Heart of the Matter: A Nalo Thoran Story

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Illustration by S.C. Watson

by Robert E. Waters

 

There is a springtime in the heart of every man… even in the cold, dead heart of a killer.

So it was love that drove the rat into the depths of a small café where the rich and important of Korsham City mingled, dined, and made merry. A simple shape spell placed upon the rodent gave it the visage of a tiny white poodle, with a cute tin bell and a fluffy tail-ball. It dodged food carts, leather-clad feet, and richly embroidered gowns as it weaved through the immaculate tables and chairs, the occasional “ahh!” and “ooh!” and “how cute!” pushing it forward through the cacophony of meaningless conversation. If the patrons only knew that beneath its soft illusion lurked an agent of the assassin Nalo Thoran, the Shadow Walker, the Dark Breath- Stealer, they might have cowered in fear. Instead, they went about their business in blissful ignorance.

On the veranda overlooking the Gold River sat a woman and a friend sipping tea and sharing pleasant words. The rat paused, wiggled its nose, and caught her scent. It knew her scent instinctively, for it had sniffed a piece of cloth lifted from her apartment on Bright Street. It bounced forward, hopping gently on claws sharp, deadly and made for the dangers of the Korsham night. A little boy tried petting it, but the rat rolled away and dived under the young woman’s table.

The rat could not understand their language. It only understood the words of its master, the symbols and tempo of the language of shadows, the one used by assassins and murderers alike. Its master had given it specific instructions, and it could not disobey his dark design. Stark shapes and images roiled in its vacuous head. It squeaked and hopped up into the woman’s lap.

She chirped, jumped and pushed her chair back. But when she saw only a small dog, she smiled. The rat lifted its sharp, whiskered face and sniffed. The woman’s smells were warm, delicious.

“What a cute little dog,” she said, running her hand down its hard spine. It felt like silk. “Whom do you belong to?”

The rat didn’t answer. Instead, it circled in her lap until the small piece of paper tied to its neck was visible. It wiggled, lifted itself onto strong hind legs, chattered and sniffed the air. The woman heard barking.

“Aren’t you sweet,” she said, then noticed the note. “What’s this?”

She pulled carefully and the weak fibers holding the note tightly fell away. She rolled the note open and held it up to the waning light of dusk. She squinted closely, trying to make out the thin chalk scratches. It was an ancient language, one rarely used. But somehow she could read it. “What does it say?” her friend asked. She read it to herself…

My Lady Sharr,
Your husband is dead and for that I apologize.
I can only hope that some day you will forgive me.
I look forward to that day. Until then, know that
you have a friend in the darkness.

The woman turned dead white, dropped the paper, and screamed.

A rat jumped off her lap and slipped away through the stunned crowd.

* * * * *

Wealthy trade merchant Rubico Sharr was found dead five days past in his home on Bright Street. A ruddy red scar around his neck points to a professional hit. The details are sketchy at this time, but authorities believe that the recent trade dispute between Korsham and Toradoram may be at fault. Master Sharr handled exotic rugs and fine pelts, and had recently gained a monopoly on Isydori silk. He is survived by his wife, Monika Sharr.

“What has vexed you, assassin?” the rat asked, his little feet beating the air, making signs that only its master understood. “You aren’t yourself.”

Nalo crumpled the news report in his hand and tossed it into the gutter. “It doesn’t matter, rat. You wouldn’t understand anyway.”

What mattered was the throng of revelers in the streets, the streamers, the floats, the flute and drum players, the scantily clad ladies with bright face- and breast-paint. The noises and smells were almost too much for a night creature like himself to bear. Nalo preferred the quieter places in the city, during the deep silence of night, when only the condemned or those willing to kill (like himself ) lurked. Here at dusk, there was noise and fanfare even on a normal night. And tonight was the annual springtime festival, when all of Korsham welcomed the coming of the sun and the rain. Soon the rains would fall hard and swell the Gold River over its banks, and the sun would reach high in the sky, and then the flowers would bloom, and life would start anew. Nalo watched it all from the shadows and imagined it silently.

“You don’t think I understand the concept of love?” the rat said, hopping in front of the assassin to catch his attention. Its furious movements suggested it had been insulted.

Nalo looked down at his starved companion and huffed. “What do you know about it?”

The rat squeaked to clear its throat, then mimed, “Once, I mounted a plump white down by the Mud Flats and sired her fifteen young. It was early summer and the blue fungus had begun to spread. It spread into the nest, taking her and three of her babies, threatening the others. So you know what I did?”

Nalo shook his head.

“I ate the other twelve. Now tell me that isn’t love.”

Nalo shook his head. “Oh yeah, that’s love all right. You’re a real prince. Now get the hell out of here!” He kicked. The rat jumped, squealed, and ran away.

A long pause, then he spotted the object of his desire coming towards him through a sea of waving peacock feathers. His eyes lit up as he saw her face, marked by the flickering torch light, but still smooth, pristine, showing little sign of age or worry. Despite her recent loss, she seemed calm, collected, enjoying the festive spirit of the street. She was delightful.

By contrast, Nalo was hideous, grotesque. An agent of darkness. Skin pale white, features sharp and dry. He had aged considerably since his return to Korsham City. What right did he have in even looking at this woman? He was leagues below her station. It was an embarrassment to even be on the same street as her. This is a waste of time, he thought to himself as she walked past the alley. She didn’t even look his way, holding no concern for things deadly, repulsive. She walked by and even through air lousy with a thousand smells, he could pick out her light perfume, that delicate scent he knew from her clothing, her bed. Despite his better instincts, Nalo found his legs moving towards her. He could hear Yarian’s stern voice in his mind: “This is foolish, boy. Don’t do it.” But what did a necromancer know about love and matters of the heart? What could he possibly know about the need to be a part of something less… dark?

He stopped when his feet found cobbles. This is madness. He watched her slip further into the crowd. What would I say to her anyway? “Hi, I’m Nalo,” he mouthed silently to himself, “I’m an assassin, in service to the Dark Lord Kalloshin. I killed your husband. Care for a drink?”

He chuckled at the absurdity of it and watched her disappear. It was a nice idea, but foolish. They were from opposite worlds, different sides of the street. His best play was to forget about it. He cracked a smile, shook his head and turned away to continue his evening’s tasks.

Then he heard a scream.

He’d never heard her voice beyond mumbles through closed doors, but Nalo knew it was her. She was screaming, and the revelers all around either did not hear or did not care. But he heard her, and it was like a knife through a vein.

Where was she? There were so many buildings pressed in tightly, so many tiny nooks and spaces where a victim could be taken. He moved through the crowd quickly, his feet barely touching the ground. He ran from one side of the street to the other, looking down deep passages. Years of lurking in the shadows had given him keen sight in the darkness. He used it. He found shapes, but they weren’t her. Drunks, whores, common lazy rabble. His heart sank.

Then he heard a faint whimper, like a cat mewing for a scrap of food. He jumped a pile of rotting sacks and found her, on the cold stones, her silk blouse ripped open, her breasts bare. Above her wavered a knife, cold steel attached to a curved hilt. The hand that held it was stiff, white-knuckled, shaking. The man himself was wrapped in a simple tan homespun. It covered his shoulders and head, his bone white eyes peering through a small slit in the cloth. The man did not seem to notice Nalo, his gaze fixed on his victim’s throbbing chest. The man raised the blade high and with a maddening screech, thrust down.

Nalo caught the man’s arm and pulled it back hard, then drove a boot into his chest. The man screamed again, fell back, but did not waver. He was strong. Small in stature, frail looking, almost ghostlike beneath the loose clothing, but he was strong. And agile. He flipped backwards, regained his footing, and leaped forward.

Nalo ducked and the killer soared through the air, his foot grazing the assassin’s back. Nalo winced as the thin foot scraped his backbone, but he righted himself and braced for an attack.

The man waved his knife before him, slashing empty air. Not fair, Nalo thought as he fell backwards. I don’t have a blade.

But fairness was not a right in the assassin trade. A killer used the tools at hand, be they many or few. There were plenty of things in this alley, Nalo knew, that could be turned into weapons. A rock, a slab of wood, a discarded torch perhaps. The trick was acquiring one when your attention was needed elsewhere. One false move and your foe would cut your throat. But Nalo didn’t need a fancy prop. He had everything necessary to win this scuffle at his waist.

He pulled free a thin thong of leather and waved it in the air. At each end was a wooden knob, smooth but heavy. The man slashed again with his knife, trying to force Nalo back against the damp wall. Nalo shifted to the right, snapped his garrote forward, and caught the man square in the eye. The man reeled backwards, shook his head. Nalo struck again, swinging the garrote and hitting the man’s temple. The strike did little damage as the cloth wrapped around the foreigner’s head cushioned the blow. But he bent at the waist, giving Nalo a chance to move in and wrap the garrote around his brown neck.

He yanked the cord tightly. The leather bit deep into the man’s flesh. He flailed madly. His strength was near impossible for Nalo to handle. This man was young, aggressive, quite capable. If he had taken on a lesser assassin, it’d be that assassin’s head in the grip. But the Shape of Shadow never lost. Nalo leaped onto the man’s back and pulled the garrote tighter.

“Die!” Nalo said, riding the man like a wild boar. “Die!”

And the man did, eventually, after the strength left his arms, then legs, then chest. Nalo tore off the man’s turban, revealing thin black hair, soot-ridden cheeks, eyes bulging from the pressure at his neck. The man’s face turned purple; his tongue bulged between blue swollen lips. He gasped his last, and died.

Nalo released the garrote and fell backwards. His mind was awhirl in the Call of Kalloshin, his master and the patron saint of assassins. Over and over, he mouthed the name of his dark savior and felt that insatiable rush of power that comes with the heat of the kill. Sweat poured from his skin like bile. Gods, but he needed the taste of lemon! The sweet-sour pulp calmed his nerves, settled his raucous stomach. He sat there for several minutes, letting the red flush of his face subside. When his chest settled, he got up and rubbed his face dry, then turned toward the woman.

But she was gone.

* * * * *

He sucked a lemon wedge and stared into the sallow eyelids of the dead merchant. Did the eyes behind them move? Did they twitch? It was hard for Nalo to tell. “Can you wake him?”

The shriveled little black necromancer nodded. “I can, but remember, it was you who killed him. His injuries are quite savage and deep. His throat will never be the same.”

“He must talk,” Nalo said, “he must.”

Yarian shook his head and pinched some black powder from his bowl. “I don’t know why I let you talk me into these things. Boredom, I guess.”

The necromancer rubbed his thumb and index finger together and the powder trickled onto the dead man’s head. The body twitched.

They were in Yarian’s home, a subterranean one-room dome providing both living quarters and work space. Scores of bottles and feather fetishes lay everywhere, parchments and old dusty spell books. Tortured red and black symbols were painted along the curved walls, with lines of dried blood streaked through them to the floor. The room had an old, dead smell to it, a moldy dampness like the grave. Over the years, Nalo had gotten used to it, but there always seemed to be something new crammed into a corner or spread out on a table. There was always something fresh to look at—and to wonder about—in Yarian’s hovel.

The dead man pitched again, straining against his bindings. His head rolled back, his eyes peeked open slightly. Nalo grew excited and rushed to the man’s side. “Come on, you son of a bitch,” he said, gripping the man’s mortised arm. “Animate!”

“No need to shout,” Yarian said as he finished dousing the man with powder. “He’ll come around. Step back and watch.”

Nalo stepped away. The man continued to twitch, at first violently, then his muscles settled and smoothed against dried bones and taut ligaments. The corpse calmed, sat rigid, opened its eyes. It stared forward several minutes, then turned its head towards them, face blank.

Nalo could see the dark crimson line of his garrote around the man’s neck. It had cut deeply, too deeply. He cursed himself for his lack of care. Sometimes, as had happened in the alley, the thrill of the kill consumed him. He should have anticipated having to bring this man back. He should have been more careful. Nalo hated making mistakes. He hated paying for them later.

He stepped forward. “Rubico Sharr. Do you remember who you are?”

The animated man puzzled in place, the stiff wrinkles on his brow creasing under the strain of working a dead brain. “I…” His voice was weak, raspy, barely audible even in the silence here beneath the alley. “Y-yes. I re-member. Rubico. Rubico Sharr.” He looked up at Nalo. “Who… are you?”

“My name’s of no concern to you,” Nalo said. He knelt down and grabbed the cold, white hand of the man. “Your wife is our concern at the moment.”

“My wife?”

“Yes. Monika Sharr. Remember her?”

Nalo found himself yelling. He hadn’t even realized his voice had risen. Anger filled his mind. He had no time for this. No time for patience. He needed answers now… before it was too late.

The man nodded. “Yes. I remember her.” Then he turned his head fitfully, as if he had suddenly realized where he was and what had happened to him. Terror glazed his eyes. “What, what’s happened to me? Where am I?”

Nalo leaned into the man’s chest and grabbed his wrinkled blue burial gown. He pulled until their faces nearly touched. “No time for that. You just answer my questions, and perhaps we’ll leave you in peace.”

Nalo felt Yarian’s hand on his shoulder. “Calm down, boy. It’s going to take time. He needs to reorient—”

“We don’t have time, Yarian!” Nalo snapped. He glared at the old necromancer. “This is my show. Back off!”

Yarian did as he was told, but Nalo could tell that he had overstepped his bounds. This was Yarian’s home, and no one, not even an infamous assassin, had the right to make demands of a man in his own home.

But he didn’t have time to apologize. Nalo turned back to the corpse, took a deep breath, then said, “Now answer me these questions, Rubico Sharr. Who wanted you dead? Who hired me to kill you? And who sent a Toradoram assassin to kill your wife?”

Horror returned to the man’s face. “Monika is dead?”

“No,” Nalo answered, “but she will be if you don’t give me answers. Torador will keep sending their knives until the job is finished. That is their way. I can hold them off for a time, but eventually, they will kill her.”

“You?” Rubico Sharr pulled his brow down sharply and squinted in confusion. “Why do you care?”

“Yes, Master Nalo,” Yarian said, “tell us all why you care so much.”

Nalo gave Yarian a nasty look, but he let the veiled challenge slide. There would be time later for argument. “Because I don’t like to be trifled with. I like my hits clean and unfettered by complications. It’s clear now that your hit was not over some trade dispute you’ve had with foreign merchants. There’s a deeper, darker matter at hand. Tell me now, dead man, and don’t lie. Tell me why assassins are coming for your wife.”

Rubico struggled to figure it out. His face turned even paler, wracked by some deep guilt. Nalo knew the look. He’d seen it many times on the faces of his victims. At the moment of death, their thoughts went to that which had put them at death’s door in the first place. The last moment of guilt; the last painful cry for forgiveness. Rubico Sharr was hiding something.

“Talk!” Nalo shouted.

“Jade,” Rubico said.

“What? Speak plain.”

“Jade… the jade…”

Rubico’s head lilted backwards, his eyes rolled up into his head. He mumbled something inaudible, over and over. He leaned against his bindings. Nalo propped him up with a swift hand to the throat, and squeezed.

“What do you mean by ‘jade’?” Nalo smacked him across the face. Rubico’s head rocked against the blow. “Tell me!”

Another smack. Then another.

“Nalo!”

Yarian’s voice brought the assassin out of his rage. The room fell silent and cold. Had it been this cold a moment ago? Nalo couldn’t remember. He couldn’t remember anything right now. All he saw in his mind was a Toradoram dagger and a woman’s bare chest.

He felt Yarian’s hand on his shoulder again. “Can I see you outside, please?”

Nalo stood, chest pounding. Cold sweat ran down his face. He followed Yarian up the stairs. They stepped through the broken door into the alley, and fresh air roused him. Nalo breathed deeply, shook his head, blinked. His mind began to clear.

Yarian turned. The nasty look on his face told Nalo that the little man was not to be trifled with. “I’m ending this interview.”

“Why?”

“You’ve gone too far, Nalo. It’s gotten out of hand.”

“It’s my hit, my interview, and you don’t tell me what—”

“Enough!”

Yarian’s rebuke echoed through the alley, rousing a dog, waking a baby. This part of Korsham City was generally quiet at night, a mixture of residence and business—lightly populated, set off from the main streets—Yarian had picked well a century ago when he had come to town. The fact that he would risk being discovered with such a shout told Nalo that nothing, not even the threats of an assassin, would sway the old man. The interview was over.

What has gotten into you, boy?”

Nalo hardly knew where to begin. He turned away, letting the breeze cool his face. He could smell rain in the air. “I love her.”

A pause, then, “Who?”

“Monika Sharr.”

“How did this happen?”

“I don’t know,” Nalo said, turning back to his friend. “I studied them for weeks. You know how I work. She was with him a lot. They seemed very close. He was very protective of her, almost possessive. In time, I understood why. She’s like this perfect jewel, and I realized in a few short days that it wasn’t him I was watching. It was her. Her smooth face. Her black hair. Her radiant smile…

“Hah! Roll your eyes all you wish, death-monger, but when I see her, I feel the same way I did under that waterfall with Tish years ago, right before she ripped away my soul and fed me to the Assassin’s Guild. I can’t stop thinking about her. I know, it’s madness, but I must have her, and I must protect her from whoever is trying to kill her.”

Yarian considered for several minutes, rubbing his black, leathery chin with crinkled fingers. Then he said, “Yes, that’s what’s troubling me the most. There’s something missing in all this, Nalo. Torador does not send blades to kill the wife of a simple silk merchant. If they had such a problem with his business, they could easily block his trade, steal his goods, or ruin his reputation through back channels.”

“Yes, I know,” Nalo said, his impatience growing once more. “That’s why we’re doing the interview, remember? We’ve got to get back in there…” Nalo moved towards the door.

Yarian caught the sleeve of the assassin’s black shirt. He shook his head. “No. I mean it. It’s over.”

Nalo pulled away. “Don’t tell me what to do, old man. I don’t work for you.”

“No. You work for the Guild.”

“And what I do on my own time is not its concern.”

Yarian chuckled and spread his thin lips in a smile. “The Guild has a way of making everything its business, my friend. You know that.”

Nalo stopped, but ignored the comment. He rubbed his face. “He kept saying ‘jade’. Did you notice that?”

“I’m a servant of the dead, Nalo, not an idiot.”

“Well, what does it mean?”

Yarian shrugged. “I don’t know, but I find it interesting that you would refer to your—lady—as a jewel.”

“But jade isn’t a jewel. It’s a stone.”

“Yes,” Yarian said, rubbing a hole in his chin. “Yes, it is.”

“What do you suspect?”

He let the old man stand there for a long while, wrapped in some inner thought. Over the years Nalo had learned not to trouble Yarian when he was thinking. The mind of a necromancer was easily distracted; one didn’t dare to interrupt in these rare moments of deep contemplation. But time was slipping away. Somewhere out there, Monika Sharr—his jewel—was in danger. He had to protect her.

Finally, Yarian roused, shook his head, and said, “Okay, you go and do whatever it is you must do. I’ll take care of Rubico Sharr.”

Nalo’s eyes lit up. “You’ll continue the interview?”

Yarian nodded impatiently. “Yes, yes. Go now. Leave me alone.”

Nalo wanted to give the old man a pat on the shoulder. Instead, he cracked a rare smile and said, “I knew you were a good sort.”

Yarian ignored the feeble attempt at an apology. He turned and headed down the steps.

Nalo disappeared into the darkness.

* * * * *

Their relationship began with a lie.

Having been attacked once by a Toradoram assassin, Monika Sharr could hardly refuse the protection that “Maellor Brock” offered her. That was the name Nalo used on occasion to hide his identity. Many people knew of the famed Nalo Thoran; too many in fact. The name was everywhere. He couldn’t use his real name with the woman he loved. The lie was justified in the service of her safety.

So she accepted his protection after an elaborate explanation that business partners of her late husband wanted to ensure that Rubico’s “estate” would not topple because of the recent attempt on her life. The monopoly on Isydori Silk had to be maintained for the financial interests of all concerned parties. “How did you know of the attack?” she asked him in her soft, perfect voice, as he showed her his official-looking references.

Security guard Maellor Brock smiled. This wasn’t even a lie. “News travels fast on the streets of Korsham City, my lady.”

So it was that both his nights and days were spent protecting her. The psychic dispatchers from the Guild continued sending Nalo assignments; springtime was a wondrous, yet murderous, time in Korsham. He ignored what assignments he could, and reassigned others to lesser assassins and thugs: those hits that didn’t require his personal touch. The Guild grew furious with his lack of focus and dedication to their cause and the needs of their patrons, but few actively tried to make an issue of it. Such a challenge would be suicide. Who would dare face the great Shadow Walker in his prime? The Guild would be patient for now with his inactivity; but for how long? Nalo tried not to think of such things as stoking the ire of his own dark patron saint. All he cared about was Monika.

For two weeks he watched and followed her wherever she went. She was a very busy person, professionally and privately. Over the years, she and her husband had acquired many business contacts which had turned into friendships of a sort, although Nalo could see that a merchant’s idea of a friend shared more with “colleague” status than true friendship. Monika Sharr called on several of the wives of other merchants, giving them tiny gifts, and in exchange, getting gifts of her own or promises of one sort or another. In all his time beating the streets at night, Nalo never knew all the gladhanding and palm-pressing a merchant had to do to make a living, to stay afloat. It was a fascinating lifestyle and it seemed to fit Monika Sharr well.

Everything fit her well. Her clothing especially. Walking behind her, Nalo couldn’t help but revel in her comely shape, the way her hips swayed back and forth perfectly beneath her leather garments, or the way she looked bending over to pick up a box or dust off a low shelf. The way she arched her back and teetered backwards on her heels when a colleague told a funny joke, or when she yawned and stretched early in the morning to prepare for business. There was no move or expression she made that passed his observation. On a few occasions, she caught him staring at her, and Nalo would look away quickly, embarrassed. But she never said anything. She’d just smile briefly and go about her way.

Nalo looked for excuses to touch her. He would point down the street and tell her the route they would take for the day, letting his fingers accidentally graze her shoulder or arm. He would help her with a heavy box, making sure his hand would rest momentarily on hers. He would accidentally bump into her to get in front and secure a fork in the road. Once, at the end of a very tough day, he offered to massage her neck, but she politely refused. That was too bold a move, he realized, but he couldn’t help himself. It was painful watching her and not being able to touch her, to take her hand, to wrap his arms around her. Killing was easy compared to this agony.

And he had to stay sharp. He had to push these uncomfortable feelings from his mind and keep a clear eye. Twice more foreign assassins came, baring their curved daggers, hissing and mumbling their zealotry. Nalo dispatched them easily enough, but he grew weary at the end of each day. Having to ward off psychic dispatchers, keep his feelings for Monika in check, and keep killers at bay—coupled with Yarian’s painstakingly slow search for answers—was enough to drive any man insane. If things didn’t change soon and for the better…

Then the spring rains began to fall. There was never a man, or killer, so thrilled with the torrent of water that fell from the sky. It was a good excuse to get closer to her.

His lady liked to drink tea on lazy afternoons, after the drudgery of her business had ended and all other matters were resolved. Monika liked her time away from it all, to settle her nerves, to clear her mind. Maellor Brock was more than willing to assist.

