If you are new to the SDS Challenge, a little background.
Three writers will each write one story a month going down the list of deadly sins. The stories can be anywhere from 666 words to 6,666 words in length, although those numbers are not set in stone. If ambitious, the writers will provide accompanying graphics. These stories will not be anonymous because some writers may want to use the same characters for each story and write a series — or book — encompassing all seven sins. Finally, interpretation of the titular sin is up to the writer. Meaning, each ‘sin’ can take multiple forms.
The third set of stories cover the sin of Greed. This is the offering by Perry Broxson.
Disclaimer: The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories will likely span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.
Perry is writing a novella linking all of the seven sins, but breaking each sin up into semi-stand-alone offerings. Because of this, he asked that I include this prologue/synopsis to set up the story:
Greed Is Good
Copyright 2021 — Perry Broxson
(9,170 words – approx. reading time: about 35 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Ralph wafted in the drafts of the African wind streams, scanning the vast continent with his eyes and his amulet, hoping to find signs of Mortal Sin, Greed.
Jordan was right: If Greed is everywhere, it’s nowhere.
The search was exhausting. Twenty hours a day, for seven days, Ralph flew over jungles and deserts, rivers and plains. He flew low, cruising over rain forests, peeking through the impenetrable canopies. He joined flocks of migratory birds, immersing himself in their midst, so that he would not be spotted by humans or airplanes or radars.
In the evenings, he would either find a tavern in a shanty town and drink his nourishment, or insinuate himself into a native feast, dazzling his hosts with his pitch perfect dialect. There were also nights – too many nights – when he made his meals from fruit or bird eggs, and his bed on the boughs of titanic trees. Those lonely nights sapped his strength, shrunk his soul. He lost weight, lost confidence, lost the plot of his mission.
“Greed,” he shouted each night. “Show yourself.” He gripped the Ark Amulet and shook it. “Show me where the devil is, dammit!”
It was on the ninth night that the Ark Amulet shook like rattlesnake buttons, signaling the proximity of his Jumper.
Ralph was asleep in the crotch of a tree, his wings ensconcing him like a cocoon. He awoke to the murmurs of dark-skinned natives. He peeked through his wings and watched the mostly nude men look up and point at him. He considered flying away, but the Ark Amulet had finally alarmed, and he was near his breaking point.
It was then that he felt a fiery sting.
The natives rejoiced and shook their fists at him. Ralph now noticed that several of the men held blowpipes. Hunters, he knew, then pulled three small darts from his thigh.
He tried to unfold his wings and fly to safety, but branches trapped him and vines entwined him. He animated the sword Fidel and sliced through the thicket, then leaped upward. He flew until he fell – the fast-acting poison clipping his wings and fogging his brain.
Two days later, Ralph awoke. “Water,” he called in the Banatu tongue. “Water.”
An elderly pygmy woman with flowers threaded through her wooly hair entered the thatched hut. Her wizened skin was scored with brands and tattoos and oozing bug bites. “You know our language, Zunanni?”
“Water,” Ralph repeated, reaching for the wooden ladle. He drank until his gullet revolted, threw up, and drank more.
“Slowly, Zunanni,” she said, stroking his bald head.
“Not Zunanni,” he finally said. “Ralph . . . Ralph Chamberlain, from America. I’m a missionary.”
She smiled toothlessly and ran her crooked thumb through the groove of his scalp scar. “Zunanni,” she insisted.
“Ralph,” he countered.
Surprisingly spry, she leaped and cackled and danced. “The hunters,” she said, “they say you have wings. Zunanni, the Great Heron, God of Three Rivers, has wings. You, Zunanni, are Zunanni.”
“Can’t argue with your logic,” Ralph said, then pushed away the animal skin that blanketed him. “Pleasure meeting you, ma’am. Pleasure getting poisoned by your tribe. Wish I could stay, but I’ve really got to go.” It was then he realized he was naked.
“Clothes,” he said, covering his penis. “Where are my clothes?”
The old woman laughed again, her desiccated breasts swinging as she convulsed. “You are modest, Zunanni. Your penis is not modest – nor should you be.”
“A compliment,” Ralph pondered, “I think.”
She reached into a wicker basket and produced his clothes. “If you must go,” she said.
“I must,” he said, sliding into the river-washed garments. “Thank you. What is your name?”
“I am Dedra,” she said. “I am the Shaman of the Banatu. The hunters wanted to eat you, but I stopped them. I told them you were Zunanni, God of Three Rivers, and that you would avenge all those that feasted on your flesh.”
“I’m liking that name more and more,” Ralph said, tying his boots. “Zunanni . . . Zunanni.”
“You should not hurry,” Dedra said. “You are weak. The hunters have killed a boar. We will feast tonight. Stay. Sup with us. Allow us to honor the Great Heron God.”
Ralph’s first instinct was to leave. After all, they had shot him and nearly eaten him. But the Shaman was right. He was weak and malnourished. Even if he did fly away and find Greed, he was in no shape for battle.
“I accept,” he said, bowing. “But tomorrow I must leave.”
“Tomorrow,” Dedra said, writing the word with her finger. “Never disrespect today by living for tomorrow.”
“Wise,” he said. “Is that an old Banatu proverb?”
“Marvel,” she replied, smiling slyly. “The Thor movie called Ragnarok.”
It was Ralph’s turn to laugh. Laugh he did, until fatigue set in. Dedra pulled the animal skin over him and wished him dreamless sleep. Nine hours later he awoke to the aroma of roasted pig.
Ralph stepped out of the hut and into the dance circle. He had considered clothing himself then decided against it. Was it not enough that he was the only white man? Did he need to distinguish himself further by donning pants and shirt, et al?
A man just under five feet – the tallest member of the tribe – approached him, gripping his shoulders and spinning him around. “Where are your wings, Zunanni?”
“Drycleaners,” Ralph said, smiling lopsidedly.
The man looked at him quizzically and then introduced himself. “I am Toro, Chief of the Banatu Pygmies. We are the Forest People. Please eat with us, Great Heron. Be our honored guest.”
Ralph looked at the revolving pig over the blazing pit and asked, “Did you kill that with poison darts?”
Toro grinned and nodded.
“If I eat pork that’s full of poison will . . .” Ralph started to ask, then said: “Fuck it. Let’s eat.”
