Friday, November 23, 2012

A Gentleman and Thief

“You can’t do this to me” I shouted as my fist struck the surface of my professor’s oak desk, “This has the potential to help hundreds of people, thousands if it’s successful.
My professor started to roll his eyes, but restrained himself.
     “Potential only. It’ll hardly save hundreds if it’s a failure. Mr. Valen, you’re working off of speculation.”
My hand clenched the edge of the desk, my face began to match its redwood varnish. Oh, I had proof, not any that the academy would accept— they would likely expel me on principal. Regardless, my anger was pointless and my eyes were starting to burn. I began to rise, but my professor motioned for me to stop.
     “Peter, wait.” He pleaded, “I understand where you’re coming from. You need a ‘Grand Discovery’ to be admitted as a member of the academy, and you’re nowhere close here. You think leaving will provide more of an opportunity. I beg to differ. Keep up your studies, give it time and…”
     “That’s enough, sir.” I said, putting a hand up, “I think it’s unwise for either of us to continue wasting our time.” I walked out of his office before he could say anything else. The fool was intelligent, smarter than the majority of the others in the academy, but he didn’t know a bloody thing. He lacked the perception that I had acquired, he gladly consumed the lies his superiors fed him. I could see through them. I would not be so easily fooled.
I walked through the halls of the Academy of Natural Philosophy, the pompous décor suited the building, mirroring the majority of its inhabitants. The streets in the lower city may be dark at night, but at least that darkness was real. This was the realm of the artificial, and I was sick of it.
I stopped by a map of the Pandyssian Continent which hung on the wall in a hallway. It was here, not long ago that I saw what the academy was. It was here that I was shown the truth. I just had to prove that I was right.
*  *  *
     A week later, I sat at my desk, reading the last of the literature I had borrowed from the library at the Academy. It told me nothing about the continent, other than the lies I already knew. They all said that which wasn’t desert was harsh jungle. They all said there were no inhabitants. They all warned against traveling or colonizing the continent. They were all gullible fools. They all lacked my gift, my genius. They didn’t have vision.
Regardless, it was time to return the books. The librarian had a habit of harassing me until I returned them, a habit I didn’t care for. It was night, so I retrieved my cane as I went out. You can never be too careful, in Dunwall after dark. The cane had a chamber in the head which held a capsule of trans. When a hidden button on the shaft was pressed, the capsule was broken and the energy was released on an unsuspecting assailant. It was the weapon of a scholar, inasmuch as he needed one aside from the pen.
I opened the door to leave my modest flat, when I was confronted by a man on the other side. I raised my cane, but before I could release the energy, he knocked it out of my hand.
     “Now now, Mr. Valen, is that any way to treat a business partner?” I took a step back, dropping my bag full of books.
     “Who are you?”
The man walked casually into my home, followed by two large, brutish gentlemen in the same, dirty, working-class garb as the first wore.
     “My name’s Slackjaw,” the man answered “Perhaps you’ve heard of me?”
     I’d heard of him alright. “What do you want with me?”
     “Like I said, I want to partner up.”
     “I won’t work for a crime lord.”
His eyes widened at this, and he looked down at his chest as if I’d stabbed him.
     “Listen,” he said, “Do you really believe all of that crap those aristocrats spout about me? I’m just trying to help people in my own way. They just don’t want me to be doing it on their dime.”
He made sense, I suppose. I didn’t believe his motives were as honest as he made them out to be, Slackjaw was not known for his altruism. However, perhaps his reputation was as sullied as the Pandyssian Continent.
     “I’m listening” I said, hesitantly.
     “That’s all I ask,” he said, smiling. “Now, I’ve heard your proposition and I love it. I can see the potential for us to aid the people of Dunwall. I just need you to do something for me.”
     “What’s that?”
     “Convince me you’re not full of the same crap as everyone else in that glorified rathole.”
Could I trust him? I suppose this would be my only chance to prove myself right. The academy wouldn’t accept my proof, but Slackjaw might.
     “Very well,” I said, and looked him in the eye. Shortly after, his eyes widened and then he nodded.
In my eyes, he saw the mark of the Outsider.
The crime lord leaned back against the wall of my flat, and put his hand up to his chin, staring at me all the while.
     “Alright, let’s deal.”

