NicomacheanOrc OP t1_jd6t5j5 wrote

That's a great last line. First I thought about the feather, contrasting against the mountain. Cool, cool. And then I thought about the "home" part, and it really hit me. And then I thought about the "we" part and it blew my mind.


NicomacheanOrc OP t1_jd6sphi wrote

>"The sword must never be brandished with a clouded mind or ill intent. It is polished and thus a mirror; our actions are reflected back at us, and we will always look back in time and see the ones we have killed in its surface.

Badass. Quote saved for reference at my next cocktail party.


NicomacheanOrc t1_jcj83bn wrote

Kneeling at the first step of the throne, the captain of her rangers made report, and the star set upon the brow of the queen dimmed in the twilight that spilled across the court.

Captain Teguin was old, made of birch and rawhide and grit. As she spoke, she unwound the braid that held her ash-white hair. "Yes," she said, "they move at breakneck speeds across flat land. Our lands are hilly, so this is not why we should fear them." Into the silence, the leather of her quiver creaked.

"Yes, their arrows fly faster even than sound. But they are louder than shouts, and ours are quieter than whispers. When they come to our wood, it is our arrows that shall triumph over theirs."

And now the old captain turned her face to the ground. "No, it is this that we must fear about our human foes: their magics always work."

Confusion played across the faces of the assembled magi, the druids of the Circle, the generals of the Host of War. The queen gazed down at the ranger with a troubled look. "Their art is reliable? This is truly what to fear from them?"

"Yes, my queen, it is." Teguin scraped the dust from her face. "I'll say it more strongly: their magics always work no matter who uses them."

And suddenly, one of the Priests of the Moon understood, and his jaw fell in horror. Teguin turned to him and nodded grimly.

"You see," she said, "this 'math' and these 'guns' are descriptions and tricks of pure dead matter. They portray and manipulate the raw and lifeless stuff of the earth and cause it to act uncharacteristically, but at its essence, it is as simple and natural as a rockslide. That is what their 'guns' are: a tiny wildfire causing a tiny avalanche to fall within a fragment of a fragment of a moment."

"Which means," she continued, sadness weighting her words, "that even the most foolish, most base, most inept or evil or misguided amongst them can uproot forests or crack mountains asunder. They have condensed the knowledge of ancients and put it into the hands of children, of beings who are children until their short lives end. Their 'bombs' can bring down whole castles, yet not one of them will live longer than the time it takes for a single hearth-tree to grow. They commune with no spirits, heed no gods, take favor from no eternal thing. All that they are is contained in their own heads, and thus power is the only hymn they can sing."

The Elf-Queen's face had fallen from sadness to shock, and from shock to despair. "What may we do, in the face of such monstrosity?" she begged.

"This, and this only," said Teguin, and she took up her bow. "We flee. I will lead us beyond the Green Doors and into the wilds of our ancestors, into that land that is not a land but a dream."

The queen looked at her in dismay. "You propose we lose ourselves in a maze of endless mists, filled with the elder magics that once preyed upon mortals."

"I do," said Teguin. "For against this foe there is no victory, They will always be too many, too cunning, and too impetuous to share a world with us for long."

"And what of that world?" asked the Chief Druid. "When we go, the Green Doors will close behind us, and all that renews the earth will fail."

"They will," said Teguin. "And thus this world will begin to wither. The humans will cut down the mother trees, not knowing what they do, and the vast web of life that sustains them will start to fray. I believe that in a mere ten generations of elves, they will destroy the very ground they walk upon, and then their starving ashes will join the rest."

The Chief Druid's eyes fell. "We condemn the earth to save ourselves," he said.

"The earth was condemned once the humans learned that they could make caravans to cross the deserts by promising wealth that did not yet exist," said Teguin. "Their histories are clear: the great engine that drives them is the eternal promise of more and better in the future. They are unwilling to give what they have to one another, and so may only be bribed to share with promises of even greater wealth yet to come. They leverage the future against the past, and so, like ivy on a tree, they will grow until they suck all the air from the world and choke to death the very wood that holds them aloft."

