One Story, Two Versions – Part 2

This is the follow-up to the story posted yesterday. As I mentioned, this was written during the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2015. Originally, I had done research, plotting, characterization, setting, dialogue, etc. for the story I wrote yesterday. But then, when discussing with the instructor at Odyssey, we came to the conclusion that the story didn’t hold up very well, and we scoped out some differences. So I went back and re-wrote. Completely. And I came up with the following. Which is better? Why?

Discovering Virtue (version 2)

The land of Atlantis, it was once said, was “beautiful, and filled with many kinds of good peoples, and animals, and wine, and commerce.” That the god Poseidon made his home in the temple there, and accepted worship and sacrifice for his just rule. That men, women, horses and sheep, grains and fruits and trees grew strong and vibrant.

 As with all good things, that too must have passed. For times of beauty and times of sadness exchange, in order to understand either. Despite all their knowledge and virtue, their luxury and ease, the kingdoms of Atlantis began to turn on one another. A season, perhaps many seasons, of disorder befell the land. After a century of war the fields lay torn, the animals scattered, and the great library had burned. In retaliation the cliffs broke away from their restraints and threw half the city into the sea, taking with them the records of what happened and the opportunity to restore greatness.

 For thousands of years, then, the land and the people waited, though they did not recognize it. Outside, on the shores of Africa and Europe the legends spread of a mighty empire once stretched from sea’s edge to sea’s edge, now beneath the waves.

 When ships once again appeared at the horizon, then, none could grasp the significance. They had been so burdened with themselves they had forgotten that lands lay beyond the ocean, and the arrival of the New Men brought many changes.

 Not the least of these was that their leader, one called Columbus, stained his sword with the blood of the Queen, stole her seat on the throne, and banished the prince and princess.

#
For nearly a year the resentment at Columbus’s reign grew, manifested in small rebellions scattered throughout the city. It cannot be said with certainty that the chance of success is what drove the New Men off. It should not even be suggested. For though Columbus made news of a departure, he also promised to return with hundreds more men, thousands, many times his current force, and claim the entire land for himself.

 All the same preparations for departure continued. On an overcast afternoon, close after the midday meal, Atlantean workers and New Men loaded crates of grain, salted meats, barrels of wine, and countless other foodstuffs into the ships’ holds. Kelleron Mnestos stood on the top deck of one, translating between the two languages. Kelleron enjoyed the task, for it meant that the New Men would soon be gone.

 He had taken to the Spanish language easily, for it was his task to learn new languages. He was apprentice to the current Speaker for the Queen, who though she had no queen continued to hold the title. The Speaker translated amongst the half-dozen languages on the land, and thus needed others who were good at picking up new tongues. After fifteen years living in the city and studying with the Speaker Kelleron had learned four other tongues Taking Spanish from the New Men had been easy work.

 “Where to put the dried apples?” came a question from an Atlantean. Kelleron asked Paolo, the head New Man on this ship and third in command overall. Paolo was reasonable, but he was not Franco. Franco too was a master of languages, and so Kelleron felt a kinship with him. Franco had taught him Spanish, he had taught Franco the Atlantic tongue, and they moved easily between them. Not so when loading boxes and translating. Kelleron flowed with the crowd as they went up and down the ramps, into and out of the holds, stacking and shoving and arranging and rearranging.

 As he returned to the deck he tripped over something hard and heavy and that clanked as he did. A chain. A chain attached to the wall, with shackles attached. Now what would a trading ship need shackles for? He decided it must be for those times when sailors get out of order and must be kept away from the rest, for fear of hurting any. As he had no plans to be on the ship any more than necessary, he put it out of his mind and moved on.

  He emerged from the hold behind Paolo and two other New Men speaking. The Speaker said that the man who tells you everything, because he thinks you understand nothing, is not to be trusted. Kelleron crouched behind a pile of rope and sail and crept closer. 

 “When do we load the special cargo?” one man asked.

 “Night after tomorrow,” Paulo answered. “We still have need of it until then. Are all the holds ready?”

 “This finished yesterday, the Santa Maria today, and the Pinta tomorrow. Strong chains,” the man said, “good construction.” All three laughed, and Kelleron felt his blood chill. Chains for cargo? Cargo was loaded in crates and barrels. Chains held shackles and men. Men were not cargo. Unless–

 He crept back to the hold door and descended a few steps, then made noise coming out again. He emerged and saw Paolo staring at him. “What else, Paolo? What do we do now?” He hoped he did not sound strange. “Must we load all those today?”

 “About half,” Paolo said. “We get the rest tomorrow.”

 About half took hours, and when they finished the sky had cleared and the sun descended towards the mountains to the west. Kelleron released the Atlanteans and they scattered back to their places within the city’s Living Quarter. Kelleron did not go to his own rooms, but instead hastened for his cousin Sephone.

 The Living Quarter had straight streets and tight buildings, many stories high, with gardens mixed in. A set of rooms would include one waking room, one sleeping room, a cleaning room (for both bath and waste), and perhaps a storage room. They were all small, but comfortable for city residents. If one wanted more space, one changed to the farmsteads outside the city walls, where homes had room to grow as the animals did.

 Kelleron moved through the streets quickly and ably, and yet because of the sameness all around missed Sephone’s building the first time.

 When he found the place he ran up the stairs and knocked. In his impatience he hopped from side to side. He knocked again and heard noise. He knocked a third time, and Sephone appeared.

 “You don’t have to beat the door in,” she said.

 Kelleron pushed by her and paced across the waking room. Oil lamps on the shelves gave twisting shadows, reminding him of the uncertain light inside the ship’s hold.

 “You look worried,” she said. “Has there been trouble?”

 “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe.” He told her the things he’d found and heard on the ship. “It looks like they’re planning to take Atlanteans back with them. In chains.”

 She gasped, covering her mouth with a hand. “No, they can’t!”

 “I think they very well can,” Kelleron said. “They have all the power, don’t they? Heaven knows, if anyone stands up against Columbus he’s likely to feel his head roll. Even the New Men are not safe around him.” There had been three deaths of his crew in the last year, two by his own sword.

 He stopped pacing. “Are you still in contact with the guild?”

 She nodded. “They haven’t been able to do anything in the past few months. They seem scared.”

 He took a large breath, held it, and blew across his teeth. “I’m scared, too, but I think we have to do something.”

 “What can you do? What can they do?”

 He opened the door. “We can stop them. I need the guild’s help. Will you show me the way?” A great heaviness settled within Kelleron’s stomach.
#

The Merchant Quarter was not easy to navigate. There streets swerved up hills and around wide boulders. The buildings stood irregular, with mottled stone fronts and crumbling shingled eaves. Sephone issued simple directions, left here, right there. Most who spent their days here had already left, so their steps echoed off the walls. They stopped at a low door in a shadowed alley, and she gave a cryptic knock.

 The door opened, just enough, and they slipped inside. It was a working room, small and efficient, with books piled on shelves and lamps lit all round. A table at the back held stacks of papers and writing quills, ink bottles and straight-edged rulers. Men and women stood talking in a half-circle. It was a few moments before they recognized Sephone and welcomed her into the circle.

 She introduced him. He only caught the name of one, a man named Zander, with a bald head and small white beard, who seemed to be in control. They discussed struggles meeting Columbus’s demands for supplies and the punishments given to the farmsteaders for not providing enough. They rejoiced over ships loaded for a long trip. They questioned whether it was for returning to their world, or for more attempts at conquest along the shores of Atlantis. All wished it were the former.

 “You will be happy and unhappy then.” Kelleron said. “Columbus plans to return to Spain day after tomorrow.” A cheer rippled through the tight space. “I fear he is taking captives along.” They quieted in a moment.

 Zander turned on Sephone. “Do you believe that? Do you confirm what he says?”

 Sephone put a hand on Kellar’s shoulder. “I have not seen what he says he has seen, no. You can take his word, though. Our mothers are sisters. We had neighboring farmsteads growing up. In all that time, I never heard him tell a single lie. Even when he could have, and none would have been the wiser.” Her face was a mask of pride. “He is the model of Atlantean virtue. You can believe him.”

 Zander still looked distrustful. “Not sure I agree with it all, but I’ll listen to your tale.” He turned back to Kelleron. “Lucky your cousin has such standing in this group, or we’d throw you out on your ear for rumoring. Tell me more.”

 Kelleron left nothing out. The conclusion was clear to him. Some in the group, who had more history of feeling double-crossed by Columbus and his crew, did not believe so easily.

 Zander’s forehead tightened. “So what would you have us do?”

 Kelleron had been waiting for this. “I think we need to stop them from taking the captives. Can you tell the men who will be loading the ships tomorrow not to go? They won’t be captured if they don’t show up.”

 Zander’s voice came lower. “No, they will just take men and women off the streets and put them in the chains.” He stroked his beard. “I think there is only one thing to do. We must kill Columbus.” The room fell silent. He looked at Kelleron with the intensity of a wolf on the hunt. “You will have to do it.”

 “Me?” Kelleron shook his head. “I have an oath to my father not to kill another man.” His father had fought in the last battles of the border war, and come home a walking clump of clay. Sephone’s father had not even returned. He had promised he would never make another man’s children go through such pain. He looked at Sephone and saw her of two minds.

 “If you don’t,” she said, “then how many will die at Columbus’s hands? On the ship or in Spain? What might happen to them there?” She took his hand, begging. “I know you want to honor your father, but Zander’s right. You have ways to get close to Columbus none of us could ever have. They have poison–”

 “No,” he said, firmly cutting her off. “I won’t do it. I made that promise and I will keep it. Columbus or not.” He felt a tearing at his own heart, too, that did wish to rid the world of Columbus. “He’ll go,” he said, adding emphasis. “He’ll go and I will not let him take Atlanteans along.” He strode to the door. “Sephone said you too wished Columbus gone. But I guess it means you’re not willing to work to keep your fellow men from the chains.” He threw the handle and stepped into the full dark night.

