We Do As Needs Must

Someone has lost a patch off their jacket. Alex stoops to pick it up. The Devil, if he notices, keeps talking.

“You take these things too personally. It’s not PERSONAL. I enjoy my work, as all good craftsmen should, but I wouldn’t take it seriously, if I were you.”

The patch is faded, victim of a thousand washings. Whatever message it held — whatever band or political cause it once advertised — it’s just a long weave of thread now. Perfect. Alex begins to unravel it, coiling it in his palms, still half-listening out of politeness.

“I will destroy your father. I’m not sorry for that — it’s what I am for — but I do feel for you. You won’t believe this, but I don’t bear you any ill will, in fact I even like you in my way, but even so…”

Alex slips the thread over the Devil’s head and pulls the loop taut. The Devil sticks his tongue out mockingly, then goes cross-eyed as the pressure grows. “Neglect,” says Alex. “Forgetfulness. Apathy. You won’t die, but you still have to follow the rules while you’re here, don’t you? This may buy me some time.”

The Devil’s eyes glint in approval, then go dark. Of course he understands.

Factotum

The black dog kept pace with them, growling.

Manastabal, his guide, held up her hands. “We haven’t left the road. We haven’t harmed any of yours. We haven’t eaten anything. You have no quarrel with us.”

The dog bared its teeth, but came no closer. Alex raised his rifle, then hesitated. The black dog considered him, considered Manastabal, then disappeared black into the fog, the night, the choking ivy.

“Why didn’t you shoot?” asked his guide, not scolding, just curious.

“Wasn’t sure I’d kill it. I’m a lousy shot. And–” He trailed off, uncertain.

“Good enough.” She turned and led him deeper into the woods. He was fairly certain she was as lost as he was, but she set a brutal pace and he lacked the breath to ask. “Don’t try if you aren’t sure. And even then, better to err on the side of caution and hold fire.”

“Then why give me a gun? Why even carry one?”

She looked back at him, her face an unreadable abstract in the half-light. “Tradition. Nothing more.”

Exchange Students

Alex has been traveling through China for the last several weeks with a melange of poets and game designers. He doesn’t speak any Chinese, so he hardly ever talks to anyone. Mostly he tries to look harmless and interested whenever he’s caught on the fringes of a conversation.

It’s an odd group. The poets are all futurists, way into automation and biological tech: breathing houses, photoreactive bicycles, 3d medicine. The game designers tack the other way, talk about the future in silent movie terms, social experiences built around Buster Keaton climbing a building, carriages toppling down Russian stairs, cities run with the unyielding, insistent patterns of clockwork. The Chinese school they’re staying with is in to all of it, but asserts (he thinks; the translations the autodidact in his ear provides are not always reliable) that none of it is real, and that the future is a constructed dilemma, and infinitely malleable.

It’s a bit over his head. He drifts quietly between groups, chewing on five spice powder and drawing delicate little schematics for farming robots, Roombas the size of combine harvesters. His real work won’t begin until they have begun building in earnest, until pen hits paper and the first rough code is written.

Then things get interesting.

Lucidity

The police had hounded Alex from the shower along with the rest of the boarding house. There had been a murder done, so they said. Someone had stolen his doppkit while he wasn’t looking; thieves, the lot of them. He cursed and wailed, half-dressed, and they pursued him down the street, sirens howling like wolves.

He was waiting for a bus when Tanayle found him. “Quiet,” she warned. “Take these.” She pressed four thumbtacks into his palm.

“I don’t understand,” he whispered. “What at these for?”

“You’ll see,” she promised, and the dragnet descended again, sweeping them apart.

Alex was herded into an alley with the rest of the men. “What are they looking for?”

“There’s murder been done. A rare, red, bloody deed.”

He slipped out of the mouth of the alley and sprinted for his bus. They were hot on his heels, their fingers catching at his collar. He lost them in the docks and barricaded himself in a shipping container.

“Not a moment to think all day,” he complained. “Not a moment to myself.” He caught his breath, looked at himself for the first time. His hands were wrong, too many fingers, too few, palms too long and hairy.

Outside the police were waiting. He kicked open the door. “This is a dream,” he bellowed. “I’m dreaming!”

A mighty wind came and swirled them, guns and all, into the sky. Alex laughed until spots came into his eyes.

A Beast of Several Meanings

Alexander Hammil is (somehow) the owner of a pet store and they want him to take all the pet snakes.

“I don’t want a handful of snakes,” objects Alex, perhaps not unreasonably, regarding the bunch of hissing wigglers with confusion if not distaste.

“I’m sorry,” oozes the clerk, “you don’t have a choice. It’s pet store law.”

“Pet store law? Beg pardon, I am unfamiliar with pet store law.”

“Oh, any pets that are unable to be sold are the responsibility of the owner.”

“That’s me.”

“That’s you!” The clerk holds the snakes out again. “So they’re yours now.”

“Well, if it’s pet store law,” Alex begins, and reaches for them, a cunning plan beginning to take shape in his brain.

“And don’t even think about just turning them loose,” warns the clerk. “If you’ve got any half-baked plans taking shape in your brain along those lines, just forget ’em. Letting pets into the wild is a felony in California, you know.”

“I… don’t think that’s how felonies work,” protests Alex, but his hands are already full of unloved garter snakes. He sighs. “Well, come on then, guys. We’ll figure something out.”

“Thanksssssss,” they hiss, almost but not quite in unison. It’s less reassuring than it might be.