ORCS IN LOVE
by Howard Cincotta
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Marek is on deadline, which means he needs to pitch his story proposals and generate responses by the morning. Lists are always a solid option. …. Submit and see who bites. Repackage. Serve the internet and let the internet serve you. Win-win, baby.
Social media is blowing up, so that eats up another forty minutes, which meant Marek can't fiddle with a couple of half-written features for other clients. One about the scary world of leafcutter ants, another on plans for a space resort orbiting just outside the rings of Saturn. Pop-science pieces take too long for the money, but they are Marek’s favorite. He is still planning a four-hour driving stint with Lyft, like it or not, and had at least two electrical/plumbing jobs in the building that he manages for a cut in the rent.
Marek assembles the pieces of his gig life each day; sometimes they fit; other days they spill in ragged edges all over the floor, which needs serious cleaning, by the way.
Not a helluva lot to look forward to, Marek thinks, except for Dorian’s party on Thursday night. In person but masks required since the vaccine has been announced but not yet widely available.
You will meet interesting people, Dorian assures him. But faces covered and anonymous, Marek says. Precisely, Dorian answers. Precisely.
There are no soft places in this world, only rock and grit and darkness and the grunting and farting of our company of soldiers. Once, when we climbed to the surface for a night raid, I found a patch of spongy moss, like a piece of ragged carpet from the dwellings of men. Soft indeed — an astonishment. Such a sad brief memory before the threats and curses and blows began again.
Now we climb once more from the fetid mineshafts and tunnels, Sauron’s mighty army, rising to rid Middle Earth of its infernal alliance of dwarves, elves, and humans. "Man- flesh!" they vow. "Soon we will taste man-flesh again!"
Such promises! Empty oaths for those of us living on rodents, roots, and filth, as though we were mere creatures of mud and stone. I test the dull edge of my rusted pike. Weapons? Tactics? Pah! Our only advantage is numbers. March! Fight! Procreate! Eat the mushrooms that keep us dizzy and furious, with only a few hours to rest our heads on the cold unyielding earth.
The only promise I want kept is a chance to see Gwanah again and taste her coarse skin and gaze into her wet squinting eyes.
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The pandemic masked party turns out to be the belated celebration of a lame podcast called Downloadable Dreams. Marek found the first two episodes so predictable he fell asleep, although he liked the echoey theme music.
He is standing with Dorian and his cronies when he spots her, wearing some kind of clever skull-mouth mask: dark close-cropped hair, unidentifiable multiracial skin, and long, brightly colored nails that looked well equipped to rake a bare back in passion, vengeance, or both.
He nudges Dorian, who was in the middle of story that isn't as entertaining as he thinks it is. "I want that one," Marek says.
"What?" Dorian asks, irritated at the interruption.
Marek doesn't care. "I want that one," he repeats. "Mouth mask."
Dorian barely glances over. "You can’t. Not that one."
"She’s what? … married … taken … gay … what?"
Dorian hesitates. "None of the above. But she has a … full life."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"A viral life … you know."
"I know nothing Dorian. I'm standing here — the pandemic raging as we speak, risking my life to hang with you and our mutual loser friends — and now I'm asking about a woman with wicked nails and a sick-looking mask. Who looks to be Bangladeshi or Brazilian or a combination of both."
"Her ethnicity is of no relevance here," Dorian says. "Influencer. Building an online community. Very busy girl. So I'm told."
"Meaning you're not one of her followers."
Dorian gives me a weary grin. "I follow very few these days, alone in my fortress of solitude. Certainly not her. Besides, you can’t see her face." He waves a brief hand. "There's a suggestion of a receding chin, don't you think? That might be a deal breaker, mask and nails notwithstanding. Myself, I like a bit of an overbite. But you? You never know."
Dorian sighs. "Her name is Gemma. Go tell her yours."
Marek does, and however overcrowded Gemma's life might be — virtual or physical — her dark unblinking eyes burn into his, exclusively, for at least thirty seconds.
She accepts a drink with a twitch of her skull-toothed mask, and in response to the inevitable question, he justifies his ad hoc existence as a freelancer for several social media channels along with odd hours as a Lyft driver.
He pauses. "I'm told you're a major-league influencer, but I don't think …"
She finally laughs. "Not in the majors. Double A ball at best …"
"We all like the intimacy of the minor leagues. I often bring the potato salad." I pause. "And online, you are known as …"
Another laugh, another direct stare. "TwilightGuest … for the most part."
"Ah. Very evocative … of something. So I can follow you, TwilightGuest, yes?"
"That would be the idea." Gemma briefly lowers her mask to sip her green wine, but not enough for Marek to render an independent judgement of her jawline.
"Can I follow you here … right now?" he asks.
