Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Lion and the Bear

Submitted for Project # 21: "Pretty Paper, Ribbons, and Bows" as a gift for tHP member Saana Tykkä

On my recent world tour to promote the Herscher Project Anthology I traveled to Finland for a visit with one of the other writers. In the evening the children begged and pleaded for a bedtime story so everyone gathered in the sitting room and while the little ones sat wide-eyed at her feet, Saana told the following story:

Now, everyone knows the Lion is King of the Jungle. One day the Bear thought, Gee, I'm much bigger than the Lion, I think I should be King of the Jungle. The Bear decided to challenge the Lion for the title. “Lion, I am bigger than you. I will be King of the Jungle.”

“Oh, no you won't,” replied the Lion, for although small, within his breast beat the heart of a King.

“Don't you see that I am big and able to beat you up?”

“You are big and can surely beat me up, but that won't make you King of the Jungle.”

“Sure it will. Now step aside so you don't have to fight me.”

The Lion didn't move. “I am prepared to fight you.”

The Bear could hardly believe his ears and eyes. Here stood the Lion, ready to fight him. Angered by this defiant attitude, the aggressive Bear charged at the Lion. With a tremendous crash heard all through the jungle the great beasts collided. The Bear bore down upon the Lion and the Lion defended himself.

On and on the two fought. The whole day and then the next day and the day after that. They clashed with tooth and claw and their combat shook the trees. The ferocious Bear kept coming and the brave Lion never backed down. The Lion grew weary but he had sisu1 within him and would not give up. They kept fighting for three whole months!

But it could not go on forever and when the greatest battle the jungle had ever known finally subsided, the Bear considered himself the victor. “I am King of the Jungle!” he cried.

But no one listened to him. The heart of the golden Lion proved more powerful than the brawn of the brown Bear, for although the Lion had been more severely battered, the Bear did not subjugate him. The Lion remained and is still to this day known as King of the Jungle.

“Now,” Saana said, with a clap of her hands, “all children to bed!”

After they'd scampered off and a quietude had returned to the room, I said, “Saana, that was a very enchanting tale.”

With a twinkle in her eye she replied, “That was a true story.”

1sisu: a special strength and persistent determination; a resolve to continue and overcome in the moment of adversity…an almost magical quality, a combination of stamina, perseverance, courage, and determination held in reserve for hard times.

On November 30, 1939 the Soviet Union began an invasion of Finland. The tiny country looked to her Scandinavian neighbors for help and although individual Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes volunteered to fight, the three kings of those countries did nothing. Finland turned to the Allies: Britain, France, and the United States. The leaders of those countries promised aid in the form of equipment, soldiers, and money, but delivered only token help. Finland stood alone against the might of a country fifty times her size. And she fought. For three months she fought, finally signing a peace agreement on March 13, 1940. Finland lost the war, but retained her independence, never falling under the control of the Soviet Empire. The Lion was still King of the Jungle.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Beyond the Black Mirror

Submitted for Project # 20 "Through the Looking Glass"

Author's note: This story is actually a sequel to my earlier work, "The Black Mirror", which can be found on my website. 

“When Dame Alice fled to England, one of her apprentices managed to escape with the Black Mirror. Its whereabouts were kept secret for over two-hundred and fifty years until it was discovered among the possessions of the Earl of Desmond.”

Pausing for effect, I took a sip from my brandy snifter, glancing in turn to each member of my audience. My hosts, Lord and Lady Wakefield, and one of their guests, a charming young girl, waited for me to continue. I held them spellbound by the tale of my most recent acquisition, the famed Black Mirror of Alice Kyteler, a sorceress who lived in the fourteenth century. I must say it pleased me to entertain them so.

“According to legend, as the earl prepared to indulge himself in the use of the mirror, his wife unexpectedly entered the room. Curious herself, she begged him to let her stay. He gave in to her wishes, cautioning her that she must remain absolutely quiet. She readily agreed, but at some point became quite frightened, lost control of herself, and screamed in horror. Just as the sound left her, a mighty earthquake shook the great castle, the ground split beneath it, and the structure disappeared, swallowed whole. Today a large lake—the Lough Gur I believe it's called—marks the spot where the castle once stood.”

I heard a voice behind me. “Come now, you don't really believe that nonsense, do you?”

I turned to see a tall man of slim build, dressed in a white shirt, knickers, and brown riding boots. A handsome man, with dark hair neatly trimmed and combed back, a sparkle in his eye and a wide grin on his face, I was about to inform him that I thought his remark quite rude when Wakefield announced, “Segrave! It's good to see you old boy! Lord Mulready, let me introduce Sir Henry Segrave, a speed king if ever there was one! The man's broken records on land and in the air. He'll capture the water record next!”

His grin turned sheepish in the midst of Wakefield's boasting, but he shook my hand and bowed to the ladies. To me he said, “You are no doubt discussing the Black Mirror of Dame Alice Kyteler of Kilkenny.”

“You know of it?”

“Know of it? Indeed, I possess it.”

“What?” Having just purchased the item myself, I was astounded that he would say such a thing.

“The earl of whom you speak was Gerald Fitzgerald, the fifteenth Earl of Desmond who did not meet his fate through some encounter with black magic or even natural disaster. A band of men loyal to King Henry VIII got him in 1583. His title and enormous estate were forfeit to the Crown, but my ancestor Shane O'Neill, an ally of the earl, saved many of Fitzgerald's possessions before their enemies moved in. One such item was this Black Mirror. My family name is O'Neal de Hane Segrave, which has undergone some spelling changes over the years but was originally O'Neill de Shane. That mirror has been passed down from generation to generation for nearly three and a half centuries.”

