fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)
"There are only three rules you need to know," the Aspect of Time whispered in the dark hours of the morning before Simon headed to work.

"Yes?"

"First, controlling time takes a great deal of mental energy. The more you use it, the more you will be capable of doing."

"I will prepare myself," Simon spoke confidently. He had, after all, won every legal case he had ever come across, even though John Dramery had likely played a hand in each of them.

"Second, although you can selectively advance the aging of a thing through acute time dilation, you cannot travel forward in time."

"Why is that?"

"There is a block. Something is preventing the future from happening. I know what that something is, but I will not be sharing that information with you."

"Then why bother mentioning it?"

"I had this same conversation with John many years ago. It's important information. That is all."

"Wait, what about the third rule?" Simon asked.

"Oh yes. If you carry yourself backwards in time, you will not be able to return to your own timeline. When John rescued himself from his own childhood, making you in the process, he did it knowing full well that his original life had ended. It was a new start, but the world he left carried on into… whatever the future had in store. I do not recommend doing that."

There was much to lose, Simon understood. If he traveled backwards in time, Sarah and Merrick would remain in this time frame in that dark warehouse. Also, Simon quickly discovered that Time was not bluffing when he talked about time control causing exhaustion. Tiredness, nausea, migraines, and, perhaps most dangerously, a general lack of concern about social interaction--all of these accompanied Simon's early exploration of his newfound power.

It was all he could do, in the beginning, to reverse a dull pencil back into being a sharp pencil. Later, he played with paper, folding it into complex shapes and then unfolding it with time magic, refolding it again with a surge of power.

It was then that he began to see the ripples. Undulating screens of energy flowed across objects that had been time-manipulated. What is that blurry film over everything? Simon was confused until he saw it on his pencil.

From then on, Simon only practiced time magic on objects that had already been manipulated--he was meticulous about leaving that wavy resonance on something that did not already have it for fear that John Dramery could discover his secret.

It wasn't hard to find things that he could play with--almost every building or structure in Somatis had that ripple of energy around it. The amount of mental energy that would have been used to do this had seemed limitless at the time. John built this city, Simon realized with a shudder, so why does he need me, a younger and more naïve version of himself?

He was determined to have an answer and a resolution. All he needed was the pocket watch where the Aspect of Time was trapped, and then Time would do the rest.

He plotted and planned, knowing full well that someone awaited him in a dark warehouse beneath one corner of the city, blood-shot eyes, screaming hoarsely to no one at all, clutching her stomach.

*****

Three months later, Simon waited at the non-functional fountain where the town screamers had all departed moments before, frost at its highest point, signifying midnight. It dark as any other time of the day, though it seemed colder than possible. The tension of this, the final showdown, had been building like an additional layer of frost over Simon's wool coat. The end was quickly approaching.

He had mastered every trick that he had seen John use. He had even transformed a child into a monkey by reversing the evolutionary process--the history of species genetics was an abstract concept for his powers, but, he discovered, as long as the concept was related to time, he could usually achieve it. He had found himself exhausted from the effort, needing to keep the child-monkey in a cage for half of a day just to get up the energy to change the child back.

He was proficient enough now to have developed a trick of his own. In minutes, the world would change, bringing John face-to-face with Simon with no energy to fight further.

The Aspect of Time lingered in his ear. "Remember Simon. You need to retrieve that pocket watch. We cannot eliminate John as a threat until you hold that watch in your hand. As soon as you touch it, this will all be over. You will retain your ability to manipulate time as a parting gift."

It was then that Simon's explosions began. Spherical bursts of time reversal erupted in different intensities all across town. Buildings were reduced to the grass and trees that had once existed before industry had cleared them away. Cobblestone streets and lamp posts vanished as if someone had simply washed them out of a barely stained fabric. It twisted Simon's gut to do it this way, watching places he knew and loved reduced to nothing, but John had designed all of that for a purpose. Simon was the chaos to John's order.

Time bombs. Two time setups worked into one. The first step designated a particular area to reverse in localized history, the second step set a time for the first step to trigger. They were completely invisible to even the trained eye until Simon began to target buildings that had not been time manipulated, which were few and far between.

Simon knew that if John cared enough to build this town the way he saw fit, he would run around frantically fixing all the structures before finally meeting Simon, too exhausted to spar with what little energy he had left.

Simon was wrong.

When the only existing structure left of Somatis was the fountain on which Simon sat, John appeared. He was wearing that familiar black suit, complete with pocket watch, but his face was purple with rage.

"You damn child! What have you done?" he howled at Simon, walking murderously towards him.

"I could ask the same of you, old man! Why me?" Simon replied, preparing himself to freeze John in his place.

Too slow. John grabbed Simon's shirt by the collar and began quickly striking his face with his fist. Sending a spray of blood out of Simon's mouth, he hurled Simon to the frost covered pavement. John openly wept, an emotion Simon never thought he would see.

"I spent years preparing that town for you. I gave you a new destiny, Simon, I gave you a new lease on life. I made Somatis a place that could weather the coming storm, while you, churl, destroyed every beautiful thing I had in this world."

"What about the homeless then? Those people that you worked to be rid of, using me for so long."

"You don't know anything, Simon Randalph. Although, I guess since we're at this point you know your true name. My name. I will continue calling you Simon though, because I do not wish to be associated with fools," John Dramery spat.

