He’d been found wearing a new dark-eyed mask and with a co-worker drinking absinthe, the two of them trying to find something more in the afternoon sunset. Another day had gone stale, shriveling and imploding like aged cheese burning in the summer, left to rot and mold like a corpse. And it didn’t help that the day had been served with a typewriter malfunction with a side of physically painful confrontations with his colleague. His sleeves more closely resembled the pelt of an exotic house pet imported from the Fields than the uniform of a dutiful employee. No article of clothing should clash with the almost twice reborn decadence of the city, where skyscrapers were interlocked with bridges melded from glass that appeared as if it had been torn from the sky like silk. The birds that alighted atop their spires looked as if they were thorns to an onyx crown that the city had adorned itself with. But, it couldn’t be helped. His colleague hadn’t let him go home to wash up.
Instead Stan sat on the roof of his workplace, his colleague still sipping on her bottle of absinthe, only a third of the way empty. Concrete fillings, a red-brick terrace, and steel vents with the most olfactory insulting case of rust that the man had ever witnessed. It was an old building, to be sure, but its history was what had kept it standing.
Stan heard a clattering near the back corner, where the metal lid back into the building had been tossed open. With a few couplets of clatter (which the man swore were made by no shoe he had ever seen), another good sir emerged from the hole. His shoulders were dressed with a brightly colored coat of sand, though his inner waist jacket was a deeper shade of green. His pants were the same pattern, beige legs and a belt that went with the jacket.
“Heard a mine went off if your office, Stan,” called the man, his voice booming like the impact an automobile accident, tearing Stan away from his thoughts. “If what the receptionist said was true, anyway. Said it nearly cost you your good arm.”
Stan sighed. “Yeah, David. It did. This one nearly tore it out of its socket when she saw what it did to my-“ He stopped, catching a glare from his colleague, her upper lip wet with her drink. “Our office.”
“Really?” the other replied, wandering over to the woman on the terrace, staring through her bottle. Her arms, as well as her legs, were longer and lankier than those of any woman he’d ever seen. Then again, most of the women he had seen were soldiers, not commuters. “She looks a little slim to be tearing off limbs. Besides, it seems like the booze is what’s keeping her focus.”
The lass brushed away a lock of her silver hair, the highlight shining pale against the technicolor missile strike the rest of her head had endured. Scorch marks of green, cobalt, tangerine and tacky neon pink ran rampant over her ears, her ear lobes stained their own unidentifiable shade of… something. Most of her hair had been dyed while she was minimally buzzed, but the rest? Hell, not even her friend’s phone pictures could tell her that. She took a driver’s glance at her periphery, only for her attention to skid at what hung to her left. Or rather, his left. Silently dangling at the waist of their guest was a stick – no, a saber – striking bright blood red into the concrete of the terrace. The girl took a quick peek at the sun before staring headlong at the rooftops below. The sky was perfectly still. This wasn’t just the absinthe talking.
“You’re a monster hunter.” she finally said, setting her bottle behind her.
Stan turned his own head towards the armed man, taking a short-shot look at the saber’s stained scabbard.
“I thought you said you were a herder,” Stan spoke, standing and leaning towards the blade with his best foot. He didn’t offer any curiously twitching fingers, didn’t make any sudden movements to tear the blade away from David’s belt. Sabers were a sign of danger, threats, unrest. It meant instability, and he wasn’t fit for dealing with such matters.
“You said you were a herder, or shepherd, or whatever you called it. So why do you have… that?” He sputtered, pointing at the blade. He wasn’t worried about his friend. His job was his own, no matter what risks. But if that saber got anywhere near him…
“I am a herder, Stan. I promise. The sword’s merely a piece of equipment I was given as a part of my promotion.” Stan’s body eased, straightening into his common posture, like any man of military prestige. Legs locked, head straight, shoulders broad, and hand firmly kept behind the waist. A man with even a fragment of power had to keep a sense of personal decorum, after all. “One of our commanders got injured and has to work the stables, so they gave me his position until he’s fit for duty.” The soldier, David, snickered. “Well, his usual duty, at least.”