*  *  *
A few weeks later we were almost prepared for the journey. Slackjaw and his organization had provided colonist volunteers and a crew, along with all of the required supplies and information. I saw the man himself very little, but the assistants he provided were very helpful, and provided anything I needed. The surplus of provision and support meant that I had little to do but research, something that consumed my time and attention, to the point where I began to habitually neglect meals, a tendency which led to the loss of what little excess weight my body possessed. This would have been tolerable, if my two favorite vests didn’t look like ponchos when I wore them. Thus, I was off to the tailor this afternoon.
Walking from my flat to the tailors shop was paid in turn by the quality of the man’s work and the pleasure of his chipper, optimistic demeanor. If not for his accent, he would likely have been a private tailor for the Lord Regent himself. My nose was buried in a book as I walked up to the shop, which almost caused me to walk in on an argument between the tailor and his wife.
     “And what happens when the colony, along with you, sinks on the way there? Or dies in the jungle? Your ticket to ‘freedom’ leaves us with nothing but the rent!” the tailor’s portly wife questioned.
     “Darlin’, I told ya, we’re bein’ led by that Varen fella that gets ‘is things done ‘ere. I’d always telled ya ‘e was a sharp one, ‘im.”
     “But why did you have to sell everything?”
My knuckles turned white on the doorknob. It was all I could do to stay outside. I waited a few moments to collect myself and then walked in.
     “My apologies for eavesdropping, sir, but did you say you’re paying to join my crew?”
     “Of course sir, those are the rules Slackjaw gave us.”
I pursed my lips and gave him the two vests.
     “Here, take these, I’ll be back for them later. I think I need to set up a meeting with Slackjaw.”
*  *  *
It didn’t take long for me to find Slackjaw, though I doubt he was hiding. It always amazed me, the information a man could buy from a beggar for a single coin, particularly in Dunwall. I walked into the warehouse that Slackjaw had taken over as a temporary headquarters. It reeked of fish and sawdust, a side-effect of residency near the docks. Slackjaw was standing over a table with another man, pointing at a paper and mumbling something. As I approached, the other man left and Slackjaw turned his attention towards me.
     “Ah, Valen, I was just about to send for you.” He said, keeping his eyes on the table. “We’ve rented a whaling trawler for the trip.”
I reached the table and placed the tip of my cane on the paper he was looking at.
     “What is it? I’m a bit busy at the moment.”
     “I’ve heard rumors that speak poorly to your character,” I said, and the room quickly silenced itself. I looked into his eyes “I’ve heard you’ve been charging the volunteers.”
Slackjaw’s eyes flashed wide for a moment, and I locked my eyes with his, reminding him that he was dealing with a man chosen by the outsider. After a long silence, he broke my gaze and his eyes flew wide again, this time in rage.
     “Listen, kid, where do you thing all this money comes from? Look at me, I’m not rich not like those bastards uptown. This is the only way to make this plan of yours doable.” He said through his teeth. “Besides, this way we weed out the nobodies.”
     “So that’s it then, you’re just like them.” I shouted, fingering the power button on my cane. My eyes were growing warm.
Slackjaw looked at me, sighed, and said, “Okay, I’m sorry. We should have talked this out. It’s too late to turn back now though. He looked towards the door where the other man had exited.
     He was right. I was still tempted to cave his head in with my cane, but he was right.
*  *  *
     The eve of the departure had come. We were to load the craft that night and depart in the morning, early. Since our brief confrontation, Slackjaw had been in touch more often. He seemed as dedicated as I to see this through. The moon was bright that night, and it hurt my eyes. But they always hurt these days, ever since argument with Slackjaw, they’d gotten progressively worse, turning from a slight warmth to a painful burn. I tried to shake it off. Soon it’d be worth every second I’d spent, every drop of blood and sweat. I had set one of the assistants Slackjaw had provided to the task of directing the crew that was loading the vessel, and went to my quarters. Slackjaw was meant to meet me there in an hour. I sat in the small cabin and looked through the papers on my desk, searching for any errors in my equations.
     After a few moments, I heard footsteps. I presumed Slackjaw was arriving early. However, two voices, neither his, were all I heard.
     “Yeah, this is the room.”
     “Is he here yet?”
     “Shouldn’t matter. He’ll be here to meet Slackjaw soon enough.”
     “Hey, you hear about our bonus?”
     “Jet, we’re hired muscle. We don’t get ‘bonuses’”
     “Yeah, well, we do when the boss pulls off gig this big”
     “I thought he was losin’ money on this”
     “Pfft, do you think the boss plans on letting this ship leave harbor? The Watch is gonna come arrest him and everyone else who don’t work for the boss, and the boss is getting money for the ‘tip’” Jet chuckled, “Not only that, but the crates all have his stamp on them, and he’ll be able to sell them all back. The poor saps that signed up just gave us all money for a trip to jail.”
     I clenched my cane. My eyes were fire. I couldn’t… couldn’t…
*  *  *
     The two brutes stood outside the door. One dropped the last bit of a cigar onto the deck. The heel of his boot moved to crush it, but before it touched the glowing embers, the iron door blew out and struck the both of them. They were dead before they hit the floor.
     Valen, or something that looked like him stalked out of the cabin. His demeanor was more akin to a beast than the gentleman that once was Peter. A soft red light emanated from his eyes. Cane in hand he went forward, ready for the hunt. He made his way towards the bridge of the vessel, making every attempt to keep to the shadows. Even the moonlight seemed to burn him, and the lights of the ship set his skin aflame with pain, growing the bestial rage that was consuming him. He— or it— continued to the hall that led to the bridge of the trawler. There, standing between him and his goal stood a score of men, armed with blades and rifles. Valen the beast charged forth, his cane above his head. Every time the cane struck flesh, men were cast aside, broken. Bullets and blades battered and bloodied Valens body, but more than muscle moved the man. Leaving a trail of blood, including much of his own, Valen reached the empty bridge. He moved the controls rapidly, taking the vessel out of the harbor. Just as the compass needle pointed the correct bearing, the body of Valen collapsed.
*  *  *
     I awoke for just a moment, and looked up, out a window. I felt the rocking ship, I heard the sea moving beneath it, and then the blackness came.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Retelling, Part 3

