Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Upon This Fragile Thread

Kate sat on a cot in the basement of her store, a flickering flourescent bulb causing a mild strobe effect that gave the room a sense of the unreal. One could pretend it was all a dream, or a sad drug trip, rather than the grim reality they'd all been forced to face in the past few days.

She had been fortunate. After 9/11, her boyfriend at the time, Zack, had converted the unused basement of her shop into a survival shelter. A series of large yacht batteries would provide power for decades if need be, and there was enough food to last even longer. Zack had been a bit strange, and something of a prick, but she felt grateful to him then, and hoped he was okay.

When the riots started, she led the customers in her shop down to the basement shelter. They assumed the authorities would restore order soon, but they hadn't counted on the severity of the riots. Before the phones went dead completely, one of the customers had managed to contact her husband. He was holed up in their house with their son, keeping the rioters at bay with a shotgun. He'd told her not to count on help from the police, as many of the rioters were in uniform. Or, the remnants of uniform, anyway.

That was one of the first things the rioters had done; tear their clothing to shreds, or simply discard them completely. They were part of a growing movement called The Prehistorics, and their mission seemed to be nothing less than the total eradication of all human civilization. Fortunately, in escewing the trappings of modern civilization, they were restricting their choice of weapons. Rocks and sticks were all they would use, so a few people armed with guns were usually able to fight them off. The problem was, more people joined them every day, leaving less people to fight them.

It was the Video, of course. That's what had started this whole thing. The damn Video. It had been broadcast over the Web the previous week, and the result had been rapidly escalating anarchy.

The sound of tearing paper roused her from her reverie. She looked over at Dave, one of the customers who'd taken refuge with them. He was slowly tearing pages out of his Bible, crumpling them up and tossing them in the corner. She couldn't blame him. After the Video, religion meant nothing.

The woman who'd called her husband held her little girl close. The little girl had been weeping intermittently since they'd taken refuge here, and her mother had spent most of her time comforting her. Kate smiled. There was something the Video couldn't change: a mother's love for her child.

Unfortunately, it had changed most everything else. No one could say for certain who it was who had leaked the Video in the first place, but all evidence pointed to a NASA employee. He had been part of a secret project devoted to deciphering and decoding data that had been stored on a strange collection of disks found on the moon over 30 years ago.

Once the Video had been leaked, top NASA officials had verified its authenticity, and revealed its source. During one of the manned flights to the moon, astronauts had discovered a cave, and the remains of an alien being inside. The being had not been dead long, and it was later determined that it was the astronauts' breaching of its environment that had caused the alien to asphixiate. The astronauts found an elaborate collection of highly advanced recording devices, along with what they assumed to be the storage media. They brought the disks back to Earth with them, along with as much of the equipment as would fit. Later missions retrieved the rest. Attempts to decipher the data on the disks led to reverse engineering of the equipment, which in turn led to many of the advances in digital media over the recent decades. Finally, after many years of hard work, scientists managed to decipher the data. What they found shocked them so profoundly that they decided to destroy it, thereby keeping it from discovery.

But one of the scientists, likely a low-level technician, stole a copy of the data and broadcast it worldwide. It seemed the alien had been recording the development of the human race from its earliest existence, to what purpose no one could guess. With the release of the Video, the people of the world were given a definitive account of human history, from their earliest days up to the late 1960s. It disproved every pre-existing historical account, both religious and scientific. It proved beyond all doubt that the greatness of human civilization was a lie, and the true history of the world was so disturbing that most people immediately lost their minds.

Others did not. They saw the footage, and were understandably distrubed by it, but believed that the world they lived in was real enough, despite the fallacy of its origins. They were determined to continue living their lives, the revelations of the Video be damned.

Unfortunately, such people were few, and becoming fewer. In the wake of the Video, houses of worship around the world were burned to the ground, religious leaders were lynched, and the great holy sites were either destroyed or vandalized. The Vatican was still burning, as far as anyone knew, and the Middle East had been laid waste when Israel, India and Pakistan emptied their nuclear silos. The Prehistoric movement had started up soon after, and was growing exponentially each day. With all of human history proved a lie, they decided to revert to a time before history and start the process of human development all over again. Kate wondered how long they would need to hide until the movement burned itself out and reason was restored to--

She noticed then that Dave had stopped tearing his Bible. She looked up and saw that the mother and her daughter were crouched next to his body, eating pieces of his flesh. They were naked and smeared with his blood, a wild gleam in their eyes. In the far corner, Lila and Jack, two others who'd taken refuge with her, began tearing at their clothes. She gasped in horror, drawing the attention of her savage companions. The mother picked up the large can she'd bludgeoned Dave with and, with a low growl, began to creep toward Kate. Jack looked on her with an animal lust, while Lila began grooming him.

Kate knew reasoning with them would be futile, so she did the only thing she could to stay alive. She smacked the can away from the young mother, and clawed deep gouges in the other woman's face. Then, ripping her clothing to shreds, she tore a hunk of meat from Dave's corpse and offered it to Jack, assuming a submissive posture at his feet. Jack ate it hungrily, allowing Kate to join Lila in grooming him. The mother and her daughter would join them later. After that, they would destroy the lights and the batteries, finally venturing outside to add their small tribe to the growing mob.

Kate would eventually bear Jack three children, before dying a few years later from exposure during a harsh winter.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Lost Time

Chen Michaels took his wife and two young sons on the maiden voyage of his prototype time-traveling starship. The family immediately became lost, and wound up sailing the timestream across numerous galaxies, from one madcap adventure to the next, always with an eye toward their proper time and place. For a while, these adventures gave the family a sense of purpose. Chen actually posited the theory that they were meant to be lost, so that they might help as many people as they could, and learn as much as they can about the universe before finding their way home.

During their early adventures, there is an overwhelming sense of optimism among them, as they are flush with their faith in themselves and an unwavering devotion to their noble destiny. They are a family on a grand adventure, and they enjoy every second of it. They dine with interstellar royalty, study the early evolution of their own species and help bring peace to a galaxy ravaged by civil war. The two boys, Cru and Ski, grow from children to young men in this time, falling in love with alien princesses, forming bonds of friendship that reach across the ages and studying with the finest minds of every era.