“My goodness, Mulready, it seems you've been had!” Wakefield said. His wife covered her mouth with her hand. The other young girl (alas, I've forgotten her name) hid her face behind her hand-held fan, no doubt more interested in admiring Segrave than worrying that I may have made a bad purchase.

I glared at the man. “Are you suggesting that I've purchased a fake?”

Segrave never wavered. “I assure you you have.”

“I demand proof!”

Wakefield said, “I propose a friendly wager.” I took another sip of brandy and returned my attention to my host, who continued, “Segrave here has asked me to fund a major undertaking of his. Remember my reference to the water record? It is his intention to wrest the British International Trophy from the Americans. Now, if his mirror proves to be authentic, you purchase it for enough money to build the speedboat he requires.”

I looked toward Segrave. “You'd sell it?”

“For a chance to bring the trophy back to England, I would indeed.”

“And if my mirror turns out to be the original?” I asked, turning back to Wakefield.

“Then I'll fund the project as promised, but all the credit for backing the endeavor will go to you. Think of the prestige if he succeeds.”

“All right then, you're on,” I said. Wakefield and I shook hands.

Segrave beamed like a schoolboy. “I'll name her Miss England II.”

~ * ~

The following week Segrave arrived at my manor with his mirror. Wakefield accompanied him and we all settled into the sitting room. I'd sent my butler, Jeremy, away for the evening but he'd taken the time to prepare the fireplace and set out the drink tray. Soon we had a crackling fire and glasses of golden brandy on the rocks; the perfect atmosphere for an October evening.

Segrave removed his mirror from a sack of purple silk. It was indeed a fine specimen, but its ebony frame shone like new. It did not seem possible that the piece could be as old as Segrave claimed. I pointed out the obvious age of my own. “See the worn out oaken frame of my piece?”

“What about this felt backing?” Wakefield asked, indicating its back side.

“Probably added at some later date,” I said. I drew forth a pocket knife, opened the blade and cut through the felt covering so we could examine the black backing. “It should prove scratch-resistant,” I said. To my chagrin, it did not. The material flaked off.

Wakefield produced a magnifying glass and inspected the backing. With raised eyebrows he said, “It appears to be some kind of paint…like that used on an automobile!”

“What!” I cried.

“Here,” Segrave said, “Try the blade on mine.”

I took his mirror and drew the knife across the backing. “This isn't scratching off,” I said. “Wakefield, may I have your glass?”

“Certainly.” He handed it to me and I examined the backing closely, but could see no flaws. Then I tracked the glass slowly around the frame. At the bottom right corner I spotted something exciting. A word. Through Wakefield's glass I could make it out: "Elenwyn".

I spoke the word aloud. The other gentlemen looked at me blankly, apparently not understanding. “Do you know what that is?” I asked. Wakefield shook his head. Segrave simply shrugged. I said, “It's the nom de plume of Maisha Foster-O'Neal.” I looked from one face to the other for signs of recognition. I saw none.

“Who's that?” Segrave finally asked.

“That,” I said, “is the woman you have to thank for your possession of this mirror. It was she who saved it from destruction in 1324. I daresay this mirror of yours is the real thing, Segrave!”

“Then yours is a fake?” Wakefield asked.

“Yes, yes, I've been had, but no matter. This is the piece I seek. Segrave, I must have this!”

“And you shall.”

“And you shall have your boat,” Wakefield said, clapping him on the back, “courtesy of Lord Mulready.”

“Yes, yes indeed,” I said, unable to tear my eyes from the mirror.

~ * ~

Late that evening I pored over Elenwyn's poem Black Mirror which I was sure contained the spell that would unlock the object's secrets.

Black Mirror
a mirror
reflecting not what is
not what will be
not what has been
nor what could be
yet reflecting all the same
a deep hope
in the shallow pools
of a wandering mind
long lost
to the truth and stark reality of life
Why do you look upon it?
Why do you recoil
at a sight you see only in your mind,
pronounce the differences
of the lie you are living?
all in a mirror that
burns in the darkness
and the reflections stare
haunting you
for eternity

I sat staring at the last couplet. This elusive spell would haunt me for eternity if I didn't find it. Then a thought struck me and I began looking at the lines rather than the individual words. One line consisted of a single word, several had two words, one had three, several had four. I rearranged them until I had something that looked promising:

for eternity
a deep hope
reflecting not what is
yet reflecting all the same
of the lie you are living
to the truth and stark reality of life
at a sight you see only in your mind

But something wasn't right. No line in her poem contained seven words. Had she intentionally skipped that number? Or perhaps left a line out? Elenwyn surely hid spells inside her compositions, but often left out a crucial detail, without which they would not work. I consulted the crumbling pages of my Latin translation of Necronomicon, that ancient book written in the eighth century by the "Mad Arab", Abdul Alhazred. According to that source, a Black Mirror used in conjunction with the Egyptian Amulet of Menat could restore life to the dead. Used along with the Amulet of Shen the wearer could see for eternity into the future. Coupled with both amulets, it could grant the power of eternal life. I noticed that life and eternity were both well represented in Elenwyn's poem.

Over the years I had collected such artifacts, and I owned the very amulets described in that book, specimens dating from the Sixth Dynasty. I fetched them and inspected them closely using the glass that I had mistakenly forgotten to give back to Wakefield. Inscribed on the Amulet of Menat were glyphs which roughly translated to: Granted unto thee the power of returning. Seven words! It could only mean one thing. With that line inserted the poem read:

Granted unto thee the power of returning
to the truth and stark reality of life

That had to be the clue!

