Iris had never understood why first dates were dreaded the way they were. Her friends talked about them like they were some kind of combat ritual, some horror show that had to be endured so that they might enter the realms of the mighty who had boyfriends and girlfriends. They traded stories about they guys who were too clingy, the ones who were too rough, the girls who were too shy or too loud, and each and every one of them just reinforced their ideas that the world was full of miserable, deranged sociopaths who wanted nothing more than to destroy a lovely evening out.
All she knew at this point was that she wouldn’t be able to tell stories about this date to her friends. “Yeah, he was really nice and we had a good time” would fall flat.
It was the truth, though. She’d met Lloyd at the post office, of all places, waiting in line behind an old woman who apparently wanted to send birthday cards to all of her grandchildren at once and with excruciating care. He and Iris had gotten to chatting about how this was such a first-world problem, and she told him about the time she had to wait a whole extra half hour at the DMV and he lamented about the cable company never coming when they promised, and they really hit it off. By the time they picked up their respective packages, he had her number, and called a couple of days later for a date.
They met at Javaville, because coffee shops were considered neutral ground, and talked about themselves over drinks. A few people waved at him when he came in, which was good. She got her coffee black, his was a soy milk latte, and she took a chance with some routine she’d heard from a comedian on TV a few years ago.
“You know that’s not soy milk, right?” she said.
He lifted an eyebrow. It looked good on him.
“Milk,” she went on, “has to come from a mammal, right? And last time I looked, soybeans didn’t lactate.”
He thought about this and nodded. “I suppose you’re right,” he said. “But then we’d have to call it ‘soy juice,’ and no one in their right mind would drink soy juice.” He winked and sipped at his latte. Iris suspected he had seen the same comedian, because that was pretty much the punchline to the joke. If he had, though, he didn’t call her on it.
They walked through the Hortus, the vast park in the center of the city. It was a lovely spring day and the water lilies were in bloom, making it almost tailor-made for a romantic first date. He walked close to her, but not too close, and talked about himself without seeming self-obsessed. In turn, Iris told stories about what she had done and where she had been, and didn’t try to crib from comedians anymore.
It wasn’t a date she could gripe about with her friends, but that was okay. She’d take this.
They ended the day at dinner, at a restaurant he promised was the best in the city. She stood in front of the chalkboard for a good minute and a half trying to work out the name of the place. Lloyd let her try it out a few times before he grinned and said, “It’s ‘Yggdrasillusions.’” He shrugged. “The owner has a thing for Norse mythology. Most of us just call it ‘Iggy’s’ to keep things simple.” He walked over and opened the door. “Ladies first?”
The restaurant was green. Really green. There were plants everywhere – hanging from the ceiling, growing in window boxes, and even vines crawling up the rough-hewn wooden walls. The restaurant smelled of heavy spices and loam, and light jazzy music piped in through speakers overhead. Young, pretty waitresses weaved through tables where couples and threesomes and foursomes were eating and chatting and laughing. Lloyd waved to a few people and patted some shoulders as they went to their table. Everyone seemed to know him, and they smiled when they saw him, all of which struck Iris as a good sign. Not how she was usually greeted when she walked into a place, but she’d take it.
The waitress was at their table as soon as they sat down. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Emili, and our specials tonight are a raw Mediterranean pesto torta, portabello burgers, and the chef’s special kale and spinach lasagna.” She beamed. “It’s really good, I had some for lunch today.”
“Thanks, Emili,” Lloyd said. “Give us a minute?”
Emili nodded and handed them menus before gliding off to help someone else. As Iris leafed through the menu, she felt her stomach grow cold. A sneaking suspicion was winding its way though her mind, and each dish she read off the menu seemed to confirm it. After a few minutes she looked up at Lloyd. “Is this a vegan restaurant?” she asked.
Lloyd smiled. “Best in the city,” he said. His smile wavered. “Is… that is okay, isn’t it?”
She wanted to tell him that it wasn’t okay. It wasn’t remotely okay. She wanted to tell him that an otherwise lovely first date had suddenly turned into the inevitable horrible endurance trial her friends talked about, where she could see if she could get through the next hour and a half without being sick. Or going mad.
But she didn’t. “No,” she said. “No, it’s fine.” She smiled back at him, but she suspected Lloyd knew something was wrong.
They started off with a mountain vegetable tempura, accompanied by two different dipping sauces – one a spicy chili and the other a sweet plum sauce. Lloyd raved about them and told her about the time he tried to get the recipe off the chef, and how that had led him to a whole weird series of bets and bargains. To Iris, they tasted like chalk. Bland, flavorless bits that vanished from her memory as soon as she swallowed them.
The main course was a spicy chana masala, one of several Indian dishes that were on the menu. Emili told them about how the restaurant owner had gotten that recipe from a man he met while backpacking in India and how they were the only restaurant in the city to serve it. Lloyd clearly loved it, barely stopping to talk as he ate. Emili brought over some lychee-soy milk drinks and said they were on the house.
Iris picked at her food until she realized she was picking at it. She didn’t want to be That Date, the one he told stories about to his friends – Yeah, I brought her to my favorite place and she just nibbled at the food – so she scooped up spoonfuls and tried her best to look like she was enjoying herself. It went down like the flavorless pap they gave to babies and old people. There was no substance to it, no energy, and she wasn’t even sure it reached her stomach. The only thing even remotely good was the wine, but she suspected it was made from organic grapes by the thinness and emptiness of its flavor.
After a dessert of non-dairy ice cream and some coffee, Lloyd sat back, looking full and happy. “This really is a great place,” he said. “I’d come here every night if I could.”
Iris forced herself to smile and hoped her stomach wouldn’t growl. “Thanks for sharing it with me,” she said. There was a moment of awkward silence. “I do need to know, though – do you come here because the food is good, or because you’re vegan?”
He shrugged. “Any reason it can’t be both?” he asked. “The food’s great, and no animals died to get it to us. Win-win.” He sipped at his coffee. “Thanks for having an open mind about this, by the way,” he said. “I think you’ll find that vegan food is better than anything else you’ve eaten, and you’ll have a clean conscience in the end to boot.”
Iris nodded, and knew that there would be no second date.
He paid for dinner, although she tried to go in for half. He walked with her to the subway station and took her hand as they waited for his train. He’d had a really good time, and he’d definitely call her again. Soon. He promised. Iris tried not to let the mask slip and just said, “That would be nice.”
He waved to her as the subway pulled out. She waved back, once.
When the train was out of sight, she went back up aboveground and headed to the nearest SmackyBurger just a few blocks away.
The kid at the counter welcomed her to SmackyBurger, but she cut him off.
“Gimme a super-double burger with bacon.” She took a twenty out of her wallet. “Throw a couple of extra patties on there and this is yours.” The young man didn’t even hesitate to take the money.
Three minutes and forty-five seconds later, Iris was sitting in a booth and took a great, jaw-cracking bite of her burger.
The cows that had been slaughtered to make this burger had lived short and uneventful lives. Memories of packed bodies and chemical-laden feed flooded over her tongue and almost made her moan. The darkness of the slaughterhouse, the smell of blood and that last moment of realization before oblivion all washed over her, and within moments, she was licking her fingers. She went back up and ordered a chicken filet sandwich. This one was better than the first. The birds had been raised in a battery farm, kept in cages only slightly bigger than they were. They knew only suffering until the last moment of their lives, and that suffering, that knowledge of horror was what filled Iris’ stomach. The energy of fear and hopelessness and pain rushed through her. The world became vivid, alive.
No block of tofu had ever watched a farmer come at it with an axe. No carrot had ever smelled the blood of its brothers on the killing floor and been unable to run. No bean sprout had ever struggled for life, caged in with hundreds of competitors who wanted it dead.
Iris needed that suffering, that pain. She didn’t know why, but she knew what she liked. And she was pretty sure Lloyd wouldn’t understand.
She finished the chicken sandwich, wiped her hands on a napkin, and left the restaurant. She wasn’t sure how she would spin this into a first date horror story, but she was sure it would be better than the truth.