         Day 3

       Bittersweet was the experience in being driven from bed the following morning. Something was cooking, and I’d say that unless you are in a country where the people have no plumbing, but a healthy fear of rhinoceros, around…85% of the time, that is a good sign. The bitter was that I was…being driven from bed. Luckily, for myself, and for everyone else, breakfast lived up to expectations. Crisis averted! It took approximately 3 clothes changes for all of the occupants of our increasingly sitcomesque condo to decide what we were going to do. I was told I would not be allowed to wear a sundress in any event. Nazis. 

We were in Hawaii, so you wouldn’t think that any given change of clothes would differ fundamentally from any other, but I proved that theory dead wrong. In any case, swimming trunks (which I had not forgotten) firmly ensconced upon my pasty white keester, I was ready for the beach proper. Hanalei Bay was a figurative stone’s throw away. However, we discovered that just getting there was only half the journey. The other half involved partially serious threats of personal violence against the other people in the parking lot. Had it been anywhere other than Kauai, there would have been a blood bath. All things considered, everyone was all too willing to forgive the imagined slights. We eventually found a parking spot, and when we finally emerged from the confines of the vehicle, harrowed, and unaccustomed to the steadiness of dry land, we were confronted with a rather drab and unappealing sight. 

               From the parking lot, it looked just like any other beach. Muddy dirt parking lot, ugly outbuildings, and a partially enclosed pavilion, filled with ukulele-playing, dope-smoking vagrants. Vagrant may not be the right word. They looked to goodness as though they had taken up permanent residence. Perhaps they were even recognized as homeowners at this stage. It was only once my eyes were torn away from that spectacle, that I was able to see the true grandeur of the ocean. Perhaps it can be chalked up to the fact that I hail from the desert, but that view was particularly spectacular. Floods had recently ravaged the island, and as a result the beach was strewn with drift wood; some of the beach’s denizens had even built a surprisingly imposing hut out of the flotsam. 