"Come, then," said the queen, and as she rose, the war-host rose with her. "Our time in these woods has ended. We will go through the gates into the wilds of the Dream, together with our spirits and our gods and our eternal friends, and leave these humans to their self-made ends."

And so it happened that Teguin was the last hand upon the Green Doors, once all the host of elven-kind had passed into the dream-lands, where things and their opposites are one. It may have been that, once the doors closed and their sylvan light extinguished, some few humans felt the spark of the untamed wilds finally gutter and die. But, untutored children that they were, they knew not what it meant and simply wandered onward into the garden of their neverending, ever-growing desires.



NicomacheanOrc t1_j6kif8o wrote

The voice will come from next to you, from someplace close but unfamiliar. "It will crash upon you like a wave," it will say, and it will be warm and deep and quivering against the bit that holds it. "There may be pain at first, yes, and fatigue. But these, like all things, shall fade."

The voice will seem to be behind you, then, and you will feel pushed forward, upward, rushing faster than you've moved before. Light will surround you, too bright for you to ever have looked at, but matched perfectly to your new eyes.

"It will roar in you like the north wind," the voice will say, "and in it you will know satiety without eating and drunkenness without drinking. In it will be stillness and silence, furious joy, and the cries of gulls before the storm."

The voice will stay with you as you climb, guiding you aloft, until the whole of Earth will spread before you. Thunder and rain will join with you, then, to be your breath and bear you on. Alate with wings of cloud and starry stuff, you will look upon the surface and its people and see how wonderful, how small, and how real they are. And you will look upon yourself and see how much more wonderful, and small, and real you have become.

Beyond this height and brighter light, none have brought report.

Death may be cruelly hard, but the afterward contains joys beyond mortal kenning. Delight now in the goodness you have brought and the goodness brought unto you. Take heart, gather your courage, and prepare to revel wildly in the life to come.

[Thank you, deeply, for the chance to give this gift.]


NicomacheanOrc t1_j6fjcln wrote

I'd know those features anywhere; I'd sculpted half of them. I'd spent hours in the character generator, tweaking families and spinning up genetics. God, the hairstyles–I'd needed to learn library science just to keep track of all the the mods I'd downloaded. Small wonder the game took over five minutes to boot.

Which made the letter in my hand completely absurd. I wondered if Zach had somehow linked his neighborhood to mine. Would the sharing functions have allowed him to look in on my Sims? How the hell else could anyone have gotten into my savegame and ripped the profiles out?

It didn't matter, though: the money blew it all out of the water. Zach didn't have this kind of money. I didn't know anyone who knew anyone who knew anyone who had this kind of money to burn. It was like the exchange rate was $1000 : §1. And my Sims had plenty of Simoleons to toss around.

"To Anna," read the card, "from all of us. Thanks for all your love & care. Enjoy your gifts!"

The card said "gifts." Plural. Somehow that extra 's' filled my chest with dread, like a tide had washed in from some sideways place, like weight fell softly on me at right angles from everything. I stumbled my way back up the stairs to my room and began searching frantically. Something here was fucked, and I somehow couldn't think of what.

As I tore wildly around my room, I caught sight of myself in my desk mirror, and what I saw shook me–or what covered me, anyway.

My face was beautiful–far, far more beautiful than I'd been minutes ago. My hair cascaded elegantly down my shoulders, gathered with a ribbon at the back. My mole had been swept away, and my skin glowed. My eyes were bigger, my nose straighter, my lips antiseptically brighter. I was a Barbie Doll of myself. I didn't dare look down at my chest.

Instead, I looked over to my balcony door, and saw sitting on my chair a pair of comically large, gag-gift sunglasses. I sure as fuck didn't own any of those.

With shaky steps I tottered over to pick them up. I couldn't breathe right, My ribs ached, my head swam. I threw open the balcony door and looked out over the city.

