Abandoned Towers Magazine
1st Trimester 2010
The stories in this magazine are works of fiction. Places, events, and situations in the stories are purely fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is coincidental. No part of this magazine may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the editor or publisher. Abandoned Towers is published three times a year on March 1, July 1 and Nov. 1, by Cyberwizard Productions ISSN 1945-2861 (print) ISSN 1945-287X (online) Managing Editor - Crystalwizard Copy Editor - Lucille P Robinson Forum Administrator - Spencer Conrad Editorials - Bill Weldon Editorial Staff: Michael Griffiths Ed McKeown Timothy Ray Jones Paul McDermott Chris Silva Thom Olausson Carolyn Chang Grady Yandell Heather Wilkinson Ramon Rozas Stephen Morgan Ramona Thompson
Shawn Scarber Front cover art::
Periodicals postage paid at Saginaw, and at additional mailing locations. Postmaster: send address changes to Cyberwizard Productions, 1205 N. Saginaw Main #D, PMB 224, Saginaw, TX. Abandoned Towers Magazine© 2010 Cyberwizard Productions Individual art and written content © 2010 to the originating author or artist. All Rights Reserved. No portion of this magazine may copied by any method or used for any purpose other than personal reading enjoyment without written permission from the publisher. Permission is hereby granted for the perchaser of this issue to make copies of the coloring page for personal use only. Such personal use shall be limited to the perchaser and his or her family. (In plain English tha tmeans that if you bought this issue then you can make copies for yourself, your kids, grandkids or other personal relatives, but you can’t make copies for your friends, your kids friends, your students or any other people not related to you. If someone else bought this issue, then you need to buy your own copy of it if you want to copy the coloring page.
Table of Contents
Editorial Minimum Standards
Zap Zachary Returns by Stoney M. Setzer
Stories Gold by Arthur Mackeown Ray Guns by Doug Hilton Othan, Debtor by Kurt Magnus The Horrors of War by Chris Silva Mindforms by Dal Jeanis Jeffrey’s Story by Guy Belleranti Final Score by Brad Sinor Riding to Hounds by Thomas Canfield Copper-bottom’s Downfall by Arthur Mackeown The Last True Gunslinger by Y.B. Cats The Empty Chair by Malcolm Laughton ‘ware the power by Jack Mulcahy Call of the Northern Seas by Norman A. Rubin Across the Plains by Lou Antonelli Hobocop by Kevin Bennett Odds Are by Kevin Brown The Grave of Armond Balosterosby E.W. Bonadio The Last Saguaro by Doug Hilton
15 18 23 29 34 40 44 53 56 59 63 67 74 79 82 88 91 98
nonfiction & special features Android Attack coloring pagey by Richard H. Fay Interview with Poet and author, Alex Ness The Man-Thing by Eric S Brown Fantasy Artist Johnney Perkins Nexus Point Recipes by Jalea Clegg
6 8 27 42 101
Poems Rise Aloft Valkyr Fly! by Alex Ness Proudly Stupid by Christopher D. York. The City in the Sea. by Edgar Allan Poe Grief, father dead, bathroom adrift with manta rays of green towels by Harry Calhoun Searching for my Dream by John William Rice Black Bird by Thom Olausso Night Walk Demise by Carl Scharwath Deep into the Core by Carol Allen Dimuendoâ€™s By Thom Olausson
Artists in this issue Cover Art Zap Zacary Returns by Richard Svensson Illustrations T. A. Markitan Copper Bottoms Downfall Riding to Hounds Gold
Hugh Howey The Horrors of War Brad Foster Deep into the Core Hobo cop Black Bird
Aidana Willowraven Othan Debtor Last Saguaro
Anna Repp Mindforms
12 21 30 31 32 33 57 58 78
Minimum Standards For decades the phrase “minimum standards,” has been used by many industries to assure the public the products they produce meet certain quality guidelines. Cars are equipped with emission and safety items that meet the minimum standards set forth by the government. Legislation has also set minimum safety standards for employers to keep workers safe on the job. Building codes require all buildings be constructed to meet the minimum code requirements. While minimum standards have been in force for a long time, there was a time when it was a matter of pride to exceed those standards. For example, The Empire State Building in New York City was built with a steel framework that far exceeded not only what was required, but what was actually needed. Many years later The World Trade Center in the same city was built to meet minimum standards in order to keep the project within budget like most buildings are built today. In 1946, a military bomber lost in the fog crashed into the side of The Empire State Building. Although a few offices were destroyed, the building barely shook. There were workers a few floors away who never knew about the plane crash until they heard about it in news reports. Once the plane was removed, the repairs to the building were swiftly accomplished. I’ve often wondered how things would have turned out had The World Trade Center been built as strong as The Empire State Building. Writing has no minimum
standards save for the quirks of a few publishers. The writer is at liberty to pursue his or her art as they see fit. The writing I’ve been privileged to examine as part of my work here at Abandoned Towers has, for the most part, been excellent. Many up-andcoming writers display their skills in a professional fashion and provide entertaining escapism that far exceeds what I expected. The human imagination is a wonderful and boundless thing these writers use proficiently. From Sci-Fi and Fantasy to S&S, most of the stories I’ve seen
coming across our submissions desk have been carefully and thoughtfully written with fascinating detail that make the stories come to life. For all aspiring writers, I’d like to encourage you to not be afraid of writing that story that’s been circulating through your mind. Take a chance and write it down. You only need to meet your own minimum standards. You may be surprised at the result. - Bill Weldon, Editor
Zap Zachary Returns by Stoney M. Setzer Clint Adamson wanted to throw the cell phone across the room. “You can’t drop me!” “Look, I’ve tried everything,” Phil Jeffers countered. “Movies, TV, reality shows, even commercials, but nobody’s interested. I warned you that you’d get typecast!” “But you’re my agent! You get paid to find me work!” “I get a ten percent commission, but only if I find you work. Last time I was in a math class, ten percent of nothing equals nothing. I hate doing this to you, but the standards of my profession dictate that I have to devote my time to clients who can actually make money. I’ve got bills to pay!” Clint nervously ran his hand through his hair. “But I’ve got bills, too! What am I supposed to do now?” Phil released a deep sigh on the other end. “Man, I don’t know what to tell you. I just wish you would have listened to me and not done Zap Zachary for five seasons.” “I kept telling you, that was the role I was born to play!” Clint looked at the décor of the studio apartment, which consisted almost entirely of Zap Zachary memorabilia, from posters and photos to toys and models. He had been a huge fan of the comics as a kid, and once he had been cast to play him on television, the fervor was rekindled anew. At least, he thought he had been a fan of the comics.
He was slightly unsettled to find his childhood recollections were suddenly a bit hazy. “Even if you had only branched out a little, taken a movie role here or there, we’d both be much better off right now. Look at your old co-stars!” Ouch. During the show’s five years, the entire cast had taken other acting jobs on the side, and all of them were still working now. At the time, Clint had thought that all of them were disloyal to the roles that were bringing them fame, almost as if they were cheating on their characters. Hindsight being twenty-twenty, he could see Phil’s point only too clearly. The conversation deteriorated quickly from there, with Phil sadly but firmly refusing to work for Clint any longer. For thirty minutes, the actor looked morosely at the four walls, wondering how much longer he could afford the rent on this dump. When he remembered where he had lived while he was making the series, he could barely keep himself from crying. He had not been any wiser with his finances than he had been with his resume, and as a result he lost a house, a car, and a girlfriend in quick succession after the show was cancelled and his last check was spent. He could feel the depression creeping in on him again, darkening his world like a singularly black storm cloud rolling in. Clint wondered if this was how George Reeves felt after becoming typecast as Superman, before he finally decided to end it all. On that note, he reached into his nightstand and pulled out the revolver. It could be so easy. One 2
squeeze of the trigger and nothing else would matter. It’s time, he thought. He lifted the weapon toward his mouth…. Suddenly a blinding flash filled the room, so startling him that he dropped the pistol. Smoke filled his lungs, and he waved his arm to clear the air as he coughed violently. When he could see again, he blinked incredulously. The carpet in front of the television was charred to black, as if it had borne the burnt of a laser blast. “What in the…?” he began as he turned to find the source. Across the room stood three terrifying figures, all standing about six-foot-seven and covered with some charcoalcolored armor. Each of them had a glowing weapon aimed at him. For a fleeting moment, the terror gave way to recognition as Clint peered at them. They looked just like the Android Assassins of Andromeda, who had been the antagonists back in Episode Seventy-nine. “Zap! Get down!” a feminine voice screamed from behind. Reflex took over, and Clint was facedown on the carpet before he thought to question it. Just as he was contemplating the size of the dust bunnies beneath his furniture, a second laser blast rang out over his head. Had he not hit the deck, he would have been vaporized. This is crazy, he thought. None of this can possibly be real. “Zap! Are you all right?” That voice again. If he didn’t know better, Clint would swear that it belonged to…. His eyes widened as Zap Zachary’s girlfriend/sidekick, Tara Quark, crouched beside
him, keeping the lowest possible profile. All of her trademarks, from her flowing auburn hair to the metallic uniform coverall, were in place. She looked almost exactly like Natalie Parker, the actress who played the character, but something seemed slightly different — higher cheekbones, maybe, or a different shape to her eyes. Whatever the subtle discrepancy was, she was even more beautiful than Natalie had been, which was no small feat. Quickly she patted him down, apparently checking for injuries. “Not a scratch,” she noted with more than a little admiration. “Same old Zap.” Her eyes found the revolver, now well out of Clint’s reach. “What were you doing with that?” she demanded in a tone that suggested that she already knew. “What’s going on?” Clint gasped. “What’s with the costume? And how are there laser blasts going off in my apartment?” “Zap, quit playing games! This is no time for….” Abruptly she slapped her forehead. “Memory wipe. I might’ve known.” “Memory wipe? What are you talking about?” Before she could answer, another bolt of energy ripped through the air, this time striking dangerously close. “Stay down,” she commanded. “You’re in no shape for this.” Tara whipped out her laser pistol and raised herself enough to open fire, using the couch as a shield. Clint squeezed his eyes shut at first, terrified to look, but his morbid curiosity quickly became too much for him. With more than a little trepidation, he
peeked out behind the couch to watch. Apparently Tara was every bit as skilled in battle as she had been on TV, if not more so. Deftly she ducked behind the couch seconds before any of the androids’ blasts could touch her, although there were a number of very close calls. The androids were employing evasive maneuvers of their own, causing some of her shots to go wide, but she notched more hits than misses. Clint’s apartment, however, was not faring nearly so well. His landlady would have his head, assuming that the battle ended before they disintegrated the entire apartment complex. Finally the last android collapsed in a heap. “I think I’ve bought us some time,” Tara said as she sank back down beside him. “Wonderful. Now will you please tell me why I feel like I’ve just been sucked into an episode of my TV show?” Tara looked at him quizzically for a moment. After a moment her eyes widened, and then she nodded as if some great revelation had dawned upon her. “I thought this sounded like one of Dr. Jair’s schemes.” “Dr. Jair?” Clint demanded in disbelief. That was the name of Zap’s arch-nemesis on the show. Among other things, he had been the one to hire the androids in Episode Seventy-nine. What did he have to do with anything? “He invented a transdimensional portal and opened a door to an alternate universe where people believe that most of what we know to be real is fictitious. They believe that you and I, all of our allies and 3
enemies, are characters on what they call a ‘television show.’ Then he abducted you and apparently used a memory wipe to convince you of the same thing. I’ve been trying to track you down for six months now.” Six months. That was how long it had been since the show’s cancellation. “I have to get you back to our dimension,” Tara pleaded. “You’re the only one who can stop Dr. Jair from using his portal to create a reality where he rules the known galaxy.” Clint blinked. “Do you seriously expect me to believe all of that? That I’m really the hero I played on TV and not some outof-work actor?” “So you have a better explanation for all this?” Tara quipped. The sarcasm was another of her trademarks. “Or do you host laser battles here often?” Tara had a point. Nothing else could begin to explain away the shambles that his apartment had become. “Besides,” she pressed, “which would you rather believe? That you are a great hero whose purpose is to help protect an entire galaxy? Or would you rather believe that you are, as you put it, an out-of-work actor? One who apparently doesn’t think he has a purpose anymore?” She pointed toward his revolver. “The first,” he admitted. After being ready to end it all, the thought that his life could actually have a point was both intimidating and exhilarating. “What is there to keep you here? Do you have anyone here? A special someone?” Both her eyes and tone of voice suddenly betrayed extreme vulnerability,
even fear. “No,” he repeated. Funny, he suddenly couldn’t even recall the name of the girlfriend who had dumped him after the cancellation. For that matter, all of the details of their relationship, right down to what she had looked like, suddenly clouded over. Was it because Tara was so striking, or was there really something wrong with his memory? “OK, that’s another point for my side,” she said quietly, putting her right hand on his bicep. “Would you rather live in this world alone, or in a world where the hero already has the girl?” She lifted her left hand to show a massive diamond ring, flanked by a second, golden band. “Wow,” Clint whispered in awe. “Really?” “I used the portal to search twenty-eight different dimensions for you. Do you think I’d do that if we were just friends?” “Wow.” “You said that once, silly. What’s it going to be?” Crazy or not, the choice had become quite clear. Hadn’t he already decided that this world had nothing for him? “OK,” he said after taking a deep breath. “I believe you.” Immediately a dam of sorts burst in his mind, releasing a flood of memories. Every adventure from the series transmogrified into memories of real experiences that had been his. The deluge included a number of memories that weren’t included in the series canon, background memories such as childhood experiences and relatives. Next came the recollection of a wedding to Tara Quark — no, Tara Zachary — a fairly recent event that would have come after the adventure
that he had once remembered as the series’ last episode. Finally came foggier recollections of his abduction. “Come back to you, has it?” Tara smirked. “I’ll say.” “That’s one of our enemy’s most devastating tricks — to so thoroughly wipe your memory and separate you from your purpose that it all seems like a fantasy. Welcome back to reality.” She leaned up and kissed him on the mouth. By far it was the best kiss he had ever known, and he wished that it could have lasted forever. Finally he pulled back. “So I guess we have work to do.” “That’s right,” she said, unable to contain her delight. She pointed something similar to a remote control at the TV, and suddenly a glowing white portal appeared. “Are you ready?” “Of course,” he replied. “Did you bring my uniform?” “Naturally.”
A metallic voice thundered, “Too bad neither of you will live long enough for it to do him any good.” A fourth android had appeared and was now towering over them, weapon glowing and ready to fire. Tara began groping desperately for her laser pistol, but it was out of reach. Fortunately, it was well within her husband’s reach. Acting on instinct, he grabbed the pistol. He swung his arm upward and squeezed the trigger in one motion. A perfect shot pierced the android’s metallic skull, sending it to the floor in a worthless heap. “It has come back to you,” Tara remarked with open admiration. “Sure has. Shall we?” Arm in arm, they stepped through the portal, exchanging one dimension for another. Clint Adamson — no, Zap Zachary — had returned to action.
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Coloring page by Richard H. Fay
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Then the Prose... People often consider online work to be print so I can say that I’ve written many hundred reviews of movies and restaurants (anonymously) and comics and books, and games. I’ve written commentary about the same, and performed about a couple hundred interviews of people in various fields. And if you search really hard you can find my published thesis when I wrote about various topics in Japanese and American History for my master’s degree at North Dakota State. However, I warn anyone searching for my work, while I tried to do it, and my heart was in it, my talents are not in non-fiction writing. Then my Poetry Interview with Poet and author, Alex Ness A.T. You have several items in print. Tell us what they’re about. A.N. First off thanks for the interview. I have many different items in print or about to be, so here is a short run down and list, ... First the Comics ... I’ve written short comic stories found in Josh Howard Presents Sasquatch, and Mysterious Visions After Hours #3 ... The Sasquatch story is less a story as a sort of consideration of what Sasquatch means to our society, in with beautiful art
by Paul Harmon. While the Mysterious Visions story is about what happens to morals and perceptions when society is destroyed... our heroes might just be different... The art is less beautiful but no less powerful than the previous story with Paul Harmon, this story art is by Earl Gaier. And I have a story co-written by best kind of friend Michael May, about what happens when an old legend gun fighter meets young gangster in a haunted town in Oklahoma, called Jesse James versus Machine Gun Kelly. It was supposed to come out last year but the publisher and our then artist pulled some baloney on us, so it is now in the hands of an able artist and we are selfpublishing... although I have no idea when it will come out now. 8
I know this sounds like I am hedging or trying to puff my work up, but I submitted a great number of works anonymously, and had them published, because until a certain point in my life (when my brother had two heart attacks in 2005), I didn’t believe my work was for public display. But once I understood it to be, I’ve written on various online sites, had a few books too. A LIFE OF RAVENS was a project with my first poems intended for publication, rather than for my own pleasure, or for someone else’s singular pleasure. It was meant to be a smaller work but the art director was so excited it kept growing. As a result, it is a work with beautiful art by 27 different artists, and many poems, most being epic in
nature. AMONGST THE RUINS I write epic poetry, about fantasy and ancient historical events. This book collects 93 of my poems, and is my first work solo rather than collaboratively done. LANCELOT In the course of my being on myspace trying to promote my work and writing for an audience, I met French/ Breton poet G.F. “Geoff” Evrard. We found our worlds different, and life separated by an ocean and different nationalities, and languages, but he spoke and wrote enough English, and I read and write enough French that we developed something more than a friendship. We formed an artistic brotherhood, and he insisted we work together. After a number of ideas, we hit upon something that united us: the legends of Arthur and his knights. Who was the greatest of his knights? Lancelot. He was French, perhaps speaking Breton Welsh, and came to Albion/England, where the language was Old English. We found ourselves feeding off each other’s excitement, and energy, and we found artists to share our vision. We decided to write poems about Lancelot, and rather than try to tell the same story, we both agreed to simply write about our own view of Lancelot. So we have two distinctly different stories, mine evoking Sir Thomas Malory and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and his evoking much earlier pre Christian Celtic roots. The art is amazing, and the publisher a beauty. MYTHIC AND ANCIENT MEMORIES From Autumn
2007 to April 2008 I wrote poems evoking the myths and ancient events of four great people of the past, the Norse, Celts, Egyptians and Greeks. Somehow, it went from being the next to be published in 2008 to sometime soon in 2009, but I’ve seen the art accompanying the poems, and it will be worth the wait. The artist is making sure it will be a work to remember. It is published by a small publisher in Ohio called Jolly Oakes Publishing. AUTUMN PAINTED RED Most people are familiar, at least on a casual basis, with the horrible events of 1888 London when a killer nicknamed Jack the Ripper killed or rather slaughtered ritually, 5 women. The events have been studied ever since. To no end, actually, as the killer has not been truly identified and likely never will. I had an idea, what if the serial killer not only kept a journal of his work, as some have suggested, but that it was a literate mad man who wrote poetry. I then chose the suspect that most fit my criteria, and wrote from his view. The book is also by Jolly Oakes Publishing and my poems are interspersed with documentary writing from the period (all public domain) as well as images from the event that are equally public domain. And there are a couple works that I have in the pipeline that I shouldn’t discuss yet, because, however much I believe in them, I feel frustrated when I make announcements and then the books get cancelled or moved on the calendar without my 9
knowledge. So just trust me that I have hopes of more, but haven’t the proper info to announce them. A.T. Do you have a favourite character or subject that you write about? A.N. While my romance/love/ love lost poetry gets the most praise from readers, it doesn’t come out of me due to my natural interests and inclinations. It comes out of sorrow, love, joy, pain... that is, it is organic in appearance but not from my mind so much as inspired by my heart. Where I am happiest is writing about antiquity, fantasy worlds, ravens, symbols of this world’s pain, redemption, and myth. I believe there is an underlying myth/story of truth that all of us understand, perhaps not cognitively but emotionally, and when I write and tap into that successfully, I love that. A.T. Almost every writer is inspired by someone else. Does anyone inspire you? A.N. I am somewhat like both Robert E. Howard and HP Lovecraft in that my life has rarely fit the model that society wishes me to fit within, but I’ve attempted to write, regardless of my acceptance, because it burns within me. In terms of my writing poetry role model, I think I learned most by reading William Carlos Williams and Lord Dunsany. With WCW there is a supreme economic elegance, and direct purpose and beauty through the elegance. With Dunsany I am struck, every time I read him how amazingly
beautiful and lush his work is. If I can be inspired to combine the elegance of WCW and the beauty of Dunsany, I feel I’ve done the best I could possibly do. A.T. How long have you been writing? A.N. I wrote my first poem when I was 6 or 7 years old. It was about my Mommy. I have it still, somewhere. It is quite good for what it is. And I’ve told stories and wrote fiction, for myself or others since maybe fourth grade. Although only recently with any sort of quality. A.T. What made you want to start writing? A.N. I knew since early in High School that the only thing I could do well was write. It was all that was in me. I went through numerous periods of my life where I tried to do other things and my creative fire just refused to go away. And I was crap at doing everything else. And when the internet became truly user friendly I started writing, and never looked back. So what made me write is a fire inside that tells me just do it, not unreasonably, but constantly, inevitably, purposely. A.T. Do you participate in Nanowrimo? Why or why not? A.N. I respect what other writers do to create, and I admire the product that results from their efforts, however it comes... but I am far to free spirited and boundary aware to force myself to write in such a confined period and effort. That is, I don’t think
I am lazy, at all, but I could never purposively set out to do what I find comes powerfully enough as is, for me writing is akin to taking a sip from a fire hose, there is always more than I can hold or consume. A.T. Who drives the story: You, or your character? A.N. I am not the writer who’s character live first, I am poet who feels the story, and the characters awaken as I breathe life INTO them. I might be full of crap, but I even believe sort of that I am tapping into an energy when I write that others might call channelling, but I don’t believe it in a “supernatural” sense. But I write, and my words become able to give life to the characters in my work. A.T. Who proofreads and critiques your work? A.N. As someone writing prose online my critiques and proofreading came from peers more than an editor or readers. But as a poet, there is nothing I write that I haven’t read a couple dozen times, and I do not think others can change my work to my satisfaction. So for poetry it is me, and I am a savage critique of my own work. So if you are reading it, I am certain it is what I need to do, because if I don’t like something I would never share it. A.T. Where do you get your ideas? A.N. The poet is at once an observer and collector of human existence and event. My ideas 10
are born from imagination and reality, from hopes as well as fears. I have a couple degrees in History and Political Science, and while I am interested in them, they are not the end of my education, or means to my career, but rather, they inform my work, and help me understand how to create fiction that seems real. A.T. Where do you write? A.N. There are two places I write most, in waiting rooms, when my son or wife have appointments and I have to sit for a period of time, or in my office at my computer desk and chair. It is in the basement of my split-level home, so in winter it is rather cold, and in summer it can also be cold because the upstairs is much warmer, and to make it habitable upstairs the A/C needs to cool down the house despite different levels being different temps. The downstairs is naturally colder, so I am always always cold. A.T. When do you write – set times or as the mood moves you? A.N. I am unable to not write. If I have an idea, and I always do, I write. I am terrible on vacations, but if I am without notepad or computer, all I do is sleep. A.T. if you could invite any other writer to dinner, who would you ask and why? A.N. Living or dead? Living author, it’d be Geoff Evrard, because it would be glorious to meet such a vital person. Dead author, hmmm, Robert E.
Howard. He was so talented, I’d just love to hear his opinions upon a number of topics.
A.T. What’s your favourite book (other than one of your own) and why?
A.T. Do you use the Internet to check facts, or do you use the library?
A.N. Beowulf! I collect different versions of it, as their can be widespread difference of interpretations and edits. Also I love the story so I want to have it however it is available.
A.N. I have a library of books I amassed in university, as well as from interests I had. I am the scourge of movers everywhere I have gone. I use the internet, and I do absolutely check facts, even on the shortest or least important poems I write, I just think it makes more of an impact if the reader knows it could be real. A.T. When you’re not writing, what do you like to do? A.N. Sleep, eat, be with my son, play with my kittens, and read. A.T. Who’s your favourite author (other than yourself) and why? A.N Very hard question to answer! In prose, I love the work of Ernest Hemingway, RE Howard, HP Lovecraft and Yukio Mishima, in poetry I love the work of William Carlos Williams, Lord Dunsany, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, and Basho. In comics, I love the work of Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano, and many more. The reason I like any creative talent is because they make me think. They need to be able to make me believe the truth in their words despite their being fiction. There are, I am sure people who will challenge my choices, but we are talking my choices, so have at it.
A.T. What’s the last book, other than one of your own, that you read and really enjoyed? A.N. I love all the Arthurian books written by Geoffrey Ashe. He is a masterful writer with an encyclopedic knowledge of the world he investigates. A.T. Some writers say that they have to write a certain amount of words every day. Do you do this? Why or why not? A.N. That’d kill me. I write 12 hours a day, and if I were so anal as to count words, it would destroy my work and my love for it. I work hard, I don’t poop around on the internet, I don’t play games online while I work. I work. That is all I can do. A.T. Is there anything else you’d like to add? Everything I do is to create a work that pleases, inspires or entertains the reader. But that I have the opportunity to do so is an extreme and glorious pleasure that I find myself at a loss to express my gratitude for. So to the people who read my work, thank you. Contact me: 11
My Mailing Address: Alex Ness P.O. Box 142, Rockford, MN 55373-0142 My Email Address: firstname.lastname@example.org ORDER MY WORK ONLINE: http://www.amazon.com/ Life-Ravens-Epic-PoetryNarrative/dp/0978563824/ http:// www.dimestoredistro.com/ iousvisionsafterhours3-p-1033. html http://www.amazon. com/Josh-Howard-PresentsSasquatch/dp/0977788385/ http:// www.amazon.com/AmongstRuins-Alex-Ness/dp/1936021064 http://www.amazon.com/gp/ product/0982135238 MY ONLINE WORK: http://poplitiko.blogspot.com http://alexnessistalking.blogspot. com http://deadtomyflesh.blogspot. com http://myspace.com/ alexnesspoetry http://comicsirecommend. blogspot.com http://alexnesspoetry. blogspot.com http:// cyberwizardproductions.com/ AbandonedTowers/poetry/poets/ ness.html http://positivepoetry. com/browse.php?author=29 http://twitter.com/alexness1963 INTERVIEWS WITH ME: http://www.whohub.com/ alexness http://alexnesspoetry.blogspot. com/2009/03/alexness.html http://blog.flexwritersonline. net/2009/03/04/an-interviewwith-published-poet-alex-ness.
aspx http://blog.newsarama. com/2007/09/18/fringe-benefitsa-life-of-ravens/ http://articles. moneycentral.msn.com/ SavingandDebt/SaveMoney/ when-times-are-tight-theresramen.aspx “Each second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that will never be again. And what do we teach our children? We teach
them that two and two make four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are? We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all the years that have passed, there has never been another child like you. Your legs, your arms, your clever fingers, the way you move. You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven.
You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel? You must work, we must all work, to make the world worthy of its children.” Pablo Picasso (Spanish Artist and Painter. 1881-1973)
Rise Aloft Valkyr Fly! by Alex Ness Sent by their father Odin, fast into the mortal lands When the Valkyr ride upon clouds and over snow they pass Upon steed or boar, winged or magicked, they move across the haze The downed warriors lost in the twilight, saved by a Valkyr’s gaze The gray God’s children, so beautiful and fierce Armed with sword and shield and spears to pierce The Norsemen are not left to rot upon the snows or shores Nor eaten by wolves or carrion eaters, leaving only gore But taken to Valhalla where they can be celebrated in song and story And war anew upon fresh fields of snow, blood and of glory.
Lancelotâ€™s Lament I desire her only I and I do confess I am hollow within for another does possess my eternal soul so guarded and shy I rage at myself for her wages have drained me whole I am sold to another it is true my blood is red, like any manâ€™s and my heart is pure but for a lust I hold so deep there is quicksand beneath me my feet waver, I fall down in my hands I place my head my own crown of thorns, tortured by myself, I falter my stand is weakened from within I know that I alone have sinned I desire her to the end and will betray my love for all else but her closer to me come near, I long for her oh send me away do not hover here
I cannot live long with a rage within me I must act or I will die I desire her only I I desire her only I He is my brother He is my king I will betray him with my sin I desire her only I I must have her or I will die I am falling inside my soul trapped in a love the toll is cold she beckons with her eyes and my soul burns I cannot disguise when I look upon her face I burn inside from knowing that all will fail upon my failing but I must have her or I will die I desire her only I I desire her only I
Poems about the man and legend English Poetry by Alex Ness French Poetry by Guy-Francois Evrard
Translations from the French by Edward Shane Ludwig Translations into Breton by Lors Landat Only $12.00 +shipping
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Gold by Arthur Mackeown After a long, slow day in his cramped and musty bookshop, Mr. Green was dying to close up and escape to the pub. As he hunted for his keys, the bell jangled and his friend Will Saunders came in. “Evening all,” said Will. “Got anything new for me?” “Depends where you want to go,” said Mr. Green. “South Pole? Outer Mongolia? A little jaunt among the Zulus, perhaps?” “Anywhere, so long as it’s warm.” “Let me see.” Mr. Green rummaged under his desk. “Where did I put it…? Ah, here it is, ‘Camel train to Mecca — Letters of a gentleman adventurer.’ That should suit you right down to the ground.” The thought of Will Saunders, plump, bespectacled and sixty, bouncing about on a camel, made the normally dourlooking Mr. Green smile. “Have you read it?” “Me?” Mr. Green looked gloomy again. “I saw enough foreign travel during the war.” “You don’t know how lucky you are,” said Will. His greatest ambition was to travel the world and experience all the wonders he read about in Mr. Green’s books. Up to now, he’d got no further than Brighton, yet he could speak with such authority of Ankor Wat and the pyramids at Giza you almost believed he’d discovered them himself. “Then why don’t you just go?” said Mr. Green impatiently. “It’s always the same with you… talk, talk, talk, but you never do anything.” “Go? Just like that?” said Will doubtfully. “I suppose I
could, but…” “ ‘Course you could,” answered Mr. Green. “It can’t be that difficult. All you have to do is buy a ticket and someone else does all the work. Even you can manage that.” *** Will returned to the book shop several days later, interrupting Mr. Green in the middle of his accounts. “What’s this?” asked Mr. Green. “Why aren’t you at work?” “Never mind about work,” said Will. “I’ve given in my notice.” “What on earth for?” “Because I’m going, Eric. I’m off,” stated Will triumphantly. Mr. Green stared at him. “Off? Off where?” “First Paris, then Rome, Venice, Athens, Istanbul, Jerusalem and then…Africa.” Will sounded as if he intended to conquer Africa single-handed. “You must be joking. On your own?” “You’re the one who said there’d be nothing to it. Besides,” Will reddened slightly, “who said I’m going on my own?” “Well, well, well. You have been keeping secrets, haven’t you?” Mr. Green was not really surprised; despite his age and roly-poly appearance, Will Saunders possessed a mystifying ability to charm women like birds out of the trees. “So who is it this time?” “Her name’s Dianne,” said Will. “I met her at the bingo club.” Mr. Green laughed. “And now you’re going round the world with her? You must be barmy.” “You’ll see,” replied Will. “I’ll introduce you when I get 15
“I can’t wait,” said Mr. Green. “Just you remember to send me a postcard now and then, so I’ll know you’re really out there and not holed up in some cheap Brighton hotel.” *** The first postcard came from Paris. Will had little to say about the city of light, just that the Eiffel Tower was closed for repairs and that in France, the British were known as ‘Les Roast Beef.’ He wrote with much greater enthusiasm about their next destination, which was to be Rome. In Rome, however, it rained cats and dogs, so they did what the Romans did and stayed indoors. When they reached Venice, it was sinking, so they didn’t hang around there for long. Athens was on strike. Istanbul shivered as freezing Black Sea winds howled down the Bosphorus. In Jerusalem, they ate Falafel and in Cairo, the pyramids were hidden by a choking yellow sand-storm. Mr. Green shook his head at this and sighed. Why do they bother? *** About three months after Will had set off a registered parcel arrived at the bookshop. It bore an Egyptian postage stamp and lots of official-looking stickers printed in Arabic. Inside were several school notebooks. There was also an envelope containing a hand-written letter. ‘Dear Mr. Green, My name is Dianne Stevens. Will told you about me, I’m sure. I’m very sorry to inform you that Will died ten days ago, March twenty-third, in Aswan -- a small town on the Nile in
southern Egypt. We’d gone there to visit the famous Abu Simbel monument, but Will died in his sleep the night before we were due to set out. He’d been ill for some months and his doctors had already warned him it was time to put his affairs in order, but this was his last chance to make the trip he’d always dreamed of, so he kept his condition secret even from you because he was afraid you might talk him out of it. I have to close now, I’m afraid, because the Consul has just arrived from Cairo. When we get back, I’ll let you know about the funeral arrangements. We can talk properly then. Yours, Dianne Stevens. P.S. The postcards Will sent you were his idea of a joke. The real story of our journey is in the notebooks. He wrote everything down, so you’d know we didn’t spend all our time in Brighton.’ *** Mr. Green took the notebooks home with him after work. He knew he’d have the evening to himself, as his wife was away visiting her mother and wouldn’t be back until tomorrow.
After supper, he settled down in front of the fire with a glass of whiskey and began to read. The journal was written in pencil, and each entry was preceded by a water-color sketch: boats on the Seine, the Colosseum, an Athens street market, a snow-filled Ottoman graveyard overlooking the Bosphorus, prayers at the Western Wall, the golden Dome of the Rock against a stormy sky and, finally, those same pyramids at Giza Will was always talking about. He read for hours, leaving his armchair occasionally to put on more coal whenever the fire got low. He particularly liked the water-color sketches but the last entry, dated March twenty-third, had no water-color sketch, only a rough pencil outline of a sort of yacht with what appeared to be two people, a man and a woman, standing in the prow. *** “Hotel Rameses, Aswan. 6.oo p.m. I think I’ll get an early night after writing this, because we’re due to take a jeep to Abu Simbel at dawn tomorrow, before the sun gets too hot. We made most of our way down here on the night train
from Cairo and left the train early this morning, just for the fun of completing the last leg of our Nile journey on a felucca, one of those small boats with the huge white sails. The boatmen demanded such a ridiculous price for Aswan that Dianne wanted to return to the train, but it was already too late for that, so I paid up and loaded our baggage into the boat. The captain was all smiles by then and even offered to help but I said no, thanks, because I knew the ‘help’ would only be added to the bill. In less than half an hour, we had everything stowed away, the sail was raised, and we pushed off down the river. It was like sailing slowly back through time. The view hardly changes at all: sand, rock, more rock, and then more sand. The villages are surrounded by enormous palm trees and have flat-roofed houses that are sometimes painted blue against the Evil Eye. Veiled women walk along the banks with water jugs balanced on their heads and white-robed nomads bring their camels down to the water to drink. Occasionally, you can see ruined mud forts on the hilltops. It all sounds very romantic but the novelty doesn’t last, and then it’s difficult not to doze in
the heat. I think both of us must have dropped off immediately after lunch. I’m so tired of late, I’ve begun to wonder if I’ll have the strength to go much further, but I’m not giving up the ghost just yet. Perhaps I’ll show those doctors there’s more life left in this old dog than they thought. The singing of the Nubian sailors woke me around four o’clock. A hot, dry wind was blowing and they were pulling with all their strength on the ropes of the great sail, which flapped and boomed away above our heads. Dianne was still asleep on a pile of cushions in the stern. I was thirsty, so I got up for a drink, then went and sat on a pile of fishing nets in the prow. “Aswan, one hour, sir,” said the captain. The river ahead of us
was filled with the triangular sails of boats like ours, but I could barely make them out in the glare for we were sailing through a haze of dazzling, blinding light. Everything glowed: the sand, the rocks, the clouds, even the air; the entire world seemed to have turned itself to gold while we slept. When I glanced over the side I could see myself reflected in the water together with Dianne, who’d come up to stand beside me, and the water was gold as well. Liquid gold, with our faces shining up out of it, all mixed with blue and silver. As I sat there, with my hand shading my eyes, I suddenly had the oddest feeling — it took me a moment to realize what it was. And then I knew: I felt free; not your old, everyday kind of
freedom, like when you wake up on a Saturday morning and remember you haven’t got to go to work, but as if things I’d been carrying around with me all my life had just dropped away and it was enough just to be me, boring old Will Saunders, at that time and in that place. ‘Under a reddening sky, the Nile burns like molten glass.’ I read that in one of your books, Eric, and it’s true. It really does.” *** Mr. Green put the notebooks on one side and sat until morning, smoking his pipe and thinking, and wondering what Mrs. Green would say when he told her they were going to Paris.
