Sanctuary: Free Fiction for Fyretober October 24, 2023
Kevin was still blinking the red flash out of his eyes when he heard Paula moaning. He turned back toward the house and tried to make out where her voice was coming from. He saw something moving in the bushes to the right of the porch, and he rushed over. “Paula, are you okay?”
She sat up on her elbows, looked at Kevin, and said, “Did somebody get the number of that pooka?”
Kevin grinned. “If you can joke, that’s a good sign. Here.” He reached out his hand, clasped hers, and helped her to her feet.
Paula looked groggily look around. “Where’d they go? The pucks?”
“There was a fight,” Kevin answered. “We won.” He saw the white rabbit carrying Carol into the house. “But the cost was dear.”
Hubs was right behind the white rabbit, with Wayne and Wanda crowding behind him. Kevin checked Paula over for obvious injuries and then ushered her into the house as well.
Inside the door was a dimly lit tiled hallway, with an ornate wooden staircase straight ahead of them, a room with a dining table to their left, and what looked like a parlor to the right: two big comfy sofas facing each other, two navy blue wingback chairs, a bookcase stocked with titles that Kevin couldn’t make out from the distance, and a fireplace with logs ablaze, warding off the October chill outside. Voices came from the parlor, so Paula and Kevin headed that way.
Carol had been laid down upon a blanket on the floor in front of the fireplace. Hubs alternately holding his hands up to the fire to warm them and then massaging her limbs. Wanda knelt beside them, the back of her hand on Carol’s forehead.
The white rabbit had collapsed into the wingback chair nearest the fire, his long arms and legs hanging off like a marionette whose strings had been cut. His chin was down upon his chest, and the long ears draped in front of him.
Hubs looked up at the rabbit. “She needs help!”
The rabbit lifted his head and looked at Hubs. “She does… lad… If you would… help her… go out to the kitchen and… brew me some tea.”
“Tea?” Wanda said, an edge in her voice. “She doesn’t need tea, she needs a doctor.”
But Hubs didn’t seem to hear her. To Kevin’s surprise, the man actually left his wife’s side, heading out to the kitchen. Kevin heard the sound of a faucet pouring water into a kettle.
Then he looked back as the white rabbit shook his head. “I shall do… what can… be done for the child…”
“She’s not a child,” Wanda objected.
The rabbit took a deep breath. “I was born… 300 years before… Brian Boru… You are all… children to me…”
“I don’t care how old you are,” Wayne answered. The kettle started to whistle, far too soon for any ordinary pot of tea. “I’m calling 911.”
The puca stretched a hand out surprisingly far, grasping Wayne’s wrist and keeping him from reaching for his phone. “Not now… I think… they’re gone, but still… It’s best no one goes out… right now…”
“Or in,” Hubs said, bringing in a bone China cup atop a China saucer, each decorated with gold leaf around the edges. “We might think we’re leading in EMTs, but we’d really be letting them in.”
The puca took the saucer and the cup, and he smiled up at Hubs. “You know the old tales…”
“Some of them,” Hubs admitted. “From my Grandda. He believed in you.”
Before the white rabbit could answer, Wayne said, “We still need a doctor.”
The rabbit stared into Wayne’s eyes. “You have a doctor. Haven’t you noticed?”
Kevin turned to Wayne, who was now staring deeply into the white rabbit’s eyes while mumbling something… mathematical? It sounded like a mix of mathematics and mantra. Then Wayne’s eyes grew wide. “Dr. Walchek?”
The rabbit gave a toothy grin. “You didn’t believe that story… about a cerebral pacemaker… did you? I was just… keeping you from giving up…”
With that, the puca lifted the cup to its mouth, tilted back his head, and drained the tea in one long sip. Kevin couldn’t guess what was in that cup, but it had an effect. The rabbit’s ears lifted, its eyes lit up, and it stood from the chair. “Now please, let me get to work.”
Hubs refused to leave Carol’s side – except when bringing more tea for the puca – but the rest of them decided to let the white rabbit work in peace. They adjourned to the dining room table, and Paula went to the kitchen beyond to see if there was any food. “You can’t fight the supernatural on an empty stomach,” she said.
Kevin shook his head. “Is that where we’re at? Fighting the supernatural? Forgive me, but I spent my whole life as a confirmed rationalist.”
“I’m a nurse,” Wanda answered. “I take science seriously. This stuff…”
Wayne stared down at the polished cherrywood tabletop. “It’s not supernatural. It’s just… It’s parts of nature we haven’t seen before.”
