James Vandenberg (jvandenberg) wrote,
James Vandenberg
jvandenberg

Here are some stories I've written recently

Written because I liked the pun:

The following stories are a work of friction. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, especially the dead ones, is a coincidence.

Frank worshiped the old pagan gods. Well, worshiped is a misnomer. More had a healthy respect for them, and wouldn't turn them down when they asked for help. They tended to do that. There'd been a virtual monopoly in the god market for the last thousand years or so. Frank had been brought up in one of its orphanages, the house of the Merciful Sisters. Some of the lesser gods had moved on to other professions, like show business and accountancy. Others had found small groups of humans to form a cult around them, but it tended not to last. The rest came to Frank.

What made Frank special was that he helped gods. It was the reverse of the time honored agreement. Human gets themselves in trouble, human prays to gods, human gets themselves out of trouble, or dies. Humans that live attribute their luck or ingenuity to the gods. Humans that die have not been available for comment.

Frank was a god psychologist. He helped gods come to terms with their natures, and find new and productive ways to channel their energies. It was hard work at times, especially when dealing with gods so old that even they were beginning to forget what they were originally supposed to be gods of. The number of fertility gods he had seen had made him a guest of honor at the national association of nurserymen and horticulturists.

Occasionally he had to admit defeat. Last year, he could not help an old celtic god. He'd been the sprite of a small grove near Kilpatrick, until it had a motorway ripped through the center of the small tumble of rocks that was the gods home. There was nothing Frank could do. Whom among the gods would be destroyed, they first send bureaucracy.

But Frank's most intriguing case walked through his door on an August day. She was striking, her russet hair tumbled down to her shoulders like two lovers down a hillside. Carefree, she wore sunglasses. Many gods do, to protect humans from their piercing gaze, but this goddess wore them as part of her look. A styled suit, in white and dark navy accentuated all the right curves and subtly downplayed the wrong ones, but with gods, they can choose their own curves. Around her neck, a small amulet of an apple. Still, she couldn't hide the subtle signs of deism. For instance, Frank could not convincingly prove her existence.

"I can help you, Francis Noel Stein", she introduced herself. But that's my line, thought Frank. "I think I can help you", he replied, "It is, after all, my job."

"Indeed", said the mysterious goddess. "We can help each other", she said.

"I usually start by asking deities to tell me about themselves. Can you tell me your name?" said Frank, sitting down in his chair, and motioning the goddess to sit opposite him.

"I'm afraid that's not possible. You can call me Monica for now though".

Monica, thought Frank. It was a clue to the real name, because one things gods love is a puzzle. Unfortunately, one thing gods are not good at is coming up with good puzzles. It would just be a matter of racking his brain for the appropriate god of this nature.

"So, Monica. Can you tell me a bit about your family?" Frank asked. "I can tell you about yours," Monica replied. Frank tried to stifle his reaction. He masked his curiosity and excitement, and said "I asked about your family."

Monica leaned back. "Typical family, really. Mum was a controlling, jealous type. Dad screwed around with other goddesses, including a few of my sisters, a few gods, including some of my brothers, more cousins than I can name, and mortals left, right and center. He always put it down to having eaten his own fathers testicles when he was born and killed Grandad."

Frank sighed. Typical family, it didn't narrow things down at all. "What about kids of your own?" he asked.

"Well, a few." She wasn't giving away anything.

He decided to abandon that tack. The apple motif of the amulet around her neck jogged his memory.

"So, how do you think you can help me?" Frank asked, "Seeing as I have a name, and you are a goddess of names, Anapel."

A smile crept across her lips. "I can tell you what your Mother named you, before you were taken in by the Merciful Sisters. You can help me stop getting so mad when people name their kids by stringing random syllables together."

Frank, or as he was actually named by his mother, Faltizunerr, agreed.

*****************************

Next story!

*****************************

I ripped into the animal's flesh. Some time ago I had been a vegetarian. Time has become a slippery concept. Perhaps it has been years, maybe only a week. I pulled some muscle off the animal's leg. It would feed me tonight, and perhaps tomorrow. I would dry the rest of the meat, so that I would not have to kill again so soon.

The sun had hovered at the top of its arc, and was now slowly starting to fall. I would have to carve the rest of the animal's flesh, and hang it to dry. It would be hard to do on an empty stomach. An stomach empty enough hurts. Pain can make you do shameful things. I had lectured my friends on the cruelty of meat, and here I was, salivating as some part of the animal sizzled over the fire. I had nobody left to share it with. There were five of us that, exhausted, made it to the beach. Now, there was just me.