The tribe leaped and danced and sang songs about the moon, the stars, the pig, and the Great Heron. They celebrated with iroko root juice – a concoction that Ralph found foul, but pleasantly inebriating. As he blissfully slipped into an altered state, it occurred to him that he was in the presence of family. He knew each of them – not by names, but the lights of their souls, their loving auras. They had adopted him, the Banatu, if only for the night. He, in turn, had adopted them . . . for all tomorrows.
Ralph hoisted the cup of his nut shell and toasted, “Here’s to those who wish us well. Those who don’t can go to hell!”
The tribe laughed as one, unsure of the reference, but loving the passion of the River God’s incantation. Ralph drank and danced and thought not of tomorrow – thought not of Mirabelle, or his deceased daughter and wife. Thought, instead, of the present and his pleasant human connections.
Hours later, exhausted, but euphoric from root juice and revelry, Ralph retired to his hut. Despite a medley of bedeviling dreams, Ralph slept. Slept so deeply, in fact, that he did not hear the roar of war that surrounded him.
At dawn, Dedra stumbled into his hut. “Awake, Zunanni! O Great Heron, please, please awake!”
“Dedra,” he said groggily, “what’s wrong?”
She fell to her knees and then collapsed across his chest. In her hand was a broken stone knife, bloody, and fresh from the fight. “Shutu – they came in the night. They took men, women, children.”
“Took them? Too them where, for what?”
“Slaves,” she said, her voice weakening. “For mining. Help us, Zunanni. Save the Forest People . . . save us from Greed.”
“Greed,” he repeated, as his amulet vibrated. “Dedra, where are they?”
She collapsed, falling across his body. She exhaled her final breath. Her chest upon his chest, ceased to heave. Ralph felt her spirit depart, discarding the lifeless body. He slowly rolled her off and examined her. Under her left breast, was a wound. Spear, he assessed. Or machete. She’d packed the gash with herbs – keeping herself alive long enough to alert him.
He took a moment to stroke her dreadlocks and say a prayer to Our Betters. “May she be hailed as a heroin. May she grace the Halls of Heaven. May she be a celebrated spirit – exalted – seated at the Throne of Queens.” He then took a yellow flower from her gray hair and placed it gingerly into the crease of his wallet.
Dressed, he stepped out of the hut and surveyed the carnage. It had been a systematic assault. The Shutu had stolen the useful people and slaughtered the old and infirm. Ralph raced around the village perimeter, checking each fallen body for a pulse. But the ruthless Shutu were thorough murderers. They’d slit the throats of the elderly, leaving them to be scavenged by ants and animals.
With the help of Fidel, Ralph slashed swales into the forest floor. Reverently, he deposited each small victim into the earth, commending their souls to Our Betters. The solemn project took several hours. His anger inflamed with each interment. With only Dedra left to bury, he felt compelled to remonstrate – to stop, to scream, to curse the all-seeing voyeurs that watched the Shutu slaughter and enslave the gentle People of the Forest.
His wails shook the sky and quieted the jungle. He beat his chest and blamed himself. Surly, he and Fidel could have thwarted the siege. Surely, he could have forestalled the slaughter . . . if only by half. The difference between himself and Our Betters, he understood, was that he would have tried . . . to the fullest extent of his being, he would have tried. Even it meant sacrificing his own life, he would have tried. The Gods showed no such compassion.
He heard a rustle from the forest. An opportunistic animal, he thought, eager to feed on his family’s remains. Ralph animated Fidel. “Let’s do this,” he said, hoping to release his rage on a cackle of hyenas, or even a lion pride.
“Help,” a voice said. “Help me.”
Ralph flew to the woods and quickly discovered a man under an umbrella of broad leaves. Ralph did not recognize him. His length, closer to six feet than five, told him that he was not a Banatu Pygmy.
“Get up,” Ralph commanded.
“I can’t,” he said, holding his groin. “I’m hurt.”
Ralph grabbed his forearm and jerked him to a semi-standing position. The man groaned, holding his wound. Ralph removed the man’s hand and examined the injury. What he saw infuriated him.
“The old woman,” Ralph said. “The Shaman called Dedra. That is the broken blade of her stone knife – there, in your gut. She fought you and you killed her. She fought you to save her people . . . and you killed her.”
“No,” the man cried. “I am Goran of the Shutu. I am a brave and noble warrior.”
“You are a coward, a killer, and a slaver,” Ralph said, grinding his teeth.
“No,” he protested. “I am Goran, fleet of foot, climber of tall trees. I am the son of the jaguar, the brother of lions. I am” –
Ralph kicked him in the groin, driving the broken knife deeper into his guts. Goran doubled and fell, gagging on the bile that rushed into his throat and nose.
“You are a coward, a killer, and a slaver,” Ralph repeated. “Say it.”
“I am . . .” he spluttered, “. . . I am the charmer of snakes, enchanter of crocodiles.”
Ralph released Fidel. He laid the blade upon the man’s shoulder, as if to knight him. He caused the steel to oscillate, exciting the molecules, heating the blade. Goran screamed as his skin sizzled under the searing metal.
“Say it,” Ralph repeated.
“I am coward,” Goran admitted. “Please, stop. It burns!”
“And . . .”
“I am killer,” Goran admitted. “Please, stop. It burns!”
“And slaver,” Ralph prompted.
“Yes,” Goran said. “Yes, yes, yes. Slaver.”
“To what end?” Ralph asked. “Why do the Shutu exploit the Banatu?”
“Miracleum,” Goran blurted. “I’ll tell you everything if you please, please stop burning me.”
Ralph lifted Fidel, relishing the crimson brand on Goran’s black flesh. “Talk.”
Goran, the coward, killer, and slaver, wrapped himself into a fetal position and wept. “The white man, Sylas, he made us. He needs labor to mine Miracleum for . . . Quantum Computers. The Banatu are small and can go deep into the narrow shafts.”
“Sylas,” Ralph summarized. “A white man. Miracleum and computers. Greed.” He touched the ark amulet and it sent an electric shock through his arm, making his muscles twitch. In that electric second, he knew that was Sylas was Three-of-Seven, his Jumper – Greed.
“They are not people,” Goran added. “They are animals.”
“What?” Ralph asked.
“You westerners use horses and oxen for labor,” he said. “There is no difference. The Banatu are the useful animals of the Congo.”
Ralph turned his back on the man and walked to the hut. He gathered Dedra into his arms, carrying her, then placing her small body next to Goran. “Bury her,” he said.