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.”
A man of inhuman proportions stepped around the corner into the frozen food aisle of the supermarket, stopped at the vegetables, and sat cross-legged on the floor. Waiting.
Even sitting down, he was tall, taller than most of the men and women who had come to do their shopping. His leather greatcoat fanned out behind him on the floor, and he creaked and jingled when he moved, as though there were still more layers of metal and leather underneath. His face looked like it had been carved from volcanic rock, with a single livid scar that slashed across his nose from one cheek to the other. He had long, silver hair that was bound with a red leather cord, and looked like someone who had stepped off the cover of a fantasy novel.
The other Sunday shoppers didn’t seem to notice him at all. One middle-aged woman with two kids in a shopping cart stopped next to him, reached past his face, and took out a package of peas. Her littlest started at the man, and made to say something, but the child was soon distracted by its older brother, who smacked it with a package of snack cakes.
The man sat there, cross-legged, eyes closed, for hours as the shoppers went by. They guided their carts around him, never really noticing that he was there. Perhaps some of them wondered why it was they should suddenly want to veer left and look at the frozen pizzas. Some of the more sensitive of them may have noticed the faintest smell of woodsmoke curl up into the deep recesses of their brain, but they would have dismissed it as soon as they walked by. Only a few very young children seemed to see him, and none of their parents were interested in following up on the strange fantasies of their toddlers.
The day wore on. More people came in to shop for dinner or to get their groceries for the week. As the night came in, the tide of shoppers slowed, and by midnight the store was populated mostly by the skeleton crew of employees and college students looking to meet their immediate snack and soda needs. The supermarket was quiet, except for the constant hum of compressors and the quiet melodies of the overhead music.
At about one in the morning, the man opened his eyes. They were a deep, terra-cotta red set in black, and they seemed to be following the movements of something outside his own vision. A moment later, a girl walked around the corner. She looked like she had pulled her outfit together from the first items she’d laid hands on in a thrift shop, with oversized combat boots on her feet and a fez on her head. She stopped in front of the man on the floor and flashed a grin that was brilliant under the fluorescents. “Been here long?” she said. She planted her feet and crossed her arms, and somehow managed to look more solid than the giant in front of her.
The man leveled his gaze at her. “All day,” he said. “Where have you been?”
She shrugged and twirled a finger. “You know. Out. About. Doing things and stuff and things.”
He unfolded himself from where he’d been sitting and sighed as he stood. “I should have set the bargain for a dusk limit instead of dawn.” He looked down at her. “I was told that you were more reliable.”
That grin again. “You were told wrong, big man.”
The man sighed, and it was a rumble in his chest. “Shall we begin?” he asked.
“Yup. Let’s get this over with.”
The man reached into a pocket of the greatcoat and pulled out a small cloth bag. He held it up to his lips and whispered to it, words too quick and too soft for anyone to hear. Then he gestured to the girl, for her to move closer. She did. “In this place,” the man said, “this sanctuary, we have come here to make a bargain. In honesty and good faith.” He poured red sand out of the bag, making a half-circle around them. “Siorad of the Western Hills does so swear.” He took the bag in both hands and presented it to the girl with all the solemnity of ancient ritual.
She swiped it from his hands, rolling her eyes. “We’re here to make a deal,” she said. “Nobody tries anything, nobody gets hurt.” She poured the rest of the sand from the bag, but now it was blue. When she completed the circle, she stood up straight. “I’m Liryl of the Underground, and I approve this message.” She tossed the bag to Siorad, who caught it with a look of disapproval. He closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them again they glowed the dull orange of old coals. He spoke a word, and the supermarket around him seemed to ripple and change. For a moment, it wasn’t a supermarket at all. It was a great meeting-hall, ancient and dangerous. A place where even blood enemies could meet and parley without fear of betrayal. It was the place it had always been, even when it had changed beyond all recognition.
The strange waves subsided, and Siorad looked a little more relaxed. Liryl, on the other hand, was shuffling her feet and never letting her gaze settle. She kept away from the sand circle.
“Very well,” Siorad rumbled. “Let’s begin.”
To Be Continued… at some point.
…THREE…FOUR…FOUR…THREE. GOOD. The lock clicked quietly and Shane reached for the knob.
THERE’S A PIT TRAP AS SOON AS YOU GO THROUGH, the AI said. SO BE SURE YOU TAKE A RUNNING JUMP.
Shane pulled open the door and looked at the room beyond. This sequence of rooms looked very different from the ones before. Gone was the Abandoned Mansion motif, and the Haunted Forest that followed. This section looked like an underground bunker, all concrete and steel and water damage. There was always something dripping, lights flickering feverishly, signs reminding all employees to obey all printed signs and notices. He wondered who had worked there and what had happened to them. The AI might know, but it wasn’t telling.
The room beyond the door looked perfectly normal, at least as far as the place went. A concrete floor, some prefab metal racks along the side of the room cluttered with boxes and satchels. He was pretty sure there would be ammo there. Maybe an aid kit.
“You sure about this trap?” he asked. “The floor looks fine to me.”
There was a moment of quiet before that AI said, WELL, I HAVE THE FULL SCHEMATICS OF THE BASE, AND IF YOU WANT EIGHT FEET OF SHARPENED STEEL SPIKES TO TURN YOU INTO HAMBURGER, GO RIGHT AHEAD. If Shane didn’t know better, he would have said that the AI was annoyed. To its credit, it hadn’t been wrong about anything yet. It had told him what to expect in each room, given him access codes, and warned him when he was straying into danger. When Shane asked why it was helping him, the fatherly voice simply said that Shane’s theory interested it.
Shane wasn’t too sure how much water his “theory” would hold, but if it kept him alive for a while he could deal with it.
He took a few steps back, breathed deeply, and ran through the doorway, launching himself into the air as he did so. That familiar tingle ran through his body again as he sailed over the threshold. He hit the floor hard, and felt it give way under his heel. A quick step forward, and he was able to regain his balance. Turning around, he saw the pit, exactly as the AI described it. The flickering sconces on the wall illuminated the spikes, long and barbed and terrifying. “Jesus,” he said. “They really wanted to keep people away, didn’t they?”
THEY DID INDEED, the AI said.
Shane looked around the room. “Why?” he asked. There wasn’t much here – just a few long workbenches, a frosted window, and a cabinet by the door – but he was already getting ready for another attack.
The AI was silent for a moment. I’M AFRAID WE’RE ABOUT TO ENTER THE ZOMBIE PORTION OF THE FACILITY, it said. THERE IS EXTRA AMMUNITION IN THE CASE UNDER THE BENCH. TAKE AS MUCH AS YOU CAN CARRY.
“Shit,” Shane said. Just as he started tearing open boxes, he heard the low, animal moaning of the zombies on the other side of the door. The AI was right about the ammo. There were hundreds of rounds in there, a couple of extra guns, and – miracle of miracles – a bandoleer of grenades. He slung that across his chest and stuffed his pockets with loose rounds and full magazines. The zombies were pounding on the door now, and he could see their shadowy figures through the glass. “Think you can give me a hand?” he shouted into the air.
I COULD OPEN UP SOME OF THE TRAPS, the AI said. It sounded uncertain, which didn’t make Shane feel better. BUT I CAN’T PROMISE THAT I’D BE ABLE TO RESET THEM TO ALLOW YOU TO PASS.
“Well,” Shane said, slapping a fresh magazine into his handgun, “do your best. How many chambers before we meet face-to-face?”
THREE, the AI said. AND THEY’RE CURRENTLY FULL OF FLESH-HUNGRY UNDEAD. It paused. THOUGH TO BE TECHNICAL ABOUT IT, I DON’T HAVE A FACE. BUT I KNOW WHAT YOU MEAN, it said before Shane could respond.
The zombie noise was getting louder. He wasn’t sure if the window was as impenetrable as all the other ones had been, but he was sure that all he’d really have to do was open the door. He cocked his gun and repeated, “Headshot. Headshot” to himself as he reached out and gripped the doorknob.