Carving the carcass took longer than I expected. I didn't really know what to do with the wobbly belly lumps. Organs I think, although which ones were which I had no idea. I figured out the colon in the most unpleasant way. Steven would have known which bits were which. But the hardest part was the head. I knew from watching TV, one of the nerdy science channels that brains were full of nutrition. But it was the face that made it hard. Every now and then, I would see the eyes, and I would know that I had killed this animal.

Getting late, the sun races toward the sea. Still no sign of rescue, although I'm not sure I want to be rescued anymore. How can I go back to my old life, having eaten meat? My friends will sneer over their pasta bake. "Murderer" they will say. And I will agree with them.

Finally, the meat is all hung on poles, out of reach of any hungry beasts that may roam the island. Although, perhaps I am the only one here now. It isn't a very big island. It seems to be smaller tonight. The fire will keep away the dark, and the thoughts. As the sun sets, I know that I am not worth saving, but I will be rescued. The only one left.

I just cannot sleep. I have been trying not to acknowledge the fact that my dinner tonight was last night eating its own dinner. That it had a heartbeat, and breathed the same air I do. I have been calling it the animal, trying to make it impersonal, distant, and painless. But I keep running my mind back to yesterday morning.

There had been no breakfast, again. I'd been thinking about killing the animal, and the best way of doing it. I had no easy weapon, no knife or gun. We had very little when we swam to the shore. I had to take it by surprise. I hoped that bashing its brains in with a large rock would be quick and painless. I would hate to see it suffer.

But I was an ethical human. I tried to live in harmony with nature. I donated to worthy causes. I exercised regularly, and made sure all my purchases had a low carbon footprint. I didn't eat meat, for so many reasons. I can't pontificate now, with this bloodstain. Three days, between the first thought of grabbing the protein that was walking around the island with me, and actually doing the killing.

Finally, this morning I did it. Now it's dark, and it has started to haunt me. The moon shines on me, although I haven't asked it to pollute its light with my corruption. I took a rock, and stealthily came up behind the animal. I must have startled it at the last minute, because as I raised the rock over my head, it turned around. I will never forget the noise that came out of its throat.

"What the fuck, Jake?"

I miss Steven.
*****************************

The follow-up:

*****************************

Have you ever walked through a field of grass, without shoes? I'm not
sure what it is, but I feel at peace when I'm touching the earth. I need
all the peace I can get. Some might say that I feel in touch with life.
That's bullshit. I know what some types of life can do to other types of
life. It's my job to know these things.

You see, I work for what used to be called the War Department. This is
back in the days when governments weren't obsessed with their image, and
their language. Now it's the Department of Defence. I shouldn't tell you,
as there's all sorts of secrecy rules, but I don't care anymore. There is
no hope left. I don't think I'll ever be out of a job. People are just
too willing to kill each other. An eye for an eye and the whole world
goes blind. I can't believe that skinny Indian guy belonged to the same
species.

I've been thinking about it. Human beings are a disease. The guys who
wrote that matrix film were right. We are giving the planet a fever. We
are too good at survival, nothing else has a chance. Everything lives in
nature in balance with its environment. Not because it makes a decision
to, but because it is fighting the environment as hard as it can. When we
fight our environment, we win. Always. Out of all the ape species, we are
the only one not endangered. We do the endangering. We live further north
than any other primate. We break the rules of evolution. We laugh at
natural selection. We have no predators to keep us in check, and we
secure our own food supply. The only thing that stops us being deadlier
to the planet is our own squabbling.

I specifically work for the Host and Asset Interaction Laboratory. That
means I study how diseases work. There are many people in the civilian
world that do this as well. How we differ is in our goals. My goal is to
make the infectious organism more, not less, deadly. Interestingly, I've
been looking lately at some viruses that attack pathogenic bacteria. It's
an interesting idea for the civilians. Can you make a virus that stops
the so-called superbugs, like methicillin-resistant staphylococcus
aureus. I kinda laugh at that. I've met superbugs, I've worked with
superbugs. You, MRSA, are no superbug. Although the idea of a diseased
disease intrigues me.

So I walk through the field outside the laboratory. There is a flock of
sheep here, so I have to dodge the little piles of black balls that they
have left. They are healthy sheep. We take some of them inside sometimes,
and they become less healthy. Out here, they get to munch on grass and
enjoy the sunlight.

Three years ago, we made a breakthrough discovery. At the time we
celebrated, because it was a bit of an intellectual leap we made, and it
paid off. It was only later that the implications sunk in for me. I'd
been so detached from what my work actually meant, that when I did
realise what it meant, well, that's why I'm out here, and not in there
making more death.

