A Perfect Moment

by C.J. Henderson

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Murdered by who, sir? Do we know?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

Big time.

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

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

Now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What in the seven suns is that?”

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

“Look out!”

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

“Down!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Vrenten was taking his tally, the native asked;

“You military?”

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

“What’re your orders?”

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

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

“What is that which you combat?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Time to move.”

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

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

“I can deal heat, too, ugly.”

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

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

Oh, if you liked that…

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

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

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

*worthy*

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

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

“Behind me!”

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

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

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

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

You will be avenged, good sir.

And then was struck speechless.

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

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

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

“Gralg, stuff a dilly.”

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

“Did you kill it?”

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

“What are we looking for?”

“The other two.”

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

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

“Headed this way?”

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

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

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

“Brace yourself.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I noticed.”

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

“A bit… here and there.”

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

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

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

“Much appreciation.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If I might pose a question—”

“Shoot.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes!”

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

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

If, of course, it was given sufficient time.

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

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

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

“Thanks…” the native managed weakly.

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

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

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

“You are injured.”

“Yeah… not the first time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it had brought him to within feet of London.

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

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

The enjele remembered the native’s words—

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

“It’s not them…”

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

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

And his will die!

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

Reaching his hand down to London, the enjele asked;

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

“I can give it the old college try.”

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

“I believe I have an idea.”

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

*****

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

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

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

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

“And what makes you say that?”

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

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

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

“Yes—”

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

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

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

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

“So, I’m not in trouble?”

“None.”

“There never was anything called the Light?”

“Not at all.”

“This was just a test…”

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

“Tested for what… ah, sir?”

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

“But…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

“You really should have that looked at.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You going to make it home all right?”

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

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

“If I can’t…”

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

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

“What makes you so sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah… what’s he sell?”

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

“Hope for the future.”

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

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

 

That Little Voice Inside: A Jack Hagee Story

by C.J. Henderson
adapted from the graphic novel by John L. French

 

“There is no more tooth left to fill, Mr. Hagee. I have to cap it.”

The words of my dentist. The night before I had a molar with two fillings… until 8:30. Then it decided to shatter for no reason I could discern. Suddenly I had a mouth full of cuts and enamel shards—and pain. Blood oozed at a steady pace. Any breath I took through my mouth sent air over a now-exposed nerve, rocking me with sharp jolts of agony. And forget about eating or drinking.

It made me less than happy.

I’m not making the boohoo over the fact. The life I live, the business I’m in, the punches to the face I’ve taken—it had to happen sooner or later. It was just the timing.

It wasn’t like I could call in sick. When you’re the boss and sole operative of an investigative agency there’s no one to call in sick to. And I had a meeting with a client that morning, a client I didn’t want to lose.

Lately it seemed that all my cases had been thuds—you know, the kind where all the client is looking for is someone with good aim and a thick skull. This one promised to be different though. So, numb from the drills and drugs and the pain of getting a root canal and a temporary cap I was on my way to The House of Avo, a fashion studio. It seemed that someone had ripped off their fall line.

Industrial espionage being waged between fancy tailors. Forgive me for being smug but it didn’t seem like the kind of case where I needed to expect any real trouble.

Then again, the little voice inside my head managed to shout out over the pain, I hadn’t been expecting any real trouble any of the other times I’d almost gotten killed.

I entered the rust and cream colored marble-drenched deco lobby of the Morgan Building and waited for the elevator with a group of devastatingly beautiful women and several mutant-like delivery men. The effect was that of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel about a lost jungle tribe. Statuesque women standing side by side with a hovering pack of troll-like males. The fact that this collection of bored lovelies made a point of keeping the trolls between themselves and me made me wonder—not for the first time, mind you—just what kind of scent I give off anyway.

I restrained myself from thumping my chest and bellowing something like “Hagee am strongest of all,” figuring it might not go over, even considering the Tarzan-like atmosphere of the crowd.

Sometimes I can be all class.

When the elevator finally arrived I meekly took the place allotted to me by the crowd, sucking in my gut like the rest of trolls. I got just as much reward for it as they did.

The Avo receptionist was the first woman I’d seen all day with hair that was less than prefect and whose clothes looked like they had been selected more for comfort than for how they looked. I was relieved that there was someone from my own planet to talk to.

“Good morning,” I said, giving her the best smile I could with a mouth still slightly numb from Novocain. “I’m Jack Hagee. I’m supposed to see Mr. Jancing at ten.”

She looked up, returning my smile as if the sight of me didn’t make her want to vomit. I like that kind of smile.

Gesturing to an inner door, she said, “Right through there. Mr. Jancing is expecting you.”

I walked into a large room that at first glance seemed to be every man’s dream. The beauties from the elevator were there as were several others just like them and all were in various stages of undress. Some were in underwear that didn’t hide many secrets, others in just panties, one in just a bra. One was completely nude, casually talking to someone who was fixing what looked like a busted zipper. No one seemed bothered about the display of female flesh, to them it was just another part of their working day, nor did they seem to care that a man they didn’t know had walked in on them. No shrieks, no yells, no grabbing of towels for modesty’s sake.

That’s what brought me down to heaven and back to earth. They didn’t care. Didn’t care that I was looking. I was beneath their notice.

I took a breath, a small one through my nose, and looked around for someone who wasn’t taking clothes on and off or helping those who were. A smallish Chinese woman passed by carrying some fabric so I said,

“Di gon tau?”

I thought I had asked “Where’s the big boss?” The woman’s smile made me think I’d just given him a new nickname instead.

“Where did you learn Chinese?” she asked.

“I used to do detective work in Chinatown.”

She nodded. “Then you must be Mr. Hagee.” Yeah, I must be. The way my life had been going lately I doubt if anyone else wanted to be.

“Mr. Jancing,” she yelled over the crowd, catching the attention of an overweight man with a slicked-back comb-over and a shirt that was opened enough to show greying chest hair.

He looked toward me in puzzlement then recognition. Walking over he asked,

“Didn’t we have a ten o’clock?”

I looked at the clock on the wall. It was ten exactly.

“Oh, you’re one of those, are you? Well, pleased to meet you. Let’s get out of this facockta noise and down to business.”

Jancing took me into a smaller room where there was a man working at a drawing table. The man looked up and scowled, not pleased to have been interrupted at whatever he was doing.

“Mr. Hagee, this is my partner, Ira Berkenwald.”

On hearing my name Berkenwald became more social.

“Can we get you anything, Mr. Hagee—a coffee, a juice? We could send down for Danish or bagels. The deli’s just two doors down, a supreme egg sandwich they make in the morning.”

“Grapefruit juice, please. Warm if you can. I just had a cap this morning.”

Jancing waited until I had drink in hand then asked, “So, Mr. Hagee, how much do you know about the fashion business?”

From the suit I was wearing Jancing probably already knew the answer, but I told him anyway.

“Not a lot.”

Jancing waved away my answer. “That’s okay, neither do nine-tenths of the people that are in it.” He looked at his partner. “Ira and me, we’ve been dressing women for twenty-seven years…”

I couldn’t resist. “Nice work if you can get it.”

“A comedian he is,” Berkenwald said before turning back to his drawing board.

“I heard him, Ira. I’m right here. And he is right. It is nice work, Mr. Hagee. But it is also tough, with the competition out to kill…”

“Kill,” echoed Berkenwald.

“…and never a sure dollar.”

“Never.” Berkenwald’s frustration came through that time, as if the dollars had been less sure of late. I could understand that.

Jancing could have gone on all day complaining about his business, these days who couldn’t, but I had my own to run and I was feeling the first tingle that told me the Novocain was wearing off.

“Ah, and the reason you wanted to see me?”

“Yes, okay. Fast fashion lesson. There are six, no, five real designers in the entire world. Five who do any real designing. The rest are copiers—copying machines with an eye for color.”

“And sometimes not even such a good eye,” Berkenwald added.

Jancing nodded in agreement.

“Are we one of those five? No, we copy the latest trends too, of course. But what keeps The House of Avo a step ahead is we try. Every year we run our own line. Nothing extraordinary, nothing too different, nothing you’d see on that cable show, but it’s our own. We do more than put an extra sash on someone else’s dress. We create our own style every year.”

He took a sip of whatever he was drinking and went on. “Okay, true, we’ve never been the mainstay of the season, but still, we try. Try to do something different, something that’s ours.

“Do you know what I mean?”

I knew what he meant. Anyone who’s been in public school, or the military, or dealt with any facet of corporate America knew what he meant.

It’s all too easy to get caught up in the make-a-buck world—following instructions, passing time, collecting checks—just turning off your brain and going through the standard motions until God the Father Almighty’s servant on Earth points his hand to the right number on his face and announces “Quitting time!”—not caring that people can’t exist on nothing more than commuting, sit-coms, and McNuggets. Dreams are hard enough to reach when you’re actually trying, let alone after the world starts beating you down working day after damned working day.

And now some dirtbag wanted to steal his dream from him.

Hell, if I were Jancing I’d be hiring a hitman instead of a private detective.

Yeah, I knew what he meant all right.

What followed was a crash course in fashion buying. Apparently The House of Avo had come up with a new twist for the fall line that had all the industry magazines raving—and the copy cats gearing up. But that wasn’t the immediate problem.

As Jancing put it,

“The people who shop at the malls and big box stores, if they know what a knockoff is they don’t care. All they want, and bless them for it, is to save money. They don’t care that the labelled sweater we make is 100% virgin wool that will last twenty years and that the piece of crap rayon they’re buying will look like shit in two—immediate price is all they’re interested in.”

The House of Avo discovered its real problem when some of their regulars called in orders expecting to get two-thirds off. When everything was hashed out, the boys realized that someone else had called all their stores across the country, rerouting their orders to a new address. A lot of those orders had already been filled, apparently with sweatshop crap not worth a dollar or two apiece.

The plain and simple was that someone had gotten their hands on the plans for the boys’ fall line and knocked off cheap imitations. They mashed the Avo customer list, told the world that they were in financial trouble, and they could get the fall line for peanuts, if those nuts were for paid in cash and C.O.D.

The police checked out the address given for the shipping orders. They reported it was a dummy front that resulted in no leads. The boys felt that the cops had given up on their case, not giving a damn about what happened to The House of Avo.

Knowing cops the way I do, I can assure you they usually don’t give much of a damn about anything. The trick was in knowing why they didn’t give a damn in this particular case. I’d have to do some checking before I could say why they were ignoring the boys and their problem.

I looked around. Even when I don’t think I’ll find anything I always look around. Clients seem to expect this, makes them think they’re getting value for their money.

The only copier in their office was a joke. Besides, for the line to be copied their patterns had to be stolen. After a quick course in the nuts and bolts of fashion even I could see that was something that took both time and skill. Whoever pulled this off had figured an angle that was not obvious.

Suddenly that little voice started sending danger messages warning about bad pork ahead, suggesting that my sarcasm about “Industrial espionage being waged between fancy tailors…” was going to blow up in my face.

I was dying for a cigarette but lately I’ve made it a point not to smoke on a prospective client’s premises or anywhere close by. You never know when a member of the “we-know-better-than anyone-else-what’s-good-for-everyone-else” society is going to speak up and ruin the deal. So I squelched the need for a lungful of relaxation even as Jancing was asking if I was going to be able to help them.

“I’m just a working man,” I admitted to Jancing, “and as such I hardly ever walk away from an honest job. Yours looks honest enough.”

When I said this he looked at me as if I were Dick Tracy and had just told him that everything was going to be A-OK.

I spent a little time reminding him that I was an investigator and not a superhero, that my work came with no guarantees except that I would do my best for him.

By now the drugs needled into my jaws that morning by the dentist had almost fully worn off and I was beginning to lose my ability to make polite conversation so I said something about getting to work on the case, shook the hands of both partners and left.

As I left The House of Avo I was also beginning to lose some of my earlier assurance. These guys hadn’t been ripped off by some other designer, they’d been danced on by an organized bunch who moved quick and who were blessed by either lazy or dirty cops.

Life is always swell for the working man.

I stood out front of the building for a moment, trying to both enjoy a much needed cigarette and ignore the mounting pain in my jaw. I couldn’t do either. I could feel the shit level rising, knew I didn’t like where I was but couldn’t see any better place to be.

Finally I crushed out the smoke while the little voice inside told me to stop my bellyaching and get to work. I stared at the butt on the sidewalk for a long moment. Don’t ask me why. Finally in anger I kicked it into the gutter. That would teach it.

Sometimes I can be such an idiot, I thought as I walked off massaging my jaw. No part of me jumped in to argue.

An hour later I was in my office with an aging, black saxophone player named Popeye. I’d gone looking for him on the way, finding him at University and 14th, one of his three usual corners. From the grin he was flashing I knew he was thinking of the first time we’d met.

Two summers back, I’d been in the office with my feet up on the desk working on a tattered copy of Stand on Zanzibar and a thermos of Long Island iced tea. I was alternating from one to the other, curious as to which I’d finish first. The iced tea was in the lead when through the window I heard a lonely jazz sax aching its way through the Popeye the Sailor Man theme. It caught my attention so completely I popped the window to see where it was coming from. A shout brought a thin, somewhat ragged musician up to my office for a drink.

Before we could say much though a suit came in. He was a self-important, smooth-faced little preener with slick hair and a carefully cultivated attitude—the kind that’s easy to hate but too tightly tied to dispensable income to easily ignore. He was dismayed to see a trash beggar who smelled of the streets in my office. My need for the inside of his wallet tempered my desire to push the suit off into the hall, maybe down the stairs, and possibly into traffic. So I introduced my new friend as “Popeye,” an undercover agent posing as a street musician for surveillance purposes. The suit was so impressed he was sold on the spot. I got a nice security contract that practically wiped out my credit problems and Popeye got a nickname. He apologized after the suit left.

“Sorry ’bout almost queerin’ your deal, man.” His eyes got distant as he talked more to himself then me. “You on the street, sometimes… sometimes you forget the smell. Fo’get what it was like to be a regular and what’s important to dem, how dey think an’ all. Anyway, sorry, man. I just fo’got.”

That had been just a few months after I’d first opened for business. I was grateful to him for helping to scam the suit but he wouldn’t take any money from me for anything except his playing. So I had him play cartoon themes for an hour and a half, throwing cash into a hat there in my office. The two of us finished the iced tea in between numbers then tapped the gin bottle in my desk. We finished that as well. If the gin and the tea had any affect on his playing it affected my hearing at an equal rate.

All in all, that was one fine afternoon.

Back in the present, I asked Popeye how he was doing, if he was holding the pieces together. Popeye was a decent guy, I liked him. He was just one of those unfortunate sacrifices the city demands on occasion.

I’d offered him a job in flush times but he always had a reason to say no. The truth was the years had burned him out—bad. Too much booze, too much dope, too much lying to himself.

He was still an amazing musician, but as far as what most people call “a normal life” he couldn’t handle it. He lived in an abandoned car—winter and summer—and no one could talk him out of it. His family had abandoned him years ago as a lost cause. Not being family, I hadn’t given up on him yet. I told him I had a check to do, one where something smelled bad, one where I could use some cover. He smiled as he told me,

“And I am the best man you uses.”

“Best, I don’t know,” I said, smiling and shaking my head. “You’re the cheapest anyway.”

He returned my smile with a rare one of his own. “Hey, it’s a goddamned recession out dere. Don’t bein’ the cheapest makes me the best?”

“Welllll, maybe,” I countered, drawing out the “well” as long as I could.

“Fuck me runnin’, no wonder I hates white people so much. So full of bullshit it make my head spin.”

As much fun as it was sparring with Popeye, I told him,

“Okay, that’s enough. If I’m going to get this done today I’ve got to get it done this afternoon. How much for, say, two hours, travel time included?”

“Thirty.”

“Done. Let’s get going.”

He looked disappointed. ‘Shit, don’t you want to haggle it out some?’

Here we go, I thought. “Okay, you grifting chiseler, not a cent over thirty-five.”

Popeye’s previous smile was now a frown. “Don’t be pullin’ no games on me. I don’t be wantin’ no charity…”

“Oh get off your high horse. Every halfway decent back-up in the business demands at least fifteen an hour with a lot of bullshit thrown in on top. As easy as you and me work together, I’d be cream-shit supreme to offer you less. And considering how smooth thing have been going here lately, I’m embarrassed to be offering a pal less than forty.”

Before Popeye could reply to that I added, “Look, I understand all about pride. I’ve damned near died for it a few times myself. This has nothing to do with that. This is negotiating a living wage. You are a human being, you know. You do deserve a living wage.”

Popeye was quiet for a minute, raising his eyes as if figuring. Then he said,

“Okay, I want seventy-five an hour.”

“Get bent. I said twenty.”

“I thoughts we were negotiating?”

“I’m negotiating. You’ve moved to highway robbery.”

“Twenty-two fifty an hour. And you gots to buy dinner.”

I held out my hand. “Done on the money. Dinner if you earn it.”

“Done and done, bro,” he said, grabbing it to seal the deal.

As we moved to leave, Popeye said, “Hey, I just want to say thanks, you know?”

“Hey, don’t thank me. Just earn your money. We’re not playing games here. I don’t usually need you to earn your stake but sooner or later you’re going to have to. The day you do will be thanks enough, believe me.”

“Man, white people is sure cold.”

“So’s a grave,” I told him. “We’re not fooling here. One of these days coming back alive might be the best we get. You sure you want in this time?”

Popeye shook his head. “Shit, bro, I don’t wants to work, but Ize wants the money so…”

I held the door open for him, “So let’s go fuck up some bad guys.”

“I thinks maybe I should haves business cards too.”

“Shut up and get down the stairs.”

