins and what little adrenaline he had left did their magic. He took a deep, painful breath and started to move again. Pick up the leg. Put the leg down. Pick up the leg. Put the leg down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Forever.

Coyote walked.

And walked.

And walked.

The line where the blue sky met the white plain that lay ahead refused to come any closer.

So much snow.

So much forever.

And then he took a strange step. The ground flexed and creaked. He paused. Puzzled.

“No,” he whispered.

The ground gave way. He fell into darkness.

Floating.

He felt like he was floating.

The darkness swallowed him up. A brief, still moment. He was so deprived of his senses that once submerged in the dark, he couldn’t perceive that he was falling. It was a welcome state of being. Weightlessness. Strange how quickly his panic had turned to calm, cradled in the arms of nothing.

Sobering how quickly calm could turn back to panic.

With an abrupt violence, he landed flat on his back.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust from the blinding brightness of the above to the darkness of this below. Light penetrated the space, weakly, through the hole he’d fallen through. He was resting on a flat floor made of wood planks. It was a room. A wooden room. But how?

“Welcome, traveler,” whispered a voice.

Coyote sprang to his feet and backed into a corner. He was a scared animal scanning the room for a predator.

“The book. Take it. It is of the greatest importance,” said the voice.

On a desk, in the far corner of the small room, there was a very old, leather-bound book. On its cover was a strange symbol, an eye with three lines radiating from the top and bottom. Coyote picked it up.

“I don’t understand,” Coyote said, looking around the room. There was no one else. There was only him. Coyote was certain he was physically alone in the small wooden room below the Desert of Exiles.

“In time, you will.”

“Who… who are you?”

“I. Am. It. The one you have searched for. The one you have prayed to. I’ve watched you searching. I’ve seen the things you’ve done. I’ve looked upon your brave works and I’ve smiled.”

“The Voice…,” the words oozed out of Coyote in an utterance of awe, “of the Architect.”

“Yesssss,” the voice hissed.

“Am I a Hand?” Tears of joy dribbled down Coyote’s face.

“No.”

Coyote dropped his head, disappointed. “All I’ve ever wanted was to be a Hand of the Architect. To be a divine instrument. To be a part of the great works.”

“You are made for still greater things. You are not to be a Hand. You are the Mouth. And, together we will build the machine.”

“You mean… the…”

“Indeed.”

“The Nothing Mechanism.” Coyote, with his eyes full of tears, smiled into the darkness. He hugged the old book tightly to his chest. “I will not disappoint.”

“We know to what lengths you will go to please us. Now walk.”

On a vast sea of white, a trail thirty miles long could be seen terminating at a small dark hole. From out of this hole climbed something that was no longer simply a man. Heaped in furs and renewed by a dark faith he moved away from the hole.

Coyote walked.




A Dark Place
By Thom Glick


It was one of those dark places. A drinking hole with just enough character to frame a bad day.

The wood fire at the far end blazed along healthily, filling the air with thick smoke that burned eyes and lungs alike. It was a pleasant smell. Burning wood. Much better than that which it covered up, the sweaty drunks occupying the in between. But nothing could compete with the sea that still saturated his senses.

He only cared that this dark place was warm. He’d had enough of cold to last him a long, long while. Warmth and whisky. He was set for a day of kissing the sublime.

He was sitting at the bar, minding his own business, trying desperately to get ruined. He motioned to the bartender for another pour.

“Thanks”, he said. “Leave the bottle, please.”

“Sir?”

“Please.”

“Right. Enjoy, sir,” the bartender walked away empty handed.

He swirled the drink around in the heavy tumbler, then with a purposeful snap, flung the stuff down his gullet. He could feel it. The world was far away. Fuzzy. Warm. Comforting. He could see Jozefine’s face, smiling. He smiled.

Pressure. Gripping. Panic.

“Hello Vadász. I thought I’d find you in a place like this.” Her voice was broken glass.

Vadász looked up. Standing over him was Smokehead. Her enormous hands massaged his shoulders. Her dried up, wrinkly face peered down at him, nightmarishly.

She stood twelve feet tall, from foot to forehead, and, at the shoulders, was four feet across. Her hair was writhing. An ever rising plume of opaque smoke. Her smell was overwhelming. The bitter sting of charred meat.