The thing is, you lose perspective. We don't consider HIV to be that bad
a virus. It's not airborne, nor can you get it just by touching someone.
Well, unless you touch them in a special way. Even then, it's difficult.
No, we're scared of things like smallpox, and the filoviridae. Things you
can get by being sneezed on. But they aren't so bad, because they burn
themselves out too quickly. People die before they can pass it on.
Influenza is our dream virus. It mutates and evolves and shifts and keeps
moving. It's just not very good at killing people, although when it
tries, it really does some damage.

Well, we combined slow lethality virus with a good epidemiology virus. A
rhinovirus if you're interested. Causes things like the common cold.
Highly infectious, everybody gets it. If you think you're one of those
people that don't get colds, well, you do, you just don't have an immune
system that panics and tries to wash it out with snot. Well, we combined
this little sweetie with something that kills everyone, eventually. Yep,
Good old human immunodeficiency virus. As viruses go, it's a little
sissy. Can't live outside the human body more than a few hours, won't
ride the sneeze express, and it's not very good at actually getting into
the human body in the first place. We essentially gave it boot camp, made
it a bit tougher. We really shouldn't have done that.

Sitting out here, I can see the entire lab. I'm still within the security
perimeter. Unlike most security perimeters, this one isn't to stop people
getting in, it's to stop things getting out. Mostly wildlife, really, and
it's just a precaution. There's absolutely nothing to worry about,
everything is fine. When a politician says that, leave. Just get in your
car and drive. Escape.

It's time for our delivery from the nearby town. Even death labs have
staff cafeterias. The truck drives up, its engine clearly needing a
service. It's just before lunch, and I wonder what they're making in the
cafeteria today. Probably something barely edible. We often joke that
their food service cabinets have deadlier bacteria than the rest of the
lab.

We got a message from the War Department. They wanted the deadly
rhinovirus to be weaponized. My boss argued strongly against it. It's
just too powerful a virus. It would kill everyone, friend and foe alike.
Say this to a military man, and they just get a stiffie. They say they
would use it as a deterrent. It's far more effective against terrorist
than nuclear or chemical weapons, since it can find them in their hiding
places. Indeed, the generals would destroy the world to spite the
terrorists.

Today is the day they wanted it delivered. We told them we would do our
best. Some of us actually did. I wonder if swordsmiths in the middle ages
got the same way. Even though they were making something designed to kill
people, they put so much thought and effort into it, because they were
seduced by it. Today, despite my bosses best efforts, the weapon is
ready, and its edge is so sharp. We will deliver it today.

The delivery men have just started unloading their truck. The wind is
picking up, blowing my hair into my eyes. I take the container I smuggled
out of the lab from my coat. Looking into it, the two hundred grams of
death are lying there, not giving away that the powder is the end of the
world. A deterrent is useless if you use it. I was going to give those
uniforms a lesson. The wind gusted. I opened the container, and let the
evil white powder drift down towards the lab. The delivery men kept
working, even though they now had two jobs to do.

There's absolutely nothing to worry about. Everything is fine.

*****************************

A dialog exercise

*****************************

"I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I just cannot approve your planning application",
said the bewildered, annoyed council official. His name was William, and he
prefered that to Will, which everyone called him. It annoyed him. It was the
man in front of him at the help desk that bewildered him.

"Why not? I have checked it against every planning regulation, and I see no
conflict." said Mr. Xenotopos.

"The thing is, well, you see, um..." the council official faltered.

"The regulations did not forsee this situation, Mr. Xenotopos," said George
Wallman, director of planning, as he strode in, reminding William of a cavalry
charge.

"Yes, exactly! Couldn't forsee, you see!" said William.

"I don't." said Mr. Xenotopos, narrowing his eyes slightly.

"Will, could you go help Dave move those maps up from the basement?" George said.

William nodded. George rubbed his chin, trying to come up with a solution. It
didn't work. It hadn't worked since he had found out about this whole mess last
Friday.

"Mr. Xenotopos, I appreciate your patience on this. But we can't have you
building it. If it was an ordinary house, it would be fine. If it was a goddamn
ugly house, we'd eventually let it through, after throwing up a few objections
under the 'general character and amenity of the area' clauses. But this, this
thing, we just can't let it through."

"Interesting you say you can't let it through. It's already built." Mr
Xenotopos calmly replied.

"Well, you'll have to demolish it!" George could feel his headache coming back.
There's only so much aspirin in the world. "We cannot have a portal to the
demon realms in Morganville Heights! For one thing, the noise of tortured
souls, we'll be flooded with complaints from your neighbours. Then there's the
whole Satan's Pit thing. Not good for tourism. We'll get plenty of visitors but
they'll all be broke goth kids who'll cut themselves and clog up the hospital.
We'd end up looking like Newton Valley, except I think that's where you'll find
your portal comes out."

