The Feed

Deep in the pit, the beast lets up a wet and strangled howl. Rasalgethi, kneeling at the pit's edge, spits a fragment of bloody tooth after it. He was expecting to feel better about this.

"So, friend," says Augustus, offering his gloved hand. "What next, now that your quest has ended?"

"Ended?"

"Don't tell me you're going to keep a vigil here, like some ascetic. Come with me back to civilization, and live out your days in modest scholarship."

"Scholarship. Of course."

"Or keep bees, or something. Surely you deserve a rest."

Staring down into the darkness, Rasalgethi pretends to reconsider.

 

Howell

They stop for lunch at a little park on the outskirts of some town so small the only people who can remember the name of it without referring to a map are the residents. The sparrows here are fat and fearless, a quality which Howell finds fascinating. They dart and scatter around the ankles of the other parkgoers, countless domestic disputes over crumbs playing out in the five minutes it takes Theresa to buy sandwiches from a cafe down the street.

Howell starts on his last blister of antihistamines, pulling the respirator down around his neck to dry swallow a capsule. Theresa hands him a sandwich.

"Why do so many people stop here, do you think?" he asks.

"The fact that the only thing between here and the next stop is interminable alpine desert masquerading as national park?"

"Point," says Howell, pulling his respirator back up. "Hey, give me your crusts."

"Why?"

"Sparrow tax."

"You shouldn't encourage them," says Theresa.

"I'm not," says Howell, clearly encouraging them. "Besides, I thought you liked birds?"

"For all you know maybe sparrows killed my parents or whatever. Can we go, already? I have a thing lined up for tonight."

"Killed your parents?"

Theresa makes a frustrated noise like "uughhh" and extricates herself from the picnic table, a shower of crumbs sparking a minor sparrow civil war. Howell watches them for a little while longer, but now that he's out of food they have no use for him.

"Hey," says Theresa, when he gets back to the car. "Come here for a second?"

Howell starts to say something but she's already grabbing his lapel and pulling him closer and for a split second he thinks she's going to kiss him but then he remembers the respirator and by that time her other hand has already fished his phone out of his inside coat pocket. She winks at him; he glares back.

"My name's Theresa," he says, "and I'm a manic pixie dream girl."

"My name's Andrew," she says, handing him the keys, "and my stupid mask makes me look like a b-movie alien."

"If you write over my Post-Apocalyptic Biker Gang save game," he says, "with god as my witness - I will never speak to you again."

Valentin

Valentin only realizes someone is behind him when a thick glove starts waving in his periphery. He pulls off his earmuffs and swivels away from his workbench. "Chief!" he says, leaping awkwardly to his feet.

"May I?" Chief Horologist Komarova picks up the the little automaton, turning it over in her hands. "Yes, good technique. Perhaps, though... do you have a sheet of paper?"

He flips over an old diezoprint and shoves it across the workbench; Komarova pulls a graphite stub from her oilstained coveralls. As she sketches changes to his algorithm, Valentin's elation at the elegance her changes bring out turns to dismay. With deadline already looming, he'll have to start from scratch. His face falls.

"Don't worry," she says. "We'll make a clocker of you, yet."

The Feed

The Feed giveth, and the Feed taketh away. What was once a swollen harvest, spoiling in the sun, has receded. Not a scrap, as far as his eye can see.

The Feed had a purpose, once. Now its name is an incongruity - The Feed is a shadow, sharing nothing. The Feed withholds. It hides under floorboards and behind the dead branches of the remaining trees. He feels its bulbous, faceted eyes on him all the time. He can't sleep any more. He searches now, constantly.

Clutched in his fist, his blackened javelin. He'll teach it a lesson, one way or another.

Howell

"So, your father is dead," begins the message on Howell's terminal. "Um. Sorry if that was blunt. But he is." From the tiny screen built into his cabin bunk, Howell's Aunt Karen looks like a videogame sprite, jagged pixel mouth jerking mechanically. Her voice is emotionless, but he can't tell if she's trying to hold it together or if it's just an artifact from the compression.

"The funeral's Thursday, but you won't be able to get home in time, will you? I talked to the University."

"Karen," he says, crawling into the bunk, "It's a recording. You can't ask me questions."

The Savage Club

It's generally not a required part of a stage manager's job to check that none of the actors are drunk before the curtain goes up, which is why it comes as a complete shock to Philip when Heidi's policewoman stumbles onto the stage at the top of the second act, shirt half buttoned. It's not immediately apparent that something is wrong, but within minutes they've skipped two pages and she's giggling at every awkward pause. The other actors, to their credit, manage to roll with it - Philip can only sit and watch the trainwreck unfold, listening out for the next mangled cue line.