“Jesus. It’s two o’clock in the afternoon”, said Vadász. He shrugged off her hands as he poured himself another drink.

“I know. I hear confessions at two on Saturdays. You are my first of the day”, replied Smokehead. She sat down beside Vadász. The wooden stool creaked and popped, threatening to buckle under her heft. “A drink for a pretty lady?”

“Sure. Just as soon as one arrives,” he mumbled.

“You’re hilarious, Vadász,” she snapped, a little hurt. “I think you know why I’m here.”

“Things didn’t work out.”

“I assumed as much.”

“Can we just leave it at that? And move on?”

“You were paid. Handsomely. But you did not deliver. Now you owe me.”

“You can have the handsome payment back. I don’t want it anymore.”

“Deals of this nature are not up for absolution.”

“Of course not.”

“All you had to do was deliver the girl.”

“Things got complicated.”

“You deliver cargo, Vadász. How complicated can it be? You were supposed to pick up the girl and bring her to us. Boom! Done. I thought you were supposed to be the best.”

“Like I said, things got complicated.” He gulped down his drink and, without hesitation, poured another and gulped it down.

“Well?”

“Well what?” Vadász slammed the empty tumbler down on the bar and shot a dagger filled glance up at Smokehead.

“Tell me where the girl is and all will be forgiven.”

“Fuck you, Smokehead.” He poured the last of the bottle into his tumbler. He swirled it around, absently.

Without warning, Smokehead raised a heavy fist and smashed it down, obliterating Vadász’s hand like a juicy grape, along with the tumbler of booze. Pulp and glass exploded across the bar. Vadász screamed out in surprise and pain.

The bar was silent, but only for a moment, as the other patrons broke from their drinks and conversations to see the famous smuggler, the captain of The Hope, at the mercy of a demon. They returned to their drinks and conversations, trying to forget the broken hero.

Vadász grit his teeth and held his massacred hand. The appendage was no longer recognizable. A mess of dripping pulp and broken glass.

“What can you possibly ask of me, now?” He growled in syncopated agony.

“I can give you your hand back,” Smokehead said. She motioned to the bartender.

“Yes, ma’am?” The bartender looked up at her, trying not to look frightened.

“We’ll need another bottle, something peaty, and two glasses, please.”

“Coming right up,” he said. He grabbed a wet rag from under the bar and mopped up the remnants of hand and glass from the bar top, as best he could. Then he set down a full bottle of whisky and two glasses. “Enjoy,” he said and walked away.

Smokehead grabbed Vadász’s destroyed hand and held it with both of hers. Vadász winced in pain. He couldn’t breath. He clenched his teeth and shut his eyes as the world started to slip away to a cold dark place. Please just let me die, he prayed silently to gods he knew weren’t listening.

She let go.

He opened his eyes. His hand was restored. For a moment, everything was calm and he felt right. Then his stomach went cold. His skin went clammy. Something dangerous. Something insidious.

“Now then. Let’s be serious. Let’s talk about making this right,” Smokehead said, sweetly. She smiled that horrible smile of hers and poured the drinks.




THE TOWER AT DOG’S TONGUE
By Thom Glick


THE EYE

“Did you see the eyes?”

Steph was a million miles away, thinking about the man in cell number six.

Why was he here, she wondered. Why had he come, here, to Dog's Tongue? He could have slipped right past the place, unnoticed, but he chose to come here, to flaunt his crime. Was it his goal to be arrested? Surely he has come here for a reason.

She felt a sense of purpose, of pride, looking at the little piece of red string tied around her left littlest finger. It was a reminder to add the man in cell number six to her nightly prayers. If anyone can help you, here, it will be me, she thought.

“Steph,” repeated Peter, “hey, Steph.” He touched her hand with his. A subtle thing. Warm, connecting.

“Huh? What?” She snapped out of her daze and returned to the dining room table with her fellow guards. To her right was Peter, the commander of the tower at Dog’s Tongue. To his right was Rudyard, the captain of the night guard.

“The eyes. Did you see them?” Peter asked, taking a sip of stale coffee, both hands on the mug.

“What eye?”

“Eyes,” he corrected her. “This morning. There were a bunch of eyes drawn on the east side of the tower.”