John walked to Simon's side and placed his foot firmly on Simon's cheek. "I knew you would come to know Time's gift. I had every plan of giving it to you, in the hopes that a man who had been raised to be less power-hungry than myself would be able to use it gently. You wrecked my home, twisting the lives of thousands of citizens, obliterating our chances of survival!"

"I don't understand. What survival?"

"I don't have to answer that question. Neither you nor I have the capacity to fix the damage you've wreaked. You did this to ensure that I would not be able  to fight you. I haven't had more than a sliver of energy ever since I travelled back in time to make you! I can't fix this!" John screamed, sobbing for a second before tensing his fists. "And now, I'm going to use what little I have left to finish you, just as I finished your bratty friends in that warehouse."

John lifted an arm and pointed a finger at Simon's chest, aiming at his heart. Suddenly, another time eruption engulfed them both, dragging them backwards through the motions they had just before, both fully aware of the switch. Now they were standing upright as they had been, moments before John began punching Simon.

Now Simon froze John from the shoulders down by creating a time rift at the base of John's neck where the spine began to branch off into other body parts, utterly preventing most nerve impulses from communicating with John's brain. Before John could collapse completely, Simon grabbed his shoulders and pivoted him so that that John sat on the fountain.

"John Dramery, before I turn you over to the Aspect of Time, I want you to clarify what your goals have been. Realize that I am more proficient in time manipulation than you--you made me like this, encouraging my victories--and if you are not cooperative, then I will use my abilities to make life uncomfortable for you. Is this clear?"

"You are a monster, Simon," John croaked, "but you have me where you want me. If you expend your remaining energy undoing some of the damage you have done to this city, then I will tell you some of what I know."

"I don't need to use up my energy on this. I already did that several weeks ago in preparation for today."

"What?" John asked, confusion and concern crawling through his rough voice.

A third burst of time eruptions began, creating rifts all across the icy forest that had once been town. In mere seconds, the ripples of energy ceased, leaving the city just as it had been before John had approached Simon.

"My faith is restored," John said, no longer holding back tears. John truly cared about Somatis, in spite of everything, but Simon would not forget what John had done to Sarah and Merrick no matter how much John cried.

"Did you really think I would destroy my own house just to have a confrontation with you?" Simon snorted. "I like where I live. I like my town. But I am through with being your puppet in this world. Tell me your secrets now, before I let Time deal with you."

"Very well," John stated, clearing his throat as best he could. "I returned to rescue you from my poor childhood because the world I had been living in was doomed. Know well, child. When the clouds begin to form west of Coburntown, you and everyone else in this world will have only twenty hours to carve out an existence before absolutely everything perishes."

"Can you give me a guess as to when this ending will start?" Simon asked.

"Probably less than a year," John replied.

Simon found that he was gripping the sleeves of his wool coat as if to brace himself against the end of the world. "How does it end?"

"I can't tell you for sure. When I made the decision to travel back in time, I did so while a brilliant red beam of fire sliced through our city. Buildings tumbled to the ground, and the people who were touched by it were simply incinerated. I could tell, instinctively, that as free of death as we have been, this is the end."

"Then why me? Why take yourself out of your own history, make yourself into a lawyer, raise yourself as if the younger version of you was your own son? That seems needlessly complicated."

"My experiences made me determined, strong, but not strong enough, not social enough to find a way to stop this tragedy. When I travelled back to my childhood, I found myself utterly depleted of energy- it took all that I had in me, for example, to work the magic you witnessed in the warehouse," John confessed.

"As soon as I'm finished with you, I will go fix that," Simon sharply remarked.

"No need," John said waving him off. "I reverted them back to their ordinary forms less than an hour after I showed you my capabilities. I gave you people that you needed to protect to bring you to this point, a mastery over Time power and the decency of a pure heart to go with it. I just wasn't expecting you to shock me like--"

"--then where are they now? Why haven't I seen them?"  Simon angrily interrupted.

John closed his eyes momentarily. When he opened them again, he seemed apologetic. "Simon, do you know what happens to someone who dies in this world?"

"They just keep living."

"Right, though it takes a toll on their minds. The homeless people were just red herrings to confuse you as to my intent while I gave you a goal to develop time control abilities. I had transformed them into monkeys, and they did not die in the process, and so they moved comfortably into the empty houses I had designed for them." Simon recalled the lightless streets on that night when Sarah drove him, in a wheelbarrow, to talk about John Dramery, the arbiter, with Merrick.

"What about Merrick and Sarah?" Simon asked in a hushed tone.

"They died, Simon. They died many times in rapid succession. I made a terrible mistake in dealing with them," John sighed. "I tampered with things that caused them incredible pain. For that alone, I deserve whatever fate the Aspect of Time wishes to put upon me."

"What happened to them?!" Simon hissed.

"We kept them in the basement of our office for a few weeks. They would often face the cement wall in the dark of the basement, standing upright for hours, grinning at nothing at all. Always the same cement wall, always the same facial expression. They never spoke, never ate. They often slept together, with their eyes fully open in the dark. One day they vanished, leaving only this note behind. Your name is on the envelope, Simon, so I didn't bother to take a look." John gestured with his head downwards to one of his suit pockets. "Grab it when you reach for my pocket watch. You will not see them again- they were beyond repair. Simon, I'm so sorry."

"You're right. You deserve what you will be given. Are you ready then, John Dramery?" Simon asked through a grimace.