The office in question was on 23rd, between 6th and 7th. A good cover address but not a good place. The area was one of New York’s fifteen million “neighborhoods-in-transition,” a mix of expensive shops crammed into buildings not designed for them but too enduring to fall down on their own. There was the typical debris and poverty one sees throughout every stretch of the city. Popeye would fit right in.

We checked out the area with separate walk throughs then met back around the corner. We felt that things seemed peaceful enough. That accomplished, Popeye went back down the street and took up a post in front of the building into which I’d be going. He started a bluesy rendition of the Spider-Man cartoon theme, gently warming the area to his presence. I gave him fifteen minutes to become a fixture then eased around the corner, crossing my fingers.

Although we’d agreed that we didn’t feel any immediate danger, that hadn’t put off the churn in my stomach, a gurgle that couldn’t be explained by my office coffee. Maybe nobody was waiting with drawn guns but something was at work in the area that spelled trouble and I didn’t want it aware of me any earlier than necessary.

As I passed through the revolving doors I looked the place over. I had a business card in my hand as a cover so I could pretend to be looking for an office address. No need—the building didn’t maintain lobby personnel. Hell, it barely maintained the lobby.

The place was a mess. The paint on the walls was chipped and faded, and a lot of plaster had fallen from the ceiling, most of it ground to chalky powder. That meant people were still going in and out, no matter how abandoned the dump looked.

There were no cameras anywhere I could spot and precious few tenants listed in the lobby’s directory. The bogus House of Avo was one of them. It was located on the fourth floor, same as the real one.

When the elevator doors opened the little voice inside quietly reminded me that my radar was still screaming, that I didn’t usually get this nervous over nothing. I reminded it that people didn’t usually pay us for nothing. My voice didn’t have anything to say about that. But somehow, as the metal box sealed around me, I didn’t feel that I’d won that round.

The offices of the fake House of Avo must have once been impressive enough, at least impressive enough to fool the suckers who thought they were dealing with the real thing. Now it was as abandoned as the downstairs lobby looked. If I’d ever seen a joint that had been stripped, this was it. Everything held the sheen of a pro job, that obvious look that screams “We cleaned the place out, jackass. We’re professionals; we do this for a living.”

Sometime in the last twelve hours, the place had been steamed properly. Not a wasted ounce had been taken away. The computers had been left behind, but not the files or hard drives.

You could see that at one time the fakes had thought of making a more elaborate charade of things—phony business cards and other blinds littered the place. It made sense, having that stuff in one’s possession was practically a confession. No, the only things grabbed were stuff that said anything other than the address where I was.

And the place where I was was officially abandoned. A big dead end. Popeye was still wailing safety music, my tooth still hurt like a tax hike and my best lead was a fizzle. Yeah, my life was moving along just as it was supposed to.

I looked around anyway. It was my job and I like to think I earn the money I’m paid. I bent down to retrieve one of the fallen business card thinking that maybe I could trace the printer. That was a long maybe; they probably used one of the printers that had once been there. Then out of the corner of my eye I noticed something. It was almost invisible on the carpet.

That’s when I heard it, the sound of the elevator coming up. Then there was the ding of it stopping on my floor. The doors opened and I heard voices.

“This sucks.” The cry of the working man everywhere.

“Job’s a job, Lenny.”

Lenny and his friend were big, as big as me or maybe a bit bigger. I might have been able to take one of them down, but not both. Besides, one lucky punch from either in my mouth would have me screaming on the floor. By the time they made it to the office proper I was crouched down behind a desk waiting for a chance to break past them.

“Hey, we gave this place the big polish. There ain’t nuthin’ here and you know it.”

“I believe you, Lenny, honest. But it don’t matter. Fergesi pays for a second sweep, he gets a second sweep. You take the money, you do the job. Yes?”

“Yeah, yeah, Mr. Holier-than-Thou. I get it, I’m all growed up. It’s the lack of trust that burns me. I mean, you know and I know if evidence was gasoline there ain’t enough left in this dump to power a pissant’s motorcycle around the inner ring of a god-dammed Cheerio.”

“So’s how about I grant your premise and you start…”

The bitchin’ and moanin’ was winding down. Soon they’d start to search which meant that soon they’d find me. There wasn’t a better time.

I broke from cover, pushed Lenny into his partner and headed for the stairway door, hoping not to hear what my little voice assured me was coming. Once again it was right as two pistols fired and splintered the wood of the doorway.

I was armed, but being in plain view and not having the high ground I figured my best chance was to get down to the first floor and the hell out of the building as quickly as possible. As I took the stairs two and sometimes three at a time behind me I heard “Get ’em… the stairs… go get him…” along with more shots.

I guess I was lucky in that the two were more than likely workers with guns rather than professional gunmen pressed into the moving business. Shots followed me down the stairs but they were all aimed at where I’d been rather than were I was going to be.

I made it to the lobby with the two mokes right behind. I was almost out through the glass doors when,

“Stop, you son of a bitch.”

I didn’t stop, didn’t turn to see how close they were. I could feel them, feel them taking aim, getting ready to fire that one bullet that would have my little voice saying “Told you so” before it was stilled forever.

Somehow I made it through to the street, the crowded street. With people coming and going both ways I headed for what I hoped was the safety of a crowd, hoping my pursuers weren’t pissed enough to fire into it just to get me.

I didn’t have to worry. No sooner were the gunmen out the door than Popeye stepped into their path, blocking their way and tangling them up with his body and his sax.

“Hey, what’cha doing?” he asked, making it look like he was trying to get out of their way but only getting more into it.

“Watch it, ya shit,” said one of them. “Get outta da way,” said the other. And then with me nowhere in sight, Popeye became the focus of their frustrated rage.

A hard push knocked him down, his saxophone flying. As a citizen of the street, he knew what was coming next and rolled into a ball, protecting his head and vitals as the kicks came. Finally,

“Hey, forget about this guy. We gotta job to do.”

“But the shootin’, the cops,” Lenny protested.

“All the more reason to get upstairs, get it done and get out. We knew it was possible we’d run into that punk. Let’s just make sure da job is clean then blow this hole.”

I pulled up in my Skylark just as Popeye was getting to his feet. He found and checked his sax, and was checking himself when,

“Need a lift?”

He climbed into my passenger side with a, “Hell with business cards. Ize wants medical coverage.”

I drove us straight to The Old Fallout Shelter, a club I go to whenever I need to escape the regular crowd. Nobody knows me there, which sometimes is just the way I like it.

My heart had been doin’ the overtime shuffle when I broke for my car, leaving Popeye to take everything those two King Shit Supremes had to dish out. He’d taken it all and walked away without any breaks. It was luck I didn’t think I deserved.

I couldn’t fault him for not sounding the alarm. The moving man suits those two had been wearing were a nice touch. I wouldn’t have tripped to it, and Popeye had more than made up for it by pulling my bacon out of the deep-fry like he did.

At dinner I kept the Lincolns dancing until he couldn’t stuff down another bite then forced a couple of Grants on him on top of his fee. When he protested I reminded him that the white guy who’d been racing bullets was alive without a scratch on him.

He saw my point.

I hadn’t eaten much because my tooth was still throbbing, although a steady diet of gin and tonic had started to help with that. I didn’t know if the alcohol was killing the pain or my ability to care about it. Frankly, I didn’t give a good goddamn. All that mattered was that I piece together what little I had.

From what Popeye had heard from the two bone dogs who had tramped him it was no accident we ran into them. Someone had tipped them that the place was going to get a once over. And that someone had to be working for The House of Avo. Hell, the whole thing had smelled of an inside job since Jancing had laid it out for me. The only question was who.

Who could afford to sink the company they owned or worked at? Who could have that raw a grudge? What was the angle?

But did any of that matter? Did I need to know who the rat was gnawing on The House of Avo’s cheese from inside the wheel, or did I just have to bring down the vermin raking in the cash?

My little voice told me to stop thinking and just drink for a while. Finally, useful advice.

About fifteen minutes later the night’s entertainment started. It was a new band, new to me at least. If its name was announced I missed it. Blame the tooth. Blame the alcohol. Blame the front man for not introducing himself as he started things off.

“Hey, we want to thank everyone for noticing we’re up here. Now we’d like to do a song off our new CD…”

“Your only CD,” someone in the crowd yelled out, getting some laughs.

“Killin’ me with semantics,” the front man said. “Anyway, if you like it and don’t have it we’ll be happy to sell it to you on the way out. First though, I guess you ought to hear it. So… one, two three…

Bombs in the mail and poison in the stew
Government out to rob you, Business do it too
Life gets tough, then it gets tougher.
Playin’ fair’s no good, you gotta go rougher.
When you’re up against the wall and you got no slack,
Just listen to your Uncle Fester and…

SHOOT ’EM IN THE BACK!

Bastards in the dark, been waitin’ from the start
Steal all your money, then stab you in the heart.
Drink your blood and eat your eyes
Wear your skin as their disguise.
They never, ever stop ’til your guts are in a sack.
So listen to your Uncle Fester and…

SHOOT ’EM IN THE BACK!

Kill ’em any way you can. This you gotta understand.
Drown ’em, stab ’em, keep it simple or make it grand.
They’re not your friends, they’re all just slop.
You gotta wipe ’em out ’til you’re the one on top.
If you wanna be the top dog, there’s one thing you can’t lack—
Uncle Fester’s good advice to

SHOOT ’EM IN THE BACK!
SHOOT ’EM IN THE BACK!
SHOOT ’EM IN THE BACK!

Let them see what it feels like and
SHOOT ’EM IN THE BACK!”

Maybe it was the quart of gin I’d already put away, maybe it was the fact that it was two in the morning but suddenly I felt a whole lot better. I had a couple of good leads and some good advice from the band. Granted, the little voice inside warned me that perhaps I might need a bit more to go on. But then…

If I’d wanted to listen to reason that night, I wouldn’t have started drinking in the first place.

Sometimes the little voice inside has a point. Determined to be stupid, I’d kept drinking until dawn. That led to my sleeping in my car until the 11:00 sun convinced me it was time to wake up. By the time I managed to get home, shower and shave, and consume a caffeine cocktail the day was racing by. At least the pain in my jaw had subsided to where I could eat some donuts I’d dunked until they were soggy enough to slide down under their own power.

After that it was off to Belduchi’s Print for All Occasions. That bit of something I’d picked off the carpet at the fake House of Avo was a piece of cellophane tape with Belduchi’s address on it. It was just the words from the package stuck to the tape, but it was enough.

One of my playmates from the day before was kind enough to drop the name “Fergesi.” That could have meant the well-connected Anthony Fergesi or any of his three sons. It didn’t matter. With that name to drop I was able to con Mr. Belduchi into showing me the original bill.

I played on his sympathies like a 10th Ave. whore, letting my hangover explain why I needed to go to such stupid lengths to find my way to where I was supposed to be.

The old man made me a cup of coffee and gave me some fatherly advice. I thanked him for both. I could tell from his smile that he was honestly happy to have helped a young man back onto the path.

As I left I hoped he couldn’t tell from my expression that I was sincerely wishing what I was going to do next wouldn’t get him killed.

I’d managed a good parking spot right across the street from the address Mr. Belduchi had provided me—one of those “someone pulls out, someone pulls in” shots the whole city understands. Nobody thought twice about it as I locked up and wandered off.

It only took about ten minutes of back street trolling to find a promising way into Fergesi’s building. All I had to do was illegally enter someone’s property, climb the outside of their house, then invade some more private property—hopefully getting by the razor wire without slitting a major artery.

Oh well, I thought as I threw my coat over the sharp edges of the wire and hoped that the material would be thick enough to protect me, at least my tooth doesn’t hurt anymore.

Always something to be grateful for, I suppose.

My point of entry was a second floor office. This let out on a darkened catwalk which circled the warehouse floor below. Then, bingo, my work was pretty much done. After I was done at Belduchi’s, I’d called an information weasel by the name of Hubert to do a little digging for me. He almost immediately pegged this particular piece of McDonald Ave. real estate as belonging to one Anthony Fergesi.

Mob owned, hard evidence of the theft of intellectual property. Once I got my pictures it would be time to hit the road.

Of course, those pictures weren’t going to be easy to get.

From my position on the catwalk I spotted Fergesi instantly. It wasn’t like he needed to be inconspicuous, not in his own building. There were three other men with him. I didn’t know any of them, but I figured I could leave them for the cops.

As I focused my camera I remember thinking, Okay, smile for the birdie. Then through the shutter I saw something I wished I hadn’t—a nice, shiny, NYPD badge. I didn’t have to worry about the cops. One of them was already there and working for the wrong side.

Then one of them saw something I wished they hadn’t.

“Hey,” he shouted, turning and pointing in my direction, “who the hell is that?”

Back through the office, out the window, a long jump towards the fence, all the while dodging gunfire for the second time in two days. I was glad it was dark. These guys were the kind of pros that, given a clear shot, didn’t usually miss what they aimed out.

I cleared the razor wire with only a torn shirt and a new cut on my back. Coat, shirt, and stitches. The expenses on this case were adding up. I hoped I’d be around to add them to Jancing’s bill.

I thought about my car. It was out front. I was in the back, in an alley that soon would be blocked by men coming from both sides. I took a side alley, hoping it had an outlet that led to the street. It did. I worked my way around front and made it to my car just as Fergesi’s men figured out what I’d done.

Calm, I told myself, told my hands. Work the key, get inside, get us out of here.

I got inside, got the ignition turned on, then got the hell out of there with more gunshots from the two cars following me.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. Couldn’t wait. Couldn’t play it smart. Just had to let your hangover do your thinking for you.

Shut the hell up, I told the voice, then sent up a prayer that I’d make the next light.

I did. They didn’t but went through anyway. The lead car made it. The one behind got clipped but not hard enough. It straightened out and kept coming.

Damn, there was no way I was going to lose those guys on a straight-away. That meant getting off the straight-away. An angled turn was coming up. There was only a 50/50 chance I could make it at this speed.

Right then my luck was crap.

I almost made the turn but hit an oily patch and lost it. I slammed into a few things, the last being part of the fence to Green-Wood Cemetery. Behind me I heard other crashes. Guess their luck had been no better than mine.

Bailing out of my car I climbed over the ruined fence. Voices came out of the night.

“Mr. Fergesi, we think he’s in the cemetery.”

“You think he’s in there? You asshole, you think he’s in there? You get your goddamned ass in there and find out if he’s in there, and don’t come back without his goddamned head on a goddamned platter.”

“We’re getting out of here before the heat turns up.”

“The likes of you aren’t ditching me. Get your goddamn asses in there or it’s all our goddamn heads.”

“Who do you think you’re talking to, you oily bastard?”

A single gunshot ended that debate, with the rest of them coming in after me.

Trying to save my worthless ass, I staggered into the maze of tombstones and monuments. On the up side, I still had my camera, both my .45s, even my spare clip. On the downside, however, I’d broken my temporary cap in the crash. The edges of it had torn open my cheek, filled my mouth with blood.

Suddenly things had gone from a dull ache to screaming pain as each breath brought a blast of air over the exposed nerve. Now my head was throbbing, lightning flashes of pain tearing though my system, frying me, making me wish I was dead.

Through my pain I remembered that there were men in the dark looking for me, men with flashlights and guns wanting to grant my wish. Then I remembered what the band had recommended the night before.

Bombs in the mail and poison in the stew
Government out to rob you, Business do it too

Their flashlight made them targets.

Life gets tough, then it gets tougher.
Playin’ fair’s no good, you gotta go rougher.

They weren’t too spread out, sticking together in that atavistic fear we all have of the dark and death.

When you’re up against the wall and you got no slack,
Just listen to your Uncle Fester and…

The rest was easy.

Bastards in the dark, been waitin’ from the start
Steal all your money, then stab you in the heart.

SHOOT ’EM IN THE BACK!

I hunted them down. Following the flashlights to tell me where they were then coming up behind them.

Drink your blood and eat your eyes
Wear your skin as their disguise.

SHOOT ’EM IN THE BACK!

A few shots, then a fade. The muzzle flashes telling me where they were and in what direction they were firing.

They never, ever stop ’til your guts are in a sack.
So listen to your Uncle Fester and…

SHOOT ’EM IN THE BACK!

I don’t know how many of them I got. Toward the end I was losing ground fast. None of their panic-driven hasty shots had found me but still my head was pounding, it was hard to breathe and I was drinking my own blood. I was not going to be able to go on much longer.

Then…

Everyone stopped. Everything froze.

The boys in blue had arrived. The only problem was…

Whose side were they on?

A flashlight finally found me. “Freeze!” the voice behind me said.

I listened to it. The thug beside me didn’t.

He shot the cop. I shot him, then dropped my gun and raised my hands. The little voice inside stirred itself again to tell me I was doing the right thing. I hoped I’d be agreeing with it in another few hours.

I spent the early part of the morning getting my mouth put back together. I still hadn’t eaten anything but it felt good to talk without spitting blood everywhere.

I told Jancing and Berkenwald almost everything that had happened, leaving out the part about the dirty cop. For letting the department take care of their own my name was removed from the picture. The chase and the scene at the cemetery was laid squarely at the feet of Anthony Fergesi, along with the theft of The House of Avo’s fall line.

“Well, my boy, this is yours,” Jancing said as he handed me my check. “Like a tornado you solved this. Like a wizard you are.”

“Ah… yeah. Thanks, but there’s a little more.”

“Oh?”

“Fergesi spilled that one of the partners here at The House of Avo has a weakness for the ponies, one he hasn’t kept in check too well recently. It seems one of you picked up a line of credit, not knowing you were being set up by some patient guys with the need for an inside man.”

Jancing frowned then, looking more at Berkenwald then he was at me, said,

“Thank you, Mr. Hagee… for everything.”

