Black Eyes

by HJ Taylor

 

The coffee lady was very pretty, although she wasn’t quite a lady… not yet. The waitress probably couldn’t be much older then Beans’ big brother at college, maybe even the same age. But Beans couldn’t look away from her eyes. No matter her position or angle, those eyes looked black. Only the glare from the window reflected off them. The shine followed Beans like those eyes on the eerie museum paintings.

Beans watched her flow from one countertop to the other, more like a dancer then a waitress, not just working some dumb old job. Beans admired her precision and agility. First, she shot brown stuff into a narrow paper cup, then white stuff, next a little bit of powder, some syrup, and finally the steaming water. By the smile on every customer’s face, perfect every time.

Barista, her mother had corrected her so often that whenever she heard the fancy word it almost made her puke. Beans knew that barista was just a fancy term people used to make themselves sound more important than they really were. Once when Beans’ mother was lecturing her on the difference, the girl had overheard. After her mother had finished making her point and gone over to a shelf to examine some ceramic coffee cups, accompanying the most amazing smile, the girl had put her finger to her lips.

“You’re right, hon,” she whispered. “I’m just a waitress. Our secret.” She shushed Beans again with a polite blow of breath against that same finger, and busily got back to work.

On that day, Beans knew the girl had noticed her. More importantly, Beans had taken further notice of the girl’s eye color, too. An electricity ran between them in that instant, and with it, a lifelong familiarity. From that day on, they were both somehow connected.

The waitress was short, and very thin. Her long dark hair, as usual, was in a pony—loosely tied with a black hair band—two symmetric strands framed her little round face that was always full of life, as if she knew something that no one else did. But Beans was drawn to those eyes. They lived somewhere else with an aura all their own, blacker than a moonless night! They seemed to make holes that bore through to somewhere else.

Today Beans had decided to play a game called, “Don’t look at the coffee girl’s eyes.” But every time she came here, the game got harder and harder, as if some kind of magnetism kept her hooked. Yes, the lady smiled a lot, but it wasn’t her mouth that made her always look happy. The sensation came from some secret hidden in those deep black eyes. “Ahh!” she muttered and lightly stamped the shiny tile floor with her glittery silver sandals. She only lasted thirteen seconds today.

No customers ever complained when the black-eyed girl served them, which was quite odd because they always yelled at the other ones. No matter how long the line or how tense everyone was, as soon as they had their turn with the coffee girl, the customers seemed to relax. Not just most, but all of them, one after the other. Her tip jar was always full. Beans shook her head wondering if she was some sort of a witch. A good one for sure, she thought and giggled.

Like any other time, today the coffee girl wore black tights and a tight black sleeveless shirt with a turtleneck. A white and green checkered apron hung on her, awkwardly out of place with the emblem of the Main and Cox Java is Life coffee shop slapped directly in the upper center of it—a kangaroo forever smiling while holding a cup of steaming coffee in front of his own green and white checkered apron. Below the waitress’s neck hung a silver chain, and hanging from that chain was a round, shiny, black stone with silver metallic rays like the sun spraying out from the center. The silver chain jingled and the pendant jumped as she bent forward to greet the next customer. Why was she here, Beans wondered?

Then Beans tensed. Next in line was the dreaded, apple man. He was a nasty, skinny, frail looking old fart who always wore a Sherlock Holmes hat. Beans’ face wrinkled. His head jerked about like a snake ready to defend himself. Beans didn’t like this slouchy old guy. He was rude and grumpy, and always pushed his way in front of everyone else. How could anyone be so frustrated all the time was what she wanted to know? Sometimes he was absent minded, other times the bully, and if he didn’t get his way, he mumbled and moaned until the manager came out and did whatever he wanted. One day he even got a guy fired!

How could anyone be like that all the time? Beans could think of no such reason and she didn’t feel sorry for him at all. No one deserved to be that mean, not every second of every day, and Beans could imagine nothing to make such a person. Beans almost cringed when he waddled up to the smiling, always gracious, black-eyed waitress. “Not good,” she muttered. The girl glanced over the old man and gave Beans a reassuring wink. Beans’ eyes grew wide.

Gritting her teeth and every muscle tight in anticipation of the upcoming lopsided confrontation, Beans wrung her tiny fingers. Oh, what might happen? she wondered. The old man was looking at his shoes, those same old sandals he always wore no matter what the weather. The confrontation was about to begin and Beans was not at all sure she could bear it. Those in line had already pulled back as if an invisible barrier had sealed them both away from the rest of the world. Not having the coffee girl in her life would be horrible.

The young girl responded back to the man in a voice that nearly sang. Only the man could hear exactly what the girl had said, but despite his mutterings, the black-eyed waitress seemed not a hint flustered. She nodded, and politely waited for the man to lift his face.

Beans watched his skinny little turtle neck holding that wart-filled face jerk upwards. His expression was already filled with anger in anticipation to one upcoming problem or another. An odd flash made Beans blink and when she was able to focus again, she saw… no, more felt, a warm light connect the old man’s eyes to the barista’s black ones. His warped expression changed, first to curiosity, then to awe. For once his drawn cheeks didn’t turn red, and his shoulders didn’t shake. The apple guy wasn’t mad!

His mouth fell open in a dumbfounded circle. The tremor that determined his shaky body and wiggly hands stopped, even his breathing seemed to hesitate, as their eyes locked on to one another. The waitress said nothing, just tilted her head the slightest bit, as if doing so was the exactly proper angle to meet such a stubborn old man. There was a pause, just a short one, and then both people changed, as if the color around them had brightened. When the world started up again, the moment had passed, and life, once again, was pleasant and hurried.

Bean let go of her mother’s hand. Her jaw had dropped. “Holy cow,” she whispered, and as if the phrase was a cue, the black-eyed girl turned to Beans. Their eyes locked for a moment that seemed like hours, and not only couldn’t Beans turn away, but she wouldn’t have tried for anything in the world.

In one circular swoop, the young woman spun about the coffee shop kitchen and put the old man’s order together with not so much as a stammer or a stutter. Without changing pace or switching up direction, the waitress snapped the lid on and had a protective cardboard sleeve Beans’ knew was called a zarf on the steaming cup before the old man even spoke. With one hand the black-eyed girl put the cup on the counter, and with the other, she gingerly grasped his frail-looking slender fingers and led them to the zarf as if he were blind.

He smiled and Beans saw someone she didn’t recognize. Putting his other hand on top of the black-eyed girl’s, apple man gave her a few words of his own. She giggled and fiddled with her necklace as if smitten with his compliment. With not a sign of irritation from any of the patrons behind, the old man and the One True Barista exchanged a few more words before the old man said his farewells, and the next person stepped up.

Beans’ glanced up at his face. The guy wasn’t as old somehow, and he walked more upright. The corners of his mouth were more upturned, and his skin seemed less wrinkly. The age spots and ugly warts were still there if Beans looked close enough, but they were faded and certainly less noticeable. His jerky movements were more fluent, and his shakes and jaw clasping were gone. As he came closer to Beans, this time very close, not taking the time to veer away as he always did from anyone else, Beans could see what else had changed… his eyes! For once she didn’t back out of his way.

Beans felt dumb for gawking, but she couldn’t help it, couldn’t even blink! His eyes were a lovely, lively, sky blue, the color of a younger man’s. For a moment the world shimmered in that odd way it sometimes did just before Beans blinked out, and then she was gone. The old man changed before her very eyes. Like always when the world shimmered, Beans left.

 

The ceiling fan disappeared, and the space where it had rotated in that lazy way, was now blue sky with puffy white clouds. Beans clearly heard seagulls, and the happy giggles of little children. Then she saw the old man; his body appearing before her the way a reflection might after the disturbed water stopped shimmering. Although he was much younger, handsome even, Beans could tell it was him. Sure, he was still small and thin, but his muscles were tight and chiseled. He was happy and confident, not nasty and hateful. At his side was a small, brown-haired woman, neither pretty nor homely, but adoring of her three children that hung about them both like monkeys. The lady’s hair was drawn back in a tight bun, and her skin milky and soft. She wore a plain dress trimmed in a dull pink, and the five of them strolled along the beach together where they casually turned into the dry sand as if they had done so a million times. They all disappeared atop the porch of a wonderful beach house, giggles and laughter fading away with the sea breeze.

Beans understood this man wasn’t exactly the old man from the coffee shop… not really. This was a different version of that man. But this wasn’t the old man’s past, or a dream either. This was him, the old man’s soul anyway, somewhere else, in the area in between, in another world and place. As always, Beans watched the vision as a ghost that was looking in, invisible to them all, just watching as an uninvited observer of their life. Then the vision disappeared, and the slowly turning fan re-appeared.

 

For a few seconds Beans maintained a blank stare, unable to move. Then she snapped back just in time to realize the happy old man had spotted her. With a coordination and approach Beans thought would have been impossible coming from this person, he reached down and stroked her cheek. His eyes left Beans for a moment to send a respectful look to her mother, then he spoke.

“Such a lovely little girl, you are, little Miss. Certainly you are.” Then he began to whistle a tune Beans could not place, but which was pleasant all the same.

Beans felt a tight squeeze from a proud Mom. But the pressure from her mother’s hand was far away, as if it touched someone else. The world stayed fuzzy and surreal for a while longer as it always did after Beans faded out. When focus returned, her eyes were once again locked onto the coffee girl’s as if they had been patiently waiting for her return. They lingered, then pulled away playfully.

Awkwardly, Beans turned her attention to the glass panels that lay over the cabinets under the countertop. Inside were the usual things sold at a coffee shop: several types of gourmet coffees, mugs, a set of fancy wine glasses, recipe books, gourmet popcorn, desserts. On the ends of the case was an array of stuffed toys, all of the store’s mascot kangaroo in various positions and doing funny things. As her mind cleared, Beans saw her reflection.

Beans considered herself a fairly plain six-year-old girl with long dirty-blonde hair, and a blue headband with a tiny bow to the side. She had large eyes and a slightly upturned puggish nose that looked tiny and cartoonish in a favorable kind of way. She was small and thin, but agile and quick. Beans wore leopard tights, a blue dress full of green, orange, and yellow peace signs, and a white tee-shirt with butterflies scattered about. She often wondered why adults fussed over her so much. But Beans’ reflection wasn’t clear in the shadowed glass.

At first she thought that maybe she was still dazed from the little “mind trip” she had just taken, but after a second she realized that was not the case. The cabinets were poorly lit, which made her reverse-self look dull, so she moved closer, close enough that her nose nearly touched the glass. The background behind her reflection did not match the background of the coffee shop. Past the glass, Beans couldn’t make out the backboards of the cabinet either. The wall was gone and the space went on and on to somewhere else.

 

Where am I? she thought.

“In between,” a whisper told her, a familiar voice that she recognized. “An amazing place that helps me see why people are the way they are. How they’re supposed to be, which explains the frustration that makes them sad and sometimes mean.”

 

Beans snapped upwards to the countertop when she heard the coffee girl’s voice. Normal sounds and smells returned. Her mother busily chatted with a lady from her work.

“And how are you?” the black-eyed girl politely asked. Her voice was a bit raspy, but trustworthy. “There’s more to it than that,” she added.

It was her, Beans thought as she studied the girl, hesitant to admit what the waitress might be trying to get at. Then as if all perspective had disappeared, their faces came together, and where the young lady’s features should have been, was spiraling blackness. Like magnets, her dark swirling eyes drew Beans to them, and this time the glare from the coffee shop windows was gone. From a distance the girl’s eyes looked all black, but close up she could see an astounding distinction between the black of her pupil and the darkness that made up the iris.

Like dark gray smoke, the irises exploded and imploded within themselves as if they were angry thunderheads of a great storm. Moving constantly, they never maintained the same pattern for any length of time. The haze folded and unfolded, as if they reached outwards forever, but never really got to the outer part of the circumference. In the next moment they were slate gray smoke billowing out and twisting in. Beans’ focus was drawn inwards toward the center of that storm, and there she fell into the jet black holes that were the coffee girl’s pupils.

 

Beans felt her insides stretch, being sucked into a whirlpool of black. First, her head elongated and was sent through, then the rest of her body followed like a rubber band that had reached its ultimate length of elasticity. When the butterflies in her stomach settled down, she was somewhere else.

But not alone.

Gently caressing her hand was the coffee girl. Splendid fragrances filled her nose. Funny insect sounds, bird tweets she had never heard before, and animal howls filled the strange forest that now surrounded them both. The air was warm and moist, with the barest taste of salt.

“Hi, Beans,” the waitress said, then closed her eyes. Flaring her pretty nostrils, she inhaled deeply. “I’m Manna.”

The pretty name brought a smile to her face. “Where are we, Manna?” Beans asked, turning about a half circle in each direction, unwilling to let go of Manna’s anchoring grip in fear she might disappear and be lost forever.

“One of my favorite spots in the entire universe, Beans.”

Although Manna had not answered her question very specifically, Beans decided she didn’t need any more information than that just yet. She loosened her fingers and pulled away to grab a peculiar purple flower off the mossy ground. Sliding her last finger along Manna’s, Beans glanced back.

“That’s okay, Beans. You did this all by yourself. You can let go.”

“What did I… we do, Manna?”

“This is called slicing,” Manna announced.

“Slicing?” Beans questioned, and the world swam before her eyes again.

 

“On the house, young lady!” said the coffee girl as if nothing had happened, and she laughed out loud.

Beans’ mother laughed too and patted her hand. The coffee girl laid a huge slice of coffee cake she had removed from the platter within the glass cabinet that Beans was still dumbly staring at.

“You don’t have to do that, hon,” Beans’ mother protested. Then she noticed her daughter staring blankly at the space beyond the waitress. Not another one, she thought and her own anxiety kicked in. She looked behind, embarrassed, and then gave a weak and worried smile to the barista.

Beans’ mother snapped her fingers in front of her daughter several times and stabilized her shoulders by moving behind her. She lovingly kissed her little girl’s ear and whispered into it. She looked up briefly to the people nearby including Manna. “Petit mal,” she explained. “A minor type of seizure she’s had since she was very young. It will take just a moment and she’ll be alright.” Everyone shook his or her head in understanding and backed away slightly to give them room.

Manna smiled knowingly but said nothing. “I had them, too, when I was young.”

A moment later Beans widened and closed her eyes several times. Her pupils dilated then constricted and finally adjusted appropriately. As if she was seeing something else in her mind, a wide smile of amazement grew on her blank face. Briefly she scanned her surroundings and bobbled her head about trying to find Manna.

“There she is!” the waitress announced. She locked eyes with the young girl, nodded her head slightly back and forth, and made a shushing sound with her lips. “A good slice?” she asked and handed Beans her cake.

For only a moment Beans looked confused, but being a very bright and perceptive girl, the entire situation kicked in and made sense. “Amazing,” she said between front teeth that looked too big for her head.

“It’s just the beginning,” Manna said and put her hand comfortingly over top Beans’. She moved from behind the counter, bent down to her knee and hugged Beans securely. Adding a kiss on the cheek, she whispered so no one else could hear. “My eyes didn’t always look like this, you know. They were amber like yours. We’re going to have fun together, you and me.”

Beans’ eyes grew wide and she smiled ear to ear. Her mother beamed and wished every young adult was like the black-eyed coffee girl.

 

The Reserve

by W. Blake Heitzman

 

Before the Krauts spot us, we rush into the fog that crawled up from the marsh. Like an amoeba ingesting prey, it absorbs us.

Its heavy air deadens the sound of weapon fire and wraps us in silence. The vapor thickens. The terrain dissolves into gray, smothering my sense of direction. It takes away up and down. My balance teeters. My muscles harden, unsure of every step.

I can’t see my feet. To gain my bearings, I glance at Sergeant Stowski. Suspended in the cloud, legs bicycling futilely, his figure is unnerving.

The mist shoves icy fingers down my collar and chills me to my tailbone, but I put one foot in front of the other, churning like Stowski, only sensing progress when an oak materializes out of the haze and slides past me, its twisted anguished limbs disappearing, leaving me again suspended in dimensionless space.

The fog thins, sliding back toward the swamp. We’re in the open, bare as babes to Kraut snipers. Without a word, my men dive into cover and await my orders.

“Lieutenant, it’s all wrong,” Stowski whispers.

“Yeah, Stow, it is.”

He doesn’t have to explain himself. He’s got the instincts of a street dog. It keeps him alive. It keeps me alive.

This time I feel it, too.