 “Kelleron!” Sephone called and followed him. “What are you doing?”

 “Whatever I have to,” he said. “Whatever I can live with.”

#

They made their way as quick as they could out of the Merchant Quarter, past the Living Quarter, past the Leisure Quarter, and towards the city’s highest point. There they would find the palaces and halls where the Kings and Queens ruled. When the New Men had first arrived, they thundered along the same streets where Kelleron and Sephone ran. The moon, half-full, hung overhead, adding to the many lamps and torches lining the ways.

 He ducked through an archway and crossed a small garden. “Where are we–” Sephone began, but Kelleron cut her off with a shhhh. The evening had deepened while they were with the guild, and in the getting there and back, but still it was not late enough for the New Men to be asleep. They would probably be enjoying the evening with their captain, their bottles, their women, and their songs. Kelleron expected they would remain occupied, but must not be stupid.

 They entered a hallway beside the garden, which grew behind the main courtyard. From the hallway they could reach many hidden places within the palace, places where the New Men seldom went. They moved through the empty corridors, emerging near the working rooms. In them the Advisors, and their assistants, spent their days. Kelleron suspected Columbus had usurped these, too, to plan the ruin of lives. If so, he might be able to find a way to stop them.

 He told Sephone to wait outside and watch while he entered the first, searching in the near-darkness for something, any sign. This one looked like the place of the Musician. Though there were papers, books, writing tools and instruments all over, there seemed to be nothing related to voyages.

  The next two were for the General, over the army, and the Priest, maintaining order amongst sacrifices within the palace temples. The fourth was for the Merchant, and in this space Kelleron found blessing. End to end and top to bottom maps, schedules, trade agreements, and recording books stuffed the space. He searched the stacks on the table and found, thank the gods, a bundle explaining the items Columbus demanded for the journey. Including the requirements for chains, shackles, and food for the additional cargo. The sheets burned his hand with their wickedness. What to do?

 He couldn’t take it with him to the guild. It was written in Spanish. They would say he was making it up. Why would he make up something so drastic? He needed a way to stop the New Men from acting at all.

 He returned to the doorway where Sephone watched the hall. He reached across and took the small lamp from the wall. “Kell,” she said. He ignored it.

 He returned to the table. “Kell,” Sephone’s voice came again, a little more urgently. He would burn the plans and the sea charts. The New Men would be delayed. There would be time to convince the guild and then they would help. He put one sheet inside his robe.

 He opened the lamp’s door and brought the flame towards a page. “Kelleron!” Sephone smacked his hand, startling him. “Someone’s coming!” She grabbed the lamp and his wrist. They slipped out the back entrance into another corridor.

 Just then Kelleron heard the boots of a New Man enter the room. He came to the back entrance as well, stuck his head out, and peered into the darkness. This hallway had no lamps or torches, and Sephone had put out theirs in a moment. The New Man returned and took up a position within the room. Kelleron’s heart bounced off the bones inside, and it took him minutes to get calm. They snuck through the passageways, fumbling for something familiar, until a convenient turn brought them back to the courtyard garden.

 “I’m sorry,” he said. “I could have gotten you hurt. Or killed.”

 “No harm to me. Did you get what you need?”

 “I saw the orders. I held them and I could have destroyed them.” He hung his head as he held out the single sheet he’d taken. “Just a few minutes more.”

 “I think I should go,” she said. He led her back to the main avenue, and she gave him a hug. “Be well.

#

The morning dawned clear, bright, and terrible. Kelleron had spent the night in his sleeping room but had not slept. How could he when ruin was so close?

 He arrived at the docks midmorning. He forced his face into a calm and comfortable image. If he showed worry he might draw attention.

 The expanse of crates and goods loaded onto the ships slowly shrunk as the day passed. When it looked as if there was only one more hour’s worth of work, Kelleron searched out Franco. If any of the New Men would listen, it might be him.

 He found Franco on the Santa Maria, translating orders and helping to ensure safe stowage of the goods. At a break in the work Kelleron caught his elbow and asked for a moment.

 They entered the captain’s stateroom. The small size surprised him. He could cross it in two paces. Like everything else on the ship, every bit of space held the necessities of sea travel. “What do you want?” Franco asked. The New Men were shorter than the Atlanteans, and yet it seemed Franco loomed over him, with his position and power.

 “I need to know if I can trust you, Franco. I need to know if I can believe you. That you won’t turn me in to Columbus for what I might say now.”

 Franco leaned against the desk and crossed his arms. “Speak, forget your fear. We have become close, no? If you feel you cannot talk to me, then why have you asked?”

 A windstorm crowded his mind, pushing on the things to say or do or hope. “What are the chains for, in the ships? Are they for enslaving men?”

 Franco hesitated, the color draining from his face. “Your job is to translate, not to question the Captain’s orders.” His voice came lower. “I recommend you let this issue drop.”

 Kelleron would not. He pulled the stolen sheet from within his robe. “I found this last night. It says to have food for a hundred and eighty men to cross the sea. There are less than ninety in your crew. What is the rest for?”

 Franco would not meet his eyes. “Do not ask if you are not willing to accept the answers.”

 That was enough for Kelleron. He spoke carefully, for if he did not he felt he would shout. “Do you agree? Do you think it is good to take men from their homes and chain them in bondage?”

 “Good?” Franco looked out the small window. “Nothing is good here. It could have been so much better.” There was a slight hitch as he spoke. “We could have been partners, allies in this new world. Could have done so much more for both our lands.”

 Kelleron sensed an opening. “You would have done better as Captain.” Franco tensed.

 “It is not for me to wonder what I or anyone else would have done,” he said. “It is for me to translate, not to moralize, not to judge. Who can say whether the power would not have turned me as it did him?” He sat in the small chair with a thump.

 “But you do not agree with what he’s done. What he’s going to do. So why do you go along? Why do you not say ‘no’? Are you so struck by money and power that you are blind to their effects?”

 Franco said nothing, staring at his hands.

 “Why is Columbus doing this? Why drag men from their homes and lock them in chains? It would be so much better to become allies, partners across the sea. Both worlds could benefit. All this does is put his foot directly in the viper’s nest.”

 “The same reason anyone does anything. For money, power, or fame.” He looked at Kelleron, and there was an emptiness on his face. “When we return to Spain, the men will be sold and the money will be used to buy new ships, hire new men. Columbus plans to return and take the whole land, not just this city.”

 “All the more reason to stop him!”

 Franco shook his head. “It would take a full crew to mutiny. Columbus still holds the allegiance of most. Only a few look past their own feet to see the truth.”

 Kellar’s spirit fell. “So you won’t help.”

 “I would, but there is nothing to be done.”

 “Coward.”

 “I am a realist. If two or three stand against forty, what power do they have? They waste their life jousting at a wall.” He stood again. He looked a wounded, weak man. “We must wait for better opportunities. I’m sorry.”

 Kelleron turned without acknowledging the apology, left the room, and stalked off the ship, fury blinding his eyes. If Franco wouldn’t help him, he would do it himself.

#

Darkness had fallen by the time he had the things he needed. He had begged Sephone to come again and help. She agreed but with the condition that this was the last help she would give.

 They carried the packets close inside their robes and the lamplighters away from them. It would do no good to have the bursts in the wrong place.

 The bursts would come from colorflames. Many shops within the city sold them. With a spark the balls launched into the night sky and beautified the darkness. It had taken a dozen stops before Kelleron found one that would give him something stronger than normal. The shop keep said it was dangerous, and if anything happened, he knew nothing.

 They made their way back to the docks, hiding in whatever shadows they could find. He and Sephone made their way towards one of the boats. The walkway was up, forcing them to pause and consider. Kelleron handed his colorflame balls to Sephone, and dove into the water. He swam the few feet to the ship, grasped a rope, and climbed up to the deck. His arms and legs burned with the effort. He heaved himself over the rail and found the walkway, extended it back to the dock. Sephone ran to join him.

 He found the cover to the hold. They entered, and waited for their eyes to adjust to the even greater darkness inside. Kelleron said, “We have to find the chains. They’re attached to the outer wall in multiple places. If we can light the colorflames nearby, it should make a big hole. The chains won’t hold, but the ships will still sail. Columbus will have to leave with nothing.”

 Sephone asked, “Where do we go first?”

 They felt around in the darkness for a minute until Sephone stumbled into something hard and metal on the floor. They followed it along, feeling the steel’s intimidating cold. Where the chain ended, attached to a large ring near the front, they stopped. She waited there while he followed the links in the other direction. There was a similar ring over half the boat’s length away. He had counted thirty shackles as he passed. Even one was too many. Those thirty men would be sitting shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, for a month before they arrived, starving and dirty, in a strange land. They should be outside, walking the promenades and taking in the theater and singing songs with their nieces and nephews. Kelleron’s resolve grew stronger.

 He placed three charges around the ring holding the chain to the wall and held them with small pats of putty from the shop keep. “Ready?” he called.

 “Yes, but–” He heard a thunk. “One of these colorflames keeps falling.” She grunted. “There. Ready.”

 They took out their lamplighters. Kelleron made a practice spark. He saw an echo in the darkness. “On three, light the first. We only have one minute on the wick, so you have to be quick.” He counted down and flicked a spark near the string.