Goran squirmed, frightened of the corpse. “No, she is unclean.”
Ralph brandished Fidel, placing the heated tip under Goran’s nose, so that he could smell the hot metal. “Bury Dedra. There.”
“I am injured,” he whinged, “and I have no tools.”
Ralph pointed to the plot and said, “Use your hands . . . dig . . . like a useful animal.”
Goran pleaded with Ralph, but for naught. “Dig her grave,” Ralph said, “or I dig yours.”
Goran clawed at the soil, pausing only when his groin cramped. It took a full hour, but for Ralph Chamberlain, it did not feel like wasted time. He needed it: to heal, to clear his muddled mind, to re-commit himself to his mission.
When the grave was dug, Ralph demanded privacy. “Go. Over there.” He pointed to a place away from the grave. “Stay there until I am finished. Rest. You’ll need your strength to lead me to Sylas.”
Ralph then placed Dedra in shallow grave. He spoke to her as he would a child . . . Mirabelle . . . being put to bed. “Sleep, sweet one. Your work is done. You have fought the good fight. Sleep, my Queen.” He closed her eyes and kissed her cheek. He then gathered flowers and laid them on her chest, over her still heart.
Then, with his blistered hands, he began to fill the grave. He covered her feet, her legs, her torso, leaving her face for last. “Go gently into that good night, My Lady.” He smiled crookedly, gathered double handfuls of soil, intending to cover Dedra’s face. Before he released the dirt, however, the dead Shaman’s eyes flew open.
“Holy shit,” Ralph said. “Dedra!”
“Behind you,” she croaked.
Ralph animated Fidel. The sword burst through the grave dirt in his hands. Ralph ducked and spun and slashed a perfect circle.
It was Goran, of course. He’d pulled the stone blade from his groin and would have plunged it into Ralph’s back, had it not been for Dedra’s posthumous warning.
Ralph looked down at Dedra. There was no sign of life. Dedra’s eyes were closed and her face was serene and unconcerned with this world. Reverently, he covered her face with the soil in which she’d grown her herbs – the herbs she’d used to heal her tribe, and to give them glimpses into the otherworld she now inhabited.
Finished, Ralph stood and stepped over the two halves of Goran: coward, killer, and slaver. With a flash of his white wings, he disappeared into the Congolese jungle, in search of a man named Sylas . . . in search of Greed.
Ralph weaved through the foliage, following the trail of footprints – assured by the mix of the Pygmies’ miniature feet. When the trail narrowed, he bounded above the treescapes and surveilled greater distances. Soon, he detected an unlovely mountain, dark and irregular, that showed its craggy black head.
Mining, he remembered. The Banatu were being tasked with extracting some mineral for some technology . . . Miracleum . . . for Quantum Computers. Or so Goran the coward had confessed.
The thought of modern day slavery doubled Ralph’s ire. He folded his wings like a peregrine and swooped speedily toward the mountain, lighting on the bough of an iroko tree. Concentrating, he focused his vision upon a haphazard encampment and the base of the mountain. What he saw shocked him. Men with whips and machetes shouted commands, gesturing at an array of half-filled tin buckets. One of the men lifted a walkie-talkie to his mouth and spoke. Ralph listened intently. The conversation went accordingly:
“These lazy Banatu beasts have disappointed once again. The buckets are only half-filled. What should I do, Sylas?”
The two-way conversation Ralph heard chilled him.
“Make an example,” the voice crackled. “Gather the new recruits at the sifting station. Then execute three of the worthless workers in front of the rest. That should motivate the little miscreants.”
“Machine guns or machetes?”
“Machetes,” the voice trilled. “Chop them to bits. That’s an order.”
“Yes, Sylas. When should we” –
“NOW!” Sylas shouted. The radio clicked and the connection ended.
Ralph inventoried himself, citing a mental checklist – giving himself a rating from one to ten. Strength: 4. Agility: 5. Plan: 2. Confidence: 3. Anger: 10.
“What do you think, Fidel?” he said aloud. “Can we thwart the agents of evil and emerge victorious?”
Fidel shot from his palm, singing its silent, sonic battle hymn.
“Will we conquer our adversaries and capture the Mortal Sin, Three-of-Seven, Greed?”
Fidel’s metal sizzled, glowing blue with heat.
Ralph felt buoyed. The parodic soliloquy was emboldening him. “Shall we charge headlong into battle? Shall we smite the unrighteous and liberate the enslaved? Shall we”–
His speech unfinished, Ralph felt a familiar prick in his neck and shoulder. Darts, he thought; poison, he knew. It felt like the same psychoactive toad gland excrement that had felled him three days prior. Paralysis seized him, gripping him like Polyphemus’ fist.
“Nooooo,” he lamented, regretting his longwinded pep-talk. “Noooo . . . not again.”
Ralph tumbled from the bough of the iroko tree onto the fetid compost of the forest floor. He fought against the veil of sleep, slashing at its imaginary fabric with his faithful sword. As before, however, unconsciousness conquered lucidity and slumber slayed vitality.
A day later, Ralph awoke from the toxic effects of blowgun darts. This time, however, there was no Dedra swabbing his brow or fetching him water. There was, instead, a pair of guards wearing military camouflage, brandishing AK-47 automatic rifles. And there was something else, something that took his Ralph persona a full minute to comprehend. His right hand was encased in a cast – a motley ball of hardened concrete.
“He’s awake,” the thin guard said to the fat one.
The fat guard squawked his hand-radio and said, “Sylas, the prisoner is awake.”
Ralph heard the reply: “I’ll be there in five minutes. If he tries to escape, shoot him. If he does escape, shoot each other . . . because that will be merciful compared to what I’ll do to you.”
“Copy, the fat guard said, then pointed his weapon directly at Ralph’s head.
“Don’t move, devil.”
“Devil,” Ralph repeated, staring at the rock at the end of his arm. “Technically,” he rambled, “I was forged in the same cauldron as demons and the devil . . . so you’ve got a point. But my elemental physiognomy is much different. Think of it like this. Do you consider the Banatu to be your equal?”
The thin guard laughed, showing gold teeth. “No, of course not. The Banatu are lowly animals . . . made for labor and subjugation. We are Shutu, Tribe of Fire. We hold dominion over all that we see. The forest fears us; lions flee and leopards cower. We are the Kings of the Congo.”
“And yet,” Ralph said, “you piss your pants when Sylas speaks.”