"Almost. Listen, Simon. No matter what your friends meant to you, do not allow yourself to forget what I told you. You must seek out the man named Schism. Tell him about the twenty hour countdown. He will be one of the first ones to see those storm clouds west of Coburntown. He needs to know so that he can prepare the one who will save us all. Don't forget!"

Reaching into John's coat, Simon grabbed the letter with his name on it and the pocket watch. He flicked open the cover of the watch and Time spoke.

"Smash the watch against the ground to release me, so that I may deal with this man." For a moment, Simon almost let John go, ignoring the Aspect of Time. He overcame his hesitation, grinding the pocket watch against the cobblestone with his heel.

A wisp of motion flicked across Simon's vision. Suddenly, the world just a foot away from Simon looked considerably different. John was now lying, still paralyzed, in a pile of ashen dirt under a red sky, barren wasteland stretching out as far as the eye could see. There was light there, but it was fire. Fire ringing the horizon, just as it had--Simon could barely remember--when the world had ended. In the distance, towards where Mt. Aramis would have been were it not leveled enveloped in a cloud of swirling dust, an enormous bloodshot eye watched from the clouds. Flicking back and forth, looking for something.

Just as it noticed John and Simon, the gate closed, leaving Simon fully standing in Somatis next to the fountain, in the cold dark once more. Simon knew in his gut that he had just witnessed the "block" that the Aspect of Time had mentioned, preventing a man from travelling into the future. The future's end. One year off. Simon shuddered.

He decided to open the letter from Sarah and Merrick- maybe he could find some clue about their whereabouts, try reversing the flow of time within their heads so that they could find sanity once more.

But when he read those six words, he truly felt like his friends were gone forever; lost in deathlessness.

Find us in the silent city.
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

At night, Simon sleeplessly twisted his bed sheets around his thighs as if trying to stop the bleeding from a severed limb. Awake, head dangling from the side of the mattress, smooth silk sheets comfortably strangling his consciousness, Simon thought of the warehouse. Pitch black, for certain, with ceiling lights run out of power and cold without the flow of warm bodies. 


Except for two contorting figures on the cold cement floor, in the dark. Merrick, with his head shrunken to a baby's size, frantically rasping for air while his fingers and legs splay out against the rough floor.


Sarah with no stomach. Sarah with bloodshot eyes and a purple face, sobbing and retching against bodily organs that were never designed to be separated without causing death. Sarah clutching the immense curve from the base of her rib cage to her torso. Beating the floor furiously with her wrists as if it could give back what it had taken. Or fading into exhaustion with lack of food and dehydration and sleeplessness and hyperventilation, but not sleeping-- weeping and screaming and tearing out hair.


It had been two weeks since John Dramery had destroyed (but not killed) the only two people that Simon could say he really knew. No one else in his life, not even the parents who had abandoned him as a child, could be sought to provide a true statement because Dramery, Simon had learned, could control a man's destiny and every imaginable experience along with it.


The ability to suspend a person in a near-death state was not unique to John. However, in all other cases, people would quickly recover after being critically injured, as if the need to live was a magical healing force.


What John had done could not be fixed. In his gut, Simon knew that Merrick and Sarah were alive down there. Alive and quickly losing whatever had made them human. The body and the mind were not built to withstand extreme sustained trauma like that, Simon thought to himself.


And tried, as atonement, to stay awake and remember them. "As if that could ever fix the fact that I am an utter coward," Simon whispered to himself in the dark.


*****

In the day, Simon went to work, as he had before. Except now, his "partner" was supervising him directly.


Working directly under John for the first time in a few years was a nightmare for several reasons. First, because Simon now was keenly aware that John could destroy him in seconds should he choose to. That soured the work relationship a little. Second, because Simon still didn't entirely know how it was that John, being godlike in capabilities, needed Simon to do anything for him.


In the office, John Dramery carried himself with stately reverence for the world of books and laws and codes. He wore black suits accented only by a white, button-up shirt collar and the chain of a bronze pocket watch that ran across his stomach and into a vest pocket. Minimal show for a man who would sometimes frown, with no fewer than four forehead creases, at a whole day of Simon's work, handwritten legal briefs and court proceedings strewn across Simon's desk, only to lean close, letting Simon see his immaculately clean shaven grin just barely part his lips. John would flick one finger at the work Simon had done all day--paper would turn into soggy pulp on Simon's desk, and the ink, so meticulously written down, would bleed into the wood, staining it with black and blue flecks even after Simon had a chance to mop up the paper.


He wants to remind me, Simon realized, looking away from Dramery's unbroken shadowed grin. He wants me to remember that I am his puppet.


"Do you know what Somatis' chief export is, Simon?" Dramery asked one morning, in an unusually cheery voice that crackled with his apparent age. Simon never asked how old John was, though. He didn't dare.


"I never really thought about it, sir."


"Let me show you." Dramery bade Simon to follow him. Together, they walked through the snowy streets of the Juris District towards the central plaza. There, in the wide cobblestone courtyard, adorned with a fountain that never operated due to frost and perpetual darkness, one man labored while eleven men watched.


One man dragged what looked to be a wide, thin hoe across the ground, leveling a large square area a few feet away from the fountain. It must have taken him seconds to clear it, and the space was immaculately free of frost buildup when he was finished. At the perimeter of this area, there were ridges of built up ice from the clearing procedure--Simon guessed that leaving the ridgeline was important.


"They clear that ridge once a week," John stated, following Simon's gaze. Simon noticed another square area on the other side of the fountain, but John  leaned forward and whispered, "Watch the worker."


