Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Last Days of Marconis

Last Days of Marconis
by Jourdan Cameron
I've been running for a long time now; I woke up bolting from the flaming wreck of a barn that no longer exists. My name is Katharine, and my world is ending.
My entire, fifteen year life I've lived in Marconis. Our family, the Powton family, had been among the wealthiest in all of Marconis. We have seen the poverty, we have seen the pain, and we have seen the corruption. In short, we have seen far too much.
“Katy” my father calls, panting. “Katy, we're getting close to the bunker.”
My dad and I stop running for a moment; we can see the gray concrete of the bomb shelter just on the horizon. With a crunch, he collapses flat on his back into the leaf litter below. I lean on a tree, grateful to be alive. These forests have slowed the advance of our soldiers- or, at least, the machines that were once our soldiers, fighting for us. The government has turned them loose on us “rebels”. In a grand abuse of power, they chose to attack the people who saw their flaws. They decided to demonstrate the extent of their power by destroying my family's house.
Here we go” my father said after rummaging through his backpack. He'd found a flare gun. We dashed towards the facility.
Stand back” he commanded once we'd come within about twenty feet. Reaching into his cargo pants, he pulled out the flare gun and fired it at the massive steel door.
My father and I were fortunate. We had gone out to a Dumb Lummox concert the night we lost our home. We returned just in time to watch our mansion go up in flames.
The flare hit the door with a metallic “clang” that could be heard for miles around. I plugged my ears as the dying rocket screamed and hissed, vomiting flame and smoke.
It left sooty black marks on the dull red door.
I think that should get their attention.”
It sure got mine” I muttered.
We heard a groaning noise as the door slowly opened.
Hello!” my father called out. The door stopped.
Friend or foe?” a voice called back from behind the door.
Who wants to know?”
Vinny, is that you?” The door began opening more rapidly. It was several inches thick, enough to withstand quite a bit of punishment. It hadn't even been dented by the flare.
In the doorway, we could see a dark passage that seemed to stretch on into eternity. As we came closer, we could see a light at its far end.
Come on in!” said the man, from the doorway. He was a burly man with short brown hair. He looked oddly familiar to me, but I couldn't quite put a finger on why...
Little Katie” the man began “you're all grown up now!”
Casey, she probably doesn't remember you.”
Oh right, of course! Katie, I'm Casey, Casey Seer, we were neighbors a decade ago! Boy, times sure have changed, eh Vinny?”
Aye” said my father, walking towards the bunker. Compared to Mr. Seer, my father's muscular arms seemed miniature. Don't get me wrong, my dad's pretty strong, but Mr. Seer is just huge!
My dad leaned on the door frame. “So what have you been up to all these years?”
Well, I was working with the poorer families in Marconis; I gave them sound financial advice, they gave me their love. Trouble is, no good deed goes unpunished. I was arrested for 'unauthorized education'. I was sharing a cell with a member of the Avansguar party, and he told me that other members of the party would chip in, help me make bail, and bring me to freedom!”
The Avansguar party is- was- a short lived political party. They went against the grain, and the General Party didn't exactly care for them; little by little, their members either died in bizarre accidents or simply disappeared.
So are you just going to stand out there?” Casey beckons us inside.
The hallway feels cramped; I suspect it's either the bulk of Casey or the fact that the walls are several feet thick. Either way, I'm beginning to feel claustrophobic when we at last reach the huge gray room at the end of the room. It is full of rebels. At one end of the room was a table surrounded by a small crowd of excited observers. At the other end, there was a cluster of stoves, old fashioned ones all occupied by ragtag chefs.
In the middle of the room, a miniaturized fusion reactor, a bulky, grey canister with a single control panel in front.
"Well" said Casey "back to guard duty, please, make yourselves at home."
"I'm going to go see what everybody's gawking at over there" my dad said, pointing to the table.
"Alright" I replied.
I'm feeling a bit disoriented. Wandering through the crowd, I feel like a sardine in a school of unfamiliar faces. I never felt more disconnected when, out of the blue, a familiar voice crawls over my shoulder and into my ear.
I spun around to meet the face of a familiar friend.
Danvid!” I nearly jumped for joy; Danvid had been a loyal friend for most of my life. Something about seeing him here was shocking.
I- I thought-”
You thought that I was dead?” I nod, choking back tears. There had been a “mysterious” fire at his home several weeks ago, one with “no apparent cause”. By the time the firefighters arrived, the building had been nearly burned to the ground. When I first heard the news, I ran to his home. There was just a smoldering pile of wood where the apartment building once was. I fell to my knees, overcome with grief. I wept, at both the massive loss of life, and for the loss of a friend.
In case you haven't already guessed, the fire was intentional” he told me. “I suspect you know who did it. Some rebels ran in and saved our family moments before the building collapsed.” He gazed into the crowd. “We owe them our lives.”
How has your family been?”
Mostly alright, 'cept for my father. He felt responsible for all the other people lost.”
