Sudden Grey Sunday, Nov 30 2008 

In which our intrepid hero dredges up a favourite piece of Heavy Gear fanfic from 1999.

The smoke from Levant’s cigarette curled up into the air duct. The door in front of him was painted dull green, unmarked. He swallowed, lifted his hand, hesitated, then finally knocked. Rap!

“Come in, Markus.” It was Levant’s CO, Barnard; that, at least, was a hopeful sign. Levant reached for the handle and twisted hard. The door opened and a painful blast of grey light hit Levant in the face. Had it been that long since he had seen natural light?

“Markus, sit down, relax, you’ll be fine.” Commandant Barnard was about 85 cycles old; the silver at his temples and moustache contrasted starkly with his dark brown skin. “We’ll get through this. Hell, in another couple of years, they’ll ship me off to the Grey Berets, and all this’ll be yours.” He spread his arms wide and grinned.

Levant smiled weakly and strode across the cheap carpet. The grey-brown Siwan horizon peered through the grimy windows; Levant peered back, his face long and drawn. His mahogany hair was disarrayed and the deep black cyberoptic on the right side of his face mirrored the eyepatch on his left. He blew smoke at his own reflection.

“…nothing, really. Don’t worry, I’ll back you up.” Barnard’s voice drifted in, and Levant snapped out of his reverie. “We’ve got a while yet. Calm down.”

As if to contradict Barnard, a knock came at the door. “Enter.”

A young lieutenant popped his head around the door and spoke: “She’s arrived, sir.” Levant looked back outside. He tried to open the window, but it wouldn’t open; it was sealed closed. He stubbed out his cigarette on the glass, turned and sat.

Barnard looked confident, smiling directly at Levant, as if to reassure him. Levant stared straight ahead.

The doorhandle jerked downward and Levant jumped. A woman, perhaps 40 cycles old, strong, attractive, walked in and calmly sat down before Barnard had risen half out of his chair.

She opened her briefcase, pulled out a personal assistant. “Very well,” she said, through perfect white teeth, “let us begin. Commandant, you have a new priority assignment. But there are other matters at hand. Mr Levant,”—Levant unconsciously touched the two silver bars at his throat—”your record is thus far exemplary, but there are concerns about your attitude.”

Levant glanced at the window, wishing he could claw his way out of the room. “Concerns?” he said, glancing back at the woman across from him. Long, straight chestnut hair, blue eyes—she could be Ashantite, if not for the dark grey power suit. Strange—there were no insignia or rank pins. Who was she?

“It is feared that you may be suffering some psychological problems. It appears that it has been”—she checked her notes—”nearly four cycles since you last took leave, Mr Levant. You live permanently in the facility’s staff quarters. It is not healthy, not normal, to spend that amount of time underground.”

Levant pulled his face into a smile and gritted his teeth. “I miss Bethany. It reminds me of anything but home.”

The woman glanced at her notes again. Her brow creased as her lips silently moved: Innsmouth? Her face straightened again and she spoke: “How have you been since your accident, Mr Levant? No depression, insomnia—”

“No, I don’t think so. Permission to smoke, ma’am?”

A smile flickered at the corners of her lips. “Please, go ahead. Your academic record is impressive, Mr Levant, as is your service record —”

“He’s one of our best men,” Barnard said, smiling.

“Yes.” The woman glanced at Barnard, obviously annoyed at his interjection. “I have been assured that you are an expert in your field, Mr Levant. I have also been assured that this facility is an appropriate launching point for the project that I am about to describe. Are you confident that you are up to this task, Mr Levant?”

Mister Levant. Not Doctor Levant, nor Sous-Commandant. Mister. What was it with this woman? “That all depends. What does it entail, if I might ask?”

She smiled again. After a brief pause, she reached into her briefcase and pulled out a large metal cylinder. It obviously unscrewed at one end, but otherwise was unmarked. She handed it to Levant, noting his curiosity. “What you hold in your hands cost us a great deal of money to procure, Mr Levant. We want a return on our investment.”

“What is it?”

“It is called variola, Mr Levant. Or, rather, the basis to create variola.”

“Variola?”

“A virus, Mr Levant, thought destroyed over four thousand years ago. It was the most lethal naturally-occurring virus known to humankind.”

“Then what am I holding?”

“Fragments, Mr Levant, fragments. Pieces of the virus’ genome, extracted at great expense and peril from an archaeological site on Earth. We—I—want you to reconstruct the virus, Mr Levant, to improve upon it.” Her clear blue eyes bored into him. “What do you say now? Are you willing to commit, Mr Levant?”

“I’ll give it my best shot.”

She smiled. “Good. That is all we ask. Further data will be relayed to your office by the end of the day.” She turned to face Barnard. “Commandant, I must leave. I have other engagements.” She slipped her personal assistant into her case and rose from her seat.

“What about a vaccine?” Levant asked.

