Ennelrion had been circling this little adventurer for a while now. The poor thing – tracking through the mountains, dragging gods know what in that sack behind it and looking for… what was it these two-legged monkey things wanted. Adventure? Gold? The brief ecstasy of notoriety? It’s like they don’t even know, the dragon thought to itself.
Two huge black wolves leaped from behind a boulder to ravage the adventurer, and Ennelrion was sure that he would end up a bloody stain on the snow. But much to its surprise, the bundled-up creature extended a hand and a great bolt of lightning blossomed forth, striking one of the wolves dead instantly. The other got in a good bite, and then it too was killed. The wind whipped at the mountainside, but Ennelrion was fairly sure it could smell burnt wolf hair even up as high as it was.
So. The two-legged mayfly knew a trick. Probably more than one, given how these things worked. The dragon twitched the tips of its wings and started the long circle down to the snow. At least it would be an entertaining way to pass a few minutes. Sooner or later, someone would have to give him a fight, and it wasn’t impossible that this little guy could do it.
Then again, Ennelrion had thought the same about the other dozen or some adventurers it had devoured over the years.
As it dove, it screamed, a harsh, wordless howl that pushed the snow out in front of it along an expanding shockwave. The adventurer looked up, and suddenly had a sword in its hand, one that dripped a fine mist from its edge. Ennelrion lifted its wings and dropped to the snow right in front of the two-legs. It thought about introducing itself, but really – why bother? It would no sooner introduce itself to any other brief and crunchy snack it was about to devour.
Instead, Ennelrion coughed forth a great gout of flame at the adventurer, who held up its arms as if the heavy armor it was wearing would do more than just cook it from the inside. The wave of fire rolled over the figure and then continued down the hillside, flashing snow into steam instantly and charring the winter grass beneath it. Odds are, there would be nothing left.
When the flame died down, the figure was still standing. Now the hand that had called forth lightning was glowing a pale white-blue, like the sword. The figure – Ennelrion was pretty sure it was male, unless females had started growing fur on their faces for some reason – looked up at the dragon, lifted a hand and shouted.
Oh, hell, the dragon thought as it felt the ice crackle on its wings and the cold seep into its bones. One of those.
Ennelrion raked at the hero with its claws and then launched itself up into the sky. A bolt of incredible cold flew by the dragon’s head, missing thanks only to quick reflexes. This is insane, the dragon thought. There’s plenty of other humans to eat, to terrify – I should just leave this one alone. It looked down, and the human was digging through the pack it had been carrying on its back. Somehow, it managed to pull a staff that was nearly as tall as it was out of a backpack. The hell? the dragon thought. Another blast of searing cold flew by it, worse than the first.
Ennelrion started making for the great double peak where it rested, but then thought again. Was it really going to let an insect like that drive it away? A creature that needed to arm itself with magic and metal, cover itself in fur and leather because it was too weak to survive on its own? Was Ennelrion the great, the immortal, the terrifying, going to fly away from one little “hero” with some tricks?
Like hell it was.
The dragon circled around again, blasting fire as it did. Snow was blasted away, and the hero staggered, but held firm. The dragon thumped to the ground right in front of him and snapped at him with his teeth, somehow managing not to bite him in half completely.
Ennelrion reared back and felt the complex chemical reactions build up in its stomach for a gout of fire that would melt steel, when the hero held up a hand and said, “WAIT! Wait!”
The dragon, somehow, waited. It held back the fire with some effort, and didn’t really know why, but it waited.
“Thanks,” the hero said. He was smiling. Smiling!
The little ape-thing turned its back on Ennelrion and started digging through the sack again, pulling tiny red bottles out one at a time. Once he had about ten of them, he uncorked one and chugged it down. “Whoo!” he said to the dragon. “You got me close there!” He tossed the bottle over his shoulder and popped open the second. “How’re you holding up?” he said.
The dragon could feel the fire churning in its belly, and wanted nothing more than to reduce this creature to a stain on the hillside. But it… it couldn’t. Ennelrion opened its mouth and said, “I’ve been better.”
The human nodded. “Yeah, I can tell.” He was on bottle number four now, and the burns and cuts were fading from his skin. “Let me say, I’m glad to see you.”
“Really?” Ennelrion started drumming its claws against the frozen ground. “You’d be surprised how few people say that to me.”
“I can imagine,” the human said. It had two more bottles to go. “But they aren’t tricked out the way I am. And they don’t need you as much as I do.”
Of all the odd things that were going on at this very moment, that one got Ennelrion’s attention. “Need me?” it asked. “Need me for what?”
The human finished off another bottle and dropped it to the snow. “Your soul,” he said. “I got that, and I’ll be able to charge myself right up.” He uncorked the last little red bottle and winked.
“And if I kill you instead?” the dragon said. It wasn’t going to eat this one. Oh no. Ennelrion envisioned strewn body parts all over the hillside.
The human shrugged. “I’ll try again.” He lifted the bottle and drained it. When he threw this one away, all traces of injury were gone. It was like Ennelrion hadn’t done anything at all. “Sooner or later, I’ll get you.”
The human was clearly insane. The flames inside Ennelrion’s belly were aching to escape, but it couldn’t bring itself to do it. The adventurer ran a crystal along the edge of his blade, and the sword was a deeper, colder blue. He pulled a small medallion from his pocket and put that on, then a new steel helmet to replace the iron one he had been wearing. The human shook out his limbs, hefted the sword a couple of times, and looked up at the dragon. “We ready?” he said.
Flames were already beginning to curl out from Ennelrion’s mouth. It cracked its jaws to respond, but a searing bar of flame erupted first. It enveloped the adventurer in a great cloud of fire and steam. The rocks below his feet were already glowing red and softening, and trees nearby burst into flame.
When the dragon closed its mouth again, the adventurer was still there. He held up a hand and that long staff, and Ennelrion felt a shock of cold run through its body, from nose to tail. The cold kept coming and kept coming, and no matter how the dragon tried to get up and fly away, it couldn’t. The ice was on its wings, cracking through its scales, eating its way through to the warm, infernal core of its being.
Ennelrion collapsed to the ground, trying to inhale with frozen lungs.
It was over. The dragon felt the fire within go out, and knew that there was no victory to be had here.
No victory for the dragon, anyway.
The cold stopped, and the adventurer took a few steps away.
“Human,” Ennelrion whispered. The cold was being replaced by a burning – not in its belly, but everywhere.
“Elf, actually,” the adventurer said. He took down his hood, revealing pale green skin and pointed ears.
The dragon wanted to sneer, but that would be wasting time. “There are more of us. Stronger. More terrible. More ruthless.” It tried to move, but its skin was sloughing off in great burning sheets. “We will hunt you to the end of your days.”
In the darkening tunnel of its vision, the dragon saw the adventurer smile.
Through the white noise of its own body burning and charring around it, the dragon heard the adventurer say, “I’m counting on it.”
Alan looked over at the director, who was standing next to the cameraman. “We ready?” The director nodded and gave a thumbs-up, and Alan took a deep breath.
“Today on STORYBREAKERS!” he shouted at the lens. “We answer the question: if the human body was converted entirely into C4, how big an explosion would it make?” He pulled a face and leaned in closer. “I’m hoping for huge, I don’t know about you!” He grinned widely and madly, and then gestured out to the desolate California bomb range where they had set up their test for that episode. “Say goodbye to all this!” he yelled, and the director called, “Cut!”
The crew immediately started breaking down equipment to set up for the next sequence of shots, and Alan ran madly for the explosion site. He was a special challenge for directors, as the short redhead hated to stay in one place for too long. If you took your eyes off him for a minute, he’d be gone, probably to make-and-or-destroy something. After seven seasons, though, a system had emerged where they would do their Alan sequences in short bursts and try to keep him occupied when they had to go film something else. What made it all worthwhile, of course, was that no one could make-and-or-destroy things quite as well as he did.
His equal and opposite number was Johnny, a man he’d worked with for nearly twenty years. Where Alan was small and full of unstoppable, restless energy, Johnny looked like a huge, sleepy bear. Whether on camera or off, he would stare out from under the knit cap he always wore, and his face betrayed nothing. The big bushy beard certainly helped with that.
No one who worked on the show, aside from Alan, really knew much about Johnny’s background – where he came from or what he did before starting StoryBreakers. He didn’t talk about his personal life, didn’t offer opinions on politics or social issues. He just worked quietly in the build-room, putting together intricate models and mechanisms of wondrous complexity and imagination.
The fact that most of what he made tended to get blown up, smashed or otherwise rendered obliterated didn’t seem to bother him much.
When Alan arrived at the test site, Johnny was busy doing a last minute check of the wiring for the rig. A small remote detonator was to be hooked up to a series of wires, which would then feed into blasting caps that were jammed into a life-size model of a human. To be specific, it was a life-cast of Gary, one of their co-hosts, mainly because he was about as big as they could get while staying under the legal limit for purchasing C4. Any bigger and they’d have to start tapping into the underworld contacts that Johnny was reputed to have.
“We ready to go?” Alan asked when he arrived. “Oh, man, this is gonna look so good. How big a crater you think we’ll get? Twenty feet? Thirty? Fifty?” He did a little shuffle-dance around the model. “I think we ought to set up another camera, maybe one of those little crappy ones, and put it right on this poor guy’s head!” He slapped the model and grinned. “What do you think?”
Johnny twisted a couple of wires together. “Nope.”
“Aww, you’re such a killjoy.” Alan slapped his hands together and started rubbing them vigorously. “Where’s B team? They ought to see this.” Johnny just pointed over the ridge to where the other cast members, Gary, Tom and Karen, were setting up their own section of the show. “All right,” Alan said. “Their loss if they don’t make it.” He looked down at the detonator. “So when’re we setting this bad boy off, huh?”
Johnny looked up at him, and his eyes under the edge of the cap hinted at tightly-restrained joy. “Soon,” he said, and white teeth flashed out from the beard. Alan hopped into the air and then dashed off for the detonation bunker a few hundred yards away.
He bantered with the camera crew for a few minute while they waited for Johnny. When the big man arrived and gave them a thumbs-up, the crew jumped into action. In moments, they were ready to capture the waves of gleeful anticipation that were positively rolling off of Alan.
“Okay,” Alan whispered loudly into the camera. “We’ve got our detonator. We’ve got our C4 dummy out there. We’re all ready to go!” His face went serious all of a sudden. “And remember: don’t try this at home. Okay?” The serious expression broke into a million pieces. “Okay! Let’s go!”
He and Johnny looked out the small window to the blast site far away, and Alan positioned his thumb over the big red button that had become a trademark of their show. “Life-sized C4 dummy in three! Two! One! GO!”
He jammed his thumb down on the button, and the world went white around them. A moment later, the shockwave shook the bunker, knocking everyone back a few steps, and a terrible roar filled the air. It seemed to go on forever, and when the silence came, it was almost as terrible.