Danvid's father had been active working with a few charitable others in managing an orphanage. The Government didn't exactly disallow it; they did, however, 'discourage' it. They held the belief that “weak citizens”, such as the orphans, would be the downfall of the nation.
Tell him...” I'm a little overcome with emotion and start fumbling for my own words. “Really, um, tell him that he did... the right thing.”
Absolutely. I'm just relieved to see you here!” His muscular tan arms encircle me in a hug.
Hey, can you tell me where the bathroom is?
He leads me to a hallway at the end of the room. It's full of doors.
Just knock on one” he tells me.
Knocking on the first, I hear no reply, and it is empty.
Thanks” I say, shutting the door behind me. I stare for a while at my face in a mirror. I'm a mess. My dirty blonde hair is, well, dirty, and there's a layer of grime on my face. Running such a distance through dense forest is not easy, and it was an especially stressful experience, to say the least, constantly being on the lookout for the flying drones that would try to pepper us with bullets. When those ran out, they'd switch to using the blades on their undersides; the drones were essentially flying boxes with rotors, guns, and occasionally other goodies.
Taking care of business, I leave the bathroom.
Katie! Check this out!” It's my dad, he has something attached to his wrists; upon closer examination, I realize that they're weapons from one of the drones, but something seems strange about them.
This place is awesome, they have so many scientists! They're making stuff out of drones after we beat them! Look at this, electric weapons!”
Whoa! How do you fire them?”
I just think about it.”
Yeah, one of them developed this system. I just have to imagine myself firing, and zap, it happens!”
The black twin cylinders were extremely simple in their external design; they looked like hollow, black plastic cylinders strapped to my father's arms. I hoped they would work.
For a moment, we don't say anything. I look up into his dark brown eyes, and we share a single, simple idea; this is the place for us.
An alarm breaks out over the usual din; followed by Casey's voice.
Attention! This is not a drill, sensors indicate that we are surrounded, we have incoming ground troops and busters, battlestations!”
Busters? We better move!”
The “busters” were massive machines, typically used for grand scale demolition. If you needed a stadium gone, these were the machines you wanted. We don't want them anywhere near our bunker.
Follow me to your post” said a short, muscular man. We ran after him to a hall that led to a set of stairs. When we reached the top, we realized that we were standing atop a massive dome; it was the top of the bunker. Gingerly stepping down its slope, I looked down over the short wall and could see the massive tanklike bulk of the busters in the dying rays of the afternoon sun.
My dad walked next to me, staring down at the busters.
They're huge.”I nodded in agreement.
They're also powerless against my secret weapon.”
Leaning perilously over the short barrier, he aimed his arms straight down towards the shadowy busters and shut his eyes. A pure white light emerged from his arms, it seemed, as he activated his electrical weapons. He illuminated the entire landscape for a few sweet seconds, sending up birds from their trees and revealing the forms of the busters; massive, legged machines, wielding a belly full of mechanically operated hammers, truly menacing, and truly dead, now.
He looked up at me and smiled. He then fell over the barrier.
With a horrified gasp, I shuffle my feet, as if in a trance, and cautiously glance over the edge. My fathers still body is lying still on the forest floor.
I let out a shriek in pure horror at the sight; mine screams of grief soon mix with a higher pitched mechanical noise.
The busters still work.
Everybody is panicking; there's a sudden rush towards the edge and, somehow, I go from facing the edge to falling off of it. I'm falling down the side of the building, sliding perilously towards my doom as I grapple the rough concrete for something to hold on to. Fortunately, there's some sort of pole directly in my path. Most regrettably, it's directly in my path, and as my foot glances off of it, my ankle twists painfully in the wrong direction. This, however, seems to slow my fall just enough for me to grab on to the pole. I'm about ten feet from the ground. I'm concerned that if those ground troops I heard about earlier don't see me, they'll hear my heart nearly rattling itself loose from its case.
Have you ever had an idea that seemed brilliant at the time? I know it's an old cliché, but it always seems to hold true. It seems that these brilliant ideas have a strange habit of coming into existence at all the wrong times.
In an unexpected moment of genius, however, I had a different kind of moment. Pulling myself up, I crouch on the dull metal pole and leap towards the buster.
From atop of the colossus, I can see my father lying in the dead leaves and slide down one of the massive metal legs towards him. I instinctively reach for his neck with two fingers outstretched. He still has a pulse. Going through his pockets, I suddenly realize that he doesn't have his flare gun. I drag him across the ground all the way to the door, staring up at the mechanical monster standing dumbly before us. My father groans before slipping out of consciousness again. In my desperation, I bang my fists on the door. I collapse to the ground. I just realized that the situation is hopeless. Everybody's on the roof, trying to figure out how to beat the buster before it manages to get back up. Besides, they can't hear me knocking on a door that's about a foot thick.
The buster's massive limbs begin to stir as the elongated row of hammers on its underside begin swaying back and forth. It rears up on four legs like a massive destructive millipede. Holding my limp father close, I shut my eyes and I hear a few titanic footsteps looming ever closer.