           True to form, the beach was a veritable rogue’s gallery. People of nearly every conceivable walk of life were represented. Of course, there was a disproportionate sample of people who’s vocabulary was limited to variations on the word “dude!”, but that was certainly to be expected. Even if I still don’t fully understand them, I have a new sense of appreciation for these grown-up children. Playing in the waves appealed, in some rather distressing ways, to my base nature. I didn’t want to leave, and I had to repress the constant urge to say things like dude, righteous, and, it’s cool, bra. You know those stereotypes about people who basically live at the beach? They’re all true. One fellow specifically comes to mind. 

Feet spread wide apart, knees bent, poised next to a prostrate surfboard in the sand, his shock of curly, bleach-blond hair rippling over his shoulders. Whoa...sorry. Creeped myself out there...At any rate, think: literally everything I had ever heard about, or seen at a beach, distilled into a single figure. I call him Brodie, zen-master of the beach and its waves. He wanders the sands in search of those ripe for his instruction in the ways of the surf. I listened from afar, but alas, my mind was not receptive to his lessons. Either that, or I’m about as coordinated as your average tourist. You know what? I’m going with the latter. I attempted to body surf, both A Capella, and on a body board, but I ended up looking and feeling like a beached whale who had just had far more than his fill of tiny crustaceans. That description is sadly not far from the truth. It was fun in spite of itself, though. 

As you might expect from someone who looked like a snowman who’s made out of skin, the sun promptly inflicted upon me a reminder that I was where I did not belong. This impelled me to, as soon as we had left the beach, advocate a stop at the “local” Wal-Mart, to shop for a surf shirt. It took some doing, but the combined efforts of our entire troupe paid off. Shortly after this success, we were unceremoniously ushered out of Wal-Mart by Lead Quail, who, it would seem, did not wish to be seen in such a place. I can’t say I blame her; the selection of laptop power supplies was dismal. We went shopping somewhere far more touristy instead. 

The strip-mall I found myself blinking at almost audibly screamed “Hey! Tourists! We have stuff the people you left behind would love!” It could also be accurately described as “catnip for wayfarers.” As such, my Dad and I had a rather ungracious good time, watching people scramble after things they thought they desperately needed. Many of these people looked, and smelled as though they had been preparing for a month in the African bush. You could almost taste the sunscreen. Adjacent to this trap, was one of the oddest restaurants I had ever seen. 

The entire building was an optical illusion. We had chosen this particular eatery, based simply on the fact that it advertised something called hula pie, which we had heard about on the radio. Delusions to the contrary aside, our collective willpower was negligible. We entered through the front door, expecting to be inside, but instead found ourselves back outside. The initial shock was largely absorbed by the smell of savory fish-flesh, searing on a hot slab of metal somewhere nearby. I think something to that effect was what I wound up ordering. I wasn’t unhappy I did. The Hula Pie ended up being little more than ice cream cake. Delicious, delicious ice cream cake. We spent the remainder of the evening swapping vaguely remembered stories about each other that we, for the most part, already knew. And no, no one had had anything to drink yet, as far as I know. I have inconclusive memories of stumbling out to the car after dinner, then stumbling out of the car, and into the house about an hour later. I hope nothing important happened...