The girl snorted, leaning back and slumping to the floor to be sure her subsequent chucklings didn’t send her flying without one of her friend’s arms to catch her. Bodily damages were minimal when she fell at ground level. No telling what would happen after taking a dive towards the concrete river bellow. She asked herself, between slowly uprooting guffaws, why she let her straw haired cubicle-mate talk her out of what would’ve been a lecture from their boss. It only took a giggle and a brush against her bottle to remember why.
“You know, your friend seems pretty nice, Stan. “David replied, chuckling at the jumbled woman inches away from being soaked in her own booze. David considered tipping the bottle just enough to let a stream slip, but decided that she wouldn’t look the best if she was doused bright green. “Good taste in booze, fan of stupid jokes. Surprised she isn’t outside the wall working for the stables or something.”
This wasn’t the first time David had been forced to play doctor with Stan’s… blackened mood, so to speak. His deployment of short-wit humor and 3-year old sensibilities would usually win him over and manage to lighten his demeanor. Unfortunately, David’s prescription seemed only to mutate Stan’s pox of a passing sneer and “professional” appearance he called an attitude. Doubly unfortunate, as Stan had built a resistance to David’ innoculations, a near-contagious immunity to the shenanigans of drunks and half-assed ass jokes. Symptoms of his body’s reaction to such petty “confabulations”, as Stan would always put it before straightening his tie and fluffing his collar. These symptoms were painfully, hilariously obvious. The telltale engorged pectorals supported by intersecting forearms, a constant gaze towards a single object of interest, and an irregular breathing pattern shared only by fathers whose sons and daughters were habitual in snatching strays off the streets and hiding them in their sock drawers. Diagnosis? A dangerous case of ‘You better stop or…’ syndrome. Prescription?
Well, there was only one cure, but for such a patient like Stan, it was a risky measure to take. As well-meaning and sage as he was, Stan was equal parts cynical, distant, and selectively naive. But if one could find that small bit of innocence, mix it with a soft hand to stroke his ego and what occurs is an experience only seen by a handful of people willing to listen to the madman on the street.
“You know, being a herder isn’t all puppyfoddel cubs and riding High Jack horses and catching brainless Waistwing chics with dog food and sunflowers. You know what the claws on a pup’s mother are like? How powerful a single buck from one of those brutal Jacks are? Or how the wings of a week old chick are long enough to stretch around your face and suffocate you? It’s not easy getting some of these things into the city, sometimes.”
“What-what? Getting them into the city?” the woman stuttered, her words slipping on her bright green booze. “I thought the whole point of herders and hunters was to keep those monsters outside.” She continued, her back against the terrace wall.
David smirked, but not enough for Stan to notice. He considered continuing to coerce Zaadya with tales of how the cubs could scale mountains faster than drill pods, and race down them even faster. Or how High Jacks could keep up with nearly every type of transport produced by the city, and how waistwings could parry and slice and stab at hunters when they attacked with their sabers. It would drive her and Stan absolutely insane, but it just might keep Stan from even considering what he had in mind. He’d leave the terrace without a single word, and the trap he was setting up would fail. Small bit, instead, he’d leave for the two to follow. Hopefully, it would work.
“Welly, your right about the Hunters, Zaadya.” Stan quipped, his tone easing from that of a father to that of a teacher. “Hunters are usually tasked with eliminating anything that can’t be handled by the herders, but…” He stopped, slowly, knowing exactly what Zaadya would say if he continued the exposé on the city’s prime task-force.
“Go on, Stan.” David said, “Don’t be so stingy with your vast array of common knowledge.” David replied.
“I didn’t think you knew a word like stingy, David.” Stan replied with a smirk. “I would’ve thought most of your vocabulary would’ve been replaced with mating calls and sailor talk by now.”
Damn, back on the defensive. Stan at least had stopped standing so immaculately straight, but his “Tenured teacher” stare was framed with a skewed back and constantly tapping fingernails. And that’s not to mention the comments that came with it. More often than not, it left everyone speechless simply because they were too angry to keep speaking or too hurt to reply. David had to wonder which biome was worse: one where flesh was something peddled between everything with more – and sometimes less – than two legs, or the one where entertainment came with the cost of a good mood or a trip to the H. R. office. One thing was true in both jungles, though. Survival demanded aggression.