“East side of the tower?” Steph repeated, distant, concerned.

The world had changed, but the tower at Dog's Tongue still stood. It was a relic, a stone watchtower at the edge of the world. A sentinel, standing alone, on a vast flatness of brown, green and white. This was the last of the towers in what was long ago called The Row, a line of towers, stretching from sea to sea, marking the border between two long forgotten kingdoms. Sometimes The Row had served as a welcoming doorstep, sometimes a barring defense. There were no more kingdoms to come from or go to.

After The Collapse, the world had grown small. The majority of civilization had consolidated to a single territory. The wilderness to the east was what the changing climates had left behind; hostile, desolate, uninhabitable. To the west, what remained of civilization, huddled together, paranoid, isolated.

The tower at Dog's Tongue was a remnant of a very different time. A reminder that there were things worth caring for.

The tower was the last outpost as one traveled east. The next closest outpost was a small village, Dayton, a hundred miles to the west. Once truly a watchtower, a sentinel, with purpose, the tower now stood occupied more out of tradition than anything else. No one passed by from the east. Only suicides passed by from the west.

“Yep. The east, facing the wilderness,” Peter confirmed.

“Probably just the night guards having some fun,” she shrugged, picking at the little red string, anxiously.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought too. Except Rudyard, here, was with the night guard and assures me they didn’t do it. Right Ruddy?” He took a friendly, but authoritative tone.

“Damnedest thing I’ve ever seen. Must have been a couple hundred of them,” Rudyard added his mouth full of greasy meat. “Weird looking things, too, like a symbol or whatcha call a hieroglyph. An eye, shaped like an almond, with three lines above and below, drawn over and over again, stretching ten, maybe twenty feet up.”

“Chalk,” Steph said. “Where would someone get chalk?”

“Right?” Peter agreed. “Expensive stuff. I doubt anyone here could afford it.”

“It was like the whole tower was looking east, looking for something,” Rudyard added. “Gives me the creeps.”

Just then, there was a commotion at the far end of the dining hall. A large man was shoving a smaller man. It wasn’t apparent what they were arguing about.

“Dammit, Griswold,” Peter grumbled.

“It’s a daily occurrence with this guy,” Steph commented.

“He’s a bully,” Rudyard said, his mouth still full of food.

“Excuse me. I’ve gotta take care of this before he puts another one in the infirmary,” Peter said and stood. He pulled his uniform tight, brushed himself off and made his way across the room.

THE PRISONER

1.

The man in cell number six had arrived nearly a week ago. The morning guard saw him approaching, dirty and bearded and dragging an old corpse, leathery and covered with tattoos, by a length of rope wound round its neck.

With a casual authority, the four guards approached the man. They were surprised to have a visitor, more surprised to see what he was dragging. He was small, but he had a confidence about him. He seemed fully committed to the moment.

“I’ve come prepared,” he said. “I’ve brought a gift.”

He seemed resolved to be arrested, but he did not go quietly. He was small; his violence was anything but.

2.

Finally, she would have a moment with the man in cell number six.

Steph glanced proudly at the small bit of red string still tied around her finger. She’d kept her promise; she’d prayed for the man every night since his arrival. Surely it would make a difference.

He’s here for a reason, she thought, but why? This must be a test. I’m being tested. He’s here to test me, to test my faith. No. No. Not him, he’s not testing me. He is the test.

She slipped her hand into her pocket and felt the little book that she kept there, always. In it were the words and guidance and the strength that she needed.

Lead him toward a confession. Save him and you save yourself.

“Did you see it?” The man asked. Steph had barely come into view of the cell’s barred entrance. It was as if he’d been waiting for her.

“Excuse me?” She said, startled.

“Did you see it?”

“See what?”

“The eye. Did you see the eye?”

There was an impatience in his asking. He was digging for something beyond the obvious.

“The vandalism? Outside on the tower? No, sorry, I didn’t. The night guards had cleaned it all off before I even heard about it,” she said, trying to settle her nerves, trying to be friendly. This is the test, she reminded herself.

“A shame. How many are in the night guard? Did they all see it? Did they all see the eye?”

She had the feeling of being caught in an illusionist’s trick. “There are four guards in the night guard. And, to my knowledge they all saw it,” she said.

