Interceptor

part 1: foxtrot uniform charlie kilo

This April evening darkness came early. It was hardly past 5 pm and Newport City didn’t stand a chance. It was engulfed by a tidal wave of flickering electric light, mist and a gentle rain.

The big adds on the skyscrapers flared to life, bathing the windows in neon blue, bright green and crimson. The street lights flashed, blinked and faded away, only to restart in less than half a minute.

Oz moved through his nearly empty apartment without making light. Not that he would have needed light ever again… His new prosthetic eyes automatically switched to night vision, showing him his nearly empty apartment as shabby as it felt to him right now.

In the bedroom, he unrolled his sleeping bag, where his old bed used to be. A clean set of clothes waited for tomorrow morning. He sighed, unsure what to do next, he went to the window. His own reflection looked like it always did. No scars, no metal parts protruding from his skin, even his eyes looked like his old ones. Strix made sure, he kept his retinal pattern for security reasons. No one would notice he had prosthetics. Raindrops trickled down the window. Only inches away, one would notice that his pupils would whirr and turn, not contract. He tapped the glass twice and it went milky. Nothing out there for me. He said it out loud. His voice sounded distant and flat.

What now? Izanami asked.

Can I see you? A young woman blinked into existence. She stood at his right side, and wore a grey catsuit. She had her long light brown hair braided into a long ponytail, resting on her left collar bone. Her full lips smiled at him pleasantly.

He had selected her facial features before he had his implants, even before he had his personal AI.

That face was with him, since he was born. It was the face of his mother in her twenties. His distant memories and an old photo of her laughing, were the mold, for Izanami’s facial features and her emotional response. He had set her emo-hub to be a fun person, optimistic and humming away his favorite songs, when he felt sad. Izanami monitored his neurotransmitter levels and knew when he felt stressed. She hummed softly.

Is this projection a hologram?

No. Izanami smiled. What you see, is a construct. I’m inserting your projection of me into your visual data, just before entering your visual cortex. I use the communication hub between implants and neuronal tissue for that. Your high capacity interceptors are made for this task. Do you want to change my appearance?

You are saying… You’re a hallucination? Oz surprised himself with this realization.

Technically? Yes. She nodded happily, and walked over to his left side. Your gaze follows me through space, but I’m there. Izanami pointed vaguely over Oz’s left ear.

There was the AI’s CPU and memory unit implanted into petrous part of his temporal bone. The implants for the AI were only twice his thumbnail’s size. It has been a minor operation, half an hour, or so. He had earned himself a migraine though.

The Uplink implants have been a procedure of several weeks and some hours in surgery. He still got dizzy, when looking at repetitive patterns. There was a weird interference, he hadn’t manage to filter out.

You seem not to like the word hallucination. What about ghost? Do you like ghosts? Izanami asked concerned.

No. Hallucination it is. Let’s personalize your features, security first. I should have done this on our first day. Oz paced up and down his bedroom. Izanami remained stationary where she last stood.

Firewall? Browse, select, cancel? She asked in a mocking robotic voice.

Select high security encryption. Quantum key. Select super symmetrical dummy barriers, select voice command initialized autistic mode.

Selected. Are you expecting an army of hackers? She giggled.

Select visual notifications and warnings, when attacked. Visual and audio notification, if security breached.

Right, war it is. Ok, selected. What about override? Izanami nodded, produced a clipboard and started scribbling away with a yellow pencil. Oz stopped in his tracks. What are you doing?

Taking notes, darling. She cooed.

Then select override mode, if logically impaired… Say, when I’m unconscious, or sleeping, or if I have lower than 50 blood sugar level, or lower than 80 percent oxygen saturation in arterial blood, or when sedatives or poison is detected in blood stream. Supervision only in autistic mode. I won’t have you getting bugged.

Selected. Please confirm settings with master voice command. She nodded slightly, tucking away the pencil behind her right ear.

A knock at the door interrupted. Who is it?

It’s Marcus. Izanami said. He’s alone and brought you beer. Oz walked towards the door. Go to sleep Izanami, we’ll continue tomorrow. Wake me up at 7:30 am. The woman blinked out of existence.

Open up! You think, I let you slip away that easily? The muffled voice belonged to his friend.

Oz swore under his breath. He didn’t need accommodation. Marcus… Dammit. He opened the door and there stood a tall, beefy young man with dark hair. Marcus being over six feet tall, occupied the whole doorway. His dark cat-like eyes gleamed with mischief, he smirked and pushed inside.