30 subjective years pass within the paradox buffers of the timeship. In that time, the adventures of the intrepid family become increasingly grim. Where once they had encountered mad scientists with delusions of world domination or planets run by sentient computers, they find themselves more often at odds with psychopaths and monsters. An encounter with a race of warrior-telepaths leaves Chen’s son Cru completely mad, drooling and straitjacketed in a padded brig cell of the massive timeship. He stays that way for 5 years, until a friendly race of telepaths can be found to restore his mind. He never truly recovers, and will never be the man he once was. It begins to seem as though time and space are at odds with them, as they never again visit the worlds and eras of high adventure. Instead, the timeship seems drawn to those times and places where misery and despair have overwhelmed all else, and hope is nearly lost forever.

The journey of the Michaels family reaches its nadir with the tragic death of Chen’s wife to a space-borne plague. Following that horrible day, the family becomes a gang of pirates, striking out at each new era they come to and taking what they need until a time they can finally navigate their temporal starship. Chen no longer believes in their grand destiny of heroism and exploration. He refuses to believe they were meant to suffer as they have, and begins to blame himself for all their tragedies. He no longer even cares about getting home. He is focused, with brutal precision, on using the timeship to save his wife.

At last, Chen’s younger son Ski learns to plot a course through the timestream. They can go to any time they wish, at any place. After years of failure and missed opportunity, Chen can finally go back. He'd stolen a cure for the plague and would bring it back to her through time, forever negating this wretched destiny. For the first time in years, Chen Michaels has reason to smile.

Unfortunately, Ski has also made a rather shocking discovery. The increasing horror of their surroundings may be their own doing, as their travels have been disrupting the flow of history and evolution since they began. Now that they can navigate the ship, and travel directly to a specific point in time and space, it is possible they might unravel the fabric of the universe itself.

Chen must decide how much that matters to him, or if even one more moment with his beloved wife is worth the end of all Creation.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Henry and Gillian

The old woman shuffled from one end of the kitchen to the other, tea kettle in hand. She smiled as the steam wreathed her face in a pleasant moist heat. She paused, letting herself enjoy the moment. By this point in her life, the small pleasures were the only ones she had left.

Until today, of course. Today would be a day of large pleasures. She smiled again, busying herself with the two cups of tea. She did so love having visitors. Of course, living so far out in the middle of nowhere, she could hardly expect them too often. But, she held out hope. She knew how to attract the right kind of people. She set out two plates, placing a cookie on each. She already knew the children liked their sweets.

Henry and Gillian were their names. They had just moved to town recently from the city. She knew the type. Well-to-do parents, professional people, fancy apartment in the city. Then one day they wake up and realize their children are going to be teenagers soon, and they'd rather they weren't teenagers on the city streets. So they sell their fabulous apartment, liquidate some assets and buy a nice little house in the country. One usually goes into consulting, the other generally opens a business in town.

She truly did enjoy these urban transplants. They were always so trusting, so quick to assume that horror and violence were unique to the city. So utterly dismissive of the provincial locals that they never count on finding monsters in their pleasant little getaway.

Never count on finding people like her. Or, more to the point, people like her finding their children.

It was the candy, of course. The candy and the dense forest. City children were all the same. All they knew of nature were city parks, or maybe the odd overnight at a campground. Sooner or later, they'd go out "exploring". And then they'd find out what nature really was. By the time they found her house, they were so desperate for food and someone to help them that their normally wary city instincts were buried under a child's instinct to seek comfort.

And what could be more comforting than a sweet old woman who keeps candy on her front porch?

She usually let them eat for a while before she'd come out, surprise them, then put their minds at ease when they thought they were in trouble. She'd invite them in to rest. She had no phone, but she'd usually offer to show them the way back to town, but would they like some tea and something more to eat first? They usually did, and these two were no exception. They seemed a bit older, maybe 12 or 13, but at that age the veil of maturity is thin and as easily torn aside as their urban sophistication. She dropped the pills in the tea and put everything on a tray to carry out to the parlor. They usually woke up in the oven, just as it was heating up.

She backed into the room, tray in hands, pushing the door open as she came. "Here we go, Henry. Gillian," she said, turning around. "I want you to drink all this tea down and--" The tray fell from her grip with a crash, the drugged tea soaking in to the carpet. A cookie was ground under Henry's boot as he moved in to punch her again.

She grunted as she hit the ground, just before Henry's fist smashed her face a second time. He kneeled on her chest, hitting her again. He stood and stepped back, but it was only to allow Gillian to move in and begin kicking the old woman repeatedly in the ribs before stomping on her chest. The old woman screamed for as long as she was able, eventually reduced to a keening gurgle.

She was dying. Blood filled her lungs and darkness fell across her eyes. Her ears filled with the rasping wheeze of her dying breath, so she only heard her ostensible victims' conversation as a muted buzz through her death rattle.

"You think she got any money?"

"Fucking better," Henry told his sister. "I ain't working at Mom's fucking fag shop for meth money."

"Well, if you think I'm sucking Russel's cock again, you can forget it," Gillian said. "This old bitch don't have money, you can suck the greasy hillbilly's cock."

There was a pause, then Henry grunted out a rough chuckle.

"What?" his sister asked, going through the old woman's pockets.

"I love how easy it was to sell her on the lost little kids routine."

Gillian laughed as well. "Yeah." The old woman felt hot breath on her cheek. It brought a memory of the steam back to her, but not pleasantly. The young girl screamed in her ear, "Never heard of GPS, you stupid old redneck bitch?! Huh?! Huh?!" The old woman wanted to turn away, but couldn't. All she could manage now was a spasmodic twitch.

Gillian stood, delivering another savage kick to the old woman's ribs before walking away.

The old woman lay there in agony for a time, moaning softly.

But not too long a time.

She was dead before the kids had finished looting her bedroom.