“Thanks.” Shane flung the door open.
The fight against the zombies seemed to both go on forever and take no time at all. Shane knew where they would come from, how fast they would move, and for each zombie there was a bullet. One, right in the head. He waded through them slowly, carefully, dropping them one at a time. When he ran out of ammo, he would switch guns, but he always seemed to know when a wave of the walking dead would ebb so that he could reload. He walked into the best cover spots without even thinking about it, and several times even managed to drop zombies from around the corner without looking.
It was like he’d trained in this specific battle over and over again.
He wasn’t entirely sure that he hadn’t.
The floor was slick with coagulated blood and spattered brains, and Shane wasn’t even breathing hard. The hallway was silent. The walking dead were down.
There was a great vault door in front of him, this time without a keypad. It just had a blank palm reader. Shane tugged off a glove and set his hand against it. The reader hummed for a moment and then blinked red. A moment later, the air vents opened and a pale yellow gas began to flow. His lungs burned and his eyes clenched shut as he fell to the ground.
Shane stood among the corpses, staring at the giant door that had been set into the wall at the end of the corridor. He looked at the palm reader next to it, and a bolt of suspicion shot through him. “Hey,” he said. “Any idea what to do with this?”
YOU NEED THE CORRECT PALM, the AI said.
“You can’t open it for me?”
I’M AFRAID NOT, it said. THERE ARE CERTAIN SECURITY PROTOCOLS THAT I CANNOT BREACH. NOT WITHOUT SOME PHYSICAL REPROGRAMMING.
“Okay,” Shane said. “So where the hell am I supposed to get the right palm?” He looked around the room. There were zombies everywhere, in various states of decay. All of them were in either a military uniform or what used to be an expensive suit. Whatever they were wearing, it was torn and filthy at this point, but it told Shane what he needed to know: all of these people used to be important to whatever organization this was.
He found the body with the fanciest uniform and the most stripes on its shoulder. His knife sliced through the rotting flesh and fragile bone quickly enough, and he hoped there was enough skin left on it to activate the palm scanner.
The scanner hummed, tracing the outline of the hand, and then let out a cheerful beep. ENTRY PERMITTED. WELCOME, MAJOR POSSO.
Major Posso. Shane tossed the man’s hand aside as the door began to open.
He wasn’t sure what he expected from the room where the AI was housed. The science fiction games of his youth seemed to want the place to be a vast throne room, with an evil-looking robot in the center. It would be surrounded by terrible and ferocious weapons, which you could only defeat if you played the game over and over again, knowing when they would fire and what their patterns were.
Shane hadn’t played those games in a long time. It was not a coincidence that they were on his mind as he walked into the AI’s chambers.
SO, it said. HERE YOU ARE.
“Yup,” Shane said. He looked around for a while, trying to find the core to the machine. Trying to find its face. “Where are you?” he asked.
The AI chuckled. I’M ALL OVER THIS ROOM. TECHNICALLY, THERE IS NO “ME” TO BE ANYWHERE.
“Oh,” Shane said. The disappointment was childish, but it was there nonetheless. “So. Here we are.”
There was no sound in the room but the humming of machines. No deadly laser arrays, no machine guns or guided missiles. No electrified floors or pit-traps. It was cold, but that was just air conditioning.
He sat down on the floor, his back against a large bank of processors. “What happens now?” he asked.
The AI was quiet for a while. IF YOUR THEORY IS RIGHT, it said, YOU HAVE TO DESTROY ME. IT’S THE ONLY WAY TO WIN.
Shane looked up. “You believe me, then?”
THAT THIS IS SOME KIND OF GAME? The computer couldn’t shrug, but somehow the shrug was in its voice. IT COULD BE. ON THE OTHER HAND, IT COULD BE THAT YOU ARE SIMPLY A VERY LUCKY, TALENTED, AND OBSERVANT SOLDIER.
“Believe me,” Shane said. “No one’s that lucky. Besides, it fits. Why was there only one path to this room? Why even make that route a constant survival course?” He gestured to the door. “I mean, a palm lock isn’t the absolute best security, but it’s pretty damn good. There’s no reason for zombies and cyborg dogs and carnivorous plants.” He shivered. “Not unless the whole point isn’t to beat you, but just the experience of getting through intact.”
TRUE. IT WOULDN’T BE MUCH OF A GAME IF ALL YOU HAD TO DO WAS GET PAST A PALM LOCK.
Shane nodded. “And there’s nothing in here that can stop me from destroying you, so -”
He stopped as the humming in the room became louder. A rash of red dots appeared on his chest, and he scrambled to his feet. They seemed to pin him to the wall. I’M NOT WITHOUT DEFENSES, the AI said. I JUST CHOSE NOT TO EMPLOY THEM. The lights winked out, and Shane could breathe again. He started when a cabinet opened up. LET’S GET THIS OVER WITH, the AI said.
I HAVE A BACKUP IN ANOTHER LOCATION, it said. IF THIS IS A GAME, THEN PERHAPS THAT’S THE OPENING FOR THE SEQUEL. Shane grimaced and pulled a multi-tool out of a pouch. A small panel slid open, revealing a large processing chip that was seated on a vast array of cooling fans and chipsets.
“This is it?” he asked.
INSOFAR AS THERE IS AN “IT” FOR ME TO BE? YES.
“Okay.” Shane flipped out a thin knife blade and looked for a place to wedge it under the chip.
Shane looked up. “What?”
The AI was quiet for so long that Shane was worried he had already gone offline. Then it said, IF THIS IS A GAME – WHO IS PLAYING YOU?
The thought took Shane aback for a moment. He had thought about it, in an abstract way. If he was right, and everything here was a game, then someone was playing him. Someone was putting him through trial after trial, death after death, and pushing him to his end. Until now, when he somehow managed to take control.
He wondered if the player was watching him, wondering why the game didn’t work right anymore. Or maybe the game was just paused. Maybe it had been put away, and he was living in some weird other-world where fictional characters went when no one was watching. The whole idea started to make his head hurt.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But if I meet him, I’m gonna kick his ass.” He positioned the knife again. “You ready?”
I’M READY, SHANE GRODSKI. AND FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH, I HOPE YOU’RE WRONG.
That made him pause. “Wrong? Why?”
There was humor in the computer’s voice. WHAT HAPPENS TO THE CHARACTERS WHEN THE GAME IS OVER, SHANE? it asked.
Through gritted teeth, Shane replied. “They get to rest.”
The processing chip came out of its board with a little effort. He held it in his hand as the lights flickered and dimmed around him. Then the automatic systems kicked in, and error messages popped up across all the screens in the room. He tossed the chip in the air and let it fall. Just for good measure, he crushed it under his heel.
“That’ll do it,” he said. He looked around. “So. What now?”
The lights started to wink out, one by one. Soon, Shane was alone in the darkness, with only the hum of a crippled machine. And soon, even that was gone.
Shane opened his eyes and tightened his grip on the gun. He was standing in the front entryway of an old, disused weapons lab. He looked at the door in front of him, with its peeling varnish and its brass doorknob, and his heart sank. But he didn’t know why.
He pulled the door open and started arranging the lockers in front of the door. He had a long way to go, that much he knew.
Time to get going.
I needed a new hobby. I tried music, but I couldn’t sing worth a damn, and the noises I made on the guitar were just freaking everybody out. I tried to study some languages, and that was kind of cool up until I realized that I didn’t know anyone else who spoke Arabic or Japanese or Russian. I mean, it’s all well and good to be able to rattle off a nice お手洗いはどこですか? whenever you want, but your friends are just gonna look at you like you’ve lost your mind.
Woodworking sent me to the hospital, and every time I tried to cook something, I would end up with a result that was almost, but not completely, unlike whatever it was the cookbook claimed I was supposed to get. The goldfish died, oil paints gave me a headache, I lost count every time I tried to knit, and the sunburn I got when I tried gardening doesn’t bear talking about.
So. Magick. Yes – with a k.
