Thursday, February 26, 2009

Unfiltered: Project Nano - Chapter 1

(Now that I've got all of the nonsense of what might have been out of the way, back to what was. This is an excerpt from what I guess would chapter 1 of the project, a little ditty that I named "Roll Call". We enter the scene as Hunter Clan Sponsor Edith Fortunado brings her weekly meeting to a halt and resident Hunter Lake O'Bannon prepares to make drag it back to activity... the hard way.)

Edith gritted her teeth at the smattering of murmurs and chuckles that protruded from the crew. If nothing else, she hated the lack of order that always presented itself during these meetings. Heck, she hated the meetings altogether. But they were a necessary evil if she wanted to keep the guild in a state that remotely resembled solvent. Not that she always cared about that, but like most people she appreciated when the lights and appliances worked. Edith waved a hand dismissively. “All right, pipe down you yahoos. Anything else?”

She took the momentary lapse of comments as reason enough to move on. “Okay, then. We can move on to new business. We’ve had a drop in our capture rate over the past quarter. This coincides, surprisingly enough, with an increase in our hunter injuries and fatalities. I don’t have to explain this to any of you, do I? Now I know there have been things going on in the guild, and far be it from me to get bent out of shape by a few of you bums getting put into the ground, but it’s affecting business. The bottom line is the bottom line, and right now we’re leaning more towards red no matter how you look at it.”

Edith gave her small play on words time to hit some of the slower witted members over the head a few times before continuing. “The important thing to remember is to be careful. I know half the city thinks that we’re expendable, but we are actually providing a service here. Contrary to popular belief, if we don’t do our jobs right, the city does suffer. But enough with the pep talk…” The woman had to resist the urge to smirk at the notion before continuing, “On to other business. We have a walkabout today.”

The statement drew more attention than any other one in the morning had. Just about every head in the assemblage perked up and directed its attention to the front. Even a few of the sleeping folks snapped awake at the word. It had been a while since there had been a walkabout in the guild. It had been long enough that some people had never encountered one in their entire career. For anyone familiar with the process, there was the usual mix of emotions flowing through the room. There was the standard order of idle curiosity. There was a sprinkle of novelty. But mostly, there was the fear. The horrible, all enclosing fear of the words that would next be spoken.

“I need a volunteer.” Edith timed the comment for the appropriate mix of drama and amusement. The amusement was mostly hers, of course, but there were a handful of people masochistic enough to find potential joy in the outcome. She brushed her hand in a dismissive fashion. “Aw, don’t cry, ya bunch of babies! I’m not stupid enough to expect any of you putzes to actually volunteer. In fact, I’ve come up with a method that’s more than fair. I think I’ll just consider the lucky victim to be the next person to walk through the door. Yep, that’ll do it. The very next person to walk through that door will be our lucky volunteer.”

There was a certain anticipation in her proclamation that had eluded some of the guild, but like a wave the realization of what was happening was starting to become apparent. A low-based murmuring linked itself to a pattern of individuals checking the clock that hung over the door. Anyone that checked saw that it was clearly twelve minutes after their meeting start time. Anyone with even a trace of sense knew that it was Wednesday. And everyone that knew a certain individual knew that by some manner of habit or heavenly decree, a certain member of their guild almost certainly showed up exactly thirteen minutes late for any Wednesday meeting. So it was with great revelry and a modicum of satisfaction that the group welcomed its tardy compatriot into the room.

Lake O’Bannon strolled into the room in matter of fact fashion. Neither his demeanor nor his appearance would indicate that he was in any rush to get inside. On the contrary, nothing that Lake did gave faintest hint that he was on the verge of either sneaking to his seat or apologizing for being late. It had already been well established that the time that Lake reported in on Wednesday was pretty much his own prerogative.

The popular theory was that Lake had some mystery rendezvous on Tuesday nights that kept him preoccupied, but his general lack of a good mood on Wednesday precluded them from associating him with the usual pleasantries that a “secret rendezvous” would entail. Others carried the popular theory that Lake had some early morning regimen on Wednesday that made him late, but again there were no outward signs that he was exhausted from workout, peaceful from meditation, or (as previously mentioned) in a pleasant mood from any other unsavory activity. A few guild members had bothered to attempt to track him on Wednesday morning to see just what the deal was. The few that remained intact long enough to report to anyone else brought the dismal news that Lake was late simply because he was, and it seemed to just be a matter of fate conspiring to make sure he was never on time on Wednesday. Whatever the reason, today it was bound to provide some much needed entertainment for the meeting.

Lake paused after entering the doorway, adjusting the cuff of his leather jacket as he mumbled something best left incoherent under his breath. It took him a handful of seconds to notice that something was out of sorts… more out of sorts than usual in the group. Too many people seemed pleased to see him. He had found in general practice that too many people happy to see him was rarely a good thing.

“Mr. O’Bannon. So lovely to see you today. And at such an appropriate time, too. “ Edith Fortunado grinned an impish smile that her lack of stature made appear even more so. A few of the guild members reflected the same mock enthusiasm that Edith did, and that was when Lake truly grasped how screwed he was.

Lake let a short huff of air slip out of his lips before starting his query. “What? Am I getting docked? Am I getting written up for that ganger I cracked last week? Am I getting docked for cracking that ganger last week? Am I getting cracked for docking that ganger last week?”