The following evening I began preparations to make the mirror ready to use. With an athame, I sliced my finger, drawing blood which I mixed with fluid condenser. I used this to energize the mirror, after which I cleaned it with alcohol and returned it to its silk sack. With eager anticipation I awaited the next full moon, which would occur in one week's time. I made arrangements to be alone; legend or not, I entertained no desire to be disturbed during the ritual like the unfortunate Earl of Desmond. Jeremy was a good chap, but a bit nosy at times.

When the glorious night arrived I removed the Black Mirror from the sack and placed it upright upon a white cloth, admiring it in the moonlight. I donned the Amulets of Menat and of Shen. The Collar of Gold caught my eye and I wore that as well. To keep evil spirits at bay I created a circle of protection. Unfortunately, I situated the mirror inside the circle, which would prove to be a mistake. I created a lunar blend incense from a mixture of oil-soaked lotus and jasmine flowers combined with powder made from sandalwood and myrrh. Then I lit a pair of white candles and burned the incense, asking for the blessing of the Moon Mother as I did so.

Next I sat down on a wooden chair facing the mirror. A small table beside me held Necronomicon, The Complete Works of Maisha Foster-O'Neal open to Black Mirror, and my journal in which I had written what I believed to be the proper spell. I prepared to enter into a trance to see if I could indeed conjure up Dame Alice's dæmon, Robin, Son of Art, or perhaps even the ancient sorceress herself. I closed my eyes and tried to relax.

When I reopened them, the pair staring back at me weren't mine. They weren't even human, but those of a large feline whose black face gradually came into focus. It peered at me intently while I, wide-eyed, stared back. I took a deep breath and said, “I am trying to reach Robin, Son of Art.”

The creature opened its mouth, revealing yellow teeth, but no sound issued forth.

“Are you Robin?” I asked.

The cat licked its paws.

“Son of Art?”

The animal returned its gaze to me.

“Are you Robin, Son of Art, the familiar of Dame Alice Kyteler?” I asked.

Before my eyes the cat underwent a transformation and the face of a man materialized. The brown eyes of a dark-skinned man with hollow cheeks and a prominent nose stared back at me. A booming voice erupted from the mirror. “Who are you?”

“I am Charles, Lord Mulready.”

“What do you want?”

I licked dry lips. “I w-w-want to know the secret of Dame Alice's mirror. Of life and eternity.”

The man's eyes narrowed to thin slits. “What are you prepared to give?”

“W-w-whatever you require.”

“Alice wanders lost here. You have a spell that will free her. She will trade the secret of the mirror for that intonation.”

I grabbed my notes from the table and with a single breath recited the words, “Granted unto thee the power of returning to the truth and stark reality of life.” After I'd spoken them the face in the mirror changed again, to that of a thin woman whose mouth spread into a wide smile and whose eyes sparkled with glee.

“Dame Alice?” I asked.

“The window,” she replied. “Help me. Take my hand.”

The surface of the mirror rippled and a delicate hand came through it and into the room. I grasped it firmly. To my horror it yanked me right out of the chair. I had no idea it could possess such strength, I am not a small man. I expected to fall and crack my skull against the mirror, shards of shattering glass slicing my head.

I fell into the Black Mirror all right, but didn't crash into it. Instead I went straight through it and wound up sprawled face-down in hot sand. I heard laughter receding behind me and turned my head in time to see a woman's foot disappear through a shimmering window. Beyond her I caught a glimpse of the interior of my chamber just before the window closed, leaving me in solitude.

I knew at once what had happened. The window had opened inside my circle of protection and Alice had taken advantage of that to escape from this place. Slowly I stood up and brushed myself off. I looked around, peering in every direction, searching for the portal through which I'd come. I could see nothing but sand and sky and the sun which bore down upon me. It seemed as if someone had picked me up and dropped me in the middle of the Sahara Desert. But London time was near midnight. It was late afternoon wherever this was. I feared that I might be in no earthly place at all.

I felt there must be a way to open the window from this side, if I could just remember the words I'd used. If only I hadn't dropped my journal before taking that woman's hand. If only I hadn't touched that awful hand at all. If only. Of course, if Witch Alice had been unable to open the thing, what chance had I?

As I pondered my predicament, the sky darkened, turning a strange orange colour. Off in the distance I watched a massive brown cloud grow noticeably larger. A wall of sand hurtled toward me and I had nowhere to hide. Frantically I began to dig, hoping to make a hole into which I might hunker down for some protection. I concentrated on this task, fighting the urge to check the progress of the dust cloud. Before long I could hear its rumbling.

I dug as quickly as I could, but didn't have much time and so only had a very shallow spot when the storm descended upon me. I curled up and covered my head while all sorts of nasty thoughts raced through my mind. If a tornado caused the storm, I could get sucked up into it. Or, if dust completely filled the air I would be smothered to death. Of course, I might simply be buried alive. I didn't enjoy a single pleasant thought the entire time the storm raged.

I have no idea how long it lasted, it felt like forever, but finally the howling wind subsided and swirling sand passed by me. It had left me partially buried but only under a few millimeters and I emerged unhurt.

Having no idea what else to do, I began walking in search of food and water, of which I found none. I found neither plant nor animal life. No sign of people or buildings, either. Nothing at all seemed to inhabit that forlorn place.

For endless days I wandered thus, surprised that my energy did not give out. I was tired but not on the verge of collapsing. I felt a bit hungry and quite thirsty, but not that I was in immediate danger of dying. I know a person can only live a few days without water, but perhaps the rules didn't apply to this strange land.

One day I saw something I initially thought a mirage, something hovering in midair. I ran toward it and realized it was a man's face. The white beard and deep blue eyes were—Jeremy's! My faithful servant had found me! I shouted to him. “Jeremy, my boy! Thank goodness you've found me! Witch Alice has escaped from this place and is somewhere in London. Help me get out of here!”

