I’m not superstitious.
It is only the lack of proper information, or some crap to influence other’s decisions.
Got the lighter ready in my hand, spitting sparks. It starts to snow with big fluffy feather like flakes. My cig is the only hot thing on me now.
Ira wastes my time, again. He’s late. Stressed X-mas shoppers bump into my shoulders, trample on my feet. Not one of them mutters a ‘sorry’. Ugh, so many nauseating songs filter through the shop entrances. It’s my third time round his block, and my toes are ice cubes. I need a hot coffee.
He’s supposed to show up forty minutes ago. The entrance to his apartment building is a desperate kind of shabby. Not at all what you’d expect from an actor on the fast lane. He isn’t answering the bell. He isn’t answering his phone either.
It’s not that he wants to be picked up, or something… I walk him down to the theater, cause he gets mugged. The first couple of times he goes on his own, he gets beat up and robbed. Not good showing up with a bloody nose and a black eye, when being the lead.
Theater folk is superstitious. He’s jinx. That’s what everybody says. I say, he sticks out like a blinking neon sign for disaster. But nobody gives a damn about what a janitor says. So they pay me instead. I get him safely to the rehearsals. Easy bucks, really.
Finally! His brown jacket and red cap would fit any hobo around.
Ira says he’s cursed.
Bullshit! His grave look stops me from laughing my head off. His nervous hands run around his chin and breast to hide in his pockets.
So I ask him, I ask about his bad luck, ready to burst in disbelief. He says, it’s his old man’s fault.
One day, him being a toddler, he wanders off and disappears into the woods. They can’t find him, for three days. They are about to give up, when a huge white crow appears. His granddad shoots that bird. It falls to the ground. They go look for it, and that’s where they find him. Unconscious. Hurt.
He shows me. He pulls down his zipper, tugs his long orange scarf away. His T-shirt slides down, revealing his pale chest. A small circular snow-white scar flashes on his breastbone. Grievous look settles in his otherwise young face.
I almost fell for that. An actor, I remind myself. He’s pulling my leg. White crow, my ass!
His granddad taints his destiny that day. He says to no one in particular. He can’t fly away from trouble anymore. Ira believes it. He really believes it! I can only pity him for such nonsense. He’s disappointed, I don’t swallow his bogus story.
I offer him a cig instead.
The tortured howl of an engine and shrieking tires roar right behind us.
Part 1 – The Cold Mountain
Part 2- Tea with Jade and Tiger
The silhouette of San Chou gleams between the three green hills of the southern part of the Yellow River. Like a hungry locust reaches a rice paddy, I reach San Chou, five days after Jade, Tiger and I part at my father’s house. My father is Zhang Dee Yang, the most honored governor of Li Jiang. His high hopes are resting on my shoulders. Jade and Tiger, his friends come along to help me complete my mission.
Dressed like a wandering astronomer, nobody takes noticed of me. I merge with the river of craftsmen and farmers going to the Moon Market in the heart of San Chou. I have no troubles at all. The whole village is busy preparing for the Moon Festival anyway, so no one pays attention to the flood of strangers mixing with the villagers on the streets. Children laugh, dogs bark, horses leave their droppings everywhere. Life pulsates in this seemingly happy village. Nobody knows, that it’s rotting from the inside, with the poison of the infamous Black Viper, a gang of thieves and murderers.
In the first hostel at the outskirts of the village, I ask for martial arts schools. San Chou has three, the owner tells me. He smiles a polite but expectant smile, so I buy a pork bun and a hot cup of tea.
That’s a start! The whole way to the village I muse how to infiltrate the Band of The Black Viper. I will find some shady characters and tell them good fortune, let slip, that danger is around the corner. A big black snake ready to bite them. I will observe very carefully. I know where to look for shady characters… “If you look for trouble, search for the troublemakers.” That is what my master in the Monastery says. Martial arts scholars have a clear stroke of trouble on them, no doubt about it.