Monday, August 22, 2005

The World of Tomorrow

He walked along the dark and deserted street, eyes darting to the left. He was passing another row of overgrown yards and deserted houses, and he'd heard enough stories of what lurked in the tall grass to be wary. He listened for any sounds that might indicate the presence of one of the growing number of savage humans who frequently squatted in the abandoned suburban homes, feeding off the packs of wild dogs and feral cats that roamed the old neighborhoods. Some had been known to attack travelers, particularly those who still bore the basic trappings of civilization.

Civilization. It still existed, just not in the old suburban areas. Those cities still functioning were walled fortresses, the trains that ran between them armed and armored against the primitive tribes that roamed the weed-strewn blacktop of the old interstates. Civilization also existed far beyond the suburbs, in the smaller towns of rural America. But those places were becoming increasingly isolated, cut off from their urban cousins by distance and a widening cultural divide.

He was from one of those towns, a small farming community in what was once Pennsylvania. He was traveling to the city to find a doctor, one schooled in medicine, who could do for his small town what the largely self-taught healers could not. He had been told that there was an old suburban town that had not gone completely savage, and maintained its old rail connections to the city. He hoped the rumors were true. He was not sure he could walk the full distance to the city. He had walked so far already, and winter would be upon them before he could walk back. It was his hope that, should he find a doctor willing to return with him, the doctor would own an electric vehicle. The cities were awash in electricity, and the joltcars, as they were called, could run for many hundreds of miles on a single charge. He had never seen one before. Back home, the mill only generated enough electricity to power the farm vehicles and the town center. Personal electric power was a thing of the distant past, not seen in the small towns since they'd passed the Peak.

He'd read plenty of accounts of life before the Peak, and could see depictions of it in the old movies they showed on the communal television at the town center. He was always so awestruck to see how people had taken electricity and their ease of movement for granted in those days. The days of cheap and plentiful oil. But those days were long behind them, and they'd left the wilderness of the suburbs as their bitter legacy.

His musings cut short as he emerged from the old neighborhood onto what a beaten and weathered sign told him was State Highway 46. To his right was the barren emptiness of one of the ubiquitous shopping plazas that had sprouted up alongside roads like this during the Oil Age. He remembered reading that they had been called "strip malls". From where he was, he saw that some of the abandoned stores still had intact windows. He surmised that this strip mall had been built during the time just following the Peak, and had been made impervious to burglary and vandalism. He approached one, and could see old merchandise still hanging from the racks inside. The windows themselves were scuffed and dented, showing the effects of numerous failed attempts to breach them.

He also saw a number of faded posters hanging inside them, their words so bleached by the sun they were barely legible. One poster promised "Free Power! Free Heating Oil! Free Gasoline!" to any citizens who reported homosexuals and "political dissidents" to the authorities. He almost wished he could gain entry to the store to grab the poster. He was an avid collector of historical relics, and there was very little in his collection from the time most people referred to as The Purges.

It had been the beginning of the end of the central government; a time when alternate lifestyles and opposition politics were a ticket to the firing squad as a crumbling authority tried desperately to keep its hold on a fragmenting society. It hadn't lasted long, and only served to hasten the suburbs' descent into barbarism. The scarcity of oil took its toll on the reach of the government, and by the time he was born, the federal authorities controlled little more than the territory immediately surrounding Washington DC. From what little news his town received of the outside world, he gathered they didn't even hold that much these days.

He moved away from the old storefront, setting his steps upon the cracked asphalt of the old state highway and turning toward the pale light in the east. It was hours yet until dawn, but the bright lights of the city could be seen for miles. He would keep walking toward it, holding out hope that he would find that train station he'd been told about, while despairing at ever succeeding in his desperate mission.

So intent on his goal was he, that he didn't hear the soft pad of calloused bare feet behind him until it was too late.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

On the Eve of Battle

The boy sat before the fire, knees drawn up to his chest, listening to the rough talk of the men around him. They were all veterans of many battles, and they traded tales of past glories and old defeats. The boy stared wide-eyed into the fire, gripping the handle of the old sword he'd been given that day. One of the veterans, a scarred one-eyed man, looked down at him.

"'Ere, boy," he said. "What brings a young lad like you to the front?"

"M-my da," the boy answered. "He was killed by a murder party on his way back from town. When the call went out for a militia..." he looked down, trying to hide his fear.

The one-eyed man smiled, not unkindly. "You thought you'd join up and avenge yer da."

The boy nodded.

"And now yer here, yer wonderin' why ye just din' stay home."

The boy nodded again. A single tear made its way down his cheek.

"Ah, don't worry now, son," the old veteran laid a comforting hand on the boy's shoulder. "We here was all like you once. You stick close to us come tomorrow, and we'll get ya through. Right lads?"

A rough chorus of grunts came from around the fire, but when the boy looked up, he saw them all smiling at him.

"Besides," an old man across from him said, "ye'll be fightin' fer Lord Rath, an' there ain't no better place to be in battle than on the side of Lord Rath the Bold."

The other men agreed heartily, each having a tale to tell of the heroic Lord Rath.

"Folks say he's the son of the War God, Zenus," one of the men said. "And that's why he doesn't age and won't ever die."

"Nah," the one-eyed man said, "he was carved from stone at the beginning of time, and given life by the great Goddess Urea."

The old man laughed. "Yer all a buncha fools and children. I bin fightin' fer Lord Rath since I was younger than the boy here, and I know his true story." Seeing he had an audience, the old man settled back against the rock he'd sat on, lighting his pipe. He blew out a thin stream of smoke. "First thing ya gotta know is, Lord Rath ain't immortal. Oh, he's a tough one ta kill, no denyin', and he don't age like we do. I'd say he's aged 10 years in the 50 I bin fightin' for 'im." His eyes focused on times past, the old man smiled. "Ah, but he's a good man. Brought years o' peace to this land of ours, he has, and--"

"Now Fergus," a deep voice settled on their circle from above, "you're going to swell my head so large with this kind of talk, I'll make an easy target for the Mad Wizard's archers tomorrow."

"Lord Rath!"

The men scrambled to get to their feet, but Lord Rath motioned them to remain seated. "No no lads, stay where you are. I just thought I'd come around and check on the men."

It was clear that, while they'd come to expect such treatment, the men felt singularly honored. They ran fingers through their hair and over their scalps, smiling and looking proud of themselves. "Oh, uh, doing just fine, my Lord." "Oh aye, all's well, Lord Rath." "Just waitin' for the morrow, sir."