Man, Oz… Are you on a Zen trip, now? He whistled, and flicked on the light switch with his elbow. He thrusted two of the four six-packs into Oz’s arm. I brought beer. But I got a head start, so yo need to catch up. He winked at Oz.

Why are you here, Marcus? I don’t need a party. I don’t need your… Oz sighed, shoulders slumping. He knew Marcus stuck like chewing gum to a shoe sole, if he wanted to, and now he very clearly wanted to.

Oh come on, Oz. You got your papers… So, what? You’ve been banned, not thrown into jail. Lighten up! The world isn’t ending. Oz barked a bitter laugh. Marcus turned around and eyed him suspiciously. Are you moving? Where to? Can I help?

-No. Oz put the beer on a box near the living room door. He crossed his arms before his chest. Izanami and I can manage.

You’re the dumbest smart person I know. I’ll sign you up for the Dummy Olympics…

Am I? You know where the door is. Oz puffed annoyed and pointed towards the door.

It‘s not good to stew in your own juice. I told you, and the AI you’re so fond of cannot… Marcus breathed. I want to help. He smiled and held two six-packs up. That’s the start.

Oz wasn’t having any of that. I don’t need your help!

Yes, you do. Your dad made a scene, and you’re hurt. I understand.No, YOU DON’T! Oz shouted, his fists clenched into white balls of sinew and bone.

Man, chill. It’s been two months already. You’ve licked your wounds. Come off of it… Marcus spoke, as if to a rabid animal. Look, I got good news. You remember Professor Henriksen, pharmacology in second year? I showed him your work, and he liked it. He wants you to be his assistant. The job isn’t payed well. I know! But it’s a start. Oz looked at his toes. What do you say? Monday’s your first day! This was going to be painful.

We can share my lab. Marcus flashed his biggest smile and looked most pleased with himself. He turned around to put the beer unto the kitchen counter and got a glimpse of the letter laying there.

The temperature in the room dropped. He grabbed the paper and spun around. His face was the face of a deadly wounded. What’s this? Marcus’ voice trembled. Oz? The skin on his cheeks was ashen, eyes wide and watering.

Oz was caught by surprise, stammered. None … None of your business… The suicide note for his father would be hard to explain.

What the hell!? Marcus closed the distance between them in a blink. Oz backed away from the sudden notion, against the wall. His friend loomed over him, like an avalanche speeding down a mountain side, towards a box with puppies.

What were you planning? Oz turned his face away. TELL ME! He couldn’t stand those accusing dark eyes. The reaction wasn’t what he expected. He could feel Marcus’ beer-breath on his jaw. Is this what you want? He got pinned by his shoulders to the wall. Say something… The grip was strong. Anything… Marcus’s fingers dug into his tee and the skin beneath. It hurt. Oz bit his lips, tasted blood. He was disappointing again.

You want to die? Marcus voice broke. You really want to die? He took his left hand from the shoulder and pushed his forearm hard unto Oz’s windpipe. The bony part connected with his Adam’s apple. A surprised grunt escaped Oz’s mouth, with shock his eyes darted back to Marcus’.

You think you got it bad? Huh? You think you’re the only one suffering? You think you’re the only one struggling, from day to day? Marcus’ face was now white, distorted with rage. Oz tried to push the arm away from his throat, which made Marcus lean unto him harder. TELL ME! Marcus screamed.

He leaned on Oz with his whole weight now. The piercing pain in his throat clawed at him. It felt like glass shards being slowly pushed under his skin. His tongue felt raw, working against his teeth. You never worked hard for anything in your life! Everything was given to you, you little shit. At your first failure you toss it all aside, as if it was a filthy broke toy. And now you throw away your life too! You have no right to!

Marcus…Oz choked. No. Marcus’ eyes burned with hate. …Stop. He wheezed. Air refused to leave his lungs. The blood in his ears sang to the rapid thumps in his chest. Please. He kicked Marcus, but it went unnoticed. He reached out for his eyes, but his arms were too short, only touched his cheeks. He couldn’t swallow the saliva in his mouth anymore. The pressure at his temples blurred his vision. Iza-namiii… He had to do something. Fast.

…Your eyes! Marcus backed away suddenly, as if bitten by a snake. Tears ran down his cheeks.

