Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Eiffel Apartments

The girders above me crisscross with no discernable pattern, the spire of the familiar arcing landmark lost completely at this entirely vertical angle. Around me, I can see the middle class apartments that have been built around the tower's four legs, intersected at ground level by the shaded blue canals which connect this place to all corners of the city. A gust of surprisingly cold air rushes past the thin walkway where I stand staring, and, tightening my overcoat by several notches, I walk on and into one of the building's interior hallways, hopefully more suited to cold weather.

"New Eiffel Tower Apartments - room number E-417A" reads the note in my hand, and my handwriting - the possible whereabouts of the man I've been ordered to find. For many years, it was believed that I was the only government agent in the world who could work in dreams as well as in reality, a fact that my superiors were quite proud of.

But recently, there had been rumors of a dream operator more shrouded in shadow than myself - his nationality and loyalty both unknown, and his base of operations only rumored to be somewhere in this long-since independent French colony. Why he would choose such a strange country as this - a small island built in the same shape as Paris, with its landmarks scaled up in size for dramatic effect - is a mystery.

Scanning the door numbers, I deduce that the room in question is in one of the other buildings, and backtrack outside to the nearest tower-to-tower transport device. This small chamber, a steel elevator-sized cage dangling by long chains from a rail high above, is unfortunately the best that could be done in an elaborate makeshift building like this - with the complex maze of rafters and walkways above, a simpler device would suffer from constant jams too difficult to easily repair.

I step into the chamber, which shakes lightly as I fasten the gate behind me. The chains above squeal as the room swings away from the building, the scenery outside still visible through the bars. The room trembles as the chains constrict to lift it, and through the grating below I can see the canals and girders below shrink subtly as I rise.

With a clang, the room fastens against another building, the gate opening to escort me out. As I walk through the halls, watermarks seem to appear on the walls, surprise evidence that this building is more dilapidated than the last one. Turning a corner, I find a large pipe jutting out of one wall, dripping water into a gaping hole below. I pause, sensing something wrong - how could just one wing of this complex decline so completely? 

Anxious to get this investigation over with, I rush to the room indicated on my slip of paper. Instead of a door, there is just a drawing of one, with these words written where the knob should be:

"Let's see you dream your way out of this one."

Immediately, I turn and make top speed back towards the transport - shaming myself for not having seen this trap coming. This complex, the elevator - all of these are obvious mimics of my own unique dream architecture, specially forged so that I would not realize I was in fact just walking into someone else's mind.

I make it back to the transport just in time to see the chains release, dropping the little caged room into a canal ten floors below. Looking around at the ready-to-collapse building around me, I concede that I only have one option, to grudgingly fall back on my last resoer. Rubbing my eyes open, I wake up, tipping my hat to this new enemy, knowing that once awake I will never encounter him again.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

In The Stone

The old man drags his feet through the shallow water, right and to the next of the boulders which circle this mountaintop plateau. The tightly packed rocks hold in the condensed moisture at his feet, and while most would have long ago been driven to move on by this trap, he knows that, for him, the boulders hold something much more important as well. Looking back to his left, he sees his carved words marking the face of each stone, and, turning back to the current slate, smiles, knowing that this sentence will be the conclusion, the climax.

Running words and phrases through his head, he strains to tune out the busy sound of a freeway which cuts through a large valley in the mountain range behind him, and to ignore the three or four others who wander around the circle, probably pondering over his previous work. Finally, a word strikes him, then another, and, after a few minutes of careful re-arranging, he lifts his chisel, and resumes. 

When finished, he steps back, admiring this final line in his masterpiece.

"The world is not made of time alone - to see the world, we must make time our own."

He laughs, a victory cry, and swings his arm dramatically through the knee-high water. Content and pleased, he steps back to the left, to read the line in conjunction with that previous to it.

"He walked to the store, and then he went in the store, and he got lost."

One eyebrow cocks at this, and the old man wonders what he had been thinking to write such a line. He would have to bring in a new boulder to replace it, no easy task for him. Perhaps his victory had been announced prematurely.

Stepping over to review the previous line, a look of horror strikes him. The line reads:

"As I once said, many years back, beef stew. A cob of corn. Two bullets."

