December 27, 2006

Concerto for Hand Grenades

I'm currently reading Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale on the recommendation of a gentleman I have never met but converse with on the internet. He is wise. It is a wondrous book, for all that I am only a quarter of the way through it. The writing is so compelling it has knocked me out of my usual screed of cyberpunk, and this frankly imitative short is what came out when I sat down to write something (anything) yesterday. Imitative only in tone, of course and alas.

Spider and crab, they scuttled. Sideways and longways, low to the ground, the pair moved across jumbled shapes in the darkness; soft grunts and shuffling sounds arose from the vast floor of cartons. Here, beneath the earth's gentle clasp, there was air both chilly and dry. There was not only a quietude but a lulling, really, of the great hard bones of the world all around and somehow softly cradling this one spot.

shuffle, shuffle.

Riddlejack moved in front, and Karraigon followed behind. Their passage was slow, burdened as it was without the friendly assistance of lights, but the carbide lamps in their helmets were darkened now in fear and respect of the place they found themselves in. Somewhere behind them, far away, there was a hole in the enveloping stone, some ten or fifteen feet above the irregular sea of containers; it was from here that they had entered in their happiness and their greed, two weeks of tunneling made good in an instant as the pickaxes had broken through.

A light shone through the hole had revealed the stacks and pallets of stores in the underground cache, placed there against need. Riddlejack had declared in solemn tones that their need was surely existent, this night, and being that they themselves were citizens of the Realm, these supplies stored in need for its Citizens' defense were only properly taken. Karraigon had agreed most heartily, rubbing palms together in the dry and papery sussuration of a cricket tuning his hams for the next great concerto of a summer's eve.

So here they were, the drop downwards being somewhat further than they had initially considered. Their entry had dislodged the two pallet loads of boxes they had landed upon, causing stacks to collapse right across the enormous space, all the way to the other side as near as they could tell before the hissing sputter of Riddlejack's headlamp had fallen on the side of the nearest carton in the heap atop which they sat, bruised and somewhat giggly but not dismayed.


Riddlejack had snorted, then, and thrown the case aside in search of more valuable (and perhaps more lethal, he being of a smaller build and consequent weak self-image) nature. Pistols, surely, there would be. Ammunition there did seem to be, in quantity, but no guns.

So they began their crabwalk to the distant door, in the figuring that along the way such opportunities as might be dislodged from the now-chaotic pile would certainly not go amiss. It was after ten or fifteen feet that Karraigon, with the blissful innocence of the young and immortal, had nearly turned his wrist on a loose round piece and held it up close before his helmet to determine what on earth had caused him this much annoyance.

THIS SIDE TOWARDS ENE... he made out before Riddlejack, pale with sudden agitation, snatched it from him, placed it down and bade him douse his headlamp. This he did, not knowing why (being of simple mind and not often concerned with Riddle's reasons but comfortable in obeying them) and noting the liquid manner with which the darkness flowed in on them from the walls as Riddle did the same.

They sat there for a moment or two, nervous chuckles and shifting sounds as they agreed on the direction of the door. Somewhere, there would be lights. Electric lights, with switches. Near the entry; the official one, that is. In the dark, safer, then, to crabwalk. They had the time. This far beneath the ground, no light could be admitted, and they moved through a rare and noble gas of carbon black that drank in sound as well until each (in turn) would cough or deliberately strike a box to hear the noise it made.

The first chirping noise was a complete surprise to both, and they stopped moving to listen, without needing conference. A cricket, somewhere, perhaps a twin to the one who had tuned his legs with Karraigon's impatience, now seemed to sound from somewhere in the spaces of the room. Muffled slightly, as if his once-secure house or nook had just been rudely rearranged by the fall of boxes on his living-room, or perhaps even on his water closet, as Riddlejack speculated to his friend. This brought gales of laughter at the thought, and they moved on, noting now that several other chirps had joined the first, a squeaky symphony in pre-concert twiddlings.

Some fifteen yards gone by. The door perhaps another fifty, if all was remembered correctly. Riddle noted the smell of sharp and brightness, cordite, most likely, in the air. He shuddered and felt to make sure his headlamp was cold, which it was. The door seemed far away. Crickets chirping on all sides of them now, and he was momentarily diverted wondering how a colony this large could so long survive without light? What did the insects eat? The cardboard of the boxes? That might make sense. Certainly it was not much different than wood, and did not insects eat wood? That sounded reasonable.

Ten more yards. The sound was falling slowly into a cadence, or a melody; moving between one and the other, sometimes a rhythm and sometimes a tune. Karraigon was exclaiming on the beauty of it and the strangeness of the crickets (or perhaps they were katydids?) at choosing this place in which to live. Trapped in a box, they maybe were, he thought.

Beneath them, some four layers of containers down, the chirping was particularly loud. A cardboard casing crumpled under the weight where it had been creaking before, and grains of powder crushed against each other. A slow ember caught.

The sound rose around them then, a sudden roar of song, to which Karraigon exclaimed that he had never heard so beautiful a song from bugs, and Riddlejack began to understand.

* * *

Ten stories above, Christmas shoppers paused in their hurrying at the far-off whistle, wondering, beside the great red brick building. They looked about themselves for perhaps ten or fifteen seconds, some edging slowly off the sidewalk, not really sure why.

Then the wavefront of magnesium and phosphorus flame erupted from the basement window wells and storm sewers around the wall of the armory and rushed for the sky in streamers of red, of white, of green and silver sparks, signaling frantically for all they were worth. Somewhere in the roaring flames a voice might have been heard, hurt and disappointed, briefly bemoaning the housekeeping habits of crickets, but it was probably just the firefighters' imagination.

Fireworks played above the neighborhood for three hours.

Posted by jbz at December 27, 2006 1:01 PM | TrackBack

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