I’m one of those trouble makers indeed. Before my father sent me to Mount Shongshan, I was a no-good, lazy boy, bound to destroy myself and my foster family. I knew nothing.
The memories of my training well up in my heart. I sip the tea and smile at the years on Mount Shongshan. The wise monks were firm, never allowing anger, fear or joy in their scholars. I cannot imagine that my dear teachers were ever able to giggle, to burst into a fit of laughter or shout at someone. The tea tastes mild and refreshing, I bite the soft bun. The taste of it’s dough fills my mouth. The spicy pork meat swipes away the gentle sweetness around it. What an excellent bun! I think of the constant hunger and the countless hours of hard work and pain in the Monastery, to school my mind. “Character is the silver you get, when you refine the rocks from the mine.” My foster father says, before he sends me away. The last thing he says to an angry little boy, who just stole the horse of a drunken soldier. The horse, he had to kill and replace, because I made it fall and it broke one of it’s legs… I did not know, what he meant with his farewell words. Years later, my master completed what I could not understand with my angry blazing heart. “But first, you have to crush them, then heat them, so they lose their stubborn efforts to cling to their habit of being rocks…”
Master is right, I decide. Troubled souls have an affinity to martial arts. They are attracted to what they think of as an act of violence, like moths to the fire.
The owner of the hostel comes to refill my cup. I ask him for a room, for the duration of the Festival. He seems happy, and he shows me into a tiny room under the roof. “Three days in advance.” He smiles bowing deeply, and I pay making a sour face. He will get greedy, if I do not show, that the two wen he wants hurt my moneybag. Downstairs, I take two more pork buns. I have to take a look around the village.
A little boy, not more than three summers, squats at the entrance of the hostel and looks quizzically at me. Snot runs down his dirty round face, and he sweeps it away with the back of his puffy hand. I give him a bun. His little moonface brightens up, he bites a mouthful, barely able to close his lips, or chew. “Is this what father saw in me? A hungry little runt? Was it pity?” He shoots up to his feet, suddenly with a troubled look. Fear crawls over his smooth forehead, fear that I might change my mind and take back his tasty treasure. With a shriek around the mouthful of bun he runs. My gaze follows the boy running as fast as his tiny feet carry him. He disappears in the shadows between two huts on the other side of the street. At least he isn’t hungry anymore, and nobody else needs to pity him for today.
“You have a good heart, I can tell.” Behind me a boy tugs at my sleeve. “But you are a stranger here, I can tell that too.” I turn around and look at him, eight summers, maybe nine. He is thin, hungry too, not fitting his clothes. He is, what I need.
I will pay the boy three wen to show me around. One coin for each school. I will give him another, for food. San, my guide, walks with me towards the heart of the village. He does not question anything I say to him. He seems to know everybody around… He must be a beggar of some sort. Tiger and Jade are nowhere to be seen, so I start my observations and take notes. San is explaining everything to me. Each school has one active teacher, and one older master. The number of scholars are variable. Southern Fist has eleven boys, Wing Chun has fifteen and Northern Legs has seven.
I try to remember every scholar entering and leaving the school. It is most likely, that the criminals have some sort of training. I will have to ask the masters for drop-outs without attracting too much attention… Or maybe I will ask San, he seems to know a lot about the people living here.
After that, I check the administration. From the outside it looks fine. I send San away with four wens, and make him promise not to steal for today and to hide his coins from the elder boys. “You may come back to the hostel tomorrow.” I tell him, seeing his sparkling eyes. “I might have work for you.” I lie.
Then. I catch a glimpse of Tiger. San sees me. He sees Tiger. I shoo him away. Tiger leans at the garden wall of a house nearby, in a beam of sunlight and throws me a disgusted look.
Where is Jade? That smile… My stomach falls. Is she in trouble, and Tiger plots something to get her out? Inside me things add up in a bad way. I have to check for myself.
I have a brilliant idea! I go to the entrance of the administration and knock at the door. Truth is a tool, as much as lies and betrayal are.