Lord Rath flashed his own smile. "Good to hear, good to hear. Not too late tonight, men. We meet the Mad Wizard's forces tomorrow, and we've still half a day's march to get there." He was about to move on, when his gaze fell on the boy. "Here now, who might this strapping lad be?"

The one-eyed veteran clapped the boy on the back with a chuckle. "He's our newest recruit, Lord. Come to avenge his da."

Lord Rath turned serious, kneeling down next to the boy. "Your father," he said quietly. "He was killed by the Mad Wizard?"

The boy nodded, clearly overwhelmed by his proximity to the legendary Lord Rath. "Y-yes, my Lord. B-by one of his m-m-murder parties, Lord."

Lord Rath bowed his head, a look of sorrow mingled with guilt passing across his face. "I'm sorry, my boy. Such things should not happen in my land." He fixed a steely gaze upon the boy. "You have my word, son. Tomorrow, your father will be avenged."

The boy managed a weak smile. "Y-yes, my Lord. Th-thank you."

Lord Rath reached out for the boy's sword. He held it up, looking it over with a critical eye. "A stout blade," he said, handing it back. "No doubt a match for the heart of the one who wields it." He smiled down at the boy, who smiled proudly back up at him.

When Lord Rath was gone, the other men all spoke at once, beaming with pride at their visit from Lord Rath. "Well, boy," the old man winked at him. "A high honor indeed, and a mark of good fortune, on the eve of your first battle. Many men here would give much for a blessing from Lord Rath himself."

The boy just nodded, though he spent a great deal of time studying his sword while the men went back to telling their tales.

Later, as the fire dwindled to embers, the boy wiped blood from the blade of his dagger, slipping it back into its concealed sheath. The men around the fire appeared to be sleeping, and it would take close inspection by a keen eye to see their slit throats by the light of the dying fire.

Tossing the old sword into the brush, the boy made his way through the camp of slumbering men to the grand tent at its center. It would be a simple matter to sneak under the flap of the tent. Lord Rath's guards were half asleep at their posts. And the poison he'd coated the hilt of his sword with, poison he was immune to, should have the great lord himself in a deep slumber from which he would never awake.

A few moments later, the boy exited the tent the way he'd entered, making for the depths of the forest. His master would be pleased. When the army found their legendary commander the next morning with his throat slit, all the fight would surely go out of them, leaving this land ripe for the Mad Wizard's taking.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Homecoming

The massive starcruiser moved silently through the vastness of space, the exhaust ports of the great ion drives blazing like a quartet of suns. The Milky Way galaxy spun lazily before it, a stream of glittering jewels against the velvet drapery of the universe.

The engines were a low hum at the periphery of his awareness, a gentle rumbling beneath his feet. These sensations had been part of his life since childhood, and he wondered if he'd miss them when he arrived home.

Home. He let the word settle in his mind, still disbelieving. After all this time, his people were going home. Not that any of them had direct knowledge of their ancestral homeworld, of course. They, like the generations before them, had been born and bred among the stars, raised for the sole purpose of fighting in a millennia-long war that spanned hundreds of galaxies. Their entire species, down to the last child, had been taken from their planet by one of the factions involved in the struggle. With a little training and education, they proved formidable warriors and clever tacticians. They were considered among the brightest of the soldier races, and many rose high in the ranks of the armed forces and diplomatic corps. It was he, in fact, who'd finally managed to broker the armistice that put an end to hostilities and brought peace to a war-ravaged sector of space. In honor of their service, his people had been given this ship, along with the star-charts necessary to find their way home. For his own great achievement, he had been placed in command.

He looked out of the viewscreen. The ensign at sensors told him it would be several minutes before they could scan their destination planet. All were understandably eager. He'd heard the stories, of course. Every child did, as they were passed down from each generation to the next, a piece of his species' living memory. In his mind's eye, he could already feel the cool air on his skin, taste the salt of the oceans and hear all the sounds of the many forests.

He wondered how they would be received by those who'd been left behind. A race of placeholders had been created by the recruiting aliens, to keep the ecology balanced until the soldiers could return to take their rightful place within it. For himself, he was looking forward to shedding the trappings of technology and returning to the ways of his ancestors, to living as one with the land. He--

The report from the science officer roused him from his musings. There were some disturbing reports coming in from the initial scans. Average temperatures were considerably higher than predicted norms, the myriad of species had been reduced to a dwindling handful, the land was quickly turning to desert and the oceans had become toxic. What was worse, the placeholders had bred to the point of overpopulation, and a once-vast store of resources was almost depleted.

His people turned to him, unsure of what to do.

He stood for a moment, deep in thought. Though it was unexpected, they were not unprepared. Their ship was a modified deep-space colonial ark. Its systems contained an elaborate array of terraforming machinery. What's more, their computers held the DNA sequences of all known organisms that had existed at the time of recruitment. They could fix the damage with little difficulty. But there was still the matter of the placeholders.

The Neanderthal sighed, then shrugged, turning at last to his crew.

"They'll have to go."

Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Race of His Life

He was out for a walk.

The sun was nearly set, casting the western horizon in deep hues of red and purple. Stars crept across the sky from the east and a cool summer breeze kissed his skin. All around him the people of his neighborhood were enjoying the evening. Children ran about, frantically playing the last of their games before darkness called them home to bed. Young lovers walked arm in arm and older folks sat on their porches and lawns, watching the world around them.

He chuckled to look at them. Chronologically speaking, he had about 10 years on those older folks, though to look at him, one would swear he wasn't a day over 40. In fact, people were talking about how "well-preserved" he was, and their remarks were beginning to take on a tone of suspicion. He knew he'd likely soon have to leave this neighborhood, and the house he lived in, though he'd grown quite attached to both since he and his wife had moved here years ago, full of youth and the promise of family.

Sadly, that family had never come. Another side effect of the speed. That strange energy that allowed him to race a flashlight beam to its target and kept him young had also rendered him sterile.