 It caught on the first try, fizzing and sparking even more in the dark. The miniature sun burned his dark-adjusted eyes, startling him backwards. He squinted and flicked again, setting the second aflame, and the third. In the flickering lights now, as if they were torches on the wall, he could see the hold stacked to the top. Sephone had two lit and was aiming for the third. One dropped off the wall and she rushed to pick it back up and shove it onto the putty again. Her hands shook and Kelleron stumbled over and around the boxes. “Sephone!” He rounded a corner and heard a burst from behind, and another from the front. “Seph!” Soon the hold was full of light and smoke from additional bursts, and then the light disappeared and the air held a scarring stench. He stumbled in what he thought was the right direction and reached the wall.

 He crawled on hands and knees and found her, still on the cold, wooden deck. He touched first a shoulder, felt her neck, her body, her arms that lay limp when he lifted them. His cousin, dead in his arms, and it was his fault.

 No, he thought. It’s not my fault. It’s his. He cried, holding Sephone’s body close, breathing in the tang of the smoke and her smell underneath it, of dancing and the theater and of running on the promenade. He had ruined it. He had caused her death. All because of some stupid vow. He tried to honor his father, so that a man might not die, even though he deserved to, and with what result? Someone else had. If he’d listened to her, to them, the first time, she would still be alive.

 He knew what he would do. What he must do. What he alone could do. He would kill Columbus.
#

It was difficult to leave her, but Kelleron had no way to do anything else. He knew she would be found in the morning, when the New Men came to inspect their ships, and it would appear as if she had been the only one. As much has he hated leaving, he had to move forward and avenge the loss.

 His feet somehow took him to the guild house, as if she led him. He knocked in the way she had, and it was a time before anyone arrived. When he had chilled in the cool breeze, Zander opened the door, glanced at the cold, wet man, and stepped aside. The room was otherwise empty.

 No use missing the mark. “I’m ready,” he said. “Can you help me kill Columbus?” The older man nodded once, a quick motion. He disappeared into a back room and came out holding a wine bottle.

 Kelleron exploded. “You want to have a drink? Now?” He reached out to choke him, and found himself grasping air.

 “Calm, calm yourself. This is not for you nor I.” He handed it to Kelleron. “Get this to Columbus. Do not drink it.” He also gave over a tiny bottle, which he could put in a pocket. “They will search you, so they need something to find,” he said. After a few other reminders, he hustled Kelleron out, scolding him for taking so much time already. Kelleron ran.

 He found Columbus and the rest of the New Men indeed celebrating within the royal hall. He followed the music and the shouts to a large room filled with people. Bottles and glasses lay on their side, and a few men did too. The feast stood half-eaten.

 A New Man at the entrance stopped him and searched, and did indeed find the small bottle. The guard shouted a triumphant call, and everyone turned to mock him. Columbus, too, and Franco, and Paolo and all the rest, watched. He made a short bow, and said, as gentle as he could, “Ah, you have me. You did well,” and clapped the guard on the shoulder. He looked towards the head of the group and raised the bottle. “A toast? To wish you luck on your voyage.”

 Columbus waved him over. He walked slowly. His gaze caught Franco’s, who stared without speaking. He approached the usurper. A man who pretended to be King over a land he never cared for. A snake who sought money, power, and fame. A worm with the audacity to presume he could enslave a hundred men without cause.

 The room quieted. Kelleron opened the bottle and poured the thick red liquid into a wineglass. He placed it in Columbus’s hand, brushing his fingers as he did. A power tingled through his own flesh, startling him, and he drew back.

 Columbus lifted the glass, nodded, and prepared to take his end. Kelleron held his breath. Father, forgive me, he thought. I am doing what I must. The edge touched Columbus’s lips. The liquid rippled. Suddenly it reversed. Columbus straightened his arm and set the glass on the table.

 “Excuse me.” He addressed the room. “How rude. I have not shared with our guest.” The New Men laughed and Columbus twisted the bottle from Kelleron’s hand. He poured another glass and held it to him. “After you,” he said, with another tilt of his head.

 Kelleron breathed in, sharp, to gather his nerves. He hoped his hand did not shake. He accepted the glass, raised it high. “For good luck,” he said, and the crowd cheered. He opened his lips, filled his mouth, and presented the empty glass to the crowd. They cheered again. Columbus picked up his own and drained it.

 Kelleron turned aside and spat the mouthful of danger onto the floor. His tongue shook and lips burned. If he felt like this–he turned to see Columbus’s eyes wide, a hand at his chest, breath uneven. Darkness clouded Kelleron’s vision, but before it came he saw Columbus sink to the floor. The weight of the ocean reached upward, sucking him deeper into the darkness. He resisted, tried to stand, but could not. He fell.
#

When Kelleron had regained strength enough to ask, Zander told him the story. That the New Men had declared whomever woke first would choose the fate of the other. Columbus had died an hour later, but Kelleron had lain in the faint for a whole day. Paolo and Franco had both stood as replacements for Captain, and the New Men had chosen Franco.

 With his first act, he destroyed the orders to take prisoners in chains. The voyage would be a true partnership, and any who wished could come. Three dozen New Men behind stayed to seek their fortune in the new world. They filled the crew with sixty Atlanteans. Franco offered a position to Kelleron but he refused, choosing to stay, mourn Sephone, and continue as apprentice to the Speaker. There would be a new King and Queen soon, as the prince and princess in exile would return and take their rightful place within the month.

 They sailed ten days after Columbus died, bearing true gifts and true trade. They sailed for opportunity and glory. They sailed for history and for the future. They sailed to bring Atlantis back from the depths of obscurity, and to bring the world to Atlantis. Finally, they sailed in partnership, bridging the space between old and new, wrong and right, legend and truth.
END

One Story, Two Versions – Part 1

The next 2 posts will be 2 different versions (mostly polished) that I wrote at the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2015. They follow the same general plot arc, but have some slightly diferent characters. Give a read… see which one you prefer.
Discovering Virtue (version 1)

Anasha was in her waking room when she heard feet come up the steps and stop on the landing outside. A heavy knock on her door was followed by a terse voice. “Message from King Columbus.”

 She opened the door and found a small New Man waiting, one she did not recognize. He handed her a small scrap of vellum. “Come to the King’s quarters in one hour,” he said. “This is your pass.” He turned abruptly and descended the stairs, leaving her as alone as before. And confused.

 What would Columbus want with her? She was not the Speaker. He had never even spoken to her before. Was she in trouble? Was there a problem with the current Speaker?

 She took the time to dress in her finest red robe and run a comb through her hair. Even if he was a usurper, he was a usurper who held much power and stood on much ceremony. His appearance was always perfect and he expected as much of those in his audience.

 Anasha departed her rooms and walked towards the royal halls. They stood majestic near the highest point of the city, where they could overlook the sea to the east and the plain to the south, and the canal dredged through to the interior. The red, black, and white of the stones of the tightly-packed city buildings blended color as the light faded. Men and women and children went about their business without hurry, but also without wasting time. In and out of the shops, foodhouses, galleries, and theaters of the great city, they moved with purpose. Dark would be upon them all within the hour, and the lamplighters too were at their work. She took cue from them and set her face to task.

 She arrived at the royal hall and presented her pass to the New Man guarding there. He turned and waved for her to follow. They moved through marble hallways where Anasha often spent time, as apprentice to the Speaker, but with the New Man in front. Approaching the one who sat in the Queen’s rightful place, it felt different. Intimidating. Like a stormcloud looming over the mountain.

 The guard opened a door and ushered her in. She made a small bow. The room was perhaps four or five paces across and twice that deep. Various New Men moved in and out, on this errand or that. He sat in a tall, cushioned chair, behind a brightly polished table of dark wood. Various pieces of paper, sometimes stacks, covered the surface. She could not read them, nor did she wish to try.

 He did not look at her as he spoke, but kept writing. His voice was low and powerful. The words of their foreign tongue rolled up and down, like forever ripples within the stream. “I know of the plot to kill me, Anasha. You should go ahead and try it now, get it done.” She inhaled sharply, without meaning to. He looked up and his eyes, deep set like those of the cunning rat, squinted at her discomfort.

 “You are afraid to try? Or have you not been prepared?”

 “I am sorry, sir, I do not know what you mean.” He would hear the thunder in her chest, she was certain. He would see the pulsing of her veins and it would betray her so soon. How could he know? Franco.

 He relaxed into the chair, resting his face on his hand. “So it was not you. Very well.” His voice slowed, became less accusing. “You will need to pack some things. You are going on a voyage. You should be excited.”

 “Again, sir, I do not know what you mean. The Advisors, the Speaker, have told me nothing of this.”

 He waved his free hand. “I do not care for Advisors.” He leaned forward, elbows on the desk. Prowling. “Your queens and kings give them too much power. They really should be more careful who they ascend to positions of confidence.”

 Another New Man entered, handed a sheaf of pages to Columbus, who glanced at them and signed with a flourish. “Ah, so much to do, so little time.” He spoke without looking at her again. “I am leaving the day after tomorrow. You will come with me and be my Speaker, to help with the transition.”

 Speaker? Transition? “I am sorry, sir, I do not understand. Where are you going?”

 “Back to Spain, of course. My time is almost finished here. Besides, the Princess is scheduled to arrive and take over the throne in just a few more days. I would not want to be in her way.”

 “And what do you want with me?”

 It was as if she’d said two and two make purple. “I cannot be expected to control five score of Atlanteans without knowing their language, can I? You will be Speaker for them on our journey and in the land. Franco has prepared you well, no? Your speech is much improved from even a few months ago, he tells me.”

 Her throat betrayed her, would not let her speak. It held back her fear, her frustration, her anger.

 “Though you might refuse, of course. You are not my slave,” and he lifted the corner of his scowl. “I just wonder how it would look if your waking room were found to have a bottle of the poison used to kill the Speaker.”

 Her throat released its hold. “But she’s not–” she said, and fell silent.