“Good. Good. That’s very good.”

“Aren’t you curious why I’m here?” Steph asked, purposefully, positively, changing the subject. Take control, she told herself. Push him to where he needs to go.

The man was wringing his hands, slowly, his gaze focused, concentrating. He did not answer her.

“I’ll tell you,” she said, timidly, boldly. He wants to tell you what he’s done. Be comfort, be a shepherd, lead him. It is not too late. Prove yourself, Steph. She slipped her hand back into her pocket to touch the little book. It was reassurance. “I’ve come to help you, to guide you to the good path.”

He scoffed without even looking at her.

“Confess your sins. There is still hope for you,” she said, uncomfortable with how awkward her words sounded.

He shot her a nasty condescending glance. She was trying to manipulate him and he would have none of it.

“Tell me about the corpse,” she said, adopting a mother’s soothing tone.

“Corpse?”

“The corpse you brought with you. Did you hurt that person? Why did you do it? Was it someone you knew?”

“Ha! Corpse. Yes,” he responded. “A corpse!”

“Was it someone you loved?”

He lunged at her, grabbing two bars and pressing his face between them. Spit flew from his mouth as he shouted,” HE IS COMING! He is coming and when he gets here, you’ll wish you’d prepared as I have.”

3.

Later that evening, there were screams. A guard was found murdered. Near the bloody mess, scrolled neatly in white chalk, was the same eye as was found drawn outside.


THE SHADOW

1.

“We found Rudyard this morning,” Peter said to Steph as they walked the hall to the dining room.

“He was the last, right? The last of the night guard,” she asked, slipping her small hand into his.

Their postures, their steps, their words were heavy with the emotions of unexpected tragedies. And fear. Over the last four days, they’d found each of the four night guards murdered.

Dog's Tongue was a small outpost. There were sixteen guards assigned to the post. Losing a quarter of their cohort was a difficult reality.

“Yes,” Peter answered. “He was the last of the night guard. I’ve been reassigning guards from other shifts, other duties, to cover the gaps.”

“Have you telegraphed Home Office?”

He sighed, not wanting to share his next words. “I haven’t told anyone; the lines must be down somewhere between us and the Dayton outpost. I’ve been tapping out messages for days now without a single response.”

“ So, we’re alone on this?”

“Looks that way.”

“Do we have any clues? Any idea who might be doing this or how they would have gotten inside the tower?”

“No. Not really,” he started. “The only clue we have is that strange eye. The symbol that Rudyard talked about, outside, four nights ago. We found it near each of the murdered guards, drawn with chalk.”

“Any idea what it might mean?” She was nervous, anxious. She slipped her hand into her pocket and ran her fingers across the compacted, closed pages of her little book. The texture was course. The pages were old and unevenly cut. I’m not alone, she told herself. She didn’t need to be so afraid. This is just part of the test.

“No idea,” Peter said, deep in thought. It was clear, he hadn’t slept well the past few nights. “What I do know is that we are posted at the edge of the world. We have tough men and women guarding this place. The toughest men and women. And, four of them are dead. We’re in the middle of nowhere. I have to assume the murderer is a guard.”

“What?” she said, startled, frightened.

“I know, Steph. I just don’t know what else to think.”

She tugged at his hand, stopped him and turned him to face her. She looked up at him with grave, serious eyes. “Who, Peter, who do you suspect?”

“Honestly, the only one who comes to mind is Griswold,” he said, clearly not wanting to admit his suspicion, even to himself. He looked past her, to the floor, unable to make eye contact.

“Griswold,” she said his name, sounding more convinced than Peter did. “Are you sure? Why him?”

“I don’t know. He found the first body. He’s violent with the other guards. And, I took a hard look at his file this morning. Seems he comes from a well-to-do family back in the capital.”

“Well-to-do? What’s the significance of that?”

“He could afford chalk.”

2.

“Have you seen it?” The man in cell number six asked.

“I told you, it had been cleaned up before I could,” Steph responded. She was sitting on a small wooden stool a few feet in front of the cell, sipping coffee and nibbling on a piece of sweet bread.

“Not those,” he said, enjoying the moment. “It moves. It multiplies. Does it not?”

