The Second Age series are one-shots and stand alone tales within the world of anachronauts. sa01-04 takes place during the same year as Forsaken Shores, and sa05-sa08 during the year of London's Fog.
1. an agreement between parties involving what will be exchanged during a transaction.
It was the month of February, coming up upon two years since the dawn of the Second Age, and Benny was already regretting his visit to Baltimore.
He'd never liked the town. It was a mishmash of the old and new, of crumbling ancient bricks and shiny new tourist friendly vistas. Problem was, Benny was a broker -- some would say smuggler, but he never liked the word -- and Baltimore was the hot and happening port of call when it came to cargo in Eastusa. Coast-crawling ships coming in and out, military vessels dumping bored sailors on leave, and the downtown section had enough seedy underbelly to qualify for gastric bypass. If it existed and could be sold for money, it would walk through these streets at one point or another.
The problem with that bonanza of bargains was that it also drew a lot of people who wanted something for nothing. Benny didn't believe in something for nothing. You get, you give. He didn't do charity work and didn't expect it from anyone else in return. Just a matter of principles.
The man pointing a gun at his head (and his neck, and his chest, and wherever else his drug-addled shaky wrists felt like pointing it) was unfortunately a firm believer in charity, and for some reason, felt that Benny was a generous looking soul. It was an image Benny worked very hard to avoid, in fact -- from his expensive watch to his expensive shoes to his expensive wavy haircut to his expensive dental work. The only inexpensive thing about him was his incredibly battered old brown trenchcoat, and that was far more expensive than any item he owned if you counted sentimental value.
But while being mugged would be dismaying in and of itself, what he was being mugged with was incredibly exciting and disappointing at the same time.
"That's a '42 Frontliners officer's special," Benny commented, hands still in his pockets with no hint of pulling out the vast amounts of money the man wanted. "Dual action semiautomatic. Highly moddable, although the officer's default remains one of the most balanced and flawless configurations out there, second only to the '58 Scout variant. Which leads me to ask, A) how did you get your hands on such a notable antique, and B) why are you using such a classic weapon for stick up jobs? You could probably sell that to a collector for more than I have on me right now, you know--"
"Shut up shut up shut UP," the charity case requested, his aim getting shakier by the minute. "I stole it off my gramps, okay? Now gimmie the money! Gimmie the money gimmie the money--"
And the Benny the Broker produced a thick wad of cash.
The crackhead made a grab for it -- and Benny yanked it away, playfully teasing the armed assailant.
"Now, I'll give you this money, but only as a matter of exchange," he explained. "It's more than fair value for what you've got in your hands right there. You sell me the gun, you get well. Do we have an accord?"
"...you... you wanna buy my gun?"
"The deal is on the table, boy. Do you want more? I have more, but I should warn you, given the wear and tear on the piece you can't expect me to pay well beyond the market value--"
"No, no way, no. You'll just take it and shoot me and take your money back. I'm smart. I'm SMART," the mugger repeated.
Benny used his non-cash-holding hand to scratch at his chin. "You're a smart one, okay. Which means right now, you're thinking the smart move is to shoot me, keep the gun, AND take all the money I have. But that's not smart. Because I don't trade my life. And if we can't come to terms on this deal, if you insist on being unreasonable, I should warn you that I can be a very unreasonable man myself."
"I'm saying if you don't want to sell me your gun, if you want to shoot me instead, I'm going to do something horrible."
The trigger was pulled.
Screaming and a blazing light as if poured straight from the mouth of hell flooded out of the alleyway. Nobody paid attention. People screamed plenty this deep in Baltimore.
The businessman walked calmly from the alley, with a thick roll of cash in one hand and a gun in the other. It wasn't the deal he wanted; he was perfectly willing to negotiate. Some people just don't respect the rules of the marketplace, a sad fact of life. Fortunately, chances of the boy being valuable to anyone or to society at large were quite low, so no great loss.
He walked two blocks to the nearest trash can fire. It was a cold February morning, and he'd had to take his hands out of his pockets. They got cold when he did that. He didn't like cold hands. So, after lobbing the antique gun into the blazing flames, he moved to toss in the money as well...
...before spotting what had previously looked like a pile of rags and trash, but turned out to be a young homeless woman.
Benny rolled the roll of cash between two fingers, thoughtfully. Then he tossed it to the girl instead of into the fire.
"Go change your life," he suggested, before setting about warming his hands at the fire.
Benny the Broker didn't do charity work and didn't expect it from anyone else in return. But even one's own whimsies had a certain price tag, if you counted sentimental value.
the second age
by stefan gagne
Of course, Benny the Broker wasn't blustering around Baltimore for the ballgames or the boating. He was here on business.
Several orders of business, in fact. Benny liked lists; he never wrote them down, but he kept them in his head, he organized his thoughts and his words into lists. He had a short but profitable list of business transactions to perform today, while he happened to be in the right neighborhood to take care of them all. There was the big one, of course... the mysterious and extremely rich client promising him a treasure beyond compare if he smuggled something for them. (Transported. If he transported something. Smugglers are shifty and unreliable; brokers get things done.) Still, no sense hanging around this place without taking care of other tasks big and small...
What he hadn't counted on were A) the cold weather, and B) the line. Oh, and C) the nerds.