With a “No, thank you, gentlemen” I left them. Behind me came the sound of screaming and cursing in more than one language. It continued as I left the offices and I could still hear faint traces of it even as the elevator doors closed to take me to the first floor.

It never fails. Let two people start something together—any two people, any thing—and sooner or later one of them will ruin it.

Hell, just look at the divorce rate.

It was one o’clock when I hit the street, well past the time the dentist said I could eat again. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Jancing, but then, I feel sorry for a lot of people. After all, everybody’s got problems.

Even me. Like right then I had a big problem.

I had to figure out where I was going to go for lunch.

 

This Memory of Happiness

This Memory of Happiness

Illustration by Denny E. Marshall

by C.J. Henderson

 

“At Christmas play and make good cheer,
for Christmas comes but once a year.”
–Thomas Tusser

The slithering darkness formed slowly, patiently—as it did every cycle at that time. The days growing shorter certainly contributed to its increasing progress, as did the planet’s ever-expanding distance from the star around which it generated its orbit. Less sunlight to burn the growing seed, less of the noxious radiations spewed by the miserable, fourth-rate sun around which it twirled to hinder the steady progress.

Atom by atom it formed, carefully finding the bonding pairs it desired, using the terrible Arctic cold to help it attract the electrons it needed. Bending the surrounding elements to create itself anew. Slowly, patiently.

Bit by bit.

Every cycle, another attempt. Every completed circling by the miserable, insignificant dirtball of its gravitational center gave the visitor another chance. Of course, it was not as if the darkness minded the waiting—the repetition. Indeed, it possessed no actual concept of haste, no understanding of urgency. It did not scramble to accelerate its arrival. Such was impossible, impractical—worthless. It would expand as it expanded, a handful of particles at a time. Such was all that it knew.

During the comforting shelter of night, when the world’s inhabitants drowsed, shutting down the infernal chatter of their minds, disconnecting from the ether, the devouring growth would rally forth and blossom all the greater. When the day broke and set their gibbering brains screeching endlessly at one another once more, it would retreat, its progress slowed to a crawl.

Seven hundred and nineteen times had it grown, only to be beaten back on the shortest day. Several times over the centuries it had been stopped with barely a struggle. Five, if it remembered correctly. Hundreds of times it had almost won through. It did not matter. The long dark was coming, and it would try again. How could it not? After all, once more an entire, delicious world, filled with life, awaited its arrival. In only a handful of rotations the planet would reach the outside of its orbit—the shortest day of its year. Darkness would last its longest.

And the moment of escape would come.

The slithering ebony form thought on that moment, feeling the world rotate beneath it, its roots grasping—drinking. Building it. Strengthening it. Forming it slowly, patiently—as they did every cycle at that time. As it waited for its moment.

The moment when it would devour everything, turning the place called Earth into a charred and barren cinder. Before it moved on, so it could do it again on some other world.

As it had so many thousands of times before.

* * * * *

Jason Fletcher stared at the ceiling of the room he had been given, ignoring the heat, barely noticing the sweat running down the sides of his head, pooling between his back and the bed beneath it.

“Why me?” he asked the empty chamber, knowing the answer. He knew “why” him. The man who had come to him had told him exactly “why” him.

“I want you to be Santa Claus.”

Jason remembered the moment clearly, wishing he could not—laughing at the memory—terrified of it.

“What? You mean a job? What?”

He had stared, thinking as any reasonable person might that perhaps the fellow meant employment.

Yeah, sure, he thought, sighing with frustration as he did so. I guess I could play Santa Goddamned Claus.

He had let his hair go, after all. He needed a shave—and there was plenty of premature gray mixed in with the brown.

“But still, okay,” he told himself. “Yeah, maybe I let myself get overweight, but I haven’t turned into some jelly-bellied fat man.”

Still, as his self-pity tried to throw away another crumb of an opportunity, another part of his mind slapped at him brutally, screeching that a job, any kind of job, any handful of greasy, miserable dollars could be the difference between living and dying.

“Can you actually afford to just flush away another opportunity,” his brain hissed at him. “When was the last time one came our way? When was the last time anything came our way? Or do you just want to die?”

“Is that it—do you want to die?” another part of his mind had asked him then, snarling the question brutally, not surprised when he did not answer. Could not decide. “Do you actually want to die on Christmas?”

Jason wondered if he did. It would make things easier. In an instant, he watched his life flash before his eyes, witnessed in a moment the cavalcade of events which had blundered him to that second in time. Childhood and school and college, useless degree earned, career abandoned as his interest shifted to music, to rebuilding old instruments—

She had entered his life then, Melinda, encouraging him, pushing him, helping him build his business. Or, so he thought. Falling-down-in-love, he had worked feverishly, letting her take care of the financial end of things. He had thrown himself into his work for her. Had been willing to do so forever.

Forever had lasted eight months, two weeks and three days.

He had needed to purchase some varnish for a shipment of string instruments. If there had been thirty-seven dollars and eighty-six cents in his account he would have never known. But there had not been. She had taken it all, thousands—and left him with nothing. When he questioned her, she had not even bothered to deny anything. She had simply sighed, letting him know he had been fun for a while, and then walked out of his life.

Leaving him with nothing but a staggering pile of debt and a heart made numb. He had sat down on the floor and cried, and when his tears had ended, he had remained where he was, unable to move. The next day he discovered his rent had not been paid for three months, that Melinda had taken everything possible. He discovered this when the landlord had arrived with the police.

Jason had not struggled or protested. Silently, he had merely stood and left the apartment, not even bothering to gather up the loose change strewn across the dresser in his bedroom. Stumbling his way to the street, he had simply gone off to die, not caring when it happened.

As he sat in the alley, wondering on whether the effort to carry on was actually worth it or not, the man standing above him answered his question, saying;

“Well, it is a job, in a way. Not a job in the sense you’re thinking, though. No putting on a red suit, listening to children beg for crap they don’t really need, no suffering the greed of humanity as it reaches down to infect those who can barely speak—none of that. No, do understand me, sir, I didn’t say that I wanted you to play Santa Claus…”

He heard the words again, listened to them as they echoed within his head, slamming against the walls of his skull, seeming more absurd with each increasing ricochet—all of it so out of focus to him—especially being called sir

“I said I wanted you to be Santa Claus.”

“What…” Jason’s voice finally struggled itself upward out of his throat once more. Some vestige of pride swimming to his defense, he demanded, “what are ya, crazy? What’re you talking about? Don’t screw with me, wise guy. There is no Santa Claus. No one can be Santa Claus.”

“Funny,” the man had replied then, his voice sad, his eyes not looking directly at Jason, “it was only a few weeks ago when I would have said exactly the same thing. And probably with a great deal more conviction.”

Jason heard the sadness in the man’s voice, realized that for some reason, the fellow before him was feeling such not only for Jason, but for himself as well. Jason could understand the emotion being aimed at him. People had been pitying him for years. No one more so than himself. But, this time, something was different. Something about the resignation in the man’s voice which intrigued and frightened him at the same time.

“But, like you’re saying… now, something’s different. Now, for some reason… you believe in Santa Claus?”

“What I believe, my good sir, is that every year at this time, as the days grow shorter and the night sky stretches across the world to its greatest duration, that evil, that an unspeakable horror is given a chance to destroy all of us.”

Jason stared into the strong, deep blue of the man’s eyes, noticing the tiny lines of fear etching their way out of the corners. It was a look with which he was familiar. A look he had seen staring out of mirrors at him for years, until one day he lost his fear. Not because he had found his courage, but because he had run out of things of which to be afraid.

“My name is Piers Knight,” the man said quietly. “I’m a curator at the Brooklyn Museum, and… I was chosen by… for lack of a better word at the moment… angels… to find you, and to convince you to fight for the salvation of the human race.”

Jason stared—out of words—unable to comprehend what was being asked of him. Understanding this, Knight had said;

“I know this must be unbelievable to you. All I’m asking is, please, let me… try to explain. It’s not much of an offer that I have for you, and I wouldn’t blame you if you sent me on my way. But…”

Knight had stared down at him then, seated on the frozen cement there in the alley, wedged in between the garbage bags for warmth. With nothing of condescension or demeanment in his tone, his entire self radiating nothing but sympathy and a sense of commiseration, the man added;

“Why don’t you let me take you somewhere for a good meal? I mean, if we’re all going to die, we might as well do it with some level of contentment, eh?”

Agreeing that if he was going to die on Christmas after all, it might as well be with a full stomach, Jason forced his way up off the bitter ground of the alley, following the curator out into the already gathering darkness.

* * * * *

Oddly enough, Knight did not take Jason to an eatery close to the alley in downtown Brooklyn where he had found him, but instead bundled him into his car and drove him down along the coast of the borough almost the entire way to Coney Island. Getting off the Belt Parkway two exits before the landmark, he drove instead to a restaurant nearly as old as the amusement park, and more favorably regarded by those who lived in the area.

“As far as I’m concerned,” said the curator, passing a menu to Jason, “this is the best Italian place in Brooklyn. The entire city, really.”

Jason was willing to agree simply from the fact they had allowed him entry. Knight had given him his own overcoat, leaving his guest’s in the trunk of his car, to help curtail the man’s pungency. Jason had headed for the restroom as soon as they had entered. When he emerged, he had washed both his face and hands, his hair and his armpits, in the cramped men’s room. Knight did not comment, other than to recommend they split a platter of the restaurant’s fried calamari as an appetizer.

The pair ordered when their waiter came, and if Jason was still reeking anywhere near as badly as he had been previously, the older man taking their order gave no hint that such was the case. Unable to help himself, Jason grabbed up a large portion of bread from the complimentary basket when it arrived, unable to wait long enough to butter it, or even for his coffee to be delivered. Knight said nothing, waiting for his guest to speak. After he had devoured some six slices of Italian bread, Jason muttered;

“Okay, we got a few minutes, I guess. Why don’t you start talkin’? Tell me what you meant about ‘angels’ sendin’ you to find me. That ought to be good for a laugh.”

“The Bounteous Immortals,” said Knight quietly. “The story is that Ahura Mazda, an earlier version of God, historically speaking, created them to aid him against evil. It’s an old, old story. Most scholars believe they were the inspiration for Johnny-come-lately Christianity’s archangels.”

“Yeah, so… what’s that got to do with me?”

Knight tried to speak, then stopped, unable to continue. Staring at Jason, his mouth open, wordless, he lowered his head, not knowing how to proceed. His silence did not worry his guest. Nothing worried Jason anymore. Not really. Finally, though, his expression one which implied he had little faith in himself at that moment, the curator asked;

“You’ve heard the expression, ‘God works in mysterious ways,’ yes?” When Jason agreed that he had, Knight nodded, tight-lipped, then said;

“All right, fine. Here goes. Several weeks ago, I was visited by… I don’t exactly know what, really—a presence? A vision? Angels?” The curator considered for a moment, then said;

“A better word than some, I suppose. Now, do understand, I’m not referring to the winged, Nordic chaps we’re all so used to in paintings and the such, no. These were primitive things, white, but in the way the sun can appear white. I could not look directly at them. Had to shield my eyes…”

As the waiter returned with their coffee, Knight stopped speaking, gave the man a pleasant smile and then waited for him to move out of earshot before continuing once more.

“They took me from my home, but didn’t… I don’t know how to explain—I was in two places at once. Sitting in my favorite chair, and yet somehow in the Arctic at the same time. I was freezing, but I wasn’t. Snow blew against my face, melted against my shirt, I could feel the dampness, but wasn’t wet—”

Knight stopped talking once more, his eyes filling over with a sad confusion. He stared at Jason, desperate to explain himself without sounding like a lunatic, not only to his guest but to himself as well. Grabbing hold of his emotions, his body trembling, he finally whispered;

“I’m sorry, I don’t know how… I know I must sound utterly mad to you. But, it happened. And please, do believe me, I’m not a drug addict, I don’t drink to excess, I—”

“Forget it,” interrupted Jason, holding one hand up to slow the curator’s words. “Trust me, I know something of drunks. I know something about crazies, too, and… I kinda hate to admit it, but I’m beginnin’ to wish you were one. But… you ain’t. Are you?”

“No,” admitted Knight sadly, wishing he were lying. Wishing what he was trying so desperately to put into words were something he could dismiss as simple madness.

“They showed me something up at the North Pole. Something growing there. A darkness, a blackness, some thing… I don’t know what else to call it. It was developing like a plant, rooted deep into the ground, feeding not on the ice and water, but on the very atomic structure of the planet. But it wasn’t actually a plant—”

Again the pair were interrupted as the waiter brought their appetizers. The calamari, plentiful, delicately fried, the aroma of it hammering at Jason’s long diminished sensory organs, and a plate of mozzarella sticks, finely breaded, bursting with steaming cheese dribbling from their seams. Knight stared at the calamari in particular.

It was possible that Spumoni Gardens was his favorite restaurant in all of New York City. It was certain their fried calamari was his favorite dish. And yet, he could not bring himself to eat. He was too frightened, too agitated by the duty that had been set before him, which he was trying so desperately to perform. Indicating that Jason should eat, he took a drink from his water glass, appreciating its icy chill, then began again.

“It was a creature, a thing that travels from planet to planet. It drifts through space, looking for worlds to… ingest. It delights in places where it finds life. Intelligence. It seems to need to find places where life has developed to the point of consciousness. Because, that’s what it really lives on. Thought. Emotion. Souls.”

Jason’s hand slowed, then stopped, as Knight uttered his last word, the forkful of calamari frozen in space inches from his mouth. His slightly abated hunger still gnawing at him, his mind replayed the curator’s words in his head.

that’s what it really lives on… thought… emotion… souls

The words were no more impressive than anything else Knight had said, but it was the manner in which he said them, his tone, his obvious desire to not be speaking—to not be hearing what it was he had to say—which had immobilized Jason. Suddenly, with the most preposterous thing he had said, he had convinced Jason that at the very least he believed what he was saying.

“And how do you know all this, about this thing, I mean? That it’s from space and all?”

“The creatures that showed it to me, they don’t exist within the boundaries of this world, or don’t choose to, I’m not certain. They act as conduits. What they could see and understand, so too could I. They showed me what this thing is capable of, what it can do, if it’s allowed to complete its development and free itself from the Earth.”

Jason’s hand finally moved forward, shoveling the calamari into his mouth, as he chewed absently, not tasting, unaware he was actually eating, Knight said;

“Once it’s reached its full size, under cover of the longest night of the year, it begins to hatch. Four days later it will expand forth throughout the ether, touching each of us one after another, sucking away our consciousness, our souls. We will know we are dying, but be powerless to resist. We will all die screaming, terrified, like babies being slid into a meat grinder—not understanding the how or why of what is happening, only feeling the pain. Our pain, and the pain of all those around us—everyone’s pain. All of it merged as our world is stripped of life.” Knight paused for a moment, “The solstice was two nights ago, it emerges in less than two days. Christmas.”

Finally swallowing, Jason washed down his bite with a long gulp of coffee. Stabbing at the calamari, absently loading his fork once more, he asked;

“So, did these guys show you anything else?”

“Yes,” answered Knight, his tone of resignation sounding more hopeless than ever. “They showed me you.”

“What?”

“I can not tell you why the Bountiful do as they do,” answered the curator. “I don’t understand the, the science behind it, the reality of it… all I can say is, as I shared their minds, alien as they were, I received an idea that this is their… duty. Every year at this time, they pick two people. They have done this since this thing first crashed into the Earth hundreds of years ago. They pick one who they feel can stop this creature… and one they feel… can talk them into stopping it.”

“So that’s what you’re all about, you want me to… you think you can make me—” And then, finally a monstrous realization settled over Jason’s mind. Laughing a bit too loudly for polite company, he wiped at his eyes, choking slightly, then snapped;

“I just got this… I just got the whole picture here. This is nutty enough to have been dreamed up by Congress. This hell thing that’s supposedly eating the North Pole, that’s goin’ to make dinner outta all of us, you said they do this every year… that they find some con man like you to sucker some boob like me into fighting this thing—right?”

Knight nodded his head.

“And so, every year, the boob goes to the North Pole and fights this monster, and… and… and what? I don’t get it. You said this’s happened hundreds of times. It don’t make no sense. You said this thing, if it gets out it’ll kill everyone in the world—right?”
Knight nodded again.

“So, so… what are you tellin’ me? I mean, if it got beat hundreds of times, then it’s dead—right? How does… why does, I mean, how can it—”

Jason stared into space, his mind reeling, the various sections of it arguing amongst themselves so vocally he could not communicate. Part of him still could not even believe what he was being told. He knew he trusted Knight, knew the man across the table from him was not lying. Knew that at the very least, the curator believed every word he was saying.

Yes, it was possible Knight was insane, but Jason did not believe such was the case. As ludicrous as everything he was being told sounded, as fantastically ridiculous as the story was, something deep within Jason assured him he was not merely being told what another believed, but what was.

For a while, neither man spoke. Neither knew what to say. After a handful of minutes, their dinners arrived. When the waiter arrived with his tray, he looked at the barely touched appetizers, immediately asking if there were any complaints. Both men shook their heads, Knight muttering that they had shared some bad news and it had put them off their game. Joking that there was no way anyone could ignore the fare of the Gardens’ kitchen for long, he assured the waiter they would be cleaning their plates.

So saying, the curator picked up his fork and speared a mozzarella stick, dipping it in the small bowl of hot sauce which had been brought with it. Popping it into his mouth, he spoke as he chewed;

“Come on, let’s eat. Forget why we’re here. The food in this place is too good to waste. Tell me about yourself, Jason. We’ll get to the other stuff later. For now, let’s just enjoy ourselves.”