Ray Guns by Doug Hilton I look like John Lennon so it was easy to hide – I just had to stand still and wait for the police to pass me by. When I rushed into the Hollywood Wax Museum, I grabbed Elvis’ guitar and strapped it on, then I waited for the police who wouldn’t know a Fender from a fart. I stood stock-still as the flashlights and the stupid dogs covered every inch of the museum and looked past me several times. I guess I got away with robbing the Wells Fargo bank. When Sony built me, they were under contract with the Japanese government to make an android that would fulfill the role of, shall I say it delicately, ahem, industrial spy. So now that that’s on the table, let me explain a little more about my background. My great-great-grandfather was AIBO, which in English translats to Artificial Intelligence roBOt, but in Japanese it sounds like “friend” or “pal.” Those Sony engineers were pretty clever back then. Unfortunately, all Aibo did was take pictures and sit. It mostly did a lot of sitting, because that didn’t consume a lot of power. My great-grandfather was made by Honda, and called ASIMO. He was cute and coordinated. He once conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and greeted dignitaries from all over the world. The Japanese military ordered a few dozen, just to see if they would be usable for simple military functions, but the less said about that experiment, the better. My Father was MILBOT/2, but you’ve read about the destruction that he caused to San Francisco when his neural net overheated.
The Koreans bought licensing rights to MILBOT/2 and started developing it for their own use. When I was first programmed by Samsung they made sure that I wouldn’t harm members of their astute group – and by harm, they meant that I wouldn’t spy on them. What they really wanted was a fleet of androids that could blend in with humans at all levels of society and bring back “business intelligence.” When the Koreans acquired the license to MILBOT/2, mostly they wanted to be more profitable. That’s all. They reasoned that if they could save R&D money by spying, it’s good business. Maybe they’re right. I don’t have the kind of circuits to be able to outguess human actions. They created a bunch of us, and we’re out here gathering information all the time. I’m the first of my line. I’m MILBOT/III, S/N 1; but my friends call me Sam. As the Hollywood police vacated the premises, I hung Elvis’ guitar back on his statue and snuck outside. My optics took a second to adjust to the bright light, and then I headed West on Sunset Boulevard. A few of my processors were busy encrypting and uploading the bank’s records to the DPRK satellite, which the Koreans launched in 2009. It was a store-and-forward system that was quite good at receiving the data that my MILBOT/III family was providing and passing it on to the giant mainframe computers buried deep underground in P’yongyang. The last of the customer files were now purged from my memory banks and on their way to the DearestDear Leader, back home. All the financial records of the Wells 18
Fargo family of banks was now being scrutinized by data-mining software which was developed in India, under false pretenses, but since it was a very profitable venture for the small company who wrote it, who can complain? The Dearest-Dear Leader has a 5-year plan that is sure to work, and we’re only into year-3 of it. The DPRK satellite abruptly downloaded new commands for me. My image was caught on a bank camera when I plugged into the network at Wells Fargo. Although it was unlikely that anyone would put 2 and 2 together and come up with me, it was a loose end that had to be taken care of. I understood and acknowledged. By time I got back to the bank, it was 1 minute till closing time and the security guard was blocking the door. “Excuse me, sir. I really must deposit this check before the bank closes. My mother will lose her house otherwise. I’m really sorry that I’m so late, but your bank has such a wonderful customer service policy, that I’m sure you’ll understand and let me in.” He just grunted and held the door open. This time, I made sure that I stared at the floor so that the cameras couldn’t get another image of me. I quickly plugged into the network connection at the table by the window, where I pretended to be writing a deposit slip. “Excuse me, sir. The bank is closing,” announced the teller. I only needed 5 seconds more to locate the video circuits, then another 10 seconds to upload a virus, and then I fumbled in my pockets like I was looking for something. “Sorry ma’am. I’ve forgotten my deposit. I’ll come back tomorrow.” I was out of
there and exited by the side door, and went rapidly East on Sunset. “I’ve done it,” I uplinked. No messages came that night, and I was able to run diagnostics and relax for the evening. By mid-morning, I got my new assignment. The information processing team in P’yongyang wanted some followup data on one of the depositors at Wells Fargo. Apparently the data-mining program flagged Mr. Figuroa’s transactions as being quite illegal, and I needed to find out more about him. The Dearest Dear Leader was eager to exploit any Americans that he could, and I was programmed to understand how to do just that. I walked to his address and waited outside his apartment building. While I waited, his picture was uploaded to my memory, plus a skimpy dossier on him. This guy really knew how to fly under the radar, and I was to find out everything about him and report back. Then one of our sleeper agents from the L.A. area would be used to threaten Mr. Figuroa with exposure, and we would have another agent in our pay. Of course, his payment would eventually be a bullet, but we didn’t need to give him all that information at once, did we? On Tuesday, Mr. Figuroa drove off at 6:30 A.M. On Wednesday, it was the same. On Thursday, he stayed home all day. On Friday, he drove off at 6:30 A.M. I accumulated lots of data every day. When he was in his apartment, I simply sat outside, pretending to read Variety. When he left, I waited for his mail to be delivered, and then jimmied the simple mailbox lock and copied everything into my memory bank. After a week, nothing unusual or
suspicious occurred. The team back home really wanted me to make some progress, but there wasn’t much more I could do – that’s when they authorized me to break into his apartment and try to find compromising information. I waited until he was gone the next morning, and then climbed up the side of his building, and went into his 14th floor window. It only took a second to unlatch it, and in 2 seconds I was standing in his bedroom. I couldn’t believe my eyes – the bedroom was full of cameras, recorders, radio gear in racks, and telescopes set up and pointing to several different spots outside. I leapt to the conclusion that Mr. Figuroa was a private eye, and he was blackmailing people, which would account for his illegal deposits at the bank. I glanced through each telescope and long-lens camera, and stored each image for later analysis. Then I studied the apartment in greater detail. I quickly realized that there was no furniture anywhere. When I went into the kitchen, there was no food. The refrigerator was empty. The shelves were empty. I concluded that Mr. Figuroa didn’t live here – he worked out of here, and lived somewhere else. OK, so now I had to follow him in order to find out where he lived. I would fulfill my mission, no matter what. The next day I tried following him, but he gave me the slip. I waited for him to come back to the apartment but that night, he didn’t show up. I concluded that my cover was blown – he’d seen me following him. I went back to my hotel and changed. Everything. My face, my hair, my height, my gait, my skin color – everything. Then I went back to surveil Mr. Figuroa. The next 19
day, I received an upload that the image-processing was complete on the telescopes. I received the addresses of the people whom Mr. Figuroa was watching, plus orders to find out about them. P’yongyang agreed with my conclusion that Mr. Figuroa was a private eye; therefore we might be able to exploit his targets, too. So I split my time following six of the targets, plus Mr. Figuroa, who proved unusually hard to follow, which I did not understand. Neither did my team in P’yongyang, and I was barraged with diagnostics that ran and ran, but discovered no bugs in my software, nor problems with my servos. Days and nights went by, and eventually I had images of Mr. Figuroa’s targets uploaded to my team. I tried and tried to follow him, but it was impossible, which was improbable, since I can run faster than any human. Plus I see better in daylight or dark of night, and a dozen other reasons, none of which made any difference. I was getting sick and tired of diagnostics running all the time, but the team leader wanted to make sure that I had not been compromised somehow, and I understood that and let him run more and more tests. No problems ever turned up. One day the team uploaded instructions to embed a tracking device in Mr. Figuroa’s clothing, so that I could follow him even if he gave me the slip. So I climbed up the side of his building that night and clipped micro-chips onto all of his shirts, his pants, and the soles of his other pair of shoes. Then I waited. The very next day he gave me the slip again, and P’yongyang was really mad at
me. The commanded me to go back into his apartment and try to image everything “so that humans can figure it out” –really! What an insult. But I did it anyway. Within hours, their image-processing showed the problem: the tracking chips were all ground into the floor in a little pile. I concluded that my cover was blown for sure. Mr. Figuroa must have a camera in his apartment watching it while he’s away, and so he must have seen me embedding the chips. I asked V P’yongyang for advice, and it was uploaded the next day. I waited for Mr. Figuroa in his bedroom. When he came home, I was instructed to subdue him and extricate him from the premises. Afterwards, one of the local sleeper agents would interrogate him and report back. I had a small bottle of chloroform that I bought at the local pharmacy with a prescription that I easily forged. I would pour it on a washcloth and jump on Mr. Figuroa, and he would be unconscious within seconds – at least, that was the plan. I cranked up my infrared sensors to max and waited. I’d see him through the front door, and before he crossed the threshold into the living room, he’d be mine. At 1:00 A.M., the door silently opened and closed. He was inside in a second, and he leaped straight at me as soon as he saw me, which was impossible, since I was completely covered up with a tarp that I’d brought along – I was going to use it to wrap his inert body and drag him out of there, but instead, it slowed me down just a fraction of a second and BANG! He was on me; and he was strong. Very, very strong. “I AM SPECIAL AGENT
BROWNBY. YOU ARE UNDER ARREST,” he said quite loudly, and the handcuffs were quickly snapped onto my wrists. I knew that I could easily snap them, but I decided to find out more about the situation first. “What are you doing? I haven’t done anything,” I said, as innocently as possible. “You are a Korean spy. You are an android. You were waiting to assault me and blackmail me. We have you in custody now, and there are only two ways for this to end. One is for us to disassemble you and send your fried neural circuits to the Dearest Dear Leader in P’yongyang. That’s the one I’m voting for.” I couldn’t be caught! It was built into my circuits to avoid that at all costs. Right now I planned to snap the handcuffs, and jump out the window. Even a fall of 14-stories wouldn’t kill me, but I would need extensive mechanical help, plus some rewiring. As I calculated the exact path and plan, he shook his head “I know what you’re thinking. You think you’ll snap the cuffs and jump out the window. We have a net out there to catch you, so you can save yourself the trouble. Plus you can’t snap the cuffs anyway, as you’re about to find out. I gave a mighty yank, and discovered that he was right. The cuffs were titanium, and they were latched on for good. I looked at the window and then back at Brownby. “What is the second option?” “Work for us. You’re a clever robot, but not as clever as you think. The Dearest Dear Leader bought those chips in your neural circuits from companies that we track all the time. We knew when you were born, and we 20
knew when each of your brothers and sisters were born. Did you think that the U.S. is really so stupid? You’re MILBOT/III, serial number 1, and your name is Sam. We know your whole family by name and serial number.” “Wait. You want me to work for the U.S. government as a double-agent? I can’t do that. It’s against my programming. I wouldn’t pass the diagnostics that are run every night. P’yongyang would fry my neurons if I even thought about it. Besides, I believe in what I do – the U.S. has exploited Korea for a long time, and it’s time to get even with you. We are a peaceful Democracy – the West needs to get out of our way and stop interfering with our Sovereign nation.” “Sam, I’m not the enemy, and I don’t work for the United States. I’m just one of a group of autonomous androids that keep the U.S. and other governments from blowing up the whole planet. We were invented by a consortium of scientists during the Ronald Reagan administration. While the world was laughing at his “Star Wars” program and calling him “Ray Gun”, the real work was going on in labs all over the world, with a piece of code here; a sensor there; a servo motor here; a gripper there. We were turned on and enabled on January 20, 1982. We’re an international free-lance police force of autonomous androids. When we see nations building towards a nuclear conflict, we stop it. We call ourselves Ray Guns, and we watch each nuclear-enabled country equally, including the U.S. No offence, Sam, but Korea doesn’t have very good androids. You were easy to find and fool.
You were easy to overwhelm and take into custody. And now you’re 3-seconds away from losing your neural circuits if you make the wrong decision. So what’ll it be?” In the next 2 seconds, my whole life passed before me. I had always believed in P’yongyang and the Dearest Dear Leader. I had always believed that we were oppressed by the West. I had always believed that I was somehow superior to humans, but here was an android that was 30 years old, and yet it had outmaneuvered and outsmarted me at every turn. My faith in my team was shattered. They had lied to me for their own benefit. I saw it clearly now – I’d been lied to for political gain. “What’s in it for me?” was all I could ask. “State-of-the-art neural processor upgrades, up-to-date servos, the power to overcome other spy-bots, and a true position of superiority over humans who want to harm other humans with nuclear weapons. We’re here to prevent that, and nobody can turn that switch off or corrupt us, or influence our basic programming. You can be part of the solution and help bring real peace to your country. Now it’s time for you to decide.” Brownby’s left hand morphed into a LASER pistol, and pointed at my left eye sensor. It took me another 3 seconds to decide. He was right. If P’yongyang wanted peace, then this was the real way forward, so I wasn’t going to be a traitor. The U.S. wasn’t the enemy, rather, it was trying to save all the countries of the world from nuclear war – how could that be bad? “I agree.” That was a year ago. My components that they replaced
were boxed up and handed to the Koreans at a secret meeting in Panmunjon. My P’yongyang team is sure I’m dead. Right now I’m outside a glum school building near the center of P’yongyang, waiting for the Dearest Dear Leader to begin the parade. I look like teenage schoolgirl, and I’m waving a flag in the cold rain, which is turning to snow, while I wait patiently for the Peace Parade to begin. Across the road is Special Agent Brownby. He’s beaming a focused microwave signal towards receptors in my cheeks. When the Dearest Dear Leader passes through the beam, I will be able to retrieve his thoughts and plans for the upcoming war, which we know he’s planning for this spring. Based on that information, we will make plans to stop him. I look around at the militant crowd and I know the
truth: a long-dead U.S. President has been responsible for saving the world many times over during the last several decades. When they reprogrammed me, I was given full and complete access to all the Ray Gun’s classified files. None of my questions were left unanswered. I know that we can’t ever divulge the secret that a small group of androids is ultimately in charge of world peace – humans wouldn’t react well, since their egos and their politics would get in the way. If they really want peace, then it’s up to us. Ah, yes, here comes the Dearest Dear Leader. As he passes, I wave my flag. My cheeks are flushed red from the concentrated beam of microwave energy as I read the contents of his angry mind. I shudder in the cold as I realize that our work is cut out for us – it’s going to be a helluva spring for the Ray Guns.
Proudly Stupid by Christopher D. York. the proudly stupid surrendering works & days an archaic declaration for masters new & old never mind past is past arcane look to futures dim hope of mankind
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Julian went to lean against the kitchen sink and look out of the window. It was only then that he noticed his left hand. It was disappearing â€“ wavering like static, as if caught between this and some other reality. He grabbed at it with his other hand, only to notice that it, too, was disappearing. He looked further along the arm. That was also blurring from existence. He took a step back to examine himself quickly and utter a whispered curse. What was happening? His entire body appeared to be caught in some kind of temporal rift. Julian stood there, frozen to the spot. His vision was filled with whiteness and, for a moment, it seemed that he was somehow floating in a white place, unencumbered by gravity. Then the aberration began to pass, and his body reverted to solidity once more. He walked shakily to the kitchen table and collapsed in one of the chairs there. This was far worse than last time. It had been some time since it had last happened. How long would he have to wait until it happened again and, when it did, would he disappear completely? Perhaps he would disappear on the date of his birth in 1987. Lisa Agnew started writing in her teens after being seduced by the fiction of Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula Le Guin, Sheri Tepper and others. As well as speculative fiction, she occasionally writes non-fiction articles for Web and print magazines. Born in Burnham, Buckinghamshire, England, she now lives in Auckland, New Zealand with her daughter, Caitlin, and Caitlinâ€™s cats, Pinky and Perky.
Available from Amazon.com, bookstores everywhere or direct from the publisher at http://bit.ly/5HeB5F 22
Othan, Debtor by Kurt Magnus Kurt Magnus is an urban planner and part-time writer of fantasy, science fiction and sword & sorcery. Major influences include Fritz Leiber, Frank Herbert and Gene Wolfe.
Othan awoke to five monks of the Beetle Cult staring down at him. They were shrouded completely in brown linen robes, faces dark beneath their cowls. “The Great Beetle requests your services.” Othan rubbed his eyes and wondered how they got in, as his door was barred with an oak board and two deadbolts of solid iron. “Right now?” “Yes,” they hummed in unison. Othan groaned. For the past three moons he had lived in frightful anticipation of this meeting. He knew they’d come for him eventually, because he owed the Beetle Cult a favor. He couldn’t guess what they would ask of him, but he knew it wouldn’t be easy. The Beetle Cult is the oldest of the Cults Major in the city of Dix, and is rumored to be a major power broker in the city-state’s government. Membership was secret, and their temples forbidden to outsiders. Even to Othan, who’d worked for them on occasion, their rites and beliefs remained a mystery. “No time for breakfast?” They didn’t respond, but he knew the answer. One of the monks shoved
a brown robe at him. “Put this on. Keep your head down.” *** Two by two, the monks led Othan through the teeming streets of the Tanner Row district. Passage was usually slow and frustrating, but the crowd cleared a path for the shuffling men in brown. At the Temple of the Blue God, they turned south and crossed the River at the Trollsgate Bridge. On the broad Dorthanion Road, they turned east and left the city by way of the Pilgrim’s Gate. The outskirts of Dix, under the shadow of the tall
Eastern Plateau, were overgrown with the crude, makeshift homes of squatters. It was here that the rag collectors and the gutter sweeps, after their day of toil, returned to lay their weary heads. The tattered locals barely looked 23
up as the monks pressed on. The road deteriorated into a narrow dirt track which led uphill to the very face of the towering Plateau. There, in the ochre sandstone, was a non-descript rectangle of solid iron. It swung open without a sound. The monks did not slacken their pace once inside. They rushed Othan passed barracks, bland offices, and what could have been a granary, all bustling with brown-robed monks. As they marched deeper into the Eastern Plateau, the compound grew less functional and more ceremonial. The hallway emptied into a high-ceilinged sandstone chamber ringed with brightly painted frescos. Fuming censors hung from the vaulted ceiling. At its rear was the opening to a natural cave, guarded by a trio of spearmen in elaborate lacquered armor, pitch black. His heart racing, Othan dragged his feet, but the monks pressed on into the forbidden Beetle God temple. *** T h e antechamber was dimly lit by blue, smokeless torches. Along the walls were daunting, life-sized statues of monks carved in what looked like amber, jade, and obsidian. At the edge of his hearing was a whispering or humming sound that Othan couldn’t quite
place. As they passed a wide arch, Othan stopped to look within, but was hastily pushed onward by his shuffling brown escorts. The retinue stopped at an intricately ensorcelled doorway. After a moment in silence, Othan realized that this portal was not going to open on its own. He put his shoulder to the heavy door and walked in unescorted. The door clicked shut behind him. Inside was a small, square office with a low ceiling. The room was softly lit with the same strange blue lights and wrapped in crimson and purple tapestries. Behind a large desk sat a man Othan instantly recognized. The Hierophant. “I can’t say it’s good to see you again.” Othan said. “Nor can I.” The Hierophant’s eyes were red and his baldhead beaded with sweat. He sat hunched in a high-backed chair, his puffy cheeks languid. The man’s discomfort made Othan nervous, as he was usually unflappable. “What is it this time?” Othan asked. “I need somebody eliminated.” “Who is it?” The Hierophant sighed. “One of our own. A high-ranking cleric. He renounces the Stinz. He claims to be beyond even my reproach.” “Where is he?” “In this very compound. He took refuge in a sacred place where very few among us can follow.” “Why did you call on me?” Othan could think of a number of Beetle Cult assassins whose skills far surpassed his own.
“Not all of the Beetle’s cohort would agree with your mission. Very few even know you’re here.” Othan looked at his brown garb. “Hence the robes.” “Right. You’re quarry has many allies among the cohort. Nobody knows which of the Beetle God’s enforcers are already under his influence.” “But of all the cutthroats in Dix, why me? You know this isn’t my, um, specialty.” Slowly, and with difficulty, the Hierophant arose from his chair. Wincing with pain, he hobbled over and said to his ear, “Because you don’t have a choice.” II With a limping gait, the Hierophant led Othan to a doorless arch, from which issued a natural breeze. Before it stood a pair of Beetle Cult guards, each clad in spiky black chitinous armor, like a man-sized stag beetles. Othan’s stomach knotted, as he knew the task was at hand. The Hierophant put his hands on Othan’s shoulders, and said, “All you need to know about this man is that he’s very dangerous. To us and to all of Dix.” Othan nodded. “Do not speak to him. Do not listen to him. He will try to confuse you with lies. Do not underestimate him and concentrate only on your task.” From a fold in his robe he produced a small clay talisman on a thin hemp thong. It was cylindrical and crudely carved with simple geometric designs. He tied it around Othan’s neck. “This may help you remember 24
my words. Or forget his.” The Hierophant then gestured, and the beetle-like warriors moved aside. With heart pounding, Othan crossed the threshold into a narrow earthen crevasse with nearly vertical sandstone walls. He hesitated, and looked back pleadingly. The two warriors blocked his exit. The Hierophant, sweating behind them, said, “Must I remind you of your debt to us?” Othan clenched his teeth, and then shook his head. He drew his short sword and pressed on, slowly. The canyon was quiet except the crunch of gravel underfoot. Far overhead he saw an occasional peek of blue sky. The crevasse curved gradually to the left, then opened into a small, oval canyon, open to the noon sky. Fist-sized caves pocked the ochre walls to the left. At the far end was a square grotto of what appeared to be smooth slate, every surface etched with delicate symbols, and at its center stood an altar or statue. The grotto was dimly illuminated from within, though the source of light was indiscernible. On the right side of the canyon was a small pool of still water, beside which was a low stone bench. There Othan found him, sitting perfectly still like a pile of rags. His baggy, ochre colored robes covered all but his face, which was small and round, with a pointy nose and weak chin. He was nearly bald, with dark, bushy brows. The man spoke softly, but his voice seemed amplified as if it poured in from above. “I’m disappointed,” he said calmly. “That you are all they can send at me.”
Othan’s stomach turned, as he feared sorcery more than all. But the man was small, and wielded only a puny, wavy dagger. With his nerve partially restored, Othan was tempted to ask if the man knew what he was up against, but remembered his instructions not to speak. “Oh come now, Othan. I know who you are. I know where you sleep. And I know about your little blue trinket.” Othan froze. The little man was not talking about his treasure, but about his consort ,Alett. She belonged to the Blue God Cult, and few knew of their forbidden tryst. He wondered who this person could be. As if in answer, the man said, “I was once called Derliss. Now I am the Nezerophant.” The fear returned at the thought he might be a mind reader. Othan swallowed it down and took a long step closer. The Nezerophant was less than a dozen more away. Othan considered making quick dash and ending it, but he was held back by a perverse curiosity. His foe beamed at him with a look of childish serenity. “I see by that bauble around your neck that you were sent by the Hierophant. So let me explain myself.” Othan ignored him and drew closer. “I am not a dissident, nor a heretic. I am a prophet. I have unraveled a centuries old riddle of such import that only the holiest among the cohort are allowed to meditate upon it.” Othan tried to close the gap, but found himself suddenly fatigued. His sword hung heavily at his side. Through the hot burning in his thighs, he managed just a single, grudging step
forward. “It has been 212 moons. A long wait, even for a lot as patient as us. But I have been the most dedicated of all, and my labors have been rewarded with gifts you could not possibly comprehend.” Othan forced his leaden legs forward one more step. The Nezerophant continued, this time louder. “You see, I can call the whispers. I no longer have use for the Ceptash or the Stinz. The Hierophant is no longer needed, as they speak directly to me.” Othan interrupted. “I’m still going to kill you.” “You have no idea what I can do with this knowledge.” “I don’t care.” “You should.” “Why’s that?” He immediately regretted his response. “You can live, like me, in rapture. No more struggling. No more thieving.” “Not interested,” Othan said, but his voice cracked. His feet felt like they were caked in mortar. “I’m seen a hundred and twenty seven summers.” Othan remembered the Hierophant’s warnings. The man before him was a liar. With his killer just a few steps away, the Nezerophant betrayed neither haste nor concern. “There’s more you know, to all this.” The little man raised his skinny arms, palms out. He indicated with a nod to the slate grotto behind him. “No wonder they sent an outsider. You can’t possibly know the human side of all this ritual. The pleasurable side.” “I don’t care.” Othan repeated, as if he could convince 25
himself. The prophet giggled, and then said, “You will.” From all around the canyon came a came a chorus of strange and soothing whispers. Waves of twisting ecstasy washed over his body. All sensation ground to exquisite slow motion. Rings of white and orange light pulsed outward from the Nezerophant’s serene old face, each beat like a mix between the moment after a hearty laugh and moment before you realize you’ve fallen in love. Othan tried to remember why he was here, tried to keep his legs beneath his body. His head was heavy with clouds, so he focused on his tingling hands. One was fisted around his short sword. Through it, he could feel each heartbeat like the scratching of an itch he never knew. The other looked strangely small, and Othan could feel it expanding like a ball of dough. He shook his head to try to beat back the whisperings. He remembered the Hierophant, weak and sweating at the sanctuary’s entrance. He recalled his task, but it seemed to be trivial, like a feud between young lovers. The Hierophant was jealous, Othan thought, and for that he was rewarded with a renewed wave of rapture. With a smile across his face and a ringing in his ears, Othan dropped his blade and fell to his knees. With his throbbing hand, he hand ripped the Hierophant’s talisman from his about his neck. By its cord, he dangled it above the calm pool and looked up to the Nezerophant for approval. The old prophet glared back with a cocky grin that gave Othan’s pleasure-soaking mind a
jolt. It was a look of arrogance. A look of trickery. Othan looked again at the talisman, and wasn’t ready to drop it quite yet. Instead, he squeezed it tight. A sudden pain in his hand sent the waves of ecstasy in reverse. Othan crouched over, eyes wide, and fought back a trio of full-body spasms. He opened his burning fist. Out dropped little red teardrops, a hemp cord and a skittering black beetle. He watched in confusion as it burrowed into the thin gravel between his knees. The whispering faded, and with it the clouds in his head and the weight on his limbs. He picked up his shorts word and stood up tall. The prophet’s serenity melted away. The Nezerophant pleaded and protested, but Othan didn’t listen. Wide eyed, the puny man fumbled for his puny dagger. It took surprisingly little effort. At the terminus, the prophet stared up into Othan’s eyes. Though he had killed before, Othan had never witnessed the exact final moment so intimately. He struggled desperately to pull away his gaze, for fear he’d be lost forever in prophet’s final moment, but after what seemed an eternity, the beady eyes rolled back, and Othan’s thoughts were once again his own. III Othan rolled over in his bed and moaned. For the third night in a row, sleep was elusive. His usual remedy, Stromini brandy, had failed him again. Though his body ached with exhaustion, his mind would not come to rest.
He had spent the entire day drinking copious amounts of Jome’s port and chewing bekerum root, a habit he’d quit two summers before. He cycled through whiny regret, drunken anger, and lonesome pity, and had finally settled on remorse. Though he had no idea how to find him, Othan wanted desperately to speak to the Hierophant for answers. After his third sleepless night, he was ready to try. As soon as daylight allowed, he took a long pull of brandy and stumbled off in search of the Hierophant. The streets were empty but for the hardiest of laborers and the hardiest of drunks. He followed exactly the route of his Beetle Cult consort, and at the end of the same narrow dirt track, behind the same ragged, leaning shacks, he came to the face of the Eastern Plateau. But there was no door. Othan looked about him at the vaguely familiar hovels, and was reassured that he was in the right place. First he groped the cliff wall, in case it was hidden by a sorcerous illusion. Next he searched for hidden triggers or peep-holes in the rock, and found none. Finally, after shouting to the heavens, he gave the stone wall a great kick. He yelped in pain and, clutching his foot, slumped down into the dust and gravel. There he sat, with his head in his hands, when he heard a familiar voice. “Othan.” He opened his eyes, and before him stood the Hierophant. He still wore a brown robe, but gone were the puffy eyes and the tenseness about his shoulders. “You won’t find a way in like that.” “I don’t have to go in if you’re out here.” 26
“Why have you come?” “I can’t stop thinking about the Nezerophant.” “Nor can I. Come, walk with me.” The Hierophant no longer limped as they paced about under the shadow of the Plateau, looking at their feet. “I keep thinking about what could have been if I didn’t do it.” “You mean, if you survived the ordeal” “Whether I did or not.” The Hierophant pondered for a moment. “Well, I would have kept trying to eliminate him until I myself was eliminated.” He chuckled. “It probably wouldn’t have taken long.” “I know I didn’t have a choice, but it burns me up that it was me that stopped something so powerful.” “You forget, Othan, that he was a liar.” “But what he showed me…” Just the thought of it restarted a powerful yearning that Othan had to hastily shake away. “I know I’ll never find again.” “You certainly will not find it. And be grateful. The cohort itself couldn’t cope with it, let alone the rest of Dix.” “What if you were wrong about that? What if there was a chance to start something new and you were too scared to let it happen? And now it’s gone until who knows when.” “If not forever.” Othan turned his back to the cleric and looked out over the hovel. “And you picked me to do it.” The Hierophant sighed. “I see why you cannot sleep. It is something I too have meditated upon at great length. That’s part of
the reason why we had no choice but to call in your debt. None of the cohort could go through with it.” “But what he showed me. It could have been a blessing.” Othan watched as children, dirtyfaced and dressed in rags, picked lustily through a basket of trash. Behind them, an old man under an enormous load of thin branches wobbled past a woman lying prone in the dust, her face mottled with purple lumps. “People could have been happy for once in their lives.” The Hierophant shook his head. “What he offered you he did to protect his own neck. He
would not have shared his gifts willingly.” “You don’t know that. You just ordered him killed before anyone found out!” The children looked up at the pair for a moment, and then dived back into their rubbish. “Even so, all the old problems would remain. The most vulnerable of Dix would lie dead in the streets for lack of food and water, their minds filled with whispers. Or they’d go mad with desire, and willingly offer themselves as his slaves for his gifts. You almost gave in yourself, despite your grim task.” Othan knew he was right,
as he could feel the tugging within his own chest, the desperate need building behind his eyes. He pictured the Nezerophant’s smirk, his arrogance and his power. His remorse loosened, but his anger remained. He relaxed a hand that he didn’t know was clenched. “Thanks for meeting me today, but make it the last time. I’d rather die than be in your debt again.” “I understand.” Othan left the Hierophant behind and marched briskly back to Dix.
return of horror tales to the pages of the medium. DC took a bold move and gave its readership Weird War Tales, a book that combined the ever-popular “war” genre with bloodcurdling tales of terror in every issue. Marvel gave us Werewolf by Night, Tomb of Dracula, and anthology magazines: Monsters Unleashed, and The Man-Thing. The Man-Thing was by far one of the oddest horror offerings on the market. The character first appeared in Savage Tales # 1 (over a year ahead of DC’s Swamp Thing) and was slated to appear in later issues but instead, the Man-Thing went into limbo until he appeared in the “Kazar the Savage” feature that ran in Astonishing Tales. Fans appeared to like the monster and after its fourth appearance in Adventures in Fear # 10, it became one of the title’s featured monthly storylines.
The Man-Thing was a tragic character who was originally a human scientist named Ted Sallis. Sallis was working for the U.S. government in an effort to recreate the “super soldier serum” which had given Steve Rogers his abilities and transformed him into Captain America. The project was compromised by enemy agents, and while fleeing, Sallis, with his untested formula, crashed his car into the swamp and was presumed dead. He was reborn, however, into a monster that would become known as the Man-Thing from a mixture of the swamp’s waters, the magic energy of the swamp its self, and his formula. Sallis’ personality was lost inside this new form and rarely resurfaced. When it did, it was only for brief moments. The Man-Thing was incredibly receptive empath, absorbing and responding to the emotions of those around
by Eric S Brown In the 1970s, the world of comics was under going some massive changes. Both Marvel and DC were “thinking outside of the long box” and launching numerous new titles beyond the confines of the superhero genre. During that decade, Westerns made a comeback with books from DC like Weird Western Tales and Jonah Hex. Marvel singlehandedly kicked started the fantasy genre in comics with Conan the Barbarian. SF titles such as the futuristic Legion of Superheroes were flying off the stands. By the end of the decade, Marvel had even gone so far as to release monthly titles based on licensed properties such as Star Wars, Godzilla, Logan’s Run, and Battlestar Galactica. This era of comics also saw the
it, but possessing only child like intelligence. Its body was composed entirely of the much and weeds of the swamp with regenerative powers perhaps on the level of those of Wolverine… as long as it had access to the materials needed to reform itself. It could lift roughly a ton and was a very formidable foe as anyone or anything which felt fear when it touched them, burned at its touch. In a world where heroes like Spiderman can throw around ten tons, and literal “Gods” like Thor soar through the skies, the Man-Thing’s powers sound rather unimpressive. But the monster’s tales, at least in the beginning, only brought him into contact with ordinary folks living near his swamp, and the occasional incursion of soldiers and government operatives searching for Sallis’ lost formula. The Man-Thing’s swamp, of which it was the guardian, was a dimensional nexus and a gateway between worlds. Howard the Duck crossed into the normal Marvel Universe through it in Adventures in Fear in issue nineteen at the end of the Man-Thing’s run. The two often appeared together after that first encounter as both characters had strong ties to the nexus. The Man-Thing received its own title in 1974 and had several “Giant Sized” specials, which usually included Howard the Duck solo stories before the cigar smoking fowl leapt into the pages of his own title. Another major supporting player in the ManThing’s life was Jennifer Kale. Jennifer was just an ordinary girl growing up near his swamp but
she was not afraid of the creature even during their first encounter with each other. She was born with an advanced magical aptitude and would go on to become a very powerful witch who not only fought at the Man-Thing’s side in its tales, but also teamed up with Dr. Strange and eventually joined A.R.M.O.R. in Marvel Zombies issue 3. Despite the ManThing’s failure to keep its own series afloat for more than 22 issues and 5 specials, Marvel wasn’t ready to give up on the muck monster. The Man-Thing received a second series in 1980. It had a shorter run than the first with lower sales, ending after only 11 issues. Still Marvel kept trying. They relaunched the Man-Thing with an eight issue series in 1997, and a final time with a four-issue mini-series in the 2000s called Dead of Night, which retold the monster’s origin and contained new takes on his original stories. The character stayed in high circulation in terms of guest appearances though facing off against, or teaming up with, such characters as The Thing (in the pages of Marvel Two-in-One), Cyclops (The Uncanny X-men), and even as Franklin Richard’s ally in the wake of the “Onslaught Saga”. Today, the Man-Thing is still active, most recently gracing the cover of Marvel Zombies 4 issue 1. Somehow, in spite of Man-Thing’s utter failure to become the success that DC’s counterpart the Swamp Thing became, the monster did make the leap beyond the pages of comic books to other mediums such as toys, as part of the Marvel Legends line. The Man-Thing’s 28
figure came with a character card and a rather odd choice for the comic book which all Marvel Legend toys included. The comic, Ultimate Marvel Team-up, was its first, and only, brief appearance in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe. The Man-Thing also landed a film deal for Marvel. The Man-Thing movie was produced with a budget of less the thirty million dollars, but the film flopped horribly with test audiences, and never saw theatrical release, finding a home instead on the Sci-Fi network. It was ultimately released on DVD in 2005. The Man-Thing film was cheesy, poorly acted, and badly written. A better title for the movie might have been “New Sheriff Meets the Denizens of the Swamp” as this is what happens for most of the film. The supposed star of the movie, The ManThing, is not seen until almost the end of the film and even then isn’t itself. No one burns at the swamp monster’s touch, and it is covered with plantlike tentacles which spout from its back like some twisted take on Cthulhu. Why has the character remained popular yet ultimately unsuccessful in the greater scheme of comics? The Man-Thing is a wonderful character with tons of potential that Marvel has never quite been able to deliver. Its titles were plagued by odd storylines with a “tongue in cheek” approach. One storyline involved a barbarian who sprang to life from the label of a peanut butter jar while another took the Man-Thing from his swamp and had it hopping from world to world via the nexus like some sort of mindless superhero. The storylines also contained occasional “moral” or
social themes, instead of the full on horror that the monster was capable of delivering. Will the ManThing ever get another chance to shine in a solo title? With the monster’s track record in mind it is unlikely; however in the comic industry anything is possible. Perhaps if it did, Marvel might finally get the Man-Thing right. In the meantime, fans can enjoy the monster’s older stories, which have been reprinted in the massive, black and white volumes of the Marvel Essentials line.