“Oh, now don’t be so presumptuous, Stan.” David replied. He saw Stan raise an eye open and a snicker slithered across his lips. “Some of my best talks have been with you. Why don’t you continue yours with this fine young lady of yours? I’m sure she’d love to hear what you’ve left unsaid.”
Stan’s responses were dropped off like a chair with too much weight on its legs. David was smiling, greasily, marking Stan with his cheap check across his apparent intellect. Stan, meanwhile, gathered himself, stealing a look at the waiting Zaadya. Cheeks unscrunched, jaw unclenched, though a finger was curling a handful of violet hairs with a bang dyed neon green. Impatience, even if disguised and mild boredom, had settled, and before long irritance and belligerence would bubble like booze mid-brew. And what would result from an angered woman off her limit of spirits? Well, not even Stan could say.
‘Pre-eminence before punishment.” Stan thought, sighing.
“Herders, Zaadya,” the woman, slitting with her hair, turned her eyes towards Stan. Her head bounced between blinks, her attention half-waning in her buzz. “Are tasked with not only gaming manageable creatures found outside the city limits, but also the introduction of said species, or at least individual organisms, into the city itself.”
Zaadya’s throat heaved with a deep gasp, her mouth growing wider and wider as if she was to yelp and holler to everyone within the block’s audial range. David snickered, and Stan gulped, his hand jittering as his fingers tapped keystrokes across his leg. She knew. Drunk, half-way or not, she knew almost instantly what David was going to propose. And she was outright ecstatic. She could now only rush to the outcome. Stan considered as he began developing countermeasures that might keep David from taking them outside.
“So does that mean you can take us out to the Plains?” Zaadya asked, hands, arms and chest bouncing with her as she nearly tackled David to the ground. “Where the monsters and soldiers are? With the gigantic trees and golden grass they bring back for the breweries?!”
“No. He can’t.” Stan spat. “It’s law that no civilians without documented clearance can travel beyond the city walls. Anyone caught without clearance that even attempts to get to the Plains is condemned and sentenced with prison, conscripted service to the Herders and Hunters organization, or exiled form the city entirely. And that means no home, no money, and,” He nearly shouted, snatching Zaadya’s bottle of absinthe. “No alcohol.” He heard her murmur, nearly whimper as her magic jade juice was dumped onto the concrete, irretrievable. “Oh, you have more. That case came out of my pocket, remember?”
“But that was the only bottle I brought with me!” Zaadya whined. Her knees scrunched like a dog’s nose towards the pool that had formed, her tongue circling her still moist lips. The thought of lapping what was left crossed her mind, but she knew better than to make a fool of herself. Only give Stan another reason to demean her.
“Ha! Both of us know that by the second vial, you’d be halfway down the side of the building!” Stan replied before chucking the empty glass across the roof, watching the neck go supernova as billions of twinkling green starlets flared and flashed wildly lambent as they fell into the great grey gut of the adjacent alleyway. “Your head would be just like that bottle! A unrecognizable, party popping firecracker of an autopsy report!”
“Oh, bitch all you want! I’ve been up here more times than the fucking Kingfishermen, with more booze than three of your livers could ever handle! Now why don’t you can it, Mr. Firecracker, before I set you off to crash and burn myself?!”
“Man, talk about your sexual tension, amiright!” David bellowed as loud as his voice could hold before his fellow roof-mates replied with a concussive “What?!”
“Attention! Just what I wanted,” David said with a clap. “Sorry, but as much as I love hearing such equally witty and vulgar banter, we have sights to see.”
“Whatdya mean?” Zaadya replied before sticking her tongue towards Stan.
“Honestly, David, I know you aren’t this dense.” Stan joined. His eyes never caught sight of Zaadya’s worm-shaded, bright pink bait. “You and I both know that each introduction checkpoint is guarded by motion-sensing security cameras. Not only that, but there’s always a five man team of H&H personnel mounted on stun-gunning, high-speed hovercycles. And no-one can outrun those cycles. Not with their top speed outclassing anything on the civilian market.”