They both looked at one another’s crotch. “You speak lies,” the fat one said.
“It’s a metaphor,” Ralph clarified. “What I mean to say is: You’re frightened of Sylas. From what I’ve heard of his voice, he sounds young, like a kid. A white kid. From the West. Probably American. Highly educated. Privileged. Soft. Never had to fight his own fight . . . not like a real Shutu warrior. Not like the Kings of the Congo.”
The two guards looked at one another, each hoping the other would refute Ralph’s uncanny assessment.
“I’m right, aren’t I?” Ralph interjected.
“He is powerful, this man Sylas,” the thin guard justified. “He make machines that make magic. This is why he needs Miracleum . . . to power the computers. This is why we need Banatu.”
“Sylas,” Ralph shrugged. “A punk kid. A wimp. A weakling. And you let him treat you like . . . well, like you treat Banatu. You are Sylas’ animals. You are his beasts of burden. His pets.”
The fat guard cracked Ralph with the butt of his gun. Ralph tried to deploy his wings to block the blow, but found that his torso had been cinched by a metal jacket – most likely, he surmised, a military-grade bullet-proof vest. He’d worn hard-armor vests during dangerous raids, both military and civilian. As he caressed the blooming bump on his forehead, it occurred to him that Sylas and his minions had done a thorough job of handicapping his angelic talents.
“Truth hurts,” Ralph said. “Admittedly, this time it hurts me more . . . but you get my drift.”
Sylas entered the hot room, pushing past the guards. “Did he try to escape?”
The thin guard said, “No, sir. But he won’t shut up.”
“Perhaps Raphael, Ark Angel of the Celestial Realm, has something to say,” Sylas said in English.
Ralph studied the man, and was astonished at how close his earlier assessment had been. Sylas was not a man at all; rather, a boy in a band shirt with uncombed hair and a mustache so spare that its collective whiskers could have been counted on fingers and feet.
“You’re Sylas?” Ralph laughed.
“I am Sylas.”
Ralph could not stop laughing. He pounded his casted hand on the dirt floor. He looked up at the strapping guards and shook his head. “You guys are afraid of this . . . this . . . fetus?”
The guards checked one another. Their eyes narrowed and their nostrils flared.
“Enough,” Sylas said. “Age is no indicator of strength, Raphael. As I see it, your advanced age has done nothing to aid you in your quest. As I see it, you are bound and broken . . . and beholden to me for your very life. As I see it, the advantage is all mine. Without your weapon and wings, you are nothing but a geriatric irritant, a mere pebble in my shoe.”
Ralph examined himself. Bloody, bound, and out of ideas. “You do have the advantage. Of that there’s no doubt. I’d go so far as to say . . . I’ll just say it . . . you win. Greed has won out. Greed has beaten me. Greed is smart and strong. Greed, to quote Gordon Gekko, is good.”
The youth grinned, revealing an orthodontic retainer. “Who is this Gordon Gekko?” Sylas asked. “A great philosopher?”
“Wall Street,” Ralph said. “The movie. Michael Douglas. Remember, he had the giant cell phone?”
All three of Ralph’s captors shook their heads.
“Oliver Stone directed it,” he explained. “Charlie Sheen. Daryl Hannah.”
They looked at him, nonplussed.
“The movie won an Academy Award in 1987!”
The three men burst into laughter. Sylas said, “We weren’t even born in 1987, old man.”
Ralph rode the wave of ridicule. When the laughter stopped he said, “I get it, I get it. I’m old, you’re young. Har-de-har-har. But if old movies have taught us anything it’s that before you kill me, you have to do that whole villain thing and explain your nefarious plot to take over the world?”
Sylas rubbed his wispy chin whiskers and spoke directly to Ralph in English, so as to exclude the guards. “This is hands-down the saddest avatar you’ve ever chosen, Raphael. An old man with a hokey sense of humor . . . captured, as I understand it . . . twice by the same weapon: a primitive blowgun. Considering that you’ve stacked the odds so heavily in my favor, I will indulge you.”
“Are you going to speak Shutu, so that our friends can understand?” Ralph asked.
Sylas looked left and right, sneered, and continued in English. “I’ll tell you, Raphael. But I doubt your antiquated avatar brain will comprehend the next-generation sophistication of my technical advancements. After all, I am Sylas Savant, the most brilliant mind of our time.”
“Savant? Your last name is really Savant?”
Sylas blushed. “No, but the guys in marketing said it sounded cool. Does it?”
Ralph shrugged noncommittedly.
“Sylas Savant, creator of Quantum Computation,” Sylas continued. “Do you know what Quantum Computing is, Raphael?”
“You can call me Ralph,” Ralph said. “And no . . . as you’ve so astutely observed, I am old. I do not know what Quantum Computing is. That is not to say that I’m not interested. If it’s relevant to global domination and will postpone my death, please continue with your tedious exposition.”
Sylas blushed; his acne blazed like cigar burns. He curled his soft hands into soft fists and teetered on the brink of tantrum.
“Something I said?” Ralph asked.
The boy burst, launching into a tirade. “You can’t possibly understand! This technology defies the 2nd law of thermodynamics. It nullifies entropy. Miracleum shifts processing from a high state of energy to a higher state – it’s basically perpetual motion. You’re a pig staring at a watch! A chimp with a typewriter! You’re old and stupid and old.”
“Old,” Ralph nodded. “But so are you, Greed. As old as time.”
Sylas relaxed and allowed a smile. His retainer gleamed with spittle. “I’m going to build a master computer that will enslave all computers, Raphael. I will control every “smart” device and consequently, every dumb operator. You won’t be able to drive a car, watch a movie, or toast a muffin without my consent. I will control everything from ICBMs to your mother’s vibrator.”
Ralph laughed. “Mother’s vibrator. That’s funny. Did you just come up with that, or did you make notes for your Villain Speech?”
“You’re not listening,” Sylas yelled. “I’ll be richer than Solomon and Midas! Richer than Bezos and Gates! Richer than Our Betters!”
Ralph scratched his head with his free hand and sighed. “Should’ve known. Greed is as greed does . . . it’s all about wealth and enrichment with you. This is why I chase you and catch you and stuff you back in that goddamn box every goddamn Cycle. This is why I hunt!”
Sylas kicked Ralph with his Van sneakers but when he saw that it had no effect, he ordered the Shutu henchmen to assist. With heavy boots and strong legs, they obliged. After many minutes, Ralph, bloodied and bruised, passed out.