I shove my helmet up against an oak’s gnarled roots. The sound of it grinding and scraping bangs in my ears. Helmet jammed in place, I tilt my head and check out Stowski.

On his belly, he wiggles himself up between the bullet-stopping roots of another ancient tree. Eyes wide, nose moving back and forth, he’s on alert.

It’s morning, and we’re soaked in mud. Every day we’re soaked, soaked sometimes all day and all night. Socks soaked, feet numbed to clubs. Fatigues soaked, wet itchy wool underwear stuck to us and cold as ice. We just lie in it. The Heinie is out there somewhere, so we stay down. Better to shiver than to get cut in half by machine-gun fire.

I raise my arm, hand in a fist, signaling the patrol to hold position. Though I don’t see them, their faces pass through my mind: Reynolds grins sarcastically; Brown’s terrified, his eyes wide and dancing over the brush; McWilliams’ lips move in silent curses but his ears listen for movement; Adams lies on his side, watching to the right, calm and waiting for something to come so he can kill it; and Rubens, backed up against one of these trees, scans our rear, his rifle swaying left to right and back like a branch in a breeze.

But there is no breeze, no sound. It’s dead silent.

“Call Cutillo off point.” I signal with a fist to my helmet.

Stowski nods and makes a weird sparrow warble that only he can do. Tiny but shrill, it knifes through the haze like a bullet.

I tense, glance about without turning my helmet. My heart bangs against my rib cage, and I think, Shit, my heart’s too loud, the Krauts can hear it. Then I catch myself, Calm down. Calm down. No jitters, not now.

Stowski peeks around his tree, sticking his head out, daring Heinie to take a shot.

Slowly, so slowly, you wonder if he’s crazy, he pulls back into his oak fortress and shakes his hands, palms up, at me.

“Bob, that ain’t like Cutillo. He hears that whistle and he’s back in a snap,” Stowski says. “Think he didn’t hear?”

I shake my head. “It’s dead as a graveyard here. If he’s there, he heard.”

“Last I saw, he’s twenty yards up by that tree. Had to hear. Want me to send Reynolds to check?”

Stowski runs his finger over his throat like a knife and mouths, “SS, ambush.”

“Nah,” I whisper back. “We would’ve heard a tussle if someone got to him.”

“Too quiet, Bobby,” the sergeant says, again. “Look at these trees. They’re all wrong. We’re in the middle of a war, but no artillery since we moved into the fog. No gun shots neither. Nothing.”

I look up at the trees, medieval oaks, twisted and gnarled. An hour ago we were in a splintered forest, topless sticks poking out of the earth, pruned by TOT, time on target artillery fire, dozens of shells exploding together in one spot, shredding lumber into mulch and every other living thing into mush.

These druid oaks here—not a branch, not one twig broken.

“At least one stray shell had to wind up here,” I whisper to myself.

“Yeah, that’s it, that’s what’s wrong. It’s like a reserve or something,” Stowski says and grins. He’d found the words to pin down the wrongness he feels in his gut.

I frown at him. “We walked through the fog, how long, you think?”

Stowski goes adventurous, like he’s sure there are no Germans, no SS ambush, just us, and he pulls himself up out of the roots and pushes his back against the tree.

I know he’s right, but I stay low anyway. One thing war has taught me: never trust the obvious.

“Time seems longer in a fog,” he says. “So—an hour?”

“How far do you think we came?”

His shoulders jerk as he expels a perplexed, “Huh?”

“A mile?”

“Not even—you move slower in a fog. Ain’t no way we wandered out of the action.” His statement, half question, gets to my point. He knows what I’m thinking.

“Yeah,” I say. “This front is forty miles long, how does this place go unscarred. Like you said, ‘a reserve or something.’ Krauts should be here, or have been here, but no sign of ’em, not even a sheet of shit paper.”

Stowski stares up at the twisted branches, bare and black against the sky, then says, “Garden of Eden, maybe? Guess we got lucky, stumbled our way out of the war. Maybe I should celebrate with a smoke.”

I harden my frown. “Not yet.”

He chuckles and scans to his right, still suspicious, still tense.

I thrust my thumb forward and say, “Give Cutillo another whistle.”

We wait, but Cutillo doesn’t come. It makes me edgy. We both are.

“Maybe he’s pissin’,” Stowski says, a half-hearted lie meant to calm his anxiety.

His eyes go dog wild.

Seeing that, I tell him, “Call the men up. I want them in here close—real close.”

Stowski waves his arm in a circle, a signal that will be passed back through the patrol until everyone gets it. Then he juts his chin at the tree where Cutillo was.

“Hey, Bobby, the fog’s blowing in again. You think it’ll bring the war back?”

“No—something else.”

I stand up and yell back through the woods, “Everybody get up here! Fast!”

There isn’t a sound.

I turn to Stowski. He’s gone. His rifle is there, its barrel against a root. Then I see him stalking forward, a grenade in each hand. He’s intent on something on the ground. It looks like water, then it flicks to the right, its tip changing from a point to a span of fingers that gropes a tree root. It releases, turns into a point, and whips toward Stow. It stops a few yards in front of him. I see another one by the tree where Cutillo disappeared. It slides across the ground, a shimmering pool of gel that stretches another tentacle toward Stowski. He lobs grenades to each, gently, like softballs to six-year-olds, then he races back and presses himself against me and the tree. Inches away, his wolfish eyes gleam into mine.

“We need TOT,” he says. He yanks my elbow and we run.

 

Retribution

by LewisC

 

I am John-29754-B. I am innocent and yet they come for me.

I live in the white. We all live in the white. We are all named John. Except for the Host, we are all 5’9″ and weigh almost 75 kilos; we all have light brown hair and hazel eyes.

There are never more than 131 Johns. On Birth Day, the John-A of 43 years goes to Celebration. John-29754-A, John of my triad, has already gone. Celebration is death. My brothers do not know this.

We have always believed that on Retribution Day, John-B and John-C go to Celebration. Today is Retribution Day. John-C will not go to Celebration.

Once a year, new brothers are added to replace the triad that has gone to Celebration. They are young and small. They will grow. They will join us. They will learn that from birth to death, only Celebration matters.

We have computers to play music and games. We have secretly taught ourselves to read; we pass that on, triad to triad. I have learned how to use the computers in ways that were not intended. I should share that.

We eat in the white, sleep in the white, bathe in the white. The white is the only world we know until Celebration. We exist only for Celebration.

The Host is many. The Host feeds us. The Host does not speak. The Host wears white; all parts of the body, the head, and the limbs are covered. The Host does not call itself the Host; we give it that name. I know its real name. I have seen its face.

The brothers believe that the Host is different than us. They are not. The Host is many; we are many. I am individual. The Johns all look the same and speak the same but we have different feelings and different thoughts. The Host always acts the same, looks the same, responds the same. The brothers believe the Host is not an individual but a single being with many bodies. This is a theory passed down triad to triad. The theory is wrong.

Our computers are linked so that the brothers can play with or against each other. The Host never plays. I discovered that our computers can access Host computers—computers outside the white. I have accessed Host computers. I know what none of the brothers know. I should tell them but I can’t.

I discovered pictures of the Host. They are different from us but like us. The Host is not one, it is many and individual. Their skin is scabrous and scarred; their bones are weak. They are hairless. The Host calls itself Humanity. Humanity burns with hatred. Humanity has been so very angry for so very long. I could tell my brothers this but have not.

Humanity exists among the stars. I found pictures of the skies from a thousand worlds. Humanity has existed among the stars for many years. In the early days they existed amongst just a single star system. They populated space stations. They lived on planets, moons, asteroids and comets. I was fascinated to learn this.

Before Humanity reached beyond a star named Sol, a virus struck them down, seventeen billion dead. Humanity fell from the skies, dying of a fire inside the body. The virus rewrote DNA. The virus in the secondary generations caused uncontrolled tissue generation, cancers, and porous bones. The virus was created by a single madman. I am not that madman. I am John but I am not John.

The Madman John was caught and executed in his 43rd year. One death was not enough for John. Twice a year, Humanity celebrates the death of John. John’s painful death is broadcast to the stars for all to see. From the computers, I learned of a place called Hell. It’s where evil burns for eternity. What is evil?

The Host Celebrates the execution of John. He is executed by his own virus. He slowly burns from the inside out. Humanity will make him burn once for every life he took; an eye for an eye. Seventeen billion Johns will only take 8.5 billion years. Humanity will be angry for a long time. Celebration is death is retribution.

I could tell my brothers this; we could pass it from triad to triad. We would know that we live only to die for retribution. We would know we are madmen. We would know we will burn. Would our lives change with that knowledge? For brothers A and B, no. But what of C?

I learned of C’s role from the computers. C only exists in case sickness or accident takes A or B. When A and B go to Celebration, C is disposed of. Neck snapped, thrown away with the garbage, invisibly rejected. No broadcast of his death, only disposal; no retribution, no justice, no Celebration. Where is hell?

I cannot tell my brothers of this. They will ask questions. C is dead, this morning, from a terrible accident. John-29754-B will receive retribution. Retribution is a noble cause; being garbage is not. I cannot explain how C died. I can never say. What is existence if not Celebration/retribution?

I am John-29754-B. I am innocent and yet they come for me.

 

Unimportant

by Erik D. Harshman

 

Kemp cut through the crowd and eventually spotted Jeremy Ivans sitting at a table for two, staring out the eighth story window at the Chicago streets below.

Taking off his jacket in a fluid motion that he’d learned from watching old videos of Bill Burroughs, Kemp draped his jacket over the back of his chair and sat down, rolling up his sleeves.

“Hugo Boss?” Ivans’ face inched back slightly.

Please!” Kemp snorted, “nothing so ostentatious… It’s Paul Fredricks.”

“What’s that?”

“They’re a mail-order clothing company out of Pennsylvania. Once a year they rent out a hotel suite in Pittsburgh, fly me out there and bring out their entire inventory, along with a tailor. I try stuff on. If I like it, they modify it to fit me, then I get it for free.”

“What’s the catch?”

“Whenever I’m on a book tour, or a talk show, whatever, I mention their name and the fact that I wear their stuff. That’s the catch.”

“So you sold out.”

Kemp laughed through his nose. “You sonofabitchbastard! No!… Look, ‘selling out,’ as the kids call it… as you and I used it back in the nineties, means sacrificing your dignity, your artistic integrity in order to obtain mainstream success and a larger, more diverse audience. It’s being bent over a barrel by corporate scumbags who want to use an artist for their own means. These scumbags make the artist produce work and do things the artist would normally never do. But both parties submit to this ridiculousness for the money. I’m not doing that! I found a creative way to get free clothes. And, I’ll have you know, I have a list of other shit I will gladly endorse, stuff I use on a regular basis, just so I can get a lifetime supply of this shit.”

“Such as?” Ivans asked, projecting an amused smile over the rim of his wine glass as he emptied it.

“Switzer’s Licorice–”

“Thought they only sold that in St. Louis?”

“So what!”

“Didn’t you go to school with Matt Switzer?”

“Yeah.”

“And weren’t his grandfather and father patients of your dad?”

Kemp sighed. “So… Switzer’s Licorice. Smart Water. Jägermeister. Red Bull.”

“Oy!” Ivans groaned and signaled for another glass of wine.

“Dickie’s workwear.”

“That’d be a conflict of interest.”

“Whatever. KY Jelly. Kiwi shoe polish. Old Spice.”

Ivans jolted as if galvanized. “Fuckin’ Old Spice? Kemp! Seriously?”

What? I think every man should smell and feel like Ernest Hemingway. What’s your problem?”

“What are you drinking?”

“What’re you swilling?”

“Ah…” Ivans looked down into his glass, “Merlot. I think.”

Somewhere down Wabash a heavy, god-sized CRASH transmitted through downtown, forcibly muting every sidewalk conversation.

“Fuck was that?” Kemp craned his head over his left shoulder.

“Construction, I guess.” Ivans shrugged. “Can we get down to business?”

“Oh, sure… Yeah… You want me to sit stoically while you cry in your cereal for a few hours. Gotcha.”

“Oh, fuck off, Kemp.”

“And then I’ll dispense some world-weary, but overtly misogynistic advice and we can both walk away drunk, contented but vaguely pissed off… That’s if all goes well. If I fuck up my advice you could walk away full of rape… like a Hell’s Angels biker who’s been on a week-long snuff porn bender in his shack.”

Ivans sat back. “Can we be serious?”

“I’m sorry. Go on.”

Kemp listened as his gaze drifted toward the window. Down Wabash Avenue prismatic human tendrils coursed down a thoroughfare of silent, stilted cars. “What’s going on down there?”

Ivans leaned towards the window. “Don’t know. Fire drill?”

What? You can’t be serious.”

A young Indian woman, college age maybe, in a white blouse and black skirt shuffled past Ivans and Kemp’s table. She was taking off her high-heeled shoes as she ran. Kemp grabbed her arm softly.

“Heyhey! Can you tell us what’s happening?”

“Something came out of Lake Michigan.”

“Something?”

“Like a monster.”

Really? What does it look like? A giant lizard? Giant ape? Giant turtle? What?”

“I don’t know. But it’s big. And old, like dinosaur old. It’s started chewing on the side of the Sears Tower.”

“Well, that’s no good. Is it a biped or quadruped?”

The girl’s face scrunched. “A what?”

“Never mind,” Kemp sighed.

“Anyhow, so Janie.” Ivans began as he reached to receive his new Merlot from the waitress. “And he’ll have the same.” Ivans indicated Kemp. The waitress nodded and shuffled off.

“So,” Kemp sighed, “Janie…”

*****

“Kemp, I don’t think closure will make me happy.” Ivans lowered his voice.

“Nothing about this situation is supposed to make you happy, Jer. Women aren’t supposed to make us happy. They’re supposed to make us miserable and we’re supposed to enjoy it.”

“That’s a lot of supposing.”

“There’s a great dichotomy between how things do work and how they should work. We, people, have made a great mess of the modern social, moral, and emotional dynamic. In doing so, we’ve created a great deal of supposition.” Kemp sighed, sat back, and folded his hands over his lap.

Outside, Michael Bay sound effects dominated: the whining of metal, steel girders or maybe the tracks of the “L” train, bending against their will and definition, shuddering; muffled explosions; glass confetti screaming and splinking against other windows.

“This relationship only lasted a handful of months.” Ivans shook his head as he married his mouth with that of the wine glass.

“Did I ever tell you about that phase in my life when I’d have two relationships, virtually back-to-back and the combined time for both relationships would be less than two years? I’d then take a year and a half to two years off, intentionally or unintentionally, then the process would start all over again.”

“Really?”

“That is fact.”

“And how about now?”

“Well,” Kemp reached for his wine glass. “I think Deidre broke the cycle. When she and I dated, for better or worse, for two years I think that disrupted the pattern.”

“You really believe that?”

“It stands to reason. I truly do believe the universe works in cycles. I mean, seriously, can you think of anyone who had a good year in 2010?”

Ivans shrugged.

“Exactly.” Kemp gulped the rest of his wine and signaled for another while his mouth was still clasped to the breast-sized glass.

Kemp overheard timorous whispers coming from the wood-paneled bar area.

“What do you think it is?”

“CNN says the military can’t kill it. I think it swam up from Hell.”

“Does it have horns or cloven feet?”

“No. It looks like something out of a museum.”

“Okay, then it’s not from Hell! Sheeeesh!”

“I hate to interrupt,” Kemp cleared his throat.

Ivans waved away the comment.

“But are we going to get some food?”

“I think the kitchen’s closed.”

“Alright, then we’ll keep drinking. No problem.”

*****

“And why exactly did the split occur?” Kemp adjusted in his seat, his leg was falling asleep.

Ivans shrugged. “She didn’t say, really. She just split.”

“Over the phone? E-mail? In person?”

“In person.”

Kemp deliberated a moment. “Do you think it would’ve been better if she’d done it facelessly?”

“I never thought of it like that. I don’t know.”

Outside, the soundtracks of James Cameron persisted: the belligerent churning of automatic gunfire, the mechanized toiling of tank wheels, the oracular punching of mortar shell cannons and some strange screeching, like a bat caught in a thin grain silo.

“In all reality,” Kemp ran his fingers absently along the stand at the base of his wine glass, “you’re back to square one. You were alone before, you’ve been alone for so much of your life, as I have, that the break shouldn’t affect you all that much.”

Shouldn’t, but it does.”