Steph leaned forward, intrigued. This man had been locked up since before the murders, since before the eye was found outside. She thought about the little book. She could feel its slight weight tugging at her pocket. “Who told you about that?”

“I don’t need be told anything. I told you that I came prepared. You didn’t listen,” he was smiling, pleased with himself. “Not that it would have mattered. You are helpless, unprepared. I have cleared the way and I will be rewarded.”

“Tell me what you’ve done. Tell me now. RIGHT NOW!” Steph stood, shouting. She could no longer restrain her frustration.

The man put his back against the cold stone wall, slid, smugly, to the floor and crossed his arms. He stared at her. He did not respond.

3.

“How many have we lost?” Steph asked.

“The four from the original night guard, one yesterday, two the day before, another this morning. Eight total,” Peter responded.

He was getting dressed. It was late afternoon. The air was cold. The light was dim.

“What are you going to do?” Steph asked sitting on the bed and sipping hot tea.

“I think this has gone on long enough,” he started, as he strapped on his leather riot armor. It wouldn’t stop a bullet, but it would make taking punches a little easier. “I’m going to lock up Griswold.”

He looked back at Steph. She could see uncertainty in his eyes. He’d be going alone. That was his way. She worried about him. He was strong, determined, able. But, so was his enemy.

“I love you, Peter,” she said. Her words hung honestly, nakedly in the space between them.

“I know,” he looked away, snugging a strap, securing his armor.

“This won’t end well,” she told him.

“I know,” he said.

4.

“What are you doing?” The man in cell number six was startled, but not actually concerned. She was acting tough, but surely, she didn’t have it in her to hurt him.

“I’m tired of playing games,” Steph said, her sidearm in hand. She broke open the cylinder to confirm the weapon was loaded and snapped it back into place with a menacing elegance. “Six bullets. You’re going to tell me what’s happening or I’m going to put these through you.”

She reached into her pocket, with one hand, to feel the little book. It was confidence. With the other hand, she aimed her weapon.

5.

Peter, electric with adrenaline, climbed the steps to the third floor. He reached the landing. Through this door, he’d be in the third floor hallway. One more door and he’d be dealing with Griswold.

He was alone in the stairwell.

Or so he had assumed.

“Peter.”

He froze. The voice startled him. It was unfamiliar, but at the same time non-threatening, friendly. His eyes darted around the cramped space, searching. There, to his right, on the landing. How could he have missed it? A small dog.

Not a dog.

It had hands where its front paws should have been.

“What?” Peter was understandably confused.

“Peter,” said the dog. “My name is Jeb.”

“This isn’t happening,” Peter said, feeling panicked.

“I haven’t much time and neither do you. I need you to listen to me. Something very bad is going to happen.”

“It’s already happening. And apparently I’m going crazy to boot.”

“You’re not crazy,” Jeb the dog said. “I’m here to warn you.”

“Warn me? Warn me about what?” He stopped, calming himself. I’m talking to a dog. This isn’t real.

“Kill Stephanie.”

“You’re kidding.” I’m losing it. This isn’t real. This isn’t happening.

“I’m sorry, Peter, but it’s the only way.”

“Ridiculous,” Peter said as he opened the door and walked away from the talking dog. Get yourself together, man. Breathe. Breathe.

Griswold’s room was just around the corner and down the hall a short distance.

There was no way Griswold would go easily, voluntarily. Peter was preparing himself, mentally, emotionally for this confrontation. He’d had to pull Griswold off of other guards in the past, but he always had back-up for when things got out of control. Why did I come alone? This was a stupid idea, he scolded himself. No turning back now. Keep it together, Peter, just a little longer.

He pulled his sidearm, broke open the cylinder and confirmed it was loaded, then slid it back into the holster. He left the retaining strap, dangling, unsecured, in case he had to pull the weapon with speed.

Peter paused before the corner and took a deep breath to still his nerves. He was committed. He was ready. He turned the corner.

Peter’s heart sank.

Midway down the hall was Griswold.

Standing over Griswold’s massacred body was the corpse, the thing the prisoner had dragged to the watchtower. On a length of leather, dangling from its neck, was a piece of chalk.

Oh no, I’m still hallucinating, Peter thought.