Squeezing my eyes and my arms tighter, I hear what sounds like the rumble of amplified thunder. The end has begun.
Then, there's a massive boom and I feel a gust of wind fly by me.
So this is how it feels to die” I thought to myself. “It feels so peaceful.”

I opened my eyes and realized that I wasn't dead. The flaming carcass of the massive machine was lying in front of me. I had been spared. But by what?
I could hear cheers from the roof, followed by a few explosions. We were winning, and we were doing it with help.
I looked up and saw rotors of a drone spinning high above me. I was lying in its shadow, and it hung the air as the men cheered. This drone was different, somehow. It looked like an old fashioned helicopter.
Greetings” it loudly proclaimed through an unseen speaker. “This is unit 5K1LL4R3 declaring you now the property of the glorious nation of-”
It's arrogant dissertation was cut off as a beam of orange ran through its center. It fell on top of the buster.
I felt an odd vibration behind me and realized that the door I was leaning against was now opening. Pulling my father up onto my back, I prepare to enter as the door swings open.
Casey's face is ashen and covered in sweat. He grabs my father as I run into the hallway. Looking back, I can see one of the ground troops in the darkness. Their form is vaguely human, except that they're much, much harder to kill.
Slamming the door, Casey begins running back inside. I try to run, but nearly fall flat on my face as my ankle gives out.
I limp back into the mostly empty room, wondering what's going to happen next. There's a bed next to the door; Casey puts my father onto it and calls out for a doctor. I can't remember much except for the weight of his hand on my shoulder as he turned around to go back to his job.
My dad's thick black hair covers his eyes, his skin is pale as the moon. I paced awhile through the halls until the doctors summoned me; he'd be fine. It seemed that his weapons suffered some sort of backfire. They weren't entirely finished, after all.
Vaguely, I remember him holding my hand, telling me that everything would be alright. He told me to keep fighting.
So I ran back to the roof to the battle. Our men were fighting the ground troops, or at least, were finishing off the ground troops using weapons they gleaned from the wrecks of destroyed war machines and various other pieces of hacked equipment.
I watched as they fired a few last shots in the direction of the last troop. By morning, we'd scavenge their mechanical corpses for parts.
Where do you think that drone came from?” asked one man to another.
I haven't a clue! The ground troops cut it off.”
I know” said Casey, coming up the stairs to the roof. “It was from another country, I recognized its flag. Friends, we have a situation on our hands. Please report downstairs for further details.”
As the rebels casually trotted towards the stairs, Casey singled me out of the crowd.
You did a brave thing.” he said, beaming with pride.
I don't really think so” I simply replied. I don't believe that I did, after all, I did fall by accident.
But you saved your father!”
One man! And we nearly lost the base!”
But we didn't. And because of your actions, we didn't lose a single soldier.”
I just give the man a hug and head downstairs. It's already getting late. Tomorrow will be another day.
Ladies and gentlemen” Casey announces over the speaker system “I have good news. The government of Marconis has been defeated.” A deafening roar goes up from the crowd as people begin weeping, laughing, and jumping for joy.
There is a second announcement” he says solemnly.
Those who have overthrown the government are not our friends. They are extremely hostile, and our new enemy is the country of-” Casey's voice is drowned out by an explosion. As many of our men assemble for battle, I run back to my father, how is still in a half conscious state.
He's lying on a strange old bed with wheels, the kind I see in hospitals. Underneath it are his electrical weapons. I grab them both and join the crowd heading outside.
Well that was fun to write! I put this piece together for my local library's writing contest; it received second place.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Poisons: A History from Hemlock to Botox

Poisons: A History from Hemlock to Botox by Peter Macinnis is a book about, as one may safely surmise, poisons, and their role in human history. I must say that this book was quite a pleasant surprise; I'm by no means a toxicologist, mass murderer or historian but in spite of this, I found Poisons quite appealing. It was well written, and Macinnis managed to keep it both educational and engaging (by no means an easy thing to do!).
I was taken aback by some of the tasks mankind has assigned to poison; one of the most common throughout the ages, it seems, was for the purpose of beautification. For example, Victorian women used nightshade (Atropa belladonna) to increase the size of their pupils in an attempt to make themselves more attractive. The nightshade (or Bella Donna) would paralyze some of the muscles in their eyes, and had a nasty habit of causing issues with ones vision. It seems using toxic paralytics has continued to our day with the use of Botox, which is derived from the same toxin that causes botulism.
I have heard others complain about this book, the primary issue they take with it is that Mr. Macinnis has a tendency to stray from the topic into a somewhat related subject. I noticed this, and frankly, I'm happy with it. When he does go off topic, what he's talking about is still quite related to how poisons played a part. He provides a good background, and it pays off handsomely. It's what makes this book special; it elevates it from what could have been a somewhat dull set of facts and accounts into a brief, fascinating window into the dark, dangerous, world of poison.

Macinnis looks at poisons past, present, and potential, and with wit, charm, and elegance, he presents an interesting subject in an interesting manner.
This is a book I could recommend to just about anybody (except for murderers, of course).