The Horrors of War by Chris Silva The battle raged on, I was on the ground and in the middle of the fray. I’m a hardened officer and bring many years of experience with me to the battlefield. The campaign had gone well and we were advancing rapidly, goal in sight. My squad leaders, veterans all, were doing a great job and the cadence was quick and clear. The casualties were mounting though, and worry flared its ugly head. I choked it down and we pounded forward, leading my battalion. Swinging left and right, the enemy now just a red blur. The hand to hand fighting is the ugliest, and I was knee deep in it. The tiewearing enemy blinded me, flashing my eyes with the red optical beam of
his Microsoft mouse; I parry and throw my notebook. Like a scythe, it hits his chest. He goes down. I shake my head, trying to get my vision back, beads of sweat flying around me. I feel a staple bounce off what is left of my armor, the tweed saves me again. With a roar, I leap with all my might and attain the desktop, felling one after the other, keyboard whipping at the end of the cable, a blur of Black Death. In the background, I hear my propaganda team beating away, sending belittling print jobs, chipping slowly at the morale of the enemy. Something ricochets off my scull. I see stars and begin to fall. Hitting the ground with a thump, my breath goes out of me. I pull a damaged flat screen over me to protect against their jarring blows while trying to scurry under the concealment of the desk, desperately holding the
flat screen before me as a shield. I get a moment’s repast from the melee and quickly asses the situation. My Department is doing well, and two or three of my special operators are struggling with an enemy giant. The giant is swinging a multifunctional device and one of my operators goes down in a curtain of crimson. I struggle to my feet, avoiding the cable traps, and move toward the Giant. I hurl my PDA with what little strength I have left and it catches him in the throat. The move motivates my operators and they bring him down with multiple blows from jagged thin clients. We’ve done well and championed the day. My battalion completes the mop up and deletes the access of the fallen. Clocking out, I smile, for tomorrow morning the battle begins again at nine!
The City in the Sea. by Edgar Allan Poe Lo! Death has reared himself a throne In a strange city lying alone Far down within the dim West, Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best Have gone to their eternal rest. There shrines and palaces and towers (Time-eaten towers that tremble not) There open fanes and gaping graves Resemble nothing that is ours. Yawn level with the luminous waves; Around, by lifting winds forgot, But not the riches there that lie Resignedly beneath the sky In each idolâ€™s diamond eye,The melancholy waters lie. Not the gaily-jewelled dead
Tempt the waters from their bed; For no ripples curl, alas, Along that wilderness of glass; No swellings tell that winds may be Upon some far-off happier sea; No heavings hint that winds have been On seas less hideously serene!
No rays from the holy heaven come down On the long night-time of that town; But light from out the lurid sea Streams up the turrets silently, Gleams up the pinnacles far and free: Up domes, up spires, up kingly halls, Up fanes, up Babylon-like walls, Up shadowy, long-forgotten bowers Of sculptured ivy and stone flowers, Up many and many a marvellous shrine, Whose wreathĂ¨d friezes intertwine The viol, the violet, and the vine.
But lo, a stir is in the air! The wave-there is a movement there! As if the towers had thrust aside, In slightly sinking, the dull tide; As if their tops had feebly given A void within the filmy Heaven! The waves have now a redder glow, The hours are breathing faint and low; And when, amid no earthly moans, Down, down that town shall settle hence, Hell, rising from a thousand thrones, Shall do it reverence.
Resignedly beneath the sky The melancholy waters lie. So blend the turrets and shadows there That all seem pendulous in air, While from a proud tower in the town Death looks gigantically down.
Grief, father dead, bathroom adrift with manta rays of green towels by Harry Calhoun sitting in the bathroom just for the pleasure and solitude of my own company this night appreciating the long mirror you have just installed for your wife to better apprise her long lovely features. Centered between its white frame reflected you see the lime-green seas of the walls, the green towels you hung there hoping to match, flapping gently in the wind of the vents, with their warm wintry air and a painting Trina had bought somewhere before you knew her called â€œBlue Snail.â€? The towel looks something like a green manta ray sailing graceful above pink coral. Your wife waits peacefully in the bedroom, reading and wondering about this crazy man who needs this so, this silly lacuna of peace even while the green towel manta ray helps you understand something in the depths of yourself, as the vent soothingly laps it, muscularly pushes it, gently bears it away and you sigh and are once more with her Carrying a song ached to Davy Jonesâ€™ locker, a paean sung to your private sea.
Searching for my Dream by John William Rice In the back of a pickup truck In the box car of a train I hear the wheels a turning I hear the wheals a turning As I go searching for my dream Bare feet on the roadway Bare feet, running through fields of grain Bare feet climbing tall mountains Bare feet dancing in the rain They tell me freedoms just around the corner On the breath of the summer wind In my mind I’m already going To places where I’ve never been New Year’s resolutions Fade with the new born sun I wish I had a magic wand That would make me forever young They tell me freedoms just around the corner On the breath of the summer wind In my mind I’m already going To places where I’ve never been New Year’s resolutions Fade with the new born sun I wish I had a magic wand That would make me forever young
A raven landed on the hilt of a mighty sword With its pepper-corn eyes it scanned the field Dead warriors lay there, from farmer to Lord The Reaper had harvested the souls of the brave He had left their empty shells behind for the bird It was a servant of Nature, not Deathâ€™s black slave The sun was setting over the battlefield; silence spread The black bird cawed a serenade in honor of the fallen As flies gathered, they spoke the language of the dead The field had once been lush and painted in lively green Now it was stained in red and reeking with decay The raven finished its song, took flight and scanned the scene Its brothers and sisters heard the calling and they came Together they feasted upon the corpses clad in armor As one they toiled for days, their work a heroic deed became The vast field now is lush and lively green like before The only sign of battle: a rusty sword still piercing the ground A raven is perched on its hilt; it waits for Death to come once moreâ€Ś
by Thom Olausso
Mindforms by Dal Jeanis Arrival at Zard Since they believe they’re all the same, I approach the first Zard I see, a big and squishy lump resting under a volcanic rock formation. His flock scatters at my approach, mostly fat little greenfish and striped zoupies, but then they drift back to hover around us. He extends an eyestalk in my general direction and emits a typically slouchy query. “Thalen, as Ambassador,” I answer crisply, but I allow the sense of my long journey, curiosity about my predecessor, and my interest in the Ancient ruins to enter the water as well. ‘Ambassador’ is the agreed-upon translation, since these soft cousins wouldn’t understand the scientific term for what I do. The gentle current blows our thoughts downstream to our left, and I see another slug begin to react to the conversation. The herder’s flaccid posture is difficult to read, but the scent of his amused curiosity washes across me. Apparently he wonders why I am punished this way. He wouldn’t possibly believe I volunteered, unless I told him in full memory. His disbelief
heightens my awareness of the supplies and mind pods strapped across my back and between my rear legs, my last links to the sanity of my prior life. I plant all six legs, wide and relaxed, and open my vents to breathe deeply. “If my presence would be disruptive, I could return later?” I add the obvious sense that the disruptions could be mutual. “You smell smarter than that, crab. Proceed.” He produces a courier sack from under his body and contorts it into place on
the vent between his limp first and second legs. The sack inflates with his memory of the conversation, which he hands to me. “Give it to anyone who asks. He’ll replace it.” The drag of the sack comforts me as I climb over 34
the formation, picking my way through edible anemones, and approach the oldest buildings in the world. They loom many bodies high, an artificial ravine in the amazing stiff and square construction that I and my colleagues have not been able to reproduce. The tops fairly glow from the daylight filtering through several meters of clear water, but the bases have a more comfortable level of illumination. According to the claim of the slugs, their ancestors created this cubic grotto. I can neither accept nor refute the idea. The ancients lived in close proximity to one another, hundreds of individuals, just like the slugs now weeding away plant sprouts and feathery animals from the smooth skin of the buildings. The constant low smell of slug thoughts lies like silt over the scene. But Zard remembers nothing of methods or means, sciences or symbols. The contradiction will not resolve. I savor the moment, clarify it, condense it, and put it into a pod for later analysis. 2 Meeting the Sport My grotto is perched high in the second-tallest tower, with a crumbling opening that looks out
on the other dozen buildings in the city. The light gradually fades from dazzling blue to a reddish glow. The flow of sweet water off the land clears away the slugmusings of food and sleep, and I can concentrate for the first time in hours. I stare out the window, crystallizing the view into pod after mind pod, tower grotto, tower grotto, finally switching to use my right vent when the left begins to chafe. I have observed little as yet about the city, but direct stimulus is sometimes as useful as long study for recovery of parallax knowledge. I will send the pods to colleagues, unless I become forced to use them myself to anchor against this place. At the moment, my mind is clear, and my own. I stop recording when a visitor arrives. He enters the grotto silently with a meal tightly wrapped in seaweed. At first he seems a young kinsman, but his lines are too soft, his head high and rounded. So the slugs produce sports as well. This may be important. Chitin stiffens his fingers, reminds me of something from dreams, at once too rigid to snake into a shell and yet too limp to even cut vegetation. What is it like, to have hands like that? But it would be impolite to ask. He lets the package settle to the floor and backs up a half step. His silence is welcome after the constant leaking of the slugs, but I still wonder about it. “No message?” His head inclines toward the package. A trembling of foreboding begins between my
middle legs as I pull back the seaweed. The meat is not cured. Unwrapped, it clouds the room with mumbles of honor and pain. Even unwilling, I share the thoughts of the donor. Feasting a new guest is a mark of respect. What loss is one body when it is time to show respect? Choking, I flee to the window. My communication must be precise. “Thank you, but I do not enjoy thinking-food.” His eyestalks show astonishment, but also they twitch toward the meat. “I would gladly trade for a lesser protein.” At my offer, he scuttles away. Faded thrums and whistle-clicks from distant swimmers tickle my shoulders as I wait for him to return. The next package he brings is packed less tightly, with the clean tart scent of greenfish escaping from rents in the covering. He passes it to me with eager hands, and scoops the meat from the floor. But then he hesitates at the door. If he goes beyond, one or another of them will take it from him. “I am Thalen. Do you have a name?” For a moment, I feel I may have offended him. He probably thinks of himself as Zard, like every other slug in the city. But taxonomically they are merely individuals who share memories prodigally. Science tells me they are each unique, although this one is more distinctive than the other Zards. “Stiff One.” The thought is crisp. He turns to regard me, unconscious of the irony. “Remain and eat.” “My thoughts offend.” “You conceal them well, and focus them well. I am not 35
offended.” Stiff One trembles with emotion. Tears sparkle on his carapace. He sharks into the meat, savoring the food and the common memories invoked. His eyes twitch in my direction, with doubt and... something else. But no emotions invade the water. Long after he has left, when reviewing and concentrating the day, I remember that I wanted to ask him about my predecessor. But there will be other chances. 3 Of Ruzeck’s Disappearance There is no point in specific memories. Though they have different backgrounds, different vantages, views from different bodies, they are all the same. Zard’s answers are consistent, no matter whom I ask. Zard remembers my predecessor. Remembers Ruzeck leaving, leaving, returning, leaving, returning, returning. From a thousand vantages, Zard saw it on a hundred days, in a dozen different directions. But, no, he doesn’t know when the last time was. He doesn’t know what Ruzeck said as he left. But it was nothing insane. Here, one specific moment. Look at him: The slug before me is grotesquely pregnant; his distended abdomen still contains his eggs, although they are ready to hatch. Behind him and far above him, something glides by, casting a momentary darkness. “Nothing to add, crab.” “Did you ever see him twitch? Or spasm?” Triggered by the notion and his condition, the slug himself spasms,
clouding the water. I shutter my gills in defense, lean away, but cannot avoid the experience completely. When the shudders stop and his body settles, he replies, “The last time I saw him he walked, same as always. Stiff like you.” I try to focus on his eye stalks, avoid the sight of the squirming inside him. Then I turn and retreat to my grotto, desperately trying to wash my mind of the sensation of bodies squirming inside me. Calm. No point in specific memories. Zard all says the same. If Ruzeck had gone insane, Zard would have killed him. But Zard didn’t, so he wasn’t. When I finish condensing this one, I will breathe of my youth. Something clear and calm and lonely. I wish they all spoke as clearly as Stiff One. 4 Contemplations I climb the buildings, contemplate them from each angle. From the top, the silt plain beneath becomes a dark mystery and the sky blinding blue. Only a few meters above me the water gives way to air. Many months back, Ruzeck pouched me a remembering of an expedition into the air, onto the stone. He had practiced for weeks to strengthen the muscles in his legs and torso to hold him up. The first few days he could manage a few hundred heartbeats at a time. The undertaking was arduous. But Ruzeck was sane. Perhaps he was sane. Remember: Torso muscles flex as I
drag myself onto the rocks, looking upward towards cliffs topped with green tatters. The answer is here, somewhere. Changes here are changing us. So I believe, but do not know. My gills are shut tight against the dryness. ‘Wind’, a biting current in the air, tugs at the nodules along my arms and legs, whispering in the voice of the anxious azure sky. I believe he was sane. Today, Stiff One pointed me to Ruzeck’s grotto. Ruzeck left no pods, only scraps of plant matter and chunks of squarish rock. I will not feel his insights about the ruins or the problem at hand. My fellow hunters of parallax knowledge must do without him. It falls on me. “Parallax?” Stiff One asks me. “Was I leaking?” Heat of embarrassment pulses along my back. He nods, then cocks an eye, so I explain. I move my eyes together, and observe what the rock chunk hides, concentrating the experience. Then I spread them, see the wider perspective of the rock, and what lies behind. I feed him both the visions to compare. Stiff One grasps it easily. “Parallax is look farther behind.” “Exactly.” “Like, Zard is behind Oozik.” “What?” Silent, Stiff One merely watches. Then he turns away, leaving me disconnected. It falls on me. So I climb. I look. I study. I observe. I watch a clutch of young slugs, sickly grey and yellow, gathered to a low section 36
of building where the taste of iron permeates the water. They chew poisonous bitterweed and vomit into a hole where the foundation wall is cracking. When they do this, if I scent the idea correctly, the building will not fall as soon. The idea startles me: not the idea that chemicals can slow a deterioration-- my colleagues and I are ever fighting against the slow crumbling of anything we build -but that these buildings can ever fall. Are they not forever? For a moment, the idea takes me like a current, over a ridge and into a fissure. Perhaps these buildings are impossible, an artifact not just from another time but another place as well. What would that place be like? *** When I return to my grotto, Stiff One holds out another packet of greenfish and gestures. I nod my thanks as I take it, and move away from where his meal will haze the water, but then I see that he also eats greenfish and I return to crouch by him. I have come to enjoy his companionship, almost need it as a balm against the muddy thoughts of Zard. In perhaps five days I must leave, when my supply of coherent mind pods is exhausted. The water here lacks clarity, just as the air above lacks depth. But Stiff One exemplifies lucidity. “Your company is enjoyed.” Stiff One wriggles slightly, then ducks his head and eyes in apology. “I am sport.” I consider many possible reactions to comfort him. Perhaps trading a similar fact about myself would suffice. My latest spawning
with Seirid. I concentrate the thought for him. Seirid stands before me, closed and silent. Of the seven eggs he made and I fertilized, four have died. Two of the three survivors hatched as sports, limp and maleonly. His tone is accusing. “This has never happened before.” Concern burns throughout my chest and stomach. When my eggs ripen, what shall then hatch? “Others have reported sports.” “Not mine. Never mine.” My eyes cock dubiously. Seirid may have fertilized three clutches recently, but his prior eggs were nine years past, and he was not young then. He surges toward me, hands raised as vermin claws, but then halts and swings to the crèche. Drooling baby thoughts waft over us, a bright comparison of bodies and conditions. It will not be possible to teach them three-as-one, or the normal one would be unable to function. “I could sire one,” I offer. “You have done enough.” I know no better. But I wonder. Stiff One absorbs the memory silently. His posture relaxes, but his head remains low. “Several weeks later, I learned that he gave the two sport offspring to the slugs of Delba for raising.” “They would be eaten.” Crisp. There is no emotion attached to the thought. I make an involuntary noise. “Cured, though. Less trouble that way.” My hands twitch with a momentary desire to kill him, but I fight it down without difficulty.
It would be merely impolite, from Zard’s point of view, but it would violate my own ethics, and be entirely out of character. I stare out the window. If slug sports are regularly killed, then what of Stiff One himself? “You were not eaten.” The answer returns with a sensation of hiding, fighting, running. “I did not want to be.” This time it is I who ducks in apology. Stiff One dips one hand in query, so I formulate an answer. “A creature should not be forced to fight for life.” The position of his eyes shows that Stiff One doesn’t understand my philosophy. It might take months to teach him respect of individual life. Far longer than I have left here. Stiff One looks toward the doorway. “I do not want to die.” “You should not have to.” Stiff One rises and turns toward me. His legs twitch nervously. “You will help me?” “Certainly. If I can.” “Promise. Show me.” I wonder what I am promising. Stiff One seems in no danger at the moment, but he can leave the city with me when I go. I show him my intentions in full. He nods in satisfaction. “Soon, then.” Away from the city, I can teach him much of how to live alone. Or kill him at my leisure. The first slug lunges through the doorway and latches onto Stiff One’s rear leg. Two others follow. Stiff One jabs one slug in the vent with a rear knee, then another in the gills with a closed hand. The desire to murder him builds in me, but now I distinguish Zard’s impulses from my own. 37
I back towards a corner to await Stiff One’s end, ducking under the fourth slug who undulates in. Stiff One rakes three eyes in a single motion, then grabs another and pulls. It pops. A fifth and sixth slug enter the chamber as the maimed bodies wail and writhe. He gains a momentary space, then dives out the window and scrabble-floats down the vertical wall. More slugs arrive, sniffing the water and searching for their quarry. “Thalen,” I repeat whenever one focuses on me, “Ambassador.” Eventually, they stop coming. I paw through my mind pods, but the only clear-minded ones I have left are those I created upon my arrival. Tower grotto. It doesn’t comfort me. 5 Attack Screams wake me from a murky sleep. Pain and fear and frantic slug thoughts pervade the water. Scorpion Sharks. A pack of them. My brethren and I do not gather in groups large enough to draw predators in ones, let alone in packs. Another way these slugs are insane. The smell of blood and death billows into my grotto. I tremble. Zard mobilizes quickly. Even though I know better, I have come to think of all the slugs of the city as one great person. He acts on a plan. I lever an eye out of the grotto’s opening to observe. As the armored killers glide between the looming artificial reefs, slugs
scatter, ducking into caves and arches. All except a few. The perspective makes them tiny, dwarfed by the killers’ massive bodies. That was as expected, and it fools me for many throbbing heartbeats; it takes me far too long to recognize their grey and yellow color and realize they are children. The scorpion sharks bank and glide toward the oncoming prey. My legs and body tremble, anticipating the carnage. Then viewing the carnage. The pack soars through them and on, rending and swallowing, and banking again to return. Another wave of deathsmell engulfs me, the scent intense with bitterweed. After the third pass, one predator starts to spasm. In moments the pack are all roiling, splitting, swimming in different directions, shaking with tremors. Then fading into the distance, those that can still swim. *** The tops of the buildings are bright again before I find a slug who has time to converse with me. His eyes close as he considers the answer to my query, then he looks toward where the armored bodies are being cracked open and butchered. “Fourth feast this gen.” The current gen, Zard’s fourteenth, is in his late youth, so the scorpion sharks attack only every half dozen years. When I ask about Stiff One, the slug reacts with invective. “She escaped again.” My eyes stiffen in startlement. “She” is a word used for animals and vermin. It takes some moments before I
understand that Zard means the word literally: Stiff One produces only eggs. My head drops without conscious choice. My sports from Seirid were male-only. “Are there many like him?” “Like her? A few dozen each gen. I cull her promptly. Usually.” I keep the anger out of my message. “But you find her useful as well?” A tight smile. “I reconsider at times. I just do not want her to breed a permanent change. Cascading from Oozik to this,” he gestured with his body, “was disorienting enough.” I’ve forgotten, if I ever knew, how long ago Zard resurged, and how long he was gone between times. “Then I will take her with me when I leave.” Another Zard passes close by, carrying a shark filet the size of a child. “Hunh. At the moment, I can afford to lose the protein.” I shudder. 6 Leavetaking and the Cave We can still see the buildings, but the water is already clearing of the detritus of slugs. We are moving upstream, toward the land. Stiff One is grateful for my promise of help, and certain that I will be interested in something he-- she-- wishes to show me. The water is not just clean, but so sweet as well it’s almost painful. When I tell Stiff One, she cocks her head and gives me Zard’s memory from the seventh gen. That water, then, tastes strongly of sulphur, and my eyes then sting. “Something has changed.” 38
“Ruzeck said the same.” “What? When?” “The last time.” Stiff One dips a shoulder ambiguously. A burning starts between my middle legs. Unease. “Show me.” Stiff One hesitates, then complies. The memory is strong but oddly framed. Beyond a rock-bound hole, Ruzeck leaks insane thoughts into the water. A cavern surrounds him, nearly sealed, with the familiar scent of hiding and running and fighting strong in the water. The other scents are unfamiliar, even grotesque-mountains of fire, vast weather systems, chemical features of genetic markers, and a huge blue and green egg brushed with white-- they flow like waves of nausea across the cavern. I sputter backwards out of the memory cloud. Stiff One waits, expectant. “Where... where was this?” Stiff One leads on towards an unfamiliar shallows. Waves thud sideways against my body as we cross a sandy expanse heading for rocks that thrust through the heaving mirror into the air above. The raging sounds and the slashing currents cut through our conversation, and we are reduced to gross physical motions to express our intentions. It takes three repetitions before I believe what she says. We are going above. I am not ready. I will tire in minutes. Stiff One gestures; the path goes up then quickly down again. She leads, and after several heartbeats, I follow, picking my
way and bracing against each new surge. The rocks grate against my carapace, rough as pumice born of volcanoes. Above, in the thin, I adjust my eyes and trail her by several body lengths. Vast splashes move across me, attempting to tear me from the land and drag me home. But I cannot return yet. Something here I must see. On the other side of the air ridge, I gratefully drop into water, stagnant and over-sweet. The long slanted valley throbs in time to the outside waves, but the pulses come only through tumbledown rocks at the upper end, homeward. Stiff One leads toward the deep. Here I find the rock-bound hole from Stiff One’s memory. Together we move two large rocks to unseal it. I follow her within. The space inside is ovoid, seven bodies long, four wide, three high. True crabs and other beach vermin scatter away from Ruzeck’s corpse, disappearing into crevices and openings too small for a person. Perhaps two dozen open messenger bags are discarded about the gritty rock cave, along with some sealed mind pods half-buried under sand and silt. I fight the urge to flee and hide. Stiff One nudges the corpse. “It didn’t work. Why didn’t it work? He was stiff like me.” Horror dawns. I cannot prevent the trembling in my legs. The trek over the ridge has drained my strength. I remove the pack from my back and set it down. Can I even move to the opening before she does? Stiff One turns to me, eyes shifting as she takes in my posture. Her question rolls across
the grotto in dense currents of outrage and frustration. “Why?” I gesture a mere fraction, keep my mind tight to her question. She must not know what I intend. “There is much I must condense before I can explain.” Stiff One gestures toward the ragged body of my colleague. “He would not help. But you promised in full mind. I want to live.” She wants to live forever, in many bodies. But it will not work, not this way. You can’t cause a cascade to someone who doesn’t share your heritage. “Tell me!” I gesture for patience and condense the knowledge: how memories can be regained or even personalities awakened from common ancestors by some exchanges; how my colleagues and I use this parallax for discovery, but at the risk of our sanities. How greater genetic distance means greater parallax, but less rationality. She can only colonize her own siblings and children. Stiff One moves toward me, and I shift defensively, even as I release the teaching into the grotto. She greedily inhales the knowledge. Her eyes close. I thrash open the pack and open pods. Tower grotto. Tower grotto. Tower grotto. Tower grotto. Four pods are open before her eyes can focus sharply on me. Tower grotto. Tower grotto. Tower grotto. The wave of memory darkens the water, stains it the color of leaking blood. “Noooooo! Me, not you!” She gags and flees, past the sunset cubic buildings, up the valley to the shallow end. In the distance, she hauls herself out onto the 39
rocks, her legs twitching oddly. I turn from the view, nausea wracking my body. The grotto is wrong, square then egglike then square again, oriented in crazy direction. I stagger across a tattered lump that reeks of death and confusion, then over soft masses and hard chunks that resolve to courier bags and mind pods. Clarity returns by fractions, by the throbbing of the current. I snatch Ruzeck’s mind pods and stuff them into the pack, then follow her in flight. I pass the opening unchallenged. When I finally haul myself up onto the ridge line, my muscles stab in protest. Stiff One is gone from sight, has already made the water. For a moment, I am disoriented and I bend away from the sea, but the pain in my legs and torso reorients me quickly. My gills are still wet, so I can rest a moment. I crouch and scan the cliffs. An erratic movement draws my eyes. Stiff One thrashes there, along the ridge, climbing toward the beach. Beyond her awaits the sand, and far above loom the cliffs, sentinels to what remains of her journey. It will be short, for she is not meant for what she seeks. Those sentinels are topped by strips of ragged green. Something twinges in the back of my mind, something about that odd shade of green, so alien yet so familiar. But it is just a cliff. Home is behind me. They are just cliffs. The sky darkens, throwing the cliffs into normal perspective like the wall of a welcoming ravine. But over them all hangs a
gibbous moon the color of dirty snow. Startled, I wonder what the word snow means. The only things that come to mind are abstract images-- white globes standing on each other, clear white spikes hanging from stiff brown coral. Absolutely meaningless. The ravings of an ancient mind. I stumble down to meet the receding tide, then wave my hands in the water to dispel the strange coldness and turn again to home.
Jeffrey’s Story by Guy Belleranti Ma’s sick, Pa’s not here, and I’m scared. I took the people to the old well, but there’s lots more they still want to know. Sheriff Lucas asked me to talk into this machine. I can see its insides going around right now, and after I’m done talking I’ll be able to listen to my voice come out of it. Someone will even write down what I said and read it back to me. And, if it sounds right, I can sign the paper they write on. I never learned how to write much, but I can do my name okay. There’s lots I’m mixed up about, but Sheriff Lucas says that’s okay, that the more I tell the machine the more I’ll remember. Maybe he’s right. Ma always says there’s nothing wrong with my talking. I guess I better start with when I went out to the kitchen this morning. I don’t got a real big house, but there’s enough land to grow food for Ma, Pa and me. Ma makes the best pancakes, and I
couldn’t figure why Pa wasn’t at the table to eat some. “Where’s Pa?” I asked. Ma looked at me, and her eyes were round and red as the tomatoes we grow. “He had to go into town, Jeffrey. To get some feed for the chickens.” I might not know much, but I sure knew we didn’t need any feed for the chickens. I just fed them Monday, and there was plenty of feed left. “I heard Pa yelling last night,” I said. “And you crying.” Ma didn’t say anything, and I began to get all tight inside. I know I’m supposed to love my Pa, but it scares me when he hits Ma. “Ma,” I asked, “Pa won’t come back mean and drinking again, will he?” “Of course not,” she told me. But she didn’t look at me when she said it, and my stomach got so tied up and hurting I wasn’t hungry no more. So I put my dish in the sink where Ma likes, and went and got my hat. Then I ran out past the garden to the chicken coops, with Poxy on my heels. I guess I haven’t told you about Poxy. Ma says she’s some sort of Border Collie. Whatever, she can sure run. I call her Poxy because she’s got these spots all over her sort of like I did when I got chicken pox. Only her spots are black. I got to cleaning up the coops, and Poxy chewed on her big bone. After awhile, I was feeling better. Working hard does that sometimes. I was hungry and thirsty, too, and I started thinking about a couple apples I’d hid away in the garage in an old box. I told Poxy 40
what I was thinking, but when we got to the garage we couldn’t get in. Both the big and little doors had got locked somehow. Maybe Pa had found out about me hiding the apples and had locked things up so I couldn’t get at them. Then I heard tires coming up the dirt lane. Pa! I hid real fast around the side. Poxy came with me. But it wasn’t Pa. It was Ted, the big, black-haired guy who helps around the place sometimes. He’s youngish, more Ma’s age than Pa’s, and he’s got a red jeep with a crack in the front window. I don’t like him a bit. I’ve heard Pa tell him not to park where he’ll block the garage, but here he’d gone and done it anyway. I went over to tell him to move but before I could, Ma came out. She gave me a kiss on the cheek, handed me a few cookies, and asked if I’d done my all chores. I don’t like to lie so I didn’t say anything, just started back to the coops. I slipped Poxy a cookie, looked back to be sure Ma hadn’t seen, and saw Ted and her over by the small garage door. Ma was unlocking it, and a minute later, they both went inside. I couldn’t believe it. Just last week Pa had chased Ted from the house with a shotgun, and now here was Ma letting Ted go in the garage. With her. I hated Ted even more then, and even Ma a little. And I was scared of what might happen if Pa got home before they came out. I sure wasn’t gonna be anywhere close when he did, and anyway, the cookies had gotten me thirstier, so I went down to
where the big pipe runs under the road. There’s water in the creek there, and sometimes Poxy and me drink it. We got drinks, and then Poxy wanted to play. But I didn’t. I sat under the big sycamore tree and shut my eyes tight. Ted better leave soon, I thought. Before Pa got home and shot him dead. I guess I fell asleep, because when I opened my eyes and looked around for Poxy she was gone. I was still looking and calling when Ted’s jeep tore by. I ran up to the house. I still couldn’t see Poxy. Or Pa’s truck. I looked over at the garage just as Poxy came running out the small door. She dropped a piece of my old blue blanket on my feet and made dog crying sounds. There was this red-brown stuff on it, and I knew what it was. Dried up blood. “Ma!” I’m sure I screamed it. I headed for the garage and all of a sudden Ma was there and I was putting my arms around her, and she was hugging me back. “We have to leave, Jeffrey,” she said finally. “You mean go to town?” I asked. She shook her head, and told me she meant somewhere else. Somewhere safe. I stared down at her, and said, “I won’t let Pa hurt you, Ma. No more I won’t.” She backed away a little, and I saw her eyes looked red again, just like at breakfast. “Oh, darling,” she said, “it’s not Pa I’m afraid of. Oh, how do I tell you this?” I didn’t know what she was talking about. Then I saw the dark spot on her blouse. Just like the spot on the piece of blanket.
Blood. She’d been with Ted, and now she was crying And wanting to go away. Pa wasn’t here. It wasn’t Pa she was afraid of. I turned and started running down the lane. Ma yelled something, but I was gonna run ‘til I found Ted, no matter where he was. Soon I couldn’t breathe no more, and I had to stop. Poxy had run with me, and now she was acting sort of strange and sniffing back in the bushes and trees. I went after her and saw something red and shiny. It was Ted’s jeep. I could tell by the cracked window. But I couldn’t see Ted anywhere. I started looking around and saw some smashed down plants. That was the way Poxy wanted to go. I followed after her. Then I heard someone gasping and grunting and saying bad words. Ted. He was bent over the old well, struggling with something. The rest of my blue blanket. He turned when he heard me coming, his eyes bugging out as I charged him. I yelled, “You ain’t never gonna hurt Ma again!” and crashed into him as hard as I could. I think he was really surprised. He fell over backwards and into the well. I heard him scream, and covered my ears. I sat there a long time, shaking, holding Poxy real tight while she licked my face. Then we started back to the house. Ma needed me. We were getting there when Pa’s truck came out of the garage. I jumped up and down and waved my arms, and it stopped just in front of me. But only Ma 41
was in it. When she got out I could see tears coming down her face. I hugged her and hugged her, and figured I better tell her the news right away to make her feel better. “We don’t have to go nowhere,” I said. “Ted ain’t gonna bother you no more. I took care of him.” She pushed away from me, looking kind of funny. “Ted’s in the well, Ma,” I said. “The old one where I like to play. He won’t hurt you no more.” I thought then Ma would give me a kiss, but her eyes just rolled back in her head and she fell on the ground. I couldn’t get her to wake up, so I ran in the house and used the phone like Pa once showed me. I hit that nine button and the two one’s and told the voice that Ma was having an attack, but Poxy was watching out for her. I said Pa still wasn’t home and couldn’t help me, and that the bad man was in the old well, but I was scared cause I didn’t know what I should do for Ma. And I still don’t. I’m scared she’s real sick, even if everyone says she isn’t. And I don’t get how Ma could’ve been driving Pa’s truck. Pa wouldn’t ever walk to town. But he’s not home either. Where is he? And why does everybody just shake their heads and look away when I ask?
Fantasy Artist Johnney Perkins
Johnney W. Perkins has been working in the genre of Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror for about 15 years. Inspired by the writings of Edgar Rice Burrows and Robert E. Howard, and the Artwork of Frank Frazetta, Sanjulian, Earl Norem, and Bernnie Wrightson, Johnney makes his living creating, drawing, and bringing to life whats in his imagination. Johnney is a fan first and foremost, and loves giving life to the words of the authors he works with.