“Hey!” Peter shouted, indulging his hope, his fear, that what he was seeing was real.

The corpse turned to see Peter and leapt at him with an animal’s furocity. Before he could react, the thing had knocked him to the ground and was on top of him.

Not a hallucination, Peter thought. This hurts.

Peter’s world became small and chaos. The creature had him pinned the way a cat pinned a mouse. The thing was absurdly strong for how rail thin it was. To look at it one would assume it frail, brittle, weak. Looks could be deceiving.

Peter pressed his forearm against its throat, just barely keeping its snapping jaws from his exposed face. Thick globs of spit and foul, putrid breath threatened to overwhelm him. He struggled through the maelstrom to slip his revolver from its holster at his hip.

6.

“It’s too late,” the man in cell number six said. “There’s nothing you can do now.”

This is still a test. You still have time. It’s not too late. But you do need to hurry. Steph let loose a frustrated scream and fired her weapon. The shot buried itself in the stone just beside the man’s head. A warning shot. Control.

He was shocked, frozen with fear. He didn’t want to die locked in a cell when he was so very near to the end. He had prepared. He was prepared. He just needed to survive this stupid, simple girl.

“It’s the eye,” he said, quietly. “Once you see it, you’re marked.”

“Marked?” Steph lowered the weapon.

“It leaves a stain behind that the shadow sees.”

“Shadow?”

“You people saw a corpse, because I needed you to see a corpse. But, it’s not a corpse.”


THE ROOM

In the room at the top of the east tower, the man from cell number six looked out through the window onto the narrow land bridge that was barely visible under the soft glow of the moon. He saw something. He looked back across the room to see Peter and Steph talking to one another; he couldn’t tell what about. They didn’t see what he saw. He returned his gaze to the window, through the window. From the wilderness, someone was approaching.

“He’s here,” the man said, quietly, in wonderment. A smile was spreading across his face. It was finally happening. Soon enough, he would be rewarded for his efforts.

“What is he saying?” Peter snapped.

“I didn’t hear,” Steph said, nervously. She reached into her pocket to feel the little book, to make sure it was still there. It was confidence, patience, affirmation. She would make it through this. She had faith.

“How do we stop this thing?” Peter yelled at the man. “Hey! HEY! You! Are you listening to me? How do we stop this thing?”

The man ignored him. The someone disappeared into an archway, below, into the tower. “He’s here. He’s finally here,” he muttered.

Wrath. Peter flung his empty sidearm at the man, as hard as he could, bouncing the heavy metal thing off his head. The weapon hit the floor, loudly, clanging, and slid across the room. Like a marionette whose strings had been cut, the man collapsed onto the hard stone floor.

“Peter!” Shouted Steph.

“Not like I need it. I emptied six shots into that thing and nothing,” Peter said, broken. He walked over, picked up the weapon and jammed it back into its holster.

The man from cell number six staggered back to his feet. Blood leaked from his head and dripped from his beard. “He’s… here.”

“Footsteps,” Steph said. “I hear footsteps.”

The three grew silent, listening, waiting. Someone, or something, was ascending the stone steps to the room at the top of the tower.

There was an assertive knock at the door.

Steph positioned herself behind Peter. Both pulled their knives. The man from cell number six smiled, excitedly.

Another knock.

“I’ve waited so long for this,” the man said, easing slowly to his knees.

The knocking turned to violent pounding. The wooden door flexed in protest. They could hear it popping and cracking and failing. The old metal lock struggled to keep its hold.

“It’s going to get in,” Peter said, preparing himself to die.

“I know,” Steph said, in a neutral tone.

The lock gave out and the door burst open, spraying the room with splintering wood. A chunk of the metal lock flew across the room, bouncing, clattering.

Then there was silence.

There, in the doorway, stood not a corpse-monster, but a person, dressed thickly with animal furs.

“Who is that?” Peter blurted, becoming absolute panic.

The man from cell number six turned a gloating, knowing glance toward Steph and Peter. “You should have prepared as I have. The moment of reckoning is…”

He froze puzzled.

Steph reached out and pulled Peter close, his back pressing against her.

Strange, Peter thought. Her breath was calming on his neck. Her body was warm against his. In this moment of confusion, he felt safe, loved.