It was a beautiful day, with a shining sun and a sweet breeze and people enjoying it everywhere. Children ran down the sidewalk, shouting to their hurrying parents. The basketball game in the park had gathered a cheering crowd. Even Old Jim on the corner seemed to be in good spirits as he held his "God Bless" sign up to passersby.

Slowly, as if in a dream, I raised the glasses to my eyes. And I beheld then the cheerful green plumbobs spinning above their heads, each and every one. I looked up and saw I had one of my own. And behind us all, hiding amidst the city's towers and below the afternoon sun, I made out a pyramid, bent slightly, and shifting sands swirling around it.

I tried to awaken, but I was trapped. I was locked here, now, knowing neither if I, nor they, nor my own creations were the Simmers or the Sims.




NicomacheanOrc t1_j6b9avn wrote

The modern world is gripped by a loneliness epidemic. In 2019, pre-COVID, 61 percent of Americans over the age of 18 years were lonely, a dramatic increase since the 1970s when rates were as low as 11 percent.

More of us are chronically lonely than aren't. I have friends I enjoy spending time with. I had a ten-year relationship. I still feel lonely often.


NicomacheanOrc t1_j69wyba wrote


"Rocky, what are we doing here?" Harris's voice was level, but his eyes were wide. "This place's all wrong."

"No," said Rocky, "it's almost right." The candles guttered low, their green-tinged bodies looking sickly below their flames. The runes were etched into the walls, this time; Rocky's wrists still hurt from the strain.

"It took me a long minute to get it," he said to Harris. "I hadn't connected the Running Men to the other murders lately."

Harris had stopped in the middle of the room–just as Rocky knew he would. "Those MOs were completely different," he said shakily. "Mutilation, spatter everywhere. Why would you?"

Rocky loosened his kris from his sleeve. "Ever thought about the trolley problem?" he asked his counterpart.

"Pull the lever, become a murderer, save lives?" asked Harris. "What the hell are you getting at? This place is scaring me, Rocky."

"The Running Men were a summoning," said Rocky.

"Cult shit?" asked Harris.

"Cult shit," confirmed Rocky. "But I couldn't figure out why the killer botched everything so badly. And then it hit me: it was a trap. Everything was so close, close enough to bait the mass-murdering, soul-eating demon from across the city...but off just enough that it could all be collapsed." Rocky took a deep, steadying breath, "It's how you catch a demon," he sighed, "and how you finally kill one."

"So the loony thought they were pulling the trolley lever, murdering two to save dozens?" asked Harris.

"And getting themselves damned for murder in the process," said Rocky. "Both sides of the dilemma covered."

"Rocky, please, what the hell's your point here?" Harris begged, from the center of the pentagram.

"The greatest good for the greatest number," said Rocky sadly, and his kris kissed red.


NicomacheanOrc t1_j65d4vq wrote


Rocky sighed his way into a chair and a rocks glass of bourbon. London wasn't cold, exactly, but wet and cold were kissing cousins in meatspace.

He leaned back in his chair and Leaned Back into the Green. R0cky was waiting for him.

"They make it alright?" asked Rocky.

"They're whole," answered R0cky. "Fucked up, but whole. Not that it wouldn't fuck you up."

"Well, that's something," said Rocky. "Seems like the new transfer array is working faster. Like, a lot faster. They fell sideways into running positions–damn scene looks like an Egyptian mural."

"Hey, a fast pass is a safe pass." R0cky scratched his virtual nose. "These two are pretty quick on the uptake; they'll adjust in a few weeks. I was able to pull the feed from the alley and show them their murderer; it always helps to see evidence you were going to lose your monkeysuit one way or another."

"Glad to hear it," replied Rocky. "Therapists don't seem to die fast enough to keep up with post-death counseling demand."

"Your lips to Death's ears," said R0cky. "Hey." He turned his virtual eyes to his progenitor's. "Do you ever regret keeping your wetware?"

Rocky's body sighed again–it was an old conversation. "Yes and no," he said, as he had said many times before. "I'm glad I made a copy, I'm glad you exist, I'm glad the Green will keep us all alive forever, all of that is good. I'm excited to see how y'all turn a secret cybermind holding tank into humanity's future paradise."