One such afternoon took them to the café where he had first contacted her. She waltzed in on her marvelous legs, greeted old friends with a marvelous smile, and shared tea and stories until the sun set, the winds howled, and the rains poured. On the way home afterwards, Maellor offered to shield the lady under his broad black overcoat. She was reluctant at first, but the winds were harsh and the rain soaked her to the bone.

Under his coat, her heat made Nalo swoon.

“You’re a very thin man, Mr. Brock,” she said, as they trotted along a dark, vacant street. Nalo kept his eyes peeled on every alley they passed. “Perhaps I should feed you something.”

Tonight is the night! Nalo held her shoulder tightly as they crossed the street, the incessant rain pelting them mercilessly. “That won’t be necessary, my lady,” he said. “I’m not hungry.” Not for food, anyway.

“Well,” she said, “come in to get a warm drink at least. You’ll catch your death out here.”

They entered her apartment and Nalo shrugged off his wet coat and gathered kindling from the brass holder on the large fireplace. When she wasn’t looking, he stoked the dry embers with a small fire spell Yarian had taught him. He stepped away and waited for the flames to grow.

The Sharrs’ apartment was vast and opulent, every corner filled with goods from across the world: Torador, Brenia, Isydor, and far-reaching places like Tybus and Ceneca. Thick wire and hemp rope spanned the room, holding rich carpets and soft comforters of Isydori silk and Torador breech-cloths. They quartered off the room in little cubes, helping to direct the heat from the fire into the main living spaces. While Monika brewed hot tea, Nalo moved through the maze of finery.

Such wealth he was unaccustomed to. Any one of the items in this room could have garnered Nalo half a year’s pay. Murder was brutal, but cheap, work. He’d known that from the beginning, but sometimes the job picks the man. If he’d had a choice, perhaps he would have been a merchant as well. There were certainly plenty of them around when he was young. Then too, there had been plenty of thugs, thieves, and assassins. The assassin trade had not started with Nalo Thoran, though it was a nice idea to imagine. He knew that going in as well. He rubbed his thumb and forefinger over a bolt of fine Isydori silk. He smiled. Soft. Soft like my lady.

“Tea?”

Her voice startled him. She had snuck up behind him, and now held out a delicate cup and saucer. It was rare to startle the ShadowWalker. He took the tea humbly and nodded. Her value increased even more in his eyes. “Thank you, my lady.”

She smiled and sipped her tea. Their eyes searched each other. Suddenly, Nalo felt embarrassed. He looked away and took a sip.

She reached out to his face, her soft fingers penetrating the quiet space between them. Then she pulled back quickly, as if suddenly realizing that her move was inappropriate. She smiled again, averting her eyes playfully. “I’m sorry, Mr. Brock. I didn’t mean to intrude. But your face… it’s so pale. Yet so smooth.”

“Please,” Nalo said, “you may call me Maellor, my lady. In my line of work,” he continued, addressing her observation, “the sun plays a minor role.”

She puzzled about that for a moment, but his soft smile made her laugh. They laughed together, then Nalo said, motioning to the fine items around them, “you have quite a collection, my lady—”

“If I’m to call you Maellor,” she interrupted, “then call me Monika.”

Nalo nodded. “Very well.” He repeated his statement.

“Yes, indeed. My husband loved to collect things. He was always looking for that unique, rare, item.”

“But I thought he was a clothier and silk merchant.”

Monika nodded. “And rugs too. But he dabbled in everything. Whenever we had an extra coin, Rubico spent it on a Brenian ruby incense bowl or a Tybus ivory flute.” They walked past a small shelf of ornately designed drinking glasses, vases, and gold-speckled ceramic fertility dolls. She ran her fingers lightly across them, and Nalo felt his pulse quicken. “He especially liked rare gems and rocks. Rubies, emeralds, opals, turquoise, and jade.”

Jade! Nalo recalled the interview with Rubico. “Jade?” he asked.

“He loved it most of all,” she said, sipping again at her tea. Nalo took a sip as well, letting the hot liquid warm his chest. “He considered it the finest element in all the world.” She giggled, took another sip, then wavered in place.

“My lady?”

Her knees buckled, and Nalo cast aside his cup and saucer and grabbed her. She let out a gasp of air, her head lolled backwards and her eyes rolled into her skull. She dropped her cup and the warm tea splashed her leg. He held her softly and took her to the floor.

“My lady!”

Sweat covered her face. Nalo blew gently on her cheeks, giving her air, keeping her cool in the light of the flames.

She roused, her eyes blinking wildly. Her chest heaved as air raced into her lungs. In the heat of the moment, Nalo didn’t even realize that his hand cupped her left breast.

He tried pulling away, but she reached out and held his arm tight. He kept pulling back but her strength was too great. Too great for him: Nalo Thoran. How was that possible?

Something was wrong.

She pressed his hand against her breast again. Her warm, soft flesh rose to him. He squeezed and felt her hard, dark nipple. She smiled at him as if in a dream, her lips soft, ethereal. “Come to me, sweetness,” she said. Her words swam through his dizzy mind. “Come to me.”

Nalo took her in his arms and hugged tightly. Her lips touched his. Heat spread through his body, but it wasn’t his own. Heat from her, and not the kind one feels when bare skin touches skin. It radiated from her flesh, like the heat from the fireplace behind them. He tried resisting, but the feeling was too powerful, calling to him, giving him a sense of peace and happiness.

Like the way he had felt in the arms of Tish years ago.

A tendril of grey curled out of her mouth, like a line of smoke from a pipe. She touched his face with fingers long and sharp. “Open to me, sweet one,” she said, probing his lips with determined fingers. But the voice was not hers anymore. Not the pleasant cadence he had grown to love. The deep, guttural words from her throat were man-like, ancient, sinister. Nalo tried resisting, but all he saw before him was the face of an angel, bright and pleasing, welcoming him from the shackles of darkness.

“I love you!”

He said the words without thinking. Were they sincere, he wondered, or were they coerced?

A pause, then, “I love you too.” Those were her words, in her voice.

The face before him smiled softly as grey smoke turned green. Jade green. Nalo Thoran smiled and opened his mouth.

The world fell away.

Then the world fell back into place, as fast as it had fled from his mind. A faint buzzing sound, a woman’s scream, and then Nalo’s eyes opened as Monika was blown back from an explosion in her side. For a moment, he didn’t move. His eyes refocused, and he saw her clearly, writhing on the floor, bouncing violently and grabbing at a feather dart in her side. Jade smoke poured from the wound; the room filled with her screams.

“Back!” An old, raspy voice said from the apartment doorway. “Back away, Nalo. I know what she is.”

The assassin gathered himself and rose on weak legs. His throat and chest hurt, his body shook in fever, his stomach nauseous.

“I said stand back!”

Nalo did as Yarian bade. “Wh-why are you here?” Pain ripped through his mind. He leaned over and held his head.

Yarian did not answer. Instead, the old man shuffled through the doorway. In his hand was a small staff of black mahogany, its tip a fat, twisted chunk of coal. Nalo had seen the staff before, but Yarian used it sparingly and only in times of great danger to aide in focusing his necromantic powers. He held it up and moved slowly towards Monika’s shaking form.

An arch of black light burst from the staff as Yarian uttered blasphemies, his face a prune of twisted flesh. The light swarmed around her, wrapping her in a cocoon. Monika screamed and writhed madly to break free, but Yarian’s death magic was too strong.

“What are you doing?” Nalo screamed.

“Trying to keep us alive!”

“You’re killing her!”

Yarian shook his head. “No. She’s already lost.”

But all Nalo could see was a beautiful girl—a woman— writhing in pain on the floor. A woman he had sworn to protect. A woman he loved.

He shook away the pain in his mind and jumped. Though frail and feeble, Yarian moved quickly, trying to lean out of the way, but the assassin’s shoulder grazed his back and they went flying across the floor and into a pile of silk bolts. Yarian held his staff, but the dark light twisted upward and spread across the rafters like a spider web, dissipating against the wood.

Nalo pulled himself out of the silk and looked down. Yarian was a shamble of old cloth, silent and still. He’s dead. For a moment, that thought crossed Nalo’s mind. But no. The old goat couldn’t die that easily. I should help. But Yarian’s welfare didn’t concern him at the moment. He didn’t care about anything except her. She mattered the most.

His feelings weren’t natural anymore. He realized that as he went to her, knelt down, and held her head in his hands. His feelings were deep, but foreign, as if the jade smoke that had penetrated his mouth had awakened in him a singular purpose. He wasn’t just her bodyguard anymore; he was her soul protector. And nothing, not even Yarian, not even the dark gods, not even Kalloshin, would harm her. But it was a feeling as if she were property, like an object of great value. He tried pushing the thought out of his mind, but couldn’t. Instead, he tried to lift her.

“I’m taking you away, my love,” he whispered. Yarian’s black spell had wrinkled her face. She was still beyond beauty, but older, as if her essence had been drained away. “I know a place in the North Mountains. You’ll be safe with me there.”

She struggled against him. His sweaty hands slipped and she fell hard. “No!” she yelped. “No. It is hopeless. Just hold me, my love. Just hold me.”

He held her tightly. She breathed in tiny gasps and reached for him with her last strength. Their lips touched again. Nalo found himself resisting, trying to pull away, but he could not control his body or his feelings. They kissed for a long time, until she pulled away, looked deep into his eyes, and said, “Do you love me?”

He could think of nothing else to say. “Yes.”

“Then kill me.”

His face twisted in confusion. “What?”

“Kill me.” Her grip on his neck grew tighter, vise-like. Nalo could not pull away. With her free hand, she ripped her blouse open, exposing herself in the firelight. Sweat streaked her soft skin. Nalo could not resist the desire welling in his mind. So beautiful, so perfect. If he could touch her just once…

“Rip open my chest, my love, and free me.”

“I… I don’t understand.”

“Open my chest… and take my heart.”

He stared at her in terror. What was this thing she was asking? He could not comprehend it. He could not understand.

Then something raised his arm. A force that he, Nalo Thoran, had never felt before. He no longer controlled his body. He could see what was happening, but could do nothing to stop it.

The thing that held him took his arm and began to twist it, reshape it. His fingers fused together like candle wax above a flame. His pale skin shifted red like fire, then silver, red again, until what flesh remained tapered into a steel claw, sharp and hooked.

Then the force pushed his hand downward towards her chest. “Yarian!” Nalo screamed, fighting against the force, taking his other hand and pulling with all his strength. “Yarian, help me. Please!”

But the old man did not reply.

The sharp tip of his bladed hand pushed between her breasts. Nalo screamed and fought against it, but it pushed deeper, deeper. Blood poured from the cut around his hand. He heard her ribs crack. Monika screamed, but it wasn’t a scream of pain or of fear. It was a scream of joy and relief. A smile crept across her lips as happy tears streamed down her face.

The ribs now punctured, Nalo’s hand worked up and down, cutting through flesh and bone. Tish, he screamed silently into the floor. Tish! Help me. Please stop this!

No mistress of Kalloshin answered. The slaughter continued.

The force now took his other hand and pushed it into her chest. Nalo could feel Monika’s blood, her lungs, her broken ribs, and though he had killed so many in his life and had seen so much blood, the sight of all this gore soured his stomach. He looked away as his hand reached in and grabbed her heart.

But it was a stone. Not warm, beating muscle like he expected, but hard, smooth stone. He pulled out his hand and held it before him, Monika’s blood streaming down his arm. He raised it up and stared into a glowing chunk of jade.

Nalo dropped it as the green stone seared his hand. Now he pulled away, pumping his legs and falling backwards.

The light from the stone filled the room, every corner lit like a star. Nalo covered his face as a wave of heat rolled over him.

Then it shattered, bursting into a thousand pieces, showering the room in fine green shards. Nalo waited until the shards stopped falling. Then he moved his arms and opened his eyes.

Above him floated a demon.

It was green like the stone. A dark green with swirls of crimson along its misty body. It was like a fog, thick and smoky. The length of its body spun like a waterspout, and at its top, rising high into the rafters, lay a human torso, rippled with muscle and mass. Atop that sat a beastly head, shaped like a man’s, its face flat, its mouth lined with sharp white teeth and two fangs hooked and lying against pleasant cheeks. Golden rings pierced its broad earlobes, and its long hair hung in locks of twisted gold coil.

“I’m free!” The beast’s booming voice rattled the floor and Nalo covered his ears. “Toka al-Shamool Ali is free!”

The beast swirled upwards, twisting through the rafters like a snake, squealing in glee like a child with a new toy. Nalo ignored its play, stood and walked over to Monika’s body. He stood above her and stared into her mangled chest. Then he looked at his hands. They were real again, but covered in her blood. He fell down beside her, bowed his head, and placed his hands upon her ruined chest.

“I’m sorry, my lady,” he said, fighting back the pain. “So sorry.”

“Who are you?”

Nalo looked up and into the face of the beast. It floated mere inches from his own, its glowing red eyes searching Nalo’s unfamiliar face. Nalo stood quickly, rage uncontrollably rising in his throat. “I,” he said, pushing against the beast, “am Nalo Thoran. I am the Shadow Walker, the Dark Breath-Stealer. A servant to Kalloshin, the Seething Dark Eternalness, the Master of Thorns, the Patron Saint of Assassins. And I’m going to kill you.”

The sudden move of the mortal startled the beast, and it fell back as Nalo pushed again. The assassin swung his arms but his fists swiped harmlessly through the green mist. The beast stopped moving, rose up in a burst of cloud, then brushed its hand across the assassin’s shoulder.

Nalo flew across the room.

It followed. “Well, Nalo Thoran,” it said, “I am Toka al- Shamool Ali. I’m the sun and the stars, the earth and the wind. I am the Fog of Al-Halak, and the Mist of Time Immemorial. I’m a king and a god, and I can kill you.”

Nalo tried picking himself off the floor, but the demon held him firm, its mass swirling around him, choking his breath away. He gasped for air, clawed at his throat, tried to shout. Nothing came.

A bolt of dark light crashed through the fog. The beast fell back, screaming, fighting against a wall of black smoke.

Yarian appeared through the haze, holding his little staff aloft. “I,” he said, “am Yarian Domak. Necromancer. Agent of Death. Keeper of the Rotting Brain, and an all-around nasty son of a bitch. I can’t kill you, but you will leave this place.”

The beast swirled back and forth, like a tiger waiting. It tested Yarian’s defenses, pushing, prodding, but it could find no weaknesses. “Begone!” Yarian screamed, and another burst of light roiled forth from the black coal.

The beast screeched in agony, twisted itself into ribbons of bright green, then fled towards the fireplace.

“I will return,” it said, slithering its way up the charred blocks. “Toka al-Shamool Ali will have your deaths.”

Its laughter diminished as it fled up the chimney and escaped into the Korsham night.

* * * * *

“She was a vessel,” Yarian said as they sat in front of the fireplace, watching Monika Sharr’s destroyed body glow in the firelight. “A carrier. A shell.”

Nalo’s eyes stared unblinking at her peaceful face, trying to ignore the gaping hole in her chest. With a soft piece of silk, he wiped her blood from his arm. “I don’t understand.”

Yarian cleared his throat. “Rubico Sharr’s babbling about ‘jade’ piqued my curiosity, so I dug deeper, asked different questions. In ancient times, Torador sorcerers would trap uncontrollable demons in blocks of jade, just as your Guild enslaves souls in amethyst. But with jade comes a price. Over time, it corrupts. Its core corrodes, deteriorates. With enough time, that which is trapped inside begins to sense its freedom and crave it. A demon will do anything for its freedom. But that beast was even worse. That was a Groel.”

“A what?”

“A demon whose powers rival that of the gods. I’m sure it’s been trapped for legions of time, and for good reason. I was trying to keep it contained in her flesh. Its ethereal qualities would have been absorbed by her blood and would have dissipated. If I had been successful, it would have ended this night.”

There was a veiled accusation in that statement, Nalo knew. But he let it pass. He had no strength to fight. “How did it get there?” Nalo asked. “How did it get inside her… body?”

“Don’t know for certain,” Yarian said, “but I suppose that through some dark mischief, Rubico had it implanted to more easily smuggle it out of Toradoram. Human flesh dampens immortal powers, as you well know.”

“What was he going to do with it?”

“The stone alone was worth a small fortune. Toradoram is very protective of its jade, and merchants like the Sharrs— despite all their obvious wealth—could not have afforded such a large piece. And with a Groel trapped inside, the price is unimaginable. In the hands of a skilled sorcerer, a beast like that could be most powerful indeed.”

“What could it do?”

“You don’t want to know.”

Nalo paused, then said, “So he had a buyer.”

Yarian nodded. “Most certainly.”

Who? It was a question without an answer. The Sharrs were dead. Perhaps Yarian could spin his magic and make Rubico’s broken throat utter the name. But in truth, Nalo did not want to know. There was no value in that knowledge. The truth could be dangerous.

“And,” Yarian said, moving slowly to stand closer to the fire, “it’s certain that someone in Toradoram wanted it back.”

“Will it come after us?”

Yarian shook his head, but Nalo could see doubt in the old man’s weathered eyes. “Not likely. Despite its threat, Toka al- Shamool Ali will have enough to do without badgering two worthless killers like us.”

Nalo allowed a smile to creep across his face. No matter the situation, Yarian always cracked a joke. A rare quality indeed for a death merchant.

“Come,” Yarian said, placing his hand on Nalo’s shoulder. “We must leave. Watchmen will arrive soon. We can’t be seen.”

Nalo nodded. “Just a moment.”

He knelt down and grabbed the hem of the thin shift of silk that lay over her legs. He paused to look at her face. Even in death she was radiant. He yearned to kiss her, one last time, but resisted. Despite their hard beauty, those lips were cold, lifeless, belonging now to whatever god she worshiped. Nor did he want to move them, for even the slightest touch would smear their perfection. He wanted to remember them like this always. Always.

Nalo smiled and whispered gently in her ear, “Goodbye, my lady. I’m so very sorry. We deserved more time. We deserved at least one chance together.” He pulled the silk over her face and stood quickly. “Let’s go.”

Together, Nalo and Yarian, assassin and necromancer, disappeared into a dark and blinding spring rain.

 

The first Nalo Thoran story appeared in the pages of Weird Tales, issue #332.

In the Slammer!

Layout 1

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by James R. Stratton

 

Melanie sat rigid on the iron bench, panting as her gaze darted around the jail cell. She wore her best navy blue outfit, flattering but demure, the sort of thing you wear to visit your boyfriend’s parents or your grandmom, or to appear for trial in criminal court. Across from her, the security field sealing the entrance shimmered with a soft red glow, red for danger, red for no-go. Melanie had learned not to mess with the security field while still in high school.

But I’m not supposed to be in lockup. Sid guaranteed I’d get probation if I took the damn plea. Where the hell is he? She could hear her heart thumping as she panted. At least they didn’t put me in a cell with some pervert dyke. And then she shivered. At least, not yet.

The security field buzzed and shifted to a shade of sky blue. Melanie didn’t move, blue just meant the security field had polarized so someone could walk through from outside. A balding guy wearing a rumpled suit and carrying a battered briefcase strode down the hall and stepped through the opening without pausing. He was sweating and looked harried as the field flashed to red behind him.

“Okay Sydney, what’s going on? Why am I in lockup?” Melanie felt her heartbeat ramp up worse when Sydney sighed and didn’t look her in the eye. “Shit, Sydney, did you screw up?” His jaw clenched and he glared.

“No, Mel, I didn’t screw up. The deal was going just like we discussed, up until this morning. You’ve pled guilty to three felony counts out of ten bad check charges. The rest will be nolle prossed. And the prosecutor is locked into not making any recommendation on the sentence. This should’ve been a walk in the park. We go see Judge Jones, he gives you probation and you walk out. I got no idea why they grabbed you. An order came down this morning for you to be held until sentencing.” He paused and glared again. “In fact, I should be asking if you screwed up. You got some new charge I don’t know about? Not smart Mel, it’s guaranteed to piss off the judge.”

Melanie glared back and balled her fists. “No, goddamn it! You think I’m an idiot?”

She and her attorney argued back and forth until Melanie clenched her teeth and looked away. Well, somebody screwed up and it’s my tail in the ringer. Jesus!

The security field buzzed again and a tall man in a starched white shirt and pressed black suit stepped through the entrance gingerly, wincing with bald fear of it.

He straightened his tie, glanced from her to Sid, and grinned the kind of smile Melanie would expect a veterinarian to give a mutt just before he neutered it. “Sydney, my man! I wanted to be the first to tell you how thoroughly the shit has hit the fan. I take it you haven’t heard about Judge Jones?”

Her attorney plopped on the bench next to Melanie and ran his hand through his sparse hair. “Quit jerking us around, Jim. Spill it! We’re scheduled before Judge Jones in half an hour on Ms. McCarthy’s sentencing. Has it been continued?”

The prosecutor just flashed another smile that sent chills down Melanie’s spine. “No, no! We’re on for 10:30. But we’ll be before Judge Harkins, not Jones. Judge Jones’ father went into the hospital yesterday. He made arrangements for Judge Harkins to handle the calendar. So your little client here goes before Ironman Harkins instead. I gotta give the guy credit. Harkins was in his office before dawn reviewing files, and had detainers issued on a bunch of the cases.” The prosecutor paused to glance over to Melanie. “I don’t think he likes you, sweetheart. If he’s got you in lockup now, I can just guess what’s coming when we go upstairs.”

“Jesus, Jim! That isn’t fair!” Sydney jumped up and stood toe to toe with the prosecutor. “And we agreed, no jail. She’s only had a couple of juvenile convictions and a misdemeanor conviction last year. You need to tell Judge Harkins the deal was probation, not jail.”

Melanie shivered as the prosecutor’s smile just widened. He shook his head once, back then forth. “The deal was I would make no recommendation, and I won’t. And what the good judge does after that is entirely up to his honorable conscience. It’s the luck of the draw, Sid, you know that. But your client is a good-looking young lady, she has options.”

“Shut up!” He poked the prosecutor in the chest. “And get out! I haven’t discussed that with her, I didn’t think it was necessary. Now go, you’ve given us your news.”

The prosecutor chuckled and waved his electronic passcard in front of the security field. It flashed to green and he stepped through.

Sydney rubbed his forehead, then sat on the bench and patted her on the knee. “Okay, things aren’t happening the way we thought. Not my fault, not your fault, but that’s the way it is. You need to make some decisions before we go upstairs.”

“Can’t we just withdraw the plea?” Melanie fought tears and bit her lip. “I mean, this wasn’t the deal.”

“I can make the request, but I expect Judge Harkins will deny it. You’ve already entered the plea in open court, admitted guilt and agreed to all the terms. Nobody guaranteed you would get Judge Jones for the sentencing. And that’s not a basis to withdraw a plea. Now listen up, I need to explain some things.”

Melanie took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded. “Okay, how deep is the shit I’m in?”

“Pretty deep.” He grimaced, took a deep breath. “You got three options. First is jail.”

“Okay, I was in detention as a juvenile. I can do that.”