Heidi's fled by the time the house lights come up. Over drinks that evening, the shell-shocked cast's reactions range from barely-suppressed rage to a resigned disappointment. Philip sits outside to keep the SM company; she chain smokes while they put off calling the director, trade war stories, and lament the fact that you have to experience it in order to have it to tell.

Evan

Evan cinches the hood of his parka and follows the approaching dusk back through the city. The morning's slush has already turned icy, so he eventually abandons the sidewalk for the gutter - they've at least been salting the roads. Three blocks from his apartment, Evan spots a photocopied flyer for a band he started in college, pasted hastily to a bollard. They never discussed this as a code, but his heart is already in his throat: something's wrong.

He shakily pulls the cigarette from behind his ear, and tries to think of another viable destination for the route he's been taking.

The Buddha Justice Fan Club

GAUTAMA: All things that come to be have an end.
DEVADATTA SHAKES HIS HEAD RUEFULLY.

GAUTAMA: Devadatta--

Antimony rewinds, restarts,

GAUTAMA: ...have an end.

Pauses. His mouse dances along the timeframe, rubberbanding the moment of eye contact. A few more clicks and the clip exports to .gif. He opens an incognito window to upload it to a tumblr none of the others know about.

"Or people standing behind you, Tim," says Melody, standing behind him.

"Oh christ," says Antimony. "Please don't tell the others. Especially Simon. I just can't stop making them."

Melody, blog full of guilty fanfiction, pretends to consider.

The Buddha Justice Fan Club

"Next week, on BUDDHA JUSTICE…" and the tape cuts to static. Antimony looks shell-shocked. "That’s… it? That’s the whole thing?" "That’s it," Simon nods, ejecting the tape with solemn reverence.

"But…"

"We know," replies Melody, her voice a conspiratorial whisper. "It makes no sense at all. Why would they dump it at the height of its popularity?"

Antimony snorts. "Nine episodes into the first season?"

Melody, unfazed, radiates zeal. "Rumour has it there was another motive behind the cancellation. That the cast-"

Simon cuts her off with an ultimatum: "In or out, Tim? Right now."

He hesitates, but then– "I'm in."

"Good," replies Simon, taking a densely packed three-ring binder from the shrine and opening it carefully to the last page. "Now sign the goddamn petition."

----

This was the original Buddha Justice story (just over four years old (!)), which I'm including for context.

Valentin

When the Dire Foundry was a warship, she had a broadside fierce enough to rattle anything in the Pirate Fleet. Christened only by allocated number, she gained the nickname with her reputation for the names she forged, the skies she blackened, for the molten fire that rained from her crucible heart. That's all behind her now. But while her power may have been tamed and yoked to the spirit of free enterprise, Valentin can still feel the history behind each gear, each spring. At the end of every shift, he puts aside his tools proud to be keeping this lumbering titan in the air. The Foundry, famously, never rests, and Valentin is lulled to sleep every night by her escapement's endless hum as she drifts across the sky.

Evan

The cloud offered freedom from the encumbrance of discrete storage - generous government subsidies for a burgeoning tech industry supported the ruse. Evan clusters with the others under an awning to stay out of the snow, while inside, a group of enterprising youngsters are discreetly storing his hard drives in an unmarked white van.

He performs the ritual of checking his empty pack. Someone from inside produces papers and tobacco, and a cute girl with a sleeve of angelic tattoos obliges him with a hand-roll. Evan tucks it behind his ear, handwritten ip address invisible on the inside of the paper.

Sister Isobel

Hipsters corner Sister Isobel at what would have been neutral ground, a week ago. The one with Buddy Holly glasses has a baseball bat; the one with the trucker cap a butterfly knife. The room suddenly and conspicuously empty, the barmaid busies herself polishing the other end of the bar. "I thought you guys were nuns," says Buddy Holly Glasses, pointing to her drink.

"It's a Virgin Mary," says Sister Isobel, looking offended.

"Bloody Shame, more like," laughs Trucker Cap. The hipsters high five - retort victory!

The barmaid stoops to reach beneath the counter, key swinging out from under her shirt.

Sinclair

Sinclair spins his story like it's your classic "black hat makes good" tale, but that's only vaguely true. There are many reasons to come in from the cold - his was one of necessity. Managing the Flood instead of swimming in it has its benefits, though. Fewer attacks on his sanity, for one. He's already at his desk when his phone starts vomiting alarms, but Sinclair can only sit and watch the monitors as someone reaches in and forcibly unbundles the local loop. Under the city, hundreds of kilometers of legacy copper scream in unison. Sinclair, at the system's heart, tastes blood.

--

Context.