Mr Xenotopos drummed his fingers on the desk. "It's not like I wanted to build
it," he sighed "I'd bought that land to make a little shopping complex."

"Well, we certainly would approve that, assuming the application ticked all the
boxes." George said. "Why can't you do that? Why a demon haunted whorl?"

Mr Xenotopos sat down. He seemed to have lost the drive that George remembered
when he first met the man, all those years ago.

"When I was a young man," Mr. Xenotopos said, leaning on the desk, "I wanted to
make a lot of money. I didn't have any at the time, so I liked the idea of
having some. When you're young, you don't value things as you later do. I sold
something I didn't value at the time. I should have wondered why I got such a
good price for it. Took me a while to realise that I needed it. So I'm building
this thing so I can go and steal my soul back. Once I've got it, I'll destroy
it, replace it with Mr X's Shopperville. But let me do this in the meantime."

George gave in. "When you put it like that, I think we can make a temporary
approval. Twelve months is the most I can give you. But only because I've known
you so long."

"All I need," said Mr Xenotopos. "I've got to go talk to the blood bank now. I
don't think they'll be as understanding as you, George. It's good to have
friends like you."

*****************************

And maybe the start of a novel, but I'm not sure now.

*****************************

I hear the DJ play the same songs each night. A different order, or a few new
ones in and a few old ones dropped, but the punters don't care. They are here
to drink, and to dance, and to pick up. I am here to serve them the drinks they
use to forget what miserable lives they lead. It's not that hard. Most people
want beer. Or a simple cocktail, one that is named Spirit and Mixer. The women
tend to ask for named drinks, and the names get lewder as the music gets
louder. You tend to stop seeing the people, you just see them as drink orders.
You don't want to notice them getting more and more drunk. At the dregs of the
night, only the saddest, drunkest or most drug fucked people remain. All the
rest have gone home, or to someone elses home.

Then the fuck off lights come up, and the music stops. The last of the punters
file out the door. The glassy grabs the last few half-finished drinks. I grab
my bag from the back storeroom. There's a sandwich I put there before I left.
I'd intended to grab it around one in the morning, but it was just too busy
then. I wolf it down. Maybe tonight I'll beat the sun home. I'll get to sleep
before that shiny faced bitch hits me in the face and keeps me awake until the
afternoon, when I just collapse.

I have to stop at the petrol station on the way home. It's one of those places
that doubles as a twenty-four hour supermarket, selling milk and condoms.
Because nothing goes as well after a good fuck as a nice hot cup of tea. You
should try it sometime. Hell, I should try it sometime. Working in a nightclub
doesn't give you much chance to socialise. Besides, I'm a touch disadvantaged
when it comes to social interactions. I keep wanting to kill people.

A petrol station at four in the morning is not a normal place. Lights shine
brightly on the empty forecourt. The supermarket section, flourescent and
blinding sells the things that you might neeed when normal shops are closed. I
make a game, whenever I'm in here, of combining three random objects that are
on the shelves, and finding a way of explaining your possesion of them to a
sceptical police officer, or a kindly old grandmother. For instance, what would
a man want with jumper leads, personal lubricant, and cream cheese. Although,
I've never found a good explanation for any combination involving an Abba
greatest hits CD.

As I'm paying for my petrol, I notice a familiar car on the forecourt. The man
driving it has just finished pumping. I wish I knew why that car was familiar.
The girl behind the counter grabs my attention. "Sorry," I mumble, "I was
distracted". She proffers my bank card at me. "Didn't go through". The fuckwit
who pretends to be my manager has fucked up the pay again. My wallet is empty.
Shit.

The man with the familiar car speaks from behind me. "I'll cover it, mate." he
says, his voice low, and deliberate, and careful. This stranger has saved me.
"After all, people like us need to stick together". What the fuck? I'm not
people like him. I don't even know what people like him are like. I don't like
this, but I can't do anything about it. "Seeya, killer!" he says, waving me
goodbye. Was that innocent? Just a turn of phrase? Or a signal? I wander back
to my car. People like us? Does he do what I try not to?

I got home before sunrise. I couldn't sleep though. That stranger at the petrol
station had spooked me. By the time I did sleep, the sun had got her rays into
the sky. I shut the curtains tight. My dreams were filled with blood that day,
the knife, the rope. I need to find a way to stop this before I act on it.
Normal people dream about sex, and think nothing of it. I dream of murder, and
want to scream.


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