Sydney just shook his head. “Juvenile detention isn’t adult jail. The State has an obligation to rehabilitate juveniles. That means the State pays. But the Governor and the Legislature changed all that three elections back for adults. You remember the campaign, ‘Criminals should be responsible for their punishment.’ Jail costs the good citizens of this State over fifty grand a year per inmate. Nowadays, detainees are expected to reimburse the State, at least for a fat percentage. Anyone in your family got money?”

“Hell no! You think I’d be buying my date-night outfits with rubber checks if I did?”

Sydney grunted and continued. “Second option, public service in a needy community. I know you don’t have a college degree, but have you got any kind of job skills I can sell to the judge? The ghetto communities always need medical technicians, teachers, and drug counselors. Understand, if I sell this you’ll be signing away your life for the next five years. You got anything I can cobble into some sort of specialized skill?”

Melanie stared at the floor and shook her head. She dropped out of school in 11th grade. Never worked at anything but minimum wage jobs since.

Sydney grunted. “Too bad. Last option, what some call the meat option. You sign away your rights and agree to take part in an unskilled public service project.”

Melanie felt tears burning her eyes as she glanced up.

Her attorney continued. “You volunteer for medical experimentation. The government always needs subjects for testing new drugs and medical appliances. Ever since the passage of that animal rights act, testing on dumb animals isn’t allowed.”

“Yeah, but I’ve seen what can happen.” Melanie stood and paced the cell. “A guy on my street can’t hardly walk or talk after they tested a new drug on him. Nerve damage, they told him.”

Sydney just shrugged. “Of course there are risks, that’s why they need volunteers.”

He looked away and fidgeted with the handle of the briefcase. “And they’re always looking for licensed comfort liaisons for the military. The Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act of 2050 guarantees members of the military will have appropriate companions available when they’re off-duty. Most of the liaisons are licensed prostitutes hired out of Las Vegas and New York City.”

Melanie shivered. Dead meat or fresh meat was the way it’s described on the street.

“What if I just refuse, tell the judge to go to hell?”

Sydney chuckled. “I wouldn’t recommend it. The law is clear, the State can’t be burdened with the cost of your punishment. The good citizens voted that referendum in back when you were still in high school. The old prison system cost millions of dollars, produced nothing and rehabilitated nobody. People came out more dangerous and crazy than when they went in. Let the criminals pay for their own punishment the politicians used to say. Make them give something back. Anyway, you refuse to cooperate and the Ironman Harkins gets to pick.”

“Jesus, Sydney!” Melanie closed her eyes and leaned against the wall. “How the hell can I choose? This ain’t fair.”

“Neither is stealing from the merchants of our fair city, and you ripped them off for a bundle. But don’t sell the comfort liaison gig short. It’s Federal, which means good food, good housing, good medical, and decent working conditions. You work at the clubs on military bases.”

He glanced at his watch. “Think it over. We’ve got ten minutes.” The security field flashed blue and a burly guard stepped into the cell. Sydney stood and stepped aside as Melanie was cuffed and patted down. He waved his passcard at the security field and it flashed green. “See you upstairs.” He walked out.

 

The Solid Men: A Rick Rambler/Time Patrol Mystery

Layout 1

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by C.J. Henderson

“Those wanting wit affect gravity,
and go by the name of solid men.”
–John Dryden

“Zing, it was one when you knew how to nerk. Binkel. There was no denying it. You could feel it, tan side down—sharp.

“Wait a minute. Fuad.”

—klik—

“Didn’t realize what time I was set for. I apologize. These things happen when you’re part of the Time Patrol. Of course, you don’t actually know what that means, do you?”

I knew at least one thing I’d said had gotten through to young mister Quentin Peasley of the wilds of New Jersey, 2010 thru 2069, survived at finality date by his not-yet path-crossed wife Jenna, and his still unborn children, Cedric and Marshall. There was not, indeed, in any way, shape or form, any possibility that he knew what I meant. They never know. They can never, ever get their heads around it. I mean it.

You simply can’t noggle a guy and come right out and say, “Yes, that’s right, I’m a time cop. I move through the one-after-another seconds in all directions, across all the lines, watching for unauthorized activity of any nature.” That would be like saying something like, “Hey, I’m here because I know what’s supposed to happen and am duly authorized to make sure it does, using any and all means to make certain absolutely nothing interferes with upper case ‘P,’ upper case ‘T,’ Proven Time.”

No, it’s just more trouble than it’s worth. I mean, the first thing they all want you to do is explain Proven Time, as if anyone could. The accident that set man’s sight on the One True Timeline from which all others spring was no blessing. Up until then people had been a lot happier—a whole lot. Saner, too. A lot of folks—and I’m one of them, let me tell you—feel that ol’ Doc Wezleski ignored time travel when he discovered it because he could see straight away the kind of trouble it meant for all of us.

Anyway, the answer is “No.” In the end it’s always best to just give them some kind of story. Something like the one I fed Quentin after I’d gotten my Local Wordage Formatter crinkled to the right year.

“Forget all that,” I suggested, giving the poor sap ‘Knowing, Sincere Look #6,’ one of my personal favorites. “I need your help for a few hours, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“What?”

Of course, he was half in the noggle-bag already. I swear if Central could just calibrate one decent LWF, the force wouldn’t have a third of the problems we do with insertion.

“Here’s the story, Quentin.”

My hands checked over the rest of my equipment while I spoke, monitoring to see if any of it was over-heating (always a possibility), smoking (sometimes a possibility), or vibrating at a rate that might indicate an imminent implosion (sadly, a 1 in 95,000 possibility). For once, however, everything seemed to have survived insertion. I had arrived, unwarmed, non-smoking, and able to expect to live through the next eighteen seconds with relative security in the year of someone’s Lord 2028, with two hours to spare before the next series of souls were scheduled to be stolen from somewhere nearby—parties undetermined.

I had those one hundred and twenty minutes to ascertain the means of spatial energy theft, the vehicle of transfer, and the identity of the perpetrators before the Proven Time cosmic alignment was battered downward to a subcategory of semi-known, and mankind once more became, on the whole, a tree-swinging tool of fate rather than an upright, self-determining species.

“My name is Rick Rambler. I’d like, if I might, to tag along behind you for the next several hours.” No time to waste. “In fact, I’ll give you one thousand dollars to be where you are for the next,” quick eye scan of the chronometer, “next one hundred and… counting… eighteen minutes.”

Young mister Peasley did not seem enthused.

“Is one thousand dollars of current currency not worth that much these days? Doesn’t that buy quite a stack of goods?”

“I dunno,” answered Quentin, giving his best shot at getting with the program. “In like Africa, or um, what’s that’s messed-up sink-hole down south…”

“Orlando?” I ventured.

“Mexico,” Quentin corrected me.

“So,” I said, pointing toward the ground, “here—what would be outrageously great pay for me following where you go and what you do for the next, ah, less than two hours?”

“For what?” Quentin looked around, trying to nonchalantly scout for an exit, “I mean, is this a gay thing or a psycho-killer thing?”

“Nothing of either sort,” I assured him. Spreading my hands before him, palms outward, I said, “I just have this hunch that whatever it is you’ve planned for the next two hours is where I want to be.” He couldn’t possibly pick up a bad vibration from me. I was telling him the absolute truth.

“No freaky business?”

“What happens, where we go, et cetera,” I used the Class-A interaction tone, the one designed specifically for believability, “it’s all up to you.”

“Man, the thousand would’ve been good.” Quentin smiled, liked he’d figured something out and was going to be just ever so impressed with himself. “But you want somethin’, so I’ll take five thousand.”

I nodded, peeling twenty-five—what-appeared-to-me, and apparently to Quentin as well—hundred dollar bills from my currency log. Yeah, sharp move, kid.

“Half now, half later,” I told him.

Quentin smiled and pocketed the I-guess-it-was money after all. Actually, the little squarehead hadn’t made such a bad deal. If he lived through the next two hours, he’d get to keep the money. Oh yes, I mean all of it. Hell, I’ll give him the rest. It’s the least the Patrol can do for staking him out.

Not that the Patrol had picked him in particular or arranged whatever was going to happen in one hundred sixteen minutes.

No, Quentin Peasley was fading from the PT stats, the record charts of Proven Time—PT—the one real time line from which all the multitudinous others are spawned. Certainly the idea has to be familiar—a billion, billion yous living a billion, billion different lives, each one just a little further removed from your own, each a single step off to the left or right, each one step closer to riches and love and security as you, but each just as easily one step closer to ruin and pain and sorrow to break the heart as well.

What had been found the day Dr. Wendel Q. Wezleski made the connection between steam-power and inter-dimensional travel was the absolute center of everything. What was found the day after when the Pelgimbly Center for the Advanced Sciences announced he had discovered time travel years earlier as well was the beginning of a nightmare. Humanity found itself existing in the one perfect time at the core of all existence, the one which dreamt all the others. No other dimension had discovered the ability to move sideways through reality. Only us.

As an abstract idea, it was an interesting puzzle. But, as a reality, it became a tangible thing. And all tangible things can be exploited by the human mind.

Including time travel.

Plenty of others had found their way to the time travel door after Wezleski proved the wall wasn’t solid, and accidentally went so far as to point out the doorknob. Sadly, when that happened, it soon became apparent that some of those crowding around this new knowledge were using it for no good end. And, where as it was one thing if they fouled up their own lives, it was another if their skipping across the centuries sent reverberations across the lines that affected all of us—affected, in other words, Proven Time, the one true dimension.

The one which, once found, had to be protected at all costs.

“Okay,” said a cheerful Quentin. “You’re the boss. Where to?”

“Wherever you want, Quent.” I sighed. “Remember?”

Quentin scrunched up his face. Suddenly an unusually bright light came on behind his dull eyes. Its excitement suggested that young master potatohead still did not understand exactly what I was driving to get across.

“Look,” I told him, finger in his face, drawing his vision from my eyes so I could scan the area, “don’t worry about me. Don’t think about me. I’m just another guy who happens to be wherever you are for the next one hundred and fifteen minutes. Whatever you were on your way to do, just go do it.”

Quentin rolled his tongue around his pressed-closed lips for a handful of seconds while his brain tried to struggle past the moment of overload the presence of twenty-five hundred dollars could make in his life. It was an Unguarded Instant—one of the moments all Time Patrollers love, fear, and hate.

Here comes the big concept, okay? The thing newbies have the hardest time wrapping their nut around. We know everything? Understand? Get it—do you dig? We know everything. Or at least, we can know everything.

Wezleski gave us access to Proven Time. With chronal motion we can move up and down the one true timeline with greater ease than geese winging their way home for the winter. We can go anywhere, anytime—see anyone doing anything. We know about the aliens that watched us from 1687 to 2089, waiting to allow us to mature sufficiently to join the universal federation and how wonderful everything became once their technologies were introduced into our lives. We know what really happened to Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, and Yippie the Back-Flipping Dog. We know the last time you masturbated and whose picture you had in your hand.

But, when a TeePee interacts with the past, they end up instituting Unguarded Instants, moments in time that were never—could never have been—previously catalogued, because this was their first appearance. We’re not actually supposed to let them happen, but since they can’t be helped, officially we’re supposed to keep them to a minimum.

I wasn’t, under any circumstances, supposed to offer young Quentin a hundred dollars, or a thousand or any other amount of currency. But I did; after all, I had to do something. What was going to happen to him somewhere in the near future was going to be an unguarded instant, too—a godsdamned insanely cold-blooded one—the one I’d come back to prevent.

The Time Patrol was created to guard Proven Time. Any threat from one time period to events in another are met with the harshest punishments. There was a movie once, back when they made them still, that had a line in it that kind of sums up what we do. A guy holds out a pocket watch and says something like, “it’s just a cheap piece of junk, but bury it in the desert for a thousand years and it becomes priceless.”

If that were the extent of timecrime, I’m not certain anyone would even care. That’s not the kind of stuff the Patrol was formed to stop. No, at the point in time from where the TeePee operates, everyone pretty much lives in that kind of happy spandex wonderful peace, complete with the tall, gleaming buildings. But even with everything they could want, some people aren’t happy.

The ones I was after were using a power source called a Gravity Well to skim through the past and steal the souls of helpless folks living there. Gravity Wells are the bio-mech centers of the big space cruisers, massive theory engines that actually “suppose” their way through space by thinking they’re heavy enough to do what they do. They’re fabulously heady devices, and full of tricks, which is what made this case so impossible.

First off, they’re infinitely expensive. Not that many of them exist. Most are in the hands of the planetary government. Industry controls some, but they’re heavily regulated. Back home, when the first person died in the past from having their soul removed to whom this was not supposed to happen, alarm bells rang from the end of time back to the Mesozoic.

This was big.

And, for those who don’t know what I mean exactly by the word “soul,” I’m talking about that weight allotment of energy and human static that exits the body at the time of death. It contains all the memories, emotional ticks and everything else that makes one bag of flesh, skin, blood and flatulence different and unique from the next one. They’re part of a delicate mix in this universe, and when they don’t get to where they’re supposed to go, well… I mean, gink me, that’s just asking for trouble.

So, the Patrol took it pretty serious when someone started fishing for souls. It didn’t take long to determine that a) it was being done by someone in our own time, that b) they were using a Gravity Well to do it, and that c) they didn’t look as if they had any intention of stopping. In fact, if psychiatry is anything like an exact science, it was pretty definite they were going to be spreading murder up and down the time stream like liver snacks at a kennel.

Oh yeah, murder. These souls weren’t just disappearing before they were meant to move on—these people were dying years, decades, before they were supposed to. People living perfectly normal lives in the next dimension over— people like confused little Quentin Peasley—were being slaughtered by someone for reasons unknown in our own dimension. Our dimension.

Perfect Time.

It simply could not be allowed.

If it was, chaos was just around the corner.

Anyway, in not much more time, the Patrol would have its answer. With the first murder the pattern had been established. If the death had been an accidental tearing of the timewall, it would have been reported. Reporting such things immediately clears those responsible of almost all liability. As long as it was an accident, of course. After twenty-nine hours (don’t ask me who picked that time span), if nothing has been reported, then the Patrol takes over.

With the second soul theft, murder was established and the weapon was identified. Knowing we were looking for something, we were able to be on site fast enough to capture the Gravity Well signature. We knew what was causing the deaths. That made it simple to triangulate who the next victim would be. I realize it doesn’t sound simple to you, but then you’re not TeePee.

Thus, with Quentin spotted, marked, identified and confirmed, we had our murderer staked. We knew where every Gravity Well in operation was in the entire galaxy. Agents were ready for insertion at every one of them when crimetime came. I was on hand merely to make certain Quentin was where I could shield him from death. It was a simple plan, and someone was going to go down for it in little over an hour.

It’s good to enjoy your work.

For the next one hundred and ten minutes, my work was fairly okay. I tagged along while Quentin got himself a pizza, and then went “bowling.” It was some sort of sporting event. I once had been told it was “a kind of Zen thing,” a competition organized around the idea of combining running with swinging and hurling the heaviest ball ever created for sports, all without breaking a sweat.

I’ve seen weirder.

The pizza was a thing manufactured far from the bowling stadium (well, whatever you call them). Made in incredible quantities all at one time, they were then frozen, stored, transported thousands of miles still frozen, stored again, and then finally reheated upon request with mind-singeingly powerful microwaves. The beauty of it made me wonder what my wife would have for dinner that night. The bowling was an interesting ballet, but not many of the participants that day seemed to be actual Zen masters. Perhaps I had been misinformed.

Whatever, as the time of Quentin’s murder drew nearer, I readied my equipment. I had the shield projector which would protect him ready to go—had actually had it ready since the first moments we’d met, although I knew exactly when I would need it. The reflector could hold a beam for up to five minutes. Far more time than would be needed. All in all, I was fairly relaxed. I knew as certainly as I knew the moon revolved around the Earth (at least until 2136) that one of our agents would have things under control in ten seconds or less.

And then it happened.

A curious white blur began to affect the reality there in the bowling stadium. To anyone uninformed, it would appear as a simple reflection. But I knew what it was, could smell the faint hint of ozone and boiled tar which meant gravity in play. I switched on my reflector and bathed Quentin in it.

“Hey,” he shouted, feeling the light wrap around him protectively, clinging to his back, his neck and legs—everything. “What the… hey!”

“Don’t worry,” I told him, watching the seconds tick off on my PTChronometer—four… five… six…—“it’ll all be over in a couple of seconds.”

“It, it,” he groped for a moment, touching himself, touching the shielding, marveling without understanding, “…feels cool.”

Yeah, I thought, just put up with it for a few more seconds, and then you can bowl your night away while I get home to see what’s on the dinner table. I watched the PTC climb steadily—ten… eleven… twelve…

“This is crazy, man.”

I nodded, not taking my eyes off my chronometer, but having to agree with him nonetheless.

Nineteen… twenty… twenty-one…

The light around Quentin was beginning to do more than simply reflect white.

Twenty-eight… twenty-nine… thirty…

People were beginning to notice. Games were stopping. All about me, rented shoes were turning in our direction.

Forty-five… forty-six… forty-seven…

“Hey, I feel, I, I dunno… weird. Sick, kinda—”

He wasn’t the only one. I had no instructions past keeping him alive with the reflector. I had been assured that absolutely nothing could go wrong.

Eighty-eight… eighty-nine… ninety…

Not with a ten-second job.

One hundred-five… one hundred-six…

Ten stinking seconds.

Quentin’s face began to shrivel, sink in, its color dropping to ashen as if he were dying. As if the energy of his soul was beginning to be leached from his body.

One hundred-fifty-seven… one hundred-fifty-eight…

Tears began to form in his helpless eyes. He offered me my money back, clawing it from his pockets, bills spilling out across the polished wood of the stadium.

Two hundred nineteen… two hundred twenty…

By this time people had gathered around to see what was happening. Their presence did not interrupt my beam’s ability to defend Quentin, but they made it harder to concentrate, harder to keep the focus from beginning to dissipate.

Two hundred thirty-two… Two hundred thirty-three…

Instructions and questions rang in my earpiece. I did my best to both listen and answer. Watching Quentin’s life slip away helplessly as the PTC continued to tick—

Three hundred fifteen… Three hundred sixteen…

“Gink-a-dink!” I cursed, not caring who heard. “You can’t let this happen!”

My curse was wasted, because happen it did. Quentin shook, his arms trembling, teeth chattering. His life force was being torn away from him across decades, maybe centuries, there was no way to tell. His tears combined with the snot dripping from his nose to make his last words unintelligible. He fell across the gutter, his hands crumpling beneath his body. I stared at my useless equipment, burned out, searing the flesh of my hands. Then, I disappeared, recalled to TeePee Central.

* * * * *

Of course, no one had any answers. Every single Gravity Well in existence had been monitored. Active or inactive, down to the ones that had been placed on courthouse lawns in little towns too new to have Civil War cannons, or Beverly Hills Holocaust souvenir kiosks, if they still had an outer shell and even half the parts necessary for operation, we had someone there. Just in case.

Just in case—

And it still hadn’t been good enough.

Quentin Peasley, average, unformed, uncomprehending Quentin Peasley was dead. He would now never cross paths with Jenna. Their unborn Cedric and Marshall would remain that way. That meant pain and destruction smashing its way through Proven Time for decades forward from his death— coupled with the other murders—perhaps centuries.

It had to be stopped. But, how did you stop something from happening that was impossible? That the murders were being committed with a Gravity Well was undeniable. It was proven fact. It had to be. But, as best anyone could tell, it was also a proven fact that every single Gravity Well ever built had been cleared of involvement.

And then a thought hit me. Perhaps my logic was faulty. Yes, unless there was a basic building block of science missing from our knowledge, Peasley and the others were murdered through the use of a Gravity Well. But…

I radioed my thoughts to Central while on my way to the garage. My request for extra rangers was met—ten TeePees were hauling weapons to vehicles when I arrived. Obviously my notion had been found to possess some merit. No one said anything about it to me and I didn’t ask. I didn’t care. All I wanted was to make certain no other Quentin Peasley’s had to pay the price for our smugness.

On the way to our destination, I received Jehovah confirmation and my calibrator was unlocked all the way to ten. For the duration of the coming raid, I had been awarded Supreme authority. I was acknowledged final judge, jury, and executioner and no one could argue with me. I also couldn’t be reprimanded later or penalized in any way for actions during the raid.

Of course, that didn’t mean I could stop along the way and pay a hostile visit to the bully who made my life hellish in the seventh grade. But, those granting me my temporary powers knew that wasn’t in the equation. I had been motivationally scanned before any decisions had been made. They knew my mental make-up of the moment. Those in power knew the only thing I cared about and gave me the means to obtain what I wanted.

When we reached the front gates of zVz, the guards denied us entry. I flashed my Jehovah badge. I did not bother to say anything. There was no need. Suddenly pale, their joints turning to the softest of putty, they waved us in as if welcoming the parents of the bride to her wedding. One of our people stayed behind to make certain our arrival was not communicated to anyone inside.

Within two minutes we had reached the central meeting room of the board of directors for zVz. They were, arguably, among the most powerful human beings who had ever walked the face of the planet. Their fortunes were unthinkably large, their futures as vast and magnificently laid out before them as the stars of the heavens stretched out before any of the travelers using one of their Gravity Well-propelled ships to move through the universe.

“And who are you people?”

Thomas Gadius Thorn, the single most powerful man who ever lived, stared at us from his perch arranged at the far end of a table so massive it struck one that there shouldn’t be trees large enough for it to have been built. It would have to be a big and thick and powerful table, however, for in the center of it was the thing overlooked, the device not predicted.

“Rick Rambler, Time Patrol,” I said automatically. With hand gestures I moved my people around the room. Each of them moved behind a collection of board members and started to take readings. Letting my badge hang from around my neck, I kept my hands free as I told Thorn:

“You’re under arrest.”

The thing in the center of the table, of course, was a Gravity Well. It had never dawned on anyone that a well would ever be built and then not registered. The only person capable of doing such a thing would be the head of zVz, and what could the reason be? To make illegal profits? Why would someone who would need to spend 18 trillion credital units a day for the next two centuries, just to go through what he had already stacked up in various vaults around the solar system need to steal any more?

“On what charges?”

But such thinking had been painfully short sighted. And Quentin Peasley was just the most recent poor bastard who had paid the price of its limitations.

“Tampering with Proven Time.”

“Not murder?” Thorn’s voice was rasping, but giddy. The only emotion he seemed capable of showing at the moment of his judgment was amusement.

“Murder was the means of your tampering. Perpetrated through means of an illegal device, an unregistered Gravity Well. Built, it can only be concluded, for the purpose of murder—”

“Oh no,” answered Thorn, his voice snickeringly self-assured. “Not built for murder. No profit in murder.”

All around the room, the men and women of the zVz board joined in with their lord and master, their sniggering noises making the great hall sound as if it were filled with rats. Rising from his place, Thorn made to walk the great length from his spot to mine. I motioned those agents under me to allow him passage.

“Solid Men do not need to stoop to such dull pastimes.”

“Solid men?” I asked.

“Indeed,” responded Thorn cheerfully. “My companions and I, we are The Solid Men of Society. We are the doers, the builders, the obtainers of fortunes, the makers of dreams. We are the backbone of progress. We are humanity’s most righteous citizens.”