Oz fell to his knees in a coughing fit. Before his eyes, the room blackened. He held his throat, sucking in greedily air, choking on it. Marcus looked at his hands, as if they were bloody.

The entrance door exploded.

Three men stormed in. Their guns stormed in too. Their movements looked to Oz like a black blur with six feet, stepping between him and his friend. Oz breathed. Each of them wore an undercut, black jumpsuits, bulletproof wests. Sort of military, Oz thought. They trained their guns at Marcus, who slowly raised his hands. Two of the men had weird looking semi-automatic rifles. The oldest of them had only a handgun. “Are you all right, Dr Wellington?” He squatted down near Oz, touching his shoulder.

Oz sat up, and croaked. Who the hell are you, people?

The man raised an eyebrow. “You’re welcome.”

What’s going on? Marcus didn’t dare to peel his gaze from the guns.

Sir? One of the men nearest to Marcus asked. “Cuffs.” The man barked back.

Oz stared in disbelief as Marcus got yanked around, hands slapped behind his back and zipped. He stood up supporting himself by the wall.

“Do you wish to press charges?” Oz shook his head. “Your call.” The man shrugged. “We got you a room in HQ. Lets go.”

Wait. Lemme say … something. Marcus begged. The man at his wrists looked quizzically at the oldest. “You’re a mistake away from another hole in your head.” The man said in a businesslike tone, and nodded .

You never understood, did you? I dropped so many hints. All the time we’ve been together, I thought… I really thought you knew. Marcus was close now. Oz furrowed his brows, not understanding.

Suddenly Marcus leaned forward, planted a kiss on Oz’s lips. He got yanked back hard. With a snort, the man handling him, dragged him out of the apartment. Oz glared after them in shock.

“That’s that. Where’s your stuff?” The man in command asked. Oz swallowed and looked at the man’s hard face, he noticed a long scar on his cheek.

Are you military? The man sighed and went looking for the bags. He found them right away in the bedroom.

“You got your papers, doc?” He shouldered one, and held the second out for Oz to take. He looked him up and down as he failed to take it. He shrugged and started downstairs. “Send in a cleaning crew.” He said.

Yes, sir! A male voice answered from nowhere.

Oz stood in his doorway wondering what to do next. Looking back at his apartment, with the busted door, he wouldn’t be able to sleep in it. Besides, a cleaning crew was on its way, whatever that meant. He followed the men downstairs. Behind him he heard steps. Several somebodies moved.

Outside a black SUV waited with its tinted windows. The wet concrete reflected the adds on the other side of the street. It drizzled. Oz hugged himself, his tee was damp and cold. As he approached, another car pulled slowly up. The man, who had his bags, pointed to it. “That’s yours. We take this one, with Mr Sampson.”

Marcus? Oz asked. The man nodded. What is going to happen to him? The man just smiled mildly. He’s my best friend.

“You should choose your friends more wisely. Try to pick those, who aren’t trying to kill you.” The man winked at him, got into the car, and they sped off, into the night.

The car meant for him halted, and the door opened. Inside, a young woman smiled at him brightly. Dr. Wellington! So nice to meet you in person. Please get in.

Oz looked around, the street was deserted, his apartment building had some lit windows. Th sky above him wept gently. No one was looking out for him. He searched for his windows, and found them smashed.

Nothing there for you anymore… The woman sighed. Get in. It’s cold.

But! Those weren’t broken before. Oz got in obediently, and buckled up. He shivered violently. The woman started the engine and merged into the occasional traffic.

That’s because you died in there. The road she took led to downtown. I-what?

Everyone looks back one final time. It’s normal. She extended her right holding a flask. Here, have some. Whisky.

Died? Oz reached out, smelled and took a gulp. The liquid tasted like extinguished fire and smoke. It burned down his throat, and he couldn’t suppress a cough. It still hurt- I…died?

-Yeah, you really scared me back there. This friend of yours, did he ever… You know? The woman tried. She glanced at him and made a sympathetic noise.

Oz wondered. Why wasn’t Izanami activating? He swallowed audibly. The whisky warmed his guts and he felt a bit better. A question dawned on him. How did these military guys know, he was in trouble? Was he bugged? Was his apartment bugged? How did they listen in? How … did you exactly know?

That’s a good question. She nodded. I’m not allowed to tell you. She said and pointed to the space between her eyes. Maybe you’ll figure out, by yourself. She winked at him too.