He gasps, and walks as fast as he can through the waist-deep flood, in search of the piece's beginning. A painful grimace takes his face as he passes one boulder covered entirely in X's and O's, and another with "rock" written in large letters across it. His life's work, in the end just an incoherent ramble, god only knows how many years in the making.

He runs up to one of the others, a young girl whom he knows he should recognize, but can not. "Forgive me... I've wasted so much time!"

The girl shushes him, and pulling a blanket from off of one of the boulders, leads him through the water to his small bunk, sitting atop a trio of large and intensely scribbled upon stone giants. He groans as they pass two younger men, standing and looking over a massive pile of his old junk.

The two shake their heads as he passes. One, a biographer, turns to the other and stutters. "It's sad, isn't it? For his mind to have drifted so far..."

The other, a museum curator, turned to look over the piles before him - beautiful handcrafted folk art, carved resourcefully from a blend of household objects. "The real tragedy is that these, his real masterpieces, will probably never be appreciated until long after his death. He neglected these treasures in favor of an intended masterpiece, which quickly turned into a directionless mess."

"He had achieved some negligible success as a minor beat poet, in his youth," the biographer explained. "And, I suppose, felt that was the one thing he was meant to do. But if you ask me, working in such an abstract medium doomed him to nonsense from the start." He looked back to the pile, the pieces floating on the water's top. "What about these pieces? Is your museum going to buy?"

The curator's hand reached up through the water, scratching ritually at his chin. "Sadly, that's uncertain. There's a lot of red tape, and the museum board isn't always willing to take a chance on an unestablished artist like this...."

"Well, they'd better do something quick, before the water gets to them." The biographer turns, pained to see the paint on the lower statues beginning to peel from moisture.

"Let's hope so, for his sake more than ours," the curator sighs. With heavy hearts, the two men turn and swim back across the tiny lake, while the old man watches from his bed, unable to fully recall their words but knowing regretfully that each one was true.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Periodic Table of Yakuza

Curled against the lower corner of her airtight cell, she peered through the triple-layered glass into the wide hallway outside, and through the opposite wall's floor-to-ceiling windows at the city below. Surprisingly expensive, modern architecture for a prison, she noted for the hundredth time, but she supposed such measures were to be expected when dealing with a criminal of her caliber.

She wondered, as she had countless times before, if this entire wing had been constructed just to house her - the other ten cells in the hallway had yet to be occupied, and besides her there were only a handful of criminals for which hermetically sealed rooms like these would be a necessity.

Less than a half year before, she had been far away from this place, sitting high in her private penthouse while the yakuza bosses she had once groveled before were at long last groveling back. They had laughed, years before, when she had told them her plan - to use a kidnapped genetic scientist, already in their custody anyway, to tweak the genes of select yakuza to enhance their abilities. The fools had mockingly told her to go back to her comics and cartoons, but she had known her plan was sound and had gone ahead without approval. After a few failed experiments, the scientist successfully devised a procedure which gave his subjects limited control over specific mineral elements, and before killing him she had forced him to endow such skills to her and a handful of associates, who despite their small numbers soon became the most feared of all the world's gangs, with all lesser organizations begging in cowardice to serve.

There had been "Johnny" Kibatsu, whose power over sulphur could ignite gunpowder, causing the guns of those who threatened him to backfire, always fatally. And "Nickels" Hisashi, so named because he could kill a man with no more than the change in his pocket. Deadlier still had been "Girders" Kanzaki, who could cause an entire police station to collapse just by touching its foundations, and Shoji "The Pencil" Otomo, whose ability to cause lead poisoning had been used to carry out countless untraceable assassinations.

But she had been the deadliest of them all, which is why she was now sealed in this tiny room while they were out in the world somewhere, presumably forced to use their abilities for construction or manufacturing. None of them had been smart enough to make successful moves on their own, but even if they had, they were still too afraid of her to do anything without her blessing. It was only because she was trapped here, she reminded herself, that they were allowing themselves to become servants for government dogs, and if she could only get out than the Periodic table gang would quickly rise again.

"Well helloooo..." whistled a guard entering the room, obviously an ignorant newcomer. "So... what did a nice girl like you do to get into a place like this?"

She smiled, wearily but flirtily. "Oh, some kidnappings and a bombing..." she lied.

"That's not very nice..." winked the guard, suggestively. "But, I guess that's why you're stuck in a not-very-nice room, right?"

"I guess so," she forced a wink back.