This was the day of the annual MediaCon, an event hosted by fans of old media for fans of old media. It descended like a ravening flock of slightly overweight and greasy ravens, all hovering and swooping and chattering around the rebuilt-five-times Baltimore Convention Center. This was where you went to show off your space marine armor you made out of cardboard. This was where you went to put on kitty ears and shout random Japanese words. This was also where you went to get deals made, fortunately... provided you could stomach the kids and their crazy television fixations. And the crowds. And the Food Court of Doom. And the hotel overcrowding. And... if he didn't stop listing things he hated he'd probably feel an urge to turn around and walk, so Benny drew a line under that list and stopped.
Someone in a red SECURITY shirt who couldn't possibly be out of high school yet came out to announce a delay in processing the registration line due to the computers being down, and everybody's spirits fell, the broker's included. Briefly he considered hopping to the head of the line and offering a brand new suite of computing hardware for a low, low price if only they'd process him first, but that would get him nasty looks. Benny did not want to be noticed for a variety of reasons.
So, he grumbled, he jammed his hands deep in the pockets of his crappy old overcoat, and he waited. And waited.
Three hours later, he was in front of the desk, signing for his badge. He picked the least offensive of the colorful cartoon characters to adorn his registration card... something with horns and a forked tail. Very wacky.
"Hey, nice trenchcoat," the guy behind the desk commented. "Let me guess, wait... Sam Spade? Rick Deckard?"
"No, Benny. Says so right there on the form," he pointed out, gesturing with his Sharpie.
"Never heard of a character named Benny."
"And I like it that way, thank you."
The boy glanced at the shiny bronze sticker on his badge. "Just a one day pass? Not staying for the whole con?"
"I'm here to do business, not to waddle around Nerdapalooza," Benny spoke, capping the pen. "Excuse me. Deals to make."
MediaCon hosted dozens of video rooms, airing everything from old 50's sitcoms to Japanese cartoons to live action chop socky flicks to documentaries about the declining economic condition of Flint, Michigan. This was as diverse a crowd as you could find... the reversal of copyright law for all works produced prior to the Pandora Event had turned generations loose to run wild across any media they could find. If it existed in any recorded form, you'd find someone willing to buy a t-shirt of it.
And that's why Benny skipped those video rooms and went directly to the Dealer's Room.
Here, the business of media ebbed and flowed. Granted, buying the media itself was rare... it was all free, after all. You could trade for it, which was the only way to find rares, but the main thing to spend cold cash on was related merchandise. Replica costumes. Replica props. Replica posters. And, if you were VERY lucky... the few original items to survive two centuries of existence on this Earth.
Item one on the day's list: Rock music.
He swung by a booth that nobody was paying attention to, and had to clear his throat twice to wake up the sleeping attendant. It was a security risk, snoozing on the job... anybody could walk off with your product. But nobody here seemed to care about what the place was offering.
"Music?" Benny asked.
"Uh... we don't have any old media here. This is all new music, copyrighted and sold. ...you know that, right?" the proprietor asked. "It's on the signs--"
"I'm aware, yes," Benny said, flipping through the collection of small plastic chips, each holding gigs of music files. "I want... well... I don't know any of these guys. What do you recommend?"
"Well, um... what do you like?"
"Downtempo jazz, but I'm not shopping for myself. It's for a business associate. He expressed an interest in some categorically American rock music."
The man flipped through a three ring binder, searching. "Well... American? You mean Eastusaian, right?"
"My client didn't specify. There's a difference?"
Ah. The look.
Benny knew that look. It was the one people adopted when they were in public and about to talk about something naughty and secret. He leaned in close, offering a chance for a confidential whisper.
"Look, I'm not supposed to have any... Faerie artifacts. And frankly, I say this doesn't count, but I'm not up for explaining that to a judge," the clerk spoke. "But... I've got a complete live bootleg from last year's Rock Show down in Florida. Rare stuff. You don't get more American than that, a lot of folks say. It's pricey, but--"
"Done," Benny spoke, pulling a fresh wad from his pocket and stripping off some bills. They fell to the table in a neat little pile.
"...uh. Dude, that's way more than I need for this."
"I know. I want as many copies as you have," Benny explained. "One for my client... some more for storage. I like rare things. Rare and unique things have value in this world. I can find buyers later."
He walked away from the booth with a pocket full of questionably contraband music and considerably less money, but still felt he got the better of the deal. He could list four people off the top of his head, two of which were out-of-towners, who would take a unique interest in Faerie-Human music. Opportunity was out there, if you knew the right people who knew the right people...
...which brought him to item two on today's list.
Here we had the printed word, rather than the lyrical word. Specifically, printed word in bold four-color ink, bound by staples into little packets of pulp entertainment. Comic books, they were called. Benny hadn't read any, of course... but he had read ABOUT them. That was enough.
He had to muscle his way past a bunch of kids treating the booth like a reading library. Very few of the newly printed comics were being sold, but the tagged, bagged, and boarded ones behind the slightly rotund proprietor... those were lusted after. Benny could see it in the eyes of the less casual browsers, the ones who hovered at the edges, trying to make that internal decision to jump in or to save their money. It was like wine, watching the dance that goes on behind one's eyes as they teeter on the edge... but Benny had business. No time to enjoy the view.
"Milton Keyes?" he called out, once he could press himself up to the edge of the tables.