Numb from all he had accepted, Jason nodded, taking up his own fork once more. At that stage in his life, enjoying himself was almost a foreign concept. He was, however, he announced with a fair approximation of a grin, willing to give it a chance.

“What the hell,” he thought, already knowing the extent of the rest of his life, “what’ve I got to lose?”

* * * * *

Several hours later the pair found themselves in Knight’s brownstone home in the Park Slope district of Brooklyn. The curator had offered Jason a room, saying;

“If I’m insane, if I imagined all of this, it the gods are merely having sport with me, well then, bless all the tiny monkeys, so be it. You’ve got a place to stay for life. Welcome home.”

Knight had shown his guest to a bedroom, one with its own bathroom. Jason joked that the museum business must be a good one. It was an awkward comment, one which made neither of them laugh. Breaking the silence, the curator offered tactfully that since they were both tired, it might be best if they got some rest and waited to talk in the morning.

“After all,” he said, “it’s only the twenty-third. Nothing’s actually supposed to happen until Christmas—right?”

Jason had muttered some sort of agreement, then gone into his room and thrown himself on the bed. He did not bother to close the door. Having lived on the street for the past handful of months, the concept of privacy had become foreign to him. Stretched out in a comfort he barely understood anymore, he let his mind flow over all he had been asked to accept that evening. To merely catalogue the sheer enormity of it all took more time than he expected.

For more than seven hundred years, he was supposed to believe, some evil thing had repeatedly tried to grow large enough to destroy the world. Apparently it did not exist completely within our own plane of reality, meaning that humanity could not simply carpet bomb the Arctic and be done with it.

As Knight had explained it, the Bounteous Immortals, these angels, or whatever they were, considered this horror to be a test laid on humanity by their idea of God. Meaning they did not care one way or the other if mankind survived or ended up as entrees. Their only duty was to find someone to fight this thing, and then to find someone to talk them into it.

“Christ, like it just doesn’t make any sense.”

“Why,” he wondered, “why show Knight all this shit, and then have him try to get someone else to fight? If they want me to do it, why not show me?”

Maybe it had something to do with faith. But, even if he believed it all, even if he had the faith of ten men, what good would it do? This thing was supposed to be able to destroy the world, to suck the souls out of every living being. How was he supposed to fight something like that?

Of course, the Bountifuls had an answer for that, too. As Knight had explained it;

“They’ve been influencing events in the background of humanity for a long time apparently. Have you ever heard the fact that the historical figure of Jesus was actually born in the summer?” When Jason had assured the curate that he had, the man continued, telling him;

“Yes, well it seems that they exerted pressure from beyond on various church rulers to have them make the switch to coincide with the older pagan holiday that took place in late December so that the majority of humanity might be celebrating at the same time. In a cold, frightened, barbaric world, on its darkest day, if most of mankind’s functioning minds were filled with thoughts of joy, peace, good will, it gave them a weapon.”

“What?”

“When I was joined with their… essence… I could feel their plan. The joy of mankind at Christmas, the focus of children’s expectations on one individual, Santa Claus… it’s all been planned. As the creature has grown stronger, year by year, the idea of Christ’s birthday and revering gods has been allowed to fall by the wayside…

“But, the idea of Santa, however, has been enshrined. Millions, billions of people, thinking about St. Nick, not consciously believing in him, not really expecting a jolly elf to invade their home with gifts, but still, in the back of their minds, swirling with all the best parts of their childhoods, is this hope, this memory of happiness…”

Knight had stopped talking then, the struggle for words wearing him down. Besides, the entire idea was overwhelming him as well as his guest. It had been at that point the curator had shown Jason to his room, then gone off to his own.

Stretched out on his bed, still sweating, still staring off at nothing, Jason’s mind went numb, unable to find its way to any kind of conclusion. Yes, fine, he knew Knight believed in these angels, knew the man believed everything he had said. The curator had invited him into his home. Jason had lived long enough on the streets to know he was not being set up, not being deceived by his host. He also knew that Knight was not insane. No, he was frightened by what had been put before him, shocked and saddened and filled with pity for Jason—the man he had been tasked with sending off to his doom.

Which meant that it was true. That hell was being born at the North Pole, that some undying, unreasoning terror from another world had only another day to wait until it could murder all of humanity.

“And then it just jumps to another world and does it again.”

It was madness. As true as it must be, still it was insanity. The idea of Santa Claus, engineered to create a false happiness so angels could fuel a champion with love. Every year, Christmas grew by leaps and bounds, more chaos, more shrill, obnoxious spending, more glitter, more commercial damnation, because every year this unkillable monstrosity grew stronger, and more of humanity’s energy was needed to stop it.

“What does it even matter?” wondered Jason, his eyes closed, breathing rushed. “How many more years could we have? If this thing just gets stronger… nobody really cares about Christmas anymore… nobody cares about anything anymore.”

“I don’t believe that to be true.” As Jason looked up to find Knight standing in the hall beyond his doorway, the curator added;

“And I don’t think you believe so, either.”

“Yeah, why not?”

“Because if you did, you wouldn’t be tormenting yourself so over this.”

Swinging his feet off his bed, Jason pulled himself into a sitting position. Wiping at the sweat on his forehead, he looked up, then said;

“It doesn’t matter what I think… I can’t do this. These angels, they’re wrong—they’re nuts.”

“They seem to have a fairly decent track record so far.”

“It only takes one mistake.” Staring at the curator, his eyes unblinking, Jason shouted;

“A loser like me can’t do this. How am I supposed to be Santa Claus, loved by everyone?” Tears breaking from his eyes, he screeched;

“I couldn’t get even one person to love me!”

“Maybe,” responded Knight quietly, “the Bountifuls aren’t looking for someone who has love. Maybe what they need is someone who has it to give.”

Trembling, Jason rose from the bed. Staring at Knight for a moment, he then turned and stared into the mirror over the dresser. Once more he saw his life pass before his eyes, but this time he did not merely relive it, This time he saw it as a spectator, viewing it from the outside, watching the twists and turns of the events which had built his existence not as things that had happened to him, but as choices he had made.

Every path trodden, he suddenly realized, he had chosen to walk. It had been Melinda’s choice to rob him and use him—to try and destroy him. It had been his choice to allow her to get away with it.

Turning, shaking from the realization, Jason looked at Knight and asked;

“You have anything to drink in this place?”

“There is a bar downstairs. Rum, brandy, bourbon? I do make a splendid Belmont cocktail.”

“Dealer’s choice,” answered Jason. “Something a condemned man would get a bang out of.”

Knight stared long and hard into his guest’s eyes. Seeing that Jason had made his decision, he asked;

“So, you’re thinking of going?”

Before Jason could answer, suddenly the room around him began to shimmer. The molecules of the air, super-excited, vibrated so violently the two men could hear their movement for an instant. And then, they were there. Tall and fiery, as wide as vision, as long as time, blindingly brilliant, the Bountiful Immortals stepped into human existence. As he had before, Knight turned his face, his eyes blinded, his hearing stolen.

Jason on the other hand merely smiled, understanding at last. As his old self fell away, the chemical stink of physicality eroding in an instant, he felt the joy of the world begin to course through him. And then, finally, he understood.

The Bountifuls could not reside on the human plane. To utilize the spirit of mankind, to transform what goodness and cheer and selflessness there might still exist within the souls scattered across the face of the Earth in their own defense, they had to find one to act as its conduit, one who might join them in their endless task.

In but an instant, Jason existed as man and spirit, and then he was gone, all trace of him absorbed into the brilliance which vanished along with him. When he finally dared open his eyes, Piers Knight found himself alone within his home, no trace of his houseguest remaining.

“Well,” he thought, his spirits suddenly somehow improved, “A Belmont still sounds like a capital idea.”

Heading downstairs, the curator headed for his kitchen for the necessary sweet cream, crushed ice and raspberry syrup. The dry gin he would get from the bar. And, after his cocktail, he decided, he would head out into the street.

There was an entire day left before Christmas arrived… or the end of the world. Whichever it was to be would be decided by how much cheer the planet’s populous might scrape together to offer its solitary defender. That meant wherever there were carollers, he would join them. Wherever someone needed a hot chocolate, he would be there to fetch it for them. Wherever the memory of happiness needed to be restored, he would be there to breathe on its embers until the fiery brilliance of it was felt once more.

Minutes later, armored with hat and gloves and overcoat, the curator stepped off his front stoop, marching off into the first moments of Christmas Eve. Looking upward into the dark expanse of night, he gazed at those stars visible in the Brooklyn sky, then asked softly;

“Please.”

After which, in one of those amazing moments which were almost enough to make one believe in a higher power, the first snowflakes of the season began to fall. Feeling his heart grow lighter within his chest, Knight smiled, saying;

“Well, God bless us… everyone.”

And then he walked off into the night, singing the words to “White Christmas” as best he could remember them, almost certain he would live to see the next day.

 

 

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.

 

Book Review: The Dead Walk!

TheDeadWalkby Michael D. Pederson

 

The Dead Walk!
edited by Vincent Sneed
Die Monster Die! Books, 229 pp.

Ever since George Romero first showed us that zombies could be more than mere shambling corpses—that they are, in fact, a malleable metaphor that can be twisted to reflect different aspects of society—we’ve seen that they can be scary, silly, funny and socially relevant. Die Monster Die! Books’ The Dead Walk! brings us ten new zombie stories that cover the wide range of subject matter that we’ve come to expect from the walking dead. Shockingly, I only found one of the stories not to my liking and of the remaining nine tales I’d judge four or five of them to be instant classics. “The Dead Bear Witness” by James Chambers comes the closest to a Romero-style zombie tale. Set in a prison it injects a unique point of view where (much like Day of the Dead) the zombies are less important than how the people deal with them. Chambers is also represented by the somewhat humorous, often insightful, and downright creepy “Ressurection House.” C.J. Henderson has two stories here as well, one of which, “Crime and Authority,” closes the book on a nicely cynical note. The most daring story though (possibly the boldest and most intriguing story I’ve read in a while) is Robert M. Price’s “The Righteous Rise.” Telling the Resurrection as a zombie story could have gone wrong a million different ways but Price’s take on it is both intelligent and classy without treading into blatant sacrilege. Not only is this book a must-own for the hard core zombie fans but I’d go so far as to say that it may be the new definitive zombie collection.

 

Book Review: No Longer Dreams

NoLongerDreamsby Michael D. Pederson

 

No Longer Dreams: An Anthology of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction
edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail, L. Jagi Lamplighter, Lee Hillman, Jeff Lyman
Lite Circle Books; 256 pp.

How best to judge an anthology? Is it as bad as its worst story or as good as its best? If I were to stick to those extremes then this is either a 256-page piece of kindling or one of the best anthologies of the year. (Which of those do you think they’ll quote for their website?) Like everything else though the truth falls somewhere in the middle.

This is an odd bunch of stories. Danielle Ackley-McPhail runs an online writers group and that’s where most of the stories originally came from. Needless to say, it’s a rather uneven collection—there are a few stories that should have had another draft or two before ever seeing the light of day—but there are enough quality stories to make it a worthwhile purchase. Heck, the three (!) stories from John C. Wright are reason enough to go out and buy it. Wright’s got a beautifully clear style that reminds me some of Niven’s best short fiction. Other highlights include humorous bits like Darrell Schweitzer’s “Kvetchula” and C.J. Henderson’s “Wezleski to the Rescue” (originally printed in Nth Degree)—whining vampires and wacky scientists, respectively; Steve Johnson’s brilliantly clever H.P. Lovecraft-meets-E.E. “Doc” Smith pastiche, “The Doom That Came To Necropolis”; the tense science fiction culture clash of James Chambers’ “Law of the Kuzzi” and the beautiful historical fantasy “The Poppet” from L. Jagi Lamplighter. So, for a small-press anthology, this is a fun collection with a little something for everyone.

 

Book Review: The Occult Detectives of C.J. Henderson

OccultDetectivesby Michael D. Pederson

 

The Occult Detectives of C.J. Henderson
C.J. Henderson
Marietta Publishing, 259 pp.

I confess that prior to starting this zine I only had a passing familiarity with the works of H.P. Lovecraft. However, the Mythos-tainted stories of Henderson (a frequent contributor to this zine) have been one of the major factors that have dragged me kicking and screaming into the realm of the Great Old Ones. Henderson is perhaps best known for his stories about psychic detective Teddy London and fans will be happy to know that several of those stories are collected in this volume. In addition to the London stories there are sequels to some classic Lovecraft stories; a couple of tales using Lin Carter’s popular detective, Anton Zarnak; a Blakely and Boles story; and tributes to Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley. Horror is a tough subject to tackle well, but Henderson makes it frighteningly believable with his unique blend of terror, pathos, and humor. Some highlights include “Patiently Waiting,” a sequel to Lovecraft’s “The Tale of Inspector Legrasse” that perfectly captures the hazy horror of the original; “A Forty Share In Innsmouth,” which gives us the inevitable combination of Lovecraft and reality television; and “The Door,” a brief but powerful meeting between Teddy London and Anton Zarnak. If you haven’t discovered C.J. Henderson yet, this is a great place to start.

 

Memories

Cover#13SMALL

Illustration by Billy Tackett

by C.J. Henderson

 

A memory is what is left when something happens and does not completely unhappen.
—Edward de Bono

Darkness blurred, the ebony reaches of it strained by a fizzing annoyance, a calling more felt than heard. Languid purple sounds slithered through the gentle shroud, unbalanced, straining, pushing aside the burden of shadow, burrowing toward the future—trying to finally remember itself in some complete sense before all was forgotten.

But one more, the still forming thought reminded itself, but one more needed.

And with that single realization, the retreating darkness was further dissolved, one more shade of it diminished, by the will of ego and the acid of patience.

DUKE UNIVERSITY, DURHAM, NC
The thrashing reptile let out a hideous roar, a long bark of hot air and frightened anger that echoed down the pristine, off-white corridor. The wrinkled gray dewlap beneath its throat fanned with indignation, its sparse and ragged crest fringes snapping sharply as it threw its head to and fro. The beast snapped its maw several times, biting at the air with curdling frustration, then roared again.

“I second the motion,” said the man pushing the creature’s rubber-wheeled cage. “Where the hell is everyone?”

The man ran his hand through his rough, dark brown hair, letting the doors to the Science Hall swing shut behind him. He was tall and lean, a well-muscled man with dark eyes and a heavy jaw. His mouth was drawn in a thin line, set hard with disappointment. His eyes scanning down the off-running corridor to his left, then the one to his right, he called out.

“Hey, famous explorer with his Nobel ticket here—hello?” The hallways maintained their deserted posture, even as the caged beast barked angrily against the silence.

“Christ,” announced the man with understandable frustration. “Can’t anyone hear little Edgar, here? Has curiosity completely died in this world?”

When no response came to his queries, frustration forced him to one final attempt.

“Where is everybody?”

Finally a young man’s head emerged from a room close by. Recognition prompted him to call out.

“Professor Blakely, you’re back.”

“Glad someone around here notices the little things.” The rangy, broad-shouldered man did not bother keeping the annoyance he was feeling out of his voice. “Where is everyone?”

“Auditorium C,” answered the student. “Doctor Boles is giving a demonstration.”

Did the young man have a twinkle of mischief in his eye? Was, Blakely wondered, the little son’va bitch mocking him? The doctor of Cryptozoology could not decide if the amusement he detected in the student was actual or imagined. Then, Blakely caught hold of his temper.

Sure, he thought, Boles figured out exactly when you were going to arrive and scheduled one of his little smoke and mirror productions just so he could steal Edgar’s and my thunder. Even though even I didn’t know when I was going to get back and even though he didn’t know about Edgar.

The large man calmed down. Yes, he admitted, it was true. The rivalry into which he and Boles had entered was fast becoming a point of amusement for the entire campus. Ever since they had been forced to work together by a staggeringly generous endowment, both those members of the faculty made jealous by the endowment and the student body in general had enjoyed watching the pair’s attempts to upstage one another. Neither of them had gone to any outrageous extremes, of course, nothing undignified—not yet, anyway.

“Still,” Blakely mused under his breath, “I would like to know what that little ferret’s up to now.”

So saying, the professor wheeled Edgar to his new, if but temporary home in the biology lab, and then headed off across campus for Auditorium C. There, he found his colleague seated at a small table, not on stage but down directly in front of the orchestra seating. He could not make out the man’s face from such a distance, but Blakely could discern his counterpart’s general form—the small shoulders, whipping black hair, slight frame, thinly oval face, and of course, his trademark wire-rimmed glasses, still sliding too far down his nose.

Okay, sneered Blakely within his head, go ahead and wow me, professor.

The cryptozoologist noted that the auditorium was packed, and not just with students. He spotted more than a few faculty members, as well as the curious from Durham, and even local journalists. None of them noted Blakely’s arrival in the auditorium. All their attention was focused on Boles.

At the table far down in front, Boles sat across from a young woman, a student with whom Blakely was not familiar. Boles was facing the audience but his attention was focused on the student, or more correctly, on the over-sized deck of cards she was manipulating. As Blakely settled into a seat, she spoke, loud enough for all to hear.

“Okay, Dr. Boles, that’s thirty-eight out of thirty-eight. You think you can keep going?” Fraternity noises and other encouraging expressions of gusto thundered from around the auditorium. Boles put up a hand to quiet the room.

“I appreciate the enthusiasm, everyone…”

“You kin do it, professor…”

Boles smiled at the lone voice. “Thank you, Mr. Purcell. Your faith is appreciated, but it will not change your current grade.” A knowing brace of laughter punctuated the quip.