“The hell it is!” Wanda said. “You’ve been talking about seeing what’s unseen. There’s nothing in your cognitive logic about throwing balls of lightning around.”
Wayne looked over at her. “Is that what really happened? Or is that what we saw happen?” Before Wanda could object, he held up his hand. “Wait! I’m not saying nothing happened. These pucks control some unusual energy sources. But they also control how we perceive it. Maybe it’s a rare physical property that they dress up for effect.”
Hubs entered the dining room with a saucer and an empty cup. He stopped and looked at them all. “What happened to Carol ain’t imaginary. That’s puck magic, it is.”
Kevin stood up from the table and started pacing. “Do we have to have a name for it right now?”
“We do if naming it helps us figure out how to fight it,” Wayne answered.
“I disagree,” Kevin said. “The most important thing is to understand what they want, so we know what their next move will be.”
“And how do we figure that out? Hubs asked.
“Logic,” Paula said, entering the dining room with the big tray of roast beef sandwiches.
Wayne must’ve been hungrier than he looked, for he picked up a sandwich and took a bite before answering. “No, cognitive logic. That’s what this is all about. Whatever other powers they have, I don’t think… I think it’s not as powerful as it looked out in the field. If it were, they would just take over. Who could stop someone who breathes fireballs?”
Hubs glanced back towards the parlor, and Kevin could read concern on the man’s face. He wanted to be with his wife, but there wasn’t much he could do in there. With a resigned look, he said, “Me Grandda always said you couldn’t make sense of the pookas’ ways, because they just didn’t think like us.”
“I don’t buy it,” Wayne answered. “They’re using cognitive logic, I can demonstrate that. And cognitive logic is a meta logic built on top of traditional logic that humanity has studied for millennia, just applied to what we’ve learned about neurophysiology, plus modern abstract logic. And given their behavior, if they had the power to conquer us all, they would’ve done it long ago.” He paused, then added, “At least the pucks would have. And the pucas seem unable to control the pucks. So they have energy that we can’t understand, but they also have limits. Much of their power is imaginary. We can fight them.”
Hubs slammed his fist on the table. “What’s happened to Carol is not imaginary.”
Wanda walked over and rubbed Hubs’s shoulders. “How’s she doing, hubs…” Then she said, “I’m sorry, I feel silly calling you that. What is your name?”
Hubs shrugged. “Carol doesn’t like to share it, so that me an’ the twins have privacy as her career takes off. So I’m not supposed to say to strangers.” He looked from one face to another. “But I guess were not really strangers now, are we? I’m Sean Michael Carter, originally from Belfast.”
Paula asked, “Not Scott?”
“No. Scott’s her writer name, an’ her maiden name, too. But enough about that. This cold that’s gripped her, the puca’s fightin’ it. That reminds me, I need to get him more tea. Somehow I think the warmth is goin’ from the teapot to the tea to the puca… and then to Carol.” He got up and carried the cup and saucer back to the kitchen.
Kevin looked at all of them. He didn’t know much about Wanda or Paula, but he’d known Wayne since the old days of S’FRoG. The man was smart as a whip. If there was an answer to this, Kevin would count on Wayne finding it.
But Kevin had questions. “So they want to keep using the power, but they don’t want to draw too much attention, because they’re not all-powerful. But what specifically is their current goal?”
Wayne looked up at Kevin. “They tried to kill me because I understood too much about cognitive logic. I was able to see through their cloaks. And then, whether it was the head injury or their influence, I lost key parts of my memory for much of the month. That satisfied them. Their secrets…” He paused and swallowed. “That’s why they were after Emil.”
“What?” Paula asked around a sandwich.
“Emil… I told him everything I had learned. Concepts that go far beyond my thesis. He’s not –” Wayne swallowed hard. “He wasn’t enough of a mathematician to actually publish it, but he grasped the concepts. He could explain them well enough that another logician could recreate my work.”
“And for that they killed him,” Paula answered.
Wayne nodded. “And took his laptop. His notes must’ve been in there. I think they took mine as well.”
“Somebody did,” Wanda said. “It was never found in the wreck, and I haven’t found it around the house. You haven’t… You haven’t shown interest in it. I didn’t know if that was symptoms of your head injury.”