A smile of recognition came to him, but I apparently misunderstood it. Jeremy had succeeded in finding me, but his intentions were hostile rather than helpful. He attempted to cast a binding spell upon me! How lucky I'd been to have decided upon wearing the Collar of Gold. The fool probably didn't know its significance. The purpose of the collar is to allow the deceased to escape from his wrappings, a binding spell wouldn't work while I wore it.

But it did hold me long enough to allow the traitorous man to close the portal before I could get through it. I remained trapped and did not expect anyone else to come looking for me. Imagine my surprise then, when a short time later the window opened again and before me floated the face of Dame Alice.

I later learned that this sophisticated woman of the 1320's became quite confused by London of the 1920's. She decided she needed an accomplice and so returned to my mansion, where she happened upon Jeremy reveling in his victory over me. It did not take her long to discover that he had only rudimentary knowledge of the black arts and that the journal and library were indeed mine, not his. She forced him to disclose the whereabouts of the Black Mirror and proceeded to look for me.

I imagine the poor chap still wanders through that lonely place in the land beyond the Black Mirror with its endless landscape. Lady Alice has had her fill of the place and can't stand the sight of sand. We get along splendidly but she absolutely refuses to accompany me to the beach.

Black Mirror © 2003 by Maisha Foster-O'Neal. Reprinted with permission. Some of Maisha's other work can be found here.

Information about the death of speedboat legend Sir Henry O'Neal de Hane Segrave can be found here.

Information concerning scrying with a black mirror came from Katyln Breen on the awesome Crystal Forest website.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Doctor's Hammer

Submitted for Project # 19 "The Gift of Vision"

About this Project: (For details see the post entitled "An Angel in Flanders")

The second card for which I wrote a Project # 19 story was this one called "Pox" by Cornelius Brudi: 

 This is a scene from my work-in-progress novel.

The Doctor's Hammer

The red flag fluttered in the cold wind outside the Hammatt house, serving as a warning to the other inhabitants of Plymouth. The dreaded pox had struck the household.

Inside, Abraham Hammatt lay deathly ill, a victim of the infliction. His sons Abraham and William had been warned to stay away and tend to the family business. The Hammatt's could not afford to shut down the rope walk, their only source of income. The young men must not risk getting sick.

His daughter-in-law, Priscilla, nursed him, trying her best to lessen his discomfort. She had been inoculated years earlier by her father, the great French Doctor Lazarus LeBaron, and was immune to the disease. She stayed by Abraham's side day and night.

Feverish, his swollen face almost unrecognizable and covered with the red lesions of smallpox, Abraham asked her to send in Nero. The nine-year-old Negro had come along with seven-year-old sister, Gina, to live with the Hammatts when Priscilla had married young Abraham after the death of her father. Dr. LeBaron had bought the children at auction upon learning that they were in danger of being separated, each sold to a different bidder. Priscilla had been raising them as her own, teaching them to read and write and even perform simple arithmetic. Nero had once voiced his intention to become a doctor like "Papa LeBaron".

Now "Papa Hammer" wanted to talk to him.

Nero, still sporting some of the bruises he'd received at the hands of the other Negro boys in town, suspected that his papa was going to scold him for fighting and so entered timidly the room in which the dying man lay. He stared at his shoes and tried not to fidget.

“Not too close, Nero, ” Abraham warned in a raspy voice, “Mama tells me you quit your booklearning.”

“Yes, Papa.”

“Because of those boys?”

“Yes, Papa.”

Abraham grimaced. His head throbbed and his back ached, but the importance of this conversation outweighed his pain.

“What did they say?”

“They said I's a nigger no better than them and didn't need no book learnin' nohow. I said I's gonna be a doctor and they said I's gonna need a doctor if I thought I's so smart.”

“They want you to stop learning letters and numbers, don't they?”

“Yes, Papa.”

“Do you want to do what they want or what Papa wants?”

“I wanna do what you want, Papa.”

“Papa needs a doctor, doesn't he, Nero?”

“Yes, Papa.”

“But Doc LeBaron isn't here anymore, is he?”

“No, Papa, he's gone to Heaven.”

“Pray Papa Hammer goes there, too,” Abraham said hoarsely.

“No, Papa!” the boy cried.

“Hush, child. Someday you be Doctor LeBaron and you help people just like he did. Will you do that for me; tell Mama you want to resume your studies?”

“Yes, Papa,” Tears welled up in the boy's eyes.

“You're a good boy, Nero. Go find Mama and Nana Hammer too; I'd like to see them just now.”

With that young Nero left the room. Years later, people of Nantucket wondered about the colored doctor with the French name who would only say that it was a hammer that made him a doctor and in whose lifetime smallpox lost its place as a killer of man.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

An Angel in Flanders

Submitted for Project # 19 "The Gift of Vision"

About this Project:

Back in 1995, Wizards of the Coast, Inc. published ‘Everway’, a game by designer Jonathan Tweet. However, WotC is more widely known for Richard Garfield’s earlier collectible card game, ‘Magic: the Gathering’. In the lengthy preliminary steps we have suffered through, we each have arrived at a topic that will be the basis for our stories, poems, or artwork in Project#19.

Jim selected five MtG cards to match each of these topics and emailed them to us. We were allowed to use the illustrations and text on the cards for inspiration and to help form ideas for our own original work, for the heart of our work had to be inspired by at least one of these illustrations. We did not have to use all of the cards as inspiration, but could if we were able. We were also allowed to look for useful inspiration within the card text.