Gemma glanced down, expecting to see him wielding his phone. "Yes?"
"No. I mean here, now, in the physical meat-market world."
What the hell. Marek leans in, the party noise bursting around them, and kisses her, mouth-to-mouth, mask-to-mask.
She pulls back far enough to skewer his head with her eyes. "I don’t think the CDC would approve."
He feels dizzy, poised on a platform higher than anticipated. "TwilightGuest. They certainly won't approve of what I have in mind next."
Later, when they remove all their clothes, they choose, wordlessly, to keep their masks on.
Remember, we were bred for the darkness, the confinement, for the likelihood of death by rockslide as much as the blades of dwarves, our first foe. We first encountered them when we attacked the fortress of Khadzad-dŭm, swarming the remaining dwarves — great whirling knots of muscle, beards, and wicked axes. We cried victory in the black speech, and feasted on dwarf flesh, stringy but seasoned with triumph. At least that’s how I remembered it at the time. Only now, later, do I understand that I likely have never tasted dwarf-flesh, not to mention man-flesh; we had, instead, been fed the meat of our fallen comrades. Not for the first time.
But I knew none of such matters then, only that, despite a shattered pike, I had survived my first battle; my short sword, barely bigger than a kitchen knife, was slick with blood; and we were now tested and toughened, invincible and ready to administer vengeance to the world of Men.
We were all drunk, a mass of wet stinking orc flesh, semi-conscious and roaring about our imagined triumphs as if on broken feedback loops, a few of us engaged in largely ineffectual intercourse. Rivulets of mead and urine ran over our feet when I first saw Gwanah, slumped and drooling against a rock wall, one eye closed, the other staring at me. She reeked of pheromones and shit.
"You!" I cried. "I take you! Let us make children for the armies of Sauron!"
She opened her other eye. "Your children? To furnish more sacrifices for an idiot like Sauron?" Her wattles shook as she spat in my face and disappeared down a narrow dwarf-carved tunnel.
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Gemma is in full TwilightGuest mode, hangs over the railing of the tour boat with the sun, if not exactly setting, at least in the lower quadrant of the sky. She is wearing skinny jeans, a filmy, negligently buttoned blouse, moused hair blowing slightly in the irreverent breeze. Her assistant, Camilla, stands just out of the frame with an anxious hairbrush, comb, and makeup kit.
Marek leans over the railing as well because he is filming the scene for Gemma's multiple social-media channels. "Work it baby!" he calls.
Later, in the real twilight hour, Camilla will photograph a montage of them drinking cocktails that feature a boutique vodka brand infused with strange orchid flavors. Some late-night clubbing is on offer as well.
Marek discovers that, since their masked encounter, he is now recognized as the designated boyfriend. Yet he is rarely alone with Gemma, at least during working and social hours, which consume the bulk of any given twenty-four-hour period. They are, after all, living digital lives without time or time zones.
On the other hand, Marek realizes that, while he often used to write about interesting things — or inflate them online to appear interesting — his own life was quiet and circumscribed compared to Gemma's. They have not yet graduated to champagne aboard private jet flights, but that seems to be one of the group's aspirations. Life is on fast forward, blurred but exhilarating. If only he could see more clearly. But still, Gemma's jawline proves to be one of her more interesting features; Marek wonders if he should thank Dorian for this particular erotic discovery.
Sauron and his cursed ring, Gwanah mutters to me when I encounter her again. The orc armies have gathered once more, this time for the final overthrow of the contemptible dominion of Men. "One Ring to Rule All!" our overlords proclaim. Sounds good to me, but Gwanah remains silent as we all roar and wave our pathetic assemblage of pikes and knives and knuckle-busters.
"Fools!" She whispers to me with her fetid breath. "Nothing but Sauron's fodder. Why must we do this evil creature's bidding? Is this a ring I will ever be wearing?"
I just stare; such talk is sedition. Besides, we were so many now! An irresistible wave that will swarm the walls of Gondor and Rohan. We will crack and roast the bones of Men and swill their sweet liquors! Finally!
So we march. In darkness and light. In sun that blisters our warty skin and in rain that soaks our grunting heads. Of course we know we are an unfavored, malformed people bred only for our numbers and our cleverness at building crude infernal machines. Still, we chant our blood oaths in unison. I look back for a glimpse of Gwanah, but she had disappeared. I wish I could turn to stone at this instant but I do not.
The castle walls loom before us at last. Rohan … Gondor … no one knows, no one really cares. We form our ranks, silent and sullen, knowing that we will face rocks from catapults, burning oil from their cauldrons, and clouds of arrows from their longbows before we even begin scaling those cursed stone walls. What matter? Gwanah was gone and I will die before I breathe in the face of a man, much less swing a sword at his smooth smug head.