As soon as he was finished, the worker laid down twelve radiantly steel cylinders of varying heights, the smallest of these being nearly as flat as the blade of the hoe. They were set roughly a foot apart from smallest to largest. Standing upright, the clearer lifted a gloved hand and pointed it at one of the men watching, sitting on an icy bench. With a sweep of the arm, he gestured to the largest piece. The men-in-waiting immediately stood up and formed a line with the man who was gestured to standing on the end.


There seemed to be a little indecision, some men swapping order with each other. The cleaner stepped out of the square and joined their line-up, somewhere around fifth from the man he had pointed at.


"I let them decide," John inputted, "which order they could work in. The man who cleans gets to choose who will be the next cleaner. Which is, incidentally, the last and largest piece. They treasure this, Simon; the only shred of autonomy that they possess besides the veneer of free time that they can elect to get by finishing their jobs as quickly as possible. They cling to it as if it were a form of clothing. Although, I suppose that it does define when it is that they have free time."


"I don't understand," Simon said, a little quiver in his voice for fear of being thought incompetent.


"It's time!" John laughed.


"Time for what?"


"Time for time! Frost builds here at a standard rate. In fact, it is the only thing in our world right now that has a standard anything. Everything is either a zero, as in zero movement from the sun and zero weather pattern shifts, or a variable, as in how long it takes you to regenerate a severed limb in different climates!"


"Frost build-up is standard?"


"Yes. And each of those steel cylinders is precisely one hour apart in terms of frost height. At the very moment that one of those cylinders becomes no more shiny or distinguishable than the snow surrounding it, you will see one of these waiting men take off running."


"Where is he going?"


"Everywhere. He will visit every known city in the world in a given sequence, loudly scream the current time, and then run back here."


"How does he keep it consistent though?" asked Simon, thinking about the "Town-Screamers" as they were often called on the street.


"There are several ways," John Dramery beamed. "First, almost everyone throughout the whole world now possesses an intuitive sense of time, because they only see 24 runners in a given day. If they want to determine what the time is between runners, they extrapolate from personal perceptions to come to a proper conclusion. They do that internally until they become good at it. If a runner is not on time, they let me know, and I discipline that runner amazingly harshly.


"Second, the runners count to themselves. They count with a standardized stride equal to one second per step. They count until they return here after roughly twelve hours of running. A second time court will be cleared with twelve new runners waiting on it, to clarify, approximately twelve hours from now, less the time we've spent talking about this. The runners have twelve hours to rest and eat before starting their next run.


"Delays are not a problem, because runners do not need to always report the same minute of every day relative to each city, but losing track of your time is the same thing as forfeiting your job. I make life very comfortable for the families of these men, however, so they, who knew no other background besides physical exertion and construction, have a lucrative and socially meaningful role to fulfill. We export time itself to other cities, Simon."


"Are the runners happy?" Simon blurted.


"Runner," Dramery said, walking up to one of the men-in-waiting that yet lingered in the plaza- the man who had been gestured as the first to run by dint of having the shortest steel cylinder, "Are you unhappy?"

"No, sir, just tired," the worker said in a conciliatory tone.


"Would you rather I give this job to someone else?"


"No, please sir, I beg you. Let me be your runner."


"Very well. Carry on your good work," John said, clapping the man on his shoulder. Simon began to feel  very uncomfortable, like a hostage being forced to wear his captor's clothes might feel. John wasn't synchronizing with the man who had, two weeks before, used strange and terrible magic to bring two powerfully willed people to their knees.


"I designed this system," John said, interrupting Simon's thoughts. He withdrew his pocket watch from his vest and opened the cover. "I watched frost form on the cover of the face of my clock while I counted the seconds, realizing that-"

Just as he showed Simon the clock face, Simon heard a howling in his head. It utterly blocked out John's explanation, filling Simon with a palpable fear that he could be missing out on something important. Simon tried very hard to keep a straight face and not let on that something was happening, completely disregarding the noise as an oddity.


"Bearer of the time, I plead you--" a disjoined voice roared gutturally .


"--were you listening, boy? Did you hear me?" John asked, with a cutting edge in his voice.


"Yes," was all Simon could say as they headed back to the office.


*****


The howling died down as Simon got farther away from John Dramery. Simon treasured the moments, for the remainder of that day, that John worked within his own office. Even so, Simon could still faintly hear it.


Later that night, after falling asleep from exhaustion due to several nights lying awake, thinking of Sarah and Merrick, Simon awoke to the sound. Smooth this time, but clearer and less piercing than before.


It was the sound of the gears of a clock ticking.


"Bearer of the time, I plead you, release me from the prison in which you have placed me!" cried a man's voice. Simon knew intuitively that the sound was not emanating from anywhere besides the inside of his own head.


Tentatively, Simon replied, saying, "I don't know what you're talking about or who you are. Please explain."


"Then know, bearer, that I am the Aspect of Time. To me, evil is a blind unawareness of time's passage while labors, relationships, and dreams vanish into a sea of unproductivity. You conquered me by mastering my secrets and using them to inform, through the lives of those scattered throughout this new world, man's progress."


"I did that?"


"Yes. And now you have me bound within that bronze watch which you wear on your torso. Unbind me so that I bestow judgment upon you for the following crimes!" the voice cried.


"I'm listening," Simon dryly replied.