“I know,” Kemp sighed.

A flaming car, something expensive, perhaps a Bugatti Veyron, soared past the window.

Ivans barely glanced. “Is that car Swedish?”

“You know I don’t know anything about cars.”

“Yeah. So how long will it hurt, Kemp?”

Fuck! You’re asking me? Michelle hasn’t stopped draining me since I realized I fucked up in letting her go. That was in late 2004. I still miss her. The sex, the companionship; I still worry, I mean really worry to the point of it keeping me up most nights, that I’ll never sufficiently replace her. I’ll find someone new, someone gorgeous, someone gothy and aesthetically comparable on all levels, and I’ll still hold her up to the Michelle benchmark.”

“So it’s hopeless?”

“It’s not hopeless. Forgive my saying, but you’re still inexperienced. You have time. You haven’t found the End-All-Be-All yet. When you do, if you let her go… Well, then you’re in trouble. Until then… I don’t know what to tell you. Have fun. I’d tell you not to get attached, but that runs contrary to what I believe.”

“Which is?” Ivans signaled for two more glasses of wine.

The waitress’s expression communicated both a sneer and a look of disgusted concern, for whom, Ivans wasn’t certain; he just wanted the damn Merlot.

Kemp tightened his tie. Maybe I’ll choke. Then I’ll be saved and won’t have to explain this.

“I believe in love, not lust. I think perhaps your late teens and early twenties are okay for having flings and lustful fun. But that didn’t really happen for me. I mean, I had opportunities for flings and meaningless fucks in college, but I passed them up for solid, committed, monogamous relationships. And I think I’m a better person for that. I can sustain long-term relationships and I can compromise and problem-solve in order to make things work. If I’d been a swinging cocksmith, I think I’d probably have a slew of miserable, debilitating diseases right now, or I’d be a pretty shallow, emotionally bankrupt asshole. However, the problem at hand for you and I is that our late teens and early twenties are over. Society tells us that, because we’re in our thirties, we need to start looking towards ‘settling down,’ buying a minivan, a house in the ’burbs, giving up on life and marrying a hot woman who’ll get fat and bitchy and complacent over time. A woman who’ll eventually medicate herself beyond emotional, or even physical, response through prescription meds and Chardonnay. Then we’re supposed to have kids. Maybe I’m selfish, but right now I want my time, space, and money all to myself.”

“I thought you gave away most of your money to charities?”

“Yeah, well. The point is: you have kids, they sap you, and more often than not you wind up getting annoyed with them, because love costs, man, and your kids will more than likely wind up resenting you. This happened to my grandfather. This happened to my father. Why shouldn’t it happen with you and me? We want to think to think that we’d be different. But who knows. History does repeat itself.”

“So it’s best not to even try?”

Kemp shook his head and reached for his Merlot. “I’m not saying that. I’m saying maybe it’s a blessing when we’re left alone. Maybe we need break-ups. Maybe women aren’t the answer. Maybe loneliness, celibacy, longing… Perchance these are the things that drive us. I don’t know about you, but I get a hell of a lot less done, both in life and in my writing, when I’m with a woman. When I’m single is when my work flourishes.”

“I concur.”

“Okay then.”

“Where’s our Merlot?”

“Beats me. Is anybody even still here?”

Kemp and Ivans angled their heads down the carpeted pathway that ran alongside their aisle table. They saw nothing but a dark restaurant.

“I guess the bar’s self-serve at this point.” Kemp smiled.

*****

Outside belonged to the Foley sound effects of early Paul Verhoeven and Ridley Scott: a furious suction noise, like a motorized Yankauer catheter tip, coupled with a liquid gurgling noise, the bubbling shuffle of an herbal water pipe, and the crunching only slightly more organic than a kitchen sink garbage disposal. The subsequent gulping reminded Kemp of the surfacing oxygen bubbles of his mother’s scuba tank as he waited for her on the surface of the Atlantic while she ascended from a shark dive. These sounds reigned over downtown Chicago as Kemp and Ivans stumbled from the double doors of the lobby.

Stopping, Kemp straightened his jacket and tie before turning to examine Ivans. “Are you okay? Did this help?”

“I can’t tell. I don’t know if the talk or the wine helped.”

“Eh. Sometimes it’s both. Right now it’s the wine. Time will tell if the lip service did any good.”

“Are you sticking around?”

Kemp waited a moment. “No.” He barked the word. “I’m taking the Amtrak back to St. Louis to see my mother for about a week. Then it’s back to Los Angeles to finish up a few projects. Then it’s back on the road. After that, maybe I’ll relax and annoy everyone who’s filming my latest script by showing up on the set and hanging out.”

“We can’t let it be this long before we talk again,” Ivans sniffed.

“We won’t.” Kemp tried, but a poisonous red fog that bloomed behind his eyes prevented him from recalling exactly how long it had been since they’d last talked.

This is insane. Usually, Jer is the one person I don’t mind speaking to regularly.

“What happened, Kemp?” Ivans’ eyes shuddered wetly.

“I don’t know, man,” Kemp huffed, “I got busy. You fell into relationships. And I won’t lie to you, at first I felt a modicum of jealousy when I found out you were in a relationship.”

“But it was only my second, you’ve had… I don’t know.”

“Only a handful or so more than that, I assure you. Anyhow, I’m always a little envious when my friends find some vague contentment and I’m still stuck wandering around in the dark, alone. But I shook that off and, in the end, I was happy for you. I mean, genuinely fucking happy for you. And I was not only pissed but dismayed when I saw your status on Facebook.”

“You actually look at my Facebook status?”

Kemp shrugged. “I hate post-modern, digital human brochures just as much as you do, but sometimes they’re necessary to find out what’s going on with people out of state and abroad. It also saves time covering the inconsequential details.”

“Is this an inconsequential detail?”

Kemp snorted a laugh.

A crouching silhouette, about twenty stories high, flickered against the infernal film of orange and red that veiled the city. The same impetuous screeching blasphemed through funereal silence as the shadow, thankfully, sulked several blocks west of Kemp and Ivans.

“Again, only time will tell.” Kemp drew Ivans into a hug.

Without further ceremony the hug broke and both men sauntered off in different directions.

 

The Raven Reincarnated

by Kevin Lenihan

 

Once upon a Mid-day dreary, a bad night’s sleep had left me weary,
Anxious over what the Network’s new season had in store.
While I pondered what was missing,
Suddenly I heard some hissing,
Like a steam leak in the kitchen from the pipes up through the floor.
From the radiator pipes that heat the first and second floor.
Merely this and nothing more.

Oh so distinctly I recall, it was cold that early Fall,
And a chill shot through my body as I touched the hardwood floor.
As I stared at some bland Soap,
I felt a decrease in my hope,
Helplessly I fought to cope, cope with loss of my Folklore.
My beloved prime time passion the producers called Folklore.
Cancelled here forever more.

I just lay there like a slouch, stretched out on my old worn couch,
Content to just procrastinate on every household chore.
Last week’s useless TV guide,
Sitting right there by my side,
Uselessness I can’t abide brought my frustration to the fore.
Shook loose all my fears and worries and thrust them to the fore.
I couldn’t stand it any more.

Presently my guilt grew greater, I just couldn’t wait till later,
Procrastination on the troubles just begets so many more.
For a house left unattended,
Is a house that can’t be mended,
So my rest time must be ended, and I must repair the flaw.
Just get off my lazy tuchus and repair the threatening flaw.
Lest the damage breed much more.

But no sooner had I risen, when I heard the television
Start to spark and sputter like I’d never heard before.
Then my brand new TV set,
Thundered like a flying jet,
All these emanations and yet, no picture to accompany the roar.
The screen had turned to blackness while the set belched out a roar.
High-pitched static and nothing more.

All my nerves went on alert, if that blows it’s gonna hurt
And the fear coursed through my body from my skin right to my core.
I could feel my fingers trembling,
Tried to stop my mouth from mumbling,
Fought to keep my strength from crumbling while I pondered the front door.
My only chance at escaping was to make it through the door.
But my feet stuck to the floor

I just stood in silent wonder waiting for the roaring thunder
To smash my television I’d just gotten from the store.
Protected by a warranty,
A salesman’s promised guarantee,
But their no return decree made the sale a perfect score.
My only source of entertainment was the salesman’s perfect score.
I should have left it at the store.

Then the screen on my TV began to glow fantastically,
Brilliant bands of color like I’d never seen before.
Strobes of blue and yellow-red,
Scorched my eyes and filled my head,
But it deigned to ease my dread like a sunset on the shore.
Like the greatest, brightest sunset as if viewed from ocean’s shore.
A soothing scene and nothing more

Then the colors coalesced, the light a form did manifest,
A strange and bright-plumed peacock slowly rumbled to the fore.
It just stood there motionless,
A pleasant looking but obscene guest,
Conjured up at my behest like some dream that had gone sore.
Just some illness-drenched, sorrow-laden dream that had turned sore.
This it is and nothing more.

Then this colorful bird hereafter turned my staunch fear into laughter,
By the querulous and penetrating expression that it wore.
Though thy feathers bright and gleaming,
And thy black eyes stark and beaming,
Certainly I must be dreaming and I’ll awake with my next snore.
Just a figment of dementia that will cease with my next snore.
Quoth the peacock, Channel Four.

I was startled by the shrillness of that voice that broke the stillness,
And the eyes that gleamed with darkness like a shotgun barrel’s bore.
Was that quote a stark prediction?
That my dreams will reach fruition?
Or might it lead to my perdition as I hope for more Folklore?
Will it bring my final ruin if I yearn for more Folklore?
Quoth the peacock, Channel Four.

This is just a game he’s playing, he really knows not what he’s saying,
’Twast just a random utterance that he made and nothing more.
A mimic like a parakeet,
A bland coincidental tweet,
As random as a startled bleat from a shepherd’s stock and store.
Just a harmless, ignorant utterance from a barnyard stock and store.
Quoth the peacock, Channel Four.

Should I search the television? Dare I start a brand-new mission?
Could there be a grand renewal of that epic called Folklore?
Had there been some mass objection?
Might there be a resurrection?
Does this warrant my inspection of the sched on channel four?
Could Folklore be continued another year or even more?
Quoth the peacock, Channel Four.

I grabbed for my remote control, a great hope swelling in my soul.
Could my hero take his place among the greats of TV yore?
Gentleman yet fighting master,
Elicits tears or joyous laughter,
Bringing to his foes disaster made a legend of Folklore.
My hero maintained order in the chaotic world Folklore.
Quoth the peacock, Channel Four.

I just coursed through endless choices, skating past familiar voices,
Useless scenes and schemes, to me, of doubt and nothing more.
Lives filled up with travesty,
People facing tragedy,
Others chasing amnesty for some sins that went before.
Lives of utter joy or sadness from the things that went before.
Quoth the peacock, Channel Four.

Then I reached the destination, I stopped on the predicted station.
But the screen just flowed with static, gritty noise and nothing more.
The peacock simply fanned his tail,
My lonely heart began to quail,
This isn’t right I tried to wail to the peacock on my floor.
Very soon the bird will leave me as all my friends had left before.
Quoth the peacock, Channel Four

That’s the last I want to hear it, you’re ruining my hope and spirit,
Get away from my decoder box and go haunt some other shore.
Leave no trailer as a beacon,
Of the promises you’re speaking,
Scorn me not for what I’m seeking, and just exit my front door.
There’s no Folklore on my TV so be gone though my front door.
Quoth the peacock, Channel Four

But despite all my commanding, the foul Peacock still is standing,
By the snakelike coax cable that meanders ’cross my floor.
I just graze through endless channels,
Moving pictures seem like panels,
Just made up of pointless annals of folks who never went before.
And my own life with the other lives that never went before.
Are entwined on Channel Four.

 

The Curse of the Katz

by Leonard Schlenz

 

Mickey’s Tavern is a puzzling place. It’s a beer joint with a tiny touch of class, part saloon, part museum; it’s a morning hangout for feral hippies with gray ponytails, a veteran’s foxhole away from the cold reality of a drizzly city in November. On the glass shelves behind the bar sit mementos from the great sea battles, little basswood ships and carved sailors. They sit in front of a very large mirror that pretends to double the seductive assembly of spirits in Mickey’s little corner lot.

Like a lot of the older taverns, its old pine floors are baptized in a perfume of spilt beer, and you can still smell the Camel smoke from the fifties, and you don’t have to be real perceptive to sense the confessional resonance of a million regrets embedded in the plaster wall. The owner, Mickey, says the place has character; the neighbors call it blight, an eyesore that attracts the worst kind.

Like a lot of beer joints, you have three choices of draft beer, and you can buy a shot of just about anything, but you won’t be ordering a Mai Tai or a Tainted Heart or a Mojito there, unless you go behind the bar and fix it yourself. From the inside of Mickey’s the only reality is the distant evening traffic zipping home through the drizzle to the south of town, or now and again, the heavy west door whooshing open, letting in a burst of autumn setting sun. The regulars will look over at the squeaky door each and every time and squint into the sudden brightness as if they’re expecting someone.

It’s a special day, “Half price for everything except the good stuff,” Mickey says. The calendar date is circled. Drinks are always half price on that day, but this anniversary is an anniversary numbered in the tens, and so extra special.

A rabble of drinkers usually lingers inside the place from noon on. Today is not much different for them except that Mickey lights some candles; it’s a candlelight vigil, sort of, related to all those relics of war that line the altar behind the bar where Mickey wipes a glass mug with a rag.

The clientele; they’re working people, and people without work, and every now and then people in nice clothes who walk in by accident, but mostly they smell of gas and oil, asphalt or burnt rubber, or even the smell of dumpsters where a few of them have slept the previous night.

Darryl, Mickey’s sort-of partner, is especially nervous today. Because of the curse.

He doesn’t hear what anybody says because he sits there talking to himself, monitoring the door that lets in the traffic, along with the whiffs of tobacco smoke from those who linger outside in the cold. It’s a day of remembrance. Remembering when you could smoke in your bunk back in ’44, and how, now, you can’t smoke in your own place. But mostly, remembering those scary days waiting for the Zeros to come buzzing in with the sun behind their tails. This frosty day is a day of atonement, though Mickey and Darryl don’t quite know the extent of the atoning to be done.

Snuggled between the Bacardi and the Ballantine’s is the centerpiece of Mickey’s Tavern, a hunk of twisted metal no bigger than half a piece of burnt toast; it’s a piece of charred shrapnel from the frigate they called the Katz, pulled out of Darryl’s backside, a harsh reminder of the guts of the boiler room where Mickey and Darryl traded shifts back when. The shrapnel honors that one day when the Japs left the Katz burning and melting and badly punctured as she bounced like a giant discarded cork off the coast of Formosa. Darryl has told many a tale with the relic held gently in his hand, and when he’s a bit tipsy he swears it beats like a little heart.

Of course there’s more to the Tavern’s artifacts than a hunk of charred metal. There’s lots of old ship stuff from the big war, shell casings from the Army/Navy surplus store down the street that hold the pretzels, black and white photos of battleships and cruisers, a picture of two sailors, smiling for the camera, arms joined over the shoulders like woven rope… Mickey and Darryl at eighteen. It’s November and cold on South Broadway, but you can see from the pictures how hot and humid it was back then in the South China Sea, and that’s where their thoughts still float after all these years. In those old black-and-white photos.

On the east wall are yellowed articles from newspapers and some overhead shots on the cover of magazines… of big ships with big wakes. One of the regulars sets his mug on the bar and asks for a refill, and whispers, “What’s with Darryl? He seems more out of it than usual.”

Mickey just shrugs. It’s nobody’s damn business. A man pushing on in years can have his own special stresses, those which come from noise, for example, which occurs to him now because it is in fact getting noisier as the early evening evolves, and it’s not the sun but nightfall that lingers just outside the door. But that’s not it either. Darryl is talking at the mirror like it was a big screen TV. The war is in the mirror. He’s asked Mickey to see it too, but Mickey doesn’t see it. Doesn’t want to see it.

Crunching gravel starts the evening off; the clientele begins to ease their old roadsters into place on the gravel lot, and hike their choppers up onto their stands. Mickey’s Tavern can be a rough place. It’s best to stay out, go someplace else on Saturday night if you’re not a regular. And it’s understood that troubles are handled inside, without police, as no one would want Mickey to lose his liquor license. Dirty laundry is hung inside, not outside. Mickey runs a tight ship.

