“Annika at the Office of Lost Time”

Last week, someone at work stumbled across the phrase “office of lost time” and remarked that I should write a story about it. That seemed like a job for Annika and Mort, so here it is. -SL

Warily, Annika took a number and found a seat in the crowded waiting room. Even though she was a licensed Time Magus now, going to the Ministry’s Office of Lost Time was anathema to a woman who grew up as the only child in a band of Timehustlers. She’d been raised to run away from the Ministry, not to it. Still, it wasn’t like her “uncle” to go so long without checking in. Papa was right to worry, though her mother might well divorce him if she knew he had asked Annika to go to the Ministry for information. A reluctant smile overtook the scowl she’d been wearing since she entered, as she pictured Mort’s easy smile and booming laugh.  

“Number 873, please proceed to desk 4,” squawked the metallic announcement. Annika stood, double-checking her ticket. 873.  She made her way to desk 4 and sat gingerly at the edge of the chair. A beige-looking bureaucrat of indiscriminate…everything typed busily away behind a hulking computer. 

“Er, sorry, is this…desk 4? Only I wa-” The bureaucrat held up a stern finger and Annika lapsed into awkward silence. After a few minutes, the bureaucrat finally stopped typing and folded her hands, examining Annika with the look of general disdain perfected by government bureaucrats across all of time and space. 

“Yes? How can I help?” She asked finally, in a tone that suggested she was almost completely uninterested in Annika’s reply. This irritated Annika on a fundamental level. Her parents and uncle had always complained that these ministry people thought they were somehow superior by dint of their position, and she had to admit, they weren’t wrong. Annika sat up straighter and squared her shoulders. 

“I am Time Magus Annika Rukhov, from the Oxford affiliate. I am looking for information about a Magus who appears to have gone missing.” The two women regarded each other a long moment. 

“I see,” said the bureaucrat finally. “Name?” 

“Time Magus First Class Mortimer Konstantine,” replied Annika, trying hard to keep the defiance out of her voice. She did not fail to notice that the woman’s typing paused briefly when Annika gave the name. 

“Konstantine…Hmm. I think you’ll find that’s former Time Magus First Class, to begin with. This individual had his license and title revoked after he was found guilty of…associating with Time Outlaws. If he were missing, good riddance, I’d say.” 

In her lap, Annika’s nails dug half-moons into her palms while she struggled to control her temper and unclench her fists. It took a moment to process what the bureaucrat had said. “If he were missing? Does that mean he isn’t?” The bureaucrat skimmed the screen again. 

“No, it seems he performed an illegal body transfer to avoid being killed in a temple of Cheops in Middle Kingdom Egypt. It isn’t clear who brought him back to his home timeline, but he is on a nearby timeline, only trapped in the body of a goat. The ministry has decided to let the situation stand as a reasonably neat solution to the problem.” 

“Let me be sure I understand,” replied Annika deliberately, struggling to control her voice. “Mortimer Konstantine is currently on a nearby timeline, away from his…associates, trapped in the body of a goat?” 

“That is correct.” The bureaucrat leaned across the desk, her gaze sharpening. “And what did you say your relationship was to Konstantine?” 

“I didn’t. Do you have an address where Mort is now?” 

“I’m not authorized to give that kind of information without a relevant permit, I’m afraid. Now if that will be all…”  

Annika sighed. She really hated what she was about to do, but she couldn’t abandon her honorary uncle to some awful junkyard fate. Rising smoothly, she reached across and brought the flattened side of her hand down against the bureaucrat’s neck, rendering her briefly immobile. She turned the screen and scanned the information there, already pushing her sleeve up to get to her ‘Hustler tattoo. She had just assaulted a government employee, and now she was going to make an illegal time jump from inside the Ministry of Lost Time. She chuckled softly and wondered if her mother had foreseen this outcome, and if that was why Papa had begged her to come here. Having memorized the address where she would find Mort, she closed her eyes against the light and activated the spell.  

an end to grieving

3 days.
After all this time,
3 days left to miss you.

Lacking strength,
I bade the dice decide
How long would be my grief,
And now we near the end.

If I was devastated,
Hollowed out,
Left staggering
At the sight of your back
Through the closing door,
Bereft at the fading
Of your scent on my pillow,
I will not fear,
Because in 3 days,
The grieving ends.

Your letters will go into a box,
Your pictures, tucked away.
I will live again,
I will be whole, alone.