Pointing to the Gravity Well in the center of the table, he paused to stare at it as he said;

“I know even a lesser individual such as yourself can recognize the breakthrough this device represents. The model G-9, 149 times lighter, more compact, than the smallest Well in production. That much smaller, and yet capable of doing at least half as much work as a full-size model. Think of it, Mr. ahhh… Mister…”

“Rambler,” I reinformed him, adding, “so you admit that this is a functioning, unregistered Gravity Well?”

“Of course, and so much more. When Cardinelli reported what he hoped for it, that it could power vehicles beyond space, further than time, but sideways as well—we were, obviously, excited here.”

“Why was that, Mr. Thorn?”

“Please, Ranger Rambler. To no longer be dependent on Wezleski’s infernal love boats. No more need for undying romance between pilot and navigator… to simply be able to hoist one’s anchor and power to whatever, wherever, whenever, however… even you can grasp the enormity of that.”

He was right, of course. I could. As easily as anyone alive. It would have meant an unbelievable surge in the fortunes of zVz. So…

“So,” he answered my unthought question, “why didn’t we? Register it? Release it? Turn it over to the profiteers of the world? Because, first we had to test it. And that was when we discovered its enormous side benefit.”

I simply stared, waiting for an explanation. Thorn shrugged, smiled at me, and then returned to explaining.

“Normal Gravity Wells are heavily shielded, of course, because of the mind-bogglingly dangerous amounts of lethal things going on within them. That shielding had been reasonably, we thought, reduced for this newer model. But, what no one realized is that those extra layers of shielding, as well as keeping so much from escaping the wells, was keeping something else from entering them.”

Thorn danced in a circle for a moment, laughing as he did so. Then suddenly he skidded to a halt, his face aimed in my direction, and saluted me. I waited a few seconds, after which he began laughing again, talking as he did so.

“The new wells are soul-collectors. They reach out and simply suck them free from people. Cardinelli turned it on, and instantly his life essence was drained from his body. The well was shut down by remote backup, but the damage had been done. And then, the most wonderful thing was discovered. Those of us present, we became the beneficiaries of this tragedy.”

As he drew nearer, Thorn stared at me, something in his eyes letting me know he really cared if I understood.

“His soul, removed from his body before its time, not ready for rebirth, fled to the nearest flesh for safety. Our flesh. Can you imagine it, Mister… Rambler, is it? Can you?”

Thorn had almost reached me at that point. I rested my hand on my sidearm. He did not seem to notice. Perhaps he no longer understood the gesture. Feeling safe for one reason or another, the CEO continued on toward me, still jabbering.

“Human energy, Mr. Rambler, is but the building material of the soul. Not all people grow them. Children, animals, they do not possess them—they can’t. For you see, the soul is created at that incredible, powerful moment which is the awakening of the thinking mind. Not the instinctive mind, the knee-jerk response levers which keep the knuckle-draggers moving forward, but the moment where the lizard brain actually stops worrying so much about what it will be chewing next, and finally, for a moment, begins to ponder.”

All around the table, the others were nodding, their eyes as filled with stars as Thorn’s.

“The sharper the brain, the more incisive the thoughts, of course. Cardinelli’s vast gray matter had charged his soul with a texture and taste beyond compare. He was… delicious.”

I rocked a touch, my body staggered by what I had just heard. Yes, it had been an accident. They had been flooded with their companion’s life force before they could react, but after the deed had been done, it had not been long, Thorn delighted in telling me, before they had decided to relive the moment.

“Have you ever had a creative thought, Mr. Rambler,” the CEO challenged me. “Have you? A truly creative thought? If you have, you know the thrill of that moment, the power you feel coursing through your every fiber. Think on that for a moment, and then, try if you can to comprehend what it feels like, to suddenly have every ounce of a person’s creative life flash through your system. Even a pimple like Peasley learned to tie his shoes, count to ten, tell green from yellow—it’s all creativity—”

The horror in the room finally hit me. The board of directors of zVz, the richest, most powerful group of people in the known universe, were drug addicts, and the drugs they craved were human souls. Techno-vampires, they had thrown away all of society to perch above it.

I looked at the indicators on my Jehovah. If Thorn wanted me to have a creative thought, he was getting his wish. I suddenly pieced together that he had to know we were coming, or at least that we would come. He and his fellow ghouls had been waiting for us, determined to have it out with us then and there. Take us down while we were still blind to what was happening.

The CEO had already been intelligent. Now he was flooded with the best energies of five other people. Abruptly, I knew the power of the Jehovah calibrator would not be enough to contain that which was surging through Thorn’s body. He had crippled my resolve with knowledge, sneaking ever closer in through the defensive wall of distance to where he could nearly lay hands on me. Knowing I had only seconds, I kicked outward, catching the CEO off guard, sending him crashing into the table as well as two of his fellows. As they spilled out of their chairs and went down in a tangle with their leader, I shouted;

“Slaughter! Keep them busy—I’ll be right back!”

As my people unlimbered their sidearms and blasted away at the surprisingly resilient directors, I thought orders for an emergency transfer and, thanks to my temporary calibration, was instantly granted my travel request. In the same instant I finished saying the word “back,” I reappeared within the wilds of New Jersey, specifically within the walls of the bowling stadium in which I had watched Peasley die.

Throwing a wall of cancellation over my former self and the crowd, I approached Peasley and screamed at him;

“You know you’re dying—right?” When he nodded, I shouted, “I can’t stop it, it’s already happened, but I can tell you why. If you don’t want anyone else to die this way—listen to me!”

And, as Peasley began to crumple, I gave him what I hoped would be an awakening moment. As quickly as I could, I revealed to him the secrets of time travel—that it existed, that it was real, and what it meant for all humanity.

As I disappeared once more, I watch the dying face of Quentin Peasley experience epiphany.

Then, just as fast as I had left, in the instant I disappeared, I reappeared as well. I actually felt myself leaving the spot in which I arrived, almost knocking myself over. My people were just pulling their blasters, were just pulling on the triggers I had watched them pull a moment earlier when I signalled them again to stand down. There was no longer any need. Thomas Thorn had told me how to stop them.

I had extrapolated, it’s true, but I’d been correct. After the rich taste of their scientist’s soul, they had turned their machine on hungering for more wonderful rushes like him. I don’t think they had found any. Thorn’s begrudging admission that even Peasley had had something to offer made me think—

What if his mind had held wonder?

What if he had been experiencing that rarest of human moments, an explosive instant of epiphany when they gobbled down his soul? I had hoped for something like the reaction any other kind of drug addict experiences when after many highly cut doses they were suddenly gifted with the pure stuff. Sure enough, Thorn and his fellows were all helpless with fascination, overwhelmed with their stolen moment of self-satisfaction.

Knowing it would not do to waste my hard-won advantage, I stepped to where Thorn still lie tangled with the others. Placing my foot upon his neck, I looked into his eyes, and said;

“I sentence you, Thomas Gadius Thorn, to death by disbursement. Your atoms will be scattered. Your fortunes will be forfeit. You are ended.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he mumbled. His drool-leaking mouth smiled at me, his eyes promising he was still filled with surprises too ample for me to overcome. Gesturing for me to come closer, his weak voice croaked past my heel to tell me:

“Oh, Mr. Rambler, you weren’t paying attention. I told you the G-9 worked across dimensions. When it gathered unto us Mr. Peasley, don’t you know, it gathered unto us, all the Mr. Peasleys there are. Just as it gave us all the Cardinellis, and all of all the others, plucked from every dimension, across all the expanses…”

“Meaning…”

“Meaning, Mr. Rambler, that you’re too late. So you eliminate me. What does it matter? Across every dimension, a billion, billion other Thomas Thorns know what I know now. They all understand time travel now. They all want to taste what I have tasted. They shall flood here to stop you. You and your Proven Time are doomed! We win, Mr. Rambler—”

His laughter became a thing unbearable to hear. Shifting my foot just a bit, I brought my calibrator to bear on his forehead. As I did so, the rest of my force picked a target and did the same. Looking into his eyes one last time, I said:

“Same thing, Thorn,” I told him. “When I said you were ended, I meant it. Say ‘goodbye,’ Tommy.”

And then, I acknowledged calibration and thought Thomas Gadius Thorn out of existence. All the Thomas Gadius Thorns. All billion billion of them. Every one of them. The Jehovah badge glowed a deeper purple second after second as around the room the directors of zVz were winked out of existence everywhere and when they existed.

The next day, across all the dimensions where there had been a Thomas Thorn, where the Gravity Well had been invented and a corporation to administer its existence had come into being, those who were not in charge of the company would discover they had no idea who was. They would have a product no one would have ever claimed to have invented. Hopefully they would use it to better ends.

Stumbling to the nearest chair, I fell into it, too numb to feel. My second-in-command came to me, holding open a containment box. I nodded, giving her the go-ahead to remove my Jehovah circuits. She understood, I was simply too tired to do it myself. As I sank into the cushioning of the chair, I suddenly wondered it the Luddites weren’t right after all. Maybe we’d all have been a lot better off not knowing half of what we know.

Wezleski thought so. No one ever knew why. I think maybe I understand what he was thinking when he would just smile at certain questions, making his joking apologies to humanity for all the harm he had caused by inventing time travel.

Whatever the case, we do know what we know, and it’s too damn late to go home again. We’re human beings. As a race we’ve always been on one edge or another. I guess this is just the latest one. Well, that’s what comes from getting the race to where it was—too damn smart for its own good.

Working at keeping my body from spilling onto the floor, I pulled myself erect in my chair as best I could. I had, of course, absorbed Thorn’s soul the way he had Peasley’s. The CEO had been right; it was a rush, all right. One my people and I have all been through in the past when eliminating other would-be conquerors.

Even through my rage, I almost chuckled at Thorn’s questions to me—if I had ever had a truly creative thought, if I had ever known the thrill of having every ounce of a person’s creative life flash through my system?

Yes, Mr. Thorn, I have. But like any truly mature person, I learned long ago that pleasure always comes with an ever-escalating price tag.

“You know, chief,” my second said, taking a brief look down into Thorn’s uncomprehending eyes, “whichever ‘they’ said it first, ‘they’ were right. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

I just groaned and threw a mock punch at her head. She laughed. Hoping that somewhere Quentin Peasley was having his own richly deserved last laugh, I dragged myself out of zVz’s chair and headed for the door and back to work.

I was sure there was something to do somewhen.

A Light That Shamed the Sun

by C.J. Henderson

 

“I mean it, goddamnit… where in hell’s my flying car, anyway?”

It was that particular moment in the outburst that got through to the heavy-set individual with the curly hair and sweetly vacant disposition. A round-faced man, he was, one as large of frame as he was of heart. He had, at the moment of disturbance, been pondering the problem of cross-wiring fate with exactitude, as a cure for menopause, no less, when the shouting gentleman at the other end of the counter there in the Cold Crab Cafe interrupted his mental gymnastics.

Of course, jumping back just a moment before said eruption, merely for a chance to analyze his mental project, one might decide that such a presumptuous experiment would not only be beyond the grasp of mankind’s current collective of thinkers, but also that the very imagining of its possibility should be considered grounds for involuntary commitment to the nearest competent couch jockey or licensed state institution.

Such would be perfectly reasonable, and anyone would be excused for thinking that it would constitute a proper course of action—anyone that is, who was not familiar with that singularly remarkable cooperative…

“I mean, I’m sixty years old, and I’m tellin’ ya…”

That most charmingly whimsical of scholarly business concerns…

“I remember…”

That most unbelievably fantastic hotbed of intellectual mayhem and scientific hooliganism…

“Back in the day…”

The Pelgimbly Center for the Advanced Sciences, complete with the wonderfully unique brand of inquiring minds which staffed its halls so completely. They were, as its brochures promised, titans of research, giftedly tremendous brains, the kind of venerable cranium-stuffing that routinely conquered multiverses, rolled consistent D20s and made uniquely damn fine cups of amaretto cocoa. Minds like that of Dr. Aristotle T. Jones.

“Every time you turned around…”

Holder of 25,603 personal patents, devisor of the bundled dimensions theorem, and universally applauded creator of the thirty-second flavor…

“Someone was sayin’ it was just a matter of time before we were all gonna be hikin’ it around in flyin’ cars like the freakin’ Jetsons.”

And the perfect rung on the evolutionary ladder if ever there was one to bring mankind such a boon, if indeed, there was any hairless ape capable enough to do such a thing in all the known stretches of research and development. For this discussion, it is important to remember that Aristotle Jones was not an inventor’s inventor, not in his heart. No, the soul of his tinkerer’s happiness was enriched by the cobbling together of things that, in the classic sense of the phrase;

Benefitted Mankind.

The thing-a-ma-bobs and wozzling-do-giggies that he created were universally loved by all peoples. The grand majority of the world, of course, had no idea that every day when they gave silent gratitude to this or that convenience, conveyance or cocktail, that it could be counted on that the designs, theories and random cosmic hiccups of Dr. Aristotle T. Jones could be found frolicking there somewhere in the background. Dr. Jones simply adored creating things which made people go “ahhhhhhh,” and he spent as much time as he possibly could out in the real world, searching for ways to hear that sound, accompanied by the indescribable joy of seeing their faces light up in a smile that shamed the sun.

Which is why, at 11:30 in the A.M., on a perfectly reasonable and altogether ordinary Wednesday, he was situated on a stool at the counter in a perfectly reasonable and ordinary Baltimore-style crab diner several blocks from the fabled Pelgimbly facilities, rather than hard at work in his lab.

Impossible as it was for many of his colleagues to comprehend, Dr. Jones found the vast majority of his inspirations, not surrounded by test tubes, refractors and pestles, but from within the drama, torment and comedy of the realities created by ordinary people. It was the needs and fears of the common man which drove his intellectual curiosity, and now that he had heard this phrase, this practically tortured wondering over why our physical world was not the one predicted in the 1950s, suddenly his own intellectual curiosity over the
matter was reborn anew.

And so, having been snagged from his own churning cauldron of thought by this random query, having fallen far enough into at least a slice of the world’s actual reality to be able to interface with a fellow human being, if only for a moment, his mind caught by a sudden gust of white-hot curiosity, Dr. Jones solicited a proposal.

“Tell me, my good man,” he asked politely, if somewhat absently, “what exactly would you do with a flying car if indeed it were possible for you to have one?”

The man snapped back the standard nugget one might expect from someone whom, on a daily basis, could be counted on to slap their fists against crumb and crab juice-spattered counters, spewing their words over perfectly decent people as if those poor souls did not have enough morons yammering at them throughout their day already without the addition of yet another slack-jaw into their lives who was neither their employer or a minion of the legal professions.

“Hey, whatd’ya expect?” The man fixed the doctor with a belligerent stare, then dropped the other shoe, “I’d freakin’ fly it.”

And, for some reason which flickered in the subconscious of Aristotle T. Jones at that particular alignment of the planets, the doctor joined with the man at the counter in feeling the over-riding need for that question to finally be answered. For, once he had calculated the number of times a particular age-group had made that same impassioned query, he realized Destiny was practically screaming out for some research to be done. And also, suddenly remembering that his All-Round-Researcher’s license would soon require him to log some additional flight time anyway, he nodded his head in the grumbling man’s direction and answered;

“Well then, Mister…?”

“Terill, Harry Terill…”

“Well then, Mr. Terill, let’s go get you one, shall we?”

* * * * *

“So, okay Doc,” the growling man said to Jones, “explain again why we’re powering up a blimp?”

“Zeppelin, actually,” the doctor absently corrected. “It’s quite simple, really. You see, travel between dimensions is possible only in lighter-than-air ships.”

The man stared at Jones as if he had announced he was about to pull an African elephant from his back pocket. Having spent most of his life being stared at in such a manner, the good doctor, of course, failed to take note of his travelling companion’s confusion. Unfettered by such mundane embarrassments, in a moment he related how Dr. Wendel Q. Wezleski had discovered the way to move sideways through reality. The good doctor had, of course, learned how to move forward and backward through commonly shared reality earlier on—“time travel,” he had called it. But, the vastly more tricky, and extremely delicate operation which Wezleski had been attempting to learn while constantly, albeit accidentally, inventing new ways to shatter the chronos barrier was the movement through parallel dimensions.

“You see,” Dr. Jones told the excitable counter-slammer sitting next to him in the airship, “to effect a journey through dimensions takes steam power. It’s the only sufficient energy source we have that doesn’t depend on any sort of delicate electronics. Electronics in operation keep the sideways gates from opening, don’t you see? So, once our steam-powered generators have gotten a doorway opened, then we still have to depend on lighter-than-air travel for the same reason—only such vessels can be navigated without the aid of electronic devices. Once safely through a gate, of course, additional power sources can be brought on line, but until then…”

“Yeah, yeah, I dig it,” Terill interrupted. “But how does this get me a flyin’ car?”

“Well, simply put,” answered Jones, his attention split between his easily distracted charge and maintaining his white-knuckled grip on his seat—maintained so because the good professor had an absolute and overwhelming dread of air travel, “we have targeted the nearest possible dimensions which show as likely for having based their major modes of transportation on something other than automobiles.”

As soon as Dr. Wezleski had opened the passageways to inter-dimensional exploration, every government in the world had, as one might expect, expressed their typical, extreme disapproval. The Americans, with characteristic disdain for their own interests when faced with stern frowns from their current friends, such as France and China, or their traditional friends, such as Japan and Germany, responded by clamping firmly down upon Pelgimbly, installing their own military people to monitor even the most minute movements
within the Institute being made outside of agreed-upon-reality.

Now to be fair, in the favor of the current regime, they had not been so utterly disapproving at first. But, after the mighty thinkers in Hollywood quickly rallied public sentiment along the same lines as the rest of the world with such blathering drivel as 10 Million Dimensions to Earth, I Was a Teenage Zep Jockey and The Next Dimension Needs Women, the government became far more nervous about allowing research to continue unfettered by their “expert” supervision. The scientific community, as one might imagine, rallied behind Pelgimbly
for the obvious reasons, but the films had been released within months of a major election, and that was all there was to say about that.

On the other hand, of course, a chore as simple as sliding 598 feet of helium-filled, steam-driven steel and plasti-canvas past the keen and watchful eyes of military intelligence is not all that great a problem for the typical Pelgimblian. Within minutes of Dr. Jones’ assistant, the twenty-two year old ginger-haired Adora Feldstein, wandering “accidentally” into the Prime Security Chamber with a plate of fresh brownies, and a carafe of ice cooled milk, all monitor screens covering the launch bays became temporarily unmanned and the mighty air- ship, the Thomas Alva was able to slide gracefully through the electro-flux barrier between unreality and possibility off to the first target dimension, some one thousand, eight hundred and forty-seven realms over.

“What do you mean, ‘nearest possible dimensions?’”

“Ah, you see,” explained Jones, stuffing the bowl of his pipe, “there are an infinite number of dimensions parallel to our own. If we were to simply travel to the nearest one, we would find things to be, well… almost exactly the same as in our own. No flying cars to be found there. Oh, my—no. But…”

Jones paused to set the flame of his lighter to his pipe. Torching the mix within its bowl, he continued, spitting his words out in small bunches in between puffs.

“If we hop outward into the sideways void… then our chances of finding an Earth… where the average motorist has left the ground behind… well then… there we might indeed discover what you’re looking for.”

Terill nodded, actually comprehending what he had been told. He made a few further inquiries, several even bordering on the intelligent. Jones puffed on his pipe, watching the screen in front of him, answering Terill’s questions and advising the pilot on likely short-cuts until finally, an announcement from the navigator’s chair told them they had arrived at candidate dimension number one.

“We’re here!”

“Well,” corrected Jones, knowing which “here” Terill meant and how likely he was to be accurate in his assessment, “we’re ‘somewhere’ at any rate.”

Racing to an observation port, Terill began to scan the airways, his eyes craning in all possible directions, searching for the winged, four-on-the-floor of his dreams. His search went on, sadly, unrewarded. Whether high or low, East or West, back, forth, or any other direction available for scrutiny, Harry Terill spotted many a plane, several helicopters, and a few points of light which he thought might have been UFOs, but he could lay his eyes on nothing that appeared to be a flying car in any reasonable way, shape or form.

“I don’t get it,” he said finally. “I thought this dimension was guaranteed far enough away to be different from ours.”

“Indeed it is,” Jones told him honestly. “Perhaps an excursion to the surface will tell us something further.”

It only took a matter of a few moments for the professor to calibrate the proper charge to resonate his body and his guest’s so they could wander about on the surface of the world below them. Leaving the Thomas Alva uncharged, of course, so that it might remain invisible to the locals, they then descended to the ground outside the nearest town and hiked into the suburbs.

“You know, I don’t think I remember seein’ any roads from up above,” Terill announced as they accomplished their first quarter mile.

“I wouldn’t think we would find any anywhere in this world,” responded Jones. Releasing a great billow from his pipe, he mused, “That was the whole reason for sliding this far over, dimensionally speaking.”

“But,” asked Terill, “if they don’t have flyin’ cars, or roads for regular cars, then how do they get around?”

Eighteen more steps gave them the answer. Coming to a break in the wooded area into which they had descended, they suddenly came to a row of suburban-style apartment buildings. Rounding the corner of the closest, they emerged into the open to find something the good doctor had not anticipated.

“My, my, would you look at that now.”

“The goddamned sidewalk is movin’.”

As the two explorers watched in rapt fascination, people mounted and dismounted the conveyors stretched out before them. Many merely stood while they were propelled along, reading newspapers or listening to this or that being piped through headphones, but far more seemed quite comfortably at rest atop small, one-legged chairs upon which they remained stably poised by using both of their legs for counterbalance. Two belts moving in opposite directions were needed to keep things flowing, and people had to step across several moving belts to continue onward when one set of belts crossed another, but they seemed to do so with relative ease.

“Jeez’it, Doc, how do they do that?”

“How do they do what?”

“Get across the lanes so quick?” Terill stared in awe-struck wonder at the sight of a woman in her early sixties along with her dachshund as they skipped nimbly across the five feet of a belt headed west, then an identical set of feet found on the one next to it headed east, finally catching up to their own belt, still headed south, which had traveled underneath the other two.

“I would surmise it was simply a matter of growing up with it,” Jones conjectured. “After all, think about it for a moment. If we were to take them home and show them people weaving five-ton automobiles through traffic, bicycles and pedestrians, I’m certain they’d be just as impressed with any of us as you seem to be with them.”

“Makes sense, I guess,” Terill admitted. “Makes me wonder how they move packages, groceries, you know—furniture, bigger loads. Is this all they have—these movin’ sidewalks? How does really big stuff get around? And what do they do when it rains? Or in the winter time? Or…”

Deciding he would like to know such things himself, Professor Jones moved them forward until they intercepted the older woman and her dog at the front door of her building. Claiming to be doing a survey, they asked their questions and discovered that everything they wanted to know had the most mundane of answers. People simply took carts and wheeled baskets and all manner of dollies, et cetera, with them when they shopped. Delivery trucks in Dimension Starboard/1847 were merely platforms on wheels, most of them a type of remarkable automated platform that delivered packages to destinations then returned to their point of origin as programmed. Bad weather was apparently compensated for with protective clothing. And so on and so forth.