David chuckled. “What, do you think this is a bank robbery or something?” he replied. “You’re forgetting a teensy-weensy little detail, Stanny.”
“No I haven’t, David, and if you still think I’m wrong, allow me to remind you why I’m right. We don’t have clearance, we can be both outraced and outgunned, and there are no other routes that lead beyond the wall aside from those entry tunnels!”
“Nope, you’re still forgetting something. Or rather, it’s something that hasn’t been made public.”
Out of David’s pockets, one handful whistling in the high afternoon winds and the other slipping between his fingertips with a delicious crunch and foreign aroma, came the tools that David had collected for this exact purpose. Opening his palms, David let Stan and Zaadya bear witness to insanity and genius in cahoots. Lying in his Palms were spun tubes of grass, three of them, each singing the sing-note song they were made for. In the other, cubes of peacock colored dust flashed whenever David tilted his hand to keep the remains of crushed sediment from being sipped and swallowed by the wind.
“Grass-whistles and brightly colored pet food?” Stan questioned, Zaadya snatching of the whistles to squeeze and stretch to try and play something close to a solo.
“I’ve got more of this back at my apartment, but this is more than just pet food and home-made instruments.” David said, tossing a cube to each of them. “This is wild bait, mixed with peacock stones and the pheromones of a very special creature. That’s why is smells weird, Stan.”
“Wait, why’d you direct that question to me?”
“Oh, come on, Mr. Animal Lover. I know how many times you begged me to take you with me on my expeditions, and how you just had to have the primary feathers of this, and a fore claw from that, and a nice juicy pile of scat from the biggest fucking thing we could find!”
As David went on and on about Stan’s throbbing, aching desire for wildlife, Zaadya’s shouting and hysteric shrieking only got louder and louder. Her screaming began to choke itself within seconds, forcing her to chew and devour her whistle to keep herself from going breathless.
“None of that is true and you’re only doing this to embarrass me!” Stan said, his fingers choking the notes of his whistle hoping to drain the blood swiftly rushing to his face. It wasn’t working. “What are these for, anyway?”
“They’re for catching the new creature that’s being introduced to the city tomorrow.”
“But there weren’t any announcements made about a new creature.”
“Exactly.” David replied. “They didn’t make the announcement because they released them into the only area of the city that isn’t occupied by anything.”
“You mean the Brickyard, right?” Zaadya asked.
“Yep. The southwestern corner is what we’ll be aiming for. A new semi-avian reptile has been introduced a day early there. The city’s trying to get them accustomed to eating old concrete and clay, since they can’t actively supply enough peacock stone.”
“But why the pheromones?” Stan inquired.
“Oh, shouldn’t you already know the answer to that, Mr. Animal Lover?” Zaadya sang, taunting with a drunken little chirp before bouncing out of the way a short jab from Stan.
“Actually, Stan, you should know the answer to this.” David replied. “After all, you were the one that came up with the idea to use pherobait in our old expeditions, remember?”
“Oh yeah!” Stan yelped, quieting himself as old memories began to flip through his head like the pages in his old journal. “Has it really been that long?” he muttered.
“What’s the matter, Stan?” Zaadya said. “You don’t have PTSD from being on the wrong end of something outside the wall, do you?”
“Keep that up and I’ll be certain you end up on the receiving end of whatever’s chewing on masonry down in the Brickyards.” Zaadya promptly shut it. If Stan had really been outside the wall before, collecting samples and studying whatever else was out there, then she wouldn’t put it past him to have finger fast enough to sneak bait into her back pocket. What the end result would be, she had already guessed, but thought best to let that speculation stay so.
“Now, the bait’s layered with pheromones in order to achieve one of two ends. Either, A, lure a female seeking a mate, or B, a male who believes there’s another male intruding in his territory.” Stan turned to David, his eyes somewhat sunk and lower lip heavy. “And if these creatures are what I believe them to be, then you’ll be hoping for as many females as possible.”