Darryl presides at the end of the bar; Mickey does the bartending. The poolroom clicks and clacks quietly like distant ack-ack fire, and outside, somebody tinkers with a chopper and it pops and grumbles, seeking that perfect pitch. Darryl rises from his stool and shuffles into the poolroom. “Where you goin’ Darryl?”

“Just seein’ if anybody needs anything,” Darryl says. He helps out where he can though he’s had no business interest in the tavern for years. Darryl is first in, last out. Though he’s old by some standards, he’s grizzled and greasy, not too old to stand under oil pans part of the day helping his boy in the shop. Mickey understands that when Darryl sits at the bar bobbing his head, looking into that mirror, he’s looking up at the sea.

It seems like yesterday to Mickey, the sinking of the Katz. The ship was cursed from the start. She should have been christened with holy water what with its faulty boiler and single-minded navigation. It’s an old story. Worn out after all these years. But it just wasn’t fair the others got to die. The boiler crew, Mickey and Darryl and Graves, survived the Japs, and then the sharks, but then Graves, even Graves just disappeared afterwards. Never wrote. No postcards from Waikiki. Nothing. Leaving just the two of them.

Or so they made themselves believe all those years. But this was a special anniversary, the end of the curse. Where the buck stopped. They’d only recently talked it through, and tonight Darryl says, “Enough already. We can’t go on with the lie.”

“Shut up, Darryl.”

“It’s not up to us anymore, Mick. Like they say, our comeuppance will arrive like a thief in the night and the thief is at the door. Seaman Graves is not in Hawaii. Never was.” Darryl looks into the giant mirror; all the action is above deck, the ack-ack guns reverberating below deck; he knows the silver fish are speeding towards them… “The Katz has come home to roost. We let him down. And you damn well know it.”

It’s a quieter night than usual. There’re no fights yet. Nothing to write home about as they say. Except for maybe a last note in the diary, a goodbye note, “Let it go Darryl. We suffered enough.”
“Look in the mirror, Mick. It’s calling us. The Katz is calling us back.”

And finally, Mickey, the owner of Mickey’s Tavern, begins to see, maybe not in the mirror like his old friend, but he sees; he is once again back in the belly of a frigate, huffing and puffing in the deep blue sea. Inside the Katz. In the warm blue sea. And those in the belly of the cursed beast tending to the boiler are the most at risk.

*****

And from inside the perimeter walls, the entire footprint of Mickey’s beer joint, there is a bleating like the bleating of sheep, or to Mickey and Darryl the sound of melting metal groaning and men moaning; and the sweating walls surely are the bulkheads leaking.

But not entirely believing his own eyes and his own ears, Mickey says, “I think we’ve sprung a leak somewhere,” and him and Darryl both stand there with their mouths open like kids in a spook show, and they watch a small streamlet of water running down the wall from the ceiling next to the big clock that’s stopped. “Over there, too,” Darryl says. “Water’s trickling’ down that wall now. And what’s with the clock?”

Mickey shakes his head, “When it rains it pours. Ain’t that the damndest thing you ever saw… so is it raining outside?”

“Stopped a few hours ago, and as you don’t have an upstairs I don’t imagine there’s any plumbing up there which could burst.”

And then Darryl starts his mambo dance with the ghosts in his head, having ditched the boiler room with poor Graves trapped there, bobbing his head to avoid the imaginary strafing of a new wave of Zeros coming in against the sun, part of him wanting to go back for Graves…

“Why don’t you step outside and take a break, Darryl; see if you can see any way the water’s coming in from up there.”

“Hey, what’s with the water, boss?” It’s another regular who’s been hanging there for ten years, a big plumber with big hands, shaking his head and pointing to a little puddle starting to form near the dartboard.

“Go about your drinkin’, Leo. Mind your business. We’ll take care of it.”

“I’m a plumber, and it is my business, boss.”

Mickey takes a fresh mug from behind the bar and fills it, saying, “Here… on the house.”

The plumber shrugs and walks away, saying to his stubble-faced, skinny partner, “I told him, I told him. Not my problem.”

By now all thirty or so patrons are starting to notice the puddles on the floor. It’s widely assumed the restroom has run over again, and most have homes to go to and warm beds for the most part, and the water is not their concern, except one regular who’s walking unsteadily out of the poolroom with a cue stick pointed up. He has Chinese characters tattooed on his bald fat head and is crankier than the others and says, “Hey bartender… the shoes are getting squishy back there,” and another mumbles, his lips moving like slow honey squeezed out of a plastic jar, “Sure thing, Mickey boy, it’s gettin’ to be a regular swamp back there.”

“You don’t like it, y’all go somewheres else,” Mickey says, as Darryl is returning from outside shrugging his shoulders, and Mickey is starting to understand something the others, except Darryl, don’t, and he breathes in deeply, remembering the sweet sickening smell of men’s skin burned black in diesel oil in ’44; and he looks over to Darryl who’s quit dodging imaginary bullets for the time being, and they both stop to listen to the far-off screaming coming out of the walls where sharks munch down on cooked flesh, and dive bombers release their torment in wave after wave, and the bending ship shrieks as if the rivets themselves feel excruciating pain.

A voice in the crowd says, “You want I should open the door and let out the water?” It’s the plumber Leo, and he knows a bit about plumbing and he knows there’s no way in hell that water should be leaking down the walls like Niagara Falls.

“Nope,” Mickey says. “Just drink up and get out. All of you, outta’ here, we’re closing up.” Most of the crowd has left already and the water is a good three inches deep now. The last man slips and departs on his butt with the rushing water and the delirious hooting of his companions.

It’s just the two of them now and the floor is six inches deep in warm water and rising, and the lights start to flicker and the neon blue and red which encircles St. Pauli Girl turns dull as cinder. The jukebox and the girly pinball go next, their neon sputtering and dying with hardly a fight. All that remains is the fragrant candlelight. There’s enough light from the candles and the city outside to make out the steady stream of water rippling down next to the calendar, the calendar of U.S. Naval War Ships, and making slurping sounds, where little maelstroms no bigger than bathtub swirls find openings in the pine floor, beneath which is the cellar where the kegs are stored and boxes of liquor, and cases of bottled beer; and that’s where sits the old cast iron boiler built in the twenties. And now Darryl says to Mickey, “I sure wish I knew the words to that sailor poem.”

“Secure the west bulkhead!”

“No, that ain’t it.”

“Damn it, Darryl. This was your doing, now secure the west bulkhead!”

Mickey’s in charge; and Darryl follows orders like it was only natural for him, and he sloshes his way through the water to the door and pulls it snug, then bolts it. Out of habit he moves to the window, outside of which there’s actually a night-lit city he’d forgotten about, where his boy lives, and where his grandkids are probably home watching TV. He turns the cardboard sign from Open to Closed. He knows deep down that it’s not the Japs, but the Lord, that will have the better of this night. “I’ve got more candles,” Mickey says, and he wades through the water back behind the bar where he opens a cupboard and pulls out two big candles mounted in silver gravy boats. “Got a match, Darryl?”

“Course I got a match,” Darryl says, and he wades back through the water still flowing in ripples down each wall like a contrived water display, or some fancy artwork on a new slick marble building. The walls are still bleating; he pulls out his Zippo and lights each candle. The water is up to their knees. It’s warm, and he lights a Marlboro while he’s at it, inhales and holds it in his lungs for a while like it’s his last.

“Proceed to the boiler room. Get Seaman Graves out of there before it blows.”

“You know we could drown down there,” Darryl says.

“We are the boiler tenders, Darryl, so tend your boilers!”

Each takes a candle. Mickey leads the way through the dancing shadows. The trap door is next to the restrooms in the poolroom. Darryl holds Mickey’s candle while Mickey reaches into the shallow water and unlocks the padlock on the trap door. He tugs it upward, letting a river of water disappear into the darkness below. It takes both of them to lift it fully open and Mickey leans it against the wall.

“Maybe this time we’ll get it right,” Mickey says. He looks back into the bar area but it’s too dark to see much. A steady stream of warm water pours down the wooden stairs and Mickey grabs onto a rail with one hand and holds his candle with the other. “Here goes nothing… it’s slippery, Darryl… watch your step,” he says as he’s sucked straight down in a swirl of warm water and floor trash.

Darryl is old but he’s wiry and strong, and he grabs the slippery railing, “I’m right behind you.” Though it’s in two feet of water, the boiler is a monster of growling fire, sucking air and rumbling. But beginning to sputter. “The water’s already killing it,” Mickey says. “I’m not sure what there is to do here.”

The cellar is cavernous and dark, the air smelling of damp cement. Holding their candles upward they slosh into the darkness towards the diminishing glow and the warmth of the boiler. Empties float nearly three feet above the floor now and Mickey stands at five foot six, Darryl to slightly more. Mickey makes a pirouette with his candle, casting shadows on twenty thousand dollars of inventory, old doorknobs, and broken stools. He yells, “Graves? Graves? You in here, Graves? For god’s sake come on out.”

“Water’s coming fast now,” Darryl says, and they watch it wrap the wooden stairs in swirls, then they hear the thump of the trap door slamming shut, sucked inward by the rushing sea, and they listen as the water still hits the floor above like a tropical thunderstorm, and all the time running through every crevice of the old tavern down down down to the cellar, down to the timbers that brace the ship, both candles flickering.

“Don’t think we could lift that door again if we wanted to,” Darryl says. “And I think the boiler’s had it.”

And then he too shouts out, “Graves? Seaman Graves?”

“She’s a goner all right.”

“But what about Graves?” Darryl says, as a splash hits his candle and it sputters, sending up a smoky whiff of candle wax. He pulls out his Zippo but it’s futile to relight it. Mickey’s candle is dim as well and they shiver.

“People gonna’ wonder where all that water came from,” Darryl says with a hint of humor, and in the lingering flickering candle light Mickey sees a twinkle in Darryl’s eye.

They’re ready, as they have been for some time, since ’44, “Seaman Graves, are you there, Graves?”

Mickey’s Tavern is a watery tomb that smells of oil and fire, and the nauseating sweet smell of burning sailors, and now, above, they can still hear the faint sounds of strafing, the buzzing of dive bombers, and in their hearts they feel a blessed peace as they do their level best to do right by Seaman Graves.

 

A Perfect Moment

by C.J. Henderson

 

Duties are not performed for duty’s sake, but because their neglect would make the man uncomfortable.
A man performs but one duty—the duty of contenting his spirit, the duty of making himself agreeable to himself.
–Mark Twain

Vrenten of Sperica had not reached the rank of enjele because he was a member of the royal family. If anything, his birthright had worked against him mightily after his decision to join his world’s military. Not that such mattered to him. He had succeeded despite his title. As he told his fellows, he had never been overly interested in politics. Who would rule, would rule, he knew. And in all honesty, he could care less whose behind filled the jade throne.

“I’m certain you’re curious as to why you were called in.”

Enjele Vrenten broke his proper, forward gaze just long enough to indicate that his superior was correct. The twelve planets of their solar system were maintaining a reasonable peace with their neighbors in the galaxy, no upheavals mentioned on the news, no national disasters, his personal record clean—he could not even begin to cobble together the beginnings of a guess at what could have caused him to be roused at such a time in the morning—let alone to be summoned on the run to the ge’het’s private office. He sensed a raw level of tension in everyone around him, however, including the ge’het, which intrigued him greatly.

“Just what in seven suns is going on around here?” he asked. Hoping he was betraying none of his interest on his face, he added, “And could it possibly, just once, be something even a touch exciting?”

Ge’het Krec stared at the officer before him, then looked down at his desk. The commander allowed himself one deep breath, then, sufficiently steeled, looked up once more, saying;

“You’re being offered a mission, Vrenten. One so important, and most likely dangerous, that the word ‘offer’ was not a mistake. Normally such an undertaking would have entailed an extensive training period. The officer first chosen was prepared for seven months.”

The enjele’s heartbeat sped up, despite the iron grip he was exerting over his emotions.

“But, five hours ago, he was murdered.”

When Vrenten remained rigidly at attention, the ge’het sighed, then said to him;

“Release, Enjele. Your control is proper and admirable, but now is not the time. What you’re being asked to consider, you deserve the right to ask questions—”

“As you deserve the right to hear what questions I might ask, eh, sir?”

Krec smiled. Such honest impertinence was just one further assurance they had chosen wisely. Pulling a pair of smokers from the box on his desk, he tossed one to Vrenten, then allowed the officer to light up as he did so himself. Across the desk, the enjele inhaled deeply, his mind racing. Whatever was going on, it was at least twice as big as he had suspected. Clearing his mind, he asked;

“Murdered by who, sir? Do we know?”

“We suspect… but we can’t prove. It doesn’t matter. It’s the Atthans.”

Vrenten grinned internally over the fact that he managed to keep his eyes from going wide. Nodding gravely, he settled into the chair his superior indicated, letting the ge’het fill him in on what he needed to know.

“We’re going to be at war soon. Matter of weeks, the whole system will be on fire. No stopping it. Attha’s been spoiling for a turmoil. Making alliances, pushing borders…”

Krec stopped himself as if realizing there was no need to explain the obvious. Bowing his head for a moment, he raised it again, took a long drag on his smoker, then said;

“Thirty-eight thousand years, that’s how long we’ve been recording our history. We’ve been around a long time. Seen a lot, learned a lot. And yes, even we, the great and wonderful Sperican… even we’ve made some mistakes. Your mission, Vrenten, if you accept, is going to be to correct the most serious one of those mistakes our people ever made.”

The enjele exhaled, releasing a large cloud of smoke into the room. This time, he allowed himself to smile. Allowed his self-pleasure to be observed.

What, the back of his mind whispered in triumph, could it possibly matter now?

*****

Two hours later, Vrenten stood on a launch platform in a heavy-assault tactical suit, his head fairly reeling from all he had learned. Every ten cycles, time and space shattered, the walls of the universe collapsing for a time—inter-dimensional chaos known throughout the galaxies that shared information as the ShatterTime. A secret history of expeditions and wars, unknown to anyone but the ruling class. And the last time around, they put their foot into it.

Big time.

Last time, they had lost the Light. The divine power that had created their world, their culture, their entire way of being. An unlimited source of energy which the government’s chief wizards had nurtured and experimented with for millennia. Gone, allowed to slip through this idiotic breech which befell the universe—all the universes possible—every ten thousand cycles. In frustration, the college of sorcerers had been able to follow its movements, but had been unable to do anything to recapture it.

The Light, Vrenten had been informed, had fallen into a pattern, revealing itself upon a planet named Earth every twenty-five hundred years. It was there—now. And it had to be recovered—it had to be brought back.

Now.

Which would not be accomplished easily, the enjele was assured, for the natives had knowledge of the Light, and would not release it easily.

“It must be returned to the council,” Krec had pressed upon him, the commander’s voice laced with desperation. “Attha spent a planetary ransom in an attempt to make certain this mission fails. You must thwart their desires, Vrenten. The Light must be returned, for if it is not, our world dies!”

Of course, the enjele had accepted. How could he not? After all, this was a mission worthy of a warrior. This was a deed worth doing. As he waited for the breech to open, his excitement was something he could feel in his fingertips, hear in the air around him, taste it there as well. He had a device he was assured would lead him to the Light. He had been given any weapon he had asked for. He had but a handful of days to find the lost power, liberate it from wherever it was being held, and return it to the council.

Madness, he thought, unable to stop grinning. The greatest madness a man could ask for.

And then, suddenly the air turned a thin yellow, hazing over before him, filling with the scent of fresh halinbred buds. It was the sign—the breech was opening. Stepping forward without hesitation, the enjele moved into the shimmering disruption and in an instant… was elsewhere.

His new reality slammed against him with the force of a falling mountain. His armor caught the blow and dispersed it with typical efficiency, shattering the landscape around him as it did so. With a thought he commanded his visor to locate whatever force had hit him. His suit responded, turning him in a rapid arc until he saw—

“What in the seven suns is that?”

Staggering tall, improbably wide, the wildly constructed lifeform waddling across the cityscape before the enjele left him too startled to immediately respond. The thing was too oddly put together. There was no central trunk, no core hub of construction, no nucleus from which its appendages might sensibly fall. It was insanity given flesh, and the sight of it transfixed him—crippling his ability to react.

“Look out!”