The Travolator, which the woman announced as the name of not only the beltway in front of her apartment building, but the entire world-wide system, worked quite nicely at all times and in all manner of weather, and she would not dream of supporting a measure to introduce some other form of transportation. Smiling broadly, Jones thanked the woman for her time. Terill kicked a rock in angry frustration. Both returned to the Thomas Alva.

“That was sure a bust,” announced Terill, still kicking things as they re-entered the zeppelin.

“Well, think nothing of it,” answered Jones, settling into his chair for another stomach-turning launching forward. “We’ve got an infinite number of possibilities before us.”

“Yeah,” grumbled Terill, “an infinite number more of possible disappointments.”

Dr. Jones allowed the remark to pass, thinking he would soon be able to snicker kindly in his guest’s direction as they sailed into the proper reality. But, it soon became apparent he had been wise to allow the remark to pass for a dimension where they actually had flying cars was rapidly looking to be as rare as garlic wedding cakes or ethical standards in the music business. Not that the pair of explorers did not find alternative modes of transportation.

Oh, no indeed.

The Thomas Alva sailed into a plethora of alternate realities where men had found a wide variety of innovative means of locomotion. Their very next stop brought them to an Earth where the pogo stick, of all things, had become the major means of personal transport. When they ventured into the nearest city, they witnessed not only a rush hour madness of literally thousands of pogoing white collar workers springing their way home, but styles and varieties of pogo apparatti never dreamed of back home. They saw two-person models, ornate chauffeured versions, high-roaring, souped up models moving in packs which clearly seemed to be piloted by spring-powered gangs, and even massive, multi-pronged mass transportation based on pogo technology.

It was, to say the least, a disheartening stop, but the pair slogged on, plowing through the ether and moving on to one dimension after the next, hurrying to one more additional, equally disheartening stop after another. Future visits brought a gaggle of Earths which had made strange variations to the automobile, but which had not abandoned it completely. Others dealt with technology familiar to the travelers, but which they had never seen used to such all-encompassing ends.

They discovered worlds where cars ran on nuclear fuel, massive heavily shielded roadsters with the looks of tanks, but with unlimited mileage and the added side ability to glow in the dark. They also discovered the amphicar, a kind of three-masted convertible which navigated equally well on roads or that Earth’s extensive canal system, as well as the three-wheeled Dymaxion, a marvel of grace and imagination which embodied for transportation the same principles of economic form and functionality that the geodesic dome brought to architecture or the Rob Roy brought to hangovers.

They found worlds where the pneumatic train had conquered all, exotic, yet Victorian-styled lands where the gravitational pendulum was master, rushing rounded train cars from California to New York at speeds of five hundred miles an hour. It was an inspiring sight for Jones, who found the air-driven, environmentally friendly trains a wonder, and who would have made more notes to see if such a system could be implemented back home if not for the fact the trains filled the air with the sound of booming mechanical flatulence with grinding monotony.

Worlds which depended on the hydrofoil and the hovercraft also seemed around every corner, as did ones where people rolled along sitting in the center of giant wheels, ran along within over-sized plastic bubbles and even a few where the use of animals for moving from place to place had not fallen from popularity. And, this was not just the familiar horse and oxen, but everything from the camel and dog sled to the kangaroo and the giant sea turtle.

This was not to say that other Earths with flying citizens were nowhere to be found at all. The intrepid explorers discovered dimensions where the skies were filled with manned platforms which flew on giant fans, amazing discs steered by the simple action of the pilot leaning to one side or the other. They also stumbled across such often dreamed of wonders as rocket belts, jet packs and one interesting dimension where, instead of wearing their engines, its aeronauts stepped onto a platform that housed a vertically oriented turbojet and then launched themselves off to work, the movies or the nearest McDonald’s at mach seven.

There were also plenty of sites where mankind had decided personal transportation could be accomplished en masse with helicopters, tilt-o-rotors and gyroplanes. The doctor and his guest even, eventually, found one odd society where those with the itch to leave home and go further than the nearest corner did indeed do so in Aerocars. These were intrepid Studebaker-like devices which cruised the roads quite nicely, but which could be driven into a set of wings that came with its own extension, tail and rudder. These attachment pieces locked into place in moments, allowing the driver to then fly off quite easily into the wild, blue turnpike. Most people did not seem to possess their own extensions, but merely picked one up at a kind of U-Haul service located at the nearest airport.

Still, as close as this was to their desired goal, the Aerocar was as much what they were looking for as a pumpkin was a pumpkin pie. Disheartened, as blue and lost and as thoroughly depressed as he ever had been in all his cynical, noisy life, a tired and woefully worn Harry Terill said;

“Maybe we should just pack it in, Doc.”

Jones looked up from his speculation charts, his eyes taking in all of his guest’s horribly forlorned expression. The abject defeat on the man’s face stung the doctor. This was not a person about to say “ahhhhhhhhhh.” His were not eyes destined to shine with a light that could shame the sun any time soon. No, this was a man defeated—one suffering from a let-down as severe as the eight-track tape and as devastating as the two-party system.

Indeed, his discouragement seemed as complete as possible. Far more than just Terill’s eyes were woeful, his entire posture was cheerless, his stance that of a banana on a hot day. His teeth appeared melancholy; his fingers dismal and somber. It was not a pleasant picture. Aristotle Jones pursed his lips, trying to think of something encouraging to say, but he could find nothing.

How could he?

After all, they had uncovered civilizations which had tried to gift their citizens with the flying car, but they had all come to ruin. Ordinary folks, it seemed, were simply incapable of handling the extraordinary demands of the fighter jet, which essentially was what the flying car would be, especially when coupled with the notion of travelling in proximity with their fellow excursionists. Most people, as could be attested to by the ever-increasing accident statistics to be found anywhere human beings could also be found, were simply not team players. They did not like to give way to their fellow drivers. They did not particularly enjoy even having to consider that there was anyone else on the road other than themselves.

Worlds which had adopted the flying car sat in burning ruin, millions of sleek, aerodynamic carcasses littering their landscapes, the trapped and broken remains of the socially just-not-good-enough moldering behind their ruptured steering mechanisms. Taking a long drag from his pipe, Dr. Jones rolled an orange-wood scented waffle of smoke around in his mouth, then let it out slowly, saying;

“I have one more thing I’d like to try, if you don’t mind, Mr. Terill. Why don’t you lie down and take another nap. If this next trip doesn’t fix things, we’ll give it up. What do you say?”

Tired, but still stubborn enough to remain hopeful, Terill headed for the cot he and the doctor had alternated using throughout their long and frustrating journey. Jones waited for the older man to fall asleep, then signalled the pilot to head for home. It seemed at that point that there was only one way remaining to grant Mr. Terill his wish.

Luckily for him Dr. Aristotle Jones was humanitarian enough to employ it.

* * * * *

When Terill first felt the gentle tugging at his shoulder, his mind had brought him to the conclusion that his entire time with Jones aboard the Thomas Alva had been but a nightmare of sorts, a bad stretch of REM sleep brought about by some rarebit he could not quite recall. When he opened his eyes, however, he found the good doctor there before him, but with something oddly different about him. Jones was smiling.

No—not smiling.

No, not smiling at all. Jones was ebullient, positively beaming, as happy a man as Terill had ever seen in his six decades on the planet. Sitting up, he rubbed his eyes, questioning what seemed to be the obvious mainly out of self-preservation, like an orphan refusing to believe in Santa Claus, or a New York voter, suspicious of a voting booth.

“You tryin’ to tell me somethin’, Doc?”

“Step outside, Mr. Terill, just this one last time,” answered Jones. “And see for yourself.”

Excitement raced the older man’s blood and he headed for the ladder to the disembarking platform, each step coming faster than the one before it. Once to the ladder, he practically leaped from rung to rung, taking them two, three at a time. He hit the ground running, but came to a sudden, joyous stop as he saw where he was.

The Thomas Alva had stationed itself on a cliff overlooking a vast metropolis, one whose massive skyscrapers were a’buzz with clouds of vehicles flying between them.

Flying!

“Hey, doc—doc!” he shouted. “You did it, man; you did it!”

And, indeed, it seemed that Dr. Aristotle T. Jones had done just that, for before and above and all around them, the world was awash in flying cars. The landscape below them was clean and bright and nifty enough to have been clipped from the front cover of a 1954 edition of Popular Mechanics. Terill staggered wildly, twisting and turning with excitement youthful enough to make him appear drunk as his body tried to show him everything possible within the same moment.

Everywhere was a glory of sky-splitting craft. Brightly colored, practically noiseless, emitting no soot or clouds, they were graceful as hawks in flight, the traffic patterns achieved things of art to behold.

“Oh, my god, Doc,” whispered Terill, “we did it; we did it.”

”Well,” corrected Jones, “We found it, anyway.”

“No,” answered a still completely fascinated Terill, “We did it. ‘We,’ ‘us,’ mankind. We got ’em up there. When we saw all those other worlds, man, where everything just kept crashin’ and burnin’, where men just couldn’t get it together enough for us to work together, to fly and soar and zoom, together—I mean, it was killin’ me.” Turning to face Jones, the older man told him;

“Back in the fifties, everyone thought the future was gonna be filled with wonders, and in a way, I guess it is, but they never turn out. They’re always bitin’ us on the ass. Nuclear power, and clonin’, steroids, air conditioning’, even diet soda… nothin’ ever does what it was supposed to. Nothin’ ever comes through. There’s always some hidden price tag…”

Jones watched as Terill turned once more to staring into the sky. The man seemed renewed, freshly born, filled with a wonder and joy the doctor could scarcely measure. Then, shifting his view through his bifocals, Jones checked his virtual view of Terill against the actual person stretched out on the padded slab before him. Terill appeared basically comfortable, all his bodily signs stable. Reaching out, Jones made a minor adjustment to the older man’s headset, making certain it was securely intact.

The doctor removed his glasses at that point, needing to rub his eyes. As he did, his field of vision grew to take in the thousands of other padded slabs, with their thousands of other occupants living lives dictated for them by their thousands of headsets. Dr. Jones had taken pity on many volumes of humanity in his time, and when solutions to their problems could not be met, he had done for them what he had now done for Harry Terill, brought them to sub-basement D of the Pelgimbly Institute for the Advanced Sciences and hooked them up to his most humane masterpiece, the virtual reality generator.

Testing of the machine was still proceeding, but each additional “volunteer” was only proving that it was, indeed, the greatest gift Jones was ever likely to create. The machine not only manufactured separate, creative fantasies for each of its wards, but it also monitored their vital signs, keeping them as healthy as inert bodies could be kept. Jones did not usher in anyone off the street, kidnapping every wandering dreamer to further test his remarkable boon, but only those so demanding, so cynical, so caught up in their need to escape that finding their dream at the expense of their freedom was considered a fair trade.

The rows of softly pulsating tables in sub-basement D contained a wide range of humanity, with as many mullet-headed dreamers like Terill, as there were Conservative Christians, feminists, grass roots Democrats, Luddites, and other starry-eyed fanatics desperately awaiting the arrival of their personal, impossible social contract.

Knowing it was time he returned to his lab, Jones allowed himself one more moment with the enraptured Terill. Replacing his glasses on his face, he again touched his hand to the corner of the older man’s slab which allowed a visitor to share the dreamer’s experience. Suddenly, the doctor found himself at Terill’s side as the man stepped into a newly purchased Ford Rainbow. Within his brave new world, Terill had already passed his driver’s test and made the purchase of his dreams. Turning to Jones, he stopped for a moment to avoid having his voice crack, then said;

“Thank you, Doc—ohh, god bless; thank you so much.”

“Think nothing of it,” Jones offered kindly. Then, as Terill began to engage his controls, the doctor stepped away from the imaginary craft, then disappeared entirely as he removed his hand from the connection pad.

Jones lingered a moment longer, unconsciously tarrying a few extra seconds in the hopes of catching his favorite tune.

“Aaaaahhhhhhhhhhh,” the sound whispered from Terill’s smiling lips. “Aaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…”

Jones smiled in response. Then, knowing one could never allow themselves too much of a good thing, he turned and began making his way through the rows of padded slabs, already thinking on how next he could benefit mankind, while all about him thousands of sets of eyes shone with a light that shamed the sun.

 

Heavy is the Head

HeavyIsTheHead_MikePhillipsFinalCandidate

Illustration by Mike Phillips

by Robert E. Waters

 

An impish voice whispered in Palanor’s ear, muffling the bitter screams of his father. “Are you going to sit there and take his insults… again? Kill him! Kill him now!”

Palanor scratched away the voice, then drew his sword from its sheath and swung it wildly at his father’s neck, catching the old man in mid insult and knocking him off his horse.

Oh, the blood. Spurts and flows covering the road in deep crimson. His father’s blood. The king’s blood. More blood than Palanor had ever seen. His stomach turned. He looked down from his horse, down upon his father’s gurgling, moaning form.

“What will you do now?” There was that voice again. “Look at him. Even now, choking on his own phlegm, he mocks you. Finish him!”

Palanor jumped from his horse and raised his sword like an ax. Eyes wild, he brought the blade down into the gaping wound of the first cut, then again and again, until the head popped off like a ball and rolled across the road and down the gully wall.

Silence, save for the rustle of the head rolling away in the distance beneath the brown and red leaves. Palanor pulled a rag from his belt and wiped the blood from his sword. “You’re dead, Father,” he hissed, hovering over the beheaded man. “And you will never hurt me again.”

He tossed the bloody rag to the ground and stepped over his father, toward the gully where the head had rolled. A heavy suggestion of snow lay in the wind’s voice, whistling wetly through the trees, bringing to Palanor’s ears the first hopeful sounds of his life. Your father is dead and you will now rule, he thought to himself. No more shameful times. No more embarrassing moments in the courtyard, his father belittling him before his own mother and brother, his own countrymen, raising doubts about his mettle. No more feeling worthless. “Now you are the embarrassed one, Father, the weak one,” Palanor snarled at the head lying somewhere below. “You’ve lost your head, and your guard isn’t here to fetch it for you.”

Palanor stumbled down the muddy gully wall, supporting himself with the sword. His heavy boots scooped out dark cuts in the ground. Only now was his blood cooling in his face, though his heart was still beating strongly. As he descended, he wondered: How will I make it look? How will I convince everyone that we were jumped and I fought valiantly to save the king? He looked at his arms, his legs, seeking signs of struggle. None. The decision to kill had come quickly, per the advice of that tiny little voice, the meek whispery tickle on his ear that most assuredly had been his inner demon, his own conscience. No struggle except that which was now building in his mind, replacing the promise of the wind with screams of inner panic.

He reached the bottom of the gully and began poking through the leaves. It couldn’t have rolled far, being so fat and bumpy, like an over-ripe apple from a tree, popping off its branch and cracking on the roots below. He swept the leaves left to right, moving the broad blade of his sword like a broom. Where is it? He moved further down the gully, into the shadows where the ground was dark, so dark that he could only hope to feel the meaty thump! of his blade against the sallow flesh of his father’s head. His heart beat faster, forgetting the delight of a moment ago. Palanor dropped to his knees and started fishing through the sea of leaves.

“Are you looking for something?”

A childish voice from behind. Palanor’s head popped through the canopy of leaves. He whipped his body around to face the voice.

“Please don’t stop on my account.” There it was again, this time from the side and up in the trees. “But I can’t help but wonder if what you’re looking for is this…”

Palanor held his sword forward and braced for a threat. His face wild, he said, “Who’s there?”

“I’m up here,” the voice said. “Up here sitting pretty.”

Palanor turned right and looked up into the dark shadows of the twisted trees, up into a faint glow of magical light he hadn’t noticed before. And there perched his father’s head, delicately on a branch, swaying in the wind; lips crusted with drying blood, swollen, pudgy face, mangled white hair glued to a dead white brow. And eyes, covered in thick, ashen lids, accusing, mocking lids of eyes that could no longer pass judgment, but could still stir Palanor’s insecurities. The sight of his father’s face was too much for the prince to bear. The only thing that saved him from screaming was small legs crossed and resting on the bridge of the nose.

A brightly dressed pixy sat on the king’s head, subtle elfin-like lips parted devilishly, smoking a small pipe, blowing rings, swinging little legs, bouncing tiny shoes off cold flesh. Palanor fell back in terror, eyes fixed on the little imp. The pixy inhaled a long thread of smoke from the pipe, tossed his head up, and blew the smoke away. He seemed very content.

Finally, the pixy said, “Is this what you’re looking for?” It rapped its knuckles on the balding skull like knocking on a door.

Without thinking Palanor nodded.

“I thought as much,” said the pixy, cradling the pipe in its left hand. “I thought you’d come after it.”

Palanor finally gained his strength and stood. He looked around the base of the tree, searching for a way up. The steep, coarse trunk of the tree rose before him, its black roots peaking out of the eroding soil like serpents. Steps up. Palanor leaped for them, scrambling with hands and feet, pulling his way up the roots towards the little devil. His moves were violent and rash, clumsy and unprepared. It took several minutes to reach the branch where the pixy sat, but when he got there, the imp and the head were gone.

“Psst,” a voice from behind and up. “Over here.”

Palanor turned and looked up. The grinning, contented face of the pixy sparkled in the shadows. “It’s no use to try to catch me,” the pixy said, fluttering thin wings, “so I recommend we negotiate a deal.”

Breathless and dizzy, Palanor stumbled back down the tree and rested against the gully bank. Something about the pixy’s voice was familiar, but his mind could not place it. “Who are you? What do you want?”

“What do I want, you ask? I want what all men and fairies of good conscience want: World peace, a warm meal, female companionship, and a place to rest my weary head.” The pixy giggled. “But seriously, I’m no one special, and I don’t really want anything. I was just working my way through these woods, in hot pursuit of dinner, when I heard hooves on the road. My dinner spooked and ran off. Frustrated, I slipped up to the road to see who was coming and to my amazement, I saw the King of Trunkheim and his heir trotting along. I thought to myself, ‘Lucky me, I finally get to meet the great king and the prince.’ Well, you can imagine my surprise when suddenly I see you draw a sword and lop the old man’s head off.”

“You saw nothing!” Palanor screamed and flung a glob of mud.

The pixy ducked. “Not only did I see something, I felt it too. The king’s head flew right into me and knocked me down. It pushed me into the mud, it did. See…” The pixy stood up and turned, revealing a mud-streaked pink vest and wings. He sat back down and giggled again. “A pixy goes through his whole life thinking nothing like this will ever happen to him, and then it does. I feel like I’ve been hit by lightning.”

Palanor bared his teeth. “You saw and felt nothing, you miserable whelp. Now give me my father’s head.”

The pixy rubbed its chin and considered. It shook its head. “No, no. That won’t do. I think we need to talk a little more. Get to know each other better.”

“I said give me—”

“Shh!” The pixy put its hand out and pressed it down. “Don’t talk too loud. You don’t want anyone to hear you, do you?”

Palanor shut up quickly. He had forgotten the way voices carried in these woods. A childhood memory flashed in his mind: he and his brother running through the gullies, each casting his voice to confuse the other. Find me! Find me! They’d scream. Over here! No here! And then the booming voice of their father or a court aide calling them home, ending the fun. How many times, Palanor wondered, have I gone through this very gully? How many times had he climbed these very banks and flung this very mud?

Palanor breathed deeply and said, “Okay, what do you want?”

The pixy knocked the tobacco out of its pipe. “Like I said, I don’t want anything. The big question is what do you want? Political assassination and fratricide is a big step in a young prince’s life. Was it worth it?”

Tears welled at the corners of Palanor’s eyes. “He was a hateful man. He deserved it.”

The pixy nodded, tucking its legs away, still perched on the head. “He must have been. But it must have been equally hard for you to deliver the last blow…”

“Not at all.”

“…and it’ll be even harder for you to explain how it happened.”

That realization hit Palanor hard. He had forgotten that small detail in the scuffle to find his father’s head, and how he searched for excuses. “Self defense.”

The pixy shook its head, yanking a long strand of white hair from the king’s scalp. “I didn’t see any struggle.”

“The struggle wasn’t physical. It was internal and brought on by years of abuse.”

“I see,” said the pixy. “So you’re the victim in all this, huh? Please tell me more.”

“My father was ruthless,” Palanor began. “All my life he treated me and my brother like dogs, shaming us before our mother and our countrymen. When we were young, he would beat us and laugh. How many times did he call me ‘worthless’ or ‘unfit to govern’ or ‘wasted seed’? And for years I took the abuse. For years I let him humiliate and shame me. But not anymore.”

Palanor dropped down and began to cry, a cry of many years, a cry that wailed through the trees, echoing back like the howls of a lost banshee. And while he cried, the pixy flossed its teeth with the strand of white hair. “Yeah, it sounds like he was a bad man. I never knew that about the king.”

Palanor sniffled. “Few do.”

“Well, how are you going to cover it up?”

“Oh, I don’t know. We were attacked by thieves. How’s that?”

The pixy shook his head. “I don’t remember any thieves.”

“Nobody knows that.”

The pixy smiled. “I do.”

Palanor jumped up, his wild, sweat-soaked hair smearing his vision. “You little rat bastard. I’m the king now. I order you to bring down my father’s head.”

By this time, the pixy was lying on its stomach and reaching over and pulling up one eyelid and then the other, left, right, left, right. The cold, glossy eyes beneath, each time they were flashed, drilled holes into Palanor’s soul. Oh, what have I done? What have I done? Your eyes, Father, know the truth. I killed you in cold blood.

The pixy reached for the bloody mouth and pried the lips apart, opening and closing, opening and closing the hollow, dark mouth. “You are a bad son,” the pixy said, casting his voice lower, mimicking the king’s voice, opening and closing the jaw with each word. “You killed me and you will pay.”

“Shut up!” Palanor’s words bounced through the wood. He flung another glob of mud and this time hit the pixy square and sent the head tumbling down through the branches. But the pixy had disappeared again, flying into the shadows. Palanor scrambled forward, trying to catch the head before it struck the ground. He lunged and grabbed a handful of hair. He hit the ground hard, the weight of the impact knocking out his wind. But he held his father’s head firmly. Palanor brought the bloody orb to his chest and hugged it like a doll, lying in the mud and weeping loudly.

“I’m sorry, Father,” he whimpered, stroking the white hair. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean—”

“You know,” said the pixy from somewhere behind, “I think you ought to come clean on the whole thing. You’re the king now. What can they do?”

Through his whimpering, Palanor saw the truth in the pixy’s words. It’s right. What can they do? I’m the king now. Mother cannot even touch me. Suddenly, fear and despair were replaced with hope and optimism. He cracked a smile.

“You’re right,” Palanor said, turning his father’s head around to stare defiantly into the wrinkles. “I am king now, Father. It doesn’t matter who killed you. I can’t be touched.”

“That’s right,” trumpeted the pixy, suddenly appearing on Palanor’s shoulder with a flutter of wings. “They can’t touch you. And judging by how terrible he was, you did Trunkheim a favor, wouldn’t you say?”

Palanor’s eyes beamed with delight and he looked at the pixy, forgetting his desire to crush the little imp in his hands. “Yes.”