Alan was positively vibrating as he stood up and looked out the window. A strange, white-violet light was pulsing outside, something he’d never seen before, and from this distance he couldn’t make out what caused it. “The hell?” he said. He looked around and helped a cameraman up. “You okay?” he asked.
The cameraman checked his gear and then nodded. “Good,” Alan said. “Follow me. Let’s see what we have out there.”
When they left the bunker, the light was almost palpable. It flowed out from where they had set off the explosion, and Alan was almost sure he could feel it sliding across his skin, like oiled silk. Despite its brightness they could just about see through it to its source. Alan looked over to Johnny, who had joined them outside, and the big man seemed just as transfixed as he was.
Hanging in the air, seeming to rotate while at the same time remaining perfectly still, there was a hole in the air. It shimmered in colors that hurt Alan’s eyes and moved in ways that things weren’t supposed to move. “Holy. Cow,” he said in an awed whisper. He gestured for the cameraman to follow him.
“Umm, Alan?” The producer followed at a short distance. “Alan, are you really sure this is a good idea?”
Alan didn’t even look back when he responded. “Nope,” he said. “Not at all.”
When they got close to the glowing rift, they started to feel strange and uncomfortable. Alan thought the feeling was like having his skin covered in tiny electric shocks. Not so bad that they hurt, but not great. The cameraman didn’t look so good either, but he followed as they got closer, and the rift filled their vision.
It must have been a good twenty feet high, a shimmering curtain of energy and force. Nothing they had ever done in their show had prepared them for this. Alan waved at the cameraman, but he already had his camera up and ready. The sound would be terrible, but they’d live with it.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Alan said, “welcome to a real first in StoryBreakers history. I’m not sure what we’ve done here, but -”
He was cut off as the curtain of light began to pulse and hum. He and Johnny looked at each other and started to back up. The cameraman stood his ground, trying to get a better shot of what was going on, which is why the great chitinous leg that emerged from the portal was able to stab him cleanly through the chest, pinning him to the ground.
Alan and Johnny screamed, something they would have sworn up and down they never did. The giant leg that had killed the cameraman lifted, letting the limp body slide to the ground. It tried to move through the field, to come further out, but it looked like it was struggling, like it was trying to push through something tough and resilient. Slowly, though, more was coming out. Soon, whatever was attached to that leg would emerge, and Alan didn’t want to be there when it did.
“What do we do?” he asked, his eyes jumping between the cameraman on the ground and the thing that had killed him.
Johnny stepped up next to him and put a large hand on his shoulder. “I think I have an idea,” he rumbled.
“Today on STORYBREAKERS, we’re going to test a fan favorite!” Tom stepped back from the camera to reveal the test setup that they’d created. Gary and Karen were standing next to each other in front of a large metal box that had a heavy glass door in front. They both had flamethrowers strapped to their backs, and Tom was wearing the third. “Can we cook an apple pie using only flamethrowers?!”
Despite his on-camera persona – a young man full of energy and the unbridled desire to break stuff – he was really angry. A few minutes ago, they’d heard the fantastic ka-WHUMP of the test that Alan and Johnny were doing, and he’d really wanted to see that. He’d been able to feel the explosion through his boots, and at that distance he thought it must have been absolutely amazing.
Now he was going to cook a pie. With flamethrowers. Fun in its own way, but not nearly as cool.
The unit director called “Cut!” and their professional staff gave the flamethrowers one last check. Tom endured this as best he could. An intern put the uncooked pie in the metal box and gave them an OK sign.
“Gonna make us a pie!” Gary said, hefting the nozzle of his flamethrower.
Katie was a little less cheerful. “Man, I wish I could have seen that explosion back there. It really sounded sweet.”
“No kidding,” Tom said, and he sighed. “At least we get some pie when all this is done.” He pushed his goggles down and signaled to the filming crew, who were all in position. “Pilot!” he called. He, Katie and Gary flicked on the pilot lights of their flamethrowers, which were shining even in daylight. “Ready!” he yelled.
He was about to give the order to fire when he heard the frantic beeping of a truck horn. Moments later, the official StoryBreakers pickup truck launched its way into view, Alan at the wheel and Johnny hanging off the side. Tom put out the pilot on his thrower and the other two did the same. That truck was coming in at a speed that would be dangerous even for their show, and as it came closer he could hear Johnny bellowing at them.
“THROWERS IN THE TRUCK!” he yelled. “NOW!”
The truck skidded to a halt in front of them, and Tom put his goggles up. “Johnny, what the hell? We were just -”
Johnny’s giant, hairy face was suddenly right up to his. “If you don’t get in that goddamn truck right now, I will personally see to it that you don’t live to see sundown! Got it!?”
It wasn’t so much the threat that convinced Tom. It was hearing Johnny say that many words at once. There was no way that meant anything but bad things ahead. Tom nodded, and he jumped into the bed of the truck with Gary and Katie. “Any idea what’s going on?” he yelled as the truck backed up and started speeding to the area where the A team had set off their explosion. They shrugged, and Katie stared to say something when she looked out at where they were going. Her jaw dropped and she pointed wordlessly.
The portal towered over the barren ground, and three long, shiny legs were working their way out of it. “What the hell is that?” Gary yelled. Tom started to feel sick as they got closer. The light from the portal seemed to enter his brain without using his eyes, and it made a sound that was laced in with the ever-changing color and which made his thoughts spin and dance.
The truck stopped some ways away from the seeking, stabbing legs. Alan and Johnny jumped out and dropped the gate on the pickup. “Here’s what we know, ” Alan said as they helped them down. “We blew up the C4 dummy, this… thing opened up,and now something wants out.” He lifted the nozzle of Tom’s flamethrower. “Your job: keep it in until we can shut that thing down.”
Tom shook his head to clear it, flicked on his pilot light and heard the familiar click-hiss of Gary and Katie doing the same. “How’re you planning to do that?” he yelled.
Alan pointed over to Johnny, who was off to the side, talking into his cell phone. “Meet the man with the plan!” he yelled.
“Okay, then,” Tom said. “THROWERS!” he hollared to the others. Katie and Gary lined up next to him with their flamethrowers at the ready. Tom brought his goggles down again and yelled, “Let’s hold the line!”
Three great tongues of flame shot out at the long, black legs, and where the fire touched, its shell cracked and bubbled. The legs pulled back and forced themselves forward, lifting up and coming down again in an attempt to find whatever was tormenting it.
Alan ran over to Johnny and whispered into his free ear. “We gotta do this soon, because if that thing gets through, it’s gonna be pissed!”
Johnny took the phone down and covered it with one giant hand. “Soon,” he said.
Alan took a few more deep breaths and tried not to look over the cameraman’s shoulder at the thing that was trying to make its way into their world. The flamethrowers had been pulled out half an hour ago, and it was trying to make up for lost time. If Johnny’s plan worked, it would have to work right now. “We ready?” he asked the cameraman. The guy didn’t look ready – he looked sick. But he held up a thumb, and Alan counted to five in his head.
“Okay,” he said, focusing all of his nervous terror into his performance. “Here’s what we have so far – there’s a giant, spidery thing trying to enter our world from some shadowy dimension of pure evil!” He started to walk in a slow circle, and the cameraman followed him. “Now we may or may not have caused this to happen.” He leaned in closely. “Though, to be fair, we probably did. But whatever happened, we figure that there’s no problem so big that it can’t be solved with explosives!” In his mind, he could see the shot – the camera focused tightly on his face as he stepped in front of the portal.
“How many explosives, you may ask?” He took a couple of steps back so that the cameraman could go wide and see what they had put together. Alan stretched his arms out and spun in a tiny circle. “All of them!!”
The portal was surrounded by every kind of explosive they could get their hands on in short notice. Nobody knew how Johnny did it, but soon after his call, trucks started to arrive with large, serious-looking men in them. They piled up dynamite and TNT and C4, large drums of fuel oil and gasoline and fertilizer mixes. There was semtex and HMX and black powder galore. There were homebrew compounds that their makers swore could take the top off a mountain and even some plain-looking briefcases that were simply placed in front of the glowing curtain of light and then very ostentatiously left alone. The men worked with a measured haste making sure to keep everything out of reach of the legs – of which there were now five, with a sixth poking its way through – and carefully wiring everything together into a massive cable that stretched half a mile away to the explosives bunker. When everything was ready, the large and serious men were told to get as far away as possible, and Alan, Johnny and the cameraman went to the bunker with the rest of the crew.
The atmosphere inside was tense. Katie handed a pair of binoculars to Alan when he came in, with a worried look on her face. “The sixth leg is through,” she said. “I don’t want to know what’s coming next.”
Alan nodded and looked over at Johnny. “We’re good?” he said.
Johnny nodded, his hands in his pockets. “We’re good,” he said, and then his eyes dropped down to the big red button.
“Wait,” Gary said, and everyone turned to him. “Are we sure this is a good idea?”
Alan looked through the binoculars again. There was something new pushing its way through. He couldn’t tell what it was, and he made sure to put the binoculars down before he could. “We don’t have a lot of ideas left,” he said. He positioned his hand over the button. “Get ready to -”
“But wait,” Gary said again. “One giant explosion caused the rift – how do we know this won’t make it worse?”
“We don’t,” Johnny said, not taking his eyes from the tiny window.
“But what do we do if -”
“Enough talk!” Alan yelled. “Banishing an elder god in ThreeTwoOneGO!”
His hand dropped.
The explosion was detected by seismometers as far away as Wisconsin. A great column of flame rose up in the sky that was visible over the Sierra Nevadas and lit up the evening sky for hundreds of miles in every direction. The fire that started there burned away hundreds of thousands of acres of brush and forest, and became one of the biggest wildfires in California’s history. The shock wave blew down trees in a way that hadn’t been seen since the eruption of Mount St. Helens more than thirty years before, and on the site of the explosion itself, a vast crater was dug into the ground, ejecting soil down to the bedrock.
No trace of the StoryBreakers themselves was ever found. All that was found in the twisted wreckage of their bunker was a video camera, battered and broken. The digital information in its memory was extracted and restored, and only then did the world know how close it had come to true horror and despair. Alan, Johnny, Gary, Katie, Tom, and all the crew were given state funerals for their sacrifices, and awarded the highest honors that civilians could earn. A monument was planned, to one day be erected on the site of the place where they saved the world. By all accounts, they died as heroes.
But some believe that the StoryBreakers are not, in fact, dead. That in that brief moment, when the portal was blown shut, the energies that were released were enough to draw them in to the hell-dimension on the other side.
Where they remain to this day. Fighting to find their way back to the world they so desperately wanted to save. Some believe they will return, when they are needed once again.
The idea for tonight’s writing comes from one of the writing prompts offered up by John Scalzi in his most recent column over at Filmcritic.com – go on over and try your hand at it!
Bruce Wayne turned around and scanned the crowd for a voice he was afraid he knew. The main banquet hall of the Gotham Imperial Hotel was full of the richest men and women in the country, all there for a charity auction of antiquities that had been out of the public eye for decades, if not centuries. The fact that they had been, until a few months ago, almost entirely in the possession of the Penguin was known to only a few people in the room. With Cobblepot’s timely arrest and conviction, it was decided that the objects he coveted should be put to good use, something that enraged Cobblepot to no end.