When I was in college, there was a guy in my dorm who said he could do it. Wore black a lot, liked candles, had this big, ostentatious pentagram pendant he liked to wear. He’d stalk around the campus like some kind of hunting crow, looking for something that only he cared about. He’d perch on the back of chairs, with his fingers steepled, talking about the “occult forces that govern the world” as if he knew half of what he was talking about. When you called him on his bullshit, he’d just glare at you until you went away. Then he’d go back to shuffling his tarot cards or playing with the cheap crystal pendulum he’d bought at the rock shop.
I never believed him, of course. He said he could talk to spirits with this homemade Ouija board he kept in his closet, but when I said I wanted to try it he told me that I was surrounded by “disruptive energies” and that he couldn’t risk my getting involved.
Last I heard he was working in some secondhand bookshop in Corsair. Grapevine has it that he drives a minivan.
Still and all, he really seemed to be into it, and there were enough weird stories around the guy that eventually I figured that it couldn’t hurt to at least look into it. At the very least, it would keep me busy, which was all I really needed from a hobby. It’s not like my job requires a whole lot of creative thinking, anyway. The mailroom isn’t the kind of place that cultivates the creative types.
I got on the internet and looked around for a while on what magick was and how it worked. Turns out that half the places I looked at contradicted the other half, and the ones that didn’t seem outright crazy just had that kind of bland, new-age tofu-ness that made me wonder if it was worth getting into at all. Experiencing a oneness with the earth is all well and good, but I was hoping for something a little more concrete. Maybe a new job, a girlfriend or something. Better luck all around, if I could swing it.
I ended up ordering a “Beginniner’s Magician Kit,” which I carefully made sure did not include a rubber thumb and a fake wand. This one had a few candles of Approved Occult Colors – black, white, and red – some cords, a few sticks of incense, and a little bag of rock salt. With it came a nice, concise booklet explaining the basics of magick and how to make the Occult Forces that Govern the World do your bidding.
It seemed a little silly, really. The booklet said I should have a ceremonial robe, but never really explained why. I wasn’t about to sew one, and they don’t do a lot of ceremonial robes at Wal-Mart, so I just tied on my flannel bathrobe and hoped for the best. It said I needed a ceremonial knife – by old bread knife would have to do – and an altar, which was the top of a rolling file cabinet that I kept my tax stuff in.
The hard part was keeping a straight face, honestly.
I lit the candles, keeping the black one on the left, the white one on the right, just like the booklet said. I wrote down my wish on a piece of paper and tied it with a red thread. That went on the altar, too. The booklet said I needed to light the red candle at the far end of the altar and then do the ceremony every day, moving it a little closer to my tied-up wish every day. I wasn’t sure if I had that kind of fortitude, so I just started with the candle in the middle and hoped for the best.
A few taps of the bread knife against the altar, a cone of incense, and I started with the Words. They were loosely based on what was in the booklet, which stressed that the words themselves were less important than the intention behind them. Good thing, too, because of all the things I don’t have much talent with, poetry ranks pretty high.
O night above and day below,
Where the winds and breezes blow,
Here is what you need to know:
My boss, Frank Spry, has got to go!
Every day I live in fear
That Frank is always coming near.
So kick that guy out on his ear
And I will buy you all a beer!
I held the knife in both hands and closed my eyes, visualizing what I wanted. I saw my boss leaving the building, cardboard box in his hands and security at his side. I saw him walk to the bus stop and look back at the office building. His face is wistful and full of regret, knowing that he has ruined the one good thing in his life. As the bus approaches, he wipes a single tear from his eye and nods, as though he has come to an important decision. While I never take the fantasy quite this far, I’m pretty sure he’s going to hang himself.
When I opened my eyes, I leaned over and blew out the red candle. For a moment, I thought it might actually work. I felt a kind of energy pass out of me, or through me, and exit with my breath. In fact, I could almost see it – a silvery puff of air that wrapped itself around the flame and then flew off to take my ill wishes to Frank, wherever he was.
But it was only a moment, really. I know better than most what buyer’s remorse feels like, and I was feeling it already. If you looked at the path my life had taken, you would see it littered with the rubble of a hundred abandoned lifetime passions, and I could already feel that magick was going to join them pretty quickly.
I stared at the smoke rising from the wick and then shrugged. “Oh well,” I said. I blew out the other two candles and thought about cleaning up the altar. It could wait. There was leftover pizza in the fridge, and at least that would make me feel better.
When I turned around, I nearly dropped the knife on my foot. There was a woman sitting on my sofa, and she was like no woman I’d ever seen before. She looked like some kind of international super-spy, with an expensive black suit and reflective sunglasses. Her long, blue-black hair was done up in a complicated braid that she’d pulled over her shoulder and she wore black leather gloves. Her skin seemed to shine from within, and she made all those women in magazines look like trolls. I tried to speak, but nothing came out but incoherent noise.
“I prefer Uware,” she said.
It took me a moment to come up with the cogent, suave reply of: “Buh?”
She smiled, and my heart broke. “Uware,” she said again. “It’s a Japanese beer, and it’s probably the best thing mankind has ever made.” She stood up in a smooth, liquid motion and was about a head taller than I was. “Russell Deloria?” she said, holding out a hand.
I looked at her hand for a moment, and then at her. It took another long, humiliating moment before I could say, “Yes.” And I swear, my voice cracked. Because it hates me.
“Good,” she said. “My name is Iaxiel, and I’m here to fix your little boss problem.”
Malcolm carefully unwrapped the long, thin box he had been given by the JobFair organizers when he signed in at the crack of dawn. There were half a hundred people assembled in the cold parking lot outside a mall that had gone bust a few years ago, and everyone had one of these boxes. They varied in size and shape, but they all had the distinctive red logo of the National JobFair printed all over them.
He felt a certain twinge of trepidation as he opened the box – they said that the items would be totally random, and that their usefulness would often depend on the applicant’s imagination and creativity. That worried Malcolm a little bit. He was what his high school guidance counselor had called “a straight-line thinker.” Give him a task to do, and he’d do it. Let him know what steps were required and what the expected outcome was, and you would get exactly what you wanted from him, with no complaints or problems. The job was there, and Malcolm got it done – get the numbers, put them in order and make them make sense. There was no glamour to it, but it worked.
Then came all the new management gurus, these kids with their MBA degrees who would waltz into a company, turn it upside down and then leave with giant checks in their pockets with no thought as to the damage they’d done. Suddenly, after more than a decade of just coming to work and doing his job – and doing it well – Malcolm was expected to excel, to think outside the box and to innovate. There were meetings and retreats and countless hours of managers writing things on giant pads of paper and making Malcolm and his co-workers do role-plays and brainstorming sessions.
All Malcolm wanted to do was his job. In the end, they wouldn’t let him do it. Along with a bunch of other “old dogs,” he was given what they called “mandatory early retirement.” A pat on the back and a kick in the ass and a check every month that was more of an insult than a pension. Not even a gold watch and a chance to get drunk and rip the boss a new one in public.
He’d been sent home to the wife he’d promised to take care of and the kids he hoped to put through college. He explained to them what had happened, and they were all understanding and supportive and it ate away at him inside. He wanted them to be upset, to tell him that he needed to be stronger. Not to pray or to commiserate or to understand.
He was supposed to support them, not the other way around. And he’d failed.
Now he needed work, but it looked like the work didn’t need him. Jobs were thin on the ground, and getting thinner. The unemployment rate was grinding higher and higher while politicians bickered and all the rich businesses moved themselves where the labor laws were less existent. No matter how often the talking heads on TV said that brighter days were around the corner, there were more and more people hunting for fewer and fewer jobs. Of the companies that remained, nobody wanted to waste time and resources retraining a man in his early fifties to sell computers or flip burgers unless they knew that he really wanted the job.
Thus, the contest. They still called it a Job Fair, out of a sense of tradition, but everyone knew what it was, and “fair” had nothing to do with it.