“Tie him to the Caya Tree on the Golgotha Hill,” Sylas hissed. “The hollow tree – the one with the Siafu Ant colony.”
The fat guard clapped his hands over his mouth and the thin guard whispered: “Siafu.”
“Yes,” Sylas said. “Let’s see how this old man holds up to twenty million stinging, shredding ants – each, a demon in its own right.”
“But Sylas,” the fat guard said, “the pain is too great. He is an old man. Can we not simply shoot him?” He pressed his weapon to Ralph’s temple.
“The Caya Tree!” Sylas shrilled. “Take him. Tie him. Torture him. If the ants aren’t hungry, soak him in syrup! Do it! Do it! Do it!”
The guards saluted and then each grabbed a leg. They dragged Ralph out of the mine shack, over fractured gravel, up a thicketed hill, and tied his limp body to the Caya Tree, home of twenty million demons.
The ants needed no prompting. Within seconds, they attacked the man affixed to the tree.
Ralph awakened as a dozen Siafu soldier ants shredded his skin with their powerful, scissoring mandibles. At first, he was dumbfounded. He looked to his left, then to his right. He was stretched, suspended, across the crotch of a Caya Tree – his wrists tied with concertina wire.
Crucifixion, he thought.
More soldiers stormed the battleground of his vulnerable body. Some injected him with formic acid, but most chose the head-shaking shredding of his white flesh.
“This is bad,” the fat guard said to the thin.
“It is an order,” the thin one replied.
The fat guard raised his rifle and pointed it at Ralph’s head.
“No,” the other said, shoving the barrel aside.
“Please,” Ralph called. “This is agony. Shoot me. Put the barrel in my mouth and empty the fucking clip.”
“No,” the thin guard replied. “Sylas say no.”
“He’s a brat,” Ralph replied. “You are Shutu warriors. Men. Brave. Strong. Smart. Men. Why do you take orders from a boy?”
“Money,” the thin guard said, tweezing his thumb and pointer finger together. “Lots of money.”
The chemical call to action rallied more and more of the demonic arthropods. Red waves of the Siafu soldiers emerged from the hollow heart of the Caya Tree, single-mindedly swarming and attacking the hominid interloper.
Ralph screamed until ants stormed the portal of his mouth. He spat and pleaded with the Shutu guards. “If you won’t kill me, will you at least reach into my pocket and retrieve the golden butterfly – it’s a gift from my granddaughter, Mirabelle. I need to see it. To kiss it. To think of her before I . . . die . . . like . . . this!”
The fat guard moved forward. The thin guard attempted to stop him, but assented when he shoved his hand and scowled. “I have a daughter,” the fat guard justified. Then he reached into Ralph’s pocket and found the golden cufflink that Mr. Jordan had given Ralph.
“It is nice,” the fat guard said, admiring the butterfly-shaped jewelry.
“My mouth,” Ralph moaned. “Put it in near my mouth so that I can kiss it and die.”
The thin guard warned: “It’s a trick. He will bite you.”
The fat guard brushed away a battalion of ants around Ralph’s cheeks, chin, and lips. Then he placed the butterfly on Ralph’s swollen lips, like a priest performing Eucharist.
Ralph mouthed the words thank you and then unfurled his dry tongue, snatching the butterfly like a chameleon. The two guards watched his Adam’s apple rise and fall, swallowing the cufflink.
“Why he do that?” the fat guard asked.
Thin guard replied, “The bugs – they make him crazy. Let us go.”
The fat guard levered his safety switch to OFF. “I should finish him.”
“No, look,” thin guard said, pointing at Ralph’s eyes. Every square inch of Ralph’s body was covered by the teaming demons, save his blue eyes. In that moment, ants borrowed into his sockets and tunneled into the gelatinous orbs.
“He is dead,” the thin guard said. “Let us tell Sylas. Perhaps we will receive a bonus for this abominable work.”
Hurriedly and happily, the two men left the unspeakable scene, the sound of chittering, scissoring mandibles following them down the stony escarpment of Golgotha Hill, back to the mining camp.
The impulse to swallow the butterfly was not a thought that Ralph had summoned or sussed. It just happened. It was, Ralph now knew, a gift from . . . Jordan . . . Our Betters? He was unsure of the notion’s exact origin, but he knew that it was divine.
As the ants chewed and sliced and sawed, he felt his skin sloughing away. He felt like a small boy shedding his father’s suitcoat, relieved of the mantle of responsibility. He felt free and light. Lighter, so much lighter. He wriggled and slid free of the armored vest that trussed his chest and bound his wings. A snake, shed of its old flesh. A chick, shed of its shell. A butterfly, shed of its cocoon.
His wrists, bound by spiked wire, slipped free from the steel snarl. His right hand mirrored the escape, sliding out of the concrete cast that Sylas’ thugs had fashioned to neutralize Fidel.
He fell, did Ralph, from the grace of the Caya Tree, down the craggy hill, tumbling, belly-flopping into a polluted brook of sluice water. Ralph rose to his fours, and stared into the fouled waters. Within the liquid silt, he saw his reflection.
“I’m,” he said, then looked again. “I’m not me.”
He was, however, a spitting image of a virile male Banatu Pygmy – small, black, compact. His head was haired with a carpet of dark coils. His lips, thick and curvilinear. His nose, wide and pierced by a quill. He was no longer Ralph Chamberlain. The physical veneer of that incarnation had been stripped away by hordes of greedy Siafu ants. He was now a pygmy.
“Get to work,” a Shutu slaver ordered.
“Me?” Ralph asked, standing in the shallow pool.
The slaver reached for the machete on his hip, but settled on a coiled whip. He slashed Ralph on the buttocks with the serrated thong and laughed. “Yes, rodent. You. Back to the mine. Dig.”
Ralph followed the unclean stream back to its source. Unsurprisingly, it led him to the craggy black mountain that he’d viewed when seated on the bough of an iroko tree – those halcyon moments before being darted, drugged, bound, and fed to ants. He entered the stony tunnel that wound down and around the bowels of the mountain. He passed pygmies carrying tin buckets, most only half-filled. The crystalline contents, he intuited, was Miracleum – the essential mineral needed to power Sylas’ Quantum Computers.
He asked, “Where is the chief? Where is Toro?”