"But..." prompted R0cky.

"Out of all of it, I just wish I could tell somebody without seeming like the worst mass-murderer in human history."

His erstwhile copy copied his sigh, and they sat together listening to the real rain echo the virtual.


NicomacheanOrc t1_j5vfkdx wrote

"I am alive?" he asked her, his eyes fluttering.

"It seems so," she said, old anger plain on her face.

He remembered the arc of the grenade, the shock of it, the tearing pain as his arms and legs accelerated faster than his torso could keep them attached. He remembered her standing over him. He remembered her spit in his eye.

"You killed me," he said.

"No, but I'm told you'll probably wish I did." she said. He turned his head (how could he do that, he wondered?) and he saw they were sitting in the clearing outside his cave. The mountains rose around him, familiar and unhelpful. They'd found him, somehow, and they'd sent...her? She didn't look like any Special Forces soldier he'd ever seen.

She sat on the ground next to him, arms wrapped around her legs, staring off into the dusk. The sun had faded from orange to red, and its light barely caught on the bars of his cages. She'd freed his captives; he wondered where she'd taken them.

"So what now?" he asked her. "You take me back to your masters, your fascist, monopolist, lying scum, and they put me in a box forever?"

She looked at him for the first time since his awakening. "Yes," she said, simply, and went back to staring into the woods.

"So why you, then? Why not some trained killers, or a strike of your unholy drones?"

"Because I can't kill," she said, monotone. "They wanted you alive, and no matter what I did, I couldn't kill you."

"How can this be?" he asked.

"No one knows," she said. "One day, after he'd tortured me, I tried to kill my torturer. And I saw something, something beautiful, and it said I shouldn't be allowed to screw up my afterlife by murdering people. I can't."

He gaped. "Your place in Paradise was saved for you by an angel?"

Her grim silence did not dispute him. It also did not hold a single measure of peace.

"It seems so."

"And yet you spurn your blessing," he spat angrily. "Typical."

"Fuck you," she said absently.

"Accept your gift, you idiot woman," he tried to shout, but it came out as a cough. "You cannot stain your soul with a death."

"No," she replied, "but I can keep trying."

[EDIT: cleanup]


NicomacheanOrc t1_j5l8yj8 wrote

"Thank you, Mei, and I absolutely agree with you, this year's opening is truly stunning."

"While the ceremony proceeds, it's worth taking a moment for us all to think about the hardest achievement most of these athletes have accomplished: adapting themselves to Earth conditions. Whether it's atmospheric composition, gravity, temporal mechanics, or microbiological conditions, every single competitor today has had to strive–and win–against Earth's particular requirements. For all of them, it's a point of pride to stand tall in the place where we get the words 'air,' 'biome,' and '1-g.'"

"Thank you, Idris, that's absolutely right. What many of our viewers might not know is that reaching Olympic tolerances for competition can involve exercises that are more demanding than the sports themselves. I'm told that this year's Andromedan track star Luka Lee actually had to undergo reconstructive heart surgery at the age of fifteen to remove the extra muscle brought on by their training at the Ain Sil Sports Complex on Andromeda IV's ultradense moon. It's a real testament to their dedication that they were willing to undergo the procedure just to compete in the Olympics. Lee really put their convictions on the line as an advocate for the ongoing intergalactic peace project."

"It's a real story of courage and perseverance, Mei, and that's what the Olympics are all about. It looks like the march is concluding, so let's go now to the opening speech. Stay with us here at IGBC as the Standard Year 4023 Olympic games begin."


NicomacheanOrc t1_j5ar7st wrote


NicomacheanOrc t1_j576ts1 wrote

Fireye opened her door to find Paragon on her front stoop. Paragon, lynchpin of the Security Council's global defense strategy, was pushing her recycling bin aside and inspecting the chipped paint on her doorframe.

"Holy shit!" dropped out of her mouth before she could stop herself. "Paragon? What are you doing here? I mean, what the hell are you doing here? Is it good or bad? Could you sign my–"

"There's no time for that now," he said in his famous basso, eyebrows tight on his face, lips drawn into a hard line. "Get inside, out of sight. Do you know where your family are?"