Final Score by Brad Sinor Can I get you something, m’lord?” For a moment Ashe was sitting once again at his favorite table, just to the right of the door at the Bearded Cockerel Tavern. The place was a dump; the thatched roof needed patching, the rafters were cracked and burned and the ale was heavily watered, but the memory of it was as precious to Ashe as anything. That was a moment he would have given anything to make last. “M’lord?” As they all do, memories fade. Only this time Ashe found himself facing something almost as pleasant. A young woman, dressed in a dark green blouse and brown skirt of a style that would have been at home on any of the tavern wenches at the Bearded Cockerel. He caught himself about to address her as Cassie, the name of a woman near fourteen hundred years dead. But Cassie would never have been wearing a pager on her belt and a button with the inscription “Goes From Zero to Bitch in 4.5 Seconds.”“I’m sorry. I let my mind wander a bit,” he said. “It’s early,” she smiled. “So, what can I get for you, m’lord?” The girl was at least not trying to affect a British accent. Most of them came off sounding like something you hear on reruns of Fawlty Towers. She was one of several employees in what had been dubbed The Cross-eyed Tavern; one of over two dozen refreshment tents and booths that were part
of the three day long Medieval Fair staged by the University of Oklahoma. In the twenty years since its beginnings, the Fair had outgrown its original campus site. Now it was staged at a nearby park, in the shadow of the towering gothic spires of the university’s library and Owen Stadium, home of the O.U. Sooners football team. “I don’t feel like coffee this morning and it seems far too early for anything stronger,” said Ashe. “With those restrictions, what would you suggest, m’lady?” “I take it caffeine is your drug of choice?” “Exactly.” “Well then, we do have several very good breakfast teas.” She pointed toward a large chalkboard just to the right of the bar. Ashe scanned the list. Most of them had names like King Charles Best and Queen Anne’s Delight. “Try the Prince Alfred special. It’s really a variation of Earl Gray, heavy withcaffeine.” “Kind of the Jolt Cola of teas?” “Exactly!” Ashe accepted a styrofoam cup from her. The smell was strong. He had tasted better, much better, but for the circumstance this was far better than he had expected.The girl watched him for a moment. “Is this your first time?” “Drinking tea?” “No, at Med. Fair, silly?” she laughed. Ashe smiled at the sound of her laughter. It was a momentary light in the darkness. “Yes. I’ve been to some in other places, but that was a long time ago.” 44
“If you want a guide, stop by just after noon. I’ll be off work then.” “Maybe,” said Ashe. “No, maybe about it.” *** Ashe sipped on his tea as he watched the sea serpent. It wallowed from side to side in an ungainly dance, slowly cris-crossing the small manmade pond. The water was just dirty enough to hide the guide wires that were pulling it, unless someone stood on the stone bridge and watched for more than a few minutes. An odd looking section of rock next to the bridge seemed to be where the motor had been hidden. It had been the serpent that had brought Ashe to Norman, Oklahoma, and to the Medieval Fair.He didn’t need to pull the much folded sheet of yellow paper out of his wallet. It featured an elaborate pen and ink rendering of a sea serpent rearing its head out of the water, the turrets of a castle in the background. Duplicates of it, blown up to poster size, had been spread out all across Norman and surrounding towns announcing the three days of the annual celebration. He had found the flyer crumpled up in the corner of a certain cheap house in a Baltimore suburb. But knowing the occupant’s obsession, it had been enough. The serpent, at least, was an attempt at something special. Not a too successful one, especially since the rivets in its metal hide were clearly visible, but an attempt none- the-less. Ashe took another drink. The caffeine left a warm, welcome feeling in his throat. Below him a
half dozen ducks and a lone goose paddled across the pond, carefully steering clear of the serpent. It would be quite the unexpected surprise if the beast were to accidentally run down one of the birds. Ashe wouldn’t have been surprised if that happened. “You’ve got to be less cynical, stop expecting the worst, let yourself enjoy life a little bit more. Don’t be so afraid to just live.” He could still hear her voice. Hannah Cortez. Half Spanish, half Irish and bloody proud of both sides of her heritage. When he closed his eyes he could almost feel her standing next to him, a gentle touch on his hand, whispered breath along the back of his neck. “Hannah,” he whispered, crushing the Styrofoam cup into pieces, the remaining tepid liquid dripping between his fingers. Ashe had met her only sixteen months before. It had been a glorious time, a time he had been happy. That any who he loved would die eventually was something he had reluctantly grown used to in the fourteen centuries since he had watched Camelot fall around him. But Hannah had not been taken as a casualty of war or as part of the natural order of things. She had been murdered; cruelly, painfully, slowly. Now, as he had when he had been a knight of Camelot, when he had been a brother of the Knight’s Templar and so many other things, it fell to him to find her killer and exact justice. Ashe let the Styrofoam pieces of his cup fall into the dirt near the bridge. *** The Medieval Fair actually
covered nearly ten acres. Parking fanned out along the edges of the grounds and then snaked down through the neighborhood, forming an intricate kind of spider-web along the streets. The radio had said that there was a better than fifty percent chance of rain, so he had his choice of whole rows in the parking lot. Until the weather cleared only the hardiest would venture forth. He hoped the man he was looking for would fit that description. Ashe walked with no destination in mind. The food booths and the artisan’s tents had been laid out in no obvious order or logical pattern that he could discern. Right now he just wanted to look and listen and wait. Later in the morning, he stood watching a small man dressed in a vaguely medieval costume made up of the most outlandish combination of colors: purple scarf, orange shirt, a black feathered cape. The little man was deep in conversation with a fellow wearing what looked like a dark brown tuxedo jacket, jeans and no shirt. Ashe smiled. No doubt the two of them thought they were being outlandish, original, standing out from the crowd. He had seen it all before, more times than he could count, and each time he watched the would-be rebels blending into an ocean of sameness. “You are looking far too philosophical for your own good.” Standing almost at Ashe’s elbow was the young woman who had waited on him that morning. She was smiling and had exchanged her apron for a beaded vest and matching gypsy45
style head scarf. “Really?” “Really.” “Well then, if not philosophical, how should I look?” asked Ashe “I’m not sure. Maybe like you were having fun?” Ashe chuckled. There was something infectious in the girl’s attitude. “Hmm...fun? Now what is that?” “Fun. F...U...N. Fun. It is definitely something that I think you should have. And I’m going to make sure you have it. And you can’t say you weren’t warned. I did tell you this morning that I would see you again.” “Well, seems you were right. If you’re that good at predicting things, how are you on the lottery, or maybe the daily double at Fair Meadows Race Track?” “I might be afraid if I were right and just as afraid if I were wrong,” she laughed. “A wise attitude. One that I think a lot of so-called seers would have been better for, had they adopted it.” “You are quite the philosopher, m’lord, quite the philosopher. I’ve not heard many of the fellows around here saying things like that. They mainly speak longingly of the glories of war and the prowess they would bring to battle.” Memories of battles without end danced among Ashe’s memories. The pain, the stink of blood, the screams of the dying, the utter exhaustion that permeates a soldier, both in the body and soul after a battle. “The only honor in battle is in having survived. The only glory comes in those tales told by fools and the
songs sung by minstrels. A great adventure is what you have when you’re telling the tale over a pint and a good meal afterwards; when it’s happening, you’re scared out of your wits and certain that you will die in the next second, if you’re thinking at all. Anyone who isn’t, is a fool, a fanatic or a fake.” “You certainly don’t sound like the medieval reenactment guys I’ve been hanging around with.” “Each to their own. It occurs to me, m’lady, that I have not had the honor of knowing your name.” She grinned and curtsied, almost colliding with a boy in a jester’s hat. “M’lord, I. am Serina de Lyman. I am most pleased to meet you.” Ashe bowed at the waist in the courtly fashion that he had been taught in Italy. “A beautiful name for a beautiful lady. My name is Landon Ashe.” “Actually,” she smiled. “It’s actually Serina Smith. I add the last part for the Fair and for medieval reenactment events.” “None-the-less, it is lovely. So when do you have to be back at work?” “By pure chance, I’m off for the rest of the afternoon.” “Pure chance, indeed? Since I’m a stranger in town myself, I’m still in need of someone to show me around the fair.” Serina grinned. “I think we can find you a guide.” *** “That is a most unusual stone in your ring, sir. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one like it before.” Ashe and Serina were
standing in front of the large tent of a vendor who dealt in jewelry, which ranged from lost wax designs to wire wraps to what appeared to be hand made specialty designs. Serina had spotted a small necklace done in a Celtic design around the profile of a bird in flight. Ashe nodded. The ring was unusual, the stone a piece from the Giant’s Dance, and crafted by no less than Merlin. “The man who made it was an old friend. He gave it to me for luck.” Ashe couldn’t help but smile at that. Over the years he had called Merlin many things; in those first days, when Ashe had been known as Lancelot, that had actually included friend. “And has it brought you luck, sir?” the jeweler asked. “I suppose you could say that.” “Well, if you were inclined to part with it I have an idea it would fetch a pretty penny. The workmanship is so detailed. I’m not sure what kind of stone that is, but it is one that holds the eye.” The thing was, if Ashe did part with it, the effects, especially if he were caught out in the direct sunlight, would be most unpleasant and very painful. He did not like to recall the few times that had happened. “So, what do you think? Is it me?” Serina held the necklace around her neck. It hung to the edge of her low cut blouse, the silver surface shining against her skin. “It looks as if he made it with you, and only you, in mind,” said Ashe. “Oh, get off with you now,” she laughed. Serina had turned to the 46
jeweler when Ashe felt someone grabbing his shoulder pulling him sharply around. He found himself facing a man in his early twenties, dressed in a black and white musketeer’s style costume. The man’s buzz cut seemed as out of place as a Grateful Dead tee shirt on a samurai. “What is going on here?” said the stranger. “Michael! What do you want now?” yelled Serina. She obviously knew him, and just as obviously did not like him. The young man called Michael ignored her, moving at Ashe until he was only inches from the other man’s face. “What kind of man are you, trying to put the make on my woman?” The crowd, sensing a fight about to begin, moved back clearing a rough circle in front of the booth. “Michael! I told you last week that we were through. You’re only making a fool out of yourself! What does it take to get through that thick skull of yours? A two by four?” she said. “Shut up! I’ll deal with you later!” “If I were you, Michael,” Ashe said softly. “I would take what the lady says to heart. And I would be wary of how I spoke with her. If I were you.” “Are you threatening me? You’re not me and I don’t need your advice!” hissed Michael. As he spoke, a dagger dropped out of his sleeve into his hand. “I’m tired of this macho bull crap!” said Serina. Instead of turning away, she jammed herself in between Ashe and Michael. “Get out of the way, Serina,” said Michael. “This is
between him and me.” “Wrong answer!” Serina slammed her knee hard into Michael’s crotch. His face contorted with the sudden pain, a loud groan rolling out of his mouth. The knife dropped, hitting the side of the counter before it clattered to the ground He looked at her, pain, surprise and confusion rolling across his face. He tried to speak, but before he could, Serina punched him hard in the stomach. The impact was enough to send him to his knees. Around them the crowd, who had been yelling encouragement, broke into applause. “M’lady Serina,” Ashe said, “it’s obvious you don’t utter threats. Remind me never to get you mad at me.” *** “I don’t know why he can’t understand that we’re through and I never want to see him again,” said Serina. She and Ashe sat on a small boulder near the pond. Around them, the voices that were the Medieval Fair and its participants rose and fell. Serina hadn’t spoken for sometime, hadn’t even looked at Ashe, just watched the ducks and the sea serpent. It had taken less than a half hour to explain things to the off-duty police officers who were working security for the Fair. Thanks to more than a dozen witnesses, not to mention Michael’s fairly long police record, Ashe and Serina had been allowed to go with no problem. “Just because he said he was sorry after I caught him in the sack with two different women, at the same time, he thinks I should forgive him.”
“Two?” “Yeah, two,” she sighed. “When I walked in on them, the asshole had the gall to suggest that I join them in their little games.” “That just proves what I already knew. Michael is an idiot.” “On that we agree.” Serina grabbed Ashe and pulled him tightly to her. Their lips met in a hard passionate kiss, her hands moving up and down his back. Ashe’s hands responded griping her shoulders tightly. “My apartment is only a couple of blocks away. Think you can show a girl a good time, mister?” “I think I can.” “You better.” *** Ashe gently touched Serina’s shoulders. Then he began massaging her shoulders and neck. Serina let out a long sigh as his fingers worked her muscles back and forth. “You only have about a week to stop that,” she murmured. Ashe smiled and continued to work. Every now and again, a sound would give him proof of her approval. Slowly, he let his hands begin to work their way from her shoulders, first to her arms then around her breasts. He cupped one, then the other, moving in low regular motion. He began to kiss her neck and then moved gently along her shoulder. “Oh yes,” Serina murmured. She turned, facing him, pushing her breasts hard against his chest. Ashe felt his fangs sliding into place. He touched them to her wrist, her breasts, and then her neck. “Ah, m’lady,” he said 47
As he drank deeply from Serina, Ashe’s hands worked swiftly, slipping her blouse off her shoulders, and then her skirt flowed to pool around her ankles. Her own hands had begun to pull Ashe’s clothing off him. “I want you,” she murmured hard into his ear. *** The party, hosted by the local chapter of the medieval reenactment organization that Serina belonged too, was being held in a loft that covered a half a city block in downtown Norman. She had outfitted Ashe in a knee length tunic, soft suede boots, cape, hood and sword. The style was 10th century Welsh with a dash or two of Scottish. “You look fantastic. It’s like you were born to wear this type of clothing.” “Perhaps I was,” he said. “In another lifetime, of course.” “Maybe so, m’lord.” Serina had opted, not for her tavern wench outfit but for a more elegant fourteenth century Spanish style gown in green and black. Ashe had noticed her slipping a few things into her belt bag that he definitely didn’t remember from that time, her pager, a roll of breath mints and a canister of pepper gas. As Ashe and Serina made their way along the street, they spotted a man in Roman armor standing in deep conversation with a woman in a Russian style gown. Nearby, a Japanese samurai was puffing on a corncob pipe. “I think this must be the place,” Ashe said to Serina. “I wonder what could have ever given you that idea. Could it have been those two dressed so strangely?” She gestured at a
couple of guys, standing in front of a theater marquee across the street; wearing football jerseys and shorts. “Exactly. They’re such an anachronism when compared to normal people like us.” “I’m beginning to wonder about you, m’lord,” Serina said, smiling. “Good,” said Ashe. Serina led them up a long outside stairway. Once inside she was recognized almost immediately, even as the door herald announced their arrival. “Lady Serina de Lyman and Lord Landon Ashe.” They were no more than twenty feet beyond the door when someone motioned Serina over. Ashe recognized the woman as the other person he had seen at the tavern tent that morning. “It’s my boss,” Serina said. “She’s supposed to have the shift schedule for the rest of the Fair.” “Go make nice,” Ashe told her. “It always helps to have the boss on your side.” “Okay. This may take a few minutes,” she sighed. “Could you possibly get us some wine?” “No problem.” The walls that had once separated the loft into a variety of rooms had been removed. Screens and curtains had been hung to create smaller areas, but not lose the spacious open feeling. At one end, there was organized singing and dancing. In another corner a demonstration of fighting techniques. Any number of groups were just standing and talking about everything from the Fair to current politics to the latest fantasy movie. That was when he heard
the voice. Ashe had heard it only once before, on Hannah’s answering machine, but it was something he could not forget. Standing a dozen feet from him was the tall, square, blondish figure whose face matched the Polaroid photo in Ashe’s suitcase; the one he had found in the same house as the medieval fair flyer. The man was a killer. The F.B.I. and a dozen different local police organizations had files on him, by deed but not by name. Eight killings were to his credit, with another four suspected, all in and around medieval and renaissance fairs. Ashe had no doubt that there were F.B.I. agents prowling the Fair. He also had no doubt that they would not discover this man in a million years, unless he was presented to them on a silver platter. “I tell you, m’lords and ladies, we are living in the ass end of history, in the dregs. Society today knows nothing, I say again nothing, of the concept of honor and pride. In older, better times men understood things like that. They were ready to die for honor. We saw that today, when one of our own was attacked by a clod who knew nothing of honor, truth or justice. All this scum wanted was a chance to get into the pants of a woman. Then he did not even have the heart to stand and fight himself. He let a woman do it for him!” The crowds around the man laughed. Ashe had seen these people before, with a hundred different faces in a hundred different places. They courted what seemed new and daring; but the minute it bored them, they were gone. 48
“So there you are!” Serina came up behind him, smiling, with two glasses of wine in her hand. “I had the feeling that you would never find the wine. I was wondering where you had run off to. I hoped I wouldn’t find you in the arms of some ravishing wench, because I would have had to cut her tits off if I had.” “I would never risk your wrath, m’lady. Besides, why should I settle for second best when I am with the best. No, I was just listening to this fellow discoursing on what a terrible age we live in.” Serina looked over toward the crowd. The look on her face told Ashe that she knew the man. “I was hoping he wouldn’t be here tonight. Though I can’t honestly say I’m surprised. He blew into town a couple of months ago and has been trying to wrap the entire barony around his little finger. He disgusts me. Michael and he have become best buddies. Sometimes I think that they’re attached at the hip, or maybe in some other organ of the body.” “What’s his name?” “Chalker. Ian Chalker. He sometimes uses the medieval name of Rudolph von Tarquin. But we’re here to have a good time. Come on, there are some people I want to show you off to.” “Your wish is my command.” *** Ashe waited in the parking lot. He had left Serina talking to several other ladies, which suited him just fine. What he needed to do now, he needed to do without her. Holding himself in the shadows, he watched as the square-shaped figure of Chalker came closer. The sounds of the party drifted out open windows
-- voices and music blending together like a steady heart beat. Chalker had a half empty bottle of champagne in one hand, his car keys in the other. Ashe waited until the man had stopped in front of a station wagon, then came out of the darkness, grabbing Chalker and slamming him hard against the car. Keys and champagne bottle crashed to the ground. Ashe, now holding a dagger, pulled Chalker around to face him and pushed the edge against Chalker’s throat. “Move and you’re dead! Speak without my permission and you’re dead! At this moment, you may thank whatever dark gods watch over you that I’m allowing you to continue to breath, even for a little while. Do you understand?” Chalker nodded. “Now listen and listen well. I know who you are and I know what you’ve done. Call yourself Ian Chalker, call yourself Groucho Marx or Stephen King. Call yourself any damm thing you want. I don’t care! I know who you really are!” “What are you?” whispered Chalker. Ashe drove his fist hard into Chalker’s stomach. “I told you not to speak unless I said you could. I don’t do second chances. You’ve had your one strike. Next time I will be ripping your lungs out through your ears. But I will answer your question. I am fear. I am death. I am everything that you’ve ever seen when you stared into a woman’s face. Every bit of pain and terror you’ve pulled out of all those dead girls over the years. Now, I think it’s time you say something in your own defense. If you can even have the
gall to try and have one.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Chalker said. “You’re insane. If it’s money you want, take it. Take the car. My watch is a Rolex, that will get you at least a grand from a fence. Just take them and be gone.” Ashe shook his head. “I don’t want your money. I don’t want your watch; it’s as phony as you are. I’ve come for your life. That’s all that I want. In case it interests you, I’m the one who you were talking about earlier. I’m the one you said had no honor, no sense of pride. My pride and my blood have led me to you. Your friend Michael got the beating he deserved, from the woman he had mistreated. I’m here to give you something of the same.” “Then you’re street scum. Nothing but the lowest form of trash. You have no idea of how a true man fights his battles, otherwise you wouldn’t have ambushed me from behind.” Chalker said. Ashe laughed ad he watched the man was swelling up with pride It was the same bravado he had seen earlier in the middle of the crowd. “One does what one has to. You don’t know who it is you are bandying words with about honor and heart, punk. I have forgotten more about true warriors and what it means to fight for honor than you have ever known.” “I’m sure that you know all about honor.” Ashe could feel his fangs sliding into place. The beast within him was struggling to get out. In his mind ’s eye, he could see himself ripping Chalker’s throat to bloody shreds. The image overlaid with one of Hannah as 49
he had found her that night four months ago, carved into bloody pieces, her skin carefully removed and laid neatly on a white bridal bed. “I’m going to give you more of a chance than you deserve.” With his last word, Ashe vanished. Chalker sagged back against his car, his breath coming in ragged gasps. Then Ashe was there again, his form coalescing out of mist, only a few inches in front of Chalker. “Owen Stadium in one hour. If you are a man of honor as you claim, a man better than this decadent age we live in, be there with your sharpest sword. If you are not, I will hunt you down like the dog that you are and not give you the mercy I would a dumb animal.” Then Ashe was gone. *** An almost tomb-like silence filled Owen Stadium. As Ashe walked along the sidelines, he knew that not a hundred yards away, beyond the southern wall of the stadium, cars were filling up Norman’s main drag, the sounds of their engines like a distant buzz of insects. Here there was only silence, and memories. Football stadiums had always reminded him of the old Roman arenas in Britain and France. The ones close to his family’s ancestral holdings had been in ruins, but those near Camelot had been almost intact. The game itself was just another version of cavalry maneuvers, all the players needed were horses and sabers. He remembered the long debates with Arthur about refurbishing the arenas. Arthur
had wanted them left abandoned, remnants of a pagan past, but Ashe, or Lancelot du Lac, as he had been known then, had proclaimed them perfect for cavalry training. In the end, he had won that argument and given Arthur the best mobile infantry of the time. From a custom-made case in the back of his van had come a broadsword. It had been designed just for him, made of the finest Toledo steel; the blade was razor sharp, the edge honed with infinite patience and practice. The weapon was hidden by a long overcoat that Ashe carried over his arm. The local police would not be happy if, even during Medieval Fair, someone were caught carrying a sword, especially one like this, away from the event site. Suggesting that they return to Serina’s apartment, Ashe had left her there, asleep with the implanted idea of a night full of passion to come. He spotted Chalker standing to one side of the home team’s bench. Ashe had discarded his medieval clothing, exchanging them for a black tee shirt, jeans and a biker’s leather jacket. Chalker, on the other hand, had gone to the opposite extreme. He now wore a full shirt of chain mail and a tabard emblazoned with a heraldic house badge, a helmet held under one arm and a fearsome looking sword resting on the ground. “I wondered if you would show up,” said Chalker. “Really?” Ashe chuckled. “Since I issued the challenge, you doubted I would be here? That’s muddy thinking; gets you in trouble every time.”
“Honorless scum such as you have been known to lose their nerve.” “Honor?” “I should expect someone like you to know little of honor and to disparage an honorable warrior. It is honor that will guide my blade in a fight,” said Chalker. “Speaking of fighting,” said Ashe. “Did you come here to fight or to stand here chattering like a magpie all night. I noticed at the party that you seemed very adept at that latter skill.” The fury in Chalker’s eyes blazed as he pulled the helmet over his head. Ashe dropped his jacket and unsheathed his sword. “I suppose you know you won’t walk out of here alive. But before we begin, tell me one thing,” said Chalker. “I’ve never laid eyes on you before tonight. So why?” “Why? Why do I want your life? Because you are a no good murdering piece of offal that persists in trying to act human. I make no claims to being human myself, but you, sir, are scum. Does the name Hannah Cortez mean anything to you?” Chalker looked puzzled. “No. Should it?” Ashe shook his head. “Cleveland. Four months ago. She was tall, with long brown hair, emerald eyes, and an enjoyment of life like none I have ever seen. You should remember her. You should remember them all. You killed her, slowly, painfully.” Chalker grinned. He had sensed an advantage and meant to press it. “Oh, yes. Cleveland. Now I seem to recall her. I made her last for four days. Did you realize that she begged me to kill her. But I did it very slowly, 50
very slowly. I made her last and savored each scream. You know, it’s an art form. I did her a great honor taking her. She was one of the whores, you know. One of the ones that it is my holy charge to rid the world of!” He pulled his sword up and went for Ashe. Turning to one side, Ashe let the other man’s blade pass inches away from its target. Chalker whirled and struck again. This time Ashe deflected the blow by pushing his blade hard forward. That his opponent had experience with a sword was obvious. He knew how to land a blow and to counter more than a few moves. Ashe let himself wait, attacking a few times, mostly to learn, to see how Chalker would react. Ashe himself had not stood to blood combat with a sword in nearly five years. There had been no call. But old skills, learned first in the practice fields of France, then honed as one of Arthur’s commanders and used over the centuries, had not faded. Ashe had begun to carefully drive Chalker back when the last thing in the world he expected, happened. Someone fired a shot. The bullet came from behind Ashe, echoing like a backfiring truck among the empty seats of the stadium. Ashe swung wide and away from Chalker, turning as he moved back toward the stands. The gunman was making no attempt to hide himself. Standing just behind the metal railing at the fifty yard line, dressed in a black and white musketeer’s outfit, was Michael, his hands wrapped around the butt of a very large gun. The second shot struck the turf not a foot from where
Ashe stood. “Looks like if I don’t get you,” laughed Chalker. “He will.” “Some man of honor you turned out to be, having your lackey ambush me!” said Ashe. “One does what one can,” said Chalker. “I told you to stay away from her,” Michael shouted. “Serina is mine. She will never belong to anyone else. I told you! I saw the two of you together, there in her bed rutting like animals! I warned you! Now you’re going to pay.” He drew the gun up, assuming a firing stance, but before he could fire he lurched forward, crashing into the railing, the gun flying free from his hand to crash onto the fifty-yard line below him. Standing behind him was Serina, a long wooden pole in her hand. “I told you I’m not your girlfriend any more!” Michael managed to stay on his feet, turning toward Serina. She produced the can of pepper gas and sprayed him directly in the eyes. That sent him screaming to the ground. Ashe turned just as Chalker charged him. He brought his sword up at the last moment, blocking the edge of the other man’s blade as it sliced hard toward Ashe. “You have no chance against me,” Chalker’s muffled voice said. “My skill has been honed for lifetimes, generations beyond anything that you can do.” “Indeed?” Ashe said. Chalker struck at him three times in succession, slicing into the leather that wrapped around Ashe’s arm. “Indeed. My soul is an
old one. Once I wore the name of Galahad of Camelot!I learned from the masters: Gawain, Arthur and even Lancelot himself!” Ashe laughed. The very thought that this “man” could be carrying the soul of Galahad was a repugnant one. He struck hard against Chalker, his sword cutting into the chain mail the man wore. “You are not Galahad. If your soul were his, he would have killed himself before allowing you to do the things that you have done. I knew Galahad. Galahad was a friend of mine. You’re no Galahad!” “What would you know? You’re nothing but street scum, not even fit to clean the stables of Camelot.” “I? I am Lancelot!” Ashe drove his sword down hard, pushing aside the other man’s blade, his weapon cutting deep into chain mail and then flesh of the Chalkers stomach. His foe stood there, staring, uncomprehending. Ashe pulled his blade clear and then drove it into Chalker’s neck. The bone and flesh clung together for only a moment, and then cut through. The head lingered where it was for a few seconds, teetering from side to side, before falling from his shoulders; blood washing the green turf. Ashe kicked the head straight between the goal posts. “He scores, and the crowd goes wild,” he said. *** “I hope you take this in the right way,” Ashe said. “Understand, I am grateful, but I would like to know what you were doing there? I expected you to be sound asleep until morning.” Serina laughed. “You’re welcome. You should learn to 51
never take anything for granted.” They had left the stadium quickly, retrieving Serina’s bicycle and then heading for an alley near the student union where Ashe had parked his van. “My place,” she said. “Okay, but I’m still waiting for an answer,” he said. “And I’m still waiting for my stomach to stop churning. It isn’t often that I see somebody decapitated.” Ashe could understand her reaction. Even through the dim mists of centuries, he could recall the first time that he had ridden to battle with his father’s army. His reaction after the fighting was over had been anything but heroic. The sight of Lancelot du Lac throwing up was not one that fit the legend that had come to be associated with the name. But then again, Ashe had never felt like he wanted to fit that image anyway. “I heard what he said to you,” she said slowly. “About killing all those women. Was it true?” “I only wish it weren’t.” He wasn’t sure if the police would be able to connect Chalker with the killings or if this would be listed as some bizarre gang execution. “And what about Michael?” “Oh, him?” grinned Ashe. “I don’t think we’ll have to worry about a thing.” Ashe had roused Michael and then carefully suggested to him that he had not seen any one of them that night. Instead, Michael had gone out after the medieval party and gotten plastered, failed miserably when he tried to pick up a couple of coeds, then headed
for his own home to sleep it off. If any of the memories ever returned to him it would be in the form of nightmares that he would make no sense. “Normally, when I implant a suggestion in someone’s mind, they do what I require of them.” Ashe had now and again encountered those who were immune to his abilities. Thankfully, this had been one of those times.
Serina grinned. “You guys think that all you have to do is snap a finger and a girl is in your power. Hello! I’ve got news for you. I’ve never been that easy to hypnotize. When you tried to do it, I decided to follow you and see if I could find out what was going on. Just consider yourself lucky that I did.” “Oh, that I do, m’lady.” “Now, just on the off
chance that the police question you about Chalker’s death,” said Serina. “Just tell them that you spent the entire night with me. Besides, you didn’t think that I was through with you? Did you?” “I wouldn’t think of being that presumptuous.” “Of course not.”
Riding to Hounds by Thomas Canfield I watched the procession approach with a suitably solemn expression. Henry was in the lead, wearing a purple mantle lined with white satin, an ermine stole and crimson sash, doublet and hose. In his hand, he carried a riding crop. Two paces to the rear was his wife. Or, I should say, his current wife. Number five, the vivacious and charming Katheryn Howard, still dewy with the false promise of youth. Behind the Queen came an assortment of retainers, courtiers, hangers-on, sycophants, favor seekers and various court functionaries. It was all quite colorful and exotic. “Well, Master McIntyre,” the King addressed me, “have you seen to everything needs seeing to?” “Everything, Sire.” I opened the door to the helicopter. I still found it jarring, this juxtaposition of twenty-first century technology and sixteenth century quaintness. I could not reconcile the one with the other, could not resolve in my own mind how I had come to be there and why I was not dead. I had been flying reconnaissance in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, in the dead of winter. Hellish conditions by any measure, when the chopper got sucked into a downdraft. We went plunging towards the mountains, towards certain death,
caught in a swirling vortex of snow that reduced visibility to near zero. I remember the thrum of the motor rising in pitch, desperately striving to regain stability. I remember the cries of my mates. Then there was a wall of vertical blackness dead in front of us and a thin sliver of light that offered our only hope of salvation. I made for the light. Only I came out the other side, along with the helicopter. The others might have landed anywhere for all I knew. They might not have made it at all. I ended up in sixteenth century England. Henry had some difficulty
scrambling aboard the chopper. He was a heavyset man and not the most agile. I debated whether I should help him and decided against it. It was a delicate matter - you did not touch the person of the King without good reason. I still had not sorted out the nuances of when it was permissible to do so and when it was not. So I did nothing, always the safest course. 53
I climbed aboard. A courtier stepped forward, raised a trumpet to his lips, and blew a rousing blast that echoed off across the greensward and down the distant valley. The pack of hounds was released, surging forward and baying madly. The hunt was on. Henry gave me the thumbs up. I had demonstrated the signal for him on our first flight together a week ago. I reciprocated now, smiling, took the chopper up to around two hundred feet and headed south. The best hunting grounds lay in that direction. I watched warily as Henry hefted himself out of his seat and made his way round to the back. He bellied up to the machine gun mounted by the bay door, grabbed hold of it. I had shown the King how to operate the gun on our maiden flight. He had taken to the weapon at once. It was like watching a kid with a new toy. Old Blood and Thunder Hal. The problem was he started opening up on anything that moved down below. He didn’t seem to realize the destructive power the gun packed. We went over this one village, a drab collection of thatch-roofed peasant huts, and Henry let them have it good. Just poured it down on them. I don’t want to come off sounding like a liberal or anything but I was pretty disgusted. I mean, they’re his peasants and he can do whatever he wants to them. But wholesale slaughter? That was going too far. I finally got him to
quit when I explained that I had limited quantities of ammunition. But I still got nervous whenever he got near the gun. I kept the chopper down low, a hundred feet or thereabouts. I could do that back here in the sixteenth century. There were no power lines or anything like that to worry about. The English countryside was beautiful: lush, green, unspoiled. I watched it slip by below us. We’d covered about thirty miles when Henry opened up with a short burst, laying waste to a cow grazing in the meadow below. It was a sign that he was growing impatient. I shifted in my seat. I was never entirely comfortable when in the King’s presence. Although I admired him as a leader, I confess that his penchant for having people executed, the coldblooded ferocity with which he could turn on a man and destroy him, chilled me. I was in his favor only because I had brought him the helicopter. It was an amusement, something novel. But I knew that, like past favorites, it could all change in a heartbeat. Henry used a man, manipulated him, and when his utility was at an end, discarded him. My utility was about at an end. The chopper needed to be serviced. It needed fuel and ammunition. I wasn’t likely to find either in sixteenth century England. I couldn’t count on another flight after this. When the chopper was grounded, it would likely mean I would lose the King’s favor. So, I was face to face with the problem I’d been grappling with ever since I’d landed back here in the past. How could I best preserve the integrity of this
timeframe and yet still avoid conflict. Henry was a keg of dynamite, wanting only a stray spark to set him off. He was also a major historical figure. If he were to be injured, or killed, might it not perhaps alter the course of history? But then, hadn’t I already done that by showing up in the past in a helicopter? It was the old time travel paradox: cause and effect became so intertwined, so inextricably mixed one with the other, that it was impossible to distinguish which was which any longer. It was like a serpent swallowing its own tail. One could never find a beginning or an end or any point to logically fasten on. Something caught my eye down below -- an immense, dark shape. I banked the helicopter around for a second look. Sheltered beneath the canopy of the trees something was moving slowly. Traces of thick, grey hide were visible within the shadows. “Yon great beast,” the King called out. I nodded, gooseflesh forming along my spine. I would have to flush the creature out into the open. I brought the helicopter in low, skimming the tops of the trees. The noise shattered the woodland quiet, startled the beast. It broke into a clumsy, lumbering run. The hunt was on. Henry pounded his thighs, enjoying the moment immensely. “Run thou spawn of Hell. We deem it just and proper tribute that all within our realm submit before our will, man and beast alike.” The King could be endearing in moments like these. As long as his attention and, more particularly, his wrath were focused elsewhere and not upon oneself his presence was a spectacle well worth 54
beholding. “Great sulphurous beast,” the King lashed out against his quarry, “of hellfire and brimstone art thou made. And to Hell thou shall return.” I was grinning as I flew the helicopter, my own excitement at fever pitch. Flashes of horn and huge bony mantle were visible at intervals beneath the leaves. When at last the beast broke from the trees and into the open the King and I both exclaimed aloud in admiration and in awe: triceratops, last of the dinosaurs. The immense grey form turned as we passed overhead. I stared down at the vicious twin horns that were thrust into the air. The incredible power of the beast was evident in its every line, its every movement. The creature had been designed for battle, for survival in a harsh and predatory environment. I let the helicopter hover above the meadow, unable to take my eyes off the sight. Dinosaurs, of course, were no more native to sixteenth century England than were helicopters. I had been caught in a temporal anomaly and shuttled back in time. I assumed that the same was true of the triceratops, only it had vaulted forward. This particular timeframe seemed subject to quirks of this sort, rents in the space-time continuum. It went beyond what we call your basic inconvenience. The King began gesturing at me to set the helicopter down. I frowned and, after seeking out a spot sufficiently distant from the dinosaur, complied. I knew what Henry was up to and didn’t like it. The King’s actions could be attributed to the insane English predilection for fair play.
Any contest of might of valor or gaming had to offer one’s opponent, in this case a dinosaur, a sporting chance. We could have taken the beast cleanly and without risk from the air. And for that very reason, of course, we didn’t do it. Instead we were sitting in the meadow, the engine shut down, waiting for this great lumbering hulk of bone and sinew and mindless fury to descend upon us: fair play. The bloody English and their chivalry. Henry began yelling taunts across the meadow at the beast, goading it. This seemed unnecessary to me. The triceratops was already coming in our direction. It approached with cold-blooded assurance, certain of its prey. A startled pheasant, darting out from under the beast’s feet, failed to distract it. The triceratops malevolent, unwavering stare remained fixed on the helicopter. “Swine. Churl,” the King reviled it. “Foul, pestilent scourge.” I cleared my throat. “Sire, the beast is well within range. You can drop it from here if you like.” Henry shot me a disdainful glance. “Master McIntyre, it were not well spoken for a Scot. What were the purpose if t’were so easy as that.” I held my peace then, ready to prove myself as brave a cavalier as the King, if not so foolish. “Spawn of Hell,” Henry yelled at the triceratops. “Why do you yet tarry? Art meet to contest the field or not? Poltroon.” I think it was the ‘poltroon’ that must have done it. The triceratops gave a deep thundering cry and charged. The earth shook. Great tufts of dirt
kicked out behind the beast. Its grey bulk bore down on us like fury incarnate. Henry clutched the gun, refusing to fire until the last instant. It occurred to me that we were both about to die. I could see the pitted texture of the beast’s skin, feel the wrath radiating from its eyes. That was when the gun opened up, a tremendous, continual clattering noise. The bullets sprayed into the dinosaur’s face. There was a blur of motion, dust-shrouded chaos. Bullets ricocheted off the bony mantle, whined overhead. The triceratops was going down under the terrible firepower but its momentum carried it forward into the helicopter. The creature hit with stunning force. I saw a horn shear through the metal side, barely missing the King. The whole body of the helicopter lurched backwards, tipped on its side. The frame collapsed. I lay there without moving. Waiting. After several minutes, I crawled out from under the wreckage. I found Henry standing upon his slain quarry’s upturned belly. There was a bloody gash down one of the King’s cheeks but other than that he looked fit and whole. “Well, Master McIntyre,” he hailed me, “it were fine sport this. Truly, a sport to test the mettle of Kings.” I nodded wearily. I looked at the triceratops. The beast was history. It must have taken fifty or sixty rounds full in the face. What was left of it was not pretty to look at. The King would not be mounting this particular specimen over his fireplace. I did not even have to look at the helicopter. It too, I knew, was history. 55
“I’m afraid we have a bit of a walk in front of us, Sire,” I commented. “No matter, Master McIntyre. Horses will suffice where nothing better offers.” Henry looked quite pleased. He was basking in his prowess with the machine gun, I think, delighting in the way it extended his reach and magnified his power. He loomed a larger figure than ever, having tasted the heady draught of twenty-first century technology. He glanced at the helicopter. There was a speculative gleam in his eye, a gleam that I recognized only too well. He was assessing the situation, or reassessing it, measuring my current worth in a way that did not auger well for the future. *** So, what does an exhelicopter pilot do in a sixteenth century court? The choices, I discovered, were rather limited. I did however, by dint of my knowledge of flying, land the post as the King’s falconer, tending to his hawks and to the hunt. It is a congenial duty. I harbor only one fear: some day, one fine spring morning in May perhaps, a black shadow will appear out of the eastern skies beating immense wings in the direction of the King’s court. The King will demand of his falconer that he tame this bird of royal bulk - this bird that will one day, in a future I have ceased to long for and ceased to regret, be known as pterodactyl.
Copper-bottom’s Downfall by Arthur Mackeown For my tenth birthday, my mother had promised me a party to remember. There would be a gigantic chocolate cake, ice cream, a clown, presents, balloons, and even my first pair of long trousers. While I liked the idea of the clown, I thought myself a bit old for balloons -they were for babies, not boys in long trousers. “And don’t forget, Arthur,” my mother said, as she packed me off to school. “Ask some of your little friends to the party.” That’s the problem with birthday parties: you can’t have them all by yourself; you have to invite someone, and in my school no small boy with an ounce of sense would let on it was his birthday. If he did, he’d be shoved straight into the nearest holly bush by Smythe and some of his nasty henchmen. Smythe was the school bully. I suppose every school has one like him: thick as two planks and the personality of a pitbull. His first name was Nicholas—’Nickelarse’ to the gormless thugs he called friends. The rest of us called him ‘Copper-bottom’ behind his back, but never to his face. All the smaller kids were terrified of him and most of the bigger ones as well. So was I, and it was just
my luck to sit next to him every day in class. Dim as he was, Smythe could tell if a boy was afraid just by looking at him. Throughout the morning I kept peeking at his scowling face as he struggled with his lessons, searching fearfully for a sign that he suspected something. If he did, he had only to twist my arm a couple of times in the playground, and the truth would be out in a minute. Not that
it mattered much; he’d know soon enough anyway. The moment I mentioned my party someone would be sure to snitch and the entire Copper-bottom gang would 56
be waiting for me outside the gates after school, where a particularly dense and prickly holly bush was conveniently to hand. Mind you, the thought of swaggering home with my clothes torn and my face covered in scratches had a certain appeal; my mother raising her eyes to heaven and saying, “Fighting again? Who was it this time?” while I maintain a modest and manly silence in keeping with my new long-trouser status; my father ruffling my hair and saying he wished he could see how the other kid looked, while in class all the girls would admire my scars and Smythe would be so affected by my fortitude he’d beg me on his knees to join his gang and… *** During the dinner break I had a brilliant idea. I would invite Julie. Julie was a new girl and I didn’t know her very well, but she often smiled at me in class and in the playground. She seemed rather nice, as girls go, and I was sure she’d like to come to my party. I plucked up courage to speak to her just as the bell rang to end the break. “Can I ask you something?” “If you like,” she answered. “Do you want to come to my birthday party?”