"You manipulate time to bring stagnation. You have used time to prevent alternatives from ever existing, essentially replaying the same day for most people in your society ad infinitum. Moreover, you have used time to physically inflict pain upon others. This is not an appropriate use of time's agency and, should I be released, I will strip you of your right to use my powers to these ends."


Simon began to understand the source of John's godlike powers, but he was confused on the point of having a conversation with an Aspect, bound to a pocket watch, that was somehow communicating with him while at home.


"My name is Simon," he said to the voice inside his own head.


"No. You are gravely mistaken and have been for your entire life."


"What do you mean?"


"Your name is John Dramery." The Aspect paused for effect, and Simon tried to rub from his eyes the idea he had just heard. "John Dramery and you are the same person divided by two different upbringings as children."


"I'm trying, but I still don't follow."


"John lived first. He outlived his father and traveled to Somatis. He earned through hard work, dedication, and no small amount of time magic, with which you Simon-John are now amply familiar, a life for himself in this firm. It was then that he decided to break situational causality for his own life in half."


"I don't know what that means!"


"He went back in his own personal history, back moments after the calamity that ended the world. He saved your life, which was originally his life, from the desolation that he experienced living with his father as a child. Foolishly, he believed he could retroactively break free from his own tragedy. Instead, he created you, a plucky, timid reminder that children are what their parents make them. Do you recollect his rearing of you?"


"Vaguely," Simon said, becoming dizzy with the information he was being given. Dizzy even while lying down.


"Think upon it," the Aspect commanded. "You are John Dramery. Today, for the first time ever, you learned his secret to keeping time, and you witnessed the tool he once used to do it.  You are now no less culpable in my imprisonment and deliberate mishandling than he. The only difference is that I will aid you if you promise to free me. I will bestow upon you the gift to manipulate time. Do you accept?"


Simon considered the bed sheets sharply twisting around his thighs, cutting off blood flow. Simon thought of what John managed to do with his own powers, reversing Sarah's bodily development in the localized area of her stomach to leave her utterly without one. If I had help, I could reverse the circumstances of my friends, minds and bodies both, so that they could be whole again, he thought.


"Do you accept?" the Aspect asked once more.


Gritting his teeth against the unknown, Simon firmly nodded.

fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

His father was an investment banker before the world ended. Somehow the Rapture, as his father had so often referred to it before it had happened, looked a little less rapturous as their estate crumbled away from the wave sliced end of the world into an ocean filled with fire while the man knelt on the cliff edge shaking his fists at a god made of money.

Somehow self-reliance and bootstrap philosophy tumbled headlong into the gaping maw of a brutal new reality as constant darkness conjured by the chilling specter of Mt. Aramis cast frostbite into every limb, maiming a man who was once taller and prouder than his own reflection.

Somehow that one hand that crushed a child to the ground could be filled with roiling hatred at watching one more meal dart away into the snowy underbrush after a bungled trap--one hand filled with blood, pumped through a heart so sad that he gave it up and leapt into the fearsome crushing waves where their house had once existed.

And John Dramery watched this. And John Dramery laughed later, at the majestic fish his father had been, washed ashore only to beg for the solace of water again.  And John Dramery meditated on the concept of a clockmaker god, and the golden haired nightmare that swallowed his father in the deeper waters near the horizon, and his father's pocket watch, frozen but otherwise undamaged by the new world and its challenges.

He watched the second hand, counting the seconds that were not ticking away out loud, staring at it for hours before going to sleep each night. He stared at it for months, perhaps. He stared at it until he invented time. Dusty brown eyes under black hair and so young to have invented something that everyone had once carried on their wrists and in their coats. Scarcely a bed sheet to wrap around his emaciated body which bore the secret to counting days, counting years in a world with no weather patterns and no movement from the sun. Rotten teeth and dried tears adorning one who had become that clockmaker god made flesh.

"Father was a fool," John had stated with finality, his first hushed words to himself. Setting off for civilization, John bid his time, waiting for the perfect opportunity to steal Somatis and make it his own.

*****

It was just past midnight when the remainder of the despairing and destitute had vacated from their tent communities underneath Somatis and moved elsewhere for a chance to stay safe. Simon was eyeing his bedroll, a spare brought in by Merrick, laid out on the vast floor of the underground concrete warehouse. Part of the deal in agreeing to cooperate with Sarah and Merrick was looking out for those less fortunate than himself.


Although it certainly seemed hazardous to make an outward showing of support for something that a nearly omnipresent force desired gone. Sarah had not specified what exactly it was that she believed Simon could do. Simon tried to rationalize her actions in his head. He was a lawyer--an amazingly good lawyer by his own concept, apparently twisted by whatever it was that tidied the streets and minds of Somatis and defied further scrutiny.

There were few peers on the surface to fill Simon's shoes in the courts. Simon started to get queasy considering this: If an unseen force wants me to propel judgments that uphold the law, then the law itself cannot support itself without the existence of that force. Whoever or whatever it is, the arbiter has a vested interest in my cases. Something I'm doing is important to it.

What happens when I change? Simon wondered. The warehouse suddenly felt inexplicably colder than the outside air.

Sarah and Merrick laid their bedrolls side-by-side. Simon had discerned that the kiss they had shared earlier was not a mere sign of affection. He thought Sarah was pretty in a rugged, daring way, but she had clubbed him in the back of the head not seven hours ago; that was more than enough to put aside any lonely thoughts that may have crept through his head on a better day. The pain and dizziness had subsided, though, and Merrick had been particularly hospitable, offering him bread and soup as a condolence for the interruption of… everything.