-S. Lundale. 28 February 2022

The Dark Bedazzler: An antihero’s origin story

Recently, I exchanged some teasing tweets with 2 friends about writing the origin story for the character one of them had just called the other. It took me a couple weeks, but Evan, Rho, here it is. -SL

Hijo de p–” cursed Rocio, looking briefly at her burned finger. A new little red welt joined its siblings to pulse angrily on her poor, abused hands. Every time she used the hot glue gun, she was reminded why she hated the damn thing. Still, she thought, considering her nearly-finished ensemble, This is going to be well worth it. My very own invisibility togs. Rocio bit back a giggle of glee.

This career-defining project had started mundanely enough. During a raid on the lair of a pretty mediocre villain, The Sapphire Jeweler, who turned himself a startling shade of blue in an alchemical explosion some years back, Rocio had come upon a large sac of weird, matte black jewels. At the time, they just looked cool, so she grabbed them and tossed them in her loot bag. They were quickly overshadowed in her mind by the shrink ray she found and claimed, which turned out to work only about half the time, so had to be dismantled on the order of the high tribunal. By the time Rocio dug the stones out several days later when she was tidying her gear, she’d forgotten all about them.

Sitting down to look at  them, Rocio grabbed a handful and examined them in the palm of her hand. Up close, she noticed that the stones were actually a very dark blue, not black, and had the effect of making the eyes slide away from them. Rocio, feeling them in her hand and knowing they were there, could see them clearly as long as she focused, but her eyes kept wanting to look just next to her hand, away from the stones themselves. Rocio sat up straighter. This find might be a lot more interesting than she thought.

A couple of hours’ worth of trial and error had yielded the hypothesis that the stones absorbed light and repelled attention. As such, anything covered in the stones would be, if not invisible, shadowed, difficult to see and watch. They didn’t have to be bunched together in an unbroken area to work, either. She thought she had enough that, if she spaced them wisely, she could make herself, if not a literal invisibility suit, something very close.

And so it was that Rocio had her career path radically changed. Her one innate superpower was the ability to see and communicate with ghosts and similar entities. She couldn’t sit down and have a normal conversation with one, but limited communication was possible. With the trials coming up, Rocio was finally going to go out in full costume for the final trial, which was to take place out in the field. She had planned an outfit and persona based on that power, sort of a beturbaned Madame Zorlinka medium type, only with more sass. These stones, and the suit, had prompted Rocio to throw all that out the window. Even though the trials were only a few days away, she thought it was worth it, to get it right. Once she’d passed the trials, she’d be a full-fledged member of the Order of the Platypus, the world’s only league of super-antiheroes. And once she became a member, rebranding was unheard of. No, the turban and robes, which had never felt like quite the right look, were history. This not-quite-invisibility suit, this shadow suit, if you will, was edgier, cooler, and much more likely to be found worthy of membership. For the last several days, every second not spent drilling and rehearsing for the trials themselves was spent on the shadow suit. It was slow going, and fraught with more hot glue burns than she’d had in her life, which was saying something, since the last five years had been spent as an understudy of the Order, which often entailed helping antiheroes with costume and equipment repairs.

Rocio planned to unveil the rebranding at the final trial, and not before. Everyone would expect her to come out in the turban and robes, but instead, Rocio, the Shadowmaven, would come out, exhibiting the costume’s power as soon she entered the Great Hall, sending everyone’s gazes sliding off of her. It would have been nice if she had found a suitable sidekick before qualifying, but a sidekick was one thing that could be acquired later, so there was still hope for that.

The day of the trial, Rocio woke with a start, her face resting gently in a puddle of drool on her worktable. She had worked much of the night, but she had finished. Hurriedly, she got ready for the first part of the trials, where she would stand before the tribunal and answer their questions. The nervousness she would have been feeling about the oral examinations had disappeared in a fog of exhaustion and excitement about the shadow suit. The questions were more or less what she expected. What differentiates you from a vanilla superhero? How does your power help you in antihero work? That kind of thing. Rocio sailed through the examination without breaking a sweat, and before she knew it, the time had come to do her practical.

For the practical, Rocio was wired up and sent out on the mission. It was a simple Robin Hood job. She was to go to the junkyard that was a front for some two-bit gang that was new in town, liberate the contents of their safe, and drop it all off in the drop-box of the orphanage across town. Then right back to headquarters to report, and she would be a full-fledged member of the order. Arriving at the junkyard, Rocio found the security to be laughable. She quickly short-circuited the outdoor surveillance and electronic lock. A scan told her there was no other security or surveillance between her and the room where the safe was kept.  