He was ushered through a narrow warren that opened into a dark hall, secured by timbers, adorned with stalactites. Ralph called out: “Toro!” The worded doubled and trebled.
“Here,” a weak voice returned.
Ralph was astonished to see that the once tallest member of the Banatu was, in a mere week, stooped and shrunken. “Who are you?” Toro asked. “My eyes are no longer keen. The gasses . . . in the mine . . . have stolen my vision.”
“It’s me,” Ralph said. “The stranger that became family. The man called Ralph.”
“Zunanni!” Toro shouted. “God of Three Rivers. The Great Heron!”
“You have come to save us,” Toro shouted. “To free us from Shutu bondage. To deliver us from our slavers.”
Ralph clapped a hand over the chief’s mouth. “Yes, but let’s keep it down. Shall we?”
Through whistles and clucks and an ingenious code of hammer blows, Toro was able to call a discreet meeting of the Banatu captives.
“I count sixty-six men and forty-five women,” Ralph said to Toro. “When we last danced, there were twice that number.”
“Our elders were killed. The men and women that resisted are dead,” Toro said. “Our children have been placed with Shutu women – to be trained for labor. We are all that remain of the People of the Forest.”
Ralph took a moment to assimilate the sorrow. When the sorrow soured and alchemized into anger, he leapt upon a boulder and commanded the room. “We are Banatu Pygmies. Small people. Proud people. Together we will defeat our captors and rescue our children. Then, we will return to the forest, to our home by the Three Rivers. Who’s with me?”
“Wait a minute. Who exactly are you?” a young woman asked. “My father is blind. He seems to think you are Zunanni – the Heron. However, we have eyes. We see a man such as us, a pygmy, but unknown to our tribe.”
“Wryn,” the Chief chided. “Do not speak so rudely to the Great Heron.”
“It’s okay,” Ralph said. “I can see how Wryn would be confused. When last we danced, I took the shape of a tall white man. As you recall, when I was captured by brave Banatu hunters, I was endowed with great white wings. Now, I stand before you, an average Banatu man – not tall, not white, not winged.
“Despite my size, I intend to help you slay your enemies and gain freedom from bondage. Having accomplished that, I intend to capture a demon named Greed. Now, who’s with me?”
Wryn stepped up to Ralph and examined him. She touched the puckered branding marks on his shoulder. She stroked his pierced nose. Then, with no consent, she lifted his loincloth and gripped his penis.”
“Pardon,” he croaked.
“You are circumcised in the Banatu method,” she proclaimed. “You are Banatu.”
“Thank you?” Ralph muttered, adjusting himself.
“But,” she continued, “you will need a bigger weapon than that to defeat the slavers and their evil leader – the boy called Sylas.”
Ralph nodded as he looked down. “Fair. That’s a perfectly fair assessment, Wryn.” Then he looked up, catching the eyes of all that surrounded him. “How about this?”
He deployed his wings. They were darkly colored, an iridescent indigo, closer to the hue of his native skin. He spread his wings and preened.
“And this,” he added, raising his open hand. Fidel, like a tine of lightning, streaked from his palm. He sliced through a stalactite with dramatic flair, then sheathed the steel.
The small crowd of small people rejoiced, dancing as they had the night Ralph of the boar feast.
“What’s all this noise?” a voice shouted in Shutu dialect.
The pygmies turned and faced a single slaver. Towering over the Banatu, he pointed his AK-47 at the chief and shouted: “Back to work, you filthy animals.”
“This is our moment,” Ralph proclaimed, summoning a half-remembered Patton speech. “We are a small people up against a large enemy. They have guns. We have spades and hammers. Our stature is our advantage. We are positioned to strike our enemy’s balls. We will twist their balls and kick the living shit out of them. Our basic plan of operation is to advance and to keep on advancing regardless of whether we have to go over, under, or through the Shutu. We are ants. We are Siafu. We are soldiers. We are the Shutu’s worst nightmare! Charge!”
Charge they did, Wryn leading the way – her mining spade raised in rage at the Shutu soldier that dared threaten her tribe. This was exactly what Ralph had hoped for – a unified uprising. In the cinema of his mind, he saw the under-dogs revolt against their overlords, valorous and victorious, winning their freedom one blow at a time. However, reality set in when the Shutu guard shot Wryn and she fell to the graveled ground.
“Wryn,” Ralph cried, flying to her side.
“I’m okay,” she said. “Fight, Great Heron. Fight for my people. Attack the Shutu! Attack Sylas! Twist their balls and kick the living shit out of them!”
The Shutu slaver fanned his weapon, felling a dozen men and women. Still they charged.
“Go,” Wryn cried, and her small body went limp.
Ralph ground his teeth and glowered at the Shutu. His battlecry shook the stalactites and reverberated throughout the entire mine. He pointed Fidel at the shooter and flew, deflecting bullets that were meant for him and his new family.
“What is this?” the slaver cried. “Back, you devil. Back.”
Ralph sliced the AK-47 into halves, taking a portion of the slaver’s hand in the doing. The man paused, paralyzed, examining the amputation with a look of disbelief. “My hand . . . my . . . my hand.”
As the gunman pondered life with a handicap, the Banatu slaves swarmed him, twisting and kicking and biting and stabbing. When it was done, they trampled the man’s corpse, following Ralph through the tunnel, toward the light. Toward freedom.
From the mouth of the mountain cave, they emerged. Bats, one might think. Black and small and shrieking. It was an hour after noon, and the Shutu slavers were napping under iroko shade trees, full from their lunches of fufu, mangos, and fermented bread. From his vantage point some forty-feet high, Ralph guided the battle, directing squads, swooping in to tackle and overtake slavers with automatic weapons.
For every single kill the Banatu made, Ralph matched five fold. The battle raged and blood flowed from both camps. Ralph fought tirelessly, slashing the slavers with trusty Fidel, shielding the little people with the expanse of his black wings. His mere presence sent many a Shutu fleeing into the Congolese forest – he, an ebony cherub; he, an angel of death.
In mere tens of minutes, the Banatu prevailed. Those that opposed them, died. Those that feared their Siafu tenacity and ferocity, fled. When the resistance waned and there were no more Shutu to kill, Ralph surveyed the battlefield at the base of the mountain mine. The victory was overwhelming, but not without great cost. He counted three dozen of his family among the three hundred-plus dead. Yes, the People of the Forest – the mighty Banatu – had prevailed in the pursuit of their liberty, but half of the adults had been slain. It was a glorious day. It was a mournful day.