He was lonely, though. As usual, party of two, he thought. People pair up. He had never paired up before, though he was fairly young for his profession. In a solemn, subtle voice deep within his head, he started to wonder whether this arbiter could have actively prevented him from having relationships as well.

Sarah and Merrick were crawling into their bedrolls, shivering as exposed bits of skin touched the cold fabric. "When you are ready to sleep, Simon, would you mind switching the lantern off?" Sarah asked.

"Sure," Simon replied.

He stood, looking at the expanse of the room, wondering where all of those people could have gone. Even the existence of this chamber would have to have been known about. Why does the arbiter only choose certain parts of the city to observe? He wondered. He looked at the dim outlines of the paper buildings some twenty yards away, red buildings gone black to the darkness of their only lantern, mounted on a post between their beds.

Suddenly, the buildings were even darker. Most of the room plunged into pitch black before Simon's eyes adjusted. Under the lantern, garbed in a broad cloak, soaking up the light, stood the silhouette of a watcher. At first Simon thought, the arbiter! Then, calming himself, he realized that it was just Merrick  with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders.

It was Merrick until it flicked a hand towards the ceiling. There was light. The room lit up just as it had hours ago, ceiling beams blindingly illuminating the floor. Impossible, Simon thought, having watched a young boy crawl along the iron grid that the lights were suspended from, plucking each one down until there were none left on. In fact, the boy had accidentally dropped one in the corner of the room, shattering it all over the floor. That one was reattached and also lit. The shards of glass that had been abandoned on the floor were gone.

And so was the arbiter. Merrick and Susan were standing up now, shrugging off their bedrolls and blankets as quickly as possible.

"What in the hell is happening?" Susan cried.

"He's here." Merrick solemnly whispered.

Simon blinked and an old man was standing less than a foot from him, staring directly into his eyes. The old man's brown eyes and slender frame punctuated a broad, almost warming smile. Something distinct and strange crept under the surface of these wrinkles, however, as if his skin couldn't decide how old it wanted to be, shifting faster than distinguishable.

"Hello, Simon," said John Dramery, the man who had given Simon every privilege at the firm, leaving him to run it as a partner while he began residency as a Justiciar.

Simon almost shook his hand before feeling how sweaty his own palms were.

"Who are you, John Dramery?" Merrick demanded through grimly clenched teeth.

"I am god, Merrick Perlman. I run Somatis and therefore run the world. What are you, Merrick Perlman?" John tersely replied.

"I suppose I am a servant, if unwilling," Merrick said.

"I suppose you are an ant." John turned his head towards Merrick, outstretched one arm pointing a finger at Merrick's head.

Soundlessly, Merrick distorted. His facial skin became rapidly more defined, jawline jutting out and taut lines that had once only shown during a smile becoming apparent even as, in fear and possibly pain, Merrick reached up to try to grab his face as if to stop the alterations. His hands jerked away as his hair began to fall in clumps, his eyes growing thick pouches of skin underneath them and large pock marks forming on his neck as the lumps around his throat jumped out. At first, Merrick's eyes seemed to bulge, but eventually they stopped, sinking into Merrick's head. All of the skin on Merrick's face seemed like wet paper stuck to a skull. Yet, his head continued to shrink. Merrick slumped forward, collapsing on the ground after spinning half a step. He was alive, trying desperately to draw air through a dry and cracked mouth.

"You people amused me just enough to let you simply life for me. Thank you, Sarah Molloy, for gather the weak and stupefied in one place for my purposes."

"You can't have them!" she adamantly screamed while gazing at the varicose veined skull of her lover gasping on the floor. She lunged at John, but he merely waved a hand at her, freezing her in place.

"I can have them. I'm god. I'm just a little impatient about little details like chasing down all of the refuse," John stated with a snort. "Do you want to try to stop me, Simon?"

Simon just stared. He was also frozen in place. He did not know to what he was talking to, but he said, "Are you really John Dramery?"

"As much as you are an ant, I suppose. A useful ant. Allow me to deliberate on your functionality while I deal with a pest problem."

John gestured with both hands stretched out, fingers splaying outward like a fan towards the tent encampment that no longer occupied about half of the warehouse floor. Simon watched with horror as, slowly, hundreds of people wearing little more than rags walked backwards to their encampment as if dancing. Quivering in the air, Simon could tenuously feel a tug of pressure while watching the people shuffle in an unnatural jerking rhythm back to their origin roughly five hours before. Simon could even see the boy who had worked the rafters crawling backwards along the frame.

Dropping his hands to the floor, John sighed. "What an assortment of filth. When I made this city what it is, I swore that I would never allow such a contagion to spread itself. It seems that I've been remiss in my duties as Justiciar."

Raising just one hand towards the confused people who seemed to recall being pulled away from new hiding spots into the open once again, John Dramery clenched his hand into a fist. Simon felt pressure surge through his head, thumping his brain hard within his skull.

Simultaneously, the people changed. Tents and clothes withered into mere threads followed by dust. People tried to cover their exposed bodies as the clothes withered away, but they soon had enough body hair, popping out of armpits and chests like weeds, to completely cover sensitive areas. They were shrinking, as well, though their arms were becoming stronger and longer and thicker. Shrinking and shrieking. Their voices began to mingle as one cacophony of cries. Between Simon's sharp stabs of blinking pain, he could clearly discern their fate--John Dramery, the arbiter, had transformed all of them to monkeys or some other form of primate. The people-turned-creatures screamed at their transformation, running terrified in every direction.