Rocio tossed a casual, “Hey, goat,” at the scrawny black goat tethered just outside the backdoor. She was about to waltz right in the backdoor, since she had disabled the security. Her hand was on the knob, when a morose voice nearby remarked, “It’s Mortimer, actually,” in a very conversational tone. Rocio dropped to her heels and spun to greet the newcomer. Intrude on her cakewalk final test, would he? She’d make him shit his pants for his insolence.

“Listen, assho-” But there was no one there. That is, no one, but the scrawny black goat, who had come right up next Rocio, and was looking at her with unnerving directness. What the fuck? Rocio started analyzing the field, as she’d been taught, looking for places where company might be hiding. The goat sighed. Record scratch. The goat. . .sighed? Rocio eyed the goat warily. It occurred to her that he might have a speaker around his neck or something, but a quick check revealed he wasn’t even wearing a collar.

Sliding behind a barrel near the door, Rocio ventured cautiously, “What’s Mortimer, actually?”

“My name,” came the patient reply, still from what sounded like the goat’s direction. “You said, ‘Hey, goat’ when you passed me. But my name is Mortimer.” The goat, and Rocio could see clearly that it was the goat, belched.

“So, you’re, what? I’m supposed to believe you’re some kind of talking goat,” Rocio countered, feeling, as she did so, that she was giving more concession than she should to the idea by addressing the goat directly.

“Don’t be absurd,” replied the goat. “Goats don’t talk.” Rocio cocked an eyebrow and gave the goat a hard look. “This is a possessed goat, you see,” concluded the goat who was not a talking goat. “It’s not the goat talking, but me, the spirit possessing the goat’s body.”

“So you’re a spirit, possessing a goat’s body, using human language,” I summed up. My sarcasm was lost on the goat spirit, who nodded enthusiastically.

“Which still doesn’t explain why you can hear me,” mused the goat. “Even the ghost-friendly types I’ve met have only barely been able to catch one or two words across the aether. Why can you hear me?” Absurdly enough, the goat, Mortimer, was eyeing Rocio suspiciously. “Must be whatever magic your outfit is glowing with amplifies the signal between the two sides of the veil.” Rocio was startled by the idea.

“The shadow stones, really?” Rocio asked, fingering one of the stones on her sleeve. It would be disastrous if it came out that she had based her persona and costume on power that she did not understand. “I thought they just made me hard to look at.” Rocio reached again for the door, conscious of the time limit on the trial. Just as she was about to turn the knob, Mortimer stopped her, “The door is booby-trapped,” he informed her calmly. “The boss man prides himself on using ‘the old ways.’”

“What, like tin-can booby traps?” scoffed Rocio.

“Tin-can booby traps and heavy things that fall straight down when you open the door,” elaborated Mortimer. “Just use the window in the next room over.”

“Uh, thanks,” said Rocio. She was shaken by how close she had come, again, to failing the trial. Stradling the windowsill of the next room, Rocio called softly, “Hey, Mortimer, don’t suppose you want to save me some time in here by giving me the combination?”

“19-12-36,” responded Mortimer. “And be sure to get the little key taped to the underside of the shelf. You’re going to want that.” In record time, Mortimer instructed Rocio on where to find the valuables and how to get into each spot. Rocio climbed back out the window and patted Mortimer’s neck.

“Thanks, Mortimer,” Rocio offered. “I would have probably flunked my mission is it weren’t for you. You’re a life-saver.” Rocio went out the gate and started her jaunt across town to the orphanage. She was just about to cross Watson St. when Mortimer, whom she had not heard approach, hailed her.

“There’s an ambush waiting for you across the street,” Mortimer reported with little concern.

“Aren’t you at all upset that I almost walked into it?” Rocio demanded, whirling on him. Mortimer took a step back.

“No,” he responded confidently, “I knew you weren’t going to, because your trusty sidekick was here to make sure you didn’t.”

Rocio scowled. “I don’t have a sidekick,” she snapped.

“Sure, you do,” corrected Mortimer cheerfully. “We’re going to be great!” He adopted a cheesy announcer’s voice. “Mortimer and his pal, the Dark Bedazzler!”

“The Be-what?!” Rocio asked distractedly.

