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Thala's Dilemma

by liell 13 days ago in science fiction
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In a time far from now, on something of a train...

“Never start a book with a character’s name,” advised Thala, almost in a whisper as he set down his evening reading, to the men who entered his home that cloudy night. Three were they numbered, and all with serious headwear of stern business obscuring their faces. “A book should be so much more than a single character,” he continued, “it ought to mainly concern ideas and happenings, thoughts and dreams… and we as the reader should feel welcome to such a place, as though we are at the very fore from the start. To begin the first page with a character’s name— ha! It’s alienating. For the chances that the name we adhere to reflects that on the page is rather slim.”

The three men in somber suits waited to make sure Thala was quite done with his literary elaboration, and then two of them took seats across from him in the quiet reading room. The Third Man, however, motioned to switch places with Thala, who occupied the chair against the back wall.

“This is my favorite place to sit,” objected Thala.

“I like to have a full view of the room,” smirked the Third Man, his eyes glancing about the space.

“If you’re uneasy about what may be lurking in my little hillside abode, by all means take another glance around. I wouldn’t wish discomfort upon any of you.”

But these words did give the three visitors a bit of discomfort, and so they rose again, to perform a more hearty search of the room and the hall from which they had come. Despite the luxurious carpet and furniture, the walls in Thala’s dwelling were rather plain. No excessive flourishes in carpentry, no closets or coves— very few places to hide. The only thing that gave them a slight pause was the swimming level, with two tear-shaped pools partially visible from the reading room through two gaping stretches of missing floor. But the first two men descended the half-spiral stairs and saw there were no threats in that retreat either. And so the conference could begin in earnest.

“My life has been something of a runaway train as of late, gentlemen, so you’ll excuse me for allowing myself an extra drink,” smiled Thala as he poured himself some juice, then offered a glass to the Third Man, who now sat in the chair against the back wall.

“You know I can’t accept that,” smiled the Third Man.

“I’m up to no tricks, I promise you,” reassured Thala with the utmost sincerity.

“But you have been,” nodded the Third Man, grinning. “And you know all this runaround can be stopped— poof, like that— if you just pay what you owe.”

“Nine weeks you’ve evaded us,” started the Second Man, standing by the door, his fingers gripping a dagger-gun most lovingly. “And our patience can handle a bit of pleasantry, but very soon it will run out.”

Thala showed not the least bit concern. In fact, he even dared to test the patience of the three men once more. “Mind if I tell one more story?” he asked.

The three debt collectors exchanged silent speech and then came to an accord. The debtor would be allowed one more story.

“Know you anything of pulmonary embolisms?” he began, making eye contact with each of his foes. “Blood clots, in the lungs? Well, they can come on like tigers, quick, without warning. So it was with my father’s bride. Now, I don’t see much of him anymore, but the last two yearly visits I made to him were both fraught with some strange strikes of sickness.”

Thala walked to the sole piece of common decor in the reading room, that being a stuffed raccoon, hanging on the wall. He lifted the raccoon off its hook, and held it in his arms, then continued his tale.

“They say a dead raccoon shown up on your doorstep is a bad omen. So it was last year when I paid a visit to my father. I laughed when he told me the tale, of an old black and white beast waddling up his steps, and then shaking off his mortal cage before his eyes. My father dug it some warm grave with his own hands, lest it be angered with its burial rites from some high raccoonian after-haven. But this particular member of the species Procyon Lotor was sent to do its dark foreboding with purpose, and a friendly laying-to-rest would not prevent what was fated to come. By dusk, my father’s bride was cursed with a fit of spasms, unable to breathe. Rushed to the horse-piddle— or hospital, as you might say— she was saved just in time. And we all saw this as coincidence, that this dire happening and my appearance were in alignment.”

Thala took a few moments to stroke the raccoon in his arms, before starting the second part.

“I dug up that Procyon Lotor, and named him Justice. He is the same that you see in my arms tonight. For I have always believed I hold some… power, in my thoughts. For when people do wrong me, as has happened countless times in my life, it is not long before I see them suffering horrible circumstances, for the gods rest in my heart and they love to see my foes falter, even more than I. For I have never consciously wished harm to any of my foes, yet their punishment is always visible to me.

“My mother’s groom, after a year of mistreating her, had his new vehicle smashed in by a fallen tree branch, the only in our town that night to be struck with lightning. The girl who danced on with a hundred men on the night of my gala, but did deny me a single song, was struck with a tumor, in her youthful spine. My favorite relation that I’ve held to date— she who left me after a mere two weeks— sliced off her thumb in a woodworking accident. And another short relation, who answered so harshly and unkindly when I asked for a second night, then came down with a rare debilitating disease. Such things abound. And from my eyes, they happen only to those… who the gods have deemed mine enemies.”

The three men all smirked at Thala’s story. The First Man spoke, “Let me guess, your father’s bride was an enemy too? And your subconscious disdain of her caused a raccoon to die on your father’s lawn and that, in turn, caused her to suck at breathing?”

“Your estimation is correct.”

“I think you’re just trying to frighten us.”

“That’s not the case at all, gentlemen!” exclaimed Thala, offended. “You are not my enemies. You are merely here to carry out business, and that I understand. But let me finish. I dug up Justice of the Procyon Lotor here, because my father’s bride had mistreated me on many occasions, and I saw the gods’ vengeance as a gift to be treasured. But my father saw this, and became suspicious of me. Now, this year, when I returned to him, his suspicions were confirmed in his mind. For I went inside his home, and noticed it was quiet. I asked where his wife was; he replied that she had just, that very day, went again to the hospital— the first time since my last visit— and she was rushed to a larger facility, for there was a pressure upon her chest, and her lungs were caked with blockage. Clots and bleeding, seeping death in the instruments of life. This time it came. Pff, and not a single raccoon to warm them.”