"You monster. You absolute goddamned monster!" Sarah howled through her tears, spitting as far and fast as she could at John. He just turned to her, pointed to the spit droplets hanging in the air like drippy spider web, grabbed her by the hair and dragged her weeping face through them.

"See, Simon?" John laughed. "She can do nothing. She is no better than an ant." He kicked her to the floor, pointed at her abdomen, said "Bang!" and turned to look at Simon again. "See?"

Sarah screamed, clutching her stomach so strongly that Simon thought she would tear herself open.

"See? I reversed the process of maturation in her body, Simon! The rest of her is normal, but I took her stomach back to a time when it didn't exist, it hadn't been grown yet. In her gut, she no longer has a gut.  I took it away!"

Sarah could not stop screaming. Her face was turning red and then purple with tears and saliva and open mouthed howling. Simon could see her stomach caving in--she had nothing to cling onto any more, scratching at the curve where her belly used to be.

"See? She won't die. No one ever dies. But she can't have it back either."

A whirlwind of thoughts zipped through Simon's head; before he knew how to respond to Sarah and Merrick's torments, he was standing back in his home office looking at the letters that Sarah had written him, only now John Dramery was at his shoulder, and John Dramery's nose was practically in his ear.

In a menacingly low whisper, John said, "You could have stopped me at any time, Simon. You could have stopped me, but you didn't because you are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a true coward. Your terror left you cold and frozen while your new comrades fell to the floor around you. I need a coward to know what I am, Simon. Did you see? Did you see that I am god?"

Simon's shaking was so serious that he may well have nodded. He could not imagine ever opposing such a one sided force. The letter in his hand tumbled to the floor.

"I need a coward to take me to the next levels of this society. I need you, a peasant I groomed from the void for this sole purpose: domination. It's a lucky consolation that you now know exactly what it is that I am now. It was not an easy choice to keep you safe after your willful disobedience against everything we have built together. Do you plan on opposing me again?"

Simon could no longer blame his fear for this: he shook his head.

fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

The first letter was tucked underneath a dirty dinner plate on the kitchen counter. The thief had arrived and departed in the time it took to buy food from the market, stealing only the papers from the top shelf of Simon's filing cabinet. Simon could recognize the standard legal paper of his office, complete with the Dramery imprint, stamped in flourishes that spoke to long held traditions, across the top-middle of the page. This is old, Simon thought, standing in sandals in a pile of broken glass that was otherwise the only other sign of a break-in. His name, nowhere to be found on what was most likely a case that he had worked on, had grown. He had become a partner in his firm since then, a star at the zenith of his career. Yellowed with sun exposure and dust, this brief message about a case he could no longer remember had nothing to say about those achievements.

But it was soothing to reminisce. Simon Randalph felt surprisingly steady for being the victim of a burglary.


More interesting than the fact that it was a legal document from his office was the note scrawled on the back.


"Everything topples.

We exist in a world with no death,

yet we live with fear.

You've made your career building

laws as if they were scripture.

How does an ice sculpture stand up to

the advent of the sun?"

-M


Beyond the fact that he lived in Somatis, a perpetually icy city that never received sunlight but loved law and democracy, Simon could not envision this writing making sense. The penmanship was quite good, however--whoever had written it appeared to have focused on maintaining straight edges of letters in a masculine way. Either the original author had poor handwriting or was a woman.


Simon reflected that all that had been stolen was old legal cases. If he reported the theft, it would reflect poorly on him that the personal information of some hundreds of clients had leaked out from his own home, in a filing cabinet not even secured with a lock and key. Since there was little taken or broken, Simon sighed and decided to sweep up the shattered glass and make dinner.


Maybe his thief would come again.


*****


The second letter had a fragrance that Simon could not quite place. The penmanship is different this time, he thought, noting that each word had slightly more of a flourish. Perhaps the thief had expected more of a reaction the first time around. What is this smell? He wondered.


"We love our constitution.

'Freedom of Speech' it cried,

subtly changed to 'Freedom of Communication'

followed by 'Freedom to Express a Respectful Opinion'.

Now 'Freedom to Speak When Appropriate'.

How many iterations of a lie are necessary

when words are carefully governed?

Does anything here ever really change?

Look upon your sins."

-M


The second cabinet shelf down had been emptied, completely. Those were heavy papers, Simon realized, looking at the floor to see if tracks could be found from the thief. At least five thousand thick pages of tax codes, building codes, common laws, and relevant court decisions on most of the cases in Simon's career were all stored in that drawer. Sure enough, long, curved lines stretched across the floor where small black wheels had given scuff marks, leading towards the front door. Simon followed them down his front steps, into the street. It would be easy to follow these tracks, Simon considered. The snow was thin that night, and the tracks were large and dark over the pavement.


But he was tired. Straining to recall that faint aroma on the letter had given him a headache. Who could "M" be? What does he or she want? Why do they keep breaking through my back door when the front door is unlocked? Simon had questions, but he put them in the back of his mind as he shuffled home to sleep. He decided to inform an officer of the law should anymore documents be taken.