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Retelling, Part 2

Day 2

              What “awaited” me, turned out to be more ‘not sleep’. How’s that for an anticlimax? Anyway, it was”too early for life” when I was rather rudely awakened by a voice. I don’t remember the details very well, but I think the exchange went a little something like this:
“Why isn’t John up yet?!?”
“Seriously, it’s time to get up, the flight leaves at 7:35.”
“I’ll bring in the leftover chicken wings from yesterday. Get up.”
“. . .Garlic?”
            They weren’t garlic. Neither the “spicy”, nor the “parmesan” variety. Those had been devoured first, as is all too often the case. There were, however, some of the Caribbean Jerk flavor, which ended up being an ample surrogate. I’m gushing, because I think I’m a little upset about how easy it is to buy my cooperation. No matter what the means, the end was that I was up, and, in a flash of what can be described as Stockholm Syndrome-esque irony, was ready to go long before any of my female compatriots from down the hall were. It’s hard to be mad at someone who’s just bribed you out of bed with chicken wings, though. Even I don’t quite understand the implications of that last sentence.
            Except for getting lost like the bunch of small-city hicks we tried to appear distant from, the trip to the airport was relatively uneventful. I say lost, though, really, what we did was drive in circles for half an hour, looking for a place that would fulfill our commitment to return the rental car we had been using. So, I guess it wasn’t that uneventful after all. My apologies, I’ll try to get these things straight before writing them from now on. On second thought, I shouldn’t make promises I don’t even intend to keep.
            We arrived at the airport just in time to wait for a few hours. Our flight, which was supposed to leave at 7:35, ended up being delayed until 8:40, if my memory serves me. It was more than an hour at any rate. We ate a ”real” breakfast in the terminal while waiting. It was forgettable with a single exception. One, out of the rather impressive selection of restaurants, sold something called a “pork bun”. It wasn’t forgettable solely by virtue of its name. In application, it was disappointing, though supremely self-descriptive. If you hadn’t picked this up yet, this account is going to be about food at least 50% of the time.
            Disappointing was also a word which could be used to describe the flight, once were finally permitted to board. It was, without a doubt, one of the most uncomfortable 5.5 hours my life. Not for the obvious reason, necessarily, such as poor seating, but rather the smell. You see, I believe that someone in our vicinity had apparently eaten several tubs of kidney beans, about 2 pounds of broccoli, and an entire turkey to round out the pre-flight meal. That is the only explanation for the sheer amount of methane gas he or she was excreting. My nose begged for mercy and my eyes watered incessantly. I was also astounded by the amount of traffic down the center aisle of that moderate-sized aircraft. I suspect there was some sort of party in the back of the plane that I had not been invited to. Having been deposited in the aisle seat, I was constantly obliged to move out of these passers by’s way.
            Sweet relief finally came when we touched down at Lihue International Airport, Kauai. The cold weather had been left behind, as had the pungent odors of the airplane’s cabin. Replacing them, were, sunny warm air, and the smells of exotic flowers. Accompanying them, to my complete surprise, came an armada of chickens. This is not hyperbole, and I’m not exaggerating in any way. There are chickens everywhere.
            As soon as we got moving along, baggage stowed, rental car…rented, we made a trip to Costco. The chickens were there too, it wasn’t a fluke. We sat and ate hotdogs in the outdoor food court, and watched the males of the species chase the obligatory pigeons around the parking lot. It was like witnessing a primitive avian race war. At that point, my entire Hawaiian experience had been rather surreal. I would have been happy if the trip to Costco had been the entire extent of the trip. Of course, this was before I knew of the joys Hawaii could bring. We were staying in a condo, the classification of what made it so still elude me, so groceries were needed. As always, the shopping trip took too long, but we did score some liquor and coffee. Woohoo!
            The drive to the condo, which was literally on the other side of the island, took a little over an hour. The day already seemed like an eternity, since gaining 3 hours on the trip. After settling in, and getting some air flowing through place, (it felt like a sauna (okay, I actually don’t know what a sauna feels like)) we took a walk down to the beach about a quarter mile away. After a walk down a treacherous, muddy hill, through terrain that looked like it belonged in a Jurassic Park movie, we emerged suddenly, wide-eyed, on a white, sandy beach, like a family of bewildered mole-people looking at a sunrise for the first time. In all seriousness, it was a unique experience, and one I am glad I had. Though, I could have lived without seeing what appeared to be some variety of shirtless, beach-dwelling hobo, sitting in a tide pool, playing his out-of-tune ukulele. His lifestyle was…oddly enviable though, because you could easily imagine that the activities we viewed him engaging in, were the ones which he engaged in primarily. We left the beach, regrettably not to return throughout the duration of our stay, and labored up the hill until we finally stood atop it, breathless but absurdly victorious, like a group of out-of-shape Stay Puft marshmallow men, with skin-tone to match.
            When we got back to the condo, I made a distressing discovery: the power supply for my laptop was nowhere to be found. I surmised that it must have been left in the Best Western back in Oakland. With no hope of obtaining another until the trip was over, most of the family huddled around it, witnessing its dying moments, like bums gathered around a fire in a trash-can. Its resilient battery put up an inspiring struggle, but it eventually succumbed to the inevitable. Time of death: 8:05 P.M.
            I was sharing a room with Lead Quail’s fiancé. It had…interesting décor, and a pair of children’s beds. Both of them would have likely been big enough for one of us, but at this point, after having been awake for at least 17 hours, I went right to sleep to the melodious sound of night insects and wind blowing through the palm trees.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Retelling, Part 1