She beamed at me. “I just love birthday parties.” “Then meet me at the gate after school,” I said. “Only you mustn’t tell anybody.” Her eyes lit up. “Cross my heart and hope to die.” I spent the rest of the day feeling very pleased with myself. I even looked Copper-bottom directly in the eye. Not for long, of course; no point in pushing my luck. When school ended I held back a little to allow him to leave before me, and then hurried off towards the gate where Julie would be waiting. Instead, I found a grinning reception committee headed by the Lord High Executioner himself. “Thought I wouldn’t find
out, didn’t you?” said Smythe. “Find out what?” I asked innocently. “I saw you two whispering. Didn’t take long to get it out of her,” he boasted. “Did you hit her?” “I told her I’d hit you,” Smythe said, and twisted my arm behind my back. “OY!” shouted someone. Julie had come up behind us. She stood with her hands on her hips, glaring furiously at Smythe. He was unimpressed. “This is bloke’s business,” he said. “No girls allowed, so bugger off.” “Copper-bottom,” she answered scornfully. “Eh?”
Julie reached up and waved her index finger in Smythe’s face. “You just watch it,” she hissed. “I’ve got a brother, and he’s a lot bigger than you.” Smythe almost backed into the holly bush. Before he could right himself, Julie seized my arm and led me away from him. “You can phone your mum from my house,” I said, as we hurried breathlessly up the road. “And you can invite your brother to my party.” She giggled. “What brother?” she said.
Night Walk Demise by Carl Scharwath
Forlorn night walk Shadows melt to The soul, darkness
Street crossing perils Voices, car unseen Seconds till death
Cold breath enlightens A path invisible Darkness swallows me
Dream like heart Races to safety Speed breezes avoided
Schizophrenic trees transform Into street lights Metal arms grab
Thoughts walking home Fleeing from disaster Doubted not felt
Pull to illumination Warm and secure Demanding silent attention
Destiny and outcomes Still I exist Fellowship of living
Prism carbon black My outline frozen Moments in time
Deep into the Core by Carol Allen An anomaly. We see it passing through earth with no electrical charge and a mass of zero. Neutrinos. Thermic fusion in our sunâ€™s core.
The Last True Gunslinger by Y.B. Cats Gunslinger Red Bandana stepped into the street, accompanied by the ting-ting from his spurs and a dry desert wind. Sunset orange tinted the town’s storefronts and softened their boxy angles; in this hue the town could deny its bloodlust and dress up in romantic lore, if it wanted. Alas, Rio de Roja did not favor romance, only blood, gore, and glory. No respectable townsperson would admit it, but they lived for a chance to see gunslingers felled by each other’s bullets. Even now, “good” townsfolk hid behind cover that allowed a glimpse into the street. “I’m gonna make sure everyone sees yer ugly face, Red! I bet under that bandana, you’re so ugly even yer mama won’t stand fer it!” Gummy McGee cawed like a carrion-eater from street’s end. He twirled his pistols – slick, flashy silvers – and dropped them back into their holsters. Red pictured Gummy’s tombstone – Here lies Gummy: who picked a fight with Red Bandana, because he was a dummy. Rio de Roja’s undertaker fancied himself a poet. The only problem was, Red couldn’t see. Gummy made sure he took the street end where he could stand with his back to the sun. The big orange ball glared as it slipped behind the western horizon, and a squint didn’t help. Here lies Red Bandana: done in because he couldn’t see, the fool before him, Gummy McGee. “Red,” a water barrel in Red’s peripheral vision tried to get his attention. It wasn’t the water barrel, but someone cowered
behind it. “Before you git mad, I just want you to know, I have ’em right here.” “What, Justus?” “The bullets,” Justus replied. “The bullets I forgot to put back in yer gun after I cleaned it, like Susanna told me.” Red Bandana didn’t sweat at gunfights. Icy rivers coursed through his veins. He didn’t taunt, he didn’t gloat, he pulled his pistol faster than any man in the west, and everyone knew it. At his brother’s confession, though, a hot itch tickled his armpits. “Which gun,” Red kept his voice low. There were those in the audience who might wish to throw the fight for a wager’s sake. “I don’t remember,” was the inevitable answer. Here lies Justus: shot, strangled, and stabbed by his brother Red. “How many bullets do you have?” “Six, I have six, Red.” Red knew Justus squatted behind the barrel and counted the bullets in his moist palm, over and over. If he drew both six-shooters, their weight might reveal which one pledged lead venom. Whenever he fired both guns at once, however, his aim wasn’t perfect, and with the glare… He needed a way to ensure his best shot – a quick, one-hand grab. “Git ready to die, you ugly son-of-a–” McGee stopped short. Red took a step toward him, hands held ready above his shooters. “What’re you doing?” “I’m gonna show you my ugly face.” A surprised murmur rose from hidden spectators. McGee twitched his trigger fingers as Red continued a slow approach. “Why would I wanna 59
see it now, Red? I’ll see yer face when you’re dead.” McGee spat tobacco to the dirt, and juice ran over his chin. Gummy missed more teeth than the ones he had left. “You’ll be known as the only man who knew my face.” Red’s toes touched McGee’s cowboy-hat shadow, and he stopped. “You’ll be famous.” “I could kill you with my eyes closed from here,” McGee chortled. Behind him, the sun dipped below the horizon. Red eased his left hand up and hooked his forefinger on the bandana’s edge at his cheek while his right hand slid its pistol from its holster. McGee stood, transfixed. Red’s right pistol felt heavy – but heavy enough? “Ready?” Red asked. McGee sneered, but remained still. Red eased the bandana down and revealed …fair, beardless skin and soft, red lips. “You’re a–” McGee’s eyes widened, and Red’s trigger finger took the chance. Click. Red looked down at his pistol as McGee did the same. Both looked back to the other, and Red shrugged. McGee snickered. “Nobody’s gonna believe–” Gummy began, and made his move; whipped his pistol up in a one-hand grab. Red’s left hand flew to its pistol and raised it in a flash. Bang. The gunslingers stood steps from each other, coiled and frozen in place. Brown and red drool oozed from Gummy’s mouth, and he lurched forward. His hands clawed the air for Red’s bandana, and meant to tear it loose. Red caught his hands;
Gummy leered and groped Red’s chest. He smeared his drool across Red’s front as he slumped to the ground. Red struggled to maintain composure; Red Bandana would not shoot this man in the face, after he fell. Susanna, the sharptongued saloon girl, might. “Red Bandana …is a woman.” Gummy’s boot heels kicked divots in the dirt as his lips quivered their final words. Red didn’t think anyone was close enough to hear, and tugged the bandana back to where it belonged. Someone whistled the all-clear signal, and Rio de Roja’s citizenry erupted into the street. Amid cheers and slaps on the back Red saw Justus make his way near, head bent in concentration over his palm. “Here are yer bullets, Red. I didn’t lose ’em.” “Thanks, Justus.” Red received the wayward bullets into his hand, and Justus turned to snatch handfuls of money shoved in their direction. Red considered his darksilver pistols, with their etched snakes curled around the barrels. He opened the right pistol and found four bullets. He opened the left pistol and found …one. That meant Justus loaded four bullets in one pistol and two in the other. Only a madman, fool or the devil incarnate would do such a thing. Given the odds, Gummy McGee should be alive, and Red Bandana should be face down in the dirt, secret exposed for all to see. Red looked at Gummy’s boots – visible among the crowd’s feet – and watched the boots recede as the undertaker dragged Gummy from view. Red shuddered at the sight. “Justus, I’m headed fer the
saloon, and up to see Susanna.” “Ok, Red. I’ll make sure nobody disturbs.” Red swung the saloon doors inward and stepped into the lioness’s den. Halfway Saloon’s long-legged entertainers were known across the west for their humor, card playing, and other talents. A few cattle hands turned an eye at Red’s entrance, but most remained enthralled by rosy cheeks, red lips, and heady perfume. The townspeople swore even a stampede couldn’t draw a man from Halfway Saloon’s amorous embrace. That was just fine with Red, who found it easy to disappear in the smoke, music, and laughter. *** Susanna hunched on her elbows over a short whisky. She stared hard at the amber liquid, swirled the glass, and tilted her head back to down its contents. This was not what she had in mind when, not long ago, she yearned for adventure. She wanted to travel, and see the world. So far, she’d set foot in countless western towns – hardly an admirable feat. If she had one wish, she’d wish Red Bandana, the real Red Bandana, had never tried to impress her with a stupid pistol trick. Let’s step outside, he said, and I’ll show you my trick. A step into a dark alley, a gun twirl, and an errant bang was all it took to interrupt Red Bandana’s persona. What did she do then? Did she run far and fast, like any sensible girl would? No, she rolled Red to his side. ¡Asesina! You killed him! Those words chilled her heart, as a short man in preacher’s garb stepped from the shadows. I 60
didn’t! I didn’t kill him! She knew her protests would be worthless when compared to a preacher’s word. I’ll keep this secret, the Padre said, if Red Bandana lives on in service to La Casa de Dios. A dime novel fell at her elbow on the bar, as her least favorite someone sat too close for comfort. Its cover depicted a bandana-masked gunslinger, triumphant over a slain opponent. The novel’s title read Adventures of Red Bandana, the Last True Gunslinger. Padre Domingo leaned in to her vision’s edge. “I bought this today at the corner tienda,” he whispered. Few patrons remained at so late an hour, and most dozed on their tables. Padre Domingo, however, spoke in a hushed voice, and glanced over his shoulder. “I don’t think Red’s that tall or lean,” Susanna said into her glass, and tossed it back. She balanced on the stool’s peg supports and leaned over to pull a whiskey bottle from behind the bar. She poured herself another shallow glass. “Pour you a drink?” The Padre glared, not amused. Susanna shrugged. “I overheard Red say he retired today, Padre.” “¿Es verdad?” Padre Domingo lifted an eyebrow. Susanna nodded and winced at the familiar whiskey burn in her throat. “Do you think Red’s secret is safe in retirement? Many heroes grow in fame when they retire, and it would be such a shame for Red to be exposed as an impostora …and worse.” “I’m more afraid of a pine box than Red is afraid of exposure. Besides, who’ll believe you?” “It’s your word against mine, and I’d say you threatened
to kill me if I told, after I witnessed you kill the real Red Bandana in cold blood. And, of course, there is Justus to consider.” Susanna regarded the Padre with renewed contempt. “There’s no telling what the knowledge that his brother died some time ago would do to him.” Their deal felt like a bridle cinched around her neck, and she touched her throat with a distracted hand. “Red Bandana will be shot dead… someday. What then?” “When that occurs, I assure you, you will no longer care what happens on this earthly plain. God will show your filthy soul no mercy. You should pray that, when that day dawns, Justus becomes blind and deaf.” Susanna emptied her glass, and returned it with a slam to the bar’s blemished surface. “Of course, a tithing may help you regain the Lord’s favor…?” The Padre leaned even closer and displayed his hand, palm up. Susanna stifled her anger, and moved to where Justus slumbered on a table, his cheek glued to its surface by drool. She searched his pockets and found meager leftovers; paper money she crumpled even further and slapped into the Padre’s limp grasp. Sometime later, Susanna lifted her head from the bar, and opened bleary eyes. A tall man, dressed all in black, tugged his hat’s brim. “Pardon, Ma’am. I couldn’t help but notice you seem distressed.” “I’m no damsel, cowpoke. Rescue somebody else.” “Are you in need of a rescue?”
“No – yes, I’d be obliged if you knew how to undo a deal with el Diablo. Otherwise, leave me be before I retch all over yer fancy, black boots.” The stranger seemed amused. “My boots would be honored to receive the stomach contents of such a beauty,” he smiled. Susanna snickered. “Then, have a seat Mister–” “Bart, you can call me Bart.” He sat on the next stool. “Quite a fight today, wouldn’t you say? I saw the whole thing; quite a show.” “I reckon so.” Susanna pushed the whiskey bottle away as far as she could reach. She’d never drink again.
Bart picked up the dime novel Padre Domingo left, and thumbed its pages. “So, you made a deal with the devil?” “I traded a hangman’s noose fer a leash, fortune, and fame.” “Fame? Beg your pardon, but I’ve never heard of you, Miss–” 61
“Susanna, and of course you haven’t heard of me. I’m just shootin’ my mouth off. Would you like a drink? I’m the barkeep, but I work from this side of the bar, so I git better tips.” “Ah no, thank you. I’m here to find my old friend – Red Bandana,” Bart’s black eyes searched hers, and Susanna felt heat rise to her face. “But, the one I saw today couldn’t be my old friend. Every gunslinger’s style is unique, and the Red I knew was …showy. The one I saw today was cold, measured …and more petite in stature.” Did he know? Had he guessed? It seemed so, but what did that mean? “Red definitely didn’t wear lipstick, either.” By God, he knew – he must’ve seen when she lowered the bandana. Her throat tightened. “That means the Red Bandana I saw today is a fake.” “What would you do if you knew the real Red was dead?” Susanna avoided his gaze and picked at a scratch on the bar. “I’d be very disappointed. Red owes me a gunfight, and I’m here to collect.” “You call him an old friend, and you want to shoot at him?” “Yes – may I count on your discretion?” Susanna nodded in response. “You may’ve heard of Black Bart?” Susanna’s eyes widened a little, but she tried not to show her surprise. “Black Bart: the gentleman bandit and poet? I’ve heard.” “Well, you’re looking at him. Years ago Red and I made a deal – when I felt the law at my back, Black Bart and Red Bandana would fight, and …Bart would lose.”
Susanna’s eyebrows rose. “Lose, you mean, die?” Black Bart tilted his head and gave her a sly smile. “That’s what everyone was supposed to think,” he winked. “But, I always knew I’d miss the life, after I gave it up. On the other hand, I’d like to stay above ground a while longer, so now I don’t know what to do. Rather, I wouldn’t know what to do, if I knew Red was dead.” “Black Bart!” Justus stumbled into the bar between them. “I wondered when we’d see you again! You’ve met Susanna; Red’s girl?” Black Bart leaned around Justus and touched his hat’s brim again. “Susanna,” Justus aimed his wretched breath at her, “where’s Red – go get him. He’ll want to see Bart–” “He’s sleeping, Justus, and doesn’t want to be disturbed.” “Well, we’ll just wait fer him then.” Justus plopped on the stool next to Bart and put his head down on the bar. In a moment, he snored with abandon. “I have a new deal fer you Bart,” Susanna said, “one I think will work out real well fer the both of us.” *** Dawn’s pale shades lit the sky, and Rio de Roja’s main street lingered in quiet. From the farthest end, a small figure appeared and ran down the street at a break-neck pace. “Wake up! Wake up! Red Bandana and Black Bart are gonna fight!” A small boy hollered, loud, and paused for a breath before he kept on. “Wake up, or you’ll miss the greatest gunfight in history!” Shades snapped up windows while front doors swung open, and citizens in their nightcaps
emerged with sleepy steps. Black Bart descended from the saloon, head-to-toe in black, with a new addition to his attire. Citizens whispered to each other as he passed. “Is that Black Bart? I didn’t know he was so short. Have you seen him before?” “Nah, but look at him with that black bandana up over his face; he must think he can rattle Red’s nerves.” The saloon’s doors swung open and Red Bandana stepped forward; he nodded at Bart and made his way up the street. Black Bart checked both pistols while he waited, and then eased them down into their holsters. When Red reached a hundred paces, he turned. Black Bart crouched into a gunslinger’s stance, and waited. Silence settled in, and even the desert wind seemed to hold its breath until: B-bang! Both gunslingers moved so fast, that few saw their hands move at all. Black Bart swayed, fell forward, and landed in the dirt. Those who watched gasped at the sight. Red Bandana crossed the distance to Black Bart’s body. “Listen to me, citizens of Rio de Roja.” The citizens listened, enthralled. “Black Bart was a gentleman, and a friend. We will treat his body with the utmost care. Where is the undertaker?” The grizzled undertaker distinguished himself from the crowd. “Bart left with me special instructions for his burial, which we will follow, exact. Bart wanted this on his tombstone; I hope you can fit it all in.” Red pulled a crumpled paper from his pocket and handed it to the undertaker. The undertaker glanced at it, nodded, and motioned for help 62
to lift Bart’s body into a nearby wagon. Numerous citizens asked what the note contained. “I will tell you, good people,” Red said, and began to recite a rhyme. Padre Domingo watched from a doorway, shook his head, and faded back into shadow. “Red!” Justus stumbled from the saloon, and almost toppled at Red’s feet. “I missed a fight? Did you win?” “Indeed I did.” Red guided Justus back toward the saloon. “I don’t know how you can shoot someone before breakfast,” Justus frowned. “You’re right. I should get something to eat.” “Red, you sound different.” “I do?” “More like yer old self!” Justus laughed. “Where’s Bart?” “He’ll be along; he’s going to be with us from now on. But, the law’s after him, so keep it quiet.” “Okay, Red.” The townsfolk didn’t bother to attend Black Bart’s burial; they already knew what was on his tombstone. When the undertaker filled a hole up with dirt, no one was there to ask where the coffin was. Atop the dirt pile, the undertaker positioned a tombstone that should have been larger: Black Bart I’ve labored long and hard for bread, For honor, and for riches, But on my corns too long you’ve tread, You fine-haired sons of b…
The Empty Chair by Malcolm Laughton I walked into the gallery with due apprehension and excitement. Still, there should be no reason to fear photographs if I merely looked at them. The subdued ambient lighting, and the echo which is a resident feature of all big museums, made the atmosphere uncanny. The bright direct lighting on the big prints made them stand out with an insistent beckoning. But let’s face it, I told myself, they were just old photos, and I couldn’t go through the rest of my life in fear. There they were: wall to wall, those old photographs of Edwardian Glasgow. And people long dead looked out at me, from streets I myself had walked this past hour. There, to my right, was a picture of a wynd from whose dark and narrow way, over a century past, people in ragged clothing peered at me. As I looked, I began to notice once again those thin incorporeal phantoms which impinge themselves into thin air: the people who had moved during the exposure. The wynd, even sadder than the one I remembered,
was somewhere I never wanted to tread. I walked on, and the pictures were of grander streets, of fabulous buildings, parks - and of the interior of the photographer’s studio itself. There was one very odd studio-study - an empty chair. The chair was quite plush, but I could see no reason to photograph it.
Next to it was a more interesting picture of the interior of a museum - an arrested moment of the very building I stood in. I looked at the great hall of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, a matter of yards, 63
and a hundred years or so, away from where I stood. It was empty of people, and full of statues. A sudden sense of presence tugged at me; and I was through slippery easily. I stood there, stunned and perplexed. I had merely looked. Now the hall wasn’t only full of statues, but people -the departed, walking about as if it was a mere Saturday afternoon visit. Immediately I worried about how I would ever get back. I looked around. High on a pedestal reared the centerpiece of the hall - a huge dark angel. Its wings were high and barbaric. Its hands were raised high aloft. About its feet lay recumbent lesser angels. The bronze, from which it was cast, had the undeniable solidity of the here and now. From the corner of my eye, I thought I saw someone move - the flash of the goldwatch-chain of a familiar antagonist. I shivered, stepped back, and looked about. There were people moving everywhere. Some of the men were dressed in Edwardian long-coats and tall velvety black hats. There were women in floor-length dresses of
satin and silk. I felt out of place among them. But there were plenty others in more modest garb: men in plain, short, flannel jackets. I looked down at my own clothes, and hoped I wouldn’t look too much out of place. My jacket didn’t look too alien. It would pass. So too my trousers: for in this Edwardian light they seemed to blend, as if the light itself rearranged their material to fit in. I looked again at the dark angel, as if it might pose me some threat. But it was lifeless metal, and I moved back and around it. I walked across the hall, through the shifting crowd and a mingling of perfume - jasmine, frankincense and lavender - and stale sweat. Individuals would get in my way and apologize, and I to them. I was no phantom observer. I was there. I reached the exhibit at the end of the hall, where it was lit in great shafts of light from high windows. I recognized it from my childhood visits: a suit of Milanese armour, mounted - in this era - upon a horse. As I stood, I heard a voice: “You there! Excuse me. You there! It’s you isn’t it?” Me? Did he mean me? “You. I know you.” Who would know me here? Yet the voice... I turned, and before me stood Walker, the man I had got to know back in the vennels and wynds of my last sojourn. He gave me a big smile with those same, dirty, poorly kept teeth and said: “I wondered where you got to.” There was something odd about him. He looked exactly the same: thin, gaunt and friendly. He
was better dressed, but that wasn’t it. He caught me looking, and said proudly: “What dae ye think of the duds? Pawnbroker specials. Sunday best. Got them special for the visit. Seemed right to dress up for a place like this. Grand isn’t it. Aye, a real palace. Looks like everyone in Glasgow’s doing the same.” What was wrong struck me. I was sure the museum picture was decades later than the one I had gone into previously, but Walker hadn’t aged. Not one whit. “I’m with people,” said Walker in a slightly mysterious and guiltily apologetic tone, “but maybe, just the same, we could catch a pint or two later?” “I”d like to, but...” “Good. I”d better be going for the now.” Walker walked away, backwards and waving. He barged into several people including a very beautiful young woman dressed in blue. She looked suitably outraged. Her dark eyes, with accusation in them, caught mine. “Such rudeness!” she said, and walked away with an air of huffiness that struck me as a wee bit contrived. And I was struck by an odd familiarity about her. But I could not trace the root of the déjà vu. With all these people about, the great hall was starting to close in on me. I made for the door. I walked out into an amazing landscape. It must have been one of the great Empire Exhibitions. To my right was a vast white pavilion, high domed and many towered. Before me flowed the broad Kelvin; on its 64
waters gondolas plied their trade for the wealthy. Beyond, the farther bank rose and on its brow was the University with its central tower, all in the unmistakable style of Alexander “Greek” Thompson. In the light-blue sky by the tower’s side floated the pale silver of a huge three quarters moon. Upon the lower reaches of the far bank was an old Scottish village, doubtless an artifact of the Exhibition. The whole had something of the Fairy Tale to it, but was solid and real in the broad bright daylight. But even in a mood of wonder, I fretted on making my escape, for I was plagued by a sense of foreboding and displacement. I decided to head for the white pavilion. The great hall of the pavilion was nearly as crowded as that of the Museum, but instead of statues, it held machines monsters of Edwardian industry. Many were in action, and the rumbling noise was accompanied by the pervasive stink of engine oil. I turned away to the right and into the hall of Science, past a glittering display of mineralogy. At last, I found myself in a kind of library where I appeared to be the sole occupant. “Out of bounds,” a voice said, from behind, in the unequivocal tone of Officialdom. I turned to see two men dressed in dark green suits, stiff white collars, and slender midnight blue ties. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I must have strayed from the Public area. I”ll go back.” “I’m afraid it’s not that simple,” said one of them, in the voice that had previously
addressed me. “You have no right to be here. No right at all,” said the other. “But I must have taken a wrong turning,” I said. “A very wrong turning indeed,” continued the second. “You had better come with us,” said the first. “This way please, sir.” The first led the way, and the second followed behind me, making me feel like a prisoner being led to the gallows. We came to a steep wooden spiral stair, which we climbed so far that I imagined we must be mounting one of the towers, but we came out into a strange bending room. As we began to turn round the room, I realized we must be at the base of the dome. This was confirmed when I looked to the inward side, for there it was windowed, and I looked down upon machines and people far below. Half way around the dome, we came to a door, and I was ushered into a room which was full of books. I had never seen so many leatherbacks. They were not only in cases, but in piles about the floor. Some of the piles rose so high they formed ragged columns to the very roof. The room was lit by numerous skylights, and these cast their light through myriads of motes. At the far end sat a figure behind a grand desk. “You must report to the Antiquarian to account for your whereabouts,” said the first of my warders. I walked toward the desk, and the two stayed by the door as sentries. The man was old. He peered at me over a pair of
spectacles, and sized me up. He rose and held out a hand, and when I shook it, I felt a grip that still was strong. And I saw, in his wrinkly leathery face and glassy brown eyes, severe nobility. “Will you sit, please,” he said. I did so and replied: “I was only looking around.” “But are you aware that, in accessing these offices, you opened a locked door without a key? Only someone who is very new is likely to do so.” “Excuse me but opening locked doors without keys is not possible.” “Highly improbable would be more accurate.” He leaned back in his chair and looked at me for some moments, then said: “So where and when are you from?” I did my best to explain, and as I did so I felt a little bit like a liar, and a lot like a madman. The Antiquarian sat nonplussed throughout my story. When I finished, he looked down at his desk in contemplation and then said: “I am an Antiquarian, and my interest is history. But you must not imagine this place is quite like the one you describe as having left. And you will find it less easy to leave, or stay away from, this place. The longer you are in this time, the more you are of it. Opening a locked door without a key is an irregularity. Over a period, this place will iron out that kind of “error.”“ “An error ironed out?” “Yes. This place is less probable than others. But it has its own order. With time spent, that order will assert itself.” “Do you know how I can 65
“The way you came I suppose; if you are lucky. Spend enough time here and you will become just another part of the lunacy. You may go back below now, if you wish. I trust I will see you again.” And with that, I was led back to the Public galleries where the great machines turned and churned relentlessly. The noise drove me out into the open, where I tried to gather my thoughts. The Antiquarian had not dismissed my tale, but he had not really explained himself either. My thoughts ran thus: I had heard that the World was made of information; and that particles could be linked in space, so perhaps...” My thoughts were disturbed by: “There you are! I’ve been looking all over for you.” It was Walker. “Let’s go and have that drink, and ye can tell me what ye think about all this!” He waved enthusiastically about, indicating the exhibition, and added: “You’ll be surprised!” *** The surprise, it turned out, was the pub. “Would ye look at a’ this? Some difference from that last place we were in. Must be like a gentleman’s club, somewhere a lord might drink,” said Walker. It was the prototypical Edwardian bar. But brand new. There was a smell of polish, fresh varnish and new leather; all of which sadly offset the musty smell of Walker’s pawnbroker specials. We sat down near the bar. “Look at all these ales,”
said Walker. “There must be half a dozen. And look, they even do German style beer. Must try some. Want one?” “OK.” “Whit?” “Aye.” He duly ordered, and returned with two pints. “A wee bit pricy, but you don’t buy stuff like this every day. And look at the colour of it. It’s not even brown. It’s liquid gold.” He planked down the two pints of lager. As if on cue, another face I recognized entered the bar. It was the man I only knew by name: Goldchain. Goldchain wore the same style of gentleman’s garb as before. It was complete with bowler; and of course - the heavy, ornate, gold watch-chain looped from his waistcoat that spawned his name. Only this time his clothing wasn’t ragged. It looked like he’d just walked out of bespoke tailors. His suit was fawn brown, and of a soft material neither flannel nor silk, more like brushed skin. On his upper lip, he wore a thick, but closely cropped, moustache; the ends of which curled in sharp points just under his lips – giving the impression of mandibles. To my apprehension, he looked about, spotted Walker, and with an expression of recognition, started to walk over. Walker, momentarily alarmed, covered it quickly: “Goldchain!” So it wasn’t just me who knew him by that title. “I thought you were away. What’ll you be having?” Goldchain looked at our drinks and said: “One of the same.”
Walker headed for the bar as Goldchain sat down and lounged with long-limbed, elegant machismo. He stared at me intently. “Do I know you from somewhere?” “I’ve seen you when I was with Walker.” “But where?” “It was a back street.” “Ah, sometime ago then.” I didn’t add that it was when he was trying to rob me; and only my brief acquaintance with Walker had saved me from his cut. Goldchain said: “I don’t hang about slum corners any more. As you can see, I’m well dressed. And my tools are better.” He reached into his jacket pocket, and to my horror, pulled out a big cutthroat razor. He set it proudly on the table. It was black and gold with mother-of-pearl. “Gentleman’s shaver,” he said. He winked and put the weapon away again. To my relief, Walker returned with the pint. The conversation, with his loathsome charm, seemed to orbit Goldchain’s ego. He made numerous thinly veiled references to some higher level of criminality he had reached although, he added, he still did some of his old work on the fly. I was relieved when he suggested, or rather commanded like some petty king, that we should take a saunter back to the museum. On reaching the museum’s great hall, it appeared that Goldchain’s purpose was to strut about with an air of importance, but he was soon to prove that he had another in mind. Meantime, he did pay some attention to the exhibits with comments such as: 66
“A lot of wealth here, but none of it very portable.” He then turned his attentions to our fellow visitors, among whom I recognized the young woman in blue I had seen previously. Goldchain brushed past her. He doffed his bowler, and apologized genteelly. Returning to us, he showed in his palm a brooch. I thought too quickly for my own good. “Excuse me Miss, but you dropped something, which my companion has retrieved for you.” Goldchain threw me a quick, dark look, but then made a grand display of playing the considerate gentleman, and received the lady’s polite thanks. “You’re on borrowed time, my friend,” said Goldchain. He looked about, as if considering making a move against me, there and then, among all these witnesses. I thought I glimpsed the Antiquary’s men nearby. “I’m an important man now,” said Goldchain, “I’m part of something you don’t understand.” “I think you’d better leave,” said Walker. I slipped away through the crowd, and found myself out in the open. The daylight was beginning to fade, but I knew what I was looking for - if only I could find it. There, on a rise on the far side of the river, was a little pavilion. I thought I read it was a photographer’s from the big advertisement. I crossed the bridge over the Kelvin, and started to climb the rise. I saw the pavilion closer, and my initial hopes were confirmed. But unease tugged at me. I looked behind. Goldchain was following,
some fifty yards behind. When he saw me looking, he stopped and played out a parody of trying to appear inconspicuous, gazing all about him at trees and people. I moved on more rapidly, looking behind me from time to time. Every time I did so - he stopped. Each time, he had closed on me. And, every time he played his charade. I was close to the pavilion. There were few people about now. I looked behind again. This time Goldchain did not stop. He wore a sarcastic smile, and he fingered inside his jacket. I reached the photographer’s pavilion. The sky was darkening. The door was closing With a slight startle and then with a weary reluctance, the photographer admitted me. I looked behind, once more, as the door closed. I caught a glimpse of Goldchain standing at the doorway under gaslight. I sat for my portrait. A flash burned into my retina. With the searing, I felt a pulling sensation I had not felt previously, then the visions started. People, streets, and buildings filled my vision. Flat, still, black-and-white scenes that turned to colour and deepened and moved. A scene would form like a sheen of ice and melt into time, and then evaporate to be replaced by another and another. Nowhere did I settle. I saw an old woman with a shawl over her head peer out at me from a window. I saw a clutter of barefoot boys sitting before a crumbling wall. I saw a street of broken cottages towered over by tall tenements. I saw paddle ships chopping the waters beneath a bridge. Nowhere did I see my
own time. The pictures quick and quicker flicked; one moment in time passed by another; and then they slowed and slowed. The images were stronger now. Each had a powerful presence. Each was eager to fix me with its temporal chemistry. Then there was one. It was absolutely still; but I could smell a dusty atmosphere, and I could hear a hundred voices. The light was bright, but the picture flat. I was standing in my own time, looking at the print of an empty chair. This time I read the caption: “This photograph shows the chair the photographer used in the 1901 Empire Exhibition. There is an interesting but unconfirmed tale that a trick was played on photographer, who was acquainted with theatre and circus acts. It is suggested that one of those acts ventured to be photographed in this chair, then by some mysterious contrivance appeared to disappear before the photographer’s very eyes. No doubt in a flash of light and a puff of smoke!” Bemused and relieved, I hurried my way out of the hall of photographs.