He sighed. They had been disappointed, but not devastated. She'd had a promising career in investigative journalism, and the life of a superhero kept him away from home more often than not, so at times his sterility seemed a blessing. They had sponsored many needy children around the world, and they had many nieces and nephews on which to lavish their affection. So, though there had been no children, their lives had been full.

But then age, which seemed to all but ignore him, had finally had its way with her. She died in their bed just a few short months ago, with him by her side, holding her hand until the end. She passed without regret, having lived a life she would never have thought possible. In that last year before she died, when she knew her time was nigh, she put to paper all the many adventures of her life; both the fantastic ones shared with her husband and the grounded, yet no less exciting, adventures her work had led her to. She'd made him promise one day to publish them, when he no longer cared to keep his identity secret.

His pace increased as he moved out of his neighborhood, his surroundings beginning to blur as he moved beyond human speeds. He'd already made plans with his lawyer to publish his wife's memoirs within the next year. The proceeds would be divided between a journalism scholarship and a foundation set up to aid less fortunate children.

The world around him became a wash of color and he felt every molecule in his body begin to vibrate in unison. He'd been cautious about moving at the speeds he was approaching. He'd done a great deal of analysis of himself in his lab in the years since the accident had given him this speed, and he knew what could happen to him as he approached luminal velocity.

It didn't matter now, he thought with a smile. This leg of his race had been run. The slow life of a human man was behind him, along with that of a scarlet-clad hero. There were plenty others to carry on the crusade for justice. And with his wife gone, he was free to explore the limits, if there were any, of his power.

He felt his atoms begin to sing, and lightning crackled around him. His world was filled with blessed silence; he'd left the sound barrier far behind. Looking ahead of him, he saw the light begin to shift in hue, and he knew the moment was approaching.

Then he reached the point where there were no moments, where time itself stopped. In a final brilliant flash, he felt his body transcend its flesh, becoming of the same stuff as his soul. He became light, became energy, became speed itself...

And he ran, fast as he could, into the glorious unknown.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Dear Husband

07 July, 2108

My Darling Husband,

I hope this letter finds you well, and that it finds you at all. Forgive the anachronism of ink on paper, but the networks are fraught with danger, and I trust to the vagaries of the flesh-and-blood messengers more than the relative certainty of circuitry and signal. I will leave this at a courier station on our return to the base.

The battle goes poorly. Hell, this whole bloody war is a horrific mess. My only comfort comes from knowing you and the children are safe within the dome of the City. You would not fare well in The Open. We may hold the coasts securely for now, but the interior of our nation is lost to us, possibly forever. The oldtimers tell us this used to be called The Heartland, and America's Breadbasket. I cannot even imagine what it must have looked like in those days, because all around me now is a ravaged dead landscape littered with the bodies of the dead and the rusting shells of our enemies.

Forget what the mediacasts tell you about the war. We are not winning. We never were. For every robot we destroy, the automated factories produce 100 more, each more advanced than the last. And the pollution from the factories kills as many of our soldiers as the enemies' guns. And the guns themselves... how can we fight something that is little more than a walking thinking weapon?

The worst of it is, of course, that this did not have to be. The robots were our creations, built to fight our wars for us and destroy our enemies completely. But they did their jobs too well. With no enemies left to fight, they turned on us. Their brutality, their cruelty, their inhuman capacity for violence... all of it came from us. We programmed them to be what they are, and they have only become more proficient at it in the years since.

Oh, my darling, my heart weeps. The knowledge that we brought this on ourselves is at times more crushing to my spirit than seeing the men and women around me reduced to ash or bits of charred flesh. I believe I have written of Lydia. She bunked beneath me in Basic, and was my gunner when we still had mech suits to pilot. Before the virus that made them the tools of our enemies. After that, we served in the infantry together. Last night we...

Forgive me, husband. Days have passed since I wrote the above. The pain of Lydia's death was too near, and I could not finish. I admit with shame that in my grief I lost myself in drink and the arms of another man. I fear that I am losing myself out here, that even if I return, there will be nothing left of the woman you married. Please do not judge me, or feel anger at my betrayal. It is you whom I love, and always will, but the closeness of another's body, the pressing of flesh to flesh and the ecstasy it brings are often the sole fragile thread that tethers us to that which makes us more than the machines we fight.

But I was telling you of Lydia.

Our unit stormed the largest of the robot factories several nights ago. Our mission was to infiltrate the control center and download the specs for the next generation of robots, so that a weakness might be found. Then we were to plant atomic grenades and vaporize the entire structure.

We were only partially successful. We destroyed the factory, but failed in our mission to gather vital intelligence. Lydia and I were part of the team that infiltrated the command center. We were near to completing our goal, when a sentrybot found us. It laid waste to our unit, only Lydia and I survived. Knowing I had a family, and she with no one at home, Lydia drew its attention to her so that I might escape and plant the grenades, and hopefully one day return home to you.

But what it did to her when it found her... it...

Beloved. More days have passed. I can barely write. My mind is lost in fog. Wonder that I did not lose this letter. Have not been sober. Euphora. It's a drug. I take it every day now. It dulls my pain and misery, and bathes me in chemical joy. I feel colors, see love... the children. How are the children? I miss my babies, but Euphora makes me feel them in my arms. Do not judge me. You cannot know.

Oh, husband. I am tempted to obscure the above, but I need you to know the fullness of our despair. It has been several weeks since the last of the Euphora ran out, and only today am I sufficiently recovered from withdrawal to write this letter. This letter. It is all I have left. We have no mission. Our officers are dead. We live like savages in squalid hovels, leaving only to seek what food can be found. The robots have overrun our positions and we are in enemy territory. I fear I will not live to see you and the children again. I can write no more now.

My dearest love. A scout is being sent to the City, to warn of the coming invasion. The robots move against the coasts, and seek the destruction of all human life. I pray this letter finds you before then. I will entrust it to the scout. I and what remains of my unit are taking the last of our weapons and launching a suicide assault on the advancing robot army. We hope only to slow them down, and we know that none will survive.

You must flee, beloved. Take our children and flee to a safe haven, if such places are to be found in this world. Tell our children of my love for them, and know that your names will be on my lips as I make my final stand against the machines.