“Sure. Why I wouldn’t be surprised if they—” The pixy stopped and turned his ear to the wind. “Do you hear that?”

Palanor listened. Faintly, the sound of clinking hooves and jangling armor came from the road above, faint and distant, but growing stronger.

“The body!” Palanor said, suddenly remembering that his father’s corpse was lying alongside the road. He tossed the head aside and scrambled up the gully, like a dog, clawing at the mud and leaves. He reached the top and crawled to the body. Up the road, in the direction he and his father had been riding, came a single horse. On the horse was a man, a man of equal height and build as Palanor, but younger. A man of equally brief facial hair, but sharper. A man Palanor knew well.

His brother Roth.

Palanor rose up on his knees, but he didn’t try to hide the body, nor did he show remorse. What purpose would it serve anyway? Roth had experienced the same shame and humiliation at the iron hand of father. Surely he of all people, Palanor thought, would understand and give thanks. On his knees, he smiled faintly and watched his brother ride up.

Roth looked down from his horse, shifting his eyes from father to brother. His chest started heaving violently, his handsome face growing red with anger. “What is this? What have you done?”

Palanor spoke proudly, “I’ve killed the old bastard. I’ve killed him.”

Roth jumped from his horse and drew his sword, moving close. The sun was setting fast behind him. “I came looking for you because Colonel Gregor had sent his falcon forward with word that you and Father had slipped away from the knight’s tourney early this morning without the protection of his guard. I’ve been looking for you and this is what I find. Are you insane?”

“Roth, it’s over,” Palanor said. “Our misery has ended. I am king now.”

Roth lowered his sword, and Palanor rose to his feet and laid a hand upon this brother’s back. The young man began to weep.

Palanor pulled him close. “It’s all right, Roth. It’s all right. We’ll make it right.”

Through sobs, Roth asked. “How? How are we going to do that? What are we going to say?”

“We’ll carry the body back,” said Palanor. “We’ll tell Mother that we were attached by brigands and Father fell fighting bravely.”

Roth nodded. “But what about the absence of the guard? Why weren’t they here? Why were they left behind?”

Palanor shook his head. “I don’t know. Father slipped into my tent this morning and ordered us away. When I asked him about why we were leaving, he told me to shut up, so I didn’t press him.”

“You know,” said the pixy, setting down upon Roth’s saddle and coolly filling his pipe, “I witnessed the entire thing, and I don’t recall any brigands.”

The brothers stared at the imp on the saddle. “No one knows that,” said Palanor.

The pixy smiled, lighting his pipe. “I do. And besides, what with the story about your father’s ruthlessness that you explained to me, everyone will immediately assume that it was a conspiracy: Brothers conspiring to kill their father.”

“Wait,” Roth said, pulling away from Palanor. “I didn’t kill my father. There was no conspiracy.”

“No? Please forgive me.” The pixy stared deeply into Roth’s eyes. “Am I to assume, then, that the bag of gold you gave me two days ago had nothing to do with your political aspirations?” It giggled and patted the velvet bag tied around its waist.

“What’s it talking about, Roth?” Palanor asked, raising his brow.

Roth turned and threw up his arms in confusion. “I’ve never seen this imp in my life. It’s lying.”

“Lying?” The pixy’s little face wrinkled as if wounded. “Then I guess that knife you’ve hidden in your boot is for show and not for your brother’s chest.”

Palanor grabbed Roth’s leg and tugged down his leather boot to reveal a long blade tied to the calf. He pulled the knife out and pushed Roth back.

“Palanor, believe me,” Roth said, trying to calm his brother. “I always wear that knife. Always.”

“I’ve never seen you wear it,” Palanor snapped, throwing it to the ground. “I trusted you, Roth, and now I see that you planned the whole thing. Conspiring with Colonel Gregor to somehow lure Father and me away from the tournament early, leaving me alone with him out here in the woods, knowing full well that I’d be the center of his wrath, hoping that I’d lose it and kill him. And then you’d come looking for us and sob and weep and act the understanding brother. And when the moment was right, you’d kill me and take the throne.”

Roth backed up and raised his sword. “You treacherous bastard. You’re insane. You’re the one conspiring with Colonel Gregor, not me. You and Gregor and this pixy, luring me into a trap.”

“Me? Why you—” and Palanor raised his sword.

Roth braced and met Palanor’s attack. The swords met again and again, clanging violently in the waning light of the sun, filling the woods with the clamor of battle. The brothers moved over their father’s body, stepping on loose parts of the royal robe, stubbing their toes on his stiffening flesh, stumbling over his legs and arms. Arms stripped with cuts, legs weak and waning, the brothers cut and thrust and swung their blades, all in the presence of a small pixy humbly perched on Roth’s saddle.

He smoked his pipe.

And like before, a tiny voice entered Palanor’s ear and guided his sword home, deep into Roth’s neck at the vulnerable spot. Another blow, and another, and Roth’s head popped off his neck like a dandelion. Palanor dropped his sword and fell to the ground, chest aching for breath. More blood, even more than before, covering his father’s drying blood like a second coat of paint on a fence post. Palanor could not stop his tears.

A small body with a flutter of wings set upon the prince’s left shoulder. “You know,” whispered the pixy, “this is quite a mess we have here. In more ways than one.”

Palanor felt the pixy’s breath on his ear. “It’s you, isn’t it? You’re the voice I’ve been hearing. This is all your fault.”

The pixy nodded and smiled, shoving his smoldering pipe into his velvet bag. “It’s true, I must admit. But I’m merely a small player in a very big game.”

Right then he should have grabbed the imp and crushed him. But no. Doing so would not bring his father or brother back, nor douse the pain in his heart. He’d killed them. He, Palanor, the Prince-cum-King of Trunkheim had cut off their heads. And now lying in their blood, he didn’t have the strength to be angry.

“It’s over, isn’t it?” Palanor asked the imp. “I can’t be king now. What would I tell my mother? How could I show my face to the people with so much blood on my hands? So much shame. What do I do now, Imp? Tell me what to do.”

For a moment, no answer came. But then it did, not as a voice but as Roth’s knife, floating up from the ground and hovering before him, suspended in a magical white light. Palanor stared at the knife, and a little voice whispered in his ear, “Take the knife, my good prince. Your father commands it. Take the knife and finish the job.”

Palanor snatched the knife from the air, turned the blade toward his chest and drove it home.

* * * * *

In the dim light of the setting sun, the pixy rolled the severed heads up to Palanor’s head and arranged them in descending order. Father, Palanor, Roth. Oldest to youngest, left to right. It crawled up onto Palanor’s forehead, lit its pipe, and drew deeply. The warm smoke felt good curling down its throat. It took the chill off the bitter wind. It crossed its legs over the prince’s nose, smoked, and waited.

In time, a steady, slow clapping of horse hooves came up the road from behind. The pixy knew who it was. It could smell her perfume.

Without turning, it said, “It’s a tragic tale, isn’t it? An ancient one of hate, jealousy, greed, lust, and pain. Father sires son; son grows up weak and wanting; father hates son; son kills father; brothers kill each other. Makes you want to weep, doesn’t it?”

The clapping of hooves stopped. “Spare me your drama, Imp. I’m not in the mood. Did you have to arrange them like that? Right next to each other? So morbid.”

The pixy chuckled. “I thought you’d like to see them all together one last time, my lady.” It jumped up and faced the queen.

She was wearing a black robe with a thick hood clasped tightly at her neck. She was beautiful in black, it thought, admiring how her green eyes accentuated the darkness of the fabric cupping her face. It studied that face for some sign of remorse, some measure of guilt. Yes, yes, perhaps there it was. A flash of red in the eyes? A spot of tear on the lash? Was she, too, a victim in all this, it wondered. But that was a silly question, for it knew the answer to that already.

“My husband accepted your plan to lure Palanor here and pick a fight?” the queen asked.

“Yes,” said the pixy. “Once I convinced him that his sons were conspiring to seize the throne, he couldn’t wait to get Palanor alone. And when the moment came, I locked his arms against his side with a simple lock spell and he couldn’t defend himself.”

The queen looked down at her son’s bloody chest. The hilt of Roth’s knife stuck up like a tomb. “Palanor did what you told him? No troubles?”

The pixy sniffed, feeling the chilly air, fighting back the growl in its empty stomach. “Clay in my hands, your Highness. Clay in my hands.”

“And Roth’s knife. It was where I said it would be?”

The pixy nodded. “That was a nice touch.”

“Thank you,” the queen said smiling.

Men riding up halted their discussion. Ten mighty warriors of the royal guard lead by Colonel Gregor. They pulled up to the edge of the dried pools of blood and stared at the bodies. Gregor, garbed in the silver and red of the Trunkheim army, rode forward, eyes fixed upon the queen. She stared back. Gregor nodded politely. The queen responded in kind. Then together, they leaned forward over Palanor’s body and kissed.

The pixy cleared his throat. “Pardon me for interrupting this warm and cuddly moment, but we had a deal, your Highness. I do you a favor, and you do me one.”

The queen pulled away from her lover’s lips. “Very well, Imp. Name your price.”

“Full access to your royal grain stores and wild game reserves. Plus, if it won’t be too much trouble, a comfortable rat-hole somewhere in the castle. Winter this year, I fear, will be harsh.”

“Access to my grain? My animals? My castle? Impossible!” She looked at Gregor for support.

Gregor nodded carefully… very carefully. “It seems fair, my love.” The colonel then looked at the pixy. The little creature gave Gregor a quick wink and a smile that only the colonel could see. This tragic tale, the pixy knew, was far from over.

The queen shook her head, but said, “Okay, Imp. You have a deal.” She pulled the reigns of her horse, turned around, and motioned toward the three dead bodies, two headless. “You men clean this up,” she ordered, “and forget what you saw here today.”
Trotting up the road, the queen and the colonel held hands. The pixy flew between them, coolly smoking his pipe. “You know, my lady,” it said, “I wouldn’t be too concerned about giving me access to your food supplies. After all, there are three less heads at the dinner table now.”

Behind them, a guardsmen picked up the king’s head and placed it in a leather bag.

 

Minaret of Necromancy

by Hope Evey

 

She stands in the top chamber. It’s too open to call it a room. The decorative swirls that give the minaret shape define the space. From a distance, it’s beautiful. Closer, horror creeps over you. No one element stands out as wrong, but the sense of wrongness builds. Beautiful, yes; and as unnatural as the woman standing in its summit.

“I hear you behind me. You know the cost of my turning.”

“All who see your face, Lady, die. It’s a risk worth taking.”

“I wear no veil. Should I but turn, your life is forfeit.”

“Are you so sure? What if my knife strikes before you turn? There are no guards to stop me. They say you are old. Perhaps you are slow… and necromancy does not touch the quick.”

He froze there, knife raised, unable to draw back or to strike.

“You began dying the day you were born. And I rule all that is dead. But I am surprised at how fully I can control you. I wonder…” her voice trailed off as the would-be assassin’s eyes went wild. Her mouth twitched at the corners as he fell to the floor gasping. “Be glad I only stopped your breath. Fill your lungs, child.” She paused, but drew no breath. “Does the wind carry the scent of flowers tonight?”

“What does it matter!?” he spat at her, gasping for breath as he rose.

The sound had to be a laugh. It couldn’t be anything else. Her dry cackle would curdle milk in the breast.

“That is why I can control you.” She turned then, faster than anything should move. In a blink she stood lover-close to him. “I cannot smell the breeze, nor even feel it. I gave that up for power.”

“You gave it up for vengeance. But neither of us can smell the flowers.”

He ran, then. Even after he shot past the edge of the floor, he still ran, racing to shatter his empty shell.

 

Linktear

by Zachary Spector

 

This is a large room, with several identical tables lined up throughout it. There isn’t much else in it right now, because the kitchen staff is off paying attention to something more important. The room does, in fact, resemble an elementary school lunch room in both form and function, save for its total lack of windows, lower ceiling and position about half a mile underground.

Near one of the room’s four corner doors, a little girl of about twelve years sits, doing nothing. She sits on the floor rather than on the bench nearby, wearing a generic tunic, and looking pensive. She’s waiting for something to happen, and is very patient for it. It’s a grim sort of patience, a kind of fatalism.

Some time later—a man comes in through the nearest door. He’s certainly not wearing a generic tunic, preferring instead to bear as little resemblance as possible to the child next to him; he’s a warlot, not yet zipped into his husk but carrying all the equipment needed for it. It does in fact look odd to see this hulk embracing this little girl with such affection, but that doesn’t stop them from trying… or the daughter from weeping.

“You’re going away?” she asks.

Asemoneen answered this question a while ago, so he doesn’t try it again.

“Why?”

“It’s not easy to explain…” And that is true. But insofar as the father has time after all his procrastination, hoping that the draft would leave his name alone, he’s going to try to explain what it’s all for anyway. “Come—let’s sit down.”

So, given no other options, Watch and her father sit down on the same bench, and look away from the table, at a blank wall.

“We’re fighting a war,” he begins. “And so, it has all the things going against it that every other war does… we shouldn’t be doing it because it wastes lives, and there are simpler ways to go about that, and why can’t we just let the politicians fight it out, anyway. So I’m not going to talk about that. The war’s here because… Well. No, I’ll start by saying who’s fighting it.

“Watch—when was the first time you saw the sky?”

Watch looks her father straight in the eye, or as close as she can come to it. “Last year. We were trying to find a new matter tank, and you took me along.”

“Do you remember the people we met up there?”

“The tan people? Yeah, I remember them. They were—” She tries to find an adjective. “—I didn’t understand the way they lived. It was like they damaged the land to get what they could from it, and then left it that way, moved somewhere else.”

“Pretty much. And you see… there are some good tan people… you met a few, I think… but there’s this problem that we always seem to have with them. The tan people like to dig for the resources they need, instead of finding matter tanks like us, and we happen to live in a lot of the same earth that they’d really like to dig through.”

“Yeah, but I don’t get it, why mine? There’s just no need to if you can find the Linktear’s matter tanks.”

“That’s the thing, see? When you think of the matter tanks, you think of them like water, or blood—they’re a thing that you need to have, and so you get more of them, even when that means you have to get messy in the process. But, um… the tan people… the ones who care, anyway… they don’t see it that way.”

“Why not? It’s easy! I could show them how to use the matter tanks if I went up there right now!”

“I’m sure you could…”

The conversation just sort of stops for a while here. It’s not really because either of them is afraid to continue; really, they’re just thinking about each other, as a father and daughter would tend to do at times like this. They need time for it, before Asemoneen goes off and dies for someone.

“People like you and I,” he says, “we don’t really mind what we have to do to get new matter, as long as we get it. But the tans have some other things to say about that, like… for one thing, most of them just think it’s gross. When you might have to fight off a zombie beetle that comes out of the matter box when you open it, that’s usually enough to put a lot of tans off, they’d rather just dig a lot to get what they need and pretend they never have to risk their lives for anything.

“But there’s also something else to it… see, taking and using matter that’s really, truly new is something that a lot of people just can’t take. Their grandparents were born, lived, and died knowing that matter is never created or destroyed, that we have what we have and just have to work with it until we run out… or actually, most of them didn’t think of that limit, but still, that was the idea. And now this Linktear thing comes along, and breaks that rule.

“Now, when you’re breaking a rule that the universe has, that’s like you’re breaking a part of the universe. The tans, they appreciate, they value the condition of the universe in a way that we don’t—they respect the rules it has, and when this Linktear or whatever you call it comes around and starts breaking those rules, it’s doing something wrong to their good buddy Universe, and they… really don’t want to sit by and just watch that happen.”

“But why do they have to kill us for it?!” Watch screams. “Why can’t we just leave each other alone and do stuff with this universe like each of us wants to?! It isn’t hard! It’s just—it’s just—” And she falls, sobbing, into her father’s lap.

“I know. Honey, I know.” And he pauses for a while. “It’s just so hard for us humans to leave a difference alone.”

“…difference.”

“Difference in opinion. In religion. I don’t know, whatever it is, we’re fighting over it. And… here we are.”

They wait for a while longer.

Asemoneen knows his daughter well enough that he avoids carrying her back to her room; she needs to wait for a while. He just walks out to go suit up, and eventually some staffers come by and take Watch home.

 

The Novel

by Abel C. Ramirez Jr.

 

I’m just sitting here. I’m sitting alone, staring. My computer is evolving. It’s developed the human characteristics of spite. It’s staring back at me with a blank page and blinking cursor—I think it’s laughing at me. An evolving computer—what would it evolve into? Where would it evol… Aagh! Stop. Christ! What am I doing? What’s going to happen? It’s hot in here. I’ll bet it wouldn’t be so hot if I lost a little weight. If I lost weight, would it reduce my electric bill? Dammit! Focus here. What do science fiction novels have? They have space (for the most part), weird creatures (for the most part), aliens (for the most part)—yes, they have aliens, and robots, of course the damned evil robot that eventually kills everything and has to be destroyed. Like my computer.

My phone’s ringing. It must be Elliot… What does he want? I’m writing.

“Hello.”

“Hey. What are you doing?”

“Getting some writing done.”

“Anything yet?”

“Yes. A… uh, a little bit of development so far, but a good start.”

“You can just say no—I’m not going to judge you. Let’s get a drink. I’m sure it’s what you need.”

“Why are you so sure?”

“I’m always inspired by creativity and genius when I drink. Don’t you always feel smarter when you have a few?”

This bar is too crowded. I can’t breathe, let alone think. God, is everyone smoking but me?

“So, tell me what you’ve thought of so far.”

I told him I hadn’t written anything yet. Actually, I haven’t told him that.

“I’m thinking of a love story. Guy likes girl, she’s from across the galaxy, guy does a lot of something to fight for her, he realizes, I don’t know, maybe she’ll be a robot.”

“How’s that going to work?”

“I haven’t written it yet, I don’t know. Maybe she’ll have robotic breasts.”

“So then she would have to have children. That’s not good for a story.”

“What?”

“If her boobs are robotic, they have a purpose—they work to make synthetic (or robotic) milk. Robots have moving parts and stuff like that. And what does a love story have to do with a science fiction novel?”

“I’ll find a way for it to fit. Every good story worth telling is about love.”

“Then why the hell write sci-fi?”

“It’s a challenge. I think that if I can actually take a step in that direction, I can make it worth reading, and possibly even exceptional.”

“Robotic breasts?”

“It was simply an idea.”

“What a great science fiction novel needs is action or a technological mystery. But, since we’re on the subject of love, I guess you haven’t seen what’s behind me. Of course you have.”

What was sitting behind Elliott, which actually I could see, (I simply didn’t want to indulge in his ridicule of me), was the prettiest woman I’d never met. I’m sure that she was in fact not the prettiest woman, but she had a charm about her I couldn’t resist—or maybe I could for the sake of embarrassing myself. I’ve come to accept that I’m physically repulsive to women, but tonight she was reading and writing—two wonderful qualities, a common ground. Maybe I can impress her with my skills. It’s thoughts like that, moron, that don’t let you talk to women. Uh, I can tell her that she looks…

“I saw her glance over here a few times, go say something.”

Goddamn Elliott, now I have the added pressure of his desire for me to fail miserably for his amusement.

“No. I’ll just embarrass myself.”

“You’re embarrassing yourself now by looking away and smiling at the floor every time she tries to make eye contact with you.”

“She’s out of my league.”

“Sure she is, but she looks to have sympathy.” Not much for support, but more loyal than a canine. “Tell you what.” As he guzzles his beer. “I’ll leave right now so that you don’t feel like I’m pressuring you into having sex.”

“Thanks.”

She’s sitting across from me, buried in her writing, wait, did she glance up to see if I was looking at her? Great, get out before she thinks you’re a weirdo. No, don’t press your luck, you’ve seen her in here before, what if this is the last time? I have seen her before, I’m sure that she’ll be here next time I come. Is she watching me right now, as I must appear to be visually stuttering? Dammit, just say something.

“What, uh, are you writing?” She looked at me. Holy shit she’s smiling.

“A novel.” She’s barely speaking. I try to oblige her whispers.

“What is it about?”

“It’s about the future.”

“Why are you whispering?” I’ve had enough—I can barely hear her two booths away.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Finally a normal tone.

“I just kind of escape into my writing sometimes.”

A writer—impressive.

“May I ask, if… if you don’t mind telling me—what is it about?”

“It’s strange. Don’t think I’m weird—I’m not.”

“No, of course not… I write.” She doesn’t seem amused—I hope she laughs. Ask for her name.

“Well, it’s about the future. There’s this society that’s always filming everyone in the world, and they take over the government. They start telling people that they were always around and every historical story was based on them. And then one guy doesn’t like it, he tries to rebel… and there’s a love story in it.” I’m motioning to bring my bag and my beer over to her booth. Hey, alright, she’s welcoming me. Ask for her name.

“That is 1984.”

“What?” A slight grin of confusion. Ask for her name.

1984. It’s a book by Orwell. The government is called Big Brother, it’s a pretty famous novel.” Ask for her name.

“Oh. I like that, instead of being the future, we come out of the past.”

“No, it’s written about the future.”

“How’s that if it is in the past.”

“It was the future when it was written, a long time ago.”

“Well.” I hope she doesn’t think that I’ve insulted her. She ripped up all of her papers. What is her name?

“Hey. What the hell are you doing?”

“You said that it’s already been done. I need something original—something to stand out.”

“Yeah. I understand, but that’s your writing—that’s art you’ve just destroyed.” Great, I haven’t even gotten her name and she’s packing up to leave.

“I didn’t mean to upset you… My name’s Stanley.”

“It was nice to meet you Stanley, but I have to go.”

“Let me buy you a drink.” She isn’t even looking at me. I leave my bags and favorite book behind on the table to run after her.

“I’m sure your writing is very good.” Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to attempt at having a chance of being persistent—it never works for me with women. If I follow her out, I’m really going to look stupid. Coming back to sit at my table, I realize that someone decided to take the one thing that I was enjoying, my favorite book—The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.

I’ve now taken to writing notes of any ideas I have on my walls with a thick black marker. I figure that this method will constantly remind me of any plan or plot theme I may forget or not fully recall in the course of a day. It also helps me to filter out what my ideas are and what are simply replicated from my inspirations. I realized after doing this that I was relying on used plot themes to elaborate my own story, particularly from my copy of Hemingway: a great battle with a single man and a ferocious beast in solitude—like space. A blasphemous reconstruction of a great piece of literature. As I look outside, I see a distant, radiating flash of light. It’s getting bigger, and is beginning to take a shape. It’s a giant disk of light traveling through the air. It’s getting so much closer. There’s no way that it could be what I think it is. It is. A giant flying saucer headed for Earth—headed for my back yard. It looks like it’s on fire. What do I do? It’s getting closer. Forget it, even if it was really going to happen, I don’t think that even that would inspire me to write a good sci-fi novel.

I want my book back. I’m staring at three sentences of notes on one wall of my bedroom—none of them make sense. I’m going to go and buy the book again. I don’t even want my story to be anything like it now, but I still want it back.