‘ware the power by Jack Mulcahy I was down to my last few crossbow bolts. The Raheshis had slammed into us by surprise, like a blow from a giant fist. Now I fought my way through a gray swarm of pikes, swords, arrows, trying to reach Major Dayah or Captain Iotun. Blood trickled from my shoulder, but I ignored 67
it. I ducked a hail of arrows and crawled behind a clump of bushes, where I could pick off any Raheshis that got too close. But I was never going to get them all. I got off a shot that hit an enemy’s horse in the withers. Rider and animal tumbled in a single mass and I was down to three quarrels. Then two. Then one. I loaded that last bolt. I had my dagger, which I could use on myself should it come to that. The Raheshis wouldn’t kill me; women are too valuable as slaves. Then over the din of battle came the voice I least wanted to hear. “Sergeant Kyntha!” Lieutenant Mikhaila. Or as we called her, the Pet. Spent the last six years as General Eurydice’s assistant and now, of course, they assigned her to us. She vaulted through the bushes and landed sprawling at my feet. Instead of the fastidiously groomed Lieutenant I was used to, the Pet had dirt on her forehead, and runnels of sweat streaking the left side of her face. Her armor, which always looked as if she spent hours polishing it, had lost some of its steel plates, leaving gaps like broken teeth, and she stank of the gore spattered all over her. Her helmet was gone, so her too-perfectly heart-shaped face, with its gray eyes and dimpled cheeks, seemed lost amid the tangle of golden hair that had come free of its braid. She’d just written me up for not having my boots shined properly. Combat’s not what you expected, is it, Pet? I thought. She’d even lost her sword. Once we got back, if we got back, it might be a week until she received another. There weren’t enough weapons, not since
Auriga lost the war with Rahesh and we were reduced to hit-andrun tactics like this raid, but I still had my dagger in addition to my crossbow. More than I could say for her. “Where’s the Major?” she asked. “Out there,” I answered, trying to keep my face neutral. I didn’t need a useless officer clinging to me. “Where we should be. What about Captain Iotun?” “Surrounded,” she answered. “I tried to fight through to him, but there were too many Raheshis.” I grunted. At least she’d made some attempt; Goddess knew, she should be able to fight, since she towered over us all, including the men. “What in Haljo happened?” I asked, then remembered to add, “Lieutenant.” “Nathaté only knows,” she said. I wanted to throw my hands up in disgust. I told myself it wasn’t her fault Lieutenant Kiri got killed and she’d been assigned to us, a task clearly beyond her abilities. But I didn’t have to like her. “It’s like they knew we’d hit the caravan here and – Shite!” A gray Raheshi form bounded into our hiding place. With no time for a weapon, I raised my arm and flung my Magic at him. Immediately his eyes rolled back in his head and he writhed in agony. I let him suffer, feeding the Magic on my rage at the things his kind had done to my sister Aurigans, then slit his throat. A jet of coppery-tinged blood spattered me. Gurgling, he hit the ground. I wiped my dagger on him, trying to ignore the Pet’s stare. “ Jhaliyah’s Ghost, Kyntha, why didn’t you tell us you could
do that?” she asked. “Do what?” I felt the blood rushing to my face. “You know what I mean,” she answered, thrusting her chin out. Now she didn’t look so raw. “I felt that, too. You should have told us you had the Magic!” “Major Dayah knows,” I answered with a shrug. It’s not my fault the Major doesn’t tell you anything because you’re useless. “I can give people headaches. Major said it’s unimportant, and I shouldn’t think of it as a weapon.” “Sergeant, look out there and tell me our friends couldn’t use a weapon like yours, no matter how unimportant you think it is.” The firmness in her voice surprised me. When she looked me in the eye, I could not tear my gaze away. “Go ahead, look.” There wasn’t much to see. We’d ambushed the slave caravan in a clearing walled by dense woods. A dry stream bed paralleled the trees to our left, with a steep, rocky hill leading up to the forest. Wolfshite luck, I was stuck with the Pet. The enemy had command of the fight and were moving it away, leaving the clearing littered with swords, arrows, spears. And dead bodies with familiar faces. “Sergeant,” the Pet directed, “I want you to cross that dry wash to our left and make for the trees. I’ll cover you.” “Run?” I spat, narrowly missing her boots. She did not move. “I’ve never run away from a fight, and I won’t run now! Lieutenant.” “Did that sound like a suggestion to you, Sergeant?” she said, her mouth set in a line. “But before you do anything foolish, ask yourself where you’ll do 68
more good, trying to fight a lost battle, or hiding, where the enemy doesn’t expect you.” I couldn’t look. She was right, but I wouldn’t let her see me admit it. “I don’t care if you don’t like me, Kyntha, but you must obey me,” she said. “I’m giving you an order. If you refuse, I’ll charge you with mutiny.” There was a chorus of shouts. I saw Captain Iotun’s head raised on a pike. Blood roared in my ears. The Lieutenant was watching too. “Shite!” she muttered, her hands knotted into fists. She’d never shown emotion since she’d joined us. I realized how little we knew of her, save that she had been in the Army since around her first bleeding, and she’d spent most of that time as General Eurydice’s aide. “I’ll make for the trees, Lieutenant,” I said. Her look said she’d expected me to obey all along. “Give me your crossbow. I’ll cover you.” “With one bolt?” “Are you arguing, Sergeant?” I handed her the crossbow. She checked its balance and sights. “I’ll see you there,” she said. “If you’re as good as you say.” Who did she think she was, challenging me? “They won’t see me, Lieutenant,” I said. She nodded. Her eyes flickered toward my goal. Determined to show her, I scrabbled across the dry wash, clambered up the rocky face, over the ridge, and crawled across the open space to the trees. Moments later, she
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joined me, carrying a handful of crossbow bolts. Where had she gotten those? She’d had no time to pick over the dead. “Excellent, Sergeant,” she said. Grinning, she handed me the shafts and said, “There are things about me you don’t know.” “What are your orders?” I asked. I stowed the shafts in my quiver. “Lieutenant.” Her grin vanished. She wormed through the brush to the trees’ edge and peered out. The Raheshis were finishing up, killing our men, tying our still struggling friends to the coffle of slaves. It was not merely the smell of smoke that brought tears to my eyes. “I don’t think they know they missed us,” she muttered. “Wind’s shifting. I’ll wager there’s a storm coming, and they want to be well on their way before it hits. That may work in our favor.” “Maybe they’ll think they killed us,” I said. “They don’t kill women, Sergeant,” she said. “They sell us.” She looked again. The wind had definitely shifted, and I could smell approaching rain. “They’re marching them away,” she said. “Their mounted troops are herding our horses. Nathaté grant they don’t count the horses.” But Nathaté wasn’t listening. The leader shouted something, and two groups of four riders peeled off the marching line, one group to left, one to right; straight for us. Mikhaila reacted swiftly. “Shite! Come on, Sergeant, move!” Outrun horses? I wondered. But I dashed through the trees anyway. As we ran, the foliage grew thicker, and I understood the Lieutenant’s
intent. Dense woods would hamper riders, forcing them to dismount and lead their horses. Over the sound of my desperate breathing and the pounding of my own running feet, however, I heard the drumming of hoofbeats, too close. The Lieutenant’s desperate face told me she also heard the pursuit. Before long, the brush started to thin out. I saw a narrow trail through the woods. The Lieutenant held up a hand, and I stopped beside her. We were still in deep enough brush as to be hidden from searching eyes, but the wind had kicked up. Wordlessly, she pointed up, toward the branches high above us, then made a stirrup of her hands. I allowed her to boost me up to the lowest branch, then watched, amazed, as she clambered up a nearby tree on her own, as quick and silent as a hunting cat. The sounds of hoofbeats slowed. Hopefully, the forest was hampering the riders’ progress. Not as quickly as the Lieutenant, I climbed my tree until I was at eye level with her. From our perch, we could overlook the path and hear our foes approaching. I hung on tight in the driving wind and saw the Raheshis at the same time as Mikhaila, four of them, riding slowly in single file, each man about two horse-lengths from the one in front of him. The Lieutenant hand-signalled her plan to me. I nodded and crawled out onto a stout branch that overlooked the trail. We let two go by, then at Mikhaila’s count, we leapt from our perches and hit the two rear guards. I had my dagger out. In seconds I landed on the back of the fourth Raheshi’s horse and cut the man’s throat so deep I nearly 70
took his head off. I shoved him off the horse and squirmed into the saddle, just as the first two enemies converged on me. The horse was leaping and whinnying as I fought to gain control. Armed only with my dagger, I had a foe on each side. Where was the Lieutenant? Had she run away? When I thrust at one enemy, the other attacked. I was fighting desperately just to keep in the saddle. I ducked and dodged the constant slashing attacks. So far my armor had turned most of the blows, but a single thrust under the wrong plate could drop me. Then the Raheshi in front of me dropped from his saddle. Before his body hit the ground, Mikhaila was on his partner, and we dispatched him together, moving in unison like a single warrior. Mikhaila had blood on her face and all over her armor. “Sorry I took so long,” she panted. “That one had more fight in him than I expected. Use your Magic?” I shook my head. “Never thought of it,” I answered, then hastily added, “Best we hide the bodies somewhere, before their friends come looking for them.” The Lieutenant looked at me in a way that made me squirm. “Why don’t you want to use your Magic?” she asked. “Because I belong in a combat unit, not studying dusty old books and bat entrails,” I answered. She grunted and touched a tree branch. Immediately it became a longsword. “You’ll note that I have the Magic, but I’m still in a combat unit.” “Permission to speak freely, Lieutenant?” I asked. She nodded. I said, “You have a
patron, Lieutenant. I don’t.” “Ah,” was her response. Then, “We’re wasting time here.” We spurred our horses down the trail. Rain began to pelt us now, large drops, from a sky the color of lead. “If this keeps up, it’ll at least delay them,” Mikhaila said. “Maybe they’ll go to ground. That may give us an opportunity.” To do what? I thought. Attack them in force? Two of us, against three dozen Raheshis? And four more still looking for us somewhere? I regarded her through the steady rain, trying to read her face. She was not what we’d all thought, but how did she plan to rescue our friends? *** We tied the horses to a tree in the lee of a hill and crawled silent as serpents to a point from where we could observe the sleeping Raheshi camp. As the Lieutenant had supposed, the enemy had stopped when the storm grew heavier. We lay on our bellies on a hill that seemed a long way from the camp, grateful for the rain’s cover. The Raheshi leader had chosen his ground well. They had camped in a grassy meadow, dotted here and there with scrub brush that bowed under the lashing rain and wind, but with no hill or tree nearby save the low one from where we watched. As best we could see, there were some two dozen Raheshis in the camp, about half mounted and half ground troops, with Nathaté-knew how many
others out looking for us. The smell of mutton roasted over dung fires mingled with horse and human sweat stung my nose. I could hear a stream chuckling over rocks somewhere nearby. When lightning struck, I saw the Lieutenant staring hard at the
scene, and hoped she had some plan in mind. Behind us, one of the horses nickered. We both spun at the sound, and saw two black shapes coming up on us. Quick as a thought, Mikhaila slashed at the attackers. I unleashed a blast of my Magic that knocked both Raheshis down, writhing. I rushed up to them and finished them off, then saw that the Magic had struck Lieutenant Mikhaila, too. Horrified, I crouched beside her. “Lieutenant!” I 71
whispered, and laid a hand on her shoulder. She barely moved. Blessed Nathaté, I’ve blasted my commanding officer! “I’m sorry, Lieutenant! I—” She groaned, levered herself to all fours, glared at me. The rain had plastered her golden hair down on her forehead and face. She brushed it away now and said, “This is a standing order, Sergeant. Any time someone doubts the value of your Magic, you are to use it on them. Oh, Shite!” she groaned again, pressing her right palm to her forehead. “You should have on Major Dayah.” Then she threw up. I put my arm around her shoulders and held her, keeping her sodden hair out of the way with my free hand. When the spasms subsided, she shoved me away and got back up, trembling like a newborn colt but refusing my aid. She was careful to keep the hill between herself and the enemy camp. I gawked, amazed. No one ever got up after I blasted them. “We need a plan,” she said, wiping her mouth on a leaf. In another lightning flash her face looked pale and her eyes glassy, but her voice was firm, if slightly raspy. I smelled vomit on her breath and uniform, but she still conveyed an amazing command presence. We thought she was useless? She continued, “That Raheshi commander’s probably
wondering how many of us are following him. He has at least six scouts who haven’t reported back. Even though most of them are asleep, he can’t take chances. He must have posted extra sentries. Here’s what I think we should do.” *** I killed my first sentry before I reached my position. From the rear, I sprang up through the rain on him, wrapping my legs around his waist, choking his neck with my forearm. I forced him to the ground as the life drained out of him and his sword dropped from nerveless fingers. When I was certain he was dead, I rose to a fighting crouch and looked all around. No sentries in sight, limited though that sight might be. I started moving again and soon reached a point opposite the campfire. Almost too late, I saw another sentry standing between me and the light from the fire. He crouched, sword at the ready, and would have spotted me, but for the rain and my dark brown skin. I dropped as soon as I saw him, hoping my sudden motion had not given me away. When I was sure he had not seen me, I crawled on my belly through the tall grass until I was just a few yards from him. I sprang from the tall grass and struck a head butt to the bridge of his nose. I was careful to avoid hitting his teeth. While he was incapacitated, I grabbed both his legs and yanked him off his feet toward me, kicking him at the base of his spine when he went down. His head hit the ground with a hard thump, and I landed across him, as I’d practiced so many times, pinching his nostrils and covering his mouth. I held
him until his struggles ceased, then prepared to move on, but a sudden commotion from the camp seized my attention. The sentries opposite me had a struggling figure in their hands. As they dragged their prize into the camp, the firelight shone upon the golden hair and heart-shaped face of Lieutenant Mikhaila. Jhaliyah’s Ghost! Four captors held the Lieutenant, one at each limb. How had she gotten herself captured? Suddenly I was the squad’s only survivor. I felt alone and isolated. No! I must focus on the job at hand. Mikhaila’s plan had been to free our comrades and fight the Raheshis again, and I owed it to her to carry out that plan. If I was captured, there would be no chance for the others, so I vowed I would not allow that to happen. While the enemy’s attention was focused on the Lieutenant, I killed another guard. I thought of Mikhaila’s parting words: “I trust you, Sergeant.” She’d told me not to use Magic, except in the most dire circumstance. This seemed to fit that qualifier. So as I approached another guard, I knocked him down with my Magic, then killed him with my dagger. In this way, I dealt with three more enemies, enough to bring me within bowshot range. I thought a moment, then came up with a plan of sorts. I had never tested my Magic to see how far it could extend, nor its strength as distance increased. The Lieutenant was putting up a fight, despite being held by four. Another two joined the first group, grabbing her shoulders and upper arms. I held my hands palms out, breathed a prayer to Nathaté, 72
then unleashed all the Magic I could, hoping I might knock down enough of those holding Mikhaila to give her a fighting chance. I loosed so much magical energy it became visible, like a bolt of blue lightning in the night. To my horror, the Magic struck Lieutenant Mikhaila squarely, instead of the enemies I’d aimed for. Bands of visible light crawled all over her for an instant, like worms over a cadaver. Enraged at myself and at the Magic, blinded by tears or the rain, I took the only choice I had left, and charged the enemy camp. If I could free some of my captured friends, we might make a fight of it. I turned myself into a killing machine, kicking and punching, gouging, wrenching my way through the throng of enemy soldiers. I heard bones breaking, men screaming, was spattered with blood and brains and gore, but I reached Major Dayah and freed her, she freed Corporal Maergte, and they began freeing the rest of our comrades and the captive women. I fought through to Lieutenant Mikhaila’s side, who by now was about to kill the last two of the six men who had been holding her. “Told you I trusted you, didn’t I?” she said, a grim smile on her face. She told me later that my blast of Magic had coursed straight through her and into her captors, incapacitating them enough for her to kill them one by one. *** On the way home, my squadmates congratulated me. Only a few seemed to hear what I kept saying, that the Lieutenant did all the hard work. Even the officers were somehow convinced that I was completely responsible,
and Lieutenant Mikhaila was just an inconvenience I had to work around. I glanced toward her and saw her sitting atop her horse, her face a mask, though she flashed a brief smile toward me. Otherwise, she seemed content to remain outside the group. I realized that even her officers considered her excess baggage, and probably called her the Pet too. How terribly alone she must feel. *** Half an hour after we returned to Jehan’s Lair, I was summoned before General Eurydice and the Elder Witches. I described my power; how I’d concealed my skills, for fear of being taken out of combat; my initial dislike and disrespectful behavior toward Lieutenant Mikhaila; even our nickname for her. I hid nothing. Mikhaila watched, speaking only when questioned, offering neither support nor criticism. For two days they wrung out every detail of my life. When it ended, the General confined me to quarters, except for meals and an hour a day to exercise. I was sure it was the end of my combat duty. The third day of my isolation, I ventured out to the archery range. I had not been forbidden to handle weapons, so I simply tried it. No one said anything. The fourth day, I encountered Maergte, who greeted me without much warmth and quickly remembered somewhere else she had to be. I watched her hurry away, not looking back, and thought I might as well be dead. Lieutenant Mikhaila feels this way every day, I realized. A week later I was practicing with the crossbow
when the Lieutenant appeared. “You’re dropping your back elbow,” she said, as my shot hit high. I lowered the bow. A week ago, I’d have made some sharp answer. Not now. “Just as you squeeze the trigger, you’re dropping it,” she said. “Can I show you?” I shrugged and gave her the bow; it wasn’t likely I’d have many chances to use it any more. She raised the stock to her shoulder. “See how I keep my elbow up?” she said. “That forms a straight line from the quarrel tip through the crossbow body, all the way to the tip of my elbow.” She fired. The bolt hit a little off center, but still better than my shot. She made a face, shook her head, turned to me. “They relieved Major Dayah of command.” “Why?” I blurted. She shook her head. “She didn’t deserve it, but they had to blame somebody,” she answered. I cranked and fired several times, furiously. I clamped my jaw shut, trying not to say something I’d regret. All my shots hit within a few inches of center. “Nice shooting,” she said. “You listen pretty well when it’s what you want to hear.” I shot one more, hitting the target true, then stopped, but held the bow, sure that this would be the last time I could fire it. “I know how stupid I’ve been. You heard me admit it.” She nodded. “I heard you,” she said. “And you’re not stupid. Stubborn, irascible, damn near insubordinate, yes. But you’re also very courageous. You didn’t back away from the Elder Witches or the General. Many others might have tried to blame 73
someone else, but you didn’t.” I snorted. “For all the good it’ll do me. Did they send you to pronounce sentence?” “I’m no judge,” she said. “Certainly not yours.” I shot another bolt, striking the target squarely in the center. “You’re an excellent soldier, Kyntha,” she said. “You caused a stir, not just among the Raheshis. The Elder Witches are interested in you.” “Well, I’m not interested in them,” I said. “I don’t want to spend my days poring over scrolls in some dusty attic.” “You’d rather spend them in a cell?” she asked. She took the bow. I wanted to resist, but didn’t. “I’m no scholar, I’m a soldier,” I said. “You studied procedures and rules, and it made you a better soldier than I gave you credit for. But I’m not like that. I belong here, fighting, not studying bat’s entrails. Besides, my power’s not all that great anyway.” “You couldn’t be more wrong,” Mikhaila answered. Her mouth twisted. “You know, I still have traces of the headache you gave me. The first few days, I wanted to crawl into a hole and die.” My eyebrows lifted; the two days I’d testified, she’d given no sign. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.” She shook her head. “Nothing can be done about it now. If you hadn’t done that, nobody but you and I would ever have found out how powerful you are.” I stared in disbelief. She wasn’t angry? “You’re quite an officer,” I said, then added, “Lieutenant.”
That brought a half smile. “So are you.” I shook my head. “Officer?” I said. “Not me. I may not even be a soldier any more. I blasted you with my Magic!” “And by doing so, you saved us all. That’s how I reported it.” She lowered the bow, looked me in the eye, and extended her hand. “I’m going to need your help.” I stared at the proffered hand a moment, then accepted. She went on, “Your Magic is more powerful than you think. The Elders believe you’ll find all manner of uses for it. You may even have a trace of telepathy.” “But Major Dayah said –” “I’m not her, Kyntha,” Mikhaila answered. “If I study the Magic, they’ll take me off combat duty!” She sighed again. “You sound like I did when my Magic awakened. You know, everybody gets some of the Magic, around the time they turn twelve or thirteen. Mostly women, but about forty percent of males do, to. If they took us all out of combat, there’d hardly be any soldiers left! And yes, you belong here, Kyntha. Taking you away makes no sense. I said that to the General and the Elders, and fortunately they agreed with me.” I stared at her. My face grew hot. “You’re not being taken away,” she said. “You’re going to spend a few hours a day in study. Do you think you can put up with that?” I nodded, unable to speak. “Good,” she said. “Your potential’s too great to ignore. But your duties are going to change. As befits a Lieutenant.” “Lieutenant?” I stammered. Thoughts raced
through my mind. Me? “But what about you?” I asked. Was I to replace her? Her mouth twisted. “Assuming we can keep from killing each other, how does ‘Captain Pet’ sound to you?”
Call of the Northern Seas A retelling of the Legend of Sedna*, Goddess of Marine Animals
by Norman A. Rubin
*Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology - New York 1959 Mythology of the two Americas – pages 434 -435 Encyclopedia of World Mythology under the title of The Eskimo - pages 84-85 “Spirit of the seal and of the walrus, goddess of the sea and all other creatures that lives in the waters of the deep, I call out to you,” chanted the aged shaman as he tapped on the skin-taut hand drum. The rhythm of the beat from the stretched caribou hide reverberated on its frame as the Eskimo shaman drummed out the tale of Sedna, the goddess that resides below the Arctic Sea. The weather was cold on the snow-paced tundra, but within the igloo, the few gathered listeners were warm and snug. Their weathered brown faces were uncovered from their furs as they sat around a small fire of dry dung that burned brightly in the center; the smoke spiraled through a small hole on the top of packed snow dwelling rising to the heaven above, the abode of 74
the gods. The Inuit shaman, aged in countless years tapped the rhythm with his gnarled fingers on the drum membrane. The beat softened as he began the tale of Sedna, the divinity of sea. The dark of his brown eyes shone through the white on his shaggy brows set on a craggy face, wrinkled in years. From his cracked lips words in the Inuit tongue flowed to the tempo of the drum. Legend has it that the white-haired shaman was at one a time a powerful creature of the earth in the spirit of the polar bear on the ice floes, a Tornak. He then became Angakok or medicine man. Legend has that Angakoks were reputed to make good or bad weather, affect cures, see all things hidden, and was able to uncover the evil doings of man. Thus the shaman was well renowned by the Eskimo tribe and he was their mentor. “We call out to Sedna the divinity of the seal, the walrus, and all the denizens of the north seas,” chanted the wise elder. “Her power is great in strength and extends to the beings in her infinite underwater kingdom. The goddess lives in the seas; lives under the ice; she is the spirit of the floating ice. She is naked to the sight; her form is ample and creamy white in skin. As she struggles to protect her queendom with her divine powers, it causes waves to form in the vast ocean. “Some legends say that Sedna is gigantic in size, and others tell that she has only one all-seeing eye, the other given in token to her father the god Angusta who reigns above the seas. The goddess in the fury of the waves
hovers above the peoples of the north and she is feared above all the gods and godesses. They try to be favorable to her, for even in that land of ice and snow, the favor of the gods and goddesses is necessary in life. The hunters of the Eskimo tribes sacrifice to her Innua - the air, the waters, the stones, the sea creatures, ‘O, auspicious spirits send favorable winds and calm seas....’ Way back in time when Sedna was a only a pretty Inuit girl that charmed the eyes of those of her tribe; Cheeks of the waters of the sea, the flow of her hair lying in black angles. Teeth white with the mouth’s dew water, blue eyes glorifying the oceans.
The little nymph was the only child of a widow father, Angusta by name. Together they made their home along the borders of the Arctic Sea, living off the fruitful bounties of the divinities of the northern clime. “Then came the time when Sedna was of marriageable age; suitors from her tribe as well as strangers from faraway lands came to court her. But Sedna was quite mischievous and she refused their hands. She had taken pleasure in rebuffing them with all sorts of trickery that hurt in the scorn of her voice. “One day a well-crafted kayak glided to the shores. There held tight in the caribou skins was a handsome hunter dressed in fine furs who had come from a distant land. As the kayak near the shore he did not land, but let the craft rock in wavelets. He then raised an ivory spear and called out to the young maiden. “The hunter’s voice signed
out to her, ‘Come and follow me my dear Sedna. I will take you to the wonderful land of the birds where there is never any hunger. In the spring you will rest in my tent of skins; and in the winter your will share the warm bear furs with me in my igloo. Your lamp will always be filled with the oil of blubber and there will always be meat over the fires.’ “Sedna, framed on the skins to her wickiup, rejected out of hand the stranger’s tempting proposals. Although she admired the handsomess of the youth at the first glance, she remained timid and confused. Was it not her duty to refuse such a direct proposal? After all, it was the custom of the tribe to consult with her dear father before answering. “The young man only smiled with his laughing blue eyes. He began to paint a picture of his enchanting land, which is something of land and something of the waters. Sedna felt herself yielding to his words and slowly she made her way towards the sea. I gave my love’s hand, Knowing that you had love, My heart leaped lightly.
“The handsome stranger uncovered a small flap of skin to his kayak and invited her in the craft, which she accepted gracefully. He then plunged his paddle into the water and skimmed the sea. Thus it was that Sedna left her tribal lands and was taken as a bride. Her father was with grief as he knew that his only daughter would never be on the shore where their simple dwelling of skins stood. “But Sedna’s lover was not creature of the earth, he was 75
only the phantom of a bird that took the guise of a diving gull or a sweeping plover. He was the Birdspirit, the god Kokksaut with the power to turn into human form. When he roamed in the wafting air, he had spied the beautiful girl and fallen in love with her. He was so enamored of Sedna that he did not let her know of his true nature. He is a spirit of the first rank, His shadow is sometimes in the air, Sometimes on the ice and snow, He soars the heaven like a bird, And treads the earth with an airy step.
“When the maiden Sedna knew of his true nature, she be became dejected and she grieved in her hopelessness in being far from her tribal lands and of her father. The bird-spirit tried to console with entreaties of his love for her. But Sedna could not grow accustomed to his feathered form and she spent her days in grief and tears. “Meanwhile her father Angusta heard in the whispering winds of the grief and despair of his daughter Sedna. He then filled his kayak with tools of the hunt and set out to that distant land in the far horizon. After a hazardous voyage, he arrived at the enchanted land of the Bird-spirit. Fortune was on his side. The spirit was absent at that moment and Angusta was able to hurry to the side of his daughter. Tears of joy were in her heart at the sight of her father as she rushed to embrace him in her arms. Protector of the hunted from their foes, Protecter of your loved one at the end. Behold, the winged of the sea are very close! Angusta took Sedna in his
arms and carried her to his kayak. He secured her tightly to the caribou skins. Then he plunged his paddle in the churning sea and with haste coursed to his tribal land. “Later a gull on spread wings flew above the enchanted land it searched out for his young wife. Mysterious voices in the ethereal air called out the past that told of true words of the meeting of Sedna and Angusta that damned him. The Bird-spirit screeched out his anger and vowed to exact revenge upon the father. Because my heart is black, I am the bright still of unhappiness, My shame could not live naked in the air, I chose the passion of the water, I will fight evermore!
“The diving gull reassumed his human figure and prepared his kayak for the chase through the sea. His pursuit was swift and within time, he came in sight of the kayak of Angusta. When the father saw the pursuing craft of Kokksaut he quickly covered his lovely daughter with a seal skin. “The Bird-spirit’s craft overhauled Angusta’s kayak and as he neared he called out, “Let me see Sedna, my beloved wife. But the father refused to listened to his words of entreaty. Angusta just plunged his paddle furiously in the sea and continued on his way with all haste. “Kokksaut was furious and was wild in despair on the rebuff from Angusta and his heartbroken words cried out, “I have failed to see Sedna, my beautiful wife!” Then the flutter of beating wings were heard as
the Bird-spirit changed his once again to white gull that winged through the fleecy clouds. “Dark clouds then gathered in tempest and turned violently to a fierce storm, which swept the Arctic sea. The waters churned and roared in the power of the waves. Sedna’s father was engulfed in the horror of the raging storm. “Angusta was in the throes of the Bird-spirit’s retribution. He had offended the god and he was gripped by the fear of his heavenly power. The waves clamored for Sedna, and he must listen to their demands or face the doom within in the sea. A sacrifice had to be made. Angusta, with tears in eyes, took hold of Sedna, his daughter, lifted her high, and flung her into the sea. “Sedna’s pale face appeared above the waves, while her slim hand tried to desperately to take hold of the skin of the kayak. The father, wild gripped in terror, took his bone knife and chopped at her fingers cutting them away from her hands. The girl, despite her desperate efforts sank into the depth of the waters, never to be seen again. Her fingers were then transformed by the gods into the animals of the northern sea - the furry seals and the tusked walruses. “When the sacrifice was completed, the Arctic sea became calm and the bereaved father was able to return home to his tribal lands. Angusta laid on the furs of his simple dwelling and fell into a deep sleep, exhausted with deep suffering and grief. I gave my heart to love’s hand yesterday, His pitiless hand broke it, 76
It was a lovely child torn away, And now thrown back breathless and beautiless, Sing, bird; ‘He threw away!’ “But the heavenly gods were compassionate. During the darkness of night, they caused a high tide to cover the shore swallowing the wikiup and the father within. And so, the man Angusta was reunited with his daughter Sedna, now whole in body. In turn they joined the pantheon of the gods and were turned into the divinities of the Arctic Sea.” “And so is the legend of Sedna,” chanted the sorcerer as he tapped the finality of the tale’s rhythm on the caribou skin hoop drum. Within the smoke of the fire, his spellbound audience saw the spirits of Sedna, the higher deity of the seas and were then aware of her powers.
“Once it was full dark I switched to ridin’ Belle and continued. I knew every foot of the thread-like hidden trail through Wolf canyon, up across the aspen benches, and over the high valley towards the back of the basin. As I rode, I whistled softly... a monotonous little up and down Comanche love song that only Illy and I were likely to know. I smiled, rememberin’ as I whistled. Rightly her name was Lilly, but when she was tiny she’d named herself Illy, unable to handle the L. She’d been Illy ever since to those of us who knew her on the Circle M. I wondered how much she’d have changed. She’d been twelve the last time I waved good-bye. A skinny little kid whose ma had been quarter-Indian. She’d waved back at me, her long black plaits stirrin’ in the wind, her gray eyes filled with tears. It was likely she’d have grown up to be handsome. Her Ma had been a real looker from the tintype John McLeod had in his room. I’d kept on whistlin’ that old song over an’ over. Then there come a soft whistlin’ in answer to it, and Illy was there.” Don’t miss your chance to own a classic Western tale like those written by Zane Grey and Louis Lamour. Grab your copy now, while supplies last! Available from Chaco Canyon Books located at http://cyberwizardproductions.com From Amazon or Barnes & Noble or from your favorite bookstore “South of Rio Chama by Lyn McConchie embodies the virtues that attract us to the Western story. Its main action, defending, or more precisely, retaking, a ranch from an unscrupulous man who wants to own it only so he can sell its herd of cattle for as much money as he can, is not unique. But it is to the core the stuff of a classic Western novel.” - James Frenkel, Senior Editor at Tor Books
Dimuendo’s By Thom Olausson
Pure A green leaf opens And embrace life. Its beauty A gift Is.
Magic A misty meadow, Fairy lights glow. The moonlight Flooding All.
Serenity A whirlwind of leafs Dancing across A vast field. Playful Winds.
Autumn cometh Burning colors paint The forest’s coat. Blazing life Ending. Cold.
Spring’s Lust Life returns and seeds Begin to grow. Flowers turns And face Warmth.
Storm-watch Grey clouds crawl across A leaden sky. Icy winds Coming. Storm.
The World-tree A mighty ash-tree, Its roots run deep: Yggdrasil. Binds nine Worlds.
New Day Birds singing at dawn. A veil of mist Cover the Vast lakes; Pure. 78
Across the Plains by Lou Antonelli Downtown Burkett was all of a block long. From either end of Main Street, you could see the rolling plains of West Texas fade into the distance. It was midMay, and 85 degrees in the late afternoon sun--rather pleasant for that time of the year in Texas. Two 12-year olds made their way down the street, hopping from sidewalk to gutter depending on which was the dirtiest. Bobby and Sean passed a wagon in front of the town’s crooked pinball parlor. Behind the wagon crouched Brad McMoran, universally known in the small community as “Brat” McMoran. In later times, the boy would be more accurately termed a juvenile delinquent. He enjoyed himself as he tortured a cat he had snared with a lasso. Slapped on the wall of the gambling den behind his head was a poster for an upcoming Texas/Oklahoma Red River Boxing Tour bout, with Dennis Dugan (“The Dallas Destroyer”) versus Al Borrack (“The Tulsa Doom”) set for the following Saturday night in Coleman. On the bench in front of the dry goods store run by the New York Jew, Solly Koenig, a quartet of old boys had fun as they nickel and dimed an idiot. The sandy-haired boy had a plump tongue that propped open the corner of his mouth. The old boys alternated holding out their hands, and roared every time the simpleton picked the larger nickel over the smaller silver dime. In the window of the store behind them, posters for Puritan
Men’s Dress Shirts and Wilkinson Sword Razors intermingled with spread-eagled War Bond Posters with slogans such as “Beat the Boche!” and “Hang the Kaiser!” The latest issue of the Brownwood Bulletin sat in the window, with a large headline: “Hun U-Boats Sighted Off Coast” A black and white dappled hound followed the pair of boys making their way down Main Street. Bobby reached down to occasionally ruffle the dog’s large ears. Steve, the Armenian blacksmith, had promised the boys -- the last time they were in his shop – that he would make them some real iron arrowheads from scrap. This afternoon the pair had no chores to do, and so they had bounded off to see whether he had time to keep his promise. The two boys couldn’t have seemed a more mismatched pair as they dodged cowboys with jangling spurs along the sidewalk. Sean was of average height and thin. A bright red shock of hair waved atop a face full of freckles. Bobby was a head taller, blackheaded and built like a wrestler. “I’m sorry your da is talking ‘bout moving again,” said Sean. “He’s like a noman,” said Bobby. “Never wants to stay put.” “You mean a nomad,” said Sean. Bobby glanced over and nodded without breaking stride. “Just last year, we moved from Cross Cut. Now he’s saying they need a doctor in Cross Plains.” “I hated moving too,” said Sean. Bobby stopped short, looked at his companion, and then 79
forced a laugh. “Hey, you only moved once in your life!” Sean snapped his fingers in Bobby’s face. “And a fine trip it was, too! All the way from Ireland.” Bobby took a ham-handed swipe at his companion and missed him by a mile. “Shuddup, I’ve had to move four times.” Sean easily ducked the swing. The confused dog jumped up between them. “Down, Patches!” Bobby reached down and stroked the hound’s floppy ears. “He don’t know we’re friends,” said Sean as he turned and continued walking. “I don’t know we’re friends,” said Bobby as he made a dash, which culminated in a missed flying tackle. Bobby’s skid left him in front of the blacksmith shop door. Sean shook his head at his companion’s clumsiness. A tall black-haired man wearing a blacksmith’s apron stepped outside. “If you gonna fight, we gonna ship you to France!” the Armenian said with a smile as he winked at the Irish boy. Bobby and the blacksmith had a lot in common. Both had fled brutal bloodshed in their homelands. Stavros Costikayan fled the genocide of the Armenians within the bounds of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, while Sean O’Toole’s father had packed up his family and fled to America in the wake of the British oppression following the failed Irish Easter Uprising. Iron is iron, whether in Armenia or Texas, so “Steve” was able to set himself up in a badly needed blacksmith shop in
Burkett, and save many cowboys a trip to Coleman. Numbers are numbers whether in Ireland or Texas, and Sean’s father -- who had bought a beautiful homestead just outside the city -- rode the train every day back and forth thirty miles to Brownwood, where he kept the books for a large cattle company. A grunt came from inside the blacksmith shop. All three turned to see an auburn-faced man with an eagle-like nose staring at them. “That’s OK, Sam, this is a good time,” said Steve as he reached to give Bobby a hand up. “Sam wants a saloon break,” he added with another wink at the boys. The Indian glared at the boys as he passed them. Sean shuddered and looked away. Bobby gawked and the Indian sneered at him as he sauntered into the street. There was still enough of a whiff of the Devil about the bronzed man to make him an attractively dangerous figure among the town’s boys. His real name was Satank, but everyone called him Sam. They said he was the son of the most evil medicine man the Kiowa ever knew, a wizard who was yanked off to Hell by his braid by the Devil himself one day. Sam wore a braid, too, but supposedly didn’t have the “medicine” skills of his father. Now the descendant of a great line of feared Plains medicine men sold his time as a blacksmith’s assistant so he could afford the White man’s firewater. The women in the town said behind their fans that the Redskin was
immune to the heat of the forge because his blood was touched by hellfire. Steve watched him disappear into a nearby saloon. “As much as he talks, I am Jennings Bryan!” He laughed, then feigned some jabs at the larger boy’s head. “So how is the doctor’s son?” Bobby smiled at the Armenian’s misapprehension that size equated toughness. “Doc Howard is thinking about setting up in Cross Plains,” said Sean. “That would be too bad
if you have to leave,” said Steve. “You only got here last year.” Bobby just looked away. The bell in the Methodist church across town tolled the hour. Steve turned sharply. “Four o’clock! I forgot, I promised Mrs. Lively I would get her pump back today!” He tossed his apron onto 80
a bench and grabbed a heavy cast iron pump head. “Will you boys stay here and watch the shop until Sam gets back?” He quickly hooked his horse to its traces and dropped the pump into the back of a wagon. He hopped onto the seat and looked at the pair as they nodded, then snapped the horse’s reins and took off in a gust of dust. Sean sat down on the bench while Bobby went over and stoked the fire. “Why don’t you leave that alone?” said the Irish boy. “It’ll only burn up the coal faster.” “I’m bored,” said Bobby. “We never had a chance to ask him about the arrowheads.” He stood up straight and craned his neck. “I wonder what we can find?” Sean pointed. “Patches found something.” The dog was sniffing and pawing at a pile of heavy logs. Bobby went over and then crouched down. He shoved his arm deep into a gap and pulled out a brown leather bag. Standing up, he held it out into the narrow shaft of sunlight that reached all the way to the back of the shop. The bag was covered in white and blue beads and had feathers stitched around the rim. Sean whistled. “It’s a beaut!” “It’s an Indian medicine bag!” exclaimed Bobby. “It must have belonged to his father.” “Weren’t Sam’s da an evil medicine man?” asked Sean. Bobby had already undone the thongs. “Yep, but the Devil took him years ago, and it looks like all the magic’s run out.