The Third Man stared at Thala a long spell before commenting. “You’re a sick bastard, man.”

“I relate the tale exactly as it transpired. I was surprised, too, that I would have such luck. I was surprised at the timing of things, that the two days I would choose to visit my father would happen to be the two days that his wife was under the cloud of extreme physical stress, and death. Now this is where the tale becomes relevant to our tale: my father could not set aside that great coincidence. He viewed me then as a poison. Said that my presence, or my thoughts, was what killed his sweet young wife. She had been healthy, there was no cause for concern— until I arrived. And so my funds from him were severed. A wide account from which I paid off my various failing endeavors… and that is why I cannot pay what I owe to you fine gentlemen. Take pity on me.”

The Second Man clapped his hands on his knees and pushed himself up. “There it is. The end of the tale. Well, we will not pity you. We will take your hand.”

Thala laughed. “I remember a time when a man’s hand was his own right possession. Not a thing to be bought and paid for, leased out for rent by those less than fortunate.”

“Look, we’ve all got to keep our finances straight,” said the Third Man, holding up his own glistening hand, with twelve impressive fingers lining it, four on each side. “We three men paid off our hands long ago— we may not have fancy homes with pools beneath our reading rooms, but a proper hand is so much more valuable.”

“Like we said on the phone,” added the Second Man, “we're willing to take the house in exchange for clearing your hand debts.”

“So what, I give you this house, you let me keep my hand?”

“Yes, but the house on its own wouldn’t pay off the hand in full.”

Thala was awfully cool in this situation. Perhaps he knew of some unknown advantage, not yet apparent to the three men come to confiscate his left hand— the hand for which he had fallen far behind in payments. He just raised his head and smiled, then said, “I will let you all keep your lives if you leave this place right now.”

“Is that a threat?” asked the Third Man. His two associates nodded, and they called up their friends outside.

“Is that a rejection of my offer?” asked Thala, but the three men did not answer.

The First Man was on the phone with his superior, but suddenly he became uneasy. “What do you mean it isn’t there?” he asked, concerned. Confused glances bounced off the others. “Do you have the right address?”

“Oh, it may be…” started Thala, but he was interrupted by the Second Man, who ordered him to drop the stuffed raccoon.

Thala did so, but only after twisting its neck. At that very moment, a thing altogether unexpected occurred, which sent the Third Man— who, you will remember, chose to sit up against the wall— hurtling forth to his death. For the back wall of the reading room flew up and out into the crisp and starry air, and wind roared into the place with a suffocating suction. They sped along a straight track like thunder, between hills and cascading falls of water.

The Second Man lunged at Thala with his dagger-gun, and Thala dropped to the floor, a rather agile creature for one surpassing two centuries in age, and gave the Second Man a kick in the loin, which sent him out the open back wall. But the Second Man took hold of the floor, and hung on for his life, his lower body dangling outside.

The First Man, who held no weapon, was at a loss. He merely looked out at the passing night, perplexed at the wall which was no longer there.

“My house is a goddamn train,” stated Thala bluntly. He then checked his watch, and walked over to the edge where the Second Man dangled. “Let your weapon fall behind, and I swear I will lend my hand— not the left one, obviously, since I am not in legal possession of that in the eyes of the law.”

The Second Man flung his weapon out into the night, and was then helped up, back into the safety of Thala’s back carriage.

“How about a drink then?” asked Thala, but the debt collectors were not so amused.

“Where does this thing stop?” they asked.

“It stops at the end of eternity. Or,” he shrugged, checking his watch again, “Whenever you two decide to press the button on the raccoon’s belly.”

The First Man walked slowly over to the stuffed raccoon, who lay against the carriage’s side wall. He bent down to pick it up, and inspected it all over for any type of button. But there were none. Just when he realized he had been tricked, the sides of the carriage were ripped off from the center in spectacular fashion. The body of the First Man was caught up in all this fresh debris, which meshed together in a mess of rubbish, for Thala’s train had come into contact with a narrow tunnel, and this back carriage was just a bit too wide for it. But no longer.

Now all was dark, and the wind whistled on three sides of the two remaining characters. The mind of Thala was calm, that of the Second Man: terrified.

But then the darkness was extinguished, and the brightest array of warm colors flooded the tunnel on all sides, mostly of vibrant gold and bru, which is what these people called the hue that we would know of as ‘orange.’

“You’d do well to let me live,” exclaimed the Second Man. “For you’ll be caught soon enough. Whatever track ran along that hill, where this thing was parked… my men will soon be on it.”

“Then we’d better lose the track.”

Sure enough, when the train emerged from the tunnel, Thala walked out of the reading room and down the main hall, to a locked control room where he thrust a large wheel full to the right. The train then pushed off from the tracks and slid upon the ice of that region, eventually finding a straight course and gaining speed once again, away from any track.

“Now the way I see it,” spoke Thala to the Second Man, as he returned to the reading room with an offering of beef and crab legs, “We might either murder each other as a result of our mutual ill will towards one another, or we might become wondrous friends, to pass the time in splendid travel, in these icy regions, getting to know one another truly, and both keeping our hands. There is a carriage on this train wherein I may even be able to change you to a woman, and then we might become more than friends. But that is a choice you will make in time. For time, now, we do have plenty of.”

And neither of them were ever found. Whether the Second of the Three Men sent by the state to collect Thala’s defaulted left hand ended up killing Thala, or entertaining his offer to friendship or something more… cannot be said for certain. The one thing that can be certain is that Thala’s Train went on and on into the night, to the very ends of the earth.

science fiction

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