Crown of Excellence

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Equality. Temperance. Excellence.

           Arvin Pelmo sat in an oaken armchair, feeling its ancient polished wood under his palms. He pronounced in his mind the Three Virtues arching over the tall figure of Dean Magda, as she stood silently in front of the room’s massive window, looking over the meticulously manicured lawns of Culver House.  Framed in filtered sunlight, she wore her official black robe, usually reserved for ceremonies and banquets.

            Finally she turned, her face both regal and impassive.

“Do you know why you are here?” she asked.

            “No, Dean Magda.  I was hoping you would tell me the reason for this meeting.”

            Indeed, he was.  The whole semester had passed without so much as a demerit, a warning, or reprimand.  He studied her face, but still saw no hint of her mood or disposition.

            “Mr. Pelmo, we would like to offer you an opportunity.  But first, we need to clear a few things up.”

            Sweat began to form on Arvin’s neck.  He wondered if he could refuse such an offer.

            Dean Magda stepped over to her desk and opened a white plastic box, from which she drew a silver helmet.  Arvin recognized this conglomeration of wire and electrodes and  circuitry.  It was even fitted, ironically, with mock jewels and fleurs-de-lis.

            “You know what this is,” she stated.

            “The dummy hat,” he answered.

            “The Champion’s Crown,” she corrected sternly.

            Yeah, right, he thought to himself.  He had watched different students wear the device from week to week and come to his own conclusions.

            “Mr. Pelmo, the Champion’s Crown was designed by our engineers to help students who have trouble in their studies,” she explained. “Every week, the lowest achieving students are assigned to wear the Crown, to bring them more in line with Culver House’s foundational virtues.”

            This is a lie, Arvin thought.  He had formed his suspicions from the beginning, but Leila confirmed them.

            Leila with her silver hair and wide green eyes, her skin so pale he could see every vein. Her hypnotic, heartbreaking smile.  Besides being the most alluring creature Arvin had ever seen, she was easily one of the smartest students at the academy.  Everything about her exuded wit and savvy.  She was a razor knife in a shed already full of sharp things.

            Several weeks earlier he had found her sitting beside the Horse Fountain in the main courtyard at night, alone and weeping.  She wore the Crown.

            “I don’t understand,” she sobbed. “I’m sure I didn’t miss any questions on any of the exams.  I did my best.  How can I be stuck wearing this thing?”

            She was right.  It didn’t make a bit of sense, unless the Crown is something entirely different than what the school staff is claiming.

            “I can’t stand it,” she lamented. “It feels like a tiny beehive is deep inside my head.”

            “Did they tell you what you missed?” he had asked her.

            “No,” she said. “They didn’t explain anything.”

            No, he thought.  They never do.  Leila wore the crown for two more weeks after that night.  And now…Leila was different.  She just wasn’t Leila anymore.

            “You don’t believe me,” Dean Magda declared.

            “No.”

            “Mr. Pelmo, the reason you were summoned here is twofold.  First, you are a slacker.  A sandbagger.  I took a great chance on you, letting you come to this school, considering your previous…shall we call them…brushes with authority.  But you had limitless potential.  Since then, however, you have never once achieved top score in any class.”

            “Is that a crime?” Arvin asked.

            “Not necessarily.  But I will tell you this. It is statistically unlikely.  So much so that my staff have confirmed it is virtually impossible to have occurred, given your entrance scores.  You are doing this on purpose.  You have guessed the real purpose of the Crown.”

            Arvin couldn’t deny it.  Still, he said nothing.

            “Mr. Pelmo, we look for students with exceptional intuition.  It’s something that cannot be taught.  We do value raw intelligence, but not too much intelligence, if you follow me.”

            Arvin nodded.

            “Equality.  Temperance.  We cannot develop these fully in students who exhibit too much intelligence.  They will never have the self-control to be truly temperate.”

            “You mean obedient,” Arvin said.

            She ignored the comment.

            “They will never truly fit in with the Academy’s goal of preparing young people for life in the Frontier Colonies, to integrate into a way of life that demands a loyalty to the greater good,” she continued.

            “You mean having their own ideas, their own identities,” Arvin countered.

            Dean Magda stared at him for what seemed like a very long while.

            “You’re very bright, Arvin.”  She was smiling now. “You see things.  That’s why I am making you this offer, a chance to latch on to the greater vision we have here at Culver House. An opportunity to make a real difference.”

            Arvin waited.

            “We are offering you a junior position on our training staff.  You will no longer attend classes.  You will be one of us, Arvin, and help administer the curriculum.  I will only ask you one time.  I need your answer at once.”         

            There was no question in Arvin’s mind what this offer meant.  He thought about his previous life in the Terran slums, the poverty and uncertainty.  He thought about the future he had imagined out among the stars.  He thought about Leila.  Would he do that to her?

            “Dean Magda, I must refuse.  Thank you for your consideration.”

            Silence.

“I thought so,” she answered, her smile fading.