“Bedazzler,” repeated Mortimer. “Because you have the stones attached to your outfit, like those bedazzler sets, only your stones are dark and shadowy, so you’re the Dark Bedazzler.”

“Absolutely not,” said Rocio with a wince. “I am the Shadowmaven.” They argued about the name, and the order of their names, the rest of the way to the orphanage and back to headquarters. Rocio was relieved that only she could hear Mortimer. She wouldn’t put it past him to try to talk over her in front of the tribunal.

Rocio gave her report to the tribunal and waited anxiously for them to finish conferring. Finally, Rocio was called forth to hear the verdict. She barely noticed Mortimer taking his place next to her. The chairman of the tribunal peered at Rocio and Mortimer for several uncomfortable minutes. “Apprentice Rocio, while it is unusual for a candidate to rebrand to close to the trials, without informing the tribunal that you had done so, the incorporation of the spirit stones into your costume, giving you the benefit of shadow-walking, as well as amplifying your natural ability to perceive ghosts and spirits, was nothing short of brilliant. We are pleased to inform you that you have passed, and will be inducted as a full-fledged member,” the chairman gave an almost imperceptible smile. “What name will you go by?”

Rocio was trembling with excitement. This is it! She opened her mouth to announce herself as the Shadowmaven.

“The Dark Bedazzler,” Mortimer cried. Rocio looked at him murderously.

“The Dark Bedazzler,” she sneered, dropping her voice to a quiet growl, “It’s Shadowmaven, goat.”

“The Dark Bedazzler?” repeated the chairman, in a stunning failure to read another person’s tone of voice. Raising his voice, the chairman announced to the assembly, “Antiheroes, I give you The Dark Bedazzler!”

Rocio’s attempts to be heard saying, “No, the Shadowmaven! The Shadowmaven!” were drowned out by the cheers of her new colleagues.

Is this thing on?

This is a little story I spit out in reponse to @DzintraSullivan first line prompt. It’s very rough, but here it is.

I am sorry I gave you a fright just then. I can tell you, I’ve had the experience myself. The first time I saw Liz, I was stone-ass sober, & my scream reached an octave I didn’t know I had. She sighed, and a shimmering hand reached out from the screen to slap me soundly. I was abruptly silent. “Please,” she said patiently, “Don’t do that again. I haven’t much time.”

I eyed the empty vodka bottles on my desk, wondering if it was possible one of them had not been empty last time I checked. Liz’s image shimmered dramatically as she treated herself to a hefty sigh. “Just shut up and listen. This will go faster,” she ordered. Her voice sounded real enough. It didn’t have that stilted quality of the AI, didn’t have the ethereal breathiness ghosts were supposed to have. I realized that, to be fair, the only ghost voices I knew about were from films and telly, so maybe my information wasn’t up-to-date. So you see, I was well-suited to be Liz’s point of contact, as it happened.

“I say,” I interrupted. “Are you a ghost?”

The ghost of Lt. Liz Munro, as I came to learn she had been called, shimmered again with a sigh and muttered something that sounded like, “Of all the idiots across time and space,” followed by a countdown of some kind. “Right, maybe you can understand this,” she continued, “The next time you interrupt me, I am going to shock you until your heart stops, thus dooming my own mission, since you are my one fucking shot at this, but at least taking you out with the rest of us, savvy?” I nodded mutely.

“Pay attention,” she admonished tiredly. And then she introduced herself, and told me her tale, just as I’m going to tell it to you. Here, take my hand, there, like that. It makes the telling easier.

I am Lt. Liz Munro, late of the HMS Gloriana. Some time ago – and you’ll forgive my lack of precision, as time does not progress normally here – the Gloriana blundered into a weather anomaly. The instruments all went mad, swinging from one extreme to the other, before eventually going still entirely. A strange fog surrounded us, deadening noise and rendering visibility to a matter of scant inches in front of one’s face. There was a sense – again, you’ll forgive the lack of precision, as truly nothing works normally here – that we were very much not alone, but no amount of hailing brought any response. If there were others, the fog was muting us to them and them to us.

It should go without saying, since I mentioned the fog, but you aren’t exactly a scholar, so I will add that we were completely becalmed in that place. Without any means of propulsion, we were powerless to make any attempt to shift ourselves from the Triangle. We came to call it the Triangle as a nod to that twentieth century phenomenon, the Bermuda Triangle, though I don’t know that there is any real resemblance or relation between the scenarios. After a few days with no change, it was decided that, while our supplies ensured we need not panic just yet, we could not fail to make any effort at all, so lots were drawn, and three crewmembers were sent in the dinghies to explore in different directions, looking for other vessels, or some break in the fog.