The man in the sweat pants and the WWBD shirt gave him a glance. "Modern comics are two bucks a pop," he explained. "The archivals have their CGC values marked next to each bag--"
"Would you be interested in this?" Benny asked, casually pulling a copy of Action Comics #1 with a fresh blue CGC label affixed to the top of its plastic sleeve. Upon its cover, a man of steel was casually destroying a green sedan while passers by fled in terror.
To his credit, Milton didn't freak out. Didn't panic. Just leaned forward a bit, squinting to get a better look. To study the edges of the paper, the color of the ink.
"I don't buy forgeries," he decided, before leaning back.
"I assure you it's the genuine article. The bar code assigned to the original collector is printed on the label," Benny pointed out. "Scan it and investigate, if you like. I can describe the entire transaction chain which led to me obtaining this item. If you're interested in acquiring it, that is. I'm not even looking for any money from you."
Clearly, the broker had selected his future partner well. Milton hadn't dismissed him too hard... didn't push him off. He considered, eyes still glued to the sealed comic book... before he nudged a scrawny clerk, jostling the comic the boy was reading out of his hands.
"Mind the store," Milton ordered. "Gotta see a thing about a thing."
This was the part of the Baltimore Convention Center that the fans never saw. Back here were the guts that flowed in and out of the building... back rooms, hallways, cargo storage areas. The janitors pushed along buckets on squeaky little wheels. Dealer's room gofers shuttled carts full of product back and forth. Back here... Benny could relax. It was more his element than even the dealer's room proper. Here, things got done quickly and quietly.
Quiet was the watchword. Security completely ignored Milton, even ignored Benny as the two made their way through a pair of heavy gray doors to reach the verboten back rooms. Only one person could've overheard their conversation, and all it took was a sharp glare to convince him to go smoke somewhere else.
"You tell someone to get lost, and they do," the broker recognized, nodding in approval. "You seem to have a knack for persuasion."
"I just know the right people, is all," Milton explained, taking out a stick of chewing gum from the pocket of his sweat pants, popping it into his mouth. "I've worked the convention circuit up and down Eastusa for the last fifteen years. You become a familiar face."
"I know. I've researched you. And that's why I'm offering you this once in a lifetime deal," Benny explained.
"...I'm not gonna have sex with you for a comic book, if that's what you want. I've got my principles."
"That's fine, I had sex last night," Benny casually announced. "What I want is a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy. I want someone to pass word along the media circles that whatever someone wants, Benny can get. Whatever someone needs a buyer for, Benny can find one. Benny's got a lot of old media stocked up and nowhere to offload it, so he needs an in-road."
"You're Benny, I take it?"
"Benny the broker, yes. If you ask the right people, they'll have heard of me. Anywhere."
"I don't deal in stolen goods."
"I buy everything I obtain, for a fair price. Sometimes the paper trail's a bit hard to prove, and sometimes the items themselves are not technically legal in the place where I sell them... but I don't steal. ...well, not generally. When someone tries to kill me, all bets are off."
To his credit, again, Milton didn't panic. Benny had selected well.
"I've done deals with shadier people than you, honestly. You'd be surprised how cutthroat the comics business can be. Alright, Mister Benny--"
"That's just Benny. No Mister. Absolutely not Mister."
"--Benny, then. You give me the comic, I'll get you the right hands to shake. I'd be interested in an inventory listing of any media or media related product you have, so I know what to shop around," Milton suggested.
"I don't always know what's worthwhile, so I may have some junk mixed in with the gems. Like I said, this isn't my area of expertise, that's why I need you. Frankly... I don't get why this old stuff matters, personally. As my new official media advisor, any ideas there?"
Milton scoffed. "Two reasons. One, the kids don't want to pay for anything. Two, new stories are done by unknowns, starring unknowns, and you need to pay for the right to read. The old stuff is out of copyright and free... that makes it more popular, but also makes it worthless."
"Still not following."
"I don't sell to the kiddies. I sell to the collectors... the ones who fall between the two problems. They WILL pay for things, but anything new scares them. So, they'll fork it out for the genuine physical article of the old stuff. Best of both worlds."
"So... why do you even sell new comics?"
Milton snarked back a laugh.
"Because if I don't, then in fifty years time my kids won't be able to sell them as valuable antiques to collectors who missed out on them the first time around. Other dealers are too short sighted. Someone's gotta work to establish a new media market. These old comics are not going to last forever; hell, I'm amazed even a single Action Comics #1 survived. How'd you manage to preserve it? It's been out of print for nearly three centuries..."
The man pushed his hands into his pockets. Nice and warm, in there.
"I've got ways," he answered, before shifting topics. He unfolded a map from his pocket. "I'll meet with your contacts... but later. Probably at your next con. Tonight I have one large transaction I need to take care of... it's why I came to Baltimore in the first place. And I need a nice, quiet place to do business. I've already picked the spot, but ensuring it's nice and quiet, that I can't do... here, on my map. Not far from here. You seem like the sort of person who can arrange a little peace and quiet for me. Eight o'clock tonight. What do you think?"
The comic book guy considered it... glancing around the back hallway. No doubt he was searching his mental map of the BCC for a picture of the spot, a map established after years of crawling around the guts of the building, shuttling boxes of comics around...
"Won't be a problem," he suggested. "I can reroute a few gofers... make some calls. Until then... enjoy the con."
Enjoy the con.