“So,” said the girl across the table from Boles, holding up a random card from her deck so that only she could see its face, “wavy lines, a circle, a rectangle… can you guess number thirty-nine?”

Boles reacted as if he was ready to keep going, touching the tips of his fingers together, lowering his head, closing his eyes slightly. But then, he suddenly shifted his position—agitated—moving his head to one side as if listening to a faraway noise. After a few seconds, he responded.

“I’m sorry,” he said with what seemed like honest fluster, “but I don’t think I can. Suddenly there seems to be a blockage, as if a vast negative presence has joined us.”

“Maybe professor Blakely’s back in town.”

A large wave of mirth rolled across the audience at Purcell’s suggestion. Then, a sharp-eyed student sitting far to the back of the room shouted out;

“Chalk up number thirty-nine for Dr. Boles. Blakely is back.”

Heads turned. Fingers pointed. Some students laughed all the harder. Many were amazed. A few frightened. Blakely scowled, his original good humor of the day shattered. In the front of the room, Dr. Hugo Boles seemed almost reluctant to respond to the growing applause that wildfired its way throughout the auditorium. Finally, as it began to turn into a standing ovation, he acquiesced and rose as well, taking a short bow.

* *** *

The next day found Blakely in the office of the school chancellor, Mr. Gordon S. Pimms. Few would guess that the “S” stood for “Stonewall,” for Pimms was a rotund and balding man of short stature who perspired far too freely for a man of academic importance. Although the political correctness of the times kept him from announcing his being named for the great general very often any more, still he realized the importance of the connection to many of the older alumni, and thus still maintained the initial on his business cards and office door.

“So, Hugo,” he said to Blakely, hoping to find some small trace of good humor in the professor for once, “how’s it feel to be back in the States?”

“For my part, being nine thousand miles from the sideshow antics of William Herbert Boles and his nightmare theater were a blessed relief. A jungle thick with buzzers who take a quart of blood every time they fillet you was sheer heaven compared to being coupled with his royal highness, the grand poobah of weird.”

“Hugo, you’re just caught up. Why don’t you let me…”

“No,” Blakely snapped, “don’t veer me off, Gordon. I’m collar hot and I think I deserve to be. Look at what happened to me yesterday. I arrive here with the find of the century…”

“You know, I still don’t really understand what it is you found,” admitted Pimms. “They said it was an old lizard…?”

“Euuuugghhh,” groaned Blakely. Leaning forward, he held his temper back as he lectured, “Here’s the brief, so you can dazzle the alumni. There are four branches to the reptile family, and the oldest is the Rhynchocephalia, which has only one member genus, Sphenodon, which has only one species, the ratty little tuataras, and you can only find those dusty losers on a few islands off New Zealand where they keep body and soul together living in abandoned bird nests. With the discovery of Edgar, I just doubled the Rhynchocephalian species count. He is the quintessential reptile morphotype. I mean, back in ’56, when Romer wrote Osteology of the Reptiles, his constant anatomical point of reference was Sphenodon. Every major book since then has had to do the same. But, not any more. From here on in they’ll be coming to us!”

Pimms began to grasp the importance of Blakely’s find, at least in terms his outlook could appreciate. Not only would it bring additional prestige to the university, but its discovery fit the criteria of the lavish endowment the school had received to further both professor Blakely and Boles’ work, and that meant far more to the chancellor than mere prestige. Gaining his slight understanding of the importance of the discovery, however, did not bring to Pimms an understanding of what had Blakely so upset. Questioning that brought the balding man his answer.

“But did anyone come yesterday? A new species found, a creature that dates back directly well over 200 million years? Why bother? Who cares?” Blakely panted, his voice growing louder and more agitated. “What’s the point when we’ve got that trained frog Boles doing card tricks in Auditorium C?”

“My, my, and this used to be such a genteel office,” came a voice from behind the two men. “Now they’ll let just anyone inside.”

Pimms welcomed the arrival of Dr. William Boles. Blakely pushed himself backwards into the overstuffed leather of his high-backed chair, retreating into its padding. Boles moved into the chancellor’s office and took a twin seat next to his colleague. Turning to Blakely, he asked;

“So, what’s this about some parasite you’ve brought back to the campus?”

“Bite me, ghost boy.”

“Gentlemen,” snapped Pimms, his good humor draining out of his system, “you two are becoming impossible. But, in many ways that’s what I like best about you.”

Blakely blinked, stared at Pimms for a moment, then let his eyes dart sideways toward Boles. His colleague merely continued to gaze forward, maybe looking at the chancellor, perhaps at something behind him, or at nothing at all.

“I’ve taken the liberty of cancelling your classes for the next two weeks, William,” Pimms said to Boles. Turning his head to Blakely, he added, “since technically you’re still on leave, I’ve contacted Human Resources and told them to extend it for the same period.”

“What’s up, Gordie?”

“A Mr. Gary Railsbach has purchased some property he wishes to turn into a wildlife preserve. The only problem, it seems it’s either haunted or plagued by monsters. I told him our world-famous team of investigators would be to his rescue shortly.”

Blakely blinked hard, swallowed air with noise, then opened his eyes, flashing angry bolts at the chancellor. Boles merely raised one eyebrow and gave a short smile.

WA’CHENKA VILLAGE, at the ALTAMAHA RIVER, GA
“‘Why stay in Townsend?’ he says,” fumed Dr. Boles, staring out the window of Blakely’s Explorer at the collapsing remains of what had once been known as the Wa’Chenka Village, a tourist attraction of the fifties which had not merely fallen on hard times, but indeed which had plummeted to them.

“Pretty hard to meet our contact,” responded Blakely, aiming a thumb at the woman crossing the litter-strewn parking lot toward them, “if we don’t go where we say we will.”

“Apparently,” answered Boles slowly, cleaning his glasses at the same time, “you’re willing to endure fairly much anything, if it has female body parts attached to it.”

Blakely almost answered, then decided there was no point to it. Their contact was most of the way to his car. It made little sense to him to force her to knock on the window before they acknowledged her presence. Besides, he told himself as he opened his door with relief, ten hours trapped in the same vehicle with Boles was about his limit.

“Hello,” started the approaching woman, “are you Dr. Blakely?”

“What gave me away?”

“I have to admit,” she answered coyly, her eyes giving his body an approving stare, “it was hinted to me that the Blakely half of ‘Blakely & Boles’ would be the more interesting. If that’s him still in the car, then he must be something of a demi-god. Not to be forward, or anything.”

“Now, aren’t you sweet,” responded the professor with an appreciative smile, suddenly feeling better about things. “Whatever it is you’re selling, why not throw a case in my trunk while I get my wallet.”

“Touché,” replied the woman. Extending her hand, she offered, “I’m Kate Skyler. I’m the representative from Friends of Wild Life you’re supposed to be meeting here.” Blakely took the proffered hand, approving of the rough feel to the fingers, incongruous with the rest of Skyler’s appearance.

“Hugo Blakely, at your service.” At the sound of his passenger door opening he added, “and this is my esteemed colleague, Dr. W.H. Boles.”

“There wouldn’t be a clean bathroom somewhere on these premises, would there, young lady?”

Skyler smiled. Pointing toward the endless stand of trees behind the dilapidated buildings at the edge of the parking lot, she offered, “The forest is a beautiful place, Dr. Boles.”

The professor stiffened noticeably. Both Blakely and the young woman did their best not to laugh. Resigning himself, Boles moved off toward the woods beyond while the others talked.

“So,” Blakely began, “here’s what we have—supposedly there’s a creature, that may or may not be tangible, on the loose in this little attraction of yours. That was enough to get our chancellor to send us down to do a preliminary scouting of the site. Now why don’t you add the reams of facts we’re obviously missing.”

“Glad to,” she responded. “First off, the Wa’Chenka Village isn’t an attraction anymore. Our organization bought this place so that we can turn it into a wildlife refuge.”

“You bought it?” Blakely was clearly taken aback. “But, you’re environmentalists, correct?”

“Yes. Not all Earth-Firsters believe the government should be involved in everything, though. We bought the land when it came on the market, and we’ve got plans that will not only make it a functional refuge, but should also turn a profit.”

“Sounds intriguing,” said Blakely honestly. “So, where are the creatures? And what exactly do you want done about them?”

While Skyler answered the doctor’s questions, his partner made his way back into the forest, looking for a spot suitably secluded to relieve himself. Coming to a particularly dense section of pines, he undid his zipper and began urinating when he felt a motion behind him.

Not far away, not moving, thought the professor. Reaching out with his senses, he told himself, quiet, patient, but solid.

Boles found beads of sweat breaking out on his head. What was behind him, he wondered. Why was it watching him? What was it waiting for? When he was finished urinating, would it lose interest and wander off, or might it attack?

As the stream he was releasing began to break up into spurts, Boles went through his options. He could enumerate only two—turn and confront who or whatever was behind him or run for the car.

It stands to reason, he told himself, that anything truly interested in mayhem most likely could overtake me long before I can reach any form of safety. Indeed, I think it’s safe to assume such would have happened already.

That thought in mind, the doctor finished his business, did up his trousers, then turned, saying;

“Hello, whoever you are. Pardon me if I don’t offer to shake hands…”

Boles turned to find himself staring into the eyes of the oldest human being he had ever encountered. The man was obviously a Native American, possibly one of the Wa’Chenka the site’s faded and cracked front gate had promised.

“Name’s Na’kiraw,” the man spoke in a raspy, tired voice.

“Any particular reason you snuck up on me without announcing yourself?”

“Not polite to interrupt a man when he’s taking care of business. Besides, wondered if I could still do it.”

Boles smiled. He liked the old man’s attitude. As the pair walked back toward the buildings, Na’kiraw answered as many questions as he could. The Wa’Chenka Village had been a tourist attraction of no small repute decades earlier. The site was actually the tribe’s reservation—in truth, the holiest of their holy places. Hard times had forced them to the practical, however. Erecting signs to lure tourists onto their land, the Wa’Chenka had put on shows, demonstrating ritual dances, archery marksmanship, native crafts, anything that might bring in a dollar.

“Got good at the showmanship after a while,” the old man said with pride. “The best were the weddings. Any time we had enough tourists to make it worth our while, we’d tell them they could attend an actual tribal wedding. We’d just grab any two of us who weren’t busy and they’d play the couple. Charge by the head, shame them into springing for gifts, good business—you know?”

“Seems as if you had it all worked out.”

“We did,” the man’s face went soft with memory for a moment. “I remember one summer I got married twelve times. The groom always wore an emerald green robe, thousand hummingbird feathers. Very beautiful.”

“Sounds like you enjoyed it, somewhat, anyway—yes?”

“It wasn’t bad,” agreed the old man. “Didn’t get to keep the gifts, but I enjoyed the honeymoons.”

“You put Mickey Rooney to shame,” answered Boles. “So, what happened to this place?”

“Fuckin’ Disney,” answered Na’kiraw matter-of-factly. “There used to be roadside attractions all up and down I-95. Dinosaur villages, Santa Claus Lands, slave plantation re-enactments—all gone now. All dried up. Nobody had time for us—any of us. We Wa’Chenka, we were always a small tribe. Back in ’74, ’75, when there was just nobody stopping anymore, the influenza hit. By the time we got any real help, a lot of the tribe was dead. Big mess.”

Boles and Na’kiraw reached the main building at that point, joining Blakely and Skyler as they came out the front entrance. It was quickly made obvious that Skyler and Na’kiraw knew each other. The old man explained.

“Skyler’s group didn’t want the Wa’Chenka lands to revert to the government. They bought it from me…”

“It’s a lease, remember?” Skyler corrected. “A custodianship set up in the tribe’s name. The Wa’Chenka still have complete access to their lands in perpetuity…”

“Which,” the old man cut her off, “since I’m the last of the Wa’Chenka, means it will all be theirs to do with what they want fairly soon.”

“But,” returned Skyler, slightly flustered, “you knew that. I mean…”

Na’kiraw waved the woman’s comments off, coughing as he did so. The racking noise went on for an embarrassingly long time. Hacking up a great glob of phlegm, he spat it out, tasting blood as he did so. Covering his mouth with the back of a hand, he lowered himself slowly into a chair carved from a twisted tree trunk that rested against the front of the building. “I know, don’t get in a tizzy. I know. But, I also know I’ll be dead soon and the Wa’Chenka will just be a memory.”

Na’kiraw settled into the chair, moving his legs and back slowly as if he were squirming his way into cushions. It seemed obvious the old man was soaking what warmth he could from the wood, positioning himself in the late noon sun to gather more. The conversation between the four of them shrank to three as Na’kiraw made it clear he was more interested in napping than anything else they might have to say. As the trio wandered away from the front of the building, Blakely muttered in frustration.

“Damn, kind of an unlucky break there.”

“Why?” asked Skyler.

“We’ve got some kind of new creature running around here. Pops there lives out here—right? He has to know more about it that anyone else.”

“You’d think that, wouldn’t you?” When both men turned to Skyler, the woman told them, “Believe it or not, Na’kiraw hasn’t seen the creatures. Or at least, he claims he hasn’t seen them. I tend to believe him, though.”

“Well then,” asked Boles, “who is it that’s been making these sightings?”

“That,” she admitted with a trifle of embarrassment, “would be me.”

* *** *

While it was true that Na’kiraw had so far claimed to have had no encounters with the creatures, not only had Skyler seen the various beasts, but so also had numerous members of her organization. As the trio sat at a nearby restaurant, the environmentalist told Blakely and Boles all she knew. As she spoke, her head continued to dart back and forth, giving the obvious feeling she did not want their conversation to be overheard.

“If you’ll forgive my asking, Ms. Skyler,” interrupted Boles, “is there some reason for you to be nervous over telling us about this?”

“Sorry, but I don’t want people thinking I’m a nut case,” she replied. “I do have to live here.”

“True enough,” agreed Blakely. “But you’re not the only person who has seen these creatures—correct?”

“No, but…” the hesitation in her voice choked along for a moment, then fell into silence.

“But,” Boles guessed politely, “all of the others who have witnessed anything have all been members of Friends of Wild Life—yes?” Skyler nodded. Blakely pursed his lips.

“Which means,” ventured the cryptozoologist, “people might be, or maybe already are thinking that your organization is up to something.” The woman nodded sharply, her head down, teeth biting at her lower lip.

The waiter chose that moment to return, setting up a standing tray next to their booth. Clearing their soup and salad plates, he passed around their platters, making the usual tip-boosting chatter as he did so. In seconds, he had Blakely’s crisp, double-battered chicken and potato wedge basket out with its sides of applesauce and corn-on-the-cob, Skyler’s broiled snapper with rice, with her sides of butter beans and spinach, and Boles’ house salad and side of Melba toast and sliced lemons. The threesome made pleasant chatter until the fellow left, then got back down to business, eating as they did so.

The thing the professors most wanted to get from Skyler was a description of the creatures she and her group had been sighting. Hesitation returned to the woman’s voice. Boles asked what the problem was.

“The problem,” she answered, absently twirling her fork in her spinach, “is that there is no one description of a thing. It’s things we’ve been seeing. All shape and size of them.”

Neither man said anything immediately. Blakely held a still steaming chicken breast gingerly between the thumb and forefinger of both hands. Boles gnawed at a large piece of raw broccoli, his eyes looking somewhere far away. Blakely responded to the woman’s comment first.

“Can you give us a ‘for-instance?’ Is there anything general to the descriptions people have been seeing?” When Skyler fumbled, not knowing what to say, the professor tried a different approach.

“Okay, no problem. Forget everyone else who saw the thing, things, whatever, for the moment. Just tell us what you saw.”

Kate stared at Blakely, her eyes unblinking, her face unreadable. The cryptozoologist pursed his lips, moving them first to the left, then the right. Still the woman said nothing, the uneasy look on her face growing more agitated. Understanding what was happening, Boles touched his napkin to his lips.

“Might I suggest the delay in your answering,” he said, breaking the mounting awkwardness, “is because you simply don’t know which thing to describe first?”

Skyler nodded, her hands starting to shake. As the two men watched, her hands grew more and more agitated, tiny flecks of spinach literally shaking off her fork. Boles reached across the table, his fingers gently sliding the fork out from between her fingers.

“I’m sorry,” the woman said, her voice a ragged whisper. “I knew I was going to make a mess of this.”

She looked up, her eyes moistening, mouth forming a pitiful, small puckered line that seemed to get smaller with each passing moment.

“I asked that any of the others meet with you,” she told the professors. “I knew I couldn’t do this. They all begged off…”

“Hiding behind a woman…” growled Blakely.

“Letting the boss do her job,” corrected Boles.

“You’re right,” Skyler confirmed. “Can’t fault them for not wanting to… not… it’s the remembering that’s… it’s…”

And then, Kate Skyler began weeping uncontrollably, long and loud moans of pitiful anguish which defied her ability to control. Blakely reached over to take her hand, offering consoling words, whispering reminders about where she lived and whom she might not want to think of her as a nutcase. Skyler simply laughed at his efforts, her fingers absently closing and unclosing. When they descended to her plate and started to tear her fish apart, the agitated digits flinging bits of oily snapper flesh about, Boles smiled. Squeezing the last bit of flavor out of one of his lemon slices, he moved it carefully, making certain to fill every crevice of a particularly good looking slice of tomato. Finally things seemed as if they might be leading somewhere.

WA’CHENKA VILLAGE, at the ALTAMAHA RIVER, GA
“Why have we come back here?”

“I told you, Dr. Blakely,” answered Boles in a reedy sneer, “as usual, no one is going to be able to help us. We need to see these things for ourselves.”