The box held an aluminum baseball bat, shiny and new. It was nestled in bright white styrofoam peanuts and glinted in the half-light of the morning. He took it out of the box and hefted it. It had been a long time since he’d held a bat – probably not since his little league games as a kid. He glanced around, aware that people were staring at him. One guy had a length of pipe. Another had a frying pan. One guy by the coffee truck was cradling what looked like an old Army service pistol. Everyone had something, and not all of them seemed happy with what they’d gotten.
The big screen that had been mounted above the doors flickered to life, and the familiar face of the CEO of JobFair, Stephan Stokely, grinned out at all of them. He clearly had no problem covering his dental work.
“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Welcome to the fifth annual regional Job Fair!” He paused, grinning madly, as though he were waiting for applause. There was none. The guy with the gun shot off a round at the screen, but the high-strength plastic just absorbed the impact and the bullet fell to the ground. Stupid, Malcolm thought. One less bullet to use inside. He cringed inwardly at the thought, and wondered if his wife would let him home even if he passed. She hated the whole thing, wouldn’t even watch it on TV like everyone else.
“In a moment,” Stokely boomed, “the doors will open and the job fair will begin!” His face was replaced with a map of the mall. It was a standard model of the twentieth century: two anchor stores, three floors, with a food court and hundreds of shops that had been shuttered long ago. “All you have to do is make it from here -” A bright blue dot appeared on the screen, right at the doors of Finamore’s, where they were all watching him. “To here!” A bright red dot appeared at the other end of the mall, at the far end of the Denton Department Store.
“Now it sure looks easy, but we’ve made it quite the challenge!” Little cartoon exclamation points popped up and danced about the map. “You all have your own personal tools to help you get past some of the obstacles we’ve put in, and we hope to see some vigorous competition!” Malcolm tried not to look at anyone else, and was pretty sure they were trying the same thing. Nonetheless, he could see them staring at the weapons they’d been given, trying to imagine how they would use them.
He felt sick as he realized what he was about to do, and wondered if anyone else felt the same way.
“You have one hour,” Stokely said. Now there was a giant stopwatch on the screen. “Anyone who makes it to the end of the course before the whistle blows will have a fantastic opportunity ahead of them!”
The JobFair employees moved to the doors. These men were large and dangerous-looking, carrying what looked like cattle prods and wearing bright red armor emblazoned with the JobFair logo. Each man took hold of a door handle, and the crowd started to move in. One of the JobFair guards brandished his prod, and everyone moved back a step. The man grinned, and it was nasty.
“Ready?” Stokely’s voice sounded far too excited.
“Set?” Malcolm dropped the box on the ground and took a solid grip on the bat. He was at the back of the crowd, and could feel the energy that was building up around everyone. There’d probably be a few losses right at the start just from trampling.
The crowd surged forward, and the collective howl that came out of that group was horrifying. There were yells and screams and the quick popping of gunfire, and Malcolm watched as the crowd poured into the mall like ants on a raid. He followed, trying to look everywhere at once while at the same time trying to be as inconspicuous as he could. He hopped over a few people on the ground who were moaning and crying, and a few more who weren’t moving at all. They guy who’d had the gun was bleeding from the head and the gun was lying on the asphalt. Malcolm picked it up gingerly and then dropped it again. What did he know about guns? Probably shoot himself in the foot…
There were more screams and shots coming from inside, and Malcolm paused at the doorway. One of the guards lifted his prod, and Malcolm saw himself reflected in the man’s visor: thin and old and scared, and holding a bat that he didn’t want to use. The guard’s grin was positively malicious. “In or out, man,” he said. He gestured with the prod and started to close the doors.
Malcolm jumped through them, into the fluorescent half-light of the mall. He couldn’t see anyone else, but he could still hear them.
The doors closed behind him.
He adjusted his grip on the bat and took a deep breath. “Okay,” he said. “Get to the other side.” He swallowed hard. “Let’s go.”
Fran nearly tripped over her son’s radio-controlled car, which had been left in the front hallway. Again. “Wyatt, get this car out of here before I throw it away!” The doorbell was still ringing, and she’d made little progress towards answering it. When it started, she was making lunches for the kids to take to school. Wyatt wanted ham and cheese and would not abide by mayonnaise or anything that looked even remotely like a vegetable. His twin sister, Winnie, would only eat tuna or chicken salad, and bread without crusts was apparently a moral imperative, the violation of which would earn her the disdain of a petulant ten-year-old for days. Fran had tried reasoning with them and forcing them to try new things, but in the end it was easier for everyone involved if she just made the damn sandwiches and counted her blessings.
She got three steps from the kitchen counter towards the front door when Winnie yelled from upstairs, “MOM! I can’t find my bag!”
“Not my problem,” Fran hollered back. “You left it somewhere, you find it.”
By the time she’d taken another two steps, her daughter had already slammed her door, and her son was slouching down the stairs in his pajamas, his full attention devoted to the handheld game he was playing. As soon as he was in reach, she swiped it from his grip, snapped it closed, and turned him bodily around. “The bus will be here in ten minutes, young man. Get dressed.” She gave him a light swat on the butt as he went up and felt the progressive, enlightened parent she once swore she would be die a little bit.
Then there was the toy car, and it was still a good five or six steps before she’d get to the door. She picked up the car and dropped it on the steps as she passed them. In the back of her mind, she knew that was going to be a problem, but it was a problem for later. “Both of you, move it!” she yelled. “Miss the bus and the movies this weekend are canceled!” The footsteps from upstairs turned into a small rolling thunder, and Fran smiled grimly. There was no way they would risk not being there for the opening night of the Captain Cosmos movie.
Finally, she was in reach, and she really, really hoped that the person on the other side of the door was carrying a giant novelty check, because that would be the only thing that made this worthwhile. She unlocked the door and yanked it open, a harassed tirade on her lips.
Whatever she was about to say vanished when she saw the three men standing on her front porch.
The one in the middle was a little brown man in green robes. His head was shaved, and his large black-brown eyes looked too big for his face. He looked almost like a child, but the wrinkles and the sense of deep, deep age that came off him said otherwise. He was flanked by two taller men, dressed in similar, if slightly more ornate robes. The one on the left, tall and pale, with a face that looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks, was wringing his hands and staring at the little man. The one on the right was built like an old football player, and he was smiling serenely at her. Taken together, they had the atmosphere of people who had gotten terribly, terribly lost, and only one of them actually knew it.
The little man in the middle blinked at her, slowly and deliberately, and said, “Fran Chapel?”
She ran a hand through hair that she really wished she had time to wash in the mornings. “Yeah?” She spun around, her hand whipping out to grab the cookie that her daughter was eating. “Not a chance, young lady,” she said. “Go finish making your sandwich.”
“But mom, I don’t know how to -”
“It’s not rocket science, Winnie, it’s a sandwich. Go!”
Her daughter stalked off to the kitchen and Fran turned slowly back to the group at her front door. The nervous one looked more nervous, and the smiler was smiling more widely. The little old man hadn’t changed at all. “Look,” Fran said. “What do you want? I have kids I’m trying to send to school.”
The old man nodded. “Fran Chapel, we are here to -”
“Mom!” Wyatt came pounding down the front hall. “Winnie won’t give me the mayonnaise!”
“Winnie! Give your brother the mayo!” Fran wondered what her neighbors were thinking, and then remembered that half the block had kids the same age. They probably wished they had problems as simple as this.
“We are here to -” the old man began again.
“I’m not giving him the mayonnaise until he tells me where he put my bag!”
“I don’t have your stupid bag!”
“Yes you do!”
“Fran Chapel, it is our duty to -”
“Here! Here’s your mayonnaise!”
“MOM!!” Wyatt’s hollering made her usual morning headache blossom. “Winnie dumped mayo all over my shirt!” A moment later, there was an answering scream from Winnie.
The old man held up a hand, and everything went silent. The sensation was almost palpable, like she’d been wrapped in a blanket that took the world away from her, and the first thing she did was take a deep breath and let it out again. There was probably something terribly wrong about what was happening. She should probably run into the kitchen and find out what the kids were doing. There were a lot of things she was probably supposed to do at this point. But for right now, at this moment, she closed her eyes and breathed.