Fireye's fiery eyes widened, and the temperature around them raised a full degree. "Bad, then." She cleared her throat and put on her hero game-face, then one that the cameras knew, the one she'd worn under the blood spatter when she'd put down Exterscius. "Ok. Ok. Do you need help? What can I do?"

Paragon pushed past her and swiftly pulled the curtains shut. It was only then that she noticed his hands were shaking. Paragon's hands were shaking. What fresh hell could shake the hands of the man who had literally turned back Hell's own invasion?

"Get your wife, get your kids," he said. To his credit, his voice didn't waver. "You need to vanish. New identities, new names. New bodies if you know a polymorpher who will help you within the hour. If not, just get out and get to the other side of the planet. Whatever contingencies you have, use them."

"Fuck, Paragon, slow down and give me a real sitrep." Fireye forced her breathing to steady, pulled her focus in. "What in the absolute fuck are we dealing with?"

Paragon turned his arresting ice-white eyes to meet her burning ones. She could feel the pressure emanating from them, could feel her own flames rising to match. He took a deep breath.

"The Tickler is coming for you." He said it slowly, clearly, without inflection. In her mind, Fireye could distinctly hear a record-scratch play, stopping the inner music of the moment.

"Say that again," she said.

"The Tickler is coming for you." His voice, balm to millions, cracked just a bit. "She'll be here soon."

"The Tickler," said Fireye. "The prankster. The one who made the mayor of Lagos piss his pants on the news last week. That Tickler."

"Yes," said Paragon, his voice level.

"You are not serious," said Fireye. "This isn't funny. You scared me."

"I am far past serious," said Paragon. "My daughter is dead."

Fireye's jaw slowly descended, dragged inexorably downward with uncompromising force.

"No. No no no. Your daughter is The Black Knight. I just saw her on the news."

"Do you know why?" asked Paragon in a dead voice.

"She foiled a plot on the President," answered Fireye, alarm rising in her chest.

"As it turns out, she foiled a prank on the President." Paragon's tone turned flat and clinical, the words of a recon unit reporting to command. "The Tickler's son Sideshow was setting off some cuss-word fireworks over the President's head, protesting the fracking policy or some other nonsense. But Shelley's team was there, and Sagittarius put a stellar arrow through his eye. Sideshow was gone in seconds."

"That's terrible," began Fireye, "but we both know he shouldn't have been there. And the kid makes sparkles. His mother makes people laugh. The hell is going on, Paragon?"

"Omar," he said in that lost, hollow tone. "My name is Omar."

"Omar," said Fireye, "please help me understand."

"She's not just going to kill our kids," said Paragon, said Omar, said the most apocalyptic single human force in recorded history. He looked at the floor. "She's going to make us kill our kids."

Fireye noticed then the bags under Paragon's eyes. She ran out of words; he'd run out of tears.

"It's very Biblical, isn't it?" he mused without affect. "An eye for an eye, a child for a child. She caught me in the audience at Shelley's award ceremony." He paused, then looked back at her, gaze to gaze, parent to parent. "Did you know that a laugh is an involuntary spasm? That's what she really does. She makes you spasm."

"So..." said Fireye, and then it caught her. "Oh. Oh, no."

"Yes." Behind his voice, Fireye could hear the bile rise in Paragon's throat, could hear the acid hit his vocal cords. "I killed them. I killed my little girl, I killed them all. I twitched and they died and I knew it was her. I'd be glad that the President wasn't there, if I thought I could ever be glad again."

"You need to know," he continued, dead-eyed,, "that she can do it from anywhere. She's got a truly photographic memory, and all she needs to do is see you once. That's it, that's all she needs, and she's got you forever. Most of us have been marked for years, and we never guessed. What would happen to your kids if you lost control and looked at them?"

Fireye's face went ashen. "She has to be stopped."

"How?" asked the most powerful man in the world.