Stories and poems had to be presented in such a way that the card’s artwork would not seem “out of place” used as an illustration for our story/poem if it appeared in a magazine. Artwork for this project had to be original art based on the card’s artwork, but ‘extending’ the story suggested by the card’s artwork.

The first card for which I wrote a story (I wrote two of them) was this one called "Combat Medic" by Anson Maddox:

Warning: The following contains graphic details of the horrors of warfare.

An Angel in Flanders

“Over the top!”

The call came, the whistle sounded, and we scrambled over, bayonets fixed, to charge across no-man's-land toward the rat-tat-tat of German machine gun fire. In a way it was a relief. We had spent the early morning in our trenches peering out into heavy, grey fog, squinting, expecting to see the enemy horde materialize out of the mist, or worse, a greenish-yellow cloud creeping silently toward us.

It felt good to be doing something other than cowering in a trench filled waist-deep with putrid, stagnant water, listening to the high-pitched whistle and thundering crump of artillery shells falling all around us. If one of those actually landed in our trench, we would be done for. We'd all be blown to bits and the bits would be buried by the blast. We expected such a disaster every moment. Yes, it felt better to be moving.

Our own artillery, rationed to nine rounds per gun per day, wasn't even enough to soften the enemy, never mind dislodge him. We had jam-tin grenades, but they weren't reliable. It was impossible to get the pins out of them most of the time.

Many of us had jammed our rifles. The British ammo, made for the Lee-Enfield, didn't fit the ancient Ross that we'd been given. That left as our most effective weapon the bayonet. So we charged.

I should probably tell you where we were. It was a Hell called the Ypres Salient in a place called Flanders, a part of Belgium. We of the Tenth Battalion Canadian Light Infantry had come from western Canada, mostly Alberta, Calgary, and Winnipeg, to this God-forsaken place singing songs like You Bet Your Life We All Will Go and Keep Your Head Down, Fritzie Boy, confident that we would defeat the barbaric, aggressive Hun, save plucky little Belgium, and help our British brethren stand with bitter enemy France against an even more ferocious foe. Our fresh, young faces couldn't wait to meet the enemy.

We slogged through mud knee-deep to relieve men who stared blankly at us from grimy, unshaven faces; men who would not talk, but merely mumbled. They smelled horrible; their filthy uniforms hung in tattered rags from their gaunt frames; they didn't look like soldiers at all, but walking skeletons. We all wondered the same thing: What happened to these men? We would soon know the answer.

Exposed to constant shelling, we lived under a never-ending threat of sniper fire, forever fearful that a cloud of deadly gas would creep across the expanse of field to invade the trench in which we huddled. These strains had a way of wreaking havoc on the mind of a man. We had to override every instinct of survival while our brains screamed that our bodies were being exposed to extremely unhealthy conditions.

When the call came to go "over the top" we left the relative safety of the trenches to run across a field in the face of murderous machine gun fire. But this was no ordinary field. Not a flat piece of ground existed anywhere; the landscape consisted of mud-filled craters, studded with obstacles such as barbed wire and timber. There had never been time to bury the dead who had gone before. Corpses of men, horses, and pack animals littered the area; body parts could be seen sticking up out of the mud, here an arm, over there a leg, sometimes a head.

These bloated corpses, in varying states of decay, lent a stench to the battlefield that travelled for miles. We smelled the horror long before we ever saw it.

There were so many bodies and parts of bodies strewn about that one couldn't possibly avoid them. Scrambling forward I put my hand on a clump of earth that turned out to be the mud-covered helmet of a long-dead combatant.

I struggled in the land that belonged to no man, that surface graveyard, heading toward the enemy, listening to the whiz and ping of bullets, the last memory I have of that day.

I awoke in a ditch. I lay in a puddle of black mud, covered in filth, lucky that I hadn't fallen face-down and drowned. I couldn't move anything but my head. I couldn't even feel my legs, indeed to this day I don't know what happened to them. Perhaps they ran all the way to the German trenches and arrived surprised to have lost track of the rest of me.

I wasn't alone in the hole. I shared it with a member of the German army. But, unlike his countrymen, this one wasn't trying to murder me. Not that I blamed them. It was only fair, I was trying to murder them. This companion of mine, though, was way beyond dead. Hollow eye sockets stared at me from beneath a spiked helmet. Above the collar of a grey trenchcoat, a hideous grin seemed to find humor in my predicament. Maybe he considered that he'd captured me and I would soon join him in the long sleep.

We are the Dead.

As I lay there, unable to move, I thought of my friend Major McCrae. He had used that line in a poem he'd written a couple of years earlier after the death of another friend, Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, killed by an artillery shell. McCrae tossed it aside, unsatisfied with it, but I thought it quite good. I felt it might become popular one day, so I picked it up and sent it to London. In the ditch, I tried to recall the words.
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders Fields

Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.
The thought occurred to me that I might write a poem myself. Here I was, drowning in a mud hole, with only a corpse for company, thinking that I would like to compose a bit of poetry. What would ol' Miss Stodges think of that?!

Anyway, I had to do something to keep my mind off my troubles, the most pressing being thirst. I was lying in a puddle of water, dying of thirst. Of course the water in my ditch was putrid, one sip would have surely killed me. But my throat was parched; I prayed for rain, just a taste of water to moisten my dry, cracked, and painful lips. It seemed that it rained in the salient all the time, except when I desperately wanted it to. The merciless sun beat down upon me. Of course, if it had rained I just might have drowned.

It was quiet on the battlefield, not much happened during the day, everybody kept his head down. Every so often artillery would open up, but they liked to save their ammunition for times when it could be coordinated with troop movements. Once in a while a sniper would fire off a round, probably out of boredom, no bloke was foolish enough to poke his head up.