Vrenten had only paused for the briefest of moments, stunned as he was by the maddeningly impossible thing before him. But, in the scant seconds his brain had needed to scan the horror, it had taken note of him. The first blow he had received from the creature had been but the merest edge of one meant for another. Now, as the enjele stared forward, blinking hard, struggling to focus his mind, he realized the thing was about to direct its next attack at him. Was doing so even as he fumbled to respond.

“Down!”

The earthling that had shouted at him a second earlier had now thrown himself against the enjele, knocking him to the ground an instant before another of the monstrosity’s beams had left its body. The force tore the atmosphere open, filling the air with fractured atoms, frying their edges, clogging their lungs with the stink of ozone. Behind the pair, several buildings shook violently, then collapsed inward upon themselves, filling the area with a monstrous cloud of rapidly-swelling dust and debris.

“Quick,” shouted the earthling, his speech translated by Vrenten’s suit, “we’ve got to move—now!”

The enjele shook his head within his helmet, trying to clear it. The indicator link within his helmet showed him that the Light was indeed within his immediate vicinity. Everything had worked as Krec’s experts had hoped. He had been delivered directly to his objective.

Gather intelligence, he told himself. You’re already in the right spot, and you have days to complete your mission. Best guess, that whatever-it-is possesses the Light. Make certain. Only way to find out—interact. Get what information you can from the local.

Standing, Vrenten assumed the same hunched-over stance as the earthling and then followed it as it ran into the billowing dust. The pair ran a very short distance, then the earthling grabbed at the enjele’s arm, pulling him around the corner of what Vrenten assumed was a building of some sort.

“Thank you,” the enjele heard his suit translate. “I believe you may have saved my life.”

“Night’s not over,” answered the native. “Might need you to do the same for me, you know.”

Vrenten used the moment to study the life form. The earthling was not so terribly dissimilar from himself. Squatter, far more hairy, an extra finger on each hand—but still, bipedal, two eyes, set forward, still actually possessed teeth, but close enough to normal to find some sort of common ground. The fellow did not seem to be carrying any weapons. He was fully clothed, but not armored.

Not naked or wearing face paint, thought the enjele, they build cities. At least there’s some level of civilization.

As Vrenten was taking his tally, the native asked;

“You military?”

“Yes,” he answered honestly, not seeing any harm, needing to establish some sort of basis for communication.

“What’re your orders?”

“Making it up as I go along,” the enjele replied.

“Yeah,” agreed the earthling, “tonight, aren’t we all?”

“What is that which you combat?”

“No idea,” answered the local. “Crap has been popping out of thin air all day. One damned thing after another. My tech people tell me we’re in for a bad bout for up to a week.”

They understand the breech, thought Vrenten. Nodding, he began to run a fast inventory of his weapons, making certain that not only had everything transferred through the breech along with him, but that none of it had suffered damage either during the transition or the attack. As he did, the native said;

“This thing here, though, we’re thinking it’s the worst that’s going to come through. Doesn’t have a name we can put to it. Just a whole lot of nasty that’s gotta be stopped.”

Vrenten frowned slightly. His information was that the Light existed on this world. The creature before them, however, appeared to have arrived as he had—through the breech. Then he thought, Krec had told him the lost power interacted with the planet on a cycle, much like the one causing the breech.

Thing slides through the breech, he thought, possesses the Light… possible—

“Time to move.”

The enjele heard the local’s words, but as the earthling ran quickly toward the shadows created by the growing debris cloud, Vrenten answered—

“Yes, time to move, indeed,” and hit his vertical thrusters, throwing himself a rapid fifty feet into the air. A flaming gelatin shot through with vibrant strands of a green lightning splattered against the ground where the two had been, thrown at the spot by the towering horror. Ready for battle, the enjele snapped one of his firearms into his left wrist cradle and spat;

“I can deal heat, too, ugly.”

With a thought, his zelcator reached out in every direction, pulling all the thermotic energy within a hundred yard radius to itself, and then converted it to a tight beam and sent it pulsing back toward his foe. The purple/pink stream of incalescent scintillation tore across the area between them at the speed of thought, splattering against the monstrosity, burning through the first two layers of its semi-metallic scales.

As the creature roared, spitting its anger into the sky, Vrenten smiled, thinking;

Oh, if you liked that…

Snapping a much bulkier unit onto his other wrist, the enjele thought the proper release sequence and then braced himself as his converter ranged through the available atmosphere, scooping all available metallic atoms and converting them into inch-thick, yard-long segments of a type of razor wire which it flung with terrible force into the monstrosity’s flesh.

As the creature howled, its raging bringing the sound of breaking glass through the ever-billowing debris cloud now covering a several-mile radius, Vrenten chuckled. He had followed a science-driven, esoteric attack with one of standard metal. It never failed to catch such enemies off guard. He knew the thing had been bracing its defenses for a like attack and thus had suffered far more damage when his fester spears had struck home.

Maintaining what he assumed was a safe distance, allowing his suit to fall into a standard bob-and-weave pattern, the enjele switched the fester attachment back to its place on his utilization rack, and was pulling down another weapon—one he had always wanted to see used against something capable of withstanding its power—when suddenly, his mind froze as it heard a black and choking thought—

*worthy*

A great, mocking bellow splattered across the landscape, and then the towering horror threw forth a second volley of flame and lightning—one several hundred times the diameter of the first. Although Vrenten’s zelcator had been left armed, it could not begin to pull the heat energy from the air being created at that moment. The temperature of the enjele’s armor rose dramatically, even as the maelstrom of electricity sluiced through every circuit it could find.

His suit stunned, Vrenten fell helplessly toward the ground, even as his monstrous foe slid forward a massive cephalopodic length to ensnare him. But, before the enjele could fall into the outstretched appendage, his native ally leapt into the air, making an incredible, unassisted jump which not only brought him in contact with Vrenten, but allowed him to shove the soldier out of the horror’s grasp. As the two of them hit the ground some distance away and began to roll, the enjele shouted;

“Behind me!”

As he had thought, the monstrosity followed up its attack by hurling another overwhelming blast of flame and current their way. Vrenten knew not all of his offensive equipment would be back on line yet, but he was certain he could count on his armor’s defensive net to protect them. As the enjele’s suit actually rebuilt its power from the energy being thrown against it, he shouted;

“I’ll be topped off in a moment, but if you have anything you could throw at that thing, this might be a good time.”

“Well,” answered the earthling, giving Vrenten a short smile, “I guess I can’t let you have all the fun.”

The enjele could not help but admire the native. He wore nothing but standard civilian issue, carried no weapons of any size—oh, his indicator had marked the fellow as carrying several small metallic items on his person, but they were trifles—and yet he was ready to move forward against the monstrous shape before them. Watching the gauge on his forearm, knowing it would still take several seconds for his regen-unit to finish charging his circuits, Vrenten thought;

You will be avenged, good sir.

And then was struck speechless.

Sucking down a deep breath, the native braced himself, then extended his arms, pointing his hands at their foe. The fellow took a moment to shout;

“I gave you a chance to move on, but you wanted to dance. Well then, let’s shake it, baby!”

As the creature threw itself forward, it was suddenly stunned as if hit by a battery of pulse cannons. No discharge left the native’s hands, at least, none the enjele’s eyes could track. His armor, however, was better equipped. Running through his visor’s various range modes, he found one which revealed the truth. Through some unexplainable power, the fellow had converted matter from all around them into energy and hurled it at their enemy. His systems instantly calculated the mass, letting him know that some ninety-six tons of rubble, buildings and street had been reduced to their basic atomic matter and then directed through the native and against the creature. In amazement, he whispered;

“Gralg, stuff a dilly.”

Vrenten’s armor revitalized as the monstrosity fell over backwards. As it slammed against the ground, the enjele shouted;

“Did you kill it?”

“Possible,” answered his companion, not turning to look at him. Indeed, Vrenten noted immediately that the fellow did not even break his defensive stance. As the native turned his head from side to side, his eyes straining against the still swirling billow all about them, the enjele began to do the same, asking;

“What are we looking for?”

“The other two.”

Vrenten froze, not from fear, but self-reproach. Sending a mental command to his armor, he had the location of at least one of the creatures instantly. Even as he began to inform his companion, his radar located the second.

“That way,” he said, pointing toward the west. “One half as close as the other.”

“Headed this way?”

The enjele looked to his scanner for a movement reading, when suddenly the atmosphere was shattered by a terrible, drilling scream, a pounding clang of uncomprehending fear and sadness which signaled the final breath of the thing he and the native had just dispatched. Double checking his scanner, he said;

“They are now. You ready for two of them?”

“I could use a breather. How about yourself?” When Vrenten agreed, the native extended his hand, touched the enjele on the shoulder, then said;

“Brace yourself.”

Vrenten was about to ask what his companion meant when suddenly he found himself shifted through space to a point in the city quite a good distance from the site of their combat. Outside of the dust cloud for the first time since arriving on the target planet, he looked about at the primitive poured stone buildings, wondering if his newfound friend and his race had been walking upright for even fifty thousand cycles. Then, remembering what had just happened, he looked at the native with even more respect than he had after his last show of power and said;

“You teleported us—with but a thought!” Trying to get his mind around his own words, Vrenten asked;

“Forgive the question, but what are you? Some local god come down off the mountain, or something equally entertaining?”

The fellow bowed his head a bit, a gesture the enjele accepted as a universal one for indicating embarrassment. Understanding, knowing on so many levels what his words had done, Vrenten immediately extended his hand, saying;

“Forgive the armor. Enjele Cormac Vrenten. Pleased to meet you.”

“Likewise,” said the native. Taking the fingers of the enjele’s glove in a grasp rather than his wrist as Vrenten had expected, the fellow gave them a slight shake, then released his grip, adding;

“Theodore London. I’m assuming ‘enjele’ is some rank I just don’t recognize. I’m a private detective myself. Although, obviously, I can throw around a bit more power than most guys.”

“I noticed.”

“Yeah,” answered London, his face not changing. “I noticed you noticed. And that you didn’t freak out while doing so. Can I assume you’ve seen a bit of the strange in your time?”

“A bit… here and there.”

And, in that moment, Vrenten made a decision. His armor had confirmed moments after his arrival that the local atmosphere could support his life functions adequately. Reaching upward, he thumbed the tab which would recess his helmet. As the metal and frosted glass collapsed into its partitioned chamber, the enjele smiled as he noted the change in London’s expression as the fellow took note of his alien features.

“Yes,” he said, the sides of his own mouth relaxing as well, “I’m not from around here.”

“I didn’t think so,” answered the native. “You had that ‘elsewheres’ feel to you. But then, so much stuff the last few hours has, it’s hard to tell friend from foe. Well, that being the case, welcome to New York City.”

“Much appreciation.”

“No problem. But, if it’s not being too nosey, might I ask what’re you here for? Not that I’m looking to turn down help, but why’d you join in?”

Checking his scanner, seeing that the second two creatures had just reached the site of their fallen third, Vrenten answered;

“My world lost something valuable the last time this disruption came through the universe. I have been dispatched to retrieve it.”

“And you’re thinking this trio has what you’re after?” When the enjele answered in the affirmative, London told him;

“Well, you’re welcome to whatever they might have once we’re done with them.” Vrenten started to answer, but as the warning alarm he had set on his scanner beeped, he said instead;

“Our targets are on the move again.” Once more he was about to say one thing, only to receive a further notice from his armor which caused him to replace a pleasantry with something far more urgent.

“London,” he snapped, “bad news. My instruments reveal that our foes are far more powerful than their fallen comrade.”

“I was afraid of that,” answered the detective, not seeming terribly surprised. “I never met these boys personally, but I know the type. Symbionts, sort of.”

“They are sharing power. With the death of the one…”

“The other two are now each fifty percent stronger. Maybe only thirty-five or forty, but… still feel like joining in?”

Vrenten stared at his companion, marveling over the fellow. Amazed not only at his power level, but at his easy acceptance of facing such monsters, he found himself asking;

“If I might pose a question—”

“Shoot.”

“You know why I am doing this, what I have to gain. What is your motivation in this—if such is not… nosey?”

“Hey,” answered London, smiling again, “as I told a buddy of mine a long time ago, any guy who jumps into a monster fight and asks questions later is all right by me.”

The sound of buildings being knocked over stole the pair’s attention for a moment. The enjele let his companion know that their foes were moving directly toward them once more. Nodding, London said;

“Anyway, the job of stopping crap like this kind of fell into my lap a while back when I unexpectedly came into a little extra power. Do I want it? No… not really. But, there’s no one else who can handle it, so…”

The native shrugged his shoulders, the sight of the gesture making Vrenten chuckle. He had met hundreds of beings from other worlds within his own universe. Yet never, he realized, had he ever understood one from another race so completely, trusted one so utterly, as this one.

Has there ever been an Atthan that shrugged its shoulders, he thought, or did so for so utterly the right reason?

“Let us go,” responded the enjele, hitting the tab to close his helmet once more, “we have more monsters to kill.”

And then, before London could respond, the brutish things were upon them. The first of them slid through the dusty haze, its body reformed into a defensive mass of far-reaching appendages. All the grasping lengths were armored, all were covered with harshly staring eyes and screaming mouths. At the sight, the native indicated that Vrenten should become airborne. The enjele did so, just avoiding a massive attack as the horror flooded the area with an over-whelming barrage of fire and lightning, the power of it consuming the ground where they had stood downward to a level of some sixty feet.

Not worried about his companion, certain the clever London could not only avoid so obvious an attack, but that he had most likely meant to draw the thing’s fire, Vrenten did what he knew was expected—he slammed the creature with everything he could. Hoping that the monstrosities shared experience as well as power, he unleashed his razor wire lengths first.

“Yes!”

Expecting the shape-shifting beast to simply create passages through its body to allow the bladed edges to pass through itself harmlessly, he immediately followed the blast from his one arm with a second from his other. Unleashing a new weapon, he sent out his full complement of directional explosives. The bombs followed the razor wires along their trajectories, but then at a signal from the enjele they switched course, all streaking to the closest heat source—in this case the monstrosity’s body.

Vrenten cued his armor instantly, moving himself some thousand feet backward seconds before the explosions began. Sixty detonations rang out, shattering much of the horror from the inside. Again the air was fried by the unexpected burst of pain which radiated from the second beast. Scarlet agony blasted from the monster in all directions—but not enough to indicate its demise. Although damaged extensively, the beast had no true form. It could remake itself into any form it desired.

If, of course, it was given sufficient time.

“Nice set up, Vrenten,” London’s voice rang in the enjele’s earpiece somehow, “let me see if I can do it justice.”

Vrenten’s armor placed the native for him instantly, hanging in the sky well above their foe. Watching him at the proper frequency, the enjele saw the entire action as it was happening. Again, using whatever power it was he possessed, London disassembled the buildings the creatures had destroyed, and even the body of their fallen companion, and turned it into a pure beam of colorless force which he drove through the beast. Spearing it to the ground, he pushed with all the force he could muster, tearing the remainder of it into shreds too small to allow reassembly.

And then, the native fell from the sky, done in—overwhelmed. Throwing all the power he had into his rear jets, Vrenten rocketed forward, swooping in at just the right angle to hopefully intercept the falling man without injuring him. Upon reaching London, the enjele then hit his upward thrusters, changing his trajectory radically just as the third creature blanketed the area with a holocaust of blazing energy.

“Thanks…” the native managed weakly.

“You called it earlier, didn’t you,” answered Vrenten, angling to move both of them out of range before the last of the monsters figured out what he had done. “I had to do something to even the score between us.”

“Well, here’s hoping someone pins a medal on you… if that’s what they do…when you get back, back—”

The enjele ordered London to save his strength. He could feel his companion’s weakness. Knew that he had not done a perfect job of catching the native as he fell. Something had snapped in London’s side. Landing them down far enough away from the last of the monsters to give them a moment, Vrenten said;

“You are injured.”

“Yeah… not the first time.”

The fellow started to say more, then suddenly coughed, vomiting out a thick, sticky fluid, the purpose of which the enjele was certain he knew. The native had been more than just slightly damaged. From the way the color of his skin was changing, it was obvious he had been hurt severely. Setting London as carefully as he could on the ground, his back supported by some manner of large plant, Vrenten took stock of his situation.

The last creature was approaching. It would be upon their position soon—with not only its own power, but that of its fallen brothers as well. And this one he would have to face alone. His companion, brave as he was, looked as if he would certainly die if he went into battle once more.

Still, his mind whispered to him, this isn’t our concern. We are here for the Light. Nothing more. This fellow’s just trying to save his world. If we get the power out of that thing, his world is saved. What does it matter if he dies, if he gets what he wants out of it?