The winking was what made Oz lose it. He was sick of being winked at. What THE ACTUAL FUCK! HOW? WHY? IZANAMI WAKE UP!

No use, she got remotely disabled. Bound and gagged. So she wouldn’t call the police. They would have arrived too late, anyway. Luckily a bunch of smart and able guys were in your vicinity. All five, really cute too.

Five?! Oz remembered hearing steps, and a disembodied voice. I only saw… He trailed off, thinking.

Maybe they used the same trick Izanami used. But instead of inserting, the masked themselves, or deleted themselves from his visual data… Before entering visual cortex… Fucking interceptors…

Oh, Dr Wellington. They told me you’re smart. Say, what are you doing tomorrow? Got time for coffee with me?

foxtrot uniform charlie kilo

F***. I’ll miss you. Oz mumbled around his mouthful of Al-Capone Pizza. He wiped the grease from his mouth with his sleeve. He toasted to the city with the rest of the slice in his hand. …Maybe.

He has been on the roof all evening, to watch his last sunset. He let Izanami record all his visual input. Every bit of visual and sensorial memory was important. He was going to be home-sick, he supposed. Everyone was, at least, that was, what they had told him.

Why so serious? Isn’t this what you wanted? Izanami whispered into his ear from his new Uplink implant. He still had to get used to the vision tracking commands, so he wouldn’t zoom in on a passing bottle fly, or falling pigeon poop. If he wanted, he could count the hairs on a mosquito leg, but who would want that?

The orange evening sky withered to an inky brown. In the upper right corner of his field of vision the spectral analysis went berserk. The readout faded, as he failed to focus upon them.

A heavy drone buzzed overhead. It looked like an oversized, robotic amazon-yellow bumblebee. The zoom kicked in. It had 2501 written on its dented body. It was one of those new hub-controlled drones. It hovered briefly over the rooftop of his apartment building, beeped twice, then flew off. Oz sneered. Delivery bumble bee. Data from his new prosthetic eyes pushed into his consciousness. Wind speed. Drone velocity. Hull type. IP-Address.

I booked you unto the 5:50 and the 8:20 flight. Izanami interrupted the flow of information. Also, Strix Genome United sent an urgent request. They need your specs. What should I answer?

Oz scrunched his face into a sceptic grimace. What for?

Dummy, a spaceship needs a life doctor. He swore, he could sense her rolling her virtual eyes. Your hibernation tank. Izanami sighed.

Alright, alright. Send what they need. Oz shrugged. Strix could become a real nuisance…

His contract with them was top secret. They had hired him right after his dishonorable dismissal from Newport Medical University. They took him in like a kicked dog… His experiments with hibernation had failed horribly. The Ethic Committee had made a point in banning him from being a doctor, for a lifetime.

He swallowed hard. He never imagined how it would hurt, to disappoint. The pain, the disgust in his fathers expression killed Oz. The young offspring of a rich family – all famous doctors – sucked at being brilliant, even sucked at being morally immaculate. He would never be able to work as a physician, not on Earth. He never seen his father so upset, not even after his mother died…

The saliva in his mouth turned to acid. It was cold. He wiggled his toes, but the flip-flops did nothing to warm his feet. It was still April, he had to remind himself.

But they offered the kicked dog a ridiculous amount of money… There had to be a catch, he just couldn’t find it. Yet. There had been nothing else to choose.

What if, Strix took everything back, when he vanished? It wasn’t that hard to get a death certificate without a body. What if, they tried to make him vanish after those five years? Wasn’t it probable, that they were behind his hearing, leaving him damaged goods? Possible. He had to be most careful. Izanami, observe all CCT footage around my flat.

Noooooo one hears youuuu scream in spaaaaaace. Izanami prompted with a spooky singsong. That’s because there is no air. He answered.

Behind his earlobe, his implant vibrated with an incoming call. It’s Marcus. Izanami chirped.

He shook his head and she let the call go through to voice mail. Oz hated to be summoned, even to his own „surprise” farewell-party. Whatever Marcus had in mind, it won’t happen. What a shame! Missed that one too. He breathed. It smelled of wet dirt. Rain was coming.

The crate under Oz creaked while he craned his neck after the drone trying to land a block away.

In the lower left corner of his visual field flashed a new message. He blinked twice to open it. Oh come on, you pussy! Pick up. Marcus.