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Does Marek have rivals, or only phantoms? He can't be sure. He tries to recruit the omnipresent Camilla as a ally, but with uncertain results. Camilla, who despises inefficiency, tolerates him, at least most of the time; but seems impervious to friendship, snark about the others, or anything resembling confidences. On other occasions, she clearly sees him as a drag to the operation — another warm body to schedule and account for in Gemma's increasingly crowded days.
We're all rainmakers here, Camilla tells him. Everything toward building the brand, okay? Marek, who hits his marks and says his lines, has no idea what she's talking about; Gemma remains this bright object, glowing and indistinct.
Later, Marek thinks back and tries to identify an inflection point, or if there even was one. Perhaps Switzerland. The expedition to the vertical spectacles of Grindelwald, with its funicular and cable cars, cliff walks and a zipline glider. Gemma's video reactions were breathless, her outfits bright and minimal. Online viewership soars. Gemma kisses Marek and hangs from the cable car window as the shadowy north face of the Eiger lurches by like the gray ghost of an alternate world. Video captures it all, and the entire entourage inhales the first deep intoxicating draught of celebrityhood.
But the sky doesn't fall until they return home. It is not even a real event, only a summer gathering so casual that, except for a smattering of still photographs, nothing appears online. Mostly beer, supplemented by a flask of alleged moonshine, around a small bonfire in an anonymous backyard. Marek can't even remember whose house it is. The wood must have been dry because it bursts into noisy sparks and whirls into a vortex, climbing into the sky so quickly that, for a moment, he can't distinguish the burning embers from the stars.
Beer bottle in hand, Marek steps out of the circle, first gazing into the night sky, then back to the group, where everyone orbits around Gemma's solar splendor. She is their center, proclaiming her latest story as naturally as the sun ignites passing comets and dictates the elliptical orbit of the planets. He can choose to be part of the procession or not. He can stay or walk away into the darkness; it's that simple. Gravity cares about mass and momentum, not love.
We hide in scattered bands now, listening for the dreaded sound of hoofbeats, or even worse, the baying of their infernal hounds. Their wretched mongrels can track the smell of our fear and sweat for miles.
For a moment, we thought we tasted victory. A moment! We breached the walls — wherever the hell we were — and surged through the streets. The armies of men fell back, for once panicked and running, crying for themselves and their women and their children. Such screaming! I could already imagine the taste the mead and grilled man-flesh. Then more armies descended upon our ranks from the rear, and we orcs were once again shredded and destroyed. As many crushed by rocks from catapults as met their end with elvish arrows in their throats and human short swords to their guts.
As for me, somewhere I lost my rusted pike yet again and tumbled into a ditch filled with dead and dying comrade orcs. I only crawled out in the stillness of night, wretched and weaponless, as the wolves and rats began to feed on the piled bodies.
I escaped to search for Gwanah, harried by horsemen and hounds, living underground in burrows and ravines, huddled with other survivors as pathetic and terrified as me. But I have not found Gwanah, only rumors that she died of the fever. Or disappeared, with a number of other so-called dissenters into an old elvish mineshaft, beyond the reach of us all, orc and human alike.
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Marek embraces the idea of being such a loser that he finds himself clutching a paper bag-wrapped bottle of Old Turkey, staggering through an unfamiliar park after midnight. He is lost, in part because the park is new, with recycled tire pathways, fresh plantings, and a brand-new playground, now thankfully deserted. A graveyard, or a ruined mansion with water-gouged statuary would be more appropriate, he thinks.
Marek heads for a pedestrian tunnel, fringed by rhododendrons, that passes beneath a service road, and leads to a small artificial lake.
Something is moving just inside — an animal? — and Marek, still unsteady, walks quite slowly to the edge of the tunnel. A compact hooded figure, he realizes, wearing heavily torn clothing. Only a pair of bloodshot yellow eyes and the flattened smear of a nose are visible at first. But when the creature moves, Marek glimpses its body, astonishing in its contortions and scarring. Slightly fearful but definitely lightheaded, Marek leans against the tunnel arch and takes a swig from his bottle.
The creature stirs, still silent, watching him. Marek grunts and holds out the bottle. The creature hesitates, then scrabbles over so quickly that Marek gasps. The creature takes a gulp, hands it back, and crawls quickly back to the other side of the tunnel opening. They stare at each other.
Marek slides down against the wall and passes the bottle back again. The amber liquid glows in the reflected streetlight like an unblinking eye.
The creature drinks, mutters something unintelligible, beats his fist against his chest, then points a twisted finger, first at Marek and then at the tunnel.
Marek grunts in solidarity.
They are indeed both lost, alone in the age of men.