 He returned to his papers, showing the top of his head. “I will expect you tomorrow evening, at the same time, for your decision.” He waved a hand.

 She made her slight bow and left, collecting a pass for the next evening from the guard. Once out upon the flagstones of the broad walkway leading up to the royal hall, she stood unconvinced that what had happened was real. She inhaled deep, held it for a pause, and then began to run.

 While she was with Columbus the sun had set behind the mountains to the west, the light had faded, and the streets were lit with only the lamps. They were bright enough, but still the effect, coming on top of the perilous offer, frightened Anasha. She hurried along the various stone-lined streets towards the Merchants’ Quarter, the place where men and women worked at trade. They would send sheep’s meat and the clothing made from the wool to the west, and receive wood and stone from the forests and quarries there, among other things. The businesses were transacted within the old buildings of the Merchants’ Quarter. And since business, like everything else, had been on the decline for the past thousand years, the Merchants’ Quarter was only half-full at any time.

 The perfect place for the Guild to hide.

 She passed through the old stone archway indicating the barrier between the Living Quarter and the Merchant Quarter, and felt the air cool immediately. The darkness increased as there were fewer and fewer lamps lighting the ways, on occasional corners or flowing out a window. She slid through alleys and around empty buildings, finally coming to a stop in front of an unmarked door.

 She knocked lightly. Tap-tap-tap, pause, tap-tap, pause, tap. She waited for a minute, counting slowly under her breath, then knocked again, in the same pattern. A breeze blew and brought a chill to her bones.

 The door opened slightly and she squeezed herself inside. Lamps lit the room, but just barely. Seated on stools all around the space were a handful of men and women, faces she recognized and one she did not. She saw Pensione, Demos, a young man whom she did not know, Bonia, and Zander, the leader of the Guild.

 “Is it safe to speak?” she asked, pointing at the strange boy. “Or will he go running to the New Men again, telling them more of our secrets?”

 He started to stand, and Demos put a hand on his shoulder to settle him. “He is with me,” Demos said. “This is my grandson, Kellar.” He stared at Anasha. “You have nerve, girl, accusing him, when there might be just as much thrown upon yourself.”

 “Of what? I have done everything you asked.”

 “Perhaps more,” came the reply, and the old man fell silent.

 Anasha felt her face flush, and turned to Zander instead. “I came to warn you,” she said. “Columbus knows about–”

 “Of course he does,” Zander interrupted. “Don’t you see?” He waved a hand around, indicating the mess within the room. Log books covered the floor. Cabinets lay overturned, their contents flowing across the space. The ink had been thrown across the room, shattering the bottles. A large stain that looked so much like blood covered one wall.

 “The New Men came earlier today,” he said. “They took everything.”

 Anasha gasped. “Then the plan–”

 “May still go on,” said Pensione. She was calm and collected. Anasha wondered how the woman could maintain such a statuesque figure.

 “We’ll have to hurry,” Anasha said. “Columbus leaves in two days’ time.”

 Pensione stood. “Good. We can just let him go.”

 “It is not that easy,” Anasha said. She told them of his offer, and his reasoning that she would accept.

 “That’s no bargain,” said Zander. “You can’t do that. Put fellow citizens into bondage. Ridiculous.”

 “We don’t know that it would be bondage,” she said, and immediately knew it was wrong. “Well, we can hope that it would not be.”

 “Hope,” Demos said, “is simply not believing what you know to be true. We have seen how the New Men treat us while they are here. Why should we expect anything different on a ship? Or when in their lands? You should not go.”

 “But what else can I do?”

 “Stay,” Zander said. “We’ll fight them. There’s not so many of them. We’ll call up the army and have them protect us.”

 “It won’t work,” Anasha said. “I hear the General and the other Advisors talking all the time. They cannot afford to make Columbus mad, for if he returns with half as many New Men as he has promised, Atlantis would be overrun and destroyed in two months.”

 “So you’ve given up,” Demos said. “Ah, well, perhaps we all should.” Her voice was a morning bloom wilting in the midday sun. “What’s the use?”

 Anasha pounded a fist on her thigh. “No. I love these people, and this way of life, too much to just give up.” A surge lifted her to her feet. “I can still do something. We can still do something.” She searched the shelves, pulled out drawers, opened cabinets. “The poison I was to give to the Speaker, for Columbus’s food. Is there any more? I can try tomorrow night. I still have audience with him, even if the Speaker doesn’t.”

 A firm hand stopped her. Zander’s eyes dug into her soul. She felt the pull she had the first time she’d heard him speak, sucked in and attracted to his desires for a better life away from the New Men. He might be young, he might be inexperienced, but she was those things, too. And he wanted something more. So she wanted something more. Because of him, she was willing to take the risk.

 The plan had been for her to pass the bottle of poison to the Speaker, and when the time came for the next ceremonial dinner, the Speaker could then eliminate their problem. But with her now succumbed to the same fate, or slated to be, as Columbus hinted, the plan would need to change. They talked into the night, considering this and that, and the other. Eventually, they settled on a new plan. One that would have to be done quickly, and with much risk.

 Anasha accepted her role and the two capsules Pensione produced as if by magic. She left near midnight for her next task.

 Franco’s room was close to the royal halls, down a walkway and off to a side way. The New Men had taken over a whole building, and she would find Franco there. Along the walkway she passed marble sculptures of the gods, carvings of history, and painted columns demonstrating the pride of the city. They all showed the wear and loss from many centuries of neglect, but Anasha ignored them in her haste.

 She reached the building, a three story wood and stone structure that had been maintained better than the decorations on the walkway. She leaped up the steps to the second floor and pounded on the door. “Franco!” She pounded again, and again. “You snake! Open up!” Others in the building, in their sleeping rooms, would hear her. Good. Let them hear. Let them judge.

 The door swung open and he stood blank-faced, unwilling to meet her eyes. “What do you want?”

 She pushed past him into his waking room. The small space was overflowing with his scattered clothing articles and books, covering the small table and the bench at the wall. Two small lamps upon the shelves threw dim light across the place. She turned and shoved a finger in his face, startling him backwards. “How dare you! You pretend friendship, acquaintance, and a desire to help my people. And then you turn around and give us over to Columbus so he can enslave us! What right do you have?”

 “I have the same rights as you.” He carried an empty wine glass. His voice was high, and soft, and smoothed by the wine so that the rounded edges of his language were even rounder, making the him hard to understand. “More, even. We came here and we won. So we get to make the rules.” He lifted his glass. “To the victor go the spoils.”

 She fingered the capsules within the pockets of her robe. If only she had one more.

 The books drew her attention. She stepped close and picked one from the floor. “Do you read that in here? Do you justify yourself by whatever this says?”

 He laughed. “That? That is a book describing the edible flowers of Africa.” He filled his wine glass from a bottle on the floor. “What could it have anything to do with us? I brought that in case we found strange plants. Instead, we found a whole forgotten world.”

 “And stayed a year,” she spat. A year too long. “You should have turned your boats around and left Atlantis the minute you saw the green edge of our shores.”

 “Come, now,” he said, “it hasn’t been all bad. We’ve brought you new things, told your people of another place.”

 “We were fine without you.”

 “You were dying. Your city is only half full. Your fields grow weak, your sheep, goats, your horses aren’t as strong as they used to be. Atlantis needs the knowledge within our cities, our culture. Our civilization.”

 “Oh, so you’re doing this for our benefit? You get nothing out of it?” He remained silent, avoiding her eyes. “Come, Franco, tell me. What exactly do you get out of sending me back in your place? I suspect it was you who put Columbus up to that. Admit it. Be honest. We Atlanteans pride ourselves on our virtue.”

 She stepped closer, felt his trembling as she put a hand on his arm. He jerked, splashing wine to his trousers.

 “I can not go back,” he said, and drained the wine. He wobbled to the chair beside the table and landed with a thump. She could almost pity him. Almost. “I can not.”

 “Why not? What is so terrible there that you must avoid it? You yourself say that it is the pinnacle of civilization. That it is so much better than here, that we must go there and learn. If it so good, so excellent, why not go back yourself?” She sat across the table. His eyes held fear, and longing.

 “Rosalina de Ignatio.” He tilted his empty glass and scowled, then tossed it to the floor where it landed on a rumpled cloak. “And her bastard child. She says it is mine, and I should help pay for its upkeep.” He let out a string of violent words he had not yet taught her the meanings of. “She thinks we’ll all be rich when we return, that we’ll have more gold than we know what to do with.” He waved an arm at the room, and laughed without glee. “Does that look like I’ve got more than two pesetas to rub together? My father will agree with her father that I should take a position in the mercantile and work there until I die.” He slumped, put his head on the table in the crook of his elbow. “I’d rather die here, free, having seen something of the world, than to return to that prison.”

 And Anasha, full of hatred and invective when she arrived, found that she knew his desire to avoid a burden forced upon you. Had she not done the same by accepting the position as apprentice, so long ago? Was that why she had pushed for her mother’s approval, when the Seekers came round? Why she hardly wrote anymore, why she hadn’t seen her sister in three years?

 “What you did was wrong,” she said. “I understand it, but it was wrong. I will never forgive you, no matter how you beg. Because now I must clean up your mess. When I was a child I promised my father I would never kill another person, and I am a heartbeat away from breaking that promise for you. But you are not worth it.” She left him, alone and lonely, within his waking room, and hurried back to her own.

 She arrived well into the early hours of the morning, stumbling through the door and falling onto the bed immediately. She slept for hours until a knock awoke her. A knock, then a voice, a woman’s voice, then a knock again.

 “Anasha?” Knock. The voice hurried. “Come, wake up, it’s your mother. We have to hurry.”