Marcus was what came closest to a best friend. No can do, not even for you, Marcus. A gust of wind tore at his tee. He lit his last cigarette, and inhaled as deeply as he could. He stood and looked over downtown gleaming, not noticing his last night on Earth.

The streets were full with cars, police and ambulance sirens. The taillights and the streetlights seemed to merge to arteries of light, feeding the heart of the city. Oz filled his lungs with dark smoke and damp night air. One star winked at him, then vanished behind thick grey clouds. He was leaving the continent. He dragged in another lungful smoky doubt and shivered uncontrollably.

Time to tidy up, Izanami. The voice command activated a hidden task he programmed earlier, so Izanami would initiate a tiny program in her subroutines and neglect it right away. The blessings of reversed modeling logic worked on every AI, as well as on his personal one. The skin on his nape burned. The feeling of being watched was overwhelming. He flipped the cigarette butt over the edge of the building. He was leaving the planet.

The advance money from Strix sitting in his account went bye-bye. It arrived back, after a brief visit in Switzerland and Cayman Islands. The program moved and shuffled the little zeroes to the music of a quantum key encryption. Even when his account and all his data movements have been flagged, no one could link him to the bits and bites without the key. And the electrons of virtual money circled around him, and his alter ego. Mr Wong was going to be a wealthy, retired and a very happy man. Oz was leaving the inner solar system.

His feet carried him down the staircase, to his apartment. 42. It  was nearly empty, his bags were packed. Izanami hummed softly Babylon Feeling to him. My heart is broke, my will is gone. The lyrics pounced on him, like a lion on a gnu. He felt a heavy thump in his chest, somewhere deep down, where he kept his feverish nightmares.

Everything he possessed was stored away in cardboard boxes. The storage space was paid for five years in advance. It was a long time. Just forget about me… Oz hummed to himself.

On the kitchen counter was a half finished letter. He glanced at it. His nails dug into the flesh of his palms, his clenched fists wanted to crush something.

It was a suicide note to his father.

To leave his old life behind, he needed to die – metaphorically, of course. He had pointed this out to Izanami, as she tried to call the suicide hotline for him. It seemed theatrical, even pathetic. The Strix people were explicit about this part. No one was allowed to know where he went, and for how long. The best would be, he wrote suicide notes to everyone he loved, and just vanish from their lives. His profiling psychologist predicted this, to be his most credible reaction to failure. A knee-jerk reaction, attempting suicide, even if pretended.

Oz thought of the experimental gear he was going to get to work with. He thought of the money, the carefree life he was going to have. What am I getting myself into?

I don’t know, boss. Izanami sighed.

 

-part 2: Interceptor

med bay snippets #1

I look at my bandaged hand in the unnatural green light of the exam room. Nasty… That’s what I would say, if my mouth would do its job. Lips and tongue are swelling and numb. I try not to be too suspicious by licking them. I bet, if you eat a swarm of angry hornets, it would feel the same. Not the regular ones, but the big, Japanese ones, with mean attitude.

Oz is smiling at me, like he always does, when I get into trouble. It’s an equally patronizing and cheering smile, reserved for fuck-ups like me. It’s the smile of a big brother I never had. I’ve seen him do this with his patients too. I can almost hear his habitual mantra.  Unbelievable!

Oz jumbles on his sterile gloves. Elegant trick, how his long slim fingers do the opposite of striptease. Now comes the folding, his fingers clench into a praying gesture. I call it The-praying-Oz.

Hibernation unit. Ate my hand. 

My mangled palm leaks through the bandages. The black stain seeps through the cloth I wrapped around the hand.

I hate this part. The peeling away of bandages, the revealing of hurt, skin, muscle and sinew, maybe bones. The heavy lid traps not only fingers and palm, but the momentum of damage. The will to destroy, the idea to kill needs dear payment. Maybe I pay with more than my blood and my  fine motor skills. My breathing is fast, but not because of pain. I switch my pain sensors off, when I’m about to pull a stunt. To pull a stunt… That’s what Oz calls getting into trouble. Breathing. Fast and shallow, which is a problem. I feel the swelling starting down my throat.

This is bad. I sure hope Oz tries to get me to speak, so he’ll notice. Come on Oz, do your magic! I cheer him on mentally. 

How did you hurt your hand? Tell me!

Oz’s eyes lock on mine. Guided missiles…

I’ll pull the footage afterwards.

They just look like laser guided death on a mission. Thank God, my mouth is out of function, or I might be telling him the truth.