*****


Somatis' Juris District was the largest part of town, in one of the largest cities in the new world. Cobblestone walkways adorned ornate streets with black lampposts dotting the sidewalks. Colossal columns held up massive stone buildings with intricate high-relief depictions of legendary heroes and myths and lawmakers augmenting these cold surfaces.


Once upon a time, immortality meant having someone to carry your works into the future and carve your own depiction in such a stone, most likely wearing a sweeping cape with one leg arched to stand atop a monster acting as a symbolic representation of all of your struggles. Walking home from work, Simon laughed out loud. He was less mortal than any of those famous figures simply because he was alive today.


Architecture was a popular career choice in Somatis. The city always seemed to have a building being torn down while another one, just like the older one, was being built. In a sense, Simon could agree with the central theme of the letters he had received- the city had a kind of stagnation to it. People were afraid of change. Simon's job could be looked at as one way to enforce the citizens' rights to deny change.


There was one woman. An architect by the name of Sarah Malloy. She had snatched construction materials from torn down buildings to build temporary shelters at the city limits for the numerous homeless people living in Somatis. Her luck ran out after a time. A wooden support beam from one torn down office space fell struck her in the back of the head while she was rummaging for parts for her latest project. Rather than sending her in for medical examination, the company contracted to rebuild on that particular site detained her. They summoned an officer of the law to collect her from the premises.


Simon was called in to legally support her, although he could not comprehend her personal motive for altruistically gathering materials from dangerous places. Just because death was not a risk did not imply that brain trauma was impossible.


Sarah was wild-eyed at their legal briefing, glancing at Simon's pen, the table top, her shoes, the ceiling fan, and with a sudden fervor, Simon's eyes; Simon wondered if she really had knocked her head a little too hard.


"We'll need to process you as a trespasser, Miss Malloy. The procedure for this is very simple and will require an abbreviated detention time, during which you can receive a proper medical examination for free."


"How long will I be detained?" She asked, in an unwavering alto pitch that seemed alien coming from a head adorned with curly, dirty hazel hair and pale green eyes.


"It depends upon your cooperation. Several companies have come to protest your removal of materials from their sites. I've done everything I can to stretch the construction statutes in your favor, so you'll be free to go shortly with only a minimum number of demerits on your work record, but you need to inform me or another officer of the previous sites at which you have used your materials."


From under her curls, two livid eyes stared back at Simon. "To what purpose?"


"They will likely be dismantled. The people living within them will be given sixty days to live in communal housing while they look for gainful employment."


"And what measures are being used to give them a fair chance at such employment?"


Simon flipped through his briefs. It hadn't been mentioned. Could I bluff her? Should I? "The city will probably employ a civil servant to propose notable work opportunities to these people. Honestly, I am more concerned about you right now," Simon replied.


"I could give a damn about your concern. If you think you are doing me a favor by telling me that, with my cooperation, you'll willingly destroy the livelihoods of people that I have spent ten years protecting and supporting, building a future for them from the ground up only to watch it get shredded in the hands of bureaucrats, you are mad."


"Please Miss Malloy--"


"No. You act like you have come to help me, but you're really just wasting our time. Let them give me the maximum demerits!" she stormed, standing up and stomping out of the room. In her wake, she left a faint aroma of lavender. Was it coming from her clothes? Simon wondered.


With that, it was out of Simon's hands. I tried, he told himself. He found out later that she had somehow escaped the detention facility. Simon may have lost a night or two of sleep in the week that followed after hearing about it--his sleeplessness was equal parts guilt and concern, for being unable to help the woman receive a proper trial.


Becoming suddenly aware of the present, it clicked in Simon's head that he may already be acquainted with his paper thief. He quickened his walk down those icy cobblestone streets masked by the ever present darkness. His breaths hung in the air like hesitant witnesses in the discoveries he was about to make.


Walking through his front door, Simon stepped over the newly broken glass from what was most likely a third theft and moved towards his small desk. In the drawer, he had stashed both of the first two letters he had received. The second letter came from the first drawer of his filing cabinet- he was certain of this. The first letter's case was Sarah Malloy's legal file--the same one that was shared with her the day he met her.


Lavender. He realized. The letters smell like lavender.


A sharp pain stabbed through the back of his head. Flashes of light and miniature explosions leapt through Simon's vision while his face plummeted to the floor.


*****


When he opened his eyes, he was laying in a wheelbarrow with his knees propped over the lip where the handles were, legs dangling against the one who was driving him through the snow. Throbbing hot vibrations rippled across his skull, making him wince while he tried to get a look at his driver.


Underneath a dark hood, two green orbs of fire glared at him.


"Huh?" he said.


"Hush," she whispered. The wheelbarrow rolled through alleyways and tight spaces--parts of town that Simon was certain, if his head was on straight, that he had never visited. "You were not a man before. You were a system."


"A system?"


"Hush." Snow crystals began to form on Simon's cheeks. How long have I been unconscious? "A system. A perpetual motion machine that runs on jurisprudence  and the frozen ideation of an undead world. I will show you where to find life. I will show you where you can learn to be a man."


Simon did not know Sarah Malloy as a person. He did not know what drove her to be the kind of person that could club a lawyer in his own house and drag him through the streets in a wheelbarrow.


He did not know these things, but he considered the possibility of his escape extremely unlikely. Wherever she was taking him, he was stuck. The prisoner of a quite possibly unstable woman. Suddenly, Simon found himself longing for the monotony of his job and the stone reliefs of heroes that decorated every building in his little corner of Somatis.


"You will learn."

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