 The morning sunlight streamed through the window opening, lighting the place. She supposed it was nearly noon. She had her audience with Columbus in a few hours, and he would expect her decision. She hoped she could do what the Guild expected, what they had prepared her for. She hoped that it would be quick and easy. But her mother, here, made things more difficult. She would have to get rid of her quickly, so she could have time to ready her spirit for the task.

  She opened the door. Her mother strode in, sweating and dirty, smelling of the field and the horse. Her face was drawn tight, a worry she had not seen since her father lay prone after his return from battle. They hugged, and her mother pushed for inspection. “Oh,” she said. “You are doing very well.”

 “I have to meet–” she cut herself off before opening too terrible a door, “–the Speaker soon. For a lesson. I’m sorry I don’t have time. Tomorrow? Or the day after? Can you come back?”

 Mother shook her head. “It’s your sister, Anasha. She wants to see you.”

 “Where is she?” And then she knew. Knew from the sweat, from the look, from the way Mother held herself back. “Now,” she said, and they ran.

 The horses galloped for an hour, pushed to their limits and further. Anasha prayed silent and loud prayers for more speed, more time, more hope. Her mother said nothing.

 When they arrived at the family’s stead, the smells and sights transported her instantly back fifteen years to when she’d left. Playing with Phoebe in the springs along the hillside, running with father through the stalks of wheat before they were cut down. Cooing softly to keep the hens calm while they gathered eggs in the morning.

 Phoebe lay on a mat at the back of the family’s small, simple hut. The large single room had space for everyone, the thatch roof kept out the rain and the sun, and the open doors allowed the animals and people to mingle freely throughout. It was like all the other spaces in the farming village, plain but not poor. They had enough. Not too much, and not too little, but enough. She had a blanket pulled up under her chin, though the warmth of the day had made both of the riders burn. A glow spread across her sister’s face.

 “You came,” she said, slowly and as if her mouth were filled with clouds.

 “I could never ignore your call,” Anasha replied. She took Phoebe’s hand. She sensed her mother was moving around behind, perhaps putting a pot over the small fire or arranging spices on the table. She was always good for things like that. “How do you feel?”

 Phoebe blinked, slow, and her eyes rolled when she did. “I feel fine. Doctor won’t believe me though. He tells me to lie down and Mama listens to him.”

 Mother oh shushed from across the room. Anasha lifted the corner of the blanket and saw the twisted leg, dark purple and swollen at the knee, with ugly red lines tracing upwards and down. Scabs oozed dark fluids that dripped and stank like a bog.

 “I had a accident,” Phoebe said, shrugging. “You should have seen the other rock.”

 Anasha smoothed her hair back from her face. “You’re going to be fine. You just rest.”

 “Will you tell me a story? You were always so good at telling Papa stories.” And she was. She had told Papa stories every day when he came back from the battle, unable to speak, unable to help in the fields. She had told him stories every day, first what she remembered from the book he had read to the sisters nightly, before he went away. When those ran out she started making new ones. Hearing stories had calmed him, help him sleep. Helped him forget the battle, forget his uselessness. Or so she thought.

 She told Phoebe a tale of the days of before, when Atlantis was great and beautiful and powerful, when there were kings in the land and ships in the sea. She told of adventuresome women and faithful men and sneaky animals. She told of the gods and their passions, of the mortals and their trials. And when she stopped, Phoebe was sleeping.

 She rose and turned to her mother, who had seated herself on a stool beside the fire. There were tears in her eyes, and Anasha found herself wiping sadness also.

 “Why did’t you send word earlier? Maybe someone in the city could have helped.”

 “The doctor said it might get better by itself.” She stared into a mug of tea, sipping slowly. “I never thought I would lose her, too.”

 “You still have me.”

 “You’re gone to the royal halls. Not much good to me here, are you?”

 Anasha did not wish to leave on a bitter note, but knew she must go soon to be able to meet Columbus. And, hopefully, end this madness. “I’ll do better,” she said. “I will come for a visit. I can–”

 “Oh, of course you will.” She waved a hand. “Just like you always did. Always promising better, always promising more.” She stared at her tea. Anasha burned at the accusation she had not tried, had not done enough. She had done enough! She would not let her mother make her feel guilty for all she’d done to survive, for all she’d done to make this a better place for all of them.

 “You’ll see, Mother,” she said. “You can’t control me like a child any longer.” She had a hand on the edge of the hut when she heard Phoebe give a small cry from behind her. She turned and saw her awake again.

 She knelt beside the mat, taking Phoebe’s hand. “It hurts.” “Shh,” she said, “I have something that will take away the pain. A very good doctor in the city gave me this when I told him about you.” Anasha reached into the pocket of her robe, her robe she had been wearing since the night before, and took out a small red pill, soft as butter. She held it out to Phoebe, who opened her mouth. Anasha put it on her tongue, and she closed her eyes and relaxed again.

 She left without saying goodbye to her mother. In her heart it was wrong, but her heart did not control her actions today. Her head had the final say, and her head said it was time to get back. She had more important things to do, and she could repair these bridges later.

 She rode back less swiftly, yet with no less a dread of the things about to happen. The plan was ruined. She only had the poison, not the antidote, so she would have to be that much more careful about how she administered it. Her risk would be that much greater. And there was no time to meet with the Guild and form a new one. 

 She arrived in Atlantis late, later than she was supposed to be meeting Columbus, and hurried the mare along to the stable. She knew she should go back to her rooms and make herself presentable, but that would be more time, would keep Columbus even longer, and she feared what he would do if she displeased him further.

 She presented herself to the New Man guard. Again he led her through passages and hallways. They went to the same room as before, but this time it was empty. The guard learned that Columbus had gone to the docks to inspect the ships and led her that way.

 As if she needed him to tell her how to find the docks. She was a resident of the country, him one of the interlopers. One of the usurpers. She would be glad when they were rid of the New Men, when they had Atlantis back to themselves.

 They found Columbus and his second, and others of the crew, at the Santa Maria. She did not see Franco. They were inspecting the holds, the provisions, the “gifts” that had been made from the kingdom of Atlantis. Her guard left and she followed the men as they meandered around, in and out of the crates and barrels filling the dark space. It took time for Columbus to acknowledge her. And when he did it was dismissive.

 “You are late,” he said. Even in the foreign tongue she could hear the distaste in his voice, how the words came faster than usual, ends clipped, tone lower. “Well? What say you?”

 She had to have more time, more time to think, to adjust. Stall. “I need to know who would be going along,” she said. “Who you are enslaving. Can you take me to meet them?”

 “What does it matter?” He waved a dismissive hand. “We will go there next.” Again he pretended she was not there while he discussed rations, extras, trade goods, salt and spices with the men. She waited patiently, and when all eyes were off her, gently slipped the blue capsule into her mouth.

 It was a special type, the Guild had told her. Simply put it between your teeth and squeeze. Designed to be held in the mouth for long periods to avoid searches of pockets and bags, it would release the poison only when she intended it to. And it was supposed to be used with the antidote pill at the ready. Squeeze the poison, empty into a glass. If some gets on the tongue, or lips, or teeth, then simply do the same with the antidote.

 But she had given the red pill to Phoebe, leaving her with nothing to protect her if things went poorly. She felt the small lump between her cheek and gums with her tongue, hoping that it did not make her speech strange.

 They moved to the Nina, where they again inspected the holds. Only this time instead of flour and spice and sugar and meats, there were also Atlanteans belowdecks. Fifty of them, sitting huddled in the space, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, men and women healthy and strong who should be outside, walking the promenades and taking in the theater and singing songs with their nieces and nephews.

 The final ship was even worse. Another fifty Atlanteans. Another hundred eyes staring at her, boring into her soul. Begging her for mercy, for freedom. Among them a friendly pair.

 “Zander,” she whispered.

 “Fancy meeting you here,” he returned.

 “Are you okay?”

 “I could be better.” He tugged at the cuffs on his wrist. “I think I need a size smaller, this one is a little loose.” He pulled his lips back in a wicked interpretation of a laugh that scared her. “What’s the plan?”

 “Same as always,” she said. “Kill the monster, steal the treasure, live happily ever after.”

 He rattled the chain. “May the gods be with you.”

 She stood and rejoined the crew as they were leaving the ship. They made their way back to the royal halls and to a dining room set with a lavish spread. Tables overflowed with the bounty of the land, fruits and nuts from the interior, breads and rolls from the wheat of the coast, flanks of sheep and cattle prepared hot and cold, with sauces and gravies. Dozens of wine bottles lined the wall.

 Columbus seated himself at the head of the table, beginning immediately to rip hunks of flesh and fruit. The New Men with him filled the table around, smacking lips and grinding their teeth on the bones, slurping the wine and telling jokes she did not understand. The laughter came easily. None offered her a place at the table, and it was half an hour of revelry before Columbus noticed her standing at the edge of the room.

 “Come,” he said, and waved a hand. She felt something turn inside her stomach. Above the din she somehow heard her steps echo as she approached. It seemed to take long, too long, to make the short crossing. She stood close enough to feel the heat rising from him, pride in a job well done and satisfaction at the opportunity awaiting.

 “Tell me,” he said. “Do the provisions meet your standard?” He laughed then, a soulless laugh that sounded throughout the room and silenced the rest of the conversation. All turned to watch them. She suddenly felt as if she were naked, exposed. How could she do anything without them noticing now? The thing rolled again within her.

 “They are acceptable,” she said. “Though I would prefer that your men wore the chains and Atlanteans sat at the table.” The crowed aaahed their approval at her audacity. Even Columbus gave her a smirk and a nod.

 “Are you trying to negotiate? Or simply showing off your stupidity?”

 “I have nothing to bargain with. You hold all the power, sir. I am at your mercy, sir. You seem to do whatever it is you wish, sir. We are simply your puppets, your toys to be played with and thrown out after.”