Mffpfen…felin …Ifaf…wetwiiin…it. 

Ah, yes, the perks of drug allergies. Not having to care about the tension in your voice, when you are lying.

My pen is safe, don’t worry about that… Of course, I won’t tell him that I was meddling with the security protocol of that hibernation tank.

I swallowed codeine beforehand and brought a broken ampule. I already swapped it with the one on the table he did not give me, when I stumbled in.

What? Why are you talking so funny?! Epinephrin. Now!  

Oz jumps out of my field of view. Better hurry…

He slams the epipen into my thigh. There they are, the angry hornets with attitude flooding my leg, or is it my lungs? Feels like drifting…

Look at me! Focus!  

I don’t think so….

premium gold valentine’s day package

This is the first draft for a submission. ’bout 300 words, sci-fi, the spirit of Valentine’s Day should be present. But…well, I dunno. Any thoughts?

1) Test customer

„I’m not made to understand. Natsume. Kun. I’m made to be in love with.“ She giggles with her mellow voice.

„This is true.“ Sweet dialogue design. Five stars. I note on the life review feed. My follower number jumps above 50 k. Nice! I sip my drink. The rich dark scent of warm cocoa floods my palate, texture delightfully creamy. Hot chocolate. Like, no- better heart. Four stars. Her voice hub designer is an artist. Voice hub design: five stars. I bet she could purr me to satisfaction. A very pleasant picture of the Valentine Goddess. 

The waitress, dressed as a maiden, brings us a piece of  strawberry velvet cake, made to look like a cartoon heart. „I’m sorry to have kept you. The love special, for our lovers.  Best wishes from the staff at Valentine Goddess Maiden Cafe Ueno.“ She chirps heartwarmingly and bows. They should cut the adds. After all, this is just a Cafe with companion androids.

„This is my favorite! How did you know?“ My Valentine Goddess asks with astonishment. Her surprise is programmed with brows shooting up, bright flashy smile, wet glistening in her dark blue eyes. Facial expressions pretty basic, a bit overdone. They call this high facial expression mode. 

„It’s my favorite too.“ I beam at her. She gasps.

„No way! This is fate! We are made for each other!“ A bit pathetic, but men will go crazy. It’d be charming if she could eat though… I look at the display of my mobile. Fifteen minutes left with my Valentine Goddess.

At the base of my iView screen in my glasses, my bank account shows a fat plus of 70 000 Yen. Not bad for ten minutes work.

tiger, burning… (2)

part 2 - tea with jade and tiger

part 1 (the cold mountain)

“Cold Mountain holds a naked bug. Its body’s white, its head is black. In its hands a pair of scrolls – Forgive me, dear son. The autumn wind brings not only the snow clouds  from the  Cold Mountain, it also brings thoughts of frailty and decay…” Zhang Dee Yang looks into the  bright orange of the fire his foster-son just made. With a burning splint Bolin lights all lanterns  and lamps in the room. The old man  looks at him moving gracefully from corner to corner. The covert smile he flashes is only for Bolin, but only  when the boy isn’t looking. It’s the notion of a proud father towards his worthy offspring, even if the offspring isn’t of his own blood.

Thick grey clouds rush down the western slope of the mountain. They soften the lights and the sounds. The wind turns the air in the tea house cold and damp. Bolin worries about the pain the coming season will bring for his father, and closes the screen door. The crickets chirp into the clacking of the whispering bamboos, but they grow tired rapidly and stop. The governor sits by the fire, lighting his pipe, listening to the hints coming from the garden. Bolin prepares the cups and the tea, pours the hot water. He hands one cup to his father, but doesn’t seem to notice the growing silence.

“One the Way and one its Power. It needs no pots or stove.” Bolin makes sure his father is comfortable, before settling down unto his cushion. The two men sip from the steaming  fragrant tea. The pleasant warmths of the golden liquid mixes with the warmths of the  woolen covers. It promises a wonderful evening.

Before continuing on the subject of Black Viper and San Chou, Zhang Dee Yang thinks about the guests waiting in the garden, and decides to watch Bolin closely. Usually they spend hours in the teahouse discussing philosophy, art, poetry and astronomy, but this time, swiftness is most important. The governor clears his throat. He speaks the rest of his poem loud enough to be heard without any effort: “Without clothes it wanders on. But it carries Wisdom’s blade.