The charity had hoped to raise several hundred thousand dollars, but Wayne had done his best to see to it that they broke well over several million. Rich people were not naturally sentimental, but Bruce Wayne had a gift for getting people to do what he wanted.
He looked through the sea of tuxedos and silks, and for a moment he nearly let his pleasant socialite mask slip into the habitual grimace he was so comfortable with. He turned to the lovely young lady on his arm and said, “Would you excuse me for a minute, Adriana?”
She smiled, and said, “Of course. You captains of industry must have important things to talk about.” Her accent was beautiful – his ear-link to the cave computer had allowed him to place her from a small village just south of the Polish border. She traced his jawline with an impeccably manicured fingernail. “I will see you later, yes?”
Bruce took her hand and kissed it. “Absolutely,” he said. She blushed and turned before he could say anything about it.
“You know, I thought I was good with the ladies, Bruce, but you certainly put up quite the fight yourself.” Bruce turned and found himself looking directly into the eyes of Tony Stark. Stark had that annoying perpetual half-smile under his thin goatee that just made Bruce’s fists itch. It had nothing to do with the attempted takeover of Wayne Robotics last year, of course. Or the way he’d managed to undercut Wayne Industries in a government-sponsored hydroelectric project. No, nothing like that at all.
“Stark,” Bruce said
“Oh, come on, Bruce!” Tony clapped him on the shoulder. “Lighten up!” He deftly took a glass of champagne from one of the waiters that was working the room. He drained half of it in one swallow, and Bruce hated him just that much more. “Sure you lost, Bruce, but think about it this way – I’m out half a million, and I won’t get that back for -” He checked his watch. “Another twenty minutes, at the very least.” He grinned insolently and finished the champagne. He dropped it off with another traveling waiter and then adjusted his cufflinks. “And now I have a new conversation piece.”
“What I wonder, Tony, is what exactly you needed with a fifteenth-century Chinese sword?”
“What did you need with it?”
Bruce’s glare should have burned right through him. Stark just shrugged. “Open mail. Slice ham.” He struck a pose. “Pretend I’m a ninja.” Bruce rolled his eyes and Tony stood up straight. “I know, I know – Japan, not China. But that’s not the point.” He shrugged. “I liked it. I wanted it. I got it.”
Bruce glanced at his watch to make sure the data feed from his earpiece was working. The hour hand had turned red, meaning that the wireless signal was blocked. Bruce grimaced.
Tony laughed, his hands in his pockets. “Wow, you really don’t like to lose, do you?”
“No,” Bruce said, glancing up. “I really don’t.”
They started at each other for a moment, and Tony Stark’s grin just seemed to grow more insolent by the moment. The first thing Bruce had done when the new billionaire on the block moved in was to find out everything he could about him, and very little of what he found made him like the man. Stark Industries had grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years, mainly on the strength of Stark’s designs. Despite what looked like a serious problem with alcohol, the man was a genius, there was no denying that. But Bruce Wayne had seen genius many times before, and it rarely turned out well for anyone.
“Listen, Tony.” Bruce checked his watch again. Still red. “I’d love to stay and banter with you. I really would. But I have to go.” He forced a smile. “I have a lady waiting.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” Tony said. “I wouldn’t dream of keeping you from a lady like that. However,” he said, taking a step closer. “If you want a closer look at that sword, it can certainly be arranged.” Bruce started to object, but Tony held up a hand. “You know there are quite a few people in Gotham besides us who would love to have it. And who would be far less willing to pay a fair price for it.” He raised an eyebrow.
Bruce wasn’t sure if he was hearing what he thought he was hearing. If anything, Stark looked excited by the idea that someone in the Gotham underworld would try to steal the sword, which raised all kinds of alarm bells in Bruce’s mind. Perhaps he was planning an insurance scam? But then why even hint about it? The man was about as far from stupid as it was possible to be, but this was pretty dumb. “Stark,” he said. “I don’t want anything -”
“Listen carefully, Bruce,” Stark said. The joking tone was gone from his voice, which sent Bruce’s mind off in all kinds of different directions. “I’ll be putting this on display in my Gotham headquarters, and I’ll get the word out that security is pretty lax.” He glanced around. “I reckon someone will come after it pretty quickly.”
Bruce snorted. “For a sword?” He shook his head in disbelief. Maybe Stark wasn’t as smart as he thought. “If you want petty criminals digging through your lobby, have fun with that. I don’t see how I need to be involved.” He nodded politely and turned to go.
“How about the Joker?” Stark said quietly. Bruce stopped and looked over his shoulder. Stark made a small gesture to come back over, and then went on in a low voice. “The Penguin murdered one of the Joker’s men to get the sword. The clown had wanted it for himself, and was very unhappy when it got swiped from him.” He glanced around again. “I put that out on display, and it’s almost a guarantee that he’ll come. Him, or someone who can be traced to him.” He looked Bruce in the eyes. The flippancy was gone, replaced with deadly earnestness.
“And what,” Bruce said slowly, “do you think this has to do with me?” He kept his face relaxed, concentrating on the muscles around his eyes and his nose to not give anything away. If Stark was suggesting what he thought he was suggesting…
Stark burst out in a laugh that startled everyone around them. “Oh, you’re good, Bruce. You really are.” He clapped him on the shoulder again. “You enjoy the rest of the party, okay?” He put out his hand and Bruce took it. “But give some thought to my idea, okay?” Tony squeezed Bruce’s hand, just hard enough. “I’ll keep the skylight open for you.”
Bruce just watched as Tony Stark walked away, wrapping his arm around the waist of a beautiful auburn-haired beauty that he probably hadn’t met until that moment. Bruce glanced at his watch. The hands were green again. He tapped the earpiece. “Alfred,” he said. “Looks like we have a problem.”
“I would be surprised if we didn’t, sir,” Alfred said in his ear. “I’ll put on some extra tea.”
Bruce didn’t bother to put his social face back on, and left the hotel without goodbyes. There was something about Tony Stark that he had overlooked, and he would be damned if he didn’t figure it out by morning.
Bruce Wayne is owned by DC Comics.
Tony Stark is owned by Marvel Comics.
I used to be lonely here.
For good reason, of course. I never saw another living soul. Ever. From the moment I woke up on the beach, with the sun rising in my eyes. Cool blue water, verdant grass, and trees everywhere. The sand was bright and hot under the summer sunshine, and the air smelled clean and pure, like it had just come into existence itself. The whole world looked new and clean.
And it was mine. All mine.
The first day I explored. I walked through the forests, silent and perfect. There were animals in those woods, but they were peaceful. Cute, even. Cows, pigs, sheep – there were even wolves, but as long as I didn’t give them any trouble, they left me alone. I walked and I walked, wondering if I would ever see a road or a house or a bridge, or any sign that another person lived there other than me.
But I never did, no matter how far I walked.
The sun rose higher, and it seemed like only minutes had passed since I was on the beach. I called out, and no one answered. I found a high hill and climbed it – there was nothing to see but wilderness for miles and miles. It was a gorgeous wilderness, don’t get me wrong. Sweeping bays and tiny ponds, vast deserts that stretched all the way to the horizon, and soaring mountains that pierced the slow-moving clouds.
No cities. No towns. No villages.
No sign that there was any living, thinking person in the world but me. And I wasn’t even entirely sure who I was anymore. The first thing I could remember was the beach – there was nothing before that. Just a yawning mental blackness that made my stomach turn to contemplate. My name, my life – was I married, did I have kids? Friends? A job, anything?
It was all gone. All of it.
Someone had done this to me. That was the only explanation I could come up with at the time. Someone had taken me from my life and brought me here, to some deserted part of the world, and let me go. But for what? To prove a point? For revenge – had I wronged someone? Had I trespassed in some way that was so horrible that the only way to make up for it was this bizarre exile? I felt, deep in my heart that that couldn’t be right. I couldn’t be the kind of person to do something so horrible.
But how could I know that?
I screamed into the empty, pristine air, and it echoed back and forth among the mountains. It came back to me with all of its rage intact, undiluted by distance, and I felt even worse. It was not the echo mocking me, it was myself. I turned around, looking for someone to attack, someone to blame for this.
There was nothing nearby but trees. So I hit one. I just pounded my fists against it, screaming and raging, words coming out of my mouth that even I couldn’t understand.
And then it happened. The thing that would eventually make this whole place make sense.
A section of the trunk just… fell out. Right in front of me. While the rest of the tree remained upright and calmly enjoying the sunlight. Unconnected to the ground, blithely ignoring gravity, the tree stood. I looked around – no one was watching, there were no supports, no strange devices holding the tree up. I walked towards it, and the block of wood…
It’s hard to explain this. I have no memory of the world as it would have been any other way, but I also know that this isn’t the way the world is supposed to be. Trees don’t float. Blocks of wood don’t jump into your hands and then just go somewhere else until you need them. But here, in this place, they did. I hit the tree again, and another block fell out. I took it, and hit, and took another. When the trunk had gone, the tree’s leaves – still floating in the air with nothing to hold them – just vanished, one by one.
I tried another tree, and had the same result. Soon I was carrying a dozen of these blocks, but I didn’t know where I was carrying them. My hands were empty, and there was no way I could have ever carried five trees worth of wood in my pockets, I knew that much.
The sun was beginning to set, marking the end of a day that seemed to have lasted only minutes. The western sky was going orange and red, and when I turned around, a bright full moon was rising in the east. With night coming, there were plenty of chances to fall and get hurt – the jagged hillsides would be unforgiving if I should stumble, and there were no doctors to be found. I stood on a hilltop and watched the moon come up, surrounded by gently twinkling stars. In the darkness, I could almost pretend I was somewhere normal. I struck the earth at my side. A chunk of it flew into my hands and vanished.
The night air was cool, and I lay back to watch the sky. And that’s when I heard the noise.
It was somewhere between a growl and a gurgle, and it traveled directly to my brain by way of my spine. I stood and cast around in the moonlight for whatever had made that noise.
I heard it again, and I wanted to be sick. My heart was pounding against my chest, my breath was coming quickly. There was something out here with me, and its breath, its horrible stench rise from the very ground.
The first blow came to the back of my head and I fell to my knees. When I looked up, there was a green-skinned… thing standing before me, its arms stretched out and its mouth open like a gaping wound. It growled and came at me and I screamed-
I woke up on the beach, with the sun rising in my eyes and a scream of horror on my lips.
The day was bright and beautiful and clean. The sand was just beginning to warm. A sheep came over and nuzzled me, just to see what I was. I was on my feet in moments, looking for the thing that had attacked me, but it was nowhere to be seen. All that I had collected was gone – I don’t know how I knew, but I knew. I also knew that this beautiful, peaceful place hid dangers – terrible ones.