The Follicle

Nobody expects to be punched in the face by a man's beard, which is why the thug goes down so easy. The guy's built like a brick shithouse, so Samson doesn't bother to try and move him. Alleys in this neighbourhood, he won't be around long anyway. The door's locked, but not for long. He gingerly plucks a single hair from his chin - it looks like a length of wire, and when he coaxes it into the lock it comes alive, wriggling and twisting to fit the pins. The door pops open. Samson checks his .45, and heads down the stairs.

Evan

Evan tries to navigate around the rapidly greying slush, doing his best not to drag the wheels of the hard case he's lugging behind him through the worst of it. Evan and his brother used to run a computer store, before the cloud. They still make some business from terminals, but that's not where the real money is any more.

A bright eyed woman on a poster proclaims 'Nothing To Hide, No Need To Worry'. He grimaces. Beneath the band stickers and high-impact plastic lie several petabytes worth of hard drives nestled in pink anti-static foam, heading for market.

The Savage Club

Front Of House does the post-show sweep of the seating blocks (two wine glasses, three beer bottles, sixteen crumpled tickets) and then it's just Philip, at the desk, programming the designer's last changes before opening night. He'd do it tomorrow, but having a real job means doing all the grunt work in the evenings. Theatre policy is no drinking in the booth, so Philip makes a point of stepping out into the back row to take a gulp of cider between cues. There aren't actually that many of them (the designer isn't that much of a douchebag) but since House is out, the air conditioning is off, and the rising heat from the lights gets him buzzed pretty quickly.

He stumbles through the rest of the teardown: tucking the desk into its dust cover, making sure the fire exits are bolted, whispering goodnight to the dimmer packs. In the gloom of the lighting room, the disused lights hang from hooks in rows like bats, black barndoor wings tucked in towards their bodies.

As he wanders through backstage toward the foyer, Philip gives a little rap on the door marked "off limits". It's not really on the list, but techs are a superstitious lot: A friend made him go out of his way to do it during a pack-out once, which probably saved his life when a light fell from the grid onto where he'd been a moment ago. he's knocked on it after every show since.

This is the first time it swings open.

The Sisters of St Rupertsberg

The Sisters of St Rupertsberg can be recognised during the opening band, if one looks carefully, by the key on a ribbon around each of their necks. They listen politely in groups of twos and threes, incognito among the hipsters, then sidle backstage to tune up. Turnout's low for the venue, but there's not much when you're splitting the door takings eight ways anyway. The Sisters don't care. They're spreading the gospel of good music, one bloody heathen at a time.

"This one's 'I'm So Fucking Goddamn Lonely'," says Sister Kate, leaning into the microphone. "One, two, one two three four!"

The Savage Club

The Savage Club started as a dance hall in the '30s, with a laundromat on one side, and a late-night takeaway restaurant on the other. Roy's Burger Bar stank of fat from the deep fryer, but that didn't stop the Ladies of the Night wandering over from the brothel across the street at three in the morning, their petticoats bearing stains of more dubious provenance than that of the meat in the burgers. The Savages were allowed to be as loud as they wanted almost any day of the week, so it was perfect as a venue - far enough from the centre of town that it felt like a secret; close enough that the residents nearby were used to the noise.

The only time the club wasn't open was the first Wednesday of each month. As a condition of the lease, the building owners would ensconce themselves within its cozy confines, their activities opaque to even the most seasoned regulars. At midnight, without fail, they would totter down the front steps, all jowls and tweed, and disappear again. The Savages, for their part, refused to be drawn on the matter.

When Arthur Savage died, in the sixties, the club died with him. A theatre company took the lease, but kept the name. The rest of the Savages kept in touch with the new tenants at first but most, eventually, drifted away - the new black walls made them feel like they were still in mourning.

The ones that stuck around, though, found that the more things change, the more they stay the same. They don't hire the place out for weddings any more - you can't perform a wedding in a black box, even if they're theatre majors - but they still keep the mops in the last stall of the womens' bathroom, the chandelier in the foyer is still bright green, and there's still a locked door backstage that doesn't lead anywhere marked "off limits".

And no shows on the first Wednesday of the month, of course, but that's a condition of the lease.

Theresa

Theresa's refrigerator has a door, and stuck to that door is a magnet, and wedged between the door and the magnet is a letter from her landlord explaining what, exactly, the door code has been changed to, as of this morning. She'd barely been here long enough to memorize the last one. She buzzes the apartment ineffectually for ten minutes, all the while entertaining increasingly tenuous strategies for climbing up to the first floor balconies and jimmying the bathroom window.

She messages her housemate: "do you know the new door code (sad face)".

An immediate reply: "they changed it?"

Theresa sighs.