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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

The Pragmatic Boffin
by Matthew Langford

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The Boffin turned the ninety-ninth page for the hundredth time. A connoisseur in the exploits of the darker side of the truths of words would anticipate what was to come. A connoisseur would scream wildly at the Boffin to stop and throw the book on a nearby fire. Unfortunately for the Boffin, a connoisseur (a pundit would have been enough) was unavailable at that precise moment. So we will have sit idly by and watch as the story progresses to the point where the Boffin becomes little more than a scorched soul.

The Boffin looked up at the clock and noticed that in three minutes it would be midnight, leaving him exactly eight hours of sleep (if he chose to fall asleep dead on midnight and not spend forty minutes picking at various orifices). The Boffin looked back at the book he was reading; his favourite book Sig s last chance.

Sig stared up at the cloudless sky and reached for his pouch. He knew what he had to do - but would the people of Ghibn understand? That mattered little now since the contents of the pouch had solidified, ready to exert its power on the land and sky. Sig tried not to allow the tears welling in his heart to pour through his universe weary eyes.

The Boffin knew those words better than anything else he could recall. The names of his children were more alien to him than every word, comma and full stop hidden between the pages of Sig s last chance. He even knew that Ghibn was pronounced Gearn - a small fact that allowed the Boffin to gloat with pride at people who were unaware of it. He sometimes wondered why he bothered actually reading the thing since he could quite conceivably lay back in bed and recall every word. In about ninety seconds he would know the reason why.

Only one third of the page to go...

Sig untied the battered lace that held the flap of the pouch to his body and reached inside. He allowed a shiver to pass down his spine as he clasped the solidified object that was the doom of Ghibn.

The Boffin knew exactly what was going to happen. Sig would pull the Soil Crystal from the pouch and throw it into the river Defid (pronounced Setid another small fact that allowed the Boffin s gloating potential room in which to flourish). He checked the clock quickly and saw the second hand begin its count from ten to zero. He checked back to his book and reached the penultimate sentence on the page.

Sig held the Soil Crystal high in the air and allowed the shivering moonlight to pass through its centre - that final act of magic that would ensure the Soil Crystal would do its work. Staring into the river Defid Sig screamed his sorrow and stepped forward

The Boffin turns the page. The clock strikes midnight. The hundredth page about to be read for the hundredth time.

and collapsed into a crumpled heap on the ground. Sig was dead. The people of Ghibn were saved.

The Boffin stared blindly for a second before turning back a page and reading the previous sentence.

"What?" said the Boffin silently.

He flipped through the subsequent two hundred and seventy three pages all of them were horrifically blank.

"What's going on!" he shouted.

Lying asleep next to him, the Boffin s wife stirred uncomfortably before continuing her slumber unabated. He'd forgotten all about her.

"You fool!" Bellowed a voice deep within the Boffin's pragmatic mind.

The Boffin jumped at the sound of the voice and glanced wildly around the room. All he saw was the familiarity of the bookshelves and walls slightly illuminated by his angle poise lamp. "Who the hell was that?" said the Boffin.

"You fool!" screeched the voice.

There was nobody there. The Boffin s pragmatism took over.

"Who's there?" he said loudly. "All I want is to be left alone to read my book. Whoever you are you're ruining my evening by pretending to be some kind of ghost or something. Who is it?"

The voice remained silent. The Boffin calmed a little and stared with a little less bewilderment before curling his lips to a slight grin.

"You see!" he said. "You're -"

"Be silent you pitiful man!" screeched the voice. "You have defaced and mauled a world you know nothing about. You have attempted to demolish and erode a magic you would never even imagine existed. Words bind a far greater world than yours and you have attempted to infiltrate it by consuming the words of that book. Step out and face your punishment."

The Boffin sat quietly for a moment before allowing a flicker of anger to cross his face.

"Oh," he said. "I get it. This is some sort of joke. A prank. You're quite obviously a nothing person who goes around setting up expensive PA s and defacing people s favourite books. Just come out from wherever you are and give me back my book "

"I don't think you understand the importance of what I am saying!" the voice was so loud the Boffin was thrown hard against the bedroom wall.

"You want some proof?" yelled the voice. "Is this proof enough?"

Without a hint of movement or sound the Boffin found himself standing in a ferociously white room. The room was so clean and so white he had to shield his eyes from its brightness.

"Answer! Is this the proof you need?" Asked the voice.

"Yes!" Screamed the Boffin as he fell sprawling in pain on the floor.

There was a pause as the gleam subsided and left the Boffin sitting in an expectant position. A minute or even a century passed - the Boffin could not be sure which.

"You read the hundredth page for the hundredth time on the stroke of midnight," said the voice, firmly.

"Who are you?" Wailed the Boffin.

"Your conscience, your guilt, your sacrifice and your intent. In the same way that you have monotonised the reading of words you have monotonised your life. Your children despise you, your wife finds you inept and your friends are tired of you. Your final inspiration has been your undoing. Words are a gift that you must cherish and nurture. You have taken our words and destroyed them, irradiated them, diluted them."

"I don't understand," said the Boffin.

"Words bind a great force that hugs your world. Words are a gift and a serene pleasure that must be nurtured. Words are the glue that hold beauty and wonder in place. Words must have freedom. Words must be loved."

"Who are you?" repeated the Boffin.

"But you choose not to love our words," screamed the voice. "You choose not to cherish our words. You choose to imprison our words in your own pathetic little world. You chose to treat our words in the same way that you treat everything and everyone else with contempt. You are the eater of dreams; the lover of order; the consumer of words. You cuckold pragmatism and dissect all that is raw and uncut."

The voice subsided for a while and allowed the Boffin to gently weep.

"And that is where I come in. I keep our words pure and ragged. I ensure that our words fly with grace and dignity. I am the Keeper. I eat the Dreameater. I smother the love of order. I consume the consumer. I keep our world alive."

The Boffin attempted to lift his head and search for the source of the outrage, but the white of the room was too much.

"So what happens to me?" asked the Boffin.

There was silence followed by a slight rush of air that sounded like the intake of a vast breath.

"Your pragmatism has destroyed our words. Now our pragmatism will destroy your soul. Go back to your pity and embrace this pain."

A bolt of lightening shattered the Boffin's soul into a million lessons he would never forget. The Boffin changed his life quickly, but for the wrong reasons.

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