Blakely thought to reply, then stifled the impulse. Boles felt Skyler had been unable to answer because she was simply too frightened to respond coherently. The parapsychologist explained he had seen such behavior all too often in the past, where individuals experiencing hauntings could not describe events they had witnessed; even families whose members had suffered through visitations together sometimes simply could not relate what they had seen. Even over time, as the intruding forces battered away at their lives, often two people confronted by something beyond their ken would relate the details of the event so completely differently it was hard to believe they had been in the same place. Or that they were not lying.

Whichever was correct, however, Blakely did not want to argue the point. It did not matter if Boles’ theory was correct as to why they had no concrete description with which to work. What mattered was they had no description—period. The more he had questioned Skyler, the more hysterical she had become. Eventually the cryptozoologist had relented when she excused herself, allowing her to flee the restaurant.

“All right,” snapped Blakely. “So what’s your idea? We just go out and walk around all night until one of us stumbles across something that we can’t describe?”

“And people say you have no grasp of the obvious,” answered the parapsychologist with a bubbly glee. “It is truly a pleasure working with someone who, no matter how much education or how many worldly experiences they might acquire, can still manage to maintain a distinctly pedestrian manner.”

“Bite me, Boles.”

“Note how easily the subject switches to alliteration…”

Blakely made a menacing motion with his fist that startled Boles enough to make him break off his chatter. The cryptozoologist made to speak, then thought the better of it. What could he say? What would be worth the breath?

Deciding he had wasted enough oxygen on Boles for one day, knowing he did not want to hear even another syllable in the man’s smug tone, Blakely stalked off into the night. Boles sighed, realizing he had pushed his colleague too far once more. He did not feel guilty at the realization, he merely enjoyed taunting Blakely so that whenever he finally succeeded in driving the larger man over the edge, it was always a letdown.

You should have been able to make that last another twenty minutes, he chided himself. Smiling ruefully, he admitted that was a possibility, but that he had been having too much fun to contain himself. Removing his glasses, he cleaned their lenses absently with his handkerchief, then slid them back in place. When he did, he found his view remarkably changed.

As the parapsychologist stood frozen in place, a trio of forms moved out of the deep forest toward his position. They were all different from one another, but familiar to Boles in certain general ways. One of them was remarkably cat-like. Though it seemed coated with scales rather than fur, and was absent a tail, still, something of the feline permeated it. The thing was predominately green, a shining, reflective shimmer highlighting its reptilian skin.

“B-Blakely…” Boles’ voice was scarcely more than a whisper. He did not mean it to be so, but he could not make it any louder.

The second was more like a badger, squat and low to the ground, with great sabre-toothed fangs curling over its lower lip. The thing walked with a rolling gait, its bullet of a head turning from side to side as its unblinking eyes scoured all directions ahead of it. Behind it, the third thing came, a bulbous, misshapen creature, one covered in long, red feathers. Great, apple-sized eyes protruded from its body in six spots, all of them staring at Boles.

“Blakely…” The word hissed from the parapsychologist’s lips, the sound of it so low even he could barely hear it. Boles shuddered, naked fear beginning to etch itself across his consciousness. He tried to ignore the terror, control the trembling in his legs, the shaking in his hands, but he could not. The trio of things had obviously seen him, had their attention focused on him. One by one they opened their maws, stretching their jaws to their fullest, flashing teeth and fangs and appetites that were not bound to mere hunger. Frothing drool foaming over their lips, the trio began to advance toward Boles.

They’re coming for you, his mind whispered, terror frosting the words, the painful cold of them eating at him. What do you want? Why are you not moving? Run you idiot—run!

He did. Boles spun about wildly, screaming as he did so. His arms wavering wildly at his sides, he bolted off in the first direction he could find that did not lead him to the creatures. Not thinking, not capable of thought, Boles’ voice strained and cracked as he shrieked, then suddenly was cut off as he crashed headlong into a tree at full force.

The parapsychologist rebounded from the hearty locust over two yards, his feet not touching the ground as he traveled. He did himself far more damage than he did the tree, hitting the ground after his brief flight with a bone-jarring force that left him gasping for breath. His arms scrabbled weakly, trying to lift him up, to drag him away, to turn him over, to somehow propel him along before the approaching things could reach him. Mercifully, he blanked out before anything more could happen, his screaming mind shutting down even as the three figures drew closer.

* *** *

“Don’t move,” the voice was not a sound Boles wished to hear. Hands worked on him, loosening clothing, brushing at his face. He struggled to open his eyes, a part of him wishing the insane trio of things had done him in rather than leaving him to a worse fate than death.

“Where are they?” he groaned sadly. His eyes blinking, he made to sit up, but Blakely held him down with one solid arm.

“I said ‘don’t move,’ and I meant it,” growled the cryptozoologist. “You’ve got thorns in your face and you’re covered with blood. Now just keep still.”

“Where are they?”

“‘They’ being…?”

“They being the three twisted nightmares that sent me screaming into the night.”

Blakely laughed. It was a short burst, a noise more sympathetic than cruel, but the sound of it made Boles go stiff. The cryptozoologist pried loose a particularly long thorn, fresh scarlet pumping free at its removal, running over the black crusts already streaking Boles’ face. As Blakely worked, his partner described the trio of things he witnessed. He gave over what details he could, surprised at his recall.

“Why so surprised?” asked Blakely with honest interest. “You are a trained observer, for Christ’s sake.”

“So is Ms. Skyler,” Boles reminded. “And don’t point out that I’m more accustomed to things odd and terrible than she—I went a’whimpering just as she did.”

“What I find more curious are the details you’re giving me. I could do sketches from all you’re remembering.”

“And that’s a bad thing?” snapped Boles.

“No, just curious.”

“How so?”

“Where are you getting all these details from? It was pitch black, and you didn’t have your flashlight.”

Boles shook slightly, a small tremor that snapped his body rigid for an instant. His eyes narrowing, the question resounded within his mind.

“I did see those things…”

“I didn’t say you didn’t,” answered Blakely. “I just asked how you saw them.”

Boles thought for a moment, then sat up weakly. Turning toward Blakely, his mouth open as if to answer, he slowed, then closed his mouth again, his lips drawing into a thin line. He ran his tongue along the inside of his front teeth, then made a small ‘tsking’ sound, answering softly.

“I, I don’t know.”

“Yeah,” answered Blakely, looking around himself and off through the trees, “that makes two of us.”

* *** *

The next morning found the two professors investigating the area where Boles had experienced his confrontation. Blakely had made a particular addition to his wardrobe, now wearing a holstered Sig Saur 9mm on his hip. The pair entered the forest following the markings the cryptozoologist had made as they exited the night before which allowed him to return to the spot where he had discovered Boles without any difficulty. Backtracking, they were able to discover the spot where Boles had first spotted the creatures with equal ease.

“All right,” said Blakely. “That’s the end of your tracks. Now where do we find theirs?” Boles pointed. When he started to walk in the same direction, his partner told him to stay where he was.

“Let me do the moving,” Blakely instructed. “You just let me know when I’m in the same spot they were. You could wander all over looking for the spot, but our chances are better you’ll be able to tell when I’ve found it a lot faster—line of sight and all that. You just tell me when I’m there.”

In but a handful of seconds the pair found the tracks of the creatures. Blakely was able to separate out three distinct sets, finding evidence in the loamy forest floor that generally supported Boles’ descriptions. But, when the cryptozoologist tried to backtrace the tracks to their point of origin, or to follow them to wherever the beasts went after Boles ran into the tree, he found himself with nowhere to go.

“What do you mean?” asked Boles.

“I mean there aren’t any more tracks. Oh, the things you saw, you saw ’em. They were standing right where you said they were. And they chased you along, just like you said. But…” Blakely rubbed at his mouth, the fingers of his hand spreading across his face. “It’s as if… it’s… it’s almost as if when you weren’t looking at them, the damn things weren’t there.”

Boles stared dumbly.

“Hey, I’m not wrong about this. The ground’s the same all across here. There’s no rock ridges they could’ve jumped to, no surface clay. Nothing. They just start, and then they just stop. Period.”

Blakely waited for his partner to say something. Too trusting of the cryptozoologist’s skills to argue with his conclusions, however, Boles found he had nothing to say. Oddly enough, it was Blakely that made the next suggestion.

“You know, I’m beginning to wonder if this isn’t more one of your cases than it is mine.”

“Explain yourself.”

“Certainly. Since we came down here looking for ‘creatures,’ I was working under the assumption that this one was going to be more my line.” Boles nodded in quiet agreement, expressing that he had been thinking the same way himself. “But now I’m beginning to wonder. I mean, no one is seeing the same creature as the next guy, you see three different ones all on your own at the same time. People can barely think about seeing these things without getting spastic, which you say is common in paranormal cases. Then, this whole thing with the footprints, as if there was nothing there unless you were looking at it…”

“Are you saying I imagined what I saw?” snapped Boles.

“Possibly,” acknowledged Blakely. “But just because you imagined them doesn’t mean they weren’t there.”

The two men went quiet. Each looked around him off into the trees. What they were hoping to see, they did not know. As the quiet of the wood curled menacingly around them, Blakely hurled it back with a question.

“So, what do you think? Is this some kind of a haunting?”

“I don’t know,” answered Boles honestly. Sitting down on the ground so as to be able to concentrate better, he said, “There are few of the signs of a traditional haunting. Of any kind of haunting, actually. To have this much activity in an area so open and empty… no, the spirit world needs human energy to work with. But, there’s no one here.”

“There’s Na’kiraw,” suggested Blakely.

“Well, yes,” agreed Boles. “But he’s close to booking passage on the first cruise ship headed across the Styx, and hauntings are almost always accompanied by young people.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yes. Most often girls, most often around the age of emergent puberty. Lots of psychic energy in the air for spirits to play with.”

“Huummph,” answered Blakely sourly. “Not quite the case here. Na’kiraw’s about…”

The cryptozoologist broke off as he noted that Boles had slipped into a trance. The parapsychologist was a licensed FBI field psychic—Blakely had come to respect his talent, erratic as it was. Sometimes the moments of vision came upon Boles without warning; sometimes he induced them on his own. Whichever one this was, the cryptozoologist was determined to let him get all he could out of it.

Blakely started to walk over toward Boles—slowly, quietly—when the parapsychologist stood up suddenly and instantly started running back the way they had come. When Blakely shouted after him as to what he was doing, he was given no more answer than to “hurry up and follow.” Blakely caught up to his partner in the parking lot.

“What’s going on?” snapped Blakely. “What did you see?”

“It wasn’t a vision,” explained Boles, panting, gasping for breath. “It was more of a calling. We’ve got to get to Na’kiraw right away—now. He’s dying.”

Boles began to stumble off in the direction of the elder Indian’s home. Blakely followed along, not bothering with any more questions. He might dislike the parapsychologist, but he did respect the man’s abilities. The two rounded the teetering row of long-abandoned gift shops and all the rest, heading for the modest home the Native American had made for himself years ago. As they approached the place, both men called out, but no answers were forthcoming. As they arrived at the door, Boles said;

“Break it in.”

“What?” responded Blakely, more than a little taken aback.

“There’s no time to waste. Break it down.”

Slightly amused, Blakely reached out instead and simply turned the doorknob. The door slid quietly open. The cryptozoologist smiled as Boles shoved past him, hurrying inside without a word. Blakely’s smile soon faded, however, as he stepped in behind him. They had found Na’kiraw.

The old man was stretched out on his couch, breathing in raspy, heavy gasps. He was covered with a thin blanket despite the heat, his one arm clawing at the air above his head. His eyes closed, Na’kiraw muttered some inaudible phrase over and over. It was not the old man, however, nor the terrible sound of his breathing that captured the professors’ attention. Indeed, to all intents and purposes, the pair forgot about him almost the instant they saw him.

All about the room stirred an incredible assortment of unknown creatures. The things Boles had seen the night before were there—the shining, reptilian feline, the sabre-toothed bullet-headed beast, the bulbous one covered in red feathers. And more. Dozens more.

There were bat-like things hanging from the rafters, some all fang and claw and smelling of death. Some were curled on the floor in fearsome heaps, legged serpents with folds of skin tucked against their bodies appearing to be wings. A vast and powerful bear-like thing sat in the back corner, dragging its claws along the floor absently, sending large curls of wood peeling upward with every stroke.

Eyes green and orange and yellow stared at the two professors. Jaws opened and closed, tongues of all shapes and sizes and weights curled around fangs of every description. Blakely’s hand unconsciously unfastened the strap of his holster. When he realized what he had done, he began giggling, his mind highly amused at the comedy of his action. Boles’ eyes darted from thing to thing as he whispered;

“I swear, I believe this proves Von Juntz’s doctoral thesis, one part of it—”

“What are you babbling about?” demanded Blakely.

“Von Juntz, The Origin and Influence of Semantic Magical Texts. Can’t you hear Na’kiraw? He’s chanting. He’s causing this.”

“But why?” asked the cryptozoologist, his hand still on his weapon. “What is he causing? How is he causing it? What’s going on?”

“When Von Juntz was in school in the early 1800s, there were all sorts of random magics loose in the world—unexplained events, creatures—”

“Sure,” agreed Blakely, “that’s when sightings of Bigfoot began. So…?”

“Von Juntz offered one hypothesis for creatures like Yetis, or the Loch Ness Monster, things people continually see, but can never find. He said they were race memories of destroyed cultures, left behind as reminders, or avengers, of peoples who were wiped from the face of the earth.

“His theory was that the life energy of the last remaining member of a people could be used to create such a thing. A memory of them. Of how they felt, how they wanted to be remembered.”

Blakely looked about the room again. A number of fanged mouths seemed a great deal closer than they had been a moment earlier.

“Yeah, well exactly how does this guy want to be remembered?”

“I think we’ll have to ask him that question.”

Boles moved a foot forward slightly, testing whether or not they might be able to reach Na’kiraw. Blakely watched stunned, allowing the parapsychologist to move off several feet before thinking to follow him. The two moved in inches, quietly, slowly, steadily. All across the way, hate-filled, unblinking eyes monitored their progress, always seeming ready to pounce at any moment. Dust snowed down from the rafters, the agitation of the things hanging there sending down the decades of build-up. Low hisses and deep growls challenged their every movement.

“Na’kiraw,” whispered Boles, kneeling beside the couch, “can you hear me?” When there was no answer, the parapsychologist asked again;

“Can you hear me?”

Again there came no response. The old man simply lay on his couch, clutching his blanket, muttering his never-ending mantra. Back behind them, the professors realized that various of the things had blocked the way to the door. Others were sliding across the heavily curtained windows.

“Na’kiraw,” snapped Blakely, out of patience and almost out of courage, “wake up!”

The command was shared by a vicious slap across the Indian’s face. Growls sprang from every corner, but nothing stirred as the old man’s eyes blinked open. Before Na’kiraw could react to what was happening, Blakely asked;

“Is there anything we can get you? Do you have pills? Should we call an ambulance? Can we—” Na’kiraw held up a silencing hand.

“Too late. My time. Too tired, don’t care anymore.”

“Na’kiraw,” asked Boles, his voice tense and desperate. “Can you see the things here in the room with us? Do you know what is happening?”

The old man blinked, straining to see. Sweat poured down his forehead and into his eyes, clinging to his moving lashes. With a smile, he answered in a tired voice.

“The children of the Wa’Chenka. Come… come to take my place. Our place.”

“But,” blurted Blakely, “you said you didn’t see anything.”

“True. Never saw them. Came when I was sleeping. Dreaming. The darkness… reaching for me… telling me to choose…”

Boles held the old man’s hand at the wrist. His pulse was fading fast. Around them in the room, an agitated growling began to rumble. The light piercing the windows flickered, phasing out as the darkness blurred, reaching for them. From beyond, an ebony voice called out in vibrations more felt than heard. Languid purple sounds slithered through the gathering shroud, advancing, clamoring, shrieking—

One of the solidifying things, an apeish beast with four arms, brushed against the green scaled cat. A reptilian claw tore down the ape’s side, thick black ooze spurting from the parallel wounds. The ape pounded back in raging anger, but the cat had bounded away. Others in the crowd bit and swiped and snorted at one another. An arc of blood splattered down from the ceiling, splashing against Boles’ head, sloshing down over his forehead as he said;

“Choose? Choose what? One of these things? Why? What for?”

“To be our memory. To remind people that the Wa’Chenka ever existed.”

Blakely pulled his weapon as the disturbances around them grew more intense. Boles bent close to Na’kiraw, struggling to catch his every word over the growing din of the creatures all about them.

“Tribal elders, coming… demanding a choice. Many voices, scream for revenge. Death to the white man. Death to the pillager. Death to the yellow hair…”

“What is he saying?” demanded Blakely as he used his 9mm to warn off those things showing interest in himself and Boles.

“He’s rambling. Not talking to us anymore. He’s talking to himself. Dreaming, I think. He’s only verbalizing because we’re here intruding on his subconscious.”

A set of shelves crashed down from the wall, spilling the old man’s collected treasures. The things that knocked them down smashed the personal items into rubble as they tore and smashed at each other in unthinking combat.

“Elders coming,” Na’kiraw repeated. “Elders coming…”

A fox-like beast tore the throat from the red-feathered creature with the terrible eyes. Acrid smoke filtered from the wounds, bleeding across the floor. The long feathers dropped from the body one by one, floating in the thickening smoke.

“Elders… elders here.”

As if commanded, several ghostly figures passed through the front walls of the old building. Short, many of them seemed, but weathered of face and taut of muscle. They came in what looked like pounded leather clothing, most of them adorned with shells and beads and feathers. Old were their eyes. Gnarled were their hands. Stern were their expressions. As the two professors watched, the figures walked silently across the room, moving toward Na’kiraw. One by one, they came up to his resting place, and then they walked into him, sinking inside his flesh, disappearing within his soul.