 His eyes narrowed, his grip tightened. “Be careful, girl, not to bite the hand that feeds you.”

 She took the glass in front of him and raised it above her head. “To Spain!” The men took theirs as well, and she raised it to her lips. They cheered and drank. She moved the pill between her teeth. She would swirl the wine inside within her mouth and back to the cup with the poison inside. She had only a moment. As the cup approached she could see the inside, the dry inside, the empty inside. Her teeth beginning to squeeze, her lips on the rim of the cup, the corner of her eye catching a glimpse of Columbus sitting and smirking as if the Queen herself had just promised him her hand. The empty inside. The dry inside.

 She started and shook, setting the cup down with a bang that drew their attention and stopped the chatter again.

 “We leave at midday,” Columbus said. “Have you packed a bag?” The audience laughed, and he joined in, a real laugh that touched his eyes and made him lean into the chair.

 “I will be ready,” she said. “It is customary within our society to send off a voyage with a kiss, for luck. May I?” She had one more chance. She took his chin in her hand and pulled the arrogant, stinking, enslaving face towards her own. She pressed her lips to his, squeezed the pill and felt it burst within her mouth. She spat its juice onto his tongue. He twitched and tried to pull away, but she wrapped her other hand behind his head and held him close, held him tight. His eyes opened wide at the sensation and she pulled back, wiping her lips.

 The New Men around the table hooted and cheered, raising their fists and wineglasses and shouting to the heavens. Columbus stared and tried to stand, but fell heavily back onto the seat. Anasha felt a heaviness in her head, and as she sank down beneath waves flowing over, she heard much commotion and running feet, hands pushing her this way and that, she felt herself hit the floor and then she was under.
#
She woke to Zander’s face above her. They were in a small sleeping room of the apartments near the docks. She could see the three ships from the window. New Men and Atlanteans moved in and out, checking on her, talking with Zander and Franco and trying to talk to her, asking her questions, Zander pushing them back and telling them they had to wait for her to recover. At one point she thought she saw her mother in the room, but certainly that was just a dream. Zander pressed something to her mouth, to her lips, and she drank a warm broth, and it felt good, and she was under the waves again and she was fine, she was beautiful, she was sleeping.
#
When she had the strength to ask, and stay awake long enough to understand, Zander told her the story. That the New Men had decided that whomever woke first of the two would be the new captain. That Columbus had died an hour after they had both fainted, that she had lain without waking for two more days. That she had revived and gone under again for two more days. And that as she was restored now, she had command of the crew and the ships.

 “It was only right,” he said, “as Columbus had displaced the Queen and taken her place, that you do the same for him. And the men never really liked him either.”

 The Atlanteans had been freed from their bondage by order from Franco, and some had asked to stay on and join the crew. That had been agreeable, and now all were simply waiting for her orders. What did she wish them to do?

 They sailed a week later, leaving behind some of the New Men who wished to stay, and Franco, who had been offered the position of Ambassador. They took true gifts, and true trade, and they took Anasha’s mother who asked to see the world. They sailed for opportunity and for glory. They sailed for history and for the future. They sailed to bring Atlantis back from the depths of obscurity, and to bring the world to Atlantis. But mostly they sailed in partnership, bridging the voids between old and new, wrong and right, legend and truth. 

END

Short Story: Into The Woods

Another Story Art story written a while ago. This one was to use the prompts “checkbook”, “CD”, and “grid paper”. I was surprised at how much extra came out as I was thinking of how to make those interesting.
Into The Woods

 I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised at how little Marcel knew. He had been raised by wolves and could not be expected to, well, know anything, really. But it was my job to integrate him into human society, and I always take my jobs seriously.

 “That,” Marcel practically grunted when he talked. It was still disconcerting that he could understand so much more than he could say. He was pointing at a CD lying on the table. I’d brought a whole box of stuff from my house. I took it in my hand and, at the same time, said “It makes music.” I sang a few bars of Bob Seger, who seemed to be his favorite, and then handed it to him. He looked me, looked at the CD, sniffed it, held it up to his ear, looked at me again, and threw it across the room. Typical.

 Our sessions were almost always like this. Me, doing lots of talking and explaining. Him, the wild man, the wolf boy, who had been kidnapped at age five, left to die in the woods and been taken in by animals. At least, that was the conclusion of the rescuers. The Times had shown a healthy bit of skepticism, what with the rash of new performance artists attempting in one way or another to make a name for themselves. This might just be a struggling kid from junior college off in Pig’s Nipple, Arkansas trying to pull a fast one. I had been assigned to either retrain him correctly or expose him as a fraud. Either way, he was going to be a real human being again, and the paper would get all the glory.

 Once I had tried to kiss him. Actually did, too. He seemed surprised at the sensation of my lips touching his, unsure of what to do with the beginnings of a hard-on. I blushed for the two of us and returned to my work, displaying bananas and apples as things to eat. Showing what a wristwatch is, and the differences between digital and analog ones. Writing a letter. Showing him my checkbook, running perilously low.

 Marcel wasn’t really a good student. He seemed to be more interested in returning to the forest than in learning the ways of man. And I thought, too, about whether we were really saving him. And if we were, from what? Had he not been taken care of very well during his time in the forest? Had enough to eat? To drink? To play? To stay warm in winter and cool in summer?

 And if he was a fraud, wouldn’t letting him go back to that place expose him even faster than forcing him and I to perform this charade?

 Pencil. Pen. Notebook. Grid paper. Law. Rules. Society.

 I wanted to let him go, of course, to see him flourish or fail on his own. We were doing him no favors, but my supervisors wouldn’t budge. We have an obligation to every single member of the human race not to allow them to fall into perdition, they said. We must take care of those who cannot take care of themselves, or we are no better than the beasts, they said. We must demonstrate the innate primacy of man over nature, they said.

 Bull. They just want another headline. They just want another all-expenses paid tour. They just want to go on Letterman and talk about how damn great they are.

 I’m on to them. I don’t believe their lies. I don’t buy into their sanctimonious half-smiles. I’m calling their bluff. Tomorrow morning the truck is coming, and we’re going to go back to the woods, Marcel and me, and we’re going to show them just who’s stupid. Together. For today, though, we have one more lesson. Naked. Penis. Erection. Orgasm.

END

Short Story: Divine Intervention

I wrote this one probably fifteen years ago as well. I liked it then, especially the one-liners and the word play on “intervention”. Nobody else really did. I only submitted it a couple of times, though, so not a whole lot of rejection made possible. Regardless:

 

Divine Intervention

Before the door was even open, I could hear three or maybe four voices behind it, talking together.  It sounded like one was eating something.  That better not be my sausage! I thought.  I fumbled the key in the lock, and opened the door to find five figures spread all around my small two-room apartment.  “Ernie!” they all shouted.  “Good to see you!”

Taken aback, I had to frown.  I recognized most of them, of course, all but the one sulking on the rocking chair.  His dark hair fell into his eyes often.  He brushed it back just as quickly as he could, but never made more progress.  His pouchy stomach showed through a toga.  Only Diana stood to welcome me.  Eros stayed on the couch, and Atlas continued chewing something that looked like my Swiss cheese as he leaned against the hallway.  Good, it’s not my sausage.  He nodded.  I nodded back.

“What’s going on?”

“It’s an intervention, Ernie.”  Diana spoke quietly, with a note of feeling.

“A what?”

“An intervention.”  Eros sounded sarcastic.  “Oh, they’ll be all the rage in about sixty years, you know, for alcoholics, gamble-holics, whatever you need to get someone off of, just stick a few friends in a room and talk them out of it.”  Then he frowned.  “Like it’s going to work.”

“Of course it’ll work,” said the man, maybe even a boy, in the rocking chair.  “It has to.  She promised!”  He pointed at Juno, sitting on my couch.  I would have bet she was giving it fleas.  Her robe was dirty, and her hair, stringy and blowing around her face.

She shook her head at him.  “Dear brother, when will you ever learn?  All that power has gone to your head.”

He pouted.  “Has not,” as a bolt of lightning came from the ceiling and struck the floor in front of her.  The boy looked a little embarrassed.  Juno frowned; she was disappointed.

Diana tapped my shoulder to get my attention again.  “Listen, Ernie, we don’t like what’s going on.  Now, we all understand that you want to be a writer, and that’s fine, but just for now, I think it might be time to give us a little rest.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“She means,” said Eros, as another lightning bolt struck my couch next to Juno, who looked absolutely disgusted this time, “that we’re tired of being subject to your beck and call.  We’ve all got our own jobs to do.  We don’t need yours, too.”

I fingered the burnt cushion.  I would have to get a new one.  This close to Juno, she smelled a little.  Eros didn’t look so hot, either.  He was rather covered with pimples, and had absolutely no chest hairs.  I wondered how the women stood him.

“We’re here because we care,” Diana said.  I took a good look at her.  For the goddess of the hunt and of nature, she seemed so comfortable inside here.  She was a natural city girl.  Her hands were perfectly manicured.  Every hair was in its place.  She was even wearing makeup!  No way this was all real.

Another lightning bolt struck the couch, this time close enough to make Juno jump.  “Cut it out, Zeus!  It’s not funny!”  The little boy giggled with laughter, rocking back and forth, smiling for the first time.

“So, what, you’re all mad at me?”

“Not exactly mad,” Eros said.  “It’s more like we’re disappointed.  And we’re tired of being made to do things we don’t want to do.”

I shook my head.  “I don’t get it.  You’re gods and goddesses.  You’re supposed to do that stuff.  I read all the mythology books.”

Diana sighed.  She cupped my cheek in her hand.  I suddenly felt an attraction that hadn’t been there in years.  I looked down, and she did, too.  Her eyes widened, and then she smiled.  “Mythology?  Honey, those boys didn’t have a clue what they were talking about.”  She glanced down again.  “Neither do you.  I mean, come on, have you even read what you’ve written about us lately?”