The enjele did still possess the device that was supposed to make his task simpler. Krec had called it a “drainer.” Said all that had to be done was to slap it against whatever it was that had captured the energy of the Light, and that would be that. His world’s divine power would be reclaimed. He would be a hero, to all—everyone. Forever.

If London can just attract the thing’s attention long enough for me to fly in from behind—

And then, suddenly, a different notion struck him. His locator was supposed to bring him directly to wherever the Light was. To whatever or whomever had claimed it. The locator had brought him into the vicinity of the first of the creatures. That was true.

But it had brought him to within feet of London.

His eyes flashing wide, Vrenten was as horrified as he was certain he was correct. The creatures were not what had taken possession of the Light—

Anyway, the job of stopping crap like this kind of fell into my lap a while back when I unexpectedly came into a little extra power.

The enjele remembered the native’s words—

Do I want it? No… not really. But, there’s no one else who can handle it, so…

“It’s not them…”

“Hey,” asked London weakly, staring up at the enjele, “something wrong, pal?”

Vrenten’s mind swam for an answer. All he had to do to complete his mission was to merely touch the broken man at his feet with the drainer. The Light would be his. His world would be spared.

And his will die!

The final condemnation from the back of his mind stung the soldier, forcing him to look away. As he did, the warning alarm in his armor alerted him to the position of the last creature. Whatever he was going to do, he was going to have to do it soon.

Reaching his hand down to London, the enjele asked;

“Like the last time, do you think you can attract the thing’s attention?”

“I can give it the old college try.”

“Then do so,” answered Vrenten, helping his companion to his feet as carefully as he could.

“I believe I have an idea.”

And then the enjele rocketed off, hoping his decision would only doom one world and not two.

*****

“So, if I understand you, enjele,” snarled Ge’het Krec, “you used the drainer on this monster, not this London, and drained its energy instead? You came home without the Light? You disobeyed orders? Is that what you’re telling me?”

When Vrenten responded that the ge’het was correct, the officer stormed across his office and threw himself into the chair behind his desk, demanding;

“And can you tell me why you did this? And while you’re at it, why you bothered to come back afterward?”

“Sir, it wasn’t right. The fellow saved me—more than once. His world needs him. Needs him to have the Light. More than we do.”

“And what makes you say that?”

“Sir, we’ve survived without this Light for ten thousand cycles. If we can’t beat the Attha without it, the Attha, for the sake of pity, then we don’t deserve to survive.”

When Krec said nothing in response, merely continued to sit and stare at him, Vrenten realized he had not responded to all he was asked. Clearing his throat, he added;

“I returned, sir, in the hopes the energy drained from the creature might be enough to serve. And…”

“Yes—”

“It wasn’t right to leave you with your neck the only one in sight when they came looking for a place to bury their knives. Ah… sir.”

No longer able to contain his joy, Krec stood, reaching out to grasp Vrenten’s wrist, shouting;

“You magnificent bastard, I told them you were the man for the job.”

It took a while for the ge’het to explain the entirety of what had actually been going on to Vrenten, but eventually the enjele came to realize what had truly happened.

“So, I’m not in trouble?”

“None.”

“There never was anything called the Light?”

“Not at all.”

“This was just a test…”

“Let’s not make too little of it,” said Krec, indicating that the enjele should take a seat. “Ever since our people have become aware of this event, we’ve put it to good use. Only the Supreme knows, and then only when he’s told by those who carry the secret. One in the military—that’s me right now—one of the faith, one in the populace. Between us, when the time comes, we look over the available candidates, and one is chosen to be tested.”

“Tested for what… ah, sir?”

“To be the Supreme, to rule. To strengthen the blood. To sweep out the old. Look, my boy, you know your history. Ten thousand back, the Gorben dynasty, ousted overnight. Suddenly a new line of succession.”

“But…”

“New ideas, new ideals, comfort and waste thrown out. Respect for all revived. Something we’ve been losing the past few thousand years. Something—”

Krec continued to talk, and Vrenten did hear most of it, but he could not concentrate on the individual words. He had, in a perfect moment, turned his back on all that had been expected from him, and instead had done what he had felt was truly right.

And by doing so, the back of his mind whispered, I have gained…

His thoughts trailed off as he realized he could not actually tabulate all that he had acquired.

Everything, the same voice whispered from the back of his mind, comforting—chuckling. Everything that shall be for the Sperican people from now on, will be of your design.

At least, he thought to himself, enjoying the sounds of Krec telling him what a splendid fellow he was, for the next ten thousand cycles, anyway.

*****

London slid into the booth seat being offered to him by a tall, thin man with thick black hair, save for the white streak which zig-zagged through it back from his temple across his head. The detective held his side as he moved to make certain he did not bump it against anything. As he parked himself carefully with a sigh, the man on the other side of the booth commented;

“You really should have that looked at.”

“I’ll be fine, Doc,” answered London. Signalling for a waitress, he added, “But, thanks for the heads up on that guy.”

“You have your job,” said Anton Zarnak with a tired smile, “I have mine.”

When the waitress arrived, London ordered a black coffee with amaretto. His friend merely pointed at his glass and nodded, indicating that he simply wanted another of the same. As the woman headed back to the bar, the detective said;

“You think things will quiet down out there soon, Anton?”

“Got a long way to go, old friend,” answered the other. Fishing in his pocket, he pulled out a pair of twenties, placing them on the table just as the waitress returned. As she moved the drinks on her tray to spots before her customers, London’s friend turned to her, tapping the bills as he said;

“I got this. Give my friend another on me. The rest is yours.”

The woman gave the fellow the brightest smile she owned. He nodded, then turned back to London.

“You going to make it home all right?”

“I’m not totally helpless.” The detective took a sip of his coffee, then added, “Although, I doubt I’ll be much more help on this one. You going to be able to handle things?”

Zarnak set down his empty glass—which London could have sworn he never picked up, let alone drained—and slid himself out of their booth. Slipping his hat on, he said;

“If I can’t…”

London nodded, toasted his friend with his cup, then watched as he made his way to the door. As the detective made to pick his cup up again, he winced, realizing he had moved too fast. Of course, he thought, he could simply use the same energies he had utilized earlier in the evening to heal himself. But that, he knew, was a cheat. Fate had handed him the power it had to use in the service of others, not himself.

As a part of his mind criticized his thinking, reminding him that ribs took a painfully long time to mend on their own, he reached for his mug but waited to raise it as he noticed the waitress returning. As she stopped at the table, he asked;

“Yes?”

“I hate to be like this, but my shift is ending, and I was just wondering… were you going to have anything else?”

“No,” London answered softly, sympathetically. “I’m not much of a drinker. Go ahead, take it. I’m sure you earned it.”

Grateful, feeling somewhat playful, the waitress pocketed the twenties, asking the detective;

“What makes you so sure?”

“We all earn what we get… sooner or later.”

London drained his mug then and began the slow process of removing himself from the booth. When the waitress asked if he needed help, he told her to wait, just in case he did. Making it to his feet without too much trouble, he thanked her, then headed for the door. As he did, she called out;

“Hey, your buddy, he was nice. What’s he do for a living?”

“Well, he used to be a doctor. Now,” the detective thought for a moment, then with a smile, he finished, “Now, he’s more of a salesman.” The woman considered the detective’s answer for a moment, then asked;

“Yeah… what’s he sell?”

London stopped, then turned and said in a voice only the waitress could hear;

“Hope for the future.”

“Crap,” she said, unconsciously patting the twenties in her apron, “he’s got a worse job than mine.”

London nodded, resuming his march to the door, wondering if his friend Anton might not have a worse job than everyone.

 

Games Best Played Alone

by Wendy C. Williford

 

Faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, yet you can’t even sink the three ball in the center pocket.

Countless nights you’ve been coming here and it’s always the same. The faces are different but in essence they never really change—just a floating mass of bodies that have crowded in, all seeking some strange comfort they’ve been unable to find in their family and work lives. It doesn’t make a great bit of sense, yet, it gives comfort that for a few hours a night you can identify with them, pretend to share a semblance of their problems, fears, hopes, and aspirations. It gives you a chance to be like them before you’re dreadfully reminded that there is nothing in you akin to them, not the same mind, not the same bodies, not even the same DNA. You were raised around them, went through puberty and adolescence with them, entered into manhood along with them, but it doesn’t change the fact that you weren’t born with them, didn’t breathe the first breath of oxygen with them, didn’t suckle your mother’s breast along with them. You are not any of them and it torments you inside.

The glowing neon of the Miller Lite sign looms above the rusty chair in which you’ve taken a seat. Staring at the pool table, you contemplate the next shot. Tonight, you’re stripes and solids, not because you couldn’t find anyone to play with, but because you prefer it that way. It’s just among the many games you play alone, having realized at a young age that you can best anyone at anything without even breaking a sweat in your little finger. These people don’t even offer a challenge anymore. The rednecks take one look at you and assume you haven’t got the sense that their god gave to a mule. The college frat boys think you’re nothing but a middle-aged man, unable to socialize with others, although in truth you’re only a little more than ten years their senior. At least by Earth’s years. And the young girls think you’re something to be pitied as they lean over the tables around the pool-hall, giving you a glimpse down their unbuttoned shirts, the dim lights above silhouetting the curve of their breasts. As they catch the hypnotic trance they’ve placed on you, they pop back up, giggling, gently stroking their clenched fist up and down the cue stick, thinking they’re giving you a fantasy to take back to your singles apartment before they turn around and place a deep kiss on the guy they’ve come with. If only they knew you could look through their clothing anytime you wanted, able to see the color of their thong underwear, birthmarks on their upper thighs, or if they have pierced nipples. But that’s your secret. Even though it would make for one hell of a pickup line, you keep it to yourself. In the end, none of them can fill the void She left.

Taking out a cigarette, you dig through your pocket for a lighter. It’s not as if they’re going to kill you. That very fact makes the thrill a little less enjoyable, but it makes you blend in, so you suck in all the nicotine you can handle, letting it settle deep in your lungs before blowing up to the ceiling, watch the smoke waft through the air of the pool hall and mix with the smoke of the others. The country band on the stage is playing a slow dance; the lead singer in his tight Wranglers and black Stetson thinks he’s country’s answer to Jim Morrison as he eyes a table of young women in the crowd, their bodies swaying to his trite lyrics. It’s a nuisance that you can read their thoughts, but that’s not due to any particular power, you’re just more in tune with human nature. Eyes are the giveaway, next the small pulsing in their necks or wrists. You could be a human lie detector from across the room and that thought makes you laugh.

Human. If they only knew.

You concentrate on the pool table once again. If you strike the cue ball with moderate force at a seventy-three degree angle from the left, it will knock against the purple solid four, send it into the left wall, one inch from the center pocket, ricochet toward the blue solid two, hit its left side, force the purple striped twelve to travel to the red solid three, which will go directly into the right center pocket, meanwhile, the twelve striped will continue on its path, strike the eight ball, send it toward the front right corner pocket, stop five inches away, where you want it to stay until the end of the game. You take a deep sigh. This game is becoming so predictable.

As you crush out your cigarette, Valerie approaches. You hear the sway of her hips before she even enters your eyesight.

“Hon, you want another Budweiser?” her raspy voice rises over the music. She likes you because you tip well. She picks up the five empty longnecks, along with their peeled labels, and places them on her corkboard tray. You nod as you finally glance her way. Your eyes settle on her bar logo t-shirt. She has a pearl-studded bellybutton ring. It’s infected but she’s not aware of it yet. You reach for your wallet, pull out a $20 and hand it to her.

“I gotta say, sweetheart, you are too good to me. You keep this up and I might just have to take you home with me one night.” She smiles and tosses her curly blonde hair over her shoulder. Unconsciously, she picks a piece of lint away from the cuff of your white long-sleeve shirt, oblivious to what the shirt is hiding.

“It’s all good in theory,” your deep voice caresses her ears, “but we both know you’d worry that I might not leave in the morning.”

She laughs, knowing it’s only a joke but truth lies within it. She places the $20 in her tab book and mindlessly scratches her stomach. “It’s a chance I’ll have to take, isn’t it?”

Valerie turns and heads back to the bar. She puts more effort in the sway of her hips this time. You like to watch women play their games with you, teasing you with the way they lick their lips or hold their posture just right to give you the fullest advantage point of their chests. Valerie is no different than the others but it doesn’t bother you. You let her think she’s in control of you, that she’ll keep you at a distance as long as it suits her, but little does she know that with one hot breath in her direction, you’ll have her wet before she knows what hit her. It’s all you’ll give her, though. It’s all you’ll give any of them. And it’s all Her fault. You shake your head, try to make the thought go away and get up.

You chalk your hands, then chalk the end of the cue stick. The blue dust settles over the hairs on the back of your hand. Blowing the dust away, you lean over the table and push your glasses back up the bridge of your nose. As you slide the cue stick against the back of your knuckles, you take the shot. The balls scatter around the green felt, none of them going in the direction you had intended. “Fuck!” you mutter to yourself. The angle must have been wrong. The thought that you might be losing your touch doesn’t even enter your mind.

Valerie returns with the beer. She keeps a $5 for herself, the rest she brings back as quarters. After she sets them on the table, she empties the ashtray into a bowl of half-eaten, stale tortilla chips she removed from a different table.

“The kitchen’s closing in twenty. Do you want anything to eat tonight?”

You shake your head, thinking about the next shot. Maybe a sixty-four degree angle will work this time. Valerie waits for attention, but when you fail to give it, she shakes her head—the pity shake—and walks away, lightly scratching her stomach with her pinkie.

It wasn’t always this way. The top of your class, a promising career as a reporter, and a decent salary were just the highlights of your accomplishments, at least the accomplishments that made you similar to them. It was the normality you always craved, it was the only thing that you yearned for and desired. Until you met Her. It wasn’t in a seedy bar or out on the streets. It was in the copy room. She smiled bashfully, hoping you hadn’t heard her kicking the machine from the hallway, asked if you were the repairman, unaware you were a new hire. Her jet black hair fell against her shoulders, a lock brushing against her collarbone. Two buttons were undone on her white blouse, revealing nothing but her slender neck and that collarbone. It was the first time you realized how that particular part of a woman was the sexiest thing you’d ever seen. You could have easily seen what was hidden beneath her blouse, under the black skirt that hung just below the knees, even the shape of her toes in the black pumps. But you didn’t. You wanted to keep it a mystery. There was a purity about her you didn’t want to violate. She took your breath away and you wanted to earn the chance of having her do it again and again. And again.

She played hard to get with the same expertise as the others. For months you watched her, taking every moment you could to memorize her face, the curve of her hips, the way she held a file against her chest with her other hand cocked on her waist as she intently listened to Murray, the editor-in-chief, raise his voice to her about deadlines, gutter widths, the expense of color photos and circulation decline, all the while, smiling, nodding when he accentuated a point and knowing full well she wasn’t taking a single word he said seriously. In the middle of the tirade, she glanced at you from the corner of her eye, gave a quick smile, letting you in on her amusement, and gave a final nod with a “Yes, sir! I’m on it.” She walked away, her womanly scent overpowering you as she passed your desk, her finger trailing against the lacquered simulation oak, her body heat leaving behind an imprint on the wood that only you could see. You loved her. It scared you to death.

But that’s the past. What did you have, a few good dates? A few nice dinners, a few good movies all ending the same, heavily kissing in the hallway outside her apartment door. The heat of her body is still emblazoned in your mind, along with the throaty moans she gave you as you pressed your body against hers, her hands entwined around your neck, then pulled away as you freed her shirttail and slid your hand up her back. With swollen lips, she gave the same excuse each time. It was always an early deadline and you bought it despite the fact you knew the truth. She just wouldn’t let you get close, no matter how many times you tried to prove to her that you weren’t like the ones before. In the end, you finally concluded, it wasn’t that she didn’t trust you, she didn’t trust herself. And it was the irony that hit you like a ton of bricks when you finally realized. It wasn’t the fact that she didn’t like you, she was just holding out, waiting for the man who secretly held her heart.

Him.

The other You.

You don’t regret saving her life. Any decent man would have done the same. It was the second time you did so which sealed your fate and left her utterly devoted to you. You mean him. You are two different people, you remind yourself. One, the man of steel, the idol of half the world, a dark fantasy of millions of women, any of whom you can take your pick; the other, a fumbling reporter who trips over your own shoelaces, gets sweaty palms and stutters when you ask a woman out. But you never wanted any of those women, just her. It was always her.