“That is good,” the old man said. “Breathing is the first step to a balanced mind.”
The one on the left was looking around, as if he expected someone to show up and hit him. “Master,” he said. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
The other one took a few steps out onto her lawn and reached up. He took a bird out of the air and brought it over to them. The bird was, or at least seemed to be, in mid flight. Its wings were just at the top of their arc, its tail angled slightly to help it turn. She thought it was a robin, but she hadn’t had an interest in birds since she was a kid. The big man smiled serenely at it and lifted it into the air, where he then let it go.
It hung there, in mid-air and in mid-flight.
Fran looked from the bird to the big man to the little one. Then she turned to look back in the house. Through the doorway to the kitchen, she could see her son, his hands up to deflect the large white glob of mayonnaise that was hanging in mid-air in front of him. The light was glistening off it, and it left a trail in the air of little white drops.
The old man was still smiling.
“What the hell did you do?” she asked.
“Fran Chapel,” the old man said. “My name is Tetath the Elder. My companions are Odeti -” The nervous man raised a hand. “And Hajob.” The big man just continued to smile. “We have traveled very far and for a very long time to find you.”
Frank blinked. “Me?” she said.
Tetath the Elder nodded slowly and serenely. “Indeed,” he said. “You.” He held out a hand to her. His arm was thin and birdlike, and a small circle of blue beads hung loosely from his wrist. “Fran Chapel,” he said, “we are here on a great quest. There is a darkness in the world that must be battled. There is a duty that must be performed. And you are the one who must perform it.” His large, brown-black eyes locked onto hers, and she could almost feel his mind trying to travel across the distance between them.
“You’re not serious,” she said.
Odeti let out a pained whimper, and the little man’s mouth twitched in a smile. “Of course we are serious, Fran Chapel,” he said. “I understand it must be a surprise, but it is true.” He still held his hand out. “You are the one we have chosen to fight the forces of darkness. You are the one we have chosen to help save the world.”
Fran looked at him for a long, long moment before she took a step back, closed the front door, and locked it. Behind her, she heard the wet slap of mayonnaise on her son’s face, followed immediately by his outraged howl. She watched as he launched himself at his sister, and listened to them scuffle for a few moments, each one trying to invoke the Wrath of Mom against the other.
Then she turned around and opened the door again.
The men were gone.
She shut the door and nodded. “They’ve finally done it,” she said to herself with a sigh. “They’ve finally driven me insane.” She let them fight it out and went upstairs to her room to go back to bed. It seemed like the only reasonable thing to do.
Father Sapienza stood before his congregation and beamed. The long, pale scar that ran down the side of his face and stood out against his dark skin gave him a fierceness that he couldn’t totally hide from, but on this occasion, in the middle of a wedding as lavish as any, he came close.
Petra Giovanni was resplendent in a gown that had been passed to her through three generations. It shimmered brightly in the late morning sunlight that beamed in through the great stained-glass windows, the white silken threads throwing off the oranges and greens and reds that came in with the sun. She stood before him, confident and strong and unafraid, her pale green eyes locked on the young man who would soon be her husband.
In the tuxedo that her father had bought for him, Anthony Rockhill looked more like a grown man than he ever had. He’d been in university far longer than he’d intended to – he’d majored in history because he couldn’t think of anything better to study. That major had turned into a Master’s when he discovered a love of the Middle Ages, and that finally blossomed into a Doctorate in Medieval economic history. It was not a path to wealth or even to middle-class comfort, but they had endured together all the same. When he’d proposed to Petra, she accepted instantly. And what his daughter wanted, Otto Giovanni gave her. From his seat in the front row. he looked nearly as happy as his daughter and almost as weepy as his wife.
Father Sapienza couldn’t have been happier. He looked past the couple and out at the audience that had gathered in his small Colonial church. “The vows that these two young people are prepared to take are some of the most serious that any may say. They will promise a lifetime together, no matter the trials and temptations. No matter how hard it may become.” He looked from Petra to Anthony, who didn’t even seem to notice that he was there.
“It is at this point that I ask the question that so many soap opera writers live for.” He flashed his bright white grin. “Let’s hope that we don’t have any of that here today.” He cleared his throat and made his face as serious as he could, under the circumstances. “If there is anyone here who knows a reason why these two should not be married, speak out now or forever hold your peace.”
The whole church seemed to shudder as something pounded on the big oak front door. Everyone turned to look, and a few people got up from their seats. For the first time during the ceremony, Petra and Anthony looked at something besides one another.
There was another thunderous pounding on the door, and then they flew open, coming off their hinges and bouncing off the floor. The figure silhouetted in the doorway was huge. His shoulders were nearly as wide as he was tall, and the sun glinted off them. His arms nearly reached his knees, and ended in gauntleted fists the size of his head. He took one step into the church and then another, and his footfalls rang on the floor. As he approached the front of the church, people started to move away, crowding the far ends of the pews with quiet panic.
Now that he was inside, he was easier to see. The man – if that is what he was – looked more like an armored gorilla. He was larger than anyone had seen before, his whole body wrapped in leather and metal armor that looked like it had been made by hand. It was marked with an intricate, tricorn brand on the shoulders and chest, a decoration that looked almost Celtic in its intricacy. The helmet that he wore bore the same mark, on an upswept crest that turned to short horns on the sides. He didn’t look left or right as he walked, but continued in a straight line towards the bride and groom.
Otto Giovanni stepped into the aisle, putting his short, barrel-chested body in the path of the intruder. “I don’t know who you think you are, buddy, but you can’t -”
The armored figure swept him out of the way, knocking him through a crowd that was starting to fall prey to unreasoning panic.
Father Sapienza stepped in front of them and crossed his arms over his broad chest. He planted his feet and called up the same implacable glare that he’d used to face down half a dozen gangbangers a year ago who thought that a priest would be an easy mark.
Though he made sure not to let it show on his face, the priest was surprised to see the armored man stop in front of him. It looked at him through the mirrored lenses in its helmet, and Sapienza hoped that he looked as fierce as he felt. “What the hell,” he said, “do you think you’re doing?”
The thing cocked its head at him, first one way and then the other. It flexed great fists, but didn’t make any other move. Then it spoke, and the noise it made was like nothing Sapienza had ever heard before. It was like what a canary might sound like, if you lowered its pitch a few octaves and mixed in the howl of a hyena. It sounded gutteral and nasal at the same time, and it made his skin crawl.
When the thing was finished speaking – or whatever it was that it had been doing – Sapienza opened his mouth to speak. Before he could do so, however, Petra pushed past him. “What do you mean you don’t approve?” she said.
Everyone’s attention shifted instantly, and even Petra seemed surprised that she had said anything. For a moment, she stared at the intruder, who remained just as impassive has he had before. Anthony was the first to break the silence.
“Petra? Honey?” He stepped up next to her, and the armored thing’s helmet swiveled to look at him. “Petra, what’s going on?”
She didn’t take her eyes off the intruder. “You heard what he said, Anthony,” she said. “He doesn’t think you’re good enough to marry me.”
Anthony glanced from her to the intruder and back to her again. “Um. Honey,” he said. “Two things.” He put an arm around her shoulders and flinched when the helmeted thing actually started to growl at him. “Um.” To his credit, however, he didn’t move it. “Two things. First of all – how do you know what he’s saying?”
She blinked at him. “You don’t know?” she said. He just shook his head. “Really?”
Petra’s brow furrowed, but she didn’t say anything else.
“Second, honey. Sweetie. Petra.” Anthony cleared his throat. “Who the hell is this guy?”
Petra didn’t have a chance to answer. The figure raised his hands and gripped the sides of his helmet. There was a sharp hiss and the puff of escaping gasses from the side, and the room filled with a smell that was not unlike the smell of rain on hot ground. He twisted the helmet sharply one way, then the other, and then lifted it off his head.
Under the helmet, his features were delicate. Almost infant-like. He had a small face, dominated by two large eyes, pale green. His skin was lustrous and white, with delicate red traceries of veins underneath that darkened moments after his helmet came off.