As some of you know, (and most of you don’t) my family and I recently took a trip to Hawaii's  Little Island of Kauai. Herein, I shall detail for you, (in detail) the trip from my perspective. Having described this point of view to others on the trip, it has become clear that through my own doing, I took a radically different trip than the rest of my family did, despite the unquestionable fact that I was present with at least one of them for approaching 100% of the time. We’re going to take this day by day. These are the highlights and lowlifes according to me. “You had to be there,” is no longer adequate. “You had to be there, and be me” is now necessary, and since none of you are, you’ll have to settle for living vicariously through my oddly-tilted recount.
Day 1
           Our flight left from Oakland the next day. That meant that on this day, we had to drive there. Concerns over what had been packed had not abated in the two or so hours we had been in the car. This was pointless, though. The rented mini-van would have likely thrown a fit and refused to move had one more ounce been placed inside its surprisingly spacious cabin. The rear hatch had been “secured”, of course, but that meant little when paranoia and tensions were running as high as they were.
John, where did you put your bag?” someone higher along the vehicles food chain had asked.
My bag? What bag?” I answered with mock anxiety. Obviously, if you don’t respond with some measure of sarcasm to everything that is said to or about you, you lose.
It’s in the back, you know, where all of the other ones are?"
"Whatever, did you make sure you packed your swim trunks?"
"I needed swim trunks?"
Let’s just say I’ll be wearing alternative swimwear for the rest of the week…”
This, that is, alternative swimwear, was one of the many themes for the trip. If I had a nickel for every time it was brought up both in and out of context, I’d probably invest it all in a cheap sandwich. Substitute at least one person involved, and the topic, and you have approximately 85% of the conversation which involved me while on that car trip. How’s that for purposely vague?
As you might guess, and as is the case with all good road trips in my opinion, this trip was punctuated, offset by commas, if you will, by a trip to Buffalo Wild Wings. This was, without a doubt, the first real highlight of the whole trip. As soon as the sign was spotted, the car, heedless of the driver’s intent brought us to a careening halt several rows back from the entrance. It was fate. The driver, my sister, (henceforth to be referred to as “Lead Quail”, or just “LQ”) claimed she was aiming for the Red Robin next door. I wasn’t sure what was meant by that, but I let it slide, and everyone, after a short, albeit obligatory moment of contention between the restaurants, entered the Glass Gates to Chicken Paradise. I remember very little of that meal, other than the sensation that my taste buds, and stomach lining were being overwhelmed. I think, in my fowl hubris, I must have devoured an entire barnyard’s worth of boneless chicken wings. I regret nothing.
After having my primal chicken-flesh lust was sated, the rest of the car trip went by in a relative haze. That may have also been a direct result of the tryptophan (yes, it’s in chicken too). I’ve never heard of an over-dose, but based on this experience, I think it’s possible. We arrived in Oakland at…a time. The sun had set, the rains had come, and I’m starting to sound like a 70’s pop ballad.
The Best Western we were staying at had “nothing but the best”. The best 8-foot concrete walls, the best razor-wire hedges, and definitely the best sharpened metal stakes protruding at odd angles from the top of said wall. It was certainly a scene which inspired the utmost confidence in one’s personal safety. One wrong turn, and you could end up somewhere else, and that, judging from impression the fortifications gave, was not something you’d want.
I went to sleep in a rather stuffy, improbably over-crowded room, considering I was only sharing it with two other people, my dad, who had also shared the back seat of the van with me all the way over the hill, and the Lead Quail’s fiancé. He didn’t have a nickname. I’m playing fast and loose with the word “sleep”, here. In fact, I did very little of it. Mostly, I sat awake wondering if I would ever be able to breathe normally again. If I had only known what had awaited me…