I must close now. The scout approaches. Remember me always, dear husband, and see that our children do not forget me.

I love you.

Monday, August 08, 2005

An Eternity of Regret

Blasphemel stood atop a rocky outcropping, looking out over a lake of fire. The screams of the damned were particularly grating today, and he wished there was somewhere he could escape them.

There wasn't, so he settled for a nice view. Not that there were many views in Hell one could call "nice", but the aesthetics of the lake were pleasing enough. He shrugged, and his leather wings rasped against one another.

He sighed. He missed having feathers. He missed soaring through the vastness of Creation, rather than over the festering pits of Hell. He missed the music of Heaven. He missed his friends. He missed being beautiful, and he missed Love. He missed... he choked back tears.

He missed God.

There. He thought it. Okay? He missed God. Not for the first time, Blasphemel wished he'd never rebelled. Never turned his back on Him. Never Fell for eons into Darkness, his angelic beauty burning away until only a charred vile demon was left.

Another scream broke his reverie. Damned humans, he thought. Wretched little ape-things. Why did God have to go and give them brains? And freewill? It was madness! He'd thought it then, and still thought it now. Blasphemel knew, first hand, what horrors the humans visited upon each other with their big brains and freewill. He always knew no good would come of God's grand "experiment".

But maybe, just maybe, he should have kept quiet about it. There hadn't really been any point in shooting his mouth off, had there? Where had it gotten him? Hell, that was where. Yes, looking back on it, Blasphemel should have known how their little rebellion was going to go and stayed well out of it.

But Lucifer had been so damned convincing. Up in Heaven, when Lucifer spoke to you, well, it was the next best thing to speaking to God. He'd felt special, important, just to be asked to join Lucifer's crusade. He thought he was going to make a difference. He was working to save Creation from a horrible mistake.

Too late, he realized he'd been little more than a pawn for Lucifer's wounded ego.

Of course, it was "Satan" now. Woe unto any demon who dared call Satan "Lucifer" to his face. That would get your wings torn off, then sewn back on, then torn off again, and the rest of you fed to Satan's hounds. Blasphemel shivered at the thought of them. Foul creatures.

He shivered at the thought of Satan, too. Of all the former angels, he had changed the most when he Fell. As beautiful as Lucifer was, Satan was that ugly. Gone was Lucifer's charisma and irresistible charm. Satan ruled by fear and cruelty. The other demons whispered that, where God had loved Lucifer best, so did He hate Satan most of all.

Blasphemel turned away from the lake and the screaming souls. Acid tears sliced gouges in his ravaged scaled flesh, falling to the bare rock with an audible hiss. He fell to his knees, claws raking the ground, and did something he'd sworn never to do again.

He prayed.

"Dear Lord in Heaven, forgive me!" he cried. "Please, forsake me no longer! I admit my mistake, and my black heart fills with naught but regret! Please! I beseech you! Take me home!" He buried his face in his hands.

"Please God, I want to come home."

There was no answer, save a deep mournful howling. God could not hear his prayer, but Satan had, and he'd set his hounds upon Blasphemel. They would be here soon. When they finished with him, they would drag his ravaged body back to their dread master and Blasphemel would suffer millennia of torture.

A thought struck him then. What if he ran? What if he hid? What if he found others like him, regretful and filled with bitter longing for a home forever denied them? He flapped his massive leather wings, flying far out to the edges of Hell's domain. An idea began to form in his mind.

Yes, he would find others like him. He would gather them to him.

And they would rebel.

Friday, August 05, 2005

The Everyday Savior

Artwork by Rae Ann. Story based on an idea she came up with. Read part 1

He sat in filth, on a ragged moldy cot that smelled faintly of old urine. He was happy for it all the same, as it was the first he'd sat down in several days. He rubbed his temples. Miracles tended to make him out of sorts, but healing really gave him a headache. He sighed. It didn't matter. He'd take a week's worth of migraines if it meant more people could live free of disease.

"You should eat," a voice spoke behind him.

He shook his head. "There's precious little food here," he said. "Don't waste any of it on me."

A young woman came to sit next to him, resting her hand on his shoulder. "It would not be a waste," she said. "For what you've done..."

He waved her words away. "What I've done is simply what I can," he said. "I'll eat at... somewhere else." He'd almost said "home". But he hadn't had one of those in over a year. Not since...

He stood up, slowly. He was beginning to feel stiff. Regardless, he had to move on. The longer he stayed, the greater the chances of it happening again. The people, the questions, finding himself revered... No. Never again. Not after what happened. He clenched his fist. Why did he ever let the old preacher talk him into that television ministry? All the people he could have helped, all the lives that could have been saved, and he'd wasted months preaching nonsense and performing parlor tricks for wealthy fools.

He smiled, remembering the way he'd finally quit the ministry. Officiating over the marriages of 100 homosexual couples simultaneously on global TV put him slightly out of favor with the devout Christians at the television studio.

"Ah, so you do have a smile." He'd forgotten she was in the room. "I was wondering where you'd hidden it."

His grin turned sheepish. "Sorry. I have... a lot on my mind."

"I don't doubt it." She crossed over to him, reached up and kissed him.

He touched his lips as she pulled away. "What..."

"I get the feeling you'll be moving on," she said. "I figured it was my last chance." She looked over her shoulder as she left the room. "You won't be forgotten, Dan." Then she was gone.

No, he thought as he made his way to the other door, the one that led outside. He wouldn't be forgotten. Everywhere he went, he seemed to leave behind... disciples. People who dedicated their lives to spreading his message and continuing his works as best they could.

He pulled his tattered coat tighter around himself and walked down the street, head bowed against the wind. It was a simple message, or so he thought. And he didn't really preach all that much. He just talked to people about being kind to one another, caring for those less fortunate, showing tolerance for those who are different. He just talked, but the more he did, the more people listened. He--

A van pulled up next to him, tires screeching on cold asphalt. There was the loud rumbling of the door sliding open, then a sack over his head, a sharp pain at the back of his skull and then... nothing.

He woke atop a hill. He was cold, dressed in little more than his underwear.