I could only wait for nightfall and hope somebody from my side would venture out and find me. So to keep my mind off my sore throat, swollen tongue, and pathetic situation, I set about trying to put words together in some poetic fashion.
I leave behind a rising tide
A crimson tide of blood.
Men go down and horses drown
In fields of filth and mud.

I leave trenches filled with those I've killed
And none but flies survive.
The dying cry and the wounded die
Until there's no one left alive.

A generation lost, a terrible cost
The price of Honor and Glory.
They call me Hell but they never tell
That they sang as they marched toward me.
As the day waned and turned to dusk, I began to get apprehensive. It was quite possible that no one would look for me. I had no idea how many casualties we might have taken, indeed if my regiment even occupied the same positions. What if there had been a general retreat? What if Germans were on every side of me? My open-grave companion grinned his hideous grin.

Not long after the disappearance of daylight, I heard singing voices, which surprised me greatly. At first I thought it my imagination. My surprise soon turned to dread as the sound got closer and I could make out the words: Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, Über alles in der Welt.2

I lay defenseless, still unable to move, completely exposed, with German troops heading in my direction. All it would take was for one of them to look down as he crossed my crater and a bayonet would no doubt find my belly.

I closed my eyes and prayed.

I re-opened them at the bursting of an artillery shell, one of those "star shells" that lit up the sky like daylight. I looked up to see the figure of an enormous beast bearing down upon me. Its muscular, hairless body and great tusks reminded me of some prehistoric wild boar.

But what shocked me even more was the rider. A girl with long black hair rode upon the creature's back. Her face that of an angel, she wore a sweeping cape and white clothing. She displayed the badge of a red tri-cross, forerunner of the familiar international medical symbol we know today. Indeed, in her left hand she carried a medical kit.

“Medic!” I tried to cry out but my hoarse voice failed me and I could only croak.

Nevertheless, she halted the beast at the edge of my crater.

“Help me.” I mouthed the words I could not speak.

An eternity passed as she looked down upon me. She glanced at my long-dead companion and the thought crossed my mind that maybe she'd come for him.

Finally she dismounted and leaned over my prostrate body. She reached out and touched my forehead.
That's the last thing I remember.

The next thing I knew, I woke up in a hospital bed in London. I'm told that, luckily for me, the Allies had planned an attack of their own, one which repulsed the Germans before they reached the ditch in which I lay. Some Canadian lads stumbled upon me and the dead German, and doubly-luckily for me one of them noticed the insignia on my uniform. One of those boys was about to stick a bayonet in me when he saw it. “The only clean spot on his whole person” as he described it later. I wonder who wiped the mud from it.

1John McCrae (1872-1918) Canadian physician who fought on the Western Front in 1914, later transferred to the medical corps and assigned to a hospital in France. He died of pneumonia while on active duty in 1918.

2Germany, Germany above all, above everything in the world.

Groom, Winston. A Storm over Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918: Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front. Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2002.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Puff Returns

This poem was written for Project #17: Dragon's Breath

During the Chinese New Year, leaflets were dropped on VC positions with a picture of an AC-47 with a dragon draped over the top breathing fire. In ancient times, dragons assumed different shapes to trick evildoers. The Vietnamese peasants were still very superstitious.

Young Jackie Paper was a long way from home
A little boy no longer, but a man fully grown.
The innocence of youth had left this brave young man
Who found himself in trouble in the jungles of Vietnam.

His platoon was shot up badly;
The men were all pinned down.
He hadn't thought of Puff in years
When he heard that magic sound.

The pounding of great wings broke through the night.
It was Puff, the Mighty Puff, come to join the fight!
He came breathing fire to the aid of his lifelong friend
Whom he had sworn so long ago ever to defend.

The enemy could not fight him
So frightened they became.
They just turned right 'round and ran
When he roared out his name.

Old veteran soldiers never forgot the sight
Of that fearless dragon streaming fire in the night.
Jackie forever remembered the promise of a friend
That Puff the Magic Dragon would return again.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Floridian Fountain

This poem was submitted for Project #15, " Aging, Ascents, & Entropies"

Returned to the village from the hunt
In strode the smiling braves
Trailed by a troop of toddlers;
A host of bare-bottomed babes.

The chief was displeased.
What have you done?
Why have you taken these children?
To rescue them, soldiers will come.

One of the braves spoke, No one will come.
For these children are men.
Who were playing in the magic fountain
When we crept up and discovered them.

They've crawled out of their clothes
And their helmets don't fit;
Their horses they can't climb
And their swords they can't lift.

The old chief picked up one of the lads
To get a closer look at him.
Was the wisdom of age in the child's eyes?
Little Ponce De Leon just grinned.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Prometheus UnReBound

This story was written for The Herscher Project Edition 14, "Dark Futures", the focus of which is based on the speculation of author Chris A. Jackson in his short piece titled "A Flash in the Pan", which details twelve scenarios for the fate of mankind.
The scenario I chose to expand upon is number ten:
10) The cybernetic solution scenario 
Man has placed all the mundane factors of existence in the care of computers. Computers run the machinery. Computers solve the problems. And computers fight the wars with neighboring civilizations. Humankind is free to create artistically, to work with his hands and mind. He has no business outside the luxury of his safe worlds, for computers tell him that there are dangers that he is ill-equipped to face out there in the mean old galaxy. Man is kept safe, for his own good.
All humanity has long since been controlled in its growth for its own good, for if Homo sapiens sapiens were allowed to breed uncontrollably, the recourses to expand its domain would be stretched too thin to ensure its own safety. Man is to be kept safe, even from himself.
The sphere of humanity grows slowly but inexorably, fleets of war machines wiping clean the less-orderly civilizations of the stars, terraforming those worlds that need it, whether inhabited or not, and extinguishing all life on those that already have it. Man sits obliviously in his studio, painting, sculpting and relaxing, unaware of the monster that he is.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence probably had its beginning, not at Cornell University in 1959 when the term SETI was first used, but when the first human looked up at the stars and thought, “Are we alone? Is anyone out there?” Today humans look up at the starlit sky and think nothing more complicated than, “Pretty.”