Wayne reached out and squeezed Wanda’s hand. “Thank you for being concerned, hon. And you weren’t wrong. I was… Dr. Walchek, or whatever we call him, brought me back, but not all the way. Maybe the pucks messed up my brain, or maybe it was just the injury, but I had memories I couldn’t get to.” Another squeeze. “I got them now.” Then he laughed. “But the pucks blew it. My greatest realizations were never on my laptop, I didn’t have time to jot them down. They wasted their time stealing my computer. Emil took notes. They should have…”
Kevin nodded. “They should have stolen Emil’s computer. And it’s gone. They did.”
Sean was back in the doorway. “They took Carol’s, too. I remember she mentioned having a copy of Emil’s latest story. She said it was… strange, even for him. She couldn’t get into it, she’d have to try again later. That was before all of this…” He held out his hands as if to encompass the room. “All of this madness hit.”
Kevin looked from one face to another. “They took Emil’s computer, and Carol’s, and yours, Wayne.”
Wayne nodded. “Is that it? Did they get them all?”
Kevin put his hands together and rubbed his chin with his fingertips. “There’s one more, but they haven’t taken it yet. I don’t know why.”
“What do you mean?” Wayne asked.
“Before he disappeared, Emil submitted a story. It’s still in our slush pile. But they haven’t taken my laptop. They’ve just… Infected it, like with a computer virus from a nightmare.” He briefly explained, and Paula vouched for him. At last he said, “But why didn’t they just take my machine? Or… or kill me? They’ve got no qualms about that.”
Sean answered, “Perhaps they couldn’t. You say you were stayin’ in your house. Pookas do have their limits. In all the old stories, they don’t usually go into the home. A man’s home is his castle, ye know. It’s said that the pookas had rules that were unbreakable, even if the rules make no sense to us. As long as you didn’t leave your home, you were safe.”
Paula added, “And the file isn’t even on your computer yet.”
“Cloud storage,” Kevin agreed, trying to remember where their server was hosted. Australia, maybe? “So they couldn’t hurt me in my castle.”
“Aye,” said Sean, “but they could trouble you, send you visions.”
“Yes!” Kevin said. “Visions to keep me away from the slush, to scare me from working my way through the pile. To drive me mad, or even to kill myself, before I read in meals story.” He looked into Paula’s face. “They almost succeeded. If you hadn’t come along…”
“Hey,” Paula said with an attempt at a grin, “that’s what an Assistant Editor’s for.”
“So you could read Emil’s message,” Wayne said, “if only you’d brought your laptop.”
Kevin grinned. “Who needs a laptop anymore? There’s a mobile app for everything. Even our slush.” He pulled out his phone, went to the browser, found his Favorites, and tapped the link for the Un/Seen slush queue. “Two hundred and seventy-three… And not necessarily in order. I’ve figured out the order that submissions came to him. That’s too much technology for this old brain. I just read them in the order they pop up.
“But this time… Assistant Editor, have you ever done tag team slush?”
“I don’t understand.”
“We’re going to tackle this slush together. Two brains reject faster than one.”
“Can’t we just dump them all?”
“I don’t think so.” Kevin looked at Wayne, and Wayne shook his head. “These illusions have their own logic to them. Slush must be read, skimmed at least. We’re going have to work our way through these together.” He switched tabs to show the slush queue entries.
With a POP, a little furry icon leaped out of the screen and straight for Kevin’s throat. He screamed.
With an Assistant Editor’s unerring instincts, Paula grabbed the small, furry packet, pulled it from Kevin’s neck, and ripped it open, revealing half a dozen full-sized sheets of paper. She scanned the squirming pages. “Werewolf story. No one knows who it is.”
Kevin rubbed his throat. Could an animated slush icon spread lycanthropy? “First person narrator?” Paula nodded. “He’s the werewolf. Reject.”
Paula turned to the last page. “How did you know?”
But Wayne was too busy snatching a rocket-driven icon from the air, opening the manuscript. “Star Trek fanfic, thinly disguised. Reject.”
Two more icons popped out. Paula opened the first. “Short, no dialogue, more a book report than a story. AI crap. Reject.”
Kevin read from his submission. “Biographical essay. Do they even read the guidelines? Reject.”
The stories started popping faster. Kevin and Paula were forced to adopt a system: She caught and read, he passed judgment and dispatched the stories, with around one in thirty being set aside for further consideration.
Paula said, “Man and woman, enemy soldiers, crash on a distant world and stalk each other.”
“Adam and Eve. Reject.”