"Ah, you awaken at last, Mr. Nicholas." The voice was even colder than the air, with more than a hint of menace. "No doubt you are wondering where you are, who I am and why you are here."

"I'm more concerned with the location of my pants," Dan said wearily. "But you seem eager to talk about yourself, so don't let me keep you."

A tall thin man with graying hair stepped into Dan's field of vision. He was well-dressed, and conducted himself with the air of casual superiority attained only by those born to money. "Charming," he said. He began to pace in front of Dan, gloved hands clasped behind his back. Dan shivered and rubbed his arms with hands made of ice.

"My name is unimportant," the thin man said, "as is the name of my organization. All you need to know is that we are here to deal with people like you."

"L-like m-m-me?" Dan wished he could stop his teeth from chattering.

"Messiahs," the thin man said. "Saviors. Prophets. We exist, as we have for thousands of years, to prevent the Second Coming."

The thin man laughed at Dan's confused look. "What? Did you think you were the only one?" He laughed more, and was joined by two large men who laughed with him. "No. You are simply one of many. Yes, you've managed to elude us for a time, and you've built yourself quite a following. But we can put them to use. We'll see to it your message is... tweaked, to bring it more in line with the way we see the world."

"A-a-and w-what w-w-way is that?"

The thin man smiled, a smug self-satisfied smile. He'd wanted Dan to ask him that. "Isn't it obvious? There are two kinds of people in the world: men of worth and pedigree, and those upon who's backs we stand. And if those people suddenly decide to stand up," he spread his hands, "well, where does that leave us?"

"And if I d-don't co-co-co-operate?"

The thin man chuckled. "Who said we needed you to?" He gestured, and one of the large men came forward, handing him something. "We have a more... permanent way of dealing with you people."

And he held out his hand, revealing three large nails.

As Dan's arms were grabbed roughly by the two large men, the thin man leaned forward to whisper in his ear.

"And just so you know, we're planning to blame the queers this time."

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Everyday Messiah

Artwork by Rae Ann. Story based on an idea she came up with.

Dan stared at the picture. "I don't get it," he said.

The photo girl looked confused, and a little nervous. She looked as though she was going to start freaking out any minute. "I'm--I'm sorry, sir. I--" she looked at him, finally giving up all pretense of trying to act professional. "I have no idea what the hell that is."

He knew what it was. He could see what it was. What he couldn't see was why it was. Why, instead of the dumbass glamour photo of him in a tux that he was about to be charged an arm and a leg for, was he holding a picture of himself as Jesus?

"Umm, okay." He stared at the picture some more, then up at her. She was gazing as though hypnotized at the radiant halo around his Jesus head. He looked back at the photo, and the weirdest thought crossed his mind. It occurred to Dan that he looked pretty good with long hair. He'd always wondered if he would. He took a bit of solace in the mundane thought, and latched onto another. Ownership.

"Can I keep it?" he asked, with a tone that suggested he was going to anyway.

The photo girl took a step back. "I sure as hell don't want it. Take it."

He took the photo and walked through the mall in a daze, reaching his car and driving it home on instinct. He set the photo down on his kitchen table and stared at it.

"What. The. F-" The door opened. His roommate walked in, exchanged a few pleasantries, glanced at the picture and walked into his room.

A few seconds later he walked back out and picked up the picture. He studied it for a minute.

He looked up at Dan. "You look good with long hair," he said casually.

"Thanks. Yeah, I thought so too."

The roommate studied the picture a bit longer.

"Why the hell are you dressed as Jesu--"

"I don't know!"

The roommate quickly handed the picture back to Dan. "Uhhh... okay, dude."

Dan held up his hands. "Sorry. Sorry. It's just that, I wasn't dressed like Jesus for the picture. I was in one of those glamour picture shops in the mall--"

"Dude," scorn dripped from his roommate's voice. "You went in there? Why?"

"The hot chick out front pimping the place."

"Right. Carry on."

"Yeah, so, I was wearing a tux or some crap, trying to chat this girl up, feeling like a dork and getting my picture taken, but when the picture comes out..." he threw the picture at his roommate.

"You're Jesus."

Dan gestured affirmatively at him. "Exactly. How the hell did that happen? Some dude in back playing with Photoshop? I dunno..."

The roommate shook his head. "No, dude. I mean you're Jesus. You're the second coming, dude!" He brandished the photo. "It's the only plausible explanation!"

Dan snatched the photo back and chased his roommate out of the kitchen. He went to his room and tossed it onto his nightstand. He stared at the photo some more until falling asleep.

That night he dreamed of enlightenment, and when he woke, a long-dormant part of his brain woke with him. He knew things; things about the world, people, the universe... himself. He shook his head. He didn't want to know these things. Now that it was happening, he realized he didn't really want his brain waking up after all. He tried to will it back to sleep. He didn't want this. He was... he looked up at the clock.

He was late for work.

to be continued...

Monday, August 01, 2005

The Strength of Her Love


God, but she was hungover. Cutting through the throbbing stupor in her head, she remembered brief glimpses of the previous night.

It was her 40th birthday party. Carl had spent weeks setting it up. It was at her favorite pub, with all her friends and only those members of her family she actually liked. He'd hired the finest chefs to cook her favorite foods and used the considerable connections he had as Editor-in-Chief of Newsplanet to get her favorite band to play.

And, far as she could remember, she got blind raving drunk an hour into it, made a pass at Carl's best friend, threw up and passed out. He caught her as she fell, of course. He always caught her when she fell, since that first day they met, hurtling down the side of a massive skyscraper. He caught her then, and every time since. Right up to last night, when she fell over unconscious after flashing her chest at the entire party. Her memory was fuzzy on the matter, but she remembered him taking her home, cleaning her up and putting her to bed with a glass of water and a big bucket.

And that was how intrepid girl reporter Lauren Lance entered her 40s. Of course, it was Lauren Lance-Kane these days, and she was pretty sure 40 meant she couldn't call herself a girl any more. It was funny; she'd fought the "girl reporter" label her entire career, but right now she'd kill for someone to call her a girl.

"How's my girl doing?"