"Well, your supper's here." He opened the airlock chamber used to transport food and silverware and placed inside a plastic tray, on which sat the flavorless noodles she had grown all too accustomed to. "You must be a damn picky eater, if this is all you want..."

"Oh yes, very picky... oh, but look. I think they forgot the salt."

The man smiled and pulled a packet out of his pocket. "Well then, aren't you lucky that I just happened to have this on me?"

She smiled as he slid the packet through the door, and turned his back to look out the window. "You know, you're quite a pretty one... not a lot like you in this prison, that's for sure..."

The silence was broken as a large blast punctured the cell's glass wall, throwing his body to the floor and his mind reeling. Behind him, the girl smiled a true smile for the first time in memory, and stepped out the broken window and over his body, her raised right fist surrounded by a whirlwind cloud of tiny salt granules. 

The guard swiveled to see this cloud growing larger and more defined, as it sucked trace amounts of the substance into it from the hall's carpets. One tiny granule scratched his cheek as it shot past, stinging him with a razor-like slash.

Suddenly panicked, he reached for his pistol, pulling it clumsily from its holster. "B... back in the cell! Get back!"

She only smiled as his hands dropped, quickly growing pale and collapsing to the ground. His eyes trembled, as all feeling vanished from his arms and legs, both drained of some forgotten but essential element. Struggling to explain what was happening, he frantically searched his mind, only to find it vanishing just as quickly as his body before it. A weak scream turned into a wheeze, and he fell to the floor, writhing chaotically.

Less than ten seconds later, his body had turned to a moist, shriveled husk, every bit of sodium in his body now part of the cloud that circled the girl. With another, larger blast, the giant windows she had looked at so longingly before shattered, and she stepped out over the city, walking on a shifting bridge of ghostly white.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Australian Crest Shark

Floor-to-ceiling windows on the hallway's north end show a half-panorama of the city, forty floors below, with only three or four of its many skyscrapers climbing past my vantage point and into the clouds. Moving to this city was a good move after all, I assure myself - just looking out on the countless city blocks spread out ahead is almost as worthwhile as the exploration that is no doubt soon to come.

A woman, one of the other guests at the absurd cocktail party from down the hall, approaches me, inquiring about the door I am leaning against. "Excuse me, is this bathroom in use?"

"It is... but, not in the way you mean," I shake my head cryptically. "Tell me, have you ever heard of the Australian Crest Shark?"

Bewildered, she shakes her head no. "Sorry, I haven't..."

I nod at the bottom of the door, where water can be seen leaking onto the carpet beneath our feet. "You see, there's one of them in there right now. She's flooded the entire room - swimming laps, most likely."

The woman squints, surprised. "Well, isn't that the craziest... what does it look like?"

"She's slimmer than most sharks, and has a head which moves separately from the rest of her body, unique among all fish. She also has a long crest extending from the back of her head, like that of a Pteranodon." I use my hands to clarify, just in case the woman is lacking in dinosaur knowledge. "But the strangest thing about her is the way that she eats. You see, her own jaws are relatively weak, but she uses the sharp end of the crest to cut out the jawbones of larger sharks, like a Great White, which she then wears over her own mouth, like a sort of headgear. The larger jaws and sharper teeth enable her to attack even larger prey..."

"How strange..." the woman shakes her head. "But... well, how is it able to remove the jaws from such a large creature? I think a Great White would kill it before it got a chance..."

"Well, she only removes the jaws temporarily, and the larger creatures let her take it peacefully." I sigh and shake me head. "But nobody knows exactly why they allow this - it leaves the larger shark defenseless, not to mention it's completely against their predatory nature. Coastal Aborigines had a theory, though. They called the crest shark a witch of the seas, and believed that she used magic, or psychic powers, to seduce larger creatures into giving her whatever she wants. They also thought that, by using the jawbones of other creatures, she could see into the dreamtime and read the future. A strange theory, but interesting, no?"

"Very interesting..." the woman says. "Though, I don't think I want to be here when that thing comes out of there. The bathroom downstairs will have to do, I suppose." Insufficiently hiding her nervousness, she wanders back down the hall, blending back into the crowd beyond the door.

Turning, I can see that the water has stopped leaking under the door, the bathroom now empty of water. I step closer and tap lightly. "Are you all done."

"Yes, you can come in now," a woman's voice says.