She kissed him, just behind the ear, where he liked it most and whispered, “Goodbye, Peter.”

Fluidly, as if rehearsed a thousand times, she cut open his throat. Blood burst from the severed arteries, spraying across the room. She released him. Peter’s lifeless, gurgling body dropped to the floor. A mist of blood hung in the air.

The prisoner looked at Steph then to the body then back to Steph. “I don’t understand,” he said.

“This is not our way,” said the person standing in the doorway. He tossed the corpse creature, limp and inanimate, onto the floor.

Steph moved toward the man from cell number six. “I’ve been here, waiting, for so long. Alone. When you arrived, I wanted to believe you. You told me you were prepared, but you weren’t. I tried so hard.”

“I was… I tried… I…,” he blurted. He tried scrambling to his feet. He tried to back away from her. She was a reptile, a coiled snake, spring-loaded, hiding in the dark, waiting to strike. He hadn’t seen her hiding, waiting. He admired her stealth, her patience, her discipline… her faith.

She’d seen him for what he was even before he’d arrived.

He was frozen before her.

She slipped the knife slowly into his heart and twisted it slowly before pulling it back out. He dropped to the floor, tears running down his cheeks.

Steph knelt to wipe the knife clean on the man’s shirt. The murderous weapon slipped, with a whisper, back into its sheath, at her belt.

Delicately, she pulled at the little red piece of string, still tied around her little finger. The knot came undone. She examined it, dangling from her pinching fingertips. “I did for you what I could do,” she said, before dropping it onto the man’s sticky, bloody body.

She stood and turned to the person in the doorway. “Welcome. You’ve crossed the threshold. I am Stephanie, a Witness to the Architect. I understand we have work to do.”

“Yes we do, Stephanie,” Coyote confirmed. “A lot of work. I understand you have something very important. Do you have it? Do you have it with you?”

Steph pulled the little book from her pocket. She looked down at it, lovingly, tracing the symbol embossed on its old leather cover. An eye, almond-shaped, with three lines radiating from the top and three lines radiating from the bottom.

“Of course,” she said.




SIMON AND THE LOCOMOTIVE
Thom Glick

“Have you ever stopped to think about what it is that’s really going on?” Coyote adopted a caring, concerned tone.

Simon, now an old man, his frail person collapsed at the opposite end of the small rectangular table.

“I know what’s going on,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’ve been tangled up in this nonsense since before you were born.”

“But not since before I was planned.”

Simon, looked up at the vile creature at the other end of the table. He thought about the dance they’d done, the paralleling of life-times. How different things had turned out for the two of them.

Simon was dressed in thick fabrics, the attire of a college professor, which is what he’d spent the better part of his life trying to be. His clothes were as worn out as he was, frayed and dirty and barely clinging to the little integrity they had left. His hair and beard were long and in desperate need of a comb.

Where is Jeb, now? Simon thought. I feel so alone. The end is surely coming soon.

“It’s you and your people who struggle and recycle over and over again, compromising and diluting what it is that you’re even doing. Surely you grow tired of this?” Coyote, said. “You’re soft meat trying to stop a locomotive.”

Coyote was calm, relaxed, confident. He was draped in the hooded robe that identified him as someone of the utmost importance to the Order. There were a number of symbols embroidered onto the garment, amongst them that terrible ever-watching eye, almond shaped with three lines radiating from the top and three lines radiating from the bottom. His face was neatly shaven, exposing the tattoos that rimmed his jawline, tattoos that would forever tether him to a life abandoned.

“Why don’t you enlighten me,” Simon said. “Tell me about what it is that I’m missing. Tell me why I’m wrong and you’re right.”

“You have to stop thinking in these terms, Simon. There is no right and wrong. These are artificial constructs designed by man to force order onto a fundamentally chaotic existence. Why do we need artificiality just to be?”

Eighty-three, Simon though. Eighty-three years old. I’ve given up my whole life and my dreams, for this. To hear this same rhetoric, again, from a different mouth, a different voice. How futile this seems. How can one man stop a locomotive? Jeb, where are you old friend? I could use your company now.

“There’s a futility in survival, Simon. Everything dies. Everything goes away. Everything is forgotten. Do you know why that is?”

“Please, tell me,” Simon muttered.