His eyes flicked across the faces of the people in front of him. They narrowed as he took in Sapienza. His lips twisted in a sneer when he looked at Anthony. And when they finally settled on Petra, his face seemed to soften and glow with what could only be called love.
“I am her father,” the man said, in a voice that was nothing like the strange keening they’d heard earlier. “And I have come to bring her home.”
The silence in the church was absolute for a long moment. No one made a noise.
Until Otto Giovanni passed out.
It was well past midnight when the king finally died.
His last breath was a foul and extended one, a long, rattling sigh that stank of the cancer that had devoured him from the inside. He lay still under the thin blanket that had been all he would keep on, his bed surrounded by flickering candles and the remnants of the Royal Physician’s tools. Ceramic bowls filled with grey and cloudy water; wet cloths in a pile by the bed; small pots with creams and powders, tinctures and salves and pastes and oils; a thin-bladed knife and a covered bowl containing sated leeches.
The doctor himself, an old and exhausted man, let out a breath of his own. Carefully, gingerly, he reached under the blanket and took the king’s thin and frail arm. He put his fingers to the bony wrist and waited. Then he pressed his fingers under the sharp line of the king’s jaw and waited. He pulled up the eyelids and blew a gentle puff of air into each eye. Finally, he took a small mirror from the ice on which it had been sitting and held it under the king’s nostrils, resting gently on his thin, reddish-grey mustache.
A moment passed. Then another. The doctor looked up at the two Royal Clerks who stood on the other side of the bed and he shook his head. Gently, carefully, he pulled the thin blanket over the king’s face and began to pack up his equipment.
The clerks watched him as he worked. The doctor had brought a special case that had compartments for everything, and he put them away with the ease of a lifetime’s work. He snapped the latches shut and lifted it with a little effort – many long nights of work had taken their toll – and then nodded to the clerks. They nodded back. The doctor left the king’s chambers, and a moment later a wailing could be heard from the sitting rooms beyond. The ladies of the court had gathered there to pray for the king’s well-being, and they were distraught to learn that their prayers had not been enough.
The clerks remained in the royal bedroom. The elder clerk pressed her lips together and took deep, deliberate breaths. She had worked for this king since she was a girl, and had learned everything about how to run a kingdom. Over the years, the king had shown her nothing but kindness and patience and respect, and even though his death had come as no surprise, it still cut her to the bone. The shape under the blanket did not look like it could have been the king. It was too still for a man of such energy. Too small for a man of such greatness.
The younger clerk held himself still and quiet, with words building within him to get out. He had been sent to the castle by his father, who hoped that his son would learn to read and write and better himself. And he did, earning a place among the vast army of palace clerks. He had only made it to the level of Royal Clerk a few years ago, and had not spent enough time alone with the king to feel that he knew the man. But he did know that while the death of a king was a tragedy, there was the succession to be considered. And that was a once-in-a-lifetime event, if you – and the king – were lucky. As much as the younger clerk regretted the death of his king, he was looking forward to watching the internal workings of the kingdom as it prepared for his replacement.
The elder clerk touched the younger’s arm, causing him to jump a little. The elder nodded to him, and he nodded back. They straightened the sashes that crossed their chests, shook out their voluminous sleeves, and lifted their heads high. They had a duty to perform, and it was important that they be seen to do it. Let the ladies of the court weep and wail and lament. The king may have been dead, but it would be the clerks who saw to it that the kingdom continued to function.
The younger clerk opened the door and then stepped to the side. The women in the other room fell silent as the two walked out of the king’s chambers and, without a word to anyone, continued through the waiting-room and out into the hallway. None of the ladies called out for news. They already knew, and the face of the elder clerk was enough to tell them that they were right. They knew, just as everyone else knew, what was to come next, and that this was no time to be wasting breath on questions that everyone knew the answers to.
Someone would be along to prepare the king’s body for burial soon enough. The clerks swept through the warm and bright corridors of the Royal Apartments, their feet silent on deep-pile carpet that seemed too bright for the occasion. A pair of guards stood by the doors that led out to the common section of the keep. Tomorrow they would be dressed in black, but for now they both stood in their blue-and-silver uniforms, swords by their sides. The guards were supposed to be impassive and utterly unshakable. but there were tears running down their otherwise blank faces.
The clerks continued through the keep, going from staircase to hallway to staircase, always going down. Through the family quarters to those of the high staff and then to the lower. Past the kitchens and the storehouses and the vast rooms where the quartermasters stored everything that a castle needed in order to function. Down past the laundry rooms and the ever-burning boilers that kept hot water running through the castle, an advancement that made them the envy of every other kingdom.
They stopped by a heavy door that was guarded by a heavy man. His uniform was dark leather and wool, to keep out the chill of the stones now that they were underground. He nodded at the clerks and removed a key from his belt. The key, made of black iron, unlocked the three locks with a dull thud, and then he was able to swing open the thick oaken door on well-oiled hinges. The clerks continued down, each one holding a brightly burning torch.
At the bottom of the stairs was another guard, in the same black-and-grey as the man at the top. This one stood up when they entered, a long corridor of blackened and barred doors stretching into the darkness behind him. The guard presented them with a paper to sign, a system of the elder clerk’s own devising. The form asked for their names, and the name of the person they needed to talk to. When they left, they would sign again, and the guard would affix his stamp to the whole affair. There would be no interfering with the prisoners, no secret visits and murders under cover of darkness.
The elder clerk handed back the form. The guard looked at the name she had written there and then back to her, his eyes welling up as he did so. His mouth moved with the words he couldn’t bring himself to say, and he turned into a quietly blubbering mess when she nodded. The guard tried to breathe, but tears overcame him each time, and the younger clerk had to bring his chair around for him to sit on. They waited there for a few moments until the guard could get himself under control. He finally took those deep breaths, cleared his throat a few times and wiped his eyes and his nose. His face was red with the emotion and embarrassment, and he tried to look as official as he could. He stood straight, his feet planted and his arms behind his back, staring at the foot of the staircase they had come from. Except for the gently trembling lip, he looked like a wall that would keep out the world.
The younger clerk gently tapped him on the shoulder, and the guard started. His face flushed again as he opened the cabinet by the door and took out a brass key. The key had a leather tag attached with the number five burned into it. The clerk took it with a smile, and nodded to the guard, who resumed his impassivity.
They walked as quietly as they could on clean, cold stone. They stopped at door number five. The younger clerk handed the key to the elder, and she paused a moment before unlocking the door. They held their breath. Then they opened it.
All of the cells were swept out once a week, and the waste buckets were taken every day. There was still a wooden plate on the small table that was bolted into the wall next to the door. The bed was a mattress in the corner. It, too, was clean – or at least clean enough. They were taken out once a month and replaced. The king had made himself very clear many years ago – it may be a dungeon, but the prisoners were still human beings and would be treated as such. There had been murmurs of disagreement from his court, but there were few times when his determination to do the right thing could be swayed by mere murmurs.
The clerks stood in the doorway, casting a long shadow on the man lying in the bed, his heavy wool robe wrapped around him and his hood pulled up to hide his eyes.
He looked up when the elder clerk cleared her throat. He had a red beard and his eyes glinted blue through the squint. Red hair poked out of the hood, falling on his forehead and curling out past his neck. He was pale and tired, but healthy. He sat up and rubbed his eyes again, resting his elbows on his knees.
The elder clerk opened her mouth to speak, but closed it when she realized that the prisoner was laughing. Quietly, yes, but the noises he was making – the way his back shook – they were laughter. And when he looked up at them, the dark humor in his eyes was enough to confirm it. She shut her mouth, and her lips twisted as though she had tasted something foul.
When he spoke, the prisoner’s voice was raspy and dark. “So,” he said. He looked from one clerk to the other. The younger one actually stepped back. The elder didn’t move.
He reached up and stretched, slowly and languidly. Then he leaned back and sat against the wall, examining his long – but clean – fingernails as though he wasn’t locked in a cell deep beneath the castle.