She searched for answers. "Surprise? Mind control?"

"How many of us do you think she's ever seen?" His voice rose, fear and anger meeting in rising volume. "How many of us could she turn against one another and make fucking chaos bombs out of our powers?"

His shoulders squared, finally, and his face evened out. "So you will get your kids, and you will vanish. And we will both pray that ordinary humans can handle her, with their invasive security cameras and their terrorizing drone strikes. We will pray they can even find her, a lifelong fugitive with a singular strategic genius and massive popular support, who has decided that the hegemony of heroes is over and that she will personally visit upon us the Plague of the Angel of Death."

"Yes, yes I will." Fireye began to leak cinder-tears down the sides of her face. "Thank you for telling me."

"Thank me when we live," said Paragon as he mastered his grief and began to flex his onyx wings. "Now go. I have a hundred more stops to make tonight."

EDIT: re-jiggered a paragraph and added punctuation. Also, feedback always welcome!


NicomacheanOrc t1_iuj6tvt wrote

Part 3

They’ve been back every few days for a while now. Sometimes they talk, sometimes they don’t. Naam always gets the same thing, but El changes it up. I try not to pry. I eventually got used to it–that’s a funny thing, isn’t it? We humans can seem to get used to anything. I became a piece of background art for them, like we were in Hopper’s Nighthawks only instead of the city it was the End Times out in the ass-end of nowhere.

It was last night that something changed. Such a small thing, that made all the difference.

They were finishing up, swirling dregs around in their cups. As always, El laid her hands out on the table. Naam was staring at the hole in the world that was her BlackBerry screen, and as if in a dream, she began placing a hand into El’s. And as their fingertips began to touch, a rumble started to clatter all the plates in the place–plastic, ceramic, and tectonic.

Naam snatched her hand back. The smile on El’s face dimmed, and as it did, so did the light from her eyes. She stood. “Hey, so I should go.”

“Yeah,” said Naam, her voice hollow.

“But you know you’re welcome back anytime, right?” El was probably trying not to cry.

“I know,” said Naam. “I’m just…I’m not ready.”

“Ok,” said El. “Same time next week?”

“Same time next week,” replied Naam.

“I’ll see you then,” said El. “Take care of yourself, ok? Don’t let him push you around so much.”

Naam only nodded, head pointed down at the table.

El sighed and looked up at me. I shrugged, and it felt like everyone shrugged with me. What could we do?

“Hey,” she said to me as she turned to go. “You take care of yourself too, yeah?”

“Yeah,” I said, and for the first time in a decade, I meant it.

“Later,” she said.

“Sure,” I replied as she headed for the door. Her racerback showed off her unearthly shoulder blades as she raised her arm in a wave.

Naam took a full half-hour before she got up to leave. Her tears had made her mascara run down in trails of smoke. “She was right, you know,” she said to me. “You should take care of yourself.”

“I will,” I said.

“See you soon.” She clopped her way out into the night, the clock hands following her to read 6:66a–she'd be late, and there'd be Hell to pay.

It was in that moment that I knew I had to change, maybe in a way they couldn’t. They weren’t here for me, but maybe there was a lesson in it anyway. If we’re halfway between Big Sky and Jackson Hole, mixed up between here and nowhere, bridged across the supernal and the infernal, then maybe in the sheer chaos there’s something we can do about it.

So I pulled out my phone, unused for all this time, and picked a name I hadn’t thought ever to find again.

“Hey, ‘Trix?” I said, my voice not shaking at all. "It’s Dante. Virgil gave me your number. I guess I figured I should finally give you a call back. I hope all’s well. I was wondering if you’d want to catch coffee sometime.”

Thanks for reading!


NicomacheanOrc t1_iuj68rd wrote

Part 2!

The next week she was there, 3:33a precisely, almost-sharp suit smudged a bit, clipboard under her arm, dark red caked under her fingernails. She wasn’t smiling, of course, but I knew she was glad to come.

I wasn’t sure whether she’d show, or if she was precisely real, so I hadn’t made a latte. But as she pulled the door open, I started a pour.