Scratches at the screen door answer his last verse. Bolin’s head flies towards the noise, nearly  spilling his tea. The alarmed expression on his  foster-son’s face brighten’s him up. The old man chuckles softly. “Please do come in, most honored guests. Bolin, be kind and  prepare two more cups and seats.”

The screen door slides open and a slender silhouette appears in the doorway. Right behind it, a bulky man bows slightly.  Bolin scrambles to prepare cushions and  to tea. The newly arrived guests are clad in silk with the color of shadows and wet soil. No adornment or jewels reveal their origin or social status.

A lady moves delicately towards the fireplace. The man closes the door behind them. “This is the most beautiful Fang Hua Xing, lady of thousand virtues. Her white hands have tamed the wind. This is the famous Jinhai Wei Fu, master of the green mountains. And this is my oldest son, Bolin.” The governor introduces everyone.

The guests look at Bolin carefully, long enough to make him blush. He hurries to fill the empty cups with tea. After Fang Hua Xing and Jinhai Wei Fu sit comfortably, his father waves a hand at the  free cushion. He sits down and  doesn’t dare to look at the guests. He knows, they must be fighters of some kind, maybe the best… The lady is most likely a sword fighter, and the man could be a master with stick or lance. Their elegant names hide their pasts, but names are like poems -one has to know, what their creator has in mind. But those hands do not lie about endless training hours, they have been through.

“To restore order in San Chou, it was necessary to free the village from the criminals.” The governor’s low voice slithers between the fragrant tea vapor clouds. “The most effective way was to do it from the inside. One capable man can do it.” Zhang Dee Yang looks at his son, and laughs.“Bolin! Don’t pull such a serious face, my dear son. There is nothing to be worried about. These two are good old friends of mine. They trust me, and I trust them.” 

The young man gasps and instantly bows before his foster-father. “Excuse my foolish reaction, dear father. Honored guests, please accept my humble apologies, for my rude behavior.” His forehead nearly touches the wooden floor.

“Young master, speak openly. We are all servants for the honored governor Zhang Dee Yang.” Fang Hua Xing’s words calm Bolin, and he dares to raise his blushed face. His gaze meets the lady’s. Bolin’s heart skips a beat, as he notices, that her eyes have the color of sunshine caught in pine resin.

“Let’s drink tea and play Pinyin, my friends.” Jinhai Wei Fu flashes his pearly teeth. His eyes glow with mischievous fire.

“That’s the spirit!” The governor nods happily. “Bolin. Dear son, you have returned a month ago from your completed training on Mount Songshan. You have become a capable young man, and I’d be happy to offer you to the Eternal Phoenix Throne. I believe in you.” The governor sets down his cup. “Find a way into the rows of the Black Viper, and cut it’s head off!” Fang Hua Xing’s sad eyes pierce the young man for a moment.

“Your trust honors me, governor Zhang Dee Yang! I will not disappoint you!” Bolin’s forehead touches the floor. He inhales deeply and holds his breath to calm his racing heart.

The governor smiles mildly. “I know you will succeed, my son. My dear friends will accompany you, and ease your way. San Chou will need your whole attention.  It is the best, to suspect that there is a traitor among the officers.” He sighs. “It will not be enough to destroy the Black Viper. You have to find the traitor…” The governor looks sad at his foster-son. “I fear, this will be the most dangerous part.”

“Noblest governor Zhang Dee Yang,” Fang Hua Xing interrupts carefully, “your honored name mustn’t be spoken in this matter. We do not know, who is corrupted by the venom of the Black Viper.” The governor drags at his pipe and nods slowly.

“Of course, my dear Fang Hua Xing. You are, as always, right.” He exhales smoke. “All our names must remain secret. We have to protect our families. Please accept the names, I’m going to give you for this task. Fang Hua Xing, your wisdom and beauty are for legends and poems. I offer you the name: Jade.” Fang Hua Xing bows as answer. “Jinhai Wei Fu, please accept the name Tiger. Your strength and bravery match the fierce fury of this great hunter.” Jinhai Wei Fu bows. “Bolin, my son, please accept the name Monkey.” Bolin bows.

tiger, burning… (1)

part 1  - THE COLD MOUNTAIN

San Chou is a dangerous place. It is the domain of the infamous Band of the Black Viper.

Everybody in and  around Li Jiang knows that… Bad news, even if only rumors, spread like bush fire over cities and the countryside. And the shadow of the Black Viper has reached the high officers in the  cities around the Cold Mountain. It’s enough to get the governor Zhang Dee Yang upset.