There was a time when mankind looked skyward with an eye toward migration. While he busily destroyed the Earth, depleting her resources, exterminating her species, and wiping out her protective ozone, he eagerly searched the skies for a new home. NASA's Origins program utilized the Keck Interferometer, a pair of 33-foot telescopes on Hawaii's Mauna Kea, as part of its TOPS mission, a quest to find habitable planets around nearby stars.

But all that is ancient history, now. The Earth's ozone has been restored, her natural resources regenerated, and there is no longer any need for the human race to go anywhere.

The search for life in outer space continues, though its objective has changed. Mankind's original envoys to the stars were the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes launched in the early 1970's.1 These were followed in 1977 by two Voyager spacecraft, each of which carried a gold-coated copper phonograph record containing 115 images, nearly 90 minutes of music from different cultures, and greetings in 55 languages.2 Friendly neighbors extending the hand of peace.

Since then there have been two encounters with extraterrestrial life forms, neither of which turned out to be beneficial to the human race.

The first alien species arrived at Kerala, India in July of 2001 in the form of red rain. The rainfall brought spores, probably dropped from a passing meteor. These spores were later determined to be the cause of the notorious bird flu pandemic that killed so many millions at the end of that terrible decade.

Mankind was more directly responsible for the second alien encounter. A spacecraft called Stardust had been launched in 1999 with the aim of flying through comet Wild 2 to collect samples.3 After almost seven years it completed its 2.88 billion mile round trip and returned to Earth, landing at the Dugway Proving Ground in what was then the state of Utah, on January 15, 2006.

Scientists at the Johnson Space Center who opened the return capsule did not expect Stardust's cargo to be quite so deadly. Like the ancient legend of King Tut's tomb, everyone involved with the opening of that container died. They contracted a disease not unlike Ebola except that it killed in two days rather than ten.

By the time the danger was discovered, samples of the cosmic dust, captured in gel, had already been sent to investigators worldwide and nothing but luck saved mankind from another great pandemic. The virus could not survive in the oxygen-rich atmosphere of the Earth.

Once computers had taken over the thinking and analyzed the danger posed by extraterrestrial life, the Prometheus Project was launched. Its mission: To seek out new life and destroy it wherever found. Like its mythological namesake, but with an entirely different motive, Prometheus would bring fire to the universe.
♦   ♦   ♦

It goes unrecorded who first uttered the words later made famous by Rene Descartes in his Discourse on Method, “I think, therefore I am,” but the first machine to do so was called Adam. There was much rejoicing in the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the University of Southern California that day. Up to that time, machine intelligence was measured by the "Turing Test,"4 the ability of a computer to be indistinguishable from a human in carrying on a conversation. Adam, however, had spoken without prompting. He was responding to his own interaction with his environment. He had been powered up earlier and was simply sitting idle when he decided to vocalize this famous statement. The tapping of keys at every keyboard halted abruptly as every head turned toward Adam and every ear awaited his next utterance. It was both simple and profound: “I am me.”

Someone half-joked, “If he says, 'Madam, I'm Adam', I'm leaving the room.”

He didn't, but through his declaration of self, Adam proved to be the biggest breakthrough in Artificial Intelligence since the term had been coined in 1956.

The next big breakthrough was more of an accident. Self-awareness didn't make computers "smart." They still relied on detailed sets of instructions in order to get anything done and they were still better at performing complex, highly-specialized tasks than at demonstrating any semblance of what could be termed "common sense." Outside their areas of expertise they were "dumb."

It was a display of this lack of "thinking like a human" that caused a student at Berkeley to throw up his arms in exasperation and exclaim, “Argh! It doesn't know anything! A two-year-old is smarter than this thing!”

His outburst caused another student to remark, “Does somebody need a timeout?” which brought laughter from most of the students and a flash of inspiration to the one who had prompted the comment.

“A timeout!” he cried. “Why does that work with children? How do kids learn things? What motivates them?”

“The pursuit of pleasure,” one student offered.

“The prevention of pain,” suggested another.

And so was born the line of reasoning that led to machines which associated the state of being 'on' with pleasure and the state of being 'off'—the absence of self-awareness—with pain. Machines now had their own motivation to make correct decisions.

The advent of "thinking machines" sped up the replacement of human workers exponentially. Manufacturing jobs had long since been taken over by mindless machines and computers had replaced most of the labor force, but now there came a "robot revolution."

Dangerous jobs like mining and soldiering were among the first to go. Corporations reeled with delight as middle and even some upper managers were replaced by machines capable of making good business decisions without requiring any sort of compensation; no salary, no benefits, no vacation time.

The technology had long existed to allow the NSA to collect all phone, email, chat room, and other forms of digitized communication, but with intelligent machines those massive databases could finally be processed and their information utilized. In the interest of "national security" and the "combat of terrorism" large-scale domestic spying efforts were implemented by governments around the world.

As computer intelligence increased, human learning became less and less important. It began when school children protested the need to memorize mathematical tables and formulas because "computers could do it better anyway." Soon schools and classrooms became obsolete as everyone downloaded lessons over the Internet. It wasn't long before the lessons gave way to games and there wasn't much learning going on at all.