            Suddenly Arvin felt steely hands grip his shoulders, pinning him to the chair.  When had they entered the room?  He thought he was alone with the Dean.  Now he sensed he truly was alone, unable to move.

            Dean Magda glided slowly over to him and placed the Crown on his head.  Immediately he heard a faint buzzing all around him.

            “Excellent,” she pronounced.

The Green Menagerie

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Of all the ramshackle, makeshift “lounges” I’ve ever spent time in during my decades of crisscrossing every dive and hotel in this dusty land, this was the worst. And the smelliest. I should have braced myself when I noticed underneath the flickering neon “Max’s Comedy Castle” sign, one could still read in ghostly bleed-through letters, “Timmons Truckstop & Taxidermy.” I guess an economy class magician in his sunset years can expect no better:  I took what I could get.

When I first entered the room, my nose was assaulted by the unnatural mixture of smoke, must, urine and cinnamon. I set down in a beaten green velvet wing back and started in on a watered-down cherry soda. The sweetness of the drink didn’t help the odor.

“You’re on in forty-five,” Max informed me. “They’re gonna love ya, Tim. We ain’t had a magic man since before the fire.”

He left immediately, I presumed to tend to the early patrons.

Okay.

I looked around at no less than fifty stuffed creatures in various poses and stages of completion, some on the wall, some on pedestals strewn about the place. Predator and prey were displayed, even a Capuchin monkey. Although the space seemed long and fairly wide, it was crowded and poorly lit by three electric chandeliers.

“Psst.”

I heard it, but didn’t know from which direction the sound had come.

“Excuse me?” I queried. “Is someone else here?”

Max hadn’t mentioned the possibility of anyone else.

I remembered the time in Reno I was relaxing with a perfect martini in my hand when two dwarfs dressed as cowboys, complete with tiny shooting irons, crawled out from under a coffee table. Scared the daylights out of me! Eddie and Vito; they claimed they were brothers. I forgave them for making me spill my martini, and they forgave me for pulling a knife on them. They still send me postcards at Christmas sometimes.

No answer.

I stood up and stepped around a massive, but tattered, grizzly bear, ample enough to be hiding three dwarfs.

“Psst.”

Did the sound come from behind me that time?

“I say. Who’s there? Is this some kind of joke?” I challenged.

Annoyance was creeping over me.

I tip-toed past a couple of jaguars, ducked under an elk head, sidled past two battling rams, and waited.

Just because Max didn’t mention anyone else didn’t mean there wasn’t anyone else. And what was the idea of sneaking around anyway? I might expect a prank or two at a comedy club, but a lunatic?

“Psst.”

“Who’s there? What, are you gonna sing me ‘Happy Birthday’, pal?”

See, one time I heard someone whistling “Happy Birthday” as I was unlocking my apartment door back home in Fresno. I froze! It felt like a bad slasher flick. I could already see the headline in the paper: “The Birthday Killer Strikes Again!” But I wasn’t in any mortal danger. Turned out to be some bum crashed out in the bushes nearby. He high-tailed it when he saw the Gerber in my hand.

This time I had definitely heard it on the other side of the room. This sucker was moving around. Why did this always happen to me?

I crept slowly across the room, needling my way around foxes and beavers and a jackalope.

I drew my trusty blade from my pocket. Had to be prepared, after all.

“Psst.”

Blast it! It came from off to the right. Against that dark paneled wall was the front half of a Texas longhorn. I felt trapped in its glassy stare.

He reminded me of the time in Rio Rancho when some crazy chute boss thought it would be funny to let a bull loose in the middle of my act at the Hot Tamale Rodeo. Got a lifetime ban after I jabbed that beast in the nose with four inches of steel. But you could hardly have blamed me, right?

Surely he didn’t just psst me! This wasn’t Narnia. Someone was playing me for a fool.

“Alright! That’s enough of this, buddy!”

I advanced toward the bull, staring it down, brandishing the Gerber, certain that my tormentor would leap out from somewhere nearby.

“Psst.”

“Come out from there!”

I charged toward the bull, my eyes darting left and right, waiting for the prankster to surrender with arms thrown high, apologizing and pleading for mercy.

Nothing. I waited. I could feel my teeth sweat. Dozens of cold hard stares eagerly anticipated what would unfold.

“Psst.”

Then I saw it, nestled below and to the right of the bull. A Glade automatic air freshener. Apple Cinnamon.

Aw, nuts. I ran it through all the same.

Korkurri

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Jayna stands on the balcony of the bleach white tower. She tucks a stray golden lock under her scarf as she searches the deep green ocean waves that stretch out underneath a foreboding sky.

A small, but furious storm nears, and Rustin is out there. Earlier he took the hydro-skiff out to meet this anomaly and discover more of its nature.

Fifteen years as weather-keepers of Magorria has brought many storms over its coasts, but nothing like this. It is approaching too rapidly. Hearing the transmitters crackling in the tower, she rushes over to the crystal console.

Falkyn, is that you? Respond, Falkyn,” she intones through the mouthpiece.