It’s your own damn fault, however. You’ve stopped speeding cars, out of control trains, but you couldn’t stop her. What was it that held you back, stopped you from taking off your glasses when that dark cloud loomed over you as she showed you the transfer letter? Why couldn’t you look her in the eyes, reveal to her it was you who had held her in your arms as you both floated down to the sidewalk after she nearly fell from that balcony. What blinded her to the fact that it was your shoulders she caressed when you pulled her out of the burning car, your lock of hair on the back of your head that she twirled around her finger, your neck her breath shuddered against when you told her she was safe. Why did you fool yourself into thinking she’d figure it out? Why couldn’t you have found the nerve to tell her? Even as she hailed the taxi for the airport, she turned to look at you one last time, your breath caught in your throat, you finally managed to say, “I am…” But the impatient honk of the driver pulled you out of the lock of her stare and you left her with “sad to see you go.”

That was eight months ago, and you wonder how your non-human heart can still ache so much. Perhaps it’s the reason you come to these honky-tonks night after night, searching for the answer, surrounding yourself with kindred spirits who are feeling the same pain, listening to the twangy whine of the singers who deliver ballads to the women who left them broken shells of their former selves. You understand why the suicide rate among country music fans is so high.

A moth circles the faux stained glass lightshade hanging above the pool table. The sound of its little body knocking against the plastic brings you back to the present. You look at your watch, decide it’s not too late for a few more quiet games. The thirst for more beer overcomes you and you go back to the table, finish the bottle, and reach for another cigarette. The orange flame dances inside your cupped hand, and as the haze from the first drag fades away, you notice a man has walked up to the table and is making himself busy pushing the cue ball back and forth along the felt. His eyes can’t hide his disappointment. He takes a moment to inspect the cue ball, paying careful attention to the little blue flecks covering the small sphere.

“I thought I’d find you here,” he says. He puts the cue ball back down and looks up, awaiting your acknowledgement.

You smirk at him. It’s just like him to try to get involved, his never-ending quest to be the savior to the saviors. “Mr. Wayne,” you say, almost snidely, the beer has renewed your strength. “What brings you out slum hopping?”

“Don’t call me Mr. Wayne, I’m…”

“I know,” you interrupt. It’s not a matter of reading his mind this time. “You’re just Bruce. I get it.”

Bruce lets out a deep sigh. He rolls his tongue against his lips, finding the right words to say to you. There are few people in the world who understand you and he is one of them.

“It’s been a while since we’ve talked. Are you holding up okay?” He takes off his leather gloves and shoves them in the pocket of his long black coat. You try to ignore him, move to his side of the pool table and place the cue ball back exactly as it was before he got there. He should know how much it annoys you when things are moved around. With the cue stick, you bend down, close one eye and work out a new strategy.

“I’d like you to come by my office next week,” he says. His head slowly revolves around, looking at the walls of the pool hall, spending a few moments looking at the girls at the other tables, then the cigarettes and beer bottles at your table.

“Don’t tell me you need my help with some big business venture,” you scoff. His mere presence in the last five minutes has managed to annoy you. You know why he’s here. He knows the wreck you’ve been since she left and he feels it’s his duty to talk you off whatever ledge he thinks you’re walking.

“Of course,” he says with a nod, attempting to placate you. “It’s business.”

Straightening up, you eye the pool table again, wonder if he plans on being here a while. Valerie comes by, sets another beer on the table. “Can I get your friend anything, hon?”

He shakes his head, as if it’s beneath him to drink with you. He’s so self-righteous, so predictable. Out of all of the lousy places in this city, he crashes one of the few safe havens you have left.

“He won’t be staying long.” You pull another bill out your wallet, not even bothering to notice the denomination. Whatever it is, Valerie will keep what she thinks is fair and bring you back the rest. You wait for her to leave before turning back to Bruce and give him a look that tells him he’s worn out his welcome. He’s slow to get the hint, especially when you gather some quarters and bend down to insert them in the slot. The current game is a bust. You push in the lever, sending the balls back through the long tunnel to the final chamber, racking and rolling against each other, the noise drowning out the sound of his disappointed sigh.

Bruce reaches into his pocket and pulls out his gloves, takes his time placing them on each hand. “I’ll see you next week?’

“I said I would,” you say. You take the balls out of the cabinet and haphazardly toss them on the table.

“Monday, if possible.”

He notices the shake of your head as you place the balls in the triangle. This part is important. Red Solid Three, Green Striped Fourteen and Yellow Striped Nine, Blue Solid Two…

“Are you listening to me, Jerry?”

The heat spreads to your face and you try to remain calm. How dare he? He knows full and well what you’re capable of and he breaks the so called bonds of friendship by doling out an insult such as this? The nails dig into your palms. You know you’re a better man than this. What would people think if you start a fight in the middle of a bar? What would she think if she heard about it?

“What did you call me?” You inhale deeply, wondering if you might have just misunderstood him through the din that permeates the room.

Bruce clears his throat. “I said, Clark, are you listening to me?”

You laugh. It’s strange what tricks the mind can play, especially mixed with a little stress.

“Yeah,” you reply, giving him a friendly smile. No harm, no foul. “Sure, Monday. First thing.”

He’s finally pleased. Friendships are about give and take, aren’t they? If it’s that important to Bruce that you make a visit to his office, then why not? You’re both in the same game, after all—your own secret club, both fighting for truth and justice for all. You take a moment to clear your head. How can you stay mad at him for long? He’s only looking out for you, has been for years.

Bruce clears his throat and moves out of the way as you go around the pool table. You’re lost again in the game. The first shot is a make or break deal. Nothing else matters except for this very first shot.

“We need to take a look at your meds. Just tweak them a bit.”

You nod, wonder why of all things he has to bring up those stupid sugar pills he’s been giving you for the past eight months. He told you they’d help relax you, help you sleep, help take your mind off of her leaving. You relented, just to make him happy. You knew the game he was playing. It was all psychological. The pills didn’t do anything for you at all, just made you think they were working. In the end, you cured yourself—without pills and with very little interference from him. Yet, you can see it in his eyes, he still wants to help you.

“Sure,” you reply, playing along. “They give me gas, anyway.”

Bruce actually laughs. He ties his scarf around his neck. “Do me a favor?”

You nod, sure, anything.

“You have to lay off of the beer. If your insurance discovers it, they might deny your coverage.”

You look back to the table in the corner. One empty, one waiting. “I’ve only had the two.”

Bruce nods. You wonder if that’s disbelief you see on his face.

“At any rate.” He turns and leaves.

You watch as he walks out the door and give it a few minutes just in case he decides to come back in. You finish the beer Valerie left. You’re feeling calm, content, and lucid. You check your watch. Almost midnight. You’ve been out too long. Rather than hanging around for last call, you decide to leave. If you stay any longer, Valerie will offer to call a cab and you won’t have enough left to pay the fare. There’s also a chance she might take you up on your flirtatious suggestion from earlier. She’s a nice girl, but simply not your type.

The new game you set up remains unplayed. Perhaps it’s for the best. You grab your coat, slip it on and start buttoning up. A familiar itch plagues you. You reach up and rub your neck, feeling the hem of the blue lycra suit you wear underneath. There hasn’t been any use for it for days, months even. But still, you never leave home without it, just in case.

You leave the bar, bidding Valerie goodnight as you walk out the door. It’s only a few blocks to your apartment and the weather outside is not as bitter as it usually is this time of year. The walk is invigorating and beats a cold shower.

The night is quiet and peaceful. Only the drone of the streetlights hums in your ears. As you pass the side alley of the second block, another sound begins to resonate in your ears. You want to ignore it, but it grows louder with each step along the pavement. It’s all too familiar, too filled with desperation. Why are you the only one who hears it? Why are you the only one who cares enough to respond?

Looking down the dark alley, you are given evidence as to why you sometimes hate the people you share this planet with. Two young men are beating up on another younger man. He’s on the ground, his arms in the air, protecting himself against their blows. His face is bloody, his nose is already broken, two teeth missing, crying for them to stop. The bigger of the assailants is yelling. He’s high, possibly on crack; you can smell it all the way from where you stand. The smaller of the assailants has ceased his assault and is now rummaging through the young man’s coat, looking for money, perhaps looking for another fix.

You know what you should do, what your responsibility is. The overwhelming need to step in, fight the injustice and protect the week burns through your core. It’s a burden none feel as keenly as you. With one effortless movement, you can shed your disguise, prove to yourself once again you’re needed, you’re depended upon, and reclaim the feeling that faded when she left. There has to be something in this world that will make you feel alive again.

It’s instinctive to go down there, but you don’t. Tonight, selfishness takes over—a trait you’ve managed to avoid all of your life. Turning away, blocking out the sounds of the world, you resign yourself to a simple resolve: you can’t save them all.

You wonder if you can even save yourself.

 

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

by James R. Stratton

 

CRASH! Barbara felt a jolt accompanied by a white flash. A large chunk of concrete bounded away to her left. Freezing images flashed through her mind. A semi cutting her off on the interstate, clipping the front of the Mercedes. Her car spinning wildly as she was hurled about the passenger compartment. A bridge pillar looming in the driver’s side window. BOOM!

“What was that? Where am I? Who’s throwing stuff?”

Frigid needles of panic whispering through her mind. She’d been hurtling towards a bridge above just a moment ago on I-87. Now she stood in the middle of a city street surrounded by shabby brick tenements. No, I’m not standing, she realized. And she had a tingling, foots-asleep feeling all over. It was like she had just awoken from a nightmare to find herself on a dirty street corner with a dozen men and women pacing nearby roaring. Yet in the back of her mind Barbara remembered zooming down the street to this corner a moment ago while conversing with someone about the mob.

“Unit 3065, report status! Your last transmission was cut off. Repeat, report status.”

“Who’s there?” Barbara whispered. The voice spoke right next to her, as if the speaker was standing at her shoulder. Barbara tried to turn but was frozen. All she could do was stare at the mob across the street as panic bit deeper and deeper into her. But was it real? Her vision was grainy and full of lines, like she was watching this on an old television. But she could smell the sour sweat smell of the gray-haired man on the left and the perfume of the young woman in red. She could hear each one’s distinct heartbeat. It’s so real that it’s surreal, she thought. Like I’m living at all through someone else’s senses; detached but immediate.

“Headquarters, unit 3065 must report critical malfunction of the organic processing unit. The OPU is not providing logical analysis to my input. Recommend immediate withdrawal of this unit for repairs.”

“Unit 3065, negative on your request to go off-line. We have fifteen separate reports of civil unrest in your sector. No units are available for relief. You must contain and terminate this incident now before it becomes a full-scale riot. Headquarters will provide you with instructions for action.”

Barbara struggled to turn, to walk, to look down at herself, without success. She could feel her arms and legs, but only in a vague, ghostly way. Her conscious efforts to move only produced cold, tingling sensations in her limbs.

“Hey! Whoever that is. Help me! I’m stuck out here on the street and there’s a bunch of people throwing stuff. I think I’m paralyzed. I can’t move!”

“Jesus! It’s awake. Unit 3065, our sensors indicate that your OPU is malfunctioning and non-responsive. Confirm, please!”

“Affirmative, headquarters. The OPU is offline and offering only non-relevant input. Please advise.”

“Roger, 3065. Backup will be provided as soon as possible. Hold on… Be advised that Emergency Order 769 has been invoked by the mayor’s office. Martial law has been declared. You will use all necessary force to clear the combatants from the street immediately. Full authority under the Urban Pacification Act of 2119 is approved.”

“Roger, headquarters. This unit will proceed as instructed.”

Her legs moved, propelling her toward the mob, yet her feet never touched the ground. Instead she glided along, floating. A booming voice—her own, Barbara realized—blasted out.

“Citizens, please place all objects in your hands on the ground and disperse immediately. A state of emergency has been declared. Return to your homes at once and await instructions. Failure to comply with this order will be met with force. You will receive no further warnings.”

The crowd huddled together as Barbara approached. She tried to stop, turn, or backup without effect. Icy waves of fear washed through her. She had no control over her body but could feel each turn and step. Terror and anger was written on the face of each person as they bunched up and shouted. As Barbara approached the curb, a boy in his teens hurled a brick. Barbara felt nothing although the brick clanged off her shoulder.

“Headquarters, unit 3065 has been assaulted. Countermeasures will be taken.”

“Roger, 3065.”

Barbara felt her arms jerk. She pointed at each of the people with her index finger. A glowing red cross-hair—centered on their foreheads—appeared, dancing from one to another. Barbara felt a whirring and clicking as she completed fingering each person from right to left. She began pointing again and felt a thump as the red cross-hair rested briefly on a middle-aged black woman on the end. The woman spasmed as smoke and a red flower blossomed behind her head.

“Jesus Christ! No! Stop it!” Barbara shouted. She willed her arms to freeze, her fists to clench so she couldn’t point.

Still she pointed as the cross-hair flitted from person to person. Barbara felt herself shudder as puffs of smoke and red blossoms sprouted behind each person. The lady on the end slowly tipped backwards as her red flower spread and fragmented. Those untouched screamed and covered their faces with their hands, trying to block Barbara’s fire or maybe just to keep from seeing their own doom. Barbara smelled the pungent odor of burning chemicals and singed meat coming from the rioters as the cross-hair skipped from person to person. Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump. Each person jerked as tiny explosions inside their skulls sprayed blood and tissue arcing in sheets behind them. Like a chorus line of dancers, the rioters sprawled over backwards in precise order from right to left. Thump, thump. Barbara finished pointing at the young teen on the left and returned to the lady on the right to work her way down the line again. Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump. Fluid blossoms sprouted from their chests one by one. The chorus of shrieks died as the lady on the right thudded to the ground like a sack of wet sand. The rest crashed down in order, their arms and legs flopping limp as each hit the pavement. In the silence that followed, Barbara realized that a handful of seconds had passed since she had opened fire.

“Oh god, I’ve killed them all! I can’t believe this. What’s happened to me?”

“Unit 3065, cease fire! Repeat, cease fire! Report casualties.”

“Headquarters, thirteen offenders were targeted with twenty-six detonating rounds of antipersonnel ammunition. This unit estimates a 95 percent probability of fatality for each offender.”

“Dammit! Unit 3065, go off-line immediately. You are to take no action towards any other citizens. Confirm!”

“Orders confirmed. This unit recommends that medical assistance to be routed to this location.”

Barbara listen to the dialogue from a growing distance, as a chilling blanket of darkness settled over her senses. Her vision began graying out as the sounds of the street were washed away by a soft buzzing.

“Headquarters, critical malfunction of the OPU is detected. Immediate assistance is requested.”

*****

Hospital-green walls and chrome counters greeted Barbara when awareness returned. She floated at waist height in a brightly lit room that smelled of antiseptic. Her vision was normal now, except she couldn’t blink. She still couldn’t move. A beep sounded and a tall, gray-haired man in a white lab coat stepped into her view.

“Hello,” Barbara said. “Where am I? Are you a doctor? What’s happening to me?”

The man stood with arms folded scratching his chin staring before he answered. “I’m Dr. Benjamin Swift, a cyber-psychologist. I’m with the Los Angeles Police Department. You were malfunctioning when they brought you in.”

“What? I don’t understand. My name is Barbara Atwood. I don’t know what’s going on. I think I just shot some people.”

The doctor sighed and rubbed his chin. “I guess the only way I can explain this is to let you see for yourself.” He stepped out of sight and returned carrying a large mirror. He held it in front of Barbara, revealing something out of a nightmare. Nestled in a thick metal clamshell the size of a bathtub was a clear, fluid-filled bubble. Inside the bubble was a gray creased brain bristling with fine silver hair. Poking from underneath like an insect’s antennae were two transparent tubes capped with two human eyes. Blue eyes, just like Barbara’s. Nowhere was there any sign of herself. Barbara’s thoughts froze as she tried to comprehend the reflection.

“I’m showing you this to save time,” Dr. Swift said. “Barbara Atwood died two years ago, on October 18, 2120. Her car spun out of control during morning rush hour on Interstate 87. Her vehicle hit a bridge abutment at 90 mph, and was struck by two other vehicles when it cartwheeled back into traffic. She was pronounced dead on arrival at the Mercy General Hospital that day.”