“A group of high school students spend… looks like eight pages studying for college entrance exams.”
“No spec. Failure to launch. Reject.”
“A Roman Legionnaire goes AWOL and struggles to find his family.”
“No spec. Reject.”
“A lonely zombie —“
“The Rapture leaves —“
“Sam Warner writes—“
“Restraining order. Reject.”
Kevin was… exhilarated. He and Paul had gone through this exercise back when Kevin had been the Assistant Editor. With two brains concentrating, it was easier to reach a conclusion quickly, especially since so much of the slush pile was simply not ready for publication yet. That wasn’t a value judgment, nor a judgment on an author’s character. Every writer had gone through that phase, Kevin included. It was just the learning process the writers either worked through, or gave up. Part of the editor’s job was suffering through that phase in hopes that a writer could learn from experience and become a contributor.
Leonard Sims used to run a magazine where slush readers were expected to do a complete rejection every ten seconds just to keep up with the incoming slush. By comparison, Paula and Kevin had time to actually look at a page of each story before deciding. Some stories they gave more than a minute. With so many stories, that time added up. Early on, Sean went back to the parlor. Wanda and Wayne wandered into the pantry and came back with bottles of what appeared to be homemade beer. Kevin didn’t want to find out. He needed a clear head for this.
Eventually, some of the story icons took to running away, forcing Paula and Kevin to give chase in order to reject them. Others would wail as Kevin pronounced judgment and then disappear in a puff of smoke.
At last there were only three items left in the queue. Two icons popped out at once. Kevin caught one, and Paula caught the other. They each ripped an icon apart and started reading. It took only a few moments for Kevin to say, “Another time travelers versus Hitler story. I haven’t seen a new twist on that in twenty years. Rejected.”
Paula, meanwhile, stared at the papers in her hand and kept reading. Finally Kevin couldn’t resist asking, “Well?”
“Kevin, this is really good! I mean, it’s a standard spaceship full of aliens, but the characters are so clever. They’re not cannon fodder, they’re turning the tables. They’re going to hunt the monsters!”
“Fine, fine,” Kevin answered. “Put it in the hold pile and we’ll look at it later.”
“But it’s so good!”
Kevin sighed. He understood her well: It was so rare to find something decent in the slush, you wanted to savor it. But they didn’t have that kind of time. “Hold pile.”
That left only one item in the queue, an entry which didn’t pop out and attack or try to escape. The subject line read: “Notes on the Pucas” by Emil Varden.
Kevin read over the document twice, the second time out loud.
To my friends, if you’re reading this, I might be dead.
God, what a clichéd opening. Sorry, Kevin, but it’s a hundred percent accurate this time.
You’re going to think I’m crazy. You’re going to think that this is a wild story submission, something like “Who’s Cribbing?”
“‘Who’s Cribbing?’” Wanda asked.
Wayne answered, “It’s a classic old story by Jack Lewis about a guy – Jack Lewis – who finds that every story he submits, somebody else has submitted it first, Todd Thromberry. Eventually he discovers that Thromberry is a time traveler who’s been stealing his stories, taking them back in time, and publishing them first. It was a very meta-story, told as a series of letters from the author and his editors. Sometimes writers like to play with this sort of true – quote unquote – story that’s unbelievable but supposedly happened. Emil’s letting us know that that’s not what he’s doing.
Paula added, “Which exactly how a good writer would start a meta-story these days, aware of what came before.”
Kevin nodded. That’s exactly how he might’ve interpreted the story if he hadn’t experienced the past few days.
He resumed reading something that was more report than story. Emil explained what a puca was…
Mischievous spirits, usually found in Ireland or around Irish settlements, though known to be found elsewhere. They can take many forms. Sometimes a puca is a well-dressed gentleman who tells your fortune outside of a pub, but only disastrous fortunes. Sometimes he’s a beautiful horse who seems to want you to ride him, especially after a night of drinking when you’re not sure you can get home on your own two feet. And if you do, he takes you on a ride like you’ve never experienced before, twixt heaven and hell, future and past, hope and terror, until you fall off exhausted with your hair turned white. Or you might be dead by the end of the ride. Sometimes they take on shapes of monsters out of legend: devils, jack-o’-lanterns, banshees, shades, drakes, and worse. Or sometimes mischievous Boggarts or giant rabbits like Harvey from the movie. In these forms, they hang around a person who might be open to suggestion: someone drunk, or despairing, or just foolhardy. They suggest things that the person might try, to solve all their money problems or romantic problems or whatever is bothering them; but these suggestions usually backfire. The victim ends up worse than ever, in trouble with their spouse or their family or their community. Or the nobility, and embarrassing a noble leads to punishment. Even death. These and more stories are attributed to the pucas.