“Hey again,” she said. “Same thing?” She put something on the counter–a weirdly misshapen travel mug. I took it and started to fill. It was obviously old, polished, lacquered bone. “He likes to use his own cup. It turns out he’s an environmentalist; he wants to keep you all going as long as possible.”

As I poured the latte into the mug, I asked her, without looking, without meeting those world-breaking eyes, “how old is this thing anyway?”

“6000 years?” she responded. “Millions? Who can say?” I could hear the joke despite the lack of a chuckle, and I knew that if she could’ve, she would’ve winked.

I turned back with two drinks: one in the mug, and one just for her. She brightened a bit. “Hey, thanks,” she said. “This really means more than you know.”

I waited as she counted out the exact change and slid it across the counter. “Can I offer you a tip?” she asked.

“No thanks,” I said. “Just in case.”

“Ok,” she replied, though I could see it made her sad. “Hey,” she continued, “tomorrow I’m going to meet someone here. Is your oath still holding?”

I hadn’t broken it; I had no one to tell. I couldn’t recall the last person I’d seen, with a soul or without one. “All set,” I said.

“Great! I’ll catch you tomorrow.” She picked up her drinks and started sipping hers from our ugly, spongy styrofoam. As she clicked across the linoleum out toward the door, I swear I could almost see the hooves.

The next night she was back, bone-mug in hand, and took her drinks to sit in a booth. She sipped quietly, looking nervously out the window and avoiding the fuligin BlackBerry on the table. With nothing else to do, I watched her fidget, and so I was taken by surprise when someone else walked in.

This one filled the room the moment she entered. She had working gloves, baggy overalls, and a small trowel hanging from her belt. She wasn’t large, wasn’t impressive in any way, really, but the whole place seemed to bend around her. And as I looked up to greet her, I met her eyes and they were smiling windows onto a sunrise, steady and almost too bright to look into.

She strode up to the counter without glancing at her counterpart at the booth. She put her lean elbows on the leaner counter and leaned, and it groaned slightly under her uncanny weight. “Cuppa joe, please,” she said, and her voice was pure music. “Small today, and oh! are those old-school sugar cubes? Two of those, if that’s alright.”

I had already grabbed the pot of drip and was filling a cup with shaking hands. “Hey, buddy, it’s alright, we're cool” she said as I turned back with her drink, sugar cubes bobbing. “I’m just meeting a friend.”

“I guessed,” I said. “She’s over there,” and I nodded at the booth.

“Thanks, kiddo,” she replied. She took a long drink from her cup, set it carefully back in its saucer, and in one motion, turned and sat across from the other.

“Hey, Naam,” she said, and when their eyes met, I could feel it in my bones. The whole planet seemed to flex like a bow, seemed to lens like light through a bottle. “It’s good to see you.”

“Hey, El,” replied Naam, barely moving. Her voice dripped longing and defeat. “It took a long time to find another place to meet.”

“Are you doing alright?” asked El.

“Oh, the usual,” replied Naam, because that was her name. “Just the daily grinding. I mean, grind.”

El leaned in and put her hands on the table. Naam specifically didn’t take them. “Well, it’s good to see you anyway,” she said, and they started to talk quietly, in a language I couldn’t quite understand.

Part 3 to finish!


NicomacheanOrc t1_iuh2mtz wrote

At first I thought they picked me because of who I am. Who I was, I should say. See, I've been a terrible person, for a long time, so it seemed to fit. When I was young, I was all sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Then came the chase for the Almighty Dollar, but when I realized that it was all rigged against us, I just kinda lost it. I went through an angry phase, a revolutionary phase, an all-out anarchist phase. And finally, when it was all too much, I just...turned my back on all of it, including my partner in (literal) crime. And now I'm here, working graveyard in a shit-pile somewhere between Big Sky and Jackson Hole. And so of course the Devil's shitty assistant comes to get the Devil's shitty coffee at the shittiest joe joint in the world, from me, the shittiest joe jockey on the whole mortal coil.