David blinked and the mention of ‘you’ll’. “What do you mean, Stan? Don’t you wanna come with us?”
“No, David.” he replied. “Not this time. I’ve already put you two at risk with everything I’ve told you.”
“But I already knew all about it!”
“The least I can do is be sure I stay safe. Besides,” he stopped, and half-smiled, turning towards the slowly flat-lining pulse of the evening sky. “I have my memories with you, don’t I?”
“Except you’ll forget.” Zaadya said, basely.
“It’s a fact. You’ll grow old, forget, and sit either in your office or at your apartment drinking that damn tea you love so much, wondering what all you did with your life, and who all you shared it with. And then you’ll forget that, too, and start wondering what’s for lunch because you’ll be too fucking boring to wonder about anything else!”
“I am not boring!” Stan protested. “I’ve gone beyond anything you even want to see! All you care about is that stupid booze you love so damn much, so who are you to talk about boring?!”
“She can say who’s boring and who isn’t because she actually sees an opportunity for excitement and dares to take it!” David shouted, this time.
Stan turned towards him, scowling and clenching his whole body, as if to prevent himself from tearing David to shreds and farm his body for monster bait. “Listen to Zaadya, Stan. Yes, she wants to break the rules, but she’s willing to do it because to her, the risk is weightless compared to the reward! She wants to see something that all of twenty people within these walls have seen themselves! You yourself told me that no advent for exploration should ever be overlooked, so will you please stop being such a blockhead and say you’ll go with us?!”
“David.” Stan replied, grinding his front teeth to be sure his words remained cool, like frost. “I’m content with my memories. And besides, you’re a herder. You can always take me back some other time.”
“But I’m not just a herder anymore, Stan.” David drew his saber. The Blade beamed brightly blue, even in the slowly encroaching dimness of twilight. Golden streams of silicon ran down the blade. With little more than a swat, the air cracked, sparking with the pure lightning running through the body of the weapon. But David decided to sheathe it, for now, lest he draw the attention of his superiors for unwarranted use of a deadly weapon.
“What happens if I go out into the fields and I don’t come back?”
“Then, then I’ll…” Stan began, slowing and stopping to ponder what he would do. His voice sank, whispering, “If you don’t come back…” as his arms fell to steady him as he took a seat on the roof. “I don’t know.” Stan muttered.
His knees slid to his chest, his head moving towards his legs as he hands strained to keep his ears closed, curling the lobes and edges around its entry. David could see him, Stan, shaking, his arms only loosely resting in the fold between his hips, and his cheekbones stretched and strained.
“Stop talking…” Stan said. Only the wind across his back paid any thought to making noise. His eyes clenched tighter, until he couldn’t even see the light of the freshly rising moon. His fingers grew tighter around his ears, until he couldn’t even hear the heart beating in his chest.
“Stan,” Zaadya said, crawling towards the balled up boy before her. She began to lift a hand to his, only to find her arm snapping back in David’s grasp.
“Stop, Zaadya. I know what he does when he’s like this.”
“So what do we do?”
“We leave him be, at least for now.”
David picked her up, chuckling as he continued with, “Come on. I know a great steakhouse that has the best whiskey in the city. And the baristas can make drinks not even the drunks know are real.”
Zaadya muttered an, “Okay,” stopping to look back at Stan. How he was now, she couldn’t tell who he was anymore. If he was so smart, and knew as much about monsters and H&H and what not to do, what happened to all of that when he froze? What good was that head when all he could do was cage and cradle it?
“Hey,” Zaadya spoke. “I’ll tell David to give you a day. I’ll buy him a drink if he waits. I’ll leave the name of the bar in your mail slot tomorrow, ‘kay?”
Stan only breathed. And Zaadya started to walk towards the stairs, only to be stopped by Stan. His mumbling.
“If I say yes,” he shriveled, the trembles in his voice so much more evident. “Will you buy me a drink, too?”
Zaadya thought for a moment. “Sure.” she said.
And she wanted to thank him back, but her feet had decided to walk where her mouth should’ve started to run. Without another word, she left the rooftop, running down the stairs and rushing to the bar where she thought she might forget what happened today.