I shrugged my shoulders, as I heard another lightning bolt strike near Juno.  This time, everyone shouted in unison, “Cut it out, Zeus!”  That little bugger was starting to piss me off.  I couldn’t wait for the rest of them to leave, and I’d find out just what was under Diana’s cloak.  Ooh, baby…

Eros tapped me on the shoulder.  “Hey, I’m off duty.”  He was acting like he could read my mind.  “No touchy-feelies.”  He pointed towards my …ahem.  My face wasn’t the only thing to droop.  “Anyway, we’re very concerned with how you’ve bought into the stereotypes of us gods.  We’re regular guys, just like you, Ernie.  We just want to do what we gotta do, then take a nap.”  He yawned, as if to highlight his point.  “I mean, do you have any idea how hard it is to seduce a woman?  And in that last story, you had me making it with one a night for a week!  Man, I was so tired after that I slept-”

zap – “ZEUS!” – “Sorry!”

“-like Atlas over there when he gets off his shift.”

Atlas shrugged.  “Whatever.”  He seemed bored.

“But you’re Eros.  Aren’t you supposed to do all that?”

“Man, no!  It’s like the garbage man picking up someone else’s trash all day, then having to go home and take out his own.  Or the dentist – you think he’s pulling his wife’s teeth over the dinner table, telling his kids how to floss correctly?  Same with me.  I gotta work my butt off making people like each other, so there’s enough of all of you to keep this gods-forsaken race until the next century, and then you write stuff like ‘Eros smote her with his intense good looks and stunning charm.  Her heart strained against the chains of her body, yearning to be with him.  He took her, then and there, and they made the music of the spheres for hours upon end.’  Ugh, gag me with a spoon.”

Ah, I remembered that line.  From “For the Love of the Lover”.  I actually thought that one was pretty good.  None of the editors did, though.  “Too over the top?”  I asked.

Juno stood, brushing some dirt off her robe.  No longer stately, she seemed simply another dumpy woman who’d forgotten to bathe that day.  “Not just over the top, Ernie.  Way out of line.  I’m sorry, but I can’t go around messing in mortals’ lives any longer.  I’ve got to watch over my brother over there,” she dodged another zinger, raised a threatening hand to slap him, “and that’s starting to become a full-time job.”  He stuck out his tongue at her.  “You never would have thought he’d be made ruler of Olympus.  And if I ever catch who taught him how to throw lightning…”

I turned back to Diana.  Oh, sweet Diana.  Eros tapped me on the shoulder again, with a stern warning look.  I asked again, “So what’s this about an intervention?”

“Right.  We need you to stop writing about us.  It’s just not going to work any longer.”

“What do you mean?  I’m trying to be a writer.  This is how they tell me it’s done – write some stories, then a novel, then live off the royalties once everyone in the country buys a copy of your book.”  Everyone laughed at that one, all except Atlas, who had his face wrapped around my loaf of sourdough.  “What about Atlas?  I’ve never written about him.”  I pointed at the man’s rear end sticking out of my icebox.  “Why’d you bring him along?”

Juno dismissed the question with a wave of her hand.  “Oh, he’s just the muscle.”  I must have looked confused.  “In case you tried to run.”

“But he’s not real.  You think he could stop me?”  A swift backhand from the man himself told me I was out of line.  As I staggered up off the floor, I had only one thing to say.  “Dammit!  That hurt!”

Okay, I had to admit I wasn’t going to run.  But what should I do?

“Write what you know,” said Diana.

Pshoosh!  I raspberried my lips at her.  “I’ve heard that before.  What do you mean?  I know mythology, and I’m writing it, but you seem to think I need something else.”

“Think, Ernie,” Juno had come up behind me and was now resting a hand on my shoulder.  “What have you done in your life?”

I paused a moment.  “Well, I was in the war.”  Zeus laughed and sent a bolt flying between our ears.  I ducked quickly enough to avoid it, but I could have sworn he did it on purpose.  “Okay, I was an ambulance driver.”

“And?  Not what you did, but what you saw…felt.  What you wanted.

“Well, there was this one nurse…”  My zipper somehow caught Diana’s attention again.  I blushed.  “Okay, more than one.  But who wants to read about that?”

“Enough people will,” said Juno.  “They want something real.  They want to know that the sun also rises in Paris, or Italy, or India.  They don’t just want what you hope.  They need something tangible.”

“You think it’ll work?”  Atlas had finally emerged from my small kitchen, still looking bored.  He dodged a shot from Zeus and took off, probably to smack the immortal tar out of the kid.  I could barely talk over the noise they were making.  “You think I’ll be able to be a writer?”

“Of course,” said Diana.  Oh, sweet Diana.  Her deep eyelashes, her dark hair, her stupid bodyguard Eros standing there so ugly-faced and making it hard for me to get to know her.  Oh, well.  “If there’s one thing gods know, it’s people.”

“So what’s the suggestion?  I need something to get me started.”  I took a pen from the table and sat down with a pad.

“Well, for one, you really need to move out of this place.”

“That might take some time.”

“Ernie, you ain’t got time.  You gotta go now, or you’re never going to leave.”

I could see her point.  I bent over to jot a quick note to my landlady.  Heading out.  Please forward mail to address specified next letter.  Will notify within fortnight.  Back never, sell my things, keep half and send me the rest.  Yours, E. Hemingway.

By the time I was done, everyone had disappeared, all but Atlas, back again in my pantry, finishing off a box of saltine crackers.  I startled him with a tap on the shoulder.  “Hey, where’d everybody go?”

“I don’t know about them,” I said, grabbing a notebook and a backpack, “but I’m headed to Paris.  Want to come?”  He shrugged again, slugged me on the arm hard enough to knock me over again, and simply evaporated.  Took like five minutes, too.  I was totally bored the whole time.  I checked the icebox for my sausage, but no luck. I gave Atlas the evil eye for it, but he just shrugged again.  I wished he’d hurry up, and when he was finally gone, I left, not bothering to lock the door.

And their intervention?  You tell me if it worked.

END

Story Art

Often, when we read a great story or magazine article or book, once we finish we immediately turn it sideways and put it on a shelf. We have a hard time seeing it again, remembering it again, allowing it to influence our lives in any meaningful way. But. . .  what if you could see that story again? What if you could display a story on the wall, that anyone who entered your house could read in 2 to 3 minutes, and allow that to spark a conversation? What if it looked great, fit well inside a frame, and added to the ambience of your room?

This is Story Art. I realized I could do this a few years ago when writing to fill a prompt. I completed a one-page story quite quickly, and as I looked, realized that it would be a shame to hide that on a shelf. I thought about how to make it more visible, and came up with a format I’ve been working on since.

Here’s an example of just the story:

Story Art–Stunt

And these are the finished product I sold to a grandmother who wanted a story starring her three granddaughters:

20151014_StoryArt

I like the way this works. I like that you can do very much with very little. Yes, there is quite a bit of limitation in terms of what stories you can tell and the character development and depth you can reach. There isn’t room for gratuitous world-building, or theme, or motif. But, there is writing, there is story, there is art. There is creativity. There is challenge. There is connection, there is beauty in simplicity, there can be adventure, and in all this can be a great way to add something different, something unique to your experience of the world.

 

An old, old story

I wrote this story at least a decade ago.

 

It Was Inevitable

The intercom pops and sputters into life.  “Welcome passengers, to Universal Airlines flight six-oh-three, with non-stop service from Dallas to New York, with dinner meal service in first class and coach.  At this time, we will begin pre-boarding . . .”  Jake’s in row 17, well behind first-class, and has a few minutes until they’re ready for him.

He folds his paper and tosses it in the trash can.  His wedding ring sparkles in the fluorescent lights, bringing a smile forward.  He can feel it in the way that his lips pull off his teeth, the bulges of his cheekbones widening and filling themselves at the thought of a good family.  He doesn’t like to travel, hates it actually, what worries him most is take-off, but, hey, you learn to tolerate it after a few years of conferences in this city and conventions in that one and business meetings over there.  He watches people boringly line up in a nice, straight, American-way file, not pushing or shoving, queuing perfectly so as to be respectful of others’ privacy and space.  How stifling, Jake thinks.  Why don’t we rush the ticket-taker and demand our seat now?  Must be the two hundred years of peace that’s bred the aggression out of us.

A few families with small children join the first-class passengers in pre-boarding, and then those seated in rows twenty and higher subserviently line up, careful not to intrude.  Jake wants to do something about it, he wants to stand up on his chair and launch into the most powerful, uplifting, inspiring speech ever heard.  He wants to cheer them to greatness.  He wants to move their hearts, bring tears to the corners of ladies’ eyes.  He wants men to feel the blood pounding in their veins for the first time in years.  Now!  Do it now!  It’s time!  Stop wishing and just do it already!

Steeling himself for the courage he needs, he gathers his carry-on and stands up.  Directly into line.  The disappointment at his failure to act is slight.

He’s behind a young businessman in a poorly-fitting suit, carrying a briefcase and a carry-on bag and a computer.  Hey, that’s more than two carry-ons.  Buddy, you should have to check one of those.  Excuse me!  Miss!  He’s got more than two carry-ons!  Please make him play by the rules.

The ticket-taker calmly hands him his boarding pass and Jake Carpenter follows the man with the excess baggage down the gangway.  Looking behind, he can see similarly arrayed persons of various genders performing other little acts of insubordination, quietly breaking the rules without anyone to stop them.  At least I know I’m okay.