It wasn't an option Benny had considered before. This wasn't really his scene. (Honestly, nothing was his scene. Benny existed on the edge of scenes, greasing the wheels to make them more scenic.) But, he had nearly a full day to kill before he could wrap things up and head to warmer climates. So, enjoy the con he would. Would try.
First attempt: a panel discussion about Faerie Media.
"We don't even know if Faerie media exists," a man with thick black rimmed indie scene glasses pointed out. "We all know Faeries write scrolls and tomes and things, but do they record media? The few instances of Faerie music people have heard were recorded to human media forms. Until we can get genuine Faerie artifacts into Eastusa--"
"Which is bound to happen, if liberal Faerie loving treehugger President Peterstick has his way--"
"Who cares? I didn't vote for him, and neither did anyone else who cares about Eastusa's independence. He cruised into the Oval Office on the promise of peace, but we all know he's in secretly bed with that brat of a witch they call a Queen."
"Look, keep your politics out of my media, okay? I'm here to talk about the very real possibility of Faerie media. Faerie sitcoms! Faerie cartoons! Faerie reality shows! Who knows what they may have out there?"
At the very concept of 'Faerie reality shows,' Benny decided this had gotten surreal enough for him and he walked out.
"Oh no! The Great Fire Tyrant is utilizing his magic komodo dragon whirlwind technique!"
"Quickly, we must form MegaZorg, or the day of remaining peril will be without!"
If any hotels had vacancies, Benny would've immediately retired to drink very expensive booze and hire a call girl rather than put up with badly translated subtitles. As is he felt it wise to walk out before his head hurt any worse.
"Of course, my epic seventeen part fanfiction series about the secret love child of Superman and Captain America has elements of hurt/heal and teases a ship with Tony Stark, but I strongly feel it's the emotional weight of the story that draws so many fans to read it each time I post updates to my blog."
And that was enough of that, Benny decided.
"You avoid sunlight... you sparkle in the moonlight... and you keep staring at my neck. I think you're a... a..."
"Say it. I want you to say it out loud."
At last, Benny couldn't contain himself. He was booed out of the video room, unable to hold back his laughter.
A glance at his watch as he emerged from the stuffy air to the slightly less stuffy air showed he still had an hour to go before the transaction. He would have wandered off to the next random event, if not for something that snagged the corner of his eye...
"How come you're not in there getting all weepy, like the other girls with raccoon eyes?" he asked.
The young woman lowered the book she was reading. He'd guessed right about the makeup. And the forcibly jet black dyed hair. And the gloomy fashion disposition in general. It was only a little glance, just something that grabbed his attention, but somehow he'd got it on the money.
"Because it's fake," the girl said. "A real vampire would probably tear your jugular out and leave behind a dried out corpse. Real vampires don't sparkle."
...an hour away. Time to kill. And nothing all day long had grabbed his attention yet...
The broker pulled up a chair, reversing it to straddle more comfortably.
"...y'know, you're actually right about that," he explained. "For certain categories of things that could be considered vampires. --wait. You're busy reading, nevermind. Sorry, just kind of threw me that you weren't soaking up the media like everybody else."
She considered the book, which had been lowered to her lap... and closed it, setting it aside with a shrug. "I've read it three times already. Don't worry about it. I'm Chloe, and you don't look very much like Rick Deckard."
"I'm Benny. Who's this Rick person, anyway? --what's that accent of yours?"
"British," she said, carrying on with the inflections. It wasn't strong, not a stereotypical Londoner flair non-British people would stick to. "My great grandparents were from England or something, before the Event hit. I decided to learn it one day and it stuck. Can't help but use it now, afraid. But I loathe tea."
"It's pretty good. Authentic. Not like you copied it out of old media," Benny pointed out.
"Sooo. What do you know about vampires?"
And for the next half hour, Benny told Chloe all about vampires.
That naturally led to the subject of incubi and succubi, which were in the same phenotype, all things considered. Which brought him to the lovely subject of devouring worms, and soul forges, and other such tools of their trades. Benny didn't bat an eyelash at what he was talking about, likely because Chloe didn't bat an eyelash, either.
A lot of conversation consists of reacting to other people's reactions. When everything's smooth, the discussion is smooth. When someone's pale with horror at the concepts you describe... you catch yourself. Benny wasn't catching himself.
All the motions he'd gone through today, those were businesslike. He wasn't here by choice; he was here because here is where he needed to be to get things done. He existed in Baltimore, not really visiting it, not even passing through. Coincidental colocation. The people he talked to, he spoke practiced words, he measured his responses, he ticked off items on a list. Nothing more.
When was the last time Benny had an actual conversation? Beyond something that ended with a handshake. Well, there were call girls, or bellhops to bring him nice dinners. Pleasant ways to burn away the time between deals. Those probably didn't count, even if language was used in dictating the transactions involved. Not like this. Nothing close, nothing real, nothing personal. Just exchanging words like tokens...
"Generally anything from downstairs is hungry and angry. ...or starts out that way, anyhow. But a few of them, a rare few, they're smooth enough to hide what they are," Benny continued. "Doesn't make them any less hungry and angry, though. They're just better at luring in the food. Those are the ones you need to be afraid of; stay the hell away from those guys. They are not sparkly. That's why I just couldn't stop laughing at that stupid old movie! If I had to make a guess I'd say whatever sick brainchild spawned that thing did it expressly to mislead people into becoming dinner."