Each dinghy was attached to the Gloriana by a stout rope, so we could reel them back in if they didn’t find anything right away. We were not yet so desperate as to risk the lives of crewmembers on recon. At least, that was the intention. Unfortunately, the three dinghies went out all at once, so when the ropes went slack 3-4 minutes after they’d paddled into the fog, they did so all at once, with no chance of preventing any of the from becoming thus lost. We pulled the ropes in. The ends were neatly cut and charred at the ends, all identically. We shouted after our crewmembers until we were hoarse, but there was no whisper from them. We were a subdued crew that night.

We were less subdued in the morning, when the missing crewmembers presented themselves at breakfast with the rest of us, professing total loss of memory of anything that happened between their first strokes of the paddle and their waking in their bunks in the morning.  I will spare you the details of how each of us similarly succumbed and came to live this life that is not a life. Suffice to say, we are all, now, dead, after a fashion, that the state neither prevents us from belching when we eat nor getting pains in our backs when we sleep strangely. I don’t know if it has been months or decades. We might have stayed on the midpoint of eternity, had Brasenose not found The Screen.

Brasenose was below, taking inventory, when he saw a glow emanating from one crate. Inside, among sawdust and excelsior, he found a flat, glowing box, which we have come to learn is a Screen. With the use of the Screen, we have been able to observe conditions in the places it is willing to show us. Only after much study did the Captain learn to manipulate the screen and sometimes interact with people, such as yourself, outside the Triangle. The Captain informs us that he believes I can transport you through the Screen, and by doing so, we will gain control of the Screen, since you’re alive, and we will escape the Triangle.

Having finished her tale, apparently, she looked at me expectantly. I looked at her with what I hoped was an appropriate expression. I did not dare explain that I really had to pee, which was distracting. I couldn’t interrupt, because she said she would kill me, so I had to find other things to think about so I wouldn’t wet myself. I had missed some of the details of her story as a result, which is why I didn’t know what response she was waiting for, though I felt I had still done pretty well. Fog, cut ropes, and something about a computer you have to be alive to use. Seemed pretty straightforward. I stood decisively. “Right, well, I’m just going to have a piss, and then we can go,” I offered cheerfully. Liz blinked at me in disbelief.

“Really? No questions? No protests? Just, let me pee and we’ll go?” she asked cautiously.

I figured that would do. At least she wasn’t angry with me. I nodded amiably. “I’ll just be right back,” I remarked, hurrying to the bathroom before it was too late.

I emerged, still buckling my belt, and approached Liz. “So how do we do this?”

She reached out with the shimmering hand she had used to slap me. I flinched. She closed her eyes and reached further toward me. “You just take my hand,” she instructed. So I did.

And everything went black. I came to on a wooden surface. A deck, as it turned out. I had been transported to the Gloriana. “He’s awake,” said an excited voice I’d never heard before. “Bring the Screen.”

A few moments later, several eager-looking faces bent over me, Liz among them. “There you are, my friend,” Liz said, friendlier than she had been ever in our short acquaintance. Someone passed a device to Liz that looked like a cross between a picture frame and a tablet computer. Liz held it up to me. “All you have to do is touch the screen, and it will activate,” she reiterated. I reached up and touched the famous Screen. Nothing happened. I was still coming to understand that the expected outcome had not come to pass as one by one, the recently eager faces slouched away, leaving me alone with Liz.

I patted Liz’s shoulder kindly. I understood enough to see that there had been a big disappointment here. “I am sorry, Liz,” I offered. “If you like, I’ll send you back with Mars bars for the whole crew when you take me home.” I was quite impressed with my generous idea, and waited for her praise and gratitude with the patience of an elderly priest watching the fresh new priest perform the rituals.

Liz wouldn’t look at me for a long time, and when she did, there were tears glistening in her eyes. She explained to me that because we had gotten one aspect of the solution wrong, I could not go home until we got it to work to get everyone home. The Captain has worked out where it went wrong, and we are guaranteed success next time.

So you see, friend, since you’ve already been to kind to offer to shake my hand, I can bring you through the Screen to activate it. Ready? Let’s go.