Dead? How can that be? Details of the thing she’d become jumped out at Barbara as she stared unblinking at the reflection. The silver fibers coming from the brain formed a bundle that exited the bubble at the rear and entered a box at the back of the shell. The top half of the shell housed two heavy projectile weapons and magazines, along with a monitor screen that would lower in front of his eyes when the clam-shell closed. A heavy ground-effect skirt for the air cushion encircled the base.

“But I’m not dead, am I? I mean, here I am,” Barbara said. “At least, part of me is. How could this happen?”

“You signed an organ donor consent form when you renewed your driver’s license. That included permission to use your tissues for other purposes. In your case, your brain and neural tissues were used as an organic processing unit in an anti-riot cybernetic unit.”

“Jesus Christ! So I’m one of those things. I read about them in the paper. They’re supposed to be a hybrid of artificial intelligence technology and human brains. But everything I read said that they aren’t self-aware. We shouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“That’s correct,” Dr. Swift said and set the mirror down. “Using drug therapy, deep hypnosis and operant conditioning, the organic processing units are kept from being self-aware. Something went wrong in your case. My guess is that the attack you sustained on the street caused you to flash back to your death trauma. Once your conditioning was breached, it fell apart like a house of cards.”

“Yeah? But what about the crowd on the street? I killed them.”

“No, that’s not correct. The OPU in the anti-riot units don’t have motor control. You function as a supervisor and advisor to the AI unit. It handles all command functions. No, you were supposed to prevent that kind of slaughter by recommending a more measured response.”

Dr. Swift stepped closer and reached behind Barbara’s line of vision. Barbara felt an odd numbness as the doctor stepped away holding a circuit board. He set it down, picked up another and stepped back to Barbara. The numbness went away.

“The AI unit is a marvelous piece of technology, but it has limitations. It’s capable of making command decisions based on its own sensory data, but is poor at making fine distinctions. Everything is black or white, all or nothing. There are no shades of gray to the AI. The OPU provides that piece of the decision-making process. You should have determined how to control that crowd without use of deadly force. But you were off-line, caught up in your own death-trauma.”

Barbara tried to absorb this, but found she couldn’t. She felt a chilling loneliness instead, unlike any emotion she’d ever experienced. She was cut off from everyone and everything she knew. She was a good-looking woman in her mid-forties when she had her accident. She had been driving to her job at the law firm—she was a partner. And Sam, her husband! What about him? For a moment she yearned for Sam. He’d always been her strongest support and wisest advisor. Barbara shook herself. Stupid! Sam buried you years ago. Visiting your preserved brain would devastate him. What can I offer? Barbara turned her mind back to the present.

“Okay Doc, I’m here whether I want it or not. What happens now?”

Dr. Swift folded his arms and smiled. The doctor was pleased? By her quick adjustment, perhaps? “That’s largely up to you. I can reconstruct the mental blocks that prevent you from being self-aware, but that requires your cooperation. Or I can declare the OPU defective and scrap it.”

“But either way, I’ll never be awake again, correct?”

“Correct. But why would that make any difference?”

“I don’t know, but it should. I mean, maybe I am just a dead woman’s preserved memories and personality. Or maybe I’m the last living bit of Barbara Atwood. Which is it? And is it something I want to save? But all those people! How many people have I killed? I can’t have that happening, not if I’m making the decision somehow. Look, will it hurt if you turn me off?”

Dr. Swift pursed his lip and shook his head. “The human brain has no pain nerves. If I’m to do it, I’ll suppress your consciousness then remove life support. It’ll be like you’ve gone to sleep.”

“Yes,” she said. “That would be best. I can go back to the way things were.” Barbara was surprised at how firm her words were, without any of the trembling or high-pitched stress she felt. Probably the machinery they gave her voice. “Can I ask a favor?”

“You can ask. I won’t guarantee I’ll agree.”

“Don’t worry, it’s nothing major. I was an amateur astronomer before the accident. I’d like to see the stars one more time. And music. Sam and I liked to listen to classical music while I viewed the stars. Maybe Samuel Barber’s “Adagio For Strings”? It would mean a lot to me.”

Dr. Swift frowned, but the harsh lines in his face softened. “Barber, huh? That’s one of my favorites, too. I think I can do that. The roof of this building has a good view of the sky and we’re supposed to have a clear, cloudless night. I can have music piped to you via the computer network. Understand, you won’t be able to do anything rash. The AI is on standby and will remain off-line. You won’t have any motor control. I’ll wheel you to the roof myself with manual control. But I need to proceed first thing in the morning. Okay?”

“To be or not to be, that is the question. Right, doc?”

Dr. Swift frowned. “Shakespeare?”

“A fellow in one of his plays had to make a similar decision. I was just thinking about how he handled it.”

Dr. Swift nodded and smiled. “Fine. I’m done here for the day. For tonight, you will have the stars all to yourself.”

 

Double Trouble

by James R. Stratton

 

Mary flashed into the transmat booth surrounded by the darkness of the night. She spun in the close space to survey her favorite place in all the world. A mixed crowd swirled by the dim light of the booth, the marks on their way to the clubs, half-dressed pros hustling the crowd and the geeks looking for a score. She felt her heart pulse as she drank it in. Here came a woman in a sheer silver dress laughing as her date’s eyes wandered over her. There was a huddled knot of college kids chattering as they tried to watch everything at once. The people walked by in singles, couples and groups, all with faces glowing. Mary smiled. I live all week for this just like you.

A street walker sidled up to the college kids. Would they bolt? Maybe they’d surprise her and do some business. Shouting, the prostitute chased the kids up the street. Wrong, wrong, you’ll never make it like that, Mary thought. You’re wasting your time if you can’t get punks like that to come to you.

Mary’s mood crashed and she thought of dialing herself home. She’d asked Leslie and Joan to join her, but they’d passed.

Finally she shook her head as if dark thoughts were dandruff to be shaken off. “It’s Friday night!” she shouted at the half-moon peeking from behind an old brick town house. “I don’t got no time for sad thoughts. It’s my night to roar! No twelve-hour shifts, no tight-assed customers with their shitty tips.” She grinned at people staring. “No work ’til Sunday brunch, and I get to make this town jump and shout ’til then.”

She slid her finger up the coin return slot of the booth, pulled on her headphones and slapped the door-release button. Her favorite band, Action! Action! Action!, blared in her earphones as she boogied up the street. Mary smiled at the people she passed as she moved her 240 pounds vigorously in time with the music. Her breasts and butt bounced in counterpoint rhythm to the rest of her.

People paused and watched Mary strut by, most smiling with her. One old couple frowned their disapproval at her; Mary gave them the finger. Mary didn’t stop at the newest clubs at the top of the block. They never let her through the velvet rope. But further down were her kind of night spots; cheap and sleazy. Her one-woman parade halted when Mary found her way blocked by a great slab of a man. He towered over her, her head just came to the middle of the hairy chest peeking out of his Hawaiian shirt. “What can I do for you, big fellow?”

Overhead a holographic sign declared this to be the Easy Come Saloon. Mary frowned. A new club. Down here? Alerted by sensors that eyes were focused its way, the sign’s artificial intelligence lased images directly to her retinas of dancers inside.

The big doorman’s lips moved as he pointed inside. Mary heard not a word, her blasting music drowned out everything. But his meaning was clear enough. Through the entrance, Mary could see glistening dancers under flashing lights. She licked her lips and grinned. “Thanks for the invite. I do believe I will!”

Inside, Mary slid onto a barstool. A thrill ran through her as she looked the club over. The music blasted so that she could feel it on her chest. The lighting was dim and the air hazy, scented with sweat and herb smoke. She shivered. This was her destination for the night! She could smell the animal tension in the air. All around, people sat alone staring at the dancers or in tight knots wrapped up in each other. Mary breathed deep and gripped the edge of the bar. This is how it should be on Friday night in a hot new club. She could feel a knot of tension grind up her back, just like her days on the runway.

Once Mary had danced up the street at the Jericho Club. Every night, she got drunk on that special power as she made marks sweat with just a smile. They used to throw handfuls of cash to make her stop and chat for just a moment. Her nights on the runway had been like a lusty circus, a nonstop no-drug high. But dancing is hard physical work, meant for the young, tight kids. Mary glanced at her sagging breasts and big butt. Nobody pays to see a fat broad stagger around half naked.

A male dancer, strutting along the combination bar and runway, stopped in front of her to do the bump-and-grind wearing nothing but a tiny silk loin cloth. Mary smiled up at his oiled thighs. She winked and blew him kisses until he stepped closer, then yanked the silk away. The dancer hopped back and glared. “Aw, don’t be mad,” Mary pouted and waved a bill. He flipped her the bird as a heavyset, bald bartender walked over. “You got a problem, lady?”

Mary laughed and pounded the bar. “Yeah, I don’t got a goddamn drink.” She flipped the silk cloth across the bar. “Gimme a Russian Stinger.”

“Easy, lady! Easy. I know how to make a stinger, but what’s the Russian part?”

“You add 10 milligrams of speed. And make it snappy. My throat’s as dry as an old bone.”

“Cool,” he said. “But don’t be taking liberties with the artistes. I’ll have to bounce you out otherwise.” Mary winked. She turned to the guy next to her and smiled a friendly smile.

*****

At 3 A.M., Mary still sat at the bar nursing her last Russian Stinger. The music was off, the lights were up, and the dancers were gone. The clink of empty glasses being cleared away tolled the end of the night. Mary glared as a couple floated out arm in arm. Damn it! I’m not going home alone.

The bartender walked over and nodded at the clock. “Last call. You want another?”

“Nah, I’m tapped out.”

“Don’t sweat it, sweet cheeks.” He slid a drink across the bar. “On the house.”

Mary gulped the drink and looked him over. He’s fat, bald and sweaty, but what the hell. Even if he does make a lousy Russian Stinger. She grimaced at the bitter aftertaste.

As she fluffed her hair and spritzed, Mary realized he hadn’t taken his eyes off her. Isn’t he the eager beaver? She raised her hand to wave, but the room lurched sideways instead. Son of a bitch! She clutched the edge of the bar. I didn’t drink that much, goddamnit! I can’t afford to. Darkness fell as the floor swept up. Mary was next aware of being dragged down a long hallway by her arms. “Sonofabitch!” she slurred as her heels bumped on concrete. The light faded again.

Cloying darkness pressed on her when awareness returned. She jerked and could feel straps restraining her arms and legs. A rotten meat smell made her stomach roil as she felt needle-pricks of panic whisper up her back. She’d lived enough years at the edge of society to know what kind of bad craziness existed out beyond. Light flared and Mary was confronted by a skinny, dark-haired woman standing by the door across the gray concrete cubical.

The woman stared vaguely in Mary’s direction as she chewed her thumb. Her eyes settled on Mary. “I’m glad to see you’re awake,” she whispered. “I was worried we’d start without you. I hope you’re afraid. You really should be.” The woman giggled like she’d made a joke.

Great, a nut case. A quick glance told Mary she was in deep shit. She sat in a solid wooden chair with heavy canvas straps binding her arms and legs. Her breath felt trapped in her chest as her mind spun. She’d heard tales of lock-box sex shops where the women were just kidnap victims, never to be seen again. Am I going to come out of this alive? Mary turned to look around and the room whirled. Too much booze, speed, and whatever they slipped you. You’re riding too damn many drugs.

Mary squeezed her eyes shut and forced herself to focus. “Okay, honey,” Mary said in a flat tone. “I don’t know what your game is, but I’m not playing. Turn me loose and I’ll be on my way.”

The woman giggled. “No, you don’t understand. You need to understand.” She walked behind Mary and pushed. The chair rolled through the door. In the next room, Mary was confronted with a heavy steel frame bolted between concrete pillars. Strapped to it was a naked, heavyset woman. Shit! What kind of creep-show is this? Mary stared as hot and cold waves washed over her. Then she burst out laughing. She’s me, bound and gagged!

“You jerk. This is a stunt! You think you can scare me with dummies and holograms?”

Mary’s last job had been at The Roman Coliseum. Using live actors, fake blood and cattle parts, they staged an act where “the victim” got hacked up on stage, three times a night. The show was a huge success, but low pay for the actors.

“You’re wasting your time, honey. I’ve seen it done by pros.” The woman’s gaze fluttered about as a gaunt man wearing shorts and a mask wheeled in a cart. Gleaming blades lay in precise rows on green cloth.

“Hey ass wipe!” Mary shouted. “Cut me loose NOW! I’m not some whore you hire for your jollies.” Consciousness faded before she heard his response.

When she returned, Mary found the woman and the man slicing off the woman’s ears, nose, and tongue. The thing on the rack shrieked and blood spurted with great effect. Grinning, Mary tried to catch a slip in the act, but consciousness faded again. When she next awoke, they were peeling off the last of the victim’s skin as it hooted. The flayed hide made a moist sucking noise as it pulled away from the meat underneath. Damn, it looks real! Mary’s stomach knotted in sympathy. Blackness descended. When consciousness returned, the man and woman were rolling naked on the floor atop blood and tissue, their limbs twined.

“You bastards! Turn me loose! You snatched me for this? You’ll pay, I swear.”

The man turned in mid-thrust and glared as Mary ranted. Finally he stood among the blood-spattered detritus and walked over. “You stupid cow!” he lisped. “This isn’t a game!”

Mary sneered. “Take the hint, jerk! I’m not buying it.” She slammed her weight to one side so the heavy chair reared up on two legs. The man grasped Mary’s arm and pushed the chair down. Mary realized at once he must have grabbed something wrong because the strap on her arm slackened. She yanked her arm free, whipped her fist into his face and he fell over backwards. Across the room, the woman jumped up and slipped in the slick blood. Mary scrabbled at the straps until she was standing free with the man couched before her. Mary drop-kicked him in the chin. He flipped over and his head bounced on the floor. Glancing at the woman, Mary grinned. That one owes me pain. She stalked around the edge of the blood as the woman squirmed toward the door. Mary jerked her around by a handful of hair and snapped three quick punches into the woman’s face. She cried and huddled against the wall until Mary turned away disgusted.

Mary considered the thing on the rack. It was bloody meat. Skating across the muck, Mary approached from behind, looking for the dummy under the meat. Nothing. Sliding to the front, she moved closer until she was inches away. Still nothing. She poked the leg and the raw, red muscles jerked.

“Ohmygod,” Mary whispered as she stared into the dry eyeballs. Her stomach clenched and she vomited. It isn’t a dummy, it’s warm and bleeding. But I saw her, it was me.

Retching, she turned away and fell in the bloody muck. A sudden foot’s-asleep numbness swept over her as the floor tilted and rolled. Come on, girl. You’ve got to get out of here. You lose it now and you’re dead. She staggered across the room and out the door. After stumbling through a series of corridors she crashed through a heavy steel door onto a narrow street. Spotting the familiar glow of a transmat, Mary stumbled in and punched a number. The world flashed and she was at her favorite place, downtown. She walked stiff-legged to the steps of a townhouse and sat.

Dawn’s light found her still sitting there. Her mouth was dry as dust as her heart thumped in her chest. The butchered woman hanging from steel was vivid in her mind.

She considered calling the cops. But what could she say? “I saw myself murdered last night?” Right! They’ll lock me up and let the shrinks worry about the story. But I saw myself on the frame, touched myself. It was me, right down to the tattoos and purple nail polish.

She rubbed the tiredness from her eyes and grunted. She’d heard lewd jokes forever about transmats duplicating people. Hell, there’d even been stories in the news about scientists trying to do just that. So, what if it’s true?

The pain and terror in that woman’s eyes washed over her, threatening to drown her. She was alive. I left her hanging on a butcher’s rack. How long will she last?

She stared at the red smear on the back of her hand and another thought came. Whose blood? Mine or… mine?

She shivered as she stared. Whose blood? Whose body? If it was real, did those freaks put the copy on the frame or me? Should that make a difference?

She felt a blazing knot of fury bloom and settle cold in her gut. Goddamn right it makes a difference! It’s my life they messed with.

The ball of rage shimmered incandescent for an instant and her jaw tightened until her teeth hurt. “I want answers. And I won’t rest ’til I get ’em.”

So how do I get to them? The fat, bald bartender at the Easy Come, he knows something. And I bet I can get him to tell. Grunting, she pushed herself up and turned to the transmat booth, images of the copied body on the slab racing through her head.

“Damn it! I don’t got no time for sad thoughts. It’s my night to roar!”

Mary clenched her fist until her knuckles popped.

Yeah, like a little bird, he’ll sing.