I stumbled up a hill and began hitting trees. Within minutes, I had more blocks than I knew what to do with. When I inspected them, I found that they fell apart in my hands, making boards, which in turn would splinter into poles. I made a box, a workbench to craft with. I had poles and boards, so making tools was easy – a primitive shovel, a pick, an axe. They all went into that same no-place as everything else, and they made collecting easier. I found that I could pick up soil, sand, stone – pretty much anything I could see.
And always I kept my eye on the sun.
As it neared the top of the sky, I knew what I lacked – shelter. I threw together a tiny house, all boards and stone and with a wooden door that just barely held back the night, when the night came. And from inside my little shelter, when the darkness came, I could hear them coming for me. I could hear that horrible gurgle-growl of the thing that had gotten me the night before. The clicking and clacking, the hissing and crawling of other creatures that I couldn’t identify, and didn’t want to.
I spent that second night in darkness, but I spent the night alive.
When the sun rose, it burned away the things that wanted me dead. I looked around at my hut, at my tools, and I understood what I had to do.
I had to build. It was me against the world, in the most literal sense. But if I did it right, it would be my world. And I would build my own civilization where those things could not step foot.
I used to be lonely here, but not anymore. Every day is full of collecting and making and building. Every night is filled with making plans and digging into the depths of the earth for the materials I need. The monsters outside the walls don’t trouble me anymore. The ones I meet underground are quick work for my diamond sword.
This is a world of my making. And there is so much more to make….
Geordi hit the access panel with the flat of his hand. “Captain! Captain, can you hear me!” He got nothing but burst of static, followed by the mad machine’s repeated, ““Wanna go t’Earth. Wanna go t’Earth. Wanna go t’Earth.” Geordi hit the panel again. He knew it wouldn’t do any good, but the engineer he’d learned from said that “percussive maintenance” had a long tradition in engineering and should never be overlooked.
Wesley looked scared. His face was cooling down as heat left it, and the infrared pattern was being picked up by Geordi’s visor. The boy had tried to disconnect the sphere from the main computer, and had received a nasty shock for his troubles. Not enough to really hurt him, but enough to make him think twice about doing it again. The machine looked complicated and difficult enough to Geordi that he wasn’t sure if disconnecting it would even work. It was sending off electromagnetic pulses at wild frequencies, probably looking for one that would allow it to interface with the ship’s main computer. If that happened, then nothing short of physically destroying the probe would be enough to stop it.
The tool shop was beginning to feel claustrophobic. Geordi realized that Wesley probably couldn’t see a thing in there. “Wes,” he said. “We have to get out of here and see if we can find some way to untangle that thing from the computer, all right?” Wesley nodded, and Geordi keyed the door open. He stood back for a moment, expecting something terrible on the other side – fire, falling debris, arcing electricity, but there was nothing. If it hadn’t been for the thing in the tool room chanting over and over again, Geordi would have thought it was just another day.
He and Wesley returned to Main Engineering, and they went right for the main control console. Geordi started typing frantically, trying to find some way past what the “space sphere” had done to their computer. On the other side, Wesley was doing his best to figure out their situation.
“Geordi,” he said. “According to the navigation systems, we’re headed right for Earth at nearly full impulse power.”
The calculations went by Geordi’s field of vision. “That gives us about fifteen minutes,” he said. “Maybe less.” He looked down at the control panel, but he was no closer to figuring his way back in than he had been before. He slammed his hands down on the table and cursed under his breath. That made Wesley look up sharply, his eyes wide.
“What’ll we do, Geordi?” he asked. He swallowed hard. “Can we shut down the engines from here? Disable impulse power?”
Geordi shook his head. “No, we can’t do that…” He snapped his fingers. “But there is something we can do.” He turned to Wesley and grinned. “And you of all people should remember how to do it.”
“Huh?” Wesley looked utterly confused, but followed when Geordi ran to the other end of the engineering center and pulled a panel off the wall. Behind it was a rack of faintly glowing isolinear chips, each one a clear piece of translucent plastic.
Geordi crouched down in front of them and started to pull the chips out, one at a time. “Remember a few years ago, when that virus hit us and you took over the ship for a few hours.”
Wesley cleared his throat and looked away. “Not very well, no.”
“Well, while you were acting captain, you let Chief Shimoda do exactly what I’m doing now.” He was pulling the chips out and placing them carefully on the floor, making sure they were in the same order he pulled them. As he did so, the engines were beginning to power down, their ever-present hum deepening in pitch. “Now when that happened, we were in trouble because we needed to move.” He pulled a few more. “This time, we need to stop moving.” He took out the last few and laid them down. The engines’ thrumming slowly wound down and the control lights dimmed. After a moment, they were powered down completely. Geordi turned to Wesley and made a small bow. “Ta-da.”
But Wesley was already at the table, checking the ship’s progress. “Geordi,” he said. “We’re still moving.”
The readings bore him out. The ship was still heading directly towards Earth at impulse speed. There were only about ten minutes left until they arrived, in one way or another. Geordi put his head in his hands for a moment. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he said. He looked up. “Turning off the engines stopped us from accelerating,” he said. “But out in space, there’s nothing to slow us down. Unless we can get some kind of thrust going in the opposite direction, we’ll just keep moving forward until something stops us.”
Wesley looked up at him. “Like Earth.”
* * * * *
Data was the first to notice, of course. “Captain!” he said. “The engines are all offline. Our acceleration has stopped.” He looked up at the viewscreen, where the pale blue dot was still becoming bigger. “However, unless we can find a way to change our velocity, we will still collide with the Earth in approximately eight minutes and forty-two seconds.”
Picard stood up. “Does that machine still have control of the computers?”
“Yes, Captain, but with the engine offline it can no longer steer the ship.” He looked back over his shoulder. “On the other hand, neither can we.”
“We’ll do something about that,” Picard said. He turned to Worf. “Lieutenant,” he said. “Go to Engineering. If Geordi and Wesley haven’t been able to disconnect that thing by now, they may need some brute force assistance.”
Worf smiled, and it only served to make him look more fierce. “Aye-aye, sir,” he growled, and headed straight for the turbolift.
“Data,” Picard said. “What are our options for either stopping or steering the ship?”
The android thought for a moment. “It would be possible to adjust the ship’s course by explosively decompressing the main shuttle bay. It would add to our speed somewhat, allowing us to overshoot the Earth.” His fingers flew across the panel. “But it will only work if it is executed in the next four minutes.”
Picard stood up and tapped his communicator. “Bridge to shuttle bay.” There was no answer but static and the chanting of the space sphere. “Damn,” Picard said. “Data, Riker, get to the shuttle bay. Now. Evacuate any crew and trigger the decompression from there.” Riker and Data jumped up from their chairs and got into the turbolift. Picard sat back down in his chair and glanced over at Deanna. She was staring at the ever-growing Earth on their screens. He wanted to tell her that it would all be okay, but he’d learned that it was futile to lie to a Betazoid. He tapped a few buttons on his chair controls, bringing up a countdown on the readout. Seven and a half minutes to go. He grimaced and looked around at the places where his command crew should be.
He had done what a captain had to do – send his people to do their jobs, to save the ship. He had to send them because the captain could not do everything himself. And now he sat in the command chair, staring at the viewscreen with nothing else he could do but wait. Troi stood up and came close to him, laying a hand on his shoulder. Though she had always claimed that she could only sense emotions, not change them, Picard felt a little better.
The view of Earth was replaced by a clear view of Wesley Crusher. “Captain!” he cried. “We have communications back!” He stood aside, revealing the smoking space sphere. It had a Klingon Bat’leth jammed into it and Worf standing above it with arms crossed over his broad chest and a look a smug satisfaction on his face.
Picard smiled. “Well done, Lieutenant,” he said.
Geordi appeared on-screen. “Captain, we can regain control of the engines, but there’s no way I can replace the isolinear chips before we hit Earth.”
“Data and Riker are on that right now,” Picard said. “In fact…” He stood up and tapped his communicator badge. “Bridge to shuttle bay. How are you-”
He was cut off as the ship jumped forward and he fell back into the command chair. On the screen, Geordi and Wesley all stumbled to keep their footing, although Worf stood his ground, seemingly immovable.
“We did it, Captain!” Riker’s voice was full of pride. “Data says we ought to miss the Earth by a few hundred miles.”
“Excellent,” Picard said. He glanced down at the readout on the chair. Just about five minutes left. He looked over at Deanna, who was leaning against the railing of the bridge. “Deanna, get a message out to Earth command. Tell them we’re unable to stop and they need to get us a clear path right now.” She nodded and ran up to the tactical controls to send the message. “Geordi, make sure that thing isn’t going to trouble us anymore and get to work regaining control of the engines. Data, Riker, come back to the bridge. Mister Crusher…” He drummed his fingers. “I’ll have words with you later.” On the screen, Wesley’s face went slack, and he swallowed hard.
“Message from Starfleet, Captain,” Troi said. “They have a clear path for us past Earth. They’re going to send ships to assist us once we make it past.”
“Excellent,” Picard said. He sat back in the command chair and watched Earth grow in the screen. A few minutes later it filled the view and was then replaced by star-filled space as the Enterprise shot past it.
* * * * *
Wesley, Geordi and Riker sat in the ready room while Picard made some final additions to the official report of this incident. No one had said anything for a few long minutes during the debriefing, and the room was beginning to feel very warm. Wesley tried not to show it, but he really wanted to loosen his collar and maybe wipe his forehead. He glanced over at Geordi and Riker, who both looked perfectly relaxed. Wesley hoped he’d have that kind of composure someday – right now it was all he could do to keep from throwing up.
“Well,” Picard said, looking at the three of them. “I trust this won’t happen again?”
Riker leaned back and smiled. “I don’t know, Captain. It turned out to be quite the learning experience.” Picard didn’t change his expression at all, but somehow Riker still smiled.
Geordi spoke up quietly. “I have the remains of the space sphere,” he said. “Worf’s hit took out its main power systems, but not the computer core itself.” Everyone looked at him, disbelief in their eyes. “I have an isolated system I can hook it up to,” he said. “Absolutely no contact with the main computer.” He looked around. “What? It’s an important piece of technology. The more we know about it, the better we’ll be able to handle things like this in the future.”
“And you think something like this could happen again?” Picard asked.
Geordi shrugged. “It’s a big universe, sir,” he said. “Better safe than sorry.”
Picard nodded and turned to Wesley. “Mister Crusher,” he said, and Wesley felt that sick feeling in the pit of his stomach grow worse. “I appreciate your… enthusiasm for exploration. It is what Starfleet is built on, after all.” He tried to smile, but today it just wasn’t coming off well. He reminded Wesley of the stern, humorless Picard he’d met that first time he set foot on the bridge. “In the future, however, you must take more care, even if the others around you do not.” He looked pointedly at Riker and Geordi, who were very clearly looking elsewhere. “Failing to look before you leap is a very good way to fall to your death. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Captain.” Wesley’s voice was dry and hoarse.
“Very well.” He looked at the three of them and put the pad on his desk. “You are dismissed.”