The take-off is indeed the worst.  Jake is only able to unclench his eyes once they’ve leveled out and he can hear the captain’s voice telling them they are free to move about the cabin, and that drinks will be served shortly, with dinner in about an hour.  Relaxing slightly, Jake reaches into his brown leather half-suitcase for a crossword book.  Before he can open it, however, a voice startles him.

“Is that the New York Times crosswords?”

Jake turns to face the feminine figure next to him.  By god, you’re cute.  We should have an affair.  She’s pointing in his general direction.  Jake glances down and notices that it in fact is the New York Times Crossword Book.  He’d only bought it at the newsstand to have something to do on the flight.  “Uh, yes it is.  I just bought it to have something to do on the flight.”

“I love crosswords.” Beauty crystallized in the air.  “I’m pretty good, if I say so myself.”  Her attitude hints at indiscretion.  “Melanie.  From Brooklyn.  Born and raised.”

“Jake Carpenter.  Dallas.  Neither born nor raised.”

She finds that funny, and laughs, touching his arm slightly with her perfectly sloped fingers.  Jake stares, wondering what to do next.

“Can we work one together?” she asks.  He has no words to reply, taking out a pen.

Dinner is the first break in the crossword experience.  She is good, better than he is, but they’ve finished two easy puzzles.  Over bland steak or blander fish they begin conversation.  Don’t mention your wife.  She’ll get turned off.

“You know, my wife makes great salisbury steak.  This stuff,” he drips lumps and thin gravy from the plain tines of the fork, “I don’t think this is even meat!”  She nods and smiles, holding up a small morsel of imitation sea-dweller for comparison.  “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking.  We’ve just had reports of some bad weather making its way towards New York, but all indications show that we should be able to land before it causes us any trouble.  We’ll notify you if there’s any change in the predictions.”

“My husband, when he grills out, can make a fantastic swordfish steak.  But this, this,” Melanie hangs her head in dismay, then they laugh together.  Good, she’s not hitting on me.  So why is my blood pressure soaring?

After the meal he tries to return to the crosswords, but she stops him with painted fingernails on the back of his hand.  “Let’s talk.  I don’t get to do much talking these days.  It seems like all I ever do is take somebody here, there, cook this, work that.  Can’t a girl ever get a break?”  Her radiance spills over the bare shoulder touching his, and he bathes in the sweetness of her perfume.  Wonderful.  Why am I thinking this?  Because I want to.

“I know what you mean.  It’s like I have one meeting after another.  Especially with all that the kids have going on, you know . . .”

She doesn’t respond right away.  When she does, it’s to tell him that she doesn’t have kids of her own yet, they’re waiting until they’ve been married at least two years.  “Only six months now, and I’m loving it!”  He listens while she tells her story.  He likes to hear her voice.

Average high school student.  Accidents, speeding tickets, semi-prestigious college, time afterward to bum around and go visit people.  Time to go see places.  Time to have a life.  Paris.  The Grand Canyon with girlfriends.  A week in Miami on the beach alone, sleeping in the car she drove all the way from the city, stopping for gas, like, only four times.  No worries, no pressures.  Then meeting a wonderful man on a blind date, hitting it off, married in eight months, business trips pretty regularly out of state to different parts of the country.  “And now, you!  A wonderful coincidence, don’t you think?”

Oh, dear lord!

“What coincidence is that?”

“Well, the fact that you and I are both going to the same place!”  She is hitting on me!  What do I do?

Jake glances around the cabin.  “Seems to me that everyone here is going to the same place as you.”  Once again she finds this funny, and laughs against his arm.  His systems are on overdrive, screaming for attention, recognition, acceptance of the opportunity to put to shame all other regrets, annihilate the past, boring memories of missed opportunities.  But Jake won’t let that happen.  Not allowed.  Not allowed to because I’m married.  I’m married and that’s what married men don’t do.  So there.

Not that he doesn’t want to.

“Tell me about yourself.  Here it is almost DC and I don’t know a thing about you,” she honeys.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain again.”  Plain stuff, very similar to hers.  “We’ve received an update of the weather situation.”  High school sports.  College dean’s list a couple of semesters at the state university.  “Conditions have worsened.”  Started a job three days after graduation.  “We’re going to have to decrease altitude to get under the storm.”  Two weeks of vacation a year, an additional week every five.  “We anticipate a safe arrival at JFK,”  Met a wife at church,  “in about an hour,”  married after a two-year courtship.  Three kids, two dogs, and a neighbor who seems to wait until the grass is to his knees before mowing it.

“Any regrets?” she asks, but he has the distinct feeling that she’s just trying to avoid attention on herself.

“A few.”  Regret that he didn’t buy the sports car when he was twenty-three, settling for the affordable, practical used sedan that wouldn’t put him more in debt than he could handle.  Never seeing the Great Wall of China.  Getting married too young.  No, can’t admit that.  Regret waiting to have kids, he lies instead.  Regret not sticking up for myself more in my life.  Being too focused on a career, not taking the time to enjoy the simple things, he lies again.  Regret thinking of others when I could have thought of myself.  He keeps this last part to himself.

Only when he’s finished speaking does he notice the change in her face.  “What?”  He looks around at the other blank-faced passengers.  “Did I miss something?”  Nobody’s reading.  Nobody’s talking.  Across the aisle a Catholic lady has her rosary out.  In front of them the young businessman who was in line in front of Jake is hastily scribbling something on a piece of paper.  “What?”

Melanie won’t talk.  She’s turned cold and inward, facing the still-blue sky across the wing.  A young boy, not more than seven, taps him on the shoulder from behind.  “The captain says we’re gonna crash.”

“Danny!” who can only be Danny’s mother shrieks from behind Melanie.  “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know what got into him.  Danny!  That was a horrible thing to say!  Actually, sir, the captain said that there’s bad weather in New York, and that we’ve got to decrease altitude.  Danny!”  She sat back into her seat, tugging hard on her son’s arm, as if hurting him can keep the plane in the air.

Jake faces forward for what seems like only a minute.  A minute in which airline attendants make a dozen trips up and down aisles with airsickness bags.  A minute in which the possibilities of his life are played out, false memories that he’ll never have the chance to have.  A minute in which the plane drops, lurches, heaving six ways from Sunday.  A minute in which he closes his eyes and just barely holds in his own pointless dinner.  A minute when he feels the cool fingers of Melanie’s hand slide into his, and he turns to see her looking back at him.

“If we get out of this . . .” she decrescendos.

“When.”

If we get out of this,” she continues, “have no regrets.”

“I didn’t think you were listening.”

“Better than you thought.”  She turns to the window again, watches the rain explode upon contact with the wing, feels the shudder and shuts her eyes against the vertigo.  “No regrets,” she looks at him again.

Never with you.  “All right.  No regrets.”

The captain’s speaking again, but Jake can hardly hear anything for the shouting induced by the sudden presence of oxygen masks, pathetic safety nets.  Is this really necessary?  I think I might prefer blacking out to feeling my head crushed between my spine and the tray table, in it’s full and upright position.

Still, he dutifully inserts his mouth and nose into the appropriate orifice, then looks around to see if Danny is okay, because adults are supposed to put theirs on first then help with young children and others needing assistance.  All is well in row 18, so Jake Carpenter, father of three, husband of one, adulterer of none, master of two Labradors, grips Melanie who?s hand, bends over, puts his head between his knees and prepares to kiss his ass goodbye.

When the jolt comes it’s more shocking than anything.  Pain has never been so far from his mind.  He knows it’s there.  But he refuses to accept it.  Just hold on.  If he thinks about it he’ll feel it.  No regrets.  If he lets go of her hand she’ll die, too.  If he lifts his head, it’ll be shorn off by the tearing hull shattering around him.  If he opens his eyes, the dream will become reality and he’ll have to deal with it.

Exhaustive bumps, clatters, shouts around him suddenly dim into the background static so frequently heard on radios.  Jake is in his own world.  He can see.  Of course.  How else would he know they’re on the ground?  How else could he feel the stinging rain smothering his face?  How else would he feel the heat filling the void behind him?  “Something’s on fire!” a voice shouts.  Jake thinks it’s Melanie’s, but when he looks over to see if she’s okay, he finds only an empty shell of a face.  Scared to death.  Jake removes his hand, dutifully unbuckles his seat belt, and looks around.

Flames are visible in at least three different areas.  There are a few dozen survivors.  No regrets.  Smashed hulking metal strewn across a quarter-mile of land after the runway.  Just missed.

The mouths of some of the others move silently.  From far away, must be ten miles sound travels well out here he can hear the sirens of the emergency vehicles visible at the end of the runway.  No regrets.

A hand taps his shoulder.  “Buddy, you all right?” a voice asks through three feet of cotton balls soaked in molasses.  Jake guesses so.  “What’s your name?”

Jake.  Jake Carpenter.  From Dallas, Texas.  Neither born nor raised.  The once-humorous line solidifies in his mind the reality of the thing.  “Roger Ebert,” he says, and turns away from the far-off emergency vehicles, the scrambling blue suits, the violently crying mothers and the quietly raging inferno.

Walking past the blaze closest to the cockpit, Jake watches his wallet arc out of his hand into the steaming mess, no regrets followed by his leather carry-on and sportcoat.  Money, credit cards, keys, monogrammed pen and pencil set, no regrets handkerchief, feeding instructions for a two-year old female Lab, Certs (with Retsyn!) make the trip inside the brown Italian leather jacket, four hundred dollars from Alfani, worthless now because it’s covered in blood and puke and brains left over by someone who’d been sitting too close.

A blue horizon flashes through his mind.  Wonderfully labyrinthine New York City sits on the ocular boundary, waiting.  The Great Wall of China beckons.  Paris.  The Grand Canyon.  He imagines his life, just beginning, starting over.  No regrets.  They’re not allowed.