Or so I thought. But lemme set the scene right.

I'd been working here nine weeks before I got graveyard, and that very first night, at 3:33a on the nose, this super sad, harried-looking chick blasts in like a bat out of Hell and cracks out a latte order in between gasps. She was heaving like she’d just run up a million stairs, and she was dressed like a tax collector’s second-favorite apprentice. She was out of place here, but I didn’t notice her just like I didn’t notice anything in those days, until she looked up and I saw her eyes. When I met those eyes I could tell she was frustrated, aggravated, overworked and underappreciated–and wholly, numinously damned. Her eyes were stained-glass windows before a towering flame, and the light of it danced across the blackboard with our specials.

She blinked and it was gone, but we both knew what I’d seen. “Make this one a rush, alright? I can’t be late again.” Her voice was thrillingly rich. I didn’t move. “Please hurry.”

“Um,” I said. I couldn’t say anything else.

“Oh, right,” she said. “I’m not here for you. When we come for you, you’ll know it.”

“Oh. Ok,” I said. “Uh, whole or half?”

“Full fat, please.” She’d pulled out a jet-black BlackBerry and started clacking away on it, looking up every few seconds to check the clock. The clock didn’t work; you knew because the mold on it would’ve been shaken off if it ticked. But she kept glancing up anyway.

I pulled it as hot as I could–they’d want that, right? I picked the largest cup, though she hadn’t specified. And on pure impulse, I pulled a second and gave it just a tiny shot of the sheep’s milk my boss sneaks in for his own consumption.

“Uh, here you go,” I said. I was having some very understandable trouble with words.

She took the large latte and looked down at the second, smaller drink. “What’s this?” she asked.

“Well, you seemed like you needed a little something,” I floundered.

She looked up at me with those eyes, the flame roaring behind them, and her lips quirked upward, and she said “hey, thanks! That’s really nice of you.” She took both of them and sat down in one of our uneven, cracked-vinyl booths. She put her long-nailed (taloned?) hands around the small pour I’d pulled for her, and made this short, hiccupy sound, and put her head on the table, and just cried there quietly for, like, five full minutes.

I made myself busy behind the counter, because that’s what you do when a patron has a breakdown; you let them have that breakdown in peace. When she was done, she drained her drink in one swig and walked back up to the counter.

Her glass-before-fire eyes found mine. “Hey, thanks again, I really needed that. What do I owe you?”

“On the house,” I said.

“Won’t your boss get mad at you? She looked up over my shoulder, as if remembering. “Bad Scally? Is that really what you call him?”

“Bad Scally isn’t so bad,” I said. “It’s his kid Worse Scally you have to look out for.”

She looked me over, sized me up, read my life top to bottom for all I know, and sighed, and said, “look, can I come back next week? Have the same order ready?”

“Sure,” I said. I waved out across the fluorescently empty room. “But you’ll have to wait in line like everyone else.”

She almost smiled at that one. And then she got serious. “Do you promise not to tell anyone?”

“Who would I tell?” I asked.

“I mean it,” she said, and the shadows across the room sharpened as she said it. “Do you swear on your eternal soul not to tell anyone I’m coming back here?”

It seemed simple enough. “Sure,” I said. “I swear.”

The relief on her face was completely, absurdly, over the top out-of-place for such a simple promise, for this ratty coffee bar, for the tattered decade I was living out.

“Thank you,” she said, and I could tell she would be smiling if she could. “I’ll see you in a week.” She set her shoulders, cracked her neck, picked up the latte, and checked her watch. “God damn it,” she cursed, “6:65a already?” She turned quickly around and marched out the door, her heels (hooves?) cracking against the parking lot pavement.

So that’s what it was like when I met her the first time. Afterward, I couldn’t help but think that this was how my slide down the hill was going to go–one stilted, awkward, sympathy-for-the-Devil conversation at a time. I still thought it was about me. So let me get you a refill and we’ll talk about last night.

Part 2 tomorrow

It’s my first time writing a Part 2!

Bonus points for folks who can guess the protagonist’s name