They came by the dozens, the scores, the hundreds. Every chief and shaman of the Wa’Chenka from the first prehistoric days when they had ceased being random creatures and became men instead. Rude were some of them in stance and form, but they walked erect and their eyes shone with purpose.

As the last of them merged with the dying Na’kiraw, the beasts in the room continued to battle one another, tearing off limbs, gouging eyes, ripping hair out by its roots, biting, clawing, slashing. Blood of all kinds flowed. Brains were bashed, bodies were pulped—but nothing died. Not truly alive, the mashed remains continued to struggle. Severed appendages dragged themselves along, grasping blindly. Ruined bodies dragged themselves toward one another, fleshy mallets battering one another senselessly as the ghostsouls invading the old man demand he choose a champion.

Blakely and Boles unconsciously shoved themselves up against Na’kiraw’s couch, straining to get as close to the old man and as far from the children of the Wa’Chenka as possible. And then, when they were practically lying across his body, the old Indian sat bolt upright, his arms flinging upward.

“The choice is made!”

The words leapt from his body, echoing through the rafters, reverberating through the old shack even as its owner fell dead to his cushions. The creatures and pieces of creatures gave out a great hiss in unison, and then began to burst into flames.

“Jesus Christ a’mighty!” shouted Blakely. “Now what do we do?”

Boles had no answer for his partner. The flames spread to all the walls and ceilings in an instant, trapping the two professors in the center of the room. On the outside, purple smoke leaked from every crack and opening. Flames ate their way through moments later and the entire building was quickly covered, the torch mouth of it reaching for the clouds. The blazing ceiling caved in soon after. The fire spread to the other buildings quickly. Long before the fire trucks could arrive, the Wa’Chenka Village was reduced to cinders.

DUKE UNIVERSITY, DURHAM, NC
“Yes, yes, and then what happened?”

“We came home to see you, Stonewall. That’s our job, isn’t it?”

“Yes, no, I mean,” Mr. Gordon S. Pimms went red, flustered in his excitement. “But how did you escape the burning building?”

“We didn’t,” answered Boles in an almost bored tone. “The roof caved in on us. Everything burned. Poof.”

“But, but, butbutbutbut—”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Blakely, “the world’s first hot air-powered motorboat.”

“Now see here, Hugo…”

Blakely let loose a short laugh. Boles merely smiled quietly. The school chancellor ranted for a while longer, but both professors stuck to their story, refusing to tell him anything else—though both remembered what happened quite clearly. When the ceiling had collapsed, the only remaining beast, the one chosen by Na’kiraw, despite most of his ancestors’ wishes, flew above the two men and began beating its wings furiously. As it did, it created a dome of air over the professors, enough to sustain them while the fire raged. As they clung to the old man’s corpse, sweating from the heat, they heard his disappearing voice in their heads.

“The Wa’Chenka were never great warriors. Many argue for revenge, but revenge against who? Against what? Fearsome should not be our memory. Small we were, fast we were, clever, but unnoticed. Beautiful, but rarely seen.”

Finally leaving Pimms’ office, the pair waved at the flustered chancellor as his polished mahogany door closed behind them. As they headed quickly for the hall, making to escape before Pimms thought to come after them, Blakely said;

“Well, duty’s done and all that. What’dya say, Boles, want to go get a drink?” The parapsychologist’s eyes went wide for a moment as he considered his colleague. Before he could answer, Blakely added;

“I was just thinking, maybe the two of us had better start trying to get along before we get into something… I don’t know, something where a little more teamwork might work better than the way we’ve been doing things so far.”

“I’d really like to say something sarcastic,” admitted Boles, “but the simple truth is I think you’re right. It’s a thought that occurred to me as I watched the ceiling caving in on us.”

“I know what you mean,” answered Blakely, his tone quieter than normal. Chastised. “Com’on, I’ve got a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in my office—”

“Green label, I hope?”

“Yeah, that would be appropriate, wouldn’t it? Sure, the good stuff, why not?”

As the two walked down the hallway, Boles ventured a comment bordering on the friendly.

“Heavens, who would have thought it? We’re almost Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains at this point.”

“Yeah, it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship at that. And if it isn’t, I’ve still got the pictures I took of you layin’ all sprawled in the forest with your face full of thorns and…”

“You what?

Boles sputtered at his colleague. Blakely laughed. The two men kept walking toward their liquid reward, however, and far away in the deep wood, a hummingbird—one not fearsome but fast, clever but unnoticed, beautiful, but rarely seen, chirped in approval. Beating its emerald green wings, it flitted off into the forest, searching for the perfect spot where it could sun itself.

Memories2

Illustration by Billy Tackett

 

Wezleski in Love

WezInLove

Illustration by Erica Henderson

by C.J. Henderson

 

“I’m going to need wood.”

It was, to be certain, not the type of request that director Aikana, loving watchdog and guarding force of the Pelgimbly Center for the Advanced Sciences, got every day. Oh, no—not in the least. Not, of course, to think that the fine scientific minds of that fabled institution of higher learning and earth-shattering experimentation could not make a request or two, or three, even—for this or that. Perish the thought.

“Cords of it.”

In their time, this most prestigious gathering of high forward tinkerers and whiz-bang enthusiasts had made all manner of extravagant and nonsensical requests—the magnificently all-encompassing greed of some of them so radiant it could stun a congressman, indeed, mayhap even a senator—of every possible kind, shape and aroma.

“I’ll need all different types…”

Over the years the Pelgimbly Center’s renowned wildmen of science had requisitioned everything from gold-plated submarines to diamond-studded Fruit of the Looms. Now, of course, Professor Trillingham had been studying the effects of the conductivity of gold plating in sea water when applied to electronically-charged sea creatures, and the blue caret BVDs were simply part of Doctor Kimbreubo’s experiments in instantaneous human travel via light waves, the diamonds, of course, utilized for their refractory capabilities and the Fruit of the Looms, because, well…

“Oak, teak, mahogany, larch…”

…Damnit…

“Coconut, bamboo, the great Scotch pine…”

…Kimbreubo knew quality stitching when he saw it.

“Wood?” Director Aikana, at this point only a little stunned, said the word as if it were a curiosity. “Your latest project is only going to require… wood?”

No, not Professor Philip Morvently’s plea for the Center to send up more weather control satellites, or Dr. Maxim Ginderhoff’s repeated grant requests to build a second particle accelerator, nor even Associate Brodsky’s latest desire for six hundred cases of Luckies and a thousand laptops complete with cup holders and ashtrays for his battalion of nicotine-saturated chimpanzees had been the most lunatic boon ever asked by the Pelgimbly staff.

Indeed, the request before her was not the kind to which hard-worked director Aikana was accustomed. It was, unbelievably, far too tame, too innocent, too earthy and—gasp to a length that could awaken suspicion in the Amish—frankly far too inexpensive for her to believe it had actually come from a Pelgimblian.

“Yes—wood. All you can get.”

And for it to have come from Wezleski, well, of course, she thought, not that Wendel was ever as excessive as the others anyway… but, well—wood…

“What are you going to do with wood?”

She had to know. It was her duty, after all, to understand exactly the “what” and “why” of any particular “it” that one of her people claimed was needed before she could decide as to whether or not precious funds could be released for, say, another dysonsphere, or a dirigible. For in truth, despite their heart-felt, well-documented and often quite loud protests of the benefits of first-hand upper-atmosphere experimentation and gravitational contact, in truth she knew in her heart of hearts that Drs. Kuvish and Klokel only wanted a lighter-than-air craft for shooting skeet and cruising nude beaches.

“Burn it.”

Well, all right—what else do you do with wood? What else had she been expecting, after all? It was Wezleski. If he wasn’t splitting atoms with a pair of tweezers and a cocktail toothpick—baby onion still attached—as a bar bet to cadge free drinks, he was off somewhere teaching dogs to talk to quantums. He was the most difficult of all the men she had ever met—difficult in the sense that unlike most men, she had no handle on him. She could not manipulate him. She could not tempt him.

And she could not dislike him.

No matter how much mayhem he caused.

“Ahhhh, why? Burn it, I mean…”

A change in emotion, a sudden giddiness akin to the light-headedness the War Between the States could bring out in a true daughter of the Confederacy, the director’s mind went awash with horror. Specifically, the horrific thought of a Wezleski project that actually began with his starting a fire—

Cutting right to the chase, eh, Dr. Wezleski?

The terrifying thought of anything flammable being permitted to that one particular scientist before her turned the fingers of the director’s right hand into a fist so tight it might have fit through the funnel end of a #17 Piangersol Fessel tube. She caught hold of her emotions in exemplary fashion, though, calming herself with the undisputable grace of a debutante’s smile deflecting obviously damning evidence. Composing herself, she allowed duty to swell her defenses. She reminded herself that this, this was Wezleski.

Yes, Wezleski, the man who turned deserts into tapioca. Who trained hamsters to squeal a cappella. Who had once created a formula to bring the dead to life simply because he was short one warm body for poker night. Who mixed Martel Cognac with Yoo Hoo and regarded his discovery of the secrets of time travel as a nuisance. When it was Wezleski who sat before you, it did not matter what he wanted. Any request had to be questioned. And so, steeling herself against the answer, the director asked;

“Please… why do you want to burn the wood?”

“Oh, that’s simple,” Wezleski beamed. He really did. He had one of those untroubled, innocent faces, one that revealed all to whom he conversed. There were no secrets with the good doctor. He was, as a person, as guileless as a cocker spaniel, as uncomplicated as a beer brewed in Pennsylvania. Whatever he said, Aikana knew it would be the truth.

“For steam.”

The director stared at the doctor, her nerves finally at their end. What new calamity was the most accidentally lethal man in the history of academic research planning now and would the riches the proving of his latest theory bequeathed to the Center cover the vast expenses connected to the devastating destructions of discovery? These thoughts pounding at her brain with the fury of a bad-hair wedding-day, she asked the last question she would for that morning.

“And why, in this day and age, considering your particular field of current inquiry, would you need to generate steam?”

And that was when Dr. Wendel Q. Wezleski, Ph.D., explained the connection between quantum theory and steam power, while fields of dollar signs began to dance behind the thick lenses of director Aikana’s bifocals, their ballet a splendor to behold.

* *** *

“Hey Linda, he really thinks this is going to work, don’t he?”

“Yes, Spit. He does.”

“It’s Spitz. Spitz!”

The young man standing somewhat to the left of the center of Laboratory Hangar 27 could not help but shout. He was, after all, not only being provoked by a beautiful woman, but by one who decided long ago that she would spend all of her days being annoying to him. It had not been a conscious decision, of course. Even the suggestion of such a thing would have embarrassed the good doctor to no end. But, doing it she was and Edward Hoolihan Spitz, Eddie to his friends, knew why she did it.

“You were thinking that being Mr. Spitz was any better?”

Eddie’s best friend was Doc Wezleski.

“I mean, Mr. Spitz, Mrspitz? Isn’t that that little creep that would bother Superman every three months?”

The Doc and Eddie were almost always together. Indeed, Eddie considered himself Dr. Wezleski’s right-hand man. The two had been, in the commonest vernacular, pals for years. Sure, Eddie would be the first to admit he was just a kid compared to the Doc, even though they were but a mere three years apart in age.

“I’m like some high school rookie compared to the Doc,” he had told a friend once. “But then, isn’t everybody?”

Eddie Spitz knew Doc Wezleski was his mental superior. But, as far as Eddie and… well, most everyone else was concerned, the Doc was everyone’s mental superior. He could not think of a thing the Doc couldn’t do. Really—what accomplishment, what bit of research, what bold step forward or bizarrely daffy stunt was not already a part of his voluminous resume, or on his agenda for tomorrow?

Of course, Eddie knew what was bothering poor Dr. Linda Ginderhoff, daughter of the Center’s own Dr. Maxim Ginderhoff, Ph.D., esteemed doctor of thermodynamic physics, holder of the Kimwhiply Chair, and senior department head of the Variant Realities Department. She was the daughter of the man who was, for all intents and purposes, the Doc’s greatest enemy. Old Ginderhoff hated Wezleski with an intensity matched only by that of a birthing star. Or perhaps his daughter.

“You’re just jealous of the Doc,” Eddie offered smugly.

Linda snorted. She made the noise in a lady-like manner, well, in the manner of a lady scientist at least, but it was still delicate enough to not turn too many heads. Normally she would never have responded to such a feeble accusation, but she was ever-so-tired of Spitz and his foolishness. And now, to be forced to share a working area with Wezleski, that irresponsible, over-confident, self-indulgent…

“You have fun with those important equations and all your linear measurements, doctor,” Eddie said with a casual satisfaction. “The doc and I are going to be busy today, too… conquering time and space!”

Linda Ginderhoff snarled inside. Her face did not move nor did any outward part of her give off any social or even pre-social signals. She was the dictionary definition of calm. Her gloved hands did not shake, they did not ball. They stayed loose and poised and as casual as weeping willows in a gentle breeze. Her glacial poise was frightening.

And yet, she could have screamed with the rage of the mad and all their cousins. Heaps of them, dying in a pit, killing each other in a boiling fury could not begin to match the anger that assaulted her every time she was forced to think of Wendel Q. Wezleski. Indeed, her mind was fuming at such an unclockable rate the doctor could actually see her blood pressure rising through the intense throbbing vibrating the veins of her arm. Flustered, annoyed beyond redemption but unable to really do anything about it, she turned her back on the young lab assistant and busied herself with her own work.

And then, he came in.

“Doc!”

Wezleski.

“What’s up, Eddie?”

The man whose senior high school year book photo was accompanied by the legend:

Glee Club, Audiovisual Troop, Jazz Band, Future Geniuses of America, Basketball Team, the Sons of Liberty, Chess Club, Sophomore and Junior Class President, The Latin Kooks, Founder of the Well Rounded Rocketeers Society and Senior Student Body Cha Cha King.

“Nothing that couldn’t be brought down with a blast from a twelve gauge.”

Wezleski smiled. It was a large, boyish grin, a flash of enamel bright enough to signal planes. It made Eddie feel swell, gave Linda the urge to grind her teeth, and produced enough reflective energy to power any number of small motors. Standing in the doorway, hands on hips, teeth gleaming, posed directly beneath the plaque holding the stuffed and lacquered fish brought back from the deepest reaches of the ocean by the calculating but slightly demented Rufus T. Pelgimbly himself, Wezleski seemed ready to tackle anything.

Running his left hand over his head to try and tame the wilder sections of his chestnut blonde hair, he stood beneath the ichthyological nightmare that had proved to be the possible end of the human race as well as divinely tasty, infuriating Linda with his self-assured presence. His fine blue eyes, his strong jaw, his not quite perfect nose, all of it worked in splendid harmony as he threw back his head and laughed;

“You’re a card, Eddie.”

And with that he swung his lanky, muscular body forward into the room, as ready to make history as he ever was. For, it had to be noted, that morning was the morning—specifically, the morning when he and Edward Hoolihan Spitz would take mankind’s first sideways step through the universe. From her own area within the same massive staging chamber, Dr. Linda Ginderhoff did her absolute best to not watch a moment of the sure-to-be historical proceedings. Lighting a Lucky Strike, Wezleski took a long drag, haloed Rufus’s nightmare with a nicotine ring, then said;

“Ready to start loading, Eddie?”

She knew what the results would be, what they simply had to be. This time, she told herself with the casual but chuckling assurance of all the Ginderhoffs, like every other time he had tried to work out the ups and downs of inter-dimensional travel, the great Wezleski would fail. Oh, he might have been able to establish a radio link with a silicon-based intelligence somewhere in the Southwestern tip of the Uppermost Magellanic Cloud, find a way to not only make the recycling of bovine flatulence cost-effective but also entertaining, and even prove the existence of the elusive and long scoffed-at underwear gnomes, but this, this particular project, this was quite assuredly and most emphatically beyond even him.

Of this she was certain.

It was embarrassing enough that he would discover the secrets of time travel before her father, who had worked his entire life to unlock the mysteries of chronological navigation. It was even more mortifying that he had done so accidentally, and that he considered the achievement of science fiction’s most illogical goal of little practical importance.

“Ready as a man can be, Doc.”

But to think he was going to be able to travel from one dimension to another, to slide between the unfathomable layers of the gossamer fabric of existence with the ease of a five year old pedaling his Mattel Big Wheel, this was the ultimate insult, the maximum, elemental foolishness upon which the great Wezleski was finally going to be exposed as the fraud he was.

Sitting at her desk, Linda watched as Eddie and his hero stoked the boiler of Wezleski’s latest contraption. Large, it certainly was, and ungainly as well. She had been there from the beginning, watching its construction since the first day when the steam locomotive Pride of Pittsburgh had been dragged across the tiles and secured in the center of Wezleski’s staging area.

After that equipment and parts had arrived almost hourly. One moment it would be the remote-operations block valve and the condensation pump from a dismantled Western European nuclear reactor, the next it was the overflow pipe and the water level sight glass from a Kenmore water heater or the lubricating valve and the pressure release bleed from a 19th century water clipper’s steam engine.

The bits and bigger bits had come by pick-up truck, Federal Express and helicopter, all of them polished, calibrated, and then screwed, wired, welded, or in some other way made a permanent part of the grand assemblage. Large and larger still the monumental steam engine had grown, sprawling across the landscape of Laboratory Hangar 27 until it had taken on a shape and size one could only describe as not resembling any steam engine ever seen since the trepidacious opening days of river travel.

But, not only had Wezleski’s mountain of parts and thing-a-ma-jigger schools of wiring and pipe fitting driven her to distraction, but then the wood had begun to arrive. Cords of it, mountainsides of it—load after load until janitor Swenson’s singing of the “Lumberjack Song” had grown cosmically irritating.