Three Banatu men called out to Ralph: “Zunanni, Zunanni! Come quick.”
Ralph flew to the tin-roofed building where Miracleum was sifted, separated, and extracted from mountain sludge. The three pygmies pointed to a rack of staved barrels. Behind them, a boy hid.
“Well, well, well,” Ralph said, advancing toward Sylas Savant. “What have we here?”
“Don’t,” Sylas said, standing, showing himself. “Don’t come any closer.” He held up a small device that resembled a car key remote. He positioned his pale thumb over the red button and said, “Make a move and the children die.”
Ralph extended his wings, keeping the Banatu men from attacking Sylas.
“Wise move,” Sylas sneered. “I anticipated an insurrection. I did not anticipate the Banatu victory . . . that is to say, I did not anticipate you, Raphael.” He pointed the remote at Ralph. “That is you in there, isn’t it, Raphael? I see that you are wearing the Ark Amulet. Have you traded white skin for black, tallness for smallness, baldness for hair?”
Ralph refused to be baited. “The Banatu children. Where are they? If you do anything to harm” –
“They’re safe,” Sylas interrupted. “For now. However, if you or any of your . . . pets . . . annoy me, I’ll press this button and blow the kiddies to smithereens.”
The three Banatu men called out the names of their children, bordering on hysteria. “It’s okay,” Ralph said. “Sylas is driven by greed. Sylas . . . it could be said . . . is greed. I’m certain he has conditions for the safety and release of the children. Am I correct, Sylas?”
The boy in the band shirt smiled, showing his crooked teeth and corrective retainer. “There’s a C-23 Sherpa airplane hangered three miles east of here. You little people will load these barrels onto the flatbed truck and drive me to the aircraft. You will load the barrels onto the aircraft and then wave goodbye . . . as I fly away . . . me and my precious Miracleum.”
“It’s a deal,” Ralph said without hesitation. He pointed to the three pygmies and said, “Get help. Load these barrels for Sylas. Quickly.” They scrambled out of the shed.
It was just Ralph and Greed now.
“I should’ve killed you myself,” Sylas said. He hit his forehead with his palm. “Not smart, Sylas. Not smart.”
“You had your chance, Mortal,” Ralph replied. “But you blew it. You told me your dastardly plans . . . and then you entrusted my execution to your bumbling minions. Classic villain mistakes.”
“In my defense,” Sylas said, “I did choose a very young avatar. It was necessary to achieve my high tech, high risk, high reward goals.”
Ralph smiled lopsidedly and said, “And you question why I selected a, shall we say, more mature avatar?”
“Mature,” Sylas laughed. “Is that a euphemism for fossil? Besides, this new body – this pygmy person you inhabit – must be twenty-five years younger than Grandpa Ralph. Of course you lose a foot and eighty pounds in the tradeoff.”
“Yeah, I kind of like this body,” Ralph said. “It’s sporty. It’s like swapping a four-door Oldsmobile for a Porsche Turbo S. Zero to sixty, just like that.” He snapped his fingers.
“I’m sorry,” Sylas said, walking to the door, “would love to chat, but I have places to go, Quantum Computers to build, a world to rule, money to make. I have no time for” . . . he giggled . . . “small talk.”
“Small talk,” Ralph repeated. “I get it. I’m small. You’re funny. But before you go, we need to discuss something – man to . . . to whatever you are.”
“What?” Sylas Savant snapped.
“The children,” Ralph said seriously. “How can you assure me that you won’t push that button and blow them up while you’re jetting through the air with tons of Miracleum?”
“You could take my word,” Sylas said, hold up three fingers. “Scouts honor.”
“Or,” Ralph suggested, “you could give me the remote . . . you know, as you take off in the cargo jet. You have my word, as an Ark Angel, that I will not follow you if you hand over the detonator.”
“Your word,” Sylas said, tasting the phrase. “In all my lives – in all my Cycles – I’ve never known an Angel in the Order of Ark to lie. Perhaps this is the conciliation that we need to end our standoff. Shake on it.”
Sylas extended his soft, pale hand and Ralph gripped it firmly.
As they peered into one another’s eyes for signs of deception, a contingent of pygmies crowded through the door. Azar, the chief’s nephew, announced: “Zunanni, we are prepared to load the barrels. We have pushcarts and barrows.”
Ralph looked into the acne-pocked face of Sylas Savant and said, “Very well. Let’s get to work.”
It took two hours to load the flatbed, twenty minutes to drive to the hangar, and another two grueling hours to load the aircraft. The pygmies worked tirelessly, despite the demands of the day – a bloody revolt against the Shutu; the decimation of their tribe; and the ransom demands of their incarcerated children.
Ralph assisted, using his exceptional strength to roll the Miracleum-laden barrels onto the ramp, into the plane’s cargo bay.
“You’re gonna be overweight,” he warned Sylas. “This aircraft cannot be rated for this load. You’d be smart to leave a few barrels behind.”
Sylas’s face corkscrewed into rage. “You’d be smart to shut the fuck up!” He then jabbed the remote at Ralph, his thumb hovering over the red button.
Ralph showed his blistered palms. “Relax, Mr. Bossy Pants. We’ll fill it to the gills. Even put a barrel in the co-pilot seat if you want.”
Sylas’ eyes turned green. “I want,” he snarled. “I want it all.”
Ralph ordered the deed to be done, then turned back to Sylas. “The Banatu children – where are they?”
“Safe,” Sylas said. “You’ll find them on the leeward side of the mountain. There’s a storehouse there. The children are in the BB: The Blasting Building. It’s a climate controlled supply space where we store charges and explosives for drilling.”
“Drilling,” Ralph echoed.
“Or killing,” Sylas snickered.
Ralph shook his head. “But we have a deal, right?”
“Of course,” Sylas said. “I promised to give you the detonator.” He showed the remote to Ralph and then started the twin engines.
“It’s as good a time as any,” Ralph said, holding out his hand.
“Oh, you want it now?” Sylas asked, coy.
Ralph smiled and nodded.
“I have your word,” Sylas affirmed. “Not the word of an old bail bondsman or a Congolese pygmy . . . but your word – the word of Raphael, the Ark Angel. Raphael, the Hunter?”
Ralph replied, “So say one; so say we all.”