They all stood up and filed out of the ready room. Wesley walked with Geordi onto the bridge and followed him to the turbolift.
“Aren’t you supposed to be on conn?” Geordi asked.
“Geordi,” Wesley said. “Do you really have that computer somewhere safe?”
Geordi nodded. “Don’t worry, Wes. It’ll never get control of the ship like that again.”
“Do you think…” Wesley swallowed. “Do you think I can help you work on it? Figure out what it is?”
It took a moment, but Geordi smiled and patted Wesley on the shoulder. “Sure, Wes. It was your project to begin with, after all.”
A smile broke out on Wesley’s face and the leaden feeling in his belly loosened up. He thanked Geordi and headed down the ramp to the conn station. He sat down, pulled the console to him, and looked up at the giant viewscreen, on which he could see countless stars. But he wasn’t thinking about them. He was coming up with tests, ideas, things he wanted to try with that new AI. He glanced down at his duty schedule. Four hours to go.
Just enough time to think of some really good ideas.
Aperture Science and the Space Sphere are owned by Valve Corporation.
Star Trek and all related names and ideas are owned by Paramount Pictures.
The crowd in Ten Forward was quiet and sparse. Most people at this hour were on duty or busy doing any one of the thousand things that made the Enterprise work. Quiet music was being piped in overhead, and the lights were low, to allow for a better viewing experience out through the large windows. Captain Picard sat by one of the windows, reading an antique copy of Gulliver’s Travels and sipping a fruit drink from Vulcan. He treasured these moments, as brief and rare as they were, when he could relax and feed his mind. No strange encounters, no terrible crises to avert. Just a peaceful trip through the stars and a book to spend time with.
The music became warped and wobbly, and dropped to silence. Picard glanced up from his book and looked around, just as most everyone else was doing. A moment later, the lights began to flicker, then surge in brightness. He stood up, tucking the book under his arm, and adjusted his uniform. Guinan was behind the bar, watching the crowd, but she gave him her full attention when he arrived. “What do you think it is?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “But I certainly mean to find -”
The speakers squealed, a sharp, painful note, and everyone clapped their hands to their ears. A moment later, the ship screamed, “SPAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACE!!!“ The floor lurched under their feet, throwing many people down, and the star field outside bent and shifted, and then exploded into streamers of light as the ship leaped into warp speed.
Picard braced himself against the bar and slapped his communicator. “Picard to bridge!” he yelled. “What the hell is going on?”
His communicator sputtered and coughed, and then a voice cried out, “YEEEEEEEEE-HAAaa!!“
Picard and Guinan exchanged glances. “Bridge,” he said. He picked up the book from the floor and went to the port-side exit. The turbolift opened as he approached, and Deanna Troi was already inside.
“There you are,” she said. Picard got in, the doors closed, and the turbolift began its swift route to the bridge. “There is something very wrong with this ship,” she said.
Picard raised an eyebrow. “How did you guess?” he asked.
She put her hands on her hips and smirked at him. “I’m Betazoid, Captain,” she said. “I can sense the delicate ebbs and flows of emotion on board and tune in to the minds that populate it.” She shrugged. “Also, the ship started to scream and launch to warp speed for no reason at all. That was my first big clue.”
“No time for jokes,” Picard said, holding back a smile. “Is there anything you can tell me?”
She shook her head. “Whatever it is, it’s nothing I can get a hold of.” The lift stopped, the doors slid open, and they walked onto the bridge. The red alert lights were flashing and crew members were desperately trying to regain control of the ship. Worf was barking orders to his personnel and Riker was working at the captain’s chair.
“Report,” Picard barked out.
Commander Riker stood up. “Sir,” he said. “The ship’s computer seems to have been compromised. We’re unable to access propulsion or communication systems.”
Picard walked down the ramp and took the captain’s seat. “Life support?” he asked, keying commands into the arm of the chair.
“So far that seems to be unaffected. But communications between decks are sporadic at best, and we can’t slow the ship down.”
Data turned in his seat. “We are currently at warp seven and climbing, Captain. If we continue at this speed, we will achieve warp nine in approximately five minutes. It is inadvisable that we remain at that speed for too long.”
“Understood, Lieutenant,” Picard said. He looked around the bridge. “Where’s Crusher?” he asked, gesturing to the empty conn seat.
Riker and Data exchanged glances. “Last I heard, he was in Engineering,” Riker said. “We found something out there, and -”
Picard held up a hand. “You found something? What did you find? Why wasn’t I notified?”
Riker took his seat to Picard’s right. “It seemed to be a deactivated space probe, sir” he said. “We checked it out, beamed it on board and I gave it to Wesley to look at. I thought it would make a good project for him.”
The look that Picard game him was flat and angry. “And?” he asked.
“Well” Riker said, “I haven’t been able to get back in touch with them, but I think he and Lt. Commander LaForge may have managed to turn it on.”
There was a moment of silence, and then Picard put his hand to his face. He rubbed the bridge of his nose and said, “Conference room.” He stood up. “Data, Riker, Troi, Worf. Now.” He stalked to the conference room, not looking back to make sure everyone followed him.
When they got in, and the door closed, Picard took his seat at the head of the conference table. “What do we know?” he asked.
Riker stood up and tapped a few times on his pad. Pictures and initial scans of the object appeared on the viewscreen. It was roughly spherical and covered in the accumulated debris of centuries in space. “It appears to be some kind of probe,” he said. “Initial scans suggest that there is a computer core in it, though it was inactive at the time we beamed it on board.” He tapped again and new pictures appeared, much more detailed. “These were taken from Wesley’s tricorder in the Engineering server. You can see in more detail that it’s a fairly complex machine, probably an AI built on Earth in the latter half of the twenty-first century. That’s interesting all by itself. What makes me nervous is this.” He tapped again, rotating the onscreen model to display the logo with the words “APERTURE SCIENCE” printed on the side.
The officers looked at the screen. “I don’t understand,” Troi said. “What is Aperture Science?”
“Computer,” Riker said. “Display records for Aperture Science. Authorization Riker, Alpha six-one-six.”
The screen flickered for a moment, then went blank. A moment later, great yellow circle like the iris of an eye appeared on the screen, moving wildly back and forth as if looking at each person in the room. A speaker popped to life. “You the space cops?” a voice said. It was breathy and frantic and electric, and it made Worf growl. “Don’ like the space cops. Goin’ too fast. Too fast.”
Picard stood up, facing the screen. He tried to look stern and authoritative. “Who are you?” he asked. “What have you done with my ship?”
The great eye snapped into focus on him. The iris seemed to pulse, and the lights in the room pulsed with it. “You,” the voice said. “You have a very shiny head. Like a star. You a star?”
Picard glanced around and gritted his teeth. “Tell me who you are,” he said again.
The voice seemed to start singing a tuneless nonsense song. After a moment, it cut off. “Uh-oh,” it said. “There’s the sun. Gotta say Hi.” The screen went black again, replaced after a moment by a detailed classified file on Aperture Science. They only had a moment to study it before the stars outside the window stopped streaking past and they blinked back into normal reality again. The door chime sounded and Picard barked, “Enter!”
When the door opened, a flood of golden light came with it. An ensign in red stepped in, his face pale. “Sir, come quickly. It’s… It’s the sun!” He ducked out again. Everyone at the table looked at each other, and then got up to return to the bridge.
The main viewscreen showed the sun to the starboard side of the ship, far closer than it should have been. “All shields to full,” Picard said, even as Data was entering the commands.
Riker turned to him. “We have to get control of this ship back. Data – did you get all that on Aperture?”
Data turned around to face them. “Aperture Science was an American company in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. They explored several different avenues of business, but their greatest successes came in the fields of artificial intelligence and spacetime manipulation.” He tapped his console, and the great, flaming sun was replaced with the information that had been on display in the ready room. It showed pages of text and diagrams, as well as pictoral representations of people, cubes and holes.
“Their AI work was brilliant,” Data continued, “if unstable. Their primary intelligence was a computer named GLaDOS, which they built to run their testing facilities. It went mad and killed most of their personnel within seconds of switching it on. They also built a series of smaller, more restricted intelligences.” The screen displayed a series of small spheres that looked like the one Wesley had been working on. “These AIs were more specific in their functions, and not all of them were particularly… useful.”
He swiped his hand across the console and a new set of pictures were displayed. “Their other achievement was the creation of small, stable wormholes through the use of a hand-held device.” A video appeared on the screen of a young woman in an orange jumpsuit running through a corridor into a vast room with a moat of murky green liquid bisecting it. She fired a large, insectile gun at the far wall, sending out a blue burst of energy. She then fired again, and orange energy hit the wall next to her, creating a hole through which she could see herself. She stepped through, went through a door on the other side of the room, and continued running. “Although a prototype was made,” Data continued, “it was never developed for mass production. Some of the research that went into it, however, was instrumental in the discovery of warp drive technology.”
“So what does that mean for us?” Picard asked.
“If that sphere is indeed an Aperture AI,” Data said, “there is a good chance that it is insane.” The main screen went back to showing the sun, bright and hot in front of the ship. “If it has control of the ship, there’s no telling what it might do.”
The main screen broke up in a burst of static, and an uneasy image appeared of Geordi and Wesley. “Captain!” Geordi yelled. “Captain, can you hear me?”
Picard stood up. “I can hear you, Geordi. What’s going on?”
“Captain, I think I know what this thing wants!” The picture shook and shimmered. “It’s been saying the same thing for a few minutes now, and if it has control of our navigation sys -” The signal cut off, returning to the oversized sun on the viewscreen. Slowly, the ship was turning around, moving the sun out of their field of view. Over the speakers, that staticky, crazed voice was muttering the same thing over and over again.
“Wanna go t’Earth. Wanna go t’Earth. Wanna go t’Earth.”
The Enterprise’s turn sped up and then stopped, pointing at a pinprick of pale blue light.
“Wanna go t’Earth. Wanna go t’Earth. Wanna go t’Earth.”
Data looked down at his display. “We are at full impulse power, Captain,” he said. “At this speed, we will reach Earth in approximately fifteen minutes.”
“Wanna go t’Earth. Wanna go t’Earth. Wanna go t’Earth.”
He glanced out at the viewscreen. “I would point out that we do not know this being’s intentions once we reach Earth. We could go into orbit, or…”
Picard nodded. “Or we could crash.”
They all watched the viewscreen as the pale blue dot slowly grew and the mad machine continued to chant, “Wanna go t’Earth. Wanna go t’Earth. Wanna go t’Earth.”
Aperture Science and the Space Sphere are owned by Valve Corporation.
Star Trek and all related names and ideas are owned by Paramount Pictures.
Wesley Crusher drummed his fingers on the smooth console of the conn and watch the stars drift by through the main viewscreen. He tapped a small icon in the corner, bring up his duty calendar. Only three more hours to go in his shift, and they were going to go by just as slowly as the previous two had. He itched to call up a game or a book or something, but Commander Riker had drummed into him the need to be vigilant when on duty, ready for anything to happen. And since Riker was sitting in the Captain’s chair at the moment, there would be no slacking off for Wesley today.