Some had come in the shape of planks, some in the form of split cords. Just as many piles were composed of pristine, virgin timber as were made up of painted, varnished and even moss-covered shapes too plentiful to enumerate. Timber had been brought in from every type of tree and grass the planet had to offer, logically stacked, neatly piled, and faithfully itemized as to serve the purposes of Wezleski, janitor Swenson and the IRS.

Wood had also been gathered in a wealth of manufactured forms as well. The staging area had been filled with everything from children’s blocks and Conestoga wagon wheels to cuckoo clocks and conga drums. Pine clothes pins sat in wicker baskets next to bins of baseball bats and boxes of Burger King Employee of the Month plaques. The grapevine also had reported that George Washington’s teeth and the Vatican’s last piece of the true cross were hidden away somewhere in the mix as well, but most gave such whispers little credence. After all, this was the Pelgimbly Center, where gossip and rumors of the most outlandish nature were as commonplace as thieving Republicans and fascist Democrats.

“Well, let’s do it,” said Wezleski, his confidence as high as the ionosphere and as well-deserved as Galileo’s fame or Bill Clinton’s impeachment. “Let’s go visit the neighbors.”

Eddie gave a quick salute and threw open the hatch door on the great boiler before him. As he did Wezleski took his place before the main monitor board he had constructed over the weeks, checking his settings for the grand moment when he would finally achieve his boyhood dream. The two had worked out their signals in a seemingly endless series of rehearsals. As the pressure grew in the boiler, Wezleski would monitor the area around them for any anomalies. As they grew closer to breaking away from their own dimension into the next one over, the doctor would gauge how much hotter their fire needed to be and inform Eddie accordingly.

What was going to make the experiment work was the variety of timbers they had gathered. It was a proven fact that not only did different woods burn at different speeds, but that the differences in their ages, their dimensions and even their shapes played a great part in exactly how much heat energy would be released and when. Wezleski had discovered, while experimenting with the effects of wooden matches versus Zippos when attempting to activate bong water, that the source of one’s flame corresponded exactly with the size of one’s bubbles. Theorizing a direct correlation between heat and displacement, his resultant epiphany had inspired his latest series of experiments, the results of which would be measured that morning.

As water began to simmer within their boiler, Wezleski noted the approaching steam climb carefully, telling Eddie what to throw into the fire box in what quantities and in what order. Hotter their fire became, the boiler’s internal temperature rising notch by notch, every millimetric advancement noted with glee and recorded for posterity.

From her side of the room, Dr. Linda Ginderhoff sat mesmerized. On the one hand, the rational mind had to admit that the possibilities if the pair succeeded were enormous, mind-boggling—simply, starkly incredible. On the other hand, however, that part of the good doctor not given to orderly thought, what the more foolish risk-taker might categorize as Ms. Ginderhoff’s feminine side, stared straight ahead—riveted—praying for the two men to fail.

And fail they did. No matter how much wood Eddie hurled through the boiler door, no matter what the order was in which he threw it, or what it was he threw, the secrets of the universe were not unraveled that morning, although not for lack of effort. Wezleski tried every combination imaginable, sending Eddie running helter skelter amongst the piles and stacks and barrels, burning up everything from Peruvian pipe thistles to a complete run of the TV Guide, including all the variant covers. They tried running cool fires which barely rattled their nickel-plated pressure valve to thermal holocausts so violent they threatened to melt the boiler’s confining cement work.

All of it to no avail.

With each order shouted to throw in a handful of redwood pine cones or a mahogany ottoman, fifty feet of Japanese cherry or a set of wooden wall ducks, Linda sat enraptured, her smile ever widening and her soul eternally gladdened by Wezleski’s utter failure. And an utter failure it was, for no matter how much wood was burned, reality did not so much as jolt. No doorways opened, the lights did not dim, the air did not shimmer. Even the dust did not move. In short, nothing happened.

Absolutely nothing.

“Something wrong, doctor?”

Wezleski turned his head slowly in Dr. Ginderhoff’s direction. He had never spoken to her before, mainly because she had never spoken to him before. Indeed, as far as he knew Linda Ginderhoff held the same hostile opinion of him that her father did.

“No,” he answered finally, wondering what could possibly be causing her concern. “Just catching our breath.”

Wezleski noted the woman’s smile, how much more pleased and delighted and unrestrainedly alive she seemed. The doctor had not actually realized how often she seemed distant, dour and, well… just plain angry until that moment. Now, however, he saw her in an entirely different light.

“Oh, is that what you call it?”

Her tone was positively awash with humor. Wezleski’s ears tingled with the recognition of it. His eyes drank in the luscious curves of her smile, the joy infusing her body language. Smell, taste and touch all started to bark within the back of his brain, demanding their own chances to assess the good Dr. Ginderhoff, but he restrained them.

“Well, a man has to start somewhere,” he told her, parts of his brain still not certain why they were suddenly chattering away like old chums. “We didn’t get it today. All right, fair enough. So we’ll get it tomorrow.”

And at that point, Linda laughed once more. The sound of it was alluring, captivating. Wezleski could taste the beauty in her all too-feminine giggle, found himself getting lost in its delicious passageways, when suddenly, the part of his mind experienced with pain realized that the good doctor was not laughing with him.

“So,” she managed to say through her escaping humor, her hand to her mouth, eyes filled with delight, “you plan to put on another little show tomorrow, do you?”

She was laughing at him.

Wezleski stood stock still, shocked and hurt and decidedly confused. He had always known Maxim Ginderhoff was somewhat jealous of his various successes, had always felt sorry for the old fellow because of it. He had also assumed the hostility that Linda had always seemed to show him to be merely that of a loyal daughter siding with her father. But the depths of scorn he felt in her throaty chuckle, that was something all together different. She more than disliked him, he could plainly tell.

She really disliked him.

“Yes,” he answered her, stiffly, coldly. Staring at her in much the manner one supposes great and noble Caesar stared at Brutus at the moment of his pincushioning, “that was the plan. It’s called scientific investigation. You should try it sometime.”

Linda snapped back an equally dry and catty remark, her temper boiling at the notion that Wezleski could possibly be so ill-mannered and boorish to actually take offense at her playfulness. After all, she deserved to get a little of her own back. So he didn’t know why she was upset with him, so he didn’t actually know she was upset, so what, she thought. If he was so damned smart he should have had it all figured out.

Within his own mind, Wezleski found himself as shocked as Dr. Ginderhoff. Who was she to gloat over his failure? How could she? Weren’t they both Pelgimblians? Weren’t they all brothers of science together, slogging forward through the trenches, taking each…?

Brothers?

Wezleski let the word repeat in his mind. Well, all right, he told himself, obviously he knew she was a woman. How could he not? Did people think him blind? Did anyone believe he hadn’t noticed her unparalleled legs, her perfect form, those raven locks cascading down her fabulously formed shoulders?

Ha—he could tell them. Ha, again. He’d noticed. All that and more. The devastating length of her lashes, the delightful shade of her cheeks when she blushed, the way her waist tapered to a circumference equal within twenty millimeters to the ovoid created when he touched his hands together—fingers to fingers, thumb to thumb—perfect for lifting…

Wezleski blinked, then stared into Linda’s eyes. Somehow he saw in them a perfect reflection of what he had been thinking, could see that the curvaceous Dr. Ginderhoff had the same image in her mind, of him picking her up and twirling her around and…

He had made some kind of comment about her dedication to science, but she did not answer him. Instead she turned suddenly and went back to her work. He watched her for a moment, shoulders tight, head down, then tore himself away. Whatever had been washing its way through his mind was, he told himself, merely a reaction to the day’s failure.

Galileo’s predicament, he thought, you’ve punished yourself before for not getting something right, but you’ve never dreamed up anything as loony as that.

“Hey, Doc,” said Eddie, spirits depressed, but not deflated, “you want to go out and have a little drink?”

“Yeah, Eddie, let’s go get a little drink.”

You think you need some punishment, a voice whispered within the scientist’s head…

“Let’s get a lot of little drinks.”

I’ll show you some punishment.

* *** *

The next day things did not go much better. Both the good doctor and his erstwhile sidekick had bent their elbows far into the evening. Their trail of bar hopping had begun with fruit wine fizzles at the Cold Crab Café, a mere block and a half from the Center, and had ended with a round of Confucius Coolers at Mama Leung’s Noodle Nook in a somewhat scandalous part of a Chinatown three states away.

But, both the good doctor and Eddie survived the evening and, thanks to Abdul Ben Thorner’s All Nite Car Service and Computer Repair, even made it to the front steps of the Pelgimbly Center at 9:18 the next morning wearing the same clothes they had left in the night before as well as each other’s shoes. That they were not well rested was evident from both the color of their eyes and the fact that neither realized they had strands of garlic noodles stuck in their hair. Still, they were red-blooded men of science and as such they knew the experiment had to go on. Undaunted, and oblivious to consequence, they emptied their pockets of bar nuts, tiny umbrellas and the occasional shot glass and got down to work.

If determination were success, they would have transversed the entire multi-verse without having to light so much as a twig. But, wishful thinking never won a government contract, and neither did anything done within Laboratory Hangar 27 that dreadful day. If anything, the weakened state of the two men made their efforts even more pitiful than the day before.

When the afternoon whistle sounded, alerting the Pelgimblians from one end of the Center to the other that another day’s wages had again been well-earned, Wezleski and Eddie sat amidst their stacks and cords and heaps utterly discouraged. They had somehow done the impossible. They had failed. Twice. And neither could think of a single reason for such to be the case.

Not that the great Wezleski was a stranger to failure—no, not at all. On more than one occasion he had left his home wearing mis-matched socks. He had even once left the fire on too high beneath a pot of eggs he wished to hardboil, returning to find a blackened piece of melted cookware and a kitchen filled with reeking smoke and covered with exploded bits of shell and yoke. But this, this was bigger. This time he had data, data he had checked twice.

Twice!

But even after an unheard of third checking of his data, still Wezleski could find no error in his calculations, and so on he worked. Day after day he directed Eddie, telling him what to burn, relentlessly scanning his monitors for the slightest sign of dimensional rifting. But, no matter if they were burning maple logs garlanded with fig branches or floorboards from a Kabuki theater sprinkled with sawdust from Professor Ludwig’s termite cage, the results remained the same. The wood burned, the water boiled, the crosshead slid the crankshaft and the flywheel turned, but nothing happened.

By the tenth day, even Eddie was discouraged.

As young Spitz got his hat, Wezleski threw him a handful of encouragement, a sorry bit of “we’ll get ’em tomorrow.” The sentence rang bitterly false to the young research assistant. Indeed, the words could not have sounded more like a lie if they had been spoken in French. Still, the two shook hands, punched each other on the arm, and swore that they would somehow make things work the next day no matter what.

Dr. Linda Ginderhoff sat in her stadium seat for the Great Grand Failure of Wezleski and turned her head, unable to look at the two men. For a while it had been delicious fun, to watch them trying, struggling, day after day, hoping for some kind of reaction—any kind of reaction—beseeching the cosmos for the tiniest of ripples, anything that might let them know they were on the right track, and receiving nothing in return. But, after a while, like burning ants with a magnifying glass, the fun of Wezleski’s daily humiliation began to lose its allure. In fact, for Linda, it had become painful to endure.

For the past two days she had found herself watching the goings on across the floor of Laboratory Hangar 27 with growing concern, sometimes for hours on end. She had not really been noticed, of course, since much of the staff had taken to coming in to spectate in their off moments. Indeed, her father, Dr. Maxim Ginderhoff, had practically made the hangar his second home, proposing bleachers be brought in and passing out bags of popcorn to one and all.

But Linda had somehow been unable to join in with her father’s undisguised glee. She felt sorry for Wezleski, pitied him in his failure. To fail was, of course, something of a novelty to Wezleski, a painfully nasty and unwanted novelty to say the least, a new and unknown quantity which he was having increasing difficulty understanding. As he sat pouring over his calculations, eight score pages of them spread across his monitor board, Linda came up behind him and asked;

“Having some trouble?”

“A touch.”

“Any idea where the problem might be?”

Wezleski turned around in his chair and looked into Linda’s eyes. As much as he wanted to find something there he could take his frustrations out upon, he found nothing but unexpected sympathy and kindness. Within minutes, the two of them were pouring over his calculations, all eight score pages, together—searching for the one tiny instance where the inventor of the anti-grav toilet, Cancer-B-Gone and everyone’s Kwanza favorite, pepperoni waffles, had gone wrong.

Four hours later they stopped looking.

“OOOuuuaagghhh, I give up.”

Linda’s eyes bulged involuntarily. The great Wezleski had actually thrown in the towel and the skies had not fallen nor had the mountains tumbled. As much as she disliked the man, she could not allow him to fold inward upon himself. If such was to happen the cause of runaway science might be set back decades. She owed it to her vocation, she owed it to Pelgimbly, she told herself, to snap him out of whatever kind of funk he was putting himself into.

“Have you considered,” she asked cautiously, “that your data is sound, but that your implementation is faulty?”

Loving the sound of hope he sensed in her words, Wezleski inquired, “What were you thinking?”

“Maybe Eddie and you don’t make the best team. I’m not trying to criticize poor Spitz, but these calculations of yours call for split-second timing. If the simmer isn’t manipulated just so, just when… well, you know…”

Indeed, Wezleski did know. Before Linda could finish her sentence he had hurried her down to the boiler, tossed her a pair of Makitosh Work Gloves, and then scampered back to his monitor. By the time she had tightened the wrist cinches on her new asbestos-lined accessories, he had the system on line and was calling for steam. Flame poured out of the fire-throw nozzles, slathering over the starter fuel she began heaping inside the boiler oven. In a matter of minutes the water above began to steam.

“Teak—pound and a half.”

Linda grabbed up each ingredient ordered and flung it home with ruthless efficiency. No longer did she gleefully desire Wendel’s failure. This was bigger than her family pride, beyond the petty jealousy that had driven her earlier. This was important, this was essential, this was…

“Oak, knotty pine, two pepper mills and a copy of The New York Times.”

The two monitored and stoked, working at a fast and furious pace, one which seemed to notch upward in intensity every few minutes. Before their first half hour had passed, the two had fallen into a kind of rhythm where Linda was beginning to anticipate Wendel’s commands. Unnoticed to either of them, she would be halfway to this or that fuel when the order would come directing her toward it. Before their second half hour had passed, her hands were already grabbing up the this and that about to be asked for. Then, roughly one hour, thirteen minutes and fifty-nine seconds after they had begun, just as Linda tossed a handful of birch chopsticks into the licking flames, it happened.

Working feverishly, finishing each others sentences, communicating at a level where they understood each other so well they could practically read one another’s minds, neither Linda nor Wendel saw the encroaching signs. But they were there. The first was the changing of the height of the ceiling. The second was a switch in the color of Wendel’s shirt from ivory to chalk. The third was a massive burp tasting of pickles, oiled fish and curried rice, none of which Linda had even seen in weeks.

“Excuse me, Dr. Ginderhoff,” said Wezleski with a chuckle. “Lunch talking back to us, eh?”

“I don’t understand. That tasted like… I mean, I haven’t… I didn’t…” And then, they knew!

Looking about them, they watched the changes coming and going. Wendel with a moustache, a pinkie ring, a wooden leg, Linda as a blonde, in a wheelchair, with a moustache, wall color changing, flooring changing from cement to concrete, everything changing, changing a degree at a time, one degree after another, but changing—unstopping, unstoppable.

“We did it,” shouted Wezleski. “We’re moving through probability!”

Wordlessly the two raced toward each other. Meeting exactly halfway between where they were and where they were going, the two threw themselves together. His hands came in smoothly to encircle her waist, a space of only twenty millimeters remaining free as his large hands lifted her from the floor—fingers to fingers, thumb to thumb.

She squealed with delight as he twirled her. Then suddenly, she was on the floor once more, and they were wrapping themselves one around the other, chests and heads and lips meeting at the same moment. They kissed with the tenderness of childhood sweethearts and the passion of adulterers, with the ardor of newlyweds and the hunger of the starving. Moment after moment they kissed, every handful of seconds enhancing the experience by sliding them into yet another dimension, changing the texture and flavor and intensity of their bonding ever so slightly.

Throughout the great expanse of Laboratory Hangar 27, dozens, then scores, then hundreds of multiples of the pair appeared, holding each other dearly, kissing with a passion unknown anywhere or anywhen else, each of them a shade of the central couple holding each other at the universal ground zero of all possibilities.

And, as he held the woman he now had to admit he loved with a desire stronger than a child’s for Christmas or a dog’s for bacon, the back of his mind chuckled and slapped him roundly for missing the obvious. Of course his data had been correct; he was, after all, Wezleski. But he had tried to make it work with an improper equation.

“Does this mean we’re in love,” asked Linda teasingly, biting his ear, licking at the wounds she inflicted.

“I believe so,” he murmured in response.

And believe it he did. For men and women alone can accomplish much, but as the sages have known since the beginning of time, men and women in love can do anything they want, become anything they choose.

Through a smile as bright as the sun and as wide as generosity, Wezleski pulled a deep breath into himself. He had done it. He had shattered the laws of probability. He could now reach for any possible future and do anything he desired. In a handful of seconds the boiler would cease to bubble at the same intensity and the elasticity of the moment would be over. But, until then, he could seize for himself anything he desired.

Staring into Linda Ginderhoff’s eyes, the most beautiful eyes any man had ever beheld on any plane of existence, Dr. Wendel Q. Wezleski knew exactly what he wanted.

 

The Pelgimbly Center for the Advanced Sciences first appeared in “Wezleski to the Rescue“.