"I'd always wondered if that was true," Chloe spoke. She was smiling, now. A strange expression, on a face seemingly painted to be permanently depressed. The goth-from-a-kit look wasn't suiting her, not at the moment, as she enjoyed a conversation few other people could have enjoyed.
Then she said something that made Benny catch himself.
"What canon are you talking about?" she asked, with great curiosity.
"What series. TV, comics, movies, books...? Or are you a writer of some kind?" she asked. "I mean, you're going into encyclopedic detail. That's pretty much the norm for an obsessive fan, but I'm thinking, you've got this whole supernatural cosmology worked out. You've got to be writing a story. Maybe a spec script? Urban fantasy? I'm not... I mean, I'm not like these old media kiddies. I'm down with new media..."
Benny the broker had just given this random stranger with a pleasant accent an A-Z of the inner workings of the Bad Place. Well. An A-J, perhaps, but considering he rarely dropped even a single letter on someone before...
"...look, it's been... interesting, but I gotta get going," Benny spoke, quickly scooting away from his chair, away from her. "Deals to make. People to do, things to see. Sorry."
"You're going? But--"
"Sorry. No helping it."
"Let me give you my number, then," Chloe suggested. "Look, if it's about your manuscript, I swear I won't tell a soul--"
"My people will call your people," he mumbled out, before turning on a heel and marching away. Fast.
Back to the deals. Back to what you know, he decided. No more of that other thing, now. Business is job one. It's for the best, that way.
The broker awaited his clients in the silence of night.
This wasn't Benny's first visit to the BCC. He'd scoped out the site each time it was rebuilt, to find the best places to transact business. As long as you had a man on the inside, to clear out the worst of the looky-loos, you could do even the most sensitive business in the middle of a huge crowd of people... such as MediaCon. If anything, that was the best time to make an exchange, since you could blend into the crowd before and after. Just another anonymous person. ...admittedly a more difficult task in the crowd of young people and costumes at MediaCon, but he wasn't anticipating any serious trouble that would require flawless blending.
All that he knew was that the client had a particularly juicy wad of media to offer, in exchange for smuggling -- excuse, transporting -- an item in such a manner as it would never be found again. Benny knew some hidey holes. Benny was a hidey hole, in many respects, after all.
He stood there, in the dealer's room secondary storage lot, between aisles of shrink wrapped cargo palettes, awaiting the deal. A glance at his very expensive watch showed 7:59. Then 8:00.
The clients were prompt, he'd give them that. Silent, too. Dark and mysterious, a trio wearing robes that were -- no, not black, just a green so deep that it blended into the poor lighting of the storage lot.
They paused, studying Benny. He made no threatening moves, no gestures other than the briefest of nods. Paranoid clients were difficult to work with, but he could deal with difficulties.
"You are Benny the smuggler?" the lead of the trio asked.
"Benny the broker, yes," he corrected. "And you might be...? Although anonymity is fine with me, if that's what you want."
Rather than offering up a name or remaining an unknown X factor... the leader lowered his robe. The edges of it just cleared his pointy ears... the single braided lock of hair dangling on front of his ear swaying slightly, as it was brushed by cloth.
This was new to Benny. He'd worked with Faeries before, true. He'd worked with just about everybody, on a long enough timeline. But...
"The Braid of Dawn?" he asked, curious. "Hardliner Faerie conservatives, rebelling against Queen Emily? What do you want with me? I thought you guys didn't like humans."
"We do not," the leader confirmed. "That will not be a problem in your case, we suspect."
"I'm as ordinary as the next Joe, sir."
"There is no need to argue the point. We have something you will want, in exchange for a task we set you to. First, the reward."
The second of the three Faeries stepped forward, producing an ornately carved wooden box. He lifted the lid... revealing a glittering gemstone within, which had been wired to a rather ugly looking USB dongle. Faerie magic rarely mixed nicely with human technology, after all.
"I already have a couple thousand flash drives," Benny felt the need to point out. "USB 2.1, USB 4.0, SUSB, and UDUSB standards. Yours is... pretty, but--"
The Faerie pressed a single finger to the edge of the crystal, and the air was awash in imagery.
Little windows, all over, everywhere. People chattering away. Cars crashing through garage doors. Cats playing piano. Teens accidentally hitting themselves in the testicles with ninja weaponry... and even grainy, personally shot footage of the early stages of the Human-Faerie war, in the 21st century...
"YouTube," the leader confirmed, as Benny glanced up and around at the projected images. "All of it. Every file. Every recording. Google's corporate headquarters was raided by the Faerie early during the Pandora Event, before the western shores were forsaken. Their strange technologies were scavenged, then left in stasis for years as the Faerie Court had no immediate use for the artifacts. We have copied the entirety of their files onto a memory crystal and adapted it for human use. It is a... what is the term your religious leaders use? 'Holy Grail'?"
"...you officially have Benny's undivided attention," the broker spoke. Because he was impressed. It was difficult to actually impress someone like him, someone who had been around the block two hundred thousand times, who had seen it all. "This... this would be the crowning gem in my technology and culture collections. ...what's the task? The message I received said you needed something hidden away..."
The third of the Faeries stepped forward, with a similar wooden box. The lid was opened, nice and slow...
...and this officially became the worst day of Benny's life. He recoiled in terror from the object contained within that box, immediately jamming his hands in his pockets, nice and warm, very safe, no chance of touching... THAT.