Except I know it’s more than “attributed”. I don’t know what drew him to me, but a puca befriended me years ago. He’s my honest-to-goodness muse Harvey – yes, just like the rabbit – and he’s told me lots of things about his people. And about their criminal element, the pucks.
As Kevin continued, Wayne nodded along, sometimes interjecting that this matched what the puck had told him. “Emil never told me these things in that last phone call,” he said, “but it all fits.”
Next Emil’s message went into Wayne’s math and cognitive logic is best Emil could explain it. Wayne had to correct almost all of it. Emil hadn’t understood in a garbled message, but Wayne kept nodding along. “Close enough. Close enough! I can re-create it all from here.”
Finally Kevin read the end of the message…
I know this is going to be impossible to swallow. But the pucks have escalated their activity. Perhaps because Wayne knows too much. Perhaps because they have new plans to take power. Perhaps just because October has always been the month when the pucas and the pucks are the most powerful, in the days leading up to Hollowmas. October is the harvest month, and farmers in the old country all know: they have to leave some in the field for the pucas, or the pucks will take revenge.
So I can’t tell you what their plan is. You’re probably not convinced there is a plan. You probably think this is just a story, convoluted and drawn out, and not up to my usual standards. I usually have better endings than this. Heheheh…
But it’s not a story, it’s a warning. Believe me, please! Harvey has a safe house at 2013 Resnick. If you’re reading this, get there now. Asked for sanctuary. Tell him you’re a friend of mine, and I’m sure he’ll protect you.
In case the pucks read this, I don’t want to reveal too much. As soon as I send this, I’m going to park the Comet at the Galaxy. You know where that is. I have weapons you can use against the pucks. I –
Shit, I think they’re out there.
Kevin looked up from his phone at the three faces around the table. He didn’t see doubt in any of them.
Wanda said, “So what do we do?”
“The Comet and the Galaxy are pretty obvious,” Wayne said. “But what sort of weapons?”
“We won’t know until we find the car,” Paula said.
“I know where the Comet is,” Sean said from the door frame. “Or Carol does. She said she saw it, right out where anyone might see it.”
“But they won’t,” Wayne said. “It will be hidden by the Mathematics of Influence.”
Then Sean gave a big grin. “You can just ask Carol.”
The four of them were instantly on their feet. Continuing to grin, Sean said, “Come on. She’s waiting for you.”
They followed Sean into the parlor and found Carol sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace, wrapped in a giant comforter, and looking up at them. “I have never been so happy to see anyone who wasn’t my kids.”
Wanda ran up, use a finger to check Carol’s pulse, and gave her a hug. “If ever I needed to believe in puca miracles…”
At that moment, they heard a choking noise, and everyone looked to the white rabbit sitting in the chair by the fire. He was coughing, legs and arms jerking spasmodically. “Harvey!” Kevin said.
The white rabbit took a big breath and held up a hand for silence. “All that you… heard… True… Direct action is… addictive for pucks… But also… drains them. Maybe… for the month…”
“A month!” Wayne said. “That’s fantastic, that’s –”
Harvey started coughing again, and Wayne fell silent. “Maybe, but… They’re deviants… Worse for pucas… Direct action is… fatal…”
Carol threw off the comforter as she staggered to her feet. “Harvey! No!”
The puca sat up straight and took her hands. “Thank you… To let me see my last… miracle… All the energy I had… remaining…”
His hands slid from Carol’s and flopped on his knees. “We cannot… I return to stardust…” His eyes closed, his head sagged back against the wingback, and the room was suddenly silent. His body, those magnificent ears, his blue waistcoat and black slacks… They all started falling in upon themselves, as if being crushed in a black hole. Soon he was but a paper-thin image of a white rabbit.
Then a cold wind from nowhere blew through the house, and Harvey’s image fell to dust and was blown off to where, they could not tell.
The good folks at Fyrecon have declared this to be Fyretober: a month of creative prompts, encouraging writers, poets, and artists to share their explorations. Today’s prompt: Sparkle castle,
Well, today’s story mentions castles… And the last we saw of Harvey was sparkling stardust…