“It’s because this, all of this,” Coyote said, gesturing with his arms, looking around the room,” is unnatural. Survival is futile because everything goes away in the end. Everything goes away because nothing is natural. We, this, all of this, this world, other worlds, grass, puppies, clouds, we’re all unnatural. We’re all a perpetuation of a sin committed against the natural state of things. None of this should exist.”

He leaned back into his chair, not smugly, necessarily, but feeling accomplished, like a teacher having just explained some dense thing to his students. He was relishing it, letting it sink in.

“Nothing is a locomotive,” Coyote continued. “Its path is long and its destination is far away, but it’ll reach it, it’ll accomplish its goal. Soft meat making sacrifices can’t stop a locomotive. Especially not this locomotive. You are just one more piece of soft meat throwing yourself across the tracks. This is a fleeting, unnecessary moment. You are unnecessary. You will turn to nothing and you will be forgotten. Everything turns to nothing in the end. But the machine keeps moving along its path. You understand this, don’t you?”

“Too well, I suppose,” Simon said.

“I know you’ve sat with my predecessors, had similar conversations. Barabas, the stone man. The Siblings. The baroness, Katarina. They helped lay a path, but it is me that the prophecies speak of. I am the mortal cast out from his people to survive the unsurvivable. Where others have tried and failed, I have built the machine.”

“Machine? No, it’s not possible. The Nothing Mechanism? But how?” Simon’s heart ached as he spoke the words.

“Yes, Simon, I have a Nothing Mechanism. I am the one chosen by the Architect. I will be the one to punch a hole in this theater backdrop to reveal the void, the truth, that lays behind.”

“And what good is that?” Simon asked, struggling against drowning defeat.

“Good? You still cling to your oppositional binaries. As if they exist,” he snapped. “I am the one chosen by the Architect to see the truth. Beneath all of this,” again he gestured wide with his arms, “there is a truth in the absence. I have been granted access by the divine. I alone have been granted permission to see it. To see the truth.”

“You’re forgetting how the prophecy ends,” Simon added, clinging to a hope that was like a loose pile of sand disappearing in the wind. Jeb, please, where are you?

“I almost forgot. You are the one with the sight. The only living being able to read the language of the Architect. How conflicted you must feel. Without your translations, none of this would be possible. You’re to be celebrated as much as any witness to the Order.” He paused, then, a little perplexed. “But, tell me, what part of the prophecy do you reference?”

Simon recited what words he could remember.“In the final moments, the exile will stand, waiting, between the travelers and the machine. They, the travelers, strangers and betrayers, will come willingly, carrying the key to the machine. But do not forget caution, for standing at the side of the key-bearer will be Death dressed in a wolf’s skin. And it is through Death that all things remain.”

“You are such a narrow minded piece of meat. What makes you think I’ve forgotten caution? This is the locomotive of which I speak. You have so few, fixed cards to play. You hang your hope on an obstacle. A single obstacle. One spelled out neatly for all to see. It might have hung up my predecessors. But, in the scheme of things, your obstacle is just one more piece of debris to plow through.”

“What makes you think that any of this could have happened any other way? Can happen any other way?”

“Bah! Hopefull tripe. I grow tired of this.”

Coyote stood up from table and walked from the room. The already dimly lit space seemed to grow darker.

There was movement in the corner. Simon saw her, the famed assassin, the vampire. She was so patient to stand there in the shadows for so long, so stealthily.

There was a warmth at his side. He looked down to see his old friend. “Hello Jeb. I thought I was alone. I thought you’d forgotten me for some new more worthwhile hero.”

The assassin moved slowly, quietly.

Even after all this time, all these years, a lifetime, Simon was still mystified by the creature at his side. A small dog with a squat, squarish head and perky ears, hands where his front paws should have been. And those eyes, wise and empathetic. He reached up, taking Simon’s hand in his own.

“You are not to be forgotten, Simon,” Jeb said.

The warmth of his friend pushed away the weight of a lifetime of struggle and concern. Simon closed his eyes, basking in the relief. He had given all that he had to give.

“Goodbye, Jeb.”

“Goodbye, Simon.”

A swift arm. A sharp blade. Blood spread across the floor slowly as the machine, unaware, continued onward.