"Where... where in the... HOW in the hell did you get that?!" Benny shouted, trying very, very hard not to let any of his inner anger break through in some physical way.
The leader was no easy prey, not easily intimidated. Which made it all the more notable that he shirked away from the broker's rage, even if it was only by inches. "It is... a sacred relic of the Faerie people--"
"I know damn well what it is! Why isn't it stored away? I can't touch that. I shouldn't even be LOOKING at that!"
"...I don't understand. It is a powerful artifact, true, but how is it in any way relevant to you? It is only a key, forged of dead iron by Lady Winter. The Key of Iron, used to seal away the Forsaken Shores. But it will not bring you harm just to--"
Benny dared to remove a hand from his pocket, so he could make a nice three-sixty with a finger. Certain declarations required appropriate hand gestures for maximum impact, he'd found. (take it, touch it, get) "You turn your asses around, give that back to your new Queen or whoever and tell them to bury it eighty feet under ground! That thing should not be out in the open!"
"Absolutely not!" the Faerie shouted right back. "This is why we want to hire you! Queen Emily covets this key, entrusted to us by the TRUE spiritual leaders of our people, Lady Summer and Lady Winter. We will not let this human usurper have it. She would unleash doom upon this world!"
"--wait. The crackpot witch wants to USE the key? ...okay. I can see why you'd bring it to me, then," he said, two degrees calmer now. "Okay. Right. I agree, that thing needs to be done away with. But not by me, you understand? Not. Me. Not for all the fail videos in China! You go and toss it in the ocean, lob it into a volcano, whatever, just--"
And the nearest cargo palette rocked an inch or so. Bump. Nothing fancy, barely noticeable in fact... unless you were as high strung as these four were.
"You were followed!" the Faerie hardliner accused. "We said to come alone!"
Dammit dammit. Benny backed up, away from them... pointing back towards the cargo lot entrance. "Beat it. All of you. You people get the hell away from me. The deal is off."
With that, he pushed them out of mind (go get the key, touch it, take it now) and focused on grabbing the sneak who was hiding behind the pile of DVDs featuring ninjas in marine rescue safety orange.
To her credit, Chloe did not go weak-kneed when someone snagged her Designated Female Upper Arm Grab Area. Instead she shoved away from Benny completely, breaking the grip and backing up hard against a pile of boxed plush dollies.
Benny's jaw sagged. "You? You followed me?"
As the adrenaline from moment of physical altercation passed... Chloe went a bit runny at the edges. "I... I was just..."
"Fascinated, yes, I know. I told you to be afraid of the fascinating smooth talkers," Benny reminded her, with a hissing whisper. "You're not safe with me... not safe here. Get lost."
A voice which did not belong joined the fray. It was impossible to tell where it came from. Everywhere, perhaps. Booming loud, and making a point of showing off exactly how much you were now screwed.
"Surrender the Key of Iron, in the name of the Faerie Court!!"
Left, right. Armored Fae, wearing the crest of the Lions of Summer. Beyond the group of Braids... there stood their commander. The boy. The one of two worlds, the one with the crosshairs of the Scout, and the majestic mane of the Lion, one on each shoulder...
"Take it, smuggler! Take it and begone!"
Instinctively, Benny leaned hard and away, as the Key of Iron made an impossibly slow arc through the air (grasp it, it's right in the air in front of you, take it and run to the west) and...
...landed in the hands of a very surprised quasi-goth girl with a self-taught British accent.
Oh, bloody hell.
This time, when Benny reached for the Upper Arm Grab Area, Chloe didn't resist. He had her out of there as fast as humanly possible and then some, as the battle exploded around him, the Braid beginning to spellcast against their assailants.
One of the many reasons Benny kept up to date with the latest BCC floor plans was to find good places to make transactions. Quiet, out of the way places. But perhaps more importantly than their seclusion... the ability to get far, far away from them at a moment's notice and lose anybody trying to follow you.
He knew the back hallways. He knew what routes the vending machine repairmen took. He knew the morlockian tunnels that the service people used to ferry the world's worst chicken fingers to the many hot plates around the center. He knew how to get from the back cargo lot to the least used restroom in the entire building, for example -- the one which only had one out of three toilets working and a stash of wacky tobacky in the air vents placed there by a custodian named Ricky.
The Lions of Summer seemed focused on their natural enemies, the Faerie insurrectionists. Good for them. Plenty of distraction for Benny and his new charge to get out of Dodge. By the time they arrived at this safe spot, Benny was reasonably sure he wasn't followed.
Just to be safe, he pulled a claw hammer from the depths of his warm pockets, and immediately smashed every mirror in the bathroom.
This was enough to break Chloe out of her perplexed catatonic state. She screamed, and covered her face to avoid broken glass... fortunately, Benny was good at selective destruction. The mirrors fell to minute shards, without exploding outward.
"Good. Now they can't spy on us," he said, jamming the hammer back into his pocket. "Frankly, I'm shocked they were willing to get into a slugfest in a quasi-public place. Emily must've shook hands with the mayor of Baltimore to sneak a hit squad into an Eastusa town..."
With that... he turned back to the girl. From the looks of her, the way her mouth was going up and down without saying anything, she was overflowing with questions and unable to figure out which one to ask first.