She mustered a smile for him, slowly trying to raise her head. "Ohhh, you know--know me," she coughed. "'M ready an'...rarin'...uggghhhhh..." she slowly burrowed her head deep into the pillow. All that could be heard from her was a low moan, muffled further by the pillow. Then she was silent for a while.

Then, "...'m sorry."

He came to the side of the bed, sitting in the air a few inches above the bed, so as not to disturb her. "Don't be silly. It was your party. Though you really should have been there. The Slow Children played 3 sets." When she groaned, he smiled. "Don't worry. I captured the whole thing on a brain chip. When yours is feeling better, we can take a trip to the Sanctuary and you can use the Mentallus helmet to have another go at the party."

She started to cry.

"Hey hey," he rubbed her back. He always worried when she cried, given that it hardly ever happened. "Hey, what's... wait." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small glass vial. "I want to talk, but you should drink this first. I went to retrieve it from the Sanctuary this morning."

She sat up gingerly, wincing a bit at the muted daylight that crept in through the closed blinds. She snuffled, her tears and hangover momentarily forgotten as curiosity got the better of her. "What is it?"

He held out the vial. "It's just a bit of Titanic serum. I thought it might help."

She took it, looking over the vial. "But that's dangerous for me to take," she said. "This stuff can kill me." She'd taken Titanic serum twice before, back when she and Carl were first dating, back before she knew he was The Titan. She dated him in his heroic persona for a while, and in that time had occasion to become involved in his adventures. One of those adventures involved the first time she'd taken Titanic serum, the second time she'd taken it was after they started getting serious. He'd just revealed his identity to her and they'd had the big talk. She knew he was essentially immortal, and she took the Titanic serum in the hope that she'd be able to share that life with him. It had given her powers like his for a day, as it did the first time, but when the serum wore off she was deathly ill for two days. Dr. Molecule looked her over and determined that the serum had completely compromised her system. If she took it too many more times, it could damage her irreversibly. Which was why she was a bit puzzled about him offering it as a hangover cure.

"It's not what you're used to," he said. "It's a much milder form. I had Doc Molecule help me make some. I was going to give you the vial last night, after the party."

She grinned sheepishly, then looked at the vial. "So, it's safe to drink?" She didn't wait for an answer and drank it all down. She immediately began feeling better. "Wow," she said. "Talk about hitting the spot." She examined herself. "Not feeling all that Titanic, though."

He shook his head. "You won't," he said. "Oh, you'll be a bit stronger for a day or so, more stamina, slightly faster. You'll heal a lot quicker, obviously," he gestured at her. Then he shrugged. "But don't expect to be throwing cars around or shooting raybeams out of your eyes. And flying is right out." He looked at her, and she could tell he was monitoring her vitals with his enhanced senses. "What's going on?" he asked.

She tried to laugh and brush it off, but she knew he wouldn't have it. She managed to buy some time while she got out of bed and got dressed, but finally had to steel herself for the conversation to come. Fortunately, at that moment, the front wall of their apartment was torn away. He was in costume before she could blink.

"Get to the safe room," he said, in the deep baritone of his Titan voice.

"I want to see what--"


She left the room, bypassing the saferoom and instead making for the stairs to the roof. She'd have a much better view from up there.

What she saw when she got there took her a bit by surprise. An army of flying warrior women had descended upon the city. And at the lead was...

"Princess Hero," she heard her husband say. "What is this? What on Earth do you think you're doing?!"

"I am a princess no longer, Titan," Lauren heard her say. "I have forgone the cape of the hero in favor of the cloak of a queen. I am the Warrior Queen of Amaz, and I have come for my consort."

Lauren turned and ran for the stairs, so she only heard the first part of her husband's answer. "Dina," he said, calling her by her true name, "this is absurd. I have no inten--"

She raced down the stairs, knowing already what the Queen had planned. Magic. Amaz was a world of magic. For all his great powers, her husband was vulnerable to magic. She was moving pretty fast, so the Titanic serum must be doing something. Not enough to go toe to toe with Queenie out there, though, that was for sure.

Dina. She swore under her breath. She'd always been jealous of Dina. She didn't want to be, she'd hoped she was better than that, They had tried to be friends, for Carl's sake, but they really didn't have much in common, other than Carl, and Lauren preferred they not have too much of Carl in common. Bad enough Carl and Dina had so much in common. She was nearly as strong as he was, with most of his other powers. She could fight monsters and mad scientists with him and they could fly in outer space together. How does an "intrepid girl reporter" compete with that?

Carl had insisted he didn't want her to, that Lauren had something Dina never could, and that was why he loved her so much. She never asked him what that something was, and she actually did believe him, but she was happy nonetheless when Dina was called home to replace her mother on the throne. She and Carl had gone to the coronation, but hadn't stayed long.

And now Dina was back, and after her man. She stopped back in their apartment to grab something, then ran the rest of the way to the ground floor. She made it outside just as Dina was putting Carl under her spell. Lauren grabbed a large lead pipe that would have been far too heavy to lift any other day and cracked the Queen across the back of the head with it. It was hard enough to knock the bigger woman down.

"Get your hands off my husband, whore," she said. Behind her, Carl had begun to stir from his spellbound state. Before he could come around, Dina punched her in the face. She felt her nose break from the punch and cracked a couple of ribs when she hit the wall.

"You dare?!" Dina stormed over to Lauren, who pulled herself to her feet. Carl struggled to shake off the spell. "Your husband is mine, animal. As a favor to my new consort, I'd planned to leave you alive." She gripped Lauren by the throat. "Plans can change."

"Here's...grk...hoping..." Lauren choked out. She pulled one of the explosive charges The Knight Watchman left at the apartment from her pocket and shoved it down Dina's metal breastplate.

The explosion threw the two women to opposite sides of the street. Dina went down and didn't get back up. Her warriors gathered around her. She would live, but she'd be going home without a consort. The warrior women looked in Lauren's direction with grudging respect and gathered up their fallen queen. They left as quickly as they came. She felt herself falling, knowing the blast must have done her in. Then she felt strong arms around her, and a gentle deep voice in her ear, telling her it would be all right.

He'd caught her again. Like he always did. Like he always would. But she was happy to know that, sometimes, he needed her to catch him too.