She looked him straight in the eye. “Of course.” She turned toward the door and walked a few steps, then turned slightly and looked over her shoulder at the two men. “Good day, Commandant. À la prochaine, Sous-Commandant Levant; I have a feeling we will be seeing much more of each other.”

With that, she turned and disappeared through the door.

The two men looked at each other, and Levant saw what his CO was thinking, even before he uttered it: “Fuck.”

Levant walked to the window, peering at the glowing cinder of his reflected cigarette, and at the grey-brown skies beyond. Levant’s single eye reflected a dark microcosm of Siwa Oasis below. “Here we go again,” Barnard muttered, somewhere behind him.

Yes. Here we go again. A twisted smile teased the corners of Levant’s lips.

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    Legends Revived Friday, Feb 2 2007 

    In which our intrepid hero visits an obscure karaoke bar.

    Last night, Dan M and a friend of Mim K/W were supposed to join us for dinner. Sadly, Mim’s friend couldn’t make it, so we postponed, instead stopping in briefly at one of Mim’s favourite karaoke joints in the city.

    One of the regulars there is deaf. I’d heard stories about him before (such as him slagging off venues for their poor sound quality), but I’d never actually heard him sing. Sure, he was off-key, but I think there was also a processing delay with his hearing aid; he was always a bit behind the tune.

    What came out was an eerie not-quite-harmony with the backing track. It was strange, like the first time you hear Tuvan throat-singing.

    As I heard him sing, parts of my brain lit up that haven’t seen action since I overdosed on cough syrup whilst down with a high fever and bronchitis at uni.

    The whole weirdness of it jogged a long-forgotten memory from my subconscious. Back in 2002, I wrote a “rumor” for the Unknown Armies RPG, and posted it both to the official site and to the mailing list. It was called “Legends”:

    I hate karaoke.

    Still, I was going out with Karen back then, and she loved to sing. It’s about 3am on a Saturday morning, and we’d just been out with Matt and the rest of ’em drinking. Everyone else went home, but I told Karen that I wanted to stay out.

    She umms and aahs a little, but doesn’t want to take her eye off me. I’m the kind of guy that people just pick fights with at that time of night. Crowds wander the sidewalks then, drunk and pissed off that they have to wait for a cab after the three o’clock shift change, so I s’pose she thinks that I’ll get hammered if she’s not around to look out for me.

    Somehow, we find our way down to the quiet end of the city, with all those windy, narrow streets, just on the edge of Chinatown. That time of night, these streets are mostly deserted; the only noise you hear sometimes is the clack of mah jongg tiles and drunk laughter in Cantonese.

    We round a corner, and there they are: a bunch of Anglos in suits, staring at the ground, speechless, waiting to enter a club. I guess that it’s probably a strip joint, but Karen’s curious and wants to check it out.

    We join the line and file up the stairs. Inside, there’s your usual late-night pub, smoke-hazy and sticky-carpeted. We find a table pretty quickly and sit down. Karen goes off to the toilets and I sit looking at the bar, trying to work out what they have on tap.

    When Karen comes out, she sees the stage immediately. I get up to order a beer and a rum-and-coke and Karen wanders off to see what songs they have on the karaoke machine. I come back, drinks in hand, find a couple of coasters (marked “Legends”—there wasn’t a sign above the door when we walked in) and Karen hums the first few bars of “Islands in the Stream”. She tries to get me to sing, but I tell her (as usual) that they don’t have anything in my register.

    So, she goes up, gets them to program her song in and comes back to the table to drink and wait for her turn.

    The sound system fires up with a thud and the first singer gets up on stage, a little guy, again, Anglo, in a dark suit and tie. He starts to sing “Fernando”.

    As soon as he hits the chorus, he disappears. No, I mean it, he disappears—there one second, gone the next. The mike hits the floor with a pop and a squeal. I look over to Karen to see if she just saw what I did, or if I was just drunk outta my tree, but she stares off into space, trying to remember the lyrics to her song.

    I shrug, and look back to the stage. Another guy, much like the first gets up, picks up the mike and starts off “Wind Beneath My Wings”. Thirty seconds in, the same thing happens—he disappears.

    Again, the mike hits the floor, but this time Karen notices. It’s her turn next. I’m sure that I’m not tripping, so I tell her not to get up. I try to explain it to her—that two guys just disappeared off stage—but she thinks that I’m crazy. We yell at each other, and she weaves her way towards he stage as I storm back out onto the street.

    The next I hear from her is a phone call from her mother on the Monday. She wants to know what I did to Karen. I ask her what she’s talking about. That’s when she tells me that Karen is doped up on thorazine in some hospital ward, sitting in the corner, rocking back and forth, singing that Kasey Chambers song:

    “… Don’t I make you laugh?
    Should I try it harder?
    Why do you see right through me?”

    I showed it to Mim when we got home, and I think it gave her the creeps. Yay, me!