The Raven Reincarnated

by Kevin Lenihan

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

More Hallways!

by Michael A. Ventrella

 

Darvin stared at the floor. It was better than trying to meet the eye of the king. His right knee shook against the plush carpet, and he was certain he would tip over if he did so much as breathe. What if not looking at the king was an insult? What if His Majesty decided he had had just enough of this ridiculous architect and was waving to his executioner who was on his way at that very moment to turn Darvin into two distinct parts?

“Oh, stand up already,” King Franklin said.

Darvin rose, heart beating steadily, arms clutching his latest drawings.

The king stood before a massive oak table bathed in sunlight from the high windows in the royal meeting room. The table was barely visible under a pile of papers held in place by weights shaped like little knights in battle. Darvin recognized some of his designs partially hidden under notes covered with scratchy, primitive sketches that made his hair stand on end. Doesn’t this person know how to use a straight edge?

“I’ve made some improvements on your drawings,” his liege said. “Here, come see.”

Darvin shuffled closer to stare at His Majesty’s work.

“I wanted the best and safest storehouse for my treasure vault, but your design missed key features we need.” King Franklin stroked his gray beard and nodded proudly at his own work. “For instance, you didn’t have enough hallways.”

“Hallways, Your Highness?”

“Yes, hallways. I want lots of hallways! Hallways that go on for great distances and then end for no reason. That’s what we need.”

“But Your Majesty…”

“And then you have windows,” he said, throwing his arms up to emphasize the ridiculousness of the situation. “We don’t need windows! This entire thing must be completely underground, like a dungeon.”

“But the cost…”

The king ignored him and jabbed his finger into one of his drawings. “Over here is where we’ll have a room for the treasure guards. Another room will be over there. And we’ll put orcs in one room and trolls in the other, all armed and armored.”

Darvin swallowed. “But Your Majesty, won’t they just fight each other like they always do? And how will you feed them? Plus, you haven’t put in any privies…”

“Of course, we’ll save the best armor and weapons and place them in chests located randomly around the halls,” King Franklin continued, ignoring Darvin’s protests. “And the final touch will be this great room at the end of the last hall. That’s where we’ll place the treasure. It’ll have massive metal doors with unpickable locks and thick walls to prevent unwanted entry.”

“Oh.” Darvin let out a sigh of relief. “Well, that’s a good—”

“And off to the side here, on the wall, we’ll place the riddle.”

“Riddle.”

“Yes, of course. The riddle. So that when you figure out the riddle, the door will open, allowing you to get the treasure.”

Darvin reached behind him blindly, found the arm of a chair, and sat, risking angering the king. “Your Majesty, I have to ask. Hallways that go nowhere, underground design, monsters that wait, treasure randomly scattered in chests, and a riddle to get the treasure? Surely you can’t be serious.”

King Franklin looked down his nose at the timid architect. “I am deadly serious!” he bellowed. “What do you think this is—a game?”

 

A Perfect Moment

by C.J. Henderson

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Murdered by who, sir? Do we know?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

Big time.

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

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

Now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What in the seven suns is that?”

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

“Look out!”

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

“Down!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Vrenten was taking his tally, the native asked;

“You military?”

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

“What’re your orders?”

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

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

“What is that which you combat?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Time to move.”

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

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

“I can deal heat, too, ugly.”

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

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

Oh, if you liked that…

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

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

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

*worthy*

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

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

“Behind me!”

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

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

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

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

You will be avenged, good sir.

And then was struck speechless.

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

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

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

“Gralg, stuff a dilly.”

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

“Did you kill it?”

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

“What are we looking for?”

“The other two.”

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

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

“Headed this way?”

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

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

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

“Brace yourself.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I noticed.”

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

“A bit… here and there.”

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

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

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

“Much appreciation.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If I might pose a question—”

“Shoot.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes!”

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

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

If, of course, it was given sufficient time.

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

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

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

“Thanks…” the native managed weakly.

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

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

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

“You are injured.”

“Yeah… not the first time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it had brought him to within feet of London.

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

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

The enjele remembered the native’s words—

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

“It’s not them…”

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

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

And his will die!

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

Reaching his hand down to London, the enjele asked;

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

“I can give it the old college try.”

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

“I believe I have an idea.”

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

*****

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

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

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

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

“And what makes you say that?”

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

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

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

“Yes—”

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

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

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

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

“So, I’m not in trouble?”

“None.”

“There never was anything called the Light?”

“Not at all.”

“This was just a test…”

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

“Tested for what… ah, sir?”

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

“But…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

“You really should have that looked at.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You going to make it home all right?”

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

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

“If I can’t…”

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

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

“What makes you so sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah… what’s he sell?”

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

“Hope for the future.”

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

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

 

Games Best Played Alone

by Wendy C. Williford

 

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

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

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

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

Human. If they only knew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Him.

The other You.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t call me Mr. Wayne, I’m…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Monday, if possible.”

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

“Are you listening to me, Jerry?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You nod, sure, anything.

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

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

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

“At any rate.” He turns and leaves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You wonder if you can even save yourself.