“Cork…” Static. “Cork…” The reply is choppy and muddled. “Leave!” More static. “Warn the…” More static. “True, Jayna! They’re real!” Then nothing. Nothing at all.

Jayna scans the crystal displays. No sign of the Falkyn.  Its com-signal is gone.

What could he mean? Cork? Does he mean Corkan? That’s a hundred leagues away. Why was he shouting?

She flips a series of red switches and signals the Capital Tower.

“Hightower, this is Magorria Weatherhouse. Acknowledge!” Jayna sends out.

After a moment, a response crackles through.

“Magorria Weatherhouse, this is Hightower. We hear you.”

“We have a situation.” Jayna bites her lip, unsure how much alarm to raise.

“Proceed, Magorria.”

“I’ve lost contact with Falkyn. Captain report is incomplete. Garbled communications.”

“What about the storm?” the Tower queries.

“No further information. Proceeding at 45 knots. Never seen anything like it. Storms don’t move this quickly. And, Carl?”

Jayna rarely breaks formality.

“I’m listening, Jayna,” the Tower answers.

“Something’s wrong. Rustin kept saying something about Corkan. I couldn’t understand him. He said to warn them. Or someone. He said that ‘they’ were real. Then he cut out completely.”

“How fast is the Falkyn?”

“About sixty knots,” Jayna responds. “It should arrive ahead of the storm.” I hope.

“Keep monitoring the storm. Report back if you hear from Falkyn, or if anything changes.”

“I will. Over and out.” Jayna switches off the mouthpiece and scans the crystals again. The storm has quickened its pace. How is that possible?

***

The skies darken and the approaching dusk brings portent of the fiercest maelstrom Jayna or anyone in Magorria has ever witnessed.

Suddenly a blip appears on the crystals. The Falkyn, Jayna realizes. She attempts repeatedly to establish transmitter contact, but no one answers. The skiff should be close enough to see, she reasons.

Standing, Jayna peers out over the blackening sea and spots the mottled red hull of the Falkyn, racing full speed – not toward the dock, but straight for the coastline.

Jayna dashes through the door and down the steps toward the beach just as the Falkyn plows into the shore, sending rocks and seabirds flying in every direction. She reaches the skiff just as it finishes grinding to a halt, and scans the bridge where Rustin should be.

She sees only what remains of him. Twisted black shapes are strewn about.  She heaves and empties her stomach into the sand.

Then she understands. It’s not a storm coming. It’s a swarm.

The Korkurri have returned.

There is no time to waste. Jayna runs back into the Weatherhouse and calls for the twins.

“Koltus! Kastia!”

“We’re here, Mollom!” her son answers.

Her voice is resolute. “Go to the vault! Take your sister and lock yourself in it! Now!”

She shepherds the children into the vault, reminding them how to activate the seals.

“Is it the storm, Mollom? Why aren’t you coming? Where is Daka?”

She cannot answer their flurry of questions. Jayna looks down at their creamy faces, their lavender eyes framed with curled ebony locks.

“Trust me, children. Wait. No matter what you hear, no matter what you think, don’t come up till three days have passed. Be brave.”

With that, she shuts the door and darts back up to the crystal console.

“Hightower! Respond, Hightower!” she shouts into the mouthpiece.

“Proceed, Magorria.”

“Rustin is dead! It’s not a storm, Hightower. Repeat. This is not a storm!”

“Come again, Magorria. Transmission not understood.”

“The Korkurri are coming. They’re almost here. You must mobilize the defenses. This is an emergency!”

“Jayna, what’s wrong?”

“The Korkurri! Mobilize the defenses!”

“The Korkurri are a myth, Jayna. What do you mean Rustin is dead? What’s going on?”

“Listen to me!” Jayna pleads, realizing they will not.

“We’re sending someone over,” comes the reply. “Stay right there.”

She switches off the mouthpiece. Ten minutes earlier she thought the Korkurri were a myth, too. It was centuries ago, the last time they swarmed the land.

She opens an observation window and already she notices the buzzing. The stories always mention a buzzing.

She throws open the Emergency Channel. No time for authorization.

“Magorria! Magorria! Activate the defenses! The Korkurri are here! Repeat. The Korkurri are here!”

She goes on like this for several minutes until she see the transmission core power down by itself. The Capital, no doubt.

The buzzing is louder now. In the distance she discerns villagers scrambling through the streets. At least some have hearkened. She can do no more.

Jayna knows that if the stories are true, there is little one can do against the Korkurri. Their numbers are vast. She finds the glass-cannon in a dusty storage cabinet and hurries to the deepest room of the Weatherhouse, the bath-chamber.

At least my children will live, she thinks as she hunkers into the tub and awaits her fate. They won’t sense them, if the stories are true.

She remembers as a child she was always told to hide in a bathtub when a swirler appears. Hide in the bathtub. You’ll be safe. Why do they say things like that?

She hears their metallic claws ripping through the plastered walls of the tower. Stone and wood crumble and crack all around her as the first hideous shape makes its way into the room.

She fires the glass-cannon, again and again.

If only the stories weren’t true.