A soldier lets me in, and I demand to see the high official. The courtyard of the administration is tidy. Busy officials rush from the entrance to the house. The soldiers guarding the house look sharp. They notice every tiny movement. So far so good, I tell myself.
The soldier leads me to a wooden door at the northern side of the building. I’m shown into a small dark room, with one chair and one table. After a minute, a thin old man comes in. His feet shuffle him forward, a cane supporting his unsteady steps. His clothes are richly embroiled. His hat marks him as a high ranking official.
As he sits down, he nods and flashes his complete set of teeth. Only as he indicates with his hand, I start speaking: “My Lord. I am a wandering scholar, an astronomer. I’m here to warn you. A man I noticed on the other side of the street is spying out the administration.” The man shows no reaction. Odd. Maybe, if I speak louder. “I know him from my hostel, where I made a horoscope for him. A truly dangerous and brutal man.” I try and bow slightly in front of him. He indicates me to stop, stands up and shuffles out of the room. Surely, to check my claims. Or…
Four soldiers barge in. Swords drawn. All pointing at me. The man comes back in, with a most satisfied smile. “So we caught you, Monkey!” He barks a little laugh, and turn towards someone outside. “Call Miss Jade.” This is not how I planned it. “You’ll see that our prisons are as comfortable, as the ones in Li Jiang.” He points his bony index at me and grins.
Is this one of your stupid jokes, Rains? What do you mean with, “we lost Decker”? He’s hooked to E-bed 2, in quarantine, thanks to you. Care to elaborate? He raises an eyebrow. I know the doc doesn’t approve that I ripped off the seal. The best I could do, to trigger the alarm.
I shake my head, but plunk down into the seat, the doctor offers me. He pushes a cup of fresh coffee over to me, and glances down his watch. I know perfectly well, that what I’m about to say is… It sounds batshit crazy, even to me.
Look doc, I’m… I don’t know. I – I just – I have to tell someone. Makes me feel less…
Disoriented? Distressed? The doctor offers. I know he means to be helpful. But…
This is a report. I keep telling myself. I have to warn everybody. Doc Wellington has to keep his cake-hole shut. I tell him, before I let the Captain in on this… Whatever this is.
I can’t meet his gaze. Those eyes, they accuse, they see through, they strip you bare.
I nod and take a sip from the freshly brewed hot dark liquid. My mouth burns… This is a report. I will burn less, when I talk. I need to get this out of my system.
You know, some hours ago… Down on Chimon, when Decker knocked himself out, and I had to haul his heavy ass back?
The doctor nods.
I… I think something happened to Decker. Uh, he said some very weird things… Some, uh, really disturbing stuff… I don’t think he was himself.
The man sitting opposite to me, fixes me with his blazing eyes. Even though I’m not looking at him, I feel two hot spots resting on my cheeks. As if two wasps had decided to sting me simultaneously. Just freaks me out. He harrumphs politely, and folds his fingers into a praying gesture.
Well, delirium is a very strange mental state. He begins explaining, but this is bullshit. But this is not that easy. It can spook anyone. I don’t like how he shrugs. There are documented cases, where people started speaking tongues, even ancient greek or latin… His patronizing smile turns my guts. And it was a most stressful situation. Acidic taste seeps on my tongue, and I force my stomach back down. I shake my head.
THIS IS NOT WHAT I MEAN! Not at all. I nearly left him on the surface! I have his full attention now, he leans forward. I nearly left him on the surface, because he freaked me out.
The solar storm damaged the engines of the landing pod, upon reentry. And the com. I have to admit, the landing was less than optimal, and it’s my fault, that Decker got nearly killed on spot. He kind of rescued me, and got his oxygen tank damaged.
My hands leave the cup alone and I raise them, palms up. Shrugging palms.
First everything was normal. Well, as normal as being stranded in a volcanic eruption zone on an unstable planet. Normal apeshit crazy stuff. The man in front of me scoffs. A sense of humor is always a good sign. That’s what they tell you in the military. A residual coping mechanism, when everything else is beyond repair.