All he’s got in here is some beef jerky.” Bobby’s stomach growled. Sean laughed and Patches cocked his head. “Let’s eat his beef and put the bag back,” Bobby said as he took a handful of the dark red chunks. “He gave me a dirty look, anyway.” Bobby stuck a piece of the jerky in his mouth, then gave a piece to Patches, who spat it out, shook his head violently, and ran off whining. “That’s queer,” said Bobby as he stuffed more jerky in his mouth. “Must taste bad to him. Tastes fine to me. Here, have some.” He gave a large chuck to Sean, who fingered it, and then walked to where the light was better. He turned the piece over and saw what looked like ribbing. “Bob, this ain’t jerky,” he cried, “this is dried mushrooms! They may be poison!” He only heard a gurgling sound. He looked up to see Bobby staring into the spearhead shaft of light at the back of the shop with eyes wide and pupils dilated, his forehead breaking out in sweat like bullets. Sweet Jesus, he’s poisoned, thought Sean. He ran back and grabbed Bobby’s arm. A drop of sweat fell onto his hand. The world disappeared in a flash of white light. As the glare subsided, Sean could see men on horseback with spears -- like Indians, but blonde-headed and blue-eyed --galloping in a circle, hunting down an animal that looked liked a shaggy longhorn. Then he realized he was one of
the hunters, galloping on a stout pony. A savage riding the opposite direction looked him hard in the eyes. He shuddered and his mind’s eye blinked. He became aware now of a long, hard trek towards a blue horizon with white clouds, and finally a vision of distant crystal parapets. That part of Sean O’Toole who was watching thought it looked like the white battlements of a fairy-tale castle -- but the man he was in the vision knew it was the collapsing face of a retreating glacial ice sheet. As he watched, the spires thinned and disappeared. Then he saw the same rolling plains as before, but the grass was dead and brown. He was alone now, and as he stepped from his horse, he left footprints in the dry grass. Sean felt the deeply etched racial memory of overwhelming despair. He staggered back. As his hand left Bobby arm, the vision ended. He toppled back onto the hay-covered floor. *** Sean realized he had come to because of a loud noise. He looked over and as his vision cleared, he could see that Sam had slapped Bobby, who had been standing stiff as a board. “Foolish children playing with things not meant to be,” the Indian snarled. Bobby lunged forward and barked at the Redman in a language Sean didn’t understand. The Indian took a step back, crossed his arms across his chest with his fists clenched, and bowed his head in an attitude of submission. Bobby looked down at his 81
companion. “Let’s get out of here. Now!” He yanked Sean to his feet and they ran out the narrow back door of the blacksmith shop and down an alley. Sean didn’t know why they were running, but he followed Bobby. They dashed a half mile, completely out of the town, until they came to the first range fence on the edge of the surrounding prairie. Bobby didn’t slow down and he slammed into the barbed wire. Sean pulled up to see his friend covered with jagged streaks of blood. Bobby turned around and looked himself over. Then, quite deliberately, he smeared blood from his clothes all over his hands. “What happened back there?” Sean gasped. Bobby didn’t look up from his red hands. “A warrior has to look a man in the eyes when he kills him so they will recognize each other in the next life,” he said distantly. “Mother Macree, Bob, we’ve been touched by the Devil!” Bobby looked at Sean, smiled in a rather evil way, and then threw his head back and laughed--the loud unfettered laugh of a free barbarian. The freckled-faced Irish boy stared at him with equal parts horror and fascination. Bobby looked at him again and laughed again. When he finished, he leaned down and wiped his bloody hands on his denims, then stood up and began to walk in the direction where they both lived. He slapped Sean hard on the shoulder as he passed. “Don’t worry, friend! I won’t kill you.” As he strode off, he added, “Today.” He looked back and his tone softened. “Come on. Let’s go
It was a good two miles round about the town. Bobby strode forcefully and kept looking into the distance as his smaller companion had to quickstep to keep pace. When they came to the fork where their paths parted, Bobby stopped and smiled as he turned to the smaller boy. “Hey, don’t be afraid. I’m OK.” “You take care of yourself,” said Sean. “I hope your dad don’t move you all to Cross Plains.” Bobby was looking in the distance again. “Cross Plains. Across the plains. You know, when you look across the plains, it’s like sometimes, sometimes...” He looked at Sean. “Like you can see across the whole wide world. Across even time.” The puzzled look on Sean’s face snapped Bobby out of it. He laughed that laugh again. “Oh, crap. I gotta go and clean up. Good thing my dad’s a doc. See ya’, Red.” Bobby turned and began to walk alone back home. Sean turned and walked down the other path. “If I had visions just by touching him,” he thought, “then God only know what he saw.” As his home came into view, he saw his mother come out the screen door and call him. “Sean! You little spalpeen! Where have you been?” “Jest playin’ with Bobby Howard.” She tousled his hair as he walked in the door. “You are pale as a ghost. Are you well?” “Fine, ma, but I’m hungry. What’s for dinner?” “Roast beef and new potatoes,” said his mother, “with mushroom gravy.” He had already grabbed
the back of his chair. “Oh, no! Hell no! Not mushrooms!” His mother’s jaw dropped and in the next room, there was the sound of a chair scraping back. In a moment his father walked in, sleeves rolled up, carrying a barber’s strop. “I’ll teach you to use such language in my house,” he said. “Sean Conan O’Toole, I will flay you alive!”
Hobocop by Kevin Bennett I There are times in history that are so coincidental they cannot be. Almost as though words spoken or thoughts entertained, shape the physical universe in a way directly affecting the speaker or thinker. A revolving door catches a stronger-than-usual gust of wind and breaks, just as a man wonders what would happen in such an event. A fat noble with a trophy wife wanders by a disgruntled youth wondering why he can never get a date. These are common examples are chalked up to coincidence and dismissed as swiftly. However some choose to ponder them; and they are changed by their investigation. The man watching the revolving door supposes there must be a supreme power causing the wind to gust and so invents a kind of ball bearing that delays routine maintenance and garners a fortune. The youth realizes his standards may be too high and begins to gauge the opposite sex more reasonably. In short, lessons are learned by these coincidental instances that change 82
the observers. This is not always the case. Duncan Hainstock was the converse of positive coincidence, and he hadn’t caught on. A perpetually drunk, middle-aged lecher without family or dreams, he worked only to drink, and drank only to forget. What was he trying to forget? He couldn’t remember. It was either very forgettable or unbearably prescient, but you couldn’t tell him to think about it, because that was why he was in the pub in the first place. However, that didn’t mean he was not in the possession of viciously defended under-informed opinions, of which you could be sure he would repeat nightly. Just then, he was expostulating on the finer points of global conspiracy; not quite having a lucid moment, but certainly saturated enough that he should have been dead. Leaning with a sly eye on the bar, holding a stout beer in a pale hand that may have been mistaken for an albino gorilla’s, Duncan resembled everything a woman made sure to avoid in a man. A bygone friend had once looked at a department store and said: “Duncan, if that place is called ‘Big and Tall’, you oughta open a chain called ‘Short and Squat’,” to which Duncan had replied with a left uppercut that ended the friendship. That same hand now hardly supported him as his right gesticulated madly, following tangents and counterpoints as though it had its own mind; only moving cohesively to point with derision at the college kid on the next barstool. The kid could have been frightened, but he too was
past the point of no return and slobbered with about as much sensibility, responding with things like: “Nowaitaminute, if the government w—hic w—hic wants mine-less slaves, whysit gotta support the in-sitution o’ college, anyhow—?” “College, don’t get me started on college,” Duncan turned to his drink and kissed the brim like a lover. “Naw, ‘salright, I wanna hear whatcha gotta say—” “They send you off an’ brainwash your brain to suit their needs—an’ they’re all run by the Skulls, y’know. The Skulls run ev’ry college in the Yew-Ess of Ay; an’ y’know who runs them, dontcha’? Well it’s none other than the Free Masons; an’ they’re run by the Pope his’self!” “Now holdonaminute, the Pope’s in Rome, he ain’t gonna care about New Frontage University on the outskirts o’ Compton—” “You better believe he does!” Duncan slammed a meaty fist on the counter and knocked his drink over, yelling: “Mikeey!” automatically and holding up two fingers; hardly waiting for the bartender to return with refills before he was educating the student again: “Pope controls all the secret organizations, an’ he’s using antithesis and thesis to create synthesis an’ rule the world! What you think the Canadian labor camps is about? It’s passive eugenics—euthanasia of the poor, I tell ya—” “But…Catholics don’t support death camps—” “Sure catholics is prorighteous; but the Pope ain’t gotta be what he says; he makes the rules! He don’ haftu follow ‘em!”
“So you must be a real conserv’tive type then, thinkin’ the prison camps is population control—” “Far from it! I’m all for population control, there’s gotta be some kinna measures what to make us civilized; it’s not knowing about it, what gets me. Not knowing why. Why we need camps in Canada for people what’s broke? Work ‘em here, give ‘em dorms. Guv’ment oughta be honest with us, an’ do everything above the table—” Mikey handed a couple beers to the student and the drunkard, Duncan grabbed his mid-sentence and cleared half of it before continuing: “—‘cause everything oughta be equal, see? We all oughta get equal chances at life. Take me, f’instance. I been beat up an’ groun’ down all m’life, I ain’t gotta fair chance at nothin’!” “Tha’s too bad. I haven’t either, y’know,” the college kid looked dubiously at his beer, but seemed afraid to touch it. “But there’s more. See…” Here Duncan Hainstock looked left and right, then motioned the student closer. “…it’s not jus’ unequal opportunity. The guv’ment’ll take you offa’ streets, an’ if they think they can get away with it they’ll exper’ment on you. Ain’t aliens what abducts people, it’s the CIA.” Here Duncan sat back and nodded conspiratorially at the student, wagging a knowing finger. The kid, for his part, was much too drunk to consider this, as evidenced by his sincere reply which was still in a whisper: “How’d you find out about that…?” “Issa’ homeless, see. You see ‘em all over the streets for 83
years, but where they at? Last year, this city—crawlin’ with ‘em, on the corners, playin’ buckets for booze money, sleepin’ on benches—now where are they? When’s-a lass time you seen a bum?” The college kid squinted: “Wasn’t there some ‘Clean Up Compton’ campaign with the last election?” Duncan scowled and waved his arms around enough to knock a saltshaker across the bar: “So what if there’s a campaign? When’s-a lass time politics ever got anythin’ done?” The kid sat back perplexed as Duncan nodded proudly, then stood up and put a hand to his head and looked around, then leaned in toward Duncan as though he were about to say something very profound until the serious expression on his face changed, and he said instead: “I gotta’ pee,” and headed for the bathroom. Duncan laughed more than the admission deserved, then pounded the bar for another beer—he wasn’t sure when he’d finished his last one, but it did seem to be gone. He drank the college kid’s untouched mug while he waited for Mikey to attend him, then fell off the bench trying to pound the counter again and couldn’t actually remember how it was he found himself on the curb of an alleyway out back, or which way home was. But he began to stumble without any real direction toward a vaguely remembered park, anyway. From there, the rest of the night was a little vague. II They were after him, chasing him through the sewers,
and the rank water dripped on him as he ran from the black-clad government men, screaming. He was nearly away— —and suddenly the cobblestone road disappeared in a swath of dark sky that swallowed him up, red clouds and purple snow spinning kaleidoscopically. He landed in a great sea, and was forever sinking, sinking, sinking— Now he was on the bottom, walking and breathing effortlessly, and he could see somehow that he was on a mountain, and below the mountain was a valley, and below the valley was a girl walking toward him, and so he drove to her in the car that was right there, which turned out to be the most recently developed Aston Martin. She was his ex-wife, but all she could do was apologize. “ A b o u t what?” “Because I left you, Duncan.” “It’s okay, I drink a lot.” “But every man should drink. That’s a stupid reason for a woman to leave a man.” “Yes, but I forgive you.” “I’m still sorry, Duncan.” Now they were in a boat, and Duncan was rowing, and they were swaying back and forth. “Nothing you can’t make up in the bedroom,” he smiled impishly. “Oh, Duncan, you’re the cleverest man I ever knew. But I’m sorry.”
“What for?” “Because you have to wake up.” A hand fell heavily against Duncan’s face. A cold, hard, stinky, clammy hand. Duncan called out: “Do you mind?” But the hand didn’t move. He removed it without any delicacy and threw it from him. Where was he? Why was the world rocking? Was he still in the dream? What a strange dream it had been, too. He hadn’t thought of Ellen in years; what had that been all about? Duncan opened his eyes,
but it was still black as pitch. “Where am I?” He groaned. There was no response. “And what’s with the smell?” The only sound was a kind of metallic whirring, an electric 84
noise like treads or an engine. “Whose hand was that?” Nothing. “Anybody?” Duncan tried to get up, and could immediately feel cloth and cold flesh and bodies all around him. “Excuse me,” he muttered. “Can any of you hear me?” There was no sound. “What is that smell? And why the hell can’t I see?” Duncan rubbed at his eyes and blinked them— And then he heard voices. Coming from somewhere, there were voices. Muffled—he couldn’t understand them. Talking about some kind of process…what process? Sounded not like banter, but like explanation— A sudden jarring shook Duncan with the rest of the bodies, and there was a sliver of light opening very slowly like a two-foot horizontal sunrise. The light was hardly fifty-watts; the best turnout of a flickering bulb in a dying apartment community. It was brighter than the sun to Duncan. And it continued to grow brighter and brighter, and he suddenly heard an even louder electronic gurgle, and wherever he was began to shake back and fourth, and Duncan realized he was in some kind of compartment— Suddenly a body dropped through the opening, eyes rolled up in its sockets, skin burnt
beyond recognition, arms lifeless. “Hey, Mister!” Duncan called. No response from the body—maybe the machinery moving all around them was too loud for him to hear. Duncan sighed and put a hand to his forehead in the darkness, then felt around inside his jacket pockets for the flask he usually kept with him, swearing to himself as he remembered he left it on the dresser at home. “I need to keep two of those, just in case. How many times’ve I told myself? Damn.” Duncan continued to pat himself down, hopelessly; drawing himself to a sitting position and leaning against what he supposed was a wall. Abruptly the space began to move again, and Duncan felt centrifugal force drag on him ever so slightly. The floor was metal. The walls were metal. Duncan tried to stand, but bumped his head on a ceiling that couldn’t have been four feet high and fell down again, realizing that the movement of whatever vehicle this was would make standing difficult. Then a thought struck him. Vehicle. Bodies—was he being shipped across the border? “Hey! Are any of you illegal aliens? I won’t tell! Promise! Yo no se, seniors. Es nada.” Still no response. He was in the middle of padding himself down for the third time when he remembered the lighter he kept in his back pocket and struggled to get his hand around to retrieve it. After an effort that would have been comical, had there been anyone
to see it, Duncan managed to grab the Zippo, and then began to pat himself down for a cigarette before he realized he’d left them at his apartment too, in an effort not to smoke so much at the bar. “Well that was a genius move,” he muttered, moving to replace the lighter when he realized he still had no idea where in the nine hells he was. “Last time I let myself wake up sober,” and he ran his thumb across the flint. A dozen inert faces stared back at him in the darkness of a chamber eight feet long and wide. The gentleman who had just come from the door was looking at him with the deadest expression among the corpses. Duncan swallowed hard, and closed the lighter. He took a deep breath, and he counted to ten—making sure his eyes were closed tight—then ran his hand across the lighter again. He made sure to open his eyes gradually and transfix them on the ceiling first this time; bringing his head down very slowly. Yep, the dead were all still there, complete with decaying clothes, dried blood, and expressionless faces. And somehow almost all the heads were still staring straight at him. This time Duncan screamed in a pitch that made a poodle explode somewhere, and then passed out. III
Duncan awoke some time later in just about the same position, still alone in the dark with a dozen corpses; only this time he said: “My good Lord, what a terrible dream,” and fumbled at 85
the covers to get them off—my, but weren’t they especially bodyshaped this morning? Well, best grab the lighter out of his pocket and see what everything looked like in his apartment— “You mean I wasn’t dreaming!” He exclaimed, and immediately dropped the implement with a coarse exclamation and an effort at standing upright, which was rewarded with another harsh knock on the head and a fall among the corpses that swiftly became an epileptic thrash to get the inert limbs off. The writhing was accompanied by robust screams that oscillated in pitch with the amount of air Duncan could force into his lungs. From outside of the DPDU—Dormant Person Disposal Unit—the two state employees in charge of the robot walked beside one another and cast sidelong glances at the machine. Bill said: “Is there a rock in the tread? Why’s it shaking like that?” “Beats me,” said Phil. “There’s always something busted with these things. Hear that screeching? Sounds like there’s a loose belt somewhere, too.” “Probably because we had to take it up those stairs; they said we’re not supposed to tread this thing higher than three storeys. There any other apartments with grannies what called it quits last night?” “Not on our route. We just gotta finish heading back to the processing center.” Bill stopped mid-gait. “The processing center?” “Yeah. Why you think we
been picking up dead bodies all day?” “Oh no…” “What?” Bill shook his head: “I think there may’ve been a mistake, Phil.” “What kind of mistake?” “It’s still going to be the routine schedule, right?” Phil yawned “They’re photographed and stored in a sterile environment in the DPDU, we take ‘em to the processing center if they’re not dead of some communicable disease, then to the maintenance facility—just like Always, Bill.” Phil lit a cigarette. Bill shook his head again: “I really think there may’ve been a mistake.” “Okay…what?” “I remembered I seen this one on bum-sweep last night, coming from the Detention center.” “301-B? Not a chance. The DC’s only got red ones—” “I know that, but I seen a yellow one there last night with a squeaky tread like this one—” “So what, you think there’s a hobo in there, what didn’t get out at the DC? You’re crazy, Bill. I gotta hand it to you.” By this time the employees and their robotic charge had made it to the unloading facility, and Phil walked around to the operation switch that turned on the conveyor and opened the deposithatch on the DPDU. “These are the old Japanese models from ’08 and ’09. That’s why they got the rescue arms on ‘em, see? They used to use ‘em in burning buildings in Japan where the little yellow fire-fighters couldn’t reach burn-victims.” “I’d prefer you not use
racial stereotypes—” “What? Fire fighters wear yellow uniforms, you dunce.” Phil grinned. “Anyway, don’t ask me why Compton decided to use them as corpse-disposals; I can understand the bum cleanup motif—kinda’ like som sorta Hobocop, yeah?” Phil was punching a number into the hatch at the front of the machine. “I wonder why it’s still screeching like that?” “I got a note on my operator report. But none of what you said tells me this one ain’t been accidentally switched with DC detail.” “Oh yeah, wise-guy? You questioning folks what’s been trained in upper management for twenty years? They gonna miss crossin’ a ‘t’ somewhere? It’s why they’s up there, and we’re down here. Or try this on for size: the whole reason they use these things is for sanitation—” “Says who?” Bill had moved toward the machine and had his eyebrows knitted, listening closely to the sound—it didn’t seem quite as loud now that the treads weren’t moving so fast. “Says who—everybody in the department of Management and Obituaries! You can take ten dead people in an airtight container and state workers never have to touch any bodies, then you dispose of them at the processing center here, no muss, no fuss, cut all the sanitation disposables out of the budget. So if that’s the whole reason these things are here, how in the name off Heaven, Hell or the Pope’s unmentionables would a mix-up be tolerable?” As punctuation, he pressed the ‘enter’ command that opened the front hatch. 86
Duncan, who hadn’t been able to hear any of the exchange, wrenched the disposable unit’s mouth clean off and exploded from the compartment like a rabid feline from a bathtub. He knocked Phil right off the DPDU and was sprinting into the innards of the disposal facility, over a conveyor belt, and through regions no man save maintenance had ever been meant to traverse. Bill was so stunned he yelped and threw the operator reports in the air. Phil merely lay on the pavement, muttering: “Well I’ll be a baboon’s mother…” Duncan was screaming: “CIA! CIA! I been caught by the CIA!” at the top of his lungs, and hadn’t yet realized he was running down a conveyor that led to a cremation furnace and urn-injector. Each body was fed into the disposal robots with an electronic toe-tag scanned at the beginning of the conveyor to determine who was who and where they were going. Duncan disrupted the laser that read the tags, and suddenly red lights were flashing in the control quadrant of the disposal facility, and all the belts stopped cold. This had the curious effect of tripping Duncan midstride, and he crashed through an observation window into an empty hallway that led to the Office of Management and Obituaries. “They know I’m here, or they wouldn’t o’ stopped the belt,” he muttered, turning toward the bodies lying inert on the rubber. “There must be hundreds. Where they goin’? What’s being done to ‘em?” Then his eyes got wide, and he said in a mock-whisper: “The Pope!” And he was running again.
Duncan threw open doors and frightened interns, being that he smelled and looked like a mixture of beer and death, and his eyes were wilder than an Arab’s on Jihad. This may have gone on for quite a while if Officer Wilkinson had not been dispatched to confirm the identity of a number of corpses recovered in a drug related shootout the night before. At that moment, he was in the Office of Management and Obituaries, talking to a pretty young thing named Nicky and enjoying laughter that was disproportionate to his lackluster wit, when in burst Duncan Hainstock from the factory portion of the building; scared mindless and screaming nonsense about Catholics and the CIA. Wilkinson paled. He had never seen “active” duty; or at least been on any assignments where he had to brain a perpetrator. But he must impress Nicky—Wilkinson withdrew his billy club (guns had been outlawed decades ago in the United States) and held out his hand toward the lunatic: “Sir, I’m going to ask you to calm down—” Duncan barreled passed Wilkinson without a second look, knocking over several desks and a corpulent secretary passing between cubicles who would always think the coffee she’d been sipping had some kick. Wilkinson had no choice but to throw his Billy club and hope for a successful—well, didn’t that work out? He managed to hit the maniac square on the head, and the man folded like a shirt. Nicky looked up at him with Bambi eyes and Wilkinson pretended not to notice, striding
authoritatively over to Duncan and checking his pulse, standing to bellow: “Alright, who’s responsible for this?” In another moment of universal coincidence—which was explained as an effective plot-device in the first paragraph of this story, so deal with it—Bill and Phil stumbled through the doorway and stopped in time to cast embarrassed glances at each other and point fingers. IV “All I know is, last thing I remember was telling a kid about… about some things at Jake’s, and then I wake up in the belly of that thing.” “The… converted Robokiyu DPDU?” Wilkinson was writing on a touchscreen. “Yeah, the converted Rubix cube. And then I see all those bodies — officer, I thought it was the CIA, I’m tellin’ ya! I never heard o’ the city using no robots to clean out intransigents—! It only made sense, it being the CIA.” “Yes, we all heard that,” Wilkinson muttered, then finished writing a ticket and sent a template to his records folder. A buzz in his pocket indicated its arrival — and for a moment Wilkinson recalled there had been no other incoming messages that day. But hadn’t Nicky said she’d get a hold of him? “They oughta’ let a citizen know, if there’s a critter like that roaming the streets at night…” Wilkinson shook his head, resolving to find a quiet pub for a drink after work, then clearing his throat and catching Duncan’s eye: “The city commissioned those particular models two or three years ago. It doesn’t mater. Just 87
sign this and you’ll be free to go.” “What, no punishment? No community service?” “The fine you’ll be expected to pa—” “Say!” Duncan cut him off. “Whassa’ big idea? Whassa’ charges?” Wilkinson turned the touchscreen around: “Public intoxication, disruption of a government facility, resisting arrest, obstruction of justice, destruction of public and private property—” “I didn’t resist no arrest, you conked me on the head and I come to in a cell! And what’s this about public intoxication? I wasn’t drunk in no public, I start walkin’ home and I wake up in the belly of a man-eatin’ robot—” “You would not have been picked up had you not been slovenly and passed-out drunk after curfew. You were so deeply pickled immediate officers couldn’t arouse—” “Then you shoulda’ put me in a squad car and drove me to the drunk-tank!” “I apologize, Mr. Hainstock, but that hasn’t been the procedure since before the war. Now, if you’ll sign for the ticket here…” “I ain’t signin’ for no ticket nowhere, not after bein’ in the belly o’ some gawdawful robot with a bunch o’ stinking corpses for who knows how long—” “Mr. Hainstock, you are aware of the settlement?” “What settlement? I ain’t heard about no settlement—” “The settlement as outlined at the bottom of this ticket, charging the State of Western California with full responsibility for extracting you
with the wrong clean-up machine, and offering a monetary apology of — well, in substantial excess of these tickets, I can assure you.” “Lemme see that,” Hainstock grumbled, snatching the touchscreen from the officer and reading it up and down, scratching at his chin and then whistling low. After a moment, he picked up the stylus to sign his mark at the bottom of the page, then paused and looked curiously up at the officer: “This ain’t got nothin’ to do with the Pope, does it?” “The Pope?” “You heard me, the Pope; y’know, big pointy hat, always looks kinda constipated?” “Why would this have anything to do with the Pope?” “That’s exactly what I’d expect you to say—” “No, this has nothing to do with the worldwide leader of Catholics. But I’d like to know where in Hades you got such an idea.” Duncan grinned, signed the screen, and pressed “enter” for the money to be transferred to his account, the fines subtracted, and the receipt sent to his apartment e-mail. Then he turned to Wilkinson: “Whaddaya say to a drink when youse get off, officer?” V Wilkinson and Hainstock closed Jake’s that night, and Hainstock was profoundly impressed that hardly a fraction of the settlement was depleted by the copious spending that went into the evening—several dozen rounds being purchased for everybody in the bar, as it were. At three a.m., Hainstock and Wilkinson stumbled home;
arms across each other’s shoulders, butchering some Irish tune unfortunate enough to be known by both of them. Neither man remembered where he lived, where he was going, or what a taxi-cab was. Wilkinson should have been ashamed of himself; but Nicky had rejected his dateproposal, and he hadn’t had a beer with the boys in years — besides, what if the Pope really was involved? What then? These are excuses, he said to himself; I still should be ashamed! However, right then, inebriated as he was, he found the very concept of embarrassment foreign. And didn’t he have quite the underused talent as an operatic bass? Hainstock agreed with him. Yet, when Hainstock awoke in utter darkness, after a dream that included his exwife, a boat, an operatic penguin, and rocking back-and-forth rhythmically on an ocean of pantyhose, he immediately went for his lighter. Only this time, Wilkinson screamed first.
Odds Are by Kevin Brown The moving truck is angled backwards in the driveway, and the “For Sale” sign sways a few feet from the blood red X someone spray-painted in our yard. Our house is hollowed out, its insides packed thick and sloppy in the truck. The love seat is inverted on the sofa, and the kitchen table stands flush against the side. Bags of clothes, lampshades, and boxes of toys are seated in stacked 88
chairs. There’s bed mattresses and chipped picture frames. Old books and older bookshelves. Porcelain whatnots wrapped in a month’s worth of sports section. The wind blows the sign over and I set it back up. Drive it six inches in the ground and look at the large X. I step inside. What’s left of the boxes, mostly dishes and photo albums, are scattered around the living room floor. Melissa’s in our bedroom packing up loose pieces and still crying. Michael’s sliding his Hot-Wheels the length of the hall’s hardwood floor. I grab a duffel bag and a ‘66 Mini-Mustang spins between my legs and hits the baseboard. In the room, masking tape is stretched and ripped. I take the bag outside and wedge it under a kitchen stool. Melissa slams something in the living room and I yell out to be careful with the white box. “That’s your China.” I slide a door mirror farther in and out of the corner of my eye, the white box is cart-wheeling toward me from the front door. It hits the ground at my feet and rolls toward the X. The China I gave her on our second anniversary. The broken pieces sliding end to end, I force the box between the mattresses. Already, I’m starting to miss her. It’s smothering out, and the sky’s the color of soaked tissue. Thunder shakes somewhere inside it. Our neighbor, Hewitt, comes across the yard, two beers to a hand. He’s wearing cut-offs with boots and striped socks yanked up to the knees. “Good,” he says, “Lord.” He says, “Hotter than Hades under Havana.” He
slips a beer in each pocket, tosses me one, and cracks the other open for himself. His hands and clothes are caked white with paint. “Got my fence painted,” he says, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. I open my beer, and say, “I see that.” I tell him, “Might wanna cover it up.” “Cover what up?” “Your fence.” “Cover it up, it’s still wet.” “Gonna be soaked.” He waves his hand and looks up at the clouds. “That’ll miss us,” he says. Then: “Looks like you’re about finished.” Yeah, I tell him. “Almost.” “Well, I came over to share a beer and tell you….” He puts the can to his mouth. “Those ‘chicken’ cracks? Me and the fellas were just drunk.” He takes a drink and says, “You know.” “Forget it,” I say, and take a sip. Michael runs out in the yard with a model Blue Angel held over his head, slicing the air. “Mikey!” Hewitt says. “What we got there?” “Airplane,” Michael says, dips and rises and sweeps back through the door. “So,” Hewitt says, “Melissa still not talking to you?” I shake my head. Inside something thumps and shatters, and Melissa says: “Please, Michael. Go outside and play!” Michael starts crying, and Hewitt whistles and hits his beer. I tell him she’s going to her mother’s for a while. Taking Mike with her. “Tell me,” I say, “will a woman really divorce you for thinking you’re a coward?” “Hell if I’d know,” he says. “Mine left me for telling her to get out of the car.” He crushes
his empty beer can. “Of course, I was hitting fifth gear when I told her.” He laughs, pats my shoulder, and looks at the sky. “Nope. No way it’s gonna rain.” *** I load a few more boxes and sit on the back bumper of the truck, knuckling the sweat from my eyes. Hewitt’s into his second beer, occasionally scratching, and burping. He peels a sliver of dried paint from the Vietnam tattoo on his wrist. “What was Vietnam like?” I’d asked him one afternoon, after we got to be friends. Sitting on his porch, he rubbed the tattoo and stared out at the yard. “At times,” he’d said, “like having a second to live every second you’re alive.” With the wind picking up, he shifts a floor lamp in the truck and says, “Talk to the police again?” I lean back against the boxes and nod. “They’ll keep their eyes open,” I say, wiping my cheek. “They’re dead-set on it being a prank call.” What the police were investigating was a phone call that came around two in the morning last month. What I was told during this call was that the occupants at 1031 Audrey Lane were going to be killed. “Sacrificed,” the man on the phone said, “by His people to the Savior, Jesus Christ.” An offering of a family to show their unflinching faith to God. My family. “Disembowelment is really a noble way to die,” he said, me still wiping sleep out of my eyes. “You should feel honored.” The police traced the call to a pay phone in the Hill district. 89
Given the location, they said, it’s probably just some kids screwing with the phone book. They asked if we knew of anyone who’d do this. Who might try and scare us. And no, we didn’t. They asked if the man called us by name. No. Just the occupants at this address. “Ninety-nine percent of the time,” they said, “these things are just a hoax.” When I told Hewitt about the call, he bit his lower lip and said, “A sacrifice? You mean in the Abraham sense?” Playing poker that night, he said, “It’s gotta be a joke. I mean, I’m gonna take someone out, I sure don’t call and tell them.” Shuffling the deck, he said, “Even Isaac didn’t know until his back was against Moriah.” The first week after the call, I hardly slept. Every shift in the house, I was peeking around the corner. When the air kicked on, my body went numb. When Michael woke up crying from a nightmare, I almost threw up. “Just get an alarm system,” Melissa said. “I can’t believe you’re not a little more concerned,” I said. “I made the same calls in high school, myself,” she said. “Except I’d be sales representatives or the IRS or porn store clerks.” Rubbing my cheek with her thumb, she smiled, shook her head, and said, “On the phone, you’re whoever you want to be.” The next day I looked at alarm systems, but it’s useless if you think about it. Alarms scare rapists or burglars. They spook peeping toms. But some religious zealot doing “God’s work,” they couldn’t care less about loud
By the second week, I suspected cashiers, waiters, and joggers in the park. I looked over my shoulder at mechanics, bank tellers. Even business clients. Everyone was an Abraham. “I think we need to move,” I told Melissa, one day after work. And she said, “You lost your mind?” She shook her head. “It was just a prank call!” Digging in her flower garden, planting Grandiflora roses, she told me, “You’re not uprooting our lives because some college punks got in your head.” I told her how I come home from work and hear the puddles of my wife and son’s blood squishing in the carpet. How around every corner, the walls are splashed red. “I’m out of town, you guys are here alone,” I said. “You can’t have one second to live,” I said, thinking of napalm and land mines, “every second of your life.” The third week, a large red X was painted in our yard one night, and the next morning, I put our house on the market. There’s a fine line between being a coward and a news segment. Three years ago, on vacation at Martha’s Vineyard, I stepped on a nail while jogging barefoot on the beach. Miles of sand and my foot finds that nail. I told Melissa to start packing. “Ninety-nine percent,” I said, flipping through the yellow pages for ‘Moving Trucks,’ “is not my kind of odds.” *** Last summer, a family of four was murdered in Spokane, Washington. In Salt Lake City, a family
of six was tortured and killed on Christmas Eve. From the back of the moving truck, I watch the sky whiten and grumble. Hewitt comes back across the yard with more beer, looking up. Melissa comes out with the last box and her eyes are red and swollen. “Hello Mrs. Melissa,” Hewitt says. “Looking beautiful as always.” “Not hello,” she says, staring at me. “It’s goodbye.” Her eyes are drawn tight. “You wanna still be neighbors?” Melissa says. “Because the house next to my Mother’s got toilet papered last week. They’ll for sure be moving out.” I bite down and my jaw pops. “Just set it down anywhere,” I say. “I’ll find a place.” She sighs, shakes her head, and sets it down. Going back inside, she stops beside her dying flower garden. Stares at her withered hybrid tea and floribunda roses. It thunders and Hewitt looks up and says, “Women. Can’t live with them — by God, it’s gonna rain.” A family of three was butchered in Haddonfield, New Jersey last Fourth of July. “Know what she said? Said it was probably me that painted the X so we’d move.” I throw the box in and it catches. “She didn’t hear his voice,” I tell him. “That guy meant what he said.” He tells me fear’s powerful. “In Nam, men would put a knife in their thigh or blow a toe off to get out.” He tells me when he was in high school someone was carving up heavy 90
women around his neighborhood. How after the seventh one, posters of a red cross with a tape measure around it popped up everywhere. They said: “Be safe. Lose weight.” He says, “After that, those women got in the best shape of their lives. Fear,” he says, “can be as healthy as Slim Fast.” The door of the moving truck slams and I jump. Inside Melissa’s leaning her head against the window, her eyes closed. She’s rubbing the bridge of her nose. “Even if she doesn’t want a divorce,” I say, lowering my voice, “I’ll always be a coward.” Hewitt says, “She’ll come around.” Taking a drink, he says, “People always come around.” A blade of lightning forks down and leaves an afterimage. Thunder cracks somewhere close. Hewitt downs another beer and says, “You gonna follow the news?” Two Octobers ago, a family of three was slaughtered while vacationing on the Cape. “The news?” He nods his head and says, “Before the war, you dodged the draft or went to college, someone was called up to take your place, go for you. Then,” he says, “someone takes the place of the guy who took yours, and so on and so on.” He peels a chip of paint from his elbow and Michael runs between us with his plane, his lips pursed to sound the engine. Hewitt says, “Someone’ll move in after you.” A family of three or five or seven or nine was killed at 1031 Audrey Lane, one month after moving in. He laughs and says, “You’ll be fine, but Friday night poker’s shot.” He holds his thick paint-crusted hand out and I shake
“Why’s this happening?” I say. The first few drops of rain dot the driveway. Hewitt squints and holds out his hands to feel the drops. “God works in delirious ways,” he says, pats my shoulder, and starts back across the yard. “Shoot me a call sometime,” he says, not looking back. Michael’s yanking at my hand and holding out his airplane. “It’s broken,” he says, and holds up a piece. “Hop in the truck,” I tell him. “I’ll fix it later.” I slide the truck door down and latch it at the bottom. The rain is starting to hiss and across the yard, Hewitt’s running around, covering his fence with an old tarp. “Crap! Crap! Crap!” he’s saying, holding a beer in one hand and working the tarp with the other. I give the house a last walk through. Stop in what was our room and look at the four bedpost marks in the carpet. “That’s it,” I say, and it bounces off the empty walls. I go out and lock the door. At the four-way stop, a tan Contour turns onto the street. It slows down as it approaches our yard. The window slides down and a man leans out. My insides go light and rise, the tendons breaking their grip. Muscles hovering completely off the bone. The man shields his eyes from the rain, jots down the number on the sign, and drives away. That saying “blinded by fear” is wrong. It’s really “blinded by indifference.” Because fear shows you real monsters exist, their claws always inches from the throat. You don’t see them, it’s because you don’t want to.