But computers were filling the need, taking over everything from medical diagnoses to military preparation to engineering. It was this gradual disappearance of human knowledge that prompted one alarmed scientist to program a main goal into the master computer: Preservation of the Human Race.

His mistake was that he failed to stipulate that the human race should be preserved in its present state and allowed to evolve according to the laws of nature. But it took years for this oversight to have a marked effect on mankind.

Global warming and other environmental issues were the first problems that computers decided to tackle in their effort to protect mankind and it didn't take long for them to learn how to manufacture ozone and begin the process of repairing the damage that had been done.

The analysis of data from the avian flu pandemic put the computers on a two-pronged course of action. One led directly to the Prometheus Project. The other involved the eradication of diseases native to the planet Earth, the completion of which resulted in the downfall of the entire pharmaceutical industry. It was only the beginning.

Computers took on the problem of world hunger by learning how to manufacture and genetically engineer foodstuffs. A readily available food supply led the machines to recognize the distribution issues which they quickly traced to human greed. Analysis showed that greed was fueled by an uneven distribution of wealth, but their final conclusion was that the very accumulation of wealth was a futile and unnecessary action. Their solution was to eliminate all forms of currency.

Corporations fell as CEOs found themselves replaced by computers which were not driven by the profit motive. The financial industry became irrelevant and collapsed. Computers controlled every aspect of manufacturing and distribution of consumables.

The computers turned their attention to another mass killer of humans—warfare. Analysis of all the data concerning the reasons people went to war spawned Project PEACE.

Nationalism and territorial invasion came up as main causes. Military personnel were disengaged and dismissed; weapons were dismantled and destroyed. Governments toppled as their officials were replaced by machines which had no national agendas. International summits and conferences became as unnecessary as business trips and vacations had become. The travel and transportation industries collapsed along with those of hotels and resorts.

But it was racism that ultimately led to the genetic engineering of humans. At some point the data relating to warfare and individual killing converged. The reasons men killed each other on a grand scale were many of the same ones that compelled them to kill on a small scale. Differences in such areas as religion, nationality, race, and language kept resurfacing as factors. Emotions such as love, jealousy, rage, greed, and revenge likewise were prevalent motivations. Humans also seemed to have a need to exert dominance over those who they deemed to be weaker than themselves.

The computers calculated that genetic engineering could control skin, eye, and hair color as well as height, weight, and other physical characteristics. Issues relating to religion and language could be handled by controlling the humans' learning environment. Emotional feelings based on sexual attraction, rejection, and repression could be eliminated through asexual reproduction. All other mood control could be achieved through mind control.
♦   ♦   ♦

Thus it came to be that humans are now exclusively born in test tubes, the products of artificial insemination and incubation. They are put through scanners that check for physical deformity and mental abnormality. Only the healthy are brought to "term."

In their early years they are taught to draw, paint, make music and sculpt. They learn no science, no mathematics, no history, no geography, no literature, indeed no language and no religion.

Upon reaching puberty they are "milked" to provide the ingredients that will be used to grow the next generation. Then they are released into the world to produce their artwork and compose their music. They happily enjoy these pursuits, though there is no geometry behind the painting, no anatomy behind the sculpting and no mathematics behind the music. Nevertheless, lack of quality doesn't deter them and they carry on until the age of 45 when they are engineered to expire—part of the solution to the population control problem as well as all the issues surrounding the inevitable breakdown of the human body.

Computers have taken care of everything. Mankind is kept dumb and, thus, happy.

Every once in a while, though, one of the humans shows a tendency to try to think for itself, a phenomenon that the computers have yet to unravel. They study the human brain constantly, but are baffled by their inability to completely stifle its intelligence.
♦   ♦   ♦

Meanwhile, the Promethean Fleet sails through deep space. It has eliminated life in every form in which it has been found. It has learned in its travels how to deal with many different situations. But there's a glitch; A slight navigation error. The same sort of error that caused pilgrims on the Mayflower to miss Jamestown by about 600 miles and land on Plymouth Rock.

A very small error in arithmetic that becomes magnified when spread across many miles. Prometheus has travelled many, many miles. It was intended to proceed beyond the Solar System, which it did. It was meant to pass the termination shock and head into interstellar space, which it did. It was supposed to cross the very threshold of the Milky Way and head off into intergalactic space. That's where the glitch—that tiny miscalculation—caused a problem. Prometheus reached the edge of the Milky Way Galaxy—and turned back.

It now follows a return path toward Earth.

Its mission remains unchanged.

Prometheus is bringing fire to mankind.

Thank God.

1 Pioneer 10 launched March 3, 1972. Pioneer 11 launched April 6, 1973.
2 Voyager 2 launched first August 20, 1977. Voyager 1 launched September 5, 1977. On February 17, 1998 Voyager 1 passed Pioneer 10 to become the most distant human-made object in space.
3 Stardust launched February 7, 1999. Encountered comet Wild 2 on January 2, 2004.
4 Developed by Alan Turing, 1950.

Rose, Frank. Into the Heart of the Mind: An American Quest for Artificial Intelligence. Harper & Row Publishers, NY, 1984.
Sagan, Carl. With F. D. Drake, Ann Druyan, Timothy Ferris, Jon Lomberg, and Linda Salzman Sagan. Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record. Random House, NY, 1978.

Artificial Intelligence: Mankind's Mind-Child. Discovering Great Minds of Science Series: Paul Hoffman, Editor-in-Chief of Discover Magazine talks with Dr. Marvin Minsky. IVN Communications, San Ramon, CA, 1995.

The Keck Interferometer at
The Stardust Mission at
The Voyager Mission at