"Get out of Baltimore," he ordered, before she could start playing the hard-hitting TV interviewer. "Bail. Head to the coast. Toss the key into the ocean. Forget you ever saw me. ...can you do that? --yes, you can, but you're not going to, are you. No. Not until I explain things. ...Lord above, why did you make them with such an inquisitive nature? They wouldn't get into these situations if they knew to leave well enough alone--"
"What are you?" Chloe finally managed to ask.
"Can I get away with 'you don't want to know'?" Benny asked, honestly.
Now, some steel returned to her. "No," she declared, standing more upright. "You talk me up about vampires and demons, you ditch me for some mysterious back room meeting, and now you've dragged me into... is this a men's room or a women's room?"
"Which answer would make you happier?"
"My point is, you've taunted, teased, run away, and now sucked me into whatever mess you're in! ...granted I was stupid enough to follow you, but I'm in this now, and... and I think I've got a right to some answers! --look, maybe... maybe I can help you, if you're in trouble. I'm not afraid of you."
"You could go your entire life not knowing what's going on here, and be considerably happier for it," Benny offered. "You're in MediaCon. You know stories. You know what happens to people who Learn Too Much. Do yourself a favor, girl, and play against type. Just go home, and take care of that damned key on your way out--"
"No. Not until you tell me what you are," she said... gripping the Key of Iron in one hand. ...Benny edged away from it, trying not to (it's right there, take it, take it you fool, it's why you are) even look at the thing. "You make deals, don't you? That's why I thought you had a spec script. You had the feel of some sort of old Hollywood mogul, an agent. Well, you're dealing with me now, mate. You want me to take some weird Faerie key and toss it in the ocean? Okay. If you pay me. And I want the truth in payment. Fair?"
...it was a good bargain. It wouldn't cost Benny a thing, really. The burden would all be on her...
But Benny didn't like unfair deals. He'd take them if he had to, but if he could, he'd avoid them. People deserved the respect of the broker. They didn't deserve to be ripped off. It's a lesson his 'betters' never quite grasped, never wanted to grasp. They relished in the sort of deals that screwed the humans over in the end -- they thrived on them. Benny didn't thrive on being a bastard. Not anymore.
But then again... the key. Getting rid of the key would be worth an unfair deal.
"I'd say you were adequately warned," he decided. "I'm a devil. Lesser imp, of the deal making variety. Got my start in the Greed department, moved to be a third assistant to an archdemon in the City of Dis. I bought souls from mortals in exchange for whatever stupid thing they wanted. There, now you know, for what good that does. Obviously I'm just insane. Feel free to assume that, it's probably for the best."
"I believe you."
"After all, you've got no reason to believe wait what now?" he spoke and re-spoke.
Chloe's throat bobbed. A swallow. Some deep truth was bubbling up, now; something she had hesitated to say before...
"I... okay. All my life I thought there was... something bigger. Something above all this, this world," she said, with a gesture around her. "Mom tried to take me to church, said that our ancestors from England were pretty spiritual... I thought maybe that was it. I could believe in it. Heaven, hell, the angels. But... I also knew it had to be real. All of it. Maybe not the way it was written down, but it just had to be true. I researched, and watched a lot of media, but never really knew for sure..."
"Aaaand you thought if you met an actual, honest to badness demon, it'd confirm the conspiracy theory your people call faith?" Benny asked. "Bad news, Chloe. I don't even know if the world I'm from is your Hell. There are discrepancies. I may just be from a hellish alternate Earth, like all the other people stuck on this mudball. No, what you're experiencing is just ordinary paranoia and existential crisis. Plenty of people get that. You aren't some destined one in a grand Godly plan, sorry. Your God-thing probably isn't even the one I remember. I'm not really anything in your book. ...now will you get out of here and dump that key?"
Chloe shook her head. "You can't just be... I don't know, aliens. That's stupid," she said. "There is Heaven and Hell, period. I know this. ...you've got to take me with you. I need to know more. I need to experience your world--"
"Oh god, no. Please, please don't tell me you're actually one of those twinkly-eyed goth kids who dresses the monster up in nice hair and smoldering good looks," Benny groaned. "Didn't we go over this already? There's nothing fancy or romantic about it. Hell hates you. Hell wants you dead. Hell wants to hurt you forever, just because you are what you are. He loved you more than us. Short, simple, to the point. ...you know what? Take a look for yourself."
And Benny pulled his best cigarette lighter from his pocket, summoned the fire right before her eyes, and let one tiny flash of the Bad Place through that infernal gate.
"There, now you know," he said, before jamming the manifestation back where it belonged. "Happy?"
The girl slumped to the ground, her legs having gone completely numb. If she only looked half-goth before, her newly paled skin took things the rest of the way.
"...n-no," she replied.
"But that's not you."
"Oh, really? Says who?" he asked.
"Says me. It's not. You don't hate us."
The persistent little thing was back on her feet, now. Not as defiant as before, but... doing her best to be. Despite what she now knew, what she had seen...
"You're annoying little bags of meat," Benny stated flatly. "Why shouldn't I hate you?"
"You just don't. I know. I mean, I don't know HOW I know, but..."
Persistent. Insistent. Far more than a mortal should be. Likely completely bonkers, but...
He grasped her chin. One handed, using the strength of his inner beast. Lifting her. Normally he wouldn't take such liberties, particularly not with someone like her, but he was in a foul mood... and something other than the urge to (complete your mission, free the master, do it you pathetic little) claim the Key of Iron was tickling away behind his eyes, now.