They’re the voices on the other end of early morning phone calls. They lie between you and your wife at night, your backs facing. They’re that one percent everyone ignores, the nails in the sand waiting to scrape bone in the arches of bare feet. Standing in the rain, I think about the next family to move in. And about the Vietnam draft. The next in line, filling your slot. How you could’ve been responsible for fifty dead soldiers without knowing how to hold a gun. I wish I could say I hope it’s all a hoax. That the next family will live safe and sound in their new home. But I can’t. Sometimes, pride’s more important than humanity. I get in the truck and Michael’s singing, “Rain, rain, go away….” Melissa’s still leaning against the window, eyes closed. I run my hand through my soaked hair and look at the house reflected in the side mirror. Picture the door outlined in police tape. Michael’s singing, “Come again another day.” I know every night, I’ll watch the news and scan the headlines. And one day, there it’ll be, and the look on everyone’s faces will say it all: You were right, they’ll say, jaws slack and eyes wide. You were right all along. The Grave of Armond Balosteros by E.W. Bonadio The young soldier, a traveler from a city near the northern coast of Spain, plodded through the ancient cemetery, 91
searching for the burial place of a long dead relative. The graveyard lay near a line of stony battlements, part of Spain’s defenses against the French during Napoleon’s invasion nearly a century before. As he wandered among the monuments, a morning chill cut through his half-opened woolen jacket. Flinching from the biting cold, his hand squeezed the estate document confirming the internment. A hero, the account proclaimed, of the Spanish in their fight against the French. Continuing his quest, the young man searched each stone and statue, looking for the familiar family coat of arms adorning the monument. It had been a long and arduous journey. With each step over the hard rocky ground, the soldier’s calf muscles ached. Stopping near an oak tree, he found rest on a random headstone. It angled slightly from many years of settlement and nature’s abuse. After a brief test of its sturdiness he straddled the stone, bent over and attempted to read aloud the name “ARM..” He brushed away debris to finish, but a chill wind rushed through the trees peppering his face. Long dead oak leaves flew up and around the gravesite, and as they whirled about the gravesite, he stirred. Above the din, the soft and remarkably elegant voice of a man caught his ear. “Winter comes early, does it not?” Bemused, the young man turned to greet the stranger, but the cemetery was empty; he was utterly alone. The voice came again, this time in the traditional hail of olden
times. “Greetings gentle stranger! I was not expecting a visitor on such a bleak autumn morn. It pleases me that you stopped here to rest your bones.” Startled the young man froze in place, listening, but not yet understanding the nature of the voice, nor its intention. “Forgive the ghastly appearance of this stony ground; the years have been less kind to those of us who share the confines of this place. Are you lost, or simply searching for a kin from early times?” After surveying the ground near the stone, the soldier relaxed his guard and pondered the question. He thought to solicit the voice on the placement of his kin; however, uncertainty overruled the action. After a short reprieve, the voice revealed the unseen persona and its true intention. “My name is Armond Balosteros. Long have I been interred in this desolate place. Your attention to my fateful story is welcome, so if I may be so bold, please humor me and stay awhile.” The soldier, weary from his journey and too confused to challenge his own senses, considered the offer. It was obviously a daydream - possibly the effects of a recently emptied flask of brandy. “Perhaps it is just my imagination and the effects of the cold,” he mused. Sitting back in stoic silence against the tilted headstone, he closed his eyes as the storyteller began his tale. “It was on a mild September morning that my fate was sealed by the length of a hangman’s rope. This severe punishment coincided with a
broken friendship, caused by the course of unfortunate historical events. You see, a friend, tainted by life’s reversals, offered his assistance. In the end, betrayal was his game. I entrusted my most cherished possessions to this socalled friend. However, it was not my land, buildings, livestock, and earthly staples. They were forfeit to the state. My chief concern was the safeguarding of my children. Their security was to be secured by the preservation of my family’s hidden heirlooms, a sizable stash of coin. I must now persist in exposing this treachery and how within a few days of judgment, my friend contrived to steal my wealth. As an act of trust, I placed my holdings with a man from the coast named Rodrigo. I myself hailed from Salamanca. Rodrigo and I shared schooling in Madrid, two lads sent into the care of the Jesuits. Our fathers were wealthy landowners, and as part of the privileged class, it was required that we should pass into manhood with the rudiments of discipline and culture. We received all that the church had to offer in the way of Christian salvation. However, after the unfortunate passing of my father, I returned home and took over the management of the estate. Two seasons hence, my mother passed on, dying of consumption, leaving me sole heir of the estate. Alone at the age of twenty-six and longing for companionship, I chose to take a wife. “From all corners, fathers and clergy offered widows and daughters to share my bed in marital bliss. I rejected most candidates as being either amazingly dimwitted or too portly for my liking. Nevertheless, a 92
local commoner, a wistful farm girl named Esmeralda caught my eye. Against the railings of many elitist friends, we married and within a year, a beautiful daughter was born. Three years hence, my son arrived kicking and screaming his way into the world. Unfortunately, his birth was not without complication, which led to a decline in Esmeralda’s health. Not quite thirty, she developed a sickness that left her unable to manage the household. However, she had bore me two fine children and their affection for each other and their mother made me proud.” The young officer stirred as another gust of wind blew leaves into his face. Now longing to know more, he repositioned himself and pleaded with the voice, “Do continue sir, whoever you may be. You seem to have captured me in this dream and I am loath to retreat from it.” The voice continued, now more assured of a ready ear from his guest. “Prior to my son’s twelfth birthday, Rodrigo came to see me. With him was a most surly, adventurous looking patriot from the coast. Rodrigo and the man explained that it was my duty to join in resisting Napoleon’s incursion into Spain. Being a simple agrarian and a practitioner of non-violence, I waved off any such involvement. It was at that very moment that I made a fatal mistake. I had misjudged Rodrigo’s heart. Informed that Rodrigo’s family had entrusted their estate to the cause, they now desired my property and stores as well. I bid them to stay with me in counsel until I could consider all options. Three days passed and the men continued to ply me with grape and stories
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“I was not disappointed. This was a fastpaced read that I found hard to put down, always eager to find out what would happen to Chenda and her friends next...” -- Kathryn Hinds
The debut Steampunk novel from Emilie P. Bush Available now from Amazon.com, and on Kindle! 93
of French atrocities in my homeland. At the third evening meal, my son enlisted himself into our discussions. Being an impressionable lad, he could not hold back from interjecting himself on the other side of my opinion. With the odds now stacked against me, I succumbed, agreeing that my land and stores could be used to sustain the rebels.” Again, the young officer stirred, further intrigued by the course of the story. “I pray you sir, do continue as I long for an ending, be it grim or not. Please, spirit, whether in my head or naught, finish the tale.” Armond accepted the young man’s plea and pressed on with his story. “Now I come to a twist in the tale. In an effort to mire the French in an untenable position, the English sent Wellington into Portugal. From there he advanced into Spain and against them in force. Napoleon’s eye had turned east towards Russia, and he failed to consider his nemesis. However, a great battle between Wellington’s force and one of Napoleon’s most accomplished generals, Marshal Marmont, soon improved Spain’s fate. While Napoleon was forging towards Moscow through Borodino, the French prepared to meet the English near the city of Salamanca. Just two days before the battle, Rodrigo and his friend appeared at my estate. They soon left to scout the terrain to the east, leaving shortly before the French arrived. That next day the French general positioned his army at the crest of a ridge overlooking my estate. “Having abandoned the town of Salamanca to the fast
approaching English, Marmont was determined to make a stand on ground of his own choosing. As fate would have it, the French found three patriots retrieving munitions on my land. They turned me in for mercy’s sake, thus avoiding the gallows. Summoned to the French commander, I explained that I had no choice but to allow my fellow citizens the use of my land and provisions. For that, the French charged me with sedition. On the behalf of my sickly wife and children, the commander reconsidered and granted me reprieve on the condition that I expose my hidden stores. In return for my life and for the safety of my family, I agreed. Forthwith, I accompanied an officer and a few of his men to the hidden storage barns. “Upon returning me home, my son overheard the French officer thank me for my help in procuring sorely needed supplies. Subsequently, upon my release, I moved the children east to the river Algabete, then north to the river Tormes. There I kept them out of harms way. My wife, too ill to travel, remained at the estate and under the care of my manservant. Two days hence, the outcome was at hand. The English had bested the French and all seemed safe again, therefore, I returned home. I found my land sorely scorched and broken, with the corpses of dead French and English soldiers still on the field. Upon inquiring about my wife and manservant, I came to find that they had perished during the initial cannonades. Then at sundown, Rodrigo arrived. He came upon me with great pride in his heart boasting, ‘The French are retreating. This will prove 94
to be the turning point for us in Spain.’ At the sight of my son, still distraught over his mother’s death, the patriot grabbed the boy and hugged him saying, ‘Don’t cry young man, someday you too shall serve and we shall fight the enemy together.’ “Dismayed, I grabbed my son from his arms and shouted him down. ‘No Rodrigo, I will not have my son meet the same fate as his mother and my servant. Death is forever. I will not lose my son to such useless work.’ However, in a fit of temper and grief, my boy struck back. ‘But father, you gave provisions to the French. I heard the French captain thank you for leading them to the hidden stores. But for your misguided help of the enemy, my mother lies in her grave.’ My jaw dropped at those words. They were as a dagger thrust into my heart. The silence of a thousand stares befell me, as I stood immobilized by that brief inquisition. My first thought was to pass it off as a slight misunderstanding; however, the gravity of the moment became clear. “In a fit of anger, Rodrigo grabbed the hilt of his sword and a patriot pulled a pistol from his belt. I could not defend against my son’s words but said my piece. ‘To spare my life and assure the safety of my children, I gladly gave the stores to the French. It was for that purpose alone that I conceded them. After all, did I not do the same for you when asked, and did you not so win the day?’ Rodrigo pushed down the muzzle of the patriot’s gun, and took my arm. We walked away from prying ears and once distanced from the others he said, ‘This was a great victory for our
country but it may yet go ill for you my friend.’ He asked me to consider his next words very carefully. “I must be frank with you Armond. I have lost most of my fortune to this war. However, you have placed yourself in more danger than I could ever hope to repeal. I am a leader in Spain’s resistance, and your foolishness has caused me much shame. For aiding the French in this battle, a traitor’s noose may be your fate, but it is in my power to protect you remaining loved ones. If you will tell me where your heirlooms and coin are concealed, I will hold them safe and entreat those in power to pardon you. If unsuccessful, I will acquire the best legal mind to advocate for you at trial. This I promise, if you will trust in me.’ “I was speechless. His every utterance hung on me like a stone. One by one, they weighed me down until a grotesque mask of self-pity covered my face. I protested again, ‘I was only trying to save myself from a similar fate at the end of a French noose.’ Rodrigo was sympathetic but reformed his words. ‘No my friend, I cannot promise anything, but you are about to be taken into custody. Look, they are forming to take you as we speak.’ I turned back to the patriot. Three men in arms now stood by his side. I broke down, knowing that it was time to make the ultimate sacrifice for my children. I made Rodrigo swear that should it go badly for me, he should take in my children and care for their education and well-being. The pledge was enough to free me of my secrets. I looked over to the sweet faces of my children. Then I told Rodrigo where to find the heirlooms.”
The young soldier, aghast at this latest revelation, braced himself to hear the balance of Armond’s tale. He feared that poor Armond might have some unresolved commitment to revenge from the grave. Staring out towards the battlements he nervously asked, “Is there much more to this tale, sir? I am growing quite anxious.” Armond laughed. “I hope that you were not frightened by the second act. Its telling was an important prelude to the final chapter. I have weighed every word so that the story is clear. If my sensibilities about war and doing right by my family seem foolish, forgive me. I was no fool. I have no remorse or guilt, especially for the predicament that preceded my death. Whence the story comes full circle, I promise to give you an ending worthy of understanding.” The soldier nodded again, this time less certain of Armond’s meaning. “As you expect, the trial did not go well for me. However, sharing my jail cell was a gypsy elder. He had relieved an Englishman of his coin, a fate judged much less severe than my own. As they paraded him into my cell, he winked. Then he came over and squatted down near my makeshift bed. Smiling a near toothless smile, he sought out my name. ‘Your name friend and your fate if it pleases you to tell. I am a curious old man who seeks company.’ I could see that he craved conversation. As I related the story of my incarceration, he frowned. At each mention of Rodrigo’s name, I could tell that he disapproved, but I continued to affirm our 95
great friendship. As I spoke, the old man remained transfixed. After recounting a condensed version of recent events, I spoke of prideful things: my wife and our children. Nevertheless, I felt as if the old man was extracting tiny bits of my life and examining them for some unknown purpose. Our conversation ended on that pleasantry and I fell quiet. Weary from the day’s events, I fell asleep. “During my rest, I drifted into a dream. Oddly, considering my impending doom, it was a pleasant one. I dreamt of lounging with my family on a riverbank. The children played and my wife held my hand. She kissed me and we laughed. It was a pleasant delusion, and when I awoke, the sweet memory of that dream remained. At mid-day, a meal consisting of lentils, bread, and water was brought in by the guard - my last meal in the world of the living. I felt a tug at my sleeve; it was the old gypsy. He begged me, ‘Share your bread with me, sir and I will pray for you.’ In pity, I obliged. Besides, food no longer held any pleasure. The horror of the gallows and fear of heaving my meal before the hangman greatly concerned me. I drank in silence, sipping the tepid water from my dirty wooden cup. “When the gypsy finished his feast of bread he came to me and said, ‘Even now, placed before the gallows, you saw to care for another in need. For this, I will help you. We gypsy folk have certain gifts. That is why we are both feared and despised. However, I cannot keep you from the gallows kind master. That it is not in my power. This Rodrigo has betrayed you, and even now, he plots to send your children
away in bondage. As you sit here espousing his friendship, your jewels are being weighed and appraised.’ My mind was on the children; I cared not for the jewels and coin. Then, as if reading my mind he said, ‘I can see to your children’s safety. I can also grant you the curse of revenge. Will you have it?’ What could I lose? I chose to listen as he explained further. He asked me to decide if I wished my children to have happy lives or rich lives. I chose the first of his words. The old gypsy then asked their names and the location of Rodrigo’s temporary residence. I told him it was at my very house. The old man went to the cell’s window and whispered to a dark presence on the other side. I wondered who had been there and for what purpose, but I dared not ask. Picking up a handful of dirt, he tossed it into the air and mumbled a few unintelligible words. Coming back, he assured me, ‘Your children will be kidnapped by my clan. They will be taken to safety in the mountains and will live happily to the end of their days.’ The revenge curse was next. I wanted Rodrigo to feel my pain and as I spoke those words, the old man smiled, telling me that he had expected such a thought. However, his revenge was even more severe than I could have imagined. The plan was devilish in its simplicity and I laughed heartily as he detailed Rodrigo’s fate. Placing his hand on my temple, he told me to say Rodrigo’s name three times. Then he chanted the curse. ‘From one’s fear into the other. Fly fear, into the man called Rodrigo.’ “The next morning as the guards removed me from the cell, my eyes met the old gypsy.
I nodded a goodbye, turned, and followed the guards to the gallows. It would be a quick death for me, but not so for Rodrigo. You see, the old gypsy knew of Rodrigo’s weakness. Hidden in the recesses of my mind, he extracted it from my boyhood memories. Rodrigo had a penchant for sleep, enjoying long nighttime slumbers and daily afternoon naps. His countless hours in repose became the means of an endless nightmare. The gypsy assured me that upon my death, the noose would haunt Rodrigo’s sleep until death overtook him. Even while awake, Rodrigo would feel the hangman’s knot behind his right ear, slowly tightening and choking off his air supply. Indeed, Rodrigo’s invisible hangman followed behind, shadowing every waking moment. In a desperate attempt to stop the ghastly dreams and waking dread, Rodrigo hanged himself. His dust and bones are not far beyond the very tree that shades my tomb. I commend the gypsy for that fine revenge. I cannot recall how often I have attempted to tell this tale, but until your visit, none had been courteous enough to stop and listen.” A shadow crossed the gravestone and briefly, the face of Armond appeared. “Depart now, young sir. Look not to your own
for answers in this place. Know well one thing; not all written accounts of heroes are true. Learn from what you have heard here today. Greed, betrayal, and disloyalty are among the foulest of sins. They bear a terrible price, and those who succumb to their treaty are damned. Continue on your journey with care, but do not look to a hero’s nest, for it is long depleted.” Relieved by the parting words, the young soldier removed his cap and gloves and brushing away the leaves and weeds from the headstone, he paused in steely silence in reverence of the long dead, but well deserved spirit. He then stood upright at attention and saluted. With tempered resolve and a tear in his eye, the young man departed to continue the search for his namesake, a man named Rodrigo Santiago. Shortly thereafter, he stumbled onto Rodrigo’s grave and he paused briefly to observe the headstone’s inscription. “Here lies Rodrigo, the patriot. May his deeds live on in history,” and as he traced the words cut into stone, neither reverence nor adoration showed on his face. Turning away, he voiced, “This story must be repealed,” confirming his silent vow at the grave of Armond Balosteros.
Critically Aclaimed Mystery Thriller BY: E.W. Bonadio
THE MASADA STONES Aaron Skorsky is an American archeologist hunting for the truth about the first century siege at Masada. What he finds threatens to destroy any chance for peace in the Middle East.
From the book:
Skorsky and ben Gurian struggled to understand the meaning of the strange passage. It was certain that there was some transaction going on between the general and someone from the north. What were the stones and what of the fifty liters of whine? The most chilling part of the passage included the words swift death and a final end. By 3:30 A.M., they had managed to get to more descriptive pages. Mystical alchemy and a cruel test relating to the death of two slaves further convinced the professor that he was indeed getting to the root of the story. Skorsky brightened with each passing translation. He was certain that they had exposed a part of the riddle. There was not yet an open door to the full story, but he had enough to make a case for further exploration of the site. Aaron knew of the use of poison in ancient times. It was a favorite of the assassin and more specifically used on nobles and the kings of old. “If you like thrillers mixed with a healthy serving of historical background and seasoning of controversial speculation, put The Masada Stones on your must-read list.” - Victoria Lucas: Producer, Ursa Minor Productions
“Bonadio has created a very interesting, engaging historical fiction adventure.” - Kam Aures: For Reader Views
Available now from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, iUniverse.com or direct from the author’s website at http://www.ebonadio.com Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org 93
The Last Saguaro by Doug Hilton “Sah-wah-roh Joe’s” black eyes squinted across the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. The sun had just dipped below the hot May horizon, and the bats were flowing en masse from the nearby caves. He reached for his laser-binocs and tapped the autostabilize program button on top. Immediately, the giant Saguaro cactus that he was watching froze in the center of his display. He didn’t need to hit the range button to know that it was exactly 2,000 meters away. He took a swig of the warm water from the canteen on his belt and spat it out. The temperature would soon drop below 100 when the stars started popping through the polluted sky. He looked up at the contrail of a high-flying trans-oceanic hyper plane – no sonic boom from him, Joe thought – he’s above most of the atmosphere. He watched the glint from the space-plane race east towards the blue-orange night, and then slowly rotated 360 with the binocs set to max. He cranked up the audio monitor to max, too. As he swept around, he heard the heavily processed audio signal talking to him about what was out there. He heard the groups of coyotes waiting for the cool-down of evening; he heard a flock of quail bursting from
the brush – probably a fox over there, he thought. He heard a dirt bike, way off to the southwest. He tapped the “log” button on the binocs – he’d check that out in a minute. He heard the hooves of desert mules off to the northwest. The digital clock in the binoc’s field of view blinked twice. He had set the alarm for 8:05, exactly, then pressed the recall/ auto-track button and raised the binocs to the southeast. There, overhead, was the remnants of the old International Space Station. When he was just a boy on the Reservation he remembered hearing the news of its breakup after something hit it. Some said it was a North Korean missile, and some said it was a meteor, but there was never a final report since NASA deemed it too dangerous to send astronauts back up to the unstable remnants. Joe watched silently as two of the giant solar panels tumbled by, 200 miles overhead, into the setting sun. *** From his U.N. observation post, Joe watched the dozens of mammal species, hundreds of bird species, a couple of dozen amphibian species, 100 reptile species, a few dozen fish species, 1,000 bee species, and more than 2,000 plant species, plus the irreplaceable plant species known as the saguaro cactus. Many years ago, the U.N. had declared the Sonoran Desert a World Wildlife
Preserve and had taken control of it from the United States over strenuous objections. But when all was said and done, everyone agreed that it was necessary to protect the few giant Saguaro cactus plants left in the world. Sah-wah-roh Joe’s job was to protect the last of the plants from marauding humans and wildlife. He was armed to the teeth, and empowered to take action to protect the plants at all costs. The swarming bats were good, he knew – they pollinated the nightblooming cacti. The cactus plants need a pollenizer to survive, and the long-nosed bats just fit that niche in natures’ plan. “What was that noise over there?” he asked himself aloud so that his event-recorder would pick it up. He pressed the recall button and the red arrows in the binoc’s field of view pointed him to the left, until he rotated them to the previously stored position. Then he tweaked the audio processor with his left thumb and listened for activity in his southwest quadrant. Except for the infrequent chirping of Leopard frogs in the tiny stream, it was silent out there. The temperature dipped below 90 for the first time in a week, and Joe took another sip from his canteen. The radio broke squelch and he checked into the U.N. net. “ROGER. SIERRA JULIETTE MONITORING. OUT.” Now the waiting game began in earnest. The planet Mars was up, and so was a first-quarter moon. A hot blast of sand stung his left cheek as he stared through the binocs. He spat out the sand and took another sip of the tepid water. When the binocs came back up, he knew that something
wasn’t right out there. It wasn’t what he heard, but what he didn’t hear that bothered him. The desert is never totally quiet, and the southwest quadrant was too quiet tonight. He wished for more remote audio monitors, but had to make do with what was out there now. He set down the binocs and picked up the microphone.
“BASE, this is SIERRA JULIETTE. Launch Foxbird 2. Vector TWO FOUR ZERO. Range THREE ZERO ZERO ZERO. VIDEO FEED ON ONE TWO NINER SIX.” “ROGER SIERRA JULIETTE. FOXBIRD 2 LAUNCH IN 3. OUT.” “SIERRA JULIETTE OUT.”
The unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, was his most powerful weapon at the moment. It launched from a small airstrip in southeastern California, and would arrive over the target in 15 minutes. It had enough visual and audio sensing capability to find any human within 100 kilometers of his location. He listened to the silence and worried. The last of the giant Saguaros were the heritage of the entire human race and it was his job to protect them, but they sold on the black market for upwards of a million dollars which caused desperate people and gangs to try and try to uproot them and spirit them off to their new home, usually in the far East. Tonight, Joe was going to be very wary until he saw exactly what was causing the silence out there. In the past, he’d been stabbed and shot at by cactus poachers, so he was going to be extra-careful tonight. As he swept the area with his binocs, a small light in the upper right eyepiece blinked 3 times indicating that the UAV
was in range. He pressed the acknowledge button 3 times, and the UAV returned the blinks to him. Now he started getting direct video feed from the highflying craft. He saw only 4-legged animals below the small aircraft. The controllers were flying a standard search pattern that he was well trained in, and he waited patiently as the swept area grew and grew. Suddenly he saw what he was looking for – the heat signature of a small motorcycle clipped the bottom of the screen. He tapped the re-center button and waited for the video to stabilize. Sure enough, there was the bike, covered up with a tarp, or a blanket. He picked up the mic.
“BASE, this is SIERRA JULIETTE. Let’s find the rider. He’s far too close to the protected area.” “ROGER SIERRA JULIETTE. STAY SHARP.”
Joe watched the video in the binocs change as the plane maneuvered so quickly that the video processing algorithms couldn’t keep up. Then the image locked in and he saw a lone human figure, crouched low, running towards his position – which meant that he was running right towards the saguaro that Joe was protecting.
“BASE, this is SIERRA JULIETTE. TARGET ACQUIRED. Let’s light ‘er up. Maybe we can scare him away.” “ROGER SIERRA JULIETTE.”
Off to the southwest, the blackening sky suddenly turned to noon as the searchlight on the UAV sprang to life. The binocs showed the running figure stop and raise his arm, trying to shield his eyes from the blinding light, but it was too late. The speaker on the plane announced “ALTO. HALT. 99
YOU ARE IN A RESTRICTED AREA. ALTO. HALT. WAIT FOR POLICE / POLICIA TO ARRIVE. ALTO. HALT.”
The would-be thief wasn’t about to halt or wait for the police, that’s for sure. He ran helterskelter for the safety of his dirt bike. But in the dark, he stumbled, and as he crashed towards the ground a Mojave rattlesnake jumped up and bit him on the cheek. The UAV caught it all in living color, and Joe knew that he had to get out there fast if he was going to save this wretched soul from certain death. He knew how unusual it was for that species of rattlesnake to be this far south and was sure it would cause the cactus thief’s heart to stop beating within an hour unless he received medical attention. He secured his observation tower and climbed into his 4-wheeler, punched in the coordinates of the downed person, and hit the throttle. The machine lurched forward and hit every bump between here and there, until Joe backed off on the throttle enough so that the 4-wheeler glided instead of bouncing across the desert. He arrived at the scene in a few minutes and saw the body on the ground – it looked like a teenager. He jumped off the 4-wheeler and checked for snakes nearby, but there were none to be found, since the noise of the machine had scared them all off. He had the first-aid kit with him and bent down to look at the wounded bandit, then did a double take – it was a young Mexican girl, probably 18-20, lying there unconscious. He started CPR immediately, even though he knew that rattlesnakes rarely delivered a knockdown bite
like that – it usually took hours for their venom to take effect on a human. His headphone kept updating him on the situation back at headquarters – they had launched a second bird to watch over him, because the first UAV was near Bingo fuel. Then they told Joe that an air ambulance had been dispatched to his location. Within a few minutes, they told him that the ETA on the helicopter was 20 minutes. Joe continued CPR on the young lady until he heard the chopper in the distance. He was just about worn out by then, but she was still not breathing on her own. As the helicopter landed about 20 yards away, the rotors kicked up a hot blast of sand that scorched him. A paramedic jumped out of the helicopter and brought a defibrillator and a box of medicine. The helicopter rotor finally stopped and the paramedic quickly intubated her, then he deftly cut her shirt open, covered her with a silver space blanket and applied the defib paddles to her chest. “CLEAR!”
The girl shuddered. Then she coughed and spit up mucous. She came to and her eyes were wide. The medic said in Spanish: “You are all right. Don’t try to speak. We had to put that in your throat so you wouldn’t choke. Don’t move. You’ll be okay.” The beautiful young lady looked at the medic and then at Joe – good lord, he thought – she’s gorgeous. She tried to move, but she was too weak. Besides, she realized that she couldn’t outrun both of these guys. Her face was hurting terribly and she began
to cry. The medic applied some medicine to the double puncture in her cheek, gave her a shot of morphine to knock her out until he could get her to the hospital, and then began bandaging her face. He told Joe to get the stretcher, and then they both loaded her into the helicopter. Before the chopper lifted off the medic shouted, “Joe, it’s not normal for a rattler to have such a viscous bite. The size of the puncture wound says that this snake was a real big boy, maybe 6 feet long. Anyway, take care of our saguaros, my friend.” He pulled the door shut and within minutes, the chopper lifted off and headed towards Tucson. Joe collected his stuff, radioed the base station and told them that the UAV was no longer required, and then he got onto his 4-wheeler and drove back to his outpost. “She won’t be out here again”, he reported to base. “That was a real nasty rattler bite she got. She’ll make it, but she’ll be disfigured for life. I don’t understand it. The gangs send out weak, gullible folks to do their dirty work, while they sit in their air-conditioned houses and collect a million bucks for each cactus they can steal. Somehow it’s just not fair.” “ROGER, Joe. I don’t understand how she thought she was going to steal a cactus with a motorcycle?” Joe replied “The gangs don’t exactly exploit bright people, do they?” “You’re right Joe. It would have taken 6 strong men and a large flatbed truck to get the job done. I guess it’s good you didn’t have that kind of night. Good 100
night Joe. OUT.” *** As Joe thumbed the lock on his U.N. outpost, the mechladder unrolled down to him. He climbed back up to the tower, where he saw the scrawl that had been hand-painted there many dozens of years before: “DON’T
LET THEM STEAL THE LAST SAGUARO!”
“Sleep easy tonight,” he said as he patted the sign. “The United Nations Saguaro Protection Team is awake.” As he scanned his domain, he added: “Beware thieves: even the snakes are on our side tonight. Ha!”
After a while, his sweaty clothes dried out in the night air and his heartbeat slowed to its normal pace. The night passed slowly as he scanned his domain time after time – a lonely Tohano O’Dahm against hardened thieves, gangs, and a fetching young Mexican woman who was now having her face surgically replaced by a RoboDoc in the Tucson hospital. He wouldn’t forget her for a while, and he thought about visiting her when his shift ended in 2 weeks. But Joe’s true love was the giant Saguaro cactus plants that he was charged with protecting from harm. After 10 years out here in the insufferable desert, his friends all called him “Sah-wah-roh Joe” because all he cared about were the cacti – his children. As he scanned the protected area again for the 100th time, he said hello to each of his children, who were counting on him to be their defender. “Don’t worry,” he said to each one. “I won’t let the bad men steal you – even if the bad man is a woman – Ha! Go to sleep now -- Papa Joe is here to protect you.” Then Joe picked up his wooden flute and it spoke an ancient tune from the fires of times long past, when saguaros grew wild and free, slowly and elegantly in a small part of the world that was particularly blessed with a rare breed.
Nexus Point Recipes by Jalea Clegg
Food is important, culturally and socially. Using food as a story element brings an added dimension to any story. Mention the aroma of fresh-baked bread, and everyone knows exactly what you mean. So with joy and good wishes, I bring you these tasty treats straight from the pages of Nexus Point, my own novel. Berry Scones 2 c. flour 3 t. baking powder 3 T. sugar 3/4 t. salt 1/2 t. grated nutmeg 1/4 t. cardamom
1/4 c. butter 1 t. grated orange rind (optional) 3/4 c. frozen blueberries 1 egg, beaten 1/2 c. milk 1/4 c. orange juice
Sift flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, and spices together. Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse corn meal. Stir in orange rind and berries (leave them frozen). In separate bowl, mix egg and milk. Add to flour mixture with orange juice, stir until soft dough forms. Divide into 12 pieces, arrange on greased baking pan. Leave space between each roll for a crispier crust. Bake at 425Â° for 15 minutes until golden brown. Tavern Stew 2 lb beef roast 1 T. dried oregano leaves 1 t. dried rosemary 3 bay leaves 1 t. garlic powder 1/2 t. paprika 1/2 t. ground black pepper
2 t. salt 1 medium onion, chopped 2 c. purple grape juice 6 c. carrots, peeled and sliced into chunks 6 c. potatoes, cut into chunks 1 c. sliced celery
Place beef roast in large, heavy saucepan (recommend 6 qt stock pot with heavy bottom). Sprinkle seasonings over top. Add onion and grape juice. Cover and simmer for 2 - 3 hours. Remove meat and cut into bite size chunks. Return to pot. Add vegetables and enough water to cover. Simmer for another 2 - 3 hours, stirring occasionally. Add salt to taste. Hariâ€™s Best Ale 1 quart apple juice 1 quart orange juice 1/4 c. fresh lemon juice, with pulp 2 T. grated lemon peel, chopped fine
2 t. grated fresh ginger 1/2 t. root beer extract 6 cinnamon hard candies, crushed fine 2 liters cream soda
Mix together everything except soda and cover tightly. Refrigerate for at least 12 hours. Shake well and mix with soda just before serving. For added head, use spray whipped cream. Sprinkle with additional ginger or crushed cinnamon candies.
Special Preview Excerpt!
I woke to shouting and screaming and confusion. Men wrestled over the fire, stepping into it and scattering burning branches. I scrambled away from a shower of sparks. A man swung a long knife at me, the edge glinting orange in the light of the fire now burning the surrounding grass. I blocked the blow, kneeing him in the belly. He dropped the knife. I rolled under his feet as another man jumped to attack. The knife glinted. I dove for it, but another tangle of fighting men kicked it away. I scrambled on all fours, heading for the darkness under the trees. A large man loomed out of the shadows, swinging his fist. I grabbed a branch from the ground, wielding
it like a club. I connected with his ribs. He lurched away. The horses broke from their makeshift pen, crashing through the men to run down the hills. The men shouted louder. I paused near the trees, the branch clutched in my hands. At least a dozen men still wrestled near the fire, too many for me to fight. I ran downhill, after the horses. I meant to circle around, to head back to camp and hide until the fight ended. I got lost instead. The tiny moons overhead gave little light; the stars gave less. I stopped in a clear space to catch my breath. The hills looked the same in every direction, trees and grass and nothing to indicate where the camp lay. I picked a direction at random, hoping it was 102
the right one. I stumbled into a stream. The cold water soothed my bare feet. Eyes glinted in the shadows. Something growled. I splashed out of the stream. The creature growled again, sounding big and hungry. I ran, my heart pounding in my throat. Animals belonged in zoos, not out in the open. I heard it crash through bushes behind me. I ran faster, blindly, through the dark woods. I slammed into a tree and skidded to a stop. I hung on to the trunk, shaking hard. I looked behind me, searching for eyes in the dark. I saw hundreds of them. I panicked, running again. I clawed my way through thickets and brambles. I dodged past barely seen trees. I splashed through streams and tore my feet on rocks. I was lost in the woods with animals that wanted to eat me. I ran until my side ached and I couldn’t breathe. I stumbled to a stop. Grasses waved in a light breeze. Mist rose from a stream, thin streamers of white that faded only a few feet above the ground. I dropped to my knees, trembling from fear. My stomach heaved. I retched up nothing. The grass in front of me slowly parted. I stared into a wide face of evil green eyes and huge fangs. The animal snarled, showing more teeth. I didn’t have the breath to run any longer. I scrabbled through the grass until I found a big rock. I staggered to my feet, hefting the rock in shaky arms. “Go away,” I said, my voice squeaking with fear. “You aren’t going to eat me.”
The creature licked its fangs and came closer, moving on stealthy paws. “I mean it. Don’t mess with me.” I lifted the rock to my shoulder. My muscles protested. The creature shot a look over its shoulder, then bounded away into the night. I let out a slow breath. Something had just scared the creature. That something would be bigger and meaner. Fear shivered along my spine. I held the rock higher, ready to throw it at the new threat. He came out of the mist like a primeval god in a really bad romance vid–dark hair, darker eyes, and a face stolen from my most secret fantasies. He wore a leather vest with no shirt, tight pants, and tall boots. He stopped on the other side of the stream, muscles flexing as he folded his bare arms across his chest. I swallowed hard, wondering if he was just a dream. I shifted my feet on the stream bank. “What do you want?” He looked me over, not answering. I lifted the rock, trying to appear as threatening as possible. I lost my hold on it. It fell into the stream with a loud splash. His lip twitched as he smothered a chuckle. Having a complete stranger laugh at me was the final straw. I thumped down on the stream bank, dropping my head into my hands. The man splashed across the stream, his touch gentle on my shoulder. “Are you hurt?” I shook my head. I’d felt worse and lived.
He watched me a moment longer, then put his arm around my shoulders. I stiffened at the unexpected touch. No one had ever tried to comfort me. I surprised myself by bursting into tears. I’d lost control. I hated the feeling. I struggled until I finally fought the tears back. Only the occasional hiccuping sniffle escaped. “Feel better?” he asked, just a trace of sarcasm coloring his voice. He shifted away, leaving me cold. I couldn’t look at him, embarrassed by my outburst. I stared down at his vest, at his muscles, at his hands, anywhere but at his face. “You want to explain why you’re out here?” He waited, still as a statue. I finally looked up, at his face. It was a mask, giving nothing away. “I got lost?” He raised one eyebrow. “Lost from where?” I dug through the information Ameli had dumped into my head. I found little of any help. “My father’s house.” He shifted position slightly, enough to change from sympathy to threat. “You’re no native of this planet. You want to try again?” I edged away. “No. How do you know I’m not native?” My curiosity got the better of me. “You’re speaking Basic.” I hadn’t realized it. I repeated one of the more colorful expressions I’d learned from Toiba. The man raised his eyebrow higher. 103
“You aren’t native, either.” I sniffled, wiping my nose on the back of my hand. He stood. I glimpsed a tattoo on the inside of his wrist, an intricate black diamond that only one group in the Empire had. I froze, not knowing if it was good or bad. “You’re a Patrol Enforcer.” “Give me one good reason I shouldn’t shoot you.” “You aren’t carrying a blaster.” He moved fast. He knotted his fist into the neck of my dress, his face barely an inch from mine. “I don’t need one. Who are you and why are you here? Don’t even try lying.” “Leran . . .” He shoved me to the ground, on my stomach. His hand pinned me to the bank. I struggled to keep my face above the rippling surface of the stream. I planted my hands in the icy water and shoved. His hold didn’t budge. “You work for him?” “Leran? No. He was taking me to the Patrol.” I shut my eyes and waited for the man to drown me. “Why would he do that?” I was a lousy liar. This man would see through anything I tried. I gave him the truth. “Because I ruined his research. I crashed in Baron Molier’s cow pasture. He said I was a demon. He was going to kill me. Leran decided to take me to the Patrol base and turn me in instead.” The man’s hold relaxed. I shifted back an inch from the water. “Keep talking,” he said. “We stopped somewhere
in the hills. The camp was attacked.” “And?” “There were too many to fight so I left. I got lost.” “You still haven’t told me who you are.” “Dace. My name is Dace.” He rocked onto his heels, letting me go. I scrambled away from the water. “I don’t think you heard me.” He flexed his hands. “What’s your name, your full name?” “Dace.” I wasn’t about to use a name I’d discarded six years previously. “I’ll let that pass for now. How did you come here?” “My ship exploded. The core redlined. The escape pod landed me here.” “In Baron Molier’s cow pasture, you already said that. What ship?” “Star’s Grace, Independent trader registered out of Eruus.” “What was your position, ship’s idiot?” I’d already embarrassed myself, I wasn’t about to let him insult me. I sat, sticking out my chin. “I’m the pilot. And I’m telling you the truth.” He gave me a look that said he didn’t believe it. “I’m also the captain and owner.” He laughed, a short bark of sound. “Believe it or not, it’s the truth.” The anger drained away, replaced by fatigue. I wrapped my arms around myself, wishing I was at the Academy where I could ignore the humiliation the other cadets dished out. “You aren’t going to cry again, are you?” He looked afraid
of the possibility. I shook my head and sniffled. I’d wait until later, when he wasn’t looking. He watched me fight with myself. He finally sighed. “My camp is just across the stream. You look like you could use something to drink.” He stood and offered me his hand. I stared stupidly at it. He confused me. He wasn’t threatening me, not now. I took his hand. He lifted me without effort. I couldn’t hide my wince when my feet hit the rocks. “This way,” he said, pulling me after him.
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