Nothing was happening. It was true that the Enterprise saw more action than most ships in Starfleet, and he looked forward to regaling his classmates at the Academy someday. Most of the time it was like this, though. Dull. Monotonous. Unending.
“Data,” he said, “you are so lucky you don’t know what it’s like to be bored.”
Data turned in his seat at the ops console and gazed at Wesley with those unblinking yellow eyes. “That is true, Wesley, but I have heard that there is a saying from Earth: ‘Only boring people are bored.’” He cocked his head. “Perhaps you can find a way to keep your mind busy that does not interfere with your duties.”
“I run tests on certain mathematical models, investigating the effects of different variables to see what the outcome is.”
Wesley sighed. “I don’t think I can do that, Data,” he said.
“Well,” Data said, “Perhaps you can -” He was cut off by a quiet tone from his console. His fingers danced across the panel, bringing up streaming lines of code. “Commander,” he said, turning around to face Riker. “Sensors have picked up what seems to be a probe or satellite, about a hundred kilometers off the port bow.”
Riker stood up to get a better look at Data’s console. “Any idea what it is?” he asked.
“No, sir,” Data said. “Only that it is less than a meter in size, spherical…” He looked up. “And definitely not natural.”
“You think it’s dangerous?”
Data paused. “I cannot tell, sir. But the readings indicate that it is inactive.”
“Okay then,” Riker said. “Beam it aboard, full quarantine.” He glanced down at Wesley. “Ensign Crusher, since you’re in need of something to occupy yourself, why don’t you come with me?”
Wesley straightened in his seat. “Are you sure? Sir?” he asked. He didn’t want to sound too eager. It wouldn’t be unlike Commander Riker to try and pull one over on him.
Riker waved a hand. “Why not?” he said. “Things are pretty quiet. If the Romulans show up, you can always come back.” He nodded to Data. “Data, you can handle this?”
A few touchstrokes and Data nodded. “Conn functions have been rerouted, Commander.”
“Good. Wesley, let’s go.”
They strode into the turbolift. “Deck six,” Riker said. The lights on the side of the lift started to move, the only indication that the system was moving at all. When the doors opened, they walked through busy corridors to the transporter room, where a technician was waiting for them. Riker glanced over at her. “How does it look?”
She glanced at her console. “There’s no sign of any biological elements, sir. It does have a power source, but it’s not powered up.” She looked up at him. “Whatever it is, it’s inactive. I’d say it’s been out there for a long time.”
“Okay,” Riker said. “Bring it aboard.”
The transporter technician tapped a few buttons and then slid her fingers up the main controller. The transporter pad shimmered to life, a curtain of energy materializing and singing and then coalescing into a small, filthy object that rolled over when the system shut down. The thing was encrusted with rock and dust, no doubt collected over centuries of being in deep space. Wesley and Riker exchanged glances and went up to examine it more closely.
It was about as big as Data had estimated, and almost perfectly round, except for two handles that jutted out from one side. Riker reached out and picked away at some of the accumulated space dust, and a large chunk fell away to reveal the object’s metal surface. It was a dull, dirty gray, with the letters “RTU” clearly visible in black.
“‘RTU’?” Wesley asked. “What does that mean?”
Riker shook his head. “No idea,” he said. He stroked his beard, deep in thought. “Clean it off and take it to engineering. See if Geordi can make anything of it.”
“Yes sir,” Wesley said, trying not to sound too excited. “I’ll be careful.”
Riker looked down at him, pulled out of his thoughts. “See that you do.” He glanced over at the space relic. “Something about this bothers me.”
The transporter technician gave them a handtruck, which floated gently a few inches off the ground. Wesley and Riker lifted the object off the pad, and it felt lighter than it should have. Riker nodded to the technician, said, “Good luck” to Wesley, and left the transporter room.
It was a long way down to Main Engineering, almost at the opposite end of the ship. As Wesley pushed the handtruck along through corridors and the turbolift, he couldn’t help but wonder what kind of thing this was. Some sort of ancient communications device? Perhaps it was an archive of some kind, the record of a civilization long gone, preserved for the ages in deep space. He was grinning with excitement when he brought it into main engineering and found Lt. Commander LaForge poring over a display on the large central console. Other members of the engineering staff were moving from station to station, transferring data to and from their datapads and making sure the ship was running smoothly. LaForge looked up when Wesley came in, pushing the object in front of him. “What on earth is that thing?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” Wesley said. “We found it floating out in space and brought it on board. Commander Riker told me to clean it up and we should see what we can make of it.”
Geordi raised an eyebrow. “We?”
“Well,” Wesley said, the excitement draining from his face. “I was hoping that maybe you… Or you and I…” He tried to look hopeful.
Geordi shook his head. “That thing is filthy. Get it out of here.”
“But if I can clean it up?”
“I have a check of the ship’s inertial controls to perform, a re-calibration of the antimatter flow to do and half a dozen people complaining to me that their ship’s computer access isn’t working. I have enough to do right now, Wesley.” Geordi turned back to his display and hit the controls a little harder than before.
“Okay,” Wesley said. He had a hangdog expression that always worked with his mother – his eyes dropped, his shoulders slumped, and he turned to walk away, dragging the handtruck behind him.
“Wes,” Geordi called out. Wesley turned around, trying not to look too hopeful. “You can use the tool shop to clean that thing up. But make sure everything is spotless before you leave. Understand?”
The grin sprung back to Wesley’s face as he turned the handtruck around and pushed it towards the tool shop off of one of the corridors leading away from Main Engineering. Once there, he lifted the thing onto a workbench and adjusted the lighting so he could see everything clearly. There were tools all over the shop, from the simple hand tools that people had been using for centuries all the way up to the most advanced material manipulation devices. He chose a handheld ultrasound device and checked it. There was a barely audible hum and a soft blue glow. He started to run it over the object, chipping away at the caked-on space dust and debris.
It took well over an hour to clean the thing off. He called up some new Betelgeusian pop songs on the computer and hummed along while he worked at getting centuries of accumulated space dust off the object. It took several trips to the replicator to get rid of the dirt. He kept a small sample in a plastic container, mainly because it might be a clue to the thing’s origins, but otherwise he had no trouble getting the workshop cleaned up. The object sat on the metal workbench, dull and inert. At a glance, he couldn’t tell what it did. It was complex, that much was certain, and while it seemed to be intact, it was in pretty poor shape. The outer shell was dinged and dented in places, scraped and scratched and cracked. One of the handles was broken, the other bent in the middle. On one side of the sphere, it looked like there was an opening, a small hatch that peeked open at an awkward angle. It looked like it had been through a lot out there. Wesley tapped a few buttons on a tricorder and took a scan of the object, making sure to record everything.
The readings suggested it was made using technology that was about equivalent to late twenty-first century Earth. There was nothing particularly non-terrestrial about it, either in its design or its makeup. Wesley walked around the object, become more and more fascinated with it as the tricorder collected data. There was a computer core inside, that much was certain, and a power cell that looked like it was designed to be rechargeable through a data port in the back. He thought that it might have been hooked up to a larger network at one time, and he wondered how hard it would be to build an adapter for it. Finally, he came back to the words that were printed on the side, and took a visual record with the tricorder.
There was a logo that looked like a mechanical iris, something that might be used on an ancient camera. Next to the logo, in black letters, it read: “APERTURE SCIENCE.”
Wesley started going over the tricorder data again and went to a computer access point on the wall. He tapped the screen and said, “Computer. Do you have any records on ‘Aperture Science’?”
The display turned a dull red as a short buzzer sounded. “Access to this record is restricted,” the computer said. “Please state authorization code.”
Wesley sighed. “Cancel,” he said. The screen went dark and he looked over at the Aperture Science machine. “What are you?” he murmured. The data on the tricorder wasn’t much help. It told him some of the story, but not nearly enough. He tapped his comm badge. “Crusher to bridge,” he said.
A moment later, Riker replied. “Bridge. Go ahead.”
“Commander, I’m still working on this object we found. Are you going to need me for the rest of this shift?”
There was a pause. “What have you figured out so far?” he asked.
“Well,” Wesley said, “it’s probably from Earth. From something called ‘Aperture Science,’ but I don’t have the authorization to find out what that is. It’s cleaned up, but non-functional.”
“Okay,” Riker said. “I’ll see what I can find out about Aperture Science. In the meantime, see what you can get from it, and come back when you can. Things are pretty quiet up here. Riker out.”
Wesley put the tricorder under his arm and picked up the sphere. Without all the dirt, it was much lighter and easier to carry, and he took one more look around the tool shop to make sure it was clean before he went back out to Main Engineering.
Lt. Commander LaForge was in a quiet conversation with one of the engineering crew when Wesley came in. Something about the central computer and diagnostic tests and the like. When they were done, the engineer strode off and Geordi turned around. He took a look at Wesley and whistled. “Wow,” he said. “Now that’s interesting.”
“I thought so too,” Wesley said. He placed it gently on the main control table. “Here are the readings I got from it.” He tapped the tricorder and sent the data to the main display on the table. Lines of data and code spun out across the surface, which Geordi read in silence. He traced his finger across some of the displays and looked over at the sphere. “Looks like a computer,” he said. “And if I’m reading this right, it might well be an AI.”
Wesley’s eyes went wide. “Really?” he asked. “I didn’t think they made them that long ago.”
“They did,” Geordi said. “They just weren’t quite as good as they are now.” He picked up the sphere and turned it over, looking for the input port. With a little pressure, a small panel opened up in the back. He picked up the tricorder, scanned the port, and shunted the data to the main display. “Old tech,” he muttered.
Wesley looked from the screen to Geordi. “Do you think you can make it work?” he asked.
Geordi stared at the data for a minute and then nodded. “I think so,” he said. He tapped the console, bringing up a schematic of the sphere’s power supply. “In fact, I think you could probably do this yourself.”
He nodded. “Sure. Look – it’s a pretty simple power input system.” He tapped and hilighted a few different sections. “This leads to the main battery, this to the servo system, and this part seems to power the central core.” He paused and gestured on the display surface, zooming into the schematic. “In fact, this looks like the main data port, next to the AI power supply. Shouldn’t be too hard to fabricate an adapter with the replicator.” He looked over at Wesley. “Wanna give it a shot?”
Wesley was beaming. “Absolutely!” he said. He ran his hand over the battered shell. “Imagine what could be in this thing!” He looked over at Geordi. “It might be lost historical records, perhaps a cultural artifact. There could be secrets on this thing that would have been lost for all time if we hadn’t found it.” He looked back at the sphere. “I really want to know.”
Geordi laughed. “So do I, when you put it that way.” He pointed back towards the tool shop. “Get to work and see what you can put together. Just call me before you hook anything up, okay?”