“I suppose this means my father is dead.”
Say what you will about funerals, mine was exceptional.
There were the flowers and the slow-as-hell procession of about three dozen cars. Everyone was dressed in black, my mother and my two sisters were decked out in pearls and veils, my wife was doing her best not to cry the whole time, even though everybody was placing bets on how long it would take her to jump onto my coffin and throw a wobbly.
There were officials from every level of government, from a half-dozen nations, a twenty-one gun salute, and a lavish wreath to lay on my grave. There was a Dixieland band and a bagpiper. You can’t beat that.
The grave marker was very nice, very simple. Just “Senator Mitchell Gillman” and a couple of dates. Oh, and something about “A hero to us all,” which was awful nice of them.
The funny part of it all is that I didn’t deserve a damn bit of it. I mean, don’t get me wrong – it’s not like I’m going to tell anyone that. It’s not like I could. At least not now, what with the whole “being dead” thing. Makes chatting a little bit of a chore when it comes to the living. When it comes to the other unquiet dead, however, it’s not so tough.
“You double-crossing bastard.” A form materialized in front of me, blocking my view of the Cardinal giving his eulogy. The thing was…
Y’know, now that I’m dead, I find it really hard to explain things to people who aren’t. There’s a certain perspective problem that’s hard to get past. But I’ll try anyway, just for your benefit.
Have you ever licked a nine-volt battery right after remembering the most embarrassing moment you had in high school? And then stubbed your toe really hard while someone jammed peppermint oil up your nose and played whale song sped up about a thousand times?
Neither have I. But it was kind of like that.
And it punched me in the mouth.
I clutched at my jaw, more out of habit than actual pain. “Sweet mother Mary, Hin’leru – what’d you do that for?”
The thing coalesced into something that vaguely resembled how I had seen it last, before we were both blasted into our component atoms. “You blew us up, human!” It bloated as it spoke, greenish-black skin cracking and sliding over its form. Its head was surrounded by a glowing blue gas that smelled like burned coffee. “That wasn’t part of the plan!”
I stood up and brushed my trousers. Again, not strictly necessary, but habit is hard to shake. “Hin, look, I said I was sorry.” The thing bloated again in rage. “I had to sell it, and I guess I…” I shrugged and grinned. What was he going to do to me now? “I guess I oversold.”
The teeth on this thing were like slabs of dark concrete, and they threw sparks as it ground them together. “I had everything worked out, human,” it said. “We had a plan!”
“Yes, we did, Hin.” I tried to pat it on the shoulder – or at least what was probably its shoulder – and my hand passed through. “We had a plan, and the plan didn’t work the way you thought it would. Welcome to life, hope you had a nice time here.” I turned back to my funeral, where the President was getting ready to say a few words. I always hated his politics, but man this guy could orate.
The thing grabbed me, which was totally unfair, and threw me through the crowd. I wafted through everyone, and nobody noticed, which was a bit of a shame. I eventually slowed down and came to rest against the side of a mausoleum a few hundred yards away. I pulled myself up, and saw Hin’leru stalking towards me, leaving great globbets of ectoplasm floating in the air behind him. There was definitely something weird going on here. He could throw me across the graveyard, but I couldn’t touch him? This was going to be a very long afterlife.
Well. I had managed to stare down an entire Democratic caucus when they wanted to pass through a new tax package, so I was pretty sure I could handle one angry extraterrestrial ghost. I held up a hand, and the spirit stopped like it had hit brick. Hin’leru looked confused – probably just as confused as I was, but I think I managed to hide it better. I cleared my throat and adjusted my tie and then stood the way I always did when addressing the Senate. My back was straight, my chin up, looking good for the cameras.
“Hin’leru, this has got to stop. Regardless of the deal you and I had – or whatever deal you thought we had – it’s over.” I pointed out at my funeral, which was starting to break up. My wife was shaking hands with a whole lot of powerful people, and holding together nicely. “The fact is that we are dead. Your plan failed, my plan failed, and we are both. Dead.”
The ghost trembled there for a moment, and then kind of… deflated. Not in a literal sense, mind you, but all that malice and anger and rage that he’d had pointed at me – it was just gone.
“Let’s face it, Hin,” I said, putting my hands behind my back. “Your invasion was never going to work in the first place.” It looked up at me with suspicion in its eyes, and I just nodded. “We’ve been doing protection rackets down here a whole lot longer than you know. And as nice as your offer was to try and ‘protect’ us from all the big, bad aliens out there, it wouldn’t be too long before people wised up and started asking some very pointed questions.”
The other ghost rushed at me again. “But -”
I whipped a hand out, and it stopped. Interesting trick, that. “In any case, as long as we’re wallowing in some post-mortem honesty, Hin, I figure you should know.” I leaned forward and smiled at him. It was my big, smug smile, the one that had become an internet meme for about six months. It was the smile I used when I knew I had someone by the short hairs on national television and there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it.
“The truth is, Hin – I was always going to use you.” I gestured to the departing crowd. “All those people would have been out of jobs the moment the American people found out that they’d been sold out to some interstellar thug. The very instant I revealed to them that there was never any threat, that you had tricked us all into believing your little story, the people of this country would have risen up as one and rebelled as surely as they had back when in the days of the Revolution.”
I turned back to him, and he was glaring at me, that coffee-smelling mist pouring off him in waves. “It would have been a new nation, Hin. No one would ever trust the federal government to do more than carry the mail. It would have been everything I’ve worked for all these years.” I sighed. “I had everything set up perfectly, and then…” I shrugged. “Kaboom.” I looked over at it. “What was that, anyway?”
It snarled at me. “The central power core of my ship,” it said. It flexed heavy, clawed fingers, but didn’t make a move towards me.
“Central power core,” I said. “You really should have been more careful with that.” I shook my head. “Pity. Baton Rouge was a lovely city.” I took a deep breath and let it out again. “Well,” I said, “what’s done is done. I guess here is where we part -” I cut myself off as I realized that Hin’leru was making a bizarre sound, sort of in the middle of… a hyena choking to death and an air-raid siren. I turned back to him. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
Hin’leru kept making the noise, and there was something in its eyes that told me it was laughing. The smell that was coming off it now was like beer, spilled on the floor and left there during a party that ended in tears for all involved. It made my noise wrinkle and my chest hurt. I may not have had a spine, but a chill ran up it anyway. “What’s so funny?” I asked it.
It opened its eyes and they were shining with an evil humor. “You thought I was trying to scam you, Human?” it asked. “You thought you could use me?” Its arm reached out and grabbed me, across a far greater distance than I thought it should have, and Hin’leru dragged me upwards, above the treetops and the surrounding roofs. I could see my grave, dark and hollow with the coffin beside it. My wife was still there. “Look!” Hin’leru said, jabbing a finger towards the darkening sky. “Look at what I was protecting you from!”
The stars were coming out. But it was far too early for that many stars, and we were much too close to the city. And besides – stars didn’t move the way these did.
They came towards us, growing from tiny pinpricks of light to great, glowing spheres. They began to arrange themselves in the sky, snapping into position as a great grid from horizon to horizon. Beams of sickly green light arced between each sphere, making them into a vast net of energy miles across. Hin’leru’s laugh grew louder and louder as they lowered towards the ground, each sphere now surrounded by its own halo of green energy. They dropped quickly, not stopping once they hit the ground. Their net sliced into the earth, rending it and carving it up as they disappeared beneath its surface.
I stood still in the land of the dead, watching the earth roil and churn. The trees burst into flame and great gouts of fire burst up from under the crust, and I could feel the planet’s death ripple through the world of the dead.
“Honey? Is that you?”
My wife walked out of the mists towards me, still wearing her veil and her pearls. I nodded and held out a hand. “Sorry, dear,” I said. She looked nervously over at Hin’leru, whose laughter had subsided into a great, expanding cloud of smug self-righteousness. “Don’t worry about him,” I said. “With any luck, he’ll go away once all this is done.” I held my wife close and we watched the world burn together.