“Very well,” Sylas said. He casually tossed the remote to Ralph. “It appears our business is finished. My only regret is that I failed to kill you.”
“Ditto,” Ralph replied.
Sylas pointed to the loading hatch. “Now, get off my plane.”
Ralph hesitated. “I thought you didn’t watch old movies.”
“That’s a famous line,” Ralph said. “From a famous movie. Air Force One.”
The engine noise drowned out the banter.
Ralph leapt off the ramp, onto the makeshift runway. “Harrison Ford! He played the President.”
As Ralph closed the ramp door, he finished: “Gary Oldman threatened to kill his family. Spoiler alert. It doesn’t end well for Gary.”
Sylas busied himself with the throttle and the flight controls and the yoke. The Shutu had slashed eighteen-hundred feet of runway through the jungle. It proved sufficient to land a lightly loaded aircraft. However, the taxi and takeoff of an overloaded aircraft was unproven, and to Ralph’s mind, an idiotic risk.
“Bon voyage’,” Ralph called, waving.
From the cockpit window, Sylas gave Ralph the middle finger, smirked, and then presented another detonator – a replica of the one Ralph held in his hand. He dangled it from a lucky-rabbit-foot fob, laughed like the evil child he was, gunned the engines, and then taxied pell-mell down the strip.
“Go,” Ralph shouted at Azar. “Take the others and go to the backside of the mountain and release the children. They’re in the Blasting Building. Go, go, go!”
The C-23 rolled, wobbled, and teetered, then finally took flight. Ralph deployed his black, stunted wings and leaped, chasing the aircraft. The turbulent wake of the fifty-eight foot plane caused him to weave and jink and veer off course. He decided to rise higher into the sky, to use the blinding African sun to his advantage, then swoop down from the heavens. Descending, he animated Fidel. He dove toward the nose, hoping to land on the captain’s cabin, where he could then slash access into the cockpit.
Sylas the child pilot, however, did not cooperate. Sylas pulled back on the yoke and the nose pitched upward. The abrupt adjustment caused Ralph to miss his mark, instead, striking the durable windscreen . . . a bug, he thought, staring at the wide-eyed pilot . . . a black, splatted bug.
From the captain’s seat, Sylas presented the remote detonator, waving it like a grenade. Ralph could read his lips: I’ll do it! I’ll do it!
Ralph gathered himself for his one clean shot, his only hope. He retracted Fidel so that he could use both hands to get into position. The wind battered him, unbalanced him, and destabilized his efforts. Yet he righted himself. Suddenly, he was thankful to be small, to be agile, to be young, and something of a daredevil.
Sylas continued his tantrum inside the cockpit. Ralph could not hear him, but was certain that the juvenile genius had changed his rant from I’ll do it! to Get off my plane!
Ralph grinned, peeling back his thick lips, showing his ruby gums and white teeth. Here goes nothin’, he thought. Then he thought of the pygmy children and the parents he’d sent to save them. If they reached their children at the precise time that Sylas pressed the red button, it could mean the complete extinction of the Banatu . . . a people that had existed as long as people had existed.
Here goes everything, he amended.
He summoned Fidel, instantaneously imparting the target and mission into the singing spine of the steel.
Fidel punctured the canopy glass, penetrating the cockpit. Its length stretched forth and its accuracy was unfailing. The tip of the sword severed Sylas’s threatening thumb, skewering it like a kabob.
Ralph rammed his small black hand into the windscreen fissure, breaking away composites of glass and acrylic. He tunneled onward and inward, lunging at the child that squirmed in his buckled straps.
“No,” Sylas gasped. “Let me go! Let me go or I’ll blow them to bits!” He attempted to use his bloody thumb knuckle to push the red button, but Ralph snatched the gadget from his hand.
Ralph clambered into Sylas’ lap, face to face, straddling him. “This could have gone different, Greed. You could’ve beaten me – beaten the Cycle. Beaten, dare I say it, Our Betters. But you blew it. You had to have it all.”
“I can’t see,” Sylas cried. “You’re blocking my vision!”
“Blinded,” Ralph lectured. “Blinded by your own nature . . . blinded by greed.” Ralph could feel the aircraft descend, could hear the sputtering struggle of the overworked engines.
Sylas thrashed his undeveloped body and wriggled out of the belts. He then used his spindly arms and legs to push the flying pygmy that straddled him. To his surprise, Ralph allowed the extraction. Ralph even aided in the break – backing away, allowing himself to be thrust through the gaping hole in the C-23’s windshield.
“Take that!” Sylas shouted, delivering a final kick to Ralph’s chest with his skater-boy shoes.
Ralph grinned as he was kicked and evicted from the airplane. He paused for one last second to wave to Sylas, before being swept into the airstream. Bye bye, he mouthed.
Sylas grabbed the yolk and sat upright in his seat, eyes agog, mouth agape. There, before him, was the black, craggy mountain that he’d raped and robbed. The peak filled the fractured frame of his windshield. With each passing second, it grew and drew closer.
Sylas shouted at the mountain to move out of the way. The mountain did not move. It did not yield to his tantrum, to his technology, nor to his failing flying machine.
The unmoving mountain, majestic in its defiance, rejected his pleas and parasitic plots. It rejected his exploitative stratagems. Rejected the leach called Greed.
The collision between the plane and the mountain was as close to a nova as the earth had encountered. The dusky sun was embarrassed by the brightness of the explosion. Rivers reversed, the sky vibrated, and the continent quaked.
Ralph, slung from the brunt of the explosion, watched from afar as clouds caught fire. He marveled at the colorful pyrotechnics, crediting the combustive combination of jet fuel and Miracleum. He was thankful that he’d ordered the Banatu to go to the backside of the mountain – to rescue their children. He was thankful that his Congolese family was safe.
Seismic vibrations penetrated space, inner and outer. The terrestrial concussion could be felt on the floor of the Chamber of Awakening, where Mr. Jordan watched from the viewing portal.
Casually, Jordan removed the matching butterfly cufflink from his other sleeve and said, “Bravo, Raphael. Bravo.”
Here are the links to the other two stories:
Greed Will Cost You
Writer: E. J. D’Alise
Word count: 666 words – approx. reading time: about 3 minutes based on 265 WPM
The Why Files <<link
Writer: R. G. Broxson
Word count: 6,140 words – approx. reading time: about 23 minutes based on 265 WPM
If you’ve read all the stories and care to cast a vote, here’s the link to the Poll:
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