Back in the tool shop, Wesley set up the schematic displays on the wallscreen. He selected some old Earth music from the computer library and got to work, using the replicator’s modeling systems to try and design a power and data system for the sphere. Despite what Geordi had said, it wasn’t that easy. The input port was small, and there were some complicated contacts involved. Whenever this thing had been designed, it was still based on computer principles that had been established hundreds of years ago. A modern designer could have made it much simpler.
After a few hours of simulations and redesigns, Wesley came up with something that he thought should work. He coded the design into the replicator and sat back while the computer processed his request. A moment later, the replicator hummed and shimmered, and left behind a coiled cable. On one end was a plug that would fit into one of the Enterprise’s data ports. The cable looped to a blocky transformer, and then ended in a long, thin, spikelike plug. Wesley picked it up and smiled.
He called Geordi, as promised, and a few minutes later the chief engineer came in. He took the adapter in his hands and looked carefully at it. “Nice work,” he said. “It just might be the thing.” He looked over. “Want to give it a try?” Wesley nodded eagerly, and picked up the sphere.
There was a data port in the wall, behind a small panel next to the computer access. Geordi plugged one end of the cable in, and then looked over at Wesley.
Wesley nodded, turned the sphere over, and carefully inserted the spike into the access port. As soon as he did so, he could feel a faint vibration under his fingertips. The machine was getting power, and it was turning on.
He set it upright on the floor, and they stepped back from it. A series of quiet beeps and pings came from the sphere, and then a loud hum.
“Riker to Engineering,” their communicators announced. They both started in surprise.
Geordi tapped his. “Engineering, LaForge here.”
“Geordi, is Wesley with you?”
Geordi looked over. “I’m here,” Wesley said. He was still watching the sphere on the floor, which was humming louder now. The front panel seemed to be struggling to open, and he could see some kind of yellow illumination through the thin opening.
“I’ve found out what I could about Aperture Science,” Riker said, “and I don’t think it’s a good idea to power that thing up. At least not until we know more about what it -” His voice cut off in a flood of static and a high pitched squeal that made Geordi and Wesley cover their ears. The lights in the tool room dimmed and flickered.
The front hatch of the sphere snapped open, and a great, yellow iris beamed out and swiveled to look at the two of them. The lights in the room brightened, became far too bright, and started to fail, one by one. The eye of the sphere spun madly and danced as the ship hummed and growled around them.
The sphere stopped moving, and the lights cut out, leaving the room lit only by emergency illumination. The ship’s speakers crackled for a moment and then went silent. And then:
Aperture Science and the Space Sphere are owned by Valve Corporation.
Star Trek and all related names and ideas are owned by Paramount Pictures.
The hospital room was quiet, except for the respirator. It hissed on and off at slow, steady intervals, a regular rhythm that ran all day and all night. Every now and then another machine would beep or ping, but not too often. The peace of the room was absolute, disturbed only by the regular duty nurse who came in to change the sheets or attend to the bedpan. Time had lost all meaning in here. Every day was the same. Every night was the same. Regular breaths, a white ceiling, an impassive nurse and doctors who pretended they were the only thinking beings in the room.
Today, however, the silence and the regularity of the days and the nights was broken by the sounds of shouting from outside the room. Shapes could be seen on the other side of the glass window. A man – a doctor, perhaps, or one of the bodyguards – was telling a woman that she couldn’t go in, that she wasn’t authorized.
“Not authorized?” she yelled. “I’m here on the highest authorization, you ape. And when I’m done in there, I’ll have you mucking out the test chambers with nothing but a bottle of bleach and some paper towels!’
“Don’t ‘But miss’ me! Let! Me! In!” There was a pause, a dangerous silence, and then the shadows on the other side of the frosted glass moved. The door opened and a lovely young woman stormed into the room. “I’m remembering your name, buddy!” she yelled as the door swung closed.
When she turned around, her entire demeanor changed. The hardness was gone from her voice as she put her hand to her mouth. “Oh, sir!” Caroline said. “Oh, Mister Johnson. What have they done to you?” She took a tentative step towards the bed and the thin, dessicated man who lay there. When he was healthy, not so long ago, he’d been a man of boundless energy and enthusiasm. He seemed like the rock of the company, standing against the waves and never letting them knock him down. He had long been the driving force behind Aperture, the singular ambition that took it from its humble beginnings selling shower curtains to the scientific powerhouse that it was today. And nothing – not the Navy, not those double-dealing, backstabbing ghouls over at Black Mesa – had ever been able to take that away.
But now he lay in that bed, wasting away with every pump of the respirator. His skin was pale and brittle, his eyes dull and staring at the ceiling, barely open. A tight web of wires wrapped around his head, their ends buried in his scalp, and leading to what looked like an old Smith-Corona typewriter on the bedstand. Caroline laid her hand on his and tears slipped from her eyes as she felt how cold he was. “Oh, sir,” she said in a shaky voice. “I’m so sorry. I should have been here sooner.” She took a handkerchief from her handbag and buried her face in it.
She looked up with a sniff when she heard the sharp clack of the typewriter key smacking against the paper. Slowly, one herculean letter at a time, a message was spelled out on the yellowing piece of paper:
Caroline stood up sharply and her eyes overflowed again. “Sir!” she said. She looked again at the apparatus that connected his head to the typewriter and smiled. “Did you have the lab boys make that for you, sir?”
“I’ll have to give them a raise,” she said. She reddened. “Or, you will. Once you get better.”
The typewriter started writing again, the letters coming a little more quickly now.
You will. You’re in charge now.
Caroline shook her head, “I told you, sir, no! I don’t know what I need to know to run Aperture! I mean, there are so many projects going on that no one will let me see, engineers asking questions that I can’t answer, and the lawyers are just driving me crazy! They keep asking me for the testing records from the mid-seventies and I keep telling them that we don’t have them!”
Burned them. Damn lawyers. Get nothing.
She nodded, glad to be on more familiar ground, and took a small notebook out of her handbag. “The counter-maneuver work is still progressing, and we’ve had some preliminary inquiries from the Pentagon about it. They want to include it in special forces training – Delta Force, SEALs…”
The typewriter keys practically slammed against the paper.
No. Navy. Never!
Caroline smiled and held his hand. “I told them, sir. They said we couldn’t exclude the Navy from any government contracts.” The typewriter started banging out meaningless characters – pound signs and ampersands and exclamation marks. “But,” Caroline continued, “there’s nothing preventing us from charging them triple what the other branches get.” She smiled and patted his hand. “And I’m making sure that they’ll be the last to get anything.”
“Thank you, sir.” She held his hand for a little while longer, just looking at him. As she stared at his face, she thought she could see it move. Maybe his eyes struggling to look at her, or his mouth straining to make the smallest of smiles. But when she blinked, when she cleared her vision, nothing had changed.
Caroline came back to attention and looked through the notebook. She pulled out one piece of paper that had been folded and put in the back. “Your failsafe, sir. The boys in engineering say that it’s not going to be ready for a long time yet. Years, maybe.” She looked around the hospital room, at the battery of machines that were keeping Cave Johnson alive. “I don’t…” She took a deep breath. “I don’t know if it will be ready in time,” she whispered.
The typewriter was silent for a long time, long enough for that worm of panic to set in. Then:
She sat up. “Sir?”
You’re. In. Charge.
“But sir, I-”
No one knows science like you.
No one knows Aperture like you.
There was a pause, and when she looked back at his face, she was almost sure there were tears in his eyes.
No one knows me like you.
Caroline squeezed her eyes shut and rested her hand on his cheek. “Oh, sir,” she said. “I don’t want to do this without you.”
You will. You have to.
You’ll make me proud.
One of the machines started beeping. She looked over at it and watched as the jumping green dot on the screen jumped lower and lower. She sat on the edge of the bed and held Cave Johnson’s hand as he went, squeezing it so that he knew she was with him. The dot pulsed a couple more times, and then the line went flat.
Caroline had precious few minutes to herself before the nurses stormed into the room, followed by men in suits. One of the nurses took her by the shoulders and gently lifted her to her feet. “You’ll be okay,” she whispered as she moved Caroline out of the way. The nurses and the suits bumped shoulder as each group tried to confirm Cave Johnson’s condition. They started talking about plans and contingencies. A couple of bodyguards stood by the door, looking uncomfortable.
“We’re going to have to close the offshores…” They were lawyers, pure and simple. They spoke in hushed tones, but loud enough for her to hear.
“Make sure the patents are up to date…” They didn’t look at her. They didn’t look at him. They flipped through appointment calendars and address books, pulling mimeographed pages from their briefcases and comparing them.
“Call the board, we’ll need to have a vote on…” A great man lay dead before them, and not one had paid his respects. Not one had said a word about the man who had changed the world, whose vision and dedication were going to change it even further. Caroline felt her sorrow condense into a cold, hard knot in her belly and she stood up.
“Gentlemen!” she said sharply.
The lawyers stopped talking and, in unison, turned to face her.
“According to Mister Johnson’s dying wishes,” she said, squaring her shoulders, “I will be taking charge of Aperture Science from here on out.”
They looked at each other. One of the lawyers, the youngest one, smiled at her like he thought they were in a bar. “Miss,” he said, “I think maybe you should leave all this to us. You’ve had a rough day.” He took her by the elbow and started to lead her to the door. “Why don’t you have a little lie-down and-”
She jerked her arm from his grasp and looked him dead in the eyes. “What. Is. Your. Name?”
The smug smile lasted only a moment longer before it slid off his face. “Hannigan,” he stammered. “Mark Hannigan. I’m with the law offices of-”
“You’re a test subject,” she growled, a slow smile spreading across her face. “I hope you like heights.” His face went pale.
She looked at the other two lawyers. “We’re going back to the office. Mister Johnson’s personal files are there, and you’ll see what his wishes for the company were. Signed and notarized before he entered the hospital.” She walked around Hannigan to the other lawyers. They were avoiding looking at him. “We’re going to get this little mess cleared up quickly and easily and in the best interests of the company. Unless you want to be bathing in propulsion gel like your boy Hannigan here.” The older of the two lawyers swallowed and started to speak, but she stopped him with a glare. “The man in that bed had a vision,” she said. “And it’s my honor to make sure that vision comes true. Understand?” They glanced at each other and nodded.
Caroline looked at the bed. The nurses had pulled the sheet over Cave Johnson’s face and were busy disconnecting all the machines. She took a deep breath and said a silent prayer for him. He didn’t believe in heaven, she knew that. But she believed that he was already there, and already throwing his weight around.
She turned around and looked at the men in suits. “What are we doing still talking?” she asked.
She walked to the door, where the bodyguards parted to let her through. She stopped, though, and looked behind her. The men standing there looked small and nervous. They were off-balance, which suited her fine. Hannigan looked a little sick. “Come on,” she said. “We have science to do.”
Cave Johnson, Caroline, Aperture Science are all owned by Valve Corporation.