The Black Viper is the fabric his nightmares are made of.

“A good governor is like a good father. Loved and respected, but never feared, Bolin.” He says to his foster son. “He mustn’t waste the resources of his subjects. That’s how he repays the respect and trust he has gained.” They walk in the governor’s palace garden, enjoying the last warm hours of a friendly autumn day.

The  elegant silhouette of the Cold Mountain thrones above the golden maidenhair tree, which rules the courtyard of the palace. Bolin observes his foster father, and smiles. After all those  harsh years in the monastery of Mount Songshan, everything seems fragile, even this admirable man he calls governor and father.  Only the mountain and the  maidenhair tree haven’t changed.

“The good governor can rely on his subjects, as they equally rely on him. But I can’t rely on the officials in that village, my son.” The old man throws Bolin a grave look, his long white mustache trembles.

“I see,”he says to the governor. The man he calls father, has saved his life, as an infant. He has nurtured his body and soul, he  had a chance to grow. Bolin decides to help his father, to do whatever he can to ease his father’s worries.

“Who knows what they are up to. They must be corrupt, or at least one of them. There is no other explanation. Bolin, I fear the officers supply the Black Viper with information.”

“Possible…” Bolin nods slowly, “but how could one verify?”

“That’s the spirit, my son!” The governor’s eyes light up, and he points to the further end of his garden, towards the tea house. The black bamboo forest behind the garden wall whispers in the upcoming wind. The old man’s hands tremble a tiny bit, but he tries to hide it. The night will bring the first autumn storm, he feels it in his bones.  

“Dear father, let me bring you Phoenix Tea, and we’ll discuss the matter in the tea house.  Please rest a bit.” Bolin rushes off to bring  woolen covers and hot tea for his father.

The governor starts walking towards the little  teahouse, and waves towards the bunch of black bamboos, the ones that kept moving too much. Two soft thuds follow. They assure him, that his most honored invisible guests are waiting to join for tea. He bows  slightly, and starts to recite from his favorite poem. ” Water glints and gleams in the moon. Grasses sigh and sing in the wind. The bare plum blooms again with snow. Naked branches have clouds for leaves– ah, Bolin! My dear boy, thank you so much. I fear, I’m getting old…” He rubs his hands together to warm them.

Part 2: Tea with Jade and Tiger

the problem with magic

There is no such thing as magic. Not anymore… Real magic is extinct.

I haven’t seen any since… Huh, I can’t remember since when. Funny. I haven’t seen any real magic in an amazingly long time- at least one thousand years, or more. Come to think of it, it’s nearly two thousand years.

I remember Alexandria. Wait, no that’s not right. The last time I recall sensing magic was in the Middle Ages. I didn’t suspect that it’d be the last time I see someone cast a spell. It isn’t been a good, nor a very successful one, more of a petty attempt to hide money.  The man, some filthy carney, speaks the words sloppily, as if not knowing what they meant.

I was disgusted by his attempt- such poorly woven multiplying spell grafted upon a basic privacy charm. I think he tried to equally multiply and to hide his money,  but it backfired on him. Badly. That’s what happens, if you pour fresh pigeon blood over Mandragora roots and mermaid scales, before allowing the full moon to shine upon the ingredients. A spell is like a plant, you can’t just put one on top of the other, you have to wait, so they can grow together. Magic is a living thing, having its own will and its own needs. I’ve always thought Romanies had good instincts for the cycles of nature, and for magic. Obviously not this one…

The spell made his silhouette look like a huge burning shadow. That was before leaving his circus caravan and being mauled to death by two horrified wolf dogs . The man had some hilarious last words: “Not dying, abracadabra.”

If I had known, that this was the last magic user, I would have done something about that spell going wrong.

Then for a time I’ve been following some promising individuals around, alchemists, illusionists and also some scary looking old women. Despite the public opinion, they had not an ounce magic on them. I tried children next. Nothing. You cannot imagine how boring things get, without magic. My last straw were the black cats. Cats always have something peculiar about them, but nothing magical, to my disappointment.

I thought about meddling with the tides of magic, crossing the paths of darkness and light. What I got out of the equation was: war. Don’t get me wrong, I got nothing against some human tears, blood, and despair, but it’s only a cheap substitute. Nothing tastes like magic. Nothing else is able to satisfy my appetite. I have tried everything else.