The room hung in silence for the reply of their leader. They knew this was just the opening volley in a classic exchange. Edith debated letting the noose tighten a little more before the big reveal, but decided that there was really no reason to drag it out too far. Besides, all of this pleasantry was wearing on her own nerves. Edith propped a hand against her podium. “I was just informing everyone about the walkabout we just acquired.”

Lake fought back a grimace at the mention of the word, a successful effort that he managed to bend into a small smirk. “Walkabout, huh? Haven’t we got enough crap floating around here without one of those making it worse?” Lake had absolutely no qualms about tossing a general insult out in a room of what should be his allies. Heaven knows they would be more than willing to do the same should the opportunity arise. Still, the comment seemed to raise the dander of at least a few of the assembled, many of whom showed their disapproval by shifting in their seats and glaring.

Edith coughed out a monosyllable of disapproval to the question. “Could be.” Edith had the same lack of regard as Lake did in the matter, but at least she had the pull to not be worried about reprisals, “But for better or worse, we’ve got one. And now that I have a volunteer for walkabout duty, I don’t have to worry about it all that much.

“Volunteer?” Lake’s smirk gathered a hint of actual amusement. “What poor fool would be insane enough to volunteer for walkabout du…” It was about that time that he managed to piece it all together. The pleasantries, the general joy he seemed to be bringing part of the room, the fact that he hadn’t been docked yet… there had to be a payoff somewhere for Edith, and there it was. His entire demeanor shifted to one of annoyance. “Oh, no. No, no, no. You are not shackling me with one of those... things for the week. I did my time two years ago and I was done. Find some other sucker with a death wish to do your dirty work for you.”

Edith’s tone took an abrupt shift of its own, “Now you wait just a minute! You think fair play applies in all guild matters? The truth is this has been coming for a long time. Breaking rules, not following protocols, damage tallies way beyond your class level allowance… and every time I try to call you on it, you have some half-cocked excuse or some convenient break of fortune that keeps my hands tied. You’ve slipped through more loopholes and backdoors than I can count, but not today, bucko! I’ve been waiting to screw you over for a long time now, and now you're gonna get what’s coming to you!”

For a brief moment, Lake seemed genuinely taken aback by Edith’s diatribe. His left eyebrow arched upward as he perused his employer’s face. His lips parted calmly as he carefully sorted out his response.

“Say… are you coming on to me?”

The smattering of chuckles from the audience was more than enough to break the tension for most of them. Some of the guild had gotten a bit restless in the brief pause that preceded Lake’s comment. A few foolish souls actually dared to assume it possible that Lake was honestly repentant and on the verge of apologizing for his past actions. They were more than pleased to see that that was not the case.

Edith Fortunado, on the other hand, was anything but amused. Her face began to flare an almost trademark shade of red, and it was abundantly clear to any of the guild members who had seen it occur before that it was not a blush of embarrassment.

“Do you think…” Edith fought to maintain anything that resembled civility as her temper railed against her better judgment, “… for one second… that I would ever… within the confines of my mind… “ Edith pointed towards Barnard, who flinched at the motion despite the lack of flames shooting from her fingertip, “… his mind… or within the very depths of hell itself even remotely consider coming onto you? In what bizarre freakshow of a world does my utter contempt and rage for you possibly translate into anything that even resembles attraction? You… you… you’re lucky I don’t leap off of here and throttle the life out you with my bare hands!” Her body began slowly tremble, making some fear that she might actually leap from her podium in some kind of suicidal plunge at her contemptuous employee.

Lake, for his part, seemed unfazed by this newfound rage. In fact his own demeanor had improved a good deal, though an apt observer could clearly see that he was by no means happy. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he mused aloud to no one in particular, “Well, I can’t say where it came from, exactly. It was just the wording there. ‘Half-cocked,’ ‘loophole,’ ‘backdoor.’ You know in some circles, even the word 'throttle'…”

Edith banged her fist on the top of her podium and pointed an aged finger at Lake. “All right! Not another word out of you! You’re taking the walkabout, and so help me if I hear anything other than rave reviews about your behavior, I'll bounce you out of here on your smug little backside!”

Lake clearly had something else to say on the matter, but he remained silent. Of his many social skills, the ability to know just how far he could push someone before he had crossed the point of no return was probably the most finely honed. It was clear he didn’t love this particular turn of events, but it was also clear that short of getting himself removed from the guild there wasn’t much else he could do to get out of this. With a certain sense of resignation, he turned and headed back towards the door he had so recently entered.

“And just where do you think you’re going, hot shot?” Edith queried to his back.

Lake didn’t bother to turn around, stopping as he reached the door. “In accordance with Article 4, Paragraph 8 of the Provisional Guild Agreement with the Free States, any member enacted into volunteer duty with a walkabout may, at their discretion, forgo standard guild protocols when interacting with said walkabout. Pursuant with this, I’m enacting a special preparatory meeting to prepare for said walkabout. This meeting, coincidentally enough, will force me to miss the rest of this one. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

As the door shut with Lake on the opposite side of it, Edith Fortunado quietly grinded her teeth together. “I am so docking him for cracking that ganger last week…”

(Lengthy, sure, but I really like the entire exchange between the two. Besides, I haven't posted anything else all week. Read it in parts if you have to. Until next time, when I think I'll spend a little time breaking down some of the who, what, and why of the story elements...)

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