This piece was inspired by a recent episode of the Colin McEnroe Show on WNPR on Fan Fiction. At the end, Colin announced a fan fiction contest for the show. The winner gets some free food tickets, which is awesome. Now I can’t win, because a) I’m a relative of a WNPR employee and b) I live in Japan and can’t make use of the prize. But this was the idea that leaped into my head and I simply couldn’t resist. For some background, take a look at Day 32: Mea Culpa. Enjoy!
“…but I think that the Senator really should have been more more forthcoming in the information he had and didn’t have, plain and simple. After all that’s happened – Waterbury, New London and – god, those poor people in Farmington, I think Senator McLaughlin owes the people of Connecticut more than just empty platitudes and condolences.” Bill Curry leaned back from the microphone and nodded to Colin, who turned back from his computer screen and glanced at Irene Papoulis.
“You know, I agree,” she said, “but somehow I don’t think that knowing what he knew and when he knew it is really our highest priority right now. Containing the Farmington Valley should be our highest priority right now, because those zombies are just ready to tear everything apart!”
“Oh, absolutely,” Bill responded, “although I would also say that restoring Waterbury to its original size should certainly rank up there, along with those poor lost souls from Washington’s militia. And then there’s the time stoppage in New London – you see? It just goes on! At some point there’ll need to be a full account of what went wrong.”
Colin held up a hand to his guests and jumped in. “Thank you Bill and Irene, we have to take a short break here and when we come back we’ll be talking to J.C. Steiner of the Connecticut Emergency Crisis Center, who can give us a little more insight, I hope, into what we can expect to happen next. Stay with us.”
Patrick gave them the all-clear from the producer’s room. The guests removed their headphones and started chatting about the topics they’d left hanging in the last segment. Colin typed up some notes on his computer, trying to anticipate the points that Steiner would bring up. In his headphones, Chion chimed in, breaking up his train of thought: “How about ‘Living Dead Girl’ for the bumper music in the last segment?”
“Only slightly tasteless,” Colin said. “Go for it.”
“And I came up with a good joke on the way in to work today – how many people from Waterbury does it take to change a lightbulb?”
“How many?” Colin tried to remember the point he wanted to make. Ah, yes, Social Security.
“Why change it when you can live in it?!” She laughed loudly for a moment and then stopped. “No, wait, that’s not right…”
“Keep working on it,” Colin said.
“Thirty seconds,” Patrick said. Colin nodded and gestured to Bill and Irene, who promptly put their headphones back on. “Is Steiner ready to go?”
“I’m here,” he said from the New York studio.
“Excellent. I’ll introduce you and then we’ll be ready to go.”
The music faded in – Chion had picked “Time in a Bottle,” and everyone around the table snickered. There was a countdown and Colin jumped in with, “And we’re back with Professor Irene Papoulis and Professor Bill Curry on The Nose and we’re taking about today’s press conference by Senator McLaughlin about the current crises we’re facing here in Connecticut, including – but not limited to – the time stoppage in New London, Waterbury being reduced to the size of a snow-globe by Galactic Overlord P’thn’aar, zombies, time-lost Revolutionary war soldiers – it just goes on. On the phone with us now is J.C. Steiner, the head of the newly-formed Connecticut Emergency Crisis Center down in Litchfield. So, J.C., tell us about what your group is doing right now.”
“Thank you, Colin, it’s a pleasure to be on your show. The Connecticut Emergency Crisis Center is working to -”
He was cut off and everyone in the studio flinched as a forcible “What the HELL?” erupted over their headphones. Patrick was yelling, and there was the sound of things being broken. Everyone in the studio stood up to look through the window into the production booth just as a bent and bloodied chair came flying through the glass.
The shards burst outward, causing everyone to duck and cover their heads. There was a heavy noise as Bill was hit by the chair and fell to the ground, and for a moment the only sound they could hear was the tinkling of glass shards falling to the floor.
Then they heard the guttural, wordless gurgle of the first zombie.
It sounded just like they would have expected it to sound, from countless zombie movies – stupid and hungry and wet. Colin and Irene slowly stood up. They couldn’t see what was going on in the producer’s booth, but they could hear it, hungry chewing and licking sounds that turned their stomachs. Irene looked like she was ready to throw up. Colin put his hand on her shoulder and a finger to his lips. He pointed to Bill and knelt down to wake him up, but it was too late. His head was tilted at an unnatural angle, and his eyes gazed unblinkingly at the floor.
Irene threw up. Colin glanced up at the shattered window where they could still hear the horrible, wet noises, and he guided Irene to the door of the studio. If there was just the one zombie, he thought, they might be safe.
But then, when was there ever just one zombie?
Slowly, as quietly as possible, Colin opened the studio door. He opened it a crack, looked and listened. There didn’t seem to be anything out there. “My office is right across the hall,” he whispered, “we can call for help.” He stepped out into the hall, looked again, and gestured for Irene to follow him. The offices were silent, except for growling noises from just out of sight.
Broken glass crunched under their feet as they walked, ever so carefully, across the hall to Colin’s office. The door was ajar and everything was in disarray, but it was otherwise empty. They hurried in, he closed the door and they shoved the desk up against it. “That’s probably not going to stop them,” he said. “At least not for long.” He picked his cell phone up off the desk and looked at it.
No bars. He picked up the land line phone, but that too was dead. “Damn,” he said.
“What are we going to do?” Irene asked, on the verge of panic.
“We’re going to stay calm,” Colin said. “We’re going to stay calm and -”
The door burst open, slamming the desk against the opposite wall and taking Irene with it. There was a sickening crunch as her bones were crushed. Colin was soaked with her blood, and there was a terrible groan as she died. Colin turned to the door to face whatever had done this. A vicious, red-eyed zombie that looked like Josh Dobbin shambled towards him, grabbed him by the wrist and started dragging him down the hall, yelling and screaming.
The zombie brought him to the station lounge and threw him inside. There were more zombies there, some old and breaking down, some horribly new. Patrick, Catie, Tucker – they were bitten and bleeding and staring at him in slack-jawed mindless hunger. He cried out in fresh despair. Whatever happened here had happened fast, and there was no going back now. If the Farmington zombies had made it this far, they’d probably spread across the state in days. From there it was just a matter of time.
Someone cleared his throat behind him and Colin spun around.
His face widened in shock. He backed away as far as he could from the door as the figure advanced on him. “You!” he said in a single, wheezing breath. “What do you want?”
The young man standing in the doorway was not a zombie. Not even close. He looked young and healthy, dressed in the latest fashion, just as he looked in the magazines and on television. His famous smile would have lit up the room if he weren’t flanked by two gigantic, decomposing zombies. They growled and slavered, but did not attack. One of them sniffed the blood on Colin’s clothes and lunged forward, but the young man held out an arm and restrained it as though it were a child. “You know what I’m here for,” he said. He ran a hand through thick brown hair. “I’m here for Wolfie. Where is she?”
“I…” Colin looked around – Chion Wolf wasn’t there. She wasn’t among the victims, and for a moment he felt hope that she might have escaped. That hope turned to bitter ashes in a moment, though. Even if she did escape, where would she go? How long would she survive?
“Where?” the young man asked again. “I didn’t raise my own zombie army just to be stopped now.”
Colin looked up. “Your… your own?”
The young man smiled. “Of course! What, you think I somehow managed to corral those things you have out west?” He laughed. “No, these are mine. I’ve always been able to make people do what I want, really. Thanks to Senator McLaughlin’s little series of accidents, my ability to control has become more… direct.” He walked slowly over to Colin, grabbed the front of his shirt and lifted him overhead. “Now,” the young man said. “One more time. Where is Wolfie?”
There was the distinctive sound of a shotgun blast. The young man dropped Colin to the floor and spun around just in time to see Chion pump the shotgun, point it at the second guard zombie’s head, and blow it into a fine red mist. She lowered the gun, took a couple of shells out of her shirt pocket and started reloading. “Right here, Bieber.”
She pumped the shotgun again and lifted it to aim at the young man’s head. “Let’s dance,” she said, and pulled the trigger.
Justin Bieber was faster than he looked, however. He stepped aside from the blast, and the hot buckshot spread out to hit the zombies standing behind him. Colin flattened himself against the floor and, for a fleeting moment, wondered where Chion had gotten a shotgun.
“Now, now, Wolfie, is that any way to treat your idol?” She fired again and again, he dodged. “I got all your letters, I know how much you’ve wanted to meet me.” Again, she fired and he dodged. “I came all this way for you, Wolfie. I raised a zombie army for you.” He reached out and grabbed the barrel of the gun, wrenching it out of her hands and throwing it to the floor. “I did it all for you,” he sang sweetly. He reached out and took her by the dreds, pulling her closer as she pulled away. “And now…” His voice went flat. “You’re mine.”
“Not yet she isn’t.” Colin grabbed him by the legs and pulled, causing him to lose his balance. He let go of Chion, who dove to the floor, hands reaching for the shotgun. Colin held on to Bieber’s legs as long as he could, but the young zombie lord’s strength was too much. He kicked Colin away, towards the waiting crowd of WNPR undead.
Furious, Bieber stalked over, reached down and picked Colin up again, dangling him above the floor. “I should have just killed you,” he growled. He slammed Colin up against a wall so hard that his breath fled his chest. “Maybe I’ll just make you one of mine.” He smiled, and his eyes burned a painful, poisonous green. “Welcome to my fan club, McEnroe.”
“Hey, baby.” Bieber spun around, dropping Colin to the ground. His burning eyes were looking straight down the barrel of the shotgun that Chion was pointing at his head. She smiled. “You’re gone.”
She pulled the trigger, and his head vaporized, blood, bone and brain spattering against the far wall. Bieber’s headless body teetered for a moment, and then collapsed to the floor.
The zombies howled and screamed, a noise that went straight into the ears and down the spine. Chion dropped the shotgun and covered her ears. Colin crawled over to her, trying to cover his own ears as he did so. He wanted to ask if she was okay, if either of them were okay, but the noise dug into the back of their brains like hooks. The zombies started twitching and thrashing about, trembling and flinging themselves from side to side, all the while their voices melding together in an unholy cacophony of pain and damnation.
Green fire burst from their eyes and their mouths, playing all over their bodies, and where it passed the decay, the rot, the torn and rent flesh was repaired. Bones knit, wounds healed, and life was returned to what had once been shambling corpses. The noise grew in pitch and volume, to where it seemed like something other than just noise. Chion and Colin were sure that their eardrums had burst, that their brains were going to fail when the screaming… Stopped.
They looked up. Their colleagues, zombies no more, slowly got to their feet. The horror in their eyes was a horrible revelation: they knew what had happened to them. They knew what they had done when they were under Bieber’s thrall. Perhaps one day it would seem like only a nightmare, but not today. Today and tomorrow and the days to come would be days of rebuilding and coming to terms with the horrors that had been perpetrated on them.
Chion and Colin stood up. The station lounge was in ruins. Blood was everywhere, and anything that could be smashed was smashed. The two security zombies were still on the floor, unchanged, but they were rapidly putrefying into the carpet. It looked like a slaughterhouse.
“Wow,” Chion said. “Mister Dankosky’s going to be pissed.”