There was fear in her eyes, now that she had a taste for what he really was, of course. He turned her slightly left, slightly right. She didn't move to stop him, this time. Some strange understanding, flowing in both directions...
...and perhaps familiarity...
--and Benny let go. No. Not now, not like this. Too much craziness, too much trouble. The key. Deals gone sour. A need to escape. He did not want a complicated life, he never asked for one. He wanted to float through Baltimore on a cloud, shaking a few hands on his way out.
He just wanted to be a face in the crowd, doing his thing, over and over, forever. No more wars, no more obligations, no more fealty to his master. Just the fine art of the deal and the simple pleasures of this human world. He'd done well for two hundred years by completely ignoring the task he was originally set to; instead following a life of polishing his skills, and tending to the desires of his clients. A fine life. All he needed. Anything more complicated than that, any old business... he didn't want a part of.
Even if want and need were different concepts...
Downshift the mind. You are the clever operator. Work the problem.
Ignoring Chloe completely, he upended an industrial sized box of brown paper towels. "There's about to be a fire alarm. Use the confusion to get out of the building. Ditch the key like I told you, and hope you never meet me again. Goodbye, whoever you are."
He pulled some fire from his pocket, and lit the paper towels. The broker stepped through the flames, and was gone.
The alarm spoiled the fun of MediaCon. Obviously, some jackass pulled it just to annoy everybody; video rooms had to be evacuated, wrecking the late night premiere of some recently unearthed French animated short subject films. The thousands strong flooded out of the building, making cellphone calls, complaining to each other.
In the mess, nobody noticed the Faeries sneaking away, or the Scout's raiding party quietly searching the crowd. More importantly, nobody noticed the girl with the runny makeup wandering away from the Baltimore Convention Center, as if in a trance.
She hopped a bus, beyond the Freedom Wall. Rode it northeast, all through the night. Crawling along turnpikes and offroads, whatever bits of infrastructure survived the last two hundred years intact.
The last stop was Atlantic City. She continued wordlessly, making her way to the boardwalk. Stood at the railing. Palmed the Key of Iron in her hand.
This was the key to the larger world, to the place where the other part of her somehow belonged. It could be put to that use. ...but doing so would make that tiny firelight -- the little glimpse of unending horror that she saw -- into a raging bonfire. She knew this, just like she knew things about Heaven and Hell, things that unsettled her parents every time she risked mentioning them. Things about the misty haze and the white light. The sad man in the mask, in chains. Things she wanted this stranger to understand...
In the end, she hurled the key as far as she could, out across the waves. It's what Benny wanted.
She was already on a bus back home to New York, while Scout was busy renting some diving gear from a boardwalk vendor.
A filet mignon and a high-priced call girl would have set him right. Instead, he had to settle for a steak and kidney pie and an unhealthy looking back alley thing that insisted on referring to him as "guv'nor," like a bad extra in a penny dreadful.
That had to be the reason why the broker still felt off his game. Normally, all he needed to slip back into his life was to slake his various unholy appetites. This time, the food was awful, and the girl... well. He just couldn't focus on her. His mind was thousands of miles away...
"What did you say this was again...?"
--the client. Always another client. Just another part of a to-do list, related to the Baltimore to-do list.
The boy was studying the tiny memory chips, completely fascinated by them. Electronics were a rarity in the British Empire, after all. Benny made sure to pick up a battery operated player for him before dropping in, and plenty of spare batteries. Enough to keep the tunes rolling for weeks... before he'd have to come back to Benny for more batteries, more music. Always keep a client on the hook.
"It's called rock music," the broker explained. "You wanted American music, that's as American as it gets. It's all over Eastusa. Even down in the Florida panhandle, where the Faeries and humans both play it."
Gilbert Gearhaus, Honored Calculator of the German-British Gearhaus Industrial Concern and ward of the esteemed Gearhaus family, flipped a memory chip between his fingers, studying it from every angle. "Fascinating... simply fascinating. The technology and the music, of course. From the little sampling I've heard so far, I'm quite taken by the patterns. I would enjoy hearing more."
"Yeah, well... I only picked that stuff up because I happened across it and knew you were keen," Benny explained, shoving his hands into his pockets. "I'm not up for more trading runs right now. Give it awhile. I've had a lousy time of it lately."
"Really? A deal gone wrong, mayhaps?"
"Deal went fine. Certain item got good and lost, like it should be, I trust. ...it's woman trouble, if you must know. Old history. Nothing you'd care about."
He didn't care. The boy was too fascinated by the shiny objects. A bright lad... too bright for his own health, really.
"Florida, you say? More of this music can be heard in Florida?" he asked.
"Oh, yeah. Big concert each summer. Should be one coming up in a few months, hard to miss. ...anyway. I'll be back with more stuff later. I dunno. Few months."
Gilbert poured the handful of memory chips in his secret lockbox, closing its ornate brass lid, letting the self-sealing clockwork tumblers put his prize under wraps.
"I might not be here in a few months," he spoke, with a wry little grin. "You're fascinated me, my old friend. I'm afraid I'm one easily given to fascination..."
The broker saw himself out, ignoring the boy's unsettling automaton. That thing gave him the creeps, every damn time.
One week later, he'd wake up in a Chinese opium den, and have forgotten all about the events of Baltimore and the girl with the familiar eyes. He'd tell himself that weird little episode was behind him, and he would be completely and utterly wrong.
copyright 2009 stefan gagne