Got him into the nearest pick-up area. That was when his oxygen got down into the red zone. He said that he won’t survive this, that the drugs aren’t working properly, that something was wrong. Then… I swallow.
Then, uh… He screamed! He screamed for three minutes straight. It was, it was , uh nauseating. It must have hurt so badly. He screamed for his mother… I – I- Oh, God…
Take your time… It must have been hard to listen to a man dying.
I cannot hold back, to my surprise – I sob.
Uh, he said that he is going to enjoy this. And that I will enjoy this too. He’d make me…
The soft purring of the monitoring alarm on my watch wakes me, by vibrating. I’m up…
I tell the watch and it recognizes my voice. The command kills the alarm.
Sleeping at the med bay is seldom a good idea, and sleeping at a working station – uh, table – is downright irresponsible. I rub my face into some kind of wakefulness and wish I could rub my back into a painless state.
I wish I would have slept in one of the E-beds, but shake my head at the idea. The beds are semi-autonomous, so they can keep an exhausted man in stasis, till he gets all the tiredness out of his system. No matter how long that may take.
In case you are the ship’s doctor, this is a very bad idea. They tell you that in doctor’s school. Don’t get high on E-beds pain or sleep medication. I guess some of my colleagues must have tried, during their long trips to the Kepler System.
I have Lieutenant Decker in one. The screen above his E-bed flashes red.
Let’s check you then.
I download the most recent parameters the bed has measured to my watch. I throw out my thumb and index above its display to activate the tablet function. Blood pressure: 100 to 80. Good, pulse: 110. Almost okay. Oxygen saturation: 85%. Not okay… Breathing frequency dwindling under 10. Bad. I shake my wrist to retract the tablet. The antidote is wearing off.
Load E-bed 2 with enough Naloxone. Doctor Oscar Welligton, authorization 00.01, code 672779-0.
The unconscious man in front of me looks like he just hopped from the grim reapers grasp, with a nearly translucent, pale skin.
What a disappointment… I do not recall Decker to be a genius, or even smart. The flashing red on the E-bed monitor stops. His breathing improves visibly, oxygen saturation climbs above 90%. That’s the spirit, Lieutenant.
This bloke finds the most pleasant way to go. Fearless, without the hunger for oxygen, without the hunger for life. I make a mental note to stock every suit – at least mine – with enough morphine to kill an elephant. This is a manageable last resort.
It is a stroke of genius to use morphine to save himself from asphyxiation. The question remains, if he’s left with cerebral damage. No one knows how long he was cold out, or even breathing… After all, Rains is not to be trusted with precise observation about his colleagues. If I recall correctly, he even broke Decker’s nose in a brawl a month ago.
How’s the lieutenant?
The captain’s voice rings through the med bay. The com is in override mode on my watch.
Barely alive. I answer. That’s that.
Any permanent damages?
Can’t tell… Sleeping beauty has to wake up on his own. The morphine still has about two hours to the pharmacological half-life. Ask me again in two hours.
The Captain seems satisfied, and the com dies down. I pull the footage from Decker’s and Rains’ suits.
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.
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….
there is this house between lime trees
an old man with a black dog lives there
and on the collar it carries a bunch of keys
listen – a distant jingle in the cold night air
One key is black, the other made of silver,
one is of iron, one of wood and quicksilver,
one of rust, one of copper, one made of lies
one is made of sunshine, one of bottle flies
night falls with pallid light and heavy shadows
winter chill exhaled from the animal’s wet nose
the old man lights a candle and his dog sits
he arranges pebbles, buttons and wooden bits
his dry bony fingers poke at them on the table
trying to pick up a witch stone but unable
he smiles and tugs a key from the collar
the dog howls, saddened with dark dolor
its eyes glow, searching for his master’s face
searching for an impulse in time and space
The old man stands up bent, goes to the door
jams the key into the lock to turn it once more
the entrance door swings open, to let in the dark
the dog follows the living light ignited into spark