I open to door and see her standing in a puddle at the foot of the sink, returned temporarily to her human form. Around her face she still wears the twisted jawbone of a Tiger Shark, her own red lips smiling between the serrated teeth, her slim nose and catlike eyes peeking out above the lips. Strangely, it fits with her long black gown and her deep red hair, the macabre smile less a mask than a vision of what lies inside.

"What did you see, when you were swimming?" I ask as I close and lock the door. "What did it show you?"

She grabs my tie, and pulls my body up against hers, the teeth of her outer jaws snapping just an inch from my nose. "Come closer, and maybe I'll tell..."

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Venture on the Seawall

We walk south along the ruins of the seawall, our slim path an old trail cut halfway up the wall's thirty or so feet. Below us, the seawater scatters against the sharp moss-ridden boulders of the inlet, sometimes reaching as far as the lowest masonry of this laboriously crafted stone jetty. As we walk, our eyes are set on the high wall blocking any movement inland, waiting for the rare moments where our angle will change just enough to bring our destination into view - the imposing cathedral spire on a far-off mystery building, somewhere on the property of the nearby college but beyond the reach of its roads.

"Tonight, we finally find out what's inside..." I boast prematurely. "Maybe, if we're lucky, find an explanation for those strange lights..."

"Shhh..." one of my companions urges. "I think we're going to have to pass through this house - I guess the stairs up must be a little further south."

Down the path, I can see the house as it juts out from the wall into the sea itself - a dark, wooden giant, its pre-Victorian architecture a remnant only slightly less ancient than its surroundings. We follow the path as it slices through the center of the building, through an unlit tunnel lined with windows and glass doors, through which we can see the moonlit interiors of several ornate rooms apparently subdivided into small apartments. One room, stockpiled with a collection of grandfather clocks, also shows a sleeping figure on a bed, probably a resident but possibly a watchman. Straining to remain quiet, we tiptoe through the passage quickly.

The path leads out into a small courtyard, its west end open to the sea. There are no stairs up, but after the path winds around the steep and narrow pit in the yard's center, it straightens into an eroded stairwell, which leads down to the rocky shore and around a blind corner. The bottom of the pit is home to an unkept garden, the plants long dead thanks to the wall's several holes, half-submerging them in a bed of stale seawater.

Hurrying to escape the sight of the silent house behind us, one of our number pauses to examine his shoe. "God damn it... I stepped in shit!" The rest of us pause, and looking more closely at the path find it to be a maze of excrement, a fecal minefield to slow our progress. We move cautiously, eventually making our way to the stairway, where avoiding the barely visible traps becomes even trickier. 

Halfway down, a figure suddenly slinks out of the garden and onto the stairway, standing up to become visible under the moon above.

"It's some kind of a... llama or something," I observe. "Probably where all this shit came from."

One of the others points, as the creature moves towards us. "That's not a llama... it's like, a huge white monkey!"

Panting heavily, the llama-monkey starts pounding on its chest, a familiar show of aggression. As my cohorts try and navigate the stairs in reverse, I move closer, willing to risk a fight with the beast to see the world around the corner. Suddenly, the creature reaches to the ground, taking a healthy handful of its own stool, which it brandishes at me aggressively.

"Shit!" I exclaim appropriately, and duck against the wall, barely avoiding the muddy cannonball as it whizzes past. I look back to see the creature reloading, ready to fire again at a range too close to miss. Thinking quickly, or not at all, I dive off of the stairway, leaping over the garden below and luckily finding a grip on the missing stones of the wall opposite. Above, my companions reach down to grab my hands, their faces wide with confusion.

Across the pit the llama-monkey is cackling, throwing any lump it can find in our direction. Fortunately, its aim is poor, and the slimy bullets splatter against the wall instead of my back. 

Several tense seconds later, I am pulled back onto the path, where our group breaks into a run before we are even entirely back on our feet. Behind us, the llama-monkey now climbs the wall himself, an outraged look on its grotesque face as it leers at us over the ledge.

We race through the tunnel, past the room of clocks where the sleeping man is now awake and bewildered, and past the other rooms where a unknown number of unseen residents can be heard shuffling about, woken by the noise. By the time we reach a safe distance, the house's windows have filled with candlelight, the technophobic residents no doubt outraged at these new transgressions by the modern world.