The bookstore that I frequently visit has now become a merchandising cliché—it’s such a shame. A world of the great written works from the most fascinating minds occupied by a section for teenagers to indulge in whatever the non-alcoholic drink fad comes into fashion. A place for attractive and wealthy yuppies to view their blank screened laptops in a desperate attempt to indulge in their repressed creativity hoping that the imagination they are surrounded by will osmotically inspire them. I wonder if it actually works—it could probably help me with my writing.

“No way.” She is here. The girl with no name from the bar—possibly searching for books to eliminate her already-thought-out plans for novels. Apologize. At least say something to her. I’m no good at thinking up words for a living, I’m especially horrible at thinking up something to say to someone that is only different from me by a simple genital difference.

“Hey.” I wave as if she can’t see me two feet away.

“Wow. Stanley, right?” Is she going to be nice to me?

“Yeah.” Say something else dumbass.

“What… uh, are you looking to get here?” She asks with a very uncomfortable tone. Great. Just leave. “Oh. Wait a second… I accidentally took your copy of The Old Man and the Sea. That’s what it was called, right?”

“Yeah.” She has my book. That inconsiderate bitch.

“I’m so sorry. I just kind of got upset and left. I know it wasn’t your fault, but I really thought I had something.”

“Yeah…” She’s staring at me. I swear to Christ there’s no excuse to be quiet, she is talking to me. “I wish I could have read it—I’m sure it was great.”

“That’s nice of you. By the way, I’m Laura.”

“Laura!” Why did I repeat it to her? Why did I act like I was laughing when I did it? It’s quiet again, say something. “So, do you have my book on you… or with you somewhere?” Say something at least partially intelligent next time.

“No. I’m sorry I don’t.” She does look genuinely sorry, just buy another one and leave her alone. “I wish I did, I didn’t mean to take it.” Well, at least she didn’t mean to. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Are you a writer?”

“Yeah. Well, I suppose I am anyway. I haven’t really written anything, but I’m trying at the moment.” She’s still searching for a book.

“What are you writing?”

“Sci-fi… science fiction.”

“Really. Tell me about it.”

“I don’t actually know what it’s about yet.” I sound like an idiot.

“Do you really enjoy science fiction?” An odd question.

“No, uh, I guess I really don’t. Although I think the genre has evolved incredibly and produces some of the best stories.” Stop laughing Stanley, why don’t you just shut up.

“I think so too.” Keep on talking Stanley. “Are you planning on seeing that new movie about… it’s something about a guy on some planet that…”

“Yeah. Its called Retribution!”

“That’s it. I don’t think I really know anything about it.”

“I’ve been waiting for a while to see that movie. I know all about it actually, you see, it’s about this guy who was a prince on a planet when the kingdom was destroyed and conquered by these weird looking sub-human creatures. He has to live as a slave until he starts a rebellion that overtakes the planet, and he goes back to where he was prince. He then finds out that his father, the king, was alive the whole time back on the planet, he just thought that his son was dead the whole time. So, he’s forced to become a prince again, which he totally hates because he thinks he’s better than that. Turns out, the kingdom was never conquered… he was actually created to believe that… and he starts a war.” Did I really just explain the whole damn movie to her? Well, she’s still here, no thanks to me—IDIOT! She’s giving me a strange look, I think I know what she’s about to say.

“Would you like to see it with me?” There is no way she just asked me to go out with her. Am I still staring at the floor?

“Sure. I was actually planning on seeing it in about an hour.”

“Oh. Well if you already have plans on seeing it with someone else, I wouldn’t want to…”

“No, no. I was going to see it alone.”

Here at the movie theater, I find myself getting enraged. Just the movie poster alone pisses me off. This should have been my story. This movie should have my name on the credits. After seeing it though, maybe it’s best that it wasn’t my story. It was good, but nothing that would win an award. We decided to take our own cars, I don’t blame her. Somehow she appeared to be enjoying herself; she must be faking it to spare my feelings, the bitch. I won’t complain, I love the company.

“Would you maybe, want to get a cup of coffee?” she asks.

“Sure I would!” Did that sound anxious? “Yeah, that would be great.” That definitely did.

There in the parking lot of the theater she asks me to go have coffee with her. In the middle of my response she glanced over to make eye contact with some guy walking toward the opposite street. She nodded, he nodded—he must’ve been an old friend.

At the coffee shop, our conversation was typical getting-to-know someone chitchat. We talked about writing, films, and our favorite things to do on weekend afternoons. She was really trying to break through with a good novel; we had that in common. She was great to talk to, even more fascinating to listen to. She enjoyed fine books, history and films, but oddly enough, wasn’t very educated in any of the things that she claimed to love. She was in the process of learning more about these things, so late in life to start, it seemed a bit unusual, but I made no mention of it, I wouldn’t dare risk offending her again.

The end of the night was coming to a close. We both were realizing that we would have to go soon. We walked together out to our cars and proceeded to conclude the evening with one last discussion outside.

“What are you doing tomorrow?” she asks.

“What is tomorrow? Sunday?” As if I really don’t know.

“Do you have church or anywhere to be?”

“No.” I’m pointlessly laughing again. “I’m really not very religious.” Is she? Does this mean she won’t like me?

“Would you like to go out with me tomorrow?”

“Sure. I’d love to. What is it, church?” She’s trailing off again to look at someone. She knows quite a few people in this city.

“No. Not really, just a place to meet some good people, and you seem to have an open mind.”

I’m back in my bedroom after a great night. I can’t believe I’m going out with Laura again tomorrow, too bad it’s for some church deal. I’m sure it’ll be fine.

I’ve made a few more notes on my wall. The love story in my novel must happen by chance—like meeting the girl in a bookstore, or any place to heighten education. It will show that they’re both smart, but one of them has to be a little unrefined—for the sake of the character.

We meet again, but this time it’s completely consensual. We’ve decided to meet at the bookstore again—our now neutral ground. I was hoping she would ask to meet at my place. It’s too bad she didn’t. Anyway, she’s a special girl, no need in screwing it up quickly.

Today the bookstore is filled with its normal crowd of teenagers, yuppies, and the socially inept quasi-intellectuals. Where do I fit in with these categories? There she is, she’s looking pretty good—long crimson hair—I’ll have to use that in my book, bright blue eyes and thin face—all perfect qualities for a great heroine.

“We’re running late, would you mind if we just take one car? I’ll drive?”

“Sure.” Any excuse to be alone with you.

I try not to ask too many questions on the way. I just try to have normal conversation, although I realize that I’m no expert at it. It did seem odd to me to have a church service only at night. She said that it wasn’t “really” church, just a function that happens every so often. The ride is long; the sky is getting darker. We finally pull up to a house at the center of the industrial center of our city. The stench of smoke, and a view as if God himself vomited on this side of the world. It definitely seemed odd, but a man trying to score with a woman will ask very few questions.

“C’mon inside.”

“This is a strange neighborhood for a house.” I say with a fear that tickles my throat as I view the dilapidated and age-burdened two-story house—perfect for a horror novel.

“You are just so open-minded—one of the few people I know—I just thought that I had to share this with you.”

“Share what with me?” I feel cold.

“Come inside.”

“I think I’d rather know first.”

“I’d rather not just tell you.” I would tell her to get out and walk home by this point if we were in my car.

“Alright. This is getting a little strange, maybe we should just go.”

“We will, but come inside first.”

“C’mon,” I say, attempting to keep my composure. “What’s really going on here?” My gaze shifts from her on my left to the seemingly abandoned home on my right, when a single light turns on in the second story window. It couldn’t possibly be Elliott. I turn back to her demanding that she tell me what the hell is going on, but I realize that she isn’t seated next to me anymore—no one is. I don’t know what to do.

“Oh… this isn’t good.”

I step out of the car with the slightest ease, turning my head incessantly to look over my shoulders, I can’t help it—I am now intrigued. What is going on in that disgusting house? The trees in front make the sound that is refreshing on a bright morning, but terrifying on a dark night illuminated only by distant lights and a now blank second-story window.

I take four steps to the door. Should I just start running to the nearest phone? Who would I even call? What is in that house?

“Stanley.” A voice from behind me calls. It’s Laura’s voice. “I had to show you.”

“Show me… what?” This will definitely have to go in the book.

“Look in the window again.” This time I was there.

“We can do whatever we want—you already know this.”

“What?” I am not going along with this anymore. “This isn’t real. Who the hell are you?”

“You know who we are.”

“No, I don’t.” Just start running.

“Stanley, you’re one of us.”

“I don’t know…” I think I’m crying.

“It will come to you… it’s been a long time.”

“Oh. God.” Being paralyzed with fear is actually quite painful.

“They are all waiting for you inside. We won’t go without you.” I have just eliminated all possibility of a practical joke.

“I don’t know what you are talking about!”

At that moment, I couldn’t believe my eyes; the most beautiful light came down in a spinning saucer of redemption. Staring at the sky it came right above Laura and I, encompassing the entire sky above me. I still have no idea what is going on.

“Do you remember now?” she says. I can’t think of very much, but I do remember. I am one of them. I don’t know what they are, or why I have to go with them. Are they aliens, or maybe a cult of people that were actually correct in their assumptions that they would be rescued by another planet’s creatures?

Am I a prince forced to live on another planet to return to my kingdom?

Why was Elliott in the house?

How could I have been in the window? Was I traveling through time?

Who was Laura?

Who was in the house?

It’s still hot. I am sitting in my chair—staring. My white walls nearly completely darkened by the bold black marks of my notes that span across them, my naked body, and my computer. I sit and stare at my blinking cursor—mocking me. I want my book back—I have no inspiration.

 

Time to Kill

TimeToKillSMALL

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Jim Rudnick

 

It was on East Franklin that he once again visited the same coffee shop that had a little outdoor patio attached, though he knew sitting outside would be a bit cool here in Chapel Hill for a midmorning in May. Getting in line was no problem, he thought too, as he had almost an hour to await the Level Five nexus point. This one better work, because I’m getting a bit tired of this project, he said to himself, as he moved up in line customer by customer. He ordered one of those double/doubles as he’d learned to love the quaint taste of too much sugar and outside on the patio he folded his frame into the cheap white plastic patio chair that looked like it’d not hold a soul. And he waited, as the job required, noting that it was now exactly 10:46 EST:2009.

Thirteenth, he thought, I came thirteenth in my class at KodakU and here I am twenty years later, a 42-year-old second-rate TimeOps agent. One Butter Smith, proud Rochester grad who hadn’t done as well as the promise he’d shown those twenty plus years ago. Stupid, he thought, maybe I should never have picked this line of work. Or, maybe if things had worked out a bit better on previous TimeOps Projects, then maybe I’d be a lot damn higher in the department by now—and not working my way back up the ladder under Davidson. Goddamn timeline anyways, ponderous and slow to change, and talk about inertia! Christ, he thought, you could change a Level One nexus and things still took their sweet time to change in reply.

He sipped from his coffee again, and smiled at the youngsters who walked by, backpacks full of books as they made their way west and over to the University. Kelly would say that these are the future of mankind; she always said things like that when she talked about kids. We had wanted some, he realized, at some point. But not now… not in years he remembered, as he pondered his marriage for an instant, then quickly changed mental gears and looked around once more.

Chapel Hill housed not only reputable higher educational outlets, but it was part of the Research Triangle in North Carolina that had the world’s largest concentration of research firms and leading edge companies in all kinds of sciences. Butter knew that, and he knew that he was here to make a change that would affect his own present more than 150 years in the future. Hadn’t been able to move the timeline yet, he said a bit grudgingly to himself, perhaps because he was still saddled with only being allowed to handle Level Five nexus points—but maybe this time, as he swallowed his final mouthfuls of coffee and got up to get one more of those sweet drinks. He shook his head, no sense in getting riled up with my lowest of the low category, he thought. I’m a Level Fiver and would always be just that… relegated to make teensy modifications to the time line… end of story.

“Imagine, Janice,” the twentyish woman ahead of him said to her friend, “I missed that putt on the 17th by almost a foot and Harry never even blinked. Not even a raised eyebrow on the next tee either. Now that’s what I call husband material,” she offered as she patted her hair on the side nearest to Butter and he thought he even saw it move under all that shellac-like hairspray.

“A real catch, I’ve always said,” her companion drawled. “How much did he lose?”

The woman under the hair smiled and noted calmly, “More than $5k, he said later in the lounge but he really is going to be quite rich you know. Options and all… and his firm will go public in the next quarter, so we’ll be even richer.” She moved up as she gloated over her man and ordered her own morning brew and then slid sideways to allow Butter to place his own order. He noticed that their conversation never wavered; they discussed that same marriage candidate with scalpel-like precision, weighing the victim’s destiny. Sounds nothing like my own marriage, he thought; course nowadays we’re not as close as we used to be. Sort of comfy, I’d guess, Butter thought, though he had to give his father-in-law Jim Jr. the benefit of the doubt. Those Rennies were all a little clingy and it’s only been in the past few years that Kelly had drifted away a bit… perhaps more than a bit Butter added to himself. In this case though, Butter smiled as he realized that the poor fellow was going to be married no matter what, as he moved back again outside to his patio seat in front of the parade of students who moved westward still.

Not long now, he thought… I’m about to change a lunch date. Of course it was attempt number what? Oh, it was the fourth and that damn lunch was still on. He shook his head; these Level Fives were usually not much trouble, he thought to himself even if they presented the best way to change the timeline with the least amount of fallout. He knew that from the twenty plus years he’d been in the TimeOps department. He swept his foot along the patio stones beneath his chair, like he was clearing away something tiny, and sighed. He’d been sent back time and time again, to make a change to whatever Level Five nexus point had been identified. He’d never been assigned even a Level Four never mind the ultimate Level One; the ones that meant a sure change of timeline—and they were used so very seldom because they were so drastic. They were for the department stars; those Agents who somehow had leapfrogged out of the lower levels and now were the ones who made changes that affected all mankind. But not me, Butter thought. Nope, nothing but Fives… endless Fives… Fives that usually entailed matters of minor consequence. And never a Level One like a murder or assassination. They were sure to change the timeline right away, then much more drastically in the decades and centuries that followed. One person is suddenly excised and no longer becomes the President or a Premier or a CEO or even a Pope. Perhaps one of them would discover a cure for a disease—no more. Level One nexus points were to be used only in dire emergencies, and Butter had never been given such an assignment. No, he sighed, I’m always going to be a Level Five, the little pissant ones that matter some… but not much. I wonder, he thought, what it’d be like to actually get a Level One…

He pondered that as he watched the sunlit bodies of the procession of students in front of him walking to classes a few blocks away. If only I was better, or even if I was only seen as better, he thought as he compromised with his conscience, then I might be closer to the top, instead of his boss’ favorite whipping boy. Davidson… damn him. And he mistakenly gulped in a still hot mouthful of coffee and burned the roof of his mouth as he awaited his time to move. He quickly sucked in a further gulp of air and swam his tongue around the cooling brew and swallowed. Hot sweet coffee, how quaint he grunted, unlike everything in my time—all lukewarm and un-spiced and very very bland.

At 11:15, he tossed his empty cup into the garbage bin at the entrance to the patio, and joined the lines of students as they walked towards the University. Around him were pieces of conversations about Dunne and Hawking, on red blood cells and RNA, on post-modern expressionism and Jung. He was listening as he too moved west and took his role as a listener seriously; these students were the hope of the world—maybe Kelly was right after all. He passed a dry cleaners and another bistro patio filled with students in the morning sunshine and caught earfuls of chat about uridine rich RNA and how atomic collisions in solids was not a workable thesis. Here and there the second story apartments had hanging planters and columns of ivy and he saw purple hearts and daisy cascades. As he walked, surrounded by more and more students, he realized that not one of them knew what time would bring.

Even being in the TimeOps department at Dyno/Biotech gave you no advantage. The timeline was a single constant; make a change in one year, and it rippled down for all time. With quantum physics there is inherent uncertainty and many possible outcomes can occur but to us only one appears to occur, in other words, in a universe “parallel” to our own, Butter had been taught over and over. Within this parallel universe theory all the possible outcomes actually do occur, each in their own universe. All these universes then run parallel to each other. He remembered how his training officer at KodakU had drummed that into his head: “One timeline, one outcome means no paradox” had been the mantra. The best minds and the super-computers in TimeOps did the work of assessing where to make a change based on directives from the board at Dyno/Biotech. They figured and they computed and they sent back agents to make that change all for the betterment of the company. And with each global pharma and their own TimeOps department battling for changes to better allow them to be profitable, to steal away patents and emerge at the top of the pharma heap, the timeline was often undergoing constant changes in the parallel universes… just like in this case. The Board had commanded TimeOps to purge the patent that Bristol-Roche had earned four years previously—a complicated vaccine that would defeat the common cold virus. It had taken his own company the full four years since for Logistics to work out where the best nexus points were to delete that patent from the timeline and Butter had been given the Level Five assignment. Such a huge patent, and such a lowly change, Butter thought. They could have sent him back and told him just to assassinate the researcher the day before he discovered the vaccine data. But a Level One like that stood out in the timeline far too much and it would have only been a matter of a few days before Bristol-Roche would have sent back their own TimeOps agent to prevent just that and save their patent 150 plus years in the future.

Yup, Butter said to himself, I’m to find the proper nexus point and to change it using my own wits and talents and expertise. Make a change, then check on our chronograph PDA to see if things have changed… if the ripple of the thing that we change has moved down through time to our own time. If it’s changed, dial home on the PDA Calendar and get back to where we live in time. If not, then rethink your nexus from the list of Fives, and give it another try—or pick a brand new one. TimeOps loved the operatives who were gone a matter of minutes on a Project; I’ve been gone almost a week he sighed, and had three failures already. That would mean a report as thick as my wrist, Butter thought, and that means I’m not climbing up the ladder, again. Gotta get out of these damn Level Fives he said to himself as he snorted in the early May sunshine and took the first left down the side street beside the NeuroSciences Hospital at the edge of the University campus and he was now alone and away from the wash of students. Wish the damn timeline would just “give” a little, he thought as he ran his fingers through his middle-aged scalp and killed time near the commercial delivery ramps down to the loading docks.

He picked at a hangnail for a moment more and then reached in his pocket for his notepad and mechanical pencil. Yellow, he thought, very professional, as he also moved a few business cards from his suit coat pocket to his front breast pocket. Wardrobe had nixed the hanky, he remembered, as most men in this time didn’t use them anymore. Enjoyed the 1950s a lot more, he thought, and that pointed hanky did look nice as it peeked out of the pocket. Still waiting, he sighed and continued to watch the parade of students before him.

At exactly 11:40, he retraced his steps back to East Franklin, and walked along the front of the big gray southern granite fronted hospital. At the wide front walkway, he paused to take in the scene that lay before him. Up the block, approaching cabs were pulling into the queue to pick up the fares that were coming down from the front doors and walkway to take them away for lunch perhaps. And coming down the wide front walkway were those fares, leaving the Hospital and heading out into the city itself. Traffic was fairly dense, he thought, and listened to the occasional horn as a taxi pulled out into the brisk traffic.

Across the street, undergrads poured from the Physical Sciences Building after late morning classes; never liked that line of study, Butter thought. Taking classes in “How to Blend-In” and “100 Years of Slang” had been much more fun and were basic survival for a TimeOps grad. He grinned suddenly, Prof. Deepak and his curriculum on Wardrobe Basics always said to dress down instead of up in any setting. That way, the people around you paid little if any attention—you looked poor. People looked away from those around them who were less fortunate and did so out of their own guilt at having more. Dress up and you’ll be the center of attention and that meant that you were under observation all the time. People would make note of you and that might mean a nexus failure. Butter kept grinning and realized that his worn blue suit and white shirt looked about average here in this milieu. Wardrobe had done fine this time, except he didn’t much like the red striped tie and yes, he did miss the pointed hanky. He moved slightly off to the side of the flow of passengers, and watched the front door till he saw his quarry.

Doris Martin was a short woman, of approximately thirty-one years of age, wearing a very nice spring rose dress and a light green sweater. Her gait down the walkway was short in stride but strong on purpose and she was beginning to arc around him quite quickly.

“Umm… Ms. Martin? Aren’t you Doris Martin?” Butter asked and slid directly into her path, holding out a business card.

“Yes,” she stated quickly and eyed him and the card with that stare that usually accompanies being accosted on the street. “And you are…?” she countered, as her feet continued to side-step around him.

“Max Adamson, Ms. Martin. I’m the new science reporter over at the Chapel Hill Post—you know the big daily? And I wonder if I might have a word or two with you about your work?” Butter used his best “radio-voice” to try and sell the interview to her; nicely modulated tones and the urging in his voice was noticeable too. Professor Simone and her extra classes on selling came to mind as he used his best selling smile and totally focused on Doris. He pulled at the roof of his mouth with his tongue, trying to swab away the sting.

“I am sorry,” she stated, a small frown appearing on her face, “but I have a luncheon date today. If you would care to make an appointment up in the office, I am sure that someone there can accommodate your request to interview our Dr. Armstrong.” She tilted her head ever so slightly and having stopped, she again made to move around him.

“Now if you will excuse me…”

“Um… Please, just a moment, Ms. Martin. You see it is not the new Head of Bioresearch that I wish to see—it’s you!” Butter increased the intensity of his smile and tried to look as earnest as possible, while still swabbing with his tongue.

“Me? What on earth for—Mr. Adamson, wasn’t it? Why would you want to talk to me, the office manager?” She looked a bit surprised, Butter noted… but she did stop moving again.

“Because, Ms. Martin, as the office manager, you know more about the runnings of your department—at least that’s how I see it—than all the scientists in the building. And that’s the angle that I want to cover in my first story for the Post; a sort of ‘woman behind the man’ kind of angle.” Butter smiled again and showed his teeth nicely. Smiles sell, his training officer had reminded him daily.

Her left hand came up to smooth her sweater at the collar while she looked at him and tentatively smiled back. Her indecision was noted, but he knew that he should offer only one more inducement.

“So… perhaps you could call and make your apologies and we’d not be disturbed. I really think this’d be a winner of a piece for the Sunday supplement section too!” Butter waited as the Level Five nexus point spun on the choice that she’d make. He felt that from his position he could feel the timeline pause for a heartbeat… as he awaited his outcome.

“Sorry, not today,” Doris suddenly said, but smiled winningly. “I believe that the story you wish to do would definitely be a good one; but at the same time, I do have a previous date for lunch. And a lady never stands up a good friend in that kind of situation. Should you wish to call me later this afternoon or at your convenience, then I shall make myself available to you at that time. And I do thank you for the nice thoughts, Mr. Adamson. I will expect you call; till then perhaps,” and she again curled around Butter and strode on to join the queue of passengers awaiting their taxis.

Missed it, he thought emptily, and distractedly looked around him as he stuffed the pad and pencil back into his left hand suit pocket. Over on the east side wing of the front lawn was a nice sitting area of park benches and hordes of bougainvillaea flowers and shrub gardens. He made his way to the only free bench and sat heavily at one end, watching as his nexus drove away in the BlueDot cab towards La Hacienda Restaurant a few miles away. How in hell did that not work out for me? he wondered, as he pulled out the black chronograph PDA from his inside jacket pocket? Retro designed to look just like a Palm, he quickly grabbed the stylus from the sheath and flipped open the lid as he started it up. His password entered, he logged into the Biotech Encyclopedia, and watched as his pre-saved analysis came up onscreen. If this just-missed nexus had worked, then the summary of patents from his own time of 2159 should be changed… and they were not. He swore to himself silently; had it worked, then the Bristol-Roche patent of 2155 would not have been granted. His own company would instead have that patent, and the hundred-year lock on profits from the cure for the common cold. But not yet, he sighed, what had he done wrong on this one? Who knew that a lunch date was carved in stone and trying to appeal to the nexus designate’s ego wouldn’t work. Davidson is going to go ballistic, he thought.

Fact is, Butter thought in the warm noon sunshine, this was failure number four. He’d already tried to rent every cab he could, which was failure number one as Doris Martin had just asked her hospital courier for that ride, so he’d jumped back in the timeline via his chronograph PDA and tried again from his list of Level Five interrupts from TimeOps Central. Next, he’d tried to sabotage the lunch itself by getting hired at the restaurant as a waiter, had worked there for two realtime days of taco salads and stuffed burritos… and had spilled the tortilla soup and made quite a nuisance out of himself on try number two which had also failed.

Thinking back now, he realized that Kelly had never liked Mexican food, while truth be known, he once had liked it very much. But with her griping about trying such a dinner each time he mentioned it, they never ended up eating such fare. Too bad, he thought. I should have insisted. He shrugged again, and nursed the roof of his mouth with his moist tongue as traffic moved past him out on the street.

What next? he wondered. Oh yes, he’d rewound the timeline and had gone back to try to get the local board of health to close the restaurant due to food poisoning that he stated he’d suffered, to no avail. That one had also taken some realtime days wherein he’d written the editor of the Chapel Hill Post and paraded out front with a placard and generally been a nuisance. All in vain. Not one thing he’d come up with would cancel that luncheon date. In fact, it dawned on Butter then in the North Carolina sunshine that maybe this change couldn’t be accomplished through the Level Five nexus that he’d been assigned. The timeline was resisting strongly, turning back efforts that Butter knew should have worked—had worked many times before on other Level Fives. The realization made him breathe shallowly, his pulse made his temple start to pound while his leg began to bounce in sympathetic movement. When a TimeOps agent couldn’t get the job done via any of their assigned nexus level interrupts, they were to return back to their present and report. Standard operating procedure. SOP. But not the best for the agent’s career, Butter knew as his complexion began to sallow. Not the time to countenance anything else but SOP, he staunchly remembered his training officer pounding that into this skull during his one-year internship. When the flow won’t change, report back.

It was supposed to be that simple. Butter sighed, and almost wished he was at that lunch himself. There, right about now, Doris and her college roommate, Susan Snowden, would be having those pseudo-Mexican tortilla chips coupled with those icky frozen margaritas, and chatting about their jobs and their marriage prospects. Later, Butter knew, Doris would report that the Bioresearch Department would be hiring in the late summer for a research associates job—and say, would Susan’s brother Jake be interested? Jake would, Butter knew, and he would get along too well with the new head of the lab, the young chemistry prodigy, Dr. Bill Armstrong. In just two short years, Armstrong would be wooed away from the University to head up the same area for NovoLilley as they and the rest of the global pharma companies climbed the slope to two trillion dollars in another few years. And when he left, he would be taking Jake with him… and together the two of them would eventually do research down a once-considered dead end on viral diseases cures. Oh, they wouldn’t find it, but their research in 2026 would be archived and then used in 2155 to apply for the patent that would cure the common cold. This was the little nugget of a Level Five that Logistics had found and that was the timeline that Butter was handcuffed to change. But change wasn’t occurring when it should… and that worried Butter even more. He sat for awhile and enjoyed the movement of people around him in the noontime sun as they bustled off towards their own lunches and meetings and whatever. Nice time, he thought as he turned his eyes back to the list of his assigned Level Fives.

* *** *

The NovoLilley Christmas party was boring. With growing liability issues and the rush to litigate from employees as a sure way to get rich quick, most companies had opted in the past twenty years or so for the retreat-styled party, especially for those companies who’d done very well in the past few years. NovoLilley was one of them and had bought a hundred rooms for the full weekend for their research staff who were now up on the mezzanine beginning to party the night away. Three years ago, back in 2021, it had taken up that new Formosa styled management strategy of creating modules of experts in their various fields and moving them well away from global headquarters. Here, in Mansfield, Ohio, Dr. Bill Armstrong was the chemist research head of the brand new NovoLilley Research Center. Butter grabbed another handful of pretzels from the table at the lobby bar in front of him. Would love a beer, Butter thought as he eyed the Rolling Rock posters on the wall of the 4 Seasons/EconoLodge and tried to be happy with his soda water and lemon mocktail.

Looking around, he spied a few partiers moving away from the elevators and towards the stairs leading up to the mezzanine level, and noted the time, 8:21 pm EST:2024. He sighed, then had another swallow and chomped on the pretzels some more. Newscasts from his tabletop were still broadcasting about the quake up on the Moon; it shook Verdant City so bad, they said the bubble was still flexing. Clip after clip of the whole event crawled along; Butter put the bowl of pretzels right over the Comcast, and awaited 9:12 pm. Still waiting, he reminded himself, and continued to watch the movement of NovoLilley employees up the stairs and into the party room, the live band now doing a medley of ancient rock ’n roll. Odd sounding stuff indeed.

He ordered another soda water and lemon mocktail, and awaited breaking his first ever TimeOps Assignment. He would proceed with an unplanned nexus interrupt, a Level Four and he’d do it on his own. In fact, Butter thought, as he swirled around the lemon wedge deep in the tall Collins glass, in fact, I’ve proved that the Level Fives I was assigned aren’t doing the job. No one, even Davidson, he reasoned could find fault with my rationale. I believe that totally, he tried to convince himself over and over and thought, you know, there’s really no big deal in choosing a Level Four on my own. I know what it entails and hey, it was only a small change in plans. But a necessary one to any TimeOps member who wanted to continue to climb that ladder.

And then it was 9:00 pm, and Butter paid his tab and walked out to the elevator area, and then clandestinely around the corner to the Employees Only door. Slipping it from his inside jacket pocket, he donned the lanyard and badge that identified him as one of the Security team, entered the door quickly, then took an immediate left down a long gray cinder block corridor and then a right to a set of red fire doors. Opening one, he moved persistently down the three flights of stairs to the sub-basement level and then out the fire door to the electrical room a few feet down the faintly lit deserted corridor. The lock on the door posed no problems either, Butter noted, not when you’re using technology from more than 150 years in the future as he moved his PDA back to his pocket, opened the double locked door and then quickly closed it behind him. He moved with precision over to the elevator controls and noted that it was exactly 9:04. Might as well wait it out, Butter thought, as if time really means anything anymore to anyone in TimeOps. I can turn it back an hour or a million years or ahead the same. He sighed, as his tongue again swabbed the roof of his mouth burned just a few hours ago, this is quite the way to live your life; being able to control time yet not wanting any surprises that the one timeline could bring. He would have to check after this Level Four nexus, hopefully it’d be enough. It was now 9:10 pm and Butter brought out a tool disguised to look like a fountain pen, and took off the cap.

Judicial spraying of the contents over the interior of the electronic controllers would mean that the gas would turn to gel, immediately clogging all the electronic circuits. The fact that the gel would evaporate in a few minutes, would mean that anybody who checked the box, would see nothing—everything would look fine. All the circuits were live, all the chips and resistors did what they should under test conditions. It was just that before those signals got to the controllers on all of the hotel’s four elevators, they would dissipate and no stream of electrons would be received to make the elevator cars work. The cars would freeze then at their current position, and no one could repair the electronics in the panels. Only the single on-duty technician from the elevator company could do that and only by replacing every board—and Butter knew that tonight at 9:11 pm, the closest elevator man was already doing just that down in Columbus at the Children’s Hospital. The Level Four nexus provided that opportunity, and Butter had just driven up from there. And that repairman would be making repairs down there till at least 2:00 am EST so there’d be no service here for at least five hours. Looks like there’s an outbreak of mysterious elevator failures, Butter said nervously to himself as he counted down the last few seconds till 9:11 pm EST and at exactly that moment, he sprayed the interior of the panel, shut it, then left the room and headed for the parking lot. Job done in this time, he thought as he walked over to his Hertz/Tilden rental, smiling at what must be happening back at the 4 Seasons/EconoLodge. And now to await the outcome of this Level Four nexus interrupt.

Up on the mid-16th level, Dr. Bill Armstrong grinned at his secretary, as he stumbled at the sudden stop.

“Whoops!” he slurred.

“Whoops nothing, you prankster. You turn that back on,” the blonde said as she lifted her glass in a toast. “I know you want to get right to the dance, don’t you?” she said with a slight flutter of her eyelashes. Mandy wasn’t the brightest secretary Bill had ever had, but she was surely the best looking, Bill thought as he nodded. Maybe we could dance right here, maybe except down below in the banquet room his wife awaited.

“Uh… sure… but… wait a sec…” Bill said as he tried more buttons, juggling his cocktail from hand to hand and still the elevator didn’t move. “Maybe there’s a phone,” he said as he tried to pry open the In Case of Emergency panel.

No phone was encountered, but there was a Net terminal, and Bill typed in HELP right away. The brick cursor flashed, kept flashing… then an answer appeared on screen.

Hello Elevator Occupants. We are aware that the elevators have all just suddenly stopped working and invite you to remain calm. Please realize that we are attempting to fix the problem immediately, and hope to have the elevators back up and running in just a few minutes. For your pleasure, while we run our diagnostics, you may now use the terminal to call any persons that you wish to notify of this problem, regular Comcharges will be at our expense. Please do not hesitate to contact us again should there be a medical emergency. Thank you… 4 Seasons/EconoLodge Management.

Mandy sniffled, “Immediately? That’s good, right Bill?” and she looked around for a place to sit down, which she did right then in the corner by simply sliding to the carpeted floor.

“Uhh… I guess,” Bill answered and sat down clumsily beside her.

“Let’s see,” he said as Mandy giggled, “I’ve got my own cocktail and you’ve got yours, and then there’s the flask in my pocket we just retrieved for later when they cut off the bar again this year. We’re fine… I mean, how long can this take?”

Mandy grinned at him, and said, “So, a toast—till they get things up and running again!”

And Bill nodded, “Sure enough, let’s party!” as he put his arm around her shoulders.

Down in the banquet room at the table where the place cards marked the company executives, Sarah Armstrong fumed. Bill had gone up again with that woman and been gone now for almost fifteen minutes. How long does it take, she stared angrily at her Mimosa, to pick up a refill for his flask? I should have known, she said, I should have gone with him, instead of that witch. She took a long pull at the drink, and then listened even more angrily as she was told the news that the elevators were all shut down and Bill and that woman were most likely stuck in one. This better end soon, Sarah began to fume, or there’ll be trouble. Especially in this awful town in the middle of Ohio for god’s sake. Big trouble for him because this isn’t the first time, she said to herself, as she toyed with the new necklace Bill had given her as an early Christmas present. Not long, he doesn’t have long, she thought, till I walk out of here… and make him pay for this. She swilled the balance of her drink in her fluted glass, and began tapping her foot under the white table-clothed table and waited. Not long… or this is over. All of it, she thought, thinking suddenly of his stock options and pension plan cash guarantees.

Butter logged in again on his PDA and searched the local papers for the Armstrong surname… and noted that in 2025, in the Mansfield News-Messenger, a notice offered a short marriage congratulations to a Bill and Mandy Armstrong. In 2026, another notice mentioned that Bill had left NovoLilley, and was now head of research at Tompkins/Kliner in Regina, Saskatchewan. He grinned broadly as he tabbed into the Biotech Encyclopedia, and watched as his pre-saved analysis came up… and yes! There it was, the patents for the common cold vaccine were now held by his own company; Bristol-Roche couldn’t even be found in the abstract. Job accomplished, he said to himself, but still that nagging thought would not go away. Level Four nexus interrupts involved—well, they involved death in a way. Now, there would be no Armstrong children; four lives… for a patent. All in a day’s work, he thought, though if pressed, Butter realized, he would have to admit that he had overstepped his bounds. But hey, he thought, that’s what TimeOps was all about, right? Hadn’t he just followed his orders… sort of? Now Armstrong would not find that research, and would move off into obscurity, and his own company Dyno/Biotech would reap the profits for a hundred years from that patent. All in a day’s work.

* *** *

It seemed like only minutes ago, Butter thought, that I was more than a hundred years back and sitting in the bright Carolina sunshine. In fact, he was just a few minutes removed from the past assignment since he’d used the chronograph PDA to come back to his own time. And no sooner than he arrived in the login room, than his PDA alarm went off—Davidson wanted to see him immediately. He made short work of checking in his PDA and hustled off to the agent locker rooms where he quickly wiped the depilatory on, then off and gargled with a mouth freshener. Damn sugar in those coffees a few hours ago had sweetened more than the drink, he thought. Now most of our nutritional sources come from the yeast farms; sugar substitute included. No after taste and no smell either… but that morning coffee had been actually quite nice, he grinned. Time to hike up the levels he thought, as he left the staff washrooms and rode up the escalator four floors.

Once there, he worked his way beyond staff, past Logistics and Control and Continuity, until he was at his boss’ secretary’s desk.

“Nancy, how are you today?” he asked politely, straightening his tie and giving her a big smile.

“Fine, Butter. Do I understand a reprimand is in order?” she answered back without looking up, reading still from the mid-air display and using her data-glove to make changes that he couldn’t see to the data in front of her, not awaiting any answer either, he knew.

“Not really. My assignment was successful,” he said as he straightened his shabby suit jacket and squared away his posture.

“He’s waiting… go right in,” she stated, then she ignored him again.

TimeOps agents he thought, they all ignore us. We’re the teams that change the world, and everyone ignores us because they don’t want us prying into their own futures. Sad, he thought and marched through the door that irised ahead and behind him.

“What the hell, Smith?” Davidson said, and looked over from his desk in his amber glass walled office, “Who gave you the authority to escalate your interrupt to a Level Four? Did you go all through that second-rate college of yours and learn nothing?” Davidson was an average-sized man, but felt that rolling up his sleeves and standing behind his desk while he yelled at his underlings made him look bigger. And it did, Butter realized, as he swallowed.

“But as you know, boss, the changes that I was to make actually did happen,” Butter stated calmly as he slowly sat on the straight-backed chair that sat alone in front of his department head’s desk.

“Yes, I know that you did accomplish the task that you were sent back on,” said Davidson who looked like he was starting to smirk, “but at what cost long term? How do we know that your choice of which nexus to interrupt will be best for us all?”

Butter squirmed a bit, then composed himself.

“Boss, you explained quite clearly to me almost four years ago, that the patent that we were trying to dissolve, could prove to be the best thing for the company in quite awhile. That we were to succeed, and not to fail and lastly, I remember you promising that if we did succeed, I’d climb back into your ‘good books’ and get that vacation owed to me.” Butter nodded to make his point again as he had learned to make use of the plural “we” when he talked to Davidson. No sense in making this a personal issue when in fact it was a company one.

Davidson’s mouth worked slowly, Butter saw, as he pushed out each syllable and word; he was clearly smirking now. And a smug department head was not a good thing, Butter thought as he suddenly felt ill feelings start to rise.

“Fine, Smith. I do see results. You know by now, that our own viral patents have been granted and Bristol-Roche has not answered at all, though we all know that they’ll be trying. I’ll send the file over to Continuity; now it’s Milliken’s problem.”

“Fine, boss. And when do I get that vacation?” He tentatively smiled back at Davidson, and nodded again. He wouldn’t let his mind wander towards that sinking feeling.

“Um… well, that’s no problem, Smith. Your picking out your own nexus means that the whole of the timeline has changed, particularly that the Armstrong’s divorce meant no children. And I know that you did look ahead to see what the consequences of that would be, and found nothing. Except, you didn’t look far enough. The Armstrongs never had a daughter named Sarah, who didn’t have a daughter of her own called Janice. Now Janice got into some troubles in her early years, and had a few children with various men, none of whom stuck around either from what Logistics has been able to turn up. Except for the fact that one of them, Nancy, who married some guy named Rennie, was never born either… so she never had a son named James who never had his own son named James Jr. Does that name ring a bell, Smith?” Davidson was now beaming at Butter, his arms propping up his body as he leaned towards him, his tie just touching his walnut desk.

Butter winced as his leg began to beat on the boss’s chair, his scorched mouth now dry as bone.

“Uh…” Butter was able to cough out.

“That’s right, Smith. Your choice of the nexus to interrupt means that you’ve just ended five generations of Armstrong progeny up to our own time. And one of them was your own father-in-law, James Rennie Jr.—which also means that when you go home tonight there will be no dinner on the table because the little woman was never born. Serves you right, I’d say, and Logistics means for this to stay as it is too.” Davidson’s wide smile was plastered on his face as he slowly sank into the big leather chair behind him.

Davidson then shrugged as he spat out his closing, “And while I didn’t agree, the company has given you a year off. Drop by Logistics and pick out a timeline vacation. See you back here tomorrow at 8:00 am sharp. And don’t put on any weight either… it costs enough already to charge those dang PDAs.”

The back of Butter’s suit coat was now slick with sweat; his leg still beat to its own drummer and his eyes were blurry.

“Oh, stay away from the onlines too… you know the rules,” Davidson mouthed as his attention turned back to the desktop and he sank into his big executive chair as he watched the company’s fortunes once again in the desktop Comcast. Behind him and through the amber windows, the towers of New York City gleamed in the fading sunshine and ribbons and ranks of aircars flitted by as Butter backed out, sweat stains hidden.

Butter rode the escalator down in a depressed frame of mind. He’d ended his own wife’s ancestors’ lives which meant that he was alone. Kelly had never been born. The paradox of time travel was simple; change something in your past, and the future changes with it regardless of what universe you were in. He had made the mistake of not knowing his future, before changing his past, and he was alone as a result. He pondered that further—then turned his attention to the timeline vacation he’d earned. One year of peace somewhere in time… perhaps back to the Renaissance again, but that was so hard on his hygiene needs. Or maybe a thousand years ahead to the Rigel moon resort… or even Eta Cassiopeia and it’s twin yellow and orange stars and those wondrous double sunsets. No matter, he’d take the year and then click his PDA and return to tomorrow at 8:00 am and go out again on another TimeOps assignment. After all, it was his job he reasoned as he exited the building and climbed aboard a sonic to James Bay and home. In twenty minutes, I’ll have a bath and watch some Comcast show and then retire for the night, alone.

 

Fourth Floor Monitor

EKGsmallby Mike Ripley

 

Elana sat in the crowded waiting room with her legs clamped tightly together, avoiding contact with the people in neighboring chairs. They were strangers, all of them, and even though their lives had collided in perfect unison with hers, she did not feel akin to them. She did not like their purpose. Therefore, she didn’t like her own.

The spartanly decorated room managed to accomplish several important tasks. First, it kept people that were basically well away from the ill while certain procedures were being performed. Elana had learned to appreciate this function, and welcomed the opportunity to leave her father’s side when the staff entered to change a calibration or realign an implant. Second, it allowed family and friends of the invalids to pass the time, and time had become the most important commodity. Finally, these attempts to pass time, to pass much of it, and have it all seem very worthwhile were always made under the pretense of waiting.

Elana rose slowly and quietly from her chair. She looked again at the picture of a city that had puzzled her since she first entered the room seven long weeks ago. The unknown city, at least unknown to Elana, beamed with vitality and action from the park near its center to the schools, office buildings, and roadways that made up its structure. The paint used for the picture shone of bright colors, and filled every inch of the canvas with vivid images of something that seemed so out of place here in this waiting room. Its shine created a perfect picture of life.

Efficiently and without notice or fanfare, Elana walked to the door, and entered the long hallway. This section of the hospital maintained a quiet that seemed to be marred only by shoes on the incredibly glowing waxed tile floor. Nurses shoes, those of rubber sole, orchestrated an ensemble of music that became the last to ever be heard by those dying at the far end of this very same hall. Elana followed the young nurse with blonde hair and baritone feet. She could see three more women staggered down the hall ahead of them, each with their own sound, their unique tone and strangely unified cadence. She followed in silence, so as to not interrupt the music that may be heard by someone beyond one of these doors for the final time.

At the last room on the left, before the double doors that lead away from this ward, those that lead finally away, she stopped and pushed the door only partway open. Room four hundred held her father, held he whom she had waited for, he who now passed precious time. She stood, hesitant, for what seemed like hours and continued to listen to the death march being orchestrated endlessly on the glazed tiles behind her, and tried to see what conditions lay ahead through the nearly open door. She braced herself, as always, slowly pushed on the heavy wooden door until it retreated into the room, and finally, she entered.

Standing next to her father’s bed, Elana found the familiar face that belonged to Alan Pendergrass, the lead prognosticator, the decision maker, the man with a plan. He turned to her as she walked into the room, and said, “Hello.”

The word “hello” sounds like it has been bellowed from a canyon when a person has heard no one speak in several hours. It shatters the frame of mind, and destroys the attempted artistry being displayed by otherwise talentless musicians with their shoes and the buffed floor in the nearby hall. It beacons to Elana a message, a hint, almost a requirement that she must in turn, speak.

“How is he doing?” She asks the question that she has asked a hundred times before, and avoids looking to the monitor by which she could ascertain her own answer.

“He has come down to his final ten,” Mr. Pendergrass answers while looking at his own shoes, leather shoes, expensive shoes.

“They will go fast then?” She asks of his remaining lot, not of his health.

“I’m afraid so. We will need to collect the instruments right away. Please pardon that I stay with you at his side.”

“Is there nothing I can do?” Elana asks.

“We have searched his records. I’m very sorry, but there is nothing any of us can do. Do not blame yourself. He has run out. You knew he would eventually.”

“Yes, but the doctors said that given enough time, he could heal, he would heal.”

“Time. If only time could be dealt out like water. I’m sorry. He just ran out.”

“Yes. I said I understand, but I don’t have to like it.”

“No. I mean, he really just ran out. The meter shows zero.”

Mr. Pendergrass began to disconnect his instruments, remove his company’s implants, and unplug the meter. The Longchamp Health Insurance Agency had other customers to assist. His services would be needed immediately down this very same hall.

“My God. Where is the doctor?” asked Elana.

“The doctor has nothing to do with this,” replied Pendergrass. “Your father’s insurance ran out, his money ran out. You know that.”

“I know, but this isn’t right.”

“I have the final say in these matters on this floor. The doctors would drag these things out. They would offer procedure after procedure to sell their wares.”

“Yes, but what if they did some good?”

“Who would pay?” Alan Pendergrass got in the final word, and left the room pushing his meter stand, and carrying the instruments that had monitored Elana’s father since his accident.

Elana sat in the light blue plastic-covered chair at the foot of her father’s bed. Her legs were clamped tightly together, and her feet were planted on the shining surface of the floor below to keep her from falling over. She could no longer hear her father’s faint breath, no longer see any movement